Umbra, Chapter 8

Sitting peacefully to the north of a long range of jagged mountains, a roaming caravan camped out in the middle of a vast stretch of tundra. 

In a large red tent at the heart of the encampment, a child hellhound sat atop a wooden stool. Her flames had been extinguished by her tears, and her black eyes were still puffy and swollen. With a series of sniffles, she stared in silence down at the man wrapping a bandage around her injured knee.

He was a tall fellow with tanned skin and chestnut brown hair. His muscular frame was hidden in a heavy set of animal furs, but he had removed his gloves to wrap up the pup’s knee.

“Why did you let that centaur girl rough you up like this without fighting back?” the man huffed.

The little hellhound’s ears folded flat against her head, “I’m sorry, daddy…”

“Honestly, I don’t understand you sometimes, Valerie. You’re nice to all the boys, and you’d rather keep putting on these silly little plays than wrestle with the other girls.You’re nothing like your mother or her sisters were when they were your age…”

The pup didn’t respond to that. The father sighed as he finished bandaging her knee. Looking to his daughter’s side, he sharply inhaled a breath through his nose as he saw a piece of leather sticking out from behind her back.

“And what’s with all this worthless crap you keep bringing home!?” the father demanded as he yanked it away, finding the hilt of a knife that was missing its blade.

Its not useless!” the little hellhound cried, yanking it away and clutching it to her chest, “It’s treasure…”

The pup’s father hung his head as he grabbed it back and set the broken tool to the side, “No, it’s not. It’s a piece of junk, sweetie.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but stopped when she heard a woman spit her name with venom on her tongue.  


Looking towards the tent’s flaps, another hellhound walked in. A hardened woman, her whole body was covered in nasty scars from battles long past. A part of her right ear was even missing.

Looking up from the collar adorned with a skull carving around the woman’s neck, Valerie shrunk back as she bore her gnarly fangs down at her.

“I heard you were letting another girl push you around, Valerie.” the older hellhound rumbled.

Valerie hugged her knees to her chest, “I’m sorry, mommy. She was scary…”  

The man tentatively stood, “Come on, honey, don’t be too hard on her-“

“Shut your mouth! The reason she’s so soft is because you coddle her all the damn time!” the hellhound barked at her mate. The man swiftly backed down.

The mother grabbed her daughter from the stool, dragging her across the floor by her tail, “I’ll make a fighter out of you yet, Valerie…” 

“B-but I hate fighting! I want to be an actor!” the young monster protested, sinking her claws into the floor.

With a nasty snarl, Valerie’s mother yanked her up. She held her daughter before her enraged face, “That so? Then from now on, in front of your bullies and boys you like, you’re going to start acting like a warrior. You got it?”

The terrified Valerie sniveled, “Yes ma’am…” 

Her mother placed her back on the ground, this time grabbing her by her paw and dragging her by her hind paws. Valerie looked back to her father, who sat down in the corner, staring pitifully at his feet.

“You’re going to learn what it means to be a monster!

Slippery little whore! C’mon, stay still and fight! You’re a monster, ain’t ya?!”

Rolling out of the way of yet another strike, Valerie panted as she felt the exhaustion begin to set in. Even before Isaac had even stepped up, several of the Legion troopers had nicked her with their gladiuses. While each wound wasn’t worryingly deep on its own, the combined blood loss from each cut was soon taking it’s toll on her.

She could feel herself becoming more sloppy and sluggish every time Isaac tried, and came quite close, to hammering a crippling blow down on her.

Guess I never was the warrior you tried to make me, huh mom…? No matter how tough I try to act, I just can’t bring myself to love battle like you did. Losing to a bunch of unprepared humans like this… you’re probably rolling in your grave.

With a borderline insane howl, Isaac swung his warpick into the air. Lashing it out at Valerie’s neck,he just barely missed, “Don’t ignore me, you filthy mutt!” 

No! I can’t start thinking like this now… gotta focus on the fight! But even if I beat this dude now, all his troops will finish me off. Looks like I’m going to have to make a slick getaway!

