Chapter 1: The Stranger in Black

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Paleland – the Kingdom of Sand, as it was known by those with a more poetic inclination – was a great and mighty kingdom. Across the continent, its dominance was unquestioned. Of the known nations it was by far the greatest, and no other would have dared strike against it, for fear of a swift and terrible retribution.

Yet when you looked at the small village that stood near its edge, all that became easy to forget. Even its unofficial title did not hold true, here – the land was a rolling landscape of green, not a grain of sand anywhere in sight. And the village itself was merely a small spattering of wooden houses and a few other buildings on a patch of grass, not a single thing projecting the sort of might Paleland was known for. The country itself may have been powerful beyond questioning – but this village was nothing more than a simple village, like any other.

Jacob the blacksmith took a look out of his workshop, sweat pouring down his forehead. He was still only a novice, and as much as he knew he shouldn’t, he couldn’t help getting distracted. The work was hard and his muscles constantly strained as he pounded away at the metal – it was all too tempting to, if only for a moment, take a break and just look around at the bustle surrounding him.

Though he knew it was unprofessional, he stopped his hammering for just a moment and glanced around at the people walking down the street. A woman talked to a man, who looked annoyed. In the distance, a merchant peddled his wares – none too expertly, judging by the lack of patrons. From the other direction a gaggle of travelers or something similar approached, dressed in some odd, identical outfits.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Jacob suppressed a sigh. He couldn’t help wishing that, for once, something interesting would happen. Something great, exciting, adventurous. He’d often heard stories and poems of simple farmhands and laborers discovering they had some hidden destiny they had to meet, or some heritage they had to reclaim. Why couldn’t he be one of them?

Or failing that, he would’ve at least settled for some wandering minstrel or troupe to stop here. Really, he just wished for something to break the monotony that always settled like a mist around this tiny town. The only interesting person in the whole hamlet was that tavern owner, Regina, who always seemed to have some exciting stories of intrigue and conflict to tell – and would never tell anyone how she came upon all those tales. An air of mystery had gathered around her over the years, no one quite knowing where she came from or what she truly was.

But even that got monotonous after a while, and though Jacob still appreciated her, he couldn’t help but wish for something… more. Hearing about all those things she told of was one thing, but he couldn’t help but want for some of them to come to his doorst-

Something caught Jacob’s eye, and he glanced upwards.

A man in black, robe and hood covering his features, slinked through the crowd with the lithe agility of a snake. He stood shorter than most of the people around him, and though they turned their heads and looked and some approached, he moved past them with an easy grace. And he moved oddly nervously, oddly furtively – as if he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to. As if he didn’t want to get caught.

Jacob’s eyes widened. Men in black weren’t uncommon – members of the Inquisition always wore black, after all – but this person didn’t have the symbol on his breast. He wasn’t an Inquisitor.

He’d heard some gossip, a while ago, of such a man passing through. Nothing more than little snippets, and he’d dismissed them as nothing more than hyperactive imagination – but here he was. The stranger in black.

Here, he thought, was the adventure he’d always wanted. But the stranger passed by him without a word or even a gesture, and slithered onwards through the crowd.

The tavern door opened. A man came in, his face obscured by a black hood, his features concealed by a black cloak. Black gloves covered his hands, and his feet were set in black shoes. He looked like a shadow creeping into the tavern, a creature of the night making his way into the building.

All eyes turned to him at once, of course, and the animated conversation that resonated through the room was replaced by a low muttering. The man had been here once before, the patrons agreed on that (or was it twice?), but as they talked amongst themselves, they found they couldn’t agree on much else. Some claimed he was a messenger from the Great Powers – from the gods that had created this world. Some thought he was a harbinger of doom, an omen of some horrific disaster that would befall the town. Some said those stories were all stupid, and that he was most likely just some wanderer or something like that.

But all of them spoke of him in hushed tones. They remembered what had happened the last time he’d come in. He’d exchanged a few quiet words with Regina, the owner of the tavern, and then they’d disappeared into the back room. No one knew what had happened there, but Regina had come out… different, somehow. She didn’t seem worried, as such, but… a bit shaken. Something shocking had happened. And to the people who’d been here day after day after day and had seen how hard it was to surprise Regina, that was effectively a miracle.

Regina looked at the stranger, her eyes serious. She beckoned him over, and he approached her. As before, they whispered to each other for a few moments, and then Regina led the stranger away and they went into the back room, out of the patrons’ sight.

For another few moments, the patrons’ eyes were all locked on the closed door the two had just disappeared into. Slowly, mutters turned once more to speaking, and low whispers turned to shouting. The tavern came back to life, and all the people inside went back to what they’d been doing before, because the people who lived in this town didn’t really tend to worry too much.

