The frantic question by a distressed armored man complemented the ruckus of those who arrived at the capital’s gate. All around the one who descended the carriage, a multitude gathered, leaving him to furrow his brow in confusion and wonder.
“How did you get past those things?!” Continued the knight, lifting his visor.
“What?” Asked the inquisitor, adorned in his inquisitorial armored robes. “Has something happened?”
“You mean you didn’t even hear?”
“Report, now. What have I missed?”
“I am Knight-Sergeant Marcus Severus, sir.” He saluted. “Ever since a week or so, some strange things have been snatching up anyone trying to get in or out of this city. They didn’t seem to have bothered trying to get in, but that’s just for the time being. For now, we’re all stuck here. Forgive my curiosity, but if you haven’t even heard of this, why have you come here?”
“To visit the king.”
“The king…” Sighed Marcus, turning his eyes aside with a melancholic look.
“Have these things done anything to him?”
“No sir. The king had passed away a week ago, before this mess began. With him gone, I had to take over the defense of the capital. I’d have rather not been the bearer of bad news to you in this manner, had I been allowed the choice.”
With pursed lips, the inquisitor lowered his head with a sigh.
“Those things waited for him to die, didn’t they?” He ranted, to soon step off further towards the city. Marcus caught up to follow beside him, the multitude separating to allow him walking space. “Knight-Sergeant, those strange beings, have you or the others caught glimpse of them?”
“Only silhouettes, and even then for a split second. They looked winged–“
“Then my fears are correct. Monsters.”
“Chief God almighty…”
Days on end had passed, before the Knight-Sergeant and the Inquisitor found themselves marching through the streets in a cold afternoon. The roads had turned from the pristine stone roads into the mundane, utilitarian ones giving away that they stepped ever further into the outskirts. In due time they arrived to a house in particular, for the knight-sergeant to knock twice before walking in with the inquisitor.
Three people remained inside. Two of mundane clothes, the bog-standard citizenry as it was, and one of elaborate clothing fitting for a man of profession. With the equipment lying about over a desk nearby, the inquisitor needed not a second to figure out his profession: An apothecary, who had been in the middle of a check-up with one of the two.
“Ah, finally.” He said, halting his work to step up to the two who had arrived.
“Heard from a patrol that you wanted to meet us.” Said Marcus. “I take it it’s urgent if it was us you requested.”
“Urgent, I don’t know. Up to you to decide.” He said, before turning to the inquisitor. “I am Pius Rosarius, apothecary of the king. His passing was tragic, but I fear we might end up even busier to mourn it these days.”
“How so?” Asked the inquisitor.
“Well,” Pius turned to the couple, prompting the knight-sergeant and inquisitor to look, “they’re showing some symptoms of various diseases. Problem is, they don’t have the other symptoms of said diseases, so they don’t really have it. This is new, something I haven’t seen in my time. With how this… siege started recently, it might be something that concerns you too.”
“What are the symptoms, then?”
With a glance to the couple, the apothecary marched off to the door with a gesture for the other two to follow. The door opened once more, and once the three left the room, it closed shut.
“Increased body warmth.” Began Pius. “Episodes of dizzyness, illogical euphoria, jumps from dead tired to immense stamina randomly. Rarely, nerves going nuts making the body feel like it’s tingling, same as a limb falling asleep and slowly waking up.”
“Demonic energy.” He replied, a cold and stern voice hitting hard enough to leave the other two in absolute silence. “I’ve yet to hear of a single case where those that caught it were saved.”
“…What?” Asked Pius. Marcus’ expression alone gave away the same concern, despite his silence on the matter.
“They’re as good as dead. Worse, maybe, if they start spreading it among the rest of us.” He turned his head to Marcus. “I trust you know what that means.”
Silent, nervous, gulping the fears that he figured were true, he took a deep breath. “Execution, I’m guessing.” He answered almost in a whisper.
“Yes. Efficient. It’d solve this problem immediately, wouldn’t it?”
But Marcus said nothing.
“It wasn’t a rhetorical question.” He continued. “I want your opinion on this.”
“If there really was no other option, I’d sooner exile them, sir. Executing them is…”
“Do you believe we have the luxury of taking morality into account?”
“…No. We don’t.”
No response. Only a somewhat unnerved breathing.
“Exile is the morally superior choice of the two,” continued the inquisitor, “but will only bolster the numbers of those outside if they end up on the same side and lead to our downfall. Execution is the most efficient, but a morally abhorrent choice. Choose for me, Knight-Sergeant.”
And still, Marcus kept his words to himself, for he had none to give. Not even eye contact could he maintain, almost in shame over his hesitation, lowering his gaze.
“I’d have been surprised if you were able to choose that quickly anyways. Knight-Sergeant, your orders are to set up a quarantine area in one extreme of the city and relocate the afflicted there.” He ordered, to which Marcus snapped his head high once more in surprise. “No one goes in, and no one goes out, not without my authority. We’ll see what to do with them in the future, but it’d be best to do something that won’t rile up the rest of the city if they found it morally repulsive.”
“Sir, if I may.” Said Pius, stepping forward to the inquisitor. “There’s an opportunity for me to see if a cure can be made while the quarantine is in place.”
The inquisitor half-closed his eyes, brows furrowing almost in pity. Energy and eagerness showed in the apothecary’s eyes, willpower and determination, yet only to give the inquisitor such expression as he believed it spent uselessly in futile attempts. But still there was nothing else for the apothecary to do, he thought, leading him to sigh.
“Very well.” He answered. “I’ll see that you can get your hands on everything you need to know about the matter.”
Marcus’ steps echoed within his own mind, marching through a road of the outskirts. From there he arrived to a house with numerous guards outside, and the door already wide open. Guards under his command, sent there by his order, to carry out a purpose he knew all too well, and regretted the same.
“What’s taking so long?” He asked as he crossed the door, to find two more of his men within the room, where a woman sat hunched over with her gaze down to the ground. Yet, as soon as the woman caught sight of Marcus, revealing her face of great tears and pained expression, she stood up and marched his way with her hands held together.
“Knight-Sergeant! I beg you!” She cried, to his uncomfortable surprise. Clear it was from his armor alone that he was in command, and yet to arrive to this still felt anything but nice. “She’s only eight, don’t separate me from her!”
“What?” He asked in absolute confusion, taking a step back from her frantic approach. Yet, the word itself already drove a needle into his heart. ‘Eight’. From the start he knew that a woman had caught the affliction and demanded relocation, but no other details had he known of it.
“My daughter. Your men want to take me away, and she’ll be left all alone!”
“Where’s her father?”
“He’s away, he was one of those sent to Lescatie weeks ago. She’s already missing her father, please, don’t make her miss her mother too!”
Familiar separation. An awful situation he had found himself in, having hoped that he’d be lucky enough to only find individuals without ties so close to others, that it’d be a matter of moving them without issue. Little could he say, half over not knowing, and half over his throat constrincting him and his heart threatening to cave in.
“Ma’am, it’s only a quarantine. Nothing will happen to you or her. I promise.”
“I don’t care what happens to me anymore, I don’t want my daughter going through the same thing she went through when her father left!”
Pursing his lips, he found no way to handle the situation. Still, as he glanced about, he found no signs of the daughter in question.
“Where is she?” He asked.
“I had her go look for something.” Answered the woman, voice returning to a lifeless, low tone. “I… didn’t want her hearing. I didn’t want her to see me like thi–“
Immediately Marcus saw the woman’s eyes shooting wide open, along with her neck tightening under the sudden fright. Taking a deep breath, she brought her sleeves and dried the tears from her eyes before the one who called arrived from another door. A mere child, not even half the height of the knight.
“I didn’t find it.” She continued. “I’m sorry.”
“Sweetie, it’s alright.” Reassured the woman, turning to face her with an uncannily impressive act in appearing warm and accepting. Motherly.
“Who are they?”
“Oh, they’re just friends passing by. Don’t worry.” She answered, before turning to the knight with an aghast, pained expression giving away what she’d so desperately ask for.
Knowing it too well, Marcus turned his head to another of his men and nodded, who nodded in return. With a wave and a warm smile, the man caught the girl’s attention, who then approached her before crouching and talking to her. The girl seemed receptive enough as Marcus and the woman saw, with a giggle escaping both the man and the girl as the former brought his hand and patted her on the head.
“Is there really no one to take care of her?” Whispered Marcus.
Rather than an answer, the woman remained silent with a downward gaze, thinking over and over.
“She has an uncle.”
“We can take her to him. It’s the very least we can do.”
With a pained smile, the woman turned to Marcus. “I’ll be in your debt for life if you do.”
“Give us an address. I’ll have my men take her there.”
The woman nodded, still with a pained smile before returning to her motherly act.
“Sweetie?” She said, slowly walking over to the girl, with Marcus following close. “They’ll be passing close to your uncle’s house once they leave. I asked, and they said they’d be glad to take you there with them if you want. I… have a little business to do, so how about you get ready and join them?”
“Alright!” The girl exclaimed, almost jumping in place before rushing off. Deep down, Marcus could only thank the one who had talked with the girl; maybe that little chat was enough to have the girl trust them and avoid the awful situation that’d have happened had she refused.
Then, once she had escaped sight, the woman sighed as if her lifeforce escaped her.
“How long will I be in quarantine?”
“Until the situation is resolved. What I can tell you is that there’s a person looking for a cure, and the sooner he finds it, the sooner this mess will end. You’ll end up seeing him in the quarantine area with how devoted he is, and I can only ask of you to help him if we want to see this end soon.”
In due time, the girl had returned hugging a bag full of Chief God knows what. Despite the woman’s motherly act, her nod towards him still sent a shiver down his spine. All left the house, the woman locking the door as she finished last, and after a pause, she walked over to the girl. Nearly frightening her enough to drop her bag, the woman crouched and hugged her with all her might.
“Mom! Not in front of everyone!” The girl giggled, before receiving a kiss on her forehead.
“Be a good girl, alright?”
“I’ll be a good girl!”
And then, she let go. From there, the guards divided in two groups; Marcus and the woman in one, and the girl in the other, the two soon walking in opposite directions.
The darkness of the night felt as soothing as it was unnerving. The darkness and silence of the castle’s garden, with just his lantern to illuminate a fair few steps away, giving a warm cozy feeling to what the light shone upon, and a dim paranoia of what the darkness held beyond its reach. Though altering between calm steps and standing immobile, the inquisitor had never stopped shifting glances about ever so slowly. Paranoia or accurate assessment, something drove him to be suspicious, as if the siege had not been enough.
But still, nothing. Not a sight, not a noise. As much as the light flickered within his lantern, not a single soul seemed to exist within the garden other than his own.
“Lanius Aurelius.” Called a voice. Warm, welcoming, soft and gentle, that of a woman hidden beneath the shadows. By the very edge of the light’s reach, coinciding with the distinct sound of heels stepping against stone, a pair of feet revealed themselves approaching. Legs, thighs, waist, all slowly revealing themselves into the light little by little.
Pale, blue skin. Tail, wings, and horns. Bright red iris of her eyes, contrasting with the pitch black darkness of her sclera, a dark color which her hair also shared. Still, most of her skin lied covered under a lengthy coat and tight trousers hugging her flesh.
The contrast seemed apparent enough in their expressions and demeanor. An arm under her breasts supporting the elbow of the other, with a hand which fingers almost rested on her cheek by her wide smirk, contrasting with the frown of the inquisitor in skepticism who already moved his hand to the handle of his longsword.
“If you want a fight,” she said, “then I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m not here for one.”
“A siege isn’t the kindest display of peace.”
“Hmm…?” She asked, smile ever present without faltering a bit. “Would you rather have it like the tales of old, of monsters storming a city while the defenders rally in a last stand?”
“It’d end things quicker, at least.”
A chuckle escaped her as she closed her eyes momentarily. “I noticed it in your choice of words, inquisitor. For someone so dedicated to the defense of this city, you speak as if you know it will end badly. A quicker end, rather than hope for victory…?”
