Dask had spent days just waiting to die. He knew his master was still out there but had little hope anything would change soon. There was little to do but think as indeterminate hours crept past. Perhaps it was a mercy the Hate elemental was at rest now but it had been all his fault. It had relied on him for direction and he’d failed even at that responsibility. “I let down my companion, the only ally I had.” He admitted to himself. He had indulged in death and destruction avenging a man he no longer was. Instead, here he was.
“You damn idiot!” he told himself more than once.
If things had been just slightly different, he would still be contentedly joining barrel staves, going home to his son, and falling asleep with his arms wrapped around his wife. Here he was living this cursed life, a ghost of who he was yet still breathing with blood on his hands, having turned against everything he knew. He searched his memories back and forth. Why had Kamilya left him, no, betrayed him? He heard her words and saw her face in his mind’s eye trying to figure out what he could have done differently. Then, unbidden, he heard her final pleas echoing through his mind and, in his situation of unrelenting sensory deprivation, he could not shut it out anymore. It was a worse torment than any physical pain could have been and there was neither cessation or escape. His son’s face surfaced in his already distressed mind and it was more than he could bear. He felt a sensation of overwhelming agony burst from him and would have fallen to his knees had not the thick chains converging on him from every wall held him up. There was something deathly cold now in his shirt front and it throbbed there with the pulse of his sorrow, guilt, regret, and hatred, for himself and for the whole world. The chains bound him so tightly that he had to struggle to even touch himself. It took longer to actually reach inside his shirt, barely able to reach with this fingertips. Something cold and glassy fell into his hand. It was the chisel. Dask knew he had been stripped of everything before they had locked him up. The chisel could not have escaped their attention; it came, and had come, from within him. The Demon, impeded by the Paladin’s wards, had only been able to give him delicate guidance; the big push had come from him. Dask began to carve at his enchanted chains and showers of white hot sparks that burnt into his flesh went flying with every stroke. They did not seem to yield, and the manacles only seared him even more than before, causing him to dry-heave with pain until he could undertake the task again. There was nothing else for him to do and if enough of those searing sparks might end him, all the better.
Suryn sped faster than a galloping horse back toward the palace. She zipped past frightened faces and screaming crowds and the wind of her passage whistled in her ears. Her wards could limit the Demon’s power within their sphere but the Shadow Dragon shattered that bubble all at once as it passed through it. The beast swooped and descended past the inner walls.
By the time Suryn reached the gate, hundreds of soldiers were fleeing through it in complete panic. She forced her way through and there, where the marketplace had been there was wreckage and broken corpses left behind by the Shadow Dragon’s rampage. The hulking monster reared at the base of the keep as a shower of arrows and crossbow bolts rained down but slipped harmlessly off of its sleek, filamentous bulk. It rammed into a crossbow slit in the wall, collapsing the chamber onto its occupant. Then it reared back its head and let loose a jet of black, steaming venom onto the crenellated ramparts high above. There was screaming as the poison consumed its targets. Several soldiers jumped rather than endure the pain to its conclusion. Suryn now rushed at the beast but it saw her coming. With a great rush of wind it surged off the ground and rose above her reach, content now to attack the defenders on top of the keep from the air. She immediately started looking around for the Demon and saw no sign of him.
With a barely audible hum, the wards surrounding Dask went dark and silent. As complete darkness closed in on him, the pale Demonic vision took over to give him sight. Now he found the chisel cut through even the heaviest chain links and manacles quite easily. In just a few minutes he was loose. He sliced his way through the cell door and began to make his way up the staircase, finding to his astonishment that there seemed to be no guards nearby.
