Hardly had he been brought down into the cold stone halls of confinement then the sack was taken from his head…by the Paladin. She was the only one here with him.
“I hope your revenge was worth it. You sold your soul for it. You are a murderer now and right back where you started. This is what happens to those who go down the path of Hate.”
Dask had expected Suryn to confront him in a righteous fury and to torment and torture him. It amazed him to see her calm and merely talking to him.
“You are beyond damnation now. But you still have the power to save others.”
“Save? You mean like those people you burnt alive. Like my companion?!”
“Nothing righteous comes without sacrifice. Your selfishness may make that hard for you to understand.”
“You try to be selfless, that’s not the same thing as being good or generous, Paladin. What’s the sacrifice if you have nothing left?”
Dask thought that might get her mad enough to just kill him and give him an easy death but instead she just brooded for a moment.
“More than you can know.” she said quietly.
“I would rather be working back in the barrel shop and going home to my family. But that’s all gone now and I’ve killed the bastard that stole my wife and sent my son to the slave mines no one ever comes out of. I’ve done what I can do. No sacrifices left for me.”
Suryn abruptly looked up, her gaze focused and turned fierce. “What do you mean ‘sent your son’?!”
“Doesn’t anyone tell you anything? That woman I met here in the palace, right under your nose, her children were taken away too.”
Suryn immediately thought of that whore hiding the knife and without a word she turned away from Dask to leave him there in the dim and drafty dungeon and began her way up the stairs. She stopped for a moment, turned around and told him, “He won’t be able to get you out this time; I saw to that.” Indeed, he could actually feel the force of her wards pressing in on him from every side and he realized the walls and floors were softly glowing with traceries of luminescence as the light of her torch receded.
“I need that … woman … Alarya, for my investigation.”
“I’m afraid that can’t be done right now.” replied the Duke smoothly.
“When you had your high priests send the ancient prayers beseeching the aid of a Paladin of the Light – that was when those determinations ceased to be yours to make. Because you did not tell me about those women, the Dark One found a way to sneak its influence in here and get that man out.”
“Nonetheless, you have struck down the Demon and its familiar. Now you have caught its servant as well. Well done.”
“There were no Demonic powers here when I first arrived but I did not question where the Heavens had sent me or whose prayers had been answered. The rebels who had nearly overthrown you were no great challenge for my power and though I launched an inquisition; the people here were no more Hateful than they are everywhere.”
“I can’t imagine what we would have done had you not been here when the Demon arrived. There was a higher wisdom in the prayers that brought you here.” The Duke raised a hand to touch her shoulder, but this time he hesitated and drew it back. Suryn shook her head.
“Why are you taking their kids away?”
The Duke flinched. “These women are brought under our protection, away from dangerous and irresponsible men. Sometimes, they stay under our direct protection.”
“As your whores.”
This time the Duke returned her gaze, the steel returning to his spine. “They choose to stay in our households and want for nothing. Their children are sent to labor, a chance at life they never would have had.”
“Why not keep them with their mothers?”
“Would you have us keep other men’s children alongside our women?”
“Where else would you keep them?”
“Wherever they are needed. At least they have been freed from their abusive fathers. Meanwhile, my best supporters are in need of worthy companionship. My men also need to feel safe, or they begin to wonder, so even better that you recaptured that Demonic killer. He targeted one of my judges,” hissed the Duke. “I need them to maintain order in the city. Without my men in place, the troubles you helped me put down soon return.”
“I can give them special priority.” said Suryn.
He laid his hands on her robed shoulders. “My people must be protected. For the sake of the realm.”
In spite of everything that had happened, her sharp chin tilted slightly upward toward his face and her center of gravity moved closer to his. “I will do what I must.” She wanted to be near him and loathed him, and herself, all at once. Suddenly she realized how that whore must feel – but only much more so having actually received the Duke’s affections. Her heart burned at this thought, yet sank as the Duke lifted his hands.
“I know you will, dear guardian.” That grey unfeeling despair again poured into her, that feeling of cold, wet ashes in the pit of her stomach. Laudanum and liquor hardly did anything to her, no matter how much she might consume, but the leaden indifference she felt deep in her was somehow far more potent. She turned away to attend her duties; the only lasting solace in life was in the cause of the Light.
She met for some hours with the captains of the guard, planning the next hunt and then she went down the dungeon steps again to where Dask was chained from every direction to the walls of his heavily warded cell.
“Where is he?” she asked.
“You know I won’t tell you and torture won’t help you either.”
“Why do you care about him now? Do you think you are important to him now that you’ve been caught.”
