“….the trail ends here, captain.”
Squatting down next to a stain of blood, Lieutenant Xander traced his fingers across the sticky fluid, looking back down the trail between the booted feet of his fellow legionaries. The red river ran all the way from near the base of the mountain, but abruptly ended where he stood.
“Why do you think it stopped here, captain? Where did the hellhound go?”
Turning to the hulking man atop his equally impressive mount, Isaac’s nostrils flared up as he looked out to the rocky, uneven terrain to the left, “Probably realized we were catching up and decided to scale the mountain the old fashion way. If she did that, we wouldn’t catch her on the path. Clever bitch…”
“Should we go after her?” asked Xander as the rest of the legionaries stopped right behind their two commanding officers.
Isaac shook his head from side-to-side, his heavy armor clanking as the pieces smacked together, “No. With how much blood she’s lost, the only way for her to survive is to get first-aid from the harpies… we kill the birds, then the dog will bleed out and croak with ’em.”
“Yessir! C’mon, men! We’re almost to the peak!” Xander cried, motioning towards the steep incline leading up the mountain trail. While it had many twists and turns up until then, the slope before them shot straight up to a stretch of flat terrain.
Isaac halted his mount, holding a hand before Xander and stopping the advancement of the rest of his men, “Hold up, boys… look!”
The captain shoved a meaty, armored finger towards the wispy clouds. Streaking through the sky from the peak of the mountain, five harpies made a ‘v’ formation as they glid overhead.
“Wait, what the hell are they wearing?” pondered Xander, looking a bit closer and seeing a series of shimmering silver plates tied to their stomachs and wings.
“What the fuck does it matter what they’re wearing?! Fill ’em with bolts, boys!” Captain Isaac roared over his lieutenant, stringing an over-sized arrow into his greatbow and taking aim at their leader.
The legionaries followed their orders without a second thought, Xander scrambling to cock his crossbow after he was sent reeling from his captain’s thundering command.
“Ready… Aim…” Isaac boomed, his thick, calloused fingers ready to let go of his taut string.
“NOW!” the harpy at the head of the ‘v’ cried, she and her sisters making a sudden ascent, spreading out their wings as far as they could. Now, with their leader at the center, the harpies formed an ‘x’ patteren.
The soldier’s eyes followed the harpies, but the raven monsters’ plan went into action faster than the legionaries could lift their crossbows. The sun falling to the east cast its rays over the heads of the troops and against the reflective silver-plates armoring the airborne monsters.
The rays of the sun amplified and bounced off the silver plates of the harpies, flashing a blinding flare towards the legionaries, their eyes all locked on them and ready to fire.
All in unison, the soldiers dropped their loaded crossbows, some going off and shooting their fellow trooper in the leg or stomach. The crisp mountain air was suddenly filled with the chaotic sound of pained, confused, and frightened screams.
“Gragh! My eyes!”
“Fuck, I’m blind!”
“Fithy fuckin’ cunts!”
Not even the hardy Captain Isaac could’ve withstood the trap. Recoiling in shock and pain, his horse bucked and tossed the massive man off it’s back. With a loud series of grunts and hollers, Isaac was sent rolling down the rocky side of the mountain.
“C-Captain! Captain Isaac! Where are you?!” Xander cried in desperation. Clawing at the air, he pushed away some fellow soldiers as he fruitlessly called out his commander’s name. The lieutenant fell back as Isaac’s stead broke away from the crowd, trampling any blinded legionary unfortunate enough to stumble in it’s way.
Shambling to the front of the crowd, Xander began blinking as rapidly as he could, his vision at last returning to him. Facing away from his troops, he looked up the trail and nearly bit his lower lip clean off his face.
A giant, rounded boulder, around fifteen harpies rolling it forward. It was a straight shot down the path for a good while.
And it was right at the edge of the slope.
Lieutenant Xander could only stand in stunned horror as the massive hunk of stone rolled forward.
“GET OUT OF THE WAY YOU DUMB ASSES!” the hysteric Xander sobbed, tears gathering at the edges of his eyes as he pushed against the confused crowd, starting to regain their eyesight a few moments too late.
