Demorgoth is on his way.

Chapter 2

If You Eat of that Tree

The daemon vanished as suddenly as he had appeared. He slipped out of the cave, past the Laethil krysuar’s edge, and slithered again up his preferred adaman-tree to watch smugly as his latest investment poured violently out of the cave.

I love my job.

Smiling, he began slithering back toward the village.

Now, for the final phase—

The daemon stopped, balanced on the edge of a branch. A fog was gnawing at the base of his mind. Some anxiety, even though things were going so well—

Wait. What the fuck am I doing? How in the hell did I even end up here?

He had no goals. He was acting on only instinct. I’m immortal, what in the fuck are my goals supposed to be?

The daemon frowned. I am immortal, right? Slowly, he withdrew a bronze long-knife, inspecting its crude edge, wondering where he got it from.

No, no, he had a plan now. Stick to the plan. All he had to do was uphold his end of the bargain, and—

No, seriously, what is the fucking point of any of this?

The fog in his mind was so thick now he could hardly balance, clawing at the tree around him for support, bending over and facing the ground.

What does the world hold for me? More hot garbage days like today, and worse. More unknowns. More anxiety.

The daemon raised the knife to his unarmored neck. Perhaps a knife would work where a fall from the clouds had failed.

No harm in trying. It would be nice, not having to worry anymore—

—it was too much. Too many thoughts—

No, stop it. I’m in control

—splintered shards of memory—


—no chance, he was spiraling through an uncertain blur—

Holy mother of fuck, when I

—pain splitting his skull and wracking him with nausea, the mother of all hangovers—


Yes, now he remembered. Curiosity was his salvation.

The daemon breathed deeply, his eyes closed, his claws buried deep in the tree where he had scrambled for support. Curiosity. Death was terribly final; there were so many interesting things evolving in the world, it seemed only practical to stick around and see how they turned out. Yes, practical. He was very practical.

Slowly, feeling was returning to him, his eyes opening to drink in the sea of stars above.

And what was he curious about in the village? Ah, yes, the plan. It had great potential. It was a good bargain—the same bargain he had always made. I need only maintain my end of the bargain.

As he withdrew his bottle of amber liquid, he heard the faintest of screams calling out to him. He pulled it close and glared at the tiny shadows writhing within. “What? You’re the ones who asked for this. What part of ‘with great hazard comes great bounty’ eluded your half-baked cognitive faculties?” He took a full swig. “Remember,” he said, “I’m doing this for you.”

And then the daemon was moving through the trees once again, drawn by slimy compulsion to herald the rough beast which slouched toward him to be born.

The song of the huntress called out to him, clear notes ringing through the raucous festival aftermath, the bright songs of drunken revelers being encouraged back to their homes by lethargic soldiers. And every second, the low rumble from the north of his freshly unleashed horde grew closer.

The stratoliner loomed overhead through the smoke of the fading bonfires, great bat-wings raking the stars, its ribbed underbelly appearing as the bones of some undead monstrosity in the pale moonlight. Its bulbous spell-lit spider eyes cast a dim light on its long arms, which now dangled down to the earth like flaccid tentacles.

The daemon returned to the priestess’ hut, flitting weightlessly through the trees, and found the huntress neither asleep nor with friends, but outside, training. As a silent shadow, he slithered to a branch a few feet above her to observe. This was no adaman-tree, but some kind of local fruit tree, just beginning to ripen. He licked his fangs.

The huntress was furious, pulling herself up repeatedly to raise her chin up to a tree branch. Tied to her waist was a bag of stones weighing more than her.

The daemon waited for a few dozen repetitions, listening to her song. She had a pleasant archetypal quality to her, attractive enough to entice some fans without being overly distracting. Then he heard a tremor from his minions to the north—time to get things moving.

“So, you punish your body when you feel unworthy. A fine coping mechanism, but not a solution.”

Instantly the huntress dropped into a defensive stance, drawing her long-knife from its sheath and scanning her surroundings. When she saw him crouched above her, she lowered the knife…partially.

The daemon chuckled. “And you have good instincts. I appreciate that.”

“Sorry,” she muttered, sheathing the blade. “Sigri told me you already left.”

“I have debts not fully paid,” he said. “You injured yourself to save me.”

