The Queen was more horrifying than anything Damiel had ever imagined. He no longer wanted to be here. He dearly wished Skalosak were here to hold him, to enfold him, to end his fear and his life.
Marishison grabbed his hand.
"Easy, Son," he said. "I reacted exactly the same way when it was my time, all those hundreds of years ago. She only wants to speak to you. All you have to do is listen."
Marishison let go of his hand, leaving him alone with the Queen. Damiel stood there, shuddering uncontrollably as a thousand eyes the size of stadiums watched him.
On the upper edge of his vision, a small cluster of fiery squid-serpents stopped in midair and hovered, facing Damiel. He payed them no heed, transfixed by the heaving, staring continent of flesh below. Hello, Damiel.
Damiel gasped at the voice. It came from everywhere; from the stone all around, from inside his head, from his own bowels and the soles of his feet, from the World-Beast below and the Hell clouds above. I am so glad to see you at last, Damiel. Your presence fills me with joy. My own willing servant, my Blessed Lamb of Justice, you have travelled so far and suffered greatly to be here. You deserve nothing but praise for your courage, your unflinching determination. Never once did you consider turning back! That is the mark of a true Collector, the ideal Collector. I can foresee long centuries ahead, happy centuries, with you as my favourite Chaplain, sorting the wheat from the chaff, making certain that no sinner with a hint of remorse gets past my lips. You will bring out the good in the guilty, and save the truly wicked for me.
Damiel's ravaged nerves slowly began to settle, to heal. As hideous as her appearance was, he could not help but find something strangely soothing in the Queen's voice. Somehow, it felt good, it felt wonderful, to be praised by her. Oh Damiel, I am so looking forward to having you as my servant. I would be proud to call you my own. You are an exemplar to all life, to all Mindkind. Beings far greater and grander than you could learn wonders from you, the brave little human who faced his worst fear - his worst memory - and never flinched from his chosen path! The brave little human who was willing to be condemned for eternity in the name of justice, and then saw that his true calling was justice itself! All hail to Damiel, the tiny seed for greater things! All bow to the glory he could become!
Of all the wonders and terrors Damiel had seen up to that point, the scene that followed had no equal.
From all around, all the way to the visible edges of this underground universe, millions of flying demons ceased their gyrations and halted in the misty air. For a moment they just hovered, like an entire galaxy of fireflies gorged with blood. Then, the unthinkable happened.
All the demons bowed to Damiel.
Even the colossal jellyfish raised their tentacles in salute.
Damiel's heart continued to thud violently against his breastbone - but this time not just with fear. He slipped his hand under his shirt and felt the medallion Father Tamoni had given him so long ago - a week in his mind yet a lifetime in his heart. The great beasts of all creation bowing before the Lamb. The Meek shall inherit the Universe
. Beloved Damiel, your courage, your wisdom has brought you here. Your reward is our undying loyalty. Do you accept our humble gratitude, Damiel? Do you not see that the potential for greatness glows inside you, and that we respect you for what you could become? Will you serve us, Damiel? Will you serve those who love and respect you as one of our own, despite the gulfs of power and scale and intellect that temporarily lie between us? Do you accept?
For a while, Damiel had forgotten to breathe. Finally choking out a few breaths, he said: "What plans do you have for me?" Oh, what plans indeed! To me now, you have the brain of a worm and the body of a microbe. Yet in centuries to come, after a long and happy life of good work and loyalty, you may become so much more! If you prove your worth, I may grant you the gift of ascension! You will become one of my Blood Angels, and join my Infernal Throng, to dance and sing and praise me forever and ever and EVER!
Damiel gazed in disbelief at the countless demons dancing mindlessly above their Queen.
"Have you - have you done this before?" No. I bore all of these precious creatures from my mind and body, and continue to do so every hour. But the highest places, the Thrones of Blood and Fire closest to me, I have reserved for my most loyal servants. And YOU, Damiel, my Meek and Tender Lamb of Justice, I see a loyalty within you, an empathy, a dedication to the cause of justice, that will be true and unwavering in the centuries ahead. You will be my proudest soldier, my Angel of Justice and Mercy. Skalosak may be another. She could be my Angel of Vengeance, Protector of the Weak. There are other mortals within my sights, others you have yet to meet, others for whom I have none but the highest hopes! Together, we shall break free of this tiny planet and rule the Galaxy, spreading our Cause of Justice throughout the Universe! We shall give the Gift of Pleasure to the Innocent, and the Gift of Pain we shall save for the Wicked!
Damiel shook his head violently. "How could that be possible?" he said. "You are still -" He shuddered as he view the living landscape, reluctant to say what he had to say. "You are tiny compared to this Galaxy. There are things out there that can crush you like an ant. The archailects are larger than planets. Some of them are larger than entire systems! They will never let you spread your - your brand of justice." To your limited perception, that may seem to be true. Yet I, too, have a Master, and He is one of these Star Gods of which you speak. He is a force of sheer immensity, as far above I as I am above you.
For a moment, Damiel froze. He recalled a story he had once read - a world carried on the back of a giant turtle, which rode on the back of a much larger turtle, which in turn rode on the back of a still greater beast. Giants dwarfed by greater giants, secrets hiding greater secrets, exponentially into the depths of infinity.
