Dask came to again in blackness but this time he was wrapped in warm blankets and felt snug and safe. He dozed for some time longer, but as he became aware of his body he groped at his hands and found them intact. What strange dreams he was having, nothing made sense. Where was he? Then Dask stopped in shock as his hand discovered the cold, jagged, glassy shard lying right there alongside him. This was not a dream. There was a pale glow suddenly that, though dim, blinded him at first in contrast to the complete lightlessness. Dask covered his eyes for a moment and gradually drew his hand away. He lay on the floor of a stone chamber. As he rose from his blankets he felt a subterranean chill sink into him at once. He could hear dripping somewhere far off. The whole place smelt of stone, cold, and dampness as old as time.
“Where the hell am I?” he asked himself, or whoever might be there.
“I thought the catacombs would be suitable. The ancient dead are seldom visited.”
Dask shuddered. “I always heard stories of the living dead down here.”
“Don’t you belong here, then?”
With a start, Dask came fully awake and sprang up from his bedroll. “Wait! How did I get here? Am I dead? Who are you?” Now that he was looking around the room, he could just see the silhouette of a robed figure in the gloom.
“You know the answers better than you think.”
“The Demon! Am I in hell with you?”
“You were in hell without me, so you invited me.”
“I didn’t invite anyone. All I wanted anymore was to just be left alone with what I had left.”
“It never works like that.”
“If I am on earth and not in hell now, why don’t you just kill me?”
“Are you in some hurry to go to hell?” The Dark Man’s voice turned just a bit ominous and the import of who he was talking to began to dawn on him. He found himself suddenly seized with terror that these were his last moments before eternal flames engulfed him forever.
“Why on earth would I kill you now? You let me into this city and you made a Pact to get out of that cell. Stop cowering.”
Dask tried in vain to stop shaking.
“You can never go back now. Even through death.” added the Dark Man. The finality and truth of these words hit Dask like a physical blow.
“What do you want with me?” he almost shrieked.
“The power of Demons comes from the hearts of men.”
“Why don’t you just destroy this city and be done with us?!”
“They are still far stronger than us.”
Dask was dumbfounded by this and the lapse snapped him out his panic for a moment.
“Then why the hell did you show up in the public square!?”
The dark figure shook with sardonic laughter.
“So she would look for me.”
Four sleepless days Suryn had swept through the town with a whole army of the Duke’s soldiers marching behind her. They burst into house after house and accosted people on the streets if Suryn so much as looked at them. All through the night, trails of smoke were visible above the city as any item tainted by darkness, questionable, or heretical, was thrown into great bonfires. Then there came the trials. For a day at a time without so much as taking a break, Suryn gazed through those brought before her and questioned those she sensed were heavy with sin. Many panicked as she could begin to sense details and confronted them with their crimes; they would confess and be hauled weeping and apologizing profusely to a cell for further interrogation. As hysteria engulfed the city, more people began pointing fingers, knowing the accused would be forced in front of the Paladin’s judgment. Finally, a guilty man stood before Suryn. He was gangly and stoop-shouldered his face pudgy and blocky with a patchy beard thickest under his chin. She could immediately see the Demon’s taint in him, yet the pathetic thing tried to defend himself in a nasally voice that only ignited her fury. “Ma’am, I don’t know anything about any Demon.”
“I can see the Hate all through you… and smell it. You stink of it! If you aren’t already in his service, you soon will be.”
“Ma’am, I can’t help what I think! I can’t help what I feel! I don’t want to hurt anybody!”
“Every day you think of killing them slowly as they scream. The other boys at your master’s workshop. The girl who sneered at you and ran away when you smiled at her.”
“Ma’aaam!” shrilled the young man. His abject fear and submissiveness only infuriated both Suryn and the crowd. Hardly anything more needed to be said. In a clamor, the young man was dragged into the courtyard where the embers of a bonfire of tainted books and keepsakes still lay. Soon a pole was staked into the ground and the young man lashed firmly to it. His shrill screams of pure terror were audible above even the roaring crowd as bundles of dry twigs were tossed all about him.
Suryn watched from a ledge above the crowd, her face tight with anger, yet rapt with a hypnotized sort of fascination, as she watched the first flames begin to lick at the frantically squirming body of the howling young man. The flames soon began to engulf him but still she stared through the flames into the soul of the deviant. Suddenly, as the unfortunate young man neared the point of death, only the Hate remained and in that moment, she felt something shifting. She was not one to be taken by surprise twice and this time she leapt from the ledge and sprinted through a crowd that trampled itself to get out of her way.
A rift opened in the middle of the blaze and the burnt young man abruptly disappeared through it. Before the the rift could close, Suryn jammed her sword through it and felt it encounter resistance like she had never felt before. A shockwave of darkness threw her back and knocked over the entire crowd. As she looked up, laying on her back, she saw at once that the portal was closed and no trace of the burning man remained.
