For a few seconds, the air itself seemed to freeze.
Nothing moved. Nothing so much as twitched. Behind him, Melthar could still hear the sounds of battle, the din of men killing and dying to hold the wall. But that didn’t matter now. His entire attention was focused wholly on the inner city, where the duel had taken place.
Janus stepped away from the dead Councillor, blade still sheathed. With a ferocious roar, one of the timors Ihab had brought with him charged forward, rushing straight for Janus.
But the aeadite didn’t draw his sword, didn’t prepare to fight. He just stood there, calm and composed, and said, with clarity and authority that rang through the air, “Halt.”
And the timor did.
“Men… you have seen the battle’s outcome,” Janus said, his voice stoic and commanding… and respectful. “You understand that this is what Councillor Ihab would have wished for, do you not? He is a man who has always lived for battle. An end like this was an unavoidable fate… and, for what it’s worth, I respect him for not shrinking away from it even at the very end. He lived the way he always had up until the very end, never letting fear or concern or doubt sway him from his path. Do you think he would want you to dishonor that way of life now?”
There was silence for a few moments. The timor stepped back into line.
“I am sorry,” Janus said. “I understand that you respected him greatly. And… I do too. That man was a true warrior. So please, men. Do not dishonor his memory now.”
There was silence for a while, and bits and pieces of whispered conversation and shuffling feet, and no one seemed quite sure what to do. But eventually, slowly, the horde of timors dispersed. Melthar didn’t know if it was out of the respect Janus had tried to instill in them, or out of simple fear of the Legendary Swordsman, or for some other reason entirely… but they left in peace.
With a simple thought, Melthar moved in an instant, appearing next to Janus. “Well done,” he nodded to him.
“Thank you, Melthar,” Janus replied. “I’ve said it before… I’m useless in a war. So this was the least I could do.”
Melthar looked at the dead Councillor. “You could’ve left him to me, you know,” Melthar said. “Why didn’t you?”
“You saw how they reacted, didn’t you?” Janus said. “The timors, I mean. Do you think they would’ve been willing to leave so easily if it’d been you who killed Ihab? It was an honorable duel, and that was why I was able to convince them to respect its sanctity. There would have been no honor in you simply killing him with a stray thought.” He stood silently for a while, looking at his enemy. “And besides… it’s how he would have wanted to die, don’t you think?”
“I won’t dispute the second point,” Melthar said. “You’re right. It’s what he would’ve wanted, and I appreciate that you gave it to him – I’ve always had a bit of affection towards him too. But… about the timors, so what? They weren’t an army. It wouldn’t have been difficult for me to kill all of them too.”
“Yeah. It wouldn’t have been,” Janus said. “But… think about it for a moment. I know no one but you and those timors witnessed this fight, but… what do you think they’ll do now? Somehow, I don’t see them just going back to their siege after that. After they saw something like that… what do you think will happen?”
“Oh, I see what you’re getting at,” Melthar smiled. “One of those “honor” things, huh? Can’t say I could ever get behind that sort of thing.”
Janus shrugged. “Fair enough, but that doesn’t matter. In any case… I don’t know what they’ll do, but you can be assured of one thing – at the very least, they’ll spread the word. And…”
“Once the rest of them hear what happened here, that might just make them disperse too,” Melthar said, finishing Janus’ thought. “Right?”
“Well, we’ve got no way to know for sure. And it’s a long shot, admittedly. But… yes, it’s the best shot we’ve got,” Janus said.
“Let’s hope it works out, then,” Melthar said. He looked down at Ihab. “We’ll have to bury him properly, right?”
“Of course,” Janus said. “But… unfortunately, that must wait.”
“Yeah,” Melthar nodded gravely. “Let’s go see what things are like out there.”
Melthar didn’t know for sure what the enemy army was muttering about amongst themselves. He didn’t know what it was, exactly, that made their attack slow down, and finally made them stop climbing the walls entirely. But he could make a good enough guess.
Slowly, the battlefield found itself at a standstill. The Council’s army still surrounded the wall. But they didn’t climb their ladders, didn’t try to assault the defenders. And as for the defenders themselves, with no enemy to defend from, they didn’t have anything to do in any case.
But it wasn’t just that. More than just the fact that the attack itself had stopped, there was an unmistakable feeling of an unspoken truce settling over the city. The hostility in the air had vanished, replaced by a sense of… well, respect, Melthar supposed. He could still feel the tension in the air, the readiness each side had to respond to the other if they tried anything… but for now, at least, there would be no conflict. It was an agreement that had been come to silently, a contract signed with the blood spilled in the duel. For now, at least, there would be peace.
