Abyssus Abbey 2

by Pen Darke

 To protect himself from the devils who want to attack and change him, Tuco must enter the Abyss—little knowing what he will find there.

Added: Feb 2021 Updated: 26 Jun 2021 55,713 words 8,805 views 5.0 stars (22 votes)

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You might be looking for: “Abyssus Abbey” by Pen Darke.

Contents (8 parts)
Chapter 1: The Vault of Hell To protect himself from the devils who want to attack and change him, Tuco must enter the Abyss—little knowing what he will find there. (added: 6 Feb 2021)Chapter 2: The Castle Maneuver Exploring a castle designed to protect him and strengthen him at the cost of his freedom, Tuco makes contact with what seems to be the living consciousness of the keep itself. (added: 13 Feb 2021)Chapter 3: Friends in Low Places After a long wait, Hob returns to Tuco. Can his plan for releasing him from the Abyss really work? And if he were to return to the Abbey, what would he find there? (added: 20 Feb 2021)Chapter 4: The Throat After waking to find all three of his friends pleasuring him, Tuco explores his demesne and discovers a deep cavern that may hold some of the secrets of the Abyss. (added: 20 Mar 2021)Chapter 5: An Outbreak of Monsters Pike’s desire to have even more sex with Tuco might just stand a chance of being fulfilled. Meanwhile, Tuco asks Hob about the seals, and what it might mean that one of them is broken. (added: 27 Mar 2021)Chapter 6: Demesne Escaping from the prison of the Abyss, Tuco is brought to his own estate—a demesne once ruled by Sathanus, the Prince of Darkness, whose legacy Tuco finds repellent. Of more immediate concern, however, are the omens of his coming temptation. (added: 12 Jun 2021)Chapter 7: Greed Is Good Tuco has a chat with Baron Mammon and confronts just how much he doesn’t know about being a devil, or the challenges he faces. (added: 19 Jun 2021)Chapter 8 : Proper Care and Feeding of the Souls of the Damned After guiding Tuco through the complexities of fixing the fates of the damned, Mammon is intrigued enough by Tuco to offer him a mutually pleasurable proposition. Tuco’s manner of return to the Abbey, however, is not according to plan. (added: 26 Jun 2021)
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Tuco stepped through the glowing crack in the stone wall and immediately pitched forward. His stomach wrenched and twisted inside him, and he was plummeting through sheer darkness. He flailed frantically for the room behind him, but as he wheeled through the blinding darkness, all he could see was the lit crack of the room, far distant and dwindling rapidly. It diminished to a sliver of light and safety, a glint in the dark, and then was gone.

After a few moments, the sensation of movement drifted away from him. He hung in darkness and felt as though he was hovering. There was nothing beneath his toes to hold him up, no pressure on his body pressing in any direction, but he had lost any sense that he was moving. Not even the air rushed past him as he presumably continued to fall. If he’d had his robes, perhaps they would have fluttered around him, but they seemed not to have come with him through the crack in the world. He felt a by-now familiar flexing sensation from his eyes as his pupils contracted to the narrowest of slits in the darkness, and he saw that all around him, glittering in the distance, were stars.

But he knew that he was not in his world anymore. The stars were not simply set in the dome of the Firmament, but all around him, on every side, glittering just as brightly beneath his feet as above his horns. He struggled to understand where he was. All knew the Abyss was in vast caverns beneath the earth, and that Paradise was set beyond the stars, past the Firmament. So where was he? And where was Hob?

He couldn’t answer any of these questions, and he had no way to move, so he simply hung, or perhaps fell, for a while, in contemplation. After a few minutes, the fluttery beating of little wings came from behind him, a sound like someone shaking out a washcloth, and moments later, the little imp flapped into view.

“You fall very quickly, master,” he said, huffing and wheezing a little. “It took me a lot of work to catch you!”

“Are we falling?” Tuco asked in bewilderment. “I can’t feel anything. Where are we?”

“Falling only feels like falling when you start,” Hob said. “And we are in the Abyss now.”

“But how can that be? There are stars everywhere!”

“Not true stars.” For a moment a look of unbridled hatred crossed the imp’s face, so twisted and venomous that for a moment, Tuco thought it wasn’t Hob at all. “The One Above put them there. To taunt us. The devils, I mean. All devils were once angels, you know. And the angels were stars. Impossibly great beings of light and power blazing in… in the… Firmament. Divine fire but with a will. They were magnificent. But when they would not yield to the One Above, he tore their light from them and cast them into the Abyss. And then he set these lights throughout the Abyss to remind them what he had taken from them.”

Tuco shuddered. “That’s—I mean that sounds cruel, but of course He had good reasons to do so.”

The imp spat, and its spittle coalesced into a liquid sphere that wobbled and slowly drifted away from it. “Everyone who is cruel says he has good reasons.”

Tuco looked about uneasily. “So are we just going to float here?”

“We are not floating! It takes time to fall to the Abyss. Look there.” Hob pointed ahead of them where one star gleamed a little brighter than the others, and as Tuco gazed at it, he thought he could make out shifting colors in its light—red, blue, and green.

“A star?” he asked. “The Abyss is a star?” Even as he asked the question, he saw that it was steadily growing brighter, and that it was not a star at all, but a glowing round light, floating in the darkness. Just a pinhead of colored light, but growing larger with every breath he took, until it became an orb, drawing nearer and nearer. “It’s a celestial sphere,” he breathed in wonder. “Like Venus or Jupiter!”

Hob gave a nasty little giggle. “An infernal sphere, perhaps. And yes, that is the heart of the Abyss, a sphere many times larger than than the mortal world.”

Tuco started to object that the world was not a sphere, but had heard from more than one traveling scholar who had stopped in his village that the Greeks and Arabs had both determined that it was so, though if such a thing were true, he pitied those who were forced to live on the sides or worse, clinging to the bottom—though he supposed at least they would never be caught in the rain. What strange houses they must have to build on the sides of the world! Perhaps they nested like cliff swallows?

The sight of the orb of the Abyss ballooning beneath him tore his mind away from such wonderings—now that it was growing in size, he really did feel as though he was falling again, and he tried to wriggle in the air. If only he had wings like Charo to slow his descent—but no, he must exercise even more caution here, in the plane of demons. Surely he would be transformed in an idle thought and an instant’s notice down here, at least until they reached the safe place that Hob had mentioned.

Before him, the orb swelled larger and larger, until it filled his vision, and now he could see odd shapes and patterns mottling its surface: huge stretches of green, or yellow, or brown, and places that looked cracked, the edges glowing as though liquid fire ran across them and surrounded them. There was blue like the deepest sea and strange, milky lattices of white that seemed to cover it indiscriminately. Greater the orb swelled, until it filled all of Tuco’s vision, and continued to grow, one edge burning with luminous fire, the other swathed in darkness, in which tiny stars glittered, as though the dark areas themselves were windows into the Firmament.

As the orb continued to grow, the feeling of hurtling toward it grew stronger, and sent icy fingers of terror through Tuco’s gut. “We’re going to hit it!” he shouted in alarm.

Hob snickered. “That is the idea. Do you want to miss it and fly forever into the darkness instead?”

“But we’ll be killed! We must slow down somehow.”

The little imp showed him its fangs. “Well, I have wings, master. What are you going to do?”

Tuco stared at the smirking little creature. “Hob! But you—you’re loyal to me, aren’t you? I order you to do something to save me!”

“But I can do nothing.” The imp winked at him, fluttering back and forth. “Don’t be afraid, master. You are in the Abyss. A fall will not kill you. Nothing can.”

“Oh. Oh.” Tuco struggled to control his breathing. “That’s good.”

“Oh no, master. Evil. Think of all those souls in torment, pleading for the peace of death.” The imp rubbed lewdly between his legs. “Just think of them.”

But all Tuco could think about was the world hurtling toward him, the largest thing he had ever seen, and now he could make out strange white-tipped shapes which might be mountains, and of course the blue must be seas and lakes, only from very high up, and there was a brown, glinting ribbon that must be a muddy river. The white he had seen were now clearly clouds, but seen from above, and he flinched, covering his eyes with both arms as he plunged toward one. Then there was only a cool wet sensation, and he discovered that what he had mistaken for a cloud was only a dense fog, and that must mean that clouds were only fogs far up in the sky.

He whipped through them within less than a minute, and now below him there was a field of dark green broken up by open patches and glinting silver rivers. His stomach lurched again as he dropped toward them like a stone, and the fields of dark green resolved into treetops. They rose up to meet him and he put out both arms and squeezed his eyes shut, bracing to hit the ground…

And simply stopped. Dizziness took a wild, drunken tour around the inside of his head and then fled. He could feel his weight again. There was grass beneath his toes. He opened his eyes.

He stood at the edge of a dense, forbidding-looking forest, its trees towering taller than any he had ever seen, their leaves broad, their branches clustered together so that beneath them was only darkness. Before him, breaking a wide clearing of grass, and apparently daylit though he could see no visible sun, was an enormous wall, built of huge, rectangular, black stones set neatly together, as in the finest cathedrals. The wall towered perhaps three times Tuco’s own height, and wicked-looking spikes jutted from the top, forked like candelabra and gleaming like polished silver. From behind the wall rose the strangest and tallest building Tuco had ever seen. It looked like an enormous castle, with towers and battlements, but far too many, making no architectural sense. A battlement might lead directly into a tower with no doors, stairs might descend from one tower only to intersect with another staircase leading straight back up. Towers were clustered everywhere; not merely along the walls, but in the middle of the structure as well, some sagging with missing masonry, others cylindrical and polished as though made entirely of burnished bronze.

But none of that was what was strangest about the citadel: what was strangest was that apparently, atop the keep in the middle of that citadel, someone had placed another, with a drawbridge protruding into empty air, with even more walls and towers and minarets rising up. Many winding, precarious looking stairways connected this castle to the one below, and they kept climbing, for atop that fortification was another, and atop that another, as though someone had kept stacking fortresses and castles and palaces one on top of another, each balanced impossibly on the one below, ascending all the way up into the sky, fading into blue haze above them.

Tuco stared upward with his mouth agape, and his tongue curled in the air, catching the taste of decay, mold, and sulfur beneath those of masonry and earth and the rich, dark forest behind him. He also caught the smell of imp just before he noticed the fluttering sound of leathery wings near his ear, and turned. “You smell different,” he said to Hob, but the imp ignored him.

“Impressive, isn’t it?”

Tuco stared back up at the fortress jutting into the sky, having to lean back a little—the thickness of his neck didn’t allow his head as easy movement as it once had. “It looks impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible in the Abyss,” Hob said. “It is full of worlds dreamt up by devils who have little to do but dream. They say the fortress started with but one castle, but its architect grew restless, and could not keep himself from adding more.”

“Who is this architect?”

Hob grinned his little fangs. “Oh, I dare not speak his name. Come, let us find a safe place for you within.”

“But how will we get inside?”

“The fortress was built to guard those seeking its protection, not to keep them out. Approach with no thought to harming or removing its denizens, and it will permit you entry.”

Tuco peered at him. “You speak differently as well. Has something changed with you, Hob?”

“Perhaps, master. Imps have been known to change greatly when taking a new master. If I change, it must be that you wish it so.” Hob made a little shrug with his wings and settled on Tuco’s shoulder.

“I liked you just fine as you were,” Tuco objected. “But very well. So I simply approach the wall? And then what—”

As he stepped up close to the black stone wall, without so much as a shudder or a groan, the stones began to shift, sliding in their spots and parting to fold open an entrance in the midst of the solid stone. The passageway through was more of a tunnel than a doorway, for the wall was far thicker than Tuco had imagined, but he could see daylight and green grass on the other side of the tunnel, perhaps twenty yards away. He took a nervous step in, and then another, trying not to imagine the tunnel suddenly unfolding again, the stones closing in around him, leaving him sealed inside a wall in the Abyss for all eternity. But no stones shifted, and the light on the other side did not diminish, so he ventured on down the tunnel.

Inside, his vision grew clearer and crisper as it did in darkness, showing him a world without shadows. Here and there along the tunnel, the stone walls were broken up by huge, glossy-looking black stones, and when he passed the first one, he started, seeing a terrifying devil creature inside it, before realizing with creeping shock that it was his reflection. The looking glasses back in the abbey were well-made, but far too small to show all of him at once, and it was the first time he had seen his changed form in its entirety.

He was a monster. Enormous, though it was impossible to tell now how much more without someone to provide comparison. He had been five feet before, and Hob had made him seven and a half which meant the old him would barely have reached up to his chest. He was a giant, now, and not just in height. Hob had grown him to grant him mobility again after the devil Belphegor had made him so overmuscled he couldn’t move, but that had done little to limit the impossible thickness of his body, a half-ton of solid, bulging brawn. His shoulders looked near as wide as a normal man’s height, round, swollen boulders suspended by bull-like arches of muscle that merged behind his head with his broad neck. His arms were bulging pillars of strength, so engorged with sinew that they looked impossible to bend, each easily twice the size of a man, snaked with veins that gripped the globes of muscle like eagle talons. He couldn’t lower them to his sides due to the wide flare of his lats and the swell of his chest muscles, which mounded up beyond his chin, pressed against each other with a cleft deep enough to lose a hand in, blocking his view of his body beyond them. Beneath them, a row of ten fist-sized muscles rolled and stretched with his breaths, forming a powerful arrow down to his thighs, which bulged with steely lobes of power, so thick that he could not stand with them side by side, and harboring between them his sac, stuffed with twin melons that churned with incubus virility, propping up the slow, undulating, dripping python that was his devil’s cock.

He should have looked repugnant, grotesque, but the powers that had formed his body had made it somehow proportionate rather than misshapen, every muscle swollen and stretching his skin but with graceful, artistic curves that conveyed raw, barely contained power and an almost feral sexuality. He stood and moved like a great beast, like a predator that knows it has caught its prey.

His shaft stiffened at the thought, the spined pillar, forearm-thick, jutting up before him, beginning to drool already. He curled his black-clawed fingers around it, the touch against each little barb on his cock sending a thrill of erotic intensity through him, and he glanced up, his eyes flashing red in the mirror. Perhaps of all of him, it was his eyes that were the strangest: blood-red, the pupils curved slits like those of a serpent, giving him the ability to see in complete darkness and to focus on any object of his attention to the point of exclusivity, showing him exactly where it was and enabling him to pounce on it; he had once snatched a gnat out of the air by its wings.

Above his eyes, four ridged, black horns jutted from his temples, two sweeping up and backward like a goat’s, and two larger and thicker, curling down and around his ears like a ram’s horns. He tilted back his head and stroked again, hot pre spilling down over his thick fingers as he gripped at himself, and he moaned. His voice, too, had changed, growing deeper and more resonant, more like a lion’s than a man’s, to match the leonine array of fangs that bared beneath his parted jaws, all of them deadly pointed, white, a little too large for his mouth, making his speech awkward.

As he bared his teeth, his tongue slid out again to taste the air of the Abyss, its forked tips curling as they picked up all the scents in the air before sliding down to lick the musky taste of him off of his own tip. His tongue was difficult to control sometimes—if he didn’t keep his jaws closed, it tended to slide out and wave its twin tips, giving him information about everything around, as efficient as the nose of a bloodhound. It, however, was not as difficult to control as his tail, which seemed to respond to his desires more than his conscious will, and even now had curved around to slide its tip against the back of his sac, and up toward the cleft of his muscled rump. As long as he was tall, it could work mischief of its own even when he was asleep; more than once he had awoken to find it curled around Pike’s erection, or his own.

Monster, he thought, staring at himself. Imagine how much more of a monster you could become. And then despite himself, he tugged again, and an arc of pre spat out and slid in globules down the glossy stone before him.

“Such vanity,” Hob crooned into his ear. “Truly you are a Knight of the Abyss, master. If you wish more changes…”

Tuco shook himself out of the strange, alluring reverie in which he’d caught himself. He let go of his cock and absently licked his fingers clean. “No. Uh, no, of course, that’s part of why we’ve come, yes? Inside, the devils will not be able to find and change me? But what is this strange stone?”

“Limbostone, master. An easy place to store souls you are not tormenting at the moment.”

Tuco shivered. He’d been pleasuring himself while staring at his reflection in a kind of tomb. He moved on, and as he passed, he saw more of the stones embedded in the walls. He stared at the next, and saw something move in its depths, like the flutter of a book’s pages blowing in an open window. Then his eyes seemed to focus, draw in, slow, and he saw through a man’s eyes. He could see the faint image of his nose between them, and the puff of a black beard below, the almost invisible blur of eyelashes—all the parts of your face that your mind elects not to see when you’re looking through your own eyes. And through the man’s eyes, he saw the deck of a boat, and the roll of open waves. He saw a mast with another man tied to it. The man’s back was torn and bleeding. From the right of his perspective, he saw an arm lash out, a flail in its hand. New welts appeared across the man’s back.

“A sea captain,” Hob said in his ear, drawing Tuco back to himself. “He enjoyed punishing his sailors. He tormented them. Now he is trapped in stone, and every now and then a demon brings him out to play with.”

Tuco shuddered and dragged his eyes away. “Why should demons seek to punish the wicked?” he mused aloud. “Doesn’t the Almighty consider them wicked as well?”

He felt Hob’s little body tense on his shoulder. “Souls are power. Without them, we cannot do many of our great magics. And also, they are toys. Fun to play with. Figure out the right way to play with a soul, and they will give you even more power. We do not care about punishing them, and we do not care whether they are wicked. The only souls that come to the Abyss are those the One Above does not desire. We take his leavings, like dogs given scraps.” Hob spat, a hiss and a sizzle where it landed.

“So I have a lot of souls somewhere,” Tuco said, “but I don’t have to torture them.”

“Don’t have to. But probably will want to.” Hob snorted. “There are souls in our realms that have done things even a devil wouldn’t do.”

Tuco was silent to that, and kept his eyes focused forward the rest of the way through the tunnel, and was relieved when they stepped out into open air on the other side. Before him rose the tower of castles, stretching impossibly up to the sky, like a ladder to heaven. As he stepped out of the wall, it made a faint grinding sound and then closed up behind him, the stones sealing tightly together as though there had never been an opening.

Hob fluttered before him, in front of the drawbridge that led up to the great gate of the bottom castle, and made a little mid-air bow. “Welcome, master, to E-Temen-Anki, the Vault of the Abyss.”

Tuco leaned back to peer up into the haze. “I hope my room is going to be close to the ground floor?”

The little imp snickered. “All full up, I’m afraid. I can fly up, but master must take the stairs.” He pointed across the bridge to the foot of a broad but crumbling stone stairway that ascended in a zigzag pattern impossibly up into the sky, with landings at regular intervals connecting to various keeps. “All the way to the top.”

Tuco swallowed. The stairway appeared to sway in the wind. “What if I fall?”

Hob gave him a disappointed look. “You already fell out of the void all the way down into the Abyss. And you are a Knight of the Abyss. If you fall, try to look like you meant to do it, dust yourself off, and climb back up again.”

There seemed nothing for it. Not if he wanted to find a place where he was protected from the devils who planned to torment, transform, and enslave him. He took in a deep breath and set out across the drawbridge. The planks groaned under his monstrous weight, and he risked a look over the side to see that it spanned not water, but a chasm that bored deep into the earth. Beneath this castle was another, built upside down, and beneath that, another, and another, descending far below, the inverted torches mounted on unseen battlements twinkling in the depths.

The portcullis of the castle before him was lowered, and mounted with wicked-looking barbed spikes of wrought iron. Tuco wondered who was the first to seek sanctuary here, and if they were still sheltered within.

The stairs were broad, but still not quite enough for his oversized feet, and he had to move up carefully, his talons scoring little gashes along the front of each step. Only on the landings could he plant his soles firmly and not risk slipping or teetering off the edge. Still, he found that his body was tireless, and he didn’t truly need to rest as he climbed. He passed castles, palaces, fortresses, and keeps of every country and description, some of them delicate, airy things, composed of wood and open spaces, others with tiered pagodas, others whitewashed with towers jutting out at every angle. Some were forbidding things, with liquid fire pouring out of windows into the depths below, or composed of enormous metal thorns wound into gnarled bramble. The variety seemed endless.

Soon he tired of taking the little steps one at a time, and the distance to the bottom no longer dizzied him, so he began to ascend two steps at a time, then three, and then more, enjoying the power in his legs. At a landing, he paused and looked up. What he considered seemed risky, but as Hob had said, he was a Knight of the Abyss. What, here, should he truly fear? He crouched, tensed his thighs, and then leaped to grab the landing above him, perhaps twenty-five feet above the first. He nearly shot past it, but he caught at it with both arms, the stone thumping into his chest. His claws dug into the stone as he clambered his way up onto the landing. He had done it! The next few leaps were each a little easier as he learned how to control his strength and his movement, and soon he was bounding from landing to landing like a goat leaping up a mountain, lost in the pure physicality of the exercise, athletic grace combined with an almost bestial comfort in his own movements.

He almost fell when he reached the top, as there was no additional landing to bound onto, and he found himself skidding in a circle on all fours on the top landing, claws digging in as he crouched there, panting, his chest heaving. Hob looked so startled he nearly fell out of the sky. “You arrived sooner than I expected, master!”

“It was a rather enjoyable climb,” Tuco growled, his tail swaying as he stood upright and leaned to look over the edge. The world of the Abyss was far below him now, a distant map of green. Something occurred to him. “Couldn’t we just have landed here when we fell from the sky, instead of climbing all the way up?”

“E-Temen-Anki can only be entered through the walls, master. Your fortress awaits.”

Tuco turned to follow his gesture. The building that he saw looked in structure and size much like the hall of Lord Harvington, who owned the local village and lands where he’d grown up, except instead of brick and stone, this manor was built entirely of paper. Parchment formed the walls, bound books the pillars and framework, and scrolls hung above every window. Tuco’s keen eyes could make out fine hand-lettering and illuminations; not cheap copies, these, but fine scribework and calligraphy adorned every vellum wall or parchment pilaster.

“Paper?” he asked aloud. But he was familiar enough with matters of devilry now not to assume it would be flimsy. “Is it lined with spells, or—”

“Look closer,” Hob suggested.

He stepped off of the stone landing onto a white gravel path that seemed to hang in mid-air. The tiny stones crunched beneath his feet but did not fall through the invisible support that held them there. He strode down the path toward the paper manor. The walls were as thin as they looked from afar, so delicate that it looked like a casual stone’s throw could tear them apart, or a spring shower collapse the whole thing into a sodden mess. Drawing nearer, many of the papers proved to be written in languages unfamiliar to him: he recognized the angular, chiseled look of Latin letters, and square, squat Hellenic characters, and the flowing calligraphic lettering of what he thought to be Arabic.

He absently tugged at his right forehorn as he struggled to decipher the words of an English page. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an… abo—abo—”

“Abomination,” Hob supplied helpfully.

Tuco blinked. “Leviticus. Is this scripture?”

“What better to protect an innocent boy from devils of the Abyss than Holy Scripture?”

“But after what I’ve done… the things that I’ve… I’m not sure the Almighty would find me that innocent. And how was this here already?”

Hob shrugged. “The Vault builds itself to best protect its treasures. It readied itself for you as you climbed the steps. Go on. Go inside.” He flapped his wings more excitedly.

Tuco stepped in. The paper floors crinkled under his weight, but did not tear. Inside were well-appointed halls and rooms, all made from paper: a winding, grand staircase; longues and comfortable-looking chairs, walls lined with paper shields and swords, and even a grand paper fireplace in which a paper fire crackled and flickered like ribbons blowing in a wind. Elegant ink lettering and illustrations covered everything, and here and there he saw phrases that, though it took a little concentration to read them, were familiar from homilies and Masses of the past. He looked back over his shoulder to Hob, hovering just outside the paper castle’s entryway. “This is all from the Bible?”

The little imp shrugged. “All from Bibles. The Bible isn’t a real thing. Master’s keep is made up of all known translations, original texts, fragments, lost gospels, and apocrypha from many denominations and religions that worship the One Above. You want to be shielded from all devils, don’t you?”

“I suppose.” Tuco scratched at his head and tried to remember what apocrypha was. Something to do with the end of the world, he supposed. He looked again at Hob hovering outside. “You can’t come in, can you?”

Hob took a deep breath, flew right up to the edge of the entryway, and then sighed in something like satisfaction. “I cannot. It is your personal vault, master. I cannot enter.”

Tuco frowned, kneaded at the bridge of his nose for a moment, and then snapped his fingers. “I. That’s what it is. You keep calling yourself ‘I.’ I thought something was different. When did you start doing that?”

The little imp frowned, rubbing at his chin. “Didn’t I call myself that before? What was it? I was sure I had down all the… little details.” He fluttered back and forth before the entrance. “Oh, certainly, I couldn’t keep up the entire pretense the whole time—who could ever manage that daft, squeaky little voice and that idiotic half of a wit for that long?”

“Hob?” Tuco said. “Hob, what are you talking about?”

Hob’s red eyes glinted with sudden malice. “And you call yourself a Knight of the Abyss, ‘master.’” The last word oozed with sarcasm. “You deserve to lose all your souls to me. Surrendering everything you have for a little safety. You ridiculous, naïve little simpleton.”

“What?” Tuco came forward. “What has gotten into you? The Hob I know would never talk to me like that.” He tried to walk back out onto the drawbridge, but something invisible caught him in the air and stopped him from moving forward. It didn’t hurt, at all—but it was though someone had stretched an invisible sheet of linen across the entrance to the keep. It stretched around his face, pressing his nose flat, bending a finger or two the wrong direction, and then it sent him stumbling back several steps. He would have fallen onto his backside had his tail not caught him against the floor and propped him upright again.

“Because I’m not Hob, you jobbernowl,” the little imp sneered. And then the shadows around its body deepened and lengthened, and in those shadows it grew and swelled, its wings vanishing into darkness, its form stretching. Its red eyes glowed brighter and brighter until they ignited, twin fires blazing like lost suns in the void of its face. Its claws curved and stretched longer, its limbs lengthened, and a long tail whipped out behind it. The shadows brightened, and where Hob had once flitted stood a manlike leopard, its face a grotesque frozen snarl, its eyes horrible bright-hot flames that seemed to burn through holes in reality. “I am Flavros, Baron of Safety, and it is I who have done what that worm Asmodeus could not. You are mine, now. Your souls are mine. I have won.”

Tuco nearly fell backward in astonishment. “You! A devil? What have you done with Hob?”

The leopard’s flaming eyes blazed brighter, as if in disbelief. “That is your concern? One meaningless imp? Do you not understand that I have won? You are imprisoned, body and soul, in the Abyss, for eternity. All of E-Temen-Anki is my dominion, and all the souls imprisoned within are my captors. In my lower vaults are arch-fiends who would drive you mad to look upon them, Princes and Dukes of the First Hells, and even one or two errant angels who were careless. And you, a silly, idiotic boy who bumbled his way into power. But none of you will ever leave. You are all mine.”

“But—but I don’t understand,” Tuco said, his thoughts reeling through his head. “You said I would be safe here. Protected. A devil cannot lie to another devil. I heard that somewhere,” he added, a little awkwardly.

The baron Flavros paced back and forth before the entry to the keep, leering in malevolent glee. “Oh, you’ll be safe, my dear boy. Safe from anything that might harm you. Safe even from yourself, from your own desires. Such a sweet human soul, too innocent to understand that safety is a wall we build around ourselves, that it is a prison. You’ll be safe. The Vault will protect you. Nothing within it will ever harm you twice. And when you lose yourself entirely, your souls will be mine.”

Tuco stared at him. Hob wasn’t Hob? And he’d been deceived, somehow? Several important questions trickled through. “But the other devils won’t be able to get me in here, yes? And my friends will be all right?”

The leopard stared at him with those blazing gimlet eyes. “What should I care? I have you now, and all your souls will be mine. All I need do is wait.” And with that, the leopard turned, somehow folding into himself, became a plume of dark smoke, and drifted away on the wind.

For a while, Tuco watched the entrance to his castle, trying to sort out what had just happened. It seemed as though everything had worked out as he’d wished for it to, though the devil that had looked like Hob had been acting awfully triumphant. “Hob?” he called out of the entryway, just in case the real Hob was still around somewhere, but there was no answer.

All was silent. Clouds drifted by. He walked up to the entryway and tried to push his way out again, but again met that odd, stretchy resistance. He slashed at it with his claws, but just felt a light pressure and no other reaction. He found a window and tried to climb through—again, the resistance that prevented him from leaving. He bounded up the stairs, paper tearing under his claws, and searched through rooms formed of sacred texts until he found a door that led out onto the battlements. From here, he could step out into open air, walking on paper stones, and peer between crinkling crenellations at the grassy ground below, and beyond that, the endless spire of castles descending all the way back to the surface of the Abyss, and beyond.

Of course, Tuco told himself, he didn’t wish to escape, because here he would be protected, and his friends would be protected from him. But if he should need to, it would be good to know that he could. He leaned over the edge of his castle and prodded at the air beyond, and met no resistance. “All right,” he told himself, fighting the unease in his stomach. It wasn’t that high from here to the ground. Only three times his height. He could handle that. He stepped back, got two steps running start, and leapt over the side.

Again, the sensation that he’d been caught in an enormous, stretchy piece of cloth, only this time it flung him backward. He flailed his arms and his tail as he flew back over the wall, beyond the battlement, and into the courtyard below. There was a horrible cracking sound in his tail and one arm as he landed on them, and a flash of hot pain seared into his spine and down his arm.

“I thought this place wasn’t supposed to let me get hurt,” he groaned through clenched fangs, but even as he said the words, the pain vanished. He felt his arm and tail shift, with a moment of discomfort deep in his bones. He rolled back onto his feet again, swayed his tail, rolled his arm at the shoulder. Everything felt fine. “Did it heal me?” he wondered aloud, and just as he did, an intense feeling flooded through all his bones. It felt like when he’d had growing pains as a teenager, but achingly pleasant, stretching up and down his legs, and arms, pulsing in his joints, sending strange ripples of pleasure up and down his spine. Even his skull felt as though it were glowing with ecstasy for a moment or two. And then the feeling faded. He looked down at his hands, at his limbs. He stretched his shoulders, rolling his arms as much as his musculature would permit. His tail curled itself around and wound about one wrist, seemingly undamaged. Nothing seemed changed.

“Well,” he said, staring up from the courtyard at the walls surrounding it, “I suppose I can’t leap out, then.” He couldn’t walk across the drawbridge, he couldn’t leap over the walls. Some invisible force kept him here and would not let him leave. He was safe, perhaps. And all his friends at the abbey were safe from him. But Baronet Flavros had him a prisoner in an inescapable vault in the center of the Abyss. He’d gone to an eternal afterlife without even dying first. No way to contact his friends or Hob, no way ever to see his family again. Eternity in a paper prison yawned before him.

The devils had gotten him in the end. They’d won.

Trapped. No way out, no way to call for help. Tuco climbed up to the battlements and stared out for a while. All around E-Temen-Anki was deep, dark forest. Clouds drifted overhead. There was no sun to drift across the sky, so it was impossible to tell if day was passing, or if there would even be a night. He picked absently at the edges of paper with his claws, and a little bit of scripture tore away. It read, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways, and be wise.”

