Year of the Scorpion
by Luna

Chapter Three : Visitors
Numberless and formless devils
In the blizzard's moonlit haze
Twirling in their murky revels,
As leaves swirl in November days. . .
So many! So many! And being carried
Whither? Why do they plaintively sing?
Is there a witch who's getting married?
Some goblin they are burying?
-Alexander Pushkin, "Demons"

It was early evening in the Imperial Capital of Northtown, a chilly November night. Icy rain mixed with tiny chunks of hail pelted the windows of the Imperial Palace. The palace lights shone brightly in the dark, moonless night. The guards cursed their poor luck in having to be out in such weather.

For the Emperor and his top lieutenant Thanatos, however, the weather was perfect. After all, they would be conducting dark, sinister business, and when better than on a dark and stormy night, excuse the cliché?

A palace soldier hurried up the two as they sat waiting in the throne room. "Your Highness, you have visitors. A man and a woman. They say you sent for them." The Emperor smiled. "Good. Send them in." The soldier nodded and left the room.

A moment later, two people entered the room. A tall, green-haired man and a woman with red hair. The Emperor smiled as he saw them. "Ah, at last. So happy you both could drop in. And arriving at the same time! What a lovely coincidence!"

"Cut the crap!" the man snapped. "Just tell me why you sent for me."

The Emperor's smile wavered, becoming forced. He waggled his finger at him. "Patience, patience! You'll find out soon enough! First I have to make the introductions." He waved a hand to indicate the man behind him, a tall man wearing a gruesome skull mask. "This is Thanatos, my top lieutenant. Thanatos, this is Geshtar, a powerful warrior, and Fanha, a sorceress of great power. Fanha, Geshtar, I assume you met on the way in, so I won't bother."

"A pleasure to meet you both." Fanha shivered at the sound of Thanatos's voice. It was normal enough, but there was something decidedly sinister and spooky about it. She couldn't figure out why exactly, she just knew. She nodded and tried to smile.

"So." The Emperor folded his hands. "You wish to know why you have been sent for. The answer is very simple : employment. I wish to hire you. The job I am offering you is one of -"

"Look, is this going to take long?" Geshtar interrupted impatiently. He was itching to go and check out what sort of nightlife this city had to offer.

The Emperor's smile was deadly. "Not long at all," he responded. "It will be even shorter if you interrupt again and force me to have you thrown out!"

This shut Geshtar up effectively. He nodded respectively and waited. The Emperor continued.

"As I was saying, I wish to offer you a job. I need help of the sort you two can provide in the building of my finest creation, the Mana Fortress. You will help not only in the construction, but in guarding against those who are opposed to my project, as I'm sure there will be many of. The pay is great, and so are the benefits."

"What sort of benefits?" Geshtar couldn't resist asking, ever greedy that he was.

"How does immortality strike you?" Thanatos inquired from the shadows.

Geshtar was shocked. " can make us..." He couldn't finish.

Behind the mask, Thanatos smiled. "Yes, indeed. There are few things I cannot do." Reaching up, he removed his mask.

Fanha was surprised to see not a hideous visage, but a young, handsome man who looked to be in his mid-twenties. But there was something wrong with his eyes. Too cold, too....dead. Thanatos smiled at her. "Yes," he said, reading her thoughts. "This body was once occupied by a promising Imperial soldier. Now it is mine."

"Why?" Geshtar asked, horrified.

"Why? Because my old body was worn out, that's why. Keep this in mind, children, as a small example of what I can do." With that, he replaced the mask. Fanha shuddered. One was as creepy as the other.

"So, how does it sound?" the Emperor asked. "Are you hired, then?"

"Yes," Geshtar said, without any hesitation. These "benefits" were too good to pass up.

"Good, good!" the Emperor chuckled. "And you, Fanha?" The sorceress hesitated, then nodded. "Excellent! Thanatos, show them to their rooms." The sorcerer stepped out of the shadows. "Come with me." The two new employees of the Empire did so.

Their new careers started out slow. There wasn't much to do. Then, a few weeks later, there was a knock on Fanha's door.

"Yes, who is it?"

"It's Thanatos. Let me in."

Fanha quickly did as she was told, not wanting to tick off the sinister sorcerer.

He looked around the room. "Hmm, it's fairly adequate, I suppose. It will have to do."

