A shadow fell across the burning schism torn through the dirt that had once formed the foundations of Dai’zin, Blessed City of the Gods. The shadow flared outwards, blotting out the sun as an angel’s wings spread wide and her presence was imposed upon the world.
As daylight faded, the Century’s battlefield seemed almost to ripple, though no two observers would quite agree how. Fires extinguished as if smothered by a tremendous hand. Rot and decay were scoured clean, and the recently killed found themselves breathing fresh breath. Demons fled, scurrying behind the wreckage of buildings or down deeper into the depths.
The Herald of Idona, Goddess of War, had arrived.
The angel carried neither blade nor shield, for her weapon was one forged from force of will alone. Where her attention turned, reality listened to her desires and changed to suit. A mortal creature might call it magic, but a mortal mage used arcane power to effect change; an angel simply allowed the world to bend to her preferences.
As the angel touched down against the earth, her divine footstep echoed and the riot of combat fell silent in its wake. Those that hailed from the age of sin favoured the hit and run; tearing apart that which the Gods had spent millenia building in mere minutes and then running the second anything truly powerful arrived to threaten them. The angel knew it would face no resistance here, for none would dare challenge its divine right.
“Finally,” spoke a voice, breaking the unnatural silence. The angel turned, expression impassionate, to find a demon casually glancing her up and down. She raised an eyebrow. The creature was almost too weak to be a threat to anybody at all, and yet while its fellows scattered and ran, this one alone seemed unafraid.
They stood in mutual silence, meters apart, for long moments before the angel deigned to speak. “Finally?” she asked, voice a chorus with itself. She barely whispered and yet the world would not dare dampen her words. She would be heard, as would every echo from every surface, and it was only by the will of entropic decay that her word did not continue forever.
“Finally,” the demon confirmed. Demoness, on second observation. “I’ve been praying for an angel for an age and change; I just hope you won’t hurt me!”
Demons. Creatures from the age of sin. The inevetable result of the moral decay that resulted from unchecked civilisation deciding it knew better than its creators. Each was individual, yet together they formed a horde of lies, gluttony, and excess that used honeyed words and vicious action to destroy the very history that supported their decadence. To a mortal, such creatures were hazardous even to consider, for even their ideas were toxic to right thought and proper belief.
To the eyes of an angel, however, a demon was an open book. They were creatures of deceit and trickery, but such things worked only on the mortals. To an angel, for whom the truth was as fundamental a thing as air, the machinations of a lower demon were transparent. “Our purpose here is not to bring you harm,” the Herald whispered. The creature posed it no danger, and though it was one of the enemy, it held no tactical significance. The Goddess of War was concerned only with those who fought with strength of arm and magic. “We are here to bring finality to the reign of a dark Goddess, as will be foretold by the sages of Dai’zin-that-was.”
The creature licked her lips, mouth flickering into a barely suppressed grin. “Good, good, yeah, that’s excellent. I know just who you’re talking about, obviously, but, eh— remind me, first, you things are bound by your word, right?”
The demoness earned little attention. As the herald cast her gaze across the smoking remains of the battlefield, a gust of wind woke and swept away anything that might have dared to obscure her vision. “We are of the Angelic Host, little demon. We are creatures of belief itself. We speak only the truth, and so the world-tree knows to listen to our words.” Some of the demons from the earlier battle had been too large to run, and so had hidden, but with the world bending to the angel’s will they could not hide for long. The moment her eyes found them, what little power they had left them.
Some ran. The ground crumbled beneath them, plunging them to a death from which they would never rise. Some tried to stand their ground, only to find the air itself pulling away; they died gasping, unable even to plead to the blade of an uncaring diety. Sometimes one dared to fight, but apparently news of what happened to them had gotten around, and none were so foolish this time.
The demoness chuckled, drawing a sliver of attention. Even a lesser angel knew better than to be distracted, but the Blade of a Goddess was by far practiced enough to split her attention without slowing down her slaughter. In moments there were none left to stand against her, and she finally turned to face the curious weakling before her. “Good little angel, that’s right, eyes on me, yes? It’s only us here now, thank you for removing all those little distractions. Tricking all those mortals into speaking my prayers for me was worth it, hmn? They were so happy to speak any word I gave them, and your lot don’t really care why they pray, so long as the words are right, yes? They referred to me as their dark Goddess. I am the one you seek.” If the creature expected her speech to elicit a response from the angel, she would be disappointed to recieve only a vaguely bemused flat stare. “You may refer to me the same way, if you wish. You aren’t here to hurt me, are you, angel?” she continued, with a sly grin worthy of an archdemon revealing their masterstroke.
With time seeming to slow around her, Idona’s Herald felt the attention of the world beating down upon her. It felt like pressure behind the eyes, grit in the joints, water in the lungs. The fundamental discomfort of a body in decay. The demon had not quite caught her in a contradiction, but had come close enough that she felt her power weaken. The world’s trust was shaken.
The world was a straightforward thing, and it abhored a paradox. If the demon were lying, a single word would strike her down more forcefully than anything a mere higher angel could bring to bear. If she were not, that very same word would condemn the angel, instead. The world demanded truth from those who spoke to it.
For a moment, the pair locked eyes, playing a game of cosmic chicken to see who would admit a falsehood first. The Herald should have been able to detect a lie, but was she willing to stake her own existence on it?
“But you aren’t here to hurt me, are you? Or, in fact, anybody else at all?” the demon suggested, offering a single path forward, where Idona’s Truth need not be tarnished, at the expense of imposing another Truth upon Her Herald. What choice did an angel have? To admit error would be to invite anhilliation.
So divinity spoke, and so the world listened. The supernatural pressure receeded, for the moment, as a clear and coherent narrative was established.
A vulpine grin seemed to cut through the battlefield’s smoke and shadow as if it dare not interfere. The Herald wasn’t here to hurt anybody, so what reason was there not to smile. “Then why are you here, exactly, treasure?”
To an angel, truth flowed like the ocean in storm. This angel in particular blinked several times in responseto the question, opening her mouth to reply and finding no answer forthcoming. Before she had a chance to consider why, she found herself interrupted.
Again, rescued by the timely suggestion of a temptress. “Just here to wander and have a chat, perhaps? Visiting one of the lower planes recreationally?”
The angel smiled, shaking her head with certainty. Her wings ruffled, working out a little tension. “No, little one. We are the Herald of our Goddess, Idona, and our every action is inscribed with the intent of the Divine. Not a moment goes by where we are not following Her path.” For a brief moment, the angel had felt something quite unusual: uncertainty. Thankfully, the follow-up question was as clear as day in her mind.
Why the demon responded with a snort and a giggle was less clear, but demons were unpredictable creatures. Not all of their actions were designed to trick, merely to mislead or camoflague. Even the Truth-sense of an angel could not divine meaning from true chaos, but by that same token, true chaos was rarely a serious threat. One could not strike a true vulnerability by chance. “Yeah? Wow. Gosh, and you said you were here for little old me? Remind me, how many demons has Idona bargained with?”
“None.” An easy answer, spoken in perfect cadence with the question. Idona was not in the habit of making deals. She was the Goddess of War, and the only mercy a demon deserved was a swift death through holy metal or divine wrath.
The demon’s grin cracked even wider, a feat that aught to have been biologically impossible. “Wow. Either I’m pretty special, or I’m not a demon, right?”
The logic held. However, the perfect vision of an Angel could not be tricked by words or deeds. It simply saw the world as it was, unchangeable. The smile had taken on an innocent sheen that might have been convincing were the world not screaming in the Herald’s ear that it was nothing but falsehood. “You are a demon,” the angel insisted, voice ringing with the weight of Truth. “You cannot hide your nature from us.”
Counterintuitively, being caught in her lie seemed to please the demon. “I’m pretty special, then,” she replied, with a predatory cut to her bare-teeth grin. “Come, angel, a battlefield is no place to bargain.”
With a flourish, she reached up and snapped her clawed fingers. The sound echoed, despite their being in an open space. A demon attempting to perform magic in the presence of an angel was the height of stupidity; the world would always defer to the Herald’s belief. Magic was nothing but a lie spoken confidently, and anybody caught lying to the world would be punished harshly.
