Chapter 1: Introductions, by M-chan
It began on the third day of the Naming. The Underground was packed. Not one table was unused and not one chair was empty. Chatter about the Naming filled the air inside the Underground, making it thick as honey. The year’s Naming was to be a successful one, and everyone was excited at the prospect of another potential successor for the Oracle of Vayr.
At one of the oak tables sat two young men and one woman, all worn out travelers. Unusual circumstances had brought the three together, and now they were to stay in the town of Xae until the end of the Naming. Such was the prophecy of the Oracle, although such a detail slipped by unbeknownst. It would not have made much difference anyway.
In the crowded room, a man weaved through the people until he came to stand by the table of the three travelers. All three looked up at him. It was obvious that he was not originally from Xae, for those born in Xae all have blonde hair and blue eyes. He was one with auburn hair and muddy brown eyes, an uncommon combination in the country of Vayr. To the travelers, he was a strange and suspicious man.
The woman spoke up first, wary. She asked, “Is there something we can do for you, sir?”
“Surely I can come here just to make some new friends,” the man replied, smiling broadly.
The woman scowled, storm clouds dancing in her yellow eyes. She did not like the strange man who had suddenly approached her. She did not trust strangers, and she noted how suspicious his sudden actions were. If he had given her a straight answer, it would have been better. Such was not the case, however.
“Well?” he asked sincerely. “Is it not okay to meet with new people?”
A gentle quiet fell onto the tail of the man’s words, one that neither of the woman’s companions dared to fill. The woman also cared not to speak. She did not appreciate the company of this man. She simply turned away, using her brown hair as a curtain of protection. As for the man who had initiated the encounter, he wanted the woman to give in first, although no one could tell it from looking at him.
Around them, the merry laughter and banter had died down. In its place was born whispers of curiosity. To those native to Xae, it was inconceivable to think that mere travelers dare confront the man who had started the conversation. To them, he had done nothing wrong or out of the ordinary.
Already short of patience, the woman finally hissed, “What is it that you want?”
The man laughed. “Me? I am simply an innkeeper, making friends.”
All was quiet again, at least long enough to let the answer confuse those who did not know the innkeeper that well. What was the innkeeper of the Underground doing, suddenly speaking with random travelers? Such were the wonderings of those who did not know the innkeeper well. To those familiar with him, it was a normal occurrence, him speaking with random strangers. He was often a rather eccentric character. Despite that fact, the natives of Xae were fond of him. Thus, they did not question his odd habits.
After a moment, or maybe three, some people scurried out of the Underground. They, who did not know the innkeeper, did not want to be involved in any sort of hostility. The others in the Underground stayed, mostly because the nature of all mortals is to be curious of things.
As if speaking was a great defeat, the woman finally spat out, “What is your name, innkeeper?”
“I have many names,” was the cryptic reply.
Such words only worked to aggravate the woman even more, if such a thing was possible. She did not like when people toyed with her. She enjoyed being the cat, torturing its food. She hardly indulged in trying it the other way around.
Sensing her anger, he continued, “But people around here call me Tony.”
One of the woman’s companions bent towards her and uttered a few words. She glowered at him for a moment before turning back to look at the man known as Tony. To her, he was nothing but a lowly innkeeper. His scruffy hair and young eyes made him foolish to her, not worth any time. He was simply an uneducated man, young and stupid, with no life of excitement and knowledge. He was not trustworthy, either. His age contributed to the woman’s suspicions, for no one that young was usually an innkeeper. Really, she cared not for his kind. She only desired that he would stop bothering her. She even found herself wishing that he would die right there, gone in his naivety.
Yet, her companion was correct in the gentle words that he had spoken to her. In their homeland, it was a name for a name. It was only right that she continue to follow her customs, even in a strange land. Yet, the innkeeper did not merit her true name, for he surely had not given his. However, he still deserved something, if not the whole thing.
The woman at last decided that it would be in her best interests to act nice, play the role of a sweet and weary traveler. Such a thing would possibly get her information, such as what the innkeeper wanted. Acting weary would not even be too hard, for she truly was exhausted.
Suddenly switching into her role, she flashed the innkeeper a small smile before saying, “People call me Molly.”
