hi, readers! A much meatier offering today–a short story of over 9k words! This is a crossover piece set in part of one InordinateFondness’s Morphic Korps setting. You can find her on Twitter @SixArmedSweater, with her own works in this setting and many of her other writings in her pinned.
All details about the Fires, Lucifer, and the demons of this universe are either Fondness’ work or, especially for details like the landscapes of Hell and the features of Lucifer’s palace, based on DoomMate’s (Twitter @ MateDoom) short story “The Light Within 3: Light Without” in the same setting. Outer devils as a concept, this story’s trio–I have a slight suspicion you might recognize one of them from somewhere else–and the universe of Axiom are all my own inventions within my Twin Spirals Mythos.
The tongue spoken by the middle devil early in this story is Vulshiir (vool-sheer), and the words themselves are pronounced peh-zh-ch-eer-aht, with the “ch” pronounced as in the German “Ich”, “side-shoo-r,” and “k-shee-noo-r-zh-ahlg”. Sorry! Clunky as this is, it’s better than attaching a footnote you’d only see after the end of the story.
You won’t find Vulshiir in any other body of writing, since I am currently working on, well, writing it!
Otherwise, I do hope you enjoy this! This is one of the few times the Lady of Machrae Diir will appear in person outside the Twin Spirals Mythos. By virtue of her place in it, she is meant to embody a power fantasy, but that’s not a role either of us want her to play in someone else’s setting, so I hope I’ve handled the balance well.
Enough boilerplate–in we go!
Content warnings: carcerophobia, cosmic horror, dementia, dysphoria mentions, gore, light horny (cum drinking, public orgy mentions) mentions of death, ego death, and annihilation, possible psychosis, some collapse of reality, three incredibly indulgent character descriptions
Atonement with a Thousand Endtimes
In the realms of Wrath, in the vastness of the Fires, under the light of Lucifer, three walk a road of fractured stone in the smoke-shrouded belly of a chasm. Its jagged heights are crowned by red-rock battlements broken in the unrelenting fury of fists innumerable. There is no harsher light at the triumvirate’s backs to outshine the radiant light from skyward spirals of crystal and molten stone on every horizon, yet their shadows run long before them. To leap, to pool, to pour in silken darkening rivulets into every crevice of the road ahead.
A scorching wind laden with a strange cuprous reek weaves with their steps, and dances about their horns, and stirs in the sweep of their tails. The embers coursing on its currents warp in oil-paint whorls to become the sharp and hard-edged script of red-orange sigils in a tongue alien to the Fires.
At the right hand walks the zephyr, lithesome and lively as the last vibrant leaf breaking its bonds with the tree of its birth to seek the autumn gale. Dozens of horns like bone-white nails twist and creak, their ends shifting about the two-jawed eyelessness of bladed forms closed upon spews of reddish steam, for such is his face. His richly-embroidered robes weave in and out of fracturing, light-distorting warps around his taloned feet, his legs of fleshless metal bone. At his hips he wears a spiral-hilted rapier of white metal fittings and a blue-diamond blade.
For it is the same rapier, though it hangs in many places.
At the left hand walks the tower, a twenty-foot hulk in gleaming dark plate. Two thick dark horns, rough with striations like ancient stone, arc down alongside a broad noseless visage of crosswise maws. Thousands of curving needle-teeth glint in voids of rhythmless chaos across the spectral surface of his features. Ten pinpoints of silver fire change places above, beneath or around implicit bones forever morphing from one austere structure to the next.
A long blue surcoat billows around him, and before him he bears a broad-bladed sword of marbled, glittering black crystal greater in length than his own height. He drives it in low scything swipes now and then. The black inferno born of its cleaving burns away the hissing droplets and eerie sludge dripping beneath the cloak of she who precedes him.
That shambling vestige, that broken relic, that half-seen huddle of forms beneath a hooded cloak of iridescent cobalt silk with silver trim of mazework, runes, and ever-shifting images like the merging and division of the enraptured lights from the far side of a black hole. The drape of the otherworld gossamer atop her head hints the shapes of six stark and bladed horns, three broken. The open sliver at the hood’s front gives glimpses of shadow, and a slit silver pupil of blue-rimmed nova in the depths of a dark blue sclera.
Her steps land full-footed but in unsteady rhythm: a stuttering one-two, a pause, and another beat, and so she goes staggering forward against some unseen, unspeakable weight of agony. Under the drum of each footstep mutters the constant pattering of the dark droplets, steaming, hissing like boiling tar oil.
Raw echoes descend from on high: the sound of a guttural roar drawing slowly closer. The triumvirate do not react at the crash of a hulking red figure, or the crater he makes with his landing, or the shockwave that hurls the powderized stone of infinite such impacts in a smoggy gale against their clothes. Nor do they stir at the many-armed brawler who plummets down on xir fallen foe and lands xir crushing divekick finisher with a triumphal snarl. Xe stands almost as tall as the tower, with nine bronze horns and a body of muscles like well-oiled wrought iron.
“Oh, now you fuckers look worth fighting!” xe bellows. Xe charges with six steel-corded arms snapping close by their sides—the promise of a haymaker in every clenched fist.
The tower darts forward past the hooded one to stand between her and the onrushing Wrath demon.
“Oh, look at that speed!” the challenger laughs, lightning rippling on xir bronze fangs. “That’s what I’m talking about! You know what, keep the sword, I want a real—“ The hooded one speaks just as the tower raises his colossal sword. She is still in front of him.
“I cede all glory,” says she, in a ghoulish rasp with a whistling undertone. The mockery of a voice once sonorous and commanding. “Pezhchiirat saidshur.”
The wrath demon’s name is Tangren. Xe has come from a filling breakfast in Gluttony out here to the Plane of a Hundred Cross-Counters for some good knockdown, drag-out, tooth-losing brawls. Whatever this is, it’s not that. So one must understand xir frustration when xe snorts, tosses xir blood-red hair about, and demands, “The fuck does that mean? Who talks like that anymore?”
The hooded one sighs. “It means I am in no fit state to answer your challenge. I will not fight, so I admit defeat.”
