Loud, throbbing music stopped. Previously dim lights were now blinding. Bodies dancing on the floor were gone as if they’d gained some secret knowledge. It took Mari a moment to realize all that had occurred; she didn’t like it when someone knew more than she did. er job was information and she was damn good at her job. What she liked even less than being one-upped at her job was the moment she realized that the old man was a Faith Demon. An ancient one. She hadn’t dealt with many born of Faith, but she could certainly spot one when she saw one. From the top of his dapper trilby to soles of his sparkling black shoes, the man screamed worship me as a God.
Mari sat back in her office chair, one slender leg hooked over the other at the knee pushing the fabric of her dress up her thighs, and she watched the man through the one-way glass. She smoothed her hands on the skirt of her dress as she pondered the man. He glanced around the space, his hat doing little to hide his eyes, and he took nonchalant steps, shoes clicking as he walked, he didn’t seem to care that she was making him wait. Her lips pursed, bothered, at this conclusion. His two bodyguards waiting, flanking the front entrance, watching him idly, as if distracted. Mari turned in her chair and looked to Bezar as he stood in front of the door to her office. Unmoving, Bezar held the line like good muscle should.
She decided that the old man had waited enough. Mari stood and made her way down the winding stairwell, graceful step after graceful step, a well-manicured hand gliding down the bannister. She prepared to meet the Faith Demon, who had without invitation and most discourteously, entered her temple.
Mari gently tapped Bezar on the shoulder. He tensed for a moment, then stepped aside to allow her to pass. He was whispering to himself again. Bezar rocked on his heels and whispered the way he always did when he worried. Holocaust demons were like that, agitated and on edge, worried about what was to come next. Always afraid, but, always ready to fight.
The man in the trilby was old, not old like a God, but his body was ancient. Mari could see a worn and weathered face, but it belied the Faith that bred him. His eyes were young and bright. Mari could see that a normal Demon might cower before him and bow down to his greater authority.
With a flick of her bejewelled wrist, Mari adjusted a chair before the man and sat down, weaving her tail around her stomach. She leaned back in the seat, crossing her legs at the knee, the dress once more sliding along her thighs. She set an arm on the backrest, fingers pushing into the hair at the base of her neck. She eyed the man, lashes fluttering slowly as she regarded him, her other hand relaxed in her lap. Mari raised her chin and surveyed him beneath half-closed eyes. She made sure he saw she was more – much more – than a normal Demon.
“You’re as beautiful as they say,” he said with a smile.
Mari looked past him, through him, to the men guarding the door.Mortals. Humans. They weren’t Demons or Devils. Mari considered them for a moment longer. Why in the Barren Plains would Humans be serving a Faith Demon? All their false idols laid bare and naked before them in the Plains…and why would the Guard allow it?
Mari gifted her attention back to the man who sat before her. “What do you want?”
His smile deepened, “No pleasantries?”
“You interrupted business. I do not appreciate interruptions.”
The man laughed, a simple, honest laugh like the laugh you’d expect from an old relative who was glad to see you. It was a practiced laugh that didn’t fool Mari.
Mari adjusted in her seat, the hand leaving her hair as her arms crossed over her chest, the cone-shaped tip of her tail twitching on her stomach, “That was no joke”
“No, dear, no you weren’t joking. I’m here for a story,” he chuckled as he leaned forward and cocked his head to the side, smile still on his face. “Your story.”
Mari frowned, “My story is not your concern”
“It is, though! You just don’t know it yet. You…you are so much stronger than you appear. So much smarter. How long did it take you to get here? Four years? Five? Quite a feat for a Longing Demon from the wrong side of Dis, the one and only true city of The Barren Plains.” He touched the brim of the trilby at that, as if tipping his hat to her. She did not appreciate that the hat remained on his head while inside her temple. She bit the inside of her lip at the lack of respect.
Mari’s eyes narrowed, “Hard work.”
He laughed again and gestured to the men blocking her front door. Goons is what they were. One approached their table and stopped behind his master. Mari could hear Bezar move toward them, but she brought a hand up to him, to indicate that he was to stay where he was. His mutterings were loud enough for her to make out his dislike for the man.
The goon behind the man leaned forward and Mari recoiled from his approach. His eyes were gone, dead and hollow, his sockets crusted with dried blood. His jaw hung at an odd angle;the sinew that held it together must have begun to rot away. The man had been dead for several days, yet under the power of the Faith Demon he still walked. Still served. He was no soul. He was an animated husk.
The old man in the hat chuckled again, smile still on his face “Now then, dear, I’d like to hear your story. You can skip the boring parts. I’m only interested in how you’ve become what you are now.”
