GROUGE WAS A SECOND-RATE DEMON AT BEST, but he took pride in guarding his Master’s citadel. It perched near the summit of Mount Arax, so Grouge would be able to spot approaching enemies from leagues away . . . not that any enemies would dare approach in the first place. The fortress’s black walls rose from the steep cliffs of the volcano, and its arches, turrets and spires were all laced with defensive wards.
Grouge was supposed to be guarding the citadel with his life—or, more accurately, afterlife—but he was secure in the knowledge that it was impenetrable. He curled his barbed tail around his squat, feline body, closed his black eyes, and rolled onto his side for a well-deserved nap.
A loud thud jolted him awake and he sprang back to his feet, whiskers aquiver. He looked for the source of the disturbance, but the winding steps below were empty. There were no patrols circling the skies overhead either, which was odd because there were always patrols.
Just when Grouge had managed to convince himself everything was fine, a sharp edge pressed against his throat.
“Don’t make a sound.” A voice, soft yet resonant with power, breathed in his tufted ear. “Nod to show you understand.”
Taken off-guard, Grouge whimpered and managed to nod. The blade was removed from his neck and his attacker stepped into view.
It was a human warrior, garbed in tattered brown robes that marked him as one of the rebels. Though he looked young, his head was haloed by a mane of white hair. Volcanic drafts blew back a few stray strands, revealing a pale face set with glowing purple eyes. He was a rheenar, one of the deadliest foes a demon could encounter.
“You were a manticore when you were alive, yes? Can you speak?” the man asked. Grouge nodded again. “Speak, demon. I won’t hurt you.”
“Yes.” His fear of annihilation began to ebb away, only to be replaced by the fear of what would happen when the Master discovered this human had breached the citadel’s defenses.
“I wish to meet with Necrovar. I come in peace.”
“You’ve a strange way of showing it,” Grouge muttered. Surprisingly, the mortal sheathed his sword and raised his hands, as if in surrender.
“There. Now will you please bring me to your master? According to the rules of war, you must allow me to speak with him.”
Grouge hesitated. He didn’t want to admit it, but he didn’t actually know the rules of war. Surely there were no rules in war?
A shudder whisked across his blackened withers as he studied the warrior. There was something off about the man’s angular visage—it was too symmetrical, too perfect. The more he stared, the more it seemed this human didn’t look human at all. Still, he’d asked nicely to be brought to the Master. He’d said he was there in peace. Nobody so polite would lie about their motives. Would they?
“Fine,” Grouge grumbled, ignoring his misgivings. “Follow me, flesh-rat.”
He turned and led the man down the citadel’s pillar-lined entryway, proceeding through heavy doors that swung open for them. They were in the stronghold.
Unfortunately, a patrol squad was also there.
The squad captain appeared to have once been human. Now, he was something both more and less than a human. He’d died and had been resurrected as a demon, complete with midnight flesh and vacant eyes, their whites and irises swallowed by darkness.
“What’s the meaning of this?” the captain demanded of Grouge. His troops gaped at the rheenar, shocked to see a rebel walking about freely in their home.
“Uh . . . well, I’m bringing this man to the Master,” Grouge replied nervously, his tail curling between his back legs. “He has requested a meeting, as per the rules of war.”
“Necrovar is expecting me,” the human added. “And if he is displeased with my presence in his domain, that is my problem. Not yours.”
“It certainly is,” said the captain. He made a show of standing tall before the mortal but failed to disguise the crease of fear upon his brow. After a moment’s consideration he turned back to Grouge. “Very well, soldier. You may proceed. We wouldn’t want to keep the Master waiting.”
Grouge and the warrior set off again. Grouge remained silent as he led the man through the maze of halls, but he burned with curiosity. What made the flesh-rat so certain he would survive this visit? Granted, he was doing a good job so far, but what trick did he have up his sleeve?
Grouge couldn’t take the suspense. “Why must you talk to the Master?”
“I have something to offer him.”
Grouge was sure this warranted a follow-up question, and he wracked his tiny brain to come up with something suitably clever. “Why are you offering it?”
