Cain counted down the seconds in his mind. Thirty. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.
He was more excited about this than he’d care to admit. The Cult of the Burning Eye had been a thorn in their side for a long while – no, that was the wrong way of thinking about it; the Cult had been a thorn in mortals’ side for a long while. Their attacks were merciless, brutal, and indiscriminate, leaving shattered families, burned homes and charred corpses in their wake. Even when the people were rescued – and that, unfortunately, didn’t happen that often – any place they’d attacked would never be the same. Most of the time, the entire village was simply torn down, all the people’s hard work and legacies and homes erased in a heartbeat, forcing those who still lived to start anew – their old life no more than a distant dream.
To get a chance to strike back at them like this, and to get a chance to do it personally… Cain had rarely done anything like that before, because he knew that as much as he hated the Cult, they were almost never enemy number one. Rampaging dragons, rogue mages, great wild beasts that had stumbled onto human settlements – those were the things that a normal Inquisitor couldn’t easily deal with, the things for which someone special was needed. That was when Cain would go out into the field. By contrast, the Cult, terrifying as it was, was fairly easily handled by most Inquisitors – after all, at the end of the day, they were effectively just bandits. So most of the time, Cain’s personal attention had been better used elsewhere.
But now, there was something important going on, and it just so happened that pursuing that lead involved taking on the Cult as a necessary part of the process. And if that was the case… Cain would be happy to accept it. He’d seen the aftermath of the things they’d done time and time again, and he was glad to get to make them face the consequences.
Thirteen seconds left.
He’d decided to give his companions five minutes to get in position, after all. It was the safest thing to do – they probably wouldn’t need five minutes, but in this case, there was no rush to attack, so better safe than sorry. Now, four minutes and forty-nine seconds had passed. If he chose to attack now, it would almost certainly be just as effective as if he waited the remaining eleven, but that’d set a dangerous precedent. Better to stick to the plan.
A small smile broke out on Cain’s face.
His hands gripped his horse’s reins tightly.
Time to strike.
Lein looked down at the camp of Reds lower on the mountain.
Assuming the information he’d gotten from Pergeleon was good – and there was no reason to assume otherwise – this camp would be the best place to attack. It was where their leader, Silenomius, supposedly was, which meant that attacking this camp would provide a chance to take him out here and now. Granted, from what he’d heard, that wouldn’t actually be a massive blow – to the Reds, Silenomius was less of an actual leader and more of an… idol, he supposed. They didn’t actually follow his orders, most of the time – they just admired him and looked up to him.
Of course, that didn’t mean killing him would be pointless. It would probably scare a good few of the Reds out of the business entirely, in fact. But it wouldn’t have the sort of impact one would expect killing an organization’s leader to have, and it certainly wouldn’t win the war against the Reds outright. Still, it was the biggest first step Lein could possibly take, so there was no reason not to do it.
Again, Lein looked at the camp. It was a bit more elaborate than he’d expected – there were the tents he’d expected, yes, but there were also a few actual wooden buildings which the Reds must’ve assembled. They were all very crude and clearly hastily-built, but it was still more than Lein had expected.
And out of all those buildings, one stood out. One of them was larger than the rest, and a bit more decorated, even if what it was decorated with was mostly skulls and bone. It still looked ramshackle at best, but if Lein had to guess, that was almost certainly where Silenomius himself was.
As for the rest of the camp, it didn’t look particularly hard to assail. If Lein had to guess, there were around 40 Reds milling about down there, and while they certainly all looked dangerous in their own right, they looked no more dangerous than common bandits. They were armed, yes, and they had probably had more than a bit of experience with combat – but it wouldn’t pose even the slightest threat to Lein. Even if they had a mage with them – which wasn’t likely – Lein would still be able to defeat them easily, though it could take a while and buy the others time to escape. Still, that was an unlikely situation in the first place.
