A man with a wide-brimmed hat and glasses walked past the monuments of gods he had grown so accustomed to. Behind the quiet echo of his soft footfalls were thudding crashes that seemed to rock the statues with each impact.
The inquisitor came to a stop before that set of oaken doors, the stern face of Ganymede staring down at him from its spot set above the doors.
“Forgive me for this.” he mumbled under his breath, hoping that the god just might be listening.
“What are you waiting for? Get on with it.” the booming voice commanded him.
Nodding over his shoulder, the inquisitor sucked in a final breath and pushed open the doors, quietly shutting them behind him, then turning his attention to the old crow of a man seated at his desk.
“Fredrick…. It’s true, isn’t it…?”
The High Inquisitorial Officer of Graeme, Brennan. Despite his lofty rank, the crow was frozen in place in his seat, chewing on his thumb through his chattering teeth.
“I’m afraid it is, sir. Fort Eonoir has been destroyed. We’re not sure if it has anything to do with Axenus, but he was also reported murdering Bishop Arthur and a priest named Father Gregorio a few days prior…”
“I’m a dead man.” Brennan mumbled, digging his fingers into his hair and slamming his head into his desk, “It doesn’t even matter if Grandmore finds out what happened to his son anymore… when word gets out about what happened at Fort Eonoir, they’re going to put my head on a pike.”
“So, you finally admit it, eh?”
Brennan’s head shot up and his beady black eyes stretched wide in horror and surprise. Kicking open the double doors, an older brunette man clad in purple justacorps strode in. While he was rather muscled and barrel-chested, he carried a high air of dignity and sophistication.
“G-Governor Grandmore! Wh-wh-wh… why are you here?!” Brennan squawked, hopping from his chair and backing into the wall behind him.
Fuming, Grandmore pointed at Frederick, who had pulled the brim of his hat down to hide his face.
“He told me.”
Brennan’s face twisted up into a deep, angry frown. Glaring at Fredrick, his blood only boiled even hotter when he saw a little frown peek out from under the brim of his hat.
While Brennan was looking away, Grandmore walked right up to the High Inquisitorial Officer and grabbed him by his head, smashing him into his own desk and bending his sharp nose out of shape.
Grandmore threw Brennan back into his chair, who immediately grabbed at his broken nose and cried out in pain.
“Have you forgotten how things work around here, you sniveling worm…? The people of Graeme love and respect both their country and the gods, but at the end of the day, they’d stand with their nation above one of the Pontiff’s little pawns. With the backing of the military, my men could handle any pipsqueak monster that can slip past the borders, we just allow you to handle it as a formality!”
Grandmore walked over to Brennan once again, hoisting him up and slamming him back into his desk, sending a rain of documents into the air. He slid Brennan over, throwing him to the floor and sending him rolling away.
With a low growl, the governor stomped over and placed a boot up against Brennan’s head, “…but even under those circumstances, you let a fucking hellhound roam around for long enough to find a mate. And that got my son killed.”
Grandmore ground the sole of his boot into Brennan’s temple just a bit more before finally lifting it, revealing a bloody, bruised man gasping for breath and struggling not to burst into tears. Sneering at the sorry sight, Grandmore walked over to Francis and handed him a few sparkling gold coins.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be taking my leave, if you don’t mind.” Francis said, pocketing the coin and tipping his hat to the governor before making a swift exit.
‘I’m going to kill that little piece of shit…‘ Brennan thought, propping himself up on his elbows as he watched the doors to his office swing shut.
“Not to mention your incompetence is to blame for the destruction of Fort Eonoir. Honestly. The finer details are still a mystery, but I know you’d have to be comically incompetent to allow a force large enough to raze a fort in a single night to squeeze into your country.”
Brennan, fighting through the pain racking his body, propped himself back to his feet. Staring with burning hatred towards Grandmore, the old crow lifted a single hand, a series of sparks already gathering in his palm.
“Are you really going to try to shoot me with lightning?” chuckled Grandmore, unfazed by the holy spell broiling in Brennan’s hand and pointed right at him.
