Chapter 39 – New Plans

Julius woke with a start, his dreamless sleep cutting out as he jolted upward. The blanket draped over him dropped off his chest and he blinked, trying to look around the now dim cave. Which…huh. Seona had never set a light up, but he was seeing fine yesterday…Weird.

Speaking of, the ‘dullahan’ was sleeping a few feet away on an actual cot. She might’ve been weird, but she was definitely well-prepared. And his sword was still at his side, so, thankfully, she hadn’t robbed him in his sleep.

…Actually. Wait. Julius brought his sword up and stared at it. How the hell was it even with him right now? He’d left it in Divica–and gods, the mere thought of that place was pissing him off–but now it was here. 

Hm. According to Seona, it-they(?) were apparently sapient and that apparently meant they could appear at his side? Somehow? Sapient weapons were a thing, sure, Iginia alone had plenty of legends about it, but…He’d said something about that before, but it wasn’t serious. He didn’t think? Where the hell did he even say it? 

Fuck, he was way too exhausted for this shit, but… “…Hi?” 

“…M.” Jolting, Julius nearly dropped his sword at the dissonant voice sounding out in his head. 

He stared at his sword, like its–their??–colorful blade could tell him something. “…Was that you?” 

“…” 

“…” Julius shook his head, sighed, and scratched the back of his head with his free hand. Maybe he was just too tired…He set his sword down in his lap, then sat up straight, his hands clasped together in mimicry of a prayer.

Time to ask for help from the only person he could. 

“Hm? Did you bring someone with you?” And before he could even open his eyes, he heard a question from the familiar voice of the bloody goddess. 

“Huh?” And then he felt the weight on his lap. Opening his eyes and looking down, Julius found a small, glowing lump in his lap. It felt strangely solid, but it radiated energy and seemed to flash several colors. Gold, mostly, but violet and red were mixed in with it…

“Strange,” the Butcher commented from her throne. She was actually leaning forward to stare at it, two of her eyebrows raised in curious confusion. “Are you growing a soul?” 

“What? No, I don’t even know how to do that. Look, I just need your help.”

“Oh?” She leaned back, a smirk playing about her lips as she crossed one huge leg over the other. “Aren’t you greedy. Not even a day has past since you accepted my po-”

“I’m in Maleficaba.” 

And smug immediately melted into confusion. “…Excuse me?”

“Got exiled. Angel dropped me near a volcano. And now I’m in a cave with a dulla-whatever,” he explained in the flattest tone possible.

“…Excuse me?” 

“I need help!” he finally admitted, though he was careful not to move too much. He didn’t know what was in his lap, but he didn’t want to drop it or anything…

“And what do you expect me to do?”

“Don’t you have like…Followers or cultists or something that can help me?” 

“I mean yes, I do, but my followers don’t live in Maleficaba.” She paused, frowning. “Well no, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s less that I don’t have followers in that region and more that there aren’t any I’m in direct contact with. They tend to be unpleasant, you see.”

Julius was a little concerned that there were people out there the actual god of war considered unpleasant, but that didn’t exactly help his situation. “And Claire?” 

“Oh, right. Then yes, she can probably send someone to…wherever you are in Maleficaba.”

“…I have no idea either.” 

“Hm. Why do you need help anyway?”

“Do you think I want to be in Maleficaba? I was dropped here by an asshole of an angel and I went berserk for a while, so now I’m exhausted and angry and it’s not like I can suddenly jumped into the heavens and fight the gods, probably can’t ever do that because that’s fucking ridiculous and I’d get killed immediately, but I want to be out of the horrible hellscape I’m now in so how can I do that?”

“…Try to find a village. In fact, try heading southwest from…wherever you are. Look for Plachor. Oh, and since you cut me off last time-” 

Julius blinked and looked around as he was kicked out of his meditation.

…Well, that went somewhat okay. Probably. At least he had potential help coming and a place to look for. Now he just had to figure out where he was in relation to it…And where it was. 

Standing up, Julius looked himself over. His body was still heavily bandaged and his muscles felt tight. Frowning, he grabbed his sword, and tried to swing it, only for his body to seize up in pain mid-swing. Fuck.

