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What Lies at the End

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In theory, all he has to do is find the demon in the catacombs, and slay it.

In reality, the mission is not so simple. There are no maps of the catacombs, and what little information Oleana had provided him of its layout is useless in the face of caved-in tunnels, secret chambers and the infinite, unending dark. Their meager torchlight does little to pierce the shadows; all they have to guide them are the halls descending into the earth, and Raihan's senses as to where the light is at its faintest, and the darkness its most sinister. If not for his partner, Leon is quite confident that he would soon become lost down here in a heartbeat.

Rats and shadow creatures flit about at their feet, but for the most part, the mere aura of Raihan’s magic scares them off, and they only occasionally have to deal with a couple of beasts that are bold or hungry enough to attempt an attack on them.

The maze-like corridors they follow are bleak, just barren, stone-bricked walls and empty sconces, endless halls that branch off into sections of dungeons and storage rooms. The prison cells of the dungeons have long since been abandoned to time. But the deeper they go, the more an unsettling sense of dread seeps into their hearts. 

Alchemy stations, glittering with gold dust and shattered glass. Torture chambers of iron maidens and breaking wheels. Strange altars with otherworldly, twisted configurations that give them such a sense of dread Leon knows they are better left alone. Some of these items show signs of recent use; he’s not sure he wants to know.

It's strange. He had not known that these… activities were being done here, under the castle; by who, he hasn’t the faintest inkling. Raihan seems disturbed as well, examining everything warily from a healthy distance. But it is not their job to investigate these, and Raihan senses no lingering malice clinging to the cursed objects, so the two of them hurry past the ominous artifacts and follow the darkness deeper in.

Even further down, the stone brick of their environment gives way to twisting, bare cavern, so rarely used they hadn't been worth paving. Whatever traces of activity that may have existed here once have long since crumbled to dust; and yet, Raihan picks up on the faint scent of burnt flesh, growing ever more pungent. The telltale sign of a demonic presence.

At this point, this far in the stifling dark, Leon’s torch hardly illuminates past his own feet, and Raihan shifts fully into his dragon form so that he can see better in the dark. All he can do is place one careful foot in front of the other, and trust in Raihan to watch out for the both of them. The scuttling footsteps of night creatures around them grows the further they traverse, as do the squeals in the dark. The shadows cling to their feet, and it is only when they set up camp and light a fire that the darkspawn are encouraged to keep at bay.

The demon could ambush them at any moment; it’s for the best that they remain as well rested as they can manage, so Leon takes first watch, guarding their meager refuge while Raihan rests. It's been many hours they've travelled, and the many hours of trekking over uneven stone tunnels has worn them out; they nap in turns, sleeping lightly and rousing at the lightest disturbance. Leon’s bones ache, and he wishes that he could take the time to get in some proper sleep before they have to face their objective. But soon they must continue on, and follow the stone trails downward.

At the end of the path, the cavern opens up to reveal a grand set of heavy iron doors, pitch black and imposing against the rock. The torchlight glistens off of them ominously. Here, all is silent; even Leon can sense the danger thick in the air. Raihan pauses, sniffing the air and growling.

“I have a bad feeling about this place,” he says, radiating caution. “This must be it.”

When Leon pushes at the great doors, they groan in protest, and for a moment, he wonders if age has sealed these doors shut. But then Raihan joins him, and together they heave and shove until the rusted hinges give way and slowly creak open. Leon tightens his grip on his sword; Raihan rubs his cheek against him comfortingly. 

The room beyond the grand set of doors is smaller than expected; their single torch manages to fully illuminate the small chamber, revealing carved stone walls and a worn altar. The scent of burnt ruination is at its sharpest here. Lines of crumbled red wax and runes are drawn across the floor, surrounding its perimeter and clustered near the doorway. 

“Binding magic,” Raihan murmurs. “Keep an eye out.”

But the room is small enough that its entirety is visible from where the pair stands at its entrance, and Leon frowns as he casts his eyes about. He had half expected the demon, or at least some kind of danger, to ambush them as soon as they entered, but as the seconds pass, nothing happens, and continues to not happen. His heart is pounding in his ears from the adrenaline, and he can sense that Raihan is just as on edge as he is.

