The slow cadence of anguished breathing rose and fell around him, but perhaps it was only the rushing of air as the daemon fell through the everlasting darkness. And yet—
Wait. Where the hell am I?
—splintered shards of memory sprayed the back of his mind and burst out the—
No, no, stop that—
—his soul was being torn from his body and shredded, dominated by—
Take back control. Focus. Just—
—blue lances splitting the sky, six eyes watching closely—
Holy mother of fuck, when I find whoever is responsible for this catastrophe I’ll—
The daemon crashed with tremendous force, flooding his sensory void with white noise as a jarring numbness cascaded over his body. The chaos was a receding glacier, thoroughly overstaying its welcome and carving thick gouges in its wake, the mother of all hangovers. But, one by one, he could feel the scattered fragments of his mind click back into place.
Are these memories? Or is this now? I must’ve had quite the night…
His first sense to return was sound: leaves rustling in the wind, wagon wheels slogging through mud, an axe thunking into wood, children giggling, voices fading in and out…
“…should start praying…”
Next was smell: dirt, trees, the stench of humans and animals, and a weak waft of incense, undoubtedly from some well-meaning but woefully misguided advocate of olfactory civility.
“…as fast as he can, he’s not going to believe…”
Proprioception and touch were returning too: he was laying on his back. The inside of his armor around his chest felt wrong, potentially bent inwards. Off to a strong start.
“…on his way.”
At long last came the daemon’s prescience, at first a mere trickle of ambient melodies: he was in a crude hut of mud bricks and thatch, a group of humans clustered around him.
Please, just kill me now.
The daemon cast his prescience as wide as possible. A billion songs of the spring thaw chorused in glorious harmony from the local flora and fauna, rivaled in magnitude only by the degree to which he did not give a single solitary fuck. There was no melody of blessed civilization nearby, though from the far east beyond a barrier of mountains came the pleasant jingle of cities. To the south was brutal dissonance, a war or multiple wars—or the Shatterlands? And to the north was only the eerie refrain of some monstrous megaflora engulfing a frigid jungle.
That’s going to be a no from me.
Finally, the puzzle pieces of geography and primitive lodgings clicked together in his mental map, and the daemon deduced himself to be in the village of Renos-Déil in the province of Hëmroddan, which was incidentally near the top of his list of places so unremarkable he would rather die than visit. How in the actual hell did this happen? He returned his focus to his immediate predicament, and sharpened his prescience on his new, sad little home.
“…in here? Show me, before…”
The blur of clustered humans in his prescience sharpened into six distinct figures, speaking Aléphian in hushed, anxious tones.
Closest to him were two soldiers, with short swords and armor of bronze. One was of foreign blood, the other local—and much, much larger. And to his amusement, he realized they had chained his wrists. Cute.
Examining the daemon from a safe distance was a middle-aged man, bearded, well-groomed, and dressed in elegant furs with a signet ring and bracelets of gold, unarmed, but strongly warded. His melody thrummed with dominance in the daemon’s prescience, the songs of the other humans bowing in deference to him as leader. He was Aléphian, of course, presumably the regional Director. Promising.
By the leader’s elbow dawdled an elderly local shaman, if the runes and potions stuffed haphazardly around his decaying robes were any indication. He clutched at a weather-beaten knockoff spellstaff, trying not to make it obvious how much of his considerable weight it was supporting. Despite being ancient by human standards, his melody was by far the most frantic of the group. And he was conspicuously unwarded. Repulsive.
Significantly less anxious was a priestess, sitting back by the hut’s entrance. She was Aléphian, middle-aged, wearing a rough cloak, but holding a brand-new adaman-tree spellstaff. Around her neck was the lightning-spear talisman of Syrkhan, the Aléphian king of the gods. Heh, heh-heh. Hilarious.
Finally, there was a young huntress. She was armed with a bow and long-knife, clad in hard leathers and mottled green, and sporting a thick gash on her arm, the rough bandage already soaked through with blood. And she was a half-breed. Curious. Though she stood close to the priestess as if for protection, her melody was practically bursting with excitement. As sound faded more clearly into focus, the daemon could hear her words to the leader pour out:
“…came to you as soon as I brought him back, I thought—”
“You carried him from past the northern border? From the heart of the Laethil krysuar?” the shaman wheezed. “Were you on ampynephrin?”
Speaking of things I could use right now…
“Of course she wasn’t!” snapped the priestess.