Lanius kept quiet. Though he said nothing, still he focused his narrowed eyes on the demon ahead of him.
“If you want a quicker end, all you need to do is ask, and you shall receive. Or would you rather drag this conflict out to an excruciating extent for everyone involved?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised that a demon is trying to goad people into becoming traitors.”
“You have a twisted sense of morality if opening the gates to the ones sieging us isn’t treason in your eyes. If you have one at all.”
“Inquisitor, would you believe it morally wrong for a mother to pull her child’s band-aid in one go? For a surgeon to remove a rotting limb from a patient? For a few to force temporary pain onto others, for their own good?”
“‘For their own good’, who even gave you the authority to decide?”
“Famine. Disease. Plagues. The shortcomings of human nature, along with an eternal war from your kind against our kind whenever you’re not busy killing each other. We can remove it, and we seek to remove it from your kind. You may question my right to impose it like this, but if you truly understood, you’d know that I have no right to stand idle.”
“And you’d know that I have even less right to throw my loyalty away.”
“For what? For a chance to see your kin still die to plagues and tragedies that we seek to halt?”
“Do you think me the type of person that’d jump into the arms of whoever offered me better things in life? You’d not be so keen on said offer if we turned this around, if it was me marching into your lands with an army behind me purifying all in our path ‘for your own good’.”
“What you’d do to us is far different than what we’d do to you.”
“A luxury, no? You have less reasons to cast away your loyalty that way. Less temptation. Less doubt. All becoming clear in your eyes.”
The demon then fell silent, though with her expression never changing. Her eyes slowly narrowed, yet not out of judgment nor irritation, not annoyance nor disappointment, but with a smile complementing what even the inquisitor could notice as if it was contentment, even satisfaction.
“Hm?” She asked.
“This is what you wanted to hear from me, is it not?”
“What makes you say that?”
“A demon approaches an inquisitor of all people and tries to talk her way into turning him traitor. Your kind is not stupid. There’s hardly anything else you’d imagine happening. You came here just to hear me say those things. Why?”
Her smirk widened into a teeth-showing grin, cheeks rising in delight before a deep laugh to herself rang out throughout the night. Without a word she then turned around and marched off into the darkness where she came from, figure disappearing in the shadows and steps growing distant till an absolute silence took over. All, as the inquisitor stared with lantern in hand. Like she arrived, she was gone.
Pius stood with a grimace aimed at the bowl he held. A liquid followed in each movement of his hand, half-shining as if glowing with a faint mirroring reflection of his expression looking back at him with the ceiling of a couple’s house imposed behind it. Stress, disappointment, failure, all manners of such negativity mixed in his look, staring into the liquid itself. At the other end of the room sat a couple on their bed, anxious, stressed for reasons differing, close to each other for a sense of safety the oppressive atmosphere had almost completely stripped.
Knock, knock, knock.
Pius’ head turned to the door as it creaked open, to then see one of the guards peek in.
“Mister Rosarius, the inq–“
Almost throwing him aside and hitting the door to swing it wide open, Lanius shoved his way in with great panic in his erratic movements.
“Pius!” He exclaimed as he marched to him, all while the guard desperately regained balance to stare with both fright and indignation. “I heard you found a cure, I got here as fast as I could.”
Pius’ brows furrowed in agony, exchanging glances between the inquisitor and the bowl of liquid. “In… theory, inquisitor.”
“In theory? What do you mean?”
“I’ll explain, we should go outside.”
Raising an eyebrow, Lanius follows Pius out the room. The guard closed the door for them upon leaving, and after a few steps, Pius turned to face the inquisitor.
“It’s this.” Said Pius, handing the bowl to Lanius who stared baffled, wordless, as confused as he was wondering. “The afflicted is supposed to drink it. It goes through the system and absorbs demonic energy, and retains it until it exits the system. I won’t pretend to understand why, but it… Forgive the vulgarity, but masturbating safely gets rid of it through the fluids.”
The inquisitor snapped his head to Pius, frowning with eyes narrowed and lips raised, skeptical and unbelieving.
“Seriously…?” He asked, tone as if dead-tired. In response, Pius just raised his palms momentarily.
“I don’t know why. I’ve seen stranger things out there, so I won’t question it.”
“Fine. So why does this only work in theory?”
“You know the symptoms of demonic energy better than anyone. If a man or a woman is told to masturbate, when they have their partner so close…”
“The fluids are just exchanged instead of thrown away.”
“Precisely. Might actually end up making things ten times worse with that greater concentration going to the other person. In theory this works just fine, obviously just for those in the earlier stages since for a monster or incubus it’s useless, but in practice it’s like telling a man who lost his legs to walk it off. It just doesn’t work.”
With a defeated sigh, Lanius lowered his eyes to the bowl once more, stirring it with his hand movements. “To think I had hoped that it’d be a way to have The Order never again think of executing the afflicted…”
“Forgive me, inquisitor. I’ll–“
The inquisitor shook his head.
“You did all you could, apothecary.”
“If we have the luxury of time in this siege, I’ll not give up in looking for a cure. That’s all I need, time.”
“That’ll do, Pius. That’ll do.” He said, to then turn his eyes to the bowl again, this time with a confused frown. “Is it… glowing a bit?”
“Yes. It syphons the demonic energy and glows, just like how metal does after heating up enough. When the demonic energy is inside the body, however, it’s just a useless lightshow.”
“Tragic.” He said, extending the bowl back to Pius. “Anything else you find, send word my way.”
As the inquisitor turned and left, pius couldn’t help but look at the bowl once more. So much effort, so many sleepless days of research, gone to waste.
The wall’s torch in so close proximity to his bench left him with the crackling of the flame to act as ambient noise. Other than that, the night had remained dead silent, with barely a soul to be seen. He would know. Too many people had Marcus forcibly moved. Inevitably, rather than moving a few here and there, the nature of the affliction’s spread meant part of the city turned abandoned.
So were the parts he found himself in.
Though the streets had remained silent, thought after thought bombarded his mind. Weeks upon weeks of forced relocation, splitting families apart before reuniting them in quarintine as more caught symptoms of the affliction each passing day. Knight-Sergeant, a position he had yearned for since his childhood and sought to uphold in duty and honor upon obtaining it, yet he couldn’t help but ask himself, was this really it? An overglorified evictor. Captain of all guards, having answered to the king alone before his passing had left him to take over momentarily, and he’s just kicking people around.
Couldn’t let it get to his head. With a rough sigh, he stood up and headed for the nearest place to keep his mind at ease; a tavern a couple blocks away. However, as soon as he crossed the door, he found it as desolate as the streets, dark and abandoned. The memory returned to him, of having sent to quarantine the tavern’s owner along with numerous of their clients, effectivelly shutting it down. As he slowly marched in, darkness embracing him with an echo to return after every step, he couldn’t help but reminisce of the old days where the silent building would be filled with smiles and laughs. Behind the counter he arrived to would have been a tall, sturdy man, bald yet bearded to greet him like an old friend, and yet now no one remained to even say a simple ‘hello’.
Noises. Tranquil, calm, yet still unknown. Slight hit of glass against wood, and what he could swear was a woman’s near-silent gasp. Snapping his head to a dark corner of the room, he found a moving silhouette against the shadows, though too dark for him to see properly. Skeptical and suspicious, with his hand already resting on his longsword’s handle, he took a few slow steps towards the figure, only for a pair of bright red iris to appear and stare right at him, petrifying him in place.
“Knight-Sergeant.” A soothing voice called, emanating from her. A second later, a small flame formed out of her palm, illuminating the surroundings just enough for Marcus to see who it was. Strangely colored skin, red iris upon black sclera, horns, tail, wings, and graying hair flowing over an otherwise unremarkable outfit. A being exactly like those he had seen from the walls before the inquisitor’s arrival, snatching those who dared step out.
Marcus immediately unsheathed his sword partly, taking a step back. The demon, however, just stared momentarily at the blade before nonchalantly raising her great mug of mead in her other hand, taking yet another sip before leaving it on the table with the same noises he had heard. But, she did not stand up, she did not move her arms other than that, she didn’t even speak up no more. Inactivity, leaving Marcus to slowly sheath back his sword but still have his hand firmly gripping the handle.
“Demon.” He said, as if returning the greeting. The demon, in turned, grew a faint smile.
“You didn’t start swinging that sword.” She said. “I knew you were a good man.”
A compliment, or an insult, he knew not how to take it, leaving him to just narrow his eyes in infinite skepticism and paranoia. Still the demon did nothing, other than taking another sip.
“You look troubled, though.” She added. “Few walk into an abandoned tavern like this, other than those wanting a free drink. What plagues your mind?”
“You would know.”
A quiet chuckle escaped her.
“Don’t take the siege too harshly. Remind yourself that we have made sure none die nor suffer through it. For all that you and the inquisitor are doing, it’s just relocating people. From what I heard of humans sieging one another in times of war… we’re doing you a favor.”
“We never asked for favors.”
“A humble, hard-working man will reject all offers for help, believing it his duty not to bother others. Would we not be morally obligated to lend a hand?”
“You of all people, lecturing us of morality?”
“Want to turn the lecture into a discussion?”
“No, I want you to leave us alone.”
“I can not do that, Marcus.” She answered, to then return her eyes to her drink.
In return Marcus said nothing, just stared as she took another sip under the dim light of her palm’s fire.
“How do you know my name?” He asked, but received no response other than a wider smile. “At least tell me yours, if you already know mine.”
With a movement of her fingers from the hand she held her mug with, the chair opposite to her table slid back. Seeing the demon stare at him with an invitation in front of him, he stared skeptical before taking a deep breath and marching forward. Hand on the chair’s top to arrange it, he sat down and dropped his elbows on the table.
“The demonic energy’s been spreading left and right.” He said. “I take your goal is to have it overrun the capital.”
“We’ll leave, or stick around if the people want us to. It’s not like we’d say no to a couple drinks.”
“‘The people’… Do you even care about them that much?”
“You tell me, Marcus. I haven’t offered you a drink because I didn’t want to run deception on you by having it be infused by demonic energy. If you ever change your mind, the others and I want it to be your choice. Not like you’d accept a drink from me even if it was completely clean, anyways…”
“You want me to be a traitor?”
“You won’t be a traitor. Nobody will be.”
“Tell that to the inquisitor.”
“Tell me, Marcus…” She said, a tone softer and slower escaping her lips as she narrowed her eyes in expectation. “If the next time you saw the inquisitor he ordered you to execute every single person afflicted by demonic energy, where would your loyalties lie? With the inquisitor, or with the people?”
He had no answer so give, nor expressions to change to.
“You’re not corrupt. We don’t seek to corrupt. You know the word’s definition too well, Marcus, yearning for the position of Knight-Sergeant to help the people rather than for personal gain. You wouldn’t throw anyone under the carriage. Your happiness comes from the happiness of others, does it not?”
No response. Still, the demon’s smile did not disappear, not hearing a yes, yet not hearing a denial or retort.
“Have they been really given a choice?” He asked. “How do I know you haven’t just hammered the affliction into people who were too concerned with bringing food to their table?”
“If we didn’t grant choices, we wouldn’t be talking. There wouldn’t be a siege. Things would’ve ended over a month ago. Don’t misunderstand my words, Knight-Sergeant. You’re as free as anyone else to ignore me, and even to stand up and leave right now. I’ll understand. Your other option is just simple talk anyways, hardly something to get worked up about. The choice is yours, take your time.”
Silent and almost blank-minded, he stared aimlessly into nowhere through the dead silence of the tavern. Slowly, he turned his head from where he sat to find the door to the street, open enough for a dim light to sneak in from the moonlight. He could stand up. He could walk away. At least, from what the demon said, and if she forced him to stay, it’d have been her strength that made him stay rather than his own decision.
But after taking a deep breath, he returned his eyes to her.
