In a universe where all the different gods and demons of every pantheon exist, how would they coexist? This book explores what such an arrangement would feel like from the inside. One family, in particular.
Some men deserve a second chance. Others don’t.
Lord Avis, the once proud supreme god of Mystal, was under no delusion which category he’d fitted into … five years ago. Since then, he’s spent three years on the run and two more being horrendously tortured at the hands and talons of his wife’s Highborn Hellion family, leaving the Mystallian ruler with scars he will never forget. They had broken him for his crimes against their house, but somehow he has to dig deep to find the strength to be something he’d never been before.
A family man.
He has to pull it together. He has a wife and two daughters who need him, and he isn’t about to let them down again. However, knowing how much he’s changed and proving it to the men of her family who hate him with every fibre of their being is a challenge he must meet head-on.
Because he isn’t staying in Hell any longer than he has to.
He’s going home.
I am not dead–because I cannot die.
These eight words churned through Avis’ mind as the veil of darkness parted to allow some remnants of his recent history to seep into his pain-numbed consciousness.
There was a time, when he had considered that to be a blessing. To live, regardless of circumstance. But, as all who would consider themselves above such things learn sooner or later, there are prices to be paid, and masters to answer to. The pain of his twisted frame along with the agony of what once was, caused his mouth to open and filled his still tortured mind and body with silent screams.
As he lifted his left hand weakly, he realised something about his current circumstances had changed. Despite the pain that continued to course through his battered and torn frame, he had the ability to move. At some point, the chains of ice and fire had been removed and he was now lying flat, as opposed to hanging by muscle tissue.
Avis rolled on to his side to alleviate the worst of the pulsing wounds–that which had penetrated his ribs from behind and had twisted until one of his lungs had been torn from its housing. They had been merciless. Worse than any mortal tale could ever imagine. But then, no mortal had ever dared what he had done. No mortal would be so foolish. No god would be either—now, or ever again. He had served his purpose in a multitude of ways. He had been made an example of.
It was some time before he found the strength to draw apart his swollen eyelids. It had been a long time since he had been able to see anything with any amount of clarity. He couldn’t remember the number of times they had been gouged out over the last two years, only to be returned when his captors sent him to The Walk to recover (if it could be called recovery) which permitted the torment to start all over again. Mortals feared this place more than anywhere else in their perceived universe. They feared each level and sub-level for different reasons. Yet, in the epitome of their fears, they still had no idea. At best, a mortal only dealt with a single level–the worst of their combined crimes. He on the other hand, had been forced to endure every sub-level of every level and every torment of this realm-forsaken place. He never realised until then that the Seven Deadly Sins and their subsequent punishments applied to his kind. It never had before.
In the distance, he saw an outline of a rich, deep maroon colour. Although its shape was elusive, it was large, moving and rolling in silent unison with something else that subtly controlled its movements. The shadows that rippled across it faded in with the richness of the light that streamed in behind it. He related to that something. Whatever it was. He had danced many a tune since his capture and done many a thing at his masters’ whims, if only to end the dance for a brief moment or two.
Oh, how his sombre twin brother would laugh if he had been there. For the first time since their birth, he would have laughed. And Avis, the once proud Mystallian God of Life, would hang his head low and have nothing to say in his defence.
As the blur began to leave his vision, he saw a vague outline of a curtain drifting on the light morning breeze, and groaned inwardly, as he had played this game before too. Many a time. Behind the curtain, he saw the glint of polished glass, and the marbled balcony he knew so well. He had made many monumental decisions on the real version of that balcony that overlooked his courtyard. It was the one place he could find refuge, when his family wanted the ridiculous and expected him to comply.
At least, it had been.
Now, he feared it, with all his heart. He had played this game and he knew the outcome. Different demons. Different positions. All ending the same way. ‘No,’ he wanted his blistered lips to whimper to those who stood in the shadows observing, even as his eyes creased with tears that would not fall. ‘Not this again. Anything but this again.’
But this was the game, and he knew it well. They would not heed his pleas, even if he were in a position to speak them aloud. They never had in the past. The most degrading of all his punishments was the one that began with his life before his capture. The sooner he played his part, the sooner they would move on to more conventional tortures. He had done this before-he could do it again. Ironically, this was the punishment that hurt nothing but his pride.
He forced himself on to one elbow, watching the satin sheets slip to his waist. The mattress beneath him was as plush and full as he remembered it, surrounding his body with a blanket of warmth and comfort. Not so long ago he had accepted that comfort as his celestial right. He would wake, snap his fingers, and servants of every design would jump to his whim. Not so long ago this first scene of the day was very satisfying. So much could happen to change one’s perspective in a very short period of time. So much indeed.
Still, like a perfectly rehearsed play, he knew his part. He knew they enjoyed watching it—he knew he had earned their contempt—and he knew most importantly of all he had no choice.
Focusing all his concentration on the one action, he ground his teeth and attempted to sit up in bed. But he barely lifted his weight from the mattress before his body’s pain threshold exploded in defiance and the room around him spun. His mouth flew open as the scream raced to the back of his throat, but no sound ventured beyond that point. All strength deserted him and his supporting arm collapsed, dropping him back to the bed in a panting heap.
For a long time, he lay there, staring at the silk curtain ceiling of his bed. This was not right. His captors had always healed him completely before forcing him through this. They wanted him to know that even at the pinnacle of his personal abilities he still meant nothing to them. They had wanted him to remember every degrading moment–without a single hint of previous discomfort to fog the memory.
Yet his wounds had not healed. They had left him injured. Why?
Once over the initial shock, a sound finally penetrated the rush of blood to his ears. It was a voice—a woman’s voice—one he hadn’t heard in a long time. It had to be years. Surely it had to be years. He had been here for years … hadn’t he?
Grinding his teeth again, he ordered himself to focus. He was by no means a fool, but he had to make sense of this. In all that time, his captors had never put her image in the punishment with him. She was sacred to them—she was Hellion Highborn. She was his ex-wife.
“Clrs?” he burbled, forcing his scorched tongue to form the word, despite the shaft of pain that shot through his throat from the effort. He pawed at his covers, not trusting his waning strength to support his weight after his last effort. He had not thought of her in a long time. With scarred knuckles, he pushed his way free of the satin sheets and rolled over the edge of the bed, falling the short distance on to the carpeted ground with an echoing, timber based thud. A heartfelt groan rocketed to his brain as he landed on fleshless knees and he fell to his side in a heap.
Still, no one came. No one entered the scene to poke, prod, or taunt him. He heard voices being raised in the next room and rolled on to his stomach, clawing his way across the carpeted floors, never noticing before how thick each strand was and how painful they could be when they made contact with his tortured body. But pain was something he had become accustomed to, thus they were forever thinking of new ways to inflict it. He was under no delusions that this was yet another one–even if something buried deep inside his subconscious insisted they would never use Clarise’s image like this.
He reached the edge of the open doorway and looked past into what should have been his private sitting room. Yet instead of polished marble floors, plush ochre lounge seats with high rounded backs and intricately carved timber tables and benches, he beheld a sight that had more in common with a cave. The bouldered walls and ceilings were aglow with an undefined source of internal illumination, the heat from which caused Avis’ already charred skin to prickle, even from the safety of the doorway. More shapeless rocks made up a crude altar-like table at one end. There were no furnishings as such, no great tapestries or drink cabinets, no thick exotic rugs to take the chill from the flawless marble floors. In fact, there was no marble either. The ground was packed until it had the same dull hardness that made up every other surface in the room. In the walls on either side of him, he saw two deep crevices, each about the depth of a forearm’s length run the length of the room, but otherwise nothing noteworthy.
However, it wasn’t the room that absorbed his attention. His eyes, still gazing at ground level, fell upon the flattened, spade-like ebony tail, and the lower quarters of the reverse standing legs that, with the aid of the tail, balanced the body mass on two tri-taloned feet. The tail was twitching angrily.
“I will not accept this from you, Cora,” the female demon said.
Somewhere between the demoness and the wall, Avis heard the thump of a taloned heel as it struck the compacted ground in frustration. “But you know why I want nothing to do with him, mother!” a young voice hissed, full of demonic rage. Her young leather wings expanded to their full height until Avis could see them around his own ex-wife’s plated sides. “It is not fair!”
The tempo of Clarise’s thumping tail increased. “I will not tolerate that tone of voice from you either, young lady,” she said, in her usual, calm way, despite the movement of her tail. “And I would advise you not to stamp your feet at me again, unless you want to feel the flat of my tail on yours.”
Avis heard the repetitive clack of the young demoness’ mandibles as she fought to keep her temper under control, until finally, she hissed in anger and stalked from the room. “Do not embarrass me, Cora,” Her mother warned the empty space where Cora had been. “You are Hellion Highborn. Above all else—remember that.”
Avis dragged his weight to one side, and used the timber architrave between the rooms to drag himself partially on to his buttocks. Pride was no longer something he had in abundance.
“Mother, why is Cora so mad?” a second demoness asked. Avis had completely missed her in his initial scan of the room. She was lying inside the crevice beside her mother’s head with only her legs and tail protruding. Her young frame, like that of her mother’s, was covered in sharp strong, ebony plating and tucked in behind her Avis could just make out the vague outline of equally dark reptilian wings. In the skull of the girl, Avis saw empty recesses where her eyes should have been, and her beak, when she spoke, opened in three directions.
