Noxia 13

“Hey, hold it, soldier! What in the world is going on?”

For the third time, Aaron thanked himself for looting the warhammer from one of the cadavers Damian had left in his wake. He had found it just after removing the second bomb and going on his way. He found a quick solid whack to the head a more effective method of dealing with any nosy legionnaires than attempting to worm his way past them with honeyed lies. He slammed the rough iron against the third soldier he encountered in that ungodly long hallway, causing the poor grunt to collapse into a heap. If he was lucky, Jack and Lorna’s cruel gambit would be stopped.

If not, everyone would be killed, swiftly crushed by the collapsing damn if the god’s had fancied to shower mercy upon them. It would either be that or they’d be washed away by the raging rush of river water.

Aaron had never come close to drowning, but he could’ve guessed that it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences. Advancing further into the dam’s heart, Aaron searched like a madman for the third bomb.

“Damn. I wonder how Val’s doing…?” the bandit breathed to himself, running through scenarios in his head, “She can track me down with my scent, so she’d come right back to me if she had found both. She’s also way faster than me, so she must’ve found at least one by now…”

No one was around to provide input on his thoughts. The highwayman slowed his pace just a bit, trying to calm his aching lungs.

“Oh gods… please don’t let that Damian bastard find her before she finds me…” He panted, unable to run any further. Letting his stolen hammer lean against the wall, he placed his hands on his knees and gasped for breath.

Damian. The ludicrously strong merc’s cocksure smirk and song-worthy skills had burned a pit into Aaron’s stomach that still hadn’t faded. Never before had he brushed with death so many times in such quick succession. If it wasn’t for his irreverent and totally nonchalant attitude Aaron would’ve pegged the man for the reaper himself.

“Heh… what the hell do I know? Death’s probably a cute girl. Would match up with all the other monsters I’ve seen so far.” Aaron mused, his mind wandering to prevent itself from sinking into the dark dregs of self-pity and defeatism.

Aaron righted himself, ready to dash forward once again. His thoughts were still mulling over his swift and painful fight with the hatchet man, however, and the massive detail of how he was still breathing continued to bother him. The white-agony and heavy dread when he felt his neck snap under Damian’s fist couldn’t have been mistaken. Nor the feeling of icy black nothingness that shortly followed.

Confusion and frustration boiled in his chest, demanding an immediate response. Aaron fished out the bandanna that the mercenary had lent him, his dried blood indistinguishable from the crimson dye of the cloth.

“He saved me, didn’t he?”

The only question was why. Why save the life of someone you were paid to kill? Why go through the trouble of breaking his neck only to bring him back from the brink? Most of all, why hightail it away and let him remove the bomb you had helped plant?

Something about it stunk like a barrel full of moldy chum. But getting to the body of it was at the very bottom of his list of priorities at the moment. Sucking in a final gasp for breath, Aaron dauntlessly plunged himself deeper into the dam.

Further and further he went. His sense of time had been scrambled; his sense of direction quashed by the endless hallway rolling out in front of him. Just as he was about to get into a habit, something made him stop his tracks.

An old oak door. Two things about it had Aaron cocking a brow – first, aside from the main gate, all the other doors he had seen were made of some sort of metal. Secondly, the door he stood at seemed to be brand new. Unlike everything else in the dam, he couldn’t find a single sign of old age on it. Its bronze hinges were shiny and spotless, the wood was smooth and didn’t have so much as a scratch.

Figuring it was as good a place as any for finding the next bomb, Aaron held his breath and opened it up.

What he found wasn’t a pressure regulator. It was a prison. Every corner of the room was full of black iron bars. In the very center, a burly man wearing the Legion standard paced impatiently back and forth. He seemed to perk up as Aaron came in, yet wore a snarly and sour grimace all the same.

“The bloody hell are you doin’ here, soldier?” the jailer interrogated, bearing down on the newcomer, “Ain’t you supposed to be patrolling around to find the intruders?”

“Oh. Captain just wanted me to check up and see if everything was going alright up here.”

“Everything’s fine…” the jailer snapped. Aaron was unsure if that was because of the blow to the legionnaire’s professional pride or he just didn’t quite buy the excuse.

“And what in the seven hells happened to you? You look like Mastema himself chewed ya up and spit ya back up.”

