Xian

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Chapter 2.8: A Keeper of Selves.

“Now we finally come to these abominations: The Animus. At this point, if you’ve been paying attention, you have heard terms such as blood magic, upper circles, and power being tossed around whenever an Animus is mentioned. All demons are driven to fulfill some goal, in some direct fashion. And both their goals and their methods are usually predicated on some kind of insecurity. Artificio must be the perfect craftsman, Fasces must enforce justice, etc.

The Animus are not defined by a singular desire, so much as complete emptiness. They are existential voids, with no real desires of their own. They do not even need to fill that emptiness, and only opt to do so for the rush of quashing another existence into something they can then sup, as you and I might do with fine wine. No one, whether mortal, angel, or eldritch abomination is too exotic for an Animus. Even my own kin are favored entertainments…

********

Days had passed since the battle with the Fasces. And they had not been peaceful ones. As he entered the ruins of this royal fort, Evangeline riding beside him, Abram thought on how the days after his promise and their reconciliation ought to have been happy ones. But instead, they had been filled with grim determination and hasty riding.

The meeting with her Majesty had gone well but now brought new gravity to the situation. This would be helped though, as Helena and Mark had done as he asked, and were sending Kiernan false information about Leo’s troop movements via magic. Hopefully, that would cause Kiernan to divert his teleportation to this spot.

Evangeline took stock of their surroundings. “You can almost see Ulq in the distance and the river too...You sure this is going to work?”

Abram dismounted and began climbing up the ruined steps towards the top of the walls. “I am not, to be perfectly honest. But we’ve done what we can, so we’ll just have to hold out.”

“I don’t feel comfortable playing all the different sides like this Abram.”

Abram wasn’t sure what to say or do...so he tried to be decisive. “It’s the only way.”

Evangeline hadn’t left her horse yet and was making a careful inspection of the area. As she did so, the warlock would occasionally stop and carve sigils into the stone with precise blasts of hellfire. The blasts functioned like thin blades and cut with scalpel-like precision.

Abram smiled. “Looks like the Fasces’ magic is taking to you well.”

“Yep.”

She wasn’t saying much else, and Abram wasn’t in any mood for a fight with her. So he left her to her work. Once he reached the top of the tower and placed a hand on its jagged battlements, The Silvered Fiend took the time to confirm what he’d seen on the map that Mark had provided him. This place had been a defensive juncture. It overlooked the river that provided a direct route between Taiyang and Leo, and served as a buffer point for Ulq, the five towered castle of which could be faintly seen in the distance.

Below him was a great circle of stone, with great pillars of glass stretching from the ground out into the air. This was a long-range mass teleportation gate, prized by all for reasons which to Abram were rather obvious. But their maintenance was costly, even for the most powerful wizards, who guarded the knowledge of how to operate these gates closely.

“Of course, that’s a moot point for demons.”

Demons, who regularly traveled across dimensions and states of existence, could easily operate such a “trivial” apparatus. So, to make sure they did not take advantage of said apparatus and destroy the would-be usurpers: Evangeline was laying out several wards enchanted by her own, now independent powers.

Abram watched her closely, noting the ease with which she traced the glyphs and even hearing her hum as she did so. He had been worried that the demonic power she absorbed might have some negative effects. Thankfully, and as he had hoped, the power from the Fasces was of an ordered sort.

Since the Demon did not have time to terminate the contract, the bulk of the creature’s power transferred to the most powerful of its proverbial dependents.

“And because Evangeline was the one who had figured in his destruction, she proved herself to be the strongest. Demonic “law” is rather quaint.”

Abram for his part had absorbed the demon’s axe, and copied its design and essence into his mystic armory. Perhaps, when all this was over, he would forge it and his newborn Mors Deus into a hybridized weapon.

Though who would he use such a weapon on?

“I’ve no interest in conquering the world: Only to establish our place in it. Then again, given our new positions: we might be called upon to fend off a full demonic invasion at some point. Or perhaps Paradise itself will tire of our “sinful ways” and crash down upon us. The future certainly is bright, isn’t it?”

