Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 16 & 17, Fantasy

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Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 16 & 17, Fantasy

Post  Firebrand on Fri May 25, 2012 12:57 pm

Chapter 16

“Damn it, boy, can’t you go a month without me having to save you?” a gruff, eerily familiar voice muttered. “Repel!”

A wall of dark green light appeared before Sin and Lisana. “Ivan!” Signe shouted.

Sin whirled around, and saw the man who had saved them in the battle against Dunyi and Jaedayan. Green energy flickered around his fingertips, while his hair and beard crackled with pent-up energy.

“Signe? You got them into this? Light help me, I’m going to strangle you when this is over.” He thrust out a hand, and vines growing outside burst through the windows, climbing over the floor of Mary’s throne room.

The sorceress screamed in fury, and threw fire spells at the encroaching tendrils. Ivan bowed his head. “Servants of the Forests, I am sorry for sending you to your deaths. But in this… it is necessary.”

The vines crawled closer, wrapping around Mary’s ankles and twining up her body. “What is the meaning of this? Fire! Come on then! Fire!”

Ivan sighed. “Pathetic. Downpour.”

A dark cloud formed in the ceiling of Mary’s hall, and large, pelting raindrops began to fall on Mary’s fire, rendering it useless. Ivan glared at Sin and Lisana. “Well? I’ve bought you time! Get out of here!”

A strange feeling rose up inside Sin, and he wasn’t sure if the words he said were really his own. “No. We have to finish the job.”

Mary flicked her wrist. “If I can’t beat you with magic, Forester, perhaps I’ll have to do so with force!” A sword flew from where it was mounted on the wall, and into Mary’s grasp. Ivan drew a long staff made of ash from his back.

“I really don’t want to do this. Signe, how many arrows?”

“Six,” the female Forester replied.

“Make them count.”

“I will.”

And then Mary swooped down at Ivan. The man threw up his staff, and somehow, the length of wood did not shatter under the power of the blade. Mary struck wildly several times, and Ivan blocked each one.

“Now, sis!”

An iron-headed arrow whizzed through the air, and struck Mary in the side. A red blossom of blood began to spread on her white gown. The woman hissed, and pulled the arrow out. She shook her left arm, and one of the bracelets there let loose a clear chime. The wound on her side began to close.

“Talisman,” Anjaru hissed. He turned to Damin, Kelrick and Thalia. “Come on. We can distract her.”

The four charged out again, and Mary muttered a quick incantation. Four large stone knights dropped from the eaves around the hall, and drew their gigantic weapons. Thalia engaged one with two heavy maces, while Kelrick locked his broadsword with one of stone. Anjaru’s rapier clanged against a knight’s halberd, and Damin fought one who used two scimitar-like blades.

“These are different from the other knights!” Damin roared. “They know how to fight, and they aren’t pulling punches.”

Mary laughed as she redirected one of Signe’s arrows. “Those are my best pets! The ones who came to free this land! You will join their ranks! You should have left when you were told, for unto me your fate is sold. Let terror chill you to the bone, as I lock you into stone!”

The stone-curse shot from the tip of her sword. “Damn it,” Ivan muttered. “This again?” He spread his arms wide. “Protect me.”

A green aura surrounded him, and when the curse struck him, it rebounded up against the ceiling of the hall. He grinned madly. “Now, that was clever.”

Lisana got to her feet from where she had fallen. “What do you mean? Didn’t you tell it to do that?”

Ivan laughed as he launched a bolt of green lightning from his hand. “Ha! Me, tell the magic what to do!”

“But you’re a sorcerer! That’s what has to happen!”

“I’m no sorcerer! I’m a wildmage! I’m the Forest Mage!”

And with that, Ivan dropped to a crouch, muttered something, and cast a handful of seeds. Trees sprouted from where they fell, their roots digging for purchase in the hard stone of Mary’s hall. “Light, but am I glad all my prices are paid!”

There was a steady clop of hooves near the mouth of the hall, and Sin whirled. “Ivan, you dog!” a regal-looking woman cried. “You said you would wait for me!”

“I’m sorry my lady,” Ivan shot back. “My sister got herself in a right fix. Again.” The way he said ‘right’ made it sound more like ‘roit’. For some reason, Sin took heart from this, though it was nothing more than a bit of a commoner's accent.

The woman nodded. “Ah. Well, let’s see what I can do.”

Mary hissed, serpentine, through clenched teeth. “You! You… bitch!” She waved her hand, and many of the swords mounted on the wall flew to her and hovered around her body, forming a bristling barrier of iron.