“Oh, this?” she said, holding up her mangled arm, bleeding again after her exercise. “This is nothing, you should see the other guy. What were the odds I would stumble into an avialisk, today of all days?”

She grinned, then noticed his lack of recognition. “They’re a local pest. Imagine if a scorpion, a rhinoceros, and a pteraeopteryx managed to conceive a winged bastard who weighs half a ton and has the temperament of a raging ampynephrin addict. Even a rumor of an avialisk sighting will shut down adaman-tree harvesting for weeks, and you know how fussy the Aléphians can be about their little harvesting schedules.”

“Consider me impressed. How did you survive?”

“Ah, that’s the trick,” she mused. “Turns out, they run so hot, they need constant airflow to survive. If they stop moving, they die—they don’t even sleep. You just bait them to fly into the weeds, they get tangled up and die in minutes. They taste kinda like crab-meat.”

“This is an everyday occurance?”

She snorted. “Honestly, I’m lucky I escaped without a razor spine between my ribs. It’s really a shame you were unconscious, it would’ve been a very exciting way to introduce you to Hëmroddan and see my killer fighting skills. I admit, my witty banter was only so-so, not that you and the avialisk contributed much.”

“I am content with having skipped it,” said the daemon.

“Your loss,” she shrugged. “Did you know I’m the only person in Hëmroddan who can navigate the Laethil krysuar? Not counting the guerrillas to the north, because no one does.”

“They’re not your heroes?”

“I like to think it should be the other way around, but no, they think I’ve sold out to the Aléphians by helping them navigate the jungle and protecting them from the local critters. Desecration of their sacred lands, whatever. So, we mix worse than Syrkhan and Edosyne. It’s so moronic, it’s their own fault I have no other options.”

“Things seemed to have worked out well enough.”

“Most definitely,” said the huntress, waving her mangled arm and gesturing to the mud hut behind them. “I can’t even imagine a life better than this.”

“Careful. Ambition is the act of entrusting your happiness to the whims of forces outside your control.”

She grinned again. “Sounds like the words of someone down on their luck. Did you have a recent fall from grace?”

The daemon chuckled, rocking back and forth on his perch. “Heh, heh. Very good. Now, tell me the tale of your family.”

“Oh.” Her eyes clouded. “I’ve lived here my whole life. My mother was a huntress, that’s how she raised me, and that’s how she died, when I was seven. By Kraethos’ own bad luck, crossed paths with a pack of syrruikkan. We only recovered a few of her bones.” Her hand covered the front of her neck. “The Hëmroddan word for tribeless is laethilena jalsuir, which roughly translates to ‘belongs to the forest’, or in a modern interpretation, ‘tough luck, we don’t want to take care of you, screw off and die’. I’m just lucky Sigri took me in.”

“You have no other family? No father?”

“The tribe was exterminated during Archegan’s invasion of Hëmroddan. My father was an Aléphian soldier. After the conquest, he left but she stayed.”

“You tell the story as if she had a choice in any of this.”

“Don't talk to me about my own mother.” A glimmer of iron rang in her song.

The daemon shifted in his perch. “Very well. If you haven’t accepted your truth, why should I?”

“What?” Lots of dissonance. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re defensive. You should be able to answer a simple question about your own life, but I fear you have not internalized it.”

For a long moment, it seemed she would entrench—but then her face softened, and her song made a strange little loop. “You’re right. I don’t love talking about it. Maybe I’m ashamed. I shouldn’t be…I know, I shouldn’t be. But sometimes I look at this place—I mean, what else am I supposed to feel?”

They hung there for a while, with only the leaves rustling softly in the breeze.

Time to try the passphrase.

The daemon leaned back on his branch, and exhaled. “I need your help with something. Something of tremendous importance. But it is also a terrible secret, the mere knowledge of which will place you in mortal danger.” He locked eyes with her. “Can I trust you?”

“Yes,” she said, without hesitation.

He inched forward. “My arrival today was no accident. I have devoted my life’s work to the use of spellcraft and mathematics to harvest information about our world, to safeguard it, to study it, and to better understand how the world will change. To make predictions.”

“Prophecy?” Her eyebrows were raised.

He gave a thin smile.

“But why here, of all places?”

