The banquet chamber was darkened by the overpowering blackness of night, and the lack of any more than two candles lit in the candelabra that sat at either end of the long table. In the long room, decorated in equally dim and dark furnishings and works of art that, despite the dour selection of colors, held the highest artistic value, sat well dressed men and women crowding both sides of the long table. These people were in the midst of a secret talk, but the reason for the dim candlelight was not to keep their identities a secret. It was because they had no need for any more light to see one another with.
Between daintily cutting a piece of meat upon his obsidian plate and placing it in his mouth, one of the participants said in feigned calm, “Yes, my sources have also confirmed the Holy Capital’s conviction of a new Demon King. Not just from their Cathedral of Vigilance, but from the Herald himself.”
The other occupants of the room were suitably awed in nearly mute utterances and whispers as the speaker, Duke Faberjeene slowly savored his cut of meat. The Duke, the elected de facto leader of their little community held his tongue, savoring the effect the news had on his peers as much as he did his meal. All in attendance were happily playing the role of shocked bystander, chattering and re-exclaiming their surprise to one another until one of the occupants near the far end of the table folded her fan of black silk and lace with a snap and said audibly, though daintily, “Most fascinating news, my dear Duke. But it cannot be all the news that you possess, otherwise you never would have invited us to this exquisite dinner party.”
The woman was right. The revelation of just now was old news to all at the table. Every diplomatic channel was currently abuzz with the news of this Demon King the Goddess herself took notice of, and all the important players in the depths of the Demon Kingdoms already knew of the transpired events. And the ones occupying the banquet table knew the news before any of those important players, as befitting the special rumor mill that they all tap into.
There was a slight tension in the air, as the guests were simultaneously miffed at having their performances of surprise interrupted, and a very real desire to learn what their leader knew. And this was also a palpable atmosphere that Duke Faberjeene reveled in, as he very slowly nodded his head to say, “Indeed, Countess LaRoche.” The Duke just as slowly pulled a stray bit of his shoulder length dark purple hair to tuck back behind his ear as he broke the real news. “I can now confirm that the newly recognized Demon King can definitely not be found inside the Demon Kingdoms.”
This time the tiny gasp of surprise around the table was genuine. But the Duke would not let their reactions circumvent the rest of his news. “Furthermore, the new Demon King is completely unknown to all those in power in all the civilized lands. Which means the new Demon King is a completely unknown being to all the people of any worth throughout the world. We currently have, for lack of a better definition, a Phantom Demon King.”
The guests in attendance laughed politely to the joke, one they were all suitably amused by, considering that ability and circumstance which bound them to one another.
“Yes, please forgive me for that. I could not resist,” said the Duke with a display of humble modesty.
“There is nothing to forgive, old friend,” said one guest as a well dressed butler stiffly refreshed the man’s drink with a ruby liquid too thick to be wine. “But pray tell, as you are so much more witty than I, what does this valuable information entail?”
“Why, don’t you see, old friend,” spoke the Duke as he interlaced his fingers before him. “What this means is that there is currently a Demon King that is completely unaligned to any political power.”
“A free agent,” exclaimed a voice.
“One we might ally with,” exclaimed another.
“Or command,” came a third.
“Lord Duke, I take this to mean you feel the time for our long cherished desire to come to fruition? No, no, away with you,” inquired the Countess LaRoche as she waved away the butler in mild revulsion. For in her eyes the skilled and capable body that was preserved through magic and embalming alike was but a crude construct.
“Perhaps, my dear Countess, perhaps. We must first find and then sound out this new Demon King, before any other power can do so. We must not allow his views to be tainted by any other, otherwise he may never work with us.”
The table was properly sobered by their leader’s remark, for they all knew the truth of it, as every person in attendance was under no illusion as to how their kind was viewed. In that air of self defeat, spoke the leader that was elected not for his power or for his charm, but for his vision and ability. “Do not fret so, my friends. I merely wish to keep us grounded, and preserve that patience that only we, and the dead, are known for.”
