‘Dear gods, how come I get all the nuts…?‘
Aaron apprehensively made his way forward, his piercing gaze kept tightly locked on Cronan’s freakish arm of green ooze. Something about the way it seemed to writhe like a serpent made Aaron’s skin crawl.
‘What the hell is it?’
Aaron didn’t have time to ogle the strange sight or ponder how it replaced the pale stranger’s arm for very long.
The arm elongated, rocketing forward at a frightening speed. Caught completely off guard, Aaron tried to lift his blade to block the incoming attack, but he was far too slow. Slapping his palm over Aaron’s face, Cronan slammed him back down into the grass.
Tiny pockets of oxygen bubbled out of Aaron’s nose and mouth and throughout Cronan’s hand. Aaron felt like he was suddenly and forcibly submerged in water without a chance to hold his breath.
If the sudden removal of air wasn’t bad enough, an intense migraine began erupting throughout his head. The green, distorted filter of the sky through Cronan’s hand soon began violently flashing white.
But just as suddenly as it started, the ordeal ended. Cronan retracted his freakish limb, leaving Aaron coughing up sludge and gasping for breath as his ears rang and head throbbed.
“Thank you, Aaron. That was very enlightening.”
“W-what? How did you know my…” the woozy Aaron stuttered, his knees still buckling, his head still throbbing, and his vision refusing to stop spinning. His whole body felt like it was shocked awake from a long sleep, and it was still trying to shake off the numbness and lethargy.
“Your name? Hahaha! What did you think that was for? I just went digging around in that beautiful little brain of yours.”
Aaron was so disgusted that words wouldn’t come to him. A thin layer of dry sludge still clung to his head, and he had to repress the urge to vomit as he peeled it off.
“You… you fucking asshole…” Aaron snarled as he repressed a gag.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby. You weren’t going to share anything, were you? No. From what I’ve seen, you’re too much of a hardheaded bastard to do anything like that, aren’t you?”
Aaron forced himself to his feet, fuming between wild breaths. The thought of someone forcibly peering in on his memories made him furious beyond measure.
“Ah, but no wonder I felt such a kinship between us! You’re the first one I’ve met that knows both the unbridled love monsters have for mankind and the cruel nature of humans! Oh, and Lucero isn’t just Legion propaganda, is he?”
“How… how much do you know about me…?”
“Oh, just the most recent and important stuff. Want some proof? Your brother’s name was Douglas, two years younger than you. His wife was a mermaid named Mieril, and together they had a daughter named Cordelia, named after your late mother… am I right so far?”
Trembling, Aaron stepped back, holding up a hand to his temple,“No… that claw was only on my face for a few seconds… how could you-”
“So you’re heading to Misr to find the Lost Archives, huh? With that bastard Lucero running around, it really is in our best interest to find a counter to the Sol Saber, and the Lost Archive is our best bet for that info…”
Cronan’s words snapped Aaron out of stupor, “Wait, what’s this ‘we’ shit? I’d never help an asshole like you! You just come out of nowhere, threaten me, pry around my brain, and then expect me to be all buddy-buddy with you? Besides, I don’t know the first thing about you, aside from the fact you’re a fuckin’ lunatic!”
Cronan grabbed at his chest with his human arm, giggling as he feigned heartache, “Oh, that truly stings… but do you think Mierel and Douglas would’ve shared that sentiment? What about Cordelia, Aaron? You’ve both witnessed and experienced the true cruelty of mankind first hand. The same goes for a monster’s boundless, unconditional love…”
“Don’t you ever say their names again…” growled Aaron, “Don’t you fucking dare use my family as an excuse to fling your bullshit at me!”
“Fair enough… I’ve lost several people dear to me as well. I understand it’s a… touchy subject. I apologize.”
Looking no less upset, Aaron demanded an answer from Cronan, “What the hell do you want from me anyway? If you read my mind, you know the Astral Crown is busted.”
“Aaron, I came here to find the Astral Crown. To peek in on the emperor and see if Lucero was more than just a rumor- but as for my ultimate goal?”
