Ayla’s footsteps echoed through the darkened lair of the archbishop. She observed closely the room, though there was not much to see in there. The minimalistic décor of Odium’s study did take her by surprise. It reminded her of the same prison cell she had been in with some small amenities added to it.
Odium’s ancient figure sat behind a wooden desk with a chair placed opposite to him. The light of a small candle illuminated his stoic face as his mouth curved into a welcoming smile. However, his eyes portrayed a different story altogether. Motionless and without a hint of warmth for the newcomer, they glared at Ayla, observing her every move. His smile slowly dissipated as he noticed that his guest was more interested in the books on his shelves rather than him.
Ayla attempted to turn her attention away from Odium for as long as she could. Her actions, at first, were to annoy the archbishop as much as she could in order to see more cracks in his holy façade. However, the names of some of the literature he had caught her eye.
“Well, well,” Ayla spoke as she observed the tomes in front of her “For a man who despises magic, you certainly have a lot of books about the issue,” Ayla said as she observed the rich collection Odium had.
“It’s important to know your enemy and their weaknesses. Without these books we would have never gained our freedom."
“True, but this one,” Ayla said as she picked up a book with a purple cover and gold lettering “This one is something else.”
Odium’s eyes slightly widened, surprised by her choice.
“What do you mean?”
“The Multus Magus System,” Ayla read the cover, “I thought all copies of this book were burned after the Exile.”
“Some survived, I suppose,” Odium shrugged his shoulder.
“I suppose they have,” Ayla replied, “However, it does make you question what kind of a being wants this sort of forbidden knowledge, doesn’t it?” Ayla said and shot the archbishop an innocent smile.
“Practitioners of such magic are especially dangerous,” Odium explained, “It is necessary for me to know where their strengths lie and how the human kingdom could counter them.”
“In that case, I am very glad that the human kingdom has such a noble heart protecting it,” Ayla smiled as she left the book and slowly walked over to the chair “Such knowledge could prove quite dangerous in less moral hands after all,” Ayla said with a gentle smile as she seated herself across from the archbishop.
The inklings of good will that Odium possessed towards the silver-haired maiden were now all but gone and Ayla could easily see that. She noticed that the archbishop’s face now had a permanent scowl etched into it. A slight smile danced across her lips for a moment before Ayla silenced it. Such actions could only serve to harm her now.
“I see that you have met Tartarus,” Odium said as he gazed upon Ayla’s torn gown.
“Indeed,” Ayla replied, “It was not the most pleasant encounter of my life.”
“Still, it seems to be more pleasant than I had hoped for,” Odium responded “You have the same aura of arrogance and youthful resistance as you did before. Others would be more humbled by that experience”
“Well, I'm not like the others."
“Oh, there is no doubt about that,” Odium said as he leaned in closer “At least not anymore.”
“What do you mean by that?” Ayla asked, though she already knew the answer.
“It means that I know exactly who you are,” Odium smiled contently “Your distinct appearance, your brazen attitude, and your ability to come out of Tartarus’ jaws unharmed, have solidified your identity.”
To this remark, Odium let out an audible chuckle.
“You still insist on playing this silly game,” Odium exclaimed in disgust “Fine, then allow me to say it since you will not. You are Ayla Aulularia Stromhalt, also known as the Platinum Princess of the Drakken,” Odium finished his explanation.
Ayla felt her throat become dry and her bronze skin turn a shade paler. With her identity found out, the power balance shifted between them. The archbishop assumed a position over her and she had nothing else to leverage against him.
Still, she took in a deep breath and swallowed her fears. Showing weakness in a crucial moment like this one could prove deadly so she decided to mask it for the time being.
“Demeter already considered this possibility and he didn’t seem to be bothered by it. In fact, it thrilled him,” Ayla thought to herself as she felt her courage return “I will have to rely on his knowledge of the archbishop in this situation. For now, let’s see how far this charade will go on.”
“My, my, aren’t we clever?” Ayla smirked at Odium “Although, I must ask: How did you find out about me? Last time I saw you on the Drakken court was when I was but a little girl.”