As the Demon pulled someone through his Doorway, there came an explosion of light that must have stunned and blinded Dask for several minutes. As he recovered, he saw the Demon was lying on the ground with labored breaths beside the man he had rescued. “What happened to you?”
The Demon stirred. “Herrr…” He rasped.
Dask was taken aback as he saw there was a white-hot glowing gash in the Dark Man’s chest, steady waves of rippling heat were visible even in the dim chamber. Without thinking he knelt and reached out to help.
“Back!” the Demon hissed. Dask tumbled backwards, startled. “Help him.”
Dask turned his attention to the other figure in the room. It appeared to be a burnt and blackened corpse, but as he stared in disgust and confusion, the figure stirred and moaned. He had no idea how to help. He knew nothing of bandages and medicines and he didn’t have any down here.
“How?” he asked. There was no answer. The Dark Man lay there, his breath a labored heaving. The bright wound pulsed with blinding light as it tried to grow in size only to be contained and shrink down again. There was a struggle going on before him and he somehow knew now there was nothing he could do to interfere. The powers that proved an even match for a Demon would incinerate him in an instant if he got too near. Dask turned again to the burnt man and did the only thing he could think of. He laid his hands on the charred man’s oozing, destroyed flesh and let his mind wander to the thoughts and the rage that had finally led him to making a Pact. He saw the smirking of the guards who had barred him from his own house. He remembered that first night punching the walls of his hastily rented flat in a blind drunken rage. He remembered being tortured and thrown in a cell, alone after being stripped of what little he’d had left. When Dask opened his eyes, he was still trembling with sorrow and pure rage. The burnt man still lay there, somehow still stirring when he should have been dead by now. He could no longer stand the horrible sight and the smell of burnt flesh. He had tried to do something and failed at it. In disgust, he tried to rub the burnt flesh, blood, the smell of char and death off of his hands. That was it; he decided in that moment, he had to get out of here. He would find a way to go back.
“You are a true hero of the city.” said the Duke to Suryn. Her heart raced as his hands came down on either side of her neck holding the ribbon attached to a gleaming medal. All the courtiers in the throne room clapped politely.
“I accept.” she said. “But I don’t know if I killed him.”
“You said this will give us a time of peace in which we can prepare if he ever returns.”
“Whatever happens, you deserve our—my utmost gratitude in perpetuity. If you had not helped me crush those treasonous rebels when you first appeared, I may not have been able to give you this decoration today for your victory over the Demon.” Suryn’s hand strayed to the other medals adorning her armor for the ceremony. She lightly touched them and recalled how she had been given them as she had turned the tide of the war and then as she had brought back the heads of the rebel leaders, one by one. “You can’t compare a Demon to mortal men who just want to usurp your rule and take your treasure. He will want more than that.”
“We will work together and defeat him for good all the same.”
The Duke looked her right in the eyes and she felt engulfed by his friendly, yet mysterious gaze. He ascended to his throne and the crowd closed around her with their prettily-worded congratulations. But none of them dared look her in the eye as the Duke had done. No one ever did. The life of sacred duty was a life without connection and she had accepted that.
Dask spent days finding his way out of the depths of the catacombs, yet somehow he was only slightly hungry, thirsty, and tired. Ever since he had awakened down there, he couldn’t remember eating anything. He had never seen the Dark Man eat or drink, but he had never expected him to. His heart had leapt for joy for the first time in weeks when he found himself on the surface again. Though it was night, the glowing lamps of the city were like daylight compared to the dim glow he had lived in. The warm night air was like a cascade of kisses on his cheeks after the relentless bone-leaching chill of the caverns. He had escaped; now a new life lay before him. He began to weep with joy. He would be happy from now on if he could have the slightest corner for himself in this beautiful world of the living.
He came to the house of his parents who had turned on him with suspicion the night he had been expelled from his house. He would try again to reach out now and make them understand! He pounded on their door and a couple minutes passed as a lantern was lit. “Father!” cried Dask. He no longer cared about the fight they’d had. He was back from the dead.
“My son!” His father hugged him, the first time anyone had touched him benevolently since his life had abruptly fallen apart. “You shouldn’t have come back, Dask! We love you!”
Suddenly there was a clamor as guards surrounded him. “Get down! You’re under arrest!”
Dask knew there was no way he’d ever willingly go back to that cell and his life was already over. As they began to draw their weapons, he charged right into them. To his surprise they went flying. Two men jumped onto him trying to restrain his arms. He tore free and slugged one in the face and elbowed the other. With audible snapping sounds, both of them dropped to the ground. The other guards immediately abandoned all thought of capturing him alive and advanced with their swords drawn. To Dask’s dismay, one of them had a crossbow aimed right at him. He registered the thudding of the crossbow and chills raced through his body as he looked down and expected to see his torso impaled by a heavy bolt at close range. Nothing. He looked up. A shadow had passed between him and the guards who now stood dumbstruck. There was a sound of oozing flesh and the grinding of shifting bones and joints. An object tumbled from the the shadow’s body to the ground. It was the crossbow bolt. The figure let out a roar of hideous rasping, screeching, inhuman rage and lunged at the guards. They fled at once but the dark figure grabbed one of them from behind by the neck. The furious creature shook the life out of the guard like a terrier finishing off a rat, and then, with a backhand motion, flung the man’s body against a wall five feet off the ground with enough force to crack the plaster exterior. The creature flung back its head and gave out a sandpapery, screeching howl of pain and fury.