With a hitch in breath, it finally dawned on Aaron both his armor was disheveled and his helm was missing. Thinking fast, he spit out a reasonable cause.

“An… an intruder attacked me at one the pressure regulators.” he half-lied, fudging the full details.

“Right.” the jailer sniffed, continuing to run an inquisitive leer over and around the bandit’s body.

Aaron’s eyes darted around the cells. All were empty, save one – a lone man, stripped to nothing but his skivvies, sat shackled to the wall. His body appeared beaten and dirty; his mauve hair tangled and unkempt. The bandit might’ve mistook him for a corpse if his keen eyes didn’t notice the shallow rise and fall of the poor bastard’s ribcage.

“What’s he in for?” Aaron asked, aiming a finger towards the man’s cell.

“Not sure of the specifics. Just that he disobeyed a direct order from a commanding officer…” the burly jailer drawled before his eyes shot to full alertness, “Hey, whats it matter to you? You have more important matters, don’tcha?!”

“Actually…” Aaron scrambled for another excuse, “The intruders… they’re trying to free him! They’re digging through the wall of his cell right now!”

To Aaron’s pleasant surprise, the lug of a guard actually fell for the obvious trick. As he turned expecting a gaggle of monsters and heretics tunneling their way to his detainee’s rescue, he found absolutely nothing but the mauve-haired man’s dull eyes looking up to check the commotion.

Aaron’s hammer connected with the back of the jailer’s helm before he could turn and lay into him. As the brute collapsed, Aaron snatched the keys off his belt.

The bandit ran a quick evaluation in his head. While he himself didn’t know where the next pressure regulator was, a legionaire was more likely too; and one with the motivation to betray his empire sat caged right in front of him. Even if the prisoner didn’t know, it was all-in-all a risk free gamble for him.

If the prisoner was shocked or confused by the sudden rush of events, his beaten, starved face didn’t have the energy to show it. Even as the rusty ebony bars of his cell swung open, the purple-haired sap looked completely detached. It wasn’t until Aaron had undid his shackles did he realize he had been freed.

“You got a name, guy?” Aaron asked, tossing the key ring away.

The prisoner shifted onto his knees, rubbing away the numbness in his wrists, “Its… William. William Highwind.”

“Well, Will… I’m guessing you’ve taken issue with the Legion’s policies, right?”

“I’ve had my fair share of doubts as of late…” William grumbled bitterly, forcing himself up onto shaky feet. He had to brace himself against the prison’s damp wall, but he miraculously managed to remain upright.

“Then how about you help me out? Only fair since I’ve freed you, right?” Aaron put forth with an icy cool business-like inflection, “Where’s the nearest pressure regulator from here?”

Will looked like he was pouring all his effort into not crumbling back onto his ass. But as Aaron asked him that question, his unfocused eyes, the same rich amethyst as his hair, narrowed inquisitively on his savior.

“And why do you need to know that?”

“Some crazy fuck’s trying to blow up the dam. I’m trying to stop him.” Aaron answered with blunt honesty.

“And what if… what if you’re that crazy fuck?” Will hazarded.

Aaron shook his head to both sides, “Then I wouldn’t have bothered to let you out.”

Will stood still for a long moment, slowly recuperating from his long stint in captivity. He was clearly lost in thought, mulling over Aaron’s proposition for a good while. He seemed to know just what was in store for him if Aaron was telling the truth – and if Aaron was lying.

“Okay.” Will finally relented, “I only worked as a sentry up here for a few days, but it should be to the left down this hall. When you hit a fork in the path, take a right, and it should lead you right to it.”

The bandit let out a smirk slip out and grace his lips. Thankfully patting Will on the shoulder, he waved a goodbye and trotted out of the cell.

“Thanks.” Aaron called as he left, “And try to get out of here while you still can. All the commotion going on should be a good cover.”

“H-hold on! Wait!” Will cried out, stumbling forward, “You’re going to let me go? Just like that?”

“Yeah. You’d either be stuck here if I win or drown if I lose. I thought you might appreciate it.”

“But you don’t know me.” Will asserted, “I could go blab to the guards… or turn your back to a pincushion while you’re looking the other way.”

