Astaroth of the Nine-demonic high council member, legendary soul bargainer, and renowned liar-was having a very bad day.
He limped down a firelit stone corridor within the high council's grand temple on the demon plane, leaning heavily on his cane sword and cursing witches and traitor demons under his breath. His former protégé, Ozroth the Ruthless, had just handed him a neat and complete defeat, turning a soul bargain that ought to have been a coup for Astaroth into an embarrassment. And for what?
Astaroth scoffed at the absurdity. A demon soul bargainer falling in love with the witch whose soul he was supposed to take? Human-demon pairings were rare, but they did happen-Astaroth knew that all too well-but this was unprecedented.
It should have been a simple bargain. After Ozroth had shown signs of decreased performance as a soul bargainer, thanks to accidentally gaining a human soul during a bargain gone awry, Astaroth had been determined to help his protégé recover his edge. When Mariel Spark, a powerhouse of a witch, had accidentally summoned Ozroth for a bargain, it had seemed the perfect opportunity to resurrect Ozroth's ruthlessness and gain a beautiful, bright human soul for the demon plane.
Ozroth hadn't claimed the witch's soul though. No, he'd dawdled and brooded and pined for the witch like bloody Lord Byron himself (and Astaroth ought to know, since he'd shagged that dramatic bastard for a few months in the early nineteenth century). Unlike old Georgie, though, Ozroth lacked the charisma and sartorial panache to pull off romantic brooding, so Astaroth had quickly stepped in to make the deal himself and save both of them embarrassment.
Then it had all gone wrong.
A few impossible spells later, Ozroth and Mariel remained in a disgustingly happy relationship with both partners still in possession of their souls. And Astaroth had bargained away any leverage he might use to punish them.
He scowled at a torch sconce shaped like a hellhound's three gaping maws. The other members of the demonic high council would rip into him as viciously as a pack of hounds if they sensed an opportunity to reduce his influence and promote their allies. The scent of his blood was in the air, and there was no shortage of aspirants in the hunt for power.
The huge black doors leading to council chambers loomed ahead. Each was banded in silver and held half of the crest of the high council: a nonagon with nine spokes arrowing toward a stylized flame in the center.
Dread squeezed his insides with an iron fist. Astaroth rested with his back against the wall for a moment, closing his eyes and breathing through the surge of undemonlike fear. After six centuries, he knew how to force his secret weaknesses under control.
His aching leg welcomed the respite. It had been broken during his defeat thanks to one of Mariel's allies, a violent blond witch wearing spandex, of all things. Humiliating enough to be punched in the throat, kneed in the groin, and nearly launched into the stratosphere by the witch; her naff attire had added insult to injury. The same accelerated healing that kept demons immortal allowed him to walk on the damaged leg, but he hadn't had time to change out of his dirt-and-blood-stained white suit before being summoned to council quarters.
It's fine, he told himself, tapping his sword cane against one white, stack-heeled dress shoe, as if that could knock off the grime ground into the leather. So you lost this bet. Make another one, then win that.
The high council was fond of bets and wagers, which were an excellent way to test rivals, since it was dishonorable to refuse a bet. Frustrated after centuries of deadlock with his main rival on the council, an aggressive demon fundamentalist named Moloch, and with the council muttering about Ozroth's fitness to continue as a soul bargainer, Astaroth had rolled the dice. If Ozroth succeeded in his next bargain within the allotted time, Astaroth would win whatever prize or punishment he wanted from Moloch. If Ozroth failed, Moloch could decide the prize or punishment.
A wager with open-ended terms was a risky move, but Ozroth had never failed to complete a bargain, even if he had felt some guilt about it recently. Astaroth had been sure Ozroth would seize the witch's soul and win the bet.
Ah, to return to such an innocent time.
The door's silver sigil gleamed in the wavering glow of torchlight like a bright, flame-pupiled eye, judging Astaroth with its stare. Bets had been lost in the high council before. The results were never pretty.
But Astaroth had centuries of cunning and experience on his side, and he was determined not to go down without a fight. Besides, any legendary schemer had a backup plan. He'd been investigating Moloch for years, looking for a weak spot to target, and he'd finally discovered the evidence he needed to take out his greatest enemy on the council. Moloch might win this bet, but he would soon lose everything else.
