Trapped. No way out, no way to call for help. Tuco climbed up to the battlements and stared out for a while. All around E-Temen-Anki was deep, dark forest. Clouds drifted overhead. There was no sun to drift across the sky, so it was impossible to tell if day was passing, or if there would even be a night. He picked absently at the edges of paper with his claws, and a little bit of scripture tore away. It read, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways, and be wise.”
Well, he’d already faced the temptation of sloth once, hadn’t he? With nothing else to do, he strolled through the keep, wandering through its paper rooms. There were dozens of bedrooms, with huge beds piled with blankets and pillows made of cloth and stuffed with feathers, not paper. There were special rooms with latrines inside the building, and wherever the holes led, they did not drain inside the walls but somewhere else entirely. There were grand ballrooms with polished paper floors, a library filled with books (more scripture), and an armory stocked with a variety of fierce-looking weapons, from which Tuco appropriated an axe that was made not of paper but of some kind of hard, silvery metal. He couldn’t really tell whether the metal was heavy, as nothing felt heavy to him these days, but it had a nice heft in his grip, and it might, he thought, be useful in trying to effect an escape, if necessary.
He found a massive paper dining hall, and beyond that, an enormous kitchen stocked with cooking implements, real food, and a real fire burning under a black cauldron suspended in a paper hearth. Further exploration yielded parlors, sitting rooms, a solarium, a music conservatory, and uncountable closets, all stocked with paper. He also discovered a wide stairway and followed it down to a basement with an actual dungeon. There were cells, their bars black wrought iron, spearing up and down into the paper ceiling and floor.
Curious, Tuco crouched down and grabbed a bit of torn paper sticking up from the hole and peeled it back. It tore away with a satisfying rip. Perhaps he could simply tear his way out, if he needed to? With the tip of a claw, he worked up another edge of paper and tore that one back as well. The edge of the third leaf dragged painfully along his finger, and he instinctively put it to his mouth; the paper had sliced it open, and he tasted the copper-sulfur flavor of his blood as he delicately probed the cut with his tongue tips.
The power of the castle healed the cut almost instantly, however, and then he felt that strange surge of energy as before—this time not in his bones, but as a flush of pleasure that burned briefly in his skin, as though an enjoyable, full-body blush. He withdrew his fingertip from his mouth and examined it. His fingertip looked strange: slightly thicker somehow, the flesh pebbled with odd, tiny bumps. They were miniscule on his fingertip, but swathed his whole hand, growing larger up his arm. On further inspection, all of his skin had changed subtly. He slid his hand across his chest, feeling broad, flat, overlapping shapes there, almost unnoticeable, but different, as though his flesh had been covered with some sort of protective layer. More of the pebbling went down his thighs, swathed his ankles, and even altered the grip of his toes on the paper floor beneath him.
“Does the castle change me somehow to stop me from being hurt again?” he wondered aloud. Thoughtfully, he picked up the axe he had retrieved from the armory. Its edges gleamed silver-sharp. It was probably a mistake to try that… but after a minute or two, boredom and curiosity got the better of him, so he held it in his right hand, gripping it tightly, his forearm bulging into solid globes of tension. He set his left thumb against the blade and pushed. There was almost no pain, but the blade sank in, far deeper than Tuco had intended, and blood welled up around it. He dropped the axe and resisted the urge to suck on the wound, instead watching with curiosity.
It had just begun to throb with a deep, sharp pain when the wound closed, a thin clean line amid the smear of red blood. For a moment, Tuco thought that was all that would happen, but then an intense, overwhelming flush radiated out from his thumb and suffused his entire body, as though he were burning with a fever. He fell backward, catching himself on the heels of his hands, his back arching as his skin prickled and crawled. The experiment had been a mistake, he knew now, but it was too late to do anything but deal with the consequences.
His skin flushed redder and redder, as though filling with blood, tightening as it did, into thick, banded slabs across his enormous, panting, chest, moving down over his abdominals, around his arched cock, and down over his sac and the length of his tail. Not slabs, he realized through the intensity of the sensations. Scales. The wide, flat scales of a serpent forming across his chest and down his belly. He lifted his arms, watching in astonishment as the light pebbling of his skin solidified into round, snakelike scales, a brilliant crimson on the insides of his arms, a duskier red, darkening to near black on the opposite. The backs of his fingers hardened into thicker scales that merged with the claws at his fingertips, giving his hands a taloned, gargoyle-like look. He writhed as the prickling moved across his back, up his neck, and down his legs, his toes curling as they thickened.
And then it was over. He lay panting, the enormous chest heaving in his vision now a segmented red, though if anything, the tight, form-clinging lines of his scales seemed to accentuate, rather than conceal, his swollen brawn, almost as though the muscle threatened to burst its way out of its armoring. Shaking a little, he rolled to his feet again. His huge arms and thick legs were coated in scales like glittering rubies. He brushed his fingertips across the muscle of one forearm; the scales there seemed as flexible as his own skin, and though he could feel the layer of protection, neither his forearm nor his fingertips had lost any sensitivity.
He looked down and, with his toes, nudged the axe lying on the floor. “I’ll wager you couldn’t cut me now,” he murmured aloud. “I expect I couldn’t break a bone again, either. This place merits its reputation. It makes you safe from anything that might hurt you. But you cannot leave.” And, he thought, somewhat ruefully, looking down at his scale-armored form, it makes you less human with every change. “I shall have to be cautious if I don’t plan to remain here forever.”
And then he thought of the burning-gimlet eyes of Flavros, and wondered if he would ever leave, if anyone had ever escaped E-Temen-Anki.
Well, if any prison could be escaped, surely one made of paper would be easiest. His tail swaying, he crouched, picked up the axe again, and hacked away at the hole he had made in the floor near the cell. The axe chewed through the paper like… well, paper, and presently, Tuco had managed to tear away a hole that looked down into some kind of room below. The room was darkened, but with his devil sight, he could easily see rocky floors—not worked stone, but craggy, as though a passage in a sea-cave. He tried to remember the keep that had been just below his but could not recall what it had looked like nor how it had been constructed—he had been too excited to reach the top of the steps.
With his talons, he scraped away more of the paper, widening the hole. Peeling it back revealed thin, ribbed iron bars underlying his paper floor, arranged in a mesh, with square holes wide enough to get his hand into, but too narrow to permit much past them—the swell of his forearm allowed little past his wrist. “Well,” he said to himself, “all this strength has to be for something.” He planted his feet against the ground, gripped the iron bars with both hands, and pulled upright, bracing with his legs. At first it was surprisingly easy—the bars plied to his strength like young tree branches, pulling apart. But soon he was pulling against the spots where the bars joined together, melted into each other. He tugged harder, clenching his teeth. All around him the paper floor rose, with the sounds of tearing and crinkling barely muffling the groans and shrieks of metal as it bent in response to his power. He lifted a minor hill before him, and even the nearby wall bent slightly, tugged inward by the upward pull of the floor. But soon it was as though he was trying to lift the entire floor, the whole castle. Stretched out in his grip, the iron bars dug into his fingers. His shoulders ached and burned, his arms complained, his legs and back throbbed with the effort of trying to tear apart an entire iron floor.
And then suddenly the ache was gone, and the pleasure flooded through his muscles again. He stumbled backward, letting go of the iron bars and holding his fingers up before him as they visibly thickened where the bars had dug into them, causing discomfort. His arms pulsed as though flexing, and throbbed larger, the muscle healing itself where the work had torn it, and growing back stronger, just as it had in the stone yard when Belphegor had transformed him. Forearm pressed into biceps, each of them swelling thicker. He felt his shoulders growing massively, mounding up, his back bulging with new sinew and strength. His legs swelled beneath him, nudging each other farther apart. And then he stood, his chest nearly pressing into his chin as it heaved with his breath, his musculature that much closer to the immobility that Belphegor had swollen him into the previous month.
He grimaced down at the stretched floor. It seemed that the keep would protect him even from the minor injuries of overworked muscles. Beneath the torn paper, the floor was a little geometrical hill of stretched iron bars. His arm could fit through the widened hole between them, but after his sudden growth, only just. He didn’t dare try to widen it further.
Crouching by the edge, he braced both hands against the sides of the hole and pushed his head through. The expansive spread of a castle stretched out below him. The hole he had peeled away was not too far from a tower that thrust up from the walls below. The castle itself did not appear to be made of worked stone, but natural, as though a rock had one day just decided to grow, forming mottled walls around asperous rooms, thrusting towers like gnarled, rough-hewn fingers toward the sky. Three of those towers rose to support Tuco’s own castle, his paper fundament crinkled and folded around the rising spires. He could see no one about in the castle below.
“Hello!” he called, his great voice booming across the stones, echoing from empty walls. “Is anyone down there?” When there was no reply, he called again, and again, until finally the surface of the courtyard below rippled and shifted, the shadows rearranging, and where once there had been a random pattern of twisted stone, now a deep, pitted face appeared. It must have been twenty feet wide, and was almost skeletal, its rocky cheeks drawn and gaunt. Huge tusks jutted from its closed mouth, and below its enormous, wide devil horns, two deep-set eyes glittered with hellfire.
“Whose voice calls to me after all this time?” Its voice was that of boulders grinding together. Its fiery eyes wheeled about as it searched for Tuco.
“Here!” Tuco called down to it. “Up here! I’m in the castle above!”
The flames of its gaze turned to him. “So. After all this time, the Baronet has sent me a neighbor. And what are you called, little devil, and what lured you here?”
“My name is Tuco. I came here to keep safe and keep my friends safe.”
“Friends.” The face in the floor rolled the word around in its mouth as though tasting a forgotten flavor. “The Abyss has changed indeed. All here came for safety, Tuco. Mortal souls, devils, even an angel or two sequestered away in E-Temen-Anki. Few outside know that it is protector and prison alike. Now that you are trapped here, you know as well.” The whole castle beneath Tuco swelled and deflated several times, like a bladder, with a great, grinding, wheezing sound. It was laughing. “Or you will soon enough.”
“Forgive me,” Tuco said, and then mentally chided himself—devils would not ask for forgiveness. “But are you… the castle itself? I’ve never seen a talking castle before.”
Those fiery eyes stared into him for a moment as though scouring his soul. “I am prison and prisoner alike, as are all in E-Temen-Anki. We are its body, its strength, its walls, its clothing. And you, Tuco,” it added with another stone-grinding, wheezing laugh, “are its little paper hat.”
“I don’t understand. How can you be prison and prisoner at the same time?”
“Are not we all? Every soul constructs its own prison, and it builds it of itself. The walls that hold you within them came from you. This is why you cannot break free; by damaging your keep you damage yourself, and the power of this place will allow that only once. Now you walk about freely in your paper passages, but as the years, the centuries, the eons drift by, you will change.”
“Only if I harm myself, surely,” Tuco protested.
“So I believed, too. So I believed. I was a fine and strapping devil, smaller than you, as near as I can remember, before I came here. When first I realized I was imprisoned, I tried to escape, just as you do now, and in the effort harmed myself greatly. My bones grew stronger than iron, my skin harder than diamond. I grew, formed crags, and spikes, became a thing of stone. And I told myself I would attempt no more; if I could not secure my freedom, I could at least preserve my mobility, my form. But with idleness and unchanging safety came a growing intolerance; where once a broken finger would have pained me, now a stubbed one did, and my fingers grew together so that I could not stub them. Where once a deep cut would have aggravated, now, a minor scratch felt intolerable, and my skin grew thicker until it lost all feeling. I stood or lay in one position or another, and my bones ached, or my muscles wearied, or I simply felt discontent, restless, uncomfortable. After millennia, every minor sensation became an irritant, every movement of my body an aggravation. And so I changed more and more, losing what could feel, for no feeling is truly safe. And eventually I became my castle, and my castle me, and so, I presume, it has happened to everyone else taken here. Baronet Flavros comes by to taunt me now and then. He promises that when I can no longer move or speak, my soul will be his entirely, and my power will be turned toward the magics that imprison others. It is how he became so powerful and rose to the rank of Baronet—claiming the souls of those he has captured.”
Tuco shuddered. “That’s awful. I don’t think I should like to become a castle. Is there truly no escape?”
“None for you, little devil,” the creature below him rumbled. Its great fiery eyes grew brighter and smaller, as though peering into him. “But perhaps there is for me. Have you a rank in the Abyss as well as name? And tell me: what do you think of your new home, hmm?”
“I am Sir Tuco. And I suppose I would like having a castle all to myself very much, were it not a prison. I can’t see how paper walls make a very sturdy one, though.”
The castle beneath gave him another searching look, and he abruptly felt so horribly transparent that he almost drew away from the hole in the floor to hide from the devil’s gaze. “Hmm, well. My name was Lord Abalam—no, I never rose so high as Knight. But surely you understand, oh great Sir Tuco, that it is not paper that entraps you, but words.”
Tuco frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Words are thoughts, ideas, beliefs, everything you and I traffic in. Everything that we use to corrupt—to free the humans, and everything the Adversary has used to enslave them. Words can call us and bind us and doom us. There is nothing more dangerous to a devil than words. Of course,” Castle Abalam added in a soothing if gravelly tone, “you know all this. No doubt the suddenness of your imprisonment has made you forgetful.”
Condescending though the devil might be, Tuco thought he understood. Of course scripture could bind any ordinary devil. Scripture was holy, untouchable by the devils. Tuco was surprised all the castles in E-Temen-Anki weren’t made of it. But why should it keep him imprisoned too? He was not a devil like these others. He’d never willfully used his power to harm anyone, poor Walstein notwithstanding. He believed in the Almighty, although admittedly in a distant sort of way. The prayers of Mass did not scorch his mouth, nor communion wine his tongue. And yet this was his special prison, constructed by his own soul out of the laws and stories of faith, meant to keep him here, meant to keep him… safe.
The winds of the Abyss blew through his castle, and a million pages rustled in them. Was that truly what his religion meant most to him? Safety? And that was one of the temptations, surely written on at least one of the pages surrounding him. Let not a desire for safety close your heart to others. He could not leave this castle because he could not leave the words of scripture behind. Who would do so when all could see that devils were real, and thus the Almighty and all his angelic hosts must be real as well?
“Sir Tuco, I do not wish to interrupt your reverie,” rumbled the voice from below, “but if I may ask: you are an incubus, are you not?”
“I—” He still was not used to that idea. He wondered if he ever would be. “Yes, I am.”
“And with four horns as well, I see. Interesting. Well then, Sir Tuco, if I may be presumptuous, I believe you yourself could free me from this prison, if you were so inclined.”
“Free you? How could I do that?” Tuco asked warily.
“Why, consume my soul, of course. Push me over the brink of ecstasy, and then claim me as your own.”
“I don’t understand. Then you’d be—” He’d been about to say, “dead,” but of course death didn’t apply to demons and devils, who wore mortality only as a costume. “Just imprisoned somewhere else,” he added lamely, still not entirely sure how all that worked.
“True, true,” Lord Abalam said in considering tones, “but your prison would not change me further, would it? Unless, of course, to do so to me pleased you, but you do not strike me as an unkind devil. And as vices go, lust is a more enticing one than safety, wouldn’t you say? I mean, of course you would. You’re an incubus. But think of it from my perspective: I can lie here, as a castle, waiting until all my stones are fixed and my voice falls silent, and even my eyes no longer blink, forever unmoving, bearing the weight of castle after castle stacked atop me as E-Temen-Anki grows into eternity and Baronet Flavros feeds on my power to fuel his wretched machinations. Or,” he added, “I could be given a moment of pleasure I’ve all but forgotten and dwell within the realm of a Knight of lust. Perhaps within your palace you will see fit to grant my form again, perhaps not. Perhaps you will device torments of pleasure, or perhaps those of pain. Either way, it will surely be more interesting than being a large box in a stack of boxes for all eternity.”
“I see your reasoning,” Tuco said. He’d nearly said yes. But he was supposed to be a devil after all, and a devil ought to be wary. “But why should I help you with this?”
Lord Abalam nearly spluttered lava. “Why? I am astonished at the question. Why should you, a devil trapped in a prison with no real way to gain another soul ever again, agree to consume the soul of a Lord of the Abyss? You must have a great wealth of souls indeed to turn down such an offer. But if you need other reasons, within a human year or a thousand, my voice will fall silent, what remains of my body will be gone, and you will have lost your chance. Perhaps you will be fortunate, and the castle beneath mine will contain an incubus who would consume your soul, thus freeing you. Or perhaps it will be another poor devil eager for you to free him. Either way, you’ll have more power in your stores, and be one step closer to the bottom. What have you to lose, Sir Tuco? Have you not already lost your humanity?”
“What?” Prickles moved across Tuco’s shoulders and arms.
“It is all too plain, dear incubus. I know not how it came about, but you have not been a devil for long. There is too much you do not understand, too many mistakes. And your soul is raw and pink, like the flesh of a fingertip just below the bed of a nail. No, you were mortal recently, and an innocent one, too. How I should have loved to taste that soul of yours. So fresh, so delicate, a live thing plucked and eaten directly from the soil.”
And beneath Tuco, the whole castle shuddered, as though it were made of blocks and someone had shaken the table on which it sat.
“It’s true,” Tuco admitted. “I don’t know why it is happening or how, but it seems each day, I grow more devilish. At first I thought it was only demons changing me, but there is more to it, and I don’t know how to reverse it, or stop it.
“Then I will make an agreement with you,” Lord Abalam thrummed. “I confessed I know not what has altered you, but I know of something that may explain it. I will tell you, but only if you agree to consume me, and thus free me from E-Temen-Anki.”
Tuco thought it over, but not for long. There seemed to be no drawbacks, except that once he’d finished, he’d have no one to talk to. And if he learned something about what was happening to him, that could be invaluable, provided he ever found a way to escape this prison.
“All right,” he said. “You tell me what you know about what has happened to me, and I will… er, consume you so that you will be free. And I promise not to be cruel to you once your soul is mine,” he added, feeling magnanimous.
Far below him. Lord Abalam’s eyes flared bright and eager. “This is a joyous day for me Sir Tuco. Soon I will be free. Then listen well. The first souls created by the Adversary were the angels, many of whom he rebuked, and they became devils. The second souls were the Nephilim, the giants, whom the Adversary hated and destroyed. The third souls were humans, whom he claimed to love best of all. To the humans and Nephilim, he gave material bodies so that they might walk the physical world. To angels, he gave a logos, or essence, a spiritual form with a power of creation like his own. Just as a body must obey the laws of nature—it must eat, slumber, fall when lifted from the earth, so does the logos of angels and devils follow laws. Angels cannot help but guard creation and all that might threaten it; devils cannot help but answer desire and alter that creation. Both must come when summoned.”
Tuco frowned. “Wait, does that mean that people could be summoning angels instead of demons?”
The face below showed a lot of very jagged teeth. “Few humans summon an angel and live to tell of it. I would not suggest you try. But all of us who are summoned are drawn by our mantles to the summoner, usually into a circle of binding, sometimes without. The tale is known in the Abyss of Nabonidus, King of Persia, who above all else hungered for power over the mortal world, more than any human could hold. And yet, though his court magicians summoned demons and devils to grant him conquest after conquest, those demons and devils granted only their desires, and not those of the King. And thus were the great monsters of the world formed: the chimera, the basilisk, the minotaur. And King Nabonidus’s lust for power went unanswered, for he would not risk his soul in a summoning of his own. Finally, driven to desperation, he asked of his magicians why the logos of a devil or angel could not be summoned into a mortal body. He ordered them to study and discover a ritual that could accomplish this, granting a human the essence and power of the First Created, but with the soul of a human.”
The eyes in the face of the castle courtyard had gone distant, but now they turned back toward Tuco with a keen focus. “If King Nabonidus’s magicians succeeded in creating a successful ritual, none know. But King Nabonidus failed at completing it. One day he went mad, tore off his clothes, and fled his royal palace to live in the fields and consume grass, believing himself to be a jackass. And certainly his soul is here in the Abyss, property of Lucifer himself, who guards it jealously. But there are rumors that the ritual survived, copied and translated secretly by a sect of mad scribes. Whatever may have happened to it since are beyond my telling, for I have been imprisoned for millennia, with little news of the mundane world, save what morsels Lord Flavros chooses to taunt me with. If the ritual did survive, it would likely be found in a place of great learning, a place that did not fear demonology. Have you visited such a place, Sir Tuco?” Lord Abalam’s fiery eyes flashed. “Ah, I thought so. And a ritual was performed, and now you find yourself with human soul and devil logos, imprisoned in the inescapable fortress of the Abyss.”
He laughed an earthquake laugh. “Poor creature. Your god will not save you here. And if I have discerned your secret, so will others. You will never be safe. You require my power more than ever. Well. Devour me, then, and free me.”
Tuco stared down at him, his mind whirling. He looked down at his bulging, red-scaled forearms and talon-like fingers tipped with thick black claws. The logos of a devil. And not just any devil. Sathanus, Prince of the Abyss. Everything that was happening felt too big for him, too overwhelming. Not to mention what was happening with Lord Abalam, beneath him. How was he supposed to free a literal castle from the vault of the Abyss? He leaned up, kneeling by the hole he’d torn in the floor of his own castle and tried to still his thoughts and his breathing, tried to remember his arousal.
It didn’t take much, he found. Despite everything that had happened, his fist-sized balls were ready. A Knight of Lust always had arousal at hand. His thick, serpentine shaft, lying across his thigh, stiffened, lifting into the air, the fleshy barbs standing out, glistening. But how was he to arouse a castle, one he could not even touch?
“Well?” came the voice from below. “I have given you what you wanted. If you’ve the essence of a devil, then you cannot dismiss a bargain. You are bound to free me.”
Tuco leaned back down to the hole, and as he did, his tip slid across the pages of his floor, smearing his drooling precome across the sacred words. “I will,” he called back down. “But how am I to arouse you if I cannot touch you? And where is your… er…” He scanned the bastion below.
Eyes glared between cobblestone lids. “Are you an incubus or are you not?”
Tuco felt the heat of a flush. “I am. I…” And he remembered lying in bed, twisted in arousal, unable to keep it from radiating out to his companions, to a refectory full of apprentices, to an entire monastery, enticing all of them into lust and making their souls ripe for devouring. He leaned over the hole he’d torn in his dungeon, past the iron bars he’d wrenched apart, and gazed down at the being below, a devil lord as large as an actual castle, who had demanded to be devoured. No, ordered it. Bound him. Aren’t you tired of being bound? Yes, he thought. I am tired of it. And he is only a mere Lord of the Abyss. Are you a Knight, or aren’t you?
“Ask me to do it,” he said.
The face below him shifted with uncertainty. “But you already agreed to—”
He should do more than ask. “Beg me,” Tuco suggested. “Beg me to consume you.”
The fiery eyes below him flashed. “I don’t have to. You are bound by bargain.”
“I said I would take you,” Tuco said, showing his fangs. “I didn’t say when.” The lust was surging in him now; he enjoyed toying with this creature that had surely preyed on many other humans.
Lord Abalam’s eyes widened, and then a spark of excitement flashed in them. “Perhaps you are more devil than I took you for. Please, Sir Tuco, Knight of Lust. Please grant me ecstasy and sweet release. I beg of you.”
“I am your master now,” Tuco growled. “You belong to me.”
The castle beneath him seemed to lower its towers slightly, its stones shrinking. But below the face in the craggy courtyard, one jutting mound of stones rose, grinding and loosing dirt as it ascended. “You are my master,” Lord Abalam admitted. “I belong to you. My soul is yours entirely, to tease or torment for all eternity.”
“Good,” Tuco said, and shifted so that Lord Abalam could see his erection, thicker than his wrist, its head rising up to his chest. At the same time, he sent a pulse of lust toward the transformed devil, as powerful as he could muster.
He must have become stronger since consuming Asmodeus, for Lord Abalam’s stone body shook with desire, the entire structure lifting in the air as some unseen architectural spine arched. Stones shook and fell as the devil cried out in unexpected arousal, and the hillock rising beneath its face became a spire, its tip oozing molten rock that spattered onto the stones below with a hissing sound. “Oh Sir Tuco,” Lord Abalam moaned. “I will be yours forever.” Towers on either side crumbled and flexed craggy fingers, dropping worked stone as they broke free of their solidified forms, arms sixty feet high reaching toward the magma spire and tugging at it. Made of stone or no, there was no mistaking that shape. Its tip bubbled with inner fire, and as Abalam’s tower-arms groped at his volcanic erection, flaming globs of lava flew upward, spattering the bottom of Tuco’s dungeon, smelling of sulfur and desire.
Lord Abalam’s eyes fixed on him, rolling with infernal lust, and as they did, he felt his shaft changing as his incubus nature altered him to the imprisoned devil’s desires. It grew heavier, pulling at his loins, at first listing forward with its own weight, and then rising again. Already straining, it grew impossibly harder, lifting higher and higher, and ever more heavy. He set his fingers to it and found its flesh as unyielding as stone, though still he could strain and make it swell under his touch. Soon, despite the brawn in his body, the weight of it threatened to pull him forward, and his tail snaked itself around a dungeon cell bar to steady him. He gripped his changing shaft with both hands as it continued to lengthen, developing sharp angles. Then it seemed to lighten, growing paler and more translucent, until a spire of diamond rose from his loins, extending far above his head. His balls churned, burning with some inner inferno, and a line of yellow light rose up his diamond cock, spilling liquid fire out of the dungeon to spatter onto the courtyard beneath him, the fiery droplets bouncing where they landed, skittering across the courtyard below as cooling pebbles.
He felt Lord Abalam’s desire, a creature who had once had a humanoid form, but had become an elemental of stone and structure, locked into place for millennia, now briefly freed. He felt the devil’s ache as fingers of worked stone slid, eased by flowing magma, down a shaft achingly full of fire, and he wanted to drive his hardened cock into Abalam’s foundations, force him out of his rigid immutability and into life and joy and survival and intimacy once more, to make him live again. His own shaft gushed lava. Not a climax, not yet, but it rained shards of hot desire down on Abalam, who moaned subterranean cries and thrust his jutting mountain up toward Tuco, spraying his own eruptions of infernal ecstasy.
Tuco closed his mind and power around Abalam as he might catch a fly and squeezed, at the same time sending the devil a surge of all his lust and desire.
The castle beneath him changed. The working of stone blocks melded back into something like stony flesh; the constructed towers became arms again, the face in cobblestones lifted on a rising, horned head atop a powerful neck. A chest thrust itself above the stones in an explosion; hips rose from flat bulwarks. His change made Tuco’s prison, perched atop him, rock and sway like a sapling in a gale, pitching him to hands and knees. He gripped the bars of his prison with fingers, toes, and tail, barely able to keep from being tossed about the room as the castle beneath him arched and bucked. Then all went nearly still, but for a tense tremble. Tuco peered past his diamond rod, out of the hole in his prison, in time to see the edifice on the precipice. Its jutting spire, full of molten stone, rounded, became a cock again, albeit a stone cock the size of a castle tower, just in time for its volcanic eruption. Molten lava, musky and hungry, gouted out in gushing arcs as Lord Abalam clutched at it with both craggy hands and roared so loudly that Tuco’s ears were filled with ringing.
The bottom of his dungeon burned away, leaving only a latticework of glowing iron bars as an eruption of magmatic come engulfed and flooded it. The lava washed over him, smelling of hell and male, and he was only distantly surprised it didn’t burn. He was still too lost in the waves of arousal that crashed through him, sending him bucking against his dungeon floor as it smoked and ignited, his diamond shaft scraping against the iron bars as he did so. But he was an incubus now, and could manage his own lust; below him, Lord Abalam’s eyes and mouth went wide, and then a fountain of light poured from them.
His soul boiled out of his stone body, and Tuco leaned forward and drank it down. Ancient power poured into him, full of brittle memories and forgotten sins. Abalam had been a devil of greed, and he had hoarded souls like a paranoid dragon, filling his desmenes and jealously guarding them. But the Baronet Flavros, though in the shape of a leopard, had been more like a leech, bleeding Abalam over the centuries, sucking him dry, taking the power of his souls for himself, leaving Abalam to watch helplessly as his great fortune of souls was siphoned away. It was that, more than any irritation or torment, that had turned his flesh to stone. His soul was eager to be free; far from resisting Tuco’s hunger, it surged toward him, filling his eyes and mouth with light.
Tuco swallowed him in gulps, and as he did, the castle-man beneath him shrank, moaning a thundering ecstasy as he climaxed his soul right out of his body. The fire from Abalam’s eruption had spread, and red and yellow flames rose all around Tuco, but their heat was pleasant and embracing, the thick smoke of burning paper like air after a spring rain in his lungs. His dungeon sank lower and lower as Lord Abalam shrank beneath him, the paper castle wobbling atop the diminishing stone one. Now he could see the prison below Abalam’s—a copper sphere, red and orange light warping across its polished surface as it reflected the blaze of Tuco’s burning prison. And still the soul-light poured into him. Abalam shrank until he was the size of a house, and Tuco’s prison listed to one side, landing with a crinkle and clatter against the burnished sphere below, forcing him to hang on tightly to avoid pitching across the floor. And then Abalam was the size of a hut, and then only a man, and then an odd, toy-sized, man-shaped castle, squealing in shrill pleasure. And then he was gone. The light of his soul vanished between Tuco’s jaws.
His prison rocked gently back and forth on the copper sphere that supported it. The flames were going out, and where they had burned papers away, there was a rustling like leaves in autumn, and new pages unfolded to reform the walls that had incinerated.
And then Tuco was alone again. It all seemed very quiet and still. He got to his feet, his tail swaying. He considered using his diamond cock to try to bend apart the bars of his prison, but discarded the idea—that would hardly work. And what if it broke? he asked himself, wincing internally. With a mental suggestion, he reformed it back to the hefty, demonic thing Asmodeus had given him, and walked through flickering flames back up the stairs of his dungeon. Perhaps he should have waited. It would have been nice to have someone to talk to for a while longer, at least. And though his prison was a little closer to the ground, he seemed no closer to escape. Somewhere inside him, the Lord Abalam was awaiting torment or teasing.
Tuco climbed up to his battlements and crouched atop one stone, looking out over the world of the Abyss and feeling a bit like a gargoyle. He didn’t know what to do now. There was so much about being a devil that he didn’t know, hadn’t thought to ask. He waited. If there was a sun in the sky, he never saw it, but the day faded into night. The sphere of the Abyss lit with starry lights twinkling across it. From here it almost looked like the view from atop Abyssus Abbey. And yet if time passed, he couldn’t feel it. No tiredness settled into his mind, no hunger or thirst nagged at him. His muscles never wearied of their position. He simply continued.
For a while, thoughts raced across his mind: thoughts of home, of his changes, of the terrible future that awaited him. He thought of Etreon, Pike, and Braxus, and wondered how they were faring under the overbearing rule of Brother Gabriel. He thought of poor Lord Krastor, trapped in the Throat of the Abbey along with Almighty knew who else. And then, after a while, his thoughts began to repeat, so he let them go, and there was nothing inside him but stillness.
But some of that stillness was different than before. There was a space within that stillness, a dark and quiet place where a castle shaped like a man stood, fiery eyes unseeing. Waiting. What would he look like if he were not so architectural, Tuco wondered, and even as he considered it, the stony shape of the devil became more animal, the rock crumbling to reveal gleaming white scale covering a muscular build, a large stomach, and a face like a bull’s. Tuco recognized the shape of those yellow eyes as they widened. Abalam, no longer a Lord, turned his gaze upward. “Master Tuco?” he asked, and his voice, once subterranean and rumbling, now sounded small and timid. “Have you come to torment or tease me?”
At the word torment, Tuco could not help considering what that would be like, just for an instant, but in that instant, Lord Abalam screamed as a fiery handprint burned itself across his chest, leaving a blackened brand across the white scales. And before Tuco could stop himself, he considered “tease,” and the bull-man fell to his knees as his cock swelled upward. He shuddered in agony and ecstasy, and Tuco could feel the two mingling within him. Without even meaning to, he had altered this devil’s soul, giving him an erotic taste for fire.
I must be cautious, he told himself. My power over these souls is absolute.
They are yours to toy with as you choose, another voice inside him suggested. Have they not earned damnation? Any fate other than torment is undeserved benevolence. Use them in the way that delights you most.
And that voice was not like his, but here in the stillness of his mind, he thought he could hear it more clearly than ever—indeed, had been hearing it for some time now. Was it his own devilish nature growing stronger? He wished he could talk to Abalam, and then abruptly he was there, looking down on the devil, who was so small Tuco could have plucked him up between thumb and forefinger.
The white bull-man stumbled backward in surprise. “Master?”
“Abalam,” Tuco said, and at the booming sound of his voice, the little devil quailed.
“Do you wish to devise fates for me?”
Tuco considered that, but feared to think too much on it lest every whim that passed through his mind be something that happened to the soul within him. “Not just yet,” he said. Not, at least, until he learned how better to manage souls under his power. And until he learned what was just. He didn’t like the idea of tormenting anyone, but Abalam had been cruel and merciless in his life. Would it be wrong to let that go unpunished? “What happens to you when I am not here?” he asked.
“Whatever you decide should happen, Master,” the devil answered. “Until you arrived, my soul waited in repose.”
“How do I find other souls of mine?”
Abalam looked frightened at the question. “Please do not… think of ideas for me in anger, but I do not understand how you cannot find them. Do you not simply think of them and find them? How did you find me?”
At the question, Tuco considered Asmodeus, and abruptly, Abalam was gone, and there was Asmodeus, standing in the darkness, his gaze vacant, waiting. A flash of anger surged through Tuco at seeing the devil that had altered and hunted him. Surely he deserved a terrible fate. He didn’t deserve to be an incubus at all; he ought to lose everything that made him so proud. No sooner had he thought this then Asmodeus cried out in the darkness, looking around. He clutched at his enormous horns with both hands and they broke away, crumbling to dust between his clawed fingers. Then, as he stared in horror, his enormous, swinging dick began to retract, slowly drawing back into him, thinning and shortening even as he groaned and tried to hold onto it with both hands, then only one.
Good, thought Tuco savagely, but drew his attention away from this soul before he could do any more harm.
How many souls were within him? There were three, six, twelve—little lights of souls glimmering in the stillness within him. His inner gaze drew farther and farther back, and there were more and more of them, points of light spreading in all directions, until his vision was filled with them, more little glints of souls than there were stars in the sky. How could he ever keep track of them all, much less design eternal fates for all of them?
He wondered if there were any he knew, and when he considered the question, his gaze narrowed in focus, and suddenly there was Uncle Roddy, a miller’s assistant who had beaten his daughter with sticks, and then there was old Casty Longfellow from his village, who had never gone to church and was rumored to be a witch. And there, Will Jennaway, the baker, who as far as he knew had never done anything wrong. He hadn’t even known Will had died.
And then his gaze took him to souls that flickered in and out, as though not really there. He focused on one of them that felt achingly familiar, and found it was Etreon, lying in the darkness, and fading in and out. Of course, he had part of Etreon’s soul now, didn’t he? Part of everyone’s souls in Abyssus Abbey, though in most cases a very tiny part. Was Etreon dead, too? But no, he could feel that the young man was not dead, but only sleeping, and the confusing, shifting images of his dreams played inside him. He searched through a wide and ever-shifting desert, filled with shadow monsters and crumbling buildings of sand, calling a name that he couldn’t pronounce.
“Etreon,” Tuco said, and then he was there in his friend’s dream, filling the sky above the desert.
“Alkeides?” Etreon looked around, and then up and up, his eyes bulging. “You’re—uh—enormous!” And somewhat awkwardly he clutched at his robes. “Where are you? We can’t find you anywhere. Hob says another devil took you.”
“It’s true. I’m trapped in the Abyss, in some kind of prison called E-Temen-Anki. Can you tell Hob and the others? Can they find a way to help?”
“I wish I could,” Etreon said sadly. “But this is only a dream. You’re not real.”
“But this is real, Etreon!” Tuco burst out. “I mean, yes, it’s a dream, but I can talk to you. Your soul is inside me. Can you remember that when you wake? Find Hob, tell him the name E-Temen-Anki! If he recognizes it, he’ll prove it to you. Only make certain it’s the real Hob, and not a fake. Find him, Etreon! Do it now!”
And with that, Tuco focused on Etreon’s flickering soul, asking him, no, willing him to wake.
The light of Etreon’s soul winked out like a candle.
One can only tolerate a calm mind and an impressive view for so long. Tuco had no idea how long days or nights lasted in the Abyss, but the passage of night seemed interminable. He had no need for sleep, and so crouched on his paper battlements, waiting for some answer from Etreon or Hob, but none came.
No sun lit the morning sky, but the appearance of creeping shadows announced the presence of daylight nonetheless. Tuco prowled the paper passageways of his keep with crinkling steps, exploring every room, and then exploring them again. By midday, he had them all memorized. He flopped down in his courtyard and tried to sleep, but couldn’t nod off. He spent some time pleasuring himself, sending his fluids sailing over the side of his battlements—they could escape, even if he could not. But even that activity grew stale after a while, and the more he engaged in it, the more he began thinking about the souls that he held within him and the things he might do to them. He quickly wrested his mind away from those thoughts as soon as he noticed them, lest he accidentally devise some torment for an actual soul and enact it without intention.
Still, when his thoughts turned inward, he found himself gazing over them again, a hundred million jewels twinkling in the darkness beyond all stars. Could all these people really be undeserving of paradise? And now all their eternal fates were in his claws. It was up to him to bring justice or mercy to their afterlife. Glancing over them gave him little flickers of their lives. There were many whom he felt pity for: those who had been driven to sin in desperation or passion; those who had suffered cruelties and privation when they were young and had been twisted because of them; those who had simply never been shown a life that found compassion and kindness could be its own reward. There were souls within him who had forever searched for joy in places they would never find it, who had been miserable or lonely or confused, and had hurt other people for it.
But that was not all. There were souls within him who had been cruel simply because they could be, who had taken from others because it was easier, who had used their power to hurt others simply because they enjoyed it. There were souls that had committed acts of unspeakable evil, who were contemptuous of the lives of others, who had visited violence and depravities upon the innocent, who had stolen the lives of others because it was easy. Did they not deserve some punishment? Could an afterlife that treated the heartless and the wounded the same be a just one?
Most souls within him, though, were simply people who had acted on desire. Taken more cake than their share because cake was delicious, slept with others’ spouses because passion or lust took them, and sex felt wonderful, became indolent because labor was painful and wearying, and their bodies clamored for rest. They were condemned because desire was part of every person; it was baked into them like yeast into bread dough, making them grow and change, making them rise.
But the Almighty had written that desires were to be denied, and those who could not do so now found their souls the property of devils for all eternity. Tuco wondered how angry the Almighty might be with him if he didn’t torment the damned souls. Still, what is he going to do if he is? A voice within him chuckled. Send you to the Abyss?
Tuco didn’t want the responsibility of all those souls, even if he could understand the power and wealth they gave him in the Abyss. But wasn’t it better that he have them than another devil? Surely he would be a better and kinder caretaker than Belzebub, Belphegor, or Asmodeus. Or Flavros, with humans and devils alike locked up in a tower of castles for eternity.
The voice made him open his eyes. A little black-scaled imp fluttered in the air in front of him. One dangling foot clutched a satchel that was if anything larger than he was. Tuco blinked at the imp in surprise. “Hob? Hob! I can scarcely believe you’re here!”
“Master! Hob is so happy to have found you! But you have changed so much! What has happened to you in this place?”
“It’s this prison, Hob. It changes you when you’re inside. But how are you here? Baronet Flavros said that no one intending to harm or free the inhabitants could enter E-Temen-Anki.”
“But Hob is not intending that just now—only to find his master and learn what has happened. And besides, Hob has no soul. He is only a demon, and can slip through the cracks of much devil magic.”
Tuco laughed in delight, and stood up from his crouch on the castle wall, ready to tell Hob everything that had happened, but then he frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Baronet Flavros looked like you before. How do I know it’s truly you, Hob?”
Looking dismayed, Hob fluttered back and forth, casting about for an answer. “But if master cannot believe Hob is Hob, then he cannot trust Hob to help him or save him. But all devil lords must trust their imps and demons! Pitiful Hob! He has failed his master in trustworthiness, even though he swore his allegiance—” Hob stopped flitting from side to side and grinned. “Yes, of course! Master does not know about the brand!”
“Brand?” Tuco asked. “What brand?”
“Master’s mark. All those who serve him have his mark somewhere. See? Here is Hob’s!” And the little demon tilted his head back, lifting his chin to bare his throat where, just behind his jaw and down the right side of his neck was an odd symbol, lighter on his black scales as though burned into them: three small circles nestled together within the confines of a larger one, like three eggs in a nest.
“That’s a very interesting mark, but why would you say it’s mine?”
“Hob got the mark after swearing allegiance to Sir Tuco. And if master does not believe, he should look at his hands.”
Tuco frowned. “My hands? What do you—” He faltered. The mark was there, on the backs of each of his hands, the circle with three smaller circles inset. It wasn’t drawn or branded on them in any way, but there all the same. The way shadows fell across their scaled surfaces, the way the pebbling of his scales arranged itself across his knuckles, the ripple of tendons under the skin. The shape of it was there, unseen unless you knew to look for it, and the longer he stared, the more the edges of the marks seemed to glimmer, as though concealing imperceptible cracks behind which burned a lake of fire.
“I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.” A thought occurred to him. “Does that mean I have Flavros’s mark on me somewhere? Or Asmodeus’s?”
“Did master agree to serve them? Did they claim his soul?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then no mark. Sir Tuco is master of himself.”
“For now, anyway. If I can’t escape E-Temen-Anki, the prison will change me more and more, until Baronet Flavros does finally have my soul. What am I to do, Hob?”
Hob nodded. “Is a very tricky problem, master! For no one has ever escaped in all the history of the Abyss.”
“But that cannot be true. I helped a Lord Abalam escape. In a way.”
The little imp squinted at him. “In a way? What way, master?”
“I ate him.”
There was a long silence punctuated only by the imp blinking. “Hob supposes that does rate as an escape. His soul has gone to your demesne and is no longer in the claws of the Baronet.”
“But not likely to work for me.”
“No, master,” Hob said sadly. He brightened a little. “Unless perhaps he can consume his own soul? That would be interesting to see!”
Tuco struggled for a moment to consider what would happen if he tried that and quickly gave up. “I think that might break… everything. Do you have any other ideas?”
“Yes, master. Hob spoke long with the little man and the rabbit and doggie. We thought of many ideas, and all of them were bad. Except one.” He flapped his wings a little more enthusiastically. “It was Hob’s idea, too! Well, nearly.”
“Well, go on, what’s this idea?”
“Master is a devil, yes?”
“I suppose,” Tuco allowed, thinking now was not the time to get into all that Lord Abalam had said about logos and souls.
“Then it is simple! Sir Tuco can be summoned like any other devil!”
Tuco blinked. “You can summon me? But how? Is there a ritual? Do I… have special components needed like other devils?”
“Probably, master. But it takes much time and trial to learn how to summon a devil that way. There is an easier way. We will use your blood! A devil’s blood can always be used to summon him. You see, Hob came prepared!” And with a somewhat complicated series of movements, never ceasing to fly, Hob maneuvered the satchel he was carrying in one foot around until he could open it and withdraw first, a large wooden drinking cup, and second, a wineskin like those carried by some of the Brothers in the abbey. Panting a little, he said, “Hob certainly wishes he could sit down. It has been a long flight. But he cannot enter master’s paper castle. The air is all stretchy!”
Thinking a moment, Tuco motioned Hob to wait, then dashed off and retrieved a halberd from the armory, which was easily wedged into the battlements so that Hob could rest on the haft and hook his precious satchel around the end. “So wait a moment, Hob. You said no one has ever escaped this prison before. Are you saying that no one in all of time has ever summoned a demon who was imprisoned here?”
“No demons imprisoned here, master. This is a prison for souls. Only devils and humans, and devils are not summoned so often. They’re too dangerous! But even foolish humans know when you summon a devil, you use a binding circle. That keeps him from escaping. Banish the devil and poof! Back he goes where he came from! So maybe another devil has escaped this way and never told, but it would need a human smart enough to know how to summon a devil who was trapped here, but foolish enough to let him free. Probably never once happened. Until today.”
“So what happens now? I just give you some of my blood and you fly it back to the mortal world somehow?”
“Your minions will be so happy to hear you are all right, master! They will use your blood to call you back to the abbey. Then you can decide how to punish the Baronet for his treachery!” The imp clenched one tiny fist in anger as he growled the last word.
Tuco rubbed at his chin in thought. “I really shouldn’t risk getting hurt in here unless it’s absolutely necessary. But if this is my best chance at escape, I suppose it’s worth it.” He looked down at the silver-edged halberd wedged into the paper wall. “But there’s one problem. I don’t think that’s going to cut through my scales. I doubt anything here could now. How am I going to draw blood?” He sighed, now regretting that he’d been so eager to experiment before.
“Master could cut his tongue,” Hob suggested cheerfully.
Tuco considered it, and then imagined his tongue covering itself with scales as well, or swelling up into a rhinoceros horn, or growing teeth all over it. He shuddered. “It might not be the best idea.”
Hob tilted his head. “Why not use your fangs, master? Surely they could bite through even your magnificent scales.”
He could hardly believe the thought hadn’t occurred to him. His encounter with Belzebub had left him with a mouth full of teeth that could bite through, as far as he’d been able to tell, anything. He might have been able to eat his way out of the prison, chewing away paper and bars alike. Though how that might have left him changed afterward, he didn’t dare guess. He looked down at his forearms, swollen with muscle, armored with rubies. His heartbeat pulsed beneath the scales in his wrist.
“All right, that’s worth a try, Hob, but you’d better get ready. I fear the prison will give us only one go at this.”
