Sin - By Firebrand, Chapter 22

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Sin - By Firebrand, Chapter 22

Post  Firebrand on Fri Jun 22, 2012 1:14 pm

Chapter 22

Astrid watched with grim satisfaction as one of her battalions marched through the gates of Castle Town. In the past month, they had gone from ragged peasants and showy nobles to a respectable standing military force. The soldiers halted, saluted her, and continued marching.

Reyaf stood at parade rest by her side, and gave a slight smile. “They look good. And you know it.”

Astrid blew a whisp of hair away from her brow. “A force is a reflection of its commander. And it is a good reflection indeed.”

The demon rolled his eyes. “The demon regiments are better than the human ones, obviously.”

The general tapped her booted heel. “I know. But though I’m loath to admit it, Liath and Aldrick have the best battalion in the army. It makes me very angry to know that they’re just the Regent’s pawns, and the entire force they command is made up of sellswords who will go with whoever pays the highest.

“But if the Regent has proved one thing to me, it’s that demons and humans can work as a unit, and can do it well. I think I’m going to rearrange my command a little, and create two more mixed regiments. Your requests on who should lead them?”

***

“Damn it!” The Chancellor slid his scrying bowl away. Nothing again. The rogue sorceress had gone from his eye. She had last been reported in Nottingshire, where the Sheriff had not only failed to apprehend her, but also Baron Roy Archer, who was currently leading Tobias in an embarrassing chase through the Hallowed Forest and surrounding villages.

The Forester was still at large, but at least he had not interfered directly with the Chancellor's agenda since Nottingshire. Shiradre’s search had turned up nothing. For all intents and purposes, the sorceress and the Forester were gone. The Forester was something of a known quantity, though, while this strange sorceress who looked like the princess was a complete mystery.

Or was she?

“Jaedayan! Dunyi!”

The two demons entered the Chancellor’s work chamber from a side door, where they had been ordered to wait with a few of his other demon retainers. In the corner, Kutayara and Shiradre polished their knives. The Poison Brewer’s lip curled as Dunyi shuffled past him.

The two partners bowed before their master. The Chancellor turned to Jaedayan of the Mist, who was in a solid, tangible form rather than his usual amorphous cloud of vapor. “What guise do you wear?”

Jaedayan rose slowly. “I appear to you as the young man Sin, from Harrisholt, who travels with our rogue sorceress Lisana.”

The Chancellor trembled with barely suppressed rage. “You knew their names all this time, and never once told me?”

“Master, you never asked. How can poor, humble Jaedayan hope to please you if you do not express your wishes?”

The Chancellor reined in his temper and took a deep breath. “I suppose it is for the best that you chose that form. I doubt that our little problem will remain underground forever. I will need to know their weaknesses, weaknesses you have exposed.”

“Uh… what?” Dunyi turned his head to one side, chewing on his lip. His beard slipped a little, revealing his skeletal torso.

“Their fears. How did you reduce them to mere shadows before the Forester intervened?”

Jaedayan stepped forward. “Well, this young man’s fear will be hard to exploit, at least for you. Sin feared his own inadequacies. Unless you can separate him from his comrades and render him helpless, it will be of no use. Easier really, to attack him directly.”

“He is just the sorceress’s guard, and the lesser one at that. I care not for him. What of her, and her demons?”

Dunyi inclined his head. “Lisana feared Death. Her own, but also that of those around her. In a way, her own inability to prevent it.”

“Difficult, but usable I suppose.” The Chancellor settled into his chair. “Go on. What of the demons?”

“Kelrick the Hellhound feared being Bound. Again, something we cannot exploit, as he is Bound to Lisana. Unless we kill her first, which would solve our problems!” Dunyi laughed, but a glare from the Chancellor shut him up, and after a moment he continued. “Anjaru the Air Master feared a sorcerer named Heath. This, maybe, we can use.”

Kutayara scoffed. “Not unless you can bring back the dead. I’ve heard of this Heath, and his ties to Anjaru. No, he’s dead. Long dead. Useless.”

Dunyi scowled at Kutayara. “Well, all right. But Thalia the Ice Maiden was afraid of a demon, a fire demon. Illyrian. Have you ever heard of him, my lord?”