The elder of the two sighed and turned to her young offspring. “Cora is angry because she has too much of your father’s blood in her veins to allow herself to forgive him.”
Avis nearly choked at those words. He only had one daughter to his knowledge, and his ex-wife had gone out of her way to hide their demonic nature from him. The second must have happened when he …
A torrential wave of guilt swept over Avis. No wonder the Hellion Highborn had hunted him down with such unbridled fury. Yes, he had been drinking rather heavily at the time of their separation, but he’d only done what he had afterwards to drive her away. It looks as if he had succeeded better than his worst nightmare.
“Forgive him for what, mother?”
“He did something very bad a very long time ago, before he went away, and Cora has never forgiven him for it.”
His shame escalated with Clarise’s borderline truth. She could have damned him in the girl’s young eyes. No—she should have damned him—damned him the way both their families had, by leaving him to suffer eternally at the hands of Hell’s masters: a fate that he had earned with his own callous actions.
When the child’s head tilted and she clicked her mandibles, Clarise quickly added, “It has nothing to do with you, sweetheart. Your father is a very good god, and a very powerful god, and you should be very proud to have him as your father.”
That was a blatant lie. He’d lost all interest in what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eons ago. The only thing he’d concerned himself with for a long time was his own raging desires, and his determination to make his wife and child … children, he reminded himself, suffer for the inconvenience of being in his way.
“I am, mother. But why did he go away for so long?”
“He did not leave us deliberately, Columbine. He had to go away, but he is back now and we should be thankful for that.”
“Why is he hurt so bad?”
“He was captured by some very dangerous people who did some very mean things to him.”
For Avis, that was the last straw.
“Tell -r trufe’,” he slurred through his broken jaw as he clutched the architrave, determined to make himself heard. Clarise’s reasons may have been honourable, but the child had the right to know and if she wasn’t told now, someone in the very near future would correct her delusion out of sheer spite for him. He buried his fingers into the joints of the timber and attempted to balance himself without the strength to succeed.
Clarise swivelled on her rear left toe and gasped. “Avis!” she scolded, leaping into the air and flying the short distance between them. In a single fluid movement, she had him scooped off the ground and back into the replica of their bedroom. “You should not have left the bed, beloved.”
“T’ll -r!” Avis insisted, clutching the cartilage of her chest plate. His eyes burned with the conviction he longed to express, if only his broken body would allow it. “T’ll -r!”
“Later,” Clarise promised, as she drew back the covers that Avis had abandoned with such indifference before easing him back on to the bed. She then drew the covers around him, and ran a taloned claw down his cheek. “You must get well first, beloved.”
Avis looked up at her. This was not the form that he had bedded, all those years ago. This was her natural form. He had never liked it—believing it inferior to his own. Dark, impenetrable plates that over-locked the body joints and huge demonic wings that swayed with her every movement were the last thing Avis had wanted to see at the time. He had banished it totally in his presence and that decree brooked no exceptions. The one time she had made the mistake and ventured beyond her quarters looking like this, she had paid for it with the flat of his hand and every curse he could rally.
How fucking idiotic he had been.
Then, as her exact wording penetrated his thoughts, he looked up at her in wonderment. Beloved? After everything he had done to her—their children? He opened his mouth with great difficulty. “… c’n y’shtill …?”
Clarise’s dark plates melted and warped before his eyes. The ebony plates lowered to her bust-line and blossomed almost as if they were alive into a floral backless dress, contrasting beautifully with the snow-white Mystallian skin of her shoulders, neck and arms. Her legs were hidden within the folds of the dress that flowed to the floor and the talon that stroked his face melted away into a slender, perfectly manicured nail, on an even more perfect finger. But, as always, it was her eyes that captured Avis’ desire for conquest. In this form, Clarise had the most beautiful golden eyes he had seen on any female creature, and the long jet-black hair that normally flowed to the middle of her back was rolled in a loose bun at the base of her neck with a matching black petalled flower protruding from the centre.
Avis lay there, absorbing the sight of her. ‘Fool’ didn’t even begin to cover the way he felt about himself at that moment. He’d had in his possession the kind of wife most men of any persuasion dreamed of — slim, beautiful, powerful, good bloodlines, the ability and willingness to manipulate her shape to fulfil any of his wildest fantasies and most importantly, she was completely and hopelessly obedient to him. Hellion Highborns were the most sought after females by any pantheon, and Clarise was one of the best they had to offer. And he had recklessly thrown her away.
As if seeing his thoughts, she drifted her arm down to his, and rested one of her two marriage bracers over his. The gold in their wedding bands matched that of her eyes. “I married you for life, beloved. I am yours, body and soul, and when you fully recover you will then decide what is best to tell our children. But for now, you must gather your strength, for you have one last journey to undertake.”
Avis’ brow creased and he whimpered, not certain he liked the sound of that at all. He was in no condition to undertake any kind of journey. He couldn’t even make it out of that room, and he had really tried.
“Columbine,” Clarise called, twisting side on towards the doorway.
The small, petite demoness from the crevice appeared moments later, with her wings folded in below her shoulder-line and her head tilted to one side. “Yes, mother?”
“Have Diviten see to it that you are made presentable, then go to your studies.”
“Yes, mother.” The demoness bowed with all the grace that came of the Highborn ladies, then she rose and disappeared from the doorway.
Clarise waited a few minutes before raising her hands and clapping sharply, twice.
Two gangly creatures materialised in the doorway. They were almost reptilian, with their leathery hides and their elongated limbs that stretched out the full length of their prone bodies, except that that their heads were extremely small, almost infantile like and covered with fur. Two sets of wolf-like ears twitched and their eyes glistened with the constantly shifting blood. The proportions were all extraordinary, but Avis knew that nothing in this realm was, as it seemed. “Milady,” they rasped as one, bowing their minuscule foreheads to the ground.
Clarise rose from the bed, clasping Avis’ hand in hers and squeezing it slightly to settle his fear as she faced the kneeling servants squarely. “Your Lord is now awake and his injuries must be seen to.” Without releasing his hand, she added, “The sooner he has journeyed through The Walk, the sooner he will truly begin to heal.”
Avis’ mouth opened in pure terror as the two creatures came forward and lifted him from the bed. No! By the realm, No … No! He shook his head and tried to push away their helping hands. No! He would heal! He would heal all by himself! He didn’t need The Walk! His panic enabled him to make contact with their arms several times, and he twisted desperately as they lifted him onto his unwilling feet. “No!” His lips finally managed to squeal, as he lowered his centre of gravity and dragged his feet against the ground. “No!”
“Wait,” Clarise commanded. The two demons froze, allowing their lady to step in front of them. She took her husband’s trembling face with both hands and pressed her forehead into his. “Calm yourself, my love,” she crooned, as his heart hammered and his voice ebbed through his blistered lips in audible whimpers. “The Walk will heal you. Nothing more.”
If only Avis could cry. Oh, how the tears would have flowed at that moment.
Despite Clarise’s reassurances to the contrary, Avis continued to whimper and struggle as her servants assisted him through the rock corridors that made up the bulk of the Highborn Hellion Marital Chambers. There were no torches to light the way—as the walls continued with that maddening internal illumination. He didn’t want to go back out there. Not amongst the Damned! Let me stay! I’ll do whatever you say, just don’t make me go out there again! He wanted to plead, his panic surging with each step they took towards that dreaded place. Don’t!
Clarise couldn’t have known what was really involved with The Walk. Unlike the other demons that inhabited this feral realm, his ex-wife didn’t possess a single sadistic attribute in her entire being. If only he could utter the words to make her realise why he was resisting: why the nine levels of Hell were so unbearable for outsiders to endure and that once tortured, even for a few minutes, a damned individual would do anything to escape it.
The Highborn Hellions protected their ladies from the truth of life—protected them from everything—including themselves. They were the perfect breed of females and existed for one purpose only: to bow to the will of the men in their lives. From the moment of their anointment they were trained in the art of pleasing their eventual husbands. Nothing else mattered to them. Not even the choice of husband was left to the ladies themselves. If the lords of other realms wanted a Hellion Highborn lady as a bride, they must first petition the father of the female, and only once the suitor could prove his worthiness would a marriage then be arranged. The lady’s wishes were never an issue, although in Clarise’s case, Avis was far from the ideal choice they had wanted for her. At the time, Avis never approached Clarise’s father for her hand. The thought never entered his head, because he had never wanted a wife—subservient or otherwise. Clarise was the challenge of the time—nothing more. He had managed to seduce women from all walks of the celestial pantheons over the eons, and every god knew the greatest challenge of all was to see if anyone could coerce one of the Highborn Ladies to break with their near-psychotically pretentious upbringing and venture to their bed out of wedlock. And not just any one. Lady Clarise, eldest unmarried daughter of Lord Belial, supreme ruler of all Chaos.
He probably would have gotten away with it too–if she hadn’t fallen pregnant. That mistake and those that followed were what he had been paying for with every minute he had been out there—amongst the Damned. But he had paid for his indiscretion and heavy-handedness thereafter in full. Surely he had. Clarise had only been with him for three, maybe four months at best before returning to Hell in tears with their newborn daughter, whereas he had been here for … years? Yes … yes it was years. That child of theirs … what was her name again? Well, whatever it was, she was older now. And the other one, the one he didn’t even know about, she was no babe either. It had to be years.