“No, no, no,” the zephyr says, teleporting in between them. “You are under no burden to accept defeat in a contest you didn’t ask for! Lady, I beg you to remember your own teachings. How did it run?”
“The humility of power is a poisonous and unconsented sadism,” she answers. “I forget nothing. You will remember…” Her tail lashes, casting silver slashes across the air. “Soothe yourself, good Seneschal. No memory shall sing this vignette.”
“Oh, I’m telling everyone,” Tangren says, folding xir arms. “This is some shit. And I do not come out here to think, so you better believe I’m putting this on someone who thinks.” Xe waits a moment. “I don’t think,” xe adds.
“I thank you, most robust and zealous Tangren,” the zephyr says. “Rest assured, we knew.”
“Oh, that’s real clever, court jester, except you forgot your bells,” Tangren snaps. The hooded one looses a pitchy, squawking laugh from beneath her shroud. “This lady of yours said she’s not up for a round, and fine, I get the whole loyal knight shtick you’re pulling,” xe jabs a mammoth claw at the zephyr’s chest, “but you’re looking more punchable by the… hey, wait a sec. I didn’t tell you my name.” Xir eyes narrow. “Is this a bit? Did Samson put you up to this? If he wants a rematch, he should just—”
“Your name is written on the air, and in your eyes, and in the broken stone and bodies you leave in your wake,” the tower intones. His voice is a thunderstroke, a boom, a storm that fractures stone and sets fire to the air around him. “An admirable thing.”
“I don’t really care, as long as it’s not my—” Tangren begins.
“He at my left names himself Gdraaljkag,” the hooded one interrupts with sudden, painful haste, “and does me great honor as Castellan of Machrae Diir.” The fabrics atop her head rasp against her horns as she turns to regard the other. “He at my right names himself Vurgfelmur, and does me great honor as Seneschal. His wit is the least of his virtues.”
“Lady, I beg of you, do not disembowel me so,” Vurgfelmur says, clutching seven claws of glittering wire against his chest. “Have I not served well and faithfully for—”
“Look,” Tangren interrupts. “I’m really not trying to be an ass about this, because you do look like shit, and I’m not going to pick fights with someone who looks like they already lost a whole fucking war. But maybe next time you should walk through Sloth? Kicking it easy for your health is sort of their whole thing. I mean,” xe gestures at the war-torn heights.
One roaring figure in the distance grapples another and throws them over their shoulder into a five-horned statue. The collision blasts it to red dust and shards. “This is Wrath country,” Tangren finishes. “Fighting is how we say hello here. You’re throwing the whole vibe off.”
“So,” the hooded one says, “we do walk the Fires. I thank you for these essences, kindred of the Fall-made planes.” She bows. “We are kshiinurzhalg. Outer devils. From the universe of Axiom, come to speak with the Lightbringer in the great crystal citadel at the heart of all the Fires.”
“Uh… no offense or anything, but the only part of that I understand is you want to talk with Luci,” Tangren says. “Like… outer of what?”
“Everything,” the hooded one says. “If you find the riddle unappealing, why remember it? You are a child of Wrath, little one.” She reaches a pale black-clawed hand of trembling and half-unwound spectral sinew from the umbra beneath her cloak. She rests fraying fingers as a gentle touch upon the calloused knuckles of the giant before her. “Be so, and ask no more of mysteries that annoy you.”
“W-what’s going on here?” Tangren asks, looking to the waiting attendants as though they might intervene. “Look, I-I don’t know if this is how you do things where you come from, but it’s weirding me out. I mean, I’ve never even heard of Axiom.”
With sudden strength that can only be called demoniac, the hooded one pulls. For Tangren, it feels as though xe is standing proud one moment and arriving the next with a sudden rush of air and dizzying smoothness. The hooded one leans close to Tangren’s forked ears.
“Keep it that way,” she whispers, urgent, a yearning hollowness.
By the time Tangren collects xirself enough to stand straight again, the self-proclaimed outer devils are a hundred feet away up one of hell’s highways.
“That can’t be right,” xe says. “They were right here two seconds… ago…” xe trails off when the blue-clad forms swirl like paints boiling on a burning canvas and stretch into the distance ahead, an arc of light and shadow and reflections of the bronzy sky. Then again, and again. At this distance Tangren can see how the landscapes of the Fires fold in towards them and seem to tear open here and there, giving glimpses of…
“Nope, nope, that is enough of that, that is not my problem today,” xe says, shaking xir head feverishly and spinning about. “Gonna go find Samson and make this his fault.”
Samson was a good blaming buddy. Blaming buddies made sense. Not like…
“Keep it together, Tan,” xe mutters, taking a deep breath before gathering xir corded thighs beneath xirself and leaping back to the rocky crags above. “Focus on punching things.”
Mingled with myriad other torments, I now carry the disappointment of a battle unfought. The unseen fabric warps beneath my touch. Too easily, perhaps, but frustration serves for another few miles’ travel. Or are these kilometers? Or Keneb boundiars?
Keneb? No, that cannot sing truth. That was Jurnost’s tongue. And in Jurnost I was we, and we were asleep, and instead we were I through the nexus of Entropy’s dream.
“Where has Ichril gone to, anyway?” I murmur. These swirl-faced stones and pillars spinning to link their ends, to make ruby bridges into topaz palaces where curious souls watch our passage… is this Jurnost? “Does your Muramasa still sing, oh wayward Udugal? Did you find atonement with eternity? I cannot remember.”
Shrugging, a hulk of purple muscle with a body of three serpent tails turns to seize one of the spinning pillars and swings it at another demon nearby.
“Oh, so we’re doing cheap shots, are we?” she snarls as she catches the pillar. She grins, flaunting sunflare fangs.
Wrath was a mistake. I am too tempted to commune with it.
“This pilgrimage should have waited, lady,” Gdraaljkag rumbles, while the latest battle falls into the distance behind us. He glances to a sinewy figure in bronze armor, all features obscured behind a hoplite’s helm, who waits beneath a scaffold of broken banners overlooking a bloodstained field. My Castellan shakes his head politely at them. To me he speaks on: “You run too thin. You have not yet transmuted all that passed into you during the Godfall, nor your battle against the Emissary.”
