Usually, people steer away from anything that heralds a deep sense of foreboding. It was a helpful instinct for surviving dangerous situations, Arkheld thought as he stepped softly on dark cobbled stone. At least, Arkheld stepped as softly as one could in full plate armour, which was to say he clanked. He could barely see where he put his feet despite the unnatural green lighting, for mist rose thick if not high enough to cover his party sneaking about this night. Behind him, the knight sensed more than saw an elf’s grimace, and he turned to Seida with an apologetic smile. The ranger tipped back his green hat and fully exposed Arkheld to his scowl. The man scratched at his clean shaved jaw, but before he could say anything his counterpart pushed forward in order to scout ahead, lithe steps silent.
Yes, he should steer clear of Seida.
“Aah, I’ll never understand him,” Arkheld whispered through his helmet, and a voice next to him said, “He has more animal in him than elf, that one. Don’t take it personally.” The knight turned to face another member of their group, a drow by the name of Jarlex. Jarlex’s kin differed from forest elves in many ways, not least of which was skin and hair tone. This drow in particular was proficient in necromancy, and it was for this precise reason that he was chosen to come along with them on this quest. He pointed towards a path to their right after concentrating for a bit, in his own words “sniffing out” the thread of dark magic that would lead them to their quarry. With a sigh Arkheld lead the way, trusting the dark skinned elf’s senses. Despite his sinister profession, Jarlex grinned often. All liked him and were glad for his company as well as his prowess. He wondered where the last of their group was, but Mekt was nowhere to be found. Arkheld did not bother looking for him though, for he had worked with that particular dwarf many times in the past, and knew he would be there when he was needed. He wished the dwarf wouldn’t move too far away, though, for he had promised poor Helga he’d bring her husband back safe and sound.
This four man group was hastily assembled, and had not been at all well versed in working with one another. Higher ups in Cielta’s military had somehow decided that merit alone was good enough to create a special strike force, and thus the cream of the crop was gathered, regardless of whether they knew each other or were able to work as team. A hasty decision to say the least, thought Arkheld as he passed into the back of the castle proper, paying no head to the eerie pulsating green light all around making the dark stone of this place seem blacker than usual. A hasty decision, but one that had not been proven wrong, the knight reminded himself. Despite their different dispositions, each of the four on his team was a professional and knew exactly how to carry his own weight as well as compliment whatever skills the others had. Through the battles the group has waged in its three month march, Arkheld was assured that they were the finest party of heroes ever chosen for this mission.
Which brought little comfort, considering that each group before them had said the same before being wiped out in this gloomy mist covered castle. No one had ever survived, and to this day the Council of Elders still was not sure of anything regarding the mysterious figure lurking in this dark place. All they knew was that all demons were born here, and all claimed fealty to the ruler of this castle. The knight, sobered by this thought, tried to step even lighter and prayed to his god for magical aid. He called forth spells of protection and glyphs glowed bright blue against the golden hilt of his blade, Holy Crusader. More spells, powered through faith and set to call forth whirling blades of light upon his enemies, hung ready upon the knight’s tongue. Behind him he heard Jarlex tut in amusement, but even the drow was unable to hide a nervous edge from creeping into his mirth. Stealth was paramount here for a reason.
Before them, around a corner, Arkheld heard a grunt, followed by a thwup and a muffled gasp. Out from the corner appeared Seida’s beautiful face with its feral gaze, his golden straight locks streaming down his shoulder as he peeked out. He smiled and the knight was almost surprised to see no fangs in his mouth. “A group of six up ahead, gargoyles and one lich,” he whispered and the two stiffened. Unheeding, the ranger continued, one finger reaching behind his back to relax upon his bow’s tip. “Circular room with three entrances. I shall silence the lich. When you hear it die, strike.”
