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“We are the Left Hand,” Knel growled at the guard in front of Solis Umbra. “You cannot deny us entry.”
The guard’s face paled beneath his plate helmet. “Lord Regent Kira’thaz has barred all entry into the keep, for the security of the summit.”
Kira’thaz had summoned the Council of Hæll’s Lords, presumably to deliberate about the attack on the Material World. He had, however, neglected to invite Xanenax, and it was only by Knel’s quick action that Xanenax had been informed of the summit. However, he and Knel had arrived too late, and the defenses of Solis Umbra were unassailable once sealed. Even the open balconies above were guarded by powerful magickal wards which Xanenax couldn’t break through. He considered decapitating the two guards in front of him out of spite, even though he had saluted them only hours before. As if they could sense his thoughts, the guards shuffled backward a step.
Then Xanenax felt a whisper on his consciousness, soft and inviting. It took him a moment to recognize it.
“Very well,” Xanenax said. “I’m sure there’s no objection to our waiting in the courtyard. We have urgent matters to discuss with the Regent.”
Both guards’ shoulders sagged with relief. “Of course not, sir. We will inform you immediately when you may enter.”
Xanenax nodded once and again saluted them both, to which they responded in kind, though Xanenax guessed it was done out of fear rather than fealty. Then Xanenax began meandering around the courtyard, walking around the perimeter and pretending to inspect the soldiers running through training drills, sparring, and patrolling along outer walls enclosing the keep. He continued to walk until he reached the side opposite the main gate, where only a few guards manned the surrounding wall, facing toward the city.
Then Xanenax placed his hand on the fortress’ impossibly smooth surface, and it thrummed faintly to his touch, though it didn’t open up as he had hoped it would. He had only heard the fortress call to him once before, on the day Lucifer disappeared. He hadn’t known then what it was, but in retrospect, it made sense. The First Fallen Angel’s blood circulated through the living citadel, appearing as veins of light that permeated walls and illuminated the lower levels where it was the only source of light. Even in the glaring light of the sun, Xanenax could faintly make out the pulsing lines flitting across the surface.
The fortress knew the heart that had once been the source of its being, and had reached out to Xanenax a century ago for aid to save Lucifer from enslavement from the then archmage Miritin, to which Xanenax had responded too late. Now it called out to him to return the favor of his intentions.
“What are you doing, sir?” Knel asked.
“Solis Umbra wishes to grant us passage. Lucifer was able to mold its shape at will, but I have never done so.”
“Why can’t it just open up for us?”
“It is alive, but it cannot act of its own accord. It can only respond to another’s will.” Xanenax bit his thumb and a rivulet of black blood leaked from it. Then he smeared it onto the wall, pressing it into the veins of light. “I swore a blood oath to Lucifer when he anointed me as his Left Hand. The bond still holds, but it needs to be fortified for Solis to accept my will as its own.”
“Sir, if Kira’thaz finds a way to control Solis Umbra, then he could use this blood magick against you.”
“If he is able to do so, he would have the same hold over me anyway. My blood already resides in Solis’ veins, even if only trace amounts. A few more drops won’t make any difference.” As he spoke, the smears of blood were absorbed into the walls, and Xanenax felt the vibration beneath his touch increase by magnitudes, but it was a small comfort.
“Why do you hesitate?” Knel asked.
“Remember the last time I did magick? I almost killed both of us by accident.”
“Because you were enraged. Magick becomes more volatile the more extreme the emotion is behind it.”
“Yes, but I have buried my emotions. Even something as simple as willing a door to open could have disastrous consequences if I am not careful.”
“So don’t fuck up,” Knel said plainly. The look on her face held enough mirth to disguise her doubt beneath it, but it assured Xanenax all the same.
Xanenax settled his mind, forcing it to clear like mist before a gust of wind. Then he willed Solis Umbra to open.
Immediately, pain shot through Xanenax’s body. He felt as if shrapnel cut through his veins, his nerves burned, and his breath felt like acid in his lungs. Unwilling to draw the attention of the nearby guards, Xanenax ground his teeth and pushed his will further into the fortress. Slowly, an opening began to form, growing to a few feet in diameter before it began shrinking again.
“Hurry,” Xanenax hissed, and Knel dived into the gap. Xanenax grasped the edges of the opening and used his brute strength to push the walls apart to allow room for his larger frame. Once his body was inside, he collapsed onto the floor, and the walls sealed shut behind him.
Xanenax’s vision swam in front of him as Knel kneeled beside him, concern and admiration on her face. “Maybe we should just bribe the guards next time,” she said as she held out her hand.
Xanenax grasped it and she helped heave him to his feet. He wavered unsteadily and would have fallen if Knel hadn’t caught him. As she did, he smelled her, and it cut across centuries of memory, reminding him of rain. He moved away from her and braced himself against the wall as his emotions threatened to erupt. Forcing his feelings to submit only strained the tension rising within him. Recollecting himself, he focused on his breath and on the veins of light illuminating the corridor they stood in, allowing his emotions to pass through him without responding to any of them. Soon, they were ghosts returning to the periphery of his mind. “I doubt gold is enough to buy the loyalty of any royal guard, otherwise the throne would have been bought a long time ago. Besides, Kira’thaz has essentially unlimited currency.”