Aaron had never dared to wander so far into the northeast of Graeme in his life, but there he found himself, a hound from the inferno itself at his heels. The merciless summer sun had fully swung into the cloudy sky, but the blue-eyed bandit found himself growing more and more accustomed to the heat as of late.
He and Valerie spotted a few monsters once or twice hanging off the beaten path, namely slimes or some sort of herbivorous werecreature, but they quickly darted back into the thick of the woods whenever they spotted Valerie. The hound would only shrug her shoulders, wondering what their problem was, either blissfully unaware or feigning ignorance of the wild, predatory aura that seemed to seep from her every pore.
Going hungry on the road was the last concern on his mind. Both their packs were heavy with foodstuffs, and with Valerie’s superb hunting skills, they always had a full, hearty meal waiting for them at the end of a long day of marching. They went on for three days like that, trotting across the emerald hills and forest-speckled plains.
“Lets see here…” he found himself muttering more to himself than to Valerie as he checked his map, “Riak should be nearby. We’ll stop there for the night and put our feet up.”
“Right. Big hand place, izzn’t?” Val cheered. She hopped atop a log on the side of the trail they were stomping, merrily cartwheeling off and bouncing back to Aaron’s side.
“They call it Titan’s Palm, yeah. Pretty hard to miss, I’ve heard. It’s got six rivers flowing right towards it from all directions.” he said, already smelling the brooks as the breeze carried their mossy scent over the hills.
They shortly stumbled upon one of those outstretched fingers, following it through the long fields, where farmland swiftly became the norm. They traveled onward, Val having a grand time plucking away the excess carrot or cabbage to gnash on as they went, unconcerned with the slight rot that had caused it to go unpicked in the first place. It seemed she preferred meat, but wasn’t opposed to gobbling up anything else that crossed her ravenous path.
The sun beat down overhead, making the stalks of wheat glimmer like dust-caked gold against lantern light. But it it quickly killed the sparkling morning dew and went to work shriveling any unfortunate vegetation that hadn’t found a shaded shelter or the merciful protection of a farmer.
Aaron sniffed the fresh earthy scent on the wind, taking a look around the fields. Many irrigation systems were built into the river, originating from the obscenely massive dam still a mile or two away. A concerned hum purred in the back of the bandit’s throat as he and the hound crossed over a bridge to avoided the babbling blue waters below.
It was serene. Too much so. It was the middle of the day, and the only sounds he could clearly detect were the loud whistling of wind through the endless stalks and Valerie chomping down on any produce she had picked on the way.
“Hey, Val… notice anything missing…?”
The hellhound thoughtfully chewed on a lettuce leaf, staring hungrily at the rows of corn to their left.
“No.” Aaron corrected with a huff, “Farmers, Val. Why aren’t there any farmers around here? They should be in the middle of the workday… unless there’s a fair or something going on in town.”
“Lets hope! I’ve never been to one! They sound real fun, though.” the hound cheered, skipping off and quickly rejoining with a shucked handful of dorn, “Mmm… you think it’s true what they say about corn?”
“Five hundred years ago, a guy named Eric the Brave found it when he sailed across the ocean and discovered a whole new land! He brought some back with him, and some other stuff too, like potatoes,squash, and tobacco… uhrm… chocolate, I think…”
Aaron sighed, annoyed, “I’m just wondering why you seem more impressed by some asshole that collected seeds from half a millennium ago than your own dad.”
The hellhound shrugged as she swallowed up another mouthful of corn, “My dad didn’t invent corn.”
“Eric didn’t invent it, he just introduced it to Luxtania.” Aaron huffed, then added, “Allegedly, that is.”
The closer they trotted to the city, the deeper the sense of foreboding wormed its way into his gut. Val either didn’t seem to notice his nervousness – he figured either he had fully mastered keeping on a cool bearing in the face of fear or she had already grown used to his lack of camaraderie. Either way, she happily skipped at his side, telling stories about her childhood misadventures while not expecting him to return the favor.
That small little parasite of fear that had dug into his sinking stomach burst out when they finally approached a reasonable distance to the city’s wall. He spotted something flapping there, from out the ramparts, and he prayed to all the gods he had shunned outside of his desperate hours that it wasn’t true.
But as they got nearer and nearer, he couldn’t deny what he was seeing.
“Oh, fuck me.” he spat in the clear view of the flag bore so proudly above Riak.
The backdrop was plain. Nothing but a deep shade of crimson. It was what was stitched at the center that sent his heart racing; a golden hawk, wide wings spread as if it was issuing a challenge to any dissenters of its rule of law.
