When Aaron came to, his heart took off in a mad thumping rush in an instant. He was stripped of his clothing, leaving him in nothing but his underwear. He found nothing around him but perpetual darkness. Not only that, but he was suspended into the empty, stale air by heavy iron chains that extended from the endless void.
With both his hands and feet bound in thick shackles, Aaron could do nothing but squeeze his eyes shut and steady his breath.
“Alright… alright… calm down, Aaron.” he panted to himself, opening his eyes to find a set of black greaves standing before him.
His heart rate spiking once more, Aaron’s gaze shot up to the familiar face of the devilish black knight leering at him through the thick darkness. Still not aware if he was dreaming, Aaron grit his teeth and asked the knight the simplest question one could think of.
“Who the hell are you?”
The enigmatic devil’s chest-plate heaved in sync with his low, echoing laughter, “You’ll find that out soon enough, boy.”
A mix of fear and anger boiled in Aaron’s chest. His icy eyes burned up at the enigmatic warrior, demanding answers from him.
“Don’t you sneer at me, child. You should be thanking me. After all, the only reason you’re alive… is because of me.”
The knight squatted down, and that sickening scent of decay filled Aaron’s nostrils once again, making him gag. The knight grabbed Aaron’s chin, forcing them to lock eyes.
“Now… Wake. Up.”
“Come on, wake up already!”
Snapping back to reality, the darkness shattered and Aaron found himself in the same predicament he was in his dream. But instead of being chained up in an infinite black miasma, he was chained up in a dank, dirty and empty room of stone.
“Hehe. Finally awake, huh? Didja have a good nap?”
And instead of a black knight, a finely dressed man in the middle of his life sat before him. With one leg folded atop the other, he ran a hand through his thinning ebony hair and took a puff on the oaken pipe between his lips.
“You’re the infamous Aaron Axenus, eh? Pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m Arlo, the mayor of this humble little city.”
Aaron stared vitriolically at the man. With his thin frame and pale skin, it looked as though the mayor had never been outside to do any heavy lifting in his life. Still, as hardened by the fires of war as Aaron was, and as certain as he was that he could wring Arlo’s neck in roughly three seconds, he was still helplessly chained up.
He loathed to admit it, but his fate sat right in the gangly little mayor’s palm.
“So, what? Are you going to torture me yourself before my execution? Or do you just want to let me rot down here?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I’m no sadist…” Arlo said, taking another puff on his pipe, “Don’t get me wrong, though. I would’ve executed you in a heartbeat if High Inquisitorial Officer Brennan hadn’t passed on some direct orders to keep you alive.”
Aaron raised an eyebrow at that.
“Brennan? What the hell does he want from me?”
“No clue. I have a few educated guesses, though. Maybe he wants to know how you managed to sneak a hellhound into Graeme? Maybe he wants to know how you learned of a hidden treasure in one of our sacred temples. Or maybe how a party of one hundred of our men were killed at Angel’s Peak, with only the captain surviving.”
“The hellhound came here by herself, my friend Kiera told me about the treasure, and those dumbasses were killed by a huge fuckin’ boulder. Any more theories that need debunking?”
Arlo’s thin lips curled upwards around his pipe, “A real wise guy, eh? Well, I’ve got one more… what’s some big roughneck like you doing with some dainty little thing like this?”
The mayor reached into his coat pocket, pulling out a familiar seashell necklace. Aaron’s racing heart began thumping out of control for the third time, his pulse racing with fury.
“Give it back. Now.” Aaron snarled.
“Oho… some kind of sentimental value, then?”
“If… if you don’t give that back to me now… I swear to the gods… I’m going to kill you.”
Arlo didn’t flinch at Aaron’s words, but chuckled and looked down at the necklace in his hand.
“Oh, I’m shaking in my boots. Look at yourself, Axenus. You’re chained up. There’s no way for you to escape… and even if you somehow managed and killed me with your bare hands, I have ten of my best men upstairs. How’d you get past them completely unarmed, smart guy?”
