Chapter 1-La Diablo

Why do we squander so much time dreaming of what…and whom we have lost? It isn't as if one can casually reach back and change the course of fate. My dreams were still too often tormented by the faces of the women in my life that I had adored and yet had been snatched out of my grasp. Directly after being perforated through the heart by a vindictive demoness wearing a soulless human face, I was more than ready to join my beloved lost ladies in whatever realm awaited us all.

My dearest wish was undone by the fact that I had been stabbed to death by the curvy royal demonic blade, the Eterna Nocturne. Its unique curse was to bar its victim's soul from the afterworld. I knew as I drew my last breath as myself, that my fate was to be damned to live a reincarnated life as a complete stranger.

My worst fears were confirmed as I came to again. The floor was unyielding and very cold. My breath hitched as my lungs abruptly started to function. My eyelids fluttered up as I ending up staring at a blurry white netlike pattern on a dark background inches from my face. I blinked a few times before my eyes came into focus on the white veining of the hard black marble floor. I groaned with a muffled voice as I was strangely wearing a strange beaked mask equipped with inset black lenses for its 'eyes'. I automatically removed the stuffy mask, wide-brimmed hat and greedily and gratefully gulped down the cool air around me. I blinked as I realized belatedly…my arm just moved. My wasting paralysis disease had claimed all mobility from my limbs nearly two years earlier. How? I stared at my black glove with disbelief as I saw I could will my right hand to clench and unclench. I could move again! What else was restored to me, I wondered with giddy excitement. I felt every part of my body ache with pain as I groaned and automatically moved into a seated position. I glanced at my trim new body encased in a jet black cloak, dark leather tunic, pants, and gauntlets with shock, as my old mortal form had been aged, decrepit, tubby and infirm. In fact this was the first time I was able to freely move my legs in nearly a decade. I sat stupefied in a kneeling position for long moments. After taking a few deep breaths, I noticed that something large was clinging to my back. My mouth fell open in amazement as I saw a pair of trifolding hinged giant avian wings covered with glossy black feathers jutting out of my shoulders. I was apparently reborn as a member of the Raven demihuman tribe. I tried to stand up, but my reflexes were as inept as a newborn faun's. I gracelessly thumped back sprawled across the stone floor and groaned softly, "You're an arse, Xavier." I stared up at the vaulted ceiling far above and muttered about my knavish heart. The fatigue quickly overtook me.

Later, I awoke with a start and called out reflexively for my kind and capable manservant, "Hey Thagir, kindly draw the curtains! It's too dark…" I blinked a few times and then I recalled that my life and his had been already been claimed by an insane demon queen. I was trapped in my new life in the Dämonenlands. I steeled myself and then glanced around at the darkened chamber and noticed two things that made me shiver for reasons beside the cold.

The first discovery was a black stain on the floor that could only been dried blood that had congealed who knows how many scores of years ago. My horror increased as I saw an unfinished phrase in the demonic tongue scrawled into the marble floor in blood, Slain by Damba-. I burst into hysterical laughter as I realized that the demon Queen Vana Dambalia had assassinated both my paralyzed human body Lord Xavier Adelbert Tiefehölhe, and also my current demihuman form on two separate occasions separated by scores of years. That demoness harridan certainly was nothing if not persistent in her schemes. The second find made matters a hundred times worse as I plucked up a reflective ebon-hued polearm tipped with a silvered crescent moon blade that had been lying by my side. I picked it up and noted a strange ring built into the haft. After twisting the sleeve a quarter turn to the right, a fifteen inch retractable stiletto blade shot out the top of the weapon.

"No, it can't be," I whispered in numb shock. My hands clenched tightly on the cursed relic that was even more infamous than the demon monarch's personal dagger. My hands started to tremble uncontrollably as I realized that I was apparently the 'new' owner of the Luno Sklava, or 'Slave of the Moon'. Horrifying tales of a degenerate raven tribesman necromancer by the name of Baron Ilvate Corvus and his ghoulish collection of 'doll' corpses had traversed through the Conduit into the human world. In the dim light my eyes widened as I stared at the discarded plague doctor's mask that appeared in every illustration of this infamous monster. Even decades after the war that severed the gateway between the human and demon worlds, human mothers still got their unruly youths to behave by threatening a visit by this masked bogeyman if they acted up. I now inhabited the body of a sadistic killer, who loved to put his assemblage of ghoulish bodies on gaudy display! I let the polearm clatter to the floor as I slumped to me knees and curled into a piteous ball and began to sob.

