A/N: Oh jeez. It's been a while I'm so sorry about the long wait for this chapter! The next one shouldn't take nearly so long, and rest assured: although this is something of a transitional chapter, there are a lot of plot events coming up that lead directly into the end. Thanks to everybody who's still hanging in there, and to everybody who reviews! I've put in a summary of the last chapter, but even though it's a pain, I'd really advise reading it again to understand this one if you don't remember what happened! It's a bit obscure, and I hope the two chapters side by side will help clear up a little of what's going on, although everything should become much more obvious later.
Last Chapter: Belial's magic has gradually returned. Moloch, who was sent out to retrieve Verinne and Razakel, returned to the Academy. That night, Belial was awoken by Nisroc, and Malthus led the two of them to a meeting between Amon, Moloch, Dumah, and Asmodeus. Apparently, Nisroc and Belial had been brought at Asmodeus's request. Asmodeus revealed that Verinne went to him for shelter, and offered to exchange Verinne and Razakel for his old ward, Malthus. Amon refused, and the two of them argued. Asmodeus aggressively propositioned Amon, and when he kissed Amon on the hand, Amon attacked him. Rather than fighting back, Asmodeus laughed and called him a coward before leaving. Belial noticed afterwards that Amon seemed genuinely afraid.
In the commotion that followed Asmodeus's departure, Belial and Nisroc were safely ignored. They crouched, side by side, on the sawdust floor of the dining hall. Nisroc's eyes were closed and his ears folded back tight against his head. Belial, on the other hand, watched Amon, Dumah, and the two other demons from afar. They hadn't been dismissed and this wasn't the time to interrupt. In the meantime, he was going to do his best to piece together exactly what had just happened.
The only voice Belial could actually understand was Malthus's. Dumah continued to babble in some unrecognizable language, and Moloch's rumble was too low for Belial to make out the individual words, but he didn't have to strain his ears to hear Malthus's strident complaints. Amon sat at the center of it all, his eyes half-lidded as he stared straight ahead. There was no way to tell if he was listening to anything any of the three said.
"You can't give me to him! I won't stand for it! You don't have any right to trade me back and forth like I'm some sort of— bargaining chip! This is your fault for always giving in to his demands, using me to curry his favor instead of soiling your precious little pet. Of course he would never be satisfied with that alone. Asmodeus never forgets a grudge. He'll never give up until he has me back in his clutches, and of course you'll be happy to deliver me to him, tied up with a bow and note of apology, all for the sake of a traitor and his human whore—"
"Malthus, enough. All of you, enough," groaned Amon, slumping forward onto the table. Dumah and Moloch trailed off, and to Belial's surprise, Malthus obeyed as well. He stood ramrod straight, quivering from horns to tail, as if keeping his words bottled up within was an enormous strain on his body.
"There isn't going to be any trade," Amon continued. "If Asmodeus dares ask me for anything any time in the next hundred years, the only thing he's going to get is a boot to the ass." His teeth flashed as he spat those last few words. There was contempt and fury in his voice; nothing more and nothing less. It was almost enough to make Belial wonder if he'd imagined that brief flash of fear in Amon's eyes. But why, exactly was he so angry? Certainly, Asmodeus had been snide, but Amon had tolerated it up until that kiss on the hand. Why had that made Amon snap, so suddenly and viciously? Judging from the faintly puzzled look on Moloch's broad face, he didn't understand it any more than Belial did.
"You still shouldn't have unsheathed your claws," Moloch said. "Asmodeus is a formidable demon. There's no need to make him our enemy." Belial wondered how Amon would react to be scolded so openly, but either Moloch had special privileges, or Amon was rattled enough to let it go. The headmaster only snorted, his lip twisting scornfully.
"I'd say he's already decided that on his own," said Amon. "After all of those insinuations…he didn't come here honestly hoping to make the trade. All he wanted was to provoke me into striking the first blow."
"It's true," said Dumah softly. "Lord Asmodeus has always kept very tight control over his emotions, but something in him has changed. He wanted to hurt you, Master. I could tell that much."
"Quiet," Amon snapped, without turning his head. "I don't want to hear it coming from the one who handed him a weapon to use against me." Dumah flinched as if struck, and hesitated for a moment, but still soldiered onward.
