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ObicanDecko last won the day on October 25 2018

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  1. ObicanDecko


    The whole neighborhood in the small rural town in the western part of Ahrabet was alerted that morning. Loud cries and shouts could be heard coming from a small farm house on the corner, leaving many to wonder what was happening. As old Mrs Browne slowly hobbled along the dirt path, on her way to one of her friends, she had to stop for a moment, curiously eyeing the Kinsleye farm. What on earth could be happening inside to cause such a commotion, and so early in the morning? Just as she contemplated whether to give in to her curiosity and come up with an excuse to go inside, the door burst open and a young girl ran out, smiling and laughing, her curly black hair bouncing as she hopped across the yard. The girl’s mother quickly came out, rushing after her. “Marcella, slow down! Be careful, you could hurt yourself!” “Mom, I’m telling you, I’m fine,” the girl didn’t even look back, proceeding to run toward the family dog that began excitedly barking and jumping at her. Mrs Browne had to hold onto the fence to keep herself from falling as she watched the scene in shock and confusion. She had barely seen the girl outside ever since that accident, but now there she was running about, the smile on her face brighter than the sun. “Irvette, what is happening?” “Oh, Mrs Browne, it’s a miracle!” the woman replied, running fingers through her messy hair. Her eyes were red from crying. “Kenelm and I are just… we have no idea how it happened. She woke us up at the break of dawn, shouting. When we opened our eyes, she was standing at the door. Oh, I nearly fainted!” “That is a miracle indeed,” the old woman whispered in awe, looking up at the sky. “Heavens be praised!” “It was an angel!” Marcella said as she ran over, the dog still jumping around her, as happy as she was. “She had a crazy dream,” the mother shook her head as she hugged her daughter, patting her on the head. “It wasn’t a dream,” the girl insisted. “It was a… a vision. An angel came from the heavens and healed me. Dad, you believe me, don’t you?” she asked, turning to look at her father as he came out of the house. “Of course, honey,” the man approached her, hugging her from the other side. There was no doubt that he had been crying too, but the wide grin on his face showed that they were tears of joy. “And we will pray to him every day to thank him for this miracle.” “That’s right. We’ll…” Irvette sobbed, stopping to wipe her nose with her sleeve. Even now she could barely keep it together, still on the verge of bursting into tears. “We’ll thank him every day for bringing such joy to this family.” “I have to go tell grandma and grandpa!” the girl suddenly decided, extricating herself from her parents’ hug and opening the wooden gate, running out with the dog following close by. “Come on, Ed! Let’s go!” The three adults remained standing at the fence, looking in wonder at the girl as she ran down the street with renewed enthusiasm. She could finally go outside whenever she pleased, make friends, play with the farm animals and help her parents instead of feeling like a burden. She could feel the wind in her hair and the sun on her skin. Full of life and joy, she scampered through the town with a beaming smile, silently thanking her guardian angel. ~~ Summer was slowly fading into autumn when renovations on the Temple of Dawn were finally completed. Traces of the great fire that almost destroyed it remained only in the memory of Ossvale residents. As people passed it by, they could witness the same grandiose temple they knew, with strong white walls and golden arches, but with some changes as well. One of them was a large memorial plaque for its former high priestess Helga, placed in a prominent spot outside the temple entrance. It was built by Reiff himself, in honor and memory of his wife. It was the first thing he had made in years, though it would not be the last, as he was heavily involved in the renovations, working full time at his reopened shop. The biggest changes, however, were not so obvious from the outside. As the high priestess, Giselle became the new leader of the temple, working hard to improve the church’s reputation tainted by Agilmar. “As if I needed another reason to avoid going there,” Isolde grumbled as she and Ida passed the building on their way to the cemetery. “She must be on top of the world now that she’s in charge.” Ida let out a chuckle, amused by her sister’s annoyance. “Say what you want about Giselle, but she’s a good priestess. Certainly better than… him.” “Yeah,” Isolde frowned at the mention of their father. “Not exactly a high bar to reach.” “Do you know what Edwin used to call her? Broomstick-up-her-ass,” the younger sister said, drawing out a snicker from Isolde. “She’s very serious about her work, I’ll give her that, but she should learn to relax once in a while.” “She needs to get laid,” the older sister replied bluntly. Ida burst into laughter, drawing looks from a few passersby on the street, but she paid them no mind. She couldn’t remember the last time she laughed. Lately, it didn’t seem like there was much reason for that. Still, she had her sister and that was enough. Even if they had no one else, they had each other. “How do you think Sigrid and Reiff convinced father to turn himself in?” she suddenly asked. Isolde didn’t like talking about Agilmar, but Ida was curious enough to try. All she knew was that the two had escorted the former high priest to the royal guards, where he admitted to abducting Helga and Ida, as well as killing Mildburg. Since Helga’s body was never found, and Agilmar could not explain where it was, he was convicted of murdering her as well. “I don’t have a clue. They wouldn’t tell me,” Isolde shrugged. “But whatever they threatened him with must’ve been worse than spending your life in jail. He deserves nothing less.” “At least something good came out of this,” Ida said, glancing at the house by the temple where she and Isolde used to live, and which now served as a shelter for the homeless. “Yeah, it’s good what they did with it,” the other sister agreed. “Do you miss it? You lived there longer than I have.” “No… Yes. Sometimes, I suppose. I miss what the house used to be. Back when mother was alive, when we were all together. But I couldn’t live there any longer. I’m fine living at Edwin’s place. I don’t know, I feel like I’m keeping him alive by being there.” The rest of the walk to the cemetery passed in silence, each sister lost in their own thoughts. When they finally passed through the old iron gates, they turned right, heading toward the spot they had visited many times over the past few months. With a heavy heart, Ida knelt next to Edwin’s grave, a simple stone with the words ‘Edwin Kinsleye’ carved in large letters. She held her breath, placing a small bouquet over it – an assortment of wildflowers gathered with love. Like every other time, the familiar wetness of tears rolling down her cheeks was accompanied by a comforting squeeze on her shoulder. Isolde stood behind her, hiding her own tears from her sister. “It feels strange coming here,” the older sister spoke first after a while. “His body is buried here, but we know he’s still out there. He’s not really dead.” “I know. That’s something I have to keep telling myself. Even though we can’t be with him anymore, at least he’s out there somewhere. An angel.” “At least that’s what the demon said.” “I believe him,” Ida said confidently. “It sounds exactly like something Edwin would do, and I don’t blame him for it. He had to try and help his sister. I’d do the same for you. And Lothar… I’m sure he didn’t want things to end this way either. He cares about him, you know. Perhaps even more than us.” The sisters walked back home together until they reached the trinket shop. Although she had no skills, Ida was training hard to be able to craft and repair jewelry. It was her way of keeping the memory of Edwin alive and staying connected to him even if he was no longer there. Besides, she was beginning to enjoy the work and the little chats with customers who came to the shop. Each of them had something nice to say about Edwin. It always brought a tear to the girl’s eye, but it also made her happy. “Will you come by later?” she asked Isolde before the older sister went to her own house. “Of course. I’ve got some axes to finish first. Can you imagine, the royal guards asked me to make some weapons for them.” “That is great!” Ida’s eyes lit up. “Next thing, you’ll be making weapons and shields for the king himself!” “I hope not. I can’t do that fancy design he loves so much,” Isolde shook her head as she turned to leave, but not before Ida observed a small smile appearing on her lips. “I’ll see you later, then.” “I’ll have the ale ready,” Ida replied before unlocking the door and entering her new home. Aside from the owner, not much had changed about it. It was still the same familiar place people visited when they needed to buy a crystal or a nice necklace for a loved one, only now there was a brand new wooden sign above the door, reading: ‘Edwin’s Trinket Shop’. ~~ THE END
  2. The day was warm and sunny, as is usually the case in the southern kingdom of Ahrabet, where summers last for nearly eight months. A soft breeze drifted through the countryside, rustling the tall grass and leaves on the trees. The townsfolk were out, working on their crops, taking animals out to pasture and enjoying another calm, clear day. Edwin walked down a dirt path leading out of the village, his little sister and their two horses walking alongside him. The day was too beautiful to spend at home, so they decided to go out and have fun. Whatever work he had to do would have to wait until they returned. “Where are you two going?” an elderly lady called out as they approached. She stood to observe them, leaning on her garden hoe for support. “Just out for a walk,” Edwin gestured to the green fields ahead. “How are you, Mrs Goldsworn? Keeping yourself busy?” “Ah, you know how it is. A farmer’s work is never done,” she replied. “And look at Marcella, it’s like I haven’t seen you in ages! My, you’ve grown so much! How old are you now?” “I’m thirteen,” Marcella smiled, her unruly black curls falling into her eyes. “Such a big girl you are! Tell me, does your brother behave?” “Yes, he does,” the little girl nodded, taking her brother’s hand. “Good, good. If he doesn’t, you just tell me and I’ll come teach him a lesson,” the old woman teased, getting an eyeroll from Edwin and a giggle from his sister. She always asked the same questions whenever they would come across her. “Have a good day, Mrs Goldsworn. Don’t work too hard, alright?” Edwin smiled, waving goodbye to the woman. It wasn’t long before they reached their destination - a large meadow in a valley on the outskirts of the village. It was one of his favorite places. During the day, he could ride his horse, while in the evening, he could enjoy the fresh air as he lay in the grass, watching fireflies and gazing at the stars. He lived for those little pleasures in life that brought so much joy and could turn even the most boring day into something beautiful. Coming there with his sister made the experience even better. “So many flowers!” Marcella exclaimed joyfully as her eyes fell upon the colorful assortment of plants in front of her. “I want to pick some for mom!” “That’s a great idea, she’ll love that,” Edwin smiled, letting her run through the field, picking whatever flowers she wanted. Once she was finally done, she returned to him, holding a large bouquet with all kinds of wildflowers - violets, harebells, forget-me-nots, shooting stars, and many others. “Do you think mom will like it?” she asked, her face beaming with happiness and excitement. “She will love it, it’s beautiful!” Edwin nodded, eliciting a smile from the girl. “Here, let me tie it with a string so it doesn’t fall apart.” After making short work of the bouquet and setting it to the side, he led his sister to where the horses were peacefully grazing. “Now, if you’re scared to do it on your own, that’s alright. Just tell me, and I’ll ride with you.” “No, I can do it!” Marcella insisted. “I’m a big girl now, I can ride on my own.” “I know you are, I’m just saying,” he smiled, patting her on the head. “Alright, remember what I taught you?” “Yes, don’t pull on the reins too hard. And don’t grip too much with my legs.” “Yes, just like we practiced,” Edwin replied, satisfied with the response. Even though they had been riding together for a while, this would be the first time Marcella would be alone on a horse, and Edwin couldn’t help it that he felt nervous. Still, he knew she was much more competent and better with animals than their parents gave her credit for. Believing in her would do her more good than constantly treating her like a baby. He carefully helped the little girl mount her horse, an older, brown stallion named Walnut, before getting on his own mare, Walnut’s younger sister. “Come on, Poppy, let’s go for a walk,” he whispered to the horse as they started making their way through the meadow. “How are you doing, Marcie?” “Good! See, I can do it,” the girl replied, a proud smile on her face. “That’s my girl! You’ll be better than me soon!” The pair of siblings rode their horses at a trotting pace for a while, enjoying nature and each other’s company. After all the preparations for the harvest and taking care of the animals at home, Edwin sorely needed a day to just relax and do nothing, and this was the perfect getaway. Just a calm, summer day out in the fields, with no obligations and nothing but the sound of birds chirping, as if competing at who would sing the most beautiful song. A loud whinny suddenly broke through the meadow, disrupting the peace and quiet. It was as if time itself had stopped as Edwin turned around, blood freezing in his veins as he saw his sister being thrown off of the animal. Panicked, he dismounted from his horse and rushed toward the girl. Marcella’s pained screams filled the air. “Marcie!” Edwin shouted as his eyes shot open. He was all alone, lying on the cold ground. Sitting up, he looked around, gasping at the sight all around him. Where was he? The strange terrain was barren, covered in glittering rocks and hills of the most unusual formations and shapes. The night sky was peppered with stars, far more than he had ever seen. There was no Marcella, no horses, no flowery fields… He was all alone. He got up on his feet, looking around, hoping to see another person, but there was no one else. Only strange lights popping up everywhere around him for a brief moment before vanishing into thin air. Nothing made sense. Where was he and how did he get there? Was this another dream or was he sleeping? He knew for a fact he was with Isolde, when some demon woman found them, and then… “No…” he stopped, remembering it all. “No, it can’t be…” There was Ida, being held prisoner. There was a demon, evil and threatening. And there was Lothar, his hand shaking as he plunged his blade into Edwin. He remembered it clearly now. “Forgive me,” the demon whispered, but then… then he winked. Why would he do that? “Edwin,” a familiar, warm voice suddenly came from behind, startling him. He jumped, turning around. Lothar stood there, just a few feet away from him, his eye bruised, a cut across his left cheek. The man he loved, but also the man who betrayed him. The man who killed him. “What… what are you doing here? What is happening?” Edwin asked, backing away. He stared at Lothar’s sad face, as if he could extract answers just by looking at him. The demon looked awful, battered and broken. It was the last thing Edwin needed right now. He wanted to hate him, to tell him to go back to hell and never return. But he also wanted to wrap him in his arms, tend to his wounds and tell him everything would be alright. “Say something! What is this place?!” Lothar’s eyes seemed fixed on Edwin’s lips, before he finally looked up, locking eyes with the other man. “We are in Purgatory.” “Purgatory?” Edwin repeated, his brain working a mile a minute. There was so much he didn’t understand. “Then, does that mean that I’m…?” “I’m sorry, it was the only way…” “I’m dead?” Edwin interrupted him, staring at him as if he had grown another head. How could he be dead? It made sense, but then how was he still talking to Lothar? “Yes, but I came to…” “No, stay away from me!” Edwin shouted, backing away as the demon tried to approach him. “You killed me. And… and what about Ida and Isolde? Are they also…” He couldn’t even finish the question, fearing the worst. Everything they did was in vain after all. After everything they did, they just ended up as victims of stupid games between demons and angels. But then, it was as if a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders when he saw Lothar shake his head, a small smile on his lips. “They’re not dead. They’re both fine, I took them back to Earth. And Cromwell is dead, he can’t stop me from seeing you anymore.” “Is that true? You’re not lying to me, are you?” “It’s true, I promise. I will never lie to you or hide anything from you again, Edwin,” Lothar replied, taking a step toward him, but the other man backed away again. How could he trust Lothar ever again? He loved him so much, he wanted to throw himself into the demon’s arms and never let him go, but he would only get hurt again. He would never see his friends and family ever again, all because of Lothar. “Then… how could you do it?” The demon’s face fell as he looked at Edwin in shame. “I’m sorry. I know you must hate me, but please allow me to explain.” Edwin stared at the bruised demon in front of him, feeling pity and anger. He didn’t hate him, he could never hate him, but he needed answers. He needed to know what happens next. With a silent nod, he let Lothar continue. “Having to… do what I did was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. But that was the only way to save us. If I had refused, Cromwell would’ve had us all executed.” “What do you mean, save ‘us’?” “Your soul may have left your body, but it’s still here. You’re still not gone,” Lothar replied, but Edwin still stared blankly, trying to understand. “Look around. See all these lights that appear all around us? They’re souls of people from Earth, passing through Purgatory on their way to… wherever they go next. No one knows for sure.” “Then… How am I still here?” “Because you surrendered your soul to me, remember?” How could he ever forget. Edwin remembered it as clear as day when Lothar told him the price of his help would be Edwin’s soul. They sealed the pact with a kiss, burning him to his very core. He had kissed those lips many times after that, and could still feel them, so soft and warm. Would he ever get to taste them again? Suddenly, he found himself staring at Lothar’s mouth, the demon smirking at him with satisfaction. “Then what happens to me now?” Edwin asked, feeling he might be starting to blush. Could dead people even blush? “Whatever you want,” Lothar replied, taking a step toward him and reaching out a hand. This time, Edwin did not pull back. He stood calmly, letting the demon take his hand, entwining their fingers together. “Your soul is mine to dispose of however I please. But I will not do anything you don’t want. You have a choice now, Edwin. If you want, I can take you back to Earth and restore your soul back into your body. You can continue your life as before.” Edwin stared at the demon in disbelief. It seemed too good to be true. If he was being given another chance, why would he not take it? “Or… you can come with me,” Lothar added, looking at the other man with hope in his eyes. “What do you mean?” “See those dark clouds in the distance?” the demon asked, pointing to his right. “That’s where I come from. You could come with me and we can be together.” “You mean… become a demon?” Edwin asked, stunned. If he were still alive, this is where his heart would be pounding wildly. He looked around in shock, noticing things for the first time. On one side, far away on the horizon, dark clouds were gathering above tall mountains. On the opposite side, faint lights twinkled in the distance - that must be the angels’ domain. That was probably where they had taken Ida, Edwin realized. At least she was safe and sound after all. “Yes,” Lothar nodded, smiling. “What do you say? I know this is a big decision, and I will respect whatever you choose, but… I don’t want to be without you, Edwin.” “I… I need to think,” Edwin muttered in reply, his mind racing. He could go back home, go on with his life as if nothing had happened. There were Ida and Isolde waiting for him. His little trinket shop, which he had grown to love so much. How could he leave that behind now that he had a chance to go back? But the alternative was so tempting. It was madness, it was scary and unknown, but was that so bad? He would be waking up next to Lothar every morning, spending every day with the man he loved. They could spend centuries together, with no Cromwell to keep them apart. That must be what Sigrid’s tarot reading meant, he realized as he remembered drawing the final card - Death. “It does not mean physical death, but a major transformation in life, the end of one phase and the beginning of a new one,” the mystic’s words echoed in his mind. This must be what she was talking about. A change that should be accepted, not resisted. Finally, it all made perfect sense. It was as if his entire life was leading him to this point, and suddenly, it didn’t seem scary at all. Instead, he felt excitement, he was eager to start the new chapter of his life with the man he loved by his side. “What do you say? We’ll have all of the Domain to explore together. And of course, you’ll get demonic powers!” “Wow, I didn’t even think of that. So I’d be able to…” Edwin started thinking out loud, when realization suddenly hit him. He dropped Lothar’s hand as if it burned him. “What’s wrong?” the demon asked, looking at the other man in confusion. “Please, talk to me.” “Lothar, I need you to tell me the truth. When you talked to me about powers, was everything you said true?” Edwin asked, gazing straight into the demon’s eyes. “You said demonic fire is destructive, but angelic fire has the power to heal. Is that true?” “Yes, but what does that…” “So, if I went there,” Edwin continued, pointing to the faint lights of the Celestial Spire in the distance, “and became an angel, would I be able to heal?” The demon opened his mouth, but no sound came out as he stared at his lover with fear and desperation in his red eyes. “Edwin, please just…” Lothar stepped forward, taking the other man’s hands in his own, a pleading look in his eyes. “Tell me!” Edwin insisted. “Lothar, please, I need to know!” The brief silence felt neverending until the demon finally spoke, his voice barely a whisper. “Yes, it’s true.” Even though he was dead, Edwin could still feel his heart breaking as he looked into Lothar’s eyes, wet with tears, his lip quivering. They both knew it was the end this time. “I’m sorry, but I have to,” he spoke softly, squeezing the demon’s hands, realizing this would be the last time he was holding them. This time, it was him begging for forgiveness. “I’m so sorry, but It’s the only way I can heal Marcella.” Lothar shook his head, tears trickling down his cheeks as he sobbed. “Edwin, I… I want you to know that I…” “Don’t say it now,” Edwin cut him off, raising a hand and pressing a finger gently against the demon’s lips. “I know,” he nodded. “I know. Me too. But I have to do this. Please understand.” There was no reply. Instead, strong arms enveloped him in a tight hug, Lothar’s body shaking against his as the demon’s tears soaked his shirt. Edwin squeezed him tightly, never wanting to let go. If only they could stay like that forever, locked in an eternal embrace. He would never get tired of it. When they finally separated after what felt like ages, Edwin felt cold and more alone than ever. He could barely stand to look at Lothar, knowing he was the reason for the pained look on the demon’s face. “I’m sorry, but I… I can’t watch you leave.” “I understand,” Edwin replied, sobbing. He turned to the side, unable to look at the demon anymore. He could feel his resolve weakening the longer he stayed, but he could not allow himself to falter. He had to heal his sister, even if it meant never being with the one he loved. “Go, please, this is hard enough as it is.” Both men stood as if frozen in place, unable and unwilling to move. Edwin knew that if they did, it would be the last time they would see each other. All too soon, the heavy silence was broken by the one word he was dreading to hear. “Goodbye,” Lothar whispered, letting tears fall freely down his face. Edwin turned to look at him just as he blinked, leaving the man all alone. “Goodbye,” Edwin muttered, staring at the empty space where his love had stood just a second ago. With a heavy heart and his head hung low, he turned around and started his long, slow journey towards the Celestial Spire, the home of the angels.
