Devil

Salmakia

Explorer
I was watching them in my mirror when the call came.

“Mine,” I growled. No one dared challenge me. It has been many decades – centuries, even, perhaps – since I answered a call. I don’t need to anymore, for my mirror and my crystals and the charred bones that I toss in a pit of fine sand fulfil my mandate. And, after all, answering calls takes so much effort. But one of the callers intrigued me, and so I donned the form of a minor devil – a hamatula – and allowed the summoning magic to take me.

Clawing my way through fire and darkness I fought to endure the searing agony of the tear between the worlds. I had forgotten how much pain was involved. I allowed it to pierce my mind, clearing my head for the coming work.

Finally, I emerged through the flaming portal and into a protective symbol drawn on the ground. They always think such things will keep them safe. I scoured this one in a heartbeat, and found it perfectly crafted. Physically, I could not leave its confines. But, then, I wouldn’t be very good if I relied upon such trivial needs.

And I am. Very good.

I sized up the four who had called me. Seeing them in the flesh is always so much more enriching than watching them in the mirror. I had forgotten that thrill. Or, rather, had allowed it to drift from my mind. I don’t forget much of anything these days.

The wizard who had cast the spell and drawn the protective diagram was a bumbling human, his mind already beginning to crack under the weight of the power it was channeling. Not that he realized it yet. He would be easy.

Beside him, her bow drawn and pointed at me, a tabaxi snarled. I squinted at the arrow she had nocked. It presented no danger. Her desires were written all over her clothing and equipment. She wanted nice things. Having watched her in the mirror, I knew that she sent those things to her poverty-stricken village. As we say in Hell, the ends most always justify the means.

The goliath looming in the background wielded a large hammer which looked like it might actually do me harm. In her eyes I saw an eagerness – she wanted me to break through the diagram. She wanted to fight me. I smiled inwardly. She was practically one of us already.

Fourth in their party was an orc in priestly garb. His face was a mask of impassivity, but I have plied this trade for millennia and I saw the truth in his eyes. He hated me. I admit that his hatred aroused me. What can I say? I’m still a devil after all. I never claimed to be objective.

My hamatula form crouched in readiness and I twisted its face into a hideous scowl. I’ve discovered that mortals expect certain things and it can be effective to reinforce those expectations. At least in the beginning.

“Oh devil,” began the wizard, “foul thing from Hell, I have summoned you by the power of my will, and by my will you are bound to obey me for—”

I ignored him and focused instead on my strategy. Finally, his pronouncement came to an end.

“Do you understand?” the tabaxi asked in Infernal. My insides writhed. Her accent was truly terrible. Clearly she had picked up the language secondhand. Perhaps I could offer to tutor her. For a fee, of course.

“Yes,” I responded in Infernal. “I understand. And I do speak Common if you prefer.” What do they think? I’ve never done this before?

“The task we have set for you is this,” intoned the wizard. “We require your devilish sight to penetrate that magical darkness and inform us what lies beyond. All our attempts to dispel the darkness have failed.”

Glancing at the darkness I sighed. Mortals are so limited. I could have easily dispelled the darkness with a thought, but that would have gone beyond the powers of my hamatula form and made them suspicious. Also, it would have exceeded the scope of their request, which always makes me feel a little gross inside. Maybe that’s how angels feel when they are unable to fully accomplish a task. Perfectionists, all of us.

“I will, of course, require payment,” I snarled.

“That’s as expected,” said the orc cleric. “What is your price? Magic? Service? Gold?” At the mention of the last I saw the tabaxi scowl at her companion. Good, so I had read her correctly.

“The task you set me is simple, and so I require something simple in payment,” I responded. “I will ask each of you a question, and each must answer honestly. I will know if you lie.” I have found that the simple phrase I will know if you lie is eminently effective against mortals. They think that, as a devil, I have some cosmic power to distinguish their truths from their falsehoods. In reality most mortals are simply not as good at lying as they delude themselves into believing.

The four companions glanced around at each other. This was clearly not the price they had been expecting. I allowed them to take their time. I wondered whether they had some magical bond connecting them telepathically or if they truly thought themselves insightful enough to read one another’s expressions.

Turning back to me, the orc nodded. “Agreed,” he said. “But first you tell us what’s in the darkness, and then we answer the questions.”

“Oh, now, let’s be fair,” I retorted. “I’ll ask two of my questions, then I’ll tell you what’s in the darkness, then I’ll ask two more questions.”

“Fine,” he growled.

“My first question is for the tabaxi,” I began. I’ve always found that mortals are more willing to cooperate if they don’t realize that I already know their names and everything about them. “Which is more important – food or family?”

“Family,” she answered quickly.

