Devourer Of Sin

tagnone

6

6

Shaamat.png

Command had collapsed hours ago. Intermittent shouting, as the remaining soldiers coordinated their best remaining efforts. The clatter of boots. The echo of firefights erupting deep in the catacombs. Strong men broken, huddled in defensive lines at the mouth of a corridor, encircled protectively against an ambush. The rattle of spent shells on the volcanic stone. The flash of gunfire in the dark, each split-second strobe illuminating the stretched and gasping faces of slain comrades. Warped visages twisted by rage and fear. One could not distinguish man and monster amid the chaos. Friendly fire, came a call from the dark. And from that very same dark poured swarms of gnashing teeth, claws, sulfurous miasma, and wracking poison. The crumbling of concrete. The screech of bent rebar. Bloody howls, and the scream of mortal flesh rent. Corpse after bloody corpse. Men of God dismembered. Strike teams, stripped of their gear. Whatever semblance of order the Authority sought to instill found itself corrupted from within. Ranks turned upon ranks. Brother on brother, in the name of new gods.

Devoured…

Her jaw unhinged, practically choking on each handful of meat thrust in her maw. Quivering as it slithered down her throat. She gagged, desperate breaths escaping her in raspy, pleasurable moans. They were strangely pitiable, mournful sounds. She swallowed the last mouthful and collapsed on her side, slipping against the strewn pile of organs. The crack of bone. If once there had been a man, this child of ruin had rendered it unrecognizable as such. The beast coughed, vomiting acid upon the stone, trails of steam billowing from the corrosive mess eating away at the floor.

Past the faint howls from beyond the collapsed basement came the sound of movement from her periphery. The soft rustle of robes. A gentle scraping against the stone floor, where the monk took refuge. Rather young and handsome. Dark hair cropped close to his skull, a light stubble on his pale face, and dark rings under his eyes; the look of a man, weary, yet unwilling to go. He gripped a vial close to his chest, huddled within the circle of chalk-inscribed runes, a ring of salt beyond that. Soft whispers of crude, ancient prayers graced his lips, eyes frozen upon the beastly image of the gore-spattered woman.

The crimson beast finally turned her gaze upon him, a permanent scowl etched into her rugged features, where two bulbous nodules of flesh hung over each brow, sprouting two massive, up-curved horns. Like the crescent moon. They hung heavy against her brow, nearly obstructing the creature's vision. More a deformity and mockery of nature; if not a perfect mirror of.

Her skin shone a deep, crimson, that glistened strangely in the light of the overturned candles. Whether by some feverish sweat, or perhaps the wet blood that blended with her naturally infernal hues. Even hunched over, he could tell she stood over seven feet. Thick, muscular limbs, and long, unnatural digits, each tipped with a sharp claw. It seemed the Order had once made a point to clothe the unfortunate monstrosity, some ages ago. The ragged, brown robe now hung in tatters, exposing her hulking frame riddled with the scars of battle. Six vestigial nipples along her milk line. All pierced with a thick, gold ring, including two heavy breasts. Another, punched through the septum of her ugly, broken nose. A dark, writhing appendage extended from the base of her spine, the underside punctured by nearly a dozen of those similarly self-inflicted embellishments, chiming as the spade tail coiled and thrashed behind her. "Ubi sum?" the demon whispered hoarsely.

"Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio; contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium-" was all the monk said.

"WHERE AM I?!" she bellowed. Cords, contracting. Tendons, stretched. Voice constricted to a guttural snarl. The demon gnashed her teeth in rage, barring her large incisors.

The man continued to ramble, from one prayer to the next, one verse to the next, one thought to the next with seemingly no direction. Fear had seized him, though, if by her own hand or some other gruesome act, the demon could not say.

Can't be shaken that badly by a little blood, right?

Surely he's seen some guts…

With no answers, her fiery eyes swirled about the room in some vague hope of finding an escape, or at the very least her bearings. The room had partially collapsed, a tangle of warped, silver bars jutting from the rubble nearby, where her cage once stood. "I was there," she murmured, "That was my place, I remember that." Her gaze panned from there to the opposite wall, where another doorway lay obstructed by the mysterious cave-in. She looked down at her hands, blood and entrails still dripping onto the cold, dirty floor beneath her.

They put me here…

Bread and wine…

Fucking bread.

…the wine wasn't so bad.

"I need a drink," the demon grumbled, attention returning to the holy man; still babbling to whatever gods or angels might hear him. "You can't understand me, can you? You're saying the words, but… you don't really know the tongue," the demon remarked, and shook her head. She removed the robe, now rags from a bygone era, and used it to wipe the dregs of once-human bodies from off her hands. Her arms. Her face and chest. Torn, wet bits of man sloughing from her skin, the demon became awkwardly aware of how little her captor now observed her. The monk had cast his eyes toward the wall, huddled in the corner, half raising a hand to shield his eyes. "What are you doing?"

"Vos…" He struggled to find the words. "Omnis quis dedit vobis vestimenta, vos occisio."

The monster gave a hoarse chuckle. "You must be a barbarian," she remarked, rising up and creeping toward the man on all fours. Long arms. Shoulders pumping like pistons. "But I can't… get an answer out of you, unless… we're on the same-" One powerful arm extended, claws creeping toward the man. She thrust her hand through the unseen barrier. "-page-SHIT!" The demon recoiled with a shriek as her arm burst into flames.

"KYRIE ELEISON!" He shouted, tossing vial of water in her face.

The beast flinched and quickly turned away, each drop erupting violently on contact. The sound, like water striking a hot iron. A vicious crackling, as a caustic mist rose from off her flesh. She remained, still. Smoke dissipating. The flames evaporating from her arm. "You hanging man," she hissed, "You won't need His forgiveness. I-!" Her head spun to meet his gaze. "Beg mercy! You are my debtor, this day…"

She thrust her claws through the sheer stone, like a hot knife through butter, ripping up a chunk from the floor beside her and hurling it at the man. The monk shielded his eyes, head down as it shot toward him. He cursed as the stone struck the floor at his feet, spraying sharp bits of rock against the side of his head, a few bits of shrapnel drawing meager blood. Eyes to the floor, he saw the broken circle. Eyes up, and terror consumed as the demon violated his sanctuary, wrapped her hand around his collar, and calmly dragged the monk kicking and screaming from the safety of the once-blessed corner.

"I can't imagine," she muttered, "How a thing like you. Could trap a thing like me." She put her fingers in her mouth, sliding the long, curved claws down the back of her throat, fishing for something. "Haughk! Ohf couhrse-?" The demon gagged, barely pausing as she fished a worm, curled and dripping, from her gullet. "You would need help from afar. Some foreign prince of the air to kiss your fate and give you some… some semblance of…" The demon eyed the flailing monk with a critical glare, as he resorted to tearing his robe in a desperate attempt to escape the monster's clutches. "Dignity." The demon chuckled and shook her head. "Hold still, little soul, I promise this won't hurt," she murmured, gently gripping the worm in her teeth.

He swung around without warning, plunging the business end of a silver stiletto into the demon's arm. "GET OFF!"

"…hrmf!" She barely registered the pain, smoke curling from the narrow wound. The demon grumbled, grasping the monk by his head, her massive palm at the top of his crown, her long, fingers curling around the side, until her claws came to rest at his temples.