Hopping over a swing that was meant to cripple her knees, Valerie sprung forward and slammed herself against Isaac’s chest. She would’ve cracked his ribs, if not for his finely-crafted armor. With a heavy grunt of pain, the captain raised one meaty, iron-clad arm up and smacked her away, the hellhound landing in the ground and sinking both paws into the dirt.

“Hey… wanna… wanna see a cool trick I picked up from Aaron?” she panted, looking up at the man.

“Hehehe… a neat trick, huh? Go ahead, missy. Give it your best shot. I bet I won’t even feel it.”

“You won’t?”

“Nope. I figure you ain’t too smart, but you’ve gotta figured out I’m far tougher than most humans by now.”

The hellhound broke out into a wicked grin, “Good to hear. Now I won’t feel as bad about this.”

Valerie sprung forwards, lashing out her claws. But instead of trying to rake Isaac across his helmet’s visor, she let loose two paws full of dirt. The debris flew past the iron bars protecting his face and filled the captain’s eyeballs.

“Gah! You filthy cheater bitch!” Isaac hollered, stumbling backward. Lifting his visor, he attempted to wipe the dirt from his eyes, but his thick, armored fingers just couldn’t fit into the helm.

Valerie yanked Aaron’s sword from the ground and clutched the handle safely between her jaws. Rushing forward and planting one foot on Isaac’s back, she used the captain as a human launchpad and sprung into the air, twirling around before she landed in the crowd of soldiers.

“Gah! Get her off me!” the legionary she landed on hollored, flailing about under her. Hopping off his chest, Valerie got to both paws and plowed through the troops. Despite the pain and exhaustion racking her body, she was so high on adrenaline she was able to dodge enough panicked gladius thrusts to make it to the other side unscathed, slashing away at the kneecaps of the soldiers foolish enough to block her path.

“Don’t let her get away! Fire! Kill the whore!” a corporal near the back screamed, landing on a single knee and readying his crossbow. Several others jumped into formation right beside him, and another row took their place looming above the first row. The sound of around twenty crossbows cocking rang out in unison as they took aim.

Her sensitive ears picking up the tell-tale sounds, Valerie dove to the side just as they clicked once again, dodging the bolts filling the ground where she was dashing just a moment ago.

Shit, that was close.

Tearing through the town, Valerie was quickly able to outpace the soldiers, weaving out of the way of any crossbow bolts that they fired at her.

Jumping out from the borders of Angel’s Fall, Val pranced through the fields, her black tail merrily wagging behind her. A smug sense of satisfaction filled her as she left the legionaries in the dust.

Now, I just gotta climb that mountain and save Aaron from the harpies. By the time the legionaries are able to climb it, Aaron and I will have blown this dump a long time ago! They’ll be too busy fighting each other for either of them to catch up to us!

Snickering to herself about just how clever she was, Valerie sprung above the foot of the path twisting around the mountain, latching right onto the stone. Spitting out Aaron’s sword, she caught it in one paw and hung it from the chain strap that kept her iron bra together.

With all sets of her claws sunken into the mountain, she climbed up the stone, hopping back onto the path once it twisted back around then continuing to climb up.

“Get back here, you whore mutt! You won’t escape!”

Valerie looked back down, shocked to see Captain Isaac ride up to the foot of the mountain on his mighty steed, a furious scowl etched on his face.

“Eat a dick, dipshit!” she cried back, blowing a raspberry at him. While it was unlikely that he heard her, she nonetheless felt another surge of smug satisfaction as she continued to scale the mountain.

Her whole focus was so fixed on the mountain peak in the distance, she heard the thwip of the arrow a split second too late. A sharp pain ignited on her mid back and rippled throughout her body.

“N-no…” Valerie wheezed, blood flying from her mouth and staining the side of the mountain.

“Hmph. Looks like all that time practicing my archery came in handy after all.” Isaac chuckled from below, stringing another arrow into his greatbow, “The wind was perfect for the trajectory of that shot. Shit, even I thought I wasn’t going to hit you. Looks like it just ain’t your lucky day, whore.”

Falling from the mountain, Valerie landed on the twisting path several feet below her, lodging the huge arrow even further into her back.

