Aaron grumbled in annoyance as he carefully measured the statue in front of him for the third time. And for the third time, it came out to the unsatisfactory result of a meter and a half.
The sun was setting outside the temple, and Aaron was searching for clues to the treasure like a madman. Just to be sure he wasn’t miscalculating, he had thoroughly searched all around each statue a meter or above, but ended up just as empty-handed as when he began his search.
“Dammit.” Aaron huffed, taking to his feet. He stomped around a corner, planning to start from square one and start examining even the small statues. Anything at all, even if just for a single clue.
Lost in thought, Aaron wandered forward without noticing the man rounding the corner. The resulting impact sent both men reeling back and landing on their asses.
“Oof! Hey, watch where you’re-”
Aaron paused. The man he ran into wasn’t of the clergy. From the depths of his black cloak, Aaron saw that the man’s skin was a ghostly white. Spiky brown bangs peeked out from under the hood, and a pair of hazel eyes burned into his chest.
‘Is this the guy Gregorio was talking about? I thought he was talking about Kiera!‘
“You… you’re no holy man, are you?!” the pasty lurker snapped.
Aaron tried to feign ignorance, “W-what? I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
Both men got to their knees, staring each other down. They booth looked just about ready to spring at the other at the slightest provocation and rip out the enemy’s throat.
“Xavier! Whats going on in here?” shouted a familiar voice, interrupting Aaron and the stranger’s staring match and making panic boil in his stomach.
Gregorio stomped down the hallway, each echoing thud sounding off and sending a chill down Aaron’s back.
‘Why does this kind of shit always happen to me?‘
The lurking man hopped to his feet, pointing at Aaron and hissing, “Mark my words, fool. Leave this place… or you’ll suffer the consequences!”
With that vague threat spat, the cloaked stranger took off around the corner. Aaron thought about giving chase, but Gregorio grabbed him by the collar before he could do so. The old priest yanked him around to interrogate him face-to-face, looking just about ready to wring his neck.
“I knew it! You’ve been working with that bottom-feeder, haven’t you?!” snarled Gregorio, holding back a palm filled with crackling thunder.
“N-no! You’ve got it all wrong! I’ve never seen that man before in my life!” Aaron protested, in complete disbelief. Yes, he’s a spy, but he really didn’t have any relation to the lurker he just bumped into. The irony of dying in the name of a stranger would have Aaron turning in his grave for the rest of time.
“I won’t sit back and stomach your lies any longer, you whelp! Burn in repentance!”
“Gregorio ! Stop this at once!”
Bishop Arthur hobbled towards them, his bushy brows furrowed in anger. The spell in Gregorio’s hand fizzled out, but his grip on Aaron’s collar remained just as tight, “Your Holiness…”
“That’s enough, Gregorio. I heard everything. Whoever that intruder is and poor Xavier here have nothing to do with each other!”
Aaron snapped out of his shocked stupor, slapping Gregorio’s hand away, “I swear on the name of Ganymede, Father… that was the first time I’ve ever seen the man.”
Gregorio ground his teeth together, starting to sweat at the brow. Aaron had said it with such conviction. The priest knew it was the truth yet he could still smell the underlying falsehood, and that drove him up the wall.
“Not much longer…” Gregorio incoherently murmured, breaking away to chase after the lurker, leaving both a frightened Aaron and dismayed Arthur in his tracks.
Aaron wiped the nervous sweat from his brow. He couldn’t stay at the temple any longer. He had to find the treasure that night. Not only was that lurker after him, Gregorio’s suspicion of him had been pushed up and beyond it’s boiling point. That look the priest shot him firmly stated that not even Arthur’s protection would last much longer.
“But where the hell is it?!” Aaron spat under his breath, stomping his way to the indoor garden. He had checked every damned statue in the temple. All but the one standing in the fountain.
“Dammit… am I going to have to crawl around in the fuckin’ water to find this damned treasure?”
Scanning the perimeter one last time, he read the inscription chiseled into the fountain.
Seeing those two capital ‘Bs’, something clicked in Aaron’s mind. He dropped to his hands and knees, crawling over to the fountain and running his fingers over the squares.