The fateful day had arrived, as the inquisitor’s cynicism had predicted. Walking down the street, he could already see a few blocks down the effect of his orders to the knight-sergeant, finding him in due time overseeing a crowd that formed. Lanius’ order had been clear: Gather the afflicted.
“Knight-Sergeant.” He greeted, arriving to his side and briefly startling him with his arrival.
“Inquisitor.” Greeted back Marcus, voice low and almost tired, pained as if.
“Have they decided on someone?”
“Not yet. Inquisitor, with all respect, is this the only solution?”
“I am open to suggestions.”
Pursing his lips, Marcus found no suggenstions to put forward. As he attempted to come up with anything, from the crowd advanced a man towards the two of them, cutting his thinking short as he and Lanius turned to face him.
“They’ve decided I’ll be the one to speak with you, Inquisitor.” He said. The average joe, unremarkable in visage and attire; a perfect fit for someone representing the crowd, as the civilians of his type had taken the brunt of the affliction. From his face and posture alone he gave away his nervousness, and his tonality reflected his inexperience in formal talking, but it mattered not, as Lanius saw the effort he put in formality and courtesy. Lanius couldn’t blame him, as the poor boy must’ve been intimidated by the one who could order a mass execution with a flick of his fingers. “Where would you want us to talk?”
“Here will do. I have no intentions of hiding this conversation from anyone.” He answered. As he took a deep breath, he felt the piercing gaze of all who stood around, listening intently as an eerie silence formed. “Your numbers have grown enough to get out of hand. I’m sure you’ve noticed by how it turned from a single couple at the start, to a miniature-city now. Though I had decided on a quarantine, it was only for numbers far fewer than these. With how the affliction is spreading exponentially quicker with your numbers, I’m sure you understand that it turned prohibitive to keep you here.”
Though the man said nothing, his silent gulp said more than words ever would. The atmosphere turned oppressive, overwhelming, as the crowds all understood the same. Those that could not hear would be told of it. Whatever he said, the afflicted would hear, and so too would those clean.
“I won’t execute anyone.” Continued Lanius. “I won’t harm anyone. Not a single drop of blood will be spilled if I can prevent it, but my hands are tied. Regrettably, the logical conlusion is that I must exile all of you.”
“Exile?” Asked the man, turning increasingly unnerved with a mixture of relief over his life spared. “With those things out there? Where would we even go?”
“The affliction happened because of ‘those things out there’, and they benefit more in having you here with us. Knowing them, they won’t do you any harm, as it is us who they seek. Additionally… I’m sure it’ll only be temporary.”
“Eh?” Asked the man along with the knight-sergeant, both in sync.
“I won’t pretend to be hopeful. Chances are our demise is inevitable and we’re just delaying it for a good while. You could take your belongings and supplies and wait outside the walls, and maybe those demons may welcome you to taunt those of us still stuck within these walls to switch sides. Because of that, it’s best if you’re all executed, which I will not do. I’m risking this city for some semblance of morality for your sake, and because of that, I have a single favor to ask in return.”
“What… What will the favor be?”
“Don’t aid the ones outside against us. Stay with them if you wish, but I can only appeal to your sense of honor that the favors I do for you will be repaid in kind. In exchange, I’ll make sure none that catch the affliction within these walls afterwards will be harmed.”
Furrowing his brows in confusion and wonder, the man took a few seconds to think before turning his head to the crowds to the left and to the right. As the inquisitor turned his eyes to follow, he saw all staring silent and nervous, though still without a complaint to be heard. A neutral response as any, till he spotted a few nodding to the man in approval. They may have been few, but as Lanius scanned the scenery, he found not a single person shaking their heads.
“Very well.” Sighed the man. “How much time do we have to pack up?”
“Three days. More than enough to have everyone prepare and talk among yourselves as to what to do once you step outside the gates.”
“Right. I… thank you for your hospitality, inquisitor. N-Not that getting exiled is hospitality, but… considering the alternatives…”
“Worry not, I understand.”
The man then took a few steps back before marching off to the crowd, prompting the inquisitor to do the same in the opposite direction. Staring at the crowd momentarily, Marcus then caught pace with the inquisitor, now marching next to him.
“You were actually considering execution?” He asked.
“No. They wouldn’t be too comfortable with it.”
“The afflicted, those things outside, those of us inside. Everyone. It’d be stopped immediately at best, and at worst we’d be stuck in a mini-civil war.”
Bubbles. Crackling flames. The images had almost been burned into his retina, seeing the same things over and over again each passing day. Boiling liquids within glass, others stored in vials throughout the workshop, texts and scrolls messily scattered about over the numerous desks, making the workshop look like a mess. The liquid boiling in front of him, container connected to numerous others over the same desk, caught not his attention but his boredom instead. It was the same as the ‘cure’, formula going through change after change, with refinement method altered an infinite time, and yet still it was not only ineffective, but also prohibitive. Despite the failure in it curing the afflicted, he found no sorrow, for even if it had worked, the method of refinement would’ve made it impossible to create in enough quantities. A cure for a few individuals, not for whole communities. Took time, resources, immense focus and attention to detail, and even despite his accrued skill in refining it, most ended in failure nonetheless.
Sinking into his chair, he soon switched focus to his own reflection stamped against the glass. It’d be time before it was finished, and still he had to pay close attention for any sudden changes that could ruin it all. Tedious. Boring. Made worse by how it was experimentation to find something, rather than refining a finished product; the equivalent of throwing it at the wall to see what sticks, with the afflicted instead. And he ran no shortage of afflicted individuals, as even a week past the exile more still caught it.
Then, an alteration caught his attention. The liquid had begun showing changes, ones he’d have not noticed had he not been paying close attention. Sighing, he figured he’d need once more to do something, perhaps check the flame to either increase or decrease the temperature with how the liquid only liked a minuscule heat range.
But his movements halted altogether.
Something was wrong.
The change, he had never seen it before. Or rather, he saw it a great many times, but a change that should never happen in an environment like this. The conditions for the change demanded something else. Proximity with demonic energy. The liquid had begun glowing ever so slightly.
Footsteps. The sound, however, only skyrocketed his sudden paranoia. Those weren’t the noises he remembered the inquisitor’s or knight-sergeant’s footwear producing; rather, it felt sharped. Heels against the wooden floor, as if. With the thought of heels came the thought of a woman, and with the thought of a woman, added to the shining liquid, his eyes remained absolutely wide open as he turned them towards the door, hearing the footsteps come closer and closer each passing second from the hallway.
The shadow cast upon the wall of the hallway gave it away. Whatever is was that approached, wasn’t human. A human figure he could see, yet with inhuman traits added, the most notable of which were its wings. Fears upon fears started piling up, heart beating faster and throat choking him, eyes opened to their fullest extent, till flesh and cloth came to view. Fears proven true, he saw it in full detail: A demon, tall and slim with those monstruous traits of wings, horns, and tail on her. A pale complexion, contrasting with the fiery red of her long, flowing hair which fell to neatly cover one of her eyes, of red iris upon black sclera. Elegantly dressed in a tight-fitting dress, still humble as if fitting in a lowly civilian environment, she calmly walked in with an aloof, stern look in her face, eyes locked with him.
Pius had remained petrified. In fear he’d have imagined himself standing up with enough panic to almost send the chair flying, yet it felt as if his terror had overpowered him, leaving him a statue, shutting down all his functions.
“Mister Rosarius, I presume.”
Her knowing his name and saying in in such soft voice sent a shiver down his spine, the likes he had never felt before.
“I’m sure you understand why I’m here.”
“Why?” He asked, almost a whisper, barely able to gasp a mere word out.
“The nail that stands out gets hammered down. You’ve done a great service to this city. Your achievements, even if just mere attempts, have found ears even outside these walls, with the rest of us. You have a keen mind and great creativity in finding the way out of bad situations… But as we’re on opposite sides, the rest of us have no more options left than to deal with you in person.”
Conflicting emotions led him to still remain silent, immobile, despite the confirmation of an assassination attempt looming over him. As if only proving his initial fears, it did nothing to make him jump, but rather it only brought doubt and curiosity to his mind; they saw his work as dangerous, as a threat, despite him finding no results that could be used. Fear never subsiding, his curiosity and perplexity grew to overshadow it enough to make him narrow his eyes and stare forward aimlessly.
“Was I… getting closer to finding a cure?” He asked, almost mumbling, though still with nervousness clear in his voice.
“Most likely not, but the others have decided we can not risk it.”
“Then… I’ll die here, just like this? A failure?”
“Die?” Asked the demon, taking a few steps closer, the distinct sound of her footwear petrifying him once more and shooting his eyes wide open with each closer step. “You’ve seen with your own eyes what the demonic energy does to people, and death and misery is not within the symptoms, Rosarius. It won’t be any different for you. We’ll grant you joy and purpose as best as we can, but as things have turned out, it turned necessary to deal with you as quickly as we could. I’d have rather waited for you to take the choice on your own rather than forcing it, for me to visit you often and talk with you… But we’re not in happy times.”
“So you’ll force it upon me?”
Mustering his courage and what little semblance of self-control he had left, he took a deep breath, puffing his chest and closing his eyes for a moment.
“Can I at least have a minute, before it happens?” He asked.
“Take your time, but know it’s only a luxury I can afford to give you. Should anything happen… I’ll be forced to go through with it.”
The fear seemed to act as a calming factor, in his mind. Too great for erratic movements, petrifying him, making any and all movements be coldly calculated and with all will and mind behind them. Slowly he stood up, staring aimlessly forward before turning and marching away to a wall. No desks lined it, no bookcases, but rather a series of windows all showing the pitch black darkness outside. All he could see was his own reflection against a black canvas, with the demon visible a short distance away by the door.
“Is it the waste?” She asked.
Rather than a question to ask, he turned his head just partly, a reaction the demon noticed.
“That all your effort would’ve been for naught.” She continued. “Even if it’s against my kin, I can see the pain in the effort gone to waste.”
“It was already wasted. The cure I found didn’t work. I was just… keeping my loyalty.” He answered, to then slowly move his hand to his robes, calmly searching through while hiding it from her. “I couldn’t call it quits after all. I’ve been in King Alphonso’s service for so many years that, if I were to just give up… I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. But I didn’t see any result from what I did. I had no reasons to continue.”
“I pray I can grant you release from that torment, of having to continue despite knowing there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”
“For someone sent to get me, you’re… friendly and talkative. What’s your name?”
“Helen… Did they pick you at random to be sent?”
“No. I volunteered.”
“I’ve been following your deeds for a long while already. I would have been… extremely upset if others laid their hands on you. I’m certain you get what I’m saying.”
“I see…” He answered, taking out of his clothes a minuature vial, no bigger than half a finger with a cork. An iridescent color shined through, swirling about as if it were as thin as water. With his thumb he uncapped it, and stared intently with the prospect of drinking it in his mind. The liquid itself was anything but safe, leaving him torn in the dilemma of whether the situation required it or not. Something to be kept for a life-or-death situation, yet only he decided on whether it was one, or not.
“Have demons visited the others?” He asked.
“I can not say.”
Closing his eyes, he found it as good an answer as any, if only because she dared not say a flat ‘no’. For all he knew, demons stalked Lanius and Marcus, Lord knowing what may have happened to them.
“What I can say is that,” she continued, “the ones outside don’t see them as a threat just yet. They won’t do anything to them, unless their hand is forced, or they decide to aid us of their own accord.”
“I understand. I suppose I shouldn’t keep you waiting, then.”
“Have you reconsidered?” She asked, for Pius to see her smile growing through the window’s reflection. Rather than growing his own, scorn grew in his face, raising his lips as he frowned, gathering all available courage and strength he had left.
“…Treason is unforgivable.”
Gulp. In a swift motion, he emptied the vial within him, and as he turned about, he saw the demon frowning in confusion.
“What did you just drink?” She asked, yet he said nothing in return.
