Bleak as the deepest winter, Liranion rose from the horizon. Idly, ash drifted from the mud-worn skies. Flies buzzed over blackened bones half-buried in the ebon sands. On the edge of night, like the fist of a king, it lay, blanketed and alone. He bade his brother join him. In the near-darkness, they were off.
Overheard, sunlight pressed against a veil of clouds, but had not the strength to break through. White as a sore, the dead sun eyed them from above, and it offered no heat. Lilith was far ahead of them, eager as a sand snake. Around the desolation of that towering dead thing, lone, stark sands stretched to the endless horizon.
A buzzard cried above the dunes. A spire of sulfur spit up from the sand. Then it was the buzzard shooting down towards the hole, where a smaller creature, inky and clawed, crawled desperately for freedom. The energy blast was the faintest shade of blue, hot and white, and it burst the bird to bits.
“Did you see that, Kyari? I got him good!”
“Show some restraint,” he ordered his brother. “We’re nearly there.”
“Ah, what’s it matter?” the younger demon scowled.
“Patience, brother. I don’t want to disturb her.”
Wind was on their backs. They scoured the sands and reached the base of the tree before nightfall.
A wooden wind chime cackled in the soft evening air. Strange, beast-like claw marks had scarred the ancient tree’s black, bony bark. There was a rusty hatch leading down to the underground lair at the base of the tree, and Lilith had sunk into it before either he or Tyren had managed to make it to her.
Her eagerness bemused him. She was so rarely allowed to leave the palace in Mukh In. That made him envy her, in a way. Even this dreary old place was something for her to revel in, to enjoy. The lowest branch of Liranion had hanging from it a cage large enough to hold an adult demon, empty though it was. Three branches above, a dark-feathered buzzard eyed them hungrily. Others swam in the muted sunlight. Wind and sulfur traded shouts.
Beneath the dirt, it was cold and moist, and even a chilly sun would’ve been welcome. They used ki to light their way. The path was hardly wide enough for them to stand in.
Stinging smoke tugged at the bottom of his throat. The old woman hovered over a lit fire, her tattered robes painting the rocky walls with dancing darkness. His younger sister’s hand wept scarlet tears as she held it over the sizzling flames. He could smell their blood.
Ygze was her name; she was a desert witch, a bloodseer and fortune reader. “Eh?!” Hobbling gingerly across the rocky cave floor, the ancient demon licked her lips from beneath a hood that hid her eyes. “Two more, eh?!”
“We wish to learn our futures. Show us how,” the older boy spoke in a loud voice.
“The fire,” she rasped. “Feed the flames.”
His sister’s palm had blackened, her demon’s blood pooling from a thin cut she had made just above the wrist. Like a spectre, the hunched-over witch materialized from the smoke. It was thicker now; his lungs were burning. In the old crone’s hand was grasped a knife carved from obsidian. Ygze’s gaze lusted at his wound as she nicked his willing palm. The feeling produced a flush in his cheeks that turned to crippling tingling a moment later.
Tyren didn’t cry. He was ten, wasn’t he? Eleven, maybe. There was courage in him already.
“Ask, and I shall see.”
“When will the Prince and I be wed?”
“The king will share your bed.”
“And what of the children? Will we have any–”
“Just one, whose peril is near.”
“Enough! It’s my turn.” He could taste it now, but when she came to him, he would not look her in the eye.
“Hmph, for you,” she growled, “I see only the sun. Bright as molten gold will be your veil. The heat,” she snarled, stepping over the fire, “will be too much, I see. It overwhelms you, Bloodborn. Can’t you see, silly boy? Can’t you, eh? You will have your day, boy.”
“Boy?” he found himself saying. “I’m not a boy.”
Her teeth were near black, chipped, pointed, dappled with rot. “Oho! You will be born again, boy, amidst blood and tears – I see it clear as day. Beneath a burning sun, you will meet the one to match your fate.”
He remembered shuddering when she said that. “What do you mean?! Explain yourself, hag woman!”
“What about you, my boy?” She glided over to Tyren breathlessly. The young demon stood, black and bony, slender as a falling icicle. She took his hand and held it between hers, and the boy’s wide eyes grew even larger.