A blood-curdling scream flew from the lieutenant’s lips as the boulder crushed him, along with the first row of men.
Any legionaries who hadn’t caught their bearings in time to move out of the way of the boulder were swiftly crushed by it. The huge chunk of stone, now stained with blood, kept rolling down the mountain trail as it left a pile of mangled cadavers in it’s dust. Any legionary that managed to dodge was sent falling off the trail and hurtling down the rocky sides of the hill, snapping their bones like twigs.
As the dust settled on the trail, a spiky-haired harpy landed before the carnage, dusting off her wings.
“Well, it looks like that’s that.” Zoana sighed, landing on her two talons, looking down at the crushed bodies of the legionaries splattered against the mountain path.
“Sister, where should we immolate the bodies?” one of the harpies asked, landing next to her.
“A bit further down the trail… its a shame it had to come to this, but peaceful negotiations wouldn’t have happened. The Legion shows monsters like us no quarter.” Zoana consoled her sisters as she kicked one of the Legion’s broken crossbows off the trail.
“Should they have? You did kidnap men and steal cattle from one of their villages…”
Zoana unleashed a snarl more akin to a tiger than a raven as she turned to find Aaron. He wore a static expression as he approached them from behind.
“What? Having second thoughts about turning against your empire?” Zoana interrogated Aaron, pushing past two other harpies to meet him.
“Heh. No, don’t get me wrong. I hate the Legion too. But don’t you think they were just a bit justified on this one? You’ve been assaulting that poor village down there for almost two weeks, right? If ya ask me, that makes you no better then them.”
“Everything mother has done shes done for our tribe’s survival…” Zoana snapped, standing on the tips of her talons and invading Aaron’s personal space, “Don’t you ever compare us to the Legion! They’re the ones who pushed our people into such desperation in the first place! If we had tried to negotiate with them, we would be putting our brothers, sisters, husbands and daughters all at risk!”
Aaron exhaled a frosted breath through his nose, his eyes running over the mangled corpses of the legionaries strewn about the trail, “Whatever. I have no room to judge you…”
“Listen here, human… I remember what you did to my husband, and what vile words you’ve vomited at my mother and big sister. The only reason I haven’t sunk my talon into your heart is because Kiera still has use of you!”
Their glares locked into each others, the human and harpy looked about ready to rip the other’s head off.
“Sister! Someones coming!” one Roaming Raven called from the side, interrupting Aaron and Zoana’s spat.
Surely enough, a dark, feminine figure with a sword behind her back rose up from behind the trail. Clutching behind her back, she limped forward with every step. Blood dripped from the various cuts and gashes all around her body.
“Who is she?” asked one shocked harpy.
“Look at her! She’s coughing up and covered in her own blood! She needs medical attention right away!” cried another.
Aaron trembled as he realized who it was.
Rushing down the blood-soaked trail, Aaron weaved between the crushed bodies, his heart thumping against his chest all the while.
“Babe~” the bloody hellhound weakly cheered, extending both her paws and welcoming his embrace.
Scooping Valerie into his grasp, Aaron bent down and examined her injuries. Reaching down and feeling a steady stream of blood spurting from her back, the man went rigid, “Valerie… what… what happened to you?”
“There was… this really huge dude…”
Aaron lifted her into his arms, wrapping one arm under her legs and keeping another pressed against the gaping hole punched into her body, “We’ve gotta get you help, Val. Now.”
“Alright…” Valerie snarled, blood and spittle leaking from her lips. She directed an angry glare towards the harpies, “You can patch me up after you answer a single question… which one of those feather-brained cocksuckers pushed that fucking boulder?”
“So, doc… what’d you say your name was again?”
Valerie snored peacefully atop a straw mat beside Aaron, wrapped up in bandages. Crouched between he and her was another black harpy, a flask with a mysterious, glowing blue fluid clutched between each wing, Sticking the glass rim between the hellhound’s lips, she tilted the flask and poured the elixir down her throat.