Instead he remained quiet, focusing on himself, wondering if it’d work or not past his nervousness, past his erratic breathing in terror and skin burning in the adrenaline of the situation. At least, until he realized, his breathing’s worsening weren’t due to the demon. His skin had begun tingling, heating up, nerves tickling like limbs asleep attempting to wake up, feeling it through any movement as he dropped the vial and stared at his palms.
The warmth turned into burning. The tingling, into pain. A gasp escaped him through an erratic exhalation as his eyes opened to their fullest extent, finding horror in experiencing it all within his body, an unpredictable change from an unpredictable liquid he’d have not dared use in a situation that offered anything less than death, paranoia and dread taking over as thoughts flooded his mind of what he had done, what to expect, the worst that could happen, even a minuscule primal regret over having done it.
“…Rosarius?” She asked, voice beginning to waver.
Pain increased, enough to force a whimper out of him. All of his discipline and strength had found itself spent on keeping his composure despite the gruelling experience, feeling like his flesh was cooked from the inside as if he had been stabbed by a white-hot fire iron, finding a sensation within it as if it was boiling, bubbling under his skin, moving in ways it should never move. His muscles turned numb, yet they had begun bloating, expanding, pressing against his skin without it stretching to match, bringing a pain uncomparable as if it would tear itself open at any second.
The pain threshold had been broken. Though he had pressed his hands tightly against his own flesh, using all willpower available to contain himself, his lungs gave out, letting out a shout as the bloating increased in their violent writhing, intensity, and quantity through his body. His legs gave in, dropping him to a knee as he screamed till all air had been emptied from his lungs, reducing him to a panting, whimpering mess where he kneeled. All, as the demon stared speechless, once aloof and stern yet now terrified with eyes wide open.
Skin tore. Too great an expansion without time for accomodating it, forcing out yet greater cries from him as not only his flesh broke, but so too the clothes of his torso, revealing the hulking monstrosity of muscle and wounds he had been turning into. Once a mere man of no great capability in aspects of strength, now a mountain of bleeding muscles with his cries achieving an eerie echo with itself, as if ringing out in the infinite expanse of the void despite the room holding no architectural capacity for such thing. More and more he grew in musculature in equal measure to his cries, defined to their fullest extent if only due to the fat of his body not keeping up in kind, like a flesh golem from nightmares told to children.
“Pius…” She whispered to herself while slowly stepping back, almost teary-eyed at the sight in both terror and sorrow.
And then, a voice came out of him. A word alone shouted at Helen, yet not with Pius’ old voice. A deep, echoing aberration that could just barely be considered human, pulsating and vibrating within the room as if striking against one’s very soul, vocal chords mutated and altered to a near-inhuman extent showing through in his cry, no longer in pain nor panic, but with a pure, primal berserking anger behind it, and nothing more.
Immediately he jumped up and charged forward, each step stomping against the ground like the bouncing boulder off a trebuchet, revealing his grimace of teeth showing in grit, frowning in hatred. His eyes only then showed to her, showing nothing of iris or sclera, nor pupils, but instead a blinding concentration of energy, of electricity as if, cyan and bright as a star with sparks remaining in place following each movement.
Like a deer caught in headlights the demon did not move an inch, turned into stone for that split second before Pius’ proximity snapped her out of her trance. Letting out a scream in fright, she turned into smoke, for Pius to stampade through a fraction of a second later and strike the wall immediately past it, denting it with the wood and concrete to fall off in such wild mess. In another corner of the room she reappeared, for what once was Pius to turn his head and spot her.
“What have you done to yourself?!” She cried out, indignant and heartbroken.
But Pius answered not. Rather, he began his charge again, bothering not to avoid the numerous tables around but instead run through, throwing them aside in blind fury with just mere swings of his arms, shattering all.
Gritting her teeth and finding no recourse, Helen brought her hands together and focused. Flames gathered, and in quick fashion she brought them to one of her hands and threw it against him like a projectile, yet shocking her whole, Pius slapped it away, deflecting it to a wall for it to hit and then spread, fire remaining on the wall and floor. Then he jumped, bringing his arm back ready to throw a punch at her, and just as it was about to connect, she disappeared once more. His strike hit against the wall, denting it just like his earlier charge had done, and causing similar damage if only smaller in scope. Without a second to waste, he snapped his head towards where the demon appeared next, and extending his free hand he channeled sparks and electricity through his arm, culminating in a current like a continuous lightning bolt shooting out.
Screaming out in terror, Helen threw herself against the ground with her tail almost tucked between her legs. The blinding flash struck against the wall in full force, not just destroying it as it punctured a hole, but once the flash that turned the room white-bright died, the sound brought by the crackling flames of the wood burning to a crisp filled Helen’s ringing ears.
“Pius!” She shouted, standing up with eyes wide open at his attempt to dislodge his arm from the wall. “You’re killing yourself! You know as well as I that this is exactly what we wanted to avert!”
“Better dead than a traitor!” He shouted back in his almost daemonic voice. With one final pull, he dislodged himself from the wall, yet he ended up stumbling back and fell to the ground on his back. Helen could only narrow her eyes at his sudden loss of coordination, but once more he stood up and charged anew. “For king and country!!”
“Never have we asked for you to abandon your king!” She retorted, disappearing in smoke to reappear elsewhere. “Never have we asked for you to abandon your countr–“
A table flew her way at exceptional speed, interrupting her with a scream before she disappeared once more. Disorientation had begun taking its toll once she reappeared, for a split second unaware where she had ended up in the room after so panicked an escape. That split second, however, turned into enough of a delay for her leg to be grabbed and pulled, sending her down to the ground with a great impact on her head, interrupting what shout in fright she’d have let out. Bloodflow rushed into her head through the centrifugal force of Pius swinging her about, before letting go and throwing her against the wall. With a grunt she struck, to the fall down to the ground with a slight concussion.
Too hot. Turned hard to breathe. Not because of her state, but rather the flames she found surrounding her, along with those in the rest of the room. It had begun spreading, burning through, generating smoke that had begun gathering in great quantities. It wasn’t only her that noticed it, however, as she noticed far forward Pius already on a knee with a hand on the ground, coughing violently as he covered his mouth. Smoke? His deteriorating health? No reason it couldn’t have been both.
Weakened. Perhaps enough for her to fight him in equal terms, but the thought of injuries and pain brought to him by her only left a sour taste in her mouth. Not like the concussion had not rendered her unable to focus greatly anyways.
“Where’s the Pius Rosarius I knew?” She said, slowly standing up as pained as she was. “Where’s the Pius I longed for, the one I’ve watched for so long? What have you done to him?! What brought you to do this to yourself?!”
“You damned monster,” he coughed, violent in action and tone, “you really have nothing in life to care for! Nothing you’d give your life for! No higher purpose, no meaning, nothing! You only live to corrupt others, before getting bored and moving on to your next victims!”
“Corruption?! We might as well be your cure!”
“Fuck your cure!”
With a firm slap against the ground he propped himself up, lunging forward yet without as much energy as before. Still berserking, still furious and energetic, he ran forward only to fall to his knee half the way completed. Erratic panting took over as confusion and wonder flooded his mind, checking his palms upon his newfound condition slowly creeping in.
“Not yet…” He grunted to himself, clenching his fists. “Not… yet…!”
Though once more he advanced, he could not fully stand up, stumbling forward perpetually with his movements giving away a deep exhaustion great enough to leave the demon staring perplexed. Again he fell, this time holding himself up only by his elbow, yet now he noticed something else, as did the demon.
His mucles. The bloating had returned, of a different type this time. Inverted, as if, like miniature implosions, bubbling inwards rather than outwards. His fury had been interrupted, letting out a gasp in horror instead as the sight and sensation overshadowed all else. And yet, he grit his teeth and forced himself forward once more towards the demon. This time, however, just barely quicker than a messy crawl, light in his eyes slowly dying.
“Pius…?” She whispered in disbelief.
His advance slowed down ever so slightly, never picking up any speed, reverting to a crawl as gasps for air turned frequent, grimace of anger and grudge slowly replaced by wide open eyes of fear and panic, and at that point, the muscles had begun constricting. The inverse-bloating had begun carrying out its effect, reducing in equal manner to how it once had increased it, sapping him of all his strength and musculature, returning his skin to shape as it once was before stretching yet still with bleeding tears everywhere.
“Not yet… not yet not yet not yet…” He whispered to himself, barely able to speak at all, yet just loud enough for her to hear as he still desperately attempted an advance.
Until, his body had grown thinner than it once normally was, as if starved in that short time span. Upon that stage, he ceased to move.
“…Pius!” She cried out, rushing forward with a panicked expression and almost throwing herself to the ground beside him. Kneeling, she propped him up just enough to embrace him tight against her, combing back his hair to see his closed eyes, checking his breathing to find it so worringly slow.
Blood. In panic, she had forgotten. Only after moving her hand she noticed in her palm, Pius’ blood smeared upon it. She stared catatonic upon his blood, mouth opening slightly with her jaw shaking as if wanting to scream yet nothing coming out. Her other palm had been smeared, as were her clothes, all with Pius’ blood dyeing it red. Uneven, quick breathing took over as horror set in, leading her to begin shivering, shaking.
“I won’t let you die… I won’t let you die!” She cried to herself, readying her hand and placing it upon his chest. From there she focused, channeling her power and slowly infusing him with her essence, the demonic energy all monsters carried.
Footsteps. Violent and quick enough to be heard past the crackling flames all around her. Frowning and nearly teary-eyed, she grit her teeth knowing it’d be others who’d stop her. Her concussion had left her unable to do much, added to the tiredness of having run around the room against the apothecary. To take him with her would invite a worse fate; in too critical a condition he was to be moved so hastily. His best chances were to remain, and her best chances were to leave. Begrudgingly, she took a deep breath and gently left him on the ground, but not before giving him a kiss on the cheek.
“I’ll come back for you. I swear it. I’ll never abandon you.” She whispered, before standing up and disappearing in smoke.
As the smoke dissipated, fused together with that of the fires, two men arrived to the door with their longswords drawn. The Knight-Sergeant, and the Inquisitor, both who saw first-hand the result of the workshop’s destruction, and right by the middle the bloodied apothecary.
“Lord almighty, what the hell happened?!” Cried out Marcus, rushing in as Lanius marched in behind him, glancing in all directions for the presence of the culprit yet finding none.
Marcus’ longsword fell to the ground as he knelt next to the unconscious apothecary to check his vital signs. Removing his gauntlet and pressing the apothecary’s wrist, he found him just barely alive, as bloodied as he was.
“He’s still with us.”
“Alright, help me out.” Answered Lanius, sheathing back his longsword and propping Pius up with the bloodied man’s arm around his neck. After sheathing back his sword, Marcus followed suit with Pius’ other arm. Disregarding the flames and the weakening structures, they then moved him out the room as quickly as they could.
Alphonso Aurelius. King. Brother. The one in the portrait Lanius Aurelius stared at with his hands behind him, silent, melancholic, without even a few crickets to save him from the void in his thoughts. In the long hallway of the castle it hanged, framed in so exceptional a wood against the hand-carved stone walls looming over the great long carpet Lanius stood upon. Beside it, more portraits hanged for any visitors to see, predecessor upon predecessor who all once wore the crown. Aurelius, Aurelius, Aurelius, a lineage uninterrupted for centuries, and yet space still remained past Alphonso’s frame; but if it would have another Aurelius, Lanius dared not ponder. The crown was the least of his interests, and though seeing it pass to him to keep another Aurelius on the throne, the thought of it passing from brother to brother rather than father to son left with a hollowed heart.
Footsteps, afar. Perhaps it was the eerie silence that aided him in noticing, or perhaps it was his impatience, hearing them from so far away. Quiet and calm he remained where he was, waiting as the single pair of footsteps approached, growing louder and louder every second ever so slightly. In due time, they halt close to him.
“Inquisitor Aurelius.” Greeted Marcus’ voice. “I received word that you needed to discuss something with me.”
Slowly turning his head, Lanius found Marcus now next to him, lowering his hand after a salute.
