Abyssus Abbey

By Pen Darke 
9 parts
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• Latest update: 4 April. Next update: 18 April. (Submissions welcome.)

• Latest from BRK: “The apartment”; “Changing Nick”, Parts 15‑16.

Part 1: Arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuco nodded.

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

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

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

“And if I’m not accepted?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you come seeking apprenticeship?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you are a religious boy, then?”

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

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

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

“Say them now.”

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

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

Dutifully, he recited them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?”

“I’m thinking, sir.”

“About what?” the spiderlord snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And people will call me monster.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you hoping to see, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does that mean I’m accepted, sir?”

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

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

A small smile. “Is it?”

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

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

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

Part 2: Initiation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s very handy,” Tuco observed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But there is a cost, isn’t there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the steps down?”

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

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

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

“Why not? What’s down there?”

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

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

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

“And the Throat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not clever. I can’t even read.”

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

Tuco almost choked. “Sex? But—but—?”

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

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

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

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

There was a chorus of nods and yeses.

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

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

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

“Can he even use it?”

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

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

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

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

“Who’s Elf?” Tuco asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to him?” Tuco whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Tuco groaned. “Oh God, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can just leave that, you know.”

“But—everyone outside!”

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3: A New Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay, yes. Stay in the depths..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just trying to remember,” Tuco murmured.

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

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

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


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

“Do those work?” Tuco wanted to know.

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

“You haven’t tried to fly?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Your father must be very rich.”

Charo shrugged.

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

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

“And the church sent you here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4: Ritual

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

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

Tuco put a hand on his shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tuco, no!”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is—is that sound the Throat, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir!”

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

“I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuco widened his eyes and shook his head.

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

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

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

“YOU SOUGHT TO CAPTURE ME WITH THIS FEEBLE RITUAL. YOU FAILED. AND WHAT DID YOU BARGAIN WITH? THIS BOY’S LIFE… AND YOUR SOUL. NOW I WILL HAVE BOTH.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Bite me? Why?”

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

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

“Was I hurt?”

“Your head was bleeding,” Lord Krastor said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuco nodded.

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

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

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

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

“Seven heads and taller than a mountain?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir?”

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, lad?”

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

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

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


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

“Are you all right? Did anything happen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He gasped in amazement.

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

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

Part 5: In Tongues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuco nodded.

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

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

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

“Thank you?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Long Jeremy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pike peered at Tuco, his eyes narrowing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuco put his hand up in the air immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tuco, sir.”

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

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

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

“But sir, I—”

“That is enough, Apprentice Tuco. I have only been this lenient with you because you are new, and because the Brothers have been made aware of your… unfortunate encounter last night.” A hubbub of whispers slithered through the room at this. “But leniency goes only so far. Return to your work.”

“Yes, sir,” Tuco answered miserably, and stared down at his desk.

“What are you doing?” Pike whispered at him. “No one will find that funny.”

“I told you, I’m not jesting! Something came out of the sigil. I swear it.”

Pike stared at him a long time, then shrugged. “There are stray demons in the walls, of course. Like the one you saw in the bath. Perhaps one of them was trying to deceive you.”

“Perhaps,” Tuco said doubtfully.

“Don’t worry about it. The Brothers are old hands at this sort of thing. They wouldn’t have you practice a ritual that was dangerous.”

Tuco gave him a flat look.

“I mean, not as an exercise. In a room full of other apprentices, no less.”

“Well, can you hear any danger? In the walls, maybe? It went over there.”

Pike raised a skeptical eyebrow and then perked his ears, focusing on the walls. “Nothing more than usual. Not that that signifies very much, you understand. Like I told you—”

“Everything here is dangerous,” Tuco answered. “I know. But I wish you believed me.”

The rabbit-man leaned closer and lowered his voice. “I believe you saw what you saw. But listen, you don’t want anyone thinking you’re summoning demons on your own. That could wind you in much trouble.”

“But if it is real, should not the Brothers know of it? Supposing something happened to me last night, something that no one understands yet.” Tuco’s tongue suddenly felt too large for his mouth. It wanted to come out.

Again Pike’s lilac eyes narrowed. “Did something happen to you?”

Tuco took a deep breath and then let his tongue push open his lips—

And heard an eardrum-scraping, raucous, horrible, soul-wrenching scream. He nearly bit through his tongue in shock. At first he thought it was Pike, but the rabbit had folded those enormous ears back and was clutching his head in both paws. The scream continued, never waning or fading. It was difficult to tell with the sound bouncing off of the stone walls and reverberating throughout the room, but it seemed to be coming from the hallway. Many of the apprentices seemed to know what was happening, and they had already begun clustering around the doorway to peer out into the wide corridor.

Tuco gave Pike a pitying look, but there was nothing he could do for the poor rabbit, so he hurried to the doorway himself, trying to see. “What is it?” he called, but no one heard him over the noise. He tugged on the armfur of an apprentice named Braxus—a large creature rather like a centaur, but with the features of a giant wolf instead. Braxus also had his ears back and appeared to be in pain. “What’s happening?” Tuco shouted.

“That’s one of the Gasen!” Braxus growled back through clenched fangs. “It’s seen a demon.”

It could only be his demon, the one he’d summoned. Tuco pushed his way slowly to the front of the crowd. It wasn’t easy, but he was smaller and less oddly featured than most of the other apprentices, so he was able to wriggle his way through some of the tighter spaces. None of the apprentices had ventured beyond the threshold of the classroom, though curious heads poked out of other rooms. Tuco stumbled out into the hallway.

Rigby was there and also two Brothers, both hooded. One of them was lighting a censer and the other was hurriedly paging through an enormous, brown tome. The Gasen above them had moved; its hollow eyes were staring wide, its fanged mouth gaping with its horrible scream. It had risen from its sitting position and now hunched partway down the wall, its thick leonine arm extended and pointing toward an apprentice who was huddled against the stones.

Tuco didn’t recognize the apprentice; his body had long, feathery appendages all down his sides and the rest of him from head to toe was covered in green, fleshy-looking spines. Despite his alien features, though, he looked visibly defiant.

One of the Brothers took a pouch from inside his robe, leaned down, and poured a small pile of glittering black powder onto the stones of the floor. Almost immediately, the Gasen went blessedly silent. Tuco rubbed at his ringing, aching ears and nestled back into the doorway as the enormous carved beast stretched down, its hind feet still clinging to the crossbeam, its forepaws touching the floor with the scrape of stone against stone. With a rasping sound, it began licking up the powder from the floor. Its expression had gone peaceful, almost rapturous, its hollow eyes closed into slits.

The two Brothers were talking to each other. Tuco couldn’t make out what they were saying, the horrible screech still resonating in his ears, but they both pointed to the green-spined apprentice. One nodded and reached for the apprentice, who bared his teeth and spread his arms, all those feathery appendages spreading wide and waving.

An odd but sweet scent of roses drifted through the hallway, and as soon as Tuco smelled it he began to feel drowsy, a pink fog creeping through the edges of his vision, but the Brothers acted swiftly—one of them dipped his fingers in the little fonts of holy water that were found in every hallway and flicked droplets at the apprentice.

The sound came back to Tuco’s ears just in time for him to hear the apprentice scream in apparent pain. Wherever the droplets hit, orange and yellow light blazed through the boy’s skin—he darted down the corridor, but stopped in apprehension before passing the next Gasen, much to Tuco’s relief.

The hooded monks strode down the corridor toward him. “Give it up, demon,” one commanded. His voice was strange, both muffled and lisping, as though he spoke without lips. “Surrender the body you have stolen.”

The apprentice bared his teeth again, and then made a rude gesture, one that Tuco had seen very, very recently. He turned toward the other Brother. “Give me another body, then,” he hissed. “Give me yours. I will make you strong. Make you beautiful.”

“I am already strong. I am already beautiful,” the Brother said sternly. “I am as my Maker made me.”

The apprentice’s eyes darted from side to side, seeking a way around them that would allow him to avoid the Gasen. “Your Maker betrayed you,” he snarled. “He made you weak, so you would need him. He made you flawed, so you would beg him to heal you.”

“Enough of your lies, demon.” The first Brother seized one wrist in his still-wet hand. The apprentice screamed again and yanked at his arm, blazing light pouring out wherever the water touched. “Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei,” the priest chanted in modern Latin, and as he spoke, the apprentice pulled at his arm again and again, screaming until his voice went hoarse, screaming as the light blazed out of him, until nothing came from his mouth but a rasping hiss, and then there was just the chant of the priest. “Tu autem effugare, diabole; appropinquavit enim judicium Dei.” The apprentice flailed at the end of the Brother’s grip again and again, and then there was a sudden snap, and he dropped to the floor, his arm twisted at a strange angle.

A creature clambered its way out of the apprentice’s mouth. Tuco had seen it before, not even an hour ago; it was the rat-wasp thing that had crawled up out of his sigil. Before it could do anything, the other Brother snatched it up and plunged it into the holy font. Orange light blazed out of the water as though it opened into a furnace. There came a sound like the buzzing of a thousand flies. And then it was gone.

The two Brothers shared a weary glance and then slumped in relief.

The apprentice on the floor blinked up at them in naked confusion. He tried to speak and then coughed. “What—what happened?” he whispered, and then he winced and clutched at his broken arm. “Aaagh!”

“We’ll take you to Brother Hofstaed,” a Brother said. His voice was hard and angry. “And then you will have some questions to answer.”

“But it wasn’t his fault!” Tuco protested from the doorway. “I saw that demon in the classroom. It was already here. He didn’t call it!”

“Whether it was here or not already is irrelevant,” growled the strange-voiced Brother. “A demon cannot possess the unwilling. This boy let it in.” He turned and stalked toward Tuco. He was a large man, and powerfully built, and his approach was like the charge of a bull; Tuco shrank backward. The man grabbed the front of his robe and bent down, and now Tuco could see inside his hood, and icy veins of terror crept through his flesh. The monk’s head was entirely eyes, a mixture of them, large and small, blue, red, brown, solid black, segmented, barred like a ram’s. They pulsed and throbbed beneath the hood. In the center where his nose must once have been was a circular mouth, filled with layers of needle-like teeth, all of them curving inward. “What do you know of this demon?” the mouth hissed. Droplets of spittle sprayed into Tuco’s face.

And now he could think of nothing but the screams of the exorcised apprentice, his broken arm, his flailing as the demon was wrenched from him, the terrible inquiries that surely awaited him for consorting with a creature of darkness. Several dozen eyes throbbed and rolled, seeing through him, seeing everything about him. And his tongue, his black, forked tongue, the tongue of Sathanus, filled his mouth, swelling, eager to show itself.

He tried to pull it back into his throat but there was no place for it to go; it was too long and thick to possibly fit inside him.

“Well?” the eye-headed brother demanded. “Answer me!”

His tongue tips prodded at his lips, demanding to be shown, pushing their way into the world. They would use the holy water on him. They would torture him.

He couldn’t hide it any longer—his lips parted and his tongue slid out. For a brief moment he tasted the Brother’s desire, desire for vengeance against the demons that had misshapen him, desire to be recognized among all others as a paragon of righteousness, to take his place among the upper echelons of demon-hunters. He was bursting with needful pride.

“Nothing,” Tuco lied. “I ssswear it.”

The Brother tilted his head. “I—I see,” he said. “Very well, then.” And he stood and headed back to the other monk. “He doesn’t know anything,” he said.

And the two of them returned down the corridor, dragging the groaning and shaking, but newly exorcised apprentice between them. Tuco stared after them in shock. And to think he had been about to talk to the Brothers about what had happened to him! He still felt warmly toward Lord Krastor and Brother Hofstaed, but Brother Stetmeyer had refused to believe what Tuco had seen with his own eyes. If he went to the monks now and told them of his change after the ritual, would they believe him if he claimed not to have been tempted, not to be possessed? It seemed likely that they would not, and that any hint of demonic taint in him could result in torture or expulsion. It would be better to keep what had happened to himself for now, at least until he was certain it represented a threat to him or others.

The Gasen contentedly scraped up the final grain of black powder, raised itself back into the rafters, and settled into its still and immobile form, its hollow eyes staring sightlessly once more.


Tuco was sprawled out on a sofa in the parlor when Pike came to him. The afternoon light was warm and soothing, and without saying a word, Pike dropped his robes away, revealing his lean, naked body. He came closer and unwrapped Tuco’s own robes.

“Out here?” Tuco asked. “In front of everyone?” But the objection was a faint one; he could detect the odor of sex throughout all of the Abbey, so who would mind?

Pike crouched and planted a warm, fuzzy kiss on Tuco’s mouth and Tuco kissed back eagerly, his tongue sliding against Pike’s broader, pink one. No, part of his mind shouted to him, he’ll notice what’s happened to you! But it was a tiny part of his mind, and Pike didn’t seem to notice anyway, so he ignored it. His shaft throbbed, lifting at the intimacy of the kiss and the taste of lust in the air. Pike looked down and smiled, lowering his head, his long whiskers tickling down Tuco’s chest and belly as he sought out his erection.

Clambering up onto the sofa, he straddled Tuco, one knee to either side of his head, the heat of his ready tip, the scent of him right before Tuco’s mouth. Tuco slid out his tongue and tasted his hot flesh with both of his tongue tips just as Pike took his erection into his own muzzle, enveloping it in wet warmth. Tuco groaned around the taste of his friend; this was a new sensation. Where before, having Pike sit atop him had been intense, firm, squeezing, this touch was softer, more delicate, yielding all the way around. He felt as though he was about to climax immediately, his whole body tensing, but then the immediate flush of sensation eased. The soft fur of Pike’s belly brushed against his nose and he buried his face into it, swallowing at his cock. The taste of desire almost overwhelmed his senses. His hips began to rock of his own accord; his fingers found Pike’s soft, muscled thighs and slid through the fur, gripping, tugging the rabbit’s hips toward him as he suckled at his cock.

Unconsciously, as of its own, his tongue began to wrap around and around Pike’s shaft, encircling it like a python constricting its prey. He knew he should stop, that Pike would surely notice this, but he couldn’t help himself; it was as though his tongue were a separate entity.

“Tuco!” Pike called to him, but he ignored it; maybe if he just teased the rabbit’s shaft a little more, he wouldn’t care about how strange it felt. But Pike called his name again, and that was strange, because Pike’s mouth still enveloped Tuco’s erection, still sucked at it, constricted—

Tuco started awake. The room was dark, and he was lying in his bed. He had been dreaming. Drool ran down his chin and neck. And his aching erection was still warm and wet. And he could taste it. His tongue extended from his open mouth and had coiled around his shaft in his sleep.

“Tuco?”

He tilted his head to see Pike staring at him, eyes wide.

“Ebf map—” he began, and then remembered how to control his tongue, releasing his erection with an erotic ache of pleasure as his tongue uncoiled from it and retreated, slipping back between his jaws.

“That’s a new one,” Pike muttered.

“Thiss isn’t what it looks like,” Tuco hissed, and clamped one hand over his mouth.

“As you say,” Pike answered. “But, er, what is it then? And what has happened to you? When did temptation take you?”

“It didn’t!” Tuco peered into the gloom. Not everyone slept at night. “Can we go somewhere to talk?”

“It might be wise. Follow me.” Pike shrugged on a robe and made for the door, his furry soles making no sound on the stone floor.

Hotfaced, Tuco clambered out of bed, still erect, still thinking, I can lick myself whenever I want. And then thinking, I can’t keep from licking myself in my sleep. He pulled on his own robe and, not half so silently as Pike, followed after.

They made their way down the lit corridor to the main cloister and into the large refectory where the Brothers took their meals. Tuco had never entered this room. It was huge, far larger than it needed to be, and dead silent but for the crackle and pop of the ever-burning torches on the walls. It was also filled with the scent of delicious food of all sorts: warm bread, sweet cocoa, spiced ham, rich cakes, buttery potatoes, things grilled and fried and baked to tantalizing perfection. There were two long tables stretched down the middle of the room and they were heaped with a feast that would have pleased royalty. It was the most sumptuous spread Tuco had ever seen, and made the apprentices’ meals look paltry by comparison.

Tuco stared in amazement. No wonder Charo, the lark-winged boy, had sneered at their lunch. “Why is there all this food in the middle of the night?” His voice was small and echoed in the enormous stone room.

“Enchantment.” Pike said. “The demons got the Brothers back all right for that one. Regular meal supplied endlessly, but every day they’re faced with the Temptation of Food. More than one has been lost to it in here. That’s why we’re not supposed to enter.”

Tuco’s mouth watered. “I feel like I could lose myself to it now.”

“Then don’t think about it,” Pike instructed sternly. “Tell me about that tongue of yours. What happened? I know you weren’t just sucking yourself off with a devil’s tongue in your sleep, so what was it?”

“That’s—that’s exactly what I was doing,” Tuco said, a little shame-faced.

Pike rolled his eyes. “No, you weren’t. I know you weren’t, because you said that you—”

“Yeah, of course, but I was just surprised and scared. Look, that night of the ritual—”

“We will get to that, but first tell me what you were doing, all right?” His mouth was a hard, insistent line.

Tuco stared at him, bewildered. “But I told you, I was… in my sleep, I was dreaming that—that—anyway, I was having a nice dream, and when I woke, my tongue was curled around my erection. It… it was what it looked like.”

“But you said it wasn’t.”

“Yes, but.. That wasn’t true?”

Pike shook his head. “This doesn’t make sense. None of what you’re saying makes sense. You—you said that it wasn’t…” He frowned, and clutched at his head. “I don’t understand. It hurts when I try to understand.”

And Tuco thought about what he’d said, and how the demon’s changes often came with strange abilities, and how there had been that little hiss. And he thought about yesterday, when he’d hissed speaking to the Brothers, and the Brothers had got that same strange, confused look that Pike had now.

“Pike… Pike, I think my tongue might make me able to lie. Lie so well that you believe me. So well that anyone does.”

The rabbit-man straightened up, and some of the fog seemed to clear from his eyes. “You mean it’s magic? When you told me that before, you used magic on me? To make me believe it?”

“Not intentionally.” Tuco thought back to every time he’d accidentally made that little hiss before, and every time… “I think it happens by itself. Whenever I lie.”

“That would be a strange ability indeed.” Pike clucked his tongue thoughtfully. “But I did notice it yesterday when you were speaking to the Brother. You made a hiss at him, like a serpent, and then it was as though he lost interest in you. I thought it odd.” He took a deep breath. “Try it on me now. Something that should be impossible to believe. Tell me… the sky is purple.”

“The ssky is purple.”

Pike frowned. “Okay, that was a bad example. Let’s go with something else. Something blatantly untrue.”

Tuco stared at him again. “But… Pike… that wasn’t true. The sky is… well, it’s lots of colors, I suppose, but right now it’s probably black. With stars in. Perhaps very dark blue.”

The rabbit-man shook his head irritably. “No, I know it is usually, but you just told me that it was…” He trailed off, his ears lowering slowly. “Did it happen again?”

Tuco nodded.

“The sky isn’t purple?”

“No.”

“And I… believed you.”

Tuco nodded again.

“That’s amazing. And… a little terrifying. Do you know what you could get away with if you set your mind to it? You could—you could tell everyone that you were emperor! That they were all in love with you! That they owed you all their money!”

“I don’t think it works that way,” Tuco said doubtfully. “It seems like mostly it just makes people forget about the thing I lied about. Not think about it. You didn’t panic about the sky being purple. You didn’t say it was a terrible omen or demand more information. You simply lost interest. I suspect that happens with everyone.”

“And the sky isn’t purple, correct?”

“Very sure. The hiss doesn’t happen except when I lie.”

“Have you been lying a lot?”

“Only since the ritual,” Tuco admitted, and then he told Pike everything that had happened since then: how in the middle of the night he’d grown the tongue, how it hid itself, but tried to make itself known when he felt like he was in danger, and even the dream he’d been having.

“Well, we could make that last part true,” Pike said with a wink. “Although from the looks of it you won’t need me anymore, not with that enormous thing. Let me see it.”

Obligingly, Tuco opened his mouth and extended his long, black tongue. It undulated in the air like a serpent, the tips waving up and down. To his surprise, he could taste Pike’s lust in the air. Who could be attracted to that?

“I never heard of anyone here changing without being tempted. Are you sure you didn’t see a demon? Hear its thoughts tempting you?”

“Ahl’m whah.”

“No hiss,” Pike said with a wink. “Suppose that means you weren’t lying. Very well, you might as well put that thing away before you put someone’s eye out. You know what it looks like?”

Tuco licked his lips dry. “Sathanus’s tongue. Just like the devil dragon that came after me during the ritual.”

Pike stared at him. “What?”

Tuco cringed. He’d completely forgotten. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you. I was instructed not to speak of it to anyone by Lord Krastor himself.”

“Well, it’s too late now. You should probably go ahead and tell me everything.” When Tuco hesitated, he threw up his paws. “Oh come on, you can trust me. I won’t tell anyone. And if I did, you could just—just hiss-lie to them and they’d forget all about it.” He gave Tuco an earnest smile. “You have to trust someone here, pal. Especially with everything that’s happened to you. Either keep Lord Krastor or one of the monks in the loop, or tell me. You can’t go this alone. And I’m your friend. I swear it.”

Tuco looked into his eyes. He wanted to believe him. But how could he, in a place this dangerous? Maybe there was a way. Pike trusted him because he didn’t hear danger from him, didn’t he?

Tuco let his tongue slip from his lips, the serpentine tips curling in the air. The scent of the food was almost overwhelming, but above it, he tasted Pike’s desires. And Pike wanted… sex, but he supposed Pike always wanted sex. And he desired many other things. The spectrum of temptations radiated from him. But above all, he yearned for love and belonging. So Tuco took a deep breath, and told him everything.

His friend listened with a mixture of worry, perplexity, and horror as the story of the night in the ritual room unfolded, and at the end, clasped him in a rough if silky-furred hug. “I’m glad you told me,” he said, his whiskers tickling Tuco’s face, and he leaned back. “I swear to you that I will guard your secret jealously. But it troubles me that we still don’t know Brother Melvin’s intent for that ritual. Nor what the results of its failure were. It does sound as though he intended to sacrifice you, which is terrible. For that reason alone I understand why Lord Krastor wished you not to speak of it. I will try to learn something about what the elements of the ritual might have been suited for. Rigby has been here longer than any other apprentice, and perhaps he knows something. And you will tell me if there are any further alterations, won’t you?”

Tuco nodded.

“I know you said that the devil you saw looked like Sathanus, but we can be nearly certain it was not.”

“Why is that?” Tuco asked.

“Because of the Scriptures. Don’t you recall? They say that once Sathanus has been released from the prison of the Abyss, he cannot be returned. That would mean…” Pike gave him a troubled stare. “It would mean if he had been let out… he would still be here.”

Part 6: Feasting

Tuco didn’t follow Pike back to the dormitory immediately. His mind was still racing from the discoveries—and his loins were still aching and unsatisfied. He didn’t think he could sleep just yet. So he leaned against the wall with his head tilted back and listened to the sounds of the abbey: the crackle of candles, the ever-present howl of wind moving through the abbey’s stony reaches, and stranger sounds: skittering and low groans. This was a haunted place. Things moved in the darkness. But Tuco did not feel as afraid, now. He had been Changed, and though his alteration was strange and freakish, it did seem to be a gift. Even if he left today, he’d be able to move through the world a different man, using his tongue to finesse his way through conversation and get himself out of trouble, to know what those around him desired, and, in the right circumstances, to give pleasure to himself and others. Who could complain about such a development?

With his eyes still closed, he let his tongue slide out again and tasted the air. The scent of Pike lingered in the room, and he could make out the scents of stone and burning candles, but all of these were barely detectable beneath the overpowering, intense aromas of food. He took a deep breath, inhaling the rich, enticing scents, and his stomach growled. He was hungry; he’d had little appetite after the shocking events of the previous day and night, and now his belly was complaining.

He opened his eyes. Two long tables, practically sagging with what surely must resemble feasts thrown by Queen Tibera herself, or even one of the great Emperors in the southern or eastern lands. Knowing it was a bad idea, he wandered down the length of one of the tables, his mouth watering. Through enchantment, the food was still hot and fresh; fat sizzled and popped beneath a roast goose; a tureen of cheese and leek soup bubbled gently; steam rose from a mound of brown-topped, soft-looking dinner rolls. Golden-brown meat pies were stacked high, dusted with white flour like snow and garnished with juniper. Large steins of ale were beaded with sweat as though still cold from the ice cellar. A roast pig, red with candied glaze, was stuffed with plums, apricots, and pears. A wide bowl announced sauteed lampreys in beef tallow. The rich scent of rare spices enticed him: cinnamon, tarragon, ginger, nutmeg—spices he had never before tasted, but only heard of. And then there were the cakes: rich, yellow vanilla, deep brown cocoa icing with spun sugar like spirals of hoarfrost; orbs of pastel pink, purple, and yellow stacked into a pyramid and embossed with gold leaf; bright red strawberries floating in a sea of marshmallow fluff; meringues scorched brown and drizzled with oozing caramel.

