Walking along the lonesome trail out of Rikfield, a lone, errant knight jauntily hummed to himself as he recalled the events that recently transpired, leaving behind the festivities that were growing in pitch. The clash of steel against undead flesh, the valiant strikes and mystic blasts, the roar of triumph as victory was achieved. So familiar, yet still so different from the age he came from.
“Hm~ That tomato girl was quite the fighter. Ah, if only we had met under different circumstances, I would have loved to duel her~.” Pausing, Morien tilted his head. “Hm…I wonder how I should introduce myself if we meet again…”
Thinking for a moment, the white-armored knight nodded, before flourishing his cape, pointing at a nonexistent person.
“Ah, tomato girl! We meet again! Would you give me the honor of having a duel?” Morien proclaimed, already imagining the angel’s reaction. Though he did reconsider a second later. “…hm, no no, that’s too forward, and disrespectful. I should properly introduce myself first. That, and I should call tomato girl by her name. What was it again…?”
“Their name is Michael,” came a voice behind the errant knight.
“Ah! Thank you my lor–” A kick to the side cut Morien off in an instant as they soared into a tree. A rather solid tree, which thankfully still stayed standing, even as the knight fell to the ground.
“How useless can you be?!” the voice of their employer ranted as she stomped over to them, an angered scowl marring her purple face, “You had one job! Just one! Make sure Mikey doesn’t lose, and that they stay in first place!”
“Technically, my lord, that’s tw–” A foot slammed into his breastplate, cratering the ground beneath him. Not that they felt any pain.
“Shut it! Seriously, as useless as they were, at least the color trio succeeded in annoying my damn nemesis!” Thrillseeker, the title of the demon who was unfortunately their current master, sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose with a gloved hand that hid the monstrous nature of her twisting fingers. “Abyss below, it wasn’t even a hard job, they should’ve just hit the damned moon!”
“As you say, my lord! Clearly Lady Michael should have known the moon was a viable target!”
Seeker paused, her lips turning to a sneer as she glared down at the prone knight. “Are you sassing me?”
“Unfortunately no, my lord, for you see, I died before the concept of sass–” And that earned quite the sharp kick to the side. Would’ve broken bones if he was still mortal. But he wasn’t, and he hadn’t been for quite some time.
“Don’t fuck with me, you stupid–!”
“Madam Seeker, you shouldn’t damage the merchandise,” one of her subordinates commented. The purple one, Lepomatia, though Morien wouldn’t dare to say her name. Even if he’d worked hard to gain that knowledge, it was unusable; to speak a demon’s full name was to catch their attention, and a damned soul was never in the position where they actually wanted a demon’s attention.
“Like I care! He’s shitty merchandise–No no no, you’re right, you’re right, I’m getting too frustrated because this fucking garbage–” Another sharp kick to his side. At this point, he felt it was best to just lay there. “–thinks he’s anywhere near important to try chatting with me like a fucking equal.” She crouched then, glaring into his dead eyes. “Is that it? Is it? Did you forget your place that quickly? I thought you knights were supposed to stick where you were, following along nicely, obeying every order from slay this monster to burn that town, so what’s up, huh? What’s with sassing your liege, huh huh huh?”
She was going to kick him either way, so he chose to be honest. “My liege died ages ago. You’re my employer.”
“Hm. Hm hm, hmmy hm hmm.” Seeker stood. She didn’t kick him. Her foot rolled him over, onto his back. He stared back at her. He’d lived in Hell for a thousand years now, give four or five centuries, so maybe that was keeping him calm. Or maybe he was just stupid. He always was pretty stupid. “We’ve gotta have a back-up White Knight.”
“It’ll set us back,” Lepomatia reminded. The look on Seeker’s face was a rare one, one Morien hadn’t seen himself before. Her sneer of annoyed contempt wasn’t the harshest glare he’d seen, but for the simple fact that he could so easily see that she genuinely would rip him to shreds simply for failing to show respect.
Maybe he had failed as a knight. There was a time where he had those etiquettes drilled deep into his head. Where had it all gone? “Someone’s coming.”
