Hey everyone! I'm (briefly) back to post this story, which is entirely inspired by and based on the work of an amazing artist. You can find that artist on tumblr, on the blog Justm3h. Please check out their art! If you want to take a shortcut to find the art for this story, check out the tumblr one-piece-drabbles, which has a post for this story with all the links on it.

Am I still irritated that this particular site doesn't like links? Yes. Very.


INDEX

This is an incomplete list of terms found within the story included to ease understanding of certain references and phrases.

Angel: A divine being with powers over life and death. Reside in the Upper Realms and are sworn to avoid interfering in the affairs of mortals. Signature characteristics include wings, an internal "glow," and white eyes with no iris or pupil.

Ascension: act of "rising" and becoming an angel.

Contract: (in magic) a document forged with magic that binds a being to the will of another through explicit terms and agreements. Typically signed in blood with an individual's true name.

Court: a collection of nobles, merchants, and other prestigious members of society allowed to stay at the castle.

Court Magician: A position in the royal Court given to one exceptional magician by the king. The magician is directly (and only) loyal to the king.

Czichen: infernal curse. Requires pronunciation only demons can truly achieve.

Demon: An infernal being often possessing elemental powers and extreme physical capabilities. Reside in the Lower Realms and have been sealed there for centuries by the angels. Signature characteristics include horns, fangs, a tail, and red eyes with white irises and no pupils.

Eastern Isles: A chain of islands to the East of the mainland, home to nobility with a particular form of dress that the demon Sabo imitates.

Glamour: a magical spell to change one's appearance. Adj: glamoured.

Inflike: infernal curse. Requires pronunciation only demons can truly achieve.

Knights Mobius: The Knight Order of Whitebeard's kingdom, charged with the protection of the realm and its peoples.

Lower Realms: Home of the demons.

Mage: An old word for "magician." Fell out of use 100-200 years ago.

Northern Tundra: A region to the north of Whitebeard's kingdom prone to extreme winter weather. Has a sparse, scattered population skilled in hunting and gathering who often hire themselves out as mercenaries to get supplies for their communities.

Ogre: a race of creatures known for their humanoid appearance, massive stature, and rough skin.

Sunken Lands: place of banishment, far to the south of Whitebeard's kingdom.

The Purges: a time before the Great War during which anyone suspected of having nonhuman ancestry was hunted and killed.


Chapter One

The Summoning

It was reckless. Unbelievably reckless. Possibly the most reckless thing he'd ever done in his career as Court Magician.

But it had to be done.

Marco finished preparing the spell and stepped back, the end of his blue, single-shoulder cape momentarily suspended in front of him before it bowed to gravity and fell behind. His sandals hit the tiled floor and the sound echoed among the vaulted ceilings of his chambers. He paused on his way to the protective circle he had painstakingly carved into the floor, a sudden need prompting him to recheck the defensive wards around the doors and windows. While this room was in the top of the tower he had requisitioned for his sole use and was far and away the most warded building in the entirety of the castle, Marco could not banish the niggling doubt in his stomach.

The feeling had no basis, not really. This was a complex summoning spell, yes, but certainly not one that was outside of Marco's abilities. He simply had to calm down and focus.

He stepped into the circle. The warded shutters over the windows closed with a single word, plunging the room into near-complete darkness save for the candles flickering along the walls. Marco took a deep breath and gripped his crystal-tipped wooden staff. The magic the staff contained could level a city if improperly channeled, but the blue crystal wrapped in the wood pulsed with a warm, almost golden light.

Now or never.

He raised the staff and concentrated. The other crystals that had been placed at strategic locations along the summoning runes resonated with the one in Marco's staff and rose. The nearest one began to emanate blue light, followed by the next, and the next, until Marco was surrounded by glowing blue crystals about the length of his forearm.

All sound in the room grew muted, indistinct, as though muffled by thick walls. Marco tied himself to the energies that swirled around the ancient stones hovering in the air and, when he sensed that the time was right, began to speak.

The words were not so much words as reflections; each one plucked the string of a different instrument of reality to produce a harmony that bent the universe's laws with ease. The sounds rolled out of Marco to a rhythmic beat ordained by the energy coursing through him.