He went back to examining the ruined fortress, it would make a suitable cage for the enemy, and a kill box for those he hoped to fight.

“Those I hope to fight...”

This was the first time in years that he no longer felt the need to feign hatred for Atma. He had convinced himself over and over that he had done all that he had done for the greater good. But now, knowing Evangeline’s mind on the matter...he couldn’t help but fear for Atma’s state of mind.

“She’s strong, and pure...she’ll not break, certainly not from me. But what if she feels guilty? What if she blames herself for all that’s happened?”

Abram shook his head and quashed such thoughts from his mind. Upon recomposing himself, he turned and descended from the tower, stepping upon the ruined courtyard ground of the gateway just as Evangeline finished her work.

She turned to him, satisfied with her work. “This should do it. If a demon tries to step through this portal, they’ll get sent back to the Beyond.”

“Remind me to stay away from it then.”

She remained stoic. “No worries there...Do you really think this will work? Not just the plan but also...well, our new boss keeping her end of the deal?”

Abram nodded, processing her concerns. “She has no reason to lie to us at this point, and our continued service can only be a boon to her. But that is for later, let us focus on the now.”

“Makes sense.”

It was clear that she wanted to say more. Her lips trembled with it, and Abram felt the same impulse. Maybe later...but for now, Abram had to remain on task. Then there was a familiar ringing in his head. Echo was trying to contact him. He gently excused himself from the embrace.

“Echo’s trying to reach me.”

Evangeline nodded, a little disappointed. “I figured.”

Abram closed his eyes and prepared for the message.

“Echo? What news do you-”

“We’ve been betrayed, Sir! The Order is in complete disarray, they’re fighting each other and...oh gods, they’re sending the demons on us. And all our comrades are being raised as new fodder!”

“Calm down, where are you now? Which gate are you at?”

“Th-The one next to Provost’s Channel. Please, we’ve barricaded ourselves in the caves next to the river but we need-”

The conversation cut out with that. Abram’s first instinct was to try and undo all the wards that had been made, then he realized something. Echo had simply talked at him. There was no mental image. Even on a priority contact, he would have been able to see the dwarf manifest himself within his mind.

To Abram, this meant only one thing. “This is a trap.”

He said the words aloud, prompting a cold reaction from Evangeline. “What did Kiernan do?”

“Echo has been compromised, but he left a warning of sorts. I think Kiernan is trying to get us to activate the gate on our own. So that he can lead his troops across and overwhelm us with the demons in his ranks.”

“What are we going to do then? If Echo’s in trouble then that means-”

“All our support is likewise in trouble.”

Abram thought over the situation. Simply riding to the gate at Provost’s would be asinine. There simply wasn’t enough time. Perhaps he could travel there using the Mors Deus and some combination of Evangeline’s empowered abilities? Perhaps, but they would be making a near-blind jump. They would end up in the general area, not necessarily where he wanted to be. He thought of going through the gate, but he wouldn’t be able to make use of it unless he disabled the wards.

And that’s what they were counting on. “Yes...that’s exactly what they’re counting on.”

He summoned his Mors Deus, the falchion manifesting neatly in his hand. Then he turned to Evangeline.

“Help me activate the gate.”

“But I need to deactivate the wards first-”

“We’re not the ones who will be using it.”

Evangeline took a moment, then smiled knowingly. “I get it.”

Abram pointed his sword above the gateway, till it was pointed just about at the center place between its great spires. He then extended his hand, and the sword flew from it. As the sword was in midair, Evangeline threw blasts of hellfire at the gateway spires, one for each. The hellfire engulfed them, and then enveloped the entire gate.

The field then stabilized, falling across the gate as if it were a light coating of dust. Abram made a fist, and the sword stopped its flight, resting above the gate. It then spun, drawing the flames to it. Then he made a quick downward chopping motion with his hand. The sword, still spinning, cut through the air and the hellfire coalesced into a single ray of light, which looked more like a tear in the world. Abram smiled beneath his helm.

