Aaron could hardly believe it. Pressing his finger against the crinkled yellow parchment of his map he traced his finger from his old little hamlet to the center of Jalam. Realizing just how much progress he had made in such a short amount of time, a smile spread across his lips.
By allowing Kiera to fly them over rough patches of terrain out in the wilderness and sneaking onto a trading convoy, Aaron and his companions had made remarkable progress in making it half way through Jalam in the span of a week and a half.
Well, they had to beat the crap out of the frightened merchants once they were caught, but that was about it.
After getting close to Ellsworth, the trio had decided to camp out in a small cave set into a hillside to the northwest of the town. It was well out of the way of any hunters or merchants traveling up the coast.
The swordsman was so focused on the map that he nearly jumped from his skin when two fuzzy, hot paws landed on his shoulders. Leaning over his head, Val peeked down at the map.
“We’ve sure hauled some ass, huh babe?”
“Yeah. Amazing how fast you can move when you’re not getting arrested or assaulted every time you stop in town for supplies…” Aaron grumbled, still bitter over the fact he butted heads with the law more often than not whenever he ran into his own species.
Looking up towards the mouth of the cave, Val’s triangular ears twitched, “Huh? Oh, sounds like Kiera’s back!”
Then, her cute little black nose scrunched up as she sniffed at the fresh summer breeze rolling into the cave, “…and looks like she brought back some dinner!”
Surely enough, the griffon came walking into the cave, a lifeless buck draped across her shoulders, “Hmph. Hunting without flying is certainly a challenge, but with enough wit and ingenuity, there’s no hardship a true warrior can’t overcome.”
Aaron watched as she set the game down in front of their feet, “Yeah, sorry about that, Kiera. But we’re so close to Ellsworth, there’s a good chance someone could spot you pretty easily. We can’t be too careful.”
“Y’know, I could’ve caught us something to eat much faster…”
The two monsters exchanged rivalrous smirks, but it was Kiera who turned away, “Maybe. But it was my turn, and it’s best if one of us stays with Aaron at all times.”
Aaron sighed, wanting to object to being treated like a defenseless wallflower. It was a hard case to argue, however, when nearly every time he went off on his own, he found himself in another harrowing situation. In light of that, both Valerie and Kiera made a pact that one would stick with him whenever possible.
Deep down, he knew both were in the right. Standing up, he took out his carving knife and hung up the buck on a tree right outside of the cave. Rearing back his knife, he plunged it right into the beast’s stomach… only to hear a heavy thunk.
Aaron paused at the sound. Either the deer’s insides were made of wood, or someone just shot an arrow into a nearby tree. Quickly assuming it was the latter, Aaron dove for cover and peered around the edge of the tree he picked.
A few meters away, lodged in a nearby tree, he spotted it.
Yes, it was clearly a knife- a common kitchen knife, but one that gleamed with a deadly sharpness nonetheless. Hearing the sounds of four padded paws run up behind him, he turned to find Kiera and Valerie squatting behind him.
“Babe! Is that a knife up there?”
“But who left it?” Kiera pondered.
“We’d better go check it out.” Aaron decided. There was no doubt someone was watching them, and whether that knife was a challenge or bait for a trap, they couldn’t just scarf down their dinner and ignore whoever it was.
“Stay on your toes, and watch eachother’s backs.” Kiera said, both Val and Aaron nodding in agreement. The human reared his claymore forward, the hellhound extended her claws, and the griffon raised her hands forward in her fighting stance.
Inching forward, both Aaron and the monsters used all their senses to scan the woods surrounding them. Leaves gently fell, birds and insects chirped, but as far as Aaron could tell it was only he and the two girls for miles around. And it stayed like that right until they crept up to the knife stuck into the tree.
“I’m smelling them now. Around twenty… and they’ve got us surrounded.” Val informed them.
Then, all at once, they stepped out from their cover- and they weren’t ravenous barbarians, seasoned assassins, or well-trained soldiers, but human girls. And from their outfits right down to their posture, it was clear they were all maids.
“What the hell….?” Aaron muttered, barely stopping himself from scratching his head in utter confusion.
“Urhm, guys…. am I just seeing things, or are we surrounded by maids?”
