Next Royal Road u/KieveKRS
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“Are you sure about this?” Comms called through the short-wave, Willin’s headset crackling only slightly louder than the pouring rain. It was distorted and covered the timbre of his voice, but it worked.
He checked the batteries on his guns, both pistol and rifle topped off. The pistol was secured into the holster on his hip, the rifle slung across his chest over the heat-plate designed to dissipate any plasma that might hit it. His armour wouldn’t do the best against kinetic armaments—it was never designed to go against a railgun—but military personnel were rarely given those anyway. Too inefficient.
“As sure as I can be,” he replied, checking his harness. Two spare batteries, four ration packs, water, the transmitter that fed into his headset, some assorted tools for unlikely scenarios, and a knife tucked into his boot. The footwear was typically used for traversing hostile environments or boarding operations—the material thick and cumbersome—but it worked just fine for him. He had gotten used to wearing it.
He opted not to bother with the helmet. It would limit his senses in a place like this, the EW field making even the most basic function disorienting. Tech adjusted the physical scope on her rifle, though her favourite weapons were the two Compact Anti-personnel and Rapid Discharge systems she had attached to her hips—the CARDs being designed to switch between rapid-shot clusters to suppress a wide area, and a single-fire mode better suited to more precise requirements. The larger weapon was mostly for show—there was hardly a reason to carry an Anti-Material Rifle to begin with—but it didn’t hurt to counter possible armour.
The purple-furred female’s true weaponry rested both on and under her armour, her augments and the equipment linked to them making her a mobile Electronic Warfare platform. Though much of her abilities would be limited in scope here, she was still more than capable of supporting him. He would be relying on her to dissuade any action against them, as well as using her modifications to keep them in the loop.
She looked like an oddly-coloured female, but she was closer to a walking EMP and scanner rolled into one.
“Short-wave is stable, if a bit distorted,” Willin continued, flicking some of the water off his fur. “Tech will try to keep the signal clean, but no promises. Comms, Nav, you two are keeping the craft warm and ready.”
“Understood, Leader,” Nav replied, their androgynous voice warbling slightly. “Estimated time-frame?”
“Long enough for you two to figure out the ration-packets.”
Comms laughed over the headset. “Nav would rather lick the floors.”
“Just don’t get too distracted with each other while we’re gone,” Willin teased through his smirk, Tech rolling her eyes at him.
“The same could be said for you, Leader. Don’t get too caught up making ‘friends’ with the locals.”
“Or Tech,” Nav added dryly. Their tone hovering between annoyance at the jibes regarding Comms and Nav’s occasional fling, and amusement at the suggestion Tech was interested in pursuits of the flesh with the crew at all. She might be, but she had a habit of dropping the thermostat of whichever room belonged to whoever made the comment, so it was safer to just assume she was off-limits.
“Cold room,” Tech responded casually as she adjusted her audio interface, Nav sighing loud enough for it to be picked up. Comms laughed in a way that suggested he was thankful for Tech’s assistance in ensuring Nav would be seeking a warm bed for the moon. Willin shook his head, hoping that they didn’t need to extract in any particular hurry.
It was easier to get in the air when your two remaining crew weren’t otherwise occupied
“Batteries green. Supplies green. Short-wave sufficient,” he reported, receiving confirmations from Tech. “Operation is to establish communication with local Grand Hunter and receive compliance, information on other packs, and facilitate reintroduction to structure.”
“Alternative is to report pack as non-compliant and pursue other Grand Hunters,” Tech added, repeating what they went over earlier. “My augments are heavily limited, but we should be able to deal with it.”
“Are you sure that you two can manage hostilities?” Comms asked, his voice faltering slightly. Though they had been assigned to the scout craft at random, they had grown rather close as a unit over their time. If it wasn’t for the professional obligations prohibiting it, they might have all decided to move into a den together—they were that intimately familiar with each other. As it was, they would likely be reassigned to serve elsewhere after their current mission was complete.
