Benedict stepped out into the cold. Standing underneath the awning to protect himself from the snow, which was falling steadily now, he hailed for a horse-drawn cabby. The tires skidded on asphalt as it came to a stop before him. Benedict was grateful to climb into the cab. The clopping of hooves sounded as the horse broke into a light trot.
Benedict watched silently as the city passed outside the window. Steadily he felt his heart begin to grow heavy. The grey sky hung over everything like an oppressive monster. As always the streets were crowded with people trying to get to and from work but he detected a franticness he hadn’t seen before. Red Wraiths threaded their way through the crowd, their faces frighteningly blank and deceptive beneath their red caps. People shrunk away from them as if they carried a plague. Benedict spotted a young boy, no more than twelve years old, huddled under a blue awning. His face was pale and streaked with dirt, looking morose.
They have tainted my city, Benedict thought, feeling a helpless fury. Where was his courage? Where was the man who had courageously stood by Loras Gyrelle? What would she say if she saw me now, the shadow of myself that I’ve become? Her and my father both would be laughing at me in scorn.
The deeper the cab went into town the more close together and gritty the apartments became, some of them stacked on top of one another. Shutters were shut against the cold. Occasionally you could spot someone standing on their tiny balconies, smoking. Several times the cab driver pressed on the horn impatiently to get people out of the way.
The cab pulled to a stop in front of the City Hall a few minutes later; it was a round building standing three stories tall. Marble steps led up to the glass doors. Benedict’s legs seemed to work against him as he climbed clumsily out of the car after paying the driver. He walked up the steps jerkily, dread mounting in his chest.
He was greeted by security. The men who he had been greeted by for the past three decades, give or take a replacement or two, had been replaced by straight-faced Red Wraiths who held no respect towards him. Though he held the title of mayor he was not in charge of this town - not anymore. He was just here as an ornament, a thing to be mocked by Damen Orlys.
He climbed up several flights of steps before reaching the council room.
The room beyond the door was long and rectangular. A long black table took up the center of the room with twelve seats placed neatly around the table. Eleven out of the twelve seats had been taken. Five of Benedict’s hired advisors and officials sat on one side and five Scarlet Priest’s sat on the other side, dressed in their blood-red robes. Damen Orlys, the High Priest, sat at the head of the table. As always he was dressed in his red leather robes, with the gold cuffs; his hood was pulled up, obscuring his features. Forcing himself to take a deep breath, Benedict took the chair at the opposite end of the table, facing the High Priest.
“Ah,” the High Priest said, regarding Benedict with a smile, “we were just waiting for you to arrive before we began. Your timing couldn’t be more perfect. As always we have much we must discuss.”
Benedict nodded somberly but said nothing.
“Shall we begin?”
There were murmurs and nods of agreement from all around the table.
As was the routine, everyone began with the declaration of their titles. When it came time for Benedict to say, “My name is Benedict Matthiesen, mayor of Fruimont”, the words left a bitter taste in his mouth, his face hot with embarrassment. He felt like a small boy at the butt of a cruel joke. He couldn’t help but notice the slight twitch of Damen’s lips, the gleam in his shadowed blue eyes.
You bastard, Benedict thought, making sure the anger and hate he felt for the High Priest didn’t show on his face. One day all your sins will catch up to you and you will burn in the Abyss. I hope I live long enough to see the day.
The High Priest cleared his throat, scanning each and every one of the faces before him. “Have there been any more prisoners taken in and charged with blasphemy?”
“Yes,” said Lucijan Markelj, the man in charge of the city’s security and defense systems. Or at least he had been until the High Priest had given the job to the man who commanded the Red Wraiths in Fruimont; now, like Benedict, he was nothing more than an ornament. The only part his job required of him at the meeting was to read words and numbers off a sheet of paper. “Twenty-nine to count. The security combing the streets continue to weed out any...” He cleared his throat. “Blasphemers. Also a group of seven people were arrested for trying to assault a squad of Red Wraiths. Two civilians were killed in the skirmish and several more were injured.”
Benedict winced inwardly at the news. He did the math in his head. Twenty-nine blasphemers and seven resisters. That means thirty-six. Thirty-six executions.
Sure enough the High Priest of the Scarlet Church cleared his throat. “Charge them all with treason against the Scarlet Church and have them executed first thing tomorrow, in the square for everyone to see.”
Lucijan nodded. Benedict saw the way his lips tightened and knew the man was disgusted; but just like everyone else his hand was being forced. What could he do?