“Maybe you could.” Aaron sighed, eyes against the brickwork flooring, “Do whatever you want, pal. I don’t really care.”

“But I think you do care.” Will went on, limping forward on his sleeping feet, “If you didn’t, you’d just lock me back up in my cell and not even take the chance.”

Aaron spared the man a lopsided, sardonic smile, “An evil bastard like me would do something like that. I’d suggest getting your ass out of here before I consider it.”

And with that, he took off down the hallway. Will simply stood, his thoughts buzzing and heart racing, his teeth clenched so tightly his jaw began to ache.

Val doubled back, stomaching sinking as Lorna’s knife whizzed by where her throat was just a second prior. Still spinning from the slash, Lorna summoned another knife in the opposite paw, slashing at Valerie for the second time in a single smooth movement. The hound was just a bit faster, swinging the back of her paw at Lorna’s wrist before the blade made contact. Lorna hissed as the knife flew from her fingers, but she was quick on the rebound, extended her meticulously polished claws and slashing at the hellhound’s face.

Three long, thin scratches were left across Val’s cheek, but Lorna had caused no serious damage. And following the suite of the rest of her attacks, she vanished from sight not a moment afterward. Still reeling from the cat’s last blow, Valerie was left helpless as Lorna reappeared and landed on her back.

The hellhound gasped and snarled, attempting to shake the cheshire away. But she stayed latched on like a barnacle to a dock. Lorna lifted one paw high, her curved, violet knife appearing between clenched fingers. Luckily, Valerie caught Lorna’s wrist right before the malevolent cat plunged the knife into her jugular.

Even with her vastly superior strength, the dog was still stunned and caught at an awkward angle. She struggled to keep the knife away. Lorna gritted her teeth under her curled lips, paw jittering as she forced her knife down with all her might.

The monsters remained at a solid stalemate. Right up until Lorna schemed up a devilish move. She summoned a third knife – this time, in the tip of her coiled tail.

Val’s ears picked up the telltale popping sound. She glanced back, catching the glint of the knife’s serrated edge as Lorna cocked it back to plunge into Val’s ribcage. With the sickly high of adrenaline now and full throttle through her body, Val didn’t have to think to react. She simply acted.

She roared like the beast she was, flames shooting to twice their previous size. Her body became hotter than a furnace, and the instant it happened, Lorna yelped in pain and hopped away, her knives clattering against the floor. Val wasted no time in the counterattack, throwing her forepaw back and elbowing the cheshire right in the gut.

The cat soared through the air, her breath stolen from her, in such white-hot pain she couldn’t even scream – which she didn’t have time to do so anyway. Lorna collided with and bounced off the urn-shaped pressure regulator, a dull, bell-like ring sounding through the spartan room.

Val knew full well she could be domineering, but she never considered herself a sadist. Still, watching Lorna crumble to the floor put a grin on her face.

“You… stupid… mutt!” the cheshire hissed, struggling back onto her forepaws. The orange light of the bomb behind her made Lorna’s feline eyes glimmer – but it was still nothing compared to the spark of fury aimed at Valerie.

With another low pop, Lorna conjured up another item in her tail. This time, it was a round vial filled to the brim with a thick green fluid. Having seen the same thing not even a half hour prior, Val’s hairs stood on end.

With a wicked grin, Lorna lobbed the sleeping potion forward. Val slapped a paw over her mouth and nose and hobbled back. The bottle shattered against the floor, tiny shards and fragments flying brilliantly in the room’s low light.

As the thick goop was freed and hit the floor, a noxious gas of a lighter lime hue began shooting up with a hiss. Val continued to wheel back, but she couldn’t escape the advancing wave.

The gas slipped past the hellhound’s paltry defense. It blew under her fingers, finding its way up her nose and down her throat. Gasping and wheezing, her flames flickering and fluctuating, Val grasped her throat and collapsed to her knees.

A twisted smile curled up and around Lorna’s face. She slowly sauntered forward, summoning a mallet and dragging it behind her. She slammed it right into the dozing hellhound’s stomach, sending the mutt flying back. She crashed into the door and out of the room, rolling back, barreling onward until she found herself in a new location entirely.

