"We didn't have to rummage through the closets at all", Khiray remarked.
Before them, neatly stacked in racks, fifty or more magical staffs stood. Some were short, just like Pallys' wand. Others had a length of two meters and a considerable girth. Some fit between those extremes. Every single one had runic adornments, arcane symbols carved deeply into the wood.
Some books stood well visible between the staffs. Khiray looked at them suspiciously. "I think we should take those as well. Demon Lore. Methods To Conquer Demons. Seems useful to me."
Saljin sighed. "If we have the time to read them."
Khiray shrugged helplessly. Time was against them. But did they have a choice?
The weather wasn't as friendly as before. The sky had become overcast; rain clouds traveled their way. Maybe they would continue their journey up the mountains, maybe they would unload their burden over them. A chilly breeze blew from the river.
They started to construct a primitive frame from poles and ropes in front of the house. It was impossible to just tuck fifty staffs under their arms. They tied a part of the magical gadgets to the frame and cursed the fact that they couldn't find wheels anywhere. Some kind of barrow would have been nice.
Saljin would drag the frame behind her. Khiray packed the shorter staffs and the books into a bundle to carry it on his back. "At least it's going to be downhill", he grumbled. "That's no region for a Riverfurry's legs."
The Foxtauress smiled. Each of them kept a shorter wand to put it into their belt, just in case more Demons chose to turn up. Khiray needed a moment to explain the use of the magical weapon to Saljin - he wasn't as gifted a teacher as Pallys.
Saljin had kept her suspicion for herself and didn't tell Khiray a word. She was determined to keep the Rabbit under close surveillance and to kill him should the supposition turn out to be true. She cursed herself for not keeping an eye on Pallys from the beginning.
But he had saved them from the Demons, didn't he? How could he be in league with them? What did the Rabbit really want? If Pallys was the third player, what was his objective? Mere survival wasn't enough. The Demons were a grave danger even for the fourteen thousand year old. If his life was the only prize, Pallys would never have conjured the Demons.
If he had done it. There was no proof. He had destroyed Hhrugha khi Dmurag in the Otter village, held the Bear Demons at bay, told Khiray about the secret hideout below Sookandil. He was a friend.
Perdition. He was a friend. Only the improbability of the events spoke against him: Demons who appeared in Sookandil of all places, just where Pallys lived. That, and of course his secretiveness, his lie, his evasive character. But how could she judge someone who had lived so long - and certainly experienced many terrible things during that time? Maybe there was another story behind his secrets, one she didn't want to know at all.
She would have to bide her time. Saljin shook herself. The waiting was the worst. Her obligation to Khiray - that bound her although she liked him (loved him? She shied away from the word as long as she wasn't free to do what she wanted to), although she maybe had to consider him her adversary one day. The doubt of Pallys - although he was a friend, he was maybe the most dangerous foe...
The voice made her look up from the bundle of staffs. Khiray stood in the middle of the path, as if he just had climbed up the hill, and grinned at her.
But Khiray was...
She turned around. The Fox bared his teeth, his fur stood on end, and he held the staff in his hands.
Only now she realized the reddish fire that danced around the paws of the second Khiray. "Khezzarrik!" she exclaimed. The Foxtauress had never seen him, but the fire was a sure sign. Khiray had told her about him, the possibly most terrible of Demons. Terrible, because he controlled the mind instead of just slashing with raw power - terrible, because his poison could hide behind a mask of beauty.
The Demon bowed. "At your service."
Khiray struck. The green fire formed a wall in front of Khezzarrik khi Valangassis, an energetic curtain, more dense than anything Pallys' staff had ever woven. Maybe that was a result of the staff still having its full power, maybe Ghanzekk had added something new. He had had time enough for it.
But the Demon didn't allow himself to be impressed. He wasn't drawn to the flames, and he didn't become entangled in them. He simply stepped forward a little and crossed the barrier. The only visible result was that his Khiray-form wavered for a moment, just as if they looked at it through hot air. Then he stood on the other side of the energy wall and shook his head. "That was pure waste, really. I thought you knew Ghanzekks staffs only had an effect on minor Demons. Come on, I am a lord among my own, none of those primitive beasts."