Although he continued to slide his feet hopelessly in the opposite direction, Avis kept his eyes downcast all the way and never once lifted them to gaze upon the faces of those that moved around them. It was a lesson he had endured early in the Damned Levels. He was no longer a god worthy of being in the same company as those that dwelled here. He was nothing. He was less than nothing. Nothing was free.
A furred paw appeared around his throat from nowhere, and the smoke-filled, feral growl that followed caused Clarise’s two servants to release him with a subservient jerk as they bowed to the ground. The pawed hand had no difficulty in suspending Avis’ body in midair.
Avis knew not to resist in any way—resistance always brought more pain. Better to accept in silence, then cry out and make yourself a target. His hands hung limply at his sides, accepting the will of his Hellion masters. “You would not be defying the wishes of your betters now would you, slae-el?” a male voice snarled, breathing heavy smoke into his face. Without a word to his defence, Avis’ head rolled numbly from side to side in a negative manner between the thumb and forefingers of the one who held him. No, he wouldn’t. He knew better.
“Ludovic, unhand him at once!” Clarise commanded.
That smoky breath moved away from Avis’ face. “Clarise, you have embarrassed our House enough with your despicably shameful actions of late. Despite your claim to this wretch, I forbid you to compound the problem any further. Return to the Ladies’ quarters immediately,” the demon lord commanded, making a general sweep towards the far entrance at the other end of the stone corridor.
If Avis were not her husband, he had no doubt Clarise would have bowed to the will of her younger brother and left them as commanded. But Avis was her husband, and it was something that the Highborn Hellion males were not happy about.
“My conduct is no longer under scrutiny, brother, and I am within my rights to undertake these actions without House repercussions. Avis is my husband, and the father of my children, and I have already invoked marital rights before the High Court where his safety is concerned. By Hellion Law I am entitled to safeguard him and defend him with my life if necessary.”
“He is unworthy of such devotion!” Ludovic spewed, shaking Avis’ lifeless form to emphasise his point. Avis barely groaned.
“That decision is not yours to make, Ludovic. He is my husband, and I am within my rights to defend him as such. His worthiness or lack of is no longer an issue either. Only your compliance with our father’s laws.”
Instead of being released, Avis felt his entire throat constrict as Ludovic’s great paw tightened sharply and his mouth flew open in reflex. But then it was gone, and he was dropped with disgust to the ground. Lying on his side, Avis’ silent gaze moved from his brother-by-marriage’s feet to his irate face. Unlike Clarise, who balanced on reverse bending tri-taloned claws in her natural form, Ludovic’s feet consisted of their father’s cloven hooves. His legs bore the same exterior ebony plating as his sister, however his hips thinned into smaller scale-like pieces of cartilage. A tail roughly the thickness of Avis’ thumb and forefinger whipped ferociously in and around his legs as he battled to understand his sister’s motives. Thick, tanned fur covered his upper body like a carpet, extending to his paw-like claws that were presently fisted against his hip joints. His triangular earflaps were flattened against his skull and the lips of his muzzle were curled to expose his glistening canines. He was the most animal-like of all Belial’s children, and in the dark he might have easily been mistaken for one, if he didn’t bear the same empty, smouldering recesses in the eye-sockets that Avis had seen minutes before on his own younger offspring.
Furious beyond belief, Ludovic rolled his head in a wide, disbelieving arc, and caught sight of Avis staring up at him from the floor. Before Avis could avert them, the demon lord lashed a hoof at the cowering god, collecting him squarely in the face – not enough to knock him out, but enough to break his nose and cheekbone. “Get your eyes back to the ground before I claw them out of your realm-damned head!” he bellowed.
Stars swam through Avis’ vision as he sharply twisted himself into the ground at Ludovic’s feet, covering his head with one arm to hide it from Ludovic’s view.
“Ludovic!” Clarise cried. Avis then heard a combined shuffle of hooves and Mystallian shoes until he felt the soft fabric of her dress-hem drape across his body and he caught the scent so strong it was more like a taste of his ex-wife’s…wife’s distinctive lavender perfume. He didn’t dare raise his eyes again. “Your language and actions are appalling! Leave my presence, if you cannot behave in a manner befitting your bloodline,” she commanded.
Avis heard Ludovic’s sharp intake, but instead of speaking, the demon lord turned and stalked away.
Long after the click of Ludovic’s hooves on the stone floor became a distant echo, Avis felt a Mystallian hand touch him on the shoulder and he cringed with a whimper, curling himself into a foetal position. “Be at ease, beloved,” Clarise whispered. “They will come to terms with what must be. They must.” He felt her hand on his chin and trembled. “Shhh,” she crooned, when he made an effort to speak. “Everything will be alright. Once you have healed in body, then you will heal in the mind. You are a god, Avis. An established supreme god in one of the most predominant realms in existence. In time, you will remember what that means, and then you will not hide your face any more.”
Avis allowed her to turn his face towards her. How honestly she meant that. He could hear the overwhelming sincerity in her voice and her eyes shone with the unconditional devotion her kind was renowned for. Why? Why, oh, why had he mistreated her? And why was she being so exceptionally forgiving now? He certainly wouldn’t have been even if it had been years since his incarceration. Had their roles been reversed, he would have been the one to kick her in the nose and not think twice about it.
At Clarise’s silent gesture, her two servants came forward and once again lifted Avis to his feet. This time, he offered no resistance. He had already resigned himself to The Walk. Ludovic’s arrival and consequential actions had only reiterated the Hellions’ ownership of him.
They carried him past the conservatorium where Avis had made his first advance on Clarise, so long ago and down a long corridor. Avis knew this corridor. He knew it, even though the last time he had laid eyes on it he had swaggered through it laughing loudly with an entourage of grovelling servants in tow as Belial’s personal guest. This was the corridor that connected the private chambers of all the Hellion Highborn to the High Court of Hell where all visitors were greeted and accessed by the Lords of Chaos. Unless they were seeking a bride, very few celestials of other pantheons bothered to make the journey through Chaos to meet with Belial and his sons. There was little point. Belial usually knew his mind before any communication could be entered into, and his sons were dedicated to upholding the will of their father. Despite the nature of what was here, never before had Avis seen a more unified family committed with such singular clarity. Combined with its ancient age and subsequent size, Chaos was the single most powerful realm in the Known Realms. Lord Belial was too powerful, and that show of superfluous power made most visiting celestials very nervous.
Eventually, the small party reached a cavernous space in the corridor that opened out into a huge rocky archway that stretched almost fifteen metres high and over twenty wide. Bone-like boulders braced the base of the archway that rose from the stones, and where they crossed in a point at the ceiling, a placard that Avis would not have been able to reach across with both arms outstretched depicted the outline of a golden star in reverse on a black circular background. There wasn’t a realm in existence who didn’t respect that simple brand. Although Avis couldn’t see it in his present condition, he knew it was there staring down at him as disdainfully as everyone else that marched under that House Banner.
On the other side of that archway, he could hear the raised voices of other males and attempted to close his eyes. Their anger could be felt almost through the walls, and he was under no delusion what the subject of their debate was about.
“Wait here,” Clarise commanded of the servants. She then took Avis’ broken jaw and lightly brushed her lips against his battered cheek. “I will return in a moment,” she whispered.
The voices fell silent moments after Clarise went inside.
The wait for Avis was agonising. He had no idea what she was saying to them, and had no way to defend himself or assist her in any way. He was completely at her mercy. There was nothing else he could do. If she failed, he would return to The Eternally Damned. If she succeeded … no, he didn’t want to give himself hope. This was not the place for it. If anything, this was the last place for it. The sign at the First Level’s gate said as much.
When footsteps re-emerged from inside the opening Avis whimpered again. They weren’t just from that of his wife, but also the heavy clopping of a second, larger pair of broad hooves. No sound was uttered, but the servants released Avis sharply and dropped to their knees with their foreheads pressed to the compact surface and their elongated arms stretched out in worship before them. Without their support, Avis collapsed to the ground beside them.
Small noises escaped Avis’ throat as he raised his arms to shield himself from the one who had escorted his wife from the High Court Chambers. Only one would draw such a response from Clarise’s servants by his mere presence alone. Avis stuck to his training and looked at the compacted flooring around his shattered nose. Don’t look, he thought to himself. For Mystal’s sake, don’t even think about looking. The demon’s footsteps ended with a final clop on either side of Avis’ head. Avis felt his bowels tighten, and for once was grateful he’d been given nothing to eat or drink for so long that he couldn’t humiliate himself further.
“Leave us,” Lord Belial commanded, his echoing rumble reverberating off the walls to fill the room. The room was immediately vacated.
Lord Belial then took a step back and Avis could hear him squatting down with his elbows resting on his knees. “I warned you, did I not?” he rumbled to the prone form before him. “There are whole realms out there that fear my wrath, yet you alone believed you had the power to defy me and bring harm to those I hold dear.” Unlike his sons, Lord Belial’s voice never rose above the same ominous monotone the entire time he spoke. And within that monotone, lay an eternity of control, and an innate ability to draw out even more terror from those that listened to it.