“Yes, Knight-Sergeant.” He exhaled, almost in sigh, turning to face him in full. “It’s about Apothecary Rosarius.”
“I’ve heard rumors about him. Has he really been tainted by the demonic energy?”
“He has, although identifying it so early and his own… ‘cure’ seemed to ease the symptoms. It’s too early to say if he’s fully cured or not, but at least the demonic energy has healed his wounds partly, if nothing else. He’ll be fine, for the time being.”
“That’s a blessing to hear in these times.” He sighed in relief.
“His health is not what I wanted to discuss, though.”
Marcus’ smile eased down, in equal pace to one of his eyebrows rising in wonder.
“The demons shouldn’t have known of Rosarius’ workshop. I’ve taken all possible precautions in its location, leaving no other possibility than one of the few knowing men having given away that information. A traitor walks among us, Severus.”
His raised eyebrow turned into a frown. Disbelief, indignation, doubt. As Marcus stared silent, Lanius turned back to the portrait in front of him to stare.
“Do you suspect of anyone?” Asked Marcus.
“I’ve mentioned to you that the workshop will be a secret to a few men, but I haven’t told you how many know of it. The problem is… Other than Pius and I, you are the only one left.”
“After these years of service, you think me willing to turn traitor so easily?” He asked, calm and stern, with a hint of anger in his voice. Yet, as the inquisitor turned his head just enough to look from the corner of his eyes, he found Marcus’ hand already having slowly moved to the handle of his longsword. From there, he turned his eyes to meet Marcus’.
“Perhaps you didn’t believe it treason, which is why you could do it.”
Once more silence reigned, before Marcus took a few steps back with his hand now firmly holding his sheathed sword, ceasing any subtlety.
“I’ve been to the afflicted areas. I’ve seen what they’ve done. Some almost amount to miracles, even curing the diseased and depressed. Not a single man, woman, or child has been harmed, even the opposite as the people have gotten happier and healthier. The rest of us have been stuck in a siege for no reason, believing them to be–“
“You’ll find that I never once claimed those demons to be murderers or destroyers. One doesn’t become an inquisitor by knowing not what they’ll be dealing with.”
“Then you already know. Is it really treason, with what they offer to us all?”
“Is it not?”
“You said it yourself. They gave you an offer. Is it not treason to accept it, regardless of what it involves?”
“Treason, to accept the betterment of our entire nation?”
Cold and distant, the inquisitor turned his head towards Marcus once more.
“There’s a tale from ancient times.” He said with icy calm. “Back before the current Demon Lord took over. A demon had struck a deal with a human, unlimited knowledge and wordly pleasures in exchange of his soul. You and I would not accept that offer as individuals, nor as agents of a nation. The problem is, what if the demon had offered more in exchange of less? What if the demon offered him health and happiness, and didn’t even ask for his soul in exchange? What if that happiness extended to those around him, to his family and friends? To those he didn’t even know of? Where’s the line to cross from unacceptable to acceptable?”
“The line’s where no harm is done to us, be it physically, spiritually, or morally. The only question of morality here is whether to accept it or not, not what it’d even cause!”
“Then you’re just confirming my fears.”
“That you had no loyalty in the first place!” He shouted out loud, breaking all semblance of calmness. “You jump into the arms of whoever offers more, like a mercenary! God knows what would’ve happened to Pius had I not interfered, and it all was because of you! You opened the gates to those things outside to feel better about yourself for ‘helping’, abandoning your kin who trusted you with their fucking lives! You were bribed, and not only you welcomed it with open arms, you even have the audacity of defending it!”
No retorts. No anger nor grudge, no insults nor arguing to be thrown against one another. As soon as the last echo of the last word had died, a dead silence took over in full force, deafening as it was. Only the inquisitor’s heavy breathing could be heard, soon calming down to a relative silence matching their surroundings.
“You were the last person in this entire city I’d have imagined betraying us.” He then said, the calmness as before returning to his voice. “I trusted you, Marcus. Go, leave, don’t let me see you ever again.”
Though the words weighed heavily upon him, Marcus couldn’t help but furrow his brow.
“Just… leave?” He asked.
“I must be the most pitiful inquisitor out there. Weak. Too caring. I can’t even bring myself to execute you this instant. Part of me wants to believe it’s just me not wanting to create a martyr for those out there, but… Only God knows. Leave. Stay in the afflicted area or exile yourself to see the others outside, I don’t care anymore. Be quick, before I start regretting this decision.”
Though once fury had taken over the hearts of both, Marcus’ had died down enough for melancholy to replace it. With weary eyes glancing downwards in thought, he took a deep breath before saluting; pride of his past service, or perhaps one last act he could carry out with what little loyalty that remained, he then lowered his arm and departed. With the inquisitor staring downward into the void, only Marcus’ stepped aided in staving off the silence that soon came to reign after his steps grew too distant to hear.
Sunken in his chair, the inquisitor found himself embraced by the darkness on all sides. Only a simple candle on a small table in front of him served to stave off the darkness, leaving the room just dimly lit enough to figure out where the walls were, yet no more. His surroundings had turned dead silent long ago within the castle, a room deep enough to have what minuscule noises outside be muffled to nothingness; and as silent as his room was, so was his mind, devoid of any thought other than melancholically staring at the candle in front, the only entity within those four walls that showed any semblance of life and movement.
Alone. Perhaps for good. Marcus is gone, and Pius resting his wounds. Other than them, none had any business with him, and neither would he wish to bother anyone with his pathetic sorrow that he couldn’t even drink away. There and then he moved for the first time in what had felt like an hour, raising his hand from the armrest and rubbing his tired eyes; the slight movement of his neck reminded him of what he had hanging, having forgotten it entirely. A tiny pendant-sized vial hanging from a piece of string around his neck, the ‘cure’ he had found better use as a mere detector if nothing else. Slowly, almost deafened by his own noises of movement under such oppressive silence, he tugged on the string and pulled the vial out of his clothes.
It shined. Slight surprise befell him, yet not enough to show in his eyes, remaining still towards it. For a few seconds he stared in wonder, before letting out an exhalation through his nose.
“Show yourself. I know you’re there.” He said. Tired, uninterested, voice announcing not a challenge, but almost a resignation.
After his call, the predictable footsteps answered. A pair of heels slowly marching forwards towards him from the shadows out of his peripheral view, calmly entering his field of view before halting. Without a word, the familiar figure stared at him cross-armed, red iris shining ever so slightly in the darkness. And yet, nothing occurred, not even an exchange of words to take place as they looked at one another, both with eyes and demeanors lacking any drive.
Her gaze then fell elsewhere momentarily, staring aside. Much to the inquisor’s wonder, she stepped off towards an end of the room, an end adorned with bookcases Lanius couldn’t pick the details of in such darkness. Upon reaching it, he heard the shuffling noises before she slid something out, to then approach him once more with it in her hands. Upon arriving, he saw it in full: a simple wooden box, engraved and adorned despite its short height and small size. A chess set. The demon and the inquisitor stared at each other once more, demon hearing not a ‘yes’, yet not a ‘no’ either, bringing her to gently leave it on the table and sit on the chair opposite to him. Opening the box left the board and the pieces to be seen, a board she took and laid on the table by the candle before one by one taking the black pieces and arranging them on top. With a sigh to himself, the inquisitor followed suit, taking the whites and doing the same.
“Are you here just to taunt me?” He asked, not interrupting his task. In response, she shook her head.
“These lonely nights are the bane of anyone’s spirit. You’re going through heavy times, and I’d rather see you in company than alone on your own.”
“How do I know those aren’t just kind words to get me used to you…?”
Finishing on her side, she took a deep breath before sinking back on her chair.
“I would call you paranoid…” she said, blinking before gazing aside for a moment, “but I know demons who would be into that manner of deception, building trust before shattering it entirely. I suppose the saddest thought is that your paranoia is completely justified. Naive demons would’ve come here to attempt proving you wrong in your views, but I know you’re right, and that it’s just a matter of us being on different sides. It’s why it’s… close to unsolvable.”
Within the pause that ensued, Lanius saw all pieces in place. Whites go first, and so he extended his arm, sliding a pawn forward.
“Maybe that’s why you caught my interest.” She added, leaning forward once more and mirroring his decision, moving the opposite pawn ahead. “From the moment I saw you, I knew you were not the type to give up.”
“What’s your goal, then? If you wanted to take me by force, you had more than enough opportunities to do so already. Only few can stand against a demon.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I don’t have a goal for you in specific. If you joined me, would it not be the opposite of what I admire you for? Giving up like that…”
Blinking skeptical, he kept his words to himself in the ensuing silence. Before long, he extended his arm forward again and moved another piece, with her following suit thereafter, with only the noise of chess pieces sliding against the board to fill the room.
“I still don’t know your name.”
“Madeleine… I remember what you told me back then, if I’d rather extend this siege to an excruciating extent for everyone involved, and yet here you are forcing this lonely human to see his brother’s kingdom slowly fall to outsiders.”
“By pure virtue of our actions, some suffering is inevitable.” She said, moving a pawn and taking out the first piece of the game, leaving his pawn beside the board. “You would know this better than anyone. You can’t please everyone, and because of that, you can’t prevent everyone’s suffering. You were… an unfortunate victim of the latter. The alternative was leaving the kingdom alone, and we could not do that.”
“You expect me to believe all you want is our happiness?”
“Is it not why we’re here only speaking our minds, instead of fighting? There are enough demons outside the walls to assault and take over this city within a day, to force it upon everyone without regard to their feelings on the matter, without even bothering to grant them the knowledge of what will happen. We could’ve even poisoned the wells. Because of the reasons for us being here, I’ve decided not to, and instead spread the knowledge and grant those within these walls the choice. All of those who had received it, had done so by choice. The same choice I know you’d reject, and thus I left you be.”
“Pius was not given the choice.”
“An exception, not the norm. Same way if things were turned around and you sieged a city, you’d seek to get rid of a man who’d do harm to your men, even if you respected him wholeheartedly and wished no harm to reach him. Although, the demon I sent turned out to be too… merciful and patient, and things got out of hand. Before I got here she has spoken to me, wavering, fearful, thinking that what you ended up seeing had left you believing she was trying to ki–“
“I know. Pius gave me the report of what happened, after recovering just enough to talk.”
A faint smile blossomed on her, relief undeniable.
“Why would that demon care that much about what I think…?” He added.
“Because you’re the closest person to Pius, in these circumstances. Remind yourself that we don’t hate your side; all the contrary, rather.”
‘Not enough to leave us alone’, he’d have said. Just as his mouth opened to mutter those words, he decided to keep them to himself.
More and more pieces had begun falling. Like an army on both sides once maneuvering to each other, the equivalent of bloody combat had begun. As hectic as it was, however, still only the pieces sliding against the board served as ambient noise in the otherwise deafeningly silent room.
“What about the knight-sergeant?”
“His choice entirely. The demon I sent for him only talked. His loyalty to those he swore to protect are as strong as they ever were.”
“Does he believe he’s protecting the people?”
“He’d ask you the same. The factor that led him to a path differing from yours is what lied in his heart before we even arrived. We did nothing but cause a situation where it was brought to light. As he is right now, so he was long ago.”
Knight. With her piece, she removed one of his knights from the game, leaving him to stare as she left it beside the board. Looking back to the pieces still in play, he saw the other knight dangerously close to being removed in the same fashion, just a move away from being cornered by the opposing knight and queen.
“What about King Alphonso?” He asked, making his next move. “Have you waited for his death to start this mess?”
“I have, though probably for reasons different than those you’d imagine.”
“Any sensible man would jump to the conclusion we waited so as to exploit a power vacuum of a king’s passing. You’re no different, correct?”
“And there was no power vacuum at all. The king’s illness leaving him bedridden left the others used to the idea of his passing and a change in leadership, and the knight-sergeant took over the reins exceptionally well, avoiding the power vacuum. Later on you arrived, securing another Aurelius in power at least unofficially, an Aurelius you’ll remember was allowed through the siege. The capital would be as stable as it ever was.”
