Chapter 60: False Claim
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In silence, the three of us made our way up toward the ridgeline, following the creek. Seyari’s wind magic swirled the air around us gently, obscuring our scent and sound. The supernatural stillness of the forest put me on edge. I’d gotten used to my presence having this effect, but when I passed through in my normal form, the forest seemed to hold its breath. Here and now? The forest was dead.

The plants around us seemed fine, but no animals truly lived here. Subtle signs: blackberries from the past summer rotting on the vine, and wilted flowers dropping petals onto the brown pile previous years left below.

Further up, we found tracks. Mixed, orderly, and all leading away from up the creek bed. Not a natural animal trail, the sight sent a shiver down my spine. By all accounts, I shouldn’t have been afraid. The thought helped calm me, but I was still on edge.

I wasn’t so much afraid for me, but for Ruston and Seyari. I knew the half-angel could hold her own, but I remembered what that twisted, burned wolf had done to her leg. The image of an injury that should have killed her outright was forever burned into my memory.

For Ruston, well, I had to do my best to protect him. Just because he wasn’t someone I wanted to get closer to didn’t mean I’d hold back from keeping him safe.

***

Soon, we reached the source of the creek. A spring bubbled up into a small pond, surrounded by blackened, twisted plants and soot-caked bones. A steep rocky hillside ascended the short distance to the top of the ridge some meters up. Leaning by the spring was a broken stone monolith, covered in text I couldn’t read.

Once, this would have been a peaceful, beautiful place. Now, I was immediately cautious. Ruston had taken point, but I was right behind him. I guessed he wouldn’t turn and shifted my eyes for aura sight. The whole vale had a lingering sort of orangish-red aura. It reminded me of the twisted wolves.

“Be cautious,” Seyari warned with a whisper, “It’ll know we’re here once we’re enter, if it doesn’t already.”

“I can take point,” I looked down at Ruston, my eyes human again.

He didn’t look back up. I followed where his head was looking and realized there was a human body on the ground. Had that been there a moment ago? The man looked almost as if he was sleeping, albeit face down with singed clothing. That doesn’t make sense. Something’s up.

“Dad,” Ruston said in a shaky voice.

“Ruston, don’t,” Seyari ordered.

“No…” Ruston spoke softly, still fixated on his likely dead father.

I heard his father groan.

Ruston did too, and he took a step forward.

“Something’s wrong here, Ruston, stay back,” I ordered the young man in front of me.

Ruston’s anger spiked. “No. I have to check. Watch my back.” Ruston darted forward.

“Ruston!” I shouted and grabbed his arm.

“What!?” He turned and yelled at me. His eyes were wet and wide. “Let go! What are you doing?”

“The demon’s doing something.” I stared back at the young man.

“So what?” Ruston shouted back at me. “Are you an expert on demons now? Screw off! My dad’s hurt, and we need to get to him before the demon does.”

I tried to keep my voice calm. “Ruston—”

“Don’t talk down to me!” Ruston wrenched his arm out of my grip. “I don’t care that you think you’re some bigshot. If you’re so sure you can take down a demon, help me get my dad out of here first!”

I tried again. “We need to see if—"

“Bullshit!” Ruston darted out of my reach. His anger was boiling over. “My dad’s in trouble in this cursed place and I’m not going to let you stop me!”

“Fine,” I conceded. “I can watch your back. Be careful.”

“I’ll watch the sides,” Seyari spoke up, moving around to another angle close by.

Ruston didn’t reply, he just gave us a look and darted forward to his father. I ran out into the clearing after him.

When the young man reached his father, he started to drop to his knees. Everything after that happened in an instant.

His ‘father’s’ skin burned away in a flash and a twisted arm shot up and grabbed Ruston by the ankle.

I threw away my human transformation and surged after him. I reached out to grab Ruston and pull him away. I was an instant too slow. Before my eyes, the young man lit up in a reddish-orange conflagration.

I tried to control the flames, but I couldn’t. Even if I could have, when I grabbed Ruston’s shoulder, all I touched was warped, blackened bone.

The immolated corpse that had been Ruston a moment ago, collapsed to the ground. Bits of char held most of the bones together.

Time seemed to stop, and I stared at the corpse in shock. Ruston had been alive less than a second ago.

