As she walked down the dirt path, turned into a muddy trail by days of incessant rain, Vesla wondered whether she headed towards her salvation or ruin. The sky was overcast, clouds the colours of bruises lazily drifting, their periodic dustings of rain carried along by faint gusts of wind. The rain was enough to cause a slight shimmer to the veil the priest had cast upon her days earlier, a minor frustration but one that carried enough anxiety of discovery that she hurried along the path; this far out in the Eladrin borderlands, a hooded cloak would have been enough excuse for a wandering patrol to try and search her.
The site came into view, an oak tree split three ways by lighting, some ways to the west she could make out a small village of little note. There were plenty of villages of its kind in the region, settlements of perhaps a dozen villagers that weren’t even important enough to be given a name, let alone a spot on all but the most intricate of maps. The tree however was enough of a local legend to be relatively famous in the local area, most called it Thundertree, and one rather excitable Halfling traveller claimed a God had stepped foot in The World at that exact spot. The irony of his statement almost made Vesla want to laugh, if it weren’t for her abject terror at what was waiting for her.
He was waiting for her at the tree, sitting on one of the split ends, adopting an air of nonchalance as he idly spun a colossal sword in one hand. As was to be expected, his attire was as bizarre as it was subtly ostentatious; a grey waistcoat that featured jutting shoulders and long sleeves coupled with heavily ridged box-like pants that ended at the knee, finishing with a pair of velvet rounded shoes. Her heart sank as she saw the jet-black skin, eyes glimmering with barely concealed malice, six short horns sprouting from a shock of black hair. For all the claims from Alagor’s little priests that the agreement to only send emissaries had Asmodeus’ blessing and would therefore be respected, expecting a Demon to keep his word seemed a ridiculous notion to Vesla. Still, it was one thing to try and negotiate with a Demon, but to negotiate with an actual Demon Lord was another thing entirely.
“I thought Devils were meant to be a punctual lot.” The Dark Prince drawled, tossing his blade into the air and smirking her way as it vanished into nothingness at the apex of the throw. Vesla did her best to look confident as she walked up to the Demon Lord, though even with his somewhat unassuming appearance, she could feel the sheer waves of power he exuded. Considering this was a simple avatar of his will, she found herself shuddering to think what it was like to stand before the actual Prince in the flesh.
“Your instructions weren’t exactly precise, your grace.” Vesla replied with a stiff bow, making sure to never let him out of her sight.
“I fucked a king here once,” The Prince explained with a wave of his hand, as if the muddy fields were a grand city. “Or perhaps I killed one. Could’ve been both I suppose. Speaking of, your grace, now that’s a good way to describe me. Remind me to tell everyone to refer to me as that from now on. Maybe I’ll get lucky and it’ll get under that two-headed shit’s skin.”
Vesla frowned, before bowing once more with a curt “I will be sure to do so, your grace.”
“Careful now, I might hold you to that.” He said with a twinkle in his eyes, and laughed at his own joke. Damn, he was starting to take control of the conversation, precisely what Amelith had warned her about. She needed to force the conversation back on track.
“Have you considered the terms of our proposal?” She asked, causing him to cut his laughter short with a snort of derision.
“And here I thought I was known to be a deceiver,” He mused, leaning back in his seat and folding his hands behind his head in what felt like a mocking manner. “The agreement was already sealed, my forces are supplementing your little fortress as we speak, to the chagrin of just about everyone else in my humble abode. Your fortunate the elves and spiders are at such dagger-points, their queen would have been the only one truly able to cement an alliance with mortals if it weren’t for that.”
It took Vesla a moment to realize the meaning of his words. “So, I’m to be part of your price.” She muttered, thinking back to the hours of lessons Amelith had given her regarding the nature and history of Demons.
“Well, there were plenty of other concessions from my side and yours, but yes, you were part of the package,” The Prince said with a sardonic smile. “I’d always wanted a Devil for my collection, and even if you’re not a pure Devil per-say, I’ve heard you’re quite the looker. Speaking of, ditch the veil, it’s doing you no favours.”
With a sigh, Vesla willed the veil away, feeling it slip away like cold water trickling down from her head. He regarded her in silence, adopting an unusually serious expression as his eyes stopped at the point where her flesh split open to reveal the muscle underneath. He sat there in silence for some time, before closing his eyes and nodding to himself.