He went up flights of stairs with still no one in sight. A whole squad of guards burst into view and Dask tensed immediately for a final fight to the death. Instead they did not even acknowledge him as they rushed frantically right past him. “Go men! Go! More supplies for the guys on top!” As it turned out, there were many other groups of guards equally in a hurry, all ignoring him. Just one sergeant stopped to notice him, pointed and yelled. “You! Get in your gear right now and get the hell out there!” He turned away to accompany his men but abruptly turned back around and pointed once more. “Don’t even try to disappear now! I WILL remember you and make sure you hang!” Dask continued his way up the staircase until he finally came to a great, flat landing. There were great oaken double doors flung open wide and within was the great hall with long tables running nearly the length of the chamber. There, at the other end, was a huddle of officers. Some kind of group agreement was reached and most of the officers immediately rushed through the doors at the opposite end of the hall. The man who all the officers had stood around remained with a couple of aides. It was the Duke. Dask had seen him on coins, in paintings and statuary, and in person from a distance when he had given speeches from the keep’s grand balcony. In any case there was no mistaking his resplendent garb worn with a light breastplate, gloves, and sword. Dask began to lose himself in fury as he thought of all he had lost. He steadily advanced until the Duke turned and noticed him.
“You!” he said. “You’re that Demon’s servant, aren’t you? I thought she locked you up properly this time.”
The Duke’s aides drew their swords and began to advance nervously.
“Stay back!” he told them. More guards came into the hall now and again the Duke held out his hand at them. “Leave him.” The men stood back.
With a hiss, the Duke pulled out his rapier and held the point at Dask.
“You took everything from me!” accused Dask.
The Duke appeared unfazed.
“From reports, I hear you have become strong and quick. But I also heard you were just a common cooper. Have you ever even held a real weapon?” His dark eyes were locked on hawk-like as he began to slowly circle to Dask’s left-hand side, his every step fluid and controlled like a dancer walking a tightrope. “Yet you think you are going to fight me with a puny piece of rock.”
A single breath would nearly have been audible as everyone watched the two men. Dask waited until the Duke’s back was facing the wall and in a flash of movement, he attacked. The Duke barely had time to react, but with the ease of lifelong practice he slashed Dask’s forearm and smoothly sidestepped away from the wall. In a rage now, Dask barely even noticed the wound and lunged again. The Duke slid smoothly out of the way with his perfect footwork and buried his sword-point in Dask’s shoulder. The Demonic servant howled, feeling pain now, but it only fueled his rage. He charged with one attack after another and the Duke clenched his teeth and stared intensely in a state of complete focus as he reacted each time just in time. One misstep would have meant his death, but he made no mistakes. Dask began to notice his body was not responding as quickly and without warning he found himself tumbling backward to the floor. Through a red haze, he began to realize that his whole body was torn and blood-soaked. The Duke casually walked up to his fallen opponent and looked down on him with a hard, clinical gaze. Time suddenly seemed to speed up and he realized that the whole fight, like many fights, had lasted less than a minute.
“You were strong and quick, but so are many beasts.”
The Duke thrust down towards Dask’s heart and saw the defeated man swing his arm as if to protect himself. Then he heard a metallic ping. The sword was suddenly lighter in his hand and as he raised it up, he saw it had been cleanly broken off halfway down its length. The Duke looked down at Dask in confusion and realized the crude piece of sharp rock had somehow cut through his steel blade. A chill of fear passed through him. He realized he had just put himself in far greater peril than he thought. But he had won. “Fine!” sneered the Duke. “I’ll let you contemplate your failure as you bleed out.” He turned to his astonished men. “Finish him off if he tries to move.”