Astaroth straightened, cracking his neck before shifting his weight onto both legs. Sharp pain shot through the injured leg, but he gritted his teeth and started walking without a limp.
The scent of his blood might be in the air, but Astaroth had fangs as sharp as any hellhound's.
Time to show them.
The eight other demons of the high council sat around a table shaped like the council crest. The slab of basalt was carved with the sigil’s design, and molten silver circulated through the grooves. Thanks to a spell commissioned from some long-ago warlock, the silver never cooled, nor did it damage the stone. It flowed endlessly, making the flame shape at the center seem to dance. Torches burned in sconces around the room, highlighting rich tapestries depicting famous demon victories, but the high ceiling was shrouded in shadow. Living stone gargoyles perched in the rafters, barely visible in the darkness.
Astaroth had always appreciated a bold aesthetic, and the council chambers delivered. Gothic drama practically dripped down the walls, and although most of the demons in this room, Astaroth included, had smartphones in their pockets, for the next hour they would all pretend they were suspended out of time.
The council members stared as Astaroth strolled toward his chair with an air of lazy arrogance. He lowered himself onto the emerald-green velvet seat, biting back a sigh of relief. Appearances mattered more than substance in his world. Reality was crafted from lies on top of lies, and Astaroth had long been the best liar of all.
Baphomet, the eldest demon on the high council, raised one disdainful eyebrow. "About time you joined us."
The demon was massive, with a braided red beard and thick ivory horns that curved along the sides of his head before ending in wicked points. Astaroth was fairly sure Baphomet filed his horns to make the tips that sharp, and he shuddered at the thought of doing the same to his own sleek black horns. Baphomet dressed like he was straight out of the Viking era-which he was-in furs, metal, and leather. The attire smelled unpleasantly musty, but Astaroth couldn't deny the demon had cultivated a distinct brand.
Baphomet was the most important person in the room. He was the council's nominal head, having committed to a centrist position, and he served as tiebreaker whenever the four conservative and four liberal demons failed to come to an agreement. He also played dictator as needed.
It was his position both Moloch and Astaroth had their eyes on.
"I was held up," Astaroth said. Unlike the other demons, his accent was crisply British, thanks to centuries spent living mostly in London on the mortal plane, rather than here on the demon plane. To better understand and manipulate mortals, he'd told the council.
They didn't need to know his reason for spending time with humans was more complicated than that.
"You look wretched," Sandranella, the demoness to Baphomet's right, said. Her dark skin and black horns contrasted sharply with her cloud of white hair, and she was dressed in her typical elegant-but-don't-fuck-with-me attire: a sapphire brocade gown with a metal breastplate. She was as close to a friend as Astaroth would allow himself to claim.
"I'm trying out a new aesthetic," Astaroth said, examining his nails.
"What, looking like you got your ass kicked and then rolled around in mud?"
That was exactly what had happened, but Astaroth wasn't about to admit it. An image of his assailant flashed through his mind: brown eyes, blond ponytail, an oval face with a determined chin. The woman had been tall and leanly muscled, but she was merely human, and nothing about her had screamed Your balls are in danger! "It's called deliberately distressed clothing," he said, shoving thoughts of the witch away.
"It's certainly distressing me," Sandranella said, looking him up and down disapprovingly.
"Enough chatter," Baphomet boomed. Astaroth wondered if the demon practiced that voice alone in his den, calculating which volume level best qualified as "booming." "We are here to resolve the wager proposed by Moloch."
Astaroth maintained an indolent smile, despite the urge to grind his teeth and spit at Moloch. His longtime nemesis sat across from Astaroth, an oily smirk on his face. Moloch might look cherubic, with rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and curly brown hair, but he was the cruelest snake Astaroth had ever met. Admirable-except that his treachery was often aimed at Astaroth. They'd been born around the same time, and their fierce rivalry had intensified over the centuries as Moloch had become the preeminent demon warrior and Astaroth the preeminent soul bargainer.
When Astaroth had been named to the high council, he'd thought he'd finally surpassed Moloch in status . . . until Moloch had been raised to the council that same day. Now there was only one position left to fight over: Baphomet's.
Astaroth had been searching for dirt on Moloch for a long time. He would need to be careful how he revealed his recent discoveries, considering the situation.
