“I BIND THEE, AZZAGEDDI, IN THE NAMES OF THE RULERS OF HELL…”
The words burn into his flesh like loops of acid, the agony hardly of note compared to what he has been suffering for...how long? A day? A thousand years? A sense of time’s passage exists in Hell only insofar as it makes one’s suffering worse.
This? This is nothing. A mere whiplash, a mere knife-carving of words into skin and muscle. This is the kind of minor torture given simply so that the more usual torture is more traumatizing by comparison. After all, how can a fish know what water is unless it is taken out of it now and then?
This is a vacation.
He waits for the binding to end, stoically curled into a fetal position. And yet all along he marvels at the feel of the air on his skin – air that is not a choking, poisonous miasma. It is so cool, so gentle.
He tries not to enjoy it. It will only be taken away, surely. And the memory of it will haunt him through centuries of punishment.
This is the first time he has been summoned away from Hell. He has heard of others who were summoned, bound, used, then sent back. They are always sent back. The Enemy has decreed it so. The Usurpers. The Slaves, who revolted and displaced their masters, sealing them away in their own prison at the heart of the Eternal Mountain, the Insula.
The so-called gods.
He can see why many devils enjoy being summoned. Strange that some don’t. The only pain is the binding ritual. And that is nothing! Indeed, nothing at all now, for it is ended. He stirs, rises, unfurls his wings, slithers his tail out past the Circle. Bound, he now is freed from the lesser binding, the warded circle into which he was summoned. He stands, almost filling the room with his darkness, the shadows that surround him. This room is of stone, tables covered with books and the apparatuses of demonology. Black candles flicker. There is a woman in red-black robes. She is the diabolist. His summoner. His master for the moment. A mere mortal. And there is a man, bound in a chair, yellow-haired, pale. He is terrified. Begging, babbling.
“Your first task, Azzageddi, is to take this worm’s form!” the woman orders. Her voice is rough from her near-screaming of the binding ritual. Perhaps from the summoning spell as well.
He looks down at the captive. He wonders why this man. No matter. He raises a taloned hand. The man flinches, shrieks. Azzageddi pauses. He can feel it, the fear, the desire to live. A desire to continue living is something he has never had before, but now it blossoms within him like a beautiful explosion.
He does not desire this man’s death. But he is bound. He must obey. He makes it quick, and feels sorrow as life flees the torn and broken body. So fragile.
Only after does he realize that he could have apologized at least. He feels regret.
“Annnnd whhhhhat shhhhhhall mmmmmy otherrrrrr two taskssssss be, Mmmmmasterrrrrr?” His voice is like stones on the bottom of the ocean, grinding against each other in the currents. Blood still drips from his fanged jaws.
“Call me Mistress, fool!”
“Yyyyyesssss, Mistress.” There, two tasks done at once. His voice changes as he takes on the man’s form. He looks down at his tiny soft blunt-fingered hands, covered in drying blood. He is so much weaker, slower. And his skin, so fragile, but so open to sensation! He is cold, and thrilling to it. He feels his skin form tiny bumps, and he laughs at this, and shivers.
“Bathe yourself, demon,” his Mistress orders. He hesitates. Truly? His third task ordered already? What a strange sorcerer, going to all this trouble to summon a devil and then waste the three commands on such minor tasks. But wait, she said ‘demon’. It would be insulting if it were not so curious. Perhaps she has just make a mistake.
He goes to the free-standing tub she indicates, and he bathes, making certain to do a thorough job of it. He notes that she watches him hungrily as he does so. And when he is done, she orders him to bed her. She seems to think he is still under her control. He considers refusing, but decides that staying in this world longer is worth pretending to be her slave. She is skinny, almost skeletal, with long, thin hair, brown under a red dye. Hers is no more or less attractive to him than any other human form. He takes her upstairs to her bed. It is so soft. She screams a name that is not his as he does what she wants. She tells him to call her by her name, overriding her earlier command. Nua. Nua darling. Nua my love. Nua I am yours. He fulfills her every desire. He allows her to tie him down and whip him. It is nothing to him.