But he wasn't done, yet. The monk ripped it free and thrust the stiletto into her lower abdomen. She flinched, a long, muffled squeal of pain as she struggled to keep a grip on the worm. No matter how strong the beast's outward appearance, even she couldn't ignore sanctified metal searing into her guts. Grumbling, the demon seized his wrist with her free hand, prying the weapon from his grasp, where it clattered to the floor next to them.

And then she pinned the monk against the crumbling brick and leaned in, forcing his jaws open with her off-hand and forcing a fumbling, awkward kiss to pass the worm to his mouth. The man could only scream, his pleas smothered by a mouthful of spindly legs and rattling chitin, foul breath, and bitter saliva, until finally the demon released him, content that the worm had worked its way through. The monk hit the floor in an instant, choking and seizing, forcing his fingers down his throat in an attempt to pull it out. Retching to no avail, his vision blurred, a burning sensation of something burrowing into him, beyond the pain that only flesh could experience. Something worse. Something far worse…

"Are we on the same page?"

"I'm damned!" the man whispered, staring at his hands. "God!"

"There's that word again." The demon crossed her arms, rising back on her knees and eyeing the man with a bored curiosity. "I gave you a piece of my soul, the least you could do is speak words I understand."

"You…" He shot an accusatory glare, demanding: "What did you do to me?!"

The demon leaned forward, cocked her head, and gave a little rolling gesture with her hand. "Mm?" she prompted. But the monk quickly scrambled for the stiletto on the floor, between them. She made no move to stop him. "Talk to me? You know how long I've been living the same life, and you can't give pay me that small kindness?"

He searched his mind. It didn't take long to know what she'd given him. He lowered his eyes to the weapon in hand, mostly to avert his gaze from her naked body. "Same… life…" Sure enough, the Latin came naturally.

"Strange to say, I know, but I wish I never had that first spark of light." She growled softly to herself. "But once you're there, you can't go back."

"What are you talking about," he muttered.

"Starving doesn't kill me, human… I just slip into a dream," she explained, "No. It's worse- I don't eat. I don't sleep." The demon trembled at the mere thought of her un-existence, if in rage or fear he could not say. "Nothing ever changes.. Being stuck in that cell.. Living the same memories- Why lock me away down here?! Where are we?"

"Slaying a demon only returns it to hell to escape yet again; you know why you were imprisoned."

"So you made your own Hell, instead? Brilliant fucking plan. You really think you're gonna stop it?" she asked him; the monk only offered silence. "Don't you get it, human? Nothing lasts forever," she hissed, balling her hand in a fist. "It's a fever. It's the end. Even God can't stop the inevitable decay of His creation, and you chose- of all things -me? I'm supposed to suffer for this? What the fuck did I do?!"

He looked up at her in stern disbelief. "You eat people…"

The demon returned the long, silent stare, finally offering a haphazard shrug. "Well, I didn't eat you. Stands to reason you shouldn't have a problem with me if we keep it that way, right?"

"I don't make deals with demons."

One hand on her hip, back straight, she scoffed. "Did I offer any deal?"

"Your words, anything which could be seen as a contract." The man shook his head. "I'm not agreeing with anything you have to say."

The demon stood up with a heavy grunt and lumbered toward him. "Then I'll have to drag your ass with me."

"Get away from me!" He snarled, brandishing the stiletto.

The woman only snickered at this, reaching out, one heavy arm slowly swinging toward the man. The monk fell back against the basement wall as her hand came toward him. The demon froze. Cocked her head toward the collapsed hall. "Do you hear that?" she asked; he only gripped the hilt tighter. "That's the sound of demons waiting to rip you apart. Just a big old swarm of dicks and teeth violating you while you still have sense left to care. Haven't been feeding them, after all; they're bound to do some crazy shit. That'll be the last thing your soul remembers before it's torn six different ways." The demon squinted. "Are you ready for that?" Silence, again; she shook her head. "I don't think you're ready for that…" the demon said with a smirk, extending her reach a bit, just enough to flick the tip of the stiletto- Clink! -with her claw before turning away.

"The hall is collapsed," he called to her, "If you can't get out, how are they going to get in?"

"Well," the demon sighed. "I'm gonna let them in." She gave a sniff. "Only way out that I can see- Smells like πνεύματος??" she asked, sparing a glance toward her jailer.

"What?"

"The πνεύματος, it's everywhere. You must have this place warded good. Church? Monastery," she said, pointing at him. "Has to be, you look like you've been eating bread and water half your life." The demon set to clearing the collapsed exit, lifting massive bricks with little effort. She rolled her eyes with a smirk, "Some life…"

"You're going to bring this room down on us," he protested wearily.

"Yeah?" She half-heartedly waved to her little cell, now a pile of rocks and twisted metal. "Looks like all that came down on me, and you saw how that worked out."

"And if you survive that, what of the demons beyond?" the monk posited, "To say nothing of the sacred rites on your own. You're just as much trapped here; I've seen them," he said, lowering his voice, narrowing his eyes. "You're not the strongest here. Not by far…"

That gave her pause. She fell silent, un-moving, and finally looked over her shoulder. "Maybe… I'd sooner have my soul ripped to shreds and boiling in the guts of my enemies. Whatever's got strength enough to stop them?" She shook her head. "I'm not waiting around for that." The demon went back to clearing the rubble, the rattle of tumbling rocks accompanied by the occasional, muffled howls that seeped through the stone walls. "How long was I out?"

The monk ventured closer to her, slipping the stiletto in his belt. If she so desired, he would have been dead, or so the man figured. As his mind sobered, he found himself more curious than afraid, stomach churning as he stepped around the mangled, strewn parts of his brethren. "What is… the last thing you remember?"

The demon paused, looked up in thought. With a grunt, she pried a heavy boulder free, causing the rubble to slide inward; the monk backed away, eyeing the cracked ceiling with apprehension. "Those hunters. Dogs of Empire," she growled. "Summoned me- Cowards they.. they were- And they… they branded-" She froze where she stood. Gasped, eyes wide. It was strange to see such an imposing figure so neatly harrowed. "NO…"

"What is it?"

The demon twisted her head around, grabbing her left arm and pulling her shoulder in for a closer look. "No!" She fell to her knees. "No, please don't…" But she was staring right at it. The mark of Belial,2 burned into her flesh. "Belial!? WHY?!"

"Belial?" The monk was perplexed, enough to step forward and chance a closer look, only to discover a bare shoulder, with perhaps with a few intersecting scars, but nothing that could be taken to be a demonic sigil; no brand could be seen.

The demon fell to her knees, pounding her fist against the floor. "That's why I'm so weak and feeble" she hissed, "He's drinking my blood as we speak- DAMN you all, I-!" Her voice fell to a shaky whisper, words spilling out in quick, panicky bursts. "Why would they do something like this?! I was loyal to the Empire! No matter what, I swore an oath! I was pacted to the nation and they sold me to Belial…" She grit her teeth, spitting: "Bastards!"

