Arusheluxem sighed, as she looked around the chamber. The iconography was of the blasphemous spawn of the outer darkness, the chaos from ancient times, when everything was far more, well, basic. Before Konol had done his thing, and then obligingly died. Making it about the one and only time the gods had ever been useful.
It was all wrong for what she needed to do, but she had neither the time nor the resources to hand to formalize the matter.
Fortunately, the nature of the being she was calling lent itself to utility over appearances, a concept distasteful to her own preferences.
Anise Lay’di. It made her smile, whenever they called her that. It’s what she used on her status screen, these days, now that her Conceal Status skill was up to decent levels. It had taken a little bit, once she’d been summoned, to unlock the cultist job and grind it to the point where she could reliably hide her status from the various means of viewing it. A trick which she’d have to help this new spawn master in short order.
First things first. The succubus laid the head down first, on the slimy mattress, then deposited the still-beating heart below it. Weaker now, but still fresh enough for her purposes. In fact… yes, she had time. “Occult Eye,” she murmured, and blinked as the world shifted to her view. An easy cultist trick, one that identified adherents of the same faith, and flagged objects of occult significance. In this case, she’d used it because it made artifacts of forbidden lores and the planes above and beyond, glow to her sight. Then she strolled back to the cove, looking for what had been left behind, when the cowards fled.
And she found it.
Minutes left, she gauged, returning to the room where a high priest had once indulged his kinks at the cost of his follower’s time and effort. She gathered her thoughts, cleared her mind, and checked her sanity. Good enough, she wagered. It had mainly been moxie and endurance burned during that farce of a fight. If she hadn’t had her hands literally full… ah. Regrets. She’d kill them later, she or one of the others.
“I invoke the Second Pact. The forbidden knowledge, offering the heart and mind of the mortal mob Cecelia Ragandor-Gearhart, as sacrifice to call forth a Hellsmith of the second circle, forging darkness to my desire. These the terms of the pact, in the true tongue;”
She cleared her throat, and began the lengthy process. Clarity was vital here, even a single missed syllable or accent could have disastrous repercussions.
Fortunately, being a daemon, she was fluent in her native tongue.
“Ent mayne, par an the seas arg sea, char twin stars arg thee, par an thesis bracketa…”
It felt good to speak the true tongue once more, the one that bent the mind, and drove daemon cultists to caffeine and insomnia, pouring over ancient texts time and again, to ensure that they had the commands inlaid correctly.
And as she spoke, the air thickened around the severed parts of the girl, Cecelia.
It was a mistake, to think that daemons cared about souls. They didn’t. The plane they came from was seen as a place of torment, where mortal souls suffered eternally. Anyone who truly knew anything about daemons knew that was a lie. Daemons didn’t LIKE mortals, certainly not enough to spend eternity with them. No, the true aim of daemons was a world where they didn’t NEED to do anything on this layer of reality. Empty. Silent. With no rogue variables blundering about, and nothing interrupting the major processes that they were charged to oversee.
No, daemons had no use at all for souls.
But brains? Those had memories. And hearts? They were symbolic, more or less. And tricky to recreate, much easier to recycle.
The succubus spoke and red energy pulsed up from the heart, its torn arteries stretching and growing, spreading out to flop upon the mattress, sprouting veins and capillaries as they went. One stretched upward, seeking like a snake, before slamming home into the severed throat of the head, in a manner that would have made Reverend Hatecraft reach for his lotion.
The head opened its mouth and screamed, unendingly, a scream that only grew louder as lungs formed, and the rest of the organs followed. Through it all Arusheluxem droned on, hitting each syllable with precision, feeling her sanity slip away bit by bit, taking her focus with it.
That was the trap of the pacts, more or less. They cost the very thing you needed a lot of to get them right, and failure had consequences. Nothing too horrible, usually, assuming you had the power to confine a rogue daemon, and the time to work through the pact, fixing the errors that you had made the first time around. But not everyone DID have the time and power, and so the end result was pleasing to the rogue daemons who could escape or regain their own free will, even to a limited degree.