With both hands, Hob lifted the wooden cup and flew as close to the castle walls as he could. When he drew within a few feet of Tuco, he began to struggle, his wings fluttering faster and faster as he fought against the repelling enchantments of the prison. “This is… as close as… Hob can manage, master,” he grunted through the effort. “Hob is sorry to be so… weak and pitiable… a servant.”
Tuco reached out and tried to take it with both hands, but felt as though he were trying to push through a taut sheet of invisible canvas—there was some give, but the further he pushed toward Hob, the harder it became, until with his fingers outstretched he could reach no further than six inches away from Hob, his chest straining hard with the effort. Suddenly fearful even this exertion might cause him to grow again, he drew back. His shoulders were too brawny to slump, so he rolled them instead in dismay. “It’s no use, Hob. The magic is too strong for us. Can you throw it?”
“Not while flying, master. Cup weighs more than poor wee Hob.”
Tuco cast about and then smacked his forehead with his palm. “Of course, why didn’t I think of this before? Here.” He lifted the halberd and extended it out toward Hob, keeping the axeblade flat. “Can you set it there?”
Hob brightened and, praising Tuco the whole time, set both the cup and wineskin on the blade. Tuco withdrew it, marveling as he did that it was so easy for him to hold such a formidable weapon steady at arm’s length with only one hand. He’d squandered his days in the Abbey without testing his new strength. If he ever managed to escape, he would have to find out what he could do. He set the cup carefully on the castle wall, with the wineskin next to it.
“All right, Hob, I’ll get as much of my blood into the cup as I can, but I don’t know how much I’ll be able to draw before the castle heals me. And, er, I don’t know what else it will do to me. The last time I broke the skin, I grew these scales.”
“They’re very handsome, master!” Hob offered.
“Well. They’ll certainly take some getting used to. I hope our friends back home feel as kindly disposed to them as you do.” And I hope I get to see them again, he added to himself. “Here goes,” he said aloud, lifting his wrist to his face and opening his jaws. His fangs seemed almost to extend from his mouth, as though too big for him. He drew his long tongue back so as not to bite it as well, pressed the tender scales of his wrist against his teeth, and bit down.
His fangs cut through his scales as easily as soft bread, and his mouth filled with a splash of hot blood that ran down his chin. The flavor of it ignited something fierce and hungry within him, something that dreamed of stalking unaware prey through the night, pouncing on it, tasting its life pouring down his throat.
He shook himself out of an imagining so vivid it had felt almost like a memory, and held his wrist to the cup. He’d more than pierced it; he’d torn out a chunk, and the blood that flowed from it was so dark red it was nearly black. Devil blood, he thought to himself, or becoming so. It pumped from his wrist in spurts so alarming he started to worry. He’d half-filled the cup in only a couple of seconds, before he’d even had a chance to feel pain from the wound. But then the torn flesh wove itself back together like fingers interlacing; the blood flow slowed to a trickle, a drip, and stopped, and scales reformed over the wound.
Next would be the change from the prison. He stepped back, trying to brace himself for the prickle and flush across his skin, but this was deeper and more thorough. It burned in his muscles, it seared across his scales. And then, for a second time, they thickened. But before, his scales had only gone from a rough texture to a smooth pebbling; this time, they transformed into armor. Thick, scaly plates engulfed his claws and fingers, moving up his forearms, turning his wrists into armored cylinders, his hands into full talons. Each scale jutted backward into a little crag, almost a point, and when the growth of them reached his elbows, they sprouted an array of dark black spikes jutting up out of the bone. His upper arms became encased in pebbled bands that seemed to creak when he moved them, and then more spikes sprouted from his shoulders. His toes changed then, growing larger and longer, spreading apart as they became gargoyle-like talons that scored the stone when he curled them. Thick plating stretched up to his knee and extended into jutting spikes that set flush against the bulging muscle of his thigh, baring their weaponry only when his knees bent. The plating down his chest and belly didn’t seem to thicken much, but it hardened, increasing its weight on him until it felt almost like flexible iron, with a reflective sheen in the light.
He felt the change move across his face, making his brows ridged, broadening his nose with wide scales. His scaling grew across his head to meet and merge with the horns that grew there, and then spread down his spine and across his back in thick, overlapping plates that extended all the way down to the tip of his tail, which burst with new spines. And then it was over, and he crouched panting in the wake of the transformation. The limbs extended in front of him resembled nothing human, black-scaled on the back lightening to an abyssal crimson on the insides. He was devil now, through and through. He didn’t know how his face might have changed, but he suspected his own family wouldn’t recognize him.
He stood, stretching out his shoulders, feeling the ripple of his scales, the tightness as they struggled to contain his muscle, the odd pull of the spikes at his joints. His tail lashed like an angry serpent’s. He glanced up and saw Hob masturbating furiously.
“Hob!” he snapped, half in amusement.
“What is it, master?” Hob asked, not slowing down in the slightest.
“Is it really the best time for that?”
Hob looked Tuco up and down several times and then said, “Uh huh.” Then he bucked and howled, arcs spitting out of his little imp cock as he climaxed. Still dripping, he fluttered closer. “You make Asmodeus look like an ugly wimp, master.”
Tuco tried to fight off a blush, then realized no one could possibly see it beneath his scales. “That’s… kind, but beside the point. We need to focus and get me out of here.”
“Then you must give Hob the blood, master,” Hob said, still stroking himself while staring at Tuco.
“Right, right, the blood.” Tuco tore a strip of vellum from the wall of his castle, fashioned it into a makeshift funnel, and inserted it into the mouth of the wineskin. Carefully, he poured his blood from the cup into the funnel—it was black, reflective and oddly viscous, and he had to shake the cup a little to coax the remainder into the wineskin. He pulled the drawstring tight on the wineskin and tied it off. Then, without realizing what he was doing at first, he slipped his tongue into the cup and licked it clean of his blood, again getting a flash of wildness, of hunting at night, of devouring prey. Primal instincts, perhaps, from some ancient soul in his trove? Or an effect of the devil logos that had merged with him?
“Good thinking, master,” said Hob. “Any blood left over could be used to summon you back here if you got free.”
Tuco grimaced and tapped at his wrist with one talon. It was like tapping stone—though he noticed that even with the thickened scales, he had lost little sensitivity, and could still feel every touch. “Well, we won’t get any more after this. That may be the last time I ever bleed.” He placed the wineskin and the cup back on the halberd, passing them back to Hob. “You really think you’ll be able to use it to summon me?”
Hob clutched the wineskin to his little chest as though afraid it might leap away from him. “Hob will not fail his master. Hob is loyal.”
“All right, Hob. Fly true. And… try to tell the others what to expect if I return? I don’t want them to be startled when they see me.”
“Yes, master. Goodbye, master.” With that, the little imp turned and flapped off into the sky, flying up and up until he was just a tiny black speck in the sunless horizon, and then he was gone.
Tuco hoped he had done the right thing by trusting him, but there was nothing he could do now except wait. Again.
It was sometime in the middle of a moonless night when Flavros reappeared, his feline shape stretching out from a dark ball of void that unfolded above Tuco’s drawbridge. Tuco turned from his perch on the wall above the drawbridge to gaze at the devil stalking toward him. Green eyes flashed up at him.
“So much change so soon,” the leopard man said with a sneer. “You’ll be mine in no time.”
“I don’t intend to change any further,” Tuco answered calmly. “I’ve just been sitting here. There are so many souls in my demesne to talk to, to toy with. I shan’t weary of that soon.”
“Soon. What care I for soon? I am a patient fiend. Do you know what eternity means, my prisoner? It means that anything that can happen will happen. You will not crouch there forever. You will try to escape. You will go mad and rail against your confines. You will attempt to end your own life. And every time you do, my prison’s magic will change you further, until you and your castle are one and the same.”
Tuco shifted atop his perch, staring down at Flavros, feeling the way his thick scales slid against each other. “Or I will escape. If, as you say, anything that can happen will.”
Triumph danced in the devil’s eyes. “So all say when first I ensnare them here. But E-Temen-Anki is inescapable. None has ever succeeded.”
“Is that so?” Tuco stepped forward and dropped to the drawbridge, catching himself easily on his powerful legs, his weight sending a ripple down the paper surface as it absorbed his impact. He stood three feet from the leopard who, despite himself, stepped back in alarm. So old Baronet Flavros is a bit of a coward himself, he thought. “Tell me, have you looked in on old Abalam lately?”
“Abalam? What are you talking about? Why should I have gone to see…” Flavros trailed off. He stalked to the edge of the drawbridge and leaned over the edge to peer beneath Tuco’s paper prison. A moment later, the fur bushed out all down his back and tail. When he straightened up, his whiskers were bristling, his sharp claws unsheathed. “How did you—where could you have—what have you—?” he spluttered.
“Well, those are a lot of almost-questions,” Tuco said, enjoying himself.
“Where is he?” Flavros roared, his green eyes slits.
“Do you know, I honestly don’t know? There’s so much about devils and the Abyss I never learned. Well, don’t worry, like you said, he can’t have escaped. Where is the last place you saw him? Retrace your steps.”
At that, the leopard crouched, gave a bellowing roar of fury, and leapt at him with claws outstretched. Tuco had been expecting that, and even if he wasn’t certain his new scales could protect him from whatever Flavros could do, the enchantment around his castle certainly would. Flavros’s leap was powerful, bringing his outstretched paws within a foot of Tuco’s face. He hung there for an instant, muzzle twisted in hatred, scything claws bared, and then the enchantment caught him, snapped him backward and sent him bouncing across the drawbridge head over tail for a good thirty feet.
“What do you know,” Tuco said, patting the wall of his castle appreciatively. “These things are safe!”
Bristling with rage, the leopard pushed himself slowly to his feet and stalked back down the drawbridge, his tail lashing behind him, a low growl bridled in his throat. “Listen to me, imp. I don’t know what you’ve done with my property, but I will find out, and when I do, I will find new and creative ways to make you suffer. Your soul will be mine for eternity, and I will devise torments your feeble mind cannot even comprehend. No one escapes Flavros, do you understand me? Nobody! You will be mine forever and—”
A pale blue light, the color of early dawn, burst out of the ground around Tuco’s clawed feet, surrounding him in its glow, and in less than a second, everything around Tuco disappeared. He was standing on the roof of Abyssus Abbey. The stone under his feet was coarse and wet with black-red blood, the wind was deathly chilly, and above the mountains to the east, the pale light of sunrise glimmered. And standing around him were Pike, Etreon, Braxus, and Hob.
Tuco took in a deep breath of cold, mortal air. “It’s me,” he said in answer to his friends’ worried stares. “You saved me. You got me out. Thank you so much, my friends.”
There was a long moment’s pause, giving him just enough time to worry: Am I too changed? Is something wrong? And then they all fell on him with cheers, wrapping him up in their embraces. And he knew he was home.
They huddled together in the stairwell, Tuco’s new scales doing nothing to shield him from the chill of the wind. He nestled into the thick fur of Braxus’s shaggy body and between the two of them, they took up the space of one entire landing. Pike perched on the steps above, and Etreon demanded to be held, squeezing himself in between Tuco’s chest and left arm and wriggling occasionally. They didn’t dare to descend into the Abbey proper, for the Brothers were on the alert and would certainly be interested in Tuco’s new and scaled appearance.
Brother Gabriel had been as good as his word, and any new changes were now met with interrogation and punishment. Two brothers and one apprentice had already been sent to the Throat, and at least four other inhabitants of the Abbey had escaped rather than face the threat of imprisonment. All ritual and research had been suspended. Brother Gabriel had all apprentices going through strict lessons in letters and theology. Outside of lessons, most of the other time was scheduled for church services. The apprentices and brothers would rise at 3:30 a.m., dress, and arrive in the chapel at 4 a.m. for matins. Then the Liturgies of The Hours at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. Then Vespers at sunset, and Compline at 7 pm, which was just before bedtime.
“It sounds awful,” Tuco said. Church services were one thing, but Church all day, every day?
“It is certainly not to everyone’s tastes,” said Pike. “The constant standing wears you down. A few Brothers or apprentices pass out every day, usually during Vespers or Compline. Sebastian confessed to me before he fled that he’d just been wishing that his feet wouldn’t hurt so much. That’s what made his legs split into all those tentacles, we figure. Since it happened right in front of everyone, in the middle of Church, Brother Gabriel swore it must be signs of a deep alignment with the Abyss. Sebastian bolted, just wriggling through the crowd. A couple of Brothers snatched at him, but he was able to pull their arms apart with those tentacles and yank himself free. Left big sucker marks all up and down their arms. He escaped out the latrines.”
“He didn’t fall to his death?” Tuco asked, thinking about the holes in their bathroom that opened directly out onto the sloping cliffs of the mountainside.
“We were afraid he would, but he was just gone. We thought we could hear noises like he was moving around on the underside of the abbey. Hopefully he made it down to the woods, though who knows if that’s any better, or if he’ll be able to find any food or help now.” Pike sighed. “Things are bad, Tuco. We’re all exhausted. The Brothers don’t even let us fuck anymore. If we’re caught, we get locked up in a cell, or worse. And you know me, I have to go eight times a day. Running off to the bathroom to just… ease the pressure is a poor substitute. I can’t think why none of our group has changed again, except maybe the demons can’t change us if we—” He lowered his eyes. “If we already belong to another devil.”
“It sounds terrible. What are we going to do about it?”
Braxus rumbled behind him. “I doubt you can do anything, Tuco. Look at you—your scales and all those spikes now. And you look even stronger than before. If any of the Brothers or even some of the more obsequious apprentices spot you, you’re done for. They’ll throw you in the Throat faster than you can say Jack Robinson. You can’t stay here. Surely you know that. We wouldn’t even have brought you back, except that Hob there said you were in trouble.”
Tuco nodded soberly. “The prison changed me this much in just three days. Any longer, and I can’t imagine…” He trailed off, looking at his friends, who were all staring at him. “What?”
Pike cleared his throat. “Tuco, it’s been nearly three weeks, not three days. Brother Gabriel looked like he wanted to call the Imperial Guard when he couldn’t find you anywhere. Everyone thinks you escaped to the forest.”
“He looked for me?”
“Turned the Abbey over, top to bottom. When he finally realized he wasn’t going to find you, his face was so red and throbbing, I thought he was either going to swear or burn the whole Abbey down. Since then, he’s been locked up in the library. He’s searching for something in there, but no one knows what. He keeps demanding that the less Changed brothers go out on journeys for new books and scrolls. Rigby’s out now, gone to Arabia searching for some magical guardian ritual or other.”
Etreon nodded. “Everything’s gone all awful and terrifying. Even the food is bad. Brother Gabriel says we’re corrupting our souls eating demon-prepared food so mostly what we get is dried fish and bread boiled in beer water. Everyone’s starving.”
“The point is that you can’t stay here,” Braxus said. “Escape to the forest while you can. You’re strong and you look deadly now. I’m sure you’ll be able to survive.”
“And I shall be going with you,” announced Etreon, putting his arms around as much of one of Tuco’s biceps as he could. “I’m never leaving my Alkeides again.”
Tuco smiled fondly down at him and rubbed at his little back with one thumb. “I’m sorry you all have to go through this. But maybe I don’t have to flee to the forest. I still have a demesne in the Abyss. Perhaps this time the real Hob could show me the way.”
Hob tilted his head. “Master does not know how to reach his own demesne? Of course Hob could show him. But so far only a few devils know of master’s existence. If he goes to his demesne, all will know. They may try to get him there. Whatever master has been facing up to now may become much worse.”
Tuco shook his head. “But Brother Gabriel and his monks will certainly get me here. Better the devil you fear than the devil you know.”
Holding his head low, Hob timidly fluttered up to him. “Master is wise and powerful, but he surely knows if he attempts to return to the Abyss, Baronet Flavros will have set many traps for him. If he is trapped a second time, Hob will have no way to free him. No more blood.”
“Baronet Flavros?” Pike frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that. Is he the one who trapped you, Tuco?”
And so Tuco related the tale of how Flavros had tricked him by disguising himself as Hob, led him into the prison of the Abyss, and everything that happened afterward. “I’m afraid I was a bit smug to him last time I saw him. No doubt he is very angry.”
After his story, Pike puffed out his cheeks and let out a big sigh. Tuco noticed no one had quite met his eyes when he’d discussed how he had, essentially, fucked and eaten an entire castle. “So we’ll need to deal with this Flavros fellow before we can do anything else,” Pike said. “If he tricked you once, he can do it again, and next time he’ll be more devious. Any one of us could be Flavros, and you’d never know.”
Tuco nodded. “He makes you feel unsafe. So then you yearn for safety. But I can’t think how we could defeat him. Each devil has been more challenging to overcome than the one before. How do you defeat a devil of safety?”
Hob cleared his throat. “Master, Hob has a plan. But it will take some days to prepare. Can you wait that long?”
“What is this plan, Hob?”
“Better if Hob doesn’t say. Demons, you know.” Hob’s red eyes flicked meaningfully toward the walls.
“All right, Hob. I trust you. But I’ll still need some place to stay for the next few days while I’m waiting. Is there no place here that would be safe for me?”
Everyone looked at each other.
“Well,” Pike said slowly, “there’s one place no one would look for you. But I don’t think you’ll like it.”
Tuco waited for a moment, and when no one said anything, asked, “Well? Where is it?”
His friend grimaced. “The Throat.”
The stairway from the rooftop proceeded down, past the first level, and past two floors of cellars, filled with stores of supplies and casks of wine. Pike assured Tuco both cellars were checked regularly, so staying there would not be an option. At the bottom of the cellar level the stairway widened, each step at least twenty feet across, and the ceiling stretching at least that high above them. This descent had been made for giants or monsters; for the first time in months, Tuco felt uncomfortably small. Their breaths seemed to echo in the void, and the torch Pike carried in one paw rustled in a dank, restless wind. The walls here looked chipped, as though hewn out of the earth by a giant axe. From below came sounds: odd scrapings and chitterings and low, inhuman moans. The denizens of the Throat.
Pike’s torch and the light it cast looked pitifully tiny in the yawning mouth of the stairwell, but of course Tuco could see as clearly as in daylight. He could only imagine how terrifying this descent must be for his friend, holding up such a meager spark against the engulfing darkness. “Would you like me to lead the way?” he offered. “I don’t need the torch, you see.”
Pike stared back at him. “Really? This isn’t dark to you? Lucky fiend. But no, no, I’d rather have you at my back than… anything else. Promise to hurt anything that comes to get me?”
“There’s nothing here,” Tuco assured him. “Only stairs.”
And stairs there were. They stopped switching back and forth and now proceeded steadily down in a single direction, so far that Tuco couldn’t see the bottom. It would be terrible to lose your footing here, he thought. You’d start falling and never ever stop. The stairway grew wider and wider, and the ceiling extended farther and farther above them, until they were descending in an enormous cavern that stretched out on every side of them.
“Have you ever been down here before?” Tuco asked.
Pike shuddered. “Never. What can you see?”
“I never knew there could be such an enormous space underground. Why, the entire inside of the mountain must be nearly hollow. I wonder that the entire thing doesn’t cave in and drop the Abbey right down on our heads.”
“Don’t say such things!”
“Sorry, Pike. But it’s a room so wide I can scarce make out the other side. It looks like lots of tunnels. And there are these long spikes coming down from the ceiling all over, like fangs.”
“The prison of the Throat should be just a little way ahead, if the map Etreon found is correct.”
“He has a map?”
“A drawing of the Abbey, from when it was being built, long ago. It had been added to since then. He found it in the library during one of his trips when we were trying to figure out how to find you. Nearly got caught by Brother Gabriel doing it, too.” Pike waved his torch to the left. “There should be a passage that way sometime soon. All the people who get Changed so much they become dangerous get put down there.”
“And that’s where we’re going?”
Pike shook his head. “By the Almighty, no! It would be far too dangerous, even for you, Tuco. There are some nasty creatures down there if even half the tales I’ve heard are true. But at the beginning of the passageway—ah, there it is, I think.”
The edge of the stairway branched off into a side tunnel just as large and yawning as the one that had led into the throat, a canal bored into the wall of the mountain. As they left the main stairway, Tuco cast a long, searching look down. He still could not make out anything like the bottom. How deep did it descend? And how could it possibly touch the Abyss when the Abyss was a sphere of light and landscape floating in a void filled with false stars?
The sounds of the moans and screams and roars were louder here. Those voices were terrible: full of pain, and longing, hunger, rage… madness. In the side of the tunnel was a little door, and this Pike opened and went through. Tuco actually had to stoop and twist to the side a little to fit through the small entryway, and standing on the other side, his horns kept giving him a jolt when they butted against the ceiling. His tail curled behind him and slid the door closed, and as it thumped shut, the mad clamor from the hallway went silent.
“Ah, good, it’s still here,” Pike said, relief etched across his face. He tentatively lifted both his ears, which had been flattened ever since they’d begun their descent. The room in which they found themselves was well-appointed, but in disrepair. A bed that once might have looked comfortable had a pallet gone sodden and lumpy. A cabinet holding a series of bottles and sacks had partly collapsed and leaned to one side. The thick, plush carpet on the floor was rotten, each step on it lifting dark puffs of mold.
“It was an old watch station for monks,” Pike said, “back when they used to guard the Throat.”
“I wonder why they stopped.”
“Well, I never heard of anyone here actually capturing a demon or devil. Perhaps after a few hundred years of nothing, they decided there was no point.” Pike frowned and put his paws on his hips. “I’d have brought some fresh bedding down if I’d known. And if there were a way to sneak it down here without being noticed.”
“It’s all right,” Tuco assured him. “I’ll ask Hob if he can help. Demons bring all the fresh linen and bedding for the dorms anyway, so he must know how they get it, and he’s cleaned my room multiple times.”
“Do you think you’ll be all right down here? All alone, and with the—” Pike jerked his head toward the door. “You know, a prison full of monsters and a stairway to hell. Not where I’d choose to spend the night.”
Tuco couldn’t help smiling at that. “I just escaped from a prison full of devils in the middle of the Abyss, Pike. This may be musty, but it’s still an improvement.” He rubbed at his belly as his stomach groaned at him. “I could use a meal, though. It seems I haven’t eaten in three weeks.”
Pike blanched. “Oh, you poor fellow. I’ll manage something. Though as I said, Brother Gabriel isn’t feeding us much. There are big locks on the refectory now. Not even Etreon can get in.”
“Well, maybe Hob can get that, too.”
“Of course.” Pike gave him a long, searching look. “It’s good to have you back, Tuco. Even if it puts us all in danger. I’ve… missed you terribly.”
“I’ve missed you too, Pike.” He came forward and drew his friend toward him. Pike slid slender arms around as much of Tuco’s waist as he could reach, hugging him. With one hand, Tuco lifted him as easily as he might a kitten, pulling him to his chest, bending his thick neck to press his mouth to Pike’s. Pike groaned, his warm, wet tongue licking between Tuco’s fangs as he put his arms around Tuco’s neck, paws gripping the thick, plated scales that grew there. Abruptly something warm and a little sticky prodded at Tuco’s belly, and he leaned his head back, breaking the kiss with a wry smile.
“Sorry,” Pike said, flushing so hotly Tuco could see it beneath his cream-colored fur, but his hips rocked a little, sliding the jut of his erection against Tuco’s belly. “I told you Brother Gabriel doesn’t let us—”
Tuco cut him off. “We don’t have to say his name here,” he said, and slid one hand under Pike’s thigh, hefting him a little higher. Pike gasped in excitement and pressed his mouth to Tuco’s again, hooking his legs around Tuco’s hips.
Tuco needed no encouragement of his own to grow aroused; ever since he’d become an incubus, sexual desire continually simmered beneath his skin, ready at a moment’s notice, and now his shaft rose, stiffening eagerly, already spilling out his precome into the room, filling it with the scent of him. Pike kissed him and kissed him again, dipping down to bite at his neck and then leaned back. When he inhaled the scent of Tuco’s fluids, he paused, gasped, and the pupils in those lilac eyes went wide and dark. “Put it in me,” he begged. “Fuck me until I forget my name.”
“Careful what you wish for around devils,” Tuco said teasingly, but his tip was already sliding back and forth, feeling its way between Pike’s soft-furred thighs and sliding up the crevice of his well-muscled ass. Tuco made himself pause for a moment, savoring the anticipation as his tip twitched and flexed against Pike’s ring. The rabbit-man moaned aloud and tried to push himself back down on it, but Tuco easily held him firm. A half-second later, his cock jerked, soaking the rabbit’s backside with a hot spurt of precome that matted the fur and began to slide down his inner thighs, soaking them.
With wide eyes, Pike stammered, “Did you—did you already—?”
“Of course not,” Tuco assured him, and then pushed himself upward into Pike’s tight, quivering depths. He clenched his teeth as he felt himself slide deeper, the wide-slitted head of his devil cock drooling into Pike as it spread him open. As each of the fleshy barbs lining his shaft pushed past Pike’s entrance, it felt as though he were penetrating anew, and out of habit, he bit back his moan. But then he remembered they were in a cave deep beneath the Abbey, behind closed doors, far away from other ears, and so he pushed again, feeling the flood of his hot precome jet into Pike, spilling around his cock and easing its way, and this time he let himself roar in pleasure. The bestial sound shook the room.
Pike stared up at him in shock. “Okay, that time did you—”
“Not even close.” Tuco gave him a wicked grin and pushed deeper. His prehensile shaft enabled him to twist it from side to side, burrowing into Pike’s gut deeper than ever before, and the rabbit howled in pleasure, fingers digging into Tuco’s shoulders. He kicked his legs, and then abruptly came, painting the bottom of Tuco’s chest with a surprising amount of seed.
Tuco wasn’t about to let him off so easily, though. As though he’d always known how to do it, he saw how he could send a little thread of incubus magic into Pike, sending him so full of arousal it was like he hadn’t even come. Both above and below, Pike stiffened, drawing in a sharp, astonished breath as even before he was finished climaxing his sexual fervor was renewed.
“My balls,” he gasped. “Oh god. Oh god, they feel so full. What did you do?”
Tuco’s cock furrowed into Pike, plowing the field he intended to seed, burying it deep, deeper. Pike slid the fingers of one paw down his belly, groaning, “Oh god, I can feel it in me. I can feel it behind my own cock.”
“Stop?” Tuco suggested playfully.
“Deeper,” Pike croaked, and Tuco rewarded him with another thrust, his cock digging its way into Pike until the rabbit-man’s rump was planted down against his hips. Deep inside Pike, Tuco felt his cock flex again, filling his friend with more precome. And Pike’s breath grew faster and faster. He clutched at Tuco’s thick arm with one paw; with the other he squeezed at his own cock, trying to keep from climaxing, but he failed, and cried out again, helpless, overwhelmed cries as like a geyser the ropes of his seed flung themselves upward with such force they arced over his head.
“Not yet,” Tuco chided him, and again sent incubus energy into Pike, filling him again. He thought he could actually feel Pike’s balls pulse and swell against his lower abs as the rabbit moaned, still not not over his previous two climaxes. He hefted Pike easily in both hands, one under a thigh, the other gripping his waist, and held him in place as he began to fuck in earnest, hips rocking as he drew out and then drove into Pike again, meeting his gasping mouth for a kiss whenever he lifted the rabbit high enough. Pike cried out once or twice, but mostly bucked into the movements, seized by a ferocious lust that wracked his body. He beat against Tuco’s chest with come-soaked paws; he clenched his thighs around Tuco’s waist; he drove himself down, hilting so hard that it seemed to knock the wind out of him from inside, his eyes rolling back in his head as he shook with pleasure.
Finally, Tuco came as well, his cock swelling inside Pike, every nub lining it hard and gripping as his balls drew up, clenching, and he unloaded a torrent of devil seed into the row he’d hoed. Come shot out around the base of his shaft, soaking his hefty sac and running in hot rivulets down his thighs. Pike shuddered, voice too ragged for any articulate cries, and his cock jerked, untouched, erupting against Tuco, painting Tuco’s scaled chest and neck with a whitewash of come, sending arcs of it across Tuco’s mouth and nose, spattering his horns. He came again, just as hard, and again, and then his cock drooled more seed over its tip and down his shaft, into the fur of his belly, and then it was bucking dry as the devil-fueled climax ripped everything out of him and demanded more.
His eyes shot wide open, filling with light as his soul clamored to be free of him, but Tuco shook his head and rumbled a gentle, “No.” And Pike relaxed, then, the intensity of his climax ebbing, until he leaned back in Tuco’s grip, panting, still skewered on Tuco’s arm-thick cock.
“I—I never—” he stammered. A strange expression crossed his face. “I think I can taste your come in my mouth. That shouldn’t be possible.”
“Probably just some of your own,” Tuco suggested, smiling. He felt almost deliriously happy.
“No, yours tastes different. I’d know it anywhere. Like you just can’t get enough of it.” Pike licked at his lips again several times and groaned. “I feel so full. So that’s what an incubus can do when he’s trying.”
“Before, I’d always had to hold back. Because of… you know.”
Tuco relaxed enough so that he could begin to pull out of Pike, but the rabbit shook his head. “Just leave it in for a while? Please? If you can. It feels so nice.”
“All right,” Tuco agreed. Carefully, he got to the floor, curved his tail out of the way, and settled back against a wall, closing his eyes. He put his heavy arms around Pike, holding the impaled apprentice against him.
Pike crossed his arms across Tuco’s chest and slumped against him, planting weary kisses on Tuco’s chin and mouth. “Is it wrong to love the devil?” he murmured after several minutes.
Tuco blinked his eyes open and looked down, but Pike seemed to have fallen asleep, his long ears folded back, his breathing steady. Curiously, Tuco noticed a mark on Pike’s shoulder, a place where the fur seemed to lay flat, forming a large circle, holding three connected circles within it. He kept quiet and held Pike there, and after a while, he drifted into sleep too.
Lust wracked Tuco’s dreams. Some distant part of him was aware of the solid stone wall against his scale-plated back, the musty smell of the room mixed with the heavy fog of his musk. But he had fallen asleep still planted deeply in Pike, and an incubus never went soft unless he wished to. And so he dreamed, first of rutting Pike over days, over weeks, and then of others: Braxus and Etreon and Hhalbor, then the monks. Then Asmodeus again, with whom sex had been so intense and overwhelming it had almost broken him—but now he was the incubus, and Asmodeus the poor devil trapped in his realm. Now it was Tuco who could push the once-Knight of the Abyss into maddening paroxysms of arousal, and he did, toying with him over and over, refueling his lust every time he climaxed, finally leaving him incoherent, drooling from both ends on the black floor of his limbostone within Tuco’s demesne.
Again he dreamed of seducing devils of the Abyss and angels of Paradise, spreading pure, soul-obliterating pleasure throughout the Earth, the Void, the Firmament. And the pleasure came back on him tenfold. Gradually he ascended to awareness and realized he could still feel the pleasure, a movement around his cock—no, his cocks. He left his eyes closed a while, enjoying the sensation. His devil cock moved on its own, independent of his hips, gripping internally and pushing itself forward, then sliding back, gripped by a tunnel slick and hot. And he must have been stroking himself in his sleep, for his hand gripped around his other cock, stroking gently up and down, pleasuring himself semi-consciously. And something hot and wet…
He opened his eyes. Pike lay sprawled against his chest, half-asleep and drooling, his lithe back moving slowly as Tuco’s shaft worked steadily inside him. At the sight of this, Tuco gasped in arousal, his vigor renewed, his hips joining the action as he began fucking his friend more earnestly.
A second cock, human-looking other than its enormous size, had sprouted from his loins besides Pike, and to his surprise he saw that he was gripping in his right hand not his shaft, but Etreon, whose ever-changing skin today looked milky and wet, though whether that was due to his daily transformation or due to being soaked in Tuco’s fluid it was hard to tell, for he had his arms and legs wrapped firmly around Tuco’s length, moaning and kissing it, his small back arching. Tuco’s hand easily encircled his back, and he’d been unknowingly sliding the little man up and down, continually coating him with slippery precome as he used him to masturbate. Etreon must have swallowed quite a lot of it, for his normally flat stomach bulged out. Tuco moved his pinky finger and slid the tip of it between Etreon’s legs, nudging them apart and pushing it against his rump, and the little man gurgled a moan and pushed back against it.
Braxus lay on the floor to his left, leaning his upper body forward, his head bobbing as he swallowed greedily against a third shaft, this one the familiar red, knotted wolf cock like Tuco had grown before, both his hands gripping it about the knot as he slurped, licked and swallowed at it hungrily. His throat was hot and tight.
The sight—and sensations—of all three of his friends pleasuring him at once was overwhelming. Tuco’s tail whipped against the floor with a splash—they were all lying in a warm puddle—and then with his free hand, he gripped at Braxus’s head, giving the wolf’s scruff a tug that he knew he liked, pushing him down around his cock, feeling his tip bury itself in the back of Braxus’s throat. His devil cock flexed hard inside Pike. The feeling of three different cocks being pleased at once multiplied in his mind—it didn’t push him over the edge so much as launch him over; his balls felt as though they were being squeezed. It felt as though too much come was moving through him at once. His shafts all bulged at the same time, the sensations from each distinct and yet exquisitely ecstatic.
Braxus struggled and choked on Tuco’s cock—something Tuco knew he enjoyed—and then he spluttered as Tuco came, hard, come splattering out of Braxus’s mouth as he couldn’t swallow it all, his canine haunches hunching against the floor as his own climax was wrenched out of him by demonic power. Pike, who had been half-asleep, now woke completely, lilac eyes widening as Tuco poured into him again. With his right hand, Tuco lifted Etreon up and held him face down against the tip of his cock as hot come jetted past the little man’s face like a geyser. Far from struggling, Etreon only gripped at the head of Tuco’s cock and tried to shove his face into the slit, Tuco’s grasp the only thing preventing him from being blasted away by the force of the eruption.
After what seemed like several minutes, the pleasure and intensity subsided, and Tuco felt satisfied, comfortably relieved if not entirely drained. Braxus lifted himself up off of Tuco’s shaft, got halfway up, staggered to one side, and collapsed again. Pike just made feeble squeaking noises, panting where he lay. Tuco released Etreon, who toppled backward off of Tuco’s thigh and landed on the floor with a splash.
They were lying in a puddle of fluids that must have been an inch deep. Tuco couldn’t guess where it all had come from. It was streaked across the walls, spread halfway across the floor, even dripped from the ceiling. All of them were almost completely coated in it. The room reeked of sex and musk and male.
Carefully, Tuco withdrew from Pike, who made faint gasps and whimpers and clutched at the wide shelf of Tuco’s chest as inch after inch of devil cock slid out of him, come pouring out with it. Tuco got to his feet, dripping from his legs and tail, and carried Pike to a mostly dry section of the floor, setting him down. The rabbit-man sprawled on his side against the wall and fell asleep almost instantly.
“Tuco,” Braxus managed, sounding as though he’d just run a marathon, “so… so glad you’re awake.”
“What happened?” Tuco asked in astonishment. “I went to sleep with Pike and when I woke up—” He waved his hand at the soaked room.
Braxus shook his head, then his shoulders, then his whole body, spraying white droplets everywhere. “When Pike didn’t come back, we got worried. We figured we’d better come and make sure nothing happened to you. Even though it was awful scary going down that stairway. I could smell the way you’d gone, so we followed you here. When we got in the room, it looked like you both were asleep, but there was… mess… everywhere, and Pike was moaning. It sounded so nice, and then I got the smell of you, and I just, I don’t know, I wanted you so much. It had been so long since I’d seen you, and we all know Pike is your favorite, but it had been ages since I’d had sex with you, and I just wished I could join in. Next thing I knew there was this big cock right in front of me, and I knew you wanted me to, so I started licking. Then Etreon ran over to the other side, and—”
“And you grew a tower for me to climb, Alkeides,” Etreon said in a dreamy voice, floating on his back in a slow circle. “So I climbed it and kissed the top—” He interrupted himself with a sudden burp. “And tasted nectar. Then a hand of a titan held me. So strong, so sure, putting me where I needed to be.”
“It was so nice,” Braxus said with a slow wag of his tail. “But it went on so long.”
“Didn’t you… er, finish, though?” Tuco asked, looking around at the mess everywhere.
“We did,” Braxus said. “But each time when we wanted to stop, it was like something happened, and then it was like we hadn’t come at all. It was even stronger, I just wanted you even more. We couldn’t stop. We didn’t want to stop.”
“Oh.” Tuco’s scaled ears burned. “I learned I could do that with Pike. I didn’t know I was doing it to you, too. How many times did you…”
Braxus lowered his own ears. “I lost count after five or six.”
Tuco stared at him.
“And then it went a long time longer.” The wolftaur gave him a weak, fanged grin. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want sex again.”
“I could help with that,” Tuco said, returning the grin, and despite himself, Braxus answered with a wag of his tail.
“But not today?” he whimpered.
“I’ll give you a little respite. But I missed being under that tail.” Just thinking about that made his loins reshape themselves with a pleasant, shifting sensation, cock flesh sliding against cock flesh, and when he looked down, he saw he had two again instead of the three from before, which would at least be slightly manageable. “I don’t suppose anyone has heard from Hob yet?” he asked.
Braxus shook his head and then yawned widely, tongue curling between huge canine teeth.
“Go lie down,” Tuco urged him. “Get some sleep. I’m going to wander around a little and see what else is down here.”
“You will be careful, won’t you? That Flavros fellow might pursue you here as well. And who knows who might come after him.” Tuco assured Braxus he would be cautious, and the wolf padded over to curl up in a mostly dry corner of the room, after pulling Pike and Etreon up to slumber in the soft fur of his flanks.
Tuco stood watching them for a while, his tail swaying slowly. His boys. He had three handsome men he couldn’t get enough of. And now that he was looking for it, he saw his mark on them as well: three circles held inside a larger one. It glinted in subtle rainbow colors, like oil on water, at the center of Etreon’s lower back. Across the left side of Braxus’s chest, the dark hair curled around a pattern of light spots that formed his mark there, too. So they were his not only here in the mortal world, but in the Abyss as well. It would be his responsibility to look after their souls for all eternity, three more lights flickering in the darkness he held within him.
He was going to have to become smarter and stronger as a devil now, not just for himself, but for all the souls, evil or not, that he held responsibility for. The thought was overwhelming, and he fought a moment of panic, escaping the room to catch his breath and refocus himself.
The watch room for the monks had been in disrepair and shabbily appointed, but in comparison, the hallway outside was hostile. It was cold, smelled of wet stone and mold, and was filled with the horrific sounds of the things trapped in the Throat’s prison. Immediately Tuco missed the heat of the room, the smell of himself, his friends. But though it was tempting to return to his lair, he followed the hallway back to the great stair.
Curious to see just how far down it went, he followed it, his devil’s eyes needing no light sources to illuminate the world around him. His vision didn’t extend infinitely; some distance down the stairs, any detail blurred away and faded into darkness, but otherwise the cavern might have been illuminated by a thousand torches. It was hard to believe that he was moving through absolute and total darkness, just an unseen monster creeping down the stairs. After some time of walking, the hewn stone stairs became ruder, as though whoever carved them had become tired, or had less time. The stairs narrowed, drawing close to the right wall of the cavern, and began to descend in a counterclockwise spiral that twisted and bored its way into the bedrock below, so that even if Tuco dared to peer over the side—which he did not care to do—he couldn’t see much.
All down here was deathly silent, the cries of those imprisoned above having long since faded away. Every step Tuco took on the stairs was a rasping break into that silence, his breaths those of a subterranean, slumbering giant. Even his blood seemed to roar in his ears with no other sound to interrupt it. And still there was no end to the descent. Tuco wondered if he ought to turn around and head back up; while he was certain he had only journeyed a couple of hours at most, he had no knowledge of how far the slope continued. Perhaps it was a journey of days, or weeks.
But he thought he still had some time before he needed to return, and so he continued following the corkscrewing path downward, until he noticed a reddish-orange light coming from below. The intrusion of actual light into his devil vision granted an eerie aspect to the passage, for suddenly shadows were cast around the steps and the crags of the stony wall where before there were none. The walls around the rough-hewn stairs looked ridged and uneven, as if an immense, subterranean worm had chewed through the very bedrock of the earth. The rock glittered in the light from below, tiny facets reflecting the unearthly glow. Tuco wondered what the rock this far down could be made of, thought of the limbostone of the Abyss, and shivered.
By this point, the stairway had become more of a craggy slope, and soon it led out into a massive cavern glowing with orange and red light. The light shone from around the edges of an enormous metal disc set into the floor. Other than the prison of E-Temen-Anki, Tuco had never seen anything so enormous in all his life. The disc seemed to be made of wrought black iron, and stretched across the cavern floor at a span easily wide enough to hold his entire home village three times over.
“So,” he breathed aloud, “the world is protected from the Abyss by this enormous… disc?” The cavern caught the bass rumble of his voice and threw it back to him in echoes, breaking the silence of the still, deep world. Immediately he felt uneasy, watched, as though he’d disturbed some great, slumbering beast. He crept forward. The light pouring from around the disc came up through great cracks between the disc and the stone in which it was set. Curiously, he followed the edges of the disc around the cavern. The edges were uneven—in some places, the top of the metal disc jutted up fifteen feet above his head; in others, it was sunken deep in stone that overlapped its rim.
Tracing the circumference around the cavern, he eventually came to an enormous stone seal, about twenty feet across, set so that it rested half-embedded in the stone floor, half clamped down over the disc. Strange runes had been carved into the seal, letters of some ancient language Tuco did not recognize, but whose symbols and serifs filled him with a deep and inexplicable dread. Something in his head felt raw when he looked at them, as though the letters were even now etching themselves on the inside of his skull. In the center of the seal was an image in relief. At one point in time, it must have been intricately rendered, but time had dulled and blurred the features. Still he thought he could make out the aspect of some grotesque creature in the center. Its appearance was so deeply horrifying—a head covered with enormous eyes and bristles, and a squat, misshapen body with elongated, multi-jointed limbs—that Tuco felt grateful its details had been eroded. In the image, its head had been separated from its body, torn away by some powerful blow or force. For a short time, he studied the strange image, but found it so unsettling that he could not look at it for long, and moved on.
He traced the edge of the disc for another long distance. Presently, about a quarter of the way around it, he found another seal, again with the unpleasant, brain-scraping lettering encircling it. The center of this disc held a different image, this one of another terrible-looking creature. Its body was covered with eyes, and it had six large, feathery wings, like those of a dove. Two rose behind it, two covered its face, and two covered its feet, and each of its eye-riddled arms bore a sword. From behind the wings covering its face jutted two goatlike horns, and its feet were cloven hooves. A spaded tail eerily resembling Tuco’s curled from behind it. There had been other details as part of the image, but they had been obscured by several large boulders that had apparently fallen from the cavern ceiling some time ago. With little effort, Tuco was able to remove the boulders, but found that the fall had marred the image, and whatever secrets it revealed were now lost.
His curiosity piqued, he continued following the disc counterclockwise until, just across from the spot where he’d found the first, a third seal pinned the disc to the cavern floor. This one had little damage; barely even any scratches, and the image on this one was clear, and so familiar to Tuco that it sent a shudder through him, followed by a sense of rising horror. The image had haunted him as a young boy, a thing to be terrified of in the dark, and now here he was, deep beneath the earth, seeing it at the edge of the Abyss. The image was not identical to the one he’d known as a child, but the important details were all the same. This was the Beast of the Apocalypse, the seven-headed dragon, tearing its way out of the mountain to lay waste to the world. Despite himself, he shrank back from it.
He had faced many devils and demons, and even seen Prince Sathanus himself, but the Beast was a terror beyond all those, and when he rose to do battle with the forces of Paradise on the fields of Megiddo, the Earth itself would be split asunder, and the world of mankind would fall forever. This, then, was the end of the world. These were three of the four angelic seals that bound the Abyss out of reach of the mortal world. In the Apocalypse of John, the final book of scripture, an angel would blow a trumpet, and one of the seals would break asunder. When all four seals were broken, the Abyss would be opened, and the world would end. This was what the monks of Abyssus Abbey had determined to prevent. And here, below their very walls, sealing off the Throat of the World, were those four seals, and this enormous metal disc was the lid that covered the end of days, the cap that kept the Apocalypse at bay.
Waves of dizziness and dread flooded Tuco, and suddenly he couldn’t witness this terrible place any longer. He hurried around the enormous, sealed door to hell, making for the stairs back up to the human world. As he did so, the orange and yellow glow of firelight grew brighter and brighter around him. It blazed around the edges of the disc, shone through forking cracks in the stone. Then he came to a stop in horror.
A hole, a great chasm in the cavern floor blazed with firelight. All around its edges, shapes crawled—shapes of horned and winged things, clutching at the exits, clawing their way free of the firelight that coiled tendrils around their limbs and bodies, as though attempting to drag them back down. They were demons, squirming free of the infernal plane below. Beneath them surged a lake of fire, churning, rolling in waves of flame, sending up great molten belches and fiery spirals that darkened to ash and drifted back down into the liquid flame with bright puffs.
But it was not all this that horrified Tuco. He had seen demons before. He had been to the Abyss. He had confronted liquid fire all around him. What was worst of all was what lay around his feet, cracked and ruined, the images that might once have adorned it shattered forever. The stones that lay before him were charred and layered with the fine grey powder of ash. It was the final seal.
He ran all the way back up the stairs, bounding up them several at a time. Once or twice he misplaced a foot, but he caught himself, tearing grooves in the stone as his claws sank in. When he finally reached the passage back to the monks’ watch room where he’d spent the night before, he was panting, though not with exertion, as his changed body seemed tireless. The fear still rattled through him. He wasn’t afraid of devils or the Abyss—at least not what he’d seen of them so far. But the Beast? The Apocalypse? That was something altogether different. The end of the world—of everything—was something he never hoped to see. He might be shut away in the Abbey, but it was reassuring to know that everything else was still out there: the glittering night stars, the dark green forests, the farms with fruits and vegetables, the people gathering in the fields for ale and games, the ships tracing their tracks across the sea. How could all this be meant to end? How could it be that everyone was meant to die, and go on to Paradise or the Abyss?