“The hellhound and griffon… my friends. Val and Kiera. They’ll find me. And when they do, I’m going to make you suffer.”
Arlo only smiled down at the snarling, chained up heretic at his feet.
“I wouldn’t count on it. Those two inquisitors that captured you? They should be out hunting your demon whores right now, and the captain of the city guard has just mobilized half our men to back them up.”
“We’ll see… and trust me, when I’m out of these chains, I’ll make sure to give you a painful, messy end…”
“Hahaha… spoken like a true psychopathic murderer. But now we’re on the subject of murder, one more question does come mind. Just what the hell happened down at Fort Eonoir?”
“I had nothing to do with Eonoir! Hell, I didn’t even know about it until today! I’ve got no clue what happened there.”
Arlo bent down, staring into Aaron’s eyes. As he examined his prisoner, the mayor tapped one thin finger against his bony knee as he took another huff on his pipe.
“Alright, I believe you. There’s only rumors, but what’s widely accepted is that it was some heretic with a chesire, dragon, and some rare breed of arachne. This heretic- he was a real freak show. He had some kind of arm made of green sludge, and these soulless, pitch black eyes.”
Aaron was unable to hide his shock. Spotting his prisoner’s widened eyes and curt frown, Arlo chuckled when realized he had struck proverbial gold.
“You know something, Axenus? I saw your reaction. Don’t try to deny it.”
Aaron barely refrained himself from spitting in the mayor’s face, “I ain’t telling you shit, asshole.”
“Are you sure, Aaron? Then how about we make a little deal- tell me what you know, and I’ll give you your necklace back.”
Watching Arlo dangle it before his face, Aaron tossed the idea around his mind for a few moments.
‘Damn… well, it’s not like Cronan is a friend of mine. At worse, he won’t give it back after all, but he definitely won’t give it back if I keep quiet. Might as well take my chances.’
Aaron looked up at Arlo, “Fine then. I’ll tell you what I know. The guy who attacked Eonoir… his name is Cronan Kane. I don’t know anything about an arachne or dragon tagging along with him, but I fought with him and that cheshire a few days ago. And yes, he does have some kind of sludge arm, but he didn’t have black eyes. I’d chalk that part up to a wild imagination.”
“Cronan Kane, huh? Thank you, Aaron. I’ll be sure to send out a carrier pigeon and let Brennan know. Now, I may not like you, Axenus, but I’m a man of my word. Here you are.”
Arlo leaned over, slipping the necklace over Aaron’s gray locks and putting it back in it’s rightful place around his neck. Breathing in relief, he suddenly didn’t want to wring Arlo’s frail little neck. He’d still be more than happy to give him a thourogh asskicking, however.
“There we are… now, as much as I’d love to stay and chat, I’m a very busy man. So long, Axenus.”
Taking a final huff of his pipe, Arlo emptied out the ashes and left the room, slamming the heavy wooden door behind him. The sound reverberated throughout the small prison, rattling Aaron’s shackles and reminding him just how dire his situation was.
Despite his current crisis and uncomfortable position, he found his thoughts drifting back to his niece. Even though the cold stone below and the stiff, smoky air around him seemed suffocating, the smooth seashells resting against his chest brought a sense of warm comfort to Aaron. Leaning forward, he shut his eyes and drifted off to a restless slumber.
“Hey, who’s there?!
Right as the night was about to hit its crescendo, a merchant walked out of his storefront. Closing up shop, he turned the corner only to spot a sudden movement in a back alley.
“Oh, I know you’re there! Some mugger?”
A black tail peeked out from behind the wall, merrily wagging back and forth.
“Ah. It’s just some stray mutt… I’m getting too paranoid.” the merchant scolded himself, placing his green cap back on his head and walking off. Satisfied with his own presumption, the merchant left without ever getting to see that what truly lay around that corner wasn’t a vagrant hound at all.
“Phew, that was close…” sighed Valerie, tugging at the red bandana wrapped around her neck and wiping the sweat from her brow.