“I’ve been told you’ve been educated on the basics of your new way of life,” The Prince said, opening his eyes as the characteristic mocking smile returned. “Which means all that’s left is to send you back to the fortress where I’ll come to assess the situation and very graciously allow you to say your final goodbyes. Oh, and take my newest pet with you, I won him off a devil so I’m sure he’ll feel more at home where you’re going, and I think he needs to stretch his legs before he goes stir-crazy in here.”
The creature phased into existence from a snap of the Demon Lord’s supple fingers, a beast of fur and flesh standing nearly twelve-feet tall, almost feline in appearance with its limbs, though she spotted an extra pair hanging from the chest, as well as Human features peeking out from the bestial face. She took a subconscious step back, something about the Demon radiating an air of lethality. The Demon looked away, as if ashamed, and the Prince clapped it on the back with a broad smile.
“Isn’t he a bit large to be travelling alongside me?” Vesla asked, peering up at the giant Demon and realizing its eyes betrayed a hint of sadness.
“Oh please,” The Prince snorted. “We’re talking about taking on an entire empire here. Live a little, go terrorize the smallfolk, let them get a taste of the new world order. Besides, it’s not like my little pussycat over here is going to leave any witnesses if that’s what has you so concerned. Devils, am I right?” He looked up at the Demon, who looked back at the Prince impassively. With one last laugh, the Demon Lord vanished in a flash of light and fire, leaving behind nothing but scorched bark and blackened mud to mark his visitation. With an uncertain glance at the Demon, Vesla turned and began to walk back down the path, hoping it would have the good grace to follow her without question. To her relief, she heard the thick sloshing of mud as it began to keep pace behind her, which was disconcerting enough for her to hand-motion it to plod next to her instead.
“You have a name?” She asked as it drew level with her, swaying with each step. It stayed silent, only looking at her with an unreadable expression, and Vesla wondered if she had somehow offended the creature.
“I had a name,” It suddenly replied, sounding uncertain with itself. “I’m not certain what dying and coming back as… this, does to one’s name.”
“Well you wouldn’t be the first to come back with recollections of their former life,” Velsa said. “So long as you’re the vassal of another Demon your true name can’t be used against you, so I’d say there’s nothing wrong with sticking with what you used to be known as.”
The Demon looked up into the sky, letting the droplets crawl down its face like tears. “Suldin,” It whispered. “My name is Suldin.”
Shadows stretched and shivered behind the guard as he walked past the torchlight, shivering despite the thick coats he had layered around himself. Behind him, one of the shadows shifted along the wall and reached out, grabbing the guard by the shoulder with one hand as it slit his throat with the other. The body fell to the floor with a thud, blood pooling in lines as it snaked across the floor’s brick tiles. Rhul clicked in disapproval as he lifted the coat, made from feathers, off the corpse and wiped his dagger on the guard’s tunic. With a wave of his hand, four other Kenku joined him, the bandages wrapped around their claws allowing them to pass through the hall like phantoms.
“They’ve grown sloppy.” Nam tittered, Katch silencing him with a withering stare. Jev fiddled with her arcane sensors, nodding to the group when she was confident they could proceed in peace. Rhul’s brows furrowed, perhaps Nam was right, this did seem uncharacteristically careless. Katch clearly agreed, swiftly making the hand-sign for ‘caution’ as they moved further down the hall. Moonlight drifted through the wall-slits, cold air snaking its way through the warmth of the torches, such was the way of The Frost Range; the cold was simply a constant inevitability one inevitably learned to adapt to.
Double-doors of thick redwood stood at the end of the hall, the final gate before their goal, if the information was truly reliable; it had gotten them this far, had it not? Nam and Nys took their positions at either end of the door, Nam lifting an array of his throwing daggers while Nys cradled a crossbow in her arms. Jev hefted her staff and took position behind Katch, nodding to Rhul who sidled into the shadows once more, finding comfort in the familiar embrace of the darkness. Katch leaned down, pulling the lock pick from out of his coat, and began to pick the brass lock on the door. He paused, putting the lock pick back in his coat and instead sliding his rapier from its sheath. Rhul’s blood ran cold; he had been with the crew for just under a year now, and only seen Katch draw his rapier twice before.