That made him blink, and he turned his head to see the figure approaching. And he couldn’t help but sigh as he saw who it was.
“Evening, boss,” greeted Blackshore, a devil whose true name Morien did not know and still couldn’t find. He was pretty sure it started with “Draz” though. “Guess who I found in her own little crater?”
“Oh, Tangie, you lived,” Seeker greeted her scuffed vassal, who held her shattered helm in one hand.
Cithdrun seemed to sigh, though it was difficult to tell; the demon’s natural face, her flesh a metallic copper color, was covered in hands. Full, humanoid hands, clutching down over her eyes, her nose, her mouth, squeezing her throat–covering whatever features she naturally had, though maybe she was just a mass of bronze hands? It wasn’t the strangest thing a demon could be. “I did, Madam Seeker.”
“Good good, good on you, most demons don’t.” Whatever expression Cithdrun had just made Seeker smirk. “You wanna take your vacation days?”
“Heh, thought so, alright, get outta here, go enjoy yourself in Vebaste or Nihumda or wherever, just remember you’re paying for your own expenses.”
The lesser demon nodded sharply, before vanishing in a distortion in the air. Blackshore chuckled. “You’re too nice, boss.”
“I know, I know, I’m almost generous sometimes!” Seeker sighed, pressing a hand to her head. “I just can’t help it! I’m too fond of my treasures, especially my most unique lovelies, like my trueborn hoarder or my wayward beholder.”
She glanced at Lepomatia. The helmed demoness hid her resignation well. “Love you too, my lady.”
“Awwww, you admit it!” Seeker giggled, a far too bright and happy noise for a demon prince as she swept Lepomatia up in a hug. The lesser demon made a resigned noise as Seeker swung her around, while Morien glanced up at Blackshore as the archdemon stood over him.
“So which one are you again? The one that cucked a king? Or did you kill a castle for a princess? Drowned for a sword, maybe?” There was a distortion around the archdemon. Hints of his mortal guise glimmered for a moment before the false clothes that mimicked an undertaker settled into a suit, much like the ones Seeker’s attendants wore.
Yet where the strange ladies in their platinum helms wore unpatterned black, the demon princess’s soldier–more a man-at-arms than a true knight, in Morien’s humble opinion–wore a pinstripe white, along with blacksteel gauntlets, greaves, boots, and a full helm. All a deep onyx, including the large casket on his back, which was lined with gold.
“You asked me if I would rather be given paradise or work for it,” Morien answered, his tone as though he were telling a humorous anecdote instead of describing the moment of his damnation.
“That’s right. That’s you. Morien the Morkessi, the errant knight, clad in white, who traveled from the lands of sea.”
“Very poetic, Ser Blackshore! Practice your talents, and you’ll be blessed forevermore!” Even with his helmet covering his features, Morien smiled.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Blackshore’s helm tilted as the demon regarded the knight. “Just like I’m sure you’ll always keep in mind the mistakes you made. Does it still hurt knowing the nation you helped build didn’t last a decade past your death?”
“Oh immensely! Just as it hurts knowing all of my comrades were stupid enough to bend to their own lusts and greeds instead of living lives of honor!” He kept his tone jovial, still smiling under Blackshore’s gaze. “If you’d like to hear me wail in despair about it, I’m sorry to inform you that you’ll have to pay.”
“Oh now you remember your contracts!” Seeker groused, turning with a scowl while still holding her servant like a teddy bear. “Stupid useless knightly fucks…Whatever! Blackberry, you’ve got something for me?”
“That I do, boss.”
Morien stiffened on reflex as he felt strings suddenly wrapping around his limbs. In an instant, he was twisted and pulled, locked into position on his hands and knees as Blackshore took a seat on his back. Without taking the casket off. Even with Morien’s senses dulled from death, the demon was damn heavy. “Rude, Ser Blackshore, very rude.”
Blackshore ignored him. “We reached out to that taur, Siromo Garoti. He was very amenable to the idea of the individuals who backed his former allies aiding him instead.”
“We backed the leviathans, not the Gororans,” Lepo pointed out. Looking at her now, she looked less like a teddy bear and more like a cat hanging in her owner’s embrace.
