Vidus and the Devil

(early 2000; I finished 16 hand-written pages, then stopped, and it's been so many years that it will obviously never be completed... but I like it, even if it shows my 16-year-old lack of finesse. I wish I'd finished it.)
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As Vidus blew out one of the four candles casting a flickering light over his study, he had no idea that Fate was about to rear its scarred head, breathing the terrible wind of chance over his life.

It had been a quiet night. For hours the young priest had sat in solitude, copying line after line of philosophy onto dozens of parchments in his small room, speaking to no one, with no company but his own. Finally, as his candles were little more than stubs with only two marks visible and his eyes burned with strain and dryness, he had decided to stop his studious labours for sleep - that is, until the shadows began to move.

At first, the changes were subtle. Though the thin plume of smoke that rose from the candle was accompanied by no flame, it still cast a shadow over the stones lining the floor. As he noticed this and watched, bemused and wondering if he was viewing a vision borne of tiredness, the shadow slipped from its position, sliding to the corner of the room nearest the extinguished candle. Leaping back toward his desk, Vidus drew a tiny dagger from his boot, the only weaponry he ever carried while in the temple, and tried to conceal his fear. As his heart pounded a fast beat in his skull, the shadows cast by the still-lit candles followed suit, ceasing to follow the movement of the leaping flames and vanishing to the same corner, leaving the eerie sight of a light casting no shade.

All was still for a moment, the only movements being the trembling of Vidus's hands and the corresponding vibrations of the blade he tried vainly to steady. Then, as softly as a summer breeze whispering to the birds, something from within the shadows spoke.

"Vidus..."

The voice, so faint it might have been nothing at all, was as smooth as silk and had the almost-reptilian hiss of the demons Vidus had written of on so many occasions before. He felt as though his blood was freezing in his veins, as if a void had opened within his soul to turn it to stone. Yet this was not all.

Suddenly, the three remaining candles, touched by nothing, went out, bathing the entire study in the same thick shadow that shifted and grew in the corner. Vidus silenced the scream that threatened to burst from his throat, making a tiny noise not unlike the whimper of a kicked dog. His fear became momentary embarrassment as a soft chuckle met his ears, then returned full force, his dagger nearly falling from his quavering grip.

After a few moments of complete darkness, the blood pounding through him painting dancing patterns of red over his eyes, the candles came back to life, flames leaping as if never having vanished at all. With a sharp intake of breath as he bit his lip with such force that it bled, Vidus watched the darkened corner of his former sanctuary twist and coalesce, rising into a doorway leading to a location as dark as the sun of the Hells.

Mouth falling open, Vidus looked toward the door of the study, planning his escape. His right hand searched for and found its iron latch and he gave it a pull, but nothing happened. Becoming frantic, he jerked harder, unable to turn his eyes from the bizarre gate, but again the door did not so much as whisper, the latch cold enough to sending burning waves of ice over his trembling fingers. As he paused, breath coming in ragged gasps, the voice spoke again.

"Futile...you will wait as I will it so."

Tears threatened Vidus's eyes but he forced them back, instead waving his dagger toward the shadows and replying, tentatively, "Who... goes there?"

A sound of dark laughter, harsh and atonal as an untuned lute, echoed through the room, then came a brief pause of complete silence. After that, a shadowed figure stepped through the gate into the study. Vidus fought the urge to dive beneath his table, watching in half-terror, half-wonder, as the creature bowed deeply, then straightened, tossing back his hood.

It was obviously a demon, but Vidus could not resist staring in amazement at its inhuman features. Scales the colour of obsidian covered the smooth planes of its face, glittering in an oddly metallic way as they reflected the candlelight. The nose they protected was quite like a man's, though perhaps a bit too pointed, and slightly elongated to balance its widely-grinning lips. Its hair, as well, was fairly humanoid, a similar shadowy shade laced with the blues of midnight, and braided into thick clusters that bounced and flitted about its face as if of their own volition. The eyes, however, were of the Hells alone.

