Azal stood in his chamber, looking out the window, his hands clasped behind his back. “You seem to misunderstand one thing, Lord Sabrin. The Bloodhorns are under my rule.”
“Hmph,” Lord Ian Sabrin grunted from behind him. “Azal, please. Stop letting your ego get in the way of your better judgement. I know you’re smart for a demon, so you ought to know it would be best for me to take command. You know as well as I do that you don’t have half the experience I do.”
“Lord Sabrin, I understand what you are saying, and I understand what you are concerned about,” Azal said placatingly. “But it is my belief – and forgive me for making such an insinuation – that you underestimate me. You are attempting to supplant me before I have even had a chance to prove myself. What cause do you have, then, for thinking that I am not an able commander?”
Ian sighed from behind him. Azal could almost hear the response he was clearly struggling not to say – because you’re a demon. “You lack experience,” he said instead. “You cannot disagree with that, can you? And whatever fanciful fantasies you have, this is war. It is not something to be toyed around with lightly, and it is certainly not a game. It would be safer for you and your people for a proven man such as myself to take over.”
“Proven?” Azal asked. “In what way? I, being a demon – and forgive me for this – do not know much about what happens on Verta. And while it is true that you won the battle against the Council for us, that was merely because of the amount of troops you brought with you, combined with the fact that the enemy was in a massively strategically disadvantageous position. In what way does that demonstrate your tactical capabilities?”
“The fact that you do not know what I have accomplished does not change anything,” Ian said. “And even if I barely had any experience – which is, of course, not true – would I not still be better than you, who has none?”
A small smile touched Azal’s lips. “I see. So that is your argument,” he murmured. “And how, pray tell, do I know you do not intend to abuse your newfound power? After all, as a mortal, you must surely bear a grudge against demonkind. How am I to be assured that, if I do give you command, you will rule over my people fairly?”
“Do you mean to imply that they will not suffer under your rule?” Ian asked. “An inexperienced ruler, even if well-meaning, can be even worse than one who despises his own people. After all, even if I did bear such a grudge against your kind, would I still not have my image to be concerned about? I am hardly a king, Sir Azal. There are people who are superior to me – and, unlike what you may believe, we are not isolated from Verta here. Messengers work all the time to ensure that Queen Lily is up to date on the happenings down here.”
At that, Azal frowned. He could see well enough what Ian was trying to do – he was simply trying to seize as much power as he could. That was the best explanation for him trying to take control this quickly. But even though Azal knew that, he had to admit the human noble was a shrewd negotiator. Much of what he’d said was true, and while Azal knew that Queen Lily really wouldn’t care one bit what Ian did to the demons, he was hardly free to say something like that when everything he said would get back to the Queen.
“I see,” Azal said. “Perhaps you are correct. However, it is simply that I cannot trust you yet. I am certain your queen is kind, and that she would not stand for you abusing your power – but I cannot know that you would not simply disguise that abuse as something else. I would like to be able to trust that you would not do something like that, but at this moment, I cannot. I am sure you understand.”
“You have a point,” Ian admitted. “However, I insist that, at the least, I be allowed to advise you on any matters I feel I am more experienced in than you. I trust that this will be acceptable? Of course, you will certainly be free to ignore my advice if that is what you feel is best.”
Azal narrowed his eyes. That still wasn’t as good a deal as it sounded – after all, for Azal to ignore his “advisor” would be bad form, and since messages would be coming back to Queen Lily about it, Azal would be forced to listen to Ian at least somewhat. Or at least, that was true from Ian’s perspective – but Azal knew a bit more about the Queen. Johannes had told him quite a bit, after all. And from what he knew, Azal thought the Queen wouldn’t care too much if he just ignored Ian all the time.
The chirean smiled. That thought was quite satisfying. “Very well,” he said. “For now, that is acceptable.”
“Thank you, Sir Azal,” Ian said. “I will do my best to assist you as well as I am able.”
Frankly, Azal didn’t doubt that. It was in Ian’s interest that the rebellion succeeded – and it was also in his interest to demonstrate that he was an able leader. As much as Azal disliked the man, it was likely that his advice, at least, would be sound.
“No, it is I who must thank you, Lord Sabrin,” Azal said. “Were it not for your assistance, the war would have ended already.” The sentiment wasn’t entirely faked.
“You are too kind, Sir Azal,” Ian replied. That, Azal was quite sure, probably was entirely faked.
“You underestimate your contribution,” Azal said. For now, it would be best to play it safe and be polite. “Please, take your leave now, Lord Sabrin. There are some things I must ponder, and I am sure you have matters which you must tend to, as well.”
