The landscape of Pazunia was bleak in the gentlest of descriptions. Endless miles of barren wastelands and spontaneous, rocky columns sprouting from the reddish earth were all to be seen from any location on that layer of the Abyss. Few bastions of civilization between the vast expanses of nothingness existed, but if there was any desire for a bed and a tankard of ale, it was to be satiated at Broken Reach. A collection of crumbling, spindly towers, the place would have been overlooked on the Material Plane as the ruins of a long-forgotten empire. In the Abyss, those decrepit columns of stone were an oasis. And it was there that the knight Nevalle, jaded by the five-year anniversary's worth of fighting demons on that wretched plane, uncovered what little solace his heart could muster.
Hope, the planetar Sedna Belladonna promised. This was where hope had led, and so solace- not faith- was all Nevalle aspired to. She swore that Tyr would honor his deeds, transporting Casavir, Axarthys, and the knight himself to the House of the Triad- Tyr's realm. Nevalle was healed of the wounds he'd received in his battle against Demogorgon, and swiftly carted to Tyr's court. Nevalle anticipated humble gratitude for acting on Neverwinter's behalf, and inspiring the decency of a demon. Instead, he'd been found guilty of consorting with demons, with sullying his hands in the Abyss's taint, and Tyr punished him gravely for it. In place of lauding, he was sentenced to ten years' service for the Knights of the Chalice- an organization that ruthlessly hunted the tanar'ri and their ilk. He was permitted no farewells to his brethren or Axarthys. Nevalle was escorted from the celestial realm by a cadre of angels, chained, like a criminal.
His most poignant memory, even five years later, was the smile plastered on Casavir's face as he stood in the heavenly gardens outside Tyr's court. He was surrounded by doting angels, his expression swelling with a paladin's pride. Nevalle briskly shoved his tankard aside, spilling its contents over the edge of the table. He buried his forehead into his palms at the painful thought. Casavir. Was Nevalle less a hero than the paladin? Yet as excruciating as that question was to him, it paled when compared to the misery of never sharing a goodbye with Axarthys Saintrowe. No recollection of Casavir's exaltation was more unbearable that that.
A redheaded succubus passed Nevalle's table, setting his tankard upright. She paused, waiting for the knight to signal his next round of ale. Nodding at her silently, Nevalle listened to the splash of booze into the metal vessel, glancing up only momentarily towards her. He turned his face from her to avoid recognition, if the demon knew him as a Chalice knight. But she met his gaze without suspicion, flashed him a subdued smile, and noted in her native tongue, "If you're lonesome, our mistress can certainly acquire you a lady to warm your sheets tonight."
"If I were ever to accept that offer, only one woman in the Abyss would do." Nevalle dejectedly replied, casting his eyes into the refilled tankard longingly. Even the hope of seeing Axarthys could hardly undo the intense degree to which his heart had been weathered. The consideration merely numbed his despair, like the alcohol eventually would.
"Lady Red Shroud is well connected," the succubus pressed, "Unless the woman is Malcanthet herself, of course, no request is unreasonable."
"I doubt you'd know her," Nevalle mused aloud, more to himself than to the demon, "I know not where she even is, though I can only hope it is here. Her name was- is- Axarthys."
"Saintrowe?" the succubus inquired. When Nevalle lifted his head immediately at the sound of the name, she shrugged, continuing, "Her name is whispered, mostly. From what Graz'zt's merchants say, she worked as a diplomat in the Abyss for a time. But she was captured by devils, it is said, and if she became entangled in Blood War politics, I doubt she still lives."
Nevalle released a choked sigh, clenching his eyes shut. He managed, "She once worked in Waterdeep's service… and was very dear to me. She will be sorely missed."
The succubus's frown deepened, but she left Nevalle to the silence at the end of his statement. Quietly departing from his table to fill tankards elsewhere in the tavern, the knight crumpled into his seat, clutching the metal of his glass with trembling hands. Tears threatened him first, but it was what followed- rage- that overtook him. Slamming the tankard onto the tabletop, Nevalle let out a lengthy, furious growl. Five years, five years of damnation for loving her, and despite his dedication to his sentence, notwithstanding the drudgery and misery, Tyr had stolen her from him regardless. Halfway finished with his penance and the cause of it was lost. And what of his child, their child? Was the child, too, a victim? Had Tyr sat idly while their child died, or was captured, or while its mother was torn away?
