January 18th, 2016
Lask engaged the time dial on his forearm with a final click, gold magic curling around his wrist and hand, engulfing the key as he slid it into the door. He glanced at Giemm, who nodded. Lask opened the door, peering around it with cautious eyes.
The door opened into a dim chamber. Lask recognized the space of the huge master bedroom of Kotelvira, but the room was back in the Dark stronghold of Kotelgrym. The grey overcast of daylight filtered through the tattered curtains, and a thick buildup of soot blackened the mantle and nearby wall. Steady, rumbling snores reverberated in the shadows, but the room was otherwise still and empty. Lask passed into the room with silent steps, and Giemm followed close behind.
The Luminor closed the door, but did not wave it away. Giemm motioned for him to sit at the table near the doors to the balcony, then tiptoed toward the massive bed on the other side of the room. Sprawled across it was the hulking red shape of Malstefin. He seemed like a sleeping mountain, full of ferocity and terrible power even as he slept. As Giemm approached, he whispered,
The snores faded, but the Demon did not stir, save for his tail, which coiled around one of the bed posts near the approaching Runner.
“Senierro,” Giemm called softly.
Stefin shifted, his fierce gold and orange eye cracking open with a protesting growl.
“I am sorry to disturb you, senierro,” Giemm said, voice quiet. “There is something I must discuss with you–”
“It is the middle of the day, can’t it wait?” groused the Demon, burying his face under one club-like forearm.
“No, senierro. It must be now. It is a matter of secrecy.”
Stefin raised his head, finding Giemm standing near the bed. His brow furrowed, as he looked the bird up and down. His nostrils flared, scenting the air.
“You are different, you are…” he paused, catching a stronger smell, and his gaze turned to Lask, who sat in silence at the table. The Demon snarled, scrambling off the bed.
“Shh! No, senierro!” hissed Giemm. “Hear me out–”
“You are not Giemm,” spat the Demon. “You are a trick of yonder farero!” He swung, as if to cause the illusion to dissipate, but instead his hand connected with the very solid body of Giemm, swatting him hard enough to cause a few feathers to fall loose. Giemm hissed at him on reflex, and snapped back,
“Would you be still and listen to me for once?”
Malstefin was struck silent by the sudden audacity of his servant.
“I am Giemm, just as you are Malstefin,” the bird told him, “The only difference is that you are here in 1824. I am coming here from 2015, nearly two hundred years beyond you. Yonder farero has brought me here.”
“You are Light,” growled Stefin, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
“And so are you, in my time,” Giemm replied. “You went first. I came to the Light following you.”
“I would not lie to you, senierro, not when you know me and not now. I am who I say, and I know who you are. I know you and I both bleed black and red. I know how you wept when I cut out what was left of your eye. I know you felt sorrow when that white lily turned to ash in your hand–”
“Silence,” snarled Malstefin, glowering at him. “Fine, maybe you are Giemm, but maybe you are also a traitor. You have a lot of gall coming into my castle, bringing fareros into my chamber! Give me one reason why I should not snap your neck and go back to sleep.”
Lask sat in silence at the table, wondering where he fit into the Demon’s plans to go back to sleep, and biting back an amused grin at their bickering.
“I came to talk to you because you asked me to,” Giemm said. “We have come to the Light, you and I. You are working to build yourself a fine empire on the Light side. It is everything you have wanted; Kotelvira, as you call it now, is beautiful, full of every fine thing you could want, and your people want for nothing. We are well fed, finely dressed, warm in the winter. You are as much an emperor there as you are here, maybe more so–”
“Don’t kiss my ass. You know better.” The Demon waved a hand toward the table. “What is the farero doing here? Why should I not kill him?”
“His name is Lask,” said Giemm. “He is the leader of an alkesh. You know what that is?”
Malstefin gave a curt nod with an affirming growl.
“He is the leader of our alkesh,” said Giemm. “You and I, we work with him. We are alkesh, fate-family.”
“Now I know you are lying,” snarled the Demon. “I would never work with the likes of him. I know what their kind do!”
“You do not know what I do,” Lask replied.
“Ah, so you do speak.” Malstefin shoved Giemm to one side, and strode across to the table.