  3. ObicanDecko

    The Duel

    Even in the middle of a sunny morning, the trinket shop looked cold and empty without Edwin there. The messy counter was covered with tools, wires and crystals, as if waiting for its owner to return and continue the work he’d started. The sign on the door read ‘Closed’, with no one to turn it around and open the shop. Lothar couldn’t stand it. Everywhere he looked, he could see Edwin, his handsome face smiling at him, his full lips inviting him for a kiss. It hurt so much when he thought about what Cromwell had forced him to do, but there was no other way. He knew that, and he was sure that Edwin knew it as well. To make matters even worse, there were Ida and Isolde, giving him sad, miserable looks as he transported them back to Earth. Edwin’s shop was the place he knew best, so it only seemed natural to drop them off there. To Lothar’s surprise – and everyone else’s – Cromwell had kept up his end of the bargain and left them alive. Lothar figured the twisted pleasure the demon lord got from making him kill the man he loved was enough for him. Still, the young demon knew he would not get off that easily. Cromwell would hold this betrayal over his head for the rest of his life, but Lothar would not put up with it any more. He was done being an obedient servant and taking orders. As soon as he returned to his realm, he would take matters into his own hands. As he stood in the trinket shop, he looked through the window with nostalgia, his back turned toward Ida and Isolde, as the two sisters held each other for support, finally reunited after all. He could not look at them. He had to get out of there and carry on with his plan. “Don’t bury him just yet. I’ll bring him back, I promise,” he spoke without looking at them. Even though he knew it was not the end, the knowledge of what he was forced to do was killing him. Would Edwin even forgive him? Would he understand? “How can you bring him back?” Ida cried out, but her question was left unanswered, as Lothar blinked, disappearing from the shop. As he stood outside, he could hear Ida crying and Isolde yelling, threatening him. “You’ll pay for this, demon! You killed my friend!” the older sister shouted in anger and pain, making Lothar wince. He had messed everything up, but he would make it right. After casting one last look at Edwin’s home, he blinked again, vanishing from sight. ~~ As soon as he stepped into his home, Lothar could tell something was off. On high alert, he drew his blade and silently looked around the room before blinking to the next one. Both empty. Finally, he made his way to the makeshift kitchen that also doubled as a dining room. As if he ever ate anywhere other than his bed, but still, he could if he wanted to. His eyes immediately went to the table, noticing a plate of fresh strawberries, his favorite fruit. But he wasn’t the one who left them there, and they certainly didn’t grow anywhere in the Demonic Domain. The hot, barren lands could only support the toughest of shrubs and grass. With his blade firmly in his hand, he carefully approached the table. Suddenly, he felt someone’s presence and turned around. A moment later, Nyra appeared, standing beside the door. “They’re not gonna attack you, you know.” “What the fuck do you want? And where did you get these?” Lothar asked, giving the woman a death glare. After how she betrayed him, he wanted nothing to do with her anymore. As far as he was concerned, their friendship was dead. “I pulled some strings,” she shrugged. “I know you like them. I just wanted to-“ “You think this will make up for what you did?!” he shouted, picking up the plate and flinging it across the room. It smashed against the wall and broke into pieces, the fruit falling to the cold stone floor. “You brought Edwin and Isolde to Cromwell. You spied on me. I always thought it was Zelig, but it was you. So much for being my friend.” “Lothar, I’m sorry. I did it because I am your friend,” Nyra replied. “I wanted to keep you safe, prevent you from…” “From what?!” The demoness let out a sigh, hesitating. “From making a mistake. Didn’t I make you promise me you wouldn’t do anything stupid?” “Don’t you dare!” Her words only served to make Lothar even angrier. He may have done many stupid things in his life, but falling for Edwin was not one of them. It was reckless and spontaneous, but it was beautiful. “Not like you would know anything about love. You’re just like Cromwell.” Nyra looked away, but Lothar could see the hurt in her eyes. He had pushed a button, but she deserved it. Demons were never known for their ability to have soft, romantic feelings, but he thought his friend was different. He was clearly wrong. “Maybe not in that sense,” the demoness replied after a pause. “But I do love my family, my friends. I loved Adrian and I love you.” “Don’t bring him up now,” Lothar practically growled, angry at the mention of their late friend. Adrian always had his back, he was a true friend until the end, and Lothar would not let Nyra tarnish his memory. “He has nothing to do with this.” “Maybe not, but it’s still true. I lost him, and I don’t want to lose you too,” she said, finally daring to look him in the eyes. He could tell she was serious, but it still changed nothing. She had betrayed him, and he could not get over that. “It’s too late. I can’t forgive you for this,” he replied curtly, turning away. “I don’t want to see you ever again. Go now, before I make you leave.” He was done arguing. All he wanted was to find Edwin and bring him back, instead of wasting time listening to pathetic excuses of someone who stabbed him in the back. However, the demoness was still not leaving. “No, I am not leaving things like this,” Nyra shook her head, refusing to move. “What about what you did? You betrayed Edwin first when you brought the human girl here, letting Cromwell lock her up. Wouldn’t you want to be forgiven for that?” Lothar clenched his jaw as he stared at the wall, refusing to speak. “Then why don’t I deserve forgiveness?” Nyra continued. “I know I messed up, but I want to make it right. I’m willing to do whatever you want to make it up to you. I’m still your friend, and I want to prove it if you’d just let me.” ~~ The wind blew in Lothar’s face as he ran along a dirt path, making his way to the Obsidian Keep. He always loved hiking and running, anything that would keep him outdoors and moving. It helped him stay fit and clear his thoughts, and right now, his mind – as well as his eyes – were fully focused on the black fortress ahead of him. He could have easily just blinked over there, but that would have been too easy and comfortable. But no, he did not want comfortable. He wanted to run, get his blood pumping and feel the burn in his muscles in preparation of what was to come. It wasn’t until he reached the fortress that he blinked inside, wanting to avoid the pesky guards standing at the gates. The last thing he wanted was to deal with them and have to listen to their idiotic remarks or lousy attempts at humor. No, he would go straight to the person he wanted to see. When he reappeared, Lothar was in the hallway, standing in front of the heavy door that led to Cromwell’s chamber. This was the moment that would change everything, or so he hoped. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to open that door. Was he scared, or just nervous? Maybe it was a bad idea after all. Maybe he should just leave and go find Edwin. But then they would never be free. Nothing would change. “How long are you going to stand there? Come in already,” the deep voice of the demon lord came from the inside, startling Lothar. The white-haired demon quickly gathered his wits, keeping a firm grip on the blade in his right hand. With the other one, he pushed the door open and entered. This time, Cromwell was not seated on his obsidian throne, but rather stood by one of the windows, looking out. At what exactly, Lothar did not know, as there was nothing but rock and mountains stretching for miles. Mustering all of his confidence, the young demon walked up to the centre of the room, casting a quick glance over at the panther that slept in the corner. He hated that animal, feeling the urge to drive a dagger through its skull and kill it on the spot. But that was impossible at that moment. Besides, he had a bigger target than that. “So, you really want to do this?” Cromwell finally spoke, turning around, his eyes landing on the weapon in Lothar’s hand. He knew. Lothar nodded calmly. “Yes. I came to challenge you…” “…to a duel,” the demon lord finished the sentence for him. “I had no idea you wanted to be the next demon lord so badly,” he added with a chuckle, throwing a smug look at him. “I don’t.” “Of course you don’t, you don’t give a shit about it. This is about your human. Is it really worth it? Did I spare your life just to kill you now? Because we both know that’s what’s going to happen. Dying here won’t bring him back.” “Or maybe you’ll be the one who dies today,” Lothar replied. He could not let Cromwell get to him before the fight even started. He was already at a disadvantage, with the demon lord being much bigger and stronger. But then, Lothar was faster, more agile. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage. Cromwell simply threw his head back and laughed at Lothar’s remark, as if he’d just heard the funniest joke ever. “You have guts at least. It’s a shame I have to kill you, you’ve been a good soldier,” he said, shaking his head. “You could’ve gone much further than this. But this is what you wanted.” “This is NOT what I wanted,” Lothar spat out, “but it has to happen.” “So be it then,” the other demon shrugged, saying exactly what Lothar had expected. If there was one thing the young demon knew, it was that Cromwell’s pride would not allow him to refuse a duel. “Pang, leave us,” he turned his head, addressing his pet. The panther calmly stood up from her spot on the floor and left the chamber, leaving the two demons alone. Lothar barely had any time to reach when the demon lord rushed his way, delivering a powerful kick to his stomach and knocking him down to the ground. “This is what you wanted. Now get up and fight me!” Cromwell roared, brandishing a blade of his own. There was fire in his eyes, his strong muscles flexing as he glared at the other demon. Lothar was quickly back on his feet, determined more than ever to finish the demon lord off once and for all. Keeping their distance, the two circled around each other until Lothar finally lunged. He slashed with his blade, but Cromwell swiftly blocked it, letting out a chuckle. The bigger demon went for a counterattack, but this time Lothar was prepared – he dodged the blow and slammed Cromwell in the side, causing him to stumble. Just as he went in for another attack, the demon lord evaded it, slashing with his dagger right across Lothar’s cheek. The sharp pain burned, blood trickling out of the wound, but the young demon couldn’t care less. The adrenaline spurred him on, making him stronger, more resistant to pain. He growled as he traded blows with his opponent, managing to cut him across the forearm, tearing through his jacket and leaving a long cut on his skin. It seemed to have no effect as Cromwell kept fighting, no worse for wear. Slowly but surely, however, Lothar was beginning to tire out, his reactions slower. Cromwell was much stronger than him, a more experienced fighter, but neither of them were willing to give up. As the demon lord’s heavy arm punched through the air yet again, Lothar ducked barely in time to avoid it, only for Cromwell to knee him, causing him to lose his balance. In a relentless assault, Cromwell delivered blow after blow all over Lothar’s upper body until the younger demon collapsed on the floor, bruised and defeated. “Is that all you’ve got?!” Lothar could hear Cromwell’s growling in his ear, even though he was dizzy, feeling as if he would pass out at any moment. He knew the demon lord was riled up and bloodthirsty, oblivious to everything but his crushed opponent. “Time to end your pathe--” Cromwell grumbled in rage until he suddenly stopped, coughing as words got stuck in his throat. His eyes went wide as he looked down, seeing a blood-soaked blade penetrating his body. Lying on the floor, Lothar could see the exact moment the demon lord realized he had been tricked, but it was too late. As Nyra pulled out the blade from Cromwell’s chest, the demon lord fell to his knees, before dropping face down on the ground, dark blood pooling around his dead body. “You look horrible,” the demoness said, rushing to help Lothar get up. “You should’ve let me fight by your side.” “Then he would’ve been prepared. He would’ve killed us both,” the demon replied. Everything hurt, but he could still move, albeit slowly. At least he had no major injuries. “I’m fine anyway.” “Oh, really?” Nyra raised an eyebrow, squeezing his shoulder. “Oww! Not there!” he yelled, letting her help him up on his feet. She blinked, and the next moment they were back in Lothar’s home. The fight had taken more out of him than he thought, and he was grateful to be back in his bed. He decided to only allow himself a short nap to recover. He needed to go find Edwin, and he didn’t want the man to see him in this condition. “Do you want me to stay? I can if you want,” Nyra offered. “Thank you, but you don’t have to. I’ll be fine, really,” he insisted. “What are you going to do now?” “I don’t know… Get an alibi in case anyone starts asking questions.” Lothar chuckled, but immediately regretted it, as his ribs hurt like hell. “As if anyone’s going to care who killed him. All anyone will care about is that he left an empty spot that needs filling.” “You have a point. There’s going to be a big clash for the next demon lord now. That citadel will be a battleground for months to come.” “And I don’t want anything to do with it. I’m done,” Lothar shook his head, determined not to get sucked into it again. His days of being a warrior and serving whoever came to the throne next were over. “Good. That means you won’t be getting into any more trouble?” “I never said that,” he managed to crack a smile, causing Nyra to swat him gently on the arm. “Get some rest, alright? I’ll come by later to check up on you,” she nodded, squeezing his hand before getting up. “I will,” Lothar promised. “Thank you for helping me.” “That’s what friends are for, right?” Lothar simply nodded in response, offering her a sincere, grateful smile.
  4. “Do you think this will work?” Edwin whispered to Reiff as they observed the old mystic running her bejeweled fingers over the holy scripture, her eyes firmly shut. She would open them only occasionally to jot down some notes on a piece of parchment, muttering to herself as she scribbled some words. The older man simply shrugged in response. “We can only hope, right?” “Right,” Edwin nodded absentmindedly. “It has to work.” As he looked around, he couldn’t help but feel anxious and curious at the same time, even excited for what could happen. It was the same feeling he experienced when Sigrid visited him for the first time. That day, he saw the spirit of Mildburg from the afterlife and even talked to it, something he never thought possible until then. Perhaps this would be another one of those days, when something he believed was impossible would happen. All he knew was that he was becoming a believer. Life was so much more than he - and most other people - knew and experienced during their lifetime. There were other worlds, with their own rules and laws, which humans could not even begin to understand. He glanced over at Isolde, noticing how she was also intently observing Sigrid, probably wondering what she was doing and praying that she would succeed. Agilmar was doing the same. From his corner, he quietly observed the old woman, his face not betraying any emotion. Edwin wondered what they should do with him when this is all over. The most responsible thing would be to hand him over to the royal guards, but what explanation could they possibly offer them? Without any evidence, no one would believe the priest was responsible for the disappearance of two women, much less that he let the angels abduct them. If they came out with such a story, it was more likely that the guards would apprehend them rather than Agilmar. “I’ve done my best,” Sigrid spoke up, interrupting Edwin’s train of thought. “I’ve let the spirits guide me down the right path, and hopefully I’ve managed to open the door for you. Still... we will not know if it’s any good until we try it.” “Then how do we do this?” Isolde asked, looking around. It was clear to Edwin that she was willing to go even to the demonic realm to save her sister, and he was not ready to let her go alone. “Whatever has to be done, I’m ready,” the shopkeeper replied. “You are eager and fearless, but you must be wary,” Sigrid warned. “Even if this works, we do not know what dangers await in the other realm.” “We don’t have a choice, do we?” Reiff stated, pulling his chair closer. “Now, what do we do?” “Reiff, I know you wish to help, but I can’t let you risk your life for us again. You heard what Sigrid said, this could be dangerous,” Edwin turned to speak to him, hoping to talk him out of coming with them. There was no doubt they could use his help, but the younger man was already feeling guilty enough for what the other had been through. The last thing he wanted was Reiff’s death on his conscience. “Also, I don’t think we should leave him alone with Sigrid,” he added, glancing at Agilmar. “I would feel better knowing you were here to keep an eye on him.” “Edwin is right,” Isolde agreed. “If we even manage to get to… wherever Ida is, we’ll need to be quick and stay hidden, and that is much easier with only two people. Stay with Sigrid, make sure nothing happens to her.” “If you’re sure, then I’ll stay,” Reiff nodded. “This should bring you back,” Sigrid leaned over, giving Edwin a piece of parchment with words written on it, which he quickly pocketed. “Now, I want you two to sit over here and read this.” As Isolde and Edwin sat next to each other, looking at the altered prayer in front of them, the mystic handed them two orange crystals, placing them in their hands. “Here, hold these while you read the words. They should help you to channel the energies that connect these realms.” Eager to start, the two friends squeezed the crystals and started reading in unison. With his other hand, Edwin found Isolde’s hand and took it. They were in this together. The anticipation and fear were making his heart race, but at least he wasn’t going into this alone. “Close your eyes and focus on Ida,” Sigrid whispered to them. “Imagine her face, let it guide you to where you need to go.” That was easy, Edwin thought as he shut his eyes, an image of his best friend coming to him easily. There was Ida, standing in a bright, summer dress, smiling. Her long, brown hair was blowing in the wind, but she just laughed, that infectious laugh that he loved. That was one of the things he liked the most about her - she could always put him in a good mood, even without saying a word. “Edwin,” he heard a voice, but it wasn’t Sigrid. It was Isolde. “Edwin, look!” The moment he opened his eyes, the young man gasped in shock, his mouth gaping open as he stared at the scene in front of him. Dark red skies streaked with gloomy clouds stretched above them, while a massive black fortress stood in front of them, ominous and imposing. If the burning Temple of Dawn was a scary sight to behold, this was a hundred times worse. “Where… where are we?” he muttered, still in shock. “Did it… did it really work?” “I think so,” Isolde nodded, looking no less confused as she turned around, taking in the new environment. The land around them seemed barren as far as the eye could see, with no shrub or tree in sight, only black rock and dirt. There seemed to be some kind of a settlement far in the distance, with dark huts and houses in a valley beyond the large fortress. Edwin reached out to touch the massive rock they were hiding behind, admiring its smooth and shiny texture. “Obsidian,” he muttered, recognizing the black volcanic rock. He had seen it a few times back home, but never in this state - only fragments, polished and turned into small crystals. Looking up, he noticed the fortress ahead seemed to be made of the same rock. He could not explain it, but somehow he could sense that was where Ida was taken. “I think that’s where we must go,” he told Isolde, pointing at the citadel. The woman nodded in approval as she surveyed the area. Noticing a few demons passing nearby, the two friends crouched down behind the rock to avoid being seen. They waited patiently at their hiding place until everyone had left, only then getting back up and carefully making their way toward the fortress. It was only when they got closer that Edwin noticed two large demons guarding the entrance. They looked deadly, with large polearms in their hands. There was no way anyone could get in without going through them first, Edwin thought as he gripped the blade Isolde gave him to protect himself. “Let’s go around and see if there’s another way in,” the woman suggested, and so they quickly made their way around the fortress before the guards could spot them. As they approached the building from behind, Edwin’s face fell in disappointment when he realised there was no back door after all. That would have been too easy, indeed. “I don’t see any other way in,” he whispered, afraid to raise his voice. “Me neither, but I think maybe we can reach that window,” Isolde pointed to an opening in the wall. “Help me get up there, and then I’ll pull you up.” Edwin nodded, ready to help his friend climb inside. Just as he approached the wall, a sudden voice from behind froze the blood in his veins. “Well well, what do we have here? Are you lost, humans?” Holding his breath, Edwin slowly turned around, Isolde following suit. Standing before them was a woman with a pale, cold face and long, black hair. Her eyes were red, just like Lothar’s, yet so different. Lothar’s were mysterious and alluring, but hers were just menacing. They’ve been discovered, and the shopkeeper knew there was no use in trying to run. Whoever the demon was, she could simply blink and catch them without breaking a sweat. They could very well be taking their last breaths right now. He might die without rescuing Ida after all. Without seeing his family ever again. “What’s the matter? Can’t speak?” the demoness asked, eyeing them like a cat that backed a helpless mouse into a corner. “How the hell did you get here anyway?” “We mean no trouble,” Isolde spoke, trying to muster as much courage as she could. “We just came to find my sister and then we’ll be gone.” “It’s cute that you think that’s up to you. You are coming with me,” the demon woman said, taking a determined step toward them. Before Edwin could react, Isolde had already drawn her blade, pointing it straight at the demon. “Stand back!” “Isolde, don’t!” the young man panicked, glancing between the two of them. “Please, put the sword down,” he pleaded, knowing his friend stood no chance against a demon. He knew very well how much stronger they are than an average human. “At least your friend here seems to have some common sense,” the demon said in an amused tone, looking at Isolde. “But I’m curious, so I’ll indulge you. Let’s see what you’ve got.” With that, she drew a blade of her own, getting into a fighting stance. “Isolde, listen to me, she’s stronger than you are!” Edwin tried to reason with his friend, but she paid him no mind, her eyes fully focused on her target. “Edwin, shut up!” the blacksmith woman grunted, launching into an attack. As she slashed through the air with her sword, the demon easily parried the blow with her own weapon. The clanging of metal filled the air as the two women clashed, trading blows. With a sidestep, Isolde tried a different approach, swinging the sword low, but the demon once again seemed to be a step ahead of her - she dodged the blow and countered with her own, which Isolde barely managed to avoid, stumbling and almost falling to the ground in the process. “Is that all you’ve got?” the demon teased. The blacksmith woman did not reply, quickly getting up and into position. The demon woman gave her no time to breathe - she went on the offense, aiming her blade directly at Isolde’s chest, but the blacksmith managed to block it at the very last moment, using her leg to kick the demon in the side, but without much effect. Even though she held her own, there seemed to be nothing Isolde could do to best the demon. Every attack she attempted would get blocked, not even a scratch on her opponent. “Alright, I’ve toyed with you enough. It’s time to end this,” the demon decided, giving Isolde an arrogant smirk. She swiftly rushed forward, swinging her blade with all her might, breaking Isolde’s sword in two. A strong kick in the knee followed, and the blacksmith woman was lying on the ground, panting, with a blade pressed against her throat. “No! Please, don’t kill her,” Edwin pleaded, rushing toward them. “Please. We’ll come with you.” He did not know who the demon was or where she intended to take them, but anything was better than letting his friend die before his eyes. “Don’t worry,” the demon woman chuckled with satisfaction, putting her blade away. “I only wanted to teach your friend a lesson. Now, come with me and don’t try anything funny. I won’t be so merciful next time.” As soon as Isolde got off the ground, still trying to catch her breath, the demon grabbed them both by the shoulders and blinked. Edwin had no time to think, no time to come up with a plan. The very next moment, he opened his eyes and realized they were inside a large, dark chamber, illuminated only by torches on the walls. He grabbed Isolde’s hand for support. At least they were still together. His heart feeling as if it would break out of his chest, Edwin turned around and realized they were not alone. Aside from the demon woman who took them here, there was another demon, much larger than her. He was sitting in a large chair carved out of volcanic rock, while a black panther lay at his feet. While the male demon promptly got up, his eyes trained on the two newcomers, the animal seemed to be sleeping, oblivious to what was happening around it. Edwin stood motionless and watched cautiously as the large, red-haired demon approached, walking around him and Isolde in a circle. If he thought the pale demoness seemed hostile, it was nothing compared to this hulking figure. The demon scowled as he observed the two friends, his skin darker even then Edwin’s, his thick, long dreadlocks covering his shoulder blades. He seemed to take his time as he stopped next to Edwin, sniffing the air around him. As strange as it seemed, the shopkeeper did not dare say anything, or even look at him. He silently prayed that Isolde would be smart enough to do the same rather than playing a hero this time. “It’s you…” the demon slowly uttered, watching the young man as if fascinated. Edwin stared ahead, having no idea what the demon meant by that. How would he know him? Did he know Lothar? Did Lothar talk about Edwin to his demon friends? Whatever it was, it did not sound good. “Tell him to come,” the demon suddenly turned to the demoness, barking his orders. “And bring the girl.” Was she his servant? Edwin knew little about the demon society and hierarchy, only what Lothar had told him. He knew there were demon lords who ruled parts of the Demonic Domain, and Lothar worked for one of them, Cromwell. Was that him? More importantly, who was the girl he mentioned? Could it be Ida? That would mean she was still alive, which was all Edwin hoped for. He glanced to the side, his eyes meeting Isolde’s, but neither of them spoke. Whoever the burly demon was, he did not seem interested in talking to them, or even taunting them. Instead, the demon simply returned to his seat just as four more blinked into the room, accompanied by the pale demoness from before and a slim, brown-haired girl the shopkeeper knew so well. “Ida!” Edwin and Isolde cried out almost in unison, but two male demons held the girl firmly, while the other two pointed their polearms to keep the humans at bay. “Sister! Edwin!” the young woman spoke, her voice weak and cracking. She was on the verge of tears, but still managed to crack a smile. “How… how did you come here? You shouldn’t have,” she shook her head sadly. As he watched his best friend, Edwin’s heart broke all over again. All he wanted was to wrap her in a hug and comfort her, take her back home and make her feel safe. “We couldn’t leave you alone,” Isolde said. “Ida, I’m so sorry,” Edwin pleaded, looking at his friend with concern. If it wasn’t for his meddling, Ida wouldn’t be in this situation. All of them were risking their lives because he placed his trust in someone he shouldn’t have. Somewhere deep inside, he knew trusting a demon was a terrible idea, but his heart was the one calling the shots. “You don’t have to apologize, I don’t blame you for-“ Ida started to reply, when the sound of the heavy door opening cut her off. Instinctively, Edwin turned around, gasping at the sight of Lothar standing at the entrance to the chamber. The white-haired demon had a similarly shocked expression, his mouth agape as he stared at the sight before him. “Ed- Edwin? Nyra? What the hell is happening here?” Lothar muttered, his eyes darting across the room, from Cromwell to the demoness, but always returning to Edwin’s face. “So it is him,” the red-haired demon spoke up, his panther finally opening her eyes and observing the scene before her without interest. Rising from his seat, the demon strode across the chamber, all eyes on him. It must be the demon lord Cromwell, Edwin was now sure of it. And Lothar had brought Ida straight to him. “My lord, what…” Lothar tried to repeat his question, his jaw clenched, but Cromwell interrupted him. “This is the human you’ve been spending your time with,” he sounded disgusted. Towering over the white-haired demon – and everyone else in the room – Cromwell stopped just in front of Lothar. “I can feel his stench all over you! I send you to Earth on a mission, but you go and fuck the first human you see!” “My lord. I completed my mission, didn’t I? I found the girl and brought her, just like you ordered,” Lothar replied, trying to sound calm. “There’s no need for-“ “You completed it?! Then why are these two fucking humans here? Oh, right, they came to get the third one. No wonder you begged to take her back to Earth.” Edwin’s eyes went wide in shock, locking onto Lothar. So he did try to save Ida after all. He wanted to bring her back, but Cromwell didn’t let him. The realization made little difference now, as they were all doomed anyway, but Edwin still felt a little better now that he knew. If only he could have a moment with the demon alone, to let him explain. There was so much he wanted to tell Lothar, but now it was too late. “You wanted to make your lover happy. Are you taking his orders now instead of mine?” Cromwell continued, glaring at Lothar threateningly. “Because we both know what happens with those who betray me.” “I never betrayed you…” “My lord, that is true. Lothar did not betray you,” the demoness suddenly spoke up, causing Edwin to turn toward her. Lothar had called her Nyra, that much he remembered. Edwin was not sure who she was, but by the death glare Lothar was giving her, he could assume they were having issues. “I know you wish to protect your friend, but what does friendship mean when the other person abandons everything we stand for and gets involved with a human?!” Cromwell growled angrily. “I should kill all of you right now. Starting with… you,” he took a step toward Edwin, grabbing him by the neck and lifting him off the ground as if he was picking up a feather. “NO!” Lothar’s scream pierced the air as he drew his dagger and rushed toward the demon lord. However, before he could take another step, he found himself knocked down, the panther pinning him to the ground. Its wild eyes staring at Lothar’s, the animal held the demon down, its sharp claws cutting through his clothes and drawing blood. “Good girl,” Cromwell said as he released Edwin and turned toward his pet. Gasping for breath, Edwin stared at the scene before him, while Isolde brought an arm around him, helping him stand up. He could see Lothar’s arms and legs bleeding where the animal had cut into his skin. It seemed ready to tear him to shreds at Cromwell’s command. To his surprise, the demon lord simply scratched the panther behind the ears, as if it were a house cat. “Release him, Pang. He’s not going to try anything else, is he?” Cromwell ordered. The animal obeyed, getting off of Lothar. “Now, I could rip your head off right now, but where’s the fun in that?” he added, giving Lothar a devious look. “No, I’ll give you a choice.” Slowly, Lothar got up, casting a quick glance at Edwin before turning back to the demon lord. “Either I kill you and the three humans, which would be the quickest way to deal with this fucking mess… Or I will spare you and the two girls if you take his life,” Cromwell finished his proposal, pointing at Edwin. Lothar shook his head vigorously, but Edwin stood calm, tears rolling down his cheeks. He wasn’t crying because he was afraid, but because he had failed. No matter what happened, he would not walk out of there alive. Either they all die, or just him, and the choice was simple. If he had to sacrifice himself for Ida and Isolde to live, then so be it. There was no use in fighting anymore. That was his fate, and he had to accept it. He knew it was coming anyway - Sigrid had predicted it. His vision became blurry from the tears that welled up in his eyes and started spilling out. The sounds around him echoed in his ears, mixing with his loud heartbeats, which he knew were his very last. Ida’s soft cries, Isolde’s pleadings, Lothar’s protests, he could barely distinguish between them. He closed his eyes, picturing his friends, the way they looked before all of this took place - Ida looking precious in her priestess robes; Isolde’s strong and confident figure; even Mildburg, who would still be alive if it wasn’t for Agilmar. Sigrid and Reiff would deal with him, hopefully, even though Edwin himself would not live to see it. His little trinket shop, which he had poured so much love and hard work into - what would happen to it? That place was his sanctuary after leaving home, and now he would never set foot in it again. All of the annoying and demanding customers, all of the jewelry he never got to finish - he would be leaving them all behind, just like he left his family. His parents, who couldn’t forgive him for what happened to his sister, so they cast him aside. Do they ever think of him? Do they miss him at all? If only he could see them again and tell them how sorry he was. Marcella, his precious little sister… He could give her a thousand apologies, and it still wouldn’t be enough. He would give anything to be able to hug her, tell her how much he loves her, and run with her once again through the fields of Ahrabet like before, chasing butterflies and laughing their hearts out. It felt like an eternity had passed when he opened his eyes, seeing the man he loved standing before him, a blade in his hand. Just like his own, Lothar’s eyes were wet. The demon could barely contain his tears as he plunged the dagger into Edwin, whispering softly: “Forgive me.” Closing his teary eyes, Edwin drew his final breath, just as the sobbing Isolde grabbed him from behind, stopping his lifeless body from hitting the ground.