Tuco knew where he would be going; he had a realm there already, but he doubted his family would end up there. He hoped his friends would not. Rationally, he understood that the world probably could not persist forever, that its ending had been prophesied, but the Abbey was here to forestall that if not defer it entirely. And yet it had already begun. He crept toward the door to the watch room and pushed it open, lifting it a little so its hinges wouldn’t creak.
A wave of musk hit him in the face. The room was still soaked. He needn’t have worried that he’d been gone too long. Braxus still slumbered heavily, curled up in the corner with his upper body resting atop his lower, Etreon wedged between arm and chest and making tiny snores. Pike had ensconced himself in one of the moldering beds—probably not the cleanest place to sleep, but at least it was warm and relatively dry.
Tuco crept across the room as quietly as he was able, then scooped up Pike in his arms, putting one hand over his muzzle so he didn’t wake the others. Pike’s eyes widened, and he struggled in visible terror for half a moment—Tuco could taste his fear on the air—but then he seemed to realize he was not, in fact, being snatched up by a giant rabbit-eating monster, and relaxed in Tuco’s arms, though he was scowling fairly furiously as Tuco carried him out of the room.
Once the door was closed and Tuco had set Pike down, the rabbit shook his finger in Tuco’s face. “Don’t ever do that to me again!” he shouted. He put one paw against his chest and staggered back a little weakly. “Do you know what you look like now? Ugh, my heart, my poor heart.”
“I’m sorry,” Tuco said, his tail dropping limply across the floor. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I just didn’t want to wake the others.”
Pike panted, pacing back and forth a little. “You have to start understanding what you are now. You could disembowel me with those claws, you could eat me, you could tear me in half, you could just, hell, slap me, and you’re strong enough to kill me with a blow.”
“But I wouldn’t do those things!” Tuco protested. “You know I wouldn’t!”
“I know, you know, but I was asleep, Tuco, I was sound asleep, and I was dreaming of things in the Throat, and then something enormous with teeth grabbed me and lifted me up in the air, and—”
“You’re right, I’m sorry, I—I wasn’t thinking. I was just scared.”
That seemed to jolt Pike out of his ranting. “You, scared? I’ve never seen you afraid of anything. What could even scare you now?” A look of concern flowed over his face. “Was it another devil? You know, we think we know what the next devil is going to be, and it’s—”
“No, Pike, I—Look, I was bored, and so I went down the stairs.”
Pike stared at him. “Down?”
“As in all the way down?”
“There was a big metal cap over the Abyss. I mean big, PIke, bigger than the Abbey, bigger maybe than a city. And all around it were these seals. The Four Seals.”
“What do you mean, the four seals, you mean like seals for a letter, or for…” Pike trailed off and took a deep breath. “Oh. Oh. The Four Seals. Those seals.”
“Yes. And Pike… I… We have to tell someone. One of them was broken.”
“Now, when you say broken, do you mean like, there were chips off of it, or a big crack running through, or—”
“There was a big hole where it used to be, and beneath it was a lake of fire and demons crawling through.”
Pike blinked. He licked his lips. He rubbed at his whiskers with both paws. He blinked again. “Well, that’s… bad.”
“I thought so.”
“But Tuco, who are you going to tell?”
“Brother Gabriel?” Tuco suggested. “He does care about righteousness. He’d have to care about this, wouldn’t he?”
“He’d throw you into the Throat the moment he saw you. If he didn’t cut your head off with that sword of his.”
Tuco snorted. “He couldn’t cut my head off.”
Pike stared at him.
Tuco shrugged, feeling a little awkward. “It’s the scales. What happened in the Abyss. I’m pretty sure I’m swordproof.”
“Then he’d stick it in your eye. Or throw you in a fire. Or push you out of a window. Or poison you. Or make you drink acid. Or—”
“All right, I see what you mean. I’m not invulnerable. Though, like you said, I’m pretty strong and scary now. I wouldn’t bet on him in a fight.”
“I would. Because you and I both know you wouldn’t hurt anyone, and he would.”
“Well if not Brother Gabriel, then who?”
“Let me ask around. I’ll talk to Rigby, roundabout-like. Feel him out, see who we could talk to who might be willing to listen.”
Tuco took a breath. “I know someone who would listen. Lord Krastor.”
“Y-e-e-e-s,” Pike said slowly, “but he’s in the Throat.”
“Yes.” Tuco lifted one arm and pointed toward the sounds of screams and moans. “Right at the end of that passage.”
“Tuco, no. I know you think you’re tough now, but nothing can prepare you for what’s down there.”
“Do you know? Have you seen?”
“I’ve—” Pike’s ears folded backward. “I’ve heard stories. And I’ve seen… I was here when an apprentice got turned too far. So far he had to be taken to the Throat. And one of the Brothers who took him, when he came back, he… he wasn’t all right. Something down there got in his head, I suppose. He started screaming. For no reason. Just standing in a room, and he’d scream. And not like a normal person screams, with their eyes squeezed and their mouth twisted, you know, making an expression. With a perfectly still face, he’d scream, as if he didn’t even know he was doing it, as if he was just thinking about what to have for dinner or wondering what the weather was like outside. But all the while his voice was going raw with his screams. They took him away, to a hospital outside. He never came back. And none of the Brothers would ever talk about it. They wear their hoods up when they go down there, you know. So they can’t see. Whatever is down that passage, Tuco? It’s madness. You mustn’t go. I know you cared for Lord Krastor. Others I liked have been taken there, too. But they’re gone. Once you go to the Throat? It’s over.”
“But maybe there’s a way we can protect ourselves, or—”
“Tuco, please.” Pike gripped his hands in his paws, squeezing them tightly. “Promise to me you won’t go down that hallway. Swear it.”
Tuco shook his head. “I can’t, Pike, what if we—”
“Swear it for me,” Pike begged him.
“All right,” Tuco said, taking a deep breath. “I sssswear it.” He hadn’t even realized he was lying until he saw his forked tongue flick in the air before his nose.
For a time, Tuco and Pike sat together on the steps and talked, Pike tucking himself under Tuco’s massive arm, his fingers softly tracing the hard lines of Tuco’s scaled brawn. They burned a torch so that Pike could see in the pitch darkness, and then Tuco put it out to get Pike to shiver and cling closely to him.
“Your arm,” Pike murmured, nuzzling over Tuco’s biceps with a soft-whiskered face. “It’s actually bigger than I am.”
“That’s an exaggeration,” Tuco said, with a nervous laugh. “I’m only a couple feet taller than you.”
“But you’re not shaped the same way anymore. Not since you came back from the Abyss. Whatever changed you down there, it… made your shoulders wider, your limbs longer. No human has your proportions. Did you think it’s normal that I can barely reach both your shoulders with my arms stretched out? You were big before, but now you’re enormous. And yes, pound for pound, this arm”—and Pike wrapped both of his lean-muscled arms around Tuco’s right biceps as though hugging a tree—“is bigger than I am.” He gave a shuddering little pant of breath. “It’s astonishing to stand close to you, to have all my vision filled up by that huge chest hanging over me, it…”
“I’m sorry, it’s… thinking about you, feeling you, the smell of you. It’s getting me worked up again.”
“Well, we could—”
“No! Er, sorry, Tuco, but… it’s going to be a little bit. My balls feel like they’ve been scooped out, and my backside… ugh, it was too much. I’m not going to be walking properly for a fortnight.”
“Pike, I’m so sorry.”
“No no, how could I ever regret being fucked by an incubus all night?” Pike said with a weak laugh. “Especially when that incubus is you. It’s funny, though. When you first came here, I wished you were able to keep up with me, and now I find myself wishing I could last all night with you.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t wish—” Tuco warned, but he could already tell it was too late. Something inside him, some dark, gleeful power, had caught hold of Pike’s passing desire.
The rabbit-man stiffened against his arm, catching his breath. “Oh. Oh. That feels much better, all of a sudden. How did you—” He faltered. “I’m changing again. I can feel it.”
“I’m sorry,” Tuco said. “The magic… the… ability, whatever, it doesn’t consult me before it starts, it just… do you know what’s happening?”
“Don’t you?” Pike asked. He lay back on the steps, pressing his paws to his flat stomach. “It’s like everything in there is… moving around—oh!” He cried out and cupped his sac in one paw. Its contents pulsed against his fingers, and then visibly swelled, his balls filling up his grip, pulsing as they passed the size of eggs and then overflowed his fingers. “Oh, I feel so—” Pike began and then bit his lip, arching his back as his erection pushed out of him, jutting upward and drooling his precome as his balls swelled again, too large now for tennis and approaching the size of small oranges. “So full,” Pike managed through clenched teeth and then he made a grab at his shaft, but it jerked on its own, spewing copious arcs of seed into the air, spattering his ears, his muzzle, his chest and belly. Finally the climax ebbed and his cock throbbed in the open air, oozing a thick cream.
Whatever power caused the change ebbed and went dormant again inside Tuco. Perhaps, he thought, there’s some way to control it. He would have to ask Hob when he had a chance. He scooped up Pike, who started at his touch, and held him in both arms. “How do you feel?”
“I don’t know. Different, I suppose. But not bad. Do I look different to you?”
“Well, you, er… grew. Your balls did, I mean. A lot. But other than that, you look the same.” He leaned down and began to gently clean the come out of Pike’s fur with his long tongue.
“My insides feel different,” Pike whispered. “I’m not sore anymore, and I just feel… not the same… down there. I don’t know how to explain it. I bet with what I said we’ll find out the next time you fuck me.”
Tuco nodded. “Well, we should—”
“Do you want to fuck me now?” Pike asked, sliding his fingers across Tuco’s chest and gripping the curve at its side.
Yes, always. “But we did it all night. And just now you came again!” Tuco punctuated his point by leaning down to suckle Pike’s erection clean, but the stiff flesh only strained in his mouth and leaked a little more hot saltiness across his tongue.
“Tuco,” Pike panted, “I suspect that may not ever be a problem again.”
“Well, perhaps. But if we start now, with your new changes and me being… what I am now, we might not stop for another day. And at least we should go and see if Braxus and Etreon are up. They’ll be alarmed if they can’t find us.”
Pike agreed reluctantly, and Tuco got to his feet, climbing up the stairs with his friend cradled against his chest.
“You’re just going to carry me?”
“You can’t see,” Tuco pointed out. “And it’s not as if you weigh anything at all.”
They headed back toward the loud cacophony of monster noises coming from the hallway, and Tuco set Pike down before pushing open the door to the watch room.
Inside, fresh candles were lit, and the miasma of sex and mould had cleared. The fresh scents of bergamot and cedar hit Tuco’s nose. He blinked about in astonishment. The puddles everywhere were gone; the floor was clean stone with thick, lush carpets spread across it. The broken, sagging pallets and their cots had been replaced with an enormous wooden bed with a plush-looking mattress, heavy, piled blankets, and downy pillows, concealed behind gauzy drapery. The whole bed was so enormous, Tuco could have lain across it lengthwise and still covered himself up comfortably. The broken shelves had been replaced with a large armoire, its doors closed, and other shelves laden with books, amusements, and various useful tools and household items. In the middle of the room, lit by a candelabra burning long, red and black candles, was a dining table laden with fruits, bread, fresh eggs, an entire ham, and goblets of wine. The scent of the food was so enticing, it was all Tuco could do not to fling himself at the table; after all, he’d not had anything to eat in three weeks, he told himself. Over in the corner of the room, Braxus still lay dozing with Etreon under one arm, but both of them appeared to have been cleaned, and Braxus’s fur was so sleek and well-groomed, he looked like a completely different person.
It took Tuco a moment to locate the probable culprit: his imp, flying above the table, his face split from ear to ear by his white, fang-filled grin. “Hob!” he exclaimed. “Did you do all this?” His voice awakened Braxus, who yawned and stretched, then got up to look around in bewilderment.
“Yes, master! Hob cleaned up and made a nice place for you!”
Tuco’s feet were walking him to the table on their own, urged on by his stomach. “But how did you do all this?”
The imp shrugged. “Master has much power as a devil Knight. Here we are close to the Abyss, easier to change things. You do not mind that Hob used your power to make a nice room?”
“How on earth could I mind, Hob?” Tuco fought the urge to pick up the entire ham and eat it like a drumstick. He’d learned enough about gluttony, hadn’t he? And his friends probably would like some ham too. Instead he cut himself off a thick, pink slab and dropped it on his plate. “You did very well, Hob. Well done.”
The imp puffed up more and more, his little chest lifting, his cheeks bulging out, and then with a sound like a kettle boiling he flew around in a few frantic circles. “Hob is so delighted that his master is pleased with him. Is so much better than crawling around squooshed under Belphegor’s chair.” He spat to one side with a fiery little puff of flame. “And when master is ready, Hob has an even better surprise! Master will be so amazed and pleased.”
“Can’t you just tell us what it is, Hob?” Tuco asked around a mouthful of bread and ham.
The imp drooped a little in the air. “Sadly, no. It is the one thing Hob cannot do. Master will have to see for himself.”
Etreon was struggling on the table, trying to remove a grape larger than his head from the vine it was attached to. Tuco nudged it free with the end of his knife and Etreon rolled backward on the table, clutching his prize. The little man struggled to bite into it. Braxus had sidled up to the other side of the table and had piled up a heaping plate as well.
“Well then maybe you can tell me about something else,” Tuco suggested, after draining his wine goblet and refilling it. “What about the seals at the bottom of the steps outside? Down at the very bottom of the Throat. What are those?”
Hob brightened. “Those are the Four Seals of the Apocalypse! Once they are all broken, then the world will finally end, and Paradise and the Abyss will engage in the final battle for the souls of humanity, of course!”
“Yes, I know that, but what exactly are they? And why is one of them broken already?”
Braxus paused with a sandwich halfway to his mouth. “Why is one of them what?” His ears went back.
Pike set down his wine. “I actually know this one. I mean, not about why one is broken, but I remember what the Seals are. What was it? ‘No one knows the day or the hour, not Angels of Paradise, not the Son, but only the Father, but by these signs shall ye know the time draws nigh: First: When the Watcher is blinded; Second: When the Warden is slain; Third, When the Seraph is corrupted; Fourth, When the Beast rises.’ Does that match up with what you saw?”
Braxus still sat frozen, his fork hanging in midair. “You saw the final Seals? And one of them was broken already?”
“It must have been the watcher blinded,” Tuco said. “That would be the first one, yes? But wouldn’t we all have noticed if it was broken? The Scriptures say we would have heard a trumpet.”
“But master would not have noticed that,” said Hob, fluttering closer. “That seal was broken seven hundred and eighty-seven years ago.”
“So long ago?” Tuco slumped backward in his chair, feeling somewhat relieved. “Oh, I was so worried. I always thought when the four seals were broken, it would happen… closer together, if you take my meaning. I thought we were all in very big trouble.”
“No, we are not in any trouble,” Hob assured him.
“That is a relief.”
“It is the world that is in trouble. We are friends with a powerful devil who likes us! There will be a fine home for us in the Abyss.”
Pike cleared his throat. “Well, hold on, I’m not ready to say goodbye to the world just yet.”
Hob flitted over and patted his shoulder. “Do not worry, Favored One. It has not happened in seven hundred and eighty-seven years. There is no reason to think it will happen in seven hundred and eighty-eight.”
Pike nodded. “You’re right. I’m being s—”
“Though of course it might,” Hob added. He stroked at his chin. “Many unusual things happening lately. Our new master is turning the Abyss upside down. More changes and surprises since Hob can remember!”
“Delightful.” Pike groaned and leaned back in his chair. “So on top of everything else, we have the Apocalypse to worry about. I mean moreso than before.”
Etreon peered at him. “Pike, are you erect right now?”
“Yes, but it’s nothing to do with the end of the world!” Pike groaned. “It just won’t go down. It just needs some time.”
“But you fucked all night,” Braxus observed.
“Yes, well, our friend there is an incubus, these things happen. Look, don’t worry about me, I just need to ride it out—yes, all right very funny, ha ha—and in the meantime we have bigger things to… you know what, everything I say right now is going to sound ribald to you. Are there any clothes around here?”
Hob pointed. “In the armoire.”
Tuco could taste Pike’s embarrassment, but also his secret pleasure, as he dramatically stomped over to the wooden cabinet and opened it. Inside there were a few of the drab woolen robes and tunics the apprentices were accustomed to, but also several brightly colored, sheer garments made of something that shimmered and spilled across his fingers like water. “Hob, what is this—is this silk?”
The imp beamed. “You like it? Very pleasant to wear. But just don’t take it up into the Abbey; the enchantment won’t reach that far.”
Pike slipped the red and black garment around his shoulders and moaned. “Oh, is there a temptation of comfort? Because if so, consider me fully damned.”
Tuco stood from the table, wiping his mouth on a napkin. “You have really outdone yourself, Hob. This is the nicest place I’ve ever stayed in. We’re close enough to the Abbey that we can head up any time we like, and this room is certainly superior to the apprentice dorms. I cannot wait to try that bed.”
Pike groaned at that and reached down to cup the erection that still peeked out between the buttons in the silk. He looked very fetching in the garment, Tuco decided, the red and black setting off his cream fur nicely.
“I’ll have to try one of those myself,” Tuco said. “And it seems that we can stay here pretty much indefinitely.”
“Until Brother Gabriel comes down here with another new prisoner and thinks to check the watch room,” Pike reminded him soberly. “We’re safer down here, but not safe. And if people notice that Braxus and I are gone a lot, they’ll start asking questions. And we could be followed even in the best of circumstances.”
Tuco sighed. “I suppose you’re right. And there’s all the other apprentices up there at Brother Gabriel’s mercy. So then. All we need to do is find a place for me to stay that’s safe, figure out how to stop Brother Gabriel, and then find a way to free Lord Krastor and all the other imprisoned innocents from Throat Prison. All while worrying about demons from the Abyss, the devils hunting me for my big stash of souls I’ve got somewhere, and whatever is happening with me and this logos of Sathanus that I’ve somehow gotten inside of me. Oh and I suppose, now, avert the end of the world. That’s not too much, is it?”
“Don’t forget Flavros,” Braxus reminded him glumly. “You said he’ll be wanting revenge on you.”
“As for that,” Hob said with a wide grin, “Hob thinks it is time for his other surprise.”
• • •
Tuco stared up at the immense wall surrounding E-Temen-Anki. “You are jesting, Hob. Why on earth would I ever go back inside there?”
The black demonling shook his head. “Hob cannot tell you, master. You must trust him.”
Tuco focused his gaze on the brand on Hob’s neck, the mark that identified him as in loyal service to Tuco. It couldn’t be faked, or so Hob had claimed. “You understand that the last time I followed you in here—or thought I had, anyway—I was imprisoned.”
“Yes, master, but it was your loyal and true Hob who got you out again. Why would he do so only to trap you once more? And then Hob ends up in service to Baronet Flavros, who is just as unpleasant as Belphegor was. You must have people you trust, even in the Abyss. Look for the mark; those bearing it will not betray you. It is a sign of your covenant with them.”
Tuco sighed. “I suppose you are right. You’ve proven yourself, Hob. I’m just… wary.”
“You will be pleased, master. Enter the wall. When inside, follow your tongue. It will lead you to what you need to do. Hob cannot say more, or risk the plan failing forever.”
With a nod, Tuco turned toward the wall leading into E-Temen-Anki. He stepped forward, and it unfolded before him, the stones shifting apart to reveal the long passageway through to the other side. “All right, well, goodbye, Hob,” he said. “I hope to see you soon.”
And he stepped into the tunnel. The passage was much as before, walls broken up by the erratic deposit of limbostone, his monstrous image reflected in it. Now he could see what Pike had spoken of before: his proportions, even beyond the muscular, were no longer human. His shoulders were too wide, his limbs and neck longer, his hips set wider than before, all to make room for the swollen, imposing brawn that had piled onto him in his paper castle atop the tower. He turned his eyes away from the limbostone before he could catch any glimpse of the souls held in torment within.
He was nearly out of the tunnel when a thought occurred to him: perhaps Hob did indeed have a good reason for keeping his aims here a secret. Baronet Flavros had revealed to him that the tunnel into the fortress would not admit anyone who planned to harm or retrieve its contents. If Hob couldn’t tell Tuco what he was doing there, then maybe that was because if he knew, the tunnel wouldn’t admit him. Which would mean Hob did have some kind of plan, something that would destroy or defeat Baronet Flavros for good.
No sooner had the thought occurred to him, than the whole tunnel groaned and began to shake. Tuco stumbled forward and was nearly struck by a stone that dropped from the archway just in front of him. In panic, he scrambled to one side and hurried ahead. The tunnel was closing in around him. Rocks fell everywhere, the wall groaning and shaking. One heavy stone clipped Tuco’s shoulder and bounced off; he scarcely felt it, but ahead of him, the stones of the wall were interlocking together, blocking off his escape. He lunged forward, just as a pillar of rock erupted from the passage floor in front of him, struck his knee and sent him sprawling.
The edges of the passageway folded in around him, and on hands and knees he scrambled forward. Masonry clamped around his foot, pinning it, and with a terrific wrest of muscle and the snapping of stone, he wrenched it free. He sprang to his feet and barreled for the end of the passageway, the archway of light ahead of him growing narrower and narrower, the roof folding in toward the ground, layers of rock thrusting up from the floor. He was twenty feet away, and the exit was half its size.
Fifteen feet away, and there was just enough space remaining that he could have wriggled through.
Ten feet, and the rectangle of light shrank to a window.
Five, and it was gone, the exit sealed away in solid stone.
He had nothing else to do. He leapt at the blackness with all his strength.
With a roar and snapping of masonry, he burst through the stone wall on the far side, stumbling through the grass, broken stone and rubble showering down around him, his body covered in dust.
He felt as though he’d fallen off the roof of the Abbey. He fell to all fours, his heart pounding with terror, his wind knocked out of him by the force of the blow. Finally, he managed to recover his breath, and he slumped to one side, looking back at the wall of E-Temen-Anki, now with a monster-shaped hole in it. “That’s my hole,” he said with a wheezing laugh, and then he got to his knees, lifted both arms over his head, and pounded his fists down on the ground with a roar of triumph, lifting an explosion of grass and soil. He’d beaten it. He was alive!
And for better or worse, now all of E-Temen-Anki knew he was here. He’d have to work quickly. What had Hob said? Follow your tongue? Already it swayed between his parted jaws. If he ever dwelt among humans again, he’d have to try to re-learn how to keep it in his mouth, but it provided so much sensory information that keeping it withdrawn was like walking around with his eyes closed.
In the Abyss there was always the faint odor of sulphur—something related to devils and demons, he supposed, but eventually you stopped noticing that. He could taste the grass on the air, the muddy flavor of rock dust, and the silvery scent of limbostone. And something else, a taste that awoke all his senses and pricked him into alertness. The scent of danger or the scent of prey. Blood. The odor pierced everything else, commanding all his attention. His tongue flicking like a serpent’s, he followed the trail, the odor growing stronger and stronger, until it led to a large boulder, a little taller than him, planted some distance from the path that led to E-Temen-Anki’s labyrinthine network of bridges and stairways. The scent was coming from beneath the enormous standing stone.
Once, a stone even a tenth its size would have been completely immovable, but Tuco gripped both sides, his claws chipping at the boulder as they dug in, and with a great heave of his arms, back, and legs, he hoisted the monolith up and tossed it to one side where it landed with a dull thump. In the flattened earth beneath was a small, hollowed-out area, and nestled in the little cache lay a collection of wineskins. Tuco didn’t need to open any of them to detect that they were filled with blood.
He frowned, putting his hands on his hips. “Well, what does Hob expect me to do with these?” he muttered. Crouching don, he lifted one of the blood-filled flasks from the hole. On it, in blood with spidery script, Hob had scrawled a word. Tuco tried to remember his letters, and sounded it out: “Bah-yee-mahn. Bayemon.” He didn’t recognize it. Perhaps he wasn’t reading it correctly? He wished he’d had more time to study reading before having to flee the Abbey. Or that he could have brought his friends with him. Another wineskin had another word: Furfur. Another, Demoriel. Well, that one sounded like the name of an angel. Or a devil, he considered. Wait, that had to be it. These must all be devil names. Names of devils and sacks of blood.
He paced back and forth. Hob had needed Tuco’s blood to summon him out of the prison. He’d said all you needed to summon a devil with absolute certainty was his blood and his name. Could it be?
Trying to recall his demonology training and hoping against hope that he wasn’t wrong, Tuco took one of the wineskins, unstoppered it, and carefully spilled out the blood in the shape of a pentagram, being sure to step out of the circle before he closed it. Technically this formed a rudimentary binding circle, and as he was a devil now, it was very likely he could be trapped inside one. From memory, he recited the Latin ritual, concluding with, “Furfur Evocatio! Furfur Evocatio! Furfur Evocatio!”
The words had barely left his lips before above him, the towering spire of E-Temen-Anki, castle stacked upon palace stacked upon keep stacked upon fortress stacked upon garrison, shuddered, and there was a little wink partway up, and suddenly, the tower was shorter. With a great rumbling and cracking of the earth, an enormous leg ending in a point thrust its way out of the circle, followed by another, and another, and a great, chitinous, crablike being with uncountable legs dragged itself up out of the circle. “Who summons me after all these years?” it chittered. From what mouth it spoke, Tuco could not see; its many long, crustacean legs joined into some indefinable mass in the center.
Tuco stepped forward. “I, Tuco Witchywine, Knight of the Abyss, summon you. You have been imprisoned by Baronet Flavros in E-Temen-Anki, and now I set you free.”
The enormous being shifted its many legs with a great rasping and scraping of chitin. “And what shall I owe you for such a favor?” it hissed.
“Naught,” answered Tuco. “Save a vow never to harm me or the souls in my care. And if you wished to make Baronet Flavros pay for his treachery, I’m certain few would fault you.”
“I will tear him apart,” the creature vowed.
“Then wait for a while,” Tuco answered, “and I will call up some allies.”
He broke the weak binding circle with one foot, though he doubted it could ever have held such a powerful-looking being as Furfur, and withdrew the rest of the wineskins. Each of them had a name, and with the blood from each, he made a circle, calling the devils by name. As each appeared—a titanic, evil-looking tree-creature; a fang-mouthed fish that swam in the open air; a bubbling purple-black ooze; a golden dragon-serpent; a creature composed entirely of shards of broken mirror-glass—the tower at the center of the vault dropped perceptibly.
Soon, more than thirty furious, snarling devils were clustered around the grassy fields surrounding E-Temen-Anki. In their forms, Tuco could see hints of the prisons that had enclosed and transformed them: prisons of glass, of water, of fire, of forest, of jewels. All of them were enraged, and all of them had sworn never to harm Tuco or his friends. He had many allies in the infernal ranks now.
It was not long after he’d drained his final wineskin before Baronet Flavros appeared, in a puff of dark smoke. He stalked toward Tuco with his muzzle twisted in fury. “What is the meaning of this?” he snarled. “What have you done? How did you manage to escape the prison? And why in the planes would you ever think of returning? Do you know what I can…”
He trailed off as his gaze shifted away from Tuco’s face, and he finally took in the crowd of enormous, slavering, rage-filled devils surrounding them. The blood drained from his face, visible even through his short, golden fur. “But this is impossible. How have you—” He took a step back. Tuco could feel the magic in him, ready to teleport him away, and before this could happen, Tuco shot out one huge arm and gripped Baronet Flavros about the throat.
The devil roared in panic and anger. He slashed at Tuco’s arms with his claws, kicked at him with his taloned feet, but his weapons could not penetrate the scales his own prison had given Tuco.
“Now,” said Tuco pleasantly, “it’s time for you to have a prison.” And he carried the flailing, terrified Baronet across the grass to the one final binding circle he’d prepared, the one made out of the blood of devils Flavros had imprisoned for decades, for centuries, for millennia.
He tossed Flavros inside it and felt no small satisfaction as the devil bounced off of the invisible walls created by the enchantment.
“You can’t do this to me!” Flavros roared. “I was a star of the heavens. I have shone in the darkness longer than your miserable species has existed. I am a Baronet, for Morningstar’s sake!”
“Even stars go out,” Tuco answered. “He’s yours to do with as you please, devils.”
He turned away, so he did not see what happened to Baronet Flavros. But there was a lot of snarling and a lot of screaming. And he did see the great tower of E-Temen-Anki, the tower of Babel, teeter, topple, and fall as its master was destroyed. And he saw the darkness that filled the skies as every devil in the prison of hell was finally set free.
Amidst the howls and roars of fleeing fiends, Tuco ran for the exit. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure exactly how to find it through the chaos. Bits of various prisons—iron, glass, plants, gold, limbostone—every material he could imagine, and many more he couldn’t—rained down around him. A metal beam as tall as a church steeple thudded down in front of him, embedding itself in the ground so deeply that Tuco was certain that had it struck him, it would have killed him, no matter how strong his body nor thick his scales. He grunted and covered his head with both hands as what seemed to be a hail of giant eggs pelted against his back, shoulders, and tail, cracking open and splattering their slimy insides across his scales. Everywhere he ran, his feet trampled broken glass, stones, and even cut gems.
Fiends barreled, flew, or burrowed past him on all sides, ignoring him. A blow from a tail with six glowing green spikes slammed into his shoulder, spinning him around, and then he was trampled into the ground as something absolutely enormous and heavy ran over him. He pulled his face from the ground and roared in frustration at the creatures scattering around him. His voice was deafeningly loud, but nothing seemed to pay him any attention. Thousands of souls had gotten their first taste of freedom in centuries, even millennia, and nothing was going to keep them from it. A great, pink-furred, catlike beast with twelve legs scurried past, and, lacking any better options, Tuco ran after it, dodging a strange being that looked like a cross between a clown and a wagon wheel, arms for spokes, rolling past on its many hands.
Though the crowd’s movements were chaotic, it mostly followed a direction, and that direction took them away from the bottomless pit that had once housed E-Temen-Anki. The great wall that had surrounded the prison was now rubble, leaving only the jutting black shapes of limbostone encircling the site, like menhirs in an enormous henge. Tuco scrambled over the broken rubble and darted out into the open field of grass. He turned back to avoid being trampled once more, but saw that by now, most of the escaped fiends had fled, and only a few dozen stragglers remained to scurry past. In the skies above, winged and serpentine shapes diminished into the distance. Smoke and sparks rose from the hole where E-Temen-Anki had once stood. The ground was littered with debris of every description.
“Hob!” Tuco bellowed, searching for his imp. “Hob, are you still here?”
It took a while for him to find the little creature, but he followed the rubble of the ruin widdershins and eventually came across the little creature fluttering madly toward him. “There you are, Sir Tuco! Hob is so pleased that you were so wise and clever in following his instructions!”
“And you were clever at realizing we could free all the devils to destroy Flavros. How ever did you manage to convince them to give you their blood?”
The little demon swelled up his chest with pride so far he nearly pitched backward. “Hob could not convince many! Many could no longer move or harm themselves. But those who could were desperate, and listened to Hob’s brave story of how he freed Sir Tuco, the Knight of Lust, from the prison, and could do the same for them! Many had little to lose, and agreed. Enough, it seems. Then Baronet Flavros fell?”
Tuco grimaced. “Torn apart by his charges, I’m afraid. And I didn’t have a hand in it, for once. I wonder who will be Baronet now?”
Hob rubbed at his coal-black chin. “Perhaps the devil who gave the killing blow? Hob does not know.”
“Well, at least the eyes of the Abyss won’t be on me, for once.”
His imp peered at him as though he were wearing a duck on his head. “Master, the prison of the Abyss has been toppled. It has stood nearly since the fall of angels. Even Paradise will notice what you have done here today.”
Tuco gaped. “Truly? You mean even angels will know of this?”
“Master, even Lucifer Morningstar and the One Above will notice.”
Tuco sat down heavily, before the reeling in his mind could take the decision to do so away from him. “Well, what do we do now? Where do we go?”
Hob cleared his throat. “If master is willing, perhaps it is time for him to come and see his demesne here in the Abyss? There are many matters to tend to, and there, at least, he should be safe from many threats, especially those in the mortal realm.”
“All right then, let’s see my demesne. Whatever that is. I’ve… never had one before.”
“You may wish to ready yourself, master. Hob knows you have been a mortal and may not be prepared for some of the more disturbing elements of the Abyss.”
“What do you mean, Hob? Surely my demesne cannot be all that terrible.”
“Yours, master? No. But you must remember it was not always yours.”
“Then who did it belong to? Asmodeus? I see how that could be a bit much.”
“No, master. Before you inherited it, your demesne was ruled by Sathanus. The Prince of Darkness.”
That sounded worrying, but there was no point in delaying his visit any longer, he supposed. “Very well. How do we get there? Another crack in a stone, I suppose?”
“We could use a Fissure and fall from the void above like before, but that takes much time. In the Abyss itself, devils and demons have many ways to travel, according to their gifts and abilities. Master is strong enough that Hob might suggest he travel by leaping. Although that can be very destructive. But to travel to your own demesne is very simple, and simple to bring any denizen of the Abyss with you.” Hob fluttered up and landed on Tuco’s shoulder. “All you need do is fix your demesne in your mind, and make your brand in the air with your fingers.”
“Like this?” Tuco lifted an index finger and made an attempt to draw his mark in the air, inscribing three small circles and then one larger one around it, while thinking home as hard as he could in his mind.
He heard a tiny, weary sigh from his shoulder. “No, Sir Tuco. You must use all fingers on your hand at once.”
Tuco blinked. “But I can’t move my fingers like that. How would I even manage it? Just—” To prove the impossibility of such an action, he put all four fingers and thumb in the air and tried to wiggle them, but then a movement caught them, something his hand just knew how to do, as it had learned how to handle a quill after weeks of practice. All five fingers moved at once, his middle three inscribing the shapes of the inner three circles, his pinky and thumb tracing the arc of the outer one.
Even as he was still trying to determine how it was done, the sigil blazed silver-black in the air. Then it rotated, spiraling away from him and pulling the world around him with it—grass, trees, sky, all stretching and warping into a spiral, pulled into a point far in the distance, as though the entire world were just a painting being sucked into a far-distant whirlpool. The mark he had made in the air diminished into a point and was gone. Behind the torn-away painting had been red skies choked with dark smoke, and a broken, dry landscape.
The sudden twisting of the world sent Tuco to his hands and knees, a powerful wave of vertigo threatening to bring up his breakfast. A raw, high-pitched sound permeated the air, seeming to come from all sides at once.
“Are you all right, Sir Tuco?” Hob tugged at Tuco’s ear in concern, speaking loudly into it over the din. “The travel is perhaps upsetting for new devils the first time. Though of course there have never been any new devils before, but Hob has heard that mortal souls find it distressing too.”
“I’m all right,” Tuco said, sooner than he felt it, trying to shake the dizziness from his mind along with the raw wrongness of seeing the entire world wrenched away from him. He took slow, measured breaths to steady himself, and his lungs filled with the stench of sulphur, smoke, blood, and rot, none of which was particularly helpful.
Once his stomach had settled, he got to his feet and stared out over the blasted landscape. He drew his hands to his mouth in horror. They stood atop a small cliff, and below them lay a scene worse than any nightmare. It was hard to know what he beheld. At a small, isolated glance, it might have been a crumbling and ancient fortress of stone, all grey and brown, with gaping black windows that poured black and rust colored stains from their sills. But where a fortress might sit atop a hill overlooking the countryside, this extended in every direction as far as Tuco could see: an endless fortress city made up of crumbling walls, sagging towers, keeps and halls and stairways. It squatted malevolently beneath a low, smoke-choked red-black sky, a rotting, broken-toothed city not yet dead. Black masses of giant insects swarmed the air above the city, and giant black flies crawled over the walls, their sponge-like mouthparts dabbing at the bloodstains that liberally spattered the edifices. Horrific, fleshy creatures with many long, human-looking legs and arms spidered up and down the walls and across the ramparts, licking, nibbling, feasting on—
It was people. The souls of the damned, suffering every imaginable torture: hacked up, flayed, burning, pustulent with disease, blistered. They were impaled on long skewers, nailed to walls, to inverted crosses set aflame, stretched across terrible nets of barbed metal. The horrific high-pitched sound that filled the air was their eternal screams, gone raw and inhuman from centuries of unceasing torment. Instantly, Tuco turned away, wishing he could unsee the dreadful scene, wishing to tear his eyes out that they never again give him such an image.
“How do we stop it?” he managed to ask through his trembling.
“Stop what, master?” Hob inquired.
“Stop the torment, the torture, how do we stop it? How do we make all that go away?”
“Well… if you wish it to end, it is your demesne now. Simply say aloud that you wish it so. But I warn you that—”
Nothing Hob could have to say could justify what Tuco had seen. “I wish it so,” he said.
“Then louder, master, so all the demesne can hear you.”
Tuco turned around, bunching his arms at his sides, and roared, “I COMMAND THIS TORMENT TO STOP!” His voice bounded and rebounded across the endless castle-city, so loud it set his own ears to ringing, so loud that the smoke clouds in the sky above it broke in waves and ripples. As though he had imagined them, the grotesque human remains vanished, leaving behind only the wretched city and the insects swarming over it.
“Where did they go?” Tuco asked, and could hear neither his voice nor Hob’s reply over the ringing in his ears. He waited for a moment, and the tinnitus faded into a strange and unnatural silence. “Where did they go?” he asked again.
“The souls, Sir Tuco? Back into limbostone, to await whatever new punishments you devise for them.”
He stared at Hob. “New punishments? What could I do to them that they would deserve after that?”
The little imp shrugged. “It is not for Hob to decide. The One Above decided that those who did not love and worship him should be given to the devils, and the devils do as they please. But if you look at their souls, you can see what they have done. Many of them have committed terrible sins, though. Murder. Genocide. Rape. Of the innocent and vulnerable. It was Prince Sathanus who decreed they should be punished by eternal torment.”
Tuco shuddered. “Eternal? Surely no man has committed crimes worth that.”
“One of Sathanus’s prized souls is Vladislav Ţepeş, a famously cruel tyrant who impaled hundreds. He skewered babies inside their mothers, boiled people alive inside a copper cauldron, and sewed up live starving rats inside his victims. He massacred tens of thousands, master. What mercy does he deserve?”
“The entire point of mercy is that it is undeserved!” Tuco snapped, and Hob wilted, his batlike ears folding backward as he hunched down.
“Humblest apologies, oh wise and benevolent master.”
Tuco shook his head. “And what is this torture intended to accomplish? What purpose does it serve humanity or the Almighty to have torment revisited upon any of these people? They are dead, are they not? They can do no more harm. What purpose can further cruelty serve? To prove we are even greater monsters?”
Hob crept up to his toes, trembling. “But master, you know Prince Sathanus’s prime temptation, do you not?”
It took a moment of pondering before he found the answer. “Vengeance. Surely it must have been the Temptation of Vengeance.”
“Yes. Sathanus promised all the victims of cruel men that their suffering would be answered with suffering a thousandfold greater, and so won their souls.”
“For what can be more evil than wishing suffering upon others?”
“Indeed, master. And by falling to that desire, by losing their souls, so they too became his agents, and inflicted suffering of their own, and inspired others to seek vengeance on them. It is what made him Prince, master: the most brilliant manipulation of humans in all the history of the Abyss. One act of great cruelty can deliver a hundred souls to sin, and each of those hundred another hundred. All Prince Sathanus need do is promise the torment of the wicked, and a million more fall in their glee into darkness. Of all the great temptations, only vengeance creates itself.”
“Well, it ceases today,” Tuco said firmly. “At least in my demesne, there will be no further torment. Souls that have fallen due to great evil will be made to reckon with the suffering they have inflicted upon others, but I will not compound horror with horror.” A day prior, he would have doubted the wisdom of his declaration, but after seeing what eternal torment looked like, after witnessing what had just been emblazoned into his memory, he could no more countenance it than he could drive needles into his own eyes. No heart with an ounce of compassion could see that and witness it upon any person. And, he thought with a growing sense of unease, no God with more love in His heart than Tuco’s could have permitted it. Only hatred could send people to such a place as this.
Hob dipped his head. “You are master here now, and all the souls that dwell within are subject to your will. Many were bargained on the promise of vengeance, but it is Sathanus who made that bargain, not you, and you are under no obligation to uphold it.”
“We will find ways to heal them, Hob.”
“A noble aspiration, master, but prepare yourself for the possibility that not all souls may be healed.”
“Then we will keep them in limbo where they can harm no one and feel nothing. Surely that is merciful.”
“More mercy than many deserve.”
“Justice is getting what you deserve. I saw no justice here. Now how do we get rid of all these insects?”
No sooner had he spoken the words than the black swarms clouding the skies and the giant flies crawling over the city vanished as though they had never been.
“It is your demesne, master,” Hob said. “It shapes itself to your desires. Should we enter, and make it your own?”
Tuco nodded. “Er, Hob, one question before I do. Pike told me that he knew what my next temptation was likely to be. It isn’t vengeance, is it?”
“Pike believes you are being challenged in the order of the temptations, Sir Tuco.”
Tuco pondered. “Food, ease, sex, safety… I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. So that would make the next temptation… wealth?”
“If your Favored One is correct, then yes.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound very likely,” Tuco said. “What could coin mean to me now? Still. I shall be on my guard. Will we be safe in there?”
“From demons and lesser devils, yes. Knights and Lords must have your invitation to enter. A Duke or Baron would not. But they would have to announce themselves before entering. You will be as safe as you can be anywhere in the Abyss.”
“That will certainly be a relief,” Tuco said, and stepped forward on the path of jagged black rock that led to the infinite citadel. The instant he set clawed toes to stone, a wave of bright green grass rippled outward, covering the dead earth and stone with life. Above him, a tiny hole of blue opened in the smoke-choked sky. He stared in amazement.
“It is happening already, master.” Hob sprang from his shoulder and flapped ahead of him. “Come!”
Tuco followed him down the hill, the green grass spreading out wider and lusher, with longer stalks sprouting flowers: the red of poppies, blue wild hyacinth, nodding white narcissus, yellow buttercups, and the large, purple heads of thistles crowning their prickly stalks. Still there was no visible sun in the sky, but golden daylight shafted through the breaking smoke, dappling the spreading lea with warmth and cheer. The craggy stone cliffs and barren canyons smoothed into round, rolling hills, and from their green-furred shoulders, the shapes of little white sheep sprouted up like daisies, looking briefly bewildered, but then bending their heads to sample the freshly grown grass.
Tuco struggled to keep the tears from his eyes. “Oh, it’s just like home,” he breathed. “I’ve missed it so much. Can it be real?”
Hob tilted his head. “What is real, master? This is the stuff of void, which you have shaped according to your will. Except the sheep. Those are souls.”
Tuco stared at him. “Sheep have souls?”
“No, master, only humans, angels, and devils have souls,” Hob explained patiently. “These are human souls, won by Prince Sathanus. Devils cannot make animal life; only change it.”
“But—but I never intended to transform anyone into sheep!”
“Hob is certain they prefer it to their previous fate, master. So peaceful! You could grant them these idylls if you wish, or you could return them to limbostone if you do not wish to invent a more appropriate fate for them.”
“It seems fine,” Tuco said doubtfully. And in truth, the creatures did seem to be happy; several flopped down into the grass and wriggled, while others gamboled, kicking up heels or bounding up a hillside.
Before Tuco, the path of jagged black stone became a game trail, the soft, trampled grasses wetting his feet with dew as he followed it. The scents of rich earth, wildflowers, and fresh grass mixed with the gamy, musty odor of the sheep—the scent of the fields outside the village where he and his siblings had played as children. After everything he had been through, and after so long in strange, unfriendly places, his heart sang with joy.
The path led down the hill toward a forbidding moat bubbling with liquid fire, but as Tuco’s influence reached it, blue spread throughout the orange as fire transformed into water. A lazy river cut through the green meadow now, and the air filled with the groaning and chirruping of frogs. The spit of stone that had crossed the moat became a long, beautiful wooden bridge, and Tuco traveled across this to the buildings ahead. As he approached, these, too, fell, their walls collapsing into earth, ivy and moss swallowing their stones until they were little more than ruins. Limbostone menhirs jutted from the ground here and there, and in places arranged themselves into henges of various sizes, some of them only four or five stones in a circle, others in the distance forming enormous constellations of ten concentric rings or more.
“There are so many,” Tuco said, pointing to the limbostones. “And they all have souls in them?”
“They are but a small fraction of the souls in your dominion. Most will be underground, most likely, stored deep.”
Tuco followed the path, the city crumbling into overgrown ruins around him, until the path led to a high hill crowned by a dark and forbidding palace, all looming edifices and unnatural angles. As he approached, this building did not crumble, but folded in on itself, the black rock brightening to a cheery redstone, yawning dark gaps in the walls transforming into whiteframed windows with real glass. Gardens sprang up around the building with white gravel paths, fruit trees, and manicured hedges. The building was larger than any home Tuco had ever entered, though not even a fraction the size of the enormous city-fortress that had crumbled around it, and Tuco recognized its general aesthetic, if not its particulars, almost immediately. When he was a young boy, his father had taken him on a journey to the southern countryside, a delivery of intricately carved, painted, and varnished furniture for some well-to-do lord or lady. The gardens and manor had astounded Tuco at the time; he could not imagine anyone needing so much space or so many rooms, but he was struck by the peacefulness and gentle splendor of the home. It had been lovely without being ostentatious, and the gardens had smelled of wildflowers and ripening fruit and honey. The home’s scents had been even more inviting: rich wood and old paper, boot polish, baking bread, clean linens. It had been no palace like the Empress must inhabit. It had been a place made for serenity and comfort, a gentle place, and for all his boyhood, the memory of the manor and gardens had remained in his heart an emblem of an idyllic life that had forever seemed out of reach.