He ground his boots into the dirt, determined not to budge another inch forward.
“Val… we have to go. Now.” he hissed through grit teeth, staring dead ahead. The guards seemed to notice them, but they were too smudged by the rolling heatwaves of summer for them to have noticed Val’s monstrous bits.
“Whaaaat? C’mon, babe. We’ve been walking forever to get to here, and now we’re just gonna leave without even dropping by for a drink or two?”
“It isn’t safe for us to be here, Valerie!” he barked, “They’ll kill you, and they’ll do it slow and painfully!”
He grabbed at her arm to stop her, but she easily broke away and aimed herself towards the city gates.
“Ah, don’t be a worry-wart, babe!” she laughed, dropping to all fours, “I’ll ask real nicely.”
His pleads fell upon sharp ears, but they may as well have been deaf. The hellhound took off like she had snakes nipping at her heels, leaving Aaron in the dust. He stood flabbergasted for a long second, but finally caught enough of his bearings to take off after her.
“No! Fuck, fuck! Don’t do it, you idiot!”
He may have outmaneuvered her in a forest while she was playing around with him, but on a flat field and no reason to hold back, she swiftly and effortlessly outpaced him. He couldn’t decide what he was more amazed at – her raw speed, or the fact her ankle had taken a nasty sprain not even a week ago and she was dashing ahead like she had just escaped from the inferno.
The red-armored guards spotted her scampering forward, reacting as the warriors their training had forged them into. They raised both their lances forward, taking a defensive stance, not giving an inch to the incoming monster.
“Whoa, whoa! What’s the big idea?!” Valerie barked, sliding to a stop before she was skewered.
“What the in the seven hells do you think you’re doing, mutt? Shove off!” the left soldier hollered in response.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything. I know I’m going to the tavern tonight with my babe. So if you boys would move those pokey-sticks…” the hound huffed, one paw on her hip, the other wiggling a clawed finger at the guard’s lances. The hound patiently waited for a few seconds, but seeing them make no move to stand down, her flames reared up.
“Grr! Whats your deal!? Babe, I thought you said monsters were allowed here?”
Aaron finally caught up, huffing more from the stress than the exercise, “Not anymore, Val. Not now that these guys are in town. Dammit, I knew I should have asked Urzul about this. There’s only one army I know that wears red armor.”
“This city is under occupation of the Grand Imperial Legion of Esperia. And we don’t appreciate freaks like you running around and making messes of things.” the right lancer spat. His furious eyes hopped from Valerie to Aaron, “And that includes the sickos that bed ‘em. You’re all worse than damned lepers!”
Val didn’t take kindly to the man’s comparisons. The flames dancing around her face twisted and flickered as her eyes narrowed, “Say that again, bucket-head…”
“This is your last chance to walk away from this, bitch.” the guard warned with a throaty snarl, “I highly suggest you take it.”
The sound of wood, twine and iron snapping together rung through the humid air, sending a chill racing up Aaron’s back. He looked up, instantly regretting that he had.
Rows and rows of crossbowmen dressed in that same crimson mail stood along the ramparts of the Riak’s wall. Some wore cold, steely, professional grimaces. A few others, frowns of barely contained terror and rage. A select and unpleasant handful, wide smirks of sadistic glee. But all had trained loaded crossbows on the two travelers.
Aaron nearly gulped as one stared him dead in the eye. From under the shadows of his helmet, surrounded by days worth of black stubble, one grinned down with a row of gnarled teeth. But his eyes were practically begging him to make a move. To draw his weapon, to throw an insult or two, to so much as twitch. Any excuse for his finger to knock back the trigger.
“Val. Please.” Aaron pleaded, “Don’t kill us over this. Don’t kill my brother over nothing…”
A rumbling growl emanated from Val’s chest. Aaron stood right alongside her, putting up his shaking hands in a show of surrender. His heart thrashed against his ribcage, practically shrieking.
It took her around three long and painstakingly tense seconds, but Val finally huffed and relented, “Fine. Whatever… jerk. We won’t bother you.”
The guard’s spears pulled back. The one of the left smiled proudly from ear-to-ear, figuring he had diffused the situation with a bit of tact, “Good choice, fleabag. Maybe there are a bit of brains rattling around in that skull of yours.”
“There’s a camp ten miles east where your kind has been relocated. If you really need to stop, go handle your business there.” the right guard let them know, aiming his spear further down the road.
“Pfft. That’s where we were headed anyway.” the hellhound grumbled. She grabbed Aaron by the collar, hoisting both him and his baggage over her shoulder, “C’mon, babe. Let’s get going.”
