“Alright! Pop that sucker open, Kiera!” Aaron cheered as he leaned back in the red chair of the mansion’s bedroom, popping himself open a bottle of champagne. The drink immediately fizzed out of control and went spilling over his hand. Sticking the bottle into his mouth, he chugged it down before pulling it away and wiping the frothy bubbles from his chin.
“You got it, partner…” Kiera smiled. While her wings were still healing and wrapped up in casts, she was back on her paws. Squatting down next to the chest, she raised one talon into the air while using the other to pin the iron padlock in place.
Her talons split the air like an executioner’s axe, cleaving the padlock apart. It fell to the ground, spilling the mechanical gears of it’s guts before the human and monster.
“Alright!” Aaron cheered, placing his drink to the side and hopping over to the chest, “You wanna do the honors, Kiera…?”
“No… I think you deserve it, Aaron. You’re the one who lugged it all the way here after all~”
“Heheh. Well, you helped at the beginning and Grace helped at the end, but… I never would’ve known about it in the first place if it wasn’t for you and your parent’s map.”
A heavy blush spread across Kiera’s cheeks and nose. With a nervous giggle, she brushed a few bangs out of her face and turned back to the chest, “Alright… I guess it doesn’t really matter who opens it up in the end, does it?”
She stuck the tips of her claws under the heavy lid and flipped it open, the contents seeming to shine a radiant golden light at the partners.
“Damn…” Aaron could only murmur as he got an eyeful of the loot.
A sizable pile of gold and jewels had been sleeping in the coffin for ages. Thick coins of gold and silver printed in kingdoms long since past mixed with an array of fat gems. Rubies, sapphires, diamonds… there were even more riches in that chest then Aaron had expected.
And atop that pile was a crown of pure platinum, a glowing piece of amethyst set in the center with a circle of smaller emeralds circling around it.
He reached out for it, “The astral crown…”
“Be careful, Aaron. Some of the relics I’ve come across were cursed, and if that thing’s dark past is true, it just might try to take control of your mind.” Kiera warned him.
“I’ll be careful with it.” he swore, running his fingers across the perfect amethyst in its center. Admiring it’s fine craftsmanship for just a moment longer, he turned it around and hovered it over his head, “Smack me back down if I start floating and bleeding out of my eyes, alright?”
“Just as long as you don’t shoot any black fireballs at me.”
“Deal.” Aaron replied, slipping the crown over his scalp. Feeling a strong tingling in his skull, he squeezed his eyes shut, the image of a man materializing in his mind.
Long, flowing blonde hair. Sharp features on a handsome face. He looked like a prince had hopped straight from a storybook, right down to his luminous armor. The man turned to Aaron, that arrogant sneer ever present on his face.
The mere image of Lucero made Aaron’s entire body tremble in rage. Gnashing his teeth, he gripped down on the crown so hard it began to slice into his fingers.
But soon enough, that image shattered. He heard Kiera cry out in concern, but he was already far gone. The image of Lucero’s shattered like glass and melted into purple light, stretching out into a single black dot in a sea of white.
Against his will, Aaron was dragged along with that purple light, zipping across expansive green plains, quaint villages, and vast, crowded cities in the blink of an eye. Flying over a raging sea, he soared over another coast and came to a screeching halt an unknowable distance inland.
Taking a moment to catch his bearings, Aaron realized he had just been dragged all the way across Coleum and over to Lusitania, all in under a second. He looked down at his hands. Like the rest of his body, they had turned an ethereal blue and translucent. A soft white flame burned around him, causing him to hop back in surprise. He was soon awash with relief, however, as he realized he wasn’t burning.
But when he peered down, he saw something both terrifying and peculiar. Set in the dead center of his chest, a black orb of sludge bubbled and shifted wildly, firing off sparks of red electricity with every disturbing movement.
“What the hell is that…?” he asked himself in complete awe.
Lucero’s words rang in Aaron’s ears once more, ‘For you see, when he’s brought into this beautiful world by the grace of our gods, a man’s life energy is completely pure. But, every time he lays with a monster, a small bit of that energy is infected with the monster’s own demon energy, until that man becomes a devil in his own right!’
“Guess he wasn’t lying about that huh…?” Aaron muttered, “But… he said my soul would be replaced bit by bit… I’ve only had sex with Valerie twice! Should it be this big?”
Aaron looked back down towards the oozing mass in his chest. It thumped like a heart, those sparks of scarlet bursting off of it with each beat, but provided him with no answers of its origins.
“Fuck it. Demon or human, I’ll still be me at the end of the day.” he decided, paying no further attention to the black mass throbbing in his chest.
