Otha thought herself a fair woman. She paid her guard well, maintained affordable prices for her products despite the war inflating prices elsewhere, and even made sure her slaves were all well-fed and spared from any harm. That was something she certainly didn’t see many slave-drivers in Terra do.
She sat in her cushy chair, tapping her long, scarlet fingernails against the cast on her opposite hand. The large hole that had been blasted through her window by the raiju had been swiftly replaced by a much thicker and murkier replacement. Despite that, she still had a clear view of the crescent moon and the stars flanking it shining down on the burnt remnants of her gardens.
Looking at the sorry sight, she could only brood on her sour luck.
“What did I do to deserve this…?” she bitterly spat, “Most of my guards have either died, fled or been kidnapped… my maids are gone, my produce has fled, Sefu is dead…”
Otha breath hitched. She stamped her feet against the carpeted floor, making her fatty flesh jiggle.
“And just where the hell is Wes?!”
Behind her, one of her few remaining guards stood rigidly by her double doors.
“We… we couldn’t find him anywhere in the city, ma’am. B-but some reports say… that he… that he, well… he was seen taking a horse and carriage and leaving the city from the west…” the nervous fellow managed to stutter out.
“Great. Just fucking fantastic!” she hollered, pounding her hammy fist down on her chair in a pointless fit, “How dare that little bastard!? After everything I’ve done for him? After all the money I gave him? Did all our time together mean nothing to him!?”
The guard remained silent. Not expecting an answer from the man in the first place, she resumed brooding and glaring down at her charred gardens.
A knocking at the door brought her out of her miserable trance.
“Who the hell is it?”
“Who do you think?” came the snappy answer from the other side, “It’s Percival!”
“Bah. Let him in.” Otha commanded her guard.
He swiftly carried out his orders. The double doors, having been hastily screwed back on the hinges after the raiju had knocked them off, made an obnoxiously noisy creak as they swung open.
Looking quite perturbed, the High Inquisitional Officer Percival stomped into the room, “We don’t have much time left, Otha. I don’t know who sent him the tip, but my colleague in Var has gotten word of what’s been happening here. He’ll have his investigators here in just a day or two…”
Otha groaned in annoyance, sinking deeper into her chair and rubbing her temples, “Have you destroyed all the damning evidence?”
“No, Otha, I haven’t! I’ve burned all the records and evidence of monsters having being held here, but it’s impossible to get rid of the relics! With all these lamps and ventilation systems you’ve installed, you’d have to rip the whole damned manor apart to get rid of them!”
“Can’t we just pay the bastards off?”
“No. I’ve met Var’s High Officer. His name is Aziel, and the fucker is the very definition of the word zealot… he wouldn’t take an acquisition like this lightly. We’re already up shit creek, but trying to bribe his men is going to sink our boat.”
Otha simply groaned once again, sinking so deep into her cushy chair Percival feared she would drown in the cushions.
“A-are you even taking this seriously? You act like they’re just going to slap us on the wrist with a ruler! They’ll burn us all at the pyre for all we’ve done here!” Percival roared, his blood pressure spiking.
“Don’t lose your cool, Percy.”
“ITS PERCIVAL!” he spat back, stamping his feet against the carpet, “It’s Percival, dammit!”
“…fine. Don’t act like a fussy child, Percival. We still have a final trick left in the hat, don’t we?”
Slowing his rapid breathing, the High Officer narrowed his glaring eyes towards the plump woman, “What in the seven hells are you talking about?”
Otha’s crooked pearly whites appeared between her curling red lips. As they parted, a single word rose from her throat.
Percival’s tensed shoulders slumped. Staring off into the distance, a snide grin found its way to his face as well.
“That’s right. I’ve never seen a more powerful magician than Faust. I-I’m sure he could do something to fix this situation!”
Not caring about the concerned look the guard at the door was shooting him, Percival began to cackle like a madman. The mention of the mysterious old wizard snatched back his hope from the precipice of despair.
“Actually, you nimrods are on your own.”
Percival’s unhinged laughter slowly died down, eventually devolving into nervous stuttering. Looking to the corner of the room, he spotted Faust leaning on his oaken cane.
“W-what? Why won’t you help us?”
“Honestly… it’s because I can’t stand either of you.” Faust admitted, “You helped fund some of my research, and I helped Wes with some of his gadgets in return. Our arrangement is over.”
“W-wait!” Otha sputtered, stumbling out of her chair, “D-don’t you dare leave! I’ll let Aziel know you helped us! If you let us roast, you’ll burn to ash alongside us!”
Faust let out a deep and hearty chuckle, stroking his beard as if to reflect on that threat. After a brief pause, he stared Otha dead in the eyes.