So fighting definitely wasn’t an option. Well, hopefully he had someone here who would at least point him in a safe direction. 

Speaking of. Looking over at the sleeping Seona, Julius wandered over, and lightly nudged her with his foot. 

“Mrgm…” A little more force in the nudge. “Stop it…” 

“I need to ask you something.” 

“What is it-…” Julius watched her sit up and start sniffing the air. “…Why is there the scent of The Butcher?” 

“That’s probably because of me.”

“…Why are you a warlock!?” 

“Why are you a dullahan?”

“I was born as one! So your thing is invalid.”

“Really? People can be born with detachable heads?”

She pouted, glaring irritably at him as she stood up and started smoothing out her loose hair. “Yes, we can. We’re a demonic race, we don’t operate on mortal logic.”

“…Still, why can you do the head thing?” He scratched at his own neck. He felt a little weird seeing someone who could decapitate themselves, considering, in his experience, decapitation was one of those ‘guaranteed to kill’ things for all races. Or, well, most races now. 

“Associations, maybe?”

“What?”

She shrugged as she started tying her hair back. “We’re demons of death. Not violence, not sickness, not starvation. Actual death. And decapitation is the guaranteed way of dying, right?”

He blinked. So apparently she could tell what he was thinking. That wasn’t unnerving at all.

“Well, the guaranteed violent way of dying. A guaranteed way of dying? If someone loses their head, they’re dead. Yeah, that works. So, because of association and symbolism and probably some weirdness with Mother Stygian, the dream of decapitation becomes the dream of death, and so demons arise from the dream as they’re wont to do.” She tilted her head in thought again as she finished up with the ponytail. And again, a few strands of hair were still hanging loose over her face. “I think that might be how it worked. Maybe? It could be that my ancestors had even weirder things going on…or maybe that one demon just lost their head but survived and passed that trait down?

She tilted her head the other way, now looking thoughtful. “Or maybe it’s because we crossbred with something even weirder? I’ve heard that my kind are related to fairies in some way, but they seem too small to do anything with, so-”

And that’s where he was cutting that off. “Right. Thanks for your help. Can you point me towards Plachor?”

“Eh? Plachor?” And now she was tilted the other way. “Ummm…hm.”

“…Do you know where it is?”

“…Sure, I think? Probably…Yeah, it’s in the, uh….Northeast corner, so-”

“Isn’t it southwest?”

“Eh? Oh, right, it would be southwest, because we’re in Maleficaba now…Well, I guess we’ll have to start heading north then if we want to…wait, no, that doesn’t…” She frowned deeper in obvious concentration, tilting right again. “…I’ve been going south, right? But if it’s in the south, then…no, I definitely went east, so…”

“…” So she was lost. And apparently very directionally challenged. “Do you know where the southwest would be from here?”

“Oh, that’s easy, we just need to see where the sun is rising.” Tilted left. “Or, uh, setting? The sun sets in the east, right?”

“No.”

Tilt. “…In the west?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Ohhh…that explains many things…” She looked down, her brow furrowed. Julius was actually starting to feel bad– “Alright, I’ve got it!” She grinned, raising her head. “We just need to look to the sky!”

“The smoke covered sky.”

“…” Her smile slowly dropped. Now he really did feel bad. “…Not a problem.” Oh? Now she looked determined. “We just need to get to a point where we can see the sky!” Oh no.

“That’s not–” Seona suddenly spun on her heel and put two fingers to her mouth, whistling sharply. In an instant, a dark, bubbling puddle formed on the ground in front of her and a large, pitch-black stallion pulled his way out of the strange liquid, shaking out his fiery blue mane as he glowing hooves tapped against the stone.

“Ha, yes! Good Siegard!” And Seona went right on over to the blatantly demonic horse and started petting his mane. Well, alright then. 

“…So you can summon a horse?” 

“I can summon Siegard, who is my familiar.” 

“And Siegard can fly?” 

“No, but he’s really good at climbing mountains!” Grinning, Seona climbed onto the leather saddle and reached out a hand toward Julius. Well…at least it could help him see a nearby town. 

