The view from the rooftop of Sabreeza's estate was better than Salidar had expected, and he could easily see each pillar that they had marked for release, filling him with eager anticipation. It was time to bring about the fall of the Radiant Tyrant.
He glanced toward Fasha and grinned, receiving a sinister smile from Fasha in response. He was pleased to share this moment with someone he trusted as much as he did Fasha, even though he wished that Maxthane had seen the light and joined them. Maxthane would come around eventually, once he saw that there was nothing to worry about; Salidar only had to be patient.
The sound of footsteps drew Salidar's attention to the staircase that ran up the outside wall of the estate. The soldier who arrived at the top was dressed in the local fashion of Pentalus, and gave Salidar a quick salute before gasping, "Everyone is in place,"
"Very good," Salidar said with a slight nod. Despite his excitement about the coming release of the demons, outward appearances still needed to be maintained. "Give the order to begin then," He commanded before turning his attention back to the skyline of Pentalus.
After another quick salute, the soldier was back on his way to relay the order and Salidar let his eager grin return. The plan was foolproof, at least as long as the Knights didn't decide to rush in sooner than expected. Fasha had assured him that contingency had been taken care of, and Salidar had never been given a reason to doubt his claims. There would not be any interference from the Knights until it was too late.
They had decided to use familiars to inscribe the rune circles. Through blood pacts, the mages would command their animal companions to exactness, making sure that each detail was in place before they began the summonings. The animals likely would not attract attention and would complete their jobs without anyone knowing what was happening. Once the circles were inscribed, the mages would step in and utter the words that would activate the circles and free the demons.
The next stage would be trickier. There would be little margin for error, for if they failed the demons would remain unchecked. His soldiers were hidden amongst the crowds of citizens, waiting until the demons were freed. The soldiers were tasked with capturing the demons so that they could be blood-pacted to the mages who freed them. It would be up to his mages to ensure that the demons were bent to Salidar's will.
Several of his soldiers would serve as runners, moving amongst the different sites and the estate to give him reports on the progress at the various pillars. He glanced down to the street as one of those messengers approached the building, arriving earlier than Salidar had anticipated, which more than likely meant that something was not going according to plan. The soldier climbed the stairs to the rooftop, taking them two at a time before relaying his message between breaths. "We may have a problem," the soldier reported, without taking the time to salute.
"Speak up," Salidar ordered impatiently. "What's happening?"
"It appears that we're being watched," the messenger explained as quickly as he could manage. "There have been children keeping an eye on our pillars, and it seems like more than just a passing curiosity."
"Pay them to leave us alone," Salidar said dismissively. "I'm not convinced that they're involved, but if anyone hired them I'm sure they didn't pay much. It doesn't take a lot to please a child. Give them whatever they want, and they'll obey you. Go."
"As you command," the messenger replied breathlessly, and with another quick salute, he was gone, trotting back toward his post. Salidar watched him go and hoped that there wouldn't be any more trouble.
Unfortunately, it was not to be, and within a few minutes, all six posts reported that there were children watching them. He gave the same orders to each post, thinking it would be more than enough to solve the problem, but he didn't like the implications of the discovery. It made sense that if Prism had managed to relay a message about Salidar's plans, that the pillars might end up being watched, but if that were the case the pillars wouldn't have been watched by children; they would use Knights. No, this was a covert operation from some other group, and the fact that all six pillars were being watched meant that someone with knowledge of their targets had leaked the information.
Originally, only four people had knowledge of which pillars had been chosen. Salidar eyed Fasha suspiciously out of the corner of his eye, wondering briefly if he had been the one to betray him, but there was nothing to support that theory. If Fasha wanted to betray him, he simply wouldn't have used his influence to stop the Knights from coming after him. Captain Rega was a possibility, but a highly unlikely one, as it was Rega's soldiers who were telling him the pillars were being watched. That left him with only one person who could have committed this treason against him, but he didn't want to consider it. Maxthane had opposed this endeavor, but he was still in The Shade. If he had come to the surface, then Salidar's soldiers watching the entrances to Pentalus would have told him.
But who else was there? The mages and soldiers had only been informed of their assigned pillars that morning. He doubted that any of them would have had the time to betray him by informing anyone. None of the possibilities made sense, and it was a puzzle he would have to solve when this was over. They were too far into the plan to stop now, whether they were being watched or not.
