Chapter 31: Upon the Green Plains

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“You know… I know you were joking before, but…” Cassius hesitated for a moment, as if trying to think of what, exactly, to say. “You had a point, actually. About what happened to Letholdus, I mean. Someone came for him because they didn’t like what he was doing, right? And… when you think about it, one day, someone’s probably going to come for you, too, aren’t they?”

Lily sighed, not bothering to look away from the window. “Ah. Is that what’s been bothering you this whole day?”

“I see you noticed,” Cassius said. “Well, I’m not sure what I expected.”

She sighed. “Yes. You’re right,” Lily said. “One day, someone’s going to take it upon themselves to punish me for everything I’ve done. One day, I’ll be hunted down by an assassin and killed in my own palace, or if not that, a rebellion’s going to overthrow me and cut my head off. I’ve been playing the game for a long time, Cassius, and I’ve been pretty good at it so far… but I’m not deluded enough to think I can keep winning forever.”

For a moment, there was silence. And then, Cassius chuckled lightly, as if he’d suddenly realized what Lily was trying to tell him. “That doesn’t bother you, does it?”

Lily smiled. “No. Everyone dies one day or another. And in any case, I don’t want a peaceful death or anything like that. I mean, do I seem like the sort of person to want that? As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be killed someday, maybe fairly soon – and when the time comes, I’d much rather go out with a bang than with a whimper. But until it does come, it’s not like there’s much I can do to stop it, so what point is there in worrying about it? Sure, I can delay it, and I fully intend to do that as long as possible, but I can’t stop it. So I’m not particularly bothered by the thought of that time coming. And until it does… well, why not just enjoy life?”

“I suppose,” Cassius said. “Still… I’m worried about you. I mean…” He hesitated for a moment. “Maybe you don’t care about your life, but… I do.”

“Ah,” Lily said, her tone suddenly a bit more sober. “I suppose I didn’t consider that. Well… I’m sorry, Cassius. But in any case, I’ll have to leave you sooner or later.” She turned around and looked at him, a bit of sadness in her eyes. “Don’t worry, though. I intend to stay with you as long as I can.”

“Thank you,” Cassius said. “That… makes me feel a bit better. Thanks, Lily.”

Lily chuckled. “Oh, don’t mention it. Besides, when you think about it… what kind of unjust world would it be where I, of all people, didn’t die?”

Quietly stepping up to her, Cassius laid a hand on her shoulder and turned to look out the window alongside her. “…Yeah. I suppose.”

“Sir Smith?” a man said, his horse’s slow trot a constant sound in the background of the scene, the sound of its hooves dispersing into the air and merging with the same sound coming from the dozen or so other horses riding alongside him. Each of the men on the horses bore swords and spears and shields, and each of them knew battle was coming.

“Yes?” the man at the front of the group of riders – Sir Horace Smith – answered.

“If he went where Lord Aeron says he has, he most likely ran away into the forest,” the man said, voicing his concern. “How are we supposed to find him there?”

Horace thought about it for a moment. “We will have to use the old methods. Search for any tracks or traces of his presence we can find, and see where they lead us.”

“Very well, Sir,” the man nodded. And the group proceeded onwards, now in silence, the only sound the beating of their horses’ hooves upon the ground.

These were, of course, soldiers of Sagnir, sent out by the Queen to capture the demon known as Letholdus. From what they’d been told, Lord Cassius Aeron had had an encounter with him on his journey back to Sagnir while he was coming back from his mission, and while Aeron had defeated him in battle, the demon had managed to run away and, despite Lord Aeron’s determined pursuit, escape. So now, these dozen or so men were going in the direction Letholdus was last seen so that they might finish what Lord Aeron started, and bring the Cultist of the Burning Eye back to Queen Lily to face justice.

They did not speak to each other as they went. There was nothing to talk about, after all. They all knew what they had to do, and they knew it was critical that they perform the task to the best of their abilities. Getting distracted now would not do, not when they were heading out to capture a dangerous enemy of the realm. So they rode in silence, concentrated upon their mission.

