Isagel av huset Asphodel
The Fey-Smith and the Three Devils of Millford
“Yes, try to kill me. Please.”
“A good smith can always find a place to live”, Askim used to say. “But we must never forget who we are. We must be always friendly, always give way in quarrels, and never give them reason to hate us or fear us. So we can live in peace.”
Isagel heard her father say these words often enough to accept them as one of the immutable truths of life. She had little reason to question what he said; there were, after all, lots of ways in which her family differed from the other villagers. None of the others had blue skin, for instance. Or fangs, horns and tails.
The people of Millford-on-the-Water were like most country folk in any age and place: They distrusted¬¬ strangers, and the more so if those strangers were not human. But Askim had been given leave to settle there with his family, and he had, over time, even acquired some measure of respect. Such was the value of a good smith; especially one who had contacts among the dwarves of the mountain.
Askim, his wife Aska and their daughter Isagel – three strangers in a world of humans. There were others: The fey folk of the forest, seldom seen; the halflings on the river, bringing trade and tidings of the outside world; and the dour and taciturn dwarves, bringing metal and sometimes a few precious gems from the mountains. But none of these were so markedly strange as the tiefling family.
Isagel played with the other village children, but they were often cruel to her in the way children always are, and always will be, to outsiders. When she cried to her parents, they told her that she had nothing to be ashamed of: She was descended from the royalty of a great kingdom, and should be proud; she even wore the name of an ancient princess. But she could not tell anyone about this, her father said, not even when they pulled her tail. It was their secret, and one that had to be kept.
Isagel thought long about this, and dreamt of a day when a tall black carriage would come and take them away to a far land where everyone had horns and tails. But as she grew older she realized that this would never happen, and that the old kingdom – if it had ever existed – lived now only in the tales her mother used to tell at night.
Askim was a gifted smith, but he had higher hopes for his daughter. He dreamt that she would become a scholar, as the family had been in the olden days. He taught her to read and write, and bought her books whenever such were brought by the traders (which was seldom, for apart from the tieflings none but the village priest was ever known to be able to read).
The girl took readily to her lessons, but what she liked best was to stand by the forge and watch her father at work. She marvelled to see the iron come alive under his hands, where such simple things as plowbills and horseshoes became like glowing things of magic. Now and then he worked in silver as well, crafting small pieces of jewellery which he sold for good money to the halfling traders. But the best things he made, he gave to his wife and daughter. They only dared to wear them at home, but one day, he said, he would have made enough money to travel to a great city and set himself up as a silversmith in truth, and then they could wear all the jewellery they wanted. “And you, daughter”, he said to Isagel, “will be a scholar at a great university!”
Isagel did not know what a university was, and her father could not really explain it, but he said that it was a place with many books, where people talked about the world and learned great secrets from the stars. He didn’t know how many books there were, though, or how a star could be persuaded to reveal a secret. Her mother Aska would only smile sadly and shake her head.
When Isagel was fifteen, her mother told her a little more about the ancient kingdom. She learned that their horns, tails and peculiar eyes had not always been there but had been a gift from ‘the Others’, who also looked like that and who were lords and princes of a realm on the other side of the sky. With this gift had come power and glory, her mother said, and their world was dark and beautiful. But the power and the glory were long gone, while the horns remained, “to set us apart and teach us not to hold our heads too high”.
Aska sounded bitter when she said this last, and Isagel – who did not like to see her mother unhappy – did not press her. When later she asked her father if the “power and glory” really was gone forever, or if ‘the Others’ would come back, he slapped her face – the only time he ever did so. And he told her, while holding her in a way that hurt, that this was something that could be neither wished for nor spoken of aloud, “for there are some, still, who remember”. Isagel knew then that there were some things in which her parents, who seldom argued over anything, were very much unlike each other.
Another summer came, and another winter. And then came the plague.
It was a horseman, some said. Others said it was an old crone with a rake. But whatever form it took, the result was the same: People sickened and died. In some places only a few were taken, but in most villages half or more of the population perished. And soon after followed the other horseman: Famine. For many fields had been left to grow wild, with the farmer dead in his house or even lying behind the plow; so swiftly had death taken him.
In Millford-on-the-Water, thirty-six out of one hundred and twenty residents perished before summer, and another thirty-eight were gone at summer’s end. All of Askims family had been spared, which was unusual even considering that there were only three of them. This blessing was soon to prove a curse in disguise, for with the autumn rains came the Sin-eaters.
Sin-eaters! Bereavers! Plague Monks! Their very names caused people to tremble and stand aside at their coming. Dressed in rags and bloodying themselves with three-pronged metal-tipped whips, they marched across the lands under a great brown banner, singing hymns and preaching about penitence and the sins of Man.
