Anecdote XV. An Audience with the Emperor

October 11th, 1858 • Kotelgrym

The road to Kotelgrym was lined with the signs of conquest. For three miles before the stronghold, spikes were placed along either side of the tamped dirt, bearing the tattered flags of thousands who had fallen to the Red Devil of Spain.  Even as powerful a Demon as Velserka felt a certain sense of unease creep up her spine as she traveled toward the dark walls. She recognized many of the banners, had done business with many of these fallen Demons. She had yet to do business with the one who had conquered them.

Kotelgrym was a massive castillo, with high walls, hulking towers, and tile roofs that were once terra cotta, but had long since been tarnished black with soot. It was a grimly beautiful stronghold, having once belonged to a Luminor, and well defended. Velserka could not count the number of cannons lining the walls. On each tower and above the gate flew tattered red banners bearing the black scorpion sigul of the fortress’s master.

She heard the guards calling an alert well before she reached the gate. When she came to a halt at the enormous doors, she found five cannons pointed downward at her, a cauldron of hot tar teetering above her head, and six Warmongers snarling through the iron grate in the gate. Velserka eyed them, not at all intimidated. She could fry the lot of them even from the other side of the immense doors.

“I want to see Malstefin,” she told them.

“With what business?” demanded one of the Warmongers.

“I have a proposition for him, an offer of what’s sure to be a very profitable alliance.”

“Your approach was noted. The bird with the keys will be down to see you shortly.”

Velserka glanced upward, then positioned herself out of reach of the blistering tar, and leaned against the wall to wait. She could hear the sounds of yowling Lakvos inside, likely fighting over whatever scraps were left from the most recent meal. There was the distant shriek of a Runner. Within a few minutes, another face appeared at the grate in the door. It was the face of a man-sized bird, with a long curved beak, and feathers that swept to a point behind his head. He was dark grey with shrewd brown eyes. His eyes darted up and down her before he spoke.

“You are Velserka,” he said.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

“You must be here as an emissary of Zestir and Warlyn.”

“And you are Malstefin’s pet Runner,” she replied, hoping she masked her unease at the accuracy of his information.

“Why do you come here now?” asked Giemm, unperturbed by the jab.

“Warlyn’s device is finished. We are ready to take on the unbound Viatrians. America sits on the brink of glorious Darkness. We want Malstefin to join forces with us. There is much we can offer each other.”

Giemm eyed her through the bars.

“You know I am working with powerful people,” Velserka continued, “Your master would want to know of this offer.”

“I expect so,” Giemm replied. He squawked at the Warmongers, “Let her in.”

There was a metal creak as something shifted in the gate, and a smaller door opened within one of the doors. She hadn’t even realized it was there, it was so well hidden in the door. She passed through it, into the courtyard. There were six creatures chained high on the wall of the keep directly in front of her, leaving trails of blood down the stones. She paid them no mind. Instead, her eyes moved to either side of the courtyard, to the two towering creatures there.

One was an enormous wolf, with matted black fur, and orange eyes that glinted like smoldering coals. Each of its paws was almost as wide as she was tall. It let out a low, rumbling snarl at her, then rested its head back on the ground, its iron chains rattling, and went back to sleep. On the other side of the courtyard was a fiery dragon,  roped with muscle under its sooty scales. Immense wings shifted behind it as it moved, its tail coiling against one of the towers. It strained against its chain and lowered its head to hiss at her, flashing the glow of fire in its throat, baring dagger teeth, each as long as her arm.

“At ease, Methok,” Giemm said to the creature as they walked passed.

The dragon growled and settled back. Velserka followed Giemm as he strode to the gate of the keep. The guards there opened the doors at his approach, allowing them to pass inside. Giemm led her down the main hallway, which was lined with battered helmets and other pieces of armor from Malstefin’s myriad conquests. The floor was painted a bright orange-red,  and every fifteen feet, a red scorpion banner hung from the ceiling.  Along the passage, there were alcoves, where more guards stood, clutching black spears or just baring their teeth. One of them was growling a muttering off-key singsong:

Sssson roj diab de Isssspania
Conkisssst de colin ya val,
Sssssen pue zzzztar contror ssso reg,
pey kotora eler grymor.”

The Serpent guard didn’t stop singing (if it could be called a song) as Velserka passed, only leered at her through the words.