“Doc~!” the harpy merrily responded, skipping on her talons and placing the empty flask on her desk.
Aaron looked nonplussed, “Err… alright…”
The black harpy had a wily head of hair that frizzed in every direction. Instead of the skimpy black leather adorning her sisters, she wore a set of white robes typically used by healers. A pair of round-rimmed, cracked glasses hid her red eyes.
“So, what exactly are you planning on doing to her…?” Aaron asked her as she stumbled over to the other end of the tent like she was a drunken dancer.
“Ooh…. nothin’ much. That potion I gave her will close up the hole in her back and lung soon enough… and after I give her a special herbal serum, her anemia will be gone in a few days.” the ditsy bird explained, taking out a stupidly large mallet from the pile of junk in the corner of her tent, “She’s lucky hellhounds are born so tough. She would’ve been a goner if she were a human…” she said, pulling something out of the junk pile.
“A-alright, but whats…”
The harpies talons clacked against the ground as she held a hammer with a head as thick as her torso. She stumbled back and forth as she reared it over above her, “Whats what?”
“That huge fuckin’ hammer for…”
“This?” she muttered, swaying back and forth as she finally stopped at a small table. Slamming it down, she smashed the furniture into pieces, sending Aaron recoiling back in shock.
“…to get my lunch.” she answered, tossing the mallet to the side and reaching into the wreckage of the table, picking up a wing-full of cracked walnuts, “My nutcracker is broken, you see. First step to being a great doctor is learning how to improvise.”
An obviously forced grin made it’s way to Aaron’s face. Scooting back towards the tepee’s entrance, he forked a thumb over his shoulder and towards the outside, “I’ll… I’ll be right back, Doc.”
Stomping out of the tent, Aaron marched right towards Kiera. Patiently waiting for him beside Harvey’s tent, she gingerly stroked a cow’s snout as she watched the human approach.
“So, ready to find that treasure?” she asked, a spark of eagerness in her amber eyes.
Aaron’s lips curled into a frown, “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I leave Val with that quack.”
“Quack? I’m a raven, Mr. Axenus, not a duck.”
Aaron’s blood ran cold as Doc appeared behind him without making a sound.
The harpy adjusted her cracked glasses, her demeanor shifting a hundred and eighty degrees, “I don’t appreciate outsiders questioning my medical expertise.”
“Outsider? What happened to all that ‘new brother’ crap?” Aaron shot back.
“Oh, no. You’ve made it abundantly clear you want nothing to do with our tribe. But that’s perfectly fine by me… as long as you help Kiera find the treasure, I’ll still patch up the hellhound, and you’ll still get your precious little crown. After that, we’ll part ways and won’t look back. But until then, you’re going to treat me with all the due respect someone who saving your friend’s life deserves. Do I make myself clear?”
“C-crystal…” Aaron squeaked, knocked thoroughly down a peg or two.
“Great! Thank youuuu~” she laughed, returning to her scatterbrained self and clumsily skipping back towards her tent.
The shivering Aaron turned to Kiera, “What… what the hell is up with her?”
“Doc? Yeah, shes a bit… eccentric. But trust me, shes a top notch medic. She’s saved my skin more times than I can count.”
“Alright, I guess if you’re putting stock in me, I might as well extend the courtesy to your little doctor friend…” Aaron grumbled, turning back towards the tent, “Just let me go grab my sword and say bye to Val, and I’ll be ready to go.”
“Alright, don’t take to long~” Kiera cheered as she tried to hide her growing impatience, returning to petting the cow before her.
Returning to the teepee, Aaron found Doc laying on her belly, kicking her talons in the air as she sketched out a rather impressively detailed picture of a flower.
“Mind if I say goodbye to Val before I leave, Doc?”
Doc popped her pen into her mouth, lightly chewing on it in thought, “Hrm… normally, I would never allow someone to wake a patient who needs their rest, but… since there’s a good chance you’re going to die, I’ll allow it~”
Aaron looked unamused, “Please, no more glowing compliments… you’ll make me blush…”
Walking past Doc, he plopped down next to Valerie, shaking her awake. With a final soft snore, she peaked her eyes open and beamed up at him.