What they did not know, of course, was that at this very moment, there were another two people heading towards the very same target these men were pursuing.

“I feel so tiny up here…” Ermok muttered, looking down from the great beast’s back.

“Heh, yeah. That’s how it always feels for you people when you ride on a gortrak,” Inquisitor Linaflivi said with a chuckle in her voice, and Ermok couldn’t help but feel he was being mocked. “Don’t worry, it’s normal.”

“Thanks,” Ermok muttered. “That makes me feel better.”

Linaflivi chuckled lightly. Okay, Ermok thought, that was definitely just to mock him.

The gortrak was an odd beast from the mountains that looked… well, it was certainly unique, that was for sure. If Ermok had to describe it, he’d probably say it was something like a bull-horse-sheep… only about twice as large as the biggest of those things. Its huge frame was covered in thick white wool, but its build was lean and muscly and made for speed, and two huge horns protruded from its forehead. They’d only been domesticated recently (well, relatively recently – it had still been a few hundred years ago), mostly because the deirae, dwelling to the east on their mountain range, saw the humans and the alkites riding horses and wanted to do the same thing. But of course, they couldn’t, because no horse could ever carry anything as large as a deira – so they’d domesticated gortraks instead. And while the name was slightly silly, Ermok had to admit that they did their job, and they did it well. The beast had carried both Ermok himself and Linaflivi for a good thirty minutes or so now, and all that time, it barely even seemed to notice their weight. Was it even feeling exhausted? Ermok honestly couldn’t tell.

In either case, he was thankful Linaflivi happened to own one. Going on missions with deiran comrades was always… awkward, to say the least – they couldn’t ride horses due to their size, so generally, the rest of the Inquisitors with them had to go on foot too, slowing the mission down significantly. Ermok had nothing against deirae – if anything, he rather liked them – but… it was a rather unfortunate issue. But it was an issue conveniently solved by the gortrak, which could easily carry both of them and make even better time than a horse ever could (not because it moved particularly fast, as such – its massive legs just meant each of its steps covered a lot of ground).

And that was just as well, because Ermok had a feeling this particular mission would require quite a bit of speed. After Ermok had delivered to Cain the news about the barrier weakening, the Head Inquisitor had decided that finding out more about the barrier was their new top priority, and so, the Arcane Temple – the Inquisition’s headquarters – had turned into a frantic hive of activity. And as Cain had said before, they only really had one lead for now – the Cult of the Burning Eye.

Of course, not all the Inquisitors were sent to hunt down the Cult. After all, the theory of their involvement was still just a theory for now, and it would be stupid to use all of the Inquisition’s manpower pursuing a potential dead end. But even if not all the Inquisition’s manpower was being used on this chase, much of it was, and Ermok approved of that. In this sort of situation, as far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as being too cautious.

He himself, of course, was also participating in the hunt. His partner was Inquisitor Linaflivi Milreus, and while he hadn’t met her before – well, except for passing her a few times in the Arcane Temple’s hallways – from what he’d heard, she was a powerful mage and a good person, even by the Inquisition’s standards. And from the hour or so he’d spent with her so far as they’d prepared for this mission and set out, he had to say that he liked her, too. At the very least, she had a penchant for brightening the mood, and while Ermok knew that some Inquisitors were strictly against that sort of thing – they thought anything like that could disrupt an Inquisitor’s concentration and make them take the job less seriously, which could have potentially disastrous consequences – Ermok himself had never been one of them. Personally, he was glad to have someone around to take a bit of the stress away.

Because Ermok couldn’t deny it – he was worried. The Inquisition had figured out early on that whatever was behind that barrier, it was bad. The Inquisitors they’d sent in – the ones that thing had killed – proved more than just the fact that it was malevolent. After all, they’d been powerful mages, one and all – one had to be, if they wanted to be an Inquisitor. And yet, the thing inside had killed all of them, even when they’d sent in half a dozen at once. Which meant that not only was it powerful enough to beat six Inquisitors in a straight-up fight, it also had the capabilities – and the inclination – to stop them from even escaping.