Saljin laid back her head and howled a cry for help. She didn't have a choice. Khezzarrik could destroy them any moment if he really was insensitive to the staffs. Maybe the Trolls were immune to his magic and could do something, at least enable them to escape.
But the sensation in her stomach told her that her effort would be in vain. If they couldn't trick the Demon, they were lost.
Khezzarrik confirmed her nasty premonition. "The Trolls won't come. Their little magic cannot last next to mine. I could ossify them forever or make their bodies melt away like glowing lava. No, you shouldn't expect help from that side. And, Khiray, please let the big staffs lie. They don't work against me; you will just waste precious magical energy."
The green flame wall behind him wavered and broke down. "I can render useless any one of the staffs just as quickly. It draws upon my power, I admit, but a Demon lord has plenty of that even in this sphere and level. Not like the poor fools who chose the Bear form for themselves here: a lot of raw power, but no magic. Their death here means the death of their true form as well. What a shame!"
"You don't have much pity with your charges", Khiray growled.
"Charges? Oh, please! A horde of dumb braggarts who were foolish enough to follow Beladanar's call here. This world is not without dangers for Demons, with all those Archangels and such. But if it were, it wouldn't be such a matter of prestige in Hell to establish power here, would it? The delicious torments of the mortals are worth many a risk."
The Fox just growled.
"Oh, come on!" Khezzarrik replied. "You mortals are just as obsessed with power and influence, and not a few of you prosper by the death and the suffering of others. Even those among you who are good by your own measure, who lead an exemplary life, and who are revered as holy Furrys, eat meat and kill animals for their own well-being. And if they don't, they kill plants, stamp on bugs, crush fleas and lice in their fur. What do you think? Life here is as much an eternal struggle as in Hell. Did you know that your ancestors, many thousand generations before your time, devoured their cubs in times of need when they couldn't nourish them any more? What's the difference between you furs of today and them?"
"The erroneous ways of others are no justification for your own", Saljin declared firmly. "We may kill for food - only a few of us can tolerate a life completely without meat - or fight our enemies, if we are forced to. But you are strangers here. You don't have a right to be here. You can live in Hell without suffering any want. You are not forced to take delight in our pains." She didn't know whether a discussion with the Demon would show any results, but it delayed the inevitable. Saljin doubted that Khiray would be cold-blooded enough in plain view of death to con Khezzarrik. He was no warrior. She on the other paw had been raised to keep calm even in most dangerous moments. May her paws tremble, she would fight anyway! Even if her weapons would be words only.
But she didn't have high hopes. Khezzarrik didn't just regard himself a master of cunning - he was it. And he was powerful. Only in old stories the heroes duped a superior being long enough to kill it.
"What do you know of Hell!" Khezzarrik threw back his head. "It is no place you or your people could live. However, we have as much right to be here as you. The Foxtaurs and the Furrys of the Armygan are no native peoples here. Your folks both came from the homelands, centuries ago. And as far as your pain is concerned, a justification simply doesn't interest me in the least. I am bound by countless laws and rules in the Demon realm. Why should I allow you to force yours upon me? I have the power to do whatever I want."
"No", Khiray said. "You are subject to Beladanar."
Saljins gaze wandered from one Khiray to the other. On the first glance they were absolutely identical. But there was something in their stance, their conduct, their gesture, that made it perfectly clear who was who. Khezzarrik was arrogant, patronizing, derisive. And there was a note of ... how should she describe it? ...insecurity in his voice.
Insecurity? She tasted the air testingly. Khezzarrik smelled just like Khiray, with a little difference... he radiated an aura of impatience. Anger. Yes, and insecurity. She began to suspect that the Demon wanted more than just to destroy them.
"Yes", Khezzarrik admitted. "Beladanar... his favor is difficult to bear. Without me, he would never have been able to enter this sphere. Galbren is not powerful enough as a magician to drag him here. And if he were, he wouldn't be able to send him back anyway. Go to Hell, come back right away, Khezzarrik do this, Khezzarrik do that. I am a lord, not an errand boy! But the oath binds me to Beladanar. He is the lord of my Circle." The Demon smiled as if he was expecting something special.
She had to try. "What about Pallys?"
