Writing Prompt ~~ The Devil is in the Details

Music: release (A Tale of Outer Suburbia) by Hands Like Houses

I scowled at the small, plain wooden box sitting so innocently on the cheap, round kitchen table. Though plain might be a bit of a misnomer, maybe unadorned was better. It had only a bronze hook latch to keep the lid closed, and the wood appeared as though someone had fanned orange-red flames across unfinished wood and then froze them in place with varnish. I’d been told it was made from elder wood, but I hadn’t been concerned with the box. It’s what was in the box that drew my ire.

“That was not part of our agreement,” I said, the distaste in my words as heavy in the air as an impending storm. I then turned the same narrowed eyes to the ‘man’ across from me, and the corners of my mouth turned down in a sneer.

He wasn’t anything remarkable. In fact, he had a face and demeanor that the average passerby would gloss over and forget about almost the same instant they saw him. As though their eyes simply slid over him. Nothing stuck out as memorable, which had raised my suspicions all the more when I first caught sight of him almost nine years ago in the bookstore where I worked.

Everyone had something that caught a person’s eye to catalogue them: scars, birthmarks, mannerisms, body types, markings, smell, and so on. But this man was almost so bland he was invisible. It would have raised my hackles if I’d had them. I guess being half-Fae meant I was lucky I hadn’t been born with hackles. Human and Fae genetics could do some terribly interesting things at times.

He tilted his head, considering me, and his eyes that were some shade in-between brown and hazel searched my face for what I guessed was some small crack in my façade. I held my silence. One of the first things I’d learned when living with my ‘father’ was that it was far more difficult to find yourself in trouble if you held your tongue. It was a lesson I needed to be taught only once, and the scars that littered my back were a daily reminder for caution and quiet observation.

So, we both sat there in cumbersome silence waiting for the other to break. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have the endless patience that celestial and immortal beings were capable of, and after my clock ticked to ten minutes of nothing I broke.

“Why exactly are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked and smoothed my features into a bored, indifferent mask. I did it not only to stave off my headache before it could become a migraine, but also because it never paid to show a veritable god that you were curious. Maybe satisfaction brought a curious cat back, but I’d never been tempted to test the limits of just how much ‘immortality’ I’d inherited from dear ol’ dad.

“Do you not want it back?” he asked, curious.

My scowl was back quicker than someone could snap their fingers. I was fortunate he wasn’t from my pantheon, or else the reaction would leave me as nothing more than a splotch of gore in my unfortunately decorated kitchen. The 70s were not kind in regards to such things, and no, calling it retro didn’t make it any less regrettable. But cheap was cheap, and this was what I could afford.

Of course, his position outside my kind’s usual avenue of worship was why I’d wound up in this delicate situation in the first place.

“I think my continued existence in the world of the living is enough of a reason to never want it back, actually,” I replied scathingly.

“But you’d have your magic back,” he offered calmly, and not responding to my irritation. He was still watching me for something, some reaction.

I scoffed, leaned back in my chair, and took a sip of my rapidly cooling tea. My mind was tumbling through precisely why that was the first reason he thought I’d want it back. I’d lived just fine for nearly a decade without it.

“Magic isn’t everything,” I said, finally deciding on a nonchalant response, and shrugged my shoulders to support the words.

“Maybe, but you would have been able to help your friend,” he said.

The words weren’t cruel, per say, but they had the same impact as a car wreck. It knocked all the wind from me and brought my thoughts to a screeching halt. My chest ached with the weight of grief, and the responsibility of a ruined life hung heavy on my conscience.

I closed my eyes against the sharp pain that stabbed through my heart when her face floated into view. There’d been so much blood, and though I’d learned long ago to not let such a thing bother me, it was the fact that it was her blood. Half-Fae were tougher than humans by a large stretch, but we could still be injured a hell of a lot easier than full-blooded Fae. It took immense torture, a twisted purpose and will, and/or a weapon enchanted with the express purpose to kill their kind to have an effect on them. I’d watched one Fae who was hit fully by a semi-truck on a highway walk away with nothing more than a bad temper at the ‘inconvenience’.

So when Seirian showed up on my doorstep out of the blue utterly mangled, her usually kind smile gone beneath a mask of gore, I’d rushed her to the closest approximation of a healer I knew. Unfortunately, not all magics are compatible, and the hardiness of the Fae meant she healed faster than Aubert could fix things. As a result, with her Fae magic fighting his shamanic power, the best he could accomplish was the minimize the scarring. Seirian was now the only Fae I knew confined to a wheelchair.

Of course, if I’d had my healing powers I could have healed her far more effectively, and likely almost back to perfect. On the flip side of that, using my powers would have drawn the Hunters I’d been avoiding for nearing two decades right to my location. They thought I’d been merely suppressing my powers, and not that I’d managed to finagle a deal with a Devil. Not necessarily the Devil, though I wasn’t sure I’d know the difference unless he told me. Devil was just a broad classification of upper-level demons, the same way Fae covered a lot of ground in terms of beings originating from the British Isles.

At any rate, since magic is tied so closely with the soul my power disappeared into the box along with it. That ‘plain’ box was the only thing standing between me and a faction of supremely cheesed off beings that wanted nothing more than to see me flayed alive. At best.

I opened my eyes to meet his gaze once more. As though someone had pulled the plug on my emotions everything drained away, leaving me with an emptiness I hadn’t experienced since we’d removed my soul.

“Wishes and what-ifs are as substantial as pixie farts, Karroth. Risking my neck now won’t heal Seirian and would only result in ushering in my demise. So, I ask again: why are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked, my voice hoarse from unshed tears.

Something rippled beneath Karroth’s skin, and his eyes flashed with the catastrophic hellfire that pervaded his realm. It was a sobering reminder that, while I may not be a being of his pantheon, he was more than capable of killing me with the barest of thoughts with or without my powers to defend myself. It would be like a gnat picking a fight with a dragon.

“We need your assistance in getting through a ward to retrieve something that was stolen from us, Gwyneira Nic Trahaearn, lesser daughter of the Tylwyth Teg, and we would have your cooperation in exchange for sanctuary,” Karroth said formally and with Power behind the words, capital ‘P’ and all.

And when he said my name, despite the fact that all of my essence was set behind the highest wards the Devils possessed, it still rung my very being like clapper of large bell. It made every cell in my body hum, and for a moment it disrupted the bindings that held my glamour together.

There is power in knowing the Name of a thing, and though my human blood could disrupt some of said power, it did not cancel it out completely. As a sentient being, my Name didn’t lend someone control over me, but it made it impossible to not reveal my true self if they put their own Power behind Naming me. There are a few ways to see the true form of a Fae, and this was one.

Karroth’s eyes widened for a moment, as he’d never taken liberty with my Name or pushed my glamour aside. Therefore, he’d never seen what I truly looked like. Of course, it wasn’t every day that Devils and Fae crossed paths.

My glamour skills were a sight better than some of the snootier, higher-level Fae, because they reveled in flaunting their forms. I, however, was trying to not attract attention. The image I presented to the world with my magic was a woman with average looks, bordering plain, butterscotch blond hair that fell in waves to my mid-back, pale skin that was more suited to a redhead, and cornflower blue eyes.

What I truly looked like, though, wasn’t too terribly far off from the glamour, and I had the famed and fancied pale coloring of my people. Glamour works best when you don’t deviate too far from the original, though. The one thing that was always the most difficult to adjust was my hair, which was white as the driven snow, but the same length. Not being higher nobility meant I was already pushing the limits with how long my hair was now. Of course, I wasn’t exactly waltzing through the courts, so the danger level wasn’t too high. If they caught me, the length of my hair would be the least of my transgressions.

