[To Previous Chapter]
Deni sucked the air in as if it was the first time he had ever breathed. He coughed a few times before he could regulate his breathing and managed to open his moist eyes. Everywhere was covered in a thick, pink mist; he couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. Realising that he was lying down, he rolled onto his side and pulled himself to his feet.
Something was missing. The velen’s eyes widened suddenly. Pain. All of his injuries that he had sustained had completely vanished without a trace. He flexed his once broken arm, rubbed at the side that should have been covered in bruises. There was no sign that he had been injured at all. More than that, even the usual aches of daily life, the consistent back pain or occasional headache, seemed aeons away. It was as if pain itself had ceased to exist. An ecstatic grin made itself at home on his face. But he still needed to find out where he was.
I was drifting, he thought to himself. It seemed like years. Where have I ended up?
Warily, he decided to trudge through the unnatural fog. One apprehensive step…
A scene unfolded before his very eyes. The shroud began to dissipate and sound began to reach his ears. Music, laughter, conversation. The fuchsia mist dispersed enough to show his surroundings, though it never truly disappeared. Deni’s gills contracted subconsciously. He was perplexed by everything he saw and heard.
Beneath a dim, atmospheric twilight enhanced by the deep pink glow, dozens of men and women dotted the floor, a myriad of races, colours of clothing and manner of dress. No two people looked the same, but all of them wore a smile. Some talked, others danced. Some of them kissed passionately, so passionately in fact that Deni didn’t feel comfortable observing them. He averted his gaze and noticed the bar at the end of the room. It was the largest bar Deni had ever seen, crafted out of a dark wood and with hundreds of bottles lined on the shelves behind the counter. There must have been several dozen people tending the bar, and a few hundred patrons standing between him and the alcohol. The place was massive.
A tavern the size of a kinchaa field. He laughed.
Suddenly, he noticed there were no walls to the room, aside from behind the bar where the bottles were stored on shelves. The pink mist thickened either side of the large bar, creating impenetrable barriers. A row of tables lined each of the ethereal walls to the end of the room. He arched his neck and glanced up. It certainly looked like a ceiling at first. It was darker than the misty walls, almost black in fact, but everything seemed to have a tint of pink.
The bar, tables, two walls of fog…
At the other side of the hall, hundreds of feet away and opposite the bar, three steps led into a dark section that was cordoned off by dark wooden barriers. Shadows lurked under there, but they didn’t seem to move too much.
...a VIP section? Then there’s hundreds of people dancing and kissing, laughing and joking-
The music suddenly caused Deni’s ears to twitch. His eyes darted left and right. There were no musicians in sight. That struck him as odd, but was not the only thing. He knew the song.
It’s been years since I heard this. A band played this when I was in Pelagia.
He closed his eyes and strained to remember. Webbed fingers tapped at his side to the beat.
The Gutter, that was the name of the bar. I think that was when I first got high.
Deep blue eyes opened again.
This is all so very bizarre.
The pelagian wandered through the crowds of people around him, pushed past some dancers - one of them grabbed at him, but he managed to avoid her - and tried to find a way out of the room, or find someone who had answers. Whichever came first.
The soft, silky feminine sound crept through his ears. It had a ring of pleasant surprise, like a wife whose husband had bought her flowers. Deni turned to the dark, isolated section and saw a woman leaning over the barrier. She was staring right at him. The piercing yellow eyes of an enlil froze him where he stood. Another enigma. She seemed far too tall to be enlil. She was at least his height and had dark pink scales. Perhaps she was a spurii. But being of velen and enlil blood would not explain the flowing waves of black hair that draped over her shoulders, either side of a laicar face.
With a grin like a child on their birthday, she curled one finger toward herself, showing long black-lacquered nails. Before he had time to think, Deni was already climbing the few steps into the VIP section. The woman threw her arms around him in an embrace, giggling like a teenage girl.
“Oh, it is you!” she exclaimed in that sweet, breathy voice. She let go of him and twirled on the spot, arms open wide as if gesturing to the entire world. Her long green dress, designed to look like sparkling emerald scales, twisted with her. It was split down both sides, so her legs - and matching stockings - were visible up to the top of her thigh. Deni glanced down to her black high-heels. He didn’t know how she stood upright, let alone spin on stilettos that long. He very nearly blushed when she stopped to face him again. She was mesmerizingly beautiful.
“Do you like what I did with the place? I tried my very best to make it to your liking. The women, the booze, the music, the dancing, the drugs. Even the bar. They’re all just material things, but I did have to flex my pinky a little to get some of them.”
