The townsfolk knew he was not the Devil but what difference did that make, when the Devil was at his beck and call? It was whispered throughout Ludiers that the Duke had midnight conferences with all the familiar spirits of Hell - not the chittering familiars and lower imps or the witches one heard of, or even saw burned in a pillar of unholy smoke and much shrieking, but the Principalities themselves, Beelzebub and Abaddon, Achiaroth and Bellal and the King of Hell himself, the fork-tailed wickedness called Satan Mekatrig.
With all these, the Duke of Ludiers (his name was simply Jean Point, but he preferred using a title to which he had no right, and which could not, according to French law and usage, even exist) had common talk, if not every night, certainly often enough. There were strange lights from his stone castle, the smell of devils if one came too close...and even the shrieks of the damned.
The local representative of the Inquisition was a timid man. He had enough to do in chasing down the witcheries of old women and idiot children without riding up against so powerful a figure as Jean Point, the Duke of Ludiers.
He worked his magic, he talked with his devils - but, after all, he harmed no one in Ludiers, did he? The screams one heard at night – well, they were in truth echoes of Hell...
Perhaps the girl in the Duke's basement would have agreed. There was no better word for what she was suffering: these were the torments of the damned themselves, the threatened eternal punishment for sinners. This dark stone cavern, lit only with flickerings of torchlight, the stone walls sweating with moisture...this was certainly Hell, where her torturers wanted nothing but her pain and where her pain would never end.
But he girl was hardly thinking in such abstract terms. Perhaps, by now, she was not thinking at all. The ring of the Duke’s laughter, harshly echoed against the stone, filled her ears, and her eyes saw nothing at all: they were filled with red haze, they were blurred with torment, and even the jerking motions she made against the ropes that hid her bent backward against the giant Wheel were dazed and automatic motions of her body.
There was the froth on her lips and a mark where her teeth had bitten through in a convulsion of pain. That had been the first time they had used the fire on her, the smoking torch that had been jabbed horribly against her naked body...an hour before. An eternity before..and still there was more to suffer.
The girl moaned hoarsely. Her back was nearly broken by the backward straining of her bondage. Her feet rested on the floor, and her arms, upflung over her head, were tied to prongs set at the other side of the upright Wheel, so that her hips and shoulderblades were nearly dislocated by the tautness of the ropes and her own frantic struggles. She had been tied and then stripped, the Duke himself cutting away her ragged clothing until she lay naked before his glittering eyes.
And then the Duke and his assistant had begun....
The whips, the fire...red-hot pincers, other devices too horrible to mention. She remembered fainting, more than once, and swimming out of blackness to face the smile of the Duke, and still more pain...
Now her voice was nearly gone, but she heard herself still pleading: "No, please...no more...have compassion...on me..."
And the townsfolk of Ludiers heard, and whispered: “The door to Hell is again open: the Duke converses tonight with Devils.”
Perhaps the girl would have agreed...if she had been capable of any thought at all.
But there was no thought, no escape. For her, there was nothing but the constant, growing pain...
Jean Point knew early that he was different from other children. His own mother told him so, and there was no one to contradict her. Jean’s father had died in an accident soon after his birth, and the boy was brought up by his mother alone. She lost no opportunity of telling him that he was set apart from the other children - and, in fact, he seemed to be so.
He was bright and quick, for one thing, and he had a talent for manipulation that showed itself early in little invented tricks, part of what we would call today, four centuries later, a basic training in stage magic. He used his tricks to astonish the other children, and to surprise his mother, who took these attempts without surprise, almost with complacency: she had always known how fine he would be.
Perhaps Jean tried all throughout his childhood to surprise, to impress his mother. At any rate, he failed – and failure left him with a longing desire to conquer the woman - to conquer any woman.
And conquest, for Jean meant pain. Why this was we cannot, at a distance, fully explain. Psychologists have offered various theories, but there is simply no way to know enough of Jean’s background, of his childhood and his early experiences, for any theory to be more than plausible enough fiction.
The fact is that pain, and the creation of pain, soon became as important to Jean as the manipulations, the magic tricks, which made him an impressive figure among the town youngsters.
And, as he grew older, he began to see how one could be made to serve the other.
The path he chose was a dangerous one. Ludiers was not of the most violent cities of the French Inquisition, but it, too, was under the infection of that time, and townsfolk had been burned for witchcraft in the village square, broken wretches both male and female tied to the wooden post and left to shriek in agony while the flames mounted higher.
Yet, if one played the cards right...
Jean faced the risk, and considered every angle of it. By the time his mother died, peacefully in her sleep one night (the year was 1557, and Jean was nineteen), he felt himself ready.
He was going to become a male witch, a Warlock.
His magic stood him in good stead now. His father had owned a tumbledown stone castle in addition to the wooden house in town in which they lived: Jean moved into the castle and got help fixing it up. He had a small account of money from both his father and mother now, and he knew how to get more.
The odor of Hell itself - that was easy. Ordinary sulphur, burned, gave both the odor and a few flickering blue flames. The strange lights...easier still, with a few hooded candles and torches, treated with chemicals to change the color of their light.
