Esperial woke buried to her armpits in the earth, piled beneath wave after wave of loose dirt and stone and the ashes of millions and millions of slain demons. Her head ached and she felt dizzy… Esperiel struggled to gather her wits through the pounding in her aching head, piecing together fragments of memories that hadn’t been battered out of her skull and sensations until with a rush of clarity she suddenly remembered where she was – and what had happened to her. She was alive however, and that was more than she had expected. Archons like her were hard to kill, but not impossible, and within the Darkstone, in the center of Becoming’s power and without Dawnlight, she was move vulnerable than she had ever been in her long life… and Zaasteroth had defeated her. She had been unconscious. She should be dead.
It would have been smart to kill her. Alive, she would make them regret their mistake, no matter how long it took.
She opened her eyes, and dirt and blacked soot… remains of the demons she had killed for the last hundred and fifty years… fell into them. She needed to blink her eyes quickly to force it out, and when she did she wished she hadn’t – she was surrounded by demons.
Not hundreds or thousands of them. Millions. Millions of leering faces, mishapen bodies, and protruding bones. Millions of forms with too many arms, too many heads, too many cocks. Too many forms with no symmetry, no morals, and no mercy. She had lived her existence brave, strong, invincible… a clever, dangerous warrior for Stasis. Esperiel did not feel clever right now, or dangerous. She felt cold, dirty and tired… and very, very alone.
Countless demons surrounded her, but four of them stood out… standing around her like points of the Diamond. Agathalon, standing on her left, looked furious, even by his standards… only a single black wing stretched out behind him. The other was a severed stump only a few inches up, and the hatred that glowed in the demons eyes promised agony. The demon was an infamous torturer… and Esperiel felt no doubt he would delight in showing her the fruits of his hatred. On her right, Omodomos stood, massive, burly, goat-headed and goat-legged with cloven hooves. His fearsome horns stood tall, and the the scar she had left in the center of his living black armor already halfway healed. She could see glimpses of crimson skin through it, barely. Between the two of them, a woman stood… if you wanted to call her that.
Esperiel might not know her, but she knew her type – a greater Succubus. The woman was as naked as Esperiel was, but she seemed far more comfortable with that fact, and naked sexuality radiated off of her. Esperial hadn’t realized that one of the Greater Succubi was on Mundas… she hadn’t contributed to the fighting.
The knelt down before Esperiel, brushing a lock of crimson hair out of her eyes. “Welcome back, love,” she whispered. Then she grabbed a handful of the demonic ashes that littered the ground and crushed them against Esperiel’s eyes.
Esperiel let out a cry at the unexpected discomfort. She shut her eyes right in fury as she struggled against the earth binding her, struggling, trying to pull herself free… but it did her little good. The fear of her situation that she didn’t allow herself to fully feel transformed into furious anger, and she started screaming at the woman, cursing and howling imprecations and insults. Grinning, the succubus grabbed for another handful.
“That will do, Leshara,” someone called.
Esperiel thrashed a bit longer, but she wasn’t accomplishing anything, and the pointlessness of it took its toll. She tried to hold onto her anger, but without a target it slowly faded away… taking with it whatever strength she had left and leaving her with nothing but her fears, and her thoughts. Leshara. This woman… this succubus… was Leshara? Esperiel had never crossed path with the woman, but she certainly knew of her. An infiltrator. A corrupter. One of a pair of Greater Demons who made worlds fall. What would someone like her be doing here, serving Zaasteroth? It didn’t make sense. In fact, most of what had been done in this infestation didn’t make sense if she was here… this kind of invasion wasn’t her usual means of attack. The woman was a manipulator, a seductress, a spy… she turned people against themselves, she didn’t slaughter them on the battlefield. And… Where was her sister Kiana? To Esperiel’s knowledge, they always worked together.
The taste of ashes in her mouth made her sick. Esperiel spat them onto the ground, her spit black from the dirt pushed into her face and mouth by the succubus. “Not very becoming of an Archon,” a voice said from behind her. Zaasteroth, the Greater Incubus, lurked directly behind her… finding her most vulnerable point, even when she was all but helpless. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t see him… she could visualize the tentacles curling down, surrounding her, ready to flow in. “What would your Father think?”
