Xian

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Chapter 1.10: Their True Colors.

“I’d wager you’ve heard many a Demonic legend, and that the most popular of your canon is a tale of rebellion. An epic of Angels breaking from the will of Paradise and then setting forth to corrupt all within their sight. There are a few embellishments in some versions, but the main message is true: True Demons, once the most treasured beings of creation, rebelled against the will of Paradise. A simple story perhaps, but consider its implications.

Think at the will of this being: to forgo what had once so completely defined its previous nature. Think of its intellect: To be present before creation itself, and to have engineered its most fundamental mechanics. Now, consider this creature’s current existence: all creation rails against it’s very being, and not only does it survive, it thrives. Such is the power of the True Demons, and such is the inheritance of their purest children…”

********

Deep within the catacombs of Skywood town, where massive roots plunged into rock and bones dangled from them, Abram and Evangeline finished their ritual. Evangeline sat in the dirt, within the rings that Abram had traced with the handle of his Morningstar. The Silver Fiend himself was re-arming his hand with the gauntlet he had only recently removed. He looked over the wound he had made with one of his conjured blades, at the silver ichor that trickled from it, and burned the ground that it fell upon. He enclosed the gauntlet upon it, just as Evangeline stood up and dusted her robes.

“Well boss, we’ve got our heading.”

“Where?”

Evangeline pointed out toward the deeper part of the catacombs, where the roots seemed to be convulsing. Abram grunted, annoyed at the possibility of yet more obstacles in the way of his quarry. He turned back to Evangeline and caught sight of her wrapping bandages across her hands. He turned to ask about them and met her gaze. Abram’s with surprise and Evangeline’s with a bit of embarrassment.

Deciding on silence, he walked over and looked at the mess of scars and calluses that were her hands. Up till now, they had looked like those of a pianist, but with this latest sight, and thanks to Abram’s knowledge of basic medicine, the truth was revealed. He was none too happy about it.

“Do they always scar? When you perform magic I mean?”

Evangeline nodded her head while trying to hold one of the bandages in place with her teeth as she tried tying some of the others. It wasn’t working though, and Abram dropped his Morningstar into the ground with a loud thump. He conjured a new set of bandages and prepared to remove the old bandages on Evangeline’s hand. As he reached for them though, she placed her hand on his and tried to push it away, to no avail. Abram closed his eyes, counted to three, and looked up at his best friend in the world.

“The illusion spell you’ve been casting? How long?”

“Since I first became a Warlock...part of my contract.”

“What is your contract?”

Abram gently brushed past her hand with his own and began removing the bandages. The first thing he noticed was the absence of smell or corruption. The second thing he noticed was the occasional bit of bone that was sticking through her hand and fingers. Thirdly, he noticed a fresh wound, which shed no blood. Oh, it tore open easily enough when he accidentally pressed too hard and discovered it, but no blood or pus leaked out. Abram looked up at her with concern in his cat-like eyes, and Evangeline gave him a weak smile.

“The contract is a wound on my hand every time I cast a spell of the 4th circle or higher. This was before the order just summoned and then beat the crap out of demons until they relinquished their magic...so there weren’t any real safety nets for me to fall into.”

“Still, why would you say yes to that?”

“Well, I thought that with the right medicine or healing magic, I’d be able to patch myself up in no time. But the wounds are permanent. The demon takes its bit of flesh and then seals the wound that gets left behind as much as it cares for, which isn’t much. They never bleed but...they hurt. When I figured out that it would stay that way, I decided to cast an illusion spell to keep it a secret. I’m used to people staring but, only up to a point.”

Abram began wrapping the new bandages around her hands, and Evangeline kept up her weak smile...though it was a little brighter at the moment. Yet Abram, concerned as he was for Evangeline’s physical safety, had other worries. Specifically about her contract, and the demon who had penned it.

“Evangeline, what type of demon did you contract with?”

Her smile disappeared into a stone-faced mask. But Abram’s stoicism matched her own, even as his hands worked. She shook her head and relented.

“An arbiter of the interstitial door...A Fasces.”