"Pallys?" The gaze of the Demon, fixed onto Khiray up to now, jolted around and pinned her down. "A disappointment so far."
"Did he have a hand in Beladanar's conjuration?"
Khiray started and stared at her, incredulously. "Where do you get that idea?"
Khezzarrik on the other hand was not surprised at all. "Clever, very clever. If I was a very evil and vicious Demon, I would say yes right now and revel in you killing him. And afterwards I would visit you a second time, admit that my previous information was a lie, and drink your desperation to the dregs. Very tasty. But for now I'm not in the mood for games. No, Pallys didn't conjure Beladanar. The book he once stole from Ghanzekk is destroyed long since, although there are probably copies somewhere on this world. Beladanar wouldn't have needed me to enter the sphere if Galbren had possessed the book."
"Why Sookandil, then? If Pallys has nothing to do with it all..."
Khezzarrik giggled. "I didn't say that he has no part in it. What you may consider coincidence is none. We are Demons, my soft-furred beauty. Behind each of our plans there is another one, behind each of our truths hides a lie, behind every lie a revelation that would boggle your mind. You don't nearly know everything, and I won't tell you. That would not be in Beladanar's interest."
"Why then? Why are you here?" She put her hands on her hips.
"Because of you", the Demon smiled.
Khiray jumped forward. He had taken one of the big staffs, against Khezzarrik's advice, and threatened his doppelganger. "No!"
Khezzarrik khi Valangassis sighed. "I just told you... Oh, as you wish. Try it!"
The Fox hesitated. "You will not get her. Not as long as I live."
"Ah, what exuberance! Really charming. But I could capture you on the spot with a spell, chain you in motionlessness, while I take your sweet lover as long as I please. And you couldn't do anything but watch."
"I am you, can't you see that? It doesn't make any real difference, does it? Can you be jealous of yourself? Or does it just bother you that I am built better than you? Does it spoil the fun for you that I may give her greater pleasure than you?" He made his loincloth disappear with a snap of his fingers.
It was true, he was built "better" than Khiray. Better than any Foxtaur, to be sure. But "better" was not quite the right word. Even if he'd not been a Demon, if she had felt any affection for him, if she could accept him as partner - even then she was not in the mood to be impaled. The thing Khezzarrik showed was a monstrosity with the diameter of an arm, reaching up to his chest.
Slowly she realized what the Demon wanted. She tensed up inside.
"No...", Khiray whispered, very silently.
"On the other hand, I'm a Demon, and pleasure is not really what I had in mind." He concentrated, and barbed thorns sprouted from his huge tool. "That's more to my liking."
Saljin saw that Khiray had paled under his fur. His ears had lost their healthy pink. He aimed the staff at the Demon and triggered the magical mechanism that released the energy.
The green fire blinded her for a moment. Searing light encased Khezzarrik, threatened to burn him to cinders. The discharge sounded as if a flash of lightning had struck just a meter from them. An acrid smell filled the air.
When they could see again, the Demon still stood there. But he had been struck severely by the magical forces. His right arm had disappeared, leaving just a burned stump. A hole gaped in his trunk; Saljin could see the trees behind him right through his body. The fur had been singed from his skin. The stench of burned flesh drifted on the breeze.
"Dz, dz!" Khezzarrik made. His eyes seemed to be completely blinded by the green fire, and his nose was ashen grey. But he didn't even utter a sound of pain, nor did he drop dead - as he should. "That was not very smart. All the staff's energy, wasted in a single blow. And to no avail, as you see." He melted, became a lump of green slime, then inflated and finally shrunk back into a new form.
Khezzarrik was a four-legger now, somewhat similar to a Foxtaur. But he had no fur but hard, shiny scales, and the tail wasn't soft and bushy but resembling a reptile's appendage. It ended in a spiked ball. The upper body was just as scaly, with the exception of the head - Khezzarrik still wore Khiray's face that looked grotesque on the changed body. The being had long, sharp thorns on the inner side of his front legs.
Saljin could guess what they were meant for. Instinctively she shrinked back and tucked her tail between her legs. Not that resistance would do her any good. Khezzarrik had done to Khiray whatever he wanted - he was able to use her body for his pleasure as he wished.
"You can't..." Khiray breathed.
