As I stepped through the rift, it sealed itself behind me. The first thing that I saw was the shore of the partially frozen, and very loud, Cocytus. The wails of the tormented souls rang out in a miserable and deafening chorus. Interlaced were the sounds of the cold eels ripping a few apart and feasting upon the wretched ones in a frenzy.
I inhaled deeply before letting out a relieved exhale, “Aaahhh, simply splendid.” A jagged smile broke forth from my face as I savoured the sights and sounds of my cottage property. Not far from the shoreline, to the south of the lake, was my humble home away from home. Essentially a bunker made from charred bedrock that I personally hauled from another layer of hell, it was naught more than a rectangular prism of dark stone. From the outside, anyways.
I approached the only door, the only entrance and exit to my cottage, and ran my left hand across the sinuous pine wood. As I do so, I remembered carving the planks myself from the corpse of a rotted greatwood in the Seventh Circle, long ago. I reached for my key with my right hand but smelled something approaching from behind. Something that was not a lost soul or a frigid river fiend.
Turning slowly, I spied the encroachment of a fellow demon. Though, of their intent, I knew not. But, as they drew closer, they spoke. “Hail! Baron of Beholders,” the red one said in greeting.
“Indeed.” I responded simply while taking a few steps towards them, which made the visitor stop. “What business do you have on my property?”
“Don’t remember me, eh? Well, no matter.” They smiled wickedly. “Maybe this will remind you...” they continued before drawing a pulsating black orb from thin air.
“Oh, right, the void heart. Pass it here and then move on. I’m busy.” I demanded of the lesser demon. As I glared at them I remembered that their name was Orothac, and that they were lieutenant in Astraroth’s army. Orothac was a bipedal-humanoid demon. They wore a simple skirt of beast hide plated with iron squares and nothing else. For one to travel in such attire in the Ninth Circle, they surely could not be as weak as many other mere lieutenants. This is something I had not realized on our first meeting, not so long ago when he operated as a scout for a mutual raid conducted by my own and Astaroth’s forces upon the treasure horde of an abyssal dragon. I had assumed that he was merely a disposable scout.
“I don’t think so, Baron. The price has doubled.” He smirked. His scaly, red skin cracked slightly as he flexed his muscular body. His beady, all-black eyes stared forward as his simple dual-slit nose sniffed the surroundings. His savage mouth opened to reveal outwardly curving teeth meant more for harm than consuming food. This was not only a breach of the contract I made with Astaroth himself but a challenge.
As Orothac flexed and his scales cracked from the inner pressure, I sensed something more than demonic behind this new aura appearing from within the lieutenant. Violet, almost black, waves pulsed out of the demon, but in a strangely familiar way.
I then opened my eyes, truly. Not all of them, but a fair amount more than usual. Upon my blacker than night cloak they individually opened. Many vibrant violet ones with shifting pupil shapes blinked open, violently darting about hungrily. As well as a single, large, round one with no iris at all, and with a horridly constricted pupil that left its surroundings mostly white, though it peered knowingly and whispered telepathically of things queer and perverted.
“I see now…” I stated as my gazes were drawn to the void heart still in Orothac’s right hand. Colours indescribable to humans radiated from the thing in pulses that shifted from incredibly slow to insanely rapid. “That is no mere jewel. That is the heart of the abyssal dragon itself. Why it was laying amidst hoards of gold and gems, I know not. But I do know that I still need it for my experiments. I do not care what you are, demon or revenant possessed by a dragon of the deep. I already told you to hand it over, and I do not repeat myself.” Hardly before I finished my statement, I commanded a platoon of peeping purple eyes to unleash a barrage of minute, yet penetrating ultraviolet beams at Orothac.
They struck the fiend almost as fast as light itself would from any infernal source in these depths of Hell. From the frontal impact, Orothac’s body was bent at almost a ninety-degree angle with a loud, wet, SNAP. I chuckled as I realized his spine could not deal with the force of my minions’ ocular attacks but was impressed that his lower body, from the navel down, had stayed in place, feet planted into the rocky terrain. Though, his upper body fared far worse, as I saw thin plumes of smoke rising from the wounds in his chest, shoulders, and face from the piercing gaze of my eyes. But, incredibly, his wicked frame righted itself with a grotesque crunch. Soon, his upper and lower body were aligned again, though the upper slumped to the right slightly, his form having lost much structural integrity. From his eyes, nasal slits, and mouth then came an undying screech mixed with a hissing roar and arcane black lights the likes of which I had only encountered once before, in the lair of that whose heart now pulses before me in the grip of a demon void of his mind.