Tuco had never had any of these things, except roast goose on Christmases when they had been invited to his aunt’s house. The wealthy could enjoy such a feast regularly; perhaps they enjoyed such delights all the time, and even the Brothers enjoyed them daily, but if Tuco were to take some now, just so that he could have the experience of tasting them and enjoying them even once, he would be risking his soul to the Temptation of Food. The lowest and easiest temptation to avoid. It was unjust. Was he less deserving of pleasure than the wealthy? Than the Brothers? Surely he was not.

What was it the priests cautioned? Food was meant to nourish, to sustain, and not to grant pleasure. Seeking pleasure in mortal delights turned one’s mind away from the joys of the infinite.

“Well,” Tuco said out loud, “the joys of the infinite cannot be all that infinite if they can be forgotten after a single cake.” And he plucked a round, lavender bon-bon from the pile. His stomach almost sucking at itself in eagerness, he lifted it to his lips and inhaled, letting the scent pass over his tongue. It was chocolate mousse beneath the marzipan shell, he could smell: rich, sweet, and silky. It would melt like butter across his tongue as the marzipan slowly dissolved. He had never had chocolate before; only smelled it in the patisseries and candy shops of the cities. “Tasting it might be wrong,” he said aloud, “but would it not also be wrong to go through one’s whole life having never tasted chocolate?”

He opened his watering mouth… and then paused. This was temptation, wasn’t it? Was there a demon nearby even now, whispering these thoughts into his mind? Could even one chocolate change him? Damn him? Not because it was unjust but because of where he was right now, in Abyssus Abbey, surrounded by demons, seduced by a magical feast prepared by demons, made of enchantment. It had nearly got him.

Longingly, he reached out and placed the bon-bon back on the tray. It listed to one side as if abandoned. He turned and walked back toward the door, his stomach still complaining.

“A pity!” The voice echoed across the room, startling him. It seemed to come from nowhere, but it sounded deep, warm, and jolly. “And you were so close to wisdom there.”

“Who’s there?” Tuco asked in a small voice. He looked around but could see nobody.

“Tuco, is it?” the voice said. “You’re the new one everyone’s talking about.”

“Everyone is talking about me?” That seemed surprising.

“Oh yes,” the voice said, and then it seemed that the stones of the far wall were arranged in a particular outline, as though all the edges had been lined up to form the rough shape of a large, stout man. As Tuco stared, the outline grew more and more solid, and the stones seemed to be hued in colors of red and brown. Then the stones weren’t there at all. A man stood in front of the wall, the hues and shapes of stonework fading away from his form. He was tall, more than six feet, and with the general build of an innkeeper, round and well-fed. His skin was a burnished red, long, yellowed horns jutted up from his forehead, and his shaggy goat legs ended in hooves. “Everyone.”

He grinned, and his mouth was full of huge, pointed teeth, bright white in his red face.

Tuco took a few shaky steps backward. “A demon!”

“Demon?” the creature said, its eyes opening wide in mock surprise. “No, Tuco. I am not the spawn of hell. I am an angel.”

“A fallen angel.”

A moment of anger darkened the otherwise cheerful-looking countenance. “That old lie. We didn’t fall. We were pushed.” Warmth spread across his face once more. “But that is hardly your concern. A devil then. Not a demon. My name is Belzebub. And well I see that you are an iron-willed young man, immune to temptation.”

That, Tuco recognized as a seed of hubris, which could grow into the most terrible pitfall of all of them: The Temptation of Self. “I’m not immune. But I shall not be led to darkness merely by a few sweet cakes.” He cast a longing look over his shoulder at the feast, but steeled his resolve. He could do this.

The devil walked toward him slowly. Behind him, a thick, fleshy tail with a spaded end swayed, as though he were a cat stalking prey. “Of course, it’s always easier if you can be tempted, but it isn’t necessary. I can do things to you whether you’re tempted or not. I can enter your world without ritual.”

“You can’t do that!” Tuco protested. “There are rules! Demons have to follow the rules!”

Devil. And do you really think we were sent to the Abyss because we follow rules?”

Panicking, Tuco stumbled backward toward the far wall. He could run around the table, make a break for the cloister. The devil wouldn’t be able to pass beneath the Gasen without raising holy hell. “I—I’m not even here. You don’t sssee me!” The black tips of his long tongue flickered in his vision.

But Belzebub only laughed. “Deviltongue doesn’t work on devils, foolish creature. Now. From now on, you work for me. You will be my minion, my… imp. You will serve the Abyss through me.”

“I will never!” Tuco vowed, but the devil ignored him.

“But first you must understand the joys of food as I do. I may have been stripped of my ranks, but I am still a god of gluttony, and if you are going to serve me, you must eat.” His black-clawed fingers inscribed a shape in the air too complex for Tuco to follow, but it left the air carved, with clear lines like broken glass. And in the pit of Tuco’s stomach, his hunger amplified.

In his childhood, there had been days of famine, and the whole family had gone more than a week without food. Hunger, dizzying, consuming hunger set in, first gnawing at the stomach and dulling the mind, but then focusing it solely on getting the next meal. They begged in the streets for scraps; several of his brothers raided noble houses for bread and cheese; they chewed on their leather clothing to staunch the pangs of hunger, and stole scraps from the pig troughs. Days were spent trying to find food or dreaming of it. Hunger filled the mind until it was all they thought of. Now, in an instant, that hunger returned to him.

Still, he tried to fight it. If he could only escape the devil’s presence, then surely the curse of hunger would ebb. But that warm smell of bread… those mouthwatering cakes! And it could hardly be damaging to his soul to eat merely because he was starving, could it? No—no! He shut his eyes. He turned and walked around the far end of the table. He would get past the demon and escape the room. But as he walked past a plate of croissants, he couldn’t help himself. The hunger was gnawing, insistent, commanding. He leaned over and inhaled the aroma of flaky, buttery bread, opening his mouth to let his tongue carry the flavor to him, surely just as good as tasting.

His tongue slid out and coiled around one of the croissants—almost of its own—but he had wanted it to, had desperately wanted it. Warm butter melted across his taste buds, and then his mouth was full of crispy, dissolving bread, and his knees buckled. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. The saltiness of the butter flooded his tongue, and then the outer flaky layers were almost tangy: breaking apart into little shards of flavor and giving way to the warm, soft folds of the delicate layers beneath.

“There, you see?” the devil purred the words. “Pure pleasure. How can that be wrong? Try the chocolate.”

If he was damned already for a single piece of bread, then surely a single chocolate could not damn him twice. Still, he knew he ought to resist, but his fingers were already reaching out for a round, soil-brown cake the size of his hand. “I—I want it so much. But I mustn’t,” he murmured to himself, but the devil heard him.

“If your Creator wished you not to have it, then why did He make it so irresistable? Why give your nose the preference for it? Why plant the buds on your tongue that would savor its sweetness so much? Why give his Creation so much capacity for pleasure, only to deny it?”

“So that—so that we might be tested,” Tuco stammered. He was already lifting the cake to his mouth—it was heavy in his palm, as though it contained pure chocolate ore.

The devil chuckled at that. “Yes, another nonsensical tale mortals tell each other: that a God who knows everything still needs to test his subjects. If he knows already the choice you will make, then have you truly made it? Surely it is no choice at all. For you, Tuco, it certainly is not. Taste the chocolate. You are already tasting it.”

And Tuco found that it was so; that he had bitten into the cake, and it was warm inside, and moist, and rich, the chocolate almost like syrup, flooding his mouth, drooling down his chin, and then it was though he had lost all his other senses, and had become pure taste. Surely this cake was the greatest achievement of mankind. Pure pleasure flowed through him. The rich chocolate filled his mouth, but his tongue found other flavors flowing through it—vanilla, ginger, cardamom—as though the chocolate were a riverbed flowing with delights, pouring them down his tongue and into his belly.

He couldn’t stop himself. With both hands he held the cake and devoured it, gulping it down in greedy bites. Sticky chocolate and crumbs of cake coated his fingers and spilled down his chest, and without stopping, he picked up a light violet cake and took a huge bite. The chocolate flavor gave way to a delicate lavender and sweet cream, overwhelming his nose with floral scents. It was drizzled with honey, and his sensitive tongue could taste the hive, the delicate musk of chitin and wax, the fragrant gardens of lavender from which the bees had fed.

The devil put a heavy hand against Tuco’s back; it was as warm as though it had been next to a fire. “Now you understand. Food is joy. Immerse yourself in it.”

Tuco fell to the feast. He began with the desserts, for those were the greatest delight, cramming his mouth with hot pastries and cold citrus creme, guzzling huge mugs of hot cocoa and spicy buttered rum. He sank his teeth into candied pears baked in red wine, flooded his mouth with marzipan cheese pies, practically drank a bowl of cold, eggy custard.

He felt his stomach with both hands and was surprised to find it round and sagging beneath his tunic, bulging over his hips. He should have felt discomfort, a sense of overfullness, but he was still hungry. He moved on to main courses, drinking from soup tureens with both hands, slathering thick slabs of butter and cheese onto coarse bread and tearing it apart with his teeth.

“Good,” the devil rumbled. “Eat. Enjoy.”

The rector’s sermons echoed in his head: the temptations are of the Abyss because they turn our minds from God. When you love food too greatly, you love the Creation, not the Creator. But this seemed to Tuco unfair; he could not love food too greatly so soon; he had only just discovered the breadth of its miracles. He lost himself in spiced ham and roast leg of lamb and peppered chicken. He stuffed his mouth with candied yams and honey-drizzled parsnips. He ate his way through a garden of crisp, fresh greens and cold, dew-kissed berries.

It was all of it magnificent; his mouth was the center of his being, his temple through which he communed with all Creation by devouring it. His stomach swelled heavier, his limbs grew thicker, until his robe could no longer contain him, so he shucked it aside and enjoyed his feast naked as the first man, Atham. He could not contain his joy at food, his hunger, the heavy fullness of his stomach, the way his body spread and grew to contain all. The weight of his belly pulled down to his knees, and he crawled across the table, licking plates clean as the wooden planks groaned under his ballooning weight. His tongue snaked out around buns and brought them back to his wide mouth in its coils, three at a time, and he munched them down all at once, guzzling wine from a decanter to wash down the crumbs. Then he reached the carcass of the goose, from which he had greedily stripped most of the meat. Its bones were still delicious-looking, ripe with marrow, and before he knew what he was doing, he picked up the entire carcass and bit down into it.

A thought nagged at him—he’d been able to fit half of an entire goose into his mouth. Even a thigh or leg should have been too much for him, but he had managed almost the entire thing, ribs and sternum and all. Distantly he was aware that people didn’t eat like this; they didn’t fill their mouths with bones and crunch them up, but while he was thinking this he was already cramming the remainder into his hungry maw. Bones splintered and crunched between his teeth, and his tongue explored their hollows, licking out the rich, fatty marrow. He licked broken bits out from between his teeth and noticed that they felt huge, now: sharp and monstrous, a jagged mountain range overfilling his mouth and pushing out his lips. All the better to eat more of the feast, he remembered, and he picked up the lamb shank and crunched through that bone too with no small satisfaction.

Finally he reached the end of the table, having crawled all the way down its length, devouring everything. His belly was now so enormous it overlapped the table on both sides. His chin was sunk in layers of flab. Panting and exhausted, he looked up at the devil. “I… I ate all of it,” he said in amazement.

The devil grinned wide, and his mouth was full of sharp teeth. “Did you, you dear little minion? But there is another table there just waiting for you.”

Tuco shook his weighty head, feeling the heavy flesh tug at his face. “I—I don’t want to eat anymore.” He did, though. He knew he did. The devil was making him want it.

“Eat.”

And so Tuco pushed his way to the other table. His stomach was now so enormous that it dragged on the ground and he had to force himself forward with both legs. The table looked smaller to him—the room looked smaller. Even the leering devil looked smaller. He realized he was larger now than any human had ever been. And his meal was only half complete. Unwilling but craving it at the same time, he scooped up dishes from the other table and poured them into his mouth. This experience was different, because now his mouth was so cavernous he could pour an entire soup tureen into it and still have room to float meat and bread in it; now his meal was transformed by the mixing of flavors and textures in new and surprising ways: he chewed on baked cod and gruyere and raspberry and celery; he swallowed mince pies wrapped in mustard greens and garnished with ortolans and cranberries. Cold buttercream and ham and gherkins; fried sausages with brie and mashed turnip; salted nuts, cucumber, and barleywine. Not every combination was delicious, exactly, but each was worth exploration, each a discovery, each was food.

And when, at last, he made it to the far end of the second table, his belly so enormous now that it dragged on the floor on both sides of the table, he panted, exhausted from eating. “Done,” he groaned. He rolled off the table and there was nowhere for him to fall; he just settled into the rest of his enormous, soft body. He realized with dismay that as he had eaten his way down the table, his stomach had shoved all the plates off of it onto the floor. Most were broken, but some had bites taken out of them. Had he really eaten parts of the plates in his delirium?

A lazy smile creased Belzebub’s face as he sauntered closer. “Oh, dear boy, do you truly think you are finished? But you haven’t even started in on the table.”

Tuco stared at him in bewilderment. “I can’t—I can’t eat the table. That’s wood!”

“Well, that is my little gift to you, minion. You can eat anything now. Food. Poisons. Wood. Stone…”

Unwilling, but unable to stop himself, the hunger in his belly so intense, Tuco pushed himself around in a slow, dragging circle, and leaned down to the table. The entire end fit in his now enormous mouth. He bit down and felt the splintering of wood. The table crunched up between his teeth, fibrous and tough, like the end of a cabbage or a carrot that had been pulled too late. He couldn’t push himself along the floor to eat more of it. His legs barely reached the ground around his enormous belly, but his thighs too were thicker and rounder and were still capable of pushing him forward even if he could no longer lift himself off the floor.

“There, you see, my pet? You can eat anything now. Even souls, if you’re lucky, and I want to reward you with a treat.”

“I’m not your pet!” Tuco protested through his full mouth.

“Oh, but you will be. I will drag you down to the Abyss with me, and you will be my hellslug, serving below my throne and devouring all I deign to throw to you. I will truss you up with the most elegant chains of thorns, not to secure you but to adorn you, so that all will see you and tremble at the horror of you, and know that should they displease me, I will feed them to you. Eat your table, obedient pet. Eat.”

And now, like a knife, the hot, clear edge of panic cut through the clouds of Tuco’s appetite. The devil had forced this upon him—he’d resisted temptation, but this had been something else, something unnatural, something done to him! And now he was aware of the massive roundness of his body: enormous, half-filling the room, his heavy gut folding across his legs, spreading across the smooth cold stone of the floor, wedging between two pillars, so huge that he could barely move himself.

“I—I won’t,” he managed. Bits of table dropped from his toothy mouth, looking oddly small against the huge expanse of his sagging chest.

A shadow fell across the jolly-looking devil’s face. Anger glimmered in his eyes. “You cannot resist me, imp! I am a devil, and your superior!”

“I’m not an imp!” Tuco protested. “I’m a man.”

Belzebub’s nose wrinkled in contempt. “You are a slug. You are my servant. And you will eat.”

The hunger began to cloud Tuco’s mind again, but he knew if he went further, he was lost, he would become something else. If he was lucky, they would only throw him in the Throat; if he was unlucky, Belzebub would drag him down to the Abyss for eternity. It wasn’t right. This wasn’t free will.

Hunger raked at his belly. He felt empty, so empty. And angry. His arms were already reaching for the food, but Belzebub, the devil who intended to damn him was right there.

Tuco had always been the boy who ran—from the bullies in the street, from the knights who would barge through town pushing everyone around and taking what they wanted, from the pottery apprentice-master who tried to beat him whenever his hands were too clumsy to shape the clay properly. But there was no running now. There was no hiding, no giving up. If he didn’t fight back, if he didn’t take charge of his fate, he would be taken to the Abyss and made into some kind of monster of gluttony, eating scraps and souls for all eternity.

H snatched up Belzebub. He had become so large that the devil looked like an oversized doll in his hands. Belzebub twisted and squirmed, so furious that his red face had gone dark purple. “How dare you lay hands on me, imp? I command you to eat!”

Tuco could only obey. He was so hungry. He lifted the devil to his new mouth, a mouth wider than a table, full of fangs, a mouth that could eat anything. He had a brief glimpse of the thing’s eyes going wide with shock. There was a muffled scream that was cut off as Tuco pushed the devil into his throat.

He tasted Belzebub’s desire. It was a desire for—something he accumulated, a desire for more. For power. For hierarchy. For vengeance. But not for food. The devil tempted, but did not love. He found no joy in it, no satisfaction. It was just a tool he had used to twist Tuco.

Tuco swallowed.

This is a bad, bad idea, some small, worried part of his mind said as the wriggling creature slid down his throat. Who knows what eating a devil will do to you?

But what other choice had he had? Just become a—a hellslug and be dragged down into the Abyss?

You could have prayed, suggested the small voice, and it bothered Tuco a little that, indeed, that had not occurred to him. But already the supernatural hunger was fleeing his mind, the fog of the devil’s temptations clearing away. He looked around at the wreckage in the room: broken and splintered tables, knocked-over chairs, broken dishes everywhere, food smeared across the floor and all over his own enormous, engorged body.

He could feel the fallen angel thrashing somewhere in his stomach, probably flailing in a pile of half-eaten food and dinnerware. Glumly, he looked toward the door of the room, much too small for him to squeeze his engorged body out of it. He supposed he would just have to lie in here until morning, when the Brothers would return and find him here, naked and food-smeared. That was an unhappy thought.

The wriggling in him had stopped. And then the room seemed to stretch around him. His belly slid across the floor, contracting, the great weight of it easing. HIs limbs slimmed, his eyes slid down the wall as his new height fled him. With relief, he felt his toes touch the floor again; his chin emerged from the rolls of flesh about his neck. His stomach gurgled as it shrank and lifted, dwindling away. Where had all the food gone? And where the devil he had devoured? He had no answer for these questions, any more than he could explain anything else that had happened to him that night. He held his stomach in both arms as it receded, ebbing away until it was completely flat, and he was just as small and lean as he had ever been.

He was still smeared with food, he realized, and the shame of everything that he had done burned in him. He found his robe where he had discarded it in his wanton bout of gluttony, and slipped it back on himself. He would have to wash before returning to bed.

Shivering and confused, he made his way to the refectory door, and just as he opened it, he heard a kind of crackling and scraping sound, and then smelled the rich scent of freshly cooked food. He looked back and saw that the tables had repaired themselves and were once again sagging with the weight of the bountiful feast that had claimed the bodies of at least two Brothers and, for a time, Tuco’s as well. The enchantment had restored it.

But now, looking over that amazing spread of food, he felt that he would never be hungry again. He turned and left the refectory, and as he did so, licked his lips, his tongue sliding over huge, pointed teeth.


He woke slowly, light filtering its way through a deep, dreamless sleep, and when he felt himself waking, he pushed his head under the bedclothes and drifted off again. When at last wakefulness became too insistent, he pushed the sheets away and opened his eyes. Pike was standing there, staring at him, arms folded. “Well, good morning, finally.”

The room, normally filled with the sounds of several score of monster-men, was eerily silent. Tuco pushed himself upright and looked around. There was no one else there. “Where is everyone?” he asked in a somewhat phlegmy voice. “Class?”

“Mass. Where you surely ought to be, given everything that’s happened to you lately. Where were you last night? You came back slouching like a revenant and this morning no one could wake you. What kept you out so long?”

Tuco yawned wide.

“Christos!”

Tuco blinked. Pike had leapt back several steps and flattened himself against the opposite bunk, his pupils contracted to pinpricks. “What?”

“Your… your teeth.” Pike’s ears focused on Tuco for a moment, and then he seemed to relax. He unclenched his fingers from the bunk frame. His blunt little claws had dimpled the wood. “Another run-in with a demon?”

Tuco ran his tongue over his teeth. They felt thick, too large for his mouth. All of them were pointed, but his canines seemed especially large, overlapping to push up under his lips. He grimaced at the gradually returning memories of the previous night. They seemed smeared and flat in his mind, as though he was remembering illustrations in a painting or tapestry instead of a real event. “It said it was a devil.”

“A devil? What’s the difference?”

“I’m not sure, but it sounded offended when I called it a demon.”

“And it tempted you?”

“I think so? With food.”

Pike swore. “I knew I should not have left you alone in there.”

“But I didn’t… I mean, I was tempted, but I resisted. And then the demon, the—the thing said that it didn’t have to tempt me. And it made me eat somehow.”

The rabbit-man paced back and forth, frowning. “They can’t do that, though. Free will is promised to us. You didn’t lie just now, did you? I didn’t hear a hiss?”

“No, and you know I didn’t use my tongue because you still don’t believe me,” Tuco pointed out.

Pike scowled. “That’s true. And you’d have no reason not to, if you truly wished to hide it from me. All right. You had better tell me everything that happened.”

And so, a bit reluctantly, Tuco recounted the events of the night: how he’d started with just a little food and then the devil had compelled him to devour more and more, how he’d grown first fat, and then enormous, and then begun to eat the table. Through it all the rabbit wore a look of puzzled disbelief, and when Tuco described how he had dispatched the devil, the expression turned to bewilderment.

“You are telling me you ate a devil.”

“I think so.”

“Is it still inside you somewhere?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know where everything else went when I shrank back down. But that must be what ended its curse on me, mustn’t it? Otherwise it would have dragged me into the Abyss and made me a… slug. I think I had almost become one when I—when I managed to save myself.”

Pike shook his head grimly. “We have to tell the Brothers about this. We should go to Lord Krastor.”

“No!” Tuco slid out of bed and took Pike’s paws firmly. “Pike, please. You saw what they do to anyone they think has a demon in them. They’ll do something terrible, I just know it. Or they’ll put me in the Throat. They don’t take chances with demons here. You know that.”

“But—but there could be something wrong that they could help with.”

Tuco thought of the Brother whose head was made up of eyes and his stern voice and the ritual, the apprentice screaming as his arm was broken. “Please no, not until we know more. Besides, I’m not possessed. I can walk beneath the Gasen without a problem, can’t I? If there were something really evil in me, they’d see it.”

Still looking doubtful, Pike said, “But you could be dangerous without knowing it. You could hurt others.”

“You know I’m not dangerous. You’d hear it. Besides, since I’ve been here, I’ve seen two devils die. The one that looked like Sathanus crumpled up and all his power poured out of him, and the Belzebub one I… I ate. So if I’m dangerous to anything, I’m dangerous to demons, don’t you think?”

“I suppose…”

“Maybe I need to be around. Maybe—maybe that ritual did something to me. Something important. Something that could stop the Apocalypse. That’s what it was for, isn’t it? So how do we know it didn’t work? Maybe that’s why they’re coming after me.”

The rabbit nodded. “That’s a good point.”

“And if it did, if I’m dangerous to devils and I need to be here, and Lord Krastor throws me out…”

Pike sighed. “I still do not care for it. We should not be making these decisions. It should be left to knowledgeable men. Holy men, who have studied these things. I won’t make you, but promise me you will consider going to Lord Krastor and telling him everything that has happened.”

“I promissse,” Tuco said, and then his eyes widened. “Wait. Wait. I promise. No lie.”

Pike smiled. “Good. Now if it’s not too late, you really should go to Mass. Maybe the Brothers can help you and maybe they can’t, but you know the Creator can. Whatever’s going on with you, He can guide you.”

Tuco nodded and went to find clean robes for Mass, but privately he wondered if God even listened to a devil’s tongue.


He was, in fact, too late for Mass. He did stop in hesitation before passing beneath one of the Gasen, dreading its horrifying scream, but it did not stir as he passed beneath its hollow-eyed stare. And, tentatively, he dared to dip his fingers in one of the holy water fonts against the wall, half expecting searing pain and his skin to blaze with hellfire, but it was just wet. And stale-smelling.

Bored-looking apprentices had just begun to shuffle out amongst the hooded Brothers by the time Tuco reached the chapel. But that meant it was time for lunch and, despite the previous night’s encounter, he was surprisingly hungry, his stomach growling, so he followed the other apprentices to the small refectory for a meal.

