The plains were still just as green, vast and vibrant. The woods were still just as dense and towering. The fresh breeze still carried along the scents of the not-so-distant sea and fresh grass.
But in spite of how unremarkably similar the two countries were, Aaron, Valerie, and Kiera had known they had finally managed to cross the southern border of Aaron’s home country of Graeme into its neighbor, Jalam.
“So, what’s it like in Jalam, babe?”
Aaron and his two companions were stomping a well-worn dirt road with an empty plain to their left and a rolling hill that led up to a thick, shadowy woods to their right.
“I wouldn’t know. This is the first time I’ve set foot in Jalam. There’s only one thing I do know about it, though- its capital city, Ellsworth? It’s got some kind of fancy academy where they study holy magic. My brother… he was going to go there before he… you know…”
Valerie tucked her ears to her head, glancing down towards her paws, “O-oh. I see.”
Aaron squinted as he lifted up a hand above his eyes and peered forward. Spring had left them behind, and taking the place of it’s soft, comforting warmth was the blistering, blinding rays of the sun and the stifling heat that made life a living hell for vagabonds such as he. And yet, he marched on, his monstrous friends close behind him.
After another few minutes of hiking, it was Kiera that piped up.
“By the way, Aaron, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. I was born in Terra… or, my mother left me there, at the very least- and from the time I spent traveling around the west coast with the Ravens, I came to learn of the rumors of the Lost Archives. But how exactly did you hear of them?”
“My old neighbor, Gale. He said that he would’ve loved to go to Misr one day to see if it was real… like I said, he was a real smart fella. He was the one who taught my brother all that he knew.”
“Whatever happened to him?” Kiera asked.
“He’s dead now. Same sickness that spread around my hamlet and got my father.”
“I-I’m sorry to hear that.” Kiera said, offering her condolences.
“Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.”
As the three continued to walk on, Val and Kiera started sharing childhood stories with each other… and although Aaron wasn’t talking part of the conversation, he found himself unable to suppress a smile as he saw his two companions were finally starting to get along…
“Ah, crap.” Valerie suddenly blurted, cutting off Kiera right as she was telling them about the time her little sister covered an entire general store with grape jelly.
‘This can’t be good…’ Aaron thought to himself with a grimace, watching Valerie skip ahead of him.
Sniffing at the gentle breeze, the hellhound’s face scrunched up with worry, “Smells like we’ve got two humans, just around that hill… but it smells like they’ve got goodies.
“Hold on. Let me go check…” Aaron elected himself, sprinting towards the bend in the path and taking a peek at what the hill obscured from view.
From his run of bad luck, he was half expecting to see a couple of paladins on a picnic- but what he found was nothing but small wooden shack outfitted with a watering trough and barrels of grain at its side.
“A trading post, huh? I’ll see if they have anything useful. You guys move through the woods and meet me up ahead.” the human of the three said, pointing up the hill.
Nodding in agreement, Val and Kiera hopped over the hill and dove in the forest, stealthy watching him from the trees. Aaron was already moving around the corner, walking right up to the shack and stepping up on the porch.
“How much money do I have left, anyhow…?” he pondered, digging out the small leather sack he used to hold his wealth.
After all of his spending, Aaron was down to a single gold piece and a seven bronzes. He still had the gems Kiera had gifted him, but he wanted to save those for when he was out of the empire. Not only would Legion coin be worthless outside their borders, many territories would have him quartered for carrying it around. He had to spend all of his coin within the empire and save the gems for Misr.
“Should be enough. Let’s see if they have anything worth while…”
Aaron opened the door, stepping out of the hot sun and cool breeze and into the shack. It was a quaint little place, shelves lined with various goods and wares all up in neat rows.
“Howdy.” the bald, middle-aged man behind the counter greeted, rubbing an end of his curly brown mustache.
“Hey.” Aaron grumbled in response, looking around the freshly dusted shelves for any worthwhile items among the various supplies… eventually, he gathered up a new whetstone and placed it on the counter.
“Two bronze pieces?” Aaron offered, putting them on the counter.
“Fair trade.” the mustached man agreed, pocketing the coin and allowing Aaron to take the whetstone.
“E-excuse me, mistah…”
Aaron looked down at his knees, seeing a little girl with pigtails and several missing teeth staring up at his shadow-masked face.