She offered him her hand. He took it gingerly, as if she were made of porcelain, and kissed her fingers. The gesture was almost mocking. She reddened in the face at such a bold act, already tempted to slap him.
Before she could, though, the innkeeper named Tony turned away and left, disappearing into the kitchen in the back. Molly and her two companions stared in wonder. Never before had any of them met such a bold, and intriguing, man.
Shaking her head, Molly turned back to her two companions. She met each of their gazes, and they all traded silent words. It was agreed.
The Naming was to be an interesting one, as would be the people involved. Maybe they would even find what they were searching for over the past several decades.
That night, when everyone had cleared out of the Underground, Molly and her companions still sat at their table. Silence swirled through the air, almost choking the three weary people. Yet, they remained. Molly wished to settle something.
For the second time that day, the innkeeper approached. His footsteps were inaudible, however, and he crept up on Molly and her companions as if he were a jungle cat stalking its prey.
He said, “Hello, Miss Molly.”
Molly jumped up, swung around to face him, and then glared at him. It seemed that her short brown hair froze for a second, hanging flared out around her heart shaped face. Then it settled, slightly ruffled. With a silent prayer to the gods for success, Molly resolved to figure out the motives behind Tony’s actions. Yet, she also found that she wished to wring his neck instead. He was just so irritating, sneaking up on her.
One of her companions placed a restraining hand on Molly’s shoulder. It was a reminder of what they were after. That prompt sat Molly back in her seat.
“Well?” she asked, looking up at Tony. “Will you finally tell me what this is about?”
Tony’s pale lips tugged into a smile. He found Molly’s impatience rather refreshing. It reminded him of someone else, someone he had been close to many years ago. Molly brought back all the memories of that person.
With an inward shake of the head, Tony refocused himself. He had a task, although he hardly knew it. He was simply prying for information, for he suspected Molly and her companions of something.
At last, he inquired, “Is the Naming what truly brought you here, Miss Molly?”
Such a query was an accusation in Molly’s ears. It sounded as if Tony were interrogating her. Additionally, Molly felt that Tony was prying into her secrets, trying to question her motives for visiting the town of Xae. Ironically, Molly was planning to do the same, to pry for secrets and motives.
Tony examined Molly, pondering how long it would take to break her. He wondered if he could do it before the end of the Naming. How fun it would be, shattering her sanity and then piecing it back together. Oh what fun it would be, making Molly his plaything. He could amuse himself for days, weeks, or maybe even years.
Tony shook off thoughts of torturing Molly. Those were not his thoughts. They belonged to someone else entirely.
To take his mind off his disturbing thoughts, Tony said, “You’re Seekers, aren’t you?”
Molly flushed, thinking of many unladylike things that she could say in response.
One of Molly’s companions coughed softly, stealing her attention. She froze before she could start yelling at Tony. Molly looked towards the door. Tony followed her alert gaze, his expression unreadable.
At that moment, the Underground’s windows rattled. It was a sign that someone was climbing the stairs to the Underground. Tony found himself thinking of the irony of the Underground’s name, considering that the inn was perched in the treetops.
A man entered the Underground, bringing darkness with him. It was as if the temperature in the room had dropped below freezing and the fire had dimmed.
“Daemon Slayer,” hissed Molly’s companions.
With slow movements, he approached. His midnight colored cloak seem to be made of shadows, clinging to him as he walked. Tony tried to inspect the man’s face, but found that the hood of his cloak cast darkness over his features. Only a single bright blue eye was visible.
“Hello,” said the strange man. His voice was surprisingly gentle, like a breeze through a grove of aspen trees. Yet, it was not so light and carefree. His tone was more sorrowful, pained.
Tony finally decided to ask, “Might I inquire who you are, and why you’re here?”
He answered, “They call me Jason, the Daemon Slayer.” He glanced at Molly. “I’m not who you should be worried about, though. You should be concerned with the Seekers.”
“We aren’t Seekers, you bastard,” Molly growled. She had not gotten the chance to clarify, and it felt good to get mad at someone.
The same companion who had restrained Molly multiple times earlier gave her a firm look. His muddy brown eyes glowered at Molly without him having to change his expression. Molly glowered back, fierce in her determination.
