Chapter Six

Magnus Von Faust

HANS

This was his first time being taken to the actual base of the Crimson Order, and he would've been lying if he said he wasn't looking forward to this. When the blindfold was removed from his eyes, Hans blinked and glanced round. The room, if it could be called a room, was cramp and claustrophobia inducing. It was more a tunnel actually, leading somewhere, presumably into a cavern. The tunnel was dimly lit at intervals by a couple of flaming torches jammed and wedged into hastily carved out holes in the wall.

In spite of the torches, Brother Salvadore held a lantern in his hand, and so did the others. As they travelled along, Hans heard the number of footsteps increase, and he had come to the conclusion that Salvadore and himself were being joined by other members of the Crimson Order. Sure enough, there were four other men in cloaks.

Hans himself hadn't brought one, but he wasn't really worried. He was on relatively good terms with the Order anyway, and surely they would overlook a lapse of decorum at least on this occasion. Besides, concealing his identity wasn't really necessary. Everyone knew who he was by now. The five men in cloaks and Hans walked the remaining distance of the tunnel and debouched into a spacious cavern.

He looked around. The ceiling stretched as high as the eye could see, which meant they were far below sea level by now. The cavern was shrouded in darkness, with only a few burning lamps illuminating the wide space, casting long, moving shadows across the cavern wherever they fell. Then there was the smell. Hans couldn't help but detect the very distinct scent of blood and rotting human flesh.

His face twitched slightly at the realisation, though he continued to keep his demeanour neutral. The mind however, began to work furiously. So this, this is where the horrors happen.

He had come to discover that the Crimson Order was in the business of binding demons to potential candidates in a bid to create more assassins for their "Holy Crusade". However, those who did not survive the binding were simply tossed onto a growing mound of human bodies to be cleared away at some point. And it looked like the Order had been busy as of late.

Now that he had surveyed the wide cavern, he had come to the conclusion that this was more of a holding area, a foyer or a hall of some sort. The cavern was structured in the shape of a hexagon, with six stone walls. Embedded in each of the six walls were great iron gates, rotting away after centuries of existence. Hans figured that these gates were doorways to more tunnels, leading into deeper dungeons of the Crimson Order's lair for more of their nefarious purposes.

"Ah, Smog." Another man in a cloak emerged from somewhere, addressing Salvadore directly.

"Inque." Salvadore nodded at the man.

Hans had learnt during his brief encounters with these assassins that they had all sorts of personal codenames, somewhat related to the demon-granted abilities they bore. It was slightly amusing to him to see grown men in cloaks addressing each other in ridiculously cryptic names.

"Ignahon Malkovtoh.." Both assassins said in unison. Hans figured that it was a creed of some sort.

"You brought Brother Hans." Inque said. "Is he ready?"

"Yes." Salvadore said, and turned to Hans. "This is Brother Luis. He'll take you to the High Priest."

"Follow me, please." Inque - or Luis - motioned for Hans to come with him.

Nodding politely, Hans tailed Inque who walked over to one of the six iron gates. Inque unlocked the iron gate with a large key produced from his cloak, and the huge metal contraption squeaked and whined on its hinges as it swung open.

After locking the gate behind him, Inque took Hans further into the lair through another tunnel, narrower this time that it could only permit one person at a time. The only source of light here was the lantern in Inque's hand, swaying and creaking softly with every step. Deeper they went, until they finally came to the end of the second tunnel.

Emerging from the tunnel, Hans saw that they were in a much smaller cavern. A cosy room, though he wouldn't venture to call it cosy by his standards. Still, it did serve the Bishop's purposes. A single bedroll lay in the corner, and shelves had been carved out of the wall, where a couple of books were neatly arranged.

The cavern, similar to the rest of the base, was dimly lit, this time by a single lamp in the room, hanging from a rope tied around a stalactite from the relatively low ceiling. A writing desk was in the centre of the room, and behind it sat Lord Magnus. He was surrounded by a few more cloaked figures who stood silently around him.

"Your Eminence," Inque said. "Brother Hans is here to see you."

Lord Magnus looked up, his features still hooded by ominous shadows. "Brother Hans." He began, voice slow and husky. "Welcome to the humble home of the Crimson Order."