The woman in the door shook her head. “Manners, Mistress Mary. Enkiu, I believe now is the time.”

There was a clatter on the stairs outside the room, and a white streak flashed over the woman’s head. Again the sound clattering hooves echoed as the flash touched on the ground. It tossed its head, revealing an equine form, with a single pearly horn spiraling from its forehead. Its mane was leonine, despite it’s horse-like form, and it’s legs were as nimble as a goat’s.

“Is that a unicorn?” Sin cried.

“Close,” the creature said. “A demon in the form of a unicorn. You may call me Enkiu.”

Then, it leapt at the stone soldier that was attacking Damin, and tapped it with it’s glowing horn. The statue froze, and the stone began to slough away. Soon, it fell away completely, revealing a middle-aged man, lying supine on the ground.

Anjaru crowed with laughter. “Enkiu! With your power we may yet win this battle!”

“That’s the idea,” the woman, who appeared to be his mistress, said. “Enkiu, cover Ivan and the others.”

The unicorn leapt around the hall as Mary cast her swords wherever she could. Ivan grabbed the back of Sin and Lisana’s tunics, and heaved them out of the way. “Just stay here. Alana and I can handle this.”

The woman who stood in the doorframe, who Sin assumed was Alana, drew a polished white wand. She traced a glyph in the air, and summoned a tempest that roared through the chamber.

Enkiu darted around Mary’s falling swords, and leapt at her. His horn glowed as he came in closer to the wicked sorceress. Mary hit him with the flat of her blade, and Enkiu fell back with a scream. A red mark, like a burn, stained his pristine white coat.

“Enkiu!” Alana cried.

Mary began to glow with white light. “I have tolerated this impudence long enough! It’s time to finish this!”

“Spirits of the Forest!” roared Ivan. “Protect us!”

Vines twined together at his feet, slowly climbing and forming solid shapes. When they ceased their movements, three green knights, made completely of plants, stood in front of Ivan.

“Save them.”

The green knights ran and began to shield Lisana’s demons, Signe and Damin with their bodies. They drew whips and staves, and set upon their stone counterparts. A stone knight sliced off the head of one of the Forest knights with an axe, but the creation still fought on with suicidal intensity.

Mary released the spell she had crafted, and a brilliant pulse of white light erupted in the hall. It struck Sin with a physical force, hurling him into a wall and searing his retinas. Lisana fell into him with a cry. The forest knights were ripped apart by the attack.

Ivan was forced to his knees, and Alana rolled across the ground. Enkiu tried to stand, but his legs buckled beneath him. Damin was supporting Signe, the younger woman looking decidedly pale. The demons seemed to be the most effected.

Anjaru was lying on the ground, his cloak splayed around him. Kelrick was thrust against one of the walls, trying to protect Thalia with his body. The Ice Maiden was still hit, though, and she slumped against one of the cold granite maidens.

Sin groped for one of the bracelets on his left arm. He cast it to the ground, and crushed it beneath his heel. Harrison had said these were offensive spells. Sin prayed that it would work, and not doom them all.

There was a great cry as a serpentine column of fire rose from the center of the hall. It turned its triangular head to Mary, and roared, a sound of crackling flames and exploding stars.

Mary cringed, her resolve weakening. “Wh-What is this?” she stammered. “How could any of you cast this?” Then, the fire-creature rushed forward, engulfing Mary in its fiery maw. When Mary was completely consumed, the serpent convulsed.

“Get down!” shouted Kelrick.

Sin pulled Lisana down next to him, and he covered his head with his hands, like Damin had taught him to do if archers ever attacked the now-destroyed Wall.

The serpent exploded, shattering the windows of the hall, and sending pillars of flame shooting through the roof. The magic creature vanished after that, the only trace it ever existed the scorch marks on the walls and the blackened form on the floor, the tatters of a once-white dress hanging limply around it.

“What was that?” Signe gasped.

“Amulet,” replied Sin.

“I meant, what spell.”

“Oh. I don’t know.”

Ivan walked over to the burned form of Mary. “I’ve heard that sometimes a spell in an amulet, if left long enough, will deteriorate over time. Other times, it ages like a fine wine, growing in power. I believe that was a simple fire summoning, but it was sealed away for so long that it grew exponentially.”

He tapped the blackened corpse with his boot. The charred hand reached out and grabbed his ankle. “Not… so… fast…” Mary rasped.