‘Must be his daughter…’ Aaron figured, glancing at the mustached face, then returning to the little girl and spotting the similarities.
“D-do you want some sweets? I-I made them myself…” the girl offered, holding out a small cloth bag to him.
“What kind?” Aaron asked with a chuckle.
“A-almond and honey cookies…” she replied with that same shaky, meek voice.
Offering her the softest smile he could muster, Aaron accepted the bag from the girl. The child’s eyes lit up like a lantern when Aaron handed her five bronze pieces in return.
As Aaron shut the door to the rest stop behind him, the girl’s excited cries of joy alleviated any foolishness he felt in his heart for spending five bronze pieces on candy. Walking along, Aaron opened the bag up, picking out one of the sugar and honey glazed disks and popping it into his mouth.
They were alright, but far too sweet for his tastes. Sealing the bag, he tucked it away into his rucksack… he figured he would give them to Kiera and Valerie as a gift later.
Speaking on which, both of the girl’s heads popped out from the woods and called down to him from the top of the hill.
“Did they have anything?”
“A couple things…” Aaron responded, beginning to climb up the hill, “Anyway, let’s keep on our toes. Jalam has a much higher military presence than Graeme, and if we have a run in with any troops here, we’ll probably have to tussle with some vets. It’d be best to avoid fighting them in the first place.”
Valerie shot him a care-free smile in return, “Ah, don’t worry about that crap right now, babe. Let’s go find us a good place to set up camp!”
“Alright, I guess…”
With a tired yawn, Aaron rubbed the back of his wrist against his baggy eyes and followed them into the thick of the woods.
‘Where am I…?’
Aaron had been there before. The destroyed straw huts, the screaming villagers, the harsh, scorching sun beating down on his head…
Finally smelling the fresh sea breeze mixed with the sickening odor of blood and gore, Aaron realized he was back at the Laris Archipelagoes, still wearing the accursed yellow tabard of the Holy Legion and fighting in their battles.
But no matter hard he struggled, he couldn’t move his body. His younger, more inexperienced self from four years ago refused to budge from his spot, longsword and buckler raised ever so slightly… right ahead of him was a native islander, one of the filthy heretics he and his company had sworn to execute.
The heretic was practically naked, wearing nothing but a grass skirt and the skull of a bull over his head. His dark skin was marked several times with numerous swirling, chalk tattoos.
“Amehnohakalamona….” he chanted, the red bead necklace around his neck rising into the air as he did so. The heretic was spouting absolute gibberish, but it was abundantly clear what he was doing. Small orbs of green fire spouted in both of his hands.
Black magic, Aaron quickly realized. Primal sorceries forbidden by the church. It was the first time Aaron had witnessed the phenomenon, and the entranced swordsman could nothing but step back and watch.
The heretic, spotting Aaron, turned and aimed his green fire at the stupefied soldier…
But before he fired off his spell, a winged spear burst from the heretic’s chest, splattering Aaron’s face with the islander’s blood. The young swordsman stumbled back in both surprise and disgust, rubbing the crimson off his face.
Kicking the man off of his spear, a familiar face stepped over the corpse and locked eyes with Aaron.
“Snap out of it, buddy! Focus on the battle!”
It was William, his violet hair blowing in the breeze and his winged spear clutched firmly at his side.
“A-alright. I’m sorry, William.”
With his friend leaving him with a nod and rushing back into the fray, Aaron rounded a hut, coming face-to-face with a lone enemy. The islander he found was a young man, lightly armored and armed with nothing but a serrated machete of bronze.
His Captain Donovan’s words rang in his ears, “Remember, on the battlefield, it’s kill or be killed. Mercy is only useful for your enemies!”
But that brought little comfort to Aaron.
They may have looked different, but Aaron was sure they shared the same hesitant, terrified eyes… but they both knew what had to be done. Rushing forward at once, their blades locked and the fight begun.
It wasn’t a particularly long or hard battle. Aaron was not only stronger, but his iron weapons and armor far outclassed the islander’s primitive arsenal and chestpiece of sun-dried leather. After trading a few blows, Aaron came out on top. Clipping the opposing fighter’s ribs with his blade, the boy crumbled to his knees, clutching at his injury with his mouth twisted into a wide ‘o’ in a silent scream.