“W-wait! Val! Put me down!” Aaron protested, blushing at the soldiers sneering at him.
She refused. She hauled him away, doing her best to ignore the taunts and jeers the soldiers threw at her back, until they were both well out of sight.
“You didn’t have to carry me, you know.”
“I had to assert my dominance somehow, babe.”
“Assert your what now..!? Bah, whatever. Not like it matters what they think about me.”
“Who were they anyway?”
The bandit and the hound were trotting at each other’s side, heading for the ‘relocation camp’. Not only did the sight of the soldiers bring back a mess of bitter memories, but seeing their flag wave above a city so far west – it nearly sent him quaking in his boots thinking of what they would do to him and Valerie.
“They’re the Legion.” Aaron told her, “And they’re one of the main reasons I’ve never met a monster before you. When I was real young, I used to live out east, in NOT ROME… Douglas and I moved out here to Graeme with my buddy Nathan after my dad left.”
“Why is that?” the hellhound asked, ears pricked up.
“I didn’t want to get drafted in the army… didn’t exactly want to fight in wars I couldn’t give a damn about, but I also needed to watch out for my little brother.” Aaron responded, “Sure, they give ya three gold pieces when you sign up, but that only would’ve taken care of Douglas for so long… the pocket change they would’ve thrown at a grunt like me couldn’t have lasted him for any longer than half a year. I couldn’t exactly save it up or wait for a promotion if Doug dies before I can buy him medicine, can I?”
“No. Ya can’t.”
“Yeah. And that’s assuming I’d even find someone trustworthy to take care of him.”
A long pause punctuated the silence between them, the dull chorus of their plodding footsteps against the beaten dirt serving as their only communication for a good five minutes.
“Sorry to hear that.” Valerie finally muttered, kicking a loose stone out of their way.
“Don’t be.” he responded dryly, “They kill any monster they come across. They think that they corrupt mankind, that they want to see them vanish. That’s why I hardly saw any before you. Any territory they conquer, they place under a strict human-only policy.”
“So they kill any monsters they find…?” Val almost whispered, sounding like she was barely keeping down all the snacks she had devoured during the day.
Aaron shook his head to both sides, “In their turf, yeah. I remember when I was a kid, I saw a monster… not that I could recognize it. She… she was burned so bad, I couldn’t even tell if it was boy or girl, just some charred skeleton with a tail… and her husband was roasting right next to her.”
A snort came from Val’s nose. She kicked at the dirt, staring off somewhere distant and unknown, beyond the infinite blue of the sky.
“Y’know… most other hellhounds think that all humans are just cute little things that need a strong monster to protect them.” she nearly whispered.
“And you don’t?”
“No. Well, I mean… not all of ’em. I still think every good monster needs a man to keep safe, but… I can’t really say I think all humans are cute.”
“Not after all those times your dad overpowered you?”
“A little… but guys like those Legion bastards… I… I’m not even sure what to think about them. I know that was probably just the way they were raised, but still… all I know is that they make me sick.”
Aaron hummed in agreement. He had never known a monster on a personal level before Val, so the Legion’s laws had never truly factored into his young life. He didn’t personally buy all their propaganda either, something he chalked up to living on their western frontier. Now, he was starting to see them in an entirely different light.
But that didn’t change his mission. Even if the entire world was falling down like timber around him, the only thing on his mind was saving Douglas.
Just as Aaron had expected, the relocation camp was far from sanitary or safe by any stretch of the imagination. A paltry wooden blockade surrounded it, appearing only to have been set up to mark it’s boundaries rather than for providing any meaningful defense. Tents and hastily erected huts and shacks were packed in like trout in a twine net, but children scurried about the labyrinth like a budding colony of ants in a freshly dug hill. Meanwhile, most filthy-faced adults silently milled about or sat around, looking completely and utterly done with their upturned lives.
The sight, smells, and sounds were overwhelmingly horrid. They had to camp outside before it had gotten too dark, letting the cruel sun swing back into position. Even with the graying clouds beginning to creep their way across the sky, it’s powerful rays still beat down and singe the land below, making the entire world seem like a humid, miserable hellhole. With this many sweaty and downtrodden people jammed together, the bandit couldn’t help but be reminded of an illustration of one of the circles of hell he had saw as a child.
And to complete that image, every once in awhile Aaron spotted a monster saunter by. Although, aside from the children and certain upbeat adults wearing thin, tired smiles, they served as the only beacons of joy in the filthy camp. Be it a sheep woman clinging to a farmer or busty cow lady sitting outside a tent with her infant, Aaron began to spot more and more monsters.