The iron-haired swordsman remained silent. Still brandishing his claymore at Cronan, he slowly circled around, keeping his eyes locked on that strange arm. The moment it even twitched, he would spring into action.
“I’m no misanthrope, Aaron. But so many humans are greedy, cruel, vile, ignorant… this war between the joint kingdoms of Lusitania and the Holy Legion needs to end soon if humanity is to survive. And to do that, we as humans need to evolve.”
“What the hell are you…?”
Cronan only snickered at that, looking to the sky and changing the subject.
“Do you know why monsters all look like pretty girls, Aaron? You do know that’s not the way they’ve always been, right?”
“Of course… most of them used to look like beasts, and there were males too. Everyone knows that.”
“Exactly. You see, whoever takes the crown of the Demon Lord can bend the entirety of monster kind to their whim. And the newest Demon Lord is a succubus named Lilith.”
Things began clicking together in Aaron’s mind, “She… made all of the world’s monsters like her?”
“Lilith is a peaceable woman, not a fighter, and she loves and respects humans more than anything. She believes that monsters and humans can coexist. But while that faith and opposition to violence is admirable, it’s also her fatal flaw. She loves mankind so much, she’s soft on it. Its that softness that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides of this war to needless suffer and perish.”
Aaron was so taken aback by Cronan’s speech that he dropped the tip of his claymore into the ground. With a sinister smirk, Cronan circled around Aaron, staring at the back of his head as he went on.
“No. She was too eager to enact her plan. Before mankind can be won over with love, they need to be subjected… put in their place so they can’t resist the change. As long as Lilith is on the throne, she’ll never accept that. That’s why I’m going to dethrone her.”
Aaron’s head shot up and turned towards Cronan, in complete disbelief at what he had heard, “What did you just say?”
“You heard me. I’m going to dethrone her and become the next Demon Lord.”
Aaron wasn’t sure whether to laugh or tremble. Either way, he figured Cronan was a few cards short of a full deck from the moment they met, and his goal more or less confirmed that.
“After I’ve sealed away the Sol Saber and become the new master of monsters, my ultimate plan will be put into action. I’m going to revert monster kind back into their bestial forms. Not forever, mind you. Just until they’ve destroyed both the Legion and kingdoms of Lusitania… after that, I’ll turn them back into the beautiful forms Lilith granted them. Then, humanity’s evolution shall begin.”
“That’s… that’s insane! Millions of innocent people will die!”
“You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, Aaron. I thought a soldier like you would’ve known that. After all, when all that death is over and done with, the world will become a glorious paradise for the rest of time. No more war, no more hatred… just unconditional love and boundless pleasure for all. Think of the bigger picture.”
Aaron didn’t exactly need to wrack his brain for a counter-argument,“What about reproduction, huh? Monsters can only give birth to more monsters! If the monster population ever outgrew the humans, both would die out!”
“Oh, Aaron… do you think I haven’t thought that out? Believe you me, that was actually the second reason why I want to overthrow Lilith. It’s a bit of a long story, but I already have a solution to that problem. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss it on the road.”
Aaron’s sword began trembling. Not from fear of Cronan, but from disgust at the fact that Cronan’s words were starting to make a bit of sense. If he was telling the truth, that is. Even if it was a lie, he still couldn’t help but find the idea appealing.
“So, what do you say? Join me?”
No. By far the most disgusting thing about Cronan’s honeyed words was that he found himself slowly conceding to them. That he wanted to say yes. He wanted a good future for all of monsterkind, but had yet to hear any ways to accomplish that. Aside from the one Cronan was presenting him.
Aaron violently shook his head from side-to-side, “That doesn’t matter! If you’re willing to do everything you say, you’re nothing but a hypocritical murderer!”
“I could say the same thing about you, Aaron. How many innocent monsters and their husbands did you murder when you served the Legion?”
Aaron’s breath hitched. His trembling eyes darted down to the toes of his boots, and he couldn’t so much as muster up any words to defend himself.