  5. “I will hunt you down, demon! I will get my sister back!” Isolde yelled furiously as she looked around the temple, but the object of her rage was already gone. Edwin could not believe it. Lothar had betrayed him and taken Ida. After everything they had been through, after he told the shopkeeper to trust him, he had betrayed that trust in the worst possible way. Shocked and heartbroken, Edwin only managed to come to his senses when he heard Isolde’s shouts behind him, realizing they were standing in the middle of the burning temple. Panicking, he rushed over to his blacksmith friend, who looked more furious than ever. “We need to get out of here,” he shouted, pointing at the door. “Isolde, Reiff, let’s go!” The old hermit stood nearby, not moving. His eyes were still locked on the angel that used to be his wife, still unable to leave the demonic trap Lothar set for her. “Helga… I can’t leave her,” Reiff shook his head, refusing to budge as Isolde tried to pull him towards the exit. “Go, you fool!” the angel’s shouts startled them as they all looked up, seeing Helga staring at Reiff for a brief moment before she continued slamming her sword against the invisible barrier that was slowly starting to crack. “Go and save yourself! There is no point in you dying here,” she ordered, her voice authoritative and cold. Edwin realized she was not trying to save Reiff because she cared. She was simply stating facts. Whatever feelings she had for him as a human seemed to have been long gone. “Reiff, please, we’re not going without you!” Edwin grabbed his other hand and pulled, finally managing to pull the old man away from his spot. Turning away from the angel, the two of them hurried toward the door along with Isolde. They were just about to leave the temple, when a voice from behind them cried out, desperate and weak. “Don’t leave me here! Please...” Edwin stopped in his tracks, looking at Isolde, realizing who they had forgotten about in all the commotion. They both turned around, getting a glimpse of Agilmar through the smoke and fire. The old man was still laying on the ground in the far end of the chamber, struggling to free himself from the ropes he was bound with. “Please… Have mercy,” the high priest coughed, begging to be saved. “Isolde…” Edwin looked at his friend, knowing she could not leave her father to die if there was a chance to save him. “I am not a murderer like him. I have to get him out of there,” the woman replied, striding across the room between the burning benches. Grunting in annoyance, Edwin rushed to follow her. As quickly as they could, they grabbed the old man and carried him out with ease, leaving the temple along with Reiff. As soon as they were outside, they dropped Agilmar unceremoniously to the ground as if he were a sack of potatoes. “Ahh!” the high priest groaned as he fell onto the cold ground, coughing and struggling to catch his breath. “Can… can someone please untie me?” he asked meekly, a far cry from the arrogant man from before. “There,” Isolde replied curtly as she cut the ropes around his legs, not even looking into his eyes. His hands, however, remained bound. “And don’t even think about going anywhere. You’re going to help us get Ida back.” “Of course I will,” he nodded, clumsily trying to stand up. “Isolde, I am so…” “Don’t bother. You’re lucky I didn’t leave you there to burn,” she cut him off and moved over to where Edwin and Reiff were standing. They observed as one of the two guards they had fought helped the other one get on his feet and limp away. The shopkeeper and his friends followed suit, wanting to distance themselves from the burning building and find a place to sit and finally breathe. The once majestic and sacred Temple of Dawn now stood charred and ruined as fire engulfed it from the inside, thick plumes of smoke billowing through its many windows into the night air. Throngs of people could be heard yelling and praying as they started gathering in the streets, watching the temple being ravaged by fire. Its stone walls stood unwavering, but it was more than obvious the inside of the building was completely destroyed. As if in a trance, Edwin observed the tragic scene before him as he sat on the cool grass under a large walnut tree across the street, Isolde and Reiff next to him. Agilmar sat alone, some distance away from them, watching the same scene and sobbing. “My temple…” he lamented, his voice coarse, almost a whisper. “Gone, just like that.” Edwin clenched his jaw as he heard the hateful old man sniffling behind him. There was some twisted satisfaction in knowing that everything Agilmar had worked so hard to achieve was burning to ashes right before his very eyes, but even that could not fill the hole that was left in his heart when Lothar disappeared with Ida. He was not sure what hurt more - losing his friend after having just rescued her, or being betrayed by the demon he foolishly allowed himself to get so attached to. Watching the Temple of Dawn burn felt almost cathartic to him, as if he was releasing all of his anger and using it to fuel the fire. It was supposed to be a holy place, a sanctuary where people would come to pray and get solace. Instead, it was a cursed building, corrupted by one man blinded by his fanaticism. Edwin wanted to scream, to punch the high priest and make him feel all the pain he was feeling. Was he wrong for helping Isolde save her father? He was not sure of it, but perhaps she was right. Perhaps Agilmar could at least be useful in helping them find Ida. If he managed to summon her once, maybe he could do it again. “We’ll find her, you know,” Edwin finally broke the silence as he turned to look at Isolde. He wasn’t even sure in his own words, but he had to believe. If he said it out loud, maybe he could actually speak it into existence. Or maybe Isolde would find a way to convince him. Sadly for him, that was not the case. The woman refused to even look at him, her gaze fixed on the crowd that gathered in the street to observe the great fire. “And how do you know that?” she responded frostily, her face like a stony mask. “Do you have any more demons willing to help us? We never should’ve trusted him. You never should’ve trusted him.” “That’s not fair. I didn’t know this would happen. I wanted to find Ida as much as you did,” Edwin replied, turning away. “We wouldn’t have even found her in the first place if it wasn’t for…” he suddenly stopped, unable to say Lothar’s name out loud. Just thinking of him felt like getting stabbed in the heart. “Maybe so, but what does that do for me now? Nothing. Ida is still gone. I have no more family left.” “Then we’ll find her again. We don’t stop until we get her back. Is that right, Reiff?” he asked as he turned to the large man to his left, expecting support. The hermit, however, merely stared into the distance, a sad look in his teary eyes. “I don’t care anymore,” Reiff spoke after a while, shaking his head slightly so that it was barely noticeable. Edwin could feel another wave of guilt washing over him. Even though he was not responsible for Helga’s fate, he could not look at the innocent man next to him and not feel sorry for what he had to witness that night. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, Reiff cut him off. “It’s been eight years. Eight years since she disappeared on me. I lost everything trying to get her back, but I didn’t care. My work, my house, my friends… Because I didn’t care about anything else but finding her. Even when I thought there was nothing else I could do, when I’d stopped trying, I still didn’t lose all hope. I thought that no matter how much time had passed, there was still a chance I’d see her again. That’s what kept me going, but now…” A pang of sadness tearing at his insides, Edwin put a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Perhaps she’s found a way to escape,” he said, glancing back at the burning temple. “Even if she did, she’s still gone. You saw her with your own eyes, Edwin. Whatever they did to her… That’s not my Helga anymore. It just looks like her,” Reiff replied, his voice weaker than Edwin had ever heard it. “All I care about now is making sure he gets what he deserves,” he turned, staring at Agilmar with eyes full of hatred. The high priest flinched at the threat, but did not dare to reply. “I hope you find your friend. Perhaps it’s still not too late for her,” the hermit replied, sounding resigned to his fate. “And it’s not too late for you either,” Edwin insisted. “Do you think Helga would have wanted you to spend your life suffering, isolating yourself from everyone and withering away?” The hermit did not move nor make any indication that he heard Edwin’s words. Taking his silence as permission to continue, the shopkeeper went on. “She would’ve wanted you to be happy, to laugh, work, spend time with friends. Even just now at the temple, she wanted you to go and save yourself.” “That wasn’t Helga and you know it.” “How can you be so certain of that? Perhaps there was a small part of her left, something that even the angels could not erase,” Edwin continued, saying whatever he could to lift the man’s spirits. “There is still so much you can do with your life. You were a great carpenter, I’m sure whoever takes over the temple would hire you to help them rebuild it.” “Why would I want that? I’d rather if the whole place burned to the ground,” Reiff responded gruffly, glancing at the church with hatred. “Because, even if that monster defiled it with his evil, you can help turn it into a place Helga wanted it to be. You can make sure people remember her and all the good she did. And Agilmar will never set foot in it again for as long as he lives.” ~~ Lothar moved through one of the many dark hallways of the Obsidian Keep, his prisoner obediently walking next to him. He had not spoken a single word since he blinked them both to the Demonic Domain, too busy thinking of Edwin and the state he had left him in. The image of his beloved’s face, looking at him heartbroken, pleading with him not to go, would not leave his mind. “Who are you? Where are you taking me?” a timid voice stirred the demon from his thoughts, but he pressed on, dragging the girl along with him. He could not stop, and would not look at her. The truth was, he was ashamed of what he had done. He hated himself for lying to Edwin and taking his friend away. The young woman was clearly frightened and on the brink of tears, far from the witty, carefree girl that Edwin used to tell him about. Perhaps Nyra was right, he was so stupid. After centuries of being loyal and doing his job brilliantly, he just had to fall in love with a human and develop a conscience. Still, he had to see things through, there was no other way. If he failed Cromwell, or worse yet, betrayed him for a human, there was no telling what the demon lord would do to all of them. “Don’t worry,” he finally spoke quietly, addressing Ida. “Just don’t cause any trouble and you’ll be fine. We just need information about the angels. Tell us what we need to know, and I’ll take you back to Edwin and your sister.” “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know,” Ida replied readily. “Do you… do you know Isolde and Edwin? Will they be fine?” Suddenly, Lothar stopped as they arrived in front of a large, heavy door carved with demonic runes - the entrance to Cromwell’s chambers. “We’re here,” the demon said, ignoring her last question. “Don’t oppose Cromwell. Tell him whatever he wants to know.” With that last warning, he knocked on the door. Rather than Cromwell himself inviting him in, the door was opened by two guards who stood nearby. Their faces were unreadable as they stared at the new arrivals, but Lothar paid them no mind. He walked into the chamber with Ida, looking at the demon lord with all the confidence and courage he could muster. There was no one else inside aside from Pang, the large black panther that laid on the ground, lazily licking its paws, not paying attention to anyone. “My lord, I’ve done as you asked. I’ve found the girl and brought her to you,” Lothar announced, every word feeling like a stab in the guts. “So you did,” Cromwell raised an eyebrow, lifting himself up from his seat. “Well done… well done indeed.” Lothar could not help but detect the note of surprise in his voice. Was the demon lord expecting him to fail? Did he doubt Lothar’s abilities, or even worse – his loyalty? “So, this is the human that angels deemed worthy to steal?” Cromwell asked as he approached Ida. Nearly three times her size, he circled around her like a predator around its prey. The girl stood silent and looked straight ahead, clearly suppressing the urge to shake in fear. “Well – can’t you speak?!” “Y-yes,” Ida stuttered, still not daring to look Cromwell in the eyes. Lothar stood aside, his eyes trained on the other demon as if he was about to tear the girl’s head off at any moment. “Good. So you won’t be useless,” the burly, red-haired demon lord grunted, stopping in front of the girl. “What did the angels want with you?” “They… they spoke about a plan. They wouldn’t tell me all of it but… They said I was perfect because I was a priestess, that I was spreading faith among people. And that once they were done with me, I would be even more useful,” Ida replied obediently. “It confirms what we thought. They’re trying to convert even more souls to their cause, as if humans aren’t dumb enough to do that on their own,” Cromwell scoffed, talking to no one in particular. “If they’re risking going to Earth and exposing themselves, that means they’re desperate. They want war.” The panther suddenly stopped cleaning herself and looked at her master, as if understanding what he was saying. “What did they do to you?” “When they brought me… there, I don’t even know where that is, they took me to a lake. It was silver and shimmery, but so cold. They held me and pushed me under until I was almost drowning. Then they took me out and brought me to a tower. I pleaded that they take me home, but I hardly ever got a reply. They put me in a chamber, laid me on a bed and covered me with something. I don’t know what it was, but I fell asleep soon after. They did that almost every day,” Ida spoke. “There were others like me there, lost and confused.” “Others? How many?” Cromwell asked. “Dozens. I didn’t know what to think at the time, but now I know they must’ve been humans like me because they weren’t wearing the cloaks that all the angels wore. I tried talking to some of them, but the angels wouldn’t let me. I just needed a friendly face, someone to talk to, but there was no one.” Once Cromwell was finally satisfied that he had gotten all the answers he needed, he motioned to the guards by the door. “Take her to the dungeon. We’re done here.” Lothar cast a panicked look at Ida, then back at Cromwell, feeling a knot in his stomach. He could see the poor girl looking at him pleadingly, but there was little he could do. “My lord…” “You’re dismissed. Be on your way,” the demon lord replied, not sparing Lothar a second glance as the guards grabbed hold of Ida and blinked out of the room. “Very well, I just… Do you not want me to take her back? If you’re done questioning her, that is.” “Take her back?” Cromwell let out a booming laugh, crouching down to pat Pang along her strong neck. The panther closed her eyes, enjoying the attention. “Why would we do that? Think someone on Earth is gonna miss her?” “No, I… I know you said we just needed her for information.” “And we got the information, so we don’t need her anymore,” the demon lord replied. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to set her free. We stole one of the angels’ playthings, and now its ours. Any problems with that?” Clenching his jaw, Lothar shook his head. He knew better than to defy Cromwell. “No, my lord.” “Then leave,” the other demon demanded, his tone serious and final. Without another word, Lothar obeyed, vanishing from the room. He knew there was nothing else he could say. Any attempts to go against Cromwell’s orders would lead not only to Ida’s swift death, but to his own as well. As he walked towards his home, leaving the Obsidian Keep behind, Lothar wondered how Ida was being treated. Were they going to hurt her? Starve her? Whatever happened to her, it would be on his conscience, as he was the one who brought her there. The feeling of guilt that was eating him up was not subsiding, but another emotion was starting to grow even stronger inside Lothar – the desire to slit Cromwell’s throat. ~~ It was still night when Edwin and Isolde started making their way to Sigrid’s house, taking Agilmar with them as their prisoner. To Edwin’s surprise, Reiff did not abandon them. Despite what he had said earlier that night, he came along, always keeping an eye on the high priest. “I’m not letting him out of my sight,” he muttered as he walked alongside Edwin, glancing at the old man in front of them. The rest of the walk was mostly spent in silence. Even though the shopkeeper tried to initiate a conversation a few times, neither Isolde nor Reiff seemed to be in a talkative mood. After a few minutes, Edwin gave up trying. As he expected, Sigrid greeted them with a mixture of shock and anger when they appeared at her doorstep with Agilmar in tow. “What is he doing here?” the old woman asked, pointing at the man she despised, the man who killed her sister. “I’m sorry for bringing him to your home, but we may need him to find Ida,” Isolde was the first to speak, casting an apologetic look at the mystic. “I know he’s the last person you wish to see, trust me.” Sigrid nodded and took her hand, squeezing it in support. “You mean to say you did not manage to find your sister?” “We did, but… It’s a long story,” Isolde replied, entering the small wooden house, and the rest of the group filed in after her. Edwin took it upon himself to recount the events of the night, as painful as it was to go through it again. Sigrid stayed silent the entire time, running her bejeweled fingers through a translucent bowl filled with small crystals of various colors. Clearly, she and Mildburg shared many interests, the shopkeeper noticed. Actually, it was more than that. It was a lifestyle for them. It wasn’t until Edwin finished that Sigrid finally spoke, shaking her head. “I knew I should’ve come with you. I could’ve helped.” “You could’ve gotten yourself hurt, or worse,” Isolde said. “I never said it, but… I’m really sorry about your sister. I barely knew her, but I know she was only trying to help, just as you’re trying to help us now. Even though I shouldn’t be the one apologizing,” she added, looking at her father out of the corner of her eye. “Thank you, child,” Sigrid replied before Agilmar had a chance to react. “I appreciate it, but I don’t need an apology. What I need is justice, and I know it will come.” The tension in the room was getting more palpable with every passing moment, entirely caused by Agilmar’s presence. It was Sigrid who broke it by turning to Edwin as she clasped her hands together. “So, what do you intend to do now? I would like to assist however I can.” “We need to try and get Ida back, and he will be the one to do it,” the shopkeeper replied, turning to the high priest, who sat in a chair in the corner and had not spoken the entire time. “Whatever you did to summon her in the temple, you will do it again, or show us how so that we can do it. Understood?” “Of course,” the old man nodded, nervously looking at the stern faces staring at him. “I shall do what you ask of me. I just… do you have a copy of the holy scripture in your home?” he asked, turning to the old mystic. “I shall need it to recite the prayer.” Sigrid frowned and stood up, the chair squeaking as she did. After rummaging through her wooden cabinet, she returned with a small leather-bound book in her hand. Without a word, she dropped the book at the table in front of the priest, letting it fall with a light thud. “Thank you,” he replied curtly, his eyes focused on the book. He opened it, turning the pages until he found the section he needed. The tension and awkwardness in the room morphed into anticipation as everyone silently observed the old priest, watching his mouth move as he muttered the prayers from the scripture. Edwin thought of how only a few hours ago, he was at the temple, watching Agilmar do the same exact thing. Once again, he felt the same anxiety mixed with hope, wondering if his dear friend would somehow return to him. Only this time, nothing was happening. There was no shimmering golden light suddenly appearing out of thin air. Minutes passed, but Ida was nowhere to be seen. Edwin’s stomach dropped as he feared the worst. He could not believe that Lothar would harm his friend, but would that be so difficult to believe after everything that happened? “What’s happening? Where is Ida?” Isolde insisted, glaring at her father. “What did you do?!” “Nothing, I… I did everything exactly the same,” Agilmar stuttered, looking up at his daughter’s angry face. “I don’t believe you!” “But I promise, it’s the same prayer. Here, look...” he replied nervously, offering the book to her. “You can try it yourself if you don’t believe me. It’s all he-” Not waiting for him to finish, the young woman snatched the book from his fingers, eyeing the verses he had pointed out. “Do you want to try?” Edwin asked her, leaning over to look at the book. “Of course I want to try!” she replied abrasively. “As if I can trust him ever again.” Once again, silence fell over the room, only broken by the soft sounds of prayers. Only this time, it was Isolde who was reciting them. Over and over she tried, and with each attempt, Edwin was losing a little more hope. He wondered if the prayer could ever work if spoken by someone who never showed much faith, such as Isolde. It was certainly easier to believe that was the cause. Whatever the reason was, the prayer showed no results, no matter who was reciting it. As the dawn started to break, the first rays of cold, morning sun sneaking through the curtained windows, Edwin placed a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Isolde, it’s not…” “Leave me alone! I have to keep trying,” the young woman sobbed as she wiped her nose with her hand, still staring at the book in front of her. “I can’t give up.” “Edwin is right,” Reiff grumbled from his chair, where he had been napping on and off throughout the night. “We have to try something else.” “But what?” Looking up from her tarot cards that she had spread on the table in front of her, Sigrid spoke: “I cannot be sure, but if the demon indeed took your sister to his realm, perhaps that is the reason we cannot summon her back? I suppose a holy prayer would not be designed to bring anyone from the dark realms.” “Then what do we do?” Isolde inquired. “I have never done this, of course, but… what if we alter the prayer - reverse its effect so that instead of bringing Ida here…” “...it takes us to wherever she is,” Edwin finished her sentence.
  6. The morning sun had already filled the bedroom with its golden rays, but Edwin and Lothar were still in bed, finishing their breakfast. The shopkeeper could not remember the last time he had enjoyed a meal so thoroughly, though he suspected the company had a lot to do with it. Last night’s activities had left him especially hungry, and the demon had proven he was up to the task, providing them with an abundant, refreshing meal. Edwin was still naked, lying under the sheets, with the demon sprawled out next to him. As much as he wanted to stay in that bed forever and enjoy Lothar’s company, he knew they had work to do. Perhaps the most important part of their quest was ahead of them. “Agilmar? Are you sure of that?” Lothar seemed equally surprised and suspicious. “Yes. Sigrid performed some kind of ritual and summoned her sister’s spirit. She told us it was Agilmar who killed her. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,” Edwin explained, detailing to Lothar everything that had happened in his absence. “Him being a high priest, it makes sense he was able to reach the angels. They wouldn’t be open to just about anyone’s calls, but someone like him… it makes perfect sense,” Lothar concluded. “But why? How could he do that to his own daughter? How could he ruin her life like that?” the shopkeeper asked, a part of him still refusing to believe what he knew must be the truth. “I think he’d disagree with you on that. If he’s as fanatical as you say, he must believe working directly for the angels is the ultimate purpose in life, even if it gets you killed,” the demon said. “I’m more surprised he didn’t offer himself up.” “He’s a monster is what he is,” Edwin shook his head, a disgusted look on his face. “Ida is so caring and kind, she would’ve made a great priestess, but this… Who knows what the angels will do with her?” “Nothing good,” Lothar added. “At least nothing good for us.” Edwin gazed quietly into the distance, afraid to even utter the words that were on his mind. He refused to even accept the possibility. “Do you… do you think it’s too late now?” “We can’t think like that, Edwin,” the demon entwined their fingers together and gave him a look full of encouragement. “I can’t help it. As much as I try to stay optimistic, sometimes I start doubting everything and I wonder if we’ll ever manage to bring Ida back,” Edwin confessed. “I just can’t lose her, Lothar, not after…” “After what?” the demon asked. Edwin hung his head low, avoiding his gaze. He did not wish to reopen the old wounds once again, as he had done with Sigrid, but were they even closed in the first place? He realized he still thought of Marcella every day, praying for her recovery every night before he went to bed. Perhaps opening up to Lothar would make him feel better, even if just for a moment. “I don’t usually talk about this, but… I have a sister,” he finally spoke, letting out a sigh and looking back up to find Lothar watching him with keen interest. “Her name is Marcella.” “Oh? Where does she live?” “She’s living with our parents… in Ahrabet. I haven’t seen them in over three years,” Edwin explained, biting his lip. As Lothar moved closer, placing a comforting arm around his waist, the shopkeeper found himself opening up, words pouring out of his mouth as he told him about the accident he wished so hard had never happened. Once he was finished, he felt the demon wrap him in a warm hug, planting a soft, gentle kiss on his forehead. It was a sign of affection that he never expected from someone like Lothar. “I’m sorry to hear that,” the white-haired man spoke softly. “And I know you think it’s all your fault…” “It is. She can’t walk because of me. She’s only sixteen, and I ruined her life, her future!” “Stop, and listen to me,” Lothar was insistent. “Accidents happen all the time, even when we are being careful and have nothing but the best intentions. You can’t blame yourself for what happened to your sister... or Ida.” Edwin looked away, still unconvinced, but Lothar continued: “Hey, I hate seeing you like this. Why don’t you tell me your favorite memory of Marcella and you? I’m sure you have no shortage of those.” Finally, the shopkeeper’s lips curved into a smile as he recalled his childhood and all the happy moments he spent with his little sister by his side. It was so difficult to single out just one. “That’s true, we were always close, always having fun. I can’t choose,” Edwin stared into the distance as he mused about his younger years. “Well, I guess there is one that always makes me smile. It was Marcella’s eighth birthday and we all went to the beach, the whole family. We brought food, swam in the sea, and then we built sandcastles. I wanted mine to look like the royal castle of Ahrabet, and Marcella wanted to make the Wisian castle, but… well, she was eight, it looked more like a big lump of wet sand. Anyway, after we were finished, I went to take a swim again, but Marcella tripped and fell, destroying my castle. When I came back, she tried to convince me it was a wave that did it. And when I asked her how come her castle was still standing, she said it was ‘a wave that only destroys ugly castles!’” “Hah! She sounds like a sharp one,” Lothar let out a loud chuckle as Edwin observed him, appreciating how his eyes crinkled when he smiled. “Oh she is so clever, you wouldn’t believe it,” he gushed, thinking fondly of his little sister. “She would always have an answer for everything.” “I can see how much you love her,” the demon noticed, “and I’m sure she loves you just as much.” Edwin was ready to protest, when Lothar shut him up with a kiss. It was spontaneous and playful, and the shopkeeper couldn’t resist smiling as the demon held him in his arms, making him feel all giddy inside. “Stop smiling when I’m trying to kiss you!” Lothar teased him as he pulled away, but Edwin wasted no time in grabbing him by the shoulders and bringing their bodies closer together. It was barely an hour later that loud knocks on the door drew their attention away from each other, and the two men quickly dressed and went downstairs to find Sigrid and Isolde waiting outside. The tension in the room was palpable, with the young blacksmith woman standing moodily to the side, eyeing Lothar with a distrustful gaze. Sigrid, on the other hand, curiously observed the demon, as if wanting to ask him a million questions. “My word… A demon in the flesh,” the mystic spoke, almost whispering, as she looked at him. “That is something I never thought I’d see with my two eyes.” “You can say that again,” Isolde muttered, seemingly unimpressed. Edwin merely rolled his eyes and turned around, ignoring her. The last thing he wanted was to play the mediator between Lothar and her, especially when they had to focus on the task at hand. “I’m sorry about what happened to your sister, Sigrid,” Lothar said, breaking the awkward silence. “I appreciate it,” the old woman nodded. “But I have little use of people feeling sorry for me. What I want is for that snake Agilmar to pay for what he did to her. So, here I am, and I will do whatever I can to help.” “Thank you,” Edwin nodded as he brought a chair for the woman to sit. “We should go to the temple and find him then. We need him to summon Ida, or whatever angel that took her. That’s our only way of getting her back,” Lothar stated. “And then, once we don’t need him anymore, we can... deal with him.” The old mystic looked over at the demon, a hint of a smile tugging at her lips. “You know what, I think I’ll enjoy having this one on our side,” she replied, pointing at Lothar. “I can’t disagree there,” Edwin smirked. “But we should wait for Reiff, we promised we’d wait for him. I’m sure he wants to find his wife as much as we want to find Ida.” “When is he coming?” Isolde sounded impatient, though Edwin was unsure if she was eager to find her sister or simply to finish the task so she would not have to be in the same room as Lothar. “I’ll go look for him,” the demon said without waiting for a reply. “Perhaps he’s at the docks like last time.” “Good luck, and come back soon in case he shows up here first,” Edwin replied. Lothar gave him a nod and blinked out of the room, leaving the two women staring wide-eyed at the empty space where he stood merely a second ago. As time passed, Edwin’s boredom shifted into impatience and then anxiety, as he wondered why neither Lothar nor Reiff were showing up. While Sigrid and Isolde chose to settle down in the kitchen, where they drank herbal tea and talked as if they had known each other for years, Edwin remained in his shop, trying to stay busy with his trinkets and jewelry. Just as he was focusing on polishing a pair of ornate emerald earrings, Lothar suddenly appeared, startling him. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” the demon quickly apologized. “I can knock next time.” “That’s alright,” Edwin replied, cracking a smile to show that he was far from being angry at him. “I take it you didn’t find Reiff?” “No,” Lothar shook his head, frowning. “No sign of him anywhere. I looked all over town, but I have no idea where he could’ve gone.” “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Lothar,” the shopkeeper said, sounding concerned. Even though he always used to see himself as a realistic person, lately he noticed he was becoming more of a pessimist, always expecting the worst. It was only Lothar who managed to brighten his spirits with his very presence. “I know it’s possible you may have just missed him, this is a big town. But what if something’s happened to him?” “I think that’s quite possible. We’ll find out soon enough either way.” “There’s no point in waiting then, is there?” Isolde asked, appearing from the kitchen. “Let’s get going. The sooner we find Ida, the better.” “Good luck, all of you,” Sigrid called out as she entered the room. Even though she wanted to join them, the others managed to convince her to stay, just in case Reiff showed up. In reality, they did not want the old woman to slow them down or get injured. “Thank you,” Edwin replied as he and Lothar put their jackets on. “Now, let us go,” he added, taking Lothar by the hand. Isolde took one look at them and shook her head vigorously. “What? You expect me to… No, no way. I’ll walk.” “Isolde, don’t be silly. It’s much faster if we just blink there,” Edwin rolled his eyes. “It’s perfectly safe too, trust me. I’ve already done it. Besides, I don’t want you walking through the town alone. The last thing we need is for you to disappear like Reiff.” Reluctantly, the young woman stepped closer and grabbed Lothar by the forearm, trying not to look at him. “Fine. Hurry up then, let’s…” A moment later, before she could even finish her sentence, the three of them were standing behind a house across the street from the Temple of Dawn. With dark clouds covering the sky and obscuring the sun, the street looked darker than usual. Even the grand temple, with its white pillars and golden arches, seemed as though it was drained of color, its shine dulled by the chilly, gloomy weather. “I suppose we’d better get moving,” Edwin was the first to speak, shivering in the cold wind. The three of them moved quickly until they crossed the street, reaching the temple itself. As he observed it, Edwin could feel his heart racing. Rather than a place of worship, the building looked almost haunted now. It provided no comfort, no sense of safety, only painful memories as he thought of Ida and how he had been missing every day since she disappeared. Was this really the day he would finally find his friend and rescue her? “You two go ahead through the front door. I’ll blink in through the back, just in case,” Lothar suggested, jolting Edwin out of his deep thoughts. “Huh? Oh, alright then,” he replied as the demon vanished before his eyes. “Are you serious with this?” Isolde grunted, hitting Edwin in the arm. “Can’t you see what he’s doing? He’s leaving us to be the bait while he goes undetected through the back! Who cares if anything happens to us, right?” “Nothing is going to happen to us, we’re just going in to find Agilmar. He’s not going to cause a scene with all the people in the temple.” “Then why did he suggest we split up?” “Because it’s the smart thing to do. Look, you don’t have to trust him, but at least trust me. Lothar has never let me down before.” “I hope you’re right, because if not, I’m going to kick both of your asses,” the young woman grabbed Edwin by the arm just a little too strongly and pulled him with her, approaching the temple. With a loud creak, the massive wooden door opened, and the two friends entered, finding the place strangely empty. Aside from a few priests sitting quietly in the back aisles and praying to whatever gods they believed in, there was no one else. Edwin proceeded through the temple, expecting priestess Giselle to appear at the worst moment and attempt to kick them out like last time. He glanced around, hoping to see Lothar pop up, but the demon was nowhere to be seen. Just as he approached the altar at the centre of the nave, a door on the left opened and a young priest appeared. “We need to speak with Agilmar, now,” Isolde immediately spoke, eyeing the man with all the confidence she could muster. “Where is he?” “I shall go and tell him he has visitors. Please wait right here,” the priest said and turned around, disappearing into the same chamber he came out of. It was soon after that the door opened again, only this time, it was Agilmar himself who came out, flanked by two of his guards. The tall men with their chests up high, an emotionless look on their faces. Even though they wore priest robes, they made sure the blades of their swords were clearly visible. “And how may I help you on this fine day? I hope you did not come here to harass my priests again. Giselle is not here, in case you wanted to implicate her in any more of your preposterous theories.” “Drop the act, we know it was you,” Isolde replied, her words filled with contempt for her father. “It was me? Good heavens, what have I supposedly done this time?” “We know you killed Mildburg,” Edwin spoke angrily, almost shouting, his voice echoing through the temple. He could see Agilmar’s perfect facade beginning to crumble as the high priest looked alarmed at the men sitting near the entrance, looking up to see what was happening. “Leave us, please,” Agilmar called out to them, watching them leave the temple. “We know everything. You killed her because she was helping me find Ida. Which means you had something to do with that too,” Edwin added. The look of shock on the old man’s face was quickly replaced by another smile, which only served to make Edwin even angrier. “You think I did something to my own daughter? Now I’ve heard it all,” Agilmar chuckled heartily. “Guards, escort them out. I will not tolerate this nonsense.” Just as the two men stepped forward, a door in the back burst open, startling them all. “Look who I found in the back, knocked out and tied up,” Lothar said, walking into the room with Reiff following right behind him. “Reiff, are you alright?” Edwin asked, concerned about the man. “I’m fine, just banged up a little.” “Who are you, anyway?!” Agilmar questioned with panic in his voice. With Edwin and Isolde on one side, and Reiff and Lothar on the other, he was surrounded. “Guards, seize him!” “I wouldn’t bother with that,” the demon replied, conjuring two fireballs that swirled around just above his palms. The flame reflected in his red eyes, making them look even more demonic than usual. “Unless you want to watch me killing everyone in this place and burning your precious temple to the ground.” “What… what are you?” Agilmar whispered as he stared dumbstruck at the man in front of him. Edwin glanced between him and the guards, wondering if any of them would dare make a move, but they all seemed too frightened to even lift a finger. “What’s the matter? You’re used to dealing with angels, but you’ve never seen a demon?” Lothar smirked at the old priest. “You were the one who summoned the angels to come and take your daughter, as well as the priestess Helga years ago.” “I…” “That wasn’t a question,” the demon cut him off, his tone icy, as he approached Agilmar menacingly, snuffing out the fireballs. “Now you’re going to do it again, and tell them to return the women. Or else...” he suddenly blinked and reappeared behind the old man, grabbing him by the throat, “I will end you and everything you’ve worked to achieve. Your church, your entire legacy… they will be history.” Staring straight ahead, Agilmar swallowed hard and finally nodded. “Very well. I shall do as you ask.” “Get on with it then,” Lothar ordered, pushing him towards the altar, while everyone else stood around, all eyes on Agilmar. Edwin watched as the high priest stood at the altar, the candelabras in front of him casting an eerie glow on his pale, wrinkled face. The man calmly picked up a holy book, opening it and flipping through the pages. Once he finally found what he was looking for, he started whispering what sounded like a prayer. The shopkeeper could barely understand the words, but he could clearly hear the names Ida and Helga being pronounced. He stood in silence, gripping Isolde’s hand tightly as they waited for the high priest to finish his summoning prayer, every second feeling like an hour. After a while, Agilmar finally recited the entire prayer, closing the book in front of him. Edwin looked around, feeling as if he would jump out of his skin due to the anticipation and tension. The prayer was completed, so why was nothing happening? Unless the old bastard had tricked them all. Perhaps he did not go through with it, or changed a word or two on purpose just to make it fail. He would have to be a fool to try and sabotage them, though, as Lothar was clearly prepared to end his life at the first sign of trouble. As Edwin looked over at Lothar for support, thinking of all the ways things could go wrong, a glimmering light manifested next to the altar, twinkling in the air and growing in size with every second. The shopkeeper could hear a stunned Isolde gasp, and just a moment later, the familiar figure of his best friend appeared, standing before them in the flesh. Dressed in plain, light-gray robes, the girl seemed frightened, her eyes darting around the place. Even though her face looked as beautiful as always, Edwin could notice the fear in her teary eyes. “Ida… I can’t believe it,” he cried out, rushing toward the girl and wrapping her in a warm, tight hug, Isolde following suit. It wasn’t an illusion or a trick, she was really there! Edwin sobbed, his tears falling on the girl’s shoulder. He could not let her go, lest she disappeared on him again. “Edwin...” the young priestess cried, unable to contain her tears, as she hugged her sister and her best friend. “Isolde… I’m here, but… but how? What happened? The angels...” “I know, you’re back,” Isolde spoke gently, something Edwin had never heard before. She stroked her sister’s long, brown hair, gazing lovingly into her eyes. “You’re back, and that’s all that matters.” Just as the three of them separated, the shimmering light appeared yet again, revealing a tall, middle-aged woman dressed in robes similar to the ones Ida wore. Even though Edwin had never seen her before, he had a pretty good idea of who she was. Of course, his suspicions were confirmed as soon as he looked at Reiff, seeing the stunned expression on his face. “Helga!” the old man called out, his voice hoarse and weak. He was obviously on the verge of tears, struggling not to let them fall. The woman turned to him, a hint of recognition in her eyes. “Reiff, it is really you,” she replied, extending a hand to him. As if drawn by a magnetic force, Reiff approached his long lost wife, his eyes never leaving her face. Without hesitating even a second more, he wrapped his arms around her, letting tears freely fall down his face. “I don’t understand…” Ida whispered, looking at all the familiar and unfamiliar faces around her. “Isolde, father… what happened?” Edwin looked at her with sympathy as he squeezed her hand, wondering how to explain everything without hurting her even more. How to tell her that it was her own father who had betrayed her? “What happened was Agilmar let the angels take you away,” Lothar said, approaching them before Edwin even had a chance to speak. “And he did the same with Helga.” “What do you mean? And who are you?” Ida asked, turning to look at the white-haired man walking towards her. “She doesn’t need to know all the details right now! Can’t you see she’s distraught?” Isolde insisted, taking her sister’s hand. “Come, with should get out of here. You should get some rest first, and then we’ll tell you everything.” “No, I need to know! Isolde, you have no idea where I’ve been, the things I’ve seen… I need to know I’m not losing my mind.” “You’re not, I promise,” Edwin interjected, gazing into his best friend’s eyes. There was nothing he wanted more at that moment than to reassure her and make her feel safe, make her feel like everything would be alright and life would go back to normal just as if nothing had happened, even though he was well aware that would never happen. All of a sudden, he spotted a strange glimmer of light out of the corner of his eye. His eyes went wide with shock as he turned and saw a fiery sword slicing through the air, as Helga lunged toward Lothar, ready to strike. “Lothar, look out!” Edwin yelled, getting the demon’s attention. Lothar turned around, just in time to see the angel’s blade coming toward him, mere inches from his head. Blinking at the last second, he reappeared behind the altar, hurling a fireball at her. With lightning quick reflexes, Helga blocked the projectile with her sword, causing it to vanish. Astonished, everyone watched as her feet left the ground and she flew toward Lothar, slicing through the air with her sword. “Helga, what are you doing?!” Reiff cried out, but the woman did not even turn to look at him. Her eyes were fixed on her target. “Getting rid of this demon scum,” she replied as Lothar blinked yet again to another corner of the temple. “Stop running away and face me, coward!” “We need to leave, now!” Isolde yelled, grabbing her sister and pulling her by the hand. “Edwin, come on!” “No, I’m not leaving Lothar here,” the shopkeeper insisted, nervously watching the battle before him. There was no way to help, but he could not just leave Lothar at a time like this. “Edwin, go!” the demon shouted at him as he fired another ball of flame, narrowly missing the angel. “Reiff, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to kill your wife… Or what’s left of her anyway.” “Stop them!” Agilmar shouted from the corner he was hiding in, gesturing towards his daughters as they made their way toward the exit. The two guards immediately rushed over, their swords drawn, attempting to block the exit. Stopping in front of the two men, Isolde drew her own blades, staring at them without flinching. “I will kill you if I have to,” she threatened, causing them to snicker. “Give me one of those,” Reiff said as he approached the blacksmith woman, taking one of her blades. “Now it’s a fair fight.” The guards looked at each other before lunging forward, their swords clashing with their opponents’. Ida screamed in panic as she watched her sister fighting off the much bigger man. Unarmed, Edwin quickly grabbed his friend by the hand and pulled her toward him and away from the fight. He glanced around the vast temple, trying to find something, anything he could use as a weapon, when he noticed Agilmar making his way toward the back door, trying to escape. “Like hell you will,” he muttered, grabbing a large candelabra off the wall and rushing forward. Panicking, the old priest opened the door, but before he could close it all the way, Edwin grabbed the door and slammed it open. He swung the heavy candlestick, but the priest grabbed it, trying to wrestle it away from him. “You meddlesome rat! You’ll ruin everything,” Agilmar panted as he tried to overpower Edwin, but the young man was much too strong for him. “Bastard! You deserve to die for what you did,” Edwin grumbled, slamming the old man against the wall and letting him fall to the floor. “Father! So it’s true,” Ida asked as she ran over, tears spilling down her face. “You did this to me? How could you?” “How could I?” Agilmar scoffed, looking at his daughter in the eyes, not a trace of remorse on his face. “You should be honored the angels chose you to join them! You would have become one of them, joining their ranks and their mission. You still can, it’s not too late.” “You are insane! I never wanted any of this!” “Insane, and a murderer,” Edwin added as he grabbed a rope from one of the curtains and tied the priest’s arms and legs so he couldn’t escape. “Keep an eye on him,” he told Ida as he rushed through the temple, just in time to see Isolde slash one of the guards across the thigh. With a scream, the man fell down to his knees, dropping his sword in defeat. His partner was already lying on the ground, knocked out cold by Reiff. “Give up, the girl is ours,” Edwin could hear the voice of the angel from behind him. As he turned around, he could see Helga flying through the air, narrowly avoiding the fireball Lothar flung at her. The projectile hit the wall instead, setting the curtains on fire. “Even if we lose her, there will be others. And they will convert even more souls to our cause. More soldiers to fight against your kind,” she continued with her taunting, her eyes trained on the demon. Lothar blinked again, and Helga wasted no time in zooming in towards him, ready to strike. Only this time, her target was not Lothar. Swinging her sword through the air, she slashed the burning curtains, causing them to fall on top of the demon. “Lothar!” Edwin screamed, seeing the heavy fabric engulfed in flame cover Lothar. Just as he was about to run over, Isolde grabbed him, pulling him away. “Are you crazy? We need to leave while we still can,” she hissed at him, watching fire spread from all the places Lothar hit with a fireball. “I’m not leaving,” he insisted, ignoring her warnings. Just as he broke free from her grip, Lothar reappeared behind Helga, his white hair singed in places. Edwin breathed a sigh of relief as he noticed the demon seemed otherwise unharmed. “Did you really think my own fire can hurt me?” he mocked the angel, conjuring another fireball and firing it at her. In a blink of an eye, Helga had her sword in front of her body, ready to block the incoming projectile, but it never came. Instead, the ball of flame hit the ground beneath her feet, just as Lothar muttered something in the old demonic language. “You missed,” Helga smiled proudly, but then gasped in horror as she watched the demonic fire beneath her vanish, leaving scorch marks in the shape of a pentagram. “What did you do?!” she yelled at Lothar as she tried to move but was unable to leave the circle, as if an invisible barrier surrounded her. “You will pay for this!” “Helga, please! You can fight this,” Reiff pleaded as he watched the angel furiously swing her sword, trying to break the spell. “Reiff, that’s not her anymore. She’s been converted,” Isolde tried to reason with him. “Whatever the angels did to her, she’s not your wife anymore. She’s one of them now. Come on, we have to leave.” “No…” the man struggled as Edwin and Isolde grabbed hold of him, trying to drag him to the exit. His eyes filled with tears, he could not look away from his wife. “Helga, please, listen to me…” he continued begging, but the angel paid him no mind as if he did not exist. “Ida, we have to go,” Edwin called out to his friend, who was still in the back, watching her father with a mix of sadness and disgust. The girl looked up at her friend, but before she could make a move, Lothar blinked behind her, pressing a dagger against her throat. “Don’t move,” he ordered. “Lothar, what…” Edwin stared at him, unblinking. Fire was spreading through the temple, filling the place with smoke, but the only thing he could see was the man he thought he loved holding a blade against his best friend’s neck. “What’s going on?” “I’m sorry, Edwin,” the demon replied, his red eyes filled with regret. He glanced to the side, noticing the angel slowly breaking his trap. “No, no, don’t say that,” the man begged as he walked toward them. Lothar could not betray him like that, he just couldn’t! Not after everything they’ve been through, after Edwin gave him his soul, his heart. The demon made him open up, tell him his secrets, his dreams. Even in the darkest moments, he was able to make Edwin feel like everything would be alright, but now… “Lothar, please, you don’t have to do this,” Edwin pleaded, glancing between the demon and Ida. Was he truly about to lose his best friend again, after having just found her? His heart breaking into pieces, he stood and watched as Lothar grabbed Ida by the arm. “I have no choice, I’m sorry. Now please, run before it’s too late,” the demon repeated before vanishing along with Ida.
  7. “You have got to be joking!” Isolde said incredulously, staring at Edwin. He watched as she stood up from her chair and began pacing across the small room of the house Mildburg used to live in, where Reiff and Sigrid had joined them. The shopkeeper sat silently, giving the blacksmith woman some time to process everything he had finally told her - the whole truth about angels and demons, the fact that he had been working together with Lothar, and the ritual in which Mildburg’s spirit told him it was none other than Agilmar who killed her. “Isolde, I wish I was joking, but I’m completely serious. I promise, everything I told you is true,” Edwin spoke again, trying to reassure her. “No, but… But it can’t be,” she shook her head, running fingers through her now disheveled hair. “Don’t tell me you expect me to believe that angels and demons exist? And you’ve met a demon? Does he have horns and goat legs?” “No, he looks just like us,” Edwin rolled his eyes, trying to suppress a chuckle. “But he does have powers.” “Powers? I just… Wait, why am I the only one surprised by this? Don’t tell me you two believe him?” she turned to Sigrid and Reiff, who both solemnly nodded. “I know this is hard to believe, my child, but what Edwin is saying is true. There are other realms beside our own, and they contain forces beyond our reach and comprehension,” the old mystic spoke up. “We have all heard tales of demons and angels, but most of us believe them to be nothing more than folk tales. I used to be one of those people until my powers developed and made me realize there is so much we don’t know.” “And this… demon - have you seen him too?” Isolde asked. “No, I have not, but I have sensed a dark energy in Edwin’s home unlike anything I have ever felt before. I have no doubts now that it comes from a demon.” “And how does that sound good? Why are we putting our trust in a demon? Am I the only one who sees the problem here?” the young woman was unrelenting. “Reiff, tell me you’re willing to listen to reason here.” “I’m sorry, but I’ve met the demon, and if he can help me find Helga, I can’t throw that chance away. I think he’s the best shot we have,” the man replied. “And… you really think he can help us find Ida?” Isolda asked, turning back to Edwin. “You would trust him with my sister’s life? With all of our lives?” Edwin thought back to the fight they had, when he suspected Lothar of killing Mildburg, and how much he regretted it now. It was Agilmar all along. How could he have ever doubted Lothar? “Yes, I do. I trust him,” he replied after a brief pause. “You don’t sound too sure,” Isolde remarked, still restlessly walking around. “This is insane, but... My father being a murderer is the easiest thing to believe out of everything you just told me. How can this be happening?” “That’s something I’ve been asking myself often these days,” Edwin admitted. “Yet that is the wrong question to ask,” Sigrid interjected. “What we should be focusing on is what to do next. We must come up with a plan.” “We need to go to the temple and find Agilmar,” Isolde was quick to respond. “I still don’t believe he would hurt Ida, but… I don’t know what to think anymore. Whatever his role in this, he will pay for what he did.” “Hold on. We shouldn’t do anything until Lothar returns,” Edwin suggested, noticing Isolde’s jaw clench at the mention of the demon’s name. “And when will that be?” the young woman asked impatiently. “How long do we have to wait? There’s four of us anyway. As strong as Agilmar is, he’s no fighter.” “And neither is Sigrid,” Edwin noted. “And did you forget about the guards he hired?” “Edwin is right. We should expect the worst from Agilmar,” Reiff said. “And we could use the demon on our side.” “If he is on our side indeed,” Isolde frowned as she glared at Edwin. “Lothar may be a demon, but he is the lesser evil here. When will you begin to trust me on this?” “I don’t know, Edwin! You’ve been hiding this from me all along, so what do you expect me to say? Ida is my sister! If anyone deserved to know about this, it’s me.” “I’m sorry, I should’ve told you. I messed up and…” “And now you want me to put my trust in an actual demon who is… where exactly right now? Somewhere in hell? And we don’t even know when he’ll return,” Isolde snapped. “I… I’m going home. I need to think about all of this.” “Do you want me to come with you?” the shopkeeper offered, getting up from his chair. He hated leaving things unresolved between them. If they were to find Ida, they had to work together and not fight each other. “No, I just want to think about this on my own.” “Fine. But don’t do anything hasty, alright?” Without replying, Isolde opened the door and left the house, leaving the other three. Concerned, Edwin exchanged awkward glances with Reiff and Sigrid. In a way, things had gone just as he had thought they would. He knew even from Ida’s stories how outspoken and temperamental her sister was, so he never had much hope she would accept things peacefully. Still, he hoped she would come around and realize she has to trust both Edwin and Lothar. “Reiff, can I ask you for a favor?” he spoke after some consideration. “I suppose,” the older man replied with the tiniest shrug of his shoulders. “What do you need?” “Could you go over and keep an eye on Isolde, at least just for today?” “You think she’ll try and go after Agilmar alone?” “I wouldn’t put it past her,” Edwin said. “She’s very upset right now, and when she gets like that… I’d hate to see her get hurt.” “Alright. Not like I have anything better to do,” Reiff replied, getting up and wrapping his heavy robe around his shoulders. Edwin and Sigrid followed suit. After putting their coats on, they all left Mildburg’s old home and went each in their own direction. ~~ The sun was low on the horizon when Edwin arrived home later that day. The closer he got to his shop, the more he felt a strange sense of anxiety stirring up within him. He unlocked the back door as silently as possible and entered, looking all around to make sure he was all alone. As if guided by some higher force, or perhaps it was his intuition, he lit a candle and decided to go straight up the staircase into his bedroom above the shop. As he slowly opened the creaky door, Edwin held his breath, listening for any sounds coming from the inside. Once the candlelight finally illuminated the room, he gasped as he saw a body lying in his bed. “Lothar!” Edwin nearly screamed, rushing toward the bed as he recognized the white-haired demon lying on top of the blankets, his eyes closed. “Not so loud,” Lothar muttered, grimacing as he opened his eyes and raised a hand to shield them from the light of the candle in Edwin’s hand. “You’re alive! What the hell happened?” Edwin asked, completely ignoring the demon’s request to lower his voice. As his eyes surveyed Lothar’s body, he could see the ends of bandages hanging under the red shirt he wore. “You’re hurt!” “I’m fine, just a little stab,” Lothar replied, his eyes now fully open and a satisfied smirk spreading across his face. “But it’s nice to know you care.” Edwin had already sat down next to him, lifting his shirt up to inspect the bandages. “I…” he stopped, having realized what Lothar had just said. “You scared me, that’s all.” “Sorry,” the demon replied, even though he did not look even the least bit sorry. “What happened? Are you in pain?” the shopkeeper asked, unable to mask the concern in his voice. Without even noticing, his fingers gently trailed across Lothar’s firm stomach, drawing lazy circles across the part of his skin that was exposed. “Had a little run-in with the angels, but I’m feeling better already. They have it much worse than me, trust me.” “I do trust you,” Edwin replied as he gazed into Lothar’s face, as if trying to memorize every line on it. He looked so handsome, yet so vulnerable at that moment. It was as if Edwin was seeing the demon’s real self for the very first time. “I trust you about everything.” “Do you mean…” “I’m sorry I doubted you before,” Edwin nodded, looking ashamed, but also relieved to finally say what was on his mind. “I shouldn’t have accused you of killing Mildburg. I know it wasn’t you who did it.” “What do you mean? Have you learned anything new?” Lothar asked, frowning as he tried to get up, but Edwin held him by the shoulders, pushing him gently back in a lying position. “I’ll tell you all about it later, but first you need to rest and recover.” The shopkeeper stood up and went to a nearby chest of drawers, pulling out a warm blanket from the top drawer. “You should try and get some more sleep, and we’ll talk in the morning.” “Fine,” Lothar replied as the other man covered him with the blanket. “I don’t blame you for being suspicious of me. It hurt that you thought I killed the woman, but I do get where you were coming from. I would’ve been more concerned if you hadn’t been. You should question everything and everyone. It just means you’re smart.” “Thanks, I suppose,” Edwin smiled. “Now, get some sleep.” “Aren’t you going to stay here and nurse me back to health?” Lothar added hopefully, moving to the left side of the bed. “There’s plenty of room here for both of us.” Edwin stood by the bed, gazing into Lothar’s eyes. He did not even have to think about it, he knew well he was not going to refuse the demon, not after wanting him for so long. Without a single word, he took off his coat. Then, he casually opened the top button of his shirt, followed by another, and another, revealing more and more of his ebony skin. His flat stomach, broad chest and dark nipples gleamed in candlelight. Lothar seemed mesmerized as he stared longingly at the man in front of him. After finally removing his pants, Edwin got into the bed, never breaking eye contact. As soon as the shopkeeper lay next to him, Lothar placed a hand on the other man’s cheek, giving it a light caress. Rolling onto the side, he leaned in, their faces just inches apart. The two men gazed in each other’s eyes, as if waiting for the other one to look away first, but neither did. Finally, Lothar was the first to make a move, leaning in and pressing his lips against Edwin’s. It wasn’t the first kiss they’d shared, but it was the softest one yet, full of emotion. “Lothar,” Edwin whispered after their lips parted, “you should… you should be resting.” “This is what I need right now, not rest,” the demon replied, gently stroking the other man’s jaw and neck with his thumb. “I know you want the same.” Edwin looked up into his eyes without saying anything. No words were needed, as his eyes said everything. He wanted to tear the clothes off of Lothar and feel his naked body against his own. He didn’t want to wait any more, he wanted all of Lothar right now. With his signature smirk, Lothar took Edwin’s black hair in a firm grasp, tilting his head as their lips pressed together once again. It was the hottest kiss Edwin had ever had, as if the fires of hell were invading his body, burning him from the inside, but not harming him in any way. It was arousing, making him want more. Edwin couldn’t be sure, but the kiss seemed to have the same effect on Lothar. The demon started moaning into his mouth, his hands going down and groping the shopkeeper’s body, stroking his broad chest before moving down to his firm stomach. One by one, Edwin removed pieces of clothing from Lothar’s body until they were both left naked, their strong bodies glistening with sweat. Edwin closed his eyes as Lothar peppered kisses all over his collarbone, moving down to his chest. Feeling the demon’s expert tongue and lips on his hard nipples, Edwin let out a moan, feeling his erection growing. “Please… stop teasing,” he pleaded, desperate for more. The demon’s warm, strong hands and wet tongue were working miracles across his naked skin, but Edwin needed more. Lothar’s eyes burned with want, as he dragged his tongue down across Edwin’s abdomen until he found his target. “Oh, I’m only getting started.” ~~ Edwin woke up at the break of dawn, feeling a warm body pressed next to his, and a heavy arm draped around his stomach. As he turned his head to the side, he could see the familiar mop of white hair, the long locks covering the sleepy eyes of the demon lying by his side. The shopkeeper smiled as the memory of what they did last night started returning, along with his arousal. The demon just looked so good - his tanned chest and stomach were on display, as the blanket only covered his crotch and thighs. “You’re already awake,” Lothar spoke in a raspy whisper as he opened his eyes, startling Edwin. “Yes, I just woke up,” he replied, drawing his eyes away from Lothar’s naked body. When he looked up, he was met by a knowing smirk on the demon’s face. “I was hoping I’d get up first. I wanted to bring you breakfast in bed.” “I’m still in bed, aren’t I?” the shop owner replied. “You’re right. Give me a moment,” Lothar said, slowly getting up and putting on his shirt and trousers, making sure his bandages stayed in place. He then blinked, leaving Edwin alone in the room. True to his word, he returned a few moments later, carrying in his hands a wooden tray overflowing with food and drinks. Edwin perked up, lifting himself up in a sitting position. Carefully, Lothar placed the tray in the middle of the bed and lay down, watching as the other man inspected the items he had brought. There was a bright yellow ceramic bowl filled with fruit - grapes, apricots, figs, dates, and Lothar’s favorite - fresh strawberries. A smaller bowl next to it was full of chopped mangoes - Edwin’s preferred fruit. Deep-blue plates with ornate design contained hummus, olive and garlic bread, and sweet vanilla and cinnamon buns. Hot black coffee and green tea were still steaming in small cups in the corner. Finally, a small pink bottle contained a translucent beverage that immediately drew Edwin’s attention. He picked it up and removed the cap, instantly enchanted by the sweet fruity aroma. “Spring water infused with apples, roses and oranges,” Lothar explained, smiling. Momentarily rendered speechless, the shopkeeper glanced once again at the rich offering before him, then back at the man lying beside him. “Wow… This is just amazing. Where did you even get all this?” “I have my ways,” the demon shrugged. “I can see that!” Edwin laughed. “No offense, but… I don’t even know what demons eat. I never thought you’d appreciate something like this.” “Most of us don’t eat human food. Not because we don’t enjoy it, but because it’s difficult to obtain in our realm. But present this to any demon, and they’d have a hard time resisting. I myself am quite fond of black coffee… and strawberries.” “I see,” Edwin nodded, impressed. “So the green tea is for me… And the mangoes. How did you know?” “I observe,” the demon said. “Do you like it?” “Very much,” Edwin nodded, reaching out to pick a strawberry. “May I?” “Of course.” Taking a delicious-looking strawberry from the bowl, Edwin brought it to Lothar’s lips, touching them with just the tip of the fruit. “Open up.” With no hesitation, the demon parted his lips and Edwin gently placed the strawberry on his tongue. As he closed his mouth, Lothar did not miss the opportunity to brush his lips against Edwin’s fingers, causing the shopkeeper to close his eyes and hold his breath. He wanted to capture that moment and remember the feeling. “Mmm, delicious,” Lothar whispered as he swallowed the fruit. “I never took you to be the type to enjoy strawberries,” Edwin remarked, eyeing him with curiosity and affection. “Why not? Just because I’m a demon, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy small pleasures like this.” “Fair enough. I just… I don’t know much about you or your kind. We’ve never talked about that stuff.” “Well, what do you want to know?” Lothar asked, smiling. “Ask away.” “I don’t know… anything. What do you do for fun? What is your home like? What other powers do you have?” “Oh, that’s easy. My house is quite like your human houses, only made of stone and much darker. And maybe not as comfortable as yours,” the demon replied as he picked a juicy piece of mango and fed it to Edwin. “I like to be outdoors as much as I can. Running, climbing mountains and hills, either alone or with friends. It makes me feel alive and keeps me in shape,” he added, flexing his biceps as he did. “I can see that,” Edwin chuckled, placing a hand on Lothar’s arm and stroking it. The demon turned to him, gazing at him with something that seemed like deep affection. Edwin held his breath, feeling his cheeks turn red as his heart started beating just a little bit faster. The feelings that had been growing inside him were too much to ignore, but that was certainly not the right time for them to show up and take control of his heart and mind. Besides, were demons even capable of… such emotion? He certainly hoped they were. “At night, I like to just lay outside and look at the sky,” Lothar continued. “Did you know that where I’m from, on some nights you can see almost twice as many stars as you can from Earth?” “Wow… Is that true?” “Absolutely, it’s a marvelous sight. And about my powers… Maybe it’s best if I showed you,” the demon said, lifting his right arm into the air and opening his palm. A moment later, a small ball of flame appeared, hovering just above it. Edwin looked wide-eyed, as if he had never seen fire before. “You can create fire?” The demon nodded, closing his fingers around the fireball and making it disappear. “All demons can do it, it’s something we develop at a very young age. Actually, it’s one of the things that connect us with angels. They can create fire too, but theirs is holy fire - it’s used for healing and creating things. It hurts like a bitch when they use it against us, though. Some of the oldest demons say that the Celestial Spire and all of the angelic structures are made of pure energy, fused together with holy fire. And then you have our demonic fire, which is used to wreak havoc and destruction.” “Do you… do you use it often?” Edwin asked, wondering how many times Lothar was forced to use his powers to kill someone or defend himself. “When I have to,” the demon shrugged. “Do you want to tell me what happened when you got injured?” Edwin asked, glancing down at Lothar’s stomach. “Does it still hurt?” “Nah, I’m feeling much better already,” he replied, tugging on his shirt to cover the bandaged area. As the two men proceeded to eat the rest of the food and sip the beverages before them, Lothar recounted what had happened when Zelig and he went to investigate the angels’ domain and how they failed to find Ida or Helga. Edwin sat quietly and listened to him talk, waiting until he was finished to ask questions. It was only when the demon finished his story that Edwin realized how dangerous the mission was and how lucky Lothar was to still be alive. “I’m sorry,” the shopkeeper spoke, squeezing the demon’s hand. “You could’ve died, all because you were trying to find my friend.” “It’s not your fault. I would’ve had to go there whether it was your friend or someone else. Cromwell’s orders,” Lothar explained. “I’m just pissed we didn’t find Ida.” “So what do we do now?” “Only one thing we can - find whoever summoned the angels to Earth in the first place, and use them to call for Ida.” “I think I know who it was,” Edwin said, gazing into Lothar’s red eyes. “I think it was Agilmar, Ida’s father. He was the one who killed Mildburg and who might be behind everything.”
