Aaron’s face was masked in shadow for a split second as thunderstruck outside. Calming his breathing, he held up his lantern and dispelled the darkness cloaking he and the griffon on his shoulder.
“I’m glad you spotted this dump before it started storming, Kiera.” Aaron said, lighting tapping the door he broke with his foot to make it swing back into place.
“Thanks…” the White Lion groggily replied, barely keeping her glassy amber eyes open.
Readjusting her on his shoulder, Aaron walked through the short hallway, keeping the oil lantern hanging in front of him. He then stepped into a large, decaying foyer. The orange wallpaper was cracked and peeling, a thick layer of dust sat on the vases on busts placed about, and cobwebs were woven neatly into odd corners. Yet compared to how run down and overgrown it was outside, this house looked relatively clean.
“Does a squatter live here?” Aaron pondered, his ice-blue eyes darting around the foyer. Set above a winding set of stairways, a peeling, faded portrait of a young lady was hung high on the wall, although her face had long since been smeared away by years of neglect.
If Kiera had any thoughts to share, she didn’t let Aaron know. The gray cloth he had wrapped around her head and her pierced wing were starting to leak with blood. A small but steady stream kept running from under the bandage and down her soft cheek, dripping onto the cracked marble floor beneath them.
“Hey… maybe we’ll find some medical supplies!” the iron-haired man went on with a hint of optimism, starting to march her forward once more.
As he moved, he heard the something sharp grind against the marble floor. For a long moment, Aaron stood with a furrowed brow and tightened jaw. Glancing behind his shoulder, he saw that he had been raking the very tips of her sharp lion claws along the floor as he carried her forward.
“Don’t fall asleep, Kiera. You’ll fall into a coma!”
“I… I know…” the griffon grunted, shifting around, “A true warrior… knows stuff like that…”
Aaron turned to the right, smiling as he spotted a lounge room with a fireplace. Dragging Kiera along with him, he stepped inside and marveled at the decadence of the room, which still stood relatively well after all the years of neglect.
Three rows of bookshelves sat on the wall, filled to the brim with old tomes. None of them were covered in dust. An old green couch sat on the other side beside a creaky table.
He set the griffon leaning against the wall, “Just stay there for a bit, Kiera. If you start falling asleep, you’ll fall onto the floor and wake up.”
“Alright… please, be quick…”
Looking over to the fireplace, Aaron disregarded the ominous mounted bullhead leering down at him from above and opened up the glass doors for investigation.
“Fresh soot…” he observed, running two fingers across a burned log, “Someone’s been relaxing with a good read…”
“Only question is if it’s a squatter… or just some vagabond passing by…” Kiera added.
“If it was just some bum staying here for the night like us, he sure cleaned this place up the best he could before leaving.” Aaron said, running his finger across the books crammed into their shelves, “I’ll be right back, Kiera. I’ll see if I can find any food or medical supplies.”
“Please, don’t be long… I’m not sure how long I can stay awake…”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a flash.” he said, “But here, I’ll try to leave you with some light so it’ll be easier.”
Taking an armful of books from the shelve, he tossed them into the fireplace. Ripping a page out from a dictionary, he stuck it into his lantern and set it aflame.
“Hehehe. Old Man Gale would’ve killed me for this…”
“My old neighbor. He was my buddy, and he taught lots of stuff to my brother and I. He died a few years back, but I’m betting he would smack me around if he found out I was burning books like this. He was a real brainy guy, old Gale…”
With that last thought, Aaron released his sentimentality with the burning page, lighting up the fireplace. Shutting the glass doors, he waved goodbye to Kiera as he exited the lounge to explore the rest of the abandoned estate.
Walking through the hallway set between the two set of stairs in the foyer, Aaron soon found himself rooting through various rooms, finding nothing but dusty trinkets, then moving onto to the next area.