“And what of those soldiers in Tellum? You didn’t feel any shame in taking them out, did you? No! You feel nothing but pride, don’t you? That’s because you were completely justified in killing them. Every last one of them was a fat, ugly leech sucking the life out of those farmers. You know you did the right thing by wiping out the evil plaguing that town. I simply wish to do that on a global scale.”
Aaron stomped his foot on the ground, scolding himself for almost buying into the pale man’s bullshit. Global purification? No good could possibly come of that.
“Shut up! I’d rather die than team up with a maniac like you!”
“Hahaha… your words, Aaron. They sting. They really do. But we’re alike, you and I. Why don’t you just go grab Valerie and Kiera and help me out? I’ll forgive every nasty little thing you’ve spouted off at me if you do.”
“Not interested.” Aaron curtly replied.
“Is that so? I’m not looking for a lackey, Aaron, I’m looking for a friend. But allow me to sweeten the pot with a bit of material gain- if you swear to join forces with me now, I’ll make you my generalissimo when I take the throne of the Demon Lord. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like you’re in need of a serious ass kicking.”
“I’m afraid you’d say that… but I can’t force you to join me. Thank you for the information, but I can’t have you standing in the way of my mission.”
Tightening his monstrous clawed fingers into a tight fist, Cronan aimed it right at Aaron, “I’ll grind you into dust!”
Cronan swung his freakish limb above his head, which extended and twirled around like a lasso. Now aware of its ability to elongate, Aaron was able to dive to the side before Cronan smashed it into him.
“You’re pretty fast! But let’s see if you can dodge this!” Cronan complimented, his arm retracting back to its normal length.
Cronan aimed his arm back at Aaron, but this time, the liquid fist suddenly turned a darker shade of green and hardened. Launching his fist yet again, Aaron ducked back as it zipped over his head. Flying onward, the fist smashed into a tree, splintering it at the middle and sending it tipping over.
Not wasting the opportunity, Aaron lashed out his blade and cleaved the sludge arm in half. Everything from the elbow down to the hardened fist fell and splattered against the grass.
Cronan laughed, feeling no pain whatsoever. Retracting his injured arm, he simply regrew his clawed fingers and flexed them out once more, “That won’t work, Aaron. Even if I haven’t evolved yet, this arm of mine puts me in a league of my own.”
“Oh, enough with this dumbass evolving bullshit!” Aaron snapped, flinging the green ooze off his blade.
“I’m give you one last chance, Aaron. Do you want to work with me, or die?!”
“Only one of us will be dying here, and it won’t be me!”
“We’ll see about that…” Cronan snorted, gripping down on his slimy forearm and aiming it at Aaron, all five clawed fingers trained at his chest.
Aaron took a step back, ready to spring to the side, “You’ve already tried that twice, asshole, and you missed both times. So why don’t you get a clue and-”
Something whizzed right by Aaron’s cheek, leaving a deep slice in its wake. Slapping a hand against the cut, Aaron’s eyes darted over to Cronan to see just what the hell had happened.
A disappointed Cronan lowered his arm just a bit, clicking his tongue, “Damn! Missed you by a centimeter. Ah well… next one’s going right between your eyes…”
Aaron realized what was happening as Cronan raised his arm and squeezed his eyes shut. One of Cronan’s fingers was missing, but it swiftly grew back, and the one next to it began to harden.
‘He’s shooting his fingers at me!‘
Aaron dove to the side as Cronan fired off the next shot, the hardened claw whistling past where he just was and implanting itself into a tree. He rolled to his feet and darted behind another tree as Cronan picked up the pace, firing off his fingers and growing them back just in time to pop off the next round.
Feeling a sharp pain gnaw at his leg, Aaron dove behind another tree and looked down. One of the spiked fingers had pierced his calf, sunken into his flesh down to the knuckle. But since it was hitting nothing vital, Aaron decided to fight the pain and keep it in to prevent blood loss.
Another finger whizzed by his cover, splintering the tree’s side. Cronan paced forward, not letting up on his attack and pinning Aaron down.