For the next half an hour Benedict let his mind drift. He nodded and murmured in the right places, answering questions when asked, but was not completely involved in the conversation. This was his coping skill and it made the weekly meetings pass by quicker. Before he knew it Damen was bringing the meeting to a close and dismissing everyone.
Eleven bodies got up from their chairs, some of them carrying briefcases in their hands. Benedict was barely able to restrain his impatience. He was almost out the door - he could take a cab back home and spend the rest of the day with his family; he would make hot cocoa and make sure Sheathia got out of bed. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d spent time together as a family. And it would be even better now that Tilde was a permanent addition to it.
But just as he was about to step out of the conference room, just as he’d sensed would happen, the High Priest cleared his throat and said, “Not you Benedict. There is something I must discuss with you in private.”
A dull throb passed through Benedict’s head. All at once he felt incredibly nauseous. He turned to face Damen with a forced smile. “Of course.”
The High Priest returned his smile but there was something eerie and unreliable behind it. From the first moment Benedict had seen him, he’d gotten the sense the High Priest was not entirely sane, just as he got the sense the High Priest had been around longer than the typical human being. His youthful appearance was simply a mask to cover his true face, as his seemingly cheerful demeanor was used to cover the level of his cruelty.
Benedict sat in the chair next to Damen. Every bone and muscle in his body felt rigid. It was strange, sitting this close to the man. Even when just inches away, it was hard to make out much of the man’s face, beyond the fact that he was quite handsome. He hated the way those eyes stared back at him, as if Damen’s thoughts and feelings were completely transparent and everything he said and did was totally expected. It made him feel childish and clumsy.
“I simply wanted to give you praise,” said the High Priest. “You have been very well...behaved...over the last month and have carried yourself with dignity. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for you.”
Behaved? He says this as if I’m nothing more than a child. Benedict choked down his anger and forced down another smile. He did not want to underestimate this man. “Thank you for the high praise.”
“It is well earned.” The High Priest stood up and turned to face the window overlooking the city. He began to pace slowly back and forth. “I’m sure you must be confused with what’s going on and that only adds to the fear. I want to alleviate some of your fear by answering some of your questions.”
Benedict tracked Damen’s movements, giving the High Priest his undivided attention. He did not like the way Damen paced, his arms crossed and shoulders tensed. Within but a moment the man’s demeanor had changed. He now seemed anxious. Eager. Still Benedict felt himself straighten in his chair, for he himself was angry. It would be relieving to find out what was to come next. At the same time he dreaded the answers.
While he couldn’t say he knew anything for sure, Benedict suspected the scourge of demon possession that had occurred over the past twenty years, increasing in number with each passing year, and the Scarlet Church’s activity was connected. The number of possessions happening within Benedict’s city only confirmed this suspicion. The dread he felt only confirmed something worse: Something big was getting ready to happen and whatever it was, it wasn’t good. It will be unlike anything yet seen, he thought. Not since the day the First Disciple remade the world.
Few people survived those days to provide testament; any written records of the creation of the hellscape had been outlawed by Eurchurch and hidden within a steel vault. The few stories that were around were mostly inconclusive; some of them were pieced together from relics found in the Ubrios Wastes and the Okanavi Desert. Whatever version you found yourself listening to, it always began with: The world folded itself inside out…
Buildings were crushed, entire cities reduced to rubble. Continents shifted and were replaced. The world’s oceans literally rearranged themselves. People simply winked out of existence. By the end of it there was only a small percentage of the population: just enough for the human race to start over again. But the world no longer belonged to the human race. It belonged to the demons, who preyed upon the living as if they were nothing more than cattle. In the end this was how the hellscape came to be.
Benedict was brought out of his thoughts by the sound of Damen’s voice. Damen had stopped and turned to face the view outside the windows. There was a more melancholy set to his shoulders. “Do you have any idea how old I am?” he asked Benedict.
“No,” Benedict said, forcing a chuckle. “I was always taught it was rude to guess someone’s age, My parents were very old fashioned.”
Damen nodded. “Though I appear young enough to almost be your son I am over five hundred years old.”
Benedict could only stare, wide-eyed. Five hundred years old? Surely he’s just joking. But Damen had not shifted from his melancholy stance nor had he sounded like he was joking. He sounded like someone who was telling the truth - or someone who believed they were telling the truth.