Such was the life of those like them.
“Tech has more equipment under her fur than our ship has installed—weakened or not,” Willin assured the male. He shot a pointed look at the female. “She’s also under direct order
to return in the event things become too dangerous. Alone, if required.”
Tech scowled, but nodded anyway. Comms grunted their understanding. “Leader?”
A moment of pause. “Nothing. Come back, okay?”
“Will do my best, Comms. Nav, keep an eye on him.”
“It will be done, Leader. Stay safe.”
He placed a paw to his headset, hovering over the button to cut the transmission. “You too.”
“Ready to go?” Tech asked, slinging her AMR over her back and re-securing her CARDs. Willin double checked his auxiliary equipment, hoping that he didn’t need to use any of it. Nodding, he gestured for her to follow, the two leaving behind the craft to slip into the woods.
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“Something up?” he asked, raising a brow at Tech. The female was fidgety, restless and scanning their surroundings more than required. She might have heard something, but the thunderous hiss of rain drowned out most everything—it was part of the reason they waited for it.
She wore a reluctant expression, her eyes flickering to the silver and gold trees for a moment. “Prox’ is going wild.”
“Proximity sensor effected?” he queried, feeling the weight of his weapons tug on his body. Tech nodded.
“It’s weak. I think the ‘spike is messing with it—along with everything else—but it’s reporting…a lot.”
She shook her head, a paw twitching over a CARD. “Not until we go past them.”
He joined her in looking around, shaking off water uselessly. “Wildlife?”
Willin shrugged. “The message mentioned that it was different.”
“Details would have been nice,” she grumbled in return, waving her paw to get him moving again, though she kept one on her weapon.
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“Visual,” he reported, lowering the rifle from his shoulder. “Anything?”
Tech shook her head, still on a swivel. “Prox’ is still lit up, but at this point it might be less distracting to shut it off.”
“Keep it. Rather have it telling us things are around all the time than miss something big because we got annoyed.”
She sighed, tapping her audio interface twice to change the song she had playing. “What do you see?”
“Low fences, but dense buildings. Lots of traffic despite the weather. Looks like they’re used to it. Think they know we’re here?”
“Doubt it. Gear?”
He shouldered his weapon to look through the scope. “No guns, but lots of melee. Armour seems to be a mix of leather and metal. Can’t say what kind.”
Tech pulled her AMR to look, Willin shifting to keeping lookout. “No guns…” She shot him a look. “I’m not sure if that’s reassuring, or worrying.”
He shrugged. “The less I need to get shot at with, the better.”
“The goal is to not
give them reason to.”
“Well, I can’t be perfect all the time.”
Tech laughed, the banter easing her nerves. “You’d have to start, Leader.”
With a roll of his eyes, he patted her shoulder with the back of his paw. “Let’s get moving. Diplomacy doesn’t do itself.”
The purple-furred female sighed, likely biting back another quip as she nodded.
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It went better than expected. So far, anyway.
They had approached the settlement proper, received what could be described as a ‘lukewarm’ welcome, then were told to follow several Lilhuns donning black leather and far too many daggers. Their escorts kept a close eye on the guns that they brought, but no one had made any comments about them yet. It was encouraging, but also worrying.
“Still nothing?” he muttered, quiet enough to not be heard by the others, but loud enough for Tech. She seemed hesitant, glancing over to one of the taller structures as they passed through, but gave a subtle shrug.
“Static is messing with my augments,” she grumbled. “Could be none, could be a few snipers. I can’t tell.”
He exhaled heavily. It was a bit of a blessing that her modifications were working at all, but it was easy enough to see that she felt bare without all the little tweaks she had gotten used to.
Willin never actually got the chance to learn all the tricks she was capable of—it was against policy to ask and she never saw fit to talk about it—but of the ones he did know; her proximity sensor, jammer, and ship integration were her favourites.