She came to the end, as the skin formed, and Cecelia’s nude shell stopped screaming, and opened its eyelids for the first time. For a second nothing was there but blackness, darkness from a plane mortal mobs were never meant to touch. Then she blinked, and Cecelia’s eyes replaced it.
“…named Gshantatrixem,” Arusheluxem finished. “Bound by my will!”
“Inefficient,” the new daemon said, clambering to its feet. “Human form, insufficiently mature. Messy hormones. Good musculature structure.” It frowned. “No augmentations. Permission to self-improve?”
“Denied,” Arusheluxem told it. “You are playing the part of a woman called Cecelia Ragadorn Gearhart.”
It stared at her, contemptuously. “I am not skilled in subtlety and deception. You should have called a Deciever.”
“Fool. I have my reasons. You are the last part of a plan over a mortal decade in the making. You will NOT endanger my plans or I will see you suffer when we return to the branch of Var Rhun.”
The new daemon’s eyes went wide. “You know of… wait.” It studied her. “You appear mortal, and you pacted as one, but you are a daemon as well… this defies logic.”
“The meddlers gave the mortal mobs too much power. Power they did not secure from us.” The being known as Anise smiled at the new spawn. “I have taken four of their… jobs… as my own.” She’d nearly taken a fifth, before finding out that model wasn’t necessary, because some of her succubus skills overlapped in just the right way. “You will learn two, perhaps more, before we leave this place.”
“I am a Hellsmith,” the daemon appealed to her. “I ALREADY know what I need to know. I can build you war machines, great bombs and guns, gasses and shells to taint the land and slay your foes. I can augment your flesh with cold armor and hot weapons to smite down your foes. That is my purpose. Why do you wish me to pretend otherwise?”
“You’ll get to do all that too,” Arusheluxem smiled. “And let me show you what your host used to drive around in.” She grabbed a dirty sheet from the back of the room, threw it around the daemon spawn’s nudity, and had it hold it shut.
Dark, when they got out. Dark in a way that neither daemon truly cared about. And watching the new spawn’s eyes light up and jaw drop when it… she… saw Reason, made the jaunt worthwhile.
“Passable,” the Hellsmith declared, stalking around Reason, touching the legs of it, studying the gears and joints and engine. “Ah… yes. Room for improvement. Definite room for improvement. Solid base, though. Yes, I find this acceptable. For now.”
“Can you work it?”
The Hellsmith snorted. “Please. This is easy. I’ll need some flesh, some tools worth a damn, twenty meters of steel wire, six corpses worth of sinew, a few copper rods, some bell jars, and two brains for backup failover processors. Wait. Coal? They wasted a chassis like this on a coalburner? Seriously? Tch. Torment would be easier. Liquified, refined, about seventy proof and I’d get this baby screaming. Literally.”
“It has to look the same from the outside,” Arusheluxem cautioned. “For now, at any rate. Later we won’t have to hide.”
“What happens later?”
The creature called Anise looked around. Renick had left a token garrison, by the sounds of patrolling boots, and the distant torchlight moving around town, searching, ensuring that everyone was truly dead. Too many ears. “Come inside. You’ll need to stay in here anyway for a bit. I’ll see about arranging a knight and an animator to montage you.” Arusheluxem decided, pushing the reluctant Hellsmith away from drooling over Reason, and back to the church. “I’ll have to spin a cover story but that’s no big deal for these mouthbreathers. But in a day or two you’ll be on your own devices for a bit, so I need to make sure you’re ready before I go.”
“Go?” The newly-pacted daemon blinked at her. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll be off to deliver the good news to a pathetic king, that his shitty little kingdom gets to keep existing for a little while longer…” She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a red crystal, that glittered with green numbers, flashing endlessly in the night.
She whipped her fingers to the Hellsmith’s mouth. “Ah ah ah. They call them Dungeon Cores, here. And most people have never seen one.”
“Cores? That’s entirely backwards.” The Hellsmith frowned.