“I highly doubt it.”
Tapping his cane against the ground, the old man vanished in a quick puff of white smoke.
“W-we’re fucked… we’re totally fucked…” Percival gasped out, his knees beginning to buckle, “This is the end…”
Percival fell to his hands, wallowing in pity. Otha frantically paced back and forth, finally tipping over the edge and spiraling into a blind fury.
With a shrill wail, she kicked over her chair. Throwing away her hat, she tore at her hair and spat curses into the air.
“It’s all over! Everything I’ve ever worked for, its over! This… this is all your fault… Aaron Axenus! DAMN YOU, AXENUS!” Otha wailed, cursing the iron-haired vagabond and spitting his name into the humid air of her room.
And she nearly had a heart-attack when it responded in the voice of a snarky young woman.
“Oh, Aaron? Did you just say Aaron Axenus? Neat! Did you hear that, Crocro?”
As if a creature from hell came to answer her, a thump sounded from outside the window, begging to be let in. Whatever it was slapped the window yet again. It was something loud. Something wet and heavy, something that landed with so much force it cracked the glass beneath it.
“Yeah, I heard it just fine.”
Otha had not the courage to face the threat, but her guard and Percival had managed to turn towards the horrible sight.
A man stood on the windowsill, his body cloaked in the bleakness of night. All that wasn’t an inky black silhouette were his pupils- an eerie and unnaturally luminescent shade of emerald, they burned through the dark like two malevolent stars.
One of his arms extended beyond twice beyond its appropriate size and ended in three claws. He slapped that mutant hand against the window yet again, creating a spider-web of cracks across the surface.
Rearing his hand back a final time, he balled it into a fist and slammed it into the window, shattering it and sending a storm of broken glass flying across the room.
“Oh, dear gods in heaven… oh dear gods, no…” Percival begged, hoping the deities he had turned his backs on were feeling gracious on that cool summer night. The beastly figure strode forward, dragging his massive arm behind him and leaving a slick trail of green slime seeping into the carpet.
Otha fell to her bum, slack-jawed and stuttering, “I-in-in-in-in-in-in-”
That sludge claw slid forward, gently cupping Otha’s chin and closing it shut.
“Incubus?” the fiend finished for her, exposing his fangs in a wide smirk, “But I do have a name, you know. It’s Cronan. Cronan Kane, the future Demon Lord.”
Otha said nothing. She simply sat on the ground amongst the shards of glass, jittering in terror.
The guard swallowed his fear. Watching his comrades fall at the hands of another incubus a week prior, his horror exploded and left behind a burning anger. Gripping his spear with both hands, he reared it back and charged.
“Die, you son of a bitch!”
Not bothering to meet his opponent’s eyes, Cronan lifted his claw and fired off one his giant fingers. The thing hardened mid-air and stuck itself in the guard’s chest Flipping back, the poor fellow smashed the glass shards below and met his end.
“Dumbass.” Cronan breathed out in annoyance, shifting his focus between Otha and Percival, “So… which of you is going to squeal first? I know squealers when I see them, and you two…”
Cronan hummed, lifting up his slime claw and squeezed his fingers into his palm, “I just wonder which one of you is the noisier pig.”
Percival wildly shook in terror, staring bug-eyed at Cronan. Ignoring the High Inquisitorial Officer, he stomped over to Otha, smashing glass beneath of his heavy footfalls.
“W-w-w-what do you want from me?” Otha sobbed, her makeup racing down her round cheeks.
“I came here because my dandy little toy told me something neat. It told me you had a whole bunch of relics stashed here. Naughty, naughty~” the devilish man taunted, “Not that I have much room to talk. I suppose I’m a bit of an… antiquarian, you see. I collect relics that’ll help my cause… among my numerous other sins…”
“P-please… take them all. Take as much as want!” Otha begged, shifting from her bum onto all fours, “Just don’t kill me…”
“Oh, I was planning on it. Your pleading doesn’t change a thing. I’m just glad I decided to do a little eavesdropping before I filled my pockets. You mentioned Axenus… Aaron was here, wasn’t he? Why? Doing what? That bastard cost me the astral crown, and he’ll pay dearly for that.”
“W-we… we…” Otha began to stutter, “He… he was…”
Growling tired by the woman’s stuttering, Cronan pushed her to the side and aimed a finger at Percival. The officer hopped when the claw lined up with his chest and quickly stumbled away until his back hit the wall.
“Now, let me hear you sing…” Cronan snarled like a tiger, stalking towards the cornered Percival, “Who was that old man? What exactly as Axenus doing here? And while you’re at it, how did you know I was an incubus? And why exactly do you have relics here?”