Esperial forced herself to be tranquil. If they wanted to kill her, she would already be dead… Nothing had changed. The demons were still trapped. Father’s mission for her, to contain Zaasteroth and his horde, had been successful… even if it cost her far more than she would have liked. She was trapped in here with them now… perhaps she could open the seal, but doing so would mean that she had failed in Stasis’ task. The Archon of Hope could not in good conscience undo the seal. If she could have done it, sometime in the last hundreds of years she would have done so… but if she escaped, she would not have the strength to place the seal again. The demons would escape with her.
Agathalon growled. “You wanted to wait until she was awake. She’s awake. Let’s get started with the whore.”
“Yes please,” Leshara whispered, her voice a husky promise. “I’ve been waiting so very, very long for an opportunity to play with her, my lords… is it time?” The succubus before her seemed to almost dance in place with her eagerness, her full breasts swaying from side to side as she moved her hips.
“No,” Zaasteroth said softly. “Not yet.”
“Do your worst to me,” Esperiel cursed. “Filthy scum. Cowards, to let your brothers die for you. To only come forward when I was vulnerable.”
“And precisely why,” Zaasteroth asked in that same soft, pensive voice, “did you expect otherwise? Am I not a monster? Evil incarnate, so says Locleos?”
Esperiel was all but shuddering as she sensed the spirit of black vengeance brooded in the encircling hordes, not just within Agathalon — not a desire to exact justice upon one who had transgressed, but a malicious spite that recoiled in anger from pain inflicted on itself while reveling in pain inflicted on its enemies. They were demons, and they wanted to make the Archon pay… not out of some sense of love or loyalty for their fallen fellows, but rather out of an indignation at this affront to their pride. Just because she was their opposite, and had imprisoned them. To Esperiel, it did not particularly matter if their desire for vengeance came from a place of virtue or vice. She was at their mercy, and she was nowhere near enough of a fool to think that they would show her any such thing.
Still, even helpless, she did not despair. She would suffer, she knew, and she understood that they would not let escape easily. Maybe she would suffer forevermore, locked away with this hateful horde and tormented by them until the end of time… but she was the Archon of Hope — not some mere mortal optimism that would waver with no more than a shift in chemistry but true Hope, patient and long-suffering. Infinitely so – Time would unravel before her hope did, and when the fleeting age of Existence melted back into Void all the worlds, even this pocket existence, returned to a primordial unity of uncreated nothingness, only then would Esperiel’s Hope fail her. And then, no matter what the demon filth did to her, she would find her relief — in the next world, if not in this one.
Zaasteroth knew that. That was why he was here… why all of this was happening. Though beaten down and exhausted, Esperiel would be able to endure. A sense of duty, and of Hope, still brightly in her heart and mind – a conviction to contain these demons no matter the cost to herself. As the embodiment of the very concept of Hope, the living expression of its platonic ideal as pure as geometric formulae, Esperiel would not be one to give in easily. As long as she had Hope that things might end well, she would never break.
Zaasteroth understood that better than anyone else here. He was an incubus, the most powerful of the demons Esperiel had sealed away, and he was the one who now held sway over the seething, gibbering hordes of lesser fiends that mobbed about the captive Archon, leering as what little they could see of the buried woman. The demon looked down on the fair features of the captive Archon, seeing how shapely she was, a pristine creature untouched by lowly lusts as she tried to twist her face around enough to see him. None of the other demons could see past the Lie the way he could… the way Esperiel could. They were lesser – closer to human. They couldn’t see Esperiel as anything but her nearly human form… but the truth was, she could be just as accurately described as concentric wheels of fire encircling a thousand eyes or a pulsating hyperdimensional geometry traced in waves of light as she could be a beautiful woman, and he knew that she could see him likewise. In all of her aspects, however, there was an undeniable femininity about her. She might not be made of mortal flesh, but what made her would serve all the same.
Esperiel looked at Zaasteroth with steely eyes, hearing the piping, gibbering, and clattering of the teeming horde around them, an infinitude of lesser demons held at bay only by their fear of the four demons who most closely surrounded the captive Archon. The woman’s lush form, smooth in texture and bountifully curving like a fractal pattern of flowing lines and sudden arcs, shifted before the slithering mass of Zaasteroth’s tentacles, instinctively wary of the hundreds of angles from which those countless members might bind and defile her. Her bosom heaved, half covered by the ground, and her grave countenance betrayed little of Esperiel’s potential fears. He had seen her naked in all her glory as she fought… the beautiful curve of her ass, firm in the core with a deeply innate power… yet soft and pliable, something that could shift and deform to adapt to the space it occupied without displacing whatever else was there. She was a thing that could yield much to the touch, and he had to admit he was darkly eager to see just how far the demons could push and distort this willowy figure and its soft flesh, fair and supple and sinfully tantalizing.
