Eric's chest seized as if an unseen force were squeezing the air out of his lungs and the blood out of his heart. He had to get out.
His eyes frenetically searched the ballroom, finding the nearest ornate glass doors to a balcony he ran.
He pushed through the crowds of dresses and jewels, his chest burning more intensely, his vision narrowing.
He reached the doors and nearly fell the final few steps on the balcony to grasp the iron railing. The cool night air caressed his cheeks and coaxed his lungs to fill.
He felt the tension in his chest ease slightly. Suddenly aware of the too-tight collar of his shirt he began tugging at his tie and unclasping his collar.
He looked out past the dark shadows of the mountains that created the canyon below to the lights of the city at their feet.
He imagined the millions in the city hustling, struggling to make it though another day. He thought of their tears, of their dreams, of the flashes of joy and pain they felt.
"How can they not know? How can nobody know?" He felt the grip in his chest tighten again. It wasn't exactly true that nobody knew.
He looked behind him, into the gilded ballroom, golden light and effervescent sounds of joy spilling out onto the balcony where he was trapped in his own private hell.
The people in that room knew. The people in that room not only knew but most of them were the ones doing it. Most of them were the reason for everything.
Were the reason that his life would never actually be his own. Were the reason that, really, everyone in the city miles away from them would never actually truly command their own lives.
Eric turned back toward the city, gripping the cold iron railing tightly, trying to calm his mind. Everything just felt simultaneously so pointless but so important.
He felt like he were being crushed under the weight of the world, but that no matter how hard he fought to hold the world up, it would all crash down anyways.
Eric knew he could run into the city square and shout the truths that he had learned just earlier tonight but that no one would believe him,
and even if they did there was nothing they could do about it.
As his thoughts spiraled down deeper into the heavy pointlessness of it all, he felt a hand on his shoulder, startling him and igniting a fire in his skin.
"Careful brother, we can't have people thinking you aren't enjoying the party"
"How can I? How can you?"
"How can I what? Smile and dine with demons? Dance and flirt with the very worst of humanity? Simple. I know that at the end of the night I'll be one step closer to stopping them."
"But we aren't. We are never one step closer. We're trapped. We're all trapped in a stalemate of will."
"What's on the other side of this palace?"
"Eric. What is on the other side of this palace?"
"The dam. Why?"
"That's what we are. We are the dam. We cannot falter or they will be drowned completely" the taller man gestured down toward the city.
"The dam will never dry up the lake or the stream, it can only hope to hold it back. We cannot hope to rid the world of them or their greed, but we can hold them back.
We can save those where we can. We can mitigate the damage. We must."
"They don't even know do they? They don't know their suffering and hope is for not."
"No. So tell me brother, do you pity them or envy them?"
"Yes." With that single word, Eric felt the tightness in his chest ease into a steely resolve. His mind flashed back to just hours before when the veil over his eyes had been removed.
His mother and brother had told him of the truth behind his world, deep in the woods where no soul or being could hear.
They told him of the deals the wealthy had made to bring demons to this world. The deals that sold their fellow men's lifetimes of suffering for some jewels and parties.
The humans inside the ballroom, enjoying a feast, lived a life of luxury and protected that lifestyle, by providing demons access to the humans of the city.
The demons feasted on the bodies, emotions, and minds of the people living in the city below.
Eric's family was one of only a few that had infiltrated this upper echelon and served to keep the demons, and occasionally their human patrons, in check.
They risked their lives and very souls to keep the demons at bay.
They could never hope to close the opening to the void that had been around since the founding of the city below them and the forging of the dam above them.
The humans of the city would always be doomed to suffer with no real recourse.
But, as Eric's brother reminded him, if the demons were left unchecked or, worse, if the humans' greed was left unregulated,
the portal in the void could bring the entire world into the demonic realm, and all would be lost.
"So no what?"
"Tonight? We dance with smiles on our faces. Tomorrow? We go demon hunting."