Lask was still, watching the Demon plant his hands on the table, and loom over him. Lask studied him, on guard, but unafraid. Here was Malstefin, an emperor of Demons at the height of his power– fierce, lethal, and unmistakably Dark. The Demon bared pointed teeth at the Luminor.
“And what does the farero do?” rumbled Malstefin.
“I am making you a king,” Lask replied. “I am providing for your people. I am fighting at your side. I am helping you protect the weak, and fix the broken. You and I are men of greatness. We have much to offer each other. If I were like other Luminari, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.”
Malstefin stood and paced around the table. Lask was still, on edge as the Demon passed behind his back, but allowed him to conduct his inspection. Stefin glanced between Lask and Giemm, then said,
“Let’s pretend I believe you for a moment. Why are you here? I know you, of all people–” he glanced to Giemm “–know what a risk it is to wake me unexpectedly, let alone bring a farero into my house. You must have good reason for taking such risks. What do you want?”
“We are in trouble, senierro,” said Giemm. “You, me, and our alkesh. Our efforts have drawn the attention of Moloch.”
Malstefin shook his head with a mirthless chuckle. “Then I hate to break it to you, but you’re fucked. One does not tangle with Ancient Demons. If I were really helping you, I would know better.”
“But you do, senierro,” said Giemm, “For you have slain one.”
Malstefin looked over his shoulder at the bird, and Giemm came to stand beside him at the table. Giemm nodded, saying, “You are already resentful of Valefar. In another twenty years, you will kill him.”
Malstefin eyed him. “I’m listening.”
“You will throw the might of your empire against Valefar,” Giemm told him, “And you will win. You will put your spike through his heart, and even better, you will gain his power.”
“So when we realized we were up against an Ancient Demon,” said Lask, “We decided to consult an expert.”
“If I am working with you in the future, why not ask the future me?”
“We did. That’s why we’re here,” Lask replied. “The Stefin I know has been working tirelessly to build up his numbers on the Light side, and with great success, but he and I both worry he won’t have enough soldiers in time. That’s when he realized he already has all the soldiers he needs, he just doesn’t have them now. That’s where you come in. We’d like to borrow one of your armies.”
“Borrow?” the Demon echoed.
“We’d like to send twenty-five thousand of your soldiers forward to our time.”
“Even if I agree, there’s no way I would get them back,” scoffed the Demon. “There’s no telling how many would die, and even if they all survived you could not send them back, because they would know where they’ve been and that I become a traitor to the Dark. You are asking me to give you one of my armies.”
“It’s only a gift if you get nothing in return,” Lask countered.
“You’ve always said you’re open to any good deal,” Giemm added. “What will it cost for us to have the soldiers, senierro? Name your price. We can get you anything.”
The Demon considered the pair of them for a moment, then pulled out one of the chairs, and settled at the table across from Lask. He tilted his head, studying the Luminor.
“You do know what I normally do to fareros, don’t you?” asked the Demon.
“Indeed.” Lask smiled a little, unafraid.
“Hmm,” rumbled the Demon. He watched Lask a moment, then said, “I can see you are serious about negotiating with me, although I don’t understand how a pretty farero like you would deign to deal with Demons.”
“One cruel Luminor does not speak for us all, and even the rest of my brethren are not representative of me,” Lask replied. “I deal with whomever I please, as long as it pleases the Light.”
“If you meant me harm, you could have made your move while I slept,” acknowledged the Demon, “The fact that you didn’t makes me think maybe we can work something out.” He tapped his claws on the table. “Normally, I would demand a very large sum for such an army, but I don’t think it will work so well that way this time. No one can know I am dealing with you, so a large, extravagant payment would be too noticeable, which is a shame, because I could sell an army of twenty-five thousand for an entire winter’s worth of food for this castle, probably more. I assume you want a well-seasoned army, and not just my new recruits.”
“We need some of the best that you have,” Lask confirmed.
“I cannot trade for food, or weapons, the equal sum would be too large and attract too much attention. That just leaves things for me, or maybe some magic.”
“And what could the Dark emperor want?” Lask crooned back at him.
