Vol. 1 Chapter 20: Assets
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The rumbling intensified. The stalactites quivered like frightened children as the fissures along the ground expanded and crawled up the walls. They sought out the spikes marring the ceiling and pulled them free, allowing gravity to finish the deed and shatter them below. A hot, gooey substance like magma dripped to the rough stone floor. In a matter of hours, the place would become a lake of the stuff.

It was time to find a new place again.

The robed leader massaged his eyes once his fingers stopped shaking. The hand was hidden by the thick sleeves of his many garments, making it appear as if he was drying his face with a large towel. He stared at his hands, the fingers' extra joints cracked and popped as he clawed them. The throbbing purple of his knuckles crept along the back of his hand as the blood flow returned to normal.

Such anger in this place, he thought.

The cavern shook as if reading his mind. Another stalactite broke free and burst a few feet away. He continued staring at his hands regardless, as if the dangerous, underground world around him went mute. A few stray bits of debris bounced off a set of melded, illuminating hexagons above his head in the form of a protection spell.

He looked up as he sensed the mana flow.

One of the masked twins stood a few feet away with a hand extended. The lukewarm yellow light of the magic dissipated from his body. His sister took his hand and placed it on her mask in a gesture of affection.

“You should be more mindful of your surroundings, dear leader,” the masked boy said.

The sister continued petting her brother's hand. “Yes, we can't leave this place without you.”

The leader gazed up at the ceiling as another crack appeared with more orange ooze seeping forth. A part of him wished that it would land on him. Maybe his shoulder. He would prefer to not have his face marred by burns when he saw Rinka again. He no longer felt the heat, but the idea of his body deteriorating might rouse him from these deep ruminations that constantly assaulted him. There was just so little to give him any sense of urgency anymore.

Too much time to think in this damned place.

“Is Div'gen exercising restraint?” the robed leader asked.

“Korv received a fitting punishment,” the female said.

“Most fitting indeed,” the male concurred.

“The link to his monsters on the surface is broken,” they said in unison.

“Good.”

Korv had broken one of their most sacred rules: no meddling with the humans. Any action that incited the possibility of their involvement being traced was forbidden. Establishing contact with the remnants of his monster army applied to this. Worst of all, it was a Siren sent to capture the outworlder, Alphonse Kneller. Their most recent rule had been formed upon the discovery of the new contract holder. He might forgive some transgressions in regards to regular adventurers, but Alphonse was especially off-limits, as well as his demihumans, Kirie and Asa Foirena.

Korv was obsessed with those two, almost at a level reaching his own infatuation with Rinka.

But his desires are foul, the robed leader thought.

“I will speak with him.”

The masked twins made a flourishing bow and guided their leader to an adjacent tunnel leading to their two remaining comrades – one deranged, the other full of fury. They stopped short in the tunnel when they saw a pile of rubble blocking the path. The twins glanced at each other and shrugged at a loss. The leader thought it would've been interesting to see the expressions on their faces for once, but he realized that his own masked identity brought a similar comfort.

He extended a hand towards the debris and urged the twins to stand behind him. An inky-black aura emerged from his fingertips and crawled down his arm to the elbow. A dull glow expanded around his wrist with a set of pulsing runes gyrating in a circle.

“Crontindush,” he said. He curled his fingers into a fist and the boulders trembled. One might've interpreted and sensed fear emanating from them, despite being simple rocks. Dust crawled off the surfaces and cracks formed. After a few seconds, the obstruction exploded and shot outwards, embedding deep into the tunnel walls. Another protection spell shielded him from the stray rocks as he incorrectly adjusted some of their trajectory.

He stared at his palm and frowned at the pulsing blue of his veins. I'm getting rusty.

The path lay before them once more. He glanced behind him and saw the twins holding hands with their heads down.

“Lead on,” he said simply.

They obeyed without a word. He realized now how long it was since he cast a destruction spell. He wondered if perhaps they were humbled by the display, and made a mental note of their reaction.