Damen was not done speaking. “I was there the day the First Disciple remade the world. Back in those days the Scarlet Church was but a group of twelve men and women who were just beginning to realize the power they would yield later. I was not among their ranks - not yet. But I remember watching as the world began to shift, seeming to collapse in on itself, as if being sucked into a black hole. The rules of matter and gravity discovered by the scientists and geniuses of the Old World no longer existed. Ever since then I have been in awe of and terrified of the power the Primordial Caste can wield. But it is a truly awesome power, one that should be respected.”
Benedict shivered at the mention of the Primordial Caste. Just saying those two words was considered blasphemy by the Eurchurch and punishable by death.
“The First Disciple was defeated, killed by the Agent of Ex’olku...”
Benedict frowned. “I’m sorry but a what? And who is Ex’olku?”
Damen looked over his shoulder long enough to smile gloatingly at Benedict. “You do not know of Ex’olku or of his Agent? My, how the Eurchurch has kept you in the dark - and yet the Scarlet Church is considered the most evil of the two. Alas, those records are sealed in the Eurchurch’s vault along with all the others.
“Ex’olku. The Eurchurch doesn’t want anyone knowin about him or his ilk.” Damen spat out this last word as if it brought a bad taste to his mouth. “He is an entity as old as the Primordial Caste itself and opposes them every chance he can get by anointing someone to fight for his cause. There has only been one Agent in the past. No one know what happened to him...After the defeat of the First Disciple he just...disappeared. My guess is he’s around no longer. Though I do expect there will be another in his place.”
“For five centuries the demonscape has existed: civilization has rebuilt itself and is starting to expand. The Primordial Caste have grown restless. After centuries upon centuries of being trapped in the Infernal Depths they are ready to rise up and rule the world that was once theirs. And they’ve anointed me to do it. There is no greater honor, and so I shall. With every passing moment demons pass into our world, in search of bodies. The Casteless will finally have shape, the Second Caste will be free from their chains, and the Primordial Caste will take their rightful place in the universe.”
Damen turned to face Benedict and his smile froze the mayor of Fruimont’s blood in his veins. “And there’s nothing you or anyone can do to stop it.”
Damen Orlys silently seethed with rage. The inside of his stomach was coiled tight like a snake, so tight it was uncomfortable. Yet sitting in the rather uncomfortable stone throne he did not appear angry. His youthful features were arranged in an expression of calm avidity as he listened to the man kneeling before him sputter through his story; but it was only through centuries of living that he managed to keep his self control.
It wasn't only rage he felt towards Viktor Sanae but disgust. The man kneeling before him was nothing like the notorious mercenary who had come to him almost ten years ago to pledge his loyalty. That man had been full of promise, a man he was sure would never fail. His face had been hard and impenetrable as stone and his eyes harder still. Or so it seemed. The destruction of Fort Erikson had unraveled him into the despondent mess on the floor. It had taken him several minutes...several very long moments it seemed...to tell him what happened. Out of it all there was only one detail that caught Damen's attention.
"The practitioner," he said after a moment; his voice echoed, bouncing off the walls of the vast chamber. "Tell me more about him."
Sanae lifted his eyes from the ground to meet Orlys’s. There were dark circles around his eyes and his face had grown worn and pallid. “There were only a few of them...one of them must have snuck inside somehow, impersonating a mercenary and feeding intel from the inside. But the practitioner...he destroyed the fort. I don’t know how, but he possessed the strength and force of several practitioners. I’ve never seen anything like it. I tried to pursue them, to find out more about the practitioner but the rest of my men were defeated. I ran away while I still could, to tell you. I have traveled a very long way...”
“Yes I’m sure you have,” Damen said disinterestedly. He tried to feel something other than indifference and anger towards the man but these days it was difficult to feel anything else. Once he might have pitied Sanae in some fashion but any ability to feel or empathize with anyone other than himself had long since eroded over the centuries. What remained of his humanity was as distant and mysterious as the unexplored islands north of the Terheim Sea. Most of the time he just felt tired...so tired. Once upon a time the thought and need for vengeance had been fuel enough to propel him through the fleeting procession of centuries but now it seemed he was running on fumes.
“So what now?” Sanae asked. Damen thought he sounded rather sensitive though he was clearly trying to keep himself composed. Damen’s lack of empathy made it easier to track the emotions of others, especially when they were trying to hide it.
“I will pursue this young practitioner of course, the one you have yet to identify. As for you...”
The double golden doors of the chamber swung open and two Scarlet Priests dressed in red robes strolled in heading straight for Sanae. They grabbed him by the arms and restrained him as he began to scream and shout. Damen waved a hand dismissively. "Take this failure of a man away."