A candle burned on a table, its light painting the room in odd patterns of shadow and brightness. The darkness came and surged and retreated like a living beast, as if it was engaged in a mortal battle against the light.

“So,” Regina said, “you’re back.”

“Yes,” the stranger nodded. He reached for his hood, but Regina held out a hand and he stopped.

“Better not,” she said. “This is as private a place as you’ll get around here, but I still wouldn’t take that risk.”

“Hm,” the stranger murmured in agreement. “Yes. Of course.”

“Then I suppose you’ve made your decision, Azal?” she asked.

“I have,” he said. “It… will not be easy. And I will confess, it is a terrifying proposition. But it is the only way.”

“Mm,” Regina acknowledged with a nod of her head. “Perhaps you’re right, though I wouldn’t be so hasty to act, myself. Though… perhaps that just speaks to my lack of courage.”

“No,” the stranger – Azal – replied. “It is a stupid choice. Even I see that much. But it is the only choice.”

“Not for you,” she pointed out. “You could always flee. It wouldn’t be difficult – you managed to come here, after all.

“It wouldn’t be hard to vanish, disappear to the ends of the world. No one would look for you, you know. They’d have other things to worry about.”

“And leave the rest of them to face their fate?” Azal asked. “You know I cannot do that.”

Regina looked at him for a few moments, and gave him a tiny, approving nod. “Then you’re a better person than me. I’ll help you however I can.”

She went to a pile of miscellaneous objects on the table, and took a few moments to sort through the items in it. Finally, she found what she was looking for, and with a satisfied nod, she took it and placed it on the tabletop.

Azal looked down upon it curiously. Upon the top of the sheet of parchment, in large letters, was written a single word – “APHAGE”. The name of the continent they were stood on. And underneath…

It was a map. The shape of the continent was drawn onto the parchment, and upon it, twisting lines crisscrossed – the borders of nations. A word was written inside each of them, every single kingdom’s name proudly displayed – Azal could even see the names of the nations that stood on the series of islands near the continent’s northeastern corner.

“A map?” Azal asked. “Where did you get this?” That was not the sort of thing a simple tavern owner should’ve had.

Curiously, he turned to Regina. “You are more than what you appear to be, are you not?”

She nodded. “Though you probably figured that out when this acquaintance of yours you told me about advised you to come to me.”

“Yes,” he admitted. “I had always suspected something.”

For a moment, she hesitated. Then, she took a small breath and said “Let me show you something.”

Azal watched her curiously as she stepped over to the candle and placed a single hand near the naked flame. Her palm was extended towards it, and her eyelids drooped in concentration. “I’m a bit out of practice, but…” she muttered.

Slowly, the flame began to drift away from her hand, as if a gentle current of wind was pushing it away. With a shock, Azal slowly realized that that was exactly what was happening – a gentle current of wind was, in fact, pushing it away.

His breath stilled. “Magic.”

She brought her hand back to her side, and the candle’s flame regained its orientation. With a self-satisfied smile, she turned back to Azal. “Indeed,” she said. “I haven’t used it in a while, but yes. I am a mage.”

Azal’s head tilted to the side, and though Regina couldn’t see his face past the hood, she expected his expression was somewhat suspicious. “Not just anyone can learn that skill,” he said. “You were… you were something greater than this, once.”

“Yes,” she said, simply.

“Then why are you here?” he asked. “You are a mage. You have opportunities the likes of which most never even dream about. Why do… this?”

Regina exhaled. “Last I remember, you weren’t here to hear my life story.”

“…Yes,” Azal admitted after a short pause. “I am not. I apologize.”

“Thank you,” she said. “With that said… would you kindly turn your attention to the map?”

Azal nodded, and looked once more at the map. Regina stepped in close beside him, looking down at it as well.

“What you’re planning, you can’t do alone,” Regina said. “You may think your adversary isn’t halfway as powerful as they make themselves out to be, and you’d be right – but they’re still powerful.”

“I see,” Azal said. “Thank you for your assistance, madam.”

“It’s no problem,” Regina said. “Good luck.”

“Will I be able to count on your help in the future?” Azal asked.

She hesitated for a moment. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “I’m not putting myself in danger, not for your sake. But, that said… I’ll help however I can.”

“Very well,” Azal said, and bowed deeply. “Farewell.” He turned and walked away.

“Hold on,” Regina said, stopping him. “Your hood’s a bit messed up.”

He looked at her, and then reached up to check his hood. Indeed, he seemed to notice some sort of imperfection in the way it was situated, and went to fix it.

As he did, Regina got a glimpse at his face.

The last time she’d seen that face had been the first time he’d visited her. Back then, she’d barely stopped herself from yelling when she’d seen it. Even now, when she knew what to expect, it was a startling sight.

