Suryn looked on the still-terrified guards who said they had encountered the escaped Demonic servant, Dask. One of them had been killed by a being she knew must be the remains of the first young man who had been burnt at the stake. He had been reduced to a Hate elemental now. She loathed the thought of those foul things and memories rushed back to when she was a retainer in the Divine Army fighting in massed silver ranks as whole howling swarms of the vile things rushed them. She had watched friends die horribly in those battles that had raged across blighted planes that lay upon the celestial fault-lines of Light and Dark.
Two more of the guards had grotesquely swollen faces dominated with dark shadows of bruise, one with a shattered jaw, the other who’d had the bony bridge of his nose all but flattened. The servant, Dask, was just a freshly made lesser imp, but he was already too powerful for most mortal men to handle.
She had been awakened from her sleep the night Dask escaped as she felt something intrude within the keep even though she had warded the whole place. She had immediately sent the guards down to Dask’s cell only to discover he was somehow missing. This Demon’s ability to get past her defenses unsettled her; the wards should have worked even against powerful foes. Could it mean there was some weakness in herself?
Meanwhile, the hunt had gone on. Since the first heretic had been burnt, there had been others, this time with no interventions as they wriggled and screamed within the blaze. She would deny the Demon access to power no matter what it took and find and break the sources that let him lurk here. She had never taken on a Demon by herself but she had hunted down many lesser creatures. If she could take down Demons, then the ascent to the angelic orders might one day be bestowed on her. She would be more than human. She would never again feel the base needs of the flesh. Every time she had touched herself, she had been filled with self-loathing afterwards over her weakness. The advance of years did very little to her anymore, but that only gave her more time to contemplate the frailties of her imperfect frame. As much as she hated Hate, she despised herself and longed for that final, blindingly alabaster death in perfection, for her limbs, no longer soft, to be sculpted as if in divine marble. It had been nearly a week now since she had slept and her sad body yearned for repose. She thought again of the Demon and forged on with her Work.
“There is nothing left of him now but his fury,” explained the Dark Man. “He was unwilling to pledge himself until his higher mind was stripped away by trauma and only the lower functions were left to decide. His natural meekness buried the seed deep and she unearthed it.”
“So the guy he was really is dead?”
“That final flash of rage against the whole world is all that’s left. He is just a simple hate elemental now.”
“Just? I watched him beat a whole squad of armed men!”
“He has strength and instinct but nothing of intellect or restraint. He is useless without guidance. You gave him that.”
Dask felt a pang of sadness for the young man who had been transformed into the grotesque horror that now accompanied him.
“I wish he’d done it sooner.”
“I reached out to him. But only the flames could burn away his inborn tenderness.”
Dask looked to the burnt man and the creature tilted its head in response to being given attention.
The Demon was barely able to sit up. He only just managed to position his back against the rock wall. Beneath his robe, a soft light still sometimes shone through. Dask told him everything that had happened and the master listened, motionless.
“I know my old self is dead now.” concluded Dask
“You turned away from the Light and have just begun to understand what that means. You now have plenty of time for that.” the Demon replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Get the chisel.”
Dask grabbed the chilly, glassy sharp object from the pile of blankets he had awakened in and brought it to the Demon.
“Why have you not been using this?”
“I didn’t think about it.”
“That’s a physical form taken by the power of your pact. Keep it with you.”
“Go and find out.”
He went back to his chamber, sat on his bedroll and began to turn over the chisel in his hand. It was like a jagged shard of obsidian yet with the dim vision he had in complete darkness he could see no light reflect from it. It was a slice of abyss, impenetrable even to his supernatural senses. It was always cold but tingled somehow when he grasped it more tightly. Out of curiosity, he tried scratching the wall with it. The tip did seem to leave a mark. He started slashing and left gashes in the stone no normal weapon would easily cause. He thrust and a chunk of stone chipped off the wall. Impressive, thought Dask, but nothing to compare with the night he had escaped from his cell. What more was there to know? He wandered through the catacombs until he was under the city and impulsively stabbed a cockroach. To his astonishment, there was a wriggling sensation that worked its way up his wrist and into his arm, then his shoulder. It was a strange feeling that sickened him and it didn’t go away. He writhed, squirmed, and scratched, but the feeling was just under his skin. He even pricked himself with the tip of the chisel but it did nothing to him. The same object that had scored a stone wall didn’t even break his skin. Whatever this was he wanted it out of him! He clenched himself and willed for the bothersome feeling to go away. To his surprise, there was a feeling kind of like a popping pimple or a loose baby tooth on the back of his shoulder. A long thin black spike barely thicker than a thread thrust through his skin and tumbled from his shirt sleeve to the floor. The straight spike became fluid and started squirming like a jet black tapeworm. After a short while it stopped and grew rigid in its final, twisted pose and evaporated into a mist of shadow. Dask just stared at the spot for the longest time his gut roiling with disgust. It took him hours to get the courage to stab a rat and this time he immediately wanted to vomit as a scurrying and scratching feeling bounced all around inside of him. He only just managed to keep from panicking as the feeling skittered down his backbone. He finally focused enough on expelling it from him. He heaved as if to vomit but small black spikes erupted along his spine. Soon they fell out onto the ground and also evaporated into that unholy material. Dask could not help but be fascinated with this discovery no matter how unpleasant it felt. He thought of how he had been through much worse before he had finally turned his back on the Light. He was thinking about what he should try next when he heard a shuffling. He looked up and saw the Burnt Man. It tilted its head back toward the direction of their lair. Dask followed.