That seemingly nonsensical phrase he saw on Kiera’s map suddenly made a lot of sense.
“’Beyonds Bustle’, huh? What did old man Gale call these things again, antgrams or somethin’…? Bah, whatever. Now… how is this going to…”
Pressing down on the ‘o’ on ‘Bounty’, the square popped out, dropping to the grass and leaving behind an empty space. A grin appeared on Aaron’s face as he tried it once more, this time, popping out the square containing the empty space between the two words.
His hands became a blur as he went to work. Aaron popped out each and every letter, watching them plop onto the grass until he was left with fourteen empty spaces. Picking up the squares, he was practically beaming with happiness as he stuck the letters in their ‘proper’ places, each one locking in with a satisfying click.
“There we go…” Aaron chuckled, placing the ‘B’ in ‘Bustle’, at last changing ‘Blessed Bounty’ into ‘Beyonds Bustle’.
With a low creaking sound, the ivy-coated walls before the fountain slid open, retracting and folding into themselves. Whether it be some sort of sorcery or ancient mechanism, Aaron didn’t know, nor did he care.
A three meter statue of the goddess he had become so familiar with lied in wait within the dusty room behind the walls, her immaculate marble form hidden by a loose set of robes. At her feet was a wooden chest about two feet tall, locked up tight with a rusty iron padlock.
“Jackpot.” Aaron snickered, pumping his fist in the air.
Aaron climbed around the rim of the fountain, grabbing hold of the chest. With a heavy grunt, he lifted his prize up and hopped away from the secret room. Feeling the treasures jingle and clack as he shook it around, he knew there was definitely a small fortune worth of gold and gems inside.
With a series of thudding steps as he marched forward, Aaron weighed his options. It was the dead of night, but some might still be up stirring from the sound of the wall sliding open.
“Where do I go from here…?” Aaron pondered, starting to consider blowing open the wall with Kiera’s bomb and having her pick him and the chest up.
“Xaiver, what in Ganymede’s name do you think you’re doing!? What’s that statue?! What’s going on here?!”
Aaron’s face twisted up like he just drank sour milk. Standing behind him was Bishop Arthur, his frail body shaking with fury.
“I found the buried treasure…?”
The twisted frown told Aaron that the bishop suddenly regretted not trusting Gregorio. The old man craned his neck out to the side, cupping both hands to his mouth to bellow for help.
Aaron leaped forward, chucking the treasure chest at the bishop. The heavy wooden box bashed the old man’s skull in before he had a chance to cry for help. Stumbling about, his eyes rolled to the back of his skull, blood erupting from the gash on the back of his head. Tipping over, his limp body hit the grass with a soft thud.
“Fuck me…” Aaron grumbled. Now he had a heavy box of treasure and a dead bishop on his hands.
“Fuck me, fuck me…” Aaron whimpered, hearing distant mutterings and footsteps from within the temple. There were three entrances to the indoor gardens and monks were approaching him from within each. He couldn’t escape through any of those doors…
‘I’ll just have to make my own!‘
Jamming his hands into his pockets, he fished out the small bomb and black chunk and ground the two together.
A small hissing sound emerged from the crack that appeared in the red stone. It’s amber core began to pulse like a heartbeat and the soft warmth, which was previously barely noticeable, immediately began rising. It even started burning his hand.
Lobbing the stone next to the wall, Aaron gulped and took a step back. Two minutes. He just had to wait two minutes until that wall came crashing down, then Kiera would save him.
“Two minutes… can I keep them busy for two minutes?” Aaron pondered, nervously chewing on his lip as he saw the long shadows dancing before flickering candles. They stretched out from the depths of the hallway, growing larger and larger as the men approached him.
Bang, bang, bang!
About four in total, it sounded like. One from each hallway at the side, and two from the one at the center.
Of course, who else would be leading the charge but Gregorio?
“Ah, fuck me.”
The priest erupted in rage as he saw Arthur’s body flayed out in the grass, his skull cracked open like an egg. Tossing his candle to the side, the three other angry monks arrived just in time to stamp out the fire he would have started.
