It was all fake, but it served his purpose. An idealistic realm of his own creation inside of his mind. It had taken him decades to perfect this pocket space in his brain, carefully sealing it away and then sending the demons into it. It was a cage. It was a refuge.
The glowing motes of light found him, dancing in lazy patterns. <You have lost,> the blue one said.
<He is here,> the red one said. <We feel him.>
"And he would eat you if he knew you were still alive," Tobias replied as calmly as he could. It was a measure, then. The wall wasn't perfect, but it would have to do. "You both betrayed the Pit, remember. At least, as far as they know."
The orbs buzzed angrily, but followed him as he walked toward the Dark Wood. They didn't go into it without him. They were afraid of what lived inside of it.
As well they should.
<You are a prisoner. You now know our pain,> the red one said.
<I miss puppies,> the blue one said.
"You skinned the last one I brought you. I don't know why you expect another." Tobias took a deep breath, letting part of his sanity deal with the orbs, keeping them happy. They took handling, but they would be useful, especially if Dravin remained unaware of them.
He was at the Pool now and he threw a stone into it. "Eyes," he said, then squatted by the bank to watch. It took a few moments, but he saw what Dravin did. The demon had been busy, these past days. Or was it weeks? It was hard to say. When Tobias concentrated hard, he could feel the vague thoughts and feelings he had. Fear. There was a lot of growing fear, especially when thinking about Sam. Asmodeus had him scared.
Which meant he was preparing. Curse the devil and his meddling. Still, while Dravin was busy, it opened up chances to glean more information and rob his memories.
When Sam came for him, he'd be ready.
<Soon?> the red orb asked.
Jasper whistled cheerfully as he walked down the long black corridor. The Order's tower was cool, but he wasn't on duty and so that meant he got to wear the long jacket he had found on the trip here. It swished dramatically around his legs, encouraging him to try out several different kinds of swaggers. He was getting the hang of it and it was an improvement to his last jacket.
Of course, it would get him killed in the field, but that was one of the perks of this place. Death was all around, but it was on his side.
He was rounding the corner and flashing a charming grin at a pair of female assassins when his pants began to jingle. The two women glanced at each other and smirked, one of their hands straying toward a dagger. Jasper deliberately ignored them and fished out the small hourglass from his pocket. It was magical, of course, designed to keep track of six hours and make a sound when it ran out of sand.
It was how he remembered to make sure Ruve wasn't dead.
Because the woman would die on her own, he thought with the same sense of satisfied smugness that he was growing accustomed to in a place where respect and dignity was something he had earned. She was miserable at keeping track of small things like sleeping and eating, even worse at remembering to drink something. Ever since they had gotten into the blasted tower, the Tasaoth had locked herself away in various libraries. The Lady had people bring her books. Well, food too, but on his first visit, he discovered that the scholar was using them as growing plates for unheard-of lifeforms.
Least, that was the only way he could explain the highly advanced mold cultures.
Since then, it had been up to him to make sure she was fed, watered, walked, and got some sleep. The latter bit was the most tricky, as she usually just passed out on her papers, then bitched about the smeared ink. Some instincts of her past had trained drooling out of her, but wet ink would smug when a face was smashed against it. The whole business was down right unhealthy.
She'd whined and bitched something fierce the first time he had asserted himself, but he had taught her who was boss fast enough.
He was still whistling when he pushed open the door to her study without bothering to knock. A wave of stale air washed over him and his nose wrinkled. Bathing. That was an important element that was missing here. Piles of books loomed in the corners of his vision, tall enough to obscure the light shining from glowing stones in the wall. A desk sat on the far end, thick with parchment and papers. Soft scratching sounds of a quill let him know that Ruve was still alive, even if she wasn't likely lucid.