She was on a suspended platform above the spillway. A man-made waterfall rushed right behind her, spilling downward several meters into the sluice gate. The roar of the murky blue waters crashed against her sensitive ears, and she barely had the willpower to tear her paws away from them to help prop herself up.

Grabbing ahold of the platform’s guardrails, she hauled herself back into a crouched stance. Lorna approached, a grinding screech announcing her arrival as she menacingly ran a sharpened nail against the railing as she approached.

“You’re not very tough, are ya?” Lorna snickered, her tail whipping at the air, “For a hellhound, I mean.”

For Valerie, those words were like a dagger in the gut.

“Shuddup!” the hound demanded, her twin fires towering higher.

“Make me.” Lorna viciously taunted, her mad grin practically spitting acid, “Hehehe… you’re sooo pathetic! It’s no wonder you don’t have that stupid collar you mangy fleabags are so proud of!”

Lorna’s previous taunts were like a knife to the gut, and that one felt like the knife was just callously twisted.

“I said shuddup!” Val barked, her flames nearly doubling in height. The railing her paw was gripping started to burn up into red-hot slag, leaving it easy enough for Valerie to crush in rage, “You don’t know a thing about me, you cunt!”

“I know enough.” the cat mewled, using paw to playfully scratch at the air and the other to hoist her mallet over her shoulder, “I know you’re an idiot. I know you rushed in here without thinking. I know you’re weak, and I know you can’t protect him…”

Val’s wildly beating tail halted. Her fangs parted like a great set of razor-edged blades uncrossing. Rolling waves of molten heat bounded off of her body.

The smug grin that seemed permanently set on Lorna’s face had vanished. In a brief ebony flash, Valerie cleared the space between them, punching the cat right in her unguarded stomach. Wheezing and gasping, the cheshire was thrown to her back, roughly slamming against the platform.

Refusing to let up, Valerie pounced upon Lorna, raising both fists into the air. She brought them down with enough speed and force to put the waterfall rushing behind her to shame.

But there was no blood. No cracking bone, and no pitiful moans of a broken pussycat. Val blinked, realizing the cheshire had vanished at the last moment. Snarling in annoyance, she stomped back to the pressure regulator. Her ears were pricked, ready for a sneak attack from Lorna at any given moment.

It never came, leaving the hound with a sinking sense of paranoia – a feeling entirely alien to her. A defeat, she could take. But knowing her prey had slipped away, slinking in the shadows, ready to strike out at any given moment – that set her on a razor’s edge she hadn’t experienced and wouldn’t want to repeat for the rest her of her days.

She twisted out the bomb, bringing it back out to the sluice gate and tossing it into murky waters that rushed by. Still keeping on her toes, she sniffed at the air. Past all the mildew, all the nervous sweat and blood and metal, she could faintly sense her babe’s pleasant musk on her nostrils. With a running start, she took off towards it.

It took a bit of stealth and hustle, but with William’s instruction, Aaron was able to come across the final pressure regulator. His heart, which seemed to ache with how hard it had been beating for the last hour or so, seemed to even out its pace as he rested his hand on the cool metal of the door. He slowly pushed open, ready for whatever dangers lay inside. With a low gasp, he entered the new and near surreal setting.

The room was absolutely massive, and it held a brass jungle of spinning, creaking gears. They extended to the ceiling like trees; spurs and bevels lazily turning overhead like leaves in the wind. Gear shafts were bound together and twisted around his path like so many gnarled branches, and he was forced to navigate through the clockwork maze with nothing but the faint orange light near the back as his guide. That had to be a sign of the pressure regulator. Ducking under a set of giant spurs, he advanced towards that odd little oasis of open space.

As the low, encompassing creak of metal grinding together became background noise in his ears, he came upon it – and found but one man guarding it. A man with fine dark clothing, pale skin, and eyes that burned like fire but froze like ice all at once.

“Jack.” Aaron grunted out in mock greeting. Even he was surprised by the sheer spitefulness that oozed from his voice.

The albino sat patiently atop the regulator, one leg folded over the other. He gripped a long thin cigar between his lips, puffing ever so gently on it. As he saw Aaron enter the room, he rolled it to one side of his mouth and allowed the other side to break into a lopsided sneer.

“Aaron. It’s a pleasure to see you again.” Jack mewled, his inflection inaptly sweet and syrupy. Another wave of smoke rolled from out of his parted teeth, rising up and dissipating against a gear overhead.