  8. Purgatory. A vast, barren area that separated the Celestial Spire, home of the angels, from the Demonic Domain. Rather than being a combination of both, borrowing features from both the angelic and demonic realms, Purgatory was instead devoid of any such characteristics. With strange land formations and glimmering, silver-hued rocks, it was practically its own separate dimension. Its sky was in a perpetual state of semi-darkness, with hundreds of stars scattered across its every corner. Every now and then, a dim light would flicker above the ground for a brief moment, signifying another soul that was about to appear before beginning its journey to the afterlife. Where exactly did they go - no one knew. The stories Lothar heard from elder demons said that neither angels nor demons had any power or influence over them, except in rare cases. After death, human souls would go to Purgatory, and would then supposedly move on to their own, separate dimension. A gentle breeze blew as Lothar rushed through the desolate terrain, not caring about the flickers of light all around him. He was on a mission. “Hold on, what’s the rush?” Zelig yelled, running behind him in an attempt to catch up. “The Spire isn’t going anywhere.” “The sooner we get this over with, the better,” Lothar replied curtly, not in the mood for chit-chat. Edwin’s doubts and accusations still hurt, as much as the demon hated to admit it. How could he even think that Lothar could have killed the old woman? Not that he cared about her in the first place. She was of no consequence to him, though she could have helped them. The only thing he wanted was to reach the angels’ domain and see if they can find anything about Ida’s whereabouts. Hopefully, being on a mission would help take his mind off of Edwin, at least for the time being. “I know, but we’re almost there. See the lights up ahead,” the demonic spy pointed to the horizon where the first signs of angelic shimmering structures appeared as tiny white lights. “Right. What’s the plan then? You’ve been here before, so I assume you have one?” “Do I look like someone who goes in without a plan?” Zelig retorted as he pointed to a tall, twisting hill that stretched to the east. “That big rock formation to the right - we go behind it and continue down that path until we reach the Great Chasm. That’s where the Cultivation Spire is. We’ll have to see how many angels are guarding the place once we get there. I’ve never managed to get inside on my own.” “That’s why I’m here. Maybe now we’ll get lucky,” the white-haired demon replied, even knowing their chances were slim to none. Getting into the angels’ territory was dangerous enough on its own, but actually sneaking into one of their towers and abducting a person was near impossible. “We’ll need to be more than lucky,” the other demon said. “Once we’ve examined the area, one of us will have to cause a distraction while the other sneaks in. There’s bound to be many angels there, so be ready to blink out at any time.” “Got it. So, who’s going to do the distraction? I’m thinking it should be you, since they’ve probably seen you already, so they’ll figure you’re alone again.” “Why would you think that?” Zelig asked, seemingly offended by the question. “Because you’ve been coming here before, they must’ve spotted you at some point.” “Not if I did my job right,” the spy replied, side-eyeing him. “Have you ever seen me sneaking around your home?” “No, I’ve never… Wait, have you been spying on me too?” Lothar asked, looking questioningly at his companion. “A few times,” Zelig smirked. “But it was just for sport, not because anyone ordered me to,” he added, leaving the other demon to ponder his words. Before Lothar could ask anything else, he spoke again: “So, how’s Earth been treating you?” “You know, it’s Earth… It hasn’t changed much since I last visited,” Lothar shrugged. “Why, are you jealous? Haven’t had the chance to go down there lately?” “No, I’ve been stuck with these blasted angels ever since I caught that general of theirs. They’re so boring and predictable. Humans, on the other hand… They’re worth studying up close,” the blond demon said, a devious smirk appearing on his handsome face. “And they’re always a lot of fun in so many ways, don’t you agree?” “Depends on what you consider fun,” Lothar said coolly, not wanting to reveal too much. He wouldn’t be surprised if Cromwell had sent them on this mission together to get Zelig to fish out some information about his activities on Earth. Was he suspecting something about his connection to Edwin? In any event, Lothar decided he would have to mind his words in front of Zelig until he knew he could trust him. Before he even realized it, they had reached the end of the long, twisted hill. Behind it, a tall, brilliant structure towered above them, next to a deep ravine known as the Great Chasm, separating Purgatory from the realm of the angels. “The Cultivation Spire,” Zelig whispered, hidden behind a tall stone wall. Lothar stood right next to him, observing the angels milling about the place. They looked so similar to demons, except they all wore ivory-colored robes and moved around by flying or hovering rather than walking. If they carried any weapons, which Lothar assumed they must be, they were well hidden. He was surprised by their small numbers in the area. Other than a group of four angels who were close to the Spire, the rest had either gone inside or moved further away, going towards the other towers. “Who knows how many of them are inside,” he commented as his eyes scoured the terrain in front of him. “We have no way of knowing,” Zelig replied. “That’s why you’ll try to get as many of them as possible away from the tower while I blink inside.” After going through their plan, Lothar blinked across the chasm and got into position behind a particularly large rock that hid him from view, while Zelig stayed behind, waiting for the perfect moment to blink into the tower. Keeping his eyes on the angels, Lothar made sure he wasn’t hidden too well. After all, he wanted to be noticed; he needed to make it seem as if they had caught him in the act. Sure enough, it was not long after that a pair of angels directed their attention toward him. He was spotted. Lothar’s heart pounded in his chest, but from adrenaline, not fear. He blinked over behind a nearby rock as the angels flew over to his previous hiding place. He could not make it too easy for them. The two angels rushed ahead, each raising their right hand into the air, glowing swords suddenly appearing out of thin air. “Be careful, brother,” one of them said, gripping his sword tightly. “You too,” the other replied as they split, hovering in opposite directions to inspect the area. Lothar waited patiently behind his hiding place until they were far enough apart, then swiftly blinked behind one of the angels. A ball of flame appeared in his hand, and just as he flung it at his target, the angel turned and slashed through the air with his sword, slicing through the fireball as it vanished. “Demon!” the angel hissed, his glowing eyes locked onto Lothar’s. “What is your kind doing here?” “Take a guess,” Lothar stood his ground as the angel hovered a safe distance away, waiting for his companion to arrive. The demon knew he couldn’t allow that, he had to act quickly. Conjuring another fireball, he raised his hand as if ready to throw it. Wasting no time, the angel lunged at him, swinging his sword, but Lothar blinked at the very last second, reappearing behind the angel and flinging the fireball at him, this time hitting him straight in the back. With a piercing scream, the angel burned as the fire consumed him, vanishing in a matter of seconds. All that was left behind him was a shimmering golden mist that rose into the air and flew towards the Spire, where it finally disappeared. Before he even had the chance to enjoy this small victory, Lothar noticed the other angel approaching, alarmed by his companion’s scream. “Intruder!” the angel yelled, flying over but keeping a safe distance. “Adriel! You will pay for his death, demon!” From the corner of his eye, Lothar could see a small group of angels coming out of the tower and heading toward him. Hopefully Zelig would have less trouble now. “He’s over here!” the angel called out to his brethren, his attention still on Lothar. “Did you think you could get out of here alive, demon?”, he asked, his sword suddenly getting engulfed in holy flames. His eyes darting between the angel in front of him and the group of five that were arriving, Lothar knew he couldn’t take them all at once - he had to draw them away from the tower. He blinked again, appearing behind a massive rock at the edge of the hill. “Let’s split,” one of the angels ordered, and they all went in different directions, attempting to surround Lothar. The demon blinked once again, changing positions. He had to stall as much as he could in order to give Zelig enough time to search as much of the Spire as he could. With a blade in his hand, he stood silently and waited, his back pressed against the cold, naked rock. Unfortunately for him, the angels seemed to have realized he was more interested in playing hide-and-seek than fighting them, as one of them stopped and called out to the others. “He’s trying to lure us into a trap. Retreat!” Lothar could not allow that, at least not yet. Coming out of his hiding spot, he revealed himself, conjuring another fireball. “You’re not running away, are you?” The angel hesitated, clearly torn between turning around and retreating back to the tower, and staying and fighting. Suddenly, a cry from behind him pierced the air. “It’s a diversion, get back to the Spire!” Lothar flung the fireball, but the angel evaded it, taking off into the air and flying back towards the tower, his brethren already on their way too. “Damn it!” Lothar mumbled. “Come on, Zelig, be quick!” A ball of fire suddenly shot out of the Spire, incinerating an angel that got in its way. In the confusion, Zelig blinked out of nowhere, slashing two more angels with his blades. Lothar frowned in disappointment as he saw his fellow demon was alone. He clearly did not manage to locate ida, there was simply not enough time. Two remaining angels rushed over in unison, focused on the demonic spy. Their blades burned with holy fire as they approached Zelig. The angels moved terrifyingly swiftly, avoiding the daggers Zelig threw their way. The air became a whirlwind of fire and steel, as they slashed with their swords, trying to cut the demons down. Throwing his disappointment and irritation aside, Lothar blinked over to help. One of the angels, a woman with long, black hair, immediately turned to him, swinging her sword. “Die, maggot!” she yelled as she went on the offense. Lothar’s fireballs never managed to connect, as the angel blocked them all with her sword, gliding through the air with incredible agility. “Enough of this,” Lothar grunted angrily, conjuring one last fireball. “Say hello to Adriel,” he added, remembering the name he’d heard a little while ago. Just as he thought, the angel was furious. She slashed with her sword to block the fireball, not even noticing the blade that flew out of Lothar’s other hand. As the cold steel sunk into her throat, she burst into flames and vanished. Moments later, another scream pierced the air as the other angel fell down as well. “Did you find-” Lothar started to ask, when Zelig’s loud yell interrupted him. “Behind you!” Lothar quickly turned around, and the last thing he saw before he blinked away was a devious smile on an angel’s face as he thrust his sword forward. As soon as he reappeared on the other side of the hill, Lothar crashed to the ground, clutching his stomach. His clothes and hands were stained with blood, while the searing pain in his abdomen was excruciating. It felt like he was being torn apart from the inside, the angelic steel burning his flesh. “Lothar!” Zelig whispered as he appeared right next to him, his eyes wide with panic. “How bad is it?” “It... Ughhh, it hurts,” Lothar managed to utter between ragged breaths. “Bloody… angels.” “Come, we need to get you back home. I’ll blink us out of here, you’re not strong enough,” the other demon offered as he crouched down, grabbing Lothar’s hand and shoulder. Just a moment later, they were gone. When he finally woke up, it took a while for Lothar to realize where he was. The place didn’t look like his home - it was too big. And it certainly looked nothing like Edwin’s place - it was too dark and sinister compared to the cozy and homely feel of the trinket shop he had come to appreciate in his own way. No, he was in Cromwell’s citadel. As he tried to get up, the stabbing pain in his lower abdomen reminded him of what had happened and why he was there in the first place. Zelig had brought him there for treatment after… After they failed their mission. It was always going to be a long shot, but Lothar could not help but feel disappointed. They didn’t manage to find Ida or Helga, and he had almost gotten himself killed in the process. But the worst part was - he had failed Edwin. He had to go over there and explain himself, but… He remembered how they left things the last time they saw each other. After that fight, would Edwin even care that Lothar got injured, that he almost died? He shuddered at the thought. Still, he had to go, even if it took all of his strength to blink back to Earth. Just as he propped himself up on his elbows, trying to get up again, there was a knock on the door. He froze, looking up before replying: “Come in.” He was hardly surprised when he saw Zelig enter, followed by his friend Nyra. “See, told ya he was still alive. We can’t get rid of him that easily,” the spy said, grinning as he entered the room. “How you doin’, big boy?” “I feel like shit,” Lothar grumbled, “but I’ll live.” “You better,” Nyra said as she approached his bed and sat down on a chair next to it. Even though she tried to play it cool, Lothar could see the fear in her eyes. After losing Adrian in battle, he could not blame her. “Are you in a lot of pain?” “Only when I… when I try to move,” Lothar replied, coughing as he tried to make himself more comfortable. “Then don’t move,” Zelig said. “Wow, thanks, what would we do without you,” Nyra rolled her eyes at the demon. “Give him a break… He saved my life out there, he can be a smartass if he wants,” Lothar said, cracking a smile. “Cromwell was a fool to send just the two of you out there,” the female demon spoke again. “You could’ve both gotten yourselves killed.” “That may be so, but stealth was crucial for the mission. If there’d been more of us, they would’ve spotted us before we even set foot onto their grounds,” Zelig replied. “Did you… did you manage to find anything in the tower? Any sign of Ida or Helga?” Lothar asked. “No, nothing, but I didn’t manage to search much before we got busted.” “This was probably our best chance,” Lothar replied glumly. “Next time they’ll be even better prepared.” “There won’t be a next time. As you said, they’ll be expecting us now,” Zelig said. “We need to find out how the angels got to them in the first place, who summoned them to Earth.” “That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’ll let you know as soon as I got any clues,” Lothar told him. “But first you need to recover,” Nyra quickly interjected. “The healers did a good job on you, but you still need to take it easy, alright?” “Fine, mother,” Lothar rolled his eyes at her. “Do you want me to bring her here? Because I will, I know where she lives,” she threatened. “And then you won’t get out of that bed for weeks.” “Fuck no!” the white-haired demon was quick to shoot her down. “I don’t need her when I have my best friend taking such good care of me.” “Yeah, yeah, as if that’ll work on me,” Nyra let out a chuckle. “You guys are going to make me puke,” Zelig said, getting up and straightening his clothes. “I’ll be back to check on you later. Take it easy, alright?” Without waiting for a response, he winked at Lothar and blinked out of the room, leaving the two friends alone. Nyra wasted no time in moving to sit on the edge of Lothar’s bed, taking his hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. “Now tell me for real, how are you feeling?” “I told you, I’m fine. It still hurts when I try to move, but it’ll pass.” “When Zelig showed up carrying you, for a moment I thought…” “Hey, I’m still here,” Lothar squeezed her hand, his eyes gazing into hers. He knew exactly what she was thinking. The death of their friend Adrian at the hands of angels still hurt no matter how much they avoided talking about it. It had been seven years, but the wound was still fresh as if it happened yesterday. Neither of them wanted to be the first to mention it, and this time was no different. “I’ll be fine,” Lothar added, nodding. “This whole mission… Even if you don’t succeed, it doesn’t matter, alright? It’s not worth risking your life trying to capture a bloody angel or find some dumb human girl,” Nyra said. “Just… promise me you won’t do anything stupid.” “Look who’s talking. Didn’t you tell me the other day you couldn’t wait to go out there and fight again?” “Yeah, well… I say a lot of dumb stuff.” “You can say that again,” Lothar chuckled. “Just promise me, ok?” “Fine, I promise I won’t do anything stupid,” Lothar replied. Of course, helping Edwin in any way he could was the furthest thing from stupid he could ever imagine.
  9. “Damn it!” Edwin hissed angrily, smacking his pliers on the counter. The ankle bracelet he was trying to repair was too delicate, and with his nerves getting the best of him, he could not focus and keep his hand steady. As much as he tried to bury himself in work - cleaning the crystals he found in nature and fixing the broken jewelry - his mind kept wandering off to Ida and Lothar. As if his best friend being missing was not bad enough, Lothar had also not appeared in several days. Edwin couldn’t help but wonder, what if the demon was avoiding him on purpose? Just last night, he had an unnerving nightmare about Mildburg’s death, and as much as he wished it wasn’t so, he had to wonder if Lothar was responsible for it. Maybe it was all a coincidence, he tried to convince himself. After all, how much did he know the old woman? She could have had many enemies who wanted her dead. Forcing himself to focus on his work, Edwin somehow went back to the task at hand, losing all track of time while he worked on the jewelry. Several customers had come and gone, looking through the goods and purchasing some. Once he was left alone, he looked through the window, observing the people outside going about their way and the tall trees swaying in the wind. All of a sudden, he could feel shivers down his spine, and he knew he was no longer alone. He turned around only to see Lothar standing by the door, as expected. The demon looked moody, his red eyes darker than usual. “Where have you been?” was the first thing Edwin asked. He was angry and impatient, yet he hated how his voice betrayed the concern he felt somewhere deep inside. “Home. Had to take care of some things,” Lothar replied, walking over across the room. Before he reached Edwin, he stopped, as if changing his mind, and sat on a nearby chair instead. “Did you find anything out? Anything that could help us?” “Just confirmed what we already knew. I met the guy who was assigned to Helga’s case. He’d been spying on the angels for a long time and managed to find out where they took her, but that’s as far as he got. They’re probably keeping your friend at the same place. It’s called the Cultivation Spire, a place for training new angels.” “So, how do we get there?” Edwin asked passionately, staring at Lothar with full attention, as if itching to spring into action at that very moment. “We can’t waste any time, we have to…” “Hold on a second,” the demon chuckled softly, raising a hand to interrupt him. “We? You don’t think you’re going up there, do you?” “Of course I am. Ida is my friend. If anyone has to go and save her, it’s me,” Edwin insisted. He glared at Lothar, making sure to show he was being completely serious. Ida disappeared while she was with him, and it was his responsibility to rescue her. He would not allow another person he cared about to suffer. “Edwin, I’m not taking you there,” Lothar dismissed him. “You’re human, you wouldn’t last a day in our domains. If either side found you there, you’d be dead.” “I don’t care. Next time you go, you’ll take me…” “No!” the demon raised his voice, bolting angrily from his chair. He started pacing across the room, running fingers through his white hair. Despite being startled, Edwin stood his ground, observing him quietly, but fuming on the inside. “If I took you there, I wouldn’t be able to protect you, and I don’t want to have to worry about you too. Cromwell would have you killed on sight, and the angels… I don’t know what they’d do, but it can’t be good. No, it’s better for you to stay here, trust me.” “Trust you?” Edwin murmured, loud enough to be heard, as he side-eyed Lothar. “What’s that supposed to mean?” the demon stopped, facing the other man. The shopkeeper stared for just a few moments before he opened his mouth, knowing that he would burst if he stayed silent. “Mildburg is dead. Murdered.” “Who?” Lothar blinked, furrowing his brows. “Mildburg. The old lady who came to the shop the other day.” “Ohh…” Lothar nodded, and Edwin could notice a hint of recognition passing across his face. “Do you think it has something to do with your friend?” “You tell me,” Edwin replied as he approached a small wooden cabinet and opened the first drawer, taking a small black gemstone out of it. “I found this on the floor, next to her dead body.” As Lothar’s eyes fell upon the stone, there was no doubt in Edwin’s mind that he knew what it was. “Tourmaline. And what about it? Wait… Don’t tell me you think I had anything to do with it?” “What am I supposed to think?! One day she gives me the stone to protect me from you, the next I find her dead. What would you think if you were me?” Edwin asked, their conversation turning into a shouting match. He could feel his face heating up with anger, but Lothar’s eyes were fire itself. He had never seen the demon look so angry, so… dangerous. “I can’t believe this! Ever since I got here, I’ve done nothing but try and help you find your friend!” “And was tricking me into giving up my soul a part of that?” Lothar stopped for a moment, glaring at Edwin. “For someone so eager to go to the angels’ domain and get himself killed, you sure care a lot about your soul,” he replied sarcastically, making the other man even angrier. “Why did I ever think I could trust a demon? Yes, you helped because it’s your mission. You said it yourself, you were ordered to do this,” Edwin replied, trying to read Lothar’s expression, but the demon turned away, refusing to look at him. “Not just because it’s my mission,” he muttered under his breath. “What?” “Nothing,” Lothar replied gloomily, buttoning up his black jacket. “I have to go. I’m sorry about Mildburg’s death, but I had nothing to do with it. I thought you of all people would know that,” he added, still refusing to look at Edwin, before vanishing from the room. “Fuck!” the shopkeeper yelled as he stormed off to the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. He grabbed a bottle of ale from the table and poured himself a glass, needing something strong. The liquid burned his throat as he swallowed, but it felt good. After the short break, he returned to the shop to continue his work, the fight with Lothar still on his mind. Why did the demon have to be so insufferable yet so… irresistible? It would be much easier if he was all evil - at least then Edwin would know where he stood, but right now, he had no idea. After a few more futile attempts to get something done, it was clear to Edwin he would not get any more work done that day. He could not focus on anything, so he put his tools away and decided to clean up the place and close early. Just as he was about to lock up, the tiny bell on the door rang out as an elderly woman walked in. Edwin looked up, taking in the strange figure in front of him. The woman, whose long, gray hair still had some streaks of auburn in it, wore a long, flowery dress that almost touched the floor. Her hands were practically covered in rings and bracelets, as if she had just purchased every item in Edwin’s shop. In one of the hands, she was clutching an oversized linen bag that seemed stuffed with items. “Good afternoon, how can I help you?” Edwin greeted her, putting on his best smile. For a moment, the woman just stood at the door, looking around with a mysterious smile on her wrinkled face. Her brown eyes looked old and deep, as if full of wisdom and secrets only she knew. So strange, yet so familiar. “You must be Edwin. It is lovely to finally meet you!” she replied warmly as she walked toward him. “That’s me alright. I’m sorry, but should I know you?” the shopkeeper was confused, but still walked out from behind the counter to greet the woman, extending a hand. “You may know of me, though we’ve never met before. My name is Sigrid,” the old lady explained as she shook his hand. Edwin opened his mouth to speak as realization hit him. “Oh, you’re… Mildburg’s sister,” he concluded, receiving a nod in reply. “I am so sorry for your loss. Mildburg was a good woman, and I wish I could’ve gotten to know her better.” “That is sweet of you indeed, but please, let us not get all bleak right now. I don’t want my sister to see me cry. For now, I need your help - if you’re willing, of course. And then, I promise to help you in return,” she spoke as she squeezed his hand, her eyes full of sympathy and understanding. Edwin stared at them for just a moment, wondering how much she knew. “Of course, what do you need help with?” “I wish to speak to my sister, of course. I am going to find out who killed her.” “You can do that?” he asked in wonder. “Yes, at least I hope so. I shall need to make some preparations first, and if all goes well, it will allow me to connect to Mildburg’s spirit,” Sigrid explained, though it hardly made things any clearer for Edwin. “I see. And… how can I help?” “You can start by showing me to your kitchen. I shall need to prepare everything for the ritual first.” “Of course, it’s this way,” Edwin pointed to the door to the right of the counter. After locking the front door and placing the ‘Closed’ sign, he joined the old woman in the kitchen. She had already placed her bag on the table, pulling various jars and bundles of herbs from it, arranging them on the wooden surface. All the while, she glanced around, as if analysing the room and everything in it. “It’s a bit small, but I think we’ll manage,” Edwin commented, just to break the silence. “It’s not that I’m concerned about,” Sigrid shook her head. “Dark forces have been here, I can tell,” she added, looking straight into the shopkeeper’s eyes. He said nothing, but he somehow knew there was no use in trying to lie to her - she knew that whoever had visited his home, Edwin had let them in. While Sigrid busied herself chopping and mixing the ingredients in a bowl, Edwin went over to the stove to make some tea. As the water began to boil, he looked at the jars on a long shelf on the wall, wondering which herb to choose. “Sage would be nice,” Sigrid said before he even had a chance to ask. “Oh... alright,” Edwin replied, reaching for a glass jar on the shelf. Soon enough, an aromatic sage infusion steamed from two mugs, filling the small kitchen with a warm, herbal smell. “So, have you set everything up?” he asked after joining her at the table, eyeing the curiously-looking concoction in a bowl in front of the woman. It seemed to be constantly shifting between translucent and opaque, with a rare bubble popping up to the surface every few moments even though it was nowhere near the stove. “Almost. We have to wait a while for the mixture to settle,” she replied. “While we wait, what do you say I do a tarot reading for you - as a way of showing my gratitude for helping me?” “If you’re sure,” he shrugged. A month ago, he would have dismissed the idea as pointless and a waste of time, but now, he couldn’t deny he was curious what she would have to say. “I suppose it can’t hurt, right?” “A reading itself can never hurt,” the old woman responded, taking a worn-out tarot deck out of her bag. She had really come prepared, Edwin noticed. What else did she have in there? “It is up to you to decide what to do with the information you’re given. If you heed the warnings and pay close attention to the signs, you can make adjustments and ensure good fortune.” The woman took the cards and shuffled them carefully before placing them face down on the table and spreading them with one hand into an arc. “Now, take one hand and move it over the cards, focusing on something you need an answer for,” she instructed Edwin. “Then, pull out three cards and place them on the table face down.” Without a word, Edwin did as she asked, holding up his right hand and moving it above the cards, observing them. When the moment felt right, he pulled out one card, followed by another, and then one more. “Very well. Now, let us see what you’ve drawn,” the woman announced, taking the leftmost card and flipping it over from the side. Edwin’s eyes were glued to the card as his heart pounded in his chest. The image showed a solitary mermaid lying on a stone by the shore, her head hung low, as if she was mourning. On the ground in front of her lay three overturned goblets, while behind her stood two goblets filled with water. The text at the bottom read: Five of Cups. “Is… is this good?” he asked, glancing up at the woman, who was still transfixed on the card. “Five of cups,” she spoke aloud, as if ignoring his question. “This card represents your past, symbolizing loss and sorrow. There was something or someone you lost, and you’re still missing them,” she added. Edwin stared at the card, thinking of Ida, but also his little sister, Marcella. There was not a day he didn’t think of her. One day, he would see her again. He finally nodded, looking up at the old woman. “Marcella,” he said in a quiet tone. “She’s my sister. I… I had to leave her behind when I came here. Does this mean I’ll get to see her again?” “The cards cannot reveal that,” Sigrid answered sympathetically. “All they can do is present your situation and give you clarity so you can better decide what to do. May I ask what caused you to leave your sister?” He sighed, averting his gaze. He had not told that story to anyone except Ida, but the old woman seemed to exude not only wisdom, but also comfort and safety. Before he could change his mind and shut off again, he started opening up. “It was a few years ago, but I see it as clearly as if it was yesterday. We were out in the fields, horseback riding, but this time Marcella wanted to ride on her own. Our parents would never let her, but she kept insisting she was big enough. She was only thirteen at the time. Stupidly, I thought it would be alright, so I mounted her on a horse and let her ride it, but then… It all happened so quickly. The bloody animal must have gotten spooked and threw her off. She fell on some rocks and started screaming in pain. I can never get that image out of my head, Marcella lying on the ground, wailing in agony, so small and helpless.” Edwin’s lip quivered as tears rolled down his cheeks, the memory of his little sister breaking his heart yet again. “The accident left her paralyzed. Our parents could never forgive me. They blamed me for it, and they had every right to do so. That night, they told me they never wanted to see me again, so I packed and left home, coming here. I didn’t even say goodbye to her, I just couldn’t. I don’t know if she’ll ever forgive me.” “I’m sorry for what happened, boy,” Sigrid reached over, taking Edwin’s hand in her own and giving it a gentle squeeze. “This loss, it is still affecting you, perhaps even ruling your life. The cards are telling you to focus on the present and the future instead of living in regret. You cannot change the past, but you can work on creating a better future for yourself. And remember, it is never too late. You can see your sister again. But first you have to forgive yourself, for I think she already has.” Edwin didn’t say a word, but simply wiped his tears with the sleeves of his shirt. If only Sigrid’s words were true. At that moment, there was nothing he wanted more. “Now, let us see what the next card shows,” the woman said, flipping over the middle card. This time, the image showed two snakes coiled around each other against a background of red and white leaves. The text at the bottom of the card read: The Lovers. There was only one person on Edwin’s mind when he saw the card. Even though they were not lovers in any sense of the word, having only shared a kiss, there was no doubt in Edwin’s mind who the card was referring to. “Ah, kindred spirits, soulmates!” Sigrid proclaimed, her eyes sparkling. “Do you have anyone special in your life, Edwin?” “Uh, I… no,” he replied, not looking her in the eyes. “Then you might very well meet that person soon. And not just anyone, but someone with whom you could forge a deep bond. The Lovers is all about a perfect union, a partnership, but it can also mean there are major choices ahead of you. You could be faced with a dilemma about something or someone in your life, and you will have to make an important decision. Even if it seems difficult, it will lead you to greater things in life as long as you make sure to be prudent and make the right decision.” “But… how will I know what the right decision is?” “You will feel it. We can always sense what the right choice is, we just have to trust our instincts. It is just a matter of being brave and having faith,” Sigrid replied. “Now, the final card.” As the woman flipped the third card over, Edwin felt his stomach drop as he stared at the image. A black raven perched on top of a skull, while a dark, armor-clad figure stood behind him, wielding a scythe. The text at the bottom consisted of just one word: Death. The anxious expression on his face must have been clear as day, as Sigrid was quick to explain what the card actually meant. “Ah, Death. Possibly the most feared of all the Major Arcana, but also the most misunderstood.” “So, it doesn’t mean I’m going to die?” “No, rest assured that although it seems frightening, Death can be a very positive card,” the woman reassured him. “It does not mean physical death, but a major transformation in life, the end of one phase and the beginning of a new one. This change may be sudden and scary, but it is also necessary. This card tells you that you should accept such transformation as a positive, cleansing experience, instead of resisting it.” “But what kind of change?” Edwin asked, still confused. “It’s too early to say now, but I’m sure you’ll recognize it when it comes your way. And now, you will hopefully be prepared for it, otherwise…” At that moment, the liquid in the cauldron turned milky white, drawing Sigrid’s attention. Edwin followed her gaze, noticing the change as well. “It is time,” she announced, calmly pulling the cauldron closer and raising a hand above it. She extended the other one to Edwin. “Can you please give me a hand? I shall need your energy as well.” With a nod, the shopkeeper obeyed, holding her hand as he looked into the cauldron. Sigrid began murmuring words in a strange language Edwin had never heard before. The only word he was able to recognize was ‘Mildburg’. Silent, he kept staring until the old woman stopped with her incantations and the liquid became translucent once again. A moment later, a familiar face appeared on the surface, causing Edwin to gasp and squeeze Sigrid’s hand harder. “That’s…” “Mildburg,” Sigrid spoke, staring at her sister. Edwin decided to stay quiet, afraid of ruining the moment and perhaps even cancelling the incantation. “Finally! What took you so long?” the older woman replied, her voice distant and echoey. She did not sound angry, Edwin noticed, but rather sarcastic. He could hardly believe he was observing an image of a dead woman, talking to them. “Hey! You’re lucky you’re on the other side,” Sigrid frowned. “I can’t believe you’re gone. I… I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.” “It was hardly my choice, was it now?” the other woman’s spirit replied. “I see you’ve had help. I’m glad you’re here too, Edwin.” “I… I’m sorry about what happened,” the young man said, a look of sympathy and confusion on his face. What do you even say to a dead woman who possibly died for trying to help you? He couldn’t help but feel guilty. “It’s not your fault, dear boy. I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened.” “Then who was it?” Sigrid asked impatiently, as Edwin held his breath in anticipation. He was finally one step closer to finding out the truth, and perhaps even finding Ida. As long as the answer wasn’t Lothar. “I hope you saw them, because I shall make them pay!” “Oh, of course I saw him. I let him into my home because I never suspected him. Bloody fool I was,” Mildburg replied with bitterness in her voice. “It was that old rat, Agilmar. He was the one who killed me!”