Another polite laughter arose, lightening the mood as Duke Faberjeene continued.
“Now that everyone is aware of our circumstances, I ask for three things. The first is, as I said, patience; so that we may not be the agents of our own downfall as we were once before.”
Many heads in the room nodded.
“The second is secrecy. For if we breathe a word of this, or of our plans to any outsider, or even to one another outside these walls, our secrets will be brought to the ears of those who would interfere, without question.”
Heads nodded again, with faces filled with grim determination.
“And third, we will need an envoy, to be dispatched to-”
“I volunteer,” stated the Countess LaRoche, interrupting the Duke and preempting any discussion of the subject. That did not dissuade a hurried discussion by the table in overblown whispers of surprise.
The Duke looked square at the Countess, garbed in her dark fineries of silk, lace, and leather. Her deep purple hair elaborately drawn up atop her head in combs and pins, revealing the pale and slender neckline that led to her fearless and mildly amused features. The two locked their maroon eyes together as the Duke asked, “You are certain you wish for this task? For all we know, this unknown King is in the depths of the Twenty Kingdoms. You are willing to travel so far? In person?”
The Countess smiled in winning confidence, her long pointed incisors pale in the darkness. “I would travel to the other side of the world and back again if it meant fulfilling our shared dream. And besides, none of us are so well suited as I for travel through the human lands, thanks to my specialty.”
Duke Faberjeene thought on the matter deeply, and eventually disentangled his fingers before saying, “The countess is correct, she is very well suited to this role, in both ability and personality.” The Duke raised a glass to the Countess, who graciously bowed her head, as he spoke the words. “Any opposed to the appointment of the Countess LaRoche to the position?”
The room was as silent as a mausoleum.
“Then it is decided. I would request that all of you very discreetly try to not speak of the sudden coolness that has arisen between the Countess and myself at whichever functions you attend from now on. So that when she eventually disappears, all the so very concerned parties will fear the worst for her fate.”
The guests all expressed a conspiratorial chuckle, as each and every one loved toying with the demon aristocracy when the situation merited.
“And my dear Countess, please make discrete preparations for departure to points unknown. You may not have much warning or time to prepare otherwise. As soon as there is news to be had, I shall learn of it. For as we all know, none spread gossip so quickly as the spirits of the dead.”
The chamber resounded with polite laughter.
“Travel is booooooooring,” I exclaimed like a petulant first grader. I knew it was immature, but it’s so much fun I didn’t care.
“Your complaining about it doesn’t make it any easier, asshole.”
I sat up from my position on my bed-wagon and turned to face Callic, who was marshalling the horses, to say, “I disagree. Annoying you puts a smile on my face, Callic. How does it feel to be making the world a happier place?”
Callic turned to look at me, his face contorted like he smelled a fart and said, “I really wish I could kill you.”
“You know Callic, I don’t have to take that. I’m going to go where I’m appreciated.”
I hopped off the back of the bed-wagon while it was moving and started looking for somewhere I could go where… I’d be appreciated. Aase would appreciate my company… but she was walking alongside the wagons at the moment, and I didn’t feel like walking anymore for the day. The cooks would probably welcome me, mostly, but they were really interested in the foods from my own world. I’d started avoiding them after I accidentally mentioned haggis. Now, I knew very little about haggis, but I knew enough that I didn’t want to accidentally introduce it to my own cooks. Mercy was riding on the clothing and bedding wagon, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be around her, so-
“Hi, Daphne. Mind if I join you?”
I hopped up on the coachman’s seat of the medical wagon before Daphne could say anything to the contrary.
“Oh, okay. Uh, sure?”
Then we sat in awkward silence. Silence that soon became less awkward once my mind started roaming at random. I started wondering if they made Hershey’s Kisses all the same shape using a mold or just dolloped them onto a conveyor belt…
“Are you really from another world?” asked Daphne. Seems I was the only one the silence stopped being awkward for.