And if Cain’s wild guess was right – and Ermok had to admit it made sense – that thing was the Archdemon himself, the evil god that the Cult of the Burning Eye had worshipped for as long as anyone remembered. And while Ermok had no precise information on what the “power of a god” entailed, if the stories about the Great Powers were anything to go by, it was nothing to scoff at.

And now, whatever was inside was one step closer to being unleashed onto the world.

So yes, of course Ermok was nervous. If they failed here, it was entirely possible it would mean the end of the world as they knew it, and the blame would rest on their shoulders for failing to stop it.

But Linaflivi, for her part, didn’t seem to share much of his anxiety – and Ermok was glad for that. As long as she was being happy and lighthearted and casual, and as long as she was joking around and not really taking this seriously, Ermok could forget about at least a bit of the burden that was on their shoulders right now.

“So, Ermok,” Linaflivi said, turning to him. “We’ve been together for about an hour or so now, and I still haven’t asked you anything, have I? Which is weird, since you’d think that if I were with someone like you, I’d take the first possible opportunity to ask you all about your adventures.” She grinned at him. “So, let’s fix that issue! We’ve got a good bit left to ride, so I’ll have plenty of time to listen. So, any stories in particular you want to tell?”

Ah, right. Ermok tended to forget that he was actually rather well-known and respected throughout the ranks of the Inquisition, and he supposed that – with the new people in particular – he held a certain bit of mystique. It made sense that Linaflivi would ask something like that – she’d probably heard a lot about him already, and someone like her would definitely want to hear some stories.

“Well… I’ve got a few, I guess,” Ermok said. “But I don’t think they’re exactly what you’re looking for. Sorry to disappoint you, Lina, but I don’t think the life of an Inquisitor is quite as romantic and fantastic as you think.”

“Well, that’s okay,” Linaflivi smiled back. “I just want to hear about some of what you’ve done! I mean, I know you’re one of our best people, right? I mean, even the Head Inquisitor respects you! So, come on! Tell me at least a bit of what you’ve done, okay?” She made a sad little face at him. “Please?”

Ermok sighed. “Alright. So, once upon a time…”

“You there!”

It had taken longer than they expected. Several hours had passed since the start of this expedition – Letholdus had covered his tracks well. But not well enough. It’d taken them a long while, but eventually, after a search that had seemed to go on forever, they’d found evidence to suggest that the Cultist had headed out of the forest since Lord Aeron had first driven him there. From there, it was easier. They had started following that trail the moment they’d picked it up, and fortunately, it seemed Letholdus hadn’t bothered to even try and cover it up – perhaps he’d assumed no one would ever find it. If so, that had been a mistake.

The path, which was now mercifully clear, had taken them for a short walk over open fields before they’d been forced to cross a river. Fortunately, though it was a minor river, there was a bridge over it, which they’d been able to use to get over easily – Letholdus probably must have swam across it, since he’d want to avoid any other people. After that, they followed the trail to a small cluster of mountains near the west – nothing more, really, than a few rocky peaks rising up near the shore of the sea – and once they’d navigated that terrain, they’d found Letholdus, alongside a small group of Cultists, hiding out between the peaks.

Clearly, the group hadn’t expected to be found.

As Horace Smith shouted out his presence, his words echoing through the mountains and ringing with the clarity and confidence and will of authority, the demons turned as one towards him and his group of men. They flinched back, their faces – almost to a man – perfect expressions of shock.

Horace recognized Letholdus among them. He regained his composure quickly and, his shock replaced by a ferocious scowl, growled “Who are you?”

“We are soldiers of the nation of Sagnir,” Horace answered. “Letholdus, you stand accused of the crime of attacking a noble of the kingdom as well as his bodyguards, and of attempting to murder them. Surrender now, and the Queen may yet show mercy to you.”

“I know about your Queen, and I know of her “mercy”.” Letholdus snarled back. “Did you truly think you would deceive me so easily, knight? Or did you actually believe her words?” He grunted disdainfully. “No, it doesn’t matter. In either case, I’ve seen past her mask a long time ago. I’ve seen what she truly is, knight. I won’t surrender to that monster.”

