“…and that’s how you properly set up a tent, Valerie.”
Slamming one balled up paw into the palm of the other, the determination was clear on Valerie’s face, “Thanks for showing me, babe. I’ll be sure to get it right next time!”
“I’m sure you will.” Aaron chuckled, taking to his feet.
Four days after passing Sable, they neared the next major town on Graeme’s map, Angel’s Fall. It wasn’t in sight yet, but from their campsite, they could clearly spot the massive lone mountain that sat to the west of the town, Angel’s Peak.
It extended high into the night sky, it’s cap pointing directly at the full moon. It was a clear, gorgeous night, not a cloud in the sky and the stars twinkling brightly overhead.
“Oh, it’s ready~!” Valerie cheered, clapping her hands together as she opened the lid on their squirrel stew. The hellhound had a bit more fun than she should have in catching the meal, bashing the trees until the little creatures fell out, only to immediately pounce on them before they could catch their bearings and flee.
Aaron took the ladle and distributed the stew into two wooden bowls.
“Pretty good.” he mumbled, spooning some into his mouth. Valerie on the other hand, disregarded utensils entirely and chugged down the steaming liquid like it was cheap booze.
Speaking of cheap booze, Aaron frowned as he took the final swig of his own supply. With a small grunt, he chucked the empty jug back into the woods, “Bah. I’ll just get some more in Angel’s Fall. Hopefully, there’s a merchant with enough change for a gold piece down there.”
“So…” began Valerie, licking the remains of the stew out from the bottom of the bowl, “How about you tell me some more of your story?”
“Ah… well, I suppose you have a right to know since you’re in this with me. What happens next… isn’t pleasant.” Aaron said with a frown, staring down and the campfire, watching the orange flames dance and flicker…
It was over. It was finally over for the soldiers of the Legion’s 13th company. Their grueling expedition was finally at an end.
After a hearty celebratory dinner of roasted ham, rye bread, mashed potatoes, and most importantly, ale, Aaron joined his fellow soldiers below deck and tucked himself into his cot. After his frequent fishing trips with his father, Aaron was one of the few soldiers that didn’t need to adapt to sleeping in a boat. It didn’t hurt that the salty scent of the sea reminded him of home, and always relaxed him.
But even with all his experience with nautical travel, the rocking of the boat as it rode the waves always unnerved him. That primal fear of the unknown represented in the endless inky waters always put him on edge. When he was a child, Aaron was afraid that some sort of unfathomably huge abomination that slept on the ocean’s floor would awaken below and swallow their puny boat whole.
Now that he was an adult, he was more afraid of the very real possibilities of being lost at sea and dying a slow, painful death. Or perhaps the slightly less horrific fate of being kidnapped and raped by the monstrous seductresses that called the sea their home.
Those fears couldn’t be any further from his mind, however. At that moment, with each passing second, Aaron’s heart felt lighter and lighter as he traveled further and further away from that hell on earth.
He’d survived. He claimed the fruits of his struggles. He had won.
After a few minutes of rest in the cot, Aaron began drifting off into a gentle sleep, happy and content.
“UP AND AT ‘EM, LADIES! THE CAPTAIN WANTS US ON THE DECK! PUT YOUR ARMOR ON AND GRAB A WEAPON ON YOUR WAY OUT!”
“What the fuck…?” Aaron grumbled angrily midst similar complaints of his fellow soldiers- well, ex-soldiers. They were supposed to be, at least. Last thing Aaron remembered, he was floating off into a dream. But what time was it? How long had it been?
From the gentle rays of orange light peering in from the small holes in the deck above, he’d have to guess it was the crack of dawn. But the captain had assured them he wouldn’t be a bother as long as they behaved or an emergency didn’t occur.
What was it, a leak? Why would they need armor or weapons to repair any damage to the ship? There was no way a monster could have sneaked on board. For one, the captain could’ve easily handled it on his own. If it was a herd of them, they surely would’ve made some noise, wouldn’t they?
“What… what’s going on? Monsters? Pirates?” William groggily muttered, jumping from his cot next to Aaron’s and starting to strap on his armor.
“I don’t think so…” Aaron responded, just as groggy as Will. Slipping on his chain-mail, he shared his thoughts with his friend, “…so I don’t think it’s monsters. And I don’t think it’s pirates either… they don’t operate out here. And if they did, I doubt they’d be patiently waiting for us to put on our armor before fighting.”