"Master, I never once imagined that Verinne would seek shelter with Lord Asmodeus. I thought more highly of his judgment than that."
Amon did turn then, and seemed about to make a sharp retort, but then his mouth snapped shut. He blinked, once.
"You know, through all of that bluster…" Amon murmured. "Asmodeus only ever mentioned Verinne and the slave."
"You think there's even more? That he's hiding something greater?" asked Moloch, shifting uneasily, but an odd grin was spreading slowly across Amon's face.
"The very opposite. Asmodeus flaunts everything he has: it's in his nature. A wise demon doesn't reveal anything more than he has to, but he as good as told me he had an informant planted here. He can't resist rubbing what he knows in my face…or at least what he thinks he knows." Amon's gaze moved deliberately to where Belial and Nisroc were crouched. Belial shuddered, recalling Asmodeus's oozingly sweet words, along with that hateful, over-familiar hand on his shoulder. Apparently this little one caused the headmaster a great deal of trouble…Scheming with slaves and dabbling with rituals…Being a favorite can be hard. Asmodeus hadn't really been speaking to Belial at all; he'd just been taunting Amon with how much he knew about what was going on within the Academy. A few looks, a few words, a few terrifying moments pinned down by Amon's body, and Belial had somehow been pegged as favorite. Personally, Belial had to agree with Amon: Asmodeus didn't know half of what he thought he did if he'd picked out Belial as a potential weak spot. Amon seemed intrigued by Belial. That didn't mean he gave a fuck about him.
"I can't say I understand your meaning," said Moloch, after a thoughtful pause. "Verinne and his human are more than enough to cause you a great deal of harm, depending on how he chooses to use them."
"What I'm getting at is this. Verinne had both a mate and a newborn," said Amon. "Where have they gone? You told me the lair was deserted. If Asmodeus took them in along with Verinne, don't you think he would have mentioned it?" A chill ran down Belial's spine. He'd completely forgotten, but it came back to him now. Verinne had kept a lair and a mate outside of the Academy grounds; Belial recalled just how giddy he'd been after the birth of his first whelp. What happened to them, in the wake of Verinne's betrayal? If they fell into Amon's hands, Belial doubted he would have any compunctions about hurting Verinne by hurting his family.
"There'd be no reason for him to mention them, if he has them," said Moloch. "You wouldn't give him much for them…and he might want to keep them for himself."
"No matter how worthless they are, I still think he would flaunt them, if he had them. A young demoness and a newborn, cruelly caught up in the treachery of their sire…they add just the sort of dramatic spice that Asmodeus would relish, don't you think? And if he wanted to keep them, of course he would flaunt them."
"Then Verinne abandoned them," said Moloch, who was now flattening his ears in clear irritation. "He was already slowed by an ill human. A newborn would have been even more of a burden."
"If he simply left them, why couldn't you track them down?" Amon asked. "You traced Verinne himself right to Asmodeus's doorstep."
"Perhaps the demoness is a clever one. More likely, both are dead."
"Dead?" Amon's eyes grew round in mock astonishment. "By whose hand?"
"Verinne's," said Moloch coolly. "It's what I would do. Better than leaving them for the likes of you, or some other jackal."
"But Verinne isn't you. If he were the sort of demon who could cut the throat of his own whelp in cold blood, he wouldn't have been so besotted with a human to begin with."
"We could speculate like this all night," said Moloch. "It doesn't make any difference. He has Verinne and the human, at the very least; he showed me proof of it. If he chooses, he can use that human child to smear your reputation across the entire continent. I know you're fond of setting yourself against the entire world, but this is serious. We need to take action." Moloch didn't bother to disguise the look of appraisal he gave Malthus, who was still standing in front of the table, stiff, silent, and utterly miserable.
"Maybe you're right," said Amon. "But in any case, I think the first order of business is to root out his spy, whoever he may be. I may not have anything to hide, but I'm not going to allow Asmodeus to get away with doing whatever the fuck he likes."
