Chapter 29 – Deal with a Demon

Thankfully, it seemed like the warehouse was empty of both people and wares, so even as some suspicion was thrown his way, Julius was left alone after the destruction of the building. Still, he made sure to lay low and not even go up on deck for the rest of the day. 

With no further incidents, the group finally managed to leave Hulthemia without a hitch. That being said, given that they now had to go cross-country to arrive at the Lightning Temple, it was going to take a while, even with their skyship. 

Really, Julius would have taken his students there first to save on time, considering it was practically right next to their home country, but Innominatum’s temple alway had some incredibly strong guardians, so it was always one left near the end of a hero’s journey.

Still, with time to spare, Julius decided it was time to have a certain talk with a demonic entity.

“My my, I didn’t expect you to be the one to call on me.” Smirking, Mo…Marrow loomed over Julius from her throne. “It’s not polite to keep someone waiting.”

“Neither is being a cryptic asshole who doesn’t bother explaining herself fully,” he snarked back. 

“Ooh~! Someone has some bite today~.” 

“Why didn’t you ever bother telling me about what you were the god of? As far as I knew, you were just someone who revelled in killing!” 

“Heh, who says I’m not? I am a god of war~.” 

“And also apparently a ‘protector’! I imagine that fact would get more people to listen to you if you led with it.” 

“It’s not my fault that you don’t listen. Back then, killing that vicious dragon was clouding your thoughts. Really, if not for your friends, Mordant would have swallowed you whole. And I might have told you more about myself, if you didn’t reject my power.” 

“…So you held a grudge?” 

“I’m a fucking Ouza, we can be as petty as we want,” She replied, “Besides, as I said, you just didn’t pay attention, child. Many a source could have told you of my nature. I myself have mentioned your desire to protect as drawing me.”

“I-” Wait. Julius actually paused and sat down on the blood red floor. He rubbed his skinless jaw, thinking. He actually had heard that before. Douglas-Oh for fuck’s sake, Douglas spelled it out to him back in Tramontava. The fucking ‘protective nature’ stuff in his lecture on the gods. So he had all the pieces but didn’t actually fit them together because- “I’m a fucking idiot.”

“You are, yes, but I would say your biggest issue, child, is that you are very stubborn. You were intent on seeing me as a monster and tempter, but I have always been your ally.”

“Yeah, sure…” He sighed. “…Can I ask you some stuff?”

“Of course, child.”

“…Okay. Uh, first question. What…drew you to me? First, I mean. I mean, how did you notice me out of everyone else?”

“Hm…I would say your battle with Tenvoc among the mountains.”

“Tenvoc?”

“The Dolori summoned by that Lovalde woman.” Oh. Ugh. That was…right after Kigalori killed Blake. That maniac Lovalde had ambushed all of them, trying to ‘clean up the mess’. He lost it back then. First time he really snapped.

“Right. So my rage drew you to me?”

“I would say it was more your desire to protect your younger sister. And, to a lesser degree, your somewhat disliked allies.” Yeah, he really wasn’t fond of Douglas back then. Though he liked Cyrus fine enough, right? He thought he did. “You see, the presence of a powerful archdevil of blood brought my attention towards the border, and there I saw you, wielding your sword with an unabated fury.

“Yeah, and then I still got smacked down by that blood demon. The only reason we survived was out of chance.”

“Chance then? Mere chance caused your howls of rage to draw the attention of a passing wanderer? Mere chance brought one of your greatest friends to meet with you?”

“…” Julius glared at her. “…Marrow, I’m tolerating you for now, but if you imply the only fucking reason I met Tisma was because of you, I’m cutting this off right now.”

“Ah, er…understood.” Marrow actually scratched her head a little awkwardly. “I wasn’t…That was more meant to be ambiguous or mysterious, not an actual admission. I was led to believe that’s something mentors do?”

“Yeah, no. So, second question, because this has been getting me curious, what is the Miser actually like?”

She immediately frowned. “I hope you’re not thinking of joining up with her-”

“Noooo, no. Cutting that off. No. I don’t need vengeance or anything. Avoiding all of that. I’ve just been hearing about her, so I’m curious. No needs for vengeance here.”

“Hm…Well, I wouldn’t say Mordant is contacted just for vengeance. As the god of debts, she often facilitates deals of many natures. Vengeance is an aspect of her, but not her whole, and she is certainly beloved by the avaricious for her drive to claim what is hers.”

“…Okay? That’s interesting and all, but I meant more what she’s actually like. Like, what’s her element?”

“‘Element?’”

