Aegis carried both Ridstus and Lunae over his shoulders, nodding in Moriteva's direction as they exited the crater and rejoined the rest of the group. Lunae, Ridstus, Silvanus, and Marette were unconscious, and the remaining members were worse for wear. Moriteva, Visana, and Atrophos bore clear signs of exhaustion from the battle. Although Aegis was injured from the earlier shockwave, surprisingly, Santav, the Charred, appeared to be the only one unharmed.

Aegis watched as Visana confronted Santav, demanding to know his identity. She voiced a question that was on everyone's mind—if Santav was this powerful without his domain powers, what would he be like at full strength? He displayed a clear aptitude for combat, unlike any of the more peaceful deities. It was evident he had experienced many battles and faced countless hard choices.

"I think it's time for you to tell us who you really are," Visana demanded firmly.

There was a long silence as Santav stared at her, his golden eyes reflecting a cold, distant resolve. Aegis felt the tension from a distance, slowly laying down both Ridstus and Lunae. His hand instinctively reached for his weapon, ready for any sudden betrayal from the mysterious Charred while they were at their weakest.

"Honestly," Santav began, fully turning to face Visana. "You really don't want to know." He lifted a finger, pointing past her. "Besides, we have a more pressing concern right now."

The moment felt like déjà vu as Santav indicated something behind Visana. Suddenly, clapping echoed between the group members. They turned to see the source: Malphas, the Duchess of Pain, once again uncomfortably close to the group. Her malevolent smirk and crimson gaze traversed each conscious member.

"Well done, well done," she said, finishing her applause and placing her hands on her hips. "That was quite the marvelous show. You all exceeded my expectations," she giggled, clearly reveling in the chaos.

"Malphas," Aegis growled, immediately drawing his weapon but maintaining a cautious stance.

She held up her hands defensively, though her smile remained unbroken. "Relax, I'm not here to continue the fight. Especially since I'm not really here anyway," the illusion declared. "But, I suppose I should let you know that the Devourers accomplished their goal!" she added cheerily.

Aegis frowned in confusion, but clarity soon dawned in his eyes. "You never expected them to win... did you?"

Malphas grinned, revealing her pearly whites. "Ding, ding, ding! Correct, I didn't expect them to win. Their true goal was to learn your strengths and weaknesses—the limits of your powers. The vulnerabilities of your domains that you had to exploit to defeat the Devourers," she chuckled.

"Or even how to exploit the relationships between you all," she continued, her eyes lingering on Silvanus and Lunae before turning to Moriteva, still carrying the unconscious Marette. "Like this," she said, vanishing only to reappear before Moriteva instantly. In her hand, an obsidian dagger dripped with golden Aether—the blood of a deity. Marette's throat was slit, her lifeblood spilling onto the ground with an audible - drip, drip.

Malphas savored Moriteva's reaction, lifting the dagger to lick the blood. Then, with a snap of her fingers, Marette was whole again—another of Malphas's cruel illusions. The Duchess was infamous for inflicting psychological torment, and this was yet another demonstration of her sadistic prowess.

"I'll be sure to pass this information along to Minos. He's just dying to meet you all again," Malphas said, turning away from Moriteva and Marette without a second glance. She faced the rest of the group, her demeanor playful as she clapped her hands together. "Well, this has been quite entertaining. Just remember," her grin widened menacingly, "as long as you're in my domain, you are nothing more than my playthings." With that, she vanished into thin air, leaving behind an unsettling silence.

Santav broke the silence first. "We should head inside," he said, pointing toward the cave entrance. "At least get out of line-of-sight and tend to our wounds," he suggested, already striding toward the cave without waiting for a response. Aegis nodded solemnly, picking up Ridstus and Lunae once more before following the Charred. The rest of the group fell in behind them, moving with a weary but determined pace.

Aegis, still carrying Ridstus and Lunae, gently laid them down on a smooth patch of rock. He then scanned the cave for any threats, his golden eyes reflecting the flickering glow of the molten lava flowing in a nearby crevice. Satisfied that they were safe, he began tending to his wounds, wincing as he inspected a particularly nasty gash on his arm.

He stayed close to both Moriteva and Marette, casting a watchful eye over them. Glancing at the rest of the group, he saw them tending to their wounds as well. The God of Rulership crouched beside the two, nodding at Moriteva. "Mori, when she wakes up, I need to speak with her privately, right away," he said, his tone urgent. And hopefully, she wakes up before the others do...