The dark chamber stank like decomposed flesh. The stifled air reeked of moist mammalian fur drenched in sweat. The beast nudged aside bones and tucked its muzzle underneath a half-eaten human carcass. The beast mewled miserably and sought what warmth it could find. The remains offered little of that. It was a frigid feast. A gelid gorge.
Rats scurried to the cadaver, eager to partake in the festival of flesh. The beast’s lidless eye stared at them, yet saw nothing. The beast’s sleep was deep.
The cell’s only door was made of silver, as was the deadbolt securing it, as were the plates set into the walls. Six feet from the door, a red line etched into the ground, marked safety’s end. All who entered were well aware of this mark, for the beast could reach what crossed it. Two of Astor’s minions had verified this with their deaths.
The door hummed and the red Enochian glyphs blazed above it, indicating that it was locked.
Silver chains, fixed to the chamber’s rear wall, were attached to silver manacles clasped about the creature’s wrists, ankles, and neck. The bands constantly irritated the beast’s skin. Beneath its fur, the skin was red, bruised, and swollen. Always itching. Always peeling. Enough to discomfort. Not enough to kill.
The chains swung and rattled with the cadence of its breathing. Along the surface of the bands, the Enochian glyphs slept, engravings impressed into the silver. Although the chains allowed the beast the breadth of the room, they kept it from crossing the entrance’s marker.
Moments ago, the glyphs on the binds had blazed bright red, sent sparks of searing pain throughout the creature’s stunted, nine-foot form. The eye with its intact lid shot open. The course hair along its limbs electrified erect and the massive muscles of its elongated, lupine form spasmed and convulsed. The beast’s snout had tried to stretch. Its feet had tried to lengthen. Claws had tried reaching past their limitations, but the chains and binds forbade their completion, until the next hunt.
It had howled to release the pain. Thankfully, the hurt had been brief, as quickly doused as inflamed. Once the glyphs had returned to dormancy, the pain ebbed away, like fading waves of fire.
The beast returned to sleep, though sleep offered no solace, nor a release. Entombed by nightly nightmares, the creature was as much a prisoner within them as it was within the chamber. Tears ran down its cheeks, ran down its half-formed muzzle. “I was once something,” the beast said to the room in a grave baritone that shifted the carcass. The massing rodents scampered for safety and abandoned their ravenous feed.
He’s at the abyss again. A rime lined pit from which winged demons emerge. They’ve come for the damned souls of the dead. Hideous screams fill the landscape as the Demons of the Pit collect those destined for Hell.
The angel monitoring Purgatory stands statuesque, his great wings open, his gold armor gleaming. The Enochian script set within his armor blazes blue, as does the shimmering sword in his right hand. In his left hand, a rod of flames. With this, he points to the pit.
The demons part as the dreamer approaches. Their black eyes dance with mirth, their mouths form smirking smiles.
He stops at the edge of the abyss and gazes down. Cold air punches him and wafts Hell’s putrid odors up his nostrils, a stench he’s grown accustomed to and learned to like. Around him, more wails, as arriving souls realize what doom awaits them. Tossed into the abyss, they descend, limbs flaying, trying to grab hold of the frozen sides.
He disregards the chaos around him. Marches to his doom as he always does. Every night, a hell remembered, a hell repeated. He leaps into the chasm.
He’s now on the ground in the middle of an empty amphitheater. The seats rise high, but could never block the view of the distant spires. From their peaks, sulfurous fumes and ash erupt and engulf the damned dwelling beneath them. The ashes fall like confetti. Above, the starless sky greets him with its flat black face, its endless night.
Two demons stand above him, proudly exhibiting their rank, etched in blackened, plate armor. Mist streams from between plates. Black holes glare from the slits of shut helms. Knotted at their throats, sweeping scarlet cloaks. Clawed hands fall from gauntlets and taloned toes spill from grieves. Set between their wings, swords sheathed behind their backs, whose pommels alight with seven sigils representing Hell’s Houses. Enochian script, and medals gleam-crimson. The markings mock the dreamer.
They drop shackles to the floor, then kick them toward the disgraced.
The demons say nothing, but silently scoff. Their emerging wings signal impatience. With little choice, the dreamer rises to his knees and reaches for the manacles. On all four limbs, he clasps them closed. The Enochian script rages red.
The demons grab the linked metal and yank him to his feet.
“How the mighty have fallen,” one of them says, reaching for the ranking insignia upon the dreamer’s breast, then tearing it away. Where the crimson badge once was, a red wound glares, seeping scarlet.
“The Tribunal awaits,” says the other. They steer him towards the arena’s exit.
Later, in the amphitheatre, his accomplice, Bailien is there as well, shackled about the wrists and ankles to a black crucifix, his wings, nailed to a parallel post. They’ve stripped his rank, and the empty space pulses like a healing wound with the scab removed.
The watching minions in the stands roar. The vast amphitheatre holds many of the damned, all wishing for entertainment. Their jeers cascade over the prisoners. A chorus of torment exploding around them. But the eyes of the condemned stare at only one area of the amphitheatre, at its center seat, raised high, flanked by granite pillars. The throne won’t lie empty for long.
The dreamer turns to his lieutenant, hissing as he speaks. “We will both suffer.”
“They will take our wings.” Bailien says, unable to keep the fear from his voice, wistfully looking at his wings, soaking the sight of them up, one last time. He will lose more than their power of flight.