“A face like yours is not that easy to forget. Besides, Drakken wanderers often speak of you in high regards. They say how their Platinum Princess is a sight to behold and that her words cut sharper than the sharpest blade. You fit the description rather well, I just needed confirmation,” Odium explained.
“I'm glad that my reputation precedes me,” Ayla smiled “However, and do forgive me if I am mistaken, I seemed to remember you clad in metallic armor last time you visited my father,” Ayla said as she gazed suspiciously at the archbishop.
“I am impressed by your memory, dear Princess. Not many have such vivid memories from their childhood,” Odium smiled
"So I've been told," Ayla said "You were much younger back then though. Your physique has changed slightly, but your hair is much grayer than it was before and your eyes have lost that bright spark they had back then. They seem tired now," Ayla commented as she looked deeply into archbishop's gray pupils.
"Not all of us are blessed like you, Princess," Odium sighed "However, your memory is correct for the most part. Back then I was the leading Field Marshall of the King’s army. I left the force shortly after that visit,” Odium said and leaned back in his chair.
“And now you are the main religious influencer of your country. That’s quite the leap, wouldn’t you agree?” Ayla said and leaned back in her chair, imitating Odium much to his annoyance.
“What can I say?” Odium shrugged “When The Creator calls, you answer.”
“And the manipulation of your subordinates just came as an added bonus to your position, I suppose,” Ayla said, purposely attempting to strike a nerve.
Odium stood up and walked around the room. He stopped by his bookshelf and sighed deeply.
“I find it rather humorous that someone of your stature would dare lecture me on manipulation of others,” Odium said and began to chuckle to himself slightly.
“What do you mean?” Ayla raised an eyebrow.
“Your ilk manipulated your people into silent complacency already,” Odium said with clear spite in his voice “Your bloodline dictates the fate of your people simply because you, and those like you, were born into the position you have. You did nothing to earn it!” Odium yelled, causing Ayla to flinch slightly.
“However, I did,” the archbishop continued his tirade as he prowled around Ayla “I fought for this land. I brought the people in this land into the light of the Creator. Even amongst equals, I was chosen to lead the Order! My bishops elected me because I was the most moral person amongst them all. They can see that my vision of the future is truly sacred,” Odium explained.
“And pray tell, what is that vision?” Ayla's rubbed her forehead, annoyed by the archbishop’s sanctimonious behavior.
Odium grinned wider than the princess had ever seen him grin before. A manic and passionate fire burned in his eyes, similar to the one she saw in the eyes of the Sondelier that had brought her here.
“The members of the Ordo Solo Deus have been elected not by human hand, but by the will of the Creator himself to lead His people into his light,” Odium explained “We have been built to lead His people from the wretched filth of the world and into the glorious light of his salvation. However, most lands are ruled by earthly mortals. Creatures of lesser moral are elected by their blood to lead the land and its people into further ruin. I seek to put an end to it!”
“You must be joking,” Ayla let out a sigh and shook her head.
“On the contrary, princess dearest,” Odium replied “Those within our Order have been given the privilege of being the moral pillars of the kingdom. So, explain to me this princess dearest: Why shouldn’t the most moral men rule over the earthly domain?”
Ayla remained silent for a few moments. As if he had achieved some sort of victory the archbishop smirked to himself contently. Suddenly he could hear a silent chuck emanating from Ayla. Her slight chuckles became louder turning into a roaring laughter, much to the archbishop's discontent.
“What do you find so humorous about my words, princess?"
“My, my, aren’t we sacred?” Ayla began as she wiped her tears of laughter “That speech you gave was most touching. Why, if I were of a simpler mind, I would have believed you. However, your words reek of hypocrisy!” Ayla fully turned herself to face the archbishop.
Turning to him, Odium noticed that Ayla’s pupils became serpent-like as she positioned herself in the chair. She leaned fully into the chair with her arms resting comfortably on both of the armrests. Her legs were positioned in a figure four manner and her eyes were locked on the archbishop.