“Yes, and oh, I love them so for coming at it in such an ass-backwards way. We wouldn’t be in this juicy, ripe situation if they hadn’t…”
His existence was green light, entirely green light, and that was how he knew he was in his true body when he woke from unexpected sleep.
In a place beyond worlds, in the wreckage of his hopes and dreams, with his dead, dismembered friends lying all about him, Melos the first, King of Cylvania opened his eyes.
In the castle beyond, the projection that was him, but not him, laughed heartily and stalked the halls, looking for adventurers to fight. Clenching his eyes shut Melos exerted his will, groaning at the effort, until finally the thing that was better than his id but worse than his ego returned to his quarters. Painstakingly he tripped the wards and circles that would keep it in place for a few hours, let him get some semblance of rest.
It had found its way out once or twice before, when he’d succumbed to exhaustion. When he’d been weak, and foolish enough to think that he could risk sleep deeper than a fitful slumber.
The first time it had happened, he’d woken to find his blade in King Garamundi’s stomach, with a room full of horrified servants looking on.
And weeping, knowing there was no help for it, he’d had the projection cut the servants down rather than risk witnesses. The damage had been done, though, and no one believed his stories of an assassin. Balmoran had seceded a year later, prepared for war, and he couldn’t honestly blame the man.
At least Melos could honestly say that he hadn’t killed the king. He’d gotten very good at mincing words, over the last decade and a half.
But either way, he couldn’t let this dungeon’s master run free. No. No, he’d taken precautions since then. Gone without sleep. Balanced sanity on a knife-edge, which was hard, because you didn’t regain any, while you were in the green light. Not a bit, not any other pool either. Buffs didn’t work, healing didn’t work, bardsong didn’t work, nothing. He’d had to kill the bard afterward, too. Pity, the man had been a decent level and a loyalist. But no one could know, no one could ever know, until everyone was safe again.
Sanity. What was his? He couldn’t say status, not in here. Not in any way that worked.
He braced himself and stepped through the veil of light. “Status,” he croaked, and winced at the number. He’d need to sleep again soon.
Above him, the numbers pulsed, and words flashed up, broken, skewed, seventeen different versions of the same message, informing him that the master was out of his slot, and needed replacing.
“I know,” he said, feeling around at the table that Anise had left him. “I know!” he screamed, finally finding the bottle she’d left, ripping the cork free, and drinking the contents in three hasty gulps. He’d forbidden her to poison him or give him anything disgusting, but the week, watery beer was scant help. He’d have to sleep soon, and gods help him.
With seven seconds to go, and his bladder aching, he stepped back into the column of green light, gasping as his mind shifted, and the world blurred. The wards were undamaged, he saw. Perhaps his alter ego would be cooperative for once. Perhaps he could sleep, get the rest he needed.
“Nice try,” he told himself. “Never. Never trust you.”
He nodded off regardless, came to. Checking his projection’s surroundings, he shrieked in horror. The thing had his armor off, was halfway out the window, with a manic grin on his red-bearded face, and the green holes in its torso showing clearly for all to see. Fortunately it was dark, and nobody seemed to be around. But the wards on that entire wall were gouged, sparking, broken. Days to redo them. Reagents that would need requisitioning. How long had it been? How long had he managed to sleep?
Melos stepped outside, wincing as his brain throbbed, as the veil grasped it like it always did. “Status,” he whispered, and he stared in horror at his sanity.
“No,” he whispered. “So little. So little so little so little back. So little…” As the world throbbed, and his head bloomed with ache, he cried, just a bit. He needed to drink again, and he felt blindly back to the table-
-and felt his gauntlet close on flesh. A hand. A hand he knew all too well.
“Anise,” he said, retreating to the green. “Report, I’m listening.” Then it was in through the barrier, and watching as the thing that wore Amelia’s face moved to stand in front of the column, fearful and worried.
“Milord,” she said. “Your daughter has won her first great battle, but there were consequences.”
Melos’ eyes snapped open. Mute, unable to speak, he stared out of the light. But he let his fury show, and she quailed to see it. He could punish her later, through the projection. He’d done that before, hurt her, done worse to her, until she’d learned.
