Dagon Gunthersson, captain of the demonic forces of the Third Ring, conqueror of the Plains of Ghouls, son of Gunther the Nightmare, and heir to the Glowing Deeps, was on his knees. His ragged breaths rattled over the infernal clamor of the dwindling battle, as his eyes widened at the massacre.
His commander had sent his forces to ward off an invasion to Erehwon, no-man’s-land. The barren territory at the edge of Hell where a thousand battles had been fought back in the day when the forces of Heaven sought to invade their realm.
There had been no invaders in centuries, not since the passageways between Hell and Earth were sealed. No angel or human had set foot here since ancient times.
Based on the vague reports Dagon received, human scouts had crossed the border and moved toward the capital. He had never fought humans in his life, but the stories of old portrayed them as weak creatures. Which was why Dagon couldn’t understand the reason behind the slaughter.
Of the two hundred elite demon warriors he took with him, none survived. As he staggered to his feet, his wounded body threatened to collapse any minute.
Mere inches from the tip of his boots, a pair of pitch-black eyes gazed at the gray sky, lifeless.
Carrion was dead. His second in command, his right hand. His friend. After an excruciating clash with an unknown, mighty enemy, he fell to their blade. His severed head now lay on the arid soil of Erehwon.
Dagon lifted his gaze, clouded by the blood pouring from a deep cut under his right horn. He sensed his enemies closing in on him, and for the first time, he saw them without the cloaks of illusion. The sunlight that filtered through the smoke cast ghostly shapes on their blemished armors, and the same blood that dripped from their swords splattered their faces and wings.
He let out a pained chuckle, loaded with contempt. Dark ashes fluttered around in the breeze while across the battlefield—littered with the mutilated corpses of his comrades—an eerie silence fell.
No human could do this.
After centuries of peace, angels had found their way through the hidden frontier. And it took only twelve of their filthy kind to send his glorious battalion into oblivion.
The twelve drew near, spreading their wings and staring with emotionless eyes. If they hated him as much as he hated them, they showed no sign of it.
Dagon coughed up blood before raising his chin. “Didn’t mamma tell you not to play with your food?” His voice came out ragged as blood gushed from his cuts and every breath made him wince. Broken ribs were no fun. Still, he wouldn’t submit to pain or fear like a puny devil. Dagon spat at their feet and curled his lips into a disrespectful smirk.
“How did you get here?” he asked. “King Lucifer got rid of you scum long before my great-grandfather was born.” Angels had always been a part of Hell’s history and the elders’ tales. But that’s all they were for Dagon; ghosts of a forgone past who had marred Hell’s landscapes with greed and bloodthirst. To see the carnage they were capable of with his own eyes, took his breath away.
The angel leading the others smiled. “Dead things don’t get to ask questions.” All traces of emotion gone, the angel rose his sword and cut through the air.
There was still life in Dagon’s body. He was of noble blood, a lord among demons. He wouldn’t fall to the likes of them without spilling their blood first.
Drawing strength, he parried the blow, pushing back to destabilize the angel while scattering the others. He roared and thrust forward with precise, potent attacks.
Dagon didn’t stop the assault for a moment, and the angel—too preoccupied with blocking the hits—lost ground.
Numbness took over Dagon’s fingers—the strength behind his arm fueled by anger. He had been deceived. There was no way in Hell these angels had crossed a passage and reached so far undetected. Someone had betrayed him, and the least he could do to avenge his fallen soldiers was to take one of those wretched, self-righteous bastards down.
With a mighty kick to his stomach, Dagon sent the angel sprawling on the ground. The golden warrior gasped for air as his mask of composure shattered, betraying his unease. Blond locks stuck to his forehead, drenched in sweat as his breath quickened.
Weighed down by exhaustion and the grinding pain, Dagon staggered, loosening the grip on his sword. Frazzled, he stared down at the angel and bared his teeth in a maniacal grin. “You don’t kill my people and expect to leave with perfect hair.” His jaw tensed and his taut muscles shifted under the battered armor when Dagon readied to land the final blow.
However, the others were not about to sit and wait for him to kill one of their own. Dagon sensed the angels closing in on him, eleven against one. Damn cowards! He wouldn’t fall before claiming his revenge.
Gathering his energy, Dagon shaped a blazing whip from an ember burning close by and lashed it at the angels, aiming at their faces. With no time to relish in their screams, Dagon charged forward and pierced the fallen angel’s chest.
His opponent froze; bright blue eyes wide in disbelief as a desperate gasp left his lips. Dagon pushed the blade deeper and twisted it with a firm twirl of his wrists. The sickening sound of tearing flesh fueled the anger coursing through his veins.
The angel’s broken body fell to the ground, and Dagon shook his head to get rid of the drowsiness that swamped his reflexes. His clouded eyes searched for the horizon, away from the corpses on the field, and from Carrion’s void stare. All Dagon glimpsed was the chipped bark of the dying trees and the wisps of smoke concealing the vastness of Erehwon. His head leaned loosely to the side and Dagon closed his eyes, exhausted.
The others charged once more.
