Chapter 12- The Flame

6 Months Earlier

The traveler looked back at the creature dragging the carriage. It's size and appearance reminded him of a lion, but the head and talons were like an eagle. It looked like the creature once had wings, but were removed. As far as he could tell, the creature was docile. His elder companion referred to it as a "Griffin". It was a strange animal, nothing like the traveler had ever seen before. He set his eyes forward and placed his hands around the cursed, iron collar fastened around his neck. It irritated him to no end. The rays of the hot dessert sun beamed into the iron, making it nearly unbearable to wear. Even as the day was shifting to dusk, the sun was brutally hot.

"Do we have to wear these God damn collars?!" the traveler asked of his elder companion.

"Mistress Nekhbet's favorite toy. It is a waste of manpower to send a slave master, so we get these accursed shackles instead. I watched it squeeze a slave's head clean off the body. It was quite entertaining."

"Entertaining?!" The traveler was shocked at his companion's indifference to death.

"The fool strayed off the path. Could have been intentional. Not my concern. The life of a slave in Duat is difficult. Not all are built to handle it."

"Oh God...I don't want to die here." the traveling slave started to whine.

"Ugh...mortals and their fear of death. I don't get it. You already died once. If anything, the angels should be the ones to fear it." the elder traveler bemoaned as he ran his fingers across the collar. "Be thankful you have the option to die. They won't allow me such freedoms. My collar merely sears the skin if I disobey. I spent my first one hundred years trying to get them to kill me."

"One hundred years?! How old are you?!" the companion questioned.

"I've been around for a few thousand years...been stuck here for over a thousand of them."

"One thousand years!" the other slave reeled back in shock.

"You get used to it, assuming you stick around long enough. They tormented me, told me I was too valuable to kill. There are many things worse than death. Duat is a cruel place, but the savvy can thrive. I've carved out a niche for myself...made myself of value to Anubis."

"I don't want to go anywhere near that guy! I've heard the stories from the others."

Let me guess? You are one of the recent captures?" the elder slave asked.

The young, mortal slave gave pause to recollect the story of his arrival. "I don't know what happened. I was drinking with some buddies. We got in the back of my friend's pick-up, and all I remember is him swerving into oncoming traffic...and then darkness. When I woke up, I was in some forest, dressed in robes. There was smoke above the trees, off in the distance. Sounded like a raging war was happening. I ran in the other direction, and spent hours wandering in the forest, thinking it would never end. Then the whispers started. They were all around me. I tried to run, but something hit me from behind. Next thing I know, I'm shackled in the back of a carriage with a dozen others."

"They like to scour the outskirts of Eden for wandering mortals. Since no one is worshiping them as Gods anymore, they've resorted to poaching the Kingdom's mortals."

"The Kingdom? Like heaven?!"

The elder slave laughed at the notion. "There is no heaven. It's all fucked. If Duat did not find you, some other group of sadistic bastards would have...or something would have eaten you."

The elder slave looked to his young companion as his words were clearly triggering a mental breakdown. Maybe he would get another show if the fool ran off. He sighed. Perhaps he could offer the young mortal some friendly words. "A word of advice?" he offered.

"S-Sure." the mortal slave stuttered.

"Make yourself useful to one of the heads of Duat. They will never respect fear, and any slave known to do the bare minimum will be summoned for the annual sacrifice."

"S-S-Sacrifice?" the mortal stuttered.

"Only for the ones deemed useless." the elder answered.

"How did you get to be an adviser?" the mortal asked.

"Collapsing an empire from the shadows is a good achievement to have." the elder slave said. "and they told me my honeyed words make for a good emissary. Do you have any achievement to claim?"

The mortal looked down at the sand with a look of defeat. "I was an assistant manager for Burger King." the mortal whimpered quietly.

"Did you assist your King Burger to glory?" the elder slave asked.

"They fired me for getting high in the freezer."

"I would start learning to exaggerate then." the elder slave warned.

The two slaves spent the rest of the evening approaching their target. It was a small settlement aligned with Aaru. Though the settlement had ties to Duat's rival, they were smart enough to keep trade open. It was the elder slave's mission to meet with the local chief and discuss altering the trade arrangements, as was typical every couple of seasons. Of course, the collars would be a jarring site for any outsider, but thanks to Mistress Nekhbet's dark magic, all others would see the bulky iron shackle as an elegant, simple piece of jewelry. The two slaves made camp for the night, with plans to finish the journey before dawn. The elder slave drifted off to sleep after a long day of travel.

