Under the unending sky lay a majestic oak. Millennial in appearance, the branches were gnarled and buckled with time, new, ambitious limbs entwined with ancient, withered hulks. Upon each branch were the first hues of autumn, a pallet of uplifting oranges, yellows and auburns, which gave the whole tree a most pleasing ambience. The trunk itself was enormous, wide and grand, the roots burrowing deep into the hill it sat upon.
Below this ancient oak were two figures, deep in discourse – one of them a Duke, the other something else.
The Duke was a well dressed noble, his beard trimmed neatly into a goatee. A handsome man, the Duke’s brown eyes were deep and unyielding, reflective of a facet of his personality that had taken him far. Despite his standing, he wore nothing on his head to distinguish his rank. Instead, his grandeur was communicated by the Byzantine silk shirt and patterned black doublet he wore. At his side rested a tapered and elegant escot sword in an embossed, gold scabbard, his gloved left hand resting atop the hilt.
Stood across from him was the thing, imperceptibly terrifying, yet strangely charismatic.
The ‘Demon’ stood 7ft tall, dressed in an old, oversized doublet of red, a long black cloak falling to its large, covered feet. Its arms and hands extending far longer than human shape would dictate they should. The fingers of the creature were coated in cracked, peeled skin that had lost most of its pigment. It’s cumbersome and expansive torso rested on oddly bent legs. The head of the thing was long and sinisterly shaped, with a jutting lower jaw and obtuse nose giving the impression of a constant, sadistic sneer. Its eyes were the strangest, and yet most human, feature of it. They were a brilliant aquamarine, ardent even in the weak light of dusk. And although these spheres were enshrouded by sleepy, drooping eyelids, they pierced through the squint. Almost avian in gaze, they flitted around constantly, horrifically. Finally, the entire body swayed side to side as if immaterial, furthering the look of otherworldly strangeness that the figure carried.
Dusk was beginning to encroach upon their parley, and so talk flowed naturally to the Duke’s reasons for approaching on that day:
“I asked and you answered. I thank you, but can stand with you no more. Your whispers and signs are unwelcome now.” The last sentence was delivered with righteous indignation, the subtle shame of the Duke’s deals smouldering in his breast.
“Do the ends not justify the means?” The Demon stressed its speech in an unsettling, predatory fashion, resting on the words and letters with a queer method, alternating between a lisp and a booming, rumbling shout. “And yet, I have still taken nothing from you. Not your dignity, nor your public image, I have not compromised your land; rather, I have grown each of these virtues and prizes, sowing the seeds for kingdom. You would prefer the Regal to the Ducal, yes? To be a King?” The Demon’s final word seemed to echo within itself, resounding like a drunken chorus rousing in a brothel. This unnerved the Duke, while once more stirring his inner ambition dangerously. It was the same stirring the Demon had partaken in so aptly before.
After a moment’s pause and consideration, the Duke tore himself from the almost irresistible enchantment of the offer.
“A Duke, of standing and honour, is enough. I have vanquished those who sought to crush me, but I am a good man, I know this, and I will not forsake that virtue any longer.” He straightened his back with hollow bravado.
“Ah, ha ha... haaa.” The voice of the Demon was suddenly very deep, guttural and primal. The laugh was prolonged far too long, a torturers slow enunciation its style. “What comedy is this? Honour?” It continued, “Without my guiding hand, you would be nothing. Without my arts, your wells of silver and water would run dry. The mercenaries you pay and the militia you train would melt away, your walls unguarded; and crumbling. There would be not a single virginal maiden left in your lands, and the old would weep for the young. A plague of boils and retching, coughing and choking, would descend upon the righteous. The dredges would rise up and terrorise all who hold anything holy. I would have it so.”
Its eyes stopped flitting about for a mere instant, settled on the Duke’s gaze, and then returned to their erratic movements.
“Those threats are shallow. I come to you for service, not disservice, and I need you as far as that. No further. Your power is bound, as you are. As I summon you, I can leave you here just as easily.”
“As can I leave you.” The threat carried an undertone of smug satisfaction, the Demon’s voice dripping with putrid arrogance. The Demon would show the Duke how his folly was so delicious, so very satisfying, to It. It would have the Duke know how very average he was without Its Arts.
“And what of it? I no longer need the whims of a false being for legitimacy.”
“The riches of your endeavour have stemmed solely from my work. But yet you take advantage of my nobility, for I have always spoken plainly and truthfully, for no reward. You have sought to deceive me in return, despite my power over all you hold dear. What ingratitude! Like a mountain stream, your flow is as strong only as the rain that feeds it. You are a pitiful Lord, dressed in opulence but with the strings in my hands.” It lifted its malformed and twisted fingers up to its face, letting them remain there for a moment, like the foul stench of death in a mass grave. Then, as slowly as it lifted them, they were left to drop once more.
“I have indeed spoken with you, and requested in my time of need what help I required. But I have honoured God and my kin above all, never once taking his name in vain, nor pledging myself to anything in return. Neither have you ever asked for reward, you have given your support freely and I have been grateful for it. I come only to say I need it no longer.” The Duke stared blankly, somewhat shamefully, at the Demon.