I raised on of my hamatula eyebrows at her and bored into her with my yellow eyes. The eye-boring trick is a good one.

“But a family that starves is no good for anybody,” she finished ponderously.

I nodded, satisfied, and turned my attention to the wizard. “What is the most powerful spell in the multiverse?” I demanded.

“Wish.”

These mortals do love their snappy one-word answers. As if by speaking quickly they’ll avoid what is to come. I allowed myself to guffaw visibly.

“I said in the multiverse,” I repeated.

The wizard looked at me askance. “It’s Wish…” he repeated. “…isn’t it?”

I gave an audible sigh, which is harder than you’d think when you’re scrunched up in the form of a hamatula. “I will accept your limited understanding as the best truth you can offer.” I watched the wizard’s eyes go wide at that. He really was going to be so easy.

“Your end of the bargain, fiend,” snapped the cleric. “What’s in that darkness?”

I puffed out my chest for dramatic effect. “Five feet into the darkness there is a pit trap which I only assume leads to something suitably nasty. For the next twenty feet after the trap, the floor is covered with grease. Clinging to the ceiling at the back of the passage is a Balhannoth. It’s quite a vicious setup in there. Now, my next two questions. For the goliath, what’s the best fight you’ve ever had?”

She got a dreamy look in her eyes and began recounting in exquisite detail a time when four assassins had surprised their party. All the odds had seemed stacked against them, and she had felt a rush of adrenaline unlike anything she’d before experienced. She was just getting to the gory details when the cleric interrupted her.

“That’s quite enough. I won’t have us oversharing with fiends. Ask me my question so we can banish you back whence you came.”

I shrugged my hamatula shoulders. “All the same to me,” I said. “My question for you is this: Is enduring personal suffering an acceptable cost when fighting an egregious evil?”

The cleric smiled at me coolly. “Yes it is.” He turned to the wizard. “Now send the devil back. We got the information we needed.”

The wizard began chanting the words to close the portal. I had one more thing to say, which I calculated would take me seven seconds if I spoke fast. When there were exactly seven seconds left in the incantation, I began.

“By the way, there are no doors – secret or otherwise – in that area of magical darkness. It’s a dead end.”

Then I felt myself being pulled back through the fabric between worlds. With no small degree of discomfort, I landed in my chambers. I shed the hamatula skin, glad to be rid of it. Even the ten minutes or so I had endured had been stifling. I quickly found the four of them in my mirror. They were fighting the Balhannoth. Typical. Never trust a devil. But they would see that I had not been lying about the dead end. And they would call me again. Of that I was certain. I tossed some bones into the sand and smiled. It was rare that augury came back so unilaterally encouraging.


to be continued
 

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Salmakia

Explorer
Time passed. The Blood War raged. I used my mirror and my crystals and my bones in service of my Duke, to predict where our enemies would strike and to penetrate the veils that hid from us their weaknesses. Thanks to me, we staved off a demonic incursion with forces that far outnumbered our own. If I were generous, I would say that some credit was owed to our generals who responded to the information I provided with ruthless alacrity.

But I have never been known for my generosity.

In spite of the ceaseless nature of my work, I nonetheless found moments to keep tabs on the four who had called me. They made it through the dungeon with the Balhannoth and found the relic it had been built to safeguard. Some artifact that was needed for a priestly ritual. They thwarted the schemes of a Night Hag, which was really a pity because she was doing excellent work. I’m sure she’ll find a way to return from beyond nightmare.

And then they found themselves embroiled once more in a task that required assistance. It seemed they were searching for another artifact – a weapon, this time, that had been stolen from an elf queen – and the sly bastard who took it was keeping it in a lake of acid surrounded by an antimagic bubble. Much to the cleric’s dismay, the team agreed that the best course of action was to summon an abishai that was immune to acid.

Tiamat, I’ve discovered, has a wide range of servants that are each good for exactly one task. Personally I’ve always favored a more versatile approach.

Even before the wizard had started the summoning incantation, I had struck a deal with one of the dragon queen’s advisors: 500 souls in exchange for an abishai, dominated by me for an hour. A steep price, to be sure, but I had been out of Infernal politics for so long that I had quite a nest egg of souls accumulated.

Summoning the abishai to me, I informed it of my commands. By this time the wizard had begun his chanting, but sixty seconds was more than enough time for the simple instructions I was imparting. Sending the abishai off through the portal I returned to my mirror to witness events unfold.

“Oh devil,” began the wizard, “foul thing from Hell—”

Really? This again? Don’t they have any respect for the value of a fiend's time? I quickly located a warlock – one of the score or so pacted to me – as I would need her for what came next.

