After the greetings and conversation died down, Psytalla settled into her throne with Nyze directly to her left, resting a hand on the Demon Lord’s shoulder. Rylmedy sat on the ground, cross-legged, and Frane flopped into her lap and stared at the ceiling. Metokai stood off to the right, by herself.
“So anyway,” Nyze said emphatically, “back to the subject of coffee.”
Psytalla and Metokai rolled their eyes, while Frane and Rylmedy just looked confused.
“As we know, the coffee-producing region of Saimonica is located in the humid, warm northern climes of the nation. Now, I believe if we raid the Vyna region, we can obtain a supply of coffee beans that will…”
“NYZE!” Psytalla boomed in annoyance. “For the LAST TIME, we are not going to war over COFFEE!”
“Aww,” Nyze slumped downwards, disappointed.
Metokai folded her arms and glared at Nyze. “Are you certain this ‘coffee’ is not a narcotic, serpent? You seem desperate to obtain another fix.”
Nyze waved her hands in protest. “It’s not, I swear! It’s just really, really good! It gives me energy and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside…”
“Sounds like a narcotic to me,” Metokai frowned.
Rylmedy shyly raised her hand. “Uhm…” Everyone turned to look at her, which did not help her shyness in the least, but she kept talking anyway. Her expertise as a healer meant she had something to contribute to the conversation. “Coffee contains the chemical caffeine, which is a psychoactive stimulant. It’s not a narcotic, but it does impart alertness and suppress fatigue by acting directly on the central nervous system. It’s usually consumed in the mornings as part of a breakfast, a time of day when the anti-fatigue effects have their greatest efficacy.”
“THANK you, Rylmedy, for providing a concise and clear explanation.” Metokai said, smiling at her. She then turned to Nyze and twisted her face back into a scowl. “You see, serpent? Was that so hard to explain?”
“I don’t know what half those words meant.” Nyze responded warily. “What is sai-coh-ak-tiv?”
“You MUST be joking, serpent.”
“Look, my job is to hit things with a sword. I don’t need big words for that, okay?!”
Metokai shook her head and muttered something under her breath that sounded a lot like a long string of curses. Psytalla, having enjoyed the spectacle of the two arguing up until now, cleared her throat loudly.
“As I said. If, during our war against Saimonica, we HAPPEN to come across any coffee, we shall consider it a happy accident and Nyze will no doubt be pleased. I am not making it a primary goal of our campaign, though.”
Frane, who had been tuning most of the conversation out and staring at the pretty skull-shaped chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, suddenly snapped her attention to the Demon Lord. “Wait a moment. We’re going to war against Saimonica?”
“That we are.” the Demon Lord replied. “Metokai, summon the Evil Council. We shall hold court in a week’s time, and I shall issue my declaration of war.”
“As you wish, my liege,” Metokai replied, placing her right hand over her left breast and bowing deeply.
There is a uniquely human adage which states “The brightest light casts the darkest shadow.” This is a general expression of the human predilection with dichotomies: light vs. darkness, good vs. evil, Hero vs. Demon Lord. This binary way of thinking also lead humans to justify the great disparities between the wealthy and poor, insisting this was merely another function of the world’s proper order. For great wealth to exist, they said, so must great poverty.
Nowhere was this contrast more evident than the capital city of Saimonica, Arcryid. Nestled on a river delta on Skana’s eastern shore, Arcryid was starkly divided into two contrasting districts. The affluent Central District, which played host to the city’s nobility and clergy, was built mostly of gilded stone and rammed earth that had been moved into place by elemental mages; at the very center towered the great White Monolith, a sharp-edged rectangular construction a mile high, blank and featureless and glowing with un-aspected creation mana. The White Monolith served as the headquarters of the Church of Holy Humanity, and was supposedly built by the Nameless God himself to house his most faithful adherents.
Beyond the Central District’s stood the far larger Outer District, a slum constructed mostly of rotting wood and weathered brick. The balance of Arcryid’s population lived out here, separated from the wealth of the Central District by high walls but still watched over by the ominous gleam of the White Monolith. In the streets and alleys of the Outer District you could catch sight of something you’d never find in Central; homeless orphan children, begging for food and coin.
One such child was present in one such alley as the White Moon began to sink below the horizon, signaling the start of night. The child had earned nary a coin nor crumb that day, and was facing another starvation-stained night. As he slowly began to trudge back to his hiding place, he was interrupted by a short bark directed at him.
“Ho. You there!”
