Umbra, Chapter 21

“How long have I been in here…? Half a day?”

It was hard for Aaron to keep track of time. His knees were sore and his legs felt like jelly, and the lack of any stimuli and exhaustion caused him to drift in and out of sleep, only to be awoken by the sharp pains of his uncomfortable position. Kneeling against the cold stone and with his arms pulled skyward by the chains attached to the walls at either side, Aaron’s dull aches only grew with time. Despite the pain, he couldn’t help but shut his eyes once again…

BAM!

A loud crash and scream woke Aaron from his stupor. Several more cries of agony and several sickening crunches reached his ears. Tell tale signs of combat- but they didn’t last very long.

“Aaron! Don’t worry, we’re here to save you!” he heard his favorite hellhound cry from behind the heavy iron door keeping them apart.

“Alright, Valerie, let me see if I can find a key on one of these guys and-”

CRASH!

Valerie kicked the door off it’s hinges before Kiera could even finish her sentence.

Blinking, the wide-eyed griffon looked towards Valerie, “Or, uh… we could just do that. We are in a hurry, after all…”

“BABE!” Val cried, flinging herself across the room and sliding on her knees to meet him. Nestling her head into his neck, she happily rubbed against him and licked his scraggly, unshaven cheek.

“V-Val… Kiera… I knew you’d rescue me. Thank you…”

“Don’t try to waste your energy breaking those chains. I found the guards key.” Kiera said, walking into the room, the key ring hanging off from her tail. In her arms, she held Aaron’s confiscated clothing and supplies.

The griffon set them to the side, Val doing the same with his claymore.

“Alright, Kiera. Undo his shackles, and I’ll catch him.”

“Hmph. Why don’t you undo his shackles?”

“Because you’re the one who found the keys!”

“Do you think I enjoyed digging through those guards’ trousers while you were here hugging up on him?”

“Does it really matter…?” Aaron groaned, just wanting to be free of his confinement.

Kiera nodded, “You’re right, Aaron, it doesn’t. So Valerie, grow up, take the keys and-”

“Urgh, fine. I thought you were the mature one…” Valerie groaned, snatching the key ring from the griffon’s tail and quickly undoing the shackles around Aaron’s wrists.

With his whole body numbed, Aaron was unable to stop himself from falling forward. Fortunately, Kiera was kneeling right there to catch him. Face-planting into her breasts, she hugged him close before he could pull away.

Robbed of oxygen, Aaron tried to flail his unresponsive body around, but the blushing Kiera seemed too wrapped up in her own little world to notice.

“It’s alright, partner… I’m here for you now…”

“You’re suffocating him with your fat udders, you airborne cow!” Valerie screamed, smacking Kiera right atop her white patch of hair. Stars flashed in the griffon’s eyes as she was knocked back, causing Aaron to fall from her chest and right on his face.

Kiera popped right back up, just about ready to return the blow to the hellhound, but her sharp eyes noticed something peculiar below her.

Valerie, with both paws bunched into fists and ready to fight the griffon, blinked in confusion.“Hey, what are you- oh my gods….”

Lying on his stomach, Aaron’s back was displayed to both girls. And on his back was a huge, ugly scar that mirrored the one on his midsection.

“Heh… figures. It was only a matter of time before you girls noticed it…” Aaron chuckled, sitting back up on his hands and knees.

“A-Aaron… what happened to you?” Valerie muttered.

“I… I was impaled. When Lucero tracked Douglas and I back to our hamlet, he ran me through with his Sol Saber.”

“How in the name of the gods did you survive? From the angle it looks like that would’ve pierced several of your vitals, not to mention sever your spine. Did you have a super powerful healing potion on you or something?” asked a stupified Kiera.

“No… it… it was a dark knight. Some kind of man in black armor saved my life. I don’t know how or why, but he did.”

“Well, we don’t have time to ponder it right now. We’ve got to get out of here before more guards show up.” Kiera said, taking the keys from Valerie and undoing the shackles around Aaron’s ankles.

Shakily standing to his feet, Aaron wobbled around, looking ready to tip over. Both Kiera and Val burst to his side, propping him up.

“Careful, partner. Just take it nice and slow.”

“C’mon, babe. Let’s get you dressed.”

Helping him put back on his clothes and chainmail vest, Aaron finally regained enough of his bearings to wobble over to his weapons. He tossed on the bandoleer before reattaching his sheathed claymore to his back.

