The world En Shevil entered was completely different from the ones she’d seen so far. Instead of the pleasant, well-ordered Silmarian city to which she was accustomed, the landscape around her was wild and rocky, untamed by any hand except that of corruption. In fact, she stood knee-deep in a stream of oily, black water. All around her, rocks jutted up in formations made unnatural by their scarring as if by explosions and staining as if by smoke. It was as if a great war had been fought here at some point, involving large quantities of fire, for no sign of the city remained. The sky was the worst, and as she looked up she began to feel a headache at the swirling patterns of eerie green that filled it. As far as she could see in every direction was wilderness: ridges of the strange stone and foliage of stunted, twisted grey-brown-black. She breathed a murmur of amazement.
“I hope you’re seeking me,” said a familiar voice from nearby, “because I’m a great deal more powerful here.” En Shevil turned to see Askgaella crouched in a crag nearby. The demoness dropped to the ground several feet away from the human, standing straight and remaining where she was. She looked much the worse for wear: her clothing, stained and rumpled, had apparently not been washed for some time; her hair had grown out to a rather masculine length; her cheeks were sunken and her ribs showing as if she’d not eaten right for some time.
“You don’t look more powerful,” said En Shevil carefully. She would not go so far as a friendly, ‘are you all right?’ but she would neither be completely hostile.
“I gave up a good portion of my life force in order to cross over the last time I came to find you.”
“Why in Tartarus would you…?”
“I was so angry at you after our previous meeting I couldn’t think of anything else; I was willing to go to any length to reach you again, and this time I wouldn’t have minded killing rather than possessing you.” She did not mention by what method she had ‘crossed over’ that had required this great power drain. She sighed, her large eyes filled with an unhappy emotion En Shevil did not quite recognize. “Then you showed me mercy, and I was prepared to give you up forever until that dragon killed me. When I returned, I was dishonorably discharged from the military and my family wouldn’t take me in. I’ve been living here as an outcast ever since.”
“I’m sorry to be the cause of that,” was all En Shevil could find to say.
Askgaella looked away. “I don’t suppose you have any food,” she said without much hope.
“None. I don’t usually bring food into these other worlds.”
“Which reminds me — how are you here? This world was conquered by my glorious king and absorbed into the Hell of the world you and I come from; but I thought you could only get here through Hell.”
“And magic,” shrugged En Shevil. “This is my second-least-favorite world so far.”
“Yes, this place is soo pleasant. Wait — what did you like worse than this?”
“Never mind. How can I help you?”
“You can’t. And if my people find you here they’ll either enslave you or kill you. I would suspect the latter.” En Shevil shrugged again, her face nonchalant. “You are unafraid of death, then?”
“Death will only return me to my own world.”
Askgaella’s jaw twitched, her eyes gleaming. “I certainly won’t kill you, then,” she said after a long moment.
“Of course not,” said En Shevil, wondering what the demoness’ problem was. “You only want to possess me.”
“What do you want, then?”
“I want out. I don’t want to be a slave to the king anymore, especially an outcast slave. I don’t care about you or anyone else, unless you help me get out of here.”
“What about your friends? Don’t you have anyone?”
Askgaella took a deep, sobbing breath, thinking of Gorllex. “I’m willing to lose everything to get out of here.”
“And how can I help you with that?”
Askgaella turned away, knowing that the answer would only anger the woman.
“By letting me possess you,” she said at last.
En Shevil snorted. “That makes sense.”
“If what you say is true about your death, then if I possess you here, and you die, both our essences might be transported back to your world, where I might regain my corporal form because I died here rather than there. For that same reason, the ties that bind my soul to this world would probably be broken.”
“Never mind. There’s no way I can get you to trust me.” Askgaella, to En Shevil’s total amazement, turned and began walking away. The human could not bear this, and called her back.
“I want to help you, but as you said, there is no way I can trust you. How do I know you won’t keep my body?”
“I couldn’t. Once you die here, if you will, as you say, be drawn back to your own world, my spirit will leave your body and be clothed again in mine.”
“And how can I believe that?”
“You can’t. Not without knowing the strictures of demonry.”
“Wait. I do want to help you…” En Shevil thought hard, wondering how she could deal with this situation. “Is there any other way we could get out of this world?”
Askgaella looked away, shaking her head. “And I wouldn’t leave without Gorllex anyway. No, that’s a lie… I’m such a selfless person,” she spat in self-derision. “I’d leave without him that quick; but I’d regret it the rest of eternity.”
“Who is Gorllex?”
“And where is he?”
Askgaella pointed away at the horizon. “Back in the Hell of our world. It’s a six-day journey.”
En Shevil followed the line of the demoness’ thin arm to the taloned finger. She sighed. “Six days? Why are you so far?”
“Do you ever listen to anything? I was banished.”