After three days or so of lying on the floor full of self-pity for my plight, I finally mustered up the courage to commence my atonement. Although I was afflicted with the role of a vicious villain, I knew that I must do everything in my power to alter that deprived destiny. In addition, dying of thirst wouldn't undo the damage he wrought. Firstly, I swore that I would rather die a second time than murder an innocent. Secondly, I would give his ghastly corpse collection a proper burial rather than have them continue on as a sickening display. Thirdly...only the gods themselves knew. Besides I was starving, which plainly telegraphed my desire to live. Much to my relief I found tasteless rations and some bottled water in one of my side pouches, and I consumed it without worry. I somehow intuited that these food items had been magically preserved, and would help restore some of my vitality. Once I was full, I strapped my accursed weapon to my back and donned my mask and hat again, to better ward off the biting chill. I cautiously took stock of my surroundings.

I observed the forest of pillars surrounding me in concentric circles. The nearer circle of hexagonal black basalt-like rock pillars towering overhead were each inscribed with numerals ranging sequentially from I through XXI as well as 0. The numbers precisely matched the all too familiar system of the Major Arcana. How could this insane set of circumstances possibly be a coincidence? My lifelong talent had been to aid and advice the king and nobility as the court Diviner; a tarot deck had been my faithful catalyst for discerning the murky waters of the future…for good or ill. With leaden steps I started towards the closest pillar, only to trip over my own clumsy feet and I fell inelegantly onto my face.

After the clattering echoes died out I muttered ruefully, "Horse shite." Apparently just casually getting up and going for a stroll after my debilitating illness that had robbed me of my mobility for untold years was not going to be a straightforward endeavor. At my unconscious command, twelve pillars activated and I could see flawlessly preserved bodies in all of them, ranging in age from children up to late teens. I felt a wave of nausea, even through I had been bracing my soul in dread of witnessing this horrifying sight. Each of the youths was eerily intact and dressed in finely tailored vestments. I shuffled over and saw one of them was a handsome flaxen-haired lad clad in a blue and silver tunic with a slung quiver and bow neatly slung over his shoulder. Strange black paired antennae jutted out of his hair, and his entire lower body was composed of a taupe-hued, jointed, segmented body of a centipede. I sadly beheld his angelic face and then read the inscription below: XVIII-La Luno. I sadly spoke in a silken baritone voice, "I am sorry for what he did to you, my child."

On a whim I crossed over the rotunda to examine Pillar VIII-Justeco. The maiden was attired in dark green robes with a black hooded cloak. Her fingers ended in razor sharp nails and her unusual pale green skin tone failed to detract from her charms. However covering her scalp was a mass of dark green venomous serpents in place of flowing locks of hair. She was a gorgon demihuman! If had still been in my despairing funk, I would have wished for nothing else but for her to open her eyes, meet my rueful gaze, and turn my body forevermore into stone. "You shall see rest at last, I swear."

I had seen enough. I had no desire to examine the other 'dolls'. I willed the illumination to cut out, and the room was plunged back into near darkness. Before trying to figure out how to free them and start their burial rites I decided to turn my attention to an empty pillar, to better figure out how they operated. I practically stumbled over to the mirror-like facet of pillar labeled: VII-La Diablo. I pressed my eye against the smooth stone surface and peered into the dimly translucent rock, but I could not see an occupant. As my gloved hand touched the silver chiseled lettering a monotone voice identical to mine but devoid of empathy or humanity reverberated throughout the echoing space, "Subject Seven. Prospective doll located in Schlammstadt müllgrube. Transport rune set. Magical leylines connected. Retrival in progress."

Oh gods no! I pleaded in vain against a madman who shared my voice, "No wait-"

A blinding flash later I found myself sinking up to my knees in putrid refuse in a drenching rainstorm. So Corvus's recording had not been jesting about finding a victim in a garbage pit. I turned in a half circle, and then found his latest 'decoration'. It was a tan-skinned girl with violet hair maybe sixteen or so lying face down in the rubbish. I desperately yet gently seized her broken body and turned her to face upwards. As I took in the sight of her tortured body I felt my mind go completely numb. This couldn't be real could it? The young succubus' horns had been ripped out of her head, her bat-wings were torn asunder, her eyes were put out and all of her fingers were broken. I saw blood on her tunic and closed my eyes before I could take stock of any more horrors. I buried my face in my hands as I started to helplessly weep.