“Alright… let’s grab the supplies and get out of here.”

With feeling rushing back to Aaron’s sore legs, he and his companions ascended the short set of stairs and burst into a spacious hallway. Several beaten guards were strewn about, staining the polished wooden floor with their blood. Their broken shields, dented pieces of iron armor, and snapped spears lay shattered along with several busts and paintings that fell from the peach-colored walls in the skirmish.

Looking out a nearby window, Kiera’s heart sank when she spotted a group of around hundred city guard surrounding the building. The first half stood with their spears and round shields at the ready, while the other formed rows and weaved between their comrades, aiming their crossbows right at the building. No doubt there were even more guardsmen circling the building.

Stepping next to her and seeing their predicament for himself, Aaron let out a long, frustrated groan, “That’s just great. You won’t be able to fly us out of here with those bastards ready to snipe you down.”

“Well, shit.” Val swore, stepping up to get a look for herself.

“And we can’t just try to take them out head on. With this building in the way, they won’t have any concerns about missing us and hitting their buddies.” added Aaron added as he and the monsters stepped back from the window before any of the guard had taken notice of them.

“I wouldn’t be able to fly us very far anyway. You, all your gear and supplies, and Valerie’s combined weight is just too much for more than a few meters.”

“Well, how do we get outta here?” Val asked, nervously bouncing from one foot to the other, “Damnit, we didn’t plan this far ahead!”

“Ah! I have a plan… why don’t you think they’re trying to rush in or burn the building down?” Kiera said.

“Hmm… of course. There must still be more people in here.” Aaron figured.

“Thats right. And I’m guessing it’s someone important…”


“I’ll have your head on a pike for this…”

“Oh, can it already, Arlo.”

Before the city guard had a chance to act, the trio rushed up to the third floor of his mansion and found Arlo boarded up in his office. Breaking down the doors, Kiera and Val quickly beat down the remainder of his guards while Aaron floored the mayor with a single punch.

Binding Arlo’s hands, Aaron pressed one of his knives up against his throat and walked him down to the second floor and out to the balcony. Upon his arrival, the city guard shifted their collective focus up to him.

“Alright, nobody fuckin’ move! I’ll slit this bastard’s throat!”

The city guard didn’t seem to shocked, as they already assumed the mayor was being held captive. His harsh words only seemed to stoke the flames of their fury, however, and they still looked ready to fire on him at a moment’s notice.

“Now, where’s your boss?” Aaron cried down at the crowd.

“I’m right here!”

And just like that, the leader stepped forward- an impressively muscled man in a intricate set of plate mail with a gilded bastard sword hung at his side.

“Axenus! Taking hostages, eh? Just what I expected from a coward like you!”

“And who the hell are you?!”

“Leonardo Grandmore, the proud governor of Krovrin! And I came here for your head, Axenus!”

The initial confusion of why such a powerful man was personally after his head shook Aaron for a few moments. Thinking back a month or two, it suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks.

Leon Grandmore. The snide young corporal he killed in Tellum for shaking down his friend Nathan. Right before Aaron had struck the final blow, the bastard’s shallow mask of a cold-hearted killer broke down and he begged for his life.

Looking back, Aaron could still remember the man’s final words, N-no… please… m-my father is a rich man. Very rich! H-he’s the governor of Krovrin! I-if you let me go, I’ll be sure to-

Then, he rammed his claymore into the bastard’s jugular.

“L-look! Just let me and my friends go, alright? Or else, Arlo gets it!”

In truth, Aaron didn’t want to kill Arlo. The mayor had been kind enough to give him back his necklace, and the fact Aaron was desperate enough to take the man hostage made his stomach knot up. Honestly, all the mayor had been doing was his job.

Just like I was.

“Go ahead, slit his throat. Arlo should be glad to die for his empire!” Grandmore roared, “As long as you’re dead, it’ll all be worth it!”

“W-WHAT!? ARE YOU MAD, GRANDMORE?!” Arlo cried out, a fresh cascade of nervous sweet pouring down his body.

“You heard me! Everyone born in the Holy Legion should be prepared to die for the greater good, and you’re no exception, Arlo! Now, fire!”

The city guard didn’t respond. Although Grandmore was the governor of their capital city and his authority far acceded Arlo’s, orders to fire upon an innocent mayor didn’t seem to sit well with them.

“No, don’t! I’m begging you!” Arlo shouted back, now thrashing against Aaron.

