At this time, Susha Unhuor had already entered the palace. He couldn’t be said to know every part of the map by heart but he had at least remembered the general gist of the layout. Considering why Shaun Reng had summoned the demon, he felt that the most likely places for the demon to dwell were places that were connected to Jusha Lale. So it should be something like the throne room, his study, or even his private chambers.
Thankfully, all these rooms were directly next to each other so he wouldn’t have to search too long to find them. Unfortunately, all of them were deep inside the palace, meaning that he would need quite some time to get there and also some time to get out again. If the demon didn’t just stay in one place and was wandering through the palace, that would really make things difficult. It would leave the demon with a lot of opportunities to attack him. Still, there was no other way.
Holding his weapon tightly and making his steps as light as he could, Susha Unhuor slowly made his way through the palace. At this time, this wasn’t about hurrying anymore so the demon wouldn’t get any stronger. No, now, everything was about keeping as safe as he could until the moment of the final confrontation. If he got injured before that, his chances of winning would drop. He couldn’t let that happen.
Susha Unhuor didn’t see anything out of the ordinary when he walked down the corridor behind the front gate. Only when he got slightly deeper into the palace did he finally see some traces of decay. Some paintings and vases had turned gray at the edges or even black in a few spots.
This was the effect the dark energy of the demons had: It could corrode anything with time. Usually, it would start from objects that had to do with the summoner’s goal and then slowly spread out to unrelated pieces, then to the lower lifeforms, and finally to humans as well.
The dark energy would enter their bodies and suck out the traces of the gods’ blessings, leaving them vulnerable. When this protection was gone, the dark energy would attack the vitality of their targets. It would show in patches of skin that turned dry and rough and slowly darkened over time. A person whose life was wholly consumed by a demon would turn into a blackened, shriveled corpse.
Susha Unhuor had seen too many of these in his time as a zhireng. Just thinking about it, he felt a hint of anger. He quickly suppressed it though and forced himself to focus on the current predicament.
Most likely, the objects in front of him had been touched by Jusha Lale at least once. Maybe he had even done so when his uncle had been there, meaning that there were some memories attached to them. It should be the very same for the ribbon that Jusha Lale had mentioned as the object that made them aware of the demon’s presence.
While he couldn’t verify it, it was likely that the dan had reviewed everything for the festival and had held the ribbon in his own hands while Shaun Reng observed him from the shadows.
Susha Unhuor gritted his teeth when he thought about it. He had always hated the personal component of his task the most. Eliminating demons was one thing. It was dangerous even to the point where he might lose his life at any given time but it was something that could be dealt with. As long as he prepared well, made sure that his weapon and armor were up to par, and maintained his physical capabilities, the danger could be kept below a certain degree. He would never be safe doing this job but he didn’t have to be close to death either.
On the other hand, slowly uncovering the story behind a demon’s summoning felt much more difficult to him. When he had received the blessing of the gods, he had originally thought that the task of a zhireng was just to eradicate evil and thus do good. It was what so many children dreamed of and he had felt honored to be one of the chosen ones. But after he had gone through his training period, sworn allegiance to his chosen god, received his weapon that incorporated the blessing he had been given, and went on his first mission, he realized that he had been wrong.
Yes, they did eradicate evil. Yes, they were doing good. But it was never as simple as that. A demon wasn’t summoned just like that. There was always a story that had unfolded before their appearance and there was always a story that followed afterward, even after the demon itself was gone already.
The task of a zhireng might be to defeat the demons and vanquish them to return to their own realm or even outright kill them but a good zhireng did more than that. They gave those that were left behind their sense of safety back. And in cases like this one, a small part of the task was also exacting a bit of revenge for the person that was the demon’s target. After all, there had been something taken from Jusha Lale that he didn’t even know about. In some other cases, the targets would lose something else or even die. Did they not deserve justice?
But to give them justice often meant to pry into the story behind everything and the secrets that might come out in the process were often sordid. Which family, which friend, which village would like their darkest deeds to be exposed? There was not a single one. But he needed to figure it out for his own safety and to return justice to the innocent victims. Sometimes, it was hard to bear though. He definitely could have done without knowing just how Shaun Reng thought about his nephew. Especially since he had gotten to know the dan a little.
Susha Unhuor felt unhappy at the thought but once again he just quickly pushed it away. Instead, he looked around to find some more clues. Save for the few places he had noticed before, there was nothing more to see of the encroaching darkness though.
