A P O C R Y P H A

Unbound

The only sound Caleb could hear was one he never wanted to hear again.

The rattling of chains and scraping of feet on the floor had stopped, and Dantalion let out the most blood-curdling, heart-wrenching scream Caleb had ever heard, loud enough to drown out the sharp hiss of holy metal on damned flesh. Tears rolled freely down his cheeks as he watched the demon - his demon - relive the torture so heinous it affected him so deeply as to make him turn his back on the very cause he gave up everything to protect. Caleb struggled futilely against Rehael’s grasp holding him back. Unable to do anything but watch and listen, he fell to his knees, held up only by the angel.

Dantalion continued to scream, impossibly loud and unmistakably inhuman. His voice doubled, tripled over on itself in altered pitches he couldn’t normally reach, echoing in the chasm of the pit, and with the undertone of a low, rumbling threat that Caleb had only heard a handful of times but never seen the source. 

Drachma especially was enjoying this; there was no reason to press the brand this long other than to cause him as much pain as possible. That disturbing smile ever present on his lips curled into a gleeful, predatory grin as he gleefully carried out Haiyael’s orders while his master watched unfazed. Maybe he took some perverted, distorted satisfaction in punishing a demon on the very same scaffolding where he himself had been tortured eons ago. Caleb wondered if there was even enough of him left to remember that.

Finally, Haiyael waved a silent hand, and the pleasure drained from Drachma’s face. His lip twitched in obvious frustration but even he didn’t dare curl it. Instead he obediently handed the shaft of the brand to his master. The angel took it, grip delicate and almost gentle, and withdrew it slowly from Dantalion’s back. If there was any sound more sickening than his lover’s cries of agony, it was the sound of his skin peeling away from superheated metal like melted plastic, thin strings of it snapping one after another is it was pulled away. Dantalion sagged in his restraints, straining at the chains and shackles that continued to burn, heaving and gasping for breath. 

Haiyael turned to face Caleb. Rehael hoisted him to his feet as the Power approached. Caleb struggled with renewed fervor in fear of what the angel had in store for him, but still to no avail. To his surprise, Haiyael ignored him completely, merely slipping a finger into his front pocket to remove Dantalion’s seal. Then, he returned to stand in front of the Dantalion, seal held out before him in one hand, pointed at the original brand below Dantalion’s chest. 

The angels gathered around the frame took flight to leave the pit and perch instead on its edges, leaving Dantalion, Haiyael, Caleb, and Rehael alone within it. That didn’t bode well. Haiyael approached Dantalion’s limp body, seal at the ready, until he stopped just inches from Dantalion’s face. His free hand rose to stroke a gentle thumb against the demon’s cheekbone, and he said something to him. Caleb couldn’t hear what it was, but suddenly felt the heat of Dantalion’s eyes on him, a feeling that had always left him feeling flushed and warm, now leaving a cold chill sinking deep in his chest.

The angel rose to his feet again, but Caleb never felt Dantalion’s eyes leave him. Of all the looks Dantalion had ever given him, of anger, of disgust, of indignation, of disbelief, of lust, of love, this one hurt more than any. It had a cold, unspoken finality to it that constricted in Caleb’s chest like a vicegrip. He shook his head through the tears, words failing him.

Haiyael raised the seal again, and the lines engraved in it glowed that familiar electric blue, followed in turn by the exposed brand underneath his ribs. Dantalion jerked backward like he’d been punched in the gut, like he always did when the seal was invoked. But Haiyael squeezed the seal, and it cracked, igniting with a blinding white light instead, pouring from every fracture in it until the new, fresh brand on Dantalion’s back did the same. The demon’s entire body went rigid, jaw quivering silently around words that wouldn’t come. Haiyael backed away slowly, and once he was at Caleb’s side again, crushed the remainder of the seal in his hand. As it crumbled to the floor, both Haiyael and the angel holding him joined their brethren on the rim of the pit, leaving Caleb and Dantalion to each other.

Caleb watched them leave for only a moment before sprinting toward Dantalion to free him. But he slowed to a stop before he reached him. The chains were already straining, not against the dead weight of a limp body, but against a force actively pulling on them. Caleb’s eyes followed them down to Dantalion, who was curled in on himself as much as the restraints would allow. He was trembling head to toe, violent enough to be visible even a dozen paces away. He didn’t know what, but something was wrong. Very, very wrong. 