The highwayman noticed a single recurring trend with every last one of them – they all seemed to be grinning and laughing, making the most of their pitiful situation. Be it handing out candy and fruit to dirt-encrusted children, or helping improve living conditions around the camp. That seemed to be a stark contrast to the bulk of humans in the settlement. Even as Aaron looked around at that moment, he couldn’t help but notice all the frowns and grimaces directed towards a distant nothing.
“Why helllooooo there, young man~ and young laaady~”
Aaron’s eardrums were tickled by sweet, sing-song voice. Val’s sensitive hearing had already directed her to face in the direction it came from, and he followed her lead. They both saw her coming at once. Val cocked a brow, but looked entirely unconcerned. Aaron on the other hand, was at a complete loss for any proper words or reaction.
The bandit couldn’t have even begun to imagine what a sauntering glide would have looked like before he witnessed it at that moment. But there the voluptuous woman was, hovering a few inches off of the dirt like she wanted to keep the black leather of her boots pristine. He first assumed it was the leathery wings sprouting from the base of her spine keeping her afloat, but then he noticed they weren’t flapping – barely even flexed out, in fact. It must’ve been some sort of magic keeping her adrift in the air.
She slid forward, one hand cocked on her lusciously plump hip and the other lazily spinning around her spaded tail like a lasso. She slowly pumped those curvy hips forward as if she needed them to move, drawing the attention of every single man she passed – and some women, be they envious or otherwise.
A skimpy leather set of gloves, bra, and panties were all she wore aside from her boots and transparent stockings. He was wondering just how she wore only a bit more than Valerie but made it seem several times as lewd – he figured it was the way it seemed to squeeze each and every curve of her delectable body.
“Heelllloooo~” the monster repeated as she stopped before them, a slight accent to her voice. Aaron would’ve placed it from the northwest land of Gaul, but he could’ve have been positive.
“Urhm… hi.” Aaron greeted awkwardly. His gaze flitted over to Val, who just shrugged and tilted her head back and forth, as much at a loss as him.
“Can we help ya, lady?” the hellhound asked.
“Perhaps~” the mysterious woman giggled lightly, like she was teasing them. She tossed her bluish-violet hair back, both showing off the stout curves of her horns and sending them a womanly perfume that carried strong hints of lavender on the breeze. For such a light and pleasant scent, Aaron’s head nearly swam, and Val’s nose scrunched up, looking surprised but unaffected.
“W-well, what do you want?” Aaron questioned, teetering back and forth just a bit as he quickly caught his bearings.
Another giggle came from the haughty monster. Her spaded tail windmilled around to the beat of her laughter. She floated just a tad higher, eyes seeming to beat down on them like a mischievous goddess as she fiddled with one of the sharp points of her elven ears.
“I…” she began, pitch going just a tad deeper, “…am Duchess Jeanne. I’m a wealthy philanthropist, and a proud succubus that’s been aiding humanity since the dawn of the new generation of monsterkind~”
“So…” Aaron quickly surmised, “You were a succubus back when most monsters still looked like beasts?”
“Correct~ what a clever lad~” Jeanne praised him, leaning over to pinch his cheek like a kindly grandmother, much to the bandit’s chagrin. Val snarled and slapped her paw away, making the succubus chuckle in some sort of sadistic amusement, “My my… how very protective. So quick to jump to her man’s defense against a seductive stranger~ and so pretty to boot! What a fine young lady you are~”
Val’s cheeks flushed a darker shade, unable to turn down the compliment, “Oh! Gee, thanks… I’m just doing what my mom taught me.”
The succubus hummed thoughtfully, turning her gaze back on Aaron, “But yes, it may be hard to believe thanks to my radiant youthful looks, but I was very much alive back then. I was far less kind to handsome youngsters like yourself, however.”
“Well… I’ll count myself lucky that we meet in this day and age.” Aaron gritted out somewhat sarcastically, starting to lose patience, “And what exactly do you want, Jeanne?”
“Hmm~ a rather brusque boy, aren’t you? Very well then. I’ll just cut straight to the point – as of late, I’ve grown quite bored of the noble life after nearly three centuries. About a year ago, I decided to split everything up among my daughters and travel out with my husband to spread the joys of love and ecstasy~ by starting up my own…~”
“I don’t like this…” Aaron hissed to Valerie under his breath, the hound quickly bobbing her head in agreement.
“Brothel!” she shamelessly sung, “The Palais d’Amour~”
“We’re not whores.” Aaron spat bluntly, unimpressed by her flowery speech and the foreign lingo he couldn’t understand, “Go away.”