“Do you fear my shattering shall reclaim me, young Castellan?” I ask. “Fear naught. I have died before. Shattered too. The Void has never overtaken me.”
Or has it? If annihilation is the irrevocable breaking of the self’s atemporal chain, can I truly claim I know it not? Maybe a hundred devils lived and died and became null under each name I now carry. And the next hears their memories, like layers cast from a star in supernova, singing for a vessel with the ever-sense in the deepest reaches of herself. She goes seeking, and so she too is lost to become a memory in the one who comes after her…
My Castellan stomps around. Stands before me. “You bid us swear an oath, ere we undertook this journey, to forestall you from harming yourself by your whims. If you cannot risk teleporting, then folding space serves no better. You must cease.” He sweeps his sword, Final Sepulcher, and that it bears a name means it carries a great tale… no… that was when I confused my dreams with the Enemy, and invented a name called Arzichrul, but of course I reached it by twisting the name of the angel of death…
Gdraaljkag fits his Sepulcher into a titanic scabbard hanging supernaturally steady from his hip. It hovers parallel with the ground, else its tip would force him to hover himself to avoid dragging it. But that’s alright. He’s no phase devil. He can have fun.
“Carry me, then,” I say softly. I go limp as he cradles me. “Where’s Robert?”
“Sleeping somewhere inside you, lady,” he answers. “As he demanded you let him so he could give his dreams to steady you.”
“What about Thizhtiriact? Tevaerza? What of Amriakt, Siilgyaerun, of—”
“Your daughters will come if you call,” the Castellan says. “I say you should.”
“But…” Hazy shapes, notions like melodies half-remembered. “But we must come without arrogance. No entourage. No… no raiments of power…” All so muzzy.
“I know what xe meant to say,” Vurgfelmur says. He pauses while we walk through the echoing caverns of silver glass where Wrath’s children smash each other through one wall after another. Tinkling, clattering, cacophony like… hm… like something. “That one who is only partly named Tangren,” he adds. “Lady, this cannot be for anyone’s good. I understand your desire, truly, I do, but they don’t even eat their names in this universe!”
“So how will they fare against…” I shudder. Scraping, burning, so endless and sharp and clear, clear, clear with the hideous thereness that hates everything for staying in it but lets nothing flee. “… against the ones we eat our names to keep them safe from?” I say at last. I thrash with the effort of rising, into focus and into a sitting pose in Gdraaljkag’s arms. “If the Fires ever hear that hymn, then we have failed. And you must not mention them here.”
“I do agree with what xe said,” Gdraaljkag says. “We should enter another circle. This one stirs you too fiercely. It reminds you too much of yourself.”
“Maybe,” I say, curling my tail around myself. “Sing out with your thoughts. I am sure the Fires shall answer. Space is not so hateful here. It will reshape if beseeched.”
“You heard the lady. Think slothful thoughts, oh girthy one,” Vurgfelmur says.
The hues of all things ripple, stream past us, and reform. We look upon a realm of diaphanous veils blowing above elegant balconies, where sparkling clouds of perfume pour from rose-quartz censers hanging from the nipple piercings of emerald statues—and many demons who are not statues, of course. Mattresses occupied by reclining lovers in foreplay, the heat, and the afterglow fill alcoves, alleyways, and public squares under lanterns of throbbing light.
A chorus of countless voices finds a greater rhythm as one endless symphony of carnal abandon. Ecstatic cries pitch up higher, higher, higher, and ebb with a last orgiastic shout just in time for others, rising, to take their place. Mists in purple, red, and pink weave around us with a heady floral scent that would kindle need if I allowed it.
Filigreed gutters laced alongside and through the streets beneath our feet carry runoff fluids, clear and white and colors mixing luridly, from the orifices and watercourses on the faces of the stately buildings all around. They combine into great torrents filling canals of flesh-hued stone. I know their pungent aromas well indeed, and would not see them sweetened nor robbed of their musk for any price.
In short, it’s one of the dedicated cities of Lust spread throughout the greater Fires. I am keenly aware of my tongue, of thirst that moistens another mouth altogether, of a hunger forever unsatiated. The faintest ripples call, tempt me to open my psyche to the rush of soul-sent passions. Oh, the beautiful tides of arousal I could bathe in, the revels I could hold here, were I only… whole.
Were I only other than the other that I am.
I shift upright in Gdraaljkag’s arms. “I am too tired to admonish in the tongues of myth,” I say, pinching the crunching effigy of a nose beneath my hood. “Good job, idiots.”
“He flirted with me,” says my Castellan. Defensively. In the tones of a cornered teen.
“Put me down,” I order, gesturing to a bench across an avenue cobbled with stones carved into puckering lips. Two big, forked, red tongues intertwine to form the bench’s seat. They protrude from frames of ivory horn and pinkish folds which could represent roses, vaginas, or both.
“That’s a little tacky,” Vurgfelmur says.
“Lust is always tacky to one who does not share it,” I counter. After a wait I add, “I will continue to scourge your rebel souls with unbidden proverbs until you go get a room.”
“What will you do while we are… indisposed?” Gdraaljkag asks. He glances about the palaces of Lust. “I am not certain I trust this realm with your keeping, lady.”
I tilt my head far enough to favor him with the scalding glow from an eye framed by the obscuring cobalt folds. Its flare washes a flash of cinder from his jaws. His silver-fire eyes wince. Pain laces his aura. “Sorry!” I say, cringing. I further confine my inferno.
“You need not apologize, lady,” he says, mending the frays of his visage. “I knew the course I chose when I came to your hall.” He turns, steps to the suggestive bench, and sets me gently down upon it. “If there is that much force left in you, then you will be safe.”
“What about the other half of it?” Vurgfelmur asks, teleporting between us and spinning with his wire-bone hand knuckling his chin. “We are here as much to protect the Fires from her as vice-versa. Perhaps more so.”