He found himself sitting next to Charo again, the surly lark-winged apprentice he’d met on the first day. The man picked idly at his food, pushing it around his wooden plate with a fork. “Skipping Mass, are we?” he commented, barely glancing at Tuco. “Not a good look, you know. We are supposed to keep our minds pure. And you… everyone knows there’s something very odd about you.”

“They do?” Tuco selected what he hoped was a modest portion of cured meats and cheese. He might be hungry, but he never wanted to overeat ever again.

“Oh, come now.” Charo turned toward him with an arched eyebrow. “Creeping off in the middle of the night like some kind of burglar? People notice these things, you know. And that first night you left with Brother Melvin and he has not been seen since. Everyone is talking. I don’t suppose you know what happened to him?”

“I really couldn’t say,” Tuco managed. His consonants were thick and clumsy as he tried to speak around his new teeth. “Lord Krastor might know something. You could ask him?”

“And you behave strangely. You’ve been very close. Hardly talk to anyone but that Pike fellow, and well, you know his sort. Friends with anyone.”

Tuco stared down at his plate. “Isn’t everyone this intimidated when they first come here? Everyone seems so dangerous. Walstein seems like he wants to plaster me to the wall, and I don’t know why.”

“He’s that way with everyone. Very angry. Comes from his upbringing. But you must know about it—you come from a poor family, too.”

“Poor doesn’t mean angry,” Tuco murmured.

“Doesn’t it? I expect I should be terribly angry all the time if I were poor.” Charo shuffled his wings, leaving a warm, feathery smell in the air. “It seems wretched. Not to have nice things, nice food, having to toil by the heat of the day.”

“I suppose when you say it like that it doesn’t sound very nice,” Tuco admitted. “And it’s not as though we don’t wish for a better life, but… I don’t know, I suppose it’s all down to what you’re used to. It must be hard for you to be here after coming from someplace fancy.”

“Fancy, hah! Yes… yes, I suppose it was. And it is hard. I miss my goosedown bed and breakfast pies and cakes, and my hunting dogs. I miss brandy and dinner parties where everyone is talking about the big topics of the day and where conversation is a chess game that you can win if you’re clever.” He sighed and put his chin in his hands. “I miss waking up to golden morning light and knowing there was nothing planned for the day but a bit of sport out in the gardens or a night at the opera. Now I’m stuck in this windy old ruin with a gang of monsters and everyone is back home living their lives without me.” He angrily wiped at his cheeks with both hands, then took his fork and stabbed at a piece of cold sausage. “And even the food is bad.”

“The food isn’t bad though,” Tuco objected, and he felt he ought to know. Had he not just dined on meal after meal fit for the Queen herself? So delicious, so exorbitant, and yet none of it had satisfied him. He could tell Charo about the Brothers’ refectory, perhaps. There, after dark, perhaps he could get a little taste of home, and that might comfort him. But Tuco could not forget Belzebub and the two Brothers lost to temptation in that room. Supposing he was leading Charo into another temptation, one that would doom him?

“No, not to you,” the apprentice mumbled gloomily. “You’re used to it. It’s probably a huge step up for you.”

Tuco watched him poke at his food for a moment and then looked around the room. When he was sure no one was looking, he let his tongue slip from between his teeth and taste the air. Despite his disaffected attitude, Charo was seething with desire. He longed for home, for a sense of belonging, and the safety and ease that brought with it. He hungered for wealth, not for what it could be used for, but for its own sake, and though Tuco could taste that desire, his new sense did not reveal to him the motivation behind the hunger—only that it was there. But above all else, Charo desired position. He wanted to be better than everyone else; he wanted to prove it, he wanted everyone to know that he was superior, for others to serve him. It was a longing that twisted him inside, that made his aura taste bitter and acidic. And Tuco pitied him. But one thing he noticed: he tasted no desire for food, and that was a scent that he now knew very, very well.

He scanned the table until he saw a plate of fresh fruit, including orange globes that someone had told him were called persimmons, and he took one and cut it in half with a knife, the sticky juice oozing out over his fingers. “Maybe you’re just not tasting what I taste,” he suggested. “Here. Will you try something for me?”

The lark-winged boy gave him a bored look. “I’m not terribly interested in your peasant games, whatever they are.”

“Just try. You’ve had so many rich and well-made foods. I just want to see if you can taste things as I do. Maybe it’s a matter of perspective.”

“I have a trained palate, you know. It is quite refined. If I do not enjoy this food, then it’s because I taste the impurities. The dirt.”

“Then you can explain to me what I’m not tasting. Here.” Tuco held out the persimmon half.

Charo plucked it from his fingers. “I’m certain I can do that.” He lifted it to his mouth.

“Wait. Wait. First… close your eyes.”

“As you say.”

“Now. Shut out the noise of the room. Don’t listen to anything else that is going on around you. You’ve had a hard day. You’re exhausted from labor and you’re wet with sweat. The sun was hot and your body is aching. Finally, finally you have a chance to rest, and you’re going to have this piece of fruit, a new kind, which you’ve never had before.”

“I’ve had persimmon.”

“No, you haven’t. You know others have, but this is a rare treat. You’ve never tasted it before. Try it.”

Even with his eyes closed, Charo managed a sarcastic arch to his eyebrows as he bit into the fruit. “It’s… sweet. It tastes like persimmon.”

“No, it doesn’t. You’ve never had persimmon before. What do you taste?”

“It’s sticky. The skin is soft. And mellow, sweet, but tart. The flesh is firm and crisp at the edges, but… oh.”

“You can taste it?” Tuco hoped that Charo’s tastebuds were not permanently desensitized by a lifetime of delicacies. If I could help him taste it better, I would.

“It’s… astonishing, when one’s eyes are closed, when one focuses, the flavor is much more intense.” Charo chewed slowly and slumped forward a little in his chair, his brow furrowing as he focused on the persimmon. He swallowed and took another bite, and a little shudder ran down his spine. “This is—this is incredible, I—” He opened his eyes and peered at the half-eaten fruit. “This cannot be an ordinary persimmon. Where did you get this? Did you do something to it?”

“Nothing, I swear it.”

“Astounding.” Charo said the word around a second bite, chewing hungrily, juice running down his chin. “It must be a new variety. They are doing—mmm—remarkable things with breeding these days.” He swallowed and licked the sides of his mouth hungrily. “Is there more?”

“There is, but why not try something else?” Tuco took a piece of warm brown bread coated with melted butter and handed it to him. “Taste it as I showed you. You have grown up in a faraway land and never tasted bread before. Try it!”

Charo took the piece of bread and bit into it. His eyes went wide. “Oh gods!” And with that, the wings on his back flung wide, huge tan feathers spreading open. “This—this can’t be mere bread.”

Tuco frowned. This was an odd reaction; he hadn’t expected his little experiment to be this successful, but it was certainly better than the disaffection from before. Anything that helped Charo enjoy where he was here and now instead of longing for what he’d lost had to be an improvement. “You like it?”

“It’s—it’s warm and soft and crispy all at once, and the butter is savory and salty. But there’s sweetness in it, too, and the wheat… it’s grass, I can taste that the wheat is grass seed. It’s as though I can taste it with my whole mouth, not just my tongue.”

Tuco nodded. “Before, you were barely here. You weren’t focused on your food so you didn’t notice its pleasures. You tasted what it wasn’t instead of what it was. But when you’re really enjoying a meal, it can sometimes feel as though your whole body is tasting it.”

A prickle moved over Charo’s skin, and he shivered. “Give me something else!”

Tuco cast about, looking for something suitable, and settled on a meat pie dusted with spices. “Try this.”

Charo snatched from his hands and bit into it, and a moment later, he sprang into the air, his wings giving a forceful flap that knocked over goblets and sent grapes rolling across the table. For a moment he hovered there, his wings beating, his head tilted back in an expression of ecstasy as he chewed.

“Charo! Charo, you did it! You flew!”

He opened his eyes wide in astonishment and dropped down to the table with a crash. Everyone was staring at him now, but he only had eyes for his meat pie, tears running down his face as he devoured it. “Tuco… Tuco, it’s amazing,” he mumbled through the crumbs. “Thank you. Thank you for showing me…”

And then a look of bewilderment passed over his face. “That’s… very odd.”

Suddenly, his lips looked as though they were growing larger, spreading up his face. But no, it wasn’t his lips, just pink. Little pink bumps spreading across his face and up over his nose. They disappeared into his hair and down his robes. “I can… I can taste my—” His eyes widened. “What have you done to me?”

“What—what do you mean?” Tuco stammered. “I didn’t do anything! What’s happening? What’s that pink on your face? Are you being Changed again?”

Charo scrambled off the table. “No, no, I can taste… my robes. On my shoulders. My back.” He lunged for Tuco, gripping his face with both hands. “It’s spreading!” he hissed. “Make it stop, make it—”

He froze, and they both watched as pink extended from out of his sleeves, creeping down his arms, his wrists, and across his hands. “I can taste you.” He let go of Tuco with an expression of shock. “Oh merciful God, why are you delicious? Why does everything taste so good?” He staggered backward, his hands hitting the table. “Oh God! The wood! Rich-hewn oak marinated in a thousand meals!” He put his fingers to his face. “Meat! Human skin, young and delicate.”

“Don’t—don’t eat yourself,” Tuco managed desperately.

“I don’t need to put things in my mouth to taste them anymore,” Charo moaned. “You did this, didn’t you? You changed me! You’re a demon!”

“No I didn’t! I only showed you how to tasssste things!”

A look of confusion flickered over Charo’s face. “No. No, of course you didn’t. I… I need to try other things. I need to taste everything.” And, moaning with sensory overload, the apprentice spread his wings and flapped into the air, landing in the middle of the table and seizing up a pear in one hand and a sausage in the other, shuddering with gustatory rapture.

Tuco backed toward the wall. A demon must have been listening to his words and used them to tempt Charo. It was the only explanation.

“Pity,” said Braxus, the large wolf-creature, sauntering over to him. “I’ve never seen anyone Changed right in front of me before. Other than myself. Looks like he got a tough one. They’ll be sending him home for sure.”

“You think?” Tuco asked, in a daze.

“Sure, a Change like that. Look at him.”

On the table, Charo was moaning as he plunged one hand into a tureen of soup and the other into a mug of chowder.

Braxus shook his huge, shaggy head. “You see the demon that got him?”

“No, I didn’t see anything. I was just talking to him. I—I hope it wasn’t my fault. I was trying to get him to enjoy food.”

“Nah, demons will take any chance they get to change you. Y’can’t blame yourself, mate.” Braxus frowned. “Here, you all right? He hurt you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Only you’ve got blood on your face. Might want to clean that up.”

Tuco became aware of a tickle running down his forehead, and he put his hand to it. It came away with red smeared across it. “Oh,” he said, and then his forehead began to throb. “I—I think I will.”

He turned and bolted out of the refectory and down the hallway into the washroom. The throbbing at his forehead was growing more intense, no longer a pain but a pressure focused at his temples. Dreading what he would see, he crept over to the mirrors and peered into one. Streaks of blood ran into his eyebrows and down his cheeks. And rising up from above his temples, short but still growing, were two curved, black horns, jutting further and further upward.

“Oh no.” His huge, pointed teeth flashed with his gasp. “Oh no. I’ve become a demon.”

Part 7: Confession

Footsteps echoed somewhere down the long hallway, the only other sounds the continual howl of drafts and the faint crackle of candlelight. Tuco shifted on the hard bench and looked up at the coarse wooden door next to him. It had black, wrought-iron hinges and looked as heavy as a tombstone. It didn’t move, nor did any sound emanate from its other side. He wondered if anyone was truly there.

It had been a long night of worry and anxious conversations with Pike, and in the morning, he’d gone to find Lord Krastor, only to discover that the door to the library tower was not where he remembered it. Where once there had been a staircase and doorway, now there was only a stone wall and a painting so faded he’d couldn’t make out its subject. He wasn’t sure if he’d lost his way or if the architecture of the abbey had altered itself again. He’d finally sought out Rigby only to be informed by the clockwork man that Lord Krastor was indisposed and anyway not to be bothered without being invited by another monk. Apparently few met the elusive master of the keep more than once.

So Rigby had led him down the hall past the large refectory to another corridor and sat him on a bench near the end where he was supposed to meet someone named Brother Gabriel, the Master of Apprentices. Rigby had rapped on the door—a faint sound that didn’t seem like it could reach the room on the other side—and had left Tuco there to wait. “However long it takes,” he had advised.

Tuco squirmed uncomfortably. The bench was making his backside sore. Surely no one was coming; they couldn’t even have heard the knock. Absently, he pulled his cap off to tug at the new horns jutting up from his forehead, rubbing powdery dried blood from around their bases. They protruded longer than his fingers now, curving upward and slightly back, and though he’d tried to keep them covered with his cap, they were a bit too long, and made obvious bulges in the fabric. They didn’t feel like something attached to him when he pulled on them, but a part of his skull. A part of him. Like the strangely sharp teeth lining his mouth and the long tongue always pressed up against them.

Since yesterday he’d been afraid to speak to anyone. What if he tempted them into changes as he had poor Charo? As Braxus had predicted, the lark-winged boy had been sent back to his family, wrapped in sterile-washed linens so that the taste of them didn’t overwhelm his flesh. Tuco was trying not to think about that. Had he truly transformed the boy? Did he have that power now? He hadn’t felt anything, any sense of magic, when talking to him, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t happened. And it didn’t mean it couldn’t happen again. He didn’t dare test it to try. All he’d ever wanted was for Charo to find more enjoyment in simple pleasures. By what power had that twisted into growing taste buds all over his body? Perhaps it was only that he had instilled the temptation and hidden demons had done the rest, but that was scarcely better.

He’d had a long and anxious conversation with Pike that night. Pike swore up and down that even now, Tuco was not dangerous, that his ears would be able to hear if he was. “In fact,” he’d declared, “to me you sound like the least dangerous thing here, horns and all, sweet thing.” He’d begged Tuco not to go to the Brothers and confess when they didn’t even truly know what was happening, but Tuco had not been willing to risk another accident, and so Pike had given him a long, sorrowful hug goodbye and let him go.

The wooden door cracked open with a hollow creak. “You may enter,” a deep voice said from within. Relieved, Tuco rose from the hard wooden seat and pulled the door open. It was heavy, and groaned in protest.

The room beyond was bare and dismal, all dark grey stone. Books were arranged along one shelf, and in the back corner, beside a narrow, hard-looking cot, a single rug ornamented the floor, but beyond that, there was no decoration. There was a nightstand next to the bed with a plain, porcelain ewer for water, and spare robes hung from several wall hooks. In the center of the room was an austere wooden desk and behind it sat a man, his elbows planted on it, hands folded. His head was shorn, with no signs of stubble, and he was gaunt of frame, his cheeks hollow, his wide mouth drawn into a perpetual frown. Dark eyes glittered under bushy black eyebrows. “Tuco Witchywine, is it?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.” Tuco ventured into the room, which was dark, lit only by several candles. There must have been sconces mounted on the walls at one time, but they had been pulled away—violently, it seemed, as deep scars marred the pale spots where the sconces had once hung. In the place of one, from a simple bracket, hung a sword, its silver blade unsheathed, Latin letters inscribed down its blade.

Brother Gabriel caught his gaze. “There are dangers here. Sometimes we cannot hold back the corrupted with prayer. Sometimes a more immediate solution is called for. You are wondering why I hide here in natural candlelight, no doubt. The answer is a simple one. The light of hellfire is a tarnish upon this abbey. The only true and holy light is that which the Lord grants us. I will not imperil my soul by accepting gifts from demons.”

“That’s very… pious, sir,” Tuco said. He shuffled forward.

“And why do you feel it necessary to disturb the Master of Apprentices? I will warn you,” he interrupted Tuco’s answer, holding up a hand, “that I do not have the faith in this mission that the other Brothers hold. Consorting with demons, even in the belief that they can be thwarted, is at best misguided, and at worst, heresy. One does not save the world by talking to demons. One saves one’s soul by entrusting it only to the Almighty, and trusting Him to preserve the rest as He sees fit. These so-called holy men risk their souls, and worse, are willing to sacrifice the souls of you innocent young men in order to pursue knowledge the Good Lord has not granted us. It is blasphemy, and a great evil, and if I had my way I would have every monk imprisoned, burn every tome in the abbey, and then raze it to the ground and call upon the Chantry to sanctify the broken stones.” He leaned back in his chair. “Alas, the Pontiff has seen fit to allow this accursed mission to continue, and has thus far declined my petitions to have it terminated, or at least to have me reassigned. So here we are.” He gave Tuco a thin, humorless smile. “So then. What is it you wished to see me about?”

“Do you—do you give that speech to all the apprentices who come to see you, sir?”

Brother Gabriel’s smile soured. “I do. I believe it important that all who come to see me understand my position. I will not aid the Brothers of this abbey in their mission. But I will do what I can to protect those souls still innocent from perversion and destruction. I daresay I have some experience in this matter. Twelve years so far my appointment—nay, my sentence—here has lasted, and see you one hint of a change upon me? None. No demon can tempt me nor sway me, for I fortify my mind and soul hourly with prayers to the Almighty. It is the Lord who has preserved me, and you may see the proof of it upon my flesh.” He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “So what of you, Apprentice Tuco? I see that you are new to us. Have you so far escaped temptation?”

Miserably, Tuco pulled his cap from his head, revealing the horns curling upward.

Brother Gabriel did not gasp. A resigned weariness settled into his expression. “Ah. So soon.”

“But Brother Gabriel, something else happened to me. My… my changes started before I was ever tempted. I mean, a demon did call to me in the washroom, but I didn’t answer. I think it was the ritual, sir. Surely Lord Krastor told you about it?”

“Lord Krastor…” The man’s mouth twisted as though he had tasted something unpleasant. “Lord Krastor has neither the time nor the attention to monitor every single ritual performed at the abbey, much less inform me. But it is of little surprise to me that that is where you fell to the demons.”

“But I didn’t, sir. Only that’s where Brother Melvin—”

Brother Gabriel straightened up sharply, his dark eyes glittering. “What of Brother Melvin? Have you seen him?”

Belatedly, Tuco remembered that he had been instructed by Lord Krastor not to speak of the ritual or what had happened, an edict he’d failed miserably so far, but he’d never thought someone as highly ranked as Brother Gabriel wouldn’t know of it. “No sir,” he stammered. “But something happened during that ritual. It changed me. There was all this fire everywhere, and then I passed out, and when I woke up, sir, I… my tongue, it… changed, and I could lie to people and they would believe me.”

The gaunt monk narrowed his eyes and leaned across his desk on both elbows. “The forked tongue, you say? Let me see.” He drew in a sharp hiss of breath when Tuco revealed a short length of black and bifurcated tongue.

“But that isn’t all, sir. I saw a devil. He—he called himself Belzebub. He forced me to eat. I couldn’t control myself. That’s when my teeth changed. And then—then, sir, I think I tempted another apprentice. Not on purpose! But I was just talking about the food and then… then… sir?”

He trailed off, for Brother Gabriel had risen from his chair, the blood draining from his face. “What was that? What name did you say?”

“Belzebub.”

The monk’s cheeks shook, and he reached for the rosary lying on his cot. “Tell me you are lying about this, boy. Tell me it’s all a game.” He wrapped the rosary around his rough fingers and held upward the cruximissa, the sign of the tree. He thrust it toward Tuco. “Tell me!” Tuco flinched back, but only because for a moment he thought the man was going to hit him.

Brother Gabriel, however, seemed to take this as a sign. “What’s the matter, boy? Don’t like the look of it?” There was a strange glint in his eyes, though Tuco could not decide if it was madness or religious fervor.

“No, I—I’m just fine with it, sir. I respect the tree.” And he bowed his head before the rosary to demonstrate. Although, he thought, if I had been murdered painfully on something, I doubt I’d care very much for people waving tiny copies of it in my face all the time. He felt the cool metal of the cruximissa pressed to his forehead, and waited before lifting his head.

Brother Gabriel relaxed, settling back into his chair. “Then you have not been corrupted. You could not have passed beneath the Gasen. And the other Brothers’ sin-stones would surely warn them. I, of course, use no such device. Enchantments are wrought by demons and devils, and we pollute ourselves by communing with them. This devil, this thing that called itself Belzebub—you are not lying to me about it?”

“No, sir. He… he called me an imp. That’s why I thought—”

“Were it truly a devil, have no doubt it would have lied to you. Perhaps even about its own name. What else did it say to you?”

“I’m certain it will seem a fabrication, sir. It sounds so now upon my recollection.”

“Surely you did not wait outside my door not to tell me what happened? Either explain yourself or leave me be and do not interrupt me further.”

Tuco noticed that despite the monk’s now-calm demeanour, he kept that rosary wrapped so tightly around his fingers that the skin was white. Uneasily, he recounted what had happened in the refectory, taking care to be honest and spare no detail. Brother Gabriel listened, staring to one side with an unreadable expression, but his one hand gripped the rosary more and more tightly.

“And you swear to me that all of this is true?”

“I will swear it on the cruximissa if you like, sir.”

“And yet no evidence remains of your tale. The tables, supposedly broken, are now undamaged. No food remains spilt on the floor, no dishes are broken, every trace of this so-called feast vanished. And this prodigious increase in size and fat that you report—that, too, unverifiable. You remain unchanged by this experience.”

Tuco grimaced, showing the array of thick, white fangs that felt too huge for his mouth. “But for my teeth, sir.”

“Which could have been altered by a demonic temptation. So what should I believe here, boy? That you were tempted and changed, perhaps given visions by a demon during the course? Or this fantastical tale which involves great and terrible transfiguration at the end of which you consumed a fallen angel?”

“Sir, what motive could I have to lie to you about this? I came to you because I feared for the Abbey. If…” Tuco took a deep breath. He could not know the fate that awaited him should the monk believe him. Would he be locked away in the Throat? Or worse, subjected some ritual that would banish his demonic body to the Abyss? Would he ever see Pike again? Or his family? Would he be forever barred from Elysium? “If I have become a demon somehow, then everyone else should be protected from me.”

Brother Gabriel peered at him. “Yes. Yes, they should. But we mortal sons of the Almighty cannot become demons anymore than we can become angels. We are made of different stuff than they. We have immortal souls, and they do not. Can you offer me any proof of your tale? Any at all, other than the changes you have manifested?”

Tuco thought a moment. “Well, sir, as I mentioned, if I… test the air with my tongue, there are things I can tell about other people. Their desire, sir. If you would not find it impudent, I could try it with you.”

Wariness hooded Brother Gabriel’s eyes. “I have endeavored my whole life, with the guidance and blessings of the Almighty, to rid myself of desires and temptations. If you taste nothing at all, will it prove or disprove your claims? Still, you may indulge this whim if you think you can detect something. Perhaps you might tell me what you taste of your own desires.”

“Never tasted my own, sir,” Tuco said, and then recalled what his tongue had been wrapped around earlier. “Uh, literally speaking, I mean.” Shyly, he opened his mouth and let his tongue slide out into the open air. It undulated slowly as it extended, dripping. He still couldn’t tell where it was coming from, how all of it fit into his mouth. Brother Gabriel leaned back with an expression of disgust.

Breathing in, Tuco tasted the air. For a moment he thought there was nothing—just the scent of a dusty old stone room mixed with the scents of dry paper and ink and filled with the smell of candle flame and lingering incense. He breathed in again, searching for some sign of temptation, of corruption. Everyone had it, everyone. He searched through the scents in the air and then withdrew his tongue.

“You’re a remarkable man, Brother Gabriel. I do not know how you do it. How you live in this remote place and never hunger for a taste of home or the embrace of arms around you. You didn’t come here for an easy life, and you certainly found no safety in this fell place. You don’t… I don’t think you fit in here, do you? You talked about how different you are than the other Brothers. But that doesn’t trouble you. You don’t wish for beauty or power or position. You crave neither wealth nor revenge. I don’t understand how you could have banished all these desires from your heart. It is truly admirable.”

The monk eased back in his chair, his grip around his rosary softening. Tuco could actually see the pink of blood pulsing back into his fingers. “It is only through the Lord our God that we find—”

“But,” Tuco continued, “there is something, sir.”

“Go on.” Brother Gabriel attempted a smile with his mouth, but his cheeks were frozen.

“Vanity, sir. I taste it on you like rain on spring air. You’re proud that you have overcome temptation, and you say the credit belongs to the Almighty, but you’re pleased all the same. You want to be a man of virtue, sir. You want it so much. You want the Almighty to smile down on you and think of you as one of his favorites.”

The smile slowly melted off the man’s face as Tuco spoke. “And to your mind, wishing to be a good person is a temptation?”