Hans dipped his head slightly in acknowledgement.

"I trust you understand the importance of this meeting." Magnus went on. "After all, this is your very first time coming here to our home. I apologise for the necessity for the blindfold. Surely you understand the need for secrecy."

"Of course." Hans said. "Though it wasn't needed, really."

Hooded, Magnus looked at him with a curious glance. "How so?"

"Well, for starters," Hans said placidly. "I know exactly where we are. Deep below the Kalneron Cathedral in the very heart of Exon's capital. We came here by a tunnel connecting the basement of the castle to the catacombs, which led to the depths below this very cathedral. Amusing really, that your headquarters have been in Exon all this time while you led Eleanor and myself to believe that your base was far away in some remote mountain."

Magnus looked at a loss for words, obviously impressed by this show of knowledge. "And how did you figure that out?"

"The same way I figured out who you really are." Hans smiled. "Magnus Von Faust, High Priest of the Crimson Order and-"

"Enough." Magnus said sharply, scowling at him. "How did you learn of all this?"

"I am a very resourceful individual."

There was a long pause as Magnus and Hans locked eyes. Eventually, Hans' cunning and unreadable eyes proved to be too much for Magnus, who broke eye contact. The High Priest removed his hood, and for the first time Hans had a full view of his features.

Magnus Von Faust wasn't the imposing, dangerous looking man Hans had expected him to be. Instead, he looked like any other ordinary old man, with wrinkles around his eyes and white hair that told a story of a lifetime of stress and dabbling in things he shouldn't have. However, that didn't take away from the threatening aura that the man possessed.

"Seeing as how you seem to know everything already," Magnus cleared his throat. His voice was still scratchy, so at least that wasn't put on. "I don't see why we need to stand on ceremony. Please," he gestured at the chair opposite him at the small desk. "Sit."

Hans sat, eyes still on Magnus. "I hope I haven't made you uncomfortable."

Magnus waved his hand dismissively. "Of course not. Though I must admit I am impressed. You are the first outsider to ever learn of my full name and the real location of where we operate out of, not to mention our existence."

"I would hardly call myself an outsider. After all, I am now a member of the Crimson Order, aren't I?"

Magnus nodded. "I must stress the importance of keeping this knowledge to yourself. No one can know of our operations here."

"Absolutely."

"As you've rightly deduced," Magnus went on. "The Crimson Order has been based below Exon for centuries. Our mutual friend, Eleanor, came very close to discovering this once. She knows of the tunnel in the castle basement and the makeshift meeting cells there, but she never went far enough to realise that our real base wasn't that far away from her own home."

"She wouldn't know it even if you dangled it right under her nose."

Magnus chuckled. "And how is our little friend? Is she well?"

"As well as she can be, under the circumstances."

"That bad?"

"Well, she's actually getting worse. Growing increasingly paranoid and temperamental as the war drags on." Hans clicked his tongue. "Such a shame."

"The last time I spoke with her, she was displaying rather…dysfunctional behaviour. I assume her indulgence in alcohol hasn't waned, as per your last report?"

Hans shook his head, smile still on his face. "She drowns herself in it daily. I can barely recount a time in the past month when she's fully sober anymore. All she does is spend her time cooped up in her chambers, surrounding herself with the new elite guard."

"I see. The First Imperial Guard was destroyed wasn't it?"

"Yes. Seeing as how Eleanor was too incapable of doing it herself, I formed the Imperial Blitzguard to replace it. It is quite a marvellous organisation, really. The men are spread out across the government under the guise of security, spying on her and the rest of the senate. Captain Pyke gathers the intelligence and reports to me daily."

"And Eleanor suspects nothing of it? Not even your involvement with the Crimson Order?"

"Of course not." Hans said. "She's too blinded by a love that never existed."

"Very good." Magnus seemed pleased. "You really are a cunning, cold hearted bastard. I admire that in an ally."

"Thank you."

"I see you have things well in hand. In full control of the entire government and knowing everything about your enemies."

"Well, Eleanor did make me the Chancellor Exon for a reason." Hans shrugged.