“Light!” Damin shouted. “How did she…?”

“Quick release shield talisman, if I had to guess,” Alana replied, brushing off her traveling dress. “Enkiu, deal with her and break the curse.”

The unicorn picked himself up and limped over to Mary’s contorted form. She was spitting the names of spells, but without drawing the glyphs, they were empty words. The equine creature tossed his head back, and then plunged his horn through Mary’s heart.

She shuddered, and there was a sound like a great rush of air. The stone knights, immobile since Sin cast his amulet, began to slough their stone coating, much like the one Enkiu had touched. The stone maidens underwent a similar transformation.

There was a muffled thud as the flowers that formed the arch outside returned to their human shapes and fell to the ground. Anjaru and Kelrick hurried to catch the people who had been at the top of the frame.

Sin peered out one of the shattered windows, careful not to cut himself on the broken glass. All across Mary’s holdings, as far as he could see, flowers were glowing and becoming human. Figures locked in stone facades stepped free, color returning to their pale faces and clothes.

The curse was broken. Mary was destroyed.

***

The children had been freed, and reunited with their parents when possible. Signe had brought Alana and Enkiu back to the grove in the forest where the statues of her friends were. Somehow, the curse on these had not been broken when Mary died. Ivan hypothesized that it was because they were out of range of the counter-spell.

Enkiu tapped each one in turn. They returned to their human forms, carrying on the activities that they had been doing when they changed until they noticed that they were not alone.

“Oy!” said one man, who had the look of the leader. “Signe! Thanks for that!”

“Aye, thank you kindly!” his friends chorused.

Alana nodded to Enkiu. “It seems our work is done here. Come, let us go.”

She swung up onto the unicorn bareback, and rode sidesaddle. Ivan bowed before her. “Thank you, my queen, for coming.”

“Queen?” Lisana asked.

“Why yes,” Alana replied, flicking blonde hair from her eyes. “Did I not say? I am the Queen. I have no need to hide it from the righteous.”

“You’re joking,” Kelrick muttered. Then, after a pause, “Elementals, you’re not joking.”

Sin glared at her warily. “How do we know you’re really the queen?”

Alana stretched out a regal hand. On it glinted a ring. Anjaru peered at it. “It bears the royal seal. If she is not queen, she has a very convincing disguise.”

Ivan nodded. “She’s the queen, for sure. We’ve been friends for a few years. I helped her out when she fled the Chancellor.”

Queen Alana smiled wanly. “I must go. The Chancellor seeks me relentlessly, and if I tarry here, I’ll only draw his attention to you. Good luck, and may we meet again in better times!”

At that, Enkiu tossed his head and turned away. “Farewell, comrades.” And then, with a streak of white, they were gone.

“Well I’ll be damned,” the broad-shouldered man from Roy’s group muttered. “I never would have thought I’d meet the queen.”

Thalia picked at a fingernail. “Is every human noble in this kingdom utterly batty?”

“Probably,” Sin replied.

Signe seemed to come to her senses. “Oh, uh, everyone, this is Roy, and his band of vigilantes.”

Roy swept off his feathered cap, and made a mock bow. “A pleasure.” He had a close-cropped goatee, and wore a green jerkin. He then turned away and began to inspect his bow. “I applaud you for saving my lands.”

“Your lands?” Damin asked.

“Yes, I am the estranged Baron Roy Robin, don’t you know. Mary overthrew me, and the Capitol was rather mum on it. A little ticked off, I am. Still, I think I’ll be taking my holdings back now, thank you very much.”

Then, he turned to his band. “Oy, you lot. Let’s be polite now. Introduce yourselves. Fall in, will you?”

The large-shouldered man inclined his head. “John Little. Charmed.”

Sin held back a chuckle. Little? This man towered over his head, and had to be at least six and a half feet tall, and just as wide. And it all looked like pure muscle.

A man in red upholstery grabbed Lisana’s hand and pumped it. “A righteous pleasure. Sorcerer to sorcerer, that was a damned good show, it was. I’d love to teach you a trick or two, but you hardly need it. Come on, Merriu, say hello now.”

“Uh…” Lisana said.

“Oh, of course, my manners. Will’s the name. Will Robin Scarlet, Roy’s cousin, you know.”

“Uh…”

“And that’s Merriu, my demon. Merriu, say hello.”

The slender woman came forward as though yanked. “Hello.”

Lisana whirled on Will. “You treat your demon like that? You ought to be ashamed!”

Merriu shook her head. “No, really, it’s okay.”