  10. Edwin stared at the black gemstone in his hand, his mind racing. The obvious conclusion was right there, but he refused to believe it. There had to be another explanation. Lothar couldn’t have been involved in Mildburg’s murder. It had to be some kind of a coincidence. He couldn’t have killed the old woman, he would never do that. Edwin knew it. But then… did he really know him after all? Lothar was a demon, and killing was probably in his blood, ingrained in him from a young age. Perhaps Mildburg was right to give Edwin the stone to protect him. Perhaps she used this piece to defend herself from the attacker, but clearly failed in doing so. No matter what, she was dead, and now he would never find out whatever she had been planning to tell him. The feelings of utter shock, betrayal and fear battled within Edwin, along with the desire to believe in Lothar, and determination to find whoever killed the poor old woman. Wordlessly staring at the black stone in his hand, he didn’t even notice when Isolde approached him. “What’s that?” she asked, looking at the object he was holding. “Nothing… Just a mineral,” Edwin replied. He couldn’t share his real suspicions with her, at least not yet. “I just… I can’t believe she’s dead. Who would do something like this?” “I’m sorry. I know she was a friend of yours,” the woman tried to comfort him. Mildburg was not exactly his friend - just a customer and an acquaintance - but her death still hurt the shopkeeper. He had never seen a dead body before, especially a murder victim, so he was glad Isolde came along. He was never squeamish or easily scared, but coming across a murder, especially of someone he knew, was something he could not have been prepared for. “Do you think this has anything to do with Ida?” “I’m sure of it,” Edwin quickly replied. “It can’t be a coincidence.” “Then we agree,” Isolda nodded. “Come on, help me out. We can’t leave her lying on the floor.” A wave of nausea almost took over Edwin when they picked the woman’s body up to move it to her bed. He realized Isolde was much stronger than she looked. All that blacksmith work must have made her tough. She was probably stronger than a lot of men he’d seen. “Sigrid,” he suddenly blurted out, remembering the old woman’s sister. “What?” “Remember, she said she had a sister coming to see her? Her name’s Sigrid. She was supposed to help her with some kind of ritual.” “Poor woman will be crushed,” Isolde said sympathetically. “Do you know when she’s supposed to arrive?” “No, I don’t think she mentioned it.” “If she doesn’t show up tomorrow, we’ll have to be the ones to bury Mildburg.” “I agree, she deserves a proper burial,” Edwin nodded. On their way back to town, after the shock of the woman’s violent death had slightly subsided, the shopkeeper remembered he had not told his friend about Reiff, and decided to inform her about it. She would certainly be interested to know what the old man told him. “I found him at the docks. He was at the temple that day looking for food. He’s homeless, living off of people’s charity and whatever fish he manages to catch,” he started recounting the events, conveniently leaving out everything about Lothar. “His wife’s name was Helga. She was a priestess at the temple years ago, before she vanished one day, just like Ida did.” “Helga,” Isolde gasped, looking stunned. “Of course! I knew her when Ida and I were just little girls. She was so kind and generous, and always had time for everyone. Until one day, when she just stopped coming to the temple. We never saw her again, and were never allowed to ask questions about her.” “Can you remember anything about what happened before she disappeared? Did she say or do anything unusual?” Edwin asked, knowing it was a long shot. “No, I don’t think so. Like I said, I was so young. All I know is that she was very sweet, and a great believer. There could not have been a better high priestess. She was…” “...just like Ida,” Edwin finished her thought. “And she’s still missing, after all these years,” Isolde said, as if she’d just realized the horrifying implications. “That’s not going to happen with Ida, alright? We won’t let it happen! We’ll find her, I promise,” the young man said, trying to encourage her. It seemed to work, as she went on with renewed strength, glancing at him with fire in her eyes. “Oh, I know. I’ll turn every bloody rock in this land if I have to, but I will not rest until I’ve found my sister!” ~~ Just like most days, Isolde had planned to go straight home and bury herself in her work. Striking iron with her forging hammer was always a good way to let out all of her anger and frustrations, but not today. After learning about what really happened with Helga, she knew she could not waste a single moment. Two women had disappeared from the Temple of Dawn - a former high priestess and a future one - and although the incidents were years apart, they could not have been coincidences. Furious and unwavering, Isolde marched onward, determined to question the person whom she thought was the most obvious suspect - the current high priestess at the temple. Slamming the door open, the blacksmith woman barged in, startling a young priest who was lighting the candles on the wall candelabras. She wished Henry was here - as her neighbor, he was the only priest she knew, and the only one she had a rapport with. No doubt he would be on her side, but she couldn’t wait for him to show up. “Good day, how can I help you?” the priest asked, staring at Isolde in confusion. “I need to speak with Giselle,” the young woman replied, not bothering with pleasantries. Just being at the temple made her feel uneasy. Even when she was a little girl, she didn’t exactly enjoy visiting, unless it was with Ida. Even then, she would rather spend time climbing trees or running around with stray dogs. “I’ll go and look for her. Please wait here,” the man nodded before leaving, disappearing behind a door that led to the back part of the temple. It wasn’t long before the door opened again, causing Isolde to look up. She frowned when she saw the high priestess herself come out. As always, Giselle moved so strangely, as if gliding across the floor. Her white priestess robes fluttered around her legs, while her hands were clasped in front of her. It looked so unnatural, Isolde thought. It’s as if she’s not made of flesh and blood. How did a woman like that even become a priestess? “You again,” Giselle observed coldly. “Have the angels granted us a miracle and turned you into a believer?” “Fat chance of that,” Isolde replied, clenching her jaw at the older woman’s sarcasm. “I didn’t come because I want to be here, but because I need to. It’s about Ida.” “Have you heard anything about her?” the priestess asked, her expression shifting instantly into one of concern. “I know you and your father don’t see eye to eye, but he is deeply concerned about Ida. Her disappearance has shaken him up terribly.” If Isolde hadn’t known any better, she would have confused the woman’s words for genuine concern, but that couldn’t be it. Giselle was clearly only very good at pretending. “Oh, don’t give me that shit! The king’s guards aren’t lifting a finger to find my sister. If Agilmar had any brains left in that empty head of his, he would be searching for my sister himself instead of waiting for that useless bunch of deadbeats!” Isolde barked at the other woman, barely stopping to take a breath. “The old fool is so blind he can’t see the monster he’s looking for is right in front of him.” “Just what are you implying?” the priestess raised an eyebrow. Isolde couldn’t help but notice how she straightened her back even more in an attempt to appear taller. “You know damn well what I’m talking about,” the blacksmith woman stepped forward, getting up in her face. “I know it was you. Remember Helga? I know she disappeared all those years ago, just like Ida did. How convenient for you, huh? Now you can keep your position of high priestess.” A loud smack echoed through the temple as Giselle slapped Isolde across the face, leaving a red mark on her pale face. “How dare you?!” the woman snapped angrily, her face twisted in outrage. “Get out of here!” Stunned by the heavy slap, it took Isolde a few moments to recover, but once she did, she was unstoppable. Using all of her strength, she shoved Giselle against a nearby bench and grabbed one of her arms, twisting it behind her back. “You will pay for that, bitch! Tell me, what have you done with Ida? Where is she?!” the blacksmith woman grunted, squeezing the priestess’ arm even tighter until she screamed in pain. “Let me go! You’re insane. I haven’t done anything to Ida!” the woman pleaded, unable to free herself from Isolde’s strong grip. “Lies! And what about Helga? You don’t know anything about her either?” “Helga was my teacher, I respected and loved her dearly! I would never do anything to harm either of them!” “I don’t believe a word you’re saying. If you’ve hurt my sister…” Isolde threatened, one hand on her blade. If the only way to find Ida was through violence, then so be it. She would have to do whatever it takes. As she gripped the handle of her blade, the back door suddenly burst open, and a loud voice boomed through the temple. “What is the meaning of this?!” Agilmar shouted as he approached in quick steps, flanked by two large men dressed in priest robes. “Separate them,” he ordered. The two men quickly rushed over, heavy swords visible under their long robes. They grabbed Isolde, getting her away from Giselle. “Put me down!” the young woman yelled, trying to break free from their grasp until they finally released her. “What kind of priests carry weapons?” “They are here for protection. I hired them after… after Ida’s disappearance,” the high priest said, staring at his estranged daughter. “Isolde... what are you doing here?” “What am I doing here? I’m trying to find Ida, since you’re not doing anything about it. And the woman who’s behind it is right under your nose,” she retorted, pointing at the high priestess. “What does Giselle have to do with it?” “Don’t tell me you don’t find it suspicious that Ida vanished just like Helga did.” As she made her accusation, the young woman could see Agilmar’s face freeze in shock. “What do you know about Helga?” he asked, his voice suddenly going quiet. “I know she vanished without a trace, and she was a high priestess, just like Ida was to become one. There is no way this woman is not involved.” “She is insane!” Giselle replied. “You can’t possibly believe her stories.” “Giselle, leave us. I will deal with you later,” Agilmar ordered her, before turning to Isolde. “Why didn’t you tell the guards to arrest her? What other explanation is there?!” the young woman asked, desperate for the old man to see the light. It seemed that she was so close to finding her sister. She was so sure of it, yet she was powerless. There was only one thing left to try. “Father…” Isolde spoke again, uttering the word she hadn’t said in years, “please, help me find Ida.” She watched as Agilmar’s face twitched, but he kept standing tall, like a statue, making no move either way. When he spoke again, it was the same distant voice she had always known. “You have turned your back on this family and temple once. We do not need you coming here now, trying to sow discord among our priests. That kind of behavior will not help us in finding Ida. If Giselle is indeed guilty, she will be held responsible for her actions. If not, I will keep searching until I find Ida, and when I do… I’ll make sure you’re informed of it. I can promise you that.” The heavy front door opened, as several members of the congregation entered the temple. Agilmar glanced at them quickly before turning his focus back on Isolde. “Now, please leave us. Guards…” “Don’t bother,” Isolde said tersely, looking at the man with disgust and disbelief. She was a fool to expect anything from him. She should have known better than thinking family would ever be more important to him than his precious faith. “I know my way out.” Turning her back on them, she walked toward the exit until she reached the door, slamming it shut behind her. ~~ It wasn’t long before high priest Agilmar entered his chamber that he heard a knock on the door. “Come in,” he said, already knowing who it is. “Excuse me, father, but I must speak with you,” Giselle stood at the door, looking meek and shy, so unlike her usual self, full of grace and poise. “About what just happened…” “Worry not, priestess. Isolde has always been… full of spirit, and I do apologize if she hurt you in any way.” “No, she hasn’t. I only wanted to make sure that you know…” “I know. I believe it when you say you had nothing to do with Ida’s disappearance,” he reassured her, putting her out of her misery. At once, he noticed the relieved look on the woman’s face. “Thank you. I know this wasn’t easy on any of you.” “No, it wasn’t, but faith will keep us strong. I must believe that the heavens have a plan for my daughter and that she will return to us safe and sound,” Agilmar replied. “Can you please tell father Henry to come here?” “Of course, father. I’ll go find him right away,” Giselle nodded and left. Minutes later, a tall priest in his thirties entered the chamber. “You asked for me, father?” “Yes, Henry, please sit,” Agilmar offered. “It’s about Isolde.” “Oh?” the man looked curiously. “Is everything alright with her?” “After today’s… incident, I can’t deny I’m concerned about her. Ida being missing has affected her greatly and I would like you to keep watching her even more closely than you’ve been doing so far. Anything she does, no matter how insignificant it may seem, I need you to report back to me. I just want to make sure she doesn’t do anything she might regret.” “I understand, father. I’ll keep an eye on her,” Henry nodded obediently. “Although, she has barely been leaving her workshop lately as far as I’ve seen. I’m not sure of how much use it will be.” “I know there may be nothing to report, but please do it anyway, for my peace of mind,” Agilmar insisted. “Of course, father, I’ll do as you ask. And I will pray for both her and Ida,” the younger man replied before excusing himself and leaving the chamber.
  11. This is an interesting discussion and I liked reading all of your comments here. From my point of view as an author, I welcome and encourage feedback and criticism, as long as it's constructive and not something like "wow it took you 4 weeks to write this crappy short chapter?". I've had my share of positive and negative comments and I don't mind them as long as they are not rude. Even just a short "Nice story so far!" is always better than silence. Sometimes I'll work really hard on a story and get all excited about posting it, eagerly awaiting to see what people will think about it, only to get very few reactions. Of course, then I also have to wonder what I'm doing wrong? Maybe readers aren't 'lazy', maybe my story just isn't as good as I think it is. But then, lack of comments doesn't really help me figure out where the problem is. Anyway, lack of feedback is definitely a bit discouraging, but it certainly won't stop me from writing. I write primarily for myself, so even if I know that a certain genre would be more popular (from what I've seen on this site, it's mostly romance), if I don't feel like doing that type of a story, I won't. I'll simply write what I'm motivated for, even if it's a sequel to a less popular story. But in that case, I'd probably not post the story here because what's the point? I'd just show it to friends who I know would give me feedback. For me, motivation mainly comes from reading really good books and stories by other authors, which then inspire me to write more and strive to be better. Of course, if a story turns out to be popular among readers, it will certainly motivate me to write more. As much as I may write for my own enjoyment, it's always more fun to share it with others and read other people's opinions and theories. As a reader, I leave reactions to all the chapters/stories that I read, but I sometimes don't leave a comment, so I can't really blame others for that. I think this is the case with a lot of readers, and with myself too. If I see that a chapter already has a ton of comments and I don't have anything interesting/original to contribute to the discussion, I won't leave a comment. However, if it's an old story that's been completed a while ago, I will still leave a comment if I feel the need to. And I love it when people do that on my stories. I've had a few people leave a comment on some of my stories that I finished years ago, and it makes me happy to see that they are still being read. As for the 'check mark' reaction, I had a good laugh when I first saw it. It just screams passive-aggresive to me, like "this was not worthy of a like, but here, I'll let you know I read this chapter and was not impressed". I'm not a fan of it, but oh well, I understand why it was introduced. I'm not sure what can be done to make readers participate more. I think the barrier for giving feedback is very low as it is. I'm not sure how other websites for writers deal with this? Maybe they have some tricks that could be implemented here. I do like the new note that appears at the top and bottom of chapters, but I guess we'll have to see how effective it is.