Gulping down the lump in his throat, Percy quickly spilled everything a single breath, “Otha captures monsters for produce, I transfer some monsters I’m supposed to execute here for money and whores. Otha had a boyfriend named Wes, but he’s gone now and-”
A green spike came flying at him before he could finish, impaling his shoulder to the wall. Squealing like a wild boar caught in a trap, Percival wildly flailed around in an attempt to unlodge himself.
“You did what to monsters?”
His fight or flight response kicking in, the High Inquisitor reared back his hand, a small marble of light forming above his palm. Yet he didn’t even have time to utter the incantation before Cronan grabbed his wrist, twisting his arm around and brutally snapping it at the elbow.
“FUCCCK!” Percival hollered, one arm dangling in the wrong direction and the other spasming and grasping at the spike pinning it to the wall.
“Screw it. I don’t care about anything else. Not why or how you got the relics, about Aaron, or about how you knew about incubi… I want you to tell me… what were you doing to monsters?”
“W-we never beat them if they behaved… we feed them nutritious meals, and made sure they were never sick or-”
Another snap rang out as Cronan slammed his fist into Percival’s knee, cracking the drywall behind it upon the impact. Percival’s throat went hoarse from his agonized cries.
“We were keeping them as slaves! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he sobbed, “Please, forgive me! Oh gods, please show me mercy!”
The incubus leaned forward, laying his chin on the High Officer’s shoulder. Slowly craning his head to the side, Cronan breathed a husky whisper into Percival’s ear.
A sudden banging on Otha’s door turned the heads of everyone in the room.
“Lady Otha! Don’t worry, we’re coming to save you!”
A quick response from Cronan’s posse came to meet the threat. Scuttling in from the broken window, an ushi-oni shot a whole heap of webbing at the doors, sealing off the only entrance and exit to the room that wouldn’t involve a life-risking plunge.
Otha was already dashing for the window but was quickly intercepted by the same invisible force that alerted Cronan a minute prior. A cheshire cat hopped out from thin air, grabbing Otha from behind and twisting her unbroken arm behind her back.
“Hey, don’t go yet… stick around!”
Otha didn’t have time to process the cheshire’s pun before she was hit by the punchline. The purple cat lifted the plump woman above her head, flinging her into the thick webbing the ushi-oni had laid out before the exit.
As Otha sobbed and struggled to free herself from the webbing, a scarlet-scaled dragon burst from the ceiling, smashing through the plaster and landing at Cronan’s side.
“Hmm… it appears my help was unneeded. So what’s the plan, master?” the dragon asked, a single swish of her mighty tail being all that was needed to clear the dust gathering around her.
Leaving the sniveling Percival pinned to the wall, Cronan paced away and stared out into the bleak night sky, “Akami. Can you shut these two hogs up?”
The ushi-oni had shut Otha and Percival’s grating cries up with a thick glob of webbing before he could blink.
“Much better.” Scarlet laughed, dragging Otha’s chair back to its feet and plopping down in it. Lorna was quick to join the dragon, landing in the armchair and laid one leg atop the other.
Cronan looked to the side of the room, spotting a small footstool nearby Otha’s queen-sized bed. He stretched out his mutant arm, scooping up the stool and dragging it behind his legs. Falling down atop of it, the incubus tapped a single finger to his chin.
“Alright, here’s what we’re going to do. Search the place and gather up all the relics you can carry. We’ll bury them somewhere outside the city for Hecate to find. That little Black Mass thing she and her pals always hold is coming up soon, and she’ll appreciate a few new playthings for the event.”
“Urgh. Why are we helping her again…?” Akami grumbled, her dislike of the woman clear in her voice.
“Because if we want to evolve humanity, we need her help… as much as I hate to swallow that fact. We’d best to keep on her good side if we want to keep her on our little project. A few bribes should keep that greedy bitch sated.”
Lorna, rarely sporting a frown, grimaced and shivered at the mention of Hecate, “Yeah. And that boyfriend of hers gives me the creeps…”
Akami confusedly scratched her head, “Who? That weirdo in the ball masque?”
Cronan went grimly silent. He ground his clawed fingers into the carpet, staring off into the dim city beyond the open window.
Scarlet nodded, “That man is indeed a worthy adversary. I don’t envy anyone who makes an enemy out of Hecate with him at her side.”
With a hearty, bellowing laugh, Akami scuttled behind the dragon, playfully slapping her on the shoulder, “C’mon! He couldn’t be that tough. I’m sure Cronan could take him with his new body…”
“No. He’d still grind me into dust in an instant.”