My eyes were normally a liquid cobalt blue that shimmered iridescent in the light, and my skin was so pale it was almost translucent at times. High cheekbones and delicate bone structure belied the innate strength that came with being Fae. Unfortunately, the glamour couldn’t help me with keeping said strength in check. I’d learned to be cautious after freaking out a co-worker when I’d overestimated lifting a large box of books and launched it across the room.

The real issue came with the glowing. My father’s people tended to glow with their power and emotions like wicked deadly lightbulbs. It wasn’t an all the time thing, but when strong emotions took us over or we were using our powers it tended to happen. I hadn’t had to worry about that since the removal of my soul, but I was glowing now. It likely had to do with Karroth using my Name, and how it may have tapped into some level of power in my very cells that went beyond what was in my soul.

I pushed my shoulders back and tilted my chin up to look down my nose at the Devil.

“You sure know how to flatter a lady by mentioning her lowly position with her people. Have you divested yourself of your kind’s famed silver tongue? Or am I simply lucky enough to be in the presence of the one Devil with less tact than a human?” I asked caustically.

I wasn’t the most devious of my kind; I couldn’t think a thousand moves ahead and I had no head for politics or sensing out ulterior motives. I was, however, enough in my right mind to try and buy time by playing on etiquette. He’d insulted me, and until such a thing was redressed I had time to think of a few questions and settle myself.

His eyes flashed with that inner fire again, my renowned peevish behavior finally scratching the surface of his calm façade. His apology was stilted, and only marginally genuine, but I inclined my head in acceptance. I didn’t have enough magical or political clout to do anything but accede anyway.

My glamour had finally settled back down and flowed back over my person like water filling an allotted space, smoothing over the surface. I let out a sigh at the familiar, almost imperceptible weight of it. To be exposed in such a way was disconcerting, to say the least, as though I suddenly found myself naked in front of him. That particular thought sent blood rushing to my face, and unfortunately the glamour didn’t conceal that.

Karroth raised an inquiring eyebrow, but I ignored him and cleared my throat.

“This sounds less like a favor and more like subtle demand. Why do you need me to get beyond this ward? You far outstrip me where power is concerned,” I noted, and watched his expression flash through varying emotions before settling into a rueful grin. Why such a sight had alarm bells clamoring in my brain and my instincts screaming like a banshee, I couldn’t say. The smile was pleasant enough, but there was something lurking beneath the surface that didn’t sit well with me on some level I couldn’t identify.

“I told them you wouldn’t just blindly want your soul back. They aren’t used to people who give up their souls for reasons other than greed and power,” Karroth said. Though his grin faded, amusement still danced in his eyes, like the flickering flame of a candle.

I snorted in disbelief and shook my head. “Cowardice isn’t a much better reason,” I pointed out.

“Is it truly cowardice to recognize when you are outmatched and take appropriate steps to ensure your survival?” he asked, continuing the vein of her observations. It was almost like he didn’t want to talk about why he was there, either. Or at least not directly.

“Some have pointed out I could have simply rolled over and faced my death like the nobility in my blood demanded.”

It was Karroth’s turn to snort. “As though any of them would sacrifice their own self-preservation to do the same.”

I tilted my head in assent. “You’re not wrong.” I paused, and took a moment to consider his words, ‘and we would have your cooperation.’ Pretty words with a very strong suggestion toward giving them what they wanted. Yes, he’d offered me sanctuary with the Devils, but, in a way, I was already halfway there by not being in possession of my soul. Was taking that step worth the risk of putting myself out in the open? Not to mention sanctuary and protection were two different animals. It was like the difference between a nice fence and a pack of guard dogs. Or a prison.

I grimaced in my thoughts only. There’s no telling what sanctuary meant to them. It could mean setting up wards on my house, person, place of work, and so on. Or it could mean they’d take me to one of their dimensions and I’d be trapped there. Forever. There wasn’t enough benefit to me to take the chance.

“Your offer is a most gracious one, Karroth, but regretfully I must decline at this time,” I said, using my ‘court polite,’ voice.

Karroth’s face remained calm, but his eyes gave the barest of twitches at my change in tone and answer. I wanted to point out he was the one to get all formal first, but I refrained. He was not pleased.

“We believed the offer of sanctuary to be a generous one,” he said, leaving the question hanging in the air. What about the offer was not satisfactory?

I wanted to sigh. “As I said, most gracious. However, I find myself wondering about a fair few things in regards to this agreement,” I said, tone only mildly curious, and leaving my own question on the air. May I ask questions?

The smallest spark lit his eyes, like an ember swirling from a campfire; the smallest flare and then gone. He nodded.

“First: what does sanctuary mean in my particular case in relation to the Devils?” I asked, trying to cover as much ground as possible while also being specific. If I had only asked, ‘What does sanctuary mean?’, he could rightly give me a quote out of the dictionary which might not cover what they considered sanctuary, and what it mean for me.

This time it was the corner of his mouth that tugged upward just a hair. “We would welcome you to our court,” he said, voice almost purring, as though the idea intrigued him in some way.

For me, though, it froze my insides and a stab of shock went straight through my heart. My eyes widened involuntarily, and my breath hitched. “While I would be most honored,” I said, my voice on the edge of stuttering, “such an accommodation would not be compatible with how I would like to live at this current time.”

For a moment he said nothing, and then his smile pulled a little higher. “That is unfortunate,” he said, mournfully, despite his unperturbed expression. “Our counter-offer is to place wards on your home.”

“That wouldn’t do me any good once I left,” I pointed out.

He shrugged. “It is a compromise. You have been offered full sanctuary on our terms, or partial on yours,” he said dispassionately.

I bit my lip, but knew he wasn’t going to budge on that. “What about an offer of protection for when I’m outside my home?”

He tilted his head in consideration. “What form of protection would you consider adequate?”

“Considering we’d be dealing with the higher Fae, like my father,” I said slowly, trying to think of what rank of demon wouldn’t be considered too high, or too low. “I’d wager nothing short of a Knight or sentinel, or two, would be sufficient.”

His eyebrows rose slowly. “You must think rather highly of yourself.”

I laughed, but it was a humorless sound, and brittle as thin ice. “I am no catch, Karroth. However, I have flouted not only a court full of easily pissed off Fae nobility, but also a Queen when I killed the first Hunter she sent after me. It is not for me that I ask for such power in protection. It’s for the poor, soulless demon, so that they’ll be of a sufficient power to protect us both, or at the very least themselves.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the phantom pains from my encounter racing along my nerves like ghosts of agony past. “Anything less would be asking for a slaughter,” I finished, my voice hoarse.

After a few moments of silence, I looked up at Karroth, and he was watching me thoughtfully. “As you say.”

It was neither an agreement or a denial. Guess I’d just have to wait and see, though I was still not considering taking it back. They still weren’t offering me anything to sway my decision.

“Even if both provisions were met—wards and a guard—I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, watching Karroth as I spoke. I didn’t trust the Devil for anything beyond our original deal: him keeping and using the power in my soul as he saw fit, and his discretion on keeping our arrangement and my current whereabouts to himself. The thought of what he might be using my soul for made something in my gut curl and twist, but there was nothing for it. There had been no other way.

“Don’t you want to know what it is you’re going to help us get before I…sweeten the pot, so to speak?” he asked.

He paused just before saying the last, and I narrowed my eyes at the hesitation. I wasn’t sure what his offer was, but it didn’t sound like something I’d actually like. It made the whole situation more suspicious than it already was.

“Fine,” I conceded, going with his suggestion. “What is it you and the Devils are trying to get back?”

“Cerridwen’s Cauldron, or rather, the Cauldron all leaders of the Underworld had a right to, until She took it for herself,” Karroth said, the latter half of his statement an aloud musing.