Caleb’s heart skipped a beat and plummeted into his stomach. The spikes and spurs scattered around Dantalion’s body began to grow, followed soon by the rest of him. The chains restricting his wrists finally snapped and he fell to the stone floor. Caleb watched in helpless horror as the demon kicked and clawed at the ground. From the end of his spine sprouted a long, whip-like tail, forking into three near the tip. His already long arms grew to an alarming length, longer than he had been tall a moment ago. A second pair of arms grew between his existing ones, their fingers uneven, misshapen, and gnarled. From his back sprouted yet a third pair of limbs, the longest yet, ending in spider-like digits that drew vast expanses of dark, leathery skin between them to form a massive pair of wings. 

Dantalion finally lifted his head and unleashed a deep, guttural roar that vibrated in Caleb’s chest, dispelling the streams of smoke rising from his seared wrists. The once familiar skull was elongated and lined with a great many more teeth than usual, with another pair of curved, pronged horns crowning his head above his eye sockets. And those opaque white eyes, always so calm and collected, were wild, minuscule in their sockets with pinprick pupils dark enough to swallow the light around them.  

Caleb stared into them, wide-eyed himself, and unsure of what Dantalion saw now. Another roar, pointed at him directly and revealing a second set of toothy jaws hidden within the first, answered clearly enough. That was not Dantalion. Not anymore.

The beast rose to its feet, using its enormous arms as forelegs, its body now large enough to snap the crossbeam of the scaffolding that had been holding him as it stood. It squared its stance to face Caleb directly, and bellowed once again. He was reminded of what he’d heard on a field trip as a kid about how to deter a bear. Something about standing your ground, making yourself look big and scary; he doubted it still applied when the “bear” was the size of a two story building. And the last piece of advice he remembered came just as the demon charged at him, jaws gaping wide: never, ever run.

Fuck that.

Caleb spun on his heels and sprinted...somewhere. Anywhere. The pit offered no cover whatsoever, so he wasn’t really sure where to go, but he had to go somewhere, as long as it was not here. He ran until he reached the wall, and turned on a dime to run along it instead. The monster’s awkward, mismatched limbs greatly impeded its speed, much to Caleb’s relief. But its size added to its momentum, causing it to slide and slam sidelong into the wall. The basalt cracked under the force. 

Not to be deterred, the demon picked itself right back up and resumed its pursuit. Caleb ran until he reached a corner and turned to follow it, this time without missing a beat. But the transformation hadn’t robbed the beast of Dantalion’s cleverness, and he wasn’t going to get away with the same trick twice. Instead of colliding with the wall again, the beast cut the corner, now only that much closer to snatching him in its gnarled hands. 

What are you doing, Caleb? I don’t know, think of something! Easier said than done with a giant immortal pseudo-deity hot on his heels and eager to tear him apart. He frantically skimmed through his memory of everything Dantalion had ever taught him about demons and their world. Before he could pull anything useful from his mental library, he skidded to a halt as the beast launched itself diagonal to him, hoping to cut him off. Caleb shrieked and fled in the opposite direction, demon still in tow. 

An idea struck him. Not from anything Dantalion had told him, but from his encounter with the Horseman, and, of all things, his physics class. Thank God or Satan or whoever the fuck was in charge anymore that that was the day he decided to show up to class and actually pay attention. What Dantalion’s new form had in raw strength and single-minded drive, it clearly lacked in maneuverability. Momentum was a function of mass and velocity, and this thing was not lacking in either. And when the Horseman chased them and Caleb was preparing to throw himself off a cliff to avoid capture, Dantalion thought better of it and stuck a long leg out to trip him. Caleb got a faceful of ash and rock, but the Horseman reared up a moment too late, slid to the edge of the cliff, and went over itself in his place. 

The Horseman was much, much smaller and more agile than this creature. And there was no cliff, but given the size of its wings, that wouldn’t have mattered anyway. What he did have were walls. And judging by the increasingly strong vibrations in the floor and the scraping of claw and hoof on the stone too close behind him, he had to act fast.