“Go through the Doorway when I make it,” instructed the Demon. “There is someone in need of consultation.”
With visible exertion, the weakened Demon reached out, a pale hand emerging from its sleeve, and a whirling vortex of grey and pale green light opened in the middle of the floor. Dask looked to the Burnt Man, but it, of course, had nothing to say. He somehow overcame his fear now that he had nothing to lose and dropped into the yawning hole. His gut wrenched as he expected to fall into a whirlwind but instead he immediately found himself standing in a luxurious bedchamber. There was no one in bed, though someone had clearly used the bedsheets. Then he looked to the starlit balcony and saw a female figure there. She was crouched in despair, clutching a silvery knife. Her robe was open and she shook as she stared at the blade.
“Don’t.” rasped Dask.
She immediately fell over in surprise and fumbled to conceal her weapon underneath her.
He walked from the darkness of the suite toward the balcony. “It’s ok. Where am I?”
She didn’t say anything as she looked up in terror at his approaching shadow. Dask strode out onto the balcony and he was looking out on a walled garden. It was the Duke’s palace!
“Please, don’t hurt yourself.”
She continued to tremble on the ground, the knife concealed underneath her.
Dask cleared his throat. “I’ve been sent to talk to you tonight. He wouldn’t have sent me unless you were having doubts.”
“My children.” she whispered.
“What do you mean, um, Ma’am?” Despite the urgent duress he had begun to notice her open nightrobe, her dark flowing hair and eyes that were luminous by the light of the stars.
“He took them from me.”
“Him! He sent them away and now I’m bearing one of his!”
“The Duke!” Dask blurted out.
She collapsed to the ground trembling.
“There’s another way,” he said.
“I wanted to kill him. Tonight. He was here.”
“Then why did you want to kill yourself?!”
“I enjoyed it so much.”
“Don’t do it. Pledge yourself. That’s the other way out. Not repentance. Apostasy.”
There was a feeling of rushing energies in the air and Dask turned around and saw the swirling doorway. He turned away.
Suryn finally descended into sleep but it was into a realm of nightmare. She woke up and felt the breach opening as she had during Dask’s escape. She rushed down flights of steps but there was an eerie wailing as small hands and arms reached up through the stairs and grabbed at her ankles. They almost brought her to a stop on the floor beneath her room but she broke free, made her way to the dungeon and opened the cell door. There was a yawning chasm into Darkness looking straight into her soul. She turned around and a marble statue of an angel she remembered from church as a child was flying at her, drifting through the air without a sound, its form simple, its facial features a nondescript pitiless mask. She took a step back and began to tumble backwards into the void.
She awoke on the cold floor of her chamber, trembling within a tangle of blankets. At first, all she felt was terror and relief. Then she thought back on friends who had fallen in battle. She squeezed a blanket, feeling a hand’s last clasp on hers before it fell slack in repose. Slowly the sense of purpose redawned in her and she donned her robe to begin a new day in pursuit, still hours before dawn. Then she realized why she had awakened. There was something wrong again. She grabbed her sword from her bedside and did not even bother to alert the guards this time. She flew down the staircase outside her room with her divine blade out of its sheath. She continued to fly down the stairwell towards the source of the disturbance. She stormed into a wing of the palace she’d never been to before, sprinted down a wide hallway with doors on either side and then felt the source to her left side. She was a woman of ordinary stature yet she effortlessly kicked in the heavy wooden door with a bare foot. She saw the Demonic portal closing just as she ran through. Too late. There was a woman on the balcony shrieking at the sudden incursion into her chamber. Suryn lowered her sword and went to her. The woman looked up and her face was pale and streaked with tears. “What happened?” Suryn looked into the woman and saw the taint of darkness battling, not with the Light exactly, something else. Then she looked at her. She had unmistakably beguiling features, large dark eyes, flowing dark hair, and long elegant legs revealed by an opening in her nightrobe. In spite of herself, Suryn felt a visceral dislike rising up in her.
“Who came through that doorway?”
“I don’t know.” cried the woman.
After some time of sobbing that further aroused the Paladin’s ire and then a labored description in between sobs she realized that Dask had been the visitor.
“What did he say to you?”
“He, he wanted to take me away. I was trying to stop him!”
The woman revealed a knife that lay underneath her.
“I’ve dealt with their kind enough, I know that’s not why he was really here. You put yourself in peril.”
The woman threw herself at Suryn’s feet and begged for mercy protesting that she had told the dark servant to go away. But the Paladin could see the taint struggling to grasp hold of her clearly enough. It was not surprising this woman had attracted the attention of the Dark Powers. Her or someone like her had allowed the Demon into the palace to release the servant, Dask, right from under her watch. This grim thought gave her very little sympathy for this harlot who had already tried to lie and manipulate.