“Please… mercy…” the boy begged.
Aaron had half a mind to help the enemy to his feet and let him go, but he couldn’t foresee any consequence of that being positive. Would the islander live to kill more of his countrymen? Would any of his fellow soldiers spot him offering assistance to the enemy and have him tried for the crime?
But what made Aaron sick to his stomach was his own self-centered fear of being stabbed in the back. Lifting up his blade, Aaron gulped down the lump clogging his throat.
Aaron wanted to apologize. He wanted to say he was sorry, that he had no other choice… but instead, he brought his long sword down, stabbing his enemy through the heart.
His first kill. And just like he was told, that sickening ‘schlik’ brought with it a mountain of guilt and remorse. The boy’s face twisted up, convulsing a final time before slumping over into the grass.
But something was wrong.
As Aaron pulled back his blade, an explosion of blood erupted erupted from the wound, far more than any human body could possibly hold.
“This isn’t… it isn’t happening…” Aaron thought, now back in control of his body, only to have it swept up in the sudden crimson tidal wave. Twirling around and around, Aaron finally managed to burst out of the wave of blood, now stripped of his armor and completely naked.
Aaron looked up towards the sky. With its somber orange hue, the sky looked like a backdrop to a setting sunset… but there wasn’t any sun to be found. No clouds, no birds… nothing but an empty orange sky.
But that wasn’t what Aaron was concerned about.
Smothering everything below his waist was some thick, murky bog stained a deep crimson. It stretched on for as far as he could see, with no land in sight.
“Oh fuck… fuck…” he panted, already feeling his sick stomach twist up in knots. Cupping his hands around his mouth, calling out to whoever could hear him, “Val! Kiera! Anyone?!”
Aaron seized felt a pair of thin, boney fingers wrapping around his neck… they felt just as cold and clammy as a corpse, but gripped down on his throat with the strength of a hundred living men. Whatever it was that caught him, it leaned down and whispered into his ear. Its voice was akin to nails grinding against stone, and fluctuated in pitch at seemingly random intervals.
“Is this enough blood, Aaron? Have you spilled enough blood to drown your fears yet?”
“W-what?! No, I… I…”
Out of the corner of his vision, he spotted the bolt-filled body of Mayor Arlo and the decapitated head of Governor Grandmore bobbing in the bloody muck.
“What are your excuses this time, Aaron? Was it a last resort? Did they have it coming?”
“I… I had no other choice but to take Arlo hostage… I… had to kill Grandmore! He would’ve come after Valerie, Kiera and I until he killed us!”
“Oh, and Will won’t come after you? You think that bastard will remember all the fun times you two had slaughtering innocents and come back to braid your hair? Hahaha! You’re such a hypocrite. Not that you weren’t one before… why do monsters get to live, but not humans? Are you just a sucker for a pretty face? You pathetic fool!”
With a mad cackle, the beast tossed Aaron forward, throwing him face first into the murky bog of crimson. The swordsman was quick to flail his way back to the surface, spitting out blood and retching in pure disgust at the overpowering taste of copper invading his mouth.
Still leaning on his knees for support, Aaron peered over his shoulder nearly had a heart attack when he caught a glimpse of the attacker.
It was his brother, Douglas.
No, it had his brother’s face and hair… but that’s where the similarities ended. Most of its body was charred black… and with each of its ragged, excited breaths, that burnt skin cracked and fell apart to expose the veins and sinew underneath.
“Why did you let William go, Aaron? After what he said about me? After what he said about my wife and daughter… HOW COULD YOU, AFTER WATCHING ME BURN?!”
“He… he was my friend! I didn’t want to lose him!” Aaron nearly sobbed, wading backwards through the filth below. But it was all in vain. The charred, reanimated corpse slogged through the bog like it wasn’t there at all, getting right back into Aaron’s face in no time flat.
“Ha! Thats rich. Don’t you think Grandmore had any friends? He was a robber, but at the end of the day, he nothing but a spoiled brat… a spoiled brat going after dirt farmer’s pocket change because daddy stopped giving him allowance. Speaking of, what about his father…? You should know better than anyone what a revenge-happy psychopath is like!” the twisted image of his brother chided Aaron, prodding his naked chest with those cold, charred fingers.