“I see much of you, dear boy, in my dreams,” she murmured. “Boy, man, warrior, leader, king. Dragontamer you shall be, a peerless champion and strategist. They will destroy themselves to stop you, my sweet boy,” she sang in a low, melancholic voice, massaging the skin around his blood-stained wound. “Oh, they will try.”
“You’re a liar,” the older boy interrupted. “You’re making all this up. You’re trying to trick us.”
“I see what is and what will be,” Ygze replied indignantly. “I do not lie.”
“Can you?” he asked, the fury barely contained. Lilith’s forlorn look stuck in his mind and held there. As everything turned to wisps of darkening smoke, her face shined like the moon in the sky, unwavering and unfading. She had wanted him to stop, he knew, but he never would.
The temple of Tiranaki Uughal was always empty this early in the morning. A warm, hovering mist usually formed in the halls overnight and maintained to late morning. He found the wet, cloudy air to be desolate against the grey walls. On the wall ahead of him, the graven image of Tiranaki Uughal was that of a young girl with flowing hair and pointed ears. That was one form of the goddess of fortune that was worshiped throughout the demon realm.
He didn’t know why he bothered. Incense rose from the table under the stone. Pale smoke, weak as a newborn, caressed the cold stone’s chin. He much preferred her other aspect – the one that looked like a proper demon.
Around midday, Lord Aekyarian summoned Tanbal, his loyal martial arts trainer. Tanbal had served the royal family in Mukh In for two hundred years. He had served many kings – even Dabura. The old demon was grey, near-blind and mostly deaf, and looked feeble enough to be knocked over by the wind. Yet, he hit hard. He moved with surprising agility, even now. His precise form meant he rarely got hit. He admired that in the man.
They sparred for an hour before Lord Aekyarian lost patience with the sloppiness of his own form. The elder demon had trained him well, honed his skills sharper than obsidian. Dabura too had grown strong under Tanbal’s tutelage – stronger than even Aekyarian himself. But many years had passed since Dabura’s disappearance, and the gap in their powers had faded with time. If Dabura was dead or lost no longer mattered. Aekyarian was now the strongest of all the demons, and he was utterly confident in that fact. The old master was powerful even now, but he was no match for Aekyarian. He was a good sparring partner, nothing else. Even Tyren had surpassed him.
That afternoon, he took a trip to Firnost, the Fist of the Gods. For such an imposing-sounding name, Firnost was a quiet and sparsely-populated rural town. Most of the demons living there were fishermen or hunters. They lived on the eastern side of the cloud-piercing mountain range of Sinhost, the emerald peaks of which were said to be home to the gods of the demon realm.
His mother had been from this village, which was only within sight of Mukh In on cloudless days. In the streets, children crawled, dark-skinned and horned, with tails and fangs and bloodless eyes. Some were of his kind, of but others were taller and fairer-skinned. One demon coiled up behind a market stand selling his day’s catch had ruddy brown face that almost reminded him of Dabura.
Lost in the street, Aekyarian took in the sights and smells of ancient Firnost. As a child, he and Lilith had sometimes come here on holiday, but after their mother had died birthing Tyren, they stopped. In spring, the trees would light up with a few purplish-pink flowers with star-like patterns. The rivers would rush blue with jumping fish, and the ground would sway in the wind, green and vibrant and alive with devilgrass. Sinhost was one of the few locations in the entire demon realm that grew with life in spring. Even in the capital, it was dusty brown-grey every day, with endless plumes of sulfur and an often livid sun overhead.
It was no wonder noblemen from the capital would come here in spring to vacation. Some of the softer demons would write poetry or paint landscapes of the lush springtime atmosphere. Others would smoke nuba, a native hallucinogenic drug popular amongst noble demons, and relax in thoughtless euphoria for weeks at a time.
He was never told the tale by anyone. Those who knew it were dead. Why his father had come to this town remained utterly a mystery to Aekyarian. His mother had had a certain rural beauty to her, he supposed, but that didn’t explain it. Noblemen who married below their station had no chance to rise in stature. What could possibly compel a man to do such a thing?
Grey branches shivered; a mountain wind roared, rushing in. He found himself stopped at a stand he had come with his mother and sister to when he had been but a boy. An older, three-horned demon had manned it then. A young grey-skinned lanky demon with orange eyes and a forked tail stood behind it now.
