“…Are you sure, Aaron? It’s not too late to come with me to Ellsworth… I could tutor you myself.”
Aaron sat beside Douglas along a sandy shoreline. Summer was rolling in, and the brothers removed their boots and rolled up their sleeves as the sun beat down on their heads. While Aaron busied himself threading a fishing net back together, Douglas was diving nose deep into a thick textbook with a stack of several others at his side.
“No. I told you a thousand times already, Doug. I’m no scholar. I’m going to use my half of the money to repair the fishing boat and just keep up the family legacy. Staring at a book for hours on end never was my thing.”
“C’mon, bro. You’re not an idiot.”
“Yeah, but I’m not like you, either. I just don’t have a thirst for knowledge like you do.”
“Dad wanted a better life for you then mulling around on a fishing boat for the rest of your life…”
Aaron set his net to the side, tapping his bare foot against the warm sand as he searched for the right response. But he never found it.
“What’re you going to do about your family?” Aaron finally asked, changing the subject.
“Mierel and Cordelia can live out by the coast. Ellsworth doesn’t have many ports and the Legion doesn’t tend to do nautical patrols out there, so it should be more than safe for them. I’ll go out and stay with them on the weekends, I suppose.”
“Uncle Aaron! Uncle Aaron!”
A child mermaid peeked her head out of the rolling waves, dragging herself onto the beach. She proudly clutched something in her right hand, waving it around and calling for Aaron.
“Whatcha got there, kiddo?” Aaron laughed, running up to meet her. The little monster’s sapphire eyes sparkled with pride.
“It’s a present for you.” She answered, “Mommy helped me make it, but I found the pretty shells all by myself!”
Sharing her cheery smile, Aaron gratefully accepted the gift. It was a thin leather strap suspending a series of brilliantly vibrant and immaculately formed seashells. Any collector would’ve paid top coin for it.
“It’s beautiful, Cordelia. Thank you.” said Aaron, slipping the gift over his head and around his neck.
“Boys, Cordelia! I’ve caught us some lunch~” called yet another female over the lapping waves. Another mermaid, and her resemblance to the little one was so strong that anyone could tell they were mother and daughter from a single glance. Scooting onto the beach, she dropped a whole armful of fish into the sand.
Hoisting the giggling Cordelia onto his shoulder, Aaron waved towards his sister-in-law, he and his brother walking over to meet her.
“AARON AXENUS! I KNOW YOU’RE IN HERE!”
Aaron’s crusty eyelids ripped themselves open as he heard Father Gregorio screaming his name from downstairs.
“Gregorio…? Fuck, does that asshole ever give up?” Aaron grumbled.
Figures. First pleasant dream he had in months and a crazed priest wakes him up before it was lunchtime. As his hazy gaze darted down to Kiera, Aaron saw she was stirring awake as well. Laying on her side and snuggling close to his chest, Aaron had to suppress a sneeze as her frizzy patch of white hair shot up and tickled his nose.
Their rather compromising position suddenly dawning on him, Aaron bolted to attention and rolled out of her grasp, twirling the blanket around his legs and crashing into the floor.
‘Why does a girl snuggling with me scare me more than a deranged priest?’ Aaron thought as he rubbed his sore noggin, untangling his legs in the meantime.
“Aaron, are you alright? What’s going on?” Kiera yawned, leaning over and watching him squirm about on the floor.
“COME OUT, YOU DAMNED HEATHEN!” roared Gregorio from down below. Aaron flinched as he heard the mad priest blast away something downstairs with his magic, a mighty crash ringing throughout the old house.
“Looks like someone tracked you down. Great job covering your tracks.” Grace sighed, floating into the room with a teary-eyed Beatrice hugged to her chest.
“He’s going to destroy our house…” the living doll sobbed, pulling her giant bow over her eyes to hide her tears.
“Hmph. We’ll see how much of your stuff he can break after I break his skull.” snarled Aaron, jumping from the floor and grabbing the broadsword from its spot leaning against the chair, “You don’t mind if I borrow this one last time, do you Grace?”
“Go ahead.” Grace answered, just as uninvested and uninterested in his endeavors as she ever was.
“Aaron, no! It’s too dangerous to fight him yourself! You’ll get killed!” Kiera protested.
“What do you want me to do, huh? He’s going to tear down this house until he finds us anyway. We owe Grace and Beatrice. If they hadn’t offered us shelter, then they wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.”
“If I have to… I can help you fight.” Grace offered, floating forward, “It is my house, after all.”
“No. Holy magic can hurt ghosts, can’t it? I can tell you’re not a warrior, and I’m not going to let you die defending some dumb bastard who put you into danger in the first place.”
“I won’t let you… not by yourself!” protested Kiera. She tried sitting up, but was quickly pushed into bed by Grace, Beatrice joining in and hopping onto the griffon’s stomach.