As it smiled, mockingly, those eyes glowed from within with an energy that had terrified and bewitched men for all of Time's breadth. They were large, like a cat's, and curved upward slightly at the outer corners, giving them a feral look. Almost no white could be seen, the space occupied by large irises that glowed in the most haunting design ever to meet Vidus's sight. They were principally a deep crimson, the colour of sunlight on blood, but were ringed by a thick band of stark black, and flecks of gold and flame dotted their surface. The pupils floating in their centres were extremely narrow, slit horizontally like a mixture between cat and goat, and glittered with something the terrified priest could not comprehend, though he tried vainly as the demon spoke again.

"We have watched you for a long time, Vidus, priest of Danyenla. Your quasi-fanatical beliefs are both amusing to listen to and, we believe, hold much potential for both you and us." Noting the continuing aim of Vidus's blade toward its half-hidden form, the creature grinned, pointed canines glinting dully. "You will not harm me with that, good Priest - I am currently quite immune to your mortal weaponry."

At this, Vidus's trembling limbs lost to his panic and he reflexively released his grasp on the dagger's hilt, sending the short blade to the cold stone floor. He gasped to breathe, forcing his lungs to draw air when all they seemed to want to do was freeze, and whispered, quaveringly:

"W - w - why am uh... I of s - such import - tance to huh - have received your n - n - notice?"

Its nostrils flaring as if to drink in the scent of Vidus's fear, the demon's expression melted from one of mocking arrogance to a wide, cajoling smile, the colour of his eyes lightening to an even, fiery shade.

"Your chosen God, Danyen, smiles upon your birth-star, and your tireless teachings in his name have amassed much favour. Word has spread from the lesser deities to your Line that you may soon be named His High Priest, which would grant you much that could be used to our benefit."

This said, the demon turned its black-robed back to the now-bemused Vidus, gazing through the gate and tilting its head as if listening. After a moment it nodded slightly, braids dancing to a momentarily faster tempo, and continued.

"We, the demon Line of Ferai, wish to return from the Planes of Damnation to your realm. For this, we will need both arcane energy and the support of mortals capable of breaking the Great Seal's lock on your side, which we believe we will gain through you." The demon looked to the study's tiny window, where a few shards of sunlight weakened the candlelight, and frowned. "The Dawn nears, bringing the Great Seals to full strength once more, and so I must go. Think on my words, Vidus, and be prepared, for tomorrow I will return, wherever you may be."

The creature then bowed, Vidus remaining as still as marble, and walked back through the gate, which began to shrink immediately. Within a few eyeblinks the shadows had separated, returning to their candles and leaving Vidus alone with his fearful thoughts.

 

* * *

 

It all began with a prophecy of death. It had been a dark night, and the cold air had reverberated with her screams. Even as she sat bolt upright on her pallet, tears flowing over her face, the images of pain and damnation tormented her relentlessly. She trembled, some incomprehensible instinct forcing her consciousness to remain even as her mind sought desperately to escape the fearsome images that ravaged her soul.

This was not a part of her plan. She was high-born, a Sythnir House lady of nobility, and though she would never rise to one of the thrones or inherit a Crystal, barring a fluke in the form of plague or firestorm, she had much to live for. A high-lady, given appropriate training and a fair investment of Arcana, could eventually lead the Ice or even become Arch Magus of the congregation, and either option was the sort of future she dreamed about. Years had passed as she dutifully studied tome after tome by day, her nights spent cultivating the proper attitude and humours required of the nobility, but now her careful plans seemed to vanish before her eyes.

Madness was one of the infirmities that could utterly destroy her possible futures, and some would certainly classify her recurring nightmares as such. Though during the day her life could be conducted as normal, with each moment spent in fitful slumber came the terrifying images of Death, decaying bodies peppered with the blood of innocents as their energies - perhaps their souls - were consumed by the endless Void, and her screams became all that there was.