And so they were off. Well, once Seona packed up her cot and gave Julius a new shirt, along with some small, cloth mask that went over his mouth and nose. Apparently it would keep the smoke out, so that was helpful. And then they were off.

“…So why are you around here?” Julius asked after a little while. Just staring at the ashy landscape wasn’t that interesting, though there were a few interesting plants around. Bushes, mostly, with those same fire-leaves that the trees in that grove had.

“Eh? Oh, I’m on an expedition!” She grinned back at him, then immediately turned to look back at the mountain path. “Eyes on the trail, eyes on the trail…”

He had no idea how she was able to see a trail through all the ash. “…A single-person expedition?”

“Well yeah. I wasn’t hired for it, so why would I have colleagues?” …What kind of logic was that? “Anyhow, I’m sort of…between jobs at the moment, so I thought I’d do something big and impressive.”

Sure, that made sense. “Such as?”

“Finding the Frozen Tower.”

He blinked. “…The what now?”

“Oh, right, lightlander. Ah, well, so the Ancient Towers are-”

“I know what those are,” he interrupted, “I just don’t know what you mean by ‘The Frozen Tower’.”

“Eh?”

Julius sighed. “There are four Ancients, right? And their elements are more…’disaster’ based. Or location based? One’s lava, so volcanoes, another’s oceans, then storms and dreams.” He paused, frowning. “Dreams aren’t exactly a disaster though…”

“Oh, that’s an easy explanation if you want that association. Dreams can embody mortal or divine disaster, as an individual is overtaken by delusion or ambition, cynicisms and ideals overwhelming their mind until they act out in destructive ways.” She beamed at his confused expression. “I studied theological symbolism in college.”

That just raised more questions–and wow, the situation really reversed there for him–but experience told him to stay on subject. “So the Frozen Tower is…?”

“Oh, the legendary, or possibly mythical, Fifth Tower,” At his questioning look, she continued with a happy smile, “You see, while Brunzaba might be the same size as the other regions in the Dark Lands, it’s one of the more treacherous ones. Even more so than Malaficaba, I think. So it hasn’t been fully mapped out, so much remains unknown about the whole area. However, there have been legends of those who have gone on journeys through Brunzaba and have seen a tower far off in the distance, about the same size as all the Ancient Towers, but clearly not one of the actual four. 

“Stories vary on what it actually is and how it could exist. Some people say there’s actually a secret fifth Ancient God out there, like how there’s five of those Rakuli Elders, and something happened to them so no one knows about them anymore, while others think it could have been constructed by an ice demon stronger than even a normal god, like the Grand Prince of Tehom! I could probably spend all day telling you about the tons of stories out there, but no one has actually found the legendary tower before now. And I intend to be the first to prove it’s real!” 

“Oh…that’s an admirable goal.” Better than a lot of goals out there… “Good luck with it.” 

“Thanks!” As bright as her smile was, it soon disappeared at a moment’s notice. “Ah! Eyes on the road, eyes on the road!” Turning back forward, she steadied Siegard, who huffed slightly at the tug on his reins. “…We didn’t start turning left or right, did we?” 

Oh. Uh… “I wasn’t paying attention.”

Seona noticeably bit her lip, then shook her head. “I’m sure we’re okay! We’re still going up, after all.” …Well, better not question that.

And so, Julius sat in silence. Looking around, he could see a bit better through all the ash. It wasn’t quite as obscuring as before, and he had a decent view of the landscape. It was still pretty barren, but he could see the occasional living creature wandering around the mountain.

And it wasn’t just animals like the chimera that weren’t…’sapient’, or whatever it was Seona said. From his elevated spot on the saddle, he saw a small pack of hellhound hunters on the prowl, seemingly chasing a fiery wyrm with orange and red scales.

While he’d never seen a real hellhound before–not even Khor had those demonic canines in his troupe, though there were some pretty fierce dog monsters–he’d heard of the fiery hounds more than once. Most of it were tales describing the hellhounds as feral beasts who slaughtered their prey without any mercy.

