The next day, Aaron finally made it back to the mansion, panting in exhaustion as he lugged the chest behind him. Kicking open the iron gate, he continued onward, the padlock clanking against the wooden chest as it was dragged against the pavement below.
Carrying it up the short set of stairs, Aaron slammed it against the porch with a loud huff, finding the door he kicked open repaired. Twisting the bronze doorknob, Aaron pushed the chest inside and slammed the door behind him.
“HEY, GRACE! I COULD USE A HAND HERE!”
“Don’t be such a whiner… it was sooo reckless to have gone off and lugged this thing back on your own with those monks after you…” the ghost droned as she phased in from the ceiling and floated before him.
“We’re on a tight schedule. Besides, you or Beatrice could’ve come with me if you were so concerned.”
“Ghosts can’t go out into the sunlight, and Beatrice can whip up a mean potion and cup of tea, but she’s still just a doll… not very good in a fight.”
Aaron squatted down, the bones in his legs popping as he flexed them out, “Hey, what’s the big deal? I’m back, aren’t I?”
“You are… but if you made a cute girl like Kiera sad because you died from doing something stupid… I would’ve dragged your soul down to hell myself…”
Aaron stretched out his back and popped his sore neck, “Ah, is that supposed to scare me? I would’ve gone to hell anyway.”
The dour ghost ignored his snide remark. Sinking into the ground, she reappeared below the treasure chest, lifting it above her head and flying up the flight of stairs, dropping it off in the bedroom.
“So, what’re you going to do now?” Grace asked, phasing her head through the wall and staring down at him.
“Gonna take a nap.” he answered bluntly, plodding up the steps. “Haven’t slept for a good two days… again. Everything is numb, and I’m fairly certain I’ve pulled every muscle in my body.”
Her amber eyes fluttering open with a soft yawn, Kiera sat up on the bed and stretched out both her arms, the white fur around her wrists and atop her head frizzing up.
“As usual…” she groaned at her wily tufts of hair, combing them down with her eagle claws.
Her wings still throbbed with a dull pain, but she could tell they would soon be back in shape. Smiling, she twisted around and spotted someone at the corner of the room.
Aaron sat in the cushioned red chair, snoring away. The sheathed broadsword he nicked and an aged bottle of liquor lay against his lap, his arms were draped off either side of the chair, and his legs were propped atop a muddy wooden chest.
Snapping awake, Aaron sat up with a noisy grumble, rubbing the sleep from his baggy eyes. “Kiera? You awake already?”
“I told you not to go after that treasure by yourself!” she huffed, cheeks puffing out.
Aaron, still half asleep, grabbed the broadsword from his lap and stood, stretching out his legs. “Despite the fact you were delirious when you said that, why do you even care so much? We haven’t known each other for three full days, and you’ve been napping for a half of one.”
“Because… it doesn’t matter if we’ve only known each other for two years or two seconds! The moment we shook hands at Angel’s Peak, we were partners. And I know you didn’t just help me get the treasure just for the crown. I know you care about the future of the Roaming Ravens.”
“How can you be so sure about that? Maybe I was just using you for the crown and don’t give a damn about what happens to you or your tribe.”
“Because I became nothing but a burden on you after I crashed. You could’ve easily just left me in the woods back there to die and taken all the treasure for yourself, but you didn’t. You risked your life bringing both me and the treasure back.”
Aaron had no response but a heavy blush. He popped the top of his liquor, “Yeah, well… just… make sure your village uses that last bunch of gold wisely, alright? You shouldn’t go around kidnapping and stealing cattle. It ain’t right.”
“Don’t worry. I wasn’t a big fan of it either… but you have to look at things from our perspective, Aaron. My mother has used almost every single bit of money she’s received from our treasure hunts to ensure that every black harpy that leaves the Roaming Ravens is safe and successful in starting her own village. Her kind was dying out. But now, thanks to her, black harpies are coming back from the brink of extinction. I would have done the same thing in her shoes.”
“You mean talons?”
“Paws, Aaron. I have paws on my feet, talons on my hands.” she reminded him, sticking out each appendage from under her sheets and giving every digit a wiggle.
“Poteto, potato…” Aaron said, taking a swig of his liquor.