“Nice going, Valerie! You almost got us caught!” chastised the griffon crouched in front of her.
“Hey, don’t give me that! You’re the one dragging me down! If it was just me, Aaron and I would be out of here by now!”
If looks could kill, then Kiera and Valerie would’ve turned each other into bloody paste with the acidic glares they both shot the other’s way.
“Why are you wearing that bright red bandanna anyway? Take it off! You’re much easier to spot with it on.” the griffon snapped.
“Oh, give me a break. Like this tiny little bandanna is going to get us caught when you’ve got those big fat wings flapping behind you!”
“H-hey! I’m tucking them in as close as I can!”
With their foreheads now butted together, Kiera decided to take the moral high ground and back away.
“Look… we just don’t have time to fight right now. Are you picking up Aaron’s scent yet?”
The hellhound crawled past the griffon’s legs, sniffing at the air all the while, “I… I think. It’s hard to tell. There’s so many different smells around here, and not just because of all the other humans. Food, booze, garbage… jeez. Now I understand why so many humans hate places like this. It’s suffocating.”
“Well, humans senses aren’t as sharp as yours or mine, Valerie. It may be crowded, dirty and noisy, but some just feel at home in environments like that- usually unsavoury types, though.”
“What? Have you been to cities before?”
“Yeah. Back when I was a teenager, the Roaming Ravens were still flying around Terra’s western coast looking for the treasures on my map. While we did trade with other small tribes of humans and monsters, we eventually hit the cities up north.”
“And? What were they like?”
“About the same as this one. Only we were kept under close watch in case we made trouble, unlike here, where they’d burn us at the stake for even daring to exist.”
“Heh. Seems about right… were the people any nicer, though?”
“Can’t really give you a straight answer to that. Some shot us dirty looks and walked to the other side of the road when they saw us. Others saw us as solely business partners, traded with us, and went on their way. But very few showed us any sort kindness.”
“Ah. Well, was the food any good?”
Kiera snickered at that, “Yes, it was. Ever had a kebab?”
“Nope. What are they?”
“You’ll see once we find Aaron and get to Misr.”
“As long as you’re buying…” Valerie mumbled under her breath.
Rolling her eyes, Kiera motioned her companion to the other side of the alleyway.
“It looks like this sector of the city is where all of the general markets are. If Aaron was around here, then this the best place to look for clues.”
“I’m already smelling something…”
Sniffing the cobblestone below her paws, Val ducked her head out of the back alley and peered around the empty streets, finding not a human in sight. However, her twitching nose did detect something peculiar.
“Blood. I smell blood…” she said, dashing over to the next alley. Kiera sprinted right behind her, and the two monsters ended up standing before a small, dark red splotch on the ground.
Sticking two fingers into the drying liquid, Val’s claws pinched out a few strands of iron-colored hair.
“T-this looks like Aaron’s…” she whimpered, giving them a sniff, “T-they smell like him, too…”
“Don’t worry, Valerie. That blood stain is nowhere near large enough for it to have been a killing blow. Whoever it was who caught him probably just knocked him out.”
“Y-yeah, you’re right.”
Valerie stood to her feet.
“I’ve got his trail… but we’ve got trouble.”
“What? What’s the problem?” Kiera asked, blinking in surprise.
“It smells like there were two others who caught him… and they’re still hanging around here.”
A scarlet figure stepped out to block the exit of the alley.
“Hmph. Looks like there’s no point in remaining hidden.” he said, Valerie and Kiera shooting up and bracing themselves for combat in response. Hearing another footfall on the other end of the alley, Val spun around to meet a man dressed in the exact same way.
“Great. Inquisitors…” Kiera groaned, “Have you ever fought one before, Valerie?”
“I’ve fought plenty of foot soldiers, but never one of these guys.” the hellhound answered.
“Well, stay on your guard. They’re killers trained by the church to hunt down and execute monsters. They excel in holy magic, but they’re also no slouches with their knives… and watch out for their holy water.”
“You sure know your stuff.”
