“This is one hell of a basement…”
Wandering through the dark, damp depths of the subterranean levels of Otha’s manor, Aaron found a maze of connecting hallways and even more guards standing by iron doors. He could only assume that there were more monsters trapped behind them, making the situation seem all the more grim. With no sort of guidance to follow, Aaron simply snuck around the hallways, avoiding each guard in the desperate hope of finding anything of importance.
“And it’s colder than the seventh layer of hell down here…” he muttered with a shiver, rubbing his unclothed body as he went. Looking up, he saw a long series of pipes running across the ceiling.
“They must carry water or something…” he figured, continuing on his way.
After another five minutes of searching, he heard a heavy set of footsteps approaching. Peeking around a corner, he found another one of Otha’s guards, followed closely by a maid. Acting fast, Aaron took cover in the nook of a branching hallway.
Taking a seat atop a nearby crate, the guard laughed and took another heavy swig from the green bottle in his hand. Slacking on the job, no doubt.
“Hahaha….! Now… now lick your elbow!” the guard bellowed.
The maid nodded and tried her best, but she just couldn’t seem to connect her tongue and elbow.
“My deepest apologies, sir. It can’t be done.”
The drunken guard swished the remainder of his booze around, seeming to digest her words. With a wicked smile, he set down his drink on his crate, hopping off and rubbing a hand down the maid’s slender arm.
“That’s alright, gorgeous. Now, how about you show me a little skin…?”
“My deepest apologies, sir. Madam Otha has forbid it.”
“Tch… you’re no fun.” the guard slurred, returning to his box and taking another gulp from his bottle.
Aaron turned away. He was positive he could surprise and take out the drunken sot, but he wasn’t so foolhardy as to believe he could defeat that droning maid afterwards.
Forced to take an alternate route, Aaron began forming a mental map of the basement in his mind. With only the upper right corner unexplored, he looped around and was left alone with his thoughts and the damp stone.
But silently, another issue nagged at him… his decision to spare the jailer he and Reese captured. He had no idea why, but he felt a certain connection to Reese.
Perhaps it was a certain charm that all incubi had. Perhaps his friendly, smooth demeanor was the cause. Or maybe, it was because he reminded him of Old Man Gale.
No matter the reason, Aaron felt unusually trusting of the incubus. And the fear that the guard they bound would get free and kill him and the imprisoned monsters gnawed at the back of his mind. Not to mention what would shortly follow was their entire plan going up in a massive plume of smoke.
“You’re going soft, boy.”
Aaron’s stomach tied up in knots and a deep, primal fear began bubbling up. While all of his instincts screamed at him to flee, something deep down in his mind urged him to stay. Aaron peered towards the inky-black depths of the hallway in front of him, a black helmet bearing the face of a scowling demon emerged.
“Have you forgotten so soon? Mercy is only good for your enemies.”
Upon feeling that same oppressive aura that the knight brought with him whenever he appeared, Aaron felt his nerves bundle up in his throat. He wasn’t sure if the dark figure was real or an apparition, but that didn’t stop him from shoving his finger the knight’s way and arguing with him.
“No. I can’t just keep killing everyone in my way. I… I have to do it as a last resort!”
“Why? Just so you don’t have to feel like a hypocrite next time you let your friend go free? What would’ve happened if you had shown mercy to your other opponents?” the knight spat. Even if the dark figure was a hallucination or apparition, the deathly scent of decay on his breath assaulted Aaron’s nose all the same.
Aaron’s imagination summoned horrid images before his eyes…
Leon Grandmore raping Nathan’s wife right in front of him. Leon’s father ramming that gilded bastard sword into his throat to avenge his late son. Father Gregorio walking back to his temple in victory, leaving a burning mansion in his wake.
Then, William Highwind with a booted greave planted firmly on his corpse and mighty spear pinning the limp bodies of a hellhound and griffon to the ground.
Aaron furiously smacked himself on the forehead, “No… I… I can’t… no matter how afraid I am, I can’t keep going on like I’ve been.”
“Fine. Settle things your way, then.” the knight hissed, sinking back into darkness, “But mark my words, you’ll regret it…”
And just like that, Aaron was alone once more.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
The gray-haired man’s head snapped to the other end of the hallway, where he saw a short figure approach.