“It is not!” The young sorceress jabbed her finger into Will’s chest. “Apologize to her.”

“She’s a demon,” Will protested.

“So? Apologize.”

“Um… I’m sorry?”

“Like you mean it.”

“Merriu, I’m sorry for ordering you around.”

Lisana crossed her arms and turned away. “That’s better.”

Will rolled his eyes. “Light, women.”

The taller woman hit him upside the head and put a hand on Lisana’s shoulder. “Now that was good. Someone’s needed to put that man in his place for years. Madge is the name.”

“Lisana. Nice to meet you.”

The rather portly man staggered over. “I’m… hic! That is… hic! Well, I’m… hic!”

“A little drunk, and that’s the truth!” John Little laughed.

“Hic! Well, you’re right of… hic, course. But my name is… hic! Tucker.”

Will leaned over to whisper to Damin. “He was a Light-Priest, but they kicked him out when he got drunk on sacramental wine.”

Damin glared at the man. “Do I look like I care?” The guardsman had been instilled with Harrison's values of demon equality, and had no tolerance for any who violated that regard.

Will shuddered and shrank back from Damin's icy glare. “Sorry. Just thought, you know, funny anecdote and all that…”

“I won’t speak to a man who treats his demon like a dog.”

Merriu looked at Damin, admiration in her eyes. “Sir, really…”

“No. The way he treats you is intolerable. I’ve half a mind to challenge his honor, right now.”

“Whoa there,” the last man said. He put his lute aside. He had spent the entire proceedings tuning it. “Easy. We’re all friends here.” He stuck out a hand. “Alleyne’s my name. Charmed.”

Damin warily took the offered gesture. “A pleasure.”

Alleyne surveyed Sin and his companions. “You know… I think I have a message for people like you lot.” He picked up his lute and strummed it. “How did it go? Ah yes. Ahem.

“From the dark horizon, the heroes came, searching for the right path to bring them acclaim. Ignorance and valor, the perfect symbiosis, for the Royalty.” He played another cord and then sat back, looking incredibly satisfied.

“That’s it?” said Sin. “That’s not even a message. That’s… that’s the start of a song or a ballad or something! How does that help us at all? And who’s it from?”

Alleyne smiled. “Oh, well I suppose it’s more of a riddle then a message. And maybe less of a riddle and more of a legend. Hm…”

“Just once, I’d like a straight answer,” Kelrick muttered. “Is that too much to ask, Elementals?”

Roy glanced at John. “Want to help these fine folk out?”

John smiled. “Why not? It’s all we can do. So, where are you headed, travelers?”

Sin looked at Lisana, who looked at Damin, who looked at Anjaru, who then looked back at Sin. “We don’t really know,” Sin finally said. “North?”

Midge shook her head. “Not much north of here. A few villages, some farms. That’s about it. Well, then you get to Vallenheim, and the Dark Forest.”

“Does the Chancellor hold much sway in the north?” Damin asked.

Will smirked. “Oh, of course. All the taxes get paid and the workers sing his praises every day. What are you, crazy? He barely had any power here.”

“Well, he’s the Regent now.”

Alleyne looked up from his lute. “Well. That’s not good.”

Ivan crossed his arms. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The folk in these parts have little love for our malevolent little friend in the Capitol. His influence wanes the further you get from the walls. Signe and I will go with you north, he’s got his demons on our scent. Safest course of action at the moment.”

Roy grabbed his bow. “Well then! We’ll escort you to the edge of the Hallowed Forest!”

“Shouldn’t you get back to your barony?” Singe asked.

The archer laughed. “Ah, let them have their few days of anarchy. We’ll stay here for a spell, and then head off at first light. Tomorrow.”

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Re: Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 16 & 17, Fantasy

Post  Firebrand on Fri May 25, 2012 1:07 pm

Chapter 17

Fredrick fidgeted in his heavily upholstered chair. The Chancellor had called several meetings of this cabal over the past few days. Mostly it was to berate Astrid for her failure, and Ludwig for his incompetence. The older man was grateful he had a job that called for little action on his part thus far.

“Astrid, how goes the mobilization of our troops?”

The blonde woman sighed, taking her time to reply to the Chancellor’s question. Yes, the Chancellor. Fredrick could not call him the Regent. It was just too strange. Astrid squared her shoulders. “Our mobilization would be more efficient if you would give us the required funds.”

“I have told you, time and again, that the military has all the funding it needs.” The Chancellor sank back, glowering.