“You get the point. But don’t worry. Mother will use this last bit of gold to move the Ravens far to the north, were the Legion won’t be able to bother us anymore.”
“That’s assuming they don’t set their sights north and east if they conquer Lusitania.” Aaron spat bitterly, hopping to his feet and walking towards Kiera.
“We’ll worry about that day when it comes, partner.” Kiera assured. Looking down at the bottle in Aaron’s hand, that stern face she wore on their first meeting returned, “A bit early to be drinking, isn’t it?”
“Early? Hardly. Look, it’s still midnight. We’ve just been asleep all day.” Aaron pointed out, shoving a finger toward the window at the shining moon. “Besides, helps the pain.”
Aaron removed the bottle from his lips, shaking it towards Kiera as an offer.
“No thanks.” she sighed, pushing the bottle away. “Where’d you even get that in the first place, Aaron?”
“Next room over.” he replied, taking another swing and forking a thumb to the wall facing his back, “Used to be Grace’s dad’s room, apparently. If his personal collection in the cupboard is anything to go by, the man drank like a fish.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“Well, I’m pretty much a wanted man, every single one of my muscles feels like it’s on fire, and I’m on a suicide mission. I think I deserve a little bit more booze than some rich asshole who had a whole fuckin’ mansion to himself and emotionally abused his daughter.”
“Just make sure you pace yourself, Aaron.”
“Alright, alright. Sorry, I don’t mean to gripe.” Aaron agreed as he plopped down next to Kiera. Taking yet another swig of his drink, he sat the half-empty bottle to the side. “So… I don’t think I’m ready to back to sleep yet. What about you?”
“Not yet, no.”
An awkward silence hung between the human and monster. The only sounds echoing in the empty room were the sloshing of alcohol in Aaron’s bottle as he swirled it around and the creaking of the mattress as he adjusted his position.
“I’m sorry, Aaron, but I have to ask… this man you’re after… who is he? Why are you hunting him down?” Kiera asked, finally sharing what was on her mind.
Aaron flinched, downing the last of his drink and pulling the bottle from his mouth with a pop. Setting the empty bottle to the side, he turned to face the griffon, “Alright… but I’m warning you, it ain’t a pleasant story, and it’s fairly lengthy.”
“We’ve got plenty of time.”
“Ha… well… you’ve caught me when I’m tipsy, so why not?”
With the alcohol flowing through his system, he poured out everything he had told to Valerie to Kiera. How he was a soldier in the Legion’s military several months prior, about Lucero and his Sol Saber, how the bastard murdered his friend Miles.
And to his own shock, took his story even further.
The day after Lucero had boarded their vessel, the 13th company’s nautical journey picked up its usual lazy pace back up. The celebration of their triumph was over. Now, everyone was simply eager to return to their homes, to the loving embrace of their families. The thought of a grand homecoming was on every man’s mind.
Aaron was no different, although there was only one man left he could really call family. He loved his brother more than anyone else in the world, but he wasn’t thinking about Douglas at that moment.
Standing on the caravel’s deck, he stared into the setting sun and gorgeous glittering waters, he could only think of Miles. Miles and his burnt, twisted face screaming in agony as he stood back, watching his friend be murdered like a coward.
Approaching him from his right, Aaron watched his friend William from the corner of his eye. Looking over his shoulder for any eavesdroppers, he leaned over to his purple-haired friend.
“So…” Aaron whispered, “Did you know that Miles was a heretic? That’s why you looked so nervous, right? You knew he was going to die, didn’t you?”
“Yeah.” muttered William back at Aaron, “It happened after I got him cleaned up. The day before we left those fucking islands. The girl was some siren. He was talking some nonsense about coming back to her after he dropped his payment off to all his little brothers and sisters.”
The disturbed Aaron snickered, a frail mask for the rage he was bottling up. If there was a more proper reaction, he didn’t know it.
“Why didn’t either of you tell me?”
“I told him not to. He needed spill to at least one person who wouldn’t gut him for it… and if you knew, it could put you in a heap of unnecessary trouble.”
“I can handle myself, William.”
“I know you can, Aaron, but you have a tendency to get in over your head. Besides, we didn’t know how you’d react. I didn’t… I didn’t want you to do anything crazy.”
“And just what the fuck is that supposed to mean?!” Aaron barked, banging his fist against the ship’s railing and glaring at Will.