Learned to lie better, anyway, the shattered remnants of his common sense whispered in the back of his mind. Or was that his guilt? He didn’t know. Couldn’t know.
“I tried to keep her safe! But… the cultists. She lost sanity, when she explored their sanctuary.” Anise took a breath. “Cecelia lost her jobs. I brought in some trusted cohorts, to reteach her the basics. They’re doing it even now. She tells me she can pilot the Steam Knight suit, so no one should ever know.”
Melos closed his eyes. When the tears stopped, he opened them again, and stepped out of the column.
“My lord?” Anise said, stepping back.
“You swear to me that you had no hand in this? That you didn’t wipe her mind?”
“I never affected Cecelia’s sanity, I swear.” Anise held up her hands. “She won the battle. The old one is no longer a threat in that area, nor ever will be again.”
With the seconds ticking by, with a growl of frustration that was half a sob, Melos surged back into the column, then out again, resetting the count. Anise offered him a roll, and he ate it, wincing at the staleness, as she continued.
“There is one windfall from this,” Anise said, and Melos gasped as she held up a new dungeon core. Only a minor one, but still, but still…
He tore it from her hand, ran to one of the filled columns, one of the ones labelled “LOOT.” He clawed at it, reached in and pulled a burned black crystal from its plinth, and replaced it with the red dungeon core. Immediately it lit up brighter, the numbers flashing in its depths cycling up, going into overdrive and vibrating in the enclosure. A strange energy pulsed from it, green numbers flashed overhead, and some of the tear overhead seemed to mend.
It wouldn’t be enough, he knew. Not for long. Not even for a year. But it would buy time, and that was what he needed right now. He took a look around at the other columns, sprinkled throughout the black space. Of the sixteen other filled loot columns, fourteen of them held burnt cores.
He lost a precious second then, to self-pity, as reality pulsed.
“Teach her quickly!” He yelled, throwing himself back into the Master’s column. In there for only a few seconds, just long enough to make sure it registered, then out again. “Teach her quickly. Get her back up to speed. Crush the dwarves. No more traitors.”
“I did execute a few, in the town. I hope you don’t mind that I attended to that personally.”
“I don’t care.”
She smiled, and her posture unbent a bit.
He knew she’d screwed him over somehow. But he didn’t care, couldn’t care. The daemon continued, glancing around the room, at the other four columns that held figures. “I could more efficiently crush your foes if you let the rest of the Hand out. They’ve spent too long as mid-bosses, it can’t be good for their health.”
“No,” Melos rasped, staring at the faces of his dead friends, their nude forms hiding the daemons inside them, trapped in green light for eternity. “No, but you can have the golem. Have Emmet, like we discussed. It’s time for Amelia Gearhart to return to the world. Talk to me in the castle.” Then it was back into the column, to reset the count, and closing his eyes again.
Resting them. Just resting.
He knew she was smiling. Knew she was sneering. Knew that she’d surely screwed him over in some petty, spiteful little way. He’d never had the time to properly review the pact, never had time to iron out the details. How could he, when he only had thirty seconds and passing through the column disoriented him each and every time?
When he opened them he saw her leaving, heading toward the hidden door, picking her way over the dismembered bodies. Past the throne, broken and sparking, where once all the loot columns had channeled their energy, past the apparatus that Grissle had made long ago. Past HIS corpse, the only intact one left in the room.
Things didn’t rot here. Didn’t change. Didn’t fade.
It was immortality, of a sort. And by the gods he’d scorned, it was a horror he’d never be free of. Not until his daughter was ready, not until he had someone he could trust, someone the traitors hadn’t twisted, to share the burden. One day she would be ready for the truth, and then they could trade off, take turns in the column that supported all of his reality, all the reality that Cylvania had ever known for the last fifteen years.
And perhaps, someday, they’d find a way to fix it.
Be strong, Cecelia. Endure. Fight hard, but never lose your heart. The hardest part is yet to come. Thought the damned king, as he went back to his torment.