He could almost see why the hulking, black dogs were called such, but there was a definite intelligence in their movements as three of the demons corralled the wyrm, careful to keep it moving instead of trying to strike back at them until one he hadn’t seen suddenly leapt up from the ashy ground. They’d hid in the ash while their comrades led the large beast to them, and once they had a grip around the wyrm’s throat, the rest of the hellhounds immediately fell on the struggling beast.

And in that moment, Julius had a good confirmation that they were definitely sapient, considering one suddenly went bipedal, formed into a vaguely humanoid shape, and shoved a conjured pike straight through the wyrm’s back.

That being said, even if they could be reasoned with, Julius still didn’t think it would be good to ask them for help. If any of them saw him and Seona as aggressive, it would start an unneeded fight–

“Oh hey, hellhounds!” Seona exclaimed, obviously beaming as she looked over at the demons bringing down their prey, “Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve seen any of those guys around. I haven’t gotten a chance to talk with any either…Hey Julius-”

“Please don’t ask if we can say hi.”

“…I wasn’t gonna.” And now she was pouting. Hm. “Oh hey, you know how kitsune have multiple tails? And they get more for every hundred years they live?”

“…” Where the hell did this come from? “Yeah?”

“I heard it’s similar for hellhounds, but instead of tails, they get heads!” She paused, tilting her head again. “Though it might be for a thousand years instead of a hundred…or maybe…Uh, somewhere between two hundred and a thousand, that I’m positive about.”

“…” In spite of all rational thought, Julius actually glanced at the hellhounds to see if any of them had two heads. They didn’t, but the one on top of the wyrm was staring back with an apprehensive look. They turned and started saying something to the other hounds, and Julius couldn’t help but tense…

But then they just left. The bipedal one was still watching them though, a wary look in their red eyes. Hm. Now why would they be so unnerved by him–Oh, right, riding with a death demon. He actually forgot that detail…hm.

Well. At least they would probably be safe. In fact, it looked like they weren’t going to be bothered by anyone on their way up. Every creature that noticed them immediately started moving in the opposite direction, giving them a very wide berth.

He still kept an eye out though, even as he wiped away the sweat on his forehead. Even if the ash wasn’t as bad as he thought it was, the heat was still ever present. Thankfully, it looked like Seona was prepared for anything–maybe even over prepared–and she pulled out several canteens that had various types of drinks when he asked for something.

Julius blinked as one sip suddenly sent a cool rush through his whole body. The heat was still there, sure, but it was like he had his own personal cold stone strapped to his chest. Which was probably a good thing, since it seemed to be getting hotter by the second as they approached the mountain’s peak.

And about a minute later, Julius saw why.

First thing’s first, the mountain was a lot bigger than he first realized. Second, it wasn’t a mountain; more like a volcano. And third, that was a Tower in its center.

Inside the massive, lava-filled opening in the mountain, there was an Ancient Tower stretching past the lips of the opening and high up into the sky, touching the black clouds overhead. Every brick in it glowed with a searing, molten light, like the lava itself had been pulled upward into a solid shape while still retaining all of its heat.

“…So we found one tower,” Julius muttered as he took in the sight. The sky up there was clearer, so he did have some confirmation that the sky really was red in this region. Which was a little worrying. Though what was more worrying was the bright light that was quickly approaching them. “…Uh.” 

“Oh! A heat angel!” 

“What-” Before he could finish his question, Julius had to brace himself as a burst of hot wind hit both of them, buffeting the two as the new figure came to a halt in front of them. 

“Halt. State your business.” Sweating heavily even with that drink keeping his body at a cool temperature, Julius looked up at the ‘heat angel’. And, as befitting an angel living in the Dark Lands, she looked nothing like any angel Julius had seen before. 

For starters, her wings were draconic, leathery wings instead of feathers made of heat…however that would’ve looked. And she also had scales growing on her, though not to the same extent as a dragon. They only went up to her cheeks and down to her elbows, from what he could see. 

But even more surprising than that was that, instead of being made of fire or the like, the angel actually seemed to have normal human skin where there weren’t scales. Her heavily-tanned skin would’ve made her look like she was just a dragon in a humanoid form, if it weren’t for the fact that her draconic features were very minimal. She didn’t have any horns or a tail, for instance, and her fingers had nails instead of claws.