Will opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out. Taking a step back, the violet-haired lancer stared towards his feet, “I’ll… I’ll leave you with your thoughts.”
Aaron didn’t respond. Turning back towards the rolling waves of the sea, he only slackened his tensed shoulders once he heard William’s footsteps disappear into the bowels of the ship.
“Gorgeous sunset, isn’t it?”
His back going rigid, Aaron spun around and pressed up against the railing. Lucero was standing right behind him, his blonde hair flowing in the sea-breeze and his sleek silver armor and green eyes glinting in what little sunlight remained.
“Aaron, was it? Yes, I believe we went to battle together when we were trying to overthrow that fortified amazon village. You’re quite the capable fighter for someone with no previous military experience.”
Aaron righted himself, standing rigid before dropping to a single knee, “T-thank you, sir.”
“No need to be so formal, friend. We’re the same age aren’t we? And just about the same social status…” Lucero placed his hand down on Aaron’s shoulder, trailing off for a moment, “…well, for now, anyway.”
Lucero nudged Aaron’s shoulder, commanding him to stand up. Quickly following the order, Aaron hopped to his feet.
“You know, Aaron, I noticed something odd about your soul when I was looking for the heretic in the crowd yesterday.”
“W-what would that be, sir?”
“Don’t fret. It was nothing to kill you over. But do you know what it was?”
Even if Aaron could muster up the will to spit out a response, he was at a loss for what to say. A small smile gracing his lips, Lucero peered over Aaron’s shoulder and cast his eyes on the gorgeous sunset.
“E-excuse me, sir?”
“Doubt. I can sense doubt in your heart. Your soul is pure, but it wavers. I saw a similar anomaly in a few other men, but none as much as you. Your spirit waned and fluctuated when you saw me delivering judgment on your friend… not that your conviction was cast iron in the first place.”
Aaron’s knuckles went white as he squeezed down on the railing behind him, juggling whether or not he should try to jump ship and hope a monster would save him from a watery death. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he could feel himself begin to shiver as Lucero stared him down.
“Don’t be so nervous, friend! Without doubt, there can’t be true conviction. In my darkest moments, I’ve questioned my Gods and empire as well. But come now… you’d never betray the Holy Legion… would you?”
“I- I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Pleased with his answer, Lucero’s knowing smirk evolved into a wry grin. He patted one of his silver-gauntlets against Aaron’s shoulder, “Good. I understand you’re upset about what I did to your friend, but it had to be done. The heretics must suffer for their sins, and once I learn to fully utilize the power of my Sol Saber, I’m going to punish every last one of them and put an end to this bitter war.”
Lucero turned away, returning to the captain’s quarters. But not before shooting Aaron one last pleasant smile before shutting the door behind him.
Aaron stood in stunned silence, the railing he was leaning against the only thing stopping him from collapsing onto the deck. His clammy skin crawled. His knees were nearly clacking together before they buckled, and sweat poured off from his body like he had just run a mile through the desert. Swallowing the large lump in his throat, he had but one thought.
‘When am I going to get off this goddamned boat?‘
“We’re finally home, boys!”
As he watched the seaport of Genoa creep closer and closer, Aaron allowed a smile to cross his lips as he stood among the crowd of whooping men. They already had a welcoming party gathered at the dock, proud citizens cheering and casting waves and grins at them as they neared.
Lucero hadn’t spoken to him since the start of the journey, but throughout the months, the Sol Saber’s new harbinger simply shot him those slight passing glances and wry smiles. Aaron would’ve likened the feeling to Lucero being in on some little embarrassing secret about him that even he didn’t know.
It unnerved Aaron to no end. But that was all over. Aaron had no clue what Lucero was going to do next, but he was planning on moving back to his village to live out the rest of his days in relative peace, his only adversity being choppy waves on his fishing trips.
The instant the caravel docked, the soldiers began piling off like ants swarming from their hill. They began mingling in with the crowd and joining in the festivities, the smells of cooked meat and cheap booze filling the air. With a small grimace, Aaron pushed through the dense crowd, looking for the quickest way out.
“Now, should I hitch a ride with a caravan, or just buy my own horse…?” Aaron grumbled in thought, realizing he was still on the other side of the empire from his little fishing hamlet. He had arrived at Genoa years ago with a gaggle of spice merchants that were traveling across the empire to sell their wares.
