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The demonic aura of the cave permeated everything within, including Leon himself. Traces of this aura seeped into his body, where it was carried to his heart and into his soul realm. This foreign magic power wasn’t nearly enough to do even superficial damage, but it was certainly enough to be detected, even by those not paying attention.
Case in point, Xaphan, who had been silently focusing on his recovery for several months, suddenly opened his eyes upon the aura’s entrance to Leon’s soul realm. He hadn’t so much as moved, let alone spoken aloud for three months, so focused was he on regaining his power faster than Leon was growing stronger, but this aura immediately caught his attention and pulled him out of his meditative trance.
“This aura…” the demon whispered in a hoarse and guttural growl, “I know it…”
Xaphan rose from his sitting position on the island, the flames covering his body burning orange and his eyes a bright gold. The more of this aura he sensed, the more enraged he became, and his fire burned higher and greater until not even the shadow of his obsidian body could be seen within.
“Amon…” Xaphan spat, packing more hatred and anger into that name than he could ever properly express.
The soldiers spread themselves out on the scaffolding, which encircled the cavern to provide support and stability. There were a few creaks and moans from the wooden planks as they moved, but whatever the vampire was doing below them seemed to be taking up all of his attention.
“What is he doing?” Leon asked, whispering in Adalgrim’s ear.
“I think he’s trying to make ghouls,” the older knight responded.
Leon frowned but was grateful that the vampire seemed to be failing at his task. Ghouls were corpses that were controlled by a demon worshipper to perform basic labor not dissimilar to stone giants or the bronze golems he’d encountered in the past, only instead of a manufactured body, ghouls were made by puppeting corpses, making them much weaker and prone to rot. Creating a handful of ghouls was one of the first steps older and stronger vampires took in their establishment of a nest.
But, for one reason or another, the vampire below them couldn’t accomplish his task. He kept injecting his magic power into the corpse he was leaning over, but it remained inanimate.
“GET UP!” the vampire roared at the corpse. “DO SOMETHING!” The creature forced something that glowed red deep into the corpse’s open chest and waited. For several seconds, he stood there, watching in frustration as the glowing object slowly dimmed.
The vampire then turned back to the bonfire and walked to a small table with several bowls placed upon it. He reached for the largest, made of dark grey metal and covered in glowing red runes. The bowl could easily hold several gallons of blood, and from the stains on the sides Leon guessed it frequently did, but now it was almost entirely empty.
Dropping to his knees, the vampire begged, “Please, my Lord, tell me where I have failed in my task. Bestow your knowledge unto me, that I may bring others into your glorious light!”
Once he finished his plea, the vampire then picked up the bowl, brought it to his lips, and began to drink the last dregs of blood within.
“We can’t let him finish…” Adalgrim said quietly. Looking around, the soldiers had mostly gotten into position and were waiting on him to give the word. The vampire below was chugging the last drops of blood which was causing the demonic aura that pervaded the cave to roil and churn, so Adalgrim didn’t hesitate to raise his hand and make a fist—his silent signal to attack.
Immediately, eight soldiers leaped down from the scaffolding, including Adalgrim, and attacked the vampire. Three of them were wielding spears, and they plummeted toward the creature seeking to impale him as they landed. Adalgrim led the attack, while his squire, Leon, and Alix watched. Leon was a little curious as to why the fifth-tier Adalgrim wasn’t using elemental magic, but it was already too late to ask.
Whether it was by his magic senses or by hearing their descent, the vampire realized what was happening and barely managed to dodge the spears by the skin of his teeth. This might’ve left the three spear-wielding soldiers vulnerable, but Adalgrim charged with his sword drawn and closed the distance between himself and the vampire in less than a second; the vampire never got a chance to retaliate against the spear-wielders.
However, even when surrounded and heavily outnumbered, the blood-sucker was a terrifying foe. He dodged Adalgrim’s opening sword stab and responded with a blast of fire, sending the knight reeling. Three more soldiers attacked from behind, preventing the vampire from capitalizing on the knight’s brief vulnerability. Adalgrim took the opportunity to regain his footing and charge again, ignoring the embers that smoldered in his armor.
The vampire was cornered and desperate, with strong, armored, and experienced soldiers completely surrounding him, and it was only the liberal application of demonfire that kept them at bay. There was no witty banter, no pause to speak; Adalgrim and his soldiers were the pictures of professionalism, and they didn’t give the vampire a single moment to recover, constantly attacking when his back was turned and when the demonfire dissipated.
After almost a minute of applying pressure, though, the vampire began to slip up. First by only sustaining a few nicks and cuts, but eventually, Adalgrim stepped back and conjured a small ice spike about the size of a large nail in the air. This spike was launched straight into the vampire’s back, eliciting a blood-curdling cry of pain. The soldiers on the other side didn’t waste this opportunity, and charged, with one cutting off one of the vampire’s arms and the other two stabbing him in the chest.
“Nooo…” the vampire moaned as his blood poured out of him and he sank to his knees. His sunken, blood-red eyes turned to the bonfire as Adalgrim stood behind him, ready to cut the creature’s head off.
“Maybe you could’ve used that ice spike from the beginning?” one of the other soldiers said.
“Yeah, could’ve saved a ton of time,” another responded.
Adalgrim chuckled as he raised his blade and said with equal amounts of sarcasm, “I suppose that would’ve been better, but I didn’t want all of you to feel useless…”
The vampire continued to stare into the fire throughout all of this, completely unmoving. He didn’t even try to rise from his kneeling position. Leon followed the vampire’s gaze out of curiosity, wondering what the creature found so compelling—assuming it wasn’t just dejection from being abandoned by the demon he worshipped.