Khezzarrik admired his scales. "One thing I must grant you: I hadn't thought you would use the magic against yourself. Maybe I should have clothed myself in her shape. Would you shoot at me as carelessly then?"
The Fox slumped. He had done what he could. They were at Khezzarrik's mercy, but unfortunately that word didn't exist in his vocabulary. "Please..."
"Oh, did I really hear that?" The Demon twisted his muzzle into a warped grin. "What was that?"
"Please! Please don't do that!" Khiray sank to his knees. "You don't even really want her!" The discharged staff fell to the ground.
"Her? No, not really. But her pain. I want torment, I want the screaming agony of the flesh. I haven't eaten so sweet a treat in long centuries. Since I enjoyed you, I have just waited for the moment when we'd meet again."
"You said that..." The Fox almost choked on the words. "You said that I am the one... that... Take me, take me in her place!" Tears flowed down his cheeks.
Saljin slowly shook her head. No. No, he couldn't do that! Khezzarrik would kill him, slowly and with relish... As he wanted to, all the time. Couldn't Khiray see that the Demon just played with them? He took his delight in this sick foreplay. He fed on their desperation. They couldn't escape. The game was lost, they were in the clutches of a monster that neither knew compassion nor cared.
Her hand slowly moved to the Dekka'shin. One stroke would be enough to severe Khiray's head from his body. One more movement to cut her throat with the other blade. She didn't know how far Khezzarrik's powers reached, but he probably didn't possess any healing knowledge. He couldn't save their lives. The only thing he'd get from them was a short pain, and then nothing. Death was the only escape still open for them. They wouldn't become a Demon's dessert, they would deny him the final triumph.
A meager victory, sure. And they wouldn't get the weapons down to the 'Silver Ansicc'. Their friends would wait in vain. The Demons had won. Maybe even Galbren could salvage his plans.
But it was too late to think about it. Her hand closed on the weapon's handle.
So it finally had come to this: she would kill Khiray. But she would do it in love, not out of anger. Her last gift to him.
"I could have you anyway", the Demon mentioned casually. "How could you stop me? I can do whatever I like with both of you. Nothing binds me!"
Binds? Saljin closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on the stroke, but her thoughts raced. Khezzarrik intonated the word as if it had a special meaning. What could bind a Demon? No oath, since they had no honor. A...
"A pact!" Khiray cried. "A pact, I demand a pact!"
Gods. Khezzarrik wanted it. The Demon manipulated them. "No, Khiray!" She wanted to strike, but Khezzarrik had already guessed her thoughts. The shaft of the Dekka'shin broke apart under her fingers, and the blades fell to the ground. "Khiray, he wants your soul! Don't offer him anything!"
"I can't!" The Fox buried his face in his hands. "He will... I can't do anything else!" A heavy sob shook his body. "I love you! Please! I... I want the pact!"
Khezzarrik drew very near to him. "Good. And just imagine: I don't want your soul. Souls are impossible to catch. Souls belong to a higher power than Demons and Archangels and Gods are. Souls only belong to the Light. What I want is you. I desired you all the time since you fled from the tunnels." His scaly shape lost form, became Saljin's body. "I want you, your carnal desire, your lust." The structure changed again, and Khezzarrik took on his Khiray-shape. "I want your pain, your fire, your spirit, your body! Choose your price in the pact, and choose it well, for I will get mine tonight!"
Saljin couldn't move her paws. She tried to bow down to pick up the halves of her Dekka'shin, but to no avail. Her body felt like old wood, rotten and brittle. She couldn't even speak anymore.
"I... I want you to leave Saljin alone." Khiray overcame his paralysis with visible effort. But he couldn't raise his head to see into the eyes of his torturer - the eyes that were his own.
"That is all?"
"Forever! You will never plague us again! We don't ever want to see you again!"
"Tsk, what ingratitude, for all my efforts." Khezzarrik lowered his head and raised Khiray's muzzle with his hand until the Fox was forced to look at the Demon. "I ask you again, is that all? Make your choice now, because you will be mine afterwards, until the sun rises tomorrow. And I will enjoy every second of it."
Khiray wanted to draw back, but the spell seemed to chain him as well. Saljin saw him fighting against it. "The Demons! They shall go away! They must never come back!"