The ex-soldier froze up. He knew that voice and knew it well. As he broke from his shocked stupor to meet him, Aaron beamed like a ray of sunshine.
Douglas shared a striking resemblance to his older brother, even sporting a similar wild head of gray hair and icy eyes. However, it was clear that Douglas had never seen the horrors of war, and his face was still brimming with hopeful youth.
Aaron hopped forward, wrapping his muscular arms around his brother’s slimmer form and pulling him in for a crushing hug.
“Doug! What are you doing here?”
“Not glad to see me?”
“ I am… I just… thought you’d still be waiting back at home. You crossed the whole damn empire!”
“Well… I wanted to personally welcome my big brother back after he returned from war. Is that so wrong?”
“Of course not. But how’d you get here?”
“I hitched a ride with a traveling cloth salesman… he said he’d take me here with him for a gold piece, and he’d drop us both back off at Krovrin for another one.”
“But… we only had one gold piece left!”
“Hey, you’ve got money now! He said he’d take us both back for a single gold piece, remember? We’ll have to pay for our meals, but that’s still a good deal, right?
“What if I had died, Doug? I mean, I signed for however much money I made to be sent to you, but you would have come all the way out here for nothing.”
“Don’t… don’t talk like that, Aaron. You’re here now, and that’s all that matters.”
Aaron began tearing up against his will.
“I missed you, bro.”
Embracing for the second time, Aaron pulled away to point back to the crowd, “C’mon, Doug. I want to introduce you to my friend Will. I think you two will get along like-”
Aaron froze. His eyes darted across the crowd, between the rows of rowdy sailors and jovial ex-soldiers… until he spotted a knight in silver stood atop his ship’s mast, staring down at him and his brother.
Panic began to boil up in Aaron’s stomach. He was certain was going to vomit. Lucero wasn’t wearing that ever-present smug, knowing grin as he usually did. His face was set into a deep scowl, and he glared down with the eyes of a hawk and hunger of a starving lion.
‘He’s going to kill us.‘ Aaron realized right away, ‘Did he change his mind about wanting to kill me over my doubts? Did he just want to wait until we got to land to make an example out of me?’
Aaron didn’t have time to ponder the reason, but he knew in his gut that Lucero was going to come after them any second.
“Doug. We have to go. Now. Where the hell is that cloth merchant?”
“H-he’s down a few buildings behind that inn. But what’s the rush? I thought that you wanted to introduce me to your friend-”
Aaron grabbed his brother by the wrist, dragging him past the inn as he broke into a mad dash, knocking anyone in his way to the ground. Taking a brief glance over his shoulder, he saw that Lucero had jumped from the ship’s mast, landing before the crowd and shuffling through them. Fortunately for the brothers, Lucero had to move through the thick of the crowd.
‘Thank the gods. He’s not so nuts he’d cut down innocent civilians to get us quicker.‘
Abandoning all thought, Aaron let his fear and adrenaline drive he and Douglas to the merchant. His brother’s confusion and leaving his good friend without saying goodbye couldn’t have mattered less to him at that moment. His whole world became the horse and wagon sitting ahead.
“Gods, Aaron! What’s the problem!?” Douglas complained as his older brother skid to a halt, finally releasing the grip on his wrist.
“No time. Get on the wagon.” Aaron huffed, pointing into it.
Douglas didn’t know the reason, but he still nodded in agreement. He hopped into the wagon as Aaron looped around and hopped up the rider’s side, where the portly merchant huffed on a pipe.
“What’s the rush, boys?” he asked, staring at Aaron through the thick frames of his round glasses.
Aaron reached into his coin sack, pulling out three sparkling golden pieces. He shoved them into the merchant’s hand, “I’ll pay you triple if you get us back to Krovrin as quickly as possible, no questions asked…”
The merchant’s little eyes lit up with avarice at the proposition, but his frown showed he was well aware of the peril the brothers were in. Weighing his options for a few moments, he decided to risk it.
Tucking his newfound wealth away, the rider spurred his horses onward, quickly leaving the city far behind.
Settling into a stack of carpets after he was sure they were well away from Lucero, Aaron tried to ignore the bumpy ride as he looked towards his concerned brother, leaning against a crate opposite to him.
