The Pact

Self-righteous steps lead to unholy grounds.
Photo: Adobe Firefly AI
A burning scroll of withered parchment.

by Garrett Johnson

The king swallowed, a grave lurching of his glistening throat, as he stood at the edge of an ostensibly bottomless abyss. Reaching into his pocket with a trembling hand, he withdrew a silver coin and gave it a toss—down, down, down it tumbled, catching his torchlight’s glow for the first few meters of its descent before it vanished into the blackness.

The king waited. Five seconds, ten seconds, twenty—but the deafening silence remained undisturbed. He held his torch to the left, revealing the path he must take: a spiraling stone stairwell, cracked and chipped despite never being trod, with neither a rail nor an inner wall to prevent one from spilling into the void should they lose their footing.

“My liege…”

So on edge was his majesty that the gentle whisper nearly launched the flambeau from his grasp. He whirled around to behold the ghostly white and sweat-slicked face of his most trusted advisor, whose gaping mouth finally closed a few seconds later, allowing for an anxious wetting of the lips as he peeled his gaze away from the ominous descent to meet the king’s.

“Let it be known, your m-majesty, that I remain entirely op-p-posed to this insane plan—and forgive me for c-calling it so, but there truly is n-no other word for—!”

The king cut him short with a raised hand that he could just barely keep steady.

“Your advice has been duly noted, my friend. Don’t worry, I’ve already taken measures to ensure you won’t be held accountable if I don’t return.”

His counsel flinched and fervently shook his head, physically ridding himself of the thought. “M-my lord, please! Do not joke about such things!”

“You think I would jest at a time like this?” the king said, forcing a weary smile—though no sooner was the facade erected than he felt its curvature begin to tremble.

He stepped past his advisor—whose mouth was moving a mile a minute yet producing no sound—and with a crackling swish of his torch, illuminated the first few steps of God only knew how many.

No, he corrected himself—it was unlikely that even God knew how many steps extended into this stygian pit.

“…”

He looked back at his aid with irrepressible hope.

“Tell me. Tell me of another way, and none will be so glad as I to delay my arrival in Hell.”

Silence was the only, expected answer. All his advisor could do was avert his squeamish gaze to the floor, and the king’s smile folded into a grim line as a single note of hapless laughter pushed its way out his nose.

“We’ve taken the moral high ground for too long—and look where it’s gotten us. Our enemies are one final push away from wiping us out for good. This is the only way,” he assured unequivocally, and by his own words convinced, he found his courage swell.

He returned his attention to the path laid before him…

And took the first step.

***

How long ago had that been? How much time and how many steps had he passed and taken since?

Hours and thousands were as precise an estimate as the king could give. He wished he had taken one of the court mage’s pocket clocks.

He leaked a tremulous breath while tightening his grip on the torch, and against the devouring darkness, he dithered between wanting to hold his paltry flame close for warmth, or at arm’s length to eke out as much of its meager guidance as possible—causing his torch-bearing arm to extend and retract constantly as if he were operating a lever.

Down, down, down…

Step, step, st—

!

A sharp chill arced up his front leg, paralyzing him for an instant before it dulled. He looked down in alarm and found his boot dipped into a cloud of ethereal fog, turned tawny by his torchlight and swirling languidly over the ground; it was so thick that he could not even see the top of his foot. Eerily, he could feel the mist gently curling and prodding around his boot—as if it were sentient and looking for a way inside.

He swallowed, fighting the urge to retract his leg before forcing another tentative step which proved even more surprising than the last.

He blinked incredulously as he found his feet a full stride apart yet on equal ground.

Could it be…?

He turned around, extending the torch behind him—and confirmed that he’d reached the bottom of the stairs.

The king returned his attention forward: a narrow hallway, seemingly as deep as the stairs, stretched before him.

“…”

He let out a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding—an intrepid puff of white that drifted past his torch into the inky blackness.

Without giving himself a moment longer to hesitate, the king followed its example.

For the sake of his people. For the sake of Good. He had no other choice. His kingdom was crumbling; its borders were shrinking day by day.

This was his only hope.

He pressed on. The air grew colder with each step, an enervating venom that seeped into every muscle and made them ache.

Farther and farther…

Every ragged breath pricked the lungs, and he could feel the blood in his body, coursing like chilled honey.

Farther and farther…

Was it his imagination, or were the walls and ceiling closing in? Had he been unable to stand up straight from the start?

Farther and farther…

He couldn’t remember; he could barely think at all. By now the fog had swelled and risen to his waist, dissolving his legs into nigh-inoperable lengths of static. He couldn’t even feel them moving anymore, and the tactile assurance of the floor beneath his feet was lost. He swayed and lurched, groping at the walls for support; the thought of his family, and all his loyal subjects’ suffering—which he would gladly offer his own life to relieve—propelled him onward, despite every instinct begging him to turn around and head back.

Farther and far—

!

His tiny flame fell from his clutches, too feeble and trembling to hold on, and time slowed to a crawl as he watched its descent. He reached for it as fast as his sluggish reactions allowed—because he knew that if he let the mist swallow the torch, it would claim him soon after.