“That depends. Is this world named Earth?”
“No, it’s named Meaorh.”
“Then, yes. I’m from another world.”
The silence fell once again. …Okay, fine, I’ll throw you a bone.
“Was there more you wanted to know, Daphne?”
“Uh, yeah. Umm… what’s your world like?”
Oy vey. Fight the snark, Xander. Fight it.
“Well, for one, most of the roads are paved, instead of being uneven, mud drenched paths that wouldn’t know a straight line if it beat them over the head with a shovel,” I said, indicating the path we were currently traveling down.
Partial victory over the snark.
“Yeah, this is the middle of the reclaimed lands, so there’s not much in the way of infrastructure here, unfortunately.”
Daphne started talking in earnest, this subject seeming to be known to her.
“Yes, The reclaimed lands. This entire region used to be one big forest filled with nothing but beast and monster nests. Until about five years ago when the kingdom finally pulled enough units together to perform an organized subjugation of the entire region beyond the Four Brothers.”
“Yes, the Four Brothers.” Daphne partially stood, well, stooped forwards, and pointed out the mountains that formed a range in the distance through the trees. “Gordek, Gordok, Gordes, and Gordon. They were named after the founders of Fulchas, who, thousands of years ago-”
“I don’t care,” I quickly interrupted. Daphne seemed a bit hurt or regretful at my interruption, so I continued, “Not right now at least. Back to the reclaimed lands. You said the military destroyed beasts and monsters? What are those?”
“Oh. Mercedes could explain it better. We could invite her over if you want.”
Ugh. “No, you’ll do fine. So please tell me.”
“…Okay. So a beast is an animal that can either cast magic, or use physical reinforcement. Since that obviously makes the creatures more dangerous than normal animals, they’re beasts. Monsters on the other hand are creatures that have…” Daphne looked at me furtively and then seemed to have decided something. “They’re creatures that mutated from animals, beasts, or abominations.”
“You’re worried the word ‘mutate’ would be hard for me.” I said it as a statement.
“Thank you for the concern, really, but it’s alright. This is a valuable chance for me. There sure as hell is nothing else to do on this trip. So, monsters and abominations, what’s the difference.”
Daphne sighed through her nose, like something was off, and continued. “Okay, abominations are creatures that should never have existed in the first place. They’re twisted and anatomically impossible things, that are only made possible by the presence of Labyrinths.”
“Those… are way too complicated for me to explain. Mercedes could probably explain if you really wanted to know.”
“No. No Mercy,” I said emphatically, and forced the subject back on track. “So abominations are things that should never have existed in the first place. How are monsters related to them.”
Daphne sighed again, and said, “Abominations can only really survive inside Labyrinths. Monsters though, are more stable. They’re either beasts that mutated into a more extreme life form, or abominations that stabilized enough to survive outside labyrinths. Either way, they’re far more dangerous and aggressive than beasts, so they have that special designation.”
I quoted off what I learned, nodding once for each word. “Animals, beasts, monsters, and abominations. Got it. And these things were living here, then?”
“Yes, quite a lot of them. There was no way any towns could be erected in this region until they were properly hunted out. Since harmful beasts and typical monsters are aggressive by nature, the subjugation was more stand up fighting than hunting and tracking. So the whole thing was finished relatively quickly. Though it was rather bloody.”
“You’re kinda talking like you were there, Daphne.”
Daphne shook her head gently while saying, “No, it was my aunt who was part of the subjugation. Healing magic runs in the family, so we often enlist in the military. One of the traditions we uphold.”
“I see,” I said. I paused for a moment. Okay, now I’m ready to talk about her. “Why are you trying to get me and Mercy to talk?”
Daphne sighed and met the subject head on. “Because Mercedes is miserable. That portal is basically the only thing she ever wanted to do with her life, and then you and Aase come through it. And now neither of you will even look her in the eye.”