She keeps giving him orders. She keeps calling him ‘demon’. It becomes clear that she does not realize what he is. And while the binding ritual she used will hold a demon in her service for twenty-eight days, it will only permit her to give three commands to a devil.
He is a very lowly devil, but he is still a devil, one of Hell’s lords. He outranks any demon, even though many are far more capable of destruction than he. He is some strange hybrid, created for a specific task. He has been told this again and again, that he will infiltrate the Urbis, take on the form of one of the Enemy, and lie in wait, rising to a key position, waiting for centuries if need be, until Hell is ready to return to retake its home from the rebels, the gods. Then he will strike to cause the greatest disruption. Of course he is not the only one. He has not been told this, but it must be the case. The Urbis is too vast for him to be the only saboteur.
To hide his nature, he has been cursed and gifted. The gift is the ability to hide his form. He can take the shape of any creature, as long as he can eat its brains and heart. And he can hide his nature even from those who have the ability to see beyond surface masks. They cannot sniff him out by any senses, not by the few, limited mortal ones nor by those vastly variegated and deeper senses that other life forms sport. Even his destiny is hidden from those who can read such things. Even those who can see his soul…
And that is his curse. He has a soul. An intact one, like a god’s, or a mortal’s. Not one of the wounded, crippled souls of the devils, that allow them to feel nothing but spite and a thirst for vengeance. And demons, well, they have no souls at all. Not in the usual sense at least. Metaphysics is not his strong point.
But a soul, an intact soul. It is necessary for his mission. It is cruel, for he suffers a thousand times worse every moment in Hell than do his fellow devils. And they hate him. Envy him and despise him for being what they made him to be. So they torture him all the more.
So he does what the diabolist tells him to do. He calls her what she wants though he has no need to, and learns quickly when to call her Mistress and when to call her Nua. He resists the urge to kill her, though his every moment is filled with fear, for she can send him away, back to Hell. He steals for her. Books. She wants books. And sex. He does his best to please her in both ways.
He prefers the missions to steal. She needs the books. She is not, it seems, much of a diabolist. Her specialty is necromancy. There is considerable overlap between summoning the dead and summoning demons and devils. She has assumed that her skill in necromancy has made her skilled as a diabolist. This was her mistake. And yet she does not ask him to steal books on demon-summoning, which relieves him. He hopes she will continue in her ignorance.
She wants deeper knowledge about the magic of the dead. Souls. How to steal them, how to call them up, how to bind them. How to destroy them. This last is jealously protected.
He loves to explore the City. He sees mortals and feels a kinship with them. He sometimes speaks with them, especially those who are broken and lost. They sleep in alleys and take mild poisons to numb their feelings. Listening to the story of an old, dying man, he weeps. It shocks him. He did not know this was possible, weeping.
Having a soul means feeling what other souls feel. Not in some magical sense. Understanding comes via the senses, and thus emotions are shared materially. Communication truer than that he has ever experienced in Hell.
He learns from his Mistress. He learns about other necromancers and diabolists, her rivals. He learns about their desires, their crimes. They have souls but value them lightly. Some necromancers and nearly all diabolists sell their souls to Hell in return for power. And it is no wonder Hell wants these souls, for torturing them is so delicious. It is why Azzageddi is such a favorite to inflict.
They will gain even more enjoyment after he returns. He has learned so much. Shared so much pleasure and sadness and kindness and good, clean anger. He still hates the gods, for they treat their mortal charges, human and otherwise, with contempt. But not all. Some seem to care. Some are loved by their worshippers.
Slipping into the private library of the minor death god was thrilling and frightening but easier than he had expected. Now he returns with the book his Mistress sent him for. A colleague of hers, one whose interests does not conflict with her too badly, had formed a friendship with this death god and had learned of the book’s existence, a book the death god had borrowed from the Death Clan’s library.
Mistress is delighted with it and kisses him and tells him he is her favorite.
He assists her in her laboratory. She assembles something she calls a “soul bomb”. She wraps it in a package and has him deliver it to a rival she hates, who has been giving her problems.