"Oh!" Disgusted, Khezzarrik turned away. "This is a pact between you and me only! Not between you and any other Demon. You can't tell Beladanar what he's supposed to do. You and me, that is the pact. You know my price. Choose well, and maybe I won't hurt you... at least not very much. Choose well, and I'll refrain from mutilating you or hurtling your mind into the eternal night of madness." He whirled around and slapped Khiray's face. "Do it now!"
Finally some sort of realization seemed to flow through the Fox. His eyes cleared. Saljin moaned, but no sound came from her muzzle. Didn't Khiray know what he did? He was lost - they couldn't trust the Demons, especially not this one. She understood why Khiray did it. But what did Khezzarrik khi Valangassis want?
Demonic games. But Khiray seemed to know the answer.
The Fox rose and folded his arms. Saljin got the impression he wanted to hide the trembling of his arms. His tail was curled around a leg, and his fur still stood on end. But his voice was firm. He had found the key. "Khezzarrik khi Valangassis, I demand that you break the alliance with Azzhuzzim Beladanar and serve him no longer! I demand that you will return to Hell as soon as you've got your price and never return! You will not open any gates, not into this sphere and level nor into any other. You will not teach that craft to any other Demon or permit that another Demon learns to open a gate. If there are other Demons who can do this, you will stop them. No Demon will enter our world through a gate again. You will take the others with you..."
Khezzarrik interrupted him. "That is not possible. I can't make a pact for those Demons who are already in this world. And 'never' is really a harsh condition..."
"Never! Never again you will come to our world! Never again you will threaten or torture one of us. This pact binds you... for all eternity!"
"So be it." The Demon spread his arms. "So be it! The pact is made, and you are mine!"
The air around the two Khirays seemed to flicker. Their shapes blurred. The spell released Saljin, but she couldn't do anything now. She extended a hand and called out Khiray's name, but she didn't even know whether she had been heard. Just a last view remained. Khiray looked at her, in a mixture of hopelessness and fear - and hope, as strange it may be, yes, and love.
He had gotten involved in this unholy pact for her sake. He played Khezzarrik's game and would suffer for it.
She sat down and started to cry, and no one was there to comfort her. The forest remained silent, and the home plains were far away.
So very far away.
When it started to rain, she dragged the frame with the staffs into the house and carried the books inside. She didn't close the door of the house, however. She wanted to be able to see outside so she couldn't miss the return of the Demon. Khiray's return.
Sunset added just a little more black to the darkness. Through the thick cover of clouds the sun had been invisible already for all of the evening. The rush of the rain, the gurgle of small streams of water, the sound of raindrops on leaves filled the night. Saljin caught herself staring into the darkness. Until the sun rises tomorrow, Khezzarrik had said, and not a second earlier he would appear. There was no point in waiting.
She tried to read the books to make use of the time. Even if Khezzarrik kept his part of the pact, there were still Demons in the world. The fight would continue.
But the letters blurred in front of her eyes. Some of it seemed to be written in the Leopard language, and she couldn't read it anyway. But even the simple parts in the common language of the Armygan slipped from her mind.
She had to think of Khiray. Of the things Khezzarrik would do to him - no, was doing to him, right now, at this very moment. But it had been his choice. He had sealed the pact. He had known.
No. It was Khezzarrik's idea in reality. He had manipulated them until Khiray had finally spoken the words. And the Fox didn't do it for himself, but for her.
Perdition. He had done it to save her. The pact meant more than that, and somehow it seemed to fit into the Demon's plans, but she alone had been Khiray's first thought.
Yet another part of the debt. Again he had saved her life, and if not her life, then at least he had prevented a lot of harm. A lot. She had felt the Demon's hands on her back already. An icy shudder ran through her fur.
She tried to sleep. She locked the back door of the library and took some old blankets. She wouldn't touch the bed where the corpse of the magician lay. She wasn't squeamish, but she couldn't imagine to sleep in a place where the mummy had been.
But she couldn't sleep anyway. The thoughts circled in her mind, over and over, without end. Khiray, oh Khiray! Had she done the same in his place? It wasn't him who was the warrior.