“You’re right. Ah, it doesn’t matter. The captain’s serious as a heart attack, and brave as a lion. He wouldn’t be calling on us like this if he didn’t have a damn good reason.” said William, strapping on his chestplate.
Being among the first to armor up, Aaron and Will rushed to the stairs up to the deck, grabbing some armaments off their place on the rack on the way. Choosing what they were best at, Aaron picked up a moderately hefty broadsword while William chose a well-balanced winged spear.
Hustling up the stairs behind the more veteran warriors, the rest of the troops followed close behind as the thirty man company ended up on the deck. The eighteen man crew manning the vessel was already on a high alert, rushing around and stopping the ship.
Wait. Stopping the ship?
To their right, another caravel floated next to them. Another man dressed in the Legion’s armor stood on it’s deck, shooting a thumbs up towards one of their crew members.
Taking a good look at the fellow caravel floating in the glittering water, it was almost a sad sight. Patched up with boards, sails slightly torn, and a large hole punched in its deck, the Paladin’s Pearl had definitely seen better days. If it was the Paladin’s Pearl as Aaron assumed, as there was a patched up hole where the ‘L’ in pearl would go. But somehow, Aaron didn’t think anyone would christen their ship after a fruit.
“Are they going to board us?” someone muttered from the crowd of troops.
“Where’s the captain?”
“Who the hell are they? What do they want?”
“The Paladin’s Pearl? Wasn’t that the 12th company’s ship?”
“I thought they were goners!”
The troops soon broke out into an uproar, arguing among themselves about just what the hell was going on.
“ALRIGHT, QUIET DOWN YOU BUNCH OF SPINELESS NITWITS!”
Everyone on the deck’s heads turned in unison to the crashing sound and thundering roar, which just so happened to be their dear Captain Donovan.
Standing at just under two meters, his silver chain-mail bulged as it barely contained his muscular arms and legs. Wearing thick gauntlets, greaves, and a breastplate of steel, his yellow tabard’s insignia was the same as his troops, but with the added decoration of a golden cross set in the crimson hawk’s chest.
Streaks of white ran across his short brown hair and well-kempt beard, hiding his broad jaw and stern frown. Gazing across at the ship floating next to them, he slung the massive weapon he held across his shoulders to the deck, letting it rest in a single hand.
That sword of his was quite the sight. A massive, steel double-edged blade ran for at least a meter and a half, connected to a thick crossguard and leather hilt. Aaron wasn’t exaggerating a bit when he said the thing must’ve weighed close or above two hundred pounds.
“Alright, men. I know you’re tired. You’ve fought your guts out and lost many friends… and you thought yesterday was the end. But I might need your help one last time.”
Raising his blade into the air, he pointed the tip of his great sword at the beat-up caravel, “That’s the Paladin’s Pearl. It and it’s crew were supposed to have been killed a week ago, along with the 12th company and it’s vessel. It was an ambush… poor bastards never had a chance.”
“B-but captain… how can that be? It’s floatin’ right next to us!” cried one man from the troops.
The crowd was soon muttering back and forth once again, until Donovan stomped on the deck with the power of a rockslide, bringing his troops attention back to him, “I know! That’s why I brought you lot up here… it could be some kind of trap designed by those wicked monsters… however, I don’t want to run the risk of abandoning any of my countryman in need. So, be braced for anything! Is that clear?!”
“Yes sir, captain sir!” the troops rang out and saluted, the past few years of serving under him burning it into their bodies and minds to the point it was almost second nature.
Given approval, the crew on the Paladin’s Pearl were quick at work, extending a gangplank over to the Headsman’s Bastard, the long wooden board shaking as it clattered against the deck.
A figure stepped from the Pearl’s captain’s quarters. He was garbed in a suit of sleek, luminous armor, and armed with a curved blade at his side. The crew rushed forward onto the opposite ship’s deck, dropping to a single knee and bowing down to him.
The figure sauntered forward, the rising sun reflecting off his shining armor and masking his face in shadow. His long, golden blonde hair drifted in the salty air with each step. Although he wore a full suit of armor, the gangplank didn’t so much as creak as he continued to approach Captain Donovan and his troops.
The odd thing was that it looked seamless. Like the armor didn’t have to be put on piece by piece, but simply flowed over his body like water. It wasn’t showing even a bit of chainmail underneath, yet was nowhere near as bulky as plate-mail. Aaron found it was quite the strange sight. It’s pauldrons and gorget were pure gold, with the rest of it being silver. Intricate carvings ran up and down its breastplate.