“No. I’m seeing them too, Valerie…” Kiera confirmed.
Aaron glanced around, noticing while each girl varied in skin tone and facial structure, they all had very similar builds and had their hair cut into a uniform bob… but not only that, each of the girls stared he and his companions down with the same vacant expression and foggy eyes.
“Make way.” he heard a snide, snooty voice call from behind the maids. Craning his neck towards the sound, Aaron spotted a pair of glasses and a neat head of red hair peeking out from between two of the maids shoulders.
Upon his order, the maids split, and the redhead stepped forward.
The short redheaded man’s handsome but otherwise unimposing face was made striking by his wide sneer and thick, rectangular glasses. His darkly colored clothing looking like it was designed for a cross between style and comfort.
“Who the hell are you?” Valerie asked.
The redhead snickered, adjusting his glasses with the tip of his finger, “My name is Wes. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“What the hell do you want from me? You wanna turn me in?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I just want you to have dinner with my mistress and I.”
“I ain’t hungry.” Aaron spat, his brow furrowing.
“Ah. Let me rephrase that. You see, my previous statement implied you had a choice in the matter, when, in fact, you don’t. You three will either come with me by your own volition or by force… which way is your call.”
“I’m going to have to say… force.” Aaron snapped, his claymore already drawn.
“Sounds fine to me.” Kiera added, cracking her knuckles.
Shaking his head as if he were disappointed, Wes trained his finger on Aaron’s chest, “Take them down. But make sure they’re alive.”
“Pft. Yeah, what are all they going to do? Dust us off?” Val laughed, wagging a clawed finger at the maid directly in front of her.
The maid seemed unperturbed by the hellhound’s taunts. Keeping that same emotionless mein, she stepped forward and lifted something in the air- something thin that glinted in the setting sun, something so tiny she was able to hold it by pinching it with two fingernails.
“What? That’s it? Do you think some little sewing needle is enough to stop meeeeeee….”
Val’s words slurred, and she began haphazardly swaying to and fro. With her eyelids fluttering, the hellhound tipped over and face-planted into the dirt.
“Valerie!” Aaron cried, dashing to her side with Kiera. Turning her over, they found the canine’s eyes squeezed closed.
“Val!? Val, snap out of it!” Aaron cried, grabbing her shoulders and attempting to shake her awake. When that didn’t work, Kiera ran her keen eyes over the hellhound’s body.
“Partner, look-” the griffon prompted, pinching something out of the hellhound’s arm and holding it before Aaron’s face. It was a bloody needle, it’s bottom half snapped off.
Suddenly understanding, Aaron cautiously looked back towards the emotionless maids, “T-the needles are covered in some kind of poison!”
Three of the maids stepped forth, spinning on their toes and twirling around in perfect synchronization. Kiera’s sharp, golden eyes picked up several silvery flashes coming from between each of the maid’s fingers right before the lashed them forward.
Springing into the air, Kiera breathed out in relief, watching the needles fly right under her feet and hit the tree behind her.
Kiera tensed up, reaching behind her neck and pulling out one of those paralyzing needles. Looking over her shoulder, she spotted a maid standing atop a tree branch, her dainty hand stretched forward.
“Oh… come on…” the griffon mumbled, her eyelids fluttering closed. As she slumped over, the beating of her wings ceased, and she plummeted back towards the earth.
Aaron’s mouth stretched open in a shocked gasp as he watched the griffon fall. Dropping his claymore, he rushed forward with more speed than he thought he possessed.
Sliding forward on his knees, he managed to catch Kiera right before she hit the ground head first. His momentary rush of relief was soon trampled as he realized he was surrounded on all sides by the maids, however.
“Shit.” he growled under his breath, watching as Wes stepped between the two before him. With a snide smirk, the short man outstretched his hand in invitation.
“Come, Mr. Axneus. My mistress doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
It was called Lazio, the capital of the holy empire and birthplace of the Legion.
Any bumpkin would be awed at its sights and sounds- the plethora of merchants, the grand monuments and marvelous churches. And while one would be hard pressed to find a larger, more bustling city in the world, its streets remained clean and safe, as if it were a small village where everyone knew their neighbors by name.
Everywhere you looked, you’d find an epicenter of culture. From the peddlers selling fine art to the minstrels entertaining patrons on and off the streets, the city seemed to be abuzz with life.