Without another word, Seida withdrew back around the corner and the two followed him, but peering into the mist revealed no hint of the elf. Before them, perhaps a hundred meters ahead, the corridor of black stone opened into a hall of sorts. On each side, Arkheld knew there to be an opening. This matter had to be handled instantly to avoid the sounding of an alarm. Six there were, statue like demons with hard grey skin and cruel black eyes. The lich, a hooded skeleton in flowing golden trimmed cloth, could be made out by the glowing pin-points of flame where its eyes should be. Arkheld held out his fore- and middle fingers as he walked, then pointed left. Jarlex smiled then nodded, mimicking the gesture but pointing right. With that the two walked until they were right before the room’s opening, the sound of their shuffling masked by white mist. They waited no more than a few seconds before the silence was unmistakably shattered by an arrow cracking open a skull. Arkheld exploded into action, releasing a single whirling blade of light with a word. He did not pause to see if his aim was true. Instead, the knight took a large step forward and launched his blade forward as if it were a spear. Holy crusader flew in a straight line, taking another of the grey demons in the heart and pinning it to black stone across the room. Just then, Arkheld noticed that one of the gargoyles still stood and with a curse under his breath he readied another spell, calling upon the blessings of Ergen for power. Looking closely, however, the knight relaxed and walked into the room more casually, towards the loving song of his blade. Holy Crusader was partially sentient, and the two shared a link which improved Arkheld’s swordsmanship drastically. To his right, the gargoyle he had mistaken for living stood still, an arrow connecting it to the hand of a quiet ranger standing almost like a shadow behind it. Another arrow protruded from the Lich’s skull as if in salute, and the two remaining gargoyles were propped up by spears of bone rising up diagonally from beneath the rock. Jarlex gestured and the crisscrossed latticework of bone disappeared, dropping the two corpses onto their faces. The whole thing had lasted mere seconds, thought Arkheld to himself quietly. He rejoined his two companions in the centre of the room in order to survey their surroundings.
The room was hexagonal in shape, made out of cobbled stone like the rest of the twin spired castle. However, whereas murky green illumination had presided over everything so far, this place had clean looking torches placed generously all over, creating a warm glow. The room was high, two stories tall, and two staircases curved along the walls towards a large, drab looking double Iron door on the second story. The door was large enough to welcome a giant with open arms, and was etched with a five pointed star. Arkheld’s mind sent a primitive stab of fear at him, and he wanted nothing to do with what lay behind that door. Just then, the large knight started. He looked about him with a higher sense of urgency; for some reason Holy Crusader’s joyful song rang truer in this room than in any other so far, and there was no mist here either. The dampening effect on magical communication was not present here! Beside him Jarlex drew in his breath. The drow also put his hands to his temple, long nails scratching at his shaved forhead. “It’s Mekt...” he murmured, and Arkheld’s heart clenched for an instant. He let the everpresent Song of Wisdom, his link to his sword and his god, bring him peace as he awaited news from the necromancer. “He’s done it!” Jarlex continued excitedly, his voice slightly louder than was necessary, and from across the room Seida growled. More carefully, the drow added, “he destroyed their barrier breakers... the seal around this foul land shall remain safe for another ten years!”
Arkheld felt weak at the knees, then upset with Jarlex and Mekt for frightening him, then excited, all in the span of a few seconds. He cursed his overly kind heart, then the troublesome duo.
The barrier around the kingdom of demons was impregnable usually, and the only weakness in it appeared once every ten years. Thus the first part of their mission: destroy any attempts the residents of this land may launch to destroy the barrier and flood the lands of the goodly folk. This had never been a problem in the past, each and every single team sent in the past hundred years has been successful in its mission, for each time the best had been sent.
The problem was the second part of the mission: return alive, or try to kill the demon king to end his reign. That was his true test of responsibility as a leader, Arkheld mused. He wondered why the room had multi-
Just then, Seida moved from where he was inspecting one of the pillars to the centre of the room in one long, fluid backwards leap. He landed with a hiss, his bow notched and aimed. Before either to his side could say a word, he barked “all three!” and loosened his arrow. It flew long into the darkness of the corridor before him, and even before it could draw a roar of pain each of the companions had taken a stance and started attacking the hordes of minions that were making their way towards the centre room. The knight took the right path and hurled himself towards the opening with abandon, slashing left and right as demons poured towards him. He allowed the song of his faith filled his mind and soul, filling him to the brim with clerical magic. For the moment the knight left offence to his capable limbs and blade which flashed with golden and blue runes whenever it touched one of the foul beasts as if rejoicing in the fact. Instead Arkheld focused all of his god’s assistance into protection, making it so that his armour crackled with holy light. Any contact with his body was enough to fell his unholy enemies. Still, he wished to not waste power and as an ogre swung its club at him the knight leaned back from the swing, allowing the large hunk of tree with its branches still attached to sail less than an inch from his head. As he passed through he stabbed sideways with the Crusader, catching the loinclothed thing in its throat. Now for offence, he thought as a goblin like red demon hurled itself through the air at his throat with a hysterical scream, drool dripping down its sharp fangs. White light flashed.