Abram’s hands stopped for a moment but quickly resumed their work. Evangeline waited for an outburst, a chiding, or any show of fury, but none came. Finally, after he finished wrapping the bandages, he stood up and retrieved his Morningstar. He remained contemplative for a moment, then turned back to Evangeline, whose expression had become a mix of confusion and fear.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Well, frankly I didn’t think it was any of your business until now.”

“What changed then?”

Her mouth hung open, searching for something to say, even one word that might fit. Then she reached out and grasped his free hand. She let her fingers trace upon and then linger on the armor that covered it. Her hand gently squeezed into his, just enough where Abram could feel it. His pulse quickened for a moment, and he wondered why she would strain her hand after so recent an injury.

Then he felt the warmth of her, how tender, and how precious such small contact seemed to be. She let go and reached out to touch his face, his eyes closed. His breath rang out in his ears, like the tune of a flute. Then, it came back to him. The vengeance he feigned, the hatred he pretended to fuel...he had to keep that.

He also remembered the object of that hatred and the measures he had to take to make sure everyone believed that to be his one and only purpose. So his eyes shot open, and his body edged away from Evangeline’s, as his own armored hand clattering away from hers. Evangeline’s bandaged hand closed, and she sat there worried. She looked sad. As if she were the one who’d wounded him. With that same worry on her face, she reached forward again, but again Abram edged away, his eyes doing their very best to not even glance at her.

“No...don’t.”

The words came from Abram’s mouth, but they had none of that confidence, none of that control that Evangeline had always seen. These words seem to be the echoes of some long-dead stranger that begged where Abram would have commanded. She reached out again.

“Abram-”

“Don’t...please...”

She looked at him. Now she was the one who felt worried. Now she was the one who saw Abram’s wounds. With some pity on her face and even more visible sadness, she pulled her hand back and set it on her lap. They stayed that way for a moment. She looking at him with fear in her eyes, wishing she could say or do something, perhaps even take back the thought of ever grasping his hand. He just knelt there, looking away from her, and drawing in silent labored breaths.

“This is wrong, but if it gets me to the end...”

With that in mind, Abram stood up. His weapon was in hand, and he conjured up five other curved blades that surrounded him, waiting for some foolish enemy to pass within their eyeless sight. He finally turned back to Evangeline. The fire and implacable confidence renewed in his gaze.

“You coming?”

Evangeline didn’t even hesitate. She nodded and followed after him. And Abram couldn’t help but wonder at this. True he was trained for command, but for people to follow him as they did...it had to be more than virtue of office, more than his raw strength in battle. But what was it?

“Demonhood? It’s true I am no mortal. Perhaps they flock to that? No, it something of my deeper self: A presence that I have grown accustomed to while everyone else can only gawk. But such thoughts are for later.”

Warlock and Fiend walked on for quite a while. Winding through the musty hall, ducking beneath wetted root, and brushing aside tattered bones. But not once did Abram question Evangeline about their destination. He trusted her on that. And such trust was rewarded by voices coming from a short distance, and the sound of plated footsteps. The voices were young and wreaked of angst. First a boy’s:

“I can’t believe Father would go so far, and then turn so suddenly...What kind of man-”

Then came a girl’s voice, dripped in erudition, and strained as if someone was carrying her. “Because Father was a bastard and a mad man, and Mother fell for whatever mask he wore. If you’d have only killed him while he was-”

Abram ignored the rest of the exchange, focusing on the plated footsteps. As he did so, he gave Evangeline a hand signal and she gathered Hellfire in her hands. Blue flames bloomed between her fingers but were then concealed. She hid her hands within the folds of her fireproof and enchanted robes, concealing whatever light the flames might have given off, but preparing for the offensive all the same. Abram in the meantime, matched his footsteps to the plated steps in the distance, mimicking their cadence, doing his best to distribute his weight equivalently. The latter was surprisingly easy and confirmed his suspicions.

“The Death Knight...”

His heavy steps synced up perfectly with the incoming footfalls. Soon he would be in range. The anticipation was almost painful but still, Abram held on to his patience.

