Belphegor selected the slave because she wouldn’t look at him. There was mystery to seeing only the tip of her nose under her hair, the hunch of her shoulders, her shins peeking out from behind the protective armor of folded arms. There was so little mystery in his life these days.
“That one,” he said, pointing at the cage. It was only one cage in a row of a hundred on that floor. The capacity of the kennels could accommodate a thousand slaves when filled.
The fiend was a stupid, slobbering creature; it cringed when Belphegor glanced in its direction. His pale fingers stroked the throat of his high-collared shirt, tracing the edge of his steward’s pin. It was a meaningless decoration now that the Palace had fallen, but one he wore with pride.
“Your concern is noted,” Belphegor said. He replied in the higher form of the demon language, which only those with the education and proper mouthparts could pronounce.
Another cringe. The fiend nodded, fumbling to untie the leather cord holding the cage door shut. There was no lock. The slaves never made more than one attempt at escape.
This slave did not cry, nor did she attempt to shrink to the rear of the cage. She simply bowed her head to her knees and seemed to grow smaller.
Without the mesh door between them and the mortal immobile, Belphegor could admire the little details: the lines of every rib from her shoulder down to the place her waist cut in too shallowly from malnourishment, the dust caking her hair, the delicate twist to her bony toes.
The slaves always looked so miserable in the mornings, after a full quarter’s rest; there was no avoiding the brutal air of Dis. It wreaked such havoc upon tender mortal tissues. But the baths were being sharpened, and she would soon be gleaming and tender, as befitted such delicate creatures.
Ah, she did not even tremble at his gaze. He wondered if she had attempted escape before. He thought he would have recalled the pleasure of bringing her back.
“This one will do,” Belphegor said with a nod.
He flourished a hand into the kennel. She simply shifted onto all fours and began crawling toward him without ever lifting her head. He couldn’t help but notice that one of her hands was bandaged. She was already broken.
Her head remained lowered when she stood beside him, utterly naked but for the smears of crimson clay upon the swells of her breasts. Even with her body hunched, he could see that she was in good condition: svelte but muscular, young but hardened by life. He rubbed a lock of her hair to clean away the clay. It would not stick to his waxy skin, so it crumbled to the floor of the slave pens without staining his flesh. The slave’s hair was black underneath.
“Come,” Belphegor said, not unkindly, as he took her elbow.
Many of the other cages had already emptied. Lines of mortals shuffled toward the dry baths. They curved around him as he led her through their ranks, as if pushed away from him by force of gravity. The fiend limped at his side, dragging the blunted blade of his sword.
The usual stations of daily maintenance waited on the black slopes beyond the kennels. The House of Abraxas was a fortress built upon the slopes of Mount Anathema, and the rear of the property butted against a nearly sheer cliff face. A few iron trees jutted from cracks in the stone, thrusting toward the sky with sharp fingers, as if hungering for the slaves that walked past them.
Belphegor performed a casual inspection upon the guards as he approached the pit, ensuring that the fiends were in the places he expected and handling the slaves with the utmost care.
The lines were led past a pit where the slaves were instructed to relieve their bladders and bowels of what had not already been eliminated in their cages overnight. Then they were taken to the dry baths, where fiends waited with brushes and stones to scrape away the stink of mortal sweat. They would be fed after that—quite the hassle, since so many of the slaves began refusing to feed themselves after a few months. Manual application of nutrition was necessary for these fragile slaves.
Daily maintenance for the full complement of the House of Abraxas’s slaves took almost a full quarter, from the time they woke up on Second Monday to the end of Second Friday. But Belphegor’s hand-picked selection was lucky that day. She would bypass the lines and be given first priority for maintenance so that she might spend the rest of the day in the House with Belphegor himself.
The sky in Dis was violet that day—a strange color that he hadn’t seen in his millennia of service. The fissure didn’t reach the sky directly above the House of Abraxas, but Earth’s light was strong, and it changed the entire atmosphere of the place. Belphegor found it distasteful, but great reward required great sacrifice. If an easy access point to conquer Earth required tolerating the occasional moist bite of a spring breeze in Hell, he would tolerate it.
Belphegor strode toward the pit with the slave at his side. He did not need to push aside the line to make room for her. The slaves shied away from him.
He stepped to the edge, holding her arm to steady her.
“Empty your bowels,” he said.
Without ever lifting her head, she did as instructed, teetering somewhat precariously on the tip of the outcropping in a squat. There were several other outcroppings, all of which were occupied. The scent of human waste mingled with Dis’s sulfuric breeze. It was impossible to distinguish the sounds and smells of each individual mortal.
Once she rose, he took her elbow again.
They ascended to the dry baths: stone platforms on which the fiends scrubbed the slaves with wire brushes to scrub them. They were elevated to allow the lines of waiting mortals watch. Belphegor helped position her upon the table on all fours.