Mari’s voice caught in her throat as she looked at the old man, the Demon before her, “Who…who are you?”
The man considered this for a long time, fingers coming up to tap lightly against the side of his hat. He finally answered, “I have many names. Too many to count. But you, dear, may call me ‘Apollyon’.”
“Why do you want my story?” Mari asked, eyes flicking toward the shambling corpse behind Apollyon. She was sure that the rotting cords of sinew at his jaw were going to give way at any moment.
Apollyon glanced toward the decaying husk and shooed it away with a subtle rise of his clean-shaven chin, “I’m seeking a kindred spirit. Someone who knows that this world needs to be cleansed of its corruption with fire.”
Mari shifted in her seat, willing herself to relax, to bring back the calm cool that had accompanied her when she had walked down the winding stairwell from her office to the dancefloor. She willed herself to fill the room with her presence, a presence brought forth by affinity and efforts, and a presence that she believed had the ability to push this…Elder God away. Or so she hoped. She took a steady breath and began, “My father used to beat me — “
Apollyon cut her off, tisking as he wagged a finger at her as one would do to a fibbing child, “No, he didn’t. In fact, you didn’t have a father.” His smile broadened, “Please don’t lie to me again, dear. I already know what’s true – and what isn’t – about you, but I’d like to hear it from your own mouth, pretty as it is. I want to see what lies beneath the surface of glamour and beauty.”
Mari swallowed, feeling her presence weaken in his company, then licked her lips. She began again.
* * *
“I never planned to become as I am. It wasn’t what I wanted,” Mari adjusted her skirt, suddenly aware of it’s length. “This wasn’t what my mother wanted for me, either. I worked for a cleansing house, as a secretary. I recorded the sessions that the Devils held with their patients. A respectable job for a Demon. The Human souls were usually cooperative, they saw that there was a purpose to the pain. Death did that to them, gave them perspective. Once they saw that the wounds repaired so quickly, under the ministrations of a healer, they became docile in their pain. Usually anyway. But sometimes, they didn’t. Sometimes they’d struggle and fight against their bonds as the Devils applied their treatments. It was my job to record all the goings-on as accurately and honestly as was possible. The goal was to help the Devils find what needed to be done to save the mortal souls.
“I worked with a Devil named Garisheim more often than any other Devil. He…he was kind to me. He was younger than many of the other Devils. Only a few hundred years old. He had only recently exited The Circle with a focus on purifying the soul. He was adept with his blade. Most Humans only felt pain for a short time before their soul began to heal itself. He could cut out the darkest tumor, the most rotted piece of hatred. With Garisheim the darkness would always leave them with enough treatments.
“Garisheim was handsome, far more handsome I think than any bookish man deserved to be. Two beautiful curved horns sprouted from his head and a tail with a gentle curl spread from beneath his coat. He had red eyes, dark and smokey beneath black hair he wore close cut to his scalp. He smiled easily, even with the darkness he saw every day he smiled.” Mari tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, a small smile creeping onto her lips as she spoke.
“Garisheim was one of my mother’s best customers. He had convinced the cleansing house to buy flowers every few days so the mortal souls would feel more…at peace. Bault fought him on that though. He was a cruel and violent Devil and didn’t care at all for the souls he cleansed. Fat, with sagging skin and crooked teeth, Bault was everything that Garisheim wasn’t. He was old and rotten, he could barely heal the mortals that lay before him, but he came from a powerful family.”
Mari watched Apollyon’s face, the old man’s head was tilted to the side just a bit, just enough to show his interest, and he smiled. His old eyes twinkled at the way she spoke of her past. She held him rapt at attention with just her words. Mari drew herself up straighter and put weight into her words, her manner commanded attention. Her eyes narrowed on Apollyon’s face and she angled her head toward him. The story was hers and she would make it his as well.
“One time Bault cornered me. He pushed me into a rarely-traveled hall – few people ever walked down that hall – but Garisheim saw the whole thing, and he pulled Bault off of me. I…I don’t know what Bault had planned, but I was thankful that Garisheim had seen him, that he had been there. The cleansing house was small, not like one of the large facilities off the main road, but it was well-respected. It was carved of the same stone most of Dis was, the dark red of the nearby mountains. It was clean and polished inside, the way that a place of such importance should be. It housed several wings, each one dedicated to souls of a particular infection. The least tainted lived on the bottom floor and came and went at their leisure. They treated Demons well enough there, they knew that the job we did had value. Few Devils would stoop to cleaning floors and dusting, so those in charge showed us a decency rarely seen by the rest of the Devils. Aside from Bault, of course.
