Xian

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Chapter 2.2: Getting their hooks in.

“Listen up boys and girls, because these are the steps to a successful revenge: destroy all traces of your previous life, kidnap a bunch of babies to raise as your fanatical devotees, then slowly build political influence until you own most of the real-estate. If you go with the “moral” route, upholding the law or whatever, you’ll fail every time. Because now your target knows how and when you’re coming for him and will evade pursuit until he’s ready to torture you again.

I think it’s the political angle that turns most mortals off, especially in Leo. For The Crown has built a legal framework that asserts its own power, yet allows the nobility to freely undermine each other. I’m sure a smart person like you can recognize The Crown’s purpose in letting its rivals kill each other off, but you’d never find proof. For Leo’s laws are so convoluted and minutely detailed, that only the most deranged mind could ever comprehend them…

********

Legality...not the first words one often thinks of in conquest but they were very important to the current situation. Though the yelling that rang throughout the desiccated halls of Skywood Hearth would hardly indicate as such. Ylena, being a neophyte captain, had no stomach for paperwork and the nitpicking that often came with politics.

Even as Evangeline explained away and gave her papers to sign, the dwarven knight thrashed about in her seat and pounded on the desk. “I don’t understand! We killed the old man, rallied the people, and all the rest of that junk! Why do we need it in writing?”

Evangeline stood at her shoulder, keeping a patient face that was starting to give way to annoyance. She kept her tone firm but understanding and gave a measured response to each question. “We need a co-signed writ from each official of every village in the county. This is to prove that we did in fact lead the people against an incompetent ruler unfit for his position, with the approval of his vassals. The local barons of the surrounding townships and cities are also sending representatives expecting gifts in return for their muscle.”

“You mean they want bribes...”

“I wouldn’t use that word in front of them, breaks the whole “noble mystique.” But yes, they’ll want bribes, and this paperwork is as much for sizing up the local nobles as it is for your protection.”

Ylena starred up from the desk at Evangeline, a weary look on her face. “What the hell do I need protecting from? I thought we claimed this with backing from the order?”

Evangeline rolled her eyes. “Yes. We used their clout, their name, and their authority. All without permission. Which means unless we get the legality of this mess all sorted out, you’ll be left on your own.”

“Baal’s eyes! Abram!? Captain!?”

Abram had been listening to this conversation from one of the platforms in the grand dining hall. But he did not respond, for he was currently communing with Echo.

Deep inside Abram’s mind, an image of Echo spoke in a clear and melodious tone. “The captains are marshaling their forces toward Ulq, and are waiting on a “partner” crossing from the river Josen. From what the new guard officers tell me...well, the info you got about the Taiyang Empire was spot on.”

“And the slaves taken by the order?”

“Fodder for demon summoning, as you expected. So far the order has bound Bellos, Pestilens, and Voco demons...and one Animus.”

Abram remained silent for a moment, gritting his teeth and breaking the rail that his hands were resting on. That noise seemed to refocus Abram, and it dissuaded Ylena and Evangeline from thinking to interrupt his telepathic conversation.

So Abram continued. “What made them think it was a good idea to summon a demon of the upper circles into their ranks?”

“Kiernan wanted to ensure that the Taiyang Empire would not turn on the order after the battle. Because the Imperial Flame will vanguard the engagement. He thought that a strong demon would compensate for the difference in numbers.”

“Animus demons are not the cooperative sort.”

Echo almost seemed apologetic, as if he was the one who erred. ”That’s why Kiernan has been investing so much in binding magic, to keep the Animus from breaking free.”

Abram cursed under his breath, and just barely avoided going off on a tirade about Kiernan’s stupidity. “Has our presence been requested?”

“The other captains want you here, but Kiernan tried to undermine them, and was planning to kill their messenger. But I convinced the captains not to send anyone, and that I should contact you instead.”

“Excellent work Echo. You’ve done brilliantly.”

The dwarven psychic smiled, and the signs of his growing confidence could be seen across the whole of his being. “I’ll keep you updated Sir Abram, should anything change.”

“Take care, my friend.”

“Of course, sir. Oh, and Aurora has a message for you.”

Abram’s eyes narrowed. “I thought I told you to go alone.”

Echo looked as if he had been wounded. “And I did sir. But I thought this might be an excellent chance to hone my psionics, and I did. I can now contact Aurora and the others via a mystic focus, even a simple scrying orb will do.”

Abram could tell he’d made Echo afraid, though he hadn’t intended for it. So tried to once again appear supportive. “Well, I’m glad that you took my advice about challenging yourself to heart. What’s Aurora’s message?”