Sedna Belladonna had promised hope, and she had lied. There was nothing left now but emptiness, loneliness, and the violence of slaying demons in the name of a god Nevalle despised. For that, Nevalle would hate her. But for knowing Casavir's pain- for losing his own love- Nevalle would despise the paladin. He imagine the smile on Casavir's lips, as if he were not beaming with pride for his heroism as praised by the angels, but rather smiling with vengeance. As if Casavir knew, before Nevalle ever would, that Nevalle would suffer the same heartbreak he had once endured. It was from that day, until the end of his ten year sentence, that Nevalle would no longer vanquish demons in faith that it would lead to freedom, and perhaps his love. From that moment, for the five years to follow, Nevalle brutally slaughtered demons in complete heartlessness. He would destroy every demon in his wake, as if to destroy the memory of her stormy cheeks, her snowy locks, her pinkish eyes.
He could no longer afford the hope of ever laying eyes on them again.
Time healed his wounds, but scars remained for Casavir. Physical reminders of her presence pained him, like visiting the Sunken Flagon or the statues commemorating her victories in Blacklake's gardens, but he lived free of emotional anguish caused by the Knight Captain's murder. He could think unclouded by the mental fog left by her death, sharpening his grasp and interests in the present, instead of cementing him to the past. After the siege of Neverwinter by the demons, Casavir returned to his duties as a Nine knight, fading into normalcy. The peaceful consistency of his daily work and court intrigues distracted him from emptiness long enough to stitch together the torn remnants of his heart. But the mending, the healing, had not begun until he laid eyes upon Sisserou Dianarca.
Casually sprawled in the tall grass outside his countryside estate, he sighed almost wistfully. Breathing felt light now, as if the easing of his emotional burdens lifted imaginary weights off his lungs. He happily tasted the scent of wildflowers in the breeze, and uttered aloud, "Three years ago, you came from Luskan to join the Nine. I never thought I'd have the vaguest reason to fall in love with you then."
"Three years?" A voice echoed in the grass.
"It's been almost two years for us, you know."
The grass at his right side rustled, and a face poked out from the brush. Tangled black hair, littered with twigs, framed the grinning cheekbones that greeted Casavir, responding, "Gods, has it been less than two years? It feels like millennia have passed since we've met! Though, for your age… perhaps time moves quicker the closer we come to our deathbeds, shall I say?"
Casavir snorted, smirking, "Sisserou, if you were thirteen hundred years my junior, I would not be slighted in the least by such a ridiculous comment."
"I'm trying to be a good tease, darling," She pouted, "Less than two years of marriage, and my logic has already been abandoned."
"There is little common sense that can encroach upon the early bliss of marriage." Casavir romantically mused in explanation. Sisserou chuckled derisively, rolling on top of the paladin amidst the grass. She straddled his waist, and then braced her hands over his shoulders as she leaned in, her ebony hair cascading over her husband's cheeks.
"My dear, I believe I've lost my common sense as a consequence of having spent these years with a fellow paladin. Tyr should outlaw two such stubborn and godly people from ever joining in the union of marriage." She decided. Both frowned momentarily, before the façade wore off. They laughed musically as another breeze caused the tall grass surrounding them to sway in a hushed whisper. When the laughter ceased, Casavir's humorous grin softened into an appreciative smile.
"You have healed the wounds her absence left in me." He murmured. Sisserou cupped his cheek with her hand, her face illuminated with loving warmth.
"If you dare utter that dreadful line, that 'I complete you', I'll never allow you to live down your depressing unoriginality." She warned. Casavir laughed aloud, shifting her weight so she lay beside him. He knotted his fingers into her tresses, propping his elbow up so he could gaze into her peridot eyes. Sisserou's countenance grew tender again, her teasing smile temporarily surrendered as she suggested "If I've healed your broken heart, perhaps it is best we collaborate on the next pressing issue before us."
"Hmm?" Casavir inquired. Sisserou's lips parted invitingly, and she murmured into his ear, so that the wisp of the grass dancing in the wind was strident enough to conceal the noise from the outside world.
"Producing our heir, of course."
The demon lord twisted his hand about the crest of his scepter, his eyes wary as the drow approached his throne. Draped in the cloak and robes of the demon lord's priesthood, the drow was still hardly a welcome guest. Blood War politics- in fact, simply Abyssal politics- had grown far more intense, more immediate. Those tanar'ri with clout and stations of power fretted over not only the domestic threats, as they always had in the tenuous political weather of the Abyss, but the broader concerns as well- namely, the threats of archdevils in Baator eager to end the Blood War through either alliance or slaughter of the demonic hoard. Once, those that worshipped demons were considered fanatically devotional, therefore wholly loyal to their lords. Now, however, a seemingly devout cultist could easily be the spy of an archdevil, planted in a demonic court.