Getting ready to interrupt her and face the onslaught of wrath, Jasper took a deep breath. He instantly regretted it as his mouth filled with something rancid. Aged cheese, from the tang of it. Likely, it had fallen off a tray and rolled under a mass of papers, never to be seen again, but smelled forever. Coughing, Jasper growled instead of spoke. "Come on, now. Time to get some fresh air."
Another meeting. Once, the Nine met every decade when they felt chatty; they had gone centuries without meeting. Now, it seemed like every time Viyel turned around, one of the gods was demanding that they all meet. And tradition dictated that a request - they all like to put it so gently - couldn't be ignored. Which meant that Viyel was, yet again, seated in his chair at the table.
It felt empty. Ilmater had always struck him as weak, and Helm relied too heavily on others to be truly strong, but their presence had been a constant. At times, they were a constant annoyance, but they had been there. Now, now there was a hole. An emptiness. It made Viyel squirm in his seat. It made him surly.
"All those who are coming are here," he snarled, pounding the thick table with a fist. Ouraen, who had called the meeting, regarded him with eyes that warned him to silence. Her gaze usually calmed him, now it just made him growl. "You called us - get to it!"
"Very well," Ouraen said calmly, likely knowing it would just piss him off more. She was always doing that, hiding behind her damn feminine mystique. "I called you all here because I have information that I've decided you ought to know."
Down the table, Lostana perked up, her green eyes gleaming. "Information?" she asked, leaning in. "What kind?"
"A secret. one that Ilmater counseled me to keep to myself a long time ago. Now that he is no longer with us, I realize that this cannot be my secret to hold."
Lostana snorted. "Yes, it should have been mine. Truly, you should have come to me a long time ago. I would have given you wiser council than he."
"If this is a matter for all of us, I would like to know why you kept it from us in the first place," Daivat said, frowning.
"Likely because damn stick-up-his-ass-and-loving-it Ilmater thought we would do something rash," Viyel snarled, chin tilted. "Just wait, that's going to be the answer."
"Shouldn't you be out getting off by killing some hapless mortal?" Severine asked, then arched an eyebrow. "Wait, I'm sorry, you can't actually kill anything, can you? Why don't you keep quiet while the big gods talk?"
Red clouded his vision and his chair toppled over behind him as he stood, both hands slamming down on the table. "We've seen that gods can be slain," he said, each word a dagger. "You'll be next, with a mouth like that." Her laughter made him roar and he would have been upon her had Afallon not grabbed him and pushed him back.
"Peace, brother," the death god said, sounding distracted. "The sooner Ouraen talks, the sooner we can go back to our duties. Some of us are quite busy."
"I know you are," Ouraen said sadly, inclining her head. "It is a prophecy. I know not who gave it to me, though Ilmater thought it was the mythical Overgod. I cannot substantiate his claims, but I'm afraid the prophecy spoke of the end of all things."
"Then tell us," Sikudhani urged. "Together, we will puzzle it out."
And so, slowly and with great care, Ouraen began to tell them. Viyel found himself struck dumb, astonished by her words. In his mind, all he could fathom was a pit, mouth yawning to swallow him whole.
"Who are you," Elenna's voice came from the doorway, "and what have you done with my little brother?"
"I killed him and am wearing his body as a creepy sort of suit." Braiden delivered the retort before looking up, though his concentration was destroyed the moment she began speaking. This inane crap he was reading wasn't any more engaging now than it had been when he'd decided to ignore it he first time around. When he was twelve. Now though, he actually needed to know it. As he looked up, he gave her a smirk. "Curses, you've foiled my nefarious plans."
Elenna snorted as she walked in through his open door. He'd left it open on purpose. So he could be interrupted. Frequently. "I suppose that's what I get for trying to crack a joke on you, of all people."
"It's like me trying to best you in swordplay," Braiden agreed. He wasn't precisely pleased to see his older sister, but he wasn't unhappy about it, either. She was interrupting him, which was excellent. "Unlikely, except with extraordinary luck."