“No, I bet he doesn’t give a damn. But it doesn’t matter. He’s bringing Hate into this world and that’s all I want.”
“Then throw yourself away for nothing, and no one. If you repent, at least you do not die an apostate.”
“Apostasy. That’s the one thing I want to take to my grave.”
“You won’t have a grave. Imps of Hell get no headstones.”
As night fell, Suryn gathered the specially picked soldiers, lightly equipped so they could move more quietly. No one would carry torches; just a few would have covered lanterns. The unfaithful had quickly learned to avoid the regular city guard investigators and, to her frustration, they were figuring out ways to make the trails left behind by their sins less obvious. She knew word must travel whenever she was seen, so now she would take them by surprise.
For the next few nights she searched the town from dusk to dawn with her specially selected squad fanning out in discreet pairs. By day, she consulted again with the captains of the guard as they set up a system of paid informants through the entire city. Every afternoon, she went back down to the dungeon, to visit Dask. She simply looked in on him to see if he had anything to say. He looked up at her and kept his mouth shut. On the third day she told him.
“My patience won’t last long. If you won’t help us, you’ll die that much sooner.”
“What a great life I have here,” he replied sardonically, making a gesture of indifference that rattled his weighty chains.
“They all think like that until their head is about to be on the block – and then it’s too late.”
That night, she sent some of her undercover guards to report back on a tip from an informant. Sure enough, there was a gathering at someone’s house even though no one had seen any guests arrive. Nor did hardly anyone walk the streets at night anymore with patrols of guards waiting to inspect and interrogate anyone they encountered. Yet somehow as Suryn approached the house she could sense there was a group of people inside, and the stench of Hatefulness, though the occupants were consciously muting it as best they could.
The Paladin’s agents were closing in on the house, doing their best not to give any cause for alarm. They saw no lookouts outside and the windows of the house were shuttered tight with light only showing through the cracks. When all were in position, Suryn thrust her sword through the door, slicing through the heavy wood bolt she suspected would be on the other side, and then thrust her blade right through the lock. She flung the door open then, and there inside were a group of people dressed in black prostrated before a grotesque idol. There was a rough hole in the middle of the floor that they immediately tried to flee toward, but she quickly lifted up the one man who had already nearly disappeared into it and threw him roughly to the floor. Then her agents streamed into the room behind her and immediately began restraining and tying everyone up.
“You have all damned yourselves! Who is the master of this house?”
“I am.” said a mournful, bearded man.
“When did they come here? When did you pledge yourself to darkness?”
The man looked around the room to his fellows now and tears began to well up in his eyes. “There is no future for us now, my friends.” he said. “There’s only one more task we can complete.” The converts looked at each other with fear, but mostly with weighty resignation. The man began to repeat a mantra in a tongue from Dark planes he could not have known of, and Suryn could see his soul and life force draining away towards the idol.
“Stop him!” she ordered her agents. They quickly gagged him but his head subtly bobbed as his jaw still strained to move as he simply recited the words in his head instead.
Suryn brought her sword down on the idol, with its serene smile that seemed to taunt her and it evaporated instantly in a flash of white flame. She had not detected dark powers here before, she realized, because the idol had absorbed them all. Now, without that focus, the thread of the man’s soul drifted downward, into the ground, still streaming towards its end.
“Stop!” she told him; “you are giving up your immortal soul!”
The man was heedless. Then, one by one, every last person in the room began the mantra and turned inwards. She could see a dozen more dark threads drift down into the earth and she looked to the hole again. She moved aside a wall hanging and revealed a spot where the plaster had been shattered. The Demon’s servants had been here and they had come from below.
“There’s no time to waste,” she told her agents. “He’s hidden down there.” The undercover guards visibly shuddered at the thought. Suryn leapt through the hole and immediately started to sprint along the path of the dark threads. The threads soon vanished into rock walls, and she realized it was like an elaborate maze. There was such a strong presence of Hate here she did not know which way to go at first but as she moved through total darkness lit only by a bright glow from her armor she oriented herself towards the general direction it felt strongest and began to work her way through caves, cisterns, and corridors. For a full day without a moment’s rest and full focus she worked her way through the maze, the presence of the Demon and the stink of its minions growing ever stronger around her.
She began to see alcoves in the walls occupied by skeletons in repose and piles of skulls. The oppressiveness of the shadow grew and the glow of her armor could barely light the way for her. She drew her sword too now and again she could see down the passageway. Finally, she came to a chamber that was utterly replete with shadow. She willed all the Light into being she could and there was the Demon in its tattered robes that fluttered in a steady subterranean draft. At its feet, filling the entire room, was a writhing morass of dark, slippery threads that seemed to glisten with smooth moisture. The Demon’s hands worked busily on the foul strands.