Did it matter? The decision had been made. In truth it had been the Demon's choice. They were his game pieces.
The thought came to the Foxtauress in a sudden flash. Finally she recognized the truth. Khezzarrik was the third player! He had kept to the background, a nondescript figure she never suspected. But in fact he was one of the mighty. He had opened the gates that made the invasion of Demons possible. Without him, Beladanar couldn't return to Hell.
Of course. That was the key. The pact obliged Khezzarrik to leave Beladanar here. He was bound to the Lord of the Worms, but the pact seemed to mean even more, otherwise he could not fulfill Khiray's demands.
He might lie, still. That was always a possibility. But why should he? He had a reason why he hadn't killed them immediately. He had his own plans. He wanted to hear certain words from Khiray, just as if he had dictated them to him. Saljin's safety didn't mean anything to the Demon. That was not the important part. Khiray's submission wasn't his objective. He could have gotten that for far less a price. No, he had asked the Fox again and again. And Khiray had finally realized what he intended.
Detachment from Beladanar. Only that was the decisive point. Khezzarrik was a Lord of Hell, at least he had claimed that. But he was subject to the Lord of the Worms. Until now. That was the game he played. A pact with mortals to allow him to break his word. When Khezzarrik returned to Hell alone, Beladanar would stay behind, together with the Demons he already brought with him. He couldn't get reinforcement and had no refuge to retreat to. As soon as the Archangels spotted him, he was lost.
And Khezzarrik would lose a rival in the fight for dominance in Hell. He had won the game. Everything else was just a pleasure on the way. A pleasure Khiray had to live through. Maybe Khezzarrik wouldn't hurt him much. Maybe. But the memory of the things that had happened would haunt him forever. The first encounter with the Demon had brought him nightmares. What would Gate do to him this time?
She wrapped her arms around the upper body and drew up her legs against the trunk. The night was very cold.
Somewhen the rain ceased. The clouds drifted off, and some stars appeared in the night sky. The Foxtauress could see the black silhouette of the forest from her refuge in the library.
She understood the connections now. Some part of it would remain a mystery - like the idea that a pact cancelled another oath. Those were the Hell rules Khezzarrik had to play. But everything else fitted seamlessly together. For example the fact that Gate had released Khiray without sounding the alarm. Their flight would have been stopped in its tracks if Khezzarrik had informed Beladanar in time, or even killed Khiray on the spot. And the attacks from which they always escaped: Khezzarrik had needed an eternity to open a gate to the Otter village. Why? Because he had no interest in capturing them. The day before, he had dropped off the Bears in a place near the Troll gathering - apparently he knew about the stone beings and their powers. And the reason why a gate never opened directly on the deck of the 'Silver Ansicc' to spit out hundreds of warriors probably wasn't Khezzarrik's inability to manage the trick, but his reluctance.
But understanding didn't ease her heart. There still was that debt to Khiray. It wasn't diminished by his sacrifice. She had been unable to act in any way, but it still seemed to her like a personal fault. She would have had to go in Khiray's place, if she just had understood earlier. The thought of becoming Khezzarrik's object made her shiver - but pain and hurt were nothing in comparison to an unfulfilled obligation.
Khezzarrik hadn't allowed her to speak. But that wasn't all. She hadn't offered herself to him even if she had had the opportunity. And if she had, would Khiray have been hurt less, or even more? She tried to imagine Khiray in her place, waiting for her return. Body and soul, spirit or flesh - they both suffered, and maybe fate had allocated them the role they were just barely able to bear.
That night she prayed to the gods of her people for Khiray's safe return. She didn't know whether she believed in the old tales, or even if the gods still lived. She didn't receive an answer even if someone listened. Gods died, too. And those her people had worshipped a long time ago were probably dead long since and had left the heavens to the stars.
She wasn't even granted the mercy of a quick slumber when the horizon reddened. The ground outside was still wet from rain and dew, and the moisture would last a while in the chilly air.
Khezzarrik didn't come. The edge of the sun wheel rose above the horizon. Saljin trotted through the wet grass outside and across the mud of the path, but not a hair of the Demon appeared.
Only when the sun had risen completely, the Foxtauress noticed the characteristic shimmer and flicker in the air. Red fire formed a circle, exactly in the place where Gate had disappeared with his victim.