The world itself seemingly drew in a deep, shocked breath and froze at the former half of his words, and when it released everything shattered.

“What?!” I screeched, standing so suddenly that my chair toppled backward. “Are you insane?” I hissed, all polite pretense pulled away like ripping off a band aid.

“I suppose that depends on your point of view, but for the purpose of this discussion, no, I am not insane,” he replied, still calm.

Well, now his earlier reticence about telling me anything made sense. I wanted to shake him, maybe scratch his eyeballs out, just something violent to break the tranquility of his demeanor. Instead, because I valued having my lungs remain in my chest instead of being ripped out because I attacked the Devil, I settled for clenching my fists uselessly at my sides.

Of all the things I expected him to say, that particular one wasn’t even in the same universe as any of the others that had rattled around in my mind.

The Cauldron held the power of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth, and Cerridwen was a Dark Goddess of many who called the British Isles home. And I meant Goddess with an upper-case ‘G’. There were little gods, goddesses, and demi-gods running around, but Cerridwen was a Power. As far as I knew she was the rightful owner of the Cauldron. I’d never even heard speculation it wasn’t hers, even among those outside her pantheon and worshippers. If I thought I was in a bad place with the courts of Fae, the wrath of a Goddess was nothing in comparison. It was pure, unadulterated suicide.

“You’re joking, right? Pulling one over on me?” I asked, breathless and foolishly hopeful. Karroth wasn’t a prankster, and he rarely ever joked in such a manner. He might tease me to make me uncomfortable, but this was well beyond that.

“I cannot say that I am. She has long kept the Cauldron to herself, thinking it could buoy her powers as her following in this world waned. The Cauldron was never meant to remain in the power of one Power of the Underworld for so long. It is one of the anchors in our realm, and it was high time it was returned to Cynosium, before the damage is irreparable,” he said, his voice going low and determined.

Cynosium was the middle realm of the Underworld, like the center of a starburst design with the various Underworlds as the points at the end of the beams radiating outward. Outside of that I didn’t know much about it, as I’d never had cause to. I made it my life’s mission, quite literally, to not visit or involve myself in the matters of the Beyond and Below.

“I don’t know how I can help with that…” I started weakly, and then my mind snapped to one of my father’s rants after I’d failed spectacularly at ingratiating myself to his Queen during one of her balls.

You are nothing more than an aberration on our vaunted family tree. How one such as you could be descended from our Dark Mother, I will never know. I thought it would be enough to cleanse your vile human taint, but apparently I miscalculated,’ he’d sneered.

It was that night, when the coldness of his gaze let me know I’d outlived any potential usefulness he’d planned for me, that I made my escape. I took nothing from my room, just found what I considered my most normal-looking clothing, dressed, and slipped out of the faery mound. I’d been a reverse changeling; instead of a Fae leaving a Faery child with humans, I was a half-Fae left at the entrance of the mound after my father’s unfortunate tumble with a human. Which was a story I’d been beaten within an inch of my life for asking about. I still didn’t know the circumstances.

As for the rest of what he said…Cerridwen was also known as the Dark Mother among the Fae, and I sucked in a breath at the realization.

“You need something from me, but not me,” I said, my knees going weak. I kept a tight grip on the table to hold myself up.

Karroth nodded, and for the first time I saw something stir in his expression that lent credence to the stories of Devils. Their utterly devious and cruel nature. A slow smile crept over his face, and it was not nice in any way, shape, or form. It was very much what I imagined a goblin looked like when it came across an unsuspecting fairy and had it for a snack. Predatory.

“Those of Cerridwen’s line aren’t plentiful, and almost never leave the mounds. Even when they do, it’s only every few hundred years, if that, and never alone. They would never allow themselves to be captured, and we needed someone alive to get what we needed.” He paused here, and his gaze sharpened on me. “And then along came a half-Fae, Hunters on her heels, and desperate for a normal life. Someone with the blood of Cerridwen in her veins. Though it is weakened by your human side and seeming to get more so each day you are without your soul, it is still there. A spark of that power is what we need to get past her wards.”

As he’d continued talking, he’d leaned forward until maybe half a foot separated us, his eyes looking up into mine where I still stood. I was not an incredibly tall person, so his face wasn’t all that far from mine. I swallowed hard but couldn’t move.

“I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.

His smile went sharp and rueful again. “I had hoped you would simply go along, maybe in some gesture of defiance to your father’s people, but I should have known your fear ran far too deep.” He snapped his fingers, the sound cracking on the air almost like a whip. “Remember: this was not how I wished to go about this, but I have no choice,” he said, his voice low, but not really sounding very sorry at all.

“Everything before a ‘but’ statement is a lie,” I said, offhand.

“Perhaps,” he mused, and the sound of the front door opening and closing set my nerves on edge.

“Who…?”

Then she was there, moving her wheelchair into the kitchen, and I couldn’t breathe.

“Hello, Gwynnie,” she said, her voice soft and alluring, the accent lilting and rolling the words from her mouth like a tumbling stream.

I finally sucked in a breath past the tightness of my throat. “Hello, Seirian,” I said, barely choking the words out.

There was an air of resigned melancholy about her, like a haze diminishing her old, exuberant nature. Her usual emerald green eyes that sparkled like dew on fresh spring leaves, were instead dull. Her smile was small and sad, her skin an unhealthy pallor instead of shining white like moonlight. Her hair, which was more a shimmering platinum than white like mine, was pulled back in a ponytail. She’d told me after she healed, it made it easier to hide some of the scars on her scalp. Because, oh yes, scars littered her body like a battlefield strewn with dead soldiers.

Yet, she didn’t hate me for what happened, even though it was our friendship that had the Queen and my father destroying her life. Terrible did not even begin to describe what I felt over it. I wanted to crawl under a rock, curl into a ball, and die the slow death I deserved.

“Wh-what are you doing here?” I asked, though the part of my mind that wasn’t riddled by guilt had already started working through that.

“The Cauldron, Gwynnie, it can heal me,” she said simply, and made a small gesture to the Devil. “Karroth approached me about persuading you go along with this. However, I would never ask you to do something to put yourself at risk. I’m just glad I got to see you again, since you’ve been avoiding me. And I know that you would never let something silly like guilt get between our friendship,” she said wryly.

I saw her smile widen a fraction just before I cast my eyes down to the floor in shame. I didn’t think it possible, but her words made me feel even worse.

“You should be furious at me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“I could never be angry at my one and only friend,” Seirian said.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears I’d promised her I wouldn’t cry anymore. Seirian wasn’t a noble, in fact she’d been my servant at court, but I counted her as a friend and treated her as an equal. Which only made my father even more furious at me. That list was a long one.

“I-“

“I swear to the gods, if you say you’re sorry one more time I’ll learn to walk again just to beat the snot out of you,” she said cheerfully.

My head snapped up to look at her, and despite her tone it didn’t reach her eyes. She may not be mad at me as I thought she should be, but she wasn’t happy. Seirian was a being of cheer and light. She deserved to be dancing in the dappled sun of a forest floor in a piece of forest unseen by human eyes. Instead, she was here, in a city, dying the slow death of a Fae kept too long among humans and their modern technology and pollution.

I took a small, faltering step forward and reached out for her hand. When she reached forward and took mine in hers, her gasp was sharp in contrast to my slow, rattling exhale. Fae were touchy-feely creatures, and to have gone so long without touching one of our own, even a simple touch like this one, was a painful reminder of what we were lacking.

Our natural magics danced over each other’s skin, though mine much more muted than hers.

“Oh, Gwynnie, you feel like you’re on death’s doorstep,” she said in a choked whisper, voice bordering on horror. “Why would you do this to yourself?”

My small huff of a laugh was self-deprecating and bitter like the dandelions little Fae loved to eat.

