“Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”
– Charles Maurice de Talleyrand
Xipe Totec lifted his head at the sound of the bell. He smiled, assuming Kirsty had solved the puzzle box again at last. He rose from his chair as the Schism opened before him.
Shapes and shadows collected around him: servants and sycophants eager to follow their master, to share the blood he would spill in the human world. With a negligent gesture, he stopped them. This one was a soul he would not share; her blood had grown too precious to waste on the craven ones that served him now.
“Kirsty,” he whispered languidly in his ethereal baritone, savoring the twin syllables that made up the one name that sparked his long-dead hunger.
Looking into the opening void, the door between Earth and Hell, she whom he wanted was not there, though another treasure was.
He saw two souls – a boy, not quite a man, and a female child – and the scent of the boy’s blood made the lord of the Cenobites growl. He stepped through the door to deal with this old enemy, a thin ribbon of anger rippling through his eternal calm.
The human male was not startled to see him appear through the broken rent in a wall of his world but when the Cenobite saw the madness in the mortal’s eyes, he felt the slightest disappointment. A misguided fool of Lemarchand’s lineage was hardly worth the kindling of the old rivalry that had momentarily sparked in him.
Yet, the human’s soul was spiced with wickedness – not so common in one of that line – and might be amusing for a time. One sweeping glance at the child told him she was not only innocent but also a victim of the other’s cruelty. She was of no interest to the Order of the Gash.
Staring into the eyes of the boy, he saw the ancestors stretching through time beyond him – back to the beginning. Their blood had bathed and enriched his hands many times over.
“Jack Merchant. I remember your exquisite suffering when I took your father – the breaking of your mind begun that day has blossomed. Now, it is time for an end. You sought your damnation. It has come,” he intoned.
“Not mine,” the boy said in a rush, “yours. I know the secrets. I know how to destroy you all! I have ensured the salvation of my family, reversed the mistake of our ancestor!”
“Yet you opened the box,” the Cenobite responded, “calling me forth to claim you. How will you destroy me – when I drag your soul into Hell.”
The great bell stopped tolling the instant he summoned the chains. They erupted from the leaking walls, striking their barbs into the human’s flesh, suspending him in his screams. An eight-spoke half-circle of chains, like a spider’s web, formed the scaffold of his torment; the bright hooks pulled at his flesh, stretching it out from his bones. He writhed in agony until his screams quieted to whimpers. Though his father had fought to the last, this one was too quickly bereft of both his remaining sanity and any ability to struggle for life.
He watched the fevered eyes fill with an even brighter madness, bejeweled by the liquid rubies that welled and slipped down his face like tears.
“Where are your pronouncements, Son of Lemarchand? Is your purpose so thin that it tears as swiftly as your glistening skin? Or perhaps, you hope to challenge me in my own realm?” The Cenobite smiled. “This has been attempted before, by greater than you, Toymaker. Still I remain – and my triumphs are legends in Hell. You will learn this, in time. You have eternity. For now … the first lesson.”
The Cenobite slipped his fingertips inside the human’s bloody open shirt and into the chest cavity, regretful only that his enemy seemed incapable now of coherent understanding. Reaching up into the ribcage, he pulled the still-beating heart free. Brandishing it before the boy’s eyes, he watched the empty chaff sink slightly in the chains with no more than a broken moan. Cheated of any real satisfaction, he crushed the throbbing organ in his fist and dropped it to the pool of shining viscera on the floor.
Releasing the corpse, he allowed the body to drop to the wooden planks as the chains disappeared, the jumble of flesh smearing the blood it sprawled in. He turned to the door behind him, a void, open and waiting, full of the sounds of maddened black wings. Raising a bloodstained hand, he summoned servants forth. They came, avid and hungry, some walking, crouched or straight, some crawling on their hands for want of legs, and surrounded the pitiful being that had been Jack Merchant.
Xipe Totec turned away from them all as they pulled their prey through the door. They would take his soul to the Labyrinth, there to suffer torments for all time. In moments, all evidence of his blood had disappeared.
Some fragment of emotion akin to bitterness haunted the Cenobite’s thoughts. The box lay on the floor at his feet, just another configuration completing its created purpose. Kirsty still waited. After she had completed her bargaining yet again to keep her own soul, he had seen to it that the box was left in her keeping – certain that she would open it again, eventually. She was proving to be a most unpredictable being.
He bent to retrieve the box and turned back to the door. A tiny gasp caught his attention and he turned again to face the other soul, the child. She was hunched on a pile of rags, peering up at him.
“Are you an angel?” she whispered.
He smiled. “To some.”
She uncurled and turned to get her feet and hands under her, struggling to stand. The mosaic of dried blood and fanciful ink covering her thin back surprised him and the sum of the myriad images, in the center, drew his curiosity immediately. It was similar in design to the box in his left hand but the pattern was familiar beyond that. He had seen it before, as an old drawing on parchment. John Merchant, father to the boy he had just taken, had kept it safe – a souvenir from their ancestor Lemarchand.
There were differences, advances of design. This was obviously the handiwork of Jack Merchant but the evidence of what it must mean was shocking. Yet this was not the child of the madman – she carried none of the blood of Lemarchand.
“The symbols on your back – do you know what they represent?”
She blinked at him, her hand reaching to touch the small of her back. “Jack said it’s a drawing – to save our family. Is that why you came? You made him go away. Can you help me?”
“What do you want?” the Cenobite asked the ritual question, a slight smile on his thin lips. Her utter fearlessness was impressive.
“I want to go home,” she answered, tears springing up in her wide blue eyes.
“So be it.”
Yet he would not take her to her home. He reached out his right hand to her, palm up. When she stumbled to him, weak and trusting, and placed her tiny hand in his, he swung her up into his arms. She touched the box curiously, so he placed it in her hands.
“What is it?”
“It is a means to summon my kind.”
The child held the box firmly in one hand but raised the other to timidly touch the rounded tips of the many golden pins that adorned the cut grid in his ghostly white face. Their eyes met and she seemed no more than curious, gazing into the wide black depths of his eyes – dark pools that did not mirror a soul.