“L-lord Aekyarian?!” he stammered. He surely had not expected to suddenly be face-to-face with such a high-ranking demon today. Aekyarian smirked. “My…my… my lord!” He was sweating and bowing and shaking nervously.
“Hello.” He did not know the shopkeeper’s name. It didn’t interest him, to know. “I’ll have one of your apples, please.”
“My… my apples?!” the other demon gasped, not understanding.
“Ye-yeah, okay, sure…!”
Aekyarian took a black, shriveled apple from the stall, holding it in one claw as he handed a coin to the flummoxed shopkeeper. “Thanks.”
He was off again, lost in the crowd. He wore a thick fur cape with a crimson border and a golden chain. Even so, Aekyarian’s attire was not enough to signal to most peasants just who he was. He was surprised the shopkeeper had recognized him at all. Luckily, no one else stopped him on his way up the mountain. He couldn’t stand their presence another moment.
As the sun fell, the sky turned blood red. He found a rock out in the wilderness, miles away from the nearest demon. Above him, the path continued up through the clouds. A broken wooden bridge stood between him and them. He would not go – not yet. Maybe after he had done his deed.
Apple still in hand, Aekyarian crouched on that rock in the pose Master Tanbal had taught him. This was all part of his Ni’Zheli Form training. Taking a bite from the shriveled, juiceless thing, he watched the sun set. A cloud-pocked sky obscured Mukh In from sight, but he knew where it was. Behind a sheen of grey-white lay his prize.
He wondered how Lilith would react. Tyren was already on his side. His mind drifted to the boy, then to his father, and once again, Aekyarian could see it before his waking eyes: the day the little green man had come to court to take the king away.
If not for that, this wasn’t going to happen. He would never have betrayed his best friend.
It had been a dark day, like this. Dabura had been on his throne when the wizened bug-like man who called himself Babidi had first arrived. Not long after, in a flash of light, a cursive ‘M’ painted on his forehead, Aekyarian’s only friend had left this world. There hadn’t been time enough to talk it over with Dabura, to ask him where he was going, if he wanted to go, if he’d gone mad… It had all been done swiftly, ruthlessly, without regard for the rest of them.
The mountain winds were growing colder. The clouds moved along briskly behind a golden sun that drew the clouds nearest it a deep, orange-gold as they trampled by. He thought on what he had to do and what he should do. It had been after they gave him the regency, he supposed. Beelzebub being too young to rule had meant Aekyarian, the king’s closest friend, advisor, and strongest warrior in the demon realm, was essentially made the king. He would rule in the boy’s stead until Beelzebub became a man.
Time had passed, and now he needed to make his choice. Sunset was upon the world. He jumped off the rock, flying the whole way home.
Across the desolate plains of Torfrost, he traveled, passing by buzzards and lifelessness itself. He wondered in the coolness of the young night why he had dreamed that old dream again. He could still taste the smoke, if he remembered hard enough; he wondered how much Tyren remembered.
His younger brother was waiting for him in the palace, just outside the king’s bedchambers. “Just Grinzal in there. Are you ready?”
Aekyarian scratched his chin. Grinzal was Beelzebub’s personal guard–a feared warrior who was also a pupil of the aged Master Tanbal. He would have to kill Tanbal too if he did this. The old man would never train him again and would remain a threat as long as he lived. He had always liked Grinzal better. Yet, both Aekyarian and Tyren were stronger. They were above even Dabura’s lofty position now. They had achieved what no demons could have possibly dreamt was possible. Tanbal had touched real power as well,with his blood magic rituals, and for that reason, he would always be a threat. Aekyarian sneered and sent his brother off to kill the old man. It was time for him to die. He had survived five kings, but he would not live to see Aekyarian crowned. This ended tonight.
As quietly as he could, Aekyarian knocked down the boy’s door. He was not surprised to find Grinzal, wearing light armor, awaiting him just inside. The hallway led into a spacious, circular room with onyx stairs and walls and paintings of the boy and his family. The gold-bordered portrait of Dabura, noble, red-skinned, his black hair pulled back, struck Aekyarian for a moment. He’d forgotten how kingly his friend had once appeared.
“What are you doing in here, sir? Are you drunk? This is King Beelzebub’s quarters!”