Baron Corvus?

Why was there a girl's voice in my head? I opened my eyes only to see I was in an ornately decorated sitting room with a view of a beautifully landscaped garden beyond, filled with amusing topiary hedges and beds of brilliantly-hued flowers. I glanced down at my bulky form seated in a sturdy wheelchair and gaped at my immobile meaty hands. Why by the gods was I Xavier again?

A comely girl with wavy lilac hair stood up from the couch she had been seated on giggling behind her hand. She was attired in a fiery crimson dress paired with a black corset, Coiled ram-like horns adorned her temples as her black leathery wings stretched out. She regarded me with amusement in her honey brown eyes. She flashed a fanged smile as she noted, "Now this is a surprise, your Lordship. I was expecting someone else."

"H-how are you doing this," I helplessly sputtered, as my heavy limbs refused to even budge. My feeling of utter helplessness increased a hundredfold as she gracefully sat across my lap with her hands resting on my shoulders. I gruffly pleaded, "Umm, mi-miss, of you would please…"

"Please what, Your Lordship?" She burst out giggling and gave me an impish peck on my bewhiskered cheek. She stood up again and smiled back at me. "You are linked with my charm magic, Baron Corvus."

The coin finally dropped as I realized the situation. I was still flushed crimson from her flirtatious actions as I confirmed, "Succubus magic, yes? You possess the ability to enter my mind?"

She nodded with a now sorrowful smile. "Better here than conversing in that dung-heap where my ravished body lies dying, courtesy of Lord Emile Schlachthof and his inhumane noblemen fiends." She affectionately kissed her palm and then pressed it against my chapped lips.

I flinched in a panic at her actions, "Ahh! Miss, please that….wasn't right."

"Sorry, sorry," she chuckled. "I was just teasing you, Your Lordship. I was sure a handsome man such of your appeal has surely kissed a beloved or crush, no?"

I turned red in my cheeks, forehead and even my across my impressively oversized nose, as I shook my head.

"Oh, dear." She sighed and squeezed my shoulder as I saw genuine regret in her eyes. "Your Lordship, I'm sorry to have humiliated you…"

"Uncle Xavier," I replied with a sheepish half smile. "That was my moniker in the Royal castle. Everyone liked to call me by that title instead of my rank."

She beamed and gave me a smooch on my feverish forehead, "Uncle Xavier. It's a lovely name." Her face abruptly became serious, "Know that I am truly grateful that my last memory will be so warm and welcoming. Thank you for being such a sweetheart. Make sure I look beautiful when you put me on display, okay?"

"Wait, Miss-"

I was abruptly back in the rain-soaked fetid garbage pit, and a stared down in horror as I saw both of the succubus' shattered hands had somehow guided my hands to wield the blade of the Luno Sklava to hover an inch above her neck. She twisted her features into ghastly parody of a smile as she spoke telepathically for the last time, Thank you…Uncle Xavier. She twisted the haft-mounted ring and her throat was impaled by the dagger blade. Her body went limp, and then dissolved into a glowing ball of light which faded out into nothingness. My trembling hands shook as I felt waves of ire radiate out from my body. At my subconscious command, countless skeletal forms emerged from their horrid graves, to seek revenge on my behalf. Most were human yet some were demihumans or monsters…all were victims of this bastard lord's evil. I realized too late that they had all been imprinted with my spiteful command to seek vengeance against Lord Schlachthof and his debauched lackeys. I called out, "Cancel com-" Unfortunately the recall enchantment activated and in the next instant I was back in my darkened crystal dungeon.