Deni blinked and seemed to snap free from some spell.
“Where exactly am I?” he asked. “This is far too seedy for the dominion of the Vis and I know Infernalis wouldn’t treat me this nice after all the daemons I killed.”
The mistress stared at him as if trying to puzzle something out, and then shrugged.
“Well, you are part right.”
Deni hesitated for a moment as he pondered on her words. Then it hit him like a hammer to the head. His heart skipped a beat. His stomach churned itself into knots. He reeled away from the mysterious woman.
“This is Infernalis?” he gasped. Then he remembered something else. The ensuing questions came in a volley. “Then you’re a daemon! There was another one, trying to kill me. I shoved it through the portal but ended up dragged through myself. Are you going to try and kill me too?"
One hand fingered the side of his belt. His pistol was missing. If there was ever a moment he wished he had it, it was then.
To his surprise, the woman held her hands up defensively. The excited smile was still on her face. It seemed she found the entire situation at least partly amusing.
“Easy there! I returned the beast to whatever pit he crawled out of and he’ll likely stay there. Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you. In fact, quite the opposite.”
She gestured to a leather armchair within the darkened area.
“Please, take a seat. Relax. We’ll get you a drink, drugs, whatever you want. You name it.”
The velen stared at her, weighing up his options as he tried to catch his breath again. He was in the realm of daemons. How many had he killed in the Black Portal campaign? What if she was one of them and was out to trap him? No. If he had fought her, he would have remembered. It didn’t appear as though he had much choice, though.
“I need to get out of here. I’ve got ruins to escape from.”
The she-daemon elicited a hearty laugh.
“Oh, my little honey cake, time passes differently here. You could spend days here and barely a minute will have passed in the mortal plane. Besides, you’re a guest here. I can’t let you leave with the thought that I’m an ungracious host.”
Deni continued to stare at her. A green shadow around her eyes glittered in the darkness. Black lips glistened. Everything about her from that astonishingly beautiful face to the way she held herself with such grace… she was nothing like the daemons he had fought at Krevati Evimerias.
What was it avus would say? ‘Trapped like a gammarus in a rock net.’
The pelagian sighed and took his place in the leather chair. His eyebrows tried to climb off his head as soon he sank into it. It was the most comfortable chair he had ever sat on.
“Rich leather from Secare, crafted by experts in Prenditus. The best Araevis has to offer.”
A slender enlil man appeared at Deni’s side, dressed in a black suit with white shirt and fuchsia tie. He leaned down and offered a tray to the pelagian. A short glass with an amber liquid, stained with a touch of green, laid over ice. Deni knew what it was before he brought the glass to his nose. The enlil nodded and disappeared into the shadows.
“I don’t think I need to tell you about alatichryso, the pelagian whiskey liqueur infused with kelp or seaweed,” the fuchsia woman said as she took her place on the seat opposite him. A throne, carved out of the same leather his chair was made of.
“This particular brand, however,” she continued, “was procured from a maker in Pelagia itself, a man who called himself Levus. It was crafted with a rare type of seaweed usually reserved for rich Pelagian families.”
“Levus?” Deni repeated. The cheapest Levus-brand alatichryso was hundreds of exa per bottle. He sipped the cool alcohol and sighed deeply at the incredible taste, a sweet burning sensation mixed with the pleasantly salty aftertaste. It was the best glass of alatichryso he had ever tasted.
Fool! He thought to himself. Be alert! What are all these gifts leading to?
His eyes suddenly hardened as they fixed on his daemonic hostess.
“Why are you keeping me here? What is it that you want from me?”
“All in due course,” she replied. “Perhaps you are in the mood for a… softer comfort?”
Deni followed her golden eyes towards the floor where countless others danced and laughed.
“Who are all these people?” he asked.
“They are not being kept here against their will, if that’s what you truly meant to ask.”
The daemoness suddenly gasped and placed the long black nails of one hand against her lips.
“Oh, I’ve just had a truly delightful idea,” she said, stifling a giggle. “This plane is not like your beloved Mortalis. The rules are not the same. Would you like to partake in a game?”
She returned her gaze back to Deni, lips curved into an amused smile.
“Willpower is everything here. Look out there. Pick any woman you want. If you can urge her to come to you without moving a muscle, I’ll tell you all about her.”
The velen stared at her blankly for a few moments as he processed what she had said.
“I can hear the cogs in your head whirring,” she added. “Don’t question. Just try it.”
Without a word, Deni lifted himself out of the chair and leaned on the barrier that separated him from the rest of the pink-tinted room.