The bandit clenched his fists tight, “Can’t say the feelings mutual.”

Something about Jack’s smile unnerved him. Damian’s was smug and confident; he knew his strength full well and had no problem flaunting it. Lorna’s was practically chock full of mischief, with just the slightest hint of malice.

The albino’s, on the other hand, was something else entirely. There was confidence, but no cockiness. There was a hint of sadism, but nothing that could be found on a madman. He enjoyed watching his foes squirm, loved to toy with his prey, but also knew when it was time to take care of business.

Jack blew a ring of smoke out before jumping to the floor. He landed in a squat, his cigar clamped between his teeth. As he stood, he once again studied Aaron from head to toe. Aaron was sure he could find those quick, scarlet eyes dart to each patch of semi-dried blood sticking to his body.

After he was done, Jack removed the cigar from his lips and waved it towards Aaron, “You smoke?”

“To celebrate special occasions,” Aaron mumbled, staring into the wisps of gray smoke rising from the cigar’s smoldering tip, “Like caving your skull in, for example.”

“That so…?” Jack laughed, taking another puff. Blowing the smoke out his nostrils, the albino lobbed the cigar through the air.

Aaron snatched it down, his eyes never leaving Jack’s. The burning tobacco carried an exotic smell; a unique blend totally unfamiliar but far from unpleasant to Aaron. He took a long puff of his own. Blowing a messy, formless cloud out through his lips, he let the cigar fall to the ground where it was promptly crushed under his boot.

“No point dragging things out any farther, right?” Jack said.

“Straight to business it is, then.” Aaron answered in kind, voice sharp and frosty.

The bandit hefted his stolen warhammer over his shoulder, closing in on Jack. He planned on ending his entire ordeal at the dam with a single, decisive blow to the head. Anyone with functioning vision could see Aaron held the clear advantage in sheer physicality.

But Jack wasn’t unarmed himself. Aaron assumed that any weapon he’d be able to conceal wouldn’t be any bigger than a pocket knife or spiked knuckle, and he soon came to regret his rash assumption.

Reaching into his coat, Jack pulled out the handle of a sword. The metal of it was immaculately smooth and eggshell white, with no crossguard to be seen. Like magic, a curved blade of the same metal unfolded from the handle. No sooner had the hidden blade been drawn did it’s edge erupted with a jagged magenta light.

Aaron ground to a halt, wide-eyes honed in on the strange weapon. Jack swung it through the air with a number of practice swings. Each slice sounded off with a resounding, crackling buzz. The jagged teeth at the blade’s edge of glowering light continued to dance and jump like a swarm of wasps, biting at the very air.

Jack darted forward, his expression not to unlike a jackal that had spotted a lapse in focus on his prey. Thinking on his feet, Aaron choked down his grip to the very end of the hammer and swung it towards Jack, using it’s superior reach to keep him at bay.

The albino dodged the first strike, the hammer’s head nearly colliding with his chest. But the second swing Jack parried with his own sweeping strike.

It took him only a moment to realize what had happened. At once, Aaron’s nose was assaulted by heavy smoke from burning metal. He heard a loud ringing thud as something hefty hit the stone below. He pulled back the hammer, seeing the head had been cleanly split.

Whatever that thing Jack had was, it had just sliced through fifty pounds of iron in motion like it was warm, stationary butter.

His stomach churned in protest as a sense of panic bubbled up within it for the umpteenth time that day. He threw himself back, hurling the hammer’s shaft at Jack as he did so. The gambler split that in half just as easily, with a simple flick of his wrist, and the remainder of the weapon ended up clattering against the floor behind him.

Aaron continued to keep his distance, tried to lose the gambler in the maze of brass, trying to stop himself from being backed into a corner. He slid under a gear shaft, Jack easily cutting through it and letting the pieces clatter to each side.

Aaron tried for the door he came through, to try and double back and find Valerie or some way to defeat Jack, but he found it sealed shut. He angrily pounded against it, only to a hear a woman’s light chuckling over the dull ringing.

“Fuckin’ cat.” he gritted out, sprinting around the room for the opposite door. But it too was sealed tight.

