Abyssus Abbey

by Pen Darke

 Welcome to Abyssus Abbey… a place where monks study and summon demons in an attempt to prevent the Apocalypse. The demons are in the walls, listening to your words, your thoughts, your desires, and if you fall prey to any of the Twelve Temptations, you may find yourself changed in ways you may not have expected. The Abbey has always drawn and doomed those who seek power and knowledge, and if you’re lucky, you might find something else there: a change in your outlook, a surprising ability, a friend where no friend was expected, and even romance. But all pleasures come with a price, and sooner or later the devil will have his due. Come in. Join the damned.

Added: Feb 2020 Updated: 16 May 2020 124,798 words 19,105 views 4.9 stars (61 votes)

Similarly Named Stories: You might be looking for: “Abyssus Abbey 2” by Pen Darke.

Contents (17 parts)
Part 1: Arrival Welcome to Abyssus Abbey—a place where monks study and summon demons in an attempt to prevent the Apocalypse. The demons are in the walls, listening to your words, your thoughts, your desires, and if you fall prey to any of the Twelve Temptations, you may find yourself changed in ways you may not have expected. The Abbey has always drawn and doomed those who seek power and knowledge, and if you’re lucky, you might find something else there: a change in your outlook, a surprising ability, a friend where no friend was expected, and even romance. But all pleasures come with a price, and sooner or later the devil will have his due. Come in. Join the damned. (added: 22 Feb 2020)Part 2: InitiationPart 3: A New NormalPart 4: RitualPart 5: In TonguesPart 6: FeastingPart 7: Confession The Master of Apprentices, surprised by the changes that have already happened to Tuco, allows Tuco to taste the elder’s secret desires—much to their mutual regret. (added: 7 Mar 2020)Part 8: PenancePart 9: WildernessPart 10: Imp and Goliath Transformed with horns, fangs, and tail, Tuco journeys back to the Abbey under Rigby’s watchful eye where he faces an uncertain fate—until a mishap en route and an encounter with Belphegor change everything. (added: 18 Apr 2020)Part 11: A WhisperPart 12: IncubusPart 13: Small Sacrifices In search of souls, Tuco must confront the powerful incubus who cursed him, while still dealing with the growth and transformation his sex-magic wreaks on himself and others. (added: 2 May 2020)Part 14: FeedingPart 15: Two Wrongs Don’t Make a RitePart 16: Lust Knight In the climactic conclusion to Book I, Tuco and his companions face down the all-powerful sex-god Asmodeus. (added: 16 May 2020)Part 17: Heart of Corruption

On a moonless night like this, Abyssus Abbey was almost a welcome sight, looming at the top of its mountain perch. Orange torchlight framing its massive, black gates and lining its crenelated walls raised Tuco’s spirits a little. The night was very dark and very cold, and if the rumors were true, wolves ran through these hills. Wolves and worse things. Things that ate wolves.

Besides, his feet were so sore from walking that sitting down anywhere would be welcome. He’d have taken a cart if he could, but the last of his pennies had long since been spent, and besides, few carts would venture near Abyssus Abbey. In the last village Tuco had passed through, the townsfolk wouldn’t even speak of it, calling it that place and giving him pitying looks when he asked how to get there.

He tugged his thin cloak around his shoulders; the higher he climbed up the path, the stiffer and chillier the wind. Above him, the massive, sprawling abbey crouched atop the mountain like a panther. He had never seen any building so large before. It looked the size of an entire town, its walls stretching far off to his left, while the rightmost edge seemed to have run out of mountaintop and leaned out over empty space, one crooked tower looking ready to break free of the architecture and go tumbling down the hill.

So this was to be his home, for however long he lasted. The light was welcome, and he hoped for warmth inside, but the closer he drew, the more forbidding and oppressive the place looked. The gates towered over him, twenty feet high at least. He rapped on the rough wood with his knuckles, but he might as well have been knocking on a block of stone for all the sound it made. He pounded a little harder, with the side of his hand, but still only produced a muffled thumping that no one answered.

“Hello?” he called out. His voice sounded tiny and thin in the wind. Just as he was despairing, thinking he’d have to huddle up against the gates the whole night and hope he didn’t die of chill (or from one of the things out there in the darkness), he noticed the rope hanging to one side of the gate. He gave it a hard pull, and heard a faint, mellow dong from inside, followed by a long silence.

Then a weary-sounding voice came from above. “You a supplicant?”

“No, I—” He looked up to see the silhouette of a head sticking out of a window above the gates. What was a supplicant? Was he? “I’m here for an apprenticeship?”

“Wait there.”

After a time, a smaller door cut into the larger one opened and produced a tired-looking man, accompanied by a gust of warmer air and a smoky, musty, lived-in smell. “Well, come on in.”

Tuco followed him through the door and found himself in a wide, open entryway with a pitted wooden floor. The ceilings were shrouded in shadows, too lofty to be lit by the candles inside. He sniffed the air—again, that smoky smell, but also the must of old stone and wood, the stink of sulphur and other chemicals, and a musky odor that reminded him a bit of a stableyard and a bit more of the traveling menagerie that had come through town when he was a young boy.

He sidled closer to one of the candle sconces to feel a little meager warmth and inspected his host, who was locking up the door again. The man was about average height with a lined, weathered face and brown hair hanging loose around his shoulders. He was dressed in a plain, dark brown robe. Tuco blinked. “You look…” and then trailed off, embarrassed.

“Normal?” The man arched an eyebrow. “No, no, it’s all right. Whatever you’ve heard about the Abbey, it’s probably true. They keep us Unchanged working the door to help visitors relax. You’ll see more tomorrow. This way, please.”

Tuco scurried to keep up as the man headed briskly down a side passage behind an iron door. The gusts of wind sounded just as loud in here as they had outside, with a haunting, howling edge to them. The man opened a side door and gestured to Tuco. “In here, please.”

Inside the room was a straw pallet covered with a thin, moth-eaten blanket, a night-soil pot, and a washbasin with a clay pitcher next to it. “This is where you’ll sleep tonight. If you’re approved for service, you’ll join the others in the dormitory tomorrow.”

Tuco stared wearily at the room. It didn’t look very comfortable, but he was so tired, he doubted it would matter. Then something the man had said bothered him. “Approved?”

“This is a demonology monastery. You don’t think they’re going to let just anyone serve here, do you? They’re very, very careful here. Do you understand? The Brothers don’t like risks. If there’s anything in your past or upbringing that you’re worried they might not like, it’s better to bring it up early.” He pointed down the hall. “See those?”

Framing hallway, perched at regular intervals at the top of the wall, were pairs of gargoyles, each of them gnarled and grotesque, part lion, part lizard, their fanged snouts carved into a permanent grimace, the empty circles of their stone eyes staring downward. “Those are the Gasen. The gazers. If you had even a touch of demon in your soul you wouldn’t have made it inside the door. They’re all through the Abbey and they’ll scream bloody murder if they don’t like the look of you. One little peep from those and you’re out, if you’re lucky and no one thinks you’re too dangerous.”

Tuco shrank back from them, intimidated. They looked like they wanted to scream. Their hollow eyes seemed to swallow him. “And what if you aren’t lucky?”

“Then you go into the Throat. And you don’t want to go to the Throat. So be careful. These walls are full of whispers. They make offers, promises. Don’t say yes. Agree to nothing. Hear?”

Tuco nodded.

The man gave a grunt of satisfaction. “You’ll be all right. For a while. Just take my advice. I don’t know what brought you here, but as soon as you’ve got enough, get out. One day you’re fine, the next it’s too late. Go on, then.” He ushered Tuco into the room.

Tuco shuffled into the room and sat down on the prickly pallet. The man began to shut the door. “Wait,” Tuco called. “What should I call you?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll take you to meet Lord Krastor tomorrow. If you’re accepted, you won’t see me again until you decide to leave.”

“And if I’m not accepted?”

The man shrugged. “Then there’s not much point getting to know me, is there?” He shut the door. There was the sound of keys turning in the lock.

Tuco lay back in the bed, pulling the worn blanket over himself and huddling under it. It would have been too small for an average man, but it covered his slight frame well enough, despite the holes and ragged edges. It wasn’t exactly warm, but it was better than being out in the wilderness.

Now that he was still, the sounds of the Abbey rolled over him. Mostly it was the gusting wind outside, but there were other sounds beneath it. He thought he heard someone shouting, and several times the sounds of large beasts snarling or howling, some distance away. He hoped they came from outside the Abbey. He thought again of the Gasen, their hollow eyes scouring the hallways throughout the monastery, searching, searching for demons, for corruption, for anything that didn’t belong. And he thought he would never fall asleep. Halfway through considering it, he did.

The stairway up to Lord Krastor’s tower was winding and narrow. Tuco felt fairly sure this was the same tower he’d seen from outside the Abbey; everything seemed to list to one side, and if he looked up or down, the twisting angles dizzied him so badly he needed to cling to the wall. What kind of monk—much less a Lord—would choose to live in such a location? If he didn’t know better, he’d swear the tower was swaying in the wind.

The man from last night had led him here and simply told him to climb to the top where he would be evaluated. The monastery was still chilly, but not as bad as last night, and at least this morning Tuco’s belly was full. More so than it had been in months, actually. He’d awoken to the mouth-watering scent of hot fat and bread. After a mouthwatering breakfast of biscuits and pork drippings, he’d been instructed to clean himself up with cold water and a coarse towel and then ushered down a hall full of Gasen to the winding staircase.

He paused for a moment at the top of the stairs. The doorway was tall, with a wrought-iron handle that looked too small for it. Fighting the anxiety that felt like two dogs fighting in his stomach, he knocked.

Muted by the door, a voice answered, “Come.” It was an older voice, and deep, aristocratic, the kind that didn’t waste words on underlings. Why say, “Come on in,” or, “Please make yourself at home,” when “Come” would work just as well?

The door gave a satisfying, slow creak as he pushed it open. A gust of hot air wafted out. The smell was odd and unpleasant. It was earthy, but with rot, and an acrid scent, as though someone had turned over a very large log. The room inside was huge and dim, with only a few candles burning. There were no desks, no chairs, no bed, nothing that suggested that anyone spent any amount of time here other than the bookshelves, which lined every wall and sagged with the weight of innumerable tomes. They stretched up the walls, far beyond the reach of the meagre candlelight, fading into darkness above. Tuco couldn’t tell how far above him the ceiling was, and if the tower had any windows, they were blocked by the shelves. The air felt very stuffy and dry.

“Close the door,” the voice instructed. Tuco couldn’t tell where it came from, but he couldn’t see the speaker. He peered up into the gloom above him. Something drifted in the stirred air, like threads.

He pulled his hat from his head, his mussed brown hair falling in front of his eyes. “If you please, Your Lordship, my name is Tuco. Tuco Witchywine, sir.”

“And you come seeking apprenticeship?”

“Yes, sir. If I am accepted. You see—”

“Your family is in dire straits. Starving. You have younger siblings going hungry. An infant is ill. You hope to earn as much as ten pence a week that you will send home to them for food and medicine.”

Tuco stared up into the blackness, astonished. “But—but how could you know that, Your Lordship? Are you a demon? Or have they given you secret knowledge?”

“Tut.” The voice sounded bored. “It is the same story of every young man who comes through here. Or nearly. Some wish to avoid a draft into whatever war Queen Tibera is bothering with. And some wish to avoid the debtor’s prison. But most…” There was a long, weary sigh. “Most just want to send money back home. For food and medicine.”

Tuco didn’t know what to say. He turned his hat around and around in his hands. “It’s good money, sir.”

“You’re very small for an apprentice. Are you of age?”

“Twenty-two, sir. The clerics say my growth was stunted on account of we didn’t have much to eat, sir.”

“So you are a religious boy, then?”

Tuco scoured the ceiling for the source of the voice. His eyes were adjusting to the darkness, but he still couldn’t make out anything in the gloom. Just more and more of those long threads hanging down. “I say my prayers most nights. And on holidays father would take us into town for services.”

“Not regular, then. But you know the Twelve Temptations?”

“Oh, yes sir. Recited them every day since I was three years old, sir.”

“Say them now.”

Tuco didn’t even have to think before reciting them. The deadly temptations were as familiar to him as the names of his own family, and there were more of those. His father had taught him his letters using the curled brown parchment on the wall, the one with The Twelve Temptations calligraphed in red ink at the top, outlined in gold:

1. The Temptation of Food
2. The Temptation of Ease
3. The Temptation of Carnal Pleasures
4. The Temptation of Safety
5. The Temptation of Wealth
6. The Temptation of Belonging
7. The Temptation of Beauty
8. The Temptation of Love
9. The Temptation of Position
10. The Temptation of Vengeance
11. The Temptation of Power
12. The Temptation of Self

Dutifully, he recited them.

There was no answer from the voice for a moment. “So you can memorize your scripture. But do you understand the temptations?”

Tuco wondered whether it was better to put up a confident front, but decided humility was the better option. “I—I hope so, sir. But I’m sure I have much to learn.”

“This is not a place for learning,” the deep voice answered sharply. “When you come here, it is expected that you have completed all the education, both academic and spiritual, that you hope to receive.”

This answer was puzzling. He looked down at his hat for a moment, and then back up at the gloom. “I don’t understand, sir. I thought I was to become an apprentice. Am I not supposed to learn?”

“It is a possibility. But a rare one. Most apprentices do not last long here. In any other apprenticeship, your father would be expected to pay a fee for your training. Here, we pay. Do you know why?”

“Because no one leaves Abyssus Abbey. Not… not unchanged, sir.”

“Do you know what that is? Do you know what ‘changed’ means?”

“Yes, sir. I think so. We’ve seen some of the people who have come back, sir. There was a fellow back in Washburn—that’s my village—who went off here and he came back after four months. Only he wasn’t the same. His arms were snakes, sir. Not just scales and such, but proper snakes, with heads and everything. He said he could see through their eyes, sir. Feel what they felt. One time… one time I found him feeding them rats. He acted strange. Not scared, or mad I’d caught him. Just proud. He said feeding them made him feel strong. I told my mum and we… we weren’t allowed to talk to him anymore, after that.”

“I remember him.” The voice sounded thoughtful. “Yes. Jenkins. The gift was three snakes.”

“Three, sir? Only he just had the two arms.”

“Yes.” As if the question hadn’t been asked, the voice continued. “Do you know why I said gift?”

“No, sir. It’s not the sort of thing I’d like on my birthday, sir.” He ventured a little laugh, on the off chance that a boy with a good sense of humor would be appreciated.

“The demons in Abyssus Abbey are evil, but their changes are not haphazard. It means random, boy,” the voice added when Tuco screwed up his face in a puzzled expression. “What they do to you, they do based on your desire. Little wishes. Things you thought you wanted in the moment. When a demon is in your control, in the power of your ritual, all it takes is one little slip, one moment of errant desire. That is why knowing your Temptations is so important. Only one moment of forgetting them could be your downfall.”

“But…” Tuco trailed off, remembering his situation. He did not want to risk his acceptance by questioning one of the masters of the keep, especially one who, if he was calling himself Lord, must still be a noble.

“Yes?” the voice said kindly. “Go on. The demons may seek to satisfy your curiosity in mischievous ways, but the Brothers here will not.”

“Well, if the demons are so dangerous, then why summon them at all?”

“No one has told you what we seek here?”

“No, sir. People say you want things from the demons. Wealth, or power. Gifts.”

“Gifts.” A dry chuckle came from somewhere up in the ceiling. It sounded almost angry. “Gifts?”