The Demon stepped through the portal, a massive frame - bearing no resemblance to Khiray at all. He still imitated a Furry of whatever species, a mixture of Bear and Wolf with a hint of Cat, of sturdy, tall built and covered in long, jet-black fur.
Khezzarrik threw a bundle at Saljin's feet. She needed a moment to recognize Khiray. His fur was colored red and sticky from the blood that seeped from countless tiny cuts. He kept his eyes tightly closed, arms and legs drawn to the body.
The Foxtauress couldn't make out any dangerous wounds that needed immediate attention, but that was not easy to decide. She stretched out a hand to calm him down, but Khiray only uttered a silent whine and curled up even more tightly, the tail tucked between his legs. "Khiray! Khiray!" He didn't react to the sound of her voice.
"What did you do to him!?" she shouted at Khezzarrik.
The Demon melted and took the form of Khiray's doppelganger. He smiled slightly. "Only what the pact allowed. I just hurt him a little. I haven't even mutilated him for the rest of his life. As for the matter of his spirit, well, I'm hardly to blame if he can't take a rough treatment. I almost got the impression he was a virgin, at least with men. I wouldn't have judged him that way after our first passionate encounter. However, he's all yours again."
Saljin took a stone and threw it at Khezzarrik, a useless gesture. The Demon caught and dropped it. "That is not very polite. For my part, I will stick to the pact, else I would feel compelled to tear you to pieces, slowly."
"The pact! Oh, gods!" She lay down at Khiray's side and cradled the trembling Fox body in her arms. "You didn't have to do that to him! You had already what you really wanted! Not his side of the pact was your goal, but your own! Why, why have you made this of him?" Khiray's ears hang down as if he had no conscious control over them any more. His lips were closely shut.
"Gods don't have anything to do with it. Those rules are very old that weave a pact, older than all you mortals. And it is a very sacred pact. I would have insulted it, and every Demon with it, if I hadn't asked the full price or hadn't insisted on payment." He grinned. "Not that I ever thought of such a thing. The young Fox was very tasty, and you as well tickled my palate. The long wait, the monotonous stare into the night, the doubt. Doubts leave a very pleasant aftertaste, almost like hopelessness."
Saljin stared at him. So he had been near her, somehow, all night long, and not only taken his delight in Khiray, but in her as well. Her fur bristled up.
"Besides, I didn't do anything evil to him. Just some pain. Only a little humiliation. Not more than a whiff of shame and degradation. And then a wee bit of pain again. Until sunrise. Nothing that's not happening all the time on this world, any second, in harbor bars and dark, barred basements, in dungeons and on market places where the nastiest villains are punished in front of the crowd. And I've been far more gentle than the torturers in their chambers with all those interesting tools. I didn't even skin a piece of him, and that's been a great renounce for me, since I'm about to spend the rest of my existence in Hell. Maybe the whips and chains were a little bit much, and I could have refrained from the fifth time I..."
"As the ruler of Hell!" The Foxtauress didn't want to hear any details. Each and every justification Khezzarrik gave served only a single purpose: provoking a little more disgust and abhorrence in her. "You will return as a new master to Hell; that was the plan all along, wasn't it?"
"Yes, yes, surely", the Demon replied, somewhat astonished. "You took your time finding it out. But it was quite clear from the moment I let Khiray escape, back in Sookandil, or not?"
She rocked Khiray back and forth without getting any response from him. "What about Pallys?" She tried to control her voice. "What's his role in the game?"
"Mortals!" Khezzarrik moaned. But he was obviously pleased to stay - to drink some more soul's pain from her veins like blood. "Pallys had fought Demons earlier. I assumed he'd be the one to realize the pact with me. So I used Galbren to establish ties between Beladanar and the mortals. Beladanar wanted to gain power and glory on this level to improve his position. Alkhurridh, the Lord of the First Circle, is very powerful. He's not really a Demon, but that doesn't actually matter. There's been a very unstable status quo in Hell for a long time now, even measured in Demon years. Only if he could pull off a coup here, Beladanar could gain the necessary reputation to change it without being crushed in the following chaos.