Well, he’d already faced the temptation of sloth once, hadn’t he? With nothing else to do, he strolled through the keep, wandering through its paper rooms. There were dozens of bedrooms, with huge beds piled with blankets and pillows made of cloth and stuffed with feathers, not paper. There were special rooms with latrines inside the building, and wherever the holes led, they did not drain inside the walls but somewhere else entirely. There were grand ballrooms with polished paper floors, a library filled with books (more scripture), and an armory stocked with a variety of fierce-looking weapons, from which Tuco appropriated an axe that was made not of paper but of some kind of hard, silvery metal. He couldn’t really tell whether the metal was heavy, as nothing felt heavy to him these days, but it had a nice heft in his grip, and it might, he thought, be useful in trying to effect an escape, if necessary.

He found a massive paper dining hall, and beyond that, an enormous kitchen stocked with cooking implements, real food, and a real fire burning under a black cauldron suspended in a paper hearth. Further exploration yielded parlors, sitting rooms, a solarium, a music conservatory, and uncountable closets, all stocked with paper. He also discovered a wide stairway and followed it down to a basement with an actual dungeon. There were cells, their bars black wrought iron, spearing up and down into the paper ceiling and floor.

Curious, Tuco crouched down and grabbed a bit of torn paper sticking up from the hole and peeled it back. It tore away with a satisfying rip. Perhaps he could simply tear his way out, if he needed to? With the tip of a claw, he worked up another edge of paper and tore that one back as well. The edge of the third leaf dragged painfully along his finger, and he instinctively put it to his mouth; the paper had sliced it open, and he tasted the copper-sulfur flavor of his blood as he delicately probed the cut with his tongue tips.

The power of the castle healed the cut almost instantly, however, and then he felt that strange surge of energy as before—this time not in his bones, but as a flush of pleasure that burned briefly in his skin, as though an enjoyable, full-body blush. He withdrew his fingertip from his mouth and examined it. His fingertip looked strange: slightly thicker somehow, the flesh pebbled with odd, tiny bumps. They were miniscule on his fingertip, but swathed his whole hand, growing larger up his arm. On further inspection, all of his skin had changed subtly. He slid his hand across his chest, feeling broad, flat, overlapping shapes there, almost unnoticeable, but different, as though his flesh had been covered with some sort of protective layer. More of the pebbling went down his thighs, swathed his ankles, and even altered the grip of his toes on the paper floor beneath him.

“Does the castle change me somehow to stop me from being hurt again?” he wondered aloud. Thoughtfully, he picked up the axe he had retrieved from the armory. Its edges gleamed silver-sharp. It was probably a mistake to try that… but after a minute or two, boredom and curiosity got the better of him, so he held it in his right hand, gripping it tightly, his forearm bulging into solid globes of tension. He set his left thumb against the blade and pushed. There was almost no pain, but the blade sank in, far deeper than Tuco had intended, and blood welled up around it. He dropped the axe and resisted the urge to suck on the wound, instead watching with curiosity.

It had just begun to throb with a deep, sharp pain when the wound closed, a thin clean line amid the smear of red blood. For a moment, Tuco thought that was all that would happen, but then an intense, overwhelming flush radiated out from his thumb and suffused his entire body, as though he were burning with a fever. He fell backward, catching himself on the heels of his hands, his back arching as his skin prickled and crawled. The experiment had been a mistake, he knew now, but it was too late to do anything but deal with the consequences.

His skin flushed redder and redder, as though filling with blood, tightening as it did, into thick, banded slabs across his enormous, panting, chest, moving down over his abdominals, around his arched cock, and down over his sac and the length of his tail. Not slabs, he realized through the intensity of the sensations. Scales. The wide, flat scales of a serpent forming across his chest and down his belly. He lifted his arms, watching in astonishment as the light pebbling of his skin solidified into round, snakelike scales, a brilliant crimson on the insides of his arms, a duskier red, darkening to near black on the opposite. The backs of his fingers hardened into thicker scales that merged with the claws at his fingertips, giving his hands a taloned, gargoyle-like look. He writhed as the prickling moved across his back, up his neck, and down his legs, his toes curling as they thickened.

And then it was over. He lay panting, the enormous chest heaving in his vision now a segmented red, though if anything, the tight, form-clinging lines of his scales seemed to accentuate, rather than conceal, his swollen brawn, almost as though the muscle threatened to burst its way out of its armoring. Shaking a little, he rolled to his feet again. His huge arms and thick legs were coated in scales like glittering rubies. He brushed his fingertips across the muscle of one forearm; the scales there seemed as flexible as his own skin, and though he could feel the layer of protection, neither his forearm nor his fingertips had lost any sensitivity.

He looked down and, with his toes, nudged the axe lying on the floor. “I’ll wager you couldn’t cut me now,” he murmured aloud. “I expect I couldn’t break a bone again, either. This place merits its reputation. It makes you safe from anything that might hurt you. But you cannot leave.” And, he thought, somewhat ruefully, looking down at his scale-armored form, it makes you less human with every change. “I shall have to be cautious if I don’t plan to remain here forever.”

And then he thought of the burning-gimlet eyes of Flavros, and wondered if he would ever leave, if anyone had ever escaped E-Temen-Anki.

Well, if any prison could be escaped, surely one made of paper would be easiest. His tail swaying, he crouched, picked up the axe again, and hacked away at the hole he had made in the floor near the cell. The axe chewed through the paper like… well, paper, and presently, Tuco had managed to tear away a hole that looked down into some kind of room below. The room was darkened, but with his devil sight, he could easily see rocky floors—not worked stone, but craggy, as though a passage in a sea-cave. He tried to remember the keep that had been just below his but could not recall what it had looked like nor how it had been constructed—he had been too excited to reach the top of the steps.

With his talons, he scraped away more of the paper, widening the hole. Peeling it back revealed thin, ribbed iron bars underlying his paper floor, arranged in a mesh, with square holes wide enough to get his hand into, but too narrow to permit much past them—the swell of his forearm allowed little past his wrist. “Well,” he said to himself, “all this strength has to be for something.” He planted his feet against the ground, gripped the iron bars with both hands, and pulled upright, bracing with his legs. At first it was surprisingly easy—the bars plied to his strength like young tree branches, pulling apart. But soon he was pulling against the spots where the bars joined together, melted into each other. He tugged harder, clenching his teeth. All around him the paper floor rose, with the sounds of tearing and crinkling barely muffling the groans and shrieks of metal as it bent in response to his power. He lifted a minor hill before him, and even the nearby wall bent slightly, tugged inward by the upward pull of the floor. But soon it was as though he was trying to lift the entire floor, the whole castle. Stretched out in his grip, the iron bars dug into his fingers. His shoulders ached and burned, his arms complained, his legs and back throbbed with the effort of trying to tear apart an entire iron floor.

And then suddenly the ache was gone, and the pleasure flooded through his muscles again. He stumbled backward, letting go of the iron bars and holding his fingers up before him as they visibly thickened where the bars had dug into them, causing discomfort. His arms pulsed as though flexing, and throbbed larger, the muscle healing itself where the work had torn it, and growing back stronger, just as it had in the stone yard when Belphegor had transformed him. Forearm pressed into biceps, each of them swelling thicker. He felt his shoulders growing massively, mounding up, his back bulging with new sinew and strength. His legs swelled beneath him, nudging each other farther apart. And then he stood, his chest nearly pressing into his chin as it heaved with his breath, his musculature that much closer to the immobility that Belphegor had swollen him into the previous month.

He grimaced down at the stretched floor. It seemed that the keep would protect him even from the minor injuries of overworked muscles. Beneath the torn paper, the floor was a little geometrical hill of stretched iron bars. His arm could fit through the widened hole between them, but after his sudden growth, only just. He didn’t dare try to widen it further.

Crouching by the edge, he braced both hands against the sides of the hole and pushed his head through. The expansive spread of a castle stretched out below him. The hole he had peeled away was not too far from a tower that thrust up from the walls below. The castle itself did not appear to be made of worked stone, but natural, as though a rock had one day just decided to grow, forming mottled walls around asperous rooms, thrusting towers like gnarled, rough-hewn fingers toward the sky. Three of those towers rose to support Tuco’s own castle, his paper fundament crinkled and folded around the rising spires. He could see no one about in the castle below.

“Hello!” he called, his great voice booming across the stones, echoing from empty walls. “Is anyone down there?” When there was no reply, he called again, and again, until finally the surface of the courtyard below rippled and shifted, the shadows rearranging, and where once there had been a random pattern of twisted stone, now a deep, pitted face appeared. It must have been twenty feet wide, and was almost skeletal, its rocky cheeks drawn and gaunt. Huge tusks jutted from its closed mouth, and below its enormous, wide devil horns, two deep-set eyes glittered with hellfire.

“Whose voice calls to me after all this time?” Its voice was that of boulders grinding together. Its fiery eyes wheeled about as it searched for Tuco.

“Here!” Tuco called down to it. “Up here! I’m in the castle above!”

The flames of its gaze turned to him. “So. After all this time, the Baronet has sent me a neighbor. And what are you called, little devil, and what lured you here?”

“My name is Tuco. I came here to keep safe and keep my friends safe.”

“Friends.” The face in the floor rolled the word around in its mouth as though tasting a forgotten flavor. “The Abyss has changed indeed. All here came for safety, Tuco. Mortal souls, devils, even an angel or two sequestered away in E-Temen-Anki. Few outside know that it is protector and prison alike. Now that you are trapped here, you know as well.” The whole castle beneath Tuco swelled and deflated several times, like a bladder, with a great, grinding, wheezing sound. It was laughing. “Or you will soon enough.”

“Forgive me,” Tuco said, and then mentally chided himself—devils would not ask for forgiveness. “But are you… the castle itself? I’ve never seen a talking castle before.”

Those fiery eyes stared into him for a moment as though scouring his soul. “I am prison and prisoner alike, as are all in E-Temen-Anki. We are its body, its strength, its walls, its clothing. And you, Tuco,” it added with another stone-grinding, wheezing laugh, “are its little paper hat.”

“I don’t understand. How can you be prison and prisoner at the same time?”

“Are not we all? Every soul constructs its own prison, and it builds it of itself. The walls that hold you within them came from you. This is why you cannot break free; by damaging your keep you damage yourself, and the power of this place will allow that only once. Now you walk about freely in your paper passages, but as the years, the centuries, the eons drift by, you will change.”

“Only if I harm myself, surely,” Tuco protested.

“So I believed, too. So I believed. I was a fine and strapping devil, smaller than you, as near as I can remember, before I came here. When first I realized I was imprisoned, I tried to escape, just as you do now, and in the effort harmed myself greatly. My bones grew stronger than iron, my skin harder than diamond. I grew, formed crags, and spikes, became a thing of stone. And I told myself I would attempt no more; if I could not secure my freedom, I could at least preserve my mobility, my form. But with idleness and unchanging safety came a growing intolerance; where once a broken finger would have pained me, now a stubbed one did, and my fingers grew together so that I could not stub them. Where once a deep cut would have aggravated, now, a minor scratch felt intolerable, and my skin grew thicker until it lost all feeling. I stood or lay in one position or another, and my bones ached, or my muscles wearied, or I simply felt discontent, restless, uncomfortable. After millennia, every minor sensation became an irritant, every movement of my body an aggravation. And so I changed more and more, losing what could feel, for no feeling is truly safe. And eventually I became my castle, and my castle me, and so, I presume, it has happened to everyone else taken here. Baronet Flavros comes by to taunt me now and then. He promises that when I can no longer move or speak, my soul will be his entirely, and my power will be turned toward the magics that imprison others. It is how he became so powerful and rose to the rank of Baronet—claiming the souls of those he has captured.”

Tuco shuddered. “That’s awful. I don’t think I should like to become a castle. Is there truly no escape?”

“None for you, little devil,” the creature below him rumbled. Its great fiery eyes grew brighter and smaller, as though peering into him. “But perhaps there is for me. Have you a rank in the Abyss as well as name? And tell me: what do you think of your new home, hmm?”

“I am Sir Tuco. And I suppose I would like having a castle all to myself very much, were it not a prison. I can’t see how paper walls make a very sturdy one, though.”

The castle beneath gave him another searching look, and he abruptly felt so horribly transparent that he almost drew away from the hole in the floor to hide from the devil’s gaze. “Hmm, well. My name was Lord Abalam—no, I never rose so high as Knight. But surely you understand, oh great Sir Tuco, that it is not paper that entraps you, but words.”

Tuco frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Words are thoughts, ideas, beliefs, everything you and I traffic in. Everything that we use to corrupt—to free the humans, and everything the Adversary has used to enslave them. Words can call us and bind us and doom us. There is nothing more dangerous to a devil than words. Of course,” Castle Abalam added in a soothing if gravelly tone, “you know all this. No doubt the suddenness of your imprisonment has made you forgetful.”

Condescending though the devil might be, Tuco thought he understood. Of course scripture could bind any ordinary devil. Scripture was holy, untouchable by the devils. Tuco was surprised all the castles in E-Temen-Anki weren’t made of it. But why should it keep him imprisoned too? He was not a devil like these others. He’d never willfully used his power to harm anyone, poor Walstein notwithstanding. He believed in the Almighty, although admittedly in a distant sort of way. The prayers of Mass did not scorch his mouth, nor communion wine his tongue. And yet this was his special prison, constructed by his own soul out of the laws and stories of faith, meant to keep him here, meant to keep him… safe.

The winds of the Abyss blew through his castle, and a million pages rustled in them. Was that truly what his religion meant most to him? Safety? And that was one of the temptations, surely written on at least one of the pages surrounding him. Let not a desire for safety close your heart to others. He could not leave this castle because he could not leave the words of scripture behind. Who would do so when all could see that devils were real, and thus the Almighty and all his angelic hosts must be real as well?

“Sir Tuco, I do not wish to interrupt your reverie,” rumbled the voice from below, “but if I may ask: you are an incubus, are you not?”

“I—” He still was not used to that idea. He wondered if he ever would be. “Yes, I am.”

“And with four horns as well, I see. Interesting. Well then, Sir Tuco, if I may be presumptuous, I believe you yourself could free me from this prison, if you were so inclined.”

“Free you? How could I do that?” Tuco asked warily.

“Why, consume my soul, of course. Push me over the brink of ecstasy, and then claim me as your own.”

“I don’t understand. Then you’d be—” He’d been about to say, “dead,” but of course death didn’t apply to demons and devils, who wore mortality only as a costume. “Just imprisoned somewhere else,” he added lamely, still not entirely sure how all that worked.

“True, true,” Lord Abalam said in considering tones, “but your prison would not change me further, would it? Unless, of course, to do so to me pleased you, but you do not strike me as an unkind devil. And as vices go, lust is a more enticing one than safety, wouldn’t you say? I mean, of course you would. You’re an incubus. But think of it from my perspective: I can lie here, as a castle, waiting until all my stones are fixed and my voice falls silent, and even my eyes no longer blink, forever unmoving, bearing the weight of castle after castle stacked atop me as E-Temen-Anki grows into eternity and Baronet Flavros feeds on my power to fuel his wretched machinations. Or,” he added, “I could be given a moment of pleasure I’ve all but forgotten and dwell within the realm of a Knight of lust. Perhaps within your palace you will see fit to grant my form again, perhaps not. Perhaps you will device torments of pleasure, or perhaps those of pain. Either way, it will surely be more interesting than being a large box in a stack of boxes for all eternity.”

“I see your reasoning,” Tuco said. He’d nearly said yes. But he was supposed to be a devil after all, and a devil ought to be wary. “But why should I help you with this?”

Lord Abalam nearly spluttered lava. “Why? I am astonished at the question. Why should you, a devil trapped in a prison with no real way to gain another soul ever again, agree to consume the soul of a Lord of the Abyss? You must have a great wealth of souls indeed to turn down such an offer. But if you need other reasons, within a human year or a thousand, my voice will fall silent, what remains of my body will be gone, and you will have lost your chance. Perhaps you will be fortunate, and the castle beneath mine will contain an incubus who would consume your soul, thus freeing you. Or perhaps it will be another poor devil eager for you to free him. Either way, you’ll have more power in your stores, and be one step closer to the bottom. What have you to lose, Sir Tuco? Have you not already lost your humanity?”

“What?” Prickles moved across Tuco’s shoulders and arms.

“It is all too plain, dear incubus. I know not how it came about, but you have not been a devil for long. There is too much you do not understand, too many mistakes. And your soul is raw and pink, like the flesh of a fingertip just below the bed of a nail. No, you were mortal recently, and an innocent one, too. How I should have loved to taste that soul of yours. So fresh, so delicate, a live thing plucked and eaten directly from the soil.”

And beneath Tuco, the whole castle shuddered, as though it were made of blocks and someone had shaken the table on which it sat.

“It’s true,” Tuco admitted. “I don’t know why it is happening or how, but it seems each day, I grow more devilish. At first I thought it was only demons changing me, but there is more to it, and I don’t know how to reverse it, or stop it.

“Then I will make an agreement with you,” Lord Abalam thrummed. “I confessed I know not what has altered you, but I know of something that may explain it. I will tell you, but only if you agree to consume me, and thus free me from E-Temen-Anki.”

Tuco thought it over, but not for long. There seemed to be no drawbacks, except that once he’d finished, he’d have no one to talk to. And if he learned something about what was happening to him, that could be invaluable, provided he ever found a way to escape this prison.

“All right,” he said. “You tell me what you know about what has happened to me, and I will… er, consume you so that you will be free. And I promise not to be cruel to you once your soul is mine,” he added, feeling magnanimous.

Far below him. Lord Abalam’s eyes flared bright and eager. “This is a joyous day for me Sir Tuco. Soon I will be free. Then listen well. The first souls created by the Adversary were the angels, many of whom he rebuked, and they became devils. The second souls were the Nephilim, the giants, whom the Adversary hated and destroyed. The third souls were humans, whom he claimed to love best of all. To the humans and Nephilim, he gave material bodies so that they might walk the physical world. To angels, he gave a logos, or essence, a spiritual form with a power of creation like his own. Just as a body must obey the laws of nature—it must eat, slumber, fall when lifted from the earth, so does the logos of angels and devils follow laws. Angels cannot help but guard creation and all that might threaten it; devils cannot help but answer desire and alter that creation. Both must come when summoned.”

Tuco frowned. “Wait, does that mean that people could be summoning angels instead of demons?”

The face below showed a lot of very jagged teeth. “Few humans summon an angel and live to tell of it. I would not suggest you try. But all of us who are summoned are drawn by our mantles to the summoner, usually into a circle of binding, sometimes without. The tale is known in the Abyss of Nabonidus, King of Persia, who above all else hungered for power over the mortal world, more than any human could hold. And yet, though his court magicians summoned demons and devils to grant him conquest after conquest, those demons and devils granted only their desires, and not those of the King. And thus were the great monsters of the world formed: the chimera, the basilisk, the minotaur. And King Nabonidus’s lust for power went unanswered, for he would not risk his soul in a summoning of his own. Finally, driven to desperation, he asked of his magicians why the logos of a devil or angel could not be summoned into a mortal body. He ordered them to study and discover a ritual that could accomplish this, granting a human the essence and power of the First Created, but with the soul of a human.”

The eyes in the face of the castle courtyard had gone distant, but now they turned back toward Tuco with a keen focus. “If King Nabonidus’s magicians succeeded in creating a successful ritual, none know. But King Nabonidus failed at completing it. One day he went mad, tore off his clothes, and fled his royal palace to live in the fields and consume grass, believing himself to be a jackass. And certainly his soul is here in the Abyss, property of Lucifer himself, who guards it jealously. But there are rumors that the ritual survived, copied and translated secretly by a sect of mad scribes. Whatever may have happened to it since are beyond my telling, for I have been imprisoned for millennia, with little news of the mundane world, save what morsels Lord Flavros chooses to taunt me with. If the ritual did survive, it would likely be found in a place of great learning, a place that did not fear demonology. Have you visited such a place, Sir Tuco?” Lord Abalam’s fiery eyes flashed. “Ah, I thought so. And a ritual was performed, and now you find yourself with human soul and devil logos, imprisoned in the inescapable fortress of the Abyss.”

He laughed an earthquake laugh. “Poor creature. Your god will not save you here. And if I have discerned your secret, so will others. You will never be safe. You require my power more than ever. Well. Devour me, then, and free me.”

Tuco stared down at him, his mind whirling. He looked down at his bulging, red-scaled forearms and talon-like fingers tipped with thick black claws. The logos of a devil. And not just any devil. Sathanus, Prince of the Abyss. Everything that was happening felt too big for him, too overwhelming. Not to mention what was happening with Lord Abalam, beneath him. How was he supposed to free a literal castle from the vault of the Abyss? He leaned up, kneeling by the hole he’d torn in the floor of his own castle and tried to still his thoughts and his breathing, tried to remember his arousal.

It didn’t take much, he found. Despite everything that had happened, his fist-sized balls were ready. A Knight of Lust always had arousal at hand. His thick, serpentine shaft, lying across his thigh, stiffened, lifting into the air, the fleshy barbs standing out, glistening. But how was he to arouse a castle, one he could not even touch?

“Well?” came the voice from below. “I have given you what you wanted. If you’ve the essence of a devil, then you cannot dismiss a bargain. You are bound to free me.”

Tuco leaned back down to the hole, and as he did, his tip slid across the pages of his floor, smearing his drooling precome across the sacred words. “I will,” he called back down. “But how am I to arouse you if I cannot touch you? And where is your… er…” He scanned the bastion below.

Eyes glared between cobblestone lids. “Are you an incubus or are you not?”

Tuco felt the heat of a flush. “I am. I…” And he remembered lying in bed, twisted in arousal, unable to keep it from radiating out to his companions, to a refectory full of apprentices, to an entire monastery, enticing all of them into lust and making their souls ripe for devouring. He leaned over the hole he’d torn in his dungeon, past the iron bars he’d wrenched apart, and gazed down at the being below, a devil lord as large as an actual castle, who had demanded to be devoured. No, ordered it. Bound him. Aren’t you tired of being bound? Yes, he thought. I am tired of it. And he is only a mere Lord of the Abyss. Are you a Knight, or aren’t you?

“Ask me to do it,” he said.

The face below him shifted with uncertainty. “But you already agreed to—”

He should do more than ask. “Beg me,” Tuco suggested. “Beg me to consume you.”

The fiery eyes below him flashed. “I don’t have to. You are bound by bargain.”

“I said I would take you,” Tuco said, showing his fangs. “I didn’t say when.” The lust was surging in him now; he enjoyed toying with this creature that had surely preyed on many other humans.

Lord Abalam’s eyes widened, and then a spark of excitement flashed in them. “Perhaps you are more devil than I took you for. Please, Sir Tuco, Knight of Lust. Please grant me ecstasy and sweet release. I beg of you.”

“I am your master now,” Tuco growled. “You belong to me.”

The castle beneath him seemed to lower its towers slightly, its stones shrinking. But below the face in the craggy courtyard, one jutting mound of stones rose, grinding and loosing dirt as it ascended. “You are my master,” Lord Abalam admitted. “I belong to you. My soul is yours entirely, to tease or torment for all eternity.”

“Good,” Tuco said, and shifted so that Lord Abalam could see his erection, thicker than his wrist, its head rising up to his chest. At the same time, he sent a pulse of lust toward the transformed devil, as powerful as he could muster.

He must have become stronger since consuming Asmodeus, for Lord Abalam’s stone body shook with desire, the entire structure lifting in the air as some unseen architectural spine arched. Stones shook and fell as the devil cried out in unexpected arousal, and the hillock rising beneath its face became a spire, its tip oozing molten rock that spattered onto the stones below with a hissing sound. “Oh Sir Tuco,” Lord Abalam moaned. “I will be yours forever.” Towers on either side crumbled and flexed craggy fingers, dropping worked stone as they broke free of their solidified forms, arms sixty feet high reaching toward the magma spire and tugging at it. Made of stone or no, there was no mistaking that shape. Its tip bubbled with inner fire, and as Abalam’s tower-arms groped at his volcanic erection, flaming globs of lava flew upward, spattering the bottom of Tuco’s dungeon, smelling of sulfur and desire.

Lord Abalam’s eyes fixed on him, rolling with infernal lust, and as they did, he felt his shaft changing as his incubus nature altered him to the imprisoned devil’s desires. It grew heavier, pulling at his loins, at first listing forward with its own weight, and then rising again. Already straining, it grew impossibly harder, lifting higher and higher, and ever more heavy. He set his fingers to it and found its flesh as unyielding as stone, though still he could strain and make it swell under his touch. Soon, despite the brawn in his body, the weight of it threatened to pull him forward, and his tail snaked itself around a dungeon cell bar to steady him. He gripped his changing shaft with both hands as it continued to lengthen, developing sharp angles. Then it seemed to lighten, growing paler and more translucent, until a spire of diamond rose from his loins, extending far above his head. His balls churned, burning with some inner inferno, and a line of yellow light rose up his diamond cock, spilling liquid fire out of the dungeon to spatter onto the courtyard beneath him, the fiery droplets bouncing where they landed, skittering across the courtyard below as cooling pebbles.

He felt Lord Abalam’s desire, a creature who had once had a humanoid form, but had become an elemental of stone and structure, locked into place for millennia, now briefly freed. He felt the devil’s ache as fingers of worked stone slid, eased by flowing magma, down a shaft achingly full of fire, and he wanted to drive his hardened cock into Abalam’s foundations, force him out of his rigid immutability and into life and joy and survival and intimacy once more, to make him live again. His own shaft gushed lava. Not a climax, not yet, but it rained shards of hot desire down on Abalam, who moaned subterranean cries and thrust his jutting mountain up toward Tuco, spraying his own eruptions of infernal ecstasy.

Tuco closed his mind and power around Abalam as he might catch a fly and squeezed, at the same time sending the devil a surge of all his lust and desire.

The castle beneath him changed. The working of stone blocks melded back into something like stony flesh; the constructed towers became arms again, the face in cobblestones lifted on a rising, horned head atop a powerful neck. A chest thrust itself above the stones in an explosion; hips rose from flat bulwarks. His change made Tuco’s prison, perched atop him, rock and sway like a sapling in a gale, pitching him to hands and knees. He gripped the bars of his prison with fingers, toes, and tail, barely able to keep from being tossed about the room as the castle beneath him arched and bucked. Then all went nearly still, but for a tense tremble. Tuco peered past his diamond rod, out of the hole in his prison, in time to see the edifice on the precipice. Its jutting spire, full of molten stone, rounded, became a cock again, albeit a stone cock the size of a castle tower, just in time for its volcanic eruption. Molten lava, musky and hungry, gouted out in gushing arcs as Lord Abalam clutched at it with both craggy hands and roared so loudly that Tuco’s ears were filled with ringing.

The bottom of his dungeon burned away, leaving only a latticework of glowing iron bars as an eruption of magmatic come engulfed and flooded it. The lava washed over him, smelling of hell and male, and he was only distantly surprised it didn’t burn. He was still too lost in the waves of arousal that crashed through him, sending him bucking against his dungeon floor as it smoked and ignited, his diamond shaft scraping against the iron bars as he did so. But he was an incubus now, and could manage his own lust; below him, Lord Abalam’s eyes and mouth went wide, and then a fountain of light poured from them.

His soul boiled out of his stone body, and Tuco leaned forward and drank it down. Ancient power poured into him, full of brittle memories and forgotten sins. Abalam had been a devil of greed, and he had hoarded souls like a paranoid dragon, filling his desmenes and jealously guarding them. But the Baronet Flavros, though in the shape of a leopard, had been more like a leech, bleeding Abalam over the centuries, sucking him dry, taking the power of his souls for himself, leaving Abalam to watch helplessly as his great fortune of souls was siphoned away. It was that, more than any irritation or torment, that had turned his flesh to stone. His soul was eager to be free; far from resisting Tuco’s hunger, it surged toward him, filling his eyes and mouth with light.

Tuco swallowed him in gulps, and as he did, the castle-man beneath him shrank, moaning a thundering ecstasy as he climaxed his soul right out of his body. The fire from Abalam’s eruption had spread, and red and yellow flames rose all around Tuco, but their heat was pleasant and embracing, the thick smoke of burning paper like air after a spring rain in his lungs. His dungeon sank lower and lower as Lord Abalam shrank beneath him, the paper castle wobbling atop the diminishing stone one. Now he could see the prison below Abalam’s—a copper sphere, red and orange light warping across its polished surface as it reflected the blaze of Tuco’s burning prison. And still the soul-light poured into him. Abalam shrank until he was the size of a house, and Tuco’s prison listed to one side, landing with a crinkle and clatter against the burnished sphere below, forcing him to hang on tightly to avoid pitching across the floor. And then Abalam was the size of a hut, and then only a man, and then an odd, toy-sized, man-shaped castle, squealing in shrill pleasure. And then he was gone. The light of his soul vanished between Tuco’s jaws.

His prison rocked gently back and forth on the copper sphere that supported it. The flames were going out, and where they had burned papers away, there was a rustling like leaves in autumn, and new pages unfolded to reform the walls that had incinerated.

And then Tuco was alone again. It all seemed very quiet and still. He got to his feet, his tail swaying. He considered using his diamond cock to try to bend apart the bars of his prison, but discarded the idea—that would hardly work. And what if it broke? he asked himself, wincing internally. With a mental suggestion, he reformed it back to the hefty, demonic thing Asmodeus had given him, and walked through flickering flames back up the stairs of his dungeon. Perhaps he should have waited. It would have been nice to have someone to talk to for a while longer, at least. And though his prison was a little closer to the ground, he seemed no closer to escape. Somewhere inside him, the Lord Abalam was awaiting torment or teasing.

Tuco climbed up to his battlements and crouched atop one stone, looking out over the world of the Abyss and feeling a bit like a gargoyle. He didn’t know what to do now. There was so much about being a devil that he didn’t know, hadn’t thought to ask. He waited. If there was a sun in the sky, he never saw it, but the day faded into night. The sphere of the Abyss lit with starry lights twinkling across it. From here it almost looked like the view from atop Abyssus Abbey. And yet if time passed, he couldn’t feel it. No tiredness settled into his mind, no hunger or thirst nagged at him. His muscles never wearied of their position. He simply continued.

For a while, thoughts raced across his mind: thoughts of home, of his changes, of the terrible future that awaited him. He thought of Etreon, Pike, and Braxus, and wondered how they were faring under the overbearing rule of Brother Gabriel. He thought of poor Lord Krastor, trapped in the Throat of the Abbey along with Almighty knew who else. And then, after a while, his thoughts began to repeat, so he let them go, and there was nothing inside him but stillness.

But some of that stillness was different than before. There was a space within that stillness, a dark and quiet place where a castle shaped like a man stood, fiery eyes unseeing. Waiting. What would he look like if he were not so architectural, Tuco wondered, and even as he considered it, the stony shape of the devil became more animal, the rock crumbling to reveal gleaming white scale covering a muscular build, a large stomach, and a face like a bull’s. Tuco recognized the shape of those yellow eyes as they widened. Abalam, no longer a Lord, turned his gaze upward. “Master Tuco?” he asked, and his voice, once subterranean and rumbling, now sounded small and timid. “Have you come to torment or tease me?”

At the word torment, Tuco could not help considering what that would be like, just for an instant, but in that instant, Lord Abalam screamed as a fiery handprint burned itself across his chest, leaving a blackened brand across the white scales. And before Tuco could stop himself, he considered “tease,” and the bull-man fell to his knees as his cock swelled upward. He shuddered in agony and ecstasy, and Tuco could feel the two mingling within him. Without even meaning to, he had altered this devil’s soul, giving him an erotic taste for fire.

I must be cautious, he told himself. My power over these souls is absolute.