Returning my attention to the abishai, the wizard was finally getting around to the point. “The task we require of you is this: There is a sword at the bottom of that lake. Due to your immunity to acid, you should be able to retrieve it with impunity.”

The abishai responded with the words I had commanded. “I cannot,” it hissed, “for the antimagic at the bottom of the pool would cause me – or any summoned creature – to vanish. However, I do know of one who can help you. I could give you a totem...”

“Fine,” groaned the wizard, the frustration at having to expend more magical energy written all across his face. “Give me the totem.”

“First, my price,” retorted the abishai.

The cleric started to utter something foul about working with fiends, but the wizard waved him off. “What would that price be?” he inquired.

“You must never again harm one of Tiamat’s dragons,” intoned the abishai.

The cleric stared, his mouth agape. “Never harm another dragon?” he exclaimed. “So if an evil red dragon is attacking innocent villagers we just have to stand by and do nothing?”

The tabaxi, who styled herself a bit of a negotiator, approached the abishai with a placating manner. “That’s entirely unreasonable,” she said, “especially for such a small service being rendered. How about we agree to harm no dragons for the next year?”

“Five years,” countered the abishai, as I had instructed.

“How about we will not harm a dragon in its lair for five years, or steal from a dragon’s lair, or even seek out a dragon’s lair. But if a dragon leaves its lair to attack a city or something then its fair game.”

“Done,” agreed the abishai. “Each of you must swear it in blood.”

That’s not technically true. Any deal with a devil is binding, but in situations with multiple individuals involved and promises that will last for years, it can help to have some metric of acceptance. A signature, if you will, to present as proof in case of challenges to the agreement.

After debating the benefits and drawbacks of the deal, the four of them agreed that they had no other way of retrieving the elf queen’s weapon, and that they were wealthy enough that they wouldn’t need to track down any dragons. They each spilled a drop of blood for the abishai, and in exchange the devil gave them a totem with which to call ‘the only one who could help them’ (guess who).

I subconsciously registered the 500 souls I had paid to Tiamat returning to my domain upon the conclusion of the mortals’ deal. It turns out that dragon queens are far more willing to lend their servants to a task for free if that task directly advances their interests.

I hope it isn’t too boastful to say that I am a very skilled negotiator.

I will also point out that the totem the abishai gave to the wizard was not my personal amulet. How stupid do you think I am? No, it was merely a carved piece of wood with no magical properties whatsoever. But mortals like having physical things to focus their spells. I probably did too, once upon a time.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
Again excellent. Thank you for posting.
I’m getting Elric of Melnibone vibes, from Arioch’s point of view ( albeit a lawful Arioch)!
 


Salmakia

Explorer
Needless to say, the wizard summoned me. I adopted my hamatula form and appeared promptly within the diagram.

“Do you have more magical darkness for me to peer through?” I inquired. I’ve found that mortals cannot tell most devils apart, and so I asked the question to ensure they knew I was the same one they had summoned many months before. Indeed, they seemed suitably shocked by the revelation.

The cleric squinted at me, suspicious. “Why are you coming back to us again?”

I smiled benignly. “Let’s just say that I was tempted by your hospitality and fair temperament the last time we met.”

“Bulls**t,” spat the cleric. “You’re up to something. I know it.”

“You’re quite right,” I answered. “I am trying to tempt you toward Hell.”

“Send it back,” growled the cleric.

I raised a finger in protest. “I’ve laid claim to your case. No other devils will take it. And I don’t think you’ll find many other beings willing to aid you in retrieving the item you seek. You do still want the elf queen’s sword?”

“I’ll take my chances.” Typical cleric. Fortunately, his three companions persuaded him that the benefits incurred by me helping them far outweighed the tiny chance that I might actually tempt any of them toward Hell.

I didn’t bother to point out that three of them were already well on their way. Which three, you ask? Well, a devil must keep some secrets.

“What’s your price this time?” demanded the cleric. “More questions?”

“Hardly,” I scoffed. “I was thinking something a little more basic. Some time spent in Hell, perhaps?” They all began to clamor in protest but I cut them off. “Before you make your decision, know that you will be free to leave whenever you desire. No part of this deal traps you in my domain, and the instant you wish to return to the Material Plane you may do so. You can arrive and then leave one second later if you so desire. What do you say?”

“We’ll confer,” replied the wizard.

They stepped away a bit and whispered, and I pretended as though I couldn’t hear them. When they returned, the human, the tabaxi, and the goliath were all staring daggers at the orc.

“The three of us have agreed to your terms,” said the goliath.

“I refuse to spend even one second in Hell,” spat the cleric.