Clean bandages and alcohol would be nice. A forgotten healing elixir would be a godsend, but there wasn’t a very high chance of the previous owner leaving behind such an expensive item. And if a squatter did live in the manor, odds were high they already sold it off.
At last, past a defunct dining room, he found a pantry. Grinning from ear-to-ear, he placed a hand on the brass doorknob. Then upon opening it, his smile rocketed downwards into a frown.
Nothing but dust and cobwebs. No one had used it for years.
“But so many other places looked like they’d been cleaned off… where else would the squatter store all his food?” Aaron pondered, shutting the door.
With a small huff, Aaron paced back down to the foyer, deciding to try the doorway to the left this time.
“Find anything?” Kiera cried from the lounge. Aaron barely heard her weak voice under the crackling of the flames and thudding of raindrops.
“Nothin’ yet. Just give me ten more minutes to look at the left-side and upstairs, alright?”
“Okay…” she said so weakly that Aaron could barely hear her. Spurred on by fear of Kiera soon slipping into an endless sleep, the human picked up his pace.
Towards the end, Aaron worried that he wouldn’t even find anything worth even a single bronze coin, much less medical supplies for Kiera. There was only one room left downstairs and he stepped inside to discover a gallery. The numerous paintings hung all around seemed to be weathered and worn, yet nowhere near as peeling and faded as the grand portrait at the head of the stairs. There was nothing that could help that sorry thing.
Aaron was about to shut the door and move on, but he found something that interested him at the very end. A similar portrait of the same teenage girl in the foyer was hung prominently on display, looking quite uninterested with the rest of the gallery as she stared forward.
“Must’ve been the daughter of the house.” Aaron figured, stepping inside. “But why did the painter make her look so bored?”
At each side of the painting, a suit of iron armor stood tall and proud, their weapons gripped tightly in their gauntlets. The one on the left clutched a winged spear, while the one on the right was armed with a broadsword.
“Now, who do you fellas remind me of…?” Aaron chuckled at the one on the right, brushing the dust from its shoulder.
Looking over to the one with the spear, the image of his old friend William flashed through his mind. The violet-haired lancer had saved his hide in battle countless times, and Aaron had extended the courtesy back to him.
“I wonder how he’s is doing…” Aaron reflected sadly. The lancer had said something about training to become a paladin. Aaron knew his friend had enough skill with a spear to do so, the only hurdle he had to jump after that was learning holy magic from the inquisitorial office.
“I… wonder if we’ll ever meet again… but if we do… it’ll be as enemies.”
On the path Aaron was treading, he knew that it could very well be a possibility. Banishing the bitter thought from his mind, Aaron snapped his head back to the knight with the broadsword, realizing its weapon could be a valuable tool.
“Hand it over, you tin can…” Aaron growled at the thing, ripping the weapon from its gauntlet. With a pleased expression, Aaron then reached for its belt and scabbard, “Hope ya don’t mind if I borrow these too…”
Appropriating them for his own use, Aaron fastened the belt over his gray robes and set the sword into its scabbard, brushed off the dust, clipped his lantern onto the belt, then patted the armor on the shoulder as a thank you.
Looking back up towards the painting on his way to leave, Aaron nearly jumped and clung to the ceiling. The girl in the portrait, previously staring dead ahead with a dour expression, had shifted her gaze towards him.
Hopping back, Aaron wrapped his fingers around his new weapon. But as he blinked, the portrait’s pupils returned to their original position.
With a confused mumble, Aaron wiped the sleep from his eyes, looking back up to find that nothing had changed.
“Shit. Must have just imagined it…” he figured, turning his back on the painting as a loud rumble of thunder vibrated the room.
Continuing his search, Aaron climbed upstairs, walking past that same faded portrait and entering the first room on the right. What lay within was a luxurious bedroom.
“There really is a squatter here, huh? Hope he understands why we had to break into his house…” Aaron said, taking note of the almost pristine condition of the room. A large window showed him the rainy forest beyond, the storm raging and futilely smashing raindrops against the glass plate with its turbulent winds.