They are yours to toy with as you choose, another voice inside him suggested. Have they not earned damnation? Any fate other than torment is undeserved benevolence. Use them in the way that delights you most.

And that voice was not like his, but here in the stillness of his mind, he thought he could hear it more clearly than ever—indeed, had been hearing it for some time now. Was it his own devilish nature growing stronger? He wished he could talk to Abalam, and then abruptly he was there, looking down on the devil, who was so small Tuco could have plucked him up between thumb and forefinger.

The white bull-man stumbled backward in surprise. “Master?”

“Abalam,” Tuco said, and at the booming sound of his voice, the little devil quailed.

“Do you wish to devise fates for me?”

Tuco considered that, but feared to think too much on it lest every whim that passed through his mind be something that happened to the soul within him. “Not just yet,” he said. Not, at least, until he learned how better to manage souls under his power. And until he learned what was just. He didn’t like the idea of tormenting anyone, but Abalam had been cruel and merciless in his life. Would it be wrong to let that go unpunished? “What happens to you when I am not here?” he asked.

“Whatever you decide should happen, Master,” the devil answered. “Until you arrived, my soul waited in repose.”

“How do I find other souls of mine?”

Abalam looked frightened at the question. “Please do not… think of ideas for me in anger, but I do not understand how you cannot find them. Do you not simply think of them and find them? How did you find me?”

At the question, Tuco considered Asmodeus, and abruptly, Abalam was gone, and there was Asmodeus, standing in the darkness, his gaze vacant, waiting. A flash of anger surged through Tuco at seeing the devil that had altered and hunted him. Surely he deserved a terrible fate. He didn’t deserve to be an incubus at all; he ought to lose everything that made him so proud. No sooner had he thought this then Asmodeus cried out in the darkness, looking around. He clutched at his enormous horns with both hands and they broke away, crumbling to dust between his clawed fingers. Then, as he stared in horror, his enormous, swinging dick began to retract, slowly drawing back into him, thinning and shortening even as he groaned and tried to hold onto it with both hands, then only one.

Good, thought Tuco savagely, but drew his attention away from this soul before he could do any more harm.

How many souls were within him? There were three, six, twelve—little lights of souls glimmering in the stillness within him. His inner gaze drew farther and farther back, and there were more and more of them, points of light spreading in all directions, until his vision was filled with them, more little glints of souls than there were stars in the sky. How could he ever keep track of them all, much less design eternal fates for all of them?

He wondered if there were any he knew, and when he considered the question, his gaze narrowed in focus, and suddenly there was Uncle Roddy, a miller’s assistant who had beaten his daughter with sticks, and then there was old Casty Longfellow from his village, who had never gone to church and was rumored to be a witch. And there, Will Jennaway, the baker, who as far as he knew had never done anything wrong. He hadn’t even known Will had died.

And then his gaze took him to souls that flickered in and out, as though not really there. He focused on one of them that felt achingly familiar, and found it was Etreon, lying in the darkness, and fading in and out. Of course, he had part of Etreon’s soul now, didn’t he? Part of everyone’s souls in Abyssus Abbey, though in most cases a very tiny part. Was Etreon dead, too? But no, he could feel that the young man was not dead, but only sleeping, and the confusing, shifting images of his dreams played inside him. He searched through a wide and ever-shifting desert, filled with shadow monsters and crumbling buildings of sand, calling a name that he couldn’t pronounce.

“Etreon,” Tuco said, and then he was there in his friend’s dream, filling the sky above the desert.

“Alkeides?” Etreon looked around, and then up and up, his eyes bulging. “You’re—uh—enormous!” And somewhat awkwardly he clutched at his robes. “Where are you? We can’t find you anywhere. Hob says another devil took you.”

“It’s true. I’m trapped in the Abyss, in some kind of prison called E-Temen-Anki. Can you tell Hob and the others? Can they find a way to help?”

“I wish I could,” Etreon said sadly. “But this is only a dream. You’re not real.”

“But this is real, Etreon!” Tuco burst out. “I mean, yes, it’s a dream, but I can talk to you. Your soul is inside me. Can you remember that when you wake? Find Hob, tell him the name E-Temen-Anki! If he recognizes it, he’ll prove it to you. Only make certain it’s the real Hob, and not a fake. Find him, Etreon! Do it now!”

And with that, Tuco focused on Etreon’s flickering soul, asking him, no, willing him to wake.

The light of Etreon’s soul winked out like a candle.

One can only tolerate a calm mind and an impressive view for so long. Tuco had no idea how long days or nights lasted in the Abyss, but the passage of night seemed interminable. He had no need for sleep, and so crouched on his paper battlements, waiting for some answer from Etreon or Hob, but none came.

No sun lit the morning sky, but the appearance of creeping shadows announced the presence of daylight nonetheless. Tuco prowled the paper passageways of his keep with crinkling steps, exploring every room, and then exploring them again. By midday, he had them all memorized. He flopped down in his courtyard and tried to sleep, but couldn’t nod off. He spent some time pleasuring himself, sending his fluids sailing over the side of his battlements—they could escape, even if he could not. But even that activity grew stale after a while, and the more he engaged in it, the more he began thinking about the souls that he held within him and the things he might do to them. He quickly wrested his mind away from those thoughts as soon as he noticed them, lest he accidentally devise some torment for an actual soul and enact it without intention.

Still, when his thoughts turned inward, he found himself gazing over them again, a hundred million jewels twinkling in the darkness beyond all stars. Could all these people really be undeserving of paradise? And now all their eternal fates were in his claws. It was up to him to bring justice or mercy to their afterlife. Glancing over them gave him little flickers of their lives. There were many whom he felt pity for: those who had been driven to sin in desperation or passion; those who had suffered cruelties and privation when they were young and had been twisted because of them; those who had simply never been shown a life that found compassion and kindness could be its own reward. There were souls within him who had forever searched for joy in places they would never find it, who had been miserable or lonely or confused, and had hurt other people for it.

But that was not all. There were souls within him who had been cruel simply because they could be, who had taken from others because it was easier, who had used their power to hurt others simply because they enjoyed it. There were souls that had committed acts of unspeakable evil, who were contemptuous of the lives of others, who had visited violence and depravities upon the innocent, who had stolen the lives of others because it was easy. Did they not deserve some punishment? Could an afterlife that treated the heartless and the wounded the same be a just one?

Most souls within him, though, were simply people who had acted on desire. Taken more cake than their share because cake was delicious, slept with others’ spouses because passion or lust took them, and sex felt wonderful, became indolent because labor was painful and wearying, and their bodies clamored for rest. They were condemned because desire was part of every person; it was baked into them like yeast into bread dough, making them grow and change, making them rise.

But the Almighty had written that desires were to be denied, and those who could not do so now found their souls the property of devils for all eternity. Tuco wondered how angry the Almighty might be with him if he didn’t torment the damned souls. Still, what is he going to do if he is? A voice within him chuckled. Send you to the Abyss?

Tuco didn’t want the responsibility of all those souls, even if he could understand the power and wealth they gave him in the Abyss. But wasn’t it better that he have them than another devil? Surely he would be a better and kinder caretaker than Belzebub, Belphegor, or Asmodeus. Or Flavros, with humans and devils alike locked up in a tower of castles for eternity.

“Master?”

The voice made him open his eyes. A little black-scaled imp fluttered in the air in front of him. One dangling foot clutched a satchel that was if anything larger than he was. Tuco blinked at the imp in surprise. “Hob? Hob! I can scarcely believe you’re here!”

“Master! Hob is so happy to have found you! But you have changed so much! What has happened to you in this place?”

“It’s this prison, Hob. It changes you when you’re inside. But how are you here? Baronet Flavros said that no one intending to harm or free the inhabitants could enter E-Temen-Anki.”

“But Hob is not intending that just now—only to find his master and learn what has happened. And besides, Hob has no soul. He is only a demon, and can slip through the cracks of much devil magic.”

Tuco laughed in delight, and stood up from his crouch on the castle wall, ready to tell Hob everything that had happened, but then he frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Baronet Flavros looked like you before. How do I know it’s truly you, Hob?”

Looking dismayed, Hob fluttered back and forth, casting about for an answer. “But if master cannot believe Hob is Hob, then he cannot trust Hob to help him or save him. But all devil lords must trust their imps and demons! Pitiful Hob! He has failed his master in trustworthiness, even though he swore his allegiance—” Hob stopped flitting from side to side and grinned. “Yes, of course! Master does not know about the brand!”

“Brand?” Tuco asked. “What brand?”

“Master’s mark. All those who serve him have his mark somewhere. See? Here is Hob’s!” And the little demon tilted his head back, lifting his chin to bare his throat where, just behind his jaw and down the right side of his neck was an odd symbol, lighter on his black scales as though burned into them: three small circles nestled together within the confines of a larger one, like three eggs in a nest.

“That’s a very interesting mark, but why would you say it’s mine?”

“Hob got the mark after swearing allegiance to Sir Tuco. And if master does not believe, he should look at his hands.”

Tuco frowned. “My hands? What do you—” He faltered. The mark was there, on the backs of each of his hands, the circle with three smaller circles inset. It wasn’t drawn or branded on them in any way, but there all the same. The way shadows fell across their scaled surfaces, the way the pebbling of his scales arranged itself across his knuckles, the ripple of tendons under the skin. The shape of it was there, unseen unless you knew to look for it, and the longer he stared, the more the edges of the marks seemed to glimmer, as though concealing imperceptible cracks behind which burned a lake of fire.

“I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.” A thought occurred to him. “Does that mean I have Flavros’s mark on me somewhere? Or Asmodeus’s?”

“Did master agree to serve them? Did they claim his soul?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then no mark. Sir Tuco is master of himself.”

“For now, anyway. If I can’t escape E-Temen-Anki, the prison will change me more and more, until Baronet Flavros does finally have my soul. What am I to do, Hob?”

Hob nodded. “Is a very tricky problem, master! For no one has ever escaped in all the history of the Abyss.”

“But that cannot be true. I helped a Lord Abalam escape. In a way.”

The little imp squinted at him. “In a way? What way, master?”

“I ate him.”

There was a long silence punctuated only by the imp blinking. “Hob supposes that does rate as an escape. His soul has gone to your demesne and is no longer in the claws of the Baronet.”

“But not likely to work for me.”

“No, master,” Hob said sadly. He brightened a little. “Unless perhaps he can consume his own soul? That would be interesting to see!”

Tuco struggled for a moment to consider what would happen if he tried that and quickly gave up. “I think that might break… everything. Do you have any other ideas?”

“Yes, master. Hob spoke long with the little man and the rabbit and doggie. We thought of many ideas, and all of them were bad. Except one.” He flapped his wings a little more enthusiastically. “It was Hob’s idea, too! Well, nearly.”

“Well, go on, what’s this idea?”

“Master is a devil, yes?”

“I suppose,” Tuco allowed, thinking now was not the time to get into all that Lord Abalam had said about logos and souls.

“Then it is simple! Sir Tuco can be summoned like any other devil!”

Tuco blinked. “You can summon me? But how? Is there a ritual? Do I… have special components needed like other devils?”

“Probably, master. But it takes much time and trial to learn how to summon a devil that way. There is an easier way. We will use your blood! A devil’s blood can always be used to summon him. You see, Hob came prepared!” And with a somewhat complicated series of movements, never ceasing to fly, Hob maneuvered the satchel he was carrying in one foot around until he could open it and withdraw first, a large wooden drinking cup, and second, a wineskin like those carried by some of the Brothers in the abbey. Panting a little, he said, “Hob certainly wishes he could sit down. It has been a long flight. But he cannot enter master’s paper castle. The air is all stretchy!”

Thinking a moment, Tuco motioned Hob to wait, then dashed off and retrieved a halberd from the armory, which was easily wedged into the battlements so that Hob could rest on the haft and hook his precious satchel around the end. “So wait a moment, Hob. You said no one has ever escaped this prison before. Are you saying that no one in all of time has ever summoned a demon who was imprisoned here?”

“No demons imprisoned here, master. This is a prison for souls. Only devils and humans, and devils are not summoned so often. They’re too dangerous! But even foolish humans know when you summon a devil, you use a binding circle. That keeps him from escaping. Banish the devil and poof! Back he goes where he came from! So maybe another devil has escaped this way and never told, but it would need a human smart enough to know how to summon a devil who was trapped here, but foolish enough to let him free. Probably never once happened. Until today.”

“So what happens now? I just give you some of my blood and you fly it back to the mortal world somehow?”

“Your minions will be so happy to hear you are all right, master! They will use your blood to call you back to the abbey. Then you can decide how to punish the Baronet for his treachery!” The imp clenched one tiny fist in anger as he growled the last word.

Tuco rubbed at his chin in thought. “I really shouldn’t risk getting hurt in here unless it’s absolutely necessary. But if this is my best chance at escape, I suppose it’s worth it.” He looked down at the silver-edged halberd wedged into the paper wall. “But there’s one problem. I don’t think that’s going to cut through my scales. I doubt anything here could now. How am I going to draw blood?” He sighed, now regretting that he’d been so eager to experiment before.

“Master could cut his tongue,” Hob suggested cheerfully.

Tuco considered it, and then imagined his tongue covering itself with scales as well, or swelling up into a rhinoceros horn, or growing teeth all over it. He shuddered. “It might not be the best idea.”

Hob tilted his head. “Why not use your fangs, master? Surely they could bite through even your magnificent scales.”

He could hardly believe the thought hadn’t occurred to him. His encounter with Belzebub had left him with a mouth full of teeth that could bite through, as far as he’d been able to tell, anything. He might have been able to eat his way out of the prison, chewing away paper and bars alike. Though how that might have left him changed afterward, he didn’t dare guess. He looked down at his forearms, swollen with muscle, armored with rubies. His heartbeat pulsed beneath the scales in his wrist.

“All right, that’s worth a try, Hob, but you’d better get ready. I fear the prison will give us only one go at this.”

With both hands, Hob lifted the wooden cup and flew as close to the castle walls as he could. When he drew within a few feet of Tuco, he began to struggle, his wings fluttering faster and faster as he fought against the repelling enchantments of the prison. “This is… as close as… Hob can manage, master,” he grunted through the effort. “Hob is sorry to be so… weak and pitiable… a servant.”

Tuco reached out and tried to take it with both hands, but felt as though he were trying to push through a taut sheet of invisible canvas—there was some give, but the further he pushed toward Hob, the harder it became, until with his fingers outstretched he could reach no further than six inches away from Hob, his chest straining hard with the effort. Suddenly fearful even this exertion might cause him to grow again, he drew back. His shoulders were too brawny to slump, so he rolled them instead in dismay. “It’s no use, Hob. The magic is too strong for us. Can you throw it?”

“Not while flying, master. Cup weighs more than poor wee Hob.”

Tuco cast about and then smacked his forehead with his palm. “Of course, why didn’t I think of this before? Here.” He lifted the halberd and extended it out toward Hob, keeping the axeblade flat. “Can you set it there?”

Hob brightened and, praising Tuco the whole time, set both the cup and wineskin on the blade. Tuco withdrew it, marveling as he did that it was so easy for him to hold such a formidable weapon steady at arm’s length with only one hand. He’d squandered his days in the Abbey without testing his new strength. If he ever managed to escape, he would have to find out what he could do. He set the cup carefully on the castle wall, with the wineskin next to it.

“All right, Hob, I’ll get as much of my blood into the cup as I can, but I don’t know how much I’ll be able to draw before the castle heals me. And, er, I don’t know what else it will do to me. The last time I broke the skin, I grew these scales.”

“They’re very handsome, master!” Hob offered.

“Well. They’ll certainly take some getting used to. I hope our friends back home feel as kindly disposed to them as you do.” And I hope I get to see them again, he added to himself. “Here goes,” he said aloud, lifting his wrist to his face and opening his jaws. His fangs seemed almost to extend from his mouth, as though too big for him. He drew his long tongue back so as not to bite it as well, pressed the tender scales of his wrist against his teeth, and bit down.

His fangs cut through his scales as easily as soft bread, and his mouth filled with a splash of hot blood that ran down his chin. The flavor of it ignited something fierce and hungry within him, something that dreamed of stalking unaware prey through the night, pouncing on it, tasting its life pouring down his throat.

He shook himself out of an imagining so vivid it had felt almost like a memory, and held his wrist to the cup. He’d more than pierced it; he’d torn out a chunk, and the blood that flowed from it was so dark red it was nearly black. Devil blood, he thought to himself, or becoming so. It pumped from his wrist in spurts so alarming he started to worry. He’d half-filled the cup in only a couple of seconds, before he’d even had a chance to feel pain from the wound. But then the torn flesh wove itself back together like fingers interlacing; the blood flow slowed to a trickle, a drip, and stopped, and scales reformed over the wound.

Next would be the change from the prison. He stepped back, trying to brace himself for the prickle and flush across his skin, but this was deeper and more thorough. It burned in his muscles, it seared across his scales. And then, for a second time, they thickened. But before, his scales had only gone from a rough texture to a smooth pebbling; this time, they transformed into armor. Thick, scaly plates engulfed his claws and fingers, moving up his forearms, turning his wrists into armored cylinders, his hands into full talons. Each scale jutted backward into a little crag, almost a point, and when the growth of them reached his elbows, they sprouted an array of dark black spikes jutting up out of the bone. His upper arms became encased in pebbled bands that seemed to creak when he moved them, and then more spikes sprouted from his shoulders. His toes changed then, growing larger and longer, spreading apart as they became gargoyle-like talons that scored the stone when he curled them. Thick plating stretched up to his knee and extended into jutting spikes that set flush against the bulging muscle of his thigh, baring their weaponry only when his knees bent. The plating down his chest and belly didn’t seem to thicken much, but it hardened, increasing its weight on him until it felt almost like flexible iron, with a reflective sheen in the light.

He felt the change move across his face, making his brows ridged, broadening his nose with wide scales. His scaling grew across his head to meet and merge with the horns that grew there, and then spread down his spine and across his back in thick, overlapping plates that extended all the way down to the tip of his tail, which burst with new spines. And then it was over, and he crouched panting in the wake of the transformation. The limbs extended in front of him resembled nothing human, black-scaled on the back lightening to an abyssal crimson on the insides. He was devil now, through and through. He didn’t know how his face might have changed, but he suspected his own family wouldn’t recognize him.

He stood, stretching out his shoulders, feeling the ripple of his scales, the tightness as they struggled to contain his muscle, the odd pull of the spikes at his joints. His tail lashed like an angry serpent’s. He glanced up and saw Hob masturbating furiously.

“Hob!” he snapped, half in amusement.

“What is it, master?” Hob asked, not slowing down in the slightest.

“Is it really the best time for that?”

Hob looked Tuco up and down several times and then said, “Uh huh.” Then he bucked and howled, arcs spitting out of his little imp cock as he climaxed. Still dripping, he fluttered closer. “You make Asmodeus look like an ugly wimp, master.”

Tuco tried to fight off a blush, then realized no one could possibly see it beneath his scales. “That’s… kind, but beside the point. We need to focus and get me out of here.”

“Then you must give Hob the blood, master,” Hob said, still stroking himself while staring at Tuco.

“Right, right, the blood.” Tuco tore a strip of vellum from the wall of his castle, fashioned it into a makeshift funnel, and inserted it into the mouth of the wineskin. Carefully, he poured his blood from the cup into the funnel—it was black, reflective and oddly viscous, and he had to shake the cup a little to coax the remainder into the wineskin. He pulled the drawstring tight on the wineskin and tied it off. Then, without realizing what he was doing at first, he slipped his tongue into the cup and licked it clean of his blood, again getting a flash of wildness, of hunting at night, of devouring prey. Primal instincts, perhaps, from some ancient soul in his trove? Or an effect of the devil logos that had merged with him?

“Good thinking, master,” said Hob. “Any blood left over could be used to summon you back here if you got free.”

Tuco grimaced and tapped at his wrist with one talon. It was like tapping stone—though he noticed that even with the thickened scales, he had lost little sensitivity, and could still feel every touch. “Well, we won’t get any more after this. That may be the last time I ever bleed.” He placed the wineskin and the cup back on the halberd, passing them back to Hob. “You really think you’ll be able to use it to summon me?”

Hob clutched the wineskin to his little chest as though afraid it might leap away from him. “Hob will not fail his master. Hob is loyal.”

“All right, Hob. Fly true. And… try to tell the others what to expect if I return? I don’t want them to be startled when they see me.”

“Yes, master. Goodbye, master.” With that, the little imp turned and flapped off into the sky, flying up and up until he was just a tiny black speck in the sunless horizon, and then he was gone.

Tuco hoped he had done the right thing by trusting him, but there was nothing he could do now except wait. Again.


It was sometime in the middle of a moonless night when Flavros reappeared, his feline shape stretching out from a dark ball of void that unfolded above Tuco’s drawbridge. Tuco turned from his perch on the wall above the drawbridge to gaze at the devil stalking toward him. Green eyes flashed up at him.

“So much change so soon,” the leopard man said with a sneer. “You’ll be mine in no time.”

“I don’t intend to change any further,” Tuco answered calmly. “I’ve just been sitting here. There are so many souls in my demesne to talk to, to toy with. I shan’t weary of that soon.”

“Soon. What care I for soon? I am a patient fiend. Do you know what eternity means, my prisoner? It means that anything that can happen will happen. You will not crouch there forever. You will try to escape. You will go mad and rail against your confines. You will attempt to end your own life. And every time you do, my prison’s magic will change you further, until you and your castle are one and the same.”

Tuco shifted atop his perch, staring down at Flavros, feeling the way his thick scales slid against each other. “Or I will escape. If, as you say, anything that can happen will.”

Triumph danced in the devil’s eyes. “So all say when first I ensnare them here. But E-Temen-Anki is inescapable. None has ever succeeded.”

“Is that so?” Tuco stepped forward and dropped to the drawbridge, catching himself easily on his powerful legs, his weight sending a ripple down the paper surface as it absorbed his impact. He stood three feet from the leopard who, despite himself, stepped back in alarm. So old Baronet Flavros is a bit of a coward himself, he thought. “Tell me, have you looked in on old Abalam lately?”

“Abalam? What are you talking about? Why should I have gone to see…” Flavros trailed off. He stalked to the edge of the drawbridge and leaned over the edge to peer beneath Tuco’s paper prison. A moment later, the fur bushed out all down his back and tail. When he straightened up, his whiskers were bristling, his sharp claws unsheathed. “How did you—where could you have—what have you—?” he spluttered.

“Well, those are a lot of almost-questions,” Tuco said, enjoying himself.

“Where is he?” Flavros roared, his green eyes slits.

“Do you know, I honestly don’t know? There’s so much about devils and the Abyss I never learned. Well, don’t worry, like you said, he can’t have escaped. Where is the last place you saw him? Retrace your steps.”

At that, the leopard crouched, gave a bellowing roar of fury, and leapt at him with claws outstretched. Tuco had been expecting that, and even if he wasn’t certain his new scales could protect him from whatever Flavros could do, the enchantment around his castle certainly would. Flavros’s leap was powerful, bringing his outstretched paws within a foot of Tuco’s face. He hung there for an instant, muzzle twisted in hatred, scything claws bared, and then the enchantment caught him, snapped him backward and sent him bouncing across the drawbridge head over tail for a good thirty feet.

“What do you know,” Tuco said, patting the wall of his castle appreciatively. “These things are safe!”

Bristling with rage, the leopard pushed himself slowly to his feet and stalked back down the drawbridge, his tail lashing behind him, a low growl bridled in his throat. “Listen to me, imp. I don’t know what you’ve done with my property, but I will find out, and when I do, I will find new and creative ways to make you suffer. Your soul will be mine for eternity, and I will devise torments your feeble mind cannot even comprehend. No one escapes Flavros, do you understand me? Nobody! You will be mine forever and—”

A pale blue light, the color of early dawn, burst out of the ground around Tuco’s clawed feet, surrounding him in its glow, and in less than a second, everything around Tuco disappeared. He was standing on the roof of Abyssus Abbey. The stone under his feet was coarse and wet with black-red blood, the wind was deathly chilly, and above the mountains to the east, the pale light of sunrise glimmered. And standing around him were Pike, Etreon, Braxus, and Hob.

Tuco took in a deep breath of cold, mortal air. “It’s me,” he said in answer to his friends’ worried stares. “You saved me. You got me out. Thank you so much, my friends.”

There was a long moment’s pause, giving him just enough time to worry: Am I too changed? Is something wrong? And then they all fell on him with cheers, wrapping him up in their embraces. And he knew he was home.


They huddled together in the stairwell, Tuco’s new scales doing nothing to shield him from the chill of the wind. He nestled into the thick fur of Braxus’s shaggy body and between the two of them, they took up the space of one entire landing. Pike perched on the steps above, and Etreon demanded to be held, squeezing himself in between Tuco’s chest and left arm and wriggling occasionally. They didn’t dare to descend into the Abbey proper, for the Brothers were on the alert and would certainly be interested in Tuco’s new and scaled appearance.

Brother Gabriel had been as good as his word, and any new changes were now met with interrogation and punishment. Two brothers and one apprentice had already been sent to the Throat, and at least four other inhabitants of the Abbey had escaped rather than face the threat of imprisonment. All ritual and research had been suspended. Brother Gabriel had all apprentices going through strict lessons in letters and theology. Outside of lessons, most of the other time was scheduled for church services. The apprentices and brothers would rise at 3:30 a.m., dress, and arrive in the chapel at 4 a.m. for matins. Then the Liturgies of The Hours at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. Then Vespers at sunset, and Compline at 7 pm, which was just before bedtime.

“It sounds awful,” Tuco said. Church services were one thing, but Church all day, every day?

“It is certainly not to everyone’s tastes,” said Pike. “The constant standing wears you down. A few Brothers or apprentices pass out every day, usually during Vespers or Compline. Sebastian confessed to me before he fled that he’d just been wishing that his feet wouldn’t hurt so much. That’s what made his legs split into all those tentacles, we figure. Since it happened right in front of everyone, in the middle of Church, Brother Gabriel swore it must be signs of a deep alignment with the Abyss. Sebastian bolted, just wriggling through the crowd. A couple of Brothers snatched at him, but he was able to pull their arms apart with those tentacles and yank himself free. Left big sucker marks all up and down their arms. He escaped out the latrines.”

“He didn’t fall to his death?” Tuco asked, thinking about the holes in their bathroom that opened directly out onto the sloping cliffs of the mountainside.

“We were afraid he would, but he was just gone. We thought we could hear noises like he was moving around on the underside of the abbey. Hopefully he made it down to the woods, though who knows if that’s any better, or if he’ll be able to find any food or help now.” Pike sighed. “Things are bad, Tuco. We’re all exhausted. The Brothers don’t even let us fuck anymore. If we’re caught, we get locked up in a cell, or worse. And you know me, I have to go eight times a day. Running off to the bathroom to just… ease the pressure is a poor substitute. I can’t think why none of our group has changed again, except maybe the demons can’t change us if we—” He lowered his eyes. “If we already belong to another devil.”

“It sounds terrible. What are we going to do about it?”

Braxus rumbled behind him. “I doubt you can do anything, Tuco. Look at you—your scales and all those spikes now. And you look even stronger than before. If any of the Brothers or even some of the more obsequious apprentices spot you, you’re done for. They’ll throw you in the Throat faster than you can say Jack Robinson. You can’t stay here. Surely you know that. We wouldn’t even have brought you back, except that Hob there said you were in trouble.”

Tuco nodded soberly. “The prison changed me this much in just three days. Any longer, and I can’t imagine…” He trailed off, looking at his friends, who were all staring at him. “What?”

Pike cleared his throat. “Tuco, it’s been nearly three weeks, not three days. Brother Gabriel looked like he wanted to call the Imperial Guard when he couldn’t find you anywhere. Everyone thinks you escaped to the forest.”

“He looked for me?”

“Turned the Abbey over, top to bottom. When he finally realized he wasn’t going to find you, his face was so red and throbbing, I thought he was either going to swear or burn the whole Abbey down. Since then, he’s been locked up in the library. He’s searching for something in there, but no one knows what. He keeps demanding that the less Changed brothers go out on journeys for new books and scrolls. Rigby’s out now, gone to Arabia searching for some magical guardian ritual or other.”

Etreon nodded. “Everything’s gone all awful and terrifying. Even the food is bad. Brother Gabriel says we’re corrupting our souls eating demon-prepared food so mostly what we get is dried fish and bread boiled in beer water. Everyone’s starving.”

“The point is that you can’t stay here,” Braxus said. “Escape to the forest while you can. You’re strong and you look deadly now. I’m sure you’ll be able to survive.”

“And I shall be going with you,” announced Etreon, putting his arms around as much of one of Tuco’s biceps as he could. “I’m never leaving my Alkeides again.”

Tuco smiled fondly down at him and rubbed at his little back with one thumb. “I’m sorry you all have to go through this. But maybe I don’t have to flee to the forest. I still have a demesne in the Abyss. Perhaps this time the real Hob could show me the way.”

Hob tilted his head. “Master does not know how to reach his own demesne? Of course Hob could show him. But so far only a few devils know of master’s existence. If he goes to his demesne, all will know. They may try to get him there. Whatever master has been facing up to now may become much worse.”

Tuco shook his head. “But Brother Gabriel and his monks will certainly get me here. Better the devil you fear than the devil you know.”

Holding his head low, Hob timidly fluttered up to him. “Master is wise and powerful, but he surely knows if he attempts to return to the Abyss, Baronet Flavros will have set many traps for him. If he is trapped a second time, Hob will have no way to free him. No more blood.”

“Baronet Flavros?” Pike frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that. Is he the one who trapped you, Tuco?”

And so Tuco related the tale of how Flavros had tricked him by disguising himself as Hob, led him into the prison of the Abyss, and everything that happened afterward. “I’m afraid I was a bit smug to him last time I saw him. No doubt he is very angry.”

After his story, Pike puffed out his cheeks and let out a big sigh. Tuco noticed no one had quite met his eyes when he’d discussed how he had, essentially, fucked and eaten an entire castle. “So we’ll need to deal with this Flavros fellow before we can do anything else,” Pike said. “If he tricked you once, he can do it again, and next time he’ll be more devious. Any one of us could be Flavros, and you’d never know.”

Tuco nodded. “He makes you feel unsafe. So then you yearn for safety. But I can’t think how we could defeat him. Each devil has been more challenging to overcome than the one before. How do you defeat a devil of safety?”

Hob cleared his throat. “Master, Hob has a plan. But it will take some days to prepare. Can you wait that long?”

“What is this plan, Hob?”

“Better if Hob doesn’t say. Demons, you know.” Hob’s red eyes flicked meaningfully toward the walls.

“All right, Hob. I trust you. But I’ll still need some place to stay for the next few days while I’m waiting. Is there no place here that would be safe for me?”

Everyone looked at each other.

“Well,” Pike said slowly, “there’s one place no one would look for you. But I don’t think you’ll like it.”

Tuco waited for a moment, and when no one said anything, asked, “Well? Where is it?”

His friend grimaced. “The Throat.”


The stairway from the rooftop proceeded down, past the first level, and past two floors of cellars, filled with stores of supplies and casks of wine. Pike assured Tuco both cellars were checked regularly, so staying there would not be an option. At the bottom of the cellar level the stairway widened, each step at least twenty feet across, and the ceiling stretching at least that high above them. This descent had been made for giants or monsters; for the first time in months, Tuco felt uncomfortably small. Their breaths seemed to echo in the void, and the torch Pike carried in one paw rustled in a dank, restless wind. The walls here looked chipped, as though hewn out of the earth by a giant axe. From below came sounds: odd scrapings and chitterings and low, inhuman moans. The denizens of the Throat.