“There’s more to the military than swords! We need horses, and tents, and food, and arrows, and…”

Ludwig held up a hand. “Chancellor, I have news.” Astrid looked torn between relief and outrage that she had been cut off. The young man continued oblivious. “Sir, there has been rumors circulating… rumors that the Princess Dorothea is operating outside the walls and in the Hallowed Forest. Also, we have lost contact with Countess Mary’s holdings. I do not think these are isolated incidents.”

“Nonsense,” the Chancellor said dismissively. “The princess is within the palace. I saw her just this morning.”

Astrid bared her teeth. “Someone must deal with her! She obstructed my troops and…”

“Astrid, we know! I am taking care of the matter. Now, Ludwig, what do these rumors say, exactly?”

“Simply that the princess is traveling outside the walls.”

“And on what grounds are they formed?”

“Well, there are other, separate reports from aerial scouting demons that a girl matching the princess’s description has been spotted on the north road. She has blonde hair and wears the princess’s red mantle.”

“Hasn’t Dorothea been wearing her hair brown?” Fredrick ventured.

“She changed it back a few days ago…” the Chancellor paused. “The day after the fugitives escaped! And there was a blonde sorceress with them! They kidnapped the princess! Or there’s a body double!”

Fredrick shook his head. “I doubt it’s anything to obvious, Chancellor. Now I fear I must deliver some bad news of my own. We have lost all sign of Countess Mary of the North. We fear she has perished.”

“Mary, Mary,” Astrid said softly. “Ah, the crazy lady near the Hallowed Forest? The one who likes to turn things to stone?”

“The very same.”

The Chancellor was deep in thought. “We believe that the rogue sorceress was near the Hallowed Forest. And Liath tracked the Forester there too… I refuse to believe that this is mere coincidence. What of the old baron of those lands?”

Ludwig thought for a moment. “The Archer, right? Didn’t he turn vigilante with some of his retainers? He never held much love for the Council to start with. I think it’s best we deal with him quietly. Kutayara perhaps.”

“No, not if he’s with the renegades. Too messy, too many witnesses. And there’ll be that damned Forester to think of. I shall decree him an outlaw, condemned to wear the Outlaw Hood, and to be executed on sight. That should keep him out of our lives.”

The Chancellor turned to Astrid. “I see I have no choice but to give you the funds you request. The army must be at full strength as soon as possible. We must be ready to deal with all of our problems. Fredrick, I need you to craft a spell for me. Here are the specfics…”

***

Sin winced as the bowstring twanged against his cheek. He wore an arm guard, which prevented him from mauling his forearm, but no such protection on his face. A red line showed where the string continually sliced him.

“Your aim is getting better,” Roy remarked.

“Yeah, you only missed the mark by twelve feet this time,” Signe added.

Roy grabbed his bow and quiver. He jabbed six arrows into the soft forest dirt. “Merriu, pick a tree, darling.”

The demon jumped up with a swish, and glanced around. “That one! With the little knob in the middle of the trunk.”

Roy nodded. “All right. Watch me close, boy. Deep breath in, plant your feet ground and center.” Sin had no idea what that meant, but he mimicked Roy’s stance. “Good. Now, draw your arrow back so it’s level with your cheek.”

Roy held them there for a moment, and Sin’s arm began to tremble. Roy betrayed no such fatigue. “All right. Find your mark, and let the gray goose fly!”

The arrow shot from Roy’s bow with a snap, rocketing towards the tree Merriu had chosen. Sin left with less of a snap and more of a thwack, and embedded itself in the roots at the tree’s base. Roy’s landed right on the knot.

“Uh… better!” Roy said with a grin. In rapid succession, he fired off his other five arrows, none of them landing more than an inch apart from the others.

“Oh, come off it, Roy!” John Little cried, as his quarterstaff clacked against Damin’s wooden sword. “You’ll crush the boy’s spirits.”

“Yes, he certainly seems more of a… hic, a swordsman, sure,” Tucker added. Sin hadn’t seen him take a drop of alcohol in several hours. He presumed the exiled Light Priest was just permanently drunk.

Madge glanced at Sin. “Don’t go comparing yourself to the best archer in the kingdom!”

Roy preened. “Well, I wouldn’t call myself the best…”

John Little snorted and gave the baron a mocking glance. Roy shrugged. “All right, I would.”

Anjaru was deep in conversation with Lisana and Ivan as Kelrick turned a spitted pheasant over the fire. Thalia filed her nails with a piece of flint. Will wove through a sword form. Madge stared intently into their soup pot.