En Shevil nodded, and started walking. “Well, let’s go.”
Askgaella just looked at her. “What are you talking about?”
The maruroha glanced back with a smile. “Let’s go get this friend of yours.”
Askgaella shook her head, a smile growing on her own face, though it was derisive. “No, you really don’t listen. What part of ‘enslave or kill you’ don’t you understand?”
“I’m stronger than when we last met.” En Shevil did not stop walking, though she was forced to pick her way carefully across the blasted landscape.
Askgaella followed reluctantly. “Well, that’s good,” she was saying, “considering that the last time we met, you weren’t even a match for me… but I’m sure, if you’re stronger now, you can face the king’s legions without trouble.”
“You can stay here, if you’re scared,” En Shevil replied, looking sidelong at the demoness. “I’ll bring him back. His name was Gorllex?”
“And you are bent on helping me why?”
“Hell-bent,” was all En Shevil said in response. She didn’t usually make puns, but this one was so obvious that she couldn’t help herself.
Askgaella rolled her eyes, but fell into a more regular walking pace beside the human. “Your name is En Shevil, isn’t it?”
“No, I was guessing, and some Shapierian-sounding name I heard from a woman who looked exactly like you just happened to be the first thing that came to mind.”
“If you’re being rude to try and change my mind about this, it won’t work.”
En Shevil laughed. “I don’t remember your name, though, so you’ll have to tell me again…”
“Your memory is worse than you think, since I never told you in the first place.”
“Well, what is it?”
“So, who is this Gorllex?”
“My friend. Didn’t I tell you that?”
With a shrug, En Shevil said nothing. She was wishing that there were a way she could use magic to get them to their destination instantly, or in fewer days at the very least — the problem was, the only transportation she’d done so far had been to a place she could visualize (as she’d seen it in the crystal), and she didn’t think she could just blink off to somewhere she’d never seen. Eventually, as she could find no answer, she gave up this train of thought and started to wonder how she could magically provide them with food for the necessarily long journey. Once again, she feared it could not be done without knowing the food she wanted to summon — and what was there in Hell that she knew? It did not worry her particularly for the remainder of that day, nor did Askgaella say anything about eating; but then, the demoness had no idea that En Shevil could work magic, so it was no surprise that she did not bring it up. En Shevil was rather hungry as she went to sleep on the vaguely foul-smelling earth at the conclusion of their march.
Askgaella asked her again the next day why she was so determined to help, and once again En Shevil evaded the question. It seemed clear that the demoness did not understand the concept of motive-free philanthropy, and En Shevil didn’t feel like lecturing her on it. That night she was hungrier than before, and she feared it would soon begin to sap her energy. Askgaella had again shown no signs of flagging that day, but her state of near-starvation was obvious; perhaps it was hope that kept her going.
The next morning, En Shevil determined to try something to feed them, whether it ended up working or not. So instead of setting out immediately, she looked around for ideas.
“It hasn’t changed since we went to sleep last night,” Askgaella remarked, but even her sarcasm was fading into a listless, miserable-sounding mumble.
En Shevil finally decided that whatever she tried was going to be crazy, so she might as well aim high with an attempt to turn rocks into bread. “It’s going to change now,” she replied.
The demoness eyed her curiously as she laid her palms both against the first rock she could reach. “What are you doing?” she asked in a suspicious tone. “Don’t tell me you’ve been a magician all along…”
En Shevil stared at the stone, which did not look even remotely like a loaf of bread. She stared, and the stone stared back. It took several moments for her to be able even to picture it as a loaf of bread, but once she had the image in her mind she willed it to be so. It was a strange sensation, and one she still could not help but shy away from at first: like wishing, except with a mysterious power to back it and make that wish a reality dependant only on how hard she could concentrate on it.
Askgaella swore in a whisper. En Shevil shook herself, feeling dizzy and a little sick. But when she looked down, she found that her hands lay now on a large, dark mass of what was unmistakably bread.
“That might have been useful sometime before this,” Askgaella remarked, a little harshly, when she’d recovered her faculty of speech.
“I’ve just started using these powers,” En Shevil replied calmly — softly, as she could find little energy for more volume. “I wasn’t even sure if I could do it at all.”
Askgaella, who was staring at the bread, did not reply.
Laughing briefly, En Shevil lifted the miracle slowly from the ground. “I should have chosen a cleaner rock,” she mumbled as bits of dirt came up with it and moss shuffled off its far side. She brushed it as clean as she could, settled it on her lap, and tore off a piece. It was dark beneath the crust as well, and much harder than she’d expected. “Hopefully it won’t make us sick.”
“For all I care at this point…” Askgaella began, but silenced herself by sinking her sharp teeth into the chunk of bread the human handed her.
En Shevil smiled and ripped off another piece for herself. It tasted… earthy.