Pike’s torch and the light it cast looked pitifully tiny in the yawning mouth of the stairwell, but of course Tuco could see as clearly as in daylight. He could only imagine how terrifying this descent must be for his friend, holding up such a meager spark against the engulfing darkness. “Would you like me to lead the way?” he offered. “I don’t need the torch, you see.”

Pike stared back at him. “Really? This isn’t dark to you? Lucky fiend. But no, no, I’d rather have you at my back than… anything else. Promise to hurt anything that comes to get me?”

“There’s nothing here,” Tuco assured him. “Only stairs.”

And stairs there were. They stopped switching back and forth and now proceeded steadily down in a single direction, so far that Tuco couldn’t see the bottom. It would be terrible to lose your footing here, he thought. You’d start falling and never ever stop. The stairway grew wider and wider, and the ceiling extended farther and farther above them, until they were descending in an enormous cavern that stretched out on every side of them.

“Have you ever been down here before?” Tuco asked.

Pike shuddered. “Never. What can you see?”

“I never knew there could be such an enormous space underground. Why, the entire inside of the mountain must be nearly hollow. I wonder that the entire thing doesn’t cave in and drop the Abbey right down on our heads.”

“Don’t say such things!”

“Sorry, Pike. But it’s a room so wide I can scarce make out the other side. It looks like lots of tunnels. And there are these long spikes coming down from the ceiling all over, like fangs.”

“The prison of the Throat should be just a little way ahead, if the map Etreon found is correct.”

“He has a map?”

“A drawing of the Abbey, from when it was being built, long ago. It had been added to since then. He found it in the library during one of his trips when we were trying to figure out how to find you. Nearly got caught by Brother Gabriel doing it, too.” Pike waved his torch to the left. “There should be a passage that way sometime soon. All the people who get Changed so much they become dangerous get put down there.”

“And that’s where we’re going?”

Pike shook his head. “By the Almighty, no! It would be far too dangerous, even for you, Tuco. There are some nasty creatures down there if even half the tales I’ve heard are true. But at the beginning of the passageway—ah, there it is, I think.”

The edge of the stairway branched off into a side tunnel just as large and yawning as the one that had led into the throat, a canal bored into the wall of the mountain. As they left the main stairway, Tuco cast a long, searching look down. He still could not make out anything like the bottom. How deep did it descend? And how could it possibly touch the Abyss when the Abyss was a sphere of light and landscape floating in a void filled with false stars?

The sounds of the moans and screams and roars were louder here. Those voices were terrible: full of pain, and longing, hunger, rage… madness. In the side of the tunnel was a little door, and this Pike opened and went through. Tuco actually had to stoop and twist to the side a little to fit through the small entryway, and standing on the other side, his horns kept giving him a jolt when they butted against the ceiling. His tail curled behind him and slid the door closed, and as it thumped shut, the mad clamor from the hallway went silent.

“Ah, good, it’s still here,” Pike said, relief etched across his face. He tentatively lifted both his ears, which had been flattened ever since they’d begun their descent. The room in which they found themselves was well-appointed, but in disrepair. A bed that once might have looked comfortable had a pallet gone sodden and lumpy. A cabinet holding a series of bottles and sacks had partly collapsed and leaned to one side. The thick, plush carpet on the floor was rotten, each step on it lifting dark puffs of mold.

“It was an old watch station for monks,” Pike said, “back when they used to guard the Throat.”

“I wonder why they stopped.”

“Well, I never heard of anyone here actually capturing a demon or devil. Perhaps after a few hundred years of nothing, they decided there was no point.” Pike frowned and put his paws on his hips. “I’d have brought some fresh bedding down if I’d known. And if there were a way to sneak it down here without being noticed.”

“It’s all right,” Tuco assured him. “I’ll ask Hob if he can help. Demons bring all the fresh linen and bedding for the dorms anyway, so he must know how they get it, and he’s cleaned my room multiple times.”

“Do you think you’ll be all right down here? All alone, and with the—” Pike jerked his head toward the door. “You know, a prison full of monsters and a stairway to hell. Not where I’d choose to spend the night.”

Tuco couldn’t help smiling at that. “I just escaped from a prison full of devils in the middle of the Abyss, Pike. This may be musty, but it’s still an improvement.” He rubbed at his belly as his stomach groaned at him. “I could use a meal, though. It seems I haven’t eaten in three weeks.”

Pike blanched. “Oh, you poor fellow. I’ll manage something. Though as I said, Brother Gabriel isn’t feeding us much. There are big locks on the refectory now. Not even Etreon can get in.”

“Well, maybe Hob can get that, too.”

“Of course.” Pike gave him a long, searching look. “It’s good to have you back, Tuco. Even if it puts us all in danger. I’ve… missed you terribly.”

“I’ve missed you too, Pike.” He came forward and drew his friend toward him. Pike slid slender arms around as much of Tuco’s waist as he could reach, hugging him. With one hand, Tuco lifted him as easily as he might a kitten, pulling him to his chest, bending his thick neck to press his mouth to Pike’s. Pike groaned, his warm, wet tongue licking between Tuco’s fangs as he put his arms around Tuco’s neck, paws gripping the thick, plated scales that grew there. Abruptly something warm and a little sticky prodded at Tuco’s belly, and he leaned his head back, breaking the kiss with a wry smile.

“Sorry,” Pike said, flushing so hotly Tuco could see it beneath his cream-colored fur, but his hips rocked a little, sliding the jut of his erection against Tuco’s belly. “I told you Brother Gabriel doesn’t let us—”

Tuco cut him off. “We don’t have to say his name here,” he said, and slid one hand under Pike’s thigh, hefting him a little higher. Pike gasped in excitement and pressed his mouth to Tuco’s again, hooking his legs around Tuco’s hips.

Tuco needed no encouragement of his own to grow aroused; ever since he’d become an incubus, sexual desire continually simmered beneath his skin, ready at a moment’s notice, and now his shaft rose, stiffening eagerly, already spilling out his precome into the room, filling it with the scent of him. Pike kissed him and kissed him again, dipping down to bite at his neck and then leaned back. When he inhaled the scent of Tuco’s fluids, he paused, gasped, and the pupils in those lilac eyes went wide and dark. “Put it in me,” he begged. “Fuck me until I forget my name.”

“Careful what you wish for around devils,” Tuco said teasingly, but his tip was already sliding back and forth, feeling its way between Pike’s soft-furred thighs and sliding up the crevice of his well-muscled ass. Tuco made himself pause for a moment, savoring the anticipation as his tip twitched and flexed against Pike’s ring. The rabbit-man moaned aloud and tried to push himself back down on it, but Tuco easily held him firm. A half-second later, his cock jerked, soaking the rabbit’s backside with a hot spurt of precome that matted the fur and began to slide down his inner thighs, soaking them.

With wide eyes, Pike stammered, “Did you—did you already—?”

“Of course not,” Tuco assured him, and then pushed himself upward into Pike’s tight, quivering depths. He clenched his teeth as he felt himself slide deeper, the wide-slitted head of his devil cock drooling into Pike as it spread him open. As each of the fleshy barbs lining his shaft pushed past Pike’s entrance, it felt as though he were penetrating anew, and out of habit, he bit back his moan. But then he remembered they were in a cave deep beneath the Abbey, behind closed doors, far away from other ears, and so he pushed again, feeling the flood of his hot precome jet into Pike, spilling around his cock and easing its way, and this time he let himself roar in pleasure. The bestial sound shook the room.

Pike stared up at him in shock. “Okay, that time did you—”

“Not even close.” Tuco gave him a wicked grin and pushed deeper. His prehensile shaft enabled him to twist it from side to side, burrowing into Pike’s gut deeper than ever before, and the rabbit howled in pleasure, fingers digging into Tuco’s shoulders. He kicked his legs, and then abruptly came, painting the bottom of Tuco’s chest with a surprising amount of seed.

Tuco wasn’t about to let him off so easily, though. As though he’d always known how to do it, he saw how he could send a little thread of incubus magic into Pike, sending him so full of arousal it was like he hadn’t even come. Both above and below, Pike stiffened, drawing in a sharp, astonished breath as even before he was finished climaxing his sexual fervor was renewed.

“My balls,” he gasped. “Oh god. Oh god, they feel so full. What did you do?”

Tuco’s cock furrowed into Pike, plowing the field he intended to seed, burying it deep, deeper. Pike slid the fingers of one paw down his belly, groaning, “Oh god, I can feel it in me. I can feel it behind my own cock.”

“Stop?” Tuco suggested playfully.

“Deeper,” Pike croaked, and Tuco rewarded him with another thrust, his cock digging its way into Pike until the rabbit-man’s rump was planted down against his hips. Deep inside Pike, Tuco felt his cock flex again, filling his friend with more precome. And Pike’s breath grew faster and faster. He clutched at Tuco’s thick arm with one paw; with the other he squeezed at his own cock, trying to keep from climaxing, but he failed, and cried out again, helpless, overwhelmed cries as like a geyser the ropes of his seed flung themselves upward with such force they arced over his head.

“Not yet,” Tuco chided him, and again sent incubus energy into Pike, filling him again. He thought he could actually feel Pike’s balls pulse and swell against his lower abs as the rabbit moaned, still not not over his previous two climaxes. He hefted Pike easily in both hands, one under a thigh, the other gripping his waist, and held him in place as he began to fuck in earnest, hips rocking as he drew out and then drove into Pike again, meeting his gasping mouth for a kiss whenever he lifted the rabbit high enough. Pike cried out once or twice, but mostly bucked into the movements, seized by a ferocious lust that wracked his body. He beat against Tuco’s chest with come-soaked paws; he clenched his thighs around Tuco’s waist; he drove himself down, hilting so hard that it seemed to knock the wind out of him from inside, his eyes rolling back in his head as he shook with pleasure.

Finally, Tuco came as well, his cock swelling inside Pike, every nub lining it hard and gripping as his balls drew up, clenching, and he unloaded a torrent of devil seed into the row he’d hoed. Come shot out around the base of his shaft, soaking his hefty sac and running in hot rivulets down his thighs. Pike shuddered, voice too ragged for any articulate cries, and his cock jerked, untouched, erupting against Tuco, painting Tuco’s scaled chest and neck with a whitewash of come, sending arcs of it across Tuco’s mouth and nose, spattering his horns. He came again, just as hard, and again, and then his cock drooled more seed over its tip and down his shaft, into the fur of his belly, and then it was bucking dry as the devil-fueled climax ripped everything out of him and demanded more.

His eyes shot wide open, filling with light as his soul clamored to be free of him, but Tuco shook his head and rumbled a gentle, “No.” And Pike relaxed, then, the intensity of his climax ebbing, until he leaned back in Tuco’s grip, panting, still skewered on Tuco’s arm-thick cock.

“I—I never—” he stammered. A strange expression crossed his face. “I think I can taste your come in my mouth. That shouldn’t be possible.”

“Probably just some of your own,” Tuco suggested, smiling. He felt almost deliriously happy.

“No, yours tastes different. I’d know it anywhere. Like you just can’t get enough of it.” Pike licked at his lips again several times and groaned. “I feel so full. So that’s what an incubus can do when he’s trying.”

“Before, I’d always had to hold back. Because of… you know.”

Tuco relaxed enough so that he could begin to pull out of Pike, but the rabbit shook his head. “Just leave it in for a while? Please? If you can. It feels so nice.”

“All right,” Tuco agreed. Carefully, he got to the floor, curved his tail out of the way, and settled back against a wall, closing his eyes. He put his heavy arms around Pike, holding the impaled apprentice against him.

Pike crossed his arms across Tuco’s chest and slumped against him, planting weary kisses on Tuco’s chin and mouth. “Is it wrong to love the devil?” he murmured after several minutes.

Tuco blinked his eyes open and looked down, but Pike seemed to have fallen asleep, his long ears folded back, his breathing steady. Curiously, Tuco noticed a mark on Pike’s shoulder, a place where the fur seemed to lay flat, forming a large circle, holding three connected circles within it. He kept quiet and held Pike there, and after a while, he drifted into sleep too.

Lust wracked Tuco’s dreams. Some distant part of him was aware of the solid stone wall against his scale-plated back, the musty smell of the room mixed with the heavy fog of his musk. But he had fallen asleep still planted deeply in Pike, and an incubus never went soft unless he wished to. And so he dreamed, first of rutting Pike over days, over weeks, and then of others: Braxus and Etreon and Hhalbor, then the monks. Then Asmodeus again, with whom sex had been so intense and overwhelming it had almost broken him—but now he was the incubus, and Asmodeus the poor devil trapped in his realm. Now it was Tuco who could push the once-Knight of the Abyss into maddening paroxysms of arousal, and he did, toying with him over and over, refueling his lust every time he climaxed, finally leaving him incoherent, drooling from both ends on the black floor of his limbostone within Tuco’s demesne.

Again he dreamed of seducing devils of the Abyss and angels of Paradise, spreading pure, soul-obliterating pleasure throughout the Earth, the Void, the Firmament. And the pleasure came back on him tenfold. Gradually he ascended to awareness and realized he could still feel the pleasure, a movement around his cock—no, his cocks. He left his eyes closed a while, enjoying the sensation. His devil cock moved on its own, independent of his hips, gripping internally and pushing itself forward, then sliding back, gripped by a tunnel slick and hot. And he must have been stroking himself in his sleep, for his hand gripped around his other cock, stroking gently up and down, pleasuring himself semi-consciously. And something hot and wet…

He opened his eyes. Pike lay sprawled against his chest, half-asleep and drooling, his lithe back moving slowly as Tuco’s shaft worked steadily inside him. At the sight of this, Tuco gasped in arousal, his vigor renewed, his hips joining the action as he began fucking his friend more earnestly.

A second cock, human-looking other than its enormous size, had sprouted from his loins besides Pike, and to his surprise he saw that he was gripping in his right hand not his shaft, but Etreon, whose ever-changing skin today looked milky and wet, though whether that was due to his daily transformation or due to being soaked in Tuco’s fluid it was hard to tell, for he had his arms and legs wrapped firmly around Tuco’s length, moaning and kissing it, his small back arching. Tuco’s hand easily encircled his back, and he’d been unknowingly sliding the little man up and down, continually coating him with slippery precome as he used him to masturbate. Etreon must have swallowed quite a lot of it, for his normally flat stomach bulged out. Tuco moved his pinky finger and slid the tip of it between Etreon’s legs, nudging them apart and pushing it against his rump, and the little man gurgled a moan and pushed back against it.

Braxus lay on the floor to his left, leaning his upper body forward, his head bobbing as he swallowed greedily against a third shaft, this one the familiar red, knotted wolf cock like Tuco had grown before, both his hands gripping it about the knot as he slurped, licked and swallowed at it hungrily. His throat was hot and tight.

The sight—and sensations—of all three of his friends pleasuring him at once was overwhelming. Tuco’s tail whipped against the floor with a splash—they were all lying in a warm puddle—and then with his free hand, he gripped at Braxus’s head, giving the wolf’s scruff a tug that he knew he liked, pushing him down around his cock, feeling his tip bury itself in the back of Braxus’s throat. His devil cock flexed hard inside Pike. The feeling of three different cocks being pleased at once multiplied in his mind—it didn’t push him over the edge so much as launch him over; his balls felt as though they were being squeezed. It felt as though too much come was moving through him at once. His shafts all bulged at the same time, the sensations from each distinct and yet exquisitely ecstatic.

Braxus struggled and choked on Tuco’s cock—something Tuco knew he enjoyed—and then he spluttered as Tuco came, hard, come splattering out of Braxus’s mouth as he couldn’t swallow it all, his canine haunches hunching against the floor as his own climax was wrenched out of him by demonic power. Pike, who had been half-asleep, now woke completely, lilac eyes widening as Tuco poured into him again. With his right hand, Tuco lifted Etreon up and held him face down against the tip of his cock as hot come jetted past the little man’s face like a geyser. Far from struggling, Etreon only gripped at the head of Tuco’s cock and tried to shove his face into the slit, Tuco’s grasp the only thing preventing him from being blasted away by the force of the eruption.

After what seemed like several minutes, the pleasure and intensity subsided, and Tuco felt satisfied, comfortably relieved if not entirely drained. Braxus lifted himself up off of Tuco’s shaft, got halfway up, staggered to one side, and collapsed again. Pike just made feeble squeaking noises, panting where he lay. Tuco released Etreon, who toppled backward off of Tuco’s thigh and landed on the floor with a splash.

They were lying in a puddle of fluids that must have been an inch deep. Tuco couldn’t guess where it all had come from. It was streaked across the walls, spread halfway across the floor, even dripped from the ceiling. All of them were almost completely coated in it. The room reeked of sex and musk and male.

Carefully, Tuco withdrew from Pike, who made faint gasps and whimpers and clutched at the wide shelf of Tuco’s chest as inch after inch of devil cock slid out of him, come pouring out with it. Tuco got to his feet, dripping from his legs and tail, and carried Pike to a mostly dry section of the floor, setting him down. The rabbit-man sprawled on his side against the wall and fell asleep almost instantly.

“Tuco,” Braxus managed, sounding as though he’d just run a marathon, “so… so glad you’re awake.”

“What happened?” Tuco asked in astonishment. “I went to sleep with Pike and when I woke up—” He waved his hand at the soaked room.

Braxus shook his head, then his shoulders, then his whole body, spraying white droplets everywhere. “When Pike didn’t come back, we got worried. We figured we’d better come and make sure nothing happened to you. Even though it was awful scary going down that stairway. I could smell the way you’d gone, so we followed you here. When we got in the room, it looked like you both were asleep, but there was… mess… everywhere, and Pike was moaning. It sounded so nice, and then I got the smell of you, and I just, I don’t know, I wanted you so much. It had been so long since I’d seen you, and we all know Pike is your favorite, but it had been ages since I’d had sex with you, and I just wished I could join in. Next thing I knew there was this big cock right in front of me, and I knew you wanted me to, so I started licking. Then Etreon ran over to the other side, and—”

“And you grew a tower for me to climb, Alkeides,” Etreon said in a dreamy voice, floating on his back in a slow circle. “So I climbed it and kissed the top—” He interrupted himself with a sudden burp. “And tasted nectar. Then a hand of a titan held me. So strong, so sure, putting me where I needed to be.”

“It was so nice,” Braxus said with a slow wag of his tail. “But it went on so long.”

“Didn’t you… er, finish, though?” Tuco asked, looking around at the mess everywhere.

“We did,” Braxus said. “But each time when we wanted to stop, it was like something happened, and then it was like we hadn’t come at all. It was even stronger, I just wanted you even more. We couldn’t stop. We didn’t want to stop.”

“Oh.” Tuco’s scaled ears burned. “I learned I could do that with Pike. I didn’t know I was doing it to you, too. How many times did you…”

Braxus lowered his own ears. “I lost count after five or six.”

Tuco stared at him.

“And then it went a long time longer.” The wolftaur gave him a weak, fanged grin. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want sex again.”

“I could help with that,” Tuco said, returning the grin, and despite himself, Braxus answered with a wag of his tail.

“But not today?” he whimpered.

“I’ll give you a little respite. But I missed being under that tail.” Just thinking about that made his loins reshape themselves with a pleasant, shifting sensation, cock flesh sliding against cock flesh, and when he looked down, he saw he had two again instead of the three from before, which would at least be slightly manageable. “I don’t suppose anyone has heard from Hob yet?” he asked.

Braxus shook his head and then yawned widely, tongue curling between huge canine teeth.

“Go lie down,” Tuco urged him. “Get some sleep. I’m going to wander around a little and see what else is down here.”

“You will be careful, won’t you? That Flavros fellow might pursue you here as well. And who knows who might come after him.” Tuco assured Braxus he would be cautious, and the wolf padded over to curl up in a mostly dry corner of the room, after pulling Pike and Etreon up to slumber in the soft fur of his flanks.

Tuco stood watching them for a while, his tail swaying slowly. His boys. He had three handsome men he couldn’t get enough of. And now that he was looking for it, he saw his mark on them as well: three circles held inside a larger one. It glinted in subtle rainbow colors, like oil on water, at the center of Etreon’s lower back. Across the left side of Braxus’s chest, the dark hair curled around a pattern of light spots that formed his mark there, too. So they were his not only here in the mortal world, but in the Abyss as well. It would be his responsibility to look after their souls for all eternity, three more lights flickering in the darkness he held within him.

He was going to have to become smarter and stronger as a devil now, not just for himself, but for all the souls, evil or not, that he held responsibility for. The thought was overwhelming, and he fought a moment of panic, escaping the room to catch his breath and refocus himself.

The watch room for the monks had been in disrepair and shabbily appointed, but in comparison, the hallway outside was hostile. It was cold, smelled of wet stone and mold, and was filled with the horrific sounds of the things trapped in the Throat’s prison. Immediately Tuco missed the heat of the room, the smell of himself, his friends. But though it was tempting to return to his lair, he followed the hallway back to the great stair.

Curious to see just how far down it went, he followed it, his devil’s eyes needing no light sources to illuminate the world around him. His vision didn’t extend infinitely; some distance down the stairs, any detail blurred away and faded into darkness, but otherwise the cavern might have been illuminated by a thousand torches. It was hard to believe that he was moving through absolute and total darkness, just an unseen monster creeping down the stairs. After some time of walking, the hewn stone stairs became ruder, as though whoever carved them had become tired, or had less time. The stairs narrowed, drawing close to the right wall of the cavern, and began to descend in a counterclockwise spiral that twisted and bored its way into the bedrock below, so that even if Tuco dared to peer over the side—which he did not care to do—he couldn’t see much.

All down here was deathly silent, the cries of those imprisoned above having long since faded away. Every step Tuco took on the stairs was a rasping break into that silence, his breaths those of a subterranean, slumbering giant. Even his blood seemed to roar in his ears with no other sound to interrupt it. And still there was no end to the descent. Tuco wondered if he ought to turn around and head back up; while he was certain he had only journeyed a couple of hours at most, he had no knowledge of how far the slope continued. Perhaps it was a journey of days, or weeks.

But he thought he still had some time before he needed to return, and so he continued following the corkscrewing path downward, until he noticed a reddish-orange light coming from below. The intrusion of actual light into his devil vision granted an eerie aspect to the passage, for suddenly shadows were cast around the steps and the crags of the stony wall where before there were none. The walls around the rough-hewn stairs looked ridged and uneven, as if an immense, subterranean worm had chewed through the very bedrock of the earth. The rock glittered in the light from below, tiny facets reflecting the unearthly glow. Tuco wondered what the rock this far down could be made of, thought of the limbostone of the Abyss, and shivered.

By this point, the stairway had become more of a craggy slope, and soon it led out into a massive cavern glowing with orange and red light. The light shone from around the edges of an enormous metal disc set into the floor. Other than the prison of E-Temen-Anki, Tuco had never seen anything so enormous in all his life. The disc seemed to be made of wrought black iron, and stretched across the cavern floor at a span easily wide enough to hold his entire home village three times over.

“So,” he breathed aloud, “the world is protected from the Abyss by this enormous… disc?” The cavern caught the bass rumble of his voice and threw it back to him in echoes, breaking the silence of the still, deep world. Immediately he felt uneasy, watched, as though he’d disturbed some great, slumbering beast. He crept forward. The light pouring from around the disc came up through great cracks between the disc and the stone in which it was set. Curiously, he followed the edges of the disc around the cavern. The edges were uneven—in some places, the top of the metal disc jutted up fifteen feet above his head; in others, it was sunken deep in stone that overlapped its rim.

Tracing the circumference around the cavern, he eventually came to an enormous stone seal, about twenty feet across, set so that it rested half-embedded in the stone floor, half clamped down over the disc. Strange runes had been carved into the seal, letters of some ancient language Tuco did not recognize, but whose symbols and serifs filled him with a deep and inexplicable dread. Something in his head felt raw when he looked at them, as though the letters were even now etching themselves on the inside of his skull. In the center of the seal was an image in relief. At one point in time, it must have been intricately rendered, but time had dulled and blurred the features. Still he thought he could make out the aspect of some grotesque creature in the center. Its appearance was so deeply horrifying—a head covered with enormous eyes and bristles, and a squat, misshapen body with elongated, multi-jointed limbs—that Tuco felt grateful its details had been eroded. In the image, its head had been separated from its body, torn away by some powerful blow or force. For a short time, he studied the strange image, but found it so unsettling that he could not look at it for long, and moved on.

He traced the edge of the disc for another long distance. Presently, about a quarter of the way around it, he found another seal, again with the unpleasant, brain-scraping lettering encircling it. The center of this disc held a different image, this one of another terrible-looking creature. Its body was covered with eyes, and it had six large, feathery wings, like those of a dove. Two rose behind it, two covered its face, and two covered its feet, and each of its eye-riddled arms bore a sword. From behind the wings covering its face jutted two goatlike horns, and its feet were cloven hooves. A spaded tail eerily resembling Tuco’s curled from behind it. There had been other details as part of the image, but they had been obscured by several large boulders that had apparently fallen from the cavern ceiling some time ago. With little effort, Tuco was able to remove the boulders, but found that the fall had marred the image, and whatever secrets it revealed were now lost.

His curiosity piqued, he continued following the disc counterclockwise until, just across from the spot where he’d found the first, a third seal pinned the disc to the cavern floor. This one had little damage; barely even any scratches, and the image on this one was clear, and so familiar to Tuco that it sent a shudder through him, followed by a sense of rising horror. The image had haunted him as a young boy, a thing to be terrified of in the dark, and now here he was, deep beneath the earth, seeing it at the edge of the Abyss. The image was not identical to the one he’d known as a child, but the important details were all the same. This was the Beast of the Apocalypse, the seven-headed dragon, tearing its way out of the mountain to lay waste to the world. Despite himself, he shrank back from it.

He had faced many devils and demons, and even seen Prince Sathanus himself, but the Beast was a terror beyond all those, and when he rose to do battle with the forces of Paradise on the fields of Megiddo, the Earth itself would be split asunder, and the world of mankind would fall forever. This, then, was the end of the world. These were three of the four angelic seals that bound the Abyss out of reach of the mortal world. In the Apocalypse of John, the final book of scripture, an angel would blow a trumpet, and one of the seals would break asunder. When all four seals were broken, the Abyss would be opened, and the world would end. This was what the monks of Abyssus Abbey had determined to prevent. And here, below their very walls, sealing off the Throat of the World, were those four seals, and this enormous metal disc was the lid that covered the end of days, the cap that kept the Apocalypse at bay.

Waves of dizziness and dread flooded Tuco, and suddenly he couldn’t witness this terrible place any longer. He hurried around the enormous, sealed door to hell, making for the stairs back up to the human world. As he did so, the orange and yellow glow of firelight grew brighter and brighter around him. It blazed around the edges of the disc, shone through forking cracks in the stone. Then he came to a stop in horror.

A hole, a great chasm in the cavern floor blazed with firelight. All around its edges, shapes crawled—shapes of horned and winged things, clutching at the exits, clawing their way free of the firelight that coiled tendrils around their limbs and bodies, as though attempting to drag them back down. They were demons, squirming free of the infernal plane below. Beneath them surged a lake of fire, churning, rolling in waves of flame, sending up great molten belches and fiery spirals that darkened to ash and drifted back down into the liquid flame with bright puffs.

But it was not all this that horrified Tuco. He had seen demons before. He had been to the Abyss. He had confronted liquid fire all around him. What was worst of all was what lay around his feet, cracked and ruined, the images that might once have adorned it shattered forever. The stones that lay before him were charred and layered with the fine grey powder of ash. It was the final seal.


He ran all the way back up the stairs, bounding up them several at a time. Once or twice he misplaced a foot, but he caught himself, tearing grooves in the stone as his claws sank in. When he finally reached the passage back to the monks’ watch room where he’d spent the night before, he was panting, though not with exertion, as his changed body seemed tireless. The fear still rattled through him. He wasn’t afraid of devils or the Abyss—at least not what he’d seen of them so far. But the Beast? The Apocalypse? That was something altogether different. The end of the world—of everything—was something he never hoped to see. He might be shut away in the Abbey, but it was reassuring to know that everything else was still out there: the glittering night stars, the dark green forests, the farms with fruits and vegetables, the people gathering in the fields for ale and games, the ships tracing their tracks across the sea. How could all this be meant to end? How could it be that everyone was meant to die, and go on to Paradise or the Abyss?

Tuco knew where he would be going; he had a realm there already, but he doubted his family would end up there. He hoped his friends would not. Rationally, he understood that the world probably could not persist forever, that its ending had been prophesied, but the Abbey was here to forestall that if not defer it entirely. And yet it had already begun. He crept toward the door to the watch room and pushed it open, lifting it a little so its hinges wouldn’t creak.

A wave of musk hit him in the face. The room was still soaked. He needn’t have worried that he’d been gone too long. Braxus still slumbered heavily, curled up in the corner with his upper body resting atop his lower, Etreon wedged between arm and chest and making tiny snores. Pike had ensconced himself in one of the moldering beds—probably not the cleanest place to sleep, but at least it was warm and relatively dry.

Tuco crept across the room as quietly as he was able, then scooped up Pike in his arms, putting one hand over his muzzle so he didn’t wake the others. Pike’s eyes widened, and he struggled in visible terror for half a moment—Tuco could taste his fear on the air—but then he seemed to realize he was not, in fact, being snatched up by a giant rabbit-eating monster, and relaxed in Tuco’s arms, though he was scowling fairly furiously as Tuco carried him out of the room.

Once the door was closed and Tuco had set Pike down, the rabbit shook his finger in Tuco’s face. “Don’t ever do that to me again!” he shouted. He put one paw against his chest and staggered back a little weakly. “Do you know what you look like now? Ugh, my heart, my poor heart.”

“I’m sorry,” Tuco said, his tail dropping limply across the floor. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I just didn’t want to wake the others.”

Pike panted, pacing back and forth a little. “You have to start understanding what you are now. You could disembowel me with those claws, you could eat me, you could tear me in half, you could just, hell, slap me, and you’re strong enough to kill me with a blow.”

“But I wouldn’t do those things!” Tuco protested. “You know I wouldn’t!”

“I know, you know, but I was asleep, Tuco, I was sound asleep, and I was dreaming of things in the Throat, and then something enormous with teeth grabbed me and lifted me up in the air, and—”

“You’re right, I’m sorry, I—I wasn’t thinking. I was just scared.”

That seemed to jolt Pike out of his ranting. “You, scared? I’ve never seen you afraid of anything. What could even scare you now?” A look of concern flowed over his face. “Was it another devil? You know, we think we know what the next devil is going to be, and it’s—”

“No, Pike, I—Look, I was bored, and so I went down the stairs.”

Pike stared at him. “Down?”

Tuco nodded.

“As in all the way down?”

“There was a big metal cap over the Abyss. I mean big, PIke, bigger than the Abbey, bigger maybe than a city. And all around it were these seals. The Four Seals.”

“What do you mean, the four seals, you mean like seals for a letter, or for…” Pike trailed off and took a deep breath. “Oh. Oh. The Four Seals. Those seals.”

“Yes. And Pike… I… We have to tell someone. One of them was broken.”

“Now, when you say broken, do you mean like, there were chips off of it, or a big crack running through, or—”

“There was a big hole where it used to be, and beneath it was a lake of fire and demons crawling through.”