It was hard to board her ship if she knew where you were, locked up your gun, then spaced the room you were in, all without closing her game. He was pretty sure she was disappointed that she had only gotten to do that once.
“New ones, the Grand Hunter will see you soon,” an escort informed them as they drew near the Atmospheric Entry Craft that acted as a den for the one they were here to meet. They didn’t know the name yet, nor were they given the chance to do more than say why they were there. He had gotten as far as saying he was from the United Military before the people welcoming them scurried off to get someone else.
He busied himself by inspecting the buildings leading up to the AEC, some being a respectable three floors. Newer constructions seemed to differ in method, the beams a charred ashen colour rather than the same odd silver wood. Why they had elected to burn the materials, he didn’t know, but it seemed to be what they decided to do.
A surprising amount of the population carried a curved stick over their shoulder, the ends tied together by a string. Some attached lengths of a similar material to their leathers, one end made with a small loop as it dangled. The catch they carried to what looked to be a hunter’s lodge suggested it was used during their hunting, but he couldn’t fathom how.
Dragging his attention from the crowd, he eyed the large shuttle.
The massive main doors looked to have been damaged, though a structure had been attached since, leaving the stuck-open entrance to seem less like the result of a hard landing. The gentle hum of the internal power generation was absent, the required energy for what was still working being drawn from large solar panels that had been installed into skylights in the ceiling. The cloud-laden weather dimmed the light that illuminated the inside, but it was serviceable enough. Whatever power was produced, it was being funnelled somewhere that wasn’t servicing the majority of the craft.
Wide halls were populated by Lilhuns and spotted with doorways, the majority propped open since they were programmed to shut in the event of a power outage, lest explosive decompression eject whomever was occupying the room—along with anyone nearby in the hallway, should they be so unlucky.
It was customized, that much was obvious. Several rooms that would have been sparsely populated with anything other than beds were instead modified into training rooms and gyms. Densely packed barracks contrasted against large storage areas filled with various goods, pelts and metal weapons lining various shelves. Newer accommodations had been installed for more of those curved staffs, smaller pointed sticks stacked in piles nearby.
They progressed deeper and deeper into the confines of the shuttle, the common sight of the local pack trickling away, none seeming to have business this far in. Gruffer and more observant Lilhuns became the only people they saw while the hallways narrowed into tighter quarters, what might have fit cargo vehicles now only allowing a few shoulder widths, doorways becoming less common. The wary eyes and darkened clothing paired with the occasional dyed fur of those they passed—black seeming to be the dominant colour.
“In here,” an escort grunted, jabbing their jaw towards an isolated door. A paw was held out as they tried to step forward. “Weapons.”
Tech’s paw twitched towards one of her CARDs, the act of Willin relinquishing his pistol and rifle stopping her from snapping it into rapid-fire and burning the air with plasma. She glared at him for a few seconds before doing the same, the escort smirking.
“You will have them returned. The Grand Hunter is not so desolate as to pilfer the possessions of those who come merely to speak.”
He wasn’t worried about it. The guns were coded to them and Tech could fry them if it came down to it. Well, he wasn’t sure if she could do it with the warp-spike messing with things, but the lock should be enough. The knife in his boot went unnoticed, so it wasn’t like he was completely unarmed anyway.
Tech followed suit, subtly glaring at him the whole time. He shrugged, there wasn’t much they could do about it. They were the ones seeking an audience with the most influential person here.
Satisfied, the escort pulled the door open, the quiet whirring of the unpowered servos accenting the air. They revealed a larger office adorned with little but the most base necessity, a wood and steel desk covered in papers, a chair seeming to be the only extravagant item within—though it was purely for the ergonomics, rather than any aesthetic reason—and the male sat upon it was leafing through a collection of documents while twirling an orange needle-like object in his paw.
The distinct lack of any guards to protect the Grand Hunter was surprising, but that took a back seat to the owner of the room.