“Shut up… SHUT UP!” Aaron screamed at the demented shadow of Douglas, wildly swinging out one of his fists. The gangly figure easily dodged the blow, then retaliated by planting his cold, bony fingers over Aaron’s face and dunking him into the murky lake of blood below.
Gasping for breath as he pulled back up, the blood-soaked Aaron froze up and gagged as the burned abomination let loose its dry, rotted tongue and started licking at its cracked lips.
“I’ll… never… never kill again…” Aaron pleaded with the charred corpse, willing to promise anything just to make the nightmare go away, “Please… just stop…”
“Hmph. Don’t be a fool and let your guilt cloud your judgement, boy. It was idiotic to challenge those soldiers in Tellum, but beyond that, you’ve done nothing but cut down weeds that would fester the path to your vengeance. You knew it would be a blood-soaked road, and you’re in too deep to turn back now.”
Aaron felt like his thumping heart finally burst at the massive stress. Wading through the bloody murk, the enigmatic black knight and his steed drew near, leaving behind an inky black substance that blotted out the thick crimson lake and the scarlet sky above until there was nothing but an empty abyss.
Sneering at the knight, the burnt cadaver released Aaron and sunk back into the macabre depths from which it came.
“But that twisted nightmare… he was naught but a vision of yours, but his words rang from the truth you locked away at the bottom of your heart. The next time you see that William Highwind… I want you to kill him.”
Aaron was used to waking up from nightmares with a reaction nothing to far from a small gasp and beating heart, but this one pushed him beyond his mental limits.
Covered from head to toe in an ice-cold sweat, Aaron shot up from his bedroll releasing a blood-curdling scream so chilling that any passerby could assume he was being eaten alive by wild animals.
“B-babe?! What’s wrong?!” Val groaned from his left, still mostly asleep as she rubbed the crust from her eyes.
“Partner! Is there an enemy!?” Kiera asked, already on her paws and in a fighting stance, but it was clear she too required another few hours before being on high alert.
“J-just a nightmare…” he told them between soft gasps.
Looking at his claymore and knives, Aaron suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to grab a heavy stone and smash them into tiny pieces. He still wanted nothing more but to kill Lucero… but he wasn’t entirely sure if he could handle anymore blood on his hands until he reached the bastard himself.
“Do want to talk about it…?” Kiera asked.
“Maybe in the morning…” Aaron responded, “Please, just go back to bed… we need our rest for tomorrow. I’m sorry for waking you up.”
Val and Keira looked to each other in obvious concern, but after a brief moment, they decided to relent and sink back under their covers. Aaron did the same… but of course, sleep refused to return to him, and he was left brewing in the darkness with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company. Crawling out of bed, he grabbed his claymore and sat in the corner of the tent, hugging it to his chest for support through his turbulent thoughts.
The brief idea that he wouldn’t kill anyone else… he realized it was childish at best and delusional at worst. Aaron might’ve been a hard-headed brute, but he wasn’t a fool. He knew he would have to keep hacking his way through warm bodies to get to Lucero.
But somewhere, deep down, something nagged at him. He wasn’t sure if it was his fear begging him to take action before it was too late or his consciousness demanding that he confront his own hypocrisy.
Tightening his grip on his claymore’s sheath, Aaron came to a bitter realization. There was no other way around it.
The next time they clashed, he was going to have to take William’s life.
Twirling around her marble kitchen, a short woman held a bowl full of batter close to her heart, giving the sugary dough within a rigorous mix with each of her rotations. Coming to a stop before a red-brick oven, she settled down and set her bowl on a nearby counter.
Raising the spoon up, she licked away some of the sweet batter and nodded her head in approval, humming around the spun stuck between her smiling lips.
Although she sat somewhere in her early forties, the woman was just as thin, unimposing, and sprightly as a teenage girl. And with those sparkling pink eyes and silky blond hair cut into pigtails, you’d have to scour the globe for eons before finding a coward timid enough to think anything ill of her based on her appearance.
But for whatever reason, the two teenage maids watching her through the doorway to the kitchen looked at her as if she was a hungry lioness feasting on a bloody carcass tossed into her den.
“Were you two planning on telling her the sad news…? I told you I would handle it…”
The two maids peaked away from the kitchen and back into the hallway, where a wrinkled butler approached them with a hesitant stride.