“Technically, Kozloi was allied with the rebels, to a degree, making her his ally by extension. I didn’t see a need to elaborate too heavily and he didn’t ask to clarify.”
Seeker laughed. “Good boy, Blackberry! Using that noggin! So so so, did you get anything outta the archly archonic archduke?”
“That I did, boss. Most men would be scared to be running a rebellion all on their lonesome, with no allies to speak of, but good ol’ Siro has bigger brass than I expected. Some plans of his own too. I had my secretary handle the details.”
Tolmir felt the oddest urge to beat Drazolitch to death, so that ass was probably calling her his secretary again. At least it was better than when he suggested she should be the “Deuce” to his “Ace”. The semi-official leader of the Eights knew deep in her heart if she ever let Draz call her that in Lady Seeker’s presence, the boss would never, ever stop using it.
Especially when she figured out Tolmir was annoyed by it. Lady Seeker was just that type of demon. “Raspberry”, as she was so called by her boss, knew that fact well by this point.
Speaking of annoying individuals Tolmir had to be cordial around, Archduke Siromo Garoti was still talking.
“–when even the gods turn against then, it is the duty of kings to keep their heads high! Unbent and unbowed! So too then is it only natural for I, the noble descendant of the archons, to take such a stand against the oppressive regime–” He’d been continuing on with that for a while as the two of them strolled through the halls underneath the archduke’s manor, through what were basically catacombs stretching through the entire city of Scorpolis. Not exactly an inventive name, but what else was the “scorpion house” going to call their hometown?
Anyhow, Tolmir could sort of see why Draz considered this idiot a potential investment. He had all the usual entitlement and lack of self-awareness their clients tended to have. He didn’t look half bad for a taur in his sixties either; the thick, naturally white beard combined with his reddish-bronze skin and short, curly hair gave him a sort of “warrior king” look, further helped by his tall, black horns and the way his red silk shirt embroidered with black scorpions clung to his broad, muscular chest like a second skin. Man didn’t look half bad with his red laurel crown either.
Though, now that she was thinking about it, all the red and scorpions were reminding her of Loni, and that somewhat soured any appeal the big, buff taur might have. Either way, better to just move things along. “Pardon me for interrupting, your grace, but I’m on the clock, as it were.”
That got him to pause. “Hm? Clock? What clock?”
“Figure of speech, your grace. Speaking of, how goes the war front?”
He blinked, visibly trying to figure out how the non-sequitur followed what she said. “Ah…well, ha, there’s no need to worry your pretty head on that, little lady. There’s no real war front, not as such just yet. That coward Molgari won’t make a move on me now that my sister’s husband is backing our independence!”
“I thought there were some skirmishes?”
“Some, sure, some, but like I told your pal, it’s minor, at best.”
“Wasn’t there also something about burning?”
“Ha, ah, not much, not as such, nah. Just a few wildfires sweeping through. It’s the season. And besides, if Molgari’s really the generous type, she’ll take in those displaced. I won’t show any tolerance to looters though. Best those types be put to work.”
In other words, he’d had towns and farms too close to the Sollan borders torched so anyone trying to invade had to trek through wasteland before they could get anywhere near his protected territories. After robbing them of any supplies and resources, while also guaranteeing the people he displaced had to run to other provinces. And if they tried to stick around, out of loyalty or because they simply couldn’t leave, he’d enslave them. His justification being that they were criminals he was putting to work. Prison labor and slave labor intersected in some fun ways, didn’t they?
All around, not too bad for a burgeoning tyrant, though not a long term one. Tyrants had a small shelf life if they pissed off too many people, and Siro was annoying his neighbors something fierce.
“Understood, your grace, understood. Though I oughta remind you, I’m a demon.” She looked up at him, letting some amusement into her tone. “You don’t have to tidy things up for me. I might even like it better if you make it sound worse.”