And then he witnessed something quite unexpected. Much so, the monk nearly grimaced, almost disgusted by the display. After all these years, this was the beast that nearly took his arm off when he was still young and inexperienced. The same mindless abomination that howled and screamed, burning as it lashed out at its silver cage, now bawling hysterically on the floor before him. "Rome… is a seat of Christian power, now," he offered, "You would have been pacted with your own enemies, would you not?"

She cast a sideways glare at him. "Spare me your pity; it doesn't matter," the woman huffed indignantly, pushing herself up, off the dusty floor, her rings chiming in unison as she lumbered to her feet. "Of course a human wouldn't know the value of eternal loyalty; why am I not surprised by that…"

Loyalty. Such a word from her mouth, somehow devalued it to the very core. Thinking, the monk's eyes fell to the remains of his brothers. "Why," was all he could ask.

"Wh- why what?"

"Why must you… consume flesh, in such a way…"

"Because I can," she sneered; he cast a critical glare up at her. "What? What, you wanna fight again? We both know how that's gonna turn out."

"I suppose it's fair. You demand no pity from me, it seems only fair you would feel no remorse. You are…" He drew a breath, shaking, clasping his hands. "At least consistent in that."

A silent scowl, as the demon considered her next words, before she placed a hand on her chest. "You cared for these men," she said. "I feel that. In me, now. I can feel the bonds. The faith in Christ… You think a demon would love the flesh of a saint?" The beast shook her head. "I don't like feeling these things. You're not my prey. I prefer debauchery. Sinners. The taste of sex. Of lead and wine. But your friends? Wrong place, wrong time." She suddenly put her hand on his shoulder, so quickly the monk had no time to react, stunned as she told him, "I'm sorry. If I had a choice, I wouldn't have done what I did."

"I'm surprised you have the mind to apologize." He stepped back, the demon's hand falling from his shoulder. "But distaste is not why you spared me; is it, demon?"

"Fuck you, you think I lack brains? That I don't 'understand the notion of remorse' or something?" she sarcastically babbled, rolling her eyes. "You're a real piece of work. You expect me to give the slightest shit about what I've done and you can't even comprehend-!" She clenched her fists before her. "The pain of hunger. That-!"

I feel that…
In me, now…
I can feel the bonds…

The words echoed in his mind. Head bowed, arms crossed, her ranting barely registered to the Monk, as he searched his soul for answers."I do," he interrupted, looking up at her. "What did you feed me?"

She crossed her arms as well, glaring back at him. "I told you: A piece of my soul; manifested. Idiot."

"I saw… rain. A purgatorial field… I felt the hunger…" He dropped his arms; sighed, "I want that gone. You've given me something disgusting, and for what? A tongue that is not mine? You've done something to me that cannot be undone with ease. Why sacrifice yourself?"

The demon was taken aback by his persistence regarding this question. Almost to the point of embarrassment; she quickly changed the subject. "How-! How long has it been?" she parried.

"Nearly two-thousand year-"

Her eyes went wide. "Hu'oooh!!!" she gasped. The demon put her hands on her head, stumbling back against the wall beside the passage, where only a small hill of rubble now obstructed the way. "Two thous- two thousand years?? And the apocalypse?!"

"Averted. Time and again. It heartens me to tell you that the fates of men are not governed by things like you, anymore."

The demon briefly smirked at his answer. "And I'm bleeding into Belial's jaws every second," she muttered, dropping her hands, lowering her head. "Really. What is the point of escaping?"

"You said you didn't care; if Rome took up the cross of our Lord?"

"Your Lord," She injected with a snort, eyes downcast.

The monk glanced aside, brow furrowed as he concocted something of a plan. "No matter, you said you didn't care. There are… ways. Secret ways, that may counter the curse put upon you." God, was it a sin to lie to a demon? Was it even possible? She had him in years, but if her memory was linked to the state of her soul…

The demon snorted. "I doubt it."

"No matter," he repeated, waving his hand. "If there were. Would you be willing to bear that cross?"

"What are you suggesting," she grumbled, lifting her head.

"You claim to have honor, demon. A pact with the Order. Your loyalty. For ours."

A half-chuckle escaped her. "Hfh! Nice try. I'm not staying in this place. You can't make me. I like wine as much as the next whore of Babylon, honey, but your cooking is atrocious, and if I have to taste one more? Single. Solitary fucking crumb of bread on my tongue ever again?" Her eyes narrowed. "I'll be eating your balls on a fucking dish."

"I, nor the Order- We're not without mercy. Nor forgiveness for your actions, here." He grasped the cross of his rosary in one hand. "I know this hunger must pain you greatly-"

The demon grit her teeth, starting towards him suddenly. "I said. Spare me. Your fucking pity!" And grabbing him by the shoulder forced him back on his heels until she'd pinned him to the opposite wall. "You will never address me as a dog again. Do you understand me?! Ever AGAIN!"

The monk's eyes drifted from her, to the mess of his slain brethren. "You're proud, demon." His eyes returned to hers. "It will be your end."

"I'm going to die! Even if I escape, I'll probably starve until I'm a mindless fucking husk. All I have left is my pride! Keep your hands and especially your flowery fucking prayers AWAY FROM IT!" she roared, slamming her other fist into the wall beside his head, a satisfying crunch of plaster as the stone crumbled beneath the weight of her blow.

"Forgive me," he quickly replied, his tone subdued, despite the fact his heart was pounding in his chest. "I will remember that you are… honorable."

"Don't grovel," she quietly uttered, backing away, "I don't want that either…"

The monk watched as she returned her attention to the collapsed doorway, clambering over the rocks and attempting to squeeze through the opening. He called out to her, asking: "What do you want?"

She could only sigh at that. "I want so many things," the demon could barely choke out, "I am greed, by my flesh. I am gluttony by my bone. And I am so… I'm so fucked," she now said with a laugh, casting a pained grin over her shoulder. As if she'd will herself to laugh in the face of her own demise, and what a hollow gesture it was. The beast was afraid, and strangely, despite everything he'd seen, despite her demands to the contrary, the monk felt sorry for her. The demon's words escaped her with trembling breath. "Are you coming or what..?"


Midway upon my journey,
I strayed into in a forest dark,
The narrow path no longer clear.

How hard a thing it is to speak
About this stern and callous wood,
That thought alone renews the fear.

So bitter, death is little more;
But for the good, I aim to tell
Of things I saw while I was there.


"As if through me, the life blood of the Nile flows," the incubus whispered, reclining on the pile of bodies, pulled together and stitched to fit the vague shape of a throne. Body armor, warped and twisted, broken apart where their limbs conjoined. Their shared blood flowed out from the demon's perch. A river, which cut through the center of the room, past rows of steel warehouse shelves, cluttered with the treasures of ancient hands. A muffled chorus of pain from every soul lashed to the demon's mortal seat of power. Those spared the grisly monument stood as thralls at his side. MST agents, the strongest of body, weakest of mind, frozen with rifles in hand, masks fixed in a stoic, forward stare. Servants played tunes to the dulcet sound of still dripping tendons, the ethereal drone of human souls in agony. "To have such a foothold beyond Hell: Unthinkable, in recent memory. And yet, I stand at the precipice of glory."