“Monster?” Horace’s eyes narrowed. Something like that… he couldn’t let an insult to the Queen, especially one like that, go unpunished. “Very well. Men, take him! And cut down any of the demons who stand in your way!”

The men began their charge with a thunderous shout, and for a moment, Letholdus just stared at them. And then…

His face spread, slowly, into a cruel smirk.

“I trust you’ve heard that, Acenath,” he said slowly, as if savoring the words. “Well?”

“Yes,” a booming voice said from somewhere to the right. “I have.”

As Horace turned to the right, he saw something that was not there before. Coming down into the valley, having emerged from a small crevice where they could not see it, was a… thing. He was a creature that looked somewhat like Letholdus – his skin pale red and rough, his face distorted and bestial, and his mouth filled with sharp fangs. Just like Letholdus, he resembled, at least superficially, a man – he stood upright, and his eyes faced forward, and his hands were built to grab and manipulate objects. Clearly, he, too, was a demon.

But this one was enormous. It was at least twice the size of a man… but somehow, Horace got the impression that this “Acenath” was massive even by the standards of his species. No, in fact, it wasn’t right to say he was twice the size of a man – even two and a half men would only reach to his nose. He towered over the battlefield, making everyone else present look like mere ants.

On his body, he wore clothes that seemed more like loose fabric falling around him than actual clothing – though, Horace supposed, it could pass for a sort of makeshift robe. And in his hand, there was an enormous blade, one that made the weapons of all his compatriots seem like nothing more than shards of steel – a sword that only a being as massive as this Acenath could wield.

And the enormous thing – the enormous thing that had, somehow, been hiding perfectly from them until this very moment – lumbered onto the battlefield, his steps making noises like small earthquakes, the stench of his breath carrying on the wind to Horace’s men. Horace looked at it with blank eyes, and suddenly, a feeling of doom crept up his spine.

How could his men fight that? How could they possibly face something like that?

No, there had to be a way. After having come all this way, after having prepared to apprehend Letholdus for the glory of Queen Lily and after assembling this company of men for that purpose, after being so confident that there was no way he could be foiled, he refused to accept that there was no way around something like this. One way or another, that demon would fall. He’d throw away all his men if he had to, but he would kill it…!

His men backed away behind him, shrinking in shock and fear from the thing coming into the valley. Horace gritted his teeth. If they refused to fight now…

The demon, Acenath, stood in front of the Cult’s camp. He raised his massive sword, pointing its tip straight at Horace. And for just a second, though he’d never admit it, the sight sent a flutter of fear through the knight’s stomach.

“I wait,” Acenath growled, his voice a deep roar that sounded as if it was coming from the mountain itself. “Begin, human.”

Horace’s jaw clenched, and his eyes set into a determined expression as he stared the demon down. “Attack! Kill that thing, men!”

And he rushed down into the valley.

There was a bit of hesitation, and Horace knew the men behind him were having doubts now – but they rushed down too, following him onto the battlefield. They screamed to the skies as they ran, shouting their defiance at the titan standing in front of them. Their swords were upraised, light glinting off steel edges as they rushed to cut down the creature that blocked their way.

Acenath grinned.

Horace reached the demon first, and with a quick flash of his blade, he cut into his thigh. But his blade couldn’t bite deep enough to reach the artery, and Acenath did not even flinch. With a grunt, Horace pulled at his sword, trying to get it free of Acenath’s flesh – but before he could, a meteor of red flew at him, Acenath’s fist heading straight for his chest. With a flash of panic, Horace’s eyes widened and he tried, desperately, to yank the sword free… but an instant later, there was the sound of impact, and the world exploded into blinding pain.

Horace was sent flying away, his sword still stuck in Acenath’s leg. He scrambled to his feet quickly, willing away the haze the pain had brought onto him. He could not afford to be disoriented, not now. At this moment, he was here to ensure Letholdus’ apprehension – and to ensure the obstacle that stood in their way was defeated. He could not let his judgement be impaired.

