The Devil You Know

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The devil was sitting in Anders’ office.

Seven foot tall, with skin the colour of lava, piercing green eyes and long horns protruding from a thick shuck of black hair, he was well dressed in fine robes. Around him there was a smell of summer flowers, with a faint whisper of something more dank, and spicier underneath.

When Courtney entered, he’d paused to look at her, making her heart skip. He was perhaps the most terrifying thing she’d ever seen, and she’d been frozen in place as his gaze looked upon her, feeling like she was naked before him.

“This is my lieutenant, Courtney.” Anders said from behind his antique desk. “She’ll be helping us with this issue.”

The devil nodded in understanding, and gave her a yellow smile that made her insides turn to jelly and made her want nothing more than to run from this terrifying being that sat before her like a god. “I will appreciate your help.”

Hearing this, it was all Courtney could do to keep from falling to her knees and begging for his mercy. She felt the urge wash over her, fighting with her own efforts to be as professional as possible. The effort made her stiff, and she just stood there, her face frozen as she stared at him. “Y-yes, my lord.”

She didn’t know what was happening to her, she was an officer in the Eidolon Corps, the Imperial special operations branch, and yet now she felt like a schoolgirl standing before an angry father. It was infuriating, maddening, but she couldn’t help it.

Anders, her superior, frowned and reached into a drawer, pulling out something. “Courtney, catch.” He said, and tossed something to her.

As soon at the small green gem touched her hand, Courtney immediately felt the waves of fear and emotion begin to ebb and settle. Within a few moments, her inner calm was back, she was as cool as ever.

“You’re no fun,” said the devil in a slightly displeased tone to Anders. And, when Courtney looked at him now, she found he appeared only a tall but slender young man in his twenties with orange skin and black hair, the god she’d seen moments before having seemingly vanished. The whole thing left her a bit disoriented, but she did her best to hide her confusion.

“We are not here to be your source of amusement,” Anders said in a flat tone. Then he waved Courtney over to stand next to his desk and sat back in his chair. “Now, please get to the point regarding your visit.”

The devil shrugged, “There is not much to tell. One of my sisters is here in your Empire, and we believe she is involved in acts that will cause a rift between our peoples. As the letter I just delivered to you states, my father has sent me to find her, and bring the lost child home if possible.”

Anders tapped the opened letter sitting on the desk before him, watching his guest. “And if it isn’t possible?”

The devil said everything he needed to with the sharp yellow teeth of his smile.

“Very well, you may return to the hotel where you’re staying. We will look into the case and let you know.”

The devil shook his head, “I’m afraid I must ask to be involved. This is a personal matter, a family matter, and I can be of great use in finding him. I know her patterns and what she will need.”

“Very well,” Anders nodded. “Is there anything we should be looking for, then?”

“If she is here in the capitol, as we believe she is,” said the other. “Then she will need live food. Since she is unused to feeding on lesser animals, I would suggest you look for places where your citizens have gone missing.”

Hearing this made Courtney shudder. She’d read about it before, the taste the devils had for human flesh, but to hear one say it…

“I’ll get my people on it,” Anders said, standing. “Please return to where you are staying, and we’ll send someone to get you as soon as we have something worth looking into.”

“Of course,” the devil stood and shook Ander’s hand lightly, then gave Courtney a smile that made that tingly feeling return for the briefest of moments before he left.

“Bloody devils,” Anders said, dropping back down into his padded leather chair and shaking his head.

“Sir,” Courtney said formally. “I need to apologize…”

But Anders waved her attempt at apology away with his hand. “It’s not your fault, Courtney. Devils of the royal line have an aura around them that makes everyone fear them. If anything, it’s my fault, I should have had you warned and given a protective weave before you met Stratios.”

“Is that what this is?” She said, looking at the small gem that was still in her hand.

“Yes. I’ve had them distributed among the staff, to make sure he doesn’t attempt to influence them while he’s here. You just arrived, so you were unprepared. Obviously this is your first time meeting one.”

Courtney indicated that it was.

“Well, I don’t think I need to tell you to keep that gem close on you at all times. You cannot, and must not trust him, as every second word that comes from his mouth is certainly a lie. Stratios might not look like much, but he’s extremely dangerous.”

That thought made Courtney pause. “If he doesn’t look like much, what does a dangerous devil look like?”