Hours later, all three heroes were standing back to back, surrounded from all sides. Even Seida was panting, scratched all over as he stood his grounds instead of flitting here and there as he was wont to do. Jarlex was reduced to two skeletal minions, barely enough to protect him, and his wry smile had gone sour. Arkheld was now suffused entirely with his god’s power, magical sky-blue and golden light shining out from within his armour. He was sure that by now his blue eyes and blonde hair were almost snow white, which was a bad sign. Ergen’s power was infinite, but his vessel’s was not. When the limit was reached he would be cut off lest he join his lord entirely, and his swings were already at half their original speed. The connection with Mekt had broken off as soon as the dwarf had left the room of the barrier breakers, so they had no way to know if he was even alive. Everywhere Arkheld looked there was beast, there seemed to be no respite forthcoming. A black empty suit of armour, animated by dark magic, parried one of his thrusts while he was preoccupied with the thought and Arkheld knew he had no way to defend himself from the next swing. He kept his eyes on the swinging arm as it went up, up... and stopped.
Looking around, it seemed like every single beast in the room had stopped to listen to something. Small imps fluttered through the room, but even they looked subdued. Arkheld kept a wary guard up against the horde’s silence, but inquired of his friends behind him. Each answered with little more than a tired grunt. The three huddled closer together slowly, cautious of their enemies suddenly setting upon them. “What should we do?” asked Jarlex, worried. “I don’t think we have it in us to even fight our way through these to run away.” Arkheld nodded in reply to the coal skinned companion’s question and Seida coughed in polite agreement. “Let’s wait and see.”
Suddenly, the crowd of monsters parted before the three, leaving them one clear path: up the stairs and to the great inviting door. The three had avoided retreating up this very path earlier out of sheer instinct. Now they were herded along by growls, bewildered and exhausted. When they were in front of the door all the demons in the room retreated hastily from the hall, leaving the three even more shaken. These beasts had seemed almost eager to rush headlong into death earlier, yet now they were skittish, scared silly by a door. Arkheld found that he understood their sentiments, for his own skin crawled. The large door opened, five sided star splitting neatly down the middle even before the knight could put his hand on it. The room beyond was dark and cold, reminiscent of a tomb. Arkheld had been in a tomb once, as a child. He remembered the feeling of being small and afraid now, the first time in years. After looking at his companions for support, the knight strode forward, and was greeted by a smooth melodic voice.
“Welcome,” it rang with a pleasant drawl, “heroes of the goodly folk! I have been waiting for you. Excuse the rough welcome but I needed to make sure that you were worthy.” Arkheld was taken aback. They stood in what seemed to be a long hall, the sides of which were lined with pillars of smooth black marble reaching high into the darkness. All along the middle was a table laden with a banquet richer than any Arkheld had ever seen, even when dining with the kings of the goodly folks themselves. At the far end of the hall a two man wide panelled glass window rose as high as the pillars, impossibly high. Delicate moonlight streamed through it, casting beautiful patterns of light upon the smooth polished floor. Before the window, upon a slightly raised platform, stood a black throne, simple and elegant. Upon the throne sat a person, somehow looking both amused and bored with his cheek nestled on his knuckles. Despite the distance, Arkheld took in every vestige of the figure, from his forward curving horns to his long swishing tail to his teeth and taloned feet. He was black incarnate, and the colour flowed through him in a hundred different variations for when he moved, he almost rippled. Parts of him were lightly scaled with the sleek polished black of a dragon, but the corded muscles of his torso and arms were almost grey. His teeth were a sharp hungry black of ink, his fangs and talons and claws were the sleek faded black of leather long tended to. His eyes were like pools of night, reflecting nothing. His hair was long and unkempt yet was the beautiful black of forgotten memories. Lastly, his voice was the black of one who has been alone for far too long.
Despite his apparent relaxation, Arkheld sensed from the figure an incredible sense of strength. Besides him, he noticed his companions shivering. “Please,” the figure added with apparent joy in his voice, “have a seat, eat something.” When the three remained motionless and cautious, the figure added with a slight pout and a laugh, “Come now, if I was going to poison you or attack you senselessly, why bother open the door?” With a start, Arkheld remembered what they were just saved from. He motioned his friends to the table and took a seat himself “Thank you.” He announced begrudgingly as he reached for a leg of chicken, roasted to perfection. “How are you left in this place alone? Do you know much of this castle?” Arkheld hesitated before asking his final and most important question. “Why are you not as senseless as the other demons, under the thrall of their foul king, my dear sir?” It was truly curious. As far as anyone knew, all demons were ruled by this shadowy king of theirs. Arkheld imagine that this foe may have valuable information, and would perhaps prove an ally in the coming fight. Tyrants often spark resentment dismissed far too easily.