That same companion spoke at last, saying, “Calm down Molly. It is not uncommon for our kind to be mistaken for the Seekers of Semna.”
“Shut up, Leo. An old man such as you has no right to tell me what to do.” Molly harrumphed indignantly at her companion named Leo.
Leo looked startled at Molly’s response. His features froze in an expression of annoyance and shock. Tony had to bite back a laugh.
Leo managed to say, “I’m not that old, thank you.”
“Everyone,” Jason, also called Daemon Slayer, said, “Can we focus on less trivial matters, please? Such as why servants of Gyen are here.”
“It’s about time he got it right,” Molly muttered dourly.
Leo sighed dramatically and addressed Jason and Tony. “Both of you seem to know much more than the average person would.” Looking at Jason, he said, “Who are you? Certainly, you are more than a Daemon Slayer.” Then, to Tony, he said, “And who are you? You are too young and far too knowledgeable to be a normal innkeeper.”
The three men exchanged glances. None of them seemed willing to budge. Leo wanted answers. Tony wanted information. As for Jason, no one knew what he wanted. Molly looked back and forth among the three. She wanted someone to settle the situation. It was hard to think that they would get anywhere anytime soon.
Tony relented first, mostly because he was tired. Jason had predicted that, although Tony was not aware of the fact. Tony was also oblivious to the fact that Jason and he were already acquainted.
Tony decided to address Molly, saying, “You want to finish the Codex, don’t you?”
How had he known? How would a young, foolish, naïve innkeeper know? Such were Molly’s thoughts. She could hardly fathom that Tony had figured out her quest so easily. That it took so little effort even annoyed Molly, as much else seemed to do.
Yet, she grudgingly said, “Yes, you are correct.”
“Then let’s make a bet, you and me. How about that, Miss Molly?” Tony allowed himself a small smile. The expression of cheer flitted across his face for a quick instant. Molly was immediately wary of his suggestion, sensing some sort of trickery.
However, her instinct brought her to say, “Sure.”
Tony allowed himself another smile, though inwardly that time. “If the Naming is successful, I will get the man you are looking for, and convince him to help you with the Codex. If the Naming fails, you leave Xae and don’t return with anymore business regarding the Codex.”
The odds were stacked against Molly. Yet, she had never been one to turn away from a bet; no matter how much the odds were against her. She held out her hand to Tony, to seal the deal. She waited for him to kiss her fingers mockingly. However, Tony took her seriously. They shook on the deal, both with tight grips.
With that finished, Molly gestured to her companions. They followed her to the other stairs in the room, the ones that led to the rooms on the second floor of the Underground.
Tony called after them, “Your rooms are the last two on the third hall on the second floor.”
Molly did not acknowledge Tony’s statement, but he knew that she had heard. She was simply too stubborn to reply. Her blood was still boiling. Leo, however, looked back and nodded his thanks. His muddy eyes glowed warmly, and Tony found himself already fond of the boy.
Jason spoke up after Molly was gone. “How are you going to convince him to help them? How are you even going to find him?” He knew the true answers. He also knew what answers Tony would give. Still, he wanted to hear it from Tony.
“I’m not going to help them,” Tony said firmly.
“So you lied?” Jason enjoyed question Tony, mostly because it annoyed Tony. Such was a fun game in Jason’s mind.
“No. I don’t lie.” Tony snorted. “I just know that the Naming hasn’t been successful for the past fifty centuries. It doesn’t take a genius to know who will win this.”
“Yeah,” Jason agreed, though he sounded as if he felt that Tony would lose the bet.
“Besides,” Tony continued, “That’s not my concern right now.”
“What is, then?” Jason asked cautiously, immediately feeling the shift in the air. The interrogator was no longer Jason.
Tony eyed him. They both knew what the other was thinking, what he would say. It was scary, how well they knew each other. Tony could hardly understand the connection.
“Tell me the truth,” Tony whispered, and his voice still carried through the room. It was a familiar tone to Jason. “Who are you?”
Jason sighed and sat down across from where Molly had been sitting just earlier. Tony sat in Molly’s seat. Between them settled silence, as was common with the people Tony had interacted with lately.