“The Hëmroddan myths you have known for so long are stained by time, but they retain a kernel of truth. The Aléphians tamper with forces outside their comprehension, forces which stretch far beyond a fleeting human lifespan. Their violently accelerating deforestation project has removed most of the natural barrier to the Laethil krysuar’s aggressive expansion, which has triggered a runaway growth effect.”

The huntress frowned, contemplating. “And?”

“In thirty-two years, the Laethil krysuar will have expanded to cover all habitable land area on this world. There will be famine, war, and catastrophic civilization collapse. The last humans, bereft of shelter, will be eaten alive by syrruikkan and other wild beasts,” said the daemon. “And then we shall be no more.”

“Dear gods,” the huntress whispered. “How certain of this are you?”

“My prophecies have informed the strategy of the highest imperial councils. I have never yet been wrong.”

“But then, if you already have their ear, can’t you just tell them? Just tell Archegan about this and make him stop!”

The daemon laughed. “If only. But we are fighting a hydra. Archegan will never stop, and even if he did, another empire would take his place. To save the future, we must solve many deep problems at once. We must innovate a better and more sustainable resource than adaman-trees. We must break the Aléphian stranglehold on spellstaff production. And we must change the very nature of the people they serve, the culture and fabric of society, to prepare them for a new era. In short, we must overthrow all of the great spellcraft empires.”

The huntress stared, aghast. “How could we possibly have a chance against them?”

“There is only one way,” said the daemon. “You must found your own empire.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Me? Start an empire?” she laughed nervously. “Are you joking?”

“I never jest. Least of all when the fate of civilization is at stake,” the daemon intoned. “Despite their apparent power, the spellcraft giants are hardly pinnacles of efficacy. They are plagued by bloated bureaucracies, petty internal squabbling, and lazy recruits who know nothing of hardship. They have achieved immortality at the cost of memory, mere automatons driven mindlessly by shadows of their founders, slaves to the inertia of their success, doomed to repeat the cycles of the past. The oldest and greatest cycle: birth, death, and rebirth. When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable, and so the innovators come to restore balance. I have done it before.”

“You have?” asked the huntress.

He nodded. “Many times.”

The huntress sucked in a breath. “You’re not really a spellcrafter of Goregirath, are you? And your name, for sure, isn’t really Cjad.”

“You’re very perceptive,” he chuckled. “My…true name…is Narcius.”

She smiled in triumph. “Nice to finally meet you, Narcius. So, who are you, really?”

Narcius smiled in return. “As I have told you, I am a humble guardian of civilization. I divine the future, and steer humanity through it as best I can, with my backing and support. My quest is no more and no less than to call up that which cannot be put down. I am a patron of potential, a facilitator of connections, an investor in the future.”

“An investor?” she said. “A god, you mean?”

“No, no,” he laughed. “All gods may be investors, but not the other way around. Think of me not as an overlord, but as your friend, here only to help as your guardian angel,” said the daemon.

“My guardian angel investor,” the huntress nodded. “An immortal helper. I’ve heard about your kind from Sigri, you know, but I never dreamed I’d meet one in person. Let alone that you’d want to invest in me. That I could be an Empress.”

Narcius inclined his head. “Do not get too far ahead of yourself. I can guide you to success, but the way is dark and full of terrors. Our quest to save the world is not for the faint of heart.”

“Only one of us has saved the other from being eaten today,” the huntress smirked.

“Even so,” he said. “You must understand: one of the unintended consequences of my quest for peace has been the creation of adversaries, formidable and malevolent, capable of tremendous and horrifying works. When we seek to change the world for good, we face not only the empires, but the investors who gave them power, the gods themselves. Hektoseres, ​​Kalordayn, even Syrkhan himself awaits us. And worse.”

“And how about the daemons?”

The leaves rustled in the wind.

“Of course,” said the daemon. “The most formidable and malevolent of all our adversaries.”

The huntress shivered. “How do I face them? I suspect I’m going to need more than a bronze hunting knife.”

“With spellcraft of your own, of course. You are, after all, the Founder and Empress of a spellcraft empire.”

“But I thought only some people could learn spellcraft? That it was something you’re either born with or you’re not?”

Narcius waved a hand to disperse her thoughts. “A pernicious and all too common misconception, promulgated by the elites who wish to build moats around their monopolies.”