“My mother…she wasn’t my mother, of course. No Demon has a parent. But she adopted me and raised me. She was a Love Demon and she sold the flowers that she grew in our little garden, yard really. That yard was the only reason we stayed where we lived after I found my job. My mother had searched so long for a place to grow those flowers, and once she had found a place with enough space she had worked that soil and every ounce of her heart. The flowers were a mixture of seeds from Earth and The Plains. They were beautiful and whenever I saw them, I knew how much my mother had sacrificed for me. She could have had so much more, she could have had a chance to go to Earth, to live in a sun that set and a world that grew more than bedraggled castoffs and what she could scavenge from traders. She gave that up for me,” Mari glanced at Apollyon as she spoke, stifling the choke in her voice as she allowed a few tears trickle down her cheek, just enough of her tears to be sincere.
“I would dream of a time when we could leave Dis and move to Earth. Leave all this hate behind. But Demons weren’t allowed to leave often, only a handful each year. I remember when we were finally told we could leave this place. The Devil who came to us was nothing more than a bureaucrat, but when he — “
“You were never given a pass. Don’t make this tale more tragic than it needs to be. I don’t need embellishments,” Apollyon waved his hand. “Continue, please.”
Mari frowned, lips pursing. It wasn’t often that a Demon could see through her truth when she pushed all her power into her words, even a powerful one. Behind her she could hear Bezar shuffling back and forth as he muttered to himself. Her ever vigilant protector and defender. It had taken her months to convince Bezar to crawl out of the hole he had dug in the side of a mountain near the city. Rumor of a Holocaust Demon of immense power had reached her ears. Normally she wouldn’t have given it much thought, but around him swirled the story that even Devils on the council couldn’t approach him without breaking down in tears.
Mari found Bezar when one of the mountain guides had dropped to his knees and taken a knife to his throat, threatening to slit it open from ear to ear. She had convinced him of the folly and turned the Demon away. Mari had felt the weight of Bezar’s power, but a little something like abject misery couldn’t temper her hate.
Mari bit her lip hard as she stared at Apollyon, and she tasted copper as black blood broke the skin. Apollyon did not acknowledge her pause. She found him unsettling. Something about him reminded Mari of Bezar. There was a hate there, a power, but it wasn’t tempered by misery. It took coaxing, but Bezar finally accepted her offering of food that day. After speaking at him for what seemed like hours he had stopped wailing, and when she returned she found that the Demon seemed to be waiting for her. Eventually he trusted her enough to crawl out of the hole and follow her back to her home.
The stories she told Bezar were true enough, it wouldn’t do to have a Demon like that angry at her. Mari painted beautiful pictures with her words, pictures of days when Demons like Bezar would be all but extinct. She gave him a home and eventually hope. In return, he rarely let her out of his sight and if someone crossed her, they didn’t live for long. That was the power of her stories.
Mari’s stories had always been there, usually simple ones that she pushed into the air around her. A word here, a phrase there, something to turn a head away or gain a feeling of goodwill from someone. Her stories were how she had risen to power, if you sat in a room long enough Mari’s hold grew. Mari could have a Demon believe that they could trust her with anything, but Apollyon seemed immune. Even though she had already begun to weave a falsehood into her story he could still see some of her truth.
Apollyon’s head shifted and his brows raised just a little, prompting her story forward. So Mari continued to speak as if her life depended on it, because it did. “I remember the day she was murdered. I had come home from work to our little one bedroom home and waited for her. I cooked dinner for us like I did every night since I was young. It was a stew that night. A stew of greens, the way it often was. Our home was sparsely furnished, we had a bed and some cushions on the floor, a table with two small stools, and a clock.
“My mother had decorated our home with clippings of photos and papers brought to The Plains by traders and smugglers. She would sit and look at the flowers in those pictures, flowers that went on as far as the image could show. When I was a child she would tell me about those images, she would invent stories of the people who planted those flowers. Stories of love and heartbreak, of lives lived in the sun and of crisp, cold nights around flame. Earth was the story she told herself to find the strength to live,” Mari pushed her shoulders back and straightened her skirt again. Apollyon smiled at her story now and her words swirled around him.
Mari steeled herself and continued, “I remember glancing at the clock and thinking that she was running late. That’s when the knock at the door came. I didn’t answer immediately. I wasn’t sure who it was. We rarely had visitors. After cracking the door open just a bit I saw they were Guards. They asked to come in and I asked to see their writs. After they showed them to me, I held the door tighter, barring them from entry. I started to shake, I don’t know why, but I just started to shake with such a fear.” Mari could feel Bezar draw closer to her, but with the slightest move of her hand he stopped, and she continued weaving her words into the story’s web.