Giemm led her to the great hall, opening the door to let her inside. It was a huge room, with a lofted ceiling, from which hung six iron cages instead of chandeliers. Four of them were occupied, hosting the sad shapes of tattered rival Demons whose slow, rotting death served as decor. Regarding them with bored eyes, a Demon sat at the long table, which ran down the center of the room. She was sipping idly on a glass of deep red wine. She was tall, with broad shoulders, and had ghostly pale skin the color of corpses. Long black hair fell in a braid down her back. She had painted her eyelids with a long curl of black makeup, and her lips were cherry red. She wore a set of leather pauldrons and vambraces. Velserka guessed it was probably a full suit of armor, though the Demon had forgone the rest, as there was no fighting to be done,  in favor of a tight grey-green dress, which was cut low over her breasts. The Demon watched Velserka enter the room with haunting white eyes, but remained quiet.

Blazing fire pits ran along the longest sides of the room. This time of night, the table was mostly empty, though a dented silver tray remained at one end, holding a decanter of wine, and a few glasses.  Not far from the table was a massive chair, mahogany, and finely carved– clearly the former possession of a fallen Luminor. It was positioned before a broad, roaring fireplace, with a hulking stone mantle. The chair sat upon a map painted on the floor, a map of the world, with all the Demon’s controlled territories painted in broad swaths of red, spanning five continents. Sprawled in the chair was the Demon she had come to see.

He was a mass of thick muscle, covered in bright red skin, with faint darker stripes and jagged swirls. Horns sloped upward at the top of his head out of black hair with red tips, and rough spikes protruded from his shoulders. He was clad in fine black leather pants, and was unshod, for his huge clawed feet needed no boots. His brawny chest was crossed with black strips of studded leather. Hammered pewter cuffs adorned his wrists and horns, and a matching torque collar was around his neck. His face was strapped with black leather, securing an iron eyepatch over the mass of scar tissue that was once his right eye. His remaining eye– piercing orange and yellow with an oblong pupil– stared at Velserka as she entered. His black claws clicked on the arm of the chair as he drummed his ring-encrusted fingers. His head tilted as he studied her, and his long scorpion-like tail twitched back and forth beside him where he had it threaded under the chair arm. Velserka stopped in front of the chair, and remained silent as he conducted his study of her. Giemm waited by the door.

“Do I know you?” the Red Devil asked in his growling Spanish accent. His brow furrowed, bunching the top edge of the scar.

“You know who I am,” Velserka replied.

His neat thin mustache stretched above a mirthless smile, and he stood, dwarfing her as his seven foot shape unfurled. He stalked to the table and poured a glass of wine from the decanter. He sipped it and gave an approving snarl.

“I do love Luminari wine,” Malstefin remarked to the other Demon.

The pale woman raised her glass with an approving nod.

“Giemm,” Malstefin called.

“Si, senierro?” the feathered man replied from the doorway.

“Bring me some of those clementines Falar sent in the tribute yesterday.”

Giemm nodded and left to do so. Malstefin took another sip of the wine, then turned back to his visitor.

“What do you want, Velserka?” he asked.

Velserka took a seat at the table, but moved slowly, waiting to see if Malstefin would growl at her. He allowed her to sit, and leaned against the table nearby, his tail curling around one of the table legs.

“The Sinfusel Warlyn has completed a device that renders the unbound Viatrians visible,” she told him, “And better yet, killable.”

Malstefin’s remaining black brow raised just a bit.

“He and Zestir are prepared to make a move on them, one group in particular. You may have heard there’s an alkesh of the unbound bastards running around.”

“Si, evse,” Malstefin replied, taking another sip of his wine.

“They are the only real thing left standing in the way of our campaign. The tensions between the North and South are rising by the day. The South is full of Darkness–”

“I know, I live here,” remarked Malstefin with a wry smile. The long spike on his tail tapped the table leg, as if to tell her to hurry up.

“We’re planning to incite a civil war,” Velserka told him.

“Si, evse– I know,” Malstefin said again.

Velserka decided not to ask how. Instead, she continued, “We’d like you to join us.”

Malstefin swirled the wine in his glass, watching the color of it against the backdrop of the fire.

“Why?” he asked after a moment.

“Because you’re you,” Velserka replied, “You’re–”

“Don’t play to my ego. I caught onto that trick a long time ago,” the red Demon replied.

