"Hello, hello!" Leo waved his hand then drew back when all eyes fell upon him.
"What are you doing here?" Alina said.
Leo rattled off a nervous chuckle. "Well, uh . . . I have no place to go m'lady. You saved me from those thieves. My life is in your debt." He bowed but his belly stopped him halfway. "I request to join your party."
Alina rolled her eyes. "Your dramatics are not endearing. You do not owe me anything. Go home."
"Aww have pity on the poor boy, luv. If you get hungry for a snack, there's plenty of him to keep you full."
Leo raised his finger. "I, I didn't quite agree to that." He clambered to his feet and smoothed out the wrinkles of his fine robes. "I know I can't fight, but I can still help. I can cook, I can buy provisions, and I can find us shelter. A group, no matter how skilled, cannot function without supplies."
Alina uncoiled her legs till her leather armor groaned. She stood over the boy and gently squeezed his shoulder. "It wouldn't be safe if you came with me. You would be in danger--" She looked away from his innocent eyes. "--but not from bandits."
Daciana slapped Alina's back and nearly burped her. "You're a monster, luv."
Alina growled like a lion. Her narrowed eyes followed the little assistant who skipped past Ciprian and tugged on his sleeve.
"Ciprian says we need to go," Daciana said.
The group of three started their march to the town square. Leo stared at them, alone, and his eyes began to glisten. He grabbed Alina's hand and pulled her fingers like a child, begging her to stay.
"Please!" Tears rolled down his cheeks, his face a contorted mess of desperation. "I am all alone here. I have no one. I will do anything to help you!" He buried his face into her hand, the leather grew dark with moisture.
She stared at the boy and saw a flash of a memory. She was on her knees begging her father to let her accompany him on a hunt. "No," he would say. "Hunting is for lads. You run along and help your mother with supper." His words made her so angry that she snatched her father's sword and ran off into the forest to hide it.
"Save your tears," she said to Leo. "You can come with us."
He looked up at her with a smile that spread from cheek to cheek. "Really? Oh thank you, thank you! I promise I won't be a burden."
"You'd better or I'll leave you here in Warakiva."
The village of Warakiva was not a village at all. The group had been in the outskirts of what was known as the City of Bridges. The city was lined with massive, gothic towers that were interconnected by ivory bridges and pristine aqueducts. The water flowed through the veins of the city and passed through homes, water mills, bath houses, serving as both sustenance and sanitation.
"Did you know Ciprian has been here many times?"
Alina turned to Daciana. "And what does he think of it?"
Daciana turned to the mage, listening to sounds that weren't there.
"He says that on nights when the moon is full, you could see it sitting low in the sky as if it were sitting on one of the bridges. He says, it reminds him of a painting, especially when the stone towers were made black by the moonlight. But the city is corrupt."
"Look to the statues and artwork."
A statue of a bare chested woman that had a worm's body for legs had caught Alina's gaze. Her hair was a tangle of snakes staring back at Alina. Her face was sculpted to be reptilian with scaly skin and razor sharp teeth to cut flesh.
At the center of town was a magnificent chapel that reached out to touch the heavens with its gothic spires. The massive doors creaked open and sent echoes down the aisle of the chapel. As they walked past the thousands of wooden pews lining the sides, Alina saw a stream of color shine down on the floor. She followed the light to the stained glass windows and caught her breath at the horror she saw before her. Instead of images of angels and saints, there were demons biting into the flesh of naked men and women.
"I've not seen a holy place like this before," Daciana said.
"I'm not so sure it is holy," Alina replied.
Leo chewed on his fingers until a nail came loose. "Let's not overstay our welcome."
At the end of the chapel was a man in cloth standing beneath an iron cross. His skin sagged from his cheeks and his eyes were so hollow that they seemed like empty sockets. Strands of lone white hairs sat atop his spotted, balding head. He cackled and revealed yellow, rotting teeth. Alina could barely stand to look at him.
"To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Daciana stepped in front of the group. "Are you the healer?"
The man spread out his arms like an eagle. "I am . . . a priest."
Ciprian walked up the steps to the altar and dropped a leather pouch into the man's hand. His elongated finger nails unraveled the thin binding and his bushy eyebrows danced with greedy curiosity. When the light of gold caught his eye, the man's demeanor changed.
"I am the healer. What ailment do you seek cured?"