“Like death, eh? What was the better choice, then? A slow, painless death over the centuries of torture they likely have planned for me?” I asked. Not meaning to sound as harsh as I had, but it was still there.

Some part of me had known being separated from my soul had the potential to kill me eventually. The changes over the last nine years or so had been gradual, creeping things. Until, one day, I realized everything around me had become muted: colors were subdued, food was ash, smells muted, music flat, and there was no feeling anything through the haze. I could still experience the range of emotions, but it was all on the surface—nothing pierced too deep. Except fear, it seemed.

Seirian’s hand gave mine a little squeeze. “We can do this Gwynnie. We have to, for the both of us,” she said, her eyes searching mine.

“At worst, maybe if we try this our deaths will be quick,” I joked.

Seirian raised a single eyebrow, letting me know she did not appreciate my dark humor.

“So, will I be able to report a favorable outcome to my masters?” Karroth asked.

He’d been quiet during the entire exchange, and I turned my gaze to him. His posture, words, and expression were the very definition of neutral, but there was that fire behind his eyes again.

My options were not fantastic. I could choose a slow death from lack of a soul, slowly fading out of existence, and keeping my friend crippled. I could do this, and then they’d slaughter us sooner or later. Maybe Seirian would survive, but she had a bad habit of trying to defend me, so she’d likely die, too. Of course, we might succeed, and that was the rub. Hope was as deadly, or more so, than despair.

I had no doubts that, given my blood and access to the Cauldron, they might have a decent chance at wresting it from Cerridwen. I just wasn’t optimistic on my chances as collateral damage. Because, if the Devils pulled this off, they would surely know I was involved. As Karroth pointed out, coming across this opportunity was rare, and rare circumstances were easy to pinpoint.

I sighed. “Fine.”

Seirian’s grin was the biggest I’d seen it since before her maiming, and even Karroth seemed to be genuinely excited about my answer.

“So, just how are we going about this convoluted form of suicide?” I asked, trying for humorous.

Seirian, buoyed by the light at the end of the tunnel of her injuries, took her hand from mine and wagged a scolding finger at me. Telling me to stop being so fatalistic.

Karroth, on the other hand, simply cleared his throat once she was done and started detailing the plan, because that’s where one of the Devils’ deadliest power lay: in the details.

Writing Prompt ~~ Penance

Song: “Wrong Side of Heaven” by Five Finger Death Punch

~~We’re going to ignore the 3-5 paragraph stipulation, because I’m wordy and I’ve wanted to write something for this song for a while. Enjoy!~~

 

 

An unfamiliar sky greeted him when he opened his eyes. Roiling black clouds were heavy with the threat of rain, and their thunder was rumbling like rocks in an avalanche. The storm was so close, the reverberations of sound were a concussive pressure in his chest. Lightning flashed, and its fingers of electricity reached greedily across the sky, as though trying to grab the clouds and pull them back to the storm’s center.

Despite the severe menace the weather presented, his chest ached at the sight; it reminded him of home. The nostalgia it generated was a bone-deep throb. Though it wasn’t generated by any physical pain, the psychological anguish still manifested itself in a very real, very visceral way. It was so unlike the desert he’d been in more times than he cared to remember or count. He closed his eyes against the burning tears, but he couldn’t keep them that way forever.

Wherever he found himself, it wasn’t the place he closed his eyes as he went to sleep last night, and the thought should have sent panic racing through him like a wildfire. It didn’t. His body was lighter than a feather, and the air around him was a serene cocoon. Something in him, something he recognized as not being a wholly healthy reaction, tried to grab for the familiar anxiety and anger to throw in front of him like a shield. It wasn’t there. There was…nothing.

“Finally awake, I see,” a soft, kind voice spoke from somewhere beyond his feet. It was both familiar, and yet not. Something he could grab onto for some measure of recognition and control, but different enough that there were no lingering emotions attached. It was unsettling.

When he sat up, the peaceful cocoon remained, but the place he found himself was anything but. He’d been laying on some kind of stone wall, much like the one he’d seen in pictures of the Great Wall. When he shifted his weight and put his hand down on the stone to help him stand up, it was as though he connected to some kind of awareness in the stone. While his comparison to the Great Wall may have been accurate in looks, whatever this was far older than anything he’d ever heard of—anything on Earth, that is. The sheer age of what he stood on was crushing him, and he couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Whatever had maintained the cocoon before shattered, and panic flooded him like the breaking of a dam.

A small hand touched his shoulder and the connection to the wall broke. He fell backward, landing on his ass, and his neck nearly snapped from how quick he looked up to whoever had touched him.

“It is okay. The first time anyone connects with the wall is a uniquely terrifying experience,” the same voice from earlier spoke. “The purpose for which it was built make it a very unique structure.”

He scanned her face, and just as with her voice it was familiar yet not, as though someone had taken different features from the women in his life and created another person altogether. They blended beautifully: his mother’s kind smile, his daughter’s dancing grey eyes and long brown hair, his wife’s elegant nose and eyebrows, and his gran’s heart-shaped face and single dimple on the right side. She wore some kind of flowing white dress that was far too pristine for such a place, and to top it all off she was also barefoot.

“Who are you?” he asked, speaking for the first time. His voice was raspy, as though from disuse or screaming, though it didn’t hurt. In fact, for the first time since he was in high school, nothing hurt. If he hadn’t already been sitting, that shock may have knocked him back down. His knees weren’t aching, there was no revolving sharp and throbbing pain from his lower back, and his ears weren’t ringing. Though he’d worn glasses since second grade, when he reached up there were none on his face yet he could see perfectly.

“I am many things to many people, but I think you know who I am.” This time there was an edge of sadness in the voice and smile, and it nearly broke his heart to see such sorrow in eyes so like his daughter’s.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” He barely managed to get the words out, nearly choking on them.

When she nodded, he clenched his fists at his sides, and ground his teeth against the sob trying to break away from the knot of anguish lodged painfully in his chest. Though his mourning was silent, he couldn’t hold back the tears that streamed unchecked down his cheeks.

His thoughts were a maelstrom, slowly pulling him toward a central and overwhelming realization. When he reached that pivotal conclusion, he stood on shaking legs, turned his eyes away from hers, and looked beyond the wall to see what lay beneath such a violent sky. Desolation. Barrenness. Craters and scorch marks littered the rocky ground, as though countless battles within thousands of wars had been waged there.

Yes, he knew who she was, or rather She, and he also knew where he had to be. He looked back at her.

“I…I’m in Hell, aren’t I?” The question was a whisper, and no query had any right to contain the number of emotions this one did: regret, shame, rage, woe—the list was endless.

“Yes.” The word held no righteous anger and no condemnation. It was more like a bittersweet wine, laced with sadness, understanding yet disappointment, and resignation.

He wanted to rail against the word, howl against the injustice, and beat the reality of his situation into submission. He hadn’t been a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination. He knew he had flaws just as every human had flaws, but he never thought he’d be here. Flashes of other things outside his time in battle moved through his mind. Things he’d said in anger to loved ones, his pride getting in the way of good sense and advice at times, and other things that he wasn’t proud of. Maybe there was more to come to grips with than just what was at hand. He swallowed back his anger, though his breathing was quicker and laced with panic.

“No, no one is perfect, and when I gave you free will I never expected perfection; just the very best each of you was capable of. I could ask no more than that. There are many stories and beliefs about what I am, and what I allow and will not allow, but there are a few rules that one is never justified in breaking no matter the circumstance. Killing takes away the life and free will I bestowed, and passes judgment that none hold the right to pass except me,” She said softly.

A thousand scenarios tumbled through his head in an effort to justify ending someone’s life in one circumstance or another, and She tilted her head in consideration as though She could hear each thought.