He punched Grinzal across the cheek, taking the skilled fighter unawares. Grinzal gasped and leapt back and drew ups his grey aura around him. Aekyarian’s shone black. Before he had finished powering up, the boy’s bodyguard teleported over to Aekyarian, trying to surprise him, and attacked the older demon with a variety of punches and kicks and angry slaps. They spun to one side of the room, nearly hitting a bookshelf. Aekyarian slipped behind Grinzal, parrying a blow, and elbowed him in the back of the neck before blasting him with a crimson ball of energy that burned the other man’s armor off.
Grinzal fell to a knee, groaning in pain. “Kneel before your king,” Aekyarian growled, standing over him.
They were both sweating and breathing hard. “So… that’s how it’s going to be?”
He was like light, and suddenly it was Aekyarian who was stumbling back, clutching his belly. He raised a hand to block a ki blast, then several more. They singed his dark, sharp fingertips. Grunting in pain, Aekyarian jumped to the right, then to the left, and closed the distance between them so suddenly that Grinzal still held a ki ball, orange and alive with light, in his palm as Aekyarian took him.
In that moment, Aekyarian held his trapped foe. Grinzal was a powerful warrior, capable of deeds few could match. As Grinzal’s lower jaw cracked loose after sustaining perhaps a twentieth blow, Aekyarian wrapped his claws around the dying man’s neck. Blood pooled around his black fingers, and Aekyarian wondered if Grinzal had been trained as much as he, had been as old as he, would he have put up a better fight? As it was, Aekyarian had been nearly forced to power up to his maximum to defeat the last king’s bodyguard. He had not expected that he would have to use that much power. Grinzal was sneaky; he had hidden much from Aekyarian. But what had laid hidden beneath the surface had not been enough.
He spit and fought and tried anything he could against Aekyarian, but it was no use. The king was bathed in blood as one life passed from this world to the next.
It was a long while before he stood up again. Aekyarian wiped blood from his brow and noticed the lanky figure of Beelzebub, pink as bubblegum, standing at the door to his inner chambers. Fear clouded his round, boyish eyes. There was a tear on his cheek. Aekyarian raised a palm, a white-red ball of ki appearing in front of it.
“You will soon be of age, Beelzebub,” he said in the dim-lit chambers. Grinzal’s blood flowed down the stone stairs, but the boy would not look. In the corners of the room, where the light couldn’t reach, atramentous air swirled, gathering darkness. “Don’t make this more painful than it needs to be.”
“No! Never!” His voice echoed, and he was lost in shadow. Aekyarian released the fireball, blowing through the door and vaporizing the boy’s room. But Beelzebub was alive and fleeing down the hall through a hole in his wall, and Aekyarian had no choice but to pursue.
The boy was yelling, shouting for guards. They came for him – not the boy, but Aekyarian. He was their king. Ire was all he could muster for those disloyal beasts. They burned and vaporized and bled and fled and died and cried and begged in pools of red. He had no patience for them.
The boy stumbled into the great feasting hall, whereupon on the fair, far dais rested his sovereign throne. Running now as fast as he could, Beelzebub found his mother, who was approaching from the other side of the room. She wore only nightclothes and apparently had been sleeping just minutes before. Lilith was older than he was comfortable with; her beauty had faded into the recesses of her greying skin. She hardly resembled the sister he’d once had.
From all doors, from all sides, guards rushed into the hall, surrounding Aekyarian. The queen held her son on the steps leading up to his throne. Aekyarian unchained his heavy fur cloak and threw it aside. In a flash, his aura was up, blinding them with inky supremacy. Lightning sparks danced between the shadows of his energy. The guards were several hundred strong now.
The boy was crying. Lilith was shouting. A blood-splattered Tyren flew in through the door behind Aekyarian, unleashing a blood-curdling cry upon realizing his brother was surrounded. Aekyarian cracked his neck and sighed. That’s all it took. The room exploded with energy and light, and so much heat that all the tables were instantly vaporized. Most of the soldiers were too. Those who managed to survive were burnt or blown to pieces. A few of them cried out as the smoke cleared. Tyren silenced the survivors one by one.
He was a good brother; he had been easy to convince. Tyren had always liked Aekyarian more than Lilith, and he had that to his advantage now. Lilith was no fighter, granted, but she held power, and the boy did too. Yet, with Aekyarian and Tyren both, their cause was decided already. There was simply nothing the boy could do to stop them.