“Oh, come on now. It’s not like your human brothels~” Jeanne cooed apologetically, “My girls are always free to leave with a man that strikes their fancy~ and besides, prostitution is the least requested service there.”
The highwayman cocked a brow and folded his arms, looking very much like the human embodiment of doubt, “Really? A brothel that deals in whores on the side?”
“Of course~ we’re more like a… hmm~ dating service. We also have a lovely bar and lounge. But most importantly~ we have many adult shows for our clientele to enjoy~ we hire tons of lovely young couples such as yourselves to show the depths of your love for the crowd…”
Val ran a claw through her raven locks, looking absolutely perplexed, “So, you want us to…”
“Fuck in front of an audience. No thanks.” Aaron spat curtly, already turning to leave.
“Oh, pleaaaase?” the succubus cooed, leaning over to show off more of her cleavage, “We have so many lovely couples from all walks of life, but my husband feels we’re missing a pair with certain amount of… sass.”
“Why are you even looking for talent in this displacement camp anyway?” Aaron gritted out, trying to ignore that last bit.
“Hmm~ well, I had come out here to look for a new couple, and was staying as a guest, but… those mean little crimson brutes came and kicked me out to this dump. And one of the sneaky buggers had the nerve to nick my money~ I’d rather not make the journey all the way back home all on my lonesome, not a copper to my name.” Jeanne giggled like she was trying to shoo away the awkward air, “And it’s not as though I can combat them, despite my wide repertoire of magic~ I’m a lover, not a fighter. I prefer seducing would-be attackers and introducing them to one of my girls. Sometimes, I leave them blue-balled if they were particularly naughty. But those boys… well, I’m not sure how, but they have fortitudes of steel~”
The succubus was floating in the air during her entire explanation, slowly twisting and writhing, her pitch rising with her voice, like she was hitting the crescendo of a symphonic melody, soft hands reaching towards the sky…
But her hopes sunk like a chunk of lead when she looked back down. For all the heartfelt sorrow she poured into her theatrics, her heart shattered like a bottle against pavement as she saw her audience of two had left the impromptu performance early.
“Yeesh. What a freak.” Aaron huffed, checking over his shoulder just to make sure the succubus wasn’t pursuing them.
“I’d say she was more of a windbag than freak, but whatever.” Valerie added, hustling at his side.
The human and hound continued down a beaten path, each side lined with dirty tents. They both felt the disinterested gazes from out of the shadows glance at them, but neither paid them any mind. Their goal of finding shelter was sidelined by their new objective of simply putting as much distance between them and the overly dramatic duchess as possible.
Eventually, they stumbled upon the edge of camp, where a large patch of orange soil was currently being utilized as a practice battlefield. Hopping around the clouds of auburn dust, there were a pair of tiny figures – a little lizard girl was crossing branches with a young boy. The lizard was quickly outpacing him, knocking away his stick, and delivering a swift bop on the head in just a few smooth movements. Tears formed in the boy’s eyes, but he sucked in a deep breath and picked up his mock sword. The mounting concern was apparent in the lizard’s eyes, but she nonetheless went for a second round at the lad’s urging.
“Yeesh. Kid’s got some guts, at least.” Aaron said, inwardly cringing as he imagined the growing goose egg on the boy’s noggin.
Valerie was much less bemused. She burst forward, catching the girl right before she brought down her branch on the boy’s head. Trapping the lizard girl’s mock weapon in one of her paws, she wanked it away and wagged a finger in the aghast girl’s face.
“Hey, hey! Be nicer to boys, or you’ll never get married. Is that what you want, little miss?”
The lizard girl’s pout was replaced by a defeated frown, looking just as sheepish as a human girl being chewed out by her parents or siblings. She awkwardly glanced towards her scaled feet, “No… I’m real sorry…”
The boy struggled up from his knee, his round face switching from a pained grimace to a determined glare. He marched towards Valerie, catching her attention with a few wags of his branch.
“Its… its okay, lady. I want Millie to help me. I… I need to get stronger.”
“Oh yeah?” Val chuckled, running a paw through the boy’s curly brown locks, “And what for, little guy?”
“They… they killed Millie’s mom.”
The hound’s smile quickly faded away. She peered down to the sniffling boy, then over to Millie. The lizard’s bottom lip quivered, tears starting to roll down her rosy cheeks.
“She was so nice to me, and those bastards just-”
The boy stopped himself mid sentence. His glowering, teary eyes were focused on the sunset-colored soil below, unable to meet the adults or Millie’s gazes.