“I knew it! I knew you were no good! You murderous swine… I don’t know how you learned of any treasure hidden here, but to murder a man of the cloth for it? Mark my words, you’ll burn for this!”
“Yeah, I get it. I’m a heretic, pagan, pervert barbarian… and probably all that other shit you don’t like.”
“You… dare make a mockery of the will of the gods?!” spat Gregorio, his right hand raised aloft and sparking with holy thunder.
“Father Gregorio, we shall-” the first monk started, but was cut off halfway through.
“No! This one is mine…” Gregorio growled, shoving the monk away, “It was due to my own doubt that Bishop Arthur was murdered by this swine! I shall avenge him myself!”
“I was just about sick and tired of pretending to be one of you self-righteous asswipes anyhow.” snarled Aaron, cracking his knuckles together as Gregorio’s right palm began to crackle with lightning. The other monks stepped back, guarding the exits.
The air sizzled as the priest made the first move. Thrusting his hand forward, his golden hawk necklace and black robes rustled as he launched a mighty bolt of holy lightning. Reading where his palm was pointing, Aaron dodged to the side in advance, but was still shocked by a few stray sparks as the bolt flew past him. The attack blew apart the front of the fountain, spilling water out behind Aaron.
‘Not good…’ Aaron grimaced as he saw the puddle of water pooling at his feet. Judging by Gregorio’s wide grin, it dawned on him as well.
The priest shot a quick, weak bolt at Aaron’s feet, the electricity conducting and sending a shock-wave rippling throughout his whole body.
Gritting his teeth and fighting through the pain, Aaron hopped from the puddle and rushed at Gregorio. The priest doubled back, lashing out his right hand and firing another bolt at Aaron. This one had far less power, but also took far less time to cast.
It struck Aaron’s shoulder, causing him to cry out in pain and stumble backward. Gregorio was back on the offensive, shoving his right palm towards Aaron once more. But instead of electricity, an invisible force rippled forward, distorting the air as it rocketed towards the heretic.
Gregorio’s spell hit it’s target in his chest, sending him spiraling through the air before landing a few good yards away. Groaning in pain, Aaron got to his hands and knees, shaking like an autumn leaf as he tried to right himself.
The priest was looming above Aaron before he could do that. Rearing back his hand, the most powerful bolt of lighting yet sparked and crackled.
Acting on his first instinct, Aaron grabbed the lump of charcoal from his pocket and hurled it at Gregorio. Normally being a crummy shot, the close distance between them ensured the lump hit it’s mark- slamming right against the priest’s cornea.
“Agh! You bastard!” Gregorio roared. Taking a step back, he clutched at his eye, now swollen shut. Taking one look at the cocksure smile on Aaron’s face, the priest lost what little temperance he had left.
“You little shit! Do you think thats enough to stop me?!”
“No, but it sure was enough of a distraction.” Aaron grinned.
As swift and fierce as a typhoon, a white and brown monster burst from the shadowy depths of one of the hallways. She floored the monk guarding it before he even realized she was there, then went soaring onward and slammed herself into Gregorio’s back.
“GAH!” the priest shouted, blood flying from his lips as he was sent hurtling forwards, face-planting in the grass a few yards away.
“Monster! How dare you sully the good name of our Gods by entering this holy ground?!” the second of the monks spat, rushing forward with palms full of lighting.
“We’ll make certain you’ll pay for your transgressions!”
Kiera squatted into a fighting stance before the two monks, her claws reared back and extended, her tail cocked behind her. But before she engaged them, she could feel Aaron tugging at the white fur surrounding her ankle.
“KIERA, TAKE COVER!”
Suddenly notcing a loud hissing the monks hadn’t in the midst of the excitement, the griffon hit the deck right beside Aaron, draping one of her long wings over his back and neck.
The bomb finally went off with a deafening boom, sending a swarm of smoldering rubble flying in every direction. The sharp splinters of stone flew above Aaron and Kiera, piercing the bodies of the holy men all around them. They all fell to the grass, blood spraying from their lethal wounds.
