Sagemill is a city that puts cities like Las Vegas and Pattaya to shame. Those places think they have witnessed gambling, lust, all kinds of sin. They don’t know what sin is. They don’t know that a place can pull you in, chew you up, and feast on your soul until there’s nothing left of you but bone dust. Those places are nothing. They’re only human.
Humanity doesn’t survive long in Sagemill. It isn’t a human place at all, isn’t even in the same world as those pathetic little towns, towns that think bright lights and low morals make them any kind of competition for a place like this. There’s magic in Sagemill. Some say it’s just one little city in a big world full of magic, a world hidden from ours where only a few unlucky or stupid humans end up. I know nothing about a hidden world, but I know the hidden city. I know Sagemill; I know every dark little corner, every puke-filled gutter, and every monster that pass through the city gates. Sure as hell been here long enough to know it all.
Couldn’t tell you exactly how long, though. Time doesn’t mean a damn thing here. You play away your money, your property, your body parts, your mind, you sell your soul for a wish to the street peddlers, and then you fuck away what little is left of you. When you’re not giving your every earthly possession at the tables, you’re giving your body to the demons. Of course, they’re all demons here, every foul thing that will grab onto a weak human soul and squeeze it dry. But the demons who rule this place are the fornicators. The succubi and the incubi, the ones that feed from within your body, who suck the energy out of you while you beg them to take more. They are the ones who rule this city.
Two of them rule me. I can’t haven been more than fifteen when I first sat foot on these cursed streets. I arrived tumbling through a whirl-wind called a portal after a gypsy woman promised me this was where I would find my answers, where I would find what I was so desperately looking for. First thing I saw was a man, but not a man. It had the torso and arms of a man, and the face of a man, but all around that face were scales and thorns, covered in some kind of green-looking slime, and the same scales and thorns ran down his back and wrapped around his stomach, and covered every inch of his legs and the long tail that slithered behind him on the ground. The man took my hand, and it felt human, but I was terrified of that slime touching me. I walked as far away as the cramped streets would allow, fighting the urge to throw up from the smell that emanated from that green goo. He made a squishy sound when he walked. That was the first thing that greeted me in Sagemill, but by no means the worst.
He led me by the hand to the biggest gambling house in town. It wasn’t until years later it occurred to me to wonder how he knew to wait for me, to take me there. Back then I was too stunned and scared and desperate to wonder about anything. I didn’t wonder why the man I was brought to, who looked so fancy and impressive in his expensive suit, and handsome as anything I had ever seen, looked at me with such delight when I was placed in front of him, and muttered pleasantly to the others around the card table, that I was exactly what they had been waiting for. Part of me was flattered even. He was tall, dark skinned, with short, curling hair and a strong, powerful jaw, and his eyes were these bright green lights in the middle a face that looked unreal in its flawlessness. I was a skinny little nothing, my black, greasy hair sticking to my back and neck, pale as a sheet, my blue eyes probably bugging out of my scull. And he looked me up and down and whispered across the table that I was the very thing he wanted most. I wish I’d been smarter, wish I’d know what he wanted me for.
He asked me what he could do for me. I told him, voice shaking with everyone staring at me, men, women and indescribable creatures with fat cigars in their mouths, that I wanted for my little brother to be cured, and for my grandma not to go broke from all the medical bills, I wanted ‘em to be healthy, happy and well off. He laughed at me then. His company followed his lead and laughed, too. The slimy man standing behind me made funny gurgling sounds. I stared at the handsome man, waiting for him to stop laughing. I wasn’t embarrassed, or humiliated, or confused, I was just desperate, and if standing there while they all laughed at me meant getting what I wanted then so be it.
“I can do that,” he finally said, voice like silk and gravel all mixed together, pleasant and harsh at the same time. Hope bloomed in me, and I stared at him with eyes wider than ever, waiting. “But you know, a gift like that doesn’t come for free, child.” I nodded, waiting. “I can give your family everything you want. But you can’t have it with them.” I could feel my brow furrow, not understanding his meaning at first. “If I allow this to happen, you don’t get to go back. They will be fine, your baby brother healed, your old grandma rich, but you’ll never get to see them again. You’ll have to stay here and work for me, child. Understand?”
What can I say? Desperation is a funny thing. Can turn any reasonable human being into a fucking idiot.
