“Beautiful day for monster huntin',” Alexis said. His oily beard shined nearly as bright as his sword did from the sunlight.
Orion playfully elbowed Alexis. “Aye. It'll be a good harvest!” The two men were high off the memory of killing an Erdos—a dangerous monster—the year before. The bones they sold earned them enough coin to last several lifetimes, but they had spent it all in a year. However, they had been tracking another Erdos for some time.
They wandered through a small village, the last place that had any sighting of the monster, with their hands clasped together in healthy unity. There weren't houses around as much as shacks, which were little more than wood and thatch.
Alexis waved to a stranger as if he were a celebrity. “That beasty last year stood no chance. The wet, slow thing. It was basically ooze with a face and bones.”
“You mean a face and money!” Orion corrected and gave an obnoxiously loud belly laugh.
“Quite right! Hopefully, this next creature is more of a challenge.” They followed the smell of freshly grilled meats to a stand where a few locals loitered. They passed the merchant a few drachmae more than was necessary and began to consume the food as if they had never eaten around polite company.
“Aye, merchant,” Orion said with a mouthful of pork. “Have you any news of the Erdos that was spotted near here?”
The merchant and a few bystanders stopped what they were doing and stared at him, wide-eyed. Alexis, however, drowned out the silence with his open-mouth chews.
“E-Erdos?” the merchant stuttered, putting a hand over his mouth. “Not since our hunting party went out two nights ago. They went north into the forest and haven't returned.”
Alexis and Orion looked at each other and nodded. “That's good enough for me,” Alexis said. They put their half-eaten meats on the stall next to the yet-to-be-sold products and walked away. “North it is.”
“Wait!” the merchant called out. “Don’t you want to know more about it?”
Orion turned and winked. “We like surprises.” The small town that housed maybe a hundred people shrunk behind them as they confidently walked towards the treeline to the north. The grass shook off the morning dew and dried.
Orion took out his solar pistol and examined it. It held an acceptable amount of charge. The sleek, dark steel plating had lines of hard glass meant to capture the sunlight.
“You thinkin' you're actually goin' to use that?”
Orion laughed a little. “Maybe. It depends on if things get crazy enough. You know how expensive this thing is. It cost most of my share of the bones from last time. Using it would be a double-edged sword. The more I fire it, the more it wears down. It's a novelty and a last resort.”
“Oh, come on. I've been so excited to see one of them in action. The world is gettin' crazy. What's next? Solar lights indoors?”
Orion considered that for a moment. They went off the dirt trail in the direction of the woods, with some rolling hills along the way. “I'm fairly sure you can't have solar light indoors.”
Alexis gathered his spit together in his mouth and lodged it a dozen feet away. “You know what's always reliable and cheap enough to replace? This trusty sword and shield! You just can't beat it. If it ain't broke, don't replace it.”
“I don’t think that’s the saying,” Orion said.
“Maybe not, but it’s better.”
“It's better when you say it.” Orion leaned over and kissed Alexis's cheek. They stopped a dozen feet from the treeline.
“Oh, now, don't start what you can't finish,” Alexis said and pulled Orion in by the hips. Just before their lips touched, a monstrous sound came from the nearby trees, and they readied their weapons. “Ready!” Alexis pulled up his shield and sword, and Orion brought out a knife in each hand.
After a moment, a bear came dashing at them. Orion giggled. “That's disappointing. Just a bear. Here, quick.” With both hands working in tandem, he carved a glyph into the dirt with the knives. It was a marvelous feat of coordination as each hand was able to scribble precise marks at once. It took only a couple of seconds, after which he cut his hand and pushed a small Erdos bone into the glyph. His blood absorbed into the intricate lines, and the bone slightly shrunk, having had some of its magic drained.
“Ah! Thank you!” Alexis poked his finger into the shining glyph, and the brightness of it faded as the magic worked its way into him.
Originating from his finger, his skin gradually turned into stone. The bear ran up to him and went in for a bite, but Alexis smacked it away with his shield. The bear's claws scraped wildly at him. He could brush off some attacks with his shield, and the others made little to no impact on his stone skin.
Orion hopped on the bear’s back and stabbed it with his knives as Alexis slashed at it with his sword. It didn’t take long before the bear slumped down onto its side in a bloody mess. “Poor thing,” Orion said. “It shouldn’t have come across us.”
Alexis examined the creature. “Looksee here. Burn marks.” His hand ran along some skin patches that had missing fur, crusted with flaky skin. “Looks fresh. Think we're close?”
“I hope so.” Orion smiled devilishly. “Let’s press on.” Alexis’ skin slowly turned back into flesh as the glyph lost power over time.
The forest blocked out the sky above them. Neither birds nor insects sang their mating songs, and there was an eerie lack of wind. The wet bushes and low-hanging branches caused the air to be heavy with humidity.
They walked for several miles in silence without a trace of the Erdos. “This is gettin' frustrating,” Alexis said. He wiped some sweat from his forehead, but the dirt from his hands replaced it.
“I know something that can make you feel better.” Orion winked.
“Right here?” Alexis asked with excitement in his voice. Orion nodded, and Alexis pinned him against a tree trunk. They kissed like they were teenagers who had snuck off from their parent's houses.
While their skin is not soft, it is a stark contrast against the rough bark. If the wildlife would be quiet with their mating calls, Alexis and Orion would fill the silence.
Out of Alexis's peripheral vision, dozens of feet away, human bodies were sprawled out on the ground. “Wait, look!” Orion, with an irritated expression on his face, turned to see. There were four bodies. Alexis walked closer, keeping an eye out for any dangers.