Each and every building was a marvel of architecture and design, and when one entered the city their eyes would instantly be drawn to the massive colosseum sitting at the end of a long road. Over the many years of it’s conception, a countless number of both men and beasts had their blood spilled upon its sand for the amusement of the jeering, gore-thirsty crowds. Even on that very day, a mountain of a man in a patchwork of armor was basking in glory as he merrily slew his beaten opponent.
But beyond even that structure, something even more awe-inspiring lay as a grand reminder to the citizens of their empire’s sheer might. The Royal Palace.
Stretching into the sky with a mind-boggling height of just under three hundred meters, the main castle was a beautiful display of majesty. Its grand archways and towering spires cast enormous shadows down on the city below. The sturdy white stone it was built out of took on an almost ethereal glow when bathed in the rays of the sun.
But under all that beauty slept an ugly secret. Through the massive metal gates leading inside, past the grand halls, twisting stairways, priceless art, and watched carefully by the elite guard clad in white and gold armor, was a set of double doors. The intricate engravings set into the wood matched the opulence of the rest of the castle in design, if not material.
What lay hidden behind those doors was a large room, clearly set out for meetings- and judging by the grandiose design, meetings conducted by the most important people in the Legion.
There were no windows for fear of prying eyes, but the countless series of lanterns hanging all along the walls and marble flooring below was a sufficient method to bask the room in a soft orange glow.
The bulk of the room was taken up by a long rectangular table, which like the floor, was carved from marble. While there were nine cushioned seats, only four were taken. Each of the four occupants were united under a single banner but appeared radically different in every way.
The first man was a human dreadnought encased in a heavy suit of azure armor. Each thick plate of the armor ended in a pointed curve, all the way up to his horned helmet. A pair of angry brown eyes darted back and forth across the room from behind the visor masking his face.
“Alright, I’ve had enough of this! It’s been almost an hour of absolutely nothing!” the knight snarled, rising from his seat. His helmet’s red plume, as long and luxurious as a maiden’s ponytail, whipped behind him as turned to face the albino man seated across from him.
Compared to his companion, the albino was practically unarmored. He wore a black leather chest-piece with a set of cotton slacks, dyed a deep purple. He kicked a matching pair of jet black boots up on the table while leaning back in his chair and stared vacantly up at the ceiling.
“Could ya quiet down for five seconds, Conrad? Cripes, you’re like a damned child.”
“What did you just say to me…?” the knight called Conrad barked, dropping his heavy, iron-clad fist down on the table.
“Jack is right. Quiet down.”
If his accent wasn’t a dead giveaway, the third man’s armor clearly displayed his eastern origins. Both gracious and sturdy, it was made from a countless number of small iron and yellow leather scales, pieced together with braided red silk.
Conrad craned his neck over to the eastern warrior, and he did the same. The angry juggernaut stared dead into the mask of a red devil from under the samurai’s horned, riveted helmet.
“The fuck did you just say to me…?”
“I said to quiet down.” the samurai repeated calmly, his collected voice devoid of even the slightest trace of threatening ire or sagely wisdom, “Be more like Jack and learn some patience.”
“Listen here, Yukimura…” Conrad snarled, “I know why you’re here. You want to get stronger; as strong as a human can be, not waiting around twiddling our thumbs! So where do you get off telling me to act that little sniveling worm over there, who’s only in it to fill his coin purse?!”
“Ha! You’re one to talk about loyalty.” the albino chuckled, “Conrad, you’d blush at how much dirt I have on you.”
“You don’t know a thing about me… ‘Blackhole‘.”
“Ya think…? I may not give a damn about politics, but I have enough connections to dig up anything I need to know about my coworkers. You really think no one here would figure out your dirty little secret, ‘Quasar‘?”
“Gentlemen, please, calm down~”
All three of the warriors turned towards the person at the fourth seat. She was a small and unthreatening woman, dressed in plain clothing and keeping her bright, curly blue hair in a cute bob. Just under five feet and thin as a rail, the tiny woman was hardly noticeable among the armed and armored men ready to rip out each other’s throats.
“Shuddup, bitch! What are you even doing here?!” Conrad roared, spittle flying out from under his visor.