“J-just because she didn’t let them kick her out of her house… I just sat there and watched…! I hate them all…”
The little lizard came up behind the boy, hugging her claw around his shoulders and gingerly tucking their cheeks together. Val’s ears and tail tucked away. She turned to Aaron, who grimaced and shook his head to both sides.
“Yeah. Good luck with that, kid.” Aaron gritted out, “C’mon Val. Let’s go find somewhere to stay for tonight.”
The highwayman turned his back to the children, walking back to the shoddy relocation camp. Two flares of infernal flame burst from Valerie’s eyes and trailed behind her, seeming to propel her forward and to the bandit’s side.
“Aaron! We can’t just leave those kids like this!”
“Well, what the fuck do you want me to tell ’em? Go on some insane revenge quest against the Legion? I might as well tell them to gut themselves and save those red bastards the trouble.”
They both looked back to the boy and the lizard, the children still sniffling and holding each other close, their sticks long forgotten and laying haphazardly somewhere in the dirt. Then, Aaron and Valerie’s hearts skipped a collective beat.
Three lumbering figures garbed in crimson approached the two children in a triangular pattern. Given no space to flee, the boy and the lizard clung together as the trio encroached on them.
“Fuck,” Aaron swore, but found his feet locked to the dirt. He made no move to help the children, even when the soldiers had them quivering in their shadows.
“Hey, Titus… you sure this the brat is the one?” rumbled one of the Legionaries.
The tallest of the three sneered from underneath the t-visor of his helm, “Yeah. No doubt. Hand it over, runt, and I’ll just forget this ever happened… I ain’t into beating on kids, but I ain’t a fool. I know stubborn bastards only respond to pain. So just be smart and give it back.”
“I…” the boy began, swallowing a nervous lump clogging his windpipe, “D-don’t know what you’re talking about…”
“Our coin purse.” the soldier named Titus clarified through grit teeth, “Don’t test my patience, boy. I saw you and your little girlfriend nick it.”
“You stole that money, you jerks! T-the people here can’t barely have any coins left, but you come and take them anyway!” Millie roared up one of them.
“It’s called a tax, little miss.” the third soldier snorted in reply, “Who do ya think is keeping the law in this shithole? Staving away the bandits and wolves? Not any of these sorry bums lazing around in their tents. Its us! And nothin is for free.”
The boy began to go cherry-red in the face, “W-we wouldn’t even be out here at all if you bastards hadn’t shown up!”
“Oh yeah? Well, maybe you degenerates could’ve stayed put if you kept the fuckin’ animals in the woods were they belonged.” the Legionary spat, his steely eyes falling to the trembling scowl of Millie.
“S-screw you!” the boy spat as he managed to overcome his terror. But his insults may as well have been the squeals of a mouse before a lion. He tried to back away, but the stoutest of the three soldiers caught him from behind, wrapping a meaty forearm around his tiny windpipe and lifting him into the air.
“Don’t make us hurt you, boy!” the soldier manhandling the boy huffed into his ear, “Just give it back and we’ll let you off with a warning!”
“I…” the youth gasped and wheezed through his clenched throat, “I… I already gave it all away!”
“You fucking… you did what!?” the soldier named Titus spat through a grimace, “You little piece of shit!”
Titus raised an armored fist, ready to drive it into the boy’s gut. But something drew his attention – cold iron sliding against leather, a sound that pricked up his ears and brought back a myriad of bitter memories.
The legionary shifted his gaze, letting it linger on the lizard girl behind him. Between her trembling claws, she clenched down hard on a dagger. The look of absolute fury and hate on her small, scrunched face nearly disguised the overpowering terror that sent her knees clattering together.
“L-leave… leave him alone…”
“Drop that dagger, girl. Because if you keep that thing drawn on me, I won’t have a choice but to take you down.” Titus leered at Millie, his fingers already playing along the hilt of his shortsword.
Aaron felt his mouth go as dry as a desert, and his whole body burn with an even greater heat. Pity and disgust surged throughout his body, demanding his conscious to take action, but his every survival instinct screamed at him to mind his own business and flee. His cold eyes fell to Val, looking for any sort of guidance – only to find empty air where she once stood.
“Mille… no! Run!” the boy pleaded as and squeaked out, even as the legionary that had him in a choke-hold tightened his already iron grip.
The lizard refused to budge; refused to let the boy fall victim to his punishment, whether it be earned or not. Even as the humans adults around watched fearful with baited breath through the hobbles of their tents and shacks, the little lizard girl Millie remained wavering but standing tall.