“You’re just in time,” he greeted her.
“I’ve come to finish you, Demon!” she growled and her sword flashed white-hot, but he still stood there unflustered.
“When they gave their souls, it completed my creation.”
“I’ve already killed one of your creatures.”
“It was yours as well.”
“I see. You want to blame my just punishment of the Hateful, not your own actions.”
“Just or not, you bring them to me.”
“Those who give in to your temptation deserve what they get. I’ll destroy whatever this is you’ve spawned from your worshipers when I’m done with you.”
“It won’t be so simple for you this time. Devotion and passion alone are useful, but not enough. To be really dangerous requires agency. This is something far beyond a simple Hate elemental.”
“That won’t protect you now!”
Suryn began to charge and as she did so, there was a sound vaguely like the snapping of thousands of steel cables muffled by layers of silk and mucus as all the dark threads came together at once. She fell as the slippery filaments ripped instantly from under her feet. She screamed in pain, looked down and saw that her boots had been torn apart and her feet sliced to shreds. These were not ordinary wounds. The distilled rage, grief, and malice of a hundred people attacked her flesh like a black poison. Then the Demon struck. More quickly than a snake, with a blade of pure negative light in his hand. But Suryn slammed him with a burst of white flame, slowing him down for the moment she needed to get to her feet. She stood with her sword ready somehow, though the remains of her feet were turning black and spurting blood, her right little toe, dangling off to one side barely hanging on still by a flap of skin. The Demon closed the gap and hammered her defenses relentlessly, raining down strikes faster than a mortal could follow. Suryn struggled to send energy to her feet as she focused on surviving the onslaught. With what seemed like excruciating slowness through the press to survive, the black taint drained from her feet and a softly glowing silver smoke began to drift upwards from her torn flesh. Finally, with a soft sucking feeling, her little toe reattached. She was almost fully healed; the Demon backed off.
“Pity.” it said. “At least you responded promptly to your informant.”
“You turned them in!?”
“So you could give them inspiration to do what was necessary. Thank you.”
“You even betrayed your own worshipers. They should have known better than to deal with a Demon!”
“No, now they will be part of something immeasurably greater than any of them could have been alone, as weak individuals quietly crushed by the righteousness of the many.”
“Your kind always find a way to rationalize your Hate when all along it comes from you! I won’t let you keep spreading it to others! It stops here.”
“No, it begins.”
The black filaments somehow bunched into a single dense mass and began to rapidly spin. Once it became a blur of motion, the dark mass exploded upward, into the rocky ceiling. There was a deep rumbling as bricks and rocks fell all around. Daylight flooded into the chamber as the Demon and his creation broke through to the surface. Suryn leapt after them as quickly as she could and found herself in an ancient cemetery as she climbed out of the huge jagged hole in the ground. She looked around and saw that the dark morass had launched into the sky. It was falling now, but only slowly drifting down as its creeping filaments formed into sail-like projections. Wings!
Suryn looked in dread now as she heard that steel wire sound of pieces rapidly snapping into place and a form taking shape as each part was joined. Its form grew larger in her view as it kept drifting down towards her. She held her sword and readied herself for a great leap. Then, a single winding coil, as thick as a tree, burst forth from the squirming bulk all at once. For a moment she could see daylight flare through the outflung clusters of probing filaments. Then, in a single movement they all twisted tightly together, the tips hissing like whips, the bulk of it giving out a groan like the creak of wet rubber. Now there was a long powerful neck and a serpentine head that hung limply from the main mass. Legs, forelegs, and a long tail burst from the center next. Just as the dark mass drifted nearly within leaping distance, two great glowing fires flicked on instantly like hellish lamps in the head’s eye sockets. Immediately, the monster’s whole body went taut with life and intent. It lifted up its neck and clenched its clawed feet. It folded its forelegs against its body. The first beat of its great wings swept Suryn’s surroundings with a great wind and carried it well beyond her reach. With that great contraction, a proliferation of black spikes like rose-thorns burst forth along its spine down its tail, on its head and along the back of its limbs. The wings beat again and it went further aloft and began to move through the air. As it flew away, she got a glimpse of the Demon mounted on its back. Suryn had only seen Shadow Dragons seldomly, and only in the largest of pitched battles on the darkest planes of existence. In mid-flight it drew back its neck and gave out a great screeching of triumphant fury that could no doubt be heard for miles around. The city soon began to panic. Suryn saw where it was headed.