The attack had not reached them, yet Aekyarian did. They recoiled as he drew near. Ash drifted from the ceiling. Thick moonlight shone down upon them from the gaping hole in the ceiling. “Give him to me, Lilith.”
“No! Kyari, what are you doing?! What is this?! What’s happened?!”
“I’m the king now.” He said nothing else to justify himself. The injustice of not being taken seriously was warming his blood even as the blood of his enemies cooled against his flesh.
“What’s wrong with you?!” Her shrill voice grated in his skull. Aekyarian shot his sister with a quick ki blast, taking her in the side. She dropped her son, groaning, and rolled down the stairs. He stepped over her, moving towards the child. His mother screamed and screamed, the pain only enhancing her urgency.
Nobles crowded around the doors leading into the great hall, peering in like tempted birds. “Bow for your king!” Tyren was shouting from below, and those who watched did as they were commanded – all save one man who refused. When he screamed, ‘No!’, Tyren blasted his head off without thinking twice.
“Please… Aekyarian… you can’t! He’s just a boy! Please, let him go! He’s my son!”
Ash drifted from above. Their breath frosted the air. The boy had not stood up, and instead had crawled over to his throne, though he remained too petrified to climb onto it. He had come this far. If he wanted to be king, he needed to kill the boy. It was the only way.
“A boy is not fit to rule the demon realm.”
“He’s… my son, Kyari! What’s happened to you?! Why are you doing this?!” He refused to look at her.
“It’s over,” Aekyarian breathed, conjuring energy between his hands, black with a hint of blood mixed in. The wind blew. The incense burning upon the table raised above the dais had a smoky, rich aroma to them. “I won.”
They should not have tempted him. He would not live to serve a boy weaker than he. He would not live to grovel under a boy king. There was a demon strong enough to fill the vacuum Dabura had left. It was not Dabura’s son; this was the only way.
A stunned silence had befallen the hall. Not even the dying let out a single gasp. He raised his hands at the boy. A noble demon, insane with passion, broke from the crowd, rushing Aekyarian without thought. The demon lord pivoted and unloaded his attack on the man, incinerating him instantly. The attack continued through the demon’s body and eviscerated a crowd of other nobles that had been watching from the door behind him. They shrieked and bled and were not as courteous as the guards.
He would do anything to keep this.
“Kyari, please! Please!!” His sister’s voice broke.
Energy was again in his hands. With time, she would remarry and forget this day. Ash had melted on Beelzebub’s cheeks. He tried to stand, but couldn’t. He tried to speak, but only managed a sobbing, choked cough. He was not ready. None of them were.
Aekyarian faced them, turning slowly as he met at as many of them in the eyes as he could. His sister was still sobbing, crying out like a mad woman. This was his kingdom now. They knew it. The strong are forced to lead; the weak are lost along the way. He saw many weak demons amongst the sea of eyes.
“Shut your damn eyes!” The bloody demon muttered to Beelzebub. He couldn’t stand the look the boy was giving him. He couldn’t take it. “Shut your eyes, boy!!”
Raising his hands, the usurper prepared his final attack. His sister was wailing hysterically. Beelzebub stared him nakedly in the eyes. For a moment, Aekyarian faltered.
As if it was triggered from nothingness, a white light stretched open just over the throne. From the slit, a blue-skinned woman with fiery, indigo eyes and long, wavy, white hair appeared. She held a staff in one hand, which glowed like morning blue, and her eyes were fixed on him.
Aekyarian was unable to move, unable to release his attack. He struggled, gritting his teeth, and tried to break free of whatever hold she had him in. Her face was known to him, known as anyone else knew. The hush had broken to murmurs. His sister was no longer screaming.
“Go on, then!” Aekyarian spat at her. “Do it!” If this was to be his fortune, so be it. His blood ran hot. He would never apologize for his actions. He was right. This was right. The strong must rule. It was his right. The boy was nothing compared him. How dare the weak lead the strong?
For a moment, nothing happened. Then came a flash of light. The hovering goddess waved her hands at him; when nothing happened again, her eyes widened, and he thought he detected fear in them. How could a god feel fear? The surreality of everything was lost on the demon lord. He grit his teeth harder, grinding them against one another as he fought to break free of her telepathic ensnarement. The harder he struggled, the more he felt like he was going to break free. She was weakening – how could he?