And now here it was, part of his demesne. It hardly seemed real.
A crunching white-graveled path led Tuco to an enormous doorway, at least ten feet tall and half that across—too large and grand by far for most, but appropriate for him, he supposed. The white painted wooden door was closed, and he hesitated in front of it. “Do I knock?” he asked, one hand raised.
Hob spat, a little sizzle of smoke rising from the ground. “Knock on your own door, master? Your demons ought to have detected you coming and opened it for you already!” He puffed out his tiny chest. “Hob will have to whip them into shape!”
“Er, perhaps a bit of leniency is called for, Hob. After all, their last master was Sathanus. That can’t have been easy. And then he went missing, and then I showed up, their castle fell down and all their work ended because I said so. It can’t be simple, managing all that.”
“You don’t get a position serving the Prince of Darkness because you need things to be simple,” Hob sniffed.
Tuco reached up to open the door to the estate, but just as his claws brushed the wood panels, the door suddenly swung inward, letting out the smells of silver polish and smoking meats. A little wave of happiness rolled through him, and he nearly drooled, before the idea of smoking meats recalled to him the scenes of horror he’d seen when he arrived, and abruptly his appetite abandoned him.
Standing in the doorway was a tall, slender demon dressed as a steward, with a neatly trimmed black tunic with dark red sleeves and leggings. He wore a close-cropped black beard, and his yellow eyes glittered as he dipped his horned head. “Welcome to your demesne, Sir Tuco Witchywine,” he purred in a deep, clipped accent. “I am the steward of the late Prince Sathanus, and would be pleased to resume the position under new management.” He smiled, baring delicately pointed canine teeth. “If you would be pleased to accept me as such. Few Knights of the Abyss are so fortunate as to have a Prince’s staff to serve him.”
“What is your name?” Tuco asked him.
“I am called Peeves, Sir.”
Hob settled onto Tuco’s shoulder, standing as tall as he could and wearing as severe an expression as he could manage. “Do you and your staff swear eternal allegiance to your new master, Sir Tuco Witchywine, and vow never to betray or scheme against him?”
A cool look settled into Peeves’ eyes. “But of course, with the proviso that should our dark master Prince Sathanus be somehow restored to his former position, he has a prior claim upon our allegiance. Beyond that, I swear eternal allegiance to Sir Tuco Witchywine. I vow to serve him to the best of my abilities, never to question an order, never to work against his wishes, spoken or unspoken, to defend him against all incursion and treachery, to honor him as fallen star, and to care for his souls as though they were my own, from here and unto eternity, now and forever. So I do swear.”
As he spoke, Tuco heard his voice echoed by other voices all around—hundreds, thousands of them, all reciting the words that bound them to him. He felt the connections to him forming, uncountable tiny threads of devotion brushing against his vast inner being, the true heart of him that held within him all his souls, that strained with magic, that devoured devils. With a blaze of white starlight, his mark appeared on the demon’s forehead, just between the two short horns that jutted above his brow.
Again Peeves bowed low and extended an arm. “Welcome to your estate, Sir.”
Tuco stepped inside, his feet sinking into a thick, plush rug. Since he was a small boy, he and his family had dwelt in a modest thatched-roof home with only a single large three-bayed room downstairs for cooking, work, and food preparation, and smaller rooms in the loft of one bay—one for his parents, one for the boys, and one for the girls. His father was a carpenter, so they always had comfortable furniture, mostly made of cast-off or misshapen pieces discarded from more completed work, but very little by way of anything else, and on cold or rainy days, they shared the downstairs with the chickens and goats, which at least helped to keep the place warm.
Multiple rooms were something you found in the houses of only the wealthiest, and yet here, in his new entryway, a grand, dark-stained and polished stairway led up to a second story. He’d never even had a stair; the bed lofts were reached by a runged ladder, and if you were too injured or tired or drunk to make it to bed, why, you slept on the bottom floor curled up next to the fireplace.
But this house was his now. Granted, none of it was, strictly speaking, real, and it was lost deep in the Abyss and populated by demons, and at any moment could be invaded or stolen by a bigger and more important devil… but it was his. And it was just what he’d wished for.
“May I show the master his estate?” Peeves asked smoothly. Tuco agreed, and was taken on a grand tour of the manor: there was a parlor, a conservatory, a greenhouse, a great dining hall, a library filled with books and scrolls—none of which he expected he would be able to read just yet, but he would have plenty of time to learn, would he not? The kitchen was saturated with delicious scents of cooking food, and equipped with a larder stuffed with all of Tuco’s favorite. There was a great hall that might serve as a ballroom, and, upstairs, many comfortable-looking bedrooms, so many that Tuco could have slept in a different room each night for a fortnight and still not have seen every one. There were museum rooms filled with many of Sathanus’s collected relics and memorabilia, and grand towers that overlooked the rolling countryside in every direction. In every room, demonic staff stood by in smart and expensive dress, each of them branded on the forehead with Tuco’s signature mark, each of them respectfully lowering their heads when he entered as though he were someone important. He had guards, footmen, cooks, and valets, though what any of their roles could be when the house had been formed out of demonic magic and surely maintained itself in the same fashion, he had no idea.
“And of course,” Peeves added, at what Tuco had presumed to be the end of the tour, “there is the hoard, Sir.”
“The hoard?” Tuco asked uneasily. “A collection of some sort?”
“Your predecessor, as you will recall, was a dragon in form as well as in predilection, and he amassed quite the treasure over his time as the Prince of Evil. If it would please you to precede me, Sir?” Peeves opened a side door that revealed a stone stairway leading down into comparative darkness.
Tuco glanced at Hob uneasily, but the little imp seemed unbothered, and so Tuco made his way down the stairwell. Peeves directed them to descend past several doors—a wine cellar, an ale taproom, the limbostone vaults, and an underground lake, he informed them. As Tuco descended past these, he noticed an increasing number of golden coins strewn across the stairs. He was unable to avoid treading on several of them, and their soft metal flattened slightly under the balls of his feet. Shortly after, the stairway opened up into a wide cavern. At this point, they were unable to descend any further, because the stairway disappeared into an ocean of gold. Tuco stopped so abruptly that Hob pitched forward off of his shoulder.
In amazement, he looked around. Gold: gold coins, gold candlesticks, necklaces, rings, plates, idols, woven fabric, stretched in every direction as far as he could see. And not only gold. Gems: glittering green emeralds, rich blue sapphires, blazing rubies, and starlike diamonds sparkled across the heaps in great, dazzling piles. There were billowing cascades of silks and satins, walls of fine tapestries, stacks of paintings, statues half-submerged in the sea of splendor like drowning sailors. Tuco had no idea how far down the heap of wealth went.
In puzzlement, he turned to Peeves. “I don’t understand. The landscape outside changed when I approached, becoming something more like home. The citadel disappeared and left only this fine house I’d always admired. But I certainly never wished for any treasure hoard. Why hasn’t it gone away as well?”
His steward cleared his throat delicately. “Devils can transform only the bodies of humans and the stuff of the Abyss, Sir Tuco. The treasure you see here is real.”
“Real?” Tuco blinked again. “You mean from… from earth?”
“They say you cannot take it with you, Sir. But Prince Sathanus found a way.”
“And all this is mine now.”
“Unless he should return and claim it.”
“I saw him perish, Peeves. It was… horrible. He isn’t coming back.”
“Then it will be yours forever.”
Tuco stared across the ocean of gold. A domed vault rose from the ceiling a little distance away, and centered in it was an enormous statue: a calf, made entirely of shining, solid gold, its head raised proudly above the treasure. “What did you say the next temptation was, Hob?” he muttered.
The imp settled back onto his shoulder. “Wealth, master.”
No sooner had he spoken than a chorus of trumpets sounded a fanfare from above. The sound sent a wrench of dread through Tuco’s stomach as he recalled the seals at the bottom of the Throat. “What’s that?” he demanded.
“Someone at the border, Sir,” Peeves said. “Requesting entry, no doubt. I will see who it is. Sir may remain here, with his treasures, or he might perhaps retire to his parlor in anticipation of receiving guests?”
Tuco agreed that this course of action sounded best, and climbed the stairs after Peeves. In the parlor, he settled into the most comfortable chair he had ever sat in—it even had a convenient gap through which his tail deftly threaded itself. The light in the room was that of a lazy Sunday afternoon, filtering through blue and white curtains to light up the cherrywood paneling which, since he had last passed through, had sprouted paintings of his friends: Hob, Etreon, and Braxus, in positions that captured both their likenesses and demeanours exactly. He rested his arm on the plush armrest of his chair, and found that his claws brushed against a crystal glass set on a side table. The glass was filled with an amber liquid that proved to be an exquisite pear brandy, and he sipped delicately from it while awaiting whoever these visitors might prove to be.
It was hard to feel too concerned when he was this comfortable, and the brandy was terribly good, but he cast a nervous glance toward Hob all the same. “Who do you think it might be?” he asked.
Hob shook his wee head. “Impossible to know, master. Not someone who wishes to snatch you up and force you into submission, so not a brute like some rulers of the Abyss. It might simply be some of those we freed from E-Temen-Anki, wishing to express their gratitude or vow service to you. Or…”
“Or?” Tuco prompted him, as the little imp shifted and looked uneasy at saying more.
“Or it might be some more clever devil who wishes to deceive you, master.”
There was a worrying thought. “I shall be on my guard,” Tuco promised him.
After a few moments, Peeves appeared again at the doorway. “Sir has a very honorable guest,” he announced. He strode forward and held out a silver tray in his white-gloved hand. On it was a small, square envelope of fine, ivory paper. Tuco took the envelope and slit it open with one claw, removing a card—this time apparently made of actual ivory and embossed with a gold filigree frame and lettering. It read:
His Lordship the Baron Mammon and company
graciously accepts the hospitality
of Sir Tuco Witchywine, Knight of Lust.
“Mammon?” Tuco whispered to Hob as he got to his feet and prepared to receive his guests.
Hob’s jet-black scales paled to an ashy grey. “Baron Mammon,” he whispered back. “The Governor of Greed.”
Tuco heard the music long before the Baron came into view. He was standing atop his manor’s balcony, watching for his guest, when first he heard it. Even from a distance, it somehow sounded loud, encompassing, and it was like no sound he had ever heard before. He’d heard many a minstrel sing with the accompaniment of lute or lyre, and farmer Wellaway down the road had been skilled with a psaltery. He’d heard trumpets when nobility visited town, and the grand cathedral had an organ whose thunderous tones resonated every stone in the building with such timbre that it seemed like to bring the building down. But none of those could make sounds like this.
The music had the full-throated plangency of the organ, but a melody carried by a raw scream like that of the bagpipes, and all around it were other instruments weaving harmonies in and out of the melody like sinuous patterns in a tapestry of music. Beneath it all were drums: raw, fierce, and primal, tattooing the music with complex rhythms, giving it a heartbeat and synchronizing it with Tuco’s; indeed, as the music grew nearer and louder, he found himself energized by it, found himself wanting to leap and pounce. He looked behind himself and saw to his surprise that his tail had begun to swing in time with it, and his hips soon followed. The sound arrested him, swept him up, and made him feel primitive, animal. Truly this sound, whatever it was, was devil’s music.
Night fell across his demesne as the Baron’s entourage approached, and the music grew louder, the drums more ferocious. He could feel their thrumming through the stones of his walls, making the very earth of his demesne vibrate. In the darkening environs, it became easier to make out the approach of the Baron, for brilliant lights flashed and pulsed as the devil approached, in all colors: red and violet and green and deep blue, sending blazing streaks of color across the grassy hillsides—and sheep barreling away from them in bleating alarm.
The entourage itself proceeded on an infinitely unrolling carpet of glass that blazed with colored light, and atop it, demons danced their way toward Tuco’s manor. No stately court dance this; they leapt and contorted in fascinating ways, they twitched and slid as though an invisible hand or the music itself had seized them, they swung their arms, they grappled each other, they writhed in sexual gyrations, they bounded in astonishing feats of athleticism, flexibility, and acrobatics.
Tuco had never seen anything like it, and yet he felt certain his body was made to join in, that he could easily step into that court and dance in unending bliss until the Abyss itself went still and dark. “What is it, Hob?” he murmured, and then repeated himself as the music drowned out his words.
The imp cartwheeled down the manor wall and then hipthrusted his way back in time with the music. “Baron Mammon is renowned for his love of parties, master! He long ago decided that the party should never end.”
Tuco thought back to village dances and feasts punctuated by songs, plays, and drunken sports. “I’ve never seen parties like this, though.”
“But all you have seen of the Abyss is its prison and Sathanus’s realm of torments.”
“True enough. Do you know anything of this Baron Mammon? Why was Peeves so distressed at news of his arrival?”
Hob fidgeted to tempo. “The devils master has already met so far have been noble, of course, but only minor ones. Courtiers to the Throne of the Abyss. Lords, Knights, Baronets. All very important, but there are many of them. And any devil can become a knight or a lord if he does great deeds or is honored by a higher devil. But Barons are part of the Peerage of Hell. The lowest rank, perhaps, but it is a Title. And titled devils can do…”
“Anything they want, master. Unless outlawed by a higher rank. Duke Leviathan used to gobble up any devil he liked. He would swallow them whole. Until the Abyss was running out of devils, and King Behemoth made a law against it. But demons are still fair. In some noble houses, it is a sign of respect to roast your favorite demon and offer him as a meal to a visiting superior.”
Tuco made a face. “That’s horrid!”
“You ate Belzebub,” Hob pointed out. “And nothing you do could be horrid or wrong, oh glorious master.” Almost absently, he patted at Tuco’s arm.
“That was in self-defense. I didn’t enjoy it. And anyhow, why would that be a custom? Surely it would make any demon not want to be your favorite. So all of them would try not to please you too much. It’s just stupid.”
Hob cleared his throat. “Master would not be the first devil to observe that the Abyss could have better management. So Mister Peeves might be afraid of being served up for the Baron. Or perhaps he is worried that the Baron will bamboozle master in some way, or transform master into a kadav, or simply demand all his land and riches for himself.”
“Can he do that? Could he just come and say, ‘Give everything you have to me?’”
“He can say anything, master. But you are strong and clever and valiant, and you will defeat him. Hob has no fear.” The little imp wiggled his backside as he bounced backward along the wall in time with the music.
Tuco frowned down at the approaching parade of lights and sound. Not too long now before it would be at his front door. “Well, that’s… encouraging. But I suppose we’ve handled everything so far. Let’s go down and meet the Baron.”
He waited for his guest in his new foyer, a glass of something sweet and alcoholic in one hand. Hob sat perched atop a large statue of some hulking, monstrous devil; it took Tuco a moment to recognize that the enormous creature was him. Had he imagined that as part of his estate as well? Arrayed in fine clothes, his demonic staff lined the hallway, slitted eyes forward, horned chins raised.
Outside, the approaching music was so loud that it shook the walls as though the house were being bombarded. Then, abruptly, it stopped, and all was silent. The sound of gravel crunching underfoot came from outside. It didn’t sound like too large of a creature. What would this devil be like? Tuco wondered. And what would it try to do to him? Could he devour it as he had Asmodeus? It seemed unlikely.
Just as he would have expected a rap on the door, Peeves reached out and, keeping his head bowed, swung it open. In the doorway stood a man, to all appearances about twenty-five years of age, dressed all in gold and purple. He looked entirely human, but for the thin, forked tail that swayed behind him and the delicate stubs of horns that nudged up the brim of his high purple hat. His purple eyes were dark-lined and twinkling, his cheekbones high, his handsome jaw outlined with a short-cropped black beard. He was not tall, even his hat barely reaching the bottom of Tuco’s chest, and he was very lean, his extravagant gold and purple clothing cropped close, giving him the appearance of a dancer or circus performer more than a noble. His clothing, his ears, his fingers all glittered with gold jewelry and gemstones, and his shoes were black leather polished to a glassy shine.
He stepped into the house and as he did, a fanfare played behind him, not with trumpets, but in the instruments of that wild music, all thunder and lightning. He took off his hat with one hand and spread his arms wide. “Thank you, thank you all,” he cried in a high, merry voice. “Baron Mammon. Yes, it is an honor to have me, I know, I know. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve left my entourage outside. I came rather expecting a castle that might hold them all, so imagine my surprise at such… modesty.”
He strode forward toward Tuco, who took an uneasy step backward. “Although I can’t say the same for you, dear fellow. Surely no one else in here can be the famed Knight of Lust.” He gave Tuco a grin and a wink. “The rest of them are all wearing clothing, after all. What a bold statement, to greet a Baron of the Abyss in the… altogether.”
Blood flushed into Tuco’s face. How could he have forgotten he was naked? When meeting an actual baron? He suddenly had the horrible feeling of being trapped in a nightmare. The important guest had arrived and he’d forgotten to put on clothes! He struggled against the urge to squirm and twist to the side to try to hide himself, or to sidle out of the room with his hands over his cock. “I—er—I hadn’t meant to—” he stammered. Why hadn’t Peeves or Hob warned him he was naked?
Baron Mammon let out a squeal. “By my star, you’re actually embarrassed. A Knight of Lust who has cut a swath through the devil ranks of the Abyss, and you’re flummoxed like an altar boy caught with the communion wine.” He reached up and patted at Tuco’s chest. “We can’t be having that, can we? Own it, dear boy, wear it proudly. Conventions are not for such as we. We defy them, we kick them over and build new ones in our own image. You’re an incubus, alluring is what you’re meant to be. Though confidentially”—he leaned up and muttered sotto voce—“sometimes what you don’t see can make the revelations more exciting when they come. Don’t you think?”
Stepping back from the stupefied Tuco, he looked about. “Well! Let’s have some music, shall we? And I’ll take one of those drinks, if you don’t mind,” he added sweeping a flute of some clear, bubbling liquid off a silver tray held by a statue-still demon. “And is anyone going to offer me someone to eat?”
Bowing his head, Peeves came forward and began slowly unbuttoning his doublet.
The Baron crowed with laughter. “Only joking, demon, only joking. Well, if there isn’t going to be music here, perhaps I could supply some of my own? Some lighter fare than our marching music, as I shouldn’t wish my lightning trumpets to fell your walls like Jericho. Come, Hendricks!”
He snapped his fingers, and after a moment, a tall, lanky demon stepped into the house, bearing a strange, flat lute as red and glossy as spilled blood. “Play something cordial,” suggested the Baron. The demon’s clawed fingers flowed across the strings of the lute, and that stormy music poured out once again, but at a more relaxed tempo. The harmonies echoed off the walls of the manor in strangely pleasing ways.
“That’s better,” purred Baron Mammon. “I think every devil should have a proper appreciation of music, don’t you? I’m partial to the vielle myself. Well, don’t just stand there with your mouth open, O Destroyer of E-Temen-Anki—oh yes, I’ve heard about that, too—shall we retire to your—I suppose even a hovel this small includes a sitting room or parlor of some kind?”
“Oh, er, yes,” Tuco managed. “This way, I think.” And, still self-conscious about being the only naked person in the room when nobility had arrived, he led the way toward a pair of double doors. Only when he’d pushed them open did he realize that in a proper manor, it would be the staff’s job to escort them to the parlor, but he’d already greeted his guests naked, so to hell with formality, he supposed.
The parlor was well-lit with candles and moonlight spilling in through large windows—a mystery, since Tuco had never seen any moon in the skies of the Abyss—and a brilliant fire crackled in a fireplace large enough to walk into. Tuco remembered his manners just in time, fortunately, and stood next to his own chair—the only one in the room large enough to accommodate him—waiting until the Baron took his own seat.
The Baron took his time, allowing Peeves to remove his purple coat and hat, and seated himself comfortably in a chair near the fire. “Well now,” he said, when Tuco sat. “I must say I appreciate the shift in decor. Prince Sathanus certainly had a style, but aren’t we all a little post-Sadism these days? Hard to find the sparkle in one’s wit when some serial murder is being fed his own genitals in front of one. Fewer screams, less blood, fewer souls shitting themselves in pain and terror, less cannibalism, I approve of that at least. But Tuco.” He paused and cocked his head. “You are Tuco Witchywine, are you not? I know I embarrassed you a touch in the foyer, but you’ve not introduced yourself.”
Tuco’s tail wound itself around a leg of his chair. “My apologies. I’ve just—I’ve never—You see, I grew up in a—” He sighed. “Your servant, Sir Tuco Witchywine.”
“My servant, are you?” Baron Mammon arched one delicate eyebrow. “Would that be an oath of fealty then?”
Tuco looked past the Baron to all his staff vehemently shaking their heads no. “Er, I meant only that I hope to make your visit comfortable.”
“Indeed. Well. As I was saying, Sir Tuco, you could make your estate more comfortable by having a lot more of it.”
“A lot… more?”
“Is this or is it not the estate of a prince? What is this small shepherd’s hut? Where is the opulence? Where is the grandeur? When I visited Prince Sathanus, I could travel for days without ever seeing the other side of his castle.”
Tuco shrugged, feeling a bit stupid and provincial. “This is all I need. More than I need.”
Baron Mammon scratched under one eye, frowning. “Need? What does need matter? I’m a devil of greed, you know, Tooky, and nothing pleases me like excess.”
“Well… there is the hoard. That’s all real, so it’s not gone away with the rest of Sathanus’s realm.”
The Baron’s purple eyes glowed brightly. “Now you intrigue me. I’d always heard tales of the Prince of Vengeance’s treasure trove, but he had never allowed me to see it. Do lead on, my Knight.”
A little uneasy at how possessive that appellation sounded on Mammon’s tongue, Tuco got to his feet. “It’s this way. Below the manor.” And so, with the Baron following at his heels, he led the way back to the stairway down to the ocean of gold and treasure filling the caverns beneath his cellar.
As they stepped down into the glittering vaults, he heard a gasp from the Baron behind him. “So much wealth. So much! Why, it makes my own store look like a half-filled coin purse by compare! And the Prince was not even a devil of greed. What sense to have all this magnificence and hide it away like a miser?”
“And what would you do with it?” Tuco asked curiously.
Baron Mammon swatted at his hip with one hand. “Look at you, such a brazen devil, standing naked before me, questioning my strategies, and not even bothering with a ‘My Lord’ when you do it.”
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Tuco stammered, stumbling backward. Gold coins slid under his feet with jingling sounds.
“You know I expect you actually are?” The Baron gave a weary roll of his eyes. “You require so much instruction. A devil should never be sorry—we defied the One Above Himself, after all!”
“Well, strictly speaking, I never—”
“Perhaps not, but you wear the mantle of one who did, boy. You burn as truly as any Fallen Star, and you must learn to behave as such. You think there is no spark of rebellion in you, but all who have attempted to control or destroy you have perished, and don’t think others don’t know it. If they fear you, you might survive for a time as a devil. Encourage it. Don’t give them cause to doubt. Don’t show them weakness. Now, as to what I would do with such wealth? Why, make myself resplendent with it, of course. Festoon myself with all the treasures of mankind to show how they have adored me. And then, of course, give it away.”
Tuco started. “Give it away?”
“Of course, Tooky, what did you think I would do, hoard it all underground as Sathanus does? There are souls to be bought, after all, and nothing rots the heart of a man so quickly as sudden, unexpected wealth.”
Uncertainly, Tuco ventured, “I should think for many, a little money could prevent evil. Are not many sins committed out of desperation?”
The Baron turned and flashed his delicate white fangs in a sly grin. “Oh, a little money, certainly. Everyone could use enough for shelter, sustenance, and safety. But give a man a lot of it, and there is no surer way to sour his soul. Suddenly he has more than his friends, his family. Suddenly everyone wants what he has. He is apart from them. He begins to believe the solutions to his problems can be purchased rather than sought within his spirit. Ever he will spend more, attempting to buy happiness, and ever will he fear that his fortune will run out before he buys just the right item, the right house, the right bride, the right social circles. Don’t forget, Knight, it’s the love of me that is the root of all evil. Trust me when I tell you this: if you wish more souls to add to your riches in the Abyss, simply buy them. Give a pauper a few diamonds, give a farmer a pot of gold, and watch his heart blacken before your eyes. Give them a little of what they want, and they’ll forget all about what they need. That’s the secret.”
Tuco sighed. “So I really can’t just give all of this away? I thought I might be able to just take it, somehow, to people all over the world.”
“Haven’t you been listening to me, Knight?” the Baron asked with a laugh. “I’m saying you should do exactly that. Imagine the chaos. Imagine the greed you could unleash, the squabbling, the paranoia, the downright slaughter you could introduce. Everyone fighting over gold. Wondering where it came from, but certain that they should have it and not someone else. With the right amount of wealth in the right place, imagine the wars you could start. Your trove would positively bloat with souls.”
“And that’s what you would do with it, were it yours?”
The Baron sighed and let himself fall backward into the sea of wealth, spreading his arms wide. “It’s what I did, once. I thought as you did, that happiness lay somewhere beyond the mountains of more. But more is a horizon, and it recedes as you pursue it. Now I am wealthy beyond measure—not so many souls in my hoard as you have inherited and earned, Tooky, but wealthy I am, all the same. My palace is wondrous, wrought of living limbostone, and within it I have multitudes. They hunger, they thirst, they reach for love, for meaning, for the Almighty, for friendship, for reassurance that they are worthy, for peace inside them. Do you know what I give them, who sold their souls to me for wealth?”
“Gold,” Tuco guessed.
“You are a clever devil. Indeed. I give them gold to eat, to drink, to lie on, to cuddle at night, to fashion into the shapes of the friends and family they forsook for their own greed. I give them more, and more, and more, until they drown in it.”
“You sound bitter about it. But you still seem to love wealth,” Tuco said, puzzled.
“Ah!” The Baron sat upright, his eyes sparkling. “And if you can guess why, then you shall know me truly. Why can I be so disappointed in mankind, and yet love excess so much? Guess that, oh Knight, and you shall win me over. Now. Come upstairs. I have a gift for you.”
Bemused, Tuco followed Mammon up the stairway, and through his house into the foyer. Surely a gift from another devil was a danger to be avoided: Belzebub had given him more food than was good for him; Belphegor had given him strength at the cost of his mobility; Asmodeus had granted him powers of attraction that almost led to him consuming his friends; and Flavros had granted him safety at the cost of freedom. Hob had explained that all of them had done so as a part of a curse that would transform him into a kadav, a being who had surrendered all his free will. Then the conquering devil would be free to take all his souls for himself and become the wealthiest and most powerful devil in the Abyss. Surely any gift from Baron Mammon would do the same.
And yet Mammon seemed different. Not a predator hunting prey, but perhaps a sated one who drowsed. Tuco felt no sense of immediate danger from him. He wished Pike, with his threat-tuned ears, were here to guide him. He would simply have to remain on his guard. A drowsing predator still had fangs, claws, and muscle. And that meant refusing a gift from Baron Mammon could be just as dangerous as accepting one.
“Something on your mind, sex monster?” Baron Mammon asked in a honeyed voice. “You look as though you’re seeing into other worlds. Worried about this gift of mine, are you?”
“I haven’t had good luck so far with gifts from devils,” Tuco admitted.
The Baron raised his dark brows. “Have you not? You stand before me a powerful, attractive immortal with the wealth of a damned prince. What were you before? A farmboy?”
“Well, it’s true that so far, everything has come out all right in the end.”
“But not because of luck,” the Baron prompted.
Tuco blinked, trying to sort through his thoughts.
“Go on. How me. Why have you ended up here, strong, gifted, with a trail of defeated enemies in your dust?”
“Because…” There were so many possible answers. Perhaps he was lucky. And he’d never have made it so far without all his friends. They’d aided him at every step of the way. But they were his friends. They were loyal because they were good people, but they were loyal to him because… The words almost hurt to say. But what had the Baron told him? You burn as truly as any Fallen Star. “Because I am good at this,” he said, squaring his shoulders, and accidentally breaking a nearby shelf as he did so. Fine pottery crashed to the floor, somewhat ruining the effect.
But the Baron’s white grin only spread wider. “There you are.”
“I’m clever, I’m resourceful, and I’m not afraid of anything, except my friends getting hurt. I’m kind and thoughtful, and I’m not so arrogant as to think I don’t need to listen to people. Which means I have allies who respect and stand up for me.”
“And did your enemies deserve to defeat you? Who would be a better caretaker of all those souls in your possession now? Should Belzebub have owned them?”
Tuco shuddered at the thought of all those souls tormented for eternity by the grotesque creature. “Never.”
“Or Belphegor? Or Asmodeus? Would you trust all those souls in your power now to them?”
“No, nor Flavros.”
“And certainly you would not prefer to give all those millions of souls in your hoard back to Sathanus.”
A wave of revulsion shuddered through Tuco as he thought of the horrific sight of torment, cannibalism, and gore he’d seen upon first arriving in his demesne. “No!”
“No, indeed.” Baron Mammon turned suddenly and leaned against Tuco’s belly, half-disappearing under the shelf of his chest. Despite his situation, Tuco was suddenly very conscious of his nakedness and, as he placed one huge, clawed hand on the Baron’s shoulder, just how lean and lithe the devil was under his fine clothing. And but for the slight fangs, the short horns, and the tail, he looked as close to human as anyone Tuco had ever been with. With great focus, he managed to still his lust, but not before the stirring in his loins betrayed him.
The Baron gave him a sly smile over the slabs of his chest. “Tell me true, oh humble farmboy, is there any devil in the entire Abyss you would trust with all those souls of yours?”
“There is not,” Tuco admitted.
“My, my. Such an arrogant beast. So proud. So greedy. As you should be. Well then, O Knight of Lust, you must be prepared to fight for those souls if you wish to keep them. You must be merciless in dealing with your enemies. As you have been, it would seem. Seldom in all the history of the world has anyone been able to snuff the light of a Fallen Star, and yet four have gone dark in encounters with you. And I? I would not choose to be the fifth. So instead of confronting you, I come to counsel. And to buy your favor with gifts.”
“My—my favor? But you’re a Baron.”
“And but a year ago you were a farmboy.”
“I wasn’t a farmboy!” Tuco protested limply. “I was a—”
“Oh, what does it matter what flavor of peasant you were? You take my meaning nonetheless. Come outside and see your gifts. I think you’ll like them.”
Wondering, Tuco followed the Baron out his front entryway. Night had fallen completely over the gardens, but the brilliant colored lights of the noble devil’s entourage illuminated the gardens in roving pools of vermillion, gold, pink, and royal blue. Stepping down the front steps, the Baron raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. It resounded like the sound of a boulder cracking, and as it did, brilliant white lights shot into the air, their beams like pillars to a cosmic temple, piercing the void above them. At the same moment, the infernal orchestra thrummed with powerful chords. When Mammon spoke, his voice cried out across the rolling hills like thunder. “I present to you, Sir Tuco Witchywine, Knight of Lust, my gift from beyond the ages, the giants from before the time of man, Gog and Magog!”
The ground shuddered as though trembling with a mighty heartbeat and then, from behind the hills, rose two towering figures. They were shaped roughly like men, but with massive, muscular builds that rivaled Tuco’s own, their shoulders impossibly broad, their thick arms a bit too long. They were clad in glittering togas, one silver, one gold, but the garments only accentuated the bobbing of their masculine traits, which were as exaggerated as the rest of them. Despite their proportions, their faces were not brutish or apelike, but noble, almost angelic in appearance, their hair, golden on one, black on the other, in accordance with their respective complexions, cropped close, their faces radiantly handsome.
With ground-shaking steps they thundered up to Tuco. They were enormous. As tall as Tuco stood, he reached barely halfway to their knees. Each of them must have towered fifty feet tall, and as they approached, each of them dropped to their knees and bowed to Tuco.
He stared in amazement at the two of them. “What are they?” he murmured to Baron Mammon. “Demons?”
“I told you,” Mammon said. “They are giants. Nephilim, in fact. The first race created by the One Above after the angels. He deemed them too powerful, and destroyed all of them. All but these two, whom I rescued. And now I grant them to you.” He nodded to the two giants kneeling before Tuco. “Go on, you two. As I told you.”
The right one, with the golden toga, lifted his head and put his right fist to his chest. “I, Gog, forever pledge my loyalty to Tuco Witchywine, Knight of Lust. All that I am is his, and I will serve him faithfully beyond the end of life, until he releases me or my soul is destroyed.” He closed his deep brown eyes in a serious frown as Tuco’s mark appeared on his forehead.
The left one, wearing the silver toga, repeated the words with his own name, Magog, and shortly the mark appeared on his forehead as well. Then they both knelt again.
“This seems a generous gift,” Tuco said, puzzled. “But what am I to do with them? Do they wish this?”
“Do they—? Oh, farmboy, they begged to be released to you. Both of them have such appetites. More than I can sate. A devil of lust suits them much better than one of greed. I can hardly keep them from fucking each other nonstop. The giants were all that way, you know? Why do you think the One Above had them all killed and started over with humans? As to what you can do with them? They have souls, Sir Tuco. And they are giants.”
Tuco stared at him, puzzled.
Baron Mammon gave a frustrated sigh. “And I know that you have the appetites of an incubus. Appetites you would prefer not to sate overmuch on your friends. Hmm?”
Awareness dawned on Tuco. “So whenever I get too hungry again…”
“Have a taste of these two. They won’t mind, and Nephilim souls are astonishingly strong. You could feed on either of these for a hundred years and he’d scarcely lose a foot in height.”
Tuco looked up and down the two giants kneeling before him. “Er, thank you. You can get up.”
The two creatures glanced aside at each other. “Can we go fuck, then, sir?” Magog asked. His voice was deep as thunder, and accented strangely.
“Er, I suppose.”
Their faces lit in wide, dazzling grins. “With you? And the Baron?” Gog gave him a hopeful stare, his gaze roving up and down Tuco’s frame with lingering attention.
Again, lust stirred in Tuco. “Perhaps later?” He looked up at the towering giant and wondered if it could even be safe. Powerful as he was, Gog and Magog looked as though they could crush him like an eggshell. Was this how Etreon felt looking up at him, he wondered?
Gog looked disappointed, but nodded. “Yes, Sir Tuco.” He stood upright and turned to Magog. “Want to go have some fun?” Lifting arms that could snap tree trunks, he grappled Magog around the middle, heaved the wriggling giant up on one shoulder as though he weighed no more than a sack of flour, and carried him off into the dark countryside, away from the party. Shortly afterward, there came an ongoing series of thuds and thundering moans.
Tuco tried to ignore it for now, turning back to the Baron. “You gave me something to help my friends. Why?”
“Why? Because I am excellent at gifts, dear Knight. The wealthy ought to be, don’t you think?”
“Or this is some elaborate trick to deceive me,” Tuco suggested.
“It could be that, too,” the Baron said with a wink. “Never let your guard down, Tooky. Not in the Abyss. But know this: not all of us who rejected the Almighty did so because our souls were black and vile. Most of us had noble intentions at the start.”
“So why did you fall?”
Mammon’s face darkened. “That’s a very personal question for a devil, and one you’re not likely to get an answer to. Besides, you must discover your own, if you’re to be a proper devil.”
“But I haven’t turned away from God!” Tuco objected.
Baron Mammon gave him a long, steady stare.
“I go to Mass when I can. I—I admit I haven’t said many prayers lately, but—but I still believe in all the virtues. Love, peace, charity, honor, all of those. I believe in all of that!”
“So do I!” the Baron roared, and for a moment, he seemed to grow taller, his fangs longer, his horns rising higher, his frame stretching the limits of his gold and purple suit. His hair flared out into a mane around his head. Then he seemed to remember himself, and shrank back down. “So I did,” he amended, patting his hair back into place. “At first. I believed in all of those things, but I rejected Him, for He… No. I will not say it. Let us just say that even when He struck me from the sky, I believed in love. I believed in the goodness of humanity.”
“And now?” Tuco ventured.
“And now, well.” The Baron slid his hands into his pockets. “Let us say that several millennia of seeing all the terrible things humans do to each other has an effect. The closer you draw in an attempt to help, the more it sullies you. Sometimes you cannot save the world, Tuco. Sometimes all you can do is try to have a good time while it falls apart around you.”
“People aren’t so bad as all that.”
“Spoken like a devil who has not been properly tending his souls.”
A little embarrassed, Tuco admitted, “I know I should be, but there are so many of them, and I haven’t any notion of where to start. I’ve looked in on a few of them, but I didn’t know what to do. How do other devils tend them all?”
Baron Mammon clucked his tongue. “Ah, poor Tooky. An apprentice with no master. The rest of us devils were able to start out when there were only a few humans. Can you imagine? Once there were only two of them, the first man and the first woman. Emperor Morningstar has those prize souls. You know, the painters all get it wrong? Those milky-pale, hairless athletes running around in an Italian garden? Adam and Eve were quite dark skinned, and if you must know, very fat. No muscle tone at all. And Eden was in Africa.”
“Oh yes. And now our Emperor has their souls in his care. What crime ought he to punish them for? Eating a pomegranate?”
“But it was the fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God forbade them to eat.”
“And just tell me, oh Knight of Lust, exactly how they were supposed to know that doing what the Almighty forbade was wrong, when they had no knowledge of good and evil?”
Tuco opened his mouth, frowned, and closed it again. There had to be a flaw there, but he couldn’t find it.
“And what was that tree doing in Eden anyway? Why did the Almighty put it there if it was so dangerous to Adam and Eve?”
“Well, they—I mean, they… they have to have… free will…?”
Baron Mammon rolled his eyes. “Free will? If you have an innocent child who knows nothing of the world, do you put a plate of poisoned sweets next to him with instructions not to eat it, that it’s poisoned? And then leave him alone with them? Just because the child should have free will?”
“I—I don’t..” Tuco stammered.
The Baron seemed to remember himself, and calmed once again. “Oh, do forgive me, my host, I’m losing the thread. The point is, at first there were two humans, and our Emperor received their souls into his care, as sinners against the Almighty, fallen to the first Desire. The very first.”
“The Temptation of Food,” Tuco said in surprise.
“Indeed. The first temptation because it is the most basic, the easiest. That is generally the order they fall in, from simplest to most complex, though of course there has been some rearrangement through the years. And lower order devils specialize in the lowest temptations, the easiest. Even a dog or a lizard can be tempted to gluttony, idleness, or lust, but try getting a dog to seek revenge or become obsessed with his own beauty! The higher the order of the temptations, the more complex—and therefore insidious—they become. And the more powerful the devil who specializes in them.”
“That explains something I have wondered about,” Tuco said.
“And what is that, Sir Witchywine?”
“My friends said that the devils were coming after me in the order of the twelve temptations. Belzebub came after me with food, then Belphegor with sloth…”
“And eventually here am I, tempting you with wealth? Except I can scarcely do so, for you are wealthier than I. Well, it is no surprise. The Abyss has its hierarchy, after all. We watch our immediate underlings, lest they attack us. Few know or care about the fates of Belzebub or Belphegor, for they were so low-rank as to be below notice. All know that E-Temen-Anki fell, but none knew what happened to its attendant, save that he was torn apart by his prisoners. However, Flavros was my creature, who reported to me, and when he perished, I made it my business to know what had happened to him. And I found you. And should something happen to me, it will certainly draw the attention of one of my superiors.”
“Which would be who?” Tuco asked excitedly.
“Oh, my dear, now that would be telling. I wouldn’t like to spoil the surprise.”
“But it will be the Temptation of Belonging?”
“Which is a more difficult Temptation than Wealth.”
“Now you are trying to goad me, you wicked thing. Are you sure you are not secretly a devil of Vengeance? But yes. It is easier. Most humans will abandon their friends and homes in search of riches, will they not? Still. I have never cared much about fitting in. I prefer others to fit in with me. And so Wealth is my temptation, and thus will I bring humanity to ruin with it, in my own unique fashion. And here, in the Underworld, they can join my endless party. For that is what I do with my souls, you see. Those who followed wealth because of the joys it opened up to them will find joys in my endless parties. And those who followed it seeking to fill an emptiness they should have filled with friends and family will find they brought that emptiness with them. That is my hell for them.”
“A hell you tempted them into,” Tuco said accusingly.
Baron Mammon turned lazy, long-lashed eyes in his direction. “Did I? Well, I’ll be damned. And what have you tempted men into, O Incubus? And what will you do to those who have fallen to your charms?”
“I still don’t know,” Tuco said, feeling a bit chastened. “No one I’ve tempted has died.”
“Then we shall have to make do with the souls in Sathanus’s trove. Do not fret overmuch about the number of them. You will find that as you attend a few, your logos will learn and follow with the rest. But you must set precedent; you must train it to create the worlds in which they will spend eternity.”
“Couldn’t I simply leave them all in limbostone? It seems kinder.”
“Kinder? It’s kinder than some fates, certainly, but the souls do not sleep there. They cannot sleep, for they have no bodies, no minds. They wait. And wait. Watching, thinking, their thoughts running to every available corner of their minds and then repeating. And repeating. And repeating. Souls that wait for too long go mad. If that is the fate you wish for them, it is your prerogative. It is certainly what the slothful Belphegor would have done. But if that is not your chosen fate for your subjects, then you must devise others. Let us try an easy soul and a difficult one. Do you know how to survey the souls that belong to you?”
Tuco thought about the dark expanse inside him, lit with millions of lights. “Yes, I can do that.”
“Good. Come, let us move a distance away from the others where we can act uninterrupted.” The Baron waved his delicately-clawed hand, leading Tuco around the side of the manor and into the gardens, stopping only once they were out of earshot and sight of the party. “Here now. Find a soul of yours—or of that prince you usurped—who has committed some minor sin, enough to secure him a fate in the Abyss, but not so terrible as to appall the good-hearted, hm?”
“Very well.” Tuco closed his eyes and sank into the darkness within him, holding his intentions in mind as he passed over the sea of souls, millions of tiny lights flickering across waves of darkness.
Hovering over the abyss within him, Tuco scanned the glittering expanse of souls that belonged to him. “It’s like night in here,” he murmured aloud. “I can see through any darkness in earth or the Abyss, but not here.”
“Because it is the Voidsea, the true Abyss.” Baron Mammon’s voice sounded small and distant. “The ocean of souls forever shunned by the One Above. Do you see the brighter lights?”
Tuco looked up from the tiny lights bobbing in shadow-waves. Far distant, he saw larger ones, still dim, but looking the size of moons, dwarfing the tiny lights that floated around them. They looked like embers blazing in the midst of inky shadow: dull red, flickering orange, ghostly blue. “I see them.”
“Those are the Fallen Stars. Devils in the Abyss, tending their souls. You, too, are a beacon in that darkness, Sir Tuco, and your souls cluster around you, hungry for your light.”
“It’s so sad.”
“Perhaps. But Paradise, too, is sad, viewed through the eyes of the soul. Perhaps you will see it one day. But come now. Find your soul.”
Tuco swept over the Voidsea, passing uncountable twinkles. He didn’t know the name of the one he searched, but he felt himself drawn anyway, pulled toward a glittering corner of his private ocean. There, he found one tiny light, floating up and down. He dove toward it, and it grew larger and warmer and encompassed him, as though he were floating down into the inviting glow of a well-lit room in a dark night. There he saw her, his soul. Her name was Henley, and she was held in limbo, awaiting something other than waiting, her eyes watching the darkness, but turning toward him as he illuminated her small space of limbostone. Her shape was made of light, and her light made up her memories, uncountable motes of light made of moments of her life: her parents, her love of gardens, her career as an herbalist, the sickly patient she fell in love with, their wedding, the births of their six children, and the loss of four as infants, her husband’s death to the plague, her son’s determination to work hard to care for her and his sister, the landlord that evicted them, her son’s death, and the fire that burned in her to see him hanged for it. It was then that Sathanus had whispered in her heart, promising her that pain would be answered, that vengeance would be visited upon the landlord in the Abyss, and all she need do was promise to glory in his suffering. How heartily she agreed, in her pain and anger, and how readily Sathanus took her soul.
“It wasn’t even wrong,” Tuco murmured.
“She wished for the suffering of another,” Mammon answered.
“But she didn’t cause it!”
“‘You have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not murder. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a man with hateful intent has already committed murder in his heart.’ The book of Matityahu. It was enough for the Almighty to condemn her, for she did not repent. I remember that landlord you saw, and indeed, he is punished. He is one of mine, for he fed his own family well while hers suffered, and his greed delivered him to me.”
“What do I do now?” Tuco asked.
“Bring her up to us. Find her limbostone and let us see it.”
Tuco concentrated, and somewhere in the depths of his demesne, great stones moved. He felt the vibrations beneath his garden as the little light of the woman drew nearer, and then he startled out of his darkness, opening his eyes as the ground beneath him trembled. He stepped back from the unfolding of earth, several finely manicured rose bushes falling away as an enormous slab of limbostone erupted from the soil.
The Baron smirked. “Very well done, if a little messy. Are you certain you were not born a devil? You take to it so well.” He rolled his shoulders and stepped toward the limbostone.
The woman was trapped inside. She was old, and tired-looking, her hands braced against the edges of the stone as though in an attempt to escape.
“What would you do with her?” Mammon inquired. “What should her fate be for wishing evil upon another?”
“That cannot be her only sin,” Tuco objected.
“No indeed—gaze upon her life, if you wish. Has she not longed for physical pleasure, for extra food, to be superior to her peers? Look at the stuff that composes her life. It is what makes up every soul in your dominion: desire. Want is what moves mortals through life, what motivates them, what drives them both to greatness and to darkness. They are such stuff as dreams are made on, Tuco, and their little lives are rounded with a sleep.”
“A very pretty sentiment,” Tuco observed.
“Not mine. One of the souls that belongs to Morningstar. But apt, don’t you think? Desire inflames and moves them, and finally damns them. It is only the worst sin you see now, that of hatred toward another child of the Almighty.”