Still, she was definitely an angel. He could see the orange halo above her head, radiating heat like it was a bizarre sun, and a constant, equally orange aura emanated from her skin.

“I won’t ask again,” she said, an orange spear forming in her hands as she glared at the two. Her dark orange eyes glared down at them while her long and–of course–fiery orange hair seemed to slowly rise. At least the sleeveless breastplate she was wearing was just bronze instead of orange too. Same went for her tabard and pants, both of which were red.

“Hello there, Miss Angel! My name is Seona, and I apologize if I intruded in your territory, but we came up here to get a better view so we could find a town!” Seona explained, beaming again, like they weren’t dealing with another hostile angel.

“…” Julius, meanwhile, stayed silent and did his best to stay calm.

“And you expect me to believe a pair of travelers would not have a map, and just so happened to go up the one volcano where the Ancient Tower resides?” And that got his eye to twitch. Arrogant fucking…

“Ah…well…I kinda got my map destroyed awhile back,” Seona continued, chuckling a little. 

“So you just so happened to get lost near the Ancient Tower?” If she kept up with that fucking tone, he was going to-

“Not lost! Just…wandering.” 

“And what about the one in the back. Why aren’t you talking?” 

“…” It took everything he had to bite back an insult. 

“I asked you a question.” And he wasn’t answering.

“Ah! Sorry ma’am, Julius means no harm. He just doesn’t like talking, is all.” 

“Is that so?” After remaining on him for almost a full minute, her eyes eventually moved off Julius. “What town are you looking for?” 

“Oh uh…Plachor!” At the name, the angel grimaced. 

“You wish to go to the town built around the Blood Church?” 

“Well, Julius does.” 

“Is that so…if that is all you need, then I can direct you there. But I must ask, why do you wish to go there?” 

“…” Feeling an elbow dig into his side, Julius looked over at Seona. The dullahan gestured with her head, emphatically moving her eyes at the angel. “…I need some help.”

“And you would ask worshippers of Marrow for help?” 

“I’d rather have theirs than a fucking angel’s,” he finally snapped, glaring back at the arrogant fuck trying to provoke him so she’d have the fucking justification to-

“J-Julius!? H-He means no disrespect ma’am, he just hasn’t had a great day!” Silence stretched over the mountaintop like a sweltering blanket as Julius and the Angel stared one another down. That was, until she sighed and looked away. 

“I cannot fault you for your words.” Dispelling her spear, she moved down to their level. Up close, where she wasn’t looking down at him, Julius could see a surprisingly tired look on the angel’s face. She had some pretty deep bags under her eyes, and, despite her muscular figure–more lean and wiry than broad and solid like, say, Tisma–she slouched the instant she touched the ground. Not like she was doing it deliberately, but like it was an effort just to stay up. “However, you are rather fortunate to have stumbled upon us. Plachor is not visible from here, but I can provide guidance.” 

That…was different. 

“Really?” 

“Of course. If you will please follow me, I shall guide you to where you need to go. Ah, before I forget, my name is Semyaza.” The newly named angel bowed to them, then sighed again as she stood to her full height and started heading towards the trail, audibly tired.

“Well…this is good, right, Julius?” 

“…Hm.” Moving his eyes off her, Julius looked out into the volcano, and as he did, he noticed something he didn’t before. Not only were there small alcoves dotting the inside of the volcano, it also looked like several other angels were living there. It was certainly odd seeing so many in one place, but he supposed it would make sense that “heat angels” would live in a volcano. There were maybe about a hundred there…Definitely more than he’d ever seen in one place.

“Oh wow! I know that there were a lot of you all near the tower, but I didn’t think there would be this many,” Seona said as she turned Siegard to follow the…to follow Semyaza. 

“Yes…while some of us do go out and try to find signs of Surodus elsewhere in the world, most of us remain here.” Hm…if Julius remembered correctly, that did match up with what Claire had told him. “If you happen to meet any on your journey, then I ask you to provide them with help in return for my aid here.” 