And then something, swinging at the end of a long thread, lowered out of the shadows. Something huge and round, with many long, spindly legs. It was a massive spider, easily ten feet long. Its shiny black carapace gleamed in the candlelight, and splashed across its bulbous abdomen was a red hourglass shape. But where its head should have been, the black chitin melded into the lean torso of a man—an older man, wearing what had probably once been a fine shirt and waistcoat, but which was now rumpled and worn. From the waist up, he looked completely normal until Tuco met his gaze and saw that he had six eyes, arranged in a row below his brow. Two looked like ordinary human eyes, brown and tired. The inner two were solid, empty black, and the outer two glittered, shifting white sparkles in a sea of deep blue, like the night sky. He grimaced, and Tuco saw that two of his teeth were long as his fingers, curved and black. “Does this look like a gift to you, boy?” he snarled. He stepped closer to Tuco, the long, thin legs moving in a complicated ballet, his footsteps silent.

Tuco had instinctively recoiled back against a bookshelf, but he forced himself to step forward, to ignore the pounding in his heart, and take a few deep breaths. They wouldn’t have sent him in here to be killed, and the… lord… had given him no indication of menace before now. He frowned.


“I’m thinking, sir.”

“About what?” the spiderlord snapped.

“About… whether it would be a good trade. Human legs for a spider’s body. I guess people would be pretty scared of you, but that’s better than them pushing you into the mud, right? But you’re never going to trip and fall down ever again. And it looks like you can use them to climb all over, which could be very fun.”

All six of Lord Krastor’s eyes widened. “It… well, it can be fun, yes.”

“And useful, because now you can reach all those books without ladders, and you can make your home in any part of a room. I bet eight legs run pretty fast as well. And it looks like you can spin webs, which could be useful for all sorts of things. Making snares for animals, of course, but also any time you need to stick two things together or have a bit of string, you’ve got it. That’s got to be handy.” He sighed, frowning again as he thought. “But… the eyes, sir. Can you see out of all of them at once? What is that like?”

“Disconcerting,” Lord Krastor replied, but his voice was tinged with surprise and interest. “The inner ones see the past and the outer ones see the future. A little ways, in some cases.”

“But sir, that’s amazing! That’s an incredible ability. Why should you see it as anything but a gift?”

“Because I’ll never have a normal life.”

“Oh, I’ve had one of those for a while, now. You aren’t missing anything, sir.”

“And people will call me monster.”

Tuco nodded ruefully. “People call me cruel names sometimes too, sir. It hurts at first, but really they’re just letting you know who’s not worth listening to. And if I had a spider’s body, I could play all kinds of pranks on—”

“Don’t,” Krastor said sharply. “Don’t wish for it. Don’t let the thought enter your head. Everything has a… a cost. But you do have an interesting perspective, don’t you?” He stared at Tuco for a moment, and as he did so, the two glittery eyes seemed to yawn a deeper and deeper blue, the stars within them spinning. Tuco gazed back into them and felt for a moment as if he were plummeting down, down into them, falling into an endless night sea full of the reflections of stars. Then Krastor blinked, and he was suddenly back to himself.

“It is seldom that I can see far into the future of any person. My eyes show me only events that are set and will not change. People are predictable, but they do make choices, so their futures are blurred, indistinct. Sometimes an applicant will come to my room and I can see the temptation deep in their hearts and the changes they will take over time. But you…”

“Me, sir?” Tuco asked. He felt uneasy about hearing his fortune. The traveling people had told his fortune once when they had come through town, but it had always been very vague, about finding a secret love and a new opportunity for wealth, the sort of thing that could have applied to anyone. He had never before met anyone who could physically look into the world beyond.

Krastor shook his head. “No. No, I won’t tell you, lest it influence you. The futures I see cannot be changed, but the unset futures can, and I will not influence them.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Tuco, disappointed. “But if you don’t mind my asking, what was it you wished for that earned you these changes?”

The older man shook his head and then stared past Tuco as though looking into the past, which, Tuco supposed, he was literally doing. “Mobility, for one. Rheumatism had seized up my joints. I could not reach my books to continue my research. And I’d wished for sight, to see the unseen, what had been and what might be. The demon who answered chose to grant my wish by making me part spider.”

“What were you hoping to see, sir?”

A sigh. “The answers to why we’re all here, at the mouth of Infernus, the demon world. It is here that the Beast of the Apocalypse will rise to consume the world. And it is only here that any of us have a chance to stop it. That is what most of us wish: to seal the demon lords away forever and prevent the end of days. Of course there are always some who insinuate themselves into our ranks seeking power or wealth as you said, but the signs are clear: the end is coming soon. And that is why, more than ever before, we need apprentices.”

Tuco nodded, understanding. “You use us in your rituals. To call the demons. So that we can take the changes for you.”

Lord Krastor’s many legs beat a tattoo on the floor, like a man drumming his fingers. “Alas, it is so. To cast the rituals requires a working mouth and tongue, hands and arms that can perform the tasks and inscribe the sigils, and a mind not lost to lust, wrath, or greed. Few can last more than a few encounters with the demons without losing at least one of those. As far back as our records go, none has lasted more than five summonings. If we lose all the knowledge and experience of one of the masters here… then we have lost valuable progress toward thwarting Sathanus and his coming Apocalypse. Apprentices become necessary to bear the cost of these rituals. Of course, we try to release them before they are too far gone, but…” His six eyes turned downward, looking beyond the floor to some room deep within the Abbey. “…but often we are not successful.”

He took a deep breath, which made his large abdomen pulse and rise. “Well. Let us test you. That is, if you still wish to be admitted.”

“Yes, sir,” said Tuco, though all this talk was worrying. He knew he might not go home to his family, or that if he did, he would not be the same, but everything sounded much more dire than he’d realized. Several times over his childhood, he had been allowed to look into the big, elaborate Book of Truth at the cathedral. It had been mostly pretty words that he could not read, outlined in red and gold like the list of Temptations on their wall at home. Tuco could not even begin to understand how shapes could form sounds on a page; the act of reading was itself a kind of magic that eluded him. But the vicar had showed him some of the special pages, made of a special paper, with finely detailed, brightly colored illustrations. There was the picture of Shimshon, the strongest man ever to live, tearing down the temple of the heretics with his bare hands. There was Jehoshua, blowing the bugle of the Seraphim so loudly that it fractured the walls of the damned fortress Reah, sending them crumbling to the ground. A lot of dramatic pictures of ancient buildings being destroyed, really.

But the last illustration, the one near the back of the book, had been terrifying, for it showed the city atop Mount Megiddu, the site of the last battle of humanity and the angels against the demons. Everywhere there was fire, and destruction, and people screaming, and above it all rose the figure of Sathanus, the Beast of the Apocalypse, a terrible red dragon whose seven horned heads reached toward the sky, each crowned and breathing destruction on the world below. On that day, the world of mankind would end, the angels would rescue what souls they could and take them to the Green Pastures, and the demons would take over the earth where they would rule it into its ruin and the end of time. The image had been terrifying, haunting his sleep, and driving him to obsessively avoid the Twelve Temptations. As he’d grown older, the memory of that image had lost its potency, but now, to hear from a monk and a noble that it was real and that it could be soon? That was frightening.

But it also meant that helping these monks with their work meant more than just assisting his family; he could be playing some small part in stopping the end of the world, too. If there was any chance at all that he might be able to help, he had to take it. He stuck out his narrow chest a little. “I wish it very much, sir.”

Lord Krastor’s unreadable eyes searched him for a moment. What past was he seeing? What future? “Good,” he said finally, and his eight legs moved, gliding him across the floor to a small bureau wedged between two bookshelves.

“It’s amazing how smoothly you walk,” Tuco said. “Why, I expect you could carry a full cup of tea and never spill a drop.”

Despite himself, a smile quirked the edge of Lord Krastor’s mouth. “Don’t overdo it, boy. You’ll get in, or you won’t.” He took something small and round from the top drawer of the bureau and brought it back to Tuco. “Open your hand.”

Tuco reached out, and Lord Krastor dropped a small glass marble in it. The glass looked as though it had once been clear, but had shattered many, many times and been reformed, so that the inside was a crystalline white. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Just hold it a moment. It will darken with every temptation you have fallen to.”

Tuco waited, staring at the little ball in his hand. It was surprisingly heavy. “How long should it take?”

Lord Krastor’s brow wrinkled above his six eyes, he leaned closer, peering. “Of course, small slips here and there would not show at all, but still, I would expect to see some threads within it.” He straightened up. “Well, well. It seems you are uniquely suited to serve here.” He plucked the marble from Tuco’s palm and tucked it away, but not before Tuco saw dark purple swirls snake through the bauble.

“Does that mean I’m accepted, sir?”

“It does indeed. Just go through that door, and someone will lead you to the apprentice quarters.”

Tuco glanced back, puzzled. “That door, sir? But… but that’s the door I came in?”

A small smile. “Is it?”

Tuco pulled the door open, but where before there had been a narrow wooden landing and a rickety staircase spiraling down, now there was a series of wide stone steps leading down no more than two stories into a wide, open hall. He gaped, astonished.

“Goodbye, Tuco,” Lord Krastor said. His voice came from above. Tuco turned; the master’s long, spindly legs were delicately carrying him up the side of one of the bookshelves and back into the gloom of the ceiling. “I hope you last, boy. I really do. Be vigilant. Guard your mind against temptations. And never, ever, offer your soul for any reason. Your soul is you and you are your soul. Give it up, and you give up yourself, and the demons will control you forever. Goodbye.”

Then he was gone. Tuco closed the door and walked slowly down the steps into the halls of Abyssus Abbey, the last home he could ever expect to see.

The stairs led down into wide, empty hallways lined with pillars that supported high, vaulted ceilings. The hallways led in two directions, framing a large, rectangular area in between. Tuco peered into the larger hall curiously, but could see neither the ceiling nor the far wall; only regular pillars as big around as a cartwheel rising into the darkness, and extending as far back as he could see, scores of little candles flickering in sconces bracketed to each. The hallways stretched endlessly in both directions, broken only by occasional doorways, narrow windows, and wooden benches.

“Well where am I supposed to go?” Tuco wondered out loud, and faint echoes silvered his words.

Only when it moved did he notice the figure sitting on a bench near a doorway; the person had been perched so still and rigid that Tuco hadn’t actually realized it was a person and not some kind of statue. It stood with one smooth motion, neither leaning nor pushing itself upright, turned, and walked toward him with a steady, precise gait.

“Hello,” Tuco said, giving a timid wave.

The man dipped his head a little, stopping a few feet away. “Good morning. I am Rigby. And you must be the new applicant.” Up close, he turned out to be a bit older, perhaps in his forties, his eyes lined with wrinkles, the dark beard on his chin showing a bit of grizzle. He wore only a cream-colored tunic secured with a cloth belt at his waist; his legs, arms, and feet were bare.

“Yes, sir.” Tuco gave what he hoped was a proper, low bow in return. “Tuco Witchywine. Lord Krastor said I was accepted.”

The man’s gaze was unwavering. And unblinking. “That’s plain enough, seeing as how you’re on this side of the tower. And you needn’t bother with ‘sir,’ I’m no master here.”

“Oh, but I thought—” Tuco trailed off, worried he’d offend.


“Well, I thought there were only apprentices and the monks here. And that… apprentices were all changed.”

“You’ll learn how things work around here soon enough.” Rigby extended an arm toward the great hall between the corridors. “This is the main cloister. In an ordinary abbey, of course, it would be open to the sky, and there would be gardens and such, but here, it’s too cold and stormy for that, and besides, the skies are dangerous. Best not to go outside unaccompanied.”

Tuco gazed into the endless darkness, trying to count the little flames twinkling in the distance. There were too many. “What’s it used for, then?”

“Used for? Nothing. It’s there so that the Abyss doesn’t have a skylight. Sometimes we have games down there. Skittles and such. Come this way.” Rigby moved so efficiently that he seemed to glide down the hallway. “All the rooms off this corridor are dormitories for resident and visiting Brothers. No loud talking or other noises between the hours of 8 pm and 7 am. They can and will have you thrown out. Down the other hallway are larger rooms for the Brothers with more unusual needs. I trust I do not need to explain to you.”

Tuco hurried to keep up with him. “Where should I spend my time? Will there be chores?”

“Not for you. Most domestic work is performed by enchantments placed by demons long ago. The rooms keep themselves clean, the candles never burn out, and food prepares itself.”

“That’s very handy,” Tuco observed.

“Every enchantment had a cost. Remember that every time you enjoy a hot bath or clean sheets. Some monk or apprentice lost his form or even his soul making that happen for you. I doubt wherever they are now they consider it very handy. As to where you spend your time, there is the large chapel down there.” Rigby raised one arm and pointed ramrod straight down another hallway with a large staircase at the end. “Prayer is always advisable to keep your soul pure and fortified against temptation. You may spend your hours in the large or small cloister if you wish. There is the library, when Lord Krastor is not occupying it. The large refectory, if you are invited for meals with the brothers, down that direction. And the apprentice dormitories where we are headed now. It is not advisable to go wandering off on your own. Many rooms of the Abbey are dangerous. There are rooms for summoning demons, and rooms where summoned demons remain trapped. Outdoor areas such as the gardens and roof are treacherous. Winds and storms are common here.”

Tuco glanced down at the man’s bare feet and legs, and pulled his cloak more tightly around him. “Yes, I was wondering about that. Aren’t you cold in this chill, damp air?”

Rigby stopped and turned to look at him. His movements were uncanny—eerily precise. “I do not feel the cold.”

“No? Are you Changed?” Tuco asked, feeling a little excited. “Only you look very ordinary. Odd, but ordinary, I reckon.”

Rigby’s unblinking eyes stared at him. “I have been altered, yes.”

“What gift did the demons give you, then? If you don’t mind my asking?”

The man paused, tilting his head. “The gifts were many, but premier among them was immortality. As long as I take care, I will never grow very old and never die.”

“But there is a cost, isn’t there?”

“With demons there is always a cost.” Rigby paused, and then lifted his tunic up and over his head with both hands, revealing his grey undergarments and a hairy chest and stomach.

Tuco stepped back in surprise; he hadn’t expected such openness. Still, the man had been open with him, so he politely leaned to look closer. “I don’t see anything unusual,” he ventured.

“No. They were kind to me in that way.” Rigby placed his right hand to the left of his chest and dug his fingers deep as though about to rake his own flesh. But instead, the skin of his stomach pulled out and away, swinging open as though a door had been installed in his torso. Tuco instinctively flinched, expecting a mass of red and brown gore, but instead saw a complex, whirring set of gears and cogs, spinning and clicking away inside the man’s chest.

“That’s—that’s incredible!” he breathed. “You’re clockwork! Does it hurt?”

“Not usually. Once I stuck my finger in to slow my own gears.” Rigby shuddered, lost for a moment in a recollection of private horror. “I will never do that again. And I’d kill any apprentice who tried,” he added sharply. “It was terrible.”

“What does it feel like?” Tuco asked, peering into the machinery curiously.

“Different. No heartbeat. No blood flowing through my veins. Much less heat. And everything inside me moving, all the time. And I require no rest, no food, no water. And yet I still feel alive. I can’t describe what it is like. Not so you would understand. But soon enough you will have your own changes that you will not be able to explain to anyone else.”

Tuco tried to internalize that comment and failed. The idea that he might soon be different was impossible to comprehend. He had always been Tuco, and could not imagine being anything else. “Do you have to oil yourself to run smoothly?”

A startled expression flickered across the man’s face. “I… have never considered doing that. Perhaps I will try it.” He pushed the panel in his chest closed, and it sealed shut without a crack or scar, looking just like a normal man’s torso. But now that Tuco knew what had happened to the man, he could see the little differences—no subtle pulse of a heartbeat or glow of blood under his flesh. No rise and fall of his chest with his breathing, for he had no lungs. No blinking, no tremors or unconscious movements. Every shift of his body was precise. Tuco thought it must be marvelous to be able to move like that, to have every motion be exactly what was required, smooth and perfect, with no wasted energy. It was a little unearthly and a little inhuman, but graceful as well.