I shrugged. “Not a problem. In that case, the three of you can come back with me to Hell, and from the orc I will demand an honest answer to a second question. And, since you didn’t fully accept my initial deal, let’s tack on a rider. Shall we say, never again will any of you summon demons?”

This rider is quite common among Infernal dealings. The fewer mortals that summon demons, the more likely they are to summon us devils. And, besides, demons punching through to the Material Plane only makes the Blood War that much more complicated for our strategists, among whom I am preeminent.

Naturally, the cleric was quick to accept the ‘no demon’ rule, although the wizard did seem miffed at having his summoning freedom curtailed. I understood his pain. I really did.

Once we were all in agreement I pretended to ponder for a moment. “Shall we say trip to Hell first, then I’ll retrieve the sword, then the orc’s question?”

“Question first,” retorted the orc, “then sword, then Hell. For all we know going to Hell will drive the three of them insane.”

“It won’t,” I replied, “but here’s a counteroffer. I’ll retrieve the sword now so you know I can do it, but I won’t give it to you until your part of the deal is complete.”

“Fine,” growled the cleric. “Just get it over with.”

With a thought, I contacted the warlock I had located earlier. She had an obsession with planar travel, and had scribed over two dozen scrolls of Plane Shift. That would be important. I instructed her to go to Hell and return with the abishai – the same one I had dominated before – which she did in short order. Warlocks are such useful tools.

“Now that the abishai is actually here and not summoned,” I explained, “it can pass through the antimagic and retrieve the sword.”

“The abishai’s been working for you all along,” intuited the rogue. I didn’t even bother to answer. Any devil would have known that the abishai was working for me from the instant it offered to hand over my summoning totem. Devils are not known for giving rivals free assistance, and in Hell, anyone who isn’t under your absolute control is a rival.

The abishai quickly retrieved the sword, and I released the warlock back to whatever trivial tasks had been engaging her. Our pact stated that I could not require her direct services again for five years, but in this one act she had more than repaid the measly amount of magical energy I had siphoned into her mind over the past decades.

“Now,” I smiled, “to Hell with all of you.”

Devils, as a rule, cannot travel between planes unless specifically called by a mortal. This is true of most beings not native to the Material Plane. I think it is for the best. Otherwise demons and angels and all sorts of foul horrors would rampage across mortal worlds with impunity, utterly destroying the Material Plane, and then there would be no more mortal souls and the Infernal economy would collapse. However, devils and angels are granted certain exceptions to this rule. In the case of angels, occasionally a worthy mortal will pray hard enough which is somehow enough to allow their gods to send a few angels through the breach even without the proper magical bridge. For powerful devils like myself it is far more logical. We can travel back and forth to Hell anytime we want if it’s part of a deal with a mortal. And three mortals just signed on for an exclusive trip.

The goliath, I sent to my gladiatorial arena. I had arranged for some easier fights, some combatants that would give her a challenge but would still fall to her hammer. Trust me, there is nothing quite like the thrill of a million devils screaming over your victory. I do hope it didn’t go to her head.

The human, I sent to my personal library, which is extensive even by Infernal standards. Most of the tomes would have been illegible to him, but he was skilled enough in magical arts to understand their implications even though he couldn’t harness the power they suggested.

The tabaxi, I sent to a torture chamber. There are places in Hell where the spirits of mortal evildoers are stabbed, burned, and lacerated repeatedly. One such evildoer had killed the tabaxi’s sister, and I thought she might like the chance to get some revenge.

What can I say? I am thorough in my research.

As for me, I remained within the bounds of the magical diagram while the cleric paced back and forth outside. I’m sure he expected his companions to depart and then return within seconds, but his type have always failed to understand just how tempting temptation can be.

“What have you done with them?” he demanded once five minutes had passed.

“Exactly what I said,” I answered.

“Then where are they?”

“They may return any time they wish.”

He glared at me, and I felt a little thrill run through my veins. So much righteousness, so ripe for the picking.

“Take me to them,” he demanded.

“I could do that,” I conceded, “but I would need some sort of payment in return.”

“Going to Hell was supposed to be the payment!” he exploded.

“Of the previous deal. Which you rejected. If you’re proposing a new deal I’ll require a new payment.”

“Such as what?”

“Your soul for all eternity would do nicely.” I gave him a toothy grin. Sometimes a classic response really gets the job done.

The cleric spat on the ground and continued pacing.

“Shall I ask you my question while we wait?” I inquired.

“Whatever,” he responded.

“Remember you’ll need to answer it honestly.”

“Just ask it already!”

I sighed. He’d have to learn to control his temper if he was ever going to make a proper devil. “All right then. Why do you think the gods continue to allow us devils to tempt mortals?”

He gave me a look, and I could see that I’d shocked him. “Allow?” he asked.