A life of fighting, killing, and the never-ending search for glory was about to go out, and yet, Dagon felt nothing but relief. In his last moments, he thought of his father; on how disappointed he would be with his failure. At least I won’t have to hear it from your mouth, father. His thoughts quieted when the wind shifted behind him, and the blades’ metallic chant rang through the silence.
A spectral hand grasped inside his chest and Dagon hollered, stunned by the searing pain. Startled by his reaction and the sudden heaviness in the air, the angels hesitated.
The oldest soldiers in his family’s garrison told stories of this power. Desperate, Dagon tugged at his armor to ease the pressure, to no avail. This was the first time he experienced it himself, yet his excitement faded when he gasped for breath. “Father!” he yelled, fearing he might lose consciousness.
Out of the corner of his eye, Dagon caught movement. The angels drew near but before they reached him, a forceful pull lifted him off the ground and yanked him across the air. The wind blasted in his ears, and his stomach churned as he left the battlefield behind. Startled as he was, Dagon knew precisely where he was heading.
After long, agonizing minutes, his body slammed against the cobblestones. Shaking his head from the daze, the familiar sight of his home appeared before him. The courtyard of his family fortress, the Glowing Deeps; gray and unwelcoming in the twilight. He also noticed he wasn’t alone. Threatening spears surrounded him, his father’s guard pinning him down on the ground. Among them, the tall, menacing figure of the man who raised him stared down in anger. Dagon had grown used to this look since it seemed to be ingrained in his father’s face ever since he was born.
For an endless moment, Gunther regarded him in silence. Only the dark bags under his sunken eyes, and the rhythmic movement of his chest—taking in long, agonizing breaths—showed Dagon how much energy his father spent summoning him.
“Dagon,” Gunther mumbled.
“Father...” Dagon struggled to stand, only to be seized by two guards. “I… didn’t expect you to rescue me. How—?”
“Shut your mouth! I summoned you here because of your crimes.”
Dagon frowned, staring at his father. “What crimes... are you talking about?”
Gunther took two unsteady steps toward him, but his glare didn’t falter. He had never used his summoning ability to save Dagon from harm before. It was powerful magic, draining and dangerous, so something else must have forced him to spend so much energy.
“I’m not in the mood for your games, runt. You have put the honorable name of this family to shame for the last time. You are a disgrace! To abandon your soldiers, leaving them to die by the hand of filthy humans, is the ultimate shame.”
It made no sense, but there was no doubt his father believed in what he said. The veins in his temples bulged and his bright red eyes—so much like his own—flamed with rage.
“Father... I didn’t—”
Gunther silenced him with a hard jab. Dagon spat blood on the stones; hurt, but mostly rattled. This was so like his father, never one to listen. “I did not abandon my people!” The crimes he was being accused of were a lie but when he tried to get closer, the guards held him. With no energy left to shake them off, Dagon could do nothing more than shout at Gunther. “We received insufficient information. We were supposed to fight human exorcists, not angels!”
His father scoffed. “Lie all you want, boy. I already heard the truth from your commander.”
“What...?” How could that be possible? The battle wasn’t even over when his father summoned him. Commander Ghalore couldn’t have reached the battlefield and assessed it before meeting with him.
The demon in question chose that precise moment to make his appearance. From the shadows, he emerged—short, hesitant steps and a doleful expression.
Unlike Dagon, Commander Caius Ghalore had the demeanor of a well-bred demon lord. His lanky frame rose high above his guards and yet failed to be imposing. Long, elegant drapes covered every inch of his pale skin, and a thick coat of white powder hid the wrinkles on his face, along with other unnatural tricks to mask his true age.
Despite his youthful appearance, Ghalore was no fledgling demon.
When Dagon’s father had barely reached adulthood, Ghalore’s ascension through the intricate net of King Lucifer’s court began. He amassed titles and lands, making him one of the most influential demons in Hell and bearer of the grandiose title of Commander Supreme of His Majesty’s armies. A power he wielded with misleading frailness and unbridled cruelty.
A dejected grimace twisted Ghalore’s face as his silver eyes found Dagon. “My dearest boy… Your cowardice breaks my heart.”
Dagon never fully trusted Ghalore, but he was his superior. Raised a soldier, he followed orders without question, whether he liked them or not. Whether they made sense or not. Holding his breath, Dagon watched as his commander joined his father, the fine silk of his clothes shining under the fading daylight and the burning torches. Dagon studied him, trying to understand the reasons behind his deceit. This was not a mistake; Ghalore was deliberately lying.
He clicked his tongue. “What a shame. It’s never a pleasurable day when you must execute a traitor.” Ghalore’s honeyed voice made his skin crawl. “And you showed so much promise, Gunthersson. I simply cannot understand your motives. How unfortunate for your family, to have their line end in such a disgraceful manner.”
His meaning dripped venom through the doleful words, and the occasional glint of amusement slipped behind his carefully practiced mask. In a blink, the pity disappeared, as if it was never there. “I will take him now, Gunther. There’s no need for you to suffer his presence any further. We will execute him and toss his body into the Eternal Fire.”