Leon froze as he stared into the fire. He saw eyes, barely visible but still distinct enough for him to know that it wasn’t a trick of the writhing flames. These eyes seemed to stare back at him.
Suddenly, as Adalgrim was bringing his sword down to strike the killing blow, the vampire burst into dark red flames hurling him backward and a voice boomed throughout the cavern, shaking the rocks and causing long streams of dust and soil to fall from the ceiling.
“YOU HAVE BEEN REMARKABLY DISAPPOINTING. AS YOU CANNOT PROVIDE ME WITH ANYTHING OTHER THAN MORTAL BLOOD, I WILL TAKE MY DUE FROM YOUR OWN FLESH…”
Leon stared in horror as the vampire burned. The creature screamed and thrashed around, desperately trying to beat out the fire that consumed him, but demonfire isn’t so easily extinguished when provided with a steady supply of magic power. A couple of soldiers instinctively tried to get close and put out the fire, but the power radiating out from it prevented them from getting close enough.
[Don’t let that being die by fire!] shouted Xaphan, taking Leon completely by surprise. [Kill him now! Don’t let that demon take him!]
Leon didn’t question his partner—if this was important enough for the demon to break his months-long silence, then the least Leon could do was to take it with the utmost seriousness. Leon called upon his magic power, channeled it into his right arm, and conjured a golden lightning spear. The spear was so bright that it illuminated the entire cavern, making even the bonfire seem pale in comparison.
Taking only a second to aim, Leon hurled the spear at the vampire, who had fallen to the ground and ceased to move. The spear impaled the vampire and exploded into a shower of sparks and smaller arcs of lightning, enveloping the vampire completely. The force of the blast was enough to knock back several of the other soldiers who were standing too close, and everyone had to avert their gaze to prevent the lightning from searing their eyes.
The lightning dissipated after a moment, and everyone opened their eyes to see the vampire lying charred and smoking on the ground. He was dead as far as anyone could tell, with not even the faintest wisp of magical power detectable upon his corpse.
The bonfire in the center of the cavern, however, was still burning just as brightly, and the eyes within stared back at Leon. There was no hatred or anger to be seen within them, but Leon could see faint annoyance in that demonic gaze. Hatred and anger, however, he could feel rippling out from Xaphan like tidal waves.
[Amon…] Xaphan whispered almost too quietly for Leon to hear.
The bonfire then extinguished itself, plunging the cavern into darkness.
[What was that?] Leon demanded while Adalgrim and the other soldiers swore and tried to get their bearings in the sudden dark.
[… Nothing…] Xaphan muttered.
[My ass that was nothing!] Leon shouted back. [I can feel your anger, demon! We’re connected by our contract, you can’t lie to me! What was that?]
Xaphan was silent for a moment, debating with himself how much he wanted to say, but he could hear the insistence in Leon’s voice and knew that he wasn’t going to give this up, so he said, [That was Amon, one of my rivals from back when I was still competing to become a Lord of Flame. It was over his corpse that I claimed the title of Lord.]
[That fire didn’t seem particularly corpselike,] Leon pointed out.
[No, it didn’t,] Xaphan admitted, his anger cooling with every second that passed. [But he was dead at my feet! I checked countless times—he was dead! But now I have my proof… Amon yet lives…]
[‘Proof’?] Leon asked. [So you suspected this guy was still kicking?]
[I was told that he survived, and while it was by a trustworthy source, it still doesn’t quite compare to encountering evidence of his survival in some random cave in the middle of a lower plane!]
As they spoke, the other soldiers finished channeling magic into their eyes, adjusting their vision to the dark, and started getting organized.
“Let’s try and grab these bodies!” Adalgrim called out. “If we can transport them back to the village, then we should!”
“What about the vamp?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Leave it,” the knight responded.
Leon and Alix jumped down to help out while Anzu stayed up on the scaffolding shaking like a leaf in the wind. The young griffin wasn’t taking this experience well, what with descending so deep underground and the primal fear of fire. Leon wasn’t needed to help with the bodies, so he and Alix returned to the top of the scaffolding to comfort Anzu. The griffin had laid down on the ground and folded his wings over his eyes, shaking all the while. Leon knelt down and began stroking the fur on his back, while Alix made soft humming sounds.
It worked, as when the soldiers climbed back up the scaffolding with the bodies of the villagers, Anzu had stopped shaking, stood up, and tried to curl up into Leon’s arms. He still wouldn’t let Alix touch him, though, snapping at her when she tried.
“That’s rude,” Alix said with a frown, trying not to sound too offended.
“I’m sure he’ll come around eventually,” Leon said sincerely. It was starting to grate on his nerves a little how much Anzu depended on him, especially since he wouldn’t eat much unless Leon himself fed him.
Regardless, the griffin had calmed down enough to follow Leon and the rest of the soldiers as they marched back out of the cave.
[So, can you tell me any more about this ‘Amon’?] Leon asked as he walked.
[… No,] Xaphan answered.
[Really? After what I just saw?! That demon looked like it was going to try and burn us all to death!]
[That would’ve been impossible,] Xaphan replied. [All he was trying to take was the magic power within that vampire, and he wasn’t being gentle about it.]
[And you didn’t want him to take that power, so you had me kill the vampire,] Leon observed.
[Right. It’s only denying him a minuscule amount of power, but I still couldn’t stand to let him have it!]
Leon waited for Xaphan to continue, but after several seconds he realized the demon wasn’t going to. [Very well,] he said. [I’ll let you keep this secret for now, but I expect a story one of these days…]
[That’s… fair,] Xaphan responded.
The rest of the walk back out of the cave was done in silence.
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