The Impure Cross

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Mercy For The Sinful

The wooden doors to Odium’s study swung open as Demeter finished his negotiation with the archbishop. The King’s Hand took in a deep breath and exhaled with relief as he noticed Ayla slowly walking over to him.

“How did it go?” Ayla chirped.

“About as well as I had suspected,” Demeter responded, “However, I doubt it would have gone over as well as it did if you hadn’t talked to him first.”

“I didn’t know my little chat had that much of an impact on the moral archbishop,” Ayla replied, trying to suppress a wide grin that was spreading across her face.

“Well, whatever you told him worked to my advantage quite a lot. If he was in a better frame of mind, I wouldn’t have gotten this,” Demeter waved Sam’s royal pardon in front of Ayla.

“What is that?” Ayla asked, perplexed by the yellow parchment.

“You’ll see soon enough,” Demeter responded as he saw Harold running up the stairs.

“Lord Demeter,” Harold greeted as he arrived “Has your council with His Holiness come to an end?”

“Yes, it has,” Demeter said “However, I would advise you to give His Holiness some time to recuperate. He seemed rather troubled by the news I had delivered to him.”

Upon hearing this, Harold let out a scoff. His eyes glared daggers at Demeter and his upper lip twitch slightly in anger.

“Why does that not surprise me?” Harold shook his head “His mood wouldn’t have anything to do with that royal pardon you hold in your soiled hands, would it?”

“Perhaps,” Demeter shrugged.

Harold sighed and ran his hands through his golden locks in order to calm himself.

“Would that be all?” the superintendent asked as he mentally prepared himself for more bad news.

“There is one more thing, aside from the royal pardon,” Demeter smirked “Henceforth, any matters regarding the silver-haired maiden that stands before you will no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the Order,” Demeter explained as he pointed to Ayla, much to her shock.

“And under whose jurisdiction will she fall, then?” Harold asked pompously.

“The King’s of course,” Demeter replied, “After all, foreign royalty falls under his Majesty’s protection.”

Harold’s eyes widened and his lower jaw hung loosely as he looked at Ayla. The superintendent nervously took out his handkerchief and wiped the beads of cold sweat that poured out of his forehead.

“My Lady, in the name of His Holiness and all of us here, I offer you Our sincerest apologies for the treatment you got here,” Harold bowed immediately.

Upon hearing those words Ayla couldn’t help but grin widely. She turned to Demeter and winked at him as he gave her a knowing nod of approval.

That sly fox,” Ayla thought to herself as she turned her attention back to the servant “Do not dismay, oh servant of the Holy One. I, Ayla Aulularia Stromhalt, first daughter of the honorable King Drachius Nobilius Stromhalt of the Drakken Imperium, humbly accept your apologies. Now, stand upright so that we may seal your apology with a royal handshake,” Ayla extended her hand as she fixed up her posture to appear nobler to the superintendent.

Harold rose up to his feet and firmly gripped her hand.

“Your kindness is very much appreciated,” Harold said as he shook Ayla’s hand.

“Thank you. I am a firm believer that kindness is a sign of great leadership,” Ayla said and smiled to Harold.

At her remark, Harold let out a nervous chuckle.

“Well, now that that is settled,” Demeter interjected “We will be taking our leave. Give the archbishop my regards to his hospitality.”

“As you wish, lord Demeter,” Harold bowed “Farewell to you too, Princess Ayla.”

“Farewell, superintendent,” Ayla said as she picked up the ends of her torn gown and bobbed him a curtsy.

Once they were out of the superintendant’s line of sight, Demeter turned to Ayla.

“That was quite the performance you gave back there, madam Stromhalt,” Demeter whispered to Ayla.

“That’s princess Stromhalt to you, Lord Demeter,” Ayla wagged her finger at Demeter with a grin, “And thanks. The superintendent seemed like the type of person who responds best to those with power over him, so I figured I would flaunt my status for a bit.”

“It certainly was surprising, to see you act that way,” Demeter said as they approached the main door. He held the door open for the princess to walk out first.

“Well aren’t you a cavalier?” Ayla smirked to Demeter “And yes, it felt very unnatural. I am not too fond of that sort of 'stiff talk', but there are times when I need to use it. I can’t always be my usual joking self.”

“Those who conceal their true intentions are those that are left victorious in the end,” Demeter quoted.

“Oh, so you’re a Freimheit man, I see,” Ayla exclaimed as they reached Demeter’s black steed.

“Of course,” Demeter said as he untied his horse and mounted it “Lord Constadore gave me his 'Art Of Deception' when I was just starting out and his words have saved me on more than one occasion,” Demeter explained as he let out a hand for Ayla to climb up.

“Lord Constadore?” Ayla repeated the name in confusion as she climbed up onto Demeter’s stallion.