He didn’t have to die. I could have stopped this. I hesitated and now he’s dead.

I saw movement from the thing that’d killed Ruston. I picked up the twisted formerly human body in four arms and tore it apart.

I took a breath and realized I’d roared. “We find the demon, now!” I shouted in the direction I knew Seyari had gone.

A wind tipped arrow answered my question, flying just past my side. I turned and saw it’d struck Ruston’s charred remains, which had tried to stand up.

I spun and looked around the clearing. The spring burbled quietly, the only sound and movement I could see.

That evil, twisted demon! It was here, somewhere. Hiding.

I could hear my teeth grinding against each other. Aura sight revealed nothing I hadn’t seen already. A faint aura all over, but no concentrations. The still bodies of Ruston and the other were slightly more concentrated but the orangish-red aura was ebbing away.

“Show yourself!” I shouted into the empty clearing.

No response.

My symbol burned hot on my chest, but what was happening didn’t feel like suppression to my anger. Focus. My anger had focus. I was in control.

I am the Sovereign of Wrath.

The demon here: Could they be a wrath demon?

“Demon!” I spoke loudly, confidently. “I am your Sovereign, and I demand you show yourself.” I felt a stir in the aura. Then, a return to stillness.

What more could I do?

I realized the answer a moment later: my Name. My True Name: Zerix’Arranthariel.

“Demon,” I addressed the clearing once again. “I am Zerix’Arranthariel. I am the Sovereign of Wrath, and you will answer my call,” I said clearly and loudly, but did not shout. My wrath would not be so uncontrolled.

The aura around me stirred, condensing toward the spring at the center. Bits of the bodies shot into the water, and a figure broke the surface. What it was couldn’t be a called humanoid. The form was an amalgamation of parts of dead animals, humans, wood and rock. Spindly limbs jutted out from a misshapen, jagged torso.

A head made of a patchwork of human skulls topped the shape, tiny compared to the meters-tall bulk. Blackened, twisted skin grew over it, giving the awful skeleton a disturbing visage of some frightening monstrosity. The face, however, was like a composite of an older man and woman.

The jaw full of overlarge, black, pointed teeth, opened. “Sovereign!” the demon spoke, in a voice like the crackling of a burning building. “That one was mine, not yours!”

“What?” I levelled a reply at the hunched beast with too many twisted limbs. I kept my reply short to keep the shaking out of my voice. I knew I shouldn’t be afraid of this thing, but the fact it looked like something from my nightmares’ nightmares, kept my mind on edge.

“Did you not lead that one to me?” The monstrosity scuttled closer to me. “I will not touch your other prey. They are not from those who wronged me.” The demon spoke slowly, each word hissing and cracking out staccato syllables strung together with discordant noise.

I forced myself to glare up at it. “Ruston did not wrong you.”

The thing stared at me with unblinking eyes like cracked coals. “The Sovereign does not understand. Harris-ton killed me and Harris-ton must burn.”

I forced myself to stare into its inorganic eyes. “Not everyone in the town was part of the mob who killed you. There are good people in Harriston.” I didn’t know why I thought trying to reason with it would work.

“The Sovereign does not understand.” The thing’s posture shifted. “Zerix’Arranthariel is weak.”

The demon pounced. Sharp limbs struck out at me and the air between us became superheated in an instant. The warmth I felt burned everything away except my spear. My Name had vibrated with power when the demon had used it, but whatever effect it had wanted hadn’t happened. I felt fine.

The twisted monstrosity was fast, but I was faster. On edge already, I managed to narrowly dodge the flailing limbs that whistled through the air past me.

I grabbed my spear as it slid down my back and spun it to meet the next limb. The demon had force behind its strike, but I was able to parry the blow cleanly.

From the bushes on the fringe of the clearing a blinding beam of holy light tore through the air. The other demon shifted unnaturally, but a couple limbs were burned away.

I darted the spear around the demon’s guard, thankful for the reach it gave me. I struck home, breaking off bits of the thing’s composite body.

The demon swung back at me, limbs closing around my escape. The spear was long, but the massive range of the thing’s limbs had trapped me. Jagged bits of bone and rock jammed into me, forcing a roar of pain from my lips.