Sin unstrung his bow and collected his arrows. If he was going to get better at archery, it wasn’t about to happen tonight. His shoulders ached as he sat next to the campfire. He amused himself by staring at Kelrick’s glowing tattoos.

“What?” the Hellhound asked.

“Nothing!” Sin exclaimed. “I like the glowing, that’s all. It’s… interesting.”

The fire demon grinned. “Of course they are. They’re on me, aren’t they?”

Sin leaned over and cuffed him. Kelrick laughed and ruffled Sin’s hair. It was a nice feeling, if a tad annoying, because Kelrick used to do that when Sin was little. Chifumi leapt onto Sin’s shoulder and tugged at his earlobe.

“Hey, easy Fuzzball!”

“It’s fun!”

“Not for me!”

The monkey patted her stomach. “I’m hungry. When are we gonna eat?”

Kelrick looked at the bird he was roasting. “I’m going to eat in about half an hour, once this thing is nice and golden.”

“You’re going to share,” Lisana called over. “Just because you caught it doesn’t mean we all don’t get a little!”

Kelrick grumbled something, and Sin only picked up, “Hunter should get his pick.”

Sin looked at Chifumi. “Why do you care? You could just get something from the trees.”

“Because pinecones taste bad.”

Kelrick scanned the treetops. “They can’t all be pinecones. Hey, look there!” He pointed at a tree with several high boughs. On the vines near the tops of the trees dangled fat, purple grapes. “Now what do you suppose grape vines are doing in a place like this?”

“Who cares?” Tuck said. “We should… hic, get them!”

Kelrick jumped up, but he simply could not vault twenty feet into the air. “Sin, quickly, get on my back!” Sin stepped onto the fire demon’s shoulders, Kelrick’s sturdy hands stabilizing his ankles.

“We’re not tall enough! Chifumi, get up here!” The silver monkey clambered up the lengths of their bodies, but her foot-long height and then foot-long reach did almost nothing to make them closer to the grapes.

Kelrick swayed, and collapsed onto the ground. Lisana laughed at the three of them rolling in the dirt. The Hellhound looked up at Anjaru and Thalia. “One of you could get the grapes!”

Anjaru chuckled. “Kelrick, I won’t solve all your problems for you. Besides, I’m rather tired.” He lay back, and pretended to sleep.

“Thalia, what about you? Cats climb trees all the time!”

The Ice Maiden scowled. “I despise grapes, fool. Why not have Chifumi climb up? There are no low hanging branches for me to climb onto anyway.”

Sin looked at the little silver monkey. “Well? What do you say?”

Chifumi shook her head. “Nope. The trunk’s too wide for me, and the bark is too smooth.”

Kelrick glared up at the grapes. “Ah, bother. Forget it, you two. They were probably sour anyway.”

***

The next day, they set out through the forest again. Lisana was enthralled by the monolithic structures that they occasionally glimpsed through the trees. Anjaru smiled.

“Mistress, those are ruins of the ancient city of Duralaya, the seat of the Demon King. Or it was until the humans came and destroyed it with their siege engines.”

Will looked at the Air Master. “Where are the demons now?”

Kelrick glared at the man, and Thalia hissed. Merriu stood in front of Will, halfheartedly protecting him. Anjaru stared at the arrogant sorcerer coolly. “Sir, I cannot tell you. Many demons have been captured by sorcerers like yourself.”

Damin glanced down from the back of the black mare. “Will, if you ask that question again, I’ll rip your tongue out so you can’t do anyone any harm.”

The man gulped. Roy laughed. “Ha! Looks like they’ll give you a right run for your money, eh cousin?”

Will glared at the baron.

They continued on for some time, passing through the pine trees. The forest was eerily quiet, the tranquility broken only by the occasional chirping of a bird, or the scattering feet of a small animal. Sin, who was used to the loud noises of the southern Great Forest, was a little unnerved by this.

Lisana got into a whispered discussion with Will, which Sin and the others tactfully stayed out of. Thalia talked in hushed tones with Merriu, and went to stand by Lisana after a few moments. Lisana’s eyes narrowed in anger, and after hissing a few more remarks to Will, the sorcerer laughed.

“Well of course Merriu must like me! She’s stayed of her own free will.”

“Merriu remains out of love, but not for you!” Thalia snapped. Sin and Kelrick paused; ready to step in if this became too heated. Madge and Anjaru shook their heads at them.