“Certainly, Sir Azal,” Ian said, and took a deep bow. (Or at least, so Azal assumed – he wasn’t facing the man, but judging by the delay before he started hearing footsteps, that was what was most likely.) He turned around and left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Azal finally turned, locked the door, and sat down on his chair. He sighed. Ian would certainly be a useful ally… but not an easy one to work with.
Now, there was just one more thing to do. He unlocked the door again and turned to one of the demons posted just outside. “Would you fetch a servant for me?” he asked.
“Of course,” the demon replied, and went towards the stairs. Azal went back into the room, but he left the door unlocked while he waited, and it wasn’t long before he heard a knock once more. He stood up and opened the door.
“Deliver a message to Johannes, please,” he told the demon standing outside. “Tell him I wish to meet with Aya.”
Three horses rode across the land, their hooves beating an uneven rhythm as they struck the ground. Atop each horse, a figure rode, each cloaked in a black robe with the symbol of the Inquisition upon their breast. One was a human, his face not overly harsh but certainly not gentle either, his gaze determined, his short, messy black hair just shy of reaching his chin. Just behind him was another human, but this one was a woman, her face cheery, almost childlike, and an excited smile on her lips. Her hair was every bit as black as the man’s, but it was smoother and longer, falling all the way past her shoulders. The last figure was an alkite, his chitin mostly brown with only the slightest tinge of red (alkites’ chitin color differed, and ranged from almost pure brown to something like a rusty red), his eyes a green as vibrant as any alkite’s eyes. The three rode together, swords at their hips, their eyes facing straight forward. Were there any other people here, they would clearly see that the three were heading off on some Inquisition business.
But more surprising was the identity of these three. Most unusually, the one at the front was Cain, the Head Inquisitor himself – often considered the greatest mage alive in the world, his very presence here was a sign that something was very concerning indeed. Yet the other two riding with him were some of the greatest Inquisitors as well, and incredibly powerful mages in their own right. The alkite at the back was Ermok, one of Cain’s most trusted people, and the woman in the middle was Millie – the Head Inquisitor’s own daughter.
“So, they should be somewhere around there, right?” Millie asked, nodding at the forest they were riding towards.
“Most likely,” Ermok confirmed. “This forest is the place I had found them back after they’d attacked the village.”
“Then wouldn’t they have moved on by now?” Millie asked. “I mean, they’ve got to know we’re coming for them, right?”
“Normally, I would agree,” Ermok said. “But this forest is enormous, and there’s no place like it anywhere nearby. Most likely, they’d think this place would be the best place to hide out in.”
“Indeed,” Cain nodded. “Unfortunately, if they do believe that, they’re right. As Ermok just said, this forest is gigantic. Finding a few members of the Cult of the Burning Eye inside it will be… difficult, to say the least.”
Millie groaned. “How are we going to do it, then?”
“Most likely, we won’t have a better option than to just search,” Cain said. “It’ll take a while, but if we keep an eye out, we should spot something out of place eventually. We don’t need to find the Cult, necessarily – we just need to find something that’ll lead us to them.”
“Alright,” Millie said with a sigh. “I’m suddenly a lot less excited about this…”
Cain shot her a glance. “Millie, this is serious,” he cautioned.
“Right, right,” she said. “Sorry. I know. It’s still true, though.”
Cain sighed, and smiled a small smile. “Well, we’ll see how it goes. Depending on how well they’ve covered up their tracks, it might not actually take all that long to find something.”
“And knowing the Cult,” Ermok smiled, “they probably didn’t even think about hiding themselves.”
A man rode across the snow-covered mountains, straddling a horse as white as the snow all around. There was nothing for the horse to eat, nothing for it to eat or drink, and no way for it to stop the deadly cold from biting at it – but despite all those issues, it didn’t seem to be having a single problem as it galloped across the ground.
“I must remember to thank Avylia for this,” the rider murmured. “Her enchantments are truly convenient…”
The rider wore an elegant outfit of a tunic and trousers like those of a noble, each primarily colored in deep blue with some trimmings and decorations in gold, and a thick tome and a small dagger hung at his belt. This rider was, of course, Lein, the Worldsoul, one of the Great Powers.
He didn’t carry a map with him. He didn’t need one. That was one of the benefits of being a Great Power. In his long, long life, he’d memorized almost every part of this continent – and besides, even if he hadn’t done that, he was still the Great Power of the planet. It would’ve been easy for him to simply sense the land around him and find his destination that way.
