Authors: Joshua Ingle
“Kill him,” Marcus shouted. Balthior locked eyes with his brother as the horde moved in.
“Wait!” A voice from the back of the crowd saved Balthior, and he strained to see who it was. A larger spirit was making his way through the press.
He moved between the others and Balthior, motioning to him. “I saw this one enter the camp just now. If the emperor had a vision, it was not from him.” Murmurs spread as the crowd realized this was true. Entrapping a human in a dream of one’s own design took hours. Balthior had not had time to engineer such a feat.
“You dare question me?” Marcus said.
“I do.” Om turned to the fallen angels around him, who tentatively released their grips on Balthior. Om gestured emphatically, commanding the crowd. “Marcus had been in the tent since Constantine went to rest. I say
gave Constantine the vision. I say Marcus has turned to the Enemy.”
Guttural hissing rose from the demon horde. Many of them wore smirks. As much as Balthior’s death would entertain them, the potential demise of a great demon like Marcus was too great to ignore.
Balthior let himself relax a little, and before he was aware of it, they were dragging both him and Marcus to the nest in the woods.
The group drifted past cypress trees and laurels, through small brambles and blackthorn bushes. Balthior considered thanking Om so he could earn Om’s respect, which would aid him in the trial that was sure to come, but he quickly realized this was a deranged notion. Om had acted for his own glory; not to help the Rat.
Gratitude would make me seem weak.
If Marcus were proven apostate, Om would likely usurp his place as Xeres’s right hand.
Shame, kill, and rise. It was the way of the demon world.
Balthior had lived in a demon nest in Mycenae over a thousand years ago, when demonkind had gathered to plan a wave of violence that would destabilize the world. Now the memories of chaos and noise returned to him, as he saw a vast multitude of evil spirits drifting over the canopy. So many were present that they blotted out the stars. Balthior was amazed that so many demons could coordinate with each other. On rare occasions when potential far-reaching change in the human world was at stake, thousands of them would gather in one place to effect an outcome favorable for demonkind.
An outcome which maximizes death.
Despite his predicament, Balthior grew excited at the thought. If a culture as nomadic and isolated as the devils’ society came together only for monumental events, Balthior truly was in the epicenter of his civilization, and important changes would take place here. His dream of killing Maxentius seemed less probable now, yet he could claim some prestige by merely having been present here.
If he lived.
Sentry demons screamed at the party’s approach, for the dire news of a pious Constantine had preceded their party. Beneath the dark trees and darker spirits hovering above, Marcus and Balthior were presented to Xeres, an imposing demon lord whose reputation was envied across the world. He acted as judiciary in absence of a true Judge, since no Judges had been invited to the nest—and likely would not have come at any rate, given their penchant for staying in their own cities and avoiding the nomadic life of their peers.
Om’s testimony and Marcus’s own babbling soon gave Marcus away. He had obviously not anticipated being caught, and had prepared no alibi.
“What saw you, Balthior?” Xeres asked.
Marcus’s hateful gaze lay on Balthior as he answered. “I saw joy. A feeling of triumph. Constantine felt Christ was with him and supported his cause. If he wins the battle, he will credit the victory to the Enemy.”
The assembly muttered fearfully as Xeres spoke their fear aloud. “A Christian emperor?” It could not be allowed. How could demonkind hope to prevail if the Enemy was in every school, on every battlefield, in every home, encouraged by the state? Only a minuscule fraction of Europe’s population was currently Christian, but with an
proclaiming his love for Christ… The demons had much to lose, especially Xeres—the very demon, Balthior learned, who’d primed Constantine for leadership and made him popular across the continent.
Xeres stalked toward Marcus. “I know you. You are no traitor to demonkind.” He circled Marcus like a predator ready to strike. “You are traitor to
. You sought to ruin my reputation and seize my glory so that you might depose me. You would have had all demonkind believe that I myself put a Christian emperor in power.” Xeres bellowed, a violent roar that resonated through the trees. Both he and Marcus were robust and powerful, but Marcus remained silent and submissive while Xeres raged. “This will not stand! Your crime goes far beyond a petty play for power. You have shamed all of us here and threatened the future of our ilk. You will pay for your lunacy. Oh, you will pay.”