“Nobody wants to follow orders? Fine then. Five silver pieces for everyone who fires!”

That seemed to do the trick for some of the men. Throwing away common decency in exchange for coin, they stepped forward and placed their fingers against the triggers of their crossbows.

Don’t do it!” Arlo howled, his pale, bony body quaking with terror.

FIRE!”

As his racing heart pounded against his chest, Aaron reacted solely on instinct. Keeping Arlo held to his chest, he threw himself backwards, bringing the mayor along with him and crashing back into the estate.

“A-Arlo?”

Lifting the mayor’s limp body from his own, Aaron grimaced as he saw the shafts of several crossbow bolts jutting out from his forehead, throat, stomach and chest.

“Fuck…” Aaron mumbled, another numbing wave of guilt washing over him. Arlo wasn’t a bad man… the seashell necklace around Aaron’s neck was a testament to that.

“And know he’s dead because of me…” Aaron whispered, sitting back up. Clenching one fist, Aaron cursed himself for getting sentimental at such a time and rushed down the stairs, stomping through the halls until he stopped before two monsters.

“W-what the hell was that?! That Grandmore guy is nuts!” Val cried.

“Not really. I killed his son, apparently. I don’t have much room to talk about slaughtering your own countrymen for the sake of revenge…”

“You can’t compare yourself with that cur, Aaron. From what you’ve told me, those men in Tellum had it coming. What goes around comes around, as they say.”

Aaron chuckled a bit at that, “Are you saying I was like as some kind of karmic death dealer to Leon?”

“Maybe you were.”

“Yeah? Well, maybe Grandmore will be like that to me…”

“Guys? Maybe we should take cover? Like, now?” Valerie butted in.

The sounds of shattering glass and snapping wood rang out throughout the manor as the city guard surrounding the building busted through, no doubt pouring in like a swarm of locusts.

Kiera bounced over to the other side of the hallway, opening up a nearby door and ushering for her companions to enter, “In here!”

It was appeared to be some sort of lounge or study, with a luxurious couch, several velvet-lined chairs, a shelf full of musty books, and garish paintings and marble busts of what Aaron could only assume were of past mayors.

Hearing the thunderous cacophony of the herd of guards stomping towards them, they all quickly sprung into action.

“C’mon, barricade the door!” Kiera urged, zipping across the room, grabbing a chair, then springing back to the door and propping it under the knob.

“Way ahead of ya!” Val responded, dumping out the contents of the bookshelf and slamming it before the door. Aaron was right behind her, shoving the couch behind the shelf with his shoulder. Soon, the trio had the whole room’s furniture pressed against the door. Backing away, the iron-haired human and beast monsters formed a small huddle.

“Alright… I mean… this isn’t that bad. You took out thirty troops at Tellum, right Val?” Aaron breathed, trying his damnedest to try and be optimistic and failing miserably to hide his anxiety.

“Yeah, but those guys couldn’t use their crossbows because of their formation, so they only had gladiuses to fight me… even then, I still barely made it out alive. And those guys out there have spears!”

“Not to mention there’s that other inquisitor…” Kiera added with a grimace.

“Yeah, it wouldn’t be smart to try and fight them head on, even if we were able to funnel them into this room one at a time…”

“Open this door, you demon cunts!” a gruff legionary hollered, stabbing his spear through the door and into the barricade, “We’ll burn this whole damned building down if you don’t come out this instant!”

Aaron’s blood ran cold. Val might be able to survive that, be he and Kiera would either roast like chickens or suffocate on the embers and soot.

“What are we going to do…?” Aaron muttered, digging his fingernails into his scalp and pacing away from his companions.

“Stay calm, partner. A true warrior always keeps a cool head.” Kiera tried to console him, “That’s the best thing to do when you’re in a pinch. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve been in my fair share of tight spots, Kiera. But I’m honestly not seeing how we’re going to get out of this one with all three of us alive…”

BOOM!

A sudden explosion rocked the inside of the mayor’s estate, an intense green light shining in under the door in tandem with the blast. The sound of dozens of bodies hitting the floor rang out, followed by a macabre chorus of men hacking and coughing.

“What… what the hell was that?!” Val asked.

Before any of three could ponder what had caused the sudden detonation, the answer revealed itself. Another blast blew down their barricade, and a thick cloud of green mist rolled in.

“Don’t breath that in.” warned a little girl from the hallway, the gas shadowing her figure.