The spell went on. The crystals grew to be painfully bright and began to spin. Beams of pure energy shot from one to the next, creating a massive barrier as previously invisible patterns in the floor began to glow with the same light.

Marco ignored the trembling in his muscles and kept his focus on maintaining the bridges between himself, the crystals, and the universe. Inexperienced magicians could lose themselves in these connections and go mad; at the moment, Marco was more concerned with rupturing a connection and having the spell implode. A summoning on this scale, with so much power in play, if mishandled, could destroy the entire tower in an instant the way no trebuchet ever could.

The final crystal made its connection and the entire network began to vibrate, making the very air thrum with energy.

This was it. Marco's voice rose in volume, tearing apart the veils between worlds one shattered syllable at a time.

And then he stumbled.

It wasn't a big mistake—a couple of mispronounced syllables, slanted in rhyme but not broken, microscopic in the grand scale, but those syllables completed a different chord and the entire song changed. Marco, caught in the tides of the spell and fully aware that stopping now would mean his death, forged on with beads of sweat sliding down his spine.

When he declared the final line and slammed his staff into the floor, all the energy his staff had been building erupted out onto the floor, screaming along the runic lines and ripping the lines of reality until, with a great flash, the energy dissipated.

Marco stood straight and, as the crystals continued to hover and paint the chamber in soft blue light, regarded the results of his spell.

Two figures had appeared on the summoning circle: one heavily clothed in black and blue, dressed almost like a noble of the Eastern Isles, with pale skin, blond hair, and gray horns extending for several inches from just above and behind his temples. The other, clad in an orange and black vest-like garment that had fur on the collar and failed to cover anything besides his upper chest and back, black pants loose around the thighs and tight around the calves, with gloves of mismatched length and two black horns jutting down and out on either side of his face, had freckled skin and black hair that couldn't quite cover his pointed ears.

Marco didn't have to see the two red, spade-tipped tails to know what he had summoned. He regarded the two demons with an equanimity the situation didn't deserve while he considered his available options. The wards would hold the demons indefinitely, and, because he was their summoner, the implicit contract between them meant they could do him no harm. If he was not careful, however, they could wreak havoc around him.

"Well now," the demon on Marco's right said, his lips splitting into a bone-chilling grin that exposed his fangs, "looks like a mortal mage has been knocking on all the wrong doors."

"State your names," Marco ordered as two pairs of burning red eyes met his own. These were the first demons he had faced, but he had given up on fear a long time ago. His current circumstances did not permit hesitation.

"Ace," the black-haired demon said as he slowly rose from his haunches, tail flicking.

"Sabo," the blond-haired demon stated. He stood from his previous kneeling position and examined Marco with far more restraint than his companion.

Ace and Sabo. Marco's grip on his staff tightened when the names finally clicked in his memory. According to the lore stored in the library, the two were demon princes, brothers, and placed among the most powerful of those who dwelled in the Lower Realms. He should not have been able to summon them, and yet, here they were.

"I am curious," Sabo admitted, studying Marco with an almost bemused expression, "how a mortal managed to get his hands on our true names."

"Summoning not one, but two demon princes," Ace continued. "Just what are you trying to do, mage? The last man who summoned us—"

"Ended up dead, I know," Marco said. He used his free hand to massage his forehead, where a post-spell headache was doing its utmost to pound his brain into pieces. While the two demons watched, Marco began to draft up an explicit contract, drawing upon the lingering energy in the air to forge the document. Spirals of light drifted through the air to weave the paper. Powerful though the demons may be, a contract was a contract. Marco would not dwell on the circumstances that made this outcome happen; what was done was done.

"You aren't serious," Ace said, his pretense of amusement dropping. "A human? Make a contract? With us?"

Marco didn't spare the focus to respond. This ritual had drained him even more than he had prepared for; he could not do it again for the rest of this lunar cycle, if not longer. He had known there would be no second chances and, for whatever reason, the spell had granted him allies of the infernal nature rather than the angelic. The situation was desperate; he did not have the time to wait, gather his strength, and try again.