How could such brutality exist? her mind would scream each time, mere moments before she was lost to the all-consuming panic, the fear of death personified, for the hours remaining until the dawn touched the clouds once more.

With each passing night, the visions became ever more vivid, ever more intense. In the beginning, they were the simple nightmares of the typical sort - loves vanished, family lost, inheritance denied - but as the weeks more on she was shown atrocities of a steadily worsening nature, as if the poisoned evils of the hells were slowly filling her mind. She feared constantly for her sanity.

One cold Moonday, long after the rest of her House had fallen into deep sleep, the young noble reached her breaking point. Sitting as still as one dead, her mottled blonde-and-brown hair matted against her pale skin, she reached a decision: No more. Pushing her feather-bound locks from bloodshot eyes with trembling fingers, she turned on her pallet to light her little brass lamp. As golden light chased the evils of the night back to the hells, she felt slightly better, the decision strengthening her courage, and reached toward her night stand, picking up the small silver mirror lying there.

Gazing deeply into the endless metallic depths, far beyond her own reflection and into the reversed images of the Otherplace of Gli'est, she began to hum softly, summoning the Arcana that flowed over her spirit. The magical energy given to her House in millennia past by Gil'yan, Deity of Wizards, was as inherent within her as in any vested future Magus. After several long moments she began to chant softly in rhythmic patterns, voice trembling at first though it quickly steadied and grew stronger, the tones perfectly matching the silent but nonetheless tangible pulsations of the great Crystal peaking the Cathedral. The Crystal of the Sythnir House had hug there for as long as could be remembered, lending its magical power to its people, and the girl called upon it then.

Her uttered words grew louder as she stared through the depths of the mirror, her incantation setting the air aflame with charging energy. As time passed, her voice grew more guttural with strain, her eyes widening to become great spheres of jade in her spellbound face, and she felt the spell take hold as power and Arcana rippled about her slender form. The Crystal could be heard humming even where the girl sat, carrying out its ancient task as it focused and magnified her own ability, then suddenly fell silent as a blinding flash of light filled the chamber. All was still for a moment, and the lady feared that something had gone awry for but an instant. She opened her eyes, having closed them during the spell's climax, and found herself immersed in Gli'est.

The Otherplane appears differently to each person at different times, and in this case, it was like a universe of light and song. Colours were bright, sharp and infinitely varied, and the scent of newborn babe hung in the warm, springlike air. The sound of songbirds in love carried over the soft breeze, which wrapped about her skin like a blanket of love. As always, her God had provided exactly the scene she needed most, and she found herself relaxing immediately, the exertion of putting such a strain on her ability seeming far less than it would have otherwise. She stood for a moment atop a large stone that shone like a beacon of warmth, then turned slowly in a half-circle as she felt a hand touch her shoulder.

It was not Gil'yan; she would never have expected him, for he was a Higher Deity - nearly a full God, really - and she had never contacted One so powerful. However, the being was far higher amongst the ranks than she would have dared hope: it was Cyth, His High Priest and Apprentice of Wizardry. He bore the slender, physically weak frame typical of a Magus, but his white hair glowed radiantly, and his violet-hued eyes seemed nearly depthless. He had climbed to the rank of Lesser Deity only recently - much of mortality still clung to him - but he was still very wise and nearly overflowing with Arcana. She was desperately praying that he could help when he spoke, voice like a finely-tuned instrument:

"Hai'in, Nya, Lady of Sythnir! Welcome to Gli'est, home plane of your Deity, Gil'yan." He grinned then, an easy movement belying his mortal - and immortal - good looks, and continued. "Formalities aside, what brings you here, Nya? You seem most distraught, and the matter must be urgent to merit such a visit when it is such an hour at your House." Legends of Cyth's mortal good humour were apparently well-founded, as Nya took a liking to his personality immediately - friendliness did not command respect as did aloof power, but it was a most refreshing change - and her story soon tumbled out to meet his compassionate ear.