Unfortunately, Lein knew that just assaulting this camp wouldn’t be enough to end the threat of the Reds entirely – not even close. But it would do significant damage to them, so it would hardly be pointless, either. Though, Lein probably wouldn’t stay around afterwards to help with the Reds some more – exterminating them all would simply take far too long, and he had other, more pressing matters to attend to, matters that simply couldn’t be dealt with by normal people. As much as he didn’t like it, the majority of the threat would have to be left to the deirae themselves.
Still, at least Lein could help them out. If he attacked this camp and slew Silenomius, it would be a big blow to the Reds. From there… Lein just hoped the deirae would be able to do the rest.
The horse rushed onwards, towards the camp of demons. Two more galloped in from the sides, forming a triangle closing in around the camp. Of course, the Cultists saw their approach – it wasn’t exactly subtle, after all. But that didn’t matter.
Cain inspected the enemy as he rushed forth. They were hastily preparing for battle, getting out of their tents and standing together to meet the intruders. It seemed they didn’t have any real plans in place for anything like this, but they’d clearly armed themselves already, and they seemed prepared for the attack. So, in other words, it would be an actual fight – they wouldn’t be able to just swoop in and capture them all before they got their wits together. But still, it was a fight Cain was confident he and his Inquisitors could win.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Millie raise a hand, a grin on her face.
“Millie, remember, we need at least some of them alive!” he shouted, admonishing her. He would’ve preferred not to make that known to the enemy, but he really couldn’t just let his daughter kill them all. “We can’t question them if they’re all dead!”
“Yeah, I know!” Millie yelled back. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing!” Her hand thrust forwards, a great blast of wind shooting out from it. Cain flinched, hearing the impact even from where he was as the sheer force tore a small crater in the ground. But the demons around the blast didn’t die, torn to shreds by the deadly force – they were just blown away, losing their grip on their weapons and shields as they were flung like pebbles by the impact.
Cain sighed. Well, they hadn’t died. But there was a reason Cain didn’t generally use large-scale magic unless complete obliteration of a target was the desired outcome. Yes, the chance of Millie’s spell failing or working incorrectly had been tiny from the start – she’d trained in magic under Cain, after all, and she was very good at it. But even if that chance had been tiny, it had existed. And if she’d accidentally killed all the Cultists, this investigation would be as good as over.
But still. This time, it had worked, and Cain was willing to take advantage of it. He leapt off his horse, drawing his sword. The first Cultist was right in front of him, and before he could stand up, Cain slammed a blast of force into his head and knocked him unconscious.
Wind and force weren’t the only things Cain could create, of course. He was the “best mage in the world” for a reason, after all. But the fact was, no matter how powerful of a mage one became, wind and force remained the best ways to fight. This was merely due to how magic worked – the process of creating something by magic was, to describe it simply, like building something step by step: you had to manually add every little detail, every property necessary to the thing you were summoning. Due to this, creating anything even remotely complicated was a daunting task – it could be done, but it required flawless concentration, great knowledge of the thing you were creating, and a lot of time and magical power. Meanwhile, wind and force were both extremely simple – they were both simply motion. That was the only detail you needed to remember, the only property you needed to add. There was no need to focus, to slowly build up the product of your magic as you cast your spell – you merely had to will motion into existence, and that would create the force you needed.
That was why mages, for all their power, generally only used wind and force (and occasionally heat) in combat. It was simple and easy to create, yet undeniably effective, and in a life-or-death situation, that made it a perfect choice.
The second Cultist stood up before Cain could blast him with wind like he’d done to the first, so Cain drew his sword. He would’ve been able, most likely, to just create a wind strong enough to knock him out even without slamming him into the ground – but there was no need to waste energy like that. Cain wasn’t anywhere near as good a swordfighter as he was a mage, but he was still excellent, and in this situation, his blade would serve him well enough.
As Cain’s sword flew from its sheath, the Cultist thrust his own sword at Cain’s chest, only for it to be met by steel. The two blades clashed for just a moment before Cain stepped away, moved around the foe’s blade, and struck at the Cultist’s shoulder. His enemy didn’t react fast enough, and the sword struck its target. The demon gasped in pain and dropped his sword, and Cain punched him in the face. He fell to the ground, and with a forceful kick, consciousness fled him.