“I will have you detained until you reconsider your story.”
“Noo! I’ve done nothing wrong!”
“Then you have nothing to fear.”
The Duke rushed into the chamber. Suryn turned toward him in astonishment. She had somehow thought him incapable of being flustered. “Alarya!” he cried. He reached out, startled by the knife in her hands. “Where did you get that?”
“I had it just in case, my lord. It saved my life tonight!”
The Duke frowned, but the woman abruptly dropped the knife and ran into the Duke’s arms where she buried her head in his chest and sobbed. As the Duke’s hand ran tenderly through Alarya’s lustrous hair, Suryn felt a wave of acid heat and physical anguish rise up through her heart and into her head as never before. Then, doors further down the hallway began to open up and there were several female voices. A group of young women rushed in and flocked to the Duke. They too were clad in luxurious nightrobes and every one of them was conspicuously alluring.
“Everything is alright ladies! He is gone. The Paladin is here.” The Duke looked at Suryn and saw at once she was dumbstruck. His eyes met hers for a moment and his gaze was hard and appraising, gauging her reaction. His eyes flicked deftly away. “Ladies, all is well now.”
Suryn had never seen the Duke with another woman, had never asked, had never wanted to know. Now she had been driven at last beyond the realm of feeling. Past the threshold of rage, something again had quietly snapped and now she felt nothing at all. All emotion had been as noise and now there was silence in her. She lay to sleep through the night without concern. She woke in the morning calmly. Held a morning meeting with officials, with the Duke present, but she did not even look at him. She headed out to do her duty in the name of Heaven. She tried to figure out what might motivate Dask next. He wasn’t the first young imp she had dealt with. Her own irrational pain that she had buried told her how she would find him.
“You cannot go back to that life. You almost died trying it.” the Demon admonished.
“She had been taken from someone else so she could pleasure the Duke! Where are my wife and my son?!” demanded Dask
“Yours!? You are no more. You must learn who you are now.”
“Fuck you! I’m going back.”
“Don’t try it.” The Demon’s tone was strangely resigned. This made Dask hesitate more than any infernal rage. The Demon was sitting up more strongly now but still weak; the glowing of its wound seemed to be gone.
“We all must let go,” he sighed.
“Come with me,” Dask commanded the Burnt Man. It eagerly followed him from the cave, beginning to bay in solemn tones as it already began to scent the Hatefulness of mankind.
Dask charged with the Burnt Man through the underground passageways, smelling out heresy and the hunters of heretics alike, just barely dodging their surprise maneuvers, even in the smallest hours of the night. He asked their stories and, finally, one man said the name “Slandriv.”
“Judge Slandriv?” hissed Dask.
“Yes, he’s the one. Does whatever the Duke wants.”
Dask felt a vein throbbing in his temple as he thought back on the note on his door, the guards, the brief hearing in a court room. Judge Slandriv! “I will help you with this!” he snarled through clenched teeth.
That very night, he began murdering the judge’s private guards with the Burnt Man at his side and burst into the mansion without the slightest ceremony. In his night clothes, the judge cowered on the ground before them. “I have only enacted the law! If you strike me you get nothing and just make it worse for yourself!”
Then, Dask heard a female sigh from the judge’s bed. There was the contour of a sleeping human beneath golden, silken bedsheets. Without a word, Dask approached the sheets and abruptly pulled them back. He nearly collapsed as he saw his wife there, curled up blissfully. In a blood-rage, Dask thrust his hand through the judge’s chest, lifted his body in the air, and crushed his heart. A gout of blood spurted from the man’s gasping mouth and then his head lolled forward limply. Dask contemptuously tossed the corpse aside. He then approached the woman who had betrayed him. “Kamilya, why did you do this?” he rasped. She came awake, recognized his voice and looked up at him in utter terror.
“Where is our son!?” he rasped insistently. She backed away from his silhouette in what to her was near-darkness and shook her head emphatically. “Where is heee!” Dask shrieked now, and, as he closed in, the Burnt Man was content to watch, sensing somehow he was unneeded.
When Dask and the Burnt Man stumbled blood-spattered from the mansion, they were blinded for a moment at the blaze of torches that surrounded them. Before them, hundreds of guards stood in a great ring. “Masterrr!” cried Dask.
“He can’t help you now.” said a steely voice. Suryn strode from the crowd of guards, smaller than any of them yet anyone could feel a power and strength radiating from her, belied by her plain, angular features.
Dask nearly fell to his knees as he recalled his tortures in the keep. The Burnt Man, though, did not hesitate to attack. “Nooo!” cried Dask. Suryn waited motionless and at the last moment, with a single swipe of her sword, almost casually sliced the charging hate elemental in half. Its two halves tried to continue the assault, but she buried her sword in each of them for a few moments until they smoldered into lifeless ash.
Dask collapsed in weary despair as the guards closed in on him. This time, they seized him without a struggle and swiftly clapped his limbs into thick, heavy manacles that seemed more suited to an ox than a man. Then in a covered wagon with a sack over his head, he was hauled ignominiously back to the palace dungeon he had given everything to escape from.