Echo lowered his voice, perhaps unconscious of the fact that it was only the two of them who could hear the other. “The apprentices have all declared for you. They believed the story about the slave camp, but I think it will take more than that to sway the knights proper.”

“I’ll keep that all in mind. Anything else?”

Echo hesitated for a moment, before delivering what he thought was awkward news. “She wants you to bring her back a white rose, to put in her hair.”

Abram blinked. “Has someone caught her eye?”

“Indeed, and she wants him to notice. The rest is a bit more complicated sir, and I didn’t quite-”

“That’s no surprise, elven courtship being what it is. I’ll do what I can. And Echo: keep safe.”

“Of course sir. You as well.”

Echo gave a bow and then vanished from Abram’s view. The Silvered Fiend turned to his still arguing accomplices and made his way down the stairs.

Just in time to catch the tail end of Ylena’s renewed protest. “I’m not even the one who rallied all these hicks! It was the cap-”

She stopped as soon as she could hear Abram’s footfalls, and turned with an indignant look. “Regardless of who did what, the county is yours now, in trust for the Imperial Flame. You can keep it, and the rewards it comes with...or you can refuse, which means not only did you toss aside a gift from a fellow captain, but you also left our flank exposed for the surrounding nobles. I’m sorry Ylena but you need to step up.”

The junior captain’s lip started wobbling, and there was an adolescent whining quality to her protests. “Why can’t you rule? I mean yeah, you have the hunt going on. But I could lead it for you.”

“It’s not just the hunt. Evangeline and I have been summoned to Ulq, as part of a vanguard action.”

Evangeline looked up from her paperwork. “Is this all part of the plan you mentioned? It thought we were going ahead of the main force?”

“So did I, but Kiernan has summoned an Animus.”

The Warlock’s eyes looked as if they might bulge from their sockets. “How could anyone be stupid enough to summon a jailor of the damned?”

Abram nodded. “I imagine that last bit’s why he’s brought one in.”

Understanding dawned on Evangeline’s face. “That’s why he needed so many slaves...to bargain with it. Holy shit...Abram this is bad.”

“I know.”

“It’s going to break free.”

“I know.”

Evangeline couldn’t believe his composure. “Then why-what…” She tried matching his obscured gaze, trying to get even an inkling of his thoughts. No such luck. “Ok, what the hell is your plan now?”

Abram was surprised she hadn’t guessed his plan already, so he tried nudging her towards it.” Fasces are often charged with keeping the Animus in line are they not?”

Evangeline stiffened. “I don’t think my patron will bargain against-”

“We’re not going to bargain.”

Evangeline turned pale, but before she could say anything, Abram was already by her side. “It’s alright, this had to happen eventually.” He lowered his head until he looked at her eye level. “You don’t think I’d leave you bound to scum like that do you?”

Evangeline looked up at him, with an expression that Abram hadn’t seen before. There was a mix of anger, of worry, but mostly confusion. Until it finally rested into one of disappointment, all of which was directed at Abram.

She didn’t even bother turning to address Ylena. “There’s still some documentation to go through. Ylena, could you find Tricia and Abanisi? They’ll have the rest, and can help you finish.”

Ylena looked like she wanted to protest, but thought over the situation...and left with all of her paperwork, as quietly as she could. Once she was out of the room, Evangeline raised her hands in front of Abram’s face. “You remember these? You remember what he does to me, every day?”

“Yes...That’s why we’re going to banish him...I thought this would make you-”

“Did you “think” to ask me? Did you “think” that maybe this is my life and that I’d like to have a say in how I live it?”

Abram rose to his full height and folded his arms. “Kiernan needs to die, Atma needs to be dealt with. But before any of that can happen, we need power. Power enough to kill an Animus, which Kiernan now has leashed at his side. Beating down your patron and taking his power is the most expedient route to accomplish that.”

Evangeline took a seat, rested her head in her hands. “When did you plan this? When you heard about the Animus or when I told you about my patron?”

“Why does that-”

“It matters.”

Abram took a second, emoting some confusion before giving a response. “I had been thinking on it since you told me of your contract. But doing something about it now became necessary when I heard about the Animus.”

Evangeline didn’t respond for a few moments, then she let down her hands, and looked at Abram with a weary face.“It would have been nice to have been consulted.”

“We didn’t have-”

“We’ve been here for a day now, and Ylena’s a big girl. She can handle some paperwork while you explain to me why putting my eternal soul on the line is a good idea.”