He finished the contract. "Sign in blood and swear on your true names you will follow this contract," he ordered.

Ace and Sabo exchanged a look. Marco could see them debating whether or not to fight. Were he a lesser magician, Marco knew, he would be at a much greater risk of being devoured.

He kept his expression wiped clean of the desperation churning in his core, but his grip on his staff tightened without him noticing.

Please.

Sabo was the one to pluck the contract out of the air and scrutinize it. "You're quite thorough," he commented. He handed the contract to Ace, who looked it over just as thoroughly. Several seconds into his examination, Ace suddenly stiffened, and the air grew thick with malice. Marco tensed, but Sabo suddenly grabbed his brother and hissed something in his ear. Ace glanced up at Marco, eyes narrowed, and then slowly nodded.

"You know," Ace said, "I'm not the biggest fan of being shackled by a contract. This is my first time in the mortal realm in centuries."

"Things have changed since the Great War," Marco said flatly. "You can either agree to be bound by this contract or be banished back to the Lower Realms."

Ace's eyebrows shot up. "You're rather confident."

Marco didn't reply. He watched as Sabo elbowed Ace. The two demons held a quick, quiet discussion punctuated by several gestures and Ace shooting Marco a particularly nasty glare.

But, after a minute, Ace relented. Sabo signed the first copy and then, when Marco created a second copy for Ace, Ace signed as well. The air seemed to tremble for a moment as the magical bonds settled into place, but the feeling passed. The pressure on Marco's chest eased and the magician dematerialized the contracts with a wave of his hand.

"So," Sabo said, "why is a mage of the Phoenix Clan summoning demons?"

Marco was prepared for the question. He was not about to admit to these demons that their summoning had been a mistake. "A knight of this realm has turned traitor, attempted to murder a fellow knight, and stolen an artifact of incredible power. He must be stopped."

Ace cocked his head, expression twisting in distaste. "Blegh. I signed a contract with this guy for that?"

Sabo placed a hand on the other demon's shoulder and regarded Marco more carefully than before. Around them, the glowing crystals were losing more and more of their light and slowly sinking to the floor.

"That's quite the clinical answer," Sabo said. "You knew this knight, the one turned traitor, and the one he nearly killed, didn't you?"

No point in lying. "Yes. The members of this castle—members of the Court, the Knights Mobius, the Mage's Guild—are family. To have one of us turn traitor is an insult that cannot go unanswered."

"Hm." Ace put his hands on his hips and leaned forward. "That's still not the whole truth. Too practiced. Don't think you can fool us with calm expressions and careful words. You're angry—I can smell it."

Marco did not give the demon the satisfaction of rising to the bait. "Whatever my personal feelings on the matter may be, they are none of your concern." Ace's eyes narrowed. "I need you two to assist me in tracking down and defeating this traitor. You will act as my bodyguards and never cause physical harm to any human unless I order it. Is this understood?"

Ace glanced at Sabo with derision in his eyes, but after seeing Sabo give a minute shake of his head, Ace turned back to Marco.

"It is understood," Ace and Sabo said simultaneously, though Ace's tone held far more sarcasm than Sabo's.

Marco nodded and waved his hand. The shutters opened, flooding the room with light in the same instant that the crystals dropped to the floor, their energy spent. Marco then deactivated the wards in the room that would interfere with Ace and Sabo's demonic abilities; now that they were tied to his will, he didn't have to worry about that. Ace and Sabo watched him work silently, their expressions unreadable. Marco finally stepped out of his protective circle and planted his staff in front of him.

"I will take you to the knight the traitor attempted to kill. He is still recovering from his wounds. Furthermore, I cannot have anyone in this kingdom knowing that I have summoned two demons to aide us, nor that I intent to catch this traitor. The consequences of such news spreading would be catastrophic."

"Because you'd lose your position?" Ace asked dryly.

"No," Marco said shortly. "Because it would make it infinitely harder to track down Teach."

"Teach. The traitor?" Sabo guessed.

"Yes. Disguise yourselves and there should be no issue. Do not let any human know your true natures."