Finally stepping off the gangplank, the luminous knight stopped before Donovan, a wry smile on his face, looking like he was stifling a laugh as he scanned the captain with his inquisitive green eyes.
“Who are you?” the captain growled, unfazed by the strange man. His crew, meanwhile, was mystified. Aaron felt like his body was frozen as he stared at him. He was sure he had seen the knight before, and yet something told him that he’d never forget running into someone like the man who stood before his captain.
“I…” he snickered, “…am Lucero of the 11th company. I’m sure some of you recognize my face? If not, I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“What the hell are you talking about? The 11th and 12th companies were wiped out in an ambush!” Donovan shot back.
The 11th company. That was it. It was the previous year, the 11th, his own 13th, and the 12th and 14th companies combined their forces to conquer a heavily fortified village full of monsters and heretics. That’s where he had seen Lucero on the front lines.
For someone who despised monsters as much as Lucero, he certainly fought like one. Wearing little armor, no shield, and armed with just a curved sword, he rushed into battle as a vanguard, slicing apart heretics and monsters alike with a mix of speed, power, and accuracy only veteran paladins could hope to match.
But what was he wearing? No, it wasn’t just the strange armor that threw Aaron off. Something was different about him. He just radiated this odd and unsettling aura, like he was some sort of demigod, and Aaron’s mere presence was an affront to his glory.
“It was only a few months ago,” Lucero cried, “My company and the 11th were rushed by the heretics and their bestial lovers… our ships were being destroyed by magic, and hope was swiftly vanishing from my heart…”
Lucero walked past Donovan and into the middle of the 13th company, grinning like a madman, “I ran. Ran and ran and ran… but then, just as I was slumped over, ready to give in and collapse in exhaustion, I came across something incredible. Pray tell, you all know the story of the nameless hero and Sir George, do you not?”
Of course they did. What child born with the Legion’s borders didn’t?
Man and monster had been locked in eternal combat since before they knew how to work metals. No human has even the foggiest clue as to how monsters rose from the depths, only that they were enemies.
No, a more accurate relationship would be like a predator and it’s prey, with the humans as the latter. By and large, monsters were far more powerful, ferocious, and some even had access to otherworldly magic, long before mankind had managed to unlock it’s secrets.
It was a miracle humans were able to fight them back at all, let alone build civilizations and make technological advances. But every day, the monsters grew more and more plentiful… and more and more ferocious.
In mankind’s darkest hour, a mysterious man approached the Demon Lord, the master of all monsters. With a luminous golden blade said to have been forged by the King of Gods himself, he fought off the monsters and slew the Demon Lord before mysteriously vanishing, taking the Sol Saber with him.
Fast forward a thousand years later, monsters had somehow changed. Now, they took the form of gorgeous seductresses, wanting nothing more to lie with man and spread their kind with his seed. This proved an even greater tactic than violence. Many brave and honorable men fell to their charms when the monster couldn’t have slain them with their strength.
That’s when the Holy Legion swooped in with warriors trained and raised to resist otherworldly temptation, armed with blessed weapons and holy magics. Alongside them was the legendary Sir George with his rediscovered Sol Saber. The Legion was able to fight off the incoming invasions and establish an empire out of the crumbling kingdoms the monsters left in their wake. After his empire had been built, George took the Sol Saber and vanished, no one being able to find a single clue to the whereabouts of he or his blade.
Or that’s at least what Aaron had been told. Not that he cared about ancient history all that much. But Lucero seemed to take it all at face value.
“Yes, my friends… the legends of the Sol Saber… and now, the next chapter is upon us! Behold!”
Grabbing the hilt of his sword, he removed it from his hip and lifted it skyward, the curved, golden blade shimmering in the sunrise, “Let this be the proof you need that this is the genuine article!”
A lightning bolt struck Lucero. The soldiers all doubled back in horror, even Captain Donovan looked shaken. How was that possible? There wasn’t even a cloud in the sky, not even a single rumble of thunder.
But Lucero was completely unfazed. The bolt of lighting simply danced across his blade, casting golden rays of light across the stunned faces of the 13th company. With an arrogant smirk, Lucero twirled the saber over his head, lashing out the blade and launching the bolt out towards the ocean.
Splitting the waves as it zipped over them, the redirected lightning smashed into a large rock jutting out from the sea, blowing it into tiny chunks. Smoldering pebbles began raining in the water, one or two even managing to fly all the way to the ship’s deck.