Malstefin’s tail tapped a slow, thoughtful rhythm on the table leg, as he held the Luminor’s gaze. “I want three things,” said the Demon after a moment. “One: you say I am going to kill Valefar. You will give me something to will ensure this.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Malstefin stroked his goatee with his claws, then said, “You are a time walker, aren’t you?”
“I have heard of powerful magic, weapons that can be made from the remains of a kill in the future, which can be used to ensure the death of the one it strikes. If you take something from Valefar once he is dead, you could forge me a weapon that will be sure to kill him.”
“I have used this magic before. I expect I can do that for you.”
“Excellent, then that’s one. Two: I want to meet this future me. I am surprised he did not come himself. Bring to me this Stefin you speak of, then I will know for certain if you speak the truth to me.”
“Easy. Consider it done.”
“Three: I want one of the lantori. I have been after one for years. Something tells me you know where to find one.”
“That’s one thing I cannot get you,” Lask replied.
“Or you just don’t want me to have one,” hissed the Demon.
“What else do you want?” Lask asked, offering no further comment.
“Can you get me another Titan?”
“A Titan for twenty-five thousand is not a fair trade, senierro,” said Giemm before Lask could answer. “You’ve always prided yourself on your fair deals.”
“I thought you still worked for me,” snapped Malstefin. “Who’s side are you on here?”
The Demon settled back into his chair with a sullen growl. “I would never have a problem shafting fareros.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Lask replied. “Realistically, what else do you want?”
A sly smile crept across the Demon’s face, and he leaned on the table, putting his head closer to the Luminor to hiss,
“I’ll have your name.”
“We’ve already been introduced.”
“No, no. You name. You know what I mean.” The Demon stared across the table at him.
“Why do you want that?” Lask met his stare with flinty eyes.
“Assuming you are who you say, you can come and go in my castle whenever you want. You can find out anything you want to know about me. You could ruin my life if you wanted to. What leverage do I really have to defend myself and my interests against you?”
“None, I suppose,” Lask growled.
“Precisely.” The Demon narrowed his eye at the Luminor. “So, you will tell me your name, or I will not deal with you. Clearly you need me to send my soldiers, otherwise you would have just taken what you wanted and not risked revealing yourself to me. Am I right?”
Lask was silent.
“Whatever the reason, you need me to agree to this. I will make this agreement with you, if you provide my requests, but if you want my help, I will have your name before you walk back through that door.” His gaze flicked to the crimson door that stood behind the table.
Lask leaned back in his chair, holding the Demon’s gaze. After a moment, he said, “Let’s assume I agree to this. You will send the army out when you wake up tonight, and direct them to a location that would send them along part of this route–” Giemm passed over a map for the Demon’s inspection. “I’ll let you work out the details of that. I’ll return tomorrow with your payment, and you will tell me where you’ve sent the army from, so I’ll be able to track them, and know when to collect them from the location marked there.”
Malstefin shook his head. “No,” said the Demon. “You will bring my payment tonight, before I give any orders. Time is of no consequence to you; there is no reason you could not return five minutes from now with the payment if you wanted to. I am already living in your past; you can come and go here as you please. You will bring the payment tonight, then I will send the army.”
“I can bring your payment tonight if it pleases you, but you will give the order to put the army on the road before I pay you. If you can get that done by tonight, I’ll be happy to pay you tonight.”
Malstefin considered him. “Very well. Come to this room at midnight, and I will have your army on the road by then–”
“–if,” continued Malstefin, “You give me your name before you leave. If you do not bring all the things I have asked for tonight, including this future me, I will recall my army before they get to the place where you can transport them.”
“Very well,” Lask said again. “Consider it a deal, senierro.”
Lask went to stand, but the Demon’s tail moved like a whip, and pinned Lask’s sleeve to the table. The spike just grazed his forearm– careful aim on Malstefin’s part– and drew a few beads of crimson blood.
“Your name, farero,” snarled the Demon.
“My name is Al–.”
Malstefin smiled, and dislodged his spike from the table, freeing Lask’s sleeve. He watched the Luminor wave Giemm toward the door, and rumbled, “I’ll see you at midnight, farero.”
“You don’t think there’s going to be an ambush waiting when I open this door, do you?” asked Lask as he slipped his key into the lock.