Two were burned beyond recognition, one was half-crushed under a boulder, and one looked as though it had been pierced through with a spear a foot in diameter. The foliage around the four bodies was withered, and there was a clear path of destruction and fading embers that led away.
“Looks like a fire Erdos,” Orion said. “And judging from the knocked down trees over there, it's a big one.”
Alexis knelt next to the body with a hole through its abdomen. “Maybe it has claws, too. This one's clearly more dangerous than the slimy thing we fought before.”
“Having second thoughts?” Orion teased.
“Hell no. Let's follow the path it oh-so-kindly made for us.” Orion brought out his pistol and nodded.
They tracked for another mile and came across several mutilated animals. The further into the forest they went, the more potent the smell of burnt meat was.
Eventually, they saw it—the Erdos. It had its back turned and sat on the mossy ground. Dead deer lay slain around it, with one in its hand as it took massive bites out of it. Even while it was sitting, it was a dozen feet tall.
Its skin radiated in a thin layer of flame. There were horns on its head, and it was bipedal. It had two wings on its back, but they didn't look like they were for flying; they were more like flippers for swimming.
Orion and Alexis put a hand on the tattoos on their shoulders. The glyph of the god they both worship: Andreas. “You ready?” Orion whispered as he aimed his solar pistol.
“Do it,” Alexis whispered back.
Orion pulled the trigger, and a bright light flashed from the muzzle. A high-pitched noise echoed faintly through the trees. A concentrated, red-hot ball of light shot out and struck the Erdos in the back of the head. A puff of steam rose from the point of impact, but it didn't seem to affect the monster. It stopped eating and turned to face them. The thing's red eyes were piercing.
“Shit,” Orion said. The Erdos clambered onto all fours before standing upright, showing them how tall it was. Without counting the horns, it must have stood twenty-five feet. It threw the deer carcass further into the woods and roared. Smoke poured out of its mouth as it yelled, and nearby leaves crumpled up and withered.
All of the confidence drained from their faces, as did the color. “Run!” they both yelled as they turned and dashed away. Trees blurred past as they leaped over fallen tree trunks. The ground shook. They glanced behind them to see the Erdos effortlessly knocking down trees and gaining ground on them.
“There! The hill!” Orion pointed at a sharp decline. They jumped down and began to slide, using their hands to dodge out of the way of trees. An explosion destroyed a tree to their left and sent bark splintering off in every direction. The Erdos stood throwing balls of fire from the hill's crest.
More flame came for them as they slid down the hill, and Alexis put up his shield and braced himself. The ball impacted him and sent him flying further down out of control.
“Alexis!” Orion yelled.
Alexis stopped at the bottom of the hill, but not before hitting several trees on the way down. His ribs were damaged, his arm fractured, and his legs left him in no condition to keep running. Orion quickly slid down and stopped by his side. “Orion, run,” Alexis said weakly.
“No. Not without you.” Orion took out a knife and Erdos bone and began drawing a large glyph on the ground. After he finished, he stabbed the bone into the dirt and cut open his hand, which bled onto the glyph. It lit up, and a shallow pool of blue magic, which had the consistency of thick fog, filled the glyph’s area.
The ground shook again as the Erdos started to slide down the hill after them, leaving a trail of flames. Orion scooped up some of the foggy magic in his hands and threw it at the monster. The blue material homed in on the Erdos and struck it with enough force that it grunted in pain.
Orion scooped up and threw these balls of magic as quickly as he could, striking the Erdos, but it could not be stopped. It jumped from the hill using its momentum to land behind the two men and lifted its mighty hand against Alexis, who helplessly laid on the ground. Alexis lifted his sword as the Erdos slammed him with its fist.
“No!” Orion screamed. Blood painted the trees that surrounded them, and Alexis's blade stuck out of the back of the creature's hand.
Orion's face dripped with his lover's blood. Even after being stabbed and blasted with numerous missiles from magic, the Erdos stood tall and imposing. The lips that were barely seen under the layer of flame curled into a grin, and the fire across its body covered any signs of damage.
Orion dropped his knife and drooped his shoulders, defeated, and knelt down. The dirt beneath his hands was unnaturally warm.
The Erdos bent over and grabbed Orion. The thin veil of flames over its skin slowly crawled over to Orion, and he screamed. The last thing he saw was the inside of a flaming mouth.
“Andreas, I'm sorry to hear about those two followers of yours. Destroyed by an Erdos. Poor things,” Odessa said. Her long dress, lined with the bones of slain Erdos, blew in the breeze that came through the castle's balcony window. The railing, floor, and walls were soft marble that was made darker by twilight. A suite fit for a god.
Andreas sat on a throne, buffing a set of steel armor. The fine cloth he wore strained against his arms. His luscious blonde hair was pulled from his face with a band lined with diamonds. The cut of his chin could scratch granite. “Tis' unfortunate. They were great warriors, truly representative of my ideals. However, they shall enjoy a wonderful afterlife here. I may even go down to meet them.”
“You should. It would set a great example of your chivalry, my love,” Odessa said. She closed her eyes, and her vision went elsewhere. “The monstrosity is near to the small town. No doubt it will wipe them all out.”
“Pity,” Andreas said as he admired the sword on his hip. Glyphs that no mortal will ever know lined its perfect steel. He traced his finger over them lovingly.
“Yes, pity. Shall I have a servant fetch us some wine, my love?”