Cold moonlight illuminated her face – sweet, terrible Tiranaki Uughal. How dare she stand against the King of the Demon Realm? It was an injustice, all of it! Injustice and madness and a drunken cheer from the masses. They were loving this, all of those dumb, weak minds. They ought to be put down for all their audacity!
“Y-you… monster!” the goddess whispered, her voice soft as honey, too charming for the demon realm. He shuddered and screamed and felt the cracks widening. “N-no… I-I have to…!”
The rest of whatever she said was lost in the void. Aekyarian was coated in rushing white-black goldness. The world was all mad, spinning and flying faster the winds. He was being transported, down and down, and then up, and then sideways, and then he could no longer tell. And as he flew, he noticed the tumbling body of his brother beside him, black and quiet and loyal and unafraid. The light overtook them, and swiftly, it became the universe.
Rainfall over Neklin was unsurprising. Under their hoods, they wore black masks. He was surprised to see birds flying in the rain. The streets were almost entirely empty, grey and black and awash in bitter-falling acidic rain. They nodded to one another and ran. Everything was without color that day.
Their target was a traveling spice merchant named Ghoraju who had being staying in Mukh In for the past three months. He was moving on now, and so were they.
The man’s apartment was not hard to break into. They awaited his return together, saying little. Master Tanbal had been strict. They could not fail. The king could not know. Tension held tight the air.
An unlit stick of nuba lay on the counter, unrefined, still in its clear, plastic wrapper. Ghoraju had taken a bastard daughter of the king – a half-sister of Prince Dabura – and spent a night with her. They still didn’t understand how he had managed to win her fancy and draw her to his room that night. But come morning, her corpse had been found cold, Ghoraju already fled. Nuba overdoses are not uncommon.
“What’s your sister like?”
“She has a pretty name, doesn’t she?”
“She is insufferable, my prince.”
“Hah, is that so?”
“Why, what do you care?”
Dabura shrugged. “I think I’ll make her my queen.”
“Your queen? But that means…”
He knew what that meant. The door creaked open; fat, sweating Ghoraju bumbled in and the doorway rang with light, reverberating and sucking in, and he was flying, shooting down, with heat and without color. All of his feelings had been blown away; emptiness became overwhelming.
The light grew brighter and brighter, and it became everything, and it faded. Hovering in the air, Lord Aekyarian observed an ocean. The shore was nearby, and the waves were lapping against the rocks, foaming blue-grey in the light of day. Overhead, a yellow sun blared truly, like a hole in time itself from which heaven peered down from. Its warmth caressed his cheeks less abrasively than his sun.
Below, six people stood near the shore looking up at them. His younger brother flew a little ahead, looking around. “Where are we?! What is this place?!”
There was color in the hills, trees with leaves and flowers, and even the ocean itself had a robust, deep blue to it. Lord Aekyarian thought of his sister Lilith and how he had attacked her. He wondered if she would be okay, but as soon as that thought crept into his vulnerable mind, he crushed it. The boy yet lived – the injustice in that roused a sudden fury in Aekyarian. He looked down upon the nearby group of people and wished them only death.
Where they were, he did not know. He remembered Tiranaki Uughal, with her spotless white hair and violent indigo eyes, and the way she had stopped him. It was all too much. He looked down at his fingertips and noticed that the blood of Grinzal and the guards remained on him – dried, but there. They had come with him to this place, with his brother too.
He wondered if this was what Zyge had meant when she said he’d be born again amidst blood and tears. That old hag had been a damn fool. His sister had pitied her. But if this had been her idea of a joke, it wasn’t funny. He was going to burn this place and make it his. This place had a breathtaking beauty to it that not even Firnost could match; it would be the natives’ blood and tears that would be shed this day, not his.
Overhead, a flying machine buzzed by, high in the atmosphere. Behind it was a message scrawled in big block letters: ‘KING JIBAL PLEASE SAVE THE SOUTH CITY KRAKENS!! DON’T LET TRADITIONS DIE!!’
The King of the Demon Realm raised his wrist, the energy rushing to his fingertips in an instant. In the next moment, he released his attack and sent it screaming up to the ship. And when it exploded, a horde of birds, resting on the shore, took to flight, following the curve of the coast around an outcropping of forest and rock that met at the shore, and fell out of sight.