"It's probably his whelp," said Malthus. "The mute. Asmodeus wouldn't keep such a worthless creature alive unless he had some use for it." Belial had been on the verge of pitying Malthus, just then, but it seemed he wouldn't have to deal with that discomfiting sympathy any longer. Three pairs of demon eyes were suddenly fixed on Nisroc, who flinched and curled up even tighter. He'd been listening, no matter how oblivious he seemed, and though Belial could shield him as best he could with his skinny body, they both knew that it offered no protection.
"That whelp is not Asmodeus's tool," said Dumah sharply.
"I've already told you to be quiet, slave," said Amon. "This is the last time I'll say it. Shut up." Dumah lowered his head rather than pressing his luck, which was probably a wise choice. Belial had to wonder, perhaps unfairly, whether Dumah was being altruistic, or saw some benefit for himself in defending Nisroc. There was no way to know, and it had been a fruitless effort, anyway.
"It makes sense, doesn't it?" Malthus continued. "With how he flaunts himself. Openly enrolling his own whelp as a spy is as blatant as it could possibly be."
"A clever enough theory, for you," said Amon. "But you're wrong. I've examined that whelp thoroughly, and found no traces of any kind of communication spellwork. In fact, the curse that affects him is designed to prevent communication. He can't speak, he can't write, his mind itself is like a locked iron box. It's a pathetic spy who can only report through pantomime."
"A student informant would be of limited use," said Moloch. "And certainly nothing to boast of. He would want an agent with more freedom than that. One that could report on the innermost workings of the Academy."
"Exactly," said Amon, narrowing his eyes. "With that in mind, you're more suspicious than any whelp, Malthus. Since you were kind enough to donate your blood to the project, you knew all about my experiments with the human. Been having second thoughts about your old sire lately?"
"What? No, of course I wouldn't…" Malthus flinched, and his voice high and unconvincing. "Amon, I—I wouldn't—"
"Just kidding," Amon purred. "You're too spineless to ever betray me. But how about you do me a favor and put these two whelps back to bed? Moloch and I have some things to discuss."
"Do you think I'm stupid?" Malthus cried. After that brief moment of uncertainty, his temper had returned in full force, and he faced down Amon with an ugly snarl on his face. "I know exactly what you're going to discuss."
"Don't flatter yourself," Amon replied. "Although you're making his offer seem more tempting by the second."
"Treacherous bastard," Malthus hissed. "I meant what I said. I won't stand for it."
"Malthus." Instead of snarling in return, Amon lifted his head so that he met Malthus's eyes, and spoke in an even tone of voice. "I'm not going to give you to him. Calm down."
"Why not?" Malthus seemed taken aback by this new strategy. Some of the tension left his shoulders, but he was still eying Amon with suspicion. "You don't care what happens to me. You'll do whatever's most expedient. So why not give me away?"
"Why not?" Amon stood with sudden fury, and Malthus took a hasty step back. "Because you know far too much about my affairs. Because I'm not about to prove to him that I'm as much of a coward as he says I am. Because if I give you away, I'll hardly have any teachers left to staff my fucking Academy! Now get out!" Whether Malthus was convinced or not, Amon's blazing eyes brooked no argument. Malthus whirled without another word and stormed towards Belial and Nisroc.
Belial scrambled to his feet without prompting, tugging at the collar of Nisroc's robe until he lurched upright as well. He expected Malthus to lash out at them both with tail or claws or at the very least his tongue, but he barely acknowledged their existence as he passed. Belial dared to take one last look back at the tables before he followed. Amon was seated again, already craning his head together with Moloch, while Dumah stood apart from them, his posture submissive but his face speculative. There was no telling what any of them were scheming. How much of a threat did Asmodeus pose? Did Amon really intend to refuse him?
Most importantly, did Razakel have even a slim chance of survival, or were Verinne and his human alike doomed no matter what happened next?
Malthus interpreted Amon's order loosely, bringing them to the door of the dormitory building and no further before he scurried back the way he had come. Belial supposed he was right to be paranoid about Amon's intentions, but couldn't see why Amon would bother concealing them from Malthus. If Amon decided he did want to trade Malthus away, he could simply overpower him by force—maybe that was why Malthus was so frantic. He didn't want to accept that he was totally helpless, so he snarled and blustered and made demands. Again, Belial felt an unwanted twinge of pity alongside his hatred and disgust for Malthus.