“Almost in range, 5...4...3...2...”

Before the final count, Abram heard something out of the corner of his ear, something that was moving or rather, slithering towards him.

“Damnit!”

He turned and bashed the incoming thing with his Morningstar. It was one of the roots, and it shattered to pieces upon receiving such a blow. He then gestured with his hand, and the blades he had conjured turned the corner and whirled. Their purpose was to carve up anything that passed that corner. Only they didn’t. Instead, they plunged and ripped into more roots and pieces of stone. Abram looked behind him and saw Evangeline burning more roots with hellfire. He called to her.

“Hellhounds!”

Evangeline plunged her hands into the ground and flames spread across it, circling Abram and trailing through stone and branch. Out from the growing inferno leaped five armored and burning hounds of enormous size, each possessing a scorpion’s tail and stinger. The hounds lept from their respective hell rifts and bit into the roots while jabbing them with their barbed tails. The roots began to wither away, and the entire catacombs began to shake and resound with a powerful scream. Abram took note of this.

“So the legends are true: Skywood is a single living tree. If so then we are at an immense disadvantage...”

Abram stepped from around the corner, a wall of hellfire and twisting roots barred his way, but he slapped it aside with a plated hand sheathed in not one but five layers of conjured armor. Three of them were shattered, but still, the barrier crumbled in front of him. Wood splintered and flames scattered before him but were then deflected by an arcane shield. The source of this shield was right in front of him. A younger woman, perhaps not out of her teen years, but athletic and clad in armor, held her mailed glove in front of her face: conjuring an effective if basic barrier of energy. Behind her was a young man, similarly clothed, yet somehow looking even greener, and another boy with a guitar on his back and fear in his eyes. But they were not the subject of Abram’s interest.

“At last.”

Behind both of these neophyte warriors stood the Death Knight, tall and masked in black plate. And on her shoulders were two young women. One of them dressed in simple yet elegant robes, her hair unfurled, as she flailed about yelling obscenities and demanding to join the fight. The other was clothed in leather armor and stared at Abram with eyes that he was all too familiar with...

“I’m sorry...”

He placed his gauntlet upon the shield in front of him, and the remaining layers of conjured steel seeped out and pierced into the shield. Abram lightly punched forward, and the arcane field shattered like cheap glass. Seeing her defense broken, the young warrior woman with the axe stepped back in fear, but Abram was already advancing, and he threw yet more conjured blades at his enemies...only for them to be intercepted by bony arms that emerged from the catacomb walls. So he twirled his hands, and the blades followed suit, carving up the bones. But this delay had been enough for the Death Knight to unload her respective packages into the hands of the two young men, who went through a passageway that had just opened up for them on the adjacent wall.

“They’re coordinating with the master of the house...I must eliminate that advantage.”

He turned behind him and saw Evangeline trailing behind while bursting hellfire from her hands at still more incoming roots. He belted out another command.

“Drill!”

As he was about to conjure this item around himself, ghostly hands blocked and held back the eldritch energy as it was forming into a solid construct, blocking it from completion. Knowing the source of it, he walked forward and thrust at the Death Knight with his Morningstar, only for her to parry it with her already drawn and misty bladed greatsword. No words passed between the two combatants, just flurried blows, the occasional thrown conjured weapon, or blast of dark necromantic energy. This continued on for a few seconds until Abram took stock of the situation.

“We are in a war of attrition, and time and the ground are on her side...Then I will level the field with firepower.”

In a bold move, Abram tossed his Morningstar not at the Death Knight, but straight into her sword, knocking it aside. The move didn’t disarm her, but it gave him enough time to conjure, or rather, summon something. As the Death Knight regained her footing, the air around her became distorted, and from five rifts in the air, five black bladed swords with golden hilts inlaid with blood-red gems, burst forth and attacked her. Weaving his right hand as if handling a puppet, Abram directed all five of the weapons in a coordinated assault. Not even this Death Knight, skilled as she was, could deflect all of them with her sword, and little by little, her no doubt enchanted armor was being chipped away. And that should have been the end of it, but she kept fighting on.

