Authors: Joshua Ingle
Book Two of the Thorn Saga
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
A Demon in the Dark
Copyright © 2016 Joshua Ingle
Edited by David Gatewood.
Cover art by Clarissa Yeo.
Cover photography by Reid Nicewonder.
Cover modeling by Fedor Steer.
Formatting by Polgarus Studio.
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for reasonable quotations for the purpose of reviews, without the author’s written permission.
1. No demon may end the life of a fellow demon.
2. No demon may reveal the existence of the spiritual realm to a human.
3. (unofficial) No demon may attempt defection to the Enemy, or oppose the fight against Him.
If any of the Rules is broken, the transgressor’s life is forfeit.
Gnaeus was a limp, filthy man, and Balthior abhorred the need to keep him as a slave. The rags Gnaeus wore barely covered his emaciated body. Dirt caked between the cracks in his sunburned skin, and lice crawled through the sweat in his beard. Occasionally, one of the bugs would find its way up to his mouth, where it would disappear forever behind his black and yellow teeth at a flick of Gnaeus’s tongue. On this short journey north, the lice were his only sustenance, and he Balthior’s.
After traveling two hours along the Tiber, they finally came to a place where the river ran shallow enough to allow a safe crossing. Gnaeus had walked here barefoot from the Porta Flaminia, where he’d been a beggar. Balthior had stowed him away in the back of an oxcart on its journey to supply the war effort, and sent him jumping out into the bushes as soon as the city’s gate was out of view behind them. Balthior was glad to leave Rome, which had been utter chaos these last weeks. The unpopular Maxentius, who had styled himself Augustus five years past, had tried earnestly to gain public favor in the face of Constantine’s approach. He had failed, largely because the city’s demons had wanted him to fail. The usually independent spirits had joined forces and engaged in a war of whispers against Maxentius, sowing malicious seeds in Rome’s many ears. (Which was not difficult, since the famine caused by Maxentius’s war had practically starved the public in recent years.)
The crowd had booed the would-be Augustus at the Circus Maximus three days past; Balthior was especially proud of that. He himself had initiated the first jeers. Fallen angels for leagues around had heard that crowd hollering, had heard the work of the lowly demon Balthior. Then some idiot demon had caused a rider to crash his chariot, killing the rider and diverting the attention of the demons in the crowd. But soon those eyes would be on Balthior again.
Fearing that Rome’s citizens would betray him during a siege, Maxentius had fled the city with an army of ninety thousand, planning to meet his foe in open combat on the road north. His strength lay in numbers, and many of his men were Praetorian, but they were his only allies in the area, and certainly the only fighting force he would have available for some time.
Balthior could see the smoke from Maxentius’s army less than a league north of Gnaeus. He stopped his human for a moment to decide where to travel next: north toward Maxentius and Balthior’s glory, or west across the river to the encampment of the other Augustus, Constantine, from the West.
“Constantine will make the better emperor,” countless demons had told Balthior these past months. “True, Maxentius is prideful, but Constantine’s arrogance and ambition are mixed with radiant charisma, and he has won the public’s love. Maxentius values security whereas Constantine values prosperity. He can be made into a conquerer.
Even before all the talk, Balthior’s opinion of Constantine had been high. He was a baseborn ruler who had risen to power based on little but his father’s name and his own intellect, and though he promised peace to the commonfolk, he had readily met the challenge of Maxentius’s bloody civil war, and campaigned mercilessly against the Franks and the Alamanni besides. Demonkind wanted Maxentius dead and Constantine in power based on these actions… but Balthior liked Constantine so much because he could see echoes of his own regal future in Constantine’s life story. Through his possession of Gnaeus, Balthior had a mind to enter the coming battle and slay Maxentius himself. Balthior the Demon Warrior, they would call him. Balthior the Great.
Balthior decided that a chance to see Constantine, his hero, on the eve of battle, would be worth a short detour.
Maxentius need not perish until the battle tomorrow morning.
Gnaeus’s will protested when Balthior coaxed him across the Tiber, but Balthior muddled the man’s thoughts enough that he soon gave up and made the swim. Just after dusk, Gnaeus trod into Constantine’s camp, Balthior still gripping his mind. He dressed—and probably smelled—like some of the camp’s servants, so he blended well with them. When Gnaeus was settled with some bread, Balthior departed his mind and drifted among the cookfires, passing through columns of smoke rising toward the black night sky. Some other demons noticed him but turned back to their men when they saw he was only a vagabond. In the crowd, Balthior recognized Om, a well-known demon who had engineered the assassination of Severus Alexander eighty years prior. This excited him tremendously.
I now tread amongst the greats.
Where would Constantine be? This army was so structured compared to demon nests, like the one in the woods nearby. Humanity always organized itself in one way or another, but Balthior had never seen such structure before. Perhaps it was typical of the Roman army. Balthior knew little of human warfare, having lived with Gnaeus on the streets of Rome and tormented similar beggar folk about Northern Europe for a millennium prior. The more powerful demons would not allow him inside the Forum buildings, for theirs was the privilege of manipulating the highest leaders and their war games. “The Rat,” others called Balthior. While the powerful demons worked their destruction on the leaders of men, less-respected spirits were condemned to torment mere plebeians, and Balthior, least accomplished of all, was master of only Gnaeus. The Rat and his human.