“Tell me something, my dear archbishop, have you truly convinced yourself that this wretched perversion of reality is the truth you are so fond of? Has your mind been set adrift on the sea of madness already? It would have to be, for that is the only explanation I can fathom at this point,” Ayla’s voice began to tremble in rage as she attempted to keep her composure “Surely you do not believe that a man such as yourself is a ‘moral pillar’ of the human kingdom, do you? Do you honestly want me to believe that a man who willfully imprisons those who disagree with him, a man who tortures, flails and mutilates those that dare to oppose him, is holy? Quite frankly I am insulted that you think so low of me,” Ayla began to stand up from her chair, a fire still burning bright in her eyes.
“You ignorant child!” the archbishop finally spoke “You spit on my name, yet you are guilty of the same crimes you accuse me of. Didn’t the Drakken also torment their prisoners of war?”
“Our past is bathed in blood, that much is true,” Ayla admitted “However, we never tortured our own people. A stay in the dungeon is torment enough without inflicting such bodily mutilation!” Ayla flared up.
The archbishop placed his hand on his sheathed blade. He was ready to strike Ayla down as she approached him. However, she passed right by him and walked towards the wooden gates.
“Though, credit where credit is due, your speech on the privilege of royalty was touching,” Ayla spoke silently as her rage had calmed down “Yes, my birth gave me this position. Yes, I have been given more than my fair share in this life. However, I wish to take these advantages and use them to better the lives of those who are less fortunate. I wish to improve upon my kingdom and give my people the prosperity they deserve. After all, that is why I am here. To learn from other kings and rulers and apply that knowledge to my own people,” Ayla spoke calmly as her hands grasped the golden handles.
“So that is your true purpose here?” Odium asked as he returned to his chair. He noticed that Ayla was about to leave, but he did not wish to stop her. After all, she was no longer his concern.
“It is,” Ayla responded, “Now if you don’t mind, I believe we are done here.”
“We are,” Odium responded and gave Ayla a sign to leave.
“One more thing before I leave,” Ayla said as she turned to the archbishop, “A wise man thinks himself a fool, while a holy man sees himself as a sinner. Just something you should think over,” Ayla said to the archbishop as she left the chamber.
As she left, she passed Demeter on her way out.
“Wait here. This should not take long,” Demeter whispered to Ayla as the two of them passed each other.
“Your wish is my command,” Ayla whispered back as the two of them switched their positions.
When Demeter entered the room he noticed that Odium’s mood had taken a turn for the worse. His pale white cheeks turned pepper red in anger and his whole body seemed to tremble furiously. When the archbishop noticed that Demeter had just walked in, his eyes scowled at the newcomer and a sigh of exasperation escaped from his thin lips.
“Forgive me if I do not find your presence all too welcoming, Demeter,” Odium rubbed his temples.
“When do you find my presence welcoming?” Demeter asked as he sat opposite to the archbishop.
Instead of a response, Odium’s upper lip raised slightly, baring his sharp fangs at Demeter.
“Whatever Ayla told him seems to have put the great archbishop into an even more compromising state of mind. She really is something else,” Demeter thought to himself as he tried to suppress a smile of content.
“Well out with it,” Odium yelled, snapping Demeter out of his thoughts.
“What do you mean?” Demeter asked, stretching the archbishop’s patience to its absolute limit.
“You know damn well what I mean!” Odium snapped “You have something that you want from me. After all, your impudent soul only wants what benefits itself after all.”
“Well, now that you mention it,” Demeter brought his fingertips and tapped his chin “There are some issues that I wish to discuss with you after all.”
“Spit them out already!” Odium demanded, growing more and more impatient.
“My, my, aren’t we impatient?” Demeter said as he leaned back in his chair “Your hospitality is sorely lacking. Perhaps a drink might help to calm your nerves, sir?”
Odium sighed before chuckling to himself slightly.
“You, know what? This might be the first time that I actually agree with you. Harold!” Odium yelled.
Suddenly a loud pitter-patter of footsteps was heard echoing through the hallways just outside of the archbishop’s study. The doors swung open as Harold stood there, trying to catch his breath.
“You called Your Holiness?” Harold spoke in between breaths.
“Yes,” the archbishop said “Go into the kitchen and bring us a bottle of red wine and two wine glasses. And please, do hurry up.”