With his attention freed, Aaron scanned his surroundings, finding himself in the middle of a blood-soaked battlefield. Corpses of legionaries, soldiers both young and old in countless varieties of iron armor, and a vast array of monsters lie motionless across the field.
“Damn…” Aaron muttered, flinching at the gory sight. Fortunately, his spirit didn’t seem able to pick up on smells. Looking across the field, Aaron spotted three men a meter or two away, their backs turned to him.
Three of them stood together, their chests proudly puffed out as they survived the carnage in their wake. Two of the men wore a full suit of crimson plate-mail, their sturdy galea helms decorated with a yellow horsehair crease. They turned towards Aaron, exposing the broadswords hung at their wastes and hefty crimson kite shields. The caricature of a golden hawk on their chests confirmed their alignment- both were paladins of the Legion.
Between them was a knight decked out in a full set of silver and gold armor, a scarlet cape flowing underneath his silky blonde hair. Pictured on that cape within a golden sun was a crimson eagle, a grand total of six wings spread out at every side.
Aaron grit his teeth, curling his fingers against his palms, “Lucero…”
Anger consumed his whole being. Seeing Lucero after all these months, Aaron swiftly flew into a blind fury. He stomped forward, but his ethereal form suddenly jittered and broke apart after the impact.
“W-what?” Aaron cried, his spirit beginning to disintegrate. Struggling to dash towards Lucero, he felt an invisible force pull him back. The soft flames surrounding Aaron’s ethereal form began to swirl behind him like they were being sucked into a raging vortex.
Being picked up by the unseen force, Aaron’s translucent fingers could only grasp at the air.
With his brow furrowing with uncontrollable rage, he could do nothing but cry out at the man who had stolen everything from him.
Aaron’s eyes snapped back open, finding himself back in Grace’s old mansion, coated in sweat and robbed of his breath. Suddenly, the amethyst in the center of the Astral Crown cracked, and just like that, the whole headpiece was split in two. The broken pieces fell from his brow, clattering against the floor.
“N…no!” Aaron cried, dropping to his knees, “What the hell?! Why did that happen?!”
“Aaron… what did you see?” Kiera asked him, squatting right beside the human as he held the bisected crown in both shaking hands.
“My… my spirit flew over to Lusitania… Lucero was there with two paladins, they had… they had just finished a big battle. I tried to run over to the bastard, but I got pulled back here before I could.” Aaron huffed.
“Hey… maybe this is for the best? I mean, you know where Lucero is now, right? Not to mention he can see souls. It’s in your best interest that he doesn’t know you’re still alive.”
“Y-you’re right, Kiera. I was being irrational. I… I just flew into a rage. I couldn’t control myself. I wouldn’t have even be able to hurt him. But why did the crown break?”
“Well… I’m not well versed in magic, but I’ve collected enough relics in my time to pick up a thing or two. My guess? The crown probably was low on power, but it could be a number of problems, really.”
“Son of a bitch…” Aaron groaned, staring down at the broken pieces. Leaning over, he picked them up, “It was stupid of me to try and spy on Lucero to begin with. I figured he was fighting on the Lusitanian front… I should’ve tried to use it on the generalissimo or emperor or something.”
“Well, it can’t be helped now. I’d still hang onto those pieces if I were you. There might be someone skilled in the art of relics who can find out what went wrong and repair it for you.”
Aaron let out a low whine in frustration, tucking away the crown. After all he had been through to get the thing, it had broken almost instantly. His shoulders slumped, but he held his head up as Kiera placed a supportive claw on his left shoulder.
“Don’t feel bad, Aaron. I could have never found that treasure without your help… not to mention you’ve saved my life twice. So, on behalf of my entire village- thank you.”
The griffon pulled away, twirling around before stopping on a dime and breaking into a half squat. Her arms and wings crossed over her chest as she bowed to him. All in all, it looked like some sort of odd curtsy.
“What was that?” Aaron had to repress a laugh.
“I-it’s the Roaming Raven’s traditional bow of gratitude!” she huffed, breaking from the pose and puffing her cheeks out and blushing as red as the markings under her eyes.
“Hahaha! Then you’re welcome, Kiera. C’mon, let’s get back to Angel’s Peak.”
Standing outside of Grace’s mansion, the setting sun cast the old structure in a soft orange glow as Aaron and Kiera said their goodbyes to their gracious hosts.
“Oh, don’t mention it~ it was so nice to finally have some company!” Beatrice cheered from her spot in Grace’s arms.