“Hi, Val…” Aaron smiled back, ignoring her humiliating pet name and filled with relief that she was fast on the road to recovery.
“Doc, can you give Aaron and I some alone time here…?” the hellhound asked the harpy.
Doc flipped to her feet, kicking up her sketchpad and pen and catching them under one wing, “Alright, just be gentle with her, big boy. Her wounds are still closing up, so if you-”
“We’re not going to have sex, you moron!” Aaron barked.
“Fine, jeez~ no need to be so moody about it…” Doc heaved, stepping out from her tent.
From the doctor’s previous comment, Aaron braced himself for a cheeky remark from Valerie, but it never came. Instead, she asked him a question, sounding just as somber and serious as she was when she told him about she lost her mother.
“Do you have to help this White Lion chick go get this crown thing?”
“Of course I do. Not only are we paying the Ravens back for healing you up, but the crown could be just the edge I need to defeat Lucero.”
Sniffling, Valerie wiped the moisture from her eyes, “Why… why couldn’t I have been a fighter like my mom? Then I wouldn’t be just sitting here while you put yourself in danger…”
“Hold up, Val. What are you talking about?”
“I’m… I’m not a warrior like you, Aaron. I act all tough like other hellhounds, but… I… I hate hurting other people.”
“Really? You seem to be a pretty good fighter for a pacifist… you totally slaughtered those legionaries back in Tellum.”
“Whenever I have to fight someone… I just imagine they’re trying to hurt all my friends back in my tribe. That helps me through it.” she whimpered, her ears folding back in shame.
“Val… don’t worry. I can’t defeat Lucero without you, but I’ll still make it back with the Astral Crown in one piece. I swear.”
The hellhound slipped one paw out from under her blanket, sticking out her little finger, “Pinky promise?”
Aaron chuckled, locking his own with Val’s, shaking them up and down, “Promise. Just don’t get into any trouble while I’m away, alright Val?”
“No promises~” she laughed rather weakly as they separated.
Picking up his claymore from the side of the teepee, Aaron waltzed towards the exit, “See you soon, Val.”
Valerie sadly waggled her fingers back and forth as he waved goodbye, watching her babe set off while she had no choice but to lie and rot in bed.
What she didn’t tell him was back in Tellum, her friends from her tribe couldn’t have been further from her mind. What drove her to kill those soldiers was the fear of what’d they do to Aaron if she hadn’t beat them.
With the pain of the hole in her back and lung paling in comparison to the aching in her heart, Valerie let out a small whine and tucked herself under her woolen blanket.
Across a vast stretch of green plains, an ancient temple had been erected upon a hill long ago. While the city around it had long since crumbled away, the temple had been kept in pristine condition.
It was squared in shape, a large glass dome curving atop the roof. A series of marble pillars stood in pairs all along the perimeter, stopping the structure from collapsing under it’s own weight.
Halfway up the short set of steps leading to the temple, a man in a set of traditional black robes sat. He was a matured gentleman with sharp features and fine hair that had turned silvery-gray from age. Reading from a scroll across his lap, he peaked up only when he saw another fellow in gray robes approaching with nothing but a rucksack on his back.
“You must be the new monk from Anhelm… Xaiver, right?” the man said, rolling his scroll up and tucking it away.
They met between two statues of a gorgeous goddess, both pictured clutching stalks of grain to their hearts in a mirror of the same pose. ‘Lysithea, the second daughter of Ganymede and Goddess of Bounty’ read the inscriptions chiseled at the foot of each.
“I am.” said the monk in gray.
“Good to meet you. I’m Father Gregorio.”
The men reached out from under their robes, clasping their palms together in a handshake.
“You have rather calloused hands for someone who was studying to be a scholar, Xaiver…” Gregorio immediately noted as they pulled away.
“Hehehe… well, I like to keep in shape. Body and mind go hand and hand, you know?”
