Act 2: Welcome to the Wonderful World I
“So, have you given it some thought?”
The imps had left behind small blackish ores with hints of dark-colored crystal structures after the rest of their bodies melted away. According to the stranger, these ‘cores’ could be collected and sold to a town’s mercenary guild. Arisa had helped collect them.
“Before you start talking about contracts, why don’t you name yourself first? Who the hell are you?” Cain asked as he threateningly stepped in front of Arisa. “Depending on your answer, mutt…”
“I don’t think that I’ve done anything to warrant your distrust, dragon,” the stranger said with a smile. One of the clumps of hair on top of his head appeared to twitch slightly. “But it’s true that I forgot to give you my name. I’ll apologize if that caused you some worry.” Ignoring Cain and turning to address Arisa, he continued, “My name is Noire. As your dragon friend kindly pointed out, I am also a lycan.”
“And a black lycan at that,” Cain remarked.
“What’s a lycan?” Arisa asked.
“They’re a cursed race with demonic content in their bloodline that manifests in a beast-like self apart from their main identity. Among them, the black lycans have the highest demonic content and thus have the most difficulty reigning in their beast’s strength,” Cain explained.
I understood none of that, Arisa thought to herself.
“The basic gist of a contract between a lycan and a human contractor is that the contractor becomes able to control a lycan’s beast. You would help me seal away my beast-self, and in turn you’ll also be able to command some of my powers. It’s a mutually beneficial situation,” said Noire.
“Aren’t you leaving out something important?” Cain asked after clicking his tongue.
“Not really,” Noire replied. “I already have seals that will prevent my beast from breaking through the constraints of a contract, so Arisa won’t have to worry about that. You should be able to tell that much just by looking at me if you’re a dragon, right?”
Cain shrugged with a hmph. “If you already have such strong seals, then why do need another one?”
Noire smiled and stared back as Cain glared at him.
“Um…?” Arisa said as she tried to break through the tension.
“Enough,” Cain commanded as he briskly turned away. “There’s no need for you answer the mutt’s request. Get back to the horse, we’re leaving.”
“Wait,” Noire called out. “You’re heading towards Orsus anyway, right? Let me go with you two.”
“Why?” Cain demanded.
“I’ve been staying there for a little while and I’m familiar with the area,” Noire answered. “I can take you on a route with fewer demons.”
“I can take care of the small fry just fine,” Cain retorted.
“You can, but can she?” Noire threw a quick apologetic smile in Arisa’s direction. Hardening his expression again, he continued, “she could have died if I hadn’t made it in time.”
“No, she wouldn’t have. Who do you take me for, mutt?” Cain growled. “But your point is valid, nonetheless,” he added before Noire could keep arguing. “Lead the way.”
“Great,” Noire beamed. The clumps at the top of his hair twitched again. “Are you ready to go, Arisa?”
“Huh?” Arisa started. She had been too absorbed in wondering why Noire would do so much for people that he had just met. She still couldn’t quite figure out how Noire knew her, but she also couldn’t find a way to ask him without feeling awkward. He had just saved her, after all. It would be rude to start questioning him all of a sudden. “Yeah, I’m ready,” she replied as she hastily climbed onto the horse. Sayo, who never seemed to care about what other people thought about her, would have confronted the issue directly without a moment’s hesitation. Arisa had no doubt.
After a quick glance to check that Arisa was steady on the horse, Noire set off with Cain close behind him. As usual, the horse followed Cain obediently despite that it had been given no verbal or physical cues.
“We should be able to see the town gates soon,” said Noire.
It was well past morning. They had been travelling together in almost constant silence for several hours. It didn’t particularly bother Arisa too much, as she was already used to the silent treatment from Cain. She had wanted to use the time to catch up on sleep, but was too afraid of falling off of the horse to dare try.
“Do you guys know where you’ll be staying in town?” Noire asked.
“It’s a small town. There’ll only be one inn.” Cain responded flatly.
“Do you know how to get there?”
“I doubt it’ll be hard to find.”
“I’m currently staying there myself. Why don’t I lead you there anyway?”
Instead of answering, Cain slowed down his pace until he was next to the horse carrying the luggage. Without stopping the horse, he swiftly picked out a cloak from the pile and put it on in the same motion.
“Cain, what are you doing?” Arisa asked.
“I’ll stand out too much if people know that I’m a dragon,” he replied.