  12. Hot winds blew across the desolate terrain as Lothar blinked onto the black granite path. None of the demons in the vicinity, near or far, paid much attention to him. He unzipped and removed his black leather jacket, as it was always too hot in this part of the Demonic Domain. The blood-red sky was streaked with black clouds, with a rare raven and vulture occasionally flying across, seeking for food or a place to roost. The volcanic mountains in the distance emitted plumes of dark smoke, an ominous sign of an impending eruption. It was nothing that demons, imps and other creatures who lived there weren’t already used to. Lothar continued along the path, his steely gaze focused on the road ahead, until he finally reached his destination - the Obsidian Keep ruled by Demon Lord Cromwell, Lothar’s commander. The imposing black citadel stood tall and mighty, its thick walls and sharp spires discouraging anyone from even approaching it, let alone entering. Red flames burned atop each tower, a signal that everything was in order. In the event of an angelic raid or any other conflict, the fires would turn white, visible from a vast distance, as a warning to all inhabitants. These were rather common in Cromwell’s territory, as it was located in the border area of the Demonic Domain. The demon lord himself had seen his fair share of battles, having ruled for the last two hundred years. Even so, he was considered a novice by some of the other lords who had been nearly ten centuries old. “Long time no see,” one of the two burly guards standing in front of the entrance to the Keep nodded as Lothar approached. “We thought you moved to the Earth to live among humans,” the other spoke, barely suppressing a laugh. “Don’t try to be funny, Victor. You know talking isn’t your strong suit,” Lothar passed between them, barely sparing them a glance. They may be good warriors, but couldn’t offer much else beside their brute strength. He despised their stupidity and lack of grace. “I’d watch my mouth, unless you want a fist in it,” the first guard spoke again. “Boss is already pissed at you.” Lothar frowned as he neared the main door. He was hardly surprised Cromwell was dissatisfied, and he had a rather good idea why. He would have to tread even more carefully from now on. The massive obsidian door opened as soon as he pressed his palm against it, letting him in. The inside of the fortress was just as bleak as the outside. Small windows of colored glass painted everything in a reddish hue, while torches burned on every wall. Taking the well-known route, Lothar made his way to the topmost floor. Once he reached the chamber of his commander, he knocked on the door, waiting for a response. “Come on in,” Cromwell’s cold, deep voice responded from the other side. “My lord,” the younger demon entered, greeting the tall, burly figure that sat in an armchair, reading a long scroll in the candlelight. Even though not as big as the guards outside, Cromwell was much taller and bulkier than Lothar. His head was covered in long, auburn dreadlocks, while his face had symmetrical red tattoos across the cheeks, the mark of a demon lord. On the floor next to him lay Pang, a menacing black panther that was sharpening its claws on a large piece of wood. “What’s the situation?” the older demon asked, going straight to business. Lothar stood near the door, not wanting to go further inside. There was little he was afraid of, but he knew he had to be cautious around Cromwell - his commander for the last several decades. The demon lord never had too much to say, but when he did, his subjects were expected to pay attention to every single word. Notorious, or perhaps celebrated among demons for being ruthless, he suffered no fools. His reputation as a cruel leader was well-known across his realm, and even beyond. “As I told you last time, the girl who was taken was training to be a priestess, and I’ve just found out there was another case where a priestess from the same temple vanished. I spoke to her husband. He says her name was Helga and she was taken eight years ago. It’s no surprise the angels are targeting people of faith. Religion is a powerful tool among humans, it makes them easy to control. We should check who was assigned to that woman’s case and if they discovered anything.” “I’ll take care of that,” Cromwell said, nodding almost imperceptibly. “What else have you found out?” “That is all for now. I’m trying to-” “That’s it?” the demon lord grumbled. As if sensing his dissatisfaction, the panther looked up, turning towards his master. “You’ve spent all that time over there and this is all you have to show for it? I’m starting to think those idiots were right. Maybe you weren’t right for the job.” “My lord, I’ve never failed you and I don’t intend to start now,” Lothar replied, refraining from lashing out. He couldn’t afford to lose his cool. “Just because I don’t rush into things like some pebble-brained morons around here, doesn’t mean I don’t get the job done. I believe you know that.” Cromwell reached over with his hand, stroking the panther’s neck. It seemed almost gentle, an act of affection. The animal closed its deep purple eyes and began purring. “Just make sure you don’t disappoint me,” the demon said, seemingly unimpressed with Lothar’s response. After a brief pause, he added: “There’s a reason we made the pact not to involve humans in our war. They are a treacherous kind and can be easily swayed either way. They don’t have lasting allegiances like we do. Don’t forget that.” “I won’t,” Lothar clenched his jaw, looking at Cromwell with confidence. Always the same talk about humans. All the demons told him that, but what did they know? Cromwell never spent any time among humans, he never even went to Earth. He only repeated what he heard from others, just like most other demons. They didn’t know what people were capable of. They didn’t know Edwin like he did. Besides, he needed no reminders. He knew very well what his job was, and he would get it done. Tired and irritable, the young demon left the Obsidian Keep and headed straight for the rocky hills behind it. They were barren and difficult to climb, but the view from the top was always worth it. The hills overlooked the dark forest to the west, as well as demonic settlements to the east, always buzzing with activity. He always used to go there with Adrian, but now that he was alone, there was no point in making the effort of hiking. Instead, he simply blinked to the top and sat down on the cold, hard ground. He hadn’t been there in months. It was too painful to return to the spot he had so many happy memories attached to, but this time, something drew him there. As he looked down at the scenery below, he realized little had changed. The forest was still gloomy and vast, while the demonic houses still stood tall. Made of dark volcanic rock, they all looked alike. The streets were lit with hundreds of torches, while demons moved about, each going their own way. So similar to humans in some ways, yet so different in others. “I didn’t see you return,” a voice startled him. He turned to see Nyra standing a few feet away. With pale skin and long, black hair flowing in the wind, the young woman was dressed in her usual attire of tight black trousers and a long maroon jacket. She had a black ring on her right hand, similar to the one Lothar wore. A smile came naturally on Lothar’s face upon seeing her – she was one of his best and oldest friends. “Sorry, I just got back. Reporting to Cromwell and all that,” he replied. The girl came closer and sat next to him. “What have you been up to?” Nyra laughed, the sound filling the night air. “You know there is nothing even remotely interesting in my life. Everything is so bloody… peaceful. I’ve been training some kids, but it’s not even close to the real thing. I need to fight someone for real. I miss it,” she let out a sigh, stretching her arms above her head. “At least you’ve been having some adventures on Earth, haven’t you?” “Just another case to solve,” he shrugged. “There’s more to it than that, I can tell. Aren’t you afraid Cromwell’s going to sense it too?” Lothar frowned and looked ahead, avoiding her gaze. “How can you still want to go and fight?” he asked, desperate to change the subject. “After everything that happened?” Nyra was a fearless warrior, adept at spear and sword fighting. She had fought in as many battles as Lothar had, and after seeing her in combat, he was glad she was on his side. “He wasn’t just your friend, you know? He was mine too. I miss him just as much,” the woman replied, as if she could read his mind. “Then how can you say you miss the war?” he asked, already regretting starting this conversation. That was exactly why he’d been avoiding Nyra lately. He didn’t want to talk about Adrian. He wanted to remember his friend in silence, not talk about his death. But he was even less prepared to talk about Edwin. “Because I want to avenge him. I want to kill those angels. No, not just those who killed him. All of them. I want to tear their wings off as they scream in pain, torture them for days and weeks before I finally cut their heads off with my sword,” Nyra spoke passionately. “Don’t you want that too?” Lothar didn’t speak. He was tired of discussions about the war between demons and angels. They were as pointless as the war itself. They had been going at it for centuries, yet neither side could win. All they managed to accomplish was endless casualties on both sides. When would they finally realize that and give up? When there’s no one left to fight? “What I want is for him to be alive again, but that is something I cannot have,” he replied curtly. With that, he blinked and vanished, leaving Nyra sitting alone at the top of the hill. It was early when Lothar woke up in his home the following morning. He had barely slept, thinking about the endless conflict between the two races. Humans also waged wars all the time on Earth, but they always ended sooner or later, with one side as the victor, and the other the loser. That wasn’t the case here. After a quick meal, he returned to the Obsidian Keep. He needed to know if Cromwell had tracked down whoever was in charge of Helga’s case all those years ago, hoping they had discovered something useful. If they could find Helga, maybe that would also lead them to Edwin’s friend. “Good, we’re all here now,” Cromwell announced as Lothar entered the chamber. The demon lord was sitting on a massive throne-like chair carved out of volcanic rock. In his ceremonial black robes with red trimming, he almost looked regal, in a perverse and twisted sort of way. His panther lay at his feet, seemingly asleep, but Lothar knew it was but a trick. He had seen the animal jump at its master’s orders and pounce on unsuspecting victims in the blink of an eye on many occasions. A short and rather slim young demon stood to the side, turning to look at the new arrival. Lothar recognized him as Zelig, a spy who was often sent on covert operations, whether to other realms in the Demonic Domain, or to the angels’ domain to infiltrate and spy on the enemies. His sand-colored hair was cropped short on the sides, while long bangs fell across his forehead. With his gentle facial features and light skin, he could almost pass as a human if it weren’t for his blood red eyes. Even though he appeared unarmed, Lothar assumed he had at least three blades hidden somewhere on his body. “Zelig, it’s been a while.” “Too long,” the young demon replied with a smirk. “How’s Earth, you lucky bastard?” Even though he was one of Cromwell’s best spies, he rarely had the opportunity to go to the realm of humans, which was one of his favorite things to do, as he’d told Lothar on a few occasions. They were a species he had met only a handful of times. He was curious to see more of how they lived and just how much he’d be able to manipulate them. “Just another mission,” Lothar shrugged. “Well, I call dibs on the next one. I’m sick of angels,” Zelig replied, his face turning into a frown. “They’re so fucking dull.” “Zelig was the one assigned to the case of the woman named Helga,” Cromwell explained, cutting their chit-chat short. “We have another abduction by the angels, as Lothar managed to find out.” The spy lifted an eyebrow, turning to look at Lothar with interest. “Another priestess from the same town. I came across a man claiming to be Helga’s husband. He’d been searching for her for years with no success.” “Of course, and he’s never going to find her,” the other demon stated matter-of-factly, “not unless he can travel through realms.” “So the angels do have her?” “Yes, I managed to track her – and quite easily at that,” Zelig added, unable to resist the opportunity to boast. “The last thing I know about her is that they took her to the Cultivation Spire.” Lothar frowned at the news. The Celestial Spire, the angelic domain, actually consisted of numerous tall structures that seemed to have been created from pure energy itself. No matter how many times demons tried to destroy them with fire, demonic magic or brute force, the structures would always somehow repair themselves. None of the demons knew what the source of that energy was, but they assumed it existed, and that its destruction would allow them to finally defeat the angelic forces once and for all. One of these towering creations was called the Cultivation Spire, where new angels were trained – at least according to what demonic spies were able to find out. “I doubt they plan to turn her into just another angelic soldier. They have enough of those,” Cromwell offered. “No, if the woman was a priestess, it means she has some sway over people. They trust her, they listen to her. After the angels are done transforming her into one of them, they can use her to convert masses to their side. Whole towns and cities.” “They must be planning the same with Ida,” Lothar concluded. They could not allow the angels to gain the upper hand, which meant they had to act quickly. If the other demon lords found out that angels were trying to recruit humans under their noses, a new war would surely break out. As much as he wanted to see those hateful creatures defeated, Lothar wanted to avoid another large-scale conflict even more. He had already lost his best friend in one such war, and for what? The only thing that was sure was even more pointless deaths all around. “Find them. Whatever it takes,” the demon lord ordered. “And bring them to me alive.” ~~ After his two subjects left the chamber, Cromwell closed his eyes, focusing. “You can come now,” he sent a telepathic message, and then opened his eyes. The panther at his feet still lay peacefully, ignoring everything that was happening around it. A few moments later, a female demon blinked into the room, appearing in front of the demon lord. She bowed, her long, black hair falling over her face. “My lord.” “You know what to do, Nyra,” Cromwell said. “Follow him. Every minute he’s here, I want to know what he’s doing.” “My lord, do you truly believe-“ “The smell of some human is all over him, I can feel it,” the demon lord replied, glaring at her. “I need to know he won’t slip up.” “Of course. As you wish,” Nyra nodded obediently. “Is there anything else?” “That’s all… for now,” he nodded glumly. Without another word, the young woman blinked, disappearing from the chamber.
  13. As he woke up in his bed at the break of dawn, Edwin wondered what the new day would bring. It seemed as though the period of peaceful, yet somewhat dull life was over, and each new day brought with it something unexpected. Still, he was not sure if he appreciated this change or not. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to even think about himself when he knew that Ida was somewhere out there, needing help. Lothar’s presence was equally distracting. He would pop in whenever he felt like it, unannounced and always in a different mood. And although he always claimed he was there to help, Edwin was not sure how much he could trust him. After all, he was only a demon - although a very convincing one. He always seemed to know Edwin’s every desire, sometimes even before Edwin himself realized it. The shopkeeper found it unnerving, yet strangely arousing at the same time. The biggest question that weighed on his mind was that of his soul. Even though he had never been one for religion and superstition, all of the recent events made him start thinking in a different manner. What would Lothar do with his soul once he passed away? Maybe the demon would forget all about it by then. Edwin could only hope so, although he was certainly not ready to bet on the demon having a poor memory. The shop owner had barely opened his little trinket store that morning when Lothar blinked in, standing just a few feet away, startling the other man. “Can you please stop doing that?!” Edwin raised his voice, having almost dropped the delicate earrings he was holding. “If you must blink, do it in front of the shop so I can hear you come in.” “Fine, I’ll remember it for next time,” Lothar replied, seemingly amused. “Now, come on, let’s go find the hermit. Unless you’d rather sit this one out?” “In your dreams. I’m coming along,” Edwin quickly retorted. There was no chance he would be left out as long as his friend was missing. While the demon amused himself by inspecting the collection of crystals on the shelves, Edwin rushed to clean up and lock the shop, flipping the sign on the door. “Are you sure about this?” he asked after he was finished, eyeing Lothar with doubt and just a sliver of fear. They were standing face to face in the middle of the shop. “Of course. I do it all the time,” the demon replied casually, taking the other man by the hand. “Leave it all to me and you have nothing to worry about. All you have to do is hold my hand. Think you can do that?” “I think I’ll manage,” the black man pursed his lips, squeezing Lothar’s hand tighter. “Alright, then. I’m ready.” “On the count of three. One… two…” Edwin gasped and instinctively closed his eyes. This was without a doubt the craziest, wildest thing he had ever done. What if he ended up dead, decapitated, disintegrated? He would come back to haunt Lothar for all eternity. “...three!” He didn’t have much time to worry about death, though, as just a moment later he opened his eyes, and saw that the interior of his shop had vanished. They were now standing in a small, dark alley near the docks. Lothar had blinked, taking Edwin with him for the first time. “So, how did it feel? You still have the correct number of arms and legs? We wouldn’t want any part of you missing,” the demon said, glancing at Edwin’s crotch. “I’m fine,” the man rolled his eyes, letting go of Lothar’s hand. He quickly groped himself all over, just to make sure everything was in its place. “Wow. I can’t believe we’ve done this. It wasn’t that scary after all.” “Told you. Walking is for mortals,” the demon winked. “Now come on, let’s go find that man. This time, I’ll make him talk.” The two men stepped out of the alley and made their way toward the docks, filled with the usual mix of sailors, merchants and fishermen, everyone going about their own way. Over a dozen ships were docked, some getting repaired, while others waiting for new merchandise to transport to other kingdoms across the Pearl Sea. They looked around, going through the wooden stalls with fish, linen and other products, but Reiff was nowhere to be found. Finally, they moved away from the docks and to the rocky beach to the south. Save for a few old fishermen sitting in the sun and drinking ale as they waited for fish to bite, it was deserted. “Look, over there,” Lothar pointed out far away in the back, where a hooded figure sat in the shade of a large rock, eating something. “That is definitely him,” Edwin agreed. “You start approaching him from here, but be quiet. I’ll blink from the other side, so he doesn’t escape,” the demon presented the plan. That was exactly what they did. Trying to stay hidden behind the rocks, Edwin made his way over as quietly as possible. As he got closer, Reiff noticed someone moving and got up, but Lothar was faster - he blinked behind the hermit and held him in place, preventing him from escaping. “Let me go!” Reiff growled, trying to shake off the demon, but it was pointless. No matter how much he fought, Lothar’s strong hands held him tight. “Not until we talk. And this time, no running away,” Edwin ran over and stood before them. “We just want to talk… We need your help.” “Why would I help you?” Reiff’s eyes observed him from the shadow of the hood that covered half of his face. He reminded Edwin of a turtle, as if he was trying to retreat into his shell until he was left alone. “Because a woman I trust told me you’d have some answers for me. My best friend is missing, and I don’t know how to find her. I don’t know where to begin looking for her. You might even know her. Her name is Ida, she’s the daughter of High Priest Agilmar. I saw you at the temple…” “Agilmar’s daughter?” Reiff asked, suddenly staring at Edwin with full attention. “Yes. Do you know her? She was training to become a priestess.” “I… This cannot be,” the hermit shook his head, muttering to himself. “Just like Helga...” As if all the strength and will to fight had left his body, he slumped against Lothar, dropping his gaze. “Who’s Helga?” Edwin asked cautiously, stepping closer. “Please…” “Helga is… was my wife.” “Ohh,” the shopkeeper sat down and eyed Lothar, letting him know to let the man go so he could sit down as well. “What happened to her? Please. I promise we mean you no harm.” “Helga… She was a priestess at the temple, one of the best there ever was. She was Agilmar’s right hand. Everyone loved her. The very sight of her beautiful face made people feel better. She loved helping them, always listening to their woes, praying with them and for them. To think that she could fall in love with me, a simple carpenter… I could not believe it. But she did. We were wed, and then started living together. I cherished every day with that wonderful woman by my side until… Until one day, eight years ago, when she just vanished.” Lothar and Edwin instantly looked at each other. Was Helga’s disappearance another case of angels getting involved in human affairs? Edwin was willing to bet his life on it. “Did you manage to find her?” The hermit shook his head sadly, looking defeated. “I looked everywhere, never giving up. I spent years travelling, searching for her, asking help from everyone. It was all in vain. I neglected my job, I lost my home, everything. No one could help me. And yet… I still have hope I’ll see her again. If not in this life, then in the one after.” “I’m so sorry to hear that, I didn’t know,” Edwin replied, his heart breaking for the man. “Did you manage to find out anything at all? Any clues as to who might have taken her and where?” “No, nothing. It was as if she vanished into thin air. I was in my workshop, and she was inside the house. When I came back inside, everything was as she left it, but she was gone,” the man’s voice cracked, and Edwin felt a pang of sadness for him. Even though Ida was his friend and not wife, he loved her dearly and knew exactly what the poor man had gone through. “Look, this woman I mentioned, she is somehow able to communicate with spirits… I think. She is a mystic, and she told me I should look for you. I think we were meant to meet. Maybe we can help each other?” “I’ve spent so many years all alone, searching for my wife in vain,” Reiff said, finally looking up at the younger man. “If there’s even the smallest chance of finding her, I have to take it.” Edwin nodded, giving him a look of compassion and understanding, before turning his head to Lothar, still sitting beside the hermit and keeping an eye on him. “Then I think we should tell him what we know.” “I agree,” the white-haired man nodded, turning to face Reiff. “Now tell me, what do you know about demons?” As he listened to Lothar’s revelation, the hermit seemed almost as shocked as Edwin had been. Learning that there was another world, other than the one visible to humans, was hard to accept, Edwin knew that very well. Still, Reiff seemed to take it quite well. The shopkeeper observed him the entire time, wondering if the man was going to call them insane and try to escape, but he did not. After all, Lothar’s powers seemed to have been enough proof. The hermit then revealed that he had been quite a religious man in his youth, fully believing in the church doctrines. Needless to say, Helga was even more of a believer. But then, when his whole world came crashing down, and no church, priest or religion was there to help him, Reiff had to rely only on himself. “I abandoned it all. I used to think, what use is my faith if it can’t bring Helga back. And now you’re asking me to have faith in a demon. Why should I believe anything you say? Isn’t that exactly what your kind wants? To deceive us with your evil and your lies.” “Because right now, I’m the only chance you have of finding out what happened to your wife,” Lothar replied immediately. “And if you don’t think that’s worth the risk, then I don’t care. But if I find anything out, don’t expect me to lift a finger to help you.” “I… Very well, I’ll help however I can,” the older man conceded, hanging his head. “But I just don’t understand how angels could be behind it… Why? Why would they do this?” “I don’t know,” Lothar was honest. “But… I have my suspicions. Helga was a priestess, and Ida was about to become one. I believe that means they are targeting people of faith - church members. And to be able to abduct people, they must’ve had help here on Earth. We need to find out who. Angels don’t care about humans as church would have you believe. For them, you are expendable. Something they can use in the war against demons. And don’t get me wrong, demons are the same way. If we could use humans to fight for us so we didn’t have to die in battle, we would. We would sacrifice this entire continent with no second thought if it meant we could win the war and end the angels once and for all!” Edwin stared at him, surprised at his bluntness. If it came to that, and angels and demons moved their conflict here, would Lothar really be able to participate? Would he sacrifice human lives just to eradicate the angels? Edwin realized he couldn’t answer that, he didn’t know him well enough. No matter how seductive and convincing Lothar was, he was still only a demon. The shopkeeper didn’t fail to observe how Reiff eyed Lothar warily, clearly unsure if he could trust him. As if noticing the same thing, the demon quickly continued. “But the point is, the demons have always respected the pact. We’ve steered clear of humanity the entire time. It is the angels who have broken it, and we have to stop them.” “I just want to find Helga… Or at least find out what happened to her,” Reiff said. “I don’t think any of us want to get in the middle of their conflict - no offense, Lothar,” Edwin spoke, “but if that’s the only way to find Ida and Helga... I’m prepared to do it.” “Good. I don’t know if that’s something you’ll have to do, but it’s good to know you’re willing to do whatever it takes,” the demon replied, standing up. “I’ll have to go back to my realm and ask about Helga’s case. They must have sent someone to investigate back then.” With a glimmer of hope finally visible in his sad eyes, the hermit stood up and faced Lothar. “If you find something about her, anything at all… please, let me know.” “You can count on it,” the demon promised. ~~ With Lothar somewhere in the Demonic Domain, and Mildburg still not coming to his shop, Edwin found himself restless, impatiently waiting for any news to come his way. Business was less busy than usual that day, which did not help get his mind off of his problems at all. As soon as he closed the shop and had something to eat, the shopkeeper decided to head to the Western Quarter and pay Isolde a visit. Perhaps she had managed to learn something new. As he walked through the adobe houses of the old neighborhood, most of them painted in dull yellow and brown colors, Edwin wondered if he should tell Isolde about Lothar. What would she say if she knew he was associating himself with a demon? Would she even believe him that they existed? He couldn’t come to a clear decision, so he decided not to say anything for now, at least not until he spoke to Lothar again. Maybe it was best if as few people as possible knew about him. “Edwin, hello,” the young woman greeted him as he entered her blacksmith shop. She stood in front of one of her anvils, working on a short sword. It already looked rather good to Edwin, but then again, he remembered he had little knowledge of weapons. “What brings you here?” “I’m not sure, to be honest,” he was still standing by the door, looking around. The furnace in the far end of the shop burned hot, making the place very uncomfortable and stuffy. “I was in the shop, going out of my mind. Still no news from Mildburg, and I feel so useless, sitting there and waiting. I have to do something...” “So, you wanna go and pay her a visit?” Isolde got straight to the point. “Yes. Do you want to accompany me?” “Hell yes. Let me just finish this up,” she nodded, getting back to her work. It was merely a few minutes later that the two of them were on their way south, approaching the Valfell river that separated the town from the neighboring villages. Situated in the fertile delta where the river flowed into the Pearl Sea, all of the small towns and villages were mainly inhabited by farmers, whose cereals and other crops were exported through the port of Ossvale to distant towns and cities across the sea. Edwin had visited many of them when he moved to the kingdom, but quickly decided to settle in Ossvale. Living by the sea always seemed attractive to him, and it was the biggest change from the mountainous area of Ahrabet that he used to call home. He wanted no reminders of that. As the familiar green house came into view, Edwin didn’t move his eyes off of it, hoping the old mystic would be home, and that she would have the answers he was looking for. Anything to help him figure out where Ida was taken and how to get to her. There was no answer when he knocked on the old wooden door, so he decided to just knock again and wait. “Ugh, if she’s out…” “Maybe it’s…” Isolde came over and grabbed the door handle, pressing it. The door opened with a long squeak. “...unlocked.” “Do you always do that? Enter people’s homes?” Edwin frowned, but followed her inside. “Remind me to never leave my…” “Edwin, look,” the woman abruptly stopped in front of him and grabbed him by the arm. When the shopkeeper turned his head, he froze in the spot. On the floor in the corner of the room was the lifeless body of Mildburg, lying in a pool of blood. “No, no, no…” he muttered, rushing over to kneel down next to her, while Isolde opened the curtains to let more sunlight in. Edwin looked at the old woman’s dead body, as a chill enveloped him. As she lay on the side, he could see a large stab wound in her back, dried up blood painting her dress dark red. This was no coincidence, he thought, feeling his heart race. Mildburg herself was the one who told him that - there were no coincidences. Whoever did this, they didn’t want her to help Edwin. Moving away from the gruesome sight, the young man accidentally kicked a small object and heard it roll across the wooden floor. Curious, he turned around to pick it up. “What’s that?” Isolde whispered, still in shock. “It’s…” Edwin gasped as he brought the small item to the window to inspect it. In his hand was a little black stone with light cracks all over its surface, similar to the one Mildburg gave him just a few days ago. Black tourmaline.