“I finally let them in and they told me that my mother was dead. Found cut into pieces in an alley nearby. I remember that I kept drifting in and out of the conversation. I kept telling myself that she was helping them solve a crime, that she was alive and left me in The Plains while she traveled to Earth to grow her flowers. I told myself that she was anything but dead.
“There…was a buzz as they spoke. A hum in my ears that drowned out everything else. When they finally left I finished cooking the stew. I even made a second bowl. It wasn’t until the next day when I saw that cold stew sitting on our bare table that I really understood. Wave after wave seemed to swallow me whole, pulling me down until I couldn’t even move. That was when I cried.”
Mari suddenly realized she had been staring at her clasped hands while she spoke and she looked up to meet Apollyon’s face. Mari willed only a single tear to fall, a weakness she let very few experience, but a part of her story all the same. Behind her Bezar shuffled back and forth as he wondered if he should do anything for her, but there was nothing to do. It was an ancient story that she had left buried until the man before her dredged it so rudely from her lips.
“Is that enough?” Mari asked the man who was no longer smiling, but sat frowning at her story. At the injustice she experienced.
Apollyon looked at her for a moment, then frowned, “Tell me about Julius.”
Mari’s heart froze in her chest, or maybe it began to beat so fast that she didn’t even feel its movement anymore. No one knew about Julius. How could they? He was her secret. Something that she loved and hated all at once. Julius was hers.
She pooled every ounce of her strength together and she pushed truth into her words, “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Mari answered in a simple and dismissive tone.
Apollyon smiled. “Now, dear, if I’ve showed you what I know. Why do you continue to try to turn me away?”
Mari’s face set in stone, each word dropping from her mouth like a boulder, “He was no one.”
The weight seemed to trickle on Apollyon like a drip of water on a stalagmite, “Then tell me about no one.”
Mari considered her options. Apollyon was a true Elder God, that much was obvious. He was probably as old as The Devils, maybe older. Maybe even to the time before the War of Will. There was no way she could beat him, that was obvious to her. Her guile wouldn’t save her, neither would her strength. A concentrated attack might slow him down, but not even combined with the power that Bezar held did she stand a chance. It was clear he wasn’t going to leave until she finished her story
Mari shifted in her seat and watched the man, her eyes drifted toward the two corpses behind him standing at the door. She adjusted her skirt and slowly uncrossed her leg, before settling back into her chair. Apollyon watched all this, but never looked away from her eyes. The ancient thing’s eyes bored into her. With a deep breath, Mari spoke again.
“For weeks after my mother died I went to the main Guard station of Dis, in the central square across from the looming tower that the King of The Plains resided. Each time I went I filled out a report. Each time I crossed that glittering facade of pure white marble, mined from where the Devils fell, I entered their massive hall and made myself heard. Each time I crossed the hall of Guards and stood before their crier I demanded to speak to the Honor Guard. And every time I stood before them defiantly, my chest out and my eyes high they ignored me.
“I became a joke to them, someone to be mocked and laughed at. But I never gave up. Week after week I spoke to them. Week after week I told them I wasn’t going to go away. Each time I was told in condescending voice that they were working the case, but I knew they were lying. Demons aren’t worth anything here. Devils call us their ‘charges’ and their ‘children’, but we’re nothing to them. We disappear so quickly from their lives that they treat us like pets. We’re something to be cooed over when we’re present, but they don’t mourn us for long when we’re gone. Why would they? We have no soul to cure of hate. No absolution to be had.
“Even the Demons in the Guard don’t care about us. Why should they? The Devils who pay them don’t. They’re all corrupt and cancerous things that need to be slit from the throat of society,” the hate in Mari’s voice was clear as it seeped between her teeth like tar. To this, Mari noted, Apollyon seemed to give his first genuine smile of approval. It was her hate he wanted? She could give him hate. Hate was easy for her now, so easy. “But I didn’t give up. I kept trying, over and over again. I had started to give up until Julius appeared.
“It was another night when there was a knock at the door, and again it was a Guard. But this one seemed different. He was young and had short, but unkempt light brown hair and two sharp horns on his forehead. His uniform was big on his slim frame, but he was strong. I could see that in an instant. I didn’t open the door for him, I just asked him what he wanted. He told me he was working my mother’s case, trying to help. He wanted to speak to me. Julius’s eyes were what convinced me to let him in, they were honest in a way I don’t think I had ever seen. They weren’t naive, they were eyes that had seen the dark for what it was, but they were also eyes that could see what the world could be.