“There is no leeway to be found here. There is always a choice. Human justification holds no weight in divine decree.”

This time he could see Her thoughts, and each held a counter to the ones he’d had. He bowed his head in shame, and his shoulders sagged beneath the weight of it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. Not in a pleading way, like a child offering apology to avoid punishment. He did feel remorse, but there was also grim determination that lined the amends like the lead lining of stained glass. “I’m not sure I would have changed anything,” he admitted. “I did what I thought was right. What needed to be done. I held no joy in killing or malice toward my enemies. I simply did what I thought was best to protect those I loved.”

She nodded, but there was no change in Her eyes or resolve. “I know. I have heard those words countless times from a myriad of beings across endless worlds. There is no changing this. As I said: there is always a choice.”

“However, there is a middle ground to be found here,” another voice said this time.

She had been so captivating, he hadn’t looked beyond Her during their conversation. The other one was male and held the same dizzying mixture of features from the men in his life: the coal black hair of his father, the grim line of lips like his grandfather, the hawk-like nose of a favorite superior, and the sky blue of his son’s eyes.

“Middle ground?” he repeated the question.

The other man nodded. “Yes, a middle ground between righteousness and damnation. A path for those who cannot pass beyond the shining gates yet do not deserve the endless suffering visited upon the wicked. Well,” he amended thoughtfully, “at least not the suffering beyond that of their own making.” The blue of the man’s eyes were hard and unforgiving. “This road is not an easy one by any measure. It takes a strength of will and soul few possess. Some cannot take it and they break. Others do their due diligence and find salvation on this road. So, shall you hear the options?”

“Is there even much of a choice?” he asked, and then almost smacked his forehead when She laughed in amusement and smiled a small smile. The man huffed his own amusement and shook his head.

“There is always a choice,” they all said together.

His amusement faded as the reality of what was going on settled about him like a heavy blanket.

“What is this middle road?” he asked.

She clasped her hands in front of her. It couldn’t be from nerves, but the gesture was so very human. She looked over the battlefield with a measured gaze and lifted her chin toward it.

“All forms of existence, no matter what they are, require a balance. Light and dark, yin and yang as some of your spiritualists believe. Whatever you call it, everything has an equal and opposite. I have existed from the beginning, I am the Light. God, Elohim, Allah, Gaia, Almighty, Thor, Zeus, and countless others, to name a few just from your Earth. And from the beginning there has also been the Darkness.”

When the final word fell from Her lips, something in his soul trembled. It was a fear born from the primal part of his brain, something understood and innate in his very being.

“Just as there are soldiers of Darkness, what some call demons, there are also soldiers of the Light: angels.” She turned from the battlefield and gestured toward the man, who nodded. “Your humans have interesting concepts for not only me, but for others associated with me as well. Sometimes things get jumbled, misinterpreted, and misrepresented. You might know him by the name Lucifer—” he stiffened, and Lucifer’s eyes hardened further, “—among others. However, I could only give this task to the best of my followers. I asked my strongest, and most pure and trusted to take on this task. He has borne the burden with grace, humility, and resolve, despite any misunderstanding some beings may have of him.”

When She smiled this time at Lucifer, it was like the first spring sun breaking over the horizon after a long, hard winter. Lucifer bowed his head, the picture of humility.

It made him feel as though he were intruding on a terribly private moment. However, he didn’t have to wait overlong for her to continue.

“He guards these walls, keeping the Darkness at bay as best he can, ensuring all manner of evil does not run rampant through the worlds. Such a task would take an army, however, and not all those of the Light have the constitution that Lucifer has. As such, when a warrior of certain specifications dies they are sent to this limbo, to be offered a choice.

“You can join the denizens in the pit, be cleansed by fire and pain so that your soul may once again be fit to join the cycle of souls moving back into the world. How long one spends in the pits is up to them to work out, but generally it takes no more than a few hundred years. However, you will not rejoin the souls of those you cared for in your previous life. Most of the time souls move within the same general circles. If you choose the pits this breaks that circle, and you join a different one.”

She paused. He thought of his family and friends, and how, no matter how screwed up things got, they always felt right. Good. More goodness than he deserved, in fact. He closed his eyes against the threat of tears.

“And the other choice?”

“You join Lucifer in his battle here on the front lines for a no more or less than a thousand years. Once you have completed your penance, you may rejoin your circle of souls from this previous life. There is a risk with this choice just as with the other. Sometimes souls are destroyed in battle just as readily as the fire, in which case you cannot rejoin the cycle. These are the things you must consider before you choose.”

A thousand years of battle, or the pits. Could he handle that? He wasn’t sure. Perhaps, with the context of this particular war being different, maybe he could find solace in the battle instead of turmoil. There was no question of right or wrong here, and such clear lines were a saving grace in their own right.

He made to speak, but stopped and licked his lips, wondering if his request would be too forward.

“You are not allowed the peace of mind that comes with reuniting with your loved ones in the Beyond or watching and guarding over the ones still alive from above. Not even for a moment to, ‘check up on them one last time’,” Lucifer said, his voice hard and words grim, reading the man’s thoughts. “This is a road you must travel alone. There is no comfort along the way, save at the end if your soul does not break under the strain or perish in battle. You are here to atone, and there are no rewards until you have properly done such.”

The words sank in, and for the first time since he’d woken up here he felt utterly alone. Adrift. Then something wormed its way at the back of his mind. It was as though he had heard those words before. Maybe at church? But that didn’t seem right…

When he looked at Lucifer, something shifted in the angel’s eyes. “I’ve traveled this road before?” he asked.

The corner of the angel’s mouth twitched, or maybe he was seeing things, because his expression was just as harsh as before. “Some souls,” Lucifer said, looking down his nose at him, “are more stubborn than others, and have been through this process a few times,” he acknowledged.

He had always been stubborn, as his father could well attest. “You would test the patience of a Saint,” his father would say at times. Or an angel, he thought now, looking over at Lucifer. It might have been more amusing if he wasn’t staring down the barrel of a thousand years of fighting demons.

“Maybe it’s time to take a different path,” he said slowly, testing how he felt as the words fell from his mouth.

Lucifer tilted his head, scanning his face. Then Lucifer strode the few steps that separated them and lifted a single finger to rest on his forehead.

“That is your choice to make. Just know that the cleansing by fire, while atoning and humbling, can leave an impression on the soul. A…fear if you will. You will still be you, but somewhat not, which may not be a bad thing.” Lucifer shrugged noncommittally. “It may be what you’re looking for. However, you have been through two cycles with me, warrior, and I can say with certainty you are more suited to this form of repentance. Still, let me give you a taste of the fire and then you can decide,” he said.

Something rose in the man’s eyes, as though the brightest and purest of flames licked the edges of his irises. Then he was consumed by that fire, and there were no words for the complete and utter agony that encompassed his body, mind, and soul. Then Lucifer lifted his finger and the flames retreated. He fell to the floor and lay in a pile of shaking limbs and shuddering breaths. Intellectually he knew it had only been seconds, but it felt more like hours.

“Lucifer, that is cheating. He needs to make this choice free from influence.”

“I know his soul, and the flames might cleanse him, yes, but he has the soul of a warrior. There is a reason he keeps ending up here, time and again. He is not weak, and the pits are far worse for those like him. Stubborn. He might never rise from it. He would break before he bends.”

“He does not seem to be learning much from these cycles, though. Maybe he should be tested by the fire,” She suggested.

“He is learning, though slowly,” Lucifer countered. “Some take more time. He has proven worthy of this choice despite coming back here again, or he would not be here as per the magic binding this place. Plus, he is only on his third cycle. Patton, or whatever his name was this time around, is far worse than him. He is on, what, his eighth? Either way, it is his choice. We are as bound to these divine rules as they are.”