Dark grey fur, a clouded eye that retained its sharpness, scars peeking beyond the confines of his leather clothing—the thick hides sporting metal scales sewn onto them. An ear flicked in their direction, the membrane cut at several points. He placed down his papers, leaning forward in his chair as he clasped his paws on the desk, a friendly smile donned that failed to convey anything but malice.
“Greetings, new ones,” the male offered in a cheery tone, the low rumble and gravelled texture of his voice carrying both humour and curiosity. He focused on Tech for a moment, his eyes narrowing over the affable expression before he regarded both of them equally. He gestured to the seating opposite of his desk some small distance away. Close enough to meet, yet far enough that it was made abundantly clear who was in charge.
Willin bowed his head politely, walking the distance and sitting where he was provided. Tech followed suit after a brief hesitation, her unfocused eyes snapping to him with frustration. His raised brow was met with a longer blink—her augments were reporting something that made no sense again.
“Now then,” the dark grey-furred male said, moving some of the documents on his desk to a stack. “What might bring you to me?”
“Forgive me, Grand Hunter…” Willin opened, prodding for a name.
The male simply maintained his attentive posture instead of providing. Willin adjusted his sleeve and decided it was more important to continue than dig for information that he could get by asking anyone who lived in the settlement.
“As for why we’re here; we represent the United Military, responding to a distress call. We have forwarded the request and were tasked with ascertaining the state of affairs before the fleets arrive to assist.”
The Grand Hunter nodded. “Yes, that much I could have surmised from your clothing alone.”
Tech raised a brow as the dark green-furred soldier forced a smile. “Of course. More specifically, we would like to speak with you about what you know of the others of your station, as well as discuss the reintegration of your pack.”
The smile of the grey-furred male widened. “You wish to make a deal?”
Tech’s gaze flickered to several points in the room, her brow furrowing as she jettisoned a huff in frustration. Willin took a moment to consider his plan of action, nodding when he didn’t see the harm.
“I believe we can come to an arrangement. Within reason, of course.”
The Grand Hunter chuckled as the needle he was playing with disappeared at a flick of his wrist. “Of course, of course. Deal, agreements, arrangements, contracts.”
The emphasis on the final item tickled something in the back of Willin’s mind. “Itemize it. What do you seek of me? It is rather disorganized to ask without quantifying, no? So…messy.”
“We want information on the other packs. Who leads them, number of members, where their settlements are,” Tech stated tersely, ignoring the disapproving glance Willin gave. “We also need to work on integrating those packs back into the UM—preferably with yourself setting precedent.”
The male’s face grew thoughtful. “As well as forgiveness, though that will cost quite the amount.”
Willin frowned. “Forgiveness? For not knowing your name?”
The Grand Hunter returned a blank stare, a dangerous grin spreading slowly. “Tell me, new ones, do you know of Avalon?”
Tech’s face hardened, her answer slow and cautious. “We do, though only through description.”
The male’s voice fell low. Quiet, yet powerful. His elbows on the table suddenly felt like a far greater threat than any armament. “Do you know the debt your superiors have incurred?”
“I don’t believe we have even had the chance to introduce ourselves,” Willin interjected, noticing Tech’s discomfort, her eyes darting around the room nervously.
“You need not,” the Grand Hunter remarked smugly. “You are forbidden from giving your names, no? Locked behind titles of station, merged and scattered at the whims of your masters. Soldiers who do not exist, yet sit within my office.”
Tech pawed for a CARD, forgetting that she had been disarmed at the door. Willin felt the weight of his knife pull on his boot. The male chuckled as he leaned back in his chair.
“But, given that you did not flee, I will give the benefit of the doubt regarding the debt. Though, it will make offering you more than your lives difficult.”
“What debt?” Willin pressed, receiving a flippant wave of the male’s paw.
“It matters not. I have more pressing matters than hearing why I should join the ranks of that which I supersede.”
“Matters such as?”
The Grand Hunter raised a brow. “You are being given the opportunity to leave whole, new one. I advise you to accept.”