“When I opened the door he waited outside for an invitation, he didn’t push me to let him in, it was on my terms. He told me that he had seen me at the Guard house and that he started to look into the murder, but needed my help. Julius asked me for my mother’s records, something the other Guard hadn’t even bothered to look at. He was convinced that the murder knew my mother and her schedule, so that meant they were someone close to her. He had ruled out potential suspects in our building, so his thoughts came to my mother’s customers. I agreed, but only if I could help him search. He refused at first, but I promised to stay behind when it was dangerous,” Mari paused her and frowned, biting her lip just enough to feel the pain. Even then her stories were things to be believed when she wanted to be trusted, even then she could sell what she had to get reach her goal.
Mari shook her head and continued, “Julius was a Frustration Demon, but instead of trying to find a quick jolt of happiness like so many of his kind he focused on his work. He sought satisfaction in justice. The fact that so few Demons at the Guard seemed to care drove him to even more dogged lengths.” Mari smiled at the thought of Julius, she became so fond of him so quickly. Julius fit into her life like he had always belonged there, the fact that she only had him for such a short time and for such a horrible reason still weighed on her. Privately Mari had begun to think of herself as cursed, anything she loved would die and because of this she kept everything at arm’s length now. But this is something she would never speak out loud, especially to Apollyon.
Apollyon stared at Mari, his eyes boring into her. It was clear her lapses of silence had begun to gather his attention. So when Mari began to speak again, she slipped by her time with Julius. She glossed over the night he spent with her after the first week of searching. The first week of dinners, the first week of friendship and the possibility of something more. These were things that belonged to her, no one else. Julius was hers, maybe more so in death than he ever was while he lived. When her story began again, she was focused.
“We hadn’t had much luck the first few days. Julius and I had run down several leads, but nothing promising, all the while it seemed that fewer and fewer Guardsmen seemed to care. They even reassigned Julius, but he kept working after hours. Julius never said it, but I realized that they were trying to get him off the trail, to distract him and keep him too busy to help me. But he never gave up, he searched for one final connection that would bring us to the person who had killed my mother. But it wasn’t Julius who found the connection, it was me.
“We hadn’t focused on where I worked very much, it seemed unlikely that a cleansing house would house the killer. No mortal soul could have overcome her and the rest of the staff ignored her when she came with her deliveries. It made so much more sense it was someone else, someone who had noticed her on the street, or in our building. The area we lived in was hard, angry, very little good happened near our home. The cleansing house seemed so unlikely, but one day I, probably from a lack of sleep, or just inattentiveness, I didn’t take a copy of the notes I made to the filing room, so I needed to get them from the Devil I had served that day, Bault.
“I waited until Bault had left for the night and slipped into his office, as I scoured his desk for my handwriting I bumped into a picture frame. I almost didn’t give it a second thought, but then I realized that it wasn’t a photo, no, it was a pressed flower mounted in glass. It was one of my mother’s, I knew it. Many of the flowers she grew didn’t grow anywhere else in The Plains, not naturally. I remember knowing with every fiber of my heart that he was the killer. I hated him so much, but I needed something else to bring to Julius. I didn’t want to look like a fool. I needed proof.
“I had to jimmy open a drawer in Bault’s filing cabinet, but when I did I found a small wooden box filled with petals. He must have been taking some from every delivery my mother brought, hid them away. I left a soon as I could and I told Julius. At first he tried to find another excuse, another reason. Bault was a Devil from a rich family, and it was rare for any Devil to kill a Demon, but finally Julius agreed that we needed to find out more.”
Mari paused her for a moment, her teeth ground together and she could feel it in her head. Everything had started to blur together, the lie and truth. Her story and her life. Apollyon must have known what she had changed, the shift, but he didn’t make any indication that he had. Apollyon stared at her for a moment, he hat tilted just so on his head. The Faith Demon finally gestured for her to continue, one brow cocked.
Mari stared back into his eyes, refusing to look away, but eventually she continued. “The Guard refused to give him a writ, though. They told him to drop it. They said that a Devil wouldn’t bother killing a Demon. That Bault wasn’t the killer, why would he? Each Devil inherited the possessions and finances of their last incarnation. Most were reborn with wealth the likes of which a Demon could never understand. Julius hated how they spoke to him, the look of revulsion on his face when he came back and told me what they had said made that evident. I never saw him so angry, his nature overflowed and his whole body shook. So we went to search his home ourselves, we didn’t notify the guard.
“I called out sick for the day and went with Julius to Bault’s house, they thought it was odd, but considering I hadn’t taken a single day off the entire I time I worked they they didn’t question me too much. I think they just decided I had finally started to mourn my mother.
