The grinding of a whetstone on iron always dredged up mixed feelings for Aaron. On one hand, it reminded him of the lazy summer afternoons of his past. The days where he and his brother Douglas would mull about his old friend Connal’s smith shop. They would always half-hardheartedly play with toys or cards while watching the beer-bellied man sharpen knives and harpoons, and the pleasant memories were still fresh on his mind.
On the other hand, it also reminded him of the most tense moments of his soldiering days.The grinding screech was the theme of his last minute preparations before a bloody battle. He tried to avoid dwelling on it, but the possibility of his death and leaving Douglas behind always weighed heavily on the back of his mind. In conjunction with the nervous chatter and grim frowns of the soldiers that surrounded him, it blanketed him in an oppressive bleakness that was only shattered by the cries of war.
The whetstone’s grinding stopped as Aaron ran it down his claymore’s blade for final time, snapping him from his thoughts. Giving the girthy sword a once over, he gingerly traced his thumb down the side to test its edge. Judging it capable of rending flesh from bone, he tucked it into his sheath and stood from the stone he was seated upon.
Before his feet, a babbling river flowed to the south. Looking to the north, he found a congregation of alligators lazing about in the midday sun, the only reptiles moving being the ones tearing at the buck Giolla had summoned for their lunch.
The carvarous river had lost its murk hours prior, having turned a deep blue at that point in their cruise. The rapid river that separated Var and Jalam was now within a stone’s throw. The halfway point of their journey was coming ever closer, and that made feelings of both pride and terror to bubble up in his chest.
“Unfh… don’t take this the wrong way, Giolla, but the thing I’ll miss most about you is your cooking.”
Hearing Val loudly scarf down the last scraps of her meal, he looked over to their camp a few yards away to find the hellhound and kikimora seated across from each other. Giolla looked bewildered by Val’s lack of manners, but the hound seemed to busy chowing down on her roasted trout to care.
“Oh… haha. Don’t worry, Valerie. I completely understand.” Giolla laughed off the hellhound’s nonchalant comment, finding no traces of malice in it.
Deciding not to bother the two dog girls, Aaron shifted his focus to the raiju and griffon plopped down a few meters away. With their backs were turned to him, he could see Kiera’s lion tail thoughtfully flicking back and forth while Nariko’s peeked out from under her kimono and relentlessly thumped against the dirt.
Wondering just what the two were doing, Aaron waltzed over and peaked between their shoulders. He found several seemingly random words scribbled into the dirt before them.
“Oh. Hello, partner.” Kiera greeted, a smile gracing her lips.
Aaron’s icy-blue eyes traced over the letters scratched into the ground.
“Strawberry, colodiscope, iceberg…? Kiera, what the hell is all this crap?”
Nariko, her brow furrowed in concentration, piped up, “Oh, it’s nothing. I’m just practicing my common.”
The iron-haired vagabond cocked a brow, “Really? You seem to speak it just fine.”
“Speak it, yes. But I still can’t read it very well. Never had the opportunity. Otha wasn’t the only one who tried to put a leash on me, you know. I’ve ‘belonged’ to at least six different people.”
Aaron’s eyes nearly bulged out of his skull, “What, seriously? How long were you a slave?”
The raiju hummed and tapped her chin, sparks popping above her skull as she tried to recall that detail.
“About seven years, I think.”
The shock was clear on both Kiera and Aaron’s faces, the human grimacing like he just tasted rotten meat and Kiera’s wings tucking towards her back even further.
“Jeez. I’m sorry-” Aaron began.
“Don’t be.” the raiju quickly interrupted, “You’re the one who freed me, after all~”
“Uhrm… right. Well, I guess you’d eventually pick up on how to speak common, then. So you never got the chance to read it?”
“Properly, no.” Nariko grumbled, turning back to the assortment of words scrawled into the soil, “And as long as birdbrain here is teaching me, I don’t think I ever will…”
Kiera shot the eastern princess with that stern, serious glare she put on in extreme circumstances, “Care to repeat that?”
“S-slip of the tongue! Sorry.”
“That’s what I thought.” Kiera huffed, using her tail to brush away the current set of words and the claw of her pointer finger to scribble out a new row. As she did, Nariko looked back up at Aaron.
“By the way, sweetie, I’ve been wondering… what language do the people of Misr speak? Are we going to have to learn their tongue on our way there?”
“Nah. Tribes deeper south into Terra and countries further to the east have their own languages, but Misr still uses common.”
