The image within the circle began to once again become coherent, colors and lines coming into focus from the swirling, formless morass that had initially occupied the defined space on the ground. As Yen continued chanting in the obscure language of the Isle of Stryth, the blood from his clenched hand slowly dripping down into the swirling image, forms began to reel into focus, revealing once more the darkened, misty streets of Venne.
Michael knelt down slowly in his armor, folding one knee carefully into the hard packed soil to support the rest of his bulk. He sunk his sword into the ground with the weight of his shoulder bearing down upon it, then leaned over on the hilt, peering into the circle as he gripped the smiling image of Kil like a talisman. He said a small prayer to his god as he watched the demonist work; not approving, and barely believing, but nonetheless drawn. The crooked young man before him had become indispensable to his operation. And Yen was completely right about him. His devotion to cause had made him a rebel, a traitor, and an outlaw. But he still clung to his final belief. He was not an apostate. He sincerely believed that his actions would all be understood and condoned by Kil, regardless of priests, and church law, and the government they supported. He had prayed fervently through the year he had walked down this solitary path, searching out every shred of evidence in the states of Haarkedamia for inklings of or preparation for another Kasnarian invasion. Even against explicit orders to stop his pursuit.
He knew that the marching orders for a full invasion of Haarkedamia were prepared and ready for release all across his country. But even gaining that information had been an act of sedition. Yen had revealed to him months ago that there were sealed marching orders in the warded pouches that each Tithari General’s courier kept on his body at all times. That information, a state secret that he should not have been privy to, had been the gift given to him by Yen in exchange for his life. Michael remembered their first day: dispersing the mob of that nameless crossroads village in the foothills of the Haarkedamian state of the Kolnian Duchies, a collection of small rural states in the Bur Wood.
Michael had been in the Bur Wood for two years as a deep operative, tracking the movement of resources in the area that could be utilized in a military capacity: lumber, mithril, iron. Numerous valuable resources could be found in the wild and hilly forest, and were dealt in by rough and independent pioneer traders, working out of small temporary villages along rough hewn highways such as the one he found himself in when he found Yen, dagger in hand, crouching low in a defensive posture, hood still concealing his features. He was fending off five miners in the dirt commons that was situated in the midst of a collection of temporary shelters and sturdy, low-roofed thatch buildings. The miners had him surrounded, but were acting reluctant to close with the stranger, picks and axes held in contemplation of impending violence.
At his side, a curious, hideous companion aided in the defense of the bent young man, it’s glossy black eyes darting back and forth from one threatening miner to the next. The short, pale thing possessed a large, perfectly round head, crowned with a small circle of short, dark horns. As it pivoted back and forth to watch the miners, it scrambled on spindly, bent little legs that ended in short claws, seemingly too tiny to support the bulbous, hideously fat little torso atop them. The fat little beast held out equally wiry, thin arms that ended in curled claws, as it mimicked a sinister counting of the surrounding foes. After a moment, the creature’s unnaturally wide mouth opened, revealing a row of jagged, crooked black teeth. Then the creature sounded a hideous, guttural noise deep from within its loathsome gut. It belched a great sphere of bilious acid from its mouth, aimed directly at the closest miner, and immediately turned to the next miner. Where the acid fell, miners fell, screaming in agony as their skin sizzled, fat popping as they were burned mercilessly by the acid as it bore down into exposed flesh.
As the second miner fell, Yen charged a third, a guttural chant streaming from underneath his hood as he lunged violently with his dagger, throwing away all pretense of defense and caution. The miner was caught completely off guard, and Yen’s dagger sunk deep into his chest, the small robed man’s weight barreling into him, taking both attacker and victim to the dust in a scramble of limbs and grunts.
Michael watched the events unfold from his seat high up on a timber wagon, loaded deep with Bur Wood elms destined for the mills further down the river Koln. He’d taken the job six months earlier, after a year and a half spent literally in the dark, as an iron miner. This job on the wagon was infinitely better to aid his intelligence reports on the industries here in the Bur Wood. He saw the goings on of all the small mining and lumber communities up and down the Koln, working alongside the gruff and brave souls who came to the woods to seek their fortunes in the harshest wilderness of Haarkedamia. He drank with them in their small, smoky taverns at night. He’d even developed a taste for the brutal, un-aged spirit that the timber workers would distill out of boiled tree sap and river water. They would drink the fiery liquor every night after the sun was down, from small, hand-carved cups that many of them wore around their necks on leather cords.
Here was something that Michael had never seen before in his travels. Watching the small creature rout the remaining miners after felling two of them with great gouts of steaming acid, Michael’s memory was stirred. He knew what the thing was, even if no one for miles could identify it with any more specificity than ‘ugly little bastard’. A lesser demon, a creature summoned from the planes of the Abyss. He’d read about them briefly in his military schooling, as the Kasnarian’s intelligence training was nothing if not exhaustive. After a moment further spent watching the brutality with which the small robed figure dispatched his own foe, stabbing methodically while whispering in a language Michael did not recognize, he had settled on the idea that this man, as unlikely as the possibility might be, was a demonist. Far, far from his home, in the most remote area of a backwoods duchy. A Strythkian native, as all demonists had to be if his schooling was correct. A member of a nation whose people had not been seen on the mainland, supposedly, for a few hundred years at least.
Despite himself, and the stories he’d heard, Michael had to know why this demonist was here, and flagrantly displaying his abilities among a population of laborers and miners. He made his way down from the wagon’s high seat slowly, being careful not to reveal the large sword he had slung very low on his back, which was covered with a rough woolen forest cloak of grayish green. He briefly lamented that his armor, wrapped carefully in oiled cloth and bound tightly, rode surreptitiously lashed to the underside of the wagon he piloted. Too late for that now, he thought, heavy boot-shod feet hitting the hard packed dirt to the wagon’s side.