Sanae tried to fight them. He managed to shove one to the ground and grappled with the other but two more were moving in to intercede. Together the four Scarlet Priest worked to subdue him before dragging his unconscious body from the chamber.
Damen passed through the church’s many corridors, his thoughts going in a million directions at once. He hated feeling this way, all out of sorts. He prided himself of being able to remain in control of his emotions but there were moments when that control slipped, revealing the emotions that existed within like pulsing organs. He thought about his conversation with Benedict. For a moment he felt lonely, so incredibly lonely and vulnerable. He had opened himself up to Benedict for reasons he still couldn’t fathom. No matter how many times he turned the conversation over, like turning over stones at the banks of a river, he couldn’t find a rational explanation other than he needed someone to talk to.
On the other side of things was the practitioner. Twice he’d popped up. He’d all but destroyed Fort Erikson and freed Galliart Fulko, the man the Eurchurch had sent to spy on the Red Wraiths. It coincided with the preternatural sense Damen had been feeling for the past several weeks, that someone was coming to thwart his plans. Damen clenched his teeth in determination. Well it isn’t going to happen. No one is going to stop my plan from coming into fruition.
He turned in the middle of the corridor and stopped at the steel door off to the side. This was the place where Mael’s body - C’thla’s body - had exploded. Even though ten years had passed the memory was fresh in his mind as if it had happened only moments ago. There had been several women over the years since then who had been taken from their homes; in the end it always seemed their bodies would serve as compatible vessels for the mother of demons but in the end something always went wrong. The results were always violent and bloody. Rather than frustrate him or repulse him, the results of failure only made the High Priest of the Scarlet Church more determined. He would spend the next five centuries finding a compatible host for C’thla. She would have her flesh and together they would have their vengeance.
He traced a finger along the outer skin of the door. Already he could feel her stirring within her tomb, alerted by his presence. Cheeks puffed out, he turned the wheel until the hinges popped open and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind him.He stayed where he was, scanning the corners of the room, his eyes aglow with mana as he accessed his sixth sense; there was a strange fluttering sensation in his stomach. Though there were several candles lit, the room was thick with shadow and the smell of perfume and incense. Every time he stepped into this room it was like stepping back into a realm far more primal and predatory than the hellscape could ever be, a realm where no human being had ever wandered.
At long last he his eyes came across a shape: an effeminate, humanly shape, though he knew the shape was false, a trick of the eyes; just as he knew she would remain in the shadows. To perceive her, to truly perceive her might drive him insane.
“Something is bothering you,” C’thla said in an inquisitive voice.
Damen could feel her watching him intently as he stooped down into a bow and said, “Priestess.”
“You may stand,” said the mother of demons.
Damen was not sure if he heard her voice in his head or if it truly echoed off the primitive stone walls of the chamber. Her voice or what he perceived to be her voice had a soft, yet roughened sound that was pleasing to his mind's ear.
She was silent for a moment but the intensity of her gaze never left; though he cold no see her face, Damen could feel her eyes, heavy and burning as hot stone. The curious feeling of fingers combing through his mind passed over him. Where demons had a tendency to rape the thoughts from his head without consideration of the pain it caused, she did so with a tenderness that often caught the High Priest off guard. She was no mere demon but the mother of all demons.
“Curious,” she said after a moment, walking around the room, never once leaving the concealment of the shadows. Her bare feet whispered against the ancient concrete floor. “So you have heard of this practitioner before.”
Damen nodded. “It seems Ex’olku has chosen another agent.”
“It seems he has,” the demon priestess agreed. “A young practitioner who still remains a mystery. I’ve sensed him over the last couple of days. Three days ago one of my disciples, Yov’olbh, was defeated by this practitioner. Yov’olbh is a demon of the Second Caste. He does not possess the strength I do, a first ranking; however he is not a mere Casteless. Yet he was defeated. Lower ranking demons seem weary if not down right afraid of this young practitioner.” Now, from the sound of her voice, it sounded as if C’thla was smiling. it matters not. My vessel, the one I am destined to have approaches...I can feel it."
She sounded wistful then, her voice made silky with longing. There was a lengthy pause. Damen was so enthralled by the presence of her spirit he hardly noticed the passing of time. What was the significance of time when you were cursed to live forever?
The shadowy form of C’thla began to speak again, continuing the matter of the practitioner. “Right now he is young, unpracticed. He does not have the self control that comes with age and experience. This practitioner will play right into our hands and when he does we will crush him.”
Damen grinned to himself. “Then perhaps we should start setting up a trap for him, remind Ex’olku what the Scarlet Church does to his Agents.”