“I will speak with her first,” he instructed. “Leave us.”
Omodamos snorted and curled back his hircine lips, bar-shaped pupils looking unreadably down at the angle. His thick, hairy knuckles bristled, and his nostrils flared. Agatharon trailed a finger with a nail like a talon down her back, tracing a line over her skin. The demons seemed unhappy as his demands, but slowly they moved to obey.
“Unhand me,” Esperiel ordered, her voice as cold as she could make it. She needn’t have bothered. She winced just a little as Omodamos tightened the grip of a massive, hairy hand on her shoulder, and she clenched her teeth as Agatharon dug long, bony fingers into one of her white, downy wings. The bat-winged demon eyed the Archon’s pinions with a covetous resentment, pulling at the feathers as if longing to start plucking. Esperiel had to stifle a pained sound, and it took her an extraordinary effort to maintain a dignified aspect as Zaasteroth stooped lower over her. “You cannot escape,” she taunted as the three other greater demons stepped away.
“You really aren’t in a position to be telling me who can and can’t escape, my dear Archon,” said Zaasteroth calmly. He smiled, a turning and tilting of his mouth that might have been mistaken, by a being more naïve, as a pleasant or even friendly expression. But he was a demon. Kindness was utterly contrary to his nature, and showing any kindness to an Archon was simply anathema to one such as him. “If anything, you should be the one begging us to let you out… But I think we could be convinced to unhand you, at least. But you have killed so many of our dear friends, and it wouldn’t be fair to them for us to just let you go.”
His tone was oily in Esperiel’s ear, and his words seemed like nothing so much as sport. Lies upon lies were sprinkled with just a suggestion of possible truth to deceive one into believing the falsehoods. She was sure that the deaths of the other demons meant nothing to him, except in so much as their deaths reflected on him as a demon — he did not mourn their passing, but he might resent the tarring of his pride by association with the defeated. He would just as soon deny any connection to the fallen as claim to seek revenge. His only real desire was to assert superiority over her.
She glowered. Be this as it may, she could not completely ignore what he was saying. She was sure it was all lies, but if there was even a chance… but, no, what was she even thinking? The most important thing was to keep them sealed away. Her own life and comfort meant nothing compared to that. Still, she was the Archon of Hope, and while she represented far more than any merely self-interested optimism, she had the weaknesses of hope as well of the strengths. Intellectually, she could see that any offer from the greater demon was obviously deceit, but on the level of her heart she felt a tiniest pang. Of course she would want to go free if it was possible. If there was a way… but if it would mean releasing these demons, she could not in good conscience accept it.
“I will not break the seal,” she said. “I will not leave and let you fiends go loose, no matter what you do to me.”
“Of course, of course… and I wouldn’t have to,” Zaasteroth smoothly lied. Esperiel didn’t believe him for an instant. “But… well, keep in mind that I am being quite gracious. I could easily just toss you to the horde and let them have their way with you until they tore you apart. Remember, you are as good as powerless. You don’t have the strength to fight us any longer.”
Esperiel grimaced… because it was probably true. She didn’t fear death… but even without a sliver of Existence within her, she wanted to keep on being. To be useful to Stasis. She said nothing for a long moment before speaking again. “…What are you suggesting?” she said presently. “I won’t accept it, but just so I know how you are trying to trick me.”
Zaasteroth smiled more honestly, more wickedly, and one of his tentacles rose to slither under Esperiel’s chin, stroking it and making her shudder, tilting back her head so the gray, horny devil could look straight into her eyes. “There is no trick,” said the greater incubus, his eyes glittering like gemstones, beautiful yet soulless. “Just… an offer. An exchange. None of my friends would not allow me to let you go without payback. You killed so many of them. They would like best to just rip you to pieces… but that wouldn’t help any of us get out of here, would it?”
Esperiel narrowed her eyes. Zaasteroth didn’t even have the decency to look sheepish at letting slip that indirect hint of his motive, and she was sure he was too intelligent not to realize what his words betrayed. But it was what she already suspected, so maybe he saw no reason to waste his energy on persisting in an unsuccessful deception. There was no point in dissembling if the hearer would refuse to believe anyway. Or perhaps it was a feint, drawing her attention to leave her open elsewhere? She hated dealing with liars… she had no skill at dissembling.