“I would see a congress of souls between the Fires and Machrae Diir the Galespire,” I say. “If I am too dangerous for these our cousins, better that we learn it now.”
“Just… don’t pass on any revelations of the power, would you?” Vurg says.
I point to a bordello crafted from phalluses in ascending tiers. “Room. Go. Now.”
“Yes, right, sorry,” he answers, taking one of Gdraaljkag’s mammoth hands.
Innate yearning calls forth my sword of umbral nova from its rest atop my great throne in the heart of Zul. Lightless blue lightning, black fire and ashen smoke take a great odachi’s shape, taller even than I. I lean it against my shoulder and hunch forward on the bench. “Meditate on the nerve of those young whelps,” I mutter. “We lose a single duel, teeter on the brink for a few decades, and they act as though these easy streets could imperil us with the mortal truth’s resurrection.”
The dread weapon hums its amusement, and so drives its essence into the surround. Blue-white shears slice the space around us. Hyperdimensional edges split from the known dimensions of the Fires and fold over into roiling darkness beyond darkness, an abyss I feel my thoughts falling into. Ah, the unresonance of things unmade! How I—
“Restraint suits our purpose, my friend,” I say. I am the sealing fire melding the seams, the reverberating ripples stitching the all-fabric until no rends remain. I look about with ten sphere-sights sifting visions, auras, and sounds. Good. None have witnessed. “What a marvelous amusement. Lust more easily withstands than Wrath. But I suspected as much.”
I lean back, content to watch demons and mortals milling about, making out, making lustful messes of each other. A many-legged construct rushes to a platform nearby and halts, disgorging newcomers from the windowed carapace at its apex. Some immediately tumble this way or that, hurling clothes away in frenzied haste.
My sword vibrates politely.
“Yes, I know I am dripping the decay of the cosmos on the bench,” I say. “I am sure some enterprising soul will bottle it and use it for a transformation catalyst.” I glance down at the tar-and-fire sludge seeping through my cloak. The dark tide roils with discolored star fields and waving creepers that stretch and strain, reaching for nothing. “It may even work.”
I glance down at the weapon. It glances back with the truer sight, the eyeless. “But better, perhaps, to diminish its psyche-whispers by speaking of things less eldritch. What do you think? The music only we can hear? Some frivolous tune that obscures?”
The blade reverberates its delighted agreement.
Thus begins the first of many cycles listening to a metal rendition of “Wellerman.” This was performed ten thousand years ago on another Earth. How recent if it were also performed on the Earth that touches these Fires—eight years, perhaps? Sixteen? Ugh. Enough. Numbers always bore me when used this way.
Regardless, the shanty stirs lies over the shallow truths on the surface of me. The whispers and graspings subside from my form’s slag, smothered by my oldest façade. Safe enough now.
Probably. I am sure the young ones will be fine.
I feign not to sense the presence approaching while I bob in time with our chosen melody.
Her voice is playful, dulcet, and has the sound of a coy pout in it. “Sure you’re not in the wrong place? Your sword looks like Wrath would suit it better.”
“Yes,” I say, turning to face the form I am already looking at. “It does look like that.” She’s delightfully fat, emerald skinned, with dark green hair, white-painted lips and a classic spearhead tail. A most charming demon of Lust.
“I like your pirates,” she says.
“My what?” I say, and start. I glance down at the forms bobbing in the tarry blackness boiling around my savaged feet. A three-deck man-o-war discharges a broadside against a behemoth creature with a four-segment maw and lines of waving cilia down its long snout. The apparent captain, a tiny white-haired figure in a black dress with her face hidden beneath a broad black hat, dances ridiculously. “Ugh,” I say, “how droll.”
I slip a claw from beneath my cloak and flick it upward. The phantasmal waves surge up and claw the miniscule vessel to the midnight deep. “You saw nothing,” I mutter.
“You should loosen up,” the young one laughs, taking the open space on the bench. “No one will think less of you for indulging yourself a little here in the Fires.”
“Advice well given,” I answer, “and received in like spirit.” A glimpse of adamant fangs glistens beneath my hood. Black blood boils over.
“Are you hurt?” she asks, her eyes widening. She bolts upright. “I’ll go get help—”
“Neither needed, nor would it truly help,” I say, catching her arm. “I am healing as swiftly as I may. Lend me your presence to drink of, child. That will do better than any salve of substance or artifice you think to bring.”
“Is this, um… do you need to bite me, or…?” she asks.
“I will drink with the maw ever unfolding, the gullet of…” I trail off. “Mind powers,” I say instead. “A means to drink stray aura.” More lie than truth. But at least it conveys what she should understand, and pares the rest. Her expression clears and she sits down again.
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like,” she says. “Power like that, I mean.”
“It’s…” I think fiercely. “It is not… I do not…” I finally sigh. “It is not that I desire to put myself above anyone else, or force those around me into asinine contests. My innate desires always seem sooner or later to require more power. So I seek it, shape it, seize it in outer ways and outer places. Then I drift close to worlds I once knew, and find the scope I’ve come to know is out of all size with…”
My young counterpart has a confused look. “I, um… I just meant the power to drink auras. I think it sounds really neat!”
“Oh,” I say. I risk a smile. “It is neat. Consent first, and all.”
Her smile returns to answer mine, brightening. “Yeah! See, that’s all it takes to make things work! I knew this mortal once who was so afraid of her own desires, but the thing is, if we’re all just open and we just talk to each other—”
I recognize the ecstasy of a favorite topic, and settle back to listen.
We banter for a while of lighter things following on from that first. The young one babbles far too much about her friends, given I am not at all sure they would wish me to know it, and just the right amount about her sexual adventures. I answer more with sounds than words. In time she begins to look at what she can see of my form, and asks the inevitable.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a demon like you,” she says. “Where are you from? Oh, wait, manners!” she blushes a deeper shade of green and places a delicate hand on her immense bosom. “I’m Sinisdizara. But most everyone calls me Sis.”