“It’s meant to cut down gods...of course it can cut through dimensions, even in its infancy.”

The tear widened, and then extended until it was spread between the spires. As Abram had expected: hundreds of Demons emerged, their feet resounding across the arcane gate’s floor. Mighty Bellos with their massive frames bade for blood. Pestelens, armored in rust-covered hellsteel, bile spurting from the gaps in their armor, brandished axes and swords. And Vocos clad in fine robes, levitating above the ground as if the mere thought of dirt on their finery was repugnant, their faces obscured by masks of platinum, gathered elemental energy between their fingers.

The display was impressive, and lasted barely a moment before the wards glowed with sapphire light, and the rift followed suit. The demons within screamed with unholy pain and then disintegrated. Abram felt their souls disperse, their consciousness fragmenting into millions of pieces across the Beyond, most likely becoming carrion feed for other demons.

But something else was happening, he felt invigorated, powerful. The power of these many demons was absorbed by the Mors Deus, and thus, into Abram, it’s creator and master.

“No...”

The power was swelling in too quickly, to uncontrollably. Abram hadn’t considered that the demon’s powers would be something discarded like so much trash. But now it made sense, the same vortex that powered the gate also functioned as a sort of net for the Mors Deus.

This combined with the wards made for an effective trap against demons, but only if the host could handle the intake of power. Abram, coughing up ichorous blood and forced to disperse his helm for fear of drowning in it, feared that he was not up to the task. Evangeline turned to him. Their eyes met with horror in hers and defiance in his.

He belted out loud but choked words. “Keep the gate up!”

“But you’ll-”

“Just do it!”

Abram thought on possibilities, perhaps he could create some kind of ancillary storage for the sword. There was no clear limit on the number of weapons he could store, nor the power that each one held. So if he just made more, then he could evenly distribute the power he was rapidly absorbing. As he moved to do so, attempting to stand, a great pain struck him. As if his head was being torn from the inside out. He collapsed again, and once he was on his knees the pain subsided.

A voice spoke to him, unfamiliar, but certainly twisted. “I am impressed that you could survive the attack. But then again, I was also surprised that you left such an opening in your mind. You must have trusted this “Echo” a great deal.”

“You...you are the Animus...”

A low chuckle ran through Abram’s mind, and he felt his teeth chatter against each other. Abram let out a silent prayer to whatever gods would hear. He knew that the only opening that could be breached in his demonic mind was a specific “backdoor”, which only Echo had access to.

If the demon could access it, it meant that Echo was now dead and that the Animus was using his psychic abilities. Abram hoped that his friend would find some solace in death and that his powers were the only thing the demon took...

Then the demon spoke again.“I’m afraid your friend is sloshing around with many others within my own mind, and I would hardly call myself THE Animus. Though even among my exalted kind, I am something of a luminary. But you have more important matters to attend to then my personal history. Such as the inordinate amount of power tearing at your soul.”

“Did you plan for this?”

“For this exact circumstance? It’s certainly within the capabilities of one such as I, but unfortunately, you did this to yourself. I am bound to the will of this...Kiernan creature, and thus my initiative has been reigned in. It was his plan to use the gate, and have you activate it so that he could send his loyalists through. I convinced him to send in demons, hoping that you would kill them with your Mors Deus, and slowly absorb more power then you could contain. This is more...expedient.”

Abram knew of the position he was in, as long as the Animus was inside his mind, he wouldn’t have the focus necessary to build new weapons. At least not ones powerful enough to contain demonic essence. But there was something off about the Animus’ tone.

This gave Abram the hope to continue. “You are not taunting me, and you have not made another move to kill me.”

“Indeed. And what do you deduce from this?”

“You are here to negotiate.”