“I’m feeling in a generous mood today, Aaron… come out now and I’ll make it quick.”
Throwing all his chips on the table, Aaron ground his teeth and dashed out of cover. Guarding his face and throat with one arm and rearing his claymore over his shoulders, he practically flung himself towards Cronan.
Astonished at the insane attack, Cronan still managed to fire out five fingers.
SCHLIK, SCHLIK, SCHLIK!
While two fingers flew past Aaron, three hit their mark. One in his gut, one in his forearm, and one lodging itself against one of his ribs, cracking it.
Howling in pain and rage, Aaron kept stumbling towards his enemy. The surprised Cronan hardened his arm in a split second and swung it over his head. Parrying Aaron’s claymore within a hair’s breadth, the heavy blade bounced off with a resonating clang and burst of sparks
Dropping his claymore and falling to one hand, Aaron cried out in pain, rolling to his side.
“Whew… I wasn’t sure what you would do, but I didn’t expect you to rush me like that. You almost got me.” Cronan laughed, kicking Aaron onto his back, “But you just weren’t fast enough.”
Aaron could only continue to groan as he peaked up towards Cronan. Looming over him, Cronan raised that massive, freakish fist into the air, ready to drop it and paint the grass and dirt with the Aaron’s brains.
But before he could, the claw of an eagle shot out from behind Cronan, gripping down on his oozing wrist.
“That’s enough.” spat Kiera as the wide-eyed Cronan looked back towards her.
Grunting in shock, Cronan slipped his hand out of her grip and hopped back, “You… you’re back on your feet? So you had a healing potion on you, eh?”
Not bothering to answer his question, Kiera stomped forward, pointing one of her clawed fingers right at Cronan’s chest, “I’ll give you one chance. Leave now, or I’m going to have to beat you into submission.”
Cronan laughed, raising up his slime arm and motioning for the griffon to approach, “Oh, is that so? I’d like to see you try!”
No sooner had the words had left Cronan’s mouth then Kiera was soaring right above him, smashing her knee into his fat mouth.
“GARGH!” Cronan cried, blood spraying from between his lips. But Kiera was a relentless warrior, and she would let not a single opening slip. The instant her paws touched the ground, she was threw herself right back at the pale man.
Hopping towards Cronan, she reared back her arm and aimed a chop right at his neck. He raised his sludge arm to block, but Kiera’s blow came down with such speed and power it cut right through the appendage, slamming into his sternum.
Cronan cried out in pain as it snapped. On her way down, Kiera lashed out her lion paw, delivering a fierce blow to Cronan’s chin. His jaw dislocated with a loud pop, and he was sent flying back, slamming against a tree. Sliding down to his rear, the man limply slumped over.
“Not bad…” Cronan slurred, shakily standing as his bisected arm regrew its lost half. The instant it was back, he hardened the pointer of his index finger and bit down on it. Placing his human hand on his chin, he snapped his jaw back into place with a muffled holler.
Both Aaron and Kiera flinched at his nigh inhuman pain tolerance. Even with all of his broken bones, he still managed to hobble to his feet, that freakish sludge arm writhing behind him.
“Argh! Sunnva bitch, that hurt…” Cronan groaned, rubbing his injured jaw.
“Stand down. You can sure take a hit, but even with that arm, you’re still just a human. Your body is going to give out soon if you keep going like this!” Kiera warned Cronan.
“I’ll never give up! I don’t care who you are, human or monster! Stand in my way, and I’ll send you plummeting down to hell!” Cronan raved, an array of serrated spikes growing out from his forearm.
Defensively holding the threatening limb before him, Cronan shuffled forward. Kiera cautiously did the same, keeping her guard raised.
Cronan planted one foot into the ground, spinning around and lashing it out, trying to club the griffon in the head with his spiked limb. Kiera easily ducked under it, springing forward and thrusting a fist into his gut before he had a chance to pull back.