Footsteps from the dark, far reaches of the vault door. Two agents dragged a priest toward the throne. Flanking the river of blood, they threw him into the life force at the foot of the demon. The broken man lifted his head, blood dripping from his beard, beaten and tired, his gaze drifted to the dead men that littered the base of the throne; Paimons's succubine handmaidens sewing the still quivering forms to the mass, and uttered: "I go to God…"

"You will do no such thing, human." Pale blue skin and yellow eyes. Graceful, like the monstrous Krishna. The lithe creature rose to descend the stairs, effeminate steps on the backs of soldiers and monks. White lab coats beneath his claws, soaked red, fused to the skin of the researchers dragged into this state of unending pain. "Fear not the one who destroys your body, old man; but I, who can destroy your body and soul in Hell," he said, but the priest did not reply. The demon knelt, gently cradling the man's face in his delicate, webbed hands. Barbed, black claws tickling the flesh. "You know what lies in the depths of this mountain. That which sent forth the first legions of mastema from the heretical pits. I only seek return to Hell. I do not fail my masters. You will suffer for this delay. Consider: If only to spare the life of your brothers-" Paimon shook his head. "-I will not harm another soul. But you must reveal the path to the heart of Vesuvius…"

Father Hangen only smiled. "If you truly had the power over my soul you claim, you could have ripped the answer from the walls of my heart."

Impotent rage stirred the demon. Those soft hands clenched, claws digging into the sides of the priest's head. The old man held, against the growing maelstrom of pain, if only for a few seconds before the skin of his visage peeled away like wet paper. Paimon left him there, crumpled in the river, silent, blood intermingling as the monk clutched the gaping disfigurement. "Slaves!" he shouted, storming the steps to his throne as the enthralled soldiers bent will to his command. "Bring me another!" Paimon sank against his pillow of flesh. "There must be those that know, and of them one who values his meager life…"



A scrawny, humanoid form bolted from the intersecting hallway, naked, with pale, translucent skin, screaming as he spread his vein-wracked wings, claws and teeth thrust toward the hulking demon. Her arm shot out, clasping around the imp's skull, before she swung him around with one mighty heave. The creature's brain burst from the skull cavity as it struck the opposing wall. She leaned in and licked her fingers. "So where are we going?"

The monk remained a cautious few steps behind her, eyeing the brutal display with an acceptance that only came from years of seeing far worse. "I was certain you had already decided that. I'm afraid I'm only near you for sake of convenience, right now."

"Yes, thousands of years. I know exactly where I'm going; straight to Hell."

"That is an option," he said with a nod.

"Hm?!" the demon's baleful gaze lumbered around to face him.

"You could leave. I don't know what's caused this calamity, but I have my suspicions. It's possible, if you could help me to the heart of the mountain, I might be able to stop this before it spills into the world. There is a way back, for you at least."

"The door back to Hell," she pondered, ripping her smaller victim's heart out and nearly swallowing it whole. "And then what. Revenge?" The rest came out. Strange organs, human on first glance, but unmistakably misshapen. He could only watch as she gorged herself on the infernal flesh. "I'd give up the Empire to throttle the souls that sent me down this path."

"A path that could be rectified."

The demon chuckled as she flicked her claws clean. "You know I'm not gonna trust you, right? Secret rites of cleansing? Even if that were true, look at me: I'm a demon. You scrub one layer of filth you're gonna have to keep scrubbing to get to the bottom of that mark. You'll burn me to the bone."

He thought of the demon's soul. That small piece of evil now festering within him. "You don't remember? Certainly it would come naturally to you."

"Ohh, clever!" She pat the monk on the head; he idly picked away some gore left in her wake. "But I'd have to sleep on those souls to divine their depths. Does this look like a good place to just… lay down and let it all wash over me?"

The monk's eyes drifted to a nearby agent, unrecognizable, disemboweled and nearly picked clean by the monsters now roaming the crypts, with only the remains of his gear to identify him as belonging to one of the strike teams. "No… no, I suppose not." He knelt by the corpse and fished around the tattered remains for something, eventually claiming a pistol from the dead man's belt. "Hell it is," he said, checking the weapon; the demon only eyed the device curiously. It was then he realized she had no idea what it was. The monk shook his head, rousing himself from that minor realization, and finally resolving: "We'll need… supplies."

"Supplies," she repeated skeptically.

"Weapons."

"Hah! My language, anchorite." The demon crossed her arms, towering over him with a critical glare. "But again why should I care?"

"Go back to your cell and wait for death if you don't care."

She reached out and grabbed him by the collar, hoisting him up on his toes. "How about I rip you up?"

"How about you have a point," he retorted.

She shoved him back against the wall. "Already hungry. Every passing minute gives me reason to spill your blood."

The monk adjusted his robe. "You can eat other demons."

"I'm not your attack dog," she snarled.

"No. But you like the taste of sin. We're currently drowning in it. I need your help. And I'm willing to help you if it means to undo a far greater evil…"

The demon grumbled, narrowing her eyes and glancing aside in thought. "Weapons," she finally muttered, looking up and giving a nod. "Right. Where's your armory?"

"In the opposite direction of our problem," he sighed, "Still…"

With a nod to follow, the monk started off, only for her hand to fall heavily on his shoulder. He looked up to see her move in close, her eyes alight, fire emanating within. "I'll honor the spirit of this… agreement that we've come to, human. But you try and swindle me and you'll wish I'd just ripped you apart."

He smiled, a weak, but earnest attempt. "Dishonest scales are abomination to the Lord…"


You must go another road
If you should escape these woods;
The savage beast before, you cower.

For, see the vexing she-wolf, who
Allows no man to cross her path,
But halts him, that she might devour.

So vicious and perverse, her way,
That never sates her empty soul;
Her lust for wealth and earthly power…


The human mind held within it a limited capacity for memory; two, maybe three hundred years, given the strength of flesh. But a memory is a fickle, almost delusional state of being. The arrogance of telling oneself the events that happened, according to themselves and of their own desire to remember, and quite well after the fact. Paimon's handmaiden led the MST agents through the catacombs, sweeping each room for signs of life remaining. The unnatural air of her presence was all but invisible to their minds. Weak, mortal flesh, yearning for a world of sense, and reason; they followed her without question.

Sights raised, the remnants of the scattered strike teams spilled into the room, sweeping the corners until they were sure it was clear. Human body parts. A pile of rubble on mangled, silver bars. Such a frail metal could only restrain something with presence no more significant than a mere breath. Such is the state of evil, a small, utter ruination.

The pale handmaiden sauntered between the small squad, a dark, fleshy tail lashing behind her, brushing against the agents as she stalked past them into the room. "Disgusting," she sneered, rows of needle-like fangs peering from beneath her lips. She sniffed, grimacing at the scent. Something angered her senses. A truly rotten thing had been housed here. "What is this?"

"Another holding cell," said the Captain, voice cracked as his words sifted through the heavy gas mask. He knelt, rifle resting partially on his knee as he examined the spilled, human remains, before fishing something up from the stray parts. "This robe doesn't match the ones from the order."

"Same order, it's just older," Colmer pointed out; an agent from the Bureau of Acquisition. He lowered his pistol. "Looks… half a century old? Maybe more?"

But the succubus wasn't satisfied with the answers. "I've never seen a cell like this. An entire room dedicated to housing a single cage? Who… what was kept here?"