“GAHH!” she hollered, pain wracking her entire body.

“Shit…” swore Isaac, the hellhound falling out of his line of sight before he could get the killshot in, “Oh well. Even if she does survive that and manages to crawl up to those harpies for help, she’ll die with the rest of ’em soon enough.”

Spurring his horse back to towards the town to rally his men, Isaac left Valerie to bleed out on the mountain.

Unfortunately for him, she planned to do no such thing.

Struggling to her feet, the hellhound gasped and panted as blood rose up from her throat. Her right lung felt like it was on fire, and feeling the spot where the arrow was lodged into her back, she knew that it had been punctured.

“N-no… gotta… make it.” she wheezed, blood spilling from her lips.

She had seen this kind of injury before. The father of one of her childhood friends had suffered a similar wound. He had been stabbed in the lung, only it didn’t collapse, and he suffered for hours before dying from internal bleeding.

But he was human, and she was a monster… even though the fact she was spurting blood in several other spots around her body didn’t exactly sway odds in her favor.

Grabbing hold of the back of the shaft with the tips of her claws, she grit her fangs and pulled the crimson-stained arrow out. Her back began gushing blood, staining the trail below red. Reaching around, she pressed a paw up against the wound in an attempt to stymie the flow of blood.

I-I’m not sure if I’ll need a doctor. The harpies might help me out, but the Legion will reach us before I’d be able to recover and escape with Aaron.’

She had witnessed other monsters recover from worse without any serious medical attention… well, with medical attention from doctors without any real training, but that still counted, right?

With the wounds from her battle with Isaac and his men aching and her lung wracked with the worst pain she had ever felt, Valerie continued to limp up the path.

“Goddammit, where is she?”

Aaron sat atop a boulder, scoping out the ground with a large telescope one of the Roaming Raven’s lent him. He hadn’t spotted Valerie anywhere on the ground yet, even with that crimson scarf of hers being able to set her out from the vast stretch of green below. If the harpies’ wouldn’t let him leave, he’d just have to survey the situation and act accordingly when the opportunity presented itself.

“She must already be climbing the mountain…” Aaron figured, aiming the telescope down at the town. There, appearing as a large yellow blot in the distance, was a squadron of around sixty Legionaries marched towards the mountain. Twisting a knob on the device, it focused a bit more on the troops. As he had figured, they were all armed with crossbows.

“Fuck.” Aaron swore. That was bad news for the harpies. While he wasn’t exactly buddy-buddy with them, and they were far from innocent, the last thing he wanted was to watch a whole village of monsters to be slaughtered. Particularly, the cute young harpy flapping around in circles a few yards away from him. He came to learn she was named Sylvia.

Behind her was Harvey, her father and the tribe’s butcher. The chubby man was sweating as he sucked in the brisk air around them, but that didn’t stop him from sharing a bright smile with his daughter as he fruitless chased after her.

Watching the scene, Aaron felt his chest tighten and his breath hitch. Had Harvey been kidnapped years prior and wed to a harpy? He didn’t seem all that miserable if that was the case. In fact, none of the men did.

How could the butcher be happily frolicking with his daughter while a squadron from the world’s most powerful military was gathering at their doorstep? Come to think of it, no one in the entire damned tribe showed the slightest inkling of concern over it, and that made Aaron even more anxious.

Most of all, he felt a deep aching in his heart. Watching the little birdbrain flap around without a care in the world, a smile as bright as the sunshine on her face, he realized that’s the one thing he’d miss most about his niece.

Slipping a hand under his tunic, he clutched a spiral seashell set in the middle of his necklace.

Her first and final gift to him.

Aaron tried to fight it. But in the end, he just couldn’t stop his bottom lip from quivering. Droplets fell from his icy eyes, hitting the frosted stone below.

“Why are you crying, Mr. Aaron?”

Gliding over, Sylvia landed next to him, peeking up at his teary face.

“I-I’m not crying. The mountain air just stings my eyes. That’s all…” Aaron sniffled, wiping away his tears.

Its okay, Mr. Aaron.” she said, patting his back with her little wing, “I like to cry when I’m sad, too.”