There was a soft laugh from the distant voice. “Bargaining is something of a pastime for our kind is it not? I will admit, I thought an invasion of this plane would be a welcome diversion. Not to mention all the various personages I could add to my collection. Such histories and stories I could have had...But no. Kiernan is quite rigid in his control of me. He exhausts many slaves to empower the binding magic of his warlocks: Ensuring that I am only able to raise the dead as withered husks, shock troops for the army. It was all I could do to absorb your friend. And I fear that I might soon be chastised for it...how demeaning.”

“You want me to kill Kiernan and free you, in exchange for regulating the power absorbed by the Mors Deus...how long have you been planning this?”

The Animus let out a laugh. “Since you took over Skywood and forged that sword my dear boy. You might have counted on the Mors Deus being shield enough, and perhaps against the forces of Paradise and the lesser of our kin, that would be true. But against true demons, against we who rebelled against the will of the gods themselves? You must have expected measures to be taken. We after all were there when the first of these weapons were made, and would have certain contingencies in place to meet them.”

“Why not just kill me then?”

“The possibility is still in the air. But I can sense you gathering your mental defenses. And given that I am a neophyte psychic, I doubt very much that I could just kill you at will. You may also note that, despite your rogue nature, the Princes of the Beyond have taken an interest in you, Silvered Fiend. Your...actions in the death of the angel Miranda have earned you no small amount of favor with the powers that be. In other words, Providence has its eyes on you. And I have no desire to make a foe of destiny just yet. My freedom from such pedestrian creatures as Kiernan however, is a different story.”

“I want my men back. All of them.”

Confusion from the Animus registered in Abram’s mind. “Excuse me?”

“You got to Echo, I assume that means that the rest of my compatriots are dead?”

“What a grim person you are. But you are correct. Your “New Guard” was lured into a trap and killed down to the last soldier. A true move of both political and military stupidity I thought. I recommended that we send assassins after you, and then bring you back so that Kiernan could face you directly, in a rigged match of course, and thereby prove his supremacy as the one true leader of the Imperial Flame.”

A disappointed sigh resonated in Abram’s mind. “But he ignored me, and his damned patron has likewise prevented me from retaliation...she is a dangerous one. So dangerous in fact that she has been warning Kiernan of any harmful intention I might have towards him. But this psychic of yours...his powers allow me to shield myself from such intrusion. And now you are the key to advance my check into mate. Though I’m afraid I can’t give you what you want. As I said, I’ve been unable to absorb any souls save for your Echo.”

“I know the laws of The Beyond. You Animus are sticklers for bookkeeping. Those souls are currently being held in trust for you.”

Interest began started to show in the Animus’ tone. “Indeed, I do have something of a celestial escrow for situations like this. But to give all that up? Thousands of souls, most of them magically empowered, and all of them wrenched from a rival of mine...That’s a high price, my boy.”

“Do you think Kiernan will give you up so easily?”

“I can work toward my own release.”

“How long will that take?”

“Not long for demons like you and me, young one.”

The Pain was starting to take hold, but Abram put it out of his mind, struggling on. “And each of those years with but a single dwarf to torture. No histories to collect and the only puppets you will have are lifeless husks. Tell me: is such an entourage worthy of a demon of the upper circles?”

There was a long silence. And then the Animus’ twisted voice came in again like a gentle breeze. ”Very well. I will commit the souls of your men to you, Silvered Fiend. They shall be yours, only after I am freed. Oh, I have been so rude until now...my name is Cyrus. And I promise that however brief, our time together will be memorable.

There was a strange rustling sound, as if The Animus, Cyrus’ mind was itself going through some sort of audible change.

Then the same distorted voice came back. “So, Kiernan and his men shall be through the gate momentarily, with me in tow. I suggest you sprinkle some of your weapons about so that it appears you slaughtered your foes, but became exhausted while doing so. I will take care of the rest...except for the end, which you will have to take care of.”

“And I have your word, that you will not betray me?”

“Of course, however much the word of a demon might be worth I suppose, heh.”