“Of course!” Well, at least Seona was excitable as ever. 

Their trip down the mountain passed in silence for a little while–it was actually kind of impressive how Semyaza managed to walk through the ash without losing her footing–until the angel decided to break it. “Sir Julius…If I may. I understand that some of my brethren may be…less than charitable to mortals, but may I ask what happened to you?” 

“…I’m here.” 

Semyaza glanced back at him, then seemed to droop further, somehow. “You’re an exile then…How little things change…”

Julius felt a little twinge there, partially angry, partially sad, but decided to focus more on her comment than dwelling on his horrible situation again. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Ah, shit. He sounded way too harsh there. He could tell from the worried glance Seona gave him.

“…It would be a very long conversation, Sir Julius.” She looked back at him again. She had very old, very tired eyes. “…I’m a very old being. I’ve seen many tragedies. Many at the hands of those with a more…intense faith in the gods.” 

“…And what makes you different?” 

“Hah…once in the past I was like them, but our time in this realm has certainly changed our perspective. For the better, I assure you.” 

“Is that so?” 

“Can you think of any angels that would let a death demon and a warlock walk free?” That…was a fair enough point. Though he wasn’t technically a full-on warlock…

“Well I can think of one! Ami was pretty nice to me,” Seona spoke up, sounding cheerful again. 

“…Would this ‘Ami’ happen to be a lightning angel?” Semyaza asked after a second, raising an eyebrow at Seona.

“Oh yeah, she-…Uhhhh…I mean, nope! Definitely not that, totally, uh…So hey! How’s…weather?” Deflection wasn’t her strong suit.

“…” Semyaza very deliberately turned to look at the increasingly smoggy sky around them. “…Better than usual.”

“Really?” Julius asked, partially out of curiosity, mostly to steer the conversation away from whatever Seona didn’t want to talk about.

“Yeah. None of the volcanoes have erupted in a while, so that’s a positive.”

“Does that happen often?”

She shrugged. “Infrequently. We sometimes get Demon Lords building palaces on top of them, and when they go down the volcanoes tend to erupt. It’s quite vexing.”

“…” It was a little weird hearing her describe the rise and fall of Demon Lords like they were a minor inconvenience. Though, to her, they probably were… “How old are you, actually?”

“Hmm…That’s a good question.” She hummed in thought, rubbing her chin and still somehow walking without any stumbling at all. “…At least seven thousand, I think. No, wait, more than ten? Ah, it’s been a while since someone asked and the years tend to blend…”

“Huh. I didn’t think angels got senile.” …Wait, shit-

Semyaza abruptly laughed, her wings flaring up slightly before she covered her mouth to stifle her giggles. 

“I’m glad you’re being more honest with me, Sir Julius,” Semyaza said, then stopped in her tracks as a bearded, probably male angel flew near the trio, talking to her in some angelic language. Moving off to the side, Julius and Seona gave the two some space, which in turn gave them some privacy. 

“So…what exactly did you do?” Seona asked after a second, “I mean, I know we just met and all, but I’m really curious. Especially since it probably isn’t something small given an angel was involved.” 

“…Turns out being a warlock is a pretty severe crime over there.” 

“Hm…so. Are you like a Duke or something?” 

“Huh?” 

“Well, if you were just some random warlock, I don’t think an angel would have been involved. They don’t really exile people, I don’t think? Gods aren’t supposed to get involved, they’d probably just do a paladin thing, so…are you a noble or something?” 

“…Nope, just a blacksmith.” 

“Hm…odd.” Seemingly accepting his response, Seona hummed a tune to herself, apparently fine with just letting that subject lie. Which was good, since Julius really didn’t feel like going through that whole story. 

“My apologies for that, Soréza just wished to know what business you had with us,” Semyaza said as she returned. 

“Oh, it’s no problem at all!” Beaming back at her, the trio continued to walk. Well, Semyaza walked and Siegard walked. Julius and Seona were still riding–Whatever, they knew what they were doing.

“…If I can ask, how long have you lived here?” Julius asked after a long period of silence. 