Walking forward, Aaron discovered a large canvas and pale of red paint sat in the corner.
“Still fresh…” Aaron said, dipping his little finger into the mix before wiping it off on his dirty robes. Looking over at the corner, he spotted a stack of paintings. He walked over and took a look at them, finding several scenic landscapes of rolling green hills, gorgeous sunsets, and somber dusks.
“Whoever squats here is a hell of an artist…” Aaron noted, placing them back into a stack and wondering why the painter didn’t just sell them for cash. A misanthrope perhaps?
The other corner held a small platform with a cabinet, mirror, nightstand, and queen-sized bed, its puffy white sheets enticing him to lie down for a long and well-deserved rest.
“Hardly a time for a nap…” he muttered, running his grubby fingers over the immaculate sheets and taking a look on the nightstand, where a pair of handcuffs lay.
“The hell are these doing here…?” he wondered, grabbing them by the chain and lifting them up. Shrugging his shoulders, Aaron figured they might be useful if he needed to pacify and shackle the squatter if he attacked on sight. Whoever it was, Aaron didn’t want to kill them unless necessary. He placed them onto his belt and continued his investigation.
Staring into the mirror next, Aaron found a filthy, exhausted man with a five o’clock shadow and baggy blue eyes gazing back at him.
“Really need to get a freakin’ haircut.” sighed Aaron, blowing a strand of iron-colored hair out of his eye. With his vision somewhat improved, he noticed the reflection of something waiting in the corner of the room.
Sitting in a cushioned red chair, a porcelain doll stared right at him. A creepy little thing in a frilly white and purple dress, it was disturbingly lifelike. Its skin looked almost smooth and soft to the touch, and its silver hair looked healthy and silky.
Waltzing over to the doll, Aaron snorted and sneered down at the thing. Grabbing it by the purple bow, he flipped the doll around and tossed it face down into the seat of the chair.
With that taken care of, he kept checking the furniture set around the room. The wardrobe was filled with nothing but dirty, torn up dresses. They had obviously been in there for as long as the chateau had been abandoned. Did the squatter keep his clothes somewhere else? Whoever they were, they obviously slept here.
Checking in the bottom drawers of the wardrobe, Aaron found an assortment of tiny dresses and bows of matching colors. But unlike the dresses he found above, these were kept in perfect condition.
“What the fuck…?” Aaron whispered to himself, pinching a blue summer dress and lifting it higher for examination. Did the squatter like dressing up the doll in the corner?
Aaron dropped the dress and spun on his heel, expecting a new threat but coming face to face with nothing but the empty, stale air.
A strong gust of wind blew outside, scraping the naked branch of a nearby tree against the room’s large, solitary window. Droplets of rain continued splashing against it with a series of light clinks.
“Must… just be the wind…” Aaron tried to console himself, lowering his broadsword, “Storm’s just got me on edge…”
He turned to a door near the far corner of the bedroom. The washroom. That might have something. Swinging open the oaken door, the ancient thing creaked and whined as he pushed it open.
A bronze tub sat in one corner, right next to an oaken barrel for storing the bathing water. Opening the lid and peeking inside, he found it half full, only adding further evidence to his theory that a squatter had taken refuge in the old chateau.
“Hope he won’t mind if I take a hot bath…” Aaron grumbled to himself, returning to his search for medical supplies. The cabinets underneath the mirror held nothing but fresh, folded towels and a few bars of soap.
With a small huff of frustration, Aaron exited the bathroom. After a long exhale through his nose, Aaron looked over the room once again.
Then went white as a sheet.
The doll he turned away was back to its original position.
“H-how-” he stuttered, backing away.
The doll’s head twisted towards Aaron with a disturbing creaking sound akin to an ancient door. As it spotted the fear in his eyes, the doll’s static expression twisted into a wry grin.