“You will never be welcome here. Those like you will never be welcome here. Those like you will suffer as you have suffered if they dare challenge this decree. My daughter wishes to uphold her matrimonial vows to you, but I assure you, if you ever, ever cause her to shed so much as one tear again, you will spend the rest of eternity amidst the Damned and I will crush every member of your pantheon into oblivion just for sharing your bloodline. Do I make myself quite clear?”
Avis’ answer was to whimper again. Yes, it was. Very clear. Very, very clear. Despite the celestial ability to live regardless of consequence so long as one had a power base of mortal worshippers, Avis held no doubt at that moment that Belial knew of a means to fulfil his threat. Somehow, someway, Mystal would die if he … Avis paused. … if he mistreated Clarise again?
“If I speak to you again, fear the repercussions.” Lord Belial said.
Avis then felt the gush of Lord Belial’s great wings as the supreme demon launched himself into the air, but still, the demon’s last words prior to his emphatic threat echoed over and over again in Avis’ tortured mind. “If … If ...”
Could Clarise really want him back? Was that what this was really all about? Was he really getting a second chance here? A way to escape the Eternally Damned? Was this really true hope?
As these questions rambled into others, his whimpering shifted from agony and suppression to one of confusion. What if he’d gotten it wrong? What if he’d made a mistake? What if this entire charade was nothing more than another torment to show him what he wanted to see, only to turn against him at the first point he relaxed?
With that humbling thought, his mind resumed the numbed clarity it had before. If it was just another one of their games, the Lords of Chaos had only to tell him where to go and what to do and he would comply, just as he had been taught to.
Clarise returned a few minutes later. He could tell it was Clarise, for she still bore the Mystallian form that he found so pleasing and the delicate click of her fine heels on the compacted floor gave her away. But she wasn’t alone. He heard the faint rasp of plate armour. Thick, heavily fortified, plate armour that rubbed against itself without ever wearing, or even buffing the plates. These were no servants. These had a reputation of their own amongst the Known Realms.
Avis closed his eyes, barely flinching as a large, crab-like pincer tightened around his right upper arm while a set of long talons hooked his left and lifted him to his feet. He didn’t even have to look at them to know what they were. Highborn Hellion Guard: the elite of all the Pantheon Guards. As fanatically loyal as they were deadly, they were celestially bred to be the ultimate combat operative. The golden plates of their armour glowed iridescently, even in the darkness. They possessed four upper limbs—each capable of a completely different, independent attack from the others, so that no matter what persuasion of enemy they faced, one of those arms were capable of incapacitating—and in most cases, eliminating them entirely. Beneath the sturdy torso were three powerful legs, designed to support the body as it manoeuvred itself in four different directions simultaneously. Drawn over and above their shoulder-lines were two long, broadly curved bat-like wings with a large pointed claw protruding over the top to give them the advantage in aerial attacks. All this was just their standard mode. As beings capable of militaristic shapeshifting, they could become any weapon of any size they needed to be and moved faster than most could see to vanquish an enemy. The only time Belial had ever unleashed them upon a singular pantheon in the past, that pantheon’s army broke ranks at the sight of these creatures coming for them and fled from the battle before the Hellion Brute Squad had made their first offensive move.
“Forgive me, my love,” Clarise said. “I know how you feel about my true form, but to leave The Well and journey up into Hell’s punishment levels, I need to fly.” She looked into his unfocused gaze a moment longer before shedding her Mystallian appearance in favour of that with demonic wings. “I will only maintain this form until we arrive at The Walk. Please do not be angry.”
Angry? That was almost humorous — If only Avis had the strength to laugh. With his eyes closed, he felt a gush of air and his feet leave the ground.
Although he knew where they were heading, Avis’ breath escaped him with a gasp a few moments later as they left the Highborn Well and the sudden icy winds from Ninth Level blasted his fire-blistered skin. The eternal frozen wasteland of Ninth Level was where the worst offenders were sentenced to endure the frozen lakes without the luxury of falling asleep. Statues of frozen souls littered the terrain. Even without his sight, Avis knew they were there—because he had been one of them not so long ago, sharing in the misery that came from being one of the Damned. Icicles coated all their eyes as they stared out at the hopelessness of their situation and their mouths were wide with screams that no one would hear. Others were frozen inside the lakes, and more hung from the ceilings as giant frozen stalactites.
They flew through the gates of Antenora that separated the Eighth and Ninth Levels and up the Malebolge Mountain towards the Seventh Level. They passed over the chasm that was filled almost to the brim with souls suffering from leprous diseases. The stench that wafted up to them as they flew overhead would have once made Avis nauseous, had he not spent time down there, dwelling in that putrid stench. Oh, they had humbled him well. His only conscious act while down there was to fight his way past the mortal souls to reside on the top layer of that decomposing group. But even that became too much effort and after a while others were dumped on top of him, smothering him with the horrific reality of their predicament.
Their party flew towards the second chasm from Antenora, sardonically nick-named by all who knew it as The Walk. Despite what Clarise had in mind, this place was never really designed to heal. Healing would have been a pleasurable thing, and that went against everything the Nine Levels of Hell were designed to do.
From overhead, Avis resigned himself to his fate and opened his eyes, looking down at the circular chasm that was carved into this sublevel. Its twenty-kilometre length didn’t appear that long at all from where they hovered and the souls that were packed into the one-kilometre-wide chasm moving in an eternal circle were indistinguishable. At one point of the circuit, sat Sarvalis. Even from this distance, recognition of his bulk was undeniable. Standing at over two kilometres high from toe-talon to horn tip, his twisted horns rose nearly six head-lengths from his exposed skull. His arms were as thick as houses and the great sword he clenched in one hand dripped excessively with the blood of those that walked below him. That was the punishment of this level. To be severely mutilated by Sarvalis upon arrival. Be it a loss of a limb, beheading, or even simply gutted…it didn’t really matter as the agony was universal. Then, while nursing the injury, the soul was made to move as others from behind jostled them forward, inch at a time. With every inch of ground covered, the wound would begin to heal, even though the extent of the injury made it near impossible to move without moaning in agony. Then, upon completion of the circuit, the soul would have made a full recovery and was forced to face Sarvalis and his accursed sword all over again. Round and round this dance went. Round and round and round.
Avis was different from the regular Damned that dwelled here. He never knew if Sarvalis’ sword was going to strike him down as he walked. Sometimes it would, other times it wouldn’t. If the Highborn wanted him to suffer elsewhere, he was made to walk only so that he could heal sufficiently to be moved elsewhere. If they wanted him to suffer here, they allowed Sarvalis to do his handiwork, as creatively as he could imagine. Avis was never told which it was going to be.
“Milady,” Sarvalis purred roughly, kneeling on one knee with his great head bowed as Clarise and her party descended upon the ridge that overlooked The Walk. “What an… unexpected surprise…”
True to her promise, Clarise’s form shifted into that which her husband found more pleasing as soon as her talons came in contact with the rocky ledge, despite how out of place a well-dressed Mystallian lady of nobility appeared in these less than ideal surroundings. Sarvalis’ repugnant grimace at her choice of shape was completely irrelevant. “Lord Avis is in need of healing. It is my wish that he completes The Walk and returns with me to the Well in relative health.”
“Milady,” the demon replied, still on one knee.
“Be strong, my love,” Clarise whispered with a kiss, then stepped away and gestured for the guards to place Avis at Sarvalis’ feet. As was customary to her upbringing, she fought to maintain her dignity—to keep her eyes free of tears and appear dispassionate to all that was happening around her. The Damned and other nameless slae-els like them were never to know there were emotional differences within the sects and ranks of the Hellions. Before her, Avis and the Hellion Guard stood in the middle of the flow of souls like a rock amidst a stream. They mingled and moved around and passed him, indifferent to everything but their own, freshly incurred injuries.
Clarise interlocked her fingers and held them down before her, forcing herself to remain calm as her father’s guards released their hold on Avis and stepped back, pushing the Damned aside without remorse. Do this, Avis, she willed. It is but one walk …
But instead of moving, Avis’ legs collapsed beneath him and he was stepped upon by those hapless souls further back in the line that trudged forever onwards with their injuries. Clarise lost her composure with a gasp of fear as he went beneath the hordes of moaning Damned.
“Avis!” she cried, and ignoring protocol, she stepped forward and slid down the chasm into that same sea of lost souls that separated them. Some of those outer souls, overcome by madness from the duration of their stay, saw Clarise as the pinnacle of what they would never achieve and found the strength to reach for her with their gnarled fingers.
The Highborn Hellion Guard responded to this by abandoning Avis completely and launching themselves to her side to protect her. They formed an impenetrable barrier around her, pointing the arm that appeared like a coral stump towards the attacking souls’ injuries, injecting them with millions of poisonous spores. Their screams did little to ebb the tide of them, and before long, all four fighting fronts were being used on either side of Clarise. But Clarise never returned to her Hellion form—never chose to fly to the safety of the ridge above her. Instead, her eyes were locked on the spot where her husband was last seen. The Highborn Hellion Guard said nothing as they easily fought off her attackers and waited for Clarise to decide what it was she wanted to do next. If it was her desire to be there—it was not their place to speak to her about the dangers involved in it. Theirs was simply to safeguard her during her decisions, whatever they may be. Repercussions of such spontaneous actions were the responsibility of others far higher than they.