I said yes. Of course I said yes, I was a dumb kid who thought that as long as the people I cared about were happy and alive, that was worth it. I was wrong. Soon would come a time I would have let my brother and grandma die in a heartbeat if it meant getting out of this little, cramped piece of hell. I said yes, and I gave away my freedom that day.
I don’t know how many years have passed since. Maybe ten, maybe twenty, maybe a hundred. I know I got older, and taller, and prettier. He made sure I got prettier, and stayed healthy and strong. The man I sold myself to was one of the Incubi who rule this city. I suppose compared to all the other kinds of lowlifes in this place, he could be considered an upstanding sort of fellow, a solid business man and a friend to any and all demons who could pay their dues. His name was Daemen. He was the classiest criminal in Sagemill, that’s for sure. And the most ruthless. Sure, if you could pay your rent and your debt, treat his property right; he was a gentleman’s gentleman. But the second you went against him or came up one coin short, he was one unforgiving son of a bitch.
I learned fast that keeping on his good side was in my best interest. Part of my deal with him was that I would always be paid, cared for, and have a bed to sleep in every night. Of course, when I signed up he neglected to mention that the most important part of the deal was that there would be someone different in that bed with me every night. It seems that in a city of beautiful, breathtaking succubi who only require payment in the form of the energy that lives within your body, a mortal human made of flesh and blood is a luxurious treat that many will pay above their means to enjoy. I was sold to the highest bidder every night. They called me a Hostess. I never went to them; they were always brought to me. In my chambers draped with velvet and silk, and the scent of incense always lingering in the air, it was my task to be willing and able, to be soft, smooth and pleasant and warm; to be what the devils of Sagemill could never be. Human.
Men, women, demons, monsters; Daemen brought them all to me. Every night there was someone and something new. And every morning, after the slimy half-man had escorted my visitors out of my den, Daemen would come strolling in, always in a different tailored suit, and hand me my day’s allowance. He’d take a seat in a plush chair like it was his thrown, and cast his eyes about the room like it was his kingdom, until those green pits finally rested on me, his servant. And then he would talk to me. He would ask me all sorts of questions about what I’d done that night, if I’d fulfilled my end of our bargain again, if I had done him proud, as he would say. If he ever got the sense that I had done less than I could have, he’d slap my face and leave me alone in the hands of the slimy half-man for an hour. Like I said, I learned quickly that it was in my best interest to keep on his good side.
I heard talk there was a few others like me around town, but I suppose their owners weren’t as lenient as mine. I never saw them around. Daemen was a reasonable business man; it was something he took pride in. As long as I was in that bed and looking clean, pretty and willing when the customer came to call, he allowed me a life – or as much of a life as a girl can have in a place made up entirely of wickedness.
There was really only one place I liked to go, when I was out of that bed. The one clean place that existed in the whole of Sagemill. I don’t mean clean in the sense that no unspeakable things took place there, but clean at least in the sense that there weren’t drunkards passed out on the floor in a pool of their own vomit, clean in the sense that the glass tables were spotless, the chandeliers glowing and glittering over the dark room. The people who came to the Glass Slipper wore suits and dresses, high heels and ties, and came with their hair all dolled up, ready to forget that they lived in the pit of mud that waited right outside the revolving front doors. I loved the place. I loved that it didn’t smell like blood and sex – though Fate only knew there was plenty of that in the hotel and gambling rooms on the top levels – and that I got to wear my prettiest dresses and sip red wine from a crystal glass. I loved that I could run to this place and forget the rest of my life was real.
Mostly though, I loved Clara, the succubus.
First time I saw her, I had stumbled into this place for the first time, almost by accident. I’d been shy and intimidated by all these fancy looking people, but I’d ordered a drink, found myself an empty table and was just sitting there watching the crowd when the curtains pulled back from the small black stage, the spotlight turned on and there she was. Black, floor length dress. Creamy white skin. Long curly hair the colour of red roses, cascading down her shoulders and back like a waterfall. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, sure, but the thing that would truly draw me in was her voice. The second she started to sing I knew that I was hers and hers alone. Her voice was a soothing balm that wiped away everything that was bad in my life and replaced it with this soft, comforting, blissful feeling. It filled me up and spread into every inch of me, until I was perfectly and utterly content for the first time in my sorry little life. And when, during her song, her grey eyes wandered my way and met my gaze, it was lightning. Everything that was me belonged to her from the second she looked at me with those big grey eyes. But her gaze kept wandering, and I never knew if she had truly seen me.