“Oh…I’m not entirely certain. I know it’s been at least a millennium, and it was after the Autumn War…around two thousand and five hundred years?” 

“That is certainly a long time…why do you stay? I know Surodus is gone, but this doesn’t seem like the best place to live.” 

“…Tell me, Sir Julius, would you do whatever it takes for the sake of your family?” 

“Of course.” There wasn’t any hesitating.

“Then you have your answer. For us, finding Surodus is not some duty we have as angels, it is simply us wishing to find our mother. So, even if our bodies continue to be corrupted like this, and even if we would no longer be accepted by her when we find her, we will still search for her. 

“As for why we’re in Maleficaba in specific, the only clue we have is that Surodus disappeared when Rupture was sealed. So where else would we look but the land where Rupture was sealed?”  

Julius blinked. He understood why they’d be there just fine, but one detail was confusing him. “Rupture was sealed at the same time Surodus disappeared?” 

“Indeed she was. You didn’t know that?”

He shrugged. “It’s…I know this is really personal for you, but it was always kind of detached to me. Like…Surodus has been gone my entire life. The Ancients have been sealed my entire life. Three thousand years is a really long time.”

“Yes, it is…” She looked thoughtful, then glanced back up at them as the path started to even out. It looked like they were further down on the mountains, passing from one to another as they kept up their journey, and that felt…weird. Like they were somehow traveling further in a shorter time–Wait, demon horse, duh. Of course it felt weird. “We do have some time right now. If you don’t mind, I could tell you some of what occurred back then.”

“I don’t mind!” Seona piped up, grinning again, “I love old stories!”

“Well there you have it,” Julius said, trying not to smile too. Her enthusiasm was infectious.

Definitely infectious enough for Semyaza, who was clearly smiling. “Ha…then I hope I don’t bore you…Thank you both.

“To begin, the world of three thousand years prior was a very different one to the one of today. Though three of the Ancients had been sealed, the last and, as some would say, most powerful was more than present. She did not directly interfere within the world, for no god did, but she was quite willing to bolster those with the drive to seize power, and one in particular made far more of an impact than any other. 

“Parzeli the Emboldened, the Burning Lord, was an astoundingly driven and ambitious conqueror, though he did not unite the Demon Lands by any means. He simply formed his dominion, and then burned everything in his way. His conquests were the most destructive of any lords, and his followers twisted themselves into monsters to fulfill his warped ambitions. And yet, Rupture supported him all the same, for he had made her a solemn promise to free the sealed Ancients.

Semyaza sighed sadly. “I understand that drive far better now…Not Parzeli’s ambition, but Rupture’s desire to free her fellows. It’s painful to lose someone you are close to. I can only imagine the agony of losing the only other members of your kind…

“Nonetheless, a hero rose up to defeat the lord. But Parzeli did something drastic when it seemed his rule would be overthrown: he directly summoned Rupture into the mortal realm.”

“Since the world isn’t a burning hellscape right now, I’m gonna guess it didn’t work out for either of them,” Julius said.

Semyaza’s lips quirked slightly in a ghost of a grin. “You’re a very blunt individual, Sir Julius. As well as a correct one. Parzeli’s gambit failed and not only was he slain in the ensuing battle, but the Last Ancient was sealed away, trapped like her fellows. Trapped where that Tower now lies…

“The West, North, and South all celebrated the East’s defeat, celebrated the new era of peace they thought was coming, and then…It’s…It’s difficult to describe. 

“To an angel…For an angel, our god’s presence is always felt. It’s a small feeling, a sense of…warmth and security, a constant sensation of being…being loved…” She trailed off, and even stopped in her tracks, staring out at the red sky. “…And then it was gone.” 

Her voice broke, and she visibly swallowed, shaking. “…We…We didn’t panic at first. We were just confused. But then we couldn’t find her. And that…F-Forgive me, it all…blended together at that point. I don’t know when that…when that absolute monster of a Light Pontiff started his sermons, his blaming, but I remember when my siblings, pained and angry, came to me, claiming the Elder God of Darkness was responsible.”

Semyaza took a breath, shuddering, and started walking again, a noticeable anger in her step now.

