It happens at a festival.
Diavolo opened the Devildom’s doors to the other realms long ago by a human’s reckoning, a precursor to the exchange program that hadn’t necessarily gone the way he’d hoped. Instead of angels and humans alike flocking to the merriment, it mostly attracted ghosts and witches. Mostly-welcome additions to the Devildom, no doubt, but not… quite what the prince had intended.
But the festivals were adored by his citizens, high- and low-ranking alike—the minor demons are still particularly appreciative of the ban on violence within the festival bounds—and so Diavolo keeps them going.
But with the advent of the exchange program, there are actual humans and actual angels at the festival this year. The fact that there are only two of each does nothing to dampen Diavolo’s excitement as he leads you all on a little tour, pointing to a booth that sells traditional Devildom food, another that specializes in traditional clothes. At each of the stops Diavolo selects something for one of the exchange students. Luke is the lucky recipient of a book of recipes highlighting Devildom baking methods. Simeon is gifted a writing quill that never runs out of ink—a pen, you think, might have been less ostentatious, but it’s the thought that counts. You watch in quiet glee as Diavolo contemplates a gift for the surreptitious sorcerer and are impressed when the prince settles on an athame, intricately carved.
You don’t need a gift, but it’s hard to deny that, you’re intrigued and a little excited to see what the prince picks out for you. He’s taking his duties as host seriously—supported by Barbatos—and even chased away the demon brothers, citing that together they cause too much chaos. It’s strange, to not be surrounded by them constantly, and you can’t decide if it’s a good sort of strange or not.
But soon enough you’re pulled out of your thoughts when Diavolo holds a ring in front of your eyes. It’s made of bone, he says, and is meant to boost magical potential. Little runes are carved into the side and you wonder what kind of bone it’s made of, exactly. Something large, you think, based on how thick it is. You’re not sure about your own magical potential or the ring’s ability to boost it, but you’d be the last to tell Diavolo that it probably works similarly to a human world’s mood ring. A pretty trinket is a pretty trinket, magical abilities inside, and you’ve always liked pretty things. You slide it onto a finger and smile up at the prince politely.
The fragile, optimistic moment shatters when you hear someone gasp, and your attention is pulled to a woman with her hand slapped over her mouth. She looks absolutely devastated, but there’s a menacing edge to the way she looks at you and the ring on your finger.
“Lord Diavolo!” She gasps, and you can feel the prince shift uncomfortably to your side. Luke looks up at the woman and crosses his arms, but you can tell by the way he rocks back on his heels he’d rather hide behind you. “Don’t tell me you’re slumming it with powerless humans like this?” She points right at you and you frown.
“You’re excluded of course, Solomon darling,” she purrs at the sorcerer without even looking at him. She’s not looking at you, either, her scrutiny reserved solely for Diavolo.
“They’re my guests,” Diavolo defends you halfheartedly, looking like he’d rather be anywhere but in front of the woman. You wonder if there’s some sort of history between them; after all, she’s drop-dead gorgeous, even compared to the preternatural beauty all of the demons exude. Diavolo introduces all of his exchange students in turn, and you can physically see the woman filing the information away for later. She might be human—you’re almost certain of that, anyway—but she seems almost as conniving as the demons she’s surrounded by.
“And this is the Great Witch Maddi,” he finishes. Barbatos makes a noise low in his throat like he’s trying to swallow a sudden rush of bile. The witch in question doesn’t spare the demon butler a glance, but the way her eyes narrow at the prince is almost predatory.
“So… interesting to see your assortment of new friends,” she says casually as she eyes you up again. You wish she’d look at someone else; if she’s irritated about Diavolo showing a human around, then Solomon is right there, too.
“Nice to meet you, Maddi,” you say as you hold out your hand. Whatever her problem is, you think it’s probably best to be friendly. After all, she seems to know Diavolo; the last thing you want to do is cause any problems.
Her gaze drops down to it and you see her linger on the ring, a twist to her lips. But then that twist blooms into a smile and she reaches out to shake your hand. The moment your fingers brush you can feel something wrong, like some slick chill winds up your arm from her touch to settle into your heart. It makes you shudder and cut off your handshake early, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Her smiles grows impossibly wider as she watches you brush your fingertips against the rough denim of your jeans.