“I said I’m not crying!” 

The harpy giggled at that, merrily kicking out her talons, “Suuuure you weren’t.” 

Aaron opened his mouth to protest further but was silenced as he saw a shadow fly over Sylvia’s head, continuing on and looping around the frosty stone behind them.

“Our big sister has returned!” the excited harpy cried, jumping from the boulder and flying aimlessly around in the air. Several other members of the tribe gathered near the looming shadow and cheered it on with similar gusto.

A large shadow was cast over the crowd as the woman soaring above them looped overhead, blotting out the sun with her massive wingspan.

“Good grief.” Aaron muttered, watching the brown and white monster touchdown between him and her excited audience.

That was no harpy. In fact, Aaron had never even seen a monster of her kind, even in illustrations… but he had heard rumors of them once or twice.

Looking her over, there was no doubt in his mind. The woman was a griffon.

She had the claws of an eagle in place of human hands, two puffs of white fur sprouting from her wrists and extending all the way to her elbows. Her lower body was like that of a dark brown lion, the fur turning puffy and white in a similar manner to her wrists between her knees and ankles.

Her wings, unlike her sisters, extended from between her shoulder blades and were much, much larger. They, like her hands, were that of an eagle’s.

Much like her monstrous parts, her hair was two-toned. Pure white and dark brown, the long strands running down to her back and shoulders brown while a patch of white sat atop her scalp. The dual-colored hair interlocked in the form of several long bangs that fell in front of her face.

Her skin was lightly tanned as opposed to milky white like the rest of her tribe. Two red lines ran under her eyes and ended in a point. Whether they be warpaint, birthmarks, or tattoos, the gray-haired swordsman was uncertain.

Her clothes were rustic and simple, two frilled sheets of tan cloth with a pattern of blue diamonds stitched in. Despite how drab her dress was, there was a garish ornament of a golden beak pinned to her chest.

Scanning him with her sharp amber eyes, Aaron nearly flinched under her intense gaze. Even his drill sergeant never shot him a look that piercing.

“So, you must be our new brother.” she said, her voice just as stern and serious as the look on her face. 

“I-I’m not your brother.” refuted Aaron, taking a step back as the monster before him took a step forward. He nearly stumbled on the knee-high boulder he was just seated on.

“You don’t look like very much… tougher than the average human, maybe, but still, nothing to write home about. However, a true warrior knows that looks can be deceiving. So, do you care to prove me wrong, brother?”

“No. I just want to get off this shitty fuckin’ mountain, thank you very much.”

“Such a foul mouth.” the griffon droned, spreading out her wings. Without warning, she zipped right up to his face, their noses only a few centimeters apart, “Perhaps I should teach you some manners.”

Hopping in surprise, Aaron doubled back, leaping to the right and away from the monster, ‘So fast…

“My sister told me mother saw something in your eyes…” she muttered, “She said they’re those of a jaded warrior. Someone’s who’s seen pointless death and ruin. Maybe even someone who’s partaken in it?”

When Aaron’s nostrils flared up, she knew she had accidentally struck a nerve.

“S-shut up, bitch! You don’t know a thing about me!”

With that, Aaron had managed to ring out a collective gasp from the crowd. Scowling and leering at the newcomer, they began booing and cursing him, pelting him with trash and stones.

“How dare you speak to our big sister like that?!” Timothy cried from the crowd, “I knew you were no good from the moment I saw you, Aaron!”

Not bothering to defend himself from the junk, Aaron kept raving on, “I don’t give a damn about you or your little gang of bandits! Just get me off this mountain!”

The White Lion turned to her tribe, raising one claw into the air to signal for them to cease hurling refuse at Aaron. They halted with a startling speed.

“Please, don’t be angry with our new brother. He’s simply confused right now, and feels as though he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. I don’t blame him for being angry with me. Please, go back to whatever it was you were doing before. I’ll be back once more before you know it.” the White Lion told her tribe.

With a collection of grumbles from the crowd, they split at the White Lion’s instruction, returning to their daily tasks. Aaron could hardly believe it. A mere moment ago they looked just about ready to quarter him, but they split with just a few short sentences from this woman? How much respect did they have for the White Lion?