The demon’s presence faded after that, and Abram smiled. This Animus was a neophyte psychic. So neophyte in fact, that it could not protect those thoughts which entered Abram’s mind, including the basics of the steps needed to assuage the power he was rapidly absorbing.

Or so he might have thought. “He did warn that he could plan several steps ahead, and he saw my thoughts wander towards Echo. He’s lain another trap...cunning bastard.”

As he got up, Abram decided to file away the knowledge for later. As he truly didn’t know the truth or falsity of it.

Evangeline kept her hands on the ground, keeping the wards up. “Are you alright?”

“Bring down the wards.”

“What!?”

“We’ve got a man on the inside now, and he’s our only chance to save everyone.”

Evangeline’s face became grim. “Kiernan wouldn’t send demons through unless he was sure the new guard wouldn’t turn on him. And the only way he’d be sure is-”

“They’re dead Evangeline, but I have a way to save them.”

Evangeline gripped her hands into tight fists, and for a moment, the wards looked like they might expand, and shrink the gate. Then she took a deep breath, and let it out. “Anything goes wrong, I’m killing as many as I can and then running. I’ll knock you out if I have to. And then, any plans you have? You keep’em to yourself for...I don’t know, half a year or something.”

Abram didn’t flinch. “You can try.”

With that, Evangeline shook her head and lifted her hands from the ground, outstretched. The wards dispersed in an instant. More demons appeared, and this time they were accompanied by a few dozen Knights of the Imperial Flame. At their center was Kiernan, looking arrogant and assured of his victory. Beside him was the Animus.

It was...strange. A great collection of bars, and welded steel, formed into a jagged humanoid cage. And within, a vortex of black flames, that pulsed and railed against the inner lining of its shell. Abram had to blink, for he swore he could see the hands of people grasping at the bars from within, and for each he saw, a whispered cry assaulted his mind. The thing’s head turned towards him, the cage twisting into a curled smile of barbs and rust. And above it, a single flash of gold cyclopean light.

Countless voices emanated for the thing, in a tattered chorus of sound. “I believe he is spent.”

Kiernan laughed, with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. “Well, it seems that the Silvered Fiend has finally been humbled.”

He walked towards Abram, then ran...and kicked him straight in the face. Abram fell onto his back, and let out exhausted breaths. Kiernan on the other hand was full of barely contained energy. He looked like he was ready to jump for joy. In fact, he picked Abram up from the ground, by the throat, and brought him to eye level.

“You grew too prideful Abram. And now you’re going to join that angelic bitch of yours.”

Kiernan flashed a toothy grin and laughed again.

One of Knights accompanying him, another elf in full armor and helm, stepped forward. “Perhaps we should get on with it my lord.”

“It will end when I want it to end! I’ve waited years for this moment. If I’d known that all I had to do to beat this...trash was to overwhelm him with disposables, I would have sent you, and the rest of you ingrates against him already!”

The knights looked at each other with concerned glances. They were of the old guard as well and had their pride. Being told they were disposable was not a welcome thing.

Kiernan seemed oblivious to this. “But don’t worry big man, you won’t be alone. Your little whore will be joining-”

Kiernan turned to Evangeline, looked her up and down, and a realization dawned on his face. “You’re not scratched up at all...No-”

As Kiernan was about to stand up, Abram reached up with his armored hands and twisted Kiernan’s neck until there was a resounding crack and Kiernan’s tongue lolled out of his mouth. The Elf crashed to the ground, and Abram rose to his feet, though gingerly. The other knights looked at this in shock, before raising their weapons for battle.

That was when the demons descended on them. A massive melee ensued, dragon blood enhanced fighters against a horde of demons. Walls crashed, craters were made, and among all the carnage, the Animus, named Cyrus, approached Abram.

Evangeline followed suit, keeping her eye on the creature. It amazed Abram that the three of them were escaping the melee. But then he looked at the thing calling itself Cyrus, and how it radiated power.