The sins of Man were legion, they said. And it was their God-given duty to seek out and cleanse these sins. The Plague was a sickness of the soul that had grown so vile as to consume the body – only by purifying the soul could life be spared; else all must fall to the sickness.
The method of purification was simple: When the soul was sick, it could be cleansed with holy fire. The pyres burned bright along the tracks of the Sin-eaters. This autumn they burned in Millford.
Isagel hardly had time to be afraid when her father came to her and her mother and said that they must leave, they must leave now, there was no time to bring anything with them, but they must go swiftly into the forest and not look back. She looked on with wide eyes as he took down his crossbow from the wall and loaded it, before he went before them through the door.
Outside there were a great many people coming up the village street, neighbours and strangers among each other. When they saw the tieflings they cried out in ugly voices, and gained speed. Isagel needed no one to tell her to run, and they went around the smithy and up across the open field. The forest was there, no more than eighty yards away, but it was uphill in high grass. And behind them the voices were yelling louder and louder.
Isagel ran with her heart as a terrible pain in her throat. Her mother was beside her, stumbling in her long skirts, while her father kept to the rear. She looked back a few times, only to se his drawn face, the awful fear in his eyes, and then he shouted, “Go! GO!”, and she turned and ran on.
The trees were not all that distant when her mother stumbled again. She got up, but only to stand unsteadily, her hands fumbling at some black thing sticking out from her chest. Then she went to her knees.
Askim was on the ground beside his wife, grabbing her arm. Isagel could not understand why she would not run. The yelling, horrible mass behind them were getting closer, and she would not run. Her father raised his crossbow, but the bolt went wild. Another arrow passed under his arm, tearing his wife from his grasp. She fell sideways, looking up at her daughter. Her mouth tried to speak but only blood came out. And then the pursuers were upon them.
Hands, hard hands everywhere. Those who held Isagel belonged to the barrel maker, she noted, with a strange sense of detachment in the middle of blind terror. Other hands struck at her father, dragging him up and away from his still wife. Isagel screamed and screamed as they were borne along on a tide of human fear and fury.
The open space in front of the chapel was too small to be called a plaza, but it was large enough for Father Radoc’s purpose. He had found an old cart as a makeshift stand, and had placed it a good few yards windward of the hastily erected pyre. The crowd grew quickly silent as he raised his arms in the Bright One’s blessing.
Isagel hardly heard anything of the sermon. A blow to the mouth and a few vicious kicks in the ribs had put a stop to her screaming, and she had trouble breathing. It had quickly become apparent that the Sin-eaters were pleased by whatever violence was meted out, and not a few of the villagers were anxious to prove their piety. Others seemed less taken in by the proceedings, but none spoke out against the black-clad monk on the cart. Isagel could see Father Alden, the village priest, standing to one side. His face was scarcely less gray than the worn walls of his chapel, and when his eyes met Isagel’s, he looked away. Her father was lying close to her, his face downward in the mud. But she could see that he was still breathing.
The preacher was raising his voice, and Isagel could make out that while he seemed to be deploring the death of the she-devil – by which he obviously meant her mother – he was satisfied that the other one had been only mildly hurt. The monk’s voice carried strong as he concluded his sermon with an imperious gesture toward the two captives. The Sin-eaters closed ranks around them.
Isagel watched while they tied her father to the pyre. Many hands held him, but he did not fight. She hoped he was unconscious. One of the monks – a tall barrel-chested man with a large flail tied to his back – stood to one side holding a burning torch. The smell of oil was thick in the air. The black-clad leader said something and pointed, as two men came up carrying the body of Isagel’s mother. It was tied to the pyre next to her husband. And then the torch came down.
If Askim was unconscious, the flames woke him up. For a few moments Isagel dared to hope that the fire wouldn’t touch him – he was only rarely burned even when handling the heated implements of his forge – but his natural resistance to fire only served to prolong the inevitable. His screams lasted for a very long time.
Millford-on-the-Water was purified, but the Bright One’s work was far from finished. When the Sin-eaters left the village they had made one addition to their ranks: They brought with them a metal cage, where they kept the last and youngest of the Three Devils of Millford. The cage was well merited, for she was a wild thing, hissing and spitting at anyone who would go near. There was no small amount of talk about this, as many thought that the spawn should have been burned along with its parents, but Father Radoc had decided how it would be. They obeyed him in all things.
Father Radoc was pleased. He had heard rumours of the Fey-Smith of Millford but had never given them much credit – these were people, after all, who would look for signs of the Dark One at the bottom of milk-pails – but when he arrived, and saw the creature made flesh before him, he had taken this as a sign that his mission was truly blessed. Who else, but the foremost servant of Light, would be given the task to eradicate such… _palpable_… evil?