“I’m highly considering it…” Brennan snarled, spitting out a globule of blood, “After all, you’ve just given me the wounds to prove it would be self-defense…”
“Go ahead. Shoot. I may be so out of shape that it could kill me… but then again, it might not. And it’ll only take a second for me to break your neck before you can try again. Then, I’ll have the injuries to prove it would be self defense. So, go ahead, try it. I dare you.”
Brennan kept the spell aimed at Grandmore, but he didn’t fire.
“Even if you do kill me with one blow, do you think that you’ll even be given a chance in your trial? Not to mention if she got her hands on you first, my wife would see to it that you’d receive a slower, more painful death than the court could ever hope to dream up. She’s quite twisted, that woman.”
“I hate you, so, so much.” Brennan spat, the lighting in his palm fizzling out.
“He’s continuing south, correct? Go and clean yourself up. We’re riding out to meet him.” Grandmore ordered, turning his back on Brennan, “If you can redeem yourself from the little blunder that got my son killed, I just might back you up when the empire comes after you for Fort Eonoir.”
The High Inquisitorial Officer watched Grandmore’s broad back as he left, wiping away the blood from his upper lip, and wondering how his life went south quite so fast.
With his wounds nursed and clad in a fresh set of robes, Brennan walked out from the backdoor of the Inquisitorial Headquarters of Graeme, gazing out at the posse of troops a few meters to the right.
There were around fifty men on horseback. From their plain yellow tabards and sparse iron armor, Brennan recognized them as city guard. Grandmore must have had paid them quite a bit in order for them to go the extra mile and pursue a monster and her mate. The governor’s personal carriage sat in the middle of the pack.
“Not looking forward to that ride…” Brennan grumbled, suddenly regretting his decision not to learn how to ride horseback.
Brennan looked to the left where around twenty men in simple iron armor were either training their bodies through an intense sparring match, or casting holy magic at distant targets. They were trainee paladins, and if they proved themselves capable, they would be transferred to the capital for a final initiation test.
However, one broke away from the rest of the trainees, a helmet covering his face and a winged spear hung on his back. He sprinted up to Brennan, skidding to a halt and bowing before him.
“Your Holiness! I… I’m sorry. It’s not my place to ask, but I must know… are you riding out to personally deal with Aaron Axenus? It’s just… I’ve heard he was making trouble around the south, and it looks like that’s where you and Governor Grandmore are heading…”
“Yes. What of it?”
“Sir… if I may be so bold, do you mind if I go along with you?” the paladin trainee asked hopefully.
Brennan thought on it for a moment. He had seen the trainee in action, and was fairly impressed with both his skill with a spear and the startling speed at which he learned holy magic.
“I’m sorry, but no. Don’t get the wrong idea, boy. You’re good. Very good. I’d feel much safer with you watching my back. But you’re still in training. If you were to suffer a permanent injury in battle before you’re a fully fledged paladin, the Legion would hold you accountable for your recklessness and kick you out of the army without any compensation.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take, sir. I know that man well, and I should be the one to bring him to justice.”
“Hahaha! You’ve got spunk, kid.”
Brennan flinched at the sound of Grandmore’s voice, while the armored man stood in attention and turned to meet it. The governor’s thick arms folded over his broad chest as he laughed, “Too bad you work for such a cowering shit stain. But I think we’re going to get along swimmingly. What’s your name, boy?”
The trainee removed his helm, revealing the face of a hardened young man with a determined mien and dark violet hair.
“It’s William, sir. William Highwind.”
Wrapped up in his dark cloak, Aaron walked past crowds of unwitting citizens across the dirty streets of Remington, a pack nearly overstuffed with supplies hung over his back. Some of the citizens were busy slinging their various wares. Others, like him, were out shopping. There were also a few unsavory types simply loafing around, no doubt planning on picking a fight and a few pockets.
Just like he remembered it, Remington was crowded, dirty, and noisy. But that was perfectly fine with him. Any small town would be on the lookout for him, but in Remington, he was easily able to lurk about and blend into the crowd without raising any red flags.