It was an impressive ‘loaf,’ as the rock had not been small, but they ended up eating it down to the last crumb — for Askgaella did not disdain the dirtier parts — before they rose and continued on their trek.
“So,” the Shapierian remarked after some thought, “what does Gorllex look like?”
“He’s a Hexgcredioth,” Askgaella replied. Then she rolled her eyes, apparently at herself, and added, “Which of course means a lot to you. His skin is browner than mine –” she ran a talon along the burgundy flesh of her arm — “and he’s got horn under both eyes –” she tapped the bony spot beneath one of her own. “He’s fourth class, so he’s got wings and no tail.”
“That reminds me — what happened to your wings?”
Askgaella snorted. “The moment a demon has military rank — and most of us do — we stop maturing on our own. I can’t grow my wings back at this point unless I get promoted.”
“What would happen naturally?” En Shevil wondered curiously.
“Personal development, I suppose you’d call it,” Askgaella replied with a shrug. “Strength and will and whatnot determine how you’re shaped.”
The human nodded thoughtfully, then after a while brought the conversation back to its original topic. “So, is there any sure way I could recognize this man of yours if you aren’t around to compare skin tones?”
Askgaella looked hesitant for a moment, probably because she didn’t like the thought of them being separated on this venture, then tilted her head and indicated a spot where her neck was pierced with a silver barbell. “See this? He has one in the same spot.”
En Shevil nodded again.
Thanks to the magic that she was gradually and still somewhat uncomfortably growing accustomed to, they managed to stay fed throughout the rest of their journey. And eventually they came in sight of buildings and streets enclosed within a high wall, drawing closer as they continued moving in the direction En Shevil had arbitrarily started calling ‘west.’ She’d been expecting to find the land a touch less unpleasant once they left the assimilated world behind, but though it seemed to have been tamed to a certain extent, fire-blasted rock and sickening sky was obviously just the norm in Hell.
“That was the border barracks,” Askgaella explained as they stopped and looked down at the still somewhat distant military complex, “until the border shifted.”
En Shevil was curious what was beyond the borders of Hell until normal circumstances, but decided that was a question for another time and allowed the demoness to continue.
“I was lurking around hoping to be found and destroyed, then didn’t have the nerve to go through with it and just let them chase me out there–” she gestured the direction they’d come– “for a couple of days.”
The human inferred from this that Askgaella had been here hoping to run into Gorllex at some point and had been discovered. “Let’s get closer,” was all she said in reply.
By unspoken consent they moved more slowly and cautiously as they neared the place and eventually were within a hundred yards of the outer wall. Following this carefully, they came to a little rocky hollow from which they could look out at the gate. The stiff guards flanking it indicated immediately that there could be no direct approach to entry.
Turning to Askgaella En Shevil murmured, “I can climb the wall and sneak inside and find him. Will I be able to talk to him, or will he try to attack me?”
The demoness regarded her with an expression of narrow-eyed disdain. “I wasn’t aware that you were a god,” she drawled. “But, certainly, once you get in there, avoiding a bored and murderous battalion who wouldn’t mind eating your flesh, you can figure out which of the sixteen or so buildings he’s in and catch him alone long enough to approach him… he’d probably recognize you, so if you talked fast he might not kill you immediately. Then you could easily walk him back out past all those same demons, including his commanding officers, here to the banished criminal waiting for him.”
Struggling for a perfect deadpan, En Shevil nodded. “Sounds like a good plan.”
Askgaella stared for several moments, then finally produced an actual smile. “You know, it’s a shame I never possessed you,” she remarked; “I would have enjoyed absorbing some of your inarguable logic.”
En Shevil grinned. “Do you know what I did before I became a warrior?”
“Yes, I know your entire life’s story.”
With a shake of her head, still smiling, the human replied, “I was a thief,” and took off toward the wall before the demoness could make further protest.
Despite the flippancy that really seemed the best way to deal with Askgaella’s endless sarcasm, the seriousness of this situation was heavy on her shoulders. She did not fear death; she liked to tell herself that, with atonement in mind, she didn’t even fear torturous, protracted death… but her own life was not the major stake of this gamble. Fortunate it was that she’d been to rob Minos not long ago, and she must remember to thank Elsa again, for this was like a more dire and much more important version of that robbery, and she felt better about it for the practice.
The base was not vast, but the buildings were tightly laid and complicated. This actually made undetected movement easier, but how she was going to locate a single person — or, more accurately, a single piece of jewelry — in a place like this, she was not certain. As the heart-pounding search dragged on, however, she began to feel worse for Askgaella than for herself: sitting outside with no idea of the human’s success, practically waiting to be caught, had to be worse than actually doing something. But this was a brief moment’s reflection only, as with demons everywhere En Shevil couldn’t afford long to break her concentration.