Finally, Dask got a better look. It was the charred, barely human body he had left behind in the catacombs, somehow animated with an inhuman force. The whole city was already coming awake and the yelling and stamping of hundreds of guards came from nearby.
“Run!” Dask said to the creature. He sprinted down the streets towards the entrance to the catacombs his whole being focused only on survival. Some citizens coming out of their houses pointed and shouted at him. Some even tried to chase him, but he left them behind almost immediately. Sooner than he could have expected, he was near the opening, but in a flash of survival instinct he thought to look around him. No one appeared to be near – except for the charred figure which had somehow followed him with ease. No time to think about it. He went into the ancient graveyard with the charred man right behind him and they went down into the dark crypt they had come from. At first everything was pitch black, but then he saw a pale glow spread around him as it had before. He was not about to think too hard about it and fled down the maze of tight tunnels picking up the markers he had left behind as we went. With his heart still racing, he finally reached the center of the maze from which he had come. The Dark Man still lay there motionless, the bright gash still striving to consume him. “Master!” said Dask. There was no answer.
Dask did not know how long he stayed down there not knowing what to do. Startled, he felt a tugging on his wrist, the most repulsive sort of sensation that left behind sticky tiles of reeking, blackened skin. With a cry of fear, Dask recoiled backward. In the dim light he began to suspect was some kind of Demonic vision in complete darkness, he saw the burnt man standing over him. It raised its head and sniffed. A harsh, plaintive yowl came from its throat. It was restless. It turned to leave the chamber then and Dask, knowing nothing better to do, followed. The tortured creature wound through the tunnels, at times stopping as if to sniff the air and changing course. They moved beneath the city in forgotten passageways and finally, the charred creature began to claw at the earth above them. Dask enthusiastically joined the strange beast in its efforts. They forced their way through bricks and even concrete with what he now realized must be strange new abilities. He had to take breaks and nurse his torn knuckles and fingertips, but the burnt up beast was indefatigable. No matter how many oozing scales fell away, there always seemed to be more. Finally, a dim flicker of lamplight that shone through a tiny hole almost blinded him. The charred beast knew what it was doing! Dask redoubled his efforts to assist even though it felt as though his bleeding fingers would fall off. Soon, the two intruders climbed through the floor into a house. There, a bearded man about a decade older than Dask sobbed and heaved on the floor. He was so distraught, he was only just beginning to realize a couple of men had just clawed their way through his floor. Startled, he began to beg them for his life on the ground. It was more than Dask could endure. “It’s alright!” he said.
Nothing happened for awhile. Dask looked at the burnt man but no direction was forthcoming. It was up to him!
“Relax,” Dask muttered. It was all he could think of.
“Go ahead and kill me!” said the man on his knees. “I have nothing left! Take my life. I’ve lost my job. They took my wife and children!”
“The Paladin! She denounced me as a sinner! The Duke’s judges took my family from me!”
Dask suddenly felt his blood pressure rise and his fears and the pain of his torn-up hands were forgotten. He felt the blood swelling into his forearms and he punched the wall. The last time he tried that, his fists had bounced off in his impotent, drunken rage. This time, he left a gaping hole in the plaster even as blood streamed out of his torn hands. “We have been sent,” he gasped. “To help.”
In that moment, all thoughts of returning to his past life as it had been left Dask forever. It was one thing to suffer misfortune himself, it was another to witness what had befallen the burnt man and now another poor fool who had committed Thoughtcrime.
“Pledge yourself to him!”
“What do you mean? Who?”
“You know who. There on your knees now, pray to him. Do it every day.”
“How could I do—”
“How do you like the way things are? What do you think of how you’ve been treated? This is your chance to do something about it. Pledge yourself to our master. If you know any others, tell them to join.”
“You’ll know when you’ve done it.”
Dask and the burnt man turned away and casually went back down through the gaping hole in the floor, leaving the distraught gentleman with his thoughts. There was a shuffling from above as a rug was abruptly placed over the hole. Dask had no idea where he had gotten the idea to say those things. It had just seemed right as he began again to recall the moment he had turned away from the Light. As heavily intoxicated as he had been, there had been then a deep change in his soul, at once the snapping of a twig and the rumbling of a rockslide.
They returned to their lair at the heart of the catacombs and there in the center of the floor, the Dark Man’s form was weakly sitting up. He spoke to them with a sharp laugh.