“He was my mentor when I was starting out,” Demeter explained as he took the reins of his steed “One of the best warriors I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. He taught me everything I know about combat, war, and knowing when to fight and when to retreat.”

“He must be a great man then,” Ayla claimed as she held firmly to Demeter’s sides.

“One of the greatest, if you ask me,” Demeter responded with a nostalgic smirk “I’ll have to introduce you to him once we get to the castle.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Ayla responded they began to move towards Odium’s dungeon.

As they exited the marble walls of the Holy Palace, Ayla took one last glance at it. The awe-inspiring castle seemed like nothing more than a stronghold of delusion poisoned by its leader. It was a shining beacon of hypocrisy and a testament to insanity.

Why shouldn’t the most moral men rule over the earthly domain?”

Those sickening words cropped up in the princess’ mind once more as she tensed up in anger. She barely even noticed that her fingers were digging deep into Demeter’s side.

“You don’t need to hold on that tightly,” Demeter said, breaking Ayla out of her thoughts.

Quickly realizing what she had done, Ayla loosened her grip.

“I am so sorry,” she apologized profusely “I got caught up in my own thoughts.”

“It’s quite alright,” Demeter waved her off “However, judging by your grip, those thoughts must not have been too pleasant.”

“To put it mildly,” Ayla sighed “I was just thinking about something Odium said.”

“Ah, another one of his long-winded talks about the evils of royalty and the righteousness of the Order, I presume,” Demeter sighed.

“How did you guess?” Ayla gave him a half smile.

“Because I know how he operates,” Demeter responded, “His train of thought is caught in that one track and dares not to deviate from it.”

“Has he always been like this?”

“He has been this way for as long as I have worked with him,” Demeter said as he looked from side to side for the glint of white armor “However, from what I have heard, he used to be a different man a decade or two ago. From what Julius has told me, Odium was one of his most loyal subjects back when he served in his army.”

“So what changed?”

“Who knows?” Demeter shrugged “I’ve heard that the Hell’s End campaign really hit him hard. After that battle, he dropped out of the King’s service and joined the Order.”

Hearing that name made Ayla’s drop down and her curious expression had changed into a more mournful one.

“How bad did that battle turn up?” Ayla asked.

“Pretty bad,” Demeter replied “From what I heard the Saaud were able to extend their borders but were forced to stop their advance. Odium’s forces managed to push them back, but we still suffered heavy losses before the war was stopped.”

“I see,” Ayla trailed off.

“Do not dismay, Princess,” Demeter responded, jolting Ayla out of her thoughts “Your people did nothing wrong. The war wasn’t theirs to fight and their intervention would have only prolonged the combat.”

“That may be true,” Ayla claimed, “But it could have ended it a lot sooner as well.”

“What’s done is done,” Demeter explained as they approached the familiar stone shed “Those battles have been fought and their outcome is set in stone now. We need to focus on the battles that are yet to come.”

As he said that, Demeter pulled over his steed and dismounted it. He extended his hand towards Ayla and pulled her down from the horse before turning his attention towards the shed.

While he was unlocking the gates to Hell, Ayla thought about Demeter’s words. A slight smirk danced across her lips as she looked back at Demeter.

“After you,” Demeter held the door.

“Before we descend, I want to ask you something,” Ayla spoke cryptically.

“What’s on your mind?” Demeter asked, perplexed by her sudden shift.

“After we are done here, would you be able to perform Hanweim with me?” Ayla asked with a smile.

Demeter’s eyes widened in surprise at her suggestion. In Drakken culture, Hanweim was the ultimate signal of allegiance. It is an act, used mostly by those of noble blood, to signify the strength between their houses and the connections they would make.

“If that is what you truly wish, then I will be happy to oblige,” Demeter said, “However, I do feel I would be unworthy of such honor.”

“I am glad to hear that,” Ayla smiled as she entered into the shed “That response only serves to solidify my decision.”

Descending down the steps to Hell, they entered once more the archbishop’s dungeon. Their entrance was met with the same woes from the same lost souls that resided in this forsaken place. Paying them as little mind as he could, Demeter paced faster towards the place where his comrade was hung. As they closed in on to Sam’s location, Demeter could hear a loud yell echo through the dungeon.

“Is that all you’ve got?!” he heard Sam’s voice echo followed by a grunt of pain.

“I see you have gotten stronger, vermin,” a different voice yelled, followed by a ghastly cracking sound.

Upon hearing the crack, Demeter ran towards the commotion. Quickly arriving at the scene, Demeter noticed a blue-eyed Sondelier standing guard while a shorter Sondelier, with olive green eyes, was kicking Sam’s curled up body. He managed to reach them just as Sam spat out blood on the Sondelier’s white armor.