The sky was still pitch black when Malthus left them. Nisroc loped off across the grounds almost as soon as Malthus turned his back, probably heading for the woods. Belial watched him go with some concern, but if Nisroc wanted company, he would have made it clear. It was probably better to leave him be, anyway. After Nisroc's last encounter with Asmodeus, he'd been nearly catatonic with fear. This time, Nisroc was in much better shape, but he might still need some time alone to collect himself.
It was probably also for the best that Belial was alone when he returned to the dormitory, where Orochi would be waiting. Nisroc had been the one to lure Belial away in the first place, and Belial wanted to avoid another ugly confrontation between the two of them. Nisroc was the most blameless of all in this horrific mess, but with Orochi's grudge, he'd take any opportunity to pick a fight. Alone, Belial had a chance to soothe his temper, so that it could be mostly forgotten by morning.
This time, however, Orochi wasn't lurking by the door. Belial discovered him propped upright against the headboard of their bed, with his eyes closed and his chin tucked to his chest. He was awake enough to maintain a humanoid form, and awake enough to notice when Belial crawled onto the bed, though he didn't open his eyes.
"What was that about?" Orochi asked. He slid slowly down the headboard until he was lying flat, then lifted his arm and laid it across Belial's shoulders.
"Amon wanted me," said Belial shortly. "They were holding a…sort of council. About how to deal with Verinne. I was pretty much ignored." I was brought there as a statement; as a threat. I was there because Amon favors me. That was the real truth of the matter, but Belial wondered if Orochi really needed to know all the details about Amon and Asmodeus. Orochi couldn't do much to defend him against either of them; what would be the point of upsetting him for no reason?
"They didn't hurt you," Orochi mumbled. It wasn't a question, but Belial answered anyway.
"Good," said Orochi, and relaxed completely, letting out a heaving, contented sigh. Only a few moments later, his shape twisted and grew into the form of the dragon as he fell asleep.
Although his diction had been deceptively clear, Orochi had been just barely awake, or he never would have let such a vague story pass unchallenged. They mostly ignored you? Who did? Explain yourself properly. Belial could hear that disapproving voice inside his head, and an odd shiver went through him that wasn't entirely unease.
Belial still didn't quite have it all figured out, and Orochi's overzealous protection could be obnoxious, but at the same time…it was nice, having someone who cared so much. Most demons like Belial probably hoped for a partner who didn't get off on hurting them and was possessive enough to keep them safe. With Orochi, Belial got a sense that it was different. However prideful Orochi might be, it wasn't just about staking out a claim. If anything, staking out a claim was just a means to an end. He cared whether or not Belial got hurt.
It was stupidly obvious, when he thought about it, but it was in such opposition to everything Belial had ever learned that he still found it hard to accept. Demons hated each other, fought each other, dominated the weak and submitted when they had to. Sometimes they found amusement in each other, and formed bonds of affection and mutual pleasure, but…the way Orochi treated him was such an odd mix of all sorts of different feelings. He jealously guarded Belial like a possession, but looked after him almost like…a friend. He'd fucked Belial, but hadn't treated it like the victory it was, and he was always so cautious, as if pleasure wasn't his only aim.
But then again, Belial's feelings towards Orochi were far from normal, either. He'd sucked Orochi off without even being asked, and he'd found that he liked it…what did that say about him? Sure, Belial'd had his share of pleasure from Orochi, and of course he preferred being under Orochi's protection, as opposed to being alone and vulnerable…but there was more to it than just self-interest. Why else would he be nuzzling up against Orochi's body, even though his scales made for a cold, rough pillow?
Belial hadn't made it this far by overthinking things. He liked their arrangement. He even liked Orochi. There was no point in analyzing it when he was happy with how things were and had enough other troubles already. Belial closed his eyes, and wondered what exactly had brought on such stupid thoughts. Maybe it was Asmodeus, leaning across the table to kiss Amon's hand. I'm not your whore, Amon had said. But I'm your whore, Asmodeus had replied, so simply and easily.