Ha… you certainly have guts, standing up to me before my tribe…. Aaron! If you really want to leave this place, come meet me down the trail.”

With that, the lion and eagle hybrid hopped off the mountain, and true to her word, glided down the trail, landing on the other side of the mountain, out of Aaron and the rest of her tribe’s sight.

“What the hell is wrong with these people…?” Aaron nearly sobbed from frustration, looking back over to the little village of teepees.

“Hey, Aaron.”

Timothy approached him, looking rather upset. Not too surprising, considering the splint and bits of bloody cloth shoved up each nostril to mend the busted nose that Aaron had so graciously provided him. Folding both arms over his chest, the wiry man glared at him, “I can take the broken nose. I can accept the insults. But I won’t accept you talking down to our big sister! Got it?”

Aaron fumbled for the right words, sputtering utter nonsense in the meanwhile, “W-what the fuck? You wanted to kill everyone here a week ago!”

“Yeah, well… I also wasn’t married a week ago.”

Aaron was nearly blown clean off the mountain by that one.

“Y-you got married to a harpy? In under a week?”

“See, after I ran away from you, I fell off my horse and got lost in the middle of nowhere. I tried to navigate my way to Remington, but a pack of wolves caught up to me before that happened. That’s when out of the moonlight, my dark angel swooped down and saved me.”

Timothy blushed like a virgin maiden, holding his cheeks and turning towards the sky as the memories came back to him.

“Then you fell in love with her?” Aaron grumbled, bringing the love-struck man back to attention.

“You’re damned right I did! W-well, not at first. When she took me back to Angel’s Fall, I was pretty pissed. But after three of the best days of my life, I knew it was meant to be. I dunno. It was like… there was always a part of me missing. Someone to encourage me whenever I felt down. To be by my side no matter what… to make me a better man.”

Aaron responded only with a small breath out of his nose. Turning to the side, he stared out at the vast green plains and gentle coast on the distance horizon.

“What? You’re not going to berate me for getting hitched in half a week?”

“Nah. I know better than anyone that it can only take a single moment to fuck up your whole world view. But if that’s possible, I guess it’s also possible for your life to change for the better in a measly three days.”

“Well, thanks, Aaron. I really appreciate that.”

“Besides, my little brother, Douglas? It only took him two weeks after meeting her to propose to his wife. I guess he wasn’t as desperate for pussy as you were.”

“…I’m just going to forget you said that.”

With a small chuckle, Aaron cast his gaze back to Tim, “Before I go have a word with this ‘big sister’ of yours, I’ve got one more question… how come no one here is concerned about the Legion? They’re climbing this mountain right now!”

“Ohoho, I wouldn’t worry about that. We’ve got everything nicely handled. Our scouts have already reported back, and it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about, what are you…? Ah, fuck it. I’ll just ask the griffon.”

“You’d best not refer to her in such a disrespectful manner.” said a familiar voice from above the two men.

Descending towards he and Timothy, Zoana sliced through the air and made a graceful landing beside he and Tim, her sharp talons clacking against the icy ground.

“How has your day been, Zoana?” Timothy asked her, picking up the little monster and hugging her close to his chest.

“Fantastic, dearest.” she giggled, kissing him on the cheek, “Well, aside from having to deal with this hard head…”

With a face that was somewhere between disturbed and disgusted, Aaron had shuttered in revulsion and made his way down the mountain trail.

“WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR NOSE?!” he heard the harpy shriek so loudly it would’ve caused an avalanche if the mountain had been snowcapped.

Knowing far too well the strength of a monster whose had her mate hurt, Aaron dashed down the mountain trail with a speed he didn’t know he was capable of, nearly falling off several times in his haste.

Aaron’s palms shook ever so slightly, beads of sweat sprouting from under his clenched fingers. With each gust of chilly wind, his cloak fluttered and his body shivered.

The Legion should’ve already started scaling the mountain by now. He was more than likely marching towards his own death… and that’s assuming whatever the hell the griffon was about to make him do wouldn’t reduce him to worm feed first.