"For what?" The young sorceress was confused.

"For your assignment. You are to summon a demon."

"What for?"

"The Emperor wants to use one for another lieutenant. Something about even numbers."

Fanha frowned. "But, why me? I thought you were a sorcerer."

"Remember when I said there are few things I can't do? Well, this is one of them. Begin now, and I'll be back in a little while to see what you summon." He left the room. Sighing, Fanha began the preparations.

Incense burned in tall, black holders. The musky, sweet scent filled the cool air inside her room. Light glimmered from a magic lantern. Herbs had been scattered all over the floor, their pungent smell mingling with the scent of the incense. An old statue, carved in the shape of a demon's head, sat on a table at the center of the room.

Outside, a blizzard raged furiously. The entire palace was blanketed in thick ivory. Pale blue frost covered Fanha's windows, so that she could barely see the whirling snow.

Sighing, she walked in the pattern that the spell required and chanted the incantation in the archaic language. She hoped she got it right.

As she finished the spell, the lamp went out, then back on. When it lit again, a demon she'd only read about stood before her. Over her, actually.

Thanatos chose that moment to walk back in. He made a strangled sound as he saw what she'd summoned. Fanha hid a smile. She almost wished she could see his expression behind the mask. Almost. "I take it I did good then?"

"Yes," the sorcerer said slowly. "Almost too good." He directed his attention to the huge demon, an Aegagropilon. "You. Do you have a name?"

"Yes, it's Sheex," the demon replied.

Thanatos nodded. "Good. That will make things a bit easier. Now, can you change form, or must we find a suitable room large enough to keep you in?" The demon growled slightly at the implications of that, as he were nothing more than a pet.

"Good, very good." Thanatos sounded pleased. He turned back to Fanha. "This is exactly what we needed. Excellent work. Now, Sheex, follow me and I shall get you settled in."

A few months passed. Sheex and Fanha worked together a lot over that time, and became very close friends. In February, right after Valentine's Day, the Emperor decided to throw a small dinner party for his lieutenants and himself.

"Do I have eat the food?" Sheex grumbled as Fanha adjusted the formal clothes he'd reluctantly agreed to wear. "Their cook can't."

Fanha shook her head, amused. "Come on, it's not that bad."

"Yes, it is. And it smells even worse!"

Fanha wrinkled her nose, remembering the smell of the steamed Trap Flower she'd had the previous week. "Now there I'll have to agree with you. Only some of it though. You still have to eat it. How do you expect to fit in? You have to do more than look human," she reminded him, referring to the fact that he'd stayed in human form.

"Did I say I wanted to fit in?" Sheex made a low growling sound. "I don't know why I'm even putting up with all this. I must have been crazy to stay here and work for that nut."

Fanha's face fell. Over the past three months she'd come to really care about him. She thought he felt the same way....

"Fanha?" Sheex touched her arm. "What's wrong? You look sad."

"I-it's nothing," she lied, moving away. "Nothing at all." She walked towards the door, then paused. "Why have you stayed?"

"I don't know." He smiled at her. "I do enjoy being around you."

Fanha blushed bright red. "I, I, uh, I gotta get ready!" she stammered. She hurried out of the room.

Sheex picked at the food before him. He wanted to impress Fanha by eating it and being polite, but he hated the taste. With great reluctance, he speared a piece of meat and ate it. Surprisingly, it wasn't that bad. Across from him, Fanha smiled. He smiled back.

The sorceress picked up her own fork and wound some of her pasta around it. As she ate it, she noticed Sheex watching her. Their eyes met. Then she blushed and looked away.

Sheex shifted in his seat, stretching out one of his legs. As he did so, his foot hit something. He looked up to see Fanha looking at him, and he realized he'd hit her foot. "Terribly sorry," he murmured. She smiled. "Don't be." As she said it, she rubbed her foot against his leg. His eyes widened, then he smiled back at her. As dinner went on, they continued playing footsie, with no one else having any idea what was going on beneath the table.

Fanha yawned. Dinner had been very enjoyable - extremely, actually - but she was starting to get tired. "May I be excused?" she inquired.

"Why, certainly," the Emperor replied. "Get a good night's sleep, we have another early day tomorrow.

