The demon moved from shadow to shadow in the Ring District looking for something to hit or something to hit him. He hadn’t really expected to find Auciell alive despite Susannae’s optimism but to instead find the sign of Socothbenoth, that was.. that was a blow. The perverse incubus demon lord had already savagely raped and tortured the closest thing he’d had to a friend in Kenabres, the priestess and sacred courtesan Eloise, and destroyed her temple to Calistria. Now he’d taken, gods knew why, one of the few humans who hadn’t treated Dusk like a monster. He wasn’t close with Auciell but he’d saved her life once and she’d returned the favor when it would have been just as easy to let him rot with the Inquisitors. Now she was gone to most likely a worse fate than Eloise had suffered. Why? It didn’t make any sense.
“Vengeance will be delivered,” intoned Sphex at his side, coldly and matter-of-fact.
“Yeah, yeah,” replied Dusk. “I’ll just head right over to the Worldwound and descend into the Abyss and start killing everything we see until we find the fucker.”
“I agree with that plan,” said Sphex. “All shall fall before me.”
“Look, you pointy-headed stick, you’ve got no mind for subtlety or sarcasm. I’ll be dead before I take ten steps.”
“Then another will be my agent. Vengeance will be delivered.”
“Oh, thanks!” Dusk grumbled.
“Your gratitude is not required but it is good you realize the honor you gain in carrying me.”
The demon ignored his sword’s last statement and clambered over some rubble. He realized what he needed right now was a place to sit and think. Somewhere far from his erstwhile companions who were likely being lavished as heroes back at Defender’s Heart. He knew the crusaders who sang the praises of their victories would probably just leave him out, if not claim he’d helped the invading demons. Even if they acted grateful to him, seeing those faces that had sneered and looked down at him for so long twisted into smiles or feeling a clap on the back instead of a blow on the back of the head made him nauseous to think about. No, he wouldn’t be going back there. Fuck them. The only downside was there was alcohol there and he desperately needed a drink. A lot of them, in fact.
So, he found his steps headed towards the Gilded Mirror, what had once been a high-class Inn and Tavern where he’d been refused service. If there was anything left to drink there, he’d find it. He’d also try to come up with a plan for finding out more of what Socothbenoth was doing in Kenabres… maybe see if any cultists were still kicking around. Though the crusaders were now emboldened and cleaning up the remainders since Dusk and his friends had snapped the spine of the occupying force, he might not find any. But he had his ways and could probably gain the confidence of a frightened cultist better than some shit-stomping paladin. And as someone who’d been hiding in Kenabres his whole life, he had a good idea of places to look.
The once-lavish building called the Gilded Mirror came into view before Dusk recognized it. The finely crafted marble pillars flanking the entrance had been removed by some wayward object (or perhaps wayward body) and brought with them the front awning and half of the upper floor, piling debris over the silver engraved double doors. The rooms that had been supported by the pillars were the most decadent and their contents were spilled now across the street and picked clean of valuables. Dusk found a wooden carafe and upended it, spilling nothing.
“You are searching for a mate? I assume that is all else you could require, if not our shared vengeance. And perhaps food.” Apparently Sphex had learned a new discourse. Which, if it continued, might prove vexing.
“Shut the fuck up, sword,” said Dusk. “That is one topic I know for sure you know absolute shit about. Maybe if I’d made you a nice velvety scabbard you’d know your pommel from your point. What I want is some whiskey and places like this keep the good stuff hidden away.”
He saw the entrance into what was left of the Gilded Mirror might require some digging. Knowing that any service establishment needs a service entrance so that the wealthy clientele need not see the hows and whos necessary for them to get their needs catered to, Dusk worked his way into the remains of an alley, his darkvision scanning for rats of any size.
His mind drifted a bit into some fantasy as he stepped along the bricked wall. What if there was someone there? Maybe hiding and waiting for the city to be safe again. He would be their rescuer. A hero. The Gilded Mirror had employed some good-looking women who knew this was the place for big tips. He had a big tip, all right, he thought with a chuckle wishing Halved had been there to hear it.
After a twinge of self-consciousness, he reached down into his belt pouch to touch the silver dragon scale. With a moment’s effort, he willed his appearance to change. It would not be a blue-furred, tailed, yellow-eyed demon who opened the back door to the tavern, but a swarthy, dark-haired Varisian swordsman.
“You must be a man of action when it comes to that subject and prefer not to talk about it. I’ll refrain from asking again… for now.”