The Herald was not here to hurt this demon, and yet when she felt the discomfort of the world’s gaze as it asked the obvious question, she could not disbelieve the demon’s spell. When the world asked, she had little choice but to repeat the lie with confidence enough it would be believed. The sensation of her soul grating on reality fell away, and yet the Herald was left still with a weight in her chest, knowing she must somehow have been tricked and yet not quite knowing how.
Thankfully, the world cared not for the inner turmoil of an angel, only her word. Space tore in an unsightly wound, ripping open a portal between ages right there in the middle of the battlefiekd. Such a spell should have been beyond a demon this weak… but the world deferred to the Herald’s opinion on that, too.
The rift joined the battlefield with a brothel, profane flames licking out from the seam joining them. Even mere proximity to it felt like a stain on the Herald’s soul. It reeked of corruption, so intensely that she knew on simple instinct that the destination must be far, far beyond enemy lines, in the fortress cities of the distant future.
“We are more comfortable on the battlefield,” she insisted, calling out even as her target stepped through the portal into the potential consequence of a doomed timeline. “We would rather remain here.”
The demon glanced back with a raised eyebrow. “Who said your comfort was important here, birdie? You’re here to make a deal, this is where I’ll make the deal. So, come.” She snapped her fingers, magic dancing around the moment, then pointed sharply at the ground by her side. The magic took form, shoving the Herald forward, though the portal and out of her own time,
She tripped on the edge. The rift through time could have been placed anywhere in space, and yet the demon had chosen to place it an inch or so above the ground. The Herald flared her wings to catch herself, but the foul air of Posthistory did not recognise her and her feathers found no purchase. They were so far after the front that the echoes of sacrosanctity could no longer reach them.
Unholy stone burned the Herald’s hands as she caught herself the mortal way. She hissed, pulling in acrid air through clenched teeth, and willed the profane stench of cinnamon away from her nose. Her demon was looking down at her with a smug grin and a bitten lip, and a moment of her will closed the portal behind them.
The weight of history pressed down harder still, the Herald cut off from her own time entirely. She would be able to open a portal back on her own, she hoped, with time and with effort, but it was always harder to go back than it was forward and she would need to recuperate and prepare.
“Ah, isn’t that much better?” the demon cooed. “It’s so much more comfortable here, yes? I can’t stand being back there, you were all so self-righteous and stuck-up, right? The Shattering was a grand day, I always love being on the right side of it.” She smiled, not bothering to pretend at innocence as she watched the chosen warrior of a goddess suffer with every breath.
The Herald pushed down her brute emotional reaction. She was here to bargain, not to scour this creature out of the timeline with righteous anger. With considerable effort, she pushed herself back to her feet, folding her wings tight against her back. The warding light of her halo barely reached the ground, but she knew from experience that her powers would not fail her even here. The past still held the twin powers of Precedent and Tradition, and the world would still try to listen when she spoke, even if their mutual enemy had long since broken its will.
“We are afraid that we must disagree, this would be a catastrophe unlike any other should it be allowed to come to pass,” the Herald replied, hoping to make her disagreement clear without giving the demon any true arguments to make. Her oaths rendered her incapable of silence, and she would simply need to hope that a token disagreement would be sufficient.
For her part, the demoness raised an eyebrow. She had sauntered across the room to a table set against the nearest wall. It was one of many like it, and, in fact, so were they. The space was so populous that the only thing preventing it from feeling crowded was its sheer scale, and the only thing preventing it from being overwhelming was a surprisingly tasteful design that minimised echoing and left clear walkways by which to move. The demon cleared her throat, drawing the Herald’s attention back to her.
“You may call me Goddess,” she explained. After a moment of no response, she grinned. “Or Anodi, your choice. I’m tired of being ‘the demon’, it’s past time you learned how to address me properly.”
The Herald proved incapable of hiding her reaction to the sacrilege. Her face twisted in revulsion. Anodi had a foul sense of humour. “That is no choice at all,” she declared, though this seemed only to amuse the de— Anodi.
“Well, treasure, choice isn’t really something you’re used to, is it? Would you know what to do with it if you had it? Be a good girl and sit.” She pointed at the bench on the opposite side of the table from her and fixed the Herald with an expectant gaze.
The air around them was a heady mix of cinnamon, spice, and sin. Regardless, the angel took a deep breath as she worked to steady herself and push down her frustration. She wasn’t here to take Anodi’s bait, she was here to negotiate. Any angel was supposed to be the perfect embodiment of infallible law, the avatars of a proper order for the universe itself. An angel was not supposed to get annoyed at the impertinence of a minor demon.
She breathed out, letting her eyes open back up. The world seemed that little bit too colourful. Proper earthen greys and the beige of worked stone had been overtaken, painted, dyed, stained. The walls of this foul brothel were far from bare, and woven fabric hung shamelessly from them, depicting tales of a dark future that had not yet truly come to pass.
Anodi’s chosen table sat beneath a tapestry depicting the fall of Idona Herself. The Herald averted her eyes, understanding intuitively that merely possessing the knowledge of this dark future would make it more likely to happen. Her every step was suspended on the butterflies of happenstance, and every moment spent here would leave the world more confident that this future was true. She needed to be careful even with her thoughts here.
The Herald sat in the specified place, resting her hand on the table. The surface was a dark wood, some mighty oak cut down in its prime and forged into a profane slab. Angelic eyes saw all, and there were signs of life and history weaved into every aspect of this place. Her fingers pressed into the metal bolt holding one of the wooden slats in place, and she winced, feeling the demonic heat of its forging. Her eyes glanced across a groove cut across the surface and she felt a star-pilot’s blade slicing through hard wood like it was barely there. She tried to steady herself with a deep breath, only to feel visions of the Shattering descend upon her as she tasted its cinnamon remnants on her tongue,
“Hey,” Anodi snapped, sharp voice slicing straight through the visions with its clarity. “Focus, now, you wouldn’t want to get distracted, would you?”
The angel blinked rapidly, glancing upwards. Her host was leaning forward, so close that her presence demanded attention, elbows on the table with her chin resting atop entwined fingers. “Huh?” the Herald asked, casting off memories of a past that she was here to change.
Anodi barked out a laugh, leaning backwards in her chair. “Oh, Me, just five minutes here and you’re already drifting? Cute.” Her forked tongue darted out, moistening her malicious lips. “Is this your first time in the present day, my ditzy little angel? You should watch out, the air around here can get in the heads of silly things like you. Some of you find you like it enough you don’t want to go back, but you’re not here to get wrapped up in enchantments, are you, treasure? You don’t want to spend the rest of that eternal life of yours as somebody’s mindless thrall, happily serving them however they please?”
“We… of course not,” the Herald replied, brow furrowing at the very thought. She took another deep, focusing breath, only to realise a moment later it would do nothing of the sort. By Idona, she really did feel every lungful of air here. Moisture and heat clung jealously, while the stench itself gathered in the lungs and the head, clouding her thoughts. Was this how it had happened? How it might happen, she corrected herself. The whole world simply giving up when the very air was defiled and nobody could be trusted?
Anodi thankfully seemed to accept the answer, nodding promptly. “Well then, be a good girl and pay attention to Me. I’ll make sure you don’t become some random demon’s pet,” Anodi insisted, with a smile so innocent that the Herald would never have trusted it, had her Truthseeing not corroborated. She nodded, taking a loose, shaken breath, and fixed her gaze on Anodi’s eyes.
On a whim, she reached out with her power, hoping to purify a little air to help her head clear, but her demonic protector simply giggled and wiggled a pair of fingers to dismiss her attempt at magic. “Now now, none of that, hmn? You wouldn’t want to draw attention to yourself, would you? Why, there’s a lot of people around here who’d love to own a pretty little relic like you. The Last Herald of Idona, here in the flesh? Oh, this room would be packed if anybody knew, and how would we negotiate if somebody had already wrapped that adorable head of yours in suggestions so deep you couldn’t remember your own name?”
Anodi chuckled to herself, as if laughing at an unspoken joke.
“We— fine,” the Herald replied, forcing down a whimper. She was the chosen of her Goddess and a little foul air would not overwhelm her force of will. She may be at a disadvantage, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from striking a deal. She had a job to do, after all. She steadied her gaze and sat taller, fixing her attention on the demon sat tall before her. “Then we shall not waste your time further. The negotiations must begin at once. Name your—”
“And what can I get you two sweethearts?”