He made sure that he was at a place where he could see everything around him and then pulled out the map that he had folded and put into his clothes. He checked where he was and then put it back, changing the direction to go to the throne room on the fastest way possible. Going there first was the best bet that he had in finding the demon. If it didn’t work, he would check the study, and then the private chambers of the king. Should he still not see anything of the demon, he would have to circle around and hope that he found other traces.
He did not need long to see the door of the throne room in the distance. Walking down the corridor in front, he already saw that things were different here. Naturally, Jusha Lale had walked this path regularly. As such, the decay here was much stronger than the bit he had seen before.
Susha Unhuor furrowed his brows and slowly tensed his muscles, changing his stance and changing his grip on his weapon so that he could thrust it forward at a moment’s notice. He likely wasn’t far from the demon anymore.
He made it to the door that had almost completely decayed and stretched out his weapon, lightly touching it with the tip. Immediately, the once probably magnificent wood crumbled into tiny pieces that looked a lot like a pile of ash when lying on the ground.
Susha Unhuor stepped over it, his gaze drifting through the throne room. Things were pretty much the same here even though the throne itself hadn’t been engulfed by darkness yet.
This wasn’t too strange. A good king would gain merit and be in turn protected by the kingdom’s or city’s guardian deity. Considering what he had heard about Jusha Lale’s reign and how he had gotten to know him in the past weeks, it was no wonder that the seat where he had reigned from was completely intact even after he had left for a long time and the palace had basically fallen to the demon. A king that evacuated all these people before he went himself to find someone to solve this crisis couldn’t be a bad king. Naturally, he would be blessed by the gods.
Most likely, this was also why Jusha Lale hadn’t suffered from an attack of the demon before his uncle died. No matter what the demon wanted to do, it didn’t have the strength to get past the god’s blessing. It could only bide its time and try to gain strength in a different manner.
With Jusha Lale’s quick decision in including the priests and with the upcoming festival, things likely hadn’t been going well for it though no matter how much the demon tried. Thus, Shaun Reng had finally been the one to die instead because while he might have been a good man in general, he had still committed a grave sin and as the summoner, his death could also give the demon strength albeit not as much as fulfilling his wish would.
In any case, Susha Unhuor couldn’t see any sign of the demon in the throne room itself. Most likely, it wasn’t here.
He looked around and found a door at the back of the room that should be leading to the short corridor that connected this one with the study and Jusha Lale’s private chambers. He slowly walked over, continuing to survey his surroundings to make sure that he wouldn’t be ambushed. He was sure that he was close. There wasn’t any other place in the palace that should have as much appeal to the demon. Not if everything that he had found out so far was true.
When he was about to step through the door into the corridor, he noticed a faint shimmer in the air. He hesitated and took his foot back, standing there for a moment and observing the place in front of him.
Narrowing his eyes, he reached out and poked the spot with his weapon. Nothing happened though. There was a ripple in the air but no further reaction. It seemed that what was in front of him was a magic barrier that could be stepped through without causing any physical harm.
Susha Unhuor still hesitated for a moment longer. The kind of wish that the summoner wanted to achieve would usually result in summoning a specific kind of demon. No matter the other circumstances, at the heart of the matter, the wish of Shaun Reng was one of desire. Thus, the demon that had likely been summoned would be one of desire as well.
This kind of demon was called a rūn. Their true appearance was either nondescript or could even be called ugly with thick, gray skin and an almost human-like face that just lacked some of the depth. The rūn usually liked to play with the ones who came close though and would even use their body for that. They would take on a beautiful appearance or bewitch people with their magical spells. Most likely, the barrier in front of him encompassed an illusion. The question was: Would he be able to withstand it?
He slightly furrowed his brows but then stepped into the corridor. In any case, he couldn’t turn back. Gripping his weapon tightly, he stepped further forward, his gaze roving about.
This place showed much less decay than the throne room. It was almost as if this whole place was protected because it had been associated with Jusha Lale. Or maybe it was rather that because the demon had used this place as the center of its illusion after everyone had fled, that it seemed like nothing had happened here. If he managed to dispel the illusion, it was very likely that the whole place might crumble into dust. Well, he would likely soon find out.
Susha Unhuor inched forward, finally reaching the small stretch of corridor that ran diagonally to this one, and let to two doors on each side, one of them being Jusha Lale’s study and the other being his private chambers.
Susha Unhuor somehow felt his palms sweating when he turned in one direction, keeping his back to the wall so he couldn’t get attacked from behind. Maybe it was because he had spent quite some time with Jusha Lale, but this really made him nervous. He reached the door to his study and looked for any traces of the demon before he reached out and opened it, holding his weapon in front of him to attack immediately in case he needed to.