‘I suppose that’s the downside to having the strongest borders on the planet… you get so cocky, you leave your cities unguarded from internal threats.‘
With enough supplies to help pad out any food Valerie and Kiera could find in the wild for a long while, Aaron decided to not waste any time and leave the city as soon as possible. He knew quite well that trouble had a tendency to sniff him out, and while he could blend into the crowd in a city, that massive ocean of people would swiftly become a detriment if he was discovered.
Not to mention he had to leave his claymore with his hellhound companion in order to avoid detection. With only five throwing knives he was still learning how to use, he wouldn’t put up much of a fight against any angry mob and city guard- or any inquisitors searching for him.
Turning a corner at some fruit salesman’s stall, he saw a pale figure in ragged, filthy robes atop a desolate crate along they way of his path. That grime-covered man stamped his feet against the crate, crying out nonsense in a shrill, raspy voice.
“What’s that lunatic screaming about now?” asked one man from the crowd quickly gathering around him. Aaron found himself squeezing by a few people, taking a look at the man atop the crate.
It was some one-eyed bum that reeked of waste and rotting garbage. His back was bent into a wicked hunch, the bulk of his teeth had rotted from his gums, and his wrinkled head was covered in a patchwork of liver spots and wild tufts of white hair.
“HEED MY WORDS, HUMANS IN SHEEP’S WOOL!” he hollered to the crowd from atop his crate, “HEED THEM!”
“Gah, could you cool it for a single day, gramps?” asked a young man with his black hair cut into a mohawk.
“Wasn’t he ranting about how Generalissimo Alexander was putting minerals from the demon realm in the water to turn the frogs into monsters or something last week?” asked his green-haired buddy.
Aaron couldn’t help but stop for just a moment and look up at the old man with the rest of the onlookers. Some were jeering, others were looking up with concern, and like Aaron, a few simply watched and waited to see what sort of nonsense the bum had cooked up for them.
“Heed my words!” he repeated, calming down just a bit now that he had somewhat of a crowd.
“I don’t have time to listen to this geezer rant…” Aaron mumbled, scolding himself for wasting even a second with the doomsayer. He turned away, ready to take his leave.
“The Sol Saber has returned, Fort Eonoir has been razed to the ground in a single night, and a dark knight is racing across the countryside, striking down anyone who stands in his path! The signs ‘ave never been clearer! The end is nigh!”
Aaron halted. He had figured the rumors of the Sol Saber’s return would’ve spread all over the world by now, and he knew them to be true… but it wasn’t like that nut wouldn’t swallow up any juicy rumor he heard on the spot.
But Fort Eonoir being destroyed in a single night? He knew the Legion didn’t exactly keep the highest military presence in Graeme, but it still seemed impossible for any gaggle of low level monsters or terrorists to do such a thing.
But what really hooked Aaron was this dark knight the old man was raving about. The image of those violet eyes glowing against the knight’s dark silhouette was still burned into the back of his mind.
“Old man, what’s this dark knight look like?” Aaron asked the old coot as he stepped before the crowd, still careful to keep his hood up. He realized it was foolish to bring attention to himself before the large crowd just because of a disturbing dream he had, but he found himself unable to repress the desire to do so.
The doomsayer’s single bulging eye rolled towards Aaron. Pleased at finally being taken seriously, he shot Aaron a toothless grin and nodded, “Like somethin’ out yer worst nightmares, boy. His armor is black as pitch and smooth and seamless, like water over the rocks. His helm bears the face of a scowlin’ devil, and his eyes glow with a purple light. Stand in the way of his horse, and he’ll chop ya down with a flamberge as red as the blood flowin’ through yer veins.”
Aaron’s baggy eyes burst open.
He was real. The dark knight was real, and Aaron had no idea how he was appearing in his dreams. He hadn’t heard about the bastard until that moment.
Images of the enigmatic figure raced through his mind.
Aaron clutched at the scar at his midsection as it erupted in pain. Even more visions flashed in Aaron’s mind as he stumbled back, grunting in agony.