At a snail’s pace, but accelerating as it went, the now leaderless army started to disperse. At first it was just a few of the people around the edges turning around and just leaving, but slowly, more and more of the soldiers decided that, at least for now, they’d had enough. The choking sea of red skin and metal armor that surrounded the wall slowly evaporated, the Council’s demons turning away from the wall and heading back out to the outskirts of Redgate. And as it happened, Melthar could feel the last traces of tension in the air vanish, fading out slowly until, at last, the air settled down and the men around the wall relaxed.
Melthar looked at the aftermath of the battle. Across the wall men lay dead, defenders cut down by the attacking Council forces or felled by lucky shots from the Council’s bowmen. And the Council’s soldiers, too, lay with them – scattered across the wall alongside the people they had fought against just minutes ago, now lying in eternal peace side by side. Beneath the wall, more of the Council’s force lay slain – demons thrown from the wall by the defenders or pierced with spears and swords and arrows, staining the red soil even redder with their blood. Not long ago, all those demons had fought tooth and nail, killing one another for their dreams and their ideals and whoever they were loyal to. But now, at the end of it all, they all lay side by side, every single one of them equal in their final slumber.
It wouldn’t be the last Melthar would see of this kind of bloodshed. Of course it wouldn’t be. This was a war. There would be more battles to come. And in each of them, demons would fight and kill and die just like they had here, and just like had happened here, at the end of it all, only a tragically beautiful landscape of blood would be left to mark the field of death. And again and again, Melthar would see people die for what they believed in, rebels and loyalists to the Council alike. It was the only way such a war could go.
But… for now, at least… even if it was only a temporary peace… the slaughter was over.
Archmage Cain Nihil looked at the Inquisitor in front of him with narrowed eyes. “Inquisitor Adrim,” he nodded at the insectoid alkite standing in the doorway of his chamber.
Adrim. The family name of one of the Head Inquisitor’s most trusted people – Inquisitor Ermok. And now, that man stood at his door, a grave expression on his face. Even Cain, a human who – like most humans – had some difficulty telling alkite facial expressions apart, could see that he was concerned about something.
“Head Inquisitor,” Ermok nodded. “May I close the door? I… feel like we should discuss this privately.”
“Of course,” Cain responded, and Ermok shut the door to the chamber.
With that done, the alkite turned back to him. “Thank you, Head Inquisitor,” he said. “Though… would you mind if I dropped the formality?”
“Please,” Cain said.
“Thank you, Cain,” Ermok replied.
“What is it, Ermok?” Cain asked. “There’s something bothering you.”
“You could put it that way, I suppose,” Ermok said. “Though I feel like that might be a bit of an understatement.”
Cain closed his eyes. If that was what Ermok thought, this had to be truly serious…
“What is it?” Cain asked.
“It’s about the barrier in Altermin,” Ermok said.
At that, Cain’s eyebrows rose. The barrier in Altermin… it was a magical construct that had existed for as long as anyone remembered, and even the Inquisition only had a vague idea of its purpose. It seemed to be created to keep something inside, but that was as much as any of them knew. They’d tried to figure out what it was keeping imprisoned a few times – of course they had – but all the Inquisitors they’d sent to investigate had never come back, so after a while, they’d given up. Some elements within the Inquisition still desired the investigations to continue, but… Cain wasn’t going to throw away his men’s lives on something like that. It wasn’t harming anyone except whoever it was keeping contained, and judging by what the thing inside had done to everyone who’d been sent, it hardly deserved to go free. So as far as Cain was concerned, they’d be much better off leaving it alone. He’d sent a few Inquisitors to check on the barrier every so often to make sure nothing was going on with it, but until something happened, that would be the extent of his interference with it.
But according to Ermok, something had now, indeed, happened. And depending on what, exactly, was contained inside… well, the possibilities were terrifying.
“I see,” Cain said. “What happened?”
“Sir, the Inquisitors assigned to the barrier noticed a significant decrease in its magical power,” Ermok said. “We don’t have details, but if it was detectable simply from analysing the barrier, the drop must have been large indeed.”
“Hm,” Cain murmured. Anyone who used magic had a certain ability to sense it – to feel its ebb and flow as it was summoned into being and coursed through the air. But it was a sense normally far too vague to be useful. Certain mages dedicated much of their training to honing that sense, sharpening it like a blade until they could use it to detect what another mage would do before they did it – but even then, even trained like that, it could only provide a very basic image. So for a simple drop in magical power to be noticed by that sense alone (and it had to be by that sense alone – all the Inquisitors there had strict orders to avoid interacting with the barrier directly)… it must have been massive, on a scale almost beyond what Cain could even imagine.