“It can’t be helped,” Noire answered, beaming as he looked back at Arisa. “It’s rare for a dragon to come down from the heavens. Even then, they usually don’t leave their territories.”
“It’s not that we don’t, we can’t,” Cain explained with a small sigh. “A dragon Lord is tied to the ‘core’ of his or her territory. The land prospers due to the presence of a Lord. If the 「Lord of the Land」leaves the 「Heart of the Land」, the land itself will begin to die.”
“Are you a Lord, Cain?” Arisa asked.
A moment of silence ensued before the dragon answered. In all honesty, Arisa had thought that he would ignore her again. “No, I’m not,” Cain replied.
“Well, if he was one, it’d be pretty bad for his territory,” Noire remarked. “Though I can’t think of any other reason that a dragon would come all the way down here from the heavens.”
“I serve the Empress. That’s all you need to know,” Cain coldly said.
“So she really does exist,” said Noire, ignoring Cain’s obvious attempt to halt the conversation.
“We met the Empress just the other day,” Arisa noted.
“Do people really think she doesn’t exist?” Cain asked with a slight sneer. “That’s rich.”
“She’s never really shown herself to the public. The only reason people even know about her is because the Azure King’s authority over the other rulers comes from her,” Noire explained.
“The human one?” Cain asked.
“Yeah, he’s the King of Desier,” Noire explained. “A lot of other rulers have practically deferred to him ever since the Taint began again. He’s the one keeping all of the human kingdoms under control.”
“So he’s competent,” said Cain. Arisa almost thought that Cain was complimenting someone, much to her surprise.
Soon afterwards, a line of waist-high wooden fencing came into view. Arisa was surprised, as she had thought that the town’s border would look more sturdy. “There it is,” Noire announced, pointing at the town’s entrance. It was little more than an opening in the fencing and a little wooden sign. “Welcome to the town of Orsus.”
Act 2: Welcome to the Wonderful World II
Orsus was a small and quaint town. As suggested by its meager fence border, it was a very rural town with dirt and cobblestone roads. There were only a few people about. They stared openly, especially at Arisa, making her subconsciously draw in her body closer to the horse, but weren’t hostile. They just seemed curious. Cain and Noire didn’t seem to mind, however. Noire even acknowledged a few townspeople with a small wave or a slight nod of the head.
Noire led them to a sizeable wooden building that Arisa estimated was about the size of the shop that she and Sayo lived in. He politely opened the door and waited as Arisa climbed off the horse. Cain left briefly to lead the horses to the stable attached to the side of the inn.
“Thank you,” Arisa said quietly as she entered the building. Noire beamed in response and followed her inside.
The interior of the inn was rather dark, lit only by a few small lamps on the walls. It took a few seconds for Arisa’s eyes to adjust enough to see properly. The first floor was designed as one large open space with a small kitchen in the back. Right in the middle of the area were several long tables, where ten or eleven people were rowdily eating a late lunch. There was an unused fireplace off to the side near the narrow hallway leading to the kitchen, opposite to the wooden, somewhat worn stairs. In the back was a counter manned by a balding, middle-aged man who glanced at Arisa and Noire as they entered.
“Is it too dark in here for you?” Noire asked as he gently guided Arisa to the nearest wall so they weren’t blocking the doorway. Evidently, he had not had the same problem that Arisa had encountered due to the sudden change in lighting.
“No, I can see,” Arisa replied.
Cain walked in soon afterwards and, after a quick scan around the room, headed straight for the counter and began talking to innkeeper.
“Does no one think it’s strange that he still has his hood on indoors?” Arisa asked.
“No, it’s pretty normal, actually,” Noire answered. “Plenty of people like to travel around with a low profile.”
“Oh yeah?” Arisa commented. Sayo had never taken to the idea of keeping a ‘low’ profile. She had always made a point to talk to other travelers and exchange stories whenever she and Arisa had stayed overnight anywhere on their travels. With her looks and her bright personality, Sayo had always managed to become the center of attention wherever she went, and genuinely seemed to enjoy her place in the spotlight.
“You two stand out too much,” Cain said flatly as he returned from the counter.
“Yeah, I guess we do,” Noire agreed with a shrug. Arisa frowned a little as she tried to figure out why they stood out. In her opinion, she and Noire had not really done anything to make them stand out.