“Okay, I get it. You are… annoyed that we raided your treasure hoard...while you were still alive...and still there. But the past is the past. And my patience has run out.” I then mentally whispered to the great eye with the constricted pupil, whose compacted centre then began to vibrate energetically. From Orothac’s corrupted body I saw the rise of a draconic miasma that began to form into the maw of an ethereal copy of the felled abyssal dragon, but only momentarily...
...For then I commanded my energetic eye to unleash its wrath. Like an army of phantoms, unseen but undeniable, they surged force faster than thought and swept the miasma away like it was a mere cloud of dust. The force within Orothac dissipated as well, for the time. In this moment of calm, I quickly dashed forward and snatched the void heart from Orothac’s statuesque form. Already, violet light was returning to the eyes, nose, and mouth of this husk. Though, when I snatched the heart away, it faded permanently.
Deciding to have some fun, I then unleashed a roundhouse kick to the humanoid demon’s sternum. Though, since their frame was already weakened severely, the force of my kick was enough to separate their upper and lower halves. Orothac’s limp torso sailed through the air and into the frigid waters of the Cocytus. In alert reactions, the cold eels of the depths rose swiftly and tore apart the torso in a bloodthirsty frenzy that dyed the waters of the near shore with crimson viscera.
“And now for dessert!” I yelled to the hungry beasts as I delivered a reverse axe kick to the legs of the dead demon, which sent the lower body flying into the red water where the upper body previously landed. As expected, the eels made short work of it.
Now that the annoyance had been dealt with, I could now proceed to my actual business, though, as I held the void heart in my hand, I heard a ghastly whisper in the back of my mind. One urging me to give them my soul. I snorted in derision. “Yeah, right,” I scoffed before beckoning one of my ocular minions. “Reginald, you’re up.”
Then, from my darker than black cloak, emerged a beholder with a large, single, central eye with a golden iris. Their five tentacles quivered in simultaneous waves as a greeting. Small sparks jumped from their tentacle tips as tiny eyes opened and closed there as well. Their round pupil constricted briefly into a slit before rounding back out, testing the different lighting of Cocytus. This sub-species of beholder, Ecce fulgur, had no mouth, therefore communicated solely through physical cues.
“Hold this, but don’t touch it,” I said before gently lobbing the void heart at the pink-fleshed, floating, minion. They nodded their entire head-sized body in agreement before extending their five tentacles out before themselves. They created a net of fine sparks in the shape of an inverted star, which caught the almost equal-sized black gem in a magnetic field. “Good, now let’s go, before anything else gets in my way.”
And without delay, I finally entered my cottage through the gnarled, moaning door. When Reginald and I were within, I shut the door behind us and bolted it with thick bars of iron, steel, silver, and orichalcum. I did not wish to be disturbed. “Now,” I said with a deep sigh, “time to get to work.” I handed my cloak to the skeleton butler by the door, who nodded knowingly.
“Would you like some tea, sir?” offered Oz, one of my skeletal butlers. He was a bare skeleton with naught but a mustache composed of wispy shadows and a sharp goatee of black iron. He proffered a silver tray laden with two granite mugs. One with a bubbling dark green liquid, which popped on occasion. As a particularly large bubble burst, Oz introduced it, “Swamp moss from the Amazon steeped in the black waters from Styx, upon the fifth circle…” he then trailed off before rotating the tray deftly to point the other one at me, just as a few sparks jumped from its yellow contents. “...and the bile of a lightning fiend from the far east, kindled with sparks birthed from torture implements in use upon the Eigth Circle…”
“Hm...” I pondered, but while doing so, Reginald drifted into my field of vision. He winked at me before staring at the yellow fiend bile. I smiled knowingly before responding to Oz, “I’ll take the swamp juice.” I then proceeded to take the mug of dark green liquid and sip it with relish. After enjoying the strong, plant flavour I continued, “throw the other mug onto Reginald.” I then downed the rest of the boiling swamp moss and Styx water before placing my mug back onto the tray.
Nodding at my command, Oz doused Reginald in the yellow bile, which caused a small cluster of electrical explosions to briefly illuminate the room. After the light dissipated, Reginald quivered happily in gratitude. “The lab is ready, sir,” Oz then informed me with a curt bow before excusing himself. There were apparently chores to be done.