I tried to burn the limbs away, but the thing seemed to hardly feel my fire, trying to drive the limbs deeper. I struck at the spindly limbs with my claws and spear. Joints cracked, but the bits drove deeper. I could feel my ribs snapping. I crouched low, wincing at the way the invading limbs shifted, then brought my tail up with as much force as I could muster.

With a cracking, splintering sound, my heavy tail crashed through the half-dozen limbs that had pierced me, shattering them to pieces.

From above it, Seyari’s beam of holy light came down. Unable to dodge in time, the demon’s entire right side was burned away.

I took a moment and used my three free hands to rip the bits out of me. The pain blossomed stars behind my eyes, but my regeneration pulled heavily on my mana and I could feel the wounds stop bleeding.

I took a deep breath, wincing from broken ribs, and leapt for the exposed part of its body. My weight caused it to crash over.

Around me, what limbs weren’t pinned under it flailed and slashed at me—my spear and claws stopping most of them. Seyari’s beam fired again, uncomfortably close.

One limb came for my neck, and I was barely able to grab it in time. I jerked my hand and snapped the end of the limb off. The others inside me I ripped out and slapped with my tail. Some broke.

I tried to tear at the thing’s body, but all that came out was bits of charred wood, bone, and rock. Worse, I could see the aura around us start to pull severed limbs and other debris toward the demon.

It’s all just a shell!

I held on with two hands, and used the other two and the weight of my body to drive the spear into the debris of its body. It sunk in and crashed through bone until the spearhead hit something softer.

I pushed harder and drove it home. The demon screamed in agony under me; a sound like shattering bone and the hissing of a dying fire. I twisted and leveraged the spear, flexing it dangerously even through the enchantment, but creating an opening.

The beam of holy light had been replaced by smaller lances. The first went wide, but soon most of the demon’s limbs were shattered before they could impale me. The few in me tried to drive deeper, but I held them back with two hands. My wounds hurt like hell, and my mana was depleting rapidly to try to heal them. Good thing I didn’t need my magic to finish this.

I used my other two hands and my spear’s head to claw, tear, and stab my way to the thing’s real body. I couldn’t see what form it had taken, but the skin was pink like a scar and burned at the edges. I tore into the demon’s real body viciously.

More terrible screams sounded from the demon under me. I continued to tear through blackened bone and twisted flesh until, with a final shriek, the thing under me spasmed and went still.

I felt a rush from the victory, and from something else. The thing’s aura rushed toward me. I flared mine to burn it away, but before it even reached me, the remains of the demon’s magic seemed to merge with mine.

Like with Verrux, I felt my mana replenish slightly. This time, I tried to look for changes. I didn’t find any in the few seconds it took for Seyari to run up to me.

“Are you alright?” the half angel asked.

I turned to her. Seyari’s eyes were tired, probably from mana exhaustion.

“I’m okay,” I answered, “but Ruston’s dead.”

“You tried,” Seyari said halfheartedly.

I shook my head and stood up off the demon’s corpse, wobbling slightly. “I hesitated. Ruston’s dead because of me.” The two of us walked to the edge of the burnt clearing and I sat down heavily on the edge of the streambed. I realized I was naked, but couldn’t find the energy to care. Nothing Seyari hadn’t seen anyway.

“You can’t save everyone,” Seyari said sadly, sitting down next to me.

“Maybe, but it’s like I didn’t even try,” I looked toward the clearing, keeping my eyes and aura sight on the body. “I wanted to be polite and reasonable and not get angry. And now Ruston’s dead.” The aura was gone from the clearing, and the unnatural char had receded. Somehow, the place looked even more macabre without it.

“You’re right,” Seyari said softly. “You’re too nice. You always bend over backward for people and you never want to take a side.”

“Can you help me grow a spine?”

Seyari shook her head. “I don’t think I can.”

“What do I do then?” I looked toward the spot where Ruston had died. Not an hour ago we were chatting casually in the clearing down the creek from here.

“You figure it out yourself.” Seyari stood up and walked over to me, bending down to look into my eyes. “You can’t get help with learning to put your foot down. That’d defeat the purpose.”

I stared back up at her and said nothing.

“Did I sound like you, Renna?” Seyari asked, and a small smile graced her features. “Because that’s what I was going for.”