When the dust had settled, Kiera lifted her wing from Aaron’s body, each removing their hands from their ears and smiling at each other.
“Ha… nice work, partner!” the griffon cheered, “Sorry I couldn’t help you out sooner. That skylight really is reinforced by magic… but I’m not so sure it’s unbreakable.”
Aaron looked up, seeing several talon prints kicked into the glass.
“Thats… no, it doesn’t fuckin’ matter. Let’s scoot.” Aaron groaned, still sore from Gregorio tossing him around. He jammed a finger towards the wooden chest sitting by the busted fountain.
Kiera dashed over, sinking one talon into it before looping back around, spreading her wings and taking off towards the hole Aaron had blown in the wall.
“Kiera, what about- MEEE!?”
The griffon grabbed the human’s midsection as she soared by, hoisting him into the air as she flew onward. Despite the tight space, she was able to dip down, scrapping Aaron’s legs against the grass and dirt before diving through the smoking hole. Making a sharp ascension, she rose into the night sky.
“Sorry if that was a little rough…” she panted, “It’s just… you and this chest are kinda weighing me down…”
“How much farther can you fly?” Aaron asked, watching sweat glisten off her reddened face.
“Far enough to leave those fools in the dust.” she said, spreading out her brown and white wings even further.
Back down at the temple, a hand shot up from out the hole blasted in the side. From out of that hole, a man hoisted himself to his feet. His black robes were torn and caked in dirt and blood, one of his eyes was swollen shut, and crimson poured from between his lips. But still he stood, staring with burning vitriol at the monster soaring away.
“Filthy heretic… whore beast…” the priest gasped, blood spurting from his grisly wounds, “Y-you won’t escape… with the last of my life… I shall strike you down…”
The priest aimed his right palm up at the griffon, his whole body shuddering and shaking. His palm began emitting a blue light, sending out white-hot sparks that rained to his feet all the while.
“BURN IN HELL!” Gregorio roared, rearing his arm back once more, the azure electricity gathered at his palm forming a mighty javelin of thunder. Lashing his arm forward, he launched the deadly spell right at the griffon. The attack sizzled the air and left behind the smell of burning ozone as it zipped towards it’s target.
The instant he fired it, Gregorio shouted towards the night sky in agony, blood spurting from every wound on his body as he had pushed it beyond it’s limit by the powerful spell. Going limp, the priest stumbled backwards before falling into the grass, his eyes rolled to the back of his head.
Kiera’s amber eyes popped open as she heard the crackling azure spear approach her from behind.
‘What?! Can’t dodge it… I’m too heavy!‘
The mighty spear of blue electricity chewed right through Keira’s wing, flying onward for several meters before sizzling out.
Watching from the side, time seemed to slow to a crawl for Aaron. Kiera’s beautiful face was twisted into a pained grimace, droplets of her blood and burned feathers dancing before the full moon.
Then, time resumed.
With a sharp cry of pain, the griffon’s injured wing gave out, and she and her human partner were sent plummeting back towards the earth.
Aaron screams filled the night air as he flailed about, watching as the tree tops below came closer and closer as wind rushed down his gray robes. His blood ran cold as he realized he wouldn’t survive the fall. Squeezing his eyes shut, a single thought ran through his mind.
‘Sorry, Val. Guess I’m not coming back after all…‘
“Aaron, hang on!”
Aaron’s eyes snapped back open as Kiera released her grip on the treasure chest, using both talons to pull him close to her chest.
“Kiera, what are you-”
The griffon wrapped her undamaged wing around Aaron’s body, tucking her damaged left one to her side. She leaned to the right at the last second, breaking through the treetops like a meteorite.
Wrapped underneath Kiera’s wing, Aaron could only tighten his body and flinch as he felt splinters of wood fly against his legs. She smashed through the branches and hit the ground. Continuing to skid onward for a good few yards, they at came to a grinding halt when Kiera slammed into a budding tree, smashing it at the stump and sending it tipping in the opposite direction.