Lein’s horse galloped onwards, still not upset or harmed in the slightest by the lack of food and drink, its movements perfectly graceful and efficient even on this snowy ground and in this cold atmosphere. As he went, he slowly started seeing a few villages, each one occupied by deirae. He tried to avoid them when he could. For now, he’d prefer to go unnoticed.
A few villages turned into more and more as Lein got closer to the heart of this land. (Kertevalvibeltal, it was called – even deirae had nations, and this one was the most powerful. Pronouncing its name was one of the few challenges in this world that even Lein would be loath to attempt.) He started seeing bigger settlements, even a few real towns here and there, but his real destination, at least for now, was the capital of this country – the city of Arirebrovoflivi. No, Lein didn’t have the first clue how to pronounce that either. Frankly, he was somewhat surprised he was even able to remember the name.
Well, in either case, Arirebrovoflivi was a rather large city. That was unusual in and of itself – deirae tended to settle in smaller hamlets and villages, towns at most. Any true deiran city was a rare sight, and those that one did see tended to be rather small and simple – even capitals were generally nothing fancy, except for maybe a few important buildings. Arirebrovoflivi was really the only “great” deiran city – the only city of theirs that could even come close to comparing to, say, one of the larger cities of Paleland or Sagnir or any other human (or alkite, for that matter) nation. But to give it credit, it was quite a beautiful city – built in beautiful marble and gold, with polished white walls rising all around and giving a sense of unmistakeable grandeur… for all that deirae generally weren’t much for large settlements, they’d spared no expense with Arirebrovoflivi in particular.
It didn’t take too long for Lein to reach the city. When he did, getting in wasn’t difficult – it was true that deirae didn’t have much contact with other races, but they were nevertheless rather trusting, and tended not to be particularly cautious about outsiders – and soon he found himself amidst the great, towering buildings, beauty and elegance and majesty all around him. Lein didn’t normally care much for décor, but even he had to admit the city was impressive.
At the very centre of the city, a great tower rose, even grander than the rest of the city. That was the seat of the King of Kertevalvibeltal, from where he reigned over his lands. The tower reached towards the heavens like an enormous spear rising from the ground, a symbol of strength and power – a reminded that just because deirae had little territory and didn’t interact with others much didn’t mean they were weak. It was something that attracted one’s attention instantly – visible from almost any part of the city and towering above the rest of the buildings, it was only natural that it would be noticed. But that wasn’t what Lein was here for. Really, he wasn’t planning to stay here long – all he needed to do was get some information. After all, it would be much easier to combat the Reds as he’d planned to do if he had some knowledge about them first.
And fortunately, the Reds had no shortage of enemies. He turned away from the tower and made his way to one particular place in the outskirts of the city.
The three of them rode through the forest in silence. Well, more or less. Every so often, Millie kept grumbling about how boring this was and how annoying it was to have to search for little clues like this and how she really bloody hoped they’d find something soon. Cain could sympathize, admittedly, but even if she was his daughter, he wasn’t willing to grace those sorts of outbursts with a response. He just shot her a stern look every time she started talking and, a good half of the time, that shut her up. The rest of the time… well, Cain just supposed he’d have to bear it. He shot a quiet, understanding look at Ermok, who seemed just as annoyed by Millie as Cain was.
Both of them knew that Millie wasn’t always like this. Cain, of course, had the utmost faith in his own daughter – but Ermok knew just as well that she was, when she needed to be, an incredibly competent Inquisitor in her own right. She’d been trained in magic by Cain himself, after all, and training by the “greatest mage in the world” had to count for something. In Millie’s case in particular, her lessons had definitely stuck – if Cain was the greatest mage in the world, Millie was probably the second-greatest. Even though she wasn’t considered an archmage yet – and nor was she likely to ever be one, since Cain had a son who the title would be passed to instead – she could probably beat any of them (except Cain himself, of course) in a magical duel. Well, Cain mused, maybe not Vekri…
He shook off the sudden memory. His memories of his old apprentice were some of his fondest, but she’d gone off on her own now, and Cain wouldn’t dream of stopping her. After all, she was an archmage now, and she could hardly be respected as one if she still followed Cain around. She’d made the right decision when she’d broken off from him, and even if Cain was still a bit bitter about it, it would simply be disrespectful for him to wish she’d done differently. He could reminisce about Vekri later, when he wasn’t on a mission. And besides, he had Millie now, didn’t he?
Well, in either case, Millie was actually an incredibly powerful and skilled mage, much more so than her current behavior seemed to indicate. Cain knew that she could be serious, that she could be patient… but it seemed she wasn’t willing to put in the effort right now.