Focus broken, the Herald twitched in surprise, gaze snapping over to the newcomer. A succubus in full tactical gear, holding a clipboard and a pen. The angel couldn’t help but look across the bulges in her pockets, assaulted by future memories from conjectural timelines. Half a dozen wands charged with corrupted magics, each drawing on one of the long-fallen spirits of the Gods and Goddesses of the Herald’s time.
Idona Herself among them. The mightiest of them, reduced to mere fuel for a combat wand.
The Herald felt her blood boil, quite literally, as she rose to her feet, wings quaking with fury. With bared teeth, she hissed “What is the meaning of this? How dare you bring such sacrilege before us? In the name of—”
“Ange,” Anodi snapped, showing a rare moment of actual anger. “Sit down this instant, you are embarrassing me.”
The Herald’s cheeks flushed bright red. With the wind torn from her sails, she could see the newcomer was little more than a scared waitress come to take her order. That she happened to be carrying magic derived from her fallen Goddess was a crime against reality itself, yes, but a crime that few in this establishment did not commit. She was here to prevent it from occurring altogether, not to exact revenge on a what-if. She froze up, torn between her urge to tear this timeline apart for its crimes and an inexplicable desire to apologise to this waitress, who was hardly the most deserving target of her ire and very likely was just making the best of a situation she had no hand in creating.
The snap of fingers caught her attention a mere moment before a blast of magic shoved the angel unceremoniousky down onto her seat. “Don’t make me tell you something twice,” Anodi insisted. “We haven’t even started bargaining yet and you’re already insulting me. I hardly think your Goddess would be pleased if you failed her simply through weakness of character, hmn?”
The Herald’s cheeks burned. She was alive with righteous fury, and if she so chose she could burn this establishment to the ground. Few of her kind ever made it this deep into the future; perhaps she could do some real damage and make a real difference, and then she wouldn’t need to put up with this pointless humiliation. Idona would be pleased with her if she fought and won. Negotiation be damned, she was a warrior and her strength would—
A demonic hand grabbed her halo and roughly pulled her gaze around to look Anodi in the eyes. “Answer me, angel.”
The Herald bared her teeth, and for a moment her eyes seared with the flicker-flame of war. She glared up at the demon, waiting for that telltale moment of fear in her eyes as she realised she had gone too far and her games had come to a close. Her halo grew hot and she relished in spotting pain in her adversary’s gaze “We—”
“Are not here to hurt me,” Anodi whispered, voice soft. “Remember? Think for one second before you let your emotions rule you.”
The flame snuffed out. The Herald tried to avert her gaze, but a sharp tut and a sharper pat on the cheek forced her eyes back, fixed on Anodi’s. Where mere moments ago her eyes had been sharp with justified rage, now the heat of humiliation weighed heavy instead. Here she was, being lectured by a demon on why she needed to keep control of her own emotions, and she wasn’t even permitted to look away.
They stared each other down for long moments, shame growing only heavier with the passage of time. Anodi eventually released her halo, but kept her fixed in place with gaze alone. “Well?” she finally asked, voice impatient.
“I told you to answer me. Are you deaf, or just getting ditzier by the minute?” For once, Anodi wasn’t laughing. She was right not to. The Herald had embarrassed her, along with herself and, of course, Idona, with a thoughtless, emotional outburst that would have led to ruin. The angel’s lips quivered. She was a warrior, trained to fight, not for this.
The pair were close like this. So close, in fact, that each breath of sweet cinnamon air was pregnant with Anodi’s own overtones. Ash and sweat, playful anger, a saccharine tang with sharp zesty aftertaste.
“…No,” the Herald admitted. “My Goddess would not be pleased if we failed Her.”
After an impatient moment, Anodi motioned for her to continue.
Staring up into her gaze was so hard that, in a better world, songs would have been written of the willpower required to avoid averting her gaze. The Herald forced the answer from between unwilling lips. “We are not deaf,” she answered, hoping it would be enough. Obviously, it was not. She could feel the embarrassment staining her own soul as she continued. “We are getting ditzier by the minute.”
Anodi’s anger evaporated in an instant, replaced with a proud smile. She went to give the Herald a pat on the head, but after a moment of uncertainty settled for affectionately rubbing her halo instead, forcing out a quiet whimper and a somehow deeper blush. “There’s a good girl, understanding simple instructions on only the third attempt! That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
A beat passed, making it clear she expected an answer. “It was not so hard.”
Anodi’s smile widened. “And she can learn.” She gestured over to the waitress, still waiting, still clearly a little upset. “Apologise.”
Apologise? To a demon? Waitress or not, this was still a creature of sin, an inheritor of catastrophe. She carried the stolen valor of deities in her pockets as if they were meaningless trinkets. The Herald would—
Anodi cleared her throat, interrupting the descent into divine fury. “Now, what did we just say, sweetie? It wasn’t so hard. Do as you’re told. Apologise. Now.”
Hard? It was impossible! It was against her nature! It was against Her teachings! The angel forced herself into silence by biting her own lip and staring at the ground, but of course that couldn’t be allowed.
One hand under her chin and another on her halo forced her vision back up. “Aww, perhaps that’s just too complicated an order for a little ditz like you, hmn? No need to answer that one, cutie, just say I’m sorry.”
Hate. Hate and fury and— “I’m sorry,” the Herald echoed, voice quiet.
Anodi’s grip grew softer, even affectionate. Fingers beneath the chin stroked carefully as she continued, “I’ve been treated poorly in the past, and sometimes I get spooked.”
Brimstone and damnation, they weren’t done? “I’ve been treated poorly in the past, and sometimes I get spooked.” It was hardly untrue, was it? Even if the exact details were being hidden by the evasive wording.
Anodi’s other hand joined the first, cupping the angel’s cheeks in a soft embrace. She leaned in close, whispering the words straight into her angel’s ear. “I didn’t mean to scare you, and I’ll do better in future.”
The Herald despaired. Again, technically true. She had meant to tear the creature into pieces. Hearing demons weave lies by sharpening truths was foul enough, but becoming the mouthpiece for them was a thousand times worse. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’ll do better in future.”
A tut and a quick tap on the cheek informed the Herald of her wrongdoing. “Verbatim, ditz. Apologise to me for misspeaking.”
A breath taken in anger was deep and uneven. The foul stench of cinnamon-stained cotton candy filled her, calming the angel almost by force. A few steadier breaths and she thought she could obey the order without breaking her vow to not hurt Anodi. It would not do to betray her oaths. “I didn’t mean to scare you, and I’ll do better in future,” she echoed, before glancing at her tormentor. “I am… sorry for paraphrasing.”
Though the words brought a smile to Anodi’s face, they were not enough. “I promise I won’t be allowed to hurt you, or anybody else. I can be hasty, but I know to follow my Goddess’s orders.”
“I promise I won’t be allowed to hurt you—” She froze, recognising what she had just said at the same time the world heard and believed it. Damnation, at least she caught herself before speaking the other words. She was bound by two oaths here already, and that was likely compromise enough that Idona would already strip her of her rank the second she returned to her Goddess’s realm, but the rest of the statement would have been far worse.
Anodi giggled, leaning close to whisper. Her claws stroked over unblemished flesh, leaving a few sharp lines that could not be mistaken. “Verbatim, pet. I’d be ever so offended if you didn’t finish speaking, but look at this poor waitress. You showed her your fangs, you dumb little airhead. She’s terrified of you. You’ll scare her if you try to break my leash. You’ll hurt her, and I won’t allow you to do that. Hold your silence here and you make paradoxes of the both of us, and wouldn’t that be a blow to your poor little Goddess? That might even be the reason you were her last Herald~”
Speaking as if compelled, on dry lips, the Herald had no choice but to continue. To do otherwise would be to break the oaths she was already bound by. It would doom her, and by extension, her Goddess, and by extension, the very world itself. At least if she wrapped herself in further layers of verbal bondage she would still have a chance of fixing things.
“—or anybody else. I can be hasty, but I know to follow my Goddess’s orders.”