“The door’s already open,” Katch muttered, standing up and resting a head against the frame. “Can’t hear anything inside.”
“A trap, has to be.” Nam hissed, whipping around as if guards were about to burst up from the floor without warning. Nys calmed him with a soft whistle, and looked at Katch, concern in her eyes. Rhul also looked at Katch, doing his best to remain calm and not bother the crew-leader with an obvious question. Katch closed his eyes and they stood there in silence for some time as he clicked with annoyance and weighed their options. Finally, he opened his eyes and regarded the assembled crew.
“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” He said with conviction. “We go in, assess the situation as fast as we can. If it’s here, we take it and get out. If not, we pull out right away, no questions. If there are guards hiding beyond this door, I want you all to focus solely on self-defence. Is everyone ready?” They nodded, though Rhul’s heart pounded so hard he feared it would somehow alert whoever might be on the other side. Before he could steady his emotions, Katch put a hand against the door, and threw it open with a sudden shove. Katch and Jev rushed inside, Nam and Nys flanking while Rhul covered the rear, but they skidded to a halt when they saw what was inside the room. Who was inside the room.
A lone Elf stood in the middle of the chamber, swords embedded in the ground around him, putting Rhul in mind of a graveyard. One of the Elf’s eyes was shut, two jagged lines of scar running from just below his right brow down to his cheek. The other eye regarded them all coolly, a drop of black in a pool of grey so bright it almost seemed white. His dirty-blonde hair had been tied back into a top-knot, and his scarlet coat was adorned with his badge of office, a black rose, marking him as an Accusator. Even without the pin, Rhul knew exactly who this Elf was, he had heard the stories of Nenjassik shared in hushed tones amongst his kinsfolk; the stories of Nenjassik, The Butcher of Shrykediell.
“I thought I heard vermin sneaking around the citadel.” Nenjassik said in a drawl, leaning against the pommel of one of the swords.
“I’ll distract him,” Katch said, stepping forward and raising his rapier. “The rest of you, run out of the citadel and don’t look back.” Rhul stepped forward to argue, but paused as he saw the others nodding and preparing to leave. Even with the stories, it was five against one, surely the odds were in their favour?
“Don’t be stupid, boy,” Nam said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I know what you’re thinking, and we’re not a match, no matter what you believe.”
“He’s not wrong,” Nenjassik agreed. “Though your friend with the rapier is. Do you really think you can delay me long enough to let your little companions run free? Perhaps we can make a game of it.” The sword was suddenly in the Elf’s right hand, strangely gloved while his left remained bare, Rhul hadn’t even seen it be pulled free.
“If you can survive long enough for those four to reach the door on the other side of the hall, I’ll let them go. I swear it upon my honour.” Nenjassik said, placing a hand over his heart and smirking at Katch. The Kenku said nothing in reply, stepping forward and clicking angrily at Rhul and the others. With great trepidation, Rhul forced himself to look away from the duel and join the others as they began to run down the hall. He was barely five steps into the hall when he heard Katch let out a chilling scream that was cut short. He knew he shouldn’t look back, he mustn’t, he had to keep running but something inside of him needed to turn, needed to confirm that Katch was truly dead. He turned over his shoulder, and looked into The Eye of Nenjassik.
He felt the overwhelming weight of The Eye, tearing through his feeble mental defences as if he were an ant standing before a raging tempest. Cold clammy tendrils probed their way into his mind, it felt as if he had become weightless, a wisp tethered to his body by the faintest sliver of a cord. Rhul was no more, in his place was… Who was this, reaching into his mind and pulling at his string as if he were nothing more than a puppet? Who could wield such profane eldritch power with wanton abandon?
“Rhul, are you alright?” Nys asked, noticing him briefly stumble as he glanced back at the scream. The Kenku looked over at her, anguish in his eyes, and she knew Katch was no more. Perhaps he noticed her pity, as he blinked and the anguish was gone from his eyes. In their place was a hardness she had come to see in too many eyes in the last few years, a hardness she faced even in the mirror.
“I’m fine,” Rhul said in a strange voice. “You won’t have to worry about me.”
Nys turned back with a sigh; she wished she could believe him. Behind her, Nenjassik stood at the edge of the door, his right eye shut once more, raising a hand to his scarred brow in mock salute, a salute that was returned by Rhul with a knowing smile in his eyes.