“Yes my lord,” Harold bowed as he quickly departed for the kitchen.
“Your staff is quite efficient,” Demeter said, slightly impressed by the speed with which Harold had responded to the archbishop’s request.
“They are quite loyal to me after all,” Odium replied coldly.
Within two minutes of his departure, Harold had returned, carrying in his hands a bottle of red wine and two glasses.
“Thank you for your service, Harold,” Odium said as Harold poured in their drink.
“Think nothing of it, your Holiness. I live only to serve you, after all,” Harold bowed and left to return to his regular duties.
Demeter cautiously picked up his glass and took out a small, white, orb from a pocket sewn into his leather armor.
“What do you have there?” Odium asked with a raised eyebrow as Demeter placed the little orb into his glass of red wine.
The crimson red liquid in his glass fizzled slightly as bubbles of compressed air were released into the liquid. The wine turned a shade lighter for a moment before returning to its original color in the next.
“It’s a small tool to help me survive these encounters,” Demeter responded with a smile.
Odium’s eyes squinted into a scowl and he clenched his fists in anger.
“You have quite the nerve to suggest such a thing. You were the one that ordered this drink in the first place!” Odium barked.
“Don’t take it so personally, Odium,” Demeter replied leisurely as took the glass of wine “I do this with every drink I am served. Besides, it would only take a second to poison a drink,” Demeter said as he sipped his wine.
Odium took his own glass and downed the entire glass of wine before pouring himself another one. He hoped that the alcohol would help to ease his pulsating headache.
“That was quite refreshing,” Demeter said as he lowered his glass “Now, we can talk like civilized gentlemen. Do you not agree?”
“Quite frankly, I just want this day to end at this point,” Odium replied and let out a sigh as he set down his glass.
“Well, then I shall not keep you in the dark any longer,” Demeter clapped his hands together “My first request is for you to hand over Ayla into my care from this point onwards,” Demeter said bluntly.
Upon hearing her name, Odium’s eyes lit up and his mouth curled up into a malicious grin.
“And who might that be?” Odium asked, feigning ignorance.
“Very amusing, your Holiness,” Demeter smiled sourly.
“I don’t know what you find so amusing about my statement, Demeter. Last I checked, I have no one in my custody that bares such a name,” Odium spoke as he leaned into his chair “Unless you are referring to the silver-haired maiden we brought in yesterday. However, that cannot be the case since she has not disclosed her name with me.”
“Really? She told me her name rather quickly,” Demeter responded casually.
“And you didn’t feel the need to disclose this information with me at all?”
“Would it matter if I had?”
“That is irrelevant! You are supposed to disclose this type of information with me regardless of what you think!” Odium snapped, thinking he had caught Demeter in a compromising position.
“You seemed to be under a delusion that you are my employee,” Demeter started coldly “Since you clearly must be confused, let me clarify one thing to you; I work for the king. Not for the Order and certainly not for you! If I choose not to disclose certain information then I can do so.”
“What about the Triumvirate?”
“I did my part for the Triumvirate,” Demeter explained “I took the prisoner to her chambers and have determined that she is not a witch. Which is something I told you, correct?”
Odium gritted his teeth. He knew that Demeter spoke the truth. The Triumvirate’s duties were to keep the kingdom safe and secured from the inside. If Demeter had determined that Ayla was not a threat he did not have to disclose any further information with anybody else since it would be deemed superfluous.
“Fine,” Odium raised his hands “Still, in the future please disclose such information with me.”
“Duly noted,” Demeter replied “Now back to my request. Do you know who Ayla truly is?”
“I do. After all, the Platinum Princess is someone you do not forget quite easily."
“And yet you insisted on dragging her down here,” Demeter wanted to say, but only felt it would instigate a further argument.
“Indeed,” Demeter said “And as a princess of a foreign ally, she is no longer seen as a heretic or as a witch. Therefore, she is out of your jurisdiction.”
“It would appear so,” Odium said as he stroked his beard “So I suppose this is not so much as a request as it is a royal order, am I right?”