Pleasure came immediately, flowing into her like a sign from Idona herself. The Herald let out a gentle groan, feeling the warmth of knowing her Goddess was pleased with her all the way down to the soul. Faith came easily to her, and how could it not, when the presence of her diety was as clear as stone beneath your feet?
Anodi’s laugh was like music to her ears, the gentle caress of her hand like silk against the skin. She was the most beautiful of demons and the kindest, too, for her willingness to protect a silly ditz like the Herald from her own instincts.
“See?” Anodi asked, speaking only to the waitress. A hand gently laid atop the Herald’s head let her know to stay quiet. “She’s harmless, truly. She used to be a big deal, once, but she’s harmless now, and much happier when she serves her Dark Goddess. Isn’t that right, my ditzy little fallen angel?”
Emotions crashed and crumbled. She had been trapped in a web of sharpened half-truths, and now silence would violate one oath, speech another. To contradict Anodi here would destroy her, and though the world would likely show mercy and not punish her for violating an oath to a paradox, the act would surely terrify the waitress, and that oath would hold strong regardless.
Perhaps the Herald could escape, if she could find some way to bind the waitress in turn and show both of the demons to be liars at once, but she had no clear path to achieving that here and now.
There was only one answer that would not doom them all. “Yes.”
Anodi grinned, again allowing her predatory edge to the foreground. The Herald could not help but feel a spark of nervous anticipation and fear as she gazed upon it. “Yes what, my little angel toy, so hopelessly out of her depth?”
“Such a good girl.” Her praise was immediate and potent, hands exploring to find the perfect place to scratch to make her angel sing. The words were over in an instant, but the impact echoed through moments of pleasure, pride, shame, embrassment, humilation, and then back to pleasure. “Now, we really should get on with that negotiation, hmn~?”
The Herald was reeling, unwanted power and emotion crashing through her soul. ‘Yes, Goddess’. Two simple words, and ones she had spoken uncountably many times prior, but with meaning that sagged low under the weight of her devotion. Idona was everything to the Herald. The light that showed the path; the context and purpose for her existence; the only love she had ever needed or would ever need.
She had never before spoken those words with anything but adoration and joy in her voice, and the world knew it. The weight of Precedent could not be changed by a single action, no matter how coerced it had been in the moment. The pattern had to hold.
And so, as the Herald looked up at Anodi with a mounting horror, she realised two things in quick succession. Firstly, that she was so far into the future that she was likely the only individual left even capable of Sin; and secondly, that the building emotions of love and adoration she had been feeling had nothing to do with her Goddess of War.
Her lips parted while she searched rapidly for words to speak. Her heart longed to reply with the words of worship and devotion that even now gathered on her tongue, Truths she was desperate to speak to the world simply to show it how deeply she longed to serve her Goddess… but her head knew better. Her head knew that she was supposed to feel those urges towards Idona, her real Goddess, and that this was nothing but a test of her faith. Her head knew that she should not want to want this, and the only correct course of action was to pretend that she did not until she could find a way out from the trip.
Anodi’s smug grin, growing only smugger, steadily stole any progress she managed to make. How was she supposed to stay angry with somebody who looked at her with such delightful hunger? Nobody had ever looked at her like that, with such want and intent. Finally, mercy was granted when She looked— when she looked back towards the waitress. “Do you still do the curly fries? Oh, fantastic, can I get a bowl? She’ll have water, too.” She glanced back at the Herald. “Won’t you, pet?”
“Yes, Goddess!” chirped the angel, feeling gratitude welling up in her chest that She would be so gracious as to both decide her Truth and give her an opportunity to show her gratitude for it. She pressed her cheek into the offered hand, nuzzling into the divine heat of her purpose. Only a moment after speaking did her smile falter, replaced with a deeper horror still at the realisation of just how automatic her response had been, and how ingrained the urges she was fighting against were.
The Herald bit her lip, purposefully averting her eyes in the hope she could escape the feelings of devotion rattling around her ditzy head. She would have to be very, very careful with her words if she were to return to the present day with her loyalty intact and her true Goddess pleased.
The waitress departed, now seeming truly unafraid of the pacified warrior sat at the side of the room. In fact, nobody seemed afraid of her here. The room was teeming with demons, daemons, devils, and the damned, yet the presence of one of the Angelic Host seemed hardly notable. A handful of those present occasionally glanced over at her, and of those, a fraction had their gaze linger for a few short moments, but nothing more than that.
They simply didn’t recognise her. The thought sent a shiver down the Herald’s spine. Though it was perhaps thousands of years into the future here, the mortals of the present day would have recognised a Herald of the Gods in an instant. They were unmistakable. To see her was to understand what she was, and no normal creature could resist comprehension.
The Herald glanced back towards Anodi, who was watching her with open hunger. “Where are we?” she asked, gesturing around them, hoping to find distraction for a moment. “What harem of sin and debauchery would not recognise an angel?”
Anodi snorted. “This is just my local community hall. It’s like, uh—” Her eyes flicked up and to the side as she searched for the word— “Kind of a mix between a tavern, an inn, a church, and a theatre, from your time? And people probably do recognise what you are, it’s just rude to stare.”
“We care not for the lies of demons,” the Herald exclaimed, raising her voice to its mightiest… only to find it emerging weak and soft. “This— What have you done to us, foul beast? You declare yourself polite while—” Anodi raised a finger to her mouth and shushed.
“It is also rude to shout, pet. You should know better. Aren’t you supposed to be polite? Worry not, I’ll have you well trained before you know it.”
The Herald tightened her lips, glaring at her companion. She wished to answer, and yet something deep within rebelled at the idea of speaking when her Goddess had ordered silence. The knowledge that this profane beast was no true Goddess did nothing to quell the anxiety that rose within her when she considered disobedience. The world understood that the word of her Goddess was Truth and Law, and the world would lose faith in her should she disregard it so clearly. If she was honest with herself, so would she.
Anodi chuckled, reaching across to gently stroke a pair of fingers under the Herald’s chin. Simple contact burned, as that sacrosanct met profanity of the highest order. The Herald was left squirming in her seat, fighting back the urge to make a sound despite the growing pain. “Goodness, I had heard stories of how you things were with those silly gods of yours, but I hadn’t quite believed it until now. I am going to enjoy putting you through eternal torment. That’s right, pet, it hurts, doesn’t it? Endure it for me.”
For a moment, her teeth seemed sharp and her touch raw. She shifted position, gripping the Herald’s entire head, and the burn intensified, joined with a sizzle. Steam, or perhaps even smoke, wafted up from around Anodi’s fingers, twirling in the air, and for a moment the Herald could smell nothing but Anodi.
Ash, fire, heat. Sulphurous spice, like chilli powder packed into a cannon and fired. The touch seared and the Herald had little choice but to breathe deep and pray that she could squash the urge to cry out. Her face twisted with agony, the pain of the damnation that awaited them all should her iron will waver, but with every breath she found that will strengthening. With every breath, letting the flame curl within her lungs and warm her from the inside, she found the pain a little easier to endure.
After long seconds, the Herald was confident she was not going to make a sound. She dared to open her eyes again, and found Anodi staring down at her with a possessive pride. She leaned forward with an open mouth and sharpened teeth and licked a long, wet line up the Herald’s face. That, too, burned, but an angel was not so weak as to fall to simple pain.
“That’s right. Such a good girl you are,” Anodi cooed, so close that her exhalation was the only thing that could overpower the haze of smoke surrounding them. The Herald’s lips quivered upwards into an unwilling smile as she breathed in second hand air and felt second hand thoughts drifting across her mind. “Staying silent for your Goddess, no matter what I do to you. I could call the whole negotiation off and simply play with you until you break and you wouldn’t utter a word of complaint, would you? Speak.”
“It matters not how my Goddess chooses to use us,” the Herald whispered, voice revenant, “merely that we are of use.”
Her Goddess grinned, finally releasing her angel, and leaned back. The smoke began to dissipate, and with it, the other scents of the world snuck back in, though they no longer seemed quite so pungent. If anything, the hall’s own aroma felt mild and inoffensive by comparison to the overpowering stench of mere moments before. It was surprisingly unpleasant, far more so than it had initially felt. Something felt missing without Anodi’s spice wrapped around her lungs. The angel reached out with an expression of her power and tried to pull the smoke back in, but the world did not respond to her request.