A loud crash violently woke the two slaves from their slumber. The carriage behind them was engulfed in flame. The griffin was desperately trying to flee the smoldering carriage, but was fastened to it by rope. It ran around, screeching, attempting to flee the hot fires behind it. The elder slave ran over to the creature and cut the rope binding the griffin to the carriage, freeing it. The panicked creature fled into the dessert, towards the settlement. The elder began to pursue, but halted as soon as he saw the settlement on the horizon.

It was on fire, but even more alarming was the figure approaching them. It wielded a fiery sword, reminding the elder of a weapon he knew long ago. The panicked griffin charged towards the creature, foolishly unaware of the danger. With one rapid side-step and a swipe of the fiery sword, the massive griffin head was cleanly removed as its body collapsed into the sand and slid another dozen or so meters.

The young slave stared on in fear. "We have to run!" he screamed.

"That collar will take your head off, boy." The elder calmly replied.

"We either see if it will talk, or prepare to fight. Those are the opt-"

Before the elder slave could finish, the mortal fled in the opposite direction. He made it a few dozen meters before the cursed collar tightened around his neck. The elder looked away. For some strange reason, he felt pity for this mortal. He knew the head of his companion was removed once the sound of gasping ceased. He looked onward to the approaching figure, menacingly moving on his position.

"What do you want?" the elder slave shouted, making sure it was clear he had no weapons and posed no threat.

The figure stopped and stared for a brief, intense moment.

"Loki." it finally said in a low growl. "I seek Loki."

The eyes of the elder slave widened in horror. Did this thing destroy the entire settlement simply to find Loki? And how did it manage to obtain Azrael's flaming sword? Questions swirled in the slave's mind.

He looked out to figure, knowing he needed to speak, "I am Loki." the slave finally said, fearful that this entity was an assassin. The figure continued approaching Loki until it was close enough for him to make out its face. It appeared to be an ordinary man with the exception of its eyes. They were overtaken by a bright, white flame. "Do you seek to kill me?" Loki asked.

The figure held the flaming sword to Loki's neck. He could feel the heat coming off it. "The Abyss. Where is it?" it asked.

Loki knew the legend of the Abyss, but was unsure if the legends themselves were true. All he knew about it was that it was body of black water hidden underground. "I can take you, but there is an army guarding it." Loki said, making himself useful.

"Where did your kind hide it?" the figure demanded.

"Beneath the city of Aaru...but as I said, you will need an army to get to it, an army I can provide you."

The sword dissipated into thin air, and the flaming white eyes extinguished revealing far more ordinary set of brown eyes. Loki breathed a sigh of relief. The figure appeared to be an average mortal with a medium build, a head full of dark brown hair, and a fairly young complexion that would suggest he was relatively new to this land. His face looked like that of an sickly man, though. His eyes were sunken in, and he looked exhausted. The man slid his sleeve up to his elbow revealing significant burn marks on his left arm. He appeared as if he was contemplating Loki's offer. Loki was unsure what he was looking at, but he knew enough of the dark arts to know that overuse can corrupt the bodies of angels and mortals alike. Whatever this form of pyromancy was, it was powerful enough to burn an entire settlement in the blink of an eye, a power beyond what Loki had witnessed in his lifetime.

"You are powerful, but that power is limited by the body. With an army behind you, there is nothing that could stop you." Loki reiterated as he bowed to the ground to show subservience. "I, however, cannot aid you with this accursed collar around my neck." he said, pointing to it, aiming to manipulate the figure into removing it.

The figure approached Loki and placed his hands around the collar. It slid its fingers underneath the metal, touching Loki's skin. It gripped it tightly, and released a quick flash of searing flame weakening the iron. He quickly pulled the iron apart, freeing Loki from the sadistic device. Though the fire briefly burned, the daring angel felt relieved to know he was freed, but worried that he had simply traded one master for another.

The figure tossed the deformed collar to the side. "How can a slave promise an army?" It asked.

"Oh, I have a plan." Loki said with a mischievous grin.