“Then what was your reasoning?”
With a sigh, she leaned back and sunk into her chair, gazing at how the board remained with pieces scattered everywhere in chaos amidst combat, contrary to the neatly organized start. As if taking a break, she took a few seconds to remain silent.
“Alphonso had lived a good, if short, life. He didn’t have children, but he had a loving wife, one that passed away before him to the same illness. Perhaps it was his melancholy that weakened him enough to catch it, but those are things that occurred before we arrived. We had the choice of intervening earlier, but that only left us wondering whether it was morally right to do so; would we want that king to spend his last days seeing his beautiful city under siege, just like you do? Would we want to forcibly infuse him with demonic energy, bringing him back to health only to rob him of the chance for him to reunite with his loving wife that he must’ve so dearly wished to see again? We pondered this over and over, granted the luxury of our goals not having a time limit, and so we decided: Let Alphonso be reunited with his wife, and spare him the sight of his proud nation under siege in his last days. We came here to stop the suffering, not spread it, and I’d not forgive myself in a thousand years if I was the cause for a man’s last moments to be nothing but despair.”
Lanius allowed the silence to creep back in, left with no words in his mind to add. The two stared at the board, almost as if unable to stare at one another in the eyes, until Madeleine leaned forward once more and made her next move. In return, Lanius made his, continuing the game.
“You give the freedom of choice great importance.” He said. “What about those who decide they don’t want to be converted?”
“They’re free to say no.”
“Eventually there’ll be pressure. The same way there are monsters out there who’ll force it, some converted people might force it upon the others. Even if not by violence, the power of majority and peer pressure can’t be underestimated. Had I not exiled the first wave, the few of us free of demonic energy would barely be twenty percent of the city. I can’t exile anyone anymore, the numbers to enforce it should they say ‘no’ no longer exist. We’re trapped here with them, and if we made a break for it, your demons outside would greet us.”
“They’ll be free to leave. The same way you feared a majority using peer pressure to convert others, we feared a majority rejecting us without giving it a mere thought.”
“Are you asking for those who have lived here their whole lives to leave that easily?”
“The exiled would ask you the same thing. It’s one or the other, Lanius. There’s no way to avoid it.”
“Then what about the siege? You speak of them leaving, when they were not granted the choice to do so in the first place.”
“Had word gotten out, a great militia throughout the nation would’ve been mustered to drive us out, possibly led by you had you been able to escape this place. We needed to keep the capital isolated while we did our task, and even if we could drive away the army that’d inevitably arrive, finding ourselves in combat would’ve been considered a failure on our part for allowing it to reach such point. Now, however, enough time has passed, and we have practically finished with the capital.”
“So even if I got out and mustered an army–“
“It’s far too late. Too centralized was this nation to stand without its capital, its primary trade hub, the beating heart all roads connect to. Once the siege is over and people start moving in and out, the demonic energy will follow them. With how inevitable it will be, the luxury of letting those who don’t want to be converted be can be afforded. I’d rather have them accept it of their own accord, and for that I must not force it. Perhaps they’ll return in due time, but it’s not my place to dwell on it. I have others I should care about.”
After a piece taken out, more remained beside the board than those still standing. Little by little the numbers of those in play diminished, leaving it desolated as time went on. At that point, the very last pawn in play on either side fell. Still, at such point subtle hints of an advantage to one player slowly became apparent. Lanius had narrowed his eyes at the board, movements turning slower as he pondered each move thoroughly, seeing the signs that only kept on appearing. On the other side of the table, however, the demon remained nonchalantly staring, calm, collected, entertained as if.
Move. White rook lost. Move. Move. Last white bishop lost. Losses he had already predicted and took, and yet in his eyes the general path the game had been taking didn’t change. A move to finish the game drew closer and closer as much as he attempted to think otherwise. Within short notice, just a handful of pieces remained on the table, with only the knight, queen, and king remaining standing. And yet, on the demon’s next move, the queen was lost, leaving only the last knight and the king on his side.
The point of no return had arrived. Quietly, he spent a few moments thinking over and over, imagining any possible moves that would avoid the game ending within three or less turns, and yet he could not think of anything. The king had been cornered. Knowing the inevitable, Lanius made his next move knowing precisely what it’d cause, and the demon’s next movement turned his prediction true. Then the next, both moving their pieces, until the final turn which decided it all.
“Checkmate, huh…” Said the demon.
As Lanius stared at the board, he still found it hard to swallow. Only his knight and his king had reached the very end of the match, with the demon so too having a knight of her own.
He had won.
“Why did you let me win?” He asked.
But rather than an answer, the demon let out a quiet laugh to herself as she closed her eyes and lowered her head. Without a word of departure, in the next blink of his eyes, she had disappeared. The silence reigned anew, only his breathing staving off the void surrounding him on all sides as he stared into the now empty chair ahead, till his eyes fell once more upon the board.
Easy steps devoid of will led the way into peculiar outskirts, steps belonging to Lanius himself. His eyes almost fell unfocused, walking aimlessly without goal, without drive. Though he glanced at those he saw on the street, those who locked eyes with him did so with fear and skepticism, staring from a safe distance if not leaving his presence altogether, none with a smile to throw his way. With good reason they behaved in such manner, even for him: Afflicted territory; all of them were tainted, and an inquisitor looking at them would mean anything but good in a great many cases.
“Inquisitor.” Spoke out a familiar voice, halting him in his tracks. When Lanius turned his head towards the source, he found behind him Marcus standing with hand over his sheathed sword’s handle. “Why are you here?”
“Not to cause any harm, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
A pause ensued, allowing Marcus and Lanius to stare at each other in the eyes. Thought stern and suspicious, with clear and focused eyes narrowed, Marcus remained in clear contrast to Lanius’ tired eyes.
“What for, then?” Asked Marcus.
“I wanted to see how things are going here. That’s all.”
It took Marcus a moment before he sighed to himself and let go of the handle. “You’ll get a warmer reception if they see you with me.” He said, to then march up and pass beside him, prompting the inquisitor to follow by his side.
“You were the one relocating them. Have they grown used to you already?”
“I’m still their Knight-Sergeant. I’ve done my duty even till now.”
“I thought you’d have dropped that title, after what happened.”
“It’s not about the title anymore, it’s about what I must do for the others.”
Towards the same direction Marcus led Lanius, marching along silently without a noise to be heard from them other than their footsteps. True to Marcus’ words, no longer did bystanders step away from sight, but rather just curiously stared at the two marching beside one another, who had now turned opposite in views.
Once at the middle of the street, Marcus veered off towards the sidewalk, aiming at a building in particular. Exposed interior, like an outdoor area merely roofed, with a gigantic pot already giving hints of steam along with the smoke of the wood burning underneath. As they approached, past the corner of the building beside it came to view a man sitting on a chair, sunken with his head lying back, sleeping without a care in the world. Other than him, however, none other were present.
Halting for a second, Lanius and Marcus stared at the man. A light chuckle then escaped Marcus, before bringing his finger to his mouth in sign of silence and stepping forward towards him.
“Oi.” Called Marcus, patting him in the cheek repeatedly.
“Huh- Wha…” Mumbled the man, startled awake and barely able to open his eyes before deciding to rub them thoroughly, hunching forward from his slumber. “Marcus? That you?” He asked, to then lower his hand and open his eyes at him. Before he could ask anything, however, he turned his head at the other man in his presence, Lanius, seeing him in his inquisitorial clothing that no man could mistake. Within an instant his eyes shot wide open and a scream escaped his mouth, reacting violently enough to almost jump back and tragically lean too far back, sending him to the ground with his chair. As Marcus covered his laughter with his hand, the man whimpered out loud as he jumped back to his feet and scurried away.
“Come back!” Called Marcus, not even bothering to hide his playful tone and snickering. “He won’t do a thing!”
But much as Marcus grinned childishly, the inquisitor’s face only showed a hint of further sorrow and concern. The man then popped his head from behind a pile of logs stored in one corner, grimace showing terror and dread yet so too confusion and wonder, before he slowly stepped out and approached the two.
“Having those I once swore to protect run away in terror from me…” Mumbled the inquisitor, low enough only for Marcus to hear.
“What’s the inquisitor doing here?” Asked the man.
“Visiting. He won’t do a thing, promise.”
Though fearful for good reason, he soon arrived back to his chair and sat down, glancing at the inquisitor for a few seconds.
“You’re here awfully early though, Marcus.” He then said.
“I know. Figured I see how things are going and if you need any last minute things.”
“Ah, the concern’s touching, but we’re good so far. If you’re sticking around till things are done, can I interest you in a drink? Maybe for the inquisitor too–“
“What did I tell you couple weeks ago…?” Asked Marcus, crossing his arms and tilting his head in disappointment. The man stared confused for a second, before lowering his head in defeat.
“Right, ‘don’t give anything to the guys on the other side’…” He sighed.
The answer sparked the inquisitor’s curiosity. Half due to its implied hostility on the surface, yet so too half as to what Marcus had in mind even back then. As Marcus glanced at him, he caught sight of his troubled expression, leading him to know of the question he had yet to even ask.
“Our stuff has demonic energy in it, even if little traces.” Answered Marcus. “I don’t want it reaching those who don’t want it, so I told the others not to share anything past the division.”
“How many are these ‘others’?”
“Our whole side.”
“They listen to you that thoroughly?”
Marcus merely shrugged. “I’ve done my duty well enough that they see me fit for a leader, I suppose. Guess I proved myself in the time after Alphonso’s passing till you arrived, before this mess truly began.”
“You care about the other side more than I’d have imagined, considering your beliefs on the matter.”
“My loyalty lies with the people, and that includes those on the other side. It includes you too, inquisitor, which is why I remained on my side, and why we’re here talking like old friends.”
Footsteps caught their attention, and upon turning to the other end of the street the three found three more who arrived. Two of Marcus’ men in plain clothes, and a little girl, all carrying their own bags full of Lord knew what, even a miniature one for the girl.
“Uncle, we’re back!” Cheered the girl, strutting forward in speed to then arrive to the man standing and smiling at her arrival. With a pat on her head as greeting, the man quickly relieved her of the bag’s weight, leaving her free to step back.
“We brought all we could.” One of those who arrived said, both dropping their bags with a heavy thud next to themselves. “There were a few things we couldn’t find, and we kinda forgot what they were on the trip back. You’ll have to check. Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” he replied, “this way.”
The two men and the girl then followed the first to a corner with their bags, leaving them on the tables. As they all focused on their own things, the inquisitor and the knight-sergeant had remained at a distance, merely watching.
“What are they gonna do?” Asked Lanius.
“We’re getting a few families together to cook something nice. In a couple hours this street will be covered with chairs and tables from end to end.”
It turned too clear and simple an answer, leaving him without words to add, condemning him to the monotony of the street noises. Nothing in his mind, nor anything of interest occurring, leaving him with a void sensation in his heart he knew not the word for.
That turned out to be the word. Boredom. As surprising as it was, his stroll though afflicted territory resulted just as boring and mundane as any other stroll. Same people, same faces, just different sides, just like how the knight-sergeant still seemed the exact same regardless.
“Heyo, I got a whole lot o–” Exclaimed a woman from behind them, only to interrupt herself along with her steps.
Curious, Marcus and Lanius turned about, just for Lanius to lock eyes with the one who arrived. Unnatural eye color, skin color, and too many appendages. A demon, holding a crate of that which he cared not to figure out, both staring expressionless at one another in absolute dead silence. Half-fearful yet wondering how it’d result, Marcus exchanged glances from the demon to Lanius and back.
“Is he…” Awkwardly asked the demon to Marcus.
Taking a deep breath, Lanius stepped off. “It was only a visit.” He said, passing the demon by, letting her and Marcus stare as he departed back the way he came from.
