The elders say a person’s composure reflects their soul. If this is true, then half our kind are mad.
The eclipse is nearly here. I have anticipated it for twenty years, since my first transformation, and I have more or less made peace with my destiny. The moment in between brings fear or purpose and the only thing I feel right now is a burning determination to succeed, lest my soul be sent to rot in hell.
I stare out over Liosene, the dusky sunlight calming. The city is beautiful and bright and, in the distance, in the Central Step, I see the beam of light that reaches upward from the cathedral, past the clouds, toward Rapture.
“Every soul that walks this world does so with a purpose,” I recall my father telling me when I was young.
And I am close to fulfilling mine, so close.
I raise my nose, inhaling deeply. The air is crisp, but my senses are keen. You cannot hide from me, Éligyon, I think. Not anymore.
I stand tall, flexing my broad shoulders, feeling stress and worry flee, my eyes once more dancing left and right, making memories one last time. Once the eclipse is complete, I will not see this place again.
I step forward off the edge of the roof, the wind rushing past me as I near the ground. I land nimbly in a crouch, on my toes, then straighten up. I pull my coat a bit tighter, starting out onto the street, ignoring the strange looks the people give me. Who are they to judge me when they prance about in vibrant reds and greens with ribbons streaming from their garb?
The odor of my quarry is profound. For so long Devils have roamed the streets of Liosene, undetected by the mortals, blending in so well, in fact, they think themselves invisible.
But I know where they hide. I see them, trulysee them. I smell them too: sulfur and ash, the very odors permeating the walls of the parliament building. Ironic, considering how often I have heard someone complain about politicians smelling like Perdition.
If only they knew.
I am not heading for the parliament building, though. The scent leads me directly through the East Step, and I walk hastily, my eyes set dead ahead. I ignore the rich folk in their loud garb, the corner harlots calling to me with curling fingers, the beggars rattling their coin-filled cups. In this moment the Devil is my sole obsession and I cannot help but wonder if Éligyon knows his end is near.
As I turn a corner someone touches down on the pavement behind me. They are skilled, trained. I can tell because of the near silence with which they approach. I turn calmly at the hand upon my shoulder.
“Beo. You look like you’re in a rush, old boy,” Eros says. There is a mischievous twinkle in his young green eyes. He runs a gloved hand through his dark hair, tilts his head, and frowns. “It’s time…isn’t it?”
“Well wherever you’re headed, I’m coming with you,” he decides, drawing his lips to a thin line.
I regard him for a moment, the two of us a pair of shadows in a city of color. “It will be dangerous,” I warn, though I know full well that Eros can fend for himself, that he has seen his share of evil, even at the age of twenty. After all, I am the one who trained him in his ways.
“And I owe you for these last eight years,” he counters. “Let me help.”
I shrug and motion for him to follow.
We continue through labyrinthine alleyways, toward the outskirts of the Step. The odor is increasingly profound, even here amidst the feculence and waste. It burns my nostrils, but we press on through the shadows till we reach an abandoned tavern in the slums. The sign hangs sadly to the side and the windows are boarded up, much like every other building here.
Eros cocks an eyebrow. “Inside?”
He looks about, making sure we aren’t being watched, but I approach the door and kick it down. I set foot across the threshold and immediately the odor’s strength intensifies, no longer smoke and ash but rotting flesh as well. Behind me, Eros retches.
The room is dark despite the dusky light outside, but with my bestial vision I have little trouble making out the door at the far end. I cross the room, weaving in between the dusty, mold-covered furniture, readying myself for anything and everything.
“Really makes you want a drink,” Eros mutters.
I tug on the door. As expected, it’s either locked or jammed in place. I kick it down. The noise makes no difference. If I know Éligyon is here, he most likely knows that I am too. That’s the way scents work with both our kinds, why brute force is often times a better choice than stealth.
The stairwell down is cold. Despite his training and his confidence, Eros’ uneven breathing betrays his fear.
“Calm yourself,” I say.
The deeper we descend, the fouler the aroma grows, to the point where even I am on the verge of retching. I cannot help but wonder what monstrosity and horror we will find.
The stairway levels out into a dark hallway. On each side are rusted cells that smell like death. In the stillness of this awful place I can hear the anguish of lost souls, trapped here forever by time. It stirs my blood and keeps me focused on my final task.
“Will you tell me what you hope to find?” asks Eros.
“A Devil,” I reply, my gaze unwavering as I walk. “One I’ve hunted for the better part of twenty years.”
“A Devil? As in a creature from the Book?” inquires Eros.
“Lord Éligo,” I say. “A representative of the College. His true name is Éligyon.”
I stop and turn to Eros, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You can turn back now if you want. When I said this was going to be dangerous, I meant it.”
“I’m not going anywhere, old boy,” he says. “If there are truly Devils in this city then I need to know what I’m up against.”
“They are not your destiny,” I try, though I do not know if what I say is true. An orphan nine years to this day, who’s to say the Devils aren’t somehow tied to Eros? Who’s to say they aren’t responsible for feeding him to the streets?