The Chancellor pondered for a moment. “Perhaps. In an old text, I do believe. I will look into it further.”

“I know of him,” Jaedayan said softly. “Three hundred years ago, he rampaged through the western frontiers of the kingdom, trying to destroy all humans who lived there. The Demon King who preceded Artos did not condone this slaughter, so sent his retainers to stop Illyrian. Illyrian killed them all, and turned on demons, saying they opposed his goal.

Somehow, he took the strength from those demons he killed, and rose to the status of a god. It took the life of the Demon King himself to seal him away. And even then, Illyrian was only stopped, not killed. As far as I know, he still is trapped in a cave in the foothills of the western mountains. I went there once, to see for myself. It was about forty years ago…”

“And he was there?”

“Locked in an enchanted sleep. Chained to the walls of his cave as a waterfall crashed down over him, with a stone spear through his heart.” Then, Jaedayan blinked as the Chancellor’s face broke into a smile. “Sir, surely you don’t mean to wake him!”

“Me? Of course not. I would not lower myself to such a potentially hazardous task. But another sorcerer, perhaps…”

Shiradre swept across the room. “Not a member of the Council, of course!”

“No, no, it must be a sorcerer I can control…”

Dunyi straightened. “I can think of one! That earth demon and the human woman! They were afraid of some sorcerer who used shadow magic! What was his name… ah, yes! Peiotr!”

“Peiotr… Peiotr…” The Chancellor tapped a finger to his lips. “The name rings familiar. He is from the modern age.” He leapt from his chair and strode to a bookshelf, pulling out a registry of all sorcerers known to be in the kingdom.

“Ah, yes, here he is. Peiotr, a traveling sorcerer of some infamy. Served time in the mines for several charges of murder, but was released a few years ago. Suspected to be traveling in the west. Should be easy enough to track with a simple spell. Yes, I think we can use this Peiotr.

“Bring me Peiotr Masgard.”

***

Fredrick left the Council meeting with a sinking feeling. Astrid and the Chancellor were growing in power every day, as the new Capitol Army swept across the countryside. Ludwig and his Informants were becoming more and more infamous, and the commons were panicking. The rumors that the Council was spreading about feral demons prowling the uncharted wilds of the kingdom were lies, lies to get the average men and women to pay more to the army for “protection”.

The Arch Mage wanted nothing more than to settle the peoples’ fears, but he was bound under geas not to speak of the Council’s doings with anyone but a fellow sorcerer. He himself had created the working, and now he cursed himself for not leaving a loophole.

He walked from the Council Building with a heavy heart, and glanced at the elegant handwritten invitation in his hand. The Regent had a special assignment for him, and he was to report directly to the Chancellor’s private quarters in the palace.

Oh, if only he could find a way to get himself out of this mess!

Haruta, the messenger demon that accompanied him, drifted down onto his shoulder with the silent wings of a great horned owl. The demon hooted softly, and Fredrick scratched her feathered ruff.

“You seem very troubled, Master.”

“I am, Haruta. Things in the Council are… not turning out the way I expected.” He sighed and his shoulders slumped. He was getting too old for intriguing. Perhaps he could retire soon…

He presented his papers at the palace gate, and identified his demon. The guards waved him through, for Fredrick had been a frequent caller to the Castle these past few weeks. Always, the Chancellor had spells that needed crafting. Fredrick never wanted to see a War Magic spellbook again.

As he passed through one of the shaded walkways through the central palace gardens, he saw Crown Princess Dorothea reading in the shade of a maple tree. Her two demon retainers lurked nearby. Fredrick felt his breath catch in his throat.

Dorothea was a sorceress, but she was not on the Council. The Chancellor had been quick to complain about her rebellious tendencies of late, and her brother the Prince had been a strong figure in the Royalist faction before his disappearance.

Time for a gamble…

“Princess!”

Haruta gave a muffled cry of surprise. “Master, what are you doing?”

“Making a loophole. Quiet, please.”

Dorothea looked up from her book. “Yes? Oh, Arch Mage Fredrick. How kind of you to stop by. I hate to keep you from any urgent business. Please, carry on…”

“No, wait!” Fredrick cried, and the Princess’s female demon, her bodyguard, stiffened almost imperceptibly. “Please, I… I need a fresh perspective on a problem I have been puzzling over.”