“Wes…” Aaron spat under his breath, cursing his rotten luck once more. Even with his far superior bulk, he doubted he had much chance against a mage with nothing but a wooden shank and his bare skin in a head-to-head fight. Deciding to retreat, he quickly ducked into the next hallway in a desperate search for a method for escape.
That’s when he saw it. A square metal container… unfortunately, it seemed far too small to hide in. However, it did look to able to support his weight. With a wide smirk, Aaron peered up towards the pipes on the ceiling.
“I need to install some more damned lights down here…” Wes grumbled in annoyance, a ball of fire crackling in his right hand, serving the dual purpose of defence and illumination. Turning the hall, he looked around to see where the shadowy figure had retreated, but found only a small metal box.
“I know I saw someone…” the mage grumbled, readjusting his glasses with a single finger.
“B-boss… I heard some noise… you alright?”
Wes turned around, finding a wobbly guard standing at attention behind him.
“Ah. So it was you, huh? And it looks like you’ve been drinking on the job again…”
“N-no sir! I swear I haven’t!”
“I can smell the booze on you, fool.” Wes sighed, letting the flame in his palm fizzle out. Folding both hands behind his back, he turned away from the guard, “Just return to your post. I have work to do.”
“Y-yessir.” the tipsy guard replied with a salute, clumsily spinning on his heel and exiting the hallway.
With a scoff, Wes went his own way, moving further into the dark depths of the basement.
And once they were both gone, Aaron let out a heavy sigh of relief. He was hugging a particularly large pipe and tucking his feet under a smaller pair running parallel to it, effectively keeping him glued to the ceiling.
But as Aaron put his ear up to the pipe, he found something odd. He heard not the sloshing of water, but a low humming. And as the adrenaline faded from his body, he also took notice of how ridiculously hot the things were. But he had not the time to investigate further.
Hopping down, Aaron landed into a crouch and glared down the shadowy corridor Wes had retreated. Balling up a fist, the iron-haired swordsman stalked behind the mage.
Stealth was never Aaron’s forte, but he summoned up enough willpower to silently creep behind Wes until the mage reached his destination- another door. Like all others, it was one comprised of heavy iron. But unlike the others and to Aaron’s great joy, it was unguarded.
The instant Wes stepped inside, Aaron followed and cracked open the door as slowly and carefully as he could, taking a peek at what lie beyond.
Wes, with the sleeves of his expensive coat rolled up, stood over the bodies of two women. Both were tied down to a respective operating table with thick leather straps. Looking closer at them, Aaron could feel his blood begin to boil.
It was Valerie and Kiera.
Gripping down on the door so hard his knuckles went white, Aaron was just about to burst into the room and beat Wes into a bloody pulp.
But then, a safer opportunity presented itself.
Wes approached a counter set into the side of the room, playing with some kind strange metal cube with a green glass orb set into the side. Atop it were several flashing buttons and switches Aaron wasn’t going to even attempt to make sense of.
After a few moments of fiddling with it, Wes pressed a red button on the metal box, taking a step back and taking a seat across from it. That glass orb set into its side began twirling around, now emitting a soft green light and making a soft whirring sound.
“Journal Entry Number 843: I’ve just gotten my hands on two rare specimens: a hellhound and griffon! This is wonderful! I’m afraid they won’t serve a practical purpose for merchandise, so Otha will probably just have me extract their demon energy and dispose of them before long.”
‘Great.’ Aaron thought. Wes was casting his full focus on his strange device. And if Aaron was careful, the mage wouldn’t be able to hear the creak of the door or his footfalls over the gizmo’s whirring.
“That fat cow… she cares more about lining her already overstuffed pockets than the forward march of mankind!”
The ex-Legionary rolled his eyes as he proceeded. Wes might have been rotten in the personality department, but he was far too young and attractive for the likes of Otha. He figured that Wes was just using the rotund woman for money.
“That Aaron fellow they were traveling with was interesting, however. While most men who’ve had their soul corrupted by demon energy appear to have a black mass of ooze set in their soul, his is… different. It throbs more violently and has some sort of red electricity surrounding it. I wonder what causes this mutation? Oh, I can’t wait to study him…”
Aaron was unable to hide his smirk. Finally stepping behind Wes, he lifted a fist high into the air before grabbing hold of the magician’s shoulder and spinning him around.