A drop of ink building up on the quill fell, splattering against the paper. In the late hours of the night, the inquisitor found himself without words in mind to write his letter, staring blankly at the paper now filthied. Threatening another drop, he brought the quill back to the ink bottle beside him, without a word to say.
His thoughts lied elsewhere. His mind, taken over by the images of the trip he had made yesterday, the boring, mundane stroll. He had found himself almost feeling at home, not even acknowledging the demonic energy that had started it all, even the demon he had seen. Acceptance, as if. For all the years he had told himself he’d fight against it with tooth and nail, he had found himself slowly growing used to seeing it as near-irrelevant, a meaningless thing he had put so much meaning against.
Was it due to its peaceful advance? Because he didn’t see any negative chance? If the people were violently snatched away, he’d find himself without doubt in his mind nor in his heart, leading the effort to combat it without rest. And yet, here he was. The snatchings of the first day that left him with great motivation to drive them off has disappeared, now fighting against people who’d sooner care about other things. Had it been a violent takeover, his mind would not be fighting itself on what it meant to be loyal.
But upon the very first day he had ascended to the rank of full-fledged inquisitor, he swore an oath. Here, it was being tested. His mind refused to think of anything else: Would he break it? Would he break the promise he made to his brother, to The Order, to himself? To let things be, to give up, or even to turn a blind eye to all that’s occurring. Even inaction was anything but, as doing nothing when he could be at the very least trying still was a sin, regardless of what side anyone found themselves in.
Loyalty. A word spoken of lightly in most conversations, heavily weighing his heart each passing second. Loyalty before all. Through hardships, through pain, through impossible odds and tempations irresistible. Sacrifice, duty, honor, that’s all that was asked of him. The simplest, and yet, the hardest of all tasks.
A funny thought entered his mind. How would he be remembered in the coming days, when the siege is inevitably over? As a dumb arrogant fool, stubbornly sticking to the old ways just like how a kid would see an decrepit old man shouting at him to get off his lawn? He was barely even in his early thirties, leaving the thought to hit him hardest.
Someone knocked on the door, snapping him back to reality.
“Come in.” He answered.
The door creaked open, and behind it appeared a heavily scarred man taking a step in, hand of equal scarring holding the handle.
“Inquisitor,” greeted Pius, “I’ve counted how many of us are left, and… we’re just a couple hundred without the taint of demonic energy. I fear we’re living purely on the whim of the afflicted and the demons, and the others may think the same way with how fearful they’re becoming. If you have a plan, I can only suggest to carry it out quick. This is the best it’s gonna get for us.”
No response from Lanius, only a defeated sigh to himself before turning back to the paper.
“If what you’re writing is important, I can wait outside. We’d save time if I deliver it, since it’s not like there’s many other places it can go to.”
“It’s not.” He answered. “It’s just… trivial details to the quartermast–“
“…Inquisitor.” He interrupted, tone low as if through heartbreak. “The quartermaster has disappeared an hour ago. Chances are he’s with the afflicted now.”
Lanius narrowed his eyes, left wordless. “I understand.” He said, to then say no more.
Quietly staring from the door, Pius spent a few moments before concluding him finished. Unable to say a thing, not even a mere farewell in the depressing atmosphere choking them both, he quietly closed the door shut behind him, leaving him to his own devices.
Lanius then closed his eyes, emptying his mind of all thoughts and meditating for a few seconds. Upon opening them again, he extended his hand and took the quill, to then begin writing.
‘Pius Rosarius. You must lead all of those left out of the capital.’ He began writing.
An hour had barely passed, and yet the night had grown so colder already. It had required of him to take a scarf upon departure, stepping out into the cold till he arrived to the now abandoned plaza which now lied on the uninhabited strip dividing afflicted and clean territories. Past his own scarf he could see the steam of his breath, dissipating into the darkness only his lantern held back against. The winter months had been settling further, leaving the plaza as a damp, cold place where the trees had long lost their leaves.
Winter. Once he thought it dumb for the demons to start the siege back then, back when there was no harvesting to be done for months on end, perhaps the worst time for a siege at all. Now he saw it for what it really was, a mercy.
As his footsteps halted, he placed the lantern on the ground. Dead center of the plaza he arrived, without a soul to be seen in all directions, just the howling of the wind to move the blades of grass left to grow since time ago. Still, as he pulled out the little vial-pendant he had, he found a giveaway that he was not alone; true to his earlier prediction, having set out to find someone in particular rather than a lonely stroll.
Patient, he waited, refusing to call out her name. Almost wondering when she’d show up to him instead of merely watching, surely influenced by her no doubt seeing him notice the glinting vial, he kept to himself. With each breath his steam escaped in pattern, predictable like like ticking noises of an old clock. Still, his mind had begun wandering, as did his gaze falling downwards. The cold, damp grass hugged against his feet. Messy. Overgrown. Signs of maintainance suffering a kick down the list of priorities in the middle of a siege, though so too of any signs of activity. The plaza truly had been abandoned for long, as not even subtle hints of treaded paths existed.
Upon raising his eyes again, he found the one he looked for. Just a few meters ahead, Madeleine rested leaning against a tree cross-armed.
“You’ll fall ill in this weather.” She greeted. “We may have differing reasons, but we can agree that it’d be best if I didn’t have to play nurse for a bedridden Lanius.”
No answer escaped his mouth, though his body remaining standing in place served as an answer enough to Madeleine. He soon moved his arms and held onto his sword unsheathing it as Madeleine watched, till it lied in full display for her stern-looking eyes.
“You know as well as I that this’ll end badly for you.” She said.
“Then go back. I don’t want to fight.”
“Nor do I.”
Sighing through her nose, she closed her eyes and shook her head in defeat.
“I feared this day would come.” She said, stepping forward to extend her arms. Staring high with focus in her eyes, the air grew thicker as the grass began dancing like a whirlwind surrounding Madeleine. Pitch black dust and smoke began appearing over her arms in the air, moving about, twirling and turning, growing denser as seconds passed till it turned fully opaque. Then, with a gust of wind blowing it all away, a longsword materialized and fell onto her arms, a longsword she then firmly grasped.
But as much as they stared at one another, they found no flame in the other’s eyes. No drive. No bloodlust. Just a soothing calm, icy and distant. An unwillingness from both, despite their bodies readying for it.
“Do you really want to do this?” She asked, tone reflecting her look.
“Duty doesn’t care for what one’s desires are. It’s not my place to decide.”
“Do you believe yourself to be out of choices?”
“As we all are. The honorable man is always left choiceless. A king has as much freedom as a serf, both trusted by the others to carry out their task to their best first and foremost. I may have been second to Alphonso alone in these lands, and perhaps I am now second to none, but still a serf to my duty I am. What I desire… is irrelevant.”
“Even now, when you know there’s no use in continuing?”
“We are all cogs in the machine, and if the machine’s bleeding to death… then it’s our sacred duty to keep it running as best as we can, till its very last breath.”
Silent in pause, her gaze fell downwards momentarily.
“Let’s meet on the other side, in the coming days.” She said, smiling faintly. “As anything but enemies.”
“When my duty is over, we might. But not before.”
With both taking stance against each other, they spent a few seconds in grim silence and immobility, letting only the breeze to fill in the void. Illuminated only by the lantern, they could see each other in the dimly lit night, soon for the inquisitor to take the first single step forward. The demon slowly followed suit, taking her own step forward like a game of chess, both taking their turns in advancing towards each other.
Within range, Lanius stepped forward with a swing of his longsword, prompting the demon to take a step back and parry the blow with her own sword. The calm had been disrupted with the contrast of blades clashing in the dead night, though soon to return in full.
Madeleine stepped forward readying a swing, forcing Lanius to step back only to discover it a mere feint. A true swing from her, however, forced him back while parrying it, only for her to bring the blade around once more against him, an act he blocked before the two took a step back.
“You’re holding back.” He said.
“You’re fighting a demon, Lanius. I hope you understand what the situation would be like if I didn’t.”
“How does it feel?”
“To have the luxury. The choice. You could kill me this very instant, or you could let me be. By your own free will you’re deciding, and I’m at your whims.”
“It’s not my choice.”
“I’ve made it my duty to end what suffering there is. If there is a chance to avoid it for those under my banner along with those who I wish to aid, it’s not my choice to do so, but my duty. You are correct that I could kill you, or more realistically just defeat you and have my way, but then I’d betraying what I stand for. I may not be happy, but I have not given up on it, and as much as I want to be happy, so do I want others to share a smile. Deep down, I know we’re the same in this regard.”
“You’re strong. So is your side. Perhaps it’s because of it that you can fight for your happiness and that of others. I envy you. I envy that sadistic choices don’t present themselves on you, no option granting you happiness, but rather the contrary for a mere chance of keeping the last bits of one’s honor, because everything else is gone.”
“You can be happy too. It doesn’t have to end with your death.”
“Madeleine, an inquisitor’s life is to be unhappy, and it’ll only end when I die. Men like me are trusted by The Order to keep looking for answers in a hopeless situation, not giving up, even if it turns us into miserable hollow men. We’re tasked with making choices that could break the greatest of men, because there just isn’t anyone else to call upon. We’re supposed to make the decisions that will end with us hated, with others wanting our deaths, to break our own backs without even expecting a simple ‘thanks’, not because we’d want to, but because we need to. The best we can hope for is– …No. There isn’t anything to hope for. We just… carry out our duty to the bitter end.”
For those few seconds, none said a word, nor moved a finger.
“Lanius…” She said, a tone soothing and reassuring.
“Don’t think of yourself so lowly. You’ve done great things, and you have a place in the heart of your people. All your effort has not gone unnoticed.”
“Do you remember the group you had exiled? I know you imagined yourself executing them. The option lingered in your mind. And yet, despite that, you still chose the option that avoided bloodshed. That was upon having no other resort, too, as before that you even put up a quarantine and kept it for as long as you could.”
“You’re only showing me how incompetent I was. An inquisitor getting merciful… That’s how cities are lost, nations are lost. The only reassuring thought is that Alphonso wasn’t alive to see what failure of an overglorified priest I had become.”
“Do you really believe it to be a failure? Even outside these walls I’ve kept hearing of you from them. They were surprised, knowing what all assumed their fate would be. Thankful. Wishing to repay the favor, in fact. They kept telling us to let them do as you said, as if they were… holding onto their duty. It didn’t benefit them, it didn’t benefit us, and yet they still all unanimously told us to not have the agreement broken. Maybe you have another metric for success, but I can assure you that it takes a great man to have those with most reasons to be against you… admire you.”
Much as he opened his mouth, no words could come out.
“Not only outside these walls.” She continued. “Within, too. Was the Knight-Sergeant not enough of a dead giveaway? Holding onto his duty for your sake, still holding onto what loyalty he had to you even if he had found himself on a different side. Even his entire side of the city, agreeing without issue, with not a single person to cross sides. You’ve accomplished wonders with what little this siege allowed you to, and it was all by your own merit. No matter Man or Monster, you have a place in everyone’s heart, and mine.”
Pursed lips. Erratic breathing. Lanius lowered his head, unwilling to let his eyes be seen.
“You’re only making it harder.” He said, voice already wavering.
Taking a step forward once more, he thrust, leaving the demon to parry it while taking a step aside. In kind she replied, swinging at him and forcing a block before he stepped back.
Grinding blades in parry and block.
Without a word, they left their blades to sing against one another in the dead of the night. The whirring noise of metal sliding against metal, solid hits of abrupt blocks, the howling as the edges cut through the wind, and their exhalation upon effort applied. Step forward, attack and defend, step back, and stare momentarily before continuing again, keeping their performance around the latern which just barely staved off the darkness threatening to engulf them.
Their breathing turning quicker signalled the passing time, once calm and collected and now erratic and violent, both exhaling puffs of steam illuminated by the lantern against the moonless night.