“I know it’s bizarre,” said the huntress, “But feel him, he’s nearly weightless.”
“Who else knows?” asked the leader. “Who saw you?”
“Nobody, no one! Everyone saw the trail of smoke he left in the sky, the falling star, but nobody followed me. And no one can keep up with me inside the Laethil krysuar.”
“What kind of a man survives a fall from the stars?” asked the small soldier.
“Is he wounded at all?” asked the leader. “His armor is dreadfully damaged.”
“That’s the strangest part,” said the huntress. “He’s completely fine! Must’ve—”
“I was not asking you, Aedrid.”
The small foreign soldier glanced at her and shook his head. “Mercenaries.”
The big native soldier, likely once a mercenary himself, poked around the daemon’s chest over where his heart should be. “She’s right. Even though there’s this gaping hole here.”
Yikes, that doesn’t sound good.
“There’s something else strange,” continued the big soldier. “I can’t tell what this armor is made of. It’s definitely not bronze. It’s too thin, it’s almost like parchment.”
“You also can’t remove it,” said the huntress. “There are no buckles or straps anywhere.”
“What is it made of, then?” asked the leader.
The priestess leaned closer. “It almost reminds me of an exoskeleton. Like an insect.”
“They look more like snake scales to me,” said the huntress.
“Enough with the zoological analogies,” scowled the leader.
“Excuse me, Director,” said the shaman, “but I believe I may hold the key to this mystery. Long ago, when the bold children of Hëmrod first settled this valley, it was foretold—”
“Charlatan, you are here as a custom and courtesy,” interrupted the priestess. “Don’t presume to test our patience with your mercurial oral traditions.”
The shaman forged ahead, his voice rising in intensity. “As it was foretold, so it has come to pass. When the Laethil krysuar has grown so wide that it threatens to devour Renos-Déil itself, on the Night of Balance, the vernal equinox, then shall Hektoseres the God of Winter return to save His people.”
Interesting coincidence. Just the kind of thing I would plan out.
The priestess smirked. “You believe that glorified fungus will amount to more than a mere annoyance to the servants of our great Emperor Archegan, blessed by Syrkhan himself? The Laethil krysuar will melt before the stratolance as so many dry leaves in an inferno. You must remember that particular feeling quite vividly.”
“How dare you?” shrieked the shaman, and turned to the leader. “My fair Director, can you allow such threats to our Lord Emperor’s Peace? And on today of all days, on your Festival of Harmony!”
All eyes turned to the leader, who was adjusting the clasp on one of his many golden bracelets. Slowly, he narrowed his calculating eyes at the daemon. “We have harvested what value we can from speculation. None here knows who or what this is. Thus, for the security of the Empire, I am remanding him to my custody.”
Hah! If they only knew.
“The events of this evening are to be kept completely confidential,” the leader continued. “Nod if you understand.” Five sullen nods. “You are all dismissed.”
The group muttered, but only the huntress spoke up. “Why? What are you going to do with him? He hasn’t done anything wrong, he could be—”
“No,” said the leader. “If any of you speak of this, I will know. If a single whisper about our unexpected guest leaves this room, if you so much as pray it to yourself, I swear by Syrkhan’s Spear, I will bring all my judgment upon you.” His voice lowered. “For this, I will exile you.”
The other humans retained a semblance of outwards composure, but chords of sheer terror sliced through their songs and rang in the daemon’s prescience. These feckless imbeciles should’ve cultivated more transferable skills.
The leader smirked. “Now, bring him to the fortress before he wakes.”
“Too late for that, I fear,” said the daemon, opening his eyes, sliding off his chains, and standing.
The daemon towered over them, as tall as the pathetic thatch roof would allow, his cloak spreading wide, dark and immense. Fear rolled off the six humans in waves—which was good, considering the simple act of opening his eyes had driven white-hot skewers through the daemon’s brutally hungover skull. The shaman cowered with arms raised, the priestess clutched her talisman, and both soldiers fumbled for their little bronze swords. The huntress had already unsheathed her long-knife and was staring the daemon down.
Only the leader sat perfectly still, hands still neatly folded. “Welcome,” he said, voice betraying not a hint of the anxiety the daemon could hear in his song. Perhaps he trusted his wards and his Sentinel. Perhaps he was recklessly arrogant. Perhaps both.