By the time Lucifer had finished talking, he had managed to get to his feet. He couldn’t help but feel their conversation was more for his benefit, giving him time to weigh the pros and cons. He took a deep breath and looked slowly between the two of them.

“I have made my decision,” he said, and then locked his eyes with Lucifer’s. “I will fight.”

Lucifer nodded, and this time a small smile did grace his lips. He then spun to face Her and bowed. “Thy will be done.”

She nodded, and then turned and smiled one more time at him. “May you find penance and peace with your choice.”

He nodded back, at a loss for words, and then She disappeared in a small flash of warm light. The man and the angel waited until the warmth of Her presence faded, and then the two of them locked gazes. After a moment, Lucifer huffed out a breath as though coming to some conclusion.

“Welcome back to front lines of Darkness, warrior, now take my hand and we will leave this place of limbo and visit the real battlefield,” Lucifer said, and held out his hand.

When he took the angel’s hand there was a moment of darkness and suffocation, and then noise exploded around him. Men and women of a dizzying number of races were moving around, going about the business of war. The clash and din of battle beyond the edge of the wall made him set his shoulders back in grim determination.

Though he was sure the next thousand years would test his resolve and soul, and were sure to be gruesome and potentially permanently fatal, for the moment he could see the light at the end of the very long tunnel.

Despite the misgivings lurking at the back of his mind, when he approached the man Lucifer said would be his commanding officer, he couldn’t help but feel as though some part of him had found home.

I can do this, he thought and smiled a fierce smile, maybe the third time is the charm?

Writing Prompt ~~ Of Fire and Rage

The lake was still and shiny as glass, as if he could step on it and walk all the way across. It was one of those days when anything seems possible, and he stood there, breathing deep and imagining taking the first step. Then the cracking of the ice like a whip cutting the air. He shivered, the phantom sensations of frigid water washing over him, swallowing him down. Inhaling water. Sinking. Drowning.

It had been a day where anything seemed possible, just as every day with her had been, and just as quick as Hope had taken root in his soul, She’d ripped it to shreds.

Though the lake whispered sweet nothings to him like the lover he’d just lost, his feet remained firmly on the shore. The snow crunched beneath his black combat boots each time he shifted his weight, and the cold seeped into every last inch of him with icy, grasping fingers. He didn’t shiver. In fact, anyone looking on might believe he was at ease, admiring the lake. The only sign of tension was out of sight: his fists clenched in his jacket pockets.

That, and the blood.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been covered with it, though he wished such things had been left in his past where they belonged. But he’d let his guard down and this was the price. He sighed, and turned his face upward to lock onto to the Heavens above, containing thousands of stars, a full moon, and darkness between them all that didn’t hold a candle to the cold dark that consumed his soul. His crystalline blue eyes were flat and dull.

“For over a thousand years I have served you,” he said, the edge of his voice ragged. “Why?” he asked, the word ripped from the rawness of what remained of his soul.

No answer. There never was. He growled, and ran a hand over his blood-spattered, bone white hair.

“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I’d never want to add to your pain, but I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I love you.” A weak smile lovingly graced her lips, and she brushed an errant lock of his hair from his forehead. Then her smile faltered, her usually warm, caramel eyes slid to a distant point over his left shoulder, and her arm fell to the floor of the cabin. She was gone.

He clutched her tighter to him, his face buried in her shoulder and hair. Even over the multitude of death scents hanging heavy on the air—blood, bowels, burned flesh, and more—he could still smell her. Vanilla, cinnamon, and apples. She’d joked that it probably had nothing to do with what she actually smelled like, and more his insatiable sweet tooth in regards to baked goods.

He’d run his hands through the thick, wavy, golden brown locks each chance he had, and this would be the last. He didn’t even care that said hair was covered in blood. The already drying, tacky fluid on the strands left trails of it on his face, as though someone had raked their claws across it.

He didn’t move for some time, and though his muscles screamed and cramped he refused to break the moment. To leave her. Eventually, though, he did. The only signs of his grief were the clear tracks of skin cutting through the red.

He hadn’t been able to leave her there, amidst the bodies and scattered bits of demon decorating what was left of the main room like gory confetti. But when he’d broken the shovel on his first thrust trying to penetrate the frozen ground, he fell back on the old ways.

Unlike creatures from other realms or dimensions, demons were bound to the earth and did not disappear on death. It was messy business, killing demons, even more so covering the evidence up. The human idea of what they thought their world was versus what is was, was tenuous and fragile. Humans tended to react rather violently at any disturbance in regards to their concept of their world. He could only be glad that his training in the early years happened when telling someone you were hunting demons got you praise, instead of a ‘go straight to the institution’ ticket.

The cottage burned brightly enough that someone might have wagered that white phosphorus had been thrown into the one-room structure, but that wasn’t the case. Lower-level and construct demons—demons created from the blood and/or flesh of more powerful demon—had highly flammable blood. It was not uncommon for larger demons to scoop up a handful, eviscerate them, set them on fire, and then lob them at opposing forces.

He grimaced as one particularly gruesome battle surfaced in his mind. A village, a hot summer, lots of straw, thatched-roof huts, and a horde of construct demons.

After setting the cottage ablaze, which would surely attract the local authorities no matter how remote their location, he moved back over to her cairn. Though he knew it was an abuse of powers, he could not bring himself to care. They could take his power, for all the good it’d done him, and shove it up their self-righteous asses. He’d used the hot, white light that burned deep within his core to carve out a footstone. The cairn itself overlooked the lake, and he would have done better for her if the fight had not taken so much out of him.

 

Emily Grace Farwell

25 December 2017

“Hope is seeing light in spite of being
surrounded by darkness”

 

“You were my light,” he rasped, his throat protesting the abuse it’d received between the yelling and smoke inhalation.

He looked to the sky once more and scowled. “I might not have been your most well-behaved soldier, but no one deserved this. Were you trying to teach me I didn’t belong here? Well, bang-up job.” He ground the words out from between clenched teeth.

When he turned his eyes back down to the cairn, his glower softened for a moment before snapping back in full force.

“Damn you, Emily! I told you how dangerous it was to be with me, but you never listen. You let optimism and hope guide you, and it set you on the path to your grave.” He shook his head. “I know I’m to blame for this, and you could have had so much—“

“God, you were always pathetic,” a female voice interrupted him, the tone half exasperated and half disgusted.

His frown deepened and his lip curled into sneer. He turned around and took in the figure near the tree line. She was tall, her body hard, lean, and scarred from countless battles. Their uniform had received upgrades over the centuries, evolving with military trends. They currently sported cargo pants, long-sleeved, lightweight tactical combat shirts, combat boots, and armor that consisted of a vest as well as pieces that covered just about anything but their joints. A deviation from the conventional might be their magical shielding that channeled their inner power through the plating, as well as gorgets and inner-thigh plating to discourage werewolves, vampires, and anything else that might want to gain access to a major artery for a snack or quick kill. While a solider in the desert had to worry about IEDs, their brand of combat was more concerned with not having your throat torn open by something with fangs. The material was magically enhanced to be just about anything one could hope for: lightweight, temperature-controlled, flexible, and nigh indestructible. Of course, they never did seem to get away from the red color scheme, which was as dark as a full-bodied red wine like Syrah.

Her platinum white hair was cropped nearly as short as his. Flint grey eyes matched the brittle laugh she let out at his regard, and it sounded as though it was sharp enough to make the air bleed.

The one thing she was not carrying was her sword, which sent a shock through him that trembled down to his very core. No one went anywhere without their weapon. Ever. Even within their stronghold, no one was ever to be unarmed. It was as good as him looking at her naked, which still didn’t even begin to cover how weird it was, since he knew she showered with the damn thing strapped to her back.