“Bault’s house was a few blocks from the main square, in a housing district that ran along the outer walls of the royal tower. I remember feeling so out of place there, I knew I didn’t belong. I was positive we wouldn’t even make it down the street before a Guard stopped us, but we did. Julius told me to walk like I lived there, so I did. We found his home easy enough, his family name was written on the red-block outerwall. His courtyard wasn’t as large as I expected, but then, why would it be? Few Devils did anything with the outdoor space they had, why not fill it with more home?
“It didn’t take much to pick the lock on the giant, metal and wood double doors. Devils don’t worry about people breaking into their homes. Why would they? They hardly worry about anything. But as the doors swung silently inward I was in awe. The home of a Devil like Bault was a palace compared to the one bedroom nothing I grew up in. The three stories of his home were connected by a winding staircase carved from obsidian. The floor was a polished white marble and every petty plaything in it could buy me comfort for a month. As we walked into the entryway and closed the door I could a viewing-glass in every room and games of various skill littered his tables. It was clear the Devil wanted for very little.
“Julius hadn’t worn his uniform. He wasn’t a Guard for this break-in, but he carried his stun-stick on his hip, with a crack it would jolt to life and the magic in it would flurry out in a bolt of power that could bring down even the biggest foe. Guards weren’t given anything truly lethal, most of them were Demons. Why would you arm your servants? But we both thought his stun-stick would be enough. Only the Royal Arms Bearers carried lethal weapons, blades and bolt-throwers hardened with magic to drop the toughest of foes. And only Devils were consecrated as Arms Bearers, low-caste Devils, but Devils all the same.
“We crept through the home, searching for anything that might tie Bault to my mother’s murder. Neither of us knew what we were looking for, Julius said that he probably had a memento from my mother, or from other people he may have hurt. So we searched each room one at a time and moved higher was we went. We had finally reached the third floor when we heard the front door close below and the distant sounds of footsteps moving cautiously around the entryway. Julius grabbed my arm and pulled me Julius grabbed me and pulled me toward a window overlooking the street below, but it was too high up to jump and there was nothing to land on but the unyielding rock streets below.
“I could hear the sound of Bault’s expensive shoes climbing the stairs one-by-one. He was whistling now, pretending that he wasn’t suspicious. My heart raced at this, I didn’t understand why I did, but I do know. He was crafting his own story, one of calm, deliberiate movements and a driving fear. I willed myself to breath and I looked to Julius for an answer.”
Mari hesitated here and thought of the events that followed, the blood, the hate, the anger. She could feel her nails digging into her hands, leaving red marks like tiny daggers. Mari didn’t want to continue, but she knew Apollyon wouldn’t be satisfied yet. That much was obvious to her now, the way the man sat and watched her, waiting for what came next. What he already knew but wanted her to say out loud.
“Julius took my hand again and lead me to a room as quietly as he could, it wasn’t until our eyes adjusted to the gloom that we realized we must have entered Bault’s bedroom. Julius hesitated and I could see the realization creep across his face, he turned around and tried to pull me back out into the hall, but Bault had reached the second floor and his whistling grew louder. Julius pushed me into a small closet and then hid under the bed.
“I willed my heart to slow as I took deep, silent breaths. I backed deeper into the closet to escape the happy noise of a murder, of a monster. I told myself that Julius could handle him, that his stun-stick was enough. That we would be okay and we would stop Bault and the Guard would be forced to listen to us. To me. I moved backwards, pressing myself deeper into the closet, away from the door, away from the sound of Bault opening the door to the room we were hiding in, I breathed through my nose and begged the Gods to keep me safe. To keep me alive.
Mari stopped, suddenly aware of her tears, she wondered how long they had been flowing. They were foreign on her cheeks now, something she hadn’t felt in years, she curled her fingers around the hem of he dress and pulled it straight again. Behind her Bezar moved a fraction of an inch closer, all the affection he ever showed, to come closer when she needed him. Mari took a deep breath and looked Apollyon in the eye, “There, in that closet, was where my hand brushed a flower.
“I didn’t realize what it was at first. The understanding crept up my spine making me shiver all the way. I turned around as best as I could in the little space and looked to where I now smelled the subtle perfume of my mother’s flowers. I couldn’t see it clearly in the dark, but in the dull from the door I could make out glass and vases. My heart started to beat in my throat and sound seemed to drown out. When Bault finally pushed open the door and let the light from the hall flood in…” Mari trailed off and stared into Apollyon’s eyes, they seemed to twinkle beneath his brow. When Mari didn’t continue he gestured at her. The wave of his hand was enough for her to understand. Finish what was started. Finish the story. Paint the picture with her words.