“Please excuse my colleagues,” the leader continued. “They are a tad overzealous when enforcing our security protocols.” He glanced back at the now three exposed blades, which were obediently slid back into their scabbards, and then rose from his chair, stretching out a hand in greeting. “My name is Feilzor of the Aléphian Empire.” You really think I’m going to remember, you pretentious ass? I have met blank walls more stimulating than you, I have—wait, what’s he saying now? “…and Managing Director of Hëmroddan, a servant of our Lord Emperor Archegan. And you,” he raised an eyebrow. “Whom do you work for?”
The daemon smiled and shrank to a less intimidating presence as he shook the Director’s hand. “My name is Cjad,” he said, mentally wincing at his improvisation. “A Senior Spellcrafter of the Goregirathan Empire. Specifically, a researcher on the Catamorphic Cloudspanner Catapult.” He waited a beat to ensure they were sufficiently impressed. “My most sincere apologies: one of our routine spelltests encountered a minor bug, which tragically ejected me approximately six hundred kilometers west of my intended destination. May the gods curse Bjad, of Multicaster Spell Infrastructure Quality Assurance, for seven generations. But, thank Edosyne’s mercy, my shielding spell held, and I survived the fall.” He turned to the huntress and smiled, inclining his head. “I, and all of Goregirath, extend my heartfelt gratitude for your noble and courageous assistance.”
Confusion bubbled up through their songs—but none of them was knowledgeable or confident enough about the ever-mysterious Goregirath to challenge it. Heh. Sheeple.
The huntress was ecstatic. “I’m so happy I was able to rescue you in time! And that’s fascinating that you’re a spellcrafter, what do—”
“We are delighted to see you recovered so quickly,” said the Director. He stood and motioned to the priestess. “This is Sigri, a High Priestess of Syrkhan, and our gracious host. Regretfully, I have duties I must fulfill for the Festival of Harmony tonight, but she will see to it you are taken care of. You two should find much in common to discuss regarding your favorite translations of Dentarrion’s Oligarchy, or perhaps Edosyne’s latest astrological portents.”
“Salutations,” said the daemon. “And it was a pleasure meeting you, Director.”
“Likewise. I hope we can reconnect farther down the road.”
“Please, do keep in touch.”
“You too. Good night,” said the Director. With the two soldiers in tow he swept out of the hut, where the daemon sensed an entourage of a dozen servants and coordinators sweating for every second their master deviated from their hard-won public appearance timetable.
The priestess whipped around to the huntress. “Go on, talk to him before he leaves,” she whispered. The huntress hesitated for only a moment’s glance at the daemon before bolting out the door, calling the Director’s name.
The shaman was fidgeting, conflicted between staying here in the home of his archnemesis for more verbal repartee or attending to what he imagined to be important responsibilities. “If you will excuse me, Cjad of Goregirath,” he said, “I have duties I must fulfill for the Night of Balance. Good night.” He received no response as he shuffled outside.
The daemon smiled at the priestess as he focused his prescience on the huntress, a few dozen paces down the road. “You have a beautiful home, and I feel as if you’re nearly bursting with potential exposition. Tell me, what is the origin of tonight’s jubilance?”
“Ah, the Festival of Harmony! You picked quite the day to fall from the clouds. To truly understand, we will need to go far, far back, all the way to the beginning.” Her eyes were bright with passion. “Now, if you picture yourself here twenty years ago—exactly to the day, what a coincidence…”
Meanwhile, the daemon tuned in to the real conversation occurring outside:
“…just a minute of your time, please, Feilzor?” the huntress was asking.
The Director paused, glanced at his frenetic entourage, and relented. “You all go on and continue the preparations, I’ll only be a moment.” The coordinators practically fainted as they tried working up the collective willpower to protest, but a wave of the Director’s hand and the soldiers were leading them down the road. “You have my attention, Aedrid.”
“I want to work for you. I want to learn from you, and someday try to be a Director like you.” The huntress took a deep breath. “I think I have talents you could use. You saw some of those talents today.”
“Your talents are numerous and self-evident,” said the Director with a wry smile. “Though I am surprised. Your peers pursue the classic path: study at a local temple, take up the family trade, buy their own hut, save up for the occasional pilgrimage. A comfortable life, is that not what you desire?”
“No, it sounds horrifying! I wasn’t born to spend my days hunting avialisks and my nights drowning my angst in weak mead. I was born to change the world.” She took another deep breath. “I just need your help to figure out how.”