A shadowy mass rests in the center of the room, so dark that the light from their torch does nothing to distinguish its features. It is only when the mass raises its pale head to look up into their eyes does Leon realize what it is. 

"I would know that stench anywhere," the demon sneers, from where it is bound to the floor. "Ye lot reek of Rose." 

The lilt of its voice is almost melodic, though its words are furious, and the piercing blue-green of the demon’s eyes almost shine against the black of the sclera. Despite the heavy, hexed chains restraining the creature to the ground, even Leon can sense the powerful magic radiating off of it, and he can't help the shiver that runs up his spine as the demon hisses with hostility. Everything in his body is screaming danger at him, and he raises his sword in a defensive stance; at his side, Raihan growls, scales standing on end and bristling warily. 

Leon feels the shift in the air before he sees it; power surges around Raihan and the burn of divine light magic gathers around the dragon. The demon snarls as it senses the danger, and yanks against its restraints in vain, though the pulse of black magic fizzes out and dies in the face of the powerful binding runes around its frail wrists. 

This seems too easy. There is no use for the salt, the holy water, the supplies in his pack, let alone the sacred sword in his hands. One blast of Raihan's holy magic will be enough to burn the weakened demon to ashes. Unease settles in his core, and before he can think about what he’s doing, he quickly sheathes his sword and shouts for his partner.

“Raihan, wait!” Leon yells.

The lurch is palpable when Raihan’s magic is sapped, his instincts urging him to follow Leon’s guidance, and the burn of light magic dissipates from the air. The dragon whines, clearly distressed, but something is eating at Leon.

“You know Rose,” he says, facing the demon. 

“Of course I know the bloody bastard, he trapped me here,” it spits. 

Leon frowns. “Rose… trapped you here?”

The demon hisses. “I said what I said. Bastard chained me to this room and left me here to rot.”

“Leon, this is a demon. Don’t listen to it, it’s just trying to use you.” Raihan’s agitation is apparent, radiating off him in waves. Through their bond, Leon can feel Raihan's anxiety quickening his own heart rate, but he takes a deep breath and tries to send nothing but reassurance back to him.

“I know, Rai, but please—I feel like something’s really not right about this. Please, trust me?”

Raihan grumbles and whines, but he eventually settles on his haunches, looking directly at Leon. “Only because I trust you,” he says testily. “It’s against everything I know, to converse with the nightspawn, but… you know I trust you more than anything else.”

“Thank you, Rai,” Leon beams, relieved, and then he turns to the shadowy entity before them. He doesn’t know where to even start, but… introductions are always a safe bet, he supposes.

Carefully, he asks, “What’s your name?”

The shadow merely scoffs. “I am but a minor demon, human. Ye ought to know that if I told you my true name, I'd soon lose all of my power.”

“Good,” Raihan mutters under his breath, but Leon hushes him and tries again.

“Okay, I respect that. But I’d like to call you by something more pleasant than 'demon', if that’s alright with you.”

“Hm,” the demon concedes, seeming leery. “...You may call me Piers.” 

Leon sighs in relief. “Thank you, Piers,” he says sincerely. “I am Leon, crown prince of the Kingdom, and this is Raihan, crown dragon and my partner. Would you mind if I asked a few questions of you?" 

"It’s not like I have a choice, do I?" Piers sneers, yanking against his restraints and letting the metal clank against itself. Fair enough.

Leon furrows his brow, and concentrates on figuring out what it is that is eating at him. There’s something that doesn’t quite add up.

“Why would Rose trap you here?”

“‘Cause I’m a demon?” Piers says scornfully. “Why else d’ye think? Ye light dwellers hate the darkspawn, and rightfully so.”

"That’s understandable, but… His Majesty the King Regent Rose told us that the blight across the Kingdom was being caused by a demon residing under the castle," Leon recalls slowly. "Is this true?" 