The two brothers exchanged a glance. Ace shrugged and wound his tail around his waist. The air around him shimmered. When the strange interference faded, Ace looked human: his horns had vanished, as had his tail, and his ears had lost their points. His eyes, too, had lost their red glow, and now appeared a human brown. He grinned, and while his canines were still elongated, Marco would not label them as fangs.

"Better?" Ace asked. Marco nodded.

Sabo cast his own glamour with the same results, though his eyes were a disconcertingly light blue.

"Even the best glamour cannot completely hide demonic energies as powerful as ours," Sabo said with a shrug. "This is the best we can do."

Marco nodded. "It will suffice. If anyone asks, you are mercenaries from the Northern Tundra who travelled here to aide me at my request." The two demons absorbed the story with slight nods. "Follow me."

Marco led the way out of his chamber and down the winding staircases. The demons' presences prickled at his senses, but Marco knew he would eventually adjust. While the demons' outfits certainly gained their little group a few second glances, the fact that Whitebeard's kingdom was a haven for groups from all over the world meant that strange fashions were hardly unusual.

"Kureha," Marco called, knocking on the sturdy wooden door. Kureha's quarters were in a large building next to Marco's tower, and the two had developed a working friendship over their love of the magical, scientific, and dangerous elements of the world.

"Yeah, I'm coming."

Kureha opened the door and scrutinized Marco and his two companions.

"They're—" Marco started, but Kureha didn't let him finish.

"Demons. I can see that." Marco was speechless, but Kureha ushered him inside. "Come now, Marco, I've been alive longer than you. You think I wouldn't recognize two demons when they're standing at my doorstep? Please. Now, you want to see Thatch?"

"Please."

"Hm." Kureha cast a considering gaze over Sabo and Ace. "You're going over Teach, aren't you?"

"As if I have a choice."

Kureha snorted. "Everyone always has a choice, mage." She led the way to the back of her chambers, where another door opened up into a room lined with rows of cots. Several of the cots were occupied, but one in particular stood out. Marco strode over to it immediately, one hand coming to rest on Thatch's shoulder. The knight was asleep, and he looked leagues better than he had a mere day ago, but the sight of his friend so hurt still made the guilt in Marco's heart weigh even heavier.

If he'd just noticed—

"I know what you're thinking," Thatch wheezed, his eyes opening, "'Wow, Thatch, you look so much better!' Seriously, Marco. That furrow in your brow is getting so deep it's a wonder it hasn't reached your brain."

"Thatch," Marco said, not even caring about the insult. "You're awake."

"Barely," Thatch grunted, trying to pull himself into a sitting position. Kureha was there in an instant, whacking him with a towel on her way to another patient.

"No sitting up yet," she ordered, and Thatch sank back down with a groan.

"I swear she's psychic," he complained. "I've tried to sneak out of here twice and she catches me every time."

"Thatch," Marco warned. Thatch waved a hand.

"Yeah, yeah, bedrest and all that." His gaze went past Marco and landed on Sabo and Ace. "Who're these two?"

"Ace," Ace greeted with a short bow.

"Sabo," Sabo said, doing the same. "We're mercenaries from the Northern Tundra. Marco contacted us and asked for help."

"A fire message," Marco explained quickly.

"You made it here from there in three days?" Thatch asked, ticking up an eyebrow.

"We travel quickly," Sabo lied.

"We're experts," Ace added. "Here to help."

Thatch didn't look convinced, but Marco silently urged him to trust the situation and, after a second, Thatch sighed. "Fine, I won't ask. What do you want to know?"

"I haven't told them anything," Marco clarified. Thatch nodded.

"When, where, and how were you attacked?" Sabo asked. Thatch closed his eyes, as though reciting information he'd learned by rote memorization.

"Three days ago, just before high noon; I was guarding the artifact with three of my brothers. Two went to investigate a noise, and in the meantime Teach approached. Haruta—the other guard—stopped him. We aren't allowed to approach the artifact without permission. Teach picked him up and threw him down the hall with the strength of an ogre. I tried to stop him; he got behind me, took his dagger, and stabbed me in the back. Half an inch deeper and he would have pierced my heart." Thatch opened his eyes. "Any questions?"