“Even though you nearly destroyed our house…” Grace whined, looking back towards the scorch marks still coating the left hallway.
“Oh, don’t be a baby, Grace. We’ve got all the time in the world to make repairs.”
“Goodbye, my friends. We’ll be sure to pay you a visit if we’re ever in the area again.” Kiera said.
Aaron turned away from the doorway. “Thanks again. And be sure to stay safe.”
“Wait! Remember that potion I said I had in storage? The one with side-effects? Here, you should take it. It’ll be handy in a pinch~”
Beatrice reached into the pocket of her dress, yanking out a bottle caked in a layer of grime and dust. Throwing it over to Aaron, he caught it one hand. He wiped a thumb over the dusty glass, seeing a dark purple liquid slosh around within. It glowed with an unnerving red tinge.
“That’ll heal some pretty nasty wounds almost instantly, but, like I said, it has side-effects! So only use it when you’re in a safe area where you can lay low for a bit.”
“And what exactly would those side-effects be…?” Aaron asked.
“Oh, you know~ just temporary dizziness and lightheadedness… and once those are over, you’ll need to rest for a little while, depending on the severity of the wounds. Remember, you only get three doses out of it, so use it wisely!”
“Right. Thank you, Beatrice. I hope we can meet again one day.”
“So long~!” Grace and Beatrice said in tandem, their cheery and dry tones sharply conflicting.
Saying goodbye as they left the mansion behind, Aaron and Kiera waved to the ghost and doll as they finally dispersed between the thick branches of the forest surrounding the manor at all sides.
“So… how long until those two start fucking like wild animals?” Grace asked once they were finally out of earshot, looking down to her diminutive partner.
“Oh, I’d give them about two days… two seconds if Aaron takes a sip of that potion~!” Beatrice laughed with a naughty smile, rubbing her hands together like an evil mastermind.
“You’re one sick puppy, Beatrice…” the ghost said with a roll of her eyes, resealing the oaken door to their own little dark paradise with her ethereal tail.
Aaron felt an overflowing sense of relief as he tucked his trusty claymore back into its sheath. While Grace’s broadsword was of fine craftsmanship, his old friend Connal’s blade brought him an odd sense of protection, like the portly blacksmith was watching his back from all the way back in Tellum.
Laughing at how superstitious he was being, he looked back at the griffon. They had returned their cave right outside of Remington, where they had stored their supplies before infiltrating the temple. He was even more glad that he was finally able to remove the tight, burned clothes he had nicked from the monk Xaiver and return to his old attire of brown trousers, a chainmail vest, and black tunic.
“Whew… how you doing, Kiera?”
Kiera sat outside the cave, gingerly unwrapping the bandages around her wings. Bunching them into a pile, she stood on her paws and flexed them out.
“My wings feel good as new~!” she merrily laughed, barely refraining from taking to the sky and doing several loops in pure joy. However, as close as they were to Remington, she could’ve easily been spotted, even in the dim light of the distant sunset.
“Let’s eat some dinner and sleep for a few hours, then fly back to Angel’s Peak before the break of dawn. It looks like some more clouds are rolling in from the east, so no one should be able to spot us. We’ll just keep the treasure hidden in the cave… I’ll send Zoana and some others to fetch it later.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll go gather up some firewood.”
“Wait, Aaron. Before you go… I want you to have these.”
Kiera walked back into the cave, kicking open the chest. Reaching in, she grabbed five shimmering jewels and handed them over. Aaron watched wide-eyed as the sparkling stones slipped from her claws into his own awaiting palms.
Aaron had to blink for a moment before shaking his head, “No… these belong to the Ravens, Kiera. I already got my payment. Even if it broke on the first freakin’ use…”
“You saved my life, Aaron. I’m not letting you leave with nothing but a broken relic.”
“You only needed saving because you stuck your neck out to save me, so we’re even. Stop worrying about it.” Aaron shot back, pushing the jewels back towards the griffon.
Kiera clasped her claws under Aaron’s hands, forcing them closed and pushing them back into the human’s chest, “Then take them as a parting gift. Please.”
“You’re not going to take no for an answer, are you?”
Kiera laughed, wagging one of her clawed fingers at him and cocking her hips to the left, “Hahaha~ the mighty White Lion never takes no for answer, human.”
With a bright smile, Aaron let the gems fall into his rucksack before he placed it beside their rolled up tent, “Thank you, Kiera. I’ll be right back.”
With a heavy grunt, Aaron brought his claymore down on yet another thick branch of wood. Picking the split pieces up and adding them to the bundle by his feet, he sheathed his mighty blade and scooped up the wood under one arm.