“Let us not waste any more time,” said Rigby, and he strode on down the hallway.

Past the entrances to several rooms, the doors of which were all emblazoned with pentagrams and other sigils for sealing away demons, they passed a stairway with huge steps leading both up and down, and a strange cacophony issued from both directions, mingling together and echoing so that Tuco could not tell which sounds came from ascent or descent. There were roaring sounds, a long, persistent howl, thuds, groans, sounds like shifting stone and other rumblings. “What’s that?” he asked, uneasy.

“I would advise you not to take that stairway. The top leads to the roof where the winds are strong enough that you may be blown off. And there are winged things in the forests that might spot you and carry you away.”

“And the steps down?”

“Well, the crypts are down there. The demons don’t like to kill folks, but deaths happen anyway. Some of the Changed can be violent. And of course there are always accidents. Apprentices don’t get entombed in the crypts, though. They’ll send you back to your family for burial. Only Brothers are put down there.”

“And those… sounds… come from the crypts?” Tuco asked in growing horror. What sort of undead things must be down there to make such horrifying sounds.

Rigby smiled humorlessly. “Oh no. Some of it’s just the sound of the wind, of course. But the Throat is also down there. You don’t want to see the Throat. Not if you want to keep sleeping at night.”

“Why not? What’s down there?”

“Let’s just say that not all of the demon’s changes are as pleasant as mine or Lord Krastor’s. There are three ways out of Abyssus Abbey. First, you can leave through the front door if you’re not changed too badly and the masters have decided you won’t hurt other people. Second, you might become a monster, and lose your mind enough that you attack other people here. There are enchantments and wards to stop you, but every now and then someone escapes—makes it past the spells somehow or breaks through a wall or a roof. Those go and live in the woods, until they die of natural causes, fights with other monsters, or get killed by the monster hunters. Queen Tibera pays big bounties for any killed monsters and every year there are a few dozen brave or stupid enough to try.”

“But—but those are people in there!” Tuco protested. “She’s paying hunters to kill innocent people?”

“Well, they aren’t all innocent, trust me. A lot of them have literal blood on their hands. But yes. If you end up in the forest, that’s what you can expect.”

“And the Throat?”

“That’s where you go if you’re too dangerous to be let go, but you don’t manage to escape. The strongest enchantments in the Abbey are down there, and they’re keeping a lot of stuff imprisoned that you don’t want to see. Trust me on that.” He grimaced. “The things down there… I pity them. But they’re not human anymore. And most of them would kill you as soon as look at you.” Rigby shook his head. “Just manage your temptations and try not to wish for anything whenever you can. The men in the Throat, well… I knew some of them personally, and I could have guessed that’s where they would end up. Their souls were twisted by desire long before their bodies were.”

“How long have you been at Abyssus, Rigby?” Tuco asked.

“A long time. Look. Just say your prayers, watch your temptations, don’t go anywhere you don’t need, and do whatever a master tells you, and you’ll be all right. For a while. Here we are.” He waved his arm toward another hallway that looked just as large as the one they’d come down. “The small cloister. The doors to your left lead to the washroom, the privy, and storage. You can find clean clothes and linens in there. On the right is the apprentice chapel, the small refectory, and study rooms. Lord Krastor often leaves books there he thinks may be of interest. Do you read?” When Tuco shook his head, he said, “You’ll have to learn. The Brothers will want you to read incantations and instructions as part of their rituals. Lessons will start tomorrow morning. Down the end of the hall is the apprentice dormitories. Go on down and introduce yourself. They’ll help you find a bunk and trunk for your possessions.”

Tuco stared down the long hallway. From the far end, he could hear the sounds of people talking and laughing. “Aren’t you coming?”

Rigby turned a disinterested glance toward the far door. “I prefer not to enter the dormitories unless necessary. I find it uncomfortably… biological. You will be fine. Every apprentice down there has been in your position himself. They will show you what you need to know.”

He gave a curt nod, as though agreeing with what he had just said. “I wish you the best of luck, Tuco Witchywine. Good morning.” And then he turned gracefully on his heel and strode back down the large hallway. His footsteps made virtually no sound.

The double doors at the end of the hallway were slightly ajar. Voices from within were laughing and talking and quarreling. It sounded more like a menagerie than a room full of people—some of the voices were deep and rumbling, others high-pitched and reedy, some nasal, some rasping, some smooth and delicate. But they all died down when Tuco stepped through the doors and into the room. He stared around in amazement at the people there—men of every shape and description: some so tall their ears—or horns—scraped the ceiling of the room twenty feet above; some shorter than his knee; some with feathers, some with fur, some with skin like stone or glass. Some were in constant motion, mere blurs or wisps of smoke. Some had unusual numbers of limbs, or long tails, or hung off of the bunks on prehensile toes. And more than a few looked completely normal; their changes, if they had any, most be more discreet.

Someone sauntered up to him in an easy manner; he struggled not to stare. It was a six-foot tall rabbit man covered in soft-looking fur, cream-colored on his back and limbs, white on his chest and stomach. The neutral colors made the lilac color of his large eyes seem all the more unusual and arresting. Other than the fur, he was entirely naked, and Tuco, embarrassed, kept his gaze carefully away from the man’s lower body. Still, the rabbit had an easy, buck-toothed grin as he approached; despite the bestial features of his face, his expressions were oddly human, if a little cute.

“Hi, there,” he said, reaching out a hand? A paw? It had long fingers, but they were stubbier than a human’s and tipped with dark, blunt claws. “I’m Pike. And you must be the Unchanged we heard was applying. Congratulations on getting in, I guess. I mean, if you wanted to and weren’t forced to come.” His long ears focused on Tuco. “You weren’t forced to come, were you? If you were, we can get you out of here.”

Tuco shook his head mutely and then remembered to take the paw—hand. It was warm, the fur silky-soft. “I’m… Tuco,” he said, after mentally groping for his own name for a second. “Nice to meet everyone.”

“I understand,” Pike said, putting a friendly arm around his shoulders, though he had to stoop a bit to do so. “It’s a lot to take in. How are you handling it? Did you meet Krastor?”

“Oh, yes, I met him. He—he seemed nice.”

“Nice?” Pike looked over his shoulder at the group of apprentices behind him. Several brows were raised in surprise. “Are you sure it was Lord Krastor you met? Did he… descend to see you?”

“Yes, he was very friendly. It must be amazing to be able to move through the world and see it like he does.”

“Amazing,” Pike repeated slowly, tilting his head. “You hear that, Walstein? Tuco here made friends with Lord Krastor.”

At the side of the room, a man with long black hair spilling down his back all the way to the floor scowled, revealing thick, boar-like tusks in his lower jaw. “All the more reason not to trust him then,” he grunted, and spat on the floor.

“Don’t mind Walstein,” Pike said. “When he first saw Krastor, he tore half a bookshelf off the wall trying to get away.”

“Oh, I see. He has a fear of spiders?” Tuco asked.

Pike’s ears folded back and then he chortled. “A fear of spiders. Yes, I daresay he does, at least after meeting Lord Krastor.” Several of the other men joined him in laughter. Walstein scowled and hit the wall with one fist, and the stone block cracked with a loud snap.

“Don’t mind him,” Pike said, squeezing Tuco’s shoulder. In a lower voice, he added, “But, uh, it wouldn’t hurt to keep your distance. Not everyone is happy to be here, and many of those that were aren’t happy with their changes. And we’re all a little jumpy with demons listening everywhere. A lot of folks here don’t want to make friends because you never know when someone is going to turn too far, and get sent home, or escape, or get put in the Throat. They feel like it’s not worth getting to know anyone else. Me, I more feel that making friends is the only thing that makes this bearable sometimes. I know you’re just new here and you don’t know who you can trust, but I hope you’ll consider trusting me. I can be a really good friend.” He pulled Tuco a little closer, and leaned down to whisper in his ear, “Really good.”

Tuco found that a little puzzling, but so far he found Pike quite agreeable, and he’d need someone to show him around and teach him how things were done here. “Well, that all sounds fine, but how do you know you can trust me?” he asked, trying for an impish smile.

“Ah. Clever lad.” Pike stood back and looked directly down at Tuco, his long ears so alert they appeared to vibrate. “These ears don’t lie. They tell me you’re trustworthy.”

“You… can hear whether it’s safe to trust me? Is that one of your gifts from the demons?”

“Gifts,” Pike repeated, shaking his head as if in wonder. “Yes, in fact, it is. I can hear danger.”

“That sounds like it would be terribly useful in a place like this.”

Pike put on a rueful expression and shook his head. “I’m afraid this is one of the few places it isn’t that useful. There’s danger everywhere here, Tuco. The Brothers, the rooms, the spells, the wilderness outside, the demons in the walls, the other apprentices… even the air sounds dangerous to me sometimes. It can be… deafening.” He smiled again. “But not you. You, my dear boy, sound safe as houses. Let’s hope you stay that way, hmm?”

That notion was strange—Tuco couldn’t imagine being a threat to anyone. Even back home, he’d been small and shy enough that he’d been the easy butt of jokes, easily picked up and dunked in a fish barrel or a pig trough. Though of course anything could change here. “What does danger sound like?” he asked.

The rabbit let go of his shoulders and stepped back. “I couldn’t explain it. Might as well try to describe the color of salty or the aroma of a joke.”

Tuco considered that for a moment. “Well, if I had to guess, I think salty would probably be a very intense yellow. Not pleasant if there’s a lot of it, but in small amounts it would make a scene more cheery. And a joke? Maybe that would smell like a caramel-dipped apple. Sweet but then the tartness surprises you. And if you have too much of it you’re sick of it.”

Pike gave him an appraising stare. His whiskers twitched. “You’re too clever by half for this place, aren’t you?”

“I’m not clever. I can’t even read.”

The rabbit’s nose twitched rapidly. “I expect we’ll fix that quickly. But for now we can find you a bunk and a place for your…” He eyed Tuco’s small bundle. “Your things. I’ll help you out. I’ll find you a tutor and if there’s anything you need… information, personal items, sex…”

Tuco almost choked. “Sex? But—but—?”

“Hey, the demons did make me a rabbit. And they had a sense of humor about it. I need to go six times a day and twice at night. Whether I’m awake for it or not. It’s very messy, and I’m always looking for new… friends. It’s been a long time since I’ve had an Unchanged.” He sighed. “So wonderfully normal. No peculiarities to work around.”

“But—but the third temptation. Carnal pleasures! Lust!”

Pike nodded with a buck-toothed grin. “Exactly. It’s extremely important for you to take care of that. Look, when do you feel the least lustful? Right after you’ve come, right? You don’t want to head into a summoning or ritual with a loaded cannon. You gotta fire that thing off, purge yourself of all lustful thoughts before you go into a room full of demons. We all do it.”

Tuco turned to look at the motley group of apprentices around the room. “You do? All of you?”

There was a chorus of nods and yeses.

Pike leaned toward him and said in hushed tones, “You don’t want to end up like Charley.” One long ear flicked toward the far end of the room.

A young man sat on the bottom bunk, reading a book. He had a large, wheeled cart between his legs, and something was mounded up in it—a giant armload of blankets, Tuco thought at first, but then he saw that they weren’t rumpled but wrapped around something enormous, something that filled the basket. Something thick, cylindrical, and extending up toward the man’s lower stomach. Tuco realized his mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut. “You mean that’s his—”

Pike nodded. “Went into a ritual with lustful thoughts and a demon heard him.”

“Can he even use it?”

“Well, not like it was meant to be used. Not anymore. He can use it as a bed if he’s excited enough. Though once he gets going, it’s hard to get him to stop. Makes one hell of a mess, too. We’ll have to wade through a room until the enchantments eventually clean it. So you can see how it’s a bad idea to go into a ritual when you’re… excitable.” He winked. “And like I said, I’m always happy to help out with that. If you want.”

“Well, that’s nice of you, but…” Tuco fidgeted. “I… I don’t like men, you know? Just women.”

“Ah. In that case, there’s something I ought to show you.” Pike turned toward the room. “I’m talking him to see Elf!” he called. He was answered with several groans.

“Good luck, kid,” rumbled a tall, stony-skinned figure who looked as though he were filled with fire.

“Who’s Elf?” Tuco asked.

“You’ll see soon enough. Everyone here goes to see him eventually, whether it’s because they get tricked or because they get curious, so we might as well get it over with. This way.”

Pike led Tuco across the dormitory room to a tall, wide wooden door hinged with wrought iron brackets. “These are the special dorms. For apprentices who aren’t as comfortable with company or who have other needs. It’s not a good idea to barge in here unannounced. And not very nice to the occupants.”

He strained to pull the heavy door open a crack and then called inside, “Hullo, got an Unchanged here to see Elf. Anyone got objections, give a hey.”

There was a moment’s pause, and then a voice like a bell rang out, “Come on in.” It was a round, baritone voice, rich and silky like chocolate ale. Something about it called to Tuco, said that the speaker was someone he would like to befriend, like to do favors for. It made his stomach feel light and jumpy.

Pike led him through the doorway and down a wide hallway. The candles here burned lower, with tiny flames. One side of the hallway was lined with more doors; the other was solid wall, but Tuco thought he could hear the wind howling beyond it. He wondered who lived behind all the doors. And whether one day he’d have a room here too.

About halfway down the hall, Pike stopped next to a door. “You ready, Elf?”

The voice sounded rich and golden even though also bored and somewhat weary. “Of course. Go ahead.”

“All right, just look in there,” Pike said, and he opened the door, turning his face aside and hiding it in the crook of his arm as he did so.

Tuco stepped forward, puzzled. He peered through the door into the small room beyond and the rest of the world fell away. One long breath later, he dropped to his knees.

Tuco was no stranger to beauty. He’d seen landscapes before that had made him tremble at their beauty. Once, during a mass, the shafts of light through the stained glass windows had painted the entire congregation with dazzling, shifting colors and he’d wept in amazement and gratitude. And as he’d grown older and become aware of the attractions of women, he’d seen girls whose beauty and grace haunted his waking hours and tormented his sleep for days, even weeks.

But he had never seen anything like the man sitting in the room behind the door. At first he thought he must be staring at an angel, and then he thought no angel could be so beautiful. The man looked up at him with jewel-like, golden eyes that seemed to echo with ages of wisdom, kindness, intelligence. But these were the only part of him that seemed to be unchanging; the rest of him seemed to ripple as though seen through a glass, darkly. One moment he was long-limbed and slender, with pale skin that seemed to glow and long, curling locks of golden hair that hung around his shoulders, the next he was dark-skinned and powerfully built, with black hair that stood straight up in a virile shock. Now smooth-skinned, curvy, and feminine, now hairy and thick-limbed, now heavy with fat, now rail-thin and yet somehow always perfect—not the beauty of one man, but the beauty of all men. He tilted his head slightly and Tuco felt that the world itself tilted while the man did not move.

Tuco’s heart pounded in his chest, his blood racing. He longed to step forward, to be in the heat of the man’s body, to touch his skin, to be held, to be pressed in, to be consumed utterly by the man until they were one and the same and he could be part of that beauty forever. He could see nothing else in the room the man occupied, for he could not tear his gaze away from the impossible beauty of that countenance, from the strength and gentleness in his naked body even as it changed eternally. And it seemed that the man’s body wasn’t truly altering, not shifting or transforming, but rather that it contained many aspects, and Tuco’s feeble mind could only see one or two at a time. That the warped glass in front of his eyes would move slightly and he would see a new image no less entrancing.