She arched an eyebrow at him as she paced into his sitting room. "You think you can beat me by getting lucky?"
He tossed his book aside, giving it exactly as much respect as it was due: none at all. He also considered the question and ignored the obvious line of response, electing to take it seriously. When was the last time he let her chase him around with a sword? A month or so, maybe more. "I think if you let me play to my strengths, I might be able to keep you on your toes, and I will certainly surprise you."
"Really." It seemed like she was going to sit, but that stopped her. "What strengths are those?"
Braiden shrugged. "I've always sparred by your rules. I work better using my own."
There was an tense sort of silence between them while she regarded him. He had the sense she wasn't sure how to relate to this version of himself. Not that they'd ever related especially well before, but she was trying to puzzle out how honest he would be, or how far she could push, or something. "So noted."
They stayed like that for a few beats, then she whipped her sword out and his daggers jumped into his hands. Her first thrust, which he noted was aimed for his neck, but turned so she'd only hit him with the flat of her blade, slammed into a cross he made of his own blades. He was off the couch and onto his feet behind it just in time to duck under her next swing.
It was his own turf, which gave him a marginal advantage, but it wouldn't be enough to actually beat her. The best he could hope for, really, was to keep her from tagging him too much, and maybe whack her a couple of times. She was better with her sword than he was with his daggers, and he knew it. She knew it too, though, so maybe he could use that to his advantage.
Rolling backwards, he slipped behind a chair, forcing her to follow him if she wanted to hit him. A shame he had no chandelier, really. It would be fun to incorporate it and watch her expression while he did. That actually gave him an idea, one that his mind churned furiously on the matter of how to make it happen. In the meantime, though, instead of lashing out in response to her continued attacks, he kicked the chair at her and dove away again. Her surprised grunt gave him momentary satisfaction, but he was still moving.
"Catch me if you can," he said as he leaped over another couch and ran for the door. While she struggled to get around his furniture, he sprinted out into the hallway . He knew there was a reason he set up the sitting room like that like that: to make it problematic to fight there. He only did reasonably well because he knew the layout. It was no place to make a stand, though. "Make a hole," he called ahead of himself, not quite giddy enough to actually risk real harm to any of the servants.
Pelting down the hall like his life depended on it, but wearing a grin, he passed the spot he wanted to eventually get to and continued on down to fly around the corner. Two steps later, he stopped abruptly and flattened himself against the wall. The servants and guards here were more than familiar with this sort of behavior, and after only a half second of staring, they all proceeded to act like nothing had happened.
He put both daggers away. He'd need his hands free for what he wanted to do, and he didn't want to accidentally kill Elenna just because he took her by surprise. Or, more accurately, he didn't want to actually hurt her. It was extremely unlikely he could kill her, even accidentally, while she was awake.
Elenna did as he'd hoped, which was to tear after him. She ran around the corner and he timed his leg perfectly with his fist to hit her soundly in the side while sending her sprawling. Not sticking around long enough to admire his handiwork, he jumped over her feet as she kicked out with them in retaliation and ran back the way he'd come. The satisfying sound of her shouting his name in annoyance gave him speed and momentum. Then he did something he'd wanted to do for a really, really long time, but never had a reason to, or the balls to think he could manage it.
The stairway went down to the next floor in a straight line, ending in a space that was sort of a crossroads for a lot of the more private parts of the palace. There was another set of stairs down from it, and four different hallways led away from the space. It was wide and tall, to accommodate most any type of furniture being moved through it. But most importantly, it had a chandelier. Not a really fancy one, though the light it provided was magical.
Braiden leaped onto the railing for the stair and jumped from there to grab the chandelier. It was a tough jump, one he probably couldn’t have managed a year ago. He got a firm hold on it with both hands and let out a giddy little mad giggle as it swung him to the other side of the area. From there, he flung himself at the wide archway that would take him in the direction he wanted to go, executing a midair flip to get his body into position to absorb the impact intelligently. It would be so embarrassing to break his leg doing this.