“Nowhere to run, Aaron. I told you what would happen if you crossed me, didn’t I?”

Even as the bandit felt himself being forced into a corner, he put on a wide grin of false bravado. Even if he’d have no choice but to lose his life to Jack, there’d be no way in hell he’d give the maniac the pleasure of seeing his fear.

“Slips my mind…”

“Then let me refresh your memory.” Jack snapped, training the tip of the blazing blade at Aaron’s chest, “I said I’d bury you with the rest of these fools if you got in my way. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do – just be thankful that decapitation is quick and painless when stacked against drowning.”

The gambler wildly slashed at the ground, forcing Aaron to hurriedly stumble backwards. He dodged away as Jack stabbed at his chest, the sizzling blade easily sinking through the gears and thick stone alike. Jack yanked it out with equal effortlessness and was back at Aaron’s throat in a second.

On and on the mad dance went. Jack meticulously and with a trained grace slashed out at Aaron, who was continually forced to retreat backwards. But each time Jack came closer, each time Aaron was nicked with that magic blade that sizzled through his flesh with minimal resistance, the closer the bandit came to receiving a crippling blow.

From there, victory would go to Jack.

It didn’t matter where Aaron ran, Jack was right behind. He couldn’t run and couldn’t hide. Aaron’s mind raced at hurricane speeds. He thought about any distraction; any spare weapon he could use. But Jack was smart. The albino would easily see through any flimsy charade he could think up on the spot.

Finally, Aaron’s back hit the pressure regulator. He saw Jack rush towards him. Without thinking, he dove to the side…

And watched in aghast horror as Jack sliced through the glowing orange bomb at the regulator’s center.

Aaron hit the ground in a roll, turning his back and ducking his hands and knees together. Clenching his teeth, he prayed his lightning-quick prayers and waited for the boom. A boom that never came.

What came instead of a deafening blast was the tinkle of glass on stone, followed by a loud sizzle and hiss. Aaron peaked around just in time to watch Jack nearly double over with laughter. The bomb was split at its feet, smoke and fire blasting out it’s fragments but still very much unset.

“Holy shit, I still can’t believe you actually fell for that…” Jack chortled between heavy fits of laughter.

“What are you…?”

“Think for a second, Aaron. I’m not a lunatic. If I had set bombs, why wouldn’t I have just set ‘em off the moment I left the room? More importantly, why would I tell you about it?” the albino sniffed, steadily calming down, “No. It was all a little trick – see, those weren’t bombs… those were the power supply for the pressure regulators.”

Aaron’s entire world seemed to blur and go fuzzy. He had been duped. Humiliated. So thoroughly outfoxed that it had left a twisting pit in his stomach that seemed to swallow up any remainder of hope and joy he had left lingering about.

“You… you set me up!” Aaron slowly realized, “The Legion… they’ll think I was the one who did this!”

Jack only gave a lopsided smirk and shrugged, “I gave you the choice, Aaron. You could have joined me, and we would’ve gone with plan A, and we all would’ve gone away from this richer, leaving all the legionnaires scratching their heads…”

Fuming with rage, Aaron tried to take to his feet… but the moment he did, the entire dam seemed to shudder and lurch like a ship in a storm, throwing him back on his bum. Jack kept his balance, raving on.

“You could’ve just not interfered at all. It would’ve taken longer and been far more risky on my part, but it would’ve been done all the same… but no. You had to come stick your nose in where it didn’t belong! I suppose, however… this works out best… I still have many more things that need to be taken care of on Legion soil. Thanks for sticking your hand in the cookie jar for me, Aaron.”

The dam shuddered once again. Small cracks began racing all along the room. This time, Aaron jumped back to a standing position, gnashing his teeth together in sheer fury.

Jack spun his humming blade about, carefully scratching at his chin, “Oh. One more thing. I didn’t want to let you in on this, but driving out the Legion was only a bit of gravy for this whole endeavor The main objective something else… did you see that estate just before the dam?”

Even in his haze of anger and frustration, Aaron remembered the shine of those golden armored warriors caped in the Legion’s crimson. It didn’t click with him at the tense moment, but he suddenly realized that someone very important must’ve been staying there.