Footsteps from below alerted him that one of his messengers was returning, this time at an expected time. He looked over just as the messenger reached the top of the stairs and gave him a salute. Salidar eyed him expectantly, and the messenger hastened to give his report. "No one else has noticed us yet. The circles are being drawn."
"Have the mages begin the unbinding as soon as they are able," Salidar ordered. He was unable to contain his excitement any longer as he added, "We're so close I can taste it." With another salute, the man was gone, and Salidar returned to watching the pillars.
One by one his messengers arrived with the same message, each successive report causing his grin to spread wider across his face. The grin persisted until footsteps returned for another time, and Salidar turned in surprise to see that, instead of a messenger, it was Maxthane who stood before him.
"Son!" Salidar exclaimed in a mixture of astonishment and delight. He was initially glad to see that Maxthane had decided to join him, but then he remembered his earlier suspicion about a traitor in his midst, and his eyes narrowed dangerously. "What are you doing here?"
"Father!" Maxthane replied breathlessly. He glanced at Fasha who was eyeing him with suspicion to match Salidar's. "I have to talk to you."
"If you're here to make a final plea to stop, you'll be wasting your breath," Salidar replied, staring hard at Maxthane. "I'm not backing down."
"No, this is about something else," Maxthane said, with another glance at Fasha. Salidar recognized the gesture for what it was. Maxthane was anxious, and it involved Fasha.
"Fasha, would you mind waiting downstairs for the time being?" Salidar ordered more than he asked. The assassin bowed and left them alone, giving Maxthane an amused glance as he passed by. As soon as Fasha was out of earshot Salidar crossed his arms and asked, "What is this about, son? Have you come to join me?"
"No," Maxthane answered firmly. "I'm trying to save you."
"Save me from what?" Salidar asked dangerously.
"You're in danger," Maxthane replied with a pleading look in his eyes. "You can't trust Fasha."
"What?" Salidar asked. He instinctively tested the blood pact he had with Fasha just to make sure it was still intact. Finding no change in the link he sneered at his son and asked, "And why should I trust you? You're the one that hired the kids to watch the pillars, aren't you? Did you sell me out to the Knights as well?"
Maxthane's look of guilt gave him away. He had never been able to lie to his father when he was asked a direct question, and this was no different. Salidar growled at his son and started toward him angrily while Maxthane threw up his hands in surrender and said, "I admit that I was involved in hiring the kids, but I did not sell you out to the Knights. I came because Grim said you were in direct danger, despite me knowing that you would have a hard time believing me."
"Grim? The gladiator?" Salidar asked with wide eyes. "Is he here too?"
"Yes," Maxthane replied, "I freed him and the rest of the fighters."
His honesty only served to fuel Salidar's wrath. Salidar took several quick steps toward his son and backhanded him hard across the face, sending him tumbling backward. Raising his hand to strike Maxthane again, he stopped when he saw the pleading look in his son's eyes, but there was something even stronger that he could not ignore. Maxthane's eyes were filled with determination and defiance; he was no longer cowed by his father's wrath.
And, as he was no longer under Salidar's control, Salidar didn't know how to handle that. On the one hand, he knew that his son had finally become a man, but on the other hand Maxthane had betrayed him utterly. But could he destroy that man simply because he disagreed with him? The ends justified the means, but there could be no end for Maxthane that would not bring Salidar more pain.
Salidar sent a silent order to Fasha, before he stepped away from his son without another word. Fasha came up behind Maxthane and pulled him to his feet, then quickly restrained him with a knife set against his throat. There would be time for Maxthane's punishment to be dealt with later, when they were finished with the demons. He put Maxthane out of his mind and gazed back out at the skyline of Pentalus. It wouldn't be long until the skyline was a bit thinner as the pillars began to disappear, and with them Neredos' reign.
The bustling plaza was one of the most famous locales in all of Pentalus. Not only was it the site of the largest demon pillar in the city, but a great marketplace had been established at the base of the pillar of grey fog, making it the focal point of commerce in the city. Grim watched the pillar with a sense of reserved dread, knowing that if they failed in their task then a great number of people were going to die.
For Grim, the demon's release would mean a return of scenes he had hoped to never revisit. He knew exactly which demon was held inside of this pillar, and how dangerous the beast was. Of all the pillars that Salidar intended to open, this was the demon they had to prevent from being freed, at all costs.
Grim had insisted they set up in the alleyways that fed into the plaza. They had found children to watch the pillars like Dogo had suggested, and had used the fastest runners amongst the kids for the targets further away. If any of those demons were freed first then Dogo would send some of the gladiators, but no matter what happened elsewhere their focus would remain here.