Keira released her hold on Aaron, rolling over to her stomach and lying flat.
With a loud groan, the human did the same. Fighting through the numbness and pain invading every muscle of his body, he shakily crawled over to Kiera, examining her injuries.
Blood gushed from a gash on her scalp, coating one side of her face crimson. Various bumps and scrapes covered her body. Her right wing hung limply and had several splinters of woods jammed within it. But they all looked paltry compared to the hole punched right through her left wing. While it looked like it missed the bone, Aaron could only flinch and imagine how much pain Kiera must be in. He had known a sharp pain like that before…
Gritting his teeth as the memories returned to him, he rubbed the large scar on his midsection. But he knew he couldn’t waste time lamenting on the past.
“Kiera… Kiera, can you hear me?”
No response. His frown deepening, Aaron ripped off parts of his gray sleeves. Using the cloth from the left he wiped away the blood coating her face, then used the second cloth strip as a makeshift bandage. Using the other bit of bandage Aaron created a makeshift cast for her broken right wing.
“Thank you, Kiera. You saved my life…” he said, pulling out the splinters jammed in her wing before wrapping it up. Not hearing a response, he hurriedly tied the cloth around her broken wing.
Propping her up against a nearby tree, the human stared into the griffon’s glassy eyes and snapped his fingers, “Kiera? C’mon, Kiera… please don’t die on me…”
“A-Aaron… the treasure…” she muttered, pointing forward. Having smashed through the branches, it landed and planted itself into the soft ground a few yards away.
“I’m sorry, Kiera. We’ll have to leave it behind for now-“
“No… hide the treasure…” she begged, gripping his chest with her talon, “My… my tribe needs it…”
“Oh, come on. I really wanted the crown, but nothing in that chest is worth dying over!”
“Aaron… please… I’m begging you… hide it! We’ll come back for it later…”
The iron-haired young man took a deep look into the griffon’s teary amber eyes, jittering as her lower lip quivered. Not being able to resist such a pitiful look on such a pretty face, Aaron grunted in disdain and hesitantly agreed.
Grabbing hold of the chest, Aaron carried it into the underbrush a few odd yards away, covering it with vines and foliage. Not the greatest hiding spot, but Aaron was quickly running out of options. Hopefully, the monks would be more concerned with finding them then their loot.
“Thank you… now, we’ve got to go…”
Kiera shakily got to her paws, but ended up falling forward. Aaron rushed toward her, catching her in his arms and propping her up.
“Son of a bitch… I knew it. You’ve got a concussion.”
“Dammit… I’m… I’m just going to slow you down… please, just get the treasure to the Ravens, and tell them I died with honor…” the griffon sniffled.
“I’m not leaving you behind, Kiera… besides, I’m fairly sure that sister of yours would rip off my balls if I let you die.”
Aaron draped one of her arms over his shoulder, and wrapped his own around her waist. Trudging forward, they slowly but surely made their way through the forest.
“I’ll try to be quick, Kiera. If we don’t get that hole in your wing patched up, it’ll get infected. We’ll find somewhere for you to hide, then I’ll go to Remington and steal some medicine and bandages for you… maybe a healing potion, if I can find one.”
“Hehehe… and you were so upset about my tribe stealing cattle…”
“Yeah, well… I was more upset about the kidnapping than the rustling.”
The bitter irony of circumstances forcing him to leave a small fortune of gold and jewels and further risk his hide stealing medicine wasn’t lost on Aaron.
‘Don’t have many other options, though… Kiera’s too fucked up to break open the lock on that chest and I certainly can’t do it with my bare hands. Not to mention there’s not a shopkeep on the planet that would give a wanted man like me a loan.’
Aaron puffed out his chest and exhaled through his nose, a new plan bubbling around in his head. Leave Kiera somewhere safe, go steal her some medical supplies, fix her up, return to get the treasure, then it was back to the Angel’s Peak and the Roaming Ravens.
“Easy enough. It’ll take longer than we’d hoped, but… we can still do this, right Kiera?”