Suryn entered the keep in search of the Demon. Rushing groups of guards stopped to gawk at her but she waved them onward. She worked her way steadily upwards, her bright sword held out in front of her. She found herself at a familiar large room by the stone staircase. She was almost underneath her own room. She stepped toward the staircase, cautiously now, and watched the ceiling where she estimated her room was. It seemed a logical place for the Demon to lie in wait for her. A little too predictable, but she still had to be careful. Now that she was focused, something seemed strange about the staircase almost like tiny voices crying out. A feeling of inexplicable foreboding rose in her. As she took a step closer, the window went dark behind her. She sprung aside and the Shadow Dragon’s poisonous breath just missed her. Light flooded in through the window again as the beast detached from the wall outside and launched itself back into the air. This time it lurched high above the walls of the inner city and began to fly away from the battle. The foulness of its attack had gotten everywhere and bits of it hissed and sputtered against her armor, not enough to do harm. The real problem was the poison immediately started steaming into tendrils of black vapor. In a few moments she was choking on it and struggled to see anything. Without warning, a black blade of pure lightlessness hissed at her from that lethal fog, which she only parried an inch away from her face. In that instant, she could feel its black energies sucking at her and pushed back viciously. She felt the Demon’s weight fly backwards. In that one moment of respite, she turned all her power and strength against the wall with the window and destroyed it utterly. The light of the setting sun flooded in and a shower of heavy bricks rumbled down to the base of the keep. The clouds of poison were swiftly leaving the room, so the Demon attacked with all its might in those precious seconds. Suryn could not keep up as the fumes burnt her eyes and every breath. She was cut by the black blade and felt deathly cold all through her. She was cut again in the furious onslaught. And again across her face. Finally, the air had cleared and she could see the Demon right in front of her well enough. She steeled her soul and gave everything she had. Paladin and Demon were locked in combat in that exposed chamber in the tower. They fought along the edge at times, each trying to send the other tumbling downward. Their blades clashed and they sent forth flashes of dark and light which further demolished the ruined chamber. Showers of bricks and mortar began to fall on them from the ceiling as well. Then in between parries she grabbed the Demon by his robe and threw him to the ground. She sent a stream of white-hot blinding light down towards him, trying to push through his dark energies and get close enough to deliver the killing blow. There they were locked in total opposition for what seemed like forever, but she inched forward bit by bit until the tip of her blade was almost touching him.
Somehow, the Demon found the strength to throw her back across the room just as the tip of her blade began to burn him. As both got to their knees, they realized they were totally exhausted. Nonetheless, Suryn began to crawl towards the Demon as she had long ago up the steps of the shining cathedral.
He shot a glance over her shoulder, probably, she thought, another attempt at misdirection so he could get in another sly strike. She ignored it. The full intensity of Suryn’s fanatic gaze bored into the Demon as she continued to drag herself closer, sword dragging behind her.
The Demon saw the Duke standing there watching, perhaps, he thought, just waiting to see who would win.
“I yield,” rasped the Demon. “I concede you this plane, Paladin.”
“I swear on the powers of Hell and infinite Hate, an oath I make to you even I must honor.”
“I know well, Demon, but I will still kill you. You just swore away your claim here for nothing. You die a coward.” She crawled closer still and now showed no sign of stopping.
“Please.” The Demon was begging now.
Suryn was now beyond speech as she put her whole being into destroying him. She saw herself again in her mind’s eye entering the ranks of angels for vanquishing a greater evil and being absolved altogether of the weakness of the flesh.
The Demon began to gather his body in concentration and she felt what was left of his power congealing. She managed to push herself to her knees and struggled to close the distance.
With a humming noise and then a bass resonance, the Demon was gone. Suryn collapsed and lay on her stomach, overwhelmed with both disappointment and relief. “Suryn!” The Duke came to her and gently helped her back to her knees and then her feet. She gasped as she felt the wounds left by the Demon still eating away at her.
“He got away from me!”
“You beat him and you’ve saved this whole world.”
The Duke wrapped his arms around her and held her close. Suryn snapped out of her fixation and looked up into his eyes. At that moment, the staircase, slowly weakened by the Shadow Dragon’s acid venom, suddenly started to crumble away. Those muted voices she had heard screaming out right before the Demon’s ambush suddenly became ear-piercingly loud. She turned around and within the staircase was earth and mortar, and from that jutted the bones of tiny people, dozens of their skulls staring out at her.
“The children,” gasped Suryn.
Then she felt a cold shock from behind her and waves of terrible pain. Suddenly her body would not obey her. She fell onto her back.
The Duke stood over her, holding a bloody dagger.
“The Demon exiled. His servant vanquished by me. The flying beast fled to the far horizon. And our dear guardian made her heroic sacrifice. Perhaps I will have statues of you raised throughout the realm.”
Suryn tried to talk but nothing would come out at first. Finally she gasped.
“What are you?”
“You might say I am the Grey. There is the clash of principles. I just care to win power by the rules of the mundane realm between Heaven and Hell. They think it’s just an inert thing they fight to influence, but more power resides there than Dark or Light understand. Because that is what’s real.” The Duke clenched his fist as if holding a handful of sand.