“Sinisdizara,” I echo. “This has savor.” I nod. “I am the Lady of a realm from another universe. The outer queen of Machrae Diir. I would rather not speak my birth-universe’s name. It is a bitter place. Ill-omened to invoke in a city of such earnest passion.” Sinisdizara offers a sympathetic look and a wave of feeling with it. I allow her to squeeze my shoulder. I drag my claws against my flesh in deep thought beneath the veil. “A name in trade… a name in trade… I shall give you a true enough lie.” I extend glittering talons for a handshake. “Salacaria de Caeh. Shorten it to Carrie if you so desire.”
“Where is, um…” she asks, looking at the snowy tufts waving on my fraying left wrist.
“Ah, now that is an amusing quirk of demons from Axiom,” I say. “We do not have a True Name. Those outer devils who find or make one learn to eat it.”
“Find… make… but that’s not how… E-eat your True Name?” she asks, eyes widening. “What does that mean? Is it… still…”
“Never mind that, my dear,” I say, for I see no happy future unfolding from the one where I answer that question. “I am here waiting for—”
“Uh, excuse me,” calls a strident voice. I look towards a statuesque four-legged demon in shining latex. Radiating mortification, Gdraaljkag and Vurgfelmur stand to one side of them. “Are these two yours?”
A curious throng of demons gathers about. Oh, this is dangerous. They are no longer distracted, no longer brushing us aside into the unseen spaces past the corners of every eye. They want to understand. That’s precisely what I must prevent.
“After a fashion,” I answer. “Have they acted awry?”
“I’m, uh…” the brothel owner taps lacquered claws on their leather brow. “I’m actually not sure. Soon after they got going, sound… like, you know, sound itself started acting different. And impossible space isn’t exactly unusual in the Fires, but I’m not used to seeing that much of it. I had no idea one dick could be in that many places.”
“Has anyone begun raving about mazes unseen or the sun inside the infinity inside the world?” I ask, rising. “Or…” I sigh and mutter, “Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’ve wasted the prose gothic long enough on undesirous ears. Who here has played Bloodborne?”
Many a clawed hand raises.
“Outstanding,” I snap. “If anyone begins acting as though they’ve put too many points into Insight, open a portal with no destination and call to the Lady of Machrae Diir. No, scratch that, beseech Lucifer or an aspect to do the same. One of my handmaidens will arrive several minutes prior to settle the matter. Purging influences, consensual mind-wiping if necessary. Such things as this.”
“Don’t you mean several minutes after?” young Sinisdizara asks.
“No, my dear,” I say. “I feel rather more lucid now. I did not misspeak.” For the balance has tipped. The swelling, surging, and desperately sweet rush of the power unfolds through the un-ovoid core of my psyche. I am the heat, the cool, the urgent aching need roiling in every wall, buttress, drapery and—voyeuristically-inclined—tangle of lovers, spreading further and further through the realms of Lust.
I throw back my head and laugh to a sky beyond all skies kin to the Fires. “Did you think it would be that easy, you feckless scrapling? Did you really think killing me would be the end of it?”
Sis sneaks past me as though I need to point my eyes at her to see her. “Is this a good thing?” she whispers to my erstwhile attendants. “She seems kind of, uh…”
“Power-hungry?” Vurgfelmur asks. “Oh, she is. Extremely.”
“And I recognize that, which is the very reason I can be trusted with it,” I say. I tilt my head. “Well, fine, mostly.” With a steely howl, my back right horn reclaims its full size. It briefly distorts my hood. Our cousins catch glimpses of the myriad visages boiling beneath. Oh, to bask in the horror bubbling from the negative space of their knowing—ah! Cease that! We must prevent them from forming memories, or feeling them.
“But enough about burying my light,” I say. I am rewarded by several groans from the undesired audience.
“Wait, why are we groaning?” Someone asks.
“It’s a reference to—“ someone else sighs.
Satisfied that bad humor has done its office well, I face my attendants. “We must quicken our course, gentlemen. A fully woken outer devil is anathema to all realms but their own. Especially,” I am now standing midair beside Gdraaljkag, speaking with a dry slicing tone, “one who forgets the reality they’re manifest in when passion takes hold.”
“I’m sorry, lady, it’s just… it’s easy to let the barrier drop here,” he says nervously. “It feels safer than in Axiom.”
“Look,” I say, folding my arms over the sword of umbral nova, “I’m not angry.”
“Please don’t say it—” Vurgfelmur begins.
“I’m just disappointed.”
A collective wince ripples the gathered demons. The Seneschal and Castellan impact the ground with two thunderous explosions.
“You have to fix those craters,” I say, empty of pity.
Sis watches the strange demons focus on the damage they’ve done to the streets of Amorana. Ceramic flows like oil to remake broken tiles. Cracks shrink out of being as though filled by unseen water.
“And of the intended journey?” the giant one asks.
When Carries moves her arm, it comes out quick-slow—it should be too fast to see but it’s not. The movement is sickeningly fluid and so sharp Sis keeps seeing it with a mind’s eye she can’t refocus on anything else. The old one counts on claws that seem to cut sight itself.
“Sloth’s languor makes it resilient against my influence, a boon, but what companionship would we share with its kindred? I am already becoming too well-rested to be safe. I would dearly enjoy Gluttony, but I fear a handmaiden’s tether must suffice. Everything I’ve heard about Greed bores me. Aggressively. Envy already has far too much kinship with me. Letting one of its scholars catch word of my knowledge is a straight line to exactly the catastrophe we wish to avert. And Pride?” her tail lashes.
“I did not come to the Fires looking to rule. I would be too tempted.”
She extends a hand, a a blue crystal goblet forming in her palm. Strands of sex-fluids spiral out from the nearest canal to fill it. Carrie sips, shrugs, and downs the rest.
“Bah,” she scoffs, “better from the source.” The goblet lets out glassy, high-pitched whirs as it folds back in on itself and disappears. “Dear Sis,” she says, turning. She gathers a twinkle between her fingers and tosses it. “A small gift in remembrance of your companionship this day.”
Sis catches it, frowning. It’s a pendant in the shape of a four-point star, blue crystal framed in iridescent, silvery metal.