He turned to see a clergyman. A High Breeder, by the look of him; he was dressed in pure white robes lined with orange on the inside, indicating he studied elementalism. On his breast he wore the symbol of the Church, the Eleven-Spoked Moon. The orphan boy stared hungrily at the thirteen gemstones embedded in the symbol, and the white gold which make up the spokes. If he pawned that, he could afford to eat for a year.
The clergyman spoke, stroking his oiled moustache as he did. “You. Vagrant child. Rejoice, for the Nameless God has decided to bless you this day.” He held a few coins between his fingers, smiling down at the boy.
The boy froze, his gaze locked on the coins, and didn’t respond. He knew from past encounters that clergy could be arrogant or fickle. If he spoke out of turn, he could find himself on the receiving end of punches, kicks or worse.
Sure enough, the man continued speaking. “However, I am also a servant of Aspecta, God of the Elements. Can you prove yourself worthy of HIS blessing, vagrant child?”
The boy continued his silence. He didn’t know much about the Thirteen Moons and their attendant Gods. That was something the rich people in the Central District cared about; out here in the slums, the Gods were given about as much credence as ghosts or fairies. People generally didn’t have time to muse endlessly on divine mysteries when they were trying to scrounge enough food to live another day.
The man sighed. “I didn’t think so. You scum of the Outer District are blessed with the light of the Moons, and yet you do not honor the Gods. It’s no wonder you were cast into poverty for your lack of faith. Little better than demons, you lot.” He smiled, wickedly. “But I am merciful. Entertain me, vagrant, and I shall give you these coins. Prove your soul is not wholly lost.”
There it was. The boy recognized the cadence of the man’s conversation, what he was truly after. He’d seen it many times before. Slowly, wordlessly, he began to dance for the man. Rapid steps and graceful twirls, perfected over many months.
The man clapped, delighted, and urged the boy to continue. For nearly five full minutes, he danced. Finally the man prompted him to stop by throwing the coins to the cobblestone. The boy dove for them, digging them out from the cracks between the stones with aching fingers.
“Delightful, vagrant. Some small part of your soul may be saved yet.” Chuckling to himself, the clergyman turned on his heel and began to walk back towards the Central District.
With the four copper coins he dropped, the boy bought a few stale slices of bread and wolfed them down, half-filling his stomach.
“Hello? Rixu? You in there, man?”
Rixu started as Diarn slapped his shoulder. He turned towards the interruption, frowning. Diarn’s teeth and nose had long since been restored by healing magic, and he was starting to gain back the weight he’d lost during his week of starvation as well. His self-confidence had returned along with his looks.
“Sorry,” Rixu said sourly. “I got lost in memory for a moment there.”
“Well, pay attention,” Diarn said. “We’re almost to the White Monolith. I’m sure the Church will reward you handsomely for aiding me.”
Rixu had come to hate Diarn as he escorted the arrogant Hero back to Arcryid. The man reminded him too much of those self-important clergymen who had grudgingly tossed coins his way during his time on the streets as a child. Even now, as Diarn’s pedigree bought them passage into the exclusive Central District, he found himself growing more and more uncomfortable at the ostentatious wealth surrounding him, not to mention the constant oppressive glare of the White Monolith. The sooner he deposited this egotistical manchild in the waiting arms of the Church and got back to his posting on the Anti-Demon Wall, the better.
“Come, now. This is an honor, is it not?” Diarn said, trying to push through the dour mood of his soldier companion. “It’s not every day a commoner gets to enter the glorious White Monolith! You should be more excited, Rixu!”
“Sure,” Rixu grumbled as they began to climb the stairs at the Monolith’s base. “Whatever.”
At the very apex of the White Monolith, in a square room with white glowing walls, completely devoid of decoration and furnished only with simple chairs and tables, sat the highest prophet and leader of the Church of Holy Humanity, Supreme Breeder Aevena Amon. He was a rail-thin man, with a face composed of all angles and anger. His white-on-white robes hung off his body like a damp towel on a rack. He stood next to his desk, hands clasped behind his back, and spoke in words that betrayed barely-contained fury.
“So the Hero failed?”
High Militant Frense Angeddo, a short and pudgy man clad in white robes lined with red, nodded. “According to Diarn’s account, he and his party successfully slayed over a dozen High Generals. However, he was defeated by the Demon Lord, and his party then betrayed him.”
“Unconscionable,” Aevena spat. “I warned him against bringing those whores along. Women simply cannot be trusted in combat situations.”
Frense nodded his agreement before continuing. “The Demon Lord seems to have sealed his divine blessing with foul runes. It’s exactly as we’ve seen before. We have no means of removing them.”