“May you never know,” Anders commented, ringing a bell on his desk to summon his assistants. “Now, let’s get to work finding his sibling.”

#

“Here he is.”

Courtney looked up to see the carriage pull to a halt and Stratios step down from it, ignoring the brief fluttering in her heart the moment she saw him. When the prince joined them, he grinned and looked to each of them in turn.

“A fine day for a hunt. Have you found her?”

Anders shook his head, gesturing at the cluster of broken down buildings in front of them. “Not yet. A local gang has been rounding up street dwellers with offers of good pay and easy hours. None of these people has been seen again.”

“Ah yes, good.” Stratios rubbed his hands together gleefully. “It sounds like we should be speaking with these miscreants. Thank you for inviting me.”

With that, Anders led the two of them across the street and into the slums.

The narrow streets of the slums were dark, even in the late morning, the sky blocked out by the lines of hanging clothes above them. The stones they walked on were broken and uneven, and to either side tired, sallow eyes watched them from broken windows and makeshift wooden stoops. There was a deep feeling of despair and hopelessness here, one which couldn’t help but tug at Courtney’s heart.

“Never been down here before,” she said. “It’s awful.”

“Yes,” agreed the devil. “I can’t help but wonder why your government hasn’t helped these people.”

This caught Courtney off guard, and she glanced at Stratios. “You don’t have slums in your country?”

He shook his head. “None. Every citizen is fed and housed. It is only proper, since they work so hard, that we should reward them.”

Courtney started to nod in approval, but then caught herself, remembering Anders’ warning. She didn’t know much of the Devil Kingdoms in the South, but had always imagined they were horrible places to live. Millenia ago, when the devils had comes to this world, they’d tried to conquer it, and there had been a great war. The Empire she served was formed in the aftermath of the alliance of human kingdoms that had been forced to work together to defeat the devils and banish them from this plane of existence. Of course, a few had remained, and they’d set themselves up as the rulers of some of the more southern lands.

After the war, the human alliance was too tired and fractured to drive the last of these devils out, and so the devils had taken root in those southern lands and built up new kingdoms which existed in an uneasy state of peace with the Empire. Most of the time, the devil rulers fought amongst themselves, so they were usually too busy to be much of a concern, but every now and then a single King or Queen would gain dominance over the others, and then trouble would start. It was like that now, Stratios’ father ruled a coalition that had begun to push on the imperial borders and created tensions between the two powers.

Tensions that this situation could escalate.

Anders brought them to a halt at the mouth of an alley, and turning they saw the short, trash strewn lane ended in a brick wall with a single door in it. Around the door was arrayed a group of tough looking young men playing dice.

“Friendly or unfriendly, sir?” Courtney asked.

“Let’s try friendly first,” Anders said, and the three of them stepped into the alleyway.

Seeing their approach, the young men stopped their games and arrayed out across the road. Courtney noted knives and other weapons being brought to the ready, and did a quick check for magical energies to make sure there was nothing of concern. A few among these toughs did have items that glowed a soft yellow or light orange, but none of the stronger colours that could give them trouble.

“Nothing to be concerned about, sir.” She whispered to Anders.

He nodded. “Still, keep up your guard.”

#

The two groups met.

The apparent leader of the toughs didn’t show any intimidation at the sight of the three of them, which was impressive enough in the face of two people wearing Imperial Security uniforms, but when they had the imposing figure of Stratios with them, it bordered on insanity.

“Yeah?” Said the tattooed young man, his face a mask of lines in the form of a wolf, a popular look among the street thugs.

“We’re here to see your leader,” Anders said directly. “We just want to talk.”

The tough eyed them, then barked a command to one of the others that sent him rushing through the door at the alley’s end. Meanwhile the rest of them stood there like a wall, trying to look as imposing as they could.

A few years ago, Courtney might have been intimidated by them, but now they just looked like kids to her. The things she’d seen during her training to join the service and subsequent time in the Eidolon Corps had shown her how hollow this show of bravado really was. It also didn’t hurt that she was only a thought away from summoning up a mystical suit of armour which made her a match for battle trolls and giants.

After a candlemark, the door opened and the messenger rushed out. His whisper into the lead tough’s ear made the tattooed man nod and look at them with a slight sneer on his lips. “We’ve been told to treat you nice. Follow me.”

