"Uuuhh." Herah groaned out as starlight began to peak through the unbraided hair that blocked her vision.
"You need variety with the words you use to wake up ashbrain," Alex said with a nonchalant tone, the human being the first thing Herah saw after awakening and shaking her hair from in front of her face. Herah made note that the male twin looked perfectly fine sans the bags under his eyes and was staring at her with an uncaring look.
Herah then preceded to ignore Alex in favor of looking around, finding herself back in the clearing with the Donneur de Frêne. This time Herah was laying against one of the trees that sat at the edge of the clearing, with Alex standing before her without his jacket. Looking up at the human, Herah sneered,
"The ash do you want Alex?"
The human glared down at Herah while answering back with a voice laced with annoyance,
"Not shit from you certainly."
Herah rolled her eyes and gained an unamused expression before bluntly asking,
"Why are you acting like we haven't spoken to each other before?" Herah shook her head before beckoning for Alex with her right hand, "Get on with it already, what the fuck do you want?"
Alex huffed in annoyance before saying,
"I want to know what happened last night when you and Max went to the Oni base."
Herah grimaced before rubbing her forehead with her left hand, the feeling of skin on skin reminding her of just how the night before went. Herah brought her arm down from her head and glared at Alex with a snarl.
"Why don't you ask your sister?" Herah asked with hostility before looking around the clearing that was devoid of sentient life sans Alex and herself. "Where is your twin and Owen anyway?"
Alex huffed again before cryptically saying, "All I'm gonna tell you right now is that Max isn't in the best state of mind and Owen is trying to help her with that, I'll give you the finer details after I hear what happened."
Herah raised her brow before mockingly smiling at Alex and asking, "Why isn't her dearest brother helping her right now then?"
Sneering at Herah, Alex clenched his fist before taking a deep breath and allowed for his expression to settle into a neutral look. Now visibly calm, Alex spoke to Herah with a cold and measured tone.
"I'll tell you after I hear how your night went," The human sat down in front of Herah and gave her a small glare, "Now speak."
Herah almost retorted with more sass before thinking for a second and deciding against it. While the youngling found enjoyment in graving on the nerves of Alex, her curiosity and slight worry about what was going on with Max caused her to instead began relaying what had happened over the course of the prior night.
As Herah spoke, the youngling watched as Alex's expressions and body language changed. Alex listened at first with an impatient tapping of his foot that betrayed the neutral expression on his face, but quickly lost both once Herah began to speak of Moon. When Herah spoke of her and Max's first encounter with the priest, the human chuckled which Herah responded to with a one finger salute. As Herah spoke about the history lesson that Moon had imparted to her, Alex began to nod attentively and also started tapping his nose. The real reactions started when Herah began to talk about their fight with Moon and the conditions that Norwe had placed on it. By the end of it, Alex was looking absolutely livid with a snarl on his face and his fist clenched so tightly that Herah thought that the human might began to bleed. Instead, Alex spoke to Herah with a serious tone.
"Your story checks out with what Max told me. Fuck!" Alex turned away from Herah, "Do you know what this means?"
Herah had her own question, but decided to answer Alex's before asking any of her own.
"No, I don't," Herah said, a bit confused and miffed by what Alex was saying.
The human looked up to the sky and cursed once again, before turning back to Herah and saying,
"It means that avoiding fights are going to be that much harder."
Herah just blinked in confusion, getting an annoyed sigh from Alex in response.
"I'm saying that Norwe is likely to force any fights he believes will be entertaining to him, and judging by the punishment of not meeting the conditions he gave you for yours, the cost of failure isn't something any of us want to pay."
"Right you are on all accounts, my dear Soothsayer."
Startling Alex at her sudden rising and turning to the right, Herah growled at Norwe the Sloth. The Maker Sloth was laying on their belly, head down with their arms and legs splayed out as they lay in front of the tree to the right of Herah's own resting spot. The youngling immediately began to gather fire in her throat, the flames turning green as a few leaked out from her nose.
"You motherfucking, piece of SHIT!" Herah shouted, fire flowing out of her mouth at each word.