"Marvellous." Magnus said. "I'm impressed, Brother Hans. Very impressed."

"Thank you, Your Eminence." Hans said. " And if I may be so bold to ask, how goes our holy crusade?"

"As per usual. Uxzas of Molcorra hasn't wavered in his commitment yet. The CAST is still in effect across the continent, and the task force is hunting the sorcerers down systematically and very effectively. Hundreds of these monsters are being sent to prison every day, where they eventually get eliminated one by one."

"Brought here to be experimented on, you mean?" Hans said casually. "It's hard to ignore the pile of bodies outside."

"Unfortunately, not all of them are strong enough or have the will to bear a demon to serve in our crusade." Magus tutted regretfully. "The rare ones who are though, are convinced to serve."

"Brainwashed to turn against the rest of their sorcerous kind, you mean?"

"Crude if you put it that way, but yes." Magnus said. "But I like to see it as a conversion of faith."

"As you please, Your Eminence."

"But no, that's not what you want to know now is it? I'm very well aware that you aren't particularly concerned with our goals. You may fool everyone else but you don't fool me, Brother Hans." Magnus smirked. "You're only interested in the Snow Queen, aren't you?"

Hans' face twitched for a moment, and he regained control. "You're very perceptive."

"Sadly," Magnus sighed. "In spite of our influences on both sides of the war, we have yet to capture her or her precious League of Sorcerers."

"Elsa was always an elusive one." Hans agreed. "That's a shame. So since the war and the CAST Force aren't enough to smoke the League out, have you considered," he glanced round at the cloaked men. "Sending out your assassins perhaps?"

"Not yet." Magnus waved his hand. "The situation doesn't call for such a direct approach yet. Sending out the Mage Slayers is our last resort, one which I hope we never need to turn to. We can't risk revealing ourselves, not when we've remained in the shadows for centuries. But if the situation calls for it…"

"I understand." Hans said. "But the League has been a consistent thorn in our side."

"Yes. Their interference with the task force and their incessant assaults on prison facilities over the months has become more than a minor inconvenience. They are a legitimate threat. Even with the Confederation declaring them to be the most wanted public enemies on the continent, it didn't change anything."

"Then that calls for a more aggressive approach, don't you think?"

"I have already hired bounty hunters." Magnus said. "The best in the business. They will deal with the League. However, I am willing to make you a separate offer."

"Oh?" Hans steepled his fingers on the desk.

Magnus smirked. "I'm willing to bet that I know you as well as you know me, Brother Hans."

That's highly unlikely, Hans thought to himself. But this offer intrigues me.

"For your own private reasons, you have a deep seated resentment for the Snow Queen and in the aftermath of the failed invasion of Arendelle, you're finding it hard to devise a way to get to her. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out." Magnus went on. "So I'm feeling generous enough to offer you a trade."

"A trade."

"Yes. I will provide you with the necessary resources and connections," Magnus gestured at the men in cloaks around him. "The Mage Slayers will be readily available to be of assistance to you. You will have the authority and channels to acquire the Snow Queen upon her successful capture by either the bounty hunters or the task force."

"And what's the catch?"

"I want you to find out where she's sheltering the League of Sorcerers." Something gleamed in Magnus' wrinkled eyes. "I'm quite confident that you're skilled in the art of interrogation and torture, are you not?"

"I'd like to think so."

"Good. The League of Sorcerers have been evading us for far too long. The Snow Queen, being the Pilgrim, will know exactly where they are. And your task is to make her tell you where that is, so that we can flush them out once and for all. Do what you need to do to her. Make her suffer a little if you like, but I want that location."

Hans leaned forward intensely. "Oh I'll do more than make her suffer a little. And I don't need an incentive to make her suffer. I'll do it for free."

"Excellent." Magnus said. "Then we have a deal?"

"Of course, Your Eminence."

"Splendid," Magnus stood up. "Then our meeting here is adjourned."

"Actually," Hans said. "I do have a request."

"Which would be?"

"Where do you keep them?" Hans asked.

"Keep what?"

"You know what I'm talking about. The demons you have imprisoned here. The ones where you sacrifice countless victims to in order to find a suitable host for them."