“We’ll have our vengeance,” the dreamer says. “Look out for him. Look out for the betrayer. Surely Raguel fell. I will satisfy my vengeance, Bailien, no matter the cost.”
Suddenly, a hush descends upon the crowd. The court sits electrified and expectant. Behind the throne, the darkness moves. Shadows part.
Hearing his name, the dreamer turns to Bailien. But the voice coming from his lieutenant’s mouth is not his own.
The dream faded. The beast was awakened by the same voice, this time outside of the dream, shouting, “Lucien! Lucien! Wake up!” The beast opened its eyes.
“Rise, damn you!” Astor shouted.
The beast, formerly known as Lord Lucien, leader of House Wrath’s Host, leapt into the air and bounded out of his nightmare, bringing it with him into the waking world. Silver binds pulled him taut, inches from Astor’s face. Snapping teeth, glistening with sprayed saliva, threatened to free themselves from the prison of his braying mouth. Well within the cell’s safety zone, Astor and Bailien barely budged, though the former internally recoiled.
Astor gripped the talisman. The glyphs awoke, as did the ones on Lucien’s restraints. Bailien flinched, but the Enochian characters on his back binds remained dormant. Astor reserved this torment for Lucien alone.
Fur burned and searing wounds bled in an acidic haze. Blood drenched the manacles in waves of bubbling heat. Lucien let loose a primal scream and backed away from the red marker.
Astor released the talisman and deactivated the glyphs. The burning subsided. Lucien settled to his haunches and glared at Astor, past the smoke that was still steaming from his singed fur. Though the red glyphs were dormant, Lucien knew that their slumber was light and that Astor wouldn’t hesitate to awaken them again.
Lucien’s eyes sliced through the smoke, found Astor’s, and held them.
“Good,” Astor said, clearly pleased, “they seem to work.” He tugged on the talisman’s silver chain and met Lucien’s glare. “Better than the last ones. You won’t talk to me. But you’ll talk to Bailien.”
Astor suddenly reached for his left wrist, where a faint red glow pulsed and beat beneath the cuff. He gripped his arm and hissed. “Asmodeus,” he said, referring to Lust’s house ruler, a Winged-One, one of the Seven Princes of Hell. He left the chamber and slammed the door shut behind him. The glyphs above the door lit. The heavy humming returned.
There wasn’t enough time to speculate how little of it they had. Astor’s conversations with Asmodeus varied in length. Bailien didn’t want to waste the opportunity. They were rare enough.
“Simple to make you seethe.”
“Only when it comes to him,” Lucien said. “He’s not fit to run a coven. Strong leaders must prevail.”
“Have you learned nothing? Look where our endeavors have placed us. Subtlety has some merit. Though I do agree. The Mortal Born aren’t fit to rule. They don’t deserve it.”
“What does he want? Why is Astor here?”
“Needs you for a hunt,” Bailien said, getting back to business. “But this one’s different.”
“This one’s much older.”
“I have hunted older vampires before.”
“Not this old. It’s a Winged-One. I’ve tasted the blood. Ancient. Eternal. Our Recreant may also be a Renegade. Besides killing our recruit, Drake, he’s killed Servanah as well,” Bailien said. “You may also want to check in on a Mortal Born vampire belonging to House Sloth. One of Laszlo’s boys. Name’s Darius. Works at the city morgue. But let’s deal with our own House first. Check Drake’s house, then Servanah’s. I’ll have to get permission from Laszlo before you can speak to Darius. It’s too late anyway. Day is coming.”
“A Winged-One? Could it be our betrayer?”
“That thought crossed my mind. Don’t get your hopes up.”
“Still, the possibility remains.”
Bailien shrugged. “If he’s our betrayer, best bring him in. More valuable alive than dead.”
“If it is indeed Raguel, I’ll kill him, Bailien.”
“Think that through, my liege. Though vengeance would be sweet, we’ve more to gain by delivering him to Hell ourselves. Do as Astor bids. I haven’t told him that the Recreant is a Winged-One. I have my man in place. Look out for him when you leave the tunnel; I’m sure you’ll pick up his scent.”
“Bailien, if it’s Raguel, I cannot promise to bring him back alive.”
Although glad for this timely excuse, Astor was hesitant to answer the call. Asmodeus wanted more bodies. That was all. He couldn’t know about Drake, or Servanah. And he planned to keep it that way. At least until he found the one responsible for their premature deaths.
The burning sensation along his wrist intensified. He held his wrist, not quite ready to pull up the sleeve, the vibrating seal adding to his tension. But he couldn’t keep his master waiting. His wrist now felt like it was ablaze. Finally, he pulled back the sleeve. Like the glyphs above the door, it blazed red. Astor reluctantly ran his hand over it and opened the conduit.
For a moment, Astor’s vision was consumed by red. His eyes rolled to the back of his head as he leaned against the moist wall behind him. The corridor faded into the background as that red light pouring from the sigil blanketed and consumed everything. Then the darkness came. Astor left this world and drifted into that night.
“Astor, it’s time,” a voice said within the pitch-black void.
Astor peered into the dark. At first, he saw nothing, then he saw movement, black on black. It wasn’t until Asmodeus raised his head that Astor saw that the motion had been his master’s wings, beating the air behind him. His robes covered all, the hood pulled down past his nose, a faint illumination shown from underneath that cowl, amplifying Asmodeus’s blood red lips. When he spoke, the daggers of his teeth were visible.
Astor understood his master’s reference. “How many?”
“One more for now. Tomorrow,” Asmodeus said.
“Yes, my lord.”