“Thanks, Sey,” I replied, “but you’re not going to cheer me up.”

“Good.” She nodded. “I’m going to take a look around the place and then we’ll head back.”

“I’m scared of losing control to my wrath,” I said to no one as Seyari walked away.

Seyari kept walking, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I watched her investigate the broken stone monolith. After that, she started to take the dead demon apart. I couldn’t watch and turned away to look at the sky. The uncaring gray clouds promised rain and gave no answers.

I thought about how I had handled the situation after I let Ruston die. Would I have hurt Seyari or someone else if they had been next to me? I didn’t think so. Was I in control? I felt like I was.

The demon hadn’t come out until I’d used my True Name. I realized Seyari knew it now as well. I didn’t mind. I tried to focus on why the demon had shown itself when I used my True Name. I felt the power when I used my Name, like the demon was forced to acknowledge me.

Why hadn’t my title drawn it out, but my Name had? Was it just the way things worked?

I tried to think harder; I was the Sovereign of Wrath. I knew it, but the title made me nervous. I tried to follow that feeling of nervousness to where it came from. Years ago, Abby had taught me to do this, something passed on from her nan.

What about being the Sovereign of Wrath makes me nervous?

I was scared of demonic politics, so the ‘Sovereign’ part was certainly a potential culprit. But what about ‘Wrath’? The last vestiges of Abby had gotten my wrath under control years ago.

Had she really? Had I really?

I’d exploded outward in anger a few times, but I’d managed to control it. Most of the time, I just simply didn’t get angry.  Even when I should.

Even when I should.

Was I avoiding getting angry? Was I avoiding conflict? I thought back to the last few months.

I never told anyone about my nature on the trip from my island to Port Princely aboard the Swordfish and was afraid of hurting them. I’d showed Elena the tailor way too much, and left without thinking. I’d revealed myself late and Aarsh had died. I’d let Elnie get away with cutting my damn ear off and I barely got angry. I’d convinced myself to be fine with getting bound in Ivlaet. I didn’t confront the prince in Ivlaet or at the gates of Baetnal. I’d suggested hiding rather than running because I wanted to avoid conflict.

I’d agreed to work with Lilly despite all the warning signs and despite knowing so little. I hadn’t even really dug for any of Lilly’s information, and now the Sovereign of Lust knew almost everything about me. I ran from the conflict between Navanaea and the Formid. That was and isn’t my conflict, but it is for Aretan and others I know and I just… walked away.

I let us camp near Ned and Jacob even when we knew they were creeps. I waited until my neck was sliced open before I even did anything.

All this time, I’ve been going along with the flow and trying not to disturb anyone. I’ve only reacted and I’ve hardly acted. Nelys was almost raped. I helped Seyari reveal herself, but even then I only pushed her once. Her own lack of trust in herself hurt others. My lack of trust wasn’t exempt. I took action in the ruins at the pass, but it took me all day to do that much.

Why?

The first thing that came to mind was: I don’t want my anger to control me.

Yeah, but it already has. Just not in the way I thought it would.

I’d accepted myself. I’d accepted my demon side and my human side. I’d accepted Seyari and Nelys.

I’d never accepted that I was a Wrath demon.

If Abby was still here, she’d probably say something like: “Finally, you doofus!”.

I looked down at my clawed hands. I clenched them and unclenched them. Even if I had been afraid of my anger, I’d never totally lost control. I needed to allow myself to get angry. Maybe my title hadn’t worked because I didn’t really believe it. Maybe not. Didn’t matter. I needed learn to let myself get angry, and take decisive action proactively. I needed to learn to be the Sovereign of Wrath. My own less-destructive version, sure, but I couldn’t hide from the title. And now I didn’t want to.

All that would be easier said than done.

“You have any revelations?” Seyari walked down toward me. She was carrying in one hand what looked suspiciously like a badly burned human head. Black blood dripped from the stump of its neck. in the other, she had an axe head.

“Yeah, I think so actually.” I stood up and forced myself to smile. “Is that the demon’s head?” I assumed the axe head was to identify Ruston.

“One of them,” Seyari replied.

I didn’t ask her to elaborate.

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Ruston :c

It's about time Zarenna has this bit of introspection, though.

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