Willin shook his head, ignoring Tech’s pointed look. “We need information. From the message we received, not everyone is as well off as you, and we intend to amend that. What can we trade for it?”
The male clasped his paws over his stomach, passively humouring them. “What do you offer? You may seek the details of the others, but I am not inclined to merely supply it.”
“Supplies, priority cooperation when the UM arrives.”
A chortle sounded out. “We are self sufficient. Such matters little.”
“Is there anything you would want?”
The Grand Hunter smirked, placing a paw on the table as the other produced another needle—this one a more yellow hue, the specifics of its shape blurring as it spun between his claws. “Your superiors asked me a favour. Data. How far could they push the Lilhun body before ligaments broke, the mind following shortly after? How twisted can we shape the psyche of kits?”
The temperature of the room seemed to chill, a twitch of the male’s lips pulling his muzzle into a slight snarl.
“They sought my kit to participate, after a time. Unfortunately, her will aligned—despite my reservations. In return, she would be wiped from the records. Ephemeral, never having existed to begin with. Never suffering the whims of those who became drunk on sending my Blades to their end, never finding their other.” The gravel to his voice turned to broken glass. “Yet your betters violated the agreement. Broke the contract
. They pulled her into your service, hid the fact from me, and had the gall to fabricate a story to coincide. Were it not for a particular series of favours I was owed, I would have been still planet-side in our system instead of here.”
The dark grey-furred male smirked, his demeanour relaxing. “It seems she has found what she sought. Without need for my meddling, at that. A shame, really. I had several competent males selected—those who could wield what she had become. Those who might give her what her blood-mother failed to gain.” He paused for a moment, a fraction of longing piercing through the scarred exterior. “Regardless, all I would have wanted has been gained. She is content, and I am crafting that which shall accept her when she is ready. Your military will only muddy that which I have achieved, were they to dig their claws into my work.”
“Their actions are separate from ours,” Willin countered, thankful that the impending conflict had seemingly resolved itself.
“Grand Hunter,” Tech addressed the male, an eye flicking to the ceiling for a fraction. “We were able to see that there are a fair number of settlements, but we need the information to do our job.”
“And your task would interfere with my own,” the grey-furred male reiterated, a polite—if bored—expression returned.
“What if we could ensure that it didn’t?”
The disinterest in the male’s eyes slipped into curiosity. “You seek to trade sovereignty for information? You hold such power?”
“We do,” Willin confirmed, surprised that Tech would offer. “Though you would be disregarding the support of the United Military, we could arrange an agreement of territory on this planet. It’s not as if we could populate the entirety of it within several of our lifetimes anyway.”
The Grand Hunter stared, each moment more uncomfortable than the last. Eventually, he smirked. “Information and the disregarding of the sins your betters inflicted upon me, for sovereignty…and a singular favour.”
“Indeed,” he replied confidently, reaching into his desk to produce writing implements and paper. “You see, my kit has pledged herself to someone of curiosity. I thought him worthless. Weak. Yet he has performed a duty befitting her Sheath, and I suppose I should reward it.”
Scribbling ceased, impeccable penmanship crafting a contract that was slid forward on the tabletop. He continued after gesturing for Willin to approach.
“Seek him last, give him what information you have gathered, then heed his request,” the male said through his smirk. “I do so look forward to seeing what becomes of it.”
The dark green-furred male perused the document, stipulations and all finely articulated, as if the Grand Hunter lived and breathed transaction. A few points needed to be addressed, mostly possible abuse cases within the fine print, but it was surprisingly fair. There was some worry about the otherwise excessive cost of breaking the contract, but Willin figured that it would be reasonable enough considering the circumstances.
Signing, he gestured Tech to do the same as a witness, the two of them representing the UM for all intents and purposes. It was hardly the first time they had made agreements like this, though trading such a large area on a planet they held no prior influence on was a first.
The Grand Hunter confirmed the terms and conditions with them one last time, smiling when they both nodded.
