Siskenet glanced sideways at Faeruz, hoping for a signal, a suggestion, anything helpful at all.
Faeruz, unfortunately, was staring ahead, blank, as if in shock. Which made sense. They were, after all, being interrogated by a very large, terrifying, horned creature; an actual Demon, from the actual Hells.
And not just one. This one, the big one, was itself surrounded by a fair number of slightly-smaller, but otherwise equally nightmarish abominations, gazing at them like starved crocodiles at a pair of ducks.
Siskenet swallowed, taking a deep breath, and in the steadiest voice he could muster, asked, respectfully, “Uh, I, uh, yes, sir, but how do I, we, how do we know we can trust you?” He felt his face go hot, his ribcage rattling with each heartbeat. “No, n-no offence.”
The Demon seemed to sigh, if that’s what the guttural noises emanating from its fanged maw could be interpreted as. It waved a clawed limb momentarily, and with disappointed grunts and snarls, its entourage of terrors turned and crawled, slithered, scraped and thumped away, most of them disappearing back into the tunnel, but a few multi-limbed ones skittering right over the caldera’s edge and into the volcanic cone.
The three of them stood alone, silent save the hissing and bubbling emanating from below.
“Look, we need to talk.” The Demon’s voice suddenly seemed less terrifying and like knives scraping your spine. Siskenet looked up in surprise but…everything was blurry, like he had just awoken from a deep sleep. He rubbed his eyes, blinking. Then stared.
The creature was gone. In front of them stood a burly, rugged, rather handsome humanoid, dressed in the furs of the Tendairn Riders. He smiled widely, extending his open hand, as if for a handshake.
Siskenet stared some more, arms stiff at his side. He took a step back, toward the caldera’s smoking edge, squinting at the palm extended toward him like it was an adder, on fire, with leprosy.
“Y-you…. Your hand isn’t…. Sorry.” He cleared his throat, took another deep breath. Focus man, pull it together or you’re gonna get eaten.
Siskenet straightened his shoulders, pulled himself up to his fully impressive two-foot-eleven, and looked the man-Demon in the eye. “You said you wanted to talk. So talk.”
The man pulled his hand back. He looked surprised but, weirdly, positive. Almost warm. Affectionate. Siskenet scowled at him.
The man nodded sympathetically. “I can understand you not trusting me, when I appeared the way I did to you.”
Siskenet’s eyes narrowed even further, his vision a blade. “You appeared like you are.”
The man shook his head, looking sad. He was clearly a good actor; even Siskenet found it almost convincing. “No Siskenet. Here, in this realm, what you think you are seeing with your eyes is, generally, a visual manifestation of your own projected consciousness. That’s how this realm works. It gets even more like that the closer you get to the Core.”
Siskenet shook his head briskly, thrusting the possibility away. “That makes no sense! Now you look like a Tendairn; you have taken on the form of something I would be more likely to trust, maybe even look up to.”
The man nodded, smiling. “You’re very astute, Siskenet.”
“Don’t compliment me,” Siskenet snapped. Amazingly, he realized, he had the upper hand in this conversation. The creature was gaining respect for him. At least, it sure seemed that way.
“I did take on this form intentionally, matching my physical manifestation to a positive stereotype in your consciousness. I did this intentionally, as I said, because in order for us to interact like this, I need a form. I’m going to manifest somehow, so instead of allowing your fears to construct a worst-case image of what you fear as Evil, I am choosing to appeal to you in a different way.”
His smile was again warm, like a grandfather. “I have nothing to hide here, Siskenet. Trust doesn’t work that way.”
Siskenet pointed over to Faeruz. “What about him? Why’s he so out of it? Have you possessed him or something?”
The man laughed, a deep baritone chuckle. “No, no, of course not. He’s….” He paused, looking into the air as if searching for something. “How would you say it? He’s…freaked out?” He chuckled again. “Here, let’s make some tea. He’ll snap out of it soon enough.”
Siskenet crossed his arms. “Fine. You want me to trust you? Let’s start with you showing me what you really look like. Nothing to hide, right?”
“No tea then?” The man sighed. “Very well. But there is nothing to show you, Siskenet. I have no true form.”
“But…how…. What do you mean? That doesn’t even make sense.” Siskenet set it firmly in his mind, he wasn’t going to be persuaded by whatever this Demon said. It was a Demon! They were in the Hells. He must not forget that, no matter how slick this creature’s whole schtick was.
“I’m an abstraction. A coalescence of patterns that very commonly replicate in consciousness, throughout the self-aware, sentient creatures of the worlds.” The man smiled, spreading his hands and shrugging. “It’s kind of hard to explain. But, it means that my essence manifests directly out of the Flux, not mediated by physical form, like yourself and your friend.”
He shrugged again. “It’s no big deal; all creatures of the worlds have somewhat different compositions, the Flux constructing some more elementally, some more biologically, some more energetically, and some more….” He paused, searching again for a word. “More purely.” He smiled. “In any case, yes, I have no true physical form. But I like this one quite a bit. It feels friendly to you. It’s a good feeling.”
Siskenet shook his head, one hand reaching into his pocket to pinch his thigh. Hard. He closed his eyes, counting to three.
The man was still there. If he was dreaming, this was one Hell of a dream.
He laughed at himself. Hell of a dream, indeed….
“Okay.” He exhaled deeply, like he was releasing some long-held tension. “So, we need to trust you. Do this one mission, spy on that winged-snake-thing’s front gate for a week, and report back. And you’ll get us passage out of here. You’ll get us home.”
The man nodded. “Exactly.”
Siskenet kicked at the dirt. This doesn’t feel right. Why so nice? Why bother? Just get his monsters to eat us or whatever.
Siskenet looked up at the man’s face, making eye contact. The man smiled. His eyes were blue.
The Hells with you. We ain’t nobody’s lunch. We’re getting out of here. Somehow.
“So why would you help us?” Siskenet figured, keep this Demon talking, give himself time to think. And hopefully, Faeruz would snap out of it and make himself useful. “You seem powerful enough to do whatever you want; you don’t need us to go sit in a cave and watch a gate for a week. Get one of your minions or whatever to do it.”
“I’m not helping you,” the man replied, disdain dripping like hot wax. “Helping people makes them weak. No, I’m offering a deal of mutual benefit. And yes, I prefer this to be done by you. Not my…minions.”
He put a hand on Siskenet’s shoulder. “But trust me, Siskenet, I would not want to make you weak.”
Siskenet grimaced, wanting to squirm away from that hand (was it even a hand?), but also wanting to show no sign of weakness. Boldly, he put his own hand on the man’s shoulder, so that they stood, holding shoulders ridiculously.
The man released first. Siskenet’s gaze hardened.
“Don’t you want your enemies to be weak?”
The man laughed. “We’re not enemies!” He shook his head. “Your kind have such limited beliefs.”
“What are we then, friends?” Siskenet asked, biting each word.
The man shook his head. “We are beings, Siskenet. Co-beings, more accurately. We are part of the One. What happens to one being, such as falling into weakness or stepping into strength, affects all of us. Everything. The whole collective One.”
“What?” The man seemed genuinely curious.
“No, I just want to know. I didn’t realize I said something funny.” The man looked confused, even sad for a moment.
“So you’re telling me you care?” Siskenet made no effort to hide the sarcasm.
“Of course I care!” the man replied brightly. “I want to live my own best life possible! I want to be my most vibrantly alive self! Who doesn’t?”
And Siskenet didn’t know what to say.