“Why did you lie to me, Ghalore? Why did my soldiers have to die?" Dagon yelled, struggling with the guard’s grip. "Was it you who betrayed us to the angels?”
Ghalore frowned and tilted his head. “Angels, Dagon? I can’t believe your father raised you so ignorant.” He crossed his hands over his chest, a condescending smile grazing his lips. “There have been no angel invasions for hundreds of years, child. Please spare your father the shame and stop lying.”
Dagon thrashed against his captors and his ribs protested at the effort. “If you wanted me dead, traitor, you should have taken only my life. My battalion deserved better!”
A dangerous look crossed Ghalore’s face before he shrugged off the accusation. Ghalore had fed Gunther with lies and held control over Dagon's fate. Already a failure in his father’s eyes, Dagon expected no help from him, so Ghalore had but to tighten the noose. “Don’t test my patience, boy. Your execution will be swift only in deference to your father, but if I hear one more word from you—”
“No...” Gunther had remained silent since Ghalore’s arrival, but he now spoke in a low, pained voice. “You will not kill him.”
A speck of hope found its way into Dagon, watching the impassible face of the man he had failed to make proud his entire life. His father turned to his guard, taking a blade from him, before facing his only son. His face looked carved into stone. “I will deliver this punishment. It’s my responsibility.”
Paralyzed with fear, Dagon’s eyes jumped from the soldiers parting before him to the sinister smile on Ghalore’s face, only to end on the blade glistening under the sun. The guards pushed him to his knees.
There was no reason to fight anymore. Gunther had broken Dagon’s hardened heart since he was a child, and one more disfavor from his father wouldn’t kill him. Dagon almost chuckled. I guess it will.
No way to cheat death twice in one day. He closed his eyes, yearning for the final rest. He had nothing. No love or righteous pursuit filled his heart, and Dagon thought perhaps it was better this way.
A reverent silence fell on the courtyard when Gunther raised his sword to cut off his head. Dagon bowed, the will to fight gone. And as the sword fell, he felt it.
For the second time that day.
The crushing pull of a foreign force tugged at his chest and took him away with astounding speed. Within two blinks Dagon saw his father fall on his back, and startled soldiers scrambling out of the way before he lost all sense of space and time.
He traveled far—a lot farther than he had ever been before—and the world blurred around him. His body shook and twirled by the force of the wind that hit him like a wall. Dagon broke through dirt and rocks, and the sharp edges lacerated his skin. When the stinging pain of broken ribs made him scream, his mouth filled with dirt, suffocating him.
After what felt like an eternity, he fell once more against a sturdy floor. Only this time, a dusty rug covered it.
Dagon gasped, battling for breath against the sapping pressure pinning him down. He lay immobile to avoid further damage. As far as he could tell, he was alone, and there was nothing familiar about the dark and grimy corridor. Dagon coughed, flinching at the pulsing wounds. It would take weeks to recover, but he first needed to make sure he was somewhere safe.
A frightened voice interrupted his schemes. “I-I’m so... so sorry, my lord.”
Dagon looked around, failing to see anyone. “Show yourself!” he said, his voice rough. He was not in the mood for more menaces.
From the shadows of the corridor, a small, bony creature emerged. A gargoyle. Deep wrinkles covered every inch of his dark gray skin, and the tip of his left ear was missing. Dressed in rags and barefoot, he took a few hesitant steps into the room, staring at him in utter terror. “I d-do... not mean any... disrespect, my lord!” He shivered under Dagon’s severe stare. “I brought you here because I sensed you needed help. I didn’t know who you were.”
Dagon sat, grunting and aching everywhere. Seeing his discomfort, the gargoyle reached out to steady him, but as soon as Dagon sent him a warning glance, he recoiled.
"I'm sorry! I-I can help you, even if I'm not worthy of being close to you. You need to heal, and I can... help you, my lord."
Little by little, Dagon's senses came back to him. They were in an old, abandoned house, and the presence of hundreds of demons hiding in the dark nagged at his acute senses. He turned to the one closest to him. "You brought me here? How?"
The creature bowed and smiled. "It's my power, sir. The only magic I'm good at. I sense when demons are about to be unjustly executed, and I extract them." Proud of his ability, his voice raised into a cheerful squeal.
Remarkably, a sickly-looking gargoyle bore the same power his father did, although this fellow looked about to collapse from exhaustion. His words made Dagon squint. “Extract them?”
“Yes! I bring them here, to our sanctuary. We’re safe here. Hidden and protected. Humans don’t come close anymore.”
A sanctuary? Dagon couldn’t believe his luck. So at least this creature believes I’m worth saving. He thought, while the rest of the gargoyle’s words filtered in his mind. “Wait... what do you mean... humans don’t come?”
The little demon shrank, avoiding his gaze. “Well... you see, in Hell... they could easily find us... so...”
Dagon’s patience wavered. “So?”
“Ah!" He flinched. "I bring you here! Where we are safe and far away.”
Dagon almost dreaded his next words.
“The... human world.”