“Good! Now, for what you seek.” The male rummaged through a few drawers, producing a series of papers that were lined over the desk towards them. “The non-aggression treaty, as well as what my Blades have observed from their scouting.”
Willin read over each, the documents sorted by Grand Hunter, then by who they had under them. His brow raised at a few reports, but questions could wait. The male seemed happy to let them read, so he wanted to take advantage of it. Tech scanned over everything when Willin was done, her augments allowing her to commit the information to a digital memory for future reference back on the ship.
“There are quite a few names marked with this,” Tech noted aloud, pointing to a symbol next to several of the Grand Hunters and their extended packs. The grey-furred male nodded.
“Those have been eliminated or subsumed.”
Willin frowned, parsing the documents again. Mi’low, Toril, and a few others were designated as such. Looking through, only about four seemed to be free of the distinction. He looked questioningly to the male, a grin returned with a separate stack of paper, titled with a single name.
The notation was rather dense, though not in information that Willin was expecting. Instead of settlements or High and Low Hunters, it was laden with mentions of those belonging to the previously marked Grand Hunters. His eyes widened as he connected the dots.
“Hasen is trying to be a Master Hunter.”
“Correct,” the male confirmed cheerily. “He is integrating other packs into his command and eliminating those who refuse. It has become quite an issue as of late.”
Though Grand Hunters could be assigned the moniker by owning territory and a willing pack—assuming they have the force required to defend it—a Master Hunter must own magnitudes more. It was typically achieved by integrating Grand Hunter packs and their subservients through mutual benefit, but taking it by force was a lesser used method.
Given that he had already either taken or purged several, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to assume he would press it to include here.
Willin heard Tech curse under her breath, their promise of sovereignty obligating them to interfere. To allow a member of the military—stranded or not—free action against the grey-furred male’s territory would be the same as endorsing it, now that they were aware. It would be hostility by the UM in all but name, and the consequences that had seemed somewhat extreme before now hung over their heads like an executioner’s axe.
A dark, deep chuckle broke the two of them out of thought. “Contracts
, new ones,” the Grand Hunter started, a cold Void pooling in his eyes, “are not to be thought trivial. Do not break them.”
“It was a trap,” Tech snarled, jabbing a claw at the report in her paw. “You set us up.”
“Did I?” the male asked innocently. “You offered self-governance, non-interference, and non-aggression.”
“You withheld information!”
The Grand Hunter smiled, a shiver sent down Willin’s spine. “You agreed without doing proper research.”
Willin held a paw out to stop Tech from storming the male. “The contract is signed, Tech.”
“It’s invalid!” she snarled at him, receiving a cold look in return.
want to be the one to tell command that we allowed damn near genocide of a crew we were here to assist, just because we were too stubborn to adhere to an agreement?” he countered calmly. “This ‘Hasen’ is wiping almost a year's worth of survival, botanical, and every other specialized knowledge gained, just because he wants to control a section of a planet. This doesn’t change anything, it just means we know what we’re going into.”
“I like him,” the Grand Hunter opined with a grin. “He sees the value that my proposition offers.”
“What’s stopping us from just tearing up the contract right now and leaving you to your fate?” Tech barked.
“Your companions in your craft—quite the ship, might I add—would be a notable starting point.”
The two of them paused, eyes widened. The dark grey-furred male laughed again.
“Your proximity sensor has been reporting since you landed, no?” he asked, pointing to the equipment on Tech’s harness. “It must have been rather vexing, yes? Is it the warp-spike? Is it some army of the unknown? The uncertainty of never confirming what it tells you. The whispers of doubt that follow.”
“I’m surprised you recognized what it was,” Willin replied with a level tone. He didn’t like where this was going. The male offered a smile.
“Wildlife here is especially elusive. Skittish. Ceasing all motion while predators are near and silencing themselves.” Tech and Willin exchanged a glance as the male waved a paw dismissively. “It makes for rather intensive training for my Blades. To hunt without disturbing them. My kit was a natural in such regard, but others have slowly approached such a threshold.”