“She should have been weakened on the first scratch. I will have to make countermeasures for this woman. At another time though...”

As he directed the assault, Abram backpedaled into the larger construct, which was still being held in check by many ghostly hands. He turned his head slightly.

“Evangeline!”

The Warlock heard this and rushed into the construct. But as she did this, she sent a small bolt of hellfire into the passageway that their quarry had run off into. On instinct, the five hellhounds who had kept the roots at bay ran after the bolt. Beneath his helm, Abram smiled.

“That should keep them where they are, if not kill the hangers-on outright.”

Once Evangeline was inside the unfinished construct, Abram gripped his free hand into a fist. The lines and contours of the eldritch construct then burst forth and crushed the ghostly hands before coalescing into their finished product.

Abram and Evangeline now stood within a large transparent drill, completely solid and closed off, except for one opening. This opening was at the floor of the drill’s interior and was shaped for a person’s hand, specifically, Evangeline’s hand. Drawing upon weeks’ worth of practice Evangeline placed her hand in the opening and channeled hellfire through it. Abram was about to spin his free hand but paused for a moment.

“Can I keep her here? Maybe finish her off?”

Wounds and blood began to trickle across the death knights armor, even her mask was not immune, revealing not her entire face, but edges of a very human visage. Before he could intensify his assault though, Abram’s question was answered by the bursting of burning amethyst wings from the Death Knight’s back, which encircled her, and flapped around her: batting aside the black swords and thrusting them into the dirt and one into the drill. Abram clenched his directing hand and the swords disappeared.

“Shit.”

He then twirled his free hand, and the drill spun, just as Evangeline redoubled her burst of hellfire through the drills opening. This caused the drill to surge upwards into the ceiling, drilling through it at high speed. As this happened, it occurred to Abram that the resulting inferno being generated below them might flood the whole of the catacombs, so he looked down to check. Amidst the hellish flames, there was a person-sized blotch of amethyst, which moved freely, before passing out of sight. Abram let out a weary sigh.

“I imagine she’ll funnel the flames with those damn wings of hers, that or conjure more ghosts and block them. Well, that takes care of a few of my worries...”

As these thoughts passed through Abram’s mind, Evangeline looked up at their drill path.

“We’re passing through a lot quicker as we go on. I think we’re almost there.”

“Agreed.”

The drill finally passed through the surface. And before it went any further, Abram deconstructed it and Evangeline ceased her bursts of hellfire. Then they tumbled onto the floor, right in front of a set of double doors and the incoming sight of an angry mob led by their companions. Amidst the halls of Skywood Hearth, where a loud thumping and crashing of feet resounded, there was an equally loud, if brief, halt. Ylena, blood staining her armor and cloak, walked forward with Ironbrow in tow. She slapped the bottom her spear into the floor and smiled.

“I’m glad to see you two are getting cozy. The town is ours but-”

Abram stood up, helping Evangeline stand with his outstretched hand.

“They want to know their future?”

Ylena nodded, and Abram didn’t even pause for a moment.

“Most Knights have a fiefdom of their own, it appears you now have yours.”

Both Ylena and Evangeline blinked in surprise. But before they could say anything, the very walls of the manse began to twist and turn, converging on them and turning the floors into some clay-like putty. Thinking quickly, Abram conjured another one of his Black Blades and thrust it into the swiveling floor.

He then gripped the blade, and it melted into the ground, cycling around as it moved. A scream tore from the walls and the house violently thrashed about, then settled. Abram held onto the empty hilt and looked upon the poisoned walls of the House. Where it had once been bright white and oaken wood hosting a variety of color, it now hosted a pale sickly hue, with no trim but blackened ichor, dripping from the branches and exposed veins of the house. Ylena smiled in disbelief at their survival, but Evangeline wore a grim look.

“You spent a Black Blade on this?”

Abram walked forward among the wreckage, pushing away wrecked furnishings and withered branches.

“I can just forge more, and besides-”

He looked at the empty hilt in his hands.