It took her over an hour to locate Gorllex, then another half before she was conversant enough with the comings and goings of the building she’d seen him enter even to consider her own entry. Inside, she deemed it to be a sort of mess hall or cafeteria — and not one she would ever want to eat in if she could help it, for the smells in the air were the very essence of nausea — and found to her frustration that to remain hidden in an alcove just to the left of the ingress was her only option: she could see part of the main room from here, with its long tables and benches of what appeared to be black wood, but could not find a way to get a better look, to discern the layout or the number of demons present, without putting herself into full visibility.
Nervous, she waited, keeping tally of those who came and went and how many (by estimate) were left inside, and wondered what in all the worlds could be keeping Gorllex so long. Surely soldiers didn’t have so much leisure as this…
At last there came a moment when, if what she remembered was correct, there shouldn’t be anyone left in there. Though doubting very much that it was safe or even empty as she only half suspected, she was tired of waiting and took the chance. Moving forward silently, she entered the dining room.
It was bigger than she’d judged, with one full row more of the long tables than she’d expected and a sort of bar and open storeroom at the far end. And about halfway across from her, there sat a large winged demon placidly eating. Apparently some soldiers did have the leisure to spend as long as they wanted in the mess hall, as she hadn’t seen this one enter — which meant he’d been here the greater part of an hour.
She might have been able to conceal herself from him if he hadn’t looked over at just that moment. His ugly face took on a puzzled frown and he started to rise, but she had already leapt forward. Before he could halfway draw his sword or even cry out, she’d knocked him unconscious with a hard kick to the back of the skull.
Hard indeed… she’d had no idea any living creature’s flesh could be so hard. Her foot was tingling as she stood on it again, as if she’d attacked a wall.
En Shevil turned toward the shocked voice and found the very man she was seeking coming from behind the counter. She didn’t like to think about the bloodstains on the butcher’s apron he wore, but this at least explained why he’d been in here so long.
“She’s outside,” she replied, “waiting for us.”
“A shame,” he said, looking past her to the man who was now slumped into his food. “She’d have killed to see that.” He was drawing closer to En Shevil, and she could see that he was indeed very handsome — for a demon — and also quite wary, ready to fight her at any moment.
“I’m getting Askgaella out of here, back to my world, but she didn’t want to leave without you.”
He stopped moving and appeared pensive. His half-frown, she thought, spoke more indecision than displeasure, though she couldn’t be sure. Finally he asked, “Why would you help her?”
“We don’t have time to debate this,” En Shevil urged, glancing around nervously. “We’ve got to get going fast so we can get to her before you’re missed.”
“I can’t trust you,” he said grimly.
Every instant they wasted here put this entire thing that much closer to failure. With a deep breath, En Shevil commanded, “Possess me, then. I can sneak us back and climb the wall. She’s waiting near the gate.”
He still appeared suspicious of her, but obviously saw that this was a sure way to stay in control of the situation. Stepping up to her, he laid his clawed hands on her shoulders.
Of death and torture she might be unafraid, but of giving control of her lethal weapon of a body over to a member of the most murderous race she knew… She schooled herself ruthlessly not to shy away, but could not help flinching at the contact from his palms. At this, the expression on his face softened; he could tell she was frightened, and it evidently did quite a bit to help him trust her. This, in turn, did a little to help her trust him.
“I’ll leave you in control for now,” he said, and as their eyes locked he dissolved suddenly into thick smoke that streamed into her through her nostrils.
She choked and grunted and lashed out with her hands. An overwhelming helplessness and frantic despair filled her all at once, even as he did, and she gradually lost every sensation of authority over her muscles but without any lessening in the consciousness of her surroundings. Fear of falling; extreme agitation at the abnormality of the circumstance; desire to struggle, to fight, to flee, and an inability to do any of these that was crushingly complete… She’d heard that the few people that escaped demon enslavement rarely survived long, and now, merely in the first few moments of possession, she understood why. She wanted to escape, she wanted to sleep, she wanted to die — and none of these options were open to her except as he dictated; she could only watch. It would be a quick road to madness from here, and that was a place she never wanted to visit again.
And then, all of a sudden with a draining sensation, the foreign influence was gone and her faculties were her own again. She reeled, stomach churning, head spinning, as she tried to get hold of herself. She knew, from the unusual heaviness about her that was not necessarily physical, that he was still there and could take over again at any time, but for now he’d given her control as he’d promised. And there wasn’t time to stand around in shock, but she had to take a moment to recover. Thus it was too soon, and yet not nearly soon enough, that she made her way, still trembling slightly and feeling very sick, out of the mess hall.
The trip across the complex, against all expectations, helped to calm her. Though she couldn’t so soon forget he was there, doing something she was good at and concentrating intently on it improved her state of mind, and she felt that they would succeed. Over the wall with arms and legs that were weaker than they should have been and they were out; crossing the last distance perhaps a little too hastily, she looked forward to throwing herself on the ground, calming her heartbeat, and taking a short, well-deserved rest before they set off.