The service entrance was set down into the ground, the door left slightly ajar, leading to a basement hallway that smelled of lye and stale cooking fat, followed by a waft of excrement. Dusk found a kitchen as well as a separate larder leading into a sub-basement. At the end of a hallway was a flight of stairs leading up. There was also a hatch set into the wall for a small rope operated food-delivery elevator.
The kitchen was listless but full of cooking implements. Bags of food sat spoiled or spoiling in the lingering heat trapped in such a room with little ventilation, save a window on the far side now stuffed with debris from the outside. The larder was crowded by flies, maggots and various other bugs. What was left of the food stores was covered in shit.
Dusk scowled and wrinkled his nose. He knew he gave off a scent of brimstone when his dander got up which some found… unpleasant. But that at least was his own stench. “OK,” he said quietly, “Let’s just find the hidden liquor store and get the fuck out of here. Fucking demons…”
He picked through the ruined kitchen, peering into cabinets and finding nothing edible. He caught a glimpse of his altered appearance reflected in broken glass and spun around, Sphex at the ready.
“I’m starting to lose it,” he muttered. “This day has been way too long.” When had he last slept? In the warehouse district after fighting the Hala. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
He laughed, then, at his foolishness in trying to make himself look more appealing, falling to even the hint of temptation that Sphex had alluded to. Was Lust not his fatal flaw? Something the demon side of him might pick up on and exploit easily like any Abyssal tempter? All of them read like an open book, he realized. Neva’s Greed stood out nakedly. For the right price, what wouldn’t she do? Kostner’s inertia was starting to border on legendary. Dusk wondered if he’d still be down in that crevasse if he hadn’t had the others to follow. The man chose a Sloth as his spirit animal, for Calistria’s sake. Give that one a soft bed and food within reach and a rag on a stick and he’d be good forever.
Halved had two demons tearing at him in the same way as he had two personalities. When at rest, his Gluttony devoured anything he could snatch until he’d pass out. When active, his Rage gladly destroyed everything within reach just for fun. The guy was already a better demon than half of these invaders from the Worldwound. And what of Susannae? The spotless, perfect little paladin princess was not the kind of scum like most of these so called Crusaders, holier-than-thou in public and vile in private. She was a true beacon of goodness and kindness and all that crap. Despite all that, her flaw was the worst of all, the hardest, yet the most rewarding to twist. Pride. Yes, poke at that and she too could fall. None of us would be able to stand against a true demonic manipulator.
“You’re wrong,” said Sphex, as Dusk paused at the top of the stairs to the sub-basement, a skeptical look in his eye as he scanned below.
“Was I speaking out loud?” Dusk snapped. “Was I talking to you? I’m not wrong. Someone like Sacothbenoth would eat us alive. Probably any succubus worth her horns, too.”
“Not that,” the sword replied. “You are not driven by Lust, though you think you are. It is Envy that will destroy you, should you allow it.”
“Envy?” the demon scoffed. “Who the fuck do I have to be envious about?”
“Look again at your reflection, Dusk, and you tell me. I do not recognize that face. Do you?”
After a minute, Dusk cursed the fact that he couldn’t even be alone with his thoughts any more, and descended down the stairs. As he took the first step, however, the illusion vanished in a curt wave of dismissal.
The basement was a packed dirt floor room with shelves lined with bottles, many of which had been broken and their expensive contents spilled about the area. Dusk found a bottle of Oldlaw Whiskey deep on a shelf, unbroken by whatever beast had destroyed this stash.
Then Dusk heard the clank of a bottle deeper in the cellar, followed by an uncomfortable groan.
With a satisfied smirk, the demon tucked the Oldlaw safely in his pack and, from the safety of the shadows, made his way forward to check the source of the groan.
Dusk found a figure slouched in a corner covered in the armor and adornments of a Cultist of Baphomet. He wais feeling around blindly in the dark, through which the demon’s inhuman eyes penetrated with ease. The cultist seemed to be just waking, with a few bottles strewn close enough to him to imply that he had drained at least a few on his own.
A cruel, fanged grin crept across Dusk’s face like an asp. “Thank you, Calistria,” he murmured. “Looks like we got lucky, Sphex.”
He padded silently forward, deftly avoiding the broken shards of pottery and glass to regard the scrambling, drunken human. He placed his weight on the haft of a discarded glaive.
Pitching his voice lower and menacingly, he spoke in the demon tongue of Abyssal. “Can you understand me, you pathetic human worm? Or does even the basic grasp of our language evade your abilities? How you even were allowed to don the armor of the Mazelord? You can’t even find your way out of this hidey-hole. That must be why you were unable to join us in our triumph, yes?”
The cultist shook his head and waved his hand dismissively at Dusk, not phased by the aggressive words.