But Clarise was not interested in staying safely at the edge of the sea. Her husband was at the bottom of that sea somewhere, and she intended to find him. Pushing her way from the wall, Clarise barely gave the Hellion Guards enough time to position themselves to act as a barricade between the Damned and herself. She pushed her way forward to where she had last seen Avis.
Sarvalis snarled and held his mighty sword high and to the left. “Garlee!” he called throwing himself into the air and sliding into the horde of souls that mingled along the path. He swung his sword through them, cleaving his way towards Clarise. A small, goblinoid demon appeared from nowhere to hover near the great demon’s head. “Get some of the Malebranche devils from Eighth Sub-Level up here—now!”
Seeing their only opportunity to elude punishment even for a single circuit, the souls yet to be punished surged forward—the number too many for two Hellion Guards to contain. Clarise was jostled as many around her found the strength to run from the point of incursion, although she still managed to keep going. Sarvalis swung his huge blade hard and fast, carving and cleaving his way towards her. The tallest of the Damned only reached his knee, and many fell victim to the crushing weight of his feet as he crossed the chasm in his haste to reach Clarise. “Milady!” he called.
“Where is Avis?” she called back.
Sarvalis wanted to say something. He dearly wanted to, but he knew better than to say what was so clearly written on his face as he turned back towards his side of the ridge. Avis did not deserve this. Even he—a non-Highborn Hellion, had been outraged by Avis’ heavy handedness of one of their Highborn Ladies, and he would never understand the High Court’s decision to allow Lady Clarise to rescue him.
Clarise followed the path made in Sarvalis’ wake, refusing to look down upon those that had been trampled into the ground. Her only concern now was … “Avis!” she called, only just managing to reign in her initial impulse to rush to his side. Many of Avis’ bones had been crushed beneath the weight of those that trampled him and his eyes refused to open. But his chest on one side continued to rise and fall ever so slightly and the blood in his veins continued to move. “Avis,” she said, kneeling down beside him in the filth. She took his head in her hands and tilted it towards her. “You must move, beloved. However much it pains you, you must move. Please. I will be here with you every step, but you must move.”
Avis looked up at her, and for a moment, his line of sight sharpened and she knew he was looking at her. But it only lasted a moment, and then it was gone.
“Avis!” Clarise cried, as the sharp jabbering of dozens of small Malebranche devils was heard on the ridge above. They slid down the embankment into the Damned, using their pronged forks to push and force the Damned back into place.
With the Malebranche devils there to maintain control, Sarvalis could focus his attention on his Highborn visitor. “Milady, your efforts will be for naught if you proceed in this manner,” he said, opening his free hand to plead with her, without physically making contact.
Clarise looked up at him. “What do you mean?”
“You have given him hope, Milady, and he has accepted that hope with open arms. He knows he does not have to do anything anymore, because you will protect him, and so long as he believes that, he will not move from that spot.”
“Clarise,” a voice called, from far above.
Not ‘Milady’ or ‘Lady Clarise’ or even a tone that implied reverence. Simply ‘Clarise’.
Clarise looked up and saw a winged celestial angling his descent upon the heat currents towards her. Unlike the demons around her, this one’s wings were feathered and coloured the same bright orange and flame-red as that of his shoulder length hair. His skin was as pale as her husband’s and his eyes were a deep rich blue. Most of his body was covered by polished silver armour with a simple crucifix engraved upon the chest plate. In his right hand, he carried a flaming sword that was poised across his body to his left, ready to strike.
He swung his sword in a downward stroke as he landed alongside Clarise, striking the nearest soul to her across the shoulder and sending it screaming back into the void of others. He didn’t face Clarise at first, but turned his attention to any other souls, foolish enough to test his mettle. His wings shifted with agitation.
“Clarise, stand up,” he said, finally.
“Stand up!” the Archangel commanded, this time with more force.
Clarise did as she was told. “I have the authority of the High Court to do this, Uriel.”
“You do not have the authority to disrupt two sub-levels of Hell, sister,” he corrected.
Clarise lowered her head and fell silent. That had never been her intention. Uriel placed the pointer finger of his free hand under her chin and lifted her eyes to his. “I will not say what has been said so many times already,” he said, gently. “Whatever your reasons, you have chosen to stand by Avis, and your determination to see him through this is commendable. But you know this is not the way to achieve your objective. You cannot give him support during this time. He must be driven to do this—he must believe that no one will help him, and that it will only get worse if he does not comply. Only then, will he find the strength to do what must be done.”
Clarise’s eyes welled with tears as he spoke, but he hushed her quietly, running his armoured thumb across her cheeks. “Go back to The Well,” he said, gently. “Let me deal with this. I give you my word as an archangel that I will return him to you in a matter of hours as healthy as he can be.”
Clarise wanted with all her heart to deny him this. She knew what it meant to be one of the Damned, and accepted that damnation as part of what must be. But she had also heard rumours recently that her husband had been suffering far worse than any mortal soul due to his crimes against her. That had been what instigated her matrimonial desire to protect him in the first place.
Pulling away from Uriel’s hand, Clarise knelt again beside her husband. “Forgive me, Avis,” she said quietly, pressing her forehead into his. “I will be waiting for you. I will always wait for you.”
At that, Avis’ eyes did open, and stayed open. She was leaving? No! She … she couldn’t leave! She promised! She promised, and she never lied! Ever! She couldn’t leave him here!
His voice came as a weak, fear-filled whine and he wished for the strength to reach out for her…to hold her…to cling to her.
Clarise’s tears fell upon his face. “Forgive me,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. Then, before she could convince herself of another path, she shifted into her demonic form and leapt into the sky and arched downwards sharply towards the ninth level gate, followed closely by the two Hellion Guards.
Avis’ heart sank as he watched her go. She was leaving. How could she leave him? She promised she wouldn’t…
A pitchfork was rammed into the muscle below his right knee. “Move!” Uriel snarled, kicking Avis in the right direction as the Malebranche devil twisted his pitchfork and hissed gleefully. “I have no intention of allowing the likes of you to make a liar of me, slae-el, so if it takes my personal intervention to get you going …” His tone shifted into a near exact replica of his father’s earlier animosity, “…so be it.”
Avis’ pressed his fingers and toes into the slimy walls of The Walk and braced himself for the short climb upwards. At the sound of the Malebranche devils’ wicked cackling behind him, he pulled himself up that first step. The muscles of his exposed biceps and thighs strained as he dragged himself inch by inch from that disgusting place. It had been hours since Clarise had left, maybe even days, but Uriel had been true to his word. Avis had been forced around The Walk twice in order to recover from the injuries he had incurred the first time around when he had refused to crawl.
Up he climbed. Unlike those below him, he was not truly of the Damned. They were mortal souls with no real celestial strength, while he was a god, and Sarvalis had indicated at the completion of the second lap that he was to climb out himself—without assistance. Inch by inch, hand over hand, he made his own way from that insidious sub-level.
He reached the top and crawled over the rocks on to the mountainside itself. Was it really real? Had it really happened? Lying on his stomach with his head bowed to the stones, he waited for something—anything. He was well again. As well as anyone could be who hadn’t eaten in so long that food was nothing more than a distant memory. Weak, yes, but unharmed-for now.
As he caught his breath he realised nothing had come to claim him. Nothing moved him, pushed him, leashed him, beat him or any one of a thousand other things he had been forced to endure since his incarceration. His breathing began to slow for the first time in a long, long time. Was it true? His pain-numbed mind began to wonder. Was he free? After all this time, was he truly free of the Damned?
His eyes skirted as far as they could see without moving his head; the slightest spark of hope entering his heart. He choked on his first breath. He choked on the second as well. By the third he began to snort, and by the fourth, he chuckled.
Free … free … free … free!
His laughter was short lived as an armoured pair of legs landed on the mountain beside him. “Enjoying yourself?” Uriel asked.
Avis’ elation turned to terror and he quickly covered his newly healed head with both arms without uttering a word.
“No doubt you have been told by others how unpleasant your next stay shall be, so I will add only this: if you ever give me cause to hunt your miserable hide down again, you will not have Clarise’s generosity to protect you. I will create my own Hell somewhere in the middle of The Unknown Realms—where no one but I shall hear you scream for the rest of your natural existence. No one will know where you are, and no one will rescue you. Do you hear me, slae-el?”
Avis rocked his head beneath his hands.
“Then return to the Well where my sister awaits your arrival. Treat her as you should have been treating her from the beginning, and stay out of my way if you know what is good for you.”
Avis nodded emphatically and rose to his hands and knees, only to feel the cold metal of Uriel’s boot on his exposed back. “No one said you were to do it on your feet,” he said, and gave Avis a sharp push that flattened him to the ground. “Crawl back to her on your stomach like the slae-el you are, and beg her forgiveness—a forgiveness none of us believe you deserve.”
Avis bobbed his head in acknowledgement of the command. Slither. Of course. How stupid of him to think he would be permitted to stand. But slithering wasn’t that hard. He proved it right there and then by sliding out from beneath Uriel’s boot and crawling across the rocks down towards Antenora.
The putrid stench of the Ninth Sub-Level that had turned Avis’ stomach once so long ago now filled his senses as he continued to crawl belly down across the simple stone bridge that was only just suspended over the ravine of disease. Looking down, he could have reached out and touched the Damned below, had he been so inclined. Their sickening misery was all too familiar a sight to him, and with a swallow of hope that this would not be where he wound up again, he looked to the Gates of Antenora ahead of him and continued on.