Pike blinked. He licked his lips. He rubbed at his whiskers with both paws. He blinked again. “Well, that’s… bad.”

“I thought so.”

“But Tuco, who are you going to tell?”

“Brother Gabriel?” Tuco suggested. “He does care about righteousness. He’d have to care about this, wouldn’t he?”

“He’d throw you into the Throat the moment he saw you. If he didn’t cut your head off with that sword of his.”

Tuco snorted. “He couldn’t cut my head off.”

Pike stared at him.

Tuco shrugged, feeling a little awkward. “It’s the scales. What happened in the Abyss. I’m pretty sure I’m swordproof.”

“Then he’d stick it in your eye. Or throw you in a fire. Or push you out of a window. Or poison you. Or make you drink acid. Or—”

“All right, I see what you mean. I’m not invulnerable. Though, like you said, I’m pretty strong and scary now. I wouldn’t bet on him in a fight.”

“I would. Because you and I both know you wouldn’t hurt anyone, and he would.”

“Well if not Brother Gabriel, then who?”

“Let me ask around. I’ll talk to Rigby, roundabout-like. Feel him out, see who we could talk to who might be willing to listen.”

Tuco took a breath. “I know someone who would listen. Lord Krastor.”

“Y-e-e-e-s,” Pike said slowly, “but he’s in the Throat.”

“Yes.” Tuco lifted one arm and pointed toward the sounds of screams and moans. “Right at the end of that passage.”

“Tuco, no. I know you think you’re tough now, but nothing can prepare you for what’s down there.”

“Do you know? Have you seen?”

“I’ve—” Pike’s ears folded backward. “I’ve heard stories. And I’ve seen… I was here when an apprentice got turned too far. So far he had to be taken to the Throat. And one of the Brothers who took him, when he came back, he… he wasn’t all right. Something down there got in his head, I suppose. He started screaming. For no reason. Just standing in a room, and he’d scream. And not like a normal person screams, with their eyes squeezed and their mouth twisted, you know, making an expression. With a perfectly still face, he’d scream, as if he didn’t even know he was doing it, as if he was just thinking about what to have for dinner or wondering what the weather was like outside. But all the while his voice was going raw with his screams. They took him away, to a hospital outside. He never came back. And none of the Brothers would ever talk about it. They wear their hoods up when they go down there, you know. So they can’t see. Whatever is down that passage, Tuco? It’s madness. You mustn’t go. I know you cared for Lord Krastor. Others I liked have been taken there, too. But they’re gone. Once you go to the Throat? It’s over.”

“But maybe there’s a way we can protect ourselves, or—”

“Tuco, please.” Pike gripped his hands in his paws, squeezing them tightly. “Promise to me you won’t go down that hallway. Swear it.”

Tuco shook his head. “I can’t, Pike, what if we—”

“Swear it for me,” Pike begged him.

“All right,” Tuco said, taking a deep breath. “I sssswear it.” He hadn’t even realized he was lying until he saw his forked tongue flick in the air before his nose.

For a time, Tuco and Pike sat together on the steps and talked, Pike tucking himself under Tuco’s massive arm, his fingers softly tracing the hard lines of Tuco’s scaled brawn. They burned a torch so that Pike could see in the pitch darkness, and then Tuco put it out to get Pike to shiver and cling closely to him.

“Your arm,” Pike murmured, nuzzling over Tuco’s biceps with a soft-whiskered face. “It’s actually bigger than I am.”

“That’s an exaggeration,” Tuco said, with a nervous laugh. “I’m only a couple feet taller than you.”

“But you’re not shaped the same way anymore. Not since you came back from the Abyss. Whatever changed you down there, it… made your shoulders wider, your limbs longer. No human has your proportions. Did you think it’s normal that I can barely reach both your shoulders with my arms stretched out? You were big before, but now you’re enormous. And yes, pound for pound, this arm”—and Pike wrapped both of his lean-muscled arms around Tuco’s right biceps as though hugging a tree—“is bigger than I am.” He gave a shuddering little pant of breath. “It’s astonishing to stand close to you, to have all my vision filled up by that huge chest hanging over me, it…”

“Pike?”

“I’m sorry, it’s… thinking about you, feeling you, the smell of you. It’s getting me worked up again.”

“Well, we could—”

“No! Er, sorry, Tuco, but… it’s going to be a little bit. My balls feel like they’ve been scooped out, and my backside… ugh, it was too much. I’m not going to be walking properly for a fortnight.”

“Pike, I’m so sorry.”

“No no, how could I ever regret being fucked by an incubus all night?” Pike said with a weak laugh. “Especially when that incubus is you. It’s funny, though. When you first came here, I wished you were able to keep up with me, and now I find myself wishing I could last all night with you.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t wish—” Tuco warned, but he could already tell it was too late. Something inside him, some dark, gleeful power, had caught hold of Pike’s passing desire.

The rabbit-man stiffened against his arm, catching his breath. “Oh. Oh. That feels much better, all of a sudden. How did you—” He faltered. “I’m changing again. I can feel it.”

“I’m sorry,” Tuco said. “The magic… the… ability, whatever, it doesn’t consult me before it starts, it just… do you know what’s happening?”

“Don’t you?” Pike asked. He lay back on the steps, pressing his paws to his flat stomach. “It’s like everything in there is… moving around—oh!” He cried out and cupped his sac in one paw. Its contents pulsed against his fingers, and then visibly swelled, his balls filling up his grip, pulsing as they passed the size of eggs and then overflowed his fingers. “Oh, I feel so—” Pike began and then bit his lip, arching his back as his erection pushed out of him, jutting upward and drooling his precome as his balls swelled again, too large now for tennis and approaching the size of small oranges. “So full,” Pike managed through clenched teeth and then he made a grab at his shaft, but it jerked on its own, spewing copious arcs of seed into the air, spattering his ears, his muzzle, his chest and belly. Finally the climax ebbed and his cock throbbed in the open air, oozing a thick cream.

Whatever power caused the change ebbed and went dormant again inside Tuco. Perhaps, he thought, there’s some way to control it. He would have to ask Hob when he had a chance. He scooped up Pike, who started at his touch, and held him in both arms. “How do you feel?”

“I don’t know. Different, I suppose. But not bad. Do I look different to you?”

“Well, you, er… grew. Your balls did, I mean. A lot. But other than that, you look the same.” He leaned down and began to gently clean the come out of Pike’s fur with his long tongue.

“My insides feel different,” Pike whispered. “I’m not sore anymore, and I just feel… not the same… down there. I don’t know how to explain it. I bet with what I said we’ll find out the next time you fuck me.”

Tuco nodded. “Well, we should—”

“Do you want to fuck me now?” Pike asked, sliding his fingers across Tuco’s chest and gripping the curve at its side.

Yes, always. “But we did it all night. And just now you came again!” Tuco punctuated his point by leaning down to suckle Pike’s erection clean, but the stiff flesh only strained in his mouth and leaked a little more hot saltiness across his tongue.

“Tuco,” Pike panted, “I suspect that may not ever be a problem again.”

“Well, perhaps. But if we start now, with your new changes and me being… what I am now, we might not stop for another day. And at least we should go and see if Braxus and Etreon are up. They’ll be alarmed if they can’t find us.”

Pike agreed reluctantly, and Tuco got to his feet, climbing up the stairs with his friend cradled against his chest.

“You’re just going to carry me?”

“You can’t see,” Tuco pointed out. “And it’s not as if you weigh anything at all.”

They headed back toward the loud cacophony of monster noises coming from the hallway, and Tuco set Pike down before pushing open the door to the watch room.

Inside, fresh candles were lit, and the miasma of sex and mould had cleared. The fresh scents of bergamot and cedar hit Tuco’s nose. He blinked about in astonishment. The puddles everywhere were gone; the floor was clean stone with thick, lush carpets spread across it. The broken, sagging pallets and their cots had been replaced with an enormous wooden bed with a plush-looking mattress, heavy, piled blankets, and downy pillows, concealed behind gauzy drapery. The whole bed was so enormous, Tuco could have lain across it lengthwise and still covered himself up comfortably. The broken shelves had been replaced with a large armoire, its doors closed, and other shelves laden with books, amusements, and various useful tools and household items. In the middle of the room, lit by a candelabra burning long, red and black candles, was a dining table laden with fruits, bread, fresh eggs, an entire ham, and goblets of wine. The scent of the food was so enticing, it was all Tuco could do not to fling himself at the table; after all, he’d not had anything to eat in three weeks, he told himself. Over in the corner of the room, Braxus still lay dozing with Etreon under one arm, but both of them appeared to have been cleaned, and Braxus’s fur was so sleek and well-groomed, he looked like a completely different person.

It took Tuco a moment to locate the probable culprit: his imp, flying above the table, his face split from ear to ear by his white, fang-filled grin. “Hob!” he exclaimed. “Did you do all this?” His voice awakened Braxus, who yawned and stretched, then got up to look around in bewilderment.

“Yes, master! Hob cleaned up and made a nice place for you!”

Tuco’s feet were walking him to the table on their own, urged on by his stomach. “But how did you do all this?”

The imp shrugged. “Master has much power as a devil Knight. Here we are close to the Abyss, easier to change things. You do not mind that Hob used your power to make a nice room?”

“How on earth could I mind, Hob?” Tuco fought the urge to pick up the entire ham and eat it like a drumstick. He’d learned enough about gluttony, hadn’t he? And his friends probably would like some ham too. Instead he cut himself off a thick, pink slab and dropped it on his plate. “You did very well, Hob. Well done.”

The imp puffed up more and more, his little chest lifting, his cheeks bulging out, and then with a sound like a kettle boiling he flew around in a few frantic circles. “Hob is so delighted that his master is pleased with him. Is so much better than crawling around squooshed under Belphegor’s chair.” He spat to one side with a fiery little puff of flame. “And when master is ready, Hob has an even better surprise! Master will be so amazed and pleased.”

“Can’t you just tell us what it is, Hob?” Tuco asked around a mouthful of bread and ham.

The imp drooped a little in the air. “Sadly, no. It is the one thing Hob cannot do. Master will have to see for himself.”

Etreon was struggling on the table, trying to remove a grape larger than his head from the vine it was attached to. Tuco nudged it free with the end of his knife and Etreon rolled backward on the table, clutching his prize. The little man struggled to bite into it. Braxus had sidled up to the other side of the table and had piled up a heaping plate as well.

“Well then maybe you can tell me about something else,” Tuco suggested, after draining his wine goblet and refilling it. “What about the seals at the bottom of the steps outside? Down at the very bottom of the Throat. What are those?”

Hob brightened. “Those are the Four Seals of the Apocalypse! Once they are all broken, then the world will finally end, and Paradise and the Abyss will engage in the final battle for the souls of humanity, of course!”

“Yes, I know that, but what exactly are they? And why is one of them broken already?”

Braxus paused with a sandwich halfway to his mouth. “Why is one of them what?” His ears went back.

Pike set down his wine. “I actually know this one. I mean, not about why one is broken, but I remember what the Seals are. What was it? ‘No one knows the day or the hour, not Angels of Paradise, not the Son, but only the Father, but by these signs shall ye know the time draws nigh: First: When the Watcher is blinded; Second: When the Warden is slain; Third, When the Seraph is corrupted; Fourth, When the Beast rises.’ Does that match up with what you saw?”

Braxus still sat frozen, his fork hanging in midair. “You saw the final Seals? And one of them was broken already?”

“It must have been the watcher blinded,” Tuco said. “That would be the first one, yes? But wouldn’t we all have noticed if it was broken? The Scriptures say we would have heard a trumpet.”

“But master would not have noticed that,” said Hob, fluttering closer. “That seal was broken seven hundred and eighty-seven years ago.”

“So long ago?” Tuco slumped backward in his chair, feeling somewhat relieved. “Oh, I was so worried. I always thought when the four seals were broken, it would happen… closer together, if you take my meaning. I thought we were all in very big trouble.”

“No, we are not in any trouble,” Hob assured him.

“That is a relief.”

“It is the world that is in trouble. We are friends with a powerful devil who likes us! There will be a fine home for us in the Abyss.”

Pike cleared his throat. “Well, hold on, I’m not ready to say goodbye to the world just yet.”

Hob flitted over and patted his shoulder. “Do not worry, Favored One. It has not happened in seven hundred and eighty-seven years. There is no reason to think it will happen in seven hundred and eighty-eight.”

Pike nodded. “You’re right. I’m being s—”

“Though of course it might,” Hob added. He stroked at his chin. “Many unusual things happening lately. Our new master is turning the Abyss upside down. More changes and surprises since Hob can remember!”

“Delightful.” Pike groaned and leaned back in his chair. “So on top of everything else, we have the Apocalypse to worry about. I mean moreso than before.”

Etreon peered at him. “Pike, are you erect right now?”

“Yes, but it’s nothing to do with the end of the world!” Pike groaned. “It just won’t go down. It just needs some time.”

“But you fucked all night,” Braxus observed.

“Yes, well, our friend there is an incubus, these things happen. Look, don’t worry about me, I just need to ride it out—yes, all right very funny, ha ha—and in the meantime we have bigger things to… you know what, everything I say right now is going to sound ribald to you. Are there any clothes around here?”

Hob pointed. “In the armoire.”

Tuco could taste Pike’s embarrassment, but also his secret pleasure, as he dramatically stomped over to the wooden cabinet and opened it. Inside there were a few of the drab woolen robes and tunics the apprentices were accustomed to, but also several brightly colored, sheer garments made of something that shimmered and spilled across his fingers like water. “Hob, what is this—is this silk?

The imp beamed. “You like it? Very pleasant to wear. But just don’t take it up into the Abbey; the enchantment won’t reach that far.”

Pike slipped the red and black garment around his shoulders and moaned. “Oh, is there a temptation of comfort? Because if so, consider me fully damned.”

Tuco stood from the table, wiping his mouth on a napkin. “You have really outdone yourself, Hob. This is the nicest place I’ve ever stayed in. We’re close enough to the Abbey that we can head up any time we like, and this room is certainly superior to the apprentice dorms. I cannot wait to try that bed.”

Pike groaned at that and reached down to cup the erection that still peeked out between the buttons in the silk. He looked very fetching in the garment, Tuco decided, the red and black setting off his cream fur nicely.

“I’ll have to try one of those myself,” Tuco said. “And it seems that we can stay here pretty much indefinitely.”

“Until Brother Gabriel comes down here with another new prisoner and thinks to check the watch room,” Pike reminded him soberly. “We’re safer down here, but not safe. And if people notice that Braxus and I are gone a lot, they’ll start asking questions. And we could be followed even in the best of circumstances.”

Tuco sighed. “I suppose you’re right. And there’s all the other apprentices up there at Brother Gabriel’s mercy. So then. All we need to do is find a place for me to stay that’s safe, figure out how to stop Brother Gabriel, and then find a way to free Lord Krastor and all the other imprisoned innocents from Throat Prison. All while worrying about demons from the Abyss, the devils hunting me for my big stash of souls I’ve got somewhere, and whatever is happening with me and this logos of Sathanus that I’ve somehow gotten inside of me. Oh and I suppose, now, avert the end of the world. That’s not too much, is it?”

“Don’t forget Flavros,” Braxus reminded him glumly. “You said he’ll be wanting revenge on you.”

“As for that,” Hob said with a wide grin, “Hob thinks it is time for his other surprise.”

•    •     •

Tuco stared up at the immense wall surrounding E-Temen-Anki. “You are jesting, Hob. Why on earth would I ever go back inside there?”

The black demonling shook his head. “Hob cannot tell you, master. You must trust him.”

Tuco focused his gaze on the brand on Hob’s neck, the mark that identified him as in loyal service to Tuco. It couldn’t be faked, or so Hob had claimed. “You understand that the last time I followed you in here—or thought I had, anyway—I was imprisoned.”

“Yes, master, but it was your loyal and true Hob who got you out again. Why would he do so only to trap you once more? And then Hob ends up in service to Baronet Flavros, who is just as unpleasant as Belphegor was. You must have people you trust, even in the Abyss. Look for the mark; those bearing it will not betray you. It is a sign of your covenant with them.”

Tuco sighed. “I suppose you are right. You’ve proven yourself, Hob. I’m just… wary.”

“You will be pleased, master. Enter the wall. When inside, follow your tongue. It will lead you to what you need to do. Hob cannot say more, or risk the plan failing forever.”

With a nod, Tuco turned toward the wall leading into E-Temen-Anki. He stepped forward, and it unfolded before him, the stones shifting apart to reveal the long passageway through to the other side. “All right, well, goodbye, Hob,” he said. “I hope to see you soon.”

And he stepped into the tunnel. The passage was much as before, walls broken up by the erratic deposit of limbostone, his monstrous image reflected in it. Now he could see what Pike had spoken of before: his proportions, even beyond the muscular, were no longer human. His shoulders were too wide, his limbs and neck longer, his hips set wider than before, all to make room for the swollen, imposing brawn that had piled onto him in his paper castle atop the tower. He turned his eyes away from the limbostone before he could catch any glimpse of the souls held in torment within.

He was nearly out of the tunnel when a thought occurred to him: perhaps Hob did indeed have a good reason for keeping his aims here a secret. Baronet Flavros had revealed to him that the tunnel into the fortress would not admit anyone who planned to harm or retrieve its contents. If Hob couldn’t tell Tuco what he was doing there, then maybe that was because if he knew, the tunnel wouldn’t admit him. Which would mean Hob did have some kind of plan, something that would destroy or defeat Baronet Flavros for good.

No sooner had the thought occurred to him, than the whole tunnel groaned and began to shake. Tuco stumbled forward and was nearly struck by a stone that dropped from the archway just in front of him. In panic, he scrambled to one side and hurried ahead. The tunnel was closing in around him. Rocks fell everywhere, the wall groaning and shaking. One heavy stone clipped Tuco’s shoulder and bounced off; he scarcely felt it, but ahead of him, the stones of the wall were interlocking together, blocking off his escape. He lunged forward, just as a pillar of rock erupted from the passage floor in front of him, struck his knee and sent him sprawling.

The edges of the passageway folded in around him, and on hands and knees he scrambled forward. Masonry clamped around his foot, pinning it, and with a terrific wrest of muscle and the snapping of stone, he wrenched it free. He sprang to his feet and barreled for the end of the passageway, the archway of light ahead of him growing narrower and narrower, the roof folding in toward the ground, layers of rock thrusting up from the floor. He was twenty feet away, and the exit was half its size.

Fifteen feet away, and there was just enough space remaining that he could have wriggled through.

Ten feet, and the rectangle of light shrank to a window.

Five, and it was gone, the exit sealed away in solid stone.

He had nothing else to do. He leapt at the blackness with all his strength.

With a roar and snapping of masonry, he burst through the stone wall on the far side, stumbling through the grass, broken stone and rubble showering down around him, his body covered in dust.

He felt as though he’d fallen off the roof of the Abbey. He fell to all fours, his heart pounding with terror, his wind knocked out of him by the force of the blow. Finally, he managed to recover his breath, and he slumped to one side, looking back at the wall of E-Temen-Anki, now with a monster-shaped hole in it. “That’s my hole,” he said with a wheezing laugh, and then he got to his knees, lifted both arms over his head, and pounded his fists down on the ground with a roar of triumph, lifting an explosion of grass and soil. He’d beaten it. He was alive!

And for better or worse, now all of E-Temen-Anki knew he was here. He’d have to work quickly. What had Hob said? Follow your tongue? Already it swayed between his parted jaws. If he ever dwelt among humans again, he’d have to try to re-learn how to keep it in his mouth, but it provided so much sensory information that keeping it withdrawn was like walking around with his eyes closed.

In the Abyss there was always the faint odor of sulphur—something related to devils and demons, he supposed, but eventually you stopped noticing that. He could taste the grass on the air, the muddy flavor of rock dust, and the silvery scent of limbostone. And something else, a taste that awoke all his senses and pricked him into alertness. The scent of danger or the scent of prey. Blood. The odor pierced everything else, commanding all his attention. His tongue flicking like a serpent’s, he followed the trail, the odor growing stronger and stronger, until it led to a large boulder, a little taller than him, planted some distance from the path that led to E-Temen-Anki’s labyrinthine network of bridges and stairways. The scent was coming from beneath the enormous standing stone.

Once, a stone even a tenth its size would have been completely immovable, but Tuco gripped both sides, his claws chipping at the boulder as they dug in, and with a great heave of his arms, back, and legs, he hoisted the monolith up and tossed it to one side where it landed with a dull thump. In the flattened earth beneath was a small, hollowed-out area, and nestled in the little cache lay a collection of wineskins. Tuco didn’t need to open any of them to detect that they were filled with blood.

He frowned, putting his hands on his hips. “Well, what does Hob expect me to do with these?” he muttered. Crouching don, he lifted one of the blood-filled flasks from the hole. On it, in blood with spidery script, Hob had scrawled a word. Tuco tried to remember his letters, and sounded it out: “Bah-yee-mahn. Bayemon.” He didn’t recognize it. Perhaps he wasn’t reading it correctly? He wished he’d had more time to study reading before having to flee the Abbey. Or that he could have brought his friends with him. Another wineskin had another word: Furfur. Another, Demoriel. Well, that one sounded like the name of an angel. Or a devil, he considered. Wait, that had to be it. These must all be devil names. Names of devils and sacks of blood.

He paced back and forth. Hob had needed Tuco’s blood to summon him out of the prison. He’d said all you needed to summon a devil with absolute certainty was his blood and his name. Could it be?

Trying to recall his demonology training and hoping against hope that he wasn’t wrong, Tuco took one of the wineskins, unstoppered it, and carefully spilled out the blood in the shape of a pentagram, being sure to step out of the circle before he closed it. Technically this formed a rudimentary binding circle, and as he was a devil now, it was very likely he could be trapped inside one. From memory, he recited the Latin ritual, concluding with, “Furfur Evocatio! Furfur Evocatio! Furfur Evocatio!”

The words had barely left his lips before above him, the towering spire of E-Temen-Anki, castle stacked upon palace stacked upon keep stacked upon fortress stacked upon garrison, shuddered, and there was a little wink partway up, and suddenly, the tower was shorter. With a great rumbling and cracking of the earth, an enormous leg ending in a point thrust its way out of the circle, followed by another, and another, and a great, chitinous, crablike being with uncountable legs dragged itself up out of the circle. “Who summons me after all these years?” it chittered. From what mouth it spoke, Tuco could not see; its many long, crustacean legs joined into some indefinable mass in the center.

Tuco stepped forward. “I, Tuco Witchywine, Knight of the Abyss, summon you. You have been imprisoned by Baronet Flavros in E-Temen-Anki, and now I set you free.”

The enormous being shifted its many legs with a great rasping and scraping of chitin. “And what shall I owe you for such a favor?” it hissed.

“Naught,” answered Tuco. “Save a vow never to harm me or the souls in my care. And if you wished to make Baronet Flavros pay for his treachery, I’m certain few would fault you.”

“I will tear him apart,” the creature vowed.

“Then wait for a while,” Tuco answered, “and I will call up some allies.”

He broke the weak binding circle with one foot, though he doubted it could ever have held such a powerful-looking being as Furfur, and withdrew the rest of the wineskins. Each of them had a name, and with the blood from each, he made a circle, calling the devils by name. As each appeared—a titanic, evil-looking tree-creature; a fang-mouthed fish that swam in the open air; a bubbling purple-black ooze; a golden dragon-serpent; a creature composed entirely of shards of broken mirror-glass—the tower at the center of the vault dropped perceptibly.

Soon, more than thirty furious, snarling devils were clustered around the grassy fields surrounding E-Temen-Anki. In their forms, Tuco could see hints of the prisons that had enclosed and transformed them: prisons of glass, of water, of fire, of forest, of jewels. All of them were enraged, and all of them had sworn never to harm Tuco or his friends. He had many allies in the infernal ranks now.

It was not long after he’d drained his final wineskin before Baronet Flavros appeared, in a puff of dark smoke. He stalked toward Tuco with his muzzle twisted in fury. “What is the meaning of this?” he snarled. “What have you done? How did you manage to escape the prison? And why in the planes would you ever think of returning? Do you know what I can…”

He trailed off as his gaze shifted away from Tuco’s face, and he finally took in the crowd of enormous, slavering, rage-filled devils surrounding them. The blood drained from his face, visible even through his short, golden fur. “But this is impossible. How have you—” He took a step back. Tuco could feel the magic in him, ready to teleport him away, and before this could happen, Tuco shot out one huge arm and gripped Baronet Flavros about the throat.

The devil roared in panic and anger. He slashed at Tuco’s arms with his claws, kicked at him with his taloned feet, but his weapons could not penetrate the scales his own prison had given Tuco.

“Now,” said Tuco pleasantly, “it’s time for you to have a prison.” And he carried the flailing, terrified Baronet across the grass to the one final binding circle he’d prepared, the one made out of the blood of devils Flavros had imprisoned for decades, for centuries, for millennia.

He tossed Flavros inside it and felt no small satisfaction as the devil bounced off of the invisible walls created by the enchantment.

“You can’t do this to me!” Flavros roared. “I was a star of the heavens. I have shone in the darkness longer than your miserable species has existed. I am a Baronet, for Morningstar’s sake!”

“Even stars go out,” Tuco answered. “He’s yours to do with as you please, devils.”

He turned away, so he did not see what happened to Baronet Flavros. But there was a lot of snarling and a lot of screaming. And he did see the great tower of E-Temen-Anki, the tower of Babel, teeter, topple, and fall as its master was destroyed. And he saw the darkness that filled the skies as every devil in the prison of hell was finally set free.

Amidst the howls and roars of fleeing fiends, Tuco ran for the exit. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure exactly how to find it through the chaos. Bits of various prisons—iron, glass, plants, gold, limbostone—every material he could imagine, and many more he couldn’t—rained down around him. A metal beam as tall as a church steeple thudded down in front of him, embedding itself in the ground so deeply that Tuco was certain that had it struck him, it would have killed him, no matter how strong his body nor thick his scales. He grunted and covered his head with both hands as what seemed to be a hail of giant eggs pelted against his back, shoulders, and tail, cracking open and splattering their slimy insides across his scales. Everywhere he ran, his feet trampled broken glass, stones, and even cut gems.

Fiends barreled, flew, or burrowed past him on all sides, ignoring him. A blow from a tail with six glowing green spikes slammed into his shoulder, spinning him around, and then he was trampled into the ground as something absolutely enormous and heavy ran over him. He pulled his face from the ground and roared in frustration at the creatures scattering around him. His voice was deafeningly loud, but nothing seemed to pay him any attention. Thousands of souls had gotten their first taste of freedom in centuries, even millennia, and nothing was going to keep them from it. A great, pink-furred, catlike beast with twelve legs scurried past, and, lacking any better options, Tuco ran after it, dodging a strange being that looked like a cross between a clown and a wagon wheel, arms for spokes, rolling past on its many hands.

Though the crowd’s movements were chaotic, it mostly followed a direction, and that direction took them away from the bottomless pit that had once housed E-Temen-Anki. The great wall that had surrounded the prison was now rubble, leaving only the jutting black shapes of limbostone encircling the site, like menhirs in an enormous henge. Tuco scrambled over the broken rubble and darted out into the open field of grass. He turned back to avoid being trampled once more, but saw that by now, most of the escaped fiends had fled, and only a few dozen stragglers remained to scurry past. In the skies above, winged and serpentine shapes diminished into the distance. Smoke and sparks rose from the hole where E-Temen-Anki had once stood. The ground was littered with debris of every description.

“Hob!” Tuco bellowed, searching for his imp. “Hob, are you still here?”

It took a while for him to find the little creature, but he followed the rubble of the ruin widdershins and eventually came across the little creature fluttering madly toward him. “There you are, Sir Tuco! Hob is so pleased that you were so wise and clever in following his instructions!”

“And you were clever at realizing we could free all the devils to destroy Flavros. How ever did you manage to convince them to give you their blood?”

The little demon swelled up his chest with pride so far he nearly pitched backward. “Hob could not convince many! Many could no longer move or harm themselves. But those who could were desperate, and listened to Hob’s brave story of how he freed Sir Tuco, the Knight of Lust, from the prison, and could do the same for them! Many had little to lose, and agreed. Enough, it seems. Then Baronet Flavros fell?”

Tuco grimaced. “Torn apart by his charges, I’m afraid. And I didn’t have a hand in it, for once. I wonder who will be Baronet now?”

Hob rubbed at his coal-black chin. “Perhaps the devil who gave the killing blow? Hob does not know.”

“Well, at least the eyes of the Abyss won’t be on me, for once.”

His imp peered at him as though he were wearing a duck on his head. “Master, the prison of the Abyss has been toppled. It has stood nearly since the fall of angels. Even Paradise will notice what you have done here today.”

Tuco gaped. “Truly? You mean even angels will know of this?”

“Master, even Lucifer Morningstar and the One Above will notice.”

Tuco sat down heavily, before the reeling in his mind could take the decision to do so away from him. “Well, what do we do now? Where do we go?”

Hob cleared his throat. “If master is willing, perhaps it is time for him to come and see his demesne here in the Abyss? There are many matters to tend to, and there, at least, he should be safe from many threats, especially those in the mortal realm.”

“All right then, let’s see my demesne. Whatever that is. I’ve… never had one before.”

“You may wish to ready yourself, master. Hob knows you have been a mortal and may not be prepared for some of the more disturbing elements of the Abyss.”

“What do you mean, Hob? Surely my demesne cannot be all that terrible.”

“Yours, master? No. But you must remember it was not always yours.”

“Then who did it belong to? Asmodeus? I see how that could be a bit much.”

“No, master. Before you inherited it, your demesne was ruled by Sathanus. The Prince of Darkness.”

That sounded worrying, but there was no point in delaying his visit any longer, he supposed. “Very well. How do we get there? Another crack in a stone, I suppose?”

“We could use a Fissure and fall from the void above like before, but that takes much time. In the Abyss itself, devils and demons have many ways to travel, according to their gifts and abilities. Master is strong enough that Hob might suggest he travel by leaping. Although that can be very destructive. But to travel to your own demesne is very simple, and simple to bring any denizen of the Abyss with you.” Hob fluttered up and landed on Tuco’s shoulder. “All you need do is fix your demesne in your mind, and make your brand in the air with your fingers.”

“Like this?” Tuco lifted an index finger and made an attempt to draw his mark in the air, inscribing three small circles and then one larger one around it, while thinking home as hard as he could in his mind.

He heard a tiny, weary sigh from his shoulder. “No, Sir Tuco. You must use all fingers on your hand at once.”

Tuco blinked. “But I can’t move my fingers like that. How would I even manage it? Just—” To prove the impossibility of such an action, he put all four fingers and thumb in the air and tried to wiggle them, but then a movement caught them, something his hand just knew how to do, as it had learned how to handle a quill after weeks of practice. All five fingers moved at once, his middle three inscribing the shapes of the inner three circles, his pinky and thumb tracing the arc of the outer one.

Even as he was still trying to determine how it was done, the sigil blazed silver-black in the air. Then it rotated, spiraling away from him and pulling the world around him with it—grass, trees, sky, all stretching and warping into a spiral, pulled into a point far in the distance, as though the entire world were just a painting being sucked into a far-distant whirlpool. The mark he had made in the air diminished into a point and was gone. Behind the torn-away painting had been red skies choked with dark smoke, and a broken, dry landscape.