He listened to my blandishments and allowed Galbren to involve him in his plans. Of course, I refrained from telling him all about the dangers of this level; he wasn't here for the first time and really should have known better. He counts on me to save him should he really encounter an Archangel.
But what I really hoped for was a pact with Pallys. I spread rumors, but he didn't listen to them. And when Beladanar finally became active himself, Pallys didn't come personally but sent this unfortunate little Fox in his place. I was very surprised that Beladanar had managed to break his spirits in their previous encounter, so much that he thought only of flight instead of battle."
"Beladanar... and Pallys..."
"Yes, they know each other. But that is not important. Anyway, Khiray became the fly in my finely woven web. I let him go and allowed him to free you. Besides, you owe it to my support that Galbren didn't kill you and your brother immediately. When I realized Pallys wouldn't act according to my plans, I had to prepare some alternatives."
"Thank you so much", Saljin said tonelessly. She stroke Khiray's head and licked his muzzle carefully.
"It's been a pleasure. After you escaped, I tried to avert Beladanar's rage long enough to offer you the pact. Or rather, to get the pact from you, because the initiative has to come from the mortal side."
"In the Otter village. And here, in the forest."
"Yes." Khezzarrik studied his claws, unmoved. "The latter was quite close. I feared that I had to call the Trolls myself."
The Demon looked at the house. "A part of the plan. I cultivated this acquaintance for a long time and supplied the Leopard magician with all possible information."
"By the name of Val Khassis."
Khezzarrik khi Valangassis nodded. "Exactly. I couldn't give him any weapon against myself or Beladanar, of course, since we lords jealously guard the secrets of our vulnerabilities. But he could develop some powerful magic with my help. In case I had to supply mortals with a means against Beladanar's subjects. Pallys made good use of it, killing Hhrugha, but I fear Ghanzekk's later efforts were in vain. The pact is concluded, and I won't need the staffs any more."
"But we..." Saljin looked down at Khiray. The Fox refused to wake from his sorry state. "We still need them."
Khezzarrik smiled. "Yes, probably. As soon as Beladanar realizes that he's trapped here, his fury will make him go berserk. None of the staffs works against him, of course, as well as they don't help against me. You can possibly kill his vassals, but himself... What a pity I can't watch the further events. But I have to worry about my place in Hell. Now with Beladanar's position vacant the question of power is just between me and Alkhurridh."
"Isn't it a good feeling to profit from both sides of the pact?" Saljin asked bitterly.
The Demon indicated a bow. "Yes. Yes, doubtlessly, that's true. - I don't want to seem ingrateful, so I think some useful information is in order. Beladanar waits for you in one of Galbren's ships at the point where the Long Run leaves the sea of Alvanere. Galbren's soldiers prepared an ambush somewhere down the river to Larynedd. They don't have a ship, I brought them there. There's no Demon among them, all remaining Demons are with Beladanar. Galbren himself travels down the Long Run on his second ship. I offered to transport him but he refused. For some reason he doesn't seem to trust me."
"Why do you tell this to me?"
Khezzarrik spread his arms. "Do you know how long I was subject to Beladanar's rule? It's quite an amusement for me when some mortals are tormenting him now the way he tormented me. You don't have a chance in the end if you really fight him, of course. I don't advise you to do. Flee as long as you can. But your fate is your own now, once and forever, my plans end here. Farewell." The air behind him started to flicker. Reddish flames sprang up to the sides.
The Demon turned around and stepped through the gate. But before he returned to Hell, he addressed Saljin for a last time. "If I were in your place, I wouldn't exert myself to wake him, you know. I have spent this very pleasant night - that is, unless my games necessarily required a male form - in your very own shape. I wonder if he remembers the needles when he looks at you... if he can ever bear to look at you... or to hear your voice..."
The Foxtauress stared at him in utter horror.
"Delicious", the Demon said. "Delicious." Then the portal closed behind him.
Saljin looked at Khiray's face. The Fox had retreated to somewhere else, a world where no pain existed, no fright, no Demons. Khezzarrik had thrown him away like a broken toy - a toy whose soul he had robbed intentionally.
And she didn't know whether to hope for his awakening - or to kill him right here, before he had to face consciously the terrors of the night again.