“What can I say? I’ve been around…”
The inquisitor blocking the way they came in drew his zig-zagging dagger, “We had a feeling Axenus’ whores would show up to look for him sooner or later. They always do.”
“So, are there any more of you following him?” asked his partner as he drew the same weapon.
“Pft. There better not be!” Valerie huffed, placing her paws on her hips.
Ignoring her snide remark, the inquisitor reached into his robes, pulling out a square vial topped with a decorative golden topper. Pulling that topper out, the water inside immediately began boiling and a thick cloud of steam spouted from the nozzle.
“May this cleanse both your foul soul and corrupted body, you devil!”
Rearing the bottle back, the inquisition chucked it towards Valerie with all his might. Hopping into the air and letting it fly below her feet, the bottle crashed between her and Kiera, splashing water all over the ground. A few drops even managed to fly back onto Val’s legs.
Leaning away from the swipe of her own foe’s knife, Kiera kicked him away and spun towards her companion, “Val! Get that stuff off your legs, now!”
“What? It’s just wate-RRRRRR!”
The small puddle burst into an ethereal sapphire blaze, tinted white with holy energies. The small drops on the back of her legs ignited as well. Previously thinking herself immune to even the most intense of flames, Val was unable to refrain from dancing around in pain.
When her enemy thrusted his knife at her midsection yet again, Kiera dodged to the right, grabbing hold of his arm and dislocating his shoulder with a single smooth movement. She slapped the pained inquisitor away with her lion tail, looking back to the hellhound behind her.
As quickly as they burst up, the holy flames burning off the mystic water started to die down. The fire around the hellhound’s eyes finally died down as well, as she tucked her tail in and patted down the fresh burns on her legs.
The inquisitor at her side didn’t seem too keen on letting her have a break, however. With his knife reared back, he stepped up to her side.
Kiera only had a second to spring into action, and her body did so of its own volition. Pushing one foot off the ground, she burst forward at a blinding speed, coming right between the hellhound and knife before the moment of impact.
Crying out in pain as the knife pierced her side, Kiera fell to the ground and rolled forth, bringing the knife with her. Shocked and still quite unsure of what happened, the inquisitor hopped back and blinked from behind his mask.
With the last bit of her strength, Kiera yanked the knife from her body and hurled it right back at the inquisitor. Her keen eyes and sharp reflexes insured it hit its mark- right past his red robes and into his throat.
“No! Y-you demon whore!” the remaining inquisitor roared as he watched his partner hit the dirt. Grunting in pain, he popped his dislocated shoulder back into place. After rolling it around a few times, he picked his knife back up and let his other hand crackle with a spark of holy thunder.
“Kiera!” Valerie cried, rushing to the griffon’s side. The lion and eagle hybrid coughed up blood as she propped herself on a single knee, huffing in pain and clutching her side.
As Valerie picked up her injured companion, her twitching ears picked up the chorus of heavy boots against cobblestone and clanking metal.
The city guard was coming, and they were coming fast.
Stepping back, she felt her paw come into contact with a metal plate punched full of small squares. Looking below her, she found it was some kind of metal grate set into the pavement.
Looking up to find enemies approaching her and Kiera on all sides, Valerie decided to throw all her chips on the table and find out what lay below.
“Hold on, Kiera!” she cried, hopping into the air before slamming herself down and smashing through the grate. Kiera squealed in surprise at the sudden movement, then grunted in pain as the impact of Valerie’s landing irritated her wound.
Valerie was surprised to find some sort of dank, dirty system of tubular tunnels. A path set on each side, a river of brown, filthy water flowed through to parts unknown.
“Ewwww! It stinks down here! What the hell is up with this place?!” she cried through her huffs, dashing as fast as she possibly could and weaving through the twisting tunnels. Despite her sensitive nose being assaulted by the putrid scents, she knew she had to push through it and put as much distance between her and Kiera and their pursuers as possible.
“It’s… it’s called a sewage system, Valerie… the humans toss their trash and bodily waste down here, and they divert the flow of the river nearby to carry it all away.”