“Don’t worry. I’m not planning on dying just yet.”
Aaron stomped down the right stairway, hearing the carnage unfolding in the left side of the mansion cease. With a low chuckle, Gregorio emerged from the hallway. As the priest strode forward with a controlled fury, Aaron nearly broke the steps with each stomp as he descended the stairs.
Either way, each man was bound to meet the other in the middle of the foyer.
“So, you’ve shown your face…” laughed Gregorio.
“I’ll show you more than that!” Aaron snarled as he reached the bottom of the stairs, yanking the broadsword from its sheath and aiming it right at the priest, “Now that I have a weapon, we can settle this once and for all!”
“Then let’s settle it, Xavier… or should I call you Aaron? Or is that just a stolen name of yet another man you’ve murdered?”
Aaron held up his broadsword. Gregorio’s scowl deepened, and he lifted up a handful of sparking thunder in return. Standing a few meters away from each other in the ancient foyer, both were tensed and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
“No. Aaron’s my real name.”
“Then I shall carve it upon your tombstone.”
With those words echoing through the nearly abandoned manor, the battle began.
Darting forward, Aaron swung his sword, but Gregori had already jumped back, keeping the distance between them. And unlike his enemy, the priest had a way to strike from that distance. Lashing out his hand,Gregorio launched his thunder magic.
Aaron raised his forearm, stumbling back as it was shocked and burned, and inwardly thanked the gods that they didn’t allow their holy men to lob around lighting with the same power and speed that mother nature could.
Powering through the pain wracking his twitching arm, Aaron rushed the priest once again, who put in a few extra feet of distance to charge another sizzling javelin of blue electricity.
The priest grunted in annoyance as he realized Aaron would reach him before his spell was ready. Letting the blue thunder fizzle out of his hand, he prepared to reestablished the gap between he and his enemy.
Shooting out an invisible pulse of energy, he pushed Aaron back as he turned tail and sprinted to the other side of the foyer.
‘Dammit! For an old priest, this bastard is fast!‘
Gregorio lashed out his arm again and again, flinging small orbs of electricity at Aaron. Each small ball exploded against the young man’s body in a rain of sparks, leaving behind singed holes in his clothes and burned welts on his flesh.
Leaning to his head to the side as one whizzed by his ear, Aaron realized he wouldn’t last much longer at the current pace. He kept up his attempts to dodge the spells, a plan bubbling in his head all the while.
‘He knows he’s finished if I get in close. There’s got be a way to keep him from doubling back!’
Hopping to the side as Gregorio shot a bolt of electricity at his feet, Aaron felt something jingle against his hip, then broke out into a wicked grin.
Grinding his boots into the cracked marble floor, Aaron reared his blade behind his back. Well out of Aaron’s range, Gregorio blinked in confusion for just a moment before he caught onto the heretic’s plan.
‘Man, this is fuckin’ nuts… but Gale did always say that genius and insanity were two sides of the same coin, and I’m running out of options here.‘
Aaron lashed out his arm, the broadsword slipping from his fingers and slicing through the air as it flew forward. The blade went veering to the right and Gregorio hopped to the left, watching as the blade whiz by a few feet away from his head.
Of course, Aaron expected that. He couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with anything from an arrow from a bow to a stone from his palm, but throwing away his sword was only the first step of his master plan.
He knew it was a risky move. When the priest inevitably returned his attention back to him, he could easily score a point blank shot to his chest. But if he pulled it off, he knew he would have more or less seized victory.
Aaron had noticed a certain pattern in Gregorio’s fighting-style after watching him do it again and again. Aaron thought back to a certain part of his chat with the late Bishop Arthur and figured out the priest’s weakness.
And he was about to exploit it.
Springing forward, Aaron reached behind his back, swinging his right arm forward and slamming it into his enemies right wrist before he could react.
“What the hell?!” Gregorio stuttered, trying to pull away from Aaron to gain distance, but finding himself locked firmly in place.
There some sort of rusty iron bracelet around both he and Aaron’s wrists… seeing the chain connecting the two of them, Gregorio’s eyes widened. Aaron had handcuffed their right hands together.
“What in the name of the gods are you thinking!? Are you a madman?!”
“I noticed you shoot lighting with only your right hand… what’s up with that?”
Gregorio lashed out a left hook, sinking his fist into Aaron’s gut. With a small grunt, Aaron dug his feet into the ground and ate the punch. Before the priest could retract it, Aaron grabbed hold of his wrist and pulled it between them.
“Arthur said something about you retiring to priesthood after getting injured in battle… does this have something to do with it?”
Aaron griped down on Gregorio’s wrist with all his strength, forcing the priest’s palm open. There, across his palm, was a series of stitches.