Peaking under the monk’s hood, the priest’s face immediately twisted into a frown at what he saw. A man with iron-gray hair and eyes an icy-blue. Nothing to outwardly suggest he wasn’t who he claimed to be, and yet…
“Say, what part of Anhelm did you say you were from again?’
“Oh… you know… the south…”
“But I thought you said you were from northern Anhelm in your letters?”
“O-oh… you know, the south… of the northern section?”
An awkward silence hung between the two holy men.
“Well, forgive my suspicions… I didn’t want to accept any recruits lately, but Bishop Arthur saw great potential in you. There has been someone lurking around the temple lately, you see, and I’d like to catch whoever it is before we take care of anything else.”
“Is that right?’ the iron-haired monk asked, already knowing who it was. In fact, she was the whole reason he was there.
The priest folded his arms into his sleeves, “It most certainly is…”
Aaron frowned from under his hood. This Gregorio bastard had definitely smelled something fishy about him, and his little muck-up about what area the man he was masquerading as hailed from only seemed to add fuel to that fire.
“Alright then… let me ask you another question, Xaiver. What teacher did you say you studied under again?”
A bird’s egg fell from the sky, splattering against Gregorio’s head and coating him in sticky, undeveloped embryo.
“Urgh. What in the world was that?” groaned the priest, wiping the milky fluid from his disgusted face.
While the priest was distracted, Aaron looked over his shoulder, spotting Kiera perched in a tree some distance away.
‘Good, shes still hanging around. If this guy figures me out, the mission will be a bust, but at least Kiera can bail me out.‘
In one claw, she clutched what he assumed to be a birds egg. Shooting him a thumbs up and wide grin, he could only return a small nod of approval before giving his focus back to Gregorio.
“I think it was an egg, sir.”
“An egg? What would a bird be carrying it’s egg around for?” growled Gregorio, looking up at the sky for the culprit.
“P-perhaps it’s nest was damaged or in danger?”
Gregorio looked like he didn’t buy that. But seeing no immediate explanation, he brushed the sticky eggshell off his shoulder and went on, “Must be. Anyway, back to the matter at hand-”
Keira had used an underhanded throw that caused the egg to fly in an arc before splattering against the top of his head once more.
A grimace appeared on Aaron’s face. Sure, he didn’t want to be grilled by the priest, but he’d be even more suspicious if he was continually pelted by eggs every time he presented Aaron with a question. Looking back towards Kiera, he shook his head from side to side and waved both hands in the air in an attempt to signal for her to stop.
The griffon nodded back at him. Aaron’s grimace only crinkled even further as he saw a blue jay land atop the griffon’s head, angrily pecking at the monster to avenge her unborn children. While Kiera had enough discipline to stifle her scream, she still fell backwards into the shrubbery underneath the tree.
Fortunately for Aaron, Gregorio was still crouched over rubbing the yolk from his hair, so he didn’t see the impact. But hearing it in the distance, he look back only to find the angry blue jay diving into the bushes.
“Uh… I guess that’s it over there?”
Gregorio turned back to Aaron with a nasty frown, “Look, Xaiver, I have no idea whats going on here, but if you think-”
Emerging from the shrubs, Kiera flicked the bird away and hurled the remainder of the eggs at Gregorio, coating his whole back with yolk and fragments of eggshell before diving back into cover.
“J-just get inside the temple… Vincent will show you to your room… we’ll discuss this later.” Gregorio snarled, trying his damnedest not to loose his temper.
“Yes sir…” Aaron meekly muttered, scampering inside the temple before the situation went any further south.
Vincent was a nice enough fellow. Shaved head, tall, and slender with eyes that seemed to be fixed into a permanent squint. The monk led Aaron down the long marble hallways of the temple. Rounding two sharp corners, Vincent pointed him to a rather spartan room. A straw mat and pillow with a wool blanket for sleeping, and plain wooden desk and chair for studying. Hanging on the wall before that desk was a crimson banner with the likeness of a golden hawk stitched on.
“Take some time to settle in… but not too long, mind you. Bishop Arthur would like to have a word with you in the garden.” Vincent said, lingering in the doorway.