“You’re soul’s already on the-”

Evangeline slammed her hands on the table. “No, it’s not! It’s literally just my hands! I haven’t made any other bargains or deals or pacts with him or any other demon! And you know why? Because you’re not the only one who can think, Abram! You’re not the only one who plans things. And just because you can gamble with our enemy’s lives, doesn’t mean you can gamble with mine without so much as a “hey by the way...”

Abram considered this carefully, looking at Evangeline with a somewhat hurt but more worried look in his eyes. “Fine, it would have been more ideal to discuss the plan with you. But this is not an ideal time, no moment where our lives are on the line, and powers that be are conspiring to end those lives is an ideal time. So, for the sake of not dying, quick decisions have to be made. So I made them. This may be distasteful to you, but that’s how it is. And because you are my friend, I tried to help. You say you have it handled, but I disagree. Because if you did, you wouldn’t hide your hands away, you wouldn’t have told me about the whole mess.”

Evangeline smiled without any mirth. “You always have a reason, don’t you? It’s never enough to just say sorry...”

His voice became harsh, and there was pain in it. “You want me to apologize? Alright: I am sorry for wanting to help you. I am sorry for being concerned for you after fighting and surviving with you for years now, even while our teachers in the order tortured us. I’m sorry that I don’t want you to die, and that the thought of you getting hurt doesn’t anger me, it terrifies me.”

He had no idea why he was saying this and desperately wanted to stop. But he didn’t. Even seeing Evangeline’s confused and saddened face didn’t dissuade him. “I’m sorry that…That you apparently don’t know all that. And that I haven’t been able to get that across, for whatever reason. I’ve never thought you were something I could gamble. And yes, I know you can take care of yourself, but I’m still going to help you whether you want it or not.”

Evangeline stared at him with wide eyes. Those black eyes that now seemed so full of emotions of every kind.

Abram had no idea what she was thinking or feeling, and he lacked the energy to decipher it. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to anymore. “That’s where I’m at right now. And you can accept that or leave. I meant what I said about my helping you, but if you think you can handle it, go ahead.”

“Would you really let me go if I wanted to?”

He trying guessing her intent. Evangeline was nervous and unsure of what to do. She must have been leaning towards some course or another…which one though. Abram decided that it was out of his hands though and that he could only tell the truth. “I would…but if I heard even a rumor about you being in trouble, I wouldn’t rest until I found you again…and I’d probably say I told you so.”

She laughed at that, looking moved and frustrated by his words in equal measure. “You’re an ass, you know that right?”

“You’ve never seemed to mind.”

She smiled. “No, I haven’t.” The smile lingered and then disappeared with a shake of her head. “I’m still mad at you.”

Abram sighed. “I know. And I promise we’ll work all that out when this over.”

Evangeline was content with that answer. Once again though, Abram saw a lingering question in her eyes. But if it was the same question, and it had remained dormant for this long, it could probably wait a little longer.

Evangeline seemed to share that sentiment. “So, where you now Captain?”

The Silvered Fiend ushered her out of the study, and they walked through the dying halls of Skyhold. They were empty now, those once richly adorned halls, ever since the mob had been let in and all their greed appeased.

Not one piece of dining wear or silk cloth was left in the manse. Now, the house was much like any other rotting tree, only larger and hollowed out. Abram looked about the place as his footsteps echoed. He never liked rich dwellings or displays of opulence, but he still felt some sorrow as he apprehended the sights around him. “A great loss, soon to be our gain.”

Fiend and Warlock had walked over to the throne room by now. It had been cleaned of bodies, and now played host to the town council, and few of the local barons, dressed in official robes and wearing overly polished and ornate heirloom weapons. Abram’s warband was also present, though they stayed a fair distance from the other occupants.

As Abram entered the room, the town officials rose, with protest in their eyes. Before they could voice their scorn, Abram drew his sword. Once it was out, he plunged the curved blade into the ground. Blue fire burst from it and then coursed through the veins of the tree. The fire roared with unearthly power, leaving fear in the eyes of the noble assemblage. But as the inferno abated, the sound of a heartbeat resounded through the walls, and curiosity replaced the noble’s terror.

Abram smiled at his accomplishment. “It works. I may not have replicated the powers of creation, but I can at least touch them.”

Abram then took the blade from where he had plunged it. The tree had returned to life again, greenery was present, and the wood was of healthy color. The town council turned to Abram, as did the band.