"Look, Grim," Dogo said, gesturing toward the plaza. "It's one of the kids." Grim's eyes were immediately drawn to the boy, who appeared to be around the age of twelve. His skin was dirty, and his hair and clothes were unkempt, allowing him to fit in easily among the Shades, were it not for his sun-browned skin. Dogo turned to question the boy, whose gait showed a great deal of urgency. "What's happening?"
"You were right," the boy said, leaning forward and resting his hands on his knees to catch his breath. "They're definitely doing something at the pillar. They just paid us to go away."
"And you took their money?" Dogo asked.
"Hey," the boy replied defensively, "I came and told you, didn't I?"
"I wasn't angry," Dogo replied with a disarming grin. "I was commending you. You did the right thing." The boy beamed at Dogo's approving grin, and even more when Dogo tossed another coin his way. "Hang tight for a second, kid."
Dogo turned back to Grim and said, "I think we need to follow him back to the pillar he was watching and take out the mage now."
"Are you sure?"
"Grim, if they're paying off the kids that means they're about to move. We've got them." With a confident grin, Dogo insisted, "By the time we show up, they should be in the middle of the ritual, and we'll take them by surprise."
"You have a point, but what about the other pillars?" Grim asked, glancing back at the large pillar in the center of the nearby plaza. "If those children were bought off, then we won't know they're acting until it's too late." Dogo looked as if he were about to protest when Grim nodded toward the kid and said, "You go with the kid and take some of the men with you, I'll stay here with the rest of the group."
Dogo nodded his assent and said, "Agreed. Be careful, Grim."
"Good luck, Dogo," Grim said before waving him away.
Dogo motioned for five of the gladiators to follow him and then asked the boy to lead them to the pillar he had been watching. And then he was gone, leaving Grim to watch the pillar again, hoping that they would still catch some sign of the mages before it was too late.
"Maybe we can figure it out without the kids," one of the gladiators said, as she joined Grim at the mouth of the alleyway. He turned to see Haeli, a woman whom he had always had profound respect for. She was a survivor who had always done well in the arena; a place normally dominated by men. He regarded her curiously now, waiting for her to elaborate. Haeli gazed out into the crowded square and explained, "If they're controlling the animals like you and Dogo explained they would be, then that would require a certain level of focus, wouldn't it?"
"So, we need to find the person that's as centered on the pillar as we are," Grim answered, seeing her logic. "He'll be hidden amongst the crowd, perhaps sitting on a bench with a good view of the pillar. Do you think you can blend in with these people? At least for a moment?"
"What do you have in mind?" Haeli asked with an eager grin. Grim had always loved that Haeli was prepared to do whatever was necessary, even though her pale complexion and dirty appearance was sure to mark her as a Shade to anyone who took the time to look at her, especially those who knew the meaning of the Shadesight tattoo over her right eye.
"You and I are going to go out there and look for the mage," Grim explained as he inclined his head toward the marketplace, "While the rest of our group waits here to move in if the demon is freed."
"What do I do if I find him?" Haeli asked, though her wicked grin said that she already knew the answer.
Grim answered the question anyway, knowing that speaking the thought out loud would strengthen his own resolve. "Stop him by whatever means necessary." Turning back to the other gladiators he added, "The rest of you, watch for us and move in if we need help."
They moved out into the crowds, merging with the throng and blending in the best they could. Grim moved in one direction as Haeli took the other, to cover more ground. Grim was halfway to the opposite side of the square when he saw an older man standing beside a market stall. His pallor and Shadesight tattoo marked him as a Shade, though the yellow robes hemmed with red identified him as a member of a prominent religious sect that was popular in Pentalus. The Order of the Rising Sun was comprised of worshippers of King Neredos, and it was the perfect cover for a man who wished to overthrow the King.
But that didn't make him the man Grim was looking for. He seemed too distracted by the nearby throng to have the focus necessary to inscribe a rune circle, though he was likely still working for Salidar, potentially with the mission of protecting the mage. Following that thought process, Grim moved into a position where he could see everything that the robed man could, hoping he would find the mage in his field of vision.
Shouting at the opposite end of the plaza alerted him that Haeli had been noticed, and cries of "Shade!" erupted from around him. He hoped that Haeli would be able to avoid any more trouble, but he also couldn't spend the time to go to her aid and instead, using the distraction to his advantage to home in on the only person not taking note of the uproar.