“How can it be wrong to hate someone that God Himself damned to the Abyss?” Tuco blurted out, and saw Mammon flinch. “I mean, the One Above,” he amended.
“The faithful do not question Him,” Mammon answered. “This is how the world is made, an immutable fact of its existence. Now. What punishment will be hers for all eternity?”
“What punishment could possibly be just? She was only angry because her children died, and the one man who could have helped her made it worse!”
The Baron put a hand on Tuco’s shoulder. The physical touch was grounding, pulling him out of the ethereal plane of darkness and light and memories. Tuco breathed in deep, smelling upturned soil and the sweet nectar of his roses. “You must do something with her,” Mammon said gently. “You may punish her, you may leave her in the tedium of limbo, or you may do something else. The decision you make is yours, but it will affect all the souls in your custody. Your demesne will learn how you intend to treat others. You may be like Sathanus, tormenting them and feeding them endlessly to your demons. Or you may choose a different path. The One Above has surrendered custody of them. They are yours to tend now.”
Tuco turned over the possibilities in his mind. He could, perhaps, have her live as the landlord she’d despised and feel her hatred turned against herself. He could give her the punishment she’d wished on him. Neither felt right or just. He could put her in a world with the landlord in it and let her visit whatever vengeance or wrath she wished upon him, he thought. Give her what she wanted, and perhaps she would see that vengeance was unsatisfying. But perhaps it would only give her a taste for it. He could feel her hunger for another to suffer as she had suffered, like a barb in her soul, and perhaps if she indulged in that, it would only push that thorn deeper.
He spoke aloud. “I know this soul is mine to look after now, but it doesn’t seem right to punish her. Wasn’t it suffering that led her to her fall? I don’t see how further suffering helps anything. And I can’t teach her any kind of lesson. She’s older than me and lived an entire life. How could I impart any kind of wisdom that would help? And what good would it do now?” He frowned. “I think I know what I want to do.”
And in her mind, he found her place of peace: it was a spring morning, twilight, before most had risen, and she sat in her night garments in the grass by a pond, listening to birds heralding the dawn and watching the tiny ripples of insects gliding across the surface of the still water. Without even knowing how he did it, he crafted this world around her, weaving it out of threads of limbostone and shaping the void around it like clay, his talons crafting long stalks, his fingerprints daubing the edges of the pool, smoothing out the water like glass.
And then, without even intending it, he shaped her as well; her toes stretched and extended, digging deep into the soft, loamy soil by the pond. Her arms reached up for the sky. Another finger grew from each of her hands, and then another, and then her arms branched out. She gasped as her growing toes found water and drew it up into her. Her hundreds of fingertips burst into brilliant green leaves, unfurling under the brightening sky and extending out into long tendrils that arched down from her lengthening arms to brush the surface of the water. Her skin turned smooth and grey, becoming bark, and her head tilted back to greet the coming dawn as her hair grew long and green around her. Then she stood in her place of peace, a willow tree, tasting the good water of the earth, breathing from every fingertip the taste of the sky, turning to meet the rising sun as it bathed her leaves in warmth.
“I think that is the best I can do for now,” Tuco said as he came back to himself. “I didn’t mean to change her, at all, though. That just happened.” He looked back at Baron Mammon.
The Baron shook his horned head. “Souls cannot help but change around us. But this fate you have crafted surprises me. No ironic punishments? No pain, no malice? You made a place of paradise for her. From a devil of lust, I might have expected the landlord to return in an arousing form, one that made her loins pulse for her once-enemy. You might have let her endure the torment of being irresistibly drawn to the man she hated.”
“That… is a good idea,” Tuco admitted. “But I thought she had suffered enough.”
“And when her soul wearies of the peaceful eternity you have crafted for her and longs to rise, to engage with the world again?”
Tuco shrugged his broad shoulders. “I suppose I will try to give it to her. How can she be punished just for what she wished for in her heart? Don’t we all wish for things? How can desire itself be evil?”
The Baron gazed at him for a long moment. “How, indeed? So. This is the sort of devil you will be for the minor sinners in your hoard. But now I find myself curious how you would foster a great sinner. Shall we take a look at one?”
“I suppose I ought to.”
“Then seek out that soul within your dominion. Vlad Ţepeş. Gaze upon his deeds and do not shy away.”
It took little time to find this soul. The limbostone containing it was large, looming above the other souls in the Voidsea as though ruling them, and the stone itself was pitted, pocked, and cracked, as though someone had beaten against it with weapons, tried to destroy it. Tuco guided it toward himself, and after a few moments, it slid and shuddered up out of the ground, dwarfing the empty limbostone that had held the woman from before. This stone contained the soul of a tall, dark-haired man with large, powerful-looking hands. His wide green eyes stared, frozen, at some point in the sky beyond Tuco, but something in his gaze seemed broken, as though the window of his soul had fractured. Tuco braced himself and looked into the man to see who he had been and what, exactly, he had done. As Baron Mammon had advised him, he resolved he would not look away. He must see the person truly if he were to assign a worthy fate.
A moment later, he was staggering backward, his gut knotting, tears flowing from his eyes. He dropped heavily to his knees and put his claws to his head as though he could tear the visions he had just seen from his memory. The horrific sights filled his mind, evils that Vlad III had committed beyond his comprehension. His stomach heaved as though he could disgorge the recollection, but there was no way to unsee what he had beheld. The soul before him was vile, filled with contempt and hatred for his fellow man, and with pride and a sense of glory at the terrible things he had done. To soldiers. To scholars. To mothers. To infants. Not only had he tormented them but he had thrilled in it; he had drawn great pleasure in the depravities of violence, mutilation, and torture he had invented for them. Tuco put his hands to the ground and wept.
“Ah ha,” Baron Mammon said gently behind him. “And now that you have seen, what should be done with this soul?”
Some part of Tuco wanted to say that the spheres would not be well-served by a punishment of even an evil this great, that torment added onto torment only made the world worse, but that part of him was now small and shuddering in the dark at the horrors it had seen. What should be done with this evil king? No punishment is too terrible for him, snarled the voice in his mind. He should be rent, he should be torn apart, he should be flayed and stretched across the sun and devoured by ants! We will visit our vengeance upon him tenfold! We will make him suffer a thousand times what he has visited upon every person he harmed! This is justice. We will show him what hell means!
And Tuco tilted back his head and roared to the night sky of the Abyss, so loudly that even Baron Mammon crouched next to him, covering his head with both arms. His ears ringing from his own bellow, Tuco lifted both his arms over his head and brought them down heavily on the limbostone containing the soul of Vlad III. With a sound like a thunderclap, he smote it in twain, the broken pieces toppling to either side of him. For a moment, they held the cleft soul of Vlad within them, one wide green eye staring up at him from each shard. Then, like smoke, the soul of Vlad roiled out of the split stone and coalesced into the form of the man himself, who stood momentarily confused, and then cowering before Tuco.
“Please, oh great devil,” he stammered, dropping prostrate on the ground before Tuco’s toes, “what have I done to earn the torments I have suffered here? Certainly, I killed many. I tortured many. But it was necessary! All of it was done in the service of my country—all done to make Wallachia a strong and unified nation!”
So sickened by what he had seen was he, so consumed by his own wrath, that Tuco felt almost as though he were not in control of his limbs as he stooped and snatched the cowering man up off the ground with one hand. The soul of Vlad Ţepeş ought to have been heavy with the weight of his terrible sins, but, squirming in terror at the end of Tuco’s arm, he weighed less than a shadow.
“Please! Please!” the man howled.
But all Tuco could think of was the horrors this man had inflicted on others. “Silence, worm!” he snarled through bared fangs. “You think that I cannot see the evil that suffuses your soul? The pleasure you took in doing it? You think there is any torment I can devise that you will not deserve?”
The man beat in terror at Tuco’s hand, trying to free himself, but his blows were the fluttering of a moth’s wings against glass. He was dwindling in Tuco’s grip, smaller with every second, his eyes going wider.
“Worm you are,” Tuco growled at him, “and worm you will become for eternity, or until I think of something worse to do to you.” And as it shrank, the soul of Vlad began to shift. He howled in terror as his eyes sealed over with flesh, leaving him blind, his features softening, his arms and legs shrinking away as all his bones dissolved inside him. He shrank down, more and more, wriggling in Tuco’s grip, and then his fist, and then between thumb and forefinger, until he had become just a worm with the remnants of a terrified human expression, stubby vestigial arms dangling from his sides. His tiny mouth opened in fear.
“Grovel for your meals of dirt in my meadows,” Tuco told him. “And pray that I do not see fit to fill the field with crow.” And with that, he drew back his arm and flung the tiny creature away into the grass. Then he stood, panting, as the rage that had seized him suddenly fled, leaving him standing next to the Baron, shaking and bewildered. He felt suddenly released, as though in its own way, the fury had gripped and flung him about just as he had the evil king.
Baron Mammon arched one thin eyebrow. “Well. Wasn’t that interesting.”
“It’s… it’s far less than he deserved,” Tuco stammered, certain of that much even if somewhat appalled at the terrifying devil he had momentarily become.
“True enough. But interesting nonetheless. Perhaps an innocent such as you was not truly prepared for the visage of great evil. I ought to have eased you in with a mere murderer or two, I suppose.”
“I don’t quite know—” Tuco began, and then a piercing pain shot through both sides of his head. He doubled over, clutching at his temples with both hands as the pain intensified, then dulled to a strange throbbing and shifting of bone. His hot blood ran down his fingers as he felt two new horns push out between the previous pairs, their curved surfaces ridged, thickening as they sprouted and grew, sweeping back over his scaled head, larger and prouder than any of the four previous. After a moment, the sensation was gone, and he stood upright again, feeling his powerful neck adjusting to carry the weight of his new horns, feeling the way it changed the balance of his head.
“And that,” observed Baron Mammon, “is even more interesting.”
Tuco gave him a pleading look. “Do you know what it is? Do you know why this is happening to me?”
“I may,” the Baron answered calmly, “but it is not for me to say. A devil must leave his own tracks, as they say. Still. Accept my apologies for pushing you so. I assure you, I wished you no distress. And your demesne has begun to learn what you think of your sinners: the sweetness of your mercy, and the ferocity of your fury. All devils need the latter, but few possess the former.”
“I wish I had not reacted so immediately,” Tuco said. “Surely justice is delivered with measured sobriety, not with a spirit of vengeance.”
“Consider whose demesne you inherited. And consider too that your punishment is far kinder than what that soul suffered under Sathanus. Even in your wroth you are merciful.”
“I wanted to do worse,” Tuco admitted. “I wanted him to suffer everything he made others suffer, tenfold, a thousandfold.”
“And such is your prerogative, should you change your mind, Sir Tuco. You might visit greater punishment upon him, or you might see fit to grant him mercy.”
Images of Vlad Ţepeş’s atrocities flooded Tuco’s mind again, and he shuddered. “I thought all evil had an innocent reason behind it. That always it was rooted in pain, or madness, or bad teachings.”
Tuco inhaled. “Now I know that some men are cruel because they can be. Because they find pleasure in causing pain, in exerting their power over others, and seek out chances to do so. Some enjoy the perversity of tormenting the weak and innocent even more. But that’s a desire too, isn’t it? Where did it come from? Was he born with it? Or did a devil place the desire in his heart?”
“Place the desire there?” The Baron sounded shocked. “Do you think we can do that? We do not create desire; desire is part of what men are. All we do is listen to it, and sometimes, shape them in answer to it.” He gave Tuco a measured look. “I think I see now. I have tested you, and I have come to a decision. I have another gift for you.”
“I—I do not need another gift,” Tuco protested.
“Nonsense. I insist. Be a little greedy today, won’t you? For me, Tooky? I promise you this is a gift you will greatly appreciate. And if you don’t, you can order me to rescind it, and I will obey. Follow me, if you will.”
His head still whirling from the events of the night, and bobbing a little with the weight of six horns, Tuco followed Baron Mammon back to the front of his manor. The crunch of the rocks under his feet was reassuring, and he tried to push from his mind the thoughts of the evil he had encountered, and his strange and overwhelming reaction to it. He would have to prepare himself, he realized, to adjudicate the fate of more of the souls in his demesne, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that however terrible some of them might be, he had already seen the worst of them. And what had made his new horns sprout like that? Was it the logos of Sathanus asserting itself? But Sathanus had borne only two horns. No matter how much he learned about what was happening, still further questions arose.
The wild lightning music rose in volume as he followed the Baron through the dazzling entourage that had assembled in his front gardens. He was acutely aware of the stares of demons and mortal souls trapped in the endless party as he strode past them, his swinging nudity in contrast to the glittering costumes and bright accessories of the dancers. Several demons dared dance at Tuco’s side or in front of him, their gyrations rawly sexual and plainly inviting, hips swaying toward him, backs arched, rumps nudged against him, tails lifted. On all sides, hungry eyes lured him, tongues licked fangs, fingers beckoned hopefully.
Tuco’s everpresent lust reasserted itself, and the thoughts of dallying with each of them over and over, driving them into a full orgy of demonic satiation, nearly distracted him, but he kept his focus and followed the Baron back to an enormous purple pavilion tent that had been erected at the center of the procession. The Baron stepped inside the tent, and as Tuco followed, the thundering music outside dulled impossibly to a distant, quiet beat.
The pavilion was much larger inside than out, its ceiling reaching toward the stars, huge swaths of purple fabric arching down to drift airily above them. The floor of the pavilion was all cushions of various colors and sizes, piled here and there, but never revealing an inch of the grass beneath the tent. Graceful-legged tables protruded from the soft floor, bearing arrangements of spiced meats, exotic fruits, and pitchers of sweet-smelling wines. Even the air was different, delicately scented with a musky perfume that sent the tension from Tuco’s shoulders. He tried to put himself on guard for an ambush of some kind, for this was a Baron of the Abyss, and all of them wished for his souls, did they not? All the same, he felt at ease for the first time all night, in a way that did not seem to him false or artificially induced.
“Do you find my pavilion comfortable?” the Baron asked, pouring two goblets of wine from a pitcher and passing one to Tuco.
“I do,” Tuco admitted. “I wish I had one like it.”
“You could, you know, sweet thing. You can shape your demesne as you wish.”
“I am still unused to the idea that I can… just have anything that I want.” Tuco sniffed the wine. It could be poisoned, he supposed. He resolved not to drink it, just in case.
The Baron gave him a disappointed glance and drank deep from his own goblet. “It’s a very fine vintage, you know. But I suppose you must be cautious. Even with me. For now.”
“What do you mean, for now?”
Mammon rolled his narrow shoulders and then reached up to his collar and undid the clasp at his throat, removing the purple cloak from his costume. “I mean, Sir Tuco,” he continued, as he took off his jacket, revealing the gold sleeves of his shirt, “that intend to offer you my fealty.”
Tuco stared at him, uncomprehending. “You mean you want me to offer my—but you mean—you are going to—but you’re a Baron!”
Mammon chuckled, untying the laces of his gold shirt and revealing his slender, dark red chest. “Indeed, the fact had not escaped me. I would, of course, offer that fealty in trade for a night of seeing just what a handsome incubus like you has to offer.”
“You—you want me to…” Tuco faltered. “Why?”
“The incubus who made Asmodeus himself shoot his soul out through his own dick? Who wouldn’t want to try?”
“But why would a Baron of the Abyss swear fealty to a Knight?”
Mammon gave him a smile and a hooded gaze. “Let us just say that I see great things in you, Sir Tuco Witchywine, and I’ve always prided myself on picking the right side. Save for that first time, when the One Above flung us from the heavens. But a more important question, Tooky, is why any devil would say no when another offers to swear fealty to him.”
“Because there must be some deception, some… ambush.”
“Your caution will serve you well, but in this, I swear to you, there is no trick, no lie. Fealty cannot be guised or feigned. Though of course, you could suspect me of lying about that as well. Which is why I propose a deal. All know deals with devils must be followed to the letter.”
“Indeed. You spend two hours having sex with me, and I grant you my unwavering fealty. I will wear your brand with pride, and you shall become Baron. No tricks. No deceptions. And,” he added, looking over his shoulder, “I think if I can trust you not to devour my soul when you finish with me, you can trust me to try a little of the wine. It’s quite good, and shouldn’t go to waste.”
Bemused, Tuco took a delicate sip of the wine. In that sip, he could taste the hills of Rome, the heat of the sun, the splash of Mediterranean rains. The salt on the fingers of the vineyard hand who had plucked the grapes; the wood of the wine casks, the water that had washed the feet that had crushed the grapes. “It is good wine,” he said in surprise, his forked tongue catching the air.
“It is,” Baron Mammon answered with a smile. “Now are you going to help me undress, or not?” He pulled open his shirt to reveal the lean shelf of his pectorals, the flat lines of his dark red stomach descending into his purple breeches. His eyes drifted down to Tuco’s nude loins, and Tuco felt the erotic thrill of his shaft changing shape to meet the Baron’s desires: his two-foot long, spiked demon cock shrank down to something only about a foot long, pleasantly girthy, and smooth-skinned, looking human other than its still prodigious size and the dark red color that matched Tuco’s scales.
He looked up at the Baron in surprise. “It’s the first time I’ve been with someone who didn’t want me gigantic down there,” he said, and the aching firmness of his shaft jutting upward felt no less intense.
The Baron winked at him. “Take it from a devil of greed. Sometimes less is more. So do we have a deal?”
Tuco let his eyes travel up and down Mammon’s lean, athletic frame. “We have a deal.” He took another draught from his goblet, set it down, and strode over to Mammon, enjoying the way the Baron’s eyes widened in excitement, the way he had to look up to see Tuco’s face. Tuco helped him to shrug out of his shirt and stood close, his incubus lust surging to the forefront, making his cock drip with sudden and intense arousal, nearly poking Mammon in the chest.
“I still have these breeches on,” Mammon teased him, and in response, Tuco gripped the breeches and gold hose in his talons and tore them away, ripping them off the devil’s legs as though they were no more than cobwebs. Mammon gasped in surprise, his long, slender cock, spined as Tuco’s had been a moment ago, bobbing before him, already hard. His legs were strong-looking, well-muscled, probably from dancing, and his forked tail swayed excitedly behind him. Tuco reached down and gripped him, hefting him up by the thighs, and his tail twined around Mammon’s and began writhing of its own accord as though teasing a cock. Mammon’s tail squirmed in response, and the devil grinned up at Tuco over his chest. “Well, those two are already having fun,” he said. “Give me a taste of your incubus power. I want to feel its strength.”
Tuco gathered up the forces of lust within him. By now he had learned how to control them rather easily, though he could not always stop them from leaking out and affecting those around him on a constant low level. Now he gave Mammon a quick pulse of his power, enough to make the slender devil arch his back in his grip. With a cry, the devil bucked his hips, sending a little jet of his precome up to splash against his belly. A dazed grin spread across his face. “That was stronger than I—” he began, but Tuco didn’t let him finish, sending this time a much stronger pulse of his lust—still only a fraction of what he could manage, but enough to widen Mammon’s purple eyes as he jerked in Tuco’s grip as though struck by lightning. Once, twice, thrice his cock jolted before him, without being touched, and the tip fountained clear precome, coating his shaft.
Tuco’s long tongue slid from his jaws to curl around Mammon’s cock and clean the slippery fluids free. He found to his surprise that they were sweet, like honeysuckle, but at the touch of his tongue, the devil shuddered, and pushed weakly against Tuco’s chest. “Stop. Stop. I’m too close. I’ll come.”
“Already?” Tuco asked in surprise. “But never mind. I can always make you ready again.”
“I know, I know, but if I—if I climax,” Baron Mammon said, squeezing his dark-lashed eyes closed, “then I’ll have to fulfill my end of the bargain. And after that, it will be different. But now, right now… I am nobility being overwhelmed by his rough and brazen Knight. I want to enjoy that.”
“Then you shall not come,” Tuco told him. “Until I allow you. Is that clear?” And to his surprise, he found that the waves of lust in the Baron were his to master, that just as he could send arousal crashing through the greater devil, so too could he tie it off, like a knot around Mammon’s shaft. Mammon gave him an astonished stare and nodded jerkily.
“Good,” Tuco said, and he set Mammon down. Standing nude before Tuco, stripped of his fine clothes, it was apparent just how much Tuco loomed over him; the Baron was smaller in mass than one of Tuco’s arms, and standing before him put him right at nose-height with Tuco’s dripping tip. Mammon eyed that drooling helmet and licked his lips, so Tuco reached down with one hand, gripped Mammon’s short horns, and pulled his head toward him, allowing the devil lord to suckle hungrily at his tip for a moment, an action he rewarded with a hot faceful of precome. Mammon groaned and tugged at his shaft while licking at his own lips and chin.
Tuco lay back in the cushions, which were both soft and deep, and pulled Mammon down with him; the devil could sprawl across his broad chest with room to spare, and he set to licking and suckling at Tuco’s tip while Tuco leaned up and explored the devil’s thighs and rump with broad licks of his tongue. He bathed the two globes of Mammon’s well-muscled backside with hungry laps, and then buried his face in Mammon’s ass, his tongue writhing like a serpent as he pushed it through the Baron’s twitching ring and up into him, making him howl in shock and overwhelming pleasure—only to grip the Baron’s horns and shove his gasping mouth back down around Tuco’s own precome-fountaining cock.
He skewered Mammon from both ends, pushing his shaft deeper and deeper into the devil’s flexible throat even as he slid his serpentine tongue deeper into his backside, wriggling it further, and all the while wondering with an erotic thrill if he could actually meet in the middle, tasting his own cock from the other end. No fewer than four times, he felt Mammon’s orgasm rise, escalate, and slam against the pinnacles of his arousal in a desperate attempt to climax, only to be stymied by Tuco’s imposed limit on him. Mammon made frantic, choking groans around Tuco’s cock; he bucked his hips spasmodically; he tugged at his own shaft with both hands, and yet he could not climax. Tuco had managed absolute erotic control over him.
With gentleness, Tuco finally withdrew his tongue from within the Baron, pulling him free of his cock, and kissed him, tasting his own shaft on the Baron’s tongue. Mammon’s eyes rolled in overwhelmed arousal and he pawed feebly at Tuco’s chest. “More,” he moaned. “Give me more.”
And so Tuco gave him more. Holding the Baron above him, he slid his shaft into place between Mammon’s well-lubricated thighs, his cock splashing the exhausted devil with coats of precome. The devil’s tail wound around his shaft, giving insistent, needy tugs, and so Tuco pushed inside him, burying a few inches of his footlong shaft inside Mammon’s hot gut. Mammon panted, planting kisses across Tuco’s chest every time Tuco breathed in and those massive mountains rose, and each time, Tuco pushed a little deeper, until finally he was hilted all the way inside the Baron of Greed.
He wasn’t sure how long they rutted. He rode the Baron slow for a while, and then slammed into him, making him cry out in pleasure. He rolled over and drove Mammon into the cushions, atop him like a predator that had caught his prey; he stood and demonstrated his prowess by holding Mammon steady with one hand and driving into him with forceful thrusts; he clutched him to his chest with one powerful forearm and rutted him with short, insistent jolts of his hips alone.
“I’m ready. I’m ready to come,” the Baron finally told him. “Finish me, and I will complete our bargain.”
It was then that Tuco gave him a sharp-toothed grin. “No,” he said.
“But—but we had a deal!” Mammon stammered, eyes widening.
“Our deal was you would pledge your fealty after I satisfied you. I haven’t satisfied you yet.”
“So let me climax!” Mammon clenched his eyes shut, struggling as the waves of orgasm rose within him again, only to meet the wall of Tuco’s control over him. “Please!”
Tuco’s grin widened. “Pledge your fealty to me now. Then I will let you come.”
The Baron drew in a shuddering, amazed gasp. “I… I knew I was right about you,” he managed through his panting. He tugged at his shaft again, trying to coax the eruption from it, but it would not come. “I won’t let you win that easily though.”
“You can always get up and leave,” Tuco teased him, easing back into a slow, rocking rhythm.
“I—I will!” Baron Mammon vowed. He started to pull forward, sliding up from around Tuco’s shaft, and then groaned, shuddering at another intense wave of need, and pushed himself down harder. “I can’t. Just… just honor the agreement. Let me come, and I swear to you I will pledge fealty.”
“No.” Tuco flexed his cock inside Mammon, making the devil yelp and shudder.
Again Mammon tugged at his shaft, using his hand and his tail, and again he failed. Tears of frustration brimmed in his eyes.. “But—but I—” He clenched his pointed teeth, groaning again, panting. He rubbed the tears from his eyes and left a smear of his own precome across his nose. He panted a few more times, and then gave in, desperate resignation dimming his eyes. “As you… as you command. I, Baron Mammon, vow—aggh!” He broke off, gasping in pleasure as Tuco gave another mischievous flex inside him. “—vow to faithfully obey Tuco Witchywine. To him I grant my title of Baron of the Abyss, and all rights, privileges, powers, and responsibilities thereby accorded, from here and unto eternity, and I pledge my fealty, now and forever.”
He clutched at Tuco’s arms, shuddering in withheld pleasure. “Satisfied?” As he stared up at Tuco, the mark appeared on the inside of his right arm: three circles enclosed in a larger one, blazing with crimson light as it burned its way into his wrist. The sign was unmistakable: he belonged to Tuco now.
Tuco grinned. “Not quite.” And then he sent out the most powerful surge of erotic pleasure he could muster, letting it grow like a rising wave before releasing it to crash against Mammon’s being, the force of the blast so intense it blew out the sides of the tent, lifting them as though in a high wind. Mammon’s eyes rolled back in his head as arousal roared through his body. He arched his back hard, his thin tail lashing wildly, his erection straining toward the sky, looking as though it might split… and then Tuco released him. He came like a fountain, sending forceful arcs of devil come flying toward the high ceiling of the tent, his clawed hands clutching at the cushions. It looked almost painful, and it kept going, past eight spasms of climax, past ten.
Tuco considered he might have pushed things a little too far; a chorus of roars and moans echoed from outside the pavilion. His own climax took him, and he joined their roars with his own, pouring his infernal seed into Mammon as the smaller devil twitched and jerked around him as though possessed. After a full twenty arcs of seed, Mammon lay back, panting, the whites showing around his purple eyes, the dark liner smeared with his tears, and then his panting began accelerating, and another orgasm rose within him and overtook him, his straining cock dribbling what was left of his seed as he stabbed it at the sky. For nearly as long the first time, he rode out the waves of pleasure and then finally, woozily, lay back and relaxed.
Tuco was pulling steadily out of him when the third climax washed over him, and at that one, Mammon seemed to pass out, his eyes closing, body slumping back into the come-spattered cushions. Even unconscious, his shaft continued to jerk as his orgasm continued.
I hope this isn’t permanent, Tuco worried as he gently pulled himself out of the climaxing devil. He arranged some of the dryer cushions around the Baron’s—no, around his vassal’s—twitching body and walked toward the tent entrance, leaving him there to ride out the waves of ecstasy.
I’m nobility now, he thought to himself in amazement. A Baron of the Abyss. I wonder if this is going to make things easier or even more complicated. He stepped through the entrance to the tent.
The music had stopped, for no one was left standing to play it. The once-Baron’s entire entourage lay sprawled across the gardens, lost in erotic fervor. Some stroked themselves, some were engaged in autofellatio, and others were locked in sexual bliss with each other, humping into the bushes or up against walls or in large, writhing piles of demons and damned souls. The sounds of moans, cries, bellows, whimpers, and roars came from every direction, punctuated by the guttural bleats of mating sheep out in the hills. I wonder how far this goes, Tuco thought uneasily as he headed inside, passing Hob rather vigorously face-fucking a gargoyle on the eaves above him. Inside, his demonic staff had stripped from their clothing and were engaged in a long, sexual chain of carnality.
“Yes… Lord Witchywine…” panted Peeves, who was planted hips-deep in the head cook. “What can I… do for you…?”
“Er, nothing.” Tuco stepped past the contorting bodies of his staff and headed up the stairs. He found the door leading to the balcony and stood out on the walls of his new manor house, staring out over the countryside. Baron Witchywine. That was who he was now. He had defeated—or rather, won over—the Baron of Greed without any conflict at all. He recognized that the entire encounter had been a series of tests of some kind, and he had passed them, though what the Baron—what Mammon—had been looking for in him, he couldn’t quite fathom. Nonetheless, he had won, and next, he supposed some devil representing the Temptation of Belonging would be coming after him.
That was worrying, he thought, as he looked out over his grounds, across the masses of demons and damned souls writhing around in the sexual ecstasy he had caused. If there was one temptation he felt weak toward, surely it was that one. Even as a boy, he had never felt in-step with his family, with the other people in his village. Coming to Abyssus Abbey, he had felt an outsider the entire time, and what happened to him had certainly not helped things. Now he was an aberration: a human soul in the body of a devil, ruling over a demesne in the Abyss and hunted by other devils. How wonderful belonging must be—how soothing to know you were in your place, that others wanted you there. But the farther he ascended through the peerage of devilry, the more out-of-place he became. He would have to be on his guard.
After a time, the sexual revelries began to subside, as the powerful blast of arousal he’d flattened everyone with finally began to ebb, and demons and souls alike collapsed in exhaustion around his manor. Even insects in the air dropped to the ground, worn out by their mating frenzy. Uncomfortably, Tuco wondered if the effects of his lust bomb had spread beyond the limits of his demesne, and if so, how far. He had no idea how powerful he had become after assuming the mantle of Baron. He shook his head, feeling the odd weight of his new horns, and went back inside. Sleep did not come naturally in the Abyss, but Tuco found one of his many bedrooms—it, just like all the others, shaped perfectly to comfort and soothe him—lay down on one of the beds, and willed unconsciousness upon himself.
He awoke to a gentle tapping at his door and rolled to his feet. “Yes, come in,” he said.
Peeves opened the door, bearing a tray with a little scrap of parchment on it. If the rigors of the night before had left him any worse for the wear, he showed no sign of it. “A message from Sir Mammon, My Lord,” he said, bowing low.
Tuco noted the change in address both for himself and the once-Baron. “Read it for me?” he suggested, as he turned to a heavy wardrobe and opened it to find clothes well-suited for him. He withdrew a fine outfit of black, pale blue, and gold that seemed to match well the colors of his scales, and frowned, trying to discern how it was meant to be donned.
“Certainly, My Lord,” Peeves answered, and made a little gesture with one hand. As he did so, several imps of various colors fluttered into the room, gently withdrew the clothing from Tuco’s claws, and began wrapping it around him with startling speed and efficiency. Peeves cleared his throat. “My Ascendant Lord Baron Tuco Witchywine, please do accept my humblest apologies for vacating during your absence, but urgent matters called me elsewhere. I hope that the gifts I have brought you satisfy, though after your performance the previous evening I find myself wondering if anything could sate so magnificent a desire. Forgive me if I do not reflect too directly on it, for even the memory can induce recurrences. It is an honor to have been graced with such an enduring reminder of your power. In the days to come, as you face additional trials and responsibilities, I am glad to know that you will remember me as your servant, one whose eyes were open, and who bent the knee to you, if not willingly in the moment, at least gladly. I am always available to guide you in the ways of wealth, and counsel you to remember always what true wealth is, and what it is for. Yours, Sir Mammon Dis Pater, Knight of Greed.”
Peeves looked up. “That is all that is written, My Lord.”
“What a peculiar message,” Tuco said, shrugging his shoulders in the clothes he had selected. It was a perfect fit, the fabric cunningly woven to move easily around his enormous bulk and the spikes erupting from his shoulders and knees, while permitting his tail free movement. He had no boots or shoes, but scarcely felt he needed them, as no rough surface could cause discomfort to his thick-scaled feet, and finding shoes that would allow his taloned toes to move comfortably would have been nigh-impossible. The fit and colors suited him handsomely, giving him a regal bearing while not diminishing the power of his frame: his chest pushed open his shirt to no small degree, and rolling his shoulders pulled it open farther, creating the impression that if he wished to, he could shrug out of his clothing at a moment’s notice. “I wonder what he meant by all that bit about wealth at the end.”
“I couldn’t say, My Lord,” Peeves answered, keeping his eyes lowered.
“Master! Master!” that was Hob’s voice, squeaking in the hallway.
“Yes, what is it, Hob?”
The ink-black imp fluttered into the room, darting about Tuco’s head. “Master must come and see! So terrible it is! Such treachery!”
“Treachery?” Tuco asked, alarmed. “What are you talking about?”
“Come quickly, master!”
Tuco followed the frantic Hob through the house to the stairway and down past the wine cellar into the cool, dark vaults beneath the manor. There he stopped and stared. The enormous hoard belonging to Sathanus—the uncountable wealth of ages that the Prince of Vengeance had looted from the mortal world, all the gold, the gems, the art, everything, was gone.
“Robbed!” Hob moaned, beating at his head with his little fists. “Master has been robbed! Such treachery!”
Tuco gazed out over the enormous cavern that had once been filled with immeasurable treasure. Nothing remained: not a coin, not a jewel. All that was left was stones. High standing stones that had once been buried beneath the wealth of ages. Limbostones.
“It’s all right, Hob,” he said, reaching up to grip the little imp in one hand.
Hob calmed down steadily in his fist, his tiny chest heaving. “But—but master, the wicked devil tricked you and stole from you.”
“No,” Tuco answered. “He gave me something. A reminder. Look out there. What would we do with money and gems? What could we buy? My demesne can be whatever I need it to be. Think about it. I was tearing myself up with worry over what I would do with all those riches, how I could possibly use it to help other people and not hurt them. I don’t know how to do any of that. Mammon does.” He stared out across the endless array of limbostones, stored by Sathanus through ages upon ages, once buried beneath a mountain of gold. “Wealth isn’t meant to be hoarded. That’s what he wanted me to understand. And I’m one of the richest devils in the Abyss.”
He squared his shoulders. “But we will have to think about what to do later. It’s time we headed back to the Abbey. Pike and the others will be worried about us. We need to look in on them. We need to free the innocent people who are trapped in the prison of the Throat. And we need to stop Brother Gabriel from hurting anyone else. And we’re almost certain to have another devil coming after me soon, so we need to act as quickly as we can. It will be dangerous, but I’m not just some frightened human apprentice any longer. I’m a damned Baron of the Abyss. I can face what’s coming. Now. Hob. How do we leave the Abyss and get back to the mortal world?”
The little imp fluttered back and forth anxiously. “Erm, about that, master. There is a way back to the mortal world, but it isn’t easy. Of course, it would be a lot simpler if you had—” He trailed off, his eyes widening, tilting his head back.
Tuco frowned. “What’s wrong, Hob? What is it now?” He followed the imp’s gaze upward and saw, to his mystification and horror, what looked like a hole being torn in the world above him. Behind it there was nothing. Not blackness, not emptiness, but nothing—a mind-wrenching spot of absence of sensation, of blindness, a rip in existence. “What in blazes is that?” he breathed in astonishment.
“Master, Hob fears that you are being s—”
The imp’s voice was cut off, and so was everything else. Tuco stumbled. There was an odd pressure on his ears, and then he was somewhere else.
He stood in a stone room, lit on every side by long, black candles burning with an eerie red flame. He tasted the air and to his surprise and joy knew immediately where he was: he was back in the Abbey! The scent was by now as familiar and reassuring as that of his own bed at home. Ahead of him was a door leading out to one of the corridors. He took an eager step forward, and something unyielding struck his nose, sending him staggering back.
Baffled, he reached out a hand, and his scaled fingertips slid against something solid and invisible. He pressed against it and found it unmoving. “What—what is this?” he growled aloud. He looked down at his feet and saw markings on the floor: the sigils and symbols of a summoning and binding circle. A sudden, dread feeling washed over him. He turned, lashing his tail, and saw a short, nervous-looking Brother, dressed in the brown robes of the Abbey, swinging a censer that emitted a smoke that stank of blood and onions.
“A—avaunt, devil!” the monk cried in a thin, reedy voice. He lifted a crucifix in his right hand, thrusting it toward Tuco. “Satanus, abjuro ego te! You have been summoned and bound by me, and I have questions and demands to make of thee!”
“What are you doing?” Tuco snapped, rolling his eyes. He reached for the impudent little monk, and again his hand struck an invisible wall, one outlined by the circles in the room. An apprentice cowered in his robes behind the monk.
“Abjuro ego te!” the monk cried again, holding his crucifix closer to Tuco. “Do not attempt to deceive me with your devil’s tongue. I have summoned you, Sathanus, and you are my prisoner.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Tuco muttered. He tried to raise his voice and hiss a lie to this silly little man: “You want to sssend me home right now.” But his tongue cleft to the roof of his mouth. He stumbled back, his tail striking the edge of the circle behind him. He was trapped, and he could not speak.
He was back in Abyssus Abbey, but they thought he was Sathanus. He was trapped, bound by the magic of summoning and binding, completely in the power of the Brothers.
“Now,” the little monk said, a smile spreading across his acne-pocked face, “about my demands.”
Tuco glared through the invisible wall of the summoning circle at the Brother who’d captured him. The little monk was scarcely two-thirds Tuco’s height, and less than a fifth his size, and Tuco was strapped with muscle, fangs, horns, and spikes, but far from being cowed, the little man was practically giggling with glee.
“Let me out of here!” Tuco roared, slamming both fists against the wall. He could no more budge it than his old self could have moved a wall of stone.
The Brother was not cowed, however. He rubbed at his chin as though stroking a non-existent beard. “Hmm, let Sathanus out… Let the Prince of Darkness out of the spiritual prison that is the only thing keeping him from tearing his way into our world, killing me, and wreaking havoc with the lives of men… No, I think I’ll keep you safely in the binding circle where you belong.”
Tuco’s tail lashed in irritation, thumping against the far side of the circle. “Listen to me. I don’t know how you managed this, but I’m not Sathanus. And you’re lucky I’m not, too. The last Brother who summoned him got eaten.”
The little monk’s eyes narrowed. “I ordered you not to lie. You ought to be compelled to obey.”
“I’m not lying! I’m really not Sathanus!”
The Brother stalked up to the edge of the circle, an aged and greying piece of parchment in his hand. “Then explain to me, demon—”
“Devil,” Tuco corrected him automatically.
“Devil, then. Explain to me why this summoning spell that names you as Sathanus conjured you up in my circle!” And he held the parchment aloft, near the border of the enchantment, but not so close as to risk crossing it.
Tuco peered at the page. He still could read only with difficulty, and his Latin was almost non-existent, but buried among the Latin words were two that stood out: TVCO VITSIVAENVS. A prickle ran down his back. Tuco Witchywine. The parchment was greying and aged, the ink faded and flaking. How could his name be written on a page that must be centuries old?
“Well, demon? Explain it!”
“I—I cannot,” Tuco admitted, mystified.
A smirk spread across the monk’s face as he lowered his arm. “Then Sathanus you must be, and answer my demands you shall.”
“We’ll see,” Tuco muttered. “Who else knows you’ve summoned me?” He glanced across the room and only then noticed the hunched figure of an apprentice cowering against the back wall, hiding his face. A flicker of Tuco’s tongue brought him the scent of Hhalbor, but he hardly needed the scent to know him; the young man’s jutting antlers and spiny body were immediately recognizable. Tuco felt a sudden moment of disorientation as he remembered his first summoning here, when Brother Melvin had summoned Sathanus and Tuco had been the terrified apprentice reading the incantation. He remembered all too well his own fear, and he could taste it coming in waves off of Hhalbor.
The Brother who had summoned him seemed to have no fear, however; all Tuco could taste off of him was excitement and desire, desire to be elevated above his fellows, to have their respect and admiration. The Ninth Temptation: The Temptation of Position.
“You do not ask questions of me,” the Brother sneered. “You are my servant now, and you answer my questions. First: when is the Apocalypse due to occur?”
“I don’t know. No one does but the One Above.”
“Yes, so it says in the Scriptures. But you are the Prince of Darkness, surely you rally your forces in preparation.”
“No,” Tuco said wearily. “In point of fact I have recently unrallied them.”
The monk scowled in suspicion. “I command you to tell me when the Apocalypse is coming.”
Tuco felt as though he had been gripped by the air itself, frozen as his mind sifted through his thoughts. Then his tongue spoke of its own accord: “I cannot, for I know it not.”
“Then, Sathanus, tell me what we must do to prevent the Apocalypse from occurring.”
Tuco tried to tell him he didn’t know that either, but again his tongue spoke without his bidding: “Four signs of the Apocalypse there are, and four seals: The Guardian Blinded, The Warden Slain, The Seraph Corrupted, The Beast Ascended. When all signs have passed, and all seals have been broken, then the gates of the Abyss will open, and devils will walk the earth. Prevent any of the signs, and you prevent the Apocalypse.”
“Yes, yes, I know about the seals,” snapped the Brother irritably. “How do I prevent the signs from occurring?”
“The Guardian has been blinded already,” Tuco’s mouth answered. “Guard the Warden, protect the Seraph, or slay the Beast, and the Apocalypse will not come to pass.”
“And the Warden?” the Brother asked. “Where is he?”
“The nature of this sign has not been revealed to me. I cannot answer.”
“The Seraph. An angel, I suppose? How might one be corrupted?”
Tuco thought uncomfortably of his dreams, of using his incubus powers to seduce the hosts of heaven. “Temptation from a devil of high order. Or from a righteous man.”
The Brother scowled. “Not terribly helpful answers.”
Tuco snorted. “Thought you that averting the end of the world ordained by the Almighty Himself would be easy? Your Brethren have studied here for centuries seeking answers, and you thought with a stolen ritual and a devil-may-care attitude you’d find that which eludes even the angels in Paradise? Perhaps you will take up your butter knife and slay the Beast yourself.” The words seem to boil out of him; they were his own, but they felt ancient, and blazed with an outrage that surprised him. “I can taste your soul from here, human. I know your petty hunger. You long to be greater than the other monks. You fancy yourself their leader. In your heart you wish them to admire you, look up to you, even revere you.”
“And why shouldn’t they?” the Brother snapped. “I’m far more intelligent than most of them, you know. I studied at university before I came here. I can read and write eleven languages. I’ve traveled across the sea and seen foreign ports. I know mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and they—they laugh at me, and call me Pockface, and have never once allowed me the chance to perform my own summonings. Well, now I have showed them all up! I’ve summoned the Prince of Darkness himself, and bound him, and forced answers from his forkéd tongue. And now, before I banish him back to the Pit from whence he crawled, he will raise me above them. Sathanus, slave to my command, I bid you make me greater than all of them!”
Tuco sighed inwardly. How could these Brothers not know what the demonic influences here could do? This one didn’t seem to realize that if he wanted to change, all he need do was allow himself to be tempted by a nearby demon; surely that was enough. Tuco waited for the change to come over the Brother of its own accord, but instead found himself gripped by that invisible force again. A terrible feeling came over him. It was as though a ghostly hand—not cold, not chilling, simply a power—reached into his chest and then deeper still, into the voidsea within him where the millions of lights of his soul-hoard floated.
What are you doing? The words went unspoken, and he was helpless to stop the hand as it dipped down into the sea and collected lights, no, souls within it. Three or four of them were caught in the invisible power, and as Tuco gazed at them he could see their whole lives: a fisherman, a local governor, a scholar, a housemaid. All their little crimes of desire twinkled within them, and then their lights dimmed as the force stole its power from them. They were not destroyed, but they were certainly reduced, dropped by the invisible hand to float within the voidsea once more, confused and lost, missing parts of themselves.
Tuco had been told that devils fueled their magic through souls, but he had not imagined that the souls could be drained in the process. And now this snivelling monk had taken his souls and used them as kindling for some petty desire. Tuco bared his fangs, fury filling him, but still he was caught in the grip of the invocation. He felt the power flowing through him, through his arms and fingers. Desire could change a man, certainly, but this was something different. Tuco stretched out his claws unwillingly and wove a new shape for the Brother, forcing it on him without consideration for his desire.
Almost immediately, the monk began to grow, his cowled head rising. “Yes,” he breathed in excitement, and began to laugh, his voice deepening as he did so. “Yes!” His robes lifted off the floor, exposing a pair of pale, skinny legs, but these were already thickening with muscle. The monk pushed his cowl off his head, baring a balding pate that was beginning to sprout new hair. His robes spread as his chest barreled beneath them, meaty pectorals pushing the brown cloth apart. “I will be a champion among them. A demigod. They will look upon me and see the one who did what none of them could: summon the archfiend himself!” He looked up at Tuco, his milky-eyed gaze gone clear and brilliant green, and gasped. “My eyes! Is this truly how others see the world, in such sharp edges? I never even knew.” His pitted, pocked face was beginning to smooth, as it seemed years fell away from him. As he grew past six feet in height, he found his robes too constricting, and tried to shrug out of them, but already his shoulders and arms proved too girthy to remove from the sleeves. Laughing, he lifted both arms and flexed, hunching his back, and the brown fabric tore away from him.
He lifted his hand and ran fingers through the thick, curling black hair sprouting from his scalp, then ran them in wonder down his still-growing body. He was already an Adonis, distractingly handsome, but there was an odd coldness to his beauty. He did not seem natural or real, for unlike everyone else who had been reshaped around Tuco, his form did not come from his own desire, but from seized power, and this had molded him from the outside instead of in. He was handsome and impressive, but as a statue might be, not as a living person.
Such distinctions, if he noticed them, did not seem to bother him, however. He looked down at his undergarments and, with no thoughts for modesty, tore them away. “Yes!” he said through his delighted laughter. “Oh yes, finally.” Between his legs swung a pendulous, thick cock, perhaps a foot in length, propped outward by a prodigious set of balls that might well have flattered a horse. “No more mockery!” he crowed. “No more Pelly Littledick, no more Pockface. Now they will learn to respect and admire Pellinore, master summoner!”