Aevena stroked his chin in thought. Demonic sealing runes were not unknown to the Church, and were the subject of intense study in the magitechnological department. However, centuries of careful analysis had revealed no method of removing them. Demonic magic was truly insidious.
“So the Hero is useless to us now,” Aevena said at last.
“Entirely useless. Diarn is now no stronger than a common man. Perhaps weaker, given his… disregard for physical conditioning,” confirmed Frense.
“That is… concerning. Our plans relied upon the Hero injuring the Demon Lord, at the very least.”
There was a long silence as the two men deliberated, wondering if the situation was salvageable. Then, Frense spoke up.
“Can we not simply kill him? The Gods will designate another Hero, and we continue from there.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Aevena replied with open contempt. “If we knowingly and directly kill the Gods’ chosen Hero, how do you think they’ll react? Saimonica has been fortunate to bask in their favor for centuries, and we can do nothing to jeopardize that. Imagine if the next Hero were to appear in the Arkaelian Empire instead of here. We’d be in a position of weakness, subject to the whims of those iron-minded maniacs.”
Frense shuddered at the thought. “Fine. Then what do we do with Diarn?”
“Cut him off. Cast him out. We have no use for him anymore,” Aevena said coldly.
“Just… cut him off? That’s it?” Frense was confused.
“He grew up noble. He won’t survive a week in the Outer District. And if he dies of starvation or exposure in the slums, the Gods can’t very well get mad at us for that, now can they? Our hands will be clean, and a new hero will be born here in Saimonica.”
Frense’s eyes lit up. “Ah!”
“WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY TO ME?!” Diarn yelped in half-confusion, half-fury. Rixu, who was standing next to him, took a few steps back.
Frense folded his arms, unwavering and businesslike. “The Church of Holy Humanity no longer requires your services at this time, Diarn Alaeia. As such, we are releasing you from our employ so that you may better seek out other opportunities suited to your, ahem, current skillset.”
“You’re FIRING me? You can’t do this! I’M THE HERO!” Diarn screeched.
“You WERE the Hero,” Frense corrected him. “With that demonic seal on your breast, you’re now simply a common man. As such, we have no need to keep you on our payroll any further, nor to provide you residence on Church property. We are granting you a generous stipend of 1000 large gold coins as a form of severance, but no further wages from the Church will be forthcoming.”
“You can’t… I… YOU CAN’T! I invaded the DEMON REALM for you! You OWE me!” Diarn said, his tone now edged with begging.
“And we are grateful for your service, Diarn, hence the large severance package. Please do not make this more difficult that it has to be,” Frense replied, surreptitiously signaling to the guards.
Diarn grit his teeth. “You… I… you… BETRAYED ME! Just like those WHORES, you BETRAYED ME!” He suddenly charged forwards, hands outstretched towards Frense.
A moment later, two guards in faceless white-red plate armor restrained Diarn. He struggled futilely against them.
“Get him out of here. Set him loose in the Outer District.” Frense ordered, and the guards dragged him away, out of the White Monolith.
Rixu, who had been watching the whole spectacle with a mixture of amusement and boredom, raised his hand. “So, can I go now?”
“How was it?” Aevena asked when Frense returned to the apex of the Monolith.
“He reacted as you might expect. A lot of yelling and pouting,” Frense replied, straightening his cloak.
Aevena shook his head in disbelief. “What a spoiled brat. We’ll have to make sure we raise the NEXT Hero more properly.”
Frense changed the subject, wanting to put that little bit of unpleasantness behind him. “Indeed. Now, as to the matter of the Demon Realm?”
Aevena frowned. No, that wasn’t quite accurate, since he was always frowning. He frowned DEEPER. “We need to confirm details of Diarn’s story. How many High Generals he slew, and whether the Demon Lord was weakened at all.”
“Covert infiltration?” asked Frense.
“That’s what I’m thinking. A spying mission,” Aevena confirmed.
“Who did you have in mind? That soldier from the Wall, Rixu?”
“I think so. According to his file, he speaks Low Demonic. And his record is spotless, if unremarkable. Plus, he’s lowborn. We can dispose of him without trouble once we’re done.”
Frense nodded. “I suggest we pair him up with a trained operative. Rixu can function as the brawn, the operative as the brains.”
“Do you have someone in mind?” asked Aevena.
“Of course. A highly trained ninja, the best of the best.”
Frense turned to one of the guards, motioning him over. The guard saluted, crossing both his hands over his chest, palms inwards. Frense returned the salute sharply and smiled..
"Send out an immediate summons. Bring me… Bob.”