A few minutes of silence and they arrived at another expansive cavern. The boiling, magma-like fluid consumed half the area and spewed from the walls. Holes riddled the ceiling, but none of the substance poured down. A nice bit of luck there.

In a far corner stood the massive demon, Div'gen, his ebony skin dripping with sweat from the heat. His massive arms pushed outward from his body as his shoulders heaved. The demon tugged at one of the curved horns protruding from the side of his head in a frustrated gesture. The topaz collar around his neck lost a bit of its sheen from the specks of red marring its surface.

The robed leader stepped next to him without a word. The twins stood off to the side with their fingers still intertwined.

The pathetic, broken form of Korv lay at his feet. One of his eyes was sealed shut from nasty purple, bloated skin. Blood caked an entire side of his face with small, coagulated chunks. He probably had a fractured cheek bone and some missing teeth. His scraped arms hung limp in his lap and one leg splayed out at an awkward angle -- not broken, but it certainly didn't look comfortable.

But that insane smile was still on the former human's face. It was something the robed leader begrudgingly became accustomed to.

“Anything to say, Korv?” the leader asked.

The pale, sickly demon looked up at him with his one working eye. A glob of blood built in his throat. He tried to spit it out, but his tongue didn't comply and it crawled down his chin instead.

“I just-thought-the catgirls w-would come for him-one day. So c-cute.” He slouched forward and dragged the back of a hand along the ground. He muttered something inaudible under his breath.

“Did your Siren say anything to them?”

“D-don't know.” The crazed smile widened on his face. “H-have you ever seen...a demihuman skinned alive? Beneath-their skin-is even cuter.”

Div'gen fell to one knee and grabbed a fistful of the crazed demon's hair. He pulled his battered body up to eye level. His deep roar echoed throughout the cavern, “I'm done listening to your demented brain!” He looked down to the leader for confirmation. “Please, let me finish him.”

The leader rested a hand on one of Div'gen's massive arms. He shook his head.

The behemoth stared at him for a second. Only a second with a regretful, imperceptible nod. He dropped Korv to the ground, who howled in agony as he landed on the twisted leg. A geyser of liquid at the center of the cavern nearly drowned out the scream.

This place had a way of granting small blessings. The robed leader liked to think of it that way. Korv's voice was the only thing that truly tested his patience. But they needed him. He was the best at finding the safe havens in this hellish place.

“He can't contact his monsters?”

Div'gen nodded. “I forced him to use his contract to break it.”

“Well done. And the Siren?”

“Dead.”

The leader let out a heavy sigh. “A pity. Waste of a valuable asset. Hopefully it didn't say anything detrimental.” He knelt next to Korv. The demon let out a strange mix between a cackle and whimper as he made a feeble attempt to push away.

“You will find us a new haven," the leader commanded.

The pale demon's eyes trembled as he looked up at him. The leader felt a precious moment of satisfaction as one side of Korv's mouth lowered a bit.

“B-but my leg-”

“Deal with it. Did you think your punishment was over?”

Div'gen didn't wait for Korv to make a decision. He grabbed him by the arm and jerked him to his feet. Korv screamed again as the sudden weight agitated his bad leg.

“Now,” the large demon growled.

And so, they followed a reluctant Korv into another tunnel that promised a brief bit of respite.

Most of the journey was spent in silence, save for the mutterings of the pale one guiding the group. The tortured demon spoke of wicked, sickening machinations through his pain. He discussed with himself about sick hobbies, and how he recalled a time when he was a great scholar and general, but couldn't remember a damn thing about specific details or any of his glorious accomplishments. His mood lifted somewhat as he fantasized about what he would do to the remaining demihumans when he escaped to the surface: skinning them alive, burning them, shattering bones, hugging(?). The demon was beyond comprehension.

They were things that the robed leader promised himself would never happen when they left this place. But Korv still had one final use. If he succeeded and survived, then the second step on the agenda would be ordering Div'gen to crush the deranged demon's skull. Turn that sick brain into mush and burn it until there was nothing left.

 

Shorter chapter. Another chapter will follow the same day of this one's release. Thanks again for all the support! It has really helped a lot.

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