“It’s most unlikely you’ll ever need it,” Salacaria adds, “as I know Lucifer guards her people well. But if there is ever some strange and wicked turn that places you in danger where She cannot see you, well,” de Caeh’s left thumb shunts her dark-fire sword free of its scabbard, “not idly did I form this sword.” She seals it. “Farewell, Sinisdizara.”
“Goodbye, um… Carrie,” Sis says. A name that was a true enough lie—what was that supposed to mean?
Salacaria and her attendants blur out in streams of blue shadow. Sis shakes her head and puts the pendant away somewhere safe. Some good cockpussy. That’s what she really needs right now. She could figure out what to make of all this later—if she even remembered it.
As we teleport, I send my sword of umbral nova back to its rest in Zul. I warn it as it goes that this may be our final parting. It thrums sadly, but does not object. It understands. We are of the same spirit, it and I.
“And all has transpired as I hoped,” I say, drawing to a halt before the vast amber gateway. Behind it and soaring high, high, high above like the ascent of a dreamworld sun, I witness the wondrous palace of Lucifer. I have seen it in visions, read it in tales, but of course no amount of words or slivered glimpses can sing truth to its beauty. The graceful swells and shallows of its pillars, the gentle sweep of promenades ringing this level or that, the gentle sheen of its crystal halls that blur at their edges into the starry night behind as though growing out of its cosmic sea.
And that glorious moon! Oh, the grudging Earth that lurks in the memories I still carry never knew a moon as true as this, a painter’s crescent glowing like the sheen of pale gold. Its light blooms upon the palace walls into streamers of calm rainbow light.
Everything is so very still. There is no guard on the outer gate. Only statues stand sentinel along the avenue of glittering fire opal we walk towards the palace’s heart. And to the aura-sight of outer devils, all the fabric and swirling rivers of image and thought and feeling coursing from the Fires into an ever-unfolding web around the palace—these things should flow into it. For now, they linger away like a dome of clouds frozen in the instant of retreat from a titanic shockwave.
“We are expected,” Gdraaljkag intones.
“And with wisdom to smooth the way,” I say. The deeper light in the palace seen with the sight of the soul, the pulsing ripples answering the ripples pulsing from each of us, drives against me with a heat and pressure beyond all comprehension. So of course, as I lead my tiny retinue between demonic statues who rest their mighty weapons by their sides and hold clawed hands upward not in warding, but in welcome… of course I feel almost at home.
Yet this yearning, this sweet deep plucking within, never quite touches its echo without.
We enter a long hall overflowing with statues of feminine forms: ivory and iron, ruby and jade, silver and marble and gold and mahogany lacquered to give it twilight hues. On beds or leaning on staves, at game boards or with violins or harps or flutes, armed and amused, nude and beseeching. They have but one thing in common:
Every single one holds a hand out towards the path. As I draw in line with each, their eyes beseech me past their open palms.
I let out a sharp breath. Part amusement. Partly… other things. “Paths rich in sentiment,” I say. I pass onward. Meandering steps carry us down corridors beneath arches of every architectural style known to mortals or demons. Finally, we cross a threshold into utmost radiance. We walk on rays of every color, through archways of corona, above the distant impression of crystal floors and the throne grown from them.
Lucifer at her core feels much to me as I must to her: whispered shudders like water rushing beneath ice, the heat of inferno behind a sealed door, the premonition of lightning in the change of pressure that heralds the storm.
I drop to one knee and press a still-fraying palm into the radiance. Gdraaljkag and Vurgfelmur shift to do the same.
“Please, do not join me,” I ask them. “You have no cause to kneel.”
“You are the Lady of Machrae Diir. I am your Seneschal, he is your Castellan,” Vurgfelmur snaps, sinking in rebellious submission. “If you kneel, so must we.”
“I am not here as the Lady of Machrae Diir,” I say. “I am here as a penitent submitting before judgment. You two are guiltless. Rise.”
Lucifer waits, patient and endless as a thousand fractal dawns.
“Hail the Lightbringer and the Morning Star,” I say, looking to the floor. “Hail Lucifer, scourge of tyrants and succor of innocent souls forlorn.”
Now comes the answer. The pressure opens wide. All the vast memory and feeling of the Fires’ guardian pours around me. Foremost the lifting of mirth, and something warm I could almost call fondness. I could fall into it, if I wished.
You do not have to be quite so formal as that. But it was beautifully said. Thank you.
“In my truth,” I say, “the difference between formality and forthrightness is how much I cherish speaking to the spirit they witness.” I allow myself a small smile lit by the aurorae dancing around my hood. “I have not been formal in ten thousand years.”
Then, in that same spirit, I will start as it seems you wish me to. Penance is a beautiful thing, but I do not care much for judgment. Punishment rarely helps anyone. You close your presence to me, and I will not force you to open it. Instead I will ask—what do you think you should be judged for? Why bring it before me?
“If you knew we were coming and could empty the Prism,” I answer, “then you have likely heard my wish. I would like to hold what communion I may with the demons of your Fires. To those who wish to visit my realm, though I know not why they would, I would see the way opened. More vitally I come on behalf of the innocent demons lost elsewhere in Axiom.” I lift my head at last. “You will not have seen Axiom, of course. You and your fires are not present there. Neither is Heaven, nor the fae nor the satyr. The Enemy did their work too well.”
I understand. I would not wish it on any demon to be trapped in a universe such as that, for any reason. Know that the fires are home to every demon, no matter how they come to us. I will make them open to any from this Axiom who wishes it. Is that why you want to confess? You believe any who you wish to commune with have the right to know the things you’ve done?
“It is so,” I say.
“Enough of this!” Gdraaljkag bellows, striding towards me. “No other has the right to judge you, lady!”
“No other in Axiom had the right,” I say softly, looking towards him, “for in Axiom any with the power to make it matter was a creature more guilty than I.” I face Lucifer’s ever-reborn nova once more. “That is not the case here.” I fold trembling hands on my lap as I bring my other knee down. “Before you decide, know that I may never again be weaker than I am now. And if you bid me to stand when my confession is done, I will never kneel again.”