"Herah! Calm yourself!" Alex shouted at the youngling, having grabbed her shoulder before turning her to face him.
Herah, now facing Alex, looked him in the eye with a glare.
And immediately afterward, grabbed him by the throat with her left hand.
"You coward! I can't believe you have that look on your face at this very momen-"
"OW! You son of a bitch!"
Herah reflexively let go of Alex to pull out the kris dagger that had been buried into her wrist, the pain coursing through the youngling's sensitive nerves causing her to fall to a knee in agony.
"I can't believe just how quickly you lost your anger and allowed for it to be replaced by fear. Herah gritted out, attempting to rise only for her to slip on some of her blood and land face first on the ground. The youngling, after managing to lift herself up back to a knee, pointed at Norwe the Sloth, the Maker having raised their head to give a lazy smile, "This piece of shit set your sister up to die for their own fucking entertainment, and all you can do is look at him in fear!"
"I fucking know that! That's why I'm not antagonizing him." Alex growled out at Herah, slight anger towards the youngling tainting his fear towards Norwe.
"Hey Artist!" The Maker sloth called out to Herah with their voice giving clear indication that the sight before them was immensely entertaining. Now on their back while still wearing the same smile from earlier, Norwe the Sloth continued "While I do love the sight of discord, I appeared before you for a reason that doesn't just have to do with entertaining myself."
Herah's nostrils flared as smoke shot out of them, the youngling's expression becoming a scowl as venom began to pour from her lips.
"Oh really!? Then why the fu-"
"Herah you're an idiot." Alex's voice took on its signature feminine tone as his gift activated.
"-uuaah." Herah suddenly felt a switch flip in her brain as the curse that was leaving her mouth was suddenly lost to her along with much of her motor functions. Herah fell first onto the grass and drool began to pool around her head.
"Ahahahahahaha." Norwe the Sloth chuckled to themselves, "Huh. Soothsayer, you and the Artist are honestly some of the funniest parts of this Recompense. This kinda sweetens the reaction I got from your sister when I delivered the news."
Alex turned to Norwe with a curious look on his face.
"What did you tell her?"
Norwe chuckled once again before telling Alex,
"2 million were left dead in your sister's wake."
"I'm.... sorry?" Alex responded, disbelief ringing throughout his words.
While Herah had a hard time understanding everything, the youngling understood that what the furry creature that could destroy everything that was loved by her said was something serious. In response to this information, Herah let out a few unintelligible words.
"Your sister killed 2 million Oni last night with this gigantic fireball, that afterwards created a radioactive filled mushroom cloud that covered the entirety of the Oni city. Radiation poisoning is sure to take more of them in the coming days. The only reason you guys aren't currently dealing with the effects is because I was kind enough to keep all the grisly horror and general agony in the Oni city. And your sister, yes your sister Alex, caused all of that just so she could save your life. Yet, you aren't even trying to help her get through the severe mental trauma that she is going through right now. You're going to relegate it to my Artist, in fact. All because you feel that it's your fault that something of this magnitude has happened once again as a result of orders given by you to her."
Norwe said all of this with a playfully condescending tone, their smile never leaving their face. The Maker Sloth flipped onto their belly and pointed towards the near brain dead Herah. Herah felt the switch flip in her head as information and brain waves began to flow properly again.
"Uuuhh." Herah rubbed her head a few times before getting on both of her knees and looking towards Norwe the Sloth. The youngling then asked, in a disgruntled tone, "Norwe what are you, what are you talking about?"
The Maker Sloth just chuckled again before clicking its claws together. This caused a stone tablet to puff into the air before falling and hitting Herah's head. Wincing while picking up the tablet, Herah gave the carving in the stones a brief one over. Quickly understanding what it was, the youngling soon found herself confused as to why it had been given to her.
"Why the hell are you handing me one of my dad's old relics?"
"It's a reward for not only winning the fight but for also having that ingenious idea to erase your own head. I believe that this will help you in time to come, very close time to come." Norwe responded, sounding proud at Herah.
The youngling just let out another sigh, threw aside the tablet and asked in annoyance,
"How is this suppose to help me?"