The Herald found herself staring up towards Anodi with wavering, uncertain eyes. If she focused, she could still catch whiffs of her host’s presence, but they cut through her thoughts like they weren’t even there and that focus was scattered in an instant. She quickly lost track of how long she spent stuck in a loop of finding focus enough to begin to sate the need in the back of her mind, only to lose it the moment she found an instant of success. However long it was, it was apparently enough for their food to be delivered.
“Something on your mind, my Herald?” Anodi leaned back in her chair, and her presence went with it. The Herald leaned forward to match, acting on subconscious instinct, but she could not get close enough to feel her demon’s presence, and smelled only the spices on the profane snacks between them.
“We… no,” she answered, in a voice like a chorus of distant, sleepy angels. A moment later she blinked, coughed, and straightened her back, trying to shake her head clear even as the blush on her cheeks grew darker. “We… we are here to negotiate,” she insisted. “We must… We…”
“Be a good tool for your Goddess, and execute her will even here?” Idona suggested.
“We must be a good tool for our Goddess, and execute her will even here!” the Herald echoed, voice regaining its surety and firmness. She lifted her chin, sat with pride, and summoned a slate and chisel on which to write. “Speak, demon, what are your demands?”
Anodi tutted, shaking her head, and blew the Herald a quick kiss. It was made of the same thick smoke they had been embroiled in before, and the Herald breathed deep on some unexpected instinct, letting it in to scramble her thoughts and inflame her with Anodi’s heat. She relaxed back into her chair, though she was not sure if she decided to do so or if it simply happened.
“This is an important bargain, pet. Begin properly, make your Declarations. Intent, Honesty, and Clarity, remember?” As the Herald’s mind bathed in Anodi’s presence, she found herself staring up at her demoness’s eyes, nodding along with her words.
The angel merely blinked, smiling lazily over while her thoughts struggled to collect themselves. “Uh…” she mumbled, blinking rapidly. “Um… right! Yes, we apologise. We are the Herald of Idona, and our actions are Her will. We are Trusted with Her Truth, and Our word is Her Law. We are Empowered to negotiate, and there is no higher authority here but we. Our Word will Bind.”
Across the table, the demon’s smile only widened.
Over the next several seconds, with that smile growing sharper, the Herald felt her head clearing up as the cinnamon aroma of the greater hall became dominant once again. She winced, hearing her own thoughts too loud in her own head, like she were shouting, and the apex of each word felt sharp without Anodi’s presence there to soften it.
Even the noises of the other demons seemed more painful now, as while the room seemed carefully designed to muffle sound—and the Herald was fairly sure she could sense several enchantments and mechanisms which restricted its movement further still—the low buzz which did reach her still felt like an unwanted pressure on her senses. She was used to the angry roar of a battlefield, where every sound was a new datapoint to keep track of, but this felt somehow more stressful for its novelty. There was more than she could track and yet none of it was important.
“Feeling a little overwhelmed, dear?” Anodi asked. Her voice was the only one that came through clearly. The Herald glanced over at the nearest table and found that she couldn’t make out what they were saying, despite their proximity, and from there her eyes quickly found the circle of runes surrounding each table. Anodi apparently noticed that her attention was wandering. “Eyes on me, pet,” she insisted.
The Herald glanced back, up to her host’s eyes. Had Anodi always been that tall? And pretty? The predatory grin twitched, and the angel’s eyes were drawn down towards it, only to receive another sharp tut. She fixed her gaze onto Anodi’s eyes again. They were kind of fascinating in their own right, glittering with a curious profane power just outside the edge of the Herald’s conscious perception, like a sound that was too low to be heard and yet was felt all the same. Something about them just wanted to draw her in.
“Crowds can be a lot, can’t they?” Anodi gestured around towards the others, though the angel did not follow her finger.
She nodded, feeling a tiny spike of shame as she did. She was supposed to be the Herald of War, and she was getting stressed out by a room full of civillians casually socialising? Not that she could ever admit that to be the case, not to one of the enemy.
“It’s so much harder than a battlefield, isn’t it?” Anodi paused to receive another nod. “That’s right. There, you know just what to do. You have a plan, you have a goal. Here, it’s more complicated, isn’t it?” Another pause, another nod. “Yes, it is. It helps to have something to focus on, like me, doesn’t it? It does. See, just like you’re doing now, focusing on me; you’re feeling less stressed already, aren’t you?”
Another pause. Another nod. The Herald was. The rest of the room was still there, but she didn’t have to take it all in. She just had to keep her eyes fixed on Anodi, feeling her dark power like wind tickling against the skin.
“You want to remember to blink, pet, don’t you?”
The Herald blinked, once, and then a few more times as she realised how dry her eyes had gotten. The air wasn’t as humid as she was used to, she supposed. Her tongue snuck out to moisten her lips, while she was at it.
“That’s right. Good pet. Just keep your eyes focused on me. You can feel the rest of the room starting to fade away, can’t you? Yeah.” The Herald wasn’t sure if she’d nodded before or after Anodi’s confirmation, but it was correct all the same. The more she fixated, the less present the room seemed. “Keep your ears focused on me too, so that all the other sounds can just slide off, barely heard and hardly noticed. Yeah, just like that, my pretty little angel.”
The Herald found herself smiling. She didn’t get called pretty often. She was, objectively so, yet it was rarely the first word out of anybody’s lips when they saw a magically armoured demigoddess falling from the sky.
“And,” Anodi continued, after a beat. “My pretty little angel.” She paused, leaving the Herald a few extra moments to bask in the warmth of being pretty. “Now that you’re ever so fixated on me, isn’t it so much easier to know what to do? Now that I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to worry, do you? Remember why we’re here, mmh? We’re here to find a middle ground, a compromise. We’re here to find a way for you to make me happy, and for me to make you happy, aren’t we? We’re negotiating.”
The Herald found herself nodding in agreement. “We’re… negotiating,” she echoed. Figuring out how to make each other happy.
“But that definition is a little silly, don’t you think? That’s right, you don’t think, do you? Gosh, it’s so much work, right? It’s a lot. It’s so complicated. So much harder than a battlefield, where all you need to do is achieve your objective. Here we could agree anything. It’s a lot. It’s so stressful, isn’t it?” As she spoke, Anodi’s voice grew a little faster, a little more worried. “You don’t know what I want, and you don’t know what I’d be willing to give, and if you get it wrong you could agree to something that doesn’t really help. It’s so complicated that you’re already starting to stress, aren’t you? You are.”
She was. The Herald wasn’t forgetting to blink, now. In fact, she was blinking fairly rapidly, feeling her heartrate elevate and her hands start to clam up. If she couldn’t handle being in a room with other people, how could she handle negotiating for the future of an entire world?
“But it helps to have something to focus on, doesn’t it? You know that. So let’s both do ourselves a favour and agree to focus, okay? Agree.”
“…okay,” the Herald agreed, realising she was expected to speak. It sounded like a good idea. It worked with the room, after all, why wouldn’t it work here?
“Okay. Good girl. You’re being very good for me, alright? It’s okay. I know that this is so hard for you, but you aren’t in this alone. We’re both on the same side here, aren’t we? We are. We’re negotiating for the best outcome for both of us. So, how about we split the responsibilities? I’ll focus on how to make you happy, and making sure you leave the negotiations feeling like you won, so you don’t need to worry about that any more, okay? Doesn’t that sound good?”
The Herald nodded, quickly. “Okay. Yes, that sounds good.” It would take a lot of the edge off, if she wasn’t having to be so adversarial about things.
“That’s my good girl. Then, so that I can do that for you, I need you to focus too, alright? You can do that for me, can’t you?”
“I can do that.” She nodded. She could focus. It was why she was here, to negotiate.
“Such a good pet. In that case, I’ll focus on making sure you’re happy, and you’ll focus on making sure I’m happy, and between us we’ll find a nice, happy compromise. That sounds good. You’re being such a good negotiator already. So let’s begin.” Anodi leaned back and clapped her hands, summoning a writing device of her own. Some kind of black slate with glowing symbols down one side.