He was in love with this man, and when the man’s golden eyes stared into his with an expression of understanding and deep sadness, Tuco felt he would die. On his knees, he crawled toward the room, reaching out… and then the door shut in his face. All light and beauty and love was gone from the world.

He stared in astonishment and dismay at the ugly, coarse wood in front of him and then turned back toward Pike. “Why? Why did you close it?” he demanded, but already sense was creeping back into his mind, hard lines putting shapes to his sudden infatuation. Magic, it had to have been. But even just remembering the man made his body pulse with longing and adoration.

“It will fade a little, after a while,” Pike said with a rueful smile. “But never quite entirely. We have all fallen in love with him. We can’t help it. He was tempted by the lure of beauty, and the demon who answered him, well, he didn’t hold back.”

Tuco struggled to find his words again. “Wh-why does he stay here? He could have anything! He could rule the world!”

“Can you imagine the whole world reacting to you like you did to Elf? They’d try to take him, own him, consume him,” Pike said. Even mentioning the man’s name sent a shudder of longing through Tuco. “And that’s not where it stops. We had one apprentice spend too much time in his presence. He stopped eating or sleeping. He lost every desire but for Elf, and to live with him and be part of him. And then a demon heard him.”

“What happened to him?” Tuco whispered.

“We don’t know. We found his clothes. But Elf has a little rat that lives in his cell now. He seems to like it and care for it. Feeds it and lets it sleep next to him.”

And Tuco felt sure that, if anyone had asked him when that door was open, he would gladly have accepted such a bargain, surrendering his humanity and sentience in exchange for a place at that man’s side. It was still a little tempting, but the spell was fading. Still, his pulse was pounding and he felt lightheaded. He got to his feet and realized with some embarrassment that he was erect, his arousal pushing out the front of his tunic. He hoped Pike wouldn’t notice. He was sure it didn’t mean anything, though—anyone would have been overcome at the sight of such a person. Enchantment and divinity had a way of ignoring personal preference. “So, uh, why did you want to show me this? As a warning about what could happen to me?”

Pike just stood there, one ear folded back, watching him. His eyes slowly scanned down Tuco’s body, making him blush hotly.

“It’s not—I mean, I’m not like this because—look, it’s just the magic,” Tuco stammered, trying to find a way that he could turn so that his lingering arousal wouldn’t be so obvious to Pike. Pike just kept watching, and Tuco realized that there were aspects about him that were appealing that he hadn’t noticed before. The smooth, muscular lines of his chest, for instance. His lean, taut stomach, furred in soft white. The powerful bulges of his legs, and what was nestled between them: a plump sheath and round sac holding what looked like two impressively sized balls. The heat grew in Tuco’s face, and instead of diminishing, his arousal seemed to be mounting. Pike, he realized suddenly, was a stunningly handsome man, rabbit or no. He couldn’t tear his eyes away.

“Oh no,” he moaned, half to himself. The coarseness of his tunic against his erection was irritating; he longed to pull it free. He couldn’t believe he was reacting like this. He liked women; before two minutes ago, he’d never looked at a man with lustful thoughts, and now… now he wanted to see what Pike looked like sliding out of that sheath. He wanted to taste him. The realization made him shudder with mingled horror and excitement.

Pike nodded. “You see it now, hmm? It’s Elf… he doesn’t just show you the beauty in himself. He shows you the beauty in—”

“Every man,” Tuco breathed. Almost unwillingly, he stepped closer and reached out to put his hand on Pike’s chest. The fur there was silky-soft, and the muscle beneath lean and firm. “Oh no. Oh no.” He said the words almost to himself. He let his hand slide down to rest on the naked man’s hip and watched, mesmerized, as the pink tip of Pike’s cock pushed up from the end of his sheath, standing out against the white fur. “Am—am I…?”

“Gay?” Pike leaned down toward him. He was much taller than Tuco, and almost had to squat down. He paused with his mouth mere inches away from Tuco’s, his whiskers tickling at Tuco’s face. “Why don’t you answer that for yourself?”

The air between Tuco’s lips and Pike’s felt electric. He hesitated, not out of any doubt but to enjoy the hesitation, the trembling, magical moment of suspense. He could smell the faint odor of Pike’s musk, the scent of his breath, his mouth. Then he leaned up to kiss.

He’d never had a proper kiss before; women in the village hadn’t been interested in a dirty kid from a poor family. He hadn’t expected it would be like this: the soft warmth of Pike’s lips against his, the tingle that rippled down his body, prickling goosebumps out all down his back and arms and legs, the soft, warm, wet tongue as Pike’s lips parted and allowed Tuco to lick slowly in between them. A hunger reared in Tuco, and he slid his arms around Pike’s lean frame, pulling him closer as he kissed more firmly, more avidly.

Pike leaned up before Tuco was ready. He had a sideways grin as he wiped at his mouth. “Eager, aren’t you? I think you might be gay now, you cute little Unchanged, you.” Almost teasingly, he reached down and curled his fingers around his erection, tugging once and making it bounce, a clear droplet freeing from its tip and arcing toward the floor. Tuco watched it hungrily.

He shouldn’t go any further. He was a virgin, and this wasn’t how you were supposed to do things. It was supposed to be special. And what if he was under an enchantment? What if it all went away and the next day he was ashamed or appalled? What if Pike was secretly a demon and Tuco was succumbing to the temptation of carnal pleasures even now?

As if reading his mind, Pike let his lilac eyes slide upward toward the top of the hallway. “I’m right beneath the Gasen, and so are you. No demon is speaking to you here.”

“How… how long will I be like this?” Tuco asked.

“You can’t unsee what’s been seen. You can’t close a door when its wall has been broken down.”

“Will I ever want to be with women again?”

Pike shrugged. “You’re in Abyssus Abbey now. Will you ever have a chance to?” He looked pointedly down at the tent in Tuco’s tunic. “What do you want to do now?” He stepped forward and put a hand on Tuco’s shoulder. “No falsehoods, now.”

Tuco groaned. “I want… I want to be with you. I’m sorry.”

The rabbit’s smile was gentle. “Don’t be sorry. I want you too, Unchanged.” And then with deft paws he was removing Tuco’s tunic, dropping the coarse, dirty fabric to one side.

Tuco should have shivered in the chilly air, his naked shoulders exposed, but his skin was hot with arousal. He was deeply afraid this was a mistake, but he wanted it so much, and it didn’t feel like a mistake—it felt okay. Even right. “Right here?” he asked, looking around at the stone hallway filled with doors.

Pike chuckled. “The floor outside Elf’s room has been christened by many apprentices. You are a long way from the first, and you will not be the last.” He leaned in to kiss Tuco again, and Tuco’s hips twitched at the pleasure. He felt as though he were about to release immediately—something that had before happened only when he’d stroked himself privately or had awoken in the middle of a night of giddy and guilty dreams.

Without another word, Tuco kicked his shoes away and shucked off his undergarments, standing naked before Pike, his slim erection jutting upward like an announcement.

“You are a pretty one,” the rabbit practically purred. “A bit skinny, but this place will have you eating well in no time. Come on, now. On your back. I’ll show you how it’s done.” With surprisingly strong arms he laid Tuco down on the chilly stones of the hallway and knelt, straddling him, his own erection slick with the evidence of his arousal, bobbing in Tuco’s vision.

Tuco wondered if he was supposed to take it in his hand or lick at it, and felt eager to do either of those, but Pike slid backward, his thighs soft against Tuco’s sides. He stopped and leaned forward, the heat of his erection pressing into Tuco’s belly. Something soft and delicate brushed against Tuco’s tip, making his shaft flex and strain with need. Pike grinned down at him and flicked his tail across Tuco’s flesh again. “Are you sure you want this, now?”

“Yes,” Tuco groaned. “Oh God, yes.”

And then Pike slid back a little further, and Tuco felt his tip push through a layer of soft, tickling fur and press up against something warm that twitched against his tip. And then a little more pressure and the warmth gave way, pushing around his erection, enveloping it. Pike made a long, happy sigh as though sinking into a hot bath, and leaned back until his rump settled against Tuco’s hips. “Mmm, not a big one for once,” he murmured. “Nice. The demons tend to mess with that before long.” He planted a palm against Tuco’s belly, brushing at it. “How is your first time, apprentice?”

Tuco didn’t answer because he was biting hard on his lip, trying not to explode all at once and have it be over too soon. He tried to turn his mind toward unsexy thoughts but after seeing Elf a lot of his usual strategies didn’t work and besides, this was happening, a tall friendly man had laid him down and was surrounding him and now he had begun to move gently up and down and he was doing something with his rump that squeezed and tugged at Tuco just right and oh gods it was building and he couldn’t stop it and ah!

Tuco’s hips jumped and he came with another person for the first time, his arousal straining and flexing as he felt his seed surging out over and over. The pleasure was overwhelming and yet he felt embarrassed that it had happened so quickly; good sex was supposed to take many minutes or even hours, he had heard from other boys on the street.

But Pike didn’t seem to mind. He tilted his head back and let out another contented sigh, and then he curled his fingers around his own erection and, seemingly at will, released himself, little arcs of his seed sailing over Tuco’s head and then splashing into Pike’s fingers.

Tuco relaxed, his sudden climax waning, his cock hypersensitive to any movement of the rabbit atop him. Pike gave him an amused smile and clenched around him several times, making him groan at the overstimulation.

“That good, hmm?” he said, in between licks of his syruped fingers. “Yes. It always is for me. One of the benefits of being a rabbit, I suppose. No such thing as bad sex. Well. Almost no such thing. But it’s so nice to be with someone without any… special considerations for once.” He grinned down at Tuco’s wide-eyed, panting expression. “I’m glad you liked it. We can do that any time you want, hmm? It’s encouraged, even. Make sure you’re not spring-loaded before you go tussling with infernal powers.”

Planting his clean paw on Tuco’s chest, he slid forward and off of Tuco’s still-twitching erection, making him gasp several times. “All right, newbie. Why don’t you head over to the washroom and get cleaned up, hmm? I’m sure a hot bath will feel nice after your travels. And you should find clean clothes in the linens room. They’ll be a lot more comfortable than that coarse tunic you’ve got.”

Shakily, Tuco got to his feet. “Don’t we have to clean up the mess?”

“Pfff, the enchantments take care of that. If they didn’t, this hallway would be white by now.”

Tuco reached for his tunic. It did look pretty dirty, and now that he had it off, it stank.

“You can just leave that, you know.”

“But—everyone outside!”

Pike shrugged. “A good quarter of the guys out there are naked now, and it’s not like we don’t all see each other naked all the time. The Brothers like us to be clothed—those of us who can still wear clothes—in case they walk in, but that’s usually only morning or evening. The rest of the time you can do what you want.”

“I mean… everyone out there will know what we did.”

The rabbit gave him a wry, sidelong look. “Oh, sweetheart. That ship left the port half an hour ago. Still, do what you want. I’ll see you later on.” He winked. “First timers get in the mood again quickly, after all.” And, erection still half exposed, he sauntered down the hallway and out the door into the dormitory.

Flushing hotly, Tuco picked up his tunic. He wrinkled his nose. It was dirty enough he half-considered walking out without it, but then he thought of the room full of apprentices… male apprentices… and his new appreciation for them. He groaned as his flagging erection pulsed, and reluctantly pulled his tunic over his head.

When he walked out of the hallway and into the dormitory, everyone applauded.

The washroom was, thankfully, empty. It was a large, empty room with tall, narrow windows that stretched nearly to the ceiling. Dusty shafts of sunlight shone through them, a welcome change from the clouds and rain of the previous days. From here, Tuco could still make out the raucous tones of apprentices in the dormitory, although a number of them had already left for lessons or to assist the Brothers. But here in the washroom, it was peaceful. The room was larger than he had expected, and separated from the privies by a stone wall. He had used one of those, and it had been just a hole through which cold wind blew and howled. Beneath the hole was only the mountainside far below. Presumably well-fertilized mountainside, at that.

Along the outer wall of the washrooms were a series of carved wooden basins, each large enough for a person. Tuco had heard of baths, but he’d never had one before—if you needed to clean, you did it at the river. Clean water was too to hard come by to waste it on sitting in unless you were extremely wealthy. And he couldn’t understand why hot water would be pleasant at all.

A large wicker basket held piles of rumpled robes, tunics, and other clothes, and so he dropped his own inside and, shivering, walked over to one of the basins. Inside, it was smooth and sculpted in roughly the shape of a human form. How did some of the more unusually contoured apprentices use these? And where was he supposed to get the water to fill it? Just as the thought crossed his mind, water welled up from the bottom of the tub and continued to rise, a haze of steam lifting up from it. There was a pleasant scent of cedar and lilacs. Tuco stared. He had never seen enchantment before coming here. He knew it was all demonic magic that had come from deals with the infernal, but it amazed him nonetheless. Imagine if they could have had this at home! Clean, hot water whenever you wanted it? And pleasant-smelling, as well? It would have changed their lives.

His thoughts drifted back to his family in their small hut on the outskirts of their village. He hoped they were all right. He wondered if they missed him. He missed them already—he missed home—but he had a pretty good deal in this place. Free education, free food, clean beds and clothes and fresh water. It was practically a dream. Except for the risk to his shape, his soul, and everything else.

Gingerly, he stepped into the bath. The water was hot enough that he winced, but he found that he quickly adjusted to the temperature, the submerged parts of him comfortable, those still submerging, uncomfortably hot. He slid in and lay back, and something wondrous happened. His body relaxed. The aches and pains of his travels seemed to drain out of him. He eased deeper into the water, feeling the tangles of his long brown hair loosening and freeing, floating around his shoulders. Then he let his head sink down below the surface, and the water filled his ears, and he was in his own private heaven.

There were no sounds but the warped murmur of the water around him, light splashes as his body moved. His loins pulsed with a delicious ache in remembrance of what he’d just done. What a strange and full day it had been! He’d met Changed men—monsters. He’d been accepted into a world of mystery and peril and, within mere hours, his sexuality had been permanently altered, and then he’d given up his virginity to a new friend, a handsome rabbit who had promised to lie with him whenever he liked. And it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. He knew the days ahead would likely grow more difficult and more frightening, but for this moment, he felt deliciously free, unmoored from all the ties and complications and suffering of his old life. He had thought he would miss home, and perhaps he would eventually, but this place was so strange and exciting that he had no time to.

As a boy, he would eagerly call out to travelers on the road, or stop into an inn to visit and catch stories of the world beyond his small village and its grubby streets and their home with eight other children, all pretty much the same. The world beyond had always called to him—he’d hungered for the tales of every stranger who had seen strange lands and encountered their mysteries. Already, he had become more like those strangers, for he had ventured to the notorious Abyssus Abbey, source of a thousand spine-tingling tales. He had met with monsters, been altered by magic. Even without physically changing at all, he had begun the change into someone else, someone wilder and stranger. floating in his own hot, relaxing, private world.

And yet he was so comfortable, so safe here. He wished, idly, that he never had to surface from the hot water and venture out into the cold stone rooms and the laughing judgment of the other boys. It would be so nice to stay.

Stay, yes. Stay in the depths..

The thought was an idle one, and he wondered where it had come from. There was a tickle at the sides of his neck, a flutter like the flick of a fish tail. He couldn’t stay, anyway; his lungs already ached for air.