“I’ll be there.” replied Aaron, the bed frame creaking as he took a seat on the mattress. Pleased with his response, Vincent closed the door and went about his own business, leaving Aaron staring vitriolically at the Legion banner across from him.
He dumped out the contents of the rucksack- Xaiver’s rucksack. The monk in training had brought nothing but religious texts and a few sanitary supplies.
A few days prior, Kiera had intercepted a carrier pigeon alerting the bishop of his arrival, snooped on its message, and let it go free. They had ambushed the poor bastard and later hid their supplies in a cave north of Remington while Aaron disguised himself. Putting on Xaiver’s gray monk robes, Kiera hoisted Aaron back to the temple.
‘No wonder she was so eager to get going.’ Aaron thought. If he hadn’t shown up, she would’ve had no choice but to put one of her tribe’s men in harm’s way. While Aaron wasn’t exactly silver-tongued, none of Raven’s husbands looked like they could handle what borderline insanity he was tackling.
Turning over a book on how to properly prepare bovines for sacrifice, Aaron found two stones, the only two things of his own aside from his niece’s seashell necklace he had brought with him.
Clutching the warm little red nugget and charcoal-like chunk, Aaron briefly thought back to when Kiera had bestowed them.
“Here, take this.” she said, stepping out from their hideout. She handed him a small red stone, “Be careful not to break it… well, until you need to, that is.”
“What is it?” an awed Aaron asked, turning the thing over for examination. It was about the size of his thumb, and had a coarse, bumpy surface. A soft amber glow seemed to emanate from it’s core. Running his finger over it’s various natural crevices and rivets, he felt a soft warmth pouring out from within.
Although he remained relatively calm, his widened eyes and the bead of sweat falling from his forehead betrayed his nervousness. Aaron ceased fingering the stone and gingerly tucked it away, “Alrighty then. I’ll be sure to save it for an emergency…”
“Don’t worry about it. The thing won’t ignite unless you spark it against this.” she handed him another stone. At first glance, it appeared to be nothing but a large lump of charcoal. However, upon closer inspection, Aaron found it was far too dense and smooth to be so.
“After that, you have two minutes before it detonates. You’ll want to keep a good distance away from the blast.”
“Oh, really? I thought I was supposed to hug it close to my chest…”
“Hehehe. But seriously, don’t let it get damaged before then. It won’t ignite unless sparked against that specific stone I gave you, it’ll still set you on fire if it breaks in your pocket.”
“Good to know…”
A series of three clinks broke Aaron’s train of thought.
“Speak of the devil…” the iron-haired man muttered, seeing a familiar head of brown and white peaking at him through his temporary room’s window and a yellow, clawed finger tapping against the glass.
Walking over to open it up, Aaron was more pissed at her little egg stunt than happy she hadn’t just decided to drop him off and let him handle it on his own.
“What the fuck was with that egg shit back there!?” Aaron hissed at her.
“I was just trying to help you get away from that creep.” Kiera hissed right back, “It worked, didn’t it?”
“Well, you got me out of the immediate situation, but now that Gregorio bastard is going to be even more suspicious of me!”
“My talent is exploring ancient ruins, not subterfuge!” she scoffed, unable to stop the embarrassed blush from lighting up her cheeks, “Still, you’re right. It was stupid of me not to see the consequences, and I’ve made your job even harder. I-I’m sorry…”
“Don’t tear yourself up over it. Hopefully, I’ll find the treasure before good ol’ Greg digs up any dirt on me. I figure I’ve still got about two days before my wanted posters are out on the streets. Hopefully, I’ll find the treasure tonight.”
“Well, I’ll keep watching out for you from the sidelines. Good luck, Aaron.”
Basking in the golden rays of the sun filtering through the temple’s skylight was an indoor garden. Filled with all manner of colorful flora, Aaron navigated his way through the wide assortment of flower gardens to reach the very end, where an old man relaxed.
The bishop was resting before an ivy-coated wall was a fountain of a moderate size. At the center was the stone likeness of Lysithea grasping a pot and acting out the motion of pouring it at her feet.