Magnus paused and the two men locked eyes. Hans could see Magnus considering his options, the gears in his head turning to weigh possible ramifications of his actions.

"I don't see why not." Magnus said at last. "You have earned the right, I suppose."

"Thank you, Your Eminence."

"Though I must ask. Why do you want to see them?"

"Call it an insatiable curiosity to see the impossible for my own eyes." Hans said. Truthfully, he had other intentions that he wasn't going to make known. Not yet.

"Very well," Magnus stepped out from behind his desk and motioned for Hans to follow him. "Come."

Lord Magnus took Hans out of his cosy cavern and back into the tunnels the way they had come. This time though, they weren't flanked by any other men in cloaks. The two of them came to the iron gate, and Magnus signalled to one of the cloaked priests outside to unlock the gate.

The huge metal contraption groaned and protested as it was dragged open, and the two of them debouched into the large cavern shaped like a hexagon again. Then, Magnus led the way towards the gate farthest away from them, on the northern side of the cavern which appeared to give off a far more ominous vibe than the rest of the chambers.

Silently, Magnus motioned for the gate to be opened, and then took Hans through another long winding tunnel not dissimilar to the one they had just came from. This one however, had a few forks and Hans was wondering how anyone would be able to keep themselves from getting lost in this maze of catacombs. These men of the Crimson Order seemed to have no trouble navigating them.

"I must warn you." Magnus turned to Hans after they made a few more twists and turns, and were about to come to the end of the tunnel. "What you are about to see isn't for the faint of heart."

"I'm sorry, I hope I didn't come across as fainthearted to you." Hans said mildly, his voice cheery.

"No," Magnus stared at him. "I suppose not."

They walked out of the tunnel into a place that stank a hundred times worse than the smell out in the main cavern. And here Hans thought that the stench couldn't possibly be any worse than that. He was however, proven unpleasantly wrong, trying hard not to gag.

The place reeked of a musty air, dried blood, rotting bodies and a general unidentifiable mix of smells that made the entire place plainly intolerable. The cave itself was a dungeon of sorts, with the walls lined with cells and cages filled with emaciated, half-clothed human beings who looked like they were in desperate need of food and water.

There was a narrow corridor between cells which stretched round in a wide circle, coming back to the starting point. The dungeon itself was very badly lit, only by a few torches placed at erratic intervals across the room. Shadows were cast all across the room, each of them seeing to come alive and threatened to jump out at Hans at any moment.

This was a very different scene from what Hans had expected, if he was being honest. The image he had painted in his mind was that of a mental asylum, full of shrieking lunatics with their demons urging them to escape from their cells. Hans had been fully prepared to keep well away from the cells in case one of the demon hosts decided to make a grab at him.

The real thing was however quite different. It was quiet, though not in a good way. Hans could not put his finger on it, but there was something about this place that made him quite uncomfortable. The calm and silence was almost eerie and frightening, apart from the occasional drip of water from the ceiling which had created a puddle on the ground.

Not all the cells were filled though, and Hans suspected that Magnus used this place to keep his numerous sorcerers that were being sent to him to experiment on before killing. Or his enemies, in general.

At the far corner of the dungeon, Hans heard a priest reciting a long spell in some foreign language. Even the text he was rattling off sounded scratchy and just…disturbing.

"I did warn you," Magnus glanced back at Hans. "Do you wish to leave now?"

"No," Hans kept a straight face. "I know you're keeping the Eternal King in your possession. Is he here?"

Magnus looked cautious all of a sudden. "Yes."

"Could you show me?"

The High Priest fixed Hans with a pensive gaze, trying to read him, but Hans was seasoned enough to mask his expressions. However, the penetrating stare of Lord Magnus was rather disorienting.

"Come with me." Magnus said, starting down the narrow corridor with Hans at his heels.

As they passed by countless cells filled with the quiet, watchful demons, Hans glanced round. Outside each of the cells, names had been engraved on the walls, cancelled out and replaced or entirely rewritten. They corresponded to the names of the demons being bound to their hosts in the cells.