“God, you say?” The Demon paused and let a horrific grin form on its face, stretching its sneer into a rapacious smile, rough and uneven teeth strangely white revealed by the withdrawal of its grey lips. “I always enjoy it when the peasantry sing his praises. It keeps them easy to mould;” as it said this, it rolled a chess piece between its long fingers slowly. It was a pawn, made of soft clay. Continuing slowly, It said “but when men of stature pay lip service to that ever absent captain, I savour it more. They know they use his lie to whip the masses; and now they whip themselves.” The Pawn, now a squished ball of warm clay, was dropped unceremoniously to the ground.
“I do not. I am a Christian, and from this my morals and piety grow. I can proudly say the Lord enlightens, he fools no one and does no harm to the people.” The Duke was truthful in his outpouring, the guilt of his black arts weighing him down.
“Indeed. He does nothing at all.” Another chess piece was suddenly resting in the chalky palm of the Demon. It was a bishop; a perfect white. The Duke watched in silence as the Beast’s hands enveloped the piece, and listened as it crumbled into white powder, the Demon melodramatically allowing it to be caught on the breeze. “Do not fear sire.” The Demon courtesied while speaking, voice coated in sarcasm. The morbid figure's bowing was an odd affront to nature. It grinned one more, eyes widened but still squinted,. “There is no judgement awaiting you; only the forces of me and my kin to prostrate before. Only the mocking, and the agony, that will await you on my word. I would ruin you without mercy for the transgressions you have committed against my good service. Or,” it waited, first a second, and then another.
“Or what!?” The Duke’s patience was being tested. He did not buy that the Demon could do anything without an outside command, as he had been led to believe from experience. Hence, the threats seemed to be nothing more than a fleeting joke in the Demon's game.
“You could kill your son.” As the Duke’s mouth opened, poised to deliver a furious rebuttal, the Demon interjected once more with a wide grin “Rape a peasant girl. Tear out a fetus. I want to see you have the steel worthy of the prizes I have given you.”
“Silence, foul beast! I will do no such things!”
“It would not be worth your victories? Your murder of Rene, the pillaging of his lands? A fair price to pay for your eminence around Europe, your riches and greatness, no? Maybe it would be worthy for a crown?” In the Beast’s hands was another chess piece – a king. But temptation would not draw back the Duke.
“Sacrifice but one of your enemies here then, spread their blood on the bark of this tree and I shall open its gates, and bring you the title of King of Kings, Emperor, the greatest name to grace Europe since Charlemagne!” The Demon yearned for only one thing, the one thing earthly men could deliver it, yet unfortunately was hardest to procure – a sacrifice, to open the hellish gates and free it for ever. Free it, and its brethren. And even in Its weakened negotiations, in Its imploring, it had an evil dignity. The Demon's tone never dropped below seductive command.
“I have done enough dealings with you, and the more I listen, the more I see you in the light of truth. You are a scoundrel of the highest order!” The Duke stepped back, his hand on his sword ever so subtly.
“What did you expect?! Is that not why you, cowardly as you are, hired me for your work?” The Demon furiously exclaimed. Such honesty was a departure. “I am what I am by nature. But you are false; you have taken my help, and in return I have delivered you a great deal, through what powers I can wield. Of my kin, I am reasonable, even kind. That you do not consider in your arrogance.” The Demon stepped forward, straining against the invisible bindings under the tree that kept it restrained. If only a little blood, spilt in malice, could be brought to the bark, It and Its colleagues would burst forth and torture the world.
The Duke stopped, drew his sword, and backed further down the slope. Behind him, the sun was copying his motion, dipping low under the hills and casting the sky in first a deep red hue, then a brilliant purple.
“May God have mercy on me for my sins!” The Duke shamefully dipped his head and turned, speeding as quickly as he could towards his grazing horse, glances over his shoulder coming thick and fast. But the Demon could not move beyond the shadows of the tree, that is, until night fell and coated the lands with comforting dark.
“Hope that He does, for I WON’T! Pray for forgiveness, pray as much as your knees will let you. Hope that your pews are soft,” the Demon could step forward no further, his jaw now wide and shouting, bellowing after the fleeing noble with a peculiar crackle in his tone “for your grave will not be. I will see you a broken man, your bloodline extinguished and your family tortured! I have your name, Duke, I have your home, your whore wife and your weak children, in my eyes!”
In the shadow of the hills, a horse could be heard trotting away, darkness enveloping the Duke and his steed. The Demon was now cursing the air, his strength growing incrementally as the last vestiges of day surrendered to night. Looking at Its own oversized feet, it shuffled forward slowly. The shadow married the night, birthing a tremendous path of dark, on which the Demon could find Itself a pliable subject.
“This night has but one master” The Demon’s voice fell to a soft whisper "for it shall be my night. Woe to those who play my game carefree. Woe to the Duke." The Beast fell quiet, his hand holding a King, his eyes beholding a night like no other. It was to be a night of plans and plots, a night of stirring and scourge, a night of tragedy and terror. The Dark Art stirred, the Demon working for furious satisfaction; spinning a web of folly.
The shade of the branches disappeared, the moon harshly beaten back by foul cloud.
Revenge will be what’s won.
While the spirits of men shall rise,
My plans will pull them undone.”