“I mean, seriously,” she muttered from behind him. “How long are we-“
“Millie,” Cain said sternly. This had to stop, if not for his sake, then at least for Ermok’s. “Please. Stop. I know you’re bored, and I know you’re annoyed, and I know you’re getting impatient. But you knew what you were in for when you joined the Inquisition. Sometimes, you’ve got to learn to just be quiet and do as you’re told, even if you don’t like it.”
“Ugh,” she sighed, looking downcast. “Yes, sir.”
Cain sighed. Frankly, he’d been against Millie joining the Inquisition at first. She was his daughter, after all, and he didn’t want anything bad to happen to her – and powerful mage or not, being an Inquisitor was dangerous. And besides, he’d foreseen this issue, too – sometimes, Millie really had a problem with being unable to curb her impatience. But she’d been insistent, and she’d been more than powerful enough as a mage even back then, so… at the end of the day, could Cain really deny his daughter’s greatest wish just for the sake of making her a little safer?
Well, since Cain had finally relented and allowed Millie to join the Inquisition, she hadn’t looked back or regretted it once. It really was what she wanted to do with her life. And that was enough for Cain.
Cain looked around as his horse trotted on, carefully looking for any sign of the Cult. A bit of grass that had clearly been disturbed caught his attention, but no – that was almost certainly the work of some wild animal. Nearby, there was a scratched tree, but again, that was probably an animal. And…
Hm. That certainly wasn’t an animal.
In the distance, through a small opening in the sea of trees, Cain saw something. From here, it looked like a fallen log lying on the ground of the forest, but if Cain’s suspicions were correct…
“Hold on,” he said. “I may have found something.” He turned his horse to the right, weaving his way through the trees all around, and the other two followed behind him.
The thing came into clearer sight, and Cain could see now that it was actually several logs, piled up on top of each other sloppily. It looked exactly like someone’s preparations for starting a fire. And as if that wasn’t incriminating enough, Cain could still see a few smouldering embers and bits of charred wood.
Cain smirked. “I believe we have our lead.”
Once more, Lein rode forth across the snowy plains, leaving the great city of Arirebrovoflivi behind. His informant had been a rather renowned man, actually – one Pergeleon Gavalie, one of the archmages that were the heads of the Great Mage Families. Pergeleon, in particular, had been waging somewhat of a war against the Reds for his whole life, seemingly in revenge for something they’d done to him when he was young. Lein saw the good in his cause, but he couldn’t help but think his motivation was a little selfish – the Reds were a danger to all of deiran society, and to hunt them simply for something as personal as that seemed almost like ignoring the plight of all else they had harmed and would harm.
But Lein supposed it didn’t matter. As long as Pergeleon was doing his part to make the mountains safer, what reason did he have to complain?
In either case, Pergeleon’s instructions had proven useful. With them in mind, Lein now knew where the Reds’ leader was likely to be at this moment, and how Lein could strike at him. In fact, the archmage himself had apparently been planning an attack on that place – but Lein had beat him to it. Not that Pergeleon seemed unhappy about that.
Of course, just taking out their leader wouldn’t necessarily be enough to win the war against the Reds. In fact, if what Pergeleon had said about them was true, it wouldn’t even be a particularly large blow to them. But regardless, it was as good a place to start as any.
And so, Lein rode forth to face the Reds in battle.
Cain smirked. “Got them,” he whispered. “I shouldn’t have to say this, but be quiet.”
“Sure,” Millie whispered behind him. Ermok said nothing, but Cain knew him well enough to trust him not to make noise even without an explicit command.
In front of them, in a clearing in the wood, a fire and a few tents had been set up. There was still quite a distance between the three Inquisitors and the camp, and quite a few trees blocking their view, but Cain could tell well enough what the inhabitants of that camp were. That telltale red skin he’d glimpsed a few times as they milled about… what could they be but demons? And if they were demons, what could they be but the Cult of the Burning Eye?
“We don’t want them to escape,” Cain whispered to his companions. “Let’s split up. Millie, go around that side; Ermok, go the opposite way. I’ll attack first, and then you two descend on them from the sides.”
“Gotcha,” Millie smiled and headed off.
“Alright,” Ermok said with a nod, and went in the other direction.
Cain, for his part, kept his horse where it was and locked his eyes onto the camp. He wasn’t sure how long it’d take the two he’d sent out to get to their positions – a minute or two, maybe? Well, he’d wait five, just to be safe.
And then, the fun could begin.