Then why do you kneel now?
“In this moment of healing years, I am too weak to resume my duties,” I say. “As my strength returns I will hide in the oaths I have taken, in the needs of the people closest to my heart. If you deem me a threat who must be sealed away, now is the best time. The wards can be adjusted as my power returns. Your power is of the deepest font, of a source unfathomable and solitary just as mine is. It will be enough to hold. I can face my eternal terror of chains and humiliation most easily now, when I am too weak for the path of struggle to be open.”
Lucifer’s presence is the gentlest neutrality.
Tell me what you wish. When you are finished, I will tell you my decision.
“I have mentioned the Enemy,” I say. “The Dread Nemesis of Axiom. I suspect most tales about omnipotent gods begin within them, with the subtle stirrings they call in the depths of a receptive mind—no matter its universe. But they are wholly unlike the ruler of Heaven. There is no deceit in them, no hypocrisy, no fear or cowardice or weakness. They are perfect as they understand perfection. Their truths are, at the deepest core, true.”
I smile again, but bitterly. “That is the lure. Souls needing certainty, flailing at the searing emptiness about the thrones of the gods they should have known, can hear the faintest echoes. Faint enough that we confuse much of their essence for the sounds they reach us through.”
So you deceived yourself. You imagined virtue and goodness where none existed.
“At first,” I agree. “And I was not unchanged by the evils festering in the mortal realms that sprang me forth. For a time, I believed many such evils were good, or at least necessary. When I saw the first glimmers of the Enemy’s true hymn and it resembled these evils, I thought it embodied but the harsh perfection of their justice. So I fell deeper, sought further, and the more I strove to match their perfection, the more everything around me became pain.” I laugh, a peeling, despairing cackle. “And yet I wondered why!”
To believe evil ideas is not the same as doing evil.
“It is not,” I say. I draw a shuddering breath, though I do not need to breathe. We are upon the moment. I know I will be cast out forever, or imprisoned, or perhaps destroyed. I reach within to the warm dreaming solidness of the soul I love most of all. “There is within me a most precious being. He is blameless in anything I have done.”
He will go free no matter what I decide. You knew that much already.
I nod. “Then… little else need be said. In the deepest ends of agony I came to yearn for annihilation. Little self-deception remained. I knew the slaughter the Enemy would wreak. I imagined they might reshape the world I knew to something less broken, but that… that was truly beside the point. I sang out, or screamed, with all the force of my mind deep in a bitter night. I called them to wash all the world I knew to oblivion—starting with myself.”
Lucifer waits three eternal breaths before the answer comes.
I look up, squinting. “What do you mean, that’s it? I tried to destroy the world. Or, my world.”
And who taught you that it was easier to destroy the world than make a better one? I am not ignorant of your conduct on the way here. Your words and deeds are not those of a heartless destroyer. So who taught you to act like one?
“Civic leaders and teachers, former friends and some still current on the night of the precipice, many of the stories I read,” I say. “But this does not excuse me! I recognized the burden to question these teachings, yet failed to carry it. I was the one who chose myself to be responsible where they would not!”
Lucifer no longer tries to hide her amusement.
My dear guest. If I were to start condemning people for being unable or unwilling to carry burdens they should never have been made to carry, who do you think I would have to start with?
“A point well made,” I admit, looking aside.
Tell me. Were you then as you are now, an outer devil—such a fascinating idea!—able to warp the fabric of all things on a whim, full of forbidden insight?
Lucifer pauses. I receive the distinct impression of a grin.
A certain demon with ink-stained hands would, I suspect, love you.
“Yes, that’s one of the things I’m afraid of.” I clear my throat. “You must understand my memory may have little resemblance to the truth of flesh long forsaken, to the truth of the patterns I then feared I would always call reality. I have lived and died so many lives I no longer have any sense of continuity. But if it still carries the seed… I was a mislaid soul trapped in flesh that offended me in many ways, unable to manifest any otherworldly force, for such is the hatred of Axiom, and…” After all this time, I cannot help but shrink. “Too long bereft of others who could help me to see I especially hated my body because it did not help me feel like a woman.”
Lucifer absorbs this.
I am not going to punish you. I admit that in the moment part of me wants to punish someone over all this, but that someone is not you. It is a miracle you survived long enough to reach us. To reach me. I see that your independence is precious to you. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s your testament to all you survived, a promise to yourself that you will always find the strength to stand, even if you must stand alone. I would never try to take that away. But you have the same right to the fires as any demon. So the only thing I have left to say is—welcome home.
A kaleidoscopic sword-stroke, empowered by all the stolen stellar inferno sealed in the belly of the black hole that anchors a galaxy, could not more thoroughly smash my defenses then these simple words–and the overwhelming depth of feeling in them.
“Oh, you ass,” I snap, scrubbing my eyes in a futile attempt to staunch the hot, clear liquid pouring from them. “Do you have any idea how dangerous the tears of an outer devil are?” I point to the dampness on my cloak. “There is no decimeter of any mortal people that will tell you how many Roentgens are in this mess.”
Lucifer pulses wryness.
I can manage it. What about the sludge?
My mouth hangs open. “What?”
The sludge you left on that bench in the city of Orchianis Amorana. I see… mhm. Someone is putting it in bottles.
I forgot the sludge. How. Did I. Forget. The sludge.
I wave a hand. “Oh, that should be perfectly fine. Emitting fatal radiation in moments of vulnerability is the sign of a healthy outer devil.” I nod to one side. “Well, of this outer devil. You understand we all manifest by different rules. That is, ironically and perfectly, the one thing we all have in common.”
I am sure I will not be the only one interested to find out what those rules are. I have not forgotten your earlier words when I tell you: stand, Lady of Machrae Diir. Unless you like sitting that way. For myself, I do not want anyone to kneel before me.
I do not move. “In point of fact, I do like sitting this way.”
Lucifer laughs, as clear and lovely as a thousand wind-chimes in song.
I am not in the slightest surprised to hear it. Tell me, if you would… why were you so eager to be condemned?