“Hehehe… looks like I’ve got some explaining to do, huh?” Aaron chuckled, scratching the back of his head as Douglas rubbed his sore shoulder, shooting him a murderous glare that rivaled Lucero’s.
Aaron stared longingly at his empty bottle, wishing for just a bit more.
“I guess it goes without saying, but… Lucero found us. I don’t know how, but he tracked us down a few months later. Back then… I didn’t know why Lucero wanted to kill us, but that look in his eyes… it was the same as when he killed Miles…”
Not saying anything, Kiera settled deeper into bed and peered up at Aaron.
“I thought… I thought Lucero changed his mind and decided to kill me. I didn’t even know at the time, but my brother was a heretic. He had already been in a relationship with a mermaid for years, and Lucero saw that in his soul.”
Breathing out in exhaustion, Aaron leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees, “Dammit. I haven’t even told Valerie that much yet.”
Kiera sat up from the matress, laying her claw on his shoulder.
“Do you know why I didn’t want you to go off by yourself, Aaron? When I was just a little girl… I was cocky… arrogant. It was my fifth treasure hunt, and my partner… she… she pushed me out of the way of an obvious trap, and died in my place.”
Aaron could only nod. He knew the pain of losing someone close to you all too well, and just how much more bitter it was to reflect on it and realize you could’ve done something to change it.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I lost another partner because of my own failings.”
Aaron couldn’t help but chuckle at that, “Failings…? There’s nothing you could’ve done to dodge that spell, Kiera. Short of dropping me to lighten your load, that is.”
That thick, stifling silence hung over their heads once again. But this time around, it was Aaron who went and shattered it.
“Don’t let it bother you, Kiera. Hell, I wish I was more like you.”
Kiera looked towards the human’s back, her tail perking up from behind her, “What do you mean, Aaron?”
“You’re brave. Honorable. You have something to protect and care for, and you’re not afraid to stick your neck out to do it. M-maybe if I was a bit more like you… maybe if I had tried to save Miles, then Douglas and his family… they’d still be…”
Tears gathered in Aaron’s eyes as he turned to face her, “I’m such a coward… I just sat there and watched one of my best friends be tortured to death by some self-righteous psychopath… if I had stood up for Miles back on the ship, I would’ve died, but my brother… my sister-in-law, my niece… they’d all still be alive.”
“We can’t change the past, Aaron. What we can do is learn from it and use that knowledge to help pave the road to a better future.”
“You’re right, Kiera. Sorry… I’m usually not that emotional. I didn’t mean to whine and complain. When Lucero cornered my family, I should’ve died too. But I think… I think I survived for a reason.”
Aaron hopped from the bed, clenching one fist and placing it against his chest as he went on, “There’s no use standing around feeling sorry for myself, or wallow in guilt for all the mistakes I’ve made. I’m going to learn from my failures and take Lucero down. For the ones he’s taken from me, and for everyone else he’s shamelessly murdered.”
Capping the end of his passionate speech with a loud yawn, Aaron turned back towards the red chair in the corner, “But first… I’m going to try to get a little more sleep…”
“Wait, Aaron. Sleeping in that thing can’t be comfortable. Do you… want to share the bed? I mean, it’s big enough for the both of us…”
“Are you sure about that, Kiera?”
Kiera scooted to the left of the bed, tapping the empty spot where she was laying with one claw. Flushing as red as a tomato, she still tried her best to be courteous, despite how clearly the idea reduced her to nervous, blushing mess.
“C-come on, Aaron… w-we’re partners right? We have to trust each other with our lives, I think we can share a bed…”
“Alright… you’re not going to try anything… lewd, are ya?” Aaron teased her. Removing his boots, he placed one knee and both hands on the mattress and leaned towards her.
Kiera jumped back, and Aaron could’ve sworn that he saw steam shoot from her ears, “O-of course not! With a drunken man?! A true warrior would never stoop so low!”
“Relax, I’m just messin’ with ya…” Aaron reassured her between tired yawns, collapsing face-first into the bed. After all the physical and emotional stress he pushed himself through that day, he quickly returned to sleep once more.
Her red face returning to its original color, Kiera stifled a laugh, tossing a blanket over his body and giving his head a few gentle pats, “Sleep tight, partner…”