“You wretched cur! How dare you soil the armor of the Holy Guard!” the Sondelier yelled as he prepared himself for another kick.

“That’s enough!” Demeter yelled catching the ire of the olive-eyed Sondelier.

The Holy Guardian walked closer to Demeter with his fists firmly clenched.

“You better watch how you talk to me, assassin. This is the second time you tried to command us,” the Sondelier loomed over Demeter.

Even though Demeter himself was six feet tall, the Sondelier was still two inches taller than the King’s Hand and could look down on him. Still, Demeter was not one to be frightened that easily.

“Are you trying to intimidate me?” Demeter sized the Sondelier from head to toe “Because if you are, I am more than willing to respond in kind.”

Upon hearing that the Sondelier attempted to bring down his fist to Demeter’s head, however, he was stopped by his colleague.

“Please let’s remain civil here,” the taller Sondelier responded as he held his colleague by the shoulder “Bloodshed will not help either of us.”

“But, Brother, he has commanded us! He needs to be taught his place!” the shorter Sondelier protested.

“Observe his hands, Brother,” the taller Sondelier calmly said, “Do you not see the royal pardon he holds.”

The shorter Sondelier’s eyes quickly darted over to the parchment Demeter held up now. Noticing the seal of the archbishop upon it, the Sondelier’s fist was brought down to his side as he straightened up.

“Perhaps I should take over from now,” the blue-eyed Sondelier patted his olive eyed comrade on the back.

“Fine,” the shorter Sondelier responded, “But if he does anything strange, I will cave his skull in!”

“Understood,” the blue-eyed Sondelier said as his fellow guardian moved away from the group.

“He seems like an explosive fellow,” Ayla couldn’t hold in her comment.

“He’s pretty new to the force so he still has some things to work on,” the Sondelier responded, “I am a bit surprised to see you down here, young drakken.”

“I am only here to keep my new guardian company,” Ayla responded playfully.

“I see,” the Sondelier brought his hand to his chin “So, the archbishop has put her in your care?” he turned his attention over to Demeter.

“Her status placed her in my care, but His Holiness was kind enough to abide by the earthly laws,” Demeter responded as he observed this new Sondelier.

Unlike his shorter companion, this one seemed much more evenly tempered. He was approaching the situation logically and attempted to resolve it without succumbing to his aggression.

An enemy like him could be very difficult to deal with,” Demeter thought to himself “I will have to be very careful if I am to escape his piercing gaze.”

“I see,” the Sondelier nodded “Now that we have resolved that matter, let us return to the question of that royal pardon.”

“Of course,” Demeter responded and handed the parchment over to the Sondelier.

The blue-eyed Sondelier read through the pardon thoroughly while his companion stood by his side and glared at Demeter with murderous intent. Noticing that the torrent of kicks had stopped, Sam picked himself by his elbows and prompted himself on a nearby wall to rest.

“As it stands, this decree is valid,” the Sondelier concluded “As long as you can keep your end of the bargain, this prisoner shall be free. Give him the prisoner’s key,” the taller Sondelier turned to his comrade.

“That is absurd!” the green-eyed Sondelier exclaimed as he snatched the parchment from the hands of his senior “He must have used some unholy magic to force the Blessed One into signing this! I will not allow for such treachery,” the green eyed Sondelier suddenly felt a tremendous force strike him in the chest as he collapsed to the ground.

The sound of metal armor hitting the floor echoed throughout the dungeon and Sam scurried closer to the wall as he noticed the Sondelier’s massive body topple beneath his feet. Ayla held her hand over her mouth in shock as Demeter only raised a slight eyebrow at the exchange.

Gasping for air, the Sondelier stood up in a kneeling position as he gazed, wide-eyed and in shock, at the taller Sondelier. The blue-eyed Sondelier still had his hand balled up in a fist as he trembled in rage.

“I pride myself in my calm nature, but even I have my limit,” the Sondelier spoke through gritted teeth “To suggest such a thing is slander of the highest order! Do you think The Holy One is so weak-willed that mere magic could change his mind?”

“I do not,” the green-eyed Sondelier lowered his head in shame.

“Then, do not question his wishes ever again. Give them the key so the deed may be fulfilled.”

Reluctantly the green-eyed Sondelier produced a rusted key and tossed it over to Demeter.

“Ayla, could you help Sam to his feet?” Demeter turned to his silver-haired companion.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Ayla smiled as she rushed over to Sam.

Sam could barely believe his eyes as he noticed Ayla approaching him. She gave him a quick smile as she looked him over. Her smile slowly turned into concern as she noticed heavy bruising all over his body. Her worries were confirmed even worse as she noticed red pools of blood gathering around his chest.

“You really shouldn’t have moved,” she scolded the young man.