Love it, love it, love it.
“And so you want to be Director-track,” he said. “Tell me, where have you studied?”
“Sigri has given taught me theology, astronomy, geometry, architecture, navigation—”
“Nowhere, then. But I assume you are familiar with the works of the great scholars Telemanderas, Galmetynius, and Kyrophain? Have you analyzed Dentarrion’s Saga and Journey in the original Upharsid?”
She frowned. “I remember Sigri mentioned them…aren’t they all thousands of years old? But I’m sure I can catch up and read a few scrolls.”
“How about Talitus’ treatise on The Riches of Empires? Have you meditated on Moloch, or on Kavezoksan’s The Champion with a Hundred Faces?”
“Not yet, but I will! I’ll beat any challenge you set for me, I’ll go on any quest!”
The Director shook his head. “You misunderstand how this works.”
“Can you help me understand? Please?”
“Becoming a Director is not the panacea you seek, Aedrid. My duties weigh as heavy as a mountain.” He gestured at his entourage down the road. “I have far less control over my life than you. If I try to improve shipping routes, I have to spend six months begging for approvals from a dozen bureaucrats who can barely tell adaman-tree from oak. If I try to hire new talent, the Equitable Opportunity Commission will only let me choose between a quadriplegic local widow or the brat nephew of another Director. If I try to leave for another empire, my own assassins will track me down and crucify me at the front gates of Iraédias with a plaque over my head reading ‘Violated His Oath of Non-Compete’. And it will never get better, for there is nowhere else to be promoted to: after all, there will only ever be one Emperor Archegan.”
The huntress crossed her arms. “Why keep doing it if you don’t enjoy it? This sounds a lot like when I hear spellcraft lords say ‘money won’t solve all your problems’, and I can’t help but think: if so, why are you keeping all the money?”
Meanwhile, the daemon tuned back into the priestess for a half second: something-something trees-gone-wild, something-something means-of-production, something-something indigenous-uprising. “Interesting!” he said. “Why do you think that is?”
Back to the main storyline…
“…we should take this conversation up a level,” the Director was saying. “Did I ever tell you the tale of how I came to rule your little forested corner of the world?”
The huntress seemed mildly confused.
“No?” he sighed, with a new progression of somber bass notes in his song. “Every year, the hundred brightest young minds in all of Aléphia are hand-selected by Archegan himself, and brought to the Imperial Palace in Iraédias. He begins by telling every apprentice, ‘Before you can be forged anew, you first must be broken. I am not looking for humans, who feel hunger, or pride, or love. I am looking for machines.’ After seven years of hell on earth, a bare handful remain, the rest dead or exiled. I passed, but last in my class.” The Director winced. “That is why I was assigned to Renos-Déil, instead of a seat of power such as Cairydon or Thyrmaen. I steward the adaman-tree harvests, and dream of being challenged. Last in my class, and as my reward I rule your people. How does that make you feel?”
“Even still…” the huntress began, then looked away, raising a hand to cover the front of her neck. “But you persevered. Do you think you could live with yourself if you gave up? Because I don’t. I have to try.”
“Look at me,” said the Director, and waited until she complied. “Your eyes lack the mastery of forms that would give you success among Aléphia’s master artisans. Your mind has no inferiority complex to allow you to work on Melodian’s second-rate cash grabs. Your spirit is neither ruthless nor thrifty enough to claw your way up through the Upharsid merchant guilds. And you are far, far too mired in material concretions to grasp Goregirath’s arcane spellcraft. Do not try to fight it, Aedrid. This is who you are.” He paused. “Remember, there will only ever be one Archegan. It would be cruel indeed to set your bright young hopes on a path of certain failure. Truly, this is a kindness I do for you.”
She bit her lip while thinking of a response, but the Director plowed ahead.
“My advice: do not waste your life searching for a spare rung where you can latch onto the infinite ladder of a spellcraft giant. Find a comfortable, growing, mid-sized empire in the Shatterlands. Or, perhaps even one of the new stratocities; I hear many empires are moving to the clouds. There you will find meaning, leisure, family, and advancement. You could be a Director within a decade. You could someday hope to be an Empress yourself. But not here.” He turned away. “Now, I must attend to the festival.”
The huntress finally opened her mouth to speak—but he was already gone.
