Signal Fires

The arch-demon Agjax, perched expectantly upon his throne of bone deep within the bowels of the earth, clucked his forked tongue vexedly. He had known that the man-child was coming, it was the only next logical step in the mortal’s blazing trail through the demonic warlords and thanes of the underworld. Admittedly, he had looked forward to the man’s arrival, to his chance to end the destruction and all the future opportunities for gloating it would allow him in the unholy courts. Agjax’s vexation was directed at the entrance to his small cavern, from which came the sounds of quite a tussle. He secretly hoped the extra imps and warriors he had placed before the giant double doors weren’t up to the challenge. He had never met this particular man-child in person, though his emissaries had on numerous occasions, and felt it would be wholly disappointing if he were to die without even making it into the throne room.

His worries, as it turned out, were unfounded.

The doors to his small cavern burst open as if pushed by a mighty wind, and through them stepped the most unlikely man he could have imagined – especially concerning the infamy he had garnered while cutting a swath through the underworld. He certainly appeared to have had a strong presence at one point in time, his shoulders broad, body still carrying quite a bit of muscle-mass, but the man was obviously over the hill – his beard an unkempt salt-and-pepper tangle, head shaved, crows-feet and worry lines marring his chiseled features, and generally looking like he had lost several wrestling matches with a grizzly bear. Were it not for the fact that the man was covered in the dark ichor of Agjax’s door-wardens and bore an expression of death on two legs, Agjax would’ve laughed. His minions however, posted along the walls of the cave, gripped their weapons tighter and shifted their feet and hooves uncomfortably at his entrance.

“Hello, Agjax,” said the man, his baritone voice strong and steady though somewhat harsh from booze or smoke or both. Agjax sat up straighter in his throne, allowing his powerful muscles to ripple under his red flesh, and tried to wipe the incredulity from his face.

“Well, well,” he said, endeavoring to keep his amusement out of his voice, “here we have the man-child who’s been tear-assing through the underworld, looking for something he lost. Touching really.”

The man didn’t seem to be paying much attention, meandering about and looking down his nose with a haughty sniff at the previous evening’s sacrifice congealing upon the altar in the center of the chamber. He straightened up then, turning towards Agjax with a tiny bounce that was very nearly cheery.

“I have some questions for you, Agjax.”

“I have no answers for you.”

“Oh,” replied the man with a wry, almost devilish grin, “I can be terribly convincing.”

“So I’ve heard…tore poor Syrnix limb from limb over the course of three days, or so the story goes…though I fail to see how.”

The man’s smile became a touch broader – and more feral. For the first time in centuries, Agjax felt a twinge of fear stirring. This man was either wholly insane, or he had something up his sleeve, and if the stories of Syrnix’s demise were at all accurate, the latter was probably true.

“This no longer amuses me, man-child. Go now, I have no answers for you, do not return to this place.”

“But surely,” said the man, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “the great and mighty Arch-Demon Agjax must know *something*…or know who does….”

“Feh, we’re finished here,” said Agjax, waving a taloned hand before him, “kill this mortal and take him out of my misery!”

The man simply closed his eyes and shook his head as the dozen or so imps and warriors charged at him. A moment before the blade of the swiftest one could fall, his eyes opened, a pale, sickly green light emanating from them, and a wave of energy crashed out of him, knocking Agjax out of the throne and against the wall and plunging him into darkness.

When he came to seconds later, his body was wracked with pain, his arms and legs shattered, body badly burned. His throne, carefully constructed from the bones of a hundred slaves, lay shattered on the dais and his minions lay scattered through the room like broken and discarded dolls. The man was walking through the bodies, nudging one here and there with his boot, until finally he bent down and picked up a discarded sword, covered in the blood of its owner.

“Borrowed power!” Agjax spit, and noted with dismay some of his own blood mingling with the spittle. The man nodded, never looking up from the sword he was examining. “No wonder! Those energies will eat you alive from the inside out man-child! Your body can not hope to contain them!”

“They serve me well enough,” he said quietly, finally looking up and taking a few steps towards the demon. He squatted on his haunches a meter or so away from Agjax’s broken form and brought the tip of the blade to rest a short span from the demon’s eye. “Now…tell me what I want to know.”

“I told you, fool, I don’t know anything! How long have you been looking now – five, maybe six years? Even if you find out what happened to her, it won’t be a rescue, it’ll be a recovery! It’s been too long for hope, you soppingly sentimental sack of vomit, and you’re barking up the wrong tree looking for answers down here!”

The man nodded solemnly, the sword point never wavering more than a centimeter or two from Agjax’s eye.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said finally, his voice almost a whisper. He laid the sword down agonizingly close to Agjax’s ruined arm and stood, walking over to the stone column in the center of the chamber, drawing a pouch out of his pack. He began gingerly tucking the pouch into a crack that had formed in the column, his back turned to the demon. Agjax willed his arm to move, to grasp the sword and hurl it through the body of this pompous mortal, but even with his unholy powers of regeneration, the arm remained useless at his side. Finally, the man pulled an all-too-familiar vial of violet liquid from a pouch at his side, and turned, hefting it in his hand as he examined Agjax floundering against the wall.