At that moment, Aaron discovered a gut-wrenching disgust even more sickening than what he felt towards the legionaries – a self-loathing, a sense of worthlessness and shame as he stood and watched with a thumb up his ass as a grown man was ready to bring a sword down on a frightened little girl.
The only thing that stopped him from vomiting out right was the fact the blade never went plummeting. Titus’s face twisted into a cocktail of confusion and horror as his weapon was halted. Looking to his wrist, he gasped and cried as he found it ensnared by a fuzzy, black paw.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size, you fuckin’ prick?” Valerie snarled out, tightening her grip on the man’s gauntlet. The sound of claws grinding against metal sent a rush of ice up the spines of all in the vicinity, and had Titus flailing and cursing as he tried to pry himself free.
“Let go of me, you insane bitch! I swear to the gods I’ll have your head on a platter for this, mark my fucking words, you filthy-”
Valerie grew sick of the man’s insults. She silenced him by driving a fist into his side, holding back none of her otherworldly strength. The Legion kept their men well armed and armored, but the man before her was nothing but a common grunt – his torso was guarded by a suit of chain mail and a bronze cuirass, one that was mass-produced and that easily caved against the raw strength of a hellhound.
The sickening snap of ribs wasn’t heard under the clang of his armor denting. Titus’s mouth twisted open in a silent, agonized wheeze, his curses drown by a swift rush of blood. He gargled and gasped, stumbling back and collapsing, caking his crimson tabard with the orange clay as he writhed in it.
With her eyes blazing out of control and her fangs bared, Valerie turned to the other two soldiers. One furious glance was all it took to send the duo scrambling for the hills, the one holding the boy dropping his hostage and the other grabbing Titus before they both fled from the fiery hell that they knew they could have suffered. Right as they were about to retreat into the filthy labyrinth of shacks and tents, the soldier that hadn’t shouldered the responsibility of lugging Titus spun on his heel and jammed his finger towards Valerie.
“Y-you’ll pay for this! We’ll be back, and we’ll bring enough reinforcements to put you in your place, you damned bitch!”
“Ohohoho~ is that so?” a haughty woman’s voice sung from behind the soldiers. The trio of legionaries immediately looked like they soiled their trousers. Aaron and Valerie, on the other hand, cringed as they recognized it from not even a full fifteen minutes earlier.
“W-what the?!” Titus wheezed as a succubus floated before him, twisting and dancing through the air like a graceful sea creature. His comrade supporting him tried to back away, but with their armored weights put together, he couldn’t avoid the woman’s dainty fingers from running across Titus’ body.
Titus clenched his eyes shut, not wanting to see whatever the monster was throwing his way coming. Chattering and shivering, his lidded eyes picked up a soft buttery light shining like the sun before shortly fading.
The first thing the legionary noticed was that he was still very much alive, in control of all his faculties to boot. As he gasped in relief and surprise, he then noticed the searing pain in his side was gone. Gasping, he reached down to where the hellhound had caved in his armor, finding both it and his ribcage underneath totally repaired.
“You… you healed me?” Titus mouthed up at the succubus, breaking away from his slack-jawed comrade.
“Of course I did~ I can’t stand seeing cute little humans in pain, even nasty brutes like you lot~”
Titus and the two other grunts blinked, slowly inching away and glancing back and forth, each wishing the next would do something about their situation.
“W-well…” Titus finally spoke up in a shaky whimper, “Thank you, I suppose… but we need to be going, now…”
“Oh. Non, non, non, non…” the wanton monster slipped behind the legionary and set her hands on his tensed shoulders, “We can’t have you going and tattling, can we~?”
The soldiers couldn’t stop what came next. They saw it coming, but could do absolutely nothing to avoid it. Three new girls floated out from between rows of tents, each bearing the same lusty grin, spaded tail, curved horns, and hip-mounted wings as the succubus.
The fear was real in each of the men’s eyes. They covered each other’s backs, but the cold iron in their shivering hands were gently and softly lowered by the three succubi. All three of their glowing eyes burned into each soldier they approached, their armor rattling like a wind chime in a maelstrom.
“You three work for me now~!” Jeanne fractionally jeered, “Take them away, girls!”
With a flash of pink mist, they were gone with the breeze. Aaron and Valerie stood unblinking, jaws nearly hitting the dirt. With a curtsy that sent her spiraling higher into the sky, Jeanne spared a final passing glance towards the bandit and hound before bursting away into that odd pink powder herself.
“Nice work! I’ll see you two~ later~” her disembodied words sung seemingly from every direction out of the empty air, throwing both of them for a loop.
Aaron swallowed, a lump forming in his gut. Just before she left, she burned a smile into the highwayman’s mind; some smug, lusty, tongue-exposed smile that made it look like she was in on some perverted prank he hadn’t been made privy of.