A single, weak spark of electricity popped above Nariko’s tilted head in a show of her confusion.
“What? Why is that?”
Being a history buff, Kiera’s chest puffed out. Seeing the opportunity to flex her knowledge, the griffon fully seized the moment and spread her wings wide.
“It was more than a hundred years ago by now, but Misr and the surrounding lands were some of the first areas the Legion conquered outside of this continent. Like the barbarian tribes that used to live here, everything from their old way of life was destroyed; their gods, culture, and even native language. It’s only managed to liberate itself relatively recently… a little over thirty years.”
“Yeah. Some folks in the region are still willing to trade goods, so I guess the Legion realized it wasn’t worth conquering them again… yet, anyway. Emperor Maximus will have kicked the bucket by the time Lusitania is under the Legion’s boot, but I’m sure whoever takes the throne would want to go back and go a second round with the poor bastards.” Aaron added with a scoff.
Nariko scratched between her tall ears in confusion, “Wait, what? What do you mean ‘whoever’? Doesn’t the throne go the oldest son of the emperor?”
“It would normally. Thing is, Ol’ Max had two sons and a daughter. But both of the sons died in the war, and the king is either unwilling or unable to produce another heir. And no one would accept a virgin maiden alone on the throne… so whoever she marries, I figure.” Aaron grumbled, “Who knows? Maybe she’ll poison whatever blueblood that hopped into bed with her after she’s popped out an heir or two. She can have the throne to herself for a while that way.”
“Hm. I suppose nobles are still just as foul in the west.” Nariko scoffed, “I figured as much.”
“You don’t know if she’d do anything like that, Aaron.” Kiera scolded him.
Aaron simply shrugged, “Well, I don’t know if she wouldn’t either.”
Nariko shut her yellow-green eyes and hummed in thought, “I see… I’ve got one more question, though. If so many countries in Lusitania can’t stop the Legion all at once with a whole ocean between them, how did Misr beat them back?”
Kiera was the one who jumped in and answered her, “Some pharaoh woke up from an eternal slumber and drove them away, I’ve heard. Her magic must’ve been ridiculously strong.”
Aaron stretched out his arms, folding to hands behind his head as he turned away, “Well, I’m guessing they still won’t take very kindly to a Coelumnian like me… even if I am a dirty heretic.”
“Don’t be too upset, sweetie. I’ll make sure no one hurts you~” Nariko said, flashing her borderline psychotic grin and raising a clenched fist into the air.
The iron-haired vagabond nervously laughed as the raiju’s curvaceous body began popping off azure sparks like cinders off a smelting sword.
“T-that won’t be necessary. I think we should avoid kicking the hornet’s nest. I’ve taken more stabs and cuts than I care to admit, I’ll be able to handle some dirty looks and jabs at my skin or nationality. Besides, I don’t expect it to be too bad. They’ve been occupied by Coelumnians for years, right? I’m sure the newer generation has its fair share of mudbloods.”
A sour frown shot across Nariko’s face. As the sparking aura around her died down, she thoughtfully shut her eyes, “Hmm… well, even making the big assumption there are no racists, how many speciests hang around those parts?”
An annoyed huff rose from Kiera’s lungs, “I just told you, Nariko. They’re being ruled by a pharaoh. There might still be some anti-monster sentiments from rural areas, but I doubt we’d be discriminated against in the big cities.”
“Yeah, you said a pharaoh. I was told that was what Misrians call whoever sits on the throne-”
“No.” Kiera swiftly cut off the raiju. Her hard expression softened for a moment, glancing towards the grass, “Well… yes and no. Pharaoh is the proper name for a Misrian ruler, but… it’s also the name of a species of monster.”
Aaron looped his thumbs through his belt, thoughtfully tapping his fingers against his trousers, “Yeah, I knew an older guy back in my old squadron that said he tangled with a pharaoh once- we all knew he was bullshiting though. Their magic must be on a totally different level.”
“Yes. Someone told me their powers are unimaginable. She said they can make a man follow any command with a single whisper. They can make an oasis out of a sand dune with a single snap of their fingers. Muster up a sandstorm with a gentle breath…” said Kiera, her amber eyes sparkling at the prospect of such amazing beings existing in the world.
“Well, just in case, let’s try not to pick a fight with one.” Aaron gave a few parting words, waving goodbye to the raiju and griffon. Turning his back to them, he strolled back down the river, letting them continue their lesson in peace.