The sudden twisting of the world sent Tuco to his hands and knees, a powerful wave of vertigo threatening to bring up his breakfast. A raw, high-pitched sound permeated the air, seeming to come from all sides at once.

“Are you all right, Sir Tuco?” Hob tugged at Tuco’s ear in concern, speaking loudly into it over the din. “The travel is perhaps upsetting for new devils the first time. Though of course there have never been any new devils before, but Hob has heard that mortal souls find it distressing too.”

“I’m all right,” Tuco said, sooner than he felt it, trying to shake the dizziness from his mind along with the raw wrongness of seeing the entire world wrenched away from him. He took slow, measured breaths to steady himself, and his lungs filled with the stench of sulphur, smoke, blood, and rot, none of which was particularly helpful.

Once his stomach had settled, he got to his feet and stared out over the blasted landscape. He drew his hands to his mouth in horror. They stood atop a small cliff, and below them lay a scene worse than any nightmare. It was hard to know what he beheld. At a small, isolated glance, it might have been a crumbling and ancient fortress of stone, all grey and brown, with gaping black windows that poured black and rust colored stains from their sills. But where a fortress might sit atop a hill overlooking the countryside, this extended in every direction as far as Tuco could see: an endless fortress city made up of crumbling walls, sagging towers, keeps and halls and stairways. It squatted malevolently beneath a low, smoke-choked red-black sky, a rotting, broken-toothed city not yet dead. Black masses of giant insects swarmed the air above the city, and giant black flies crawled over the walls, their sponge-like mouthparts dabbing at the bloodstains that liberally spattered the edifices. Horrific, fleshy creatures with many long, human-looking legs and arms spidered up and down the walls and across the ramparts, licking, nibbling, feasting on—

It was people. The souls of the damned, suffering every imaginable torture: hacked up, flayed, burning, pustulent with disease, blistered. They were impaled on long skewers, nailed to walls, to inverted crosses set aflame, stretched across terrible nets of barbed metal. The horrific high-pitched sound that filled the air was their eternal screams, gone raw and inhuman from centuries of unceasing torment. Instantly, Tuco turned away, wishing he could unsee the dreadful scene, wishing to tear his eyes out that they never again give him such an image.

“How do we stop it?” he managed to ask through his trembling.

“Stop what, master?” Hob inquired.

“Stop the torment, the torture, how do we stop it? How do we make all that go away?”

“Well… if you wish it to end, it is your demesne now. Simply say aloud that you wish it so. But I warn you that—”

Nothing Hob could have to say could justify what Tuco had seen. “I wish it so,” he said.

“Then louder, master, so all the demesne can hear you.”

Tuco turned around, bunching his arms at his sides, and roared, “I COMMAND THIS TORMENT TO STOP!” His voice bounded and rebounded across the endless castle-city, so loud it set his own ears to ringing, so loud that the smoke clouds in the sky above it broke in waves and ripples. As though he had imagined them, the grotesque human remains vanished, leaving behind only the wretched city and the insects swarming over it.

“Where did they go?” Tuco asked, and could hear neither his voice nor Hob’s reply over the ringing in his ears. He waited for a moment, and the tinnitus faded into a strange and unnatural silence. “Where did they go?” he asked again.

“The souls, Sir Tuco? Back into limbostone, to await whatever new punishments you devise for them.”

He stared at Hob. “New punishments? What could I do to them that they would deserve after that?”

The little imp shrugged. “It is not for Hob to decide. The One Above decided that those who did not love and worship him should be given to the devils, and the devils do as they please. But if you look at their souls, you can see what they have done. Many of them have committed terrible sins, though. Murder. Genocide. Rape. Of the innocent and vulnerable. It was Prince Sathanus who decreed they should be punished by eternal torment.”

Tuco shuddered. “Eternal? Surely no man has committed crimes worth that.”

“One of Sathanus’s prized souls is Vladislav Ţepeş, a famously cruel tyrant who impaled hundreds. He skewered babies inside their mothers, boiled people alive inside a copper cauldron, and sewed up live starving rats inside his victims. He massacred tens of thousands, master. What mercy does he deserve?”

“The entire point of mercy is that it is undeserved!” Tuco snapped, and Hob wilted, his batlike ears folding backward as he hunched down.

“Humblest apologies, oh wise and benevolent master.”

Tuco shook his head. “And what is this torture intended to accomplish? What purpose does it serve humanity or the Almighty to have torment revisited upon any of these people? They are dead, are they not? They can do no more harm. What purpose can further cruelty serve? To prove we are even greater monsters?”

Hob crept up to his toes, trembling. “But master, you know Prince Sathanus’s prime temptation, do you not?”

It took a moment of pondering before he found the answer. “Vengeance. Surely it must have been the Temptation of Vengeance.”

“Yes. Sathanus promised all the victims of cruel men that their suffering would be answered with suffering a thousandfold greater, and so won their souls.”

“For what can be more evil than wishing suffering upon others?”

“Indeed, master. And by falling to that desire, by losing their souls, so they too became his agents, and inflicted suffering of their own, and inspired others to seek vengeance on them. It is what made him Prince, master: the most brilliant manipulation of humans in all the history of the Abyss. One act of great cruelty can deliver a hundred souls to sin, and each of those hundred another hundred. All Prince Sathanus need do is promise the torment of the wicked, and a million more fall in their glee into darkness. Of all the great temptations, only vengeance creates itself.”

“Well, it ceases today,” Tuco said firmly. “At least in my demesne, there will be no further torment. Souls that have fallen due to great evil will be made to reckon with the suffering they have inflicted upon others, but I will not compound horror with horror.” A day prior, he would have doubted the wisdom of his declaration, but after seeing what eternal torment looked like, after witnessing what had just been emblazoned into his memory, he could no more countenance it than he could drive needles into his own eyes. No heart with an ounce of compassion could see that and witness it upon any person. And, he thought with a growing sense of unease, no God with more love in His heart than Tuco’s could have permitted it. Only hatred could send people to such a place as this.

Hob dipped his head. “You are master here now, and all the souls that dwell within are subject to your will. Many were bargained on the promise of vengeance, but it is Sathanus who made that bargain, not you, and you are under no obligation to uphold it.”

“We will find ways to heal them, Hob.”

“A noble aspiration, master, but prepare yourself for the possibility that not all souls may be healed.”

“Then we will keep them in limbo where they can harm no one and feel nothing. Surely that is merciful.”

“More mercy than many deserve.”

“Justice is getting what you deserve. I saw no justice here. Now how do we get rid of all these insects?”

No sooner had he spoken the words than the black swarms clouding the skies and the giant flies crawling over the city vanished as though they had never been.

“It is your demesne, master,” Hob said. “It shapes itself to your desires. Should we enter, and make it your own?”

Tuco nodded. “Er, Hob, one question before I do. Pike told me that he knew what my next temptation was likely to be. It isn’t vengeance, is it?”

“Pike believes you are being challenged in the order of the temptations, Sir Tuco.”

Tuco pondered. “Food, ease, sex, safety… I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. So that would make the next temptation… wealth?”

“If your Favored One is correct, then yes.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound very likely,” Tuco said. “What could coin mean to me now? Still. I shall be on my guard. Will we be safe in there?”

“From demons and lesser devils, yes. Knights and Lords must have your invitation to enter. A Duke or Baron would not. But they would have to announce themselves before entering. You will be as safe as you can be anywhere in the Abyss.”

“That will certainly be a relief,” Tuco said, and stepped forward on the path of jagged black rock that led to the infinite citadel. The instant he set clawed toes to stone, a wave of bright green grass rippled outward, covering the dead earth and stone with life. Above him, a tiny hole of blue opened in the smoke-choked sky. He stared in amazement.

“It is happening already, master.” Hob sprang from his shoulder and flapped ahead of him. “Come!”

Tuco followed him down the hill, the green grass spreading out wider and lusher, with longer stalks sprouting flowers: the red of poppies, blue wild hyacinth, nodding white narcissus, yellow buttercups, and the large, purple heads of thistles crowning their prickly stalks. Still there was no visible sun in the sky, but golden daylight shafted through the breaking smoke, dappling the spreading lea with warmth and cheer. The craggy stone cliffs and barren canyons smoothed into round, rolling hills, and from their green-furred shoulders, the shapes of little white sheep sprouted up like daisies, looking briefly bewildered, but then bending their heads to sample the freshly grown grass.

Tuco struggled to keep the tears from his eyes. “Oh, it’s just like home,” he breathed. “I’ve missed it so much. Can it be real?”

Hob tilted his head. “What is real, master? This is the stuff of void, which you have shaped according to your will. Except the sheep. Those are souls.”

Tuco stared at him. “Sheep have souls?”

“No, master, only humans, angels, and devils have souls,” Hob explained patiently. “These are human souls, won by Prince Sathanus. Devils cannot make animal life; only change it.”

“But—but I never intended to transform anyone into sheep!”

“Hob is certain they prefer it to their previous fate, master. So peaceful! You could grant them these idylls if you wish, or you could return them to limbostone if you do not wish to invent a more appropriate fate for them.”

“It seems fine,” Tuco said doubtfully. And in truth, the creatures did seem to be happy; several flopped down into the grass and wriggled, while others gamboled, kicking up heels or bounding up a hillside.

Before Tuco, the path of jagged black stone became a game trail, the soft, trampled grasses wetting his feet with dew as he followed it. The scents of rich earth, wildflowers, and fresh grass mixed with the gamy, musty odor of the sheep—the scent of the fields outside the village where he and his siblings had played as children. After everything he had been through, and after so long in strange, unfriendly places, his heart sang with joy.

The path led down the hill toward a forbidding moat bubbling with liquid fire, but as Tuco’s influence reached it, blue spread throughout the orange as fire transformed into water. A lazy river cut through the green meadow now, and the air filled with the groaning and chirruping of frogs. The spit of stone that had crossed the moat became a long, beautiful wooden bridge, and Tuco traveled across this to the buildings ahead. As he approached, these, too, fell, their walls collapsing into earth, ivy and moss swallowing their stones until they were little more than ruins. Limbostone menhirs jutted from the ground here and there, and in places arranged themselves into henges of various sizes, some of them only four or five stones in a circle, others in the distance forming enormous constellations of ten concentric rings or more.

“There are so many,” Tuco said, pointing to the limbostones. “And they all have souls in them?”

“They are but a small fraction of the souls in your dominion. Most will be underground, most likely, stored deep.”

Tuco followed the path, the city crumbling into overgrown ruins around him, until the path led to a high hill crowned by a dark and forbidding palace, all looming edifices and unnatural angles. As he approached, this building did not crumble, but folded in on itself, the black rock brightening to a cheery redstone, yawning dark gaps in the walls transforming into whiteframed windows with real glass. Gardens sprang up around the building with white gravel paths, fruit trees, and manicured hedges. The building was larger than any home Tuco had ever entered, though not even a fraction the size of the enormous city-fortress that had crumbled around it, and Tuco recognized its general aesthetic, if not its particulars, almost immediately. When he was a young boy, his father had taken him on a journey to the southern countryside, a delivery of intricately carved, painted, and varnished furniture for some well-to-do lord or lady. The gardens and manor had astounded Tuco at the time; he could not imagine anyone needing so much space or so many rooms, but he was struck by the peacefulness and gentle splendor of the home. It had been lovely without being ostentatious, and the gardens had smelled of wildflowers and ripening fruit and honey. The home’s scents had been even more inviting: rich wood and old paper, boot polish, baking bread, clean linens. It had been no palace like the Empress must inhabit. It had been a place made for serenity and comfort, a gentle place, and for all his boyhood, the memory of the manor and gardens had remained in his heart an emblem of an idyllic life that had forever seemed out of reach.

And now here it was, part of his demesne. It hardly seemed real.

A crunching white-graveled path led Tuco to an enormous doorway, at least ten feet tall and half that across—too large and grand by far for most, but appropriate for him, he supposed. The white painted wooden door was closed, and he hesitated in front of it. “Do I knock?” he asked, one hand raised.

Hob spat, a little sizzle of smoke rising from the ground. “Knock on your own door, master? Your demons ought to have detected you coming and opened it for you already!” He puffed out his tiny chest. “Hob will have to whip them into shape!”

“Er, perhaps a bit of leniency is called for, Hob. After all, their last master was Sathanus. That can’t have been easy. And then he went missing, and then I showed up, their castle fell down and all their work ended because I said so. It can’t be simple, managing all that.”

“You don’t get a position serving the Prince of Darkness because you need things to be simple,” Hob sniffed.

Tuco reached up to open the door to the estate, but just as his claws brushed the wood panels, the door suddenly swung inward, letting out the smells of silver polish and smoking meats. A little wave of happiness rolled through him, and he nearly drooled, before the idea of smoking meats recalled to him the scenes of horror he’d seen when he arrived, and abruptly his appetite abandoned him.

Standing in the doorway was a tall, slender demon dressed as a steward, with a neatly trimmed black tunic with dark red sleeves and leggings. He wore a close-cropped black beard, and his yellow eyes glittered as he dipped his horned head. “Welcome to your demesne, Sir Tuco Witchywine,” he purred in a deep, clipped accent. “I am the steward of the late Prince Sathanus, and would be pleased to resume the position under new management.” He smiled, baring delicately pointed canine teeth. “If you would be pleased to accept me as such. Few Knights of the Abyss are so fortunate as to have a Prince’s staff to serve him.”

“What is your name?” Tuco asked him.

“I am called Peeves, Sir.”

Hob settled onto Tuco’s shoulder, standing as tall as he could and wearing as severe an expression as he could manage. “Do you and your staff swear eternal allegiance to your new master, Sir Tuco Witchywine, and vow never to betray or scheme against him?”

A cool look settled into Peeves’ eyes. “But of course, with the proviso that should our dark master Prince Sathanus be somehow restored to his former position, he has a prior claim upon our allegiance. Beyond that, I swear eternal allegiance to Sir Tuco Witchywine. I vow to serve him to the best of my abilities, never to question an order, never to work against his wishes, spoken or unspoken, to defend him against all incursion and treachery, to honor him as fallen star, and to care for his souls as though they were my own, from here and unto eternity, now and forever. So I do swear.”

As he spoke, Tuco heard his voice echoed by other voices all around—hundreds, thousands of them, all reciting the words that bound them to him. He felt the connections to him forming, uncountable tiny threads of devotion brushing against his vast inner being, the true heart of him that held within him all his souls, that strained with magic, that devoured devils. With a blaze of white starlight, his mark appeared on the demon’s forehead, just between the two short horns that jutted above his brow.

Again Peeves bowed low and extended an arm. “Welcome to your estate, Sir.”

Tuco stepped inside, his feet sinking into a thick, plush rug. Since he was a small boy, he and his family had dwelt in a modest thatched-roof home with only a single large three-bayed room downstairs for cooking, work, and food preparation, and smaller rooms in the loft of one bay—one for his parents, one for the boys, and one for the girls. His father was a carpenter, so they always had comfortable furniture, mostly made of cast-off or misshapen pieces discarded from more completed work, but very little by way of anything else, and on cold or rainy days, they shared the downstairs with the chickens and goats, which at least helped to keep the place warm.

Multiple rooms were something you found in the houses of only the wealthiest, and yet here, in his new entryway, a grand, dark-stained and polished stairway led up to a second story. He’d never even had a stair; the bed lofts were reached by a runged ladder, and if you were too injured or tired or drunk to make it to bed, why, you slept on the bottom floor curled up next to the fireplace.

But this house was his now. Granted, none of it was, strictly speaking, real, and it was lost deep in the Abyss and populated by demons, and at any moment could be invaded or stolen by a bigger and more important devil… but it was his. And it was just what he’d wished for.

“May I show the master his estate?” Peeves asked smoothly. Tuco agreed, and was taken on a grand tour of the manor: there was a parlor, a conservatory, a greenhouse, a great dining hall, a library filled with books and scrolls—none of which he expected he would be able to read just yet, but he would have plenty of time to learn, would he not? The kitchen was saturated with delicious scents of cooking food, and equipped with a larder stuffed with all of Tuco’s favorite. There was a great hall that might serve as a ballroom, and, upstairs, many comfortable-looking bedrooms, so many that Tuco could have slept in a different room each night for a fortnight and still not have seen every one. There were museum rooms filled with many of Sathanus’s collected relics and memorabilia, and grand towers that overlooked the rolling countryside in every direction. In every room, demonic staff stood by in smart and expensive dress, each of them branded on the forehead with Tuco’s signature mark, each of them respectfully lowering their heads when he entered as though he were someone important. He had guards, footmen, cooks, and valets, though what any of their roles could be when the house had been formed out of demonic magic and surely maintained itself in the same fashion, he had no idea.

“And of course,” Peeves added, at what Tuco had presumed to be the end of the tour, “there is the hoard, Sir.”

“The hoard?” Tuco asked uneasily. “A collection of some sort?”

“Your predecessor, as you will recall, was a dragon in form as well as in predilection, and he amassed quite the treasure over his time as the Prince of Evil. If it would please you to precede me, Sir?” Peeves opened a side door that revealed a stone stairway leading down into comparative darkness.

Tuco glanced at Hob uneasily, but the little imp seemed unbothered, and so Tuco made his way down the stairwell. Peeves directed them to descend past several doors—a wine cellar, an ale taproom, the limbostone vaults, and an underground lake, he informed them. As Tuco descended past these, he noticed an increasing number of golden coins strewn across the stairs. He was unable to avoid treading on several of them, and their soft metal flattened slightly under the balls of his feet. Shortly after, the stairway opened up into a wide cavern. At this point, they were unable to descend any further, because the stairway disappeared into an ocean of gold. Tuco stopped so abruptly that Hob pitched forward off of his shoulder.

In amazement, he looked around. Gold: gold coins, gold candlesticks, necklaces, rings, plates, idols, woven fabric, stretched in every direction as far as he could see. And not only gold. Gems: glittering green emeralds, rich blue sapphires, blazing rubies, and starlike diamonds sparkled across the heaps in great, dazzling piles. There were billowing cascades of silks and satins, walls of fine tapestries, stacks of paintings, statues half-submerged in the sea of splendor like drowning sailors. Tuco had no idea how far down the heap of wealth went.

In puzzlement, he turned to Peeves. “I don’t understand. The landscape outside changed when I approached, becoming something more like home. The citadel disappeared and left only this fine house I’d always admired. But I certainly never wished for any treasure hoard. Why hasn’t it gone away as well?”

His steward cleared his throat delicately. “Devils can transform only the bodies of humans and the stuff of the Abyss, Sir Tuco. The treasure you see here is real.”

“Real?” Tuco blinked again. “You mean from… from earth?”

“They say you cannot take it with you, Sir. But Prince Sathanus found a way.”

“And all this is mine now.”

“Unless he should return and claim it.”

“I saw him perish, Peeves. It was… horrible. He isn’t coming back.”

“Then it will be yours forever.”

Tuco stared across the ocean of gold. A domed vault rose from the ceiling a little distance away, and centered in it was an enormous statue: a calf, made entirely of shining, solid gold, its head raised proudly above the treasure. “What did you say the next temptation was, Hob?” he muttered.

The imp settled back onto his shoulder. “Wealth, master.”

No sooner had he spoken than a chorus of trumpets sounded a fanfare from above. The sound sent a wrench of dread through Tuco’s stomach as he recalled the seals at the bottom of the Throat. “What’s that?” he demanded.

“Someone at the border, Sir,” Peeves said. “Requesting entry, no doubt. I will see who it is. Sir may remain here, with his treasures, or he might perhaps retire to his parlor in anticipation of receiving guests?”

Tuco agreed that this course of action sounded best, and climbed the stairs after Peeves. In the parlor, he settled into the most comfortable chair he had ever sat in—it even had a convenient gap through which his tail deftly threaded itself. The light in the room was that of a lazy Sunday afternoon, filtering through blue and white curtains to light up the cherrywood paneling which, since he had last passed through, had sprouted paintings of his friends: Hob, Etreon, and Braxus, in positions that captured both their likenesses and demeanours exactly. He rested his arm on the plush armrest of his chair, and found that his claws brushed against a crystal glass set on a side table. The glass was filled with an amber liquid that proved to be an exquisite pear brandy, and he sipped delicately from it while awaiting whoever these visitors might prove to be.

It was hard to feel too concerned when he was this comfortable, and the brandy was terribly good, but he cast a nervous glance toward Hob all the same. “Who do you think it might be?” he asked.

Hob shook his wee head. “Impossible to know, master. Not someone who wishes to snatch you up and force you into submission, so not a brute like some rulers of the Abyss. It might simply be some of those we freed from E-Temen-Anki, wishing to express their gratitude or vow service to you. Or…”

“Or?” Tuco prompted him, as the little imp shifted and looked uneasy at saying more.

“Or it might be some more clever devil who wishes to deceive you, master.”

There was a worrying thought. “I shall be on my guard,” Tuco promised him.

After a few moments, Peeves appeared again at the doorway. “Sir has a very honorable guest,” he announced. He strode forward and held out a silver tray in his white-gloved hand. On it was a small, square envelope of fine, ivory paper. Tuco took the envelope and slit it open with one claw, removing a card—this time apparently made of actual ivory and embossed with a gold filigree frame and lettering. It read:

His Lordship the Baron Mammon and company

graciously accepts the hospitality

of Sir Tuco Witchywine, Knight of Lust.

“Mammon?” Tuco whispered to Hob as he got to his feet and prepared to receive his guests.

Hob’s jet-black scales paled to an ashy grey. “Baron Mammon,” he whispered back. “The Governor of Greed.”

Tuco heard the music long before the Baron came into view. He was standing atop his manor’s balcony, watching for his guest, when first he heard it. Even from a distance, it somehow sounded loud, encompassing, and it was like no sound he had ever heard before. He’d heard many a minstrel sing with the accompaniment of lute or lyre, and farmer Wellaway down the road had been skilled with a psaltery. He’d heard trumpets when nobility visited town, and the grand cathedral had an organ whose thunderous tones resonated every stone in the building with such timbre that it seemed like to bring the building down. But none of those could make sounds like this.

The music had the full-throated plangency of the organ, but a melody carried by a raw scream like that of the bagpipes, and all around it were other instruments weaving harmonies in and out of the melody like sinuous patterns in a tapestry of music. Beneath it all were drums: raw, fierce, and primal, tattooing the music with complex rhythms, giving it a heartbeat and synchronizing it with Tuco’s; indeed, as the music grew nearer and louder, he found himself energized by it, found himself wanting to leap and pounce. He looked behind himself and saw to his surprise that his tail had begun to swing in time with it, and his hips soon followed. The sound arrested him, swept him up, and made him feel primitive, animal. Truly this sound, whatever it was, was devil’s music.

Night fell across his demesne as the Baron’s entourage approached, and the music grew louder, the drums more ferocious. He could feel their thrumming through the stones of his walls, making the very earth of his demesne vibrate. In the darkening environs, it became easier to make out the approach of the Baron, for brilliant lights flashed and pulsed as the devil approached, in all colors: red and violet and green and deep blue, sending blazing streaks of color across the grassy hillsides—and sheep barreling away from them in bleating alarm.

The entourage itself proceeded on an infinitely unrolling carpet of glass that blazed with colored light, and atop it, demons danced their way toward Tuco’s manor. No stately court dance this; they leapt and contorted in fascinating ways, they twitched and slid as though an invisible hand or the music itself had seized them, they swung their arms, they grappled each other, they writhed in sexual gyrations, they bounded in astonishing feats of athleticism, flexibility, and acrobatics.

Tuco had never seen anything like it, and yet he felt certain his body was made to join in, that he could easily step into that court and dance in unending bliss until the Abyss itself went still and dark. “What is it, Hob?” he murmured, and then repeated himself as the music drowned out his words.

The imp cartwheeled down the manor wall and then hipthrusted his way back in time with the music. “Baron Mammon is renowned for his love of parties, master! He long ago decided that the party should never end.”

Tuco thought back to village dances and feasts punctuated by songs, plays, and drunken sports. “I’ve never seen parties like this, though.”

“But all you have seen of the Abyss is its prison and Sathanus’s realm of torments.”

“True enough. Do you know anything of this Baron Mammon? Why was Peeves so distressed at news of his arrival?”

Hob fidgeted to tempo. “The devils master has already met so far have been noble, of course, but only minor ones. Courtiers to the Throne of the Abyss. Lords, Knights, Baronets. All very important, but there are many of them. And any devil can become a knight or a lord if he does great deeds or is honored by a higher devil. But Barons are part of the Peerage of Hell. The lowest rank, perhaps, but it is a Title. And titled devils can do…”

“What, Hob?”

“Anything they want, master. Unless outlawed by a higher rank. Duke Leviathan used to gobble up any devil he liked. He would swallow them whole. Until the Abyss was running out of devils, and King Behemoth made a law against it. But demons are still fair. In some noble houses, it is a sign of respect to roast your favorite demon and offer him as a meal to a visiting superior.”

Tuco made a face. “That’s horrid!”

“You ate Belzebub,” Hob pointed out. “And nothing you do could be horrid or wrong, oh glorious master.” Almost absently, he patted at Tuco’s arm.

“That was in self-defense. I didn’t enjoy it. And anyhow, why would that be a custom? Surely it would make any demon not want to be your favorite. So all of them would try not to please you too much. It’s just stupid.”

Hob cleared his throat. “Master would not be the first devil to observe that the Abyss could have better management. So Mister Peeves might be afraid of being served up for the Baron. Or perhaps he is worried that the Baron will bamboozle master in some way, or transform master into a kadav, or simply demand all his land and riches for himself.”

“Can he do that? Could he just come and say, ‘Give everything you have to me?’”

“He can say anything, master. But you are strong and clever and valiant, and you will defeat him. Hob has no fear.” The little imp wiggled his backside as he bounced backward along the wall in time with the music.

Tuco frowned down at the approaching parade of lights and sound. Not too long now before it would be at his front door. “Well, that’s… encouraging. But I suppose we’ve handled everything so far. Let’s go down and meet the Baron.”


He waited for his guest in his new foyer, a glass of something sweet and alcoholic in one hand. Hob sat perched atop a large statue of some hulking, monstrous devil; it took Tuco a moment to recognize that the enormous creature was him. Had he imagined that as part of his estate as well? Arrayed in fine clothes, his demonic staff lined the hallway, slitted eyes forward, horned chins raised.

Outside, the approaching music was so loud that it shook the walls as though the house were being bombarded. Then, abruptly, it stopped, and all was silent. The sound of gravel crunching underfoot came from outside. It didn’t sound like too large of a creature. What would this devil be like? Tuco wondered. And what would it try to do to him? Could he devour it as he had Asmodeus? It seemed unlikely.

Just as he would have expected a rap on the door, Peeves reached out and, keeping his head bowed, swung it open. In the doorway stood a man, to all appearances about twenty-five years of age, dressed all in gold and purple. He looked entirely human, but for the thin, forked tail that swayed behind him and the delicate stubs of horns that nudged up the brim of his high purple hat. His purple eyes were dark-lined and twinkling, his cheekbones high, his handsome jaw outlined with a short-cropped black beard. He was not tall, even his hat barely reaching the bottom of Tuco’s chest, and he was very lean, his extravagant gold and purple clothing cropped close, giving him the appearance of a dancer or circus performer more than a noble. His clothing, his ears, his fingers all glittered with gold jewelry and gemstones, and his shoes were black leather polished to a glassy shine.

He stepped into the house and as he did, a fanfare played behind him, not with trumpets, but in the instruments of that wild music, all thunder and lightning. He took off his hat with one hand and spread his arms wide. “Thank you, thank you all,” he cried in a high, merry voice. “Baron Mammon. Yes, it is an honor to have me, I know, I know. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve left my entourage outside. I came rather expecting a castle that might hold them all, so imagine my surprise at such… modesty.”

He strode forward toward Tuco, who took an uneasy step backward. “Although I can’t say the same for you, dear fellow. Surely no one else in here can be the famed Knight of Lust.” He gave Tuco a grin and a wink. “The rest of them are all wearing clothing, after all. What a bold statement, to greet a Baron of the Abyss in the… altogether.”

Blood flushed into Tuco’s face. How could he have forgotten he was naked? When meeting an actual baron? He suddenly had the horrible feeling of being trapped in a nightmare. The important guest had arrived and he’d forgotten to put on clothes! He struggled against the urge to squirm and twist to the side to try to hide himself, or to sidle out of the room with his hands over his cock. “I—er—I hadn’t meant to—” he stammered. Why hadn’t Peeves or Hob warned him he was naked?

Baron Mammon let out a squeal. “By my star, you’re actually embarrassed. A Knight of Lust who has cut a swath through the devil ranks of the Abyss, and you’re flummoxed like an altar boy caught with the communion wine.” He reached up and patted at Tuco’s chest. “We can’t be having that, can we? Own it, dear boy, wear it proudly. Conventions are not for such as we. We defy them, we kick them over and build new ones in our own image. You’re an incubus, alluring is what you’re meant to be. Though confidentially”—he leaned up and muttered sotto voce—“sometimes what you don’t see can make the revelations more exciting when they come. Don’t you think?”

Stepping back from the stupefied Tuco, he looked about. “Well! Let’s have some music, shall we? And I’ll take one of those drinks, if you don’t mind,” he added sweeping a flute of some clear, bubbling liquid off a silver tray held by a statue-still demon. “And is anyone going to offer me someone to eat?”

Bowing his head, Peeves came forward and began slowly unbuttoning his doublet.

The Baron crowed with laughter. “Only joking, demon, only joking. Well, if there isn’t going to be music here, perhaps I could supply some of my own? Some lighter fare than our marching music, as I shouldn’t wish my lightning trumpets to fell your walls like Jericho. Come, Hendricks!”

He snapped his fingers, and after a moment, a tall, lanky demon stepped into the house, bearing a strange, flat lute as red and glossy as spilled blood. “Play something cordial,” suggested the Baron. The demon’s clawed fingers flowed across the strings of the lute, and that stormy music poured out once again, but at a more relaxed tempo. The harmonies echoed off the walls of the manor in strangely pleasing ways.

“That’s better,” purred Baron Mammon. “I think every devil should have a proper appreciation of music, don’t you? I’m partial to the vielle myself. Well, don’t just stand there with your mouth open, O Destroyer of E-Temen-Anki—oh yes, I’ve heard about that, too—shall we retire to your—I suppose even a hovel this small includes a sitting room or parlor of some kind?”

“Oh, er, yes,” Tuco managed. “This way, I think.” And, still self-conscious about being the only naked person in the room when nobility had arrived, he led the way toward a pair of double doors. Only when he’d pushed them open did he realize that in a proper manor, it would be the staff’s job to escort them to the parlor, but he’d already greeted his guests naked, so to hell with formality, he supposed.

The parlor was well-lit with candles and moonlight spilling in through large windows—a mystery, since Tuco had never seen any moon in the skies of the Abyss—and a brilliant fire crackled in a fireplace large enough to walk into. Tuco remembered his manners just in time, fortunately, and stood next to his own chair—the only one in the room large enough to accommodate him—waiting until the Baron took his own seat.

The Baron took his time, allowing Peeves to remove his purple coat and hat, and seated himself comfortably in a chair near the fire. “Well now,” he said, when Tuco sat. “I must say I appreciate the shift in decor. Prince Sathanus certainly had a style, but aren’t we all a little post-Sadism these days? Hard to find the sparkle in one’s wit when some serial murder is being fed his own genitals in front of one. Fewer screams, less blood, fewer souls shitting themselves in pain and terror, less cannibalism, I approve of that at least. But Tuco.” He paused and cocked his head. “You are Tuco Witchywine, are you not? I know I embarrassed you a touch in the foyer, but you’ve not introduced yourself.”