“I look her in the eye plenty. They’re all looks of hatred, though.”
“Exactly! It’s a toxic environment whenever you and Aase are around Mercedes. It’s enough to make even me physically uncomfortable, so I can’t even imagine how bad it is for Mercedes. Look, all she wants to do is be around you and Aase. Learn from you.”
“Study us, you mean.” Daphne looked away when I said that, unable to refute it. “Mercy is, at best, a sociopathic murderer who doesn’t care about human life as long as it can advance her ideals. There are a lot of people like that in the history books where I come from, and all of them are monsters. Metaphorically speaking. I have no interest in being friends with a monster, Daphne.”
“Then why are you keeping her with us? Why haven’t you kicked her out of our caravan at either of the two townships we’ve gone through?”
“Those rinky little settlements? Mercy would stick out like a sore thumb, and be a big bright flashing sign saying, ‘We were here.’ And there’s no telling what she’d do if I left her to her own devices. No, better for everyone if I keep Mercy here, where I can keep an eye on her.”
“And what’s best for Mercedes?”
Ugh. Stupid emotional logic. It has a way of creeping up on you, but cold logic won’t be outdone!
“I said it’s better for everyone that I keep Mercy at arms length, and I meant it. It’s best for Mercy as well. She’s the kind of person who might blow herself up on accident if you look away for two minutes because she’s trying to solve the mysteries of the universe.”
“…I can’t really say you’re wrong about that… But still, why don’t you just give her a chance to be useful? There has to be something you could set her abilities towards? Give her a new roll to fill instead of just… being here?”
“Easier said than done. And even then, I’m not much inclined to do it.”
“Why? To punish her?”
I was silent for a long time. Why the hell are women so perceptive? “Mercy killed a hundred and forty people. Maybe more, we don’t know what that portal does to the nearby bystanders when it abducts people. And that’s on top of the fact that she kidnapped me and Aase. That’s a hard fact to let go of, you know.”
“And so, what? You’re going to punish her forever?”
“Someone has to do it, and it sure as hell doesn’t seem like Mercy will beat herself up over it.”
“So what you really want is for Mercedes to-”
“Okay, stop it, Daphne, seriously. That’s enough soul searching for now.” Damn. What is she, a psychiatrist? “And I’ll think up something for Mercy to do. Happy?”
Daphne beamed a smile like something really nice just happened. Was manipulating me like that really so wonderful? “In the meantime, Daphne, tell me more about the reclaimed lands.”
Daphne did so. I was able to learn a lot about mostly useless things, and I was able to put some thought into the Mercy problem. Turned out there was something I could have her do after all. Something I nearly forgot she could do, from that very first time I saw her.
Later that day, after the sun had gone down, I was actually able to continue reading one of the books that I had had scavenged from Colonel Lumpy’s quarters. It was part of a series that followed an overly adventurous and amorous mercenary who constantly found himself in trouble, with the amorous bits being a bit overly descriptive. The writing was mostly average, but it was something to read. And it wasn’t nearly as bad as a lot of the stuff you’d find on the internet. It was a nice way to unwind after a day of noisy, jarring, bouncing, hardwood seated travel. I was already on the second book in the series while Aase had just started the first that night. And it’s thanks to Mercy that the two of us were able to read at night like that.
After wracking my brains for a while I had remembered the light Mercy had produced on the end of her finger, without any kind of tool. Mercy could conjure light. I’d really missed having light bulbs, so it was rather perfect for me. And it gave Mercy a new purpose in our little group.
With Aase and I having read our fill, I set the book down and clapped my hands twice.
A very heavy sigh was heard from Mercy who had been waiting outside the wagon for us to finish our reading before extinguishing her magic, and then left for her tent for the night.
This new role gave Mercy a purpose, gave me a light source whenever I wanted one, and allowed me to make Mercy miserable in a whole new way. Three birds with one stone!