“Ina?!” Valerie and Kiera cried confusedly in tandem.

From out of the hallway, a little witch stepped forward with a bright smile on her face. Despite how cheery and innocent she looked on the surface, Aaron instantly picked up a hint of greed and malice in her mischievous eyes.

“W-who is this?” the young swordsman asked.

“Well… we found her when we tracking you down, Aaron.”

“Alright then… but what is this stuff?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just a little paralyzing mist I spread around… anyone who breathed it in should be out for a good couple of hours.”

“Why doesn’t it work on you?”

“Protection spell… speaking of which, I should probably cast it on you.”

The little witch threw up her hands, tracing strange symbols into the air and whispering ancient incantations. After a brief few moments, she tossed out both arms and surrounded them all with a golden aura, which quickly faded away.

“There. You should be able to breath in my nerve gas for about another fifteen minutes… plenty of time for you to escape.”

“Thank you, Ina… now, don’t take this the wrong way, but what do you want?” Kiera asked, stepping up the witch with both hands pressed against her hips.

“Huh? Why do you think I have an ulterior motive?”

The griffon narrowed her keen, golden eyes down at the little witch, who instantly shrunk away.

“Ah, fine, ya got me. Grace and Beatrice were telling me about you guys, and something caught my attention- something in your position. It’s the Astral Crown. I want it.”

“Why? Didn’t they tell you the thing was busted?” Aaron piped up.

“Are you kidding?! The Astral Crown is priceless! I’m sure I can get it working again… even if I can’t, the thing would still be worth a fortune, even if it were smashed into little pieces!”

Aaron scratched his chin, trying to decided what action to take next. After a brief few moments, he came to a decision.

“Fine. Since you’ve helped us out of a jam, I’ll give it to you when we get back to camp… on one condition.”

“Whaaaaat?” Ina whined.

“Distract the guards for just a bit longer. We need Kiera to fly our supplies out of here without getting shot down, alright? Val and I and can make it back to camp on foot.”

“Aaron, what are you-”

The iron-haired man shoved his rucksack into Kiera’s arms before she could protest further, “We need these supplies, Kiera. I’ve spent way too much money on them to leave them behind. We’re getting further and further away from any game, so we’ll starve for sure without these.”

The hesitation was clear in Kiera’s face, but after seeing the unflinching resolution in Aaron’s icy eyes, she could only nod her head.

“Alright. I trust you, partner… please don’t die on me.”

“Heh. I’ll try my best.” Aaron chuckled.

Smiling back at him, Kiera turned to the hellhound lurking behind her.

“Valerie… be careful, alright? I’d hate to lose my only pupil before her first lesson.”

With a small puff, Val folded her arms over her chest, “Hmph! Don’t give me orders! B-but you be careful too, alright?”

Running through the halls, the human his two companions lagged right behind Ina, who soared down the halls on a flying broom. Coming to a window the back, Ina lifted her hand, blowing it open with a small fireball.

Diving out first, the little witch reared back the vial of emerald gas. Hurling it towards the head guard’s helm, it shattered and unleashed another wave of the paralyzing green mist. The guards began hacking and coughing as it entered their lungs before they had a chance to block their noses and mouths.

While the city guard below her flopped to the floor like a net full of fish, Kiera burst right out of the window and spread out her wings, the supplies clutched tightly to her chest.

“Alright, should we take the front or back?”

Aaron ran over and peaked out the window to the front. There, several of the city guard were busy dragging their allies from the mist, their tabards pulled up before their noses and mouths. They formed a circle right where the mist dissipated.

At the center of that circle, Aaron spotted a man in the scarlet robes of a High Inquisitorial Officer- who he guessed was Brennan- and an Inquisitor squatting by Grandmore’s limp body. Both of the church member’s hands shined with a brilliant gold light, basking the governor in its radiant glory.

“Let’s try the back. We might have to take a detour, but there are still people down there. Ina should be able to hold them off long enough for us to make a getaway, hopefully.”

Nodding at each other, Aaron and Val rushed down the stairs, through the manor’s halls, and burst from out the backdoor.


Gasping for breath, Grandmore’s expensive armor shook and rattled as he sprung up.

“Take it easy, sir.” the inquisitor that had revived him pleaded. However, that advice fell upon deaf ears. Grandmore had spotted Aaron and his hellhound dashing away ten metres from him and getting further by the second.