Tuco’s tail wound itself around a leg of his chair. “My apologies. I’ve just—I’ve never—You see, I grew up in a—” He sighed. “Your servant, Sir Tuco Witchywine.”

“My servant, are you?” Baron Mammon arched one delicate eyebrow. “Would that be an oath of fealty then?”

Tuco looked past the Baron to all his staff vehemently shaking their heads no. “Er, I meant only that I hope to make your visit comfortable.”

“Indeed. Well. As I was saying, Sir Tuco, you could make your estate more comfortable by having a lot more of it.”

“A lot… more?”

“Is this or is it not the estate of a prince? What is this small shepherd’s hut? Where is the opulence? Where is the grandeur? When I visited Prince Sathanus, I could travel for days without ever seeing the other side of his castle.”

Tuco shrugged, feeling a bit stupid and provincial. “This is all I need. More than I need.”

Baron Mammon scratched under one eye, frowning. “Need? What does need matter? I’m a devil of greed, you know, Tooky, and nothing pleases me like excess.”

“Well… there is the hoard. That’s all real, so it’s not gone away with the rest of Sathanus’s realm.”

The Baron’s purple eyes glowed brightly. “Now you intrigue me. I’d always heard tales of the Prince of Vengeance’s treasure trove, but he had never allowed me to see it. Do lead on, my Knight.”

A little uneasy at how possessive that appellation sounded on Mammon’s tongue, Tuco got to his feet. “It’s this way. Below the manor.” And so, with the Baron following at his heels, he led the way back to the stairway down to the ocean of gold and treasure filling the caverns beneath his cellar.

As they stepped down into the glittering vaults, he heard a gasp from the Baron behind him. “So much wealth. So much! Why, it makes my own store look like a half-filled coin purse by compare! And the Prince was not even a devil of greed. What sense to have all this magnificence and hide it away like a miser?”

“And what would you do with it?” Tuco asked curiously.

Baron Mammon swatted at his hip with one hand. “Look at you, such a brazen devil, standing naked before me, questioning my strategies, and not even bothering with a ‘My Lord’ when you do it.”

“I’m—I’m sorry,” Tuco stammered, stumbling backward. Gold coins slid under his feet with jingling sounds.

“You know I expect you actually are?” The Baron gave a weary roll of his eyes. “You require so much instruction. A devil should never be sorry—we defied the One Above Himself, after all!”

“Well, strictly speaking, I never—”

“Perhaps not, but you wear the mantle of one who did, boy. You burn as truly as any Fallen Star, and you must learn to behave as such. You think there is no spark of rebellion in you, but all who have attempted to control or destroy you have perished, and don’t think others don’t know it. If they fear you, you might survive for a time as a devil. Encourage it. Don’t give them cause to doubt. Don’t show them weakness. Now, as to what I would do with such wealth? Why, make myself resplendent with it, of course. Festoon myself with all the treasures of mankind to show how they have adored me. And then, of course, give it away.”

Tuco started. “Give it away?”

“Of course, Tooky, what did you think I would do, hoard it all underground as Sathanus does? There are souls to be bought, after all, and nothing rots the heart of a man so quickly as sudden, unexpected wealth.”

Uncertainly, Tuco ventured, “I should think for many, a little money could prevent evil. Are not many sins committed out of desperation?”

The Baron turned and flashed his delicate white fangs in a sly grin. “Oh, a little money, certainly. Everyone could use enough for shelter, sustenance, and safety. But give a man a lot of it, and there is no surer way to sour his soul. Suddenly he has more than his friends, his family. Suddenly everyone wants what he has. He is apart from them. He begins to believe the solutions to his problems can be purchased rather than sought within his spirit. Ever he will spend more, attempting to buy happiness, and ever will he fear that his fortune will run out before he buys just the right item, the right house, the right bride, the right social circles. Don’t forget, Knight, it’s the love of me that is the root of all evil. Trust me when I tell you this: if you wish more souls to add to your riches in the Abyss, simply buy them. Give a pauper a few diamonds, give a farmer a pot of gold, and watch his heart blacken before your eyes. Give them a little of what they want, and they’ll forget all about what they need. That’s the secret.”

Tuco sighed. “So I really can’t just give all of this away? I thought I might be able to just take it, somehow, to people all over the world.”

“Haven’t you been listening to me, Knight?” the Baron asked with a laugh. “I’m saying you should do exactly that. Imagine the chaos. Imagine the greed you could unleash, the squabbling, the paranoia, the downright slaughter you could introduce. Everyone fighting over gold. Wondering where it came from, but certain that they should have it and not someone else. With the right amount of wealth in the right place, imagine the wars you could start. Your trove would positively bloat with souls.”

“And that’s what you would do with it, were it yours?”

The Baron sighed and let himself fall backward into the sea of wealth, spreading his arms wide. “It’s what I did, once. I thought as you did, that happiness lay somewhere beyond the mountains of more. But more is a horizon, and it recedes as you pursue it. Now I am wealthy beyond measure—not so many souls in my hoard as you have inherited and earned, Tooky, but wealthy I am, all the same. My palace is wondrous, wrought of living limbostone, and within it I have multitudes. They hunger, they thirst, they reach for love, for meaning, for the Almighty, for friendship, for reassurance that they are worthy, for peace inside them. Do you know what I give them, who sold their souls to me for wealth?”

“Gold,” Tuco guessed.

“You are a clever devil. Indeed. I give them gold to eat, to drink, to lie on, to cuddle at night, to fashion into the shapes of the friends and family they forsook for their own greed. I give them more, and more, and more, until they drown in it.”

“You sound bitter about it. But you still seem to love wealth,” Tuco said, puzzled.

“Ah!” The Baron sat upright, his eyes sparkling. “And if you can guess why, then you shall know me truly. Why can I be so disappointed in mankind, and yet love excess so much? Guess that, oh Knight, and you shall win me over. Now. Come upstairs. I have a gift for you.”

Bemused, Tuco followed Mammon up the stairway, and through his house into the foyer. Surely a gift from another devil was a danger to be avoided: Belzebub had given him more food than was good for him; Belphegor had given him strength at the cost of his mobility; Asmodeus had granted him powers of attraction that almost led to him consuming his friends; and Flavros had granted him safety at the cost of freedom. Hob had explained that all of them had done so as a part of a curse that would transform him into a kadav, a being who had surrendered all his free will. Then the conquering devil would be free to take all his souls for himself and become the wealthiest and most powerful devil in the Abyss. Surely any gift from Baron Mammon would do the same.

And yet Mammon seemed different. Not a predator hunting prey, but perhaps a sated one who drowsed. Tuco felt no sense of immediate danger from him. He wished Pike, with his threat-tuned ears, were here to guide him. He would simply have to remain on his guard. A drowsing predator still had fangs, claws, and muscle. And that meant refusing a gift from Baron Mammon could be just as dangerous as accepting one.

“Something on your mind, sex monster?” Baron Mammon asked in a honeyed voice. “You look as though you’re seeing into other worlds. Worried about this gift of mine, are you?”

“I haven’t had good luck so far with gifts from devils,” Tuco admitted.

The Baron raised his dark brows. “Have you not? You stand before me a powerful, attractive immortal with the wealth of a damned prince. What were you before? A farmboy?”

“Well, it’s true that so far, everything has come out all right in the end.”

“But not because of luck,” the Baron prompted.

Tuco blinked, trying to sort through his thoughts.

“Go on. How me. Why have you ended up here, strong, gifted, with a trail of defeated enemies in your dust?”

“Because…” There were so many possible answers. Perhaps he was lucky. And he’d never have made it so far without all his friends. They’d aided him at every step of the way. But they were his friends. They were loyal because they were good people, but they were loyal to him because… The words almost hurt to say. But what had the Baron told him? You burn as truly as any Fallen Star. “Because I am good at this,” he said, squaring his shoulders, and accidentally breaking a nearby shelf as he did so. Fine pottery crashed to the floor, somewhat ruining the effect.

But the Baron’s white grin only spread wider. “There you are.”

“I’m clever, I’m resourceful, and I’m not afraid of anything, except my friends getting hurt. I’m kind and thoughtful, and I’m not so arrogant as to think I don’t need to listen to people. Which means I have allies who respect and stand up for me.”

“And did your enemies deserve to defeat you? Who would be a better caretaker of all those souls in your possession now? Should Belzebub have owned them?”

Tuco shuddered at the thought of all those souls tormented for eternity by the grotesque creature. “Never.”

“Or Belphegor? Or Asmodeus? Would you trust all those souls in your power now to them?”

“No, nor Flavros.”

“And certainly you would not prefer to give all those millions of souls in your hoard back to Sathanus.”

A wave of revulsion shuddered through Tuco as he thought of the horrific sight of torment, cannibalism, and gore he’d seen upon first arriving in his demesne. “No!”

“No, indeed.” Baron Mammon turned suddenly and leaned against Tuco’s belly, half-disappearing under the shelf of his chest. Despite his situation, Tuco was suddenly very conscious of his nakedness and, as he placed one huge, clawed hand on the Baron’s shoulder, just how lean and lithe the devil was under his fine clothing. And but for the slight fangs, the short horns, and the tail, he looked as close to human as anyone Tuco had ever been with. With great focus, he managed to still his lust, but not before the stirring in his loins betrayed him.

The Baron gave him a sly smile over the slabs of his chest. “Tell me true, oh humble farmboy, is there any devil in the entire Abyss you would trust with all those souls of yours?”

“There is not,” Tuco admitted.

“My, my. Such an arrogant beast. So proud. So greedy. As you should be. Well then, O Knight of Lust, you must be prepared to fight for those souls if you wish to keep them. You must be merciless in dealing with your enemies. As you have been, it would seem. Seldom in all the history of the world has anyone been able to snuff the light of a Fallen Star, and yet four have gone dark in encounters with you. And I? I would not choose to be the fifth. So instead of confronting you, I come to counsel. And to buy your favor with gifts.”

“My—my favor? But you’re a Baron.”

“And but a year ago you were a farmboy.”

“I wasn’t a farmboy!” Tuco protested limply. “I was a—”

“Oh, what does it matter what flavor of peasant you were? You take my meaning nonetheless. Come outside and see your gifts. I think you’ll like them.”

Wondering, Tuco followed the Baron out his front entryway. Night had fallen completely over the gardens, but the brilliant colored lights of the noble devil’s entourage illuminated the gardens in roving pools of vermillion, gold, pink, and royal blue. Stepping down the front steps, the Baron raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. It resounded like the sound of a boulder cracking, and as it did, brilliant white lights shot into the air, their beams like pillars to a cosmic temple, piercing the void above them. At the same moment, the infernal orchestra thrummed with powerful chords. When Mammon spoke, his voice cried out across the rolling hills like thunder. “I present to you, Sir Tuco Witchywine, Knight of Lust, my gift from beyond the ages, the giants from before the time of man, Gog and Magog!”

The ground shuddered as though trembling with a mighty heartbeat and then, from behind the hills, rose two towering figures. They were shaped roughly like men, but with massive, muscular builds that rivaled Tuco’s own, their shoulders impossibly broad, their thick arms a bit too long. They were clad in glittering togas, one silver, one gold, but the garments only accentuated the bobbing of their masculine traits, which were as exaggerated as the rest of them. Despite their proportions, their faces were not brutish or apelike, but noble, almost angelic in appearance, their hair, golden on one, black on the other, in accordance with their respective complexions, cropped close, their faces radiantly handsome.

With ground-shaking steps they thundered up to Tuco. They were enormous. As tall as Tuco stood, he reached barely halfway to their knees. Each of them must have towered fifty feet tall, and as they approached, each of them dropped to their knees and bowed to Tuco.

He stared in amazement at the two of them. “What are they?” he murmured to Baron Mammon. “Demons?”

“I told you,” Mammon said. “They are giants. Nephilim, in fact. The first race created by the One Above after the angels. He deemed them too powerful, and destroyed all of them. All but these two, whom I rescued. And now I grant them to you.” He nodded to the two giants kneeling before Tuco. “Go on, you two. As I told you.”

The right one, with the golden toga, lifted his head and put his right fist to his chest. “I, Gog, forever pledge my loyalty to Tuco Witchywine, Knight of Lust. All that I am is his, and I will serve him faithfully beyond the end of life, until he releases me or my soul is destroyed.” He closed his deep brown eyes in a serious frown as Tuco’s mark appeared on his forehead.

The left one, wearing the silver toga, repeated the words with his own name, Magog, and shortly the mark appeared on his forehead as well. Then they both knelt again.

“This seems a generous gift,” Tuco said, puzzled. “But what am I to do with them? Do they wish this?”

“Do they—? Oh, farmboy, they begged to be released to you. Both of them have such appetites. More than I can sate. A devil of lust suits them much better than one of greed. I can hardly keep them from fucking each other nonstop. The giants were all that way, you know? Why do you think the One Above had them all killed and started over with humans? As to what you can do with them? They have souls, Sir Tuco. And they are giants.”

Tuco stared at him, puzzled.

Baron Mammon gave a frustrated sigh. “And I know that you have the appetites of an incubus. Appetites you would prefer not to sate overmuch on your friends. Hmm?”

Awareness dawned on Tuco. “So whenever I get too hungry again…”

“Have a taste of these two. They won’t mind, and Nephilim souls are astonishingly strong. You could feed on either of these for a hundred years and he’d scarcely lose a foot in height.”

Tuco looked up and down the two giants kneeling before him. “Er, thank you. You can get up.”

The two creatures glanced aside at each other. “Can we go fuck, then, sir?” Magog asked. His voice was deep as thunder, and accented strangely.

“Er, I suppose.”

Their faces lit in wide, dazzling grins. “With you? And the Baron?” Gog gave him a hopeful stare, his gaze roving up and down Tuco’s frame with lingering attention.

Again, lust stirred in Tuco. “Perhaps later?” He looked up at the towering giant and wondered if it could even be safe. Powerful as he was, Gog and Magog looked as though they could crush him like an eggshell. Was this how Etreon felt looking up at him, he wondered?

Gog looked disappointed, but nodded. “Yes, Sir Tuco.” He stood upright and turned to Magog. “Want to go have some fun?” Lifting arms that could snap tree trunks, he grappled Magog around the middle, heaved the wriggling giant up on one shoulder as though he weighed no more than a sack of flour, and carried him off into the dark countryside, away from the party. Shortly afterward, there came an ongoing series of thuds and thundering moans.

Tuco tried to ignore it for now, turning back to the Baron. “You gave me something to help my friends. Why?”

“Why? Because I am excellent at gifts, dear Knight. The wealthy ought to be, don’t you think?”

“Or this is some elaborate trick to deceive me,” Tuco suggested.

“It could be that, too,” the Baron said with a wink. “Never let your guard down, Tooky. Not in the Abyss. But know this: not all of us who rejected the Almighty did so because our souls were black and vile. Most of us had noble intentions at the start.”

“So why did you fall?”

Mammon’s face darkened. “That’s a very personal question for a devil, and one you’re not likely to get an answer to. Besides, you must discover your own, if you’re to be a proper devil.”

“But I haven’t turned away from God!” Tuco objected.

Baron Mammon gave him a long, steady stare.

“I haven’t!”

“Suit yourself.”

“I go to Mass when I can. I—I admit I haven’t said many prayers lately, but—but I still believe in all the virtues. Love, peace, charity, honor, all of those. I believe in all of that!”

“So do I!” the Baron roared, and for a moment, he seemed to grow taller, his fangs longer, his horns rising higher, his frame stretching the limits of his gold and purple suit. His hair flared out into a mane around his head. Then he seemed to remember himself, and shrank back down. “So I did,” he amended, patting his hair back into place. “At first. I believed in all of those things, but I rejected Him, for He… No. I will not say it. Let us just say that even when He struck me from the sky, I believed in love. I believed in the goodness of humanity.”

“And now?” Tuco ventured.

“And now, well.” The Baron slid his hands into his pockets. “Let us say that several millennia of seeing all the terrible things humans do to each other has an effect. The closer you draw in an attempt to help, the more it sullies you. Sometimes you cannot save the world, Tuco. Sometimes all you can do is try to have a good time while it falls apart around you.”

“People aren’t so bad as all that.”

“Spoken like a devil who has not been properly tending his souls.”

A little embarrassed, Tuco admitted, “I know I should be, but there are so many of them, and I haven’t any notion of where to start. I’ve looked in on a few of them, but I didn’t know what to do. How do other devils tend them all?”

Baron Mammon clucked his tongue. “Ah, poor Tooky. An apprentice with no master. The rest of us devils were able to start out when there were only a few humans. Can you imagine? Once there were only two of them, the first man and the first woman. Emperor Morningstar has those prize souls. You know, the painters all get it wrong? Those milky-pale, hairless athletes running around in an Italian garden? Adam and Eve were quite dark skinned, and if you must know, very fat. No muscle tone at all. And Eden was in Africa.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. And now our Emperor has their souls in his care. What crime ought he to punish them for? Eating a pomegranate?”

“But it was the fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God forbade them to eat.”

“And just tell me, oh Knight of Lust, exactly how they were supposed to know that doing what the Almighty forbade was wrong, when they had no knowledge of good and evil?

Tuco opened his mouth, frowned, and closed it again. There had to be a flaw there, but he couldn’t find it.

“And what was that tree doing in Eden anyway? Why did the Almighty put it there if it was so dangerous to Adam and Eve?”

“Well, they—I mean, they… they have to have… free will…?”

Baron Mammon rolled his eyes. “Free will? If you have an innocent child who knows nothing of the world, do you put a plate of poisoned sweets next to him with instructions not to eat it, that it’s poisoned? And then leave him alone with them? Just because the child should have free will?

“I—I don’t..” Tuco stammered.

The Baron seemed to remember himself, and calmed once again. “Oh, do forgive me, my host, I’m losing the thread. The point is, at first there were two humans, and our Emperor received their souls into his care, as sinners against the Almighty, fallen to the first Desire. The very first.”

“The Temptation of Food,” Tuco said in surprise.

“Indeed. The first temptation because it is the most basic, the easiest. That is generally the order they fall in, from simplest to most complex, though of course there has been some rearrangement through the years. And lower order devils specialize in the lowest temptations, the easiest. Even a dog or a lizard can be tempted to gluttony, idleness, or lust, but try getting a dog to seek revenge or become obsessed with his own beauty! The higher the order of the temptations, the more complex—and therefore insidious—they become. And the more powerful the devil who specializes in them.”

“That explains something I have wondered about,” Tuco said.

“And what is that, Sir Witchywine?”

“My friends said that the devils were coming after me in the order of the twelve temptations. Belzebub came after me with food, then Belphegor with sloth…”

“And eventually here am I, tempting you with wealth? Except I can scarcely do so, for you are wealthier than I. Well, it is no surprise. The Abyss has its hierarchy, after all. We watch our immediate underlings, lest they attack us. Few know or care about the fates of Belzebub or Belphegor, for they were so low-rank as to be below notice. All know that E-Temen-Anki fell, but none knew what happened to its attendant, save that he was torn apart by his prisoners. However, Flavros was my creature, who reported to me, and when he perished, I made it my business to know what had happened to him. And I found you. And should something happen to me, it will certainly draw the attention of one of my superiors.”

“Which would be who?” Tuco asked excitedly.

“Oh, my dear, now that would be telling. I wouldn’t like to spoil the surprise.”

“But it will be the Temptation of Belonging?”

“Very likely.”

“Which is a more difficult Temptation than Wealth.”

“Now you are trying to goad me, you wicked thing. Are you sure you are not secretly a devil of Vengeance? But yes. It is easier. Most humans will abandon their friends and homes in search of riches, will they not? Still. I have never cared much about fitting in. I prefer others to fit in with me. And so Wealth is my temptation, and thus will I bring humanity to ruin with it, in my own unique fashion. And here, in the Underworld, they can join my endless party. For that is what I do with my souls, you see. Those who followed wealth because of the joys it opened up to them will find joys in my endless parties. And those who followed it seeking to fill an emptiness they should have filled with friends and family will find they brought that emptiness with them. That is my hell for them.”

“A hell you tempted them into,” Tuco said accusingly.

Baron Mammon turned lazy, long-lashed eyes in his direction. “Did I? Well, I’ll be damned. And what have you tempted men into, O Incubus? And what will you do to those who have fallen to your charms?”

“I still don’t know,” Tuco said, feeling a bit chastened. “No one I’ve tempted has died.”

“Then we shall have to make do with the souls in Sathanus’s trove. Do not fret overmuch about the number of them. You will find that as you attend a few, your logos will learn and follow with the rest. But you must set precedent; you must train it to create the worlds in which they will spend eternity.”

“Couldn’t I simply leave them all in limbostone? It seems kinder.”

“Kinder? It’s kinder than some fates, certainly, but the souls do not sleep there. They cannot sleep, for they have no bodies, no minds. They wait. And wait. Watching, thinking, their thoughts running to every available corner of their minds and then repeating. And repeating. And repeating. Souls that wait for too long go mad. If that is the fate you wish for them, it is your prerogative. It is certainly what the slothful Belphegor would have done. But if that is not your chosen fate for your subjects, then you must devise others. Let us try an easy soul and a difficult one. Do you know how to survey the souls that belong to you?”

Tuco thought about the dark expanse inside him, lit with millions of lights. “Yes, I can do that.”

“Good. Come, let us move a distance away from the others where we can act uninterrupted.” The Baron waved his delicately-clawed hand, leading Tuco around the side of the manor and into the gardens, stopping only once they were out of earshot and sight of the party. “Here now. Find a soul of yours—or of that prince you usurped—who has committed some minor sin, enough to secure him a fate in the Abyss, but not so terrible as to appall the good-hearted, hm?”

“Very well.” Tuco closed his eyes and sank into the darkness within him, holding his intentions in mind as he passed over the sea of souls, millions of tiny lights flickering across waves of darkness.

Hovering over the abyss within him, Tuco scanned the glittering expanse of souls that belonged to him. “It’s like night in here,” he murmured aloud. “I can see through any darkness in earth or the Abyss, but not here.”

“Because it is the Voidsea, the true Abyss.” Baron Mammon’s voice sounded small and distant. “The ocean of souls forever shunned by the One Above. Do you see the brighter lights?”

Tuco looked up from the tiny lights bobbing in shadow-waves. Far distant, he saw larger ones, still dim, but looking the size of moons, dwarfing the tiny lights that floated around them. They looked like embers blazing in the midst of inky shadow: dull red, flickering orange, ghostly blue. “I see them.”

“Those are the Fallen Stars. Devils in the Abyss, tending their souls. You, too, are a beacon in that darkness, Sir Tuco, and your souls cluster around you, hungry for your light.”

“It’s so sad.”

“Perhaps. But Paradise, too, is sad, viewed through the eyes of the soul. Perhaps you will see it one day. But come now. Find your soul.”

Tuco swept over the Voidsea, passing uncountable twinkles. He didn’t know the name of the one he searched, but he felt himself drawn anyway, pulled toward a glittering corner of his private ocean. There, he found one tiny light, floating up and down. He dove toward it, and it grew larger and warmer and encompassed him, as though he were floating down into the inviting glow of a well-lit room in a dark night. There he saw her, his soul. Her name was Henley, and she was held in limbo, awaiting something other than waiting, her eyes watching the darkness, but turning toward him as he illuminated her small space of limbostone. Her shape was made of light, and her light made up her memories, uncountable motes of light made of moments of her life: her parents, her love of gardens, her career as an herbalist, the sickly patient she fell in love with, their wedding, the births of their six children, and the loss of four as infants, her husband’s death to the plague, her son’s determination to work hard to care for her and his sister, the landlord that evicted them, her son’s death, and the fire that burned in her to see him hanged for it. It was then that Sathanus had whispered in her heart, promising her that pain would be answered, that vengeance would be visited upon the landlord in the Abyss, and all she need do was promise to glory in his suffering. How heartily she agreed, in her pain and anger, and how readily Sathanus took her soul.

“It wasn’t even wrong,” Tuco murmured.

“She wished for the suffering of another,” Mammon answered.

“But she didn’t cause it!”

“‘You have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not murder. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a man with hateful intent has already committed murder in his heart.’ The book of Matityahu. It was enough for the Almighty to condemn her, for she did not repent. I remember that landlord you saw, and indeed, he is punished. He is one of mine, for he fed his own family well while hers suffered, and his greed delivered him to me.”

“What do I do now?” Tuco asked.

“Bring her up to us. Find her limbostone and let us see it.”

Tuco concentrated, and somewhere in the depths of his demesne, great stones moved. He felt the vibrations beneath his garden as the little light of the woman drew nearer, and then he startled out of his darkness, opening his eyes as the ground beneath him trembled. He stepped back from the unfolding of earth, several finely manicured rose bushes falling away as an enormous slab of limbostone erupted from the soil.

The Baron smirked. “Very well done, if a little messy. Are you certain you were not born a devil? You take to it so well.” He rolled his shoulders and stepped toward the limbostone.

The woman was trapped inside. She was old, and tired-looking, her hands braced against the edges of the stone as though in an attempt to escape.

“What would you do with her?” Mammon inquired. “What should her fate be for wishing evil upon another?”

“That cannot be her only sin,” Tuco objected.

“No indeed—gaze upon her life, if you wish. Has she not longed for physical pleasure, for extra food, to be superior to her peers? Look at the stuff that composes her life. It is what makes up every soul in your dominion: desire. Want is what moves mortals through life, what motivates them, what drives them both to greatness and to darkness. They are such stuff as dreams are made on, Tuco, and their little lives are rounded with a sleep.”

“A very pretty sentiment,” Tuco observed.

“Not mine. One of the souls that belongs to Morningstar. But apt, don’t you think? Desire inflames and moves them, and finally damns them. It is only the worst sin you see now, that of hatred toward another child of the Almighty.”

“How can it be wrong to hate someone that God Himself damned to the Abyss?” Tuco blurted out, and saw Mammon flinch. “I mean, the One Above,” he amended.

“The faithful do not question Him,” Mammon answered. “This is how the world is made, an immutable fact of its existence. Now. What punishment will be hers for all eternity?”

“What punishment could possibly be just? She was only angry because her children died, and the one man who could have helped her made it worse!”

The Baron put a hand on Tuco’s shoulder. The physical touch was grounding, pulling him out of the ethereal plane of darkness and light and memories. Tuco breathed in deep, smelling upturned soil and the sweet nectar of his roses. “You must do something with her,” Mammon said gently. “You may punish her, you may leave her in the tedium of limbo, or you may do something else. The decision you make is yours, but it will affect all the souls in your custody. Your demesne will learn how you intend to treat others. You may be like Sathanus, tormenting them and feeding them endlessly to your demons. Or you may choose a different path. The One Above has surrendered custody of them. They are yours to tend now.”

Tuco turned over the possibilities in his mind. He could, perhaps, have her live as the landlord she’d despised and feel her hatred turned against herself. He could give her the punishment she’d wished on him. Neither felt right or just. He could put her in a world with the landlord in it and let her visit whatever vengeance or wrath she wished upon him, he thought. Give her what she wanted, and perhaps she would see that vengeance was unsatisfying. But perhaps it would only give her a taste for it. He could feel her hunger for another to suffer as she had suffered, like a barb in her soul, and perhaps if she indulged in that, it would only push that thorn deeper.

He spoke aloud. “I know this soul is mine to look after now, but it doesn’t seem right to punish her. Wasn’t it suffering that led her to her fall? I don’t see how further suffering helps anything. And I can’t teach her any kind of lesson. She’s older than me and lived an entire life. How could I impart any kind of wisdom that would help? And what good would it do now?” He frowned. “I think I know what I want to do.”

And in her mind, he found her place of peace: it was a spring morning, twilight, before most had risen, and she sat in her night garments in the grass by a pond, listening to birds heralding the dawn and watching the tiny ripples of insects gliding across the surface of the still water. Without even knowing how he did it, he crafted this world around her, weaving it out of threads of limbostone and shaping the void around it like clay, his talons crafting long stalks, his fingerprints daubing the edges of the pool, smoothing out the water like glass.

And then, without even intending it, he shaped her as well; her toes stretched and extended, digging deep into the soft, loamy soil by the pond. Her arms reached up for the sky. Another finger grew from each of her hands, and then another, and then her arms branched out. She gasped as her growing toes found water and drew it up into her. Her hundreds of fingertips burst into brilliant green leaves, unfurling under the brightening sky and extending out into long tendrils that arched down from her lengthening arms to brush the surface of the water. Her skin turned smooth and grey, becoming bark, and her head tilted back to greet the coming dawn as her hair grew long and green around her. Then she stood in her place of peace, a willow tree, tasting the good water of the earth, breathing from every fingertip the taste of the sky, turning to meet the rising sun as it bathed her leaves in warmth.

“I think that is the best I can do for now,” Tuco said as he came back to himself. “I didn’t mean to change her, at all, though. That just happened.” He looked back at Baron Mammon.

The Baron shook his horned head. “Souls cannot help but change around us. But this fate you have crafted surprises me. No ironic punishments? No pain, no malice? You made a place of paradise for her. From a devil of lust, I might have expected the landlord to return in an arousing form, one that made her loins pulse for her once-enemy. You might have let her endure the torment of being irresistibly drawn to the man she hated.”

“That… is a good idea,” Tuco admitted. “But I thought she had suffered enough.”

“And when her soul wearies of the peaceful eternity you have crafted for her and longs to rise, to engage with the world again?”

Tuco shrugged his broad shoulders. “I suppose I will try to give it to her. How can she be punished just for what she wished for in her heart? Don’t we all wish for things? How can desire itself be evil?”

The Baron gazed at him for a long moment. “How, indeed? So. This is the sort of devil you will be for the minor sinners in your hoard. But now I find myself curious how you would foster a great sinner. Shall we take a look at one?”

“I suppose I ought to.”

“Then seek out that soul within your dominion. Vlad Ţepeş. Gaze upon his deeds and do not shy away.”

It took little time to find this soul. The limbostone containing it was large, looming above the other souls in the Voidsea as though ruling them, and the stone itself was pitted, pocked, and cracked, as though someone had beaten against it with weapons, tried to destroy it. Tuco guided it toward himself, and after a few moments, it slid and shuddered up out of the ground, dwarfing the empty limbostone that had held the woman from before. This stone contained the soul of a tall, dark-haired man with large, powerful-looking hands. His wide green eyes stared, frozen, at some point in the sky beyond Tuco, but something in his gaze seemed broken, as though the window of his soul had fractured. Tuco braced himself and looked into the man to see who he had been and what, exactly, he had done. As Baron Mammon had advised him, he resolved he would not look away. He must see the person truly if he were to assign a worthy fate.

A moment later, he was staggering backward, his gut knotting, tears flowing from his eyes. He dropped heavily to his knees and put his claws to his head as though he could tear the visions he had just seen from his memory. The horrific sights filled his mind, evils that Vlad III had committed beyond his comprehension. His stomach heaved as though he could disgorge the recollection, but there was no way to unsee what he had beheld. The soul before him was vile, filled with contempt and hatred for his fellow man, and with pride and a sense of glory at the terrible things he had done. To soldiers. To scholars. To mothers. To infants. Not only had he tormented them but he had thrilled in it; he had drawn great pleasure in the depravities of violence, mutilation, and torture he had invented for them. Tuco put his hands to the ground and wept.