In their usual pause between combat, the two came to hear a noise. Calming their breaths into a clear silence, they found the noises to be footsteps, far away coming closer with each second. Both turned their heads to the source, unable to see much past what the lantern revealed, seeing nothing but the void till soon enough a silhouette came to be. The silhouette turned clearer, revealing the anatomy of a man, of a human, till he arrived to the reach of the lantern’s light and left itself be seen, light reflected off his metal. However, no surprise rested on his expression, but rather a stern glare.
“Marcus…?” Said the two.
“I figured those noises weren’t just in my head.” He answered.
“It’d be best if you don’t intervene.” Said Madeleine.
“I know the two of you enough to have an idea of out what’s going on. As long as neither of you do anything reckless, I’ll keep my distance.”
Their eyes, though once upon Marcus, slowly returned to each other’s. Their grip on their swords tightened, fingers fidgeting to return to their state in earlier combat, and upon the silence reigning once more, both took their steps forward.
Slash, thrust, hack. Parry, block, dodge. Perpetually a dance with one another, paused only to resume again without a word to be said. The steam in their mouths escaped with each effort to rise into the sky, and with each pause so too did it puff out second by second.
But as time passed, Madeleine grow to notice Lanius’ breathing had hastened too much. So too had it turned violent, loud enough to be heard past his scarf, interrupted by swallowing as a dead giveaway of how dry it was.
“Lanius.” She called, yet received no response. “It’s over. You have to rest. Pushing yourself will do you no good.”
Immobile, Lanius stared, but upon his first act, rather than let himself rest, he instead lunged forward. Easily enough she sidestepped it, exhaustion taking its toll enough to leave his movements as a predictable mess.
“You’re at your limit.” She continued. “There is always tomorrow.”
Gritting his teeth and tightening his grip, he took another step and slashed downward, dodged with equal ease as before. Another slash from side to side, and still she effortlessly stepped away, her expression growing annoyed.
“Are you listening?”
But no words she got from him, instead another weary attack.
“Lanius, enough!” She shouted, to let go of her sword and disappear, reappearing behind him and hugging him tight enough to make combat an impossibility. “Look at yours–“
Eyes wide open.
So too were Marcus.
Dead silent, the three. Immobile. As if time had stopped.
Lanius’ sword had pierced her belly.
So too had it pierced his own. A thrust into himself, piercing through and reaching her.
Her embrace lost strength. Past a few seconds, as if by weight alone, she stumbled back, sword sliding out before she stood still, lowering her eyes to her bloodied clothes and placing her palm upon the wound where blood slowly gathered.
Lanius stepped forward. Not deliberately. Tilting forward, all he could do to keep balance was stumble ahead, legs giving in ever so slowly. Another step, and another step, and there and then he caved in, dropping to his knees with sword still in him. In an instant Marcus rushed forward, yet remained still upon arriving, no clue as to what to do.
“Lanius…” She whispered, still wide-eyed, still shocked past any semblance of thinking. Yet, after blinking blankly in his direction, her voice returned to all its strength. “Lanius!” She shouted, rushing forward and dropping to her knees by the inquisitor, still with her palm on her wound. “Lanius, talk to me!”
And yet, he said nothing. Though she could see his eyes, her own vision slowly growing cloudy with tears threatening to escape, she saw him staring aimlessly into the void, eyes half-closed and tired, unreactive. Her eyes soon moved over to the sword wound, blood seeping through his clothes and touching the blades of grass, with his chest puffing out so slowly compared to just a minute ago.
“You will…” She said to herself, fighting back an aching throat, pursing her lips as her eyes wandered before furrowing her brows. “…You will not die.” She said in a firm tone, readying her palm for an infusion of demonic energy. “I will not let you die! Nobody will die as long as I’m here!”
“Leave him!” Cried out a voice from afar. Startled and petrified in place, Marcus and Madeleine slowly turned their heads to the source, only to hear a series of coughs leading a noisy approach.
Within the lantern’s reach, the two came to see a man approaching in heavy clothing, helping himself with a staff while his other hand covered his mouth from yet more coughs. Details visible at last, the two found his face heavily scarred, a magnitude that they felt could only be belong to one other person alone. Without a greeting from either party, the two sides stared at each other without a word to say for those few seconds, seconds which felt like an eternity.
“‘Leave him’…?” Asked Madeleine. “You want me to… leave him?”
But Pius said nothing. Rather, he stared on with his stern demeanor, never saying a ‘no’.
“You want me to leave him to die?” She continued.
“Do you want to take the very last thing he has?” Asked Pius.
The question seemed paradoxical, in her mind. Unable to process it, she turned her head to Lanius once more, lying on the ground with solemn peace, distant and detached from what transpired around him.
“You’ll be forcing him to live with an infusion of demonic energy. You’ll be stripping away the last thing he has, or any of us for that matter. That thing is our deaths.”
“Life has taken many things from us. Our happiness, our choices, our strength, our friends… For your side it may be more forgiving, but for us, there’s a saying. It’s said that the honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man, and yet here you may prove it wrong.”
“But why? Why would he want to die? I don’t understand…”
With a pause, Pius turned his head high to the sky. The branches of the dead trees loomed high into the moonless sky, illuminated only partly by the lantern to leave a dark outline against a pitch black void up high.
“I suppose it wasn’t his decision.” He said. Much as Madeleine and Marcus kept silent, he still could sense their confusion. “Each man has something he would die for. It’s not an easy decision, if it’s a decision at all. It’s giving in to fear, or losing your life. Lanius… chose the latter. For what, I’m sure you can imagine.”
“I can’t. I can’t imagine anything that’s worth dying for.”
“Is that so, Madeleine?” Said Pius, returning his eyes to her. “There are some things people would want. Some see the effort required in obtaining it, and decide not to do it. Others do it regardless. Sometimes, they grant that something so much importance, that they’re willing to spend their lives pursuing it. Some… are willing to die for it. It can be anything. It can be money, it can be power, and for Lanius, it was–“
“…Loyalty.” She whispered. “What is loyalty worth, if he put it over his own life?”
“Nothing.” He bluntly answered, gaining the wonder of both Madeleine and Marcus, who slowly turned their heads at him. After a second, Pius bashed his chest twice, leaving his fist over his heart. “Everything.” He added.
Returning her eyes to Lanius, she could say no more words. Even if her throat didn’t choke her, her mind could think of none. His breathing had ended, chest no longer moving, not puffing anymore with each inhalation, and though his eyes had remained opened, they blinked nevermore. Gritting her teeth and narrowing her eyes, she soon closed them as a tear snuck out and fell to the grass-covered ground, signalled with a sniff. She raised her hand and brought it to him, Marcus and Pius staring in sorrow, yet instead of infusing him with demonic energy, she gently closed his eyes and left him in so peaceful a state. Sniffing and sobbing followed, breathing turning erratic and uneven, intermittent, more tears coming out without ability nor care to fight them back, and so she lowered her head, as if unable to look at Lanius anymore.
But a drip of blood alerted Marcus. Not that of Lanius, but of Madeleine instead, still with her wound open and palms drenched.
“Madeleine, your wound.” He said. “It’s not healing.”
“I know.” She answered.
“We should find the others–” He attempted to say, stepping closer with an extended arm in order to help her up, but with a raised palm she stopped him.
At the exchange, Pius had stared intently. Unknowing what to add, Marcus remained condemned to silence, unknowing what to do, and unknowing what to ask.
“Why, Madeleine?” He then said.
“Lanius is dead.” She said, monotonous past her own aching throat altering her speech. “The Lanius I’ve known since he was a little boy…”
The words left both Marcus and Pius to frown in confusion.
“You knew each other?” Asked Pius.
“I knew him, but… he didn’t know me.”
“What happened, if I may ask?”
“I’ve had my eyes on this place for a long while now, back when Lanius was still a child. That he followed the path of an inquisitor while his brother was fated to be king only left me intrigued, and so I decided to keep an eye on him. Before I knew it, I had gotten so interested that… hearing of him brightened up my day, back then. Year after year, following news of how he progressed, hearing of his failures and successes, even hearing of him graduate as full inquisitor… I suppose I fell in love after so long of nothing but watching him. I’ve never felt anything similar for any other man in all my years. And yet, the hardest part was knowing that…”
Interrupting herself, she sniffed, to soon bring her hand to her eyes and rub the tears away.
“…That he didn’t even know my name. This siege, waiting till the time it’d hurt him the least, making sure none suffered, making sure not to force his hand with what other demons would’ve surely done to end it… Talking to him every now and then. Even playing mere chess with him felt as if it was the best day of my life, and yet… not even half a year after hearing him say my name, he’s dead. Because of me.”
Upon her words finished, her sobbing took over as bulwark against the dead silence, other than the howling wind of the night. Marcus and Pius could do nothing, other than stare, hoping that inactivity turned to be the best they could do in the situation.
Then, her weakness started to show. With the hand she rubbed her eyes with, she immediately moved it against the ground as support, giving away her faltering stregnth by the wound.
“Tell everyone not to hate the inquisitor. What happened here, tell them that it was by my choice alone. Tell them that I knew what I was getting myself into.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“Hm?” He asked.
“Tell me. What is love worth? Nothing?”
Silent, he only gazed at her before his eyes fell on Lanius.
“…Everything.” He whispered to himself.
“I asked him if we could meet on the other side. He said that we might, when his duty is over. Mine… Perhaps mine has only just started.”
With neither Marcus nor Pius having anything to add, Madeleine’s arm faltered, leaving her to fall to the ground completely. She slowly moved herself to Lanius, with a faint smile on her expression upon lying face to face with him, tears still falling down her cheek. With her unbloodied hand and her remaining strength, she dragged it over to his, gently grasping it and intertwining her fingers with his. A sob escaped her, a sob mixed in with an innocent chuckle, and as her mind weakened still, she gave in to the weight of her eyes and closed them.
With aching hearts Marcus and Pius witnessed Madeleine drifting off to sleep, smile never erased from her expression despite her breathing slowing down with each puff of her chest.
Slower breathing, weaker puffs of steam.
Until, it halted.
And yet, smiling and happy, Madeleine had remained.
“Long live the king!” Exclaimed a voice afar, before a chorus of a thousand voices shouted together in unison. From the castle’s balcony Marcus stood, receiving the crown from Clementine beside him who took a step back afterwards. And yet, though he waved for all below, he could not even force a smile.
The siege had ended. He had been crowned king by demons and humans alike. A happy day for all, yet one of sorrow for both him and Clementine, she who sported the same lack of joy.
Though all cheered happy at the end of the siege, Marcus knew at what cost. Though all cheered happy at the crowning of the king, Marcus could only think of the extinction of the ancient Aurelius line, now replaced by a Severus. So too Clementine felt the heartache, as despite now Queen beside Marcus, once it was her clear prediction that it would have been Madeleine and Lanius those who would have taken the reins of the nation. A task neither of the two asked for, and yet took upon with no others to do so.
At the same time, at the very gates of the city a caravan finished crossing, waved farewell with aching hearts and sorrowful eyes. A caravan Pius Rosarius led, who turned his head to look back at what once was his home, melancholy overtaking him before forcing himself to look forward again. Even as distance grew till the people looked like mere indistinguishable dots in the distance, Helen stood by the gate waving, standing tall despite a few bandages here and there.
The rooftop. As he sat on the border of the roof staring into nothing, the silence gave way for him to hear those steps so clearly approaching. He did nothing, allowing them to get closer till the one arrived, standing beside him for a few moments before joining him, sitting down next to him to stare at nothing with him. Without having to turn his head, he could already guess who it was.
Still he turned his head, if only as a silent greeting. Beside him, he found her: she who inhuman was.
In return she turned her head to him, both locking eyes with each other for those fateful seconds, Madeleine and Lanius. Though silent, though wordless, soon a smile grew on the two, and as they turned their heads forward again, Madeleine moved closer and leaned against him. In kind, Lanius moved his arm and embraced her tightly against him, both to watch the sunless sunset afar in the cloud-covered skies of the underworld.
If only in death did duty end, he found solace in his duty finally over.