"Something big, ma'am," squawked Colmer from beneath his mask. He ran a thick, gloved finger along the wall. "Looks like it put a fist clean through the wall; humanoid. I'm guessing seven feet tall, maybe. Here-" He directed the Captain's attention toward a tuft of long, matted black hair in the gore. "This isn't facial hair. Monks usually keep it close to the head. Reminds me of the wild ones."

"Wild?" the Captain inquired.

Colmer nodded. "A lot of demons have this kind of hair, goes untamed. Lends credence to the possibility of a common point of origin. The hair, the claws-" He gestured respectfully to the succubus. "Your uh- th-the tail, ma'am." Strange.

Something strange about all this, it-

The succubus crossed her arms, brow furrowed in disgust. "So we've a barbarian at the gates," she murmured thoughtfully.

This isn't-

"Looks like they got our objective," the Captain added, pointing out the broken circle of wards in the corner.

"And they've left bloody footprints all the way." The demon turned to the guards. "Very well. You have your quarry. Let not escape the chance to please your Lord."

"-right," Colmer muttered.



Click!

Click…


The door was long-since battered in. The tight chain-link cage ripped open, splayed and bent, where something forced its way in. Human flesh and clothing ripped away, still clung in dangling bits to the mangled steel, where the quartermaster had been ripped from the armory. Though it lay in shambles, the shelves held more than a few useful leftovers. The creatures of the deep vaults did not value steel; reviled silver. Vials of holy water. Body armor. Silver bullets and various implements. Weapons, which the monk knew with a curious intimacy. "Sword's gone," he remarked. "Shame. We certainly could have used the help…"

Click!

Click…

He slipped the Kevlar vest on under his robe, gearing up, with as many bottles and vials, clips and crosses, charms and utilities as the broad, nylon straps could carry. The shotgun hit the table with a viscerally satisfying thump! Such emotions had been foreign to him, prior to his meeting with the demon. Emotions he felt once long-discarded. The man of God pondered this, as the barrel of his pistol drifted in her general direction, sights wavering, before he finally aimed a shot directly at her skull.

Pull the trigger.
Go on, do it…
Do it…

She sat in the corner, huddled against the wall in an almost childish-looking pose. Shoulders hunched, head slouched forward, a flashlight in her hand, endlessly clicking. On. And off. On? And- "Heheh…" -off…

Click!

"Certainly you've seen more interesting things than that," he noted, still pointing the gun at her.

Click…

She looked up, the side of her mouth curled up in a confused, half-grin. "Eh… plenty," she admitted, unconcerned with the firearm. "But never without a human soul attached. Everything comes down to this… flesh," the demon struggled to explain. "Flesh of the soul. It's light. It's earth. It's everything." She gazed down at the flashlight. "Has infinite potential in its limited capacity." The monk found himself slowly lowering the pistol as he listened. "The soul," she struggled, "The human soul is… amazing." The demon sighed. "I wish I had one."

I feel that…
In me, now…
I can feel the bonds…

"You don't remember them at all?"

"…I don't," the demon said, shaking her head, bowed in solemn reflection. "I can't sleep. I can't sleep here or I'll die. They'll devour me. Or you'll betray me."

"I won't," he said, "I can promise this. On my faith. On my own soul. That- maybe if you were to remember the contents of the souls you consumed, it would make our task more clear. I… I don't know if I have all I need to seal the gate. Or even see it. We always had precautions in place. Keeping memories separate, lest they spawn something. Sleep, and I'll-"

"No," she sternly replied, glaring angrily. "I… can't… trust anyone…"

The monk holstered the pistol and double-checked his belt. "You'll have your reverie when this is all over, demon; I promise."

The demon's weary gaze fell to the flashlight again.

Click!

"You promise?" she asked.

He looked at her. So much fear, and uncertainty. So much suffering, enough he could swear the old monsters were human. Or at least, had the potential to be something close to it. If God held a plan for all things, if all things worked through Him, perhaps these creatures served some unknown purpose, only hindered by Order and its allies. "I promise."

Click…

The shuffle of boots in the dark corridor beyond caught the monk's attention. Faint, but definitely there. His eyes briefly flashed to the demon. He knew what came next, but to warn her meant the potential death of a strike team. Images of limbs ripped clean from the sockets. The pile of organs, once men of the cloth. No, he decided; he would not warn her…

A flash of black glove. A metal canister vaulted around the corner, tumbled through a hole in the cage, and rattled across the floor. The monk flipped the steel table over and took cover. In her curiosity, the demon retrieved the curious object, just as it burst in her hand. A flash of silver nitrate sprayed her eyes, smoke billowing from her face as the holy metal tore flesh from bone. The demon staggered backward, collapsing with a heavy thud…

The monk kept the pistol to his temple as the strike team encircled him. He eyed the unconscious demon in the corner. Mistake. He made a mistake. A mistake that might cost everything. "I know what you need. I will deprive you of it, if need be." Two agents warily checked the demon on the floor. "If you touch her, I will not hesitate to end this all right here."

The succubus gently prodded the men with her tail, calling them off the fallen demon. She laughed. "You know what happens to souls like yours, human? They burn in Hell…"

"Maybe. But you'll still be here, having utterly failed."

"SPARE ME your petty attempt at BRAVERY. How long will your eternal damnation impede us?! A hundred years?! A THOUSAND?! ALL menial in the grand scope of things- Do you know how long I have persisted?!"

"You'll persist a little longer if you don't back off; right now…"

The succubus was furious, rage barely concealed as she raised a hand and called Paimon's slaves to her. "Don't think you've accomplished anything. You can't keep your finger on that trigger forever, human. And when you slip-" She narrowed her eyes, grinning a wide, maniacal grin. "You will wish you'd come quietly."

"You wouldn't be the first to make that prediction today." He glanced at the unconscious demon. "And you're both wrong."

"My master would have protected your tender soul. You will only suffer now." Paimon's handmaiden slipped into the company of soldiers, the squad closing protectively before her as they sank back into the thick shade of the crypts. They went as though a memory, imperfect in recall, since frayed on the edges in darkness. In a flicker of buzzing, fluorescent light, they were gone…

"Suffering is the way of the Lord," the monk said. He didn't move, did not dare until he was certain the strike team had slipped into the depths. This wouldn't be the last attempt to steal him. Even half-starved and impulsively mad, the old monsters held a patience he feared. Swiftly strafing the mouth of the corridor, he only lowered the pistol when he felt safe to kneel by the fallen demon. Her face smoldering, the smoke dissipating, revealed that a good swath of the top layer of flesh had been seared away.

Her eyes shot open. Flames danced from within. One arm shot up, fingers wrapping around his neck; the monk shoved his pistol up under her chin. "Think you're fast enough?" she growled.

"Are you?!" the monk choked out.

"Pull it you little shit. Pull that fucking trigger."

"We.. will not.. survive alone-!"

The demon clenched her grip until he couldn't breathe. "You were going to kill me!?" she hissed, eyes screwed into a pained expression; his finger tensed on the trigger. "You pointed a gun at me?! I would have eaten silver for you, if you only asked…"

She let go, the monk rolling away, coughing and clutching at his throat. He sat up against the wall and aimed the pistol at her, just as quickly as the demon whipped her claws to his throat; they froze again. An uncertain stand-off ensued.