“Study this, you motherfucker!”
Aaron’s powerful sucker punch sent Wes flying from his chair, where the mage collapsed to the ground, knocked clean out.
With that out of the way, Aaron rubbed his sore knuckles and hopped towards his companions, finding both of them still unresponsive.
“Val… Kiera…” he said, placing a hand on each one’s shoulder and trying to jostle them awake. After that failed, he tried every trick in the book- peeling their eyes open, pinching their cheeks…
And as a last resort, tickling under their armpits. Yet they still remained out like candles. It was no use.
“Great. Looks like I’m still on my own…” Aaron grumbled, quickly pacing away as he decided on his next move.
He took a final glance at his two companions. It pained him to leave them all alone in this godsforsaken house of horrors, but he had little choice in the matter. It wasn’t as if he could carry them around on his back, and if he waited around for them to wake up, he would wasting the sliver of precious time he had remaining.
Looking around the room, Aaron finally took note of his surroundings. At every corner were beakers and vials, gizmos and gadgets, tomes and notebooks, and not a single thing made a bit of sense to the iron-haired swordsman.
But what really drew his attention was the thing tucked into the very back.
A mana crystal. He had never seen one in person, but heard quite a bit about them from his soldiering days. From what very little he understood about them, they were apparently crystallized forms of magical energy and highly coveted by those who study the arcane arts.
It was suspended in a glass container atop a heavy contraption, tubes sticking out of it and running up into the ceiling. With each passing second, the yellow jewel would give off another spark of electricity, the yellow bolts running down the surface of the glass and into the strange device under it.
“So thats what was flowing through those pipes…”
Looking down towards Wes, Aaron grabbed the limp body of the mage and tossed him back into his chair. He was about to get some answers.
When Wes came to, he first noticed the left side of his world was completely blacked out. It didn’t even matter that the left side of his spectacles were bent and smashed as the eye behind it was swollen completely shut.
Then, the pain of his eye, the splitting migraine, and stinging cheeks all hit him at once. Leaning over, the mage groaned in pain, but found himself tied to his work chair and unable to move.
“Awake? Good. Only took three slaps, too. I was worried I might find that beautiful princess of yours and get her to wake you with true love’s kiss.”
Wes growled and rage and whipped his head up to find the smug smile of Aaron Axenus bearing down on him.
Wes struggled against the ropes that bound him, “Y-you fool! I can just sear right through these ropes with a spell! It might burn my wrists, but I can-”
“I know. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Pulling a bottle of scotch from behind his back, Aaron poured its contents all over Wes’ head, where it ran down his chest and back and soaked thoroughly through his clothes.
“There. You’d be burning more than your wrists now.”
With his face now lit up as red as his hair with indignant rage, Wes stared up at Aaron with his good eye and hissed out, “What do you want from me…?”
“For starters… how long are my friends going to be out?”
“The hellhound and griffon? Another few hours. I gave them both an extra dosage of the tranquilizer to make sure they stay asleep through their physical examination.”
Aaron couldn’t help but let out a long groan. That was just great. It looked like he was alone for this one.
“Alright then. Where do you keep all your info?”
Wes nodded his head back over to the box contraption he was speaking to before Aaron had ambushed him.
Aaron raised a brow, “That thing? What kind of a journal is that?”
Wes, despite being beside himself with shame and rage, lit up as he got a chance to toot his own horn, “You like it? I call it an imagecatcher– just press the button, and that orb can record any event before it and play it back was many times as you’d like! Isn’t it wonderful?! The only downside is you need a new glass orb for each hour of recording, but I’m sure I’ll work out the kinks it time-”
“Alright, alright, I get it. Can I use it to find out how to shut down these stupid fuckin’ collars?” Aaron grunted out, tugging at his own.
Perturbed at being interrupted while singing his own praises, Wes went on, “They’re called nullcollars… and no, you can’t. I’ve only just recently created the imagecatcher. What you’re looking for would be in my old notebook over there.”