“That’s… disgusting…” she panted, finally settling down and laying Kiera against one of the grimy walls. Leaning over, she pinched her nose shut and sucked in several ragged breaths through her mouth.
“Urgh… I’m losing too much blood.” Kiera grunted, lifting up a single eagle claw and finding it stained completely crimson.
“Right… we’re going to have to dress that wound before we can go find Aaron.” Valerie finally said, sitting up and keeping her nose pinched shut. She ducked under one of Kiera’s arms, wrapping one arm around the griffon’s waist. Unable to pinch her nose shut with both arms supporting the griffon, Valerie nose twitched as an odd scent hit it.
“I… I smell something funny.”
“We’re in a drainage system, Valerie. Of course you smell something funny-”
“No, I mean… something smells like… malolia berries.”
“Malolia berries… aren’t those a rare fruit from the southern islands?”
“Yeah. They smell real nice when you break ‘em open, but that smell is so pungent it’s overpowering. They actually taste like crap, but they’re really useful in magic recipes.”
“…how do you know all this?”
“The brewer from my tribe paid me and my sisters to help her grow a batch when I was twelve. That might have been fifteen years ago, but I’ll never forget that smell. Weird thing is she said they were only good for curses.” the hellhound explained
“…which are banned in the Legion. Citizens can’t even brew their own healing potions or learn holy magic without permission from the church, much less practice black magic.”
“Yeah… no one would bother to grow any all the way out here to eat them. That must mean there’s a brewer in this city… one that doesn’t mind breaking Legion laws.”
Blocking out the odors of the sewage surrounding her, Valerie kept her focus locked on that fruity scent and walked around the twisting maze of tunnels with it as her guide.
The closer Valerie got, the more the overpowering scent of rotting waste was washed away by the pleasant smell of the exotic fruit. When she was finally starting to feel lightheaded from it, she spotted a small pile of brown and orange balls.
“They look a few days old…” Valerie noted, squatting down by the pile of rotting fruit and pinching one between her claws. Lifting it up for examination, she saw that their soft insides had been squeezed out to leave the skins empty.
“Whoever this brewer is, she must have dumped them in here after extracting their essence.” Kiera added.
Valerie peered up, discovering a long pipe and yet another grate. Popping her knuckles and extended her claws, she looked over to Kiera and motioned to the claymore hanging off her back.
“Better hop on.”
The soft scraping of metal against cobblestone sounded throughout an empty back alley as Val removed the grate and scooted it to the side.
Peeping her head out from the pipe, she found only several withering potted plants and a black cat peeking at her from an open windowsill.
“Coast is clear!” Val cheered, removing the grate and crawling out into the street. Kiera clung to her back, keeping one claw wrapped around the hellhound’s neck and the other sandwiched between their bodies, keeping the pressure on her wound.
The cat hopped from its spot on the windowsill and hissed at Valerie, only for the hellhound to drop to all fours and bark at it in retaliation. With a terrified hiss, the cat scrambled back to the windowsill and hopped through it.
“It smells like they came from here…” Valerie said as she pointed to the building the cat retreated into. Two stories of dark wood, its brick chimney spewed out a continuous stream of thick ivory smoke.
Kiera eyed the building up and down, “Then the brewer lives here…”
“Well… let’s see who’s doin’ the brewin’.” Val said, laughing a bit at her own rhyme.
“Valerie, I’m already dying. Please don’t try to speed up the process.” Kiera groaned.
“I thought it was pretty good…” the dejected hellhound muttered, following the griffon.
Slowly and carefully, the monsters crept up to the back door. Wrapping one claw around the bronze knob, Valerie slowly cracked it open until there was just enough room to peek through.
Squatting down to allow Kiera to look in, the two of them looked around the macabre kitchen within. Their attention was immediately drawn to some little blonde girl decked out in a witch’s outfit, standing atop a stool before a cauldron.