“The light caught the framed images of my mother and the pressed flowers that lined the room. The photos were from all different times and locations, but most of them were at the cleansing house. I shuddered as my eyes drifted from one picture to the next. Dozens of them lined the closet. I could see myself in some of them, but I wasn’t the focus, I was just the means to an end. I don’t remember what I thought then, but I know what I did. I grabbed a vase and pushed open the door. Bault turned toward me, confusion etched in his eyes, but then he smiled at me and spread his arms out, inviting me, calling to me.
“I screamed and rushed at Bault, the vase held high over my head. I swung at him, but he knocked me back with a pulse of light. The concussive wave that sprawled me to the ground, knocked the vase out of my hands, it smashed on the hard rock floors and splashed sickly green water and dead flowers across the floor. I pushed myself up, disoriented. The blast had scattered loose clothes and papers into the air. I stared up at him as Bault stalked toward me, smiling. I never knew he could use energy. In all the time I worked with him I had never seen him do it. To bend that power to your will is such a rare thing, a thing that takes so much discipline. I would never have guessed that Bault could harness that kind of power. But he could.
“His hands glowed in a blue and white fire, the light played off his face and a manic smile curved his lips. He stalked closer, he said something, but I couldn’t hear him. There was a ringing in my ears from the blast. I screamed at him, angry and afraid, but I wouldn’t let myself die without some kind of defiance. The flames in Bault’s hand faded and he stooped down, smiling at me as he reached out to wrap his hands around my throat.
“But Julius had frantically pulled himself from under the bed and cracked Bault in the back of the head with his stun-stick. The energy rippled through Bault’s body and he jerked back. Bault cried out as he body convulsed and he dropped to his knees. But it wasn’t enough, Bault shook the electrical damage off and turned around. With a roar Bault grabbed the stick from Julius and snapped it like a dry twig as he kicked Julius across the room. Julius smashed into the wall above the bed, the wall cracked under the impact and he smashed down onto the mattress, the stone frame shuddered with his weight, but didn’t buckle.
“Bault stared at Julius’s unmoving form for a moment, then turned to me again, his smile darker, eyes harder. Behind Bault I could see Julius stir and push himself up again, he stumbled off the bed and grabbed his side, his ribs must have been broken from the kick, but he wasn’t going to give up. Julius threw himself from the bed and tackled Bault from behind, wrapping his arms around the Devil’s neck and pulling him backwards. Julius shouted at me to run, I hesitated and tried to think of a way to help, a way to stop Bault, but when Julius screamed at me a second time I realized that there was nothing I could do. So I ran.
“Behind me I heard the crackle of energy and shouts of rage. But I ran. I ran and I ran until I found a Guard. I tried to explain what had happened, that Julius needed my help, but the man frowned at me and told me he needed to find his superior, to ask permission to enter a Devil’s residence. He turned to write in his speaking-paper and I grabbed his arm, I told him that Julius was a Guard and that if we didn’t help him he would die. The other guard brushed me away and told me that we would get there soon enough.
“But it wasn’t soon enough. By the time we returned to Bault’s home, he had beaten Julius to death. The Guard found Bault sitting on the bottom of the stairs waiting, blood still dripped from his knuckles. Julius’s body was mangled, clearly abused long after he had died. Bault just smiled as the Guard bound his arms in shackles and lead him from the house.”
“And what did they do to him? To your ‘Bault’,” Apollyon asked, but Mari knew the Elder God already knew the answer.
Mari’s lip sneered, “They told me that Devils were a special case and that the Guard wouldn’t decide judgment, that it was for the Council to make a ruling. The value of Bault’s life was measured in centuries, not the fleeting decades of my mother. Or Julius.”
“That was when you decide that you weren’t going to be a part of their laws anymore, didn’t you? How long did it take you to build your network? Months? Years?” Apollyon was leaning forward now, eager. His eyes were bright and excited as he stared at Mari.
“Less time than you’d think,” was Mari’s simple answer as she smoothed her skirt once more.
“Of course it wouldn’t take long with your power. The stories you tell, the ability to bend the truth, flood the senses of even the most hardened Devil and turn them to your will. Make them trust you, give you things, information,” Apollyon’s speech grew quick, excited. “I haven’t found a power like yours in centuries of looking, and now you’re here. I want your power, Mari. I want you.”
Mari could feel Bezar tense beside her, but she willed him to calm down. Mari pulled herself up, this was a negotiation she could not lose. The Elder God had stacked the deck against her, but her destiny was her own and she would not give it up without a fight, “I’m not looking for a new faith, Elder God. I have what I want and before my life is over I’ll gain more power. More influence. If there’s any justice I’ll make this world change through the force of my will. I will make it better.”