Tony looked down at the table, suddenly wondering if he could drag the information he wanted out of someone. He wondered if there was any form and amount of torture that would make Jason tell him everything he wanted to know. He wondered how easy, how fun, it would be to break Jason.
Tony had to remind himself that those were not his thoughts. Those were someone else’s thoughts. They belonged to an inner Daemon, not Tony, just as had been the case with his thoughts about Molly.
“Anthony,” Jason growled abruptly. He knew of Tony’s disturbing thoughts, and knew that Tony’s inner Daemon would attack without hesitation. Such was the nature of the Nothing’s servant. The workers of the underworld would kill without thinking.
Tony found himself staring at Jason’s only visible feature. That blue eye drew him inward. He wondered whom Jason was, to call him “Anthony”. When was the last time someone had addressed him by that name?
Jason held Tony’s gaze for what felt like years. He only wanted to shut up Tony’s Daemon. How hard was it to listen to an inner Daemon? Jason wondered if he would finally find a way to kill off Tony’s inner Daemon.
“Funny thing,” Jason said slowly, “You not remembering me. I recall you with perfect clarity.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the hooded figure before him. He was almost completely certain that he had never before met Jason. Yet, he was also certain that Jason was not lying. Jason’s voice was too sincere to be lying. Tony had no idea who was right.
Before Tony could realize it, Jason was reaching across the table. Tony noticed how bandages covered Jason’s left arm. It was a small detail compared to everything else recently, but Tony noticed it.
Jason placed his hand over Tony’s heart. Tony gasped, feeling electricity run through his body. For an instant, Tony thought that Jason was going to kill him. Then, just as quickly, Tony felt at ease. It was as if someone had calmed his inner Daemon, if only for the moment. He knew that the Daemon was lurking in the depths of his mind, but at least it was quiet for a bit.
“Remember me?” Jason murmured.
Tony stared at him, wide eyed. He suddenly knew who Jason was. He knew that Jason was no stranger. He knew just as well that Jason was supposed to be dead. It left Tony with more questions than answers.
“How did you find me?” Tony whispered.
“Easily,” Jason said, drawing back his hand. “You didn’t cover up your tracks as well as you’d think.”
Tony leapt to his feet, overturning his chair. “How many others have found me?”
Jason chuckled, amused by Tony’s reaction. He said, “No one, my friend. I was only joking. Honestly, it was a pain to track you down.”
Tony stared a Jason for a brief second before letting out a sigh of relief. With that much known, he finally reverted to his character as a friendly innkeeper. He picked up his chair and took his seat again, smiling. Yet, his smile was more cautious, fake, and strained. Jason took note of that.
“So,” Tony said with fake cheer, “What brought you here? It certainly wasn’t the Codex.”
“Of course it wasn’t the Codex,” Jason said dismissively, standing up. “I was just visiting. We can talk about it tomorrow. Do you really think–”
It happened quick and unexpected. As Jason was moving to leave the Underground, he stumbled. Not steadying himself, he fell to the ground.
Tony was kneeling by Jason’s side in an instant. His hands fluttered around Jason, unsure of what to do. Tony found himself reliving the past. He remembered the Daemons coming to life, slowly tearing apart the minds of Tony and his two companions.
With a shake of his head, Tony banished such thoughts and remembrances. He had better things to do than to relive his past. He closed his eyes, trying to recall the words to the Ancient Rites. As Tony racked his brain, Jason managed to pull back his hood. At last, Tony could see Jason’s pale face. Deep set were Jason’s eyes, one of which was glass. His red lips set into a determined line, and Tony saw resolve on Jason’s face.
“Please,” Jason whispered, “Don’t let me kill anyone.”
Silence fell over the room, just as a blanket would drop onto a sleeping child. It was an impenetrable silence. Such was the kind that left room enough for heavy thinking. It was even quiet outside the inn. It was as if all had stilled for Jason and Tony.
Memories of failure came to Tony. They reminded him of how he had already failed to save someone. He could not afford to let Jason down. He still needed to ask Jason something important. With a new resolve, Tony set to praying the Rites silently, as was custom. He also prayed that such a thing would work.