But as she entered the rocky hollow and caught sight of Askgaella crouching in the shadows and apparently attempting to disguise the myriad emotions that were yet twisting her face, to her very great horror she felt her control fading quickly, and the helplessness of before returning as she could do nothing to prevent it. In her agitation at moving forward without willing it, the questions were they betrayed? and what were Gorllex’s intentions? had only a little hold on her.
“He didn’t come with you?” the demoness was saying, and at another time En Shevil might have felt pity for her. At the moment, however, although her mind remained as troubled as before, there was suddenly mixed with it a fair amount of confusion, embarrassment, and even bemusement as she found herself… kissing… Askgaella.
She’d only had a few kisses in her life, and she had to think this one most unusual. It ended, and she felt herself drawing back and saw the skeptical expression on the other woman’s face. “I’m sure the human appreciates that, Gorllex,” Askgaella remarked.
En Shevil was aware of blood rushing to her face, and her fruitless struggle increased; it felt like such a violation to have her body reacting to someone else’s emotions. Almost worse was the sensation of speaking without having sent the command to her lungs and throat and tongue and lips, of hearing her own voice expressing a thought that was not of her conception:
“I… For a moment I forgot…” The awkwardness and embarrassment in the half statement were so alien to En Shevil’s usual tone, it rather made the struggle even bitterer. The idea that the possessing demon could forget, even for a moment, that he was in a body not his own, did not help. Well, at least they were not betrayed.
After a moment she was mistress of herself once again, and once again reeled. She cursed as soon as her voice was her own. Askgaella, contrary to what En Shevil would have expected, had the grace to look a little embarrassed.
There was silence for a moment as En Shevil gathered herself and the demoness said nothing. Then the human demanded, perhaps a little more fiercely than she should have, “Why are you still in there?”
Before Gorllex could make any sort of answer, Askgaella broke in with, “Wait; don’t leave her yet. En Shevil, are you sure that if you die you’ll return to your world?”
En Shevil immediately thought she knew where this was going, and had to reflect that even a demoness who’d decided to be relatively decent was still going to be relatively ruthless. However… “Yes, but I don’t know how that will help now there are two of you.”
“You can be possessed by as many demons as your strength can handle,” Askgaella replied.
Yes, ruthless. En Shevil couldn’t help a brief shudder as she imagined the miserable sensations of possession doubled, but what could she say? She’d set out to help, and gotten them this far; she’d agreed to one possession, agreed to trust Gorllex… she couldn’t now retract… but the thought was repulsive.
Askgaella, evidently perceiving this, looked grim.
At that moment they became away of noise behind them, and, moving to the edge of the hollow, observed that the gate was opening and the guards shifting. En Shevil’s heart sank as she realized what this might mean. “I had to knock someone out to get to him; they might be looking for me.”
“Well, we’re in good shape,” Askgaella replied without looking at her; “we should be able to avoid them indefinitely.”
The human took another deep breath and turned toward the sarcastic demoness. “Do it,” she said.
Askgaella gave her a hard look that almost asked if she was sure, but of course did not say it out loud. Without further ado, she took En Shevil by the shoulders, stared her in the eyes, and dissolved into her.
It was almost too much to bear a second time; she nearly could not control her own body under these circumstances, though Askgaella exerted no influence. It was as much as she could do to stagger forward to meet and attack the demons emerging from the gate. She was not sure that even during her suicidal days in Spielburg she had wished for death quite as intensely as she did now; the rushing of worlds when it came was possibly the most profound relief she’d ever felt.
She was more tired than usual when she awoke, but the immediate, undeniable feeling of being alone in her body, free and light, was nearly enough to make her cry. She lay quietly for some time just savoring the feeling.
Eventually she rose, still reveling in her sense of self, and went downstairs. There, she encountered Erasmus and Fenris in the great room playing some kind of magical game as they often did.
“Erasmus, look!” chirped the rat. “Our demon deliverer’s done dozing!”
“Ah, good morning!” Erasmus paused whatever he was doing so that the miniature storm he’d been conjuring went completely motionless in the air. Gesturing her his direction he continued, “You’re very lucky to be here at all, my girl! If you’d asked me about dying from a Hell that had been absorbed into the Hell of our world, I would have firmly advised against it! There was no guarantee that you would return here at all under those circumstances; you’re lucky not to be in Hades right now — or worse!”
Oddly enough, Erasmus’ tone was too cheerful to make this information more than clinically disturbing. And when he added with a bright smile, “Still, no harm done, and our research has made significant progress thanks to you!” she couldn’t help smiling herself.
“Where are Askgaella and Gorllex?” she asked, wondering what kind of a scene they must have caused on arrival.