“Not my style,” Stefin replied, watching Lask’s time magic wash over the door. “If I made a deal with you, I will honor it.”
“Let’s hope you’re right.”
Lask opened the door, revealing the Demon’s chamber in Kotelgrym. Malstefin awaited them at the table, and remarked,
“Very punctual. I like that.”
Lask stepped into the room, his eyes conducting a quick sweep of the place to make sure they were alone. Stefin came through the door behind him in his human shape. For a moment, Stefin and his past self just looked at each other, then Stefin sat down at the table and said, “Fancy meeting you here.”
“I didn’t invite you to sit yet,” growled Malstefin.
“It’s my table,” countered Stefin. “I can sit at it when I want to.”
Malstefin eyed him. Stefin, however, was taking stock of the room, and nodded. “1824,” he remarked, “That was a good year for me.”
“It has been so far,” Malstefin replied.
“So,” Stefin said, “You wanted to meet me.” He settled back in the chair, putting his boots up on the table.
“You look well,” Malstefin noted, watching him sprawl with a disapproving look.
“I am very well,” Stefin confirmed.
“You are Light.”
Malstefin glanced to Lask, who stood at a slight distance from the table, then looked back at his future self. “Tell me something so I know it’s me,” he said.
“What did I say just before Jessair did this?” Malstefin pointed at his ruined eye.
“I was reciting the Lord’s prayer,” Stefin replied, “And when he stood over me with that corkscrew, I cried out deliver us from evil, and I was so afraid, I meant it and hoped the Light might hear me.”
“The only time I have ever prayed,” Malstefin said with a nod. “I have told no one that, lest I be called a traitor.”
“The first time I ever prayed,” Stefin amended.
Malstefin studied him, and gave a slight nod of understanding. He tossed his head in Lask’s direction asking, “What is yonder farero to you?”
“He is my aldar, and I trust his counsel.”
“And?” Malstefin pressed. “He looks at me with a knowing and comfort that does not come from mere counsel.”
“I love him, si,” Stefin admitted, “We are lovers– this is but one of many ways the alkesh is bound together.”
“I thought so,” hissed Malstefin with a smirk. The Demon’s eye swept Lask up and down, then he too put his feet up on the table and leered, “I’m sure I will enjoy fucking such a supple figure. Tell me, farero, are you colored like moonlight everywhere?”
“Be nice,” Stefin growled. “You are a devil, but not a slimy old goat.”
Malstefin scoffed, waving a dismissive hand. “You are getting too sensitive in your old age, or maybe the Light has made you soft.”
“I was always soft,” Stefin replied. “Or do you think I’ve forgotten the Lakvos you’re sheltering in your map room?”
“Remembered those, eh? Bastards stole my best my best compass.”
“You have more.”
Malstefin shrugged, conceding the point. He looked to Lask again, and said, “So, mi carnafollo, did you bring the rest of my payment?”
“You will not speak to him that way,” Stefin growled, glowering across the table at himself.
Malstefin gave him a skeptical look, but shrugged it off, and asked again, “Did you?”
“I did,” Lask replied, approaching the table. He produced the fine black metal barb he had crafted.
“What is this?” scoffed the Demon. He took it from the Luminor, furrowing his brow at the item, which looked tiny in his massive palm. “I could not kill a cockroach with this, let alone Valefar.”
“You said yourself anything we trade would have to be something no one would notice,” Lask replied. “Where is that prized whip of yours?”
Malstefin tilted his head, then rose to fetch the whip from a hook on the inside of his wardrobe door.
“May I?” Lask inquired.
Malstefin eyed him, but handed it over at a reassuring nod from Stefin. Lask accepted it, and affixed the barb to the end of the fall, summoning a bit of his fire to melt it on. When it was finished, he passed it back. Malstefin inspected it, and glanced up. “Lodge this in Valefar, he will die?”
“When you conduct a bit of your magic through the whip, yes,” Lask replied.
The Demon nodded his approval, then reached behind him for a folded page. He offered it to the Luminor. Lask unfolded it, seeing a map, with the Demon’s hand scratching runes into the paper to indicate one of his holdings.
“From there,” said Malstefin. “They leave from there.”
“Gracias,” Stefin told him.