“It’s the Temptation of Self, isn’t it? To become greater than others? Even if that greatness comes through holiness?” Tuco looked down at his hands. “To be honest, I never really understood that one. If the Almighty loves us, can it be wrong to love ourselves? And you, sir, who have denied yourself so much pleasure over your life, you must have something to pull you on, some small personal reward. If doing good deeds and resisting temptation means you can’t even feel good about yourself sometimes, why, I don’t know that any of us could manage it.”

Brother Gabriel stammered, “The—the love of the Almighty is what drives the devout to serve Him.”

“That may be, sir, but I taste something more. You long to be a good person, to be seen as a good person. You dream of personally smiting a great blow against evil, I think.”

The man rose from his chair and stumbled backward, his whole face going pale. “How can you know these things?”

Tuco sighed. “I told you. I can taste it. But I swear to you that the taste was so faint at first I thought there was nothing. I think it’s all right to be a little proud. You are a holy and pious man, and if pleasure at your service to the Almighty drives you on, then I say let it. Let it make you a better warrior against evil. The world will need people like that if the Apocalypse is truly coming. It will need people like you, who have made themselves strong, giants among the others… sir?”

He trailed off, for Brother Gabriel’s eyes had begun rolling. The monk held up the rosary again, his arm shaking. “Sanguis Christi,” he breathed. “I can actually feel the change. The temptation beginning to alter me! You have corrupted me, you… you… demon!” He shook the cruximissa in the air, but at arm’s length, as though Tuco were a serpent who might strike at him. “I knew it would happen one day. How have you deceived us? How have you managed to evade the Gasen?”

“I—I don’t know, but I swear I’m not deceiving you. I’m telling you the truth. I’m afraid something might be wrong with me. That’s why I’m here. To do the right thing.”

Brother Gabriel lurched forward, jamming the cruximissa into Tuco’s face, bearing it down against his forehead. Tuco fell backward in his chair as he scrambled to get away. “Vade retro, daemon! Go back to the Abyss that spawned you!”

Tears of terror running down his cheeks, Tuco crawled back along the stones. “I came to you for help! Please, there must be some ritual or prayer that can take this out of me. An exorcism, perhaps! Like the boy in the hall, you can—you can force it out of me.” He faltered, remembering the boy’s broken arm, but if an exorcism could save him…

“No,” Brother Gabriel growled. Trembling, he strode to the bracket where the rune-inscribed sword hung. He hefted it from the wall and spun it, wielding it in two hands. “No, there is only one recourse for creatures like you. You, who would take a man’s piety and pervert it, try to turn it into sin! It was me you came here for, wasn’t it? Tell the truth, if you can with that serpent’s tongue! You came here to destroy God’s instrument, his sole bulwark against the forces of evil in this place!”

The weapon held in both hands, point swinging low, he advanced on Tuco. Tuco retreated backward on hands and heels until he found himself up against the wall.

“Admit your allegiance with Sathanus, and I will make your execution swift.” Brother Gabriel’s eyes were lit with a kind of fever. The silvery edge of the sword seemed to hum, reflecting candlelight, the tip grazing Tuco’s throat. “Admit it! In nomine dei, confitere!”

For a moment, Tuco could not speak. His throat was locked, his heart frozen. The lines around Brother Gabriel’s mouth hardened. “N—no,” Tuco managed. “I don’t serve Sathanus! He’s terrifying! And besides, he’s dead, I—I saw him die.”

“Not even a good lie,” Brother Gabriel muttered in a disappointed voice, and he raised the sword with both hands. The edge gleamed like holy fire. Then he swung down toward Tuco’s throat. Terrified, Tuco flung himself to one side, the sword edge shedding sparks as it scraped across the stones.

“You will not avail yourself, demon!” Brother Gabriel shouted, lifting the blade over his right shoulder. He brought it down in a brutal arc, bellowing, “Vade retro!” His cry echoed down the corridor.

Tuco barely managed to scramble out of the way of the blow. He got to his feet and scurried around the side of the monk’s desk, trying to keep the furniture between them. Brother Gabriel advanced, his mouth a hard, determined line, his eyes lit with righteous fire. “In the name of the Almighty, I will destroy you and all those who imperil mortal souls with their wickedness.” He feinted to the left and then swept the sword to the right, sweeping books off the desk. An inkwell fell to the floor with a clink and rolled in an arc, drawing a smile of black across the stones.

Tuco tried to seize the moment and run around the table to the left, but Brother Gabriel was too quick for him, the edge of the sword snagging on Tuco’s tunic. He threw himself backward, out of the way of the swipe, fell half to his knees and ran to the other side of the room, but there was nowhere for him to go. He climbed up on the monk’s hard, rough cot, flattening himself against the wall.

“Now I have you.” Brother Gabriel kicked his desk chair out of the way, striding toward Tuco, his sword raised to his shoulder for a lunge. “You filth. You corrupted me. Started to change me. There can be no mercy or grace for creatures such as you. Now, die!”

“You can’t sssee me!” Tuco screamed. The sword faltered halfway to his belly.

The monk stumbled back a step, his brow furrowing. “What devilry is this?” He stared at Tuco in naked confusion. “The image of the creature is here, but no, no, you speak truly. I cannot see you. Only this… decoy.”

His heart slamming against his chest, Tuco slid along the wall, away from the wicked point of the sword. “Everything I told you today was jussst a… a ssstory. The other boysss, they made me go and tell you. It wasss a dare. I didn’t know it would anger you so much.” His tongue flicked into the room of its own accord, and now he could taste more desires than before: a new hunger, one for safety above all, and lurking behind that one, a nascent lust for power. Had he awoken those in this holy man?

Brother Gabriel backed away, swinging the sword back and forth as though he hoped to strike an unseen foe. “Yes, of course it was lies. I knew it. But you still came here to tempt me.”

“I didn’t tempt you. You did it yourssself.” Guilt panged at his stomach for that one, but what else was he to say? Brother Gabriel was set on executing him.

“I did,” the man moaned. “My vices, so deep that I could not admit them to myself. They shame me. I am shamed that you saw them.”

Tuco stepped off the cot and moved toward the door, sliding along the wall, his mind scrambling for anything he could say that would get him all the way out of this situation. “No, I didn’t sssee them. I never came to visssit you. I wasss never here.”

At that, something broke in Brother Gabriel’s face. His shoulders went slack, and he let the sword fall to the floor with a ringing clatter. “No, of course. No one was here. You saw no one. Spoke to no one. Gabriel, you fool. You have been railing at visions… just visions.” He muttered, as if to himself. “Perhaps they were were right, what they said about you. Perhaps… perhaps you are truly mad.” He cast furtive glances toward Tuco, as if trying to confirm that the vision was still there. “Mad and… and dangerous?” His jaw set. “But… but no. If visions they be, then surely they are sent by the Almighty. Surely it is He who chastises you for your pride, but why? Only to spur you into greater piety. To draw you closer to His eternal bosom. Yes. I will redouble my efforts. Whatever this Tuco vision might have been, I will seek out the evil in this place. I will root it out and destroy it. Does not God himself will it?”

Tuco fled the room while he had his chance. The last thing he saw was Brother Gabriel sinking to his knees by the rude cot, his face beading with sweat, trembling in religious fervor.


Moss blanketed the roof of the abbey. Tuco followed Pike across the flat stones that rose from the soft green like little islands. “You’re sure we’re allowed to be up here?” The wind whipped at his robe, and he pulled it more tightly around his tunic.

The rabbit shrugged lean shoulders. “It’s not forbidden. Just ill-advised. The winds up here can be dangerous, and it’s often storming.” He squinted at the sky. Patches of blue swam through the clouds. “But I come up here sometimes, on nice days like this one.”

“Aren’t you cold?”

“Fur, remember? I distinctly remember wishing to be warm when this happened to me.”

Tuco frowned, thinking. “Temptation of Belonging, maybe? Ease?”

“Probably. And safety. Hence the ears that can hear peril.” Pike sauntered up to the edge of the roof next a crenellation and leaned forward on his elbows, staring down the mountainside. “This place sounds no more dangerous than anywhere inside, if you were wondering. A little less so, at least on clear days.”

Tuco followed him up to the edge and felt a lurch of vertigo. He’d never much liked heights, but he’d never seen a view like this one. “It’s like the whole world is in front of us,” he breathed. The dark, silty-grey slopes of the mountainside spread out in every direction, meeting brilliant green partway down and opening up into a wide, flat world of plains interspersed with little copses of forest, cut here and there by the silvery gleam of a river.

“It is,” Pike said, and folded his ears back. “But not for us, Tuco. We don’t go back down there. For us, it’s just a view. A dream.”

“But we’re allowed to leave whenever we want. We could even be sent home if our hands or our voices change too much.”

“Or our minds,” Pike said. “Maybe you could get away with it, if you left now. Find a carpenter to saw off those horns you’ve got there. Try to keep your teeth concealed when you speak. You might get away with it for a while. But I can never go. Trust me. I tried, once. Back after I first Changed.” He grimaced. “It’s not a kind world for people like us. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t do anything to earn it, or that most of those grubbers out there wouldn’t last five minutes before some demon offered them gold and turned them into something awful. The people down there feel better if there’s a them. Folks to make them all feel like they have something important in common. There’s always a them, Tuco, and that’s us. You and me.”

Tuco thought about sawing off his horns and winced. He reached up to tug at them again. The ribbed curves nestled in his grip. They felt a part of his skull, a part of him. And here, sure, people might notice your changes or tease you about them, but everyone had them. “I didn’t feel that way when I was Unchanged.”

Pike turned to him, smiling. “No, but you’re not like anyone else.”

“Is that why you wanted me when I was Unchanged so much? Because of—of how you were treated out there?”

“Sweet boy, I wanted you because you were comely and kind and shy and frankly delicious. But… but yes. It felt nice, for once. Like I was still normal.”

“Nothing special about being normal,” Tuco pointed out.

“True, true. But one can’t help longing for what’s lost.” Pike turned his gaze back out to the horizon, to the glitter of a city huddled against the sky. “So, Brother Gabriel tried to kill you, did he? I’ve always thought him a bit mad.”

“I don’t think he’s mad. Just… very pious. And afraid. I think his piety makes him lonely.”

Pike spat over the edge of the roof. “He was lonely before he was pious, mark my words. Piety is just another word for misanthropy.”

“You think he hates mankind? Perhaps he just hates the sin within us.”

“It amazes me that you still think there’s a difference.”

“I tasted almost no desire on him.”

Pike winced. “I do wish you would find another way to phrase that. But that’s my point. He had almost no desire, and he couldn’t see your humanity. He tried to kill you. How can you love people when you don’t understand what moves them? It’s like saying you love sailboats but you hate the wind.”

“I think I might have done something terrible to him. I had to lie to him or he’d have killed me. I told him he couldn’t see me, that I hadn’t even come to visit. And—and he acted a bit mad after that.”

“After that? You mean after he came at you with a sword he acted mad?”

“Well, differently mad, then. I think I damaged his relationship with reality.”

Pike snorted at that but said nothing.

“And there were more desires in him after that, too. Pike, I feel so terrible about what I’ve done. To Charo, to him, to—”

“Stop,” Pike said sharply. “Just stop it. The man tried to kill you for your honesty, and you feel bad? These guilts and shames don’t belong to you. And if you take them on yourself, you’ll twist yourself up. The demons will use that. You’ll start wishing you belonged, wishing you were blameless, wishing you were loved, that you were—”

“Holy,” Tuco said, suddenly understanding. “Just like Brother Gabriel.”

“I think something special is happening with you, Tuco. I don’t know what it is, but I’m not afraid of it. Whatever you are, you may look like a demon, you may have strange abilities, but I hear no danger from you. I trust you. And if you start to stray, if you ever begin to sound dangerous, I promise to tell you. But we have to hide this from the monks now. The Brothers don’t take corruption lightly. There are worse things than the edge of a blade. I want you to promise me you won’t go to talk to them again about any of this.”

“But they—they’re holy men, and they know so much more about demons and devils than we do. What if I’m risking everyone, what if I’m corrupted by a devil and—”

“Tuco, please. Let the Almighty guide them. They don’t need you to do it, especially if you’re corrupted by a devil, do they?” He sighed and put his paws on Tuco’s shoulders. “Trust me, my friend. Trust the person who cares about you more than he cares about an abbey or an Apocalypse.”

Tuco stared into Pike’s large, brown eyes. “I do trust you.”

The rabbit smiled, whiskers twitching. “No hiss. Guess that means I believe you.” He leaned down and pressed his lips to Tuco’s, closing his eyes.

Tuco stepped into the warmth of Pike’s fur, kissing back. Pike folded arms around him, half-hefting him up, and he wished he weren’t quite so much shorter than the rabbit. He parted his lips to gasp for a breath and then kissed back more firmly, sliding his arms around Pike’s lean waist. In his robes he felt his erection rise, quick and eager, his tip bumping against the fabric. He kissed hungrily at Pike’s upper lip, nipped the lower. He dared a lick, and the taste of the rabbit’s desire hit him with the intensity of strong spirits and hot spices. He could taste what Pike wanted, and so gave it to him: he slipped his tongue between Pike’s teeth and into the back of his mouth, licking across the other’s tongue and teeth… and then it just kept going, wriggling as if to plunge down the rabbit’s throat.

Pike made a choking sound and broke away from the kiss, stepping back to leave Tuco’s tongue wagging in the air, saliva dripping from the two points. “Whoa, easy there, guy.”

Tuco just gave him a sharp-toothed grin. “I can taste you. You want me so much right now. You’re full of desire.”

The rabbit’s eyes went a little wider, and his cock slid from its sheath into the cold mountain air as if summoned. “Well then, you’d better deliver me from evil.” He took Tuco’s robe and pulled it open. The breeze made Tuco shiver, and so the rabbit led him to a softer place in the moss, covered it with the robe, and drew Tuco down on it and pulled him into his warm fur. Tuco held tightly, arms around Pike’s chest, nestling into that softness and warmth as closely as he could and kissing Pike again, across the mouth, the jaw, down his neck and into the thick fur of his chest. His hips ground as if of their own, running his needy tip through the exquisite softness carpeting Pike’s belly, and he shuddered, feeling already ready to release.

“Yes,” Pike growled into one ear, his long whiskers dancing across Tuco’s bare skin. “I know I’m soft, but let’s do something else with that, hmm?” He pulled the robe around Tuco to keep him warm and then slid down, his breath hot and damp against Tuco’s chest, then his belly, and then he found Tuco’s erection and panted softly against it, his eartips grazing Tuco’s shoulder.

“What do we have here?” he whispered, and the brush of his lips and the softness of his fur made Tuco’s cock ache and strain. “A droplet.” A hot tongue dabbed at Tuco’s tip, making him groan between his teeth. He tried to push his hips toward Pike; his tongue curled in the air and he knew Pike desired the taste of him… but also the pleasure of teasing, and the rabbit dragged clawed fingers lightly down Tuco’s sides, making him squirm before holding him in place. “Let us see if we cannot coax more out of you.”

Warmth engulfed Tuco’s cock. Pleasure exploded in his hips and he let out a little fluttery, overwhelmed cry, his back arching. He found the rabbit’s head and gripped into the fur behind his ears with both hands. Pike made a little grunt of surprise and swallowed repeatedly around Tuco’s erection. Then he drew back with a satisfied lick of his lips and said, “We can.”

Tuco wanted more, ached to have his erection plunged from the chill air back into Pike’s soft mouth again, but he wanted something else, too. “Pike?” he panted.

“Yes, sweet demon boy?”

He felt the heat of a flush at that, but steeled up his courage. “Can—can I try, too?”

The rabbit was quiet against his belly for a moment, but Tuco could taste his excitement in the air. He then got up quickly and turned so that he lay with his own slick tip near Tuco’s nose. “Show me what you can do with that tongue of yours.” His fingertips grazed over Tuco’s sac with the lightest of touches, making Tuco shiver and groan. He curled his paw around Tuco’s shaft and planted suckling kisses on the end of it, licking across the tip as though it were a sweet.

Tuco tried to ignore the overwhelming sensations enough to focus on Pike. The rabbit’s erection was enormous, nearly a foot in length, veined and bulging toward the middle. Tuco’s tongue slid out and settled against the hot flesh where it met the furred sheath. Pike tasted of musk and salt and unmitigated lust. Tuco dragged his tongue up the length, running the shaft between his forked tips, and Pike’s lean side tensed hard under his fingertips. Then he kissed the tip, imitating the teasing kisses on his own cock, the slippery flavor of Pike’s arousal smearing his lips. His tongue extended again, but this time he curled it in a loop, encircling Pike’s cock, and kept sliding forward, coiling around and around the organ like a serpent around a tree limb.

Pike let out a loud, startled moan, his hips giving a little spasm, his tip wetting with pre again, but Tuco wasn’t finished. His devil’s tongue could taste just when Pike desired him to use more pressure, just when to pause, just when to squeeze with it or kiss again to hold him in moments of ecstasy. His tongue entwined all the way around Pike’s shaft to the very base, and then encircled the rabbit’s soft-furred sac. Pike twitched in his arms and made small kicks, gasping around Tuco’s cock. He was riding the edge of climax, but he didn’t desire to climax yet, and Tuco didn’t want to let him, so he held still, letting Pike ride out the wave of ecstasy.

“Oh no you don’t, you won’t make me come before you,” Pike growled, and he gripped Tuco’s hips in both paws, swallowing Tuco’s length into the back of his throat and rocking him with an almost blinding wave of pleasure. Tuco almost released in that instant, but he staved off the climax by turning his attention back to Pike—if that was how it was going to go, he could taste just how to spur the rabbit to completion. His tongue slid around and around Pike’s shaft, over his sac, wriggling between his thighs to lick up the cleft of his rump, over the quivering flesh there.

Pike’s entire body convulsed. He let out three ragged, somewhat muffled cries, and then his cock flexed hard within Tuco’s lingual grip, his hips jerking as his seed made hot, thick splashes across Tuco’s cheek, his chin, into his open mouth.

It was the thrill of giving Pike pleasure that tipped Tuco into his own orgasm; he felt the hot syrup of it flood around his cock in Pike’s mouth, and for a moment the two of them lay there, clinging to each other’s twitching bodies, tasting each other’s pleasure.

And then it was over, and they were lying in each other’s arms, breathing in the lingering scents of each other as their body heat was gradually stolen away by the cooling evening.

“That was incredible,” Pike told him between panting breaths. “I mean, nearly all sex is good, but I’ve never… I mean no one has ever… it was like you know just what to do.”

“I did,” Tuco said, licking his lips meaningfully. “I could… I could always tell just what you wanted.”

Pike stared at him with new appreciation. “Forget devils, that tongue of yours is a gift of the Almighty. Nothing evil could bring anyone that much joy.” He looked down at his still jutting erection. “I don’t suppose you could do it again?”

“I would enjoy that, but, uh, not just now. I’m a little spent… I think,” Tuco admitted.

“Well, we can’t all have a rabbit’s stamina, I suppose.” Pike helped Tuco shrug back into his robes and then peered at his forehead. “Did your horns… get longer?”


The following days passed with little of note. Tuco found his horns had grown at some point by several inches more, but in the coming weeks they didn’t change further and he began to hope that whatever the ritual might have done to him, its effects on him had completed. It seemed that the demons in Abyssus Abbey had gone quiet. No apprentices suffered any further changes even though the Brothers called nearly a dozen of them to participate in small rituals. Even Tuco was conscripted into assisting with one, lighting candles and reciting an incantation while the Brother sacrificed several brightly colored birds and called up a creature that spoke in a strange and guttural language from a cloud of black smoke.

Tuco fell into a comfortable routine. He rose at dawn, clad himself in robes or tunic depending on his mood and the chill in the air, ate breakfast with the other apprentices, and attended class. He found, to his surprise, that he was something of a scholar. He enjoyed the reading lessons, and by the end of the fortnight could slowly sound out simple sentences. It was a thrill to see the meanings behind symbols unfold themselves for him, revealing their secrets. Ritual, too, he found fascinating, with a strange kind of dream-logic to it. Of course a demon of lust would respond to an incense made of spring flowers whereas a demon of wealth would answer to the burning of spices. It seemed intuitive that demons answering a temptation of belonging would be called by the sacrifice of a gift from an enemy whereas those answering vengeance would demand a gift from a friend. He took less well to writing. Interpreting letters and recreating them were different skills, and try as he might, he could never recreate the symbols on his slate to the satisfaction of the Brothers.

Most of the Brothers had begun to treat Tuco with a wary distrust. He was unsure whether his horns and fangs seemed to them signs of the infernal, or whether perhaps it was just his imagination, but once he caught two of them talking about him. One nodded pointedly in his direction, and he was sure he overheard the name, “Brother Gabriel.” He’d convinced the severe monk that he’d never come to see him, but the Master of Apprentices knew his name and now believed their encounter had been a divine vision. Perhaps he’d told the other monks to watch out for Tuco. He did appear at Mass every evening, but never seemed to notice Tuco, eyes sliding right past him as though unable to see him, though often after this happened the monk would make a worried frown and shake his head.

Lord Krastor apparently never came to Mass anyway, wishing to conceal his monstrous figure from everyone, but there were rumors among the other apprentices that he had left the Abbey, perhaps for good. It was Rigby who normally carried Lord Krastor’s meals from the large refectory to the library tower, and those familiar with his routine swore up and down that Rigby had been making no such deliveries. When Tuco asked him about it, Rigby only made a controlled swivel of his head and told him that the activities of the Brothers were not of concern to the apprentices.

Afternoons were spent in further study or in socialization with the other apprentices. Tuco had begun to get along with them in general. Three in particular he began to develop a friendship with: Hhalbor, an older apprentice with huge stag’s antlers and a back covered with porcupine quills; Etreon, a cheerful lad who shed his skin every morning and emerged a different color and texture each time; and Lazuli, who claimed he had once been a skilled swordfighter, but whose body was now encased in a black carapace like that of a lobster. All of them had grown up in poor villages and all were sending their stipends back home to their families, and so Tuco found a kind of kinship with them. They weren’t always receptive to his fascination with the advantages their changes had given them, but neither did they tease him about his goatish horns, even when they poked up out of his hood or got caught and tore his clothes when he was changing, nor his mouthful of fangs, even though these made him speak a bit clumsily. At the very least, they weren’t unkind, and he found himself practicing his reading or playing games or sport with them many of the afternoons.

Most days, though, he took at least a break to find a quiet place to be with Pike, and it was a rare afternoon that they didn’t share a stolen moment of pleasure. For a few nights, they’d tried sharing the warmth of a bed together, but Tuco’s libido could not match Pike’s, and after a few nights in a row of the rabbit-man continually waking him up with unconscious but lustful thrusts, they’d reluctantly agreed that sleeping in their own bunks would be preferred. The days were sometimes long and dull, and Tuco missed his home and his family and the sight of the sun. But he began to feel safe and somewhat comfortable, the food was always delicious, and every moment spent with Pike was as warm and rejuvenating as an afternoon sunbeam, and so, with each day, the Abbey began to feel more and more like a home.

Still, many of the apprentices were surly or downright dangerous, especially Walstein, and Tuco took to avoiding them whenever possible. But he and Walstein were both in the early reading class together, and the instructing monks seemed to take an almost pernicious pleasure in giving them assignments together.

One afternoon, Walstein had joined the class already fuming, and when he’d struggled to read the names of several of the higher order devils, Rigby had turned the question to Tuco, who had managed to answer it successfully. In fairness, “Mephastophilis” was a difficult name, and Tuco had been trying to learn more in case he found out something about what had happened to him.

“Of course the devil boy would get that one,” Walstein sneered. “Probably the name of his father from the Abyss.”

“I’m not a devil!” Tuco shouted back, flushing hotly. He knew it was a mistake to show Walstein any reaction, but he’d been putting up with the apprentice’s jeers and jabs for a fortnight, and each time, his patience cracked a little further. “And my father’s name is Rodger.”

Walstein leered, drool running from around his tusks. “Is that because his devil husband takes him from behind?”

Rigby tapped his lecture baton on his podium. “That will be enough of that, Walstein. We’re all here for the same reason: to try to help and stop the Apocalypse. Personal attacks will not advance that goal.”

“They might if we’re attacking a devil. Haven’t the rest of you noticed what’s going on with him? He got Charo sent home, you know. You all know it was him.”

“I—” Tuco tried to search for words that were safe to speak. If he said he was sorry about what happened, that would sound like an admission of guilt. If he denied he was responsible, that might be a lie. He might hiss, and in its own way that felt worse. Clouding the truth from everyone felt like another step down a path that led into the Abyss. He didn’t know how to answer. So instead he just stared down at his slate.