He had to admit, it had been a stroke of inspiration when Brother Elijah suggested that they should cage the youngling. With her in tow to present as a physical and very tangible confirmation of the powers they were up against, who could argue against either the necessity or the success of his holy mission? True, there were risks with keeping such evil in their midst. Her presence was a continued threat to their spiritual purity, and one night a few months ago some of the less steady among the Brethren had opened the cage and befouled themselves with acts of vile bestiality. This had been very unfortunate, but Radoc had himself led the transgressors in two days uninterrupted prayer, at the end of which they had wept together as he pronounced them cleansed and free from sin. The creature had been marked with hot irons to tame her wantonness, and a new lock – to which only Radoc himself had the key – had been fitted to the cage. Brother Elijah had also suggested that the cage be covered up, to prevent any further displays of the creature’s depravity. Elijah had been with Radoc from the start, had given him strength of both arm and purpose, and he always gave good advice. But in the end Radoc had decided to keep the cage uncovered. What use would it be to have caged the beast, if such a triumph of Man’s holiness could not be there for all to see?
Father Radoc liked to reason by way of asking himself questions to which he already knew the answers. This gave him comfort in his daily toils, which were beginning to wear a little upon him. After all, is not a clear and well-guided mind the reward of a good and just conscience?
There were times when Isagel thought that she would loose her mind. It would snap, break, go away and be gone for good. Some part of her longed for this to happen. She was gone for more than a fortnight after the horrible burning, and it was only gradually that she realized the reality of her surroundings. They were hardly conducive to an ordered state of mind, and she continually drifted in and out of sanity.
She knew when she was sane, however. Those were the times she spent studying her captors, memorizing their faces and listening for names. She had a good memory for names, even if her memory seemed to be a little sketchy in other ways these days. She knew the men didn’t like it when she gazed at them; some would turn away, and others would come up to the cage and curse at her or strike her. The latter usually brought a sharp remonstration from the tall monk with the flail, who seldom seemed to be far away. She wondered about the reason for this. They seemed anxious to keep her alive, if not exactly in health. The cage was open to the elements and the food – when she got it – was really bad.
The monks’ reactions to her quiet periods made her wonder what she was like when she wasn’t sane. The bruises on her hands and feet, as well as the dried bloodstains on the bars of her cage, gave some clues to this.
She saw her mother and father. They were standing by her father’s forge, which was open and burning with a great fire within.
Her father said: “You must not go in.”
Her mother said nothing, but the look on her face was the same she’d worn when she lay dying on the field of grass.
“In where? Father, why would I go into the forge?”
“They all did, into the Forge of Souls. You must not go in.”
The forge roared at her, hungrily.
At one time they stopped in a village that was much larger than Millford. It had high walls of wood, and several two-storey buildings, and a great crowd was gathered to listen to Father Radoc. He spoke loudly and at length, and it seemed to Isagel that he must have been saying things about her, for a lot of people came near the cage and looked at her. Most were hostile, and there were many signs to avert the evil eye, but some seemed merely curious. It occurred to her then that she might speak to them, that perhaps if she did so it would make them set her free, but when she opened her mouth only a garbled hiss came out. Those nearest to the bars backed off a little and then laughed nervously, and one woman spat at her. She didn’t notice, for a dreadful sense of loss had come over her. She had been silent for so long, she had lost the power of speech.
And there were other times, with screams and the smell of burning flesh. She could seldom tell if this was memory or reality.
“Isagel of House Asphodel, Daughter of Aska. We will speak”.
The meaning of the words was lost on her, but she reacted to the names. None of her captors had ever called her by name or used the names of her parents.
The summons was repeated, with grave formality. She opened her eyes and found that although it was still night-time, she was no longer alone in the cage. A slender man in expensive and tasteful clothing was standing a few feet from her. His face was in shadow, but she was sure she had seen neither the clothes nor the man before. She was at a loss how to react. It did not occur to her to be afraid.
After a while, the man seemed to get somewhat impatient, and spoke the same sentence a third time. She looked around for Brother Elijah, who was sure to come running if he had heard, but he was nowhere in sight. She tried to gather her wits, and remembered that she couldn’t speak. She told him so.
A few moments passed before she realized what had happened. She said the words again, hesitantly. “I cannot speak.”
“But you can”, the man said. “It is imperative that we speak, and that you be of a full mind and in good health. Be it so.”
And the marks her ordeal had left on her mind and body were erased.
For the first time in months she looked about herself with mind and senses intact. She looked anew at the man in front of her, and now it occurred to her to be afraid.
“You should not fear me”, the man said. “I bring you the offer you have been waiting for. All you wish for can be yours.”