Caleb turned to run out in the middle of the pit, toward the broken remnants of the scaffolding. The beast followed. Before he reached it, he turned again, this time running for the far corner of the half moon pit. It followed still. When he finally reached the corner, he pinned himself back against it, and just as the gaping double maw was about to close around him, he ducked and turned back on himself to dart under the beast’s belly. Before he even reached its hind legs, the loud crack from behind him told him his plan had worked. Once clear of the creature’s underside, he looked over his shoulder to asses the damage from a safer distance.

The demon had crashed headfirst into the solid stone walls and inertia forced its body to crumple up in the corner behind it, leaving a thrashing mass of lashing tails, gangly limbs, and uselessly flapping wings narrated by a string of pained screeches. Caleb slowed but didn’t stop, turning to face it and backing away from it until he reached the scaffold once again, and only then did he stop. The monster clawed at the ground to climb over itself. Two of its horns were broken and half of its skull-like face was shattered, a thick, inky black ichor pouring steadily from the wounds. Its chest heaved, wheezing with each breath. Part of Caleb wondered if it wouldn’t have been less painful to let the damn thing eat him than to watch it - Dantalion - like this.

Whether enraged by the pain or through sheer unwavering, hell-bent determination, the demon approached again. This time it was slow, cautious, and with a noticeable limp. It made it easier to avoid, but likely impossible to subdue it any further. And if it came down to a waiting game with an immortal being that by definition operated outside the conventional laws of time, Caleb had already lost. He backed away from the scaffold, heart pounding in his chest and every breath stinging his lungs. His back hit rock, and the beast pressed on. This was it, he thought. If it was willing to be patient, there was no way to get out of this.

The beast stopped several paces away. Nothing about its body language suggested it wanted to kill him any less, only that it had learned its lesson and was now extremely wary of the wall and of him. Caleb glanced to either side of it, but didn’t see the point in making a break for it. The demons eyes followed his, and it spread its wings out low to either side, knuckles dragging on the ground and cutting off any escape routes but one. Caleb may have been able to slip by under it once, but the odds of tricking it twice seemed slim.

Caleb closed his eyes, waiting for his ribs to crack under the monster’s considerable weight, or for the searing pain of its teeth and claws sinking into his flesh, or even for the indescribable terror of being swallowed whole... But it never came. He cracked his eyes open again to see the beast exactly where it stood a moment ago, waiting for him to make the next move.

A sharp clatter to his right startled both of them. The monster flinched, and Caleb took the split-second opportunity to see what had been thrown at his feet. It was the spear of Saint Michael, with its pearlescent grip and golden blade still bearing traces of the blood of the slain archangel. Caleb looked up in the direction from which the weapon fell. Haiyael gazed down at him, perched with infuriatingly perfect poise on the very edge of the pit. He gestured with an elegant hand to it.

“Kill or be killed,” he crooned in that disturbing melodic voice. “Take it, boy, and do what must be done. It is your only chance at salvation.”

Caleb’s eyes fell to the spear once again, and then to the beast. This was not Dantalion, he had to remind himself. But if Dantalion was here, watching over his shoulder, whispering in his ear, he would want Caleb to fight. He would want Caleb to live, even at the cost of his own life. And if he had to die, he’d appreciate the irony of falling to the weapon of an enemy he’d killed himself. Tears welled up in his eyes, but survival instinct took over as the beast took a step closer. Caleb reached for the spear and scrambled to his feet, swallowing the knot in his throat and pointing the spear at its target. 

He thought again to what Dantalion had taught him. The only way to kill a divine being, demon, angel, or otherwise, was to destroy their provenance - the part of their body that absorbed and held all of their vital energy, their aura, the source of their power and culmination of their entire being. Once broken, they lose everything that made them what they are and cease to exist. And it had to be done with a divine weapon, like the one currently warming in his sweaty hands. It had taken ages for Dantalion to trust him enough, even after their relationship had progressed, to tell him where his provenance was. Caleb never forgot it, and it made his heart rate rise every time he looked at it from then on.

The great blue eye embedded in the beast’s chest fixed its pupil, more tightly constricted than Caleb had ever seen it, unwaveringly on the head of the spear. Dantalion had told him many times how that eye couldn’t perceive the material world, but another plane of existence, and that it could see magic and divine energy. He imagined there weren’t many things more qualified to strike fear into the heart of a bloodthirsty demon, fugue state or not, than a holy relic weapon dusted with the dried blood of an archangel.

