The demon stepped back from the conflagration in the stone maw of the hillside, extracting a cruelly sharp, blackened blade from the forge. Undisturbed by the blazing heat surrounding him, he plunged the iron into a trough and gouts of steam enveloped him, obscuring his inhuman deep-blue furred flesh. As the steam dissipated, he held the weapon aloft, and his tail, slightly-pointed, reached for a near-empty whiskey bottle on a table behind him.
“Good enough for Gwerm,” he muttered to himself, peering down each of the edges. With a gesture, a stub of a cigar floated toward his outstretched free hand. With another, a spark of flame in his palm lit it and he clenched it in his teeth.
“OK, Chucklehead,” he addressed an empty spot in the forge. “Quit pumping those bellows and take this over to the rack and polish it.” The sword slowly floated away from his hand along with a stained rag from a workbench as the demon took a last swig from the bottle.
A contemptuous toss from his tail smashed the finely crafted bottle against the stones of the forge. He wrapped a heavy cloak about his shoulders and pulled the hood down over his eyes as he stepped out of the darkening workshop, pulling a heavy door closed behind him. Above his head, a greatsword stuck into the wooden lintel with a sloppily carved and stained “BLADES” written on the exposed portion. He grinned. “It’s party time.”
He traveled the Gate District of Kenabres in a seemingly random pattern, but in effect always choosing the darkest and least populated alleys and streets, slowly making his way east. Upon needing to cross the main thoroughfare from Southgate, however, he was hailed.
Three city guardsmen approached. “Hold there, citizen, if you please,” amiably but forcibly spoke a young blond woman in an officer’s uniform. Flanking her were two male grizzled soldiers, one with a red, drooping mustache and another bald, with a white goatee. The demon’s shoulders sank as he stopped and turned.
“Kindly, remove yo—” began the officer.
“Yeah, yeah, see I’m complying. I’m complying,” the demon grumbled, pulling back his hood. He looked up at her with an unnerving, pupilless red gaze. He smiled then, his fangs gleaming, upon recognizing the mustached guard. “Got yourself a new commander, Bonzo? Does she know you real well, yet?”
“Shut your mouth, Dusk, or I’ll shut it for you,” growled the guard.
“I’ll address the citizen, Bonzeretti. Thank you,” interrupted the officer, coolly. “I am Lieutenant Cadmere of the Everbright Crusaders. We have volunteered to assist the city guard in their patrols. You must be the tiefling weaponsmith?”
“That’s me, Lieutenant. I’m not too tough to recognize.”
“Yes. Er… quite,” said the discomfited Cadmere.
“I could just tell by the smell, Lieutenant,” added Bonzeretti. “He stinks like a crusader camp shit pit.” The other male guard laughed aloud at that.
“Your wife never seems to mind, Bonzo,” purred Dusk. “In fact, I thought I’d pay her a visit. How long are you on patrol tonight? Poor lady probably won’t need more than a quarter-bell to feel things she didn’t know a woman could…”
“YOU SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH, FREAK!” bellowed the guard, his face bright red, pulling a dagger as he was held back by his companions. “I’LL CUT YOUR FUCKING HEART OUT!”
“That’s enough, Bonzeretti,” Lieutenant Cadmere ordered, forcing the man back a pace with a slight shove.
Dusk snickered as the officer then turned on him. “And you. You will keep a civil tongue to the defenders of this city who risk their lives for you every day.”
Dusk took a pull on his cigar then realized it had gone out. Lighting it again from his finger, he said, “Lieutenant, I offer respect when respect is given, not when it’s demanded.”
“That’s as may be, citizen,” she replied. “Now I must ask where you are headed tonight?”
The demon quirked an eyebrow at her, glancing at the holy symbol of Iomedae upon her breastplate. “Not that I need to share my business, but if you must ask, I’m on my way to worship. Then I thought I’d enjoy a nightcap at the Defender’s Heart.”
“He’s lying,” said Bonzeretti.
“No… No, he isn’t,” countered Cadmere, a quizzical expression on her face. “Very interesting. I sense no evil in him either. Be on your way, citizen. May your prayers bring you solace. You would do well to remember what I told you.”
“So would you, Lieutenant,” he chuckled, pulling up his hood again and, ignoring the small crowd of halflings who had gathered at the sound of shouting, headed east into their neighborhood of smaller houses.