Carefully avoiding the gators around their boat, Aaron peered into the babbling river. He watched the gentle blue lap against the stone and feeling the warm sun upon his shoulders. A warm, nostalgic feeling filled his vision yet again. Before he knew it, he was back in the body of a young boy, playfully wrestling with his younger brother in the water.
Suddenly compelled to relive that memory, he hastily removed his thick leather boots and wool socks. He promptly plopped into the grass and rolled up the legs of his trousers, dipping his legs into the cool water. He wiggled around his toes in the mud, letting the river flow around his calves.
Slipping a hand under his tunic, he ran his thumb over the seashells around his neck and released a heavy and strung-out sigh.
“Your griffon friend is right, you know. Pharaohs possess incredible magical prowess. They’re a member of a handful of species that can claim such an attunement with the mystic arts.”
Aaron nearly flew from the water. The voice behind him didn’t belong to any of the monsters, but he remembered it well. Staring bug-eyed into the water, he spotted the enigmatic sage Faust’s undulating reflection.
His heart thumping in his ears, Aaron turned to find the curious old fellow sitting cross-legged beside him, a cane tucked under one arm and using his free hand to nurse a piping cup of tea. He had changed his robes, now wearing a more rustic gray, hooded cloak of a fabric Aaron didn’t recognize- but that glint of mystery and power in his sunken eyes couldn’t be replaced.
“Y-you?!” Aaron managed to stutter after a short while.
“Yes, me.” Faust chuckled, giving his wizardly beard a few gentle strokes, “And how have you been, Aaron? Keeping your nose clean, I hope.”
“Old man…” Aaron snarled, “The hell are you doing here?”
The iron-haired swordsman peered over the scale-covered backs of the gators and towards his monstrous companions, checking to see if they had noticed Faust’s sudden arrival. Nariko and Kiera still seemed to be totally engrossed by there lesson, but Val and Giolla just dumbly smiled and waved towards him like nothing was the matter.
“Oh, they can’t see me. I’m using the same ritual as Gethen to communicate with you. Astral projection.”
Aaron craned his head back over to the sage, a sour look etched onto his face, “So, that friend you mentioned wanted me alive… it was Gethen, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, come now, Aaron. It couldn’t have been that difficult to piece together.” Faust chuckled. Despite the old man’s boney frame and collected tone, his laugh was a deep, rich melody.
“Yeesh. It would’ve been easier if the bastard wasn’t so cryptic.”
“Yes, he always been a bit…eccentric, to put it nicely.”
Aaron’s furrowed brow only deepened as he bore into the old man, “That’s the pot calling the kettle black, ain’t it? You haven’t exactly been straightforward yourself.”
“Well… I would tell you, but Gethen would be rather cross with me. He already gave me an earful for gifting you that key back in Otha’s manor.” Faust mutterted, staring into the cloudy brew of his tea, “He says that your whole journey is pointless unless you can do it on your own.”
Aaron pinched the bridge of his nose, groaning in frustration, “Whatever. Just don’t help me, then. I can do it with my-”
“Who? Your friends? Your comrades? Your harem?”
The iron-haired vagabond would’ve smashed his fist into the snide sage’s nose if he knew he wasn’t just a projection. So instead, he went for an insult.
“Go choke on your tea, you fuckin’ coot.”
“Mmph.” Faust mumbled through another sip, “And how exactly would one go about choking on a liquid, my boy?”
“Then shove the intangible cup up your astral ass.” Aaron spat, propping himself back to his feet.
“Hold on, hold on. I’m just teasing. Don’t you want to know why I came to talk to you in the first place?”
Faust’s projection quickly popped out of sight, then reappeared in Aaron’s path, his tea missing and using both hands to lean on his oaken cane.
“I’ll give you the short of it, then… I had a dream.”
“Yeah, good for you, old-timer. I just had one where I threw a big chunk of meat at a giant shrimp.”
The bitter look Faust shot him made Aaron think the sage would’ve given him a solid whacking with his cane if he were there in the flesh.
“No. Just listen to me, hardheaded ninny, and try to understand. I know you couldn’t be more disconnected with mysticism and sorcery if you tried. But when you reach my level of mastery… dabbled in the arts man was never meant to… well, sometimes, you can see things you’re not supposed to see. Not at that point in your life, anyway. In other words, things that have yet to be.”
Aaron ran a few fingers through his iron-colored hair, not even bothering to hide his annoyance, “So, what? You’re an oracle now too?”