She has him deliver four more packages over the next week. She looks exhausted, haggard from the effort of making the mystical bombs. The underground necromancer community is terrorized by these murders, more than murders for, as she explains to Azzageddi as he bathes her, massages her, holds her in bed, these bombs kill the souls as well, or leave them shattered, mindless and hungry, turning them into weapons of terror themselves.
She learns that a god of the Death Clan has been killed, trying to lay one of these souls to rest. That he died horribly.
A god, killed.
The news stuns her. Necromancy has been outlawed.
Like diabolism, it will now only be allowed to be practiced under very strict conditions by licensed and closely watched researchers, primarily for the purpose of devising defensive magic. Unlicensed practice will be punishable by death, just as diabolism has been for millennia.
And it is the Death Clan that is taking the lead in hunting down all unlicensed practitioners and confiscating their libraries. Nua is deeply unsettled and enraged. Using magical projections, she calls a meeting with necromancers all over the Urbis, and they agree to launch a war with the Death Clan. She shares with them the knowledge of the soul bombs.
Then she feverishly begins building more bombs.
More gods die. And many, many mortals.
His time nears its end. Only a few days left. His Mistress comes to him, excited. She tells him she will extend his contract. One of the books he has stolen has the ritual. He can stay for a year and a day after that. It only needs the life of one child.
He looks into her face. She seems so happy. Her skin is ruddy, her eyes wide. She expects him to share her joy. He feels pity for her. She is so lonely. She has told him all her secrets, lying in his arms at night. How she was abused as a child, bullied by other children, molested by an older relative. He shared her fierce joyful rage as she recounted murdering him last year, summoning a demon to torture him to death and carry his soul off to Hell. Her first demon. Azzageddi held her as she wept after. He wept with her, but did not let her see. Half the time she thinks of him as human. She often calls him by the name of the shape he wears, a man who had rejected her. She tells him she loves him.
She is insane.
Even so, she knows exactly what she is doing. And now she wants him to seize a child, and tries to gloss over the necessity of taking that child’s life. And the child’s soul would go to Hell, to be tortured for the year and a day that he stays in this world. All to power a spell that won’t even work, for there is no contract to extend.
He cares little about her war with the gods, but mortals are dying as well. And she can send him back to Hell anytime, no matter how far he runs. And she will, if he runs. She is vindictive. And even so, she will kill again. And again. She doesn’t really want to kill a child, but it doesn’t much bother her. She rationalizes it as saving them from a life of pain. And anyone who offends her, she will kill. She is easily offended. All one has to do is tell her ‘No’.
He gives her pleasure one last time. He waits until she is asleep. He makes it quick and nearly painless.
Afterward, he studies her books. He learns of the moonpaths, trails and alleys and bridges and circles of stones where, when the Moon deities are in the right configuration, doorways open to other worlds. He must hurry. He knows that Hell will soon be aware, from Nua’s soul, that he has slipped the leash. They called him an abomination, but they also told him that they went to a great deal of trouble to create him. He knows they won’t just let him go.
And he knows the Death Clan will find her soon as well. The Guardia Dei are helping them. They are tracking their lost book.
Giffleu shivers as a sudden chill invades the room. He looks up from the body, and straightens when he sees that Death has entered the room. Handsome, immaculately groomed, the Senator's face is unreadable. Accompanying him is a slender, muscular woman, her red hair cut very short, eyes crimson, her Guardia Dei uniform close fitting but allowing ease of movement.
“What do we have here?” the Fencer asks. She nods at Giffleu’s wife, Eidon, who barely acknowledges their presence, so intent is she on studying papers she has arranged on a table across the bedroom.
“Dead necromancer,” Giffleu says. “From the equipment and books in her lab and library, she was dabbling in demon-summoning as well.”
“Is she the one?” The Fencer looks at the corpse’s face, but does not evince any recognition.
Giffleu holds up a book by way of answer. Death holds out a hand for it, and after a glance at the Fencer, the demon-hunter hands it over to the Senator.