“Well, yeah. I know you Ouza are a little weird with ‘concepts’ instead of elements, but you still have things for your magic, right? Like you have Blood, that ‘Plague’ lady has Disease, and…the third one…hassss…stuff?”

“…Drought does have stuff, yes, though hers is more in the vein of ‘consumption’ or ‘withering’ and such. ‘Thirst’, I think it’s commonly called. And I would say Rot’s ‘element’ is more…vermin, perhaps?”

“…How are vermin an element?”

“Well, there are various bug magics and I believe we are getting off topic. If we really must define Mordant…I suppose her element would be chains. Or ropes? Things to bind, certainly.”

“…” Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say- “She’s a bondage god?” Dammit.

Marrow actually blinked, then…a weird thing happened with her face. Like, there was some kind of…golden hue-Was she blushing?! 

“Moving on.” Collecting herself, Marrow took a breath. “I assume that you calling me means you’re ready to accept me again?” 

“…Not yet. Even if you’re not what I thought you were, I still don’t want to lose myself to that power.” 

“Hmph. You’ve become way too hesitant in your age. That’s a shame about you humans. Among the many other shames, that is.” 

Julius frowned. “It’s managed to keep me alive so far, along with those I care about.” 

“So it seems. But if you continue to hesitate, you won’t get anywhere. After all, my champion is far stronger than anything you’ve faced before. So even with that new sword of yours, powerful though it and you may be, you’ll only delay the inevitable. I’m certain you’ll give it a very good try though. You might even come close to victory.”

Huh. That was weirdly encouraging. “…It almost sounds like you don’t want Claire to win.”

“Ha! Nothing of the sort. But as a god of war I am a tad disappointed in her somewhat peaceful methods. She intends to sweep the board easily, with minimal sacrifice, so it’s to my enjoyment that she has to fight for her win.”

And there it was. “Even if you’re not like what I imagined, you’re still pretty twisted.” 

“All gods are, my child,” She replied with a smirk, “Regardless of how your gods may act, their views on mortals will always be different from your own. Whether they be pests who need to be controlled, or weak beings who need guidance in order to avoid killing one another, that is simply how all we true immortals view your mortal races.

“And whenever things don’t go our way, we are as irrational as any being. Look at your own elder gods, for many an example. Surodus goes missing, so they banish the god of dark. Tragedy occurs, and your cold god shuts herself off from everyone, even her own followers. Not to mention, that bitch Lucere seems to be trying to get as many zealot followers as she can amass.” 

“…I feel like I should be saying something in protest, but…hm.”

“Ah, you see? That’s because you have a proper, Ouzan mindset. You can recognize the irrationalities of your feckless deities.”

“Didn’t the Ancients get sealed away because they kept invading Estus one after the other?”

“…And then, of course, there’s your god of wealth, the eternally neutral coward who emphasizes ‘safety’ above stepping in to fight for others.” Okay, so she’s ignoring him now. “Really, it’s to their detriment that the Rakuli still retain their elders. They’ve failed to learn independence, instead clinging to the robes of those above them. Even those seeking freedom from familial shackles can only copy us.”

“So…the matrons?”

“Yes, of course. They completely copied us.” …Was she pouting? “We’re literally sisters, and they’re not, and yet those three decide they can just copy us! We’ve been doing the ‘three mothers’ thing for ages before them!”

“…I feel like I should argue that, but I don’t know anything about your lore…hm. Maybe I should ask Douglas?”

“Or you could just believe me, the benevolent god who has your best intentions at heart.”

Julius stared up at her. She smiled innocently. “…Thanks, but no thanks. See you around.”

“Oh, you’re going then? Because we could talk about more things like what-” The realm started fading out. “-yourintentionsaretowardsClaireandokaybye!”

Julius took a slow breath, feeling reality assert itself around him again, and then opened his eyes. And then flinched back at the pair of green eyes currently staring at him. “GAH!”

“AH! Ah, u-uh, s-sorry!” Sylsa backed up, waving her hands nervously. “Just, uh, I was…Why were you glowing? Was that a butcher thing? The Butcher, not a, not, that…O-One second. I just need to collect my thoughts…”

“Uh… sur-” 

“If you’re asking about Mother Marrow, then yes, the hapless fool was almost certainly talking to her then,” Leicester drawled from her cell.

“…”

“…Thanks?” Sylsa replied before the silence got too awkward.

“Well, yeah, she’s right. I was talking with her,” Julius admitted as he cocked an eyebrow at Sylsa. “Was there something you needed?” 