Those two had been the only Cultists Millie’s assault had thrown directly to him, but he was close to the main encampment already, so it’d be a waste to get on his horse again. Cain just ran forwards, his sword held in one hand, his other hand free to use magic. A Cultist ran towards him, thrusting a spear between his eyes. Cain stepped back and batted the spear away, and ran towards the demon as the small opening presented itself, hoping to close the distance and take advantage of his shorter weapon. Before he reached his enemy, though, the demon hopped back and thrust the spear again, aiming for Cain’s heart this time. This attack was parried just as easily as the last, and with his other hand, Cain sent a blast of force at the demon’s feet. He stumbled and fell, letting go of his spear, and Cain took the opportunity to knock him out with a swift kick.
Admittedly, dealing with them nonlethally like this was harder than just killing them would’ve been – and it wasn’t like they didn’t deserve death. But what he himself had admonished Millie about had remained true – they needed as many of the Cultists as possible alive. For every one they left alive, their chances of finding one that would answer their questions later grew, and they needed answers.
Two more enemies approached, one wielding a sword, the other with some sort of club. Cain wasn’t confident he could fight two foes at once in a swordfight, so he blasted the one with the club away with a magical wave of force and turned towards the other one. This time Cain attacked first, aiming for the arm, but the demon put his sword in front of Cain’s blade to stop it short. In response, Cain withdrew a little, just enough to make his way around the enemy’s blade, and struck again – this time from the other side. The foe was too slow to respond, and with the sound of flesh separating, Cain’s sword cut through his shoulder, letting his arm fall to the ground. His sword, of course, fell with it. Cain struck the demon between the eyes with the hilt of his sword, and the demon collapsed.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the one he’d knocked away getting up. A second blast of wind slammed him back to the ground, and a quick kick knocked him unconscious.
He looked around. Ermok and Millie had done fine work as well, and many of the Cultists now lay unconscious on the ground. The ones that were left had grouped together in the centre, ready to defend themselves against their foes.
“Not bad,” one of them said, a leer on his face. “But if that’s all ya three can do, you’re out of luck now.”
Cain smiled. Admittedly, their formation would be hard to break. In fact, they’d been lucky that they’d managed to even get this far so easily – if the Cultists had attacked them in groups, they would’ve had a much harder time. Now that they were all together, trying to attack them would be hard.
Or at least, it would’ve been if the three of them had been normal people. But as it stood…
“Very well, then,” Cain sighed. “I suppose it’s time I show you a bit of what I’m really capable of. Watch, demons – archmage Cain Nihil, leader of the Inquisition, stands before you!”
A deira swung a huge fist at Lein’s face, a snarl tearing itself from their throat as they tried to crush this invader into their territory. As far as the deira – or rather, the Red – must’ve seen it, Lein was just a normal person trying to interfere with something far above his level. They didn’t see him as anything more than an ant to be crushed.
Too bad for them.
Lein’s hand shot out in response, and easily caught the deira’s punch. For just a moment, he let himself enjoy the look of shock on his attacker’s face.
No normal human could’ve done that, of course – they’d be crushed. And not even one of the other Great Powers could do it. As much supernatural power as they possessed, they were, physically, nothing more than normal human beings. But Lein was different. His domain was the planet, and so he had the strength of the earth itself in his body – a strength unmatched by anything else in this world.
Well, that was an exaggeration. But he certainly had more than enough strength to easily overpower a deira.
Unfortunately, crushing the Red’s hand was still outside his capabilities – it was just too big for him to wrap his fist around – so instead, he just shoved the hand to the side, leapt up (his legs possessed the same incredible strength as his arms, and his jump was easily able to reach up to the deira’s nose without even trying), and punched the deira in the face. His hand dug straight through the fur, the flesh, the skull and the brain, coming out of the other side of the deira’s head wet with blood. He withdrew his hand, fell back to the ground, and jumped back as the deira collapsed.