It was not long before the demon realized that five halfling children, their eyes shining, were following him.
“Do another trick, mister! How about some magic! Come on, mister!” they cried as soon as he’d made the mistake of turning to look at them.
“Get lost, runts,” he grumbled, to no effect. “No magic today,” he attempted, unsuccessfully. “I’m tired,” he muttered and was ignored.
Suddenly he spun around, his hands forming menacing claw shapes, his tail arching above his cloak. “I’m going to eat all of you if you keep bothering me!”
The halfling children squealed in delighted fear and then laughed. “Just one, mister! Please?!”
“Fine!” the demon snapped, sitting himself down hard on the ground. The children pressed closer. He took a draw from his cigar and blew a cloud of smoke above them. Then, he reached into the smoke and began to shape it with his hands and tail. When it finally resembled a small, grey cat with an overlarge head, he grasped its now solid form and handed it to the first halfling girl. She held onto it like it was the most precious thing she’d ever seen.
“Remember,” he said, “It’s fragile so don’t break it. Or go ahead and break it, I don’t give a rat’s ass. It will just go away in an hour anyway. Just like everything you’ll probably ever care about.”
Over the cries of “Me, next!” and “No, me!” came a harsher adult halfling voice from a second-floor window eight feet above them. A white-haired halfling looked down. “Hey! Git along, you troublemaker! Afore I fetch the Guard on ye! And you younglings, git! Git on home!”
The children whined as Dusk pushed himself upright. “Don’t have to tell me twice, Grannie,” he muttered. “Just trying to mind my own business.”
“Well, you take your business out of our neighborhood, monster!” she harried, as the demon made his way east again through the shadows of the larger estates and the Gate District park.
The wind picked up in this sparser part of the city. Though the cold didn’t bother him, he instinctively pulled his cloak tighter. He watched the clouds drift past, obscuring the nearly full moon but not enough to hide the dark scar across its surface. He knew the scholars of the Blackwing Library believed the moonscar was the result of a demonic incursion like the Worldwound which loomed over all life in Kenabres like a shroud of death. “No place is safe,” Dusk muttered to himself.
Returning to cobbled streets, he came to a familiar building. Warm light behind yellow curtained windows flanked a front door with a symbol of three outward pointing daggers carved upon it. But the demon instead went down a darkened alley to another door, more discreetly located.
Not long after his soft knocking, it opened to reveal a middle-aged half-elven woman, dressed in yellow silk, henna dyed patterns along her bare throat, arms and legs. Her hair, piled dark above her green eyes, featured two long and sharp pins with the same symbol as on the front door. She sighed heavily at seeing him.
The demon stubbed his cigar out in the palm of his hand and said, “If I was a sensitive man, Eloise, I’d worry that you weren’t glad to see me. Are you not going to invite me in?”
She stole a glance behind her and Dusk thought he heard the sound of sobbing. “It’s not a good night, Dusk. Some hero didn’t have any demons to slay tonight so he got a bit rough with Verbena.”
Dusk narrowed his gaze and he bared his fangs. “You want me to find him? It would be my pleasure.”
Eloise smiled slightly and patted his shoulder. “We’ve got things well in hand, The Lady in the Room and myself. Rest assured, this clod will be feeling the Savored Sting soon enough.” She gently raised his chin to face her. “If you’re here, that must mean you completed your order of cold-iron longswords for Horgus Gwerm. Are you delivering them yourself?”
He laughed. “Me in the upper districts? Of course not. Some schmuck will come by, probably way too early, I’ll bet.” He tried to peek around the corner but she held him back. “So, can I come in or what? I need to show Calistria my gratitude. I’ll make Verbena forget all about that other guy.”
She shook her head. “Come back later, Dusk. Go have a drink. We have several guests scheduled and well, it’s best if you are last to enter the sacred rooms. We can air them out in the morning, you see.”
Dusk’s face fell. He scowled and looked down at his feet again. “You too, huh? I should have stayed at the forge.”
“Now, now, my little tiefling,” she chided, good-naturedly tousling his hair. “We’ve known each other for way too long for you to pull some melodrama. We’ll give you a nice bath tonight, on the house, and you can enter the sacred boudoir like the true devotee of Calistria we know you are. Go on now and don’t come back for at least three bells.”