This is madness, he thought. His eyes scanned a tall, gold-scaled velen in a blue dress. Her bare legs were amazing. And she knew it. She strutted around the room, a bundle of men following after, staring below her waist when they thought she wasn’t looking.
She already seems preoccupied.
The pelagian soon realised that there wasn’t an unattractive person in sight. The bartenders and serving women were no exception. Even the men were handsome.
An enlil suddenly caught his attention. The provocative way she danced was what caught his eye, but when he looked closer, he noticed that she was wearing little more than her purple feathers and tribal tattoos. Her appearance reminded him a little of Ignis, but he pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind. He was too far away for her to help.
Onwards he searched. Once, he glanced back to his hostess. She had a glass of deep red wine in her hand and was swirling it absentmindedly. You have all the time in the world. That was what she had said. I suppose there’s no rush then, if she’s telling the truth.
A sweet laugh cut through the din. Deni’s eyes were immediately drawn to a pale-skinned woman. The thick set of fiery curls flowing down her back led him to believe she was terran, but those wide emerald eyes undoubtedly belonged to his own race. She was leaning over a table, a chest piece fashioned out of animal furs the only thing holding her generous bosom in place. Her smile remained as she continued to engage in conversation with other patrons. It was the warmest, most genuine thing in the room.
So… uhhh… come over here?
“You might want to try a little conviction,” the daemoness advised vacantly, as if she could read his thoughts. “You are commanding, not asking.”
Deni glared at the hostess and then fixed on the flame-haired woman. He silently focused, trying to urge her toward him. A strange, unfamiliar sensation tingled in his mind. He reached for it.
Those bright green eyes shifted suddenly and stared right back at him. His own eyes widened in astonishment, but it wasn’t enough. He kept a hold on that mental barrier.
Come to me.
The spurii began to meander across the room towards him.
“Oh, how intriguing,” the hostess mused. Deni looked at her with a tinge of impatience. “You have chosen Hlífa, a spurii of laicar and velen blood. Outcasted by the terran tribes and eventually by the velen, she would have died alone in the harsh landscape of Arctoa had she not found this place. Since she has called my domain her home, she has learned affection. Kinship. Pleasures she never would have experienced on your natural plane.”
The velen stared out at Hlífa. A pair of shorts crafted out of the same fur as her chest piece covered her hips, though most of her thighs were still visible. Her legs seemed quite muscular, likely from traversing the Arctoan wastes, as the daemon had said. Deni couldn’t find a fault with the story. He knew what the typical northern velen and laicar looked like from history lessons as a child. After all, his bloodline descended from Arctoa, even if none of his relatives had paid the harsh, cold lands a visit.
The spurii made her way up the few short steps and into the darkness with Deni and his hostess. The glint in her emerald eyes drew out the sweetness of her smile. Before he knew what he was doing, he had taken her hand and placed his lips against it. He thought he saw a tint of pink in her cheeks, but it was difficult to tell in the twilight.
If I can bring her over here with just a thought, what else can I do?
He threw another thought at that mental void again and tugged at it. Her lips found his. Wet. Warm. The faint scent of herbal perfume. It was as real as anything he had ever felt. He could even feel the slow arch of her smile. With eyes closed, embracing the kiss, he managed to pull the pale woman over to his chair. She pulled her lips away with a giggle and Deni’s astonished grin almost split his face in two. He lounged back into his chair and she joined him, both legs resting over his lap, the curve of her hips pressing against his abdomen.
This is amazing!
Deni laughed gently as Hlífa pecked at his neck. Abruptly, he realised the fuchsia-skinned daemon was staring at him, a ceaseless smile on her face as she absent-mindedly swirled the wine in her glass.
“I could find you two a private room if you wanted to play with each other.”
Deni thought he might blush, but instead of embarrassment, he found his confidence restored.
“As tempting an offer as that is, I’d prefer to get the business over and done with,” he replied. For the first time since arriving in that place, his voice was steady. “You’ve whetted my appetite with some of my… favourite things. So what is it that you want?”
A shadow slipped out of the darkness. The empty glass was taken from Deni’s hand - he had forgotten that he was still holding his drink - and was replaced with a brand new glass of that familiar amber-green liquor.
“I think you already know what this is really about.”
A shiver ran down Deni’s spine as his companion kissed a sensitive part of his neck. He placed his drink on the arm of the chair and managed to draw the orb out of his jacket. An intensity burned in the daemoness’ eyes at the first sight of it, but it was quelled swiftly.