Piers scoffs. "I’ve been trapped here since the first winter after the bastard became Regent; I can't even summon enough magic to get out of this shithole. Ye think I have the power to rain blight upon the lands, in this state?" 

“A decade and a half he’s been down here, then,” Raihan murmurs stiffly. Leon, too, bites his lip. 

A decade and a half. The timing is too close to be a coincidence. 

“Was… why did Rose decide to trap you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Leon says slowly. He’s not sure he wants to know. His hand reaches for his blade, ever so slightly, his mother’s gold eyes flashing before his eyes.

“Ye really can’t figure it out?” Piers hisses. “I told you, Rose hates demons. I’m a fuckin’ demon, in case ye haven’t noticed, and we demons are dangerous creatures. Why else would the bastard trap me here?”

“He didn’t imprison you because you’d killed anyone, or anything?” Raihan pushes. 

“Nah,” Piers says. “There was enough death lurkin’ in that castle to drive even a demon off.”

He doesn’t elaborate on that cryptic statement. Raihan gives Leon a look.

“Even if the timing’s just a coincidence, I doubt Rose would have trapped a demon for no reason,” Raihan says hesitantly. “Though I also don’t understand why Rose didn’t just kill him then, and waited until now to send us.”

“Beats me,” Piers huffs. “Ye done interrogatin’ me yet?”

“For now,” Raihan says. “Leon… I still don’t think it’s wise to trust what he’s saying yet. But I don’t think he’s lying about not being responsible for the blight, at least.”

Looking him over, Leon has to agree that, no, Piers doesn't seem nearly powerful enough to cause widespread disease across the kingdom. Perhaps it’s because of the complete normalcy of his name as well, but now that he’s taken a closer look at him, and has a name to put to the face, Piers looks less like the sinister, apocalyptic horror that Rose had described, and more like a mere prisoner; bones jut from his thin frame, and his sunken eyes contrast sharply with the pallor of his countenance. The white streaks in his black hair are grayed with soot and years’ worth of grime.

Leon knows full well that appearances can be deceiving. He’s lived his whole life being taught not to trust anything he’s told, unless it came from the palace. Rose and Oleana’s voices are clear in his mind.

You are the crown prince of the Kingdom, Leon. You must grow up to be a powerful leader who thinks first of the Kingdom and its people. And you must never show weakness.

Given the chance, he’s sure Raihan would gladly cover for his moment of weakness, and complete the mission for him; the two of them would return to the castle, officially having come of age, and be crowned together as the Kingdom’s new rulers. But that doesn’t feel right to him, not with his gut screaming at him and saying that something is incredibly wrong, and for once, Rose isn’t here to tell him to be strong, be a good leader, don’t be weak or selfish .

He thinks of Rose. Cold and stern, an excellent leader. He thinks of his parents, warm by the fire. He knows what his heart says.

“Can I free you, somehow?” Leon blurts. 

For a moment, Piers and Raihan just stare at him, uncomprehending. 

“Are ye stupid?” Piers asks, squinting. “Ye want to free a demon from imprisonment? Mortal enemies of divine dragons, exterminators of mankind? Ye don’t think there’s a reason I’m locked down here?”

“Right,” Raihan says, and then corrects himself. “I mean, no, I’m not agreeing with him. But Leon… are you sure about this? You know how dangerous the darkspawn are. The Kingdom...”

“Don’t you think Rose’s story was suspicious?” Leon asks. “He told us to kill a demon that was wreaking havoc across the Kingdom, but Piers here is clearly confined and barely has the strength to even move. Those binding runes on his shackles make it impossible for him to use magic, don’t they? I doubt he could even have retaliated, when we almost attacked him, let alone started the blight."

"I know your heart’s set on this, so I won’t argue with you on that front," Raihan says cautiously. “But as your crown partner, I have to save you from your own kindness, Leon. What proof do we have that he isn't lying about all this, and that he won't just kill us as soon as we free him? Countless people, royalty or otherwise, have been tempted by demons before. We don’t have to free him. We could just leave him here."