“Because he would take it from me anyway. Not all of it, but . . . ” The man trailed off, glancing away. The gravity of his statement was lost on Grouge.
They rounded another corner, and there it was. The arched entrance to the Master’s lair was engraved with jagged runes. Two demon direwolves stood guard on each side of the door, and the moment they spotted the intruder, they charged.
In an attempt to appear as powerful and commanding as the warrior, Grouge stepped forward and cried, “Halt!” The guards slowed to a walk, snarling and snapping their jaws. “This man is here in peace. He has requested a meeting with the Master. Let him through.”
The direwolves grudgingly moved aside, yet their eyes remained fixed on the warrior as Grouge guided him to the arch. Skeins of shimmering necromagic cobwebbed across it, and while demons could pass through without harm, Grouge wasn’t sure the human could do the same.
“I’ll go ahead and—” Grouge cut himself off as the warrior drew his magnificent sword and sliced through the dark threads. The necromagic fizzled and spat as the barrier vanished.
“Right, then. Stay here until I announce you.”
“I need no announcement. As I said, Necrovar is expecting me.” With a twirl of his cloak, the man vanished into the throne room.
Grouge considered fleeing. If the foolish mortal had come looking for a fight, it would be best to get as far away as demonly possible. But the warrior had said he had something to offer the Master. Something the Master wanted.
Though Grouge knew eavesdropping was rude—not to mention treasonous, when one was eavesdropping on one’s superiors—he crept through the antechamber on padded paws and peeked into the obsidian room beyond. Golden, claw-shaped brackets clung to the walls, clutching torches that illuminated the high, vaulted ceiling. Cast-iron urns of blue fire flickered upon a raised dais at the head of the hall, flanking a great dragonbone throne. Seated on that throne was the Master.
Like His demons, He had once been something else: a human. There was no humanity left in Him now. His rotted black skin was too taut for His skull, and His flesh ripped when His features moved too drastically, revealing pitted bone beneath. Pinpricks of yellow-orange light danced in empty eye sockets, serving as His pupils. Like a raging wildfire or a bloodthirsty hurricane, He was a wonder and a terror to behold.
“. . . that is why you’re here, not for any noble, self-sacrificing reasons—and don’t delude yourself otherwise.” The Master spoke down to the warrior, who stood alone in the middle of the room. Grouge quaked at the sound of His rich baritone.
“I know what I’m doing. This is no mistake.”
“So you think,” was the snide reply. “I wonder what your mother would say?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” the warrior said stiffly. “For all I know, she’s dead.”
“Ahh . . . if you only knew the truth, Valerion.”
Grouge’s stomach plummeted. Valerion? He’d brought Valerion of the Unknown Lands into the citadel, the evil, murderous lightmagic-wielder who led the mortal races of Selaras in rebellion
against the Master?
Grouge was a dead demon.
“You’ve been stuffing your head with those stories your followers tell. You so desperately want to believe you are the hero the world has been waiting for.”
“Do you want what I’ve offered, or not?” Valerion’s voice was tight with anger.
“Obviously I want it. And I will grant your request. When you die, I shall resurrect you—not as a demon, but as your own, true self.”
Grouge was dumbstruck. What had Valerion offered as payment for such a reward? Grouge had paid dearly when he’d made his own deal with the Master, but for some reason, he couldn’t remember what he’d given in exchange for a second chance at life.
“Then take it,” Valerion growled.
“That’s not how it works. It will revert to me when you die.”
“But surely,” the mortal persisted, “you have the power to take it now.”
The Master’s eyes narrowed. “Why the rush?”
“Why the hesitation? If you do this, you’ll be the most powerful wielder in the world.”
“I am the most powerful wielder in the world.” There was no trace of arrogance in the Master’s voice. He was merely stating a fact.
“But this way, you could restore the balance between the magics and bring us peace,” said Valerion. “Isn’t that what you’ve been fighting for all this time?”
The Master stood and descended from the dais, approaching the warrior with the fluid grace of a serpent. “So demanding. So presumptuous. What would your mother say?”