Moloch stood, smoothing a curl over one dun-colored horn. He wore a gray tunic over a blue shirt-an echo of his origin in the late 1300s, though his gray trousers were more modern. "Before we learn how Astaroth has fared, let us recap the terms of the bet," he said. His eyes glittered in the torchlight, and the satisfaction in them said he knew exactly how Astaroth had fared. "One month ago, we discussed Ozroth the Ruthless during a high council meeting. His failure to deliver a warlock's soul to the demon realm, and the subsequent discovery that he accidentally absorbed that human soul, caused grave concern among the council. When it was recommended he be put down to avoid future failures, Astaroth interceded, promising that Ozroth would deliver a new soul within a month."
Astaroth's expression didn't change, though he was entertaining a fantasy of garotting Moloch. "Don't use such passive language, Moloch," he said lightly. "You were the sole member of the council to recommend my protégé be killed rather than given a chance to prove himself."
Moloch shrugged. "A faulty weapon is more likely to harm the wielder. With the demon plane dependent on souls, it made sense to eliminate the problem as quickly as possible."
Without the human souls that drifted like enormous fireflies in the perpetual twilight of the demon plane, all life within the plane would gradually die. It was why demons and witches had formed a symbiotic relationship. The witch or warlock provided a soul-their magic-to keep the demon plane alive, and in exchange, a soul bargainer granted them a wish.
Moloch didn't care about the demon plane so much as he cared about spiting Astaroth though. "One would think after all these years you'd have learned patience," Astaroth said, "but you've never seemed to enjoy the long game."
A dimple appeared on Moloch's cheek. "I'm enjoying it right now."
Not as much as I'll enjoy airing your dirty laundry at this table in a few minutes, Astaroth thought. Moloch had won the battle, but Astaroth would win the war.
"Enough posturing," Sandranella said. "Or at least whip your dicks out and measure them so we can get this over with. I have a happy hour on the elven plane to get to."
"No need," Astaroth said. "My dick is definitely bigger."
Moloch cleared his throat and puffed up his chest. "That's patently false, but let's move on. The wager dictated that if Ozroth succeeded in his next soul bargain before the end of the mortal month of October, Astaroth could decide the consequences dealt to me. If Ozroth failed, I would decide the consequences dealt to him."
Sandranella met Astaroth's eyes and shook her head. Bad choice, she mouthed.
Yes, he was well aware.
Moloch's grin was sharp. "So, Astaroth, did Ozroth succeed in claiming a soul within the allotted time frame?"
A muscle under Astaroth's eye started twitching. "No."
A murmur went around the table. The conservative demons looked chuffed-they were undoubtedly hoping for Astaroth's removal from the high council so one of their allies could take his place.
"Would you care to tell us what went wrong?" Moloch asked, clearly hoping for an opportunity to humiliate Astaroth further.
"No," Astaroth said.
"Will Ozroth be returning to his duties as a soul bargainer?" Moloch pressed.
"Also no. Are you done with the pointless questions?" Because as soon as Astaroth claimed the floor, he would let the rest of the council know what kind of snake they held to their bosom.
"Not quite." Moloch sauntered around the table, looking like the cat that got the canary. "You've always been overly fascinated with humans, haven't you?"
Foreboding prickled down Astaroth's spine. "I would hardly call it a fascination," he said, striving for a bored tone. "I spend time among them to better learn how to manipulate them into bargains."
"So you've always said. The flat in London, the many, many mortals you've had carnal relations with-yes, I know all about that-the ridiculous fashion shows you attend . . . all of it is to better manipulate humans, hm?"
Moloch knowing that Astaroth had shagged mortals was not good. While many demons appreciated humans, seeing them as symbiotic counterparts, the conservative members of the high council disdained them as lesser beings, and Astaroth had always been careful to keep the, ah, extent of his interactions with humans a secret. "What's your point?" he asked.
"I've wondered about you for centuries." Moloch stopped just out of range of the sword hidden in Astaroth's cane. Pity. "Something's always seemed . . . different about you."
The smile vanished as cold sweat beaded on Astaroth's forehead. Moloch couldn't know . . . could he? "It's probably the long track record of success," Astaroth said. "You haven't had a decent war to fight in decades."
Copyright © 2023 by Sarah Hawley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.