The crowd parted, and the three let themselves be led into the building by the tattooed man. Courtney stayed vigilant, ever aware that the narrow halls they now walked could easily turn into a site for an ambush. Her job was to protect Anders, and their guest, although she doubted Stratios needed much in the way of protecting.

The dirty corridor emptied out into a larger hall, which was some kind of recreation room from the look of it. It was a cluttered mess, and stank of sweat and human desperation. On the far side, past a few tables and ratty couches, a thin faced man wearing a white turban and colourful robes sat at a desk. One of the desert dwellers from the Sand Sea to the West, he was surprisingly clean and well dressed compared with his surroundings and associates.

The associates in question being the half dozen enforcer types who were standing strategically around the room. Unlike the kids outside, these were big men, and they had the wary eyes of old soldiers of the street. Courtney knew before she checked that they all had artifacts or other items that glowed bright orange and red for the strong magical energies flowing through them. These men were equipped to fight, and knew their business.

Their guide led the trio into the middle of the room- the worst spot to be if trouble happened.

“Greetings,” said the turbaned man, standing as a show of respect and bowing slightly. “I am Navrang Krul, the manager of this business. How may I help you?”

“Good morning, Honored Krul,” said Anders, “I am Colonel Anders, and we have come to talk with you about the hiring you have been doing recently.”

“Oh yes?” Said the man, who seemed impressed by Anders’ respectful use of the form of address that the Sand Sea dwellers used. “How may I help you, Colonel?”

“Yes, we’ve heard that you’ve been busy hiring local people for a special job, is this true?”

Krul nodded. “It is. We have a large contract to help build a dam in Korvar Province, and we need all the help we can get.” Then he smiled. “If there is some concern over taxes, I’m sure we can come to an agreement. I assure you our paperwork is all very much in order.”

“It is,” Anders agreed, looking around casually in a way Courtney had seem him do before when he was playing with his opponents. “I’ve seen it. However, I did a little checking and learned you don’t have contracts with any of the caravan companies. Why is that? You’re hiring quite a few people, how are they getting to their work sites?”

The smile faded from the other man’s face, and Courtney saw concern flash through his eyes. “Well, we don’t use the caravans. We have our own means of transportation for them.”

“Oh, is that so?” Anders said politely. “Then, where are your stables? I don’t imagine you make these workers walk to Korvar Province?”

“Not at all,” said Krul. “We rent horses from a reputable dealer in the Merchant’s Quarter. I can give you his name if you wish to pay him a visit?”

“Someone unregistered?” Anders asked, his voice showing false surprise that such an esteemed businessman would associate with such types.

“No. No.” Krul waved a hand. “I can assure you they are registered, just that they do a little extra side business when they can. Not every caravan needs so many horses, and we use their extras when they are not needed, for a modest fee.”

“Ah. Sounds like a good business arrangement.” Anders said. “We’ll be sure to pay them a visit.”

Krul nodded. “I am sorry if my clerk’s small omission caused you all to come down here. I am sure you are most busy.” He said, finally sitting back down. “If there is anything else?”

“No… I think…” Anders began, and then paused and said. “Oh wait, there was one more thing that troubled me.”

Krul cocked his head. “And what is that, esteemed sir?”

“Korvar Province is in its rainy season right now, you can’t build a dam there during this time, the ground is too soft and wet. So why do you send so many people there each week? It seems like they’d just be sitting around, eating up your profits.”

Krul’s tanned face turned the colour of milk tea- with extra milk. “Well, ah… That is…” He stammered. “We do not…”

“Do not what? Actually send people there? We know.” Anders said flatly. “What we want to know is where you are really sending them. And, why none of them return.”

Seeing Krul’s expression harden, Courtney tensed and made ready to summon her armour. This was the moment- Krul would either crack or he would go on the offencive and they’d have a fight on their hands.

Then Krul did neither.

He stood again, sighed, and made ready to speak, but what came out his mouth a second later was a mournful tortured scream of agony and his eyes rolled back into his head. Then a green glowing hand thrust out of his open mouth, followed by another as each hand grabbed the sides of his mouth and pulled it apart inhumanly far. Then, from the tortured orifice a green glowing head suddenly appeared, it’s wet face a ghastly twisted grin with no eyes or nose. Only huge, sharp teeth that clashed together like a shark’s jaws.