Caleb stared into the eye that couldn’t see him; couldn’t see who it was that would drive the spear through it, couldn’t see the torment in his own eyes at the thought of snuffing out the only flame that made him see existence for what it was, the only one that fed his own fire. And then he gazed up into the eyes that definitely could see him, that had seen him; seen him more clearly than any other being divine or mortal, seen him at his strongest and his weakest, seen him stripped bare inside and out, seen through all his facades and bravado to not only what he was, what he is, but what he could be. And he knew that in a matter of moments, the light would be gone from them, never to return, and with it all the things Caleb loved, the things that inspired him to strive to be something better. He suddenly wasn’t sure he had the strength to do it.

The beast made the decision for him. It vaulted over the hurdle of its own anxieties and lunged once again, seeming now to move in slow motion. Caleb recoiled but held the spear firmly in position. The creature descended upon him, and Caleb thrust the spear up.

An ear-shattering screech pierced the air, distorting into raspy, crackling gasps. Black ichor spilled freely and painted Caleb’s legs and lower torso. He looked up to see claws groping desperately at the shaft of the spear driven clean through the monster’s throat, and the blue eye swiveling wildly in its socket, unscathed.

 He couldn’t do it. Even if it meant dying, even if it meant his soul perishing forever, even if it meant something he nor anyone else could never comprehend, he couldn’t kill Dantalion. As much as he tried to tell himself that this wasn’t Dantalion, some part of him knew it was a lie. He was still in there, somewhere. Buried, dormant maybe, but still there. 

A massive hand shoved against his chest and pinning him to the wall knocked the wind from his lungs and cut his thoughts short. Head and arms between the demon’s long and narrow fingers, Caleb kept his grip on the spear. The beast tried to pull away, but the backward hook of the spear head stopped it short, and the chilling feeling of it dragging through flesh and grinding against bone nearly made Caleb drop it. Locked in a stalemate, he looked up at the bleeding skull and the haunting, wild eyes pinning him far more forcefully than its hand. 

“Dantalion…” Caleb nearly whispered, the pressure against his chest making it difficult to breathe, never mind speak, “do you hear me?”

The eyes watched him warily from empty sockets. Caleb waited for a reaction, but none came. “I know you’re hiding in there,” he said, cracking a tired, lop-sided smile. “Come on, don’t be such a pussy.”

There was a long pause, but finally the creature lowered its head to look at him more closely, as much as the spear would allow. A breathless wheeze and rush of ichor gurgled up through its teeth with every exhale to brush across Caleb’s face. Caleb let his head fall back against the rock and his eyes fall closed for only a second. Dantalion or not, this monster was still dangerous. He lifted his head again and swallowed, suppressing the knot that had reformed in his chest.

“I’m gonna let go now, okay? And you gotta let me go too. Alright?” The only response was a raspy rumble. Really, if it came down to a quick draw, Dantalion would win regardless. He had nothing to lose. “Count of three, ready? One, two… three.”

Caleb released the spear. The beast didn’t move. He held both hands up in front of him so the eyes could see them, coated in their own blood that had run in rivulets down the shaft of the spear. “C’mon, man. I know you’re in there. Please.”

He ignored the uncertain murmurs of the spectators high above them, and their shocked gasps when the beast finally withdrew its hand. Caleb dropped a few feet to the ground and stumbled forward, catching himself on all fours. He caught his breath and looked up once again to find the skull still looking back, and still wary. He pushed himself up to kneel and tentatively reached out to the skull with one hand. 

“Hey…you remember me now?” The head shied away from his touch. “Shh, it’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you again.” No reaction. “Okay, uh… here. Hold up three fingers for yes, two for no, and one for ‘I don’t know’. Okay?” He demonstrated with his own hand, then gestured to the uneven hands still clenched around the spear. The eyes followed where he pointed, then fell back to him.

“…Yeah? Okay, okay. Do you understand me?” Three of the fingers uncurled stiffly, unwilling to fully release the weapon. Caleb choked out a sob before he could stop it, and a smile spread across his face. “Yeah, you do, I know you do.”