And there were other tricks, as well. Jean simply allowed the rumors to start - but they were not the normal rumors of witchcraft, the rumors that could get a man burned at the stake.
No, Jean Point (or the Duke of Ludiers, as he came to call himself - forgetting that no Dukedom for a simple town could exist as French usage) was to be no common Warlock, but a person of great power, so great that the Inquisitor would be afraid to make a move against him.
And he was not to injure anyone in he town.
He had planned his move well, and all continued as he had hoped. Even the additional money which he needed was his. There were always those who were willing to pay in secret for a charm, or a potion, for a look at the fortunes of their failure...and as long as he refused to involve himself in anything that would injure a member of the townsfolk, he was quite safe.
At night he would chuckle, looking out from his window at the sleeping town. It was clear that Hell did not exist, that devils were only stupid imaginings...but he had created Hell for the people of Ludiers. The lights and odors, the tricks and the rumors...
And the screams of Hell itself.
No one ever thought they could be anything else.
It was, the Duke decided grimly, the best of all possible jokers, the finest of all possible tricks. He had created Hell - simply to create it, in reality, for the women whose pain he needed to enjoy.
And he had succeeded, beyond danger, beyond worry.
He had elected himself the chief of all Devils.
The equipment he needed was simple enough for him to build, with a small staff of servants. And the servants, while difficult to come by, were perfectly safe.
Who, after all, would work for a man with Duke’s reputation – except someone who was somehow attracted by Hell?
An so Jean Point, Duke of Ludiers, began to entrap his victims. He wanted little from them: no more than pain and death. And they were easy to find. From neighboring towns, from packs of travelers.
His victims were always women - and they were always young.
We have no idea of how many there were. Diggers near the castle have unearthed a tumbled cache of skeletons, and at least forty separate girls have been located. But that provides only a lower limit: certainly there were more than forty, and there is now way presently to tell how many more.
Some he whipped to death, a process that took, at times, as long as ten hours of nearly constant torment. Near the end of such a torture, the girl could no longer be sane. The pain would reduce her to a mindless, shrieking bundle of raw nerves, unable even to mouth a wish for death.
The Duke was pleased by results like that. But he experimented with other methods. The Inquisition itself provided him with hints – the rack, burning with torches, other horrors...
The Wheel, the giant construction on which a victim might be tied, was a favorite of his: if the girl tried too hard to escape, she might even break her own bones, and add to the continuous, mounting agony the Duke created for her.
And now, on this night, his victim tied to the wheel, he was fulfilling the role of Devil once more.
She had been subjected to a carnival of agony - and she was nearly mindless with the continuous torment. She screamed in renewed torture. He had no wish for this one to lose consciousness, or, worse, to die before he was finished with her.
Why, he might keep her alive screaming, in pain, for another two hours until the sun rose and the night of torment was over.
Her screams had no words any more: she was beyond words, and perhaps even beyond the despairing, hopeless wish for the peace of death. In the universe the Duke had made for her, there was nothing but pain, constantly growing, unbearable pain from which there was no escape.
The voice was a strange one. Perhaps it was the last voice Jean Point was ever to hear.
“In the name of the Inquisition I command you to cease. I command you to come with me.”
It was a deep, totally assured voice.
The Duke straightened and turned. His assistant was already held quiet in the grip of one of the four men standing there - all four strangers to him. But there was no doubt which one had spoken. The tall man in black, with the cowl over his head and the stern expression, stared at the scene.
And the girl behind the Duke kept screaming...
He stiffened, “Leave me.” he snapped. “Do you not know who I am? Do you not know I have the power to - the power to - ”
He stopped then, faltering before that steady gaze.
The screams broke, became dry, insane moans...
“We know you, Jean Point,” the tall man said. “We know you, who call yourself Duke.”
“Then you know I can - ”
“You can do nothing ,” the tall man said steadily, “You can harm none of us: we are protected against the work of your devils.” And then: “Take him.”
One man held the assistant. The other two started for Point. He flailed out at them - but the fight was soon over.
The girl died within an hour, delirious and never fully conscious again.
For Point, matters were not so peaceful.
His trick had backfired. The stranger had been an Inquisitor from Paris itself - sent for by the local authorities, who were afraid to touch Point or his castle. But, they reflected, they owed a duty to the Inquisition and if the only risk were to strangers from the city, it was a duty worth fulfilling.
The “risk”, of course, was nonexistent. Point’s threats of devils and true magic were as empty as the title of Duke he had take long before.
Unfortunately, he was believed.
The Inquisitors tried to get him to repent. Screaming under tortures much like the ones he had inflicted, he shrieked out confession after confession, all invented from his fertile magician’s brain - and all believed.
And so, on a brightly cold spring morning, Jean Point was led out, along with his assistant, to the square in the village of Ludiers where, years before, he had watched the witches burn and had conceived his brilliant plan.
An there he himself screamed, and suffered, and was burned to death.
Perhaps, somewhere, as this fake devil of torment screamed out his last searing breath - perhaps, somewhere, the Devil himself watched - and smiled.