"I wasn't-"

"You didn't warn me!"

"I HAD NO IDEA WHO WAS COMING," he snapped. "WARN you?! And then what?! Have you tear apart potentially innocent-"

"INNOCENT?!" The demon cut him off with roaring laughter. She fell back on her ass cackling. "Are you out of your mind? Do you hear what you say, or are you compelled by your Lord to spit lies!?" She fell quiet, shaking her head, a mad grin on her face; the demon whispered: "There are no innocent men here…"

He lowered the gun as she fell away from him, slouching tiredly. "What do you know about innocence."

"What do you know about loyalty, human. You seem to think I'm incapable of keeping a promise, and why should I trust yours in light of this?"

"Is that it, then? We can't trust each other?"

The demon almost looked hurt. She placed a hand on her chest, emphasizing, "You can trust me, human-"

"Andrea," he said.

"Andrea…"

The demon furrowed her brow, averting her gaze. "I-! I'm… Shaamat." She fell silent, eyes downcast. A small moment passed before she spoke.

"Shaamat." That name, so familiar. Andrea raised a hand, listening for the telltale sound of the enthralled strike team. Nothing but silence. It should have been comforting. He found no hope. Hope never came. "Do you think you could forgive me?"

I feel that…

"I know what I am. Least I'm honest about it." She lifted her gaze to eye him accusingly. "But you. With those… those weapons- those guns. And that heart…" she uttered, shaking her head. "Who are you, Andrea?"

In me, now…

The monk sat there. He shook his head, replying simply: "Just a man. I did evil things. Now I'm spending my life atoning for what arose from my actions."

I can feel the bonds…

"I remember now," Shaamat said. "There's no door. The Order told everyone it was something different. I have… three different memories of this, now. Not just memories. I can see it. It's a perfect man. A mind made of the soulless light… The beating heart…" She looked into her hands, as though they might hold her very fate. "I see all their eyes on the heart… and it's none of those things… I know what it is, Andrea." The demon briefly grit her teeth, growling under her breath before she cast that burning gaze upon him once more. "It's a trap."

Brother Andrea looked at her for some time. Seconds could have passed to eternity. In that time he considered all the things he could have told her. The danger of trusting such a creature. "I'm sorry, Shaamat. I didn't know. I really didn't," he said, rising to his feet. Shaamat watched as he made his way to a large chest at the back of the armory. The monk paused to listen, once more. God, let that succubus be patient, he prayed, Let her wait in the darkness far beyond… "Our chances of survival are better together. We're going to die anyway. So let's give the motherfuckers what they want."

"Motherfucker," Shaamat scoffed, unable to hold back a smirk as she rolled her eyes slightly. "Wasn't expecting that…"

"I'm not saying we go out of our way to die," he said, cracking open the chest and tossing packing material aside. "But if what you've seen is true, maybe we can at least see to it our enemies do."

The demon lumbered to her feet, trying to get a good look across the room. Still wary of the new weapons, which she chose to remain a safe distance from, though, some part of her feared more than the gun itself. "What're you doing?"

Andrea glanced over his shoulder, casting a faintly playful grin. "I've got something you'll like. I think you'll forgive me when you see what it is."

"You sound so sure."

"Oh, you will."


Who can tell what a day may bring forth? Cause us, therefore, gracious God, to live every day as if it were to be our last, for that we know not but it may be such. Cause us to live so at present as we shall wish we had done when we come to die. O grant that we may not die with any guilt upon our consciences, or any known sin unrepented of, but that we may be found in Christ, who is our only Saviour and Redeemer. Amen.


A heart, beating in the darkness. Stone barred the way. The earth shook, rattled the humming emergency lights in their sockets. Wayward sparks, the buzz and the crack of bare wires. And at the center of the collapse, the heart of Vesuvius, and the strike team remnants.

They cut. Hammered. Even tried a few bullets when the agents got fed up. The dig team considered and eventually decided that explosives weren't an option. The Order had mining equipment, sure, but potentially burying this corridor meant it'd be even harder to get to the door; valuable time wasted. Agent Colmer continued chipping away, pausing intermittently to wipe blood from his face, in the wake of a crimson jet, spurting from the wounded stone. "God, we're gonna drown at this rate," he sarcastically remarked. "Blasting it might just accomplish that fast enough." Colmer wiped his goggles and let his constricted gaze follow the trails of blood as they trickled down the stone surface; seemed to pool and disappear into now unseen drains to either side of the door. "Hey, where do these go?"

Paimon's second handmaiden answered. "That is not for you to know, worm."

Something's not- "Right. Sorry, ma'am." Colmer ran his hand across the broad face of the smooth, stone door. He slipped his book into a satchel on his belt and crouched, leaning back against the strange portal as he struggled to remove his mask. "Damnit. Can't breathe, can't fuckin' think-"

"Do not remove your mask…"

He looked up, half-expecting the Captain having issued that order. Of course it was that strange succubus, casting a threatening glare cast his way. "I… right3," he muttered, "Sorry, ma'am."

"The air is dangerous for humans," the demon said, turning her silent stare toward the end of the hall. "Sooner more, given the stench of that beast grows near. If you do not solve the problem, we may yet have our rabbit dance right into our jaws."

The Captain gently prodded Colmer with the toe of his boot. "Hey. We don't have time for this, are you solving the problem or not."

"I thought I was," Agent Colmer sighed. His hands dropped from his mask, unable to remove the constricting breather. He made a strange gesture with his hands, like attempting the throttle some invisible manifestation of the problem's neck, until it spat up the truth. Blood. Blood everywhere, it's- "Blood," the agent muttered. "Blood-brain… blood-brain barrier-"

"Colmer! DON'T-!" The gun went off. Colmer slumped over like a sack of meat, his gun clattering to the floor beside his lifeless body. "OH SHIT. SHIT! WHAT the…. FUCK, man?!"

The succubus ignored the Captain's shouting, kneeling to inspect the agent. "Curious," she remarked; how swiftly and suddenly the agent took his life. She'd never stoop for a human, let alone the discarded corpse of a human, but this- "Coming to his senses is expected, eventually, but why would he resort to taking his own life…" -this wasn't right. "This isn't right," the succubus informed the strike team agents. "Fall back to Lord Paimon, we're-"

Forgive you…

She definitely heard it. Paimon's handmaiden turned her head, fixating on the end of the hallway, past the tangle of cables and fallen rubble. The roar of a strange old weapon. Grinding, churning. Whirring. Rattle-rattle; clink-clink.

I FORGIVE YOU!

Came the distant voice, echoing through the crypt. The succubus shot to her feet. "Captain!" The Captain shook himself to attention and pointed his rifle toward the flickering darkness beyond. He barked a command, the men formed up defensively on either side the hallway. The succubus crept up alongside the strike team leader. "What is that noise?" she hissed.

"Nothing good, ma'am."

Whirrrr!!!
Clink-clink-clink-clink…

"Oh, I forgive you!" Shaamat growled from the black ends of the crypt. The demon cackled, her gleeful rampage pocked with infernal grief and screams of pain.

Whirrrr!!!
Clink-clink-clink-clink…

Each burst proceeded by a faint jangling chime of metal on stone.