Fortunately, he hadn’t landed in the bandits’ camp. He’d been sent flying away from the battlefield, where he was relatively safe as long as the demons didn’t come for him. But he was unable to rejoin the fight, either. His sword was lost, and he would never be able to recover it without being smashed or cut to pieces. All he could do was stand and watch his men attack Acenath.

With a wild animal’s grin splitting his face like something out of a nightmare, Acenath pulled back his blade, readying it for an attack. Horace saw what he was trying to do, what he was planning. His swordsmanship was amateurish, barely better than a child’s would have been. Any competent swordsman – anyone like Horace – would easily be able to read him. In a contest of skill, he had no chance against any of Horace’s men.

But that didn’t matter.

As the tide of Horace’s men rushed forwards, the enormous blade Acenath wielded swung in a wicked crescent, aiming straight for their heads. One of them placed their own sword in front of it, and it didn’t matter. Acenath’s sword broke through the man’s blade as easily as through paper, and with a single swing, three of his men’s heads were taken off.

The rest of his men didn’t even seem to notice, so caught up were they in their assault. As they rushed forward, Acenath met them with another wild swing, splitting four of them in half before they even reached him. He swept them away like a vicious wave washing away ants – like an unstoppable force of nature, put up against mere humans foolish enough to think they could control it. This creature – Acenath – was no warrior, Horace realized. There was no grace, no skill, no discipline in his movements – and nor could any of his men’s attacks on him be called a “fight”. He was simply a cyclone of death, a savage guardian who destroyed any that dared so much as come near him.

Acenath’s grin grew even wilder as he advanced further, smashing his sword down on Horace’s men with an overhead swing that cracked the ground and split a man in half. Blood splattered on Acenath’s face, getting into one of his eyes, and it only seemed to make him more excited. He snarled something wickedly satisfied in a language Horace could not understand – it must have been the language of demons – and, with another sweep of his blade, forced the men near him back.

He advanced, and Horace’s men fell back.

The enormous demon raised his sword to the sky, shouting an earthshaking battlecry, and rushed forward, blade swinging with wild abandon. Horace’s men turned and ran, running for their lives back up the mountain slopes. Acenath cut through them, cutting twos and threes down at once with every sweep of his sword – and every kill only added to the panic of those who remained.

Horace rushed towards him.

Acenath was a being greater than him. He stood no chance in a direct confrontation. But neither could he stand back and watch this beast drive them back – and he had a plan. In this moment, Acenath was distracted. If he tore the sword free from his leg and, before the demon could react, struck once more and severed the artery in the leg… he could still bring it down.

But the sound of his boots pounding on the ground must have tipped the demon off. He turned at Horace, a curious glint in his eyes, and before Horace could reach him, the giant sword swept down at him-

And then, all of a sudden, something Horace could not see struck Acenath like a massive fist in the chest, and sent him sliding away.

“Go!” Ermok shouted, and Linaflivi spurred the gortrak into action.

They didn’t know who the timor was, or why he was there, but it was likely he was working with the Cult. Nor did they know who the men attacking the Cult’s camp were. But neither of those things mattered. As far as Ermok was concerned, until proven otherwise, all those men were simply trying to do the right thing. But if the Inquisition didn’t step in, they’d be slaughtered.

So it was time for them to step in.

The gortrak bounded down the mountainside, moving nearly no slower than it would on flat ground. For a beast native to the Deiran Mountains, something like this was nothing. As it went, its huge, tough hooves struck the stone, creating a din that rang out through the valley and echoed off the nearby mountains. At once, the timor turned to face the two of them, his sword in hand and an interested expression on his face – but the gortrak seemed unimpressed by his massive bulk or huge blade. It thudded down the mountainside, taking the Inquisitors into the valley with the swiftness of the wind and leading them to the battle.

“Can you hit him like that again?” Ermok yelled over the din.