He glanced to the side. A Red had been approaching him, huge sword in hand. But as they saw that spectacle, they stopped and stumbled backwards, fumbling with the sword and accidentally dropping it. Lein couldn’t blame them.
The deirae around Lein stumbled back. “What the fuck?!” one of them said, his eyes bulging at the seemingly impossible sight in front of him. Lein looked up at him.
“You’ve seen what I can do now,“ he said, his voice firm. “In that case, I’ll give you a chance. I’ll give you all a chance. Walk away from this. Quit all of what you’re doing. Become honest citizens and stop attacking innocent people. If you do that, I will let you leave this place unharmed.”
Lein’s eyes narrowed. “That said, if you were to refuse to repent, that would be different,” he said. “In that case, allowing you to live would be tantamount to being responsible for any of the murders you commit afterwards. It would be no better than killing all those people myself. So if you were to refuse to surrender and reform yourselves, I would have no choice but to kill all of you. So I ask you – you have seen what I can do. Knowing this, do you wish to make an enemy of me?”
The group of them, so confident until just a moment ago, suddenly looked nervous. A pair of eyes darted back and forth. Lein could see the indecision on their faces, the sudden willingness to just run away. After all, while they were no strangers to danger, most of the things that usually threatened them were enemies they knew – deiran guards, or that archmage, Pergeleon. Lein was different – he was something they’d never encountered before, something they knew nothing about, something they had no idea how to deal with. They didn’t know what Lein could do to them, and it scared them.
And then, the door to the biggest building swung open. A deira stood behind it, massive even by deiran standards, clothed in crude leather and bones and skulls. His dark eyes looked angrily at the battlefield.
Lein knew who this was. Silenomius. Leader of the Reds – at least, insofar as they had one. A brutal barbarian who cared for nothing but his own gain, and didn’t give a single thought to the lives of anyone else.
But that wasn’t what caused his eyes to widen and his eyebrows to raise as he looked at the open door. After all, he’d known from the start that he’d encounter Silenomius here. What he didn’t expect was the creature standing next to him. It was a huge, pale red tower of muscle, its hands clawed and its maw fanged, its skin and face rough like a rock. The humanoid thing was bigger than even Silenomius – something truly rare.
Of course, Lein knew what this was, too. A timor – a type of demon. They were easily the most physically strong type, and while they weren’t that common, they weren’t that rare, either. Seeing one in Aead wouldn’t have been a surprise. But… on Verta? That was odd.
But that wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was this – why in the world was a demon with the Reds?
No. That wasn’t what mattered the most, either.
Because Lein recognized this timor in particular. Her name was one Lein had known for a long time, and one he had always treated with a degree of… fear, almost. Not because of the timor herself, of course – not even the strongest of timors, or the greatest of mages among them, could match Lein. But what this timor represented scared him.
This was Cinna. And she was the leader of the Cult of the Burning Eye.
Lein didn’t know what was going on here. He didn’t know why the Cult and the Reds were apparently cooperating. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had a shot at the leader of the Cult, and if he had that sort of chance, he had to take it.
Because he knew what the Cult truly was. He knew what their agenda had always been. And no matter what, they could not be allowed to succeed.
Cinna recognized him, clearly, because her eyes widened and she turned and started running. Lein bit his lip.
He’d have liked to stay here and kill the rest of them, especially Silenomius. He really would have. But… if Cinna was here, things were different. If she was here, and, for once, he had a chance to kill her…
Lein ran after Cinna.
Cain looked at the formation in front of him. It would be difficult to break through them with sheer force. Certainly not impossible, not for him – and not for either of the other two, either – but it would take some effort.
Fortunately, there was an easier way.