Didn’t matter. Didn’t matter to me if she never spoke to me, never looked at me again, or if she ever even knew my name. I was her slave now. Daemen might have owned my body, but Clara owned my soul.
After I first saw Clara, and I was reminded what light looked like, my work became a little less nightmarish. It was so easy, suddenly, to simply close my eyes and imagine her creamy soft skin beneath my fingers instead of a rough, prickling hide. To imagine breathing in the sweet scent of her Succubi aroma instead of the hideous odour of monster sweat. To hear her voice singing softly in my ears, drowning out all the grunts, gurgles and wails. All my days and all my nights got better, and even though I still lived in a pit of hell so deep Satan wouldn’t want a thing to do with it, she had granted me the gift of watching the horror of this world through a stained glass window with her image always hovering before my eyes, glorious and vibrant.
Each day, after I had endured what I had to endure in order to make Daemen happy, I made myself beautiful as best I could and made my way through the filthy streets of Sagemill to the Glass Slipper, and I sat at my table and I waited until she appeared up on that stage, and then I watched and listened, and I loved. It never bothered me that she did not know me apart from anyone else in the crowd that watched her every night. As long as I could hear her sing, as long as I could gaze up at her, as long as her eyes wandered across mine that one magnificent moment every single night, that was all I could ever need from her. And all I would ever get. She never gave anyone a chance to get close enough for anything else, never let anyone get any closer than the end of the stage, in fact. Never once after she’d finished her performance did she linger on stage, or drift down into the bar and mingle amongst the crowds. There was never a chance to even speak with her.
But I was okay with that. I was okay with that every night for a very long time, until one night when that changed.
I will never know why it happened. I will never have an explanation to why that night went the way it did, or of the events that led up to it. I’ve come to realize that a lot more went on behind the curtains in Sagemill then I ever knew about, and now I never will. All I know is what I saw with my own eyes, those few moments that changed everything, that took everything I knew and turned it upside down and inside out.
I came into the Glass Slipper just like any other night, and like any other night I took my table and got my drink. I sat there and I sipped, and my eyes never went off the black curtains as I waited desperately for them to open. But then something caught my attention, in the corner of my eye. It was a shape, a shape so familiar to me my insides turned to stone at the sight of it. I turned away from the closed curtain, and saw that I had been right. The slimy half-man was standing behind a table in the corner, the one closest by the stage. He stood behind a chair, and I hadn’t needed him to move that one inch to the right in order to know who was sitting in that chair. Daemen was there. Daemen who I had never once seen set foot in this place. Daemen who was the source of all that was bad in my world and here he was, sitting so comfortably in the place that was my source of everything good. He was not supposed to be here, and if he was it could not be for any reason I would like. I was right about that.
The curtains opened, and I ripped my eyes away from the horrible sight of the master of my body, and rested them on the shape of true beauty that appeared on stage in the form of my Clara. And for a long while, I forgot that Daemen was even there, I forgot that it worried me that he was there, because the only thing in the world was Clara and her voice, her spellbinding, soft and clear voice, and the sight of her in her tight black dress with her rose-colored hair cascading down her back and spilling over her shoulder. And in that moment when her eyes flittered towards me and found mine, the universe ceased to exist, there was nothing that was real except her eyes on mine. And they stayed on mine. She kept looking at me, her grey eyes did not keep wandering like they always had, every single night, they did not flow right passed me as though she hadn’t seen me at all. There was no doubt that she saw me now. I kept waiting, dreading the moment when her gaze would wander on, but it did not come. She held my gaze, and I had not breathed since our eyes met, and she kept singing so beautifully and not looking away and it felt like we were the only two creatures alive, Succubus and human, staring at each other, and she was singing only for me and no one else.
And then it was over. Her song had reached its end, and her eyes slowly fell closed, and when she opened them, she had turned her eyes away from me, and she was staring intently at someone else. She was staring at Daemen. I looked at him, and he was staring back at her, and I knew that look in his eyes, I knew it like I knew my own reflection, because it was that look he gave me every single day when he came to call. The look of a master, looking down upon his servant.