The Herald twitched, taking in a sharp breath and wincing as the sharp sound punctured her calm just for a moment, and the rest of the world rushed in to fill the gap. Everything was too loud and she needed to focus.
“Right. Um. Yes. Beginning. Negotiation.” She took a deep breath and lifted her chisel. She had a task here, she could focus on that. So long as she made sure Anodi was happy, everything else would be taken care of. She just had to worry about this one little thing.
The Herald coughed, feeling like a bit of cinnamon had gotten stuck in her throat. She looked down at her slate, trying to focus herself. The ambient roar of the inn felt hot against her ears, while the stench of this rotten future was loud in her nose and her mouth. The colours around them were garish and demanding, sharp and prickly.
Idona’s Herald forced herself to take a deep breath. This foul future was what she was here to fight against. It felt like too much, but she had a job to do, and she just had to focus on Anodi and they would come to an agreement, one that would help prevent this cursed course of cause and effect from ever occurring.
“Okay,” she began, glancing up at her negotiation partner. “So, what do you want?”
Her demoness winced, sucking air through clenched teeth. “Oh, my sweet little angel, no. That isn’t a good negotiation strategy, is it? No.” She leaned forward, extending a single claw. She drew it slowly up the angel’s chin, lifting it by degrees. The air itself seemed to fizz where they met, good and evil coming into contact and not handling it well. It must have been hurting both of them, but the Herald was by far the more mighty. “That puts me in control, see? You surrender the flow of conversation, let our conversation be purely about me. About what I want. Do you really want to put me in control? How would you get what you want, like that, hmn? Don’t tell me this is your first negotiation?”
The angel flushed. One sentence in, and she was already messing this up. “We— admittedly— Idona’s Word is more often one of combat than compromise.” This was important. She was perhaps managing to ignore the sounds around her, but only because her heart beating in her own chest was overwhelming in its volume. Only because every breath scorched, though thankfully the claw beneath her chin had begun to smoke, and wisps of pleasant-scented black were wafting upwards. She couldn’t help but breathe it in.
“Understandable,” Anodi replied, with an easy smile. “Let’s try that again, hmn? I already know what I want, but of course, my focus here is making sure that you get what you want, yes? Yes. So, begin by telling me what you can offer me. How can you make me happy, pet?”
The Herald nodded, very slightly, still wary of the claw. Anodi smirked, then pulled it away, watching her angel’s hungry eyes as she reflexively took one last deep breath to inhale the last of the smoke. “We— the Angelic Host of War is by far the strongest individual force of its time,” she spoke, rattling off the words as if rehearsed with slightly unfocused eyes. Anodi’s warmth curled within her, even if it were rapidly cooling. “While there can be no peace with demons, we could accept your peaceful surrender?”
“How generous.” A giggle rang out across the table, followed by a few moments of scribbling on the much thinner, profane writing tablet. “But do you really want me to accept that? Look around you, pet. Really look around you. See just how many of us there are, in this one room of this one building of this one city. Imagine, for me, if you could, thousands of rooms just like this.”
As she spoke, Anodi dragged a finger down on her magical tablet, and the angel reflexively agreed with the world that her power should have an effect. The binding ring of runes surrounding their table glittered, wavering in intensity, while the control symbols around the edge flicked from one phrase to another.
Sound crashed in.
Suddenly, the Herald could hear the world around clearly, and the same senses that made her indomitable in battle identified and tracked every one. A dozen conversations; no, two dozen. Demons discussing what they were to order for lunch, one table ‘enthusiastically’ arguing over the interpretation of a die roll, the waitress taking another set of orders. Perfect situational awareness turned to torture her.
More. Worse. Though the room was filled with nothing but demons, she felt the fear some of them held; the nervousness; the excitement. Three of the creatures in this room had been forced here, bound by spellwork and wordplay. Victims, in a sense, of the world gone wrong, for the spells binding them bore the unmistakable aura of Idona’s power; the power to fight, to struggle, twisted into its polar opposite: enforced surrender.
The Herald rose to her feet, wings spread wide. Regardless of where she was, there were some forms of injustice she could never let slide. She could summon her strength here, if she could figure out where to point it first.
“Thousands,” Anodi repeated, drawing the angel’s attention back. “Perhaps tens of thousands, across the world.”Imagine it, if this one room seems so vivid, then how would a thousand more feel? How far do your senses stretch, Herald of War?”
“As far as they must,” the angel whispered. “No battlefield is beyond me.”
“No battlefield is beyond you,” Anodi agreed, with a smile. “And what is this world but a battlefield? Can you hear them all? The tens of thousands?”
The Herald felt her demonic host flexing her power, and agreed with the world that it should take effect before taking the moment to think that she should have taken. She was already feeling overwhelmed just being here, but as the demon’s spell took hold, she began to understand how overwhelmed she truly was.
The room she was in was one of sixteen in the inn. It was the biggest, by far, but there was also an entrance hall and an assortment of bedrooms, bathrooms, and other utilities. The inn was one of five in the village, but the village itself had ninety eight total buildings. In the region, there were two dozen of these villages, but they were all arranged around the great walls of the fortress city of Dai’zin, or what had become of it.
Seven such regions made a country.
Eighteen such countries made a world.
She heard them all, though even her power had limits and she could not understand, could not keep track, could not— could not— it was too much.
The Herald staggered backwards, dropping to her seat, and reached out with her power to undo the spell, to re-ignite the magic circle, anything. She couldn’t. She lacked the focus to understand how they worked. The whole world was screaming at her in unison. The whole world was wrong. There were kinds of injustice she could not let slide, and yet she was so surrounded by it that she could not even begin to determine where to start.
“Eyes on me,” Anodi whispered, and her voice was the only one that could cut through the noise. The angel turned, eyes wide and frantic, to focus on her. The only one who she could focus on. “Hey, are you okay?”
“I— we—” The herald stumbled over her own words, and Anodi’s expression flickered. She swore quietly under her breath and reached down to her tablet to drag her finger back across. Nothing happened. If the world had reached out to ask the Herald’s consent, it had been lost in the uproar. “Too much, too much,” she whimpered, trying to cover her ears with her hands to no clear effect.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Anodi replied, voice quiet and soothing. She didn’t need to shout to be heard; the Herald could hear everything. She extended a hand and the Herald reached for it on instinct, clutching her lifeline even as the contact burned her skin. “Shhh. It’s okay. Just focus on me, okay? You can do that for me, I know you can. You’ve been doing it so well already.”
With so much skin touching skin, the smoke was already starting to build. The Herald breathed deep, letting the pungent aroma drive out the overwhelming scent of a world bathed in cinnamon and gunpowder. She felt Anodi’s warmth settling in the bottom of her lungs, dulling her senses and her perception, and all the world began to blur but Her.
The pair sat there for long moments more, the angel’s frantic breaths slowing bit by bit while the demon’s words whispered of comfort and warmth.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Anodi whispered. “Focus on my words, and let all the other voices fall silent. Focus on my eyes, and let all others be unseen. Focus on me, and let the world outside of simply you and I fall away. You’re safe here with me, aren’t you, my angel? I won’t let you come to harm.”
The Herald nodded, with the roar of a dark future distant in her mind, lost beyond the constant, slow monologue. Ashen spice weighed heavy, leaving her feeling sluggish, almost lethargic, but most importantly, left her magics dulled enough that though they still wished to show her the world, it was too fuzzy for her to really make out the details.
“There’s a good girl. There’s my good girl. I’m going to let go now, okay?”
The Herald tensed, but after a moment, nodded. They had a negotiation to finish. Anodi gently extracted her hand, wincing as she did. She lifted it to her lips and blew the last of the smoke away. The Herald greedily inhaled, letting a little whimper escape. As she breathed out, a little of Anodi’s smoke escaped between her lips, and though it still seemed to burn, she found the lack of it much more painful.
She moved to try to catch it, but her eyes snagged on the sight of her own hands. Where her skin had once been pure and white, the burn of prolonged demonic contact had stained them the same darker purple as Anodi herself. That wasn’t right. The Herald was… well, the Herald of a Goddess. Contact should burn, but it should not burn her. She stared down, not quite comprehending, while the aromatic blanket slowly lifted from her thoughts, and her senses began to sharpen. Almost immediately, the Herald felt herself growing tense, shoulders hunching, wings curling in around herself. It was going to be too much. She wasn’t going to be able to handle it. She looked up at Anodi, focusing in on her, and that helped, but she knew it wouldn’t be enough without the intoxicating blanket to dull her thoughts.