“We had a pleasant chat,” Erasmus beamed. He was never fazed by anything, it seemed. “A most interesting and informative discussion. They didn’t feel it was entirely safe to stay here very long, though, so they left.”
En Shevil was a little disappointed. “I’m going to see what Achim’s doing,” she decided.
“You’ll find it’s rather ironic.”
“Why? What’s he doing?”
“I don’t know what kind of progress he’s made — I’ve been too engrossed in this game lately to watch him — but the latest rite requires him to go to Hades.”
“Hades?” echoed En Shevil in surprise.
“Yes!” replied Erasmus. “Isn’t that interesting?”
She could tell that he wanted to get back to the aforementioned game, and as she was anxious to check on Achim after this news, she returned to her own room without further conversation and was reaching for her crystal when her feet had barely touched the floor.
“Show me the Prince of Shapier,” she commanded, and waited breathlessly for the mist to clear. If he had already made it to Hades, would the glass show him? And how would that differ from him having been killed in the attempt? But he appeared after a moment very much in the realm of the living, though she did not recognize the room or the man he was talking to. She sighed in relief. He and the elderly stranger were evidently discussing Hades, but whether the conversation would produce favorable results she could not tell.
“Show me Elsa von Spielburg,” was her next request. The warrior was evidently on Minos Island, by the décor, and seemed to be reading a book and looking dissatisfied with it; and no wonder — figuring out on one’s own how to get to Hades without dying couldn’t be easy or particularly enjoyable.
Well, she didn’t want to let either of them go to the underworld without backup of some kind, but on the research end of things she was likely to be of little help. Wondering how circumspect she could be and still get information out of this thing, she commanded, “Show me the outside of the building Achim’s in.”
The crystal complied. En Shevil thought she knew the place; it was near the smaller city gates. After readying herself, wearing her mask, she willed herself there.
The weather was warm and pleasant, though a little humid for her tastes — but, then, it always was, here — so she didn’t mind waiting outside for a while on the bright sand. She was realizing, shielding her eyes from the sun and looking into the mild blue sky, that she really didn’t know what day it was.
She turned to find the man she was waiting for emerging, and waved at him a little.
“Hello,” he greeted her. “What are you doing?” She gestured to herself and then to him. “You want to come with me?” he said with a surprised smile. She nodded. He started into something else enthusiastic and then stopped, raising a brow. “You… do realize I’m going to Hades, right?”
She nodded again.
He grinned. “All right, then! Elsa told me how you helped her defeat the hydra. I’d love to have you along. This sounds like the most dangerous rite yet, so I’ll need all the help I can get. Let’s go.”
Marveling at the cheerfulness of a man who could give a smile and a jovial, ‘Let’s go’ in the face of a trip to the realm of Hades, she followed him across the shore and up the hill to the main gate. He waved to the guard as they left the city.
It was quite a tramp through the wilderness to wherever they were going (Achim apparently knew where that was), and it became dark almost immediately. Finally she stopped him, as they passed through a green-shadowy grove between rock walls. She shook her head, holding her hands out in confusion. He smiled, his white teeth flashing in the light of a suddenly-revealed moon. “The Famous Adventurer told me how to get into Hades; we have to go to the Dragon Pillar at the southern base of Mount Draconis.” She nodded, accepting that explanation for the present, and they moved on.
Dawn was approaching when they reached the sought-after location, but the morning light had not yet reached into the dell where the Dragon Pillar stood. Or had once stood. As they entered, her eyes caught sight of the latest assassination: a Silmarian guard face-down on the ground beside the stream, already decomposing. Achim walked forward, shaking his head. “Putting guards up at all the Pillars was the stupidest thing they could have done: just more blood for the assassin to break them with.” Indeed, the Pillar was shattered, cracked diagonally down the base like the others, its draconic cap lying on the ground.
“I could have just used this water,” he murmured. She gave a questioning tilt of her head and he explained. “I have to pour blood-tainted water on a spot where running water flows underground. That should open the door to Hades with the right incantation — F.A. told me that one too.” He pulled a small amphora free from his belt, and at the same time wiggled a bandaged finger for her to see. “I used m y own blood when he told me about it, but I guess I could have just used this water. When we get back we should bury him.” En Shevil nodded. “Well, let’s go.” He turned from the pitiful sight of the Silmarian corpse and walked toward the stone wall of the alcove. There, indeed, the water dove underground.
En Shevil shook her head, which movement matched that of her hands and knees. She had done several stupid things in her life, but this had to be at the top of the list. Making the best of an unexpected Hell was one thing, but consciously walking into Hades was another. Achim uncorked his amphora and slowly poured the water into the stream where it churned beneath the rocks. Giving her a look from the corner of his eye — she thought he was perhaps a little embarrassed by the ceremonial feeling of these proceedings — he began to chant solemnly:
“All waters that flow on the earth flow to Hades.