"Great Cyth, I may sleep no more - nights bring pain and terrible visions of people slaughtered most unnaturally, and days are haunted by the dreams preceding them! I think I am going insane, I can barely think at all, my studies go badly, and... I cannot take it anymore!" Her attempt at the eloquent speech deemed appropriate when speaking to One far outranking oneself failed then as her resolve broke, and the tears began to flow.

To her amazement, Cyth did not prompt her for details or rush her, but instead drew her near, into an embrace of comforting friendship. Warmth flowed through her shivering frame and, though shocked speechless at the gesture, Nya's aching soul began, then, to mend.

After some time, she drew back, strength replenished, the sobs gone from her throat. Cyth looked into her spirit as only a Deity could, and, apparently judging her to be sufficiently calm, released his breath in a heavy sigh.

"Make yourself comfortable, good Nya, for there is much I must tell you. You have been Chosen, for a purpose far greater than mortality, and come the dawn, your destiny will begin to unveil itself..."

 

* * *

 

As his chestnut mare's hooves pounded a quick beat against the chilled north-bound path, her breath appearing on the breeze in ragged snorts as she held her canter, Vidus weighed his options. In the hours after his midnight visit, the terrified priest had paced, unable to sleep or even lie down, until dawn was well underway, red-tinged light enveloping the horizon. At that point, he had packed a meagre travelling kit containing some hard but edible waybread, two canteens of water, a dagger slightly larger than the one now returned to his boot, and a map. He informed Fle�, his closest friend in the priesthood, of his imminent departure, giving as few details as was possible. Though he trusted Fle� like few others, it was far easier to fabricate a tale of family woes than to explain the truth - even if his comrade did not immediately think him mad, which was quite likely - so he babbled a few sentences about an ill relative and was on his way.

Now, as the small temple he had called home for more than a year vanished from sight into By'ren Wood, he travelled due north toward his personal solace: the Cathedral of Sythnir. Vidus had been raised in the small town of Yemwood, and the city that was home to the great Cathedral was within a day's ride. His family had visited it often, and though it focused primarily upon Gil'yan, it was there that he had bound himself to Danyen's service. The Deity of Silent Knowledge had whispered to his soul there, and while he had experienced similar moments of piety since, the holy structure had remained his favourite safehaven, one he felt could help him.

He was confused and distraught, but the emotion that terrified him most was one of simple curiosity: not for the Demons' goal, but for that one Demon itself. He felt a need to see the strange being again smouldering within his soul, much as it had frightened him, and was strangely expectant of the coming recurrence. Those feral eyes, so unlike his own misty green and yet glinting with such intelligence - dark and inhuman as that intelligence may have been - remained in his memory as if he had seen them but moments before, and some bizarre part of him longed to see them again.

Why me? he asked himself again and again as he rode along the long wooded path, the tall trees providing a cold breeze as they glared as if annoyed at his passing by at such an early hour, musing desperately as he replaying the night's events to the tune of his mare's hoofbeats and the fleeing of forest creatures. He was a young priest, so few years a full Disciple of Danyen, and had expected to scribe in obscurity for decades before earning any recognition at all. To become His High Priest was to act as Danyen's right hand - spreading His word and gaining Enlightenment in His name - and was an honour known to almost no one, it being the first step on the Path of Immortality. His High Priest, when one existed - for there had been none chosen in his faith for aeons - could eventually become an Apprentice or even a Lesser Deity in his own right, and such was a dream Vidus could not conceive of. He refused to acknowledge the Demon's assertions as anywhere near plausible, and forcibly choked down the hope that swelled within his devout spirit.