It wasn’t Eadwine’s place to ask questions, an irony considering her line of work. She adjusted the hempen robes more tightly around herself as a soft breeze drifted through the marble hall, royal guards bowing with respect while still keeping a hand firmly on the hilt of their swords. When she was still young, Eadwine had considered it a sign of rudeness to hold such doubt after all she had done to achieve her position, but after seeing first-hand the level of destruction a true Shapeless could unleash, she found herself on-edge every time she stood near someone with a weapon. The door opened as she approached, an Elf with a somewhat downcast expression and three layers of dark furs over his noble robes stepping out into the hall. Revulus appeared to be alone, a surprise considering how inseparable he appeared to be from his mistress; Eadwine found herself wondering if there was something to this meeting, but hurriedly pushed such stray thoughts from her mind. Traitorous thoughts.
“Lady Eadwine.” Revulus said as he bowed awkwardly, pausing midway to visibly overcompensate his show of respect. She found herself similarly uncertain how to reply, considering the Elf’s baseborn status despite holding such favour from the Lord Navigator herself. Still, the fact remained they were within Eadwine’s Court, which gave her enough standing to wave aside any social anxiety.
“Revulus,” She replied curtly, settling with a stiff nod. “Out on your own I see.”
The Elf glanced back with an uncomfortable expression; just what had he discussed with the Lord Inquisitor? “I am on an errand for my lady, she is currently indisposed with matters of Court.” He explained, hastily adding “Apologies lady, but I must be returning.” as he bustled past her. She watched him go, looking from behind like an overgrown displacer beast, hunching deep in his furs. Strange, the hall didn’t feel so cold to her, but considering his birth and dark skin, she assumed Revulus must have lived a childhood amongst his kin out in the Nesting Sea. As she turned back to the door, she almost knocked unconsciously, but held herself back just in time and pushed the oak double-doors open.
Delaryn stood, hands clasped behind his back, regarding the intricately painted map of The Empire. She had once heard it described as his ‘only treasure’, and it was hard not to see why, it was as much a masterpiece that blended the arts of calligraphy, cartography, and watercolours, while also being enchanted to update itself with shifting boundaries, newly established cities, and other such changes. She walked up to his side and regarded the map, wondering what in particular had garnered his attention this time; often he liked to test her in this way, giving her a chance to guess at what was on his mind at any given time. She tried to see if any changes had occurred, perhaps a new city on the frontier or a development from the border skirmish between Baron Iliphel and Baroness Vessa, but nothing struck her as noteworthy.
Delaryn suddenly interrupted her thoughts with a question. “Tell me Eadwine, what makes an empire strong?”
Eadwine blinked, looking up at the towering Eladrin peering down at her. As always, he favoured her with a an almost fatherly smile, though his eyes betrayed no shred of warmth, the sharp grey irises like shards of ice flecked with dirt. Feeling uncomfortable at the gaze, she turned back to the map and considered the question.
“I suppose an empire’s strength is dependent on its people.” She replied after a brief period of silent contemplation.
“An interesting idea,” Delaryn nodded, stroking his beard as he considered her answer. “Yet the people can also act as its weakness, can it not? The larger an empire grows, the more it must inevitably rely upon gathering disparate cultures. Consider the current Kenku revolutions, for example. Would we not be stronger if we had remained in the Feywild, a singular people under the Eladrin banner?”
“You have a point there.” Eadwine conceded, biting back the counter-argument formulating in her head and bowing in deference to Delaryn. He walked over to the large table and poured a bottle of violet wine into two cups.
“You’re close, a people are certainly an important factor to a strong empire,” Delaryn explained, returning to the map and handing her one of the cups. “However I believe it to be but one element of what is truly important.” He paused for dramatic effect, taking a sip of the wine and gazing at her with those horrible eyes of his.
“Unity, my dear Eadwine. That is what differentiates an empire of strength and authority from the empire of chaos and squalor. It was easy before The Crossing, our singular identity acted as the force to unify us under a powerful kingdom. In some ways becoming an empire has crippled us, left us scrambling to return to those halcyon days of unity. In our grand history as a true empire, we have had but one period of true unity. Do you know what it is?” She felt his gaze upon her like hands roughly intruding upon her skin and repressed a shudder, shaking her head in the hope he would look away once more.