He glanced back at her with an appraising eye, before letting out a bark of laughter. “Ha! Ah, you’re right, I did forget that. Courtiers prefer things sound tidier. It’s not that we let in a bunch of filthy criminals into our borders to serve in our forces, no, we gave some falsely accused victims a place to stay in a hostile country! Truth be told, even if those damn papers screwed us royally on our operations, Molgari’s ‘open and honest’ bullshit gave me plenty to use against her. Now instead of just my own homeguard, the ones more loyal to me than country, I’ve got hundreds of smugglers turned to rebels with nowhere else to go! That stupid queen guaranteed me plenty of vicious bastards guaranteed to do whatever terrible things I ask of them because they’re too damn invested to try backing out now!”
“Handy.” And dangerous to him in turn. No noble wanted to be associated with the dregs of society, especially when it could turn a royal’s ire on them.
“Isn’t it? It’s the least they could do for me after I put so much into their ventures. Look at where I live! A pleasant land, to be sure, but it’s landlocked! How does a landlocked lord even get into smuggling in this day and age?”
“You think it’s more of a coastal venture?”
“Oh to be sure. The real silver comes from selling overseas, though I’ve always made due through production, not just distribution. Those Gororans were a decent sale too, if only they hadn’t botched their own rebellion…”
Tolmir simply waited, walking along with the archduke as he grumbled. From what she knew, the fact that he was a producer instead of a distributor was what drove this desperate rebellion to begin with; it was one thing to be involved in illegal smuggling, but it was another to be manufacturing weapons and producing stimulants under your monarch’s nose. It also made him the best equipped to try a rebellion, considering his stores of said weapons and stimulants, so things had a way of working out.
“But there’s no need to worry about that on your part,” Siromo began again as they reached the end of the hall, “Your pal earlier said your master could provide me with more forces so long as I can prove I’ve got what it takes.”
“That is what he said, yeah.” The question was if this idiot was the useful type or not.
“Good! Because I have something those Gororans don’t! Grit! Drive! And, most importantly–” He pushed his way through the double doors, leading into a truly massive room. “–absolute brilliance!”
The thing hanging in the middle of the vast room had a bulbous yet sleek silver body, long yet broad leading to a pointed tip at the front and fins at the back. Workers scrambled all across it, shaping pieces into place and fitting cannons along its sides.
Siro looked proud, grinning wide and mad. “Behold! The greatest weapon the Outworld ever conceived: Zeppelins!”
Tolmir glanced from the crazed archduke to the massive, rigid airship. Not just one either; there were several being crafted through the room, their steel frames fitted with enchantments to make them light and maneuverable in direct defiance to the laws of nature and gravity. It was the type of “superweapon” Tolmir had seen plenty of times before; grand, impractical, and guaranteed to be lost to history after their fantastic failure.
In other words, it was perfect.
The demon grinned, unseen yet eager. She really did love useful idiots.
“Raspberry’s going to kill you if she hears you call her your secretary again,” Lepo stated, earning a giggle from Seeker.
“Ah, that would be a fun sight to see. No fighting amongst each other though, not unless it’s for my entertainment.”
“You got it, boss,” Blackshore replied, “Would you like me to break this one then?”
Morien glanced up at the feeling of his back being pat. Honestly, he was just happy to be acknowledged again. Well, no, that was a lie, but it was better than being ignored as the devils chatted.
“No no no, we can still use Morry Morks, even if he is being a petulant little shit.”
“I aim to please, my lord,” Morien decided to say, if just to get a word in. It resulted in the string around his throat squeezing tight enough for something to crack, so maybe that wasn’t the best move.
“Yeah well you missed last time, so let’s try it again.” Seeker set Lepo down, giving her a pat on her helmeted head, and walked over to Morien. Or more specifically to Blackshore, who she helped up with a hand, before kicking Morien in the side again before grabbing him by the neck and hoisting him up. “I’m going to let you wander, because I’m nice like that, and you can go around, doing whatever knightly knights do. But when I want you for something, and I’m most definitely going to, you’ll hop right to it like a good little vassal or I’ll slam you so far down into Solum you’ll be picking rust from your teeth, kay? Kay, glad we understand each other.”