“Sabrael,” he greeted, tone cautious. His snarling anger had drained away in the face of her…bareness.

Her eyes narrowed, but a small, vicious smile quirked the corner of her mouth. “I told Them it would get even your temperamental attention, Desh.”

Tadeshiel—Desh—scoffed. “Considering it’s almost like you’re flitting around missing a limb, I’d say so,” he replied scathingly.

“Is that how you’ve felt the last three years?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she considered him.

Her words jabbed at him like tiny knives in his weakest spots. “That’s not your business,” he hissed, and spat the words at her like venom.

“So that’s a yes,” she said brightly, and ignored his growling in favor of examining her nails. “No one believed you’d last this long, and especially not the human, what with her being as fragile as they are.” She tilted her head to the cairn.

“Also none of your business,” he said, tone low and warning.

It was her turn to scoff. “Not my business? You mean when my partner abandons the Order we’ve been a part of for over a thousand years, and then taking up with a human no less—”

“I—”

But she overrode him, “—after everyone told him, over and over that it was a bad idea, even by those who had been through the exact same situation? But no, it’s none of my business when the High and Mighty Tadeshiel, He Who is Perfect in Every Way, Slayer of Armies, Possessor of the Thickest Skull in the History of—”

“None of those are my proper titles—”

“—the Order, One Who Knows Better than All, up and abandons us—me!—in the middle of the biggest battle, during the biggest war we’ve had in centuries. That doesn’t concern me?” Her voice had reached a fever pitch with her final word. Her eyes bled from their usual grey to molten gold as her power rose with her anger.

In the face of Desh’s numb silence, she continued.

“Do you realize what you put everyone through when you laid your sword down? I can’t even begin to recount the ramifications, since we were in the middle of a battle and one of our Imperial Legates walked away!”

Still, he said nothing.

“I don’t even know why they sent me out here to speak with you,” she said, her disgust almost palpable on the air like slime. “You’re nothing but a co—”

“I watched him die!” Desh shouted, his chest heaving witht he sudden onslaught of emotions Sabrael’s presence had evoked.

Sabrael’s expression was one of bewilderment. “Who…?”

Desh ran a hand through his hair. He’d done that a lot today. “Douma.”

She raised a single brow. “Douma?”

Desh blew out a sigh and nodded.

“The…healer?” she questioned, not quite able to place the name. To be fair, she had her own legions to oversee, so the fact she could even come close to the mark was impressive. Though, she’d always had a knack for memorizing troop names, faces, and abilities so could put them in a weird ranking system in her mind as to their usefulness. Also, it made punishments easier when she could identify all her troops on sight. He couldn’t figure out how she did it.

“Yes,” Desh said, exasperated. “The healer. He was…newer to our ranks. Under 100. Bright kid.”

Sabrael pursed her lips into a thin line at the mention of the healer’s age. “That’s practically a toddler.” After a small pause, though, she sighed. “Desh, we die all the time. I mean, not as often as the demons, mind you,” she said, and a ghost of a smile played over his lips. “It’s all part and parcel of what we do.”

Desh growled again. “I know that. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that he died, it was more how everyone behaved after it.”

A mop of curly black hair, a lopsided, dimpled smile, and eyes that Desh realized now were so close in shade to Emily’s it made his chest ache. The demons had exercised their evil tendencies to the upmost of their ability when they came across the tent of injured warriors. Though immunes were trained in combat, they were caught unawares. None survived.

Desh walked into the small clearing where his immunes used to be, his eyes searching for one face in particular. When he found him, body cut nearly in two as it covered an injured warrior, there was no question in Desh’s mind that Douma had tried to protect the injured with his own life.

‘He was probably waiting for you to show up and save the day,’ a voice had whispered in his mind. A cruel thought from the darkest recess of his mind, and one that had repeated like a mantra since that moment, slowing wearing away at his sanity.

He’d tried to regroup and secure the area, but what he saw on the faces of his soldiers made his gut twist: knotted eyebrows, narrowed eyes, curled lips and wrinkled noses. Disgust. Whether it was at the situation, him, or both, Desh didn’t know. They didn’t want to expend forces to secure a clearing of dead bodies, despite the fact that each of them had been saved by the immunes at one point or another.

It didn’t matter that, logically, the commander in him knew they were correct. All he could think about was the young man who spoke with such passion about being an immune, he’d nearly put Desh’s eye out as he moved his hands with his words. Between the sight of Douma giving his last breath to save his patient, and failing, and what Desh saw on the faces of his soldiers, he was done. Desh looked into each and every face around him for some flicker of guilt or remorse, but when none was forthcoming he drew his sword. Leveling his coldest sneer at the lot of them, he thrust his sword into the blood-soaked earth, turned on his heel, and left everything he’d known for a thousand years.

Now here he was. Douma and Emily were dead, and all he had gained was a seething, thick pool of bitterness and grief weighing on his soul.

She was quiet in the face of his prolonged silence, but tilted her head to let him continue. Feelings and such weren’t really her area of expertise or comfort, but she did care about keeping her mission success rate as close to perfect as possible. She was ruthless and efficient; she applied pressure and words expertly to achieve the desired results and emotions, even if she didn’t completely understand said emotions herself. This contributed to her high success rate, and she’d be damned if Desh was going to try and screw that up—again.

They were opposites in just about every way, but their opposition complemented each other, which is why their legions always worked closely together. Where he was compassionate, she was merciless. Her pragmatism tempered his idealism, and while they were both intelligent, she was shrewder in tactical thinking while Desh was more perceptive with the emotional element. Sabrael was authoritative in her command, while Desh was participative.

And that was where the problem came in.

When he said nothing more, she scowled. “You got too emotionally attached to one of your subordinates, and when everyone else didn’t stop in the middle of a battle and sob along with you, you took it upon yourself to just abandon us?”

He could understand how she might perceive it that way, but… “Douma was young, exceptionally talented, and proud to serve, but none of that mattered to them. Some of Malgareth’s forces managed to break the line close to where the non-combatants were positioned. I had told Tearny, the Prime Immunes, to move camp earlier in the day, but he argued that many of the gravely wounded could not be moved.” His voice went soft at the last part, because that had been his first mistake, borne from his compassion.

Sabrael honed in on it like a bird of prey on a field mouse. “So instead of moving everyone else save the gravely wounded, whose chance of living was less than everyone else around them, you let your subordinate play on your kindness. Instead a handful being slaughtered they wiped out your Immunes, including this Douma,” she finished.

As she spoke, his demeanor shrank in on itself as her words beat him about his head and heart, making him small and frail. There was a howling in the back of his mind, like a storm ready to break upon the shore of his sanity.

“I revise my previous statement: you’re a coward and an idiot.”

He snapped. In his fight with the demons that took Emily’s life, he’d known his physical abilities had deteriorated over the three years he’d been away. Chopping wood was not an equal replacement for near-constant battle training. However, when he flashed across the clearing to attack Sabrael, he realized just how far he’d fallen.

Construct demons were pathetic, and the only advantage they usually had were numbers. That’s what happened with Emily. That and the fact she was human and fragile, and all he had were his personal magics and no sword. Sabrael, on the other hand, was not a construct demon. She’d always been top of just about every class they took, and she relished hand-to-hand combatives.

Sabrael turned, his fist missing her face. She grabbed his arm, continued his momentum with a slight adjustment, and her power flared. Her strength easily tripled with the surge of energy, and the trees surrounding the clearing never stood a chance.