“I’m sure that one of your Mages would have greater knowledge than I, Arch Mage.” The Princess carefully marked her place with her left hand as her right drifted towards her wand.

“It’s more of a pet project, Your Highness. A surprise, if you will. I don’t want word getting out. But you may know how to fix this.”

Dorothea scowled. “I don’t quite…”

“It’s a very important surprise. A surprise festival.” Fredrick narrowed his eyes and glanced around. “If word got out, the surprise could be ruined. We don’t want anyone overhearing.” Making sure his back was to the palace and the maple tree shielded his front, he mouthed, “Long live the king.”

The Crown Princess smiled conspiratorially. “I think I see your point, Arch Mage. The solar where I practice needlework is not far. We can talk freely there.”

The young woman led him back into the palace, and to a solid door. She opened it quickly and ducked in. The room faced out into the gardens, but the glass windows were made in such a way that the images they displayed were distorted, giving the gardens a dreamlike feel. As the Princess’s demons tried to enter, Dorothea held up a hand. “Watch the door. Let me know if someone comes close. And tell no one that the Arch Mage is with me. That’s a direct command.”

The bodyguard nodded and drifted into a nearby shadow. The demon that looked like a young boy quivered and turned into a small mouse, which disappeared from sight as the door started to close. Fredrick issued a similar command to Haruta.

Dorothea nodded to the windows. “That will make it so no one can read our lips. Speak your mind, Arch Mage.” She reclined on a stuffed leather couch.

Fredrick nodded and sat stiffly in an armchair, his back rigid. “Dorothea… if I may call you that?” The Princess nodded, dismissing the formality of titles. “There are things going on in the kingdom, insidious things. The feral demon attacks you must have heard about… there are no feral demons. For years they’ve lived in fear of us. The Chancellor uses them as a front.”

“I know, but only through my political connections. I’m sure that almost no one on the Council of Lords knows the truth.”

“Dorothea, I’m under geas. I cannot speak of what the Chancellor is doing to anyone but another sorcerer, and I think every sorcerer in the Capitol but you is on the Council.”

The Princess tapped a finger to her chin. “You call him the Chancellor. Not the Regent. Interesting.” She drew her wand. “I’m going to put a truth spell on you, Fredrick. I need to ask a few questions before we go on, and if word gets out… well, we’ll both be hanged for treason.”

Fredrick gulped, but he accepted the risk. Dorothea waved her wand, drew a glyph, and the Arch Mage felt the odd pressure of the geas settle around him. “Who do you serve?” the princess asked.

Fredrick tried to say, “The rightful king,” but his throat caught. After a moment’s thought, he realized that yes, that was a lie. And while he nominally served the Chancellor, he didn’t truly, willingly serve him.

“I serve the kingdom.”

“Good, good. You aren’t bound by any loyalties to any one figure. We can continue. What do you hope to accomplish?”

“I just want a better tomorrow.”

“Fredrick, are you scared?”

“Terrified, Princess.”

Dorothea waved her wand, and the compulsion over Fredrick vanished. She settled back onto the couch she sat on. “What I’m about to tell you, you must not repeat. Ever. To anyone.” Fredrick vowed he wouldn’t even going so far as to put the silencing spell on himself. Satisfied, Dorothea continued. “You remember my brother, of course? He was the leader of the Royalists, back before he was exiled. Well, I’ve been able to contact him a few times every year. The Royalists aren’t the insurrectionist group everyone claims they are. For Light’s sake, half the things credited to them are just a bunch of rowdy, drunk peasants attacking soldiers, and using the Royalists as an excuse.

“It’s all just a front, a ruse. The Royalists are plotting to wrest control back from our Regent, and put my brother back on the throne. They’re working covertly, all over the kingdom, in isolated places where the Regent can’t find them. There are some in Castle Town. Those are the ones I’ve been in touch with.”

“Will they help us?” Fredrick murmured.

“As far as they are able. We’ll spread the word about what’s really happening, along with a few other plans. You just let us know what you find out.” Here she paused. “For that hypothetical celebration you mentioned, would there have been fireworks?”

“I-I assume so,” Fredrick replied, a little taken aback.