“Many of us joined in the Autumn War, many who were still young. And not but a few days later, less than two hundred of us remained. When all was said and done, those who remained were devastated, and so, being the only leader they had, I brought them with me to search for Surodus.” 

“…And you’ve been able to do this for over two thousand years?” 

“It…certainly has been rough. Our numbers here aren’t what they used to be. Some wished to search on their own, and some even managed to find love and are living peacefully, but others…chose to move on.” 

“I see…you’ve had quite the difficult time, huh?” Seona commented. She didn’t sound especially sad, but she wasn’t casual either. Sympathetic might be the right word…Julius wasn’t really sure what to say.

“For the first few hundred years yes, but we’ve managed to obtain some alliances over the years. That is, aside from Plachor. The devout followers of Marrow have quite the distaste for us.”

“She doesn’t care much for any of the gods either,” Julius said, finding his voice again.

“Ah, so you are a warlock of Marrow’s.” Well shit. Again. Bad time to speak.

“…Will that be a problem?” 

“As long as you are not a threat, no. We’ve long since learned to not judge over matters like that.” 

“Hm…” Well, that was nicer than certain other angels…Actually- “I’m surprised that Valondrac doesn’t have any of you on her side.” 

“The current Demon Lord? She certainly attempted to bring us to her side, but we were able to convince her to leave us be. Despite her dreams of conquest, she has no desire to force those who don’t wish to fight into her army.”

“Yeah…she’s definitely different from other demon lords, and way different from Light Land nobles.”

“…You speak with an odd fondness for someone who just arrived in the Dark Lands,” Semyaza noted, her gaze unchanging as Julius felt his face get hot, “Am I correct in assuming you work with her?” 

“Ah, no, just…I’ve talked with her on occasion. Marrow does want to make sure she has all she can use at her disposal so she let us talk with one another.” At the very least, he could be thankful that the heat and unclean air made it hard to tell he was lying, what with how his breath was heavier than normal and how much he was sweating. Yup, those were definitely both good things, totally.

“Is that so? Well, at least you have an option available to you now that you are here. I’m certain she would appreciate the help.” 

“Hm…yeah,” he mumbled. Joining Claire…hm.

Suddenly, Siegard and Semyaza both came to a stop, and the angel pointed out into the distance, through a valley between the mountains. 

“Plachor is about a week’s travel from here, but with your steed, it will likely only take a few days. You shouldn’t run into much trouble. The Hellhound packs have traveled to the other side of the volcano by this point, and most animals and mortals will have an aversion to your presence.” 

“Thanks for the help!” Seona immediately said, beaming again. How exactly did anyone think she was a threat? Darklanders were weird.

“It was my pleasure, Miss Seona. I wish you luck on your travels, and should you meet Ami again, tell her Semyaza hopes whatever life she may live is full of happiness.” 

“Sure thi–I mean, Ami who? I don’t know a lightning angel named Amitiel!” Oh, so that was it. “Though she sounds like someone who’s probably enjoying a loving marriage!” 

Semyaza giggled as Seona stumbled over her words and a genuine smile graced her features, somehow erasing all the weariness from the angel’s form. “Is that so?” She giggled again, sounding fond. “That does sound wonderful…As for you, Sir Julius, I also wish you luck on whatever you desire to do.” 

“…Thanks,” he replied, “…Sorry for being a dick earlier.” 

“Apology accepted. And I apologize as well for my own initial hostility.” 

“Accepted as well,” he copied, then grinned as she giggled again, “Good luck with everything.” 

And with a wave goodbye, the two began to ride off, the home of the heat angels soon disappearing in the distance. 

“So…are you sure you’re not important?” Seona asked after a while, tilting her head curiously at him once again, “‘Cause I’m pretty sure someone who had contact with Lady Valondrac is probably pretty important.” 

Julius stared steadily back at her and actually mulled over the question. Then, with a smile, he replied, “Like I said, I’m just a blacksmith.” 

The pout she gave him made it all worth it, and his laughter echoed through the valley as the two continued onward, off to what destiny would soon meet them.

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