“We have a timetable to keep, my lord,” Barbatos says, and everyone save Maddi is grateful for the interruption.
“Don’t let me keep you,” Maddi says as she glides past your assembled group. She pats Luke on the head as she goes, something that visibly angers the young angel and doesn’t make you like her any more. You shiver as she leaves, like she’s taken all of the warmth with her.
The lanterns at the festival cast strange shadows that make you wonder how you didn’t notice them earlier. They seem to ripple when you don’t look at them directly, like they’re made of some abyssal fabric that is deeper even than the night. Every now and then you think you see something lurking in them, some beast or creature watching you from the dark.
It makes you walk closer to the brother at your side, but Asmodeus doesn’t mind the extra touching as long as you don’t rumple his clothes. You ignore the shadows that seem to breathe and watch and try to focus on the entertainment and the festival booths, but every little motion from the corner of your eye snares your attention. You swear you’ve just seen one of the masks blink at you, the one with bulbous yellow eyes that look so awful.
You set your jaw and try to look elsewhere, your eyes wide as you try to convince yourself that you’re seeing isn’t actually what you’re seeing; some magic went haywire, surely, because—
Because you’ve never seen so much blood in your entire life. It’s splashed across the canvas sides of the stalls, soaked into the soft dirt of the festival grounds. You halt, feet rooted to the ground as you stare and stare and stare. People aren’t screaming; they’re going on with their revelry as if nothing at all has happened, as if they’re unaware of the rot and the destruction all around them.
Asmodeus turns to you to ask what has caught you attention so soundly, and as he speaks, sludge pours from his mouth. It hisses when it hits the ground but he’s completely unaware, ignorant to the wounds that open up over his exposed skin.
He reaches out to brush a tear away from your cheek but you can’t hear him over the ringing in your ears and you scramble away, pushing his hand away as quickly as you can. His hands have turned to claws, scissor-sharp in the light of the fire.
“Don’t touch me,” you rasp, looking around for any means of escape because what is happening —
But Asmodeus just grabs your chin and forces you to look at him, concern etched into his fine features. Except they’re not fine at all anymore. They’re twisted and gnarled and bloated like a corpse and that’s all you can think of as he forces you to gaze into his eyes. His eyes that seem like they’re lit from within by unholy flames.
And that’s when you remember what their eyes do, what all of their eyes do. You’ve seen it plenty of times, the way they’ve charmed humans to their will, to forsake their own desires and convictions, to be completely subsumed by the demon’s whims. When you first arrived in the Devildom, you remember, you looked them all right in the eyes. The rest of the brothers are approaching, called by Asmodeus, and you feel like you might be sick.
Somehow the spell they cast on you has been broken, and for the first time you’re really seeing them.
“ Don’t touch me,” you snap as another set of hands reaches out for you. Beelzebub reels back as if you’ve slapped him and looks to Asmodeus.
“How am I supposed to know?” Asmodeus frowns, his hand hovering above your head. Normally, he’d give you a reassuring pat. But you’ve already recoiled from him once, and he has no desire to repeat the experience, not when you’re still trying to back away from them all slowly. As if they might not notice your attempt at retreat. “I asked if they might want some candy, and then they just…”
He gestures to you and the way you’re clutching your head as if it might explode, your eyes wide and red from terrified tears. Satan looks you over with a critical eye and you try not to look at him or the shards of bone erupting from his skin.
None of this is right.
You should have known they were lying to you.
Your pounding heart makes you feel dizzy and you open your mouth to tell them that you know, now, what they’ve been doing to you, that they’ve been lying to you and hiding the rot but nothing comes out but gasping air.
Of course they were lying to you, you think. They’re demons.
No matter how nice they’ve been to you, no matter how many cute dates or quick hugs or genuine smiles they show you they’re still demons and you are
“... It’s probably for the best, really,” Belphegor says as he leans over you, watching your chest rise and fall with your now-steady breaths. You’re sleeping, finally, with the aid of a draught kept on hand for emergencies. “They seemed… out of it.”
When you collapsed in the middle of the festival, none of the demons were quite sure what to do. Beelzebub reluctantly agreed to carry you back to the House of Lamentation, the memory of your earlier rejection still strong in his mind.