“Well, I couldn’t really stay on the floor. It was embarrassing,” Sam joked and coughed.

Ayla rolled her eyes as she tore off a larger piece of her gown, making it show off her ankles.

Both the Sondeliers and Demeter looked on in surprise as Ayla proceed to place Sam’ left arm to his chest and tied the piece of her gown around Sam’s ribcage and arm.

“This should help your broken ribs to stay in place,” Ayla smiled as she wiped off beads of sweat from her forehead “However, we need to get him to a healer as soon as we can. Your friend did a lot of damage to him.”

“In that case, we will be leaving immediately,” Demeter said and walked over to Ayla so that they may carry Sam up the stairs.

“Farewell, Lord Demeter,” the blue-eyed Sondelier said.

“Farewell,” Demeter replied.

“It was nice seeing you again,” Ayla added as they began climbing up the stairs with Sam held between them.

The tall Sondelier smiled to himself as he watched the trio disappear up the stairs. After they had left, the green eyed Sondelier turned to his companion.

“Why did you let them leave so easily?” he yelled.

“You really have a one track mind, don’t you” the blue eyed Sondelier shook his head “I have no intention of letting them go so easily. We will follow them as close as we can and see where they lead us to. They will be our bait to put an end to all those who oppose The Blessed One,” the blue eyed Sondelier explained his plan.

“Then why did you punch me like that?!” the green-eyed Sondelier exclaimed.

“You were being insubordinate, so I had to discipline you,” his companion responded “Now hurry up. If we wait too long they might get away from us.”

With a swift kick, the door to Odium’s dungeon opened once more as Demeter and Ayla carried Sam out to the green fields. Upon feeling the warm greeting from the afternoon sun Sam began to laugh uncontrollably.

“Man does it feel good to be out!” Sam tried to raise both of his hands into the air to stretch, but Ayla stopped him.

“You have three broken ribs at the very least. Your movement should be minimal,” Ayla scolded with a firm expression on her face.

“I know. I can feel them,” Sam winced slightly “But I cannot believe that you got me out! How did you pull it off? How did you fake the royal pardon?” Sam asked enthusiastically.

“I didn’t,” Demeter responded grimly as he went ahead a few steps to prepare his stallion for the journey.

Upon hearing those words Sam’s smile quickly faded. He wrestled himself out of Ayla’s grasp and rushed over to Demeter, much to the princess’ protest.

“You can’t be serious,” Sam raised his voice, however, Demeter put his hand over Sam’s mouth.

“Do not raise your voice like that,” Demeter whispered, “You never know who is listening here.”

As Sam looked around he could notice a pair of Sondeliers ride off in the distance.

“We still need to talk about this,” Sam whispered back to Demeter as Ayla caught up to him.

“What did I tell you about moving too much? Do you want your ribs to puncture your lungs?” Ayla huffed in rage.

“Come on, I am just fine,” Sam said as he began to cough in pain.

“Clearly,” Ayla rolled her eyes at his remark.

“Hey you two, stop bickering!” Demeter commanded “We still need to figure out a way to transport Sam to the nearest healer. With one horse and the three of us, it might be a bit difficult.”

“You can put him on the horse with you,” Ayla suggested, “As long as the healer is nearby he should be fine with the makeshift fixture.”

“Won’t it become tiring for you to walk beside us?” Demeter asked.

“Don’t worry. I am tougher than I look,” Ayla winked and flexed her muscles.

Demeter laughed at her remark while Sam just confusedly stared at the two of them.

What the hell happened to him?” Sam thought to himself as Ayla lifted him up to the horse.

Once Sam was settled in, Demeter took the reins of his stallion and directed it away from Odium’s castle.

He passed deeper into Odium’s forest and followed a dirt path that led them to another exit within Odium’s walls. This exit was a narrow passageway the width of two horses and it led towards a thicker grove that resided beyond the archbishop’s walls. Noticing that there were no guards at this exit, Ayla walked closer to Demeter.

“So where exactly is this healer of yours?” she asked as she looked around to see if they were being followed.

“She is somewhere in here,” Demeter responded and pointed to the thick grove that lied up ahead.

“Ah, got it,” Ayla chuckled and shook her head.

As she did so, out of the corner of her eye she noticed two glints of barely visible white armor, headed for their direction.

“By the way, it would appear we have company,” she said calmly to Demeter.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less from the loyal hounds,” Demeter responded.

Sam, who had been listening to their conversation, suddenly leaned in closer to Demeter.

“Wait, you aren’t thinking of taking me to her, are you?” Sam panicked.

“Well, who else do you think could fix wounds like those?” Demeter argued back.

“I just don’t know if I can face her, after all of this,” Sam sighed deeply as the light of the afternoon sun was slowly consumed by the thick, intertwined branches.

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