“B-be careful, Bannon… make sure you try to let her off gently…” urged the first maid, her companion nodding along with her.
“I’ve raised Helena ever since she was a little girl and I was a young man… I’m well aware of her… ahem… temper. But, someone must tell her, and I’m a good a candidate as any.” the butler said, placing a fist to his heart in a show of resolve.
Puffing out his chest, the butler strode past the maids and waltzed right into the kitchen, watching the lady ignite the wood under her oven and pop right back up, humming a small tune all the while.
“What ever is it, Bannon?” the kindly woman asked, her voice bitterly sweet, “Can’t hold on for another hour so we can a snack? I’m about to have the cookies baking! I made them with the secret recipe you taught me~”
Despite how clearly nervous he was, Bannon couldn’t help but nod and smile, “Y-yes… sugar, honey and love, was it? You always were such a wonderful cook, madam.”
Tilting her head, Helena held her fingers to her mouth and giggled. She reached over, grabbing the tray full of small balls of raw dough, “Well? What is it?”
“I-it’s your husband, madam. I-it pains me to say it, but… but he’s been murdered.”
After the tray fell from her hands and clattered against the marble floor, the room was filled with her cried of anguish, sending the old butler’s stomach twisting up into tight knots.
“Leonardo… Leonardo…” she sobbed into her hands, “H-he said he was on a business trip. How did this happen? How did it happen?!” the woman frantically screamed, demanding answers.
“He was murdered. Murdered by a heretic named Aaron Axenus.”
Helena dropped to her knees, her thick makeup running down her face with her tears, “What am I going to tell my poor little Leo? H-he always was a little daddy’s boy…”
“I-I’m terribly sorry, ma’am… the reason Master Leonard met that heretic in battle was because… he… he killed your younger son as well. The master died trying to avenge him.”
Helena’s tears had stopped. Her reply was brief, but packed full of more venom than a cobra’s fangs.
Helena shot up like a volcanic eruption, grabbing a carving knife from the counter and hurling it at Bannon, “GET OUT!”
The knife missed the butler, but the heavy thunk as it sunk into the wall behind him drove the message home. Bannon spun on his heel and fled before his mistress really got mad.
“She didn’t take it very well…” Bannon told the maids as the three of them paced away as fast as the old man could go, Helena’s wails thundering across the vast halls of her estate as they went.
“HIS HEAD!” the Lady Grandmore sobbed, slamming her fists against the marble floor like an infant having a tantrum, “HIS HEAD! I WANT THAT HERETIC’S HEAD!”
After her fit, Helena returned to her room… but now, instead of borderline insane wailing, it was a soft, gentle sobbing that echoed throughout the house.
The fear no longer made his old bones clack together. Now, Bannon was shaking from grief. He raised Helena like his own daughter… not only had the news of both Leonardo and Leon’s deaths hit him like the deaths of a family member by blood, his precious Helena’s delicate sobs depressed him beyond any measure.
And so he sat in the study, watching the two maids shift uncomfortably on the couch before the fireplace from his old rocking chair.
Inevitably, his dulled gaze found the centerpiece of the room was above the fireplace. A large, expensive portrait commissioned from one of the finest artists in the Holy Legion.
The portrait depicted his practical daughter and mistress standing beside the head of the house she married into, the now deceased Governor Leonardo Grandmore, his impressive barrel chest nearly bulging out of his purple justaucorps. It was still an almost comical sight, such a large, imposing man with such an innocent and small woman.
But under them where their two sons- with the governor’s burly hand on the younger’s shoulder, Leon Grandmore smiled down at the old butler. As much as he liked too, Bannon can’t say he particularly enjoyed raising Leon. The child seemed to inherit his mother’s rotten attitude without any of her sweet exterior.
The older brother, however? Sitting in the left corner of the painting, it was clear from his very appearance he inherited the best traits from both parents. With both his father’s bulk and his mother’s silky blonde hair and strangely vexating pink irises, he grew up from an outstanding child into a charming, talented military leader at a remarkably young age.
“W-what shall we do, Bannon?” one of the maid’s asked, pulling Bannon from his bittersweet memories.
The butler solemnly shook his head, “We wait. The mistress has coffers brimming with gold, and I’m sure she’ll use them to their full extent to get her hands on him. And when she does… well, I almost pity the poor fool just thinking about it.”