But they don’t have to. The water is full of air if you know how to take it. You could lie here beneath the surface and never come up unless you chose. Learn like a fish to slither along streams or lurk at the bottom of lakes. Watch the drifting ovals of fisher boats floating overhead and tease them with the scrape of your claws on the drowned wood. Let your sharp teeth taste the cold wriggle of fresh fish, or wait for a child to lean too far over a dock…

That wasn’t his thought. He opened his eyes and beyond the ripple of the surface of the bath saw something sitting over him, a figure transparent, like it was made of glass. It had broad shoulders and a powerful chest, and it braced its glassy arms on either side of the tub. A head crowned with long, curving horns stared down at him, open jaws with streams of water pouring out in place of teeth. A demon.

Tuco nearly sucked in water in his shock; he realized abruptly that his lungs were screaming for oxygen. He scrambled up from the bath in terror and he got a glimpse of the creature. It stretched up out of the water, as though the bath had sprouted a liquid torso and head. Orange slivers glinted in its crystalline eyes for an instant, water pouring from its mouth in sharp little rivulets—and then the creature’s shape dissolved, and it splashed back down into the tub and spattered across the floor.

In panic, Tuco scrabbled out of the tub and slithered on all fours across the cold stone floor, looking backward for any sign of the demon, but the room was empty and quiet but for the drip-dripping of water from the edges of the basin. Shivering in the cool air, he found a stack of fluffy, white linens piled in one corner of the room, wrapped it tightly around him and ran from the washroom, calling for Pike all the way down the hallway.

When he was halfway to the dorm room, he heard Pike answer behind him; the rabbit had stepped out of the dining area. “Tuco? Is everything all right? What happened?”

“A demon!” Tuco panted, hurrying back toward him, clutching the towel around himself as though Pike had not seen him naked only an hour ago. “In the washroom.”

The rabbit frowned. “So soon? And it’s… unusual for them to show up in the apprentice areas, though not unheard of. All right, all right, it’s okay. It won’t be the last one you see.” He put an arm around Tuco’s wet shoulders, giving him a squeeze despite the dampness. “Are you all right? Are you… altered?”

“I—I don’t know. Do I look the same?” Tuco felt at his neck with his free hand where he had felt the tickle. He told Pike about the temptation in his mind, the brief vision he had encountered.

“Temptation of Safety, sounds like,” Pike said. “Or maybe Belonging. Very, very easy to get new initiates with those, when they’re feeling alone and afraid and missing home.” He peered closely, rubbing at the sides of Tuco’s neck with his thumbs. “There are little creases here, but it looks like you caught it in time. Well done. I’m not sure what we’d have done with a leviathan for an apprentice.”

Tuco nodded, feeling for himself the little creases where gills had nearly opened. He looked down at his hands. Were the webs of flesh between his fingers reaching higher than before? He couldn’t tell.

Pike gave a brief nod. “Okay, this is going to bother you, I can tell, so it might be a good idea just to check yourself all over and really get to know how you’re put together. What you look like. Otherwise you’ll just obsess, wondering if anything has changed. You seen the looking glasses yet?”

“No, but I’ve looked into one before,” Tuco said. His aunt had married up a few years back and in her new home they had a small looking glass that her husband had paid a small fortune for. It was an oval about a foot in diameter. The glass was dark and mottled, but you could see your face in it—a lumpy, warped version, not as clear as in a still pond on a bright day, but enough to apply makeup or fix your hair.

“Not like these, you haven’t. Didn’t catch them in the washroom?”

“No.” Tuco hadn’t looked around much after discovering the bath, and was a little uneasy about re-entering after what he had seen. But that was silly, wasn’t it? The demon wasn’t in there now, and could appear anywhere in the Abbey. Still, he stayed a pace behind Pike as they went back into the washroom.

“See over there?” Pike said, pointing. “Go and look.”

Tuco craned his neck. “What, next to the windows?”

“Those aren’t windows.” The rabbit winked at him. “Go see.”

Doubtfully, Tuco made his way over to the series of three square windows on the far wall. His skin prickled when he saw a person moving in one, and then as he drew closer, he saw that that figure moved just when he did—it was a looking glass, but a picture-perfect one, showing him a reflection of the room just as clear as looking at it with his own eyes. “How—how can this be?” he asked aloud, peering at it in wonder. “Did demons make these?”

“Well, once or twice I think they’ve been fixed by demons when they were broken. But no, just very skilled craftsmen, from what the brothers say. Those looking glasses are worth a fortune. Some of the best in the world.”

Tuco peered at his own reflection curiously. So that was what he looked like—a lot like his brothers, which should have been no surprise. Strange that there was so little familiarity. You’d think your own face would feel intrinsically yours, but he’d never really seen it. His eyes were greener than he’d expected, his cheekbones a little higher. He tried to memorize every feature so he’d know when and if they changed. He pushed his long, wet hair away from his neck. The lines where gills had almost formed looked like dimples, each about as long as his little finger. He wondered if they would smooth back in time, since the change hadn’t quite taken.

“All right, buddy,” Pike said after a moment. “Don’t fall in love with yourself there.”

“Just trying to remember,” Tuco murmured.

“Yeah, you’ll get to use those every day, though. At least… as long as you want to.”

The rabbit helped him pick out some clothes from the supply of clean laundry. He settled on robes, cinched around the waist with a soft rope belt. They fit well, and were so soft and comfortable he thought he might fall asleep in them if he wasn’t careful. He’d never had clothes like this before; the best had been hand-me-downs from his older brother, worn into softness through time and use. New clothes were never desirable; they were always coarse and rough, chafing him. But these were plush and cozy and enveloping. If this was the life that working around demons earned you, and you got to work to help prevent the end of the world? It was hard to see why people would want to do anything else.

But then he remembered the aqueous, streaming-mouthed creature crouched over him in the bath, and a prickle of unease ran up his spine.

Lunch was a full and sumptuous affair, with plenty of cured meats and cheese and thick, crumbly bread. There was wine and weak ale to drink, and even fresh fruit. The apprentice sitting next to Pike was named Charo, and from his shoulders sprouted huge lark wings, which would occasionally shift and flutter.

“Do those work?” Tuco wanted to know.

“Dunno,” Charo answered, in between bites of cured sausage.

“You haven’t tried to fly?”

“What, and maybe kill myself? Not likely. Besides, I’m afraid of heights.”

Tuco looked down at the huge bunch of grapes on his own wooden plate. Grapes were a rare pleasure at home. “Is this some kind of feast?”

Charo rolled his eyes at him. “You mental? It’s not a feast day. This is lunch.”

“You mean every meal is like this?” Tuco tasted one of the grapes. It was taut and cool, and it burst into his mouth with sweetness.

Charo scowled at him. “Oh, I get it. You’re poor. At my father’s house, this was how we fed the servants. This is nothing special.”

“Your father must be very rich.”

Charo shrugged.

“So why did you come here, then? Wouldn’t you inherit everything?”

The boy shuffled his wings and gave Tuco a withering stare. “Don’t you know anything? Only the oldest son inherits land. That’s my brother and he’s a right prick. I’m fourth son, so I’m supposed to serve the church.”

“And the church sent you here?”

Charo hesitated. “Eventually. And it’s wretched. So now I just need the demons to do something to my voice, my hands, my eyes, or my mind, and then I can get out of this literal hell hole and go back to live on my father’s estate.”

“You want to be Changed like that?” Tuco asked in horrified fascination.

“Better than living here,” Charo declared around a mouthful of bread. “But you can’t just wish for changes you want. Or the demons will do things to you. Worse things. You never get exactly what you want out of a change. Wishing for something specific is the worst thing you can do. That’s what most of the things in the Throat did, I hear.”

From who? Tuco wondered, but he thought it best not to ask out loud. Charo belched, pushed the whole bench he was sitting on backward, and left the room, leaving Tuco to finish his grapes, which he did with great enjoyment. If every meal were like this, it was a wonder the apprentices and Brothers weren’t all round as orbs.

After lunch came lessons. Tuco was introduced to Brother Stetmeyer, a skinny monk who looked like a coatrack someone had hung a robe on. He had eyebrows like little wiry grey bushes, a thick mop of hair, and if he had any changes at all, Tuco couldn’t make them out. He seemed uninterested in Tuco or any of the other apprentices, and boredly took them through the basics of ritual, all of which sounded horribly complex to Tuco. He hoped he wouldn’t have to perform any of the more complicated tasks.

Every demon had to be summoned with specific sigils and incantations, of course, but the summoning runes had to be imbued with various elements according to their realm. There were thirteen realms, twelve for each of the Temptations, and one that was inclusive, for all of the Abyss itself. And then the demons had ranks, just like the nobility, twelve ranks going from Lord of the Abyss all the way up to Lucifer himself, the Emperor of the Abyss. For ranked demons, you had to have various sacrifices if you wanted to be sure they would come, but you could never be sure that summoning a lesser demon wouldn’t end up with you being surprised by a Duke or something.

Brother Stetmeyer droned on and on, listing ranks and their appropriate sacrifices, realms and the elements used for their rituals, the names of the demon lords and the depths of the Abyss in which they lived, and after a while, Tuco gave up trying to remember any of it. It seemed more that Brother Stetmeyer enjoyed demonstrating his knowledge than actually conveying the bits of it that were most useful. Or maybe Tuco was just too far behind and would catch up eventually. What seemed most important, amid all the detail, was that apprentices would be required to read incantations—or memorize and recite them if, like Tuco, they couldn’t read. Some rituals also required specialized gestures, the staged lighting of candles, or the inscribing of interlocked sigils, requiring as many as three apprentices assisting for some of the more complex ones.

Before an apprentice assisted with a ritual, he was supposed to prepare, making sure his stomach was full and his loins were satisfied, and through a series of prayers and meditations, purge his mind of fears, worries, and desires. Going into a ritual with an unprepared mind was how apprentices lost themselves, Brother Stetmeyer impressed on them in a rare moment of forcefulness. Every apprentice had the right to refuse the request for a ritual if he had not had time to purify. Though of course, refusing to serve out of fear or recalcitrance could end up with your wages being docked. It was an apprentice’s primary responsibility to keep himself prepared and purified as much as possible so as to be of ready use to any Brother seeking knowledge or answers from the demons.

Brother Stetmeyer’s lecture petered out more than ended, and he shuffled out of the lecture room. Most of the apprentices wandered out as well, leaving Tuco alone with several others for what was supposed to be their reading lesson. One of those remaining was Walstein, the angry man with the long black hair and the tusks. He was joking with some of the other apprentices, but that was all camaraderie; Tuco knew about boys like him from the streets. They were just as dangerous when they were laughing as when they were angry.

Tuco found a seat a good distance away where he hoped not to attract any attention. Another apprentice sat behind Walstein—this one seemed mostly unchanged except for his right hand, whose fingers were silvery, long and pointed. When he noticed Tuco looking in his direction, he gave a nod and a wink and then, with a grin, slid the edge of his index finger along the top of the chair next to him. He made a little flourish at the end, and then a rather thick chunk of wood fell from the top of the chair onto the seat. The boy’s finger had sliced through it as though it were butter.

Tuco stared in amazement. It must be frightening to have knives that sharp growing out of your hand—you couldn’t handle anything without scarring or destroying it, to say nothing of the risk of accidentally slicing yourself open in a casual movement, or even in your sleep. Yet another reminder to be cautious of the demons, he supposed. Their gifts were never free.

He had been expecting another of the Brothers to administer their reading lesson, but to his surprise, Rigby entered the room, parchment rolled up under one arm. At least, he looked like Rigby: he had the same facial features, the same expressions, the same eerily precise way of moving and speaking. But Rigby had been much older, with a lined face and streaks of white in his hair; this man seemed scarcely older than Tuco. He arched one eyebrow in Tuco’s direction as he passed. “Settling in, I hope?” It was Rigby’s voice, but without the fullness of middle age. There was some secret here that Tuco had not yet fathomed.

The man who looked like Rigby gave them their lessons. Since Tuco was new, he said, they would have to start over, but it was all right, because most of them needed the review. He unrolled a parchment with bright red letters painted on it and began explaining their names and sounds. Tuco paid close attention, but found differentiating the symbols difficult. All of them were roundish with lines sticking out in various directions, and they all had similar names, too. A line on this side of the round bit was “bee” and a line on the other side was “dee,” but how did anyone keep track of it? He never seemed to get it right when Rigby asked him for an answer, and soon was eliciting groans from the rest of the class. His face burned. He felt stupid and ashamed. And on top of it all, he knew that this would be a prime opportunity for a demon to tempt him with ease or with belonging or even power, for wasn’t interpreting symbols a kind of power? So he had to be on his guard not to wish too hard that he could understand all this.

The class went on to sounding out words using the symbols he hadn’t even learned yet, and then he was completely lost, so he just sat and paid attention and tried to somehow soak up the knowledge. He liked the word for ‘bed’, he decided, because the word looked like what it described, a comfy little bed with a headboard and footboard. And there was the b at the beginning and the d at the end. Beedee. Bed. He would try to remember that word any time he couldn’t remember which way the lines were supposed to point out of the letters.

At some point he realized he was so distracted with his thoughts he had forgotten to pay attention, but that was all right, because now Rigby was going over bizarre, spider-leggy letters that he called calligraphic. So Tuco let his gaze wander across the class and saw the boy with the razor fingers looking at him and grinning. Tuco stared back, puzzled, and the boy pointed in front of him at Walstein. The large, powerful-looking man sat with his arms folded, occasionally snorting or sucking air. His tusks protruded up from his bottom lip and made him drool constantly, forcing him to suck in air or drool onto his own chest. But the boy behind him seemed more interested in the long cascade of raven-black hair that spilled from Walstein’s head, over the back of the chair, into an inky pile on the floor behind him.

Razor Boy pointed at the hair and then waggled his silvery fingers, grinning.

He meant to cut Walstein’s hair. Tuco urgently shook his head, mouthing the word “No.”

Razor Boy leaned closer, his grin growing wider as he nodded.

Tuco waved his hands emphatically, crossing his forearms, but stopped at a sharp look from Rigby. He slumped down in his chair.

The boy behind Walstein extended one gleaming finger and drew it across the back of Walstein’s neck. Black locks tumbled to the floor, piling up.

Tuco groaned inwardly. Walstein would be so angry. There would probably be a fight. Someone would want revenge, someone would want safety, and demons would be all too happy to answer those desires. Tuco just didn’t want to be there when it happened.

But then he stared. The dark curtain of hair was slowly extending, lengthening inch by inch back toward the floor. Walstein knew it was happening, too—as soon as the hair started growing, he gave a little shiver and his eyes went half-lidded. Even from where he was sitting, Tuco could see the coarse black hairs on Walstein’s arms lifting up. Walstein turned in his chair and gave a death glare to the boy behind him, pulling back his lips to reveal a mouth full of oversized, pointed teeth. The boy feigned looking in the opposite direction, and Walstein turned back around with a snort.

Several minutes later, after Walstein’s hair had finally stopped its slow downward progress, Razor Boy lifted his fingers and cut it again. It took a moment for Walstein to realize what had happened. Then, with a snarl, he leaped from his heavy wooden chair, seized it in both hands, and raised it over his head as though it weighed no more than a few sticks, clearly intending to smash Razor Boy to the floor with it.

With a casual swipe of his hand, Razor Boy sent pieces of the chair clattering to the floor all around Walstein’s feet. The tusked man emitted an animal roar of fury, but Tuco was listening to his instincts and did not stick around to see what happened next. He bolted from the room. He had been around street fights before. They were dangerous. He’d seen a bystander killed in a bar brawl, and that hadn’t involved claws that could slice through anything or men as strong as ogres.

Clearly apprentices here could be just as dangerous as the demons. He stood panting in the corridor for a moment, wondering where to go. The washroom had had a demon, and he didn’t want to be alone in there right now, but there was no one he felt safe with. Except perhaps Pike. And even wanting safety was a temptation, a call to a demon to change you. There was nowhere he could run, nowhere he could hide, and even wanting to do those things was dangerous.