As Courtney watched in horror, the rest of the creature’s body emerged from Krul as well, like a spider shedding its skin to emerge new and whole to let Krul’s body drop at its feet. Scuttling up onto the desk, it hunched there on all four limbs, hissing at them. The sight of it sending the former bodyguards screaming from the room and leaving the three of them alone with it.

“What… Is it?” Courtney gasped.

It was Stratios’ rough voice answered from behind her. “A Keeper Demon. It was this human’s minder.”

Anders grunted in agreement. “He was getting ready to tell us what we wanted to know. His employer put this in him to make sure no secrets got out, and that anyone who did force him would also die.”

“Is it dangerous?” Courtney asked, watching it carefully.

“Very.” Anders replied, not taking his own eyes off the thing and slowly reaching into his coat where he kept his collection of charms and talismans. “Stratios, I don’t suppose you can lend a hand here?”

“No.” Said the devil in a tone which indicated that it was a matter of preference rather than ability.

Anders sighed. “Fine. When it starts to move, armour up and try to avoid its claws. They’re ethereal, and will pass through everything but flesh- don’t count on your armour. Protect Stratios as best you can.”

“What about you?”

She saw a slight grin appear on his face. “Let it try.”

“But my job…” She started to say, and then there was a flash of movement and the keeper was gone.

Instinctively, she armoured up, which was just as well, as it was only her enhanced speed and senses that let her know the thing had appeared out of the air to her left and let her dodge the skeletal claw that would have taken her head off.

Jumping back, she threw a kick at the thing only to have it vanish before her leg was even close. The suddenly lack of a target throwing her slightly off-balance and making her tumble backwards into Stratios.

She felt the robed figure give her a gentle push, and at first she thought he was steadying her, but then a paralysing cold shot through her body as something struck her from behind.

The last thing she could do before she blacked out was scream.

#

Courtney awoke with a startled gasp, clutching her chest. It felt like there was a cold void there, like her guts were pure ice.

Then she looked around- she was on the gravel of a rooftop?

She was no longer in her armour, just her uniform. The hot mid-day sun beating down on her from above.

How had she gotten here? Where was Anders? Where was Stratios?

She started to rise and then regretted it. Her limbs felt like putty, her whole body was shaking and coated with sweat. She stayed where she was.

What had happened? She remembered falling back into Stratios, and then he’d… attacked her? She wasn’t sure.

Then there was a loud bang as a trapdoor set into the roof near her suddenly sprang open and slammed onto the roof. She tried to move, but she was too scrambled and couldn’t focus. She could only sit there and watch as…

Anders came up the ladder into view. His tied-back brown hair and hazel eyes peeking above the lip- eyes that watched her in concern as he rose into view. As usual, he looked none the worse for wear, and in fact might have been coming from a formal dinner for all he appeared.

“You okay?” He asked.

“I… I’m not sure.” She said. “W-what happened? The Keeper?”

“Gone,” Anders said. “I dispelled it after it attacked you.”

“It attacked me? But Stratios?”

Anders shook his head. “It appeared between you two and used its claws on you.” The senior agent tapped his chest- “Right through you.”

“How… am I alive?”

Anders pointed up. “Your armour absorbed most of the attack, and we did what we could. Stratios was unsurprisingly knowledgeable about this kind of attack, and had me rush you up into the sun. He said the heat would help your recovery. I had to leave you while I found the vagrants they’d been rounding up.”

That got Courtney’s attention. “They’re here? Alive?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Anders frowned. “There are a few dozen here, not the whole number who have vanished. They are in a spell-induced trance in the basement.”

Courtney started to get up again, “I’ll summon help.”

But Anders put a hand on her shoulder to keep her from moving. “No, we’re going to leave them. Just wait until you’ve recovered, and then we’ll pull out.”

#

“Are you sure this will work?” Courtney said, sipping hot ginger tea to try to rid herself of the lingering chill she felt.

Anders shrugged. “It should.” Then he reached over and grabbed a bun from the bread basket between them. They were in a small cafe off one of Volksgrad’s main thoroughfares- a place which Anders frequented because he knew the owner. “Be patient.”

“I will try,” Courtney said, glancing at the small scrying mirror which sat between them on the table in its soft leather case. “Can I say I’m not comfortable with this?”

“Using those vagrants as bait?”