So far, so good. The daemon tuned back into his mud-hut paradise…
“…and that should be all the backstory you need on Hëmroddan’s liberation by Aléphia, the Laethil krysuar, the Festival of Harmony, and the adaman-trees,” finished the priestess.
Oh well, I’m sure I can fill in the gaps. “Very interesting!” said the daemon. “Thank you for your gracious hospitality, but I have business to attend to.”
“So soon?” asked the priestess, mildly crestfallen. “You must at least join in the Festival of Harmony! We would be honored to have you spend the night.”
“How I wish I could remain in your beautiful home and rest, but alas, I am professionally cursed to be forever in motion,” said the daemon. “I bid you goodnight and farewell.”
He slipped out of the hut only to be immediately impaled by shafts of warm sunlight piercing the lush forest canopy. His prescience expanded to cover the whole village: a few thousand inhabitants, with a sparse layout blending smoothly with the surrounding forest, yet still guarded by a rough palisade—which showed recent battle-scars. Here on the northern outskirts, the wretched huts were scattered dozens of meters apart, linked to each other through the foliage by winding veins of dirt in place of roads, which the partially melted snow had turned into a veritable swamp. The villagers had not even the decency to clear away the underbrush or towering adaman-trees, and had instead chosen to integrate their lodgings with the natural forest around them. What a horrific perversion.
The daemon melted into the shadows and slithered up the nearest tree to supervise the humans from a hygienic distance. The huntress had just re-entered the hut, and the priestess needed no gift of prescience to divine the results of her conversation with the Director. “I am so sorry, child,” said the older woman, hugging her mentee tightly.
The voice of the young huntress was quiet. “I wish there was some other way.”
Now, forward with the plan. He had always considered humans to be strictly mechanical, with every desired behavior corresponding to an input, if you could only find the right words. The passphrase was different for every person: sometimes a sentence, sometimes a saga, sometimes love, sometimes fear, but it could always be found.
The daemon closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and nearly retched.
Damn, I miss the smell of petrol.
He scrambled through the branches across the village to its center, hardly needing his prescience given the cacophony of this festival they were celebrating, called different names by the natives and their conquerors. The muddy road widened and transformed to white gravel, while the slanted huts straightened up and grew in height.
In front of the tapestry-covered gates to an overbuilt stone fortress was a modest village square, lit by roaring bonfires around which nearly the entire village danced hypnotically to caribou-hide drums and poorly tuned lyres. He spotted the Director sitting at a large table on a raised dais and taking a borderline-unprofessional swig from a large wineskin.
Seems I missed his speech, what a pity.
A few hundred meters above the fortress, a stratoliner swayed in the gentle breeze, its masts coated in white-and-gold streamers from the day’s celebration, its bow catching the sunset as if aflame. It was a midsize freighter, only a hundred meters in length, its dozens of gently sloping wings and sails stretching out twice that in width. Its intricately carved adaman-tree hull appeared more fitting to a museum than a merchant vessel, and its graceful swan-neck arched down to watch with glass-eyed observation decks over the village.
Good thing I never invested in cavalry-based empires.
In the center of the clearing a marble statue towered, in one hand a miniature stratoliner, in the other a gold-plated sword lit with an eternal flame. And on the pedestal, these words appeared:
Liberation of Hëmroddan | Interr 21, 5424
Respect | Honesty | Connection | Superiority
“If you wish to change the world, you must think different.”
Clever bastard, this Archegan, invading on a sacred native holiday, and then forever overwriting the indigenous tradition with a celebration of his own brutality. We should collaborate.
The daemon listened for notes of the huntress’ song, and found her awkwardly meandering among the crowded wooden tables where villagers were sloshing mead and laughing uproariously. She stopped by a few tables for halfhearted greetings before retreating to lean against an empty barrel on the edge. There she stood, silent, pretending to watch the dancers, but really staring past them to the towering fortress walls, contemplating what it would be like to work inside.
He returned his attention to the dancing villagers, for whom rhythm was second in difficulty only to pitch, and noticed the participants had slightly skewed demographics compared to the composition he had found earlier. Interesting. He listened again to the melodies of the surrounding village…yes, the village had about eight percent of its inhabitants missing, nearly all of whom were of Hëmroddan blood. His prescience stretched further as he continued to watch the villagers mill about, ants in a colony, full of heartbreaking little hopes and dreams.