“You see? He don’t even deny it.”

“That is enough, Walstein.” Rigby frowned at the apprentice until he slumped back into his seat. But throughout the entire lesson, Walstein fixed a mean, piggy glare on Tuco.

When Rigby dismissed the group, Tuco scrambled to get his things together to try and hurry out of the room and avoid Walstein, but the large man was already standing by his desk when he rose. Tuco didn’t meet his gaze. “Sorry, I just need to get by,” he said toward the floor and tried to step around Walstein, but the apprentice slapped at his hands and sent his slate skittering across the floor to the wall where it broke into three pieces.

“Maybe next time don’t show off how much you know about devils, huh? You trying to make the rest of us look bad? I mean, I mean good? ‘Cause that’s a wicked thing to know, isn’t it? Isn’t it, devil boy?”

“I just read the word,” Tuco mumbled.

“Remembered, more like. From all your devil friends.”

“The horns aren’t my fault! Leave me alone, please!”

“Leave you alone, huh? Like you left Charo alone? Everyone knows that was you what done it to him. Didn’t like him much so you turned him into a freak and got him sent home, didn’t you?”

Walstein planted a hand on Tuco’s chest and shoved hard, sending him sprawling across the floor. He hit the heels of his hands, scraping them badly, and his head bounced off the stone once, making his vision blurry. No one in the room was stepping in; everyone else was just standing around, watching. He struggled, trying to get to his feet, but he felt weak and uncoordinated after the blow to his head. And Walstein stepped over him.

“You gonna do me now, devil boy? Gonna turn me into something and get me sent home?”

“Is—is that what you want?” Tuco asked, curiosity lighting through the fog in his mind. He was seized with the urge to taste the air and know what it was that drove Walstein, what he wanted, what mad desire propelled him toward this cruelty and rage. But he didn’t dare show a forked tongue in a room full of apprentices who already suspected him of being a devil. And what would he do once he found that out? What if it had truly been his words that had twisted Charo’s form? Could he do the same to Walstein? Would he, accidentally?

Walstein dropped to his knees over Tuco, cocking a fist the size of Tuco’s head in the air. “What did you say to me?” he growled.

“N-no, I just meant… do you want to go home? You seem unhappy.”

Fury broke in Walstein’s face like a storm. “You think you know me? You think you know my life? Fuck thee, devil boy, and may the Almighty damn thy family.” His fist shook in the air for a moment as though he was trying to hold it back, and then he clubbed it down in one brutal blow at Tuco’s face.

And Tuco, unfortunately for Walstein, instinctively squeezed his eyes closed and ducked downward. He felt the blow rattle his head and knock him back against the stones again, but it never collided with his face; instead, it seemed to give, as though someone had hit him with an extremely heavy pillow. Something wet and hot ran down the side of his nose.

He gingerly opened his eyes. His vision was still a bit blurred, but he didn’t need eagle eyes to see Walstein’s wide with shock, his tusked mouth hanging open. One arm extended toward Tuco’s head, unmoving. The entire room was silent. Then Walstein gave a minute tug with his arm and Tuco felt it pull against his left horn. Walstein screamed in agony.

“It went straight through,” someone breathed on the other side of the room. “Holy blood, he’s right skewered.” Walstein shuddered and bellowed again.

A moment later, Rigby dashed into the room. At first he looked irritated, but when he saw Tuco lying on the floor with Walstein’s blood running down the side of his face, his eyebrows rose in an exact expression of surprise. “All right. Neither of you move,” he snapped.

Walstein moaned. “It hurts. It hurts. I have to pull it out.”

“You will do no such thing if you want to keep that hand. Rickles, hurry and fetch Brother Hofstaed. Hallaway, bring linens and hot water from the washroom. None of the rest of you go anywhere. I want to know what happened.”

The other apprentices gave mixed accounts of the events. Some were certain that Tuco had been innocent in the affair, but others—a few of whom Tuco knew frequently shared Walstein’s company—swore up and down that Tuco had provoked Walstein and gored him on purpose. Despite Tuco’s earnest vow that he’d intended no harm at all, Rigby remained skeptical. “Instead of trying to leave or escape, you used a weapon against a fellow apprentice,” he said, while wrapping a bellowing Walstein’s hand in towels. “Whether you intended to do so or not is of little consequence. All of you apprentices are dangerous in your own ways. It is your responsibility to take every precaution to protect each other from that danger.”

“But he struck me!” Tuco protested. “I was only trying to keep my face from being hit.”

“Perhaps consciously. But the end result is that you are unhurt, and Walstein could lose his hand. The Almighty alone knows your heart. We mortals can judge only actions. And that is why you will do penance. Rocks at dawn.”

“But—” Tuco faltered. There was nothing he could say to convince Rigby of the truth. If only it had been a lie. Then he could make everyone believe him. But his tongue gave him no advantage with honesty.

“What is keeping Brother Hofstaed?” Rigby muttered, and got to his feet. “Neither of you move. I’ll go and find him. Walstein, hold tightly onto that towel with the other hand. I don’t care how much it hurts.” He strode briskly from the room.

When he was gone, Walstein turned back to Tuco and gave him a weak but malevolent grin. “Rocks. You’ll never finish, you. Not as small as you are. Serves you right, devil boy. And you better hope I don’t stay angry at you for long. You better do everything you can to keep me happy. Or else I might start wishing for vengeance on you. It’s a real temptation with me. And some demon might just hear me. Turn me into something that can eat you alive. And I will, devil boy. I won’t hesitate. I will eat. You. Up.”

Part 8: Penance

Tuco stared at the pile of boulders and rocks. There had to be fifty of the boulders at least, many of them bigger than his head, and uncountable smaller rocks and pebbles. “All of those?” he asked. He clutched his robe around him, trying to shield himself from the chill wind and the steady sprinkle of raindrops.

“Yes,” said Rigby. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, untouched by the cold, droplets sliding down his cheeks and forehead.

Tuco scanned across the moss and lichen-greened stonework of the courtyard, past the statuary, past the garden where fresh herbs and vegetables were grown, to the far end. The flat stones met an outcropping of the mountain face, dark grey rock that almost seemed to have grown around the stonework of the courtyard and engulfed it. It had to be fifty yards away. “All the way over there?

“Yes.”

He sighed. “I—I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can even move some of these.”

“Move all of those that you can. Do not stop trying. A meal will be provided at noon. There is fresh water in the basin.”

“I wish I knew what I could have done to avoid this, Master Rigby.”

“Just Rigby.”

“What am I intended to learn? How not to be attacked by a ruffian?”

“The lesson will give you time and clarity for reflection on that point. All of us can benefit from this. It is of no consequence if the penance is unjust if one can find value in it either way.”

Tuco sighed. “So you admit it might be unjust. And supposing that, in misery and exhaustion out here, I am weakened for the demons?”

Rigby’s usually serene expression flickered for a moment, his brow furrowing. “It is your duty to keep your thoughts clear so that you are not. Even when the Almighty sends you challenges.”

“But it’s happened before, hasn’t it? Apprentices who have been assigned this punishment, they’ve changed before?”

The clockwork man looked away. “Occasionally.” He hesitated. “It is typically assigned only to those the Brothers believe can benefit from it.”

That told Tuco all he needed to know. Rigby hadn’t chosen this punishment for him. A Brother had. Who else but Brother Gabriel, the Master of Apprentices? He might believe that Tuco had not come to see him, but he clearly still believed Tuco a demonic danger. The magic of Tuco’s tongue had not removed the threat—merely displaced it. He breathed in, sampling the air and tasting Rigby’s desires: belonging, position, love. The man didn’t want to be here any more than Tuco did. But he would do what it took to fit in.

“You can do this,” Rigby said, fixing him with an earnest gaze. “Keep your mind clear. Let your thoughts and desires drift away on the wind. Anything you truly cannot move will not be held against you, but you must try with all that you have. Understand?”

This last was said to him in a low voice, as though an authority might overhear.

“I understand,” Tuco answered. “I will try. I promise.”

Rigby straightened. “You are a good lad,” he said, and turned on his heel and strode out of the courtyard.

Tuco stared miserably at the pile of rocks. At least one of them was half his size, and probably weighed six hundred pounds. Like many of the larger boulders, it had moss growing all over the top and looked as though it had never been moved. Surely no apprentice had ever accomplished this.

He had been provided a pair of coarse leather gloves so that he would not ruin his hands with the work, and he pulled these on. All right. Start with a medium-sized one. Get the heaviest work he thought he could manage out of the way first, and then move to the lighter stuff for a rest. Once he was all done with that, he could tackle the truly impossible stuff. Give it his best try, as he’d promised.

Searching through the stones, he located one about the size of his head, crouched, and tried to heft it. It was heavier than he’d expected, and his back twinged in complaint. The stone dropped with a hollow clok. Groaning, Tuco squatted on his heels, got both his hands under the thing, and managed to stand up. He held the stone at about waist height, leaning it against his lower abdomen for support, and started transporting it across the courtyard with a kind of tottering stagger. He hadn’t gone more than fifty feet before he was exhausted, his shoulders aching, his breath coming in pants. Wearied, he set it down for a rest, let his arms and shoulders recover, and then hefted it up and carried another thirty feet, and then he was halfway and needed another rest. He ended up rolling the stone the final ten feet into the opposite corner.

Already he was sweating and exhausted. Walstein would probably have no difficulty with this task, what with his prodigious, demon-gifted strength. It was unfair—but no, Tuco would not let his mind be tempted. He would not wish for an advantage he did not have. He thought, idly, that it would have been only just to send Walstein out as well, but perhaps a skewered hand was punishment enough.

He rubbed at his horn while walking back across the courtyard. He’d scrubbed and scrubbed at it, trying to get the blood out, but no matter what he did, every time he’d caught his reflection in the mirror, he still looked fierce to himself. Frightening. Oh well. One stone moved. Uncountable stones still to go.

He decided to spend time on the smaller ones for a while, filling the pockets of his robe with stones the size of his fist or smaller and dumping them out on the opposite side, and even that became exhausting after a while: continually bending down, hefting little weights, making encumbered trips to a point fifty yards away, unloading his burden, and then heading back and repeating the process. By the time he’d cleared away less than half of the smaller stones, his robes were soaked with sweat and the chill of the air no longer touched him. He was already so tired, and he couldn’t stop himself from wishing that it was over. The clarity and reflective state Rigby had alluded to escaped him. Still, through the exhaustion, he tried to keep himself alert for the seduction of demons. He would not be tempted by them.

He made his way back to the pile of stones and selected another about the size of his head, back aching as he hefted it in both arms, legs complaining as he toddled across the courtyard, staggering under its weight. About a third of the way across the courtyard, his fingers gave out. The stone slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor with a crack.

Tuco stood staring at the two broken pieces for a long minute. After all, Rigby hadn’t said the stones had to make it to the other side of the courtyard intact. He picked up the larger of the pieces and dashed it to the ground. It cracked in half again. Feeling somewhat pleased with himself, he made three trips across the courtyard, deposited the fragments on the other side, and returned to find another, even larger stone before. This one he hefted up to chest height and flung it away from him. He could only throw it a few feet, but it was enough for the stone to hit the ground with a sharp crack sound and then two pieces separated, their inner sides light-colored and dry compared to the dark, wet stone. Even the largest of the three was far easier to heft and carry across the courtyard.

“Now, that’s what I like to see,” came a voice, just as Tuco was leaning down to pick up another fragment. He nearly leapt out of his robe. “Working smarter.” The voice had traces of a posh accent, and was slow and languid. It seemed to be speaking through great effort, as though each syllable were barely escaping some thick torpor. Tuco straightened in alarm and peered into the corners of the courtyard, searching for the speaker, but could see no one.

“Oh, do not stop on my account,” the voice said, and then something moved in the shadows of one far corner. There was a strange noise, like that of many fallen autumn leaves being blown down a path, but filled with a kind of tinny wail.

“Who’s there?” Tuco called. He was hot with the effort of his toil and his robes were drenched in sweat, but he pulled them tighter around him all the same.

The thing in the shadows moved again. It lurched into view, and Tuco saw that it was an enormous chair. Not a throne, not fancy, but made of some glassy black stone. In it sprawled a creature with olive green skin. He was thin, frail-looking, and did not even seem able to sit upright. His horned head rested back against the chair, tilted to one side on a weak neck, and one skinny, green arm lay across his stomach. He wore fine, rich clothing of purple and gold, but it lay rumpled around his body like bedclothes. From his breeches extended twig-thin legs, the knees turned in toward each other, the talons on his pale green feet long and curved. One baleful yellow eye rolled in its socket. “I cannot see properly,” he murmured. “Bring me closer.”

The chair lurched again and now Tuco saw that it was being carried by dozens of tiny, demonic-looking creatures, no two of them alike, some of them like squat, sturdy, potbellied devils, others with long, wiry, winged bodies. Some moved on all fours like beasts, and some scurried on many legs. But all of them struggled under the weight of the heavy-looking chair, and as their tiny feet moved, it made the sound of leaves. They groaned as the chair wobbled from one side to the other, struggling to hold on, to keep up, to keep their balance. One tripped as they moved forward and was trampled by its fellows. Tuco found them difficult not to pity, and decided to move closer to the chair to spare them the journey. The trampled one, an ink-black, winged imp, stared at him as he approached, and got to its feet with an expression of gratitude.

The creature in the chair rolled its eye again, shifting as though its head was too heavy to lift. “Good day to thee, young apprentice,” it murmured. “Do not tremble upon meeting me, though I am devil and noble at once. I know thy name to be Tuco, for so it hath been whispered by mine demons. I am Belphegor, Lord of the Abyss. I should offer you my ringéd hand to kiss were the raising of it not so arduous for me these days.”

Tuco tried to still the pounding of his heart. “A devil? Like… Belzebub?”

The creature’s eyes flickered with interest. “That old scoundrel? Hath that old insect come sniffing around here, too? Well, it surpriseth me not. Of course he would come rooting after power like a sow in search of a truffle. No, child, I shall forgive thee thine ignorance, for thou could know little of the ranks of the Abyss, but I am landed and titled, and Belzebub, well… he lost his. The old boy couldn’t control his appetites. Dearest irony, that. Too, he was wanting of a deft touch that—but pay me no heed. Verily none of this politicking could interest a… rustic lad like thine self. To the left, imps. Turn me to the left.”

With many squeaking moans and the shuffling of many feet, the tiny creatures beneath the chair managed to swivel until Belphegor was facing Tuco, both yellow eyes focused on him. “Stop.” The shuffling stopped, and the chair was lowered to the ground.

“Very good. Now. Tuco. I do not expect thee to have knowledge of my esteemed personage, but I have always been deeply concerned with… the comfort of humanity. How cruel their lives! Slaving away on their little farms, in their smithies, their workshops, their mills and fields and tanneries and kitchens. What meagre, miserable years they muddle through, and how unjust it all is. To have so short and precious a life to begin with, and then to be forced to squander it in service to another, merely for food enough to feed themselves and their children! Where canst justice be found in that? What virtues doth thrive in such toil, when even the beasts of the field must reserve only a few hours a day to sate their appetites? Nay, is it not always in service of the powerful and wealthy—they who demand so much for so little, and yet they who are encumbered by the least need? I may be noble, dear creature, but do not think me blind to the injustices the powerful instigate against their servants.”

Understanding broke through Tuco’s fear. “You’re one of the devils aligned to the Temptation of Ease.”

“One of?” A scowl twisted Belphegor’s lean gargoyle face. “The devil, Tuco. I am Lord Belphegor, and I prefer not to think of it as a temptation, nor even of ease. No, think thou of me as a bringer of comfort, of self-care. The world is so cruel, so harsh to all of us. When was the last day thou felt free to squander solely on thine self? A thee day? Pull up the covers, sleep until noon, do whatsoever thou wishest for once?”

“My—my life here is easy compared to back home.”

The devil’s gaze flicked to the enormous pile of stones still to be moved. “A just punishment was it? No, answerest thou not. A boon shall I grant thee, thou most fortunate of creatures.”

“I don’t need anything, really.” Tuco wondered if it would be possible to flee to the hallway. Surely the poor imps carrying it could not move quickly. If he could just get past one of the Gasen…

“No no, I will hear none of it. A gift for thee, Tuco Witchywine, from a Lord of the Abyss. For I know thou consider’st the changes our demons bring to the apprentices here gifts, dost thou not?” Seemingly with a great deal of effort, Belphegor managed to arch one thin eyebrow, before the exertion exhausted him and he let it sag back down again.

“Only I’ve had so many changes lately, and I’m still adjusting to—”

“Tush. A couple small horns? Some pointed teeth? Oh poor, blighted soul, thou’rt positively brimming with potential. And that is what I give to thee.” A weary finger lifted and twirled, and though Tuco could see nothing, he felt strange—bound, in a way, as though an invisible cord had dropped around his waist. For a moment it seemed to pulse and squeeze, and then the sensation was gone.

“There. I grant thee not a temptation, but the gift of ease. Thou scarcely need’st worry about being tempted with what thou possessest already, dost thou?” The devil gazed at him through those yellow eyes for a moment. “One might voice any gratitude one feels at this measure. I recognize thou wert born a poor and common human, but manners still persist in the mortal world, do they not?”

“I… thank you,” Tuco said. He was unsure was this was an appropriate response. Surely it was a sin to be grateful to a devil but being ungrateful felt equally wrong, and he’d just as soon not anger the creature.

“Very good, then. Do let me know how thou hast enjoyed it upon my return.” A wicked glint lit the devil’s eyes for a moment. “I do so enjoy seeing the commoners partake in the benefits of my wealth. Thou may’st now carry me thither.”

Tuco blinked, momentarily puzzled. “Carry you away?”

“Not you. Them.” One foot faintly kicked at the edge of the chair. “Come on, laggards! Carry me off. We haven’t eternity for anyone to sit around mustering the will.”

Groaning and complaining, the tiny creatures around the chair hefted it up again, others scurrying underneath to share the burden and slowly they swiveled the lurching chair back into the shadows, disappearing with the sound of rustling leaves and tiny moans.

Tuco stared after them for a while. What on earth had that been about? He waited for something else to happen, then checked himself up and down for changes and found none. If the devil had done anything to him at all, he had no idea what it might be. He’d have to wait until he could get back to the washroom to use the mirror, he supposed. After a little while, when nothing else happened, he shrugged and moved back to the stones he had broken and picked up the larger of the two pieces.

As soon as he lifted it, a strange sensation came over him—for an instant, his whole body stiffened as though with exertion. An odd rush of pleasure settled through him, but then it was gone. He hefted the stone and almost tumbled backward. It weighed practically nothing. He might be holding an apple instead of a rock bigger than both his fists put together. He could feel the pressure of it against his skin, the grain digging into his fingers, but it cost him no effort to hold it up, even at arm’s length. Perhaps the devil really had been intending to help him? He carried the rock over to the pile and tossed it in with a casual motion. It might have felt light, but it landed with a loud crack against the stones. As he walked back to retrieve the other piece, he thought he felt more energetic as well. The ache in his back from his day of exertions had vanished, and he no longer walked with a tired slouch.

Curious to explore the boon the devil had given him, he wandered over to the pile of stones and selected a much larger one, this one significantly bigger than his head. He grasped it with both hands, hefted, and again he felt that strange stiffness, as though every muscle in his body were tensing at once, along with a more intense rush of pleasure, one that sent arousal pulsing in his loins. The stone came up in his hands as easily as if it had been made of bread, not solid rock. There was a spring in Tuco’s step as he carried it to the other side of the courtyard and dropped it with an echoing crack. Another stone was moved just as easily. At this rate, he would be finished with the task well before sunset. He laughed to himself, thinking of the expression on Rigby’s face when he saw the entire job completed.

For a while Tuco busied himself carrying the smaller stones, tirelessly making trips back and forth. He even ran a little as it seemed not to exhaust him. Then he tried a larger stone again, this one more of a boulder, as wide in one part as his chest. For a third time he felt the tensing in his body and the flood of pleasure down his limbs. It seemed to happen each time he chose a stone heavier than the one he’d lifted before. And though the stone proved light, carrying it was awkward. Even though the weight felt insignificant to his arms, he could tell it was extremely heavy. The coarse grains of the rock dug painfully into his fingers, and a sharp protuberance jutted into his ribs. He couldn’t find an angle to hold it that didn’t pull at his clothing and tug uncomfortably, but still he managed. After dropping it off, he was tugging at his clothing all the way back to the rockpile. Something had shifted, and they didn’t seem to fit right; the robes kept bunching up at his arms and pulling across his back. And he realized now that all this walking back and forth had worn him out more than he’d realized. Even though he had boundless energy, his limbs felt heavy, his thighs rubbing against each other.

He just wanted to feel another of those little pleasure surges again, so he found another boulder, a little larger than the previous one, and lifted it in both hands. As he did so, again, he felt the tensing of his body, more intense than each previous time put together, and physical pleasure flowed through his chest and down his back, through his legs and shoulders and arms. But at the same time, his robes cinched around his body as though he was being squeezed. He felt for a moment as though he were trapped in a sausage casing, and then a loud ripping sound came from his back, and he knew his robe had torn somehow. Maybe the weight of the rock had pulled on it?

He dropped the boulder—careful to avoid his toes—and it cracked loudly in half, but he ignored it. Now that he was paying attention, his limbs felt odd. They didn’t fit on his body like they used to. His chest seemed to be protruding, rising and falling faster and faster as his breathing quickened. His upper back felt cold, exposed to the wind. Carefully, barely daring to look, he opened his robe. His chest was huge, layered with sinew, as big as a warrior’s, and below it, his stomach was lined with hard muscle. The devil had done something to him after all. Extending from his simple white undergarment, his legs were lobed pillars of power, so thick that they pressed together with his normal stance.

A light drizzle began to fall, cold on his bare skin. He slowed his breathing as much as he could, fighting away the panic, and tried to remove his robes. They were caught around his arms, but with what felt like a casual tug, they tore away, baring his upper body to the mountain air. He didn’t recognize it. His arms were enormous, looking as thick as his legs had been only an hour ago, wrapped with ropy veins, leading up to huge, round shoulders.

He had seldom if ever seen a body like this on any man. Walstein was immensely strong, but built like a laborer. Blacksmiths had big shoulders and arms, but usually only on one side, and they ate well to support their toil. Even warriors trained their bodies for speed more than size. Old statues looked like this, pagan sculpture of heroes and demigods.

“Oh no,” he whispered, trying to control his breathing. Okay. Okay. He’d been changed by the demons before and it hadn’t been bad. So what if this body was a little stronger? That was just a gift, right? And Belzebub’s changes had mostly left Tuco after he had defeated him. He assumed this would go away, too. Not that he minded looking like a legendary hero. And he didn’t particularly relish the idea of trying to consume another devil, if he were even capable of it now. He took a few deep, slow breaths. He could see his broad chest rising and falling in his lower vision. The chill in the air didn’t seem to affect him as much as it had when he was smaller.

What to do now? He looked around, but the devil was long gone. No way to call him back that Tuco knew of. No way to defeat him. Nothing here but the courtyard, the stones, and the rain. And a task he still needed to complete. With no better options, Tuco decided to carry all the other, smaller stones to the other side and complete that part of the job at least. It several hours, during which he struggled to adapt to the shape and movement of his new body. His thighs rubbed together uncomfortably when he walked, and he had to start stepping around them to keep from chafing. His shoulders insisted on swaying in a wide swagger, and his sides had wide flares of muscle that pushed his heavy arms upward. What would it be like if he had to be like this forever? Perhaps, he thought… perhaps if he just did nothing for a very long time, the muscle would go away on its own.

Then there were no more smaller rocks remaining, and only five boulders of dramatically increasing size. None of them looked like they had ever been moved, encrusted with lichen and moss. He eyed them uneasily. Each time he’d carried a larger boulder, it had made him grow. Would these do so again? How big would he get? How big could he get? His new size and strength was thrilling, but also a little uncomfortable. He sidled over to the next size boulder, staring down at it. Was it much heavier than the previous one? It looked significantly bigger.

You could just not move them. You’ve done enough today, haven’t you? You’ve already moved more than any other apprentice ever has, and this penance was not just. You’ve accomplished more than any reasonable person could expect. The thought rose unbidden in Tuco’s mind. But was it his thought? Or a demon’s? Perhaps even Belphegor, whispering his temptations. For was that not what it was, the Temptation of Ease? It would be the safer and easier path not to complete his penance. Rigby would show up and see that he had moved the majority of the stones, and he could go back to the dormitory in safety.