AXENUS!” the vengeful father screamed at the top of his lungs at the distant figure. But his throat was still hoarse from the strange gas, and it ended up coming out like a pathetic whimper. Raising one fist to his mouth, the governor hacked and coughed, but hate-filled eyes never left the corner Aaron and the hellhound ran behind.

The inquisitor that helped heal him rushed to his side, “Are you alright, sir? We should begin pursuit right away, sir. Let me- AARGH!”

The scarlet-robed man was interrupted when he was set alight by a bolt of thunder. A few seconds of later,his twitching, singed body ended up tipping over and flopping against the ground.

Eyes widened in surprise, Grandmore looked up to find a snickering witch floating overhead, a thin trail of smoke rising from her outstretched finger.

“Like fish in a barrel~” she laughed, floating closer to the ground and blowing the smoke from her digit.

A vein in Grandmore’s forehead throbbed. Jamming a finger at the witch, he spun around and snarled at the High Officer cowering some distance away.

“A witch? Do you even do your damned job at all, Brennan?! Get your ass over here and help me!”

“I-I’m sorry, sir…” Brennan squeaked as he scampered up to Grandmore’s side.

“Hey! Don’t be so hard on the guy. It’s easy for a clever lil’ gal like me to blend in. Or on second thought, go ahead and be hard on him. Very hard. He’s your only other healer, right? I need him down for the count, and I don’t wanna waste any mana on such a spineless coward~”

“Y-you whore! How dare you speak to me like that?!” Brennan squawked, “I’ll show you what happens to those who talk down to me!”

“Ooh, the worm finally turns, eh? Show me what you have then!”

The witch snickered again, reclining against her broom and lifting up a single finger. From out of thin air, a small fire sparked and grew into a raging orb of licking flames. In return, Brennan squared his feet and held out his own palm, an orb of thunder beginning to pop and crackle as it appeared.

“Let’s see you handle this!” the witch cried, shooting up from her broom and hurling the spell forward.

Brennan body trembled with both indignant rage and paralyzing fear, but he still found the strength to toss out his own attack. The spells clashed together, resulting in a small explosion and kicking up a cloud dust between them.

“E-eat this, you wench!” snapped Brennan, “ARCHE’S SPEAR!”

He lifted his hand in the air, forming a javelin of crackling blue thunder. But just as it was ready to fire, the witch had already cast her own spell. From out of the dust cloud, a small beam of green light shot forward, blasting Brennan in the stomach.

Winding the High Officer, he stumbled to the ground, clutching his burned gut. Brennan struggled to his feet, looking up to find the witch.

But she was nowhere to be found.

“Up here, numbskull!”

Brennan craned his neck skyward, quaking in his boots as he saw the witch standing atop her broom, both hands stretched over her head and holding a sapphire sphere of pure destructive magic.

Here, catch~!

And with that, Ina hurled it to the earth.

Brennan tried to back away, but his shaky feet betrayed him. Stumbling over a loose stone, the old crow could only quake and cower as he watched the magic sphere fall towards him.

“I don’t think so!”

A bolt of electricity flew in from the side, crashing into the sapphire orb and sending it hurtling in the opposite direction. Brennan, Grandmore, and Ina all showed some measure of surprise as the looked to the right for the caster of the electric spell.

Stepping forward with one palm clutching a spear and the other outstretched, the culprit revealed himself- William Highwind.

“Stand back, your Holiness. I’ll handle this devil.” Will told Brennan as the crow scrambled to his feet and rushed away from the witch.

“T-thank you, William! You’re a hero!”

“Brennan! Get your ass on this horse! You’re coming with me!”

The high officer, paladin-in-training and witch all looked towards Grandmore, who rode up on his pure white steed.

“Y-yessir!” the crow squawked, scrambling up to the impressive mare and climbing behind the governor.

“Take care of the witch, William!” Grandmore ordered, spurring his horse in the opposite direction and taking off. Left there flabbergasted, Will could only clench his fist around his spear and growl in frustration.

“Dammit. I had a score to settle with Axenus… I guess I’ll just have to kill you quickly and get to the battle before it’s over.” William sighed, turning back to Ina.

Cackling like a madwoman, Ina floated higher into the air and sneered down at William from her vantage point.

“Is that right…? Just try it, pretty boy!”

The witch lifted her finger into the air, summoning a herd of bat familiars. Flickering her finger, she sent them all flying down towards William.