“Powers divine or profane are but tools to make reality as I wish it.” The Duke gazed down at Suryn, with a mix of detached calculation, amusement, and, for a passing moment, a flash of pity.
“Because you let me into your heart I could strike a blow even a Demon could not. Had you not found out, I might have made you my queen. Farewell, dear guardian.”
Suryn was flooded with a grief that went beyond any suffering she had ever known no matter how hard she had pushed her fleshly body, no matter what spiritual torments she had been through in her training and on the most horrific battlefields. Now she came face to face with nothing. It had all been for nothing. She felt that subtle snap as her spirit broke one more time. Horror welled up in her. A broken spirit had made her into a Paladin of the Light and now what was left was fracturing into tiny pieces as her life ebbed. She only hoped her body would die before the rest of her did.
As she felt herself descending toward void, there was a faint sound like buzzing and a knife tip swept across silk.
“That oath did not last long,” came a pleasant tenor voice. “I made it to you. With your life leaving you, it is void.” The Demon walked into the room as the sun began to sink beneath the inner walls.
“We were all human once, but you were still so young.”
He pulled back his hood. He had a young man’s face white as chalk; she did not know him, but she felt somehow she might have in another life. It was a lean face with a high forehead and refined nose with a certain sensitivity etched about the mouth. She thought somehow he would have been a good student under the priests yet he had somehow taken another path. His eyes were black, empty, yet depthless. Something was strangely terrifying about that gaze of ancient knowing and cynicism set within a bloodless mask of perfect youth. Indeed, it was a mask, attached to a form of shadow. He lifted a chalky, slender hand to touch his face and as his sleeve fell back she could see it was like a long glove on an insubstantial arm.
“Somehow my features always remain. The same as the day I made the Pact. The rest I have long forgotten.”
“That’s what I always wanted. Nothing left. No more pain.” gasped Suryn.
“I knew how you feel.”
“Maybe…I’m about to get that anyway.”
“Yes, you are dying,” he said, and somehow she felt there was some kind of compassion there. “I can give you a short time longer. But it will require a real sacrifice. It is not trivial even for me to delay death.”
Suryn tried to shake her head but the Demon knelt over her and placed its hands on her. She felt its cursed energies flow into her and crudely stitch up the wound that had pierced her heart. She climbed to her feet, gasping, and groaned in agony as she felt the black slippery stitches of shadow loosen a bit. The Demon was brought to his knees, weakened now by the strain. She stood over him now wielding her sword.
“One swipe of this blade and you are gone.” she said.
“That would break the spell at once. The risk I take placing myself at your mercy right now, is the sacrifice that gives it power. You can only choose one and you’ve only just enough time. You cannot do both. Choose the other, the spell seals tight and you get a short while longer.”
The blade glowed white-hot over the Demon’s head and her hand trembled. One move of her arm and she would die a saint in the eyes of Heaven. She did not move. In a few moments, eternity was decided.
Without a word, she raised her blade, turned away from the Demon and went downward. As the spell locked into place, the weak slippery stitches tightened, feeling like hot steel wire. Pain and black rage became one sensation.
The Duke lounged in his private study, reclining in a comfy chair after he had just poured himself a snifter of brandy. The cheerful shimmer of candles just lit in the dimming of dusk seemed to congratulate him. He sighed in satisfaction as he leaned back to enjoy the moment. His power secure at last. He raised the snifter to his face at a tilt so he could enjoy the aroma to the fullest and took a warming sip. As he looked up he saw he was not alone. The snifter trembled in his fingers. The Demon was standing right there in front of him with his hood thrown back, his black form and deathly white face exposed.
“How are you here?!” blurted the Duke, “Your oath!”
“I made it to her. Now she is no more.” replied the Demon calmly.
The Duke turned ashen. “You swore not to harm me!”
“I swore to you. That is still binding.”
The Duke took a deep breath and tried to relax. “Then I got immunity to you and all you got was my help in breaking out that servant of yours. Lot of good it did you. And she thought one of my concubines was behind it to the end.”
“What you got from me was worthless and I got far more in return than you think. There’s no need to harm you anyway. I got everything I wanted.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I just wanted to say goodbye.” answered the Demon with a hint of mockery.