Akami’s deep chuckles ceased. Slowly blinking her single exposed eye, she craned her head over to Cronan.
“For real.” he grumbled, “If it were to ever come to it, we might have a chance to take him down if we were to attack him all at once, but even then… I’m not certain we’d all make it out of the fight alive.”
“Oh… well…” Akami mumbled, “I guess it’s good we’re buddies with Hecate then, eh? Hahaha!”
Inhaling a deep breath of the cool night air, Cronan sat up and kicked away his stool.
“Well, let’s get to work. Oh, and Scarlet…”
Still gagged and trapped, Otha and Percival nervously glanced at each other, both silently praying that Cronan didn’t say what they thought he’d request next.
“After we’re all done here, burn this place into cinders.”
Aaron couldn’t deny he enjoyed the company of his new companions. And yet, he always did value a bit of privacy and quiet time to collect his thoughts. Unfortunately, it seemed that the only times he seemed to able to escape them was a quick excuse that he needed to pee.
He found it hard to contemplate the goings on in his life when he was tripping through the darkened woods with a full bladder, however.
Stepping over a gnarled root that grew in his path, Aaron accidentally walked right into a thick branch. As it smacked him on the forehead, he stumbled back, tripped over the root, and fell to his bum.
“Motherfucker…” he spat, “Alright, screw this. I’m far enough away from camp.”
Hoping to his feet, he quickly whipped out his taint and took a piss off the side of the path.
Halfway through, a familiar scent filled his nostrils. Looking up, his brow narrowed and his lips pursed. That ominous aura that lingered around Dark Knight crept up behind him, but the crushing pressure had all but vanished.
“Are you done yet, boy? I want words with you.” the knight hissed, “I’m sorry to butt in on your private time, but I wouldn’t want to approach you around your girlfriends. They can’t see me, and I don’t want them thinking you’re going off the deep end.”
“Hold your horses, old man. I still have some powder left in this cannon.”
“That doesn’t sting too bad when it’s coming from some creepy old fuck who smells like roadkill… and seriously, couldn’t this have waited until after I was done taking a piss?”
“You don’t fear me anymore, do you?”
Tucking his cock away, Aaron turned to meet the knight eye-to-eye.
“It’s hard to be scared of something you know ain’t real.” Aaron snapped, “Speakin’ of which, how come I can smell, hear, and see you, but can’t touch you?”
“Like I said, this is only a projection of my body. It’s all in your head, and I’m appearing only as you remembered me. You knew my scent, voice, and appearance, but you never made full physical contact with me.”
“…so if I had licked you after you saved me…”
“…you could taste me, yes… gods, how in the blue blazes have you not died yet?”
“I did, remember? You were there.” Aaron grumbled, lifting up his shirt and running a finger across the scar Lucero had dealt him, “But I got better, thanks to you. You planning on tellin’ me what exactly you did that anytime soon? Or why I have a giant glob of electric black goo floating in my chest? If that was normal for every fucker who bedded a monster once or twice, there’d be an entire army of incubi for the Legion to deal with.”
“You won’t like the answer to either of questions. It’ll crush your will to fight on.”
Aaron’s piercing glare cut deeper into the knight as he pulled his shirt back down, “Don’t think I can handle the truth, huh?”
“You obviously can’t, if you fail to release how much of a fool you’re being by refusing to kill.”
“I already told you, I’m not just doing this for William’s sake! I don’t hate the people in the Legion because they want to kill monsters… it’s what they were raised to think! Hell, that’s what I was raised to think. I still thought monsters ate people until I went to serve and actually fought them!”
The Black Knight folded his arms over his chestplate and tilted his chin up. Aaron was sure if he could spit in disdain, the dark enigma would’ve.
“Maybe that is true. It still doesn’t make you any less of a naive fool, Aaron. War is hell! Anyone stupid enough to get wrapped up in the personal lives of those barring his path to victory is bound for an early grave!”
“But this isn’t war, and I’m not a soldier anymore. All I want is to make sure Lucero pays for what he’s done.” Aaron groaned, starting to become fed up with the knight, “I just don’t want anyone else to die because they got in the way of my vendetta. Is that so fuckin’ terrible?”
The Dark Knight turned his back to Aaron, pacing away, “You’ll see sooner rather than later, boy. I won’t bother to remind you of all the numerous warnings I’ve left along the way.’”
“Hold on!” Aaron cried, chasing after him before he faded away into the gentle light of the crescent moon, “If you won’t tell me why or how you saved me, would at least tell me anything? Really, you saved my life and I don’t even know your damn name.”
As his projected body grew more and more intangible, the Dark Knight peered over his shoulder and locked gazes with Aaron a final time.