“I booked us a room. Upstairs and the second room to the right. Let’s go,” Cain said as he briskly turned around and headed for the stairs.
“Huh? Cain, wai—” Arisa began to chase after the dragon before she felt Noire gently grab her by the arm. “Noire?”
“I’m going to step out a bit to sell the demon cores we gathered earlier to the mercenary guild. I’ll be back real soon, okay?” He lightly patted her shoulder before leaving the inn.
After he left, Arisa hurried up the stairs to the room Cain had specified. It was a relatively unfurnished room with just two beds and two drawers on opposing sides, and was lit by one small, dim lamp near the door. Cain had already began unpacking and had stacked most of the luggage in a neat pile near one side of the room.
“Noire said he was going to sell the cores,” Arisa announced.
“So even small towns like this have a guild now,” Cain muttered. Arisa sat down on the bed at the other side of the room as Cain finished unpacking. “Stay here,” he said as he moved for the door. “I’m going out to buy a few things. Don’t make any trouble.” He left before Arisa even had the chance to argue. Arisa stared at the now-closed door for a while with a frown on her face.
In the simplest terms, Arisa was bored. She did not know how long it had been since Cain had left her, though she did not think he had been gone for more than an hour at least, and she did not know how much longer she would have to wait for him. She had meant to take a short nap while she waited —she couldn’t possible get into trouble if she wasn’t doing anything— but she had somehow found it difficult to fall asleep. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t tired, but she no matter how much she tried, Arisa could not fall asleep. Perhaps she was simply too overwhelmed at the moment to sleep, or perhaps she was too unused to the environment.
But she had rarely had trouble sleeping before in all of her travels with Sayo.
With a small sigh, Arisa got out of bed and stretched. She figured that if she was going to sit around and wait, she might as well do it downstairs where she at least wasn’t alone.
There were fewer people in the inn than before, though there were still a number of people sitting down to eat. As she didn’t have any money to buy food with, Arisa decided to stand against the wall that Noire had led her to earlier. From there, she thought, she was relatively out of the way and would be able see whoever came through the door. Once again, the man behind the counter glanced at her for a while and looked away after she had settled against the wall.
“‘Ey, laddie, where’d’ya come from?” Two middle-aged men with unkempt hair smelling strongly of alcohol approached Arisa’s spot on the wall and began talking to her.
“I, um,” Arisa stammered, unsure of whether she should answer or not. She had a feeling that she shouldn’t be telling just anyone that she had come from another world and was currently helping the Empress.
“Yer wearin’ some mighty strange clothing, laddie,” the second man continued. “D’ja come from th’ city or somethin’?” He grabbed the collar of her jacket with his grubby fingers to examine the fabric before she could protest.
“Get your filthy hands off of her.”
As soon as the man had touched her jacket, a gloved hand had shot out from the side and restrained the man’s wrist in a vice-like grip, causing him to let go immediately. Arisa couldn’t see his face, but the two men were visibly shying away from Noire as he casually twisted the man’s wrist in an unnatural angle. “Get out of my sight,” Noire hissed, causing the hairs at the back of Arisa’s neck to rise. She had not realized exactly how scary Noire could be when he wanted to be. The two men left as soon as Noire let go. After making sure they were gone, Noire turned around and smiled worriedly. Every trace of his fury from just moments ago had left his face. “Are you alright?” he asked as he gently fixed the collar on Arisa’s jacket. “They didn’t hurt you?”
“N-no, I’m fine. Thank you,” Arisa said.
“Good,” Noire replied. “But what were you doing out here? Didn’t Cain book a room for you?”
“He did, but I…” I didn’t feel like staying there, Arisa finished in her head. She had regretted her decision already. She would have been in trouble if Noire had not come when he did, which was exactly what Cain had told her not to do.
“Were you waiting for me?” Noire asked.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. I was. Sort of,” Arisa replied. She had not exactly been waiting for Noire specifically, but she thought that I wouldn’t hurt to say she was.
Noire chuckled. “Thanks for waiting,” he said. “It makes me happy, even if you didn’t really mean it. Anyway,” he continued, “are you hungry? Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get us some food.”
Arisa went and sat down at the edge of the nearest table as Noire went up to the counter to buy food. It felt much more comfortable inside of the inn now that Noire was here with her.
“Here you go,” Noire said as he returned with two trays of food and placed one in front of her. It was a simple meal consisted of soup and bread. “There wasn’t exactly much to choose from, but I hope it’ll suit your tastes.”