“Take this!” Cronan grunted as he slammed his arm down. Kiera stepped to the side, landing on one lion paw and thrusting the other into his stomach.
He fell backward from the kick, but Kiera grabbed hold of his human arm before he landed. Pulling him forward, the griffon hopped into the air and delivered a fierce spinning knee to his ribcage, sending Cronan spiraling away and crashing headfirst into a tree. Chipping the bark and bouncing off, he crumbled to the forest floor, thoroughly defeated.
“S-shit…” Cronan swore, vomiting up blood. As he crouched on a single knee, propping himself up with his inhuman arm, it was quite clear to Kiera the beaten, bloody human couldn’t put up any more of a struggle.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you.” Kiera consoled him, “A true warrior wouldn’t kill someone who’s already down. But know this, human- this is the last time I’ll offer mercy to you. Try to pursue us, and I won’t be so forgiving. So run along, and don’t even think of-”
The sound of flesh slamming against flesh rang out. But it wasn’t Keira’s fist hitting Cronan, or vice versa. An invisible force had crashed into the griffon’s face, busting her lip and sending her stumbling back and away from the man.
Kiera’s cheek sank in like a fierce hook just hit it, and she was pushed back even further before catching herself.
‘Whats going on?!‘ Aaron mentally screamed as he watched the scene unfold. One second, Kiera had Cronan beaten, and the next, she was being knocked around by some unseen entity.
The third blow never landed. Holding an open claw up, Kiera caught the punch, closing her claw around the invisible attacker’s hand.
“Three blows to the face in a row? You’re too predictable!” Kiera grunted, emphasizing her point by throwing out her elbow at the last word. The leaves and sticks cracked as the attacker stumbled back, two streams of blood gushing from in the air.
“Ouch! You fuckin’ bitch…” whined the voice from from where the blood was spurting. The flow of red looked like it was shifting from side to side up against a surface, as though it was being wiped away, “Hehehe~ figured me out so quickly, eh? Looks like I’m getting a little rusty~!”
A pair of mischievous feline eyes popped into the air. Then, with a snicker, a shit-eating grin appeared under it.
“Lorna! I told you to stay back at the camp!” the injured Cronan snapped, quite cross with the disembodied face. It disappeared once more, the voice now ringing out from all directions.
A woman materialized from thin-air behind Cronan, landing on her knees and throwing two fuzzy, purple and black paws around his neck, hugging him protectively to her chest, “What, and leave you to fend off this bastard all on your own~? You know I don’t roll that way, Crocro. I swore I’d never let anyone hurt you again~”
Aaron recognized her species immediately. A cheshire cat.
“Oh, fuck me with a ten-foot pole.” swore Aaron. The memories of an enemy cheshire cat pulling nasty pranks, stealing supplies, and generally chipping away at the sanity of his company during their second year came rushing back. They had never caught her. Although Aaron was glad about that in retrospect, it still left him with a crippling phobia of the mischievous felines.
“Be careful, Kiera!” Aaron shouted, “Cheshires are dangerous! They can turn invisible and teleport around!”
“I’m aware. They also have minor spacial manipulation, if what I’ve heard about them is true.” Kiera called back, but kept her eyes locked on Lorna.
“Oh, you really want to fight? I’m sorry, but I was going to take you and your little boytoy out quickly before making a getaway…” Lorna muttered, her striped tail wagging back and forth.
Her feline eyes sparkled and her tail and ears folded down as she began to sound quite somber, “My Crocro is in trouble, and he needs healing right away! I can’t waste time fighting you!”
Kiera’s guard finally dropped by the deep concern in the feline’s voice. Lowering her claws, she looked back toward Aaron, lying on his side with several spikes jutting from his torso and one in his calf, “My partner is in a trouble as well…”
“Then how about a truce?” the cheshire offered.
The griffon looked somewhat hesitant, but after a moment of consideration, she nodded in agreement, “Truce.”
Although both were gravely injured, the arrangement sparked an untameable inferno of rage in both Aaron and Cronan. Aaron shoved his pointer towards the pale man, and Cronan returned the gesture with his arm of ooze.