Gulping down his fear, Aaron wrapped his fingers around the handle of his broadsword, only for someone to do the same with his wrist. The fingers gripping his flesh were soft and delicate, yet clammy and ice cold.
With a startled yelp, he yanked himself away from the unpleasant grip, stumbling forward and spinning around to meet the attacker.
Some sort of ethereal figure, wearing a ragged light-purple robe. Its wispy green hair shot up and danced in every direction as it leaned forward, face contorted into some sort of unfathomable mass of fleshy tentacles and snapping mandibles.
“GET BACK!” Aaron shouted, his heart thumping in his ears. He lashed his sword out at the creature, but to no avail. The iron blade phased right through the pale abomination. Doubling back in fear after his unsuccessful attack, Aaron’s skin crawled as he felt something small, smooth and warm latch onto his free arm.
His whole body trembling with terror, Aaron unwittingly dropped his weapon and looked down at the doll, now staring up at him with glowing purple eyes.
“Will you play with us, mister~?”
The adrenaline-high Aaron answered by smashing his fist against the doll’s face, sending it flying to the other corner of the room. Chipping the paint on impact, it slid down the drywall and fell to its bum with a loud thump.
“Ow, ow~” the doll whined, rubbing her head while two large tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, “You big bully!”
“W-wait… you’re a monster!?” Aaron yelped in shock.
“Well what else would I be, ya big dummy?” she giggled, dizzily sitting back up. Those purple eyes of hers spun around and around as she stumbled about, trying to catch her bearings.
Aaron pondered that for a moment, mentally scolding himself for not coming to the conclusion sooner. “I-I’m sorry… it was just the heat of the moment. I didn’t mean to hurt you…”
“Ah, man. I told you to let me handle the next one all by myself, Beatrice.” the ghost sighed. That horrifying projection of flesh and teeth sank back into her head, leaving behind the droopy expression of an apathetic young lady.
“Hehehe~ sorry, Grace. It’s been so long since anyone’s visited us, I forgot!” the doll tittered in response.
Floating over to the other monster, Aaron was left staring at the two, the adrenaline flushing from his body and leaving him breathless. Grace the ghost and Beatrice the doll looked at each other, then back at him.
“The jig is up, huh?” droned Grace.
“Looks like it…” Beatrice responded, finally righting herself, “Please don’t tell on us, Mr. Monk…”
“Mr. Monk…?” a confused Aaron whispered under his breath. Suddenly, it dawned on him that he was still wearing the gray habit of a Legion holy man.
The iron-haired swordsman removed his sheath, lifting the robe over his head, “Oh…. no, no… I was just trying to sneak into a temple. I’m not bigoted towards monsters at all.”
“Ah, good for you…” said the dour ghost.
“Wait a second…” Aaron growled, “You’re the girl in the paintings!”
“Oh, you like my work? Personally, I’m glad to be undead. I’ve had a lot more time to improve my technique over the years…” she said, not perking up in the slightest as she revealed her passion, “Honestly, I’m glad all those old paintings are rotting away. Mostly self-portraits my stupid dad forced me to make… landscapes are where it’s at.”
“Alright… that explains why there’s no food, but some rooms are still clean around here… but what’s with the handcuffs?”
“Oh, those? Ahaha~ well, let’s just say Grace is into some kinky stuff~” Beatrice laughed, butting into the conversation.
“Shut up, Beatrice. Honestly, I still can’t believe you turned me into a monster with all that crap…” the ghost muttered, her cheeks and nose blushing dark green as she turned away from the living doll.
“Hohoho~ you see, mister, after Grace’s dad brought me back home from a boring old antique shop in Misr, Gracey here and I became best friends… then something a little bit more~”
Grace’s blush only deepened, “I was way too old to be playing with dolls…”
Aaron tapped his foot against the ground, “So… after Grace dies, you two had been together for long enough for her spirit to become tainted with enough demonic energy to turn into a monster?”