And then silence…

The strike team waited. Guns poised. From the smoke and shadow beyond the tangle of cords and iron rebar, it crept through the jungle of rubble; a pool of blood… It spread like an inkblot on a napkin. Around the corner, a creeping ruby liquid goo that signaled empty veins and dead eyes behind the ever-encroaching noise. It slowly spread toward the strike team, carpeting the floor, wrapping between the rocks, and pooling sticky at their boots. A few agents nearly backed away, before the Captain ordered they hold position. The sight, unnerving on its own, but it was the sound it made as the blood slipped along the floor. A faint trickle growing closer, preceding the faint, murky chuckle of the beast from the haze beyond perception.

A rain of hot silver ripped through the mess, smashed into stone. Splintering. It tore into flesh. Man down. The succubus hit the ground screaming and crawled away, a trail of poison ichor behind her. Man down. The team returned fire into the dark hall, a criss-crossing lattice of bullets and tracers. The ceiling shook and cracked. Lights blew out. Man down. The generator burst into flames, the hallway blacked out with only the gasoline burning away the oxygen. Air grew thin. Smoke clogged the eye, the windpipe, and still the rattling gunfire persisted…


BELIAL came last, than whom a Spirit more lewd
Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for it self: To him no Temple stood
Or Altar smoak'd; yet who more oft then hee
In Temples and at Altars, when the Priest
Turns Atheist, as did ELY'S Sons, who fill'd
With lust and violence the house of God…


"She the one?" Shaamat growled, tossing the spent Gatling gun aside. It struck the floor with a raucous smash, the empty belt chattering in protest; screws and parts rattled in their holes. "Are you the one that burned my face?!"

"No," the succubus gasped, slowly crawling away from her.

The greater demon thundered slowly toward her, like an encroaching storm cloud of inevitable pain, smoke hissing from her arms, chest and gut. Some of those silver rounds burned clean through her, trails of acrid steam like ghostly snakes, coiling from the wounds. She reached out and gripped the succubus by the tail with, dragging her back. "You. Go. Nowhere."

"We need her alive," Andrea instructed, knees bending he leveled himself with the bleeding demon at Shaamat's feet. "Does your master know you're here?"

The succubus sneered. "He will devour-" The monk cracked the barrel of the pistol across her face. She chuckled, spitting blood. "You think I am stranger to pain?"

"No. Maybe I am. But Shaamat isn't," Andrea warned. "You would be wise to reason with me in her place." He gently gripped her by the hair and leaned in. "Who's coming?"

"He'll send everyone after you…"

"No," Andrea shook his head. "No, he won't. Not without provocation." The monk stood and backed away, nodding to his companion. "Alive."

Paimon's handmaiden eyed the monk in horror and disbelief. "No! No wait this isn't righ-!"

Her voice cut off in a pained yelp as Shaamat swung her by the tail into the face of the stone door. Thud! A still steady grip on the appendage, she strafed, turned, and swung the succubus into the next wall. Thud! Yanked her back, swung her around again, up-over her shoulder like a bag of grain. The succubus traveled a flailing arc until she struck the floor behind Shaamat with a cluster of loud cracks and a sickening splash in the now-ankle-deep blood. The brute planted her foot on the demon's ass, adding final insult to the injury, and ripped her foe's tail off. Bone snapped and skin shed. The succubus gave a stomach shuddering scream before her tormentor kicked her in the side and send her a good few feet in the air, ribs shattered, to land at the mouth of the corridor, face down in the blood.

Andrea looked up at her, shotgun perched on his shoulder. "Alive, Shaamat?"

"Ehh, she's fine…"

But a pitiful moan pulled his attention from Shaamat's ever insane giggling in sheer amusement of the brutality. The broken demon pushed herself up from the blood pool. She could have drank. Could have ripped a heart from a fallen agent, but her only concern was hobbling away from Shaamat as quickly as she could. A slow, painful crawl, sloshing through the coagulated slaughter, scraping over the sharp rubble, every inch claimed a struggle to draw breath, a fight to claw one more foot away from that wretched beast…

"And now we wait." Andrea sat down on a couple of bodies collapsed over each other. It seemed as likely a perch as any, given the disrespect they'd already mounted on this holy place. He fished around his bag, past the guns and ammunition. "We're probably going to die here."

"Yeah. Probably should've asked who she served before riling him up."

"Probably."

Shaamat chuckled. "Is it really gonna matter, though?" she asked, investigating the fallen agent, slumped against the stone door. "Damn. This one's empty too," she muttered. "He must have been fully pacted to his master. This place is… empty- Shouldn't the wards keep everything trapped in here? Why are untaken souls so hard to come by…?"

"Plenty of cracks to slip through. The defenses have fallen into some disrepair over the years. Knowledge lost. Men lost. The Authority's presence is probably more a slow handover than joint cooperation." Andrea shrugged, pulling a bottle of wine from the bag.

"Where'd you get that?" the demon growled.

"I'd have to ask the quartermaster, and he's dead." Andrea grasped the bottle by the neck and swung it over, offering the drink to the demon.

Shaamat took the wine, unable or unwilling to do anything but fall into a strange, silent awe at the gesture. "…thank you," she finally mustered.

"You know the keys for the door," Andrea asked again.

"I know," Shaamat confirmed, opening the bottle with her claw. She practically drowned herself, a few heavy gulps swallowing the contents within mere seconds. Flung the bottle at the gate of rubble, framed by the dead bodies of the remnant strike team. "Hail, Emperor," she uttered, "We who are about to die salute you…"



From the red, glimmering hues of death and destruction, by the light of flames and bare, thrashing cables, sparks and smoke, the flesh throne swelled. It began as a single body, that bobbed up from the blood as if through some hidden, oceanic depths. And then another. The base expanding as it rose, sucking the remnant strike team down below its skirt of sticky lab coats, encrusted robes, and flaps of living skin.

"Here we go," Andrea muttered, rising from the seat of corpses. He backed away as the flesh throne claimed his perch, pointing his shotgun at the rising mound.

Shaamat backed off with him; both flanked the stone door. "Andrea."

"Yes?"

"Something isn't right about this…"

"Shaamat," came Paimon's wispy voice, unseen from within or without the mound of suffering bodies. They were alive, that much could be seen. Unable to move. Each breath, every twitch brought racking pain. "And you've brought the key with you…"

"We certainly have," Andrea sternly replied; "Why don't you come and get it?"

"Do you think me a fool?" Paimon laughed. "That gun isn't the real threat here, is it? You wouldn't be so foolish as to lure me all this way unless you thought me to work toward my own undoing." A pale, feminine hand crept from the skirt of gore, splashing in the blood from beneath Paimon's island of pain; Andrea's sights shot toward it, finger tensing on the trigger.

Not Paimon.

"Hehhf..!"

She coughed.

"Heh..!"

And sputtered.

"Hell-!"