“What are you dong?” the demon coughed.

“But perhaps,” the man continued softly, ignoring the question, “if I light a fire big enough that the gods themselves can see…perhaps then someone will see fit to tell me the truth.” He leaned against the column, idly fiddling with the potion in his hand. “Though, “he continued with a disturbingly wistful tone, “you’re about the biggest fish there is to fry down here…. I suppose I’ll just have to set the whole of the world alight next.”

“You’re…you’re insane….”

The man nodded, smiling sadly and straightening up from the column.

“Goodbye Agjax, “he said, popping the cork on the vial and shoving it into the crack of the column alongside the pouch, “I’m sure I’ll see you in hell soon. Tell your boss I’ll have some choice words for him when I arrive.”

And with that, he turned and strode from the chamber.

“Wait!” cried the demon, finally noticing the black granules that had spilled from the pouch now shoved into the column supporting the entire chamber, “We can work this out! Come back! DAMN YOU TO HELL RAHL! RAAAAAAAAAAHL!!!!!”

As the smoke from the explosion and subsequent cave-in cleared from the anteroom, General Debinani Rahl dusted off his hands, his face twisted into a sickly, despairing, mad grimace.

“Of that, my dear Agjax,” he whispered, “I am certain.”

Ralben shuffled into his master’s chambers, wishing for what seemed the millionth time in recent years that he was drunk beyond the capacity for clinical thought. The front office, as always, was neat and tidy, a shining example of military precision. He had never truly approved of his Lord taking up the reigns of the same band of dirty, unruly ruffians that his father had before him, but that at least was a distaste that he had resigned himself to long ago.

The man shuffled into the shattered bedchambers.

This however, he thought to himself, is not.

The room appeared to have fell victim to a whirlwind, stools were shattered to splinters, tables upturned, priceless books of lore cast about. The full-length mirror on the wall seemed warped as if by incredible heat. At least it wasn’t broken…again. The chamberpot beside the bed was full of vomit, an empty vial that had once contained the essence of a demon floating on the surface.
His master lay there face down upon the bed, naked and still covered with the blood of some demon or imp of some type. He knew that the man wasn’t asleep, for an almost imperceptible green glow bathed the pillows near his open eyes. Beside him, clutched in his dirty and bloodied hand, was a tiny painting of a young woman in black leathers.

Ralben had certainly never approved of *her* either.

Wishing not for the first time that he was elsewhere, the robed man shuffled up to the end of the bed and stood there as patient as a statue.

“Leave me alone, “the man muttered into his pillow.

“My lord is killing himself,” Ralben said, in the most crisp and proper voice he could manage.

His master cocked his head curiously and rolled over on the bed and shot the other man a quizzical look made slightly less human by the dim light emanating from his eyes. Ralben pulled a rag from one of the pockets of his robe (the rag, incidentally, that he had intended to use to tidy up the master’s bedchambers with and now seemed wholly inadequate to the task), and tossed it onto the bed as to cover his master’s complete lack of modesty.

“Hogwash,” his master said gruffly.

“My lord *is* killing himself, “Ralben repeated, feeling the impropriety at correcting his Lord was miniscule in the context of the room around him, “the only way he knows how.”

“I’m looking for answers.”

“Oh, pardon your humble servant m’lord, who was under the mistaken impression that m’lord was simply running about setting things aflame and blowing things up.”

“Or both.”

“Or both, m’lord.”

“Is that all, Ralben?”

“Not quite, m’lord. As m’lord knows, m’lord’s heart tends to be a bit…shall we say…dodgy…when m’lord’s age is allowed to advance too far. M’lord should imbibe his Elixir before anything untoward should happen.”

“That’s what you said last night.”

“And will likely say again on the morrow until m’lord takes his humble servant’s advice to heart.”

“And I shall continue ignoring you until such a time as I choose to drink the stuff OR KEEL OVER FROM OLD AGE! Now get out and leave me be.”

Thwarted, Ralben padded to the door, he opened it, and began to leave, but paused.

“Something else?”

“I…,” began Ralben quietly, “I would have come to love her as my Duchess as I do you, my Duke. But there is no wrong to avenge, and perhaps no answers to be had. No good to come of this.”

He felt his master’s eyes against his back, and tried desperately not to wring his hands nervously in the ensuing silence.

“’A dark heart,” the man quoted, “who is shown light only to have it torn away, consumes the being, enflames the soul, and brings despair to all it beholds.’”

Ralben nodded. “Delayne Muerdetta said that, m’lord…” he said quietly.

“I know.”

“…just moments before she was dragged through the streets of Trinsic and hung.”

“I know.”

“Good night, m’lord.”

“Good night, Ralben.”

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