“Thank you,” Arisa said as she dipped a small piece of bread into the soup. It was a bit salty, but the food was good and warm nonetheless. “It’s good.”
“That’s great,” Noire responded with a smile. He continued to watch and smile while Arisa continued to eat. “By the way,” he said as he pulled out a small pouch, “this is the money I received for the demon cores that we harvested.”
“Why are you giving it to me? Shouldn’t you give it to Cain instead?”
“But Cain didn’t give you any money to spend for yourself, right?” Noire pushed the bag across the table towards her. “He has his own money, I doubt he’ll care. And if it really bothers you that much, you can always take it for now and ask him about it later.”
“Well, alright, if you insist,” Arisa muttered as she accepted the pouch. She thought it was heavier than it looked, but she had no way of telling how much money was inside of it or how much it was worth. She stowed the pouch away in her pocket and hoped it didn’t stand out too much.
“So, what are you and Cain doing here?” Noire asked. “I doubt Orsus was your final destination.”
“Yeah, we’re heading somewhere else,” Arisa replied.
“Does it have anything to do with the Empress that Cain mentioned earlier?”
“So, where are you going?”
“Well…” Arisa wasn’t sure if she was supposed tell anyone what she and Cain were doing, although Cain had never explicitly told her that she couldn’t.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Noire assured her.
“We’re going to the Weiss Mountains,” Arisa said. She figured it would be alright to tell Noire as long as she didn’t tell him why they were going. But then again, she didn’t really know herself, either.
“The Weiss Mountains, huh. Wasn’t that place cursed recently?”
“Or so I’ve heard. Evidently, the people of the Weiss Mountains were sealed inside and can’t leave. People from the outside can still enter and exit freely, and the elves typically keep to themselves anyway, so it hasn’t affected trade or anything much,” Noire explained. “Is Cain going to go and break the seal or something?”
“I don’t know,” Arisa replied.
“Well, Cain’s a dragon, so I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.” Noire paused for a second before he beamed and continued, “it’s your turn now. Ask me anything you’d like, and I’ll answer.”
Immediately, Arisa wanted to ask Noire how he knew her, and what he meant when he had said he was helping her because he had promised. But, strangely enough, a small thought at the back of her head stopped her question at the tip of her tongue. Something small in her mind told her that she shouldn’t ask, and that she wouldn’t want to know.
Noire waited patiently as Arisa wondered what to ask him. As she stared at him, she noticed that his hair began to twitch again.
“Is there something on my face?” Noire asked.
“No!” Arisa blurted out in embarrassment as she realized she was staring too hard. “It’s just that your hair just… moved?”
“My hair?” Noire began to chuckle as he realized what she had meant. “Oh, these. These are my ears. I’ve been keeping them flattened so people don’t find out that I’m a lycan. I probably still move them subconsciously, though.”
“They were… your ears?” She had thought that she had heard him wrong.
“Yeah. If you’re curious, do you want to touch them and see for yourself?”
With a small, sheepish nod, Arisa gave in to her curiosity and hesitantly reached out. Noire politely lowered his head to give her better access. Arisa found that Noire’s ears were no different from an animal’s, just larger. They were soft and slipped through her fingers and were rather pleasant to the touch.
“Haha, that tickles,” Noire said, causing Arisa to draw back her hand in embarrassment.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
“Why don’t you want people to find out that you’re a lycan?” Arisa asked.
“Hmm? It’s because most people are a bit edgy about other races right now, because of the Taint. The increase in demons have made them a lot warier about outsiders, especially lycans like me because we have a bit of demon blood in our lineage,” Noire explained.
“Really?” Arisa asked as she finished off the last of her meal.
It was only then that she realized that Noire had not touched any of his.
Act 2: Welcome to the Wonderful World III
“And what are you two doing?” Cain walked up to the table carrying a few bags in one hand.
“We were just eating,” Noire replied. “Care to join us?”
“You were eating this? Surely you jest,” Cain said as he eyed the food that Noire had ignored. “Why buy food that you’re not even going to eat?”
“Who said I wasn’t going to eat it?” Noire said with a smile. He then proceeded to wolf down the entire meal —soup, bread, and all— at once.
Cain watched him with a mixed expression, as if he was stuck between being impressed by Noire’s tenacity or awed by his stupidity. “You’re going to regret that,” Cain told him flatly.