His eyes settled on a man sitting behind a stall, one with low-quality wares that no one spared a second glance. Grim moved forward as the man raised his hand to touch the tattoo of a bird on his face, just beneath his Shadesight tattoo. This was the mage; Grim was sure of it.
Grim skirted along the back of the nearby stalls, avoiding the crowds, as he approached cautiously. Some of the merchants he moved behind eyed him with suspicion, but it was obvious from his determined pace that he had little interest in the wares kept behind their stalls. Within a minute he stood a few steps away from the mage, who was too focused to realize that anyone was near him at all.
"Excuse me," Grim asked politely, as he stepped within arm's length of the mage. "Do you know the way to the nearest tavern?"
"I'm very busy," the man replied, without even looking in Grim's direction, keeping his focus on the pillar. "Please ask someone else."
"Oh no, I don't think so," Grim said as he took one more step and put his hand on the mage's face, startling him as he looked at Grim and reached up to bat the hand away. "Don't move," Grim commanded, "or I'll be forced to kill you."
"You're Grim, aren't you?" The man asked fearfully, as recognition hit. "The Gladiator."
"That's right," Grim confirmed with a nod. "And you know exactly what I'm capable of. You're not going to free this demon. If you make the attempt, I'll kill you."
"It's funny," the mage replied with a grin that unnerved Grim. The man should have been terrified, but his fear was gone and had been replaced by arrogance. "I've always wanted to know about you," the man went on, his tone taunting, "Aren't Fedain supposed to be pacifists? Your people must not be very fond of you. Why don't you just let this go?"
"I'm afraid there's nothing you can say that would make me do that," Grim countered. "Why don't you just walk away?"
Grim glanced toward the crowd at the sound of a bird cawing in the distance that momentarily overcame the noise of the bustling throng. There was something ominous in the sound, as if the bird were speaking a language it had no right to be speaking. Grim looked back to the mage in horror as he understood the arrogance he had seen there.
"Why would I do that?" The mage asked cockily as the bird called out its final cry, "You're too late."
"You used your familiar to relay the words . . ." Grim whispered in dread. He withdrew his hand from the mage's face as he glanced back at the pillar, only to see that it was already beginning to dissipate. "You've doomed the entire city."
"Neredos must fall," the mage replied, spitting the name like a curse.
"Get out of my sight!" Grim yelled in disgust, shoving the mage backward onto the cobblestones. As he strode back into the crowds he muttered, "I have something much bigger to deal with than the likes of you."
"You're not going to stop this!"
The mage dove for Grim, a dagger held in his hand. Grim spun around at the last instant and grasped the wrist of the hand that held the dagger, and in a manner of seconds the mage was convulsing on the ground; whatever youth he had left in him was sucked away and funneled into Grim.
"I'm afraid I never got your name," Grim said sadly before releasing the mage and turning back to focus on the pillar ahead of him. "Rest well"
Salidar's eyes were drawn to one particular pillar over the others. They had chosen this pillar because it was the largest and most infamous. It was known as the pillar of Ibrix, claimed by Maxthane to be a reference to a particular clan of demon, if the grimoire were to be believed. All he knew for certain was that the pillar was massive, and as far as Salidar was concerned, the bigger the pillar the bigger the demon and the better his chances of destroying Neredos with it.
"King Salidar!" a voice shouted from the street below him, but he didn't spare the soldier a glance. It didn't stop the man from shouting the rest of his message, however. "There are men fighting us at the third pillar! They've interrupted the summoning."
"Knights!?" Salidar shouted the question down at the soldier, after glancing dangerously back at Fasha. The Knights were early if that were the case, and he didn't like unpleasant surprises.
"No, my King!" The man shouted back, dropping the salute he had held until Salidar had looked his way. "The bounty hunter Dogo and several others, who we believe to be gladiators."
"Dogo would dare challenge my wrath?" Salidar growled, but then he glanced at his son who served as a reminder that he couldn't really trust anyone. "Defeat them if at all possible," he ordered, "but abandon the pillar before we lose any more men. Five pillars are better than none, and we can afford one retreat."
"Yes, my king," the soldier replied with a quick salute before running back the way he came. Salidar ignored the soldier and returned his gaze to the Pillar of Ibrix, hoping to find that it had not suffered the same fate that the other pillar had. His breath caught in his throat as the pillar began to dissolve. Shouting from a different direction clued him in that one of the lesser demons may have already been freed, but he didn't look away from the Pillar of Ibrix. This was the crowning achievement and he intended to watch every second of it.