The Maker Sloth's smile deepened before they disappeared from sight, leaving an expressionless Alex and an annoyed Herah alone in the clearing.
After a few seconds of silence, Alex picked up his dagger and nicked Herah right above her brow. Immediately afterward, both the wound in her wrist and the cut above her brow healed. Rising to her feet, Herah glared at Alex once again as the human didn't even seem to acknowledge her. Alex, only after a few more seconds, lost his expressionless look and let out a deep sigh. Herah noted how it was filled with a lot of loathing, most likely self-loathing. Allowing her eyes to narrow, the youngling asked Alex a question.
"What was Norwe talking about when they said you were going to ask me to help out with Max?"
Alex let out another breath before finally looking directly at Herah with a look filled with hate, sadness, but most importantly, a bit of respect.
"Thanks for saving my sister," Alex said, his words coming out twinged with bitterness.
"I'm.... sorry?" Herah responded, disbelief ringing throughout her words.
Alex growled at Herah in annoyance before saying, "I'm thanking you for saving the life of my sister twice. One when you lost your arm, and two when you saved her from a fall in lava."
Herah gave the human a weird look before cautiously saying, "I did say I would protect her."
Alex sighed and rubbed his head in annoyance, "Yes, but I honestly didn't believe you'd be of any help. I thought Max would have the good sense to just leave you outside while she did her thing inside their base." Alex paused and looked away for a moment, before saying under his breath, "I'm glad I was wrong."
Alex looked back at Herah and began to speak once again. This time his voice was much stronger and filled with the respect reflected in his expression.
"Herah you have earned a bit, let me make it specific, just a bit, of my respect and thanks, for not only saving my sister but for not taking the easy way out and attempting to kill her. It is thanks to this that I feel just comfortable enough to order you to help her through her current ordeal."
Herah glared at Alex and distrustfully said, "Why the fuck are you ordering me to help your sister?" Herah's eyes narrowed as the youngling accusingly asked, "Is what Norewe said true? Do you really feel guilty about what your sister did?"
Alex glared at Herah before taking another deep breath and saying with a bit of frustration, "That's partly the reason, but there is another one that is a bit more problematic."
"Oh really, what?" Herah asked, not at all believing what Alex was saying.
"Sis won't consider a word I say anything less than just talk." Alex let out another sigh, "Immediately after telling me what I needed to know to not kill you, since she showed up nearly naked and covered in burns with you not looking too worse for wear, she let me heal her then preceded to cry herself to sleep. I spent the rest of the night watching her as she cried silent tears in her sleep, offering what physical comfort I could. Not too long before you woke up, sis arose and darted off to where she and Owen buried the Oni you and I kill yesterday. Owen followed soon afterward hoping to help her out."
"You don't sound too confident in our resident smith."
Alex allowed another sigh to leave him, before speaking with a tired tone of voice.
"Because I'm not. Sis isn't too bothered by killing someone when she feels that it was their choice to attack her, but if she believes that they either didn't have much of a choice or that they aren't really deserving of death, she will try to avoid taking lives. If she does kill someone who fits the latter criteria, it tends to weigh on her."
"What does this have to do with Owen not helping?" Herah asked, sounding impatient.
Alex grunted in annoyance before saying, "Sis felt that the Oni she killed were undeserving of the death that they got, and knowing the number of dead will only increase her inner anguish. The last time something like this happened, the only person that was able to get her to listen to them was the one who was there with her when it happened. Plus, once Owen learns what she did he won't be any help at all, and even if he can get past that, sis will just lie to him. That's why I'm asking you, you were there when she was given the second condition and were also there when she went through with it. You're the best shot I have at getting my sister to level at which she can deal with what she did on her own."
Alex stepped back from Herah and bowed to her, his next words coming out with obvious effort.
"So I beg of you, yes I beg, please help my sister?"
Herah stared at Alex in shock for a few moments, the sight before her leaving her greatly confused. That was until a realization hit her.
"Your sister must be the world to you, huh?" Herah asked, her voice having softened and her tone carrying a sense of understanding to it.
Alex looked up to Herah, his eyes set in a grim stare as words filled with conviction left his mouth.