“Yes.”

“It’s necessary,” he said as he buttered the bun. “We need to find out where they’re being sent, and the best way to do that is to let the gang make delivery.”

“What makes you think they’ll deliver them? They’d all run away, and we left those men helpless in the basement.”

Anders shook his head, “They don’t know that we know about the men. They think we were there for Krul, and left after we got him. When no city militia show up to surround the place they’ll move back in fast enough. Those men are worth money, and greed triumphs good sense every time.”

“What if they’re hurt? Before we can arrive?”

“Who? The vagrants?” He considered a moment, and then bit into his bun. “It’s a possibility.” He said, chewing. “If so, they’ll prevent others from suffering the same fate.”

“But, they’re people.”

“People who were going to die preventing a lot of others from doing so.”

Courtney crossed her arms and looked away, pulling the blanket over her shoulders closer. “There should be another way.”

“There are,” Anders admitted. “But none are as efficient. If it makes you feel any better, the devils only eat live food. If they’re being brought in to satisfy some appetites, then they’ll be kept alive until the last possible minute. We should have time to reach them before that happens. Perhaps saving a few more.”

“Thank you for that reassurance,” she said, sarcasm in her voice.

There was a long pause, and then he said. “Courtney, look at me.”

When she didn’t, he repeated it again, and finally she did, finding his hazel eyes fixed on her.

“This is our job,” he said in a voice that made it clear she was to listen quietly. “We make trades and we make compromises to serve the greater good. We belong to a system, and that system needs to be maintained. If the cost is to sacrifice some so that more may live, we do it. That’s the nature of government, the sacrifice of the few for the good of the many. The Empire is what keeps people from killing each other, it’s brought a peace that our people haven’t known in centuries. We’re the guardians of that peace, and while what we do might not be pretty, it is necessary. If its not something you’re comfortable with, then you’re always welcome to transfer out.”

She wanted to turn away, but knew he would only interpret that as weakness, so she met his gaze and nodded. “I understand.”

“I felt the same way as you when I first started this job,” he continued. “It took a long time to get used to the idea that I was playing with people’s lives every time I made a decision. At first, I hated it, but I told myself it was what I signed up for, and over time I got used to it. You will too.”

She nodded slowly. “I just wonder.”

“About what?”

“What makes us any different from devils if we treat human lives so casually?”

The scrying mirror on the table let out a chirping noise, and they both looked at it.

Then Anders looked up at her.

“Let’s go find out,” he said.

#

The guard crumpled to the ground, felled by the force of Courtney’s blow.

Double checking to see that the other guards were also still unconscious, and that there weren’t any other surprises waiting, Courtney went into the guardhouse and pulled the lever to open the front gates. As she walked out, she saw Anders and Stratios come through.

“Are they?” Anders asked glancing at the guards.

“They’ll just be out for an hour or so,” Courtney said.

Anders nodded, “Good, in case this is a mistake, the last thing we need is some noble complaining about how we manhandled their staff.”

“This is a waste of time,” Stratios said. “You should have allowed me to enter by myself. I could’ve taking care of all of this easily.”

Anders shook his head, “I already told you, we are coming with you. We’re already going in before our backup arrives, that’s bad enough. This may also be a trap, and we can’t allow anything to happen to you.”

The devil made no reply, but merely began moving along the path toward the large distant manor house. Courtney looked at Anders, who shrugged, and then the two of them began to follow the devil.

Anders’ tracking spirits had led them to this place, the very private estate of a very rich noble family. Not that this was much of a surprise, as whoever was behind this operation would require money and resources. Also, a devil princess would only choose to work with someone they perceived as having equal status, or equal ambition, which was a common characteristic among the noble families of the Empire.

“Why do you think they did it?” Courtney asked. “They must’ve known that they be caught.”

Anders shook his head. “Likely the Princess promise them something. Wealth, power, immortality, or some other thing that she knew they’d find irresistible.”

“But they…” Courtney started, and then stop speaking when she saw Anders raise his hand.

Her commander then looked at her, and pointed to a nearby ancient tree. “Armour up. Scale that tree, and use your mage sight to scan the area.”

“How far out?”

“As far as it takes.”