The huge black pot sat above a fire, a thick, luminous green sludge boiling within. It shined with an ominous emerald light around the kitchen she resided, showing off a large shelf of jars filled with disembodied eyes, reptilian tails, gnarled roots, odd fungi and all sorts of other occult ingredients.
“Toil toil, bubble and broil~” the little girl sang, stirring a ladle a bit too large for her hands into the cauldron. Reaching into a small mixing bowl from a table at her side, she pinched out a bit of white powder and sprinkled it into the vitriolic mixture.
The instant it hit the boiling goop, the room flashed with a blinding light the same dark green as the pot. A giant plume of smoke exploded out of the cauldron, knocking the brewer from her stool.
“Ack! Ack!” the little girl coughed as she stood, wiping the soot from her face and placing her hat back on. Hopping back on the stool, she smiled as she saw her bubbling green fluid turn a soft blue. Lifting the ladle back up, she took an experimental sip and nodded in approval.
“So, what do we do? Do you think she’s a monster like us? I’d bet my tail she’s some kind of witch. ” Val said, looking to Kiera.
“Oh, definitely. I highly doubt a human girl of her age would be able to brew potions like that. Even if she does turn out to be human, I don’t think she’ll have any room to judge us for being born when she’s practicing black magic.”
Nodding to the griffon, Val stood back up and burst into the house. Shocked from the sudden entry, the little witch nearly fell from her stool yet again.
“A-a hellhound?! What are you doing here?” the witch stuttered, windmilling her little arms around and regaining her balance.
Val ran up to the blonde girl, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her back and forth as she frantically explained their current situation.
“C-could you stop shaking me, please?” the dazed witch asked, her eyes spinning around and her head lolling from side-to-side.
“Oh… hehehe. Sorry. I guess I don’t know my own strength…” Val sheepishly apologized, “Anyway, could you help us? Us monsters have to stick together, you know?”
Breaking away from the hellhound, the little witch jumped from her stool and turned her back to the intruders, “Actually, no, we don’t. I can blend into human towns just fine, so ‘sticking with other monsters’ would bring me nothing but trouble. I’m already taking care of two bums right now, and the last thing I need is four freeloaders to feed.”
“Look- can you help her, or not?” Valerie huffed, forking a thumb over at the injured griffon lingering behind her.
“Of course I can~! Not to brag, but I’m the main supplier for illegal brews in the whole country! Not that it’s exactly a thriving business…”
Suddenly feeling dizzy and lightheaded, Kiera placed a claw to her sweaty forehead and stumbled backwards. Landing in a squeaky rocking chair, she sank into it and groaned in pain.
“I-I’m not feeling so hot…”
“Pff, no wonder. Look, you’re bleeding like a stuck pig.”
While she tried to hide her stunned expression, a frightened grimace still spread across Kiera’s face.
“W-well? Can you help her, or not!?” Val asked the witch once again.
“Of course I can… for a modest price~”
“B-but… we don’t have any money on us right now.” Kiera mumbled, beads of sweat starting to roll down her body.
“No money…? Hrm…” the witch pressed her index finger up against her chin, tapping her left foot against the ground and humming in thought, “Then no deal. My healing potions are expensive! I can’t just hand them out for free.”
Val bunched up her claws. Would she have to fight the witch? Knock her out and steal a potion on her? While she was averse to violence, she’d enter a scrap if the situation called for it. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she narrowed her eyes and lifted a claw up.
“Ina? What the hells with all the noise…?”
Although her senses were beginning to dull from the blood loss, Kiera’s body jumped to alertness when she heard that familiar dry tone echo down a nearby staircase.
The head of a ghost phased through the ceiling, her vacant eyes twitching every so slightly open, “Kiera?”
Both Val and the witch blinked in surprise. However, Val’s confusion was only intensified when a living doll slid down the banister of the staircase, gracefully landing and skipping towards the injured griffon.
“And you must be Valerie…” the ghost droned, floating down beside the flabbergasted hellhound.
“You’re Valerie? It’s so nice to meet you!” the doll cheered, cuddling up against her fuzzy black legs.