‘Blessed Bounty’ was chiseled into the base of the fountain, each letter squeezed into a similarly sized square set into the stone.
“That’s weird…” Aaron whispered to himself before returning his focus to the elder.
Arthur was a shrunken, hunched man with a wrinkled face and bald head. The pure white robes of a bishop hung loosely off his bony body, and the weight of the golden hawk suspended from his neck seemed to tilt him forward against his will. Aaron was half expecting a strong breeze to roll by, reduce the old fellow to dust, and carry him away to parts unknown.
The bishop sat at a small stone table in a wooden rocker, a silver platter carrying a porcelain tea set standing between the old man and Aaron.
“Ah, Xaiver. I’ve been waiting for you. Come, sit. Have some tea.”
“Thank you, Your Holiness.” Aaron said, feigning a grin. Siting at the stone stool across from Arthur, the young man reached out for the steaming teapot, but his hand was soon quashed by the bishop’s bony fingers.
Arthur wagged a finger at him, “Ah, I don’t think so. I’ll pour the tea.”
Anxiety began creeping through Aaron’s body. Was this some sort of test?
“Your Holiness, you’re my superior. I should be the one pouring.”
The old man chuckled, “No, I insist. Kind of you to offer, but until your official initiation, you’re a guest in my humble little temple here. Please, allow me.”
‘Ah, no test… the old bastards just too damned nice.‘ Aaron inwardly breathed with relief.
While the old man looked like he wouldn’t be able to hold a twig steady, he lifted the teapot and poured each of them a fresh cup of tea with the expert precision of a king’s butler before setting it back down. The glass and silver didn’t so much clink together upon their reunion.
“Father Gregorio… he told me to be wary of you. He senses you are hiding something… he even thinks you might be working with this lurker whose been spotted around the temple in the dead of night as of late.”
“I have nothing to hide, Your Holiness.”
“Yes, I trust you. Your letters to me showed such a love for the gods and country there was no way I could turn you away. Please, you must forgive Gregorio. The man’s been through much in his life. He used to be an inquisitor, you know. But after he was injured in battle, he moved back to his homeland to pursue a career in the priesthood.”
“…and this intruder lurking around the temple at night, he has Gregorio on edge?”
“Indeed.” the old man confirmed, taking a sip of his tea. Rocking back and forth in his chair, he stared up at the skylight above them, “This is a bit off topic, but do you know why this garden was built?”
“I’m not aware, sir.” the undercover swordsman responded, taking a sip of his own tea, finding the blend surprisingly smooth and pleasantly flavored.
“It was… well, only Ganymede knows. Back when monsters still freely roamed Coelum, back when they still took the form of beasts rather than seductresses… the city surrounding this temple was under attack by a ferocious dragon.”
“Is that true?”
“If the legends are to be believed, then yes. You see, the dragon was a vicious thing… it black as pitch, it was as gargantuan as a whale, but zipped across the sky like a falcon, breathing flames as blazing hot as the sun down on the city.”
“Sounds horrible.” Aaron said between sips of his tea.
“Oh, it was. The survivors of its attack were able to pile into this temple, and prayed to the gods to save them. The gods answered their prayers, and blessed them with a skylight that deflected all forms of attack. Now, they could grow their crops indoors while the dragon just worthlessly spat fire at them until Sir George came and felled the big brute.”
“So… that skylight is reinforced with magic?” Aaron asked, setting his teacup back down and looking up towards the glass dome in question, “But couldn’t the dragon have just smashed through the wall?”
Although some zealots who serve under the Legion might have considered that little inquiry treasonous, Arthur only chuckled jovially, “Maybe. But there are holes in every tale, aren’t there? There might be some details lost to time.”
“But I digress. Do you get the meaning of the story? The skylight above us reflects the faith of the righteous; it’s unbreakable, even through constant stress. Do you understand? Gregorio is simply following that philosophy to a fault. He’d go to any lengths to prevent heretics from besmirching the name of the gods.”
“Yes, Your Holiness. I think I understand.”