The demon hosts inside the cells stared silently at Hans. They knew who Magnus was, but Hans was new. Fresh meat. Hans, as level headed and controlled as he was, could feel his skin crawl as he unconsciously felt the eyes of the surrounding demons on him. He tried to keep his eyes straight, but occasionally he could feel his gaze being unconsciously pulled to the fascinating demons.

At one point, he stopped when he saw a marking on the wall. "Father Time." He could barely make out the engraving, but the name itself was unmistakable.

His eyes flicked to the cell harbouring the demon host inside. The man bearing the demon was seated in the corner with his legs crossed, staring straight up at Hans with piercing green eyes through long, unkempt black hair falling over his face. Hans found himself drawn and mesmerised for some reason. There was just something about the man…

"Ah." Magnus had noticed his ally halt, and joined him. "I see Father Time has caught your eye."

"Who…what is this?" Hans said, feeling befuddled.

"He's a special one." Magnus explained. "This man bears one of the rarer and more powerful demons that were harder to find. We dubbed him Father Time, because of what he can do."

"And what can he do?" Hans was still enthralled.

"Ah." Magnus said. "He can see into the past and future of the people he touches. Quite a dangerous one."

"How so?"

"If he's loose he'll be unstoppable, being able to predict everything that happens."

"Fascinating." Hans said. "And you've never used him to see into your own future, or the future of the Crimson Order on its benefit?"

Magnus looked slightly repulsed and shook his head. "It's against the Holy Text." He explained sharply. "Knowing the future of oneself is forbidden. It is one of the great temptations deployed by the demons, and should only be used for our Holy Crusade when absolutely necessary."

"I see." Hans badly wanted to scoff, but restrained himself. All these fanatics and their extremists laws that dictated their morals. It was all a bad joke to him.

"Come." Magnus gestured to him to move on, and Hans took one last glance before tearing his eyes away from Father Time. As he turned his back and continued, Hans could still feel the eyes of the demon following him.

They proceeded down the corridor and finally Magnus stopped at the far end, near the priest in the corner who was reciting something from a scroll that looked like it was about to fall apart at any time. A single, solitary cell was etched into the rock wall of the dungeon, separated from the rest of the cells. It was evident that this prisoner was far more dangerous than the rest and required isolation.

"As you requested," Magnus himself kept his distance from the bars of the cell. "The host of the Eternal King."

Hans stared at the figure inside. It was not what one would have associated with a majestic, foreboding name like "The Eternal King". The demon's host was a scrawny, emaciated man with black hair which fell to his shoulders, and his ribs and bones were almost visible through his thin skin. He looked pathetically weak, shivering ever so slightly now and then, curled up on the ground.

"Not what you were expecting, I suppose." Magnus glanced at Hans.

"I suppose not."

"Well, it is hard." Magnus lamented. "Hard to find a suitable host with the strength and will to carry the Eternal King. Those who do make it must have a will strong enough to control the demon, otherwise it will eat up its host from the inside. It needs to feed on sorcery and life force to survive.

"The man you see before you today used to be called the 'Eternal King of Ancient Hyutreno'. The reason why he was able to rule Ancient Hyutreno with an iron fist beyond a normal lifespan was because his demon fed on the life force and souls of his many enemies and subjects. However after a bloody war that raged for nine years, he was eventually subdued and thrown into a cell in the catacombs." Magnus motioned at the shrivelled up figure. "Without being able to draw life force or sorcery from anyone, he grew weak and is now barely alive."

"Hmmn." Hans made a vague non-committal sound in response, and then followed a long pause. "Well," he finally broke his silence. "Thank you, Your Eminence. I better get going before its late."

"Of course." Magnus said, as they drew away from the cell and back towards the entrance of the tunnel. "I hope I've satisfied your curiosity."

"Yes, of course."

"You will remember to hold up your end of the bargain? Carry on your duties as the Chancellor of Exon, and keep a close eye on Sister Eleanor's actions."

"I will."

"And in the meantime, you may attend to your pet project. Find the Snow Queen and make her tell you where the League of Sorcerers is hiding. After that, she's all yours to torture and kill."

"With pleasure." Hans licked his lips. "But for now, I have more mundane tasks to attend to.

"Such as?"

"A peace talk with the Confederation."