Alas, all life soon flows there too.
Where those waters flow, a gate will open.
Alas, too soon it opens for you.”
He had barely re-corked the bottle when the ground began to shake; the dim sky darkened in an instant to smoky black, revealed by swift flashes of lightning and great crashing noises. Blinded, they were both thrown to the ground by the sickening heave of the earth beneath them.
The flashes slowed; the darkness faded; the shaking stopped. En Shevil looked around to find herself still beside the stream in the dell of the Dragon Pillar. But Achim was nowhere to be seen. She sprang to her feet, alarmed, parting her lips and soundlessly mouthing his name before she remembered she could not speak. She was suddenly conscious of a new sound: low but building, it consisted of a strange wind-like howling, eerie shrieks and moans carried on moving air, the cries of countless anguished souls. A mighty shiver ran through her as she thought of the dead screaming in the agony of their dark realm. What was happening?
“Dazah? Dazah, where are you?” She jumped as she heard his voice, so close yet from no source she could see. It was as if he were standing beside her invisible, and she was likewise hidden to his eyes. “Dazah, can you hear me?” Oh, how she wanted to return his call! “Well, I guess this is Hades,” he continued, sounding strange against the chilling cries of the dead. “I’ll do this without her, then.”
After a moment another voice startled her, still near at hand and almost drowning out the wails from beyond. “Welcome to Hades,” it growled.
A second voice stated, “I am Cerberus…”
“…guardian of the gates,” finished a third.
En Shevil reflected that, given the name, the three voices all probably came from the same creature.
“I make certain no dead shall leave Hades,” said the first voice.
“I make certain no living enter Hades,” came the second.
“You are not welcome here!” finished the third.
“Hello,” said Achim’s surprised tone, then went on soothingly. “I just have to get water from the river Styx so I can win the Rite of Courage back in Silmaria.”
The three voices let out barking laughs. “Oh sure,” said the first, “I’ve heard that before.”
“‘All I want is a little Styx water. I won’t bother anything else,'” mocked the second.
“Then they try to bring someone back to life,” added the third.
“You don’t fool me.”
“You won’t get past me.”
“Unless you first die.”
“Or come up with a suitable bribe.”
“Bribe?” Achim asked, and the voices echoed the word greedily. “Well, I suppose you fellows want food of some sort, right?”
“Right!” they chorused.
“Well, let’s see what I got.” It was obvious that Achim was terribly nervous about all this. He began to mumble, his voice barely audible above the terrible dirge that would not cease. “Hmm, fruit, pizza, gyros, more pizza, chocolate.”
“Gimme that!” shrieked the second voice, in reference to what she could not tell.
“That second pizza looks good,” said the first voice.
“Mm, candy,” said the third.
The next several moments were filled with the impolite noise of dog-like chomping, punctuated by exclamations like, ‘Mm, savory.’ Finally Cerberus was apparently finished eating, for the first voice said,
“All right, I’m satisfied. You can enter.”
“But,” the second voice warned gleefully, “you may not be able to leave!”
“At least your soul won’t have far to go,” the third chortled.
The next few minutes were as silent as the grave, which silence En Shevil was discovering to be highly overrated. She stood still, eyes closed, listening intently for any spoken word. The sounds of the dead wrapped around her, consuming her, numbing her flesh and freezing her blood: in their miserable cries she heard countless stories of despair, cruelty, and darkness, and feeling irresistibly connected, she opened herself to them until she was one with them, hearing them from all around, inside and out. Thus she was knocked off her feet when the next voice spoke.
“Achim, Bringer of Darkness,” it said.
Powerful, beautiful, terrible, it brought to her heart sudden joy and hope, dispelling in an instant the apathetic horror of the previous short eternity in death. In its immeasurable strength, its kindness, soft and firm at once, she felt for a second time the might and majesty of a god. Surely this new speaker could be none other than Hades, lord of the underworld.
“It is not yet your time to be here,” he said. “The living are not welcome, and you shall not cross the river Styx into Hades. I, the guardian of the dead who knows all the souls that dwell within, forbid it.
“Yet there are two souls bound to you in death.” It was at this moment that En Shevil, captivated by the voice, realized anew that he did not speak to her but to Achim. She rose slowly to her feet as the calm, melodic tone continued. “For you have touched their hearts and wakened love within them.” She pressed herself up against the stone wall, straining her ears so as not to miss a word. “Love is the only thing that transcends the silent sleep of death. Now their souls have sensed you, and yearn to be with you.”
“Who are they?” It was Achim’s voice, but strangled and distorted so that she almost did not recognize it. What was this emotion twisting his words?
“The first soul is bright with beauty and power, shining like the sun with all the joy and goodness it held in life. It is the soul of Erana.” En Shevil drew in a sharp breath, excitement overcoming her. Erana?