He kept his sword drawn, and at times gestured with it as he spoke. “This new life is not without costs. You betrayed your liege lord, the Imperial Flame is your only path to survival. And now, we have ensured it.”

He hefted the sword and pointed it at the council. “As long as you keep loyal to your new liege-”

He nodded at Ylena. “-this sword will be brought back every few years, and life will be given anew to the tree, and the land that it’s magic has so generously kept. You will live comfortably, as you always have. Is that understood?”

The council members looked at each other, then one by one they turned and bowed to Abram. Once that was all done, he sheathed the blade. “Good, direct any further questions to Captain Ylena. She is your liege now after all. She will take care of you.”

Before the Council could flood Abram with any more questions, he was already out the door, and Ylena had jumped in front of them, already declaring her supremacy and taking oaths of loyalty.

Evangeline followed close behind him, and as soon as they were out of earshot, she whispered to him. “When could you resurrect things?”

“I didn’t mean to at first. I thought I was just making a more effective weapon, with new materials. Then I heard the blade’s heartbeat.”

Evangeline took a moment to think on his words, and her eyes widened with realization. “A Mors Deus…”

Abram walked on, only responding when they one of the higher balconies of the manse. “Yes. When I bathed that sliver of the Skywood with blood, invigorated by demonic energy, the lingering spark of life within it was renewed. It can now feed on energy, and grow from it.”

The warlock was excited at this news, experimentation with magic was a happy pastime after all. “But you resurrected the actual tree. Does that mean it can give life back?”

“I think it only worked because it was giving back to the Skywood. It was a piece of the same soul and could light that spark again. But if I keep using the weapon-

“It will grow more powerful. Enough to kill even a demigod, or maybe even-”

Abram was visibly taken aback. “Not yet...and please, don’t announce such things.”

Evangeline laughed. “The Silvered Fiend is a god-fearing man? Who would’ve thought.”

“When you’re a demon there’s little else to fear besides the gods.”

Evangeline kept laughing, obviously enjoying how uncomfortable Abram was. “I’ll take your word for it.” Even behind her wide smile, Abram could tell she was pondering some new question, which she answered. “Oh, that’s why.”

“What?”

“I was going to ask who that weapon was for, and why make it now? Then I remembered why I was angry at you.”

Evangeline shook her head. “This weapon is too much of a risk Abram, especially if you feed it a demon”

“Demons can only be banished or dispersed not killed. And a Fasces being defeated by an errant Warlock and an earthbound demon is something the legions of The Beyond would just as soon keep secret.”

Evangeline didn’t look entirely convinced but held her tongue anyway. They eventually came to the dining hall, where Ylena had run off to as well. They spent the rest of their time there going over more paperwork. They also agreed to leave the warband with Ylena, so she’d have muscle and agents she could count on.

Almost on cue, Ironbrow walked into the room just as they were finishing, announcing himself with a loud grunt. “Sir Abram, the prisoners you requested are waiting outside.”

Abram was already moving towards the door. “Excellent, how are they looking?”

“As you wanted, a few of them are even former retainers of the original elven lord. And they’re plenty angry at the De-Fuocos, enough to be out for blood.”

The Silvered Fiend nodded, before remembering a crucial detail and stopping in front of Ironbrow. “And the granddaughter? The one from the elven family?”

“We paid her off like you wanted, and she didn’t make a fuss about it. She even said something leaving behind bad memories.”

Abram patted Ironbrow on the shoulder. “Well done my friend, you’ll go far. Now, let’s see the troops.”

Abram got up and walked, and turned to Evangeline and waved for her to stay with Ylena. The Warlock complied, with some annoyance. And Abram followed Ironbrow out to the main courtyard area where twelve very rough-looking elves, five women and seven men, were assembled. Only a few had a military look to them, but they were all scrappers.

“They’ll play the part well enough.”

The Silvered Fiend walked up to the leader of the group, a tall woman that stood up to Abram’s chin, and possessed of a muscled body that was atypical of an elf. She still had the quiet grace, the sharp-pointed ears, and the jewel-like eyes of an elf. They stared into his own catlike eyes with forced calm, but Abram could see the fear motivating them into such a stance.

He looked down at her as he spoke. “Were you abused by the De-Fuoco?”

“Yes, sir knight.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

She looked amongst her fellows, who seemed as confused as she was. The tall elf woman than turned back to Abram, with unsteady confidence in her voice. “We want to kill them, Sir.”

Abram reached into the air, pulling out all manner of enchanted weapons. He handed the weapons over to his hunters and then voiced a command that was simple enough to follow. “Then go after them.”

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