“Why are we here, Madam Seeker?” Lepo asked, unphased by Morien’s current predicament, though it’s not like he expected her to jump in to save him. He would’ve appreciated it though. “We haven’t been commissioned to help a leviathan in this nation.”
“Shhhh, sh sh shhhhh, no spoilers Grapey Grapes! No one likes a spoiled grape! Unless it’s a sommelier, those freaks really do love their rotted grape juice…what was I saying? Right right right, you’re doubting me again, you doubtsy doubter.”
Blackshore clapped a hand to Lepomatia’s shoulder and the demoness went completely rigid as he leaned in. “You shouldn’t doubt the boss, Leps. You’ll hurt her feelings.”
“Awww, don’t worry about me, Blackberry, a lack of faith won’t kill me~” Seeker teased, before chucking Morien against the tree again. He slammed straight into it and slid down the shockingly sturdy bark, somewhat thankful the stalwart pine was standing so strong. Picking splinters out of his armor would be a genuine pain. “Barely even hurts, really, and you do remember my thing about liking my eighty eights, right~? Not that I have eighty of them, I wouldn’t be able to keep track, but it was an idea, just for a time, and speaking of my ideas, I’ve said it before, I want to screw with Mikey Misha for my own amusement.”
“…” Lepo glanced up at Blackshore, only speaking when he let go of her shoulder. “But…that doesn’t get us anything?”
“Haaaaaah, it’s so easy to forget how my cute Avaris just don’t get non-material pleasures, but that’s fine, it’s in your nature, though you’re nonstandard anyways so I guess that’s nurture over nature? Either way, it entertains me, but if you really want to know what material thing I want, it’s Michael themself! And their unique existence means I don’t really want them dead either, since they’d just go and be reborn again, except as something crappy like a random animal. Though maybe their god would just take them…feh, it’s bad for me either way!”
Blackshore glanced up from his looming. “So why not take their halo?”
“…Hm?” The curious noise his master just made put a sudden, deep dread in Morien’s beatless heart.
“Claim their halo. It’s everything the angel is. Their connection to their god, the sum of their being. You get that and even if the physical body’s wrecked, you have their soul.”
“I do? Seriously?”
Blackshore nodded, shrugging the casket from his back and setting it on the ground. He popped it open, reached inside, and raised out five shining rings made of light so pure it hurt to be that close to it. But…it was a comforting kind of hurt. Like a fresh scrape being bound up with soothing words and tender hands… “Back in the day, when they were more plentiful, halo hunts were more common. Dangerous though. Painted a target on your back.”
“Considering the Rakuli consider angels their children, I can see why,” Lepo noted.
“Not back then they didn’t. There were more. It was a more even fight, but gods are heartless, and it takes death to give them hearts.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, whatever,” Seeker replied, waving a hand dismissively, “What’s your point and how is it relevant to me?”
“Easy. Claim the halo, claim the angel.”
“I don’t see five angels there, Blackberry.”
He shrugged. “They’re dormant. Not a surprise. Been too long, and it’s not like the lesser angels had much care put into them back then. They were more like golems than the ‘children of the gods’. Least the lessers were. First spheres have always been sapient pains in the ass.
So Blackshore was older than Seeker then. Strange to think, considering his clear subservience, but–And Morien felt his head get slammed back against the tree, strings around his throat again. “Your boy’s getting ideas again, boss.”
“Ugh, of course he is. Well, whatever, I’ll keep that in mind. I don’t want my Mikey damaged, Drazolitch–” Now it was the archdemon’s turn to go stiff as his name was invoked. “–so don’t get any funny fucking ideas unless I put them in your head, you get it?”
He nodded, paused, then decided to bow deeply. “Got it, boss.”
“Good! But you two did give me a decent idea. Morien, scurry off, I’ve got jobs I want to put my goons on and your shimmering shine is way too damn irritating to think around.”
The string around him suddenly and finally let him loose, allowing the knight to stand and salute. “Your wish is my command, your highness!”
“Aw, good boy! Then get going!” And with one last kick, Morien went soaring through the air, looking up at the starry sky up above. He’d always wondered what it was like to fly.
Almost hurt when he landed.