“We will give special attention to her hair,” he instructed the fiend, tapping his fingers on his chin thoughtfully. “And attend to her teeth, as well.”
The fiend hurried to offer the brush to him. Belphegor took his time scraping at the smears on her rear and legs, pressing hard enough that it would leave raised welts on the skin of most slaves. Her skin was firmer than it looked. Broken or not, she must have been thoroughly nourished to be so strong.
He attempted to lift her head to brush her teeth, but she would not comply with the hand on her chin.
“Come,” Belphegor said. “Allow me to clean you.”
Her chin remained lowered to her chest, lips pinched shut, eyes invisible under the fall of hair.
Not so broken after all.
Belphegor rubbed the pin of his stewardship again. It was cold compared to the heat of the air. Annoyance turned his mouth down at the corners.
He enjoyed struggle. He did not enjoy defiance.
But perhaps the struggle was to come. Some mortals responded strangely to their time at the House of Abraxas. Mourning the lives they had lost seemed to be a lengthy emotional process; perhaps this one simply had some fire left.
If there was despair within her, he would find it by the time daylight fell on Earth above.
The teeth could wait.
“To the feedings,” Belphegor said after brushing the clay from her hair.
She was as compliant taking her breakfast as she had been relieving herself into the pits; she ate everything without ever lifting her eyes. Belphegor rubbed his hand through her silken hair as she chewed and swallowed the serving of protein, which was culled from the organs of obsolete fiends. It was iron-rich and would fuel her well for the day to come. He daydreamed of it while separating her soft locks into sections, only to let them fall into place again.
They sat at the front of the dining hall, looking down upon the other slaves as they moved through their breakfast routine. They ate as they were bathed: on all fours, under the watchful eyes of fiends. Scarred bodies trembled as they dipped down on their elbows to lift flesh from the troughs with their teeth.
Belphegor did not make his slave eat with the others. She remained on her knees, and ate off of a plate in his lap. A fond smile crossed his lips as he continued to stroke her hair. She knew to use her mouth properly; there was no need to muzzle her.
The anticipation was too great. He was beginning to tremble with excitement by the time the last bite of raw meat slid between her lips. The wet sound of swallowing thrilled him.
A fiend approached Belphegor at the head of the room.
“Tu nati omak?” asked the fiend. Will you be on the first run?
The slaves were entertained and exercised by two walks through the City proper each day. He liked to accompany them, sometimes. But not that morning.
“No,” Belphegor said, perhaps a little too quickly. “We will not be attending the run.”
He stood. The slave followed suit.
Together, they approached the noble House of Abraxas.
The entryway gleamed and black and proud. Jagged teeth adorned the arch of the doorway, which was thrice Belphegor’s height. A true wonder to behold.
To prevent the escape of indoor staff, the front door had to be unlocked from the exterior by guards. Belphegor waited patiently as the pair of fiends assigned to the duty operated the levers to either side of the door. It lifted, baring a foyer carved of pit glass and a spiral stair beyond.
As soon as they stepped through, the door slammed shut behind them.
The House was an impressive manor exemplifying the artistry of the finest infernal architects to have passed through Dis. Parts of it had been cut directly from the solid stone of the mountain; other parts had been carved from imported chisav bone, slaughtered en masse to near extinction in order to provide enough materials for the wings. The entryway itself was decorated with pit glass: a crystal-clear substance that glowed with light, but not heat.
The slave’s tender feet slapped gently on stone as they crossed the foyer. There was no hint of curiosity within her; despite the glory of the House, she never lifted her gaze from her feet. She hadn’t even taken her arms from behind her back since leaving the dining hall.
Belphegor dwelled in a room with simple trappings near the center of the House. It was better described by what it was not rather than by what it was: he had no keepsakes of his long years of service, no bed in which to sleep, and no decorations that might please more common eyes than his. It was merely a black box with a single window, a desk, and a switch controlling the front gates. It required a demon with Belphegor’s unusual strength to operate that lever; it could unlock every guard tower along the wall in case of emergency, and they would not trust it with anyone else.
The only other remarkable thing in the room were the chains on his wall.
They dangled in sensual silver lines, tipped with hooks and spurs and corkscrews that gleamed wickedly in Hell’s half-light. He had bolted them in various positions on the wall, low and high, to accommodate entertaining a slave of any height, in any position. He had left room only for a shining steel cabinet in the corner, which held his accessories. They did not match the chains so much as compliment them.
Abraxas had once tauntingly called Belphegor’s office a “play room.” Derisive as the intention had been, the steward found it to be an adequate descriptor.
“To the wall,” Belphegor told the slave, closing the door behind them. The bolt made a heavy, satisfying sound when it settled into place, signifying the privacy they were to enjoy. “Arms above your head, palms flat to the wall, legs spread.”
She stood in the center of the room, head down, and did not go to the wall.