“I-it really is…” Donovan muttered in amazement, “T-the Sol Saber!”
“I was injured, lost, and afraid… all of my comrades were either dead or captured. Stumbling through the forest, I happened upon a small meadow, filled with beautiful lilies… and in the center of that meadow, an ancient blank tombstone sat with the Sol Saber resting upon it…”
His green eyes glistening with pride, he raised his legendary weapon into the air and roared, “It wasn’t just pure chance! Fate led me to the Sol Saber! And with it, I shall lead us to victory against the monstrous whores of Lusitania!”
Dropping to a single knee, Donovan placed a hand over his heart and knelt to the brilliant knight, “My lord… it would be an honor to ferry you back to our homeland.”
“Thank you, captain. But, looking around… I’m afraid I can’t accept that offer…”
“What do you mean, Lord Lucero?”
“Don’t get me wrong, captain… your ship is in marvelous condition, your crew is fully staffed…” trailing off, Lucero cast his gaze back towards the stunned faces of the 13th company, “See, the problem is that one of your men is a heretic.”
A cold bead of sweat ran down Aaron’s back. Was Lucero talking about him? Were his mere doubts about the empire enough for the Sol Sabre to brand him a heretic? The gray-haired swordsman’s confused thoughts were lost in the frightened mummers of the crowd.
‘No, I’m being ridiculous. It was a long three years with very few women around. I’ve seen some of our men seduced by monsters! Whoever did it must have gotten away from her somehow… and I know it wasn’t me.’
“What? How can you be sure?” Donovan asked, taking to his feet.
“During my training with the Sol Saber, I began to learn how to read the life energy of those around me. Whether it’s a gift from the gods or a side effect of the sword, I don’t know… but regardless of the cause, I’m quite thankful for the outcome. From a mere glance, I can tell if a man has lain with a monster.”
“Truely?” Captain Donavan asked, staring in stunned silence at the weapon in Lucero’s palm.
Raising the saber into the air as if to emphasize his point, Lucero cried, “Of course it’s the truth! 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!”
‘Is that true?‘ Aaron couldn’t help but wonder.
“Men, the vast bulk of you appear pure. Your auras are all a soft, gentle blue, just as the gods intended… all but one of you. Flecks of darkness writhe within you, heretic. You know who you are… the one who betrayed his brothers in arms for a quick fling with a beast. Step forward, and your death will be swift and painless…”
No one budged. Aaron knew he wasn’t guilty, but that didn’t stop his heart from beating against his chest. What if Lucero was mistaken? What if he was just flat out deranged and no one was guilty?
Aaron cast a glance over to William, standing rigid and looking just as nervous as the rest of the company.
No… even more so. Aaron noticed the spear held at Will’s side vibrate ever so slightly as the hand holding it trembled. Looking back up, William stared at Aaron with pleading eyes.
‘W-William… no! I always knew you were a philanderer, but how could you…?’
“Won’t show your face? Think I’m bluffing? Fine, have it your way, coward.” Lucero spat, his handsome face twisting into a nasty scowl, “Then your death will be slow and agonizing!”
Spinning on his heel, Lucero turned towards Aaron and thrust his sword forward.
In that single moment, he could feel his stomach churning, his blood run cold, and panic bubbling in his throat like bile.
‘M-me?! What the fuck!? He is just some crazy bastard, isn’t he?!’
“You are the heretic!”
Aaron clenched his eyes shut, bracing himself to be struck down by holy lightning… but it never came.
Peeling one eye open, Aaron peeked to his left, where standing just a few inches away, Miles stood. His knees buckled, his teeth chattered, and he gripped his crossbow to his chest with white knuckles, watching Lucero aim his sword towards him.
“You… you’ve lain with a monster, haven’t you?!” Lucero raved, stomping forward, the tip of his Sol Saber trained on the redhead’s chest all the while.
“N-no! You’re wrong!” Miles panicked, backing away, “S-stay back! I’m not g-guilty!”
“Don’t lie to me!”
Miles fell to his behind, scrambling backward. Hitting the edge of the ship, the redhead sat up, cocked his crossbow, and aimed it right at Lucero, “I-I warned you!”
The bolt flew right at the swordsman, but he just as swiftly chopped it down the middle, sending the two halves of the projectile sailing through the air and into the sea. Miles reached for another bolt…
Lucero’s armored boot came crashing down, shattering Miles’ hand. Lifting the same foot up, he kicked the crossbow away, “Now, before you die, you’re going to tell me… tell the men you betrayed… why you slept with a beast.”