“What a weirdo.” Val yipped, confusedly scratching between her ears, “Ya think we’ll see her again?”
“Dunno… maybe… unfortunately.” Aaron grimaced, remembering all the horror stories he had heard about nobles being physically unable to accept rejection.
The rotten trio of soldiers were finally gone. With the threat dealt with, the two children immediately broke into wails, running back into each other’s arms and holding on tight. Valerie’s tail happily wagged as she looked on.
“T-thank you, miss!” Millie sobbed, her teary eyes shining with admiration and sparkling with gratitude.
“Hehe. Don’t mention it, kid~” the hound cheered, “You can thank me by making sure you take care of… uhm…”
Val’s gaze lingered on the boy, realizing he hadn’t even shared his name.
“O-oh. I’m Jacob.” the boy sniffled, wiping away the moisture gathering around his eyes, “T-thanks for saving me from the soldiers.”
“No problem~ just don’t go doin’ anything crazy like that again. You’ll make Millie here sad if you get hurt, right?”
“Right…” Jacob sniffled, looking quite sheepishly towards the ground, “Sorry… I just couldn’t let those jerks get away with taking all that money.”
“Well, at least you gave it back.” Valerie said encouragingly.
A impish smirk played across the boy’s lips, “Actually, I still have it…” he snickered, reaching behind his back, “Right here!”
In the boy’s hands, a tightly wound satchel full of coins jingled and jangled. Jacob shook it back and forth, laughing merrily all the while.
“You can have it, miss.” Millie cheered, skipping to Jacob’s side.
“Yeah! You saved us, after all…” the lad agreed.
Before Aaron’s greedy fingers could pinch the coins, Valerie’s paws pushed it back to the boy’s chest.
“Nah. We don’t really need it. Go give it back to everyone they stole it from tomorrow. For now, get on home before I chomp you two up! Your parents are probably worried sick about ya!”
Gaping and stuttering, Aaron watched as the boy and lizard smiled up at Valerie and scurried away, retreating back into the maze of tents like ants retreating into rotted woodwork.
“W-why did you do that?!” Aaron snapped at the hound, “We could’ve used that money!”
Valerie shrugged as if it was the most obvious question in the world, “Yeah, but it wasn’t ours.”
“What does it matter?! Douglas is dying, and we could’ve used them to buy more supplies or a transport… or anything!”
“I thought I already told ya…” Val huffed, sounding increasingly perturbed, “Stealing is wrong. Only jerks take stuff that doesn’t belong to them.”
“Oh, fuckin’ grow up!” Aaron spat coldly and callously, “You can either eat or get eaten, Val. If I hadn’t stole anything when I was a kid, I would’ve starved. If I hadn’t robbed anyone, my brother would’ve died years ago.”
If Val had an immediate response, she didn’t share it. She glanced off to the side for a long moment, kicking at the dirt before answering him, “Maybe… but that still doesn’t make it right. And you don’t have to do that anymore… not now that I’m here to take care of you.”
A snarly growl rumbled up from Aaron, “I don’t feel like debating you. Lets just go find somewhere to sleep tonight.”
“Yeah,” Val agreed, sniffing at the air, ears and tails pricked up, “There’s definitely gonna be rain tonight. I can smell it,” she explained, tapping a claw against her nose, “I know humans can’t pick it up, but when lightning hits, the air itself smells like its burning. I ain’t smelling any of that, but it’ll be a pretty heavy shower.”
“Right…” the bandit swiftly agreed with her, staring up at the twisted black clouds looming overhead, “Lets get a move on.”
Aaron stepped forward, but then he found something was off. He felt something in his pocket; something incredibly light, but most concerning, something he hadn’t put there. Yanking it out, he found a peach colored piece of paper, neatly folded like a handkerchief.
He wondered briefly just who slipped him the letter, why they did, and where and when they had exactly done it. He decided to figure it out himself instead of pondering. Gingerly unfolding the paper, he was hit by a heavenly perfume of lilac and lavender before his eyes traced out the cursive letters on the page.
Come meet me and my sweetums at the Sloshed Goat, please… tonight, if ya don’t mind~!
Aaron briefly assumed it was some sort of thank-you from the succubus. Then, spotting the signature near the bottom, he realized it had been from a Lorna the Cheshire, your Mysterious Benefactor. Not taking measures to hide the anxiety cementing itself inside, Aaron hastily folded up the letter and jammed it into his pocket.
Whoever this Lorna and her companion were, he had some choice words for them.