“No,” Linaflivi grunted. “That took a lot out of me as is. Bloody hell, timors are heavy…”

“Now you know my struggle…” Ermok murmured. “Look, I’m not as powerful as you, not as far as sheer power goes. I definitely can’t do something like that, not even once. You know what you have to do, Linaflivi. Can you do it?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Probably.”

“Best we’ll get, I guess,” Ermok said. “Go!” He leapt off the gortrak, using a cushion of wind to soften his landing and bring him down onto the mountainside before running the last few meters down to the valley. A moment later, Linaflivi brought the beast to a halt and leapt off herself, drawing her own sword even as she fell.

She didn’t hesitate, attacking with the aggression of someone who knew they had to act quickly – and, Ermok couldn’t help but notice, the unthinking confidence of someone who hadn’t been in many true swordfights. Still, in this case, it would serve her well. Even if Linaflivi lacked real experience, she was still trained by the Inquisition, and even if it was primarily a magical institution, it still held sword skills in high regard. The timor seemed, to Ermok, like nothing more than an unskilled bandit using his size and his strength to his advantage – and against Linaflivi, a deira, both of those advantages would be reduced massively. In a battle like that, the more skilled person would come out on top, and Ermok had no doubts that that would be Linaflivi.

As for Ermok himself, he had other things to do. He turned towards the Cultists’ camp – the camp the timor was protecting from the men bearing down on it – and rushed towards it, sword in hand and mind already readied to use magic.

Behind him, he heard an enormous sound of steel ringing and clashing, and he knew the duel he’d turned his back to had started.

Swords flashed in front of Horace’s eyes, and he could scarcely believe what he was seeing.

No, on the surface, he knew exactly what he was seeing. Those black robes, that silver pin – the two creatures that had arrived to rescue them were members of the Inquisition, the society of mages dedicated to protecting the people from that from which they could not protect themselves. The one who had dashed off to face the camp of Cultists was an alkite, one of the insectoid humanoids from the southern half of Aphage. And the one now facing off against Acenath was a deira – one of the enormous goatlike creatures from the mountains to the east. Female, from the sound of her voice, and assuming he hadn’t heard wrong, her name was Linaflivi.

But it was all so sudden. A moment ago, he’d thought it was over. And now…

Still, concern bubbled within Horace. The enormous demon was, as he’d seen before, about two and a half grown men tall. But the deira now facing him was only slightly more than half that size. If he had to guess, if the demon was about as tall as two and a half men, she was about as tall as one and a half. Which made sense – that was how tall deirae were, in general.

So he couldn’t help but think that she was still at a disadvantage. But it only took a few moments of fighting for him to reconsider that opinion.

He’d already realized, back during the brief battle, that Acenath was an amateur at swordplay. Before, that hadn’t mattered – his sheer size was more than enough to defeat all of Horace’s men. But against the deira, it was different. Now, he could see there was an enormous gap in their skill level – and it was a gap too large to close with Acenath’s now comparatively more minor advantage.

Acenath went for a wild sweep at her neck as she approached, and though her eyes darted wildly to the blade and Horace saw a sudden burst of fear and adrenaline flash across her expression, she managed to regain control of herself before she accidentally did something stupid and quickly ducked under the blade. The demon overextended himself, having been too confident in the swing, and couldn’t bring his sword back quickly enough. Linaflivi lunged at him, thrusting straight at his heart with her own blade, and he only barely managed to deflect the blade and force it just slightly off-course.

But even though he managed to defend himself from that blow, it didn’t matter. The deira retreated back into her stance quicker than her enemy could possibly strike, not giving Acenath even a moment of opportunity before advancing towards him again. With deadly speed, she swept low, aiming at the demon’s legs. He caught the blow on his own sword, and the two blades locked – and then, the deira grinned fiercely at him, and punched him in the face. With a grunt, he stumbled back, flinching, his guard dropped – and that one opportunity was all the deira needed. There was a flash of steel, and the deira’s blade shot out like a steel serpent lunging for its prey. It found Acenath’s heart.

Quickly, she yanked the blade free with a little flourish, and, with a little grimace of distaste on her face, turned away from Acenath. His eyes widened for a moment, staring at the deira as if uncomprehending, and then, his expression went slack and he fell to the ground, his blood pouring out onto the valley.