Once Balthior’s innocence had been firmly established, he was freed. Marcus was held prisoner while a cluster of demons was dispatched to Constantine. Xeres claimed that if the Augustus could be put back to sleep, he could administer another vision to Constantine and undo the damage Marcus had done. Word soon returned, however, that Constantine had declared a vigil; he would not sleep until the battle was done. Apparently, God had told him to do so in the vision. This enraged Xeres further, but rage would not salvage his plans, so he called an assemblage to debate a course of action. Balthior stayed to watch, drawn by the possibility of earning glory and prestige in the unfolding events.
As he waited for the meeting to begin, some lesser demons approached Balthior and asked for his version of tonight’s story. Balthior could scarcely remember how it felt to be so admired. Demons more reputable than himself often swatted him away from human prey in the city, but he was otherwise a stranger to attention from his peers, at least in the recent past.
These dupes would follow
, the Rat. For no other reason than my association with Marcus. How joyous.
Balthior absorbed himself in retelling his tale, and the others flattered him, eager for attention of their own. They left him, though, when Xeres’s assemblage began. Marcus, haggard and beaten, was escorted into the area for the sake of any questions that might be asked of him. Balthior listened as the demon leaders argued. In the brightening sky to the east, the Morning Star was rising before the sun.
“Maxentius should be emperor now,” one demon lord said. “His men outnumber Constantine’s. We should assist them in the battle. There is no choice but to let Constantine be slain.”
“Nay,” Xeres replied in his impossibly deep voice. “Your solution would be but temporary. The people hate Maxentius. If Constantine’s army does not kill him, someone else surely will, and soon.”
“And so? It is no matter. With both Augusti dead, other claimants will emerge, and the infighting will lead to more battles, elongating this civil war all the further. It is a good plan.”
“An unpredictable plan.” Om interrupted in Xeres’s defense. “We will have no control over the eventual victor. He could be a peaceful man, or a Christian. What good is three more months of war if our cause is smothered for decades to come?”
From the place where he was bound by four other demons, Marcus spoke, his voice just a whisper next to Om’s and Xeres’s. “My esteemed friends. Your cause is not lost. Let me help you with—”
“Silence!” Om yelled.
“Nay, let him speak.” Xeres moved closer to his former right hand. “What was your plan, betrayer? What would you have done with a Christian emperor once you had deposed me?”
“I would have killed him. The plan is already set to make him supreme ruler, so you should let him win his war. But at the same time, gradually instill hatred for him in the hearts of his men. If Constantine espouses Christianity and tries to spread it, coax one of them into assassinating him and usurping his position.”
“As you intended to usurp mine?” Xeres said coldly.
“I will help you kill Constantine to earn back my keep, if you allow it.”
Xeres frowned. “The damage you’ve done is too great. I cannot trust you.”
“Soldiers often pray to strange gods before battles. Constantine’s interest in the Christian God is but a phase. There was no lasting harm in my actions.”
“Constantine was to become a bloody tyrant! If he feels the Enemy saved him this once, he is not like to reinstate the old policy of state persecution, as I have planned for so long. Constantine was meant to seem tolerant in Britain and Gaul so the people would rally behind him, but now he may
tolerant, even in power. He will slaughter no Christians if he has a vision of their God in his memory, and when the Christians are not dead, their words may yet spread. We will all have less blood on our hands than we desire.”
“And you are certain that a Christian emperor would deliver less blood?”
As the great devils continued their bickering, Balthior noted the way the demon crowd watched Xeres. Fear was writ upon their faces, and along with it, admiration. Underneath these, though, lay envy. Balthior knew it because he felt it himself. If Constantine became the first Christian emperor and Xeres’s name was soiled, many would act on that envy, rushing to fill the void of power.
To have a name as known as Xeres’s, to speak a command to any demon and have it obeyed, to be remembered across all history for my sheer cunning and raw might. Let them watch. Let them covet. All the power of Xeres will belong to Balthior one day. Perhaps one day soon. Balthior the Great.