Aaron looked over to the counter, grimacing as he saw what appeared to be several thick textbooks stacked atop each other. But looking closer, he saw they all shared a single spine.
“Alright, fuck that. I wouldn’t dig through that even if I had the time for it.” Aaron spat, jamming his finger into Wes’ chest, “Just tell me yourself. How do I shut down these collars?”
“Otha has the masterkey for them all.”
Aaron grumbled in annoyance once more. There was no way he would be getting that from her. Which only left him with one option.
“Fine then. How do you turn off their power?”
Wes sighed, tapping his foot against the ground, “Thats impossible. The nullcollars, like every other relic in this house, are of my own design. And nearly all of them are powered by that mana crystal over there.”
Aaron looked over to it, “So, they’re all powered by the same thing… so if I smashed it into bits…”
Wes jumped up in attention, “No, you fool! That would cause a chain reaction and make all the relics in the house explode! Even if the manor could survive all those blasts at once, it’d burn to the ground in a manner of minutes!”
Aaron swore under his breath rubbed a hand against the metal circlet around his neck. The collars were also powered by the crystal… and if he broke it, he wouldn’t just be killing himself, he’d be blowing the heads off every monster in the building.
“So, is there a way to shut off the collars without making everything go boom?”
Wes shook his head back and forth, “No. The results would be the same if you tried to rip the crystal out of the reactor by force… which would fry you in an instant if you tried, by the way. The only safe way to shut down the connection between the crystal and the relics would be for the crystal to lose all of its power… which, for a crystal that young, would take thousands of years.”
Aaron rubbed his chin, another plan bubbling up, “Unless… someone were to suck out the power manually…”
Wes stamped his feet against the ground in rage, “Forget about it, you fool! Energy can’t just disperse like that! It has to go somewhere. Even if a magic user were to take in the crystal’s power, their body would be torn apart!”
“Nariko… her collar isn’t connected to the crystal, is it? Because her body can absorb electricity!” the iron-haired swordsman suddenly realized, beaming with joy as he came up with solution, “Her collars not run on the same power source as the others, right? How do I get it off?”
Still rather out of it, the usual brainiac couldn’t connect the dots at first, “W-who? What the hell are you on about?”
“The raiju, you bastard!”
“Oh… yes, yes… you mean R-57…? The key Otha possesses isn’t a traditional one, but a button like the one I used to open the gate. We keep the key to R-57’s somewhere else…”
“You kidnapped these girls, and you don’t even know their fuckin’ names?”
“Why should I? Those demons are no better than lab rats! Numerals work just fine to-”
Aaron grabbed Wes by the collar, hauling both the diminutive man and the chair he was tied into the air.
“Shut. Your. Mouth.”
“I-I’m sorry… I’m sorry, alright?”
“Now, Nariko’s collar…?”
“The raiju, right? Y-yes, quite a bit of trouble, that one. When she first arrived here, she shocked one guard to near death and hopped into the pool of our garden. She stripped naked and rubbed herself against the statue of Callisto at the center, lighting up the pool and daring our guards to hop in and catch her. She got a lot less lively after I finally retrofitted a nullcollar to work on her…”
“Yes, yes. I get it. I had to get it to work a bit differently than the other relics in this manor. Our cold storage? It’s powered by a small ice mana crystal, but it was so weak I had to route the electric crystal’s power into it. Same thing with the ventilation system’s wind crystal. But that system would be far too bulky too work into a collar-”
Aaron seized Wes by the throat, raising a threatening fist into the air, “I know, you have to replace its fire crystal shard every week. Now, where can I find the fucking key you bastard?!”
“A-a key! We keep her keys in the acquisition room… it’s on the third floor, fourth door on the right hallway…” the mage wheezed.
Satisfied, Aaron released his hold on the mage’s throat and turned his back to him, ready to set off.
“W-wait. D-don’t free the raiju.”
Aaron turned back to Wes, “Why not?”
“She’s a complete lunatic, that’s why! Even before we caught her, she was wild and unpredictable. After all these years in captivity… I’m not sure if she’s still entirely sane. And you’re going to offer her all the power in that crystal? You could be putting the entire city in danger if you let her go free!”
“What room do you have to talk about her, you son of a bitch?”