Looking between the doll and ghost, something clicked in Val’s mind. The reason Kiera slept with Aaron was because of some healing potion either laced or infused with an aphrodisiac he had taken.
The two flames around her eyes exploded with a sudden raw fury, the heat and intensity being comparable to the licking flames from the hottest pits the underworld.
“You little…!” Val barked, grabbing the doll and putting it into a stranglehold, “YOU DRUGGED MY BABE! I’LL KILL YOU!”
“Urhm… I’m a doll, sweetie. I don’t need air~!”
“C-can someone dress my wound, please…?” Kiera weakly pleaded, watching as both Grace and Ina attempt to pry Beatrice from Valerie’s death grip.
Relocated to the living room, Kiera was stood before a couch while Beatrice stood atop its cushion, wrapping a fresh bandage around the griffon’s grisy stab wound.
“Another injury? What, do you have a death wish or something?” Grace droned, floating nearby and watching her tiny lover doctor Kiera’s injury.
“More like a hero syndrome…” Valerie grumbled, sitting in the corner, and looking quite sour while she was doing it.
“A pathological one at that. Why would you jump in front of an enemy like that?” the little witch chastised the griffon, wagging a finger up against Kiera’s nose.
“I… I swore I would never let another one of my partners die again. If that costs me my own life, then so be it.”
Val’s ears twitched. While she seemed angered at Kiera’s words, she directed that rage towards the little witch standing in front of the griffon, “Look, Ina, we need your help, and we need it now! Aaron is in trouble, and we’ve already wasted too much time here!”
“Just help her out, Ina.” Grace pleaded.
“No fucking way. I’m letting you two stay here because I studied under Beatrice’s creator and owe her a favor. But I don’t owe these two jackasses squat.”
To Ina’s chagrin, Beatrice’s bottom lip began quivering. Big, fat tears began gathering in the corners of the doll’s purple eyes.Throwing her head back, Beatrice began wailing, falling onto her belly and slamming her tiny fists against the floor.
While Grace looked nonplussed by her lover’s hissy fit, Kiera and Valerie looked absolutely mortified. Ina, quaking in her shoes, finally slapped her hands over her ears and cried out to the heavens.
“ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT! I’ll help her!” Ina finally relented.
Beatrice hopped off the floor, now beaming brighter than the sunshine, “Yea! Thank you, Ina~”
Watching the thick, crimson syrup bubble within its small wooden bowl, Kiera had but one question for the diminutive witch presenting it.
“So, how long will it take to heal my wound? Valerie and I are in a hurry here.”
Ira handed the bowl over with a shrug of her shoulders, “Meh. An hour, give or take. That’s the highest quality potion I can make, so it’ll heal you up much faster than that crap Beatrice made for you.”
Kiera gratefully accepted the potion, chugging it down and wiping away her lips. Placing the bowl on her lap, Kiera looked down at Ina with a cocked brow.
“Speaking of Beatrice, what are she and Grace doing here anyway?”
Ina rolled her eyes, “She said that after meeting you and that Aaron nimrod, they realized how much more exciting life was with company. Beatrice and I met in the forest a few years back when we were both out scavenging for potion ingredients. We chatted for a bit and I told her to come to my place if she ever needed anything. Like I said, the witch who created her also taught me everything I know. I never do anything frivolous when there’s no money involved, but I owe my master a lot. Helping out Beatrice is the least I could do.”
“I see… well, I appreciate your help.”
“Don’t mention it… really, don’t. You’ll soil my reputation. If there’s one thing I hate giving, it’s handouts.”
“While I think you’re a bit too greedy for your own good, I agree. All debts should be paid in full… and I’m your debt, Ina.”
Rolling her eyes, Ina took the empty bowl away from Kiera and turned her back to the hybrid monster, “Yeah, whatever.”
As Ina exited the room, Valerie entered. Glaring at each other as they shuffled out of the other’s way, the hellhound plopped on the couch right beside Kiera.