“It would serve me as well as anything else,” Esperiel said stoically. “You do not have the power to undo my seal.” If they killed her, they would be trapped here forever. Esperiel did not want to be destroyed… but she was an Archon. She existed as an agent of Stasis first and foremost. Her annihilation was an acceptable outcome if it would mean forever sealing away Father’s enemy as his horde. Her duty was more important than her life.
“Mmm… but it would be SUCH a shame.” Zaasteroth’s tentacle snaked its way up Esperiel’s cheek, perversely caressing it. The touch of the slimy member made her shudder in revulsion. “A pretty thing like you… Do you really want to die? I can grant you that wish…”
Meeting the demon’s eyes, she felt certain he really meant it. If she spoke the words now, she was dead. And Esperiel hesitated. That moment of hesitation and the flicker of her eye would have betrayed her as clearly as a scream to a being like Zaasteroth, and she knew it… but she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to live… otherwise, she wouldn’t have fought for nearly a hundred and forty years, running herself pathetically dry on Dawnlight and strength. On the one hand, was her duty and imprisoning him here forever would be a worthwhile sacrifice. On the other hand… Esperiel had a niggling doubt and treacherous hope. This was a great horde of demons, certainly… but there were many more out there in the universe, and Archons of her high order were rare.
It was just enough for Esperiel to wonder, in a treacherous uncertainty, if returning alive to her master to fight other battles in the future might not do more good than giving herself up to contain this one damnable legion. It was not a powerful enough doubt to wholly unseat her convictions, but it did make them unsteady, and she faltered just enough for the incubus’s purposes.
Zaasteroth smiled a little more temptingly.
“How about a trade?” he said. “You already cut down so many. I can accept this as a loss, but the others are more stubborn. They want payback. And really… wouldn’t it just be fair for you to atone for those deaths? That’s the kind of thing you Archons are all about, right? That’s what ‘Good’ does, right? Make its amends?”
“You’re twisted, and you know nothing of the nature of good.”
“And you know nothing about evil,” Zaasteroth handily replied. “We are equally incomprehensible to each other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t strike a deal.”
Esperiel was sure she should tell him to go die, accept her death, and wait to see what the afterlife held for Archons like herself. The demons would be the ones with the most to gain from any deal, of course. She could accept being sealed away or destroyed. They were more selfish creatures, and even the temporary satisfaction of spite in destroying her or keeping her sealed forever with them would seem a lackluster compensation for being trapped in here.
Still, again Esperiel felt that slightest twinge of doubt and half-misplaced hope. She looked into Zaasteroth’s eyes, and against her better judgement, she considered it.
“And… what kind of deal do you mean?”
“Nothing much.” Zaasteroth’s tentacle withdrew from her chin, giving Esperiel a sense of relief. “Just to balance the score. For each demon you killed, you give them an opportunity to breed a new one. One attempt for each slain. That would be enough for us to forgive you.”
Esperiel’s heart hardened anew at his words, and she gave him an appalled look. “Deviant!” she hissed. “I would never agree to that!”
“But it’s your only hope,” Zaasteroth replied. She wished he didn’t see her flinch at his use of the word. He had her where he wanted her, and he gave a theatrical look around him, prompting Esperiel to follow his glance and remember the vast numbers of demons leering and glaring at her. She shivered, admitting to herself for the first time that even an Archon of Stasis was capable of feeling fear.
“It won’t work!” Esperiel protested. “You know that. Neither of our kind can breed, and you know it!”
Zaasteroth shrugged. “Probably not… but the attempt will count, regardless of if it takes. Besides, I doubt anyone has ever tried with an angel before. Maybe we’ll be surprised.” He winked wickedly. “Either this, or be destroyed.”
“If you destroy me, you will be trapped forever.”
“I doubt that,” he replied, leaning down and lowering his voice further so that there was no chance of anyone else hearing him. Esperiel could barely hear him from mere inches away. “Unlike you Archons, held in perpetual slavery and stasis by your Father, demons can change… and grow. I think if I had to, I could liquidate and consume every other demon here in this prison and get strong enough to break that seal on my own.” He shrugged. “I’d prefer not to… but if you choice oblivion, I have options.”