Belphegor was uncertain if he wanted to break her when he had been hoping for a slave that was already shattered, but now they were there. His choice had been made. He was as resolute as he was hungering.
Pale, deft fingers loosened the collar of his shirt.
“To the wall,” he said again. He rolled the wrists of his sleeves back. The forearms underneath were shrunken and skeletal.
The slave finally lifted her head and looked him in the eye.
Her face was as beautiful as her body, in that human sort of way. Her lips were full and red. The curve of her jaw to her cheekbones and forehead formed the shape of a blunted spade—pleasingly youthful, though decidedly ageless. Her eyebrows were slanted, giving her an angry expression.
“No,” she said.
Familiarity swelled within him, though he could not determine why, exactly. He didn’t think it was because she had tried to escape before.
“To the wall,” Belphegor said.
She went to the wall—but she did not spread her legs. She wrapped her hand in one of the chains and snapped it from its moorings with a jerk of her arm.
The slave whipped the chain in a wide arc, snapping the spurs at his knees.
“You go to the wall,” she said.
Her voice did not have that raw quality characteristic of slave voices. Whether screaming for mercy or whispering a prayer, they spoke as though their delicate mucus membranes had been stripped by granite. The dry air was brutal to a mortal’s system. Their entire bodies cried out from the endless agony of it. But hers did not.
It stood to reason, then, that she was not mortal at all.
“Who are you?” Belphegor asked.
She snapped the chain at him again with a powerful twist of her arm. “Palms to the wall. Spread your feet.”
It was absurd. Like a dog asking its master to roll over.
He reached for her with the intention of positioning her body by force. She ducked under his hand, flinging the chain like a whip to wrap it around his forearm. The tip of it tug into his sleeve and caught.
The slave wrenched it back, almost pulling Belphegor off of his feet. He was surprised by her immense strength. He actually staggered.
She had behaved so well. She had defecated on command, allowed her hair to be brushed, ate the meat without her hands. This creature was nothing like the thing he had led from the cage.
It wasn’t anger in Belphegor. He didn’t have those kinds of shallow emotions. But there was a sense of resignation—the cold realization that he had erred in some way, or that a fiend had, and that he was facing punishment for that error now. Instead of a blissful day in seclusion, he would have to terminate the problem. Killing her was not how he had hoped to pass the hours. Far from it.
The spur of the chain had dug into his flesh and scratched him. Ichor welled to the surface.
Rather than attempting to remove it, he seized the chain and used her grip on it to pull her toward him.
“Who are you?” he asked again. She struggled against him at first, digging in her heels, but her feet found no traction on the stone.
She released the chain as he advanced on her. A quick side-step put the desk between them. It was an obelisk at the center of the room and made an excellent barrier.
“I’m the one who’s taking the House of Abraxas,” she said.
Sit. Stay. Beg. Roll over.
Belphegor weighed the chain in his fist, dragging it behind him like a tail. Metal slithered against the stone flooring.
It did not matter, he supposed, who this woman was. The priority was rectifying his mistake swiftly—or perhaps not swiftly at all.
Perhaps he could still enjoy the day the way he wanted.
She would need to die. They didn’t have the facilities required to contain slaves that were not mortal, nor was there any need to keep a dangerous creature when the helpless ones served Abraxas’s purposes just as well. But he could chain and enjoy her before the death. Not as much as he would have enjoyed a mortal, unfortunately, but it had been a long time since Belphegor had broken anything with such spirit; he believed that he could salvage the day with creativity.
With a mere thought, he crossed to the other side of the desk, seizing the woman’s throat in his hand and using his grip to slam her into the window. If it had been made of ordinary glass, it would have cracked. He expected her skull to break instead.
Her head bounced and left no blood.
He tightened his fingers—and his hand closed into a fist on nothingness. Her throat, and the rest of her body, had disappeared.
Belphegor turned in time to see her launching a kick at his face. He tried to grab her ankle. Her leg vanished before it contacted his hand, yet the hard edge of her foot struck him along the temple—just as solid as her leg had been untouchable.
Selective incorporeality. Definitely not mortal.
“We will not conduct this fight on your terms,” Belphegor said, ducking under her second kick as he walked toward his desk. He stepped around her jabbing elbows and thrusting fists without breaking stride. She may have been able to disappear and reappear at will, but she was still not as fast as Belphegor.
He slapped a hand on his desk. Red light flared within the room.
“I have activated a ward,” he went on. “You will no longer be able to turn incorporeal.”
With that announcement, he snapped the chain at her. The hooked edge caught her skin. Blood welled to the surface where he expected to see ichor—not the sweet crimson blood of mortals, but an amber-colored sludge.
The slave tried to free her wrist, but the motion only made the hook dig deeper. He flicked his wrist and wrapped the chain around her forearm.