He folded his paws on the desk. “Your ship is currently being observed by them now, weaponry trained on the defences you thought so adequate. Surely you noticed the lack of guns, yes?”
“The distress message mentioned the lack of them was due to how urgent evacuation was,” Willin added cautiously.
“Yes, quite. I made sure to lock the armouries after taking enough to establish my power,” the male confirmed with a half-shrug. “Among those were rifles not dissimilar to the rifle that the purple one there brought with her.” He leaned back in his chair. “Sufficient to pierce the hull and whoever occupies the space behind it, no?”
Tech’s eyes unfocused, snapping to Willin with a fear behind them. The Grand Hunter spun his quill, unconcerned by the events.
“Your short-wave has been temporarily disabled. You can not warn them.”
“Threatening us to compliance?” Willin asked without emotion to his tone. He needed to keep things from escalating.
“Ensuring you understand the consequences of your actions,” the male replied plainly. “When one barters with Avalon, know that breaching such is grounds for death. Of you, and whoever I need to send with you.”
“They didn’t sign this,” Tech argued, kept in line by Willin’s demeanour.
did,” the Grand Hunter returned coldly. “Honour your signature, or regret such in the Void.”
Tech took an enraged step forward, stopped when her throat pressed against a dagger that was slipped in from behind. Willin felt the pressure of a knife to his own.
“Patience, new ones.”
“You took advantage of the interference to sneak assassins into the room?” Willin noted.
“No, my Blades were always here,” the male refuted lazily, nodding at Tech. “She noticed, but was unable to trust what her equipment told her.” He chortled for a moment. “Quite the annoyance, proximity sensors. I feel rather blessed to have the warp-spike rendering them little more than meaningless noise.”
“So this is it? You kill us now, our friends when they refuse to cooperate, then steal what we brought?”
The pressure on his neck faded with a wave of the male’s paw, the assassins being nowhere to be seen.
“Of course not!” the Grand Hunter exclaimed, his voice returning to its affable cadence. “You now know how futile it is to go against me. Fear not, I see no merit in hindering you. As long as you honour your portion of the contract, I will honour mine. It is a certainty that Avalon was founded on.”
Tech rubbed her neck, glancing questioningly at Willin. He gave the male a wary glance, but closed his eyes to concede. They were just going to get everyone killed if they tried to back out of something they had already agreed to.
“Then we have come to an understanding,” the dark grey-furred male announced happily. “As a show of faith, do you have any questions where I might provide clarity?”
The two soldiers glanced at each other, Tech begrudgingly giving Willin the floor. He gestured to the smallest stack of papers. “Who is this? There’s next to nothing about him. Are you withholding information against your contract?”
The Grand Hunter smirked. “That, new ones, is all I could gather from my Blades.”
“You have Lilhuns disappearing in the room a moment after holding a knife to our throats, and they couldn’t scout a settlement?”
“Isn’t it interesting?”
“Enthralling,” Tech commented dryly. The male tapped a claw against his head.
“Think, new ones. What might render my Blades little more than a mild inconvenience?”
Willin’s eyes narrowed. “Other Blades? Better Blades?”
The dark grey-furred male held an expectant smile. “None have been seen, save for my kit.”
“Your kit’s mate is the Grand Hunter? I don’t see one Blade deterring this many,” he admitted, flicking through the pages. Overt, covert, and disguised. None got very far.
“Thus why I believe the male is owed a favour,” the Grand Hunter explained. “I gave them four Blades as a gift. They have become more.” A predatory look of elation cracked through the veneer. “There exists no better Sheath than a Blademaster. Let alone one who surpasses my methods. If she is to succeed me, I would rather no other to accompany her.”
“Says here that he’s an alien,” Willin noted aloud, trying not to voice his surprise. “I’m skeptical.”
“Oh, please do be. It will make hearing about what he asks of you that much more amusing.”