Not needing any further prompting, Courtney did as he told her to. In a flash, she’d scaled the ancient tree, using her suit’s enhanced strength and agility to get her to the top in moments. Once there, she began to peer around, using her suit’s magical senses. In this way, she saw the world as flows of magical energy, with the essence of every living thing in the world itself flowing around her.

With this method, it didn’t take her long to see why Anders had sent her up.

She leaped from the top of the tree and landed on the road with a soft thump. Then, she returned to Anders. “Someone is performing a large-scale ritual to the west of us,” she said. “It’s drawing in all the mana from the area.”

Anders nodded. “I could feel the flows going in that direction. And, it appears our guest did to.” And he gestured ahead of them at Stratios, who had stopped and was now turned to face in the direction that Courtney had seen the ritual.

Cutting across a path through the forest, the three of them soon came to a large open field normally used for sports and equestrian events. The moment they cleared the tree line, Courtney came to an abrupt halt.

She stared out at the scene before her, unable to quite comprehend what she was seeing.

The open field was carpeted in bodies. Thousands of them. They were laid out in neat rows that seemed to stretch on in all directions as far as she could see. It was like a huge crowd had suddenly all collectively laid down to take a nap.

The exception was the centre of the field, where a huge magical circle glowed white and amber in a brilliant rotating display of light that danced around in a series of images of various magical runic symbols. And, at the centre of that casting circle, a single tall horned and armoured figure was waving her hands and chanting loudly, manipulating unseen magical forces.

“What is he doing?” Courtney asked, finally finding her voice. “Is she, eating them?”

But, by the time she’d finish the words, Anders and Stratios were already both rushing across the field toward the casting circle, and she was forced to start running after them.

“We have to stop her!” Anders yelled.

“Why? What is she trying to cast?”

“This isn’t a casting circle! This is a summoning circle! These people are being used as part of a powerful summoning ritual. We need to stop her from finishing it!”

Then, as Anders finished saying the words, there was a mighty cry in an alien language from the centre of the field, and the circle within it. The summoning circle pulsed, sending a pulse of orange energy out across the field.

“Armour up and get behind me!” Anders shouted as they came to a halt and he pulled out a paper talisman from inside his coat. As he brought it up, the paper stiffened and glowing magical symbols flared to life all across the long yellow strip, then he held it up in front of him as though he were trying to show it to an invisible person before him.

When the energy wave hit them, it bent around Anders and Courtney. They, and the bodies next to them, were in a small safe zone that he had created.

Courtney looked ahead, at Stratios, who was outside and or safety zone. He too had stopped, and was holding one of his hands in front of himself to bend the flow of energy away from him.

Then, as quickly as it had started, the energy wave passed. It left all the field was once again in darkness, except for the now dimmed light show of the summoning circle at its centre.

“What just happened?”

Anders lowered the talisman, and then said grimly, “She finished the spell.”

Courtney was about to ask what kind of spell, when she heard the first of the screams as all at once, the legion of bodies around them cried out in tortured agony. Whatever the spell was, they were about to find out.

#

All around them, the legion of bodies screamed and writhed in tortured agony. It was the most terrifying and soul wrenching noise Courtney had ever heard in her entire life and it left her reeling in confusion. It wasn’t until she felt Anders grabbed her arm, and looked at him that she found her focus.

“We have to go!” He said, pointing toward the summoning circle in the middle. “The possession process has just started, it will take time to finish.”

“What’s it doing to them?” She said as they started to move again.

“They are being possessed by war demons.” He answered, “It’s even worse than I thought. She’s using them as vessels to raise an army. When they are fully possessed, she will have over a thousand demon-possessed warriors under her control.”

Courtney, who had already faced berserker demons in combat several times in her short career, shuddered. Fuelled by the power of magic, such creatures had inhuman strength and stamina, and were filled with a rage to kill and destroy that few could imagine. It was almost impossible to take them out without killing them, and because they felt no pain that took quite a bit of effort. Even subduing a small group of these things was difficult, and there were untold numbers of them around her on the field being born.

With this in mind, she used her armour’s speed to pull ahead of Anders and Stratios, making a direct line for the summoning circle.

She intended to go right through it and hit the summoner as hard as she could. With her strength and power, she was capable of going through buildings and even some castle walls with relative ease if she had enough momentum. And now, with this open field. She had lots of room to build up the speed it required. As a result, when she hit the summoning circle she was going easily fast enough to tear through a thick stone wall.