“I have a plan.”

Evangeline followed after him, as did the rest. Though after a certain point, Ylena told the rioters to scatter and secure whatever was left of the manse. By the time they did so, Abram, Evangeline, Ylena, and Ironbrow had worked their way to what looked to be the very center of the house, the dining hall. The doors were closed, but whatever magic kept them sealed was now gone.

The silvered fiend pushed them open with a lazy hand and walked forward with his companions in tow. Seated on at the head of a long table, was a man of unnatural age. He was clothed in fine robes, but they were pierced in numerous parts by branches reaching from the ground and the walls. At his side was a well-dressed woman of natural poise. She held the man’s quivering hand, as it trembled and gripped the chair’s arm. She turned over to the invaders.

“I take it that the image in the town was just that? An image? And that you are in fact the genuine article? Sir Abram Xian?”

Abram walked forward but managed a polite bow as he did so. The lady of the house snorted at this.

“A well-mannered invader, how quaint.”

“I do apologize for all this. I had first intended to approach you and your family openly, but you had shut the door...and on your own people no less. Tell me, what abuse have you all suffered, that you hate elvenkind so?”

The man in the throne lurched forward, grunting. But he fell into the ladies’ arms as branches broke off, some of which flew into the ladies’ face. Despite this, she held onto her man as he fell. Abram nodded at his companions and they spread out, searching for traps, ambush, or some vestige of an unwanted surprise.

None came though, and Abram walked to his hostages. The man was quivering, drool running down his mouth. But his eyes were keen and fixed upon Abram with murderous intent. The lady held her man tight in her arms but did not take her apprehensive eyes off Abram for a second. The Silvered Fiend pondered this briefly.

“A trap? No, he has been severed from the tree. He can’t send any attacks, and the Skywood itself is dead...Ah, a delay.”

Abram held up his empty hilt, made a show of looking at it, examining it. Then he lowered his hand and repaid his hostages’ furious stares with a casual one.

“Where is my quarry? The demon girl?”

The man coughed up black ichor, and the lady tried to wipe it off, but he merely laid a darkened hand on hers. She smiled weakly, putting her hand on his cheek. He then looked back up at Abram, this time with an exhausted glare.

“So you are...you are chasing after that girl. I thought...I thought perhaps the death knight was your nemesis. But I see, you prefer them young.”

Abram didn’t so much as twitch. Instead, he turned to address the Lady. “Your man has his pride. But I think you are more practical in your ideals and your affections. You can be loyal to your husband, who is already dying, or you can save your children. Who I suspect are fleeing with the two fugitives in question.”

The two nobles looked at Abram with surprise. With a haughty and perhaps offended edge to her voice, the lady asked:

“By what law are they fugitives?”

Abram held his empty hilt in two hands.

“By all the laws of nature and common decency.”

The two nobles looked at him for a few moments, the woman closed her eyes and sighed, and her man coughed and laughed.

“You poor bastard...you truly believe it don’t you? You think you’re righteous.”

This gave Abram pause, and he took his response seriously.

“It is not a matter of opinion.”

“Then you are even farther gone than I ever was...and that, good sir, is a sad place for any man to be.”

Abram looked back to the lady.

“I say again, tell me where the fugitives are, or at least their heading, and you will see your children again: Alive and well.”

The lady looked at her man again, and he nodded grimly. She turned back to Abram. “Our children are out in the world because they are strong enough to be in it. They’ll survive you.”

Whether from delirium, pride, or some unknown strength, the man looked up and coughed more ichor. “Yes! And with Barbara teaching them, they’ll bring you down like the wreck you are!”

The lady turned on her man with a shocked look, and the man realized his mistake. This prompted Abram to smile beneath his helm. “I finally have a name, Dame Barbara. I suppose you could be lying. But given your current condition that seems unlikely.”

Abram walked toward them, and the man weakly tried to stand and place himself between the Silvered Fiend and the lady. Abram simply picked him up by the scruff of the neck and raised his empty hilt to the man’s face. Then he squeezed the man’s throat. More ichor flowed out into the hilt, and the lady tried to take him away from Abram’s grasp.