“As usual, I’m taking the master’s place. He’s a rather busy man, as you’re well aware~” the girl cheerily replied, not even flinching as the azure juggernaut snapped at her.
“Alright, enough is enough. You’re giving me a headache, you loud bastard. Pipe down, or I’ll make you.” the albino whined, dragging his feet from the table and leaning forward in his chair.
Conrad’s cocky grin appeared from the shadows of his visor, “Just try to pull your little magic tricks on me, Jack! I’ll crush you flat before you can blink!”
“Fine. I’m not into picking worthless fights where I don’t get paid, but if it gets your dumb ass out of my hair, I’ll gladly make an exception just this once. Let’s just see how invincible your ‘auto-defense‘ really is…”
Each jumping from their seat, the two men pulled out their weapons. The huge knight wielded an equally massive ball-and-chain. At Jack’s side was a small crescent axe, tucked away behind his shield- a black parma with a series of blades running along its perimeter.
“That’s quite enough from the both of you.” chided an echoing voice, the doors two the room creaking open before it. From out of the radiant, golden light of the hallway, a shadowy figure stepped forth.
“Grand Inquisitorial Officer Myron! Welcome.” the girl cheered, clapping her hands together at his arrival.
“Thank you, my dear. It’s always a pleasure to hear your voice.” the man responded, stepping into clear view.
Myron was a middle-aged man with a head of short, forest-green hair. His robes were woven of the finest silk and died the brightest, boldest shade of scarlet possible, not to mention garishly trimmed with gold and platinum. Unlike other the other holy men of Ganymede, he wore no fetish of a hawk around his neck, for his was stitched across his chest. Its wings extended all the way to his shoulders, while its tail feathers stretched into a thin golden line that went all the way down to his feet.
While he initially wore a friendly smile when he addressed the girl, his thin lips twisted into a sneer as he turned to Conrad and Jack.
“And as for you two… I expect the Legion’s crème de la crème to act more civilized than a couple of blithering school boys.” Myron chastised, the azure warrior glaring at him all the while. Striding right by both warriors, the Grand Officer took a seat at the head of the table.
“Yeah? Well, you don’t seem awfully bothered that your best student ain’t in attendance!” Conrad fired back, jamming a finger at the young girl taking the missing member’s place.
“The Nebula has certain… privileges, for reasons I’m afraid I can’t disclose.” Myron explained, propping his arms up on the table and leaning forward.
A nasty snarl echoed from behind the imposing knight’s visor, “Can’t disclose to a Praetorian Guard? Bullshit.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. As long as his services aren’t absolutely required, he’s given carte blanche, including the privilege to ignore official meetings. That’s all I can say without breaking contract.”
With a dissatisfied huff, Conrad slammed himself back into his chair, the sturdy furniture nearly collapsing as he did so.
With that matter settled, Myron propped his elbows on the table, leaned forward, and cleared his throat, “Anyhow… as for the reason I’ve called you here- I’m sure you’ve already heard the rumors.”
“Some kids and their demon whores have been stirring up trouble in Graeme, right? I heard one even burned down an entire base in a single night.” answered Jack, “Pretty impressive. Their names were Aaron and Cronan right? They’ve gotta be working together.”
“That is correct. And I need you to go and escort these blasphemers down to hell.”
“I’m more interested in how they managed to slip five high-level monsters into Legion territory~” the girl taking the place of the Nebula hummed.
“That wouldn’t be a problem if the army hadn’t grown so damned complacent when it comes to internal defense…” grumbled Conrad, folding his meaty, iron-clad arms over his chestpiece.
Myron hummed to himself, “That’s an issue to be addressed later- just concern yourself with taking down the heretics for now.”
Yukimura, remaining silent up until that point, huffed from under his mask in clear dissatisfaction, “Is that all? Jack and Conard should be more than enough to handle this mission.”
“I’m well aware. You see, Yukimura, I need you on another case- there’s been a small pirate uprising on the southeastern coast. They’ve managed to overthrow a port town with the help of some aquatic monsters, and it would be far too easy for them to slip away before we have time to mobilize a force large enough to face them. I need you to go down there and take them out before they realize we’re onto them.”