“That thing,” she began, “is the heart of Misericorde. Now, it may not look like it after my astonishing renovations, but Misericorde once held power in this region of Infernalis. Your possession of her heart is why you were brought to this place when you passed into the portal.”
She began to stroke one lacquered nail around the circumference of the glass. Her golden eyes remained on Deni. Hlífa might as well have not existed to her.
“As I’m sure you’re aware, once a daemon dies, they return to Infernalis. Because you kept her heart, Misericorde has been unable to return to full power here. So I offer my proposal.”
She sighed deeply and shifted in her seat.
“I will give you some of my power. Free of charge. I’m not going to take your soul, I won’t demand a sacrifice. No catch at all. Just a lovely gift.”
Puzzlement and suspicion crossed the velen’s face.
“Your connection to me, the source of my power, will be Misericorde’s heart. In return, you will keep it out of Infernalis so that she will never gain a foothold here again.”
Deni placed the orb next to his glass and sipped his alatichryso. It really was the best alcohol he had ever tasted. As he thought more about her proposal, a question crossed his mind.
“You can manipulate people’s minds without even a thought,” he finally said. “So how do I know that I can still think for myself?”
“I don’t need someone who will submit,” she replied. She was ready for the question. “I have enough of them. If I manipulated you and you grew wise to it, I would make an enemy. A pretty formidable enemy, as far as mortals go.”
“So you decided to soften me up instead? With delectable treats?”
“I see in you a man that has been through the worst and managed to come out the other side. A man that has been denied greatness at every turn. I heard about you escaping confinement for a crime you didn't commit. You had to take a dangerous deal just to take your freedom back. What about the Arx, that prison break? You became the stuff of legend and received a sliver of your reward. Then there's the Black Portal. One of the few survivors who risked everything for Terminus. And what thanks did you get? You get to walk free. Freedom is the birthright of your kind. I know that helping me was inadvertent, but intentional or not, I’m willing to actually reward people that do me favours. You deserve more than just your freedom.”
Deni looked down to Hlífa’s fiery curls and she gazed back up at him.
“You do,” she whispered.
The pelagian was silent for a time. He had done some horrible things in his past. A lot of the time he believed that he deserved every ounce of pain and misfortune that came his way, but laying the events of recent years on the table like that emphasised how poorly the powers of the world had treated him. The daemoness was right. He deserved more.
The possibilities, Deni thought to himself. To manipulate minds to such a level… I have always wanted power like this. Now I can have it.
It was not that easy, though. The logic in his mind warned him of the cunning that the denizens of Infernalis possessed. Every ounce of instinct told him that accepting her gift was wrong, but his ego told him otherwise.
I. Deserve. More.
That thought alone silenced his logic. He had helped people enough. It was time to help the person who mattered the most; himself.
“I do deserve more,” he repeated aloud and Hlífa sighed sweetly, kissing his neck once again. He faced the daemoness. “I want the good stuff. I want to be able to bend people to my whims. No skimping on the powers. If I’m diving in with both feet I want to know I’m not going to land in a reef.”
The hostess’ black lips parted for a grin filled with delight.
“Oh, you will? You won’t regret it, I promise!”
She lifted herself out of her seat and tucked the waves of black hair behind her ears. Then she curled a finger. Hlífa reluctantly shifted onto the arm of the leather chair so that Deni could stand.
“Now I do need to warn you of the risks,” she began and paused to sip the final slither of wine at the bottom of her glass. “Mortals were never meant to be given free access to the powers of Infernalis. The power manifests differently with each individual, but the imbuement is dangerous. Some poor dears have perished before the completion of the ritual in the past.”
Deni opened his arms wide, dull orb in hand. He took a few steps towards her. His smile was arrogant.
“Honey, I can take it. After everything I’ve been through, I’m the best candidate. I haven’t dodged death hundreds of times for me to die before I can achieve true power.”
The proud pelagian lowered his arms and stopped inches away from her face. Her eyes were wide with excitement and her mischievous grin only added to her concupiscent expression.
“No deals. No soul-snatching. No favours. You give me this and I use it how I see fit, while you sit here comfortably knowing Misericorde will not be returning.”
The daemoness took a deep breath, bosom rising in her green dress as she inhaled. She blinked slowly and let the air out again.
“I agree to your terms,” she said simply in that sweet voice, almost a whisper meant for his ears only. Deni felt her hand grasp the orb in his. It gave off a deep ethereal hum, growing louder with each passing second.
“I really hope you don’t die. I’m starting to like you.”