With the sun beating down, the walk up to the top of the town was more tiring than it should be, even out of armour. The fact there were demons around didn’t seem to have had much effect on the town, other than a few other adventurers wandering around the place, standing out due to their decorated armour and weapons, no pretence at any kind of uniformity. None she recognised, but if the demons returned, then hopefully they’d be useful.
Up on top of the hill was the castle, overlooking the town it protected, bright banners flapping in the breeze, soldiers manning the wall. This was the oldest, and richest, part of the town, the servants dressed little differently than poorer nobles, many bearing the livery of the ruling family.
In front of the castle was an open square, a group of knights currently promenading, displaying their horsemanship and shiny, shiny armour, flashes of light flickering off their plate. Impressive horsemanship, although battlefield skill was an entirely different matter – the shinier the armour was, often the worse the fighter within. A few nobles displayed themselves, showing off their own clothing for their peers. Her destination wasn’t the castle though – she followed the high wall around, into a narrow alleyway, walls piled here with the detritus the castle generated, a few off-duty servants taking the chance to relax and have a smoke, out of sight of their masters.
Amongst a cluster of servant’s quarters and workshops (the nobles not wanting such things, no matter their practicality, to spoil their views), Stathis found the building she was looking for. Old, at least as old as the castle, with walls of thick stone, broken only by narrow windows, and a single large door, currently sagging open, barest remnant of a bronze disc just barely visible. It had once been painted white, but that had long since peeled and faded, making it look even worse.
She let herself in, eyes taking a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness. Inside was a single long chamber, the space designed to be filled with pews for the faithful, now a jumble of garbage and detritus, a few beggars sleeping in clear patches. At the far end, one of the circular windows let in a sharply defined shaft of sunlight, illuminating an altar, or at least a raised stone slab covered with empty bottles, looking closer to the aftermath of a party than anything sacred.
Looking over the empties, all of them stank of cheap beer, the altar sticky with spillages. Slumped behind the altar, half in the patch of sunlight, was the person she was looking for, sprawled in an unconscious stupor. She came back with two buckets of water, tipping one over them. They spluttered and gasped, dragging themselves into consciousness. Stathis wasted no time in formally presenting herself.
‘I, Knight of the Sun Stathis’, she mumbled the next part, just in case they were actually awake enough to pay attention, ‘of the House of Iristari, present myself to the master of this temple.’
‘Buh? Wha’?’ They were slowly coming around, as Stathis tipped the second bucket onto them, ignoring their protests.
‘As an apprentice knight of the Order, I seek knowledge.’ She held up one of the buckets as a threat, despite that it was now empty, the man holding an arm up to shield himself in case of further drenching.
‘I’m awake! Mostly. Sun’s eye, haven’t you heard of making an appointment? Or at least buying a fellow a drink before drenching them?’
He shook his head, long, blonde hair sprinkling water everywhere before managing to drag himself to his feet, swaying somewhat, supporting himself on the altar, sucking in deep breaths of air, looking a touch green.
Stathis didn’t hesitate, starting off with a question. ‘So what the hell happened to the Casket?’
He reached into a shadowy corner, pulling out a wineskin and some fruit, helping himself to a long draught of the strong-smelling win, before crunching through an apple. He offered her the wineskin, which she took, taking a pull herself. Cheap and strong, although she’d had worse. ‘Bit early, isn’t it?’
‘As a High Master of the Order of the Sun, I can declare it to be after noon, if you prefer.’ Despite his words, there was no levity in his tone. ‘Gods, what a shitshow. Stathis, was it? What happened is that some group of cheeky shitstains managed to sneak in. During a black moon, when the eye of heaven is furthest from the world, they broke in here.’
Stathis looked around. Unless the beggars were secretly highly trained warriors in deep cover, then ‘security’ didn’t seem to consist of anything but the High Master, in whatever state of sobriety he happened to be in at the time.
‘They knew just where to go and managed to enter the sanctum without waking the guardians. They were here for the Casket, nothing else. I interrupted them in the middle of some kind of ritual, and called up a gate of shadow and fled. But they cracked the casket, releasing some of the demons bound within.’
‘But not Zakran himself?’
‘Mercifully, no. The town wouldn’t be here if that had happened! But enough to be a problem. And those Ebon Lance bastards are sniffing around as well.’
‘Any clues who it was?’