“Let my kind do as we have always done and keep these fiends in check,” I try. “Keep your focus elsewhere.”
“I can’t. Not anymore, Beo.”
We are silent a moment. Every soul that walks this world does so with a purpose,I remind myself. “Come. We’re close.”
I hear him draw his blades, and I feel my transformation growing nearer. Despite the coldness of the hallway I am burning, throbbing, aching to be free. The beast beneath my flesh is eager for one final run.
Our pace quickens down the winding hallway. My fingernails are ivory claws now and my ears are pointed back, flat against my skull. I have begun to shed my skin and so I tear free my black coat, followed by my shirt. My flesh falls in tattered strips, pushed away by long white fur. I must look like something from the College laboratory at this point.
We pass through the final old door and at the end of the room stands Éligyon, tall and wiry, with spider-like appendages. The ceiling, floor, and walls are covered with hundreds of pulsating bright green eggs and I understand now why this building smells so sick.
There are no words exchanged between the three of us. Eros and I rush the arachnid Devil, our assault missing narrowly as the spindly fiend clamors up the wall. Éligyon screeches; the noise is high-pitched, nearly deafening. The eggs pulse one final time and then burst open with a sickening squelch.
The spider-fiends are hideous, just like Éligyon. They are red-eyed with mouths that open in quarters, revealing needle teeth and pincers. Uneven legs protruding from their torsos force them to lumber as opposed to run. So many times, the gazette has profiled missing people—mostly wealthy politicians, educators, and the like—and now I finally know where many of them went, what fate has befallen them.
I lash out and level a few of the creatures with a forearm strike, evading a glob of septic spit from Éligyon in the process. I bound to Eros’ side and gore a pair of spider-fiends, then I brush away the next wave like they’re made of paper, sending dark blood in all directions.
The spider lord descends and spits toxicity our way. It hits me in the right eye and Eros takes a shot to the chest. He is knocked back and I snarl as the poison burns my eye. I thrash wildly, knocking away more of Éligyon’s monstrosities, then barrel toward him. This time, he isn’t quick enough. My transformation is complete, and I can feel their power flowing through me, moon and sun alike, more than I have ever known. I wrench his limbs away and Éligyon shrieks.
He curses me but I merely stare, my orange eyes reflecting in his scarlet ones. He shrieks again, so I bite his tongue and pincers out, then rend him easily in two, his entrails garnishing the floor, the spider-fiends crumbling into ruin without his presence to provide them life.
“That was…disgustingly quick,” says Eros, wiping spit and slime from his face.
“He was a lesser Devil,” I say, ignoring the searing pain in my eye.
“You ripped him in two like it was nothing, Beo,” Eros says.
“The eclipse amplifies my strength. He was also weaker than anticipated.”
I can feel them waning, sun and moon. “Let’s go.”
Eros and I stand outside the old tavern, sore and covered in filth, looking up at the sky, at the sun, now almost completely swallowed by the moon. I let a low sigh slip through my teeth as my two forms begin to fluctuate. It is a very strange feeling, like continually putting on and taking off different size trousers. I am at peace, I think, but the adrenaline surges through me nonetheless. I cannot help but wonder: what if I had failed to slay Éligyon as the eclipse took place?
My chest tightens as I imagine a world overrun by the Devils and Damned, and for just a moment, I am able to comprehend the dread that so many of my kind have fallen prey to, the absolute annihilation of composure and balance, the fear of dwelling in Perdition for eternity, losing one’s self completely. It makes me shiver.
“I’ll miss you, Beo,” Eros says, drawing me from dark thoughts.
“I will miss you too,” I reply, looking at him, my poise returning. Eros smiles, but behind it, hiding in his eyes, I see the sorrow. It’s the very same I saw the night I found him all those years ago down in the South Step. Less now, but there regardless.
“My people have a saying: composure is the reflection of the soul. You have a good soul, Eros, which is more than I can say for many of the mortals in Liosene. You need to hold onto that composure, even when times grow dark. And they will.”
The eclipse is nearly complete. I can feel my insides pulling in different directions; my body is on fire and my thoughts are screaming, the fluctuations coming rapidly. I take a deep breath, then exhale.
“Existence never truly ends,” I say. “If you embrace the fear of death and failure, determination will blossom like a summer sun. Let your ambition, not dread, govern your actions.”
“I will,” says Eros softly.
We sit, and I feel my twofold tangibility ignite. I watch myself begin to burn in Eros’ eyes, like a torch or lamppost in the night. It starts from the bottom up. My feet and legs are ash, then my waist and torso, hands and arms, an ethereal residue rising wisplike from the ruin of my flesh and bones.
“What’s it like?” Eros asks. His voice quivers, his body shakes. “What’s it feel like, dying?”
I close my eyes, permitting myself to smile before the rest of me departs.
“Warm, Eros. It feels warm.”
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