Horace looked past the slain demon, to the camp where the Cultists had been. But it seemed the alkite Linaflivi had arrived with had taken care of them already. All the demons that were there had already been killed or knocked out or subdued. The alkite stood over Letholdus, sword at the demon’s throat, free hand pointed straight at the Cultist’s face in case he needed to cast some magic.

He looked up at the deira. “Lady?”

“Uh?” The deira blinked suddenly, as if only now remembering his presence. “Oh, yes. Sorry. You’re welcome, by the way.”

Horace bowed to her. “Thank you, Inquisitor. You saved our lives.”

She smiled a bit, though Horace could tell it was a bit forced. He saw what it was. It was written all over her face – she hadn’t killed many people before. So for her, it still hurt whenever she killed someone, and she’d just been forced to kill someone in a swordfight – where she would have to look into his eyes, see the emotion on his face, and drive her blade into his heart anyway.

He felt sorry for her. Something like that… it wasn’t easy. Eventually, people got used to it. Horace had gotten used to it a long time ago. But the memories of the first few times he’d killed someone still haunted him from time to time.

“Y-yeah. You’re welcome,” the deira said. “Uh… Sir…?”

“Horace Smith,” Horace said. “You would be… Inquisitor Linaflivi, correct? I heard your partner speaking about you.”

“Yep,” she nodded, and pointed a thumb at the alkite. “That’s Ermok over there.”

“Again, thank you,” Horace said, nodding slightly to her. “Without you, we would’ve died.”

“Y-yeah. It’s no problem,” she said. “Just doing our job. Uh… hey, let’s go over there, okay? Don’t want to exclude Ermok.” She walked over to where the alkite stood, sword still at Letholdus’ throat, and Horace followed her.

As they approached, Letholdus growled at him. “Yooouuu…”

And then, a blast of wind came from Ermok’s outstretched palm, and Letholdus’ head smacked against the ground. He fell unconscious in an instant.

“There,” Ermok said. “Now we can talk undisturbed. So, why were you here, anyway?”

“We are soldiers of Sagnir, Inquisitor,” Horace said, inclining his head slightly in respect. “Our Queen has sent us to capture him.”

Ermok considered it for a moment, and then shrugged. “Alright. He’s yours, then. We need information, but I’m pretty sure any of the other ones here can give it to us too, so we’re fine. Besides, that’s one less Cultist to figure out what to do with.”

“Thank you, Inquisitor,” Horace nodded.

“Just be careful. He’s a mage,” Ermok said. “And there’s really nothing to thank me for. Who am I to obstruct the law of a kingdom?”

“Regardless, you, too, have saved our lives,” Horace said. “For that, you have my gratitude.”

“Like Linaflivi said – we’re just doing our jobs,” Ermok shrugged. “Though, there is something I’d like to ask you. I doubt you’ve actually got an answer for this, but… might as well try.”

“What is it?” Horace asked.

“Recently, the Cult of the Burning Eye has been behaving oddly,” Ermok said. “And a demon from Aead has been spotted in Verta recently. To me, this implies that there’s something going on over in Aead. By any chance, would you happen to know anything about that?”

At that, Horace hesitated for a moment. Surprisingly enough, he had heard rumors about something like that. Nothing concrete, but there were a few things he’d heard. And yet some of those rumors he’d heard spoke of the Queen being involved with it – and if she was, and he hadn’t heard anything concrete yet, it was because she wanted to keep it secret. And if she wanted to keep it secret, did Horace have the right to speak of it?

But… these Inquisitors had just saved his life. One way or another, he had to repay them.

“Yes, actually,” he said. “I have only heard rumors, but… it seems there is some sort of unrest in Aead.”

And he told them. He didn’t tell them everything, of course. He left out the parts about the Queen, or about Sagnir in general being in any way involved. But he told them the rest. He told them about the stories of something happening among the demons – of something odd happening outside the mortals’ view.

He told them about the rumored rebellion in Aead.

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