“Oh, but my dear, that is such a narrow hope. A thin, weak change that will erode before a single generation of Devils has passed. I can offer you a new world all before your life ends. And it starts with this,” Apollyon drew a small vial from his coat pocket. The liquid inside was black and thick, Mari eyed it with distrust. “This is a gift from my master to me. And now I offer it to you. A show of good faith to you and your whispering friend. Drink this and your power will become limitless. You will be a God in your own right.”
“And why should I trust you?”
“Because I brought you another gift my dear. I know what you left out, I know the part of the story that you didn’t want to tell me,” Apollyon raised his hand and gestured. Behind him there was shuffling and the door opened again. More of his undead shambled in, this time dragging a battered man with a hood pulled down over his head. “I know it wasn’t Bault that killed your mother and Julius.”
Mari tensed as the corpses threw the figure to the ground beside where Apollyon sat. One of the dead whipped the hood from the man’s head and Mari could see that it was a Devil now. Her heart beat as she looked at him and, though he was bloody, she could see make out the handsome lines of Garisheim’s face.
“Your story was all true, save for one thing. Bault was a rogue, yes, but he was no murderer. When you told me the story you chose to omit that Garisheim was the one who murdered your mother, battered your dear Julius to death,” Apollyon sat back and steepled his fingers, “because if you admitted that then you would admit so much more. That you enjoyed Garisheim’s company on a much more personal level. You gave into him, laid with him, fell in love with him and he viewed you as little more than a rag to be thrown away. He used you to be near your mother. Once he had what he needed he took her away from you forever,” Apollyon smiled as he spoke and pushed the vial closer to Mari. His eyes locked onto her face.
But Mari could only stare at Garisheim, her whole body shook. She told herself that she didn’t love him, that she only lusted for him once. To hear Apollyon say that she loved Garisheim made her stomach cold. Maybe she did love him, but now he was just a reminder of the child she left behind. Garisheim taught her a lesson when he took everything from her: Justice didn’t mean the same thing for everyone. The rich, the powerful, those born with the right blood…they were all beyond justice.
But now Garisheim was here, a bloody gift to her from an Elder God so strong that he could bring a Devil to her like it was a trifle. A Faith Demon so powerful that the laws of Devils didn’t even seem to apply.
“He’s the first of your gifts, Mari. The vial and the Devil are yours, as long as you stand beside me in the coming storm,” Apollyon leaned back in his chair and watched Mari now, she could feel him sizing her up.
“What do you need from me?” Mari asked, her eyes didn’t leave Garisheim. She didn’t want to look away, a fear gripped her as she looked at Apollyon, Garisheim might disappear. The Council of Devils meant to hold him until Mari’s life and memory had faded, then Garisheim would be free to live out the rest of his long and rich life.
Apollyon waited for a moment to answer, “I need a story. The right story.”
“Anyone can tell a story,” Mari said sharply.
“This is true, but I need a story to end all stories. I need a voice to spread my tale from one end of the Earth to the other. I need a story of faith,” Apollyon told her.
Mari turned from her gift still collapsed at her feet, caught by a realization, the request was so absurd that Mari instantly knew she could never do it, “You want your faith spread again, don’t you? You want to regain your old power. Your followers. It wouldn’t work, it might create a new Faith Demon, a new you, but you could never be what you were.”
The old man started to laugh his happy, honest laugh, “Oh, my dear, no. I know my faith’s time has come and gone, I am merely assembling a vanguard.”
“A new world, dear. A world free of haves and have-nots. A world free of punishment and injustice. A new world of purity and equality.”
Mari’s lip curled, “Get to the point.”
“I need a Gospel for Death,” Apollyon said, his head tilting.
Mari watched Apollyon for what seemed like an eternity. The man met her eyes and within them she could see the depths of his conviction. The depths of his belief. If she followed him her life would be forfeit, extinguished like a candle in the wind. But her story would light the fuse that would end the world. That’s what he offered her, equality. Death did not discriminate. Death did not care if you were rich or powerful.
Mari took the vial and opened it, her hand shook as she looked at the Vial, beside her Bezar had quieted for the first time since she had found him so many years ago. The liquid inside didn’t seem to have a scent, but all the same it stirred something inside of her. A consuming hunger rose in her heart.
Garisheim’s face slowly tilted up to meet her and what he did sealed Mari’s resolve. He told her without a word that the only way to save the wretched and unjust world she had been born into was with a purging flame. In that single gesture Mari knew she would do anything to burn the world and everything in it to ash.
Garisheim smiled at her.