“Is that so…? Consider it done.” the samurai replied, standing up and pushing his chair back into place. With a stride befitting of his confidence, he exited the room.
Jack clicked his tongue, turning to face the seething knight opposite of him, “Alright, alright. So, you wanna suck it up and work together on this one, Conrad?”
“It’ll be a cold day in hell before I work with you.” the armored man snapped, “Don’t even bother following me! I’ll squash these terrorists all on my own!”
Shooting up from his chair, the knight dragged his ball-and chain behind him as he left. While Yukimura has slipped out of the room without so much as a peep, Conard nearly knocked the gargantuan doors off their hinges as he left.
As the loud echo of the slamming doors reverberated across the meeting room, Myron pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head from side-to-side, “Damnable fool left without his mission briefing… again.”
Jack leaned back in his chair, absently studying the cracks in the ceiling once more, “Ah, I wouldn’t sweat it. Dipshit’s head is more useful for smashing things than it is absorbing information, anyhow.”
Myron chuckled, unable to disagree. Removing a thin red notebook from his robes, he placed it atop the marble table and slid it down to Jack. Watching it approach out of the corner of his eye, the albino kicked back into his chair and placed his boots back on the table.
Then, right as the notebook was about to pass him by, he jammed his finger towards it, and just like that, it stopped on a dime. The notebook floated into the air like it was suspended by a puppeteer’s strings, and with a deft snap, it floated before Jack’s face.
Absently wagging his finger in the air, the cover opened up, the first page displaying a finely sketched picture of a rugged young man.
“Aaron Axenus, eh?” Jack mumbled, his sharp red eyes quickly scanning the information detailed beside it- it listed his known past and present crimes.
“So, he’s an ex-soldier that went bonkers, eh? Textbook story. War does things to men, I tell ya. It’s an awful thing.” Jack mumbled, flicking his finger once more and flipping to the next page. There, displayed on each side of the floating book, was a sketch of a smiling, bandana-clad hellhound and stone-faced griffon.
Myron’s thin lips curled into a smile, “Finished with your analysis? I think you’ll find the next one a bit more… interesting. I know I did.”
Flipping to the next page, Jack was greeted by the likeness of a devilish man with pitch-black sclera and a wide, fanged grin. In place of his right arm was a mass of sludge, forming a shape of an imposing claw.
“Ah, shit. Are you serious? It’s been awhile since we’ve had to deal with one of these bastards.”
Myron slowly nodded, “I’m aware.”
As if he was unsure of what he was looking at, Jack wagged his finger in a half-circle to turn the floating book sideways, “But we’ve never come across one with a mutation like that arm before, have we?”
“I’m afraid it’s not a mutation that came with the transformation- intel from multiple scouts in Lusitania have reported hearing rumors of a young human with an arm like that before- and the name matches.” Myron explained.
Jack absently nodded as he read on, eventually coming to a halt at three sketches of a chesire cat, ushi-oni, and dragon. The albino squeezed his palm shut and motioned for the book to come forward.
On command, it snapped shut and flew towards Jack. Catching the book in one hand, the albino tucked it away before taking his feet off his the table, “Cronan Kane, huh… kid seems like a real bastard. Murdered his own old man, did he?”
Myron tapped two fingers together, “Captain Kane was one of our most promising officers- his skills were second only to the then General Alexander. But one day, he was found bled out in his own home with a knife stuck in his ribs. Both Cronan and his sister were nowhere to be found after that.”
“But what of this Black Knight causing trouble in the west, your holiness?” the adorable little girl asked, changing the subject, “Would you like my master to pull himself away from his studies to investigate?”
Myron answered immediately, already expecting the question, “I’m afraid we’ve already lost his position. Last we’ve heard, he had attacked Barbarrosa’s wall, but after that, the trail went cold. The news of Fort Eonoir’s destruction is spreading across the east coast, and soon it will be in a panic. Our top priority is taking care of the heretics who destroyed it before that happens. We’ll deal with the black knight the next time the opportunity presents itself.”
Jack pushed himself away from the table, propping himself on his feet. Popping his sore neck, a wicked smile made its way to his face.
“Axenus will be easy enough… but that bastard with the slime arm? That’ll be fun. Been some time since I’ve tussled with an incubus.”