Lucero smiling at him with that knowing, sadistic grin, a roaring flame consuming the whole world behind him.
Douglas and Mieriel at the center of the endless inferno, burning at the stake.
His niece’s tiny, lifeless body in his arms.
Lucero running him through with his Sol Saber.
The dark knight, lingering over his slumped body.
‘Why… why am I still alive?‘
His scar began burning with even more intensity, almost like it had been ripped wide open once more, and his head throbbed with an unbearable pain. Falling to his knees, Aaron couldn’t stop himself from digging his fingernails into his scalp and screaming out to the heavens.
“Hey, you alright, buddy?” asked one young man at Aaron’s side.
“Shit man, calm down! Are you really letting that old man’s ramblings get to you? Are you ill?” asked another.
“Stay… back!” Aaron growled as he shakily stood, trying to push the men out of his way and dash off. In his haste, the black hood of his cloak fell from his head.
“Hey… that son of a bitch is Aaron Axenus! He’s a heretic that attacked a temple and killed thirteen soldiers in Tellum!” someone from the crowd hollered, recognizing his face.
“Fuck me… fuck me…” Aaron panted, his head still throbbing and the world still spinning around him. The white light filling his vision vanished only to reveal an angry mob surrounding him at all sides.
“HERETIC!” the doomsayer shrieked, jumping at him from behind.
Aaron’s battle sharpened nerves sensed the sluggish old bum far before he could strike. Lashing his elbow back, he smashed the doomsayer’s nose and sent him sprawling into the dirty street.
The furious crowd seemed to go wild at the sight of blood. Yet another man rushed at Aaron, only for the iron-haired swordsman to slam his fist against the attacker’s temple.
Aaron backed away, seeing no gap in the crowd for him to exploit. Not only that, they were rapidly descending upon him.
Sweating bullets, his cold eyes darted around to find a method of escape. Then, he spotted a pretty young girl no older than sixteen sandwiched protectively between what looked to be her brothers, unable to stop themselves from being pushed forward with the advancing mob.
“Desperate times…” was the excuse he made for himself as he broke towards her, the frightened girl squealing. Her two twin brothers looked no less frightened as they puffed their chests out in a desperate attempt to scare Aaron off.
The twins were even younger than their sister, and quite easy for Aaron to send each sprawling with a single backhand. He felt another man kick him in the ribs as he fought on, but that didn’t stop Aaron from yanking the girl into a headlock and pulling her close.
Ignoring her cries, Aaron yanked one of the five throwing knives out of his bandolier and held it up to the girl’s throat.
“BACK OFF!” he snarled at the crowd, “OR THE GIRL GETS IT!”
Taking hostages to evade the law. Oh, if only his mother and father were still alive so they could see their precious little boy. Of course, the fact Aaron was bluffing about killing the girl might be a small consolation. At any rate, the crowd around him seemed to buy it.
The crying girl bit down on his thumb, but Aaron sucked in his breath, ground his teeth together, and fought through the pain. Pressing his knife further against the girl’s throat, he made his way past the hundred or so vitriolic glares shot his way.
“I’m sorry about this…” he whispered into the girl’s ear, “I ain’t expecting you to forgive me, but you’d understand why I had to do this if you knew about all the shit I’ve been through.”
“Go to hell!” the girl sobbed back.
Aaron rolled his eyes, wondering why he was even bothering to explain himself to a girl he had just taken hostage. Keeping his knife pressed up against her jugular, he backed several meters away from the crowd.
‘Can’t keep going at this pace for much longer. The town guard are going to arrive if I don’t get out of here soon.‘ Aaron thought, coming to a stop, ‘Once I’m out of town, Val and Kiera can handle any guards that come after me.‘
Removing the knife from the girl’s throat, he pushed her onto her hands and knees and took off. The instant his hostage hit the dirt, several members of the furious crowd were back on his tail.
Turning around a building and dashing through an alley, Aaron chuckled as he realized he had left any pursuers in his dust. Looking over his shoulder to double check, he crashed right into someone’s fist, sending him falling to his back.