He landed and rolled to further negate the inertia, springing up onto his feet with a tiny flourish. Facing the stairs (not on purpose – he meant to be facing the archway), he looked up them to see Elenna just standing there at the top, blinking, holding her sword in a sort of lackluster kind of way.
"Braiden, you're insane!" She shouted it loudly enough that it echoed around the area and turned heads.
He saluted her and tore through the archway, knowing that if he was fast enough, he'd have time to set up another ambush. All he had to do was not be predictable. Simple enough. He stopped in front of the room where they'd always sparred before. Throwing the door open, he ran inside, pulling his daggers. Then he used the other door to slip out again, shutting it carefully behind him. He walked right out into the hallway he'd just vacated, but stood to the side, hunched over and half hidden by a curtain, concentrating on looking like scenery and catching his breath.
Elenna ran past, and he let her, following right behind. The moment she was inside the room, which was where the nearest servant pointed for her to go, he jumped onto her back. Before he could get a good enough grip to hit her anyplace aside from the initial impact, she backed up and thumped him into the wall. He let go and darted to the side, narrowly escaping her sword.
Here, now, it was down to one-on-one fighting, and he wouldn't run off again. He didn’t want to endanger anyone just for the sake of beating Elenna. It wasn't worth that. The brief respite he'd gotten while she was catching up both times was serving him well now - though they were both panting - and he thought he might be able to just outlast her if he'd taken off again. But no more of that.
The duel didn't last long. He put all his effort into deflecting her blows, but that left him unable to make any strikes of his own. Then he slipped and her sword skewered him quite painfully. Her eyes went wide with surprise and he grunted in shock. It hurt, quite a bit, but if she was going to actually hit him, he might as well take advantage of it. He stepped closer before she could pull the sword out again, shoving the blade farther into his gut, and sucker punched her in the face with the hilt of his dagger. It made her nose bleed, and she grabbed it while she put her foot on his chest and yanked the blade out, pushing him backwards in the process.
A few choice curses fell out of his mouth as he staggered back and dropped to his knees. He actually sheathed his daggers instead of just dropping them, knowing she wouldn’t attack again. No point to treating them poorly for no good reason. He lay back on the floor, clutching his belly with both hands and trying not to think about how much pain he was in.
Elenna was cursing, too, as she ran to the door and shouted for a healer. She paced back to stand over him and flicked the blood off her blade. "What in the hell were you thinking?" She was furious.
"That Cady would enjoy holding me down for bedrest for a couple of days." It wasn't the worst injury he'd ever suffered, but it was pretty bad. He could tell by the way he was getting light-headed already. In a real fight, he'd have plenty of adrenaline to keep him going, but this was a fake one, and he was already losing his grip on consciousness.
"You're completely insane. Swinging off the chandelier? Stepping into the blow? Where did you learn to do crap like that?" She test-pinched her nose, cringing at the feel of the movement.
"Does it hurt?" When she nodded, he shut his eyes and said, "Good."
She snorted and kicked him lightly in the leg. "Funny."
He knew she meant for the kick to not hurt, but it made everything move unpleasantly, and he groaned a little, curling up protectively around his stomach. "I would have had you if I hadn't stood my ground in here," he told her, though his voice was quite strained now.
"Maybe," she said softly as she crouched beside him. "Let me take a look," she checked the exit wound on his back. Yep, it went all the way through, and he was making a huge mess. She only touched it tentatively, mostly just to discover how bad it really was, but even that small touch made him hiss with pain. "Were you ever honest with me about anything before Cady?"
"Sure," he grunted. "That one time when I said your hair looked nice, it really did."
Elenna snorted. "You can't even be serious when you're bleeding to death."
