Jin clenched her hand and held back the force that was boiling inside her. A thousand furies, demons of the air, screamed in the back of her mind, begging to scour the surface of the planet clear of all life. The word to release them waited on her lips for the slightest provocation.
It had been that kind of week.
“We have conveyed your request to the Council of the Last Kingdoms my lord. They have rejected your claims and stand by their demands.” Pen said. Both he and Jin were on one knee and bowed low before the massive basalt throne the King of Grand Zephyr sat upon.
The King did not respond to Pen’s words. No one else dared to respond either. The whole crowd which had been conducting the business of the war they were engaged in had quieted when “Ambassador Pen” and his attache had arrived. They’d listened eagerly to hear news of a turning point in the war. That the demands of King Graven had not been met was something any of them had considered to be even a remote possibility.
The King remained silent and the moment grew steadily more uncomfortable. The court looked to Pen to diffuse the situation. Graven Pious Rex was not known for taking bad news well, or for forgiving the bearer of such news. Ambassador’s who wished to keep their heads connected to their shoulders would usually attempt to stammered explanations or apologies after revealing unpleasant news. It didn’t always save them. One time in three perhaps Graven would find some humiliating task to assign them to, but it would be a chance to continue living at least.
Pen made no apologies and offered no explanations. He remained, kneeling and bowed, before the King, waiting for the royal response. Jin was obliged to remain kneeling and bowed too. That hide the scowl that was firmly set on her face, which she supposed was a good thing.
The two dreamlords had come to the world of Emberlost following a trail of broken dreams that indicated that something had cracked the world and was allowing waking nightmares to enter the waking lands. They’d found the crack in the world and sealed it over, but things had already slipped through it. So they’d followed the waking nightmares into the world and established real identities for themselves there.
Posing as an “ambassador” had been Pen’s idea. They’d seen the war that raged over the central plains of the largest continent. Demons from the underworld had burst forth onto the surface and sent the nations of the middle lands scrambling to defend themselves. Had the nations been at peace, that might have been a goal they could have achieved. Centuries of strife had left them suspicious and deceitful though. That was all the fodder the demons needed.
The first of the demon hordes were terrible in their savagery. Where they struck they laid waste not only to towns and villages but to the lives of those they spared. There were many survivors too. More people escaped the destruction of their villages than in any war between the kingdoms. All of those who lived bore scars of their encounters, both physical and psychological. Many lived to tell the tales of how terrible the demons were, but none were quite whole anymore.
The Kingdoms fought back against the demon armies and, at painful costs, cast them down. The struggles were long and bitter but even early on it was clear to those who controlled the armies that the mortal races would be victorious. This likelyhood of victory led the kings and generals to look at the war against the demons in a more strategic light.
Battles became less about defeating the demon armies and more about steering them into a rival kingdom’s territory. Call’s for aide between allies went unanswered as leaders saw the chance to leave a neighbor weakened and ripe for conquest in the wake of the demon war. The common people suffered in every scheme that was hatched but to those in power that was no obstacle. Those who were weak were meant to suffer for their weakness.
If the demon’s aim had been to destroy the mortal races, or create a hell on Earth, they could have returned to the underworld and basked in the rain of corrupted souls that came screaming down from the battlefields above. That would have been only a short term victory though. The Age of Treachery would have run its course at a breath taking pace, with the dead outnumbering the living and the innocent all but obliterated. The problem was, from the demon’s perspective, that some of the mortals would survive. Mortals always survive. Its what they do.
What was worse would be that the one’s who survived would learn. Their society would change and to reflect the fact that treachery had almost annihilated them. They wouldn’t necessarily have better or kinder societies but at the least they wouldn’t be as suspectible to that sort of failing again.
That was the last thing the demons wanted. They changed footing therefore. As their armies withdrew, their more subtle agents went to work. Advisors and seducers, servants and secret controllers. At the suggestion of the man in white who had freed them, the demons worked not to kill the mortals, but to render the difference between mortal and demon meaningless.
“As below, so above” was their mantra.
That was what Jin and Pen had discovered when they entered the world. They had tried a number of tactics to thwart the demons’ plot but none had proven effective. In most instances, the mortal king or noble or merchant or general they had approached had refused to act with even the smallest vestige of care for the world around them.
It had taken weeks of work and careful negotiations to bring together the most reasonable of the rulers into a council where all had an equal voice. The Council was a fragile creation though. By exposing themselves on it, each member ran the risk of falling afoul of another council member’s schemes.
“It would be wrong to abandon these idiots to their own devices wouldn’t it? Tell me that it would be wrong.” Jin had complained to Pen the night before their meeting with King Graven, the leader of most powerful of the unaligned Kingdoms.
“It would.” Pen said.
“Because there are still innocents who would be hurt.” Jin said, making Pen’s arguement for him.
“No. We could save them easily enough.” Pen said.
“We could?” Jin asked.
Pen looked back at her with a grin.
“You could create a whole new world for them with a snap of your fingers. Of course we could save them.”
“The Parliament would be a bit unhappy about that wouldn’t they? I mean we’re not supposed to depopulate real worlds like that from everything Professor Haffrun taught me.” Jin said.
“We’re not, but if we do and we can make a case for it then the decision will stand.” Pen said.
“They what are we waiting for? There are people dying out there right now!” Jin said.
“What about the one’s who aren’t innocent?” Pen asked.
“We leave them to their just rewards?” Jin suggested.
“Because they’re arrogant and evil?”
“Maybe. But aren’t those the ones who need to be saved the most?” Pen said.
That sounded like the fluffiest bit of air headed stupidity that Jin had ever heard. She understood looking past the surface to see what people of all forms were really like. She was friends with many people who others misjudged to be monsters. The leaders of the kingdoms of Emberlost were different though. Down below the surface, in their heart of hearts, they weren’t as bad as they appeared. They were much worse.
Kneeling before King Graven, Jin reflected on the demon horde that she had captured and bond to her will. It had been a stopgap measure to delay their plans from coming to fruition. The demons’ machinations moved on without them though, carried forward by the greed and fear and arrogance of the peoples of Emberlost. With her meta-awareness, Jin looked at the demons and then at King Graven. Her scowl deepened as she decided that she liked the demons better. They were at least honest in their malice and cruelty.
“The words I instructed you to carry were not a request.” King Graven said at last, breaking the silence without easing the tension in the room at all.
Pen raised his head.
“The you should have phrased them differently.” he said.
Silence reigned in the room once more but all eyes were on the the King as his face reddened into a dark rage.
“You shall die for your impertinence.” the King said in barely more than a whisper.
He gestured the two nearest guards forward.
“Begin at sundown and make it take days. I wish to fall asleep to a lullaby of their screams.” Graven said.
Jin glanced at Pen, shooting him a look that said “do I still have to be good?”
Pen smiled and gestured for her to restrain herself a little bit longer.
“As you wish your majesty. Enjoy your slumber this evening.” Pen said as he and Jin were lead away.