“See that it gets done.” Dorothea led him to the door of the solar, and ushered him out. “Thank you consulting me, Arch Mage.” Her tone had abruptly changed, becoming far more formal. “I’m sorry I can’t be of more help, but if I stumble across something about pyrotechnics in the library I’ll be sure to let you know. And thank you for lending me that spell primer, I’ll be sure to get it back to you shortly.”

Fredrick arrived at the Chancellor’s chambers soon after. Before their meeting began, the man raised an eyebrow. “I heard you just had a rendezvous with Dorothea. Any particular reason, Fredrick? She’s a little young for you.”

“H-How did you know?”

The Chancellor smiled, a little like a wolf would smile at a rabbit that just stumbled over its paws. “A little bird told me.”

Fredrick waved his hand. “Oh, I’ve just been working on a little something. An impromptu celebration, a bit of feasting. To keep the spirits of Castle Town up, you know, and win us a little favor. Some bread and circus for the commons. I hit a snag, though, and on a whim, I thought perhaps the Princess could help. Sadly… I’m still on my own.”

Fredrick couldn’t help but marvel at the Princess’s genius. In her off-hand remarks as she let him out the door, she had confirmed his cover story, shifted suspicion off both of them, and given him an excuse to meet up with her again. Obviously the ‘spell primer’ she returned to him would be nothing of the sort, but likely a message.

“I see. Well, you have my full support in the matter. I do like a good festival.” The Chancellor, satisfied, sank back into his chair. “All right. Let’s get down to business then…”

***

“We don’t like him,” Viktor grumbled as he cracked his neck. He cast a dark glance at Beckett and his three accompanying demons.

Aletra nodded. “Aldrick, I can respect you as a captain, but him? No. I won’t do it.” The frost demon’s strange accent drew out the ‘r’ sound in Aldrick’s name, and changed the ‘w’ to a ‘v’. “He cannot be around us.”

Aldrick gritted his teeth. “Look. I don’t like the man either. But the Regent and General Astrid gave us our orders directly…” He glanced over his shoulder at Beckett, the sorcerer assigned to accompany them on their mission. His three demons stood around him. All were forest demons with wiry muscles. Their tattoos denoted them as part of a once-powerful clan that was now completely Bound by the Council.

The three, two males and one female, were Beckett’s personal guard. None of them betrayed any emotion, aside from occasionally sharing a dejected glance. “Look at ‘em,” Viktor hissed. “They’re bloody miserable in this frost. Help if they wore more clothes, I guess.”

Aldrick couldn’t help but agree. Beckett’s demons wore only the minimal socially acceptable clothes, and in this frigid mountain air, they had to be freezing. “I think it’s a customs thing,” he replied softly, and drew his own coat around him. “Stupid sorcerer. Why does he have to live all the way out here?”

Liath, in her wolf form, merely puffed out a breath. The only one who seemed not bothered by the cold was Aletra. She glanced up at the old mountain fortress, a remnant from the Shaman Wars centuries ago. “Should we knock on the door?” Should ve knock on ze door?

Beckett overheard, and nodded. “I want to get back to my tent quickly. This cold… miserable. How this Peiotr copes is beyond me.” The man, in his official robes, strode up to the large oak doors and rapped with his staff. He waited a moment, and when no reply came, he rapped again.

“We come from the Capitol, with urgent business.”

“Go away!” the voice came from within. “I’ll get the damn taxes to the damn king when I’m damn ready!”

“We’re not here about taxes!” Aldrick shouted over the wind.

“Well, why else would someone come all the way out here?”

"Valid point," Aldrick grumbled.

“Open the door and we’ll bloody well tell you!” Viktor muttered.

The gate swung open a crack, and a man in an opera cape and expensive hat stood in the gap. “What do you want?” He leveled his wand. “You got one minute, and if I don’t like what I hear…”

Beckett’s demons drew up behind their master.

Aldrick handed Peiotr Masgard a sealed dispatch from the Regent. “Official orders, from the top of the brass. The Regent wants you to perform a task for him. If you do, your record is wiped clean.”

Peiotr’s eyebrow raised a fraction. “You’ve piqued my interest. Not completely, I’m afraid, but I’m listening. Any other perks?”