THYONE’S GALE!” the lancer roared, launching his own spell- one that took the form of a swirling, aquamarine typhoon. It ripped apart the bats and reduced them to bloody chunks, and continued onwards to the witch.

Ina gasped in shock, having her broom take a sudden dip to evade the attack. Now floating only a few feet off the ground, she whipped her arm around and summoned a trio of fireballs, all of them locking onto Will and rocketing towards him.

Thoroughly unimpressed, William twirled his spear around his body before lashing it out, dispelling all three fireballs with a single stroke. Grunting in frustration, Ina reared her hand back, summoning up a swirling, frosty wind. After a few seconds, that sleet and slush came together in the form of a jagged spear of ice.

Tossing it forward, William swiftly countered by firing off another aquamarine gale. It ripped apart the witch’s ice spear and continued onward, blowing the small girl off her broom and sending her bouncing across the stone streets.

“Ow, shit! You asshole!” she whined, adjusting her hat and picking her broom back up.

“Hm. That’s what you get when you underestimate me, witch!” William snarled, stomping towards the spellcaster with plans to impale her.

Dusting off her dress, Ina hopped back onto her broom, “You’re right there, I’ll admit. You are a tough one. There’s a chance I might actually die if I keep fighting you.”

William stopped in his tracks, his eyebrow raised.

“Sorry~ don’t think ill of me because of this, but I’m only helping Axenus for the m-o-n-e-y. I’m out of here.”

“Is that right…?”

“Yup. I’ve staled for more than enough.”

“Fine. Go ahead and flee like the coward you are, witch. Flee to the ends of the earth… my comrades will still track you down and make you pay for what you’ve did here today.”

“Ohoho~ and what exactly did I do? I used non lethal force to stop you brutes from slaughtering a kind man..”

“Unlike you, that ‘kind man’ did kill people. Not to mention forsake both his gods and country.”

“Interesting… well, I’m sorry I can’t stay and chat any further. Toodoloo~”

Normally, watching a dangerous witch flee safely away into his country when he could’ve stopped her would make William’s blood boil. But watching her witch hat bob and wave as she flew away, a small part of him was glad she left him enough time to join in the fight with Aaron.

Swinging the spear over his back, William took off in his old friend’s direction. He would gain closure, one way or another.


“Are we going in the right way, Aaron?”

Aaron sprinted as fast as he could, but Val still trailed behind him at what appeared to be a casual jog. His stinging legs and burning lungs overriding his feelings of envy, Aaron kept his cold gaze locked ahead as he kept running onwards.

“No. But there are a few stables up ahead. We can steal a horse and get escape with it.

“Speaking of horses… I smell one nearby.”

“Really? Just one? We’re still a good ways away from the stables, but-”

A loud neigh and the clopping of hooves rang in Aaron’s ears. A flash of white appeared at the end of the alley. As Aaron skid to a halt, he focused in and saw it was Grandmore and Brennan riding atop a brilliant white steed.

“Stop right there!” the armored governor snarled down at Aaron, his puffed out barrel-chest hiding a cowering inquisitorial officer behind it.

“Riding up on a horse to cut me off in an alley? Apple didn’t fall very far from the tree, I suppose…” Aaron grumbled under his heavy gasps, still trying to catch his breath.

“Are you going to try to run away again, Axenus? Or are you going to stay and fight like a man?” Grandmore growled, drawing his jewel-encrusted bastard sword.

“Fine, asshole. If it gets you out of my hair, I’ll take you on.” Aaron took the challenge, drawing his own blade, far more modest in design but just as impressive in heft. Forking his thumb behind him, Grandmore turned his horse around and had it trot to out of the alley and into an empty street, it’s cobblestone lit orange as the flickering flames of various torches around them had yet to burn out.

“Aaron, do we have to-”

“I’m sorry Val, but we do. That bastard’s going to be a serious thorn in our side unless we take him out here and now.” Aaron cut her off, resting his claymore against one shoulder and entering the impromptu battlefield.

A wicked smile spread on Grandmore’s face, “You’re going to die by my hands, Axenus. For the sake of the son you so callously murdered!”

Aaron responded coldly and bluntly, “Your son was a piece of shit who robbed innocent villagers. He deserved worse than what I gave him.”

The throbbing vein on Grandmore’s forehead looked just about ready to burst. Reaching around, he tossed Brennan off his horse and pointed towards Valerie.

“I’ll handle Axenus. You take care of the hellhound.”

“F-fine. Just be quick about it.” Brennan squawked, dusting himself off.