“Not really, sir. Mister Douglas is teaching everyone else about Gorokiva, and since I already know about that nation, I wanted to see if you wanted to talk. Then I saw you glowing while you were meditating. Not that I haven’t seen anything like that before! I have, I definitely have, but…for a moment, when I approached you, I felt…irritated.” 

“Ah. Shit. Sorry about that. Didn’t think it would affect anyone closeby.” 

“If you would have asked me, I could have told you that!” Leicester shouted.

“And if I had an idea about it I would have asked you,” he shot back. 

“Hmph.” 

“…Sure then,” Sylsa muttered in a surprisingly dry tone, “Anyways…I won’t ask about The Butcher because I’d rather not pry. But…um…conversation topics?” 

“Heh. Gonna be honest, you’re really not what I expected when Douglas told me he had an apprentice.”

“…Thank you?” 

“It’s definitely a compliment,” he reassured, “You should have seen what he was like when he was young.” 

“I really feel like I shouldn’t…And, well, he’s told me plenty about you, though I’m fairly sure it’s mostly exaggerated…Can you tell me why you never let him call you Jules? He complains about that a lot.” 

“He set me on fire and never apologized.” 

“…Wait, really?”

“Yup. Even if it was an accident he never bothered saying sorry.” 

“…Yes, that does sound like him.” Her ears drooped as she sighed heavily and collapsed onto a nearby hammock. “He’s a good teacher, certainly, though very eccentric…I have learned a great deal from him, but his antics can be exhausting.”

Julius chuckled and laid back too, staring at the ceiling with her. “Yeah, that’s Douglas. If he’s good for one thing, then it’s definitely learning something new. The guy won’t stop studying.” 

“That he doesn’t…Part of the reason I became his student was because of that.” 

“Hm?” 

“Ah, well, his studies brought him to my village, Faltyr. It was certainly an interesting first meeting, since most lone travelers that come to our village due so to seduce someone, so it was interesting seeing someone just ignore everyone in favor of asking to learn under our strongest mages.” 

“…Okay, that does sound a lot like Douglas, but also people just come to your village to fuck?”

“We’ve taken to robbing the unlucky suitors and leaving them out in fields,” she replied in what was probably the driest tone possible. 

“…” He actually sat up and looked over at her. She was smirking. “…Was that a joke?”

“Maybe. You’ll never know, and no one will believe you.”

“…” Julius slowly laid back down. “…So what’s a wood elf village like?”

“You’ve been to Chloraton, correct?”

“Yeah?”

“Think that, but with bigger trees, and less nudity.”

“…I’m starting to think you’re making fun of me.”

“I’m constantly surprised you can think at all,” Leicester called out.

“Nobody asked you.”

“I’m in the room, I’m involved in the conversation. My voice shall not be drowned ou-…”

“Hm?” Julius glanced over at her cell, then blinked at the gag over Leicester’s mouth as she glared furiously back at him. “…So, that conjuration stuff comes in handy a lot, huh?”

“It has its uses, yes,” Sylsa replied, clearly amused. 

“Heh.” He chuckled, then settled back into his hammock. The silence was kinda nice-And then Leicester started rattling her chains. Like a jerk.

After five minutes of nonstop rattling, Julius was feeling his temple throb in rhythm to it. When it neared ten, he immediately sat up and got out of his hammock, entirely unwilling to put up with the noise anymore. Why wasn’t Sylsa-

He stared at the elf, who had her eyes closed and an obvious set of earplugs in her pointed ears. And the rattling still continued…

Welp. Up on deck it was then.

And so he went. And it was damn bright out. He actually blinked a little as he stared out into the blue sky overhead. Well, partially overhead. The view was mostly blocked by the balloons, but…ah, whatever.

Douglas was over with that chalkboard again, gesturing to some map of the West Coast as he explained all the ins and outs of Gorokiva as a nation. The important factions, the many islands under the nation’s domain, its unique diarchical political structure, its tight connections to the Church of Light, its prosperous fishing and textile industries, and its…excellent noodle shops. Huh.

Well, that seemed to be well in hand, so Julius headed over to the railing instead and stared out at the countryside they were flying over. The sky was clear, aside from their ship, and he could see part of the reason why as some seagulls veered away from the skyship when it neared them. Probably some kind of magic thing there…

As for the view below, Julius leaned slightly to look down at the countryside. They’d passed over the Rosia-Lucene border some time ago, so he had an unobstructed view of what most people called the ‘Plains Kingdom’. Or ‘Plain Kingdom’. Or Queendom. It depended a lot on who was talking and who the current ruler was.