Which is what made it even more shocking, when instead of going through the summoning circle she merely bounced off the edge of it as though she’d hit a giant piece of rubber. Spinning out of control, she was sent tumbling back into the field to land among the screaming bodies.

By the time she regained her senses, Stratios and Anders had caught up and were standing next to the summoning circle.

“Stop it now sister!” Stratios called out, “our father has forbidden this.”

But inside, a demonic figure who looked very much like Stratios himself only laughed.

“Our father is weak,” Laeeq cried out. “He would accept peace with the humans. But there can be no peace between us, for we were born to rule.”

“I agree sister,” Stratios said, surprising his to human companions. “But now is not the time, and this is not the way. Come with me, and we will return. Your vigour will be rewarded, and you will not be punished.”

But at this, the rogue princess only laughed. “Do you take me to be a fool? You will return with my head to present to our father, and he will reward you as crown prince for it. I would rather return with an army to show him my true power.”

While this exchange continued, Courtney joined Anders. She was still a bit stunned from the impact, but had regained most of her senses.

As she approached, he leaned in and whispered, “I want you to try again. Can you do it?”

Courtney, whose insides were still rattling from the last attempt, stared at him blankly. “But, that shield is too strong.”

“No,” Anders whispered. “There will be a chance. Get in position on the far side of the field, and wait for my signal.”

“What signal?”

“You’ll know it when you see it. Go.”

Without further question, Courtney turned and took off. Moving at high speed away from the magic circle as though she were fleeing, and then when she got to the edge of the field turning and beginning to circle around so that she was on the opposite side from where Anders and Stratios faced off with the rogue demoness.

Once there, she put her hands on her knees and gasped in mouthfuls of the cool night air. In the middle of the field, she could still see the three of them arguing on the other side. Then, she saw Stratios raise his hands and powerful energies fly from them to attack the summoning circle’s shield. At the same time, she saw a blue flash as Anders launched another type of attack spell, but neither of their efforts could penetrate the powerful summoning circle’s defences.

Despite this, she knew that what she was looking at was her signal. So, sucking in a deep breath, she began her dash back across the field towards the summoning circle.

As she did this, she saw that the bodies were beginning to rise up. Their human features were now changing into something twisted and demonic, and their bodies were becoming bigger and hunched over- their hands becoming claws with long sharp talons for fingers. A few of them noticed her, and suddenly there was a wall of these creatures before her, talons reaching for her.

But Courtney had a job to do, and so with her shoulder ahead of her, she relied on her Armour’s strengths and defences to ward off the attacks of the creatures as she plunged into them. The creatures were sent flying and scattering before her as she moved through the field at an ever-increasing rate.

Finally, the seemingly endless army of creatures before her parted, and she was looking once more at the lights of the summoning circle. It’s amber energies were flaring on the side across from her as it weathered the onslaught of her superior and the power of a demon prince.

Making a silent prayer, she raised a fist and charge into the summoning shield, hitting it with everything she had.

Much as Anders had obviously expected, the shield, which was occupied by the attack on the other side, was weaker now on this side. And, as an end result, Courtney found herself passing through the barrier with only some small resistance. Then, she was inside, having lost only a little bit of her momentum, and before her was the rogue princess, who was still facing the other direction.

She must’ve heard the sound Courtney’s attack made, or perhaps she sensed her, and the demoness began to turn, but it was already far too late. Courtney slammed into her, and the power of armoured body and momentum carried them both into the defencive wall of the summoning circle before them. Crushed between her, and the barrier, the demon princess let out a pitiful cry and there was a loud cracking sound as several of her bones were rendered down into powder.

Of course, Courtney also felt some of the impact, despite her Armour’s attempts to protect her. So, both she and the princess fell back into the circle, stunned. It took the young agent several moments before she regained her wits, and could hear the distant sounding voices of Anders and Stratios calling to her. Then she was awake, struggling to her feet, looking around.

The rogue princess’ body lay nearby, broken and unmoving, but the barrier was still up and very much active. It was like she was now trapped inside a giant glowing glass jar, one with no exit and which she had no idea how to get out of. Meanwhile, outside she could see that Anders and Stratios were fighting desperately against a tide of demon possessed war spirits that were surging up against the circle.

Courtney shook her head, trying to clear it, and trying to think of something she could do to help them.