As the Black Knight finally faded into nothingness, Aaron was left standing in the middle of the overgrown path, mulling over what he had just been told.
Stumbling like a drunkard out of the woods, Aaron brushed away the leaves and twigs clinging to his hair and tunic. He peered towards the camp, seeing Valerie, Nariko, and Kiera crowded around their campfire and seated atop thick logs.
“Jeez. You sure took your time, babe. What was the deal?”
Valerie looked up to him, chewing on a sandwich stuffed with nothing but roasted venison. Nariko sat to her left, snacking on a thick slice of red velvet cake. Kiera was seated across from the hellhound, using her whittling knife to carve a small chunk of wood into a work of art.
“I had to… take care of something…” Aaron vaguely explained away the question. He still wasn’t entirely sure if Gethen wasn’t just a product of his imagination, but either way, he wasn’t about to take the risk of trying to explain it and look like a basket case.
Licking away a bit of cake at her lips, Nariko smirked up at him, “Oh, I see. You know, I could’ve helped you with that~”
Valerie chucked her sandwich right into Nariko’s face after that little offer, and the raiju was sent sprawling into the grass.
“Hey! What’d you do that for?!” The raiju cried, wiping the greasy meat from her face, “I’m just trying to have a little fun!”
Valerie didn’t answer. She simply waltzed over to Nariko, scooping up the scattered components of her sandwich and balling them up into a ball of bread and meat. After brushing off some of the grass and dirt that had been mixed in, the hellhound took a large bite.
“Urgh! That’s so gross.” Nariko spat, pointing down to the dessert squished in the grass, “And look, you’ve ruined my cake!”
“Hmm. I’ll finish it off for you, then.” Val grumbled, scooping up the crumbling pastry and adding it to her ball. Smirking at the disgust on Nariko’s face, she took another large chomp, “Still tastes fine to me.”
The weasel and hound slowly leaned towards the other and snarled, right up until they literally butted heads.
“Why don’t you try to have a bit of class, mutt?”
“Why don’t you try to be less of a picky jerk, princess?”
Kiera was behind the two before they realized it, smacking her fists into their noggins and planting them into the dirt, “How about you both act your age?”
Rolling his icy eyes, Aaron spotted a sharpened branch hanging over the campfire,. It was impaling a long line of dried vegetables, wild mushrooms, and sizzling deer meat. Picking it out from over the licking flames, the iron-haired vagabond took a bite and strolled off.
“Wonder what Giolla’s doing…?” Aaron pondered, biting off some more venison as he heard the monsters behind him start to wrestle around.
Their camp was surrounded by dense woods and only a few yards from a nearly sheer cliffside. From the long line of dried laundry hung up between two trees, Aaron found Giolla.
But he found something was off. The tin basket below the clothesline only had a few garments inside, with the rest still hanging above. For whatever reason, she had stopped picking them halfway through the job.
Looking towards the cliffside, he saw Giolla sitting down on her knees and staring off into the endless night. The sprawling cityscape of Ellsworth was far in the distance by that point in their trek, and Aaron was only able to pick it out the city from the horizon by the shadow of the towering magic academy crowning it.
“What are you doing, Giolla? I would’ve thought you’d want to get that place out of your mind as soon as possible. Do you regret not inviting everyone back to your villa or somethin’?”
He squatted down by her side, finally noticing she had a brass monocular held up to her eye.
“It’s… it’s not that, Mr. Axenus. Take a look.”
She handed off the monocular to Aaron. He stared at it for a few brief moments, but seeing the look of great concern on her face, he realized it was a matter more grim and serious than sight-seeing.
Peering in the same direction she had, Aaron gasped in shock. The light from the stars and moon wasn’t much help in letting him pick it out from the black knight sky, but he spotted it nonetheless.
A huge plume of black smoke, looming into the night sky from the very edge of the Ellsworth. It was coming from the very same spot Otha’s manor could be found.
It wasn’t the same as the smoke from her garden. It was darker, thicker, and had a much greater supply of fuel.
“Its… burning. Why? Reese did put out that tip to the inquisitor from Paxton, right? Does she want to destroy all evidence and skip town?” Aaron theorized, handing the monocular back to the kikimora.
“I don’t know, Mr. Axenus…” the kikimora held the scope to her chest and whispered fearfully, “I just don’t know. Something about this unsettles me… I have an awful feeling about it…”
A small hum rushed up Aaron’s throat, a feeling of incoming dread overtaking him yet again. Staring up towards the crescent moon, he crushed a handful of grass between his fingers.
“I really hope this doesn’t end up biting me in the ass…”