“Noire… are you okay?” Arisa asked. He was visibly a shade paler than he had been just moments before, although he was still smiling just the same.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied as he stood up. “There’s something that I need to take care of, so I’ll take my leave for now.” He brought his and Arisa’s trays back up to the counter before he left the inn.
Cain stared at him as he left and muttered, “stubborn mutt,” after the door had closed. Turning to Arisa, he said, “if you’re done, go upstairs and go to sleep.”
“It’s not that late yet,” Arisa replied. It was still late afternoon and the sun was still high in the sky.
“You were up through most of the night, and I doubt you slept while I was out. Go and sleep. I’ll be downstairs if you need something.”
Unwilling to argue, she muttered Cain goodnight and went upstairs. She was tired, but she still wasn’t sure if she’d be able to sleep yet. She figured that she might as well try nevertheless. Arisa climbed up the stairs, entered the room that Cain had booked, closed the door behind her, and once again lied down on the bed.
She stared blankly at the other side of the room. The room was still somehow light enough for her to make out the outline of the bed on the opposite side, despite that there were no windows and the lamp was off. The culprit, Arisa figured, was the light entering the room from underneath the door.
Time passed as Arisa tossed and turned, vainly hoping that finding a more comfortable position would help her finally sleep. Arisa unwillingly went over her current situation as she tried to sleep. She had fallen through a mirror in the attic and had been all but forced to follow Cain around in a world that she did not know. She had already given up on the notion that everything might have been a strange dream or a sick joke.
She wanted to take a shower.
She wanted to sleep in her own bed in her own room on the second floor of the store.
She wanted to dust off the antiques again. She didn’t want for the brooch to lose its shine or for the music box to get dust stuck between its gears before she could hear it play.
She wanted to see Sayo. She wanted to go home. Surely, Sayo had returned home by now. Arisa wondered what would happen if Sayo came home to find that she was missing. Would Sayo freak out? Would Sayo panic?
Surely, Sayo would have been able to get out of this mess without breaking a sweat. She was Sayo. Sayo knew everything. And if by chance she didn’t, she would surely be having the time of her life exploring this strange new world. Arisa wished she could be as confidant as Sayo always was.
“Sayo,” Arisa muttered to herself as she rolled over in bed yet again. She pressed her eyes against the thin blankets as she held back her tears. She didn’t want her eyes to be red and puffy when she woke up. “Where are you?”
Arisa opened her eyes. The space around stretched endlessly. There were countless shards glimmering around her, out of her reach. Other than that, there was nothing —no ground, no sky, no floors, no walls. Nothing. It was a strange place.
“Good morning, Arisa. Or perhaps it would make more sense if I said, ‘Good night?’ How are you?”
Arisa spun around to face where the voice had come from. Her hair and jacket trailed around her as if she was floating in water. There was a man behind her. He was tall, perhaps even taller than Cain. His long, white hair flowed around him and tapered to where it was tied at the end. His somewhat messy bangs, too, floated a little in front of his eyes. What was most stunning was his eyes. They were black —entirely black, all the way across his sclera. But when he moved, Arisa could see little golden specks of light twinkling within them, not unlike the glistening shards that existed in this space.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am Julius. Julius Ignatius Clockworker. That is the name that I was given. To others, I am also known as the Chronicler. I am someone who knows you very well, Arisa.”
“Yes,” Julius chuckled softly. “I have heard much about you from someone who loves you dearly. And I have always been watching over you.”
She should have been alarmed, or at least wary. Arisa felt that, normally, she already would have been. Yet, she was calm. It was as if Julius’ presence was already familiar to her. “Do I know you?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “We have never met before.”
“Oh, I see.” Arisa took another glance around her surroundings. The space was strangely calming. She was so comfortable here, though she couldn’t pinpoint why. It was as if she had always known this space. “Where am I?”
“We are nowhere. And yet, we are everywhere. This is a space that has been removed from the constraints of time.” Julius answered. “But you, specifically, are still in the bed on the second floor of the inn at Orsus, finally asleep. Or at least, your body is.”
“Is this a dream? This isn’t real, right?”
“Of course this is a dream,” Julius said as the lights in his eyes twinkled. “But why on earth can’t it also be real?”
“So all of this is real?”
“What do you think, Arisa?”