For several days afterwards, I held vigil over the Succubus' newly restored form housed in Crystal number seven. I had obliged her wishes by attiring her form in a lovely red dress with black lace at the cuffs and collar, matched with a jet black corset; the same dress that I had seen in my vision of her. Her wavy hair was gently braided into neat plaits, held in place with bejeweled silver combs. I realized by now my hardtack rations continuously replaced themselves, and the water canteen was effectively bottomless. I had now inspected all thirteen of my 'dolls' and found them mesmerizing to behold. Each was attractive and charming in his or her unique way. I realized after countless fruitless efforts that I could not release them from their crystal coffins to give them a proper funeral. The paranoid Baron had made sure his 'treasure chests' were all but unbreakable. I was beginning to lose hope of ever fulfilling my vows, as I reached over and touched the smooth stone with my pasty-skinned bare palm. "Miss, I am truly sorry that I could not ease your pain. All I wished for was that you could rest in peace." I gritted my teeth and decided to renew my oath. I need to leave this chamber and seek answers in the world outside.

"Oww! Shite," I exclaimed as suddenly all 13 sarcophagi lit up brilliantly as the stone I was touching burned my hand. I saw runes appear that indicated that the pillars entwined vast magical pools to create massive fireballs with the Ruga Infera palace at the target. "Why by the gods' name would anyone want to target the ruins of the Dambalia Royal palace?" There was only one way to find out.

I now knew that the Pillar marked IX-La Ermito contained the closest teleport rune to the palace. I stepped on it and after trying for an aggravating long interval to get the damn device working again, I was instantly teleported to a spot twenty feet underwater. I gasped in shock of the icy cold waters, as I willed my body to ascend to the surface. I felt something solid brace my feet and then slowly began to lift my body up to the sunlit surface. I felt the currants stir below as countless thousands of bones fused to the platform I was standing on. My ghoulish collection of bones and I breached the surface as I gasped for air. Only when I was well clear of the water did it register that my savior was the skeleton of a mighty ancient red-scaled draco, as I was standing atop its seared skull. I glanced up the mountainside as I beheld the unique disc-shaped portal of stone that could only be the Conduit slightly downhill from the decimated remnants of the Demonic palace. Curiously a series of three concentric shields defended the shattered complex from an assault of human mages whom had seized the gateway. It looked like several dracos and demis were engaged in a mortal battle for their lives against the sorcerers that intended to reopen the Conduit. What possible reason could they have to do so except to allow humanity to finish the job and slaughter every last nonhuman in the Dämonenlands?

Well, I guess a villain was called for to defeat the 'heroic' humans that intended to snuff out every demihuman life that they could, just like in a clichéd fairy tale. Enter Baron Ilvate Corvus, the wicked necromancer onto the stage. "Bones of the shooting star's victims, let us drive those upstart humans away! Attack!" The giant draco, fused with countless other corpses shrieked with an undead roar as I took to the skies heading directly towards the Conduit. I grinned helplessly behind my mask as I knew one way to atone was to aid the demis striving to rebuild civilization from the ashes of war, even as I was sure to perish in the attempt. The massive wings devoid of flesh flapped as the giant flyer grew ever closer to the surprised humans. Half of the mages broke off from driving back the palace defenders and started strafing my dragon conveyance. Their spells blew apart countless bones from those who had fallen during the final fiery cataclysm a century prior where a rock summoned by Queen Dambalia herself had fallen from the skies and obliterated the entire mountainside. I started to laugh as I saw the Silverscale draco valiantly push forward his attack and incinerate one of the mages. Other dracos and their allies started to overpower their foes. Finally ten of my opponents concentrated their energies together and blasted one of the red draco corpse's right wing off. Just before the out of control skeleton ran headalong into the five-story high circular portal, I laughed as I saw the remaining mages hastily teleport away in a disordered retreat. I tried to take off from my disintegrating ride, but my poorly coordinated wings could not achieve flight. My body was pummeled mercilessly into the unflinching stone and then all was blackness.

"You're not so scary naked, Corvus." The man's voice was gruff, bitter and biting.

I realized that I was now lying in an iron cage within a vast cavern, dressed only in my small clothes. I groaned as I took in the sight of my bleached white skin and muscular body. My hands were cuffed behind my back to prevent me from casting spells. I glanced up and saw a dour human male in his early twenties regard me with icy contempt in his brown eyes. He was seated in front of my prison dressed in finely repaired brown and black leather armor. He had smooth black full beard and hair tied back in a short ponytail. He calmly sliced a wedge of dried sausage off a foot-long link and chewed on it thoughtfully. "Why did I shiver under the covers when my mother told me such ghastly tales about you? I was obviously a craven lad."