“Ha! I wish. No, I have no control over my prophetic dreams. They happen at random, and are almost always vague and symbolic.”
“Ah. So why exactly why should I be worried, then?”
“Vague as they may be, they always come to fruition. For example, I once dreamt of a curious little chimp riding on the back of an ugly hog. Can you guess who I met the very next month?”
Otha and Wes flashed into his mind, and Aaron quickly banished their smug faces and snide snears back into his subconscious.
“Then listen, and listen well. Last night, I had a dream… a dream of a hulking, lupine beast. A wolf, I think. His silvery fur was caked with blood, and he was wandering through the shifting sands. He was glaring off into the night sky with his cold eyes, his focus never wavering from the golden hawk circling the distant castle to the west.”
“…so, that’s Lucero and I?”
Faust gave an affirmative nod, leaning further onto his cane as he raved on, “There were others following the wolf. A panting hound, enshrouded with flame. A proud lion bearing the white wings of an eagle, protectively watching over you. A sneering weasel, its spiked fur crackling with thunder-”
“Gee, I wonder who those could be…”
“-a little puppeteer, masked by a green cloak. A black jackal, being led by a brave-hearted warrior. A coyote wrapped in a wicked wind.” Faust added, sounding a bit miffed he was interrupted.
“Oh. What, are those people I’ll meet later?”
“Perhaps… anyhow, that’s not the end of it. Over the dunes the group traveled, until they came across a towering pyramid. Sitting at the peak was a grinning hyena, a violet cobra wrapped coiled at its feet.”
“It… it laughed down at you and your friends. It… it was an awful sound… a crazed, howling laughter….”
Faust’s thin lips always seemed to be formed into a little knowing smile until that moment. Seeing the old man peer towards the dirt and grimace, Aaron couldn’t help but feel the concern creep up on him as well.
“The coyote howled. The gray wolf howled louder still… the hyena’s mad laughter echoed across the dunes. The sands ran red with blood.”
“I… I don’t know what to say…”
Faust shook his head to both sides, “Then don’t say anything, my boy. Act. I’ve done many horrible things for my own self-centered purposes. Left scars in my wake that would never heal… but one of my greatest blunders occurred under the punishing sun of Misr. That hyena… I don’t know who he is, but I fear what he plans. This may be selfish, but I might need you to help clean up a mess I made once you set foot on the dunes.”
Aaron paused for a moment, but responded with a quick, affirmative nod.
A twinkle flashed in the old man’s eyes. Smiling up at Aaron, Faust’s projection began to fade away, “Thank, you Aaron. I can see why Gethen’s taken a shining to you. Remember… be careful, and beware the hyena.”
And with that, the old man vanished. Aaron was left staring dead ahead, digesting the sage’s prophecy and wondering just what it could mean.
“A puppeteer… a warrior and jackal… and a coyote, huh?”
“Wuzzat about a coyote, babe? Want me to go catch one?”
Aaron perked up as he heard Valerie skipping towards him, her brimming heat warming his back before she even made contact.
“Nah… but don’t go chasing around any hyenas we see, alright?”
Two men stalked down the barren backstreets of Ellsworth. The grand magic academy perched upon a nearby hill cloaked the street in shadow, shielding the men from the summer sun. That heat and recent events had seemed to sap the life out of the busy city. The cobblestone roads out of sight of the public were dangerous and dirty, where sneering thugs, hopeless beggars, and sly conmen stalked about.
It was like the grimy underside of a coin. The complete opposite of the typical bright and bustling streets of Ellsworth center. But that bothered not the old man in red and the young man in white, and the paced on past the predatory glares firing from the dark alleys and cracked windows.
The man in red adjusted his black spectacles, looking towards the few wisps of smoke rising from the edge of the city.
“Hmm… there was a big fire here a short while back. I think that’s the best place to start looking, Calder.”
The younger man in white snickered, jamming both hands into the pockets of his coat, “Good call, Master Haden. Looks like whoever was hanging there wasn’t as disciplined as you.”
“Thanks.” came the man in red’s short and simple reply.
“Hehehe. Ever the wordsmith, eh master?”
“Wise men talk when they have something to say. Fools talk because they have to say something.”
Even though the older man inadvertently called him a fool, the stupid grin never left Calder’s face. He traced his silvery eyes down the street, spotting something pinned to a nearby wall that caught his attention.