She thought for a moment. “So, if anyone can learn spellcraft, why me?”

The daemon’s cloak rose in the wind, looming impossibly large and hanging against the stars, the wings of some monstrous raptor. “Perhaps you are not yet ready. You have already gone through so much today.”

“I can handle it.”

“Perhaps.” Narcius leaned forward, his branch creaking. His voice was now barely more than a whisper. “How many orphans were left in Hëmroddan after the conquest?”

She shrugged. “Hundreds, thousands, probably. Though I doubt many survived.”

“And how many other children did your mentor save and raise as her own?”

“Sigri?” The huntress seemed puzzled. “I was the only one. Why?”

“Interesting. Is that common, someone at her level, to take in needy children?”

“She was very close with my mother.”
“A destitute pagan barbarian, friends with a High Priestess of Syrkhan?”

The huntress seemed borderline offended again. “Sigri is non-judgemental and unconditionally compassionate.”

“From the way she chastised the shaman today, I would characterize her compassion as extremely conditional.”

“What’s your point?”

“How many orphans in Renos-Déil are on a first-name basis with the Managing Director?”

Again, she seemed puzzled by the change in subject. “I don’t know.”

“Only you.”

“I don’t know if that’s true…”

“Strange, isn’t it?” Narcius paused. “Have you ever wondered how you grew to have such unmatched skill with the jungle?”

The huntress raised an eyebrow. “My mother was a skilled huntress. I got it from her.”

“Without a doubt. But did she casually battle avialisks with her breakfast? Did she navigate the Laethil krysuar half as quickly as you do?”

“It’s hard to say…”

“No, she did not.” Narcius leaned forward. “Have you given much thought to the identity of your father?”

The huntress winced. “I try not to.”
“That much is clear. But you asked me what made you special, and I am doing my best to help you see.”

“To see what?” she asked, flustered.

“To see that a High Priestess of Syrkhan and an Aléphian Managing Director took an outsized interest in a young half-barbarian orphan before it became clear she was gifted beyond the wildest dreams of her peers. It was not due to your mother. So, who could your father be?”

Slowly, very slowly, her eyes widened. “No.”

“There is only one person in the whole world who commands both a Managing Director and High Priestess.”

“No, no, I don’t know if I—”

“Someone known throughout the whole earth for their unmatched skill with a blade, their deadly ferocity and speed. Someone cruel enough to leave you alone and bereft of birthright, but powerful enough to ensure you were looked after.”

“Oh, hell no. There’s no way.”

“And twenty years ago, he was here in Renos-Déil, here for only a brief time, before he returned to Iraédias to rule his empire.”

“It can’t be,” she whispered.

“You were not sired by some ordinary soldier,” said the daemon. “Your father is Archegan, Emperor of Aléphia.”

Her eyes were impossibly wide, heart threatening to burst from her ribs. She mouthed words noiselessly, sinking to her knees. “It feels impossible,” she said, after a long while. “Like this is a dream. But at the same time…” She looked up at him. “I know it’s true. Somehow, I feel as if I’ve known my whole life.”

Narcius nodded. “You see? Greatness is in your blood. You were born to build. Deep down, you have always known it is far better to rule a sliver of your own earth than serve in another’s heaven. This has always been, and always will be, your destiny.”

“Yes,” she breathed deeply. “You’re right. This is it.”

The daemon sensed his horde had nearly arrived. They were smart enough at least to approach with stealth, fanning out quietly among the trees and encircling the village. “And, as a token of my goodwill, I have a gift for you.” Narcius produced two elegant bracelets of gold chain, and passed them down. “The first of many.”

“They’re beautiful,” said the huntress in awe, clasping the chains around her wrists. “They fit perfectly. And wow, they’re heavier than they look.”

The daemon smiled and stretched out his hand, palm facing up. “Now, rise, as the Empress Aedrid.”

Aedrid obeyed. “This is real. We’re really doing this.”

“Your excitement is my own,” said Narcius. “We start now. Monumental works lie before you. Truly, truly, I say to you, there has never been a better time to start your own Empire.” He leaned ever closer. “Together, Aedrid, we will save the world.”

Her eyes caught a red glow at the corner of her vision as a column of fire arced across the stars to the north. The daemon felt the life of the wielder flicker and wink out as the column struck the northern palisade and exploded in a tremendous ball of flame.