Esperiel made a face when he put it that way. It was true that demons were dreadful, amorphous, chaotic things… still, she was fairly sure he was bluffing. Absorbing the others would be only additive at best, not multiplicative, and realistically some of the power of each individual demon would be lost in the consolidation. The seal was made to be strong enough to contain all of these demons together, and she felt she had annihilated perhaps a third of the original horde. There was very little chance he would be able to break the seal without her.
…But not absolutely no chance.
It was a slim possibility, but just enough of one for her to have to consider it. If the demons decided to be reckless…
She bit her lip. Zaasteroth was a demon. A liar. She was sure he didn’t mean anything he said, and that even if he did he could easily change his mind or renege. Nonetheless… the given terms, even if not binding on an honorless cur like him, would constrain her. Her word was as binding on her as the ground surrounding her, and if she agreed there wouldn’t be any escaping. As Zaasteroth presented the bargain, the price on her end was to be ravished by the demons… millions of times… and in exchange they would release her. She did not trust them, but this promise would not compel her to break the seal or aid their escape. Even if they did not keep to their end, they would still be trapped in here.
In that sense, she couldn’t lose. Or perhaps more accurately, SHE would lose something, but the universe would not. Stasis would not. Her duty would still be fulfilled. And if there was a chance that she could get out and close the seal again behind her before they were able to try and sneak out, then it would be an even greater good. She would suffer, but if there was even the smallest chance of being able to return to her former duties without forsaking this one, she would take it. After all, they would get nothing but the use of her body. That wasn’t insignificant, but it wasn’t too steep a cost considering what it might buy.
She met Zaasteroth’s eye. She didn’t trust him, and she was sure he had some ulterior motive, some scheme to turn this situation totally in his favor, but she could not see how he might accomplish that without her explicitly helping him. And she was resolute in her refusal to let these demons go.
“That won’t get you free either,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “So your reluctance to just move on with trying to consume your brothers and sisters makes no sense. How do you think this will get you free?”
Zaasteroth smiled. “How are new demons made, Esperiel?”
They had spoken truly to one another, earlier. Demons and Archons both could not breed… only being with fragments of both Existence and Creation could, like mortal life. Archons like Esperiel had Creation alone. They were crafted out of Nothing by Stasis, beings of sheer creation. Demons, on the other hand… it was Creation that they were lacking, filled only with the lusts of Existence without a way to use them profitably. Demons were not born… they were MADE. Demons were created through corruption… turning other being into them.
Zaasteroth probably expected his words to be chilling. Instead, she laughed. “You are a fool,” she asserted, “if you think you could turn an Archon into something like you. I will never join you.” She glared at him. “…I accept your bargain. I will cooperate that far, and no further. There is no harm you can do to me great enough to turn me into a lightless husk like yourself.”
She wished her memory wasn’t as perfect as it was. She had killed just over 850 million of the beasts. Eight. Hundred. And Fifty. Million. It sickened her to think of what she had agreed to… but it wasn’t like they couldn’t do it to her anyway. She had watched demons rape defeated soldiers on the battlefield before… her agreement changed nothing, save for giving her a Hope of escape from their clutches. It changed nothing… but she felt disgusting the moment the words left her mouth.
Zaasteroth grinned. Then he raised one finger, covered by a black chitinous claw, and lightly scratched it over Esperiel’s skin.
Esperiel screamed. Her eyes went wide at the sudden, unbelievable pain, so sudden and so harsh that she felt instantly overwhelmed by it… so severe and unexpected that it took her a moment to cut off her scream, and she couldn’t have stopped it from erupting. She looked down, expecting to find that Zaasteroth had just cut her arm to the bone…
And found a mere scratch. It hadn’t even broken the skin.
She looked up at the demon in confused horror.
“You’ve lived your entire life filled with Dawnlight,” he said pleasantly. “Filled with the light of pure creation. Invincible. You actually have no idea what real pain even feels like, do you?” He shook his head sadly. “That is what pain feels like to the rest of us, Archon. Welcome to how the other half lives.”
A scratch… hurt that much?
She had taken crushing blows from Zaasteroth and Omodomos, felt the fire of Agathalon, been cut and scraped and battered by thousands of demons… but that had been with Dawnlight. Even at the end, running on the very dregs of her power, it had been infusing her flesh still. Now she had none… none at all. Nothing to protect her.
Esperiel thought she had been naked before… but now she felt naked. Truly and perfectly exposed.
Zaasteroth leaned back and looked from Omodamos to Agatharon. “She agreed to play. How about it?” he said. “Why don’t you two take the first round?”