"Why - why are you telling me this?" he finally said. The only true secrets are the identity and whereabouts of my Master. Even the lowliest of my servants deduced His existence, but they will never know His true nature, nor His true identity. Not even my Infernal Hosts know the true face of my Master. Yet, perhaps one day, you will ascend to see His face, and know the secret of my purpose as well as your own. He has reserved a place for me as I have for you. Together, we shall grow to fill the Galaxy, our bodies becoming worlds and stars, Heavens and Hells, homes for good, homes for evil, homes for all, everlasting and pure.
Damiel finally began to realise what he was getting involved with. For days, he had been willing to accept the rigid vigilante justice of the Queen and her Collectors. It was, at least, based upon truth, fairness, the significance of remorse and the sanctity of innocence. However, he had not counted on being transformed into one of the punishing demons as a twisted form of "promotion". He had not counted on long-term plans for interstellar conquest. The last thing this galaxy needed was another full-scale war triggered by the ideologies of superbeings.
"You are aiming for a position of enormous responsibility," said Damiel, "even for a transapient." Enormous for my present resources, not for the gifts my Master shall bestow upon me when my time has come. I, too, am a seed for something far greater, as I once was thousands of years ago. We share a kinship, my Lamb of Justice. We share a destiny.
"I never considered becoming a - a Blood Angel. I had no idea that was part of the deal."Your foreknowledge is irrelevant. You chose this path. You chose this destiny.
"That I did, Your Majesty. But how can I be certain that our justice will be fair? How can I be certain that the punishments we apply will not exceed the crimes?"Punishment? HA! Right now you speak like so many other mortals. You do not understand the Language of Pain.
"The - the Language of Pain?" You perceive pain as punishment, for pain is unpleasant to you, as it is to most sophonts on your toposophic level. That is a fact of your nature, and it is not my place to interfere with such delicate foundations. To knowingly inflict pain upon those who do not want it is a terrible sin. To derive pleasure from it is a far graver sin, and one that arouses my hunger. Yet what you perceive as my punishment of sinners is nothing of the sort. It is merely communication in a language you can neither understand nor appreciate.
"And that is the Language of Pain?" Yes. These sinners, these sadists, all love pain, whether it be physical or psychological. They spend their lives trying to speak to others in that very language. But others - most others - could not possibly understand them. To them, the language is an offence, an obscenity, a hideous, terrible thing to dread and avoid and be delivered from. It is a tragedy that innocents are made to suffer at the hands of these misguided creatures. That is why the torturers, the vendors of cruelty, are sent to me. I understand them. I understand their language. I understand what is in their hearts. And, in my infinite generosity, I grant them - freely - the gift they have always secretly prayed for: PAIN! Pure, intense, everlasting PAIN! I am their Queen, I am their Goddess, I am the one they always wanted to pray to yet never knew where to find. I reach out to them through my messengers, in their dreams, and I give them a tantalising glimpse of the wonders and riches I have in store for them. I tell them that there is someone out there, among the stars, who loves them and understands them, who wants to be with them forever.
"So they - they enjoy it? They actually enjoy what you do to them?" How could they not? Why would they inflict pain upon others if they did not love pain themselves?
A new, utterly alien sense of dread gripped Damiel's soul. For all her vast power and intellect, how could this creature possibly not understand that inflicting pain and receiving pain were two completely different things?
"I'm afraid I don't understand." Of course you do not understand. The Language of Pain is not for you. Your task is simply to observe these sadists and search for that glint of true remorse. I will not devour any sinner who is tainted with penitence or empathy. The love of pain must be pure.
"That is a task I shall gladly follow, Your Majesty."I am so glad, my Lamb of Justice. Your loyalty fills me with joy. But your Initiation has barely begun.
"What - what do you mean?"It is not enough for me to merely tell you of my purpose in this universe. I must show you as well.
"Do you - you mean that - what are you going to show me?" I must show you what I do. I must show you the fate of the wicked. Only then will you truly appreciate the full significance of the task ahead.
Damiel's fear reached even greater heights, mixed with a newfound sense of shame. Only a week ago in his memory, he had been prepared for horrific, eternal punishment. Now, faced with the stark reality of the Queen and her infernal hosts, he was terrified of even observing that very punishment.
Far below, a huge orifice began to expand on the Queen's body, its inner lining glowing with a deep red hue. Blood-red tentacles of mist seeped out of the Pit as it slowly stretched open, growing to dimensions that Damiel could not even guess. Was it already the size of a city? He did not want to know. He did not even want to look, but he could not tear his eyes away from the Pit, nor the thousands of demons that swarmed dutifully into its phosphorescent depths. He could not look away even as the stench of sulphur and rot blasted his nostrils like an obscene shockwave.
Now that the Pit was fully expanded, dauntingly vast even at this altitude, Damiel could see the texture of its lining, glowing red through the parting mists. It was like a ringed throat. There were nine rings, each one wriggling with millions of tiny, barely discernable motions, like microscopic bristles swaying in the breeze. Far, far below, at the bottom of the nine-ringed Pit, a dark whirlpool slowly rotated around a point of utmost blackness.
"I - I - I've seen enough," said Damiel. "Can I go now? Please, Your Majesty? Do I have your permission to leave?" You have seen NOTHING! You will NOT leave my presence until I have shown you the wonder of my handiwork! You have CHOSEN to be here! You have CHOSEN to serve ME! Now you shall OBSERVE as I show you the fate of the DAMNED!
The nearby Blood Angels twitched and shifted. The air between Damiel and the Queen's open maw began to ripple. Then the Queen's maw grew larger and larger, filling Damiel's entire vision as if he was falling into it, falling to join the Damned.
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