“Let them resolve this on their own,” Madge replied softly.

Thalia seemed ready to pounce on Will’s throat. “Merriu is here to aid the one she loves!”

Roy and John Little had stopped some ways up the trail. Alleyne and Tuck stepped away, taking a seat at the edge of the trees on a fallen log. Alleyne feigned disinterest, absently plucking the strings of his lute. Damin and the mare paced anxiously, eager to be off. Dusty and Chifumi stood by; the big bay draft horse’s tail swishing at a fly. He cropped at some grass on the trail, oblivious to the tension in the air.

“Is this quite normal with you lot?” Roy asked Sin in a loud whisper. “The whole jumping on each others throats?”

“Not really,” Sin replied. “Something Will did must have made Lisana very angry. I haven’t seen her like this in a long time.”

“Merriu is here because she owes a debt!” Lisana cried. “And that debt was best fulfilled through you, Will Scarlet! Do not presume even for a moment that just because she willingly Bound herself to you, does not mean she willingly bound herself to you.”

Merriu glanced at Roy and Sin. “Please, sirs. You have to stop them.”

“Well, I’d wait a moment,” Roy replied. “Will’s a big boy. Let’s see how he handles this.”

Will drew his wand. “All right! Are you challenging me for ownership of my demon?”

“No! That’s preposterous!”

“I think you are! Merriu, to me!” The demon moved to his side as though jerked by a chain. “Girl, do you know the rules of a sorcerer’s duel?”

“No, I…”

“Well, they are as follows. A formal sorcerer’s duel is waged when the ownership of a demon is in dispute. The sorcerers, accompanied by one demon, engage in combat. The winner takes both demons, leaving the loser with nothing.”

“That’s stupid! Who came up with that?”

It was Ivan who answered. “It is an ancient custom from the early days of the Kingdom, and banned within the Sorcerer’s Council.”

Lisana stamped her foot. “I’m not doing anything that’s banned!”

Anjaru glanced at her. “Well, mistress… I would enjoy the chance to put this fool in his place. I think between the two of us, we should end it quickly.”

The sorceress shook her head. “But what if he cheats, and wins? You’d have to go with him!”

“I won’t allow that to happen.” The Air Master drew his rapier. “Have at you, vile cur!”

Lisana whipped out her wand as Will shouted out; “Fire!”

Hastily drawing a glyph, Lisana conjured a shield around her and her demon. The fire poured around them, and Kelrick evaporated it before it caught the rest of the forest alight.

“Hey!” Will shouted. “That’s cheating!”

“He’s merely saving our skins, you ninny!” Madge cried back.

Will growled. “Merriu, strike them down!”

Anjaru rushed forth, and parried Merriu’s telegraphed punch. He tracked down her arm and grabbed her wrist. “I don’t want to harm you,” he hissed. “That damned fool Will has sent you into battle against me unarmed. Just… make it look good, all right?”

“What do you mean?”

Anjaru shoved her in the center of her chest, sending her sprawling backwards. Then, he vaulted over her and slashed down with his rapier. Sin knew this would not harm Will overmuch, because the rapier was a sword with no edge, merely a point.

But the sorcerer cried out, and threw up a repulsing shield, sending Anjaru sliding back to Lisana. The Air Master glanced at her. “Mistress… I think I have a plan.”

Will sketched a glyph in the air, and flung a bolt of lightning at them. Lisana drew a shield glyph, stopping the attack. “What is it?”

“Will isn’t a very good sorcerer. He’s far below your level.”

Lisana smirked as she hurled a torrent of scalding hot water at the man. “I’d noticed.”

“Well, I think he can only focus on one of us at a time. If we can get Merriu out of the way, I’ll attack him as a distraction, while you finish him with a spell.”

“Fire!” Will shouted. An inferno blossomed from the tip of his wand, and raced towards his adversaries. Anjaru stepped in front of Lisana and flared his arms. A giant curtain of wind rushed in front of them, making the fire blaze brightly for an instant, before getting it to exhaust it’s power and dissipate.

Will snarled. “Merriu, attack them!”

The female demon lurched to her feet and ran at Lisana. Anjaru lowered his voice. “I don’t think Merriu has any elemental powers. We don’t need to fear her demon magic. I’ll get her away from you, and then you bind her in place.”

Anjaru slammed his shoulder into the slighter demon’s frame. Merriu staggered back. “Fight him!” Will commanded. Merriu nodded, and charged again. This time, Anjaru drew his sword.