“S-she wasn’t a beast, you fuck!” Miles hollered, his face boiling red. Clutching his bent fingers to his chest, the crossbowman continued to fight through the pain, “Her name was Naima! She was the most kind, caring woman I’ve ever met in my life! I don’t care that she looked any different than me or-”
Lucero’s foot crashed into Miles’ face, breaking his nose and smashing the back of his head against the ship’s railing. Not stopping there, Lucero bent down grabbed Miles by the hair, lifting him up and repeatedly slamming his head against the railing.
With each blow, a sickening crunch was heard as Miles’ blood splattered against the ship. The mere sound of it made Aaron want to vomit.
“She was a demon and a whore.” Lucero spat, ignoring the man’s pained sobbing. Still holding him by the hair, he lifted Miles up, presenting his face to the company. Miles was barely recognizable, his face mashed beyond repair. Swollen up and purple, blood rushed down from his forehead and cheeks and dripped off his chin. Aaron flinched when he realized there were fragments of wood from the railing jutting out from his right cheek, top lip, and left eye.
But that wasn’t the end.
With yet another agonized cry, the Sol Saber slipped into Miles back, bursting out from his abdomen a moment later.
“This is what heretics deserve!” Lucero raved, spit flying from his mouth as he hollered in Miles’ ear.
“N-Naima… I’m sorry…”
Aaron felt deathly ill. Looking around, he found a mix of reactions. Some men were grinning from ear to ear, pleased at seeing the heretic getting what he deserved. Some had looks of pity in their eyes, but did nothing to stop what was unfolding. Captain Donovan… he was just as undaunted by death and gore as usual.
But he was sure no one looked as disgusted as he and William. With the look that his violet-haired friend was shooting him, something told Aaron that he knew beforehand. Perhaps that’s why Will looked so nervous… Miles confided in him and only him.
Gripping the handle of his saber with both hands, Lucero infused his blade with lightning, shocking the man he had just stuck like a pig. But it wasn’t a quick death.
Lucero must have intentionally powered it down, as Miles death came very, very slowly. His flesh burned as it was charred black, his hair caught fire, and his eyeballs started to melt and sink back into his skull.
Aaron could feel his blood boiling. This was cruel. Inhuman. Aaron understood well the casualties of war, and how some deaths were necessary, but this…
He felt like charging in and chopping Lucero’s head clean off. But he had enough sense to know that was a horrible idea. If Lucero could split a flying bolt down the middle, he’d fall just as easily. Miles was a dead man, and getting killed himself wouldn’t bring him back. All Aaron could do was stand back and hope his friend’s suffering would end soon.
After about a minute of the torture, Miles screams had finally stopped. He was nothing but a charred up corpse stuck on a sword.
“And that friends,” Lucero chuckled, giving his saber one last twist. A final vein of lightning ran up the blade and reduced Miles’ cadaver to dust, the ash soon spreading to the wind. The only thing left of him was a black scuff on the deck. “Is only a small taste of the fate the gods have in store for the heretics.”
A few small claps. That was all it took. Some of the men in the crowd hated heretics and monsters with such a burning rage that the sick little show actually pleased them. Their hero had finally arrived to end the war. Seeing his glowing reaction, that was all it took for the rest of the crowd to follow suit and applaud him.
Having no idea why, Aaron slowly joined in and applauded the man who just murdered his friend. Why? He didn’t want to. Was he that afraid? From his buckling knees to his sick stomach, that was the only explanation he could think of.
‘How could these bastards be applauding Lucero for that? I wish I never worked for these sick fucks.’
The instant that thought crossed Aaron’s mind, Lucero, who was bowing down to his applauding crowd like a dignified showman, snapped his head back up, glaring right at Aaron.
‘D-did he read my damned mind?’
“Make way, my friends.” Lucero said, now grinning from ear to ear once again, motioning for the crowd to move, “I have matters to discuss with your captain.”
The company split as the Sol Saber’s new wielder strode forward, the mighty Captain Donovan following behind him like a lost pup. Passing right by Aaron, he could swear Lucero was snickering.
As the 13th company muttered to themselves, they shifted back to the ship’s belly to return to bed. Aaron was left standing alone, frozen with fear and staring at the black smudge staining the deck.
With the sea breeze carrying away the gut-wrenching stench of his burned flesh, his brother in arms, his friend, was gone forever.