Skipping forward, the merry cryomancer had to refrain himself from leaving behind a sparkling trail of frost in his wake. Tearing down the poster he reached, Calder jumped back in front of Haden and held the paper beside his face.
“Lookie here. Just the man we’re looking for!”
From behind his blacks specs, Haden’s quick and observant eyes traced across the page, and he quietly mouthed the crimes listed underneath the man’s portrait.
“Fornication with monsters. Arson. Murder of multiple clergymen. Murder of multiple soldiers. Murder of Governor Grandmore. Destruction of imperial property…”
“Hehehe. Looks like our marks been busy. Better catch ‘em before the big brass or church does.”
Haden walked on, but Calder stood blinking for a moment. He squinted down at the poster, sticking out it and his pale hands into the sunlight to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.
“Yo, what the hell? Where’s his bounty? I thought that the Legion might give us a better price for this fucker’s head, but I ain’t seeing no price for it!”
“Things work differently around here, Calder. The Legion doesn’t want the common folk becoming too foolhardy. They want their citizens completely docile and dependent on them, and harshly punish vigilantes and bounty hunters. The wanted posters are only to let citizens know when to call the town guards. And the guards are mostly just for stalling time until the legionaries or inquisitors arrive.”
With a perturbed grumble, Calder balled up the poster and tossed it over his shoulder, “Laaaaaaame. What a buncha pansies.”
Haden zipped behind his apprentice, his spectacles not even budging as he hopped into the air and caught the poster. Uncrumpling it, he glared down at Calder.
“You don’t think a picture of our target would be useful?”
“R-right. Sorry, master.”
Snorting through his nose, Haden gingerly folded the wrinkled poster and tucked it into the pocket of his coat, “Forget it. Look back at the end of the street there.”
Craning his head around, Calder spotted a man sporting a shaggy black beard and mustache, garbed in a light set of leather armor. A spear and round shield hung on his back, which he pressed against a vacant building near a fork in the road.
“What? That fella? He just looks like some bum.”
“Look a bit closer- at the crest on his armor. That’s the same crest as the city.”
“Oh. So he’s part of the constabulary, eh?”
“No.” Haden breathed, adjusting his spectacles, “He matches the description of our contact.”
Even as he said it, Calder watched as the supposed guard glance towards them. The shady man propped himself off the wall and was quick to saunter towards them. The guard’s eyes darted around, searching for any eavesdroppers. Finding only a few gambling vagrants out of earshot, he leaned towards the two.
“What do you two think you’re doing around these parts… ? Do you know what happens when a fool walks near a scorpion’s nest?”
“The venom always finds its mark.” Haden replied smoothly and quickly, his cool and unshakable expression never wavering.
The faintest traces of a smile grew under the guard’s moustache.
“Heh. Nice to finally meet the infamous Haden.”
“You’re early.” noted the hit man in red.
“The situation changed.” the bearded man grunted, forking a thumb over his shoulder and towards the wisps of smoke rising from the city’s edge, “The town’s local philanthropist died in some huge fire. It consumed the whole damn property, and some of the land around. It took us two weeks to contain the blaze, and some people were in a tizzy over seeing the dragon that started it.”
“Ooooh. A dragon? Neato.” Calder smirked, “Wish I could’ve gotten a peek at it.”
Their contact grimaced, “You wouldn’t be saying so if you were here. No full scale riots, fortunately. But we still had to toss a few shit-stirrers in prison and melt the keys. And the fact everyone in the Holy Magic Academy up there are losing their marbles over the headmaster’s disappearance didn’t exactly help.”
“We didn’t come all the way out here to listen to you gripe about your cover job. Where’s Axenus?”
The bearded man snorted, tucking his hands under his armpits and nodding his head to the south.
“Thatta way, if witness reports were anything to go by. And it only makes sense with his previous movements- he’s traveling down the coast. He should be halfway through Var by now.”
“Then that’s where we’re headed. Come, Calder. We don’t have any time to lose.”
“I’ve got a horse and carriage set up for you two, but you’d best be careful. There were a few soldier boys in town a few days ago looking for the same bastard.”
A sudden and noticeable chill rolled out from Calder’s body, the arrogant and haughty grin ever present on his face stretching out ever further. Maliciousness flashed in his silver eyes. Excited by the challenge, the cryomancer lifted his sharp nose towards the sky and and heaved with laughter.
“Let ‘em stand in our way! By the time I’m done, they’ll all be begging for the fires of hell.”