He began to wield His magic. With a single gesture, He wrenched the shadows from their resting places and directed them toward Valerion. The human stood still as wisps of darkness encased him, his eyes glinting through the gloom like two purple stars in an empty universe.
The Master summoned the shadows from the antechamber next, and Grouge felt horribly exposed. A wintery wind filled the air, howling and wailing in horror. It was bright, it was dim, and then . . . it was silent. The shadows, exhausted, slunk back to where they belonged.
“You know this means I’ve won?” The Master sounded breathless, as if the spell had cost Him a great deal of energy. “If you sign a surrender treaty now, I vow no more blood will be spilled.”
Valerion said nothing.
“Fine. Your stubbornness is of no consequence to me. I have what I need, and those who choose to fight deserve the deaths that await them.”
Still no reply.
“I could kill you, Valerion,” the Master murmured. “I should kill you.” But He made no move to do so.
Grouge stewed in anticipation; why didn’t He strike down His most dangerous enemy?
“We are finished here. You may see yourself out, but rest assured, I will not be so merciful the next time we meet.”
“We won’t meet again,” said Valerion. His voice was faint and weak, an echo of its former glory.
“No? Do you think you can hide from me, you foolish child? I own your soul now—you have no more magic. You cannot fight me.”
Valerion had given the Master his soul? If he had relinquished the source of his life and magic, then how was he still alive? Without a soul, you were little more than a hollow husk, though Grouge had no idea how he knew that. This deal—a soul in exchange for a life—felt eerily familiar.
“I don’t need to fight. This war is over.” Valerion turned his back on the Master and strode away. Grouge’s paws scrabbled against the stone floor as he tried to scamper off, but it was too late. Valerion entered the antechamber. The warrior’s calm eyes met Grouge’s terrified ones for a heartbeat, and then he was gone, off to fight his way out of the citadel with only his sword to defend himself.
“Grouge,” hissed a voice that he knew as well as his own. Oh no. The Master knew he was there. “Come in here, Grouge.”
Grouge had no choice but to obey. His belly filled with dread as he crawled into the room and forced himself to look upon the Lord of Shadow Lords.
“Well?” said the Master. “What did you make of that?”
“I . . . I think—I think it will serve you well to have Valerion’s magic,” Grouge spluttered.
The Master nodded, tapping the tips of His clawed fingers together. “For the first time in a long time, I am not certain I’ve done the right thing. Valerion has literally handed me victory. It doesn’t make sense. Did he say anything to you?”
“Nothing, Master. Except . . . when I asked why he was offering his gift, he said you would take it from him anyway—”
The Master grinned, ripping the skin around His mouth.
“—but not all of it.”
The Master stopped smiling, and that alone frightened Grouge too much to say anything else. He didn’t know how long the Master stood thinking. It felt like ten ages passed them by.
A shuddering noise broke the stillness, a noise that pierced Grouge to the marrow of his shadowy bones. It reminded him of a ceaseless dying breath slipping from someone’s lips.
The Master’s fiery gaze flickered toward the far end of His chamber. Grouge turned and saw a purple vapor shimmering through the Master’s private exit. One curious tendril peeked into the throne room, as if it were searching for something.
“What is that, Master?” Grouge whispered, his hackles rising.
“Someone is wielding against us.”
It was a testament to the Master’s power that He didn’t sound disturbed by the appearance of the strange spell. He strode forward and the vapor directed its attention toward Him, its aimless swirls coalescing into a focused point. The Master flicked His hand in a gesture of banishment, counter-wielding to dispel the smog.
It was not dispelled.
Grouge’s jaw dropped. He had never seen the Master magically bested. The Master tried again, waving His hand in an arc and contracting His fingers, as though attempting to catch the spectral entity.
It had no effect. The vapor swayed and reared up in a sinuous strand, a misty cobra preparing to strike. The Master gestured again, retreating from His foe ever so slightly.
In that movement, Grouge saw defeat. The corded muscles of his body tensed and he catapulted from the throne room. He raced past the direwolves and careened through the warren of corridors.