“That was the mayor’s estate. And housed there was the Legion’s crown prince. Assassinating him and his men should be an adequate reminder that you should’ve go muscling in on places you don’t belong. A shame you could’ve have learned that beforehand.”

The bandit hadn’t thought it possible, but he felt despair strangle him all the harder. Blowing up the dam and drowning an entire regimen of troops would’ve already had the Legion out gunning for his head at every turn. But to add regicide atop of that…

“Well, you don’t have to worry about the Legion hounding you if you just go down with the dam. I, on the other hand, have places to be.”

Shooting him a mock salute, Jack wrapped his arm around thin air – a girlish squeak sounded, but Aaron was too shocked to piece together it was Lorna. The gambler powered off that odd sword and vanished. The buzzing of his blade was gone. Only the slow, mocking chugs of the gears around him were left.

Jack was gone. He had achieved a totally victory on every front.

Overwhelmed on all fronts, both physically and mentally, Aaron fell to his knees. The dam was collapsing around him. The town would soon be flooded. Even if he managed to escape, one of the most brutal and powerful military regime’s would chase him to the end’s of the earth for his head.

He had known defeat before. Even total, utter, humiliating defeat. And now, he could safely say he knew the one thing more biting than it – being manipulated like nothing more than a puppet on some extremist ideologue’s string.

A gear shaft toppled over behind him. His lips quivered. He wanted to cry out, to place the blame on someone, anyone… but the only name aside from his own that came to mind was Valerie’s.

And yet, he couldn’t find the heart to do it.

Another gurgling rumble echoed through the dam as it’s innards burst and collapsed in. A crack appeared above Aaron’s head, and the cool, murky water that spilled onto his neck and ran down his spine acted like a sobering shower. He sprang to his feet, eyes glimmering with an icy fire.

“I… I can’t give up now!” he spat through clenched teeth. There was still time to escape. There had to be.

There was a sudden banging on the door that Lorna had locked. He froze, fully expecting more legionnaires to burst through and end his life.

And one did – but his face was bruised and bloodied, and he landed flat on it, groaning in agony. Coming in shortly after him was Valerie herself, her fist still outstretched.

They spotted each other at once. The sparking fury in the hound’s blazing eyes was instantly replaced by the bright shimmer of relief and joy. She rushed over and wrapped her fuzzy arms around his neck in an instant.

“Babe! I’m so glad you’re okay!”

“Relatively…” Aaron gasped, feeling her tight hug constrict his windpipe. As she pulled away, the dam let out another shuddering creak. Another chunk of the ceiling caved in, and Aaron cringed as it painfully bounced off his shoulder.

“C’mon!” Val cried. She was as quick to grab his hand and drag him away as she was embracing him, “There’s an exit up to the cliff top nearby!”

Aaron was about to ask just how she gleaned that little tidbit. But then he noticed the still wet blood on the fur around her knuckles; then remembered the mashed face of the Legion trooper she had used to knock down the door to the forest of gears. Honestly, he had to commend the troop for not not caving until she put the pain onto him.

They ascended another set of winding steps. The water that was raining down from the quickly collapsing ceiling was soon replaced by the crumbles of the stonework. Aaron’s face scrunched up in pain, but Val didn’t even slow – he was forced to dash behind her, lest she’d dislocate his shoulder in her mad rush. The dam began shuddering all the more violently, threatening to throw them off the stairs and back into it’s upset belly.

It was faint, but when they reached the top of the stairs, Aaron could see a light at the end of an elongated hallway – it led up to the surface, to safety. Even then, he saw a few shadowy silhouettes rush out and up to the surface.

“Alright!” Val giggled excitedly, “We’re almost there, babe! Just a little bit more-”

It was so fast, he didn’t even see it coming. All he saw was Val’s sensitive ears twitch, then he felt himself being thrown forward. He landed roughly on his hands and knees, skidding forward just a bit, feeling the most violent convulsion of the dam yet. He heard stone crashing, and felt a wave of dust and pebbles slam into his back.

His stomach twisted into a knot. Fighting back his overflowing sense of dread, he pushed himself back up and turned back to Valerie – all he found was a mountain of collapsed rubble between them. Or,a worse yet, he realized with a sickening fear, a mountain of rubble between Valerie and the exit.

She was trapped, and he could do nothing to save her.

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