After a span of time his troubled mind barely registered, Vidus suddenly became aware of his mare's laboured stride. Moonlit Kiss - an apt name, given the way that many hours of loving grooming had spun a silvery lustre into her rich, dappled hide - was known among the Order for her smooth gait and easy temperament - indeed, Vidus was envied by many for owning her - but was not bred for distance travel. Feeling somewhat alarmed that he may have run her too hard, the young man reined her in, stopping as soon as a small clearing came into view. Rubbing her swear-flecked flank with one hand, Vidus hopped from the unadorned leather saddle with the uneasy gracelessness of one who is neither practised nor confident in his riding skills, and led the puffing horse over the grass.

"Poor lady - you deserve a rest, aye?" he whispered soothingly to her, removing the two canvas skins from the saddle's carry-flap. He carefully poured half of the lukewarm water from one onto the sun-baked grass for the tired horse, then took several deep draughts from the other. After several minutes of simply standing near his mount, staring off into the trees and pondering questions that just led into more questions, Vidus thought to return both skins to the saddlebag, and began to take a closer look at Moonlit Kiss.

He groaned inwardly as he lifted her left front hoof, feeling the heat radiate from her trembling fetlock. Obviously, the strain of so much as moving a limb was too much for the exhausted mare, who regarded him with a glazed look even as she managed a low whicker. Sighing, he released his grip on her leg, and moved to get a light blanket from her saddle - the only extra protection from the summery elements he had packed in his hurry. After draping the mare in the black-and-brown patterned sheet, hoping it would help cool her by absorbing some of the sweat, the priest slumped down onto a large, craggy boulder that jutted from the nearby soil. He knew that Kiss was too tired to bolt - and even if she weren't, she was well-trained to stay with her rider except under the most dire circumstances - so he allowed himself a rest; though, he reflected, it was borne more of necessity than choice. Singing a soft devotional hymn, the rises and falls of his practised - though not terribly talented - voice helping to soothe both master and beast, eyes closed as his skin welcomed the warm morning sunlight filtered by the trees, Vidus began to feel a slight ripple of energy pass through his sprawled form. It stemmed from behind his eyes and flowed downward, coursing through his tired bones and seeming almost to burn right into the rock below him. As his dulled senses snapped to attention, he tried to leap up, but it was too late, as a vision consumed the world whole, reality giving way to something far more terrible...

It was dark, as dark as the Void itself, and hummed of a Power Vidus could not comprehend. Masses of energy swirled about him, brushing against his bared flesh as if it were something visible, flitting about on a breeze as cold as Death's grin. After a moment, however, he felt a pull on his spirit and fell through the endless night, eternity slipping by as the rippling air muted his tortured screams. His soul was open and exposed, and the hands of the dead and damned stroked it lovingly, burning away all that was him and leaving nothing in its place. It felt as though he was being swallowed by something both infinite and infinitely evil, as though his skin and bone had melted away to bear his inner workings for damnation's feast. And all along, something laughed at his, at the futility of his silent cries...

Suddenly, he awoke to life, his tears real but the vision not. He shuddered and retched, the vicious feelings refusing to leave him, but rose weakly to his feet, driven anew. This could be you, and others, something whispered within him, and the need to reach Sythnir's Cathedral intensified. Vidus took the perceived warning to heart, and though he swore to himself that he would not run his beloved little mare to death, he removed the blanket from Kiss's now-cooler back and stowed it away. He climbed carefully back into the saddle, clucking gently to keep the horse calm, and urged her back to the path. As the sun rose into the noonday position, whispering through the leafy treetops to stain the wood a brilliant gold, Vidus and his mare travelled slowly toward the city and, he hoped, redemption.

It took far longer at this pace, but as dusk began to fall, the city of Highglen rose before them, a towering mass of stone and light. Kiss whickered happily, as if aware of the journey's end, and even the priest smiled, his weighted heart already feeling better. His momentary peace was dashed, however, as the frantic ringing of the Alarm Bell shattered the silence. Great forboding leapt over him, and he urged the horse into a trot, knowing that his vision was a dream no longer.