"She's all I got, and just like you would for La Flamme, I would damn an entire race if it meant keeping her. Without a moment of hesitation."
Herah couldn't help but chuckle at this, getting a raised brow from Alex in response. The youngling quickly answered his unspoken question.
"I just find it funny how me and you are probably not the greatest examples of our species. I mean we have some really skewed moral compasses by the sounds of what you just said."
Alex brought himself into an upright position, a small smile on his face as a knowing response emerged from his mouth.
"I think it's more that we completely disregard morality when it doesn't suit us. You know, between the four of us, five if we include Jeffery-"
"Don't, this isn't their Recompense."
"Four of us it is. Between the four of us, you and I are the most capable with dealing with all of the issues that come with what will most likely be required of us to succeed in this Recompense. After all, if either you or I had did what Max had, we'd be bothered for all of a minute before moving on as if it wasn't a problem."
Herah nodded along to this and said, "True enough."
Alex lost his smile and looked away towards where Max most likely headed off.
"But if Max has to do something like that again, her spirit and will will most definitely break." Alex took a deep breath, "You and Max saw a bit of it, but I talked a bit with Owen while you two were gone, and we came up with a plan to deal with whatever was left of the Oni after you and Max hit them."
Alex allowed a small smirk to come to his face.
"The little shit is a bit of a smartass, but underneath all of that, he is a really chill guy who wants to just help out where he can. We hit the topic of his smithing, and he told me how while he's great at creating weapons, he's more focused on creating tools of defense, things that can protect. He finds the thought of killing and harming others so uncompelling and scaring, that he rarely creates actual weapons."
Alex's smirk transformed into a pleasant smile.
"He might be way older than me, but I feel that I'm talking to a kind and innocent kid whenever we speak. Doing anything close to what Max just did would destroy him."
Alex turned back to Herah and smiled at her again, getting a fang-filled grin in return. The human then stook out his hand and said,
"So now I ask you for something else. I ask you this because I know that you consider those two your friends, and I hope that you care enough about each of them to accept my request. Will you help me in keeping those two whole throughout this hell we're going to be put through? Will you bear the sins alongside me that we'll have to take on to make it out alive?"
Herah looked down at Alex's hand before allowing a wholehearted laugh to leave her mouth and fill the clearing.
"It's weird that I feel we've managed to bond over our own mutual terribleness."
Alex waved his hand while smiling at Herah and said, "Annhh. Morality is perspective anyway."
The youngling giggled at this before looking at Alex's outstretched hand once again. After a few moments of comfortable silence, Herah took his hand with her own and shook it before answering every single question that Alex asked her with a single response.
Max a menlogen aƶu Alex
Owen adjusted his tunic and hat in a nervous attempt to ready himself for a sight that he knew would definitely leave him upset. The gnome was standing behind a tree at the edge of a clearing that Max and himself had created to bury the Oni that Herah and Alex had killed. He was right behind one of the trees that bordered the clearing and hadn't seen what Max was doing but he could sure hear it. After a few deep breaths and slaps to his face, Owen marched out from behind the tree intent on helping Max, only to pause at the sorry sight that greeted him.
"I'm so sorry for my selfishness! I'm so sorry that I killed so many of your people! They didn't deserve it! I'm so sorry that I chose my brother over all of you! I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" Max shouted as she sobbed on her knees before the makeshift graves of the four Oni that had attacked Owen and Herah the day before.
Max had her back to the saddened gnome, but he knew the only thing she wore was her trench coat, the original one that had been left before her mission. The sobbing brunette's hair had grown back after the quick stab from her brother's other knife, along with removing her wounds, so now it hung around her in an unruly and wild state.
Before Max there sat four graves with a silver sword buried where each lay being the only sign of their presence. It was what Owen's people did for their dead when they died, except they would normally also have the name of the deceased carved into them, unlike the ones that sat before him now.
Owen approached Max without her noticing, her sobs of pain and regret masking his slow approach. After getting to the point at which he stood right next to her, Owen got down and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Max?" The gnome asked, worry and pity filling his voice.