“I’m sure they could stop us if they tried,” I shrugged. “But they haven’t ever tried. Not once. Not in the whole history of the multiverse. Why do you think that is?”

He stopped pacing and began to think. I imagined him running through all the doctrine he’d been taught about devils, everything he knew about extraplanar beings, everything he’d been taught about the gods he worshipped.

Finally, he sighed. “The only answer I can think of is that it is to test us mortals. To see which of us are truly worthy to take the journey up the Impenetrable Mountain or into the Gardens of Arborea.”

“But?” I prompted.

“But that answer does not feel like the truth,” he admitted. “Does that mean my soul is forfeit?”

“Hardly,” I scoffed. “And, as I told your wizard friend last time we met, I'm willing to accept your limited understanding as a truthful answer.”

I saw in his eyes that he was longing to ask me what I considered to be the true answer, but he managed to hold himself in restraint.

Then, the goliath reappeared. She was bruised and bloody and looked an absolute mess. The orc’s ponderous face turned into one of hatred as he bared his teeth at me.

“You did this!” he screamed, and he was about to breach the protective diagram and strike me himself when the goliath started laughing.

“That was the best fight ever!” she howled. “I need to go back. Can I go back?”

I said nothing.

Then the tabaxi returned. Tears were streaming down her face.

“What did you do to them?” demanded the cleric.

“They experienced,” I responded. “Perhaps for the first time in their lives.”

“Where’s Holam?” he asked, using the wizard’s name in my presence for the first time.

“He may have become a little overzealous,” I admitted. “Shall I go poke him back in your direction? As a favor to you?”

“I don’t accept favors from fiends,” said the cleric.

“Then consider it an act of freewill on my part. One of you will have to dismiss me though, since Holam cast the spell and he is otherwise engaged.”

“In that case be gone with you,” the orc demanded. “I dismiss you, now and forever.”

Before I left I gestured to the abishai, who gracefully handed the elf queen’s sword over to the cleric. Then both of us pushed our way back across the breach and into Hell.

The wizard Holam, as I suspected, took quite a lot of convincing before he was willing to leave my library.
 

Salmakia

Explorer
It was several months before they called me again. Watching them in the mirror, I knew that this delay was due entirely to the cleric’s resistance. The other three seemed actually eager to utilize my services, to the point that they were inventing reasons why they might need me to solve this or that problem. It would have been an ego boost if I cared half a dretch what mortals thought of me. There is only one individual whose opinion matters at this point in my career, and he will hardly be impressed by my library or my gladiatorial arena.

But finally a situation arose in which they truly did need my help. They were preparing to infiltrate the keep of some despotic warlord in order to steal his military secrets when the tabaxi received a sending that her town was being overrun by gnolls. They had only a single scroll of Teleport, and Holam hadn’t yet learned to cast the spell in spite of his seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge. Returning to the tabaxi’s village would ruin their infiltration plan, and not returning there would lead to the death of everyone the tabaxi cared for.

A classic lose-lose situation. I couldn’t have arranged it better myself.

They had seen me teleport in my warlock and so they assumed that transporting them halfway across the world wouldn't be an issue. Not even the righteous cleric argued when Holam began inscribing the necessary diagram.

I answered the call enthusiastically. After all, I’d had weeks to ponder my next move.

“Skip the speech about me being beholden to your will,” I said as soon as I pulled my way onto the Material Plane. “Your faces are telling me that you’re in a rush, and it’s a load of crap anyways.”

The tabaxi stepped forward. “Please take us to my village,” she pleaded, her voice breaking. “I’ll pay any price.”

Now, this is the sort of moment most inexperienced devils dream of. A powerful mortal – easily able to become an orthon or some other valuable devil in the Infernal ranks – offers, without thinking, to pay any price for a task that is well within the fiendish portfolio. However, I am no longer a neophyte, and I had my sights set on a larger quarry.

Tapping into the upper limits of my reservoir I transported the five of us into a slower time stream. I would suffer for it later, but opportunities like these are few and far between.

Holam the wizard sputtered. “You— You just—”

I think he was genuinely drooling at the scope of power I had demonstrated.

“We now have ten minutes before time resumes its normal flow,” I remarked idly. “Why don’t you take a moment to think about what you just said?”

The tabaxi nearly collapsed on the ground and was saved only by the helping hand of her goliath companion. She mumbled something about not really meaning it, but actually meaning it but not in the serious sense… mortals’ minds can be so roundabout sometimes.

“Now,” I continued once she had recovered her faculties somewhat. “You want me to teleport you all to some village. Let’s discuss a fair price without all the histrionics.”

“I would accept a return trip to Hell as payment,” proposed Holam

“As would I,” agreed the goliath.