‘No idea – the local rogues aren’t dumb enough to muck with that kind of thing, the nobles do their little pretend rituals to pretend they’re wizards, the wizards keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t do anything stupid, there’s some druids out in the hills doing what druids do, but no-one is dumb enough to want a demon lord on the rampage! If the demons that escaped are slain, then the Casket can be sealed again, but with them rampaging, it can’t be properly closed again.’
‘Can I see it?’
His eyes narrowed, as he took another swig of wine. Stathis closed and opened a fist, a spark of holy light appearing above her hand. Above her, a piece of golden decoration (that hadn’t been stripped for beer money) started shining with its own soft light. The Master copied the gesture, another spark of sunlight floating into the air. ‘Stathis Sun-Sworn, I greet you in the name of the most holy light of judgement.’ It might have sounded more impressive if he hadn’t swayed sideways partway through, almost cracking his head on the wall. ‘Come with me.’
He approached a plain-looking wall, fingers tracing a pattern, gleaming motes of light forming into a shining arc, provoking grumbles from some of the slumbering beggars finding their sleep disturbed by the brightness. When he was done, part of the wall faded away, revealing a long stone tunnel, lit by a series of magelights, shining like tiny suns, shedding heat as well as light. As soon as they were through, the wall faded back into place behind them.
The hallway sloped downwards, ending in a sanctum chamber, in vastly better condition than the church above. Here, everything was pristine white marble, solar symbols picked out in gold. Relics and honours hung from the walls, swords, armour and pennants of past Knights of the Sun protected here. The sheer divine radiance of the place swept over her, making her feel relaxed and calm – compared to the perpetual, soul-flaying, nerve-jangling darkness of being close to Janaxia, it was soothing, like relaxing in a warm bath after a large meal.
In the centre, surrounded by lines of gold that shone with a pale luminescence, was a raised dais, each side carved into a different saint, shaped to be holding up a black casket, the dark wood studded with crimson gems. A faint crack in the wood revealed darkness inside, a black miasma slowly oozing out, burning up in the light each time it spread too far away, reaching the protective barriers of sunlight, a steady infection ready to contaminate the light of the world.
Careful of getting too close, Stathis checked it over carefully. Closer, she could see that the entire thing was etched with tiny runes, some of them burnt, warped and faded. At least they weren’t shifting and changing all the time, somewhat less nausea-inducing than Janaxia’s book.
‘Any idea how many escaped?’
‘No. Supposedly, an entire legion is sealed within it, but, time of legends, ancient heroes, all very vague and mythical, nothing useful. The Hrundarl is the largest seen so far, although it keeps running away before it can be defeated.’ Stathis’ knowledge of demonology was minimal, but that must be the big thing with the axe. ‘There’s any number of minor demons and imps, and a few larger beasts, the most worrisome is a Lithmara, able to command its kind. But nothing that cannot be handled given time. I’m more worried about whoever broke in here. That takes knowledge and power, possessed by few.’ The holy light down here seemed to be reviving the Master as well.
‘Has the Order sent any help?’
He looked at her, then burst into laugher, short, bitter barks. ‘You think the Order has any resources to spare? The Ebon Lance is the best we can hope for, and that’s a pretty sorry state of affairs! If there’s anything you can do, finding those cultists before they gather their forces again would be the most helpful.’
‘Do you have any resources you can lend me?’ She looked at the swords and armour hanging on the walls.
‘Those are sacred artefacts of the Order, and to be used only under the direst of circumstances!’
‘Zakran did almost destroy the continent last time, I’d say this is pretty dire! Isn’t that Sunfang?’ She pointed at a shining bright longsword, the hilt chased with gold. ‘That would be pretty handy right now!’
‘Sunfang must not be used until the Holy Blood is shed upon the Sigil of….’ He made a coughing, hacking noise, that was probably a poor transliteration of something coughed up by a prophetic maiden high on far too many drugs. From the intonation, that had the sound of prophecy, which basically meant she wasn’t allowed the sword. ‘Fine, do you have anything I can have?’
After some grumbling, she managed to cajole a lesser magical blade from him, blade chased within gold, a warm sensation spreading up her hand as she gripped it. A step up from her old, plain steel one, and hopefully better able to hurt demons, worth it despite the promises she had to make to return it intact and undamaged.
That done, she left, heading back downhill, returning to Janaxia’s home. As she approached the door, it was opened for her, a young woman in a servant’s outfit bowing, flaming red hair bobbing up and down. She looked on in surprise, wondering if she’d somehow managed to get the house wrong, before Janaxia stepped into sight, gesturing at another servant with equally bright hair, making sure they dusted to her exacting standards.