The daemon turned to look down the street, but he was no longer in Renos-Déil. He was perched thirty meters aloft in another of the great adaman-trees, rocking slowly on the ash-gray bark while staring at the dimly lit mouth of a cave, watching haggard natives stumble in under thin moonlight. He cast about his prescience and listened: the clamor of Renos-Déil was a few kilometers south. A smooth transition of location. Likely not interesting enough to remember, how convenient.
A few dozen meters in front of him formed the edge of what he could only assume was the Laethil krysuar, a ragged boundary where the already-massive adaman-trees loomed thrice as tall and the sparse shrubs below him metamorphosed into a wall of impenetrable jungle. The leaves within had a faint iridescent shimmer, and many of the branches were coated with frost. It all seemed out of place, a lush garden paradise profaning the cold wilderness thousands of kilometers north of the tropics. What a fucking travesty.
The daemon glanced about and saw the remains of a small Aléphian watchtower straddling the boundary. While half appeared newly built, the other half had collapsed and nearly submerged into the earth, strangled by thick vines which seemed to move if he stared at them long enough.
He shivered. Let’s hope the Aléphians cauterize this infection and then salt the earth behind them.
The daemon withdrew a clear glass bottle full of amber liquid. Looking closely, he could see that it contained many small tendrils of shadow, like tiny wisps of ink which refused to mix. He uncorked it and gave a sniff: Smoke, brine, and a hint of sulfur. Not bad. He took a small sip. Heat and power blossomed through him.
As delicately as possible, he slipped down from the trees, across the jungle fringe, and into the cave.
Inside was pitch-dark, with no sound but the dripping of water and the garbled echoes of chanting. Crawling along the ceiling, he let his prescience guide him through the labyrinth of tunnels and caverns until he reached the source.
It was a giant cenote, the crystal-clear pool reflecting the dancing torchlight of hundreds of natives crowded along a path built into its edge, the ceiling so high the lower tips of the stalactites were barely illuminated. The cavern walls were crudely carved with scenes of ancient Hëmroddan myths, prominently featuring Hëmrod and Hektoseres attempting to strangle their father Iphilpheice. The occupants were chanting in Old Hëmroddan, facing the center where chiseled steps climbed to a raised promontory, at which the elderly shaman was standing next to an unlit altar. The dais was bounded on three sides by sheer cliffs, its roots surrounded by stalagmite spears rising up through the perfectly still water.
Let’s hope I at least see a human sacrifice involving heart-removal.
The demographics were decent, fairly representative, with even a few apostate Aléphians mixed in. A great many natives were clearly veterans of the conquest, dressed in tribal garb complete with slings and flint spears. There were aspiring young warriors too, most with the overly dilated pupils and elevated heart rates of dedicated ampynephrin enthusiasts, as if they weren’t already restless enough from the twin stimulants of underemployment and mysticism. And there was an excellent cohort of rebel guerrillas from beyond the empire’s northern reaches.
Would’ve been nice if any of these primitives had bathed in the last year. You could smell them coming for miles.
He crawled along the unseen ceiling until he was directly over the shaman, whose staff had been repurposed as an impractically sized torch. From here he could get a clear view of the sacrifice: a full-grown bull syrruikkan, judging by its imposing crest and half-meter scythe-like talons stained with blood.
Hah, looks like the offering took a few of these meatheads with it.
A thin beam of white light split the darkness, shining through slits in the cave roof which had been precisely hewn such that moonlight could pass through only on specific days. Every eye followed the light flowing like water to dance on the carved cavern walls which, if you had a vivid imagination, gave the illusion of a giant serpent slowly slithering above the villagers. The chanting intensified as the shaman solemnly turned toward the altar, lifted his flaming staff, and set the offering ablaze.
Already? I should’ve spent some time on a plan, this is going to be tight…
Slowly, the moonlight monster wound around the assembly before dropping to the cavern floor, approaching the cliff and the raised dais where the shaman stood transfixed with outstretched arms, waiting for the alignment of the equinox. The daemon could see now that the altar was carved in the shape of a serpent’s mouth, fangs bared, ready to accept the burnt offering on behalf of their pitiful deity.
Shit, ok, get it together…
The natives’ guttural chanting was nearing its climax, their voices frantic, their undulating bodies slick with sweat. The moonlight serpent crept up the steps, ravenous, and slithered up to the altar.
Wow, are we really doing this?