“Look at it how you want,” Demeter responded “However, the situation is as it is; Ayla is a foreign diplomat. As such she falls under the protection of King Julius and, by approximation, under my protection as well. Therefore, I believe it would be in our best interest if I take her over from now. Wouldn’t you agree?” Demeter asked as he crossed his legs in a figure four manner and took a sip of his wine.
“Make sense to me,” Odium shrugged “Fine. Take the girl. You’ll be doing me a favor anyway,” the archbishop sighed as he took a drink.
Deep down Odium felt as though a large boulder was lifted from his chest. If Demeter took Ayla away from him, he wouldn’t have to suffer through her antics any longer. As an added bonus, Demeter would be busy protecting her. Maybe even too busy to notice Odium’s emerald glow reaching the King’s palace.
“Two birds with one stone,” Odium thought to himself as a wave of calm washed over him.
“What about your second request?” Odium asked.
Demeter fell silent for a second and took in a deep breath. He had had his fun, but now it was time to approach matters seriously. He was about to jump headfirst into the jaws of a ferocious demon.
“I wish to grant a royal pardon,” Demeter said grimly.
Odium’s eyes lit up at the sound of those words and his mouth contorted into a wide and hellish grin, exposing his yellow teeth fully for a moment. He quickly subdued his joy and coughed.
“I must apologize for my outburst, Demeter, but I cannot tell you how long I have waited to hear those words coming from your mouth,” Odium exclaimed ecstatically “You do understand what you are offering here, right?”
“Of course, I do,” Demeter responded “I know what you will do to me if this royal pardon goes south. However, I am willing to offer my head in order to save someone’s life.”
“And who might be the recipient of such mercy?” Odium asked, still slightly euphoric over such a proposition.
“The young man that hangs in your political section,” Demeter responded, his tone still unchanged and emotionless.
Upon hearing those words Odium felt another wave of euphoria coming on, however, he subdued it in time. Instead, he opted for a slightly more covert approach.
“Well, that is quite the bargain. Though, I have to ask; why him?"
“Simple, really,” Demeter replied “He is a man in the prime of his youth. I don’t think his life should be squandered in a dungeon strung out like a piece of meat and tormented daily by your guards.”
“Do you know of his sins?” Odium asked, clearly prying Demeter for information.
“From what I have heard, he attacked this palace, correct?” Demeter asked, cautious with the words he used.
“That is correct. He is the sole survivor of a small group that tried to invade my palace a few nights ago,” Odium said and leaned closer to Demeter “Knowing that, are you still willing to risk it all and offer your head in exchange for his?”
Demeter could sense the archbishop’s icy gaze peering deep into his soul, trying to decipher if the King’s Hand himself was involved with the young man. However, Demeter’s stare was unrelenting and confident.
“That only proves to me that he is willing to risk it all and fight for what he believes in,” Demeter responded “With proper education such skills could prove very valuable to the King. I want him to achieve that potential."
His composure remained unfazed as what he said was completely true; however, the context of such words differed to him and to the archbishop. Finding no signs of manipulation on his face the archbishop retracted back into his seat.
“Well, that certainly is a noble goal,” Odium clasped his hands together as he opened a drawer in his work desk. From the drawer, he pulled out two, ancient, yellow, pieces of paper, a bottle of dark blue ink, and a gold tip quill.
“Just one more question Demeter,” Odium said as he looked over the paper “Do you know the young man’s name?” Odium’s eyes rose from the paper and locked with Demeter’s.
In a last-ditch effort, Odium attempted to read a single sliver of contention on Demeter’s face. A gloating smile. A slight huff of satisfaction. Anything would suffice, just so he could confirm his suspicion.
Instead, Demeter’s gaze was as cold as ever. His breathing had not quickened nor had his lips quiver. As cold as a steel blade he sat there returning the archbishop’s inquisitive stare with a blank one of his own. At that moment, a cold breeze passed through Odium’s heart, making the hair on his back stand on its edge. It finally sunk in as he looked into Demeter’s cold blue eyes. This man was his nightmare; a demon sent to personally torture him from the vast plain beyond. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Odium began seeing a decrepit, old hand reaching out for him. This time around, he shook off his delusion quickly.