“Now, now,” I cajoled, “it would hardly be payment if it was something you wanted to do. But perhaps we can work a return trip into the deal somehow. Do you also wish to return?” I asked the tabaxi.

But she merely shook her head in response. Maybe I wasn’t being sensitive to her feelings. Her village was in the process of being razed to the ground.

I looked at the orc cleric. “And I suppose you would rather die than take a trip to Hell.”

“You suppose correctly,” he growled.

I shrugged noncommittally. “Here’s the deal I propose then. I will teleport you to the village in question. In exchange, I will give the human and the goliath each an object. You may not refuse this object, but you may choose to receive it in Hell if you so desire. Before you ask, no the objects will not drive you mad, and no they will not turn you evil. To the orc I will ask one question which he must answer truthfully. And from the tabaxi I wish only a formal introduction to your parents.”

“Why?” she asked, suddenly suspicious. “What will you do to them?”

The unblinking yellow eyes of my hamatula form drilled into hers. “I promise I will do nothing beyond the remit of the summoning spell cast by your companion. The real question is: Can you afford to pass up this offer? The time bubble collapses in three minutes.”

Her bravado crumbled instantly. “I accept”

The other three were equally quick to accept my terms, and I even sensed a note of eager anticipation in the voices of the human and the goliath. We agreed on payment after delivery, and I took a drop of blood from each of them as insurance.

Dismissing the time bubble, I transported the five of us to the tabaxi’s village. It was a sorry place, up high in the mountains. At that time of year an icy wind scoured the cliffs, and I quickly warded myself against it. Thanks to my time bubble, the gnolls had barely breached the outer wall when we arrived, although it was painfully clear that the locals were inadequately prepared to handle any such incursion.

Humming to myself I tried not to openly display my enthusiasm as the four companions tore into the would-be invaders. There is an art to a massacre that few mortals appreciate. I do think the tabaxi enjoyed herself, though. Having watched her frequently I knew that she favored the bow and arrow, but on that day she drew her daggers so as to personally extinguish all those who had dared threaten her village.

When it was finished, the villagers emerged from their barricaded households and rejoiced. I stayed off to one side, trying to keep a low profile. Who knew whether this was a superstitious village or an open-minded one?

The tabaxi, to her credit, wasted no time in fulfilling her end of the bargain. Taking the hands of two individuals with grey streaks in their fur, she guided them over to where I was sitting.

“Mom and dad,” she said, “I’d like to introduce you to this, ah…”

“Devil,” I finished. “I’m a devil.”

She coughed. “Yes, well, these are my parents. Yori and Gupsha.”

I gave them a graciously low bow. “It’s been an absolute pleasure working with your daughter, ah…” this time it was my turn to trail off.

“Saribel,” mumbled the tabaxi.

“Indeed.” I gave Yori and Gupsha a wide grin. “She has been a most excellent associate.”

The older tabaxis' eyes grew wide and their ears flattened against their heads. Breaking free of their daughter’s grasp, they fled back toward their village.

I slumped back down onto the rock where I’d been sitting. “I’m sorry,” I said. And I truly was. “I didn’t intend to frighten them so.”

“I didn’t expect them to take it so badly,” murmured Saribel. “You saved their lives as much as any of us. And besides, you’re just…”

“The physical embodiment of evil?” I offered.

“Sure,” she shrugged. “I guess. But you’re more than that. You’ve been a big help. Truly, I appreciate it. And thanks for… before. For not letting me rush into things. I wasn’t expecting that from someone like you.”

“You should probably go talk to your parents,” I suggested.

She smiled. “Yeah. They’ll understand. I know they will.” And with that she turned and jogged back toward her village.

It’s amazing to me how poorly mortals understand each other – up to and including their own family. I had scried Yori and Gupsha no more than three times using my mirror, while Saribel had presumably spent many years in their intimate company. And yet I could plainly see what she apparently could not:

Two tabaxi, raised as Saribel's parents had been on traditional mountain values, living in relative isolation for their entire lives, and never once being forced to question their close-held beliefs, would prefer to disown their own daughter rather than believe she had been associating with devils. Even though she, with the help of one such devil, had just saved their sorry lives.

Truly, are parents not supposed to have empathy for their own offspring?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It would be several months before Saribel was forced to face that grisly truth. Let’s let her live in her fantasy world until then.
 


Salmakia

Explorer
The cleric didn’t spend very long amongst the adoring crowd – something about humility I suppose – before he came and found me.

“I’d like to get my question over with now if it’s all the same to you,” he grumbled.

I cocked an eyebrow. “Why did I give Saribel a fair deal when she threw herself upon my mercy?”