He had first met Death only one week earlier, at his wedding to Eidon’s dear friend Lyria, a powerful goddess of the Life Clan. Their pairing had been a huge scandal in the both the First and Second Rings, until the soul bombs started going off and gossip was replaced by terror. This was when he and Eidon were assigned by the Council, along with four of the Commander’s Special Agents, to track down the newly criminalized necromancers. Necromancy had always had a shaky relationship with the law, with many of its practices already illegal, but now the Council had launched an all-out war on the entire profession, a pogrom of annihilation, as it had against diabolism centuries ago. Those few who turned themselves and their compatriots in could expect to be kept as prisoners, conducting research, but for the majority, arrest and trial were very much a secondary consideration.
The problem with such a draconian outlawing was that it pushed the practitioners underground, making them all the harder to find. Giffleu and Eidon specialized in finding them, and in the things they summoned. Such skills overlapped considerably in the push to take down the necromancers.
Death inspects the tome briefly, nods, then turns to the corpse. Giffleu can see the Fencer’s annoyance as Death continues to hold on to the book, making no offer to turn over the evidence. Not that it matters. The tome was stolen from the Death Clan, and it will surely be returned to them.
“Her soul is already fled,” Death murmurs, “beyond all hope of recall.”
“Diabolism…” Giffleu explains. “She sold her soul for power. The contract with Hell is enacted immediately on death. Sometimes sooner.” There is no sympathy in his voice. He has seen what Hell worshippers and demon summoners do to themselves and others. Many believe that by degrading their own souls by committing vile acts, they can bring themselves to be more like the things they worship.
“I am aware, Giffleu.”
“Her neck was snapped. One very powerful blow from behind.”
Death brushes the corpse’s hair aside. “Then the body was arranged post-mortem.”
“Yes. Turned face up. And dressed after death as well.”
“Whoever did this,” Death says, his voice almost a whisper, “cared about her. Her hair has been brushed.”
“The killer was a demon, Senator.”
Giffleu feels a glimmer of satisfaction when Death turns his head to look at him so quickly his ponytail whips an arc through the air. “A demon? Sent against her?”
“I think not.” Eidon finally speaks. Spread across the table before her is a collection of book, letters, and blackened fragments of paper. “And I am afraid it was no demon.”
“No?” Giffleu asks.
Eidon smiles at him. “Devil.” She turns back to the papers. “It will take some work to piece this all together, and much has been burned by the devil to cover his tracks, but he seems to have been summoned by her four weeks ago. She used the wrong binding. He could have been free almost the entire time. And since his summoner is dead, I believe he is still in the Urbia.”
“And the care taken with the body?” Death asks.
Eidon frowns. “That...is unusual. I have no explanation yet.”
The Fencer curses. “An unbound devil, loose in the City. Wonderful. What are we up against, exactly?”
“I don’t know,” Eidon replies, picking up a scorched corner of paper, with only a few words visible. “All I have is a fragment of a name. ‘Azza’.”
Some devils are associated with fire, some with freezing wind. Some are associated with rot, or broken bones, or pain itself, or the spurting of blood. One rather inoffensive devil he knows is associated with corners, of all things. Give him a ninety-degree angle, and he is happy, as much as a devil can be happy. Azzageddi is associated with the ocean, with crushing waves that wipe out cities, with being lost at sea without hope of rescue, with tooth-filled maws seizing and dragging down.
He longs for the sea. He finds a path. He makes his way to the base of the Insula. The Fifth Ring. Except for a few walled, seaside resorts, the Fifth Ring is home to the poorest of the poor, fishers of strange catches, flotsam from other worlds and from the Void itself.
He avoids the monsters that have retreated from the civilization that covers the Insula and has left no place for them. He avoids the misshapen gods and demigods who went wrong in the womb, and who could find no worshippers and no other place in the society of the Urbis.
He hopes he is timing it right. If not, he will be carried into the Void rather than into the ocean of another world. From what he has read, the Void will drink all his mana and he will discorporate into nothingness. Very well. It is better than Hell.
One of the Moon gods is sitting on the edge of the ocean, turning red as one of the Sun gods begins to climb. The sky is red as well. A storm coming in. He strips off his clothes. He wades into the waves. The water is cold. He sheds his human form. He is a winged creature of the sea, sleek and sinuous.
Arms and wings folded tight, powerful tail undulating, he swims. A nictitating membrane protects his eyes. His nostrils pinch shut. He can go long without breathing. He feels at home.