The throng was so enamored of Xeres’s commanding voice and presence that it didn’t notice the dull roar in the distance. Marcus, who had once been so reserved, had grown quite heated in the last hour of the quarrel, and in retrospect it would be obvious that he was stalling. Om was the first to recognize the roar as a cavalry charge; the human battle had begun without the demon horde. A lack of demonic intervention now left the battle’s outcome to chance, and to the humans’ limited intellects.
Balthior rushed through the woods. The demon army came barreling out behind him into early morning daylight. They dithered as they absorbed the breathtaking sight of the chaotic battleground at the Milvian Bridge. Countless horses and men had already drowned in the Tiber, and though the Praetorian Guard were making a last stand on the far side of the Via Flaminia, Maxentius’s defeat seemed imminent. Constantine’s legions pounded the remnants of his foe’s disorganized army mercilessly. Maxentius had formed his lines too close to the river, with no path of retreat save the makeshift pontoon structure his army had constructed in the bridge’s shadow. Only five men abreast could fit across the width of this structure, but many hundreds now tried to dash over it, since the Milvian Bridge itself had been mostly destroyed before the battle to prevent Constantine from crossing the river.
Constantine had been outnumbered two to one, and now he will be victorious. A clever one indeed, though not so clever as me.
For if Balthior could save Xeres’s reputation by slaying Constantine, the lowly Rat would have a chance at becoming the great demon lord’s right hand.
Constantine’s new standard was the Greek letter chi crossed with the Greek letter rho, the first two letters in the name of Christ. Gold on crimson, this abomination stood strong and tall on nearly every vexillum across the battlefield. Balthior spotted Gnaeus running in circles, brazenly waving one of these emblems like a loon. From where he had gotten the flag, Balthior hadn’t a clue. He entered the man’s weak mind, made supple from years of comfortable possession, then made him turn and run away from the battle.
The field’s chaos was too great for Gnaeus to be noticed by anyone, including the other demons, many of whom now joined the fight, whispering confusion into the ears of Constantine’s soldiers, trying in vain to turn the tide against him. Balthior found Constantine at the rear of the battle, hiding on a horse in the bushes with his officers, observing from afar like cowards.
And to think that just hours ago, I looked up to this man—this
—as a hero among the humans.
A score of his guard surrounded the Augustus, but messengers and servants came and went, and the area was a bustle of activity. To Constantine’s men, Gnaeus was just another man bearing their standard.
The demon horde had found Constantine too. They fluttered around him, screeching and bellowing and whispering as persuasively as they could, but while they had only voices, Balthior had feet. They watched as Balthior sent Gnaeus charging forward. Balthior made the man rip the flag off its pole, bring the pole’s pointed tip up, and hurl it toward the emperor’s chest.
A flurry of arrows ripped into Gnaeus’s body before the improvised spear was halfway to its target, but the weapon was away. Balthior left Gnaeus as he died, and rose above him to watch the carnage unfold. Constantine’s horse reared at the last moment, so the vexillum’s pole hit the steed instead of its rider, and only glanced the horse at that. The sudden jolt threw Constantine, however, and he tumbled headlong into the thicket beneath him.
The demon forces howled at the excitement, but Balthior grew distraught as he saw the Augustus survive his simple fall.
I’m done for. I’ve ruined my chance. They will never see my glory now.
But Balthior’s misgivings proved premature. As Constantine’s officers helped him to his feet, blood dribbled from his underarm. The battle was now safely in the distance, so they removed the emperor’s armor to find a huge twisted thorn protruding from his upper left ribcage, just above the area his armor had covered. Constantine grimaced as his men called for help, and he soon collapsed unconscious in the dirt by the blackthorn bushes. The blood trickled out faster now.
The emperor would die. As this became obvious to the other demons, the air filled with cacophonous shrieks of victory.
They see my glory! I have succeeded. I will be a demon lord after all.
Balthior rose among his peers—no: his underlings. He rose higher than them. “Behold! I am Balthior, the Thorn of Constantine,” he proclaimed. “See my work.”
Several thralls hurriedly prepared the doctors’ supply wagon and its herbs and elixirs. Constantine lay motionless. Three guards prodded at Gnaeus’s body with great care, trying to find any identifying mark, unaware of the demonic host circling above them, raining adulation down on its new hero—