As a result, he was only greeted by an empty doorway. Furrowing his brows, he pushed the door further open and then stepped inside. Jusha Lale’s study was a quiet place. There were bookshelves lining the walls, a carpet on the ground that stifled the sounds inside, and a desk where he would usually sit and work. There was a small table to the side that might hold some tea or pastries so he could eat if he had to work long hours. Obviously, he was somebody that was dedicated to what his rule entailed.
When he turned to look at the other side of the room, Susha Unhuor found a figure on the other side. Susha Unhuor furrowed his brows at that. He had spent enough time with Jusha Lale to realize that this was him. At the very least, it was somebody who looked like him. Stepping further into the room, he put his back to the other side and then took a closer look at that person.
He was standing in front of a map hanging on the wall, a brush in hand, the tip glistening with black ink. His hair was cascading down his back, unable to hide the slight curve of his hips.
Susha Unhuor furrowed his brows even further. Jusha Lale would definitely hate to be seen like this. If he knew what his uncle had originally been thinking, he would be disgusted. Very much like he had been disgusted by what that other zhireng had done to him. This kind of illusion about himself … it really was hateful.
The figure finally turned around, a trace of surprise flashing through its eyes before it gave an enchanting smile. On the beautiful face of Jusha Lale, it seemed ethereal. “Oh, I did not know you came.” The red lips moved, the voice coming out seeming enchanting.
Susha Unhuor unwittingly straightened up. Even as somebody who had never been attracted to others, he knew when he saw a beauty. He had known that Jusha Lale was one when he stepped into that waiting room in the Sundang temple and now that his charm was even more enhanced because of the illusion of the demon, it was even less possible to overlook this fact. It made him a little uncomfortable though.
That figure lowered the brush and fiddled with it, looking at him with beguiling eyes. “Was there something you needed?”
Susha Unhuor just continued to look. It wasn’t good to engage with demons. And right now, he wasn’t yet able to tell if this was just an illusion or the demon itself. It could very well be that it was only the former, then he shouldn’t put too much time into this.
The figure slightly raised its black brows, and then came closer, its hips swaying with every step. “Well, being this straightforward … I’m a bad host.” He reached the door and then a dainty hand reached out, lightly fingering the wood, pushing it close bit by bit.
Susha Unhuor just continued to observe. There were some clues that could be had from what happened to distinguish whether it was an illusion or the demon behind it. Before he found that, it wasn’t a good idea to just attack. Sure, he might be able to land a hit and solve this but it could also warn the other side. He didn’t want that. Especially if this was just an illusion that was controlled by a demon that was actually waiting in the other room. In that case, keeping a few of his cards to himself would be much better.
When the door had fallen shut, the figure smiled and then walked over to the table, bending down to put down the brush. The long black hair fell over its shoulder, exposing a white neck and a part of the shoulder.
Susha Unhuor raised his brows. If Jusha Lale did this kind of thing … he was afraid those two guards that were accompanying him would’ve already tried to kill him back at the Sundang temple. Clearly, they respected the king very much. If they felt that somebody was looking at him strangely, they probably would have liked to poke that person’s eyes out.
Seeing that there still wasn’t any success, the figure straightened up again and gave him another smile. “Why don’t you sit down? It must be tiring to stand for so long.” It came closer, reaching out and grabbing onto Susha Unhuor’s shoulder. With a smile, it motioned over to the chair in front of the desk.
Susha Unhuor raised a brow and then went over under the guidance of the figure, actually sitting down. He still held his weapon in his hand, making sure that he would be able to attack at a moment’s notice.
The figure didn’t do anything threatening though. It merely stood behind him, those dainty hands still on his shoulders. Slowly, it began to knead. “You must be tired from the long journey. Let me help you out a bit. I can make you relax.”
Susha Unhuor felt a little funny inside. These kinds of words … he was afraid Jusha Lale would never be able to say them. In fact, after the time spent with him, when he thought back to what he had said in the Sundang temple, he believed that Jusha Lale had been dying a bit inside when he brought up that he could do whatever he wanted with him.
He definitely wasn’t the type of person that would ever be able to utter that kind of sentence if he wasn’t driven by circumstances. To now have something that looked so much like him and actually sounded like him as well say such cloyingly sweet words really was too strange. He was unaccustomed to it.
