The abyss. It was never dark and yet there was no light. It was neither hot nor cold. It was a place of death and misery, but no odor fouled the air. It was a place where tormented souls wandered until consumed by demons, and yet it was bereft of spirit. No wonder some people called it hell. Azerick simply called it home.
He stood in the middle of Sharrellan’s garden, the one thing of beauty in this gods’ forsaken abyss. Forsaken by all but one god. Crystals sprang from the ground like shoots of grass between plants and flowers seen nowhere else in any world he could imagine. The colors were so vibrant it was a joyous assault on the eyes.
It could be that the dreary landscape of the abyss made them appear incredibly bright, but he doubted it. Azerick had no idea how long he had been here. Longer than the last time, certainly. Time was as meaningless and incomprehensible as everything else around him.
A soft, rich, seductive voice broke Azerick’s solitude. “You know, I spent a millennia crafting this garden, making sure every crystal and flower caught the light so as to be the most vibrant and spectacular creation known even to the gods. And yet your very presence makes it the gloomiest spot in all the abyss.”
Azerick looked over his shoulder at the goddess as her hand slid around his stomach from behind. Her jet black hair contrasted starkly with her alabaster skin. Her full lips, lavender to match her eyes, both of which changed colors to fit her whims, pulled up into a smile.
“After all these years, why must you still be so dreary? I thought you had accepted your place in the universe.”
Azerick looked away from her as he spoke. “Accepting something does not mean welcoming it.”
Sharrellan’s lips drooped into a frown and turned deep blue. “I hope you are referring to the place and not the company. I grant you far more leave than anyone else in my realm, but not even I know how far my tolerance goes. It would be best not to find out.”
Azerick, lord of the fifth circle of the abyss, found his smile and turned into her embrace. Riling the moody goddess was one of the few pleasures he found in this hellish place. He conjured a simple globe of light and enjoyed the rainbow of colors the crystals cast across the ground and on the nearby colonnades.
The iridescent reflections wavered and bent to his will and became bright silhouettes of Miranda, Raijaun, and Daebian. Within seconds, he had recreated his entire school in light—before the Scions had come and destroyed it.
“I see you are going to be in another one of your moods,” Sharrellan said. “You know, there are thousands of mortals who would literally trade their souls to be my consort.”
“And I would gladly change places with any of them. Even if it were an old cripple on his death bed. To see my wife, to touch her one last time with mortal hands, would be the greatest of gifts.”
“Ugh, you may as well be mortal. You certainly lack their ability to appreciate of what you have. I will leave you to sulk. Attend me when you are done with your little pity party.”
“It’s a good thing you’re immortal. You could be waiting quite some time.”
The goddess let out a growl and shattered the crystals into sand with a flick of her finger before turning and storming away. Azerick chuckled, pleased to have gotten under her skin once again. It was not as though he hated being with her, he had accepted his role long ago, but the memory of his mortality, of his ability to experience true pleasure, was too fresh in his mind to bury the pain it caused. It was an old wound, but it still bled. Probably because he would not stop picking at it.
Azerick gathered up the glittering sand with magical hands and sculpted it into his characters. Wolf and Ghost ran from the kitchen, chased by Agnes for stealing a ham. Having escaped the angry cook, the food thieves found Sandy in the woods and all three ate their pilfered meal.
He sent Grick and Ellyssa, a much younger Ellyssa, down into the tower sublevels to kill rats. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth even as a tear rolled down his cheek. He wondered what had become of his adopted daughter.
Azerick understood her need to get away, to try to leave the pain behind. But her choice to go with Daebian worried him. His son had his own demons, but unlike his father, he did not fight them. He welcomed them. Ellyssa had battled hers long ago, but he feared his son’s influence could bring them back. Azerick knew better than anyone that demons did not stay dead. Not the real kind nor the metaphorical ones.
He released his hold on the magic and let the sand fall back to the ground. Despite his assertions, Azerick had too much time on his hands to spend it sulking. Besides, he had actual responsibilities. Demons could not be left to their own devices for long before they got bored and caused trouble. Not a day went by, as far as he could discern time, that some group or another did not decide to declare war, on each other or with him.
His minions despised him. The demons of the other circles openly threatened him and constantly petitioned Sharrellan to either destroy him or allow them to launch a full-scale attack in an effort to unseat him as the master of the fifth circle. In their black eyes, he was a mortal soul and usurper that Sharrellan had elevated above them all, including greater demons that had waited centuries to become her favorite.
Azerick did not care. Every few years, a demon lord, either alone or as part of a larger assault, would challenge him, and each time he destroyed them with ease. None could match his power in the abyss, except the goddess herself, and nothing short of a full-scale planar war could unseat him from his throne. And with the goddess’ support, likely not even that. It was another reason to stay in her good graces.
He knew Sharrellan was merely annoyed and would not seek to punish him despite her warnings, but Azerick decided he had enough sulking for one day. He would bid her farewell before returning to his demonic kingdom. His absence only increased their conspiracies against him, so he preferred not to stay gone for too long.
Azerick stood and turned to leave the garden but paused when the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood up. It was the only warning he got before the world exploded. He was barely conscious of the fact that his feet no longer touched the ground and that he was flying backward at a phenomenal speed.
It took several seconds before he returned to ground, his body bouncing and rolling dozens of times before sliding to a halt, leaving behind a trail not unlike that of a meteor strike. Azerick climbed to his feet the moment he came to a stop, summoned his staff to hand, and shifted into his natural demonic form, ready to do battle despite struggling not to fall back down.
The staff looked absurd in his enormous, onyx hand, but there was nothing funny about the power it possessed. He had been denied its reassuring presence during his first tenure as demon prince and was properly grateful to have it this time. It was what elevated him so far above even the most powerful of demon lords.
Shaking the stars from his eyes and forcing clarity back into his mind, Azerick took in the destruction around him. The garden, and much of Sharrellan’s godly palace, lay in ruin. He beat his bat-like wings and lifted into the air for a better view of what had happened. The view from on high did nothing to improve the scene, and in fact, he now saw the totality of the destruction.
Whatever had struck had created a perfect circle of annihilation several hundred feet across, destroying not just the heart of the palace, but appeared to punch straight through Sharrellan’s celestial plane. Azerick reached out with his arcane senses, trying to detect the goddess’ presence but found none. Sharrellan, goddess of death, was gone.