"Pleashant dreamsh." Geshtar leered at her, more than a little drunk. Fanha rolled her eyes and ignored him. Sheex, however, did not, growling menacingly at him. The warrior suddenly became very interested in playing with the food still on his plate. The Emperor looked annoyed, and it was as impossible as usual to gauge Thanatos's reaction. He did seem less than pleased with their antics, though.

Yawning, Fanha unpinned her hair, shaking it free around her shoulders. She was about to start undressing when there was a knock on her door. "Who is it?" she called.

"It's me," Sheex said. "I brought you something."

"Come on in."

Sheex opened the door. He had a bowl of ice cream in one hand, a bottle of chocolate syrup in the other, and a smile on his face. "You missed dessert, so I brought it to you."

Fanha lit up. "Oh, that's so sweet of you! You didn't have to do that!"

"It was my pleasure." He set it down on the small table in her room. "Mind if I sit down?"

"Not at all. In fact, I'm so full, I doubt I can eat it all. You'll have to help me."

"More human food?" Sheex looked less than thrilled at the prospect.

"Oh, trust me," Fanha said as she sat down with him. "You'll like this. It's very good." Picking up the bottle, she squirted chocolate syrup all over the ice cream. She then picked up a spoon and scooped some up. "Here, try it. Please?"

"I-oh all right." He took the spoon from her, their hands brushing as he did so, and put it in his mouth. His expression changed from a scowl, to surprised, to pleased. "This is good. I do like it." Fanha smiled smugly. "See? I told you so." They continued eating the ice cream - and resumed their game of footsie.

"Fanha, wait, you've got some -" Sheex reached forward and wiped some syrup from the corner of her mouth. "There. I got it." He then proceeded to lick it off his finger. "No sense wasting it, is there?"

"N-none at all," Fanha stammered. Then she noticed something. "Oh, look, Sheex, you've got some on yourself. Let me get that." She reached out and wiped some syrup from his chin. "Making quite a mess, aren't we?"

"Since I made it, I'll clean it up." Sheex took her hand and licked the chocolate off her. He smiled at her. "Mmmm. It is quite delicious. Even more than you said it would be."

"Even more than I thought it could be," Fanha whispered. For a moment they just stared at each other. Then Sheex leaned over and kissed her. The world seemed almost to stop as they kissed, tasting chocolate on each other's lips. "Yes," Sheex murmured, "you are definitely why I stay here."

Fanha sighed. "I like this dessert," she said with a soft giggle. "Very delicious."

"That it is," Sheex whispered. Standing, he walked around the table and pulled her up into his arms. Holding her close, he kissed her softly, tenderly. Trembling, she kissed him back, and they stood there for several minutes, just kissing.

"We didn't quite finish dessert, you know," Fanha said as they pulled apart for a moment.

"We didn't?" Sheex asked curiously.

"No indeed." Fanha smiled mischievously. She picked up the syrup bottle from the table. "There's still some syrup ice cream though..."

"We'll just have to find something else to put it on, then," the demon replied with a wicked grin as he picked her up.

"Any ideas?"

"Oh, I think I can come up with a use -- or rather, you can," Fanha said with a giggle and a wink as she wrapped her arms around his neck. Sheex blushed and kissed her, then carried her over to the bed.

"Explain to me again what we're doing here," Kirine whispered. "In the dead of night, in the Imperial Palace, robbing it while it snows outside!"

"Because we're getting paid one heck of a lot of money to do this!" Slade hissed.

"I'm not sure if any amount is worth this!" she hissed back.

"What's the matter, getting soft?" he teased. Kirine glared at him.

"No, I am not getting soft!" she retorted. "In fact, I'm going ahead without you! So there!" She quickened her pace, leaving him behind.

"Lessee," she murmured. "Is it this door?" She didn't quite remember the exact details of the map she and Slade had gone over. "Only one way to find out." Without making any noise, she pushed it open.

What she saw was enough to emotionally scar her for life. Her mouth hanging as wide open as it could be, she quickly, silently closed the door and prayed she hadn't disturbed the occupants.

"Is that it?" Slade asked as he caught up.

"No," Kirine squeaked. "Not at all. Let's go." She hurried on.

"What did you see in there?" Slade whispered.

Kirine gulped. "Too much."

As they walked on, she couldn't stop thinking about what she'd seen. As she pondered it, her expression slowly changed from shell-shocked to intrigued.


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