“An elevated heart rate and blood pressure. No doubt they weren’t feeling very well,” Satan says as he flips through the pages of a book. When he first heard that a human would be staying with them, he thought it appropriate to pick up a volume on human health. Until now he hasn’t had the cause to actually inspect it, a humbling experience for him. “It says here that there are significant health risks to humans who remain in such states.”
Leviathan’s fingers drum against his phone nervously, the game he pulled up for its familiarity and comfort long forgotten.
“Like what? You’re not givin’ us much to go off, here,” Mammon complains, crossing and then uncrossing his arms in irritation. But it’s not any of his brothers who have earned his pique, and it certainly isn’t you; no, all of this can be laid out at Maddi’s feet. Maddi and her unrelenting jealousy and compulsive need to be first in everyone’s eyes. No matter that you were no competition for the witch.
When Diavolo and Barbatos explained that it was Maddi the group ran into, that it was Maddi who laid her hands on you, he felt a surge of real panic. Maddi is dangerous, is known as the Great Witch for a reason. Her spells are intricate, sometimes nigh unbreakable, and she has a capricious streak wide enough to rival any demon in the Devildom. But he is the Great Mammon and he is not used to admitting defeat, and Satan and Lucifer are working together to figure out how to break the curse.
“Like… heart failure,” Satan says, his eyes skimming the book in his hands. “Aneurysms, strokes.”
Nobody wants to listen to anything else he has to say. Forcing Maddi to remove the curse is impossible, not when she holds so much sway over the witches in the human world. None would dare to directly oppose her; it was enough of a struggle to get one of the Devildom witches to assist with the beginnings of an antidote potion.
“Wish you’d give us a little less to go offa,” Mammon grumbles. The potion bubbles merrily away on the table in your room, the portable cauldron burning a mark into the lacquered wood. It’s almost done—it’s already a sickly green and it just has to strengthen before it can be given to you—but nobody knows how long it will take you to wake up. The sleeping draught was slightly out of date, and will not be as potent as it normally is.
As if mention of your pending demise was an alarm, your eyes flutter open. For a breathless moment all of the demons watch as you readjust to your surroundings, and you stare sightlessly out in front of you.
And then it all comes crashing down: the bleeding walls, the thorny tree growing above you, the misshapen and sanguineous demons arranged around your bed. Your decision is made before you even know that you have to make it: you have to escape. Even if it’s the last thing you do.
You scramble from your bed, fast enough to evade the grasping hands that do not come, and dash out of your room. A weapon. You need a weapon of some sort if you’re going to stand even half a chance against them—
But it’s not like you can pull one of the decorative swords from the display piece in the main hall, and you certainly don’t put any stock in the ancient matchlock musket in the library. Not that you’d know how to wield the damned thing anyway.
No, you realize as you dart out of your room, the footsteps of the demons not that far behind. No, your best bet for now is the kitchen, where at least there are sharp things. There are pokers by the cooking fire, too, which will give you the reach you need… You ignore the living shadows and their hundreds of softly glowing eyes and beaked mouths as you skid into the kitchen, launching yourself at the knife rack. The first one you grab is a carving knife, and the blade glints in the light as you spin to face the demons you thought you knew.
“Stay back,” you order, but it’s unnecessary. They all linger a few feet away from you, and your fevered mind does not realize that this is to give you space, to ease the terror wracking your frame. Instead, you see them as predators circling a wounded animal, waiting to spring.
Lucifer calls your name, and you whip to face him. “We should talk,” he says, his hands up in a placating gesture. But you don’t want to hear what he has to say—you don’t want to hear what any of them have to say. They’ll just put you under another spell, you know, and you cannot allow that to happen again.
“Diavolo and Barbatos explained what happened,” Lucifer continues, watching the knife in your hands. There is absolutely no chance you could actually hurt him or any of his brothers, but there is the worrying state of your humanity to be concerned about. “You have been bespelled.”
You knew it. You knew they put you under a spell and that, somehow, it broke at the festival. Maybe there was just so much of the evil there that it wormed its way through the glamours. That has to be it.
“Don’t,” you say, holding the knife at the demons. The tip of it shakes from your unsteady hands, and you swing it wildly between them, trying to divine which one might come at your first. But there are too many of them and only one of you, and you know that you absolutely cannot let them get their hands on you.
They’re demons, after all.
It’s easy to make up your mind.