Refreshed and ready to experiment, I led Reginald to my cottage’s laboratory. Just beyond the front door, where Oz was waiting, was a small atrium of blackened stone lit by floating orbs of yellowish-orange light. They illuminated a single hallway which led to three doors. One on either side and one at the end. Reginald and I entered the one on the left, which put us into the place where all of my experiments on this level of Hell took place.
Within, just as I had left it, was a human man, clad in a torn and bloody brown robe. His ankles and wrists were bound by dark manacles that were staked to the ground with black iron pegs as long as his forearms. “Mr. Predator,” I said to the bound man, “So nice of you to join me!”
“P-please, let me go! I’m innocent! I’m not what you think I am. I’m just another lost lover, wind-swept by the hurricanes of the second circle. All I did was-”
“Silence!” I hissed as I extinguished all light from the room. The only visibility came from Reginald’s subtle yellow sparks and the violet aura of the Void Heart. “I know what you are, scum. But you won’t be such for long.” I paused before chuckling darkly, the dim contrasting light likely illuminating my form in a sinister manner, “no human down here is innocent. For innocence is like a flickering candle in the wind. It can be snuffed out in a sudden gust, never to return. But, you know all about that, I’m sure…”
“P-please,” begged the bound man.
“Enough whining, I’m not here to bargain,” I concluded before turning to Reginald. “We’re doing a transplant today. But, it will be a tricky one. You see, we need to stuff this Void Heart somewhere, in place of something, but we need this sack of filth to stay conscious, and more importantly, alive. Indefinitely.
“To keep his pulse steady, we’re just going to hijack his heart with your electrical current. We can always get another human heart after this experiment to replace his original if it comes to that. To keep him conscious, I’m going to operate with only minimal anesthetic. Enough pain to keep him alert, but not enough to risk him passing out.
“But now, the quandary: what to replace?” I finished speaking and illuminated the room once more, which made my experiment wince. Reginald then floated over to the man and stopped near his head. “You think we should replace the brain? That seems logical. Alright then, let’s set things into motion…”
As Reginald buzzed happily at the prospect of science, I rested my darker-than-black cloak upon a nearby coat rack, which was the spinal column and rib cage of a centaur, who once tried to sell me a timeshare in the Second Circle, but would not take ‘no’ for an answer. I then clapped my hands thrice and whistled three distinct notes. One signal, of thousands, that I assigned to each of my minions. From a chute in the ceiling, descended another beholder, similar in size to Reginald.
Though, this one was light blue, with four tendrils. Each ending in a dizzily spinning eye, paired with a small, toothless mouth. Their central body was orb-like and consisted mostly of a singular, large eye, not unlike Reginald’s, but with a large, round pupil ringed by a fuchsia iris. This one had no main mouth but could still chirp from their tendril mouths. They also gave off a faint chill and subtle mist filled the air about her. A species from the Genus Frigus, within the Family Beholder, Frigus minor, was capable of great dexterity and ice-related magic. Especially this individual.
“Gloria, please prep the… ‘patient’,” I requested of the new arrival. She blinked and nodded before preparing the area. I then chuckled darkly at the bound man, indicating that what would follow would not resemble ANY form of ‘treatment’. He groaned miserably in response. Which made me laugh even more.
As Gloria set to gathering the proper tools and instruments upon a waist-high stone table adjacent to the experiment, I washed my hands and consulted a few medical texts via the icy screen that Gloria had just formed from water in the sink. Images and words appeared on the frosted surface from the telepathic scanner and projector I had set up in the room. Brain surgery was always one of my favourite pastimes.
After preparations were completed, I asked Reginald to place the Void Heart into a newly made ice jar, so that he could focus on the operation about to take place. With Gloria on my right and Reginald on my left, I stood at the head-end of the experiment’s table. I double-checked their bindings before starting the surgery in earnest.
“Gloria, numb this numb-skull’s skull, if you would,” I directed from my beholder nurse. Her lower right tendril chirped in acknowledgment before exhaling a thick white fog about the experiment’s head, which caused him to begin sputtering in alarm.
“N-n-no! S-stop!” he fumbled out before his lips and tongue became crusted with frost, rendering him incapable of proper speech. Not that I would have heeded his words anyways.
“Scalpel,” I requested and extended my right out towards Gloria, who with her lower left tendril handed me a scalpel from the nearby tool tray. I then carefully made an incision into the experiment’s left temple while speaking to my pinkish, electrical assistant, “Reginald, place two limbs upon this scumbag’s upper chest and then begin running a slight current. Make a circuit.” The beholder in question buzzed agreeably before doing as I indicated.