His growth finally ebbed, leaving him standing over eight feet in height, and more powerfully muscled than any human Tuco had ever seen—unless he counted himself. Pellinore flexed both arms before him and watched the snakelike veins bulge under the skin. “Oh, well done, Sathanus, well done. I feel as though I could tear a city down with my bare hands. I could fight off an entire army with one fist. I want to go out and conquer the world. I will not be tempted by evil desires, no. I will use this strength to thrash only the wickedest of men; I will grant the gift of my cock only to the women who earn my love.”
He furrowed his brow. “But how am I to travel? Must I be mercenary with my power, serving as a sellsword or a cocksmith? No, it is indecent to suggest. Sathanus, another demand I make of you. Talents, skills, abilities. I want them.”
“Which talents, skills and abilities?” Tuco asked uneasily.
Brother Pellinore ran his fingers through his shoulder-length mane of black hair and smiled. “All of them.”
Again, Tuco felt seized by that power. It did not feel like it came from Brother Pellinore, or indeed from himself. It lacked that radiance he’d expect from a celestial source, and it lacked the insidious seduction of the Abyss. The forces that moved him felt like walls, like the boundaries of all creation forced him to act. Some kind of immutable law, as undeniable as the fact of heat from fire, or the downhill flow of water, forced him to surrender his souls as power to fuel Brother Pellinore’s wishes. Again, that ghostly hand dipped into his voidsea to harvest the lights of the souls within his demesne as fuel for the monk’s perverse demand. Soul-lights were drawn to its grasp—one of them Henley, the woman he’d changed into a willow tree.
Not her! he cried in desperation into the void. She was nearly innocent; she did not deserve to have her light harvested by this selfish, grasping monk. To his surprise, the force moved away from her light, toward others.
So, he thought, I can control it somewhat. Hurriedly, he focused within himself, trying to find the most vile, abusive souls within him, those that deserved neither peace nor continued existence, because they had denied such to others in life. This one, he thought emphatically over the soul of a serial rapist. Instantly the power moved toward him and pulled that soul up and away from his trove. He raced to find another, a child abuser. This! That soul too, drawn up into the power. Several more lights he selected: a greedy patron who stole works of art from sculptors and left them to die of starvation; a slaver who worked dozens to death beneath the whips of his overseers; a farmhand who tortured his livestock for his own amusement.
All these souls were drawn up into the power that fueled Brother Pellinore’s wishes, and when their lights dimmed, Tuco was not sorry. He would prefer not to decide who was punished and who was not, but if he must make the choice, then at least here it was easy. Tuco had no idea how to use this power to answer Brother Pellinore’s command, but beyond his ken some infernal sense took all of it and twisted it, surging it into the monk’s body, and his powerful back arched, his eyes lighting with an internal glow as the secrets of every craft and skill unraveled themselves for him.
“Herbalism,” he muttered as if to himself. “I know the secrets of medicine now, and the names of every plant. Metallurgy, the secrets of tempering iron and bronze, of beating them on the anvil. Carpentry, music, algebra!” He turned rapturous, glowing eyes toward the ceiling. “All the mysteries of the world unfold themselves before my mind! And my hands—what can they not accomplish now? Look!” The monk crouched and took from his summoning kit a handful of knives. One by one, he tossed them up in the air and caught them, sending them spinning back and forth in a dizzying pattern, from one hand to the next. “I can juggle as well as any acrobat. These fingers could strum a lyre and bring forth such melodies as would make the Muses weep. I could defeat the champions of the world at tennis.” And then he hurled the knives he was juggling across the room, one by one, just past poor cringing Hhalbor, to embed the first perfectly centered in the doorframe, and each subsequent point in the haft of the prior. The chain of knives quivered for a moment, then clattered to the floor. “Or darts.”
Brother Pellinore grinned a coldly perfect grin at Tuco. “Or even swordplay, or warfare. What an astounding command I have given you, devil. Other foolish summoners have asked for a single gift—that of skill with painting, or the secrets of alchemy, or woo-making. Small-minded, simple creatures! For in one masterful stroke, I have surpassed them all! No endeavor on Earth can defeat me now.”
“Nor challenge you,” Tuco answered thoughtfully. “What is the point of doing anything if it comes so easily as to take no effort?”
“To best the other man, of course. To be better and greater than them all.”
“And yet it has cost you your soul.”
The monk curled a handsome lip in a sneer. “I made no such bargain. You did not demand my soul before obeying my commands.”
“And yet your soul was mine, the moment you summoned me,” Tuco said quietly. “That is always the cost. Search your mind. You are now the greatest summoner in the world; you will know the truth of what I say.”
“That—that—” Brother Pellinore made a little strangling noise in his throat. “But no, the monks would have told us. They would never have formed this monastery to—”
“A sacrifice. That must have been how it started,” Tuco said, feeling certain of the words as he spoke them. “Holy men giving up their souls in order to save the souls of others. What more noble sacrifice could there be? To surrender eternity to save paradise for many?”
The monk narrowed his dark eyes. “A queer perspective for a devil to affirm. And yet your claim shakes me. If my soul indeed belongs to you, then I deny it to you forever. For my next command, I want you to make me—”
“Wait!” Tuco shouted—and it came out as a roar, one that shook the stones of the room and made even Brother Pellinore falter. “Do not wish never to die. Have you no sense at all?”
The monk swiftly erased his shock with a supercilious smirk. “Of course you would advise me not to, for then you will never claim me.”
“And you will suffer an eternity worse than any I would devise for you in my demesne,” Tuco answered. “One lifetime with no challenges to keep you from boredom is one thing, but a thousand lifetimes? You’d go mad.”
The monk scoffed. “Hardly.”
“And what of beyond that? What of when this world, as must all worlds, end? You will not end with it. You’ll be doomed to wander a wasteland alone, the only man undying. What will you eat when the crops are gone? How will you protect yourself from the sun and the snow when the plants die away? What of the earth wreathed in fire, or drowned in blood? What will you suffer endlessly in the Apocalypse, and beyond that, when nothing remains but you, lost in the darkness that falls upon the surface of the deeps?”
Brother Pellinore’s ivory face went even paler. “Perhaps, indeed, I ought to rethink such a wish. I am thinking too big, too soon. Why, with the skills you have instilled upon me, I shall soon have the world at my feet, but why hasten my victory and have it over so quickly? No, as you said, the challenges of the world will soon grow old to me. I ought to savor every moment of them. Dominion over the countries of the world can wait.” His dark eyes glittered. “For now, I will master this abbey. Those who mocked and dismissed me shall soon regret their errors. They will be at council now. Come, fiend. Let us show them what I have made of myself.”
Tuco pressed himself up against the invisible wall of the binding circle. “I cannot follow. You have bound me.”
The monk cast a scornful look in his direction. “I command thee, fiend, to draw thy binding within twelve cubits of me at all times, as is your explicit capability.” With that, he turned and stalked out of the room.
Tuco stared after him for a couple astonished moments before, all on its own, the circle encasing him began to move toward the wall. The monk had already started walking down the hall, away from the entrance to the room. He’d waited too long! “Hey Hhalbor,” he managed, as he made a dash toward the door past the shocked-looking apprentice.
The circle moved with him, but only in an arc, still dragging Tuco closer and closer to the wall. There was no way he was going to be able to reach the door. He growled a curse under his breath for Brother Pellinore, but after all, why should a holy monk worry about the well-being of a devil he’d summoned? He braced his hands against the edge of the circle, trying to push it back—perhaps the thing worked both ways, and he could stop the monk’s progress. His toe claws dug into the floor, tearing furrows into the stone as the moving circle dragged him backward. He had just time to look up into Hhalbor’s astonished face as the circle squeezed him up against the wall, the stones pressing against his muscled body tighter and tighter.
“Tuco?” Hhalbor breathed, his quills bristling, and then Tuco burst through the stone wall into the corridor beyond, masonry raining down around him. It hadn’t hurt; he’d barely even felt the pressure of the stone, and now he slid backward down the corridor, staring at the giant hole he’d left in the wall of the abbey.
He turned, tail whipping, and bounded after Brother Pellinore, who gave him a withering stare. “Do try and keep up. It will be your task to repair the wall before I am finished with you.” Tuco had no choice but to lumber after Pellinore, and if the monk noticed that the visages of the Gasen glaring above each archway never shifted, never uttered a scream, he said nothing. Before rounding the corner, Tuco cast one glance over his shoulder and saw Hhalbor’s antlered head watching him from the hole in the crumbling wall of the summoning room.
They proceeded through the central cloister to the monk quarters. Other apprentices, spotting them, darted into rooms, and Tuco could taste the acrid flavor of fear on the air. He couldn’t blame them; once, he’d have run too, seeing a tall, naked monk striding through the cloisters with a giant, circle-bound devil on his leash. Down into the residential cloister Brother Pellinore strode; in his haste, Tuco struck his head on a transom and his horns tore gouges out of the wood there, but his captor did not even look around. He stalked up to a pair of polished cherry wood doors that Tuco had never looked behind, and dramatically flung them open. The baritone hubbub of scholarly chatter died as, nude, Brother Pellinore stepped into the room and called, “Brothers!”
Tuco paused just outside the door—if he didn’t have to reveal himself to all of the Brothers of the Abbey, he wouldn’t. He realized that some part of him was still thinking that this would all end somehow, and that eventually he’d be back studying summoning and taking scholarly lessons with his friends, that everything that had happened: his changes, the devils hunting him, the threat of the Apocalypse, were all just bumps in the road toward his having a normal life. He was still trying to hold onto it. Brother Pellinore was just one man, and he was clearly mad. Whether his ambitions took him beyond the walls of Abyssus Abbey or elsewhere, his days were surely numbered. And none else had seen Tuco but Hhalbor, at a distance. But if Tuco entered that room, and all the monks saw him, a devil, bound in a circle and summoned by one of their own, there would be no chance of ever returning to his life in the Abbey.
“Who the devil are you?” a voice from the room demanded, as general murmuring rose again. “Are you some errant apprentice? Where are your clothes, man? And how did you get in here?”
“No, don’t you see? Look at his face!” another cried. “It’s Brother Pellinore!”
Exclamations rose from around the room. “Pellinore? No! It can’t be!”
“Well what in God’s name happened to you, fellow?” the first voice said again. “Have you fallen prey to some demon?”
Brother Pellinore’s golden voice rang out in the room, tolling through the cries and exclamations. “Yes, indeed it is I, Brother Pellinore. He whom you scorned and set aside. He whom you denied right of access to ritual and supplies, claiming that I needed more prayer, more study, a more wholesome and scholarly attitude. You, Brother Fastidium, with your scorpion claws and hunchback. You, Brother Sackworth, with two noses and a filthy trail of slime. All of you who have fallen to temptation time and time again, you dared to judge me? And yet it is not I who have fallen prey to a demon, but a demon who has fallen prey to me. Nay, no demon, but a devil. And not just any devil, but the Prince of Darkness himself, the dread Sathanus.”
A loud outcry of protests, horror and disbelief mixed, echoed from the stones of the corridor. Tuco pressed himself up against the wall and took slow breaths. It wasn’t over. Anything could happen now. Brother Pellinore could be censured, or—or forcibly expelled somehow. Desperately, he sent out a fierce pulse of lust, hoping to distract or overwhelm everyone, but he felt his power crash like a wave against the edge of the circle and ebb. Bound like this, inside the sigils and spells that enclosed him, he was helpless. He could not even extend the toe of one claw beyond the edge of the runic circle that followed him, flowing over the stone floor of the abbey like light cast through stained glass.
“Yes, my brethren, I dared what you did not; I summoned the Enemy. I found the ritual, I gathered the ingredients, I studied the incantations, and succeeded where everyone else failed. Bound within my circle, he is not so fearsome as one might expect—more a frightened child than a bogeyman. From him I have gained knowledge and ability, and more will I garner. I will stride through history with his power at my beck and call; I will rip the secrets of the Apocalypse from his tattered soul, and use his power to turn all the armies of the world against the forces of Hell. It is I who will stop the end of the world now, and when the Almighty sees my service to Him, He will draw me to his side, and redeem my soul from any tarnish it may have accrued. I did this, Brothers. The one you mocked and sneered at. Me, Brother Pellinore. What say you now to this?”
For a long moment there was only shocked silence. Then, an elderly voice: “You’re mad!”
Brother Pellinore sneered, “Think you that I have not accomplished what I claim?”
“It is plain that you have not,” a deeper voice answered. “For already you have been corrupted. Listen to yourself! Your voice rings with spite and vanity. Surely you must have contacted a devil, for the Twelve Temptations cry out from your voice, and your body has become something… dreadful.”
“But not, I think, Sathanus,” the older voice put in. “Had you truly called up the Prince of Darkness, the Abbey would be crashing around our ears, and the skies raining blood.”
“So certain are you? Then behold! See for yourselves that I, Pellinore, have surpassed all of you! Come forth, Sathanus, and reveal thyself to these unbelievers!”
Well, this was his cue, then. Not waiting for any arcane force to propel him, Tuco stepped into the room, his head crashing into the transom again and taking a huge chunk out of the wood. Embarrassed, he kept looking downward, worried that some of the Brothers might recognize his face or build from classes or Masses. He was abruptly grateful he’d taken the time to clothe himself in his demesne before having been summoned into a room filled with holy men. Shocked gasps echoed around the room.
“Hello,” Tuco said, waving a hand, the thundering timbre of his voice somewhat offset by the meekness of his tone.
There was a long pause, broken only by the clearing of throats and the shuffling of sandaled feet. “You there.” The elderly voice from before finally broke the silence. “Devil, if so you be. Do you claim to be Prince Sathanus, the Lord of Darkness?”
“No,” Tuco boomed.
A series of chuckles passed among the gathered Brethren. “He says he isn’t the Prince of Evil, Pelly,” someone called.
“You’ve been hoodwinked!”
“Tricked by a devil!”
“And what be thy name, Fiend?” the elderly voice asked.
Tuco panicked, casting about for a name to tell them, but Pellinore had bound him to speak no lies. He shook his head.
“Come now, vile creature. Give us your name. Pellinore, compel him to tell us.”
But Pellinore’s alabaster face had gone red with fury. “He is Sathanus as I told you! As is proven by my perfected body! I master all skills in the world! Would you have me sing to you? Perform algebra, the science of manipulating numbers? Perhaps I shall paint a fresco worthy of Michelangelo, or perform tumbles for you better than any court jester! Would that finally amuse and please you, Brothers? Or perhaps I shall manipulate the Empress to imprison you, or,” and now his voice had become an infuriated roar, “perhaps I shall lead an army against you, and all this Abbey, and tear its stones down around your ears!”
“That’s quite enough, Brother Pellinore,” the elderly monk said, in sad and gentle tones. “Well you know that the stones of this Abbey have been layered with endless enchantments of protection against the Abyss, and none of fiendish origin may harm it.”
Pellinore turned toward Tuco. “Sathanus.” He hissed the name so sharply that Tuco looked up and saw the monk’s eyes slitted in fury. “My next command. Give me the power to rule this Abbey. Show them who is the true master here! I want to make all of them do my bidding!”
More gasps echoed around the room, along with cries of, “You’re mad!” But already Tuco could feel that dread compulsion. The runes of the circle around him seemed to burn into him, as the power of the command drew on the souls within him, and desperately he sought to direct the vilest and most contemptible toward it. The power of a devil lay in reshaping, and once more he felt his magic reaching out to twist and change Brother Pellinore. The monk cried out, his eyes going wide. He arched his back as though in the throes of agony or ecstasy, and then hunched forward, clutching at his sides with both hands. His taut, muscular back stretched, and then bulged, and then erupted in scores of fleshy tendrils rising from him, writhing like tentacles as they grew. Brother Pellinore looked up, his face lighting in an expression of erotic joy as all the tendrils extended, flailing and whipping about, coiling and wriggling around each other as they lengthened. He stood upright, spreading his arms wide, and as he did, the tendrils splayed around his back, fanning out in a fleshy corona, and then each surged forward toward one of the monks in the room.
Shocked, clamoring in fear, the monks fell over each other in an attempt to get away, but their efforts were in vain. The tendrils met each of them with the speed of striking snakes. They planted themselves on monks’ chests and backs, arms and legs. Many found gasping mouths and slid in. Others traveled up their robes to find more intimate places. Where they struck, they adhered, the tendrils melding with the monks’ flesh in an instant, and when they struck, the Brothers went abruptly still and slack, their eyes glassing over.
In less than ten seconds, the room had gone from terror to stillness. Brothers stood in mid-run, their arms hanging at their sides. Others still sat; others lay where they had fallen on the floor. Their mouths hung open. In each of them was planted a tendril, alabaster white, pulsing from tip to base as though feeding on them, as though swallowing all that made them who they were.
Brother Pellinore still stood with his arms wide, his tentacled back arched, his eyes darting back and forth, barely seeing. “Incredible.” It was not he who spoke, but every mouth in the room, in his exact tones, in perfect synchronicity. “I can feel every mind at once. I can see through every eye. I know our thoughts, our dreams, our plans. I remember our childhoods, our first kisses, our secret indiscretions, our shames. But our wills… no, these shall be destroyed. There is only my will. My wishes! I am the ruler here.”
Tuco had seen fewer sights more terrifying in his life, and he had met Sathanus and been to the Abyss. He pressed back against the edge of his circle. Brother Pellinore turned to him, and so did every face in the room. Scores of eyes stared at him with the regard of one single, enslaving mind. Tuco could sense the souls inside each of them, terrified, battering helpless against the prisons of their own bodies like moths trapped under glass. He had to save them somehow, save the Abbey, but for all his power, within this circle, he was helpless.
“Come, devil.” With forty fingers, Pellinore beckoned him forward. His tail whipping in panic, Tuco slunk to the center of the room, his head bowed so as not to score the ceiling with his horns. The eyes of the Brethren stared at him from all sides, but there was no humanity in them—only a terrible, pitiless regard. “Now, Sathanus, Prince of Darkness, I command you to bow down before me. Bow before the master of Abyssus Abbey.”
And Tuco had no choice. A terrible pressure bent his knees to the floor, pushed him forward. He prostrated himself before the mad monk, before the gaze of his helpless prisoners. The fleshy tendrils connecting Pellinore to the other monks throbbed in time to a single heartbeat.
Eighty eyes lit in fervor, watching him bow. The voices rang in unison from every mouth. “And with all this knowledge, I can summon a hundred demons, a thousand, bend them all to my will. They will be my fiendish army, and together, it is we who will stop the Apocalypse, don’t you see? What chance has the legions of the Abyss against its own?” The same smirking grin twisted every face in the room. “What say you now, creature?”
Tuco clenched his fangs and pushed himself to one knee. He looked up at Pellinore. “I think you’re mad. You’ll never avert the Apocalypse. But you just might be the one to cause it.”
“Of course your treacherous kind would say so. But what if I should?” Pellinore breathed, his wild eyes widening. The tendrils sprouting from his back wriggled as if in excitement, and then lifted him from the floor, his bare toes rising off the stonework as though he hovered in mid-rapture. “What a world I could make with all my talent!” He spread his powerful arms. “With all my knowledge! A greater world! A better one! All of humanity united in one common vision! And you, Sathanus, the dog at our feet that made it happen, your power turned to serve us for—”
He broke off, looking puzzled. He opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. And then his chest sprouted the bloody point of a sword. Bewildered, he stared down at it, touched it with one alabaster fingertip. He spluttered blood. And then he dropped to the floor heavily, falling on his side.
Behind him stood Brother Gabriel, his jaw set, his eyes cold. “Begone, foul perversion,” he growled through clenched teeth as he wrenched his gleaming sword from the body of Pellinore. All around the room, the tendrils connecting Pellinore to the assembled monks began to flail and writhe, and screams rose from every mouth in unison.
“Devilry,” breathed Brother Gabriel, and he swung his sword in a great arc, severing every tendril from Pellinore’s back in a single, sweeping blow. The tendrils went limp and lifeless in an instant, and every monk fell over.
For a single, dread instant, Tuco feared they had died, but then he heard the moans, cries, and coughs of the Brothers, not in unison, but from many different throats, at many different times—the voices of the confused and frightened. And the lights of the runes encircling him flickered and went out.
Tuco rolled his shoulders back, feeling tall and strong again, feeling the desires of every man there. Granted, most of them were just hoping for safety and rest at the moment. They shuffled around on the floor, sorting through their bewilderment, getting to their feet. One looked up at Tuco and his face went white with panic. “It’s loose!” he howled, pointing in Tuco’s direction.
Brother Gabriel looked up, his sword canted toward the floor, blood running down the blade to spot the stones. “Where?” he demanded. “Where is the fiend?”
“In front of you!” the monk howled. “Can you not see—”
Before he could finish, Tuco let loose a powerful pulse of lust that sent the monk hunching toward the floor in surprise. Others writhed in their robes where they stood, and even Brother Gabriel’s knees buckled as he felt the impact, his arousal evident beneath his own robes. The monks around the room lifted their eyes to gaze at Tuco in a mixture of awe and desire, but Brother Gabriel only strode forward, lifting his sword.
He couldn’t see Tuco, but the way he swung, he didn’t need to. His first sweep of the blade went far wide, as did the second, but the third connected, thumping against Tuco’s side. Brother Gabriel stared wildly back and forth, trying to see what he had struck.
The sword blade had not, as far as Tuco could tell, even nicked his scales, though it had cut deeply into his jacket and left a slash there. The senior monk lifted his arms and swung the weapon again, and this time, Tuco caught the blade in one hand. “Desist at once,” he boomed. “You’re ruining my clothes.”
His hand seemed uninjured, and he gave the blade an experimental squeeze, his forearm bulging and threatening to add another tear to his clothing. It resisted like cold butter in his hand. In mild surprise, he plucked the sword out of Brother Gabriel’s hands and bent the blade. The metal shrieked as it curved, but Tuco’s scales were impervious to the sharp edges. With both hands he wadded the weapon up into a malformed ball of tortured metal—it broke several times as he did so, but he simply squeezed the shards back into the mass as he worked it. The metal heated dramatically as he bent it, until it was too hot to hold, and he dropped the useless remnants of the weapon. It landed with a clank at Brother Gabriel’s feet.
The monk, trembling, knelt to poke at the metal, and jerked back his finger from its heated surface. “The sword of St. Basil the Crusader,” he said, his voice breaking. “Destroyed!”
Tuco grinned at him, though he knew Brother Gabriel couldn’t see it. “Now if you don’t mind, Brother, I have things to do. Thank you for freeing me and the others. Brother Pellinore was mad, but it’s a pity what happened to him.” The thought immediately sobered him; he felt ashamed for grinning when a man had just been slain in front of him, even though he hadn’t done it, and even though the man had almost certainly needed killing. And now that he thought it, he realized that he could feel Brother Pellinore within him now, the light of his soul sent to Tuco’s demesne, burning all the brighter with all the power he had stolen from other souls. Tuco supposed he would have to devise an appropriate fate for the man—something to teach him the virtues of humility.
Now that he had seen the afterlife, death seemed… terrible still, perhaps, like having to leave your childhood home forever… but less terrible. People weren’t gone, they just went somewhere else. Another step—the last step, perhaps—in their journey.
Still, it was sobering to walk past the twisted body that had once held the soul of Brother Pellinore, hot blood spreading across the floor. Tuco still gave the stricken Brother Gabriel a thump with the side of his tail as he left the room and went, finally, to seek out his friends.
He kept his head down as he moved through the clerical cloister, but soon realized he was going to have difficulty maintaining any kind of discretion. The most likely place to find Pike, Etreon, and Braxus would be in the watch room down in the Throat, but he couldn’t risk leading any of the monks to their secret hiding spot. Already there was a clamor behind him as the Brothers collected themselves and readied their pursuit. Tuco couldn’t linger here, but when he tried to run, the heaviness of his footfalls thundered through the hallways at a volume surely anyone could follow, and two of his loping steps actually cracked the stone tiling. He’d be leaving a trail straight to them. Moving truly silently seemed to be an interminable crawl. He paused in the main cloister, looking back and forth with a rising sense of panic.
There is no need for you to fear, a nagging thought whispered in the back of his mind. You could destroy them easily. As easily as you destroyed that sword. Tear them to pieces, or send them mad with lust. What are such fragile mortals in the face of a Baron of the Abyss? He almost laughed at the idea when it occurred to him. He wasn’t a murderer. Or a… whatever you called someone who forcibly inflicted uncontrollable lust on people.
You call that an incubus, and that is exactly what you are.
“No,” he said aloud. “That summoning spell didn’t summon Sathanus. It summoned Tuco Witchywine. I’m still me. I will always be me.”
“I thought it was you,” said a voice from behind him, and he nearly jumped out of his scales.
He whirled to see Hhalbor standing behind him, and pressed his hand to his chest to try to still his heart from pounding. “You startled me!”
The stag-antlered boy gave him a disbelieving grin. “I startled you? Well, come on, you look like you’re trying to hide. This way!” And he turned, his porcupine tail click-clicking across the floor, and darted up the main stairs.
Tuco was about to protest, but saw the torches of the monks coming from around the corner and followed as swiftly as he dared, crouching low on the staircase, trying to keep his shoulders in and his tail still as he followed. The choice had been a fortunate one—no sooner had he squeezed his bulk around the corner of the staircase than he heard the slapping of many shoes below, and then Brother Gabriel snarled, “The beast may be trying to escape back to the Abyss through the Throat! Go!” The sounds of several footsteps descended. Tuco wasted no further time in hurrying up the stairs, moving on hands and feet for stealth.
He smelled rain on the air, and thunder shook the Abbey. He emerged on the rooftop into a heavy shower; the night was dark, and though darkness was of no concern to him anymore, the curtains of rain made it difficult to see far beyond the walls of the Abbey.
“They won’t look for you up here,” Hhalbor said, blinking in the dark and the rain. He held one hand to his forehead to keep water from streaming into his eyes. “Come, we can get out of the storm at least a little over there.” He motioned toward the other end of the rooftop where a large, angelic statue stood, its huge, stone-feathered wings open and offering some scant overhead shelter. Tuco followed, eyeing the storm uneasily. He might be able to stop a sword blow with his scales, but he doubted very much that they’d offer much resistance to a bolt of lightning.
“I’m glad you were in that hallway,” he said, once they were at least partly out of the shower. Hhalbor shook all over, droplets of water flinging from each of his many needle-like spines.
“I was fairly certain it was you, even though you… look different every time I see you. The scales are new.” Halbor reached out and ran his fingers over the back of Tuco’s red-scaled hand. “Smooth. What is it like, being like this?”
“I doubt I could explain. I feel so strong sometimes, and so helpless other times. And there are all these urges, I—” Tuco broke off. “I don’t think I could put it into words. But what of the Abbey? Are my friends all right? Pike, Etreon, Braxus? And the rest of the apprentices?”
Hhalbor shook his head, droplets flinging from the points of his antlers. “Your harem is all fine still, but—”
Hhalbor shrugged. “Erlin and some of his friends started calling them that and it just kind of stuck.”
Tuco groaned. The wasp-winged Erlin had been one of Walstein’s cronies and had been nasty to him ever since he’d arrived, but more so since Walstein’s disappearance. “They’re not a harem,” he growled.
“As you say, but they all do sleep with you, do they not? Whenever you wish? And they stay in your quarters, or in… some other place you’ve made for them, so they can lie with you at your desiring?”
“That doesn’t make them a harem. I don’t own them,” Tuco protested, and before the words were even out of his mouth, he thought of the uncountable souls that were his treasure, his hoard in the Abyss. And Pike, Etreon, and Braxus each belonged, in part, to that hoard as well.
Hhalbor shrank back a little. “If it displeases you, I can—”
“Yes, don’t call them that,” Tuco said. “Please,” he added upon seeing Hhalbor’s expression.
“I shall not, then. And so far, they are all right, despite the teasing—which, I might add, plenty of the lads are envious of. Many confess they wish to be in your har—er, among your favorites, too.”
Hhalbor’s cheeks reddened and he looked down. “But I can’t. None of us can. It isn’t safe. Even though your friends are untouched yet, many have been sent to the Throat. Most apprentices have asked to resign and surrender their stipend, but none are being allowed to leave. Brother Gabriel claims corruption rides in all of us and he dares not let it out into the world. We are all demon-touched, he says. If I were seen with you, I’d be thrown into the Throat with the rest of them.”
“That’s horrible,” Tuco said. “It was very brave of you to help me, then.”
“I didn’t!” Hhalbor turned away fiercely, staring out into the storm. “I didn’t help a demon, you understand? If anyone ever asked me, I’d say you chased me up here. Tried to attack me.”
“Oh, Hhalbor, you do know I’d never hurt you, don’t you?” Aside from a few accidental sips of his soul, you mean? He hushed the jeering voice in his mind and put a hand on Hhalbor’s shoulder.
A wave of surprise traveled in a ripple down Hhalbor’s spines, from the top of his head to the tip of his tail and the backs of his calves. He turned back to Tuco, eyes wide. “Didn’t—didn’t that hurt you?”
Tuco smiled and waggled his fingers at Hhalbor. “Scales. I caught a sword earlier tonight. Didn’t even scratch me.”
The stag-antlered man stepped closer, blinking his large chestnut eyes in the rain. “Could you—could you run your fingers through them?” he asked. His breath shook with hope.
Tuco slid his fingers around the back of Hhalbor’s head, the spines clicking together like quills. They sprouted from coarse, dark brown fur, warm as he sank his fingertips into it. The apprentice let out a shuddering sigh and leaned his cheek into Tuco’s palm. Tuco slid his hand down Hhalbor’s back, and the man arched under his touch, leaning into him. Tuco could taste the storm of his desire on the air as surely as he could taste the rain on his tongue.
“You can touch me,” Hhalbor breathed in amazement, and Tuco stripped away the makeshift apprentice robes that were all the spined man could use to clothe himself. He had not seen Hhalbor naked before. The man was leanly muscled, almost skinny, but the thicket of spines sprouting from his shoulders, neck, and the backs of his arms gave him the appearance of greater bulk, as well as a dangerous wildness that Tuco longed to answer. The dark brown fur spread farther than his spines, layering his chest and belly, thinner around his erection, which jutted already thick and proud between them. Tuco slid his fingers gently down that pole, so hot with need that he was surprised the rain didn’t steam away from it.
Carefully, so as not to tear them, he tried to extricate himself from the fine clothes he’d brought from the Abyss, lamenting the absence of a valet to help him properly remove them. With his bulk, he couldn’t manage to remove his spiked elbows and shoulders from the finely tailored sleeves, and so he knelt on the roof and told Hhalbor, “Undress me.”
Shaking with excitement, desire, and no doubt a bit of chill from the rain, the apprentice did so. Twice, Tuco thought, he almost came just from the thrill of running his fingers over Tuco’s arms and shoulders, but he managed to control himself. He looked up in surprise as Tuco’s own shaft was revealed—rapidly stiffening once released from its cloth bindings.
“Oh, I—I thought you had two down there? When last I held myself against you…”
“I can. Would you like me to?” Tuco asked pleasantly.
“No, I fear one alone might be more than I could handle. But there are no scales there. What if I—”
He broke off, and Tuco shuddered at the ecstasy of his cock changing to fit his partner’s desires: the skin bulged, forming rings around it, smooth ridges that became red, glossy and hard as his scales, tapering to a point that bobbed in the storm, drooling raindrops mixed with preseed. Hhalbor reached out and touched it gingerly, as though expecting it to be hot as a stove, and Tuco let out a low rumble of pleasure; he had lost no sensation to this change. “I’m going to fuck you now, Hhalbor,” he said, and lightning struck not far behind him, turning the rooftop brilliant white for a moment.
Hhalbor nodded up at him, chewing on his lower lip. “Don’t grab the antlers though,” he said. “Everyone talks about how they want to grab the antlers.”
Tuco crouched, the rain pelting across his wide back, and lifted Hhalbor up with both hands at his waist, carrying him out into the brunt of the storm. The apprentice stiffened in his grasp as he was raised into the air, but his weight was nothing to Tuco. He held Hhalbor aloft and nestled his tip against Hhalbor’s ring, waiting for the man to relax. Spines prodded against his shaft, but could not harm him. Hhalbor was tense, clenching, and so Tuco lowered him slowly, providing just the slightest pressure, enough to coax him into opening gently. And open he did, admitting Tuco’s cock little by little into him. As he spread around Tuco’s girth, Tuco could tell by the shuddering of his breath and the awed stare in his eyes that he had never been taken before. Tuco let him experience it slowly, at his own pace, but fed him little threads of lust, desire, and pleasure that no mortal lover could have sparked; he had no more than half-hilted in the man before Hhalbor’s thick erection jumped and spat its white excitement into the rain. The apprentice moaned and clutched at Tuco’s chest as he came, but Tuco was not done with him, so he fed lust back into him just as he’d done before with Pike, and Hhalbor clung to him with renewed ardor.
When at last Tuco was fully planted within Hhalbor, he flexed his shaft, and the stag-headed man threw back his head and cried out his pleasure into the storm, drowned out as lightning struck again, illuminating the two of them standing on the roof, joined in desire. They rutted in the rain, first standing, and then when Hhalbor began to shiver from the cold, Tuco lay back on the roof and held the apprentice against his warm chest, pinning him in place as his hips thrust into him. He rolled him over into the pile of admittedly wet clothes, but in time, Hhalbor seemed to warm again, and clutched at Tuco’s arms as Tuco rocked into him, realizing only too late that the man’s spines were probably filling his clothes full of holes. Tuco boomed out his pleasure to the storm as he climaxed, filling Hhalbor with his heat, and the storm answered with thundercracks of its own.
When he felt Hhalbor’s shivering resume, he gently pulled out of him, ignoring the moans and pleas for another round—he’d been too eager to rekindle the man’s lust, he reflected, and wondered how long such an effect would persist.
As he had feared, his fine clothes were completely perforated by Hhalbor’s spines, and it took some effort to disentangle them. But he managed to dress Hhalbor back in his own clothes, at least, and as the storm waned, they went to stand at the edge of the roof, looking out over the valley. The moon was emerging beyond the clouds far to the east, and it glittered on the river below. Where they stood, though, a light rain still fell, and the abbey wall met the sheer cliff face of the mountainside, shrouded in precipitation and mist far below.
“I’m so glad,” Hhalbor breathed, leaning against Tuco’s side. “You’ve no idea how much I’ve longed to be touched by…” He trailed off, staring past Tuco.
“What is it?” Tuco turned, and saw the light of a lantern coming up the stairs to the roof. His hands clenched into fists. “Does anyone else come up here?”
Hhalbor stumbled backward from the roof edge, his spines lifting all down his back. “No!” he whispered. His face had gone white. The two of them cast about for someplace to hide, but the roof offered no shelter.
“They can’t do anything to me,” Tuco said, gritting his teeth as the lantern light grew brighter. “Not anymore.”
Monks hurried out of the stairwell onto the rooftop, and pointed toward Tuco and Hhalbor with cries of, “There they are!”
Brother Gabriel pushed his way past the others, his eyes wild and furious. “Cornered at last!” His voice echoed across the roof and was answered by distant thunder. “Your prayer, Cantor Jacobs!”
Tuco recognized the short little man who had been the chanter at recent masses. He had shaggy arms and legs like those of a bear, but was otherwise little changed. Now in one brown-furred hand, he held aloft a silver crucifix, and his bell-like voice rang out in the fading storm. “Lux mundi!”
A light whiter and more brilliant than any Tuco had ever seen blazed away from the crucifix, turning the rooftop brighter than noonday. Something was deeply, fundamentally wrong in that light: it was not warm, but hard and cold-edged, the color of hypothermia, the shape of a migraine. It hammered into him; he closed his eyes but could see it just as brightly, and it seemed to pierce him with a million blunt needles. He felt it in his brain, in his stomach, in his heart, in every muscle. He slumped where he stood, his body suddenly feeling too weak to hold upright.
“Good.” Tuco could hear the smirk in Brother Gabriel’s voice. “You there. Apprentice… Hhalbor, is it not?”
“Yes, sir,” came Hhalbor’s timid voice.
“This creature. You helped him hide from us.”
“N-no, your worship. I—I fled. He pursued me.”
“For quite some time, it would seem. You must be exhausted from running around and around the rooftop.”
“He tried to seduce me, your worship.”
A silence in the brilliant light. “And did he succeed?”
“I serve the Almighty, not the Abyss.”
The footsteps of Brother Gabriel came closer. Tuco squinted in the light, but still could see nothing. He was helpless, blinded. “You repudiate the darkness, then?” Brother Gabriel’s voice was hard as polished marble. “Show me.”
Through the intolerable light, Tuco could just make out the shape of Hhalbor stepping toward him, an antlered blur with sad, frightened eyes. The apprentice put his hands on Tuco’s stomach. He pushed hard.
And behind Tuco, there was nothing but rain and empty air. He fell, his stomach twisting, the terrible light a blazing star above him.
Tuco fell. For a horrible moment, his stomach wrenched inside him and he flailed in terror. The wind and rain were cold against his naked scales. His thoughts raced around his brain like lightning. Hhalbor had betrayed him! How far below was the ground? It was impossible to tell up from down; all around was mist. His eyes were brimming with raindrops.
He wondered if it would hurt when he hit. His scales would surely protect his flesh from being torn, and his bones might now be unbreakable, but it was all the other bits inside him, the soft, unpleasant, squishy bits he needed to live. When he hit the ground, all his organs would surely splatter inside him. Maybe, he thought, he’d hit a steep slope and be able to roll to a safe stop. Perhaps his flailing arms or tail could catch an outcropping and stop his fall—though he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t wrench his arm from its socket. For all those necessary organs inside him, a sudden stop from catching a rock was probably little better than slamming into the ground.
He wondered what would happen to Hhalbor. Once the initial flash of hurt and betrayal had passed, he realized he couldn’t blame the poor boy. Brother Gabriel was terrifying; no one could be faulted for faltering under his imperious regard. Tuco only hoped that Hhalbor wouldn’t castigate himself too much in the coming days.
It occurred to him that he seemed to have a lot of time for thoughts and realized that he was no longer pitching head-over heels into the mist, but was dropping steadily, the upward wind blowing his chest and face. But, he thought, not as vigorously as it ought to be. How was he still falling? The Abbey stood atop a tall cliff, certainly, but surely not this tall. His forked tongue flickered and he tasted something fiendish in the air, a raw scent of sulphur and hunger for power.
“Ah, so finally you notice me,” came a rumbling voice very, very near to his ear. Tuco would never have thought it was possible to be startled while falling to one’s death, but his heart nevertheless leapt in his chest, and he turned in the air to behold a devil falling next to him, head down, as though he swung upside down at the end of a rope. His face was handsome, but blunt, his eyes canted and all ablaze with an internal fire, his nose flat against his face, his mouth a jagged opening like that of a Jack-o-the-lantern. His shoulders were broad and his build powerful, the bulky frame of a predator. From head to taloned toe, his skin was colored a slate as grey as the rain around them, but cracked, and within those cracks burned a liquid white fire. His craggy jaws opened in what might have been a grin. “Count Belial. A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Tuco Witchywine.”
The world around them slowed even more, and the wind no longer blew against Tuco’s scales. Droplets of mist hung around him. He felt neither heavy nor light, but simply stalled, as though his body were caught in the moment of finishing a yawn. He looked about himself in astonishment. “How is this possible?”
Rows upon rows of thorny teeth flashed at him. “To the most powerful of devils, time itself is but a plaything. If a costly one. You’ve no idea the souls I am expending to speak to you now, Tuco Witchywine.”
Tuco thought of the lights steadily dimming in Count Belial’s voidsea, souls’ existences unraveling, all to stop him from falling. “And you would not do so without something to gain. So you’ve come to bargain for my souls as well.”
“Bargain?” The count’s craggy eyeridges raised, and his thick tail whipped at frozen raindrops, erasing them from the air as they soaked his stony skin. “And what have you to bargain with, my dear demi-devil? What have you left but several seconds of terror? What have you to give but a splash of brilliant red on the stones below you? No, I do not come to deal. I come to offer you an out.”
“But what of all my souls?” Tuco asked.
“Ah, ignorant incubus, t’was Mammon who was my vassal. When you took his Barony, you took his allegiance, and thus are you sworn to me. When you are destroyed, all your souls will belong to me at last.”
Tuco frowned. He tried to twist in the air to face Belial directly, but could not move. “Then why would you be here at all?”
Belial shrugged. “You are a powerful ssservant, and it would be a pity to loossse one so gifted.”
Tuco’s ears pricked at the sibilance on Belial’s tongue. The count had tried to use deviltongue on him. He was lying. “Wait, but what happens when my mortal body dies? My soul would go to—” He frowned. “To the devil that caused me to fall.” His mind raced as he worked through the problem. “The price for summoning a demon or devil is your soul. I took Pellinore’s soul because he summoned me. But with Brother Melvin, I helped summon… Sathanus!”
Belial’s smug countenance cracked, his jaws parting. “That cannot be so.”
“But it is. I helped summon Sathanus, so my soul was forfeit to him. And then… something… went wrong. And he was destroyed. And now all his souls belong to me. And since I owed him my own soul for summoning him… that means even when I die, my soul belongs to myself. And hitting those rocks might kill my mortal body, but it won’t destroy my devil logos, will it? So even after, I’ll just end up in the Abyss, owning my own soul, and all those other souls Sathanus held in his hoard will still belong to me.” He stared past Belial in wonder. “I own my own soul. I am become the devil that caused my fall. And that means,” he concluded, turning his gaze to Belial, “that you do need to bargain. If I die now, you gain nothing.”
The white blaze of Belial’s eyes narrowed to slits. “And yet you do not wish to die, do you? To lose your mortal form forever, to be wholly subject to the laws of devilkind, and dwell in the Abyss with the rest of us? To lose your family, your friends, your home? No, you oh-too-clever boy, you cling to life as a tick to a dog, you will be torn in two rather than let go of it.”
“You overestimate my attachment,” Tuco said, sobering. “It was one of my friends who has killed me. Pushed me from the roof of my home. My family sent me here. Those in the Abbey hunt me and would destroy me if they could. Why should I hold onto it?”
“And yet you do so,” Belial hissed. “You hunger to be accepted, to be drawn in, to belong.”
“And that is your temptation, isn’t it? So that is how you expect to gain me?”
“A temptation? Is a drink of water a temptation? Bread for a starving belly? Breath to inflate your lungs? Belonging is not a desire, incubus—it is a need. Humans die in solitude; they waste away, they lose the will to continue. I tempt only with what all humans require. It is the One Above who decreed that the need for acceptance of others interfered with His relationship with them. Had He His way, all would worship only Him, love only Him, need only Him, be accepted by only Him. By His own admission, He is jealous. But alas, all devils fall, and this is yours, Baron Witchywine. You will never reside in the One Above’s mansions. And thus you need to belong. It is not temptation I offer. It is not desire. It is what you must have.” His eyes flashed with inner fire.
“Well, my time is yours,” Tuco said, shrugging. “What do you offer?”
If Belial had been discomfited by Tuco’s words, he had recovered. “Besides your life? What I offer you is exactly what you suggest: belonging. Wherever you go, you will fit in. No place will be closed to you, no doors barred. All will accept you as one of their own.”
More transformations, Tuco thought, but this sounded better. Not to stand out, not to send people running in fear or staring in amazement, but always to be right for any place he went… that sounded like an improvement. But a devil’s bargain always had a catch. “And what do you want from me in return?”
Belial snorted. “You are scarcely in a position to negotiate. If you do not take my deal, you will be an unappealing splatter of organs in the wilderness to be picked apart by crows.” His blazing eyes widened in mock fascination. “I wonder if you will live through it! Perhaps your infernal body will survive as you are devoured by crows, your intestines ground by the gravel in a corvid gizzard, feeding you pain in every instant.”
Tuco sighed. “To the point, Count Belial?”
“Ah, you young devils, never allowing us old stars our ancient pleasures. Very well. In exchange, you swear to serve me, to pledge your souls to my orders whenever I command it. No,” he said, raising a taloned hand to Tuco’s unspoken objection, “I will not demand that you donate them to me. But should I require them to fuel magic for my own design, you will offer them without question. And never will you act to harm me or wield your influence against me.”
The mists below were dark and deep. “And you will save me from perishing in this fall?”
Belial’s eyes blazed. “You will not die, should you act.”
Tuco wanted to refuse. He should refuse. The souls in his demesne were his responsibility. He knew that he would care for them as well as he could, but he did not know this Count Belial. How greedy would he be for Tuco’s souls? How many would Tuco be called upon to surrender at his liege’s command? It was not only the souls of murderers and villains that floated in his voidsea. His friends were there as well: Pike, Etreon, Braxus—a fraction of every soul in the Abbey had been claimed by him. If he made this bargain, and Belial demanded them, he would have to surrender them up, and watch their lights dim as they fueled the Count’s infernal power, perhaps even to wink out entirely.
“You think to refuse,” Belial purred. “Well, far be it from me to pressure you. In a way, I envy you. True, you will lie alone and broken on the rocks below, the cold rain spattering your scales as your life bleeds out of you. True, you will stare up into the empty mists, your breaths growing shallower, your sight dimming as your blood ebbs away, and your friends may never know what happened to you. True, as you are a devil, you will never ascend to Paradise, and only the Abyss waits you. who knows what will happen to a human who owns his own soul, nor what nefarious and cruel devil may challenge the powers that be for all the souls in his hoard? The important fact, though unrecognized by the One Above, is that you will have died doing the right thing. How noble. Truly, that matters above all else, does it not?”
I refuse. The words clung to his tongue, would not leave his mouth. This could not be it, could not be the end for him. His friends were still in jeopardy. Lord Krastor was still locked up in the Throat. Millions of souls hung in the balance, and he could either risk them to stay in the fight, or risk them by giving it up. Tuco set his jaw. He had not defeated so many devils, overcome so many challenges, changed so much, only to die broken on the rocks. The deal with Belial was risky, but it bought him time—time to find a way out of the bargain, time to think of a way to defeat the devil without violating their deal. It was not, he knew, the righteous thing. But sometimes the righteous thing wasn’t the right thing.