“Let me go,” you say, your voice low and steady for the first time since the festival. “Or I do it.”
The blade you have pressed against your own neck is the least frightening thing you’ve experienced in the past few hours and there’s almost comfort in the chill of the thin blade.
“Fuck,” one of the demons growls, malevolence heave in his voice. You swallow hard and from the bobbing of your throat, a paper-thin cut blooms under the steel. The clammy pain barely registers as you stare down the demons, a reedy, brittle smile on your face.
But your tenuous victory is broken before you can even react as Mammon launches himself at you, knocking the knife from your hands. It lands with a clatter on the kitchen floor and you scream as it skitters far under the table.
“Let me go!” Your shouting goes unheeded as you struggle to break free from the demon’s grasp, jabbing your elbows into anything that feels solid.
“Get the damn potion,” he says, normally smooth voice breaking into a snarl as it enters your ear. It only makes you thrash harder because they are going to poison you. Veiling your eyes wasn’t enough; they’re going to make sure that you ever, ever leave the Devildom.
There’s a clatter of footsteps and before you can even think to struggle your head is pulled back, hands tight in your hair. In your terror you can’t notice that they’re not pulling, that they’re careful not to cause pain.
“I hate you!” The words tear from your lips as violently as they’re forced out of your throat, their rawness resounding around the kitchen. For a blessed moment the arms around you loosen and you almost manage to break free. You can’t imagine why those words had any effect; they’re demons. Surely, they’re used to hatred. “Let go!”
“No way,” Mammon says, his voice sounding strained. He pushes a glass vial to your lips and you breathe out hard to keep the liquid away from you. If you drink the poison then it’s over. They’ll have won. Your heart hammers frantically in your chest and you scratch at the arm that tight around your chest.
“Drink it,” he orders, and you cannot see the way his eyes crease behind you with worry or the way his bottom lip is almost trembling. “Please.”
Confusion rocks through you; you cannot fathom why a demon would sound like he’s begging you for anything, not when you’re so thoroughly ensnared. You part your lips slightly to tell them all to go away, to just let you leave in peace, but the demon behind you takes that opportunity to push the mouth of the bottle past your lips. It clinks against your teeth.
“No!” You try to shout from around the bottle, but the potion seeps into your mouth and down your throat no matter how hard you try to push it back out. It burns as it travels, like they’ve somehow bottled lava. You’re burning—melting, even—as you try to cough it back up, gagging and spitting. He’s saying something about you dying if you don’t drink it, but all you can think of is that you’ll die if you do drink it.
But a human’s strength—even fueled by adrenaline—is no use against a demon. Soon enough, most of the potion has trickled down your throat to curdle in your stomach. Everything feels like it’s on fire. Your skin burns from the inside out. Your eyes ache from how bright everything seems, burning a headache into the back of your mind. The only cool place on you is where the demon’s tears have wet the back of your shirt. He’s not speaking anymore and neither are you. It takes too much energy to fight.
“Let me go,” you wheeze, halfheartedly fighting against Mammon’s grip. He shakes his head but doesn’t say anything, just raises the small glass bottle to your lips again. The walls are no longer seeping blood and the shadows have retreated, and you know that you should be concerned about that—that you can’t see the truth anymore—but the thought is no longer as insistent as it once was.
“Come on,” Mammon begs from behind you, still holding you close. “There’s just one more swallow. Just one more, okay?” He implores, shooting one of his younger brothers a warning glance as they step closer. Whether you’ve stopped struggling because you’re exhausted or because the potion has started working, he doesn’t want to risk aggravating you again. He felt how hard your heart had been beating, and Satan’s warnings about a heart attack loomed high in his memory.
“Just one more swallow, please,” he murmurs, still holding the vial to your lips. But with the way you slump in his hold, your head lolling forwards as if you can’t support it makes him wary to force you to drink again. At least your heart isn’t racing quite like it was.
Your head swims. You can barely keep your eyes open, sure that you’re going to be sick from the burning coursing through you. But at the same time you feel like you can breathe again, like your ribs aren’t trying to constrict each time your lungs expand. Mammon’s arm encircles you and you fight through the first flicker of fear that knowledge inspires to discover that you don’t feel unsafe. Instead…
Hands trembling, you reach for the last dregs of the potion.
“Okay,” you breathe out.