Now he understood what Pike had said. Abyssus Abbey was full of danger, in every corner, from every side. Even from inside your own mind. He ran back to the dormitory, found a corner of the room, and recited the letters he had learned over and over, trying to calm his thoughts and keep them focused so that no temptations could enter in.

Tuco knew he should be getting sleep, but he lay awake, feeling like a lute string that had been wound too tightly. Now and then his fingers would trace the creases in his neck where on his first day he’d almost become some kind of water creature. And he was acutely aware that he was in a room filled with men, and he was gay now, somehow. It didn’t feel false; it felt as though it had always been a part of him and had just been waiting for someone to wake it up. He thought of Elf—a paragon of male beauty hidden away alone in that room, for the protection of himself and everyone, and his loins surged with renewed arousal. Sex was much, much better than he had expected, much better than self-pleasure, and he could have it nearly any time he wanted.

He listened for Pike breathing in the bunk below his, and heard a low, soft moan. Moving slowly, he slid out of bed. The stone floor was cold beneath his bare feet. There was barely any light in the room—just a still-burning candle several beds away, but in its glow Tuco could make out the shifting form of Pike. The rabbit-man lay on his back in the bunk, mouth open, his expression one of plaintive need. There was a little hill beneath his blankets and it moved up and down, up and down. A little mewl escaped his short muzzle.

Tuco put a hand on his shoulder.

Pike’s large eyes blinked open. “Wh—wha…?”

“Do you need anything?” Tuco asked. “You… were kind of… whimpering.”

“Oh? Oh, uh…” Pike looked down his body at the tent in his blankets. “Oh, no, I told you, this happens twice a night. I’m used to it.”

Tuco felt a little thrum of excitement that stirred his courage enough to ask, “Do you want anything?”

Pike gave him a searching look and then pushed his blankets down slowly, pausing when he reached that hill. Tuco nodded, and Pike lifted the blankets up over his erection, letting a cloud of warm musk escape the trap of his bedclothes. “You could… you could lick it if you wanted to,” Pike whispered. “Any time you want, really.”

Tuco wasn’t really sure if he wanted to; some echoing part of the boy he was yesterday protested in the back of his mind that it was kind of gross, you didn’t put your mouth there, and anyway, what for? It wouldn’t feel good the way proper sex had. But another part of him wanted to see if just a few movements of his tongue could make his new friend writhe and moan. He leaned down, inches away from the pink, slightly pointed tip, and breathed in the scent of male. Then he slid his tongue across the surface. It was hot, hard and soft at once, the taste not unpleasant, but more enthralling was the ripple that traveled up Pike’s bare stomach, tensing his white-furred, muscled chest and ending in a gasp.

Tuco decided he liked that very much. He knelt by the bunk, sliding his fingers into the fur of Pike’s stomach, and licked again, all the way up his friend’s erection. Pike groaned quietly in the darkness, his fingers clenching the bedsheets, and in the candlelight, a bead of fluid glimmered at his tip. Tuco licked that away and found the flavor to his liking. He wanted to please Pike properly, to slide that cock all the way into his throat, but it was more than a hand in length, and he wasn’t sure how to do so without his tongue and teeth getting in the way. So instead he clambered up into the bunk, realizing only as his own tip hit the edge of the mattress that he was achingly aroused.

Distantly, he wondered what the priests at home would say about this, but it was only forbidden to lie with women unwed; there had never been any such rules about other men except in certain circumstances. Certainly nothing in the scriptures or homilies about kissing another like this. He gripped Pike’s hips in both hands, and thought of how incredible it had felt to be buried in that rump, but for now he only licked and licked again, watching shivers of pleasure move up Pike’s body. When he dared to slide the tip of the cock between his lips and suckle at the end, Pike made a mewling sound and grabbed at Tuco’s hands with both paws, soft-furred fingers grasping needily at his own.

Tuco sucked at it again, fumbling to pull down the sheets and find Pike’s sac, but as he did so, a loud creak echoed through the dormitory, and a breeze made the candle flicker. Someone had opened the door. Tuco drew back in alarm, releasing Pike’s cock to bounce against his stomach, but it was too late. Wild-eyed, stomach clenching into a tight pattern of pleasing muscle, Pike erupted, two thin arcs of seed spattering the underside of Tuco’s bunk. They dripped back down as Pike, panting, pooled the rest of his climax into his stomach fur.

Whoever had opened the door walked further into the room, carrying his own candle. He was wideset and wore the black robes and white belt of a senior Brother. Tuco didn’t suppose he could get into trouble for what he’d been doing—it was encouraged after all, wasn’t it? But all the same he didn’t like the idea of being caught. Embarrassment and a hint of shame flooded through him. He whispered, “Sorry!” to PIke and scrambled back up into his bunk, his erection annoyingly still hard and aching.

Sandals rasped on stone toward his bunk; the candlelight sent angular shadows careening around the room as the intruder came toward him. The person was headed right toward his bed. He felt a twinge of panic. Had he broken some unspoken rule? Was he going to be expelled from the abbey? He pulled the blankets over his head.

“I know you’re awake. I saw you,” whispered a voice presently. It was round and mellow, with a northern accent, but also weary. Tuco didn’t move. “Well?”

Reluctantly, Tuco pulled the blankets over his head and looked into the round face of an older monk, perhaps in his sixies. He had long white moustaches that had clearly once been waxed and teased but now were unkempt, and in the shadows, his eyes looked small and sunken. “You are the new boy, aren’t you?”

“Y—yes sir,” Tuco whispered. “I’m sorry if I wasn’t supposed to—”

“I have need of an apprentice. You’ll do.”

Now? In the middle of the night? “I… but sir, I—”

“Time is of the essence, boy. Are you here to be an apprentice or aren’t you?”

“Hey, now.” The voice was Pike’s, hushed but defiant. “He’s not been trained. And he hasn’t had time to prepare. Tell him no, Tuco. It’s too dangerous right now. You have the right of refusal.”

Anger creased the monk’s broad face. “You stay out of this, beast boy. I have a ritual that must be completed now, and I don’t have time for upstart apprentices. Listen to me. You. New boy. You may have the right to refuse, but if you do, I’ll see you turned out on your ear by the crack of dawn. I need assistance now. Time is of the essence. Do you understand?”

A rustle of bedclothes. Pike stood up beside the bunk, his long ears towering above the monk’s bald head. He peered. “Brother Melvin. I thought it was you. Look, he’s not ready. Take me instead. I’ll help you. I’ve been trained. And I’m… prepared. More prepared than he is, anyway.”

The monk sniffed the air and his lips curled downward. “Yes, I can smell your… satisfaction. You apprentices and your needs. Repugnant. But no. My ritual requires an Unchanged. Clearly you are not satisfactory.”

“I’ve never heard of any ritual that needs an Unchanged.”

Brother Melvin sighed. “And yet you are still just an apprentice and not a Brother, despite knowing every ritual in our libraries.” He turned to Tuco. “The coming Apocalypse could pivot on this ritual. Denying me now brings us closer to doom. Quickly. It is nearly complete, and I haven’t enough time.”

Pike shook his head. “Don’t do it, Tuco. It’s too dangerous.”

Tuco looked back and forth between the two of them. “It’s… it’s why I’m here, Pike. My family needs the money. And… maybe the world needs this ritual, right?” He nodded to Brother Melvin. “I’ll go with you.”

“Tuco, no!”

Tuco slid out of bed and found his robe, pulling it on. As he turned to follow Brother Melvin out of the room, Pike caught his arm. “Don’t think about anything but the ritual. Follow all the instructions he gives you exactly. Don’t pronounce one syllable wrong. Don’t step over any lines. Make sure windows are closed so they don’t blow out candles. And whatever you do, keep desire out of your mind. You may hear whispers. You may see things that you think you want. Don’t pay attention. Make the gestures. Say the words. Don’t let anything else come into your head. Okay?”

Tuco nodded. “I will. I won’t let you down.”

Then Pike put both his arms around him and clasped him in a tight hug. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he whispered.

Tuco tried to walk confidently as he headed toward the door, but a deep fear was knotting up his insides. He told himself he was only shivering because of the cold.

Brother Melvin led Tuco down the hallways of the abbey. Many of the candles were out now, those still lit providing little pools of radiance barely enough to show the pathways through the dark corridor. It was easy to imagine things crouching in the darkness, watching them—and no sooner had the thought occurred to Tuco than fear gripped him, because of course the possibility was quite real. Not only did demons crawl through the walls of this place, but there might be creatures hiding out there. Creatures that had once been apprentices like him, now turned monstrous, their minds maddened by the changes. Surely most had been caught and imprisoned, but perhaps not all. And what about the worst of the Changed, those who had been sent down into the Throat? Could they escape?

Tuco recognized the fear and tried to push it away, because surely that was a hook for any demon: the Temptation of Safety. He’d wish not to fear anymore… and then he would become one of those things lurking in the darkness. All the same, his dread was not so easily dispelled, and he scurried closer to Brother Melvin’s candle, finding relief in its light.

The monk peered at him out of the corner of one eye. “I don’t suppose you can read.”

“No, Brother Melvin. But I’ve a good memory.”

“I will give you the incantation until you can recite it perfectly. You must make no errors. You may see and hear things that will upset you. That will be the demons trying to get you to err and send the conjuring awry. It will be not only my soul at stake, but yours as well.”

“And—and if they get my soul, Brother?”

“Then you will belong to the Abyss forever, and none can save you.”

They headed down another hallway, and then Brother Melvin turned at a stairwell and proceeded down the steps. Tuco froze in place.

“Have you forgotten how to walk, boy? Hurry along.”

“No, sir. Only… only Rigby said we weren’t to use those stairs, sir.”

“Alone. Accompanied by a Brother it is acceptable. Now, no more dawdling. I told you this ritual does not leave us much time.”

Tuco hesitated a moment longer, but Brother Melvin continued down the steps without another word, and not wanting to be left standing alone, unable to find his way back to his room in the dark, Tuco had no choice but to scurry down after him.

The steps led them down, down, in what seemed to be a wide spiral, with many passageways leading off to either side, and the further they descended, the rougher-hewn the walls, the ruder and more irregular the stairs. From the darkness, still very far away, came strange noises: roaring, hissing, chittering, low moans, the clank of metal, the sound of heavy stone dragging on stone.

“Is—is that sound the Throat, sir?”

The monk regarded him mid-step. “It is.”

Tuco thought of Rigby’s warning. You don’t want to see the Throat. Not if you want to keep sleeping at night. “But we’re not going there are we, sir?”

“Not if we are lucky.” Brother Melvin stopped at a side passage—really just a tunnel eaten into the stone, as though a giant worm had passed this way. Which, Tuco supposed, was possible. He shuddered at the thought. The passage proved not to be very long, and led to a large, stone door, which had been painted with some kind of complex, arcane rune. It glimmered in the candlelight like gold leaf. “Here we are,” the monk said, and, with some struggling, his sandals skidding on the stones, pulled open the door.

Inside, it was so bright that at first Tuco had to shield his eyes. As they adjusted, he stared around in amazement. At first he thought he had stepped into an endless expanse of hellish light. The room was about fifty feet across, with a high, domed ceiling, and every inch of the walls, ceiling, and even parts of the floor had been fitted with dazzling mirrors, as perfect and clear as the ones in the washroom, cut into five-sided shapes and arranged in interlocking patterns. Mounted in brackets, sconces, or even affixed in place all around them were long, black candles that looked newly lit, with no wax running down their stalks. The flame that burned from them was a deep, crimson red.

“How…?” he said aloud staring. His nose caught a mineral sting in the air, but it was overlaid with the heavy, nauseating stinks of blood and sulphur.

Brother Melvin followed his gaze with a weary expression. “Petalite salts,” he said. “Very difficult to discover, that.” In the red light, his wide face looked sallow and drawn, the bags under his eyes sagging, as though his flesh had grown too heavy for his face. He pointed one stubby finger. “For the ritual, I will remain in a niche behind the mirror. You will stand there, in the center, and recite the words. All the other preparation has been performed. You will need no gestures nor to perform any sacrifices.”

Tuco followed his gesture to the center of the room. There, about six feet in diameter, a sigil had been carved: twelve pentagrams overlaid, like a complex windrose, a sixty-pointed star. The etching into the floor had been very precise, with no chisel marks, and the lines were filled with dark red blood, congealed almost to black, and between them, sulphur powder, light red in the strange candlelight, had been carefully sifted. He tried to remember from his lessons what domains those were associated with, but could not recall. He leaned closer. There was something odd about the sigil—a gap between two of the points, as though a thirteenth pentagram had been intended but omitted.

“Take caution not to touch the sigil,” Brother Melvin warned. “Come back with me and learn the incantation.”

Carefully, stepping between the arranged mirrors, Tuco made his way back to Brother Melvin. “Are all rituals here this complex?”

A little laugh burst from the monk’s mouth like an escaping bird. “No! No, haha, no, few rituals are this complex. This is why it is so important, my boy. It has taken lifetimes of research to get this far. And of course it requires someone with no trace of demonic change in him, someone… unspoiled. Which is rare in the abbey these days. Even I have been altered, despite my care.” And he pulled back one sleeve to reveal a forearm covered with green and yellow thorns, with small rose blossoms sprouting between them. “You see? So I cannot perform the chant myself. In all the abbey, only you can do this, boy. And had I waited, we might have lost that chance.”

“But it doesn’t matter if I’ve…” Tuco flushed. “You know, been with someone…?”

“I should hardly think so. What on earth would a demon care about that for?” His tone grew a little sharper. “Don’t think I didn’t catch the smell of what you were doing when I found you. Did one change you in any way while you were… engaged?”

“No, sir!”

“Good. Now listen. Here is the incantation. You must memorize it and repeat it exactly. You may hear and see strange or frightening things while you recite it, but you must not stop, and you must not falter until you have reached the end. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And do not cross the lines of the sigil. Those are meant to protect you. One star for each of the twelve temptations, you see? A demon cannot cross the star aligned with its temptation, but if you set even one hair across the lines, they may take you. This is very important.”

“I understand.”

“Good. Now here is the summoning.” The monk withdrew a brown and crumbling scroll from behind one of the mirrors and unrolled it. He read the words out loud, seemingly unconcerned about accidentally initiating the ritual early. Tuco recognized the familiar phonemes of Raw Latin, the language that preceded the formal Church Litana, still used in some of the older sacred books. The passage was long, perhaps two minutes to read aloud. He understood only a few of the words, like venite and dei and abyssus, but he was able to memorize them in order after hearing the whole thing only a few times, and was able to repeat it back to Brother Melvin to his satisfaction in short order. Reading, it was said, dulled the recollection; why bother to commit something to memory when you could have paper perform the task? The clergy and scholars, of course, needed to read, because they required access to more knowledge than any person could fit in their head. But for everyday life, reading fell under the temptation of ease; allowing the material world to take over the work you should have done yourself.

One final recitation, and the monk pronounced him ready. He moved to the center of the room and, having to stretch not to disturb the lines of blood and sulphur, stepped into the center of the sigil. Here he felt dizzy, seeing himself reflected from every angle, swimming through a careening ocean of space filled with a million crimson stars.

Brother Melvin pulled on a rope that snaked up behind the many mirrors layering the room and there was the sound of grinding stone and scraping metal as the mirrors moved inward all around, their edges sealing to leave barely any gaps. Only the doorway provided an interruption of solidity and realness and that was sealed off as the monk swung another large mirror on hinges, sealing Tuco in.