But no sooner had the high officer’s feet touch the cobblestone then Valerie sprung at him, claws and teeth bore. Doubling back, the panicked inquisitor shot both hands into the air.

ISONOE’S SHIELD!

Just as Val’s claws were about to pierce the man’s flesh, a white, shining barrier appeared between the two, pushing Valerie back.

“K-keep your distance! You ignorant beast!”

Val bounced back to all fours, emitting a low growl as she circled the magical barrier.

Aaron didn’t have much time to watch the hellhound’s battle. Just as he looked back at Grandmore, the armored man was riding towards him, that gilded bastard sword glinting orange in the light of nearby torches.

Ducking down, Aaron narrowly avoided a decapitation. Grandmore’s horse looped back around, bounding towards the iron-haired man once more.

CLANG!

Trying to get in his own blow, the claymore and bastard sword met in a stalemate, which quickly resulted in Aaron being knocked back, having to roll to the side to avoid being trampled under the horse’s hooves.

The process looped several times, right up until the vengeful father managed to slip a blow past Aaron’s defenses and stab the tip of his sword right into the unmounted warrior’s chest. Aaron gasped in pain and shock, Grandmore riding right by him, already looping around for the next blow.

That would’ve crippled me if it wasn’t for this armor…’ Aaron thought, rubbing his torn shirt and the exposed chainmail underneath. But he quickly let that hand return to the handle of his claymore, and he spun around to meet his enemy for the next round.

Dodging the initial charging strike, Grandmore let his horse rest for a bit as he angrily threw slices down at Aaron. Although he looked to be nearing his fifties and probably hadn’t had a real battle in decades, the furious father’s strength was still on par with Aaron’s… and that was to say nothing of the older man’s advantage on horseback.

Grandmore hammered down blows on Aaron with a startling speed and ferocity, even considering the fact that Aaron had decapitated his son. But somehow, the heretic had managed to catch his bearings in time to deflect one of Grandmore’s more haphazard attacks.

Quickly switching to offence, Aaron unleashed a ferocious battle cry and swung his impressive blade up to Grandmore’s chest. The attack hit home, denting the governor’s finely crafted and well-polished armor.

“YOU LITTLE SHIT!” Grandmore cried after a heavy gasp for breath, swinging the bastard sword over his head and slamming it down on Aaron. Still getting back into position from his last attack, Aaron had just enough time to hold up his own blade to parry… but the bastard sword still slid by, although it was turned to the side.

The flat of Grandmore’s blade slammed down into Aaron’s forehead, throwing him for a loop.

Knocked back by the powerful blow to the head, Aaron dropped his claymore and fell to his rump.

The iron-haired heretic stumbled back to his feet just in time to see Grandmore’s horse bounding forward and that garish bastard sword swinging at his scalp.

Throwing himself onto his back, Aaron let the blade pass right over him. Not wasting a single precious second, he sprung up and leaped forward, sliding across the ground on his belly and grabbed hold of his lost blade before returning to his feet. Grandmore spurred his mount back around, rushing at Aaron once again.

CLANG!

Another impressively strong blow from Grandmore, and one that sent Aaron tumbling onto his knees as the governor passed him by.

“I… I can’t keep this up much longer…” gasped Aaron, watching the revenge-bent father rushing back towards him. He couldn’t keep training blows with Grandmore when the governors were being carried forward by his horse’s momentum.

“I’ll have to hit him from afar.” Aaron decided, focusing in on Grandmore’s unhelmed scalp.

Grasping a knife from his bandolier, Aaron swallowed the nervousness and apprehension balling up in his throat and squared his feet. Rearing that knife behind his shoulder, Aaron threw it forward and let it fly towards Grandmore.

And of course, it missed by a mile.

“Ha! You couldn’t hit the broadside of barn!” the governor laughed, swinging his bastard sword down at Aaron. It just barely missed, nicking the heretic’s unprotected shoulder.

A few feet away, Valerie let out a small whimper as she watched Aaron struggle. It took every last bit of her self control not to bolt over and knock Grandmore’s smug face right off his stupid horse, but she knew that if she didn’t defeat Brennan first, he would likely seize the opportunity and shoot her in the back.

The problem Brennan wasn’t putting up even a bit of a fight, he was simply cowering behind that magical barrier, fear shaking him to his very core.

Looking back to inquisitorial officer, Valerie ceased her snarling when she saw something besides fear in his beady black eyes.