The door opened and Giemm returned, carrying a crate of clementines. He set it on the table and opened it for his master.

“Anything else, senierro?” the Runner inquired.

“No, not just now,” Malstefin told him. “But stay.”

Giemm bowed and went back to stand by the door. Velserka glanced at him with skeptical eyes, but said nothing. Malstefin selected a clementine from the crate and peeled it with a smooth sweep of one claw. The plump orange fruit was tiny in his hands as he pulled it in half with surprising gentleness, so to not burst a single slice and waste the juice. He tossed one half into his mouth and shredded it with sharp teeth.

“You have a vast empire,” Velserka said, “Millions of soldiers at your command, hundreds of strongholds, thousands of weapon-makers, two Titans, you killed one of the Ancient Demons. With your support, we could rule this country.” As she spoke, Malstefin sank his teeth into the other half of the clementine. She watched him wipe a drop of juice off his goatee, and continued, “This nation’s influence in the world will be great; I have seen it in the pool. If we can take control of its ruling powers, we could sow the world with Darkness.”

“Zestir has fine armies, as does Warlyn,” Malstefin replied, “They do not need me to wage their war.”

“It would be a much easier victory if you joined us.”

Malstefin took up another clementine, split the peel with a claw, and asked, “And what do I get from this?”

“You would have an equal share in the spoils,” Velserka said, “Everything we gain from this campaign– lands, fortresses, food, soldiers, weapons– will all be divided evenly between Zestir, Warlyn, and you.”

“I don’t share well.” Malstefin glanced up at her. “I would not have all of this if I shared.” He waved a massive hand at the map on the floor.

“You would be positioned to influence the leaders of the human world–”

“I’ve already done that,” he waved a dismissive hand. “How do you think the Spanish conquered the New World, eh?”

Velserka watched him peel yet another clementine, trying to peg what would motivate him.

“You would have Warlyn’s abilities at your disposal,” she said after a moment, “As his ally, you could get him to build anything you wanted. If he can make a device to detect and kill unbound Viatrians, he could make anything you could possibly want.”

Malstefin glanced up at her, and popped another clementine half into his mouth. He walked away from the table and stood on the map, surveying his holdings in silence.

“If you successfully start the humans on civil war, what then?” the pale Demon spoke at last.  One of Malstefin’s long pointed ears twitched at the sound of her voice.

“We’ll make sure the South wins,” Velserka replied, glad to have someone interested in her proposal. “And of course, we’ll have to get rid of a few troublesome Luminari, one in particular.”

“Which one?”

“Why do you care, Levyra?” asked Malstefin, not turning to look at her.

The corpse-colored Demon pressed her scarlet lips together.

“Her name is Sophia, a Luminara Alcanoren belonging to a congressman. He’ll be president soon.” Velserka smirked.

Levyra glanced at Malstefin’s back to see if he would give her another sign to stay quiet. When he didn’t, she asked,

“This alkesh of Viatrians. How do you plan to kill them?”

Velserka grinned, and crooned, “Just last week I corrupted the dearest Viatrian. Charming fellow, his name is Tiermond. He’s bound to a young actor.” She rolled her eyes a little. “Tiermond, it so happens, was a very good friend of the alkesh before he was drawn down. With a little magic, and some help from Warlyn, we’re retrieving his memories of them. He knows all about where we might find them, how they fight, who leads them. He says once you get to know him, the aldar Wyatt is really quite predictable. With Tiermond’s information, we should make quick work of them.”

Levyra gave an approving nod.

“I wish you the luck of it,” Malstefin growled, finally taking his eye off the map. “I’m sure you will be fine on your own.”

“You won’t join us, then?” Velserka pouted at him.

“No. You don’t need me to kill these Viatrians, and I am not interested in splitting spoils and Demon politics. I am an emperor, not an investor. Giemm will show you out.”

The Runner stepped forward, but Velserka lingered at the table. Malstefin glanced over his shoulder at her, then said,

“Levyra, lower one of those empty cages.”

The pale Demon rose and went to the wall to start unwrapping the chain.

“I was just leaving,” Velserka snarled. She rose from the table and shoved past Giemm, causing a few feathers to jostle loose from him and fall to the floor. The Runner narrowed his eyes at her back, but said nothing and followed her out. Behind her, Malstefin went back to his crate of clementines, but Levyra’s white eyes stared after Velserka.

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