And so the demon lord vigilantly stared at his priest as the drow groveled at the throne, sinking to his knees before the throne. He praised, "My lord Alvarez, noble amongst demons, it is said that Graz'zt secretly allies with Asmodeus, king of the Nine Hells."
Alvarez scoffed, visibly loosened as his shoulders relaxed and his arms fell slack in his seat. His hand was all that remained clenched, locking over his scepter as he huffed, "It was Demogorgon that raised me from the death the ranger condemned me to, and Demogorgon who reinstated me as the lord of Torturous Truth. Do you truly believe, priest, that I am concerned with the dealings of Graz'zt, to whom I am in no manner committed or allied? If I was, even in the remotest sense, Demogorgon would have informed me well before your worthless mouth ever uttered the words."
The priest frowned, lowering his gaze to the floor. He shook his head in submissive agreement, fear casting wrinkles across his quietly horrified face. Alvarez twisted his hand over the head of his scepter, a polished skull of the last mortal who had attempted to best him: Bishop. The demon lord snarled under his breath, commanding, "Return to me with useful news next time, or you shall find yourself strung up in one of my numerous torture devices. You are dismissed."
The drow scrambled from the throne room as if that parting sentence was a godsend.
Hope. Where had hope led the faithful, the decent? Some it led to exaltation; others, to damnation. For their faith in Tyr, one man was praised and another was damned, the latter torn mercilessly from the sole happiness outside his humble duty to lord and kingdom. Sedna Belladonna's heart wrenched in her chest with the memories of the knight Nevalle being paraded through Tyr's court in chains, as if some common criminal, for what? For love? The paladin Casavir, who bore vengeance against the demon stronger than any man, was more a criminal that the knight. And while Sedna Belladonna thought no less of the man for it- he had already paid in kind with the Knight Captain's loss- the painful contrast in their fates after the siege of Neverwinter left her questioning Tyr's religion.
The planetar knew many guises. In her true form, her skin was as polished jade, her head cleanly shaved and her wings like clouds painted upon the noon sky, immaculately white and soft in brilliant light. She had been human- twice, during her tenure in Neverwinter. She had known the face of a chocolate-haired soldier as well as the healing hands of the adventurer and cleric Camryn Nyx. Now a lonesome sojourner of the Material Plane, she adopted the guise of a blonde half-elf. The cloak slung over her shoulder bore the large, embroidered seal of Ilmater.
Though her physical appearances were transient, the banner she flew was permanent, and despite her various guises, the symbol emblazoned upon her garb rung as true as any heavenly song. She was Ilmater's servant now. Sedna Belladonna was no longer a slayer of tanar'ri, but a healer of mortal hearts, of lives broken by the fiendish taints of war, famine, abuse and disease. Perhaps those demons were far worse than the likes of Axarthys Saintrowe.
Snow! Nothing was more glorious than the snow. From within the covered sleigh, the girl gleefully pawed at the windows with her fur-gloved hands. She never wished to return home to the Abyss, where the city of Zelatar knew nothing but dank lightlessness and a cool, temperate climate. Her platinum-blonde ringlets bounced as she leapt in her seat, hopping closer to the glass. Her breath left a grey fog on the surface, and the chill emanating from the outdoors reddened her beige cheeks.
"Rialnah," the nursemaid cooed from the parallel seat, "Your nose is bound to freeze stiff if you continue to press it to the window. I'd hate to present you to the renowned Lord Dianarca with a pair of runny, puffy nostrils."
"But the snow, Miss Marina!" she protested. The nursemaid smiled but shook her head firmly.
"Rialnah of Azzagrat is a well-presented young lady who has seen much snow many times in her life. First impressions to one's new tutors are precisely that, first impressions. You are allotted only one, and we shall make it a grand one, shan't we?" Marina carefully instructed. Rialnah nodded disappointedly, shifting to the center of her seat within the carriage. She drew the crisp, white fur of her cloak over her blonde curls and the pink horns that crested her brow. Her coffee brown eyes pleaded, but her nursemaid reminded her, "There will be plenty of snow to be had this season, Rialnah. I promise."
Satisfied with the answer, the child folded her dainty hands neatly over her pink-chiffon covered lap. Through carriage and costume, no doubts were to be had that this child was noble. But the horns, the slit pupils of her otherwise human eyes, betrayed that notion. Rialnah was a true rarity, a living novelty of sorts, and she relished the attention she received on the Material Plane. Yet no amount of doting by strangers could compensate for the absence of her parents. The girl frowned temporarily, asking, "Miss Marina? Would her Ladyship visit me here, do you think?"