“Aha! Looks like I was right on the mark. You’ve fucked up your hand, haven’t you? You can’t cast magic out of it anymore, can you!?”
Gregorio squared himself and snarled like a cornered beast, a vein of lighting beginning to crackle in his right palm.
Watching it out of the corner of his eye, Aaron used his superior physical strength to yank both their arms to the side, causing the priest to misfire and blast the wall.
With a mighty roar, Aaron reared back his left arm and thrust it forward, slamming his fist against Gregorio’s face. The priest’s head snapped back, blood and a single tooth flying from his lips.
“Say uncle?” Aaron snickered as the priest’s head lolled back into place, now free of his wide-brimmed hat.
A vein throbbed on Gregorio’s forehead, and he spat blood onto Aaron as he screamed at the top of his lungs.
“I’LL MAKE YOU PAY!”
He tried firing another bolt of lighting at Aaron, but the stronger man yanked his arm skyward, grabbing the priest’s wrist on the way. He blasted the ceiling, causing chunks of plaster and wood to collapse behind them.
“That won’t work anymore, asshole!” Aaron growled, throwing both of their right hands forward and hammering Gregorio’s own hand into his nose, bending it out of shape.
With a cry that sounded more akin to a barbarian than a man of the cloth, Gregorio threw his left fist forward once again, hitting Aaron right in his temple. However, the ex-soldier took it like a prized boxer, just as quickly retaliating with his own left hook. It carried twice the power and easily popped a blood vessel in the priest’s forehead.
Aaron let out a mighty roar, holding Gregorio steady with his right hand and hammering a rain of punches to the priest’s chest, throat, and face. Father Gregorio slumped forward after the assault, blood gushing from his wounds and landing on his scarlet robes.
“Give. Up.” Aaron spat.
Out of all of his expectations for what the priest would do next, the last thing Aaron expected him to do was chuckle. Yet, that’s precisely what Gregorio did. Along with that ominous laughter, Gregorio lifted his left hand and pressed it up against Aaron’s chest.
“I may lose this hand, but so be it. Ganymede has given me a final test, and I shall see it through.”
A vein of lighting ran down the priest’s arm hitting Aaron’s chest. The swordsman cried out in agony as the electricity coursed throughout his body, singing his clothing and frying him like a fish. He threw his head back, wailing in pain.
Gregorio ground his teeth together, in just as much pain as Aaron. The rust around the metal handcuffs and Aaron’s body slowing down the conduction ensured very little of the current returned to him, but there was still the problem of his hand.
Even as he felt his left hand’s scars pop open, as his veins burst and splattered his blood against the heretic’s chest, Gregorio cried out with a mixture of anger and pain. He was fighting on with a cocktail of faith, adrenaline and pure, bitter rage.
“Yes… it’ll be over soon! I may have lost my hand, but it was all worth it! Can you see me, Ganymede?! I’ve slain the heretic! I’ve avenged your followers! Now, I can finally live a peaceful quiet life until the day I-”
Aaron’s head snapped back up, but that wasn’t what astonished Gregorio from his speech. The heretic wore a mad grin, and bore the most murderous glint that the former inquisitor had seen in all his years.
The heretic thrust his left hand forward, grabbing hold of the side of Gregorio’s head and jamming his thumb into the priest’s eye. The old man stumbled back, but Aaron followed, pressing it down even further.
Gregorio squealed like a stuck pig. Aaron used his own body as a conductor, transferring the priest’s own attack back into him. The voltage surged through Father Gregorio’s eyestalk, frying his brain.
Both men fell to the ground, Aaron panting in exhaustion as he stared the fresh corpse dead in the face. Aaron then glanced down to his chest, blood and bits of flesh sticking grotesquely over the hand print Gregorio burned into his skin.
Slamming his head back onto the hard marble floor below, Aaron began giggling. But that soon snowballed into an avalanche, and his burning chest began heaving with hysterical laughter.
“This guy was a single…. a single retired inquisitor… with one… with one fuckin’ hand! HAHAHA! What am I going to do when I run into a fuckin’ paladin?! HAHAHA!” he nearly sobbed, curling up into ball not even caring as it brought the corpse pressing against his back.
“You don’t have to fight your battles by yourself… you have Kiera. And Valerie too. She’s a monster, right? Even if she’s not… you’re not doing this alone, Aaron.”
Hearing the nonplussed female above him, Aaron looked over his shoulder to see Grace orbiting his head. She had said Valerie. How did she that name? It wasn’t likely Kiera told her while he was locked in combat with a mad, lighting-hurling priest. He could only think back to when he spilled his story to Kiera and mentioned how he hadn’t even told a certain hellhound that much.
“You were listening in on us when I told Kiera about my past, weren’t you?”