The fog disappeared slowly and was replaced by a darker substance. Salidar squinted until he realized what it was; smoke. In a few seconds, he was able to see the source, as the horrific visage of the demon came into view. Its massive salamander-like head was wreathed in flames that billowed out from underneath its horned helmet, which was glowing red hot as if it had come straight from the forge. Glowing armor covered most of its skin, and where its flesh was exposed to the air fire danced upon its skin instead. The only part that was neither flamed nor armored was its pair of enormous leathery wings that unfurled wide as they became released from their eight-hundred-year stasis. The largest sword that Salidar had ever seen was held tight in the demon's hands, a hunk of iron longer than four men's height, with flames dancing along its entire length. It was a sword perfectly matched to its tremendous wielder, which stood head and shoulders above the nearest buildings, making it just over three stories tall.
Before the fog had completely dissipated, Salidar knew that he might have made a mistake. He glanced at his son who was also watching the demon and was obviously terrified at the sight. Now that Salidar had seen the demon, he was forced to face the reality that Maxthane might have been right about it all, but he couldn't turn back now. His soldiers would be forced to bring the demon under control as well as they could, but how could they possibly control such a beast?
As if to drive the point home the demon roared, it's shrill cry echoing through the streets of Pentalus, creating a shockwave of sound that reached Salidar even at his distant vantage point. A profound silence followed the roar as the citizens of Pentalus looked in the direction of the sound, but that silence was quickly shattered by the screams of those fleeing the plaza in terror. They didn't get far. The demon chuckled in triumph and swung its sword across the crowded square, cleaving scores of people in two with one strike.
The demon reared back, its next roar rumbling like wicked laughter. The sound carried above the screams and was the most terrifying sound Salidar had ever heard. He had been expecting to feel elated as he watched the demon unleash its power, but instead, he was filled with overwhelming dread. This being was far more powerful than anything he had ever seen, and it was already killing innocent people by the dozen.
The throngs of people were beginning to clear the square, but it didn't seem to matter to the demon. It took its strikes where it could, killing those who were still close enough to hit. Salidar could make out his soldiers moving toward the demon and could sense their fear despite the distance, even though the towering forms of the Elroks led them. For a brief moment Salidar thought that they might succeed in the plan as his soldiers bravely faced the demon and lashed out with their whips, but just as soon as they made contact with the demon they were pulled from their feet. The Elroks moved in next and used their much thicker whips on the demon and Salidar gasped in relief as the Elroks held it caught in their strong grips.
His relief was short lived, as the demon tore free from the Elroks who held it, gripping one of the whips and swinging the Elrok that wielded it across at the other soldiers in the plaza, clearing the path before it. It took one thunderous step forward before chopping downward heavily, pulverizing those who fell in the path of its blade, and cracking the cobblestones beneath their broken bodies. The ground shook with a horrible tremor that knocked the soldiers from their feet as the demon stepped forward again.
This was all wrong. The plan had been to liberate The Shade, not to destroy Pentalus. He had unleashed a power that could not be stopped, and if the damage caused over the last few seconds were any indication the demon could level the city within the day. After which The Shade would be easy pickings for such a monster.
"No, we have to stop this!" Salidar shouted, as the demon pulled back for another swing. "Fasha, get out there and tell them," he ordered, gesturing toward the plaza where the demon finished its latest strike, brutally killing more of his soldiers and even one of his Elroks. "Have the men fight back. We have to kill it."
He turned to regard the assassin in confusion when Fasha didn't move. Instead of complying with the command, Fasha stood casually, holding his knife tight against Maxthane's throat. "I don't think so, Salidar," he said with a wicked grin.
"You dare defy my commands?" Salidar asked incredulously. He reached through the blood pact to command Fasha as he had so many times before, only to find the link had disappeared. He could no longer sense the assassin.
"Wha . . .?" He asked in stunned terror, "How is this possible?"
"You should have listened to your son," Fasha scolded, grinning wickedly. He changed the position of the knife in one quick movement and sliced the blade down Maxthane's cheek, causing him to cry out in pain as his blood dripped onto the rooftop. Fasha sneered as he then spun the knife around and rammed it into Maxthane's chest. Maxthane screamed and fell to one knee, clutching at his chest as he applied pressure to the wound. Salidar's heart was pounding in his chest as he glanced at Maxthane, but Fasha wasn't about to give him a chance to go to his son. He stepped toward Salidar with a cocky grin and said, "Blood-pacting with a demon is never a good idea."
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