The bound man before us then began to drool slightly, though the saliva froze at the corners of his mouth, which gaped in unmoving pain. With the icy pseudo-anesthetic applied and the heart's safety net in place, I started the real work. From the incision I made in the experiment’s left temple, I drew the small obsidian blade across his forehead, then around the right side of his hairless head, around the back, and then met up with the incision on the left temple once more.
I then dug my fingered into the cut upon his forehead and began pulling back the flesh. As I did so, I cut away more and more of the tissue connecting the flesh to the skull, in the deepest ‘scalping’ one could perform upon a human. Soon, a bony dome sat freshly before me, speckled generously with congealed blood. I placed the severed scalp upon a clean tray of ice for later and then proceeded to work at the bone.
“Gloria, the saw please,” I said as I held out a hand in her direction. In it, she placed a part of the rostrum of a demon sawfish I caught many years ago while fishing the waters of the Archeron. Its many tooth-like serrated scales perfectly arranged for hacking at living organisms.
As I began cutting into the skull, careful not to cause unnecessary trauma to the near-worthless brain within, the experiment began to moan. Their pupils constricted in agony, though were still focused. Around the skull I sawed until the whitish dome came off, revealing the pink mass within. “Now for the tricky bit…” I spoke, more to myself than my assistants, before continuing the transplant.
With my left hand, I grabbed the brain firmly. I then slowly drew it out of the skull through the top of the experiment’s head, revealing a taught cord attaching it to its host. “Reginald, prep the Void Heart. We’re about to do the swap,” I said to my assistant, who agreed with a short buzz.
In one swift motion, I severed the cord connecting the brain to the body with the obsidian scalpel. Quickly, I then placed the brain on an icy tray nearby and watched as Reginald held the Void Heart near the cord, now dangling from an empty skull. I grasped the end of the cord in my right hand and pressed it to the bottom of the Void Heart. In a matter of seconds, the Heart’s fell and hungry nature latched onto the cord, as I predicted it would. “Shove it,” I commanded, and was obeyed.
Reginald gently shoved the dark gem-like object into the cavity where the brain once rested. I tilted the table so that the subject was more vertical, making it far less likely for the experiment’s new brain to fall out.
Making quick work of replacing the skull cap and the scalp, I was done with the operation within minutes. The experiment, having both survived and experienced the surgery/torture in full effect, now was resting, eyes closed, in a subdued state. For my nurse had administered a strong sedative formed from the venom of both manticores and cone snails. Though, they were no longer the wretched soul I had scraped from the bottom of the Second Circle’s wind-torn valleys.
They were now something else. I looked at the brain of the former lost soul upon the ice tray near to me and scowled at it. “Gloria, please dispose of the biohazardous waste.”
My frosty assistant then used all four of her slender tendrils to breathe four plumes of frigid, white smoke upon the lame organ until it was completely frozen within a round block of ice. She then picked it up and looked at me. She gave me an ocular salute in the form of a single-eyed blink before flying back up the chute she had entered from earlier.
I then turned to Reginald, “You’re dismissed as well.” He buzzed agreeably before erupting in small sparks and then entered the portal-fabric of my darker-than-black cloak. Since my cloak’s fabric was tied to many different places, he could go wherever he wanted, as long as it was in Beholder territory. My cloak, still upon the coat rack, didn’t budge upon Reginald’s exit.
Looking down at my experiment, I pondered what I could call them. For they were no longer the Abyssal dragon which the Void Heart belonged to. Nor were they the pathetic human that once held the fleshy host. Before I could ponder further on the matter, there was a knock at the door. “Enter,” I spoke and from beyond appeared Oz, my skeletal butler, apparently bearing important news.
“What is it, Oz?” I asked while donning my cloak.
“Beg your pardon, sir, but there seems to be a demon at the door. She claims to be a general in Astaroth’s army,” Oz responded politely.
“I see,” I stated before glancing over my shoulder at my experiment. “Keep an eye on the results of my research, I’ll see to the visitor.” I strode past my butler and made my way to the door.
I stopped and peered through the peephole, which was the enchanted lens of a dead beholder minion of mine. Their vision had served me so well in life that I made sure to honour their falling by ensuring they do so in the afterlife. Maurice was his name, and he was one of my best scouts. Through Maurice, I spied the demon Oz had spoken of.
They were standing just beyond my door, in a passive, patient stance. I recognized them as indeed one of Astaroth, a Duke of Hell’s, generals. In humanoid form, Ignita, was a bipedal, seven-foot-tall, broad-shouldered warrior clad in deep green-scaled armour and black chainmail. Her eyes and hair burned and smouldered upwards with dark blue fire. Her gaunt, mauve face sullen and bored.