The human's sobs came to an abrupt stop. Shortly afterward, Max raised her bloodshot, teary, and exhausted looking face towards Owen.
"What do you, sniff, want?" Max asked, clearly not wanting to talk with him at the very moment.
"You weren't looking too good and I thought that you might need some company to talk with." Owen responded, awkwardly shifting in his stance.
"Well, I don't need your company so leave," Max's ire-filled voice suddenly switched to a sadden tone, "Please."
Owen nervously smiled at Max and began to speak.
Owen blinked in surprise at Max's abrupt cutting off of his sentence. Looking at the human, he found himself even more surprised when he noticed the glare and sneer that was on her face.
"Umm. Max, why are you looking at me like that?" Owen asked, not too sure on how to respond to the current expression on Max's face.
"I'm looking at you like this because you were about to say something very stupid," Max responded harshly with barely restrained anger overtaking her previous emotions.
"What are you talking about?"
Max let out an uncharacteristic snarl as she rose to her full height and lifted Owen by the collar of his green tunic, the gnome letting out a surprised yelp in response to this. The girl then brought his pudgy, scared face up to meet hers and said,
"You were about to say you "know" how I feel." Max dropped Owen unceremoniously and threw her hands into the air, before continuing with faux happiness, "Which is accurate! You know how I feel, but," Max bowed down to Owen, and brought her left hand up to his face while rubbing her thumb and middle finger together, "There is a very teeny problem you're not addressing." Max rose to her full height once again, her trench coat just barely covering her decency, and then yelled at Owen,
"YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!"
Owen raised both of his hands while slowly backing away from Max and said, "Max calm down."
The human shrieked in a blend of fury and pain before pointing at Owen and shouting,
"NO! You don't understand, I killed 2 million Oni with a nuke. I murdered 4/5 of their population just with the initial strike alone. Only Norwe knows how many will die from the severe radiation and injuries that I caused them."
Max's words threw Owen off completely since he had no idea that this was what had happened. The only knowledge the gnome had held when coming to Max was that she was in pain and that someone needed to help her out. But with what Owen heard coming from Max, he felt his phobia creep up again. His breaths became raspy, his thoughts became frantic, and he broke out in a full sweat.
"Th- That fireba- ball I saw last night. Th- That was yo- your doing?" Owen asked, his voice beginning to break into a stutter as fear continued to overtake him.
Max smiled painfully at the gnome and said, with tears rolling down her eyes, "Yeah. That was me." Max pointed to herself.
Owen just trembled before the human then asked a single worded question in a voice drenched with disbelief.
Max sucked in her lips while shaking her head with sorrow. She then gave her reply.
"For Alex. Because if I didn't drop that bomb, my brother would've been erased from existence and even his memory would be lost to me. And I know that being like this," Max gestured towards herself, "Hurts him so much. But I can't help it."
Max looked at Owen with her green regret-filled eyes and continued with the same pained smile from earlier with a mockingly depressing tone.
"And it gets worse."
Owen just shook his head and meekly asked, "How?"
"These Oni aren't just zealots who obey every whim and order of their god no matter the subject. They aren't just some wild band of monsters that are blindly obedient to some fucked up god, like bro rationalized to me and you when we were making our plan. The Oni are a race of beings just trying to not die."
Max pointed at the swords that were to her left, "For centuries, they've been fighting to not be wiped from the face of this planet. The Oni have been fighting to atone for mistakes just a few of them made, and destroying that tree was the last thing they needed to do to survive. To begin prospering once again."
Max pointed towards herself, "And I'm the one who has pretty much snatched away any chance for them to survive. Thanks to me, only 1/5, and that number is sure to get smaller, of the Oni are even able to attempt taking us on."
With that, Owen fell to his butt and just looked down in complete and total surprise, shock, and guilt.
"Oh Norwe," Owen looked back up at Max, "What have you done?"
Max bent her knees until she was at the same height as Owen, the gnome paralyzed in a whirlwind of emotions, and grimly stated,
"I. Robbed. An. Entire. Species. Of. Their. Future."
With those words, Max rose back to her full height and brought her hands to her face.