Asmodeus was a malicious and twisted creature, even for a demon. Belial didn't even want to know what was going through his mind. But his strangeness was just what tugged at Belial's mind, keeping him from sleeping peacefully. The way he had laughed, after Amon clawed his eye out… that was something in it that ran deeper than only hatred or rage or lust. It was something wild, uncontrollable, and utterly illogical. Maybe it was the same thing he'd seen in Dumah's eyes while he wept on the floor of his Master's office, and Verinne's when he pressed his lips to Razakel's forehead before beginning the ritual that would save the human's life.
For now, all Belial could call it was insanity, an insanity that led demons and angels alike to lash out and betray each other. It scared him as much as it fascinated him. After all, what was more frightening than the unpredictable? And if Belial couldn't even understand his own heart, was he really so much saner?
Despite his uneasiness, Belial did eventually drop off, and he managed to catch a few hours of sleep. He and Orochi managed to drag themselves out of bed, and Belial was glad to see Nisroc bright-eyed and alert at breakfast. Nisroc was, if anything, a little too alert, twitching at the slightest sound and constantly craning his neck to observe his surroundings. But when Asmodeus failed to leap at him from the shadows, and nothing else out of the ordinary occurred, Nisroc gradually grew calmer. By the end of the day he was back to his usual self.
Belial was just as grateful as Nisroc to live through a typical day after such a strange, exhausting night. His sorcery had only just returned, and he was still struggling to catch up in all his practical classes. If he fell too far behind, that would be it for him—it was almost unheard of for a whelp to be thrown out of the Academy because of poor grades, but that was probably just because they all understood the consequences of failure. Besides, absorbing himself in his schoolwork was better than worrying over matters he couldn't control.
There were still hints, of course, that not all was right at the Academy. Amon continued to completely ignore Dumah, with the exception of the occasional brusque order. And the state of Malthus's human showed just how easy Dumah had it; he'd been beaten so badly that only a few patches of his skin weren't bruised or broken, and yet Malthus still forced him to limp about on meaningless errands. It was hypocritical of Belial to even think it, but he hoped that the human didn't last much longer. Either Malthus would push his slave too far, or he'd throw it away in a fit of rage. But unlike Zanah, the human seemed to have no remaining will beyond blind terror and obedience. Death would probably be far kinder than such a miserable existence.
In other words, it was a peaceful day punctuated with startling cruelty; business as usual at the Academy. That single peaceful day turned into another, and then another after that. An entire week passed without punishment or unusual peril. There was no news of Verinne and Razakel either, which Belial assumed meant that Amon and Asmodeus remained at a stalemate. It was an uneasy lull, an in-between time that had to come to an end eventually. Belial was resigned to that. He still felt his heart lurch when Amon stepped into his path as he left the dining hall on the eighth morning.
Belial hung back, not brave enough to try to brush past him, but also unwilling to be the first one to speak. He'd had quite enough of Amon and his attention. Even though it was probably too late, he'd made a vow to himself not to give the headmaster even the slightest amount of encouragement. No questions, no pleas...he even tried to avoid looking at Amon for too long in the classroom, with mixed success.
Orochi, who'd been trailing just after Belial, noticed his hesitation and stopped beside him. The two of them waited. Even though Amon was usually direct about what he wanted, this time he just continued to stare, his arms folded and his head cocked. He didn't seem particularly hostile today; if anything, Amon was distant and distracted, glancing between Belial and Orochi with his black tongue flicking out of the corner of his mouth. Belial was eventually forced to swallow his misgivings and get it over with.
"Do you want something?" Belial asked, fixing his gaze slightly to the side of Amon's head and trying to look more disinterested than intimidated.
"Huh? Oh, sorry," Amon said. "I was just thinking about something."
"Well, if you don't want anything, could you move? I'll be late to class," said Belial through gritted teeth.
"You have plenty of time," said Amon. "But if you're in such a hurry, go on. I'm not stopping you." Belial took an experimental step to the side, and true to his word, Amon didn't stop him. What was this, a joke? A pathetic attempt at reverse psychology? Whatever it was, Belial wasn't going to fall for it. He would walk past Amon without once looking back—and that was exactly what he did, until he heard Orochi's huff of indignation. Turning despite himself, he saw that Amon had stuck out an arm, blocking Orochi's way.
"Dragon boy," Amon said. "You're the one I need to have a word with."