“Wouldn’t be the first time I skipped towards certain death…” he grunted to himself, hugging his cloak closer to his body as he continued downward.

After his brief hike, the majestic monster came into his sight once more.

Perched atop a boulder with her eagle claws folded over her generous chest, she sneered down at him. Hopping from her spot, her padded feet made a perfect landing. Spreading out her claws and wings the moment she touched the ground, she struck a magnificent pose, the sun behind her making it appear as though she had a blinding halo.

“I’m the White Lion, the pride of the Roaming Ravens and treasure hunter extrodinare~! Ahem… or so my mother tells me. I don’t like to boast.”

Seeing the haughty grin on her face, the griffon’s menacing aura and stifling seriousness seemed to fade away in that one moment. Aaron’s cold breath escaped his lips with a lingering puff. 

“Look… I’m sorry I snapped at you back there. But you’re right. I’ve done a lot of shit I’m not proud of.  I’m just a little on edge right now.” said Aaron.

“You’re forgiven. And I’m sorry for intimidating you like that. But I have an image to keep in front of my tribe, you know?” 

Twirling around, she pointed a clawed finger at the human, “But enough about me, Aaron.  Tell me about yourself. You’re quite the interesting fellow, aren’t you?”

“Interesting, huh? Maybe. I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty simple and straightforward kind of fella.” responded Aaron with a shrug.

“’Simple and straightforward’ aren’t the words I’d use to describe a man waltzing through the Legion with a monster.”

“Pfft. Well, you’re a monster, and you’re still in the Legion.”

“Perhaps… but my tribe has a good reason for being here. And from this mountaintop, we’re untouchable. Until the Legion starts sending their elites after us, which leaves us safe for at least another week. But you… you’re brazenly walking across the countryside, picking fights with soldiers. What’s your excuse?”

“That fight I had with those legionaries… they were harassing a friend of mine. It’s not that big of a deal. The Legion making me a public enemy was inevitable. See, one of their cronies… I need to put him in the ground.”

“I see. For revenge, or justice?”

“Revenge.” Aaron answered bluntly, “Never cared much for ‘justice’. In my experience, the assholes who go spouting off about it are usually the evilest, most vile fucks to ever roam the earth. Not that I have much room to talk, though.”

“So you’re not concerned about whether or not your actions are justified?”

Aaron grit his teeth together, “The man who murdered my friend and family in cold blood was completely justified under the laws of the Legion. And I’d be unjustified in making him pay for it. Sorry to tell you, but justice isn’t real. If it were, half the planet wouldn’t be fighting this endless war. If it was, my… my brother… my niece… they’d still be…”


The gray-haired man caught himself before he started crying again, “Look. I’m not a philosopher. I was supposed to be a happy, ignorant little fisherman. But now to the rest of my home country, I’m a psychotic ex-soldier going on a rampage. But you know what? I’m completely fine with that. Hell, the whole damned world could consider me the evilest bastard in history for all I care. As long as I make my brother’s killer pay for what he’s done, I can die a happy man.”

“That’s a noble enough goal, I guess. Many men in your place would’ve simply given up.”

“Thanks.” Aaron sighed, “Now, what about the Legion climbing up the mountain? Shouldn’t you go help your tribe? You look like you’d put up the best fight.”

“Well, not to boast, but I am the finest warrior in the tribe…” she laughed rather haughtily, her nose sticking up towards the sky.

“Right… so, you’re not worried about them? Even a little?”

“Not in the slightest. I believe in my sisters with all my heart… trust me, those men down there aren’t anything they can’t handle.”

“Really? Because I only counted a little over fifty harpies… the Legion outnumbers you quite a bit. And unless those husbands you kidnapped have some weapons and armor stashed away, those numbers will stay that way.” 

“I’m well aware. But all we’ll need is around twenty.”

“Twenty? Twenty of your troops will be enough to take out almost five times that in armored legionaries with crossbows? You do know what a crossbow is, right? The fact they can attack at a distance puts fliers like you guys at a serious disadvantage.”

“I’m well aware, Aaron. The very fact they came equipped expecting to simply snipe us out of the sky will be their humiliating downfall.” 