The word dropped like lead weights from his lips. “I accept.”
And Belial grinned so widely that the smile nearly split his head in two. “Then we have a deal. Very well, my vassal. I have some magic to work, and I will require souls to power it. I believe I will use yours.”
“But that’s not—” Tuco broke off. Of course it wasn’t; why ought a devil to play fair? As though he were still under the impetus of Pellinore’s summoning, he found himself compelled to surrender souls, quickly sifting through his voidsea to offer Belial only the most evil and irredeemable he could find. The devil did not demand many, but already the deal was costing Tuco.
“Excellent,” Belial purred, and his tail extended around toward Tuco’s back, the tip of it sliding across his scales, inscribing some strange sigil or pattern there. “I’ve given you what you need to save yourself,” he announced in a voice dripping with satisfaction. “I do hope you use it well; I should hate to lose a vassal so soon. Know that as my servant wherever you go, you will belong to that place; nowhere will you be unwelcome for long. And now I must depart. I have, after all, a County to administer.”
And with that, he simply blew apart and vanished, like a cloud dissipating in high wind. For a moment, Tuco hung blinking in the air. And then time slowly ground back up to speed, the droplets beginning to fall around him, the wind picking up against his face. His stomach lurched as he plummeted again, first slowly, but rapidly increasing in speed. Panic set in. What had Belial done to him? What was he meant to do to save himself?
He flailed in the air, arms, legs, and tail all pinwheeling for anything to catch onto, anything to stop the fall. And then something twisted in his back. There was an odd stretching sensation, the feeling of bone and muscle moving, the thick muscle there folding around something extending. Arms. He had arms growing out of his back; he could feel them more clearly each moment, could move them. He felt the roll of strange shoulder-like joints behind and between his shoulders, could feel the flex of muscle as he bent the new limbs. He felt fingers extend at the ends of them, growing longer and longer, far longer than those on his hands. The webbing between them seemed to stretch wider and wider, they caught the air.
He hurtled toward the ground—he could see it now, the jagged rocks at the bottom of the mountainside jutting up like broken fangs, and again he flailed in panic, pushing those new limbs downward. He felt powerful new muscle pull across his back and chest, and the webbing between his new fingers stretched taut, pushed back against the air.
With a sudden jolt his body was hoisted on the strength of his new arms; his innards felt scrambled by the sudden arrest in his movement, but the reprieve was only temporary and immediately he began falling again. He lifted his new arms high and pushed downward again and again they caught the air, and again. He reeled toward the ground, pushed downward with those arms once more, and then dropped onto the rocks below with no more speed than if he had leapt off the roof of a house. His powerful legs caught his weight, his taloned feet snapping stone beneath him with a crunch. He stumbled forward a few steps before he caught his balance entirely and stood panting in the early morning mist, unsure what exactly had happened.
He curled his new arms inward and saw taut, red membranes stretched wide between long, scaled digits. Wings. He had grown enormous, batlike wings from his back. A thrill of elation shuddered through him—he would be able to fly! He stretched his new limbs as wide as they would go, trying to estimate his wingspan, and the wind immediately caught them and sent him tumbling backward, head over tail. Embarrassed but unhurt, he picked himself up, finding it easier to do so if he kept his wings tightly folded against his back, though even then the wind tugged the membranes and ruffled them. The sensations were almost overwhelming; he had all this new flesh and scale and muscle and bone, and all of it was feeling: limb rubbing against the muscle of his back, new, powerful sinew stretching and flexing and learning how to position and settle itself, the stiff new fingers that formed the “panes” of his wings, and the webbing between them that felt every minute change in the wind; every droplet of rain or mist, every sudden colder gust.
If the wings were like new, elongated arms, the shoulders where they met his back, and the panes his fingers, then the “elbows” of the wings folded down behind his backside; his tail bumped into them when it swayed. And his new “wrists” were high above his head, at the top of his wings—from here, the fingers radiated outward, capped by a stubby, clawed thumb that jutted upward. Holding his wings closed felt a bit like holding his arms in at his sides—though he had not been able to do that in a long time, not since his back had grown so wide and his arms so thick. He shuffled the new limbs and found they seemed to fit a bit better. While clearly powerful, they were not so over-bulked as the rest of him.
Cautiously, he unfolded his new wings a little bit at a time, and immediately they caught the breeze again, cupping the sails, and he had to lean forward and brace his legs a bit to counter the force of the gusts. He canted his wings forward, tilting them into the breeze, and felt the resistance of the wind change, lifting upward slightly instead of pushing him backward. This would take some getting used to, he realized. All his life he’d gone about never worrying about which way the wind was blowing, nor how stiffly, but now he had enormous kites attached to his back. He’d never be able to ignore the air again. Slowly, he extended his wings more and more, turning the sails into the wind and feeling them lift him more strongly. His feet were still planted firmly on the ground, but he felt much lighter than before. He gave a little hop and lifted a good five feet off the ground before his wings wobbled and sent him crashing down heavily again. Looking to the right and left, his wingspan seemed impossibly wide; though folded, his wings didn’t quite reach the ground and reached only a couple feet above his head; when extended, they seemed to stretch perhaps fifteen feet to either side of him. Where did all that width go when he folded them? Some infernal power, he supposed.
He canted his wings into the wind again, extended them to their fullest reach, and flapped hard. The upward lift launched him into the air far higher than he expected, and he quickly caught himself with another flap, and then another. And his feet were bobbing above the ground. The motion felt almost natural to him, as though his body remembered how to perform it, and yet he spent some time learning how to lift up, how to sail forward gently, how to hover in place—a maneuver that required a surprising amount of effort. But his powerful devil’s body seemed tireless, and soon he was flapping or swooping about with his feet just above the rocky mountainside.
The elation racing through him was almost uncontrollable, and he found himself laughing in delight, despite all his recent woes. He could fly. He could fly! With powerful beats of his wings, he lifted himself into the air higher and higher, until he rose out of the mist that coated the mountainside and found himself suspended between clouds above and clouds below. Dawn rose before him, golden light piercing the mists and bathing him in warmth as he hovered in that ethereal valley. Whatever price he owed Belial for this joy, it was worth it, he decided. He swooped forward, skimming the mist below with his toes and then flapped higher and higher, spinning upward in a pirouette of pure delight, wet droplets spraying in all directions. He folded his wings and hung in midair for a moment, and then he dropped, a giddy thrill racing through him as he fell back downward again and caught himself on his wings once more. I shall never walk anywhere again, he thought to himself in glee.
But soon he began to wonder if someone in the abbey above might notice him flapping about. The enchantments the Brothers had used before could still be dangerous to him; they could knock him out of the sky. Belial had told him he would belong any place he went, but Tuco still didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t want to risk confronting that lux mundi spell—or whatever worse they might have waiting—without understanding. Nor did he think it wise to return to Brother Gabriel’s domain so soon; surely they would all still be on high guard.
There was a place he had been secretly longing to return to for weeks now. He flapped about until he found the roads leading away from the Abbey. One of them he knew, for he had traveled it months ago. It led back home.
He followed it.
The world from the sky was almost unrecognizable to that of the ground-bound. Tuco beat his wings high above, following a curving, tan line as it wended its way through the countryside. On the ground, he’d have been able to see no more than a few minutes’ walk in any direction; from just below the clouds, he could see hours’ worth of journey in all directions. Hills, muddy patches, stones in the road, streams to ford all meant nothing to him; they were difficulties for those without wings. But just as the travel was easier, so was it less interesting—each beat of Tuco’s wings was the same as the previous, and there were no interruptions to break up the journey. Still, flying was so much of a novelty that Tuco scarcely minded it.
At times he soared high to cavort among the palaces of the clouds, but from there he lost sight of the road, and the air was much colder, so usually he winged his way to the northwest not far above the road. The distance to the ground, while at first dizzying and unsettling, soon became nothing to fear, and any uneasiness he had once held about heights vanished within several hours of flight. The new muscular limbs that sprouted from his back seemed tireless, and worked with a steady, easy gait as though he had been flying his whole life.
The disadvantage to flying below the clouds, however, was that he was easily visible to travelers on the road, and from great distances he saw riders and cart-drivers pointing at his approach. Riders often bolted their horses to tear across the field. Carts wheeled into the ditches and their drivers scrambled beneath them to hide from Tuco’s gaze—as though he hadn’t seen them from far away. He supposed he looked like a monster or demon to them; perhaps they expected him to swoop down and carry them off to his lair, or simply gut and devour them by the side of the road. Either of which, to be fair, he was certainly capable of, had he any inclination to do so. You are a monster now, a fearsome predator, his thoughts accused him. But no, evil was defined by your actions, not your capabilities, he countered. And he would never willingly harm anyone.
All the same, several times carts stopped in the middle of the road and the drivers drew longbows, firing at Tuco when he flew overhead. The third time, the arrow actually struck him, clattering off his scales. The fourth time, he caught the arrow and flung it back toward the archer below with an indignant roar. He wasn’t doing anything to them! Why should they fire at him? After that shot, however, he veered off to fly some distance from the main road. Travelers still noticed and pointed at him, but never came near enough to feel the need to hide or fire at him. Still, it was harder to find his way home from the sky. On the ground, the world was limited by roads; above, the countryside extended boundlessly in all directions. Many times, he had to descend to the ground—a maneuver which he still had not mastered, sending him stumbling into awkward runs upon touchdown, with horrible jolts that left monstrous tracks in the earth—to examine road signs too faded to read from the air. Once, to read a sign, he had to circle an intersection for nearly an hour before frightened travelers moved far enough away for him to land without terrifying them.
All the same, his flight proved a swift and expedient way to travel. The journey to Abyssus Abbey from his home had taken the better part of a week, on foot and hitching rides on carts when he could; yet by the time twilight fell, he reckoned he had journeyed nearly half the distance back toward his home. Though his wings seemed not to tire, and darkness proved no obstacle to him in his flight, as the sun set before him, he decided some rest was in order, and veered farther away from the road.
His stomach complained mightily of hunger, but it was not as though he could stop in a tavern and purchase some roast chicken and vegetables and ale. You could, he thought idly. Who would dare refuse one such as you of anything he demanded? But even if he dared show himself, and even if those in the tavern were bold enough to stay about and serve him, he couldn’t be sure that, thinking him a fiend, they would not slip poison into his meat or ale. Their world was not his anymore, he knew—though Belial’s promise that wherever he went, he would fit in, tugged at his musings. He still was unsure what that meant. But if he belonged anywhere, he belonged at home, so that was where he would go, and besides, he had no coin for food or bed in an inn.
Winging his way across the countryside, he found himself following the line of a dark forest, its trees tall and ancient, lining a meadow that the moon limned with silver light. A stag had ventured out into the lea, tentatively sampling the grasses there. The spread of its antlers put Tuco in mind of Hhalbor, and sadness and anger filled him, remembering how his friend had thrown him from the roof of the Abbey, for all he had known, to the death.
But then hunger snarled its way through Tuco’s belly, and before he knew what he was doing, he had folded his wings and was diving on the hart. It lifted its head in alarm as its ears caught the sound of Tuco hurtling toward it, and it turned to bolt, but was too late. Tuco’s talons sunk into the creature’s back and flanks as he bore it down to the earth. It bleated a foggy gasp of terror as it went down, and then its throat was between his jaws and its hot blood was in his mouth. His appetite took over then, and for a moment he was lost in the rich flavor of venison and the increasing fullness of his belly. It was only after several minutes that he came back to himself and realized what he was doing; yet even then, he didn’t back away from the carcass in horror as he might have done. Did not all men eat meat? Did they not hunt for sustenance? He had simply done the same. Perhaps he might have poached from the Empress’s wilderness, but other than that, he could see no wrong in it. He had hunted and fed, and if he possessed personal attributes to make that easier for him, even if unusual where was the shame? Add a bow, a knife, and a cooking fire, and there was no difference.
Still, he could not deny the predatory thrill he had felt swooping down on his prey out of the darkness, and when he had sated himself, he did his best to clean the blood from his scales and talons. He would have cooked it, he told himself, had he means to make a fire, but fresh and hot from the life still beating through it, the meat had tasted better than anything he’d had in days.
He would have liked to doze for a while with a full belly, but he thought it best to continue on toward home as quickly as he could. The problems in the Abbey would not wait for his dawdling; he had Brothers and apprentices being sent to the Throat, and who only knew if Pike, Etreon, and Braxus were safe. It felt like ages since Tuco had seen them. But he couldn’t return now, not when Brother Gabriel and his monks had that terrible enchantment that he had no way of fighting, and certainly not without understanding what exactly Belial had done to him. Home would give him the time and familiarity to find himself again, to collect his thoughts and his determination. The sooner he reached it, the sooner he could gather his valor and return to the Abbey.
Besides, he did not care for the look of the forest he had landed in. All knew that monstrous apprentices and Brothers who had escaped from the abbey roamed the forests below, and though Tuco thought he had winged his way far enough away to avoid the Dreadwood, the plants here looked strange and sinister: black and purple in color; the trees around him were thorny, and a low, sulphurous mist settled in the gullies between them. Tuco was not overly concerned about any predators that might be lurking in the forest, but still he found it not a nice place to spend even an hour napping. He prowled toward a clearing wide enough to permit his wingspan, bunched his thighs, and launched himself into the air again, lifting himself clear of the treetops with powerful beats of his wings.
He stopped again by a stream to properly clean away the deer’s blood, but beyond that, he made no further delays in his journey. He flew over small hamlets and villages that slumbered peacefully, never knowing a devil winged his way above them. From the night sky, the little lights in their windows glittered like stars, and put him in mind of the false stars that twinkled in the Abyss. Fields that would have been wide promises of hard labor on the ground were broad patches that passed by in moments. Tuco could scarcely believe his own speed; more than one startled bird veered out of his path as he soared onward.
Night turned to day, and he found several times he had to swoop down to examine road signs to find the way back to his hometown—he had never made the return journey by foot, and from the air, nothing at all looked familiar. Early evening had arrived by the time he finally spotted the familiar thatched roofs and stone cathedral of his home, and a sharp twinge of nostalgic longing thrummed through his chest. He had never expected to see home again. Now, though he longed to alight and visit his old haunts, and though his wings were finally wearying from the constant flight, he did not dare show himself to the villagers. And so, reluctantly he flew a little ways off toward a field that lay fallow and untended, and rode the air in idle circles as he waited for the sun to set.
When at last darkness fell and he felt reasonably sure of going unseen, he glided back to his family’s home and lit on the ground, folding his wings. Crickets sang in the grass all round, and he smelled rich earth and manure. The air carried smoke from the hearth, with the scent of a stew cooking; his keen tongue caught the flavors of mutton, cabbage, leek, onion, and carrot, along with fresh bread. More unsettling, he realized that he could smell his family, noting each of them by their own distinct scent, though he had never learned to identify them like that when he had resided at home. Too, he could smell that there were four goats in the yard; his mother had tended five before, but the eldest was no longer there; it must have died or been slaughtered sometime in his absence.
Trying to keep his steps light, he crept closer to the house. It looked distressingly small; he could hardly believe he had grown up there. Even hunched over, he could not have squeezed himself through the front door, and were he to stand by the wall, the windows would look out onto his navel. Stretching upward, he found that he could nearly reach the roof of the second story with his fingertips. How could this little playhouse be the same building he had run around in, eaten every meal in, sheltered in all winter from the snows? His dreams of sneaking inside to sprawl once more on his own pallet or sit at the table for a home cooked meal were dashed.
Tones of some argument between his parents floated from the open window again, and despite himself, he crept closer, straining his ears. The goats must have spotted him or caught his scent, though, because one bleated a scream of alarm, and the others immediately followed in kind. A clattering came from the yard as they scrambled away from a perceived predator, bleating like mad.
“Something’s upset them,” came the muffled voice of Tuco’s father.
“Well, go and see. It could be a fox. Or Rolf Tarrymoor wandering drunk again.”
Someone clumped to the window and Tuco drew back into the shadows, holding his breath. Ever since he’d left home, he’d imagined over and over how seeing his family again would go. They would be shocked at first, but they knew the Abbey’s reputation and would have expected him to change. And once he showed them how strong and capable he was, they would admire his changes and, though it would be difficult for a while, would learn to love and appreciate his new self just as much as they had his old. More than that, he reflected hopefully, as he’d never exactly been the favorite son. But he hadn’t prepared himself for the moment, and besides, he suddenly realized, he was naked, and although they were his parents, he couldn’t exactly claim that how he looked now was nothing they’d never seen before. And his father responding to his incubus powers was too mortifying to consider. He never wanted to find out what kind of dick his father found most attractive.
So he hunched in the shadows and stayed very still as the window shutters were pushed open, emitting the warm glow of firelight spilling in a square across the yard, accompanied by the soul-deep scents of home. His father pushed his head out the window and peered back and forth, squinting in what Tuco supposed was deep darkness. “Don’t see nothin’,” he announced.
“Well, go out and have a look round! You don’t suppose a fox would sit politely in front of the window waiting for you to peep out at it, do you?”
The shutters closed around his father’s mutters, and footsteps moved toward the front door. Well, this was it. No avoiding the meeting now unless Tuco took to the skies. He cast about in panic for something to wrap around his middle, and found nothing but an oiled canvas used to keep hay and firewood dry in the rain. Lacking anything better, he swooped it up and managed with some difficulty to gird his loins with it, though the bulge in front was nearly as obscene as nudity.
He withdrew behind the house just as his father leaned out of the front door, holding a rushlight in one unsteady hand. “Anyone out there?”
Tuco peered around the corner, and was astonished at how small his father appeared now; always he had been much taller and broader than Tuco, but now he seemed almost childlike in stature, despite the workman’s stoop to his shoulders and his labor-thickened frame. And yet he seemed much older than Tuco remembered him; the grizzle in his beard had spread to his hair, and the lines in his face had deepened.
Tuco longed to call out to him, but told himself now was not the moment—not just yet. Not until he could make himself more presentable.
Something tickled at his legs and he nearly leapt in alarm; looking down, he saw that brambles from the yard had somehow entangled themselves about his thick calves and thighs as if they’d grown up around him. The yard was thick with the things, which was surprising; typically the goats stripped away anything remotely edible, and thorns concerned them little. These were nasty-looking brambles too, with finger-long thorns that glistened as though with poison, growing on gnarled, woody vines. Tuco leaned against the wall of the house as he tried to kick them free of his legs, and as he did so, the whole building canted to one side with the loud groan of complaining timbers. Cries of alarm came from within, followed by hushed whispers, and Tuco’s father whirled in his direction so fast it nearly put out his rushlight.
His jaw went slack as he stared directly at Tuco, his hand trembling. “Who’s there?” he demanded. “What are ye?”
Tuco nearly cursed himself—he’d forgotten the red flash of his eyes in the darkness. Well, nothing for it now. “Don’t be afraid,” he said as he stepped around the side of the house. “I know I look different, but it’s only me, Father.”
His father stumbled backward and fell sprawling into a puddle, dousing his light. His face had gone taut with terror. “Do not harm me nor my family, I beg ye, creature. We’re good, God-fearing folk. Oh Lord Almighty, protect us now!”
The fear on his father’s face was like a knife wound. “I’m not going to hurt you,” Tuco said, holding out both hands. “It’s me, Father, it’s—it’s your son, Tuco.”
For a time his father just stared up at him, his face white, his eyes searching. Tuco wondered how dark it was for him, how much he could make out of his son’s changed shape. “It cannot be,” he breathed. “The voice is like, and yet unlike. Almost I could swear I know ye.”
“You know the Abbey changes people. We discussed it before I left. You remember? And you told me that—that—”
His father’s face softened. “That no matter how you changed, you’d always have a home here. Aye, but…”
“I’ve changed a lot, Father. And doubtless I will change further. A great deal has happened.”
Stiffly, his father pushed himself to his feet. “Does that mean you’re home, then? We never received your last stipend, nor nary a letter from ye in all that time.”
“Lawrence? Lawrence, what is it?” came Tuco’s mother’s voice. She pushed open the shutters and instinctively Tuco stepped back again from the golden spill of light.
His father waved a hand at her. “Go back inside, Milly, it’s all right, I’m taking care of it. Nothing to worry about.” He was trying to keep his voice reassuring, but if Tuco could hear the tremble in it, his mother surely could as well.
“You don’t want the light? Your rush has gone out.”
“Clumsy me, slipped in the mud. But no sense in letting all the warmth out. I’ll be back in in a bit.”
Suspiciously, she added, “You seen that fox? The whole house lurched like it were pushed. Like a giant sat upon it.”
“Strong wind, I expect. Like as the same that sent me in the mud. Go, go.” He waved his hands at her until she narrowed her eyes and closed the shutters again. Once there was no more than a crack of light across the ground, he came closer, peering up at Tuco. “So, it’s my son in there, is it?”
Relief swept over Tuco. He had so deeply feared not being recognized, not being acknowledged. “Yes, but a lot has changed. The Abbey is… in turmoil. Everything there is so dangerous. There’s a madman running the place, and he’s had everyone thrown out and, Father, everything seems so uncertain now. I know what we were taught in church, but there was so much we didn’t know about Paradise and the Abyss, and Sathanus and the Almighty and the Apocalypse. I’m so lost. I don’t know what’s true anymore.”
His father rubbed at his chin, fingers scriffling through his beard. “Well, I ain’t no priest, and I’ve no wisdom they couldn’t offer better. Just a carpenter who’s seen better times. But if ye are my son, well, he’s got a good heart in him. I seen it raising him. When we needed the money for taxes and to pay off our eldest’s debts, I knew t’were only he who could join all them monks and—and—” he broke off, rubbing at his temples, scowling as though something pained him. “Anyway, if ye are he, then you’ll know what to do. Listen to that heart of yourn, for it’s there that God speaks to ye. And he cares not what shape ye wear as long as ye treat others with kindness and mercy. So and I taught him, and so he ought to remember.”
He lifted his eyes to Tuco’s shadowed face again, and again Tuco saw him falter at his monstrous visage. “Have ye come to stay, son? Or will ye return to the Abbey? If not, I reckon ye could plow a field with one hand if ye’d a mind to. Though it might be trouble finding employ in your current… configurement.”
“I’m sorry they’re not sending you the money, Father. I’ll see what I can do about that. But I don’t think I can stay. My friends at the Abbey need me. There’s great evil there, and I think perhaps only I can stop it.” His heart sank at the naked relief that passed over his father’s face when he said he couldn’t stay. “But—but I needed to come back, just to know that I wasn’t forgotten, that…” He couldn’t quite keep his voice from breaking. “That I still had a home.”
“Oh, Tuco.” Warmth filled his father’s voice. “I hear ye in there. Your voice is like a lion’s, but I hear my son within it. I’d know ye even if ye hadn’t told me.” He stepped up to Tuco, arms wide for an embrace.
And then he faltered, stumbling. “Something—something’s strange. My head…” He lifted his hands to his temples, rubbing at them. He pressed his fingers to them and then jerked them back with a gasp. Two black points were growing from his forehead, little nubs of horns that were steadily stretching upward.
Tuco’s heart sank. “Oh no, Father, what did you wish for?” Amidst everything else, all the changes and curses and challenges he’d faced lately, he had forgotten about his devil logos, transforming others according to their conscious and unconscious desires. He backed away from his father, almost stumbling because again, the black briars had grown up around his legs.
“Wish for? What do ye mean?” His father stared at him with eyes that were going red and slitted. “I wished for naught, save that ye might be home with us again. And where’s the darkness gone of a sudden? The world looks so strange.” Fear twisted his expression. “What’s happening to me?”
“No. No,” Tuco murmured, and hurried backward from his father. “You’re changing, and it’s all my fault.”
“Changing?” Fangs flashed in his father’s gasp. “But–but how? Did ye haul back the infernal forces with ye somehow?” He groaned suddenly and bent to remove his boots, which were bulging at the toes. He managed to prise one off of his foot, but thick, taloned toes burst through the end of the other before he could get it off. “Not me good boots,” he protested.
“I’m–I’m so sorry, Father. I need to stay away from you!” Trying to keep the tears from his eyes, Tuco scrambled further back. And now he saw clearly what he’d been missing the whole time. It was not just his father that was changing. Everywhere he’d stepped, the grass had turned wild and dark, purple and black, filled with briars. Where he’d leaned against the house, the wooden wall had become gnarled and twisted.
“Wait, son!” In a stumbling gait, nearly tripping over his oversized feet, his father came after him, a tail slithering out of the back of his tunic to wave in the air behind him. “Ye must tell me what’s happening, and how to change it back!” His clothes seemed increasingly ill-fitting, bulging around shoulders that were definitely broader than a moment ago, thicker thighs stretching his leggings.
Tuco’s vision misted. “I can’t. I’ll only make things worse!” And before his father could say another word, he spread his great wings wide and leapt into the air. He lifted higher, the wind knocking the small man who had raised him off his feet to sprawl in the grass, the black color spreading as briars continued to grow.
Even as his wings lifted Tuco from the ground, dismay seemed to bear him down again. What had he done to his father? What was happening to the grass beneath his feet? It made no sense. The words of Belial echoed in his ears: Wherever you go, you will fit in. No place will be closed to you, no doors barred. All will accept you as one of their own.
But how could that be true? If anything, he stood out more than ever. Could the devil simply have lied to him? But then that would make their deal invalid. The souls he had given, the promise never to act against the Count of the Abyss… all of it negated. If Belial had truly reneged, then perhaps there was some way to undo the change, some way to transform his father back. But the devil was surely craftier than that. There must be something Tuco didn’t yet understand.
He flew higher, and glided through the night on outstretched wings, circling his hometown in thought and worry. After a time, he fretted that someone might look up and spy him, so he spiraled down toward the town commons and alit on the hill at the center. Here there stood a few wooden stalls, a pillory, and a raised platform that could be used for speeches, as a stage, or, more rarely, as a gallows. He settled there, and the boards creaked in complaint, but after a moment, they too began to change, hardening into something like glossy black stone. At least here there was no one he could accidentally change.
As if in answer to that thought, an owl swooped toward him out of the night sky and perched atop one of the stalls, watching him idly as it settled its wings. He gazed back at it, thinking to himself that he’d never seen an owl flying so visibly; before now, his eyes had not been able to penetrate the darkness. Even as he watched it, a change began to thread through its feathers. One by one, they turned brilliant red, and it seemed that flame flickered among them. The owl turned its head about, and then about again, and when it looked back at him, four eyes blinked in separate pairs. Its talons thickened, digging into the wood of the stall as though it provided no more resistance than cold butter. Sparks lit in its eyes, and it took to wing again, leaving smoke trails in the air as it flew off.
Tuco stared after it in bemusement, hoping it didn’t end up burning down a forest or someone’s barn. What could be happening? He watched it wing its way over the town, a burning spark sailing over the houses. Beneath him, the odd, smooth stone continued to shift and change; he felt as though he were sinking into it, and yet his eyeline was rising. He looked down and saw that what had once been a wide wooden platform was now a strange, arcane-looking outcropping of mirror-black stone. It lifted up under his arms and rose behind his back, allowing space for his tail to slide through the support. It was oddly comfortable, he thought, as he leaned back into it, and it conformed to his shape, his muscles and spikes, supporting under his wings, as though it were a chair or… no, he realized. A throne. And it was rising higher. The town itself was changing to accommodate him.
He caught his breath as the import of Count Belial’s words suddenly became clear to him. He had assumed Belial’s spell would transform him to fit in anywhere he went. But what if, instead, it transformed everything else to fit him? Ludicrous, he told himself. It would be inefficient and costly, a tremendous waste of souls.
But Belial wouldn’t be wasting his own souls, now would he? Not when you’ve committed all of yours to his needs.
The ground rumbled as his stone chair ascended, more of that glossy black rock spreading everywhere. It reminded him a bit of limbostone, but no souls were trapped within. He wondered if the sound would wake the town, and scanned the houses nearby. No lights illuminated nearby windows. All around him, great claws of stone were erupting from the earth, curving toward him, as though he were held in the palm of a giant, many-fingered hand, or as if he had become the still-beating heart in the ribcage of some titanic beast. Staying seemed dangerous, but he could scarcely leave; his wings were still exhausted from the flight, and traveling on foot meant spreading this infernal contagion, altering any passersby he encountered.
Now, it seemed, people had a legitimate reason to fear him—despite his good nature, he could not keep from altering those around him. Besides, he couldn’t leave until he found some way to help his father. Looking like a devil in a God-fearing town like this could end up with him tied to a pyre. But what could Tuco even do about that? He could swear up and down that his changes were not evil, but who would ever believe him?
He sat in his rising throne and watched with interest and dismay mingled as his influence spread, the wooden market stalls lining the commons growing and stretching into twisted, eldritch shapes. Even the nearby homes appeared to be warping and stretching a little. Were there people in their beds changing, even now? Uneasily, he wondered if he oughtn’t to fly out to the middle of a field until he could decide what to do. At least there he wouldn’t risk changing others.
He caught a flash of eyes glinting in the night. Someone was coming toward him, someone with horns and a wildly waving tail, running awkwardly as though unused to the weight and shape of his body. There was only one person that could be.
“Stop!” he called out before his father could get too close, and winced at the way his voice boomed through the night air. All the birds and insects went abruptly quiet. His father stopped running, but still continued forward, his large, taloned feet crunching along the road soil. He paused when he reached the black mirrorstone, but continued after testing his weight on it. “Don’t come any closer, Father,” Tuco beseeched. “I’ll only change you more.”
“Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say,” his father said. His tail waved in the air behind him as he approached. “What have ye done, son?” He stared up at the shining, black throne that towered over the town. “Do ye mean to rule us?”
“No!” Tuco burst out, and then winced again at the timbre of his voice; if he didn’t want people coming to investigate the indignant lion roaring in the center of their town, he’d better moderate his tone. “No,” he said again, more softly. “This is… a curse of sorts that’s been put upon me. I didn’t know this would happen.”
His father scratched the back of one leg with his foot, toe talons shredding his legging. “Then what is it ye intend?”
Tuco shook his head. “I’ve no idea now. I just need to think. I can’t easily go back to the Abbey. There are people there who mean to kill me, and—” The cavalcade of impossible experiences queued up behind his lips, and he realized he could not possibly explain to his father everything that had happened to him, or why he’d made the decisions he had. How would he start it? On the day I was admitted to the Abbey, I looked at a man so beautiful he turned me into a buggerer. What a beginning. No, this story could not be told. He sighed. “I’m so sorry this happened to you. I didn’t know.”
His father looked down, horns lowering. It looked to Tuco that they were still growing, even at this distance. “I believe ye son, and I trust ye, but… it weren’t only me. That were changed, I mean to say.”
Tuco stared at him. “What?”
The man spoke reluctantly, not meeting Tuco’s gaze. “I first noticed the goats in the yard. Twice their size, they were, and four-horned. Evil-lookin’, if ye don’t mind my sayin’ so. And then there came cries from inside. I rushed in, callin’ your mother’s name, and—sure an’ they screamed at the sight of me at first, but whatever ye’d done to me… your mother, son. The horns. Her eyes.”
“No,” Tuco breathed in horror.
“And not just her. The curse, as you name it, has touched all of them. Horned every one. Teeth like wolves. Some grown half out of their clothes. Tails whipping around their ankles. Crying, afraid. And so I ran after ye. I could see in the night like t’were day. I knew it were risk to me but I thought maybe, were I to catch ye, ye’d know what ye’d done and could undo it.” His clawed hands opened and closed into fists at his sides. He looked up at Tuco with a flash of hopeful red eyes.
Unwillingly, Tuco spoke the awful truth. “I cannot undo it, Father. I fear no one can. The changes wrought by a devil cannot be undone. Even my own cannot be taken away. Surely the Almighty could restore you, though, should you beseech Him.”
There was a long silence. “Aye, and I will pray for it. I’ve not been the most righteous man in my life, but perhaps He will hear me—if not for my sake, then at least for the little’uns. But what are we to do? The townsfolk are good people, but not always… understandin’, if ye take me. If they see us creepin’ around with horns and fangs, they’ll…”
He didn’t need to speak the words he could not utter. Tuco knew what they would do. Hang them, if they were lucky. More likely, burn them at the stake. He thought of his sisters, his brothers, crying as they were tied to wooden poles, the flames rising toward them, and before he realized it, he had leapt to his feet, spreading his wings, his claws splayed. “I will never let that happen!”
His father flinched back, putting both hands up, his red eyes wide, as though he expected Tuco to swoop down on him. He shivered and resettled himself. “Then… you mean to stay and protect us?”
The words “of course” hung on Tuco’s lips. He could try. He could stay here and greet the town, seated on his rising throne of black glass, and with his impossible strength and impenetrable scales, defend his family from the townsfolk. And the corruption that spread away from him at each step would gradually make its way through each of them, transforming them into creatures in his own image. Their houses would turn into dark palaces, their animals into demonic beasts. In time, brambles would envelop the town, and he would belong to it, a dark lord ruling over his dominion. And sooner or later, minstrels and tradesmen would carry the tale of what had happened to other towns. Word would reach the Empress, and she would send hunters, soldiers, perhaps an army, and Tuco would be forced to combat or corrupt them all. His influence would spread across the world, costing him countless souls.
Surely this was what Count Belial had intended—not to take Tuco’s souls, but to use him and his power to spread infernal influence across the world, to corrupt everyone he could. And when the armies of Paradise arrived for the final battle, they would find it already lost. Abyss on Earth. And then Tuco realized something else: the choice to stay and keep his family safe was a false one.
“I cannot,” he admitted. “If I could, if staying would help you, then surely I would, but there are dark forces after me, Father. The one who cursed me and worse than him. Remaining here, even to defend you, would only put you in greater danger. When they come for me—and they will—it is better that none of you are close to me.”
His father stared at him in dismay, the light in his eyes dimming. “Then we must flee,” he mumbled. “All of us. Find some abandoned hut in the forest and live on our own. We can hunt and fish, perhaps, enough to feed us, if we find the right place, but… there is no other choice for it, is there? We cannot risk what they’ll do to us if they find us.”
Tuco thought for several minutes. “There may be something I can do. It might be enough to protect you all. For a while, at least.”
“Aye?” A thread of hope in his father’s voice.
“I’ll do my best,” Tuco promised. “Go home and wait for me. Hide with the others, and I’ll return when I think it’s safe for you.”
“I knew ye wouldn’t let us down,” his father said, his voice cracking with relief. And growing deeper, Tuco noticed, just from being near him. His tail seemed to be lengthening as well, swaying behind him.
“Go, then. I have a busy night to come.”
Tuco leapt into the air with a great push of his wings, rising up into the night sky. He looked back at his father, scurrying toward their home. In the market square, the black seat jutted high, both regal and ominous, a throne for a devil lord.
Candlelight still burned in the sanctuary of the cathedral, and from within came the mumbled tones of Father Thomas, saying Compline before bed. Though prayers were meant to be open to all, the doors to the cathedral were barred, a fact Tuco learned by accident when the crossbar splintered when he tugged at one of the doors. The priest whirled around at the sound, dropping his prayer book at his feet. “Almighty preserve us,” he breathed as Tuco squeezed his bulk through the entryway and stood towering over the pews.
Tuco had expected brambles or more of that black mirrored stone to sprout around his feet, but here, the rough stone of the cathedral floor lightened in color, changing to smooth marble, a gleaming white with veins of gold running through it. He stepped forward, his talons clicking against the spreading marble. The support pillars of dull grey turned a palatial alabaster, and the rough-hewn pews of pine transformed into rich, shining cherrywood. Plush cushions of gold and forest green and fuschia blossomed like flowers along them.
The scriptures slipped from Father Thomas’s fingers to lie strewn across the floor as he backed up against the altar. With one hand he made the sign of the tree before him. “Vile creature!” he stammered. “How dare you enter this holy space?”
“But I am not vile, Father Thomas,” Tuco purred, dipping his talons into the basin of holy water along the aisle as he passed—the tarnished brass brightened to a brilliant gold, the water turning crystalline. “You see? Could one who has no love for the Almighty enter here?”
He breathed in, tasting the priest’s sins, and was shocked to discover there were so many. The man’s hunger for a life of ease was a powerful scent among them, but he had lusts, too, lusts for men and women of the town that were amplified by his vow of chastity, his staunch determination never to sate them. He yearned for belonging, and guarded jealously his position of respect in the town that kept him superior to others, and he longed to give in to these feelings, to enjoy them, not to toss with guilt and shame over whatever paltry desires he allowed himself to indulge. Position and Ease, those were the temptations that dominated him. But Tuco was a devil of carnal pleasures, after all, and so he let a thread of his power loose, untying all the psychological knots that poor Father Thomas had bound around his desire.
It was like poking a hole in a dike; the priest buckled to his knees before the altar of his lord, his hips twitching as he painted the inside of his cassock with his seed, crying out in shock and pleasure and shame. “But—but you have caused me to sin,” he panted, his cheeks going red.
“No one can cause another to sin,” Tuco answered with a sharp smile.
“But I did not intend it!”
“Then it cannot be a sin, can it? It is a gift I give you, one of pleasure.” He strode forward, spreading his wings. Around him the rough stone cathedral was transforming into a gleaming temple of light. “Would you like me to give you more?”
Father Thomas shook his head, sweat shining on his reddened face. “I—”
“You would not lie in the house of the Almighty, would you?”
The priest cast his eyes down. His hands were white where they gripped the altar behind him. “You are a fiend. A creature from the other side. You must be. I confess I would like it, but—but it is due to my weakness, my sin that I—”
“Your desire.” Tuco allowed that thread of his power to grow stronger as he approached the altar, and the priest moaned, his dark eyes rolling back as he found his vigor renewed. “And who gave you that desire, Father Thomas? Who gave you your balls, your cock? Was it not He who calls himself Father, just as you do? And what is a Father but someone who has felt that pleasure? It cannot be wrong. It brings us children, ecstasy, love. It is good, and all good things…”
“…come from Him,” mumbled the priest.
“Remove your vestments,” Tuco suggested. “Show the Almighty the body he gave you.”
“In—in the Garden, our progenitors knew they were naked before the Almighty, and were ashamed.”
“It was their shame that was the sin,” Tuco answered. The words seemed easy, true. “What else could shame over the bodies their maker had given them be but sin? Rejoice in the nakedness the One Above gave you.” He moved closer and, as if in a trance, Father Thomas untied the laces of his vestments and pulled them up over his head. So, too, he stripped away his undergarments, standing nude and rigid with lust before the altar.
He was an aging man, in his early sixties, and the thick pelt of hair that curled over his frame was dusted with white. His body was round from a life of ease, sagging with both age and fat, and his short prick jutted up into his belly, oozing his desire. His cheeks were splotched scarlet with embarrassment and lust. And Tuco saw in him one of the many shapes of Elf.
“You are beautiful,” Tuco said. He discarded with a casual flick of his tail the canvas he had wrapped around his middle, revealing himself to the priest, and as he did, he felt his shaft change to something human in shape but inhuman in size, extending up and spilling its liquid pearls across the marble.
And now his influence touched Father Thomas as well: the nubs of horns appeared on the priest’s forehead. They thickened and grew backward, curling like ram’s horns. The shepherd becomes the sheep, some part of Tuco’s mind said with a chuckle. “You want me,” he told Father Thomas. “And you shall have what you want.” He stepped forward, placing his hands on the trembling priest’s shoulders, and as he did, the effect of his magic increased. The hair on the priest’s legs grew denser, coarser, thickening into fur that spread across his thighs and down his calves. His feet stretched out, toes extending, becoming encased in cloven hooves.
“What—what are you doing to me?” the priest stammered.
“Blesssing you,” Tuco told him, and he did not even know the lie until he heard the hiss of his tongue, but Father Thomas’s eyes lit with reverential awe. This was it, Tuco knew. This was how he could save his family. Deviltongue could save them all, at least for a time. He leaned down to press a kiss on the priest’s mouth, and the priest opened to him, soft and hungry. “All who carry my touch are blesssed,” he hissed in the holy man’s ear, and then with both arms he lifted Father Thomas and laid him back on the altar, candles and reliquaries spilling to the floor behind.
A moment of panic broke through the priest’s arousal. “The reliquaries,” he protested.
Tuco looked over the altar where his influence had already begun changing the fallen tallow candles into sweet beeswax, the wooden sticks transforming into gold. The relics, too, changed in their boxes, their lids adorned with his mark, the three circles nested in the larger one. “They… they are blessed too,” he said.
In the back of his mind, he wondered—how could his influence change the artifacts of the Almighty? Surely they should be immune to his fiendish aura, blessed as they were by Paradise. But perhaps these things were not holy? Perhaps Father Thomas was false? Still, he could not deny the effect he was having on this supposedly sacred place as he cradled the stout priest in his arms and felt the fur spread, mingling with coarse hair as it formed a line up to the matted tangle covering Father Thomas’s chest. “Do you wish me to enter you?” he asked, as he gripped lengthened ankles and lifted them high, seeing that a short goat’s tail had sprouted behind furred buttocks. He let his tip rest against the entrance, which jumped at its touch, and he coated it with his precome, giving a little nudge.
“Forgive me,” murmured the new satyr. “Forgive me, but yes.”
“There is nothing to forgive. Pleasure is sacred,” Tuco told him, and slowly sank his shaft into Father Thomas’s inner sanctum. It felt like weeks since he’d felt the warm grip of a rump around his cock, even though it had scarcely been more than a day. The incubus in him had hungered for it, and the heat and thrill flooded through him. He could tell by the way the priest twitched and clenched around him that he had never experienced this pleasure before, but Tuco was an incubus, and knew just when to push forward, just when to pause, just when to feed little threads of lust to override the tension that might make Father Thomas clench and hurt himself. It was an art, pleasing men this way, and he was swiftly becoming a master. The priest cried out his pleasure in rising tones that held hints of a bleat in them now, and Tuco paused, watching his wondering eyes widen, the pupils stretching into bars. He leaned up, planted deep inside the reverend, and with the fingers of one hand tugged the satyr’s cock, pulling it longer, thicker, until it jutted up past his navel, his wooly balls sagging with new weight as his transformation into satyr completed
“Ble-e-e-ssed,” Father Thomas bleated as Tuco gripped his ankles again and rocked into him. He gripped the sides of the altar, holding himself in place as Tuco thrusted into him, groaning with pleasure and staring upward at the temple as the white marble spread to the upper vaults and the scenes in the stained glass windows transformed into images of Tuco and his many encounters with both friends and devils.
All too soon the pleasure overwhelmed the new satyr, and he tilted his head back, bucking helplessly around Tuco as his shaft jerked with climax, eyes fixed on the figure of the Almighty on the tree, the last thing in the temple to be changed, as wounds faded from the carved image of the deity’s body, and the expression on his face transformed from one of agony to ecstasy.
It was tempting, so tempting, to take some small portion of Father Thomas’s soul for himself, and for a moment Tuco opened his mouth, feeling the pull of the light inside the priest, desperate to come out and join him, but Tuco resisted the urge, and instead withdrew his staff from his follower and anointed him with his climax.
He fed Father Thomas a little more lust before he cleaned himself with the cloth from the altar and withdrew, leaving the satyr drenched in come atop it, bleating the word “blessed” over and over in a deliriously happy, if somewhat caprine, voice.
Tuco wandered along the town streets, trailing his clawtips against the buildings as he walked, in a haze that felt almost giddy. What he’d just done was so perverse, and yet it had felt so natural, so right. His conscience twinged him not the slightest. He’d given their town priest a better church, a better form, a night of pleasure he’d never forget, and on top of all that he’d protected his family as well. He barely noticed the grooves his talons carved in the stone as he walked, nor the black color that spread outward from his touch in spiraling, splitting patterns, like dark frost crystallizing across glass. Father Thomas was his; he couldn’t speak a word against Tuco’s family without turning fear against himself. One of three leaders of the town was Tuco’s, and before the night was up, he swore he’d have the next two.
Shouts came in the distance, and a torch flared, and Tuco realized he’d not been paying a thought toward stealth; his heavy footfalls were leaving deep, taloned prints in the muddy earth, with spikes like nails growing out of them. Guards rounded a corner, peering into a night that blinded them, so Tuco took this moment to bunch his legs and leap into the air, quickly rising with powerful beats of his wings. As he caught the wind, he looked over his shoulder, and could easily mark the trail he’d taken through town, the changes his influence wrought leaving an indelible path through the muddy streets. The black throne still rose from the market square, and behind it rose the gleaming white marble of the temple.
Next would be Justice Wrightwell, the town magistrate, who dwelled in generous apartments above the local courthouse. It took little time to wing his way there; Tuco couldn’t imagine how he had ever managed without flight before. He made a wide circle to be sure he hadn’t been spotted, and caught the wink of torches in the distance where guards were following his infernal trail. None of them were coming this way, and since he’d flown, it seemed unlikely they’d find their way back to his family’s house tonight.
He tried to land lightly on the roof of the court, but his wings made a great deal of noise, and the planking there didn’t look terribly sturdy. After a brief, horrifying image of crashing through the ceiling and crushing poor Justice Wrightwell to death, he decided to land in the street instead and make his way up to the apartments. There, however, he encountered another difficulty: the stairs that led to the upper floor were too narrow for him to navigate, and when he set one foot on it, the step broke through with the splintering of wood.
Well, Belial had said he’d fit in wherever he went, hadn’t he? Tuco waited, holding one foot hovering above the next step, and, after a moment, the magic set in, and the steps widened to accommodate him, bolstering themselves with wrought iron laced with silver, the wood transforming to polished granite. Each step embossed itself with a print that perfectly matched his foot when he set it down, as though inviting him upward. It was surprising to see how large his feet had grown, now that he was looking at them, each taloned toe looking large as a fist. But the stairs had reinforced themselves to support his weight, and did not even creak as he headed upward, though their widened breadth now jutted out into the alley next to the court building, which would surely annoy the drivers of any delivery carts.