“No, dammit!” they cried in unison, “Forget about me and kill that bastard!”
Curling back their accusatory fingers and slapping their hands over their mouths, both men could only snarl at each other like two starving dogs locked in opposing cages.
Unable to stifle a laugh at the scene, Kiera turned away from the chesire for only a moment, but a moment was all the feline needed. Warping over to Cronan, she appeared underneath his human arm, standing and propping him up.
“So long, griffon. Next time, I’m bringing my friends! After Crocro is healed up and we’re all together again, we’ll be invincible~”
With those parting words, both Lorna and Cronan vanished into thin air without leaving a trace.
“Fuck… that maniac is dangerous, Kiera! You shouldn’t have let him get away…”
“We’ll deal with him later. Right now, we’ve got to get you healed up.” Kiera said, scooping back into her arms. Looking up towards the inky dark sky, she smiled as she saw neither the moon nor stars could pierce the heavy layer of clouds looming above. The chance of any human spotting her was slim to none.
Spreading out her wings, she pierced the treeline and took off back towards their cavernous hideout.
In the complete opposite direction, the cheshire reappeared under the long, twisting branches of a massive oak tree, laying the man draped over her shoulders down between two of its gnarled roots.
The cheshire held her paw forward, an overstuffed purple purse shaped like a heart appearing atop it. Holding it by it’s strap and reaching a paw inside, she stuck her tongue out as she dug around within it.
She plucked out an anvil, a giant mallet, a custard pie, and several exotic fruits from the hammerspace. She tossed each of them into a pile before finally yanking out a corked bottle filled with a bubbling sapphire fluid.
“Here, Crocro… drink this. It’ll make you feel better.” she said, sticking a claw into the cork and popping it off, then pressing the bottle up against his tightly-sealed lips.
“I told you not to call me that.” the bloody man groaned in frustration, pushing the bottle away with his human arm.
The cat frowned, her ears and tails dropping as her amber eyes filled with moisture.
Although Cronan knew they were crocodile tears at a single glance, he still couldn’t help but let out a sigh and relent to her, “Ah, I don’t even know why I bother. Call me whatever you want, Lorna. But just forget about the potion; it would be a waste. I think it’s high time that I complete my evolution.”
Lorna’s ears perked back up at that.
“Are you sure, Cronan? I mean… with all your broken bones?”
“You raped me when both my legs were broken when we first met!” Cronan reminded her, his brow scrunching up as he did so.
The cheshire snickered as the memory came back to her, “Oh, yeah. Sorry about that~”
Cronan rolled his eyes, “A bit too late for an apology, isn’t it?”
With a giggle that was even more mischievous than her grin, the cheshire carefully draped herself onto Cronan’s lap, running a paw over his cheek, “Alright then- I’ll be gentle~”
“Once more… my body is already overflowing with demon energy. We have sex one more time, and my evolution will commence.” Cronan mused. His freakish sludge arm caressed her side as his human arm found the cheshire’s tail and stroked it up and down. Although his body was wracked with pain, the prospect of his evolution made any physical discomfort seem trivial.
Lorna pulled him in for a kiss, their lips meeting and tongues twisting together.
But eventually, Cronan pulled away, his hand leaving her tail as the human looked off to the side, clearly bothered by something, “I’d still like to get that last relic before we go after that fucker with the griffon.”
“Oh, the one that Major Ryder has over at Fort Eonoir? Do you still want to do it sneaky beaky~?”
“No. When the news of the Sol Saber’s return is made public, the Legion will soon grow overconfident. They haven’t made a significant push into any Lusitanian territory in the past five years, but having Lucero on the front lines will change that. We need to make sure they don’t grow too big for their breeches before their new little hero takes the spotlight… razing one of their little forts in a single night should strike some fear into their hearts.”
This time, Cronan was the one who pulled Lorna in. After another heavy kiss, their lips separated, and his lips curled into something that could only be described as a mad grin.
“Besides, when I evolve, I want to test my new limits…”