Sabrael flashed to the impact crater past half a mile of splintered evergreens. He was dazed, and the disturbed snow of the trees created a slight haze and drifted slowly to resettle on the land. Though he’d recover quickly, it wasn’t quick enough if he needed to defend himself from her if she decided to go on the offensive. So when her face appeared in his field of vision, he stiffened. A thrill of terror sped through him like rabbits being flushed from their burrow, and his mind scrambled to clamp down on the dread threatening to overwhelm him. She was smiling. Sabrael only smiled when she was going to kill or heavily maim something.

“I—” he spluttered, trying to find the words, willing his body to cooperate.

“I feel better now, don’t you?” she crooned.

His eyes widened.

“Now,” she said, her tone deadly calm and smile sickly sweet, “I read the after battle reports, which were as painful to procure as it would be to drink incaendium piss—” Desh flinched at that glorious imagery, “—because fully half of both our forces were slaughtered. All because you decided to let personal guilt outweigh your duty and responsibility to your people. Not mine, not the Order’s, yours,” she said, the last word hissing and full of contempt.

“Sabr—”

She kicked him in the ribs. It might not have looked like much, but the cracking that reverberated through his body followed on its heels by searing pain and an inability to breathe begged to differ.

“I’m not finished. It’s rude to interrupt,” she said, voice calm again.

When he finally managed to drag in a breath, he coughed, and could not fully breathe in. His chest was tight, and his vision started to darken around the edges. Sabrael rolled her eyes and leaned over. He tried to move away, but she dug her finger painfully into the spot she’d kicked and he writhed in response. As her power moved through his body, it was as though someone had poured molten metal through his veins. His back arched and his fingers curled with the need to claw at something.

He’d forgotten how much healing hurt, especially coming from someone as unsuited to it as Sabrael. Yes, any of them could heal, but with a lack of a healer’s precision and temperament, it was like cutting off a limb to cure a broken bone. It worked…sort of. The only reason Desh could stand it was the fact they were of a similar potential strength. If she tried this with someone further down the respective ladder than them, they could die from the shock.

When she removed her finger, and along with it her power, he sagged back into his crater. His consciousness and body were floating in the wake of so much foreign power running rampant through his body.

“Drink this, or you’ll be useless for the next day,” a voice said, the words floating like dandelion fluff through his mind.

Something cool and hard pressed into his lips, but when he didn’t open his mouth the voice scoffed with disgust and forced it open. The liquid that hit the back of his throat was refreshing and cool like a mountain stream, followed closely on its heels with what felt like lightning dancing over his nerves. Desh gasped, and then coughed when some of the potion went down the wrong way.

When he’d relearned how to breath, he opened a bleary eye. Desh didn’t know how long he lay there, out of his mind, but when he came to Sabrael was sitting on a stump, her chin propped in the palm of her hand. Her eyes were back to their usual grey, her power having receded to just below the surface.

Given what Desh knew of Sabrael, he wasn’t sure if staying silent or speaking would contribute to his continued existence. As she watched him like a bug she was deciding whether or not to crush, Desh took a chance.

“Why are you here, Sabrael?” The words came out roughly, reflecting his weariness like a mirror.

She simply continued to look at him for a moment, not answering. Just as he started to say something else, she spoke.

“We want you back.”

The words froze his insides as though he’d actually plunged into the lake as he had imagined earlier.

“No.” It was a knee-jerk, instant response. The word hadn’t finished forming in his mind before it flew from his lips.

She raised a single eyebrow, the one on the right that was bisected by one of her many scars.

“Wallowing in self-pity for three years isn’t enough?” she asked, scathingly.

Desh scowled. “I just buried someone I loved, and you want me to jump back into the fray?”

Sabrael snorted and shook her head. “As if they’d put you in charge again after what you pulled? No.” She paused and cast a sly glance his way. “Despite the mess you left, I managed to beat back the demon horde, and as a result I earned a shiny new promotion. My record has never been better. We recently won a major battle and they offered me a reward. I chose you.” She shrugged.

Desh’s eyes bulged. “But you said They sent you to talk to me—”

“I lied to make you angry,” she said, cutting him off with a nonchalant wave of her hand as well as her words. She scanned the surrounding area. “And it worked. It broke the tension you were holding like a taut bowstring, and made you stop and listen because I could beat the wings off you right now. Now, do I have your attention?”

He quieted but held his glare. She’d manipulated him, and easily at that. He gave her a grudging nod, his teeth gritted against lashing out with words, and his fists clenched, because using those had proven equally as useless.

“Good,” she said, looking like the cat who ate the canary. “As I said, you were my reward.” She paused again and sniffed, looking down her nose at him. “Though maybe not a good one. This was my one chance to bring you back into the fold with minimal fuss, because they want to keep me happy and winning battles.”

“I still don’t see how this benefits me. I don’t want to go back,” he said, grumpy and dare he think it, even pouting a bit? He didn’t like to lose, and Sabrael had him at a distinct disadvantage.

She huffed out an annoyed breath. “If you’d shut up, I’m not finished,” she snapped.

Desh shut his mouth accordingly, though he still didn’t lose the scowl.

“I knew you’d need an incentive, but I haven’t gotten there yet. First, I want you to hear my terms, and if they are agreeable to you then I’ll tell you why I think you’ll jump at the chance of coming back. Okay?” she asked. She stood up then, hand going to her hips as she gazed down at him in his pathetic state. She knew he just needed a little push.

He didn’t like it, but she was going about this in a very fair way for him, but instead of being relieved, it made him all the more suspicious. Instead of luring him with the incentive, and then forcing him to give into her demands, she was giving him the chance to hear her demands, decide if he could handle them, and then walk away if he couldn’t.

It stank as bad as day-old fish left baking in a high summer heat…

“Fine,” he snapped back.

…but something niggled at the back of his brain, driving him forward.

“Good, now these are my demands…”

She droned on for the better part of fifteen minutes, outlining what would and would not be expected of him. It came down to the fact that Sabrael found herself rather displeased with the combat teachers, stating all the good ones had died, retired, or joined the fight on the battlefields. She was wroth about the whole situation, and the lack of proficient teachers was producing sub-par subordinates. This simply would not do.

She offered him an instructor position, but he’d hold no power—not even allowed the usual authority of a magister. She would assign him someone to dole out punishments and rewards and assist him in any way she deemed necessary. He’d be an old wolf with no fangs, teaching the young pups how to be a proper wolf. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

If she had concerns about his pride getting in the way of having no power while she held it all, then he could definitely say no one had been watching him the last three years. They’d written him off, just as he’d wanted. That being said, it was hard to get upset over hurt pride when you had none anymore.

“Okay,” he said quietly, “those aren’t the worst terms given what I did. They are agreeable, and fair.”

Her eyes went a little wide, and it made him smile. He’d surprised her, and it was an interesting, yet somewhat gratifying, feeling.

“Just like that?” she asked, incredulous.

Desh nodded. “Just like that. Now spill, and tell me why you think I’ll come back, even with such a kind offer,” he said, though he couldn’t keep the mocking tone out of his voice. Nothing in Heaven, Hell, or on Earth would get him to go back…

“Malgareth is back.”

…except maybe that.

Eyes blacker than the void, heartless as a force of nature, curved horns, and a cold smirk danced in his vision, which had gone an alarming shade of crimson. A casual and cruel taunt on the battlefield, suggesting that he should check on his immunes instead of wasting time losing a fight with him.

He closed his eyes, and his body shook with the force of the rage that howled through him like a tornado of fire and fury. Desh was glad he was still laying on the ground. He wasn’t sure he could have kept his feet in the face of that revelation in combination with his recent healing.

When he opened his eyes again, Sabrael’s face was split with a feral, pleased grin at the expression she saw on his face. He took in a deep breath, let it out, and narrowed his gaze on her.

“When can we leave?”

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Song Inspiration: Demons by Jacob Lee