“You want us to trust you,” the cleric replied. “So that we’ll fall deeper and deeper into your trap. You’re not as clever as you might think.”

“Interesting perspective,” I mused.

“For my part I hope never to require your services again.” He began stalking away.

“Do my inquiries trouble you so deeply?” I tossed the remark out flippantly, for I knew it would strike a deep and resonant note with him.

He glowered. “You have a way of trying to poke holes in my longstanding beliefs.”

“I would claim to simply reveal holes that were there all along.”

“Far better to bail the ship than succumb to the whirlpool,” retorted the orc.

“Is that what I am?”

The cleric chose to depart rather than continue the dialectic. I think perhaps he was afraid that he might lose.

The rest of my payments I squared away in short order. Both Holam and the goliath wished to receive their "gifts" in Hell, and so I transported them back to my domain. As an additional flourish, I ensured that Saribel’s parents were just barely within eyesight when I opened my fiery portal. Sometimes temptation is all in the timing.

To the goliath, I gave a hammer of my own design which I’ve bestowed many times previously. I’ve found it remarkably effective at giving that final nudge to those who really only want to smash things, but who are held back by social taboos or some miniscule modicum of self-restraint. I didn’t stay to watch her bouts in the arena (amateurs bore me to no end), but one of my aides reported that she held nothing back.

Holam wished to peruse my library once more, which I permitted, provided that he first accept my gift of a certain spell. This incantation I’ve dubbed Hell’s Fury. Perhaps a smidge dramatic, but many mortals have a weakness for grandeur and flourish. It is quite potent, although I feel no fear at passing it out like candy, for the fiery destruction it wreaks poses no threat to me or my fellow devils. The key to the spell is that it makes the caster more powerful when they personally snuff the life from their enemies. I’m sure by now you can see the path I’m laying. Holam was giddy with anticipation to test it.

Unfortunately, simply nudging mortals toward bloodshed is not enough to fast-track them into my eternal keeping. There are many “good” and “neutral” deities that support killing as much as the “evil” ones. Tempus, for instance, the god of war, or even Tyr, god of justice. The orc cleric who claims such hatred of fiends would probably condone my own destruction. Even perhaps my eternal torment.

See, we are not so different after all.

In order to move beyond Phase 1, I knew I had to take the initiative rather than waiting for my subjects to request my services. I had to make them an offer. And, fortunately, the perfect opportunity had fallen at my feet.

“Would you like me to teleport you back?” I asked once the four had reconvened. “I seem to recall you were working against a bit of a deadline. Something about an evil warlord and a secret mission?”

“Sure!” Holam agreed cheerfully enough. The goliath also seemed amenable. Even though the cleric had expended a significant portion of his magical resources healing her after her bouts in my arena, the afterglow of combat still hung about her.

Unsurprisingly, the cleric was less than enthused by the prospect. “What’s the price?” he asked.

I made a show of clapping my hands. “Very good,” I said. “Very good. Always a price when dealing with a devil. This one, though, should be easy. Teleporting within a single Plane of Existence comes easily to me. All I ask is that you humor me one quick side stop before I return you back where I found you.”

The cleric asked a number of highly specific questions to ensure I wasn’t misleading them. “How long exactly will this side stop take?” “Will this side stop drive us mad?” “Will this side stop be dangerous?” I won’t bore you with his nitpicking. Ultimately, though, they decided that accepting my little favor was worth saving their single scroll of Teleport.

A word of advice: If a devil offers you an easy way out, take the long way around. Then again, that tip is coming from a devil, and why would you trust me?

The battlefield to which I took them was a gruesome sight.

The way the four of them had massacred the gnolls at Saribel's village was beautiful indeed, but this scene was operatic. Innocents screaming, their cries mingled with the snarls of the killers and the valiantly futile yells of warriors whose weapons were all but ineffective against the oncoming hoards.

And the spectacle! Fires spewed forth as the battle raged across the plains and up onto cragged cliffs. Mortals perished by the hundreds, and their blood became a tapestry of grief. Nothing compared to the Blood War, of course, but I imagine that for my visitors it was carnage on an unprecedented scale.

Holam vomited. Saribel averted her gaze. The goliath seemed almost eager, and I saw the hammer I had given her twitch with anticipation. But it was to the orc cleric that my gaze was riveted. He stood stoically, watching the bloodshed, like an honorable witness.

“What are they?” asked Saribel softly.

“Demons,” I spat.

I said I admired the spectacle of a massacre. I never claimed to have sided with the victors in either of the two I’d witnessed that day.

“What you mortals perhaps do not realize," I continued, "is that down in Hell we are fighting a war. And we are losing. This incursion is proof enough of that.”