“More or less. After mom and pop died, I was poisoned by my cousin for my inheritance… I scared the chicken-shit bastard and his lackeys off in this new body. They went running for the hills screaming ‘vengeful spirit’, and never came back… that was over fifty years ago, I think.” the ghost explained.
“Aaron… I heard screaming…”
Kiera limped through the doorway, still keeping one claw on her aching head. Rubbing the dazed expression from her eyes, Kiera spotted the ghost and doll and dropped into a fighting stance, but ended up nearly stumbling onto her behind when she did so.
“Kiera! Kiera, calm down. I… I don’t think they want to hurt us.”
“Of course we don’t! Eeee! It’s been sooo long since we’ve had company!” Beatrice squealed, hopping on her toes and clapping.
“The only company we’ve ever had are rats…” droned Grace.
“Ah, don’t fret little details like that, love~! Look, the griffon needs our help! Don’t worry, I’ll whip you up a potion lickety-split!” she cheered, skipping off, sliding between the griffon’s legs then scampering down the hall, her arms spread out like she was a bird of prey on the prowl.
“What the hell…?” Kiera could only mutter.
“So, do you want some tea?”
“Tea? This house has been abandoned for only the gods know how long. How do you have fresh tea leaves?”
“Oh, you silly billy~ I may not need to eat or drink, but there’s nothing I love more than a steaming cup of tea. I keep a garden out back. I’m afraid I don’t have any milk or sugar, though. Hope you like honey~”
Aaron lay on the white bed, staring out at the storm calming outside. Kiera sat in the red chair, Grace floating by and poking the griffon’s side every time she was about to nod off.
Aaron was pestered no less by Beatrice, bouncing on the bed and tugging at his gray locks like a child. Although he never remembered monster children like his niece Cordelia or Sylvia of the Roaming Ravens being so annoying, and this doll was more than fifty years old.
“Look, I’m sorry, but I’ve got a little too much on my plate right now to be worried about a fuckin’ tea party.” Aaron groaned.
“Hey, don’t worry about it~! I may be a little out of practice, but the witch who created me was one of the best potion sellers in the game~ I watched her brew up elixirs every day!”
“That doesn’t change the fact you haven’t made one in a good half a century…” Aaron muttered in response.
“Ah, fine, maybe all can have a tea party later~ the potion I brewed up for Kiera should be ready by now anyway!” Beatrice alerted Aaron, nodding towards Grace.
The ghost nodded back, sinking into the floor before flying back through the open door to the room half a minute later, her ethereal tail wagging behind her. In her cold fingers, she held a vial of a bubbling green sludge, steam still rising up from the warm glass.
“Thank you…” Kiera moaned, immediately reaching out for the fresh potion and guzzling it down the moment it was placed in her eagle claw. She sank back into the seat, relaxed her damaged wings on each of the chair’s armrests, and breathed out her nose with relief The agony that had been wracking her entire body the entire night was draining fast.
Now with a wide smile, Aaron walked over, picking up Kiera’s limp body and walking her over to the bed. “Ah, thank the gods you’re alright. Now, just get some rest. I’ll go back and grab that treasure chest.”
“No… let me… come with you…” she said, her body going numb as her words slipped from her mouth
Aaron chuckled, “Don’t worry, partner. I can handle myself.”
“Partner…” Kiera happily slurred, rubbing a clawed hand over his face, the tip of her fuzzy tail brushing against his shins as she merrily waved it back and forth.
“Get some rest, Kiera…” Aaron laughed, setting her down and tucking her under the white sheets.
“A true warrior… needs plenty… of rest… but… I need… to protect…” she yawned, trailing off before her eagle eyes squeezed shut against her will.
“Whew… so, how long until she’s better, Beatrice?” Aaron sighed, looking towards the doll beaming up at him.
“Oh, she’ll be back on her feet in two days, and her wings should be fixed in another two~”
“Four days? The healer back in my squadron could get her back on feet in the hour, and her wing would be closed up in one!”