“I am afraid I do not, unfortunately,” Demeter replied with a sigh.
“Well, we can resolve that pretty easily,” Odium said as he stood up from his chair and paced over to his bookshelf.
Quickly, he located a small black and brown book, covered in oxen leather. Within this book, the archbishop had meticulously archived the name, or a given nickname if they did not provide a full name, as well as the sins and the punishment of all those rotting away in his dungeon. After a few moments of search, Odium found what he was looking for.
“Ah, I see,” Odium said “Sam, sin: attempted sacrilege of the first degree, sentence: indefinite imprisonment, heretical charge,” Odium read from the book as he wrote down on the pieces of paper. After he finished writing he extended the papers over to Demeter and pointed to a line that said “Requestor” beneath it.
Once he signed the two papers, Demeter felt his mouth becoming dry and he could feel that his heart rate had increased but a little. He took in a few deep breaths to calm himself down and pressed the quill on to the dotted line.
“One for you and one for me,” Odium said as Demeter finished off writing his signature.
“I thank you for your kindness,” Demeter said as Odium placed his copy of the decree in his drawer.
“The pleasure is all mine, Demeter,” Odium replied with a wide smile “Will that be all?”
“I suppose it would, for now,” Demeter stood up from his chair and extended his hand.
“Excellent!” Odium clicked and took Demeter’s hand “I wish you good fortune with your new prodigy. Assuming he isn’t dead already, that is.”
“We shall see, won’t we,” Demeter said as he turned around to leave “Oh and before I go; How will I unchain him? You didn’t give me any keys."
“There should be two Sondeliers down there with him,” Odium explained “If you hurry up they will unchain him for you. Just show them the royal pardon.”
“Very well,” Demeter said as he pushed the doors “Farewell, archbishop. May, our paths diverge evermore!”
“Same to you, assassin,” Odium quipped back as Demeter left his study.
The moment the doors closed Odium slumped back into his chair. He let out a huge sigh of relief and smirked to himself. The meeting with Ayla shook him, however, Demeter was an unusually welcomed change. His issue with the platinum princess was resolved and the King’s Hand was now indebted to him. It was all quite convenient. Too convenient perhaps.
That one thought snuck up behind him and stabbed his heart with a blunt knife.
“How could I be this foolish?!” Odium cursed himself “I was so at ease with what Demeter was suggesting that I didn’t think to look at the bigger picture! I gave him the Drakken princes and I have returned to him a clearly valuable asset! What is wrong with me?!”
Odium began to panic as a dozen scenarios played out in his head. He could envision himself, lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood as Demeter’s icy blue eyes gazed upon his lifeless corpse. His entire estate was set ablaze by the Drakken and his castle was nothing more than a ruined shell of its former glory.
“I must not let these visions come to pass!” Odium thought to himself as he clenched his fists “I have sacrificed too much already to lose. Let him have his precious princess. Let him have that heretic. They will not help him one bit once my seeds blossom. Once their roots infest the fertile soil of this bountiful kingdom and once my glow consumes it whole then this will all be nothing more than a bad memory,” Odium attempted to convince himself.
In order to calm his nerves Odium took the wine bottle and attempted to pour himself a glass. His hands trembled as the red liquid flowed into the glass.
“They shattered it,” much like a gentle wind, these three words faintly danced around in the archbishop’s ear causing him to drop the glass he was holding. Just in time, he managed to catch the glass by its end before it hit the cold stone floor.
However, the red liquid spilled onto the floor already and a crimson pool began to form beneath the archbishop's fee. Odium backed away from the red liquid in fear until it was absorbed by the ground below, causing it to be nothing more than a small stain.
The old archbishop couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of his fears.
“ Who cares what the prophet says?!” Odium thought defiantly “I will prove him wrong! I will show them the true vision of heaven and I will lead my people into prosperity. His serpent tongue will not deter me now!” Odium said as he poured himself a new glass of wine. This time his hands did not quiver and he was able to hold it firmly.
“Moral is human, but power is eternal!” the archbishop proclaimed loudly as he raised his glass.