“Because I’ve seen her nature! I’m begging you, don’t free R-57…”
“Her name is Nariko.”
That was the last thing Wes heard before Aaron slammed his fist into the mage’s temple, sending him spiraling once again into unconsciousness. With all the information he needed out of Wes received, Aaron scooted him into a broom closet and propped another chair under the knob.
Looking over his shoulder, Aaron realized that the odd device was still running and recording his actions.
“No point in trying to destroy it. With that bastard in the closet, he’d be proof enough of where I was…” Aaron figured, slamming his fist into some of the buttons on the side, hoping to shut it off. In response, the machine gave a few loud spurs before all of its flashing lights shut off.
Releasing a pent up breath, Aaron turned back towards the hallway. The third floor was a long way up, and he wasn’t sure he could make it and back down again without being spotted.
A one-way trip would make things much more simple.
“Uhm… excuse me, Mr. Reese…?”
Reese, who was currently watching the door and humming a small tune to himself, looked over to the cell to his right. Caged within was a cockatrice, a cowardly snake and chicken hybrid who was coveted for her soft feathers.
With a slick smile, Reese combed back his dark hair and hopped off the chest of the bound jailer he was using as a living seat. Propping his elbow against the cold, rusty bars of the cockatrice’s cell, Reese leaned forward and flashed her the toothiest grin he could muster.
“How can I help you?” he mewled sweetly.
The meek monster blushed, holding her wings up to her tomato-red face, “W-well… uhrm… I- I just wanted to know… what… what you’re going to do once we get free… you’ve always been so nice to me, is all…”
“Tell you what, cutie. After we get out of here, I’ll do whatever it is you want me to-”
Reese’s heart took a leap. That loud, whining creak from behind couldn’t have been anything but the door opening. Taken by complete surprise, Reese hopped into the air, fumbling with the spear in his hands before twirling around and facing the intruder.
And to the great relief of the incubus, it was only Aaron.
“Oh… shit… it’s just you, kid. Learn to fuckin’ knock. Ya nearly gave me a heart attack.” Reese whined, “So, how’d it go? Didja find the key already?”
“Sorry, but the keys a no go. Otha’s hanging onto that herself, and I doubt I’d be able to snatch it from her before anyone finds out we’re trying to escape.”
“Damn. Well, what do we do now?”
“Don’t worry. I have a backup plan.” Aaron chuckled, brushing past Reese as he walked further down the row of cells.
Reese shot a skeptical look Aaron’s way as he approached their empty cell, “Call me crazy kid, but I don’t think locking ourselves back up will do any good.”
“Whelp, it’s a good thing that’s not what I’m doing…” Aaron scoffed and rolled his eyes, walking past their empty cell and over to its neighbor.
Reese had already unlocked all the monsters cages, but with nowhere else to go, their powers suppressed, and their spirits broken, they all simply lounged about like nothing had happened in the first place. Slamming his foot against the cold bars, the cell door swung open for Aaron.
Stepping inside, he looked down at her. Leaning against the back wall and sitting atop her dingy mattress, she absentmindedly picked at her cuticles.
“What do you want?” the raiju spat, choosing to stare at a clump of mold between her feet rather than meet him eye-to-eye.
“Hey, Nariko.” Aaron said, ignoring her hostility and greeting her with a wide grin, “Up for a little stroll?”
Nariko shut her eyes, setting her hand down on her thigh and drawing Aaron’s gaze, “Hmph. You need my help, don’t you? What’s in it for me?”
Aaron exhaled and slumped his shoulders, the frustration clearly starting to build up, “You won’t have to dance for a morbidly obese slaver and her twink boytoy?”
A silky laugh bubbled up from Nariko’s chest, her accent only serving to make it more pleasant to Aaron’s ears. Looking up from the smooth skin of her milky thighs, Aaron inadvertently found himself staring at her pert breasts as she pushed them together.
Quickly snapping out of it, Aaron looked higher and met with her face, her soft and unthreatening features sharply contrasted by her wicked smirk and the mad glint in her greenish-yellow eyes. Smiling all the wider as they locked gazes, a few weak sparks of electricity popped in the air between them.
“You make a good point, human. Let’s go for a nice, long walk~”