The strange handsome figure, petite with not a single hint of unneeded muscle in his entire body, smiled. He looked at Arkheld cheekily for a while before answering. “Simple: I am this foul demon king you speak of.” He announced it as plainly as if he were offering the three a loaf of bread.
There was an instant of silence, and then a flurry of movement as Seida reacted first. He had his bow out and had an arrow aimed directly at the demon lord, who eyed him for a second before chuckling. “However, I prefer to be called Lahda. My dear elf, let this foolishness lie to sleep. We both know you hardly have the strength in your formidable arm to pull back that bow of yours, honed by forest and effort as it is. You’d never manage to strike me with it. In fact, all of you were on the verge of death. Allow me to explain everything while you partake of that simple meal. Ah, but please steer clear of the crystal goblets for now. “After a second’s hesitation, the ranger crumbled back onto his seat tiredly, and the three started to eat again. Just then, the knight noticed that despite there being food and drink lined along the entire table, only three crystal goblets populated it, each in front of one of the three. Each goblet was filled to the brim with bright golden nectar. He thought about pretending to drop his onto the floor by mistake to gauge L- The demon lord’s, he reminded himself stubbornly- reaction, but decided not to do it. Yet.
Lahda, for his part, seemed satisfied enough with their reactions and relaxed visibly in his throne, one foot curled up with his knee before his face. “Let’s start with the facts,” he announced happily, “I am the maker of all demons. My small kingdom is encased with a barrier, and my citizens cannot leave it. I am currently at war with the rest of the known world. They cannot win, for we outnumber them, you, at least five to one, according to my estimations. Thus once every ten years I try to break down the barrier, and each time I am foiled. Meanwhile, your high council sends small teams of assassins every so often. None of them return. Every so often, larger armies are sent in for skirmishes. Acceptable?” he waited until Arkheld nodded, popping a grape into his mouth. He felt filled with rage, for he was helpless in this situation. The hate in him was almost at a breaking point, yet he held it back with a soldier’s discipline. Eat, he urged himself as he fought back the need to pull Holy Crusader out and throw it across the hall at his sworn enemy. To think the highest Knight of Ergen’s order would be reduced to this...
Oblicious to this struggle, Lahda carried on. “Now, what you do not know. First, I am bound to this chamber until the entire world is conquered,” all three looked up at that, stunned. They had never known. They doubted anyone knew from outside the barrier, for there was much speculation about why the demon king, who has eluded death for a hundred years, stayed where he was. Some had even concluded that he may not exist at all, despite contrary evidence. But to think that he was trapped... Arkheld’s mind went through the possibilities. “I cannot go personally to the barrier and shatter it to pieces with force. I must rely on specialized spell weavers, and they only when the barrier weakens, once per decade. Secondly, and this may come as a shock to you, I have failed at my attempts every single time on purpose. It is not yet time for me to take over the world and regain my freedom. One may wonder why anyone in their right mind would do that, after being imprisoned for as long as I have been. The answer is simple, and it lies in the nature of this war between our races.” The three cast glances to one another, and Jarlex smiled in what Arkheld assumed was a confused manner. “The goodly folk wish to exterminate us. We, however, do not wish you all gone from this world. My ultimate goal is freedom. The world would be boring with only blood thirsty demons, not true?” At that, the demon lord paused to drink from a goblet he had in his hand, sighing in pleasure and ignoring the three adventurers’ splutters. Jarlex began to speak loudly in objection, no doubt to tell the coal black deceiver what he thought of him, but Lahda silenced him with a raised finger and a knowing smile. “I’m not done, but if you think about what I said for a second you’ll know it to be true. You know our military might. Why did I not have them guard the spell breakers?” he gave the three time to consider his words, and Arkheld felt even more frustrated than before. It fit, damn him! Next to him, the other two showed similar signs of anger, and the knight felt glad that he had brought no fools along, at least. Speaking of fools...
“But... why!” wondered Jarlex loudly, and Lahda smiled. “Ah, dear drow, because my demon forging skills are not yet advanced enough. If I take down the barrier now, demons would raze the world. My goal is to create intelligent sentient demons, break down the barrier, take the world... and then allow everyone to live under a single kingdom. Certainly, things will be different, but different races have coexisted before, present company is proof of that. I’ll play no part in it. Someone other than me will be king, and I shall be free to wander this beautiful world for the first time in, well, forever!” There was real hunger in the demon king’s eyes. Touring Cielta after being chosen, Arkheld had seen beggars starving, kneeling in the streets for bread. However, this hunger in the demon lord’s eyes overshadowed everything he’d ever seen.