Piers narrows his eyes at Leon. "The dragon’s right, prince. Don't make promises ye can't keep. If ye have no intention of freein' me, then either kill me or begone." 

It's true. Leon has no evidence to prove that Piers won't betray them as soon as they take off the restraints, and he struggles to find the words to explain what he feels to Raihan. He can sense the trepidation coming from Raihan, underneath that calm expression; he needs to reassure Raihan and convince his partner to trust him on his gut instinct. 

"I know what demons are capable of, Raihan," Leon says, fighting to find his words. "And I know the stories they tell around the Kingdom. But I really, really get the sense that Piers, at least, isn't lying about this. I don’t feel good about abandoning him here, if there’s something we can do about it." 

"If it makes you feel better, I trust the dragon about as much as he trusts me," Piers interjects. He takes a deep breath, as if he's trying to calm himself, and fixes Raihan with a piercing gaze. "I get it. Humans and demons are creatures of lies, right? S’been a long time since I’ve done this, but…”

He twists his lips; there’s a shift, imperceptible to Leon’s eyes, and then a guttural, sonorous speech unlike any Leon is familiar with comes spilling from his mouth. The sounds are incomprehensible to Leon’s ears, far removed from any human language he knows, but Raihan stiffens like a board, the blood draining from his face as he listens to the dissonant harmony.

“You—you can speak in dragontongue.”

“Aye,” Piers says tiredly. “Ye know what that means.”

“What did he say?” Leon asks, turning to his partner. 

“He… swears not to harm us so long as we don’t harm him first,” Raihan translates slowly. “And that if we free him, he’ll owe us a debt.”

“A debt?” Leon asks, confused. Raihan seems hesitant to continue, so Leon takes his hand and squeezes it encouragingly.

“The thing is, lies cannot be uttered in dragontongue… and favours from demons are not given out lightly. It’s rare that it happens, and they’re tricky creatures, but demons will always repay a debt owed. He’s serious about this, if we are.”

“I know ye divine dragons despise us, but we have pride, thank you,” Piers scoffs. “I’d rather rot here than be branded an oathbreaker by other demons. They’re far scarier than you could ever be, little dragon.”

Raihan pauses, and asks something in dragontongue, to which Piers replies in kind. Raihan hums and mulls over the words as he translates. “He also promises not to kill anyone or cause wanton destruction, unless it’s to fulfill his end of the debt.” He scowls, and his voice drops severely. “If you ever hurt Leon, demon, know this: I will hunt you down to the ends of the world.”

Þencst me wærlogan —Just swore to you, in dragontongue, that I would harm neither you nor your bound human, but ye have my word.” Piers rolls his eyes as he addresses Raihan, but he makes his promise solemnly. There isn’t a shred of deceit to be found anywhere in his eyes.

“What do you think, Leon?” Raihan asks. “I’m still wary, but if you truly think it’s for the best…”

Piers looks exhausted. Resigned, perhaps. But if even Raihan can confirm the veracity of what Piers has said, then Leon has no doubts that he truly means them no harm. 

"I trust him completely," Leon says sincerely, and bends down to examine the chains. "How do we get your bindings off?” Piers visibly recoils from him, but his restraints prevent him from moving far, even as Raihan steps up and tugs at the chains with a claw. His eyes widen in fear at having a dragon in such close proximity. 

“This is a pretty complex charm on these chains,” Raihan says, examining them closely. “Magic nullification, preventing spirits from phasing through them, various effects like that. But the chains themselves are nothing impressive.”

A sweeping brush of Raihan’s tail erases the binding runes on the ground, and he shears the chains apart with his claws. They instantly tear like sodden paper, the chains clattering to the ground, and the restraining magic is quickly expunged and gone. Piers rises unsteadily to his legs, free from the weight of hexed iron. 

Piers is shorter and thinner than either Leon or Raihan, but the aura of dark magic around him is intimidating in a way that more than compensates for his smaller size. For a brief moment, Leon is struck with debilitating fear, panicking that perhaps he misjudged the situation; Raihan, too, tenses up by his side, ready to pounce. But Piers bows deeply, surprising them both, and a rippling cloak of magic settles over his appearance. The scent of hellfire dissipates, and his horns and wings melt away, as do his blackened sclera. The pulse of darkness vanishes from around him, leaving Piers looking, at the end of it all, like a fairly normal human. 