Apprehension.

“You… you don’t want to fight, do you?”

“W-what?” Brennan squawked from behind his barrier.

Valerie sat back up, the mask of a beast she showed only in battle vanishing. Taking it’s place was a genuine smile of a kind-hearted young woman.

“It’s alright. I don’t like it either… humans and monsters aren’t so different, right? We all have our dreams and families. Stealing that all away from someone else… even when there’s no other choice, it still stings, right?”

Brennan dropped his barrier, he himself not entirely sure why he trusted the hellhound before him.

“I was roped into joining the army because of my financial situation. I never liked to kill, not even monsters. All I wanted was a quiet life and a cushy desk job, but that Grandmore bastard…! All he does is push me around and blame me for things that I can’t even help… I don’t even know why I’m trying. Even if I do manage to defeat you, I’ll still be executed for what happened at Fort Eonoir…” the old downtrodden crow confided.

“Well, we don’t have to fight. If you leave now, I promise not to chase after you! It’s never too late to live your life.” Valerie said, placing a paw over her heart in a show of good faith.

“R-really? I mean… the whole system will be in turmoil… if I leave now, I could easily escape the country and use my savings to start life as a merchant somewhere new.”

“Then go. Live free and be happy!” Val encouraged him, holding up two fingers in a classic peace sign.

“T-thank you. I’ll never forgot the kindness you’ve shown me.”

Now bearing a soft, grateful smile, Brennan nodded to the hellhound before turning tail and fleeing in the other direction.

Left standing there with a stupid grin on her face, Val’s eyes snapped open as she realized Aaron was still in peril.

But the battle was already coming to a close.

Aaron clutched his last throwing knife, holding it behind his head. Nasty bruises and deep cuts covered him. It was unlikely he’d be able to dodge the next blow.

“AARON! You can do it! Focus!” Valerie cried, dropping to all fours and bounding forward, unsure if she’d be able to close the distance in time.

She might not have made it, but her words had hit their mark.

He let go of all the hate, rage, and fear racking his body. The furious aristocrat charging at him from atop his horse became the center of Aaron’s universe.

Then, the moment the knife was about to fly from his fingers, all that fury came rushing back. Unleashing a bestial roar, Aaron flung the throwing knife with all his might.

SCHLING!

It flew by faster than Grandmore could ever hope to read and deflect. It sunk handle deep, right into his eye.

“GRAGH!” Grandmore hollered in white-hot agony, his gilded bastard sword slipping from his armored fingers and bouncing off the cobblestone.

Aaron’s lips curled half way into a wicked smirk. Bullseye.

Although Grandmore had shut down, his horse didn’t cease its charge. Stepping to the side and grinding his feet into the ground, Aaron reared his claymore behind his back, waiting for the governor to pass him by…

“GAH!” Grandmore screamed yet again. Right before he rode past Aaron, the swordsman lashed out his blade and sliced right through Grandmore’s expensive armor, cutting into the governor’s torso. He fell from his horse, his stomach cut open and guts flayed out.

Putting a quick end his enemy, Aaron swung his blade back around and brought it down on Grandmore’s neck, beheading him.

Panting in exhaustion, Aaron wiped the sweat from his brow and blood from his blade. Turning to watch Grandmore’s white horse ride off in a panic, his focus quickly returned to Valerie… who was rushing right towards him on all fours.

“Babe! You did it!” Val cheered, jumping up into his arms. Dropping his claymore, Aaron stumbled about as Val wrapped her legs around his waist, arms around his neck, and planted a rain of kisses and licks all over his face.

“Hey, hey! Calm down, Val…”

“Oops! Hehehe… sorry. I got a bit carried away there, huh?” she sheepishly apologized as she climbed off, fetching his missing knives and claymore as he wiped her saliva from his face.

Graciously accepting his weapons, Aaron tucked them into their proper places before pointing back towards the stables, “C’mon, before the guard’s can mobilize again, we should go find a horse and-”

“Not bad, Aaron. You’re even stronger than I remember.”

Aaron’s eyes burst open.

He craned his neck around, looking over his shoulder to find another young man walking up to him. This newcomer was decked out in plain iron armor, had a winged spear hanging from his back, and a strand of dark violet hair peeking out from under his helm.

His heart sank.

“W-William…”

William Highwind came to a halt, removing the spear from his back and twirling it around his body before slamming the end against the ground.

“Nice to finally see you again, buddy.”

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