The cold, formal title the girl employed for her mother disturbed the tiefling nursemaid, even after three years of caring for the child. Axarthys Saintrowe had ascended the political ladders of Zelatar swifter than any diplomat of the Abyss, and to cement herself as the cold, undeniably professional and powerful attaché that she was, permitted only her superiors to refer to her by name. Not even her own child was to call her 'mother'.
Marina gently smiled, suggesting, "Perhaps we shall visit Neverwinter, where your father was a knight, instead. Would you enjoy an outing to the city?"
"Will there be snow there?" Rialnah eagerly asked. The tiefling chuckled.
"My dear," she replied, "It is named Neverwinter for a reason."
What remained of the grapevines frosted over, leaving coiled, black branches to knot across the snowy vineyard landscape. An overcast sky completed the grey palette that comprised the color scheme of the estate. Even the homestead's exterior, once plastered with sunny stucco, was buffed by the weather to a shade of ivory that mirrored the wintry milieu. Planted on the outskirts of Waterdeep, the estate had long been empty; the plush velvet sofas and gold-leafed frames, still intact, could all but echo the luxuriant lifestyle they once satisfied.
Windermere, her former home. It was the Waterdhavian estate from which Nevalle had captured her, and in its glory, it had been her personal Eden
She exhaled purposefully, her breath barely a puff of fog on the dank air of the frosty house. Gazing upwards at the ceiling of the entry, her hood fell back onto her shoulders to reveal her face, her pink eyes sorrowfully closed. Happiness at Windermere was but a fleeting, aging memory to her. For that, she was bitter; she discovered heaven on the Material Plane when she was employed as an emissary there, as if merely living amongst mortals redeemed her absent soul. Windermere acted as the bastion of faith in that world, in that life. The bottomless well of her demon's lust for chaos was corked during her days there, and now that Tyr banished her to the Abyss- damned her never to live blissfully amongst mortals again- she would never know the unadulterated joy of peace again.
From the balcony above, she heard the descent of her companion, her champion. Each footfall was deliberate, calculated. His proximity comforted her, and quelled the sorrow and anger brewing within her. The seething recollections of her former happiness were numbed as he drifted towards her, his black leather armor crunching softly beneath the red velvet of his cloak. He leaned close to her, his warm breath humid against her ear as he noted emptily, "Tyr will know you have come here, Axarthys."
"If my presence is problematic, perhaps Tyr should have banished me to the Abyss eternally." She stated, tilting her cheek over her shoulder to catch an eyeful of his mint skin and orange eyes. His horns, protruding from his tousled black hair, were a dull shade of grey. Like twin scimitars, they curved elegantly overtop his skull. For a devil, he was handsome.
Axarthys admired his appearance further as he circled in front of her, his gait smooth and predatory. He scanned the entryway, as if for enemies, and maintained in his emotionless, muted voice, "You are safer in Baator than you are here."
Axarthys scoffed gently, "A demon, safer in the courts of devils?"
"The Blood War is hardly a threat. You have slain more demons than devils; for that, you are conceivably more endangered in the Abyss than in Baator." He blandly commented. Her mouth parted to protest his words, but closed into a stark line at the realization of her actions. She had single handedly slain her demonic family within a year's time of being banished to the Abyss. Balimynah battled to the end, but the others had writhed, screaming, and their shrieks fleetingly filled the Lamb's mind. She was the sole Saintrowe left when the bloodbath subsided, and wrested the power of her kin for herself alone.
The slaughter of her family catapulted her into infamy, leading to her appointment as an advisor to Graz'zt, and his single Blood War diplomat. She regretted only that power filled the void happiness once had.
But Axarthys was not entirely without joy; her heart belonged to Absanoch, as did her life. Asmodeus, Lord of the Nine Hells named his dearest friend and tirelessly loyal assassin to her protection, so smitten was he by the Lamb's political charms in war forums held at his court. As cold and mechanical as Absanoch Shaddonhale was, he became enamored with Axarthys, and quietly adopted her as his consort.
An overwhelming love filled the Lamb as she remembered their first trysts. Abandoning lingering thoughts of her life at Windermere, she leapt into the present, catching Absanoch's hand as he passed her. Suddenly, as their bodies touched, she recognized that the contentment of the past could never please her again. Not even Nevalle, should he have thundered upon his white steed towards her then, could have bested the satisfaction of her satiated lust for power and for Absanoch Shaddonhale. Her devilish consort reassuringly squeezed her fingers between his, and she decided, "I am prepared to return to Baator."
"Do not expect another visit soon." he forewarned frigidly. Her smile was grim.
She cooed in his ear, "I expect only that then, this plane shall burn."
…Continued in "The Black Canary", by J. Balacko.