“Have any other changes been observed?” Cain asked.
“Not yet,” Ermok said, shaking his head. “But I think we both know something’s happening.”
“Yes,” Cain agreed. “One more thing: Did this drop in power take place over a period of time, or was it instant?”
“From the reports, it seems like it was basically instant,” Ermok said. “Which means…”
“It means whatever’s inside is trying to get out,” Cain said. “It’s lashing out at the barrier. And if it’s that powerful, the barrier probably won’t be able to hold it for long.”
“Exactly, sir,” Ermok said. “There’s a lot about the barrier we don’t know, but… whatever’s inside there, it definitely isn’t good. And judging by how hard it hit the barrier, and the fact that it apparently killed every Inquisitor we sent its way so far…”
“It’s dangerous,” Cain nodded. “Very dangerous.”
“Sir, what is our next move?” Ermok asked.
Cain sighed softly as he looked vaguely at the roof, clasping his hands in contemplation. “You know, Ermok… I think I might have an idea of what the thing inside that barrier is. I can’t be sure, and I’m tempted to think I must be wrong, but… judging from the things that have happened recently…”
“What is it?” Ermok said.
“This is only a guess, but…” Cain hesitated for a bit. “Think back a bit. There’s one group in particular that’s been acting up lately, isn’t there? One group that’s going outside its usual norms, doing things we don’t normally associate with them and don’t seem useful to them in any way, and in general acting strangely.”
“The Cult of the Burning Eye,” Ermok said, finishing his thought for him. “But why would they…” He gasped suddenly, his eyes wide, his mouth half-open.
“Yes,” Cain said. “It seems impossible, right? But from the evidence… well, it’s not like there’s much evidence. But it’s the only possibility we’ve got any evidence for.”
“Then you think it’s…” Ermok said, not finishing the sentence.
“The Archdemon,” Cain nodded. “Perhaps he does exist after all… and perhaps that barrier’s the only reason we don’t know about it yet. And if I’m right, it’d explain a few things, too. For one, it’d go a long way towards explaining why the Cult seems so cohesive, so focused and so hard to just disperse – they’re not just a vague religion worshipping some idol, they’re actually taking orders from something that actually exists in this world.”
“And if that’s true, it makes more sense that they’d go after that woman,” Ermok said. “The one to whom a demon apparently spoke… it’s interesting, but a normal group of bandits wouldn’t go after her just for something like that, would they? But if they’re taking orders from the Archdemon, it makes more sense. After all, someone like that would surely have some sort of plan, and an event like that would probably have at least some impact on it… But if that’s true, what’s the point behind their other attacks? If they’re really the Archdemon’s servants rather than simple bandits, why would they keep acting like bandits?”
Cain shrugged. “If we’re right, the Archdemon’s still behind that barrier. As long as that’s true, the Cult is his only way of interaction with the outside world, so he probably can’t be doing something all the time – and when he is doing something, I doubt all the Cultists are involved in it. So the Cult has some free time, and they’ve got to supply themselves somehow… and the sort of people who’d work for the Archdemon probably wouldn’t have any qualms about murdering people to take their things. Or, for that matter, just because they got bored.”
“But then, why have we never seen them?” Ermok asked. “If the Cult really are the Archdemon’s servants, we should’ve been seeing them go in and out of the barrier to get their orders and report back. But we’ve never gotten any reports like that.”
“Of course we haven’t,” Cain said. “If they really are serving the Archdemon as we suspect, they’ve been very secretive about it so far. And it makes sense – after all, why would they reveal it to everyone when they could keep it a secret almost as easily? If no one knows the true magnitude of what they’re trying to do, there’ll be far less effort dedicated to stopping them. So it makes sense that they’d be careful to keep out of sight when going past the barrier… and given how few Inquisitors we have there, it wouldn’t be hard at all for them to get in and out unnoticed.”
“I suppose,” Ermok said. “But… still, we don’t have any proof, do we? It makes sense, but…”
“But it’s nothing concrete? Yes. It’s just a guess,” Cain admitted. “But right now, it’s the best shot we’ve got. After all, if it isn’t that, then we don’t have any clue at all what’s behind that barrier – and that’s hardly helpful.”
Ermok hesitated for a moment. “Very well,” he said. “Then what is our next move?”
“Next, if we can, it would be good to try and figure out how right we are,” Cain said. “Our next move must be against the Cult of the Burning Eye.”
“Welcome back, Lord Aeron,” Lily smiled, not bothering to conceal the cheer in her voice. She held out her hand for a handshake.
“I’m glad to see you again, my Queen,” he smiled back. With a quick motion, he bowed down and kissed her lightly on the back of the offered hand.