“This should be enough…” he figured, turning back towards the cave. Kiera should’ve set up the tent by now, and they had brought along enough water, beer, salted meat and dried vegetables to make up for the meager supper of fish they scarfed down yesterday.
His stomach grumbling and mouthwatering, Aaron marched back towards camp with a single-minded determination.
“Oh, gathering firewood, eh? Mind if I join in? I adore gathering around the campfire and telling spooky stories…”
Letting his collection of sticks fall from his grasp, Aaron slung his claymore out once more, turning to meet the new threat. What he saw shocked him to the core. A pasty man in a black cloak, staring at him with angry hazel eyes.
“It’s you… that creep from the temple. You followed me all the way back here?” Aaron breathed.
“That’s right.” the pasty man confirmed, taking a step forward, “Nice job killing Gregorio, by the way. I could’ve easily done it myself, but it was a nice fight. I would thank you, but I never caught your name…”
The stalker trailed off, expecting an answer from Aaron. But he didn’t reply.
“Ah, where are my manners? Allow me to properly introduce myself.”
The pale man cast the hood off from his spiky brown hair, nodding towards Aaron, “My name is Cronan Kane. I know we didn’t meet on the best of terms, but let’s not let that spoil our relationship in the future. So- what’s your name?”
Aaron still remained silent. Something about Cronan unnerved him to no end, and it wasn’t just the fact the man was a stalker who looked like he hadn’t stepped into sunlight for a good decade.
“Lips are sealed, eh? Well, that’s fine. I’ll get the answers I’m looking for one way or another…” the man snarled, grabbing the rim of his cloak, “…want to see something cool?”
“No.” a curt Aaron replied.
“Ah, don’t be such a sourpuss. Now… stand back and watch in awe!”
The pale man ripped his cloak from his body, exposing his blackened leather armor underneath. Seeing his right arm, Aaron’s curiosity peaked almost immediately.
It was wrapped up in a thick layer of bandages, then sealed tightly by several links of iron chain. A padlock sat on the back of his hand, right in front of a circle of runes scribbled onto the bandages. Aaron frowned as he couldn’t even hope to decipher whatever it was they said.
“What the hell is up with your arm?” he demanded, lifting his sword higher and pointing the sharp tip towards the pale lurker.
“Hahaha… curious now, aren’t you?”
Cronan grabbed his bandaged forearm with his good hand, the appendage beginning to vibrate at an supernatural pace. Cronan grit his teeth, a vein on his forehead throbbing as he did so.
Aaron was so stunned he could only stand back and watch. Cronan continued to grunt heavily in exertion, releasing his hold on his right arm as it shot up into the air, wriggling and writhing in unnatural directions like it had a mind of its own.
The runes on the back of his hand began to glow red, and the iron padlock holding the chains clicked open. Falling off into the grass with a soft thud, the chains began glowing red, sizzling like they were being melted down.
“I’d step back and cover my eyes if I were you…” Cronan warned through his gritted teeth.
Not needing to be warned a second time, Aaron ducked back, holding the flat of his claymore to his forearm. With a loud boom, the chains exploded off the man’s arm, sending red-hot broken links sailing through the air.
Aaron hissed in pain as a few hit and bounced off his legs and arms. Peeking from behind his blade, he was shocked to see the strange man totally fine, despite being in the epicenter of the blast. The singed bandages, without the chains holding them in place, began to slowly fall off the man’s arm.
“What the fuck…?” Aaron muttered, in complete disbelief at what he saw.
His arm was comprised of some sort of odd green sludge. It was a thick sort of goop, but glimmered with a mirror sheen and allowed decent clarity of what lay behind it.
The appendage ran a few inches longer than its human counterpart before ending in five clawed fingers. Cronan stretched out his slime arm’s claws as if to test its flexibility, then bent it back and forth several times to make sure it was under his full control. The pale man smiled, pleased at the results.
Turning his body to the side, the stalker lifted his sludge claw above his above his face, his fingers spread out, and his human arm folded beneath the demonic limb’s elbow. Aaron felt a chill run down his spine as the man’s furious hazel eye narrowed in on him between his claw’s index and middle fingers, while one half of his sadistic grin peeked out from behind the gap of his index and thumb.
Breaking from his pose, he pointed the freakish limb towards Aaron, “So, what do you think? No feedback? Or are you just so stupefied your words have left you?”
“Revolted comes to mind.” came Aaron’s cheeky remark.
“Oh my. So cold… well, if you’re not going to be cooperative, I’ll just have to pry everything I need out of you by force!”