And in that moment, as the moon reached alignment and the chanting was at its crescendo, the daemon dropped from the shadows onto the dais and gripped the flaming sacrifice.
Fuck it, we’re doing it live!
The moonbeam disappeared, and the flames of the sacrifice and surrounding torches darkened and turned blood-red as a cloud of fog enveloped the altar.
“Behold!” thundered the daemon. “It is I! Your master, Hektoseres!”
He was truly massive now, nearly as tall as the cavern, a horrifying shadow monster shrouded in glowing red fog. The chants turned to screams, a cacophony of echoes off the cavern walls. The humans were shouting, shoving each other in confusion, the warriors fumbling for their weapons. The shaman recoiled in terror, arms flailing, dropping his flaming spellstaff as he fell backwards and crawled away from the altar.
The daemon gloated in their terror. “You dare offer me, Lord of Wind and Winter, this pathetic sacrifice?” he roared, his voice so loud the cavern quaked. “And yet you return to be trampled under the heels of foreign heretics, and forsake me! Has any one of you kept my rites? Under the law of ice and vine, there is no surrender!”
The people trembled before him, crying pleas of forgiveness. Many were weeping, some fainting, the warriors tearing their clothes in shame.
The daemon could barely contain his mirth. Why did the Aléphians even bother subjugating these primitives? Had they even developed the wheel? Should’ve gone with tried-and-true genocide. Lucky for them, he was a big believer in second chances.
“You have been led astray! This false guide has let you believe you could make peace with the invaders! But there shall be no peace!” The daemon stretched a shadowed claw toward the shaman, who suddenly realized the eyes of every other human were now fixed on him.
The people grasped feverishly at the lifeline of blame, pointing their fingers at the old man, spitting, hurtling curses. The shaman tried to back away as the crowd surged forwards, but caught between the daemon and the mob, the shaman had nowhere to go but toward the cliff.
“This vermin has corrupted the hearts of my children! He is rot! He is cancer! He is worse even than the invaders he sold you to!” the daemon boomed. “He has no place in the kingdom of Hektoseres!”
The old shaman slipped backwards, falling off the cliff. He let out an uncomfortably long scream before a stalagmite impaled him through the heart, showering the pristine waters with blood. The humans, bless them, continued to jeer and curse at their fallen leader, their fear now matured to anger.
“Warriors of Hektoseres, heed my call! Tonight, you reclaim your homeland!” thundered the daemon. “Tonight, your overlords grow drunk off the riches of your land and grow fat from the meat off of your table! But no longer! They are vulnerable! They are weak! The wind howls for vengeance!”
The daemon raised the shaman's staff over its former master’s open and lifeless eyes, and began to imbue it with spells.
He listened, using his prescience to hone in on the deep throbbing heartbeat of the world, and linked to a few common spells—nothing to attract attention for this recipe. Unable to think of a more clever power supply, he decided to indefinitely delay that design decision and allow the spell to drain the energy of the wielder.
The daemon compiled the spell into a coherent whole and bound it to the staff, which vibrated under the pressure. Before it could disintegrate from the strain he finished the binding—and it was done. The staff now carried an impressive glowing red script of nonsense runes, smoldering embers of formidable malevolence.
“I now give to you my Holy Rod of Hellfire!” he boomed. Meh, but at least better than ‘Cjad’. He tossed the spellstaff into the sea of humans, and only as they eagerly grabbed for his gift did he realize he had omitted a crucial parameter from the spellbinding: the cap on how much life force to siphon from the wielder. Alas. Still, better for them to perish in a blaze of glory than to slowly fade and be forgotten in this backwater. Martyrdom is a feature, not a bug.
“With this, you shall crush your oppressors! No mortal foe can stop you!”
One of the largest warriors won the staff and brandished it overhead, screaming in triumph. The other warriors were gnashing their teeth, chanting, smashing their weapons together, ready for battle, anger finally matured into hate.
“Now, my children, go forth in my name! Oaths you have sworn by blood and ice and vine! Take up your spears! My spirit guides you! My wrath flows in your veins!”
The staff-wielder was already leading the seething horde out of the cenote, their eyes wide, their hearts pounding, the spellstaff glowing with vengeful menace.
“Kill the invaders! Crush them! Scatter them! Water the Laethil krysuar with their blood! Let no man, woman, or child escape my judgment!”
He had to hold back tears of joy as his acolytes roared in agreement.
“Slaughter every invader!”