Yen had looked up then, his face a rictus of veins and stress lines, eyes wide and staring, the pupils dilated into black orbs. He reached up with his free hand, wiping flecks of blood from his face, leaving red streaks across both sunken cheeks like some Daarkian shaman. Rising slowly, he turned the cruelly shaped dagger over in his hand to where it was clutched point-down, his knuckles turning white around the hilt. He straightened to his full, meager height, and glanced quickly toward the two other miner’s bodies. The bulbous, hideous little demon squatted on the chest of one of the men, staring intently into the dead man’s fixed, dull eyes. Yen made a low, chittering noise towards the beast, while bringing his intense gaze back to fix on Michael. He didn’t move closer, but the demon turned, still squatting on the body, to fix its own black gaze on Michael.
Michael looked at both as he slowly moved his arms out from his sides. “I have no intention of attacking you, I am unarmed,” he said clearly, using the local accent he had acquired from his years here in the south. He stepped towards Yen cautiously, wanting to see more of the man’s face, and the weapon he clutched, which seemed to dim the light around itself and the demonist’s hand. For the first time since he’d come to this dark forest of bearded laborers and stupefying drunkenness, he felt his innate curiosity and wonder getting the best of him. He wanted to know more, and to know why.
The demon squinted at Michael, making him assume that something bad was about to happen. His leg muscles tensed, ready to at least try and dodge an attack. After a moment though, the demon’s face relaxed, and it turned to Yen, making a chittering, guttural noise similar to what Yen had made. Yen glanced to the demon when the noise began, then turned to Michael, gesturing with his dagger. He then spoke.
“What you said is only half true, Tithari. You are in fact well armed. Reach under your cloak and unbuckle the sword,” Yen said, his voice rasping and light, almost too quiet to hear. Michael blinked for a moment, his given Kasnarian title ringing foreign in his ears; it had been years since he’d heard it spoken. Not quite believing what was happening, he complied, undoing the metal clasp that held his sheathed sword low across his back. His weapon fell heavily to the dirt, trailing its bindings.
“Now, paladin of Kil, would you mind terribly telling me just what it is you are doing here?” Yen continued, gesturing with his dagger at the surrounding hovels. “You are far from home, and if I am not mistaken, forbidden to enter this country under pain of death.”
Michael grinned at the irony: a Strythkian somehow implying that he was lost and far from home here. If anything, Kasnaria was at least on the same continent. He felt confident that the demonist probably found the encounter as improbable and weird as he did. He answered, “I could ask the same of you, demonist. Don’t suppose your unique talents are really what is required for a successful timber concern?” Michael removed the stifling cloak, figuring that if this went poorly, at least he’d be able to move freely. He tossed it back up onto the wagon, seeing that neither Yen nor the demon were advancing on him.
Yen looked at Michael thoughtfully, “So you know what I am as well. That’s convenient. That means you were trained in the Intelligence Branch by Kasnaria. I have need of someone with your knowledge.”
“Funny,” Michael replied, “you seem to be able to gain information quite well.” His eyes flicked obviously towards the demon, who still squatted, watching him intently.
Yen shrugged, looking at the demon. “The price of his return to the Abyss, information and obedience,” he said cryptically. Yen reached to his belt, holding his sheath out from his side and sliding the dagger delicately into it. When he did so, the demon disappeared in a puff of black smoke, a crackle of dark energy emanating out from the space he had occupied. “Now then, you have yet to tell me, why are you here?”
Michael looked around at the surrounding buildings. He could see eyes peering intently from darkened windows here and there. He doubted that they were unarmed. “Why don’t we continue this fascinating talk elsewhere? I hardly think the tavern is going to serve you, and if anyone was listening, my job’s over as well.” Michael bent, retrieving his sword, still carefully watching for a twitch of aggression from his new acquaintance.
Yen moved closer, not bothering to look at the surrounding silent little buildings. “There are fourteen remaining humans if you care to just . . .”
“Why don’t we just leave?” Michael cut him off, startled by the sudden gleam in Yen’s eyes. He walked hastily to the wagon and dropped to one knee, fishing under the bed with one hand. He then straightened quickly, pulling on a length of cord. His armor fell from the wagon’s bottom, clanking softly in its cloth wrapping. Michael gathered it up carefully. He stood again to see Yen standing close to him, looking at him quizzically.
“There’s another war coming.” Yen said to Michael, looking at the large paladin. Michael returned the gaze, startled to realize that despite his crooked body and ruined voice, the demonist couldn’t be more than twenty years old.
“If you are asking about a Kasnarian invasion, I’m not telling you anything,” Michael replied gruffly, slinging his armor across one shoulder.
“I was not asking anything, Michael,” Yen said, still looking him in the eye. “I was making a statement.”
“So you know my name as well,” Michael replied, still unable to grasp the very existence of this strange young man. “What is yours?”
“I won’t tell you,” Yen replied hastily.
“That’s going to make a conversation rather awkward,” laughed Michael, no longer fearing his survival. If he could lay a hand on the brittle demonist, any fight would be quickly and sharply decided.
“Names are power, Michael, and we barely know each other.” Yen replied. He quickly turned from Michael’s confused look and began walking towards the woods.
Michael looked at the load of timber atop his wagon, and his four draft horses. No likely mounts there, he decided quickly. Looking back at the small community briefly, and seeing no one likely to follow or challenge them, he followed Yen into the forest.
7 - Berlin
7 years ago