"With me?" Orochi spat, looking scandalized. Belial could barely believe it himself. Amon had barely so much as glanced at Orochi before now. None of the teachers ever paid him much mind. He was quiet during class, an excellent sorcerer, turned in his work, and didn't cause trouble—even Malthus had never so much as raised a hand against him.
"Novel, isn't it? Now come along. The two of us are going to have a nice lakeside chat." Amon smirked and crooked a finger, but Orochi remained rooted to the spot.
"Tell me what this is about, first," said Orochi. Amon rolled his eyes.
"You'll find out when we get there. Until then, you'll just have to trust me. I'm your headmaster, remember? Do you have a problem with authority figures?"
"Leave Orochi alone," said Belial, breaking his own vow already—but he had to say something. The only explanation he could think of for this was that Amon was sick of being ignored, and trying to provoke a reaction. He'd intentionally drawn Belial's attention, and seemed to be relishing it.
"Oh, are you jealous?" Amon raised his eyebrows. "You need to work on that, whelp. It's not very attractive."
"There isn't any reason for you to harass him. He hasn't done anything wrong," Belial persisted. It wasn't as if he really thought appealing to Amon's better nature would work. He was just giving Amon the reaction he clearly craved, in hopes that he would decide to leave Orochi out of this.
"He does have quite the exemplary disciplinary record, doesn't he?" said Amon. "So studious and careful. I'm sure it's all thanks to the manners his mother taught him, and not the meeting she had with me before he was enrolled. If a filthy demon whelp suffers certain indignities, that's a real pity, but for the seventh in line for the Hyouga Throne, such treatment is unacceptable. That was the word she used! Indignities! And she left the nastiest bit unsaid, but you know that's what she was thinking."
"What are you trying to imply?" asked Orochi in a low voice. He'd been quiet up until then, his face pale and his body stiff. Something in what Amon was saying had affected him, even though it was incomprehensible to Belial. What throne? What did Orochi's mother have to do with anything?
"Only that your mother asked me to protect you," said Amon. "And because she's a very charming lady who once did a very large favor for me, I said yes. I told my vassals not to raise a claw against you without a very good reason. And I may have fiddled with your class placement, just a bit. I was supposed to keep mum about it, to spare your delicate feelings, but I was just thinking you really ought to know. So you can thank her, next time you see her."
"That's what you wanted to tell me?" asked Orochi. His voice was still soft, and his face was blank, but probably more out of shock than anything else. Belial had suspected since the very beginning that the teachers went a bit easier on Orochi, but he never would have guessed it was because Orochi's matron had interfered directly on his behalf. On one hand, it had to be a serious blow to Orochi's pride to know that he'd been singled out for protection, as if he couldn't defend himself. But on the other…he had a matron who worried over what might happen to him. Belial's matron wouldn't do anything more than sneer over the prospect of him being beaten or fucked at the Academy, let alone try to stop it from happening.
"No, no, that was just an aside," said Amon. "The rest is private. I need you to come to the lake with me. Or we can stand here and discuss your mother some more. Which will it be, dragon boy?"
"I will go," said Orochi numbly.
"As I thought." Amon strode off briskly, and Orochi followed, giving Belial a helpless shrug of his shoulders before he went. Belial watched them, his mind racing with the possibilities. He'd assumed this was just a ploy to get at him, but what if he was just being self-centered? Amon might really have business with Orochi. If so, what could it be?
He had no way of knowing, and supposed that turn-about was fair play. Belial was forced to continue on to class. This time, he was the one who got to stare at Orochi's empty seat, wondering what could possibly have become of him. He didn't think Amon was planning to hurt Orochi…not with his claws, at least. What really bothered Belial was how little he actually knew about Orochi's circumstances. He'd talked about his family and his country, but he'd never spoken about why he was at the Academy in the first place, and what there was to be gained from it.
Orochi came from a world entirely separate from his Belial's, and the more he heard about it, the more it baffled him. He'd acted as if Orochi's world would always stay separate from their life within the walls of the Academy, and that Orochi would always be a presence somewhat set apart from the demons and whelps and slaves that inhabited it. Doubt gnawed at Belial incessantly. He'd been happy to remain ignorant before, but that had to change.
After all, no matter how much Belial wanted to ignore it…the day would come when Orochi's world wanted him back.