Somehow, with all the mirrors in place, the red light grew brighter, as though it had no place to escape, and so just bounced back and forth endlessly between the mirrors as the candles blazed red and added more and more light, until it seemed that every mirror glowed. Tuco fought off a reeling wave of new terror. Now he was alone and he would have to read this spell that would do—what? Something to prevent the apocalypse. He wished he weren’t here. But if he had refused, he’d have had to go back home, a failure. This was what he was here for. No point thinking about what the ritual might do, what horrifying thing it might summon. Did demons ever kill people? Take them over? Or might they turn him into something dreadful, something that had to be put down in the deep dark of the Throat with the other unspeakable monsters?

No. No point thinking about any of that. Pike had been so worried about him. He hoped he would get to see him again. He hoped the words wouldn’t fall out of his head when he spoke them.

“All right,” came the muffled voice of Brother Melvin. There was a tremor in it, though whether from excitement or fear, Tuco couldn’t tell. “I am ready. Finally, finally ready. Speak the incantation, boy, and do not err!

The tremor was infectious; Tuco struggled to keep it from his own voice as he stood still, staring into the sea of brilliant red stars, and spoke the words he had memorized. He was afraid that in the moment, fear would drive the syllables from his memory, but as he spoke the first line and then the second, it was as though they had been branded into his brain. The words cascaded from his tongue with a kind of fell inevitability; he thought he could not misspeak them even if he had wished to, as if they were part of an old song he’d known his whole life that he could sing without thinking.

The light in the mirror room continued to brighten, until all he could see was the crimson glare of infinite stars, but the intensity caused no pain. He had no need to close his eyes. The sigil must have been protecting him, he supposed. His voice echoed off of a hundred mirrors and came back to him with a hard, glassy edge. Beneath his sandals, the floor shook, at first just a little vibration, and then a shudder. He set his feet wider to keep his balance, but the words still poured off of his tongue—in me potentiae abyssarum adfluite—and the room shook even harder. With a creak, one of the mirrors fell away from the ceiling and smashed onto the floor, leaving a shaft of darkness cutting through the crimson light, but he dared not stop, could not stop—de mea mana praecono perditiones terrarum—and then he heard Brother Melvin screaming.

It was a raw, hoarse scream of terror, cutting through the thundering sound of the tremors shaking the room, and then another hole cut into the red glare as the door-mirror was pushed aside by the flailing frame of Brother Melvin half stumbling, half falling into the room. His face was twisted in fear, his eyes bulging. He scrambled to his feet and charged toward Tuco and the safety of the ritual circle.

No! Tuco thought at him desperately as his mouth continued to recite the incantation. You’ll ruin the circle and doom us both! But he dared not leave off his chanting even as Brother Melvin thundered toward him like a drunken bull. The monk barreled up to the circle and then seemed to hit an invisible wall—Tuco actually saw his face flatten as though up against a pane of clearest glass. He staggered backward, staring in bewilderment. The sigil was keeping him out.

And then, behind him, a massive figure stepped into the room, knocking mirrors aside, freeing more of the red light. Black candles dropped to the floor, going out or flickering feebly. Tuco felt the blood drain from his face. The only demon he had ever seen was the one that had sprouted from his bathwater, but still he was certain: this was no ordinary demon, not even an archdemon. It was a monstrous, bipedal red dragon, three times the height of a man, and built more powerfully than any man who had ever lived. Black horns crowned its head, and its eyes blazed with hellfire. It had four enormous arms and massive wings which seemed impossible to fit in the chamber. It took another step, a girthy, spiked tail swaying behind it, powerful legs bulging with its weight, and the stone floor cracked and splintered between its thickly taloned toes. Its long black horns caught mirrors on the ceiling and wrenched them free with awful metallic screeches.

Tuco knew this dragon; he had seen it in enough illustrations. This was Sathanus, Prince of the Abyss, the Bringer of the Apocalypse. And he was here, in the mortal world. He, Tuco, had been part of the ritual that summoned him. And yet he could not stop his chant, for he did not know what the ritual was supposed to accomplish. Perhaps this was part of it—summoning Sathanus into the mortal world so that he could be destroyed. To leave off now could doom everyone. And the words on his tongue wanted to be spoken; they almost said themselves.

Four blazing eyes fixed on Brother Melvin, who shrieked in panic and pounded on the invisible wall, the sides of his hands flattening as if against stone. “Please! Please let me in! Break the circle and let me in!”

Tuco widened his eyes and shook his head.

“You—you’re just an apprentice! I’ll have you exiled! I’ll have your head!”

But the titan behind him thundered closer, every footstep shaking the room. It spoke with a voice half tiger, half earthquake. “FOOL.” And then it reached down and picked up the terrified monk in one enormous hand. Brother Melvin made a mewling sound, his feet kicking in the air, one sandal flying off and sailing across the room. The dragon lifted the monk toward its enormous maw, uncountable scythelike teeth parting.

“Please!” the monk screamed. “I’ll do anything! I will do anything you want! I will—I will worship you! I will bring you others, other sacrifices!”


The dragon held the squirming monk in two hands, his inferno eyes fixed on him, flickering, the flames in them rising and dying. Then he inhaled slowly, steadily. Something pale and shimmering stretched out into the air and entered the dragon’s jaws, like a plume of smoke. The monk stared, entranced, for a moment, and then wriggled with renewed terror. “Please, no! Please! Oh… oh God. What are you doing to me?”

It took Tuco a moment to see what was happening as the monk writhed in the devil’s grip: at first it looked as though his clothes had just gone baggier, but Brother Melvin’s head didn’t poke so far out of his robes anymore; his hands slid up the sleeves. Then the dragon turned the man upside down and stripped the robes away, leaving him swinging naked in the air, gripped by one leg. Still the dragon inhaled, and as he did, Brother Melvin dwindled. He couldn’t have been more than four feet tall now, his whole leg encased by the dragon’s scaled fist. His voice went higher and higher as he moaned and begged the dragon to stop.

Tuco could only watch in horror as the man who had tried to sacrifice him shrank to the size of a child, smaller and smaller, no bigger than a cat, a songbird, until finally a tiny man no bigger than a mouse swung from the dragon’s grip, one foot pinched between two talons, squeaking helplessly in a voice too high-pitched to comprehend, a tiny pale bug. The dragon lifted him high above his head, opened his jaws, and dropped him in. A long, black, forked tongue slid over his reptilian lips. Tuco shuddered and looked away, still murmuring the words of the incantation.

“AND NOW YOU, BOY.” Sathanus, Prince of the Abyss, fixed his four blazing eyes on Tuco and reached for him with a lower hand easily big enough to encircle Tuco’s entire body. And was stopped by the sigil. He roared so loud that Tuco’s ears garbled the sound and then whined with an eerily silent ringing.

With a leer, the dragon raised one massive, taloned foot and slammed it down onto the floor of the room. A deep crack opened in the stone, zigzagging toward the stone circle. His foot thundered down again, and the crack just reached the edge of the circle. Congealed blood began to ooze out of the etchings, outside the sigil. With a wicked, hungry leer, the dragon crouched, raised all four massive fists, and drove them toward the floor, and just as he did so, Tuco spoke the last words of the incantation. Sathanus froze in place, his eyes going wide. His jaws gaped, forked tongue curling between them. He tugged at his fists, but they seemed locked in place in the air. Then the fire in his upper left eye flickered, turned blue, and went out. Behind it was only void, dark and empty. His lips pulled back from his fangs in an expression of shock and horror. Another eye went out, and then another, and then he was blinded. Now free to move and act, Tuco backed as far as he dared to the other side of the sigil. Flames of all colors—yellow, red, blue, green, white—were pouring out of the dragon’s body, streaming out of his fingers and toes, drooling from his gaping maw, and spreading across the floor. Hellfire pooled in the room, running between cracks in the stone, pouring around the ritual circle. And as it drained from the dragon’s body, he began to seem hollow. Empty. His skin began to fold inward, as though cast off by a serpent.

And as before him the Prince of the Abyss began to crumple inward and collapse, Tuco’s mind finally had enough, and the world tipped sideways.

His vision was blurry when he awoke. It didn’t feel like much time had passed, but clearly he had been moved. The room around him was all dark wood paneling, much of it stained black with the accumulated residue of many fires. The air smelled pungent and herbal, and he could hear a fire crackling in the corner.

“He is awake.” The voice was Lord Krastor’s.

“Oh my.” That one was friendly and elderly. A creature moved into view—perhaps once it had been a human monk, but now it resembled nothing so much as an enormous caterpillar, its body brilliant green striped with yellow, with many soft arms sprouting all down its sides. The head looked somewhat human, but soft and hairless, the eyes solid red and too large. Fanged mandibles framed its mouth. “How are you feeling, boy?” it asked kindly. It wrung several pairs of hands.

Tuco pushed himself into a sitting position. “All right, I think.” He felt up and down his body, anxiously checking for any changes, but everything seemed to be the same. “My shoulder hurts.”

“Ah, yes. I am afraid I had to bite you.” The creature’s mandibles twitched.

“Bite me? Why?”

Lord Krastor slid into view, his arachnid legs carrying him silently across the floor, his many eyes blinking in sequence. “Brother Hofstaed’s venom has healing properties.”

The caterpillar creature nodded, almost shyly. “I wished to be a better doctor. Hard not to want that, in a place like this. A demon answered me.”

“Was I hurt?”

“Your head was bleeding,” Lord Krastor said.

“I must have hit it when I… when I fell.” Tuco’s fingers explored through his hair, but he found no bump or scab there. Brother Hofstaed’s venom must have worked very well.

“What happened there?” the master of the keep asked with some urgency. “Why were you down there at all?”

“I was asleep when Brother… when Brother…” Tuco faltered, remembering the horrific fate of poor Brother Melvin. It all seemed impossible now, an event his mind rejected. Just a nightmare, slipping away from his memory.

“I saw what happened to Brother Melvin, though I could not see the entity that did it. My past and future sight will not show me demons. A terrible fate indeed. But to have conducted such a ritual at all… it is like none in any of my books. Where could he have learned it?”

“He said it could stop the Apocalypse. He came to me in the middle of the night and asked for help. I didn’t want to, but he said he would have me thrown out of the Abbey.”

Lord Krastor exchanged a glance with Brother Hofstaed. “Melvin said that? But why would he—”

“He was always drawn to darker rituals,” Brother Hofstaed said sadly. “It was always a risk. You never wanted to see what was in him. He was here for his own purposes.”

“And you’ve no idea what the ritual was intended to accomplish?” Lord Krastor asked.

“No, sir. But I could tell you the incantation, if that would…” Tuco frowned, puzzled. He had remembered the words so perfectly before, but now they were peeling away from his mind, leaving only vague outlines, bits of shapes and sounds of Raw Latin he could not recall.

“It is not surprising that you cannot remember it. A demonic ritual can be performed only once in all time, and then it vanishes.”

“Oh.” Tuco brightened. “But it was written down on a scroll in the room, surely you could—”

“Everything in the room was destroyed by fire. There was nothing left when we found you. Only slag of metal and glass and you, lying in the warding circle. With my inner eyes I saw the room. Mirrors everywhere. Black candles with red flame. Petalite?”

Tuco nodded.

“And the entity you saw, the one that took Brother Melvin’s soul. A demon?”

“Not a demon.” Tuco shuddered at the horror of the memory. “Sathanus. Just like in the pictures.”

Lord Krastor and Brother Hofstaed stared at him a moment, and then both chuckled. “I assure you, it was not Sathanus,” Lord Krastor said.

“But it was! It looked just like him in all the pictures and everything.”

“Seven heads and taller than a mountain?”

“Well, no…” Tuco hesitated. “Just the one. And he fit in the room. But besides that, it was him, I know it! Everything else looked the same!”

Lord Krastor smiled patiently. Two of his back legs rubbed together, one cleaning the other. “Demons can adopt many forms. It is unsurprising that one chose that visage. But I assure you, if it had been Sathanus, we would all be Changed or dead and the Apocalypse would be on us. The scriptures and writings are very clear on this. When Sathanus sets foot in our world once more, the end days are upon us.”

Tuco frowned. “Then… then perhaps the ritual worked! Brother Melvin said it was supposed to stop the Apocalypse. And when I finished it, Sathan—the… the demon, it… died. It just crumpled up like a paper in a fire and all the flames poured out of it. It looked shocked.”

“It died? Demons are very difficult to destroy, though it can be done. But no power could have destroyed Sathanus. He is one of the immortal angels; our Lord God Himself could not destroy Sathanus, only curse him to an infernal form and banish him. No, boy. I understand what it looked like, but what you are saying is quite impossible. Something else is going on here. Something Brother Melvin didn’t want anyone else to know about. Well. The information you have given us will be helpful, I am certain. We may have more questions for you in the coming days. But I urge you not to speak about any of this with the other apprentices. Do you feel well enough to return to the dormitory?”

Tuco considered. The halls of the Abbey didn’t seem half as frightening as what he had just faced. “I think so. But… but aren’t you worried that I might be possessed or something?”

Lord Krastor gave him a thin smile. “Do you honestly think we have not checked for that already? Just the fact that you would ask us is a good sign. But no, our fiend-finders showed no signs of corruption in you, and the gazers let you pass beneath without warning. You are still pure, Tuco Witchywine, or we would not be speaking so pleasantly now. Go on back to your bed. And Tuco?”

“Yes, sir?”

“The next time a Brother tries to coerce you into a ritual, you may of course demand to see me. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then you may go. The candles will light the way back to the main hall. And for now, I would advise not speaking of this to the other apprentices. Please allow us time to consider how best to convey the news of Brother Melvin’s… mishap…”

“Yes, sir. I understand.” Tuco slid out of the bed and bowed to the caterpillar monk. “Thank you for healing me, Brother Hofstaed.”

The creature dipped his bald green head, his long, black antennae bobbing. “Of course.”

Halfway out the door, Tuco turned. “Lord Krastor?”

“Yes, lad?”

“How did you know to come and find me?”

“Well, there were the tremors, of course. But it was another apprentice. A rabbit-man by appearances. He came to us and told us you were in trouble. It would seem you have a friend here.”

“Thank you, sir,” Tuco said, and closed the door.

When he stepped through the dormitory door, the silhouettes of Pike’s long ears perked up in the candlelight across the room. Tuco crept back toward his bunk, observed only by those apprentices who were nocturnal or no longer slept—he caught the flash of eyeshine in several dark corners of the room. Pike sprang up and clasped him tight, then held him at arm’s length.

“Are you all right? Did anything happen?”

Tuco shook his head. “I’m—I’m fine, but it was horrible. Brother Melvin, he… he summoned something awful. It was Sathanus, I’m sure of it. It took his soul and ate him. He’s gone.”

“It wouldn’t be Sathanus, no, or we’d all be in trouble. But you, you’re… the same? You’re not Changed at all?”

“I wasn’t even tempted,” Tuco whispered. “It was this big ritual, but I was inside a protective sigil. I didn’t see any demons other than Sath—other than the one.”

Pike hugged him to his soft-furred chest again. “I’m so relieved. I’ve… never heard of any Brother risking himself to protect the apprentice though.”

“I don’t think he meant to. Something went wrong.”

The rabbit gave him another long, searching look. “It’s incredible that you are still all right. You must have some kind of luck, Tuco Witchywine. Now you get some sleep. Dawn will be here before you know it.”

Tuco climbed up into the top bunk and closed his eyes, but he could not get to sleep. He kept seeing, over and over, that terrible red dragon holding the squeaking monk above his fanged maw and dropping him in. He wondered what had happened to Brother Melvin—whether he was truly dead, or maybe foundering in some dark reach of the Abyss. Almost, almost he wished to go home again, but he caught himself in time. Who knew how demons would answer that wish if they sensed it? Besides, if he went back now, he’d always wonder about the mystery: what had Brother Melvin intended with his ritual? Had he truly meant for Tuco to be sacrificed to Sathanus?