Avis paused momentarily beneath the grand arches that separated the two levels, where neither the heat of Eighth Level, nor the Cold of Ninth could reach him. He had never been given the luxury of stopping there before—he was always pushed from one environment to the other with little concern for his Mystallian inability to cope with such dramatic climate changes. He had realised while crossing the bridge of disease that Uriel was following from a distance and assumed it was for one of two reasons. Either he didn’t want to be that close to the Damned if he could help it, or more likely so he could uphold his end of his bargain with Clarise and not bring further harm to Avis on his journey back. Walking at his side, it would probably have been too much of a temptation to sink his flaming sword into Avis’ neck, just to hear him cry out one last time. If it was the latter, Uriel was indeed a rare breed of demon, for someone who bore the mantle of Crown Prince of Hell, he spent most of his time in Heaven. Perhaps Heaven’s way of open honesty and absolution to one’s word was slowly beginning to adhere to the demon prince.
Uriel’s expression darkened as he approached and he made a grand gesture with one hand for Avis to keep going.
With a heartfelt moan, Avis rolled back to his stomach and turned towards the arctic wastelands before him. On his naked stomach, this was going to hurt—a lot. And by forcing him to do this without laying a finger on him, Uriel would be keeping his word of not personally causing him any further harm. To everyone else, it would appear as if Avis had decided to push himself through the punishment of The Ninth Level one last time to prove his sincere regret at his treatment of Clarise; something Uriel could never be held accountable for. Rot his shining hide. Heaven’s influence or not, there was still a big part of that bastard that was a sneaky, manipulative demon.
Then a distant thought penetrated Avis’ mind. No one would hold Uriel responsible, because it would come down to Avis’ word against his masters’ if he dared to speak out at all. No one else was present that could bear witness to who made the decision to crawl across Antenora. But marriage in the celestial realms meant more than just a bonding of two people’s eternal lives. Clarise’s blood flowed in his veins, and more importantly, his flowed inside Clarise.
Avis glanced over his shoulder and swallowed as Uriel approached. He was playing on hope, and this was not the place for hope. What if he were wrong about Clarise? What if she denied him? To side-step Uriel’s final act of vengeance would cost him so dearly if he couldn’t reach the safety of Clarise in time. The women believed everything the men told them, and were obedient to them to the death. Belial or Uriel only had to order her and the other ladies to never mention the subject of Avis’ disappearance and the subject would never be aired again. Avis needed the wisdom of his youngest brother. As a God of Fortune, Chance’s insight into his odds would be very useful right about now.
Avis swallowed again. Crawl through Antenora, or risk a short cut. ‘Mother, guide my hand,’ he thought to himself almost in prayer, as he reached his right arm forward. He curled his fingers as if to try and grasp the rugged edge of the first ice-cade, then, without warning, he arched his arm up and around in a half-circle that ended on his thigh and called out “Clarise!”
He heard Uriel’s bellow of rage from the distance, but the vision of what lay before him shifted from the endless frozen wasteland of Ninth Level to the warm and inviting smile of his wife in her Mystallian form. She stood with her hands before her as a dutiful wife and behind her Avis could see the replica of his Mystallian quarters that she had so painstakingly duplicated. Hearing Uriel’s fast approach, Avis quickly lifted himself on to his knees and reached both his hands towards her. “Clarise!” he both cried and begged, willing her to take his hands and pull him to safety. “Help me!”
Clarise’s eyes widened, and without asking any questions she reached forward and took him by the wrists, hauling him over the celestial/mortal threshold of space that separated them. “Avis,” she said, tears in her eyes as she ran her fingers through his hair. “Oh, Avis—I am so sorry …”
Still on his knees, Avis wrapped his arms around her waist, buried his face into the fabric of her dress and cried like a child. Free. He was finally free! As the realty of his situation began to sink in, his muscles weakened with relief and he slid to the ground at her feet, but he continued to clutch at the hem of her dress and weep. No more traps—no more delusions—no more torture. Clarise was real. Clarise was really real. Clarise was here.
With his hands still entangled in her dress, Avis felt the connection of another family member attempting to reach his wife, and was under no misconceptions as to who it was. Uriel’s image moments after Clarise accepted the connection confirmed Avis’ greatest fear, and he slid in behind his wife for protection.
“Ahh,” Uriel said, his voice ferociously calm as he looked at Avis. “I see you made it back … Avis.”
Not slae-el. Not the Damned. Avis. He had his name back again! It sounded wonderful, coming from the lips of his master, even if the venom could barely be contained.
“Uriel, you have my deepest gratitude for returning Avis to me, but was there something you wanted of me?” Clarise asked.
Uriel shook his head. “Not at all, dear sister. Avis vanished through a blood-link a few moments ago and considering my oath to return him to you, I wanted to make certain it was you he contacted and not someone else from his family in Mystal.” He looked past Clarise again to the god that cowered on the ground behind her. “If he had made the mistake of escaping Hell, I would have been forced to hunt him down again. That would have been…” his lips twitched a little and his eyes gleamed with the fantasy of fulfilling his earlier promise. “… unpleasant. Do you not agree, Avis?”
Avis whimpered and lay on the ground with his hand covering his head at the not so subtle threat. He hadn’t gone anywhere. He was right here. He didn’t need to be hunted down—he had done as he was told—more or less.
“Uriel, please,” Clarise said, knowing she was missing a very large portion of this conversation but having a fair idea what it was.
Uriel closed his eyes and sighed. “Oh, very well.” He opened them again to look at his sister. “Why you have chosen to make the same mistake twice is beyond me, Clarise. But the mistake is yours to make.” He held out his hands palm upwards towards Clarise, who immediately placed her own in his.
However, instead of stepping through as Avis had done, Uriel merely bowed at the waist and kissed both sets of knuckles, before stepping away to allow the link between them to vanish.
Avis trembled with uncertainty as Clarise turned, and knelt beside him with a comforting smile. “You are exhausted beyond comprehension, my love,’ she said, stroking the long dark hair from his tear-glazed eyes. “You need rest to settle your agitated mind. Then things will not appear quite so frightening.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, then slipped her hands beneath his knees and shoulders and lifted him into the air as if he weighed no more than a child. “Things will be better in the morning, beloved.” She carried him across the room, laid him upon the bed then drew the sheets up around him. “I promise.”
Avis’ gaze shifted around the room nervously. There was a time when he would have found this room and its contents perfectly acceptable and he would have fallen straight into a deep, restful sleep without a moment’s hesitation. But that was before. This room—and what he had been forced to do and had done to him whilst in it—he could never sleep here again. Not comfortably …
“Clarise …” he whined.
“Shhh,” Clarise crooned, reaching for a medium sized golden goblet and freshly pressed napkin, both of which were sitting on a matching golden tray on Avis’ bedside table. She braced the back of his neck with one hand and helped him to sit up, pressing the goblet to his lips. “Drink, my love.”
Years of unconditional obedience kicked in automatically and Avis swallowed the substance without ever knowing what it was or why he was doing it. He drained the cup, realising after the first mouthful it bore the same rich, alluring flavour as ambrosia—–a specialty liquor from Olympus that Zeus had introduced him to eons earlier. He finished the drink with a satisfied sigh and smiled, for it was the first thing to reach his stomach in a long time that didn’t attack him from the inside on contact.
He watched Clarise intently as she lay his head down and wiped his mouth with the edge of the napkin, searching for any hint as to what was to happen next. The drink was for something other than satisfying his years’ old thirst. It had to be. It had been sitting there, waiting for him to return.
As he continued to stare at Clarise, his fears slowly began to ebb away. Not as in a complete suppression of them: more … an understanding that a wave of indifference was smothering them. He felt … relaxed. Oh, yesss, he thought with a satisfied drawl. That would be the word, if he had to choose one over all others at that moment: relaxed. The years of torture drifted further away and a lurid smile worked at the corners of his lips. This was good. He breathed in deeply and released it with an even deeper sigh of contentment.
“There you are, my love,” Clarise crooned, as Avis’ eyes began to sag. “Calm yourself, and sleep…”
* * *
When Avis awoke, he sensed the presence of family blood in his vicinity before he opened his eyes. He had not been asleep long enough to be deluded into thinking it was one of his family members from Mystal. It had been years since he’d last laid eyes on any of them and there was no mistaking their animosity towards him during that last family ‘reunion’. He had burned more bridges than he ever realised when he took a heavy hand to Clarise. For eons, he had lived with the assumption that his pantheon would stand by him no matter whose wrath he invoked with his various assaults on their women. They always had in the past. But it seemed even they feared the repercussions from Clarise’s ancient family and decided disowning him was better than burning with him. After what he had endured, he no longer held that decision against them.
It could have been his ex-his wife, but the sensation had the distinct hint of youth to it. More likely one of his two children, and considering she was sitting there and not attacking him, he made a realistic guess as to which of the two it was. But what was it Clarise had called her now? Of all things, the girl had been named after a common Mystallian flower. Daisy … no … Petunia … no … Rose … no!
Damn his memory! What was it? He should at least remember the names of his own children, and ‘never having met them’ was not an excuse. ‘One must walk where one has once been to see if the path one left behind was clear,’ to quote a Mystallian colloquial … colloque … that’s it—it was something like … collo-column … columns? No, dammit! It was floral not architectural! Think flower …
His memory and intelligence worked furiously over the next few seconds until he finally had it. Then, with his lips curled into a knowing smile as if he had been awake and in possession of the knowledge forever, he rasped, “Hello, Columbine.”