He matched Dusk in dialect but not in tone, his being dejected and passive. “Save your vile orders. There is no victory for me up there. The Mazelord’s favored servants have gone. My use to him is spent.”
He continued, feeling around on the ground finding a bottle with a few drops tinkling inside.
“I do not see any victory for me. If we have brought corruption to Kenabres, then I have truly betrayed my people. If Kenabres resists then I have failed Baphomet. I ask you: what victory?”
He looked down, his eyelids hanging low over his eyes, the skin on his face pockmarked and prematurely strained.
“Our corruption spreads. Even in your uselessness do I see the victory of sin.” Dusk gestured to the bottles. A moment of silence stretched between them. “Tell me,” The demon continued, moving to loom over the cultist on the floor. “What do you know of your brothers in betrayal, their plans and their lords’ intentions?”
The cultist snorted, which turned into a cough. He held his hand up to his head and winced. Dusk fumed, his eyes seemed to burn in the dark.
“You would know more than I. Everything I’ve been told, carefully crafted by your kind to lead me to this. I know the screams of my victims and when I drink they are muffled, or gone, if I drink enough.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about the voices in your head. Tell me what you know or you will know more than mental suffering.” Dusk put his hand on the hilt of his black blade.
“Not a demon, but his blood is thick with darkness. His death will… placate.” Sphex excitedly intoned in his head.
“Shut up,” Dusk thought back.
“The Lords of the Locust Host and Minotaurs had been seeding their cults in Kenabres for many years… longer than I know, I’m sure. Myself, I was drawn to Baphomet during my military training. I found the crusader camps to be a labyrinth of bullies and the pretentious. Feh!” He spit on the floor and searched around for another bottle. “My elder family members, respected nobility that have revealed themselves since, saw fit to bring me into the fold when I struggled against the authority they sought to subvert. They unveiled to me a power I could not deny, so immediate and without bounds. I preferred it to the constant wrist slapping of the crusaders and priests. I spent many years learning the dark ways, vowing myself to Baphomet, until finally our day came. When the attack began I made my way here knowing I would find some who had tormented me, or their friends or anyone unto whom I could unleash my power.” His hand found a bottle with some liquid remaining and he drained it.
“But then I found beneath my boot someone I had known long ago. When I ran my glaive across his neck I truly saw what I had become.”
“Yeah, sucks to be you. But perhaps for your insolence, you would better serve me as a stinking dretch. At least they don’t bore me with their pathetic life stories. Tell me something interesting.”
“I heard that Areelu Vorlesh was coming here personally to insure the corruption of the Wardstone. That was our plan all along. The demon lords themselves did not see fit to visit the city themselves, so they sent some of their highest ranks to do their work for them. And then there was…”
He stops for a moment. "I met two men and a woman a few weeks back, before the attack. They called themselves members of the Silken Sin and they praised the demon lord Socothbenoth. I, eager to gain more influence with those of my kind, spent a few nights in revelry with them. I did not think Socothbenoth was interested in Kenabres, but according to them he was to come and walk among us. A man of exceeding beauty, they said, and able to take any form one may desire. They spoke sensually of his interest in one among the Church of Calistria and that he planned to violate their temple.
“That group, those of the Silken Sin… I saw them again two days ago. They were headed to Old Kenabres with a particular vigor. The look in their eyes was like drunken teenagers, gleeful and wild, but their posture and attitude was controlled. Their corruption is different than mine, but it is worse, I know.”
“What else do you know of them, the Silken Sin?” Dusk growled.
“Nothing else. You do not scare me, so do what you must and be quick about it.” He made to sip at the bottle in his hand, but there was nothing left.
Dusk slid the glaive a few feet away in the darkness with a foot and scanned the cellar. Spying what looked to be an unbroken bottle of something, he grasped it.
“Here,” he said, carefully holding it close enough for the fallen cultist to sense it near his hand. Then he took a couple steps back. “Tell me whatever else you know about those three… what they looked like… names. I’ll, in turn, tell you about the situation above. It’s not pretty. But if I can find those three, you might not be totally fucked. Though it doesn’t seem like you care anymore.”
“I’ll tell you this much,” he added. “You’re at the end of your rope, pal. You’re out of fucking friends and you’re out of fucking options and the minute you’re fucking dead, then the real suffering begins. But, you may have just rolled a hard triple because you’re talking to the one fucking person left in Kenabres to whom you might be useful still. So… make me happy.”
The cultist took the bottle Dusk offered him and took a long drink. His head lolled unwieldy from side to side and his words come out slower and with a bit of a slur.