But … it did give a hint as to what he wanted to know. The one who had summoned the demon was usually also the one who gave the demon an understanding of what was happening in this part of the world. This was important since the demons were from a different world and needed help with understanding everything. This was especially true if the demon didn’t have any chance to observe on its own what was happening. So in this case, Shaun Reng should have been the one who provided the demon with everything he knew, whether it had happened consciously or unconsciously. Most likely, this was the kind of fantasy he had had about his nephew and this had shaped the demon’s belief about what kind of person Jusha Lale was.
It made sense, especially when considering what Agur Suhi had said before: When he had confronted him, it had been after they returned from their travels to that region to provide disaster relief. So no wonder that this ‘Jusha Lale’ was asking about whether he was tired from his travels. This was something that Shaun Reng should have had imagined and the demon had taken it and enhanced it a bit, making Jusha Lale even more irresistible and a little more compliant so Shaun Reng would be lulled deeper into his desires.
That was all there was to this. Clearly, this was just an illusion and not the demon itself. Not that the demon couldn’t act this out but he didn’t believe that it would make such a low effort. A rūn that was summoned by overwhelming desire, should be a little more straightforward than this.
He did have to say that he was quite surprised that Shaun Reng’s thoughts about his nephew would be so tame after what Agur Suhi had told him. He certainly hadn’t expected that.
Susha Unhuor smiled when he had made sure of what he wanted to do and then reached out with one hand, brushing those dainty hands off his shoulders. “Thank you, I already feel much better.” He got up, not giving the figure any time to do something more. Instead, he slipped past and out of the door, closing it behind him before he went to the other side of the corridor.
He made sure to check his surroundings once again before he opened the door over there. This time, things were not as straightforward. Nothing could be seen of either the demon or an illusion. Well, it wasn’t too much of a surprise.
What was in front of him was a small sitting room used to receive guests. There were three other doors leading into a set of rooms that were probably the actual private chambers of the king. The illusion was more likely to affect these rooms.
Susha Unhuor didn’t go to check them immediately. Instead, he looked around to get a better understanding of this place. He couldn’t help but feel that this place looked very much like Jusha Lale.
There was a table with two comfortable-looking chairs and the same thick carpet on the ground that would soften your steps that he had already noticed in the study. There was another shelf with a couple of books and an assortment of objects that might hold some special meaning to Jusha Lale. A painting was hanging next to it that showed a landscape, lending the room a quiet atmosphere.
He couldn’t help but feel comfortable here. If it had been any other situation, he could have sat down here with Jusha Lale and held a conversation for several hours in this atmosphere. Well, right now, that atmosphere was deceptive.
He turned to glance at the three doors. All of them were beautifully carved, adding to the charm of the room. Unfortunately, neither gave a hint as to what exactly was behind them. That really made things difficult.
He hadn’t stepped out of the illusion yet or shatter it outright. So no matter which door he chose, there was still the possibility to either be confronted with different parts of the illusion or to find the demon itself. It was just a matter of luck at this point.
Killing the demon would also shatter the illusion since it was tied to its strength. If the demon died or lost that strength, the illusion couldn’t be maintained and would dissolve on its own. Maybe the priests could cleanse the place from any remnants that were left over but that was it.
On the other hand, the illusion could provide him with some more information but shattering it might alarm the demon, making things more troublesome. Thus, while the illusion could be beneficial, he was still hoping to find the demon itself. With this kind of thing, it was best to solve the issue as soon as possible. That way, he wouldn’t leave the demon any opportunity to run away and hide. If it managed to get away, he would only be making things difficult for himself.
Since he had no way to know what was behind the doors, he could only go to the closest one and slowly open it, making sure to tightly grip his weapon with the other hand. He tilted his body in preparation for any incoming attacks but nothing happened. With another look around, he finally stepped through the doorway.
To his surprise, what he found on the other side was only a small chamber with yet another door on the far side. Inside the room itself, there was only a cupboard holding some jars that were around the height of a finger and a small bench next to it right up against the wall.
Susha Unhuor raised his brows and then went over, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that he wouldn’t be attacked from behind. He took a closer look at the jars and found that labels with barely recognizable characters on them were tied to their tops. If he saw it right, those should be the names of flowers.
He narrowed his eyes and then went the last few steps to the door, opening it just as carefully as the one from before. As soon as he had opened it a crack, the sound of water rang out from inside. Susha Unhuor stopped in his movement and listened for a moment, making sure that he hadn’t misheard. Then, he opened it further and a room full of steam was uncovered, the movement of the door bringing the smell of flowers to his nose.
Susha Unhuor gulped. Apparently, he had stepped into Jusha Lale’s bathroom. And as he probably should have expected, the demon was once again at work, providing him with the scene of a breathtaking beauty in said bath.