Where the Fasces was a single-minded creature, effective in battle, but no long term strategist, this thing seemed a true monster in all respects. It was clear that the lesser demons were keeping their distance, perhaps instinctively making sure that their nominal master was undisturbed.

Cyrus spoke, and again, Abram heard the many cries that echoed with its voice. “You have fulfilled your end of the bargain. And so that no bad blood will be shed between us, I will fulfill my end as well...but not without a warning.”

Abram stared at Cyrus, not bothering to cover up his obvious fatigue. “What is the content...of this warning?”

“These souls will be yours to contain, and your body is still struggling to absorb the power of the demons you slew with the Mors Deus. How will you survive another experience so soon after the last?”

Abram thought on this, he considered expanding on the idea of creating an apparatus to help with the Mors Deus’ transfer of power. But the pain had not subsided since he broke contact with Cyrus’ mind. It was intensifying. And the pain was such that he could not focus on creating something new. Perhaps conjuring up his Black Blades could work? No, Cyrus would only ask if he had a solution of his own.

So he humored the monster. “What do you propose?”

“I shall use my power to assuage the flow of souls and demonic essence into your body. In return you shall be bound to aid me in one of my enterprises, should I need you. Oh, and you can tell your lover to cease in her attempts bind me with her newly acquired gifts. Because it won’t work.”

Abram turned to see Evangeline’s nose bleeding, while the hellfire chains she tried to conjure simply floated, impotent, and floating just outside of touching distance with Cyrus.

Evangeline’s frustration was quite obvious. “How are you-”

“My dear, you are indeed an impressive mistress of Magic. And against a lesser of my kind, they might very well dance to the tune you’d string. But I am an old veteran at this game. I have broken such bonds many times over the eons. Even an empowered Warlock would need many lifetimes to contend with my will. Though for one of your spirit...perhaps only a few decades. Now, back to-”

Evangeline stopped conjuring her chains and instead ran up to Abram. “Contract with me!”

Abram looked at her with a clear and shocked expression. “Are you insane?”

“You’re a demon: If you contract with me you can share the power you’re absorbing.”

Abram’s eyes widened? “Your soul will be-”

“Are you going to hurt me? Abuse me? Or do any kind of horrible shit to me...Has hurting me ever crossed your mind? Even once?”

Abram kept silent for a moment, registering the current situation for what it was...and perhaps searching for some way to dissuade Evangeline from this course of action while keeping their respective independence. There was none. So he gave in to the situation, and his voice relaxed. “No.”

“Then what’s the problem? It’s not like was I was ever going to leave you anyway...”

Abram’s eyes narrowed with purpose. “Alright then.”

Abram grasped Evangeline’s hand in his, and that was pretty much all there was too it. There was a faint glow within their closed hands, and then it vanished.

Abram let her go and looked at his hand. A brand in the shape of a hammer was ingrained on the inside of his middle finger, while the top of Evangeline’s hand bore a much larger version of the same brand. She looked up from it and smiled.

Abram smiled back weakly, he hadn’t wanted this to happen but accepted it as a small victory. Then he turned to Cyrus, who had been watching the action intently.

So much so that the whispers had quieted, and the cyclopean light was narrowed. “This woman bound her soul to yours, all for love...this should be entertaining. Nevertheless, I will do as I promised, and hereby release the souls of your comrades to you...several thousands of souls by the way.”

Abram snorted, knowing the reason for Cyrus’ calm. “The only reason you’d give that many away is if you had many more to spare.”

“Indeed, how clever of you to realize.”

Cyrus waved a twisted and barbed hand towards Abram, and for a brief moment, the Silvered Fiend heard thousands of familiar voices. Then they quieted, and he felt the souls of his many comrades resting within the same soulscape as his many weapons. He projected feelings of calm and reassurance towards them, hoping to assuage any fears they might have. He succeeded, and he felt the souls within him begin to calm.

Cyrus took note of this. “You seem to be a natural at this, my friend. A true prodigy.”