“Maybe…” she taunted, her tail wagging back and forth and tickling his nose. The tip curled at the very end, holding a key, “Here, take that. Unless you want to drag around a dead guy until he decomposes.”
“It’s tempting, actually. Who would fuck with a guy handcuffed to a dead priest?” Aaron joked, although his tone remained quite spiteful and bitter. Accepting the key, he uncuffed himself from the corpse.
“Want these back?” Aaron asked, waggling this end of the handcuffs at Grace, shaking the hand of the dead man still connected to them below in turn.
“Heh. What, I think it’s a little too late to not want them back because they were on a dead person…”
Grace rolled her eyes, “Ya know, you’re awfully snappy for someone who was just having a psychotic meltdown.”
“Well, gotta deal with the stress somehow. I can’t go off the deep end before I make Lucero pay for what he’s done. And now, I have two important girls I can’t let down. Thanks for reminding of that, Grace.”
Aaron shakily took to his feet, his whole body still feeling like gelatin from his impromptu shock therapy and the still burning handprint on his chest. Aside from that, feeling was returning to his body, and a new sense of proud optimism filled his heart.
“Ya know, I’m not so mad at you for having broken down our door now.” said Grace with- to Aaron’s pleasant surprise- a smile. The ghost swiftly returned to a small frown and looked towards the flames crackling in the left side of the mansion, “But I’m still furious that you attracted the asshole who did that.”
Aaron, staring nervously at the fire, picked the departed holy man from the ground and tossed the corpse over his shoulder, “Speaking of which… I’ll go get rid of this carcass for you.”
“You don’t want to treat your injuries first?”
“Naw… j-just worry about that fire. I’ll be right back…”
Aaron let out several grunts of pain as he swiftly shuffled out of the building. Watching his back as he left, Grace blinked in confusion.
“What’s he so eager to get out for?”
Looking back towards the fire raging in the hallway, she sighed in frustration and sank into the floor, grabbing a barrel full of water before the licking flames could spread any further.
“That should be deep enough…” Aaron mumbled, shoveling a final scoop of dirt from the hole and climbing out of it. The welts and burns covering his body stung, but he had avoided any serious damage in the fight.
Tossing the rusty shovel he found in Grace’s old shed over his shoulder, he looked over at Gregorio’s bloody corpse. While all his three years of combat had dulled the sting of taking another’s life, he could still feel his heart twisting up with guilt. He didn’t even feel an ounce of remorse for killing Bishop Arthur, who treated him with nothing but trust and kindness until he bashed the old sap’s head in.
So why was he feeling bad for the bastard who hurt one of his friends and came quite close to killing him on three separate occasions?
“Man… what the hell is wrong with me?” He asked no one, but looked towards the sky like it held the answer he was searching for.
“You… you were like me, weren’t you, Gregorio? You hated monsters, but you wanted to put your past behind you, didn’t you? You just wanted to live a quiet life of piety with the monks. And you never would have died if you hadn’t met me. Not those monks, not Bishop Arthur…”
These men weren’t like Leon Grandmore and his buddies back in Tellum. He had been the aggressor. The murderer.
Wiping some moisture gathering in his eyes, Aaron shook his head from side-to-side and began shoveling the dirt back into the hole. He couldn’t be the judge of whether or not Gregorio deserved a coffin or tombstone, but he couldn’t provide one either way.
“Aaron… are you alright?”
Aaron began flattening the dirt atop the shallow grave, but cast his gaze over to a griffon peaking at him between the trees, “Y-yeah. I’m fine. What about you, Kiera? You should still be resting.”
“It was kind of hard to rest with a fire below you and your partner running off in the woods when he’s injured. What was that all about, Aaron? Grace and Beatrice could’ve used your help if your wounds aren’t stopping you from moving around.”
“N-nothing. It was nothing. Please, just drop it.” Aaron requested, finishing his dirty job and throwing the rusty shovel back over his shoulder.
Kiera breathed a long breath out of her nose, “Alright, fine. I’m sure you have your reasons. Before we go back, take this.”
The griffon walked over, handing him a small vial with a red fluid sloshing around from within.
“Is this the potion with ‘side-effects’?’”
“No. It’s just a pain killer Beatrice brewed last night.”
Aaron yanked the cork off, downing the potion in a single gulp. The throbbing pain of his welts and burns suddenly went numb, and Aaron sighed in relief.
“Come on, partner. I spotted a large stream nearby, and it flows into a lake a few miles west. We can probably catch some fish passing by.”
The rumbling in his stomach suddenly far more bothersome than the scrapes and burns coating his body, a small stream of drool escaped Aaron’s lips as he imagined a variety of dishes made from fresh trout.
“Great. Let’s go get some lunch.”