I opened my door and greeted the visitor, “General, what can I do for you?” I inquired, prepared for an encounter as violent as with Orothac, the lieutenant of Astaroth’s army who I had taken the Void Heart from.
“I was ordered to follow Orothac here,” she stated in her deep, gravelly voice. “But he seems to have gone missing. Did he at least make it here first, Baron?”
Pondering why a general was ordered to follow one of her subordinates, I responded to her question honestly, for I feared not what Astaroth, or his army, thought. My deal with the Great Duke was still technically not concluded, though, as he had delivered the heart, but I had yet to pay him. His tradesman and messenger fell to the influence of the Abyssal Dragon’s heart before the exchange could be made properly. “Orothac tried to rip me off, so I ripped him in two.” I paused to allow the words to sink in. Smiling at the glare that she gave me in response, I continued, “He was also being controlled by the dragon’s heart. I did everyone a favour. Besides, you know the law. ‘All hatred is to be replied in kind’,” I quoted.
Ignita’s angry glare turned into one of annoyance, “Damn. Lord Astaroth was correct in his theory, though the transformation happened quicker than expected. Very well, I shall collect the payment for the Void Heart, plus interest for Orothac’s demise upon your property.” She then extended a massive hand outwards, palm up, ready to receive payment. “Seventy thousand souls,” she demanded; an outrageous amount!
“Seventy thousand souls?” I asked, though more as a threat than a question. “The Void Heart was supposed to be ten thousand, and there’s no damn way that Orothac was worth sixty thousand to Astaroth.” I then reached into my cloak and withdrew a small glass sphere filled with ten thousand compressed souls. Harvested from around the Nine Circles, it housed the life essence of ten thousand humans who had perished and passed on to the afterlife. “Ten thousand. As agreed. If you want more, you’ll have to take it,” I told the demonic General as I tossed the glass orb at her.
Ignita caught it in one of her massive, taloned, hands. She looked down at the glass ball, full of human life, and scowled, “Ten thousand is an INSULT!” She then crushed the orb easily in her hand and absorbed the ten thousand souls into her being. She inhaled most of them into her wide mouth and slit-like nostrils, but those that were not sucked in simply were absorbed through her armour and skin. She glowed briefly with a white aura before soon returning to her usual luminance. “I’ll spend these as I see fit, later on. Seventy thousand, Baron. I’ll take them now.” Ignita then hissed angrily and her neck began to extend. Soon, it was as long as her seven-foot body, but that was not the most significant change. Her flaming eyes and hair then formed a mane of dark flames and her face warped into one with greatly enlarged jaws, like that of a serpent. “SSSOULS!!” She hissed ferociously as she struck at me with her new fangs.
“Fool.” I insulted as I side-stepped swiftly, which made Ignita slam her face into my cottage’s gnarled curse-wood door. The door howled in agony and a cloud of shadow roots erupted briefly and forcefully, returning all the force that Ignita’s strike had imparted onto it, which sent the general’s head reeling backward with a pained hiss.
In the opening caused by my door’s counter, I called forth one of my mightier beholder minions. Out from my darker-than-black cloak’s dimension-bridging fabric hopped, loudly, one of my more physically inclined subordinates. Upon a single, thick, muscular leg(that is actually the mutated eyestalk/optic nerve) bounded a grand eye whose diameter was greater than I was tall. A huge eye, armoured by many lids like the shells of great tortoises, hulked menacingly between Ignita and I. “Alphonse, take care of this intruder,” I commanded. Alphonse flexed his muscular leg audibly in response, which sounded like the trunk of a tree flexing in an immensely strong wind. Alphonse, from the Genus Testudosimilis(turtle-like), was a member of the species Testudosimilis musculus. Renowned for their physical resilience and destructive might, I had little doubt who would be the victor between him and Astaroth’s general.
Ignita, having recovered from my door’s counterattack, then spotted Alphonse and struck again, this time in his direction. She belched a jet of deep-blue flames at my beholder, but his lid, quickly shut, was highly resilient to flames. When the jet of fire subsided, Alphonse rolled forward, with more speed than one would expect from a being of his mass, and slammed his muscular stalk down upon Ignita’s cranium, shattering her skull before she could react. I decided to treat her remains the same as I did her lieutenant's, and tossed her corpse into the Cocytus, for the cold eels to consume in a relentless frenzy, and smiled. “Easy.”