“Well, I’m not your squadron’s healer, am I?” the doll huffed, her cheeks puffing out. “Sorry to tell you, but that green stuff was the best I could whip up with all my nonperishable ingredients. You should feel lucky that I’m helping you at all!”
“You’re right… I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but c’mon… don’t you have anything stronger?”
“Well… I do have one thing on the shelf. But it only works on humans. Aside from that, it has certain… hehehe… side effects~”
Aaron backed away, “Err… well, that won’t help us then. Look, can I borrow your sword for a little bit? The only reason Kiera and I are here is because we were looking for treasure, and we had to leave it behind when her wing was damaged.”
“Ahh, go ahead… it’s a family heirloom, but I don’t have any use for it.” replied Grace.
“Thanks, Grace. I’ll be back soon, don’t you worry…”
The next morning, a man in gray stood across from a man in scarlet before the temple of Lysithea. The temple’s so-called unbreakable skylight had been humbled by a monster’s mighty kicks and a hole had been blown through a wall to its gorgeous garden. In spite of all that, it still stood before the sunrise as proud as always.
“Father Gregorio, are you sure you don’t want to wait for any backup? This Aaron Axenus… he’s dangerous. He killed thirteen soldiers in Tellum, and there’s even a hellhound traveling with him! What if it’s with him now? What if there are even more monsters guarding him?”
Gregorio placed a wide-brimmed hat over his white hair, the same scarlet of the old robes he hadn’t donned since his days as an inquisitor. He turned to Vincent, the squinting monk frowning and clearly concerned for his superior’s safety.
“No. The heretic will escape by the time any backup will arrive, and I refuse to put any more of my brothers in harm’s way…” Gregorio said, squeezing his right palm shut, “Bishop Arthur has already been murdered because of my lack of action. Besides, I need you here guarding the temple. We still don’t know if that lurker he was working with is about.”
Vincent pressed on, “But Father…”
“No buts.” Gregorio snapped at the monk, causing him to flinch and pull back, “You swore to stop bothering me about this if I waited until my wounds were fully healed.”
Vincent decided to relent and backed away, releasing a heavy sigh as he bowed towards the priest, “I understand, Father… please, be careful. And good luck.”
A wide smile crossed Gregorio’s lips as he looked towards the woods, homing in on the stop where Aaron and his demon whore had crash landed, “I won’t need luck, dear Vincent… I have the justice of the Gods on my side.”
Darting from tree to tree, a man with skin as white as chalk moved across the forest like a wolf on the prowl with each step, chains jingling lightly from under his black cloak.
But he was staying far behind his prey, so they hadn’t taken notice. Taking cover behind a thick tree, the man took out a pair of binoculars and pressed them up to his hazel eyes, peering forward.
Off in the distance, an old priest in the scarlet robes of an inquisitor squatted down, taking a look at something on the ground. The stalker couldn’t see what with a bush in his way , however. Looking quite cross, the priest got to his feet, continuing down the path with even greater fervor.
Dashing forward, the stalker found a square dent in the ground, still moister than the area surrounding it, and shrubs and branches scattered about. Looking down the path the priest stomped through, he found three sets of boot prints. One fresh pair going forward, one barely remaining track coming towards the dent, and a set that looked the same as the second but sunken far deeper into the earth.
“I see… so, that guy took the griffon somewhere safe and came back to get the treasure while she’s healing? Hmph. With that storm washing away his tracks, you’d think he’d pull off a smarter plan than that…”
The lurker’s hazel eyes narrowed, “Or maybe he didn’t have any other choice… or maybe he just doesn’t care if anyone comes after him? Hehehe… I think I’m just going to watch from the sidelines for a little while longer before I make my move.”
With a sinister grin and wry chuckle, the cloaked man kept up restlessly stalking Gregorio, knowing it would lead him right back to the man with the griffon and Astral Crown.