“Any ideas what he might look for from us?” Tech spat, still irritated.
“Oh, I might have an idea,” the male answered cryptically, sliding a small tablet of silver wood across the desk. Willin picked it up to inspect it, two foreign scripts scratched into the surface. With a questioning glance, the Grand Hunter nodded, Willin stashing the tablet into a pouch. “He seeks that which others might not, for reasons as foreign as he himself is. I have little doubt that something related to that trinket will be his wish.”
“Then why visit him last?” the purple-furred female pressed.
“Because it will influence his decision.”
“Which is enough reason for us,” Willin declared with a warning scowl at Tech. She held his gaze before looking away in annoyance.
“Then our meeting is finished,” the male announced, gesturing to the door. It opened, the whirring of servos giving way to the distant ambient chatter of the hallway. Two of the black leather-clad escorts entered the room and awaited them.
“Is there anything we should know that may have not made it to the report about him?” Willin asked before leaving, turning naught but an ear for the response.
The Grand Hunter hummed for a moment. “Do mind your manners surrounding his kit,” he offered. “Or do not, it matters little to me if you survive past honouring the agreement.”
Tech stopped at the doorway, glaring at the male as Willin exited. “We never did get your name.”
His brows raised in interest. “You saw my signature.”
“I would rather hear it from you,” she insisted coolly.
A toothy smile spread over the male’s muzzle. “Grand Hunter Trill; Blademaster of Avalon, Sire of Phantom
, and—if I remember correctly—the Weighted Scale, Aspect of Balance.”
“’May he who barter with the Void fear its ire,’” she recited, conviction in her words.
“’Yet he who uphold bathes in its blessing,’ yes,” Grand Hunter Trill replied with a knowing look. “Consider it, new one. To be crushed under the obligations you fail to upkeep, or revel in that which you covet. Do be warned; though I let you and your party leave—” his eye gained a sharp edge. “You are never beyond my influence.”
“May the sun treat you well, Grand Hunter,” she replied tersely, spinning on her pad to leave. Willin glanced back as he waited for her to pass him, seeing nothing but the door closing behind her.
Their weapons were returned, each in the same state as they were confiscated, save for a familiar knife. He scowled as he shifted his footing to reveal that the comforting weight had been removed from his boot. He begrudgingly accepted the blade, tucking it back into the sheath as the Lilhun smirked at him, his mirth at the dark green-furred male’s displeasure evident.
They were escorted out of the shuttle, a pause afforded long enough for Willin to flick up his hood before they continued to the outermost edge of the settlement. As soon as they were outside of the fence, their escorts turned and quickly faded into the buildings.
A crackle came over the headset.
“Leader! Tech! We thought something may have happened,” Comms shouted into the earpiece, genuine worry coating his words.
“Were you unsuccessful?” Nav added, the sound of a small distance between speaker and microphone suggesting they were sharing.
Willin adjusted the strap of his rifle and started walking, Tech following after a lingering glance at the settlement. “We got what we came for, but it might have cost us.”
“It was simply a meeting, no?” Comms asked to clarify.
“If you can call being strung along by an Aspect ‘simple,’ then yes,” Tech growled.
“Balance,” Willin provided through a sigh. “Weighted Scale.”
“Receive your heart’s desire at a heavy sacrifice,” Nav commented after a moment, likely referencing something. “What did you give them?”
“Sovereignty and a favour to be paid out to another Grand Hunter.”
“That does not seem too unreasonable,” Comms voiced curiously.
“We’ll talk about it when we get back. I have a feeling that the hole was dug too deep to see the bottom quite yet.”
“There’s a battle brewing,” Tech notified the crew, adjusting her audio interface. For once, it was completely silent. “We got dragged into it.”
The short-wave fell silent.
“What do we do?” Comms questioned quietly, the crackle of the distortion pitching his voice slightly.
Willin snorted, exhaling slowly.
“We made a deal with Avalon, Comms. We honour the contract.”