“I cannot thank you enough,” he says. “As promised, I owe you both a life debt.” 

“Let's go over the terms of the debt, then,” Raihan says, settling down on his haunches. 

Dragons take their negotiations seriously, Leon knows, and it seems demons do as well. Although, he suspects part of the reason Raihan is so eager to get on with this is because demons are known for their trickery, and Raihan is nothing but thorough when arranging deals. Leon has a strong dislike for formal talks, himself, as he never had the knack for bargaining; nor did he ever enjoy asking for something in return for his services. But Piers hums, sitting down on the floor across from Raihan, so Leon joins them, sitting a little off to the side, next to his partner. Raihan and Piers are staring at each other gravely, never breaking eye contact.

“Let’s see. The two of you freed me from imprisonment, and I’d have otherwise been stuck here for what may have been eternity,” Piers says. “So, let’s put it on the value of my life, shall we?”

“Works by me,” Raihan agrees, picking his next words slowly and deliberately. “In the case that either, or both, of our lives, those being mine or Leon's, are in mortal peril, your debt is repaid when you have saved both of our lives in return.”

“Two lives in exchange for mine, is it?” Piers grins. “Since ye both played a part in my freedom, I accept. Normally, I’d disagree on that imbalance, but I know ye dragon cronies are awfully attached to your little humans.”  

Leon senses a twinge of irritation from Raihan, but his companion doesn’t show it, and continues smoothly. “Then we have a deal. Leon, any stipulations you’d like to add?”

He wouldn’t even know where to start. Leon shakes his head firmly, so Raihan turns back to Piers. “How would you have it formalized?”

“Blood pact?” Piers asks, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Raihan growls. “Demon blood is toxic, so no, I refuse.”

“Oh, so ye do know!” Piers cackles. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have actually gone through with it. Dragonsblood is toxic to us demons too, y'know.” He licks his lips. “What do ye prefer, then? Written contract? Verbal oath? Sexual—”

“Verbal oath,” Raihan interrupts. “Leon can’t speak dragontongue, so we’ll get his consent in plain speak, and I’ll translate for him.”

The two of them turn to Leon, who blinks owlishly, lips suddenly dry.

“Was I supposed to learn about how to do a verbal oath, at any point in my lessons?” he asks. Raihan cracks a smile.

“Mate, maybe if you hadn’t skipped all your lessons in negotiations, you’d know what to do.” Affection washes through their bond, soothing Leon. “State your name and title, and give concise, unambiguous assent to the contract’s terms.”

Leon does as he is told, and Raihan wastes no time in repeating the clause in dragontongue, adding his part in as well. The inhuman sounds of that ancient language dance through the tiny chamber, wrapped around the smooth timbre of Raihan’s voice. Piers purses his lips, mulling over the terms; when he is satisfied, he speaks his portion in dragontongue as well.

Piers has an alluring voice, with different intonations from Raihan’s. Underneath that sweet melodic voice, though, his tone is marred with a disquieting quality. Like claws against slate, or an untuned string. Shivers run up his spine; Raihan narrows his eyes.

“...I agree with the terms, but Piers isn’t your true name, though, is it.”

“No, but if ye want the contract to have any effect, then I cannot use my demonic name.”

“Fine,” Raihan huffs. “That won’t change the efficacy of the pact, will it?”

“No,” Piers repeats, and repeats himself in dragontongue.

Raihan dips his head, finally satisfied. “Then our contract is complete.”

"So what's your plan now, Piers?" Leon asks, letting out a sigh of relief. 

"Nothin’," Piers says, waving his hand dismissively. "I s'ppose I'll follow you to the surface and decide there." 

“You can’t just go home to whatever dark place you come from?” Raihan grouses. “You can shadowtravel, can’t you?”