Lily smiled. It was a small thing, but… those kinds of actions were why she’d missed him so much. Perhaps it was silly and immature, perhaps it was childish… but Lily couldn’t care less. As far as she was concerned, anyone who could stave off her boredom was valuable for as long as they could do it. And Cassius… well, that made him the most important person in her life. Really, the only truly important person in her life.
“Generally,” Lily smiled, “it’s considered ill-mannered to do that unless the lady specifically offers her hand to be kissed.” It was an admonishment only in jest, and they both knew it.
“Oh, is it now?” Cassius replied. “Well, I suppose that’ll be one more thing to add to my list of social norms to ignore. Hi, Lily. Why don’t we drop the formality for now?” He tapped her lightly on the shoulder with the palm of his hand.
“Alright,” she responded, still smiling. It was a little stupid-looking, but that didn’t bother her at the moment. “Anything important you’ve got to tell me?”
“Nah,” he said, shaking his head. “Not really. I just got it all sorted and came back here as fast as I could.”
“Mmm,” Lily murmured. “And you’re sure it’s solved?”
“Come now, my Queen. When have I ever let you down?” he asked, perfect confidence dripping from his words.
Lily rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, plenty of times, Aeron.”
“Really now? Why, you must be misremembering things,” Cassius smiled. “I would never fail. At anything, really.”
At that, Lily couldn’t help herself (not that she particularly wanted to). She let out a light chuckle. “I suppose that must be the case,” she smiled back, deciding to humor him. It was more fun that way most of the time. And besides… well, no matter how much she liked making fun of him, he had done good work for her oftentimes in the past, and now, too, he’d just gotten back from a mission while she’d sat here in the castle twiddling her thumbs. After that, going along with him for a bit would be the least she could do, wouldn’t it?
“See? Exactly,” Cassius said, nodding slightly. “So, how are things back here, Lily? Anything you need to tell me about?”
“No, not particularly,” she said. “As boring as ever. I really am glad you’re back, you know.” She paused for a quick moment. “Well… there is one little thing, actually.”
“Actually, now that I think about it… yeah, I’ve got something to tell you about, too,” Cassius replied. “Well, anyway, what is it?”
Her eyebrows rose in curiosity. “Oh? You’ve got something, too?” She smiled at him. “You first, then. What’ve you got?”
“No, no,” Cassius said, waving her question away. “Ladies first. I insist.”
“Oh, don’t be like that, Cassius,” she replied, clasping her hands together. “You can go first. Tell me all about it. I’ll listen, trust me.”
The two of them looked at each other for a few seconds, a sly smirk on Lily’s face as Cassius tried to come up with something to say, ideas flashing through his eyes.
And so they looked at each other, silently, neither of them saying anything. But Lily was waiting for Cassius’ response.
And then, nothing happened.
And then, after a few moments of silence, they both, almost at once, burst out laughing.
“Oh, wow,” Cassius managed to say. “I’m glad we’re having this meeting in private… by the way, how many strings did you have to pull to get that to happen? It’s not exactly proper procedure for the Queen to meet her servant privately right after he returns, before he gets to see anyone else.”
“Quite a few,” Lily said, still chuckling a bit as she spoke. “You wouldn’t believe how bothersome this all is, really. I’m glad you’re back to help me deal with it all now.”
“And by “help you with it”, of course, you mean deal with it all for you,” Cassius smiled. “Well, don’t you worry, milady. I’ll do my very best to make sure you can keep on being lazy and doing nothing.”
Lily laughed. “Well said, Cassius. Well said.”
“Hey, it’s the truth,” he murmured. “Well, anyway. Getting back to what we were actually talking about… so, who’s going to go first?”
“How about you do it?” she smiled. “I’m curious to hear about the adventures you’ve had. And besides, I feel like what I’m going to say is something we want a bit of a buildup to.”
Cassius smiled crookedly at her. “Something that big, eh? Why do I get the feeling, my lady, that you’ve done something completely idiotic?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Lily replied. “I have.”
“Heh,” Cassius breathed. “You know, I shouldn’t even be surprised.”
“Are you?” Lily inquired.
“Not at all,” Cassius smiled back.
“Then everything is as it should be,” Lily said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“I suppose,” Cassius acceded. “So then, I suppose I ought to get to my story?”
“Yes, of course,” Lily said.
“Well then…” Cassius began, and paused for a moment to think. “Well, most of it would just bore you, honestly. You don’t mind if I stick to just the interesting bits, right?”
“Of course not,” Lily said. “Why, if you didn’t, I think I would have to see about getting a new advisor.”