“The two men were more forgettable than the woman. One was part elf, dark elf maybe, skin like ash and long blonde hair. The other was a tall, lithe human with a bald pate. I didn’t spend much time looking at or getting to know them, for all the competitive spirit in me. Not to mention, when things got heavy in their smoky lounge, I wasn’t too excited by them, if you know what I mean. That woman though, Gods above and Demon Lords below, she was something. Her charcoal hair spilled about her perfect body like pillars of smoke and her eyes burned like golden-orange stars. And the way she smiled had me torn between asking for her heart or driving a dagger into it. I think she used magic, but was careful not to be obvious about that… I can’t remember their names… It’s lost in the drink.”
He draws out a long knife from his belt. “Now that I’ve said my piece, I’ve truly lost all use. Shall you be doing the honors, my superior? Or shall I?” The look on his face is one of complete surrender and his eyes focus on the space just over Dusk’s shoulder. “I’ve told you all I know… just make it quick.”
“Ha,” laughed Sphex in the demon’s head. “Flesh is weak. You see how easily broken it is. Finish him quickly and we will seek these others.”
Dusk tried to ignore the sword and regarded the pathetic man brought low before him. He wanted to hate him. Because of this idiot and everyone like him, his city was in ruins. So many dead.
He crouched down on his haunches. “Give me the knife,” he commanded. “You’re in no state to do anything right.”
The man dutifully handed it over, as dull-eyed as a cow to the slaughter.
“Answer me one more question. Do you wish now that you had not given up your soul to the Abyss? I don’t mean serving those hypocrite crusaders either. But if you’d had a chance at a different life, not an easier one, but at least one where you could see yourself in a mirror and not wish you were dead, would you have taken it?”
“What are you doing?” hissed Sphex. “Kill him and serve our Lady’s will! She is the Goddess of Vengeance.”
Dusk felt his hand involuntarily reaching for the blade at his hip but he resisted it and thought back at the sword with a fervor. “She is also the Goddess of Secrets and this one will recognize faces, other cultists who still might be making their way back with the refugees, knows their recruitment methods, their signs. I have a feeling we are not long for Kenabres if we are to find Socothbenoth. Eloise needs someone to help her rebuild her temple and protect her acolytes as she takes new ones in. Let him throw himself on her priestess’s mercy. He will owe her his life and has nowhere to turn. The crusaders will either kill him or imprison him. The cultists will kill him for failure or for betraying them or just for fun. Eloise can decide. She can use what he knows to regain some influence in the city. And maybe, he can serve Calistria long enough that she might be able to wrest that soul back from the Abyss and prevent the demons from gaining another eternal soldier. Is that not vengeance as well?”
“I wish not my soul to be damned. I see now that viciousness knows more torment than even a bullied crusader. But I would not return to them either.” Then he turns his face down and sighs.
Sphex remained silent for a moment, then spoke. “Very well. Your reasoning is… persuasive. Send him to Eloise and let us be done with this place. It stinks of failure.”
“I hear you there, sword.”
The demon turned to the tortured soul before him and gave him a quick slap to the face. He saw the eyes focus for a moment and lose their haziness a little.
“Listen up. This is what you are going to do. First, sober the fuck up. Second, take that fucking armor off and leave those weapons here. Third, you are going to go to Defender’s Heart and ask for Eloise, priestess of Calistria. When you see her, you are going to get down on your fucking hands and knees and kiss her fucking boots and beg her to let you serve her. You’re going to do whatever she wants and protect her even to the point of sacrificing your own life to save hers. She’ll keep the fucking crusaders from arresting you and if you serve her well enough, she may be able to keep the demons from your soul.”
Dusk watched a glimmer of life reappear in the man’s eyes.
“If you cross her, I’ll know. If you fail her, I’ll know. If you fuck this up, you will wish for the Abyss compared to what I will do to you. Do you understand? Say it all back to me.”
The demon listened to him slowly but correctly recount the instructions. He wasn’t dumb, it seems, which put him leagues ahead of most crusaders. He acknowledged the man’s words and turned to go.
“I don’t understand something,” the drunk added. “If she asks who sent me. Which side were you on?”
“The outside. Always.”
Dusk made his way out of the fetid basement and silently made his way in the encroaching darkness through the streets of Old Kenabres until he found an abandoned house with an upper bedroom with a door that still latched and a window to view the dark street below. The furniture was overturned but not broken. He set out his spellbook and scrolls whose arcane mysteries he’d unraveled on the back of a dresser, along with ink and quill. He uncorked the whiskey and took a long pull, handing it to his tail to hold nearby.
“Work and sleep, Sphex. Then it’s time to find the trail of those pretty fucks. It’s been a long day.”