He opened his eyes, and immediately covered them with his left hand to protect them against the bright light that poured in from the illusion of an early morning sun outside. ‘Mnnnhh,’ he grizzled, rubbing his eyes until he could peer through the cracks in his fingers without crying.
Only when the brightness no longer affected him did he lower his hand to focus on a young child perched on the golden bed frame at his feet. Once again, he almost missed her in his initial sweep of the room, as she was dressed in the same deep maroon silk that the multiple layers of bed canopy consisted of, and she had chosen to perch herself amongst those folds. Only her beautiful, long raven hair gave away her location. It was as dark as his and easily reached her knees, if the mass curled in her lap was anything to go by.
‘Perched’ really was the accurate term. She was balanced on her toes like a bird with her legs folded beneath her and a hand clutching the frame on either side supporting her weight.
When he returned his quick appraisal to her face, he found she had tilted her head slightly to one side and was watching him with childish curiosity. Her lips were small but they had a particular shapeliness to them, and her skin bore the snow-like paleness that was a virtual trademark of the Mystallians. But, like her mother, it was her eyes that Avis found so entrancing. They were so dark they almost held a depth to their own about them, yet they blinked continually at him, as if awaiting some kind of response.
“Very pretty,” he said, realising that she would be stunning when she grew older, if this was what she was capable of producing now. He tried to smile at her, and was genuinely thrilled to find her capable of shifting into a Mystallian form at such a tender age. But his pleasure at that prospect soon quelled as he began to envision all the kinds of trouble he would receive as her father, when others would try to take advantage of her, just as he had taken advantage of her mother. He wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that.
He realised she was still watching him, and gave her another weak smile. Children were never his specialty.
“Mother says I am Bi- … ah … Bi-…” Columbine’s gaze dropped to her knees as the complicated word continued to elude her.
“Bi-pedal?” Avis suggested, as a wild guess.
Columbine shook her head. “It means ‘two forms’. Bi-schlerian…?”
“Bi-schalarian,” Avis corrected with an appreciative smile, recognising the strange word as a combination of Mystallian and Chaotic. Columbine nodded, her black eyes sparkling thank-fully. “That’s a big word, for a little girl like you to remember.”
Columbine beamed with pride at the compliment, but lowered her eyes respectfully and refused to move an inch from her perch.
Knowing sooner or later she would have to say something, even if it was only to voice one of a thousand questions he felt certain the child must have, Avis propped his head up with one hand and waited for her to regain eye contact with him. He just needed to wait.
Unfortunately, patience was never one of Avis’ strongest virtues. Many implied it was something he’d never possessed and he certainly wasn’t of the temperament to debate it.
So, after a minute or so had passed and the chit still hadn’t moved, he twisted his lips slightly in annoyance. “You don’t talk very much, do you?”
Columbine shook her head, her gaze flicking over the top of her lowered eyes now and again to gauge his reaction to her subservience. Avis recognised the Highborn Hellion trait and tsked all the more. “I think you’ve been in Hell too long, young lady.”
As he spoke, he noticed the muscles in her legs spasm beneath the strain of maintaining that indecently cramped position. It must have been killing her to squat like that for however long she had been perched there before he awoke; but still she said nothing. That hardly surprised him. The Hellions had raised the girl from the beginning, and they had taught him in a much shorter space of time how to take a phenomenal amount of pain without uttering a word of complaint.
“Columbine, put your feet on the bed and rest your backside against the frame,” he said, “before you numb everything from the waist down–if you haven’t already.”
Swallowing uncomfortably, Columbine tilted all her weight on to her right foot and edged her left down to the bed, pushing it to the outer most edge to give her father as much room as possible.
Avis shook his head slightly and rubbed two fingers in a circular pattern against the side of his right eye. Only a Highborn demoness would go to so much trouble to comply with something so simple. He envisioned what extremes she would have gone to, had he asked something more complicated of her.
With her foot balanced precariously on the edge, Columbine leaned into her straightened knee to shift her weight the other way.
“No!” Avis cried suddenly, catching her both mentally and physically as she pitched forward into his outstretched arms. “Easy, girl,” he crooned, lifting her into the air and swinging her around so that she sat with her legs over the edge of the bed and her back against his hip, ignoring her gasp of horror. “We’ve only just met. There’s no need to throw yourself at me just yet.”
Although he had meant it to ease the situation, Columbine rolled her shoulders and bowed her head reproachfully, lowering her eyes to the hands that were crossed in her lap.
Her lack of response annoyed him and he closed his eyes to utter a frustrated curse before taking her gently by the jaw and guiding her young face around to him. “We’re really going to have to work on your communications skills, Columbine, if you and I are to get along. You know that, don’t you?”
When she still didn’t react except to lower her eyes to his palm, his mind began to race for anything that would help break through to her. He was by no means a child-person, and he was fast running out of ideas. Then he thought of his youngest brother still in Mystal. Children of all ages loved him because he was always playing with them, doing hideously embarrassing dances that never ceased to make them laugh. At the time Avis had sworn nothing could ever make him behave so ridiculously. Fortunately, he had the feeling that kind of play was still beyond his shy young daughter. But there had to be something. He rubbed his lip thoughtfully.
Then he had it. One act in particular that Chance always undertook with his children and grandchildren when they were young, and it never ever failed to gain some kind of a response from them – even if it was only to punch him in the arm afterwards because they felt they were growing too old for his childish tickling games.
As a mischievous smile crept across his lips, he refocused his attention on his silent offspring. Then, dropping his hand from her jaw, he snaked it quickly around her waist. “C’mere, you,” he grinned and ignoring her sudden yelp of surprise he rolled on to his side away from her, dragging her across his hip and chest and pinning her to the bed beside him.
Columbine arched her back and squealed as his fingers buried themselves mercilessly into her sides. Tears sprang to her eyes as she abandoned her upbringing and thrashed in his arms, crying to the point of begging to be released, but with a delighted chuckle of his own, Avis tightened his grip and continued the assault.
Then, suddenly, Avis’ fingers jarred together as Columbine’s mass vanished from within his grasp.
At first he was confused by the disappearance, but when he realised what must have happened, he looked around the room for her, far more impressed with her abilities than he had been before. Not even her mother could change shape that fast.
He found her, kneeling in the far corner between the body length mirror and the wall, with her head bowed forward. Her hands were still wrapped around her sides and her small frame shuddered with belated feelings. “Well,” he said with a victorious chuckle, as he braced his head with both hands, “so you can be impulsive when the mood takes you.”
Columbine shuddered again, in what he hoped was pleasure.
“Just out of curiosity, what do I get for guessing you’ve never been tickled before?” he asked, rolling on to his side to watch her more comfortably. He could almost feel the confusion radiating from the young girl. “Columbine, look at me.”
Columbine’s eyes gingerly came up to his. They were wide and dark, creased with fear despite her bottom lip being firmly fixed between her teeth to hide her smile. “Uh-Uh,” Avis chided, tutting her actions and waving his finger at her. “You have a pretty face, young lady. I’d like to see the smile that goes…”
“Columbine! What are you doing here in your Bi-pedal nightgown?” Clarise demanded from the doorway.
Hearing the anger in her voice, Avis quickly looked towards his wife, and couldn’t suppress the wave of terror at the sight of her standing in the doorway. Her natural form made it difficult to judge the severity of her anger, but there was no mistaking the clawed hands that rested on her hip joints, or the vicious way her tail flicked in tight, sharp movements.
Avis whimpered in fear and slid from the bed to join his daughter on his knees with his head bowed to the ground, never once looking up from that original appraisal. It had been too ingrained now—how to behave around angry demons.
“Columbine, when you rise, look directly at me. Look nowhere else in the room. Then go and get changed for breakfast.”
“Yes, mother,” he heard Columbine reply.
From his place on the floor, Avis heard the shuffle of silk as Columbine rose to her feet and retreated towards the door, but he didn’t lift his head to see her leave. A knot formed in his stomach when he heard the sound whack of his wife’s tail as she struck their daughter on her way past, causing the youngster to burst into tears and flee, but he dared not move for fear they would harm her further if they learned she actually meant something to him.
Long after the muffled footsteps of their fleeing daughter echoed into nothing, Avis heard the fine click of Clarise’s heeled shoes coming towards him.
“Avis,” she whispered, placing a Mystallian hand on his shoulder. “Stand, my love. Your place is no longer on the floor at our feet and it breaks my heart to see you there.” She cupped his shoulder a little and pulled him back on to his haunches. When she saw the despair in his eyes, she ran her hand down the side of his face and knelt beside him. “Oh, Avis,” she said, and wrapped one arm around his neck, pressing her head into his shoulder. “I am nothing to fear, my love. I am your wife, and your will is my life, not the other way around.”
Avis opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again and swallowed.
Clarise felt the lump in his throat move and asked, “What is it?”
Instead of answering, Avis licked his lips and remained silent. “Nothing,” he lied.
Clarise placed her hand on his cheek and drew his face towards hers. “What is it?” she asked, her voice barely above that of a whisper.
Avis looked to the open doorway. “If…” he began again, then shook his head.