“Threatening me now, milady?” her advisor said with a small chuckle. “Well, never mind. Point is… when this bit of the story happened, my mission was already done. I was with my escort of guards, we were riding back to Sagnir, everything was fine, everything was good… aaand then, as you might have guessed by the fact I’m telling you about this, everything was horrible.”
“Really now,” Lily said more than asked, a sceptical note in her voice.
“Well, “horrible” might be overstating it,” Cassius admitted. “But basically, we got ambushed by a bunch of Cultists of the Burning Eye. You know those guys, right?”
“Not personally,” Lily smiled. “But yes. I’m familiar with what they are. Really, Cassius, how uneducated do you think I am?” She chuckled lightly. “Well, in any case. From the way you’re talking about it, I get the feeling it wasn’t as simple as that. So, what happened then?”
“Hmm… you’ve heard of Letholdus, right?” Cassius asked. “Sadistic bastard who causes other people pain and suffering just for his own amusement…”
A small chuckle forced itself from Lily’s lips, even though this time, she actually tried to suppress it. Figuring it was useless not to just say what was on her mind now that that had happened, she smiled and asked “Who are you talking about, again?”
Cassius smiled knowingly at her. “Why, Letholdus, of course. Who else would I be talking about?” His words, of course, didn’t sound sincere at all. She would have been frankly disappointed if they did.
“Oh, someone else just came to mind who fits that profile,” Lily said with an ironic little smile, waving the thread of thought away. “Anyway… so, I guess he was there?”
“Yep,” Cassius said. “Though it seems he’s lost an arm since the last time we’ve seen him. You know – as you do.”
Lily sighed and shook her head. “So, someone chopped his arm off? Hmm… what’s this odd, foreboding feeling I’m getting?” she wondered aloud, her voice not actually worried in the slightest.
“It seems someone did,” Cassius nodded. “In any case, for whatever reason, he seemed to have some sort of grudge against mages in particular… at least, that was what he told me. So I guess it was probably one of those that did it. But in either case, whatever happened to Letholdus’ arm, we ended up duelling for a bit while my guards cleared out the rest of the Cultists around us. I won, of course… though just before I could land the final blow, the guards finished off the rest of the Cultists, turned to face Letholdus, and very rudely made him run away.”
“You won, did you?” Lily asked.
“Well… for a certain value of the word, I certainly did,” Cassius responded.
“So, you didn’t,” Lily sighed. “Well, never mind. Did you chase him or…?”
“Oh, I figured it wasn’t worth the effort,” Cassius shrugged. “Besides, having a random demon out there with a grudge against your kingdom seems sort of like something you’d like, doesn’t it?”
“I am touched by your concern for the wellbeing of me and my domain,” Lily said slowly and precisely, putting her hand on her heart. “…But yes. You’re right. It is the sort of thing that tends to bring a little excitement to life.”
“See, I knew you’d like it,” Cassius smiled. “You can consider it a gift, you know. From me to you!”
She arched an eyebrow. “Letting a Cultist of the Burning Eye live is your gift? Why, if I did not know any better, I would think you are trying to sabotage or perhaps even mock me.”
“Well, I’d never do the first of those,” Cassius said.
Lily chuckled. “That much, Cassius, I already know.”
“So, what are we going to do about Letholdus, then?” Cassius asked, and his voice changed a bit. There was just a tinge less silliness to it, just a bit less of that casual, carefree, joking tone he always assumed with her. It was still certainly there, and anyone else wouldn’t have even noticed the difference, but… Lily knew. This, even if it was being asked in this sort of context, even if it was being asked semi-jokingly and without any formality, was still a serious question.
For a moment, Lily pondered it. Just because it was a serious question didn’t mean Cassius necessarily wanted her to think strictly of what was best for the kingdom – if that was what he’d wanted, he’d have made the choice himself, and besides, a single demon really couldn’t do much to Sagnir anyway – so as far as she was concerned, she was free to choose what she would prefer. And as much as she liked the idea of having Letholdus somewhere out there, plotting against her, giving her an enemy to await and eventually defeat… it involved a little too much waiting for her tastes.
Yeah, yeah. She knew patience was a virtue and all that. But… lately, she’d just been so, so bored. Who could truly begrudge her for getting a bit impatient at a time like this?
“Hunt him down and bring him to me,” Lily said. “Sorry, Cassius. But I really have been getting so bored lately.”
“Alright,” Cassius nodded. “I’ll have that done.”
“So, anything else happen on your way home?” Lily asked.
“Nope,” Cassius said. “That’s about it. So, what about you? What’s happened here while I was gone?”
Lily smiled. “Well, funny thing, actually. This story involves demons too…”