But she had a job to do. She had to negotiate. She had to tell Anodi what she could offer and what she needed, and trust that she would do what was best with it. Stained hands balled into fists as she tried to ward off the overwhelming input of a world lost to heresy. “This is all too much,” she admitted. “All Idona’s Host is good for is war and fighting. We– we can fight? If you need?”
“This world has seen too much war already,” Anodi replied, with a sigh, and shook her head. “All that ‘goddess’ ever brought was strife and pain, and for what?”
“We— because that is Her will?” the Herald asked, voice a little strained.
“It didn’t have a will, it was just a force of nature. Fight, fight, fight. Kill, kill, kill. Do you hate me, pet?”
The Herald shook her head sharply, eyes fixed in place. If she let them slip even for a moment, the world would overwhelm her. “Of course not!” she exclaimed, as if shocked to be asked the question. Anodi’s smile split into a grin.
“That’s a good girl. You don’t want to kill me. You aren’t here to hurt me, remember? Nod, just like that. Good girl. Not here to hurt me.”
“Not here to hurt you.” The Herald shook her head.
“Good girl.” Anodi’s smile softened. “You’re here to focus on how to make me happy, right? We agreed on that; all you need to focus on is me, and keeping me happy.” She wiggled a finger, encouraging, only to pull it away as the Herald tried to lean in close. “Say it, pet.”
“Here to focus on you,” the Herald echoed, nodding rapidly. “Keeping you happy.”
As a reward, the finger returned, slipping between angelic lips. The Herald whimpered, spice biting at her tongue. She gasped, sharp, only to feel the heavy heat of smoke swirling down her throat, settling her, soothing the burn of Anodi’s flavour. Her tongue grew brave, burning itself on profane flesh.
“Aww,” cooed her demoness. “Is my ditzy little angel feeling needy?”
There was really no other answer to give but a nod. She had to keep her focus on Anodi, or the world would overwhelm her.
“Uh-uh. Use your words.” Anodi pulled her finger back, and though her angel followed as far as she could, she could only lean forward so far before the table got in the way.
“We– Yes,” she breathed, her thoughts starting to clear already.
“Yes what?” Anodi’s words were firm and pointed. She reached forward to wipe her finger dry on the Herald’s cheeks, then took a moment to inspect it. Unlike the Herald, she seemed no worse the wear for their contact.
“Please,” the Herald gasped, slurring her speech slightly thanks to her freshly forked tongue. “Please, it helps. Please, we need it.”
“That is not a strong negotiating position, pet. What will you give me in return?” Her finger remained frustratingly out of reach. “What can you give me, little Herald of War?”
“…war?” she asked. “Conflict. I’ll– I can fight?”
“You aren’t here to hurt me.”
The Herald echoed, the call and response now an established pattern.
“Idona’s plan was simply to kill us all,” Anodi explained, as if mentioning a by-the-by. “Yet by your own admission, you were sent not to hurt me. Curious. Is my silly little pet too much of a ditz to have noticed the contradiction? Did you think about your orders at all?”
“We—” The Herald paused, blinking rapidly. The eyes of the world focused in hard. Everything dropped away. Anodi, Idona, the inn, the world itself. The silence was absolute. The world stopped turning. The question being asked of her by reality itself was wordless, but she could not fail to comprehend.
Somebody had been caught in a contradiction. Oaths and promises had been made and somebody was not telling the truth. In such cases, the world turned to the highest authority and asked them to adjudicate. These were the questions asked of the Gods.
But the Gods weren’t here, and Idona’s Herald was. Either Idona’s promised plan to wipe out the demons was nothing but a lie, or the order given to negotiate could not have happened. Perhaps the Herald was wrong in her beliefs, that the order had in fact never been given. Perhaps Idona herself was lying to her followers. Perhaps Anodi was playing games with truth. Ordinarily, Idona Herself would be above reproach, as she would decide which of the others to smite, but they were in a future where Idona Herself had fallen and so the question came down to the highest remaining power, the Hera—
“Eyes on me, pet.”
The Herald fixed her gaze on the demoness, spotting the carefree grin on her lips from the edge of her vision. She blinked rapidly, mind racing as she tried to piece together the truth from scraps of lies in an addled mind.
Anodi blew her a kiss, derailing every train of thought at once. “What? Is my ditzy little angel trying to think? Silly little thing, that’s hardly your area, is it? You just blindly follow your orders without a moment of critical thinking, don’t you? Nod.”
The Herald responded to the sharp instruction before really processing the words. Her prompt obedience earned her a smile, and she felt pride.
“Good pet. No, I don’t think this decision should come down to you, should it? No. You’re very good at doing as you’re told, and it’s hardly your fault if you were lied to.” She fixed her gaze on the angel and spoke with weight. “You’re nothing but my ditzy little pet, and you won’t even believe the words of your precious Idona above mine. Will you, pet?”
It was all too much. Decisions of this magnitude weren’t meant for creatures like her. They were meant for the gods. She shook her head quickly. “No. We– We do not know what to believe.”
“No, what?” Anodi insisted. There was nothing to distract from the question, nor the weight of the world’s gaze. “You’re mine, and I will have respect from my property.”
The world was still looking to the Herald for answers, but the absence of an answer could be an answer too. As the seconds went by and she did not contradict the demoness, she could feel the obvious conclusions being drawn. She let her head fall, staring down at the time-locked table between them.
“No, Goddess. I won’t. I don’t understand, what you’re saying makes sense, but Idona is…”
The Herald winced as gentle fingers brushed across her cheek, burning hot even in their caress. “That’s enough, pet. Quiet down, now. You don’t need to understand. In fact…” She leaned back, then snapped her fingers and pointed firmly at her feet. “Down, girl.”
Moving in chronostasis was an unusual affair. The air didn’t really want to get out of the way. The wood refused to bend or compress. All the same, a scrambling angel found herself carried along on a burst of borrowed intent, taken to her knees, back bent, head low, and despite her magnificent height she found that she did, in fact, fit comfortably beneath the table.
“Goodness, haven’t I made such an obedient little toy out of you?” Anodi asked, laughter like music. “Thank me. Be obsequious about it, my helpless thrall.”
Every word hit the Herald harder than the last. She was in this too deep to stop now. Every time she failed to disobey was precedent set, and the world knew it as well as she did. Whether she wanted it to be true or not, Anodi spoke no lies. “Thank you, Goddess,” the angel spoke, after a long moment of failing to work up the willpower to disagree. “We— Thank you very much for making us your obedient toy. Thank you for taking us. Thank you for making us yours.”
Rumbling with delight, Anodi made a sharp gesture with a hand held at her pet’s new eye level, pointing again at her feet. “Come,” she insisted.
The stone surface was profane, even here. Cold, hard, lacking the empathy of soil or grass. Though she could have sworn the table had only been a few feet across, it felt like miles from beneath. Perhaps it was? There was no need for the world to make sense to her. Anodi had said that she didn’t need to understand, though how could that possibly be true? The world was looking to her for answers, still.
Instead of getting a moment to think, her impatient goddess gestured more sharply, pulling magic from her pet’s confused will to shove her forward with a sharp slap across the rear. The Herald of Idona, Goddess of War, cried out in hot shame, forced to crawl on hand and foot to move forward, placing purple-stained palms against slightly uneven stone one after another.
This was wrong. She was an angel! She was the chosen of a Goddess! She was, apparently, the highest authority the world had remaining to it! Yet she was humiliated, treated like little more than an entertaining pet or a cheap thrill. She glanced up, only to find the table much, much longer than she had remembered. Some kind of demonic trickery was afoot, but little good the realisation did her. She had to crawl regardless.
Her cheeks burned as easily as those of any mere mortal. She couldn’t even see the demoness’s face from here, only her lower half, but that was enough. She could sense Anodi’s giddy energy; she was clearly enjoying herself. With even the smallest movements, the Herald dragged her battle dress through the dirt, and even while the floors were actually astonishingly clean they still left her feeling filthy, far from the gleaming white she had once been.