At the top of the stairs, Tuco looked down at the tiny doorway. There was no possible way he would be able to squeeze himself into that little entrance. He considered tapping with a claw to summon the magistrate to the door. A moving glow of candlelight within suggested that the man had already risen. But Tuco was rather enjoying himself, and this was his town now, was it not? He would not knock like a petitioner! Instead, he braced his palm against the beam of the roof and pushed upward.
It was, he realized immediately, a mistake. With a groan of straining wood, the entire roof of the building rose, and then, cracking and snapping loudly, separated from the walls. Tuco had meant only to break the doorframe to make space to enter, and now he was holding the roof of the courthouse building over his head, the weight of it inconsequential on the heel of his hand. Dirt and splinters of wood sifted down, and below him the segmented rooms mapped out the magistrate’s chambers. Justice Wrightwell himself was scrambling into the protection of a doorway, wearing only his nightshirt and a sleeping cap. He seized a lit candle from his bedside and waved it aloft, yelling in such a comically terrified manner that it was all Tuco could do not to chuckle. At his side, a young woman whom Tuco recognized as Mrs. Beckett, the apothecary’s wife, scrambled to bunch up the sheets around herself and made a faint, quivering moan that she had probably meant to be a scream.
He hadn’t intended to frighten anyone. But you didn’t worry whether you would, did you? “Easy, easy,” he rumbled, sending out a faint pulse of lust to calm them. People couldn’t be terrified and aroused at the same time, could they?
Around his fingers, the roof of the courthouse twisted into carved, white hollywood, wide elfin branches suspending the planks between them as those melted into delicate swaths of gauzy fabric of soft and ethereal colors. The walls of the apartments lowered, until they were the low boundaries of a rooftop terrace, the roof itself supported by marble statues of Tuco, their wings spread to block the wind, the hollywood supported by their bulging arms upraised.
Justice Wrightwell was a stout little man, with thinning red hair and a meticulously shaved face that was blotched from overconsumption of spirits. Not unhandsome, in his way, but hardly the commanding figure he had seemed to Tuco when meting out judgments from his magisterial bench. He fell to his knees in amazement and lust, his mistress cowering by his side. “I pray you, do not harm me, devil! I am—I am a child of the Almighty, who has strayed but a little, but a little. I know in my heart I have committed the sin of adultery. Many, many times, perhaps, but I see now that I have erred, and O! My heart cringes at the thought of my sin.”
Tuco strode into the airy rooftop terrace, pleasantly surprised at how it blocked the cold. The magistrate and Mrs. Beckett pressed their foreheads to the floorboards, trembling. “I come not to judge you, Lucius Wrightwell, but to warn you.”
The man looked up, squinting his watery blue eyes. “Warn me?” Even as he spoke the words, Tuco’s corruption set into him, and thin black horns erupted from his brow and began to arch backward on his skull. His ears turned up into points, furring red like a fox’s, and this fur spread across his balding head, rejuvenating him.
“Indeed,” Tuco rumbled. “I share my blessing with you, as I have shared it with others. There may come those who would claim it a curse, that those like you should be shamed, punished, or ostracized. Even killed.”
The Justice blinked, and the blue of his eyes changed to a slitted red, widening as the dark of the night fled them forever. “Those like me?”
Tuco inclined his head. “And Mrs. Beckett beside you.”
Startled, she glanced up at him, and her tongue fell from her mouth, elongated and serpentine. Unbidden, it probed down beneath the bundle of sheets she clutched to find her sex, and snakelike fangs showed in her widening mouth when she gasped. “My—My Lord,” she lisped through sharpening teeth.
Tuco almost answered that he was no lord, but that would be a falsehood, wouldn’t it? He was a baron. Any lie would cement itself in their minds through his deviltongue, and these people respected nobility. It would be advantageous to have them accept it. And he could not risk the lives of his family for anything.
“You must protect and honor those whom I have blessed. Let no one within or without the village harm them. Otherwise I shall be displeased. Do you understand?”
The two pressed themselves to the floor again, even as their nails sharpened into claws, and even as their tails lengthened behind them and nestled mischievously between their legs. They both gasped with surprise and pleasure as incubus magic surged through them. “I… understand…” each managed between panting breaths.
“Good. And now I have others to visit—”
“Master?” Justice Wrightwell murmured, his eyes glowing faintly, red fur sprouting down his cheeks.
“Would you not—” The new fox-demon looked down.
“What is it?”
“Would you not lie with us before you go? You seem… ready.”
Tuco glanced down and saw that he had changed shape again, his cock having twisted into a bestial form, oversized, pointed, and dripping. The lust of his nature roared in his blood. He could hardly decline.
Sighing with satisfaction, he winged his way above the town streets. One more town leader left to affect, he thought. The priest and the magistrate were influential, but he doubted they alone could prevent a frightened mob from building pyres all over town. The Church and the Law might be powerful, but there was nothing so powerful as money. The wealthy would use every resource at their disposal to protect themselves, and there was none in town wealthier than Lord Dacre, who owned a sizeable manor on the south side of town, and had been gifted many of the surrounding lands. A good fifth of the village worked for Lord Dacre, in one form or another. None would risk turning against him, no matter how changed he might become.
Tuco landed lightly outside the manor grounds, his wingbeats kicking up the dust, and thought of how he might approach. Already the earth beneath his feet was transforming to black stone, and he thought of the white gravel paths of his own manor. It was, he realized, far finer and grander a home than Lord Dacre’s, a fact which he found greatly amusing. As a child, Lord Dacre’s wealth seemed unfathomable, and now he found the gates small and clumsily worked, the home beyond them a shadow of the splendor of his own.
The gates were barred, but he didn’t notice until he’d wrenched the bar and bent the iron pushing them open, noting ruefully that he could simply have hopped over the wall. He looked up toward the manor again and stopped in surprise. Belial was standing only a few paces away, a lazy grin on his split-stone face. One minute he hadn’t been there and now he was.
“Well, someone has been busy,” the creature purred, giving Tuco a sidelong glance. “Making a home for ourselves again, are we?”
Tuco flushed with anger. “You didn’t tell me I’d change everyone I approached!”
“Didn’t I? My, my. Well, being a Baron of the Abyss, I’m certain you don’t resent a few surprises. Especially not from your Count. Especially since any devil worth his sulphur would have seen it coming.” He glanced about. “My, but you’ve changed so many things in the short time you’ve been here. The mortal world hasn’t seen the likes of you in thousands of years.”
“And I’ve more to change, if I want to keep my family safe,” Tuco growled. “So if you’ve come here to do something other than sneer, let’s have it, or I’ll be on my way.” He strode forward as if to push past Belial, though he had to brace himself against flinching as he neared the devil.
Belial opened one wing, barring Tuco’s passage. “You’re upset, so I forgive your impertinence. But as you say, I have business with you. The changes you have wrought on the mortal plane have required a great deal of infernal power. I’m afraid, my plucky little Baron, that you have run quite out of fuel.”
“What?” Tuco asked, puzzled.
“Souls. It takes a great number of them to change the mortal world like this. And you have depleted the supply I took from you earlier. But I can’t have you not fitting in, can I? That would break our deal. I will be taking more now.”
“But it’s not even been a week!” Tuco protested.
“Well, as I said. You’ve been busy. In fact, I fear you’ve run up a deficit. I’ll be collecting now.” And with that, Belial took his souls. It was not like before, when Tuco was simply compelled to give them up against his will. Belial plunged into the darkness inside Tuco, his shadowy, taloned hand descending like a storm toward Tuco’s voidsea, dipping deep, scooping up the floating lights of souls as though catching tadpoles from a stream. Frantically, Tuco tried to separate the good from evil, keeping those who had committed minor sins from Belial’s grasp, but it was too quick, and there were too many. Belial lifted his hand from the sea, filled with hundreds of little lights, souls that darted around in frantic circles, as though aware of their danger. Then he closed his hand into a fist and snuffed them out entirely.
Tuco felt their existences vanish into nothingness—their memories, their awarenesses, all their crimes and kindnesses, all that they had been, extinguished like candle flames in a sudden gust. He heard a roar, and realized it was his own, that he was on his knees, bellowing his loss into the black stone that other souls had been consumed to transform out of the dusty earth. His roar was bestial and torn, cracking the night air.
“Oh, don’t make such a fuss,” Belial purred, putting a taloned hand on Tuco’s shoulder. “It’s only a few hundred. Why, think of how many you must have earned tonight alone! A village entire, bent to you by your own power. No pure devil could have reshaped the world this way, you know. We alter the world only through the will of the humans whose minds we touch. But you, Baron Witchywine, you are something new. Something extraordinary. For the first time since the Abyss was sealed by the One Above, devils have gained a toehold in the mortal world. I am a star ascendant. And it’s all due to you.”
“I’ll stop you,” Tuco growled. “I’ll stop you somehow.”
Belial gave him a magma-eyed stare for a moment, and then burst into laughter. “Stop me? With what? A prayer? Holy water? Do you think any of the water in that church up the hill is sacred still? You can’t even draw close to a priest without fucking him into a satyr.”
“I’ll think of something,” Tuco hissed. “Ask Asmodeus. Ask Flavros.”
“Then show me. Attack me now.” The Count tilted his head back and to one side. “Here is my throat. I shan’t fight you. I shan’t defend myself. Rip it out. Destroy me now.”
For an instant, Tuco considered doing so. But only for a moment, and then the desire fled him as quickly as it had come. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t hurt Count Belial—this was his liege-lord! The mere idea of harming Belial simply wouldn’t enter his mind; it was best forgotten. He looked up, blinking, confused about what he had just been doing. He had been… had been…
Belial straightened, contempt scrawled across his stony face. “So disappointing. How did the likes of you ascend so high? You can do nothing to me, you simpleton. Because we have a bargain and you cannot break it. You have sworn never to harm me or wield your influence against me. That was the deal. In exchange, I granted you those beautiful wings, and the power to set loose hell on Earth. So. Change whatever you like. Go wherever you wish. But know that it will cost you more and more and more and more. I suggest you set about acquiring more souls as quickly as possible. You would not enjoy being in debt to me, Tuco Witchywine. Good night.”
And with that, the Count leapt up into the sky, becoming a dark shape winging its way through the night.
Tuco paced anxiously outside his family’s home, which had continued to change. The brambles had grown into a thick and thorny forest, every woody vine pointed outward as if to ward off invaders. The house had grown large and strange, sprouting multiple levels, and it had been lifted up into the boughs of the thorn trees, the new dark arbor enclosing it in a black, wooden hand. How much had this cost? How many souls had been snuffed out of existence to make this change?
The guilt of it wracked him, and yet, even knowing the cost, knowing that the magic would take the power of more souls, Tuco had still gone to the estate of Lord Dacre. The noble had transformed into a huge, hulking toadman, bursting out of his fine clothes as he did, spines rippling over his mottled skin. And Tuco had told him, as with the others, that he was blessed, and so were the others in town who had been changed. He wondered anxiously now whether that would turn the corrupted in town against the uncorrupted, but there was nothing he could do about that. Any more attempts to change things might make things worse. Might bear a cost too terribly precious.
He gazed up at the house, which had split into several buildings, growing out along the branches of the massive, dark bramble trees. Funny, he thought. I had always wanted to live in a treehouse, like in the storybooks. Now that’s actually my family home, and I don’t get to live there. He wondered where the goats had got to, or if they’d been changed further and flown off or something.
Well, he couldn’t stay here for long. He couldn’t stay anywhere for long, not without risking changing it and condemning more souls to oblivion. “Father?” he called out, his voice echoing off the hills. The windows in the house were all lit, and he saw movement inside. “It’s him,” a voice said, and after a moment, a hulking figure appeared at the door. Little horned heads silhouetted all the windows.
“It’s me, Tuco,” a figure said in a deep voice. “It’s your father.” The door to the home had been lifted by the sprouting bramble trees about fifteen feet up from the ground. A winding set of stairs grown from thorns made a path to it, but his father eschewed these, instead making a casual hop to the ground as though simply stepping off a rock, The earth shuddered with his weight as he landed.
The demonic shape of Tuco’s father was not too dissimilar from his own, but far shorter, less broad-shouldered, more heavy-set. He’d found loose leggings that still encased his powerful thighs, but the rest of his body was unclad. “Are ye here to do more to us, son?” he asked in an uncertain voice. “Only I think we may have had all the change we can manage, us. And ye did say it were best we not be close to ye.”
“It’s true. I won’t be staying long. And… much as I’d embrace you now, I dare not get any closer. I have to leave, Father.”
“Leave? Where can ye go?”
“I can’t tell you that. But I wanted you to know that I’ve done what I can to make you safe. Others in town have been changed. Important people. The kind who would be uneasy about any talk about devil-touched. The sorts who could stop mobs from forming. I hope you and the family will be safe now. It was not me who did thisss, but a devil named Belial.” He heard the lie on his tongue too late. “I mean—I bear some responsibility, of course, but the devil—”
“No, no, son, if ye say it was not you, then I believe ye.” His father’s glowing red eyes locked gaze with his own. “With all my heart. I know ye’d never do nothin’ to harm us.”
Tuco felt miserable. “No. I do hope you all are all right. But you must understand: I probably won’t see any of you again. I want you to know I love you all. Could—could I see Mother and my brothers and sisters, just for a moment?”
His father’s face fell. “I… I’m not certain that’s a wise idea. They’ve changed so much already, ye understand, and I couldn’t risk—” He faltered, staring at the ground.
“No. No, of course you’re right. Give them my love?”
“I will, Tuco. The Almighty love ye and be with ye.”
His father held out a shaking hand toward Tuco, stepping forward. And Tuco did not trust himself not to take it, so instead he turned and leapt into the air, beating his wings hard so that the wind took the tears from his eyes, flying higher and higher until the cold threatened to freeze them to his face. And here there were only clouds—no village below, no father left behind.
Belial had not lied. It was a place indeed where he belonged. And a place where, if he had any goodness left in him, he could never stay. There was only one place in all the planes where he could do no harm. And so he turned back, winging his way toward Abyssus Abbey where he could descend once again into the Abyss.
Where he would have to stay, forever.
What Belial had told him that night made it the only choice. For the first time since the creation of mankind, the Abyss had taken hold in the mortal world. This was not just about changes, transformations. Belial meant to use Tuco as a tool. He meant to bring about the end of the world.
Around the Abbey, it seemed that the thunderstorm had never stopped. Tuco beat his wings in exhaustion, fighting intense gusts of wind, the cold rain streaming across his scales and into his eyes, his limbs hanging wearily. After untold hours scanning the bleak, grey mountain ranges in the driving rain, he’d started to believe he was never going to find it, and considered finding some crag to huddle under and try to sleep until the storm passed.
But of course, he didn’t dare stop, as he hadn’t for the entire flight back from his town. Any place he stopped would change to suit him, would cost more souls that would perish just for him. He knew he had made compromises back home. He had changed people, had changed the town, had fed lust and lies to people to protect his family, but the destruction of souls was a travesty he could not brook. And so he flew on, stopping only once to snatch up a wandering sheep as he flew. He quickly killed it before it could panic too much, and fed in mid-flight. As much as he could, he kept away from roads, fearful that even his presence in the air could spread his corruption to those below.
Again and again, he had attempted to open a crack in the world that would take him directly to the Abyss, but he couldn’t manage the trick of it. He’d only passed through it twice before–once with the help of Flavros, disguised as Hob, and the second time with Hob himself. Alone, his claws couldn’t find the crack in reality to pull open. Perhaps it was easier when closer to the Abbey; perhaps it worked only above the mouth of the Abyss itself. It didn’t work here. Finding his way back through the Throat was the only way. And so, wearily, he winged his way on.
Navigating back to the mountains had been easier than flying to his hometown, because he could see them, but once he reached the rolling grey ridges, he spent the better part of a day flying through them, looking for the passes that led back up to the Abbey, and even then, once he’d found it, he lost the track in the storm. He felt about ready to drop from the sky when a flash of lightning finally illuminated the Abbey’s craggy walls perched like a square gargoyle atop the broken crest of a mountain, and he winged toward it with the last of his strength.
He nearly overshot the roof, but folded his wings at the last moment and dropped, hitting the stones with a blow that knocked the wind from him, rolling over and over across the wet stones until he lay panting and exhausted beneath the angelic statue that had sheltered him with Hhalbor, what felt like months ago.
He couldn’t stop here. He couldn’t. Not when he would change the Abbey itself, and perhaps everyone in it, costing more souls their existence. Barely summoning the energy, he pushed himself up to hands and knees on the rain-soaked stones of the Abbey’s roof. His vision was blurred with rain and weariness. He crawled, trying to drag himself across the rooftop to the stairwell that led down below.
“Alkeides?” a small voice quavered.
He tried to focus on the little figure in front of him. Etreon, coming toward him. “Don’t,” he gasped. He lifted one hand to ward his little friend away. “Don’t come any closer. Stay back.”
The last of his strength left him, and he slumped to his side on the roof, cold raindrops spattering his scales. Through his blurred vision, he saw Etreon run toward him, calling his name. He saw the horns sprout on his little friend’s brow. And then he saw nothing at all.
When he awoke, it was still dark, and still raining. He didn’t feel as though much time had passed, but the roof of the Abbey beneath him had changed, its stones gone dark and glassy. The statue still loomed above him, but it no longer depicted an angel, feathered wings arched and sheltering. Instead, the statue was one of Sathanus, the massive, four-armed dragon devil. Tuco thought of the realm of torment and hatred that the devil had devised and shuddered. Blearily, he wondered why the curse of belonging would cause this statue to form, but he remembered that his devil logos had been stolen from Sathanus, and supposed that the abyssal magic must accommodate that side of him as well.
He was shivering and numb from the cold rain, but his strength was returning, and he managed to push himself upright and rub the water out of his face, lifting a wing to shelter his head from the storm–though careful to keep it turned against the wind. The last thing he needed now was to be gusted off of the roof to plummet down the mountainside again.
The sound of footsteps came from the stairs. It might be his friends, but it might just as easily be the Brothers of the Abbey, and with the wind blowing away from him like this, he couldn’t smell which it was. He pushed himself to his feet and cast about, looking for a place to hide as torchlight appeared in the stairwell, but unless he wanted to dive off the roof and fly away again, there was no shelter other than the statue of Sathanus. Wearily, he stumbled to the edge of the roof, shuffling his tired and aching wings, but then Pike’s voice called out, “Tuco?” from the stairs.
It seemed months since he had heard that voice. Tuco turned.
Pike stood at the far end of the roof, his ears folded back, holding up a lantern in the wind. He looked small and uncertain, peering into the gloom, and then as he made out Tuco’s shape, his muzzle broke into a grin of joy. His ears lifted, only to be blown sideways by the wind. Tuco had never loved him so much as in that moment. “You’re alive!” PIke breathed, and even though his voice was barely a whisper, it rang like a bell in Tuco’s ears. “Oh, I knew it had to be true!” And he rushed across the rooftop toward Tuco.
“Wait!” Tuco held up a hand, backing away from Pike. Unfortunately, there wasn’t far to go; the edge of the roof behind him dropped thirty feet to a lower cloister, and while Tuco felt sure he could survive that fall, he was less certain about the roof.
Pike slowed to an uneasy halt, bemusement spreading across his face. “It–it is you, isn’t it? Not another trick?”
Tuco pinned his wings tightly to his back. “Yes. Yes, it’s me, but–Belial cursed me, Pike. I’m changing everything around me. Making it… like me. More demonic.”
“Yes, I remember,” Pike answered, puzzled. “You changed me more than once, you know.”
“Not like this. This isn’t from wishes or desire. It’s just corruption, spreading away from me. Look at the roof, the statue!”
“I can’t–” Pike began, and then a fortuitous fork of lightning illuminated the whole roof in brilliant light for an instant. Pike’s eyes widened as he saw. The glassy stone of the roof. The four-armed dragon statue. The protruding spikes that had begun to grow up from the edges of the roof like jutting fangs. Pike’s response was drowned out by a deafening crack of thunder that growled up and down the mountainsides, but he took one uncertain step back.
“I can’t turn it off, Pike. I can’t stop it. And it’s using up my souls to do it, just snuffing them out like candle flames. I have to go back to the Abyss. It’s the only way.”
Pike’s ears lowered. “Well, that certainly explains what happened to Etreon.”
“Why? What happened to–”
With a cry of “Alkeides!” what looked liked like a little sapphire-scaled imp came scurrying across the rooftop toward him. He had horns, a barbed tail, and glittering red eyes, and was perhaps eighteen inches in height–bigger than Hob, but small enough that Tuco could have easily seized him up in one hand.
“Etreon?” Tuco asked in shock as the little imp danced excitedly back and forth. “Oh, poor Etreon, what have I done to you?”
The imp turned adoring eyes up to him. “You remade me in your image. And look! I’m even smaller!”
“But you shouldn’t have come close to me. You must hurry back, right away, before you change any further!”
“But I want your changes for me…” Etreon paused, and then gave a little shiver as he added, “Lord.”
Concerned, Tuco reached down to shoo him away, and as Etreon saw Tuco’s huge hand reaching for him, his red eyes grew wide and he went very still. And then clutched at his sides and hunched over. The muscles of his back were writhing under those sapphire scales, and then they stretched, bulged, and two wings like Tuco’s unfolded from his shoulder blades. He stayed crouched, panting. The new limbs made little uncertain twitches.
“All right, if I’m your Lord, then I order you to get back immediately. And fold those tight to your back before the wind carries you off the roof and I lose you!”
Etreon stood up, his eyes like saucers, and with a sound like flapping cloth his new wings clamped against his back. He gaped, baring tiny fangs, as though he wasn’t quite sure what had happened, but obediently scampered back toward Pike.
Pike just stared. “And so now he’s an imp? Just like that? That’s permanent?”
“You see?” Tuco said, extending both hands palms up. “I can’t stop it. Even as far away as you are, it’s still probably too close. And with Brother Gabriel on the rampage–”
“He’s calmed down a bit, actually,” Pike said. “Had Brothers searching the bottom of the cliffs for your body. Went on a tear through the Abbey, ransacked rooms, looking for who knows what. He’s even had the Brothers abjuring the demon enchantments, so the food is getting a little whiffy, and no one’s had clean laundry for a couple days. No demons in the Abbey, who’d have thought we’d live to see the day? But nobody else got sent to the Throat, thank the Almighty. Last anyone saw Brother Gabriel, he muttered something about a plan, went into the library, and hasn’t come out. Can’t think what he’s up to.”
“Nothing good,” Tuco said grimly. “But whatever it is, I don’t think I can help. Look, Pike, I’ve missed you terribly, but the longer I stand here, the more this… corruption, or whatever it is, is going to spread through the Abbey. I have to go. And I can’t really push past you without changing you.”
Pike dropped his gaze, and when he spoke, his voice was heavy. “Not even a quick kiss? Not an embrace? We thought you were dead, Tuco.” He looked up, his eyes brimming. “We mourned you. Hhalbor couldn’t forgive himself for what he did. We’ve had to keep someone with him.”
“I’m… terribly sorry about that. A devil saved me from dying after I fell, but there was a cost. He said I could go home, so I went. It… didn’t go well. I couldn’t do to you what happened to my family, Pike.”
The rabbit winced. “I… understand. Very well. We shall smuggle you inside and back into the Abyss.” He pointed one fuzzy finger at Tuco. “But don’t think for a moment this is the end of it. We’ll find a way to sort this out and you will be back with us.”
“All right. Thank you, Pike. I… I missed you.”
“I’ll go down with Etreon and keep lookout. He’ll carry my message when we’re certain it’s clear.” Pike gave him a long look, filled with yearning and relief and worry all at once, and then disappeared down the stairs again, Etreon scurrying after, new wings folded tightly to his back.
They seemed gone an interminable amount of time, and all the while Tuco worried about whether they’d been found by a wandering Brother or worse, detained by Brother Gabriel. And his corrupting influence crept down the walls of the Abbey. A balustrade of glittering black ice erupted from the edge of the roof, creeping farther and farther down its length and guarding the edge, making the dropoff, perversely, much safer. All the while, a low, distressing rumble came from beneath him, as though the entire building were imperceptibly sliding down the mountain. He hoped the sound was not much louder below, or surely it would rouse the Brothers.
Just as Tuco grew certain that the two of them were not returning, and was resolving to go and look for them himself, his tongue caught the scent of Etreon, now tinged with a sulphurous odor, fluttering up the stairwell. The newly fledged imp flapped just inside the stairwell, his red eyes glittering in the shadow. He was brimming with desires–for security, for sex, for love–so intensely that Tuco worried that he might instinctively change the poor apprentice more.
“Come on,” Etreon called in his tiny voice, beckoning with one arm. “Quickly, before someone else comes.”
“I’m coming. Fly ahead.” Tuco prowled as stealthily as he could toward the stairwell and ducked into it, only to feel the rasp of stone bump against his wing arms. Grumbling to himself, he stepped back, folded his wings as tightly to his back as he could, and tried to squeeze into the passage again, but even so, the entrance was just too small to admit him with his bulky body and enormous wings jutting over his head.
“Well?” hissed Etreon from down the stairs. “Hurry up!”
“I’m trying! Maybe if I crouch on all fours…” This proved somewhat successful, but the sides of his wings still scraped the walls, and he continually felt as though he were about to fall, preceding headfirst down a steep stairwell. Only his prodigious strength and the death grip of his claws prevented him tumbling downward. Halfway to the second story landing, the entire Abbey began to shake. He half-jumped, half-fell down the remaining steps, and crouched low on the landing, peering up in terror as the whole building seemed to sway and yawn around him.
There were several loud cracks, the sounds of boulders snapping in half, and all around Tuco, the walls stretched. The stairwell grew in size around him, and as it did, the rumbling and the cracks became louder. “What is happening?” Tuco cried aloud, and though his deep voice boomed throughout the hallways below, it was drowned out by the rumble and cracking of stone. In desperation, he stood and made a mad dash down the stairway. The stones of the stairwell shifted beneath his toes as he ran, the steps growing, becoming slicker as the rough-hewn stone transformed into dark, polished cherrywood. He leapt and landed on all fours in the cloister hallway, tail whipping behind him, his wings half-spread.
On either side of him, the halls were stretching, being pushed apart by the growing stairwell as the cherrywood color spilled down the steps like pouring oil, pooling around his feet. The entire Abbey was growing to accommodate him. He glanced past his shoulder and saw Pike standing, mouth agape, only a few meters away. “Get back!” he growled in alarm. “You’re too close!” Pike pivoted with rabbit swiftness to scamper away from him, but already it was too late: the sharp tips of horns were sliding up from his brow.
“I have to get out of here,” Tuco groaned. He turned to head down the next flight of stairs, the one that would take him to the long journey down into the Throat and finally to the Abyss, and stared in dismay. On the ceiling above the stairwell, glittering as though it were painted in ground-up starlight, was a circled pentagram: a binding circle strong enough to hold any devil. If he traveled that way, he’d be trapped. The Brothers had been busy.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded, turning to Pike.
The rabbit-man stood a short distance away, frowning in puzzlement. He didn’t seem to notice the lengthening horns rising from his temples. “Tell you what?”
“About the–the circle! The binding circle!” Tuco gestured toward it with both arms.
Pike peered. “What circle? Where?”
The cherrywood spread across the floor; behind Tuco, the walls were changing to white marble. A torch flared as it transformed into a crimson candle clutched in a golden sconce shaped like his own clawed hand. Desperately, he glanced up again at the circle; it stretched almost all the way across the stairwell. Even if he were the size of an ordinary man, he’d have little chance of squeezing past it. The only direct way to the Throat was closed off to him. Now what? He could probably break through the wall on the other side of the stairwell and descend like that, but he wasn’t sure how long that would take–the abbey stone walls were thick–and in the meantime the noise would certainly alert Brother Gabriel and the other monks. Still, it was the only option he had.
“I’ll have to go back,” he told Pike. “Have to find another way down.” But no sooner had he said this than he heard the sound of running footsteps coming from the upstairs hallway. Many footsteps, and shouting voices. They hesitated when they reached the stairs. “What’s happened here?” a voice asked. The unmistakable hard-edged voice of Brother Gabriel responded: “Vile magic. Go with caution. Be at the ready, Cantor Jacobs.”
Panic gripped at Tuco’s stomach as he recalled the dread incantation that had weakened him the last time he’d been here. He couldn’t go up, and he couldn’t go down, so in desperation he turned and dashed down the hallway, away from Pike, his heavy footfalls thudding against a floor that transformed from crude stone into luxurious cherrywood with every step. Windows with glass so clear it looked invisible opened up on the wall to his left as he ran, changing the gloomy cloister to one more airy and open, even if it did look out on the rain-shrouded, stony crags of the mountain. The hall led back to the room that had first led him into the Abbey on the first day he’d arrived–perhaps he could find his way out there.
He skidded to a halt so abruptly that he stumbled forward onto all fours, wings instinctively spreading, his tail lashing. Glittering in the ceiling stonework at the end of the hallway, another binding circle. He’d nearly dashed straight into it. A cold pit formed in his belly. This was deliberate. They’d planned for him to come back. He pivoted, bounding on all fours like a beast as he raced toward the other end. “Get back!” he roared to Pike and Etreon as he approached, and the two of them shrank back into the stairwell as he barreled past them. Footsteps were descending from the upper floor, the sound of many panting men, the smell of their desire for victory, their hunger to reassert their place in the hierarchy of the world, along with the stench of their fear, pouring down the steps before them.
Already fearing what he would see, Tuco raced to the other end of the hall, but slowed before he reached it. Where it met the cloister, another binding circle, this one painted into the floor, sparkling with divine power, the reagent, Tuco realized, almost certainly blessed diamond dust. Wretchedly expensive, but powerful enough to trap even the most fearsome devil. He was trapped. In desperation, he turned back down the hall, grabbing a door handle and yanking it so hard he tore the door away from the wall. He cast the flimsy wood aside and peered in, but only a storage room lay beyond, filled with piles of old cloth, broken chairs, and rusted candelabra.
“Well, well, fancy our surprise at catching you here again, Tuco Witchywine,” Brother Gabriel purred. “And we were all so certain you perished in the fall. Well. What a relief. That is you, isn’t it? I may not be able to see you, but I know you’re there.” He stepped forward, a heavy wooden staff in his hand, its clack against the floor echoing up and down the hallway like the strike of a gavel. At his side strode Cantor Jacobs, holding his silver crucifix aloft in one huge, shaggy hand. The other monks clustered behind, taking shelter behind Brother Gabriel’s severe auspices.
“Please,” Tuco said, flattening himself against the wall. “I haven’t done anything!” Behind him, the stone of the wall smoothed to white marble, cool against his scales. The entire Abbey shuddered again as the hallway expanded.
A curious expression crossed Brother Gabriel’s stern face, as though he’d been taken with a fit of gas. He reddened, his aquiline nose wrinkling, and then abruptly a bark of a laugh escaped him. “Ha! Ha ha ha!” He leaned forward on his staff, sides shaking. “Let it never be said that the Devil lacks a sense of humor. Haven’t done anything? You dare to claim this as the walls of this very Abbey are corrupted by your presence? As those you proposed to call your friends stand horned before you?” He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “It feels good to laugh after all this time. And laugh I can, for you, Creature, are finally defeated. There is nowhere to run, no force that can save you now. The light of Paradise will burn you from this world and the next.”
He nodded to Cantor Jacobs, who lifted his crucifix higher. Tuco shrank back further, stumbling right up to the edge of the circle on the floor. The entire Abbey shook again as the hallway widened itself, solid oak beams erupting to cross the hall as it enlarged, great iron chandeliers sprouting from it like blooming flowers. The only thing, curiously, that seemed unaffected by his power was the Gasen, the gargoyle-like gazers who crouched in the rafters of the hallway, scowling down at everything. The world around them changed, but they did not.
No, Tuco realized. They were not the only things that did not change. The circle drawn on the floor behind him did not, either. Of course a sigil made to bind infernal energies would not be affected by them. And if the hallway expanded enough, if he could just avoid the terrible, sickening light of Paradise long enough, perhaps the floor would expand enough to allow him to move past the circle and escape. He needed to stall for time.
“Wait–wait!” he stammered. “You must know about the four seals, yes?”
Brother Gabriel lifted a hand to Cantor Jacobs, stilling the man before he could begin his incantation. “The four seals, yes. What about them? And do not think to deceive me with your forked tongue.”
Tuco hastily withdrew his tongue, which had begun to flick in and out with his nervousness. He tried not to glance down at the floor and draw the Brothers’ attention to his plan. “One of them has already been broken. The Apocalypse is on its way.”
“You tell us nothing we do not know, Creature. The Guardian blinded. You stall for time, but it shall not avail you.”
“But–but–” Tuco stammered, feeling the wall move back behind him. He gave a quick glance down. A full foot between the edge of the circle and the wall, not nearly enough for him to squeeze by. Pity, he thought. If I’d been my old size and shape it would have been easy for me to get by. But with wings, tail, and his impossibly muscular build, he’d need another three feet at least. “But who is the Guardian who was blinded?” he asked. “You cannot see me, can you? And you guard this Abbey from all demonic incursions. The Guardian blinded mussssst be you.” He flinched as he heard his tongue hiss with infernal power, planting the lie in Brother Gabriel’s mind. And the monk’s mind was thirsty soil for that falsehood, rich as it was with ascetic vanity.
A strange spark lit Brother Gabriel’s eyes. “It’s true,” he murmured, staring past Tuco. “Who else in this place has stood against the tide of evil? And why should I be blind to you, when all others can see you? Why indeed, unless the plans of infernal powers depend upon me being unable to stop you?” He frowned. “But our histories tell us it was centuries ago that the seal was broken, not long after the founding of Abyssus. What ancient rite could have reached out to me through hundreds of years, today? And why this time, why now? What is special now? Tell me, Creature!”
Tuco considered lying to him again, spinning some story about why the seal had broken, why Brother Gabriel was, as he believed himself to be, special. But every devil’s lie seemed to create incalculable damage in the minds of those they touched. It was not his right to cause such madness, even in those who threatened him. “I do not know how or why the seal was broken,” he answered truthfully. “For I only grew my horns this year. I am too young for such knowledge.”
“And yet clearly a devil of terrible power.”
Tuco lowered his eyes. The hallway continued to stretch, the cherrywood spreading farther. Two feet now between the edge of the circle and the wall. Not far enough. He edged a little further into the space it afforded.
“And now you shall be destroyed,” Brother Gabriel continued. “Cantor Jacobs?”
The monk to his side lifted his crucifix. “In nomine Patri, et Filii, et Spiritu Sancti,” he intoned. “Lux–”
With a sudden, terrible crack, the entire Abbey shook again. The sound was so deafening that everyone, Tuco included, hunched, clapping hands to their ears. Red light, like that of a hellish fire, licked down the hallway. Then there was no sound at all but the ringing in Tuco’s ears. Uneasily, he lifted his head, straightening. Brother Gabriel and all the monks were still hunched as though caught reeling. But they moved not at all. Their robes did not sway in the draughts. Their chests did not rise and fall with their breaths. Neither, Tuco realized suddenly, did the torchlight flicker on the walls. The flames were as still as if they had been frozen. The entire hallway before him was unmoving, a tableau of pain and panic. Tuco felt a prickle across the scales on the back of his neck. He tasted sulphur on the air. With creeping certainty, he turned slowly around.
Belial grinned from just behind him, his many rows of fangs jutting from the glowing gash in his craggy mouth. “Been busy, haven’t we, Baron?” he leered. “Back to the Abbey so soon? What’s the matter? Decided you don’t want to hang around the old place? And you had it looking wonderful.” His glowing eyes roved over the hallway before him, which now looked more like a room in Tuco’s Abyssal manor than the cloister of a centuries-old stone abbey. “Fine, fine. Very classy, very tasteful. You know, Sathanus would have ruined this place. Turned it into some Lucifer-forsaken abattoir, but this? Not bad for a second-rate would-be devil.”
He inhaled deeply, his own forked tongue tasting the air. “So full of desire, this place. Almost I can understand why you wished to return. But it wasn’t for the souls, was it, boy? No, deep down within you, your soul stinks of righteousness. You sought to make your way back to the Abyss. Twas my power sealed it from you, you know. Doubtless you sought to return magically, but the Mouth of the Abyss here? Would have barred you in this world as well. Your blessing makes the world change to suit you; it is a condition of your ongoing existence, a part of the bargain you made with me. But your place in the Abyss cannot be changed by me; to go there would be to default on our agreement, which would work against my designs, and you have agreed not to do that.”
The devil shrugged stony shoulders. “And so you are trapped here. Endlessly changing the world around you to bring the Abyss to the mortal world, unable to leave, and using our dear fallen Prince’s wealth of souls to do it. There is no way out of our bargain for you. None.”
Tuco took a little step backward. “I don’t think you understand where you are right now,” he ventured.
A sneer abruptly marred Belial’s face like a crack suddenly appearing in a pane of dark glass. “You truly think this place affords you any protection? It does not. It is harder to change than other places, true, but that only means it consumes more souls. I must admit, my ambitious little incubus, I thought the souls I’d taken from you before would last months, and yet here I am, a day later, to dip my talon once again into your hoard. This time I shall take many, many more to cover your expenses.” His hate-filled eyes flashed. “Though I could, perhaps, be persuaded to take fewer, if they are of higher quality. The souls of your friends. Your family. The innocents I know you seek to protect. You may as well let me have them now, and I will leave you alone for a full century. Think of it. A hundred years to live and lust and corrupt whomever you please before I return. I’ll have all of the souls eventually, anyway. I am patient.”
Tuco looked over his shoulder, back at the group of frozen Brothers, at Pike trying anxiously to peer around them. He looked back at Belial. “No, I mean, I don’t think you understand exactly where you are right now.” He took another step back, and another, moving toward the storeroom whose door he had wrenched from the wall. There was not quite enough room to step inside. He tried pushing aside several chairs blocking his entrance and discovered that he could not move them, even with all his strength.
“Time is mine, little devil,” Belial said, stepping forward. “There is no escape for you, no way to–ahh!” There was a crunching sound as he moved, and his face flattened strangely, as though pressed up against glass. His confidence faltered. “What is this–?” he began. His hand pressed against the invisible wall, and he looked down to see the glittering lines of the circle the Brothers had inscribed on the floor. Glittering with blessed diamond dust.
The bright yellow fires in his eyes and mouth guttered and then burned a low blue as smoke billowed from his face. “No,” he muttered. “No, it’s impossible. You cannot work against me!”
“And I didn’t,” Tuco said. “This was none of my doing. Perhaps you should look where you are going.”
The devil pounded uselessly on the wall of the circle; the stony surface of his arm cracked and flaked, sending rock chips scattering across the floor, but it was futile. “You must free me,” he hissed. “To fail to help me is the same as working against me.”
“That is a terrible argument. And anyhow, what could I possibly do? Time is stopped, as you said. Nothing moves. Even if I could move things, how could I possibly free you from a binding circle? It’s devil-proof.” Tuco shrugged. “You just had to have more souls. As many as you could get.” And then he paused and laughed to himself. “I am the Baron of Greed, I suppose. Maybe you were just too tempted.”
Belial gnashed his fangs and said nothing, casting about for any possible means of escape. Tuco pointed down the hall toward Cantor Jacobs. “As soon as your time spell ends, that Brother down there is going to cast a spell that will probably destroy me. I don’t know if it will be strong enough to destroy a Count of the Abyss, but I wouldn’t throw bones over it. I don’t know how long you can keep this spell running. You did say it was very expensive, the last time you stopped time. And, well… neither of us can go anywhere.”
He looked at the smooth, polished cherrywood of the floor, and saw his strange, monstrous reflection staring back up at him. Such a lovely floor, he thought. Not what I grew up with, but so nice. He looked down the hallway and saw Pike standing on tiptoe behind the Brothers, his ears back in fear, shouting something, reaching out one paw as if he could reach Tuco and save him. And at the lead, Brother Gabriel, hunched forward, arm over his eyes. Cantor Jacobs, holding aloft his crucifix. Soon, none of this would be his problem anymore.
He looked back at Belial, who still shook his head in disbelief. With every second, the fires inside him seemed to burn lower. “Well,” Tuco said, “I’m ready if you are.”
Black smoke billowed from Belial’s eyes and mouth as the embers within him hissed and popped. “It’s unfair,” he growled low. “I did everything right. It was perfect. A perfect plan.” And then with a rush of sound and fury, time returned.
And time brought with it the echo of Belial’s teleportation thundercrack rolling down the hall, the groans of the Brothers as they clutched at their ears. “Tuco! Tuco!” someone’s voice called from down the hall, but Tuco couldn’t see anyone.
“What in blazes?” Brother Gabriel shouted–probably over the sound of his ears still ringing–as he stood upright, his widening eyes fixed on the smoke-billowing figure of Belial, trapped within his binding circle. He turned a scowl to Tuco. “Did you try to summon help, fiend? It will avail you nothing. The both of you will be obliterated. Cantor Jacobs? Cantor Jacobs!” he snapped, swatting at the bear-armed man who still rubbed at his ears in obvious pain.
“Yes… yes,” the monk answered, and lifted his crucifix once again. “Lux Mundi!” he called out. The hallway filled with light, so bright that the walls disappeared, so bright that the figures of the monks became vague, twisting shadows. It slammed through Tuco’s eyes and into his brain like an ice hammer; the light from Paradise was not warm and soft and enveloping; it was cold and hard; it left no room for humanity. It slammed Tuco back against the wall and beat into his scales and muscle and bone, pounding through him as though intending to reduce him to jelly, to liquid, to nothing. He would die from this, he knew. Too much of him was devil, now. Paradise would not admit his corruption. It would beat and burn him away with pale lightning.
In the circle, Belial was howling like a mad thing. His head vomited black smoke that filled the circle, turning it into a cylinder. He flailed, beating his fists and tail against the edges of it. A dark, alien shape in the unmerciful light, his stony countenance began to crack and break; a limb dropped to the floor with a sound like a falling boulder; he gave a croaking gasp and clutched at it with his other arm before falling over, and then Tuco’s legs faltered, and he fell to the floor, unable to summon strength. The light of Heaven would destroy him. He blinked through the unending, cruel whiteness, through the headache that stabbed through his mind, through the streaming of his eyes, searching for his friends.
Almost, he thought he could hear someone calling his name, but he was too weak to see them. The pain hammering through him was too great. He managed to lift a hand to wipe away his tears. And in that moment, he saw Braxus barreling toward him, calling his name, bounding like a feral creature past the shadow shapes of the monks, a huge, shaggy beast, reaching out toward him with both arms as he caromed off the wall and leapt past Cantor Jacobs. The fall of his shadow across Tuco was like the warmth of a fire in the dead of winter; Tuco croaked in a gasp of air, only then aware that he had stopped breathing. And in the span of that breath, Braxus reached him, pouncing atop him and enfolding him in his soft fur and faithful limbs, holding him close and shielding him from the blistering light of Heaven.
At first all he could think was Thank the Almighty, and then he recalled that it was the power of the Almighty that had nearly destroyed him. He opened his eyes. He was nearly engulfed by Braxus’s body protecting him from the terrible brilliance, but from here, he could just see the shaggy grey fur, and Braxus towering over his fallen form, holding up both arms against the light. And yet Tuco’s curse still worked on Braxus. Even here, with the power of Paradise streaming around him, his fur turned dark, to solid black, and then deep oranges and reds filled in his undercoat, inscribing arcane patterns across his body. Something strange was happening to his head, but Tuco’s vision swam and he could not make it out.
Weakened, he dropped his own head back, and behind him he saw Belial burning away in the light, his stony limbs thin now, bits cracking and flaking away, floating upward in the light as they disintegrated. His legs and arm jerked wildly, like a dying spider’s, and then they were only thin, black branches, waving horribly, and then those burned away too. The light of Brother Jacob’s incantation faltered, and the room seemed oddly dark afterward, but warmer. More human. Of Belial, not even smoke remained.
What did remain was a mass of glittering light, a spiderweb of reflected incandescence–Belial’s soul. And whether he would or not, Tuco found himself gasping toward it, inhaling. It streamed into him, pouring into his eyes and nose, his ears, and mouth, filling him with strength, with life, with sudden awareness of the awful pain that still wracked his scales and bones. He squinted up above him, but his vision was still blurred.
“Tuco!” a voice called, but it sounded odd, as though spoken by a chorus of men. “Tuco, are you alive? Are you all right?”
Then the clack of Brother Gabriel’s cane on the floor. “Get away from this creature, Hellhound!” he snapped. And when Braxus made no motion, there was the sound of a cane hitting furred muscle, and multiple yelps of pain. “You’re a monster. An aberration. Were I not busy with this thing, I would imprison you myself. I suggest you take this chance to flee the Abbey while you can.”
“I won’t leave him,” the many voices of Braxus answered.
“Then you will join him in the Throat. Is that what you wish?”
“Braxus.” This voice, Pike’s. “Braxus, no. Come on. There’s nothing you can do.”
“It is best he is not found in this Abbey on the morrow. Do I make myself plain, devil hare?”
“Yes, Brother,” Pike answered humbly.
“Good. You are fortunate I do not imprison you all,” Brother Gabriel said. “This creature called Tuco, however, this is something interesting indeed. One of the Lords of the Abyss showed up for him, unless I miss my guess. The Apocalypse must be near, nearer even than we have feared. I must question this Devil. Brothers! Take him. Bind him in manacles forged in holy oil. And deliver him to the Throat.”
He raised his staff and struck Tuco hard between the eyes, and Tuco knew no more.