Lahda caught himself after a second and leaned back in his black throne, scratching at one of his horns absently as he spoke. “Those are my plans. To achieve them, I allow the worthy to reach me. I use you in my research in order to make the demons smarter. I don’t really care if you believe me. Though I swear it to be true, there have been many before you along the years who have lived denial. The important thing is this: the crystal goblets before you have a potion in them that will bring you back to full health, as a sign of good faith. When you are healed, you may choose to stay in this castle and live the rest of your lives with me, in order to help with my research. You will be safe and comfortable, and I will only need to inspect some of your memories occasionally in order to better model a demon’s mind. If you choose to go against me, I will destroy all of you and do what I can with your corpses.” He said it so matter- of-factly that Arkheld’s hair stood on edge. He felt trapped in Lahda’s gaze, much like mouse before serpent. Then Lahda yawned, adding, “And don’t think the potions are poison. If I wanted you dead I could have called in some demons strong enough to enter the doorway without dying. Interesting that there’s three of you this time though.” His words were uttered absentmindedly.
Arkheld’s mind whirled, weighing in a thousand things with the speed of a tactician. He had heard far too much for him to process, but the reality of his situation was clear and heavy. There had no time to process anything, and looking towards his companions breathed new determination into the knight. The three gave each other wry grins, and toasted each other. The drained their glasses as one. “Friends,” Arkheld announced as he felt his strength return and his wounds heal and his lord’s song join his soul like a lover, “What say you?”
The two smiled and Jarlex said, “What you do, we do. We are already far gone. I would see my fair Benzuberren one final time, but I suppose the Everdream will do if you so choose...my leader.” Arkheld’s throat clenched with pride as Seida purred his agreement. He had never even seen Jarlex’s home, nor Seida’s. Far away, Lahda stood witness, watching the three with a mask of innocent curiosity, like a child watching the sunrise for the first time. Still, he looked ready to accept either choice from Arkheld. The knight stood, weighing his choices as he rose to his full height. Then he glimpsed something and smiled broadly from within his helmet. It seems the choice was taken from his hand after all.
Arkheld unsheathed his Holy Crusader and roared defiance at the demon lord as a behemoth of metal and lightning crashed through the window behind the throne, ridden by none other than Mekt the mechamancer. The dwarf screamed, his eyes flashing through his goggles as electricity danced between him and his metallic creation. Simultaneously all three readied themselves. Song filled the knight with light, bone rose from the ground at the necromancer’s bidding, and the ranger aimed his bow, afterimages appearing from his speed.
The next instant, Mekt’s head soared through the air, severed cleanly faster than Arkheld could follow with his eyes. Before it or the metal behemoth’s parts could hit the ground in a mess of iron and gore, Seida screamed and flitted with inhuman speed towards Lahda. He was stopped dead by the tip of the demon’s tail stabbing straight through his chest. Blood splattered against the wall behind him as the ranger tried to pull himself along the tail, arrow clenched in one hand like a dagger. The next second he sagged and was dropped onto the smooth floor. Arkheld flew into a fit of rage, pulling power into him as he began to run towards his sworn enemy, but a rattle behind him drew his attention. Looking back, he saw his last friend lying on the floor amongst a heap of his undead creations, a black sphere of darkness floating above them. The knight had to tear his eyes away from the sight, for once proud coal skin was now ashen like bleached bone. Then he turned around and there stood Lahda an inch away, not a drop of blood on his beautiful figure. A scream unleashed itself as Arkheld thrust and slashed and stabbed with as much strength as he could bring from his god, and still Holy Crusade found no purchase. He started to swing so hard that his own bones cracked and blood flowed down onto a puddle at his feet, and still Lahda dodged calmly. At long last, with his mind and final song spent the knight fell to his knees with a clang. Still, he was defiant to the last, and roared through torn vocal chords, “Justice always wins!”
He felt like a protesting child.
“Of course it does,” rang the beautiful black voice. Looking up, Arkheld saw Lahda conjure an axe of night out of thin air as he raised his arm with a finishing blow. To his horror Arkheld saw nothing but pity in the demon king’s eyes.
“Those who win become Justice.”