The Herald let her head droop. Was this really how far she had fallen? To crawl before a demon while barely even understanding why?
Anodi tutted, and another sharp gesture brought a second pulse of magic down against her rear, taking the angel’s attention by force. “Head up, pet. Smile. Remember, all you have to worry about is making me happy, and I want to see you proud to be my new toy.” Her words were firm, even sharp, though the Herald could not miss the undertone of enjoyment her Goddess was taking in this. She lifted her head, focusing on her, and smiled. If she was making Anodi happy, then she knew she was doing the right thing.
She could not see the resultant smile, but she felt it rippling through the frozen air regardless. The eyes of the world watched closely, but after a moment the Herald realised she didn’t need to be afraid of their judgement. She may not truly understand whether Idona had betrayed her by sending her here… but she did understand that her Demoness was happy with her, and so she was doing the right thing.
“Now that’s a good girl! Keep this up and you might just earn dinner today.” Anodi chuckled, tail curling around her body in delight. “That’s a joke, to be clear. You will earn my generosity. Hmn, let’s see… put a bit of a wiggle in your step. Hurry it up, too. Oh, and breathe deep. Get yourself nice and addicted to me.”
The Herald bit her lip, letting her eyes slip closed as she inhaled. Anodi’s scent was faint, she must have been whole meters away somehow, but with every step it grew stronger. She began to move faster, following her nose, and found her body naturally emphasising her movements more when she stopped focusing on them so much. All she needed to worry about was pleasing her Demoness, of course the details came naturally.
As she finally approached, the creature’s scent grew so intense as to be overpowering, and she felt a familiar, welcome fog begin to cloud her thoughts, and—
The table rocked as she reached the end and found a support beam a few inches lower than the rest of the surface. Her neck yanked back, uncomfortably far, as her halo caught upon it. She and Anodi both squeaked in surprise. The table wasn’t supposed to be able to move, it was time-locked! Apparently her halo was so fixed in place that even a stopped clock was not strong enough to break the link.
Regardless, after a moment of rubbing feeling into the back of her neck, the Herald opened her eyes and gorged herself on the view. Anodi Herself, viewed from the proper place, kneeling just between her legs while the demon paid attention to something else entirely. Though no magic had been cast, there was a clear tingle growing in her chest, in her throat, in her mind. One of Anodi’s hands came down to rest heavy atop her head. It burned, even here.
“There’s a good angel,” her demon cooed, gently stroking through her hair as she pushed down, moving her Herald to settle in comfortably against her thigh. “There’s my good angel. Isn’t that right? Don’t answer that, pet. You don’t need to know the answers, do you? No. Don’t answer that, either, just settle in there, nice and comfortable, and let me make all the decisions.”
Her other hand came down to rest against her angel’s cheek, pressing her in on three sides. The contact burned. Acrid, ashen smoke was already building around her, reducing visibility to almost nothing. The entire world shrunk to encompass only Anodi. The pain was exquisite, cathartic, burning away the humiliation of maybe having lost and leaving only the pride of being hers. A slight shift of position pressed the Herald’s lips up against Anodi’s skin, and on instincts barely muted by her sluggish mind, she began to worship her Goddess.
“Oh yes, that’s it, just like that. Fuck but it’s hot to have you so broken for me.” The beautiful voice of a diety wavered slightly, trying to maintain her air of detached superiority and only largely succeeding. “For all you know, I could be the one who tricked you, hmn? Maybe I just wanted my own pet angel.” Her fingers scritched, gently at first, but soon growing rough. The angel whimpered as claws drew blood. “Perhaps that goddess of yours really was unimpeachable, truly, and never said a word out of place?” Her other hand wrapped around her angel’s neck and began to squeeze, firmly enough that breathing quickly became impossible. “Maybe I was playing you all along, and you could smite me with a word and go back to that perfect little life you had.”
Why was she saying this? The Herald felt her head clearing more the longer she was kept from breathing Anodi’s musk, only to have that temporary capacity begin to fail as her oxygen ran short. Anodi was a demon, a creature of trickery and deceit. Idona was a goddess, the personification of truth itself.
The vicious grin that stared down from above made the answer plain as day. Of course Anodi had been playing her from the start, and a single word could fix all of this. With a firm hand clamped around her windpipe, she couldn’t utter so much as a grunt. Finally, it began to dawn on her just how thoroughly she had failed.
Anodi held firm, looking down at the asphyxiating angel as the light in her eyes started to wink out for good. The demon shivered, head to toe, letting out the most profane moan of appreciation before finally releasing her grip. Air rushed into the Herald’s lungs, but along with it came the irresistable scent of her. “But you don’t care about the truth, do you? It’s too much to ask you to decide, isn’t it? Don’t answer, remember. You don’t need to answer. You’ll never need to answer a question again. Just breathe deep, and learn your new place.”
The Herald got the sense that Anodi was not only talking to her only when she felt the weight of the world’s gaze began to lighten. She inhaled obedience, and exhaled the last dregs of her purity, losing herself in worshiping the body before her.
“That’s right!” Anodi grinned, pinching her cheek and patting her head. “You’re nothing but a pretty plaything, aren’t you? Don’t answer. You’re a dumb, silly toy who just does whatever she was told to do last, aren’t you? Don’t answer. Even though you’ve given all those oaths, spoken all those words of devotion to that wannabe goddess, you’re mine and mine alone, aren’t you? Say ‘Yes, Goddess.’”
“Yes, Goddess,” the Herald gasped, between one burning kiss and the next. She could feel the weight of each of them as direct contact stained her soul. She cried out in profane bliss as Adoni gave her one last pat on the head, then reached up and tore her halo free.
The world’s gaze left her entirely as what little defence she had left faltered and failed. This close to her Goddess, her presence was simply overwhelming, and each breath left her only more desperate for the next, a desire tempered only by the need to show her devotion through her acts of worship. The world had seen her subservience and decided she was little more than an extension of her owner’s will.
“… authority she had is now mine …” The Goddess’s thumb brushed across her lip, drawing out a panting promise of unending obedience. “… matter at hand, I judge that neither I nor my pet …” Her Divine skin burned so wonderfully against Her angel’s cheek as she nuzzled in deep, showing affection without a care for how the world would interpret it. “… didn’t understand; doesn’t need to understand …” She didn’t understand the meaning beneath her actions. She didn’t need to understand the meaning beneath her actions. She was free. She was finally free.
“… good spirits. Good world. My world.” The Goddess’s fingers gently curled around one of Her pet’s horns, holding it firmly in Her fist as She lifted Her pet to look towards Her. Immediately, Her Herald felt the world’s gaze again, though it felt little like it once had. It was simply Her gaze now, and Her pet knew Her judgement would be fair, even if Her ditzy little thing could not understand it.
She breathed deep, smelling nothing but Her, seeing only Her now glowing as if lit perfectly despite the relatively poor lighting in the room. “And, you are such a good pet,” She exclaimed, absent mindedly bending the halo still in Her grip. “I’d explain to you the chronotheological ramifications of what we just did, but you don’t need to understand, do you? You may answer, now that you are answering only to your Goddess, only to Me.”
Her pet shook her head, slowly, with a dazed and distant smile on Her pet’s face. “No, my Goddess. Your pet doesn’t need to understand Your judgement. Thank You for saving Your worshipper from Your worshipper’s own thought.”
Anodi cackled. “Good toy. That’s exactly right. Whatever you used to be before I saved you doesn’t matter at all. Your sins against Me are forgiven. You just need to do exactly as I tell you to do.” A flick of Her fingers broke the halo open. “You just need to think exactly as I tell you to think.” She lowered it to Her toy’s neck. “You just need to be exactly what I tell you to be.” She clicked it shut, sealing it with a tiny fraction of Her power. Her plaything was not asked for its opinion.
“Isn’t that right, My love?”
Her pet nodded, so suffused with Her presence that Her plaything wasn’t sure Her possession could even kneel without leaning on Her for support, never mind stand, and smiled wider still.
“Yes, Goddess,” Her acolyte sighed, staring up until Her prize lost itself in Her eyes entirely.