“No strength,” Piers replies. He’s rubbing at the ashen skin of his wrists, as if he’d forgotten what the bare skin there felt like. “Like I said. 've been bound for long enough that my magic's been suppressed. Don’t know anythin’ of how the outside world is right now, either.”

“Then you’ll have to walk all the way up with us,” Raihan sighs, turning to leave the chamber. “I’m itching to get out of the dark as soon as we can. I hope those skinny legs of yours remember how to walk.”

“Hold on, before we go.” Piers interrupts. “Ye say Rose sent you here to slay me, correct?”

Leon scratches at his head. “Er, well, yes. That was the original plan.”

“Ye can’t go back without some sort of proof. Here,” he offers, tutting, and before Leon can realize what’s going on, Piers has snatched his sword from its sheath and cut off a small length of his hair.

"I can't offer you my head, and I would have given you my left hand, were I not too weak to regenerate flesh and bone," Piers sighs regretfully. “Alas, ye shall have to suffice with a mere lock of my hair.”

He ignores the bewildered (and slightly horrified) looks that Leon and Raihan are giving him, and holds out the bundle for Leon to take.

“Uh, thank you,” Leon stammers, gingerly taking the bundle in his hand. He’s still a little bit in shock at how quickly Piers had grabbed his sword from him, and how casually he had offered his own hand, but he can see the distinctive white-and-black pattern clearly visible on the tuft; Rose should know immediately who it belongs to. 

Piers seems to have misunderstood Leon’s silence as him not knowing what to do with it, because he says, “Ye don’t strike me as someone who’s good at lyin’.” 

“No, he’s not,” Raihan agrees, finally recovering from his surprise. Leon makes a wounded noise, but finds that he can't argue otherwise. 

“Mm, thought so. Ye tell the story to Rose, then, say I disintegrated to ashes and this was all that was left. Leon can pretend he’s too worn from battle to say anythin’.” Piers looks around the small chamber, and sighs. “Well, let’s be off.”

-

Piers is relatively quiet, on the way up, only speaking when either he or Raihan ask him something; unsurprisingly, he isn’t used to physical exertion, and they have to stop frequently for him to rest. But what Leon can tell is noticeably different about the return journey is that the dark seems less stifling around them; the night creatures don’t come so close to them, and the shadows give them a wide berth. He’s able to keep his sword sheathed on the entire trip, and Raihan easily takes them back through the caverns and the dungeons.

The stone halls slowly begin to brighten, as they near the surface; Leon isn't quite sure how long they spent in the depths, but judging by the light at the end of the final staircase, it appears to be nearing evening. Raihan perks up noticeably, eager to be bathed in the rays of the sun once more, but Piers slows down, hesitating.

“It’s fuckin’ bright,” he mutters, scratching at his arms. “I’ll burn if I go any further than this.”

“Then burn,” Raihan says without hesitating, not slowing down in the slightest. “I’m not keen to be in the dark a moment longer.”

“Aw, how sweet,” Piers snaps back, pushing himself to catch up to Raihan. “And here I thought ye’d love to have demonic protection by your side.”

“Leon and I can protect each other just fine,” Raihan quips. “You owe us, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with us.”

“Please stop bickering, you two,” Leon sighs. “Piers, you’re not obligated to follow us. You could always wait here until night, and go your own ways then.”

Piers looks between them, sorting through his options, and then he smirks.

“I’ve got a better idea,” he says, and Leon blinks to see him melting into the gloom around them.

I’ll be in your shadows if ye need me , Piers’ voice laughs in their heads, and Leon glances down just in time to see a flicker of a grin disappear into the dark at Raihan’s feet.

Why ,” Raihan complains, swatting uselessly at his own shadow. “You’re free to go wherever you want now!”

Were ye not the one concerned about what I’d do to the world once I had my freedom?

Raihan grumbles, but he gives up and shifts back into his human form, muttering under his breath every so often when Piers says something in his head. Leon can only sense a wary resignation emanating from Raihan, lacking any real animosity, and he can’t help but laugh, climbing after his partner back into the light.