"Did you remain conscious long enough to see where he went?" Sabo asked. Ace had left Thatch's bedside in the middle of Thatch's explanation and was now wandering around the room, scanning the faces of the injured men and women. Marco watched him, but Ace didn't seem to have any ill intent. Kureha was watching him as well.

"He escaped the castle almost unseen," Thatch said with a frown. "I only saw him leave the chamber and head to the stairs. I heard after the fact that someone saw him leaving on the road to Farrow. The king has already sent soldiers there, but they haven't found anything." Thatch shot Kureha a dark look. "Unless the doctor is hiding something from me."

"You're in bed and injured!" Kureha called back, making Thatch flinch in surprise. "Don't get any funny ideas!"

Marco glanced back at Thatch, whose pained response to his flinch hadn't faded. One hand hovered over his chest.

"Ace, Sabo, wait outside," Marco ordered. The two demons stepped out, leaving Marco and Thatch relatively alone in the large room.

"So serious," Thatch said, but his rapidly paling face and bloodshot eyes ruined the humor.

"Thatch, I'm going to find him," Marco promised. Thatch stared at him, his expression melting into something too grave to belong.

"You'd better," he said with surprising strength.

The two clasped hands. Marco squeezed harder than usual. "Don't do anything reckless until I get back."

Thatch managed a pained smile. "Let me guess: you don't want anyone to know you're gone."

"Not yet."

Thatch shook his head. "You can grow up and dress fancy all you want, but you're still that reckless punk from Anilin's orphanage. You never change. Good luck."

Marco squeezed one last time and then left. Ace and Sabo were waiting just outside, as ordered. Marco ordered them to follow with a gesture back to his quarters, where he began to pack. Ace found a perch on the wooden beams that spanned the space just below the ceiling while Sabo leaned against the closed door.

"You already knew this information," Sabo said without preamble. "Why have that knight retell it?"

"So you could get the firsthand account," Marco said shortly.

"Sure, but you could've been at Fallow by now," Ace said. "It's gotta be close, if the king's soldiers have already looked there."

Marco paused in the midst of tucking a few crystals into his satchel. "I am not powerful enough to face Teach alone now that he has the artifact."

Ace frowned from where he crouched several yards off the floor. "What exactly is this artifact? All you've said is that it's extremely powerful. You haven't even told us what it or Teach look like."

Marco resumed packing. He was reticent to tell the demons anything about the artifact; it had been handed down through generations of the Phoenix Clan, and it was only in the past decade that it had been entrusted to the king. It was not something he wanted the demons to know about.

"The artifact will be with Teach," Marco finally said. "It's small. He will carry it with him. As for Teach himself, he is the descendent of an ogre, and retains that stature. He stands over eleven feet in height, has brown skin, missing teeth, and curly black hair. If you suspect that an individual is Teach, alert me. I will be able to tell for sure."

"Sure," Ace muttered. In the privacy of Marco's quarters, both he and Sabo had undone their glamour spells. Ace wrapped his tail around the beam, swung down, and then, with his tail holding him up, stood almost completely upside-down with his feet on the bottom of the beam. "By the way, you forgot to pack money."

Marco cursed. The demon was right.

"So you blame yourself for Thatch's near-death," Sabo said bluntly. "I mean, you can't really hide something like that from us, you know. So you bide your time, build your strength, and summon…demons? I thought you mortals were kissing the feet of the angels these days."

Marco pressed his lips into a thin line while he placed his packed satchel over his shoulder and belted the second strap around his waist so it wouldn't swing when he walked. "I needed the unconventional."

"Ugh." Ace unwrapped his tail and, with almost feline grace, fell to the floor, rolled, and came up on his feet a foot from Marco's face. "Your lies are almost painfully obvious. You didn't intend to summon us."

"I—"

"Oh, I'm not hurt," Ace said, scrutinizing Marco with his unsettling red gaze. "Just offended."

"Ace," Sabo said. "Leave the poor mage alone." Ace snorted, gave Marco one last derisive look, and backed off.

Marco swallowed a sigh. This was going to be a long, long journey.


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