“Well, we might as well get in as much rest as we can before we start searching for Aaron again. I’m not going to able to save him without your help.” Valerie grumbled, sounding like a child who had been sent to bed without dinner.
“Come on, Valerie. You’re stronger than you think.” Kiera attempted to comfort the canine woman. But that didn’t seem do the trick. Valerie just sat beside her, pouting.
But after a tense moment of silence, the hellhound spoke up again.
“Why did you save me? Back there with the inquisitors?”
Kiera paused for a moment, finding the question almost humorously simple rather than thinking up a reply, “Do I need a reason to save someone’s life? Besides, I’ve already told you. No one dies on my watch.”
Sinking back into the cushion,Val cast her gaze towards her feet, “I… I thought you hated me…”
“Why would you think that?”
Valerie didn’t answer, but Kiera could only assume it was because of what happened with Aaron.
“Would you have done the same in my position, Valerie?”
The downtrodden hound still kept her lips sealed.
But Kiera only smiled and leaned back into the sofa, “Don’t worry. I know you would. After all, you could’ve just left me, right? If you had, you’d could find Aaron even faster.”
Valerie broke her silence with a loud sniffle, “I’m sorry, Kiera… I… I only saved you because I know I’m too weak on my own. I’m such a worthless idiot! Even my tribe didn’t want me!”
“What are you talking about, Valerie? I thought you left your tribe on your own.”
A cascade of tears rolled down Valerie’s cheeks, “I didn’t just leave my tribe… they… they kicked me out.”
“I tried to leave one day. I tried to join up with some minstrels, but… they… they didn’t want me. When I came back to the tribe, they didn’t- they didn’t let me back in!” the sobbing hellhound choked out.
“But you’re a great actor, Valerie! Why wouldn’t they want you?”
“Because… I can’t dance or sing.”
“N-no… I’m tone deaf and have two left-feet! I’m so useless… I can’t sing, I can’t dance, and I can’t even be a good hellhound and fight like a real warrior…”
The hellhound was sobbing uncontrollably at this point, hugging her knees into her chest and heaving into them.
Kiera reached over, gingerly patting the other girl on the back, “Don’t cry, Valerie. I may not be a minstrel, but I can give you some pointers in the art of battle.”
“I-is that a joke?”
“Of course it isn’t. I know we don’t see eye-to-eye, but I don’t like seeing you doubtful or sad, Valerie. If you want to learn how to fight to protect Aaron, I’ll be more than happy to teach you.” Kiera assured her with a warm smile.
“Thanks, Kiera.” Valerie whispered with a sniffle, wiping her tears away, “This doesn’t mean we’re friends, you know.”
“Of course not… but I can’t teach an enemy.”
“Fine then. We’ll put our differences aside and tolerate each other for Aaron’s sake.”
The slightest traces of a smile gracing her lips, Valerie reached over and locked claws with Kiera, shaking hands with her.
“I agree completely. But remember… since you’re now officially under my tutelage, you’ll refer to me as master from this day forward.”
Valerie had a good chuckle at that.
After sharing the rest of the hour in comfortable silence, Kiera stood and unwrapped the bandages from around her midsection. Her stab wound had disappeared, leaving nothing but a thin white scar.
Pleased at the healing job, Valerie hopped to her feet, “C’mon, Aaron needs our help. Let’s get back out there and see if I can pick up his scent again, Master Kiera.”
“Then let’s get going, my darling pupil~”
“Ugh… don’t push it.”
Watching the griffon and hellhound disappear into the murky darkness of the night, Ina exhaled a pent-up breath and shut the velvet curtains of her window. Walking across her garishly decorated room, she hopped into the silken sheets of her bed and slapped a pillow over her face.
“There? Was that so hard?” Beatrice sang, hopping next to the witch’s head.
“That potion was worth five silver! And I gave it away for free…” Ina grumbled, hardly believing how much money she threw away to two strangers just to sate a doll’s childish fit.
“How did you and Grace run into those nimrods anyway?” Ina grumbled through her pillow.
“It’s a long story… but I guess I’ve got plenty of time to tell it~”