“The great irony is that it was the Tieflings, our most hated foe, who truly unified us as an empire,” He explained, his eyes drifting back up to the map. “Hate is a powerful force, if you can use it wisely. Eladrin, Kenku, Human, even the ever-reclusive Dwarves, all unified against a single foe. The day the last bastion of the Tieflings fell was the last day I truly felt any modicum of pride for our empire. Another great irony, I suppose. In defeating the greatest threat to our might, we hastened our own stagnation. A stagnation I intend to overturn.”
“You intend to declare war?” Eadwine whispered before she could stop herself, wincing at such a mistake. Fortunately Delaryn seemed too enthused by his own proselytization that he gave it no mind.
“Oh yes, though not against the Tieflings,” He smirked, taking another sip of the wine. “No sense in rallying against such a tattered force, and it would undermine years of dutiful post-war propaganda. No, the enemy that will unify us once more is one that has sent far too long thumbing its nose at us. They hold the one who killed our prince, the symbol of our holdings in this land, and refuse to recognize that justice must be served.”
Eadwine’s eyes went wide as she realized what he referred to. “The Free City? But why? Surely the risks involved…” Delaryn turned, the smile gone in an instant, and she knew she had gone too far. He took a slow draught of his wine, emptying the cup, and tossed it to the side, letting it shatter on the floor.
“It is not your position to understand my methods, Eadwine,” He said, placing a hand on her shoulder; she could feel the force in the grip, knowing he could crush her shoulder if he but willed it. “You are a tool to further my plans, nothing more. Now go, tell The Drifter I have need of his skills once again.”
He let go and smiled again, a smile that somehow filled her with more dread than his words. She allowed years of training to still the raging tempest in her heart, bowing deeply and exiting the room with all the decorum she could muster. It was only until she was far away from his room that she finally let go and allowed the tears to fall.
Delaryn watched the sunset from his private terrace, basking in the radiant beauty of Thronerock’s many under-spires as they were cast in an orange hue. Sun, star, moon, earth. The four pillars of the empire he loved; it was impossible to mistake the vision as anything but a message from Corellon. No, not a message, a warning. The empire was in danger, the pillars under strain from so many enemies, some seen and others in the shadows. He would do Corellon proud, he would protect his empire. And if thousands had to die in the name of unity, so be it.
“It’s nothing personal.”
Booker lit the pipe in a single fluid motion, savouring the moment’s peace he had alone in his office. No, not truly alone, She still lingered in his mind, a subtle pressure that always left him on the precipice of madness. He rolled the words over and over in his head, as if trying to discern some kind of hidden meaning in them; he saw that smile as she said her last words, that feeling of despair as he realized what was happening. She no longer smiled now, whenever he went to visit her. In some ways she did, an eternal rictus grin, but it wasn’t the same smile of warmth and affection that had once been the only light in his miserable existence, a light snuffed out with a single sentence.
Booker had died that day, given up the rest of his humanity to the cruel world around him, allowed himself to become what others expected of him. Let them laugh, let them sneer, let them grind their teeth and stamp their feet; he would spite the world with his success, spit upon her memory, show them all that he would turn away like a coward. He would do terrible things, just as he had done before, without ever dropping a single tear in regret or remorse. Were the things he did terrible? It was becoming harder to tell by the day. Some said putting a price on a man changed who you were inside; if that were true, what was Booker by now, standing on the gold squeezed out of all those miserable fighters who toiled day and night for other’s amusement.
Yes, nothing. That was what he was, nothing. He lifted the page in front of him, looked at the inordinate sum that would have once led to him leaping for joy. Now, it was nothing but rote memorization, the automatic need to achieve higher and higher profits, simply for the sake of it. Sometimes it was harder to tell who was more broken, the men he discarded after their worth had been expended, or himself. The door creaked open, Everett walked in, abacus in one hand, the latest figures in the other. Booker forced a smile, incredulous to the fact that nobody seemed to see how fake it was. Perhaps that was to be his curse for what he had done up until now, the more he relied on lies to get him through the day, the more people would praise his ‘candidness’. He looked down at the paper, trying to focus on the figures, but all he could see was the grinning skull, a smile that he somehow found, resembled his own.