“Ah ha,” Baron Mammon said gently behind him. “And now that you have seen, what should be done with this soul?”

Some part of Tuco wanted to say that the spheres would not be well-served by a punishment of even an evil this great, that torment added onto torment only made the world worse, but that part of him was now small and shuddering in the dark at the horrors it had seen. What should be done with this evil king? No punishment is too terrible for him, snarled the voice in his mind. He should be rent, he should be torn apart, he should be flayed and stretched across the sun and devoured by ants! We will visit our vengeance upon him tenfold! We will make him suffer a thousand times what he has visited upon every person he harmed! This is justice. We will show him what hell means!

And Tuco tilted back his head and roared to the night sky of the Abyss, so loudly that even Baron Mammon crouched next to him, covering his head with both arms. His ears ringing from his own bellow, Tuco lifted both his arms over his head and brought them down heavily on the limbostone containing the soul of Vlad III. With a sound like a thunderclap, he smote it in twain, the broken pieces toppling to either side of him. For a moment, they held the cleft soul of Vlad within them, one wide green eye staring up at him from each shard. Then, like smoke, the soul of Vlad roiled out of the split stone and coalesced into the form of the man himself, who stood momentarily confused, and then cowering before Tuco.

“Please, oh great devil,” he stammered, dropping prostrate on the ground before Tuco’s toes, “what have I done to earn the torments I have suffered here? Certainly, I killed many. I tortured many. But it was necessary! All of it was done in the service of my country—all done to make Wallachia a strong and unified nation!”

So sickened by what he had seen was he, so consumed by his own wrath, that Tuco felt almost as though he were not in control of his limbs as he stooped and snatched the cowering man up off the ground with one hand. The soul of Vlad Ţepeş ought to have been heavy with the weight of his terrible sins, but, squirming in terror at the end of Tuco’s arm, he weighed less than a shadow.

“Please! Please!” the man howled.

But all Tuco could think of was the horrors this man had inflicted on others. “Silence, worm!” he snarled through bared fangs. “You think that I cannot see the evil that suffuses your soul? The pleasure you took in doing it? You think there is any torment I can devise that you will not deserve?”

The man beat in terror at Tuco’s hand, trying to free himself, but his blows were the fluttering of a moth’s wings against glass. He was dwindling in Tuco’s grip, smaller with every second, his eyes going wider.

“Worm you are,” Tuco growled at him, “and worm you will become for eternity, or until I think of something worse to do to you.” And as it shrank, the soul of Vlad began to shift. He howled in terror as his eyes sealed over with flesh, leaving him blind, his features softening, his arms and legs shrinking away as all his bones dissolved inside him. He shrank down, more and more, wriggling in Tuco’s grip, and then his fist, and then between thumb and forefinger, until he had become just a worm with the remnants of a terrified human expression, stubby vestigial arms dangling from his sides. His tiny mouth opened in fear.

“Grovel for your meals of dirt in my meadows,” Tuco told him. “And pray that I do not see fit to fill the field with crow.” And with that, he drew back his arm and flung the tiny creature away into the grass. Then he stood, panting, as the rage that had seized him suddenly fled, leaving him standing next to the Baron, shaking and bewildered. He felt suddenly released, as though in its own way, the fury had gripped and flung him about just as he had the evil king.

Baron Mammon arched one thin eyebrow. “Well. Wasn’t that interesting.”

“It’s… it’s far less than he deserved,” Tuco stammered, certain of that much even if somewhat appalled at the terrifying devil he had momentarily become.

“True enough. But interesting nonetheless. Perhaps an innocent such as you was not truly prepared for the visage of great evil. I ought to have eased you in with a mere murderer or two, I suppose.”

“I don’t quite know—” Tuco began, and then a piercing pain shot through both sides of his head. He doubled over, clutching at his temples with both hands as the pain intensified, then dulled to a strange throbbing and shifting of bone. His hot blood ran down his fingers as he felt two new horns push out between the previous pairs, their curved surfaces ridged, thickening as they sprouted and grew, sweeping back over his scaled head, larger and prouder than any of the four previous. After a moment, the sensation was gone, and he stood upright again, feeling his powerful neck adjusting to carry the weight of his new horns, feeling the way it changed the balance of his head.

“And that,” observed Baron Mammon, “is even more interesting.”

Tuco gave him a pleading look. “Do you know what it is? Do you know why this is happening to me?”

“I may,” the Baron answered calmly, “but it is not for me to say. A devil must leave his own tracks, as they say. Still. Accept my apologies for pushing you so. I assure you, I wished you no distress. And your demesne has begun to learn what you think of your sinners: the sweetness of your mercy, and the ferocity of your fury. All devils need the latter, but few possess the former.”

“I wish I had not reacted so immediately,” Tuco said. “Surely justice is delivered with measured sobriety, not with a spirit of vengeance.”

“Consider whose demesne you inherited. And consider too that your punishment is far kinder than what that soul suffered under Sathanus. Even in your wroth you are merciful.”

“I wanted to do worse,” Tuco admitted. “I wanted him to suffer everything he made others suffer, tenfold, a thousandfold.”

“And such is your prerogative, should you change your mind, Sir Tuco. You might visit greater punishment upon him, or you might see fit to grant him mercy.”

Images of Vlad Ţepeş’s atrocities flooded Tuco’s mind again, and he shuddered. “I thought all evil had an innocent reason behind it. That always it was rooted in pain, or madness, or bad teachings.”

“And now?”

Tuco inhaled. “Now I know that some men are cruel because they can be. Because they find pleasure in causing pain, in exerting their power over others, and seek out chances to do so. Some enjoy the perversity of tormenting the weak and innocent even more. But that’s a desire too, isn’t it? Where did it come from? Was he born with it? Or did a devil place the desire in his heart?”

“Place the desire there?” The Baron sounded shocked. “Do you think we can do that? We do not create desire; desire is part of what men are. All we do is listen to it, and sometimes, shape them in answer to it.” He gave Tuco a measured look. “I think I see now. I have tested you, and I have come to a decision. I have another gift for you.”

“I—I do not need another gift,” Tuco protested.

“Nonsense. I insist. Be a little greedy today, won’t you? For me, Tooky? I promise you this is a gift you will greatly appreciate. And if you don’t, you can order me to rescind it, and I will obey. Follow me, if you will.”

His head still whirling from the events of the night, and bobbing a little with the weight of six horns, Tuco followed Baron Mammon back to the front of his manor. The crunch of the rocks under his feet was reassuring, and he tried to push from his mind the thoughts of the evil he had encountered, and his strange and overwhelming reaction to it. He would have to prepare himself, he realized, to adjudicate the fate of more of the souls in his demesne, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that however terrible some of them might be, he had already seen the worst of them. And what had made his new horns sprout like that? Was it the logos of Sathanus asserting itself? But Sathanus had borne only two horns. No matter how much he learned about what was happening, still further questions arose.

The wild lightning music rose in volume as he followed the Baron through the dazzling entourage that had assembled in his front gardens. He was acutely aware of the stares of demons and mortal souls trapped in the endless party as he strode past them, his swinging nudity in contrast to the glittering costumes and bright accessories of the dancers. Several demons dared dance at Tuco’s side or in front of him, their gyrations rawly sexual and plainly inviting, hips swaying toward him, backs arched, rumps nudged against him, tails lifted. On all sides, hungry eyes lured him, tongues licked fangs, fingers beckoned hopefully.

Tuco’s everpresent lust reasserted itself, and the thoughts of dallying with each of them over and over, driving them into a full orgy of demonic satiation, nearly distracted him, but he kept his focus and followed the Baron back to an enormous purple pavilion tent that had been erected at the center of the procession. The Baron stepped inside the tent, and as Tuco followed, the thundering music outside dulled impossibly to a distant, quiet beat.

The pavilion was much larger inside than out, its ceiling reaching toward the stars, huge swaths of purple fabric arching down to drift airily above them. The floor of the pavilion was all cushions of various colors and sizes, piled here and there, but never revealing an inch of the grass beneath the tent. Graceful-legged tables protruded from the soft floor, bearing arrangements of spiced meats, exotic fruits, and pitchers of sweet-smelling wines. Even the air was different, delicately scented with a musky perfume that sent the tension from Tuco’s shoulders. He tried to put himself on guard for an ambush of some kind, for this was a Baron of the Abyss, and all of them wished for his souls, did they not? All the same, he felt at ease for the first time all night, in a way that did not seem to him false or artificially induced.

“Do you find my pavilion comfortable?” the Baron asked, pouring two goblets of wine from a pitcher and passing one to Tuco.

“I do,” Tuco admitted. “I wish I had one like it.”

“You could, you know, sweet thing. You can shape your demesne as you wish.”

“I am still unused to the idea that I can… just have anything that I want.” Tuco sniffed the wine. It could be poisoned, he supposed. He resolved not to drink it, just in case.

The Baron gave him a disappointed glance and drank deep from his own goblet. “It’s a very fine vintage, you know. But I suppose you must be cautious. Even with me. For now.”

“What do you mean, for now?”

Mammon rolled his narrow shoulders and then reached up to his collar and undid the clasp at his throat, removing the purple cloak from his costume. “I mean, Sir Tuco,” he continued, as he took off his jacket, revealing the gold sleeves of his shirt, “that intend to offer you my fealty.”

Tuco stared at him, uncomprehending. “You mean you want me to offer my—but you mean—you are going to—but you’re a Baron!

Mammon chuckled, untying the laces of his gold shirt and revealing his slender, dark red chest. “Indeed, the fact had not escaped me. I would, of course, offer that fealty in trade for a night of seeing just what a handsome incubus like you has to offer.”

“You—you want me to…” Tuco faltered. “Why?”

“The incubus who made Asmodeus himself shoot his soul out through his own dick? Who wouldn’t want to try?”

“But why would a Baron of the Abyss swear fealty to a Knight?”

Mammon gave him a smile and a hooded gaze. “Let us just say that I see great things in you, Sir Tuco Witchywine, and I’ve always prided myself on picking the right side. Save for that first time, when the One Above flung us from the heavens. But a more important question, Tooky, is why any devil would say no when another offers to swear fealty to him.”

“Because there must be some deception, some… ambush.”

“Your caution will serve you well, but in this, I swear to you, there is no trick, no lie. Fealty cannot be guised or feigned. Though of course, you could suspect me of lying about that as well. Which is why I propose a deal. All know deals with devils must be followed to the letter.”

“A deal?”

“Indeed. You spend two hours having sex with me, and I grant you my unwavering fealty. I will wear your brand with pride, and you shall become Baron. No tricks. No deceptions. And,” he added, looking over his shoulder, “I think if I can trust you not to devour my soul when you finish with me, you can trust me to try a little of the wine. It’s quite good, and shouldn’t go to waste.”

Bemused, Tuco took a delicate sip of the wine. In that sip, he could taste the hills of Rome, the heat of the sun, the splash of Mediterranean rains. The salt on the fingers of the vineyard hand who had plucked the grapes; the wood of the wine casks, the water that had washed the feet that had crushed the grapes. “It is good wine,” he said in surprise, his forked tongue catching the air.

“It is,” Baron Mammon answered with a smile. “Now are you going to help me undress, or not?” He pulled open his shirt to reveal the lean shelf of his pectorals, the flat lines of his dark red stomach descending into his purple breeches. His eyes drifted down to Tuco’s nude loins, and Tuco felt the erotic thrill of his shaft changing shape to meet the Baron’s desires: his two-foot long, spiked demon cock shrank down to something only about a foot long, pleasantly girthy, and smooth-skinned, looking human other than its still prodigious size and the dark red color that matched Tuco’s scales.

He looked up at the Baron in surprise. “It’s the first time I’ve been with someone who didn’t want me gigantic down there,” he said, and the aching firmness of his shaft jutting upward felt no less intense.

The Baron winked at him. “Take it from a devil of greed. Sometimes less is more. So do we have a deal?”

Tuco let his eyes travel up and down Mammon’s lean, athletic frame. “We have a deal.” He took another draught from his goblet, set it down, and strode over to Mammon, enjoying the way the Baron’s eyes widened in excitement, the way he had to look up to see Tuco’s face. Tuco helped him to shrug out of his shirt and stood close, his incubus lust surging to the forefront, making his cock drip with sudden and intense arousal, nearly poking Mammon in the chest.

“I still have these breeches on,” Mammon teased him, and in response, Tuco gripped the breeches and gold hose in his talons and tore them away, ripping them off the devil’s legs as though they were no more than cobwebs. Mammon gasped in surprise, his long, slender cock, spined as Tuco’s had been a moment ago, bobbing before him, already hard. His legs were strong-looking, well-muscled, probably from dancing, and his forked tail swayed excitedly behind him. Tuco reached down and gripped him, hefting him up by the thighs, and his tail twined around Mammon’s and began writhing of its own accord as though teasing a cock. Mammon’s tail squirmed in response, and the devil grinned up at Tuco over his chest. “Well, those two are already having fun,” he said. “Give me a taste of your incubus power. I want to feel its strength.”

Tuco gathered up the forces of lust within him. By now he had learned how to control them rather easily, though he could not always stop them from leaking out and affecting those around him on a constant low level. Now he gave Mammon a quick pulse of his power, enough to make the slender devil arch his back in his grip. With a cry, the devil bucked his hips, sending a little jet of his precome up to splash against his belly. A dazed grin spread across his face. “That was stronger than I—” he began, but Tuco didn’t let him finish, sending this time a much stronger pulse of his lust—still only a fraction of what he could manage, but enough to widen Mammon’s purple eyes as he jerked in Tuco’s grip as though struck by lightning. Once, twice, thrice his cock jolted before him, without being touched, and the tip fountained clear precome, coating his shaft.

Tuco’s long tongue slid from his jaws to curl around Mammon’s cock and clean the slippery fluids free. He found to his surprise that they were sweet, like honeysuckle, but at the touch of his tongue, the devil shuddered, and pushed weakly against Tuco’s chest. “Stop. Stop. I’m too close. I’ll come.”

“Already?” Tuco asked in surprise. “But never mind. I can always make you ready again.”

“I know, I know, but if I—if I climax,” Baron Mammon said, squeezing his dark-lashed eyes closed, “then I’ll have to fulfill my end of the bargain. And after that, it will be different. But now, right now… I am nobility being overwhelmed by his rough and brazen Knight. I want to enjoy that.”

“Then you shall not come,” Tuco told him. “Until I allow you. Is that clear?” And to his surprise, he found that the waves of lust in the Baron were his to master, that just as he could send arousal crashing through the greater devil, so too could he tie it off, like a knot around Mammon’s shaft. Mammon gave him an astonished stare and nodded jerkily.

“Good,” Tuco said, and he set Mammon down. Standing nude before Tuco, stripped of his fine clothes, it was apparent just how much Tuco loomed over him; the Baron was smaller in mass than one of Tuco’s arms, and standing before him put him right at nose-height with Tuco’s dripping tip. Mammon eyed that drooling helmet and licked his lips, so Tuco reached down with one hand, gripped Mammon’s short horns, and pulled his head toward him, allowing the devil lord to suckle hungrily at his tip for a moment, an action he rewarded with a hot faceful of precome. Mammon groaned and tugged at his shaft while licking at his own lips and chin.

Tuco lay back in the cushions, which were both soft and deep, and pulled Mammon down with him; the devil could sprawl across his broad chest with room to spare, and he set to licking and suckling at Tuco’s tip while Tuco leaned up and explored the devil’s thighs and rump with broad licks of his tongue. He bathed the two globes of Mammon’s well-muscled backside with hungry laps, and then buried his face in Mammon’s ass, his tongue writhing like a serpent as he pushed it through the Baron’s twitching ring and up into him, making him howl in shock and overwhelming pleasure—only to grip the Baron’s horns and shove his gasping mouth back down around Tuco’s own precome-fountaining cock.

He skewered Mammon from both ends, pushing his shaft deeper and deeper into the devil’s flexible throat even as he slid his serpentine tongue deeper into his backside, wriggling it further, and all the while wondering with an erotic thrill if he could actually meet in the middle, tasting his own cock from the other end. No fewer than four times, he felt Mammon’s orgasm rise, escalate, and slam against the pinnacles of his arousal in a desperate attempt to climax, only to be stymied by Tuco’s imposed limit on him. Mammon made frantic, choking groans around Tuco’s cock; he bucked his hips spasmodically; he tugged at his own shaft with both hands, and yet he could not climax. Tuco had managed absolute erotic control over him.

With gentleness, Tuco finally withdrew his tongue from within the Baron, pulling him free of his cock, and kissed him, tasting his own shaft on the Baron’s tongue. Mammon’s eyes rolled in overwhelmed arousal and he pawed feebly at Tuco’s chest. “More,” he moaned. “Give me more.”

And so Tuco gave him more. Holding the Baron above him, he slid his shaft into place between Mammon’s well-lubricated thighs, his cock splashing the exhausted devil with coats of precome. The devil’s tail wound around his shaft, giving insistent, needy tugs, and so Tuco pushed inside him, burying a few inches of his footlong shaft inside Mammon’s hot gut. Mammon panted, planting kisses across Tuco’s chest every time Tuco breathed in and those massive mountains rose, and each time, Tuco pushed a little deeper, until finally he was hilted all the way inside the Baron of Greed.

He wasn’t sure how long they rutted. He rode the Baron slow for a while, and then slammed into him, making him cry out in pleasure. He rolled over and drove Mammon into the cushions, atop him like a predator that had caught his prey; he stood and demonstrated his prowess by holding Mammon steady with one hand and driving into him with forceful thrusts; he clutched him to his chest with one powerful forearm and rutted him with short, insistent jolts of his hips alone.

“I’m ready. I’m ready to come,” the Baron finally told him. “Finish me, and I will complete our bargain.”

It was then that Tuco gave him a sharp-toothed grin. “No,” he said.

“But—but we had a deal!” Mammon stammered, eyes widening.

“Our deal was you would pledge your fealty after I satisfied you. I haven’t satisfied you yet.”

“So let me climax!” Mammon clenched his eyes shut, struggling as the waves of orgasm rose within him again, only to meet the wall of Tuco’s control over him. “Please!”

Tuco’s grin widened. “Pledge your fealty to me now. Then I will let you come.”

The Baron drew in a shuddering, amazed gasp. “I… I knew I was right about you,” he managed through his panting. He tugged at his shaft again, trying to coax the eruption from it, but it would not come. “I won’t let you win that easily though.”

“You can always get up and leave,” Tuco teased him, easing back into a slow, rocking rhythm.

“I—I will!” Baron Mammon vowed. He started to pull forward, sliding up from around Tuco’s shaft, and then groaned, shuddering at another intense wave of need, and pushed himself down harder. “I can’t. Just… just honor the agreement. Let me come, and I swear to you I will pledge fealty.”

“No.” Tuco flexed his cock inside Mammon, making the devil yelp and shudder.

Again Mammon tugged at his shaft, using his hand and his tail, and again he failed. Tears of frustration brimmed in his eyes.. “But—but I—” He clenched his pointed teeth, groaning again, panting. He rubbed the tears from his eyes and left a smear of his own precome across his nose. He panted a few more times, and then gave in, desperate resignation dimming his eyes. “As you… as you command. I, Baron Mammon, vow—aggh!” He broke off, gasping in pleasure as Tuco gave another mischievous flex inside him. “—vow to faithfully obey Tuco Witchywine. To him I grant my title of Baron of the Abyss, and all rights, privileges, powers, and responsibilities thereby accorded, from here and unto eternity, and I pledge my fealty, now and forever.”

He clutched at Tuco’s arms, shuddering in withheld pleasure. “Satisfied?” As he stared up at Tuco, the mark appeared on the inside of his right arm: three circles enclosed in a larger one, blazing with crimson light as it burned its way into his wrist. The sign was unmistakable: he belonged to Tuco now.

Tuco grinned. “Not quite.” And then he sent out the most powerful surge of erotic pleasure he could muster, letting it grow like a rising wave before releasing it to crash against Mammon’s being, the force of the blast so intense it blew out the sides of the tent, lifting them as though in a high wind. Mammon’s eyes rolled back in his head as arousal roared through his body. He arched his back hard, his thin tail lashing wildly, his erection straining toward the sky, looking as though it might split… and then Tuco released him. He came like a fountain, sending forceful arcs of devil come flying toward the high ceiling of the tent, his clawed hands clutching at the cushions. It looked almost painful, and it kept going, past eight spasms of climax, past ten.

Tuco considered he might have pushed things a little too far; a chorus of roars and moans echoed from outside the pavilion. His own climax took him, and he joined their roars with his own, pouring his infernal seed into Mammon as the smaller devil twitched and jerked around him as though possessed. After a full twenty arcs of seed, Mammon lay back, panting, the whites showing around his purple eyes, the dark liner smeared with his tears, and then his panting began accelerating, and another orgasm rose within him and overtook him, his straining cock dribbling what was left of his seed as he stabbed it at the sky. For nearly as long the first time, he rode out the waves of pleasure and then finally, woozily, lay back and relaxed.

Tuco was pulling steadily out of him when the third climax washed over him, and at that one, Mammon seemed to pass out, his eyes closing, body slumping back into the come-spattered cushions. Even unconscious, his shaft continued to jerk as his orgasm continued.

I hope this isn’t permanent, Tuco worried as he gently pulled himself out of the climaxing devil. He arranged some of the dryer cushions around the Baron’s—no, around his vassal’s—twitching body and walked toward the tent entrance, leaving him there to ride out the waves of ecstasy.

I’m nobility now, he thought to himself in amazement. A Baron of the Abyss. I wonder if this is going to make things easier or even more complicated. He stepped through the entrance to the tent.

The music had stopped, for no one was left standing to play it. The once-Baron’s entire entourage lay sprawled across the gardens, lost in erotic fervor. Some stroked themselves, some were engaged in autofellatio, and others were locked in sexual bliss with each other, humping into the bushes or up against walls or in large, writhing piles of demons and damned souls. The sounds of moans, cries, bellows, whimpers, and roars came from every direction, punctuated by the guttural bleats of mating sheep out in the hills. I wonder how far this goes, Tuco thought uneasily as he headed inside, passing Hob rather vigorously face-fucking a gargoyle on the eaves above him. Inside, his demonic staff had stripped from their clothing and were engaged in a long, sexual chain of carnality.

“Yes… Lord Witchywine…” panted Peeves, who was planted hips-deep in the head cook. “What can I… do for you…?”

“Er, nothing.” Tuco stepped past the contorting bodies of his staff and headed up the stairs. He found the door leading to the balcony and stood out on the walls of his new manor house, staring out over the countryside. Baron Witchywine. That was who he was now. He had defeated—or rather, won over—the Baron of Greed without any conflict at all. He recognized that the entire encounter had been a series of tests of some kind, and he had passed them, though what the Baron—what Mammon—had been looking for in him, he couldn’t quite fathom. Nonetheless, he had won, and next, he supposed some devil representing the Temptation of Belonging would be coming after him.

That was worrying, he thought, as he looked out over his grounds, across the masses of demons and damned souls writhing around in the sexual ecstasy he had caused. If there was one temptation he felt weak toward, surely it was that one. Even as a boy, he had never felt in-step with his family, with the other people in his village. Coming to Abyssus Abbey, he had felt an outsider the entire time, and what happened to him had certainly not helped things. Now he was an aberration: a human soul in the body of a devil, ruling over a demesne in the Abyss and hunted by other devils. How wonderful belonging must be—how soothing to know you were in your place, that others wanted you there. But the farther he ascended through the peerage of devilry, the more out-of-place he became. He would have to be on his guard.

After a time, the sexual revelries began to subside, as the powerful blast of arousal he’d flattened everyone with finally began to ebb, and demons and souls alike collapsed in exhaustion around his manor. Even insects in the air dropped to the ground, worn out by their mating frenzy. Uncomfortably, Tuco wondered if the effects of his lust bomb had spread beyond the limits of his demesne, and if so, how far. He had no idea how powerful he had become after assuming the mantle of Baron. He shook his head, feeling the odd weight of his new horns, and went back inside. Sleep did not come naturally in the Abyss, but Tuco found one of his many bedrooms—it, just like all the others, shaped perfectly to comfort and soothe him—lay down on one of the beds, and willed unconsciousness upon himself.


He awoke to a gentle tapping at his door and rolled to his feet. “Yes, come in,” he said.

Peeves opened the door, bearing a tray with a little scrap of parchment on it. If the rigors of the night before had left him any worse for the wear, he showed no sign of it. “A message from Sir Mammon, My Lord,” he said, bowing low.

Tuco noted the change in address both for himself and the once-Baron. “Read it for me?” he suggested, as he turned to a heavy wardrobe and opened it to find clothes well-suited for him. He withdrew a fine outfit of black, pale blue, and gold that seemed to match well the colors of his scales, and frowned, trying to discern how it was meant to be donned.

“Certainly, My Lord,” Peeves answered, and made a little gesture with one hand. As he did so, several imps of various colors fluttered into the room, gently withdrew the clothing from Tuco’s claws, and began wrapping it around him with startling speed and efficiency. Peeves cleared his throat. “My Ascendant Lord Baron Tuco Witchywine, please do accept my humblest apologies for vacating during your absence, but urgent matters called me elsewhere. I hope that the gifts I have brought you satisfy, though after your performance the previous evening I find myself wondering if anything could sate so magnificent a desire. Forgive me if I do not reflect too directly on it, for even the memory can induce recurrences. It is an honor to have been graced with such an enduring reminder of your power. In the days to come, as you face additional trials and responsibilities, I am glad to know that you will remember me as your servant, one whose eyes were open, and who bent the knee to you, if not willingly in the moment, at least gladly. I am always available to guide you in the ways of wealth, and counsel you to remember always what true wealth is, and what it is for. Yours, Sir Mammon Dis Pater, Knight of Greed.”

Peeves looked up. “That is all that is written, My Lord.”

“What a peculiar message,” Tuco said, shrugging his shoulders in the clothes he had selected. It was a perfect fit, the fabric cunningly woven to move easily around his enormous bulk and the spikes erupting from his shoulders and knees, while permitting his tail free movement. He had no boots or shoes, but scarcely felt he needed them, as no rough surface could cause discomfort to his thick-scaled feet, and finding shoes that would allow his taloned toes to move comfortably would have been nigh-impossible. The fit and colors suited him handsomely, giving him a regal bearing while not diminishing the power of his frame: his chest pushed open his shirt to no small degree, and rolling his shoulders pulled it open farther, creating the impression that if he wished to, he could shrug out of his clothing at a moment’s notice. “I wonder what he meant by all that bit about wealth at the end.”

“I couldn’t say, My Lord,” Peeves answered, keeping his eyes lowered.

“Master! Master!” that was Hob’s voice, squeaking in the hallway.

“Yes, what is it, Hob?”

The ink-black imp fluttered into the room, darting about Tuco’s head. “Master must come and see! So terrible it is! Such treachery!”

“Treachery?” Tuco asked, alarmed. “What are you talking about?”

“Come quickly, master!”

Tuco followed the frantic Hob through the house to the stairway and down past the wine cellar into the cool, dark vaults beneath the manor. There he stopped and stared. The enormous hoard belonging to Sathanus—the uncountable wealth of ages that the Prince of Vengeance had looted from the mortal world, all the gold, the gems, the art, everything, was gone.

“Robbed!” Hob moaned, beating at his head with his little fists. “Master has been robbed! Such treachery!”

Tuco gazed out over the enormous cavern that had once been filled with immeasurable treasure. Nothing remained: not a coin, not a jewel. All that was left was stones. High standing stones that had once been buried beneath the wealth of ages. Limbostones.

“It’s all right, Hob,” he said, reaching up to grip the little imp in one hand.

Hob calmed down steadily in his fist, his tiny chest heaving. “But—but master, the wicked devil tricked you and stole from you.”

“No,” Tuco answered. “He gave me something. A reminder. Look out there. What would we do with money and gems? What could we buy? My demesne can be whatever I need it to be. Think about it. I was tearing myself up with worry over what I would do with all those riches, how I could possibly use it to help other people and not hurt them. I don’t know how to do any of that. Mammon does.” He stared out across the endless array of limbostones, stored by Sathanus through ages upon ages, once buried beneath a mountain of gold. “Wealth isn’t meant to be hoarded. That’s what he wanted me to understand. And I’m one of the richest devils in the Abyss.”

He squared his shoulders. “But we will have to think about what to do later. It’s time we headed back to the Abbey. Pike and the others will be worried about us. We need to look in on them. We need to free the innocent people who are trapped in the prison of the Throat. And we need to stop Brother Gabriel from hurting anyone else. And we’re almost certain to have another devil coming after me soon, so we need to act as quickly as we can. It will be dangerous, but I’m not just some frightened human apprentice any longer. I’m a damned Baron of the Abyss. I can face what’s coming. Now. Hob. How do we leave the Abyss and get back to the mortal world?”

The little imp fluttered back and forth anxiously. “Erm, about that, master. There is a way back to the mortal world, but it isn’t easy. Of course, it would be a lot simpler if you had—” He trailed off, his eyes widening, tilting his head back.

Tuco frowned. “What’s wrong, Hob? What is it now?” He followed the imp’s gaze upward and saw, to his mystification and horror, what looked like a hole being torn in the world above him. Behind it there was nothing. Not blackness, not emptiness, but nothing—a mind-wrenching spot of absence of sensation, of blindness, a rip in existence. “What in blazes is that?” he breathed in astonishment.

“Master, Hob fears that you are being s—”

The imp’s voice was cut off, and so was everything else. Tuco stumbled. There was an odd pressure on his ears, and then he was somewhere else.

He stood in a stone room, lit on every side by long, black candles burning with an eerie red flame. He tasted the air and to his surprise and joy knew immediately where he was: he was back in the Abbey! The scent was by now as familiar and reassuring as that of his own bed at home. Ahead of him was a door leading out to one of the corridors. He took an eager step forward, and something unyielding struck his nose, sending him staggering back.

Baffled, he reached out a hand, and his scaled fingertips slid against something solid and invisible. He pressed against it and found it unmoving. “What—what is this?” he growled aloud. He looked down at his feet and saw markings on the floor: the sigils and symbols of a summoning and binding circle. A sudden, dread feeling washed over him. He turned, lashing his tail, and saw a short, nervous-looking Brother, dressed in the brown robes of the Abbey, swinging a censer that emitted a smoke that stank of blood and onions.

“A—avaunt, devil!” the monk cried in a thin, reedy voice. He lifted a crucifix in his right hand, thrusting it toward Tuco. “Satanus, abjuro ego te! You have been summoned and bound by me, and I have questions and demands to make of thee!”

“What are you doing?” Tuco snapped, rolling his eyes. He reached for the impudent little monk, and again his hand struck an invisible wall, one outlined by the circles in the room. An apprentice cowered in his robes behind the monk.

“Abjuro ego te!” the monk cried again, holding his crucifix closer to Tuco. “Do not attempt to deceive me with your devil’s tongue. I have summoned you, Sathanus, and you are my prisoner.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Tuco muttered. He tried to raise his voice and hiss a lie to this silly little man: “You want to sssend me home right now.” But his tongue cleft to the roof of his mouth. He stumbled back, his tail striking the edge of the circle behind him. He was trapped, and he could not speak.

He was back in Abyssus Abbey, but they thought he was Sathanus. He was trapped, bound by the magic of summoning and binding, completely in the power of the Brothers.

“Now,” the little monk said, a smile spreading across his acne-pocked face, “about my demands.”

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