“Good. I’m glad we’ve had the discussion, Xaiver. I’m looking forward to teaching such a bright young mind such as you…”
Luckily for him, the old man was kind and trusting. Taking his leave, Aaron almost felt a pang of guilt for taking advantage of that.
“No, this is defiantly the largest statue in the temple…”
Walking around the perimeter of the ancient structure, Aaron took mental note of each statue of Lysithea he came across. Searching high and low, the one set in a cavity in the wall near the back was the largest by a small margin, standing at just above one and a half meters.
“Oh hello, Xaiver. What are you up to?”
It was Father Gregorio.
“N-nothing, father. I was just admiring the craftsmanship of this statue.”
“Ah, a connoisseur of the fine arts, eh?”
“I’d like to think so, sir.”
Gregorio only smiled, and frankly, that unsettled Aaron even more.
“Come outside for a moment, Aaron. I’d like to have a word with you in private.”
Aaron apprehensively followed Gregorio outside the temple. The priest walked over to a toppled tree, taking a seat atop it. Before the setting sun, the holy man’s analytical glare was masked by shadow.
“So, how was your chat with Bishop Arthur?”
“It was nice. He’s a very pleasant man.” Aaron responded. Looking over the priest’s shoulder, he found Kiera squatting in a tree some distance away, shooting him a thumbs up of encouragement.
“He is, isn’t he? Kind and selfless, but trusting to a fault, I’d say.”
“I didn’t get that impression. Any other questions, father? I’d like to look around the temple a bit more, if that’s alright…”
“I see. Don’t fret, I understand completely. I was so entranced by it’s beauty when I first came here as well… I still am. But before you go, I’d like to pose you a question.”
“Of course, father.” Aaron responded, having the sinking feeling that the thin ice he was treading on when dealing with the priest was inevitably starting to crack.
“I found this not too long ago…” trailing off, Gregorio reached into his robes, fishing around for something. After his brief search, he pulled out a ginormous brown feather. Far too large for any bird that roamed the modern skies, Aaron instantly recognized who it belonged to.
He passed a brief glance at Keira. Even though she was some distant away, it was clear her face was lit up in humiliation.
“It appears to be an eagle’s, but it’s far too large. A feather this size… what sort of creature do you suppose it could’ve come from?”
“A… a monster, father.”
“Yes. The only logical conclusion…” Gregorio said, holding the feather up into the setting sun’s rays. Twirling it around and around, he scrutinized it like it was a book with all the answers to life’s most puzzling questions.
“A griffon, I’d say.”
While Aaron managed to hide any noticeable outwards reaction, he could still feel his heart thumping against his chest in terror. Kiera froze in her tree branch, looking like she was deciding whether or not to spring out and attack.
“How can you be so certain, father?” he asked, wondering if Gregorio knew about the griffon watching them in the distance.
“Too large to be a harpy’s. Any other species of monster with feathers this size have distinct shapes and colors, but this one so closely resembles an eagle’s it couldn’t be anything but a griffon’s.”
“You… you certainly know a lot about monsters, father.”
Hopping to his feet, Gregorio began circling Aaron like a starving wolf bearing down on a lost lamb, “Well, I’m a retired inquisitor. I spent many years learning the physiology of monsters in order to know my enemy… but monsters weren’t the only ones I hunted down.”
“Enemies of the Legion… heretics who would lie with beasts and conspire against our holy empire…”
“Forgive me for making wild accusations like this, but please try to put yourself in my shoes. I’ve seen a shadowy figure lurking about lately… then a monster’s feather! And now you, the newcomer, haven’t been the most straightforward individual. Haven’t you? No, you’re hiding something, I’m sure of it. I may not know what it is, I may not have any evidence to back this accusation up, but… I’ve dealt with enough heretics to smell a filthy rat.”
Gregorio sunk his fingers into Aaron’s shoulders, and the young man seized up and went rigid as a board on reaction.
“But like I said, I have no proof to backup my suspicions, so for now, you’re free to go. Just remember- I’ve got my eyes on you, Xaiver.”