Again, he said, “To the wall.” He punctuated this by kicking her in the back. The woman stumbled and caught herself on the play room wall.
She wasn’t nearly as fast without the ability to phase. The woman turned, but he seized the back of her neck and smashed her face into the black bricks between chains, slamming twice. A crack suggested that her nose may have broken.
A shame to damage such a pristine face.
He did it again.
Belphegor didn’t react to her foot slamming on his instep, nor did the elbow in his solar plexus have any effect. He bound both of her arms together with the chain, hook firmly entrenched in her wrist, and attached them to a pulley. With two pulls on the rope, the slave’s arms were jerked over her head, stretching her naked body tall and long. A third pull lifted her to the tip of her toes.
She grunted, jaw clenched.
“I have other spells built into the mortar of my office,” Belphegor said, as emotionlessly as ever. “It is sound-proofed, and, yes, energy-proofed. If our interaction hurts you, please feel free to leak all of your infernal powers in panic. It will harm nobody within the House.”
“Thanks for the information,” she said. She still was not afraid, bound to his wall and warded into corporeality.
Belphegor removed a drawer from his cabinet and set it on the edge of the desk. He had a delightful mix of tools within the drawer: studded phalluses and corkscrews and jagged-toothed pliers. There were many things that might be able to put the fear into her.
He selected a leather gag with a spiked mouthpiece and turned to face her again.
While Belphegor had been distracted, she had used the strength of her arms and her feet against the wall to lift her body, bringing her bent arms level with her face. She chewed at the bandages on her hand with her canines. Cloth ripped, and the bandaging fell free.
Light flared on her hand where the flesh had been concealed. Colorful runes slid over her knuckles, between her fingers, and down the inside of her wrist. Now that they had been freed, they marched down her arms like insects.
It was magic, but magic that he had never seen before.
And no demon had cast magic since the era before the Treaty of Dis.
Belphegor was becoming mildly concerned.
He seized the first thing in the drawer that he touched—the studded phallus. It was crafted from dense stone, capable of heating to a searing temperature, with metal protruding from the mushroomed head. It would make an excellent a bludgeon.
She pointed her fingers at him. At the same moment, he lunged at her, raising the phallus over his head.
The slave spoke.
It was not English or the infernal tongue that fell from her lips, but a silent word that quaked the room, making the floor tremble under his feet and his desk shudder. One of the runes ignited and vanished. He felt it punch him in the chest.
Belphegor’s back slammed into the opposite wall. The contact was severe enough to make his vision momentarily black out.
When he could see again, the woman had freed herself and stood over him with the chain still wrapped around one arm.
“I think I told you to get against the wall,” she said.
Belphegor didn’t bother responding. He instead began to swell, allowing his limbs to stretch and chest to widen. He could grow to the size of the Palace’s once-glorious tower, given enough space; he believed he would only need to be perhaps twenty feet tall to crush this woman.
She jumped behind him and wrapped her arm around his throat before he could grow more than a foot. Her rune-encrusted hand spasmed wildly over his chest. With another word of power and a second ignited wound, he felt his muscles harden.
He could neither grow nor run—nor make any other motion.
Belphegor’s concern increased fractionally.
She pulled the silver chain tight around his body. Her strength was easily equal to his when his muscles were ossified by magic, and she trussed him with the chain within moments. She dragged him across the floor, hooked him to the pulley, and lifted him off of the ground so that his stiff legs dangled uselessly beneath him.
He could only watch as she flicked a couple more runes at him, placing a wall of fire on the floor between them and reinforcing the chains. When she finished, she stepped back to study him. The woman seemed satisfied with the result.
She wiped the amber blood off of her upper lip and picked up the phallus. She registered no emotion as at its appearance, though her grip was white-knuckled.
The slave rounded on him and swung.
Pain exploded across Belphegor’s face, making his vision erupt in stars. The second strike split the skin on his cheekbone. Cold blood coursed down the side of his face, chilling his immobile flesh.
“You’re fucking sick,” she said, tossing the bloody phallus in the drawer. “How many humans have you raped?”
“One every month for centuries,” Belphegor said. His lips barely moved.
She grunted. “Guess you lose count after a while.”
With Belphegor rendered momentarily harmless—only momentarily—she turned her attention to the switch in the center of the floor. It was a simple mechanism. Moving the lever from the ten o’clock position to the two o’clock was enough to throw open the gates. They hadn’t bothered making it more difficult to open since there were very few demons that were strong enough to manually operate it, and fewer still that could get past Belphegor’s defenses.
“It doesn’t matter if you open the guard houses,” he said as she tested the weight of the lever. “The wards are linked by soul and blood to the lord of the House. You cannot invade without his compliance.”
“Soul links don’t work once the owner is dead,” she said. “And I killed Abraxas weeks ago.”
For the first time, Belphegor felt fear.
She kicked the lever.