“We have to help!” exclaimed the goliath, hefting my hammer.

Holam smiled, already thinking about the effect the spell I’d taught him would have on the battle below.

“No,” said the cleric.

Unsurprisingly, there were protests from the group. It seemed even Saribel was of a mind to fight the demons.

“We used too many resources fighting the gnolls. Then Rakt’re nearly killed herself in this fiend’s arena and I used half my remaining repertoire healing her. If we go down there we’ll die. That’s not why he’s brought us here.”

The cleric looked to me for confirmation, but I gave my best impassive stare.

“If we can’t help then let’s leave,” said Holam.

The cleric’s brow furrowed. “I imagine that your librarian friend will keep us here for the full ten minutes that we signed on for.”

“We can leave right now if you answer a question for me.” I stared unblinkingly at the cleric.

“Why is it always me with the questions?” he asked.

“Why don’t you agree to any other form of payment?” I countered.

Glancing around at his sickened companions, my quarry sighed. “Well then. A question can’t hurt.”

“It’s not the question you should be worried about,” I remarked. “It’s the honest answer you’ll give.”

“Just get it over with,” he growled.

I pointed down to the grisly scene. “Why do your gods do nothing?”

This next part I imagine in the form of a play. A Morality Play, if you will. Sinners do seem ever so fond of those. If you decide to stage it, please ensure that there are suitable screams and explosions in the background.

CLERIC: And here I thought you had something hard for me. It’s a well-known fact that extraplanar beings can’t directly interfere in the Material Plane unless directly entreated by mortals.

DEVIL: Don’t you think that those people dying by the hundreds are praying to their gods? Or are they not praying hard enough perhaps?

CLERIC: I answered your question.

DEVIL: I required an honest answer.

CLERIC: You said before that my understanding of truth counts as honesty, even if the answer isn’t fully correct.

DEVIL: Indeed. And not even you could believe that sh*t about noninterference. Are you telling me those demons aren’t interfering? No wizard summoned them – they came through a rift. And if I were to end them all right now, would that not be interfering?

CLERIC: Then do it. End them all. Cure this needless suffering.

DEVIL: I have to be asked.

CLERIC: Let me guess. The order of the multiverse demands it.

DEVIL: Actually I just wanted to hear you beg.

CLERIC: Please. Please rid this Plane of those demons.

DEVIL: Will you give me your soul as payment?

CLERIC: What?!

DEVIL: You’re asking me to render a service and I’m seeking payment. Will you give me your soul?

CLERIC: That’s absurd!

DEVIL: Is it? I am a devil after all.

CLERIC: I won’t promise you my soul.

DEVIL: So you value yourself above the thousands who will perish here today.

CLERIC: No, that’s not what I—

DEVIL: Because you have a chance right now to save all of them.

CLERIC: So do you!

DEVIL: Ah, but I never claimed the moral highground.

CLERIC: You can’t do it, can you? You don’t have the power.

DEVIL: Actually I do. And so do your gods. And yet they do nothing. They let their own be slaughtered.

CLERIC: You’re lying.

DEVIL: Devils never lie.

CLERIC: That’s absurd devils are known for lying.

DEVIL: Devils are known for tempting. Lies are only tempting until you realize they’re lies. The truth is far more dangerous.

CLERIC: And you claim to know the truth?

DEVIL: Why do your gods do nothing?

CLERIC: There must be some reason, some justification—

DEVIL: Why do your gods do nothing?

CLERIC: Perhaps they are rooting out evil or allowing there to be martyrs so that others will take up the cause.

DEVIL: Why do your gods do nothing?

CLERIC: They’re gods! How can I understand their rationale?

DEVIL: Why do your gods do nothing?

CLERIC: I don’t know!

***

From the comfort of my study I quickly found the four companions in my mirror. Back in their tavern rooms, preparing for their burglary mission that night. I had fulfilled my end of the bargain – I never said I would be returning with them.

I decided to allow the cleric some time to ponder the honest answer he'd given me. Not that I'd have much choice. He had no desire to speak with me any time soon.

But I am very old, and I do not mind a wait.
 

Salmakia

Explorer
HELL’S FURY
6th-level transmutation
Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: Self
Components: V, M (one damned soul, in a soulcoin or other suitable vessel, which the spell consumes)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
Consuming a damned soul and absorbing its potential energy, you transform yourself into a raging inferno on the battlefield. You gain immunity to bludgeoning, piercing, slashing, fire, and poison damage and you cannot be charmed or frightened. Your weapon attacks and any spells you cast that deal damage deal an extra 3d6 fire damage. You have advantage on attack rolls and saving throws. If you kill a creature while under the effects of this spell, you regain 20 hitpoints.
 

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