The light cast long shadows through the trees, the shockwave reverberating through the village and sending a cloud of dust into the air. Through gaps in the burning wreckage and thick black smoke they could see a twenty-meter length of the village’s defenses had been leveled.

The alarm was only seconds behind: AaarOOOOOaaarOOOOO! the Aléphian horns shouted.

“An attack!” cried Aedrid, knife drawn again. “The barbarians! What wild spellcraft did they get their hands on?”

They could hear shouts from the perimeter guards, clashes of metal on metal, shadowy figures pouring in through the breach. The daemon sensed the Director hastily board the stratoliner for safety, even as the life of a second staff-wielder evaporated.


Another fireball struck the village fortress, the foundations of its eastern tower buckling and collapsing inward. The barbarians were well into the village now, warriors streaming past the huts around them.

Aedrid cast her gaze wildly about. “Narcius, what should we do?”

“Do not fear, for I am with you.”

There was a low vibrating rumble, a monstrous purring. The stratoliner had undocked and now prowled the sky above, its greedy eyes shining thin rays of light to illuminate its prey below. The daemon salivated as he sensed thousands of little human heads turn upwards in dread.

“Oh no,” Aedrid whispered. “Oh gods, oh no…”

A blinding blue lance splintered the sky, and for a moment all was quiet.


The ground shuddered and groaned as the stratolance pierced the village, spraying a fountain of earth, trees, and entrails into the sky, illuminated by a sickly blue light that continued to fester in the earth. Aedrid dove for cover behind a tree as the carnage fell to shower the village, but the daemon remained in his perch, indifferent to the cocktail of mud and gore which splattered him. Screams from the villagers pierced the night.

“What are they doing?” Aedrid shouted in horror. “They stratolanced their own people!” Sheer terror was in her eyes as they focused on her hut. “I have to help Sigri!” She sprinted toward her mentor’s home.

Narcius rolled his eyes.


Sigri’s hut exploded into infinitesimal fragments as the stratolance gouged a massive crater out of the earth. The blast flung Aedrid back to smash against the daemon’s tree, where she crumpled to the ground, her body miraculously not disintegrated thanks to the wards in her brightly shining gold chains.

Narcius slithered down from his perch, standing over the huntress to shield and comfort her. Tears were streaming through the thick grime that now coated Aedrid’s face. She raised trembling hands, and saw the blood coating them was not her own. “I could’ve saved her,” she sobbed. “I was so close. Gods, I should’ve saved her…”

“There was nothing you could have done,” soothed Narcius.

As if in answer to her indignation, another pillar of fire arced from the north and smote the stratoliner, slicing off one of its masts. The great airship gurgled and whined in fury as it lurched from the impact, rotating its tremendous bulk to face its assailant.


Again the stratoliner spit its venom, the sickly blue light casting long shadows, and Narcius felt a dozen more souls extinguish.

“How could they do this?” Aedrid whimpered. “To their own people!”

The daemon’s eyes stared at her with sadness, twin starpricks floating in the darkness. “A rebellion of this ferocity is terribly difficult to stop. Guerrilla warfare, civil unrest, famine, disease. It will be months, perhaps years, before the Aléphians are able to control it, during which it will consume much of their attention and resources.” His eyes had begun to glisten with tears.

Aedrid tried unsuccessfully to wipe her face clean, the air thick with screams. “Shouldn’t we stay and help the rebellion? Help them defeat the Empire?”

“Absolutely not! Remember, our quest is not with one village, but the entire world!” said Narcius. “Remember the risk! Remember the price! It takes a will of iron, to sacrifice a few so that many can be saved. You cannot look back. You must seize your destiny.”

The huntress hesitated.

“Take up your bow, and follow me.”


Her heart tossed and heaved about, for a moment. But then she looked at his face, at the care in his eyes, at his outstretched hand—and her eyes hardened. “You’re right. I have to look forward. I have to think about the big picture.”

Aedrid took his hand, and a shiver crept up her spine.

Narcius relaxed. He folded another hand over hers and smiled, teeth glinting in the moonlight.


“Now,” said the daemon, “Let’s see what you’re capable of.”

Demorgoth is on his way.