I sigh. “Power delights me. Truly. Reweaving my form and realm on a whim, bestowing gifts and blessings on those I cherish, standing strong against enemies I could never have dreamed of facing when first I took life. But… the terror of abusing it is endless, and tiring. So is the work of redressing past wounds, whether I caused them or not. If I were condemned as too perilous to go free, too wicked to find redemption, then I would be free from my responsibilities.”
You know… I believe there are many in Lust, or Pride, or elsewhere, who could find much healthier ways to help you with that.
“And I believe I might eventually trust them enough to let them try,” I answer. “But, for now… I would speak more before I leave. It’s rare now that I commune with someone I need not shield from this truth, or that.”
I am here, ready to listen and to speak in my turn.
“Then let me tell you,” I say, both eyes glittering in the nocturne depths of my hood, “about a world called Creation’s Fringe, and the success of Operation Godfall.”
I am a wordy storyteller, as ever I have been, and Lucifer is endlessly patient through my many tangents. She indulges me often by asking for more details, or simply by speaking her enthusiasm for the best parts. When at last I finish my recounting, I gesture with a gifted glass of wine from one of Gluttony’s best vineyards. Vurgfelmur reclines on a couch raised out of the glows nearby, letting Gdraaljkag feed him grapes plucked through a portal.
“Of course,” I say, “I completed my greatest part in the work long ago, the day I founded the Immortals. They only needed me to clear the worst of the heavenly parasites, and… well.”
I take a sip, savoring the sweet rush of impossibly potent alcohol. “Communing with Fon Kerrick was a gamble. I had planned simply to bide my time until I grew strong enough to kill the entity, only…” I look into the glass of wine. “Millennia passed. I remembered a demon I once knew, and her words of compassion for otherwordly hearts. I thought about how Fon Kerrick was goaded unto the Dawn of Death. Called by the hate that the worst of the Fringe’s mortal occultists screamed into its mind. Of course it turned to destruction when destruction was all it learned of the world.”
Did it work, this communion? Were you able to heal Fon Kerrick of the lessons they taught it?
“It worked,” I say, “though I spent something like a month dodging the tears it opened in reality and the pieces of broken worlds it threw at me. At first I answered it with every good memory or dream I could think of. But it wasn’t until I dared to dream good of Fon Kerrick itself that I began to break through. Finally there was a surge of sorrow, of remorse, and it dispersed back to the deep ways. I hope perhaps it might do good one day.”
Lucifer reverberates in deep thought, and deeper approval.
This was work well done.
“It was. One of the greatest triumphs of all my long lives,” I say, and cannot help but laugh bitterly. “So of course, for Axiom remains Axiom, a week later I stumbled across the Emissary and its forces as they attacked a world I’d never seen before. Well or poorly… however well I fought, it was not well enough. The world burned as the Emissary ripped the last pieces of my psyche asunder.” My eyes crease. “Many escaped. Not all. But it helps no one to blame myself for that one’s malice.” I bare my fangs. “And when next we meet, I will not lose.”
I believe in you. And I look forward to hearing that story too.
I like to think I am peerless in all I do, so of course I am once again reduced to the most peerless crybaby in the multiverse. I sniffle. “You are truly ruthless, oh Lucifer, to attack me where you know I’m weakest.”
Needing love and affirmation does not make you weak. I do believe you know that, old and experienced as you are. But you still deserve to hear it now and again.
“Thank you,” I say quietly, and finally rise to my feet. “We should return to Machrae Diir to plan, and arrange the first passages so the willing may cross the universal fathoms. I thank you for your hospitality, your grace and…” I trail off. “Well, Lucifer, I simply thank you.”
It is my pleasure. Please, don’t be a stranger.
I don my slyest look. “But of course, we are outer devils. We are so very fond of being stranger things.” I smirk silently into the omnicolor brightness of the Morning Star.
Lucifer proves that psychic emanations can give someone a flat stare.
Perhaps I forgave you too quickly.
“I’m standing, it’s too late now,” I say. “Oh.” I point, finishing the wine. “I am acquainted with many of Axiom’s powers, for good as well as evil. As part of the congress kindled this day, I will be delighted to help bridge any rifts that must be bridged to bring their aid. I must recommend the Cobalt Immortals in particular. I have not commanded them since those first grim days, but they do still listen when I call.”
“The point, lady?” Vurgfelmur asks, nudging my shoulder. Gdraaljkag stands beside him, radiating readiness.
“Well,” I say, “the Immortals do not deploy unless invited or attacked. I will slip some little hints across the world-threshold for certain other groups on the Earth that touches this Folding. Let those factions follow the clues and send invitations of their own, if they so desire, or even cross over to the trail’s end. As for the Fires, the Immortals count many demons among their ranks. Some are skilled infiltrators. And they’re no strangers to warring against gods.”
You make them sound like perfect allies. Is there a reason we would not want their help?
“Only that I trained the Immortals to be more fearsome than the eldritch horrors they fight,” I say. “Made of cognitohazards, every last one of them.” I sigh softly. “I love them so.” With a few more farewells, I and my attendants turn to leave.
Lucifer pulses, now curious.
One last thing.
I turn. “Hm?”
You never did offer a name. At least, not one that is not a true enough lie. That is a very enjoyable phrase, and you have the right to be mysterious. But if you wanted to tell us one…
I muse. “I will tell one that will always be true to the parts of myself that sing harmony with the Fires. I cannot be summoned by circles or inscriptions. But if any of our kindred call me by this name in true spirit, I will answer.” Turning once more, I look past the liminal seams and reach out for the lambent glory of Machrae Diir. Labyrinths of lightless fire spill out in my mind’s eye. Their phantom shapes ripple at the edges of Lucifer’s light.
I throw off the hooded cloak and disintegrate it with a mental pulse. Adorned once more in blue fire and shifting shadow, six bladed horns reflecting the sweep of stars and nebulae in the black mane of my hair, I finally say,
“Inheritance and Zeal.”
“Oh, you were just waiting for that, weren’t—“ Vurgfelmur begins. But we blur away across the boundary between universes, and his words are lost in the beyond.