Despite Stratios’ power, there was no way they could survive this attack. And, while she had stopped the rogue demoness, she was trapped inside the circle, and knew nothing about weaving spells or controlling magical circles.

Looking around desperately, she stared at all the magical symbols carved into the ground around her. Should she try to destroy them? But, if she did, what would that do? Would that just get her killed as well, and destroy any chance they had of taking control or stopping this mob?

But, if she didn’t, Anders would die, and she would have failed in her duty…

That wasn’t going to happen.

Deciding she had little choice. She picked a symbol at random and slammed her mailed fist right into it as hard as she could.

The moment her fist impacted, there was a bright light that blinded her, and a loud popping sound.

Then, the tinkling sound that the magical barrier made became a angry buzz as the weave began to lose its stability and break down.

As this happened, Stratios suddenly lurched through the barrier to join her inside the circle, followed by Anders.

“Out of the way!” Screamed to the demon prince, and he rushed into the middle of the circle, his hands waving in a complex series.

Courtney moved quickly to Anders, who was none the worse for wear in his torn coat and uniform with his face and one arm covered in blood. “Sir, are you?”

“I’m… Okay.” Anders said and looked from her to where Stratios was frantically creating a new weave. “He’s trying to stabilize the circle, and get it back under control.”

“But sir,” Courtney whispered, “Won’t that put it under his control?”

“Yes,” he said, giving a concerned glance in the direction of the devil prince. “We’ll just have to wait and see what he does.”

All around them, the demon warriors were pounding on the shield, their fists reverberating off the barrier in a rhythmic beat. And then, suddenly, the noise was gone, and there was only the tinkling sound of the barrier itself.

Looking out, Courtney could see the demon-possessed warriors were standing stock-still, waiting for orders.

“Dispel the spirits within them,” Anders said, coughing up dark fluid.

Stratios, who now stood royally over the fallen body of his sister, turned and gave the two humans an amused smile. “I now have an army to do as I will, why would I release such power?”

Courtney felt her insides go cold again, they’d only barely stopped one devil, and now another had taken its place. She tensed, getting ready to attack when Anders gave the order. She wasn’t sure if she could beat him, but she had no choice but to try.

“I have your brand.” Anders said, locking eyes with Stratios.

Courtney saw the devil’s eyes go wide. “You lie.”

Anders met his gaze levelly. “Your father sent it in the letter you brought. I have it, and I will use it, unless you shut this whole thing down. Now.”

Stratios and Anders faced each other for a time, and then finally the devil looked away and began a series of gestures to weave orders into the circle.

“I was just musing, of course.” Said Stratios as he worked. “You humans are far too serious.”

“Of course,” said Anders, flatly.

A few moments later, Courtney saw the demon-possessed people around them begin to collapse and could see their features slowly start to revert to normal. Then the circle also began to shut down, and as the last of the glowing symbols faded from view, they were standing alone in a darkened field.

“Thank you,” Anders said, and then pointed at the fallen body of Laeeq. “Now take her, and get out of my city.”

#

Their backup arrived shortly afterwards, every member of the Eidolon Corps in the area, and a whole unit of city militia. Anders set them to work sorting the details out, and then let Courtney drag him off toward a healer’s tent.

As she took him there, she asked, “What did you mean when you said you had his brand?”

This brought a weak smile to Anders’ tired face. “Devil kings all brand their children with a magical tattoo that lets them control their magic. They do it to prevent rebellion.”

Courtney nodded, with children like this, she could see why. “And you have his brand?”

“Well, I said I did.” He smiled. “It was something his father might do, especially if he thought Stratios might get out of control.”

“They don’t trust each other at all, do they? The Devils.” Courtney mused.

“No. That’s what separates them from us. Even when I sent you in, I knew there was a chance you’d end up trapped inside the barrier.”

“But you trusted me to find a way to get you in.” Courtney looked at him, feeling touched.

He shrugged. “I trusted you not to let me die easy.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome,” he said as they reached the waiting healers. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to rest. A lot.”

After he’d gone inside, Courtney turned and looked across the field at the chaotic scene. They’d saved a lot of lives, and risked their own, it was a good day’s work.

Suddenly she was proud to have this job again, and glad she could be part of something so important. And glad most of all that she had the trust of the people she worked with.

After all, without trust, what was there?

FIN

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