His digits grazed its handle in mid-air, managing to interrupt its fall for a fraction of a second, but alas, his fumbling hand only succeeded in knocking it away.

It fell, as did the king’s heart into his stomach, and—

FWOOOOOSH!

The king recoiled and shielded his face against a mighty eruption of flame as the torch’s smoldering tip suddenly blazed to its original glory upon hitting the ground, as bare and mist bereft as it ought to be.

Clatter clatter!

Roll, roll, roll…

Thud.

The king slowly lowered his hands, and his breath hitched at the sight of what his adventurous flambeau had settled against.

A great bronze door, barred by a beam of black oak and locked by glowing white chains wrapped sloppily—or hastily—around its crooked handles. An infernal gateway if ever there was one, and the world had changed with its apparition.

The claustrophobic corridor the king had been treading for so long was gone—there were no walls or ceiling in sight, just an otherworldly void of nothingness stretching in every direction that he knew, by some intuition, was genuinely endless. The only thing he could see—the only thing left in existence—was the door, an eight-foot slab of tarnished metal, illuminated in flickers by the crackling dance at its base.

“…”

Perhaps he should’ve been more shocked, but a part of him understood the environment’s transformation, and why his and his torch’s sapped strength had spontaneously returned as if never lost.

It was because he was no longer in the realm of the living. He’d crossed a barrier and reached a space, a juncture, outside of Death’s icy reach…

Now, he stood facing a doorway to Hell, beyond which lurked a demon.

The very same upon whose strength his kingdom’s enemies had relied over half a century ago to turn the tide of war in their favor—that by some miracle, the combined efforts of his grandfather’s court mages and spirit-slayers had managed to seal away in this misbegotten chamber before him.

With a trembling hand, he reached into his robe and took out a scroll of withered parchment, bundled by a string of pulp sourced from the divine tree of life.

It was a pact, a binding authority imbued with protective magic that would allow him to enter a bargain with the hell-spawn, just as his enemies had done all those years ago.

“…”

The contract was set. In exchange for his soul and the demon’s freedom, it would grant him a fraction of its infernal power.

All he needed was its cursed signature.

Clutching the paper close to his body, he inched towards the door and reached for the chain, eliciting a jingle from its links as he gingerly set about its undoing with painstaking delicacy—as if he were removing the sullied wraps from a burned and fractured limb.

The chains were warm, and their soft light throbbed erratically.

A warning he did not heed.

Clink-k-k-k-k-k!

The chain slithered to the floor as soon as the final knot came undone and settled in a coiled pile. Its divine light faded, and a second later, the chunk of wood it had been enveloping crumbled to dust. Something in the air shifted at that moment, ineffable—but it instilled dread within the king as he reached for one of the handles.

He drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes, steeling his resolve and mentally readying himself for what horrid abomination awaited him on the other side.

He opened his eyes, thinking himself prepared.

He stared at his hand, white knuckling the handle.

Open it, he ordered himself.

Ten seconds passed.

Every muscle in the king’s arm was tense; every fiber of his being was on edge.

Twenty seconds passed.

He could hear his heart pounding in his ears and pulsing through his clammy palms.

Thirty seconds passed.

He chewed his bottom lip—a metallic taste flooded his mouth.

Just… open it…!

His whole body started to tremble with strain—still, he could not force his hand to move, for he knew what he was doing was wrong. Consorting with devils—that’s what the enemy did. He and his people were better than that. They were supposed to be better than this…!

But they couldn’t afford to be. Not anymore…!

He had to do this…!

Acrid wetness blurred his vision.

Open it…!

Gritting his teeth, he at last forced himself to turn the handle.

Click!

WHOOSH!

The king staggered back, dodging the door as a violent rush of wind blasted it open from the other side.

And through the open doorway, revealed, was a room tinted midnight blue and laden with sparkling streaks of stardust—and at its center, there it was! Suspended in mid-air by thick black chains around its wrists and ankles!

The demon that had sided with the enemy and nearly brought his kingdom to ruin…!

Ten seconds passed.

Thirty.

A minute.

The scroll slipped from the king’s clutches and into the fire at his feet as he stood in the open doorway, frozen and unblinking, beholding neither horns, nor fangs, nor claws…

But rather wings of niveous plumage, and a crown of aureate light.

A complete betrayal of his grandfather’s adamant descriptions, this radiant being was clearly no demon, or any other manner of hell-born for that matter.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

The king fell to his knees, his world shattered, and wept.

Author Bio:

Garrett Johnson is an aspiring fantasy writer currently studying at Algonquin College and Carleton University. When he’s not busy devising a million different plots he’ll never get around to actualizing, he likes to work out with friends, play video games, watch anime, sing karaoke, and make funny voice impressions of fictional characters (to varying degrees of success).  

“The Pact” will be featured in By the Fire: Tales from the Ashes, the upcoming fiction anthology to be published by Algonquin College Professional Writing students in spring 2024. Follow Spine Online on Facebook at facebook.com/ACprofessionalwritingprogram or Twitter/X @ourspineonline for updates on anthology launch dates and ordering information.

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