But that would be giving in to temptation, and worse, he’d given Rigby his word—he’d promised—that he would try his best to complete the task. Damage your word and you damaged your name, your reputation. And Tuco’s reputation was bad enough already. Sighing, he squatted down and hefted the stone.

Every muscle in his body tensed at the same time and then, before his eyes and with a rush of overwhelming pleasure, they grew. The pleasure began in his lower legs, his calves, and he felt pulses of clenching and growth as they swelled. His thighs pressed into each other as they ballooned in size, though he could not easily see beneath the stone he held. He had to step several times to move them apart enough. And then the pleasure made his backside tense; he could feel it swelling outward behind him. His stomach clenched on its own, lines forming down the middle as sinew like he’d never seen rose to the surface, feeling iron-hard, splitting his once-flat belly into segments. Then his chest rose, hiding the new muscle of his stomach, the two sides expanding like rising loaves of bread, forming a valley between them and then closing that valley to a crack as they expanded, over-stuffed, individual cords of muscle developing and then thickening, bowing out and pushing his nipples downward. Above it, his shoulders expanded, pushing out, the globes separating into three distinct crescents of power. It flowed into his back, and he felt his weight behind him increase as it thickened, counterbalancing the heaviness of his chest and the stone he was holding. The pleasure of growth spread into the muscles that framed his back, behind his arms, pushing them up and out. The pleasure flowed downward into his arms, and his flat biceps swelled, forming a curve, and then that curve swelled thicker, into an arch, and then solid globes of muscle, bigger than apples, big enough to fill his palm, and were matched as the muscles on the opposite side swelled even thicker, clutching the backs of his arms like fat horseshoes. The ivy-like veins crawling across the muscle—veins he had never seen before—pulsed and grew nearly as thick as his little fingers. Below his biceps, his forearms swelled out round, widening all the way down to his wrists. His neck thickened, sinew tightening against the back of his head and shoulders, and arches of muscle rose up behind it, making it feel crowded, and then it was over, and he stood panting in the rain.

It had been more intense this time, taken longer. Perhaps because this stone had been so much heavier, or perhaps only because he’d been so focused this time on what was happening. The pleasure and the sense of growth had left him achingly, intensely erect; his tip pressed out awkwardly into his rain-soaked undergarment and up into the surface of the stone he carried. He tried to ignore it and took the stone to the opposite side of the courtyard where he set it down.

He wished he had a mirror. He couldn’t see a lot of his body, but if before he’d looked like a hero, now his development was more like that of one of the pagan gods, Apulu or Dyeus. He was shorter than any of those legends, surely, but built like a hero. He looked at the four remaining stones and wondered what he would look like soon. He was hot with the effort of carrying the stones and his changes, and the muscle seemed to insulate him against the rain. Steam rose from his skin in the cold air.

A clatter came from across the courtyard and he turned to see Etreon standing there, eyes wide. At his feet lay a wooden plate, a serving of bread and meat and cheese half-spilled onto the stones. “T-Tuco?” he stammered. He was a brilliant caerulean color today, his skin shining even though he stood sheltered from the rain.

“Etreon!” Tuco headed toward him and then stumbled as his thick thighs crashed into each other.

“I—I brought you lunch. What happened to you? A demon?”

Tuco’s skin heated against the cool rain. “Not exactly, but… I’ve been changed. At least for now.” He looked down at his unfamiliar body. “Sorry I’m not dressed. My clothes… tore.”

Etreon took a deep breath. “I can see why.” He stepped out into the rain, the water matting his hair, which had turned a brilliant shock yellow. “You’re… amazing.”

“You like this?” Tuco spread his arms in surprise. He thought he looked odd, unusual, but now he saw the rise in Etreon’s tunic.

The apprentice flushed a deeper blue. “I have always been drawn to strong men. No one had to take me to see Elf when I first came here. When I was young, my father took me to the Saturnalia in Lutetia and there were performers there, dressed in barbarian leathers and performing feats of strength.” He ran his blue fingers through his golden hair. “Always I wondered what it would be like to feel those arms around me, feel their power. And—and now you look like them. It surprised me, is all.”

He came close and laid slender caerulean fingers on Tuco’s chest, breathing in sharply. “It’s firm. You carried all those stones?” Etreon’s skin, on his fingers and hand, was warm in the rain, and oddly slippery, as though coated with butter. His last morning’s change had left his flesh covered with very tiny, painful barbs, so this was an improvement over yesterday.

“Yes. Every time I pick up a heavier stone, I grow a little larger so that I can hold it.”

“Oh gods.” Etreon hunched over a little. “You don’t know what that does to me.” His eyes flicked toward the remaining boulders. “Uh… do you think I could… uh… see?” The blue color in his cheeks darkened nearly to indigo.

Tuco shrugged and felt the thick muscle bunching up behind his neck, followed by the fall of his broader, heavier shoulders. “I still have four more stones to move.”

The blue apprentice gazed at them and then back at Tuco with something like hunger in his eyes. His hand slid down the shelf of Tuco’s chest and then fingers brushed the muscles below, finding the lines of his abdomen and tracing them. He shivered. “These are amazing. Um. Sorry. Yes, please? I would love to see.”

“All right, I can’t see how it could hurt.” Tuco was still greatly embarrassed at all the attention. He’d been naked in front of most of the apprentices after his visit with Elf, but this felt different, somehow. More intimate and vulnerable. Still, Etreon’s excitement was contagious. Tuco felt strange and not entirely comfortable in his new body, but it clearly had quite an effect on Etreon, and despite himself he found his erection rising again.

He lifted the next stone and braced for the next round of growth. It came swiftly, his entire body tensing, and then the feeling, the pleasure like arousal moving through every part of him. His thighs pressed more firmly into each other, his backside filled out against his undergarment, which was now soaked with rain. He felt his waist thicken with sinew, his back swell out even more, shoving his arms forward even as the muscle in them inflated larger and larger. His chest rose toward his chin, pushing out rounder, the cleft between the two muscles deepening, his nipples pushing out of view as new brawn mounded above them.

Etreon was on his knees, his mouth open, one hand reaching toward Tuco. Tuco flashed him a grin and carried the stone easily to the other side of the courtyard—easily, that is, except for managing his new gait: the jostle of his thighs together, the more dramatic sway of his shoulders. He tossed the stone to the courtyard and jogged back to Etreon. The weight of his muscles bounced heavily on his frame, his chest especially jouncing up and down.

Etreon struggled to his feet and leaned against Tuco, and there was no way he could miss the prod of Tuco’s hard cock against his hip. “That was the most arousing thing I have ever seen,” he breathed, and then he groaned and leaned down to plant hungry kisses across Tuco’s chest. His morning change had made even his pale blue lips slippery to the touch. “There are still three more. I want to feel you the next time. I want to feel you grow under my fingers.”

“You like it?” Tuco asked, delighted.

“Look at you. You’re like the statues of pagan gods. Not many men ever look like you, Tuco. The greatest of athletes, maybe.”

“So it doesn’t look strange or wrong?”

“Not to me. No. No, you look powerful. Beautiful. Only…”

“Only?”

“Only have you ever seen the statue of Alkeides?”

Tuco searched his memory, but couldn’t remember any such person. “No, who is that?”

“A great hero from Athenai. The strongest man ever to have lived, in all the legends.” Etreon was talking fast now, as he tended to when he was excited. “A paragon of masculinity. He had twelve trials from the gods that he had to complete before he was allowed to come home. And he performed them all, and then he became a god! There was a statue of him in the old ruins in my hometown. The biggest, most powerful, most muscular man you’ve ever seen.”

“And bigger than me?”

Etreon nodded with another flush. “For now. I used to fantasize about him, coming to town, putting his arms around me, lifting me up like I weighed nothing. Telling me that a god had chosen me, and then tearing off my—” His eyes widened as if he realized what he was saying. “I never thought I’d actually see anyone like that. Get to… to touch. But maybe if you lifted one more stone…”

“All right.” Tuco grinned at the thrilled expression on Etreon’s face. And this had to be all right, didn’t it? It wasn’t tempting the apprentice, it wasn’t using his powers for anything. He’d already decided that he was honor-bound to move all the stones, even if it caused him further changes. What harm in letting a friend enjoy the process? “Come over here.”

Etreon followed him like a puppy, making a soft, excited giggle. His bare soles slid on the stones of the courtyard and he nearly fell. “I can’t even wear shoes when my skin turns slick like this,” he grumbled. He continued in a kind of skating motion, kicking out his feet to either side and sliding to a stop near Tuco.

“All right, it started in my calves last time, I think.”

“They’re amazing already.” Etreon crouched next to him and slid his fingers over Tuco’s lower legs, feeling the muscle. His hands glided over Tuco’s skin as though oiled, but they left no trace behind. “I don’t think even the strongmen performers had such legs.”

“Are you ready?” Tuco asked. Lord Almighty, I am, he thought. He didn’t know how he felt about ending up even larger than he was already, but Etreon’s eagerness had arousal pumping through his veins, and just now all he wanted to do was to make the boy moan again.

“Wait, no,” Etreon said. “How can I… how can I see all of you grow if you’re wearing those?” He hooked one finger around the waist of Tuco’s undergarment and tugged.

“I can’t be naked out here!” Tuco protested. “What if one of the Brothers should come?”

“They’ve all seen naked apprentices before. We fuck everywhere, you know. Besides, with the rain soaking you like this, you’re practically naked anyway. You might as well let me see.”

Tuco leaned down to peer over his chest and realized to his chagrin that it was so; the thin material of the undergarment was rainslicked and stuck to his skin, nearly transparent. There was no hiding the pink of his erection nor the outlines of his body beneath the flimsy fabric. “I—I suppose you’re right,” he said reluctantly, and started to pull the shorts down.

“Wait—wait, let me,” Etreon said, and stared up at him with pleading eyes. He nodded, and with a gasp of delight, Etreon pulled the loose cord tying them free and unhooked the shorts from where they clung above Tuco’s jutting prong. He leaned forward as if to kiss, but then shuddered and seemed to get control of himself, working the shorts down around Tuco’s newly-round thighs to his ankles. He stared up at Tuco, over the erection, up the new lines of his stomach, over the swell of his chest. His eyes were deep blue and hungry.

Tuco stepped out of the sodden clothes. “Are you ready now?” When Etreon nodded, he crouched down and hefted the third stone.

“Oh God,” Etreon breathed as the tenseness moved through Tuco’s body, tightening his calves to solidity under those blue fingers. And then the pleasure—but with Etreon there, feeling the changes, feeling him grow, it felt to Tuco as though the pleasure came from Etreon himself, as though his friend was coaxing the size out of him, urging him to grow bigger. Again, his calves were first to respond. Slippery, warm fingers encircled one of the split-diamond muscles, and then, as Tuco felt them begin to swell, and push those fingers apart, he heard a low, shuddering gasp from Etreon, and the word, “More…”

He lifted the stone over his head and looked down as Etreon, eyes wide, slid hands up his leg and then wrapped both slick arms around one of Tuco’s thighs, hugging it as the pulses of growth thrummed through it, pushing his arms inexorably apart. “Hamstrings,” Etreon murmured, sliding his hands down the back of Tuco’s thighs. “I learned all the muscles because I love them. Quadriceps. Four heads, see? One, two, three, four.” And with each number, he planted a kiss on a different part of Tuco’s thigh, and with each kiss, Tuco grew beneath those pale lips, his thighs barreling out into bulging pillars of muscle.

Etreon groaned in delight and slid his hands upward to grip at Tuco’s rump. “Gluteus.” His fingers slid deftly into the cleft there, aided by their supernatural slickness, and then he tried to pull those globes apart, but could not begin to manage it. The erotic pleasure followed his touch there, and Tuco felt his backside expand in Etreon’s hands, more than filling them, spreading his fingers apart, and as they did, Etreon’s kiss transformed into a lick, his tongue sliding adoringly up Tuco’s thigh, deliciously close to his sac, to his cock, but not touching it.

And his tongue drew the pleasure upward and into Tuco’s stomach. “Abdominals,” Etreon said. “Every man’s looks different, if you can see them. Most people eat well enough you can’t tell. But you, oh… oh God.” He licked upward again, and Tuco felt the muscles there tense and ripple. “Yours just… changed. I can see more of them now. That shouldn’t…” He fell into silence because his mouth was too busy planting kisses across Tuco’s stomach—ten of them, from low to high, and with each, Tuco’s stomach pulsed with new strength.

“Your back, I can’t miss your back.” Etreon slid around behind Tuco, still trailing one arm around his waist, and then his touch pulled the pleasure into the small of Tuco’s back as he drew his hands upward. “Erectors,” he purred, as new strength flooded into Tuco’s lower back. But the growth was still moving. Each period of growth seemed slower and more methodical than the previous. Was it slowing down, or was Tuco just more aware of it? Or was it, perhaps, actually responding to Etreon’s touch? The apprentice slid his hands outward to cup the sides of Tuco’s back, the annoying muscles that flared out wide and pushed against his arms, preventing them from hanging naturally at his sides, and now these swelled even wider under Etreon’s touch. He gripped and squeezed, but his fingers only splayed under inflating sinew. He moaned and Tuco felt a little extra warm slipperiness against his rump. “L-latissimus dorsi,” Etreon managed. “Lats. And—” His hands moved across Tuco’s back. “Rhomboids. Trapezius.” Those last were the muscles arching up behind Tuco’s neck, and Tuco felt them thicken, pulling his shoulders up and back and crowding his neck for space.

He was still holding the stone up and over his head when Etreon reappeared in front of him, and it occurred to him that maybe this was not the wisest thing to do. Might not holding something for an extended time require more strength and prompt even more growth? Either way, he couldn’t put it down now because Etreon was right up in front of him, tunic-clad erection knocking eagerly against his own as he slid his slick hands across Tuco’s chest and pulled expansion out of it. “Pectorals,” he groaned, and Tuco’s chest thickened dramatically, swelling out into enormous, square slabs of muscle so huge they made Etreon stumble backward. He moaned again and kissed across the still-swelling plains of muscle, dipping partly out of view as he found a nipple and kissed and nipped it.

Tuco was so filled with arousal now he thought he might explode, but the growth wasn’t finished with him. It chased Etreon’s touch up into his shoulders, the three lobes thickening and swelling outward, widening Tuco’s whole body.

“Lower the stone, lower the stone,” Etreon urged, stepping back, and when Tuco set it down, Etreon grasped an upper arm with both hands, and together they watched as the muscles there expanded. Tuco’s biceps grew outward and up, pushing Etreon’s grip open, the triceps following, until his upper arm looked impossible, bigger around than his thigh had once been. His forearms followed in kind, bulging outward until the muscle of lower arm met upper arm.

Even Tuco’s neck felt like it was growing thicker for a moment, and then he was done. He stood there in the rain, massive, naked, and horned. Steam rose from his titanic form. Etreon staggered back to take in the sight of him.

“Well?” Tuco said. “Am I a proper Alkeides now?”

Etreon gazed at him with his mouth open. “You’re bigger,” he said. “Not tall like him, perhaps, but surely more powerful. Tuco, I think you may be the strongest man who ever lived.”

Tuco knew this could not be entirely true—there were Changed apprentices in the abbey who were proper giants, but to hear that he was now stronger-looking than any hero of legend was dizzying. He rubbed at his head in amazement and felt the press of his biceps against his forearm as he did, restricting his movement. In a mixture of exhilaration and worry, he tried to touch his shoulder with the same arm and found that he could not; his arm was too crowded for space. Even reaching his own neck was slightly difficult, and he wondered with a growing sense of concern how he would wash properly or scratch an itch.

But all those concerns were dismissed by the sight of Etreon shucking away his own clothes. The apprentice was deep blue all over, paler on his cock and his nipples, the hair of his bush and legs a brilliant yellow. He was lean and lithe, with little muscle, and though he was taller than Tuco by several inches, by now he looked much, much smaller. “What are you doing?” Tuco asked, though he knew the answer.

“Fuck me?” Etreon asked. “Please? I’ll beg you if you want me to.”

Good. Yes. Beg me. Worship me.

Tuco frowned—where had that thought come from? Excitement, perhaps. An errant thrill at the new power in his limbs. “Yes, let’s fuck,” he agreed, before Etreon could mistake his frown. He strode over to the next-to-largest stone, half-stumbling over his own over-large thighs, which bumped together and threatened to crush his sac between them.

Etreon actually did fall, slipping on the courtyard stones and then sliding across them, froglike, toward Tuco. The grit of the ground didn’t stick to his impossibly smooth skin, and even the rain beaded on it or bounced off, never leaving it wet. He sat cross-legged near the large stone, slowly inching sideways as his skin failed to keep traction on the ground. He blushed a brilliant blue. “It’s hard to stay still.” He looked up at Tuco with wonder-filled eyes. “I still can’t believe it. I can’t believe you’re here. All my life I’ve wanted an Alkeides. Are you a demon answering my desires?”

Tuco faltered, truly unsure of the answer to that question. “Well, I’m not changing you, am I?”

Etreon leaned back, letting the raindrops bounce off of his lean chest and taut caerulean stomach. “I don’t know,” he breathed. “I think you might be. I feel like I could serve at your feet. Worship you. Do whatever you commanded.”

A little flame of fierce triumph kindled in Tuco’s chest at that. He pushed it down. Not a demon. Not a demigod. But playing could be fun.

Etreon’s gaze was fixed on Tuco’s chest, on the slow but titanic rise and fall of his breaths, on the wisps of steam rising off of it in the rain. “How do you want me, Alkeides? My mouth? My arse?”

Tuco shivered in excitement, his cock straining toward the sky, the heat of his preseed beading at the tip before being washed away by the rain. “I want you to feel my chest grow while I fill that arse.”

Etreon bucked a little at those words and for a moment Tuco thought he was going to spill his seed right there, but instead he crawled over and lay supine before the stone, lifting his yellow-haired legs slightly, blue toes pointing toward the sky. “I’m ready, hero. Will you… will you be able to lift the stone at the same time?”

“I will.” Tuco crouched before Etreon, marveling at the girth of his own pale-skinned thighs, the muscle pushing out above his knees. His calves pressed into the backs of his thighs, preventing him from kneeling as easily as he had been able to before. He gripped one smooth blue ankle in one hand, eliciting an excited whimper from Etreon, and hefted the apprentice’s weight easily, lifting the blue-skinned rump to the air. Fine, bright yellow hairs furred Etreon’s cleft, his pucker a pale blue.

For a moment, Tuco worried about lubrication, but then realized that this was a ridiculous concern; with his free hand, he positioned his aching, needy tip against that pale blue center and then pushed forward. He slipped in past the smooth skin so easily it felt that Etreon had been made for this; there was almost no resistance, and with the slightest of pushes, he was buried to the hilt in his friend’s rump. Etreon’s deep blue eyes went wide, his mouth opening in a gasp.

Tuco rocked several times into him, still holding onto one ankle, Etreon’s inner heat enveloping and slick and inviting compared to the cool air and the rain. “Can you… are you going to be able to lift the stone while you’re doing me? Only I think I might slip off of you.”

After considering for a moment, Tuco put one hand behind Etreon’s back and lifted him. He marveled—his friend seemed to weigh nothing at all, and Etreon made a giddy yelp at being manhandled. Tuco raised him until he was pressed against his chest, Etreon’s shaft a hard, hot jut against his stomach. His face, too, was pressed firmly into Tuco’s chest, but he didn’t seem to mind, as Tuco felt the wet heat of his tongue sliding up between his pectorals.

“There,” Tuco said. “Can you put your arms around my neck?” He gave his shaft a little flex as he asked, still firmly lodged in Etreon’s rump.

Etreon whimpered again, and said, “Yes, I think so,” his voice muffled by Tuco’s chest. He struggled to reach around the huge shelf of muscle, but managed, lacing his fingers behind Tuco’s neck.

“Hold on.” Tuco barely felt his friend’s weight on him as he scooted forward and took the stone in both hands, then lifted it at arm’s length and hefted it upward, over his head. The tension struck his body at once, making every muscle tighten intensely. His arms flexed so hard he felt like he might break the stone in half, and this time the pleasure hit his entire body at at the same time. He felt it pulse through, and then his body pulse in response. He pushed the stone away from him so he wouldn’t hurt Etreon with it and it cracked on the courtyard. And once again he began growing.

His knees scraped against the stones as his thighs pushed further apart. He rose as his glutes and hamstrings pressed against his calves, lifting him higher and higher. He felt his back thickening with layer after layer of new muscle, pushing his shoulders forward, tilting his neck down. He knew without looking, without being told, that he was already far larger and thicker than any man had ever been meant to be, that he had swelled beyond the range of what was human, and still he was growing. He felt his abdominals pulse and flex, pushing out against Etreon’s cock, and the apprentice yelped at the sensation and bucked against him. Hot splashes spattered Tuco’s stomach, and still he grew. His chest widened more and more, along with his shoulders, pushing back against Etreon until he could no longer keep his grip around Tuco’s neck, shoved away by the thickness of Tuco’s pectorals.

Etreon fell backward, catching himself on his hands, his heels still hooked behind Tuco’s thighs, his back arching as his thin blue cock jerked toward the sky, sending white pearls of come arcing into the air before they splashed down onto his caerulean skin.

And still Tuco grew. He held his arms out before him, watching in astonishment as they thickened wider than Etreon’s waist, the veins twining over them pulsing larger. Forearms met biceps, biceps met shoulders, and shoulders were shifted forward and upward by growing chest and traps.

As Etreon moaned, his slick, slender rump squeezed around Tuco’s shaft. All the pleasure seemed to focus there, and then Tuco himself accelerated over the edge of his climax. His first thrust of ecstasy bucked the slippery-skinned apprentice right off his shaft, sending him sliding across the courtyard, and then Tuco was lancing into the open air, sending his spatters of seed arcing with surprising distance after him. He pelted the sliding Etreon with drops of his own seed, each spasm more forceful and launching further than the previous…

…and then he was panting, resting on hands and knees as his cock twitched dryly beneath him.

He slowly got to his feet, feeling the new weight of his body, the way the muscles tugged at his bones, the dig of the coarse stone into the skin of his feet, the gravity settling into every joint. His arms wouldn’t hang freely. His neck bulged and resisted when he turned his head. Slowly, he walked over to Etreon who lay staring wide-eyed upward. His chin pressed into his chest when he looked down. Etreon stared up at him and his narrow hips bucked a couple times as though trying to expel any leftover climax.

Tuco leaned down, feeling off-balance, and offered his hand. Etreon took it, but his slippery fingers slid free, so Tuco gripped him around the wrist and hoisted him upright. “You all right?”

Etreon skated several steps backward, his eyes wide. “God blind me,” he swore. “You must weigh twenty stone now, at least.”

Tuco rubbed at his head dizzily. Biceps pressed hard against forearm. “That’s—that’s impossible.”

“You’re so much bigger than Alkeides now. You could break him.” He licked his pale blue lips, and his lingering erection pulsed. “I think you might be too big now.”

A pang of worry shot through Tuco. “For you?”

Etreon shook his head. “Not for me. Never for me. But… to be human.” His gaze darted eagerly toward the last remaining boulder. “Are you going to lift that one?”

Tuco turned to look at it and had to step wide to roll thighs bigger than his waist around each other. He heard a sharp inhalation from Etreon as he revealed his back and rump. “I… I don’t think I should. I think I might get too big. I feel strange. My body feels cramped. Overstuffed.”

“Are you sure you won’t?” Disappointment tinged Etreon’s voice. “I would love to see how big you would get.”

Tuco considered it. He’d have to move that last stone. Belphegor had given him the gift to help him complete the task, and if he didn’t finish, then there was no way the devil would come back and remove his dubious gift. Plus, he’d made the promise to Rigby. But he didn’t want Etreon around when a full-blown Lord of the Abyss entered the courtyard. What if he cursed Etreon, too? Even if not, would Etreon report what he had seen to the other Brothers? It was too great a risk.

“I think I’d better jussst wait for Rigby,” he said. He hadn’t even realized it was going to be a lie until he heard his tongue sizzle the air. And when it did, he tasted Etreon’s raging lust. Even after climax, his friend wanted more—not just to sate his own arousal, but to feel small next to someone else—overwhelmed, but safe. Belonging. There were so many temptations for him, and Tuco couldn’t risk Etreon being tempted and being changed, not just by the devil, but by any one of the demons in the walls or even, heaven forfend, by Tuco himself. “You go on ahead. I’ll find you later.”

“All right.” Etreon’s shoulders slumped, but he found his sodden pile of clothing and pulled it back on. “But I’ll be looking for you later, my Alkeides. I’m so happy to have been here for this. And for however often you want me.”