My head still pounded from the aftereffects of my literal run-in with the Conduit. "Hello, sir. I should be dead now. Why-?"

"Why were your healed and revived, instead of allowing you to die in a mangled heap on the ground like that cur that you are? I dunno…ask that bleeding heart, Stihila. She gave the order, not me."

With effort I sat up and bowed politely. "Your ruler, I take it? Please convey my sincerest regards-"

"Stuff it," he snarled. "Even if your intervention saved Espero, I will never believe that you have a drop of compassion in your tainted soul."

An authoritative woman's voice commanded, "Fair, Wilhelm, I think that is quite enough." I turned to face the new visitor and I practically felt my spirit leave my body as I gaped up at the visage of Queen Vana Damabalia's demonic form! The tall demoness with pointed ears and slender horns was splendidly dressed in light grey and white robes, her long silver hair flowed unhindered, and her gentle vertically slitted crimson eyes regarded me with curiosity, but not with an iota of ire or malice. Her artfully crafted stave was topped with a glowing amber gemstone. She curtseyed gracefully, "Wilhelm, I need a moment alone with His Lordship."

"I will be right over here, Stihila," he spoke reassuringly to his liege as he moved out of earshot, yet kept his gloved hand on the hilt of his longsword as he finished his snack.

My jaw flexed open and shut again a few times, but no coherent sounds issued forth.

She calmly had a seat on the low stool Wilhelm had just vacated and she regarded me with playful curiosity. "You seem unduly surprised to see me, Your Lordship."

I nodded numbly and finally found my voice, "I…I am indeed, Your Royal Highness. Firstly, I must know why you spared my miserable life."

She nodded calmly, "You stopped the evil mages from forcing open the Conduit and dooming the Dämonenlands. For that action alone I am humbly in your debt."

I spoke in a hopeless tone, "You know who I am and the evils I have inflicted on this world, Your Highness. One good turn can hardly put a dent in my mountain of vile misdeeds."

"You bear the form of Baron Ilvate Corvus, the fearsome necromancer with no humanity or mercy who slaughtered countless thousands. The nobleman who put the dead bodies of gorgeous children on display in his inner sanctum the way normal people would hang up paintings or tapestries. True?"

I hung my head in shame at her accusations.

She drew her fingers into a tent and smirked. "Why would such a man come to rescue to monarch who literally stabbed him in the back? Why would such a man save a small town of innocent villagers?"

I averted my gaze, "I am no hero, Your Infernal Highness. I had no idea that you or your servants were even here. I just had to keep the Conduit closed, no matter the cost."

I gasped as I felt her cool hand touch my cheek. I stared directly into her strangely compassionate red eyes. She noted softly, "Your Lordship was known to never feel any tender emotion, yet here you are acting like you are wracked with guilt. That tells me better than any torture devised that you are not the Baron." Her fanged smile grew in intensity, as she purred, "Who are you really?"

"I…I am a miserable nobody, Your Highness. Not that it matters, but unless I have traveled back a hundred years in time, you should not be here either." I exhaled sharply as her dainty hand was withdrawn. "You should be in the human world now, as Countess O-"

"Odella von Grauestor, no?"

"How….how by the gods could you know that name?"

"Because she ended my life as well." She took in my frozen expression of shock with mild amusement. "Your bearing is so familiar. I feel like I know you from the human realm. Mayhaps we knew each other?"

I shook my head firmly, "I doubt that you would have reason to consort with the crippled Royal Diviner, Your Majesty."

She stood up with her face suddenly two shades paler. She barked at her retainer, "Wilhelm, the keys to the cell, now!"

"Yes, Stihila." He tossed the keyring over and she feverishly got the door open.

Before I knew it she tearfully embraced my body, "Uncle Xavier! Oh gods, I'm so sorry that Dambalia murdered you too. I'm sorry."

"Yo-your Highness," I asked in a daze.

"Don't you recognize me? It's your niece, Adette Ursula Graueschweine!"

We both sobbed unashamed at the completely unexpected family reunion. At last I beheld a glimmer of light. Ten years after my beloved niece died under tragic circumstances, I was overjoyed and overwhelmed to meet her again, even if she was trapped in that damn demoness' form.