"Shit. This is way worse than what happened in Dallas." The human said under her breath.
This shook Owen from his stupor and caused for him to look up to Max in morbid curiosity.
"Wh- What happ- happened in Dallas?" Owen once again meekly asked.
Max turned back to Owen, nearly telling him exactly what he asked for, but stopped once her eyes settled on him. Owen watched in silence as a realization hit Max's eyes, and she put a hand to her mouth in shock and shame. The human began to hurriedly apologize to the gnome.
"Owen! I'm so- I'm so sorry for that. I completely forgot about your thantophobia." Max started smacking her head with her right hand, "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"
Max bent her knees again, this time with the look of kindness and joy that normally was on her face and said,
"You're not bothered by anything I say Owen."
And just like that, Owen was fine. He blinked owlishly at Max a few times, surprised by both what happened to him and the expression she bore that looked so authentic but was definitely fake.
"What happened to you?" Owen asked in confusion, rising to his feet as he did so. "You no longer look bothered."
Max smiled at Owen then pet him on his head while saying, "Venting like that just really helped. Thanks for listening, I wouldn't have gotten over it without you."
"Really? Are you sure you're okay?" Owen asked, his surprise and doubt showing very clearly.
Max just smiled at Owen before spinning in a circle with her arms spread out, which caused for her trench coat to fly open and for her to fully flash Owen. Noticing this almost immediately, Max stopped and pulled her coat tight in embarrassment. Giving the gnome an apologetic laugh, Max smiled at Owen and offered up a quick apology.
Blushing back at Max, Owen smiled and said, "No problem, I'm just glad that you were able to feel better and calm down. We should head back."
"Sure thing," Max said, sounding peppy and relaxed.
Believing that the problem was solved, Owen turned around and began to walk out of the clearing with Max following closely behind. But just before the pair could leave, Herah emerged from the forestry and gave them both a fang-filled smile.
The youngling looked a lot different without her hair was in a braid, with it spreading out covering much of her face, and her horns missing. Her face also no longer had the shiny top part that was a show of the scales that were normally present there. Her arms now no longer matched up since one didn't have that scale shine that other had. Other than all of this Herah looked the same, and Owen was happy for that. He had been a bit worried when she came back the night before passed out and looking exhausted, so now that she looked better another of his fears had been rested.
"Hey Owen. Hey Max." She said, waving at both of them.
Owen waved back at Herah before bounding up to her and saying,
"Well no need to worry about Max anymore, she just needed to vent for a bit."
Herah smiled even harder, though Owen noticed that she seemed to lose some of her happiness as she did that.
"Are you okay Herah? You don't look too happy." Owen asked, a bit of worry popping up.
Herah bent her knees till she was eye to eye with Owen, and gave him a quick peck on the lips before her smile became a bit more relaxed and she said,
"I'll be fine Owen, and that kiss was for the piece of platinum. Thanks to you I could save my father and myself. Now why don't you head back to Alex, I want to talk to Max about the Moon I saw last night as we flew towards the Oni base."
Owen saw through Herah's lie instantly, so he looked at Max and got a thumbs up. Seeing that, Owen decided that whatever they wanted to talk about was something just between the two of them and walked out of the clearing towards where Alex was. The entire walk back the gnome was happy and unbothered by Max's earlier words.
Max eist tort
Herah listened until sure that Owen was out of earshot before turning to Max and glaring.
"What did you do to him?" Herah asked accusingly.
Max smiled at the youngling and said, "I had forgotten about his phobia, so I used a fib to make him not be bothered by my words. When he mentions it to bro it'll fade. Was that what you really wanted to talk about?"
Herah keenly studied Max for a few moments before nodding to herself. Max took this as confirmation of her question and began to walk out of the clearing. The human soon found her progress halted, however, by Herah when the youngling stuck her arm out into Max's path.
"Yeah, Herah?" The human asked in surprise with a raised brow.
In response, Herah turned to face Max with a smile and look that silently told the human this:
Max had been caught in her lie.
The next words to leave Herah's mouth only reinforced this, her laid-back delivery not even hiding their purpose.
"Max let's have a talk, you can braid my hair."