“Sunnuva…” Aaron grunted, rubbing his sore cheek and sitting up. Standing right in his path were two men draped in scarlet robes. Both wore wide-brimmed hats, possessed a holy man’s golden hawk necklace, and wore white masks carved into an expressionless, featureless face.
“Shit!” Aaron swore, scrambling to his feet. But he was too late to flee. The men in scarlet thrust their hands forward in perfect sync, a large swathe of electricity emerging from their palms. The holy magic twisted together and flew forward, encasing Aaron and sending him falling face first into the street. His body twitched and writhed, no longer in control of his movements.
‘Paralyzation spell…‘ Aaron realized, his heart sinking into his stomach.
What was going to happen now? Would they execute him on the spot? They would more likely take him to the town square and burn him at the stake, as they usually did with heretics. And Aaron’s offenses entailed far more than that.
It was actually preferable if they planned to execute him at the town square, however. That way, he actually had a chance for Valerie and Kiera to rescue him. Could those two hear the commotion in town? No, they were too far away. Hopefully, the city would give him his due process and his companions would have enough time to realize something was wrong and come to his rescue.
One inquisitor loomed above Aaron, flipping him onto his back and staring down with those shadowed eyes through his mask. With no more control over his body, Aaron could only stare back up and grit his teeth together.
Then, the inquisitor removed a ceremonial dagger. It’s blade zigzagged like a bolt of lightning, and the harsh sunlight peeked between each of its jagged edges.
‘No… no! Not right here!‘ Aaron begged, hoping any god that was listening decided to take pity on him. Hell, at this juncture, he would even take the help of some long lost pagan god for taking the side of monsters.
The inquisitor dropped to a single knee, rearing his knife above his head…
Aaron was so afraid his mind had abandoned thought. Laying there, sparks of electricity still running along his paralyzed body, he was forced to watch his end coming as he was unable to even squeeze his eyes shut.
Then, the inquisitor flipped the blade around. Plunging the knife back down, he slammed the handle into Aaron’s forehead, making his vision fade into black.
Before he faded out of consciousness, Aaron’s ears picked up one last thing.
“Come on. Let’s get this bastard over to the mayor’s.”
“Aaron’s been gone for a long time, don’t you think?”
Back at their camp, Kiera busied herself by carving out a small replica of a mighty bird of prey in flight. Looking up from her project, she glanced a few yards of the left. There, sitting atop a fallen tree, Val stared longingly down at the city in the distance.
“He said he’d back before sundown. That’s still about another two hours.” Kiera said to the hellhound, returning to her carving, “Have a little faith.”
Valerie began quivering in place, like she was barely refraining herself from exploding and rocketing off to Aaron’s side. Finally, she had decided she had waited long enough and hopped to her paws.
“Well, I don’t give a damn! I’m going to go check up on him.”
With a low snarl, Kiera tossed her carving knife and unfinished sculpture to the side. Dashing up to Valerie, she slid right before the hellhound, her arms folded against her chest and wings spread out to block the way forward.
“Listen for once, you fool.” Kiera snapped, “Do you want Aaron’s entire mission to be compromised? Do you want for the city to go into a panic?”
“I want to make sure he’s okay.” Val barked right back at the griffon, “Unlike you and your family of thieves, who kidnapped him and forced him to risk his life!”
“Aaron agreed to come with me. Not only to pay back our doctor for healing you, but because we’re partners.”
Valerie didn’t respond to that. She simply picked up Aaron’s claymore, strapped it around her back and turned towards Remington.
“Just try and stop me, bitch. I’ll make sure you’ll regret it.” Valerie spat, dropping to all fours and preparing to take off to the city.
A heavy sigh escaped Kiera’s lips. She grabbed the hellhound’s shoulder, “Hold on, Valerie.”
“What?” Val snarled, slapping the griffon’s hand away and standing back up.
“You’re… you’re really going down there, aren’t you? And there’s nothing I can do to change your mind?”
“Then… I suppose I have no choice. I’m coming with you.”