Arisa frowned. “I think… I think this is real,” she said. She wanted it to be real.
“If that is what you think, then it must be true.” Julius smiled, further confusing Arisa. With a sigh, she decided to let the issue go. Then, in a more serious tone, Julius continued, “what is it that you wish for, Arisa? What do you wish to do here?”
“I want to go home,” Arisa answered. “I want to go home and find Sayo.”
Julius chuckled again. “It seems that it’s too early for you to fully understand the question. But if that is your wish, then let it be so. Let me warn you, however, that those things may not necessarily be as synonymous as you think they are.”
“What do you mean?”
Instead of answering, Julius reached out and pat Arisa on the head as if she was a small child again. “You’ll understand one day. And when that day comes, I hope you will have matured enough to truly answer my question.”
Arisa looked up at him in confusion as Julius chuckled.
“It’s almost time for you to go now,” Julius said. “The dream is ending.”
“Where am I going?”
“Quite the philosophical question,” Julius replied, amused. “You are going forwards, Arisa, and you are going to where the wishes of your heart will lead you. But for now, I think it would suffice to say that you are going back, to where you currently are and where you ought to be.” He lifted his hand off of Arisa’s head and laid it across her eyes, closing them. “Rest well, Arisa. I wish for you peaceful dreams. We will meet again.”
And with that, Arisa felt herself fall back down outside of the space where Julius was.
A beautiful woman was sitting with her eyes closed on an extravagantly crafted throne at the end of an equally elaborate chamber. She wore a form-fitting black dress adorned with deep red embroidery and silver feather-like ornaments. Her dress was cut rather low in the front, going as low as her navel, and showed off her generously endowed chest —not that she seemed to mind in the slightest. Perhaps it was because her lustrous black hair, curling lavishly at the ends, ran down to her chest in a slightly messy fashion in an attempt to cover her immodesty. Or, perhaps it was because she was wearing a cape as well, as black as her dress, with dark pauldrons at her shoulders and held together by a simple chain across her collar.
Her cape draped over the throne and cascaded down the steps of the elevated platform the throne sat upon like a river of black.
On her fingers were a few rings with glittering gemstones that looked obviously expensive, if not magical. On her left hand, which she daintily rested her chin upon, was the head of a silver snake with ruby eyes that was wrapped around the rest of the length of her forearm and looked like it could come to life at any moment.
Most strikingly, however, were the horns on either side of her head. They curled forward and around, like a ram’s, and look too real to be a mere headpiece.
The beautiful woman sighed and opened her eyes, revealing her blood-red, demonic pupils. She shifted in a vain attempt to make herself more comfortable, but eventually gave up on her endeavor. The throne, she realized, was much harder than she had expected it to be.
The view, too, was not much to write home about either. She didn’t know what she had originally expected, but it was neither as grand nor as fulfilling as she had thought that it would be.
“Your Majesty,” a young man called out with a low bow as he opened the grandiose double-doors into the chamber. He approached the throne the woman was sitting on and knelt reverently. Like the woman, he was dressed in black garb and had straight black hair that reached his shoulders. His uneven bangs covered one of his eyes, which were a demonic red like the woman’s except that his sclera was black as well, making a stark contrast to his pale skin.
“You’re back, Raven. How are they?”
“They are well and currently resting in one of the rooms we have provided them. They refused to be alone.”
“How nice it must be to be close to one’s sibling,” the woman muttered in response.
The man, apparently called Raven, simply lowered his head in silence.
“Even still,” the woman began again as she lazily played with her hair with a finger, “it’s quite rare that two Alices crossed over at the same place at the same time. Perhaps the heavens have decided to bless me for my efforts, for once?”
The woman laughed derisively. “As if,” she said with visible disdain. “Remind me,” she started again after taking a moment to grimace, “what are their names again?”
“The elder is Jakob,” Raven replied. “The younger is Wilhelm, Your Majesty.”
“Hmm…” The woman looked truly uninterested as she twirled her hair around a finger and looked away, but both individuals present knew that she had never forgotten their names in the first place. After all, if played correctly, they would become powerful tools in her arsenal. Then, letting her hair drop back down as if she had suddenly recalled something, she asked, “how fares my army, Raven?”
The beautiful woman’s name was Morrigan. Once, she had been granted the title of the Black King, one of the arms of the Empress. Once, she had been a close advisor to her elder sister, whom she had loved.