Point was, it was a lot of plainslands and savannas down there. Some hills and maybe the occasional tree, but mostly flat lands occasionally broken up by small, walled off towns and larger cities, though those tended to be more northward, or along the coast. Queenshill, the capital and where Julius’s blacksmith shop actually was, was more northward too, more towards the center of the nation. 

For a brief moment, he wondered how his apprentices there were doing. Hopefully nobody burned down his shop…again. Granted, that was a jilted noble who did that, but-

“Feelin’ homesick?” Glancing over as someone interrupted his thoughts, Julius found one of the crew members–a larger than average firedrake named Pash–approaching him as he smoked from a pipe out of the corner of his mouth. “You keep staring northward.”

“A bit. Mostly worried about my apprentices destroying my shop.” 

“…Yeah that’d be bad.” Leaning against the railing too, he gestured at his pipe. “You mind?” 

“No complaints from me.” 

“Thanks.” Bringing to the middle of his mouth, he took a puff of it and let the smoke pour out into the open air. “So, you from Queenshill?” 

“Yup, as are most of the kids.”

“Yep, got that much.”

Oh. Right, they would’ve talked to him a few times… “Right. So…how much do you know?”

“Hmm…Dro lives in Queenshill, near the outskirts, and his parents are tanners. Got bullied as a kid cause the stuff they use for the work smells rank and clung to his clothes, and he met Orc-kicker when she cracked the lead bully’s jawbone in half.”

Julius snorted and immediately grinned. “Yeah, I’ve heard that story plenty of times. Did they tell you how they met me?”

“Hm?”

His grin widened as he noticed Adrien abruptly straighten out of the corner of his eye. Kid had a good sense of when someone was talking about him, but it wouldn’t save him now. “So, from what I know, those two brats wound up inseparable all through school. Good friends, all that. So Sue there was around when Adrien met Sergio there for the first time, when they were all about twelve to thirteen. Sergio is the son of Adrien’s dad’s trade partner, the merchant who buys and sells their goods.”

“Right.”

“So, they meet this bored kid from a social class a step higher than theirs, and they try to find common ground. Sergio there continues to be bored with whatever games they come up with, so Sue tries poking at him and he starts sniping back while Adrien plays mediator.”

Pash raised a scaly eyebrow. “Dro played mediator?”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t think it nowadays, but he was a more nervous kid back then. Still had that drive to be great though, and loved the stories of old heroes, so he tried to turn the subject that way. And then Sergio brought up how there was an ‘old hero’ living in town.” And now Adrien was glancing back at him and trying to nudge Sue with his elbow.

“Ahh. So what, they came by to say hi?”

“Nah, they tried to steal my sword.”

Pash blinked as Sue glanced back, a little frown on her face. “You’re kiddin’.”

“Nope!” Julius deliberately grinned wider, letting them see. “So these little geniuses go all the way to the rich part of town, break in through the back door to the forge in the middle of the day, and try getting into the main shop before they realize none of them can actually pick locks.

“Not that that deterred them. No, these three decide the smart idea then is to grab boxes from my forge, full of steel, copper, all kinds of metals, and tried to stack them so they could get into my upstairs windows. Again, in bright daylight.”

Pash took the pipe from his mouth, a disbelieving chuckle slipping out. “And no one caught them?”

“Nope. They were lucky enough to pick a time where no one was in the back alley, and they actually did manage to get the boxes up high enough to reach. It helped that Sue was ridiculously strong, even back then. Of course, then it turned out the window was locked, and Sergio had a brilliant idea for how to get it open.”

Pash’s lips twitched as a dawning look of horror spread across Sue’s face, drawing Sergio’s attention. “Alright, don’t keep me in suspense. What’d he do?”

“Threw an ingot straight through the window.”

Pash let out a bark of laughter as Adrien and Sue immediately got up and Sergio quickly figured out what was going on.

“Ah, but you don’t know the best part. I, of course, came right out to figure out who was smashing my windows, yelling as loud as possible, and apparently I scared the hell out of all three of them, considering I found three crying twelv-” And then he turned, caught his very first two students by their faces as they tried to tackle him and casually slammed both of them into the deck, before standing and grinning back at Pash.

“Suffice to say, they haven’t matured much sense then.”

And then a rock bounced off his head. “YEAH, BUT I LEARNED TO THROW BETTER, ASSHOLE!”

…Why was he carrying a rock? “Why were you carrying a rock?!”

“BECAUSE I KNEW I’D NEED IT!”

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