This was a futile gesture, as she pulled at and hit the Silvered Fiend with little to no effect. Once enough ichor was covering the hilt Abram let the man drop. Then without a word, he conjured a simple blade and cut the throats of both lady and man in a single motion. Abram carved out trails for the mix of blood ichor to pass through with his blade, notching up the remains of Skywood.

He did this with chilling normalcy. “I am glad you were able to help me, with the name. But I can see that you will be unwilling to help me further. So, with this final favor for me, know that your children’s fate will follow your own...it is the just thing after all, if only in the poetic sense.”

He left the two to die on the throne and then walked below. At the dais’ base, he caught their blood, the ichor, and then broke off a piece of the Skywood, jamming it into the space of the hilt where the blade was meant to be. He then whispered words to the blade.

“Aus dem Blut ist Stahl geboren. Aus dem Stahl steigt die Festigkeit. Aus der Kraft kann das Schicksal steigen.”

“From the Blood is Steel born. From the Steel does strength rise. From the Strength can Destiny soar.”

At these words, the ichor melted into the wood, taking the blood into it. It twisted into many shapes but was then guided by the surprisingly gentle and precise hand of Abram. He wove the abhorrent substance into a curved blade of silver which he then bound into the hilt. The once golden hilt blackened, and the rubies turned to sapphires. As if they’d been cooled by the blood they had imbibed. This cruel weapon, a parody of the falchion, now rested in Abram’s grip.

“I feel it, the arcane power, the trapped essence of nature, the blood of hell...it flows through and accentuates this blade, like air at my fingertips.”

He gave the blade a few practice swings, witnessed by his compatriots. Then he gripped the sword tightly, and cut with it through the air. Sapphire energy shot from it in the shape and breadth of the very slash that had cast it. The energy sliced through the ceiling, effortlessly. Satisfied, Abram conjured a sheath for his new weapon, stored it, and made ready to depart.

But his companions stared in awe, and he had to raise his voice to retrieve their focus. “Our business remains unfinished. We have a town to placate and fugitives to bring down. Move!”

Ironbrow and Ylena ran out and gathered a few of the rioters that had been running and looting the remains of Skywood Hearth. But Evangeline took a look at the bodies of the lord and lady De-Fuoco. Their hands still clenched in the others. Evangeline looked at this with a critical eye. And seeing her distress, Abram walked close, but not too close, to her side.

“They made their choice.”

“Was it really the wrong one though?”

Abram blinked a moment and decided to dig further. “You haven’t shied from killing before.”

“That was when we were killing asshole nobles, thieves, and rouge angels. We did that for money so there was a-a distance. But now we’re, well...I can see who we’re killing now, and I don’t like it.”

Abram nodded, understanding her meaning. Then he straightened himself and gently lifted her chin so he could look into her eyes. His glowing eyes met her blackened ones, and there was a strange and unearthly symetry to such a meeting.

He spoke again. “This is personal yes...but that only makes our resolution of such business all the more important.”

Evangeline turned towards him.

“What will we do after? After what happened at the camp we can’t go back to the-”

“We can, if we do it correctly...remember how I told you that Kiernan was gathering slaves? And the contract with Taiyang? I know where they will strike, and with the information from these two corpses, I know it is the same place where our quarry will be as well.”

“Where?”

“Ulq, our original destination.”

“We’re not going after them directly?”

“We at least need to make a show of it. So that they’ll move. I’ll instruct Ylena to secure this place as her personal fief. That should placate her. And then we will ride forward to Ulq, and set our trap.”

Evangeline let out an exhausted sigh.

“You’re really thinking that far ahead? You want to take apart the order, and your sister in one move?”

Abram nodded.

“I am not foolish enough to make revenge the only goal in my life. I have thought long and hard on what I would do after.”

“And what will you do after?”

Abram looked out towards the door, then half turned.

“Come with me and find out.”

Evangeline gave him a weak, though genuine smile, and she followed Abram through all the chaos and inferno that they had just made.

End of Part 1

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