“Very touching.” said the Duke acidly. Yet he eyed the Demon suspiciously. The Duke spread out his hands. “What do you really want, then?”
“Really, that’s all,” replied the Demon. “And to tell you that you involved yourself in the interplay of powers far greater than you. Powers you don’t understand and that your worship of petty things could never have revealed to you.”
“You came back here to try to talk down to me!?” spat the Duke. “I’m the master of an earthly realm, I’ve won at the trials of life. I am a mortal man with just one life but look at you! You never die but you’re a mere shadow drifting from world to world like a beggar, never living for yourself, a loser, a slave to self-denial. For what? A principle?! You’re not that different than she was.”
“Yes, I know you thought it was like playing two sides of the same coin. You really thought the affairs of Heaven and Hell follow the same rules as your politics and palace intrigue. Anyway, you’ve amused me and I have to go now.” The corner of the Demon’s lips twisted into a smirk. “As I said, I just wanted to say goodbye.” He was gone.
The Duke sighed and settled back into his chair, intent on taking a very generous swig of brandy this time. The door crashed open. The snifter fell out of his hand as he saw Suryn, ashen pale and blood-spattered, like an apparition, walking toward him, sword drawn. Suryn sheathed her sword and the Duke looked right into the depthless rage, pain, and despair in her eyes. His jaw went slack as the moment dragged on. Then her hand shot out, grabbed him by his face and lifted him from the chair. His struggles were like those of a small child as she pounded him, his ribs snapping like twigs.
At first Suryn took out her rage on the Duke but as she sank ever further and felt the stitches begin to slip again, he disappeared and she saw Kristyan from her village long ago before her as she pounded and disfigured his gorgeous face and heard his pleading degenerate into screams and finally into gurgling sobs. Finally, there was nothing left of those piercing blue eyes, straight teeth and sensuous lips, and his broken remains lay in a heap.
She felt the Demonic stitches that held the spell together begin to unravel and she realized she had committed apostasy. The room around her faded and she floated in void. That pitiless, faceless marble angel drifted toward her, wings beating without a sound.
Dask and the Dark Man walked the next day through the market square. The stalls were already being replaced and commerce continued as usual. Dask carried a skewer of grilled meat dripping down his chin as he tore into it with gusto, though he was not truly hungry. It was the first real, human meal he’d had since he made his Pact. He was whole again, his injuries healed up during the night, but the streak-like scars left behind as he had struck the enchanted chains remained and he supposed they would be there forever. Parts of his scalp were scorched bare now, his hair still there in irregular patches. Passers-by looked at him with curiosity and fear but he didn’t care now.
“The Duke was a fool, but not stupid.” the Demon explained. “I saw him there watching. I had already sent the Shadow Dragon away. Then I was gone. The moment she learned his secret, she was more dangerous alive than she was valuable to him.”
“How on earth was he able to harm, let alone kill her? How’d he stab right through the Paladin’s armor?”
“She let him.”
“The hell do you mean, she let him?”
“She let down her defenses.”
“And why after all her searching did she not know what was right under her room?”
“She did not want to know.”
“I don’t understand it. All that effort to destroy people who just wanted to go about their lives while he was close to her.”
“She would have done anything for him. You will learn many things about the ways of humankind in the coming years.”
“Do I come with you then?”
The Demon gave out a chuckle, his hood drew back and suddenly Dask could see the pale face inside with its eyes of empty shadow.
“That foolish Duke thought he could stay in power by cheating the scales. I came here because of the Paladin; imagine what sort of powers are drawn to me. You must grow your power. This plane is yours now to conquer.”
“You will know you are nearly ready, when, one day, you are able to go to the far mountains, find, and master the Shadow Dragon. It waits for you. Farewell, my disciple.” A Doorway of negative light slid open without a sound and then the Demon vanished through it. Dask stood confounded in the middle of the marketplace as the crowd stared in awe. He cast aside his meat and swiftly made his way from the market square. He acquired a cloak with a hood that would help obscure his disfigured face and in less than an hour he went out the city gates and into the world that had just been given him to conquer.