There will be spoilers for the manhwa series Stage of the Dark Souls.
Trigger Warning: There may be references to religious persecution, religion, death, blood, violence, abuse, assault, blackmail, gossip, corruption, human trafficking, BDSM, unsafe BDSM practices (choking/breath play), food tampering, drugging, gossiping, prejudice, racism, bullying, manipulation, animal abuse, animal death, attempted murder, arranged/contractual marriage, cheating, gun violence, obsession, implied pedophilia or statutory rape, confinement, mental illness, and rituals, as it appears in the manhwa.
Mihael is a devil that lives among humans. Though he shouldn't, he ends up falling in love with a particular human, a man named Adonel Schravant. He is particularly in love with his stunning soul, which Mihael desperately wants for himself. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tries, Adonel is always being swept away by other humans. Unwilling to share Adonel anymore, Mihael goes to the clergy and tells them that Adonel's family is practicing pagan worship, which leads to their execution. Alone and desperate, Adonel is ripe for the picking, so Mihael makes him an offer he knows Adonel can't refuse: Mihael will tie himself to the Schravant line, granting them all of his powers. In exchange, once the Schravant has fallen in love with Mihael and willingly given his soul, Mihael will take it, and they will be bound for eternity.
So Mihael lives in Adonel's shadow, helping rebuild the fallen Schravant name. All the while, Adonel has a child, despite Mihael's hate over it, and grows to a ripe old age. Finally, at the end of Adonel's life, Mihael broaches the subject of Adonel handing over his soul. Only then does Adonel reveal that he never loved Mihael and would not give up his soul, meaning Mihael would remain tied to the Schravant bloodline until he can convince another descendent to fall in love with him and willingly give their soul to him. Mihael is devastated but far from willing to give up.
Three hundred years later, after the death of the head of the Schravant conglomerate, Mihael finds his two sons: the firstborn, Evan, and the second, Victor. Mihael has been watching over the family all this time, biding his time and waiting for the ideal soul. Finally, after all this time, Mihael has found it. Two of them, in fact, and he isn't willing to give either of them up. One way or another, he will make them fall for him and then take their souls, but not until he destroys them from the inside out.
I'm just going to come out with it. I despise the art style. It's prettiest at the beginning, which is rare, but it devolves quickly. Our two tops are ugly; Victor is much nicer looking than Evan, but that is quite a low bar. Their features are gaunt and pointed with rounded edges, which just look awkward and weird. Mihael is pretty, which is unfortunate since he is paired with such ugly tops. But no matter how pretty Mihael is, with the coloring style used, even he doesn't look that great. It's a very smudgy coloring style, which is super inconsistent and really does nothing for the rough design of these characters. Don't get me wrong, I like plenty of unique and odd styles out there, but this is just too much for me. It's honestly hard to read because of how it looks.
It might be hard to believe based on how vehemently I despise the art, but I do like parts of this. One thing I really love is a good revenge plot which this is. I love that Adonel got revenge on Mihael by denying him the love and soul he wanted so desperately while also draining him of most of his power, leaving Mihael eternally bound to the Schravants. I was a bit shocked by how out of favor the contract is for Mihael since it relies on the human willingly giving up his soul. Still, it really speaks to how much Mihael longs for unconditional and sacrificial love, which would be required to fulfill the contract. It seems Mihael was forced to serve many cruel Schravant masters over the years, culminating in a justifiable reason to seek revenge after so long and so much abuse. I like that he doesn't settle for just one son but goes after both, turning them against each other so he doesn't have to do all the work, instead letting them implode from within the family. He exposes the angelic figurehead as being a monster while revealing that the rough-and-tumble bodyguard is kind and softhearted to a fault.
Unfortunately, while I like a revenge plot, it's hard to enjoy when it means punishing someone who doesn't deserve it. There's no question that Evan and his father deserved punishment for being cruel and violent to Mihael and others around them. However, I can't begin to understand why Victor would need to be punished in any way. Growing up, he was tortured and abused by his brother, Evan, and was subject to racist rumors regarding his skin color despite being just as legitimate of a Schravant as Evan. It seems unnecessary to punish him and undermines any argument Mihael might have had regarding how deserving he was to a Schravant soul. That is until we get to the side stories, and then I feel confident that taking Victor's soul was not a punishment for Victor but for Evan. Mihael was Victor's chance to escape the pressures of the Schravant name, and Victor ended up being the love that Mihael always craved. Unfortunately, that isn't how it comes across in the main story.
With that being said, my favorite part of this has to be the side stories at the end. After Victor is taken by Mihael, leaving Evan alone, we finally see him get his comeuppance. Everyone's memory of Mihael and Victor is wiped, like they had never existed, leaving Victor as the only one on earth who remembers them. This sends Evan into a self-destructive spiral as he tries to convince everyone that his memories are real. Slowly but surely, he loses his foothold in the Schravant's business, loses his wife, and falls into total obsession as he longs for Mihael. I love this section so much that I can hardly stand it. I wish this had been the main story's ending because it's so powerful, watching Evan give up parts of himself to nameless devils to get a taste of the pleasure Mihael and Victor are experiencing with each other. This feels like deserved revenge, and it is so sweet. It's cruel and pitiful, tearing Evan down into a weak and desperate creature, just like his ancestor had become long, long ago.
This leaves a lot to be desired. Everyone except Victor is reprehensible, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed how calculating Mihael was, and I was happy to see him victorious in the end, but the ending is rather abrupt and disappointing. I wish the side story hadn't been designated as a side story and was just the end to the main story because it is much stronger and more satisfying. If the art had been better and the side story had just been the main story ending, I could easily see this being a fave, but as it stands, it's not. If you like hardcore BDSM and smut, though, this is probably right up your alley.
Have you read Stage of the Dark Souls? If so, what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment? Do you not? Let me know, and comment below!