Aaron grumbled quite loudly, having his question shot down for the third time.

“Look, I don’t give a damn what kind of secret plan you have. My friend could still be in danger down there, so I’d really appreciate it if you took my down the mountain…”

“Before that, let me ask you a question, Aaron.” she said, grabbing him by the shoulder, “What if I knew of a way to look in on this enemy of yours whenever you’d please?”


“I have no idea who my mother or father were. The chief found my egg before her yurt one day, wrapped in these very clothes. This tucked in one of the pockets…”

She pulled out an old, crinkled, and quite large piece of yellowed paper. Handing it over to Aaron, he unfolded it and took a look inside…

It was a map of both the continents of Colleum and Terra, and the sea of Pontus between them. Numerous small numbers written in red ink dotted both lands, going all the way up to forty-seven. Flipping it over, he found were names of several different ruins and temples, very specific coordinates, and a list of what lie buried written next to each corresponding number on the front.

“So, what? Your parents were treasure hunters or something?” 

“Something of that nature, I’d like to presume.”

“You want me to help you find some treasure? And why exactly should I help you out? No offense, but your tribe more or less kidnapped me.”

“None taken. But I need help, you seem capable, and there’s something I think you might want in this last haul. Come on, look right here…” she said, gesturing for him to come closer.

Leaning in, she pointed one of her clawed fingers to the 32nd note on the back of the map. ‘Temple of Elara. Hidden at the feet of the temple’s largest statue. Remeber, ‘Beyonds Bustle’. The chest contains several hundred jewels, gold coins, and the Astral Crown relic.

Beyonds Bustle’? What the hell did that mean? But aside from the strange quote, Aaron’s attention was drawn to this ‘Astral Crown’.

“Astral Crown? What the hell is that going to do?” asked Aaron, looking up from the map.

Looking almost starry-eyed, the griffon cocked her hips, “It’s a crown that belonged to an ancient king who practiced dark arts and suffered extreme paranoia. Using his abilities, it’s said he fitted his crown with a magical gem that allowed him to project his spirit next to whoever he wished. However, doing so, he learned his wife had a lover, and went completely mad from the grief…”

Aaron looked quizzically at the griffon, unsure whether her historical knowledge was a hobby or came naturally in line with her field of work. If it were the latter, she certainly loved her job.

“Honestly, I don’t give a damn what he saw. But if this thing really can let me spy on whoever I want, then it could give me a serious tactical advantage if I do manage to find a way to defeat him.”

“Whatever your reasons, I can’t pull this off without a man who doesn’t shy away from danger.”

Aaron tapped his foot against the cold stone below. He still had his journey to Misr and the Lost Archives… but even that was a shot in the dark, more or less. If it came down to it, if there wasn’t a surefire counter to the Sol Saber, then he would simply have to settle for as much power as he could get his hands on and pray that would be enough to overcome Lucero.

“So, are you in?”

The iron-haired swordsman though on it for a moment. This woman’s tribe kidnapped him, and now he was being roped into infiltrating an ancient temple filled with what only Ganymede knows. But if this Astral Crown was the real deal… he couldn’t afford to leave it in anyone else’s hands but his own.

“I… I’m in.” Aaron decided, “But first, we need to find my friend.” 

“Deal. Hehehe… I suppose that makes us partners, doesn’t it?”

The griffon eagerly extended an open claw towards Aaron. The human tentatively placed his own hand within it, nearly having his arm ripped out of his socket as she shook up and down with an unnecessary amount of zeal.

“Good to be working with you, Aaron. My name is Kiera, the White Lion of the Roaming Raven Tribe.”

“One last question…” asked Aaron through a shaky voice, his skull-rattling as Kiera shook him like she was trying to churn him into butter, “Why exactly do you need me again? You seem perfectly capable of getting this treasure on your own…”

“Oh, hehehe~ see, there’s the problem. I could normal infiltrate any ancient ruins myself, but this one… it’s filled with the Legion’s holy men.”

From that cheesy grin on her face, Aaron had a sneaking suspicion that the griffon was about to throw him directly into the line of fire.

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