Kiera’s head lolled from side to side with each shaky step, “Y-yeah…”
Hopefully, they’d make it back to their cave by morning…
Feeling a raindrop fall onto his neck and a strong breeze roll by and chill him to the bone, Aaron’s right eyebrow began twitching.
“If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any of it…” he grumbled.
Having heard a strange sliding noise, Gregorio and three other monks had told the others to wait outside their quarters while they investigated. When they heard an explosion, they decided to all go investigate.
Being among the first on the scene, Vincent rushed past the other monks healing the three accompanying Gregorio and went to tend to the priest himself, lying before a gaping hole in the wall. Blood was running freely from the deep wounds around his body, and his right hand spasmed and twitched as steam rose from the palm.
Vincent lashed out both arms, his widened eyes returning to a focused squint as he chanted ancient blessings between each breath. A radiant golden aura swirled about Vincent, breaking off from the monk at it’s apex and flying towards Gregorio. Basked in the aura for a few moments, color began to return to the priest’s skin. His eye rolled forward, and his wounds quivered as they ejected several splinters of rock. Soon, the amount of blood flowing out slowed.
After about a minute of healing , Gregorio unleashed several loud coughs, staring up towards Vincent with an indigent look about him.
“My robes…” he muttered, as if lost in a trance, “Bring me my robes… my old robes of scarlet… there’s yet another monster and heretic that need to be put down.”
“It’s raining…” the delirious Kiera muttered.
“I noticed.” Aaron grumbled, already feeling the droplets land on his head and roll down his back.
The further the human and griffon proceeded, the more gnarled and blackened the trees became. The same could be said of the clouds. Blotting out the guiding stars and luminescent moon, Aaron soon found himself trudging through the inky darkness of the woods completely unguided, cold raindrops splashing against his torn robes all the while.
“Dammit! We don’t have time to make it back to the cave before it starts pouring…” swore Aaron, fighting through the pain wracking his legs and back.
“Aaron… to the northwest…”
“Kiera, how hard did you hit your head? Do you want us to get lost in the woods?”
“N-no… fifty meters away… shelter…” she mumbled almost incoherently, her head lolling back down as she finished.
“Hey… stay with me!” Aaron pleaded, shaking her back awake.
‘How does she know there’s shelter out here? I can’t see my own goddamn hands in this darkness…‘
The answer seemed to slap him in the face as he looked down towards Kiera, seeing her amber eagle eyes homing in on something in the distance.
Turning in the direction she suggested, Aaron stomped his way through wild bristle, thorns, and sharp branches of dying shrubbery. After scratching up both their legs, he burst out the other side of the thicket and was immediately awed by what he saw.
It was an old mansion. A break in the clouds allowed a sliver of moonlight to illuminate it’s rotting form. From the boarded windows to the rusted fence covered in overgrown vines, it looked like it had been abandoned for decades. However, the roof and windows looked free of any large holes. Even if it were filled to the brim with mice and dust, it would make a finer shelter than any damp, dirty cave.
“Nice job, Kiera! We’ll go squat in there until the storm passes, alright?”
“T-thank you… partner.” she weakly giggled, the human just barely hearing her over the heavy rainfall. Aaron found himself relieved that her mood was perking up if nothing else.
Pushing open the rusted gate, Aaron trudged across the overgrown stone path leading up to the chateau. Although his sore body screamed at him to pace himself, he pushed onward to get out of the rain. He soon hobbled up the steps and ended standing before a set of faded blue double doors.
He thrust his foot forward, surprised to find the door swinging open with little resistance.
“Wasn’t locked, huh…?” Aaron figured as he and Kiera stepped inside.
Staring into the inky darkness awaiting him, Aaron took a tentative step forward. Listening carefully, he heard nothing but the heavy plodding of raindrops, Kiera’s shallow breathing, and the occasional crackling of thunder in the distance.
Spotting an oil lamp to the side, Aaron leaned over and snatched it up, sighing in relief as he shook it about and heard oil swishing within. Aiming it towards the black depths of the hallway, the young man took a preparatory deep breath and raised his other hand to light it.
“Alright, let’s see just what exactly is in this dump…”