He smiled up at her, then and re-lit his cigar. “You’re still the prettiest woman in Kenabres, Eloise. So, as a true devotee, when do I get to bed the high courtesan cleric herself?”
“That,” she smiled, closing the door, “will have to remain a holy mystery.”
With a bounce in his step, the demon made his way to the Defender’s Heart, the largest and most popular inn in Kenabres. From the roar inside, it sounded as though it was quite a crowd this night. He got a step inside the door when he felt a strong forearm across his chest. “Hold it there, fuzzy.”
He looked up to see a broad-shouldered human woman in boiled leather armor, a heavy club resting against the wall behind her. “Good evening, Tulip,” he grinned. “You’re as intimidatingly lovely as ever.”
With a sneer across her scarred face, she pointed across the common room. Past where a northern barbarian seemed to be trying to entertain a small crowd by plucking some strings on a tree trunk, there gathered a group of armored men in vestments of orange flame.
“Don’t pull any funny business tonight,” she said. “Fucking Witch Hunters got a night off it seems.”
He gazed over at the adherents of Prelate Hurlun Shappok and nodded. At the sight of the city’s secret police, ferreters out of all impurities, he pulled his hood lower. “Thanks, Tulip,” he muttered as he slipped away in the opposite direction of the Witch Hunters to order some Dwarven whiskey from Kimroth Otai, the one-armed former mercenary tending his own bar tonight.
Sparing a glance at the amorous couple who, after he’d sat, proceeded to find another place further away, he stared down at the dark amber liquid and then shot it back.
Otai refilled his glass after picking a couple more silvers from the pile in front of him. “What’s with the unwelcoming committee?” he asked the retired mercenary.
The one-armed man shrugged, pouring himself a shot. “All men like a drink now and then. Something’s in the air, though. Lots of folk out you don’t normally see. Wheels are in motion.”
Dusk grunted and tossed back his whiskey. “I’ve seen it all, Kim. Crusades come and crusades go. Orders rise and vanish. The only things that stay the same are the demons and those that come to kill ‘em. Maybe when they do, they need a new blade. Most of the time I never see them again.”
Otai raised his glass. “To the crusaders that didn’t come back.”
“Crusaders? Fuck them, I’m talking about the blades.”
Otai coughed and sputtered a laugh through his drink. “You’re a real bastard, Dusk.”
“I’m just as the Abyss made me,” answered the demon.
Three-and-a-half bells later, after almost everyone except the professional drunks had gone home, Dusk tripped lightly past Tulip out the door. A smile crossed his face as he thought about the bath and the sacred prostitutes of Calistria awaiting him mere blocks away.
“A bit late to be walking around, isn’t it, freak?” said a voice out of the shadows. Dusk blinked and watched Bonzerelli of the city guard step in front of him.
“Hiya, Bonzo,” he replied casually, “That nice young paladin let you off your leash? Where’s your bald boyfriend? Visiting your wife?”
“Right here,” said another voice, close behind him. Then a third, “We’ve been waiting a real long time and it’s real cold out tonight.”
“Real dark too,” said Dusk as he took an exaggeratedly staggering step to his right. Then with a wave of his hand, all suddenly went dark. He bolted left in between the startled guards and turned the corner…
…only to feel a violent clout on his head, sending him reeling against the wall. He tasted blood and realized he’d bitten his own tongue. His darkvision showed him a face he didn’t recognize, a big man with a neat mustache and beard in full plate armor. “He’s here. I’ve got him,” the man said, one gauntleted hand grasping Dusk’s cloak.
“… the fug are yu?” Dusk mumbled, trying to clear his head. Footsteps announced the arrival of Bonzerelli and the other guards.
“Just someone who has suffered far more than you will this night because of your kind. It is a blasphemy that you walk these same streets brave men and women died to defend. Prepare to feel Iomedae’s judgment.”
“Wai… waid a minnut, pleesh,” said the demon, looking up at the angry human faces, who paused.
“Couldn’t I feel her tits instead?” he laughed, and then felt the first of the blows to his stomach, his face, his back as he tried to cover up.
“Well,” he thought. “At least I won’t have trouble sleeping tonight.”