The others often told Balthior that he was stupid, and spoke to him as humans speak to children, but Balthior had once been the leading Angel of Reason, long ago. He had fallen low, they said. He had grown dumb, they said. But Balthior had experienced the cycle of power, as had they all: greatness, then a fall, greatness, then a fall… He had not been considered “great” for many thousands of years, but he had been around as long as all other demons, and had harmed as many humans as the best of them. Never an important human, though, nor an influential one; certainly none like Maxentius or Constantine.
The center, yes. The army’s commanders would be near the center of the camp, where they thought they were safe. How thrilling it would be to see Constantine in the flesh! The Augustus would certainly be attended by some demon lord on this eve of battle, but Balthior was sure he could chance stealing a glimpse of the man. Even if he was caught, he would not be in too much trouble.
The large tent near the center of camp was heavily guarded by both humans and the demons they could not see. Balthior decided to sneak in through the ground. As his spirit passed up through dirt, then grass, then ornate rugs, Balthior found Constantine, sleeping supine on a mat. An ominous, powerful demon was alone with him, and Balthior knew him immediately.
For ages, Balthior had thought that Marcus, his comrade from the initial War in Heaven, was dead. Then he’d learned of Marcus’s prominence as companion of the great demon lord Xeres, and of their work with the Hittites, then with Alexander III of Macedon. A legendary whisperer of lies, Marcus’s name had become as renowned as Lucifer’s when he’d slain Gabriel a hundred years ago. Balthior had had no idea he’d been behind Constantine’s rise as well. Balthior had hoped to run into him again one day, and possibly become his follower. Perhaps now that would be a possibility.
But Marcus being alone with Constantine struck Balthior as odd.
Several of Xeres’s followers, or even Xeres himself, should be here too.
Then he noticed the vision. Marcus was tinkering with Constantine’s mind, and the man breathed rapidly as the demon slipped images gently into his dreams. Balthior could not see these images, but he could
their meaning, radiating about the room. He felt awe, fear, and a promise of victory in this vision, and then, finally, he felt the most unexpected image of all. An image of the Enemy. A suggestion of God.
Balthior stifled his gasp too late. When the vision ceased, Constantine abruptly woke, rolled on his side, and caught his breath. The menace in Marcus’s eyes as he turned from his captive overwhelmed Balthior. The Rule forbade the murder of demons by other demons, so Balthior would not normally have been frightened by Marcus, but if the demon lord had given Godly visions to a human—if Marcus had defected—the Rule likely meant nothing to Marcus. The large demon backed away from Constantine, frantically searching the tent to see if anyone else had caught him. Whatever the Rat had just seen, he had not been meant to see it.
Marcus charged. Balthior glided backward as fast as he could, passing through the canvas walls and skimming over damp mud outside. He shouted to attract attention, but only Gnaeus, near a distant cookfire, glanced up at the noise. All at once Marcus was on him: clawing, biting, tearing into him. They floated rapidly sideways over the heads of men oblivious to the struggle. When Balthior tried to strike back, Marcus caught him by the neck and started to twist his head, drowning him in pain. He tried to resist, the agony growing greater still, and he thought himself done for until a cluster of screeching demons pried Marcus off of him. Balthior skidded through the air, and stopped himself by a wagon beset with healing elixirs.
If only I could use these
, he thought through his pain.
Marcus roared. “Away with you all!”
Chattering about the Rule, the others demanded he explain himself.
“This little devil was with the Augustus,” Marcus said, motioning to Balthior. “The Augustus is mine.”
“A vision,” Balthior managed to croak out. “Marcus gave him a vision of the Enemy. Of the Christian God.” Visions, even of the Christian God, were often used for deceit, so Balthior hastily added, “It was joyful. A joyful vision. Intended to exult rather than deceive.”
Some of them chortled at this, but Balthior was glad for their presence; Marcus would not kill him with others here. All around them, the men of the camp continued with their nightly duties, unaware of the celestial beings arguing in their midst.
“It was him,” Marcus responded. “The little devil. Whispering to Constantine.”
“He’s called the Rat,” said a demon near the front of the gathering crowd.
Marcus squinted; he appeared to recognize his brother for the first time tonight. “Balthior?”
Too wounded to speak again, Balthior just listened as the demons asked where Marcus had been. He inferred from the banter that Marcus had been guarding Constantine for Xeres.
“He attacked me,” Marcus insisted. “Before I could strike back he had whispered something to Constantine.” Baleful glances and grunts turned their ire on Balthior, who writhed in pain on the ground. He could tell they were about to attack him, when a murmur grew from the edge of the mob. It rippled from group to group until a bolder demon announced the news: Constantine had spoken enthusiastically with his staff, proclaiming he’d had a vision from the God of the Christians. Tomorrow they would march against Maxentius with a new symbol on their vexilla: one denoting Christ. Under that sign, Constantine claimed, they would conquer.
Shrill howls and shrieks exploded from the crowd. Demons swarmed around Balthior, ready to mutilate him at the first word from Marcus.
I did not do it.
From across the small clearing, Marcus met Balthior’s gaze, and for a brief instant he seemed apologetic.
Brother, please. Mercy.