He was forced to stop when he reached the great hall. The lethal haze was there, too, and scores of demons were snared in its clutches. Where the mist touched them, they melted. Creatures big and small were being liquefied, their flesh, bones and muscles pooling into gobs of black ichor on the floor.
“Master!” One desperate demon cried out for her sovereign, her scream gurgling away as the vapor wrapped around her neck, turning her to slush. She was dead. No, worse than that—she was nothing.
Grouge bolted again. Hugging the edge of the room, he wove his way through a treacherous tangle of mist. If he could escape the citadel, he’d be fine. Through the doors, down the corridor, finally free and—
“No,” he gasped, coming to another grinding halt. Outside, glowing purple raindrops fell from the sky. Demons streamed from the citadel in a mass exodus, but the rain was melting them much like the mist had. Those who had magic were shielding themselves, but the spells of the less powerful creatures were already being chipped away by the deluge.
Grouge would die if he went out there.
He was trapped.
Then a necrocrelai, one of the born-demons, ran by. It was Shädar, second in command to the Master. He wasn’t flying because his bat-wings had been torn in the last battle with the rebels. Seizing his chance, Grouge raced under the protection of the general’s necromagical shield and followed him.
Shädar took the path to the summit of Mount Arax. His whiplike tail lashed behind him, belting Grouge in the face as he struggled to keep up with the longer strides of the humanoid demon.
They crested the flat lip of the crater and Grouge spotted the Master standing at the edge of the mountain’s gaping volcanic maw. Not many had made it this far. Even the stronger demons were succumbing to the toxic rain.
An earsplitting thunderclap sent Grouge into hysterics. He looked up and saw that the sky was opening—opening!—just tearing itself apart, leading away into an unknown void. Purple lightning crackled around the edges of the rift, lancing out in all directions, illuminating the peaks and valleys of boiling black clouds.
“My liege,” Shädar growled when he reached the Master’s side. “What is this? Are the dragons finally fighting us?”
“One dragon is.” An alien expression crossed the Master’s features—was it sorrow? “Or two, depending on how you look at things.”
With a deafening crack, an arm of purple fire lashed out from the hole in the sky, arcing toward them like some terrible, wayward solar flare. The Master wielded to repel it and the two magics met in an explosion that knocked Grouge clean off his feet.
“Try and claim me, Valerion,” the Master bellowed. “You will fail! I am the balance! I am omnipotent! I have your soul!”
He drew His sword from its scabbard and gestured violently with the weapon. Again, His movement had no effect.
“Master?” Shädar’s single word was filled with all the questions Grouge longed to ask.
The Master was silent for a time, staring down at His hands. When He finally spoke, His words were barely audible over the agonized screams of dying demons. “I cannot wield his magic.”
Shädar’s red eyes went round with panic. “What? Why?”
“If a soul is not complete, it cannot be wielded,” the Master explained, His flimsy skin cracking as His expression contorted. The image of the almighty, invincible wielder crumbled before Grouge, revealing a broken human in its place.
“That conniving, evil little monster. Valerion split his soul before coming to me . . . and she let him.” The Master’s lips curled into a snarl. “Shivnath,” he hissed, with the vehemence of a curse.
Grouge never had a chance to ask who Shivnath was. A tingling sensation seeped into his body. He looked around to find a tongue of purple flame had snuck up on him. The fire didn’t burn or melt him—it tightened around his middle and lifted him off the ground.
“Master! Help!” Grouge shrieked. But another fiery arm had grabbed the Master, and though He struggled and wielded, it seemed all His power was nothing compared to the unearthly energy that held Him.
He had finally, inexplicably, been defeated.
Grouge and the Master were pulled toward the hole in the sky alongside thousands of unfortunate others. Grouge’s vision narrowed and dimmed as he approached the gaping fracture in reality. The world around him dissolved. Sound and touch faded away.
Then everything was nothing.
It was gone.
He was gone.
And after a moment, an eternity of waiting, suspended, neither conscious nor unconscious, neither living nor dead . . .
The rift in the sky reopened, and Grouge dropped down with the familiar inky blackness of necromagic, which was so unlike the cruel black void that had held him prisoner.