Tuco didn’t have the heart to tell him that if everything went well, he’d be back to his old size soon enough. “I’ll find you later.”

Only after Etreon had disappeared into the Abbey did Tuco notice his own torn rags lying there and think to call after him, “And could you bring me some clothes?” He doubted the apprentice had heard him, though.

His stomach growled. He wandered over and found the dropped plate of food. Fortunately, it had not fallen into the rain. Tuco squatted and scooped up the spilled food onto the tray. His arms looked bestial: bulging pillars of strength, and his chest filled the lower part of his vision. He sat on a stone bench and ate slowly, washing off all but the bread in the rain. The food didn’t seem nearly enough for him, and he wished he’d had three times as much, which prompted uncomfortable reminders of his night of gluttony with Belzebub.

He stared across the courtyard at the final remaining stone. It looked more like a broken pillar than a boulder, and was nearly the size of Tuco’s torso—the size his torso had once been, he reminded himself. It was significantly larger than the last boulder, and surely much, much heavier. If he lifted it, he’d grow again, and perhaps this time he would grow so enormous as to become utterly inhuman, a monster of muscle. His arms already stuck out at an angle, and try as he might, he could reach no part of his back. He could barely touch his own neck. Another intense bout of growth might leave him immobile, unable to walk or stand with his legs together, unable to bend his arms. Surely that was what Belphegor intended. That was what he planned, to have Tuco helpless when he showed up again. And then he’d… do whatever else he wanted. Drag Tuco down to the Abyss, eat his soul, whatever.

Tuco didn’t know how he would defeat the devil. He could perhaps eat him as he had Belzebub, but that idea did not appeal to him. If he could just get his hands on Belphegor, he could probably squeeze the devil into nothing. After all, he would have strength enough to make any physical task easy. That would be the tack he’d take. But he couldn’t do that if he was immobile when the devil returned.

He didn’t have to lift the stone, he realized. It was long and cylindrical, and the courtyard was mostly flat. He wandered over to it, stumbling a little around his thighs, feeling the weight of his body on his feet and knees—twenty stone? More?—and crouched in front of the stone. His thighs pressed hard against the slabs of his pectorals. He put his hands against the side of the stone, braced his feet, and pushed.

The stone did not move easily. Even just rolling it took more strength than his enlarged body could handle, and he felt again the tension flood through him, the wash of pleasure. He felt his thighs push his chest higher, his chest push back as it thickened and spread in his vision. The mounds of his traps nudged more firmly against his neck. And his arms barreled out, no longer remotely human, each far bigger around than his legs had once been, tightening into mountain ranges of power. And then the stone moved, rolling forward slowly and then accelerating, almost bouncing across the courtyard. Tuco grunted as he fell onto his chest, and by the time he got up, the stone had rolled a good twenty feet away, wobbling at one end.

When he got to his feet, he could feel that he had once again grown significantly larger. But he was still mobile, still able to bend arms and legs and look around. He waddled over to the final stone and found that pushing it the remainder of the way was a trivial task, complicated only by the stone’s irregular shape that made it roll more to the right than straight-forward, so he kept having to adjust it. But finally it was on the opposite end of the courtyard.

The rain had let up, and he stood in the open air and took a deep breath, watching his upper body lift like the rising of a great beast. Then he made his way to the far corner where Belphegor had appeared before and waited. When the devil appeared, he thought, there would be a moment in which he would expect to find Tuco standing frozen, unable to move due to his own oversized body. That would take him by surprise, and Tuco would have a moment to snatch him and wring the life out of him.

He didn’t like the idea of killing another creature, even a devil from the Abyss who intended him evil, but he couldn’t think of another way. What happened to devils when they perished, he wondered? Did they go back to the Abyss, or did they simply cease to exist? What had happened to Sathanus and Belzebub?

Still no Belphegor. He studied the shadowy corners of the courtyard. Nothing.

“Hello?” he called. “I finished the task! I’ve used your gift like you said. Where are you?”

Nothing.

He sat on a bench and waited. Time passed. The sun dipped toward the horizon. Slowly, the shadows in the courtyard deepened, and the enchanted torches lighted themselves. Still nothing.

The devil was not coming.

The curse was not lifted.

Part 9: Wilderness

The skies had been dark for a long time before Rigby finally arrived. Tuco supposed Etreon must not have heard his request for clothes, and so was sitting, naked and shivering near the door. He’d spent the hours since he’d moved the final stone hopelessly calling for Belphegor and then, after a long while of no response, spending time trying to become accustomed to his new, massive frame. Although it felt heavy on his bones and joints, and though he could feel the weight of his body in the pressure on his soles, moving about took practically no energy, and he found that not only could he walk and even leap easily, he could roll forward and balance on his hands with no difficulty. Experimenting, he found that he could hold his weight upside down on only one hand, and then, admittedly with some wobbling, push himself up and down. His thighs had already begun to chafe from walking, and so he developed a rolling, side-to-side kind of walk that let them step around each other, although this gait also made his newly broad shoulders sway even more, and had the unfortunate tendency to squash his sac between his thighs at random moments. Clearly, it would take some getting used to.

Once he’d tired of that, he sat down against one wall and waited, mulling over what had happened to him and what he had to do. He wished Pike were there to bounce ideas off of. When Rigby finally entered, he didn’t notice Tuco at first, and his eyes went wide when he saw that all of the stones had been moved. The heaviest had left spots behind, little shapes of encrusted rock, moss, and lichen. “Incredible,” he breathed, and then he turned and saw Tuco rising to a stand against the wall. His eyes widened again, and then hooded with understanding and disappointment.

“So you finished. But look at you.” He sighed. “I had thought better of you, Tuco.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Tuco protested. “I didn’t—” He stopped himself. There was no point in arguing, for he could not tell Rigby about the devil’s curse, that it had nothing to do with temptation, and even if he could, he doubted Rigby would believe him. Not when every apprentice and Brother here eventually fell victim to the same fate. He sighed. “I tried. I really did.”

Rigby turned back toward the door. “Come on. Let’s go back. You can use those rags to cover yourself.” And, saying no more, he led Tuco back through the Abbey, Tuco clutching the clothes he had once been able to wear around his waist to preserve some sense of modesty.

In the dormitory, most of the apprentices were asleep, so Tuco was able to avoid disturbing most of them, though he did catch the sounds of several hissing gasps as the more nocturnal of them caught sight of his changed form. He started to climb the ladder to his bunk, but the rungs creaked alarmingly, and then the whole bed groaned as if about about to split.

“Who is that?” Pike’s voice came from the bottom bunk. He rubbed his eyes with furry paws and blinked in the darkness. “…Tuco? That can’t be you.”

“It’s me. Another devil came. It—”

“Etreon told me you’d been changed, but I had no idea.” Pike sat up. “Look at you! You’re a giant. At least… sideways. You’ll have to tell me about it, but perhaps in the morning?”

“All right.”

“I don’t think you can sleep up there, though. You’ll collapse the whole thing on top of me. What do you weigh now?”

Tuco shrugged his heavy shoulders and the bulge of his traps pressed into his neck. “Etreon thought more than twenty stone, but I… I grew again after that.”

Pike made a low whistle with his tongue. “Hold on a minute. I need to go talk to Rigby.” He dashed away from the bed with astonishing speed, out of sight before the blanket had settled back to his pallet. Tuco took the opportunity to wrap a blanket around his waist.

A few minutes later, Pike returned. “Come with me,” he said, and he led Tuco to the far corner of the dorms and through the door into the hallway with the room that Elf stayed in. “Officially these rooms are only for apprentices that have specific… conditions… that prevent them from rooming comfortably with others. But since we don’t have any other place for you to sleep tonight, Rigby said you could take one for now.”

He opened a door past Elf’s room and led Tuco inside. “Light is here, you see?” A candle hung in a bracket on the wall, but it hung upside down. Pike swiveled it upright with one paw and its flame flickered to life. Then he stared at Tuco. “You’re… incredible.”

Embarrassed, Tuco rubbed at the back of his neck, which felt nothing like he remembered, huge arcs of muscle meeting near the base of his skull. His shoulder and biceps and forearm all competed for space, and left him barely able to reach it. “Grotesque?” he asked worriedly.

Pike raised his brows and then pointedly looked down at his rising pink erection. “Guess not. But I doubt any Unchanged in the whole world has ever been as brawny as you. The horns, the tongue, the cute little fangs, those were all just accessories, but you’re one of us all the way now.”

“It should go back to normal if I can just find the devil that did this to me and defeat him, I think. All my fat and size did after Belzebub.” And Tuco related in detail the events of the day: the task, the approach of the devil, and the curse that grew him each time he attempted a more difficult feat of strength. Pike nodded all the while, but his eyes kept straying over Tuco’s body, watching the bend of an arm, the shift of a leg, the twist of a hip.

“So by some measure we must call back this Lord Belphegor fellow, and then either convince him to rescind his gift or destroy him.”

Tuco nodded. The lateness of the hour was beginning to weary him.

“But none of us can summon a demon or a devil on our own,” Pike said.

“I might be able to. I summoned that one by mistake in Ritual. Maybe… whatever has happened to me gives me the ability to call them?”

“And surely that’s how they are finding and targeting you. But you’d need to know the exact elements to summon a specific demon. They’re sure to be rare and expensive if we’re summoning a proper devil, and I’ve never even heard of a Lord Belphegor. There might be something about him in the library, but we’re not allowed in. And even if we could find the name of the devil and the rite needed to summon him, it’s still tremendously dangerous to summon a devil. And we have no idea how to defeat him. We’d be putting the entire Abbey in terrible danger.”

“Then what am I to do?”

“Perhaps you don’t need to do anything?” Pike suggested. “This change is different, but it’s far from bad, don’t you think? Not everyone will like it, but I find it highly pleasing, and Etreon can’t stop talking about you. I think he may be smitten. And what’s wrong with being stronger than a team of oxen?”

“But my body already feels… cramped and overstuffed. What if I grow again?”

“Just don’t attempt any task more difficult than moving those stones. Don’t… try to pick up a ship’s anchor or punch down a building or jump up into the heavens or something.”

Tuco considered that for a minute and shuddered at the idea of what he’d become if he tried. “It still seems risky.”

“Not that risky. You’re in Abyssus Abbey. What do we do all day besides learn, pray, and occasionally summon terrifying creatures from the void?”

“I suppose so,” Tuco said reluctantly. “But I just can’t help worrying that Lord Belphegor won’t let it stop here. He did this to me for a reason. But trying to live with it is better than risking everyone’s safety. You’re right.” He yawned. “I should sleep.”

Pike stepped a little closer. “I don’t suppose you’d like a little pleasure before you sleep? I’d love to feel those arms around me. Why, I daresay you could easily just hold me in the air while you rutted me.” He smoothed his fingers across Tuco’s chest and shivered. “With no difficulty at all.”

“It sounds nice, but I’m just too tired. Besides, Etreon and I fucked earlier and I’m spent.”

The rabbit-man shook his head in mock dismay. “You poor humans. No stamina at all.”

Tuco settled onto the pallet on the floor. “Maybe tomorrow, eh?” he said with a yawn.

“Sure, if I can prise Etreon off of you. Good night, Tuco.”


Tuco woke up ravenous. He hadn’t slept well, either—there seemed no comfortable position for his new, bulky body. His upper back and rump were so thick now that lying on his back left space beneath his lower back, and that began to arch and ache, and his head couldn’t actually reach the pillows. But if he slept on his side, his enormous shoulder got in the way. He’d have to get some extra pallets and try to arrange something more comfortable.

When he opened the door, he saw that someone—Pike, probably—had very thoughtfully left fresh clothing outside. Whatever enchantment provided fresh clothes and linens had managed to create both a tunic and a set of robes in Tuco’s new size, but it hadn’t accounted very well for his changed dimensions, and none of the clothes fit well. The sleeves tugged and pulled awkwardly no matter how he rearranged them, the robes kept sliding down the yoke-like arches of his traps, and the whole thing hung awkwardly off of his chest and upper back like a collapsing carnival tent. Besides which, a few minutes of wearing either tunic or robe and he was getting too warm; this new body produced heat far more than his usual skinny one did. After some deliberation, he decided to tear the sleeves off of the tunic and wear it with the chest open, tying the whole thing at the waist with the belt from the robe. It looked a little ridiculous, he decided, but it was at least comfortable, and the HMS Not Looking Ridiculous had sailed out of the harbor a long time ago now.

Clad, he passed through the hallway and entered the main dormitory. He kept his gaze low and tried not to attract any attention, but the room seemed a lot quieter than it should be this time of the morning. Whispers darted around the large room like dragonflies. He was halfway to the door before someone stepped in his path, and he looked up to see the scowling face of Walstein, flanked by two of his cronies, Erlin and Branst. His long, black hair had been tied into a braid, and his right hand was thickly wrapped in a bloodstained bandage.

“Well look what happened to the poor little devil boy,” Walstein sneered. He turned to the apprentice on his right. “Couldn’t hack his little chore, so got a demon to help him out. Or maybe he was just scared of getting his face shoved in. What you think, Erlin? Temptation of safety?”

Erlin was a tall, gangly youth who hovered in midair on nearly invisible, buzzing wings. A recent ritual gone wrong had left him with black, dome-like eyes and a long, segmented tail with a stinger at the end of it. No one had ever been stung by Erlin, and no one was sure what would happen if they were. Current beliefs suggested that either the stung person would die in horrible agony, or that the sting itself would tear out, killing Erlin like a bee, or both. That tail swayed dangerously back and forth, and Tuco watched it, entranced. What would it be like to have another limb one could control, he thought, and then decided he’d better not wonder lest he find out.

“Safety,” Erlin agreed in his thin, reedy voice. “Or power. Maybe he thinks he can trounce you now.”

“I’d like to see him try.” Walstein put his left hand on Tuco’s shoulder and shoved him hard, sending him stumbling back several paces. Tuco didn’t dare even think about trying to resist, lest this be a new feat of strength that would provoke another growth. “All that muscle, but he’s still just a mouse. You think you’re stronger than me, mouse?”

“I don’t know,” Tuco answered mildly.

Walstein smacked his bandaged right fist into his left palm, and only a very faint twitch of his eye indicated the pain that had cost him. “This fist put a hole through the Abbey wall. The stone wall.”

Tuco reached up and touched his left horn, trying to ignore the flurry of gasps around the room as his arm bulged. “And this horn put a hole in that fist. Why isn’t that healed, by the way?” he asked hastily, as Walstein’s face had begun to turn a threatening shade of purple. “Didn’t you go see Brother Hofstaed?”

“His medicine didn’t work,” Walstein growled. “He doesn’t know why.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I never meant to injure you.”

“But we all know why, don’t we?” Walstein looked to Erlin and then the rest of the room. “Because it’s devil magic. He’s even got a devil name. Witchywine. And he’s been working with the demons. They can’t move about under the Gasen, but he can and does it. Sneaking around all hours of the night, doing their dirty work. He cursed Charo, he did. We all saw it. And stabbed me with his horn. What else is he up to, eh? What happened to Brother Melvin? And why ain’t anybody seen Lord Krastor in a fortnight? Cause he’s doin’ ‘em in.”

“It’s not true at all, I swear to you,” Tuco said. “Working with the devils? I’m just trying to survive them, same as the rest of you.”

“Only you’re not the same, are you, devil boy? You got them horns, and I swear on Eman’s Blood something’s wrong with your tongue. Since you got here, things have been happening more. You called up that demon in Ritual. We know you did it. Well?” He shoved Tuco again, sending him stumbling back a few steps.

“Hey, easy, Walstein, leave the kid alone,” Pike said, pushing his way through the crowd.

Walstein leered. “Yeah we all know why you’re on his side, rabbit. You been slutting it up all over this place and now you finally found a pervert who will fuck animals on the regular.”

Pike flinched, and then straightened up, standing very still. His voice was as hard as ice. “I am not an animal.”

The room had gone very quiet at that, and Tuco suspected that Walstein had committed some unspoken taboo. Most in the room were just as Changed as Pike, many with bestial features. Many had lost one-time friends and companions to the Change, and all of them were staring down that inevitable fate themselves.

Walstein himself seemed to sense that he had spoken unwise, for he stepped back, forcing his face into a casual grin. “Oh come on now, I was only joking. We all like Pike, don’t we, fellas?” Erlin and Branst nodded, and the room relaxed a little.

“You, though,” Walstein said, pointing a sausage finger at Tuco. “Don’t think I won’t be watching you. I wouldn’t go anywhere alone anymore if I were you. It’s an old building, full of demons. It’s not safe. You could fall. Out a hole. In the wall.” And for emphasis, he clenched his bandaged fist. Tuco breathed in as he walked past him, and could taste blood on the air. And an intense desire for vengeance.


He was glad of the chance to wash. He could tell he reeked of sweat after his labors yesterday, which it seemed the rain had done little to wash off. The washroom was full of other apprentices pointedly not looking at him, but when he removed his de-sleeved tunic, he heard a gasped whimper behind him and turned to see Etreon, eyes wide. The apprentice had woken up a shiny, silver color this morning, even his hair and eyes, and was nude for the baths, his erection twitching dryly in the air as he stared at Tuco.

He looked down, embarrassed. “You got even bigger,” he murmured. “I had to see.”

“Yes, well.” Tuco surveyed his body, able to see little past his chest. He didn’t dare look at himself in the mirrors yet. “Let us hope it’s the last time.”

He climbed up the steps to one of the wooden baths, which was already steaming with scented water, and tried to settle in, but found to his dismay that he could not fit in it comfortably. The wooden sides of the tub nearly met his lats and left little room for his arms or shoulders. So, ruefully, he climbed back out and, shivering and wet, made his way down to the tub on the end that was sized for the Abbey’s larger apprentices. That at least had plenty of room, and he settled into it with a sigh. His body wasn’t sore, exactly, but it was tense, and the heat of the water eased that tension out of his muscles bit by bit.

Washing himself proved an opportunity for exploration; his muscles made thick bulges and crevices that he had to learn, that were part of him now, at least for the time being. And the bulkiness of his new shape made reaching some parts difficult; he could scarcely wash his neck, and reaching any part of his back proved to be completely impossible. He struggled for a while, groping and straining to try to reach it, but where once he’d been able to reach any part of his back, now he could barely touch it at all.

He was wondering if he was just going to have to be dirty back there forever, when he heard a small voice ask, “Could I help you with that, Master Witchywine?”

He looked over to see Etreon’s wistful face staring at him over the top of the tub. “Master? It’s—it’s Tuco, Etreon, you know that.”

Etreon looked down, probably blushing, though it was impossible to tell with his silvery skin. “I know. I kind of have my own thing happening with this. There are things I’ve always wanted, and now here you are, and you’re—” He practically squeaked the last words. “Nice to me. So could I… I mean, would you like me to wash your back for you?”

It would be almost cruel to refuse him, Tuco thought. He slid forward and let Etreon step into the tub behind him. The boy’s skin was strangely gritty today, like worked stone, and his hands felt almost tiny sliding across the expanse of Tuco’s back. His breaths came in uneven little pants and about halfway through, his hands suddenly tensed, both of them gripping at Tuco’s back with rough fingers, and then something warm splashed onto the middle of Tuco’s back. He turned his head, but couldn’t see much behind him. “Did you just—”

Etreon’s voice sounded panicked. “Sorry, Master W… Master Tuc… I mean, I’m so sorry, Tuco. I didn’t mean to. It just happened!”

Amused, Tuco answered, “Well, no better place than with plenty of soap and water handy. Clean it up.”

A pause. “Yes, Alkeides.” The words sounded a little excited and breathless. The hands resumed their scrubbing of his back and when they reached down to his backside, there was a pause. “Is there anything else you want help with?”

Tuco looked down at his lathered chest and hard stomach. “I can get the rest myself, I think. Thank you, Etreon.”

“All right,” came a somewhat disappointed voice. “I’ll see you in Ritual?”

“Of course.”

Etreon used Tuco’s shoulder for a handhold as he pulled himself up out of the bath. He gave Tuco a long look as he wrapped a towel about his middle to hide his erection, but he still had to exit the bathroom hunched over slightly.

Tuco finished washing up and toweled himself off as best as he was able, catching glimpses of his impossibly wide figure in the mirrors as he did so. He put his tunic back on, and as he headed to the washroom exit, thought he heard whispered voices and the slap of bare feet on stone. Something was up, he thought, and so he was on guard as he left the washroom.

It was only that alertness that warned him of Walstein’s enormous fist swinging down toward him like the hammer of doom. He ducked back and felt the wind of the blow swinging past him. Walstein lurched a couple of steps past the doorway, carried by his own momentum, but pivoted and came after Tuco again, barreling at him like a charging bull, his long, black braid trailing behind him.

Tuco froze, trying to decide in an eternal second which way to bolt, and what good it could do. He doubted he could outrun Walstein; this body was clumsy and awkward, and he wasn’t used to it yet. Even walking in it was uncomfortable. He twitched from right to left, trying to decide, and then it was too late: the powerful apprentice swung his hamhock of a fist down toward Tuco with enough force to send him to sleep.

Tuco reached up and caught the fist with one hand. He hadn’t expected to do it; it just happened. Instinct took over, and the next thing he knew, he was gripping Walstein’s powerful fist in his own smaller hand. The apprentice’s weight and momentum was far more than Tuco could handle and would have knocked him to the floor, but instead he gripped, swiveled on both feet, and flung Walstein past him into the wall of the washroom. There was a sickening crunch and a chorus of sympathetic groans from the hallway. Walstein staggered back from the wall, clutching at his face, his eyes streaming. Blood flowed from under his hand, down his chin.

But Tuco’s whole body had tensed, every muscle flexing. There was the sound of tearing fabric. A flood of pleasure threatened to overwhelm him. And then, in front of all the apprentices gathered in the hallway, before Walstein, who had dropped to his knees in agony, he grew.


“Tuco?” Pike’s voice came from outside his room. “I’m coming in.”

Tuco sighed and pushed himself up on one elbow as his friend entered the room. “Etreon was already here today,” he said. “But I could probably go again.”

“I’m not here for sex,” Pike said. “Well. I mean, unless you’re interested. But not only sex.” He and Etreon had apparently worked out some kind of arrangement with each other to get around Tuco’s limited stamina. Some days Pike would show up, and others Etreon, and Tuco was never quite certain which it was going to be, but he enjoyed them both. Pike was sassy and a little experimental and always wanting to try something different—Tuco had particularly enjoyed the time he’d lifted Pike up and fucked him against a wall—but Etreon was often wide-eyed and stammering and preferred just to explore Tuco’s body or even be given commands. Still he could seldom manage more than one a day, at least for extended periods, so the two of them had worked out a schedule.

“What do you want?” He sat up, his legs folded as much as they could be in front of him.

Pike sat next to him and put a furry paw on one knee. “You need to stop doing this.”

“Doing what?”

“You know what I mean. Hiding out in here. Not socializing with others. Not going to class. They’re docking your pay, you know. Your family’s not getting a coin.”

“I know.”

“But you still wait in here. You wait until everyone’s in class to go wash and eat, and then you just come back here and hide out. It’s not right, Tuco. It’s not healthy. You’ll go mad in here.”

Tuco sighed. “You know why I can’t risk it.” He spread his arms wide. Each bulged nearly as thick as his waist had once been.

“I know, I know.” Pike met his gaze. “There’s a risk you’ll grow again. But this place is risky. You know that. And it’s not the worst thing in the world. You’re a little… unusually large, but you’re still very attractive. Etreon can barely say your name—well, barely say Alkeides’ name—without standing to attention in his tunic.”

“He does have his predilections,” Tuco agreed.

“And so do I. I’m very fond of you, you know that. But you can’t just lie around here for the rest of your life.”

“You haven’t found out anything about Belphegor?”

Pike shook his head. “We can’t even find the library. The door hasn’t been seen since Lord Krastor went missing. Maybe we’re not going to. Maybe this is it. But you still need to come out and live… as normal a life as you get in Abyssus. Come be around people again.”

“And what if Walstein attacks me again? What if something else happens? What if I’m so big I can’t move?”

The rabbit-man looked around the small room. “Would that be any different than now? Tuco, there’s one thing I don’t think you’re considering.”

“What?”

“That maybe this is exactly what this Belphegor devil wants.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he said he was going to make your life easy. Temptation of Ease, right?” Pike shrugged. “And now you lie around every day, only making an effort for food and sex and to wash yourself. Doesn’t that sound like sloth to you?”

Tuco blinked. “I… that hadn’t occurred to me.”