He wasn’t human, that much was clear immediately. His skin was black and leathery, and his eyes… the eyes were big and a brighter green than any human’s. His features evoked the image of a bat more than anything, and what little she could glimpse of his teeth were sharp like a wild beast’s.

It wasn’t quite repulsive to look at. He was hardly pretty, of course, but by itself, that face wouldn’t have been a cause for someone – especially someone like Regina – to nearly scream. No. What was more important was what that face indicated.

She knew what sort of creature had that kind of face. They were called chireans.

And they were a type of demon.

It was with a disillusioned gaze that Azal looked at the houses and manors of the great city of Redgate.

The city was a large thing, all colored in monotone. Around the edges, small, ramshackle buildings clustered, built haphazardly of grey stone, only rodents and the most unfortunate residing within. As one approached the center, the structures slowly grew larger, more formidable, and the people living in them grew more respectable and dignified – but yet, the houses were still just as grey. Only in the very middle of the city was there a splash of any other color – where the greatest of the greatest in Redgate lived, there were towering mansions and towers of some material black as deepest night. And from it all rose a single, enormous tower, its dark walls lined with red and draped with banners, where Baron Amar, the ruler of the city, lived. Between all those things, alleys and squares and streets crisscrossed like a maze, no sense of order to any of it.

Azal knew, to a degree, what humans thought demonic society looked like. They thought all demons worked in unity, each of them like a gear in the machine that wished only to destroy all mortals. If only they knew that in reality, that society looked so, so similar to their own…

Before, the bleak greyness of the stone that made up this entire city had never bothered him. But that had been before he’d visited Verta, the world of the mortals. That place, with its houses of timber and fields of green grass, made the city he now stood in seem… dull. Almost desolate. The only thing Azal could still consider impressive was that tower in the middle, which he still had to admit was imposing. But the rest of it, to him, now merely looked like a depressing sea of grey.

Redgate was the closest major city to the portal onto Verta that Azal had used for his brief journey there. It was where Azal had been born, and where he’d spent the vast majority of his life. It was a large city – after all, there were few portals between the worlds in existence, and so those cities that stood near them tended to hold a certain amount of prestige – but hardly one of the largest. From what Azal knew, it was barely even comparable to, say, Merdrun, the capital of Aead. Though, he didn’t know that for sure. He’d barely even stepped outside Redgate in his life, after all.

But he had always had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and though he’d been confined to this place, he’d devoted himself to learning as much as he could about the world. Demons in particular, of course – he had never paid that much attention to the mortal races, at least until recently. But he’d studied those, too, their conflicts with demonkind in particular.

And what he’d discovered had scared him. The Council – the assembly that governed demonkind – had always claimed Aead to be strong, to be able to easily destroy any mortal nation. But what he’d learned had shown him the lie in that. For all the Council’s bragging, they had proven themselves liars over and over. Of all their numerous military campaigns, the only ones that had met with any success were against the most minor of mortal nations. Those against more major ones always ended the same way – in failure. And the worst part was, they still insisted on executing them, even after they’d failed again and again and again.

Where that road ended was, to Azal, clear. Eventually, the mortals would grow tired of it. They would retaliate, and their vengeance would be swift, merciless and uncaring. If they were lucky, the Council would be overthrown and replaced with a mortal government, and the demons would be left to live under another race’s heel. If they weren’t, the mortals wouldn’t bother with that. They’d just slaughter until there was nothing left to kill.

There was only one way to stop something like that from happening. It wouldn’t be through an increase in military might – no matter how Aead tried, it simply didn’t have the resources to match the major mortal nations. Rather, it would have to be through diplomacy – and if the demons wanted to negotiate, they would have to stop their senseless attacks first. And the Council seemed to have no intention of doing that.

Azal headed off towards the darker part of the city, where he’d met up several times with an associate who had been rather helpful in the recent past.

Darius sat across the table from him, drinking a mug of ale – demons had taverns too, and Darius saw it as a waste to come to one without getting something to drink, even if that wasn’t why he was there. He was a different type of demon from Azal. Known as an aeadite, his features were similar to those of a human – but his skin was a pale red, rough and ragged, and his eyes were yellow, the pupils, vertical slits. No hair grew on his head, and two small horns protruded from his forehead, yet another sign of his demonic nature. From what Azal had read, aeadites were the most common type of demon – and, indeed, he had seen many of them on the city streets.

“So, you’ve got what you need?” Darius asked. Even in this tavern – one of ill repute, where lowlifes and scoundrels could find other of their ilk with about as much ease as finding air – they dared not speak of what they were planning in anything more than hushed whispers.

“Yes,” Azal muttered back. “She has agreed to assist us. And she has stated she will try to find a potential ally for us.”

“Mm. That’d be useful,” Darius nodded. “So, you’re really doing this, then? The revolution’s underway?”

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