“No!” Signe cried.

“Anjaru!” Sin shouted. “You’ll kill her!”

The Air Master threw back his cape and used the flat of the rapier to pin Merriu against a tree. Lisana began to invoke the binding spell. Merriu squirmed, and changed into a fox, her animal form. She slipped through the blade as Anjaru turned into a hawk. Merriu snapped at him with her sharp teeth as Anjaru buffeted her with his wings and closed talons.

Lisana hurled the binding, and struck Merriu with it. The fox was struck motionless. Anjaru whirled in midair and reverted to his human shape, darting towards Will. The sorcerer threw up a ward, but neglected to defend himself against Lisana’s binding.

He fell flat on his face, arms and legs locked to his side. Anjaru placed the tip of his rapier against the man’s throat. “Surrender?”

“N-Never, demon scum!”

Anjaru applied a little pressure, drawing a small bead of blood. “Oh really?”

“Stop, Anjaru!” Lisana commanded. “I won’t have him killed.”

She went to Merriu and released the demon. “By rights, you are mine now. But you probably don’t want to come with me, do you?”

The fox returned to her maiden form, and shook her head. “No, my lady. I feel that my place is here. With…” and she spat the word, “Will.”

Lisana nodded. “I understand. Well, as you technically are my demon by right of the trial by combat, I give you this command. Stand by the side of Baron Roy the Archer and his company, until we do meet again.”

Merriu bowed. “Thank you, my lady.”

Will squirmed against his binding. “You bitch!”

Sin jumped forward, his hand on the pommel of his sword, but Anjaru was quicker. He kicked Will sharply in the side, driving the wind from his lungs. “Silence, filthy cur! You are unworthy to lick the dirt off of my mistress’s shoes!”

Damin grinned. “Oh, he’s just having too much fun with this.”

Kelrick guffawed. “Don’t I know it.”

Roy glanced at Lisana. “Madame, if it’s not too much trouble, could you release my court fool? I think it’s time I taught him how to juggle…”

Lisana laughed, and complied. Will stood, his face growing redder by the moment. “Fool?! My dear cousin, surely you don’t mean…”

“Silence, fool!” Madge laughed.

Signe and Ivan sat down alongside Lisana as the group settled back in, preparing for their journey the next day. Ivan twirled his beard between his fingers and glanced at the sorceress. “Are you sure you’re a real sorcerer, Lisana?”

“What do you mean?”

Signe chuckled. “Well, for one thing, you don’t have a shriveled up prune where your heart is supposed to be. And you care about your demons, and demons in general. Oh, and while I'm on the subject, it appears you have a soul.”

Ivan glanced at his sister. “What we’re trying to say, Lisana, is that you simply act differently from every other sorcerer we’ve ever heard of.”

Lisana shrugged. “I was taught from the cradle that demons were my partners, not my slaves. So I treat them like I treat my friends, because they are. They’re living, thinking creatures, just like humans are.”

Ivan grinned widely. “Now, if only more of those Capitol fools could think like you!”

“Ivan, can I ask you a question? What kind of sorcerer are you? It doesn’t look like you have any demons, and I never see you drawing sigils or saying spells like I have to. It’s like you’re asking the magic for what you need.”

“That’s because I am,” the bearded man replied. “I’m not really a sorcerer, not anymore. I was as a lad, but I never bothered contracting any demons. And the ones I did, I released years ago. See, I’m what I call a wildmage. I use the innate magic of the natural world in the same way that sorcerers harness the power of their demons.”

“That’s amazing!” Lisana gasped. “Can you teach me?”

Ivan chewed his lip. “I don’t think so, not on the road at least. I had to spend a lot of time in silent meditation before I could feel the Powers. We would need a place to stay, and the Hallowed Forest isn’t safe.”

“But…”

“Allow me to finish. I and my sister will accompany you to the northern mountains, and we will seek refuge there. The Capitol’s hold is lax there at best. We should be safe.”

Signe nearly gagged on the waterskin she was drinking from. “Why are you dragging me into this, brother? My place is here!”

“Your place is where it is needed most, and that is with these travelers. Besides, our domain is all the forests of the realm, and I have heard strange rumors about the Dark Forest in the north. Perhaps it is best if we investigate.”

Sin, who could not help but eavesdrop, felt a pang of dread at this. He had heard tales of the strange, supposedly haunted Dark Forest, where the spirits of the damned were said to roam the glowing boughs in the dark of night. What could be stranger and more ominous than that?

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