It was true that mages did not usually use anything other than wind and force in combat, because they were the easiest to create. Meanwhile, creating even a bit of, say, stone would be nigh-impossible, especially in combat – one would need to know and be able to bring to mind each and every single property of stone, and keep it all in focus for the entire duration of the spell. And even if one did manage to do that much, there was still the issue of speed – every property needed to be added one by one to build up an object like that, and that was difficult to do quickly. In other words, even if a mage was able to create stone out of thin air – Cain, for instance, could certainly do it – they would still find it impossible to do so quickly enough to be useful in combat.
However, just because stone or similar objects couldn’t be created in combat didn’t mean they couldn’t be used in combat. It just took a bit of cleverness and some concentration.
Cain splayed his palm and pushed his hand forward, letting a stream of magical energy flow forth. Generally, stray magical energy would just disperse into the air unless immediately turned into something, but with enough skill and concentration, a mage could force it to stay concentrated and direct it for some time. And so, Cain forced the magic to stay together as he sent it downwards, burying in the ground underneath the clustered-together demons.
And there, he let it turn into force. Sheer, powerful, omnidirectional force.
The earth underneath the Cultists burst open like an explosive had been buried underneath, the burst of energy flinging them away from the center, the flying stones slamming into them and throwing them further. From there, it was easy. Cain knocked two of the Cultists out before they could even get up, and when one of them did, he was still away from his allies, as well as having lost his sword. A quick strike in the face with the hilt of Cain’s sword took care of him, and by the time he fell, Cain’s fellow Inquisitors had already knocked out the rest of the Cultists.
Cain looked around. Surrounding him were fallen Cultists, defeated in merely a minute or two by the Inquisition’s attack. Now, all that was left was to question them and figure out what they’d been doing in that village in the first place.
The Reds cleared out of the way as Lein ran, clearly not wanting to get involved with him. Lein couldn’t blame them. That first attack had clearly instilled a sense of fear in them, and Lein could use that – as long as they were afraid of him, they wouldn’t try to stop him.
Silenomius stood off to the side, yelling at his men to attack Lein. None of them seemed to be listening. Of course they weren’t – they must have known it would be suicide, and Silenomius certainly didn’t command that level of loyalty.
But at the last moment, as Lein was nearly outside of the camp and ready to chase Cinna down, someone got in his way.
The deira pushed their hand forward, and a blast of wind sent Lein backwards.
He stumbled to his feet. “A mage? Here?”
“Hey… uh, whoever you are,” the Red said, a bit of resignation in her voice. “Let me get one thing straight. I don’t think I’m going to win. I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re going to kill me like you did the other guy. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try to stop you anyway.”
He stared at her, his eyes narrowed. He could admire that sort of courage, but if she bought Cinna the time to escape…
“Get out of my way,” he said. “There is something I must do. If you let me pass, I will not touch any of you.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re chasing Cinna, right? Well, I don’t know her that well. But I know she’s our ally, at least for now. So I’m not going to abandon her to her fate.”
Lein raised an eyebrow at that. That was… admirable. But it wasn’t something he’d expect from a Red.
“I know what you’re thinking, by the way,” she said. “Yes, we’re horrible. Yes, we’ve all murdered innocent people just for our own gain. And yes, that includes me – I’ve murdered at least, what, 23 people by now? But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be loyal.”
“You understand what the Cult of the Burning Eye stands for, right?” Lein asked. “No, you probably don’t. But trust me on this – if they succeed, we will all suffer. That includes you. So it’s in your best interest to let me deal with them.”
She shrugged. “I’m not going to make excuses. I know as well as you do that what I’m doing is evil, and that it’s going to hurt people. But even if those people include me, that doesn’t change anything, though. She’s my ally, so if you want to get to her, you’ll have to go through me.”
Then there was no way out of this. In a way, Lein was happy about that. He didn’t know this Red well, and he knew she must have done horrible things – but still, he respected her. This battle would certainly end in him taking her life, but something about her told him that she’d prefer that to him simply bypassing her and thus taking her pride instead.