Liath bunched up her shoulders and reverted to her human shape. “A seat on the Council, apparently. A high-ranking one.”

“Politics…” Peiotr grumbled. “Not a very big supporter of politics. But sorcerers on the Council do get a lot of gold. All right. I’ll… consider it. What’s the task?”

Beckett handed the errant sorcerer another scroll. “You are to find and capture the demon Illyrian. Use him as the Chancellor directs.”

“Our troop is waiting at the base of the mountain,” Aldrick said with a sweep of his arm, indicating the general direction. “Meet us at there in the morning, should you decide to take up the quest.”

He turned, and led his force back down the trail, suppressing a shiver.

***

Illyrian stood over the slumped bodies of several humans and demons. “You dared oppose me?” he roared. “How dare you attack a god!” Golden fire concealed his human-like form, his bright green eyes blazing through the curtain. “I am the Master of the Holy Flame! All shall bow to me!”

The sorcerer’s three bear-like demons charged at him, their claws tearing deep rents in his flesh. The wolf Liath sank her teeth into his arm, and the wound dealt by the swordsman was beginning to make his movements sluggish.

He tossed the smallest of the bear demons away. “Your forests cannot help you here! You will die for your insolence!”

As he prepared to incinerate the demon, his hand caught. The sorcerer was chanting a spell. “You do not save this one out of pity, or affection,” Illyrian growled. “You do it because he is your tool, and you don’t want him broken. How shallow.” He turned his attention to the sorcerer, the one the swordsman had called Beckett. His two remaining demons stepped in front of him at a barked command. With a wordless cry of fury, Illyrian pounced. He swept the swordsman and Liath aside with one arm, and reached for the sorcerer’s throat.

He was struck by a bolt of black lightning, laying him flat on the ground. Another sorcerer, this one in an opera cape, strode over the chaos of the battlefield. Illyrian shivered. This was the one who had broken his enchanted slumber. This was a man who thought he was greater than the gods. He growled, and tried to rise.

A glowing circle appeared on the ground around the fire demon. The man in the opera cape knelt down just outside the boundary. “It’s been a little while since I had a demon all my own. The rest… broke. They’re all very fragile, you know.” He grinned, and titled his head back, revealing his dark, intelligent, crazed eyes. “Hello, Illyrian. I am Peiotr Masgard. We’re going to be good friends, you and I.”

Illyrian screamed as he was Bound. For the first time in uncountable years, the Master of the Holy Flame was afraid. He had not felt fear since he had fought against his brother, and the Demon King. They had been unable to defeat him, but now, now, this Peiotr had done worse than that.

He had captured him.

Illyrian cried out for the Elementals to have mercy on him. But why would beings he defied for so long be merciful? His gods turned his back on him. How foolish he had been to count himself one of their number!

As the Binding commenced, the swordsman and Liath traveled around the battlefield, helping their injured comrades to their feet, and saying farewell to those that could not be saved, telling them they fought bravely, that they could go in peace.

This was strange to Illyrian. Humans and demons fought side by side, not as master and slave, but as equals. These two, he would keep a close watch on. If his master allowed it…

With a final effort of will, Illyrian tried to wrestle control away from Peiotr, to make the Binding fail, for the sorcerer’s will to waver. But Peiotr held strong, and soon, the process was done.

Aldrick sheathed his sword and glanced at his comrade. “Liath, the world is changing.”

“I know,” the wolf demon said. “And not for the better. Not for demons anyway.” She barked at their troops, and Beckett. “Let’s get back to Castle Town! The Regent will want to see us immediately! Make haste! Let’s go!”

Aldrick nodded, and set off after her, to where the company had saddled their horses. Viktor glanced at him sidelong. “I don’t know about this, Aldrick. It just doesn’t seem right.”

“Orders are orders, soldier.”

“Just because I have to follow them, doesn’t mean I have to like them.”

Aldrick nodded, conceding the point. The world was indeed changing, and Liath wasn’t wrong. But it wasn’t just demons who were in danger. Humans too, would suffer, if the Regent had his way. And frustratingly, Aldrick could do nothing but sit back and follow the orders he was given.

The strongest demons in the world, Talreya and Illyrian, were now pawns in the game of men. And at least one of them was controlled by a madman.

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Firebrand

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