Abram noticed something else as the fighting died down, in favor of the few demons that remained. No new soldiers or demons poured through. He looked forward and then summoned the Mors Deus to his hand. It returned to him, and the gateway closed.

But that did not satisfy Abram’s curiosity. “The demons on the other side of the gate are tearing into the remaining Knights aren’t they?”

The eye widened, and a sickening laugh escaped the caged flames. “Yes. But they also serve a greater purpose. Paradise has not sat idle while an army of demons has walked this earth. The greater share of the demonic host, which is now absorbing a large quantity of souls, is functioning as the decoy for my, and my more loyal kins’ escape. I was even able to mimic my presence in that location after I had left, with the talents I acquired from your friend.”

Abram instinctively searched for Echo, and found him. The dwarf was fine, and Abram felt something interesting, a sort of expansion of his perceptions.

He quickly understood what it was. “I have his powers now. But how have you kept them?”

“A mortal mind is a crude thing compared to a Demonic one. Once I saw how Echo’s operated, I was able to use my new powers to re-tailor my own mind and soul to naturally duplicate psychic abilities. I briefly considered stealing them, but this solution seemed more elegant. Besides, now we have a small connection. Don’t we?”

Abram considered this, then grew angry. “You left a telepathic link didn’t you?”

“Nothing as crude as that. Rather, Echo’s presence is so familiar to me that I can track it across any distance, even planes of existence. By extension, I can now track you...wherever you are.”

Cyrus’s cage features twisted into what looked to be another smile, and the flames within him seemed to grow in intensity. Then they calmed, as suddenly as they had stormed. He turned and made a gesture towards the now victorious demons, who numbered around twenty-three. A far lesser host then the hundred and twenty that had walked through the gate. They followed his direction and gathered round. Cyrus then raised a hand, and black flames poured forth from it, enveloping the other demons.

He spoke to Abram. “I must leave you now. The Legions of Paradise may lack, but they are no fools. Every moment I stay here gives them a chance to catch on to my ruse. I will say this though, our business is not done Silvered Fiend, and I will call upon you again. Until that time, be content that I will be availing myself to this world’s many intricacies, and that your intrigues have been a wonderful...first course. Goodbye.”

The black flames rose, covering the entire demonic cohort. Then they shot into the air, flying off to the north. Where specifically? Abram did not know, and he did not care to find out at the moment. Instead, he stood straight, donned his helmet, and looked towards Evangeline.

Her expression was the same as his: business-like. “We’re back to square one.”

Abram nodded. “Not necessarily. Could you check Kiernan’s body, see if we can find something of use? I need to rest for a moment.”

Evangeline nodded and did as she was asked. But continued speaking. “How are we going to make good on your deal with the Queen now?”

“Keep looking.”

Evangeline rifled through Kiernan’s pockets and a few spaces in his armor. Finally, she took off his sabatons and found something at the bottom of his right boot: A note. She read over it, and then smiled. “How did you know he’d have this?”

“Kiernan would have kept it. Either as some kind of insurance or because he couldn’t be bothered to commit the names to memory.”

She handed it over to Abram, who looked it over. There were many names on this list, all noble, most elvish, and all with economic ties to Imperial Taiyang.

Abram let out a relieved sigh and gave the list back to Evangeline. “How fast can you get this to the Queen?”

“One of my familiars can speed it over to Helena, and then she can transmit the letter to the Royal magicians.”

“Get to it then.”

Evangeline summoned a raven with strange demonic eyes and an overly sharp beak. She then placed the letter in the raven’s feathery chest and sent it off.

Once that was done she sat down with a huff. “What are we going to do now? We don’t have an army to placate Taiyang.”

Abram looked at his sword, examining it. He felt the power swell within him as his grip tightened. The sword still wouldn’t cleave demi-gods in half with a single swing. Anything short of them would fall quickly.

He held the blade to the heavens, and it shone with a crystalline light. “Then we make one.”

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