  14. The wind picked up as Edwin and Isolde walked through the fields on the outskirts of Ossvale, reaching the narrow river south of the town. The tall cypress trees that stood on both sides of the water swayed left and right, their tops almost touching the gray sky above. Edwin shivered, wishing he had worn something warmer than the thin shirt that exposed his body more than it covered it. “Who is this woman anyway?” Isolde asked as they passed the mills situated by the river. A row of small wooden houses appeared behind the trees and shrubs to the right. The first one was an old, green cottage that must have been Mildburg’s home. “I told you, she’s an old customer. I don’t know much about her, but she can sense things. There’s something about her… I can’t explain it, but I believe she has some powers.” “What, she’s a witch?” the blacksmith woman asked mockingly. “Because if you dragged me all the way here to watch a crazy old woman play with chicken bones…” “Did I force you to come? You invited yourself,” Edwin stared her down. “You can turn back and leave anytime you want.” “I’ll indulge her this one time,” the woman huffed in annoyance as she wrapped her jacket tightly around her body in an attempt to stay warm. “Maybe she can really help us. It’s not like I have many other options.” “Still no sign of that hermit?” “None whatsoever,” Isolde sighed. “I don’t even know where to look. For all I know, I could be bloody well wasting my time on him.” “You probably are,” the man thought to himself. “If the angels indeed took Ida, I doubt that old man had anything to do with it.” “And it doesn’t seem Agilmar has had any more luck than us.” “Really? How do you know that?” Edwin frowned. He doubted Isolde would be talking to her father again, even with the misfortune that had befallen them, but perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps Ida’s disappearance was what it took to bring the estranged father and daughter back together. “One of the royal guards told me. I’ve been visiting the tavern they go to, trying to see if they need my services,” she replied. “Anyway, one of the men told me they’ve searched all over town, but nothing. He sounded as if they’ve given up already.” “Well, we’re not giving up,” Edwin was determined. As they reached the little green house with the moss-covered roof and a variety of flowers planted in front of it, the young man knocked on the door. Only a moment later, it opened with a creak. “Welcome, dear child. Please, come in,” the old woman greeted him warmly, stepping aside to let him pass. “This is my friend’s sister, Isolde. I hope you don’t mind that she came along,” he pointed at the young woman who followed him inside. “Of course not. Please, make yourselves at home,” Mildburg replied. As they sat on a simple wooden bench, Edwin’s eyes darted around the small room, noticing the crystals she had bought from him lining some of the shelves. The floor was covered in colorful rugs, while fire burned in a stone fireplace in the corner, warming up the place. “Can you really help us find my sister?” Isolde cut straight to the point. Seemingly unfazed, the old woman took her time pouring hot herbal tea in three small cups, placing them on the table. “I shall certainly try. As I already told your friend, I sensed a great disturbance in the spirit realm on the day your sister vanished. What caused it, and where the girl was taken, I do not know yet, but I hope to find out. Sadly, my power is no longer what it used to be, so I’m afraid I cannot perform the ritual alone. My sister, Sigrid, will come to help me. With our powers combined, I hope we will be able to shed some light on this.” “And your sister, she also has… powers like you?” Edwin asked. “Yes, she is a mystic too, and quite a gifted one. When we next see each other, hopefully I shall have good news for you,” she replied. “Now, I have something for you,” she added, getting up and walking over to a small cabinet and opening the top drawer. She returned carrying a small, polished black stone with light cracks all across its surface, a gray string tied around it. As soon as he saw it, the young shopkeeper recognized it. “Black tourmaline?” he raised an eyebrow. The dark gem was incredibly rare in that part of the kingdom. Even he had trouble finding it for his shop. “Yes. It has been cleansed and soaked in a ravendrop infusion for three nights,” she nodded, a hint of a smile on her lips. “It is excellent for protecting its wearer against the dark forces. And what I felt in your shop yesterday, that dark, ominous presence, it cannot be a coincidence. Please, keep it on you at all times.” “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to be…” the young man shook his head, but Mildburg was insistent. “Please. You trust me to help you find your friend, so trust me on this as well.” “Very well,” Edwin accepted the talisman, wondering if it was too late to be wearing it. He had already been tricked into making a pact with Lothar, forfeiting his soul in the process. What else did he have to lose at this point? Still, he hung the stone around his neck and tucked it underneath his shirt. There was probably no harm in having some extra protection even if he thought he didn’t need it. “I’m sorry I don’t have one for you,” Mildburg turned to Isolde. “Oh, that’s alright, I’m good,” the younger woman replied, pulling out the dagger she always carried with her. “I have my protection right here.” “As you wish,” the mystic turned back to the man. “As soon as Sigrid and I have finished the ritual, I shall visit you to share the results. I have no doubt the truth shall come out after all. And one more thing, my child. The lonely man you are seeking… Don’t give up on him. I feel that he may have some answers you seek.” ~~ It had been two days since he last saw Lothar, and Edwin wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or concerned. Was the demon playing tricks on him again, waiting to see if the shopkeeper would call for him to come? Or was he somewhere out there, trying to find Ida? What if he was in danger? Edwin didn’t know how powerful angels were, but if demons could never best them in battle, they had to be of about equal strength. What if Lothar got ambushed by a group of them and got killed? Edwin felt a chill pass through his body as he thought of the scenario. Why was he concerned about the demon anyway? He was clearly evil, tricking and manipulating him, even taking the shape of the lovely Florian to play with his mind. Still, Edwin clearly needed him if he was to ever find Ida. Lothar seemed to know more about what was happening than anyone else. Exactly, that was the only reason he was worried about the demon. Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Edwin returned to reality. Going back from the marketplace with a basket of fruit and vegetables in one hand, he was taking the long way home, passing by the house where Ida used to live. He cast a wistful glance at it as he walked by. There was no light inside, no joyful, warm voice of his friend to greet him. The Temple of Dawn stood beside it, its size and magnificence mocking Edwin. It was a place of worship, a temple dedicated to the heavenly angels people believed in. The same angels that apparently took his friend, if what Lothar had told him was true. The shop owner scowled as he observed the polished, white temple, standing proud with its mighty spires. He felt as if the building itself had taken Ida. All of a sudden, Edwin’s eyes wandered off to a hooded figure approaching the back of the temple. The large, broad back and the gray cloak looked all too familiar. It was Reiff. It had to be him. Without thinking, Edwin dropped his basket with groceries and rushed over as silently as he could. When he was near the stranger, he stopped, not wanting to scare him off again. “Hey, I just want to talk, alright?” he said. Spooked like a rabbit hunted by a fox, the hermit almost jumped as he turned around to see who was talking to him. Before Edwin could say another word, Reiff bolted again, running as fast as he could. The younger man wasted no time in running after him, his heart beating wildly in his chest and ears. “Why are you running away?” he yelled. He couldn’t let the man get away this time. “Leave me alone!” Reiff grumbled in a rough, coarse voice, as he ducked into the first narrow alley. Mustering all his strength, Edwin picked up the pace. He was finally gaining on the other man. In a matter of seconds, he was right behind him, reaching out and pulling him by the cloak, causing him to tumble down. The younger man immediately got on top of him, pinning him to the ground. With a grunt, Reiff grabbed him by the arms and pushed him off. Surprised by the man’s strength, Edwin fell backwards hard, landing on the cobblestone path with a thud. “Don’t make me fight you,” the hermit growled as he threateningly approached him, towering over him. He grabbed Edwin by the collar and picked him up with ease, slamming him against the wall. Wailing in pain, Edwin fell onto the ground, realizing he was in over his head. The man was much stronger than he appeared. “I hope this will teach you to leave me alone!” Reiff was ready to throw a punch, when a familiar white-haired figure suddenly appeared out of nowhere, grabbing him by the arm, forcefully pulling him back. “Not so fast!” Lothar shouted, as Reiff fell down to the ground, landing on his hands and knees. “Why didn’t you call if you needed help?” the demon asked, looking over at Edwin. “I didn’t know I would be doing this!” the shopkeeper shot back, scrambling to get up. “How… how did you…” the hermit turned around, still on the ground, staring wildly at Lothar. There was fear and confusion in his eyes. “What are you?” he whispered as he crawled backwards, trying to put as much distance between himself and the other two men as possible. “What do you want from me?” Looking bored, Lothar blinked again. A moment later, he appeared behind Reiff and grabbed him by the arms. As much as he tried to struggle, the hermit was no match for the demon’s unholy strength. “Stop squirming!” Lothar ordered. “I believe my friend here wants to ask you something.” As Edwin took a cautious step forward, Reiff stared him down. “Well? Speak.” “Look, my friend went missing, and I was told you might be able to help me find her,” Edwin said, noticing how the older man’s eyes went wide for a moment. Was it fear or just concern? “I don’t know who told you that, but they’re wrong. I can’t help you,” the hermit replied, lowering his head to avoid Edwin’s gaze. “Are you sure about that?” Lothar asked, twisting the man’s arm until he cried out in pain. “Lothar, enough! I don’t want to torture the man,” the shopkeeper protested, reaching out to grab the demon by the arm. Instantly, a loud yell echoed through the alley, but this time, it was Lothar. As if burned by angelic holy fire, the demon stumbled away from Edwin, falling down. Seizing the opportunity, Reiff fled as fast as his legs would carry him, disappearing around the corner. “Are you alright?” the black man asked in concern, rushing over to Lothar. “Get away from me!” the demon hissed, appearing dazed from the shock. “Unbutton your shirt,” he ordered. Edwin stared at him in confusion, until realization hit him. It was all his fault. How could he have forgotten about the damn stone? He undid the top three buttons, revealing the black tourmaline hanging around his neck. “Where did you get that?” Lothar hissed, his eyes filled with rage. “Are you trying to set me up?!” “No! No, I’m sorry,” Edwin felt the need to apologize. Despite everything, he felt bad about hurting the demon. He never meant to do it. “It was an honest mistake. I… I forgot I had it on. Mildburg… the old woman from the shop gave it to me for protection.” “Protection from me?” the demon tried to get up, but quickly fell back down on the ground. “Careful, you’re still too weak,” Edwin cautioned, taking off the pendant and throwing it away. He then reached over and helped the demon stand up, putting an arm around him for support. “There we go. Can you walk?” “Yes,” Lothar muttered without turning to look at him. “Answer me. Is that supposed to be protection from me?” “She doesn’t even know about you. She just insisted I took it, and I forgot about it in the heat of the moment. I was just too focused on Reiff.” “Yeah, and now he’s gone, because of you.” “Do you want me to drop you?” Edwin was annoyed. He was already feeling guilty without the demon rubbing it in. “Fine. We’ll find him again anyway, if you really think he can help. He’s clearly staying at the docks.” “How did you figure that out?” “The smell of fish and sea on his clothes. He must be spending a lot of time there,” Lothar concluded. “Hmm, you’re probably right,” Edwin muttered. The man was homeless, so it only made sense he went to the docks to catch fish to survive. It was certainly the easiest food source to come by in Ossvale. “We’ll have to look for him there later. But first, let’s get you back to the shop. Can you, uh... blink us there?” “No, I’m still far too weak,” Lothar said, still sounding annoyed. “Fine, we’ll have to walk then. Just… hold onto me,” Edwin replied, bracing himself for a long and awkward walk back home. ~~ The sun was sending its last evening rays through the large shop windows. Standing behind the counter, Edwin was using every last bit of daylight to finish his work on a ring he was repairing. Having already replaced the missing gemstone, all he had to do was polish it and it would be ready for Mr. Huber to take back to his wife. Once he was done with the ring, Edwin put out one of the candles that was providing him additional light, and picked up the other one, carrying it upstairs. He slowly opened the door to his bedroom, so as not to awaken Lothar. Weak from the accident, the demon had passed out in the shopkeeper’s bed promptly after they had gotten home, and was apparently still sleeping. Tiptoeing inside, Edwin sat in an armchair in the corner, placing the candle on the small table next to it. He picked up an old book he’d had for years - a collection of folk tales from the kingdom of Ahrabet, his home. It was one of the few things he had taken with him when he left. Every now and then, he liked to take it out and read it, just so he would not forget where he came from. It never failed to make him sad, but it was always worth it. He had barely gotten through two pages when he heard shuffling and creaking of the bed. Looking up, he saw Lothar stretching. Edwin stared at his sleeping face, wondering how he had gotten into this mess. A week ago, his life was boring, but happy and peaceful. Now, his best friend was missing, he was chasing random people all over town, and there was a demon sleeping in his bed. When would all of this end, and how? He was afraid to even speculate. Lothar slowly opened his eyes, looking up at Edwin. “You’re awake,” Edwin spoke quietly. He closed the book he was reading and placed it on the table. “Excellent perception,” the demon’s voice was dripping with sarcasm, something Edwin did not appreciate. “Have you been there, watching me the whole time?” “As if I don’t have better things to do,” the shop owner replied, still looking deep in thought. “If you say so. Come on, then. Ask what’s on your mind,” Lothar said. “I can tell you’re about to burst.” The silence stretched on for too long, but the demon’s eyes never left Edwin’s. Finally, the shopkeeper spoke. “My soul… What happens to it now?” “Are you concerned?” the demon sounded amused. “A week ago you didn’t even believe in church preachings, angels and demons. Now you worry about your soul.” “You obviously exist. So yes, I’m concerned,” Edwin replied, clearly irritated. Maybe he should’ve kept the tourmaline after all. It could have given him the upper hand against Lothar. But then, he needed the demon if he was ever going to find and save Ida. “Nothing will happen to it,” Lothar chuckled softly. “At least not until you die. Then, it’s all mine.” “What does that mean? What happens then?” “Edwin, are you trying to get me to reveal secrets of the afterlife to you? That is something no mortal should ever know before their time has come.” “Why not?” “Would you really want to know your future?” Lothar raised an eyebrow and leaned forward, as if testing Edwin. “Say you could know the exact day of your death, would you want to?” Edwin looked away, unnerved. The more their conversation went on, the more uncomfortable he felt. “No, I wouldn’t,” he finally responded, his voice quiet. “I just want to know what you plan to do with my soul. Of what use it is to you?” “That’s for me to decide when the time comes. To be honest, I don’t know yet. But let us hope I won’t have to think about that for a long time,” the demon replied, casually throwing the blanket off of himself and getting up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve had enough rest for a lifetime.” “Where are you going?” Edwin asked without thinking. Lothar stopped for a moment, looking at the other man. “I have things I need to take care of. I’ll see you later.” In a blink, he was gone.
  15. ObicanDecko

    The Pact

    As his eyes darted around the room in search of anything he could use as a weapon, Edwin felt trapped. The stranger in his bed was sitting calmly, but was he even there or was it all just a dream? Edwin couldn’t tell the difference. He backed up against the wall, unsure whether to fight or flee. “Who are you?” “I told you, my name is Lothar,” the white-haired stranger said, his voice confident, bordering on arrogant. “How do you know who I am? How are you even here?” the shop owner asked, a little calmer now that he saw the other man was making no attempt to move, let alone attack him. “You invited me. You said you wanted me here,” Lothar replied, leaning back and spreading himself on the bed, giving Edwin a seductive look. “No, I…” Edwin stared at the man, feeling a strong pull. It was as if Lothar was radiating magical, magnetic energy, drawing him in and awakening the most primal urges in him. He was so hard to resist. “No, I thought you were someone else, I dreamt about Florian. Wait, is this a dream too? That must be it,” he nodded, trying to convince himself. “I’m going to wake up and you’ll be gone. This is all in my head.” “I think you know this is real, Edwin. Do I not look real to you?” Lothar asked with a smirk, running a hand over his shirt and pulling it up to reveal his firm, toned stomach. “No, that’s the only explanation. I’m dreaming all of this,” Edwin refused to believe it, even as his eyes wandered to steal glances at the other man. “Then let’s put it to the test,” Lothar offered, getting up from the bed and moving over to the window, opening it. “If you are indeed dreaming, you can jump and no harm will come to you.” Edwin was silent, his blue eyes glancing between the man and the open window next to him. Could he trust the stranger? What kind of game was he playing? With small steps, he approached the window and looked down cautiously. He never had a fear of heights, but he also wasn’t about to jump and end up with broken arms and legs, or worse. Dream or not, he was not willing to risk it. “Forget it, I don’t have to prove any-” Suddenly, Lothar pushed him from behind with one hand, his inhuman strength enough to send Edwin out the window. The shopkeeper screamed, closing his eyes. As he began falling, he could see his entire life flash before his eyes - his childhood, his parents, Marcella, his travel to Ossvale, opening his shop, meeting Ida, and then finally losing her on that fateful day. He was now sure this was not a dream. Squeezing his eyes shut, he braced himself for the impact, but it never came. When he finally opened his eyes, Edwin saw he was in Lothar’s arms, the man holding him firmly, with a smug look on his face. “Are you fucking insane?! You pushed me!” the black-haired man yelled, getting back on his feet. He stared at Lothar, furious. “You pushed me!” he repeated, but the other man simply grinned. “And I also caught you,” Lothar shrugged. “Get the hell away from me,” Edwin was insistent, turning away to go back into his shop. As he grabbed the door handle, he realized it was locked from the inside. “Great! Now how do I get in?!” he snapped once again, turning to yell at Lothar, but he was gone. “Welcome, how may I help you?” the other man opened the door from the inside, sending Edwin an annoying smirk that only served to make him even angrier. “How… What are you? And what do you want from me?” Edwin lashed out at him, but didn’t dare enter the shop. Whatever this man was, he was no ordinary human. Was this who Mildburg was warning him about - the darkness that she said she had felt? “You don’t have to be afraid of me,” Lothar said, trying to put on a proper, genuine smile, but Edwin didn’t move, still eyeing him with suspicion. “Please, come inside and I’ll explain everything, now that you’ve realized this is not a dream.” “Yeah, you didn’t have to nearly kill me to prove that,” Edwin huffed, reluctantly entering his trinket shop, his eyes never leaving the stranger’s face. “I tried telling you nicely, but you wouldn’t believe me,” Lothar shrugged, turning to look around the place. “So, this is what you do. Selling gems and jewelry.” “Yes. Now get to the point and answer my question. Who are you?” “Haven’t you figured that out by now?” Lothar hopped up and sat on the empty part of the counter, sending Edwin an amused look. “How do you plan on finding your friend if you can’t even solve this simple riddle?” The shop owner froze, blood in his veins turning into ice. “If you hurt Ida…” “Relax, I had nothing to do with your friend’s disappearance.” “Then how do you know about it?” “I know much about your friend… and about you,” the strange young man said. “I know you’re not a religious person, but surely you’ve heard of the legends your kind believes in. You must’ve read some books in your short life.” He sounded taunting, almost insulting. What did he mean by ‘your kind’, Edwin wondered. He gazed at the man as he thought about the religious scriptures and myths he’d been hearing about since he was a young boy. The Church of Dawn was the prevalent religion in all the kingdoms, with the belief that there were two opposing fractions, waging an endless war against each other. On the one side were angels, protectors of humanity, while on the other were demons, seeking to corrupt people and bend them to their will. But surely, that was only a myth? People have always believed in gods and supernatural creatures, but that didn’t mean they actually existed. Neither did Edwin, until he met Lothar. “Let me give you a hint - I doubt High Priest Agilmar would welcome me in his precious temple.” Edwin had only then realized he had been staring silently at the other man for quite some time. He blinked a few times, looking into his eyes. “So… are you saying you’re a… a demon?” In a blink of an eye, Lothar vanished from the counter and appeared behind Edwin, wrapping his arms around the other man’s waist, pressing his chest against Edwin’s back. “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” he whispered into the shop owner’s ear. Edwin shuddered, hating himself for being aroused by Lothar despite everything. He broke free from the demon’s grasp, stepping away and turning to look at him. “Don’t do that!” “What? Blinking?” the demon asked. “Is that what you call it?” “Yes. That’s how we move about.” Edwin stepped backwards, finding a chair and plopping down onto it, his mind racing a mile a minute. How was it possible that demons and angels existed? Was it actually true – everything the Church of Dawn preached, all the fantastic, imaginary beings and events, were they all real? All his life, he was firm in his belief that the clergy was telling made-up stories, selling people the fantasy of holy celestial beings that would save and protect them, and scaring them with dark tales of corrupted creatures who preyed on the weak. Was that why Lothar was here? Did he somehow sense that Edwin was suffering after the loss of his best friend and decided to exploit his weakness? Edwin glanced at the demon, putting on a brave face. He could not know the full extent of Lothar’s powers, but for all he knew, the demon could kill him with a snap of his fingers. That was when he noticed someone approaching the shop. He turned to look through the window, and saw the familiar, plump old woman walking towards him. “Oh hell, it’s a customer. Please don’t do-“ Edwin started to plead, but as he turned around, Lothar was already gone. The tiny copper bell rang as the door opened and Mildburg walked in. The woman’s usual serene, smiling expression turned into a concerned frown as soon as she stepped into the shop. Edwin wondered if she knew what was going on. Could she sense that Lothar had been there? Or was he still inside, just hidden? “Mildburg, good morning. It’s always nice to see you,” Edwin greeted her with his usual smile. The woman did not respond for a moment, looking around the shop, as if searching for something… or someone. “Good morning to you too, Edwin. How are you feeling today?” “Uh, to be honest, I’ve been better. How are you?” he replied, trying to keep a calm appearance. Mildburg approached him, taking his hands in her own, like a grandmother trying to console and advise her grandchild. “May I suggest something to you?” she asked quietly. “Lock the shop and leave as soon as you can. I am not certain what it is, but I feel a powerful, dark presence in our midst. I don’t think you should be here now.” “I do have work to do, but I’ll try and finish up as quickly as I can,” Edwin said, not daring to reveal anything about Lothar. What if he was somewhere nearby, listening to their conversation? There was no way for Edwin to warn the old woman without alerting the demon, potentially angering him. Who knew what he was capable of? The last thing the shopkeeper wanted was someone’s blood on his hands. “I do have to ask you something. The last time you were here, you warned me to be careful. That same day, my friend vanished. We were down at the docks, and she just disappeared. I don’t know who took her or where. Do you think it has something to do with what you told me that day?” Mildburg gazed ahead, as if frozen in time. Even her large hoop earrings had stopped dangling. “I am so sorry to hear that, my child. I cannot tell with certainty at this moment, but these things are hardly ever mere coincidences. Strange forces are circulating around us, Edwin, and we must be on our guard. I must go home and make some preparations. Please, visit me tomorrow when you get the chance. I shall need to speak to you more. I live in the old green house south of the mills.” “Alright,” the young man nodded. He would sometimes venture there to search for rocks for his jewelry by the river and the nearby quarry. “I’ll be there in the afternoon, once I’m done at the shop.” Before leaving, the old woman made her purchase of three small opals, once again urging Edwin to visit her the next day. As soon as she had left and Edwin turned around, he noticed Lothar standing behind the counter of his shop, looking around as if he owned the place. “Were you here the entire time?” the dark-skinned man asked, half-irritated and half-nervous. The demon nodded as he picked up a random gemstone and observed it, flicking it between his long fingers. “It was fun seeing you squirm.” “What… what do you want?” “Believe it or not, I want to help you.” Lothar carefully placed the gem down where he found it and looked up straight into Edwin’s eyes. “With what?” “With finding your missing friend, of course. Or do you think that woman can help you? You don’t know whether to believe her or not.” “I… I’m not sure. I think she knows things.” Edwin wondered why he was telling all this to a stranger. It was partly fear, an obligation to tell the truth. After all, Lothar was a demon and Edwin was not about to get on his bad side. “I think so too. She sensed that I was here, didn’t she?” he replied casually. “But… why would you help me?” Edwin asked, casting a suspicious glance at the demon. Why should he believe anything that came out of that man’s mouth? He never imagined demons would be altruistic, coming out of the blue to help troubled souls. Not unless they asked for something in return. If that was the case, Edwin didn’t even dare think of what the price would be. As if reading his mind, Lothar’s lips spread into a devious smile. He looked like a cat that had just caught a fat mouse and was about to have a feast of a lifetime. Edwin stared at him, trying to look tough. “To put it simply, because it’s my job,” the demon replied, and Edwin couldn’t help the confused expression on his face. With a sigh, Lothar asked: “What do you know about demons and angels? Not a lot, I gather?” Edwin frowned, not appreciating the other man’s doubt in his knowledge. Still, he couldn’t deny he didn’t know much on that topic. He was never particularly interested in superstitions, and the existence of supernatural beings always seemed just that - folk tales and church legends. “Only what I’ve heard from my parents and priests when I would go to church as a child - what little I paid attention to, that is. They always told us that angels lived in heaven and were our guardians, and we would join them when we die if our soul is pure. But if we’re sinful...” Lothar snickered, casting a dirty glance at Edwin. “...we’d go to hell, which is where demons supposedly live. They’re evil, corrupted, and like to torture sinners and burn them in hellfire for eternity.” “And do you think I fit that description?” the demon asked. He seemed to be utterly amused by Edwin’s brief presentation of his inadequate knowledge on the topic. The shop owner couldn’t help but feel annoyed and just slightly embarrassed. “I don’t know you that well,” he shrugged. “Well, I can tell you it’s good that you weren’t paying much attention in church, because most of what they’ve been telling you is a big load of crap. The only thing they got right is that we exist. Everything else you can toss out the window,” Lothar said. Edwin didn’t even realize when he did that, but he found himself sitting at the counter right next to Lothar, their legs almost touching. As the demon started his explanation, the shop owner could have sworn the skies outside became as dark as coal even though it was only morning, while the inside of the shop was engulfed in red light. Edwin was unable to do anything else but sit and observe Lothar, listening to him talk. “Angels existed first, and we were created from them. Some call it corruption, I say it’s an improvement. Anyway, there are different theories as to how that happened, but no one knows for sure. It happened so long ago, anyone who was there when it happened is no longer alive. According to some accounts, there were some external forces that affected us and made us change. According to others, it happened naturally over time after we broke off and left the Celestial Spire. That is the realm of the angels. I’ve never been there myself, and I’ve met only a handful of demons who have.” “And where do you live?” Edwin asked, soaking up every word. “Our realm is the Demonic Domain, divided into many territories, each ruled by a different demon lord.” “Are… are you one of them?” “No,” Lothar scoffed. “You could say I’m too young for that. I serve one of them. That is why I came here, I’m on a mission.” “You mean, to help me find my friend?” Edwin asked. He still failed to understand what Ida’s disappearance had to do with demons, and why one of them would be helping him. At least he was fairly certain Lothar was telling him the truth - or at least was a very good actor. The demon nodded. “But why?” “Do you think angels are some paragons of virtue who sit on their heavenly throne, watching over humanity? Do you think they’re going to waste their time helping people - in this life or the next?” the demon asked, his tone mocking and bitter. “They couldn’t care less about you! To them, you are nothing but worms, a lower form of life. The only reason they ever bother with your kind is because they’re hoping to one day use you against us.” “What do you mean?” Edwin asked, noticing how Lothar’s face darkened at the question. Was there something else behind the demon’s obvious hatred of angels? The more they talked, the more curious Edwin became about the other man. He wanted to know more about him – where he lived and with whom, what he ate, what he did for fun… He shook himself out of his thoughts when Lothar resumed talking. “We’ve been at war for ages – demons and angels. The only thing those pitiful, dull creatures are passionate about is destroying us, just like we want to see them wiped out and their precious heaven in ruins. But neither side had managed to achieve much. We were too evenly matched. Every fight we had, every war we waged only ended in losses on both sides. So many pointless deaths…” Lothar looked down at the floor, his voice cracking. Edwin found himself reaching out to place a hand on his leg, but quickly withdrew as the demon cleared his throat and looked back up, his face stoic and determined. “But things started changing as your kind started developing its first civilizations. We saw your tribes and kingdoms fighting against each other, wars and bloodshed spreading across your lands. Of course, both demons and angels quickly got the same idea – we would use your bloodlust for our own purposes, to help defeat the other side. Angels started appearing to people in what some might call epiphanies or visions. Some of them even came down directly to Earth, convincing your gullible kind to worship them. That is how your human religions were created. Makes sense that demons are presented as monsters, and angels as holy saviors, does it not?” he scoffed, rolling his red eyes. “But then, there was a great turmoil in the heavens. Their leaders couldn’t seem to agree on what to do with the war against us. We faced our own problems, with a civil war that saw the old lords overthrown and new rulers emerge. With new leaderships, both sides reached an agreement to leave humans out of our conflict. Both demons and angels, at least the ones in charge, seemed to be afraid of bringing an unknown factor into our wars. We simply couldn’t predict the consequences. Humans seemed too much of a wild card, able to be swayed either way. We had no way of telling which side you would choose, so we decided to prohibit all angels and demons from ever coming to Earth again, lest we all ended up destroyed.” “And… did this actually work? How would you know there wasn’t someone breaking the rules?” “Both sides had put structures in place to observe the Earth and make sure no one came and tried to influence your kind. And it worked… for centuries. That is, until the other day, when the angels broke the agreement - when your friend went missing. We were instantly alerted about angel activity in this area, and so I was ordered to investigate and… deal with the problem.” “What do you mean ‘deal with the problem’? What do they want with Ida?” Edwin demanded to know, angry for being so powerless. He used to have hope when he thought it was some sleazy criminal who abducted his friend, but now that supernatural forces were involved, what were his chances of finding her? He suddenly felt hollow, realizing how deep this thing went and how Ida was just a pawn in a game of war between the demons and angels. “I don’t understand, why would they suddenly break the deal?” “They must be getting desperate. We don’t know what is happening in their realm, but I’m sure our spies will have some news sooner or later. Right now, I don’t know what their plan is. That’s what I’m here to find out,” Lothar replied calmly. He got up from his chair and stood next to Edwin, squeezing his shoulder. “We will get to the bottom of this.” The young man found himself leaning into the demon’s touch, his tense back muscles starting to relax as Lothar massaged his shoulder blades and moved onto his back. Maybe he could actually trust the demon? They seemed to be on the same side. They both wanted to find out what happened to Ida and bring her back. “You never told me about demons’ tricks?” Edwin suddenly remembered. Lothar paused for a moment, resting his skillful fingers on top of the other man’s shoulders. “You said angels tried to influence people through religion. What about demons?” He could hear the soft chuckle behind his back. “Ahh, we use more… interesting methods to win humans over,” Lothar said, his voice once again adopting that seductive tone Edwin was starting to find incredibly arousing. It felt strange. Usually he was the one doing the seducing, but when he was with Lothar, he could feel himself slowly falling under his spell. “You see, every human has a price. A preacher, a healer, a king, a beggar – they all have something they desire. We use that to get them to do what we want. We tempt them with their desires until they succumb and make a pact with us.” “Florian…” Edwin gasped, realizing what had been happening all along. He stood up, turning so that he was face to face with the demon. “So, that man from the street market, that was you all along?” “Oh no, the florist actually exists. I merely took his form when I appeared in your dreams. I needed to get close to you, get you to open up.” The demon’s sly smile sent shivers down Edwin’s spine. He took a step back, but Lothar stepped toward him instantly. The shopkeeper was pressed against the wall, with nowhere to move. “So, now what? What kind of pact do you think I’ll make with you?” Even as he spoke defiantly, his nostrils filled with the demon’s alluring scent. His defenses were crumbling. Lothar let out a laugh, his red eyes glancing over Edwin’s lips. “Sometimes I forget how naive you all are. It’s quite endearing, to be honest. Do you truly expect a demon to play fair? Did you think I was going to come here, open my heart and then offer you to sign a contract in blood?” Edwin stared blankly, not knowing what to say. It wasn’t the first time the demon had made him feel dumb, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. “My dear, you made a pact with me the moment you agreed to let me into this world,” Lothar said, taking the other man by the hands. “I will find your friend for you. And as for your… other desires,” he stepped forward, pressing his body against Edwin’s, “we can indulge in them all you want.” As the demon leaned in, Edwin closed his eyes and parted his lips, expecting a kiss, but it never came. Instead, he felt Lothar’s breath on his neck, and a warm, hot tongue on his earlobe. “Go on, then, ask me,” Lothar murmured into his ear. “What… what do you require from me in return?” Edwin managed to stutter, unsure if he was excited or scared to hear the answer. “What else – your soul,” the demon whispered before pressing his lips against Edwin’s.
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