But that was in the past.
“Unfortunately, a few of our forces have been destroyed, slowing our progress,” Raven replied with a bow.
“That hunter of ours again, is it?”
“Most likely so.”
Morrigan closed her eyes and fell into silence for a while. A hungry smile alighted her face when she next opened them. “I think it’s high time I paid him a visit. He’s been taking such good care of our troops, after all.”
“Of course,” Raven responded without missing a beat. “I’ll make preparations to escort you at once.”
“No. I’m going alone.”
“Your Majesty?” A brief look of confusion flashed across his visage.
“I said I’m going alone. I don’t need you with me,” Morrigan replied sharply as she got up from the throne and made to exit the chamber. “I’ll trust you to deal with things here. Start re-organizing our forces to make up for what we lost.”
“As you say,” Raven said with a low bow after a moment of hesitation. He kept his head down until Morrigan had disappeared from his view.
A blond lycan rested atop a tree in the middle of a sea of black demon blood. Strewn around him were the carcasses of defeated demons slowly melting away. He didn’t even bother to pick up their cores, which, considering the size of the demons’ corpses, should have net him a sizable return had he bothered to deal with them. His hair was so blond that it almost looked white and his olive skin was heavily scarred —a testament to the number of battles he had seen. The most prominent scar, however, was one that ran down in a jagged line across his missing right eye.
His ears twitched and he abruptly opened his left eye. Not a moment later, a beautiful woman appeared before him with two demon generals by her sides. She smiled sultrily at him, ignoring his piercing glare.
“Hello, hunter. I see that you’ve been having fun with my forces as of late.”
“Hardly,” the lycan replied. His golden eye cast a malicious light as he sneered, “and your forces were so pathetic I’d never count on them for anything that mattered, if it were up to me.”
“Yes, exactly,” Morrigan replied, still smiling. “The one’s that listen are too weak to be useful, and the one’s that aren’t don’t listen. That’s why I find myself in a dire need for strong commanders, like you.”
“Is that an invitation?”
“Come with me,” Morrigan stretched out her slender arms, as if she meant to wrap the lycan in her embrace. “I’m sure my demons were much too weak to satisfy you. If you come with me, I can guarantee that you’ll have stronger prey to hunt. After all, there’s nothing exciting about hunting game that’s much too weak for your standards. I can make it worth your while.”
The lycan suddenly burst into laughter. He was laughing so hard that he was clutching at his sides. Then, just as abruptly, he stopped. “It’s true, your demons were so weak that it was hardly a fight at all.” He jumped off the tree, causing his scarlet mantle and its blood-red hood to flutter out behind him, revealing the considerable stash of weaponry that had been hidden underneath.
Slowly, he drew out a dagger from his waist and pointed it at the woman before him. Then, he spat out, “I always appreciate a good hunt, but you’ve unfortunately missed your mark. I hate demons. I loathe them. And that includes the vile hag that deems herself their leader.”
An ugly expression flashed across Morrigan’s face for a brief moment before she snapped her fingers and signaled the two demons beside her into motion.
“Hmph. Was that supposed to be a challenge?”
The hunter stood on top of the two fresh corpses that littered the ground. He held a dagger in one hand and a miniature crossbow in the other. There were more blades strapped across various belts on his person that he had used freely during the brief skirmish. He stepped down on one of the corpse’s head in vengeance, allowing it to ooze against his boot, as he bore a cocky smile.
“You’re quite skilled. Much more so that I’d originally thought,” Morrigan said. She retained her original poise, though her voice betrayed only the slightest hints of hesitation. “It makes me like you all the more.”
A knife flew past her face, cutting off a few strands of hair as it did.
“You really don’t get it, do you?” The lycan had stopped smiling. “If I were you, I’d start running before I decide to hunt you too.”
“A pity,” Morrigan replied as she flipped away her hair. “But I’m not so boorish that I don’t know when to take a graceful leave. Always know, however, that I’ll welcome you in my ranks with open arms should you ever decide to join me.”
The hunter stared where the Black King had stood for a while even after she left. It was only when he felt the hair at the back of his neck finally stand down and the goosebumps fade from his skin that he allowed himself to lower his tension. He took another look at the two demon carcasses —now a barely recognizable form a pile of black goo— with a look of utter disgust before swiftly pulling up his hood turning away.
And with that, red riding hood left to find his next hunt.
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