Home was comforting only because it was familiar, but that familiarity was tedious as well. Even with as frightening as things here could be, at least it was interesting. At least it was an adventure. And he had the chance to do something meaningful, not just wear himself out into old age in some menial drudgery like his parents and older siblings. No. He would not give up this adventure for the world. And he comforted himself with that thought, and with fanciful imaginings of what gifts the demons might instill in him one day.

He woke from half-sleep, choking. His tongue felt too large for his mouth and had pushed into the back of his throat, making him gag. He tried to move it out of the way, but his whole mouth seemed full of it, as though it had swollen. It pressed up against his teeth and then pushed them apart. He gasped for breath as his tongue slipped out of his mouth. He could actually see it in his lower vision, longer than it should have been and still extending, pink in the early morning light.

He clutched at his sheets as he realized he was becoming Changed. But why? How? He’d had no temptation, and could see no demons. Had they tempted him in his sleep? Could they do that? Would it even count? His heart pounded as he felt the stretch in his tongue, the increased weight of it in his mouth as it continued to lengthen. It waved in the air, a pink ribbon already longer than his hand and still extending. How long was it going to grow? At more than a foot long, it writhed and twisted in the air above him, partly of its own volition, but partly under his control; he found he could curl and loop it easily. He huffed panicked breaths, having sudden visions of filling up the room with long coils of his own pink tongue, and then even as the thought occurred to him, he saw a dark color creeping down the length of it, changing it from pink to a slick, shiny black.

At over two feet long now, it bobbed above him, dripping obscenely onto his blankets. Then, as he watched, the end of it twitched, stretched from side to side, and began to separate. The edges of his tongue pulled apart into two separate tips joined several inches upward. His tongue tips waved in the air individually. From his mouth grew the long, ebony tongue of a serpent. He stared at it in amazement and panic.

This was it, then. He’d be ejected from the abbey today. A tongue like that would prevent him from speaking properly, from reciting the rituals. He’d be sent home with a long, obscene appendage hanging from his mouth, because there was no way he would ever be able to fit that between his jaws—and just as he had the thought, his tongue retracted back between his lips and settled between his teeth.

Puzzled, he probed at the inside of his mouth with his new tongue. He could still feel the fork, the separation at the end of his tongue, but the tips sealed together so that it felt almost like normal. Where had the rest of it gone? He probed at his throat, trying to feel if there was a new bulge going down his neck, but couldn’t tell. That was a relief, at least. He would not have wanted to go through life with an extended tongue wagging at his chest all the time.

Experimentally, he slipped it from his mouth again and felt it extend into the abbey air, and this time he could taste the room, the scents wet on his tongue: stone, wood, and cloth; the faint taste of the burning candle; dozens of males everywhere, smelling of musk and scale and fur and feather. Beneath him he could taste the presence of Pike and the remnants of his nocturnal releases. He could taste the traces of the elements of ritual on his own robes: the petalite salts and the sulphur and the blood and the stink of fear.

But above all that, almost drowning out every other scent in the room, he could taste desire. It flooded from everyone—desire for approval or admiration, for home, for sex, for food, for a few more hours of sleep. He didn’t know how he knew the scents, but he did, intrinsically, as familiar to him as the scent of warm bread or the streets after a rain. He slipped his tongue between his teeth and the scents faded; he poked out the tips again, and once more his senses flooded with the desires of every man in that room.

He gasped in amazement.

“Wh-what?” Pike’s voice was sleepy. “Is everything all right, Tuco? I thought I heard—”

“Fine,” Tuco answered him. He didn’t want to explain right now; he didn’t even know what had happened. “Everything isss fine.”

Tuco was nervous to speak to anyone as they got ready that morning lest they notice his change. He didn’t know why at first, but he felt instinctively as though he should hide it. Surely the black color or the long tips would be easy to see when he spoke, and he found himself mumbling in the hope of concealing it. But if anyone noticed, no one said anything. Pike was quite affectionate that morning and informed him that since he’d had such a late night, if Tuco wanted to sleep in, he would cover for him, but Tuco didn’t see how he could possibly sleep any later.

He made his way down the hallway to the washroom to clean and wash his face, and when he had a spare moment and it seemed like no one was looking, he sidled over to one of the mirrors and opened his mouth wide. Sure enough, his tongue was still smooth and black, and though the tips cupped together, he could easily see the separation down the middle. He tipped his head back a little, trying to see how far down his throat his tongue went, but couldn’t make it out.

“What are you doing?” someone asked right behind him, and he nearly jumped out of the towel around his waist.

“Oh, I, uh, have a sssore throat,” he managed hastily. “I was just trying to see.”

“Oh. You want me to look?” The speaker was tall and rangy, and had extremely long arms and fingers with dark, webbed flesh, like bat wings, connected to brown-furred shoulders. Tuco had noticed him crouched upside down near the ceiling the previous day.

“Uh, no thank you. I didn’t see any red.”

“You went out late last night,” the apprentice said. His eyes were small and dark, and fixed on Tuco intently. “With Brother Melvin, I think?”

“Yes. But… I’m not supposed to talk about it, Lord Krastor said. Sorry.”

The apprentice gave him a searching look. “You returned quite late.”

Tuco nodded.

“The Brothers don’t come for us in the middle of the night like that…”

“I wouldn’t know. I only got here two days ago. I don’t suppose I would know what kind of things are supposed to happen.”

“Well, you look normal enough,” the apprentice said doubtfully.

“Thank you?”

Seeing that he wasn’t going to get anywhere, the apprentice scowled and wandered away. Tuco slumped in relief. He was glad Lord Krastor had instructed him not to speak of the events of the ritual. They were unpleasant even to recall, but of course thinking about it made the images jump into his mind again: the dragon’s parted jaws, and Brother Melvin dangling above swordlike teeth and a black… forked… tongue.

A chill surged through Tuco. His tongue. It looked the same as the one in the mouth of Sathanus. But how could that be? Had the ritual done something to him? Was he possessed in some way? He would have to tell the Brothers as soon as he could—this was too important. After his lessons, he decided, he would ask the instructor and beg to be taken to see Lord Krastor.

The tips of his tongue poked briefly between his lips and tasted the scent of the washroom: fresh linens, water, mildew, and all around him, the desire of men.

Breakfast was a strange affair; his new tongue moved strangely in his mouth when he ate, tending to curl around his food as he chewed. The thought of Brother Melvin being dropped into the dragon’s jaws came to him again, and he wondered if Sathanus’s tongue had curled around the monk like that, and briefly imagining that made him feel guilty, as though he had been responsible for that death.

He bit his tongue several times while chewing; though he had no idea where the full length of it went when retracted, it still felt too large for his mouth, and one of the two forks always seemed to be sliding between his teeth. Everything tasted different, too, though he couldn’t quite understand how. It all was good, but the flavors were more complex. He could taste that the flour in the bread had been sitting in a canvas sack; he could taste the musky hint of the mice that had nibbled into it. In the grapes was the flavor of hot soil and dusty leaves and the grasshoppers that had crawled across them; though now there were autumn rains on the air, in the grapes he could taste the memory of summer.

And all around him, every time he opened his mouth, his tongue caught the flavors of desire hanging in the air around the apprentices: the yearning for the familiarity of a breakfast like back home, the wistful hope for a few hours more sleep, the hope that something interesting would happen today, yearnings for companionship, for adventure, for escape. The room was packed with desire, just waiting for the right demons to come along and answer them. Tuco wished he could help everyone.

Instead, he finished his breakfast and made his way to lessons. All around him people were talking about Brother Melvin arriving in the middle of the night, but whenever they asked Tuco what happened, he explained that he had been told not to divulge this. They began with reading lessons that morning, those who didn’t know their letters splitting off from the main group of apprentices, who went to prayers. Tuco dutifully practiced writing them on his slate and then reading them aloud with the rest of the group. He worried that when they reached the letter S his tongue would hiss again, drawing everyone’s attention, but it never happened. Maybe, he told himself, he was just growing accustomed to its new shape.

After reading lessons, they were rejoined by the main class and taken to one of the ritual rooms where working desks—large, heavy-looking wooden things with many drawers—had been set up for each of them, nearly two hundred in total. On each had been assembled parchment paper and a variety of vials, candles, and tinder-boxes.

Pike made sure to take a desk near Tuco’s. “This will be ritual practice,” he explained. “You’ll go through all the steps of summoning a demon minus the actual summoning. Better to try it in a safe environment before having to do it for real.” He gave Tuco a sharp look and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Though I suppose you’re more versed with it than most neophytes, hmm?”

Tuco shook his head. “All he had me do was stand in a sigil and recite an incantation,” he whispered back. “I didn’t have to do any setup or anything like that.”

“So what actually happened? You have to tell me sometime, you know.”

Brother Stetmeyer’s voice rang out over the classroom. “No talking! You all should be taking this deadly serious. Some of you must think yourselves old hats at this, hmm? Would someone who has performed this exercise many times care to explain why they are still here?”

A very long, very thin arm went up. It was pale, with outstretched fingers that reached nearly to the twenty-foot-high ceiling.

“Yes, Long Jeremy?”

A thin, flutey voice answered, “When summoning a demon, every time is the first time.”

“That’s right. Did you hear that, everyone? Every time is the first time. But what does that mean? It means,” he continued, ignoring the hands that went up, “that every summoning is different. Every demon is different. They will trick you in unique ways. They will search for new weaknesses. They will all try to escape their bindings using their own particular skills. And you must never become comfortable with summoning. You must never tell yourself that you know this, that you understand how it is done. Confidence leads to sloppiness, and sloppiness leads to possession, or a trip to the Throat from which you will not return. Am I understood?”

“We’re not actually going to summon a demon, are we?” Tuco whispered to Pike.

Brother Stetmeyer’s gaze fixed on Tuco sternly. “You there. New boy. Did I not just instruct you not to speak? What did you say?”

Tuco felt himself turn bright red. “Nothing, sssir.” He heard the hiss. His tongue tips curled briefly against his bottom lip as they slid from his mouth.

But instead of seeming angry or alarmed, a look of puzzlement passed over the Brother’s face. “Didn’t you? I could have sworn I heard… Ah well, never mind.”

Pike peered at Tuco, his eyes narrowing.

“Now then, we will not be summoning actual demons, of course,” Brother Stetmeyer continued, “as only a confirmed and sanctified Brother who has studied and trained for many years may perform such a ritual without certain damnation. But all the other parts of the rite you may be responsible for in one capacity or another, and so it is imperative that you familiarize yourselves with every aspect of the summoning. I have written your instructions on the slateboard here.” He pointed to a large, black rectangle of stone on which he had outlined a series of unintelligible instructions in yellow chalk. “Those of you who cannot yet read, ask the assistance of your neighbors. Do not fear that this ritual will succeed; all summoning of demons requires either sacrifice or the force of command, and you will have neither today. Are there questions?”

Tuco had many, but he figured it would be better to ask Pike than to bother the Brother again. Pike ran down the list of instructions for him and together they began making small summoning circles on their desks. They had to start with preparing the surface, which had to be scrubbed with salt in order to scour away impurities that might leave an opening for demonic influences. Then they had to dip their hands in holy water and recite special prayers to ready their souls for an encounter with a demon. A sigil had to be drawn carefully; exact circles could be shaped using a bit of string and a center rod. Often blood was used to create the sigil, but here they were using hot red wax applied using a kind of glass needle. The sigils had many different symbols, runes, and lines which all had to be duplicated exactly. Each one, Brother Stetmeyer explained, was like a word in a very complex sentence. Just as changing or omitting one word—or even pronouncing a word incorrectly—could change the meaning of a sentence, so any change to any part of the sigil could mean that it drew the evil into it instead of keeping it out.

At intervals between each step, they were required to stop and offer up prayers to God for protection and sanctification, and then they could begin inscribing the next arc of a circle, the next letter of a rune. Tuco found the whole process interminably dull, but he supposed that was part of the trick; demons could not be avoided without patience, care, and regular prayer.

When he had finally finished, his sigil on the parchment was less than two feet in diameter, but he thought it looked accurate; he had copied every part of the example diagram perfectly. He had spilled wax twice and had to clean it from the parchment, but this was apparently normal, and a little cleansing mantra was required after each spill. After this, five candles were lit, one for each of the wounds of Amanuel, centered around the sigil. If the ritual had been crafted correctly so far, Brother Stetmeyer told them, the candle flames should burn steady and clear, without flicker.

Tuco lit his own candles and they burned with even, unwavering flames. He looked over at Pike and saw one candle wavering slightly and pointed it out. Pike thanked him and began poring over his sigil, looking for errors or interruptions.

Next, dab with holy oil in three equidistant spots outside the candles, one for each aspect of the Holy Trinity, and then the incantation. Sometimes gestures would be used, Brother Stetmeyer told them, but those were highly specific to each of the twelve Abyssal domains and would have to be studied and learned one by one in the coming days.

Tuco memorized the Raw Latin incantation after having Pike read it to him a few times, then focused, cleared his mind, sent his prayers to the Almighty God for purification and protection, and spoke the words of the ritual. Again, as with the night before, once he began speaking, the words seemed to have an inevitability to them; they poured off his tongue as though they wanted to be spoken. He feared that his tongue would slip and hiss, spoiling the incantation, but his speech was sure, and as he spoke the final words, a yellow light began to blaze through the lines of his sigil.

Surprised, he looked around to see if anyone else was getting this effect, but everyone was either hunched over their desk, still focusing, or had stood back, apparently finished. He watched the yellow light spread along the lines of his sigil until the whole thing was glowing, and then the space between the lines seemed to fall away, as if into a warm circle of fire.

Then something crawled up out of the circle, first one clawed hand, then a second, clambering up as though from a deep hole. It was very small, perhaps only four inches tall, and it looked like a rat had somehow combined with a wasp—it had four clear, insectoid wings that buzzed erratically at its back, a long, slender pink tail with a thatch of fur and a black barb at the end, chitinous antennae, two eyes like orbs of broken mirror, and a long muzzle. It stood in the circle, looking around, and then glared up at Tuco balefully, baring pointed incisors.

Tuco cast about, looking for help—he had been told this wasn’t supposed to happen. “Shoo!” he told the thing, waving at it with both hands. “Go away.”

The demon made a very rude gesture at him, and then, with a buzzing that sent its wings invisible, lifted clumsily up out of the circle and flew off into the corner of the room where it crawled onto a rafter and disappeared.

Tuco put his hand up in the air immediately.

Yes, new apprentice?” came Brother Stetmeyer’s weary voice.

“Sir, what are we supposed to do if we accidentally summon a real demon?”

The room erupted into mostly quiet laughter—some apprentices had deep, bestial voices and at least one sounded like breaking crystal when he laughed.

“It is unlikely ever to happen, but should you make a terrible mistake and actually succeed at it, you should summon a Brother immediately.”

“Only, my ritual actually worked, sir. Er, something came out of my sigil. It flew off over there, sir.” Tuco pointed to the far rafter.

The Brother scowled, going beet-red above his bushy beard. “What is your name, apprentice?”

“Tuco, sir.”

“Apprentice Tuco, this is neither the time nor the place for jokes. They are not appreciated here.”

“But I’m not joking! A… a thing came out of my—”

“That is impossible. You were not given the ingredients. If you persist in this little prank, or whatever it is, I will have you remanded to the custody of Lord Krastor where he will decide what to do with you. Is that clear?”

“But sir, I—”

“That is enough, Apprentice Tuco. I have only been this lenient with you be