"I prefer to think of it as 'painting the floor a delightful shade of red'." He blinked a bunch of times, and it seemed like everything was moving very fast, like maybe he was losing time every time he closed his eyes. He heard Elenna shouting something about a healer again, and he heard feet running up, then it was Cady he saw, and the pain was going away, fast. "I can explain," he said preemptively as he relaxed some and watched her cross her arms. "Really."
The demon snarled and tried to rip Derek's head off. The claws swept past his side as he spun, then slammed his fist into the creature's face. It looked remarkably like a certain prince of Katar's face.
A lot of them were, these days, when the battle was raging.
A blast of a trumpet made him wince, signaling that more demons would be on their way. They were thick in the Pit these days, what with the Seal actually functioning and all. Somehow, he didn't think that clinging to the side of a stone slab would provide him much cover.
The air was solid when he ran across it, his will the only thing standing between him and plummeting for an eternity. That's how things worked in this realm of chaos. The only laws were the ones forced upon it and even they didn't last long. As the horde closed in on him, Derek reached out and ripped the air.
"Cutting it a little close there, weren't you?" Raiman asked from his seat by the fire. A small side table stood by his side, a ledger open on its surface, ink still wet.
"There was a demon that needed punching," Derek grunted, shaking his hand. It still hurt, but that amount of pain was starting to feel good these days.
"Do you think they're surprised when you rearrange their face to look like him?" There was a cool note of disapproval in his voice that Derek just ignored.
"They don't have the time to be before I rearrange their face further," he grunted, flopping into his chair.
Raiman arched an eyebrow, looking significantly to the blood and dirt that he was currently smearing on the fine leather. Derek ignored him, ran a hand through his hair instead. "I'm never going to find that damn bubble at this rate," he said wearily.
"Finding a demon lord's realm randomly is nearly impossible. I did tell you."
"Yeah. You did. Thought I could find a way." He groaned, teeth grinding. "My powers have changed, since Selarenia did the thing with the Goddess. And I still don't understand any of them very well. Which is fine when I want brute force, but less so when there's anything involving finesse."
Raiman clucked his tongue sympathetically. "Demons are creatures of magic, Derek. You know this. What do you think the realm will be like if you do find it?"
"I don't know," Derek snapped, feeling the anger that came so easily these days, rising from the hole inside of him. He felt hollow and he remembered a time when he had found a boy in a cave cutting himself, just to feel alive. Now, he knew how Toby had felt.
"I don't know," he repeated. "But I don't have much of a choice, do I? I gave my word, both to Sam and to Kaitlyn. I'll find the demon, I'll find Tobias. I'll separate them and kill the demon. My word is all I have left, these days. I'm not going to break it just because reality is a bitch."
"No," Raiman murmured. "You'll break reality first." He sighed and made a note in his ledger, then flipped it shut. "What about that man Kalem you told me about? He's quite skilled, is he not?"
Derek shook his head wearily. "I already checked. He informed me that he's less willing to do my bidding. 'My loyalty is to Cadence and she is at odds with you,'" he said, voice raised mockingly at the end. "Besides, even if he would, it wouldn't matter. I broke his connection to Asmodeus. His scarknots no longer work. One spell in the Pit and we'd have demons swarming all over us."
"I see. Well, then it seems you need a mage with these scarknots functioning. Do you know any?"
Derek squeezed his eyes shut, a familiar image springing to mind. Cold Harbor smoked around them, but all he had seen was her eyes. The look and light that glimmered in them was so pure and right. But it was a fantasy now. Things changed. "I only know one," he said and something in his voice must have given it away.
"Ah," Raiman said, studiously looking at the fire. "And she'll bring him."
"Yes," Derek growled. "And I wouldn't be allowed to leave him in the Pit."
A silence stretched out, broken only by the fire's crackle. Raiman finally sighed. "Keeping one's word is a mature, noble concept, Derek. Sometimes, in order to be mature and noble, we must act like it."
Somehow, he didn't burst into flame from Derek's glare. Somehow.