Caleb sniffed and wiped his eyes with one hand. “Okay, do you recognize me?” There was a longer pause this time, and two of the fingers closed around the spear once again. “…One, you don’t know? So…it’s a maybe? Okay, maybe’s good, maybe’s good.”

He rose to his feet and the demon shrunk back. Caleb stopped and held his hands up again. “No, look. Not gonna hurt you. We’re…we’re friends. I’m your friend. Remember? I summoned you, long, longtime ago… and I had no idea what I was doing. You made fun of me for it, but you helped me do it the right way. Cuz under all those teeth and…and insults and swearing and middle fingers, you’re just a good person. You didn’t want some stupid kid to fuck it up and damn himself to an eternity in Hell just for shits n’ giggles. But then I fell in love with you and fucked it up and ended up down here anyway,” he chuckled. “…You remember all that?”

Another long pause, but the beast shifted closer. Caleb held one hand out again. “Remember?”

It pushed the fractured remains of its snout into his hand, and then further into his chest. The gentle nudge had more than enough force to break through the dam in Caleb’s heart. He threw his arms around the skull, clutching it and sobbing into what was left of the bridge of its nose. “I’m sorry, D… I’m so sorry…”

A wet scraping sound followed by a howling shriek as the sword sank between his ribs, and Dantalion twisted around on himself to get the attacker off his back. Caleb gasped and looked upward in shock to see Haiyael hovering above them. Dantalion writhed on the floor as Caleb watched helplessly in shock.

“Well done, boy,” chimed the angel. “You have shown mercy to your enemy and offered him as a sacrificial lamb to cleanse his soul. God will be especially pleased with you.”

“N-no… No, wait!”

Haiyael’s wings vanished and he dropped onto the demon’s back, plunging his already lodged sword deeper into his chest. Deep enough to force his provenance from its socket. “No!” Caleb screamed through his tears. Dantalion froze. All of his flesh turned black and melted off his bones, liquefying in a puddle where he stood. His skeleton followed suit and the spear clattered to the ground. And all the ichor that had been spilled in the pit, on the wall he’d crashed into, on Caleb’s clothes, on the floor and the spear and the sword, all crawled toward the displaced eye like it was sucking it up in a vacuum. In a matter of seconds the pit was clean, and the blue eye spun on its axis as it darkened into a shiny black sphere. The spinning slowed enough for it to roll, tinking like glass as it did, and coming to a stop several paces in front of Caleb.

Caleb and Haiyael locked eyes for only a moment that felt like an eternity before the angel rushed forward to claim the orb. A loud, reverberating boom from the end of Satan’s staff stopped him short, and every head in the vicinity turned to face him. He waited until total silence fell on the ad hoc arena, then pointed the staff at the lone angel in the pit. 

“Contrary to what you appear believe, Haiyael, your allegiance does not give you authority here. In this realm I am king, and you and your legions are but unwelcome guests that I have begrudgingly granted civility and hospitality. And yet here in my pit, you have seen fit not only to cruelly and unjustly execute my loyal Grand Duke, but to make a mockery of it, thus disrespecting me, my kingdom, and my people. And I will tolerate it no longer.” 

The staff came down again, and the crowd’s attention shifted from Satan to each other. In mere seconds the stands erupted with the raucous cacophony of a spontaneous battle. Satan leapt from his seat to land effortlessly into the pit and calmly approached Haiyael while angels and demons raged against each other around them. He stopped, and the angel held fast. Satan pointed to Caleb with the staff, then to the orb. “Take him and go, boy. The time will come.”

Caleb didn’t need to be told twice. He scurried to his feet and made a break for the orb without bothering to ponder Satan’s cryptic words. He swiped Dantalion’s orb up in one hand and Michael’s spear in the other as he passed them and ran with no destination in mind. He stopped in the corner Dantalion had hit and glanced desperately around the pit.

 

Before he could decide on his next move, and before an angel could ensure that he didn’t, he was swept off his feet and into the air with an undignified yelp. Caleb looked up to see his captor and was relieved to find Sitri smiling down at him. The demon hauled him up until he could tuck the human under one arm, making it far easier to dodge whatever might be thrown at them. “Come, Caleb,” purred Sitri, a grin of smug anticipation already settling on his face. “We have much to prepare.”