“The creature made you strong, but he also made you afraid to do anything. I mean, look at this room.” Pike stared around pointedly at the extra pallet that Tuco had dragged into the room, the pillows piled high so he could lie down comfortably, the blankets. Platters were stacked in one corner so Tuco could take his meals in his room without risking confrontation with another apprentice—and he’d been eating much more now that he had so much extra muscle to fuel. “You need to start leaving the room, mate. You need to start working, or ease is going to get you. I don’t know what that devil has planned for you, but are you sure this isn’t it?”

Tuco looked around glumly. Pike was right—he’d been doing nothing for days now, and had no plans to change until Belphegor returned. He’d tried an impromptu summoning, tried screaming the devil’s name, all to no effect, but he hadn’t dared do more. And he was beginning to go a bit mad with boredom, to tell the truth.

Pike said, “Look, why is sloth a sin? Because it can lead to despair, yes? Because it can make you feel like no matter what you try, no matter what you do, you can’t make a difference. It can become an excuse not to try. Ever. Anything. Until you’re just lying in bed waiting for all difficulties to end.” Pike put a soft-furred paw on his shoulder. “This place is dangerous for all of us. You can’t hide from it. Trying to avoid it only leads you into another trap of the demons. It’s best to just move forward and hope for the best.”

With a sigh, Tuco reached out his hand. “You’re right, Pike. You’re a good friend to come and tell me this. I can’t keep waiting for Belphegor to act. And besides, if I go to Ritual classes I might at least learn something that might help me fight him. I’ll come out. Help me up?”

Pike took his hand with a dubious expression. “I don’t think I can lift you now,” he began and then collapsed into a giggle as Tuco pulled him down atop himself. “Not now, you sex fiend, I’ve got class any—”

He was interrupted by a sharp, mechanical rap at the door. “Tuco, are you there?” Rigby’s voice called out from the hallway.

“Yes, just a minute.” Tuco set Pike upright again and sprang to his feet. He pulled on his altered tunic and robe combination and opened the door to Rigby’s expressionless mask of a face. “Listen, I know I’ve been in here a long time, and I’m sorry. I’m coming out to—”

“That’s just fine,” Rigby said. “But Brother Gabriel has expressed concern about your inability to get along with the other apprentices. The monastery needs more garnet for rituals. You and Walstein will be accompanying me to the garnet mines to retrieve more. It will be a three-day journey, minimum, and conditions may be severe. Go and see Brother Allen for supplies and meet us in the main cloister in one hour.”

Tuco blinked. “What? But—”

“He has indicated that there will be no room for negotiation.” Rigby looked Tuco up and down. “I will ensure that we bring extra provisions for your… dietary needs. One hour.” And with that, he closed the door.


“God blind me,” Walstein snarled for at least the twentieth time. “This is a fucking miserable excuse for an outing.”

Tuco was already weary of hearing it even if he couldn’t exactly disagree. The first few hours out of the confines of the Abbey had been a joy and relief, even if he was stuck sharing it with Walstein. The sky was so big and open, and the air smelled of rain and new grass, not stone and soot and mildew. And he hadn’t been aware until he left how much the ever-present sense of demons, of malice, crawling through the walls had contributed to an abiding, oppressive feeling of claustrophobia. Those exhilarating moments had lasted for less than an hour though before the chill of the mountain air started blasting through their coats.

Nothing they’d had on-hand had fit Tuco, so they’d stitched together two separate coats, and the chill leaked through all the seams and filled it from beneath. And that was before the rain started. It had rained three separate times in one afternoon, and the wool cloaks they’d brought did little to shield them against precipitation blown sideways by the wind. They traveled along the gale-swept ridges of the mountain range, and Tuco was grateful at least that his body seemed to be nearly tireless, even though all had agreed that he should carry the bulk of their provisions on his broad back. Tuco would have liked to have run the course and saved them all some time, but Walstein’s strength was flagging after several hours, and he could hardly find the route without Rigby. So they plodded along, enduring the cold, the wet, and the tedium.

From here, Tuco could see across deep valleys and many peaks, but in none of them was any sign of civilization, and he began to feel hopelessly isolated and alone. Neither of his companions seemed to be faring well either. Walstein had begun the journey with an ongoing tirade of insults and abuse, but now he was too exhausted to fight, his long, stringy black hair matted to his face and shoulders. And Rigby seemed somehow to be aging with every step, his face lining with creases, sagging, and silver beginning to streak through his hair.

Finally, as the sun slumped toward the horizon, Rigby deemed it time to find a camping spot, and they half-hiked, half-slid down the rocky side of a hill to find a sheltered spot below the tree line. They located an overhang in the mountainside where they were protected from rain and wind in three directions, and Rigby managed to rummage up firewood and generate a little heat and light for them all.

“When I get back to the Abbey,” Walstein growled as he tried to pat out the lumps beneath his thin bedroll, “I am going to make your life hell, Witchywine.”

“You do and you’ll be back out here sooner than you’d like,” Rigby warned, stoking the fire. He’d tried to position it so that the smoke would roll up and over the cliff rather than choking them, but there was a constant hiss as raindrops pelted it. “The only reason you two are out here is because you cannot get along.”

Walstein spat into the fire. “It’s a sin to get along with demons. And what’s happening with you anyway, Rigby? You look a hundred years old.”

He was not exaggerating. The lines in Rigby’s face had deepened and spread, and his flesh sagged. He moved stiffly, with a hunch, and the silver in his hair had lightened to a solid white. Even his voice had begun to quaver and crack when he spoke. “I do not require sustenance to get through the day as I did when I was made of flesh,” he said, stepping back from the fire. “But I do begin to wind down, especially when traveling long distances or engaged in tasks of considerable effort.”

Tuco nestled up to the fire, hoping to dry out his wet clothes a little. “Wind down? Like a clock, you mean? How do you wind up again? Do you need help?”

“I would find assistance with that task… distasteful,” Rigby said with a shudder. “I usually manage on my own, in my quarters, as experience has taught me that others find the procedure unsettling. Out here, there is little privacy to be found. Still, I may as well tend to the task now. You may look away if you like.”

Walstein snorted, “Whatever,” and hunched over the fire, rubbing his meaty hands together, but Tuco turned to watch Rigby with no small level of curiosity.

“What happens if you don’t do it?” he asked.

“What happens to anyone else. I grow very old and cease to function.”

“If that happens, could you be wound up again and brought back to life? Or would you die?”

Rigby gave him a hard stare. “Now, how could I be expected to know that?” He reached up and placed both hands on his head, his right on the back of his head, his left on his forehead, and then, without pause, he twisted his whole head anti-clockwise. Tuco winced, expecting a crack, or for the clockwork man to drop to the ground, lifeless or paralyzed, but instead, Rigby’s entire head rotated all the way around, as if on a wheel, the back of his head facing them. Small wonder others found this disturbing to see—a head should not be twisted around that way. But Rigby’s arms kept moving, twisting his head again, his expressionless face circling by as he wound his head around and around on his neck. As he worked, the white bled out of his hair, the wiry tangles of his beard and eyebrows neatening and shortening. The hunch straightened out of his back, his bony arms fleshed out with muscle, and each time his face slid by, the flesh was tighter, the wrinkles smoothed out.

“That’s amazing!” Tuco said, and ignored a belabored groan from Walstein. “How many times do you have to do that to get… back where you were?”

“One full turn for a full turn of the seasons,” Rigby answered.

“So each twist is a year. How young can you go?”

“I have not tested this. One assumes that beyond a certain age, one would forget how to continue, or lack the motility of limbs to perform the function.” By now he appeared hale and strong, in his thirties at least, but he kept turning. “Seldom do I regress myself very young, as it draws too much attention, and I find myself motivated by a certain… youthful impropriety that ill befits one with my responsibilities. But as rigorous travel makes strenuous demands on my internal works, today I will risk a little adolescent impetuosity.” He stood, and his body now looked lean and strong, and he carried himself with a youthful vigor that Tuco had not seen before.

“Oh, I see,” Tuco said. “All those times when you showed up looking such a different age, now it—”

“Quiet,” Rigby interrupted him, holding up a hand. “Both of you. Be still. Did you hear that?”

Tuco shook his head, and Walstein grunted, “Hear what?”

Rigby lifted a hand and peered out into the fading light. For a moment, all was very quiet. There was only the crackle of the fire and the roar of the wind. And then Tuco heard what had captured Rigby’s attention: a loud crashing and thumping, as of several large creatures moving through the underbrush. Rigby abruptly dropped to a crouch and motioned the two of them over.

On his hands and knees, Tuco crept over to Rigby and peered down the mountainside toward the sounds, Walstein close on his heels. Down the slope, he saw nearly a score of enormous creatures trampling through the bushes. They walked upright, like humans, but there the resemblance ended. Each stood at least twelve feet tall by Tuco’s estimation, and they were massively muscled, far more than he. He might be beyond the limits of what a typical human could carry on one frame, but these creatures were built for power—their shoulders wider, their huge, pillar-like arms reaching nearly to the ground, their chests barrels. Their legs seemed short for their bodies, and their backs and shoulders were hunched, giving them a stooped, swaying walk. Their bodies were thickly matted with light grey hair, and between their shoulders were small, dome-like heads with beady eyes, out-thrust lower jaws, and huge, yellow tusks.

“What are they?” Tuco whispered. “Trolls?”

“Ogres,” Rigby whispered back. “A whole herd of them.” He pointed to the smaller ones—children, Tuco supposed, scampering around their parents’ legs and tussling with each other. “They were supposed to have been cleared out of this area, but I suppose they’ve wandered back. We had better exercise caution. I need no sleep, so I will remain on watch tonight.”

Walstein curled his upper lip as though comparing his own tusks. “They don’t seem so dangerous.”

“They enjoy the taste of man-flesh when they can get it.”

Tuco shrank down into the grass. “That’s horrible. Won’t they spot us?”

Rigby’s mouth was a flat line. “They’ll have seen the smoke and smelled the fire. But they do not love it. It’s the best way to keep them at bay. Go back to the fire and remain motionless. And pray for a rainless night.”


Their prayers were answered, but Tuco slept fitfully all the same, waking up multiple times from dreams of one of those enormous, man-shaped things snuffling at him from the darkness, once even with its mouth around his lower leg. And twice Walstein woke him in the middle of the night with kicks that set him screaming in alarm, terrified that he was waking to an attack. He roused finally to a cold, dewy morning and Rigby sizzling up dried pork and eggs over the dying embers of the fire.

After a very salty breakfast and more petty jibes from Walstein, they wrapped themselves in damp cloaks, Tuco shouldered their pack, and they set off again, just in time for another dreary early morning rainshower. The journey was harder that day. The wet had got into Tuco’s boots, and what had been gentle rubbing against his toes was turning into, he was certain, a series of blisters. His muscles might be stronger, but his feet and joints were not dealing with his increased weight any more easily, and he felt bone-sore and chafed. The only small blessing was that Walstein was apparently too tired to jab at him much, and though twice he attempted to give Tuco an ill-timed shoulder aside, he quickly learned that Tuco was now much, much heavier than him and had a lower center of gravity, and he bounced off of Tuco as though running into a wall.

The ogre herd had seemingly moved on, and had left a trail that no one could fail to follow, heading off to the north. Rigby led them east, promising they could expect to arrive around midday. Sure enough, before the sun was above them, he led them down a more well-traveled track into a valley, and below were the signs of a settlement or camp, with a road that had borne many carts leading southward.

“The miners have little love for the Changed,” Rigby warned them. “They suspect us all of being infernal agents. But they are accustomed to me. You may accompany me as I speak to the foreman, but remain silent, and do not touch anything.”

Once they had agreed, he headed into the settlement, which was little more than a few canvas tents collected around an opening in the side of the mountain, which was barred with a heavy iron gate. A weary-looking, bearded man came to the gate when Rigby called, eyeing them all warily. “Ye run outta stones so quick?”

“Times are what they are,” Rigby answered. “All know the end approaches. If we are to forestay it, there must be study.”

The bearded man scowled at Tuco and Walstein. “Ye’re far younger than ye ought to be. Nigh a boy. I remember ye with white in yer beard last we spoke. I don’t like it. And ye brought a couple o’ monsters with ye this time. Thinkin’ ta fear me into a more generous spirit?”

“It is the Apocalypse and concern for your soul that should prompt your generosity. These two are here on punishment for fighting.”

The man shrank back from the barred gate a little ways. “Their victims live?”

“They fought each other. Unacceptable among apprentices. Not when all our thoughts must be bent toward the serenity of the divine and averting the destruction of the world.”

The man spat and sidled closer to the bars again. “Ye bring the chits?”

From his belt, Rigby untied a small pouch and passed it over. “Your miners can abstain from the blessings of communion for another three months without fear of judgment from the divine. It is a great service you provide to the world.”

“Aye,” the man said doubtfully, and thrust his hairy mitt through the bars of the grate to take the bag. “I’ll be round quick with your stones. Er… yield’s been low of late.”

“A world ended will have no need of garnet. A world saved will need less of it. We hope our arrangement may near its end, but that does not reduce the need at present. Hence the Abbey’s generosity with its indulgences.”

“Aye.” The man sounded unhappy, but he disappeared into the darkness.

Walstein snorted. “He don’t want to give you the stones, eh? With what we can do, we could bust in and take them. The Abbey needs it for God’s work, dunnit? And them, what do they need it for? Getting rich.”

“Feeding their families,” Rigby said mildly. “And overlooking the fact that stealing from these men would be an inarguably evil act, it would make them more likely to arm themselves against us in the future. Or, at worst, to abandon the mine, and then the Abbey would have no source for garnets at all. Unless you fancy taking up mining yourself.”

Tuco imagined trying to tear away the iron grate and what that might do to his already overmuscled body. The foreman had called him a monster. He supposed that was how he looked now, his limbs swollen with power, long horns curving up from his temples. It was an unwelcome reminder that he had already left humanity behind, perhaps forever, and he thought of what Pike had told him, up on the roof of the Abbey, as they looked out over the world. It no longer belonged to any of them. It belonged to the Unchanged.

After a long time, during which Walstein stumped off and flopped down under a tree to rest, the man returned with a light-looking pouch, which he handed to Rigby. Rigby hefted it, one brow arched in question.

“Times be what they are,” the bearded man mumbled, not meeting his gaze. “Veins are running low, and we all got families to feed.”

“Indeed,” Rigby said, but he didn’t question further, and they turned to go.

As they walked away, the man called toward their backs, “Next time, leave the devils where ye come from.” Walstein turned on him with a drooling snarl, and the man paled and disappeared from the gate. The sound of running footsteps echoed down the passage.


They hiked for the rest of the day, and now that they were returning to the Abbey, Walstein’s mood seemed worse than ever. He kept deliberately tripping Tuco, timing his malice until just the moment when Tuco’s mind had begun to wander, and then deftly jutting one boot-clad foot around Tuco’s ankle. Each time sent Tuco stumbling, and usually sprawling forward on his chest. The heels of his hands had been skinned bloody and stained by earth, and twice now their provisions had gone spilling across the ground and needed to be repacked. Rigby looked back several times, but each time, Walstein had been careful to trip Tuco only when their guide was farther ahead or turned away.

“Why? Why are you doing this to me?” Tuco finally asked, after the third time he’d been tripped, only to have the question parroted back to him in mocking tones.

“Walstein,” Rigby said in a stern voice.

“What?” Walstein asked, badly feigning innocence. “It ain’t my fault he can barely waddle along with those stupid legs.” Rigby said nothing, but he met Tuco’s eyes with something like understanding in them for the first time.

They stopped for the night not far from where they’d camped the night before. Rigby had aged significantly by that point—there was grey throughout his beard and hair, but he declined to wind himself up again, saying that they’d likely be back to the Abbey before evening the next day. They had a fire roaring when they fell asleep, but in the black of night a fierce rainstorm put it out, and they could do little but huddle under their cloaks and try to endure until morning.

Dawn brought little respite. The rain had stopped, but a dark thunderhead was approaching from the north. “We had better make for the Abbey as quickly as we are able,” Rigby warned. “Storms in these mountains can be deadly.”

Wearily, Tuco got to his feet and agreed that, as threatening as it could be, nothing sounded more inviting now than the shelter of a stone roof over his head, a fresh-cooked meal, and a warm fire. He rummaged around for his possessions, all of which were soaked. For anyone else, he supposed, they would have been very heavy.

“Where is Walstein?” Rigby asked sharply.

Tuco looked around, his vision still bleary, cold water running from his hair into his eyes. The apprentice was nowhere to be seen. There was a divot in the ground where he’d been sleeping, but he was gone. “Why would he run off on his own?”

They stumbled around the area, looking for him, and Tuco was just about to call when he spotted Walstein sitting on a rock a little way down the mountainside, staring into the distance, his bedroll sitting beside. Tuco waved Rigby over and headed down to the spot. “What are you looking at?” he asked loudly, and halfway through Walstein put a finger to his lips and pointed. Down the mountainside, almost camouflaged by their matted grey hair, the herd of ogres lay clustered together. Most of them were sleeping, a pile of blood-brown bones from some hooved and horned creature off to one side. They lay with long arms around each other, heads resting against each other’s sides, lazy and comfortable. The young ones were up already, making small roaring noises at each other and running around the sleeping adults, who made half-hearted swats at them if they got too noisy too close, or when one of them started biting.

“Are you well?” Tuco asked, puzzled.

Walstein nodded and kept staring. There was something sad, wistful, in his expression.

Curiously, Tuco slid his tongue into the cold morning air. He could taste the coming storm and the wet ash of the remnants of their fire. Walstein smelled terrible—unwashed and rank—but his desire floated around him like a perfume. He was envious of the creatures down the hill. Envious of what they had. Companionship. A home. Belonging.

Tuco leaned back and looked at Walstein in surprise. “It’s not wrong to want that, you know.”

Fear and startlement flashed in the apprentice’s dark eyes, and then resentment. “What do you know of it? You couldn’t understand.”

“No. I suppose I couldn’t.” In truth, he was baffled. If Walstein wanted companionship, why wasn’t he just nicer to everyone? Why did he belittle and bully everyone? Why did he act out of anger every chance he got, try to make everyone as miserable as he was? He could have had that with his brothers, with the other apprentices. Tuco sighed. “But I don’t have to understand. It’s normal to want to be accepted. To be close to other people.”

Walstein turned on him, eyes narrowed. “Why do you keep on trying to be nice to me? Why don’t you fight back? Why do you keep acting like this? Don’t you know it won’t work with someone like me?”

Tuco shrugged. “I wasn’t brought up to fight. It’s not how I was raised, I suppose.”

“Well, I was. You don’t fight to get ahead, you get nothing. You get beat down. That’s the way the real world is. Not this safe, soft thing you grew up in.”

“Or them?” Tuco pointed down at the ogres.

Walstein bared his tusks. “They’d eat you in a heartbeat.”

“Perhaps. But not each other. That’s why you’re looking, isn’t it?”

The apprentice snorted and said nothing.

Tuco pulled his cloak more tightly around him. “It’s good that you want that. You could be like them, you know. You don’t have to be the way you were brought up. You could change. If you wanted to.”

“What are you saying?” Walstein turned back to him, frowning, his brow thick with thought. He thrust his lower jaw forward, biting his upper lip with his tusks.

“Just that—” Tuco stopped and stared. Walstein’s brow continued to grow thicker and thicker, his jaw jutting out even farther. His tusks were beginning to grow up his upper lip.

“What?” Walstein asked, lisping the word. “What are you looking at—oh, God, my boots. I hiked too far this trip. My boots are killing me.” He leaned over and tugged at his right boot, pulling hard. “Ugh! I can’t get it off!” His hands seemed to expand, fingers growing sausage-thick, and then he wrenched the boot from his foot in one violent motion, spreading wool-stockinged toes in the air. But it was too late for the other—as Walstein moaned, drool streaming from his widening jaw, the edges of his boot bulged, and then the leather pulled away from the stitching, his broadening foot bursting into the open air.

His eyes were wide, but streaks of yellow were beginning to swirl through his brown irises. He pointed one huge finger at Tuco, the nail thickening into a horny yellow claw. “You!” he spluttered. “You did this to me! Stop it!”

Tuco stumbled backward, holding up his arms. “But I’m not doing anything! It must be a demon!”

The apprentice got to his feet, which had begun to tear out of his socks, revealing massive toes already beginning to coat with light grey hair. “There aren’t any demons around here, idiot! We’re not in the Abbey! There’s only you! You with your—aggh!” He groaned, clutching at his clothes, which had grown too tight around his swelling frame. His arms were long, already far longer than any human’s should be, and they barreled with powerful muscle that made Tuco look small by comparison. With a roar, he pulled his cloak and tunic apart from his upper body, the fabric tearing like tissue.

He stood upright, panting in the wind, his chest thickening with layer after layer of brawn, his shoulders cracking and popping as they broadened. Coarse grey hairs were sprouting all over them, matting as they grew, covering him with a thatch of fur. He looked down at himself with a confused expression. His toes spread across the ground, and he leaned down and tore away his pants as well. When he stood upright again, he had grown to almost twice Tuco’s height, and his body was still expanding. His nostrils flared as he huffed, looking around. “What… what happen?” he mumbled past his tusks. “What you do to… to…”

“To Walstein?” Tuco asked, and his voice cracked with pity.

The beast snorted, still growing taller, until Tuco felt like a child next to him. His enormous arms nearly reached the ground. “No. Not Wahseen. Am… stoobid name.” He looked from left to right, and then down at the rags of his old clothes on the ground. He picked them up with a hand that could have crushed Tuco like an egg and inspected them, sniffed at them, then made a face of disgust and dropped them. His shoulders and traps continued to swell, until his dome-like head was dwarfed by them. He looked down at Tuco again, a spark of bewilderment in his eyes, and then the intelligence seemed to go out of them entirely.

He leaned down and sniffed at Tuco. His mouth was so wide he could have bitten Tuco in half if he’d chosen to. They eat man-flesh when they can get it.

Trembling, Tuco pointed down the mountainside. “You can go down there.” With a start and a grunt, the ogre that had once been his enemy followed his finger. “You can go be with them. Like you wanted.”

The ogre made a low, rumbling growl, staring down the mountain. He turned back to Tuco and opened a wide mouth full of yellow teeth. A viscous stream of drool poured from his lips. Then he turned and loped down the mountainside, his wide shoulders swaying, the only remnant of his humanity the long, black braid that still grew from his scalp.

Tuco let out a breath and sat, shaking on the rock where Walstein had been sitting. He watched the ogre lumber toward the sleeping group. They roused, and then with some alarm several of them shepherded the young ones away. The largest of the herd rushed up to Walstein, looming over him, beating their chests and roaring, but he bent down low in a posture of supplication. The adults circled him for some time, pushing and swatting at him, and sometimes sniffing at his sides, his mouth, his backside, but after a while they seemed satisfied and settled down.

“What did you do to him?” Rigby asked, startling Tuco. “And how?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Tuco said. “I only… I told him he could be like them if he wanted. And then he changed. I didn’t mean like that! I meant that he could have friends. A community! But he… turned into one of those. I swear to you I didn’t do it!”

“He was right, what he said,” Rigby said coldly. “There are no demons up here. There was only you.”

“I—” Tuco began, and then gasped. Something odd had moved at the base of his spine. He held still for a moment, waiting, and then just when he was about to speak again, it moved again. “Oh. Oh God,” he groaned, and fell forward onto hands and knees. It felt as though something was being pulled out of him, or extending. He could feel the peculiar twitch and stretch of new muscle, the brush of his clothing against skin where there had been no skin, and then an aching pressure. Too uncomfortable to care about his modesty, he shoved his undergarments down, lifting up his tunic to ease the pressure. Something long and pink, like an unjointed finger, curled into the open air. As he watched, it extended outward, and he could feel it growing, feel the new, long bones developing, the itch as muscle fleshed out.

Rigby backed away with an expression of shock, both hands raised, but Tuco could hardly pay attention. The appendage continued to extend, stretching outward, longer than his arm, as thick as his forearm near the base, but tapering out to a point perhaps five feet from where it began. It curled and flicked seemingly of its own accord. He could feel the cold of the morning air on it. Tentatively, he reached out and touched it, and could feel the stroke of his finger along its smooth surface. As he stared, the end throbbed and itched, and then end formed a wide spade—two flat lobes flaring to either side of the tip, narrowing to a point.

He gaped at it as it drifted gently back and forth behind him, and looked up at Rigby, feeling oddly light, as if the world was getting farther and farther away from him. “I—I have a tail,” he said.

The clockwork man’s expression was hard and merciless. “A devil’s tail,” he said. “And I—”

But Tuco didn’t hear what he said next, because he tilted sideways and the whole world went away.


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