A soft, thin voice floated to meet her hearing, lower but no less smooth than that of the god. “I dream I am wandering endlessly through empty gardens. Everything is pale and cold as if made of lifeless ice — there is beauty, but no joy. I seek a light that I have seen but once before, in the distance. It is warm, and melts the ice that covers everything, bringing color and life to the flowers. But it moves on, and all returns to ghostly white.” The voice of Erana, En Shevil thought in wonder. I’ve heard something no one has for so many years…
“And the other?” Achim’s tone was still contorted, tight and almost wild.
“The other soul is dark, shadowed by the deeds of her past. Yet there is great power within, and a fierce yearning for the light and love that were not known in life.”
“‘Tis the soul you knew as Katrina, the Dark Master.”
There was no response from Achim, and listen as she would she could hear nothing for several moments. Who was this Katrina? What was she to Achim? Why had he been so anxious to hear her name? A cold fear began to creep over En Shevil’s heart. Was he forgetting her at last? Truly forgetting her? What nightmare was this?
“What nightmare is this?” echoed a dark voice, and at first she fancied it to be her own mind. But her thoughts didn’t have a Mordavian accent, and this voice did. “I am in darkness, yet I am powerless. The coffin has been nailed shut, and I cannot move; I am trapped!” Coffin? “What is this ache that fills me? Who am I waiting for? Will it be the stake through my heart, turning me to dust? Or the taste of his warm lips on mine, restoring me to life? It does not matter which, if only he would touch me once more.” Oh, was that ever true!
“Their souls have been disturbed by your uncalled-for presence,” said the god. “They cannot rest in their longing to be with you. You may end the suffering of one of them. You can restore her to life, and give her the chance to experience joy and pleasure once more. Which soul would you choose to give the gift of life?”
Erana! En Shevil urged, not even entirely sure why.
Still no sound.
“Do you make your choice?”
“Katrina,” Achim’s voice, now full and clear, said at last.
“You have chosen to free the soul of Katrina. I commend the soul of Erana to oblivion.”
A long, heart-rending wail joined those that, muted, already filled her ears, pulling at her with sorrow. I have heard Erana’s last cry, she thought. And who is this Katrina, that Achim cares for so much?
“There is a price for every gift. The soul does not lightly leave the silent sleep. The dead does not lightly leave the grave. You can restore this soul to life, but the price may be more than you are willing to pay. Will you give your life to give this soul life?”
En Shevil’s mouth opened, her body stiff with shivering. What?!
The god continued inexorably. “Are you willing to sacrifice everything for love?”
“You have entered the realm of the dead. Now will you remain in eternal darkness, that she shall be free to know the joy of life once more?”
En Shevil stood tense, eyes squeezed shut against a terrible pain. Please, Achim, no.
“Will you give your life to her?”
“I will,” came Achim’s voice without hesitation.
The appalling cries of the dead heightened, rising to hideous shrieks that blasted her ears. Tearing at the wall, clawing it, pounding the rock with her fists, En Shevil screamed silently, No! no! no! I love you, Achim. There was a man’s sudden sharp cry, and she echoed it in her mind and heart, falling to her knees in abject misery.
The calm hateful voice spoke once more. “Through your willing sacrifice, life has been brought to death. Her soul shall soon be free.”
The woman Katrina’s voice seemed brighter now. “I see light before me. I am awakening from this nightmare at last! Meet me on the island known as Zante. I will be awaiting you there.”
Her mind was numb, and no more voices spoke.
Very slowly, slowly, slowly crept over her the awareness of the last words. Meet me on the island known as Zante. I will be awaiting you there. Meet me on the island. I will be awaiting you. Meet me… awaiting you… En Shevil stood. To whom had the woman been speaking? To whom if not Achim?
She tore off her mask to allow the choking tears to fall, and rubbed the wetness from her face with her sleeve. After sponging out the inside of her mask, she tried to gain control of herself. If Achim were in truth still alive, he might be returning any time. She must not reveal herself, must not react, must not throw herself at him and weep on his shoulder. She must be impassive and wordless, Dazah the silence itself, and allow him to follow his new love. The love for whom he would give his life. The love in which she had no part. She put her mask back on.
Her heart was broken.
Thunder rolled through the earth and sky, throwing her to the ground once more as flashes of lighting lit the suddenly-darkened air. Struggling to stand at last, she found Achim beside her. He was smiling, a shocked look of happiness she had never seen on his face. “I was worried about you for a moment there,” he said. “I guess only one person can enter Hades at a time. Well, I got the water. I picked up some Lethe water too; Salim will think it’s interesting. Let’s head back to Silmaria.”
And why, why, why did he have to smile so brightly as he added, “I’ve got to go visit a friend?”
Yes, I am aware of the canon order of the Rites; it was sacrificed for my own purposes.