Still, he’d have to do this quickly. He stepped away and prepared for battle. “Very well. Let’s go, then.”
“So,” Cain asked, “why did you attack the village of Nortryn?”
“What?” the demon asked.
Cain sighed. Right. They wouldn’t know the name of every village they pillaged, would they…
“The Cult of the Burning Eye has recently attacked a village near the Portal in Paleland, has it not?” Cain asked. “And the objective of this attack was to find some specific thing, yes?”
“Hmph,” the demon grunted, struggling against the rope wrapped around his wrists. It was pointless. Inquisitors knew how to restrain enemies. “Yeah. So what?”
“So you’re going to tell me why you did it,” Cain said. “Considering our current positions, and the fact that I am not particularly sympathetic to the Cult, I believe the reason you should accede to my demand is clear.”
“Go die in a hole,” the demon spat.
Cain sighed. “I see the severity of the situation hasn’t reached you yet,” he said. “Allow me to tell you one thing clearly: I know what you’ve done, and I’m not happy about it. The only reason you are still alive in the first place is because I require information. If you refuse to give it, I think you can guess what I will do.”
The demon gritted his teeth, but Cain could see a tinge of nervousness on his face. Good. “The Archdemon will slaughter you for your impudence,” he threatened.
Ah, yes. The Archdemon. That deity the Cult worshipped. Very little was known about him – whether or not he even existed was subject to intense debate – but very old documents talking about him had occasionally been found, so Cain assumed he probably wasn’t completely fictitious.
Still, such threats didn’t really bother Cain. He’d never seen the Archdemon, he’d never heard of anyone who’d seen him, and he certainly hadn’t ever felt his influence. As far as Cain was concerned, even if the Archdemon did exist, he was probably not in a position to slaughter anyone at the moment. And even if that proved untrue, even if the Archdemon did end up with Cain at his mercy… well, Cain figured he already had more than enough reasons to kill him. What was one more added to the list?
“And if you don’t talk, I’ll slaughter you,” Cain said. “Allow me to be clear: Vague threats about what your god will do to me do not concern me. What does concern me is what you were looking for. So how about it? Tell me, and you get to live.”
The demon hissed. “Fine,” he spat. “There was a girl in the village named… Regina or something like that, I think. Apparently, a demon from Aead had come to her and talked to her. The boss was curious why, so we were supposed to bring the girl to her so she could interrogate her about it, but she died in the chaos. There. That enough for you?”
Cain’s eyes widened. A demon from Aead, in Verta, and not as part of one of their armies? And… actually talking to a mortal? He would have to think about this later.
He turned back to his companions. “I believe we have our information,” he said.
“Yeah,” Ermok said. “A demon in Verta? One that’s actually from Aead? That’s… weird, right?”
“Yes,” Cain nodded. “This merits further investigation.”
“Got it,” Ermok nodded back. “What will you do with these ones, then?” he asked, looking around at the captured Cultists.
For just a moment, Cain thought about it.
Admittedly, all of what he’d just said had been a bluff. He had never been one to actually torture or kill people for information. But the fact was, killing these Cultists would be much easier than anything else. Dragging them off to prison would be enough of a hassle on its own, and then there was the fact that once they were prisoners, they’d be a continuous drain on their supplies. By comparison, killing them would be easy, and it wasn’t like they didn’t deserve it…
But that would be killing people who were now harmless.
And when he thought of it like that, the answer was clear. Like it had always been.
Lein considered the situation. His opponent, even if she was a bandit, was clearly an honorable person. And besides, even if she didn’t know it, this would be a duel between a mage and a Great Power – something very rare in and of itself. True, Lein often found himself in conflicts with mages, but generally, they were eliminated quickly and without much fanfare. Duels like this didn’t happen often.
In that case… it seemed amiss not to at least find out one thing first.
“But first,” he began, “mage of the Reds… what is your name?”
“I’m Aloetsdrimi,” she responded. “Glad you care.”
She grinned, readied her axe, and settled into a fighting stance.