Clarity of thought was a boon; Isagel tried to bring her other faculties to bear as well. “You are… one of ‘the Others’?”
“What is your name?”
“I am Belial.” She recognized the name, even though she was certain that she had never heard it before.
“Who am I, that… that you would speak with me?” The archaic phrasing came strangely naturally to her.
“A good question. You are the youngest now living heir of House Asphodel, of the Blood Royal of Baal Tuarath. I would call you by title, princess, were it not that the titles of Acheron outrank those of the mortal realm.”
“You are a prince… your Grace?”
The man – no, not a man, something else – acknowledged the courtesy with a slight bow.
“What is this offer of yours, your Grace? And what’s the price – and why me?”
“The offer is Power, to be given not lent. The Price is simply this: Usage of this Power that is given. And the reason for my offer is that I am bound by a contract signed long ago.”
“What’s in it for you? – your Grace”, she added, somewhat belatedly.
“I am not required to answer that question.”
She paused for a while. “This power… can I use it to get out of this cage? Can it kill my enemies?”
“The first, easily. As for the second, if you speak of the Sin-eaters, you need not be concerned. If you accept my offer, things will proceed so that they will eventually be undone.”
“I don’t want them to be undone ‘eventually’! I want to watch them die, burning as my father did, and I want to be the one to burn them!”
Something in the Other’s manner suggested a smile. “I can see that we will be in accord, you and I. Very well. If you accept the offer, it will be as you wish.”
Some stray thought nagged at her, but she couldn’t quite catch it. She ignored it and pushed on. “I have a few more questions, your Grace… if I do this, can I truly get all I wish for? And will my soul belong to you, or be damned, or what?”
“They always ask me this.” The voice sounded tired. “One: The contract sets no bounds on what you may or may not accomplish. And two: The price does not specify your soul.” He did not add, “Silly girl”, but it sort of hung in the air.
She spoke quickly, before she had time to change her mind. “It’s a deal!”
There is a moment of preternatural clarity. A feeling as if a gong is sounded, across a wide sea. In a time where there is no time, a little bit of reality is rewritten.
“The Pact is sealed. So mote it be.”
He came close to her, and for the first time she saw his eyes. She would have pulled back, then – from him, from the deal – but he had hold of her now, and his lips covered hers. He opened his mouth, and she was filled with white fire.
Father Radoc screamed as the flames consumed him, withering flesh, scorching bone. He screamed until the fire burned out his lungs, boiled his eyes, cooked his brain, and he fell dead among the charred bodies of the Sin-eaters. She fed on his agony as she had fed on theirs, and when his life left him she took a piece of it into herself, drinking it like a fine wine, shuddering in ecstasy. She was a thing of Power now, elemental in her fury, terrible in her beauty.
Yes, try to kill me. Please.
It would not last forever. But she would taste it again.
She knew she would.
Only one body was missing from the dead: That of Brother Elijah. And even as Isagel noticed this, she realized that she would never find it.
She knew now why he had not been there to raise the alarm when the ‘Other’ spoke to her. The man who had been Father Radoc’s right hand, who had stood beside him at every crossroads before and after Millford, the man who had put the torch to her father’s pyre – was no man at all, but something else.
She knew now who it truly was that had murdered her parents – and why.
She wondered how much of the life she stole from her victims was hers, and how much belonged to the ‘Other’.
The Price is simply this: Usage of this Power that is given.
Somewhere, in a time where there is no time, across a sea that is not a sea, there is the sound of mocking laughter, hard and brittle as ice.
She felt cold.
Isagel of House Asphodel, Occult Mercenary
We meet Isagel again about two years after the burning of the Sin-eaters. She is a little taller now, and much stronger in herself, as well as in her powers.
She has come to terms with what she is – tiefling, warlock and a young woman of eighteen – and she refuses to be ashamed of either. She quite enjoys the new freedom this has given her. She has even learned to laugh again.
She uses her powers often, just as she knew she would. Even if she were not bound by the pact, she cannot give up that sweet ecstasy. In order to salvage her soul – if possible – she has decided to hire herself out as a mercenary, but only for a good cause. As long as she feeds only on the life of evildoers and bad persons, she figures she will be alright.
She knows that she might be trapped – Belial tricked her once, when she asked for power over her enemies, and he may have tricked her twice or more – but she will cross that bridge if and when she has to. When her terrors sometimes get the better of her, she prays to Juno for her soul (who knows – maybe the Goddess is listening?). Or she gets really, really drunk, which also works.
She prays to Dis Pater for the souls of her parents. Her father would not approve of her choices, but she believes that her mother might. And if they are together, perhaps he will come to understand.
She has never returned to Millford.