And struggled to breathe, head bobbing above the blood as she clawed her way to air. First her head. Then her torso. Out from under the mound, from under the stitches, and tears, and wordless pleas for mercy; an all too familiar succubus. "Help me!" she begged, her voice rising over the gruesome chorus. She gazed up at Andrea, extending her hand, her yellow eyes wide, face contorted with pain. "Forgive me, human! I didn't know! Please, I beg you! N- no! NO-!" Her pleas devolved into shrieking terror. Paimon's handmaidens could be heard from what wretched space lay within. They giggled in delight as they dragged the fallen succubus back into the stitching womb, arms flailing, splashing in the blood, desperately searching for something to hold.

"Mercy," was all Andrea could offer her, the word escaping him in a near whisper. The shotgun went off with a BANG! The silver rounds left a smoking stump, splattering- shredding her skull to fine pieces. Her body fell limp with a sickly splat as the throne sucked her below. "Is that it? Are you going to hide behind that abominable mockery, then? You're a joke. Afraid of us, and I suppose that much is reasonable, given you can't even control your own slaves."

Paimon's watery laughter echoed from the pile. "And you would think to lure me to my doom? Such plebeian attempts to insult me?"

Shaamat had been quiet for a time, now boiling over with rage. "COME OUT AND FIGHT!" she roared, swung her arm around and slammed her fist back against the vault door. The room shook. A deep groan issued from the depths, as though the crypts sought to reject them.

Andrea raised a hand, crouching slightly and eyeing the precarious cracks in the ceiling. "Careful…"

Paimon only mocked them further. "Ahh, what lies beyond that door, I wonder. Some elaborate mechanism to ensnare me?"

What lies, beyond that door…

Shaamat fell silent once more, a look as though she'd been stunned. Her hand drifted to the brand on her shoulder, that unseen thing that haunted the demon; she murmured: "What lies…"

The lord of the flesh throne chuckled, the hill of suffering began to sink under the blood once more. "I fear I've something more simple in mind for the two of you. Nothing so grand as this lock and key you devised. The smoke and flame will take your breath, if not your friend will take your flesh and blood. Who will slay the other first, I wonder?" Paimon's throne sank, the bubbling blood, and the giggle of his handmaidens. A distant explosion rocked the depths. A deep and prolonged rumbling marked a hallway collapsing, trapping them in this section of the crypts.

Something in Andrea's mind snapped. He fired the shotgun into the pile. Racked a shell, fired again. Fired again! FIRED AGAIN! The monk broke down, a furious scream rising from his chest as he flung the shotgun at the final body as it submerged from view. Brother Andrea fell to his knees in the red slush, blood soaking into his robe before he collapsed against the stone door.

"Lilian," Shaamat snarled, leaning back against the vault door. "Worthless demons. Liars and cowards…"

Andrea sat there beside her, eyes closed, head back and resting. "It was a long shot, I suppose."

"The longest," Shaamat said, dropping next to him. She propped up the body of Agent Colmers. "Least we got company!"

"Ah-h-?!" The monk scoffed, one bloody hand to his face in a nervous, fidgeting gesture, fighting the urge to laugh. He shook his head. "Well, I guess I know where I'm going."

"Y'know," Shaamat pondered, "It'll be good." The demon leaned forward a bit to peer around the dead man. "Having you as company."

Andrea reached out, popping the locks on Agent Colmer's mask before claiming the breather for himself. It revealed nothing out of the ordinary, he noted. Middle-aged occult agent from the Authority. Pale. Looked like he wore contacts, but Andrea wasn't going to check to be sure. "No point in that," he muttered, cleaning off the inside of the mask.

"What are you doing?" the demon asked.

"Only thing we can do now." He checked the tank on Colmer's belt. There was a bit of oxygen left, but he figured he'd save it for when things got dire. "Snuff that?" Andrea suggested, pointing to the generator, still smoking and emitting small flames. "Just kick it over."

Shaamat punted the smoking generator into the blood, extinguishing the fire, and took a seat next to him again. Dark, now. It should have been pitch, but for the demon's own gaze upon him. Even as fire, those embers seemed cold, but he was glad to have them, down here. "What?" she asked.

"Hm?"

"You're staring at me."

"I suppose I was thinking… all we can do is wait and hope for a rescue. You can't dig us out this time, can you?"

The demon looked almost ashamed to admit it. "…no," she whispered, looking away.

"How long?" Andrea asked.

"It's coming," she admitted. "It's strange. Sometimes, I feel like I've fully gone." Shaamat looked at her hands. "But I'm here, right now. Can't let that fool me; I'm gonna starve." She shook her head; sighed. "Shit, I'm going to kill you," she muttered, voice trembling near the end. Silence overtook them both. The sound of blood trickling from the ceiling. The gentle patter; it was too calm for such a wretched state as this.

Andrea's hand fell to rest on his holster, briefly. "Am I going to have to…"

"Kill me?"

"Yes…"

"Please don't," Shaamat said, her tone flat and lifeless, as though a state of shock had come over her. "I know it's too much to ask. I know I'm being greedy. I want… every ounce of life!" she hissed, balling her fists and cracking her knuckles. Shaamat closed her eyes, and the room went pitch black. Head back on the stone, the vault door pulsed.4 "Don't let me kill you…"

"We don't know what God has planned," the monk said. "Just try and save your energy. I don't know if you can, if it works that way, but try-"

"Andrea," Shaamat's embered gaze filled the room with a gentle, orange glow. "Let me kill you…"

He forced himself to look up, disbelief weighed heavy on his features. "What?"

"I don't have a soul," she said.

"I… doubt this, in the short time I've known you. Maybe-"

But Shaamat insisted: "No, Andrea. I don't have a soul. It's gone."

"You're… here."

"And so are you. And… so were your friends… So are the demons… But I'm going to send you back. Before I'm empty. Before I-"

He shot to his feet.

But Shaamat was already upon him. Her hand quickly moved to wrapped around his throat. God, no! She was already feral, he thought. Hunger had already driven her mad. Or perhaps the prospect of being trapped down here had led to her delusion; sometimes a dream was better. There was no mark of Belial, he saw for himself! And only now did Andrea consider the possibility: That if such a creature could bear some semblance of sanity, could another simply be insane.

Panic! Fear! Doubt! He reached for the gun in his holster, only for the demon to grasp his wrist and break it, forcing a howl of pain from the monk. "SHAAMAT, NO!"

"Don't worry. I'm sending you back," she droned, forcing him back against the wall.

Andrea was shaking, straining against the demon's impossible strength. He should have killed her the moment Paimon trapped them. Should have drawn the pistol and put a bullet in her skull while she was sulking. "Shaamat! You're here! Right now; think!"

"I'm not." There was an honest sorrow in those eyes. "Two thousand years? Like your friends in me. I'm the soul inside the demon."

"Shaamat!" he growled, face contorting into a pained grimace as she maintained her grip on his broken hand. "We only need to wait. They'll send a team. I'll protect-"

"No," she snapped back. "I can't let you stay here," the demon sternly insisted, her voice cold and subdued. "Any longer and it might be too late." He swore there were tears. Perhaps it was blood; they were both soaked in it. Little glistening beads in the corners of her eyes. "Truth is… Belial already killed me… all those… hundreds of years ago." She held him pinned. Her burning eyes scanned the primordial dark. "I gave you something." Her gaze finally settled on him. "Protect the dregs of my soul, Andrea." She squeezed his throat. "I'm already dead…"

"Shaamat…!" was all he could utter, before she choked off his air.


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