No. It was impossible, it was unbelievable, and it was unacceptable. Daemen could not own my Clara. He could not be tainting her life by involving himself in it. But that look they shared seemed so old, like whatever was between them had existed for a long time, longer than my servitude to him, longer than me, even. But I couldn’t accept that she should have been under his control this entire time, suffering like I had suffered. And that look in her eyes when she stared at him, that look I had seen too many times in my own face, was too painful to bear. The look of total hopelessness. And when she walked down off the stage, glided slowly towards his table, and then finally reached out and placed her pale hand in his dark one, something inside of me cracked.
I could not let this happen. I did not know what might happen, but he would not be here if there wasn’t a reason, he had never been here before and his presence alone was enough to know things would go horribly, horribly wrong. I wouldn’t allow it; there was no chance in hell that I would stand for it. That’s why, when he got up and led her by the hand towards the back of the stage and disappeared with her behind the curtain, I got up and followed.
The slimy half-man had not followed them, and when he saw me approaching the stage, edging my way towards the spot where they had disappeared, he did nothing. In hindsight, it probably should have occurred to me to wonder why.
I slipped behind the dark cloth just in time to see the two of them, the darkness and the light of my life, slip through a back door and into one of Sagemills’ many trash-filled, foul smelling alleys. The door did not close all the way behind them. I crept towards it, slowly and silently leaning towards that one small crack in the door, trying to see them while trying to stay hidden. From my hiding place, I could just barely spot them through the crack. Clara was standing with her back against the wall. Daemen was standing leaned up against her, his arms braced against the wall on either side of her face, blocking her every way. His back was towards me, but I could see her face. Her perfect, flawless face that was mine. I had never thought that way before, that she was mine. I had always, always from the second I saw her thought of myself as hers, but not until that moment when her eyes did not wander on did I ever dare to dream that she was mine. But I knew now. I could not explain how I knew, but there was this certainty deep inside my long since rotten core that she had been mine for as long as I had been hers. We belonged to each other, and we had never even spoken.
And now, here she was, being pressed up against the wall by this handsome, ruthless man, this destroyer of souls who brought ruin to all that he touched, holding her there while she looked at him with wide, lovely eyes that were silently begging him to go away. He wasn’t going away, I realized. He would never go away, because the reason he had come here tonight was that he was finished with her. What ever she had done for him, whatever he had thought she was good for, he did not need her anymore. And she knew that. It was why, tonight of all the nights we had spent together but apart, she looked at me and did not look away. She had been saying goodbye.
But I could not let him take her from me.
I watched as if in a trance as one of his arms lowered, and he reached behind him and slid a knife out from beneath his jacket. And without a moment to think or consider or plan, I slammed the door wide open and went crashing into the alley, springing towards Daemon like a woman possessed. I reached for him, and it was not until I felt the cold blade sink deep into my gut that I realized how he had turned around so easily and deliberately, with the knife aimed directly at me, the moment I had sprung into action. He wasn’t done with Clara, then. He was done with me. He was simply playing a game with me. Or maybe he was playing a game with her. Maybe she was being punished, or maybe Daemen was just in the mood to kill one of his pretty little playthings, and had not much cared which one he got. Either way, as I fell to the ground, cold seeping through my body from the steel and blood and guts spilling out onto my dress, I knew that whatever their story was, whatever had happened to bring this about, I had never even stood a chance. My own story was always meant to end up with me dying, bleeding out on the puke filled ground of some stinking alley, pathetically trying to help the woman I loved. Because that’s just how stories go in Sagemill. You suffer, you try so hard not to fall to pieces and cling to that last little part of your soul, and then you lose. Sagemill chews you up and swallows you.
At least the last thing I got to see before I went away was not Daemens’ handsome, horrible face, but the face of an angel, creamy and pale, with waters of red falling over her shoulders and down on me as she leaned over me with a look of great sadness and deep love in her grey eyes. At least the last thing I got to feel was the sweetness of pink, perfect lips pressed against my own. At least the last thing I got to hear was the sound of her voice singing quietly in my ear, a soothing balm that wiped away everything that was bad in my life and replaced it with this soft, comforting, blissful feeling. It filled me up and spread into every inch of me, until I was perfectly and utterly content for the last time in my sorry little life.