“If I can … that is … if … if I’m allowed … to have my own way …” He spoke that last part very quickly in case he had overstepped the boundary, tensing for her reaction. When she offered none except to hear him out, he relaxed a little. “Don’t punish Columbine for visiting me.” He bit his bottom lip straight afterwards, waiting to see if he had said the right thing.
Instead of exploding with rage at his impertinence, Clarise smiled warmly. “Do not fear for Columbine, beloved. She is an extremely adept Hellion and her reaction to the smack was simply one of accordance, not pain. What is pain to someone who can heighten senses in one instant, and eliminate them altogether the next as we do?”
Avis thought about the way she had become non-corporeal in an instant when he cornered her and nodded in agreement. Someone with that level of control would easily be able to manipulate what was and wasn’t being felt inside his or her body. “How is she able to have such control?” he asked, again looking towards the door, as if expecting her to reappear at any time. “She’s just a child.”
“She is gifted,” Clarise agreed with a sigh, “and it is unfortunate that Cora has turned that gift into a point of contention.”
“Cora has … on occasion, found the need to act on her jealousy.”
Avis released a deep grumble from the pit of his stomach. Sibling rivalry. How well he knew that sensation. Despite his seniority, as a child he had often instigated cruel and dangerous pranks against his younger siblings for no other reason than because he could. He began to understand why their mother never approved of it, and it didn’t matter that Luck in particular would always manage to escape unharmed. Mastery of shapeshifting would have been a thousand times worse.
“She’s Mystallian,” he said.
“They both are,” Clarise replied, not certain to the source of the reference.
“Yes, but Cora more so. Our women have never been backwards in coming forwards.” He smiled a little, remembering less than memorable moments from his past. “There has even been the occasion when one of my sisters has put me on my arse, when she’s felt I’ve needed it.”
That brought Avis up short. “How did you know that?”
Clarise blushed and looked anywhere but her husband’s face. “Lady Armina came to me a few times and offered to … shall we say … forcefully remind you of your marital vows to me while I was living in Mystal.”
Thinking of precisely what his robust younger sister of War would have said to his reproachful Highborn Hellion wife, Avis pulled his lips into a bemused sneer. “Reee-allly,” he drawled with an arched eyebrow. But the amusement died when he remembered their last encounter. Supreme God or not, Armina had ousted him with the help of their courts. He was in effect, still exiled from his homeland.
He didn’t want to think about that now. The embarrassment of that defeat, while nothing compared to what he had endured in the Nine Levels of Hell, still knotted his stomach.
Clarise rose to her feet. “You still need rest, my love,” she said, holding her hands out for him.
Avis shook his head in denial, but surrendered his hands and allowed her to pull him upright. “I’ve slept enough …” he began to bluster.
Clarise placed a silencing finger across his lips. “Sshhhh,” she hushed, with an endearing smile. “Trust me.”
With the pillows piled in such a way that he could sit up, she gently eased him back into the bed, going as far as to lift his feet from the floor and slide them under the haphazardly discarded sheets. Then she drew the sheets to his chest, leaving his upper body free to move.
It was then that Avis became aware of his surroundings. “Clarise…” he whined, looking from one piece of furniture to the next with great disdain.
But Clarise had turned towards the doorway and clapped loudly twice, never noticing his discomfort. The same two gangly creatures that had answered her summons before appeared with a courteous bow, one carrying a tray of freshly diced fruit, the other a canter of chilled water and a delicately etched clear goblet.
And suddenly the accommodation didn’t seem so bad.
Licking his lips hungrily, he swallowed a mouthful of saliva so thick it almost choked him.
“This is Frash and Tilu,” Clarise said, gesturing firstly to the one with the food, then the one with the drink. With his eyes locked on the food, Avis barely saw them. “They will be bringing your meals until you have regained your strength in a day or two. Anything you need, you need only clap twice and they will appear to do your bidding. It is not much compared to the banquets of Pandess but you will need to regain your stamina before you move on to more nourishing meals.”
Avis watched them separate as they approached him, the one with the food coming past Clarise to kneel beside the bed with her hands extended over Avis’ chest. The starving god didn’t wait to see what the other was up to. With the fruit now under his nose, he took two huge handfuls and stuffed them in his mouth, shovelling it to the back to make room for more before it vanished.
“Avis, easy, my love! You will give yourself an upset stomach,” Clarise warned, wiping his chin with a napkin, while her free hand restrained his other fistful of fruit.
Avis tried to explain how he wouldn’t get a stomach ache no matter how much he ate, but the burble that escaped his food-laden lips was incomprehensible.
“Here,” she said, taking the filled goblet from Tilu and tilting it to his lips. “Gently now.”
But Avis wasn’t interested in gently. The moment the nourishing liquid touched his tongue he dropped the fruit and snatched at the base of the goblet, tilting it sharply and guzzling the water as quickly as he could.
“Avis, no!” Clarise chastised, breaking his grip on the goblet.
A small noise of defiance escaped Avis’ throat as he leaned forward with his hand outstretched for the goblet, but Clarise was adamant. “Slowly,” she said, holding the goblet away from him and allowing her eyes to change into balls of flame inside her Mystallian skull to reiterate the command, not only as his wife, but also as a Hellion Highborn.
The reaction in Avis was instantaneous. Like an abused child, his hand dropped to the bed and he hid the offending limb beneath the sheets, his eyes anywhere but on her and his back burrowing into the pillows and mattress to escape her.
Seeing his will completely collapse, Clarise regretted her decision to resort to the Hellion’s influence over him and returned her eyes to Mystallian before lifting his chin to look at her. “Slowly,” she repeated, pressing her forehead against his. “Please, trust me, my love. There is plenty of fruit to settle your stomach, but these first steps must be slow or the pain that will follow will make you think you are back amongst the Damned.”
After that, Avis ate only the food she fed him as she offered it, and watching him, Clarise fought to keep her tears in check.
Cora didn’t appreciate his spontaneous amusement and threw herself back on to her feet. Her arms dropped to her sides and her fists clenched as she stomped her right foot at him. “How dare you laugh at me!”
Still chuckling, but now for an entirely different reason, Avis looked at her wryly. If this wasn’t so serious, he’d be laughing his ass off at the nerve of the little twerp. “Cora, I think you need to understand a few ground rules where my family is concerned. First and foremost, once you’ve had your shot, it’s over. You don’t get to hang on to your anger for a second round.”
Cora curled her lip and slammed her fists into her hips. “You cannot stop me from hating you!” she snarled.
Avis deliberately straightened to his full height. “That, is where you’re sorely mistaken, trouble.” Trouble—his new nick-name for her. Fitting. “By the time I’m done with you, you’ll still sense something’s wrong, but you won’t have a clue about the specifics. Make no mistake, I can and will take that entire day’s memory from you if you keep this crap up.” He paused for a moment, just long enough for that to sink in. “You want to know where you get your mind powers from, little girl? The ones you’ve deluded yourself into thinking you’re the only one who has them?” He clapped both hands together and bounced them apart to open his arms wide, rolling his fingers back towards himself. “You’re looking at him.”
Cora’s outrage turned to shock … then horror. “YOU?”
Avis grinned. “Me,” he agreed, flicking his eyebrows tauntingly. “That’s my family’s gift, and just like the Hellions and their shifting, the further up the food chain you sit, the more powerful you are.” —he raised his left hand and curled his thumb and forefinger to represent a zero— “Translation: you have exactly no chance of mentally dominating me. Ever.”
For Avis, lunch had been just as horrendous as breakfast, but at least this time he’d adjusted to his situation and forced a few bites past his unwilling lips, provided he didn’t have to chew anything. In fact, most of his sustenance came from drinking, which he managed to achieve by closing his eyes and skolling what he could on a single breath. It was ironic that he was utilizing the one skill he’d spent most of his adult life honing in order to outdrink Zeus and Odin, but he wasn’t going to argue now. Skol … skol … skol … He could almost hear those two chanting and cheering him on.
His lungs burned, but still he drank. If he could get all the way to the end, it’d be done. Over. He wouldn’t have to do it again for another few hours. With the stein almost fully inverted, he gave it a final shake to loosen the last drops from the bottom, then tore it away from his lips and slammed it into the mat in front of him in triumph. Done! He gasped in a combination of relief and repulsion, gritting his teeth and pressing the back of his gloved fist against his mouth to prevent the liquid from being regurgitated. It wasn’t easy. The mental imagery of what the soul would be enduring at this very moment was one he just couldn’t get past. He’d been bitten and clawed at plenty of times during the last two years, but his captors had never chewed up the chunk and swallowed it. He wasn’t even certain how that would have affected him. He wasn’t a mortal soul, after all.
Clarise wasn’t entirely thrilled with his new approach to the meals, but it was the best she was going to get, and he’d be damned all over again before he apologised for it. He looked out of the corner of his eye at her, refusing to back down.
Once he was certain his point had been made, he stood up and withdrew from the mat, crossing to the other end of the raft where the demon steeds were hitched. Just because he wanted to vomit every time he thought about the meal’s ingredients, didn’t mean he wanted to spoil their meals. He ran his hand over the nearest steed’s shoulder, snorting himself at the thin stream of smoke and hellfire that poured from the beast’s nose in response to his touch.
Maybe they were growing on him. Maybe. He certainly shared their growing irritability at the boredom level.