“Hey, you. Take a seat. It’s on me.”
“Oh, no,” I said to the patron with shining lips, sitting at the tavern bar, with a few splashes of ale and other things I didn’t want to identify on his tunic. “I have important … things to do.”
“Please, you aren’t even bound to Netherway are you? You have time, right?” he slurred. “Barkeep! Need another here.”
An apparently mute bartender, looking all too tired to be serving the only person awake at three in the morning, brought a fresh tankard of ale, and left just as speedily behind a curtain that led to a kitchen.
“You can drink, can’t ya?”
“Uh …” I actually wasn’t sure. Outside of time or not, I had little experience with this job. Although I had lost track because all of the cross-realm travel, I figured I had only been serving Death and his Handmasters for two weeks. They didn’t exactly have a rulebook, either. And although I wasn’t certain about this, I assumed I was working under a larger, more concealed council of deities and higher beings that kept an eye on me.
Every time I thought about it, I shivered. It kept me loyal and obedient, more or less.
Either way, I sat down to drink while on duty. I never had a job when I was human, so this wasn’t exactly crossing off something on the bucket list, seeing as how I was already dead, technically speaking.
“So, you pegged me for being one of the Ether creatures? How’d you do it so quickly?”
“Good thieves got an eye for everything. Or rather, only the best thieves. We may not be good at much else other than stealin’, gettin’ in and out of where we need to go, but gods, do we see things. See things other folks don’t. And when you see things others don’t, that’s when you start becoming one of those things yourself. You follow? Course you do. You’re a smart lad. I can see that, too! Not a lad, though, are ya’? This is just some … temporary form. Just like mine, s’pose. But … a little different.”
“You seem to have more answers than I do. You’re sharp as a blade.”
“Sharper,” he claimed as he burped. “Call me Geoff. You got a name? You look young as the daisies, but you’re clearly not long for this world.” He started laughing at his own joke, but ended up coughing and spewing alcohol-ridden spittle. Thieves. They’re real charmers.
“Quite the name. Where’d you get it?”
I took a sip of the ale, which was actually cider. It was the first time I had ever had it before. It was rich, thick with the complexities of the apples it came from; bitter, sweet, tangy and smooth all at once. It was no large wonder people emptied their purses for this kind of thing.
“When I left Netherway. The people that … took me in, well, they gave it to me. Don’t ask me why.”
“Well look at you. Because I don’t know, damnit,” I chuckled.
“Oh. And might I ask who are these ‘people'? ”
“Not really ‘people’ in our … er, your, sense of the word. But let’s just say, you don’t want your name on their list, however sneaky you might be. I’m doing you a favor keeping quiet.”
“I may be stupid enough to sneak into the mansions of wealthy and powerful folk with more guards than all the fingers n’ toes on my body, but you can be certain I wouldn’t want to mix up with your kind. S’pose I’ll meet em soon anyways, one of these days … with the life I’m living.” Despite his words, his tone wasn’t depressing at all, in fact, it might even be called cheerful. I smirked. Unique fellow.
And it may be me who picks you up, I thought.
The thief was dressed in mostly black, like myself, however my clothes were cleaner, darker, untouched—too perfect. His were worldly, with scratches and patches from what I guessed were too many situations and predicaments to recall, especially in his state. I admired him. I hadn’t lived half as long as he had. Sometimes I regretted my decision. Or, what I was told was mine. I don’t remember making it.
“Well, I didn’t catch your name, but I best be off.”
“My name? Yes you did. It’s Geoff, remember? And hold it. You haven’t even finished your drink. Hey, I’m a curious man. Toss me a bone, won’t you?”
Shit. Short term memory was a curse with this form. Couldn’t remember a damn thing. It kept the Handmasters’ servants quick and efficient, lest they forget how to travel to other realms. They know the price of lingering in Netherway for their own pleasure. They may get stuck in a ghostly form, and eventually, forgotten forever—no longer a creature of here nor there. Just an apparition. A faded memory. That’s the true hell. No demon, no matter how twisted, would willingly let himself go that way.
“I’m sorry … Geoff. I really must go. You’ve been a charming touch to this evening, but I’m afraid if I linger any longer, I could jeopardize myself.”
“Jeopard-what? For someone who looks so young, you speak like an elder.”
“Jeopardize. To put oneself in a situation in which there is danger.”
“Oh. I do that all the time! Well, do what you must, then. Be well.”
I donned my hood, and turned away. Good. I remembered why I was here, thank the gods.
When he wasn’t looking, and I made sure the barkeep wasn’t peeking from behind the curtain anymore, I vanished, and teleported to the room directly above us, to a circle someone had opened up.
Below, I heard the door to the tavern open. Heavy boots on wood. Another click in my head. The Handmasters warned me there could be trouble: somebody with a mind to cast higher magick was coming to cause a ruckus. Who knows, maybe the thief was a great fighter when he was drunk. He could get my back, right?
Inside, there was a mess of candles, blood, and various articles scattered across the ground. Including a bat’s ear! I stooped down, picking it up out of the symbol drawn on the floor. It was a cramped place, but the summoning ritual was sufficient, and the caster was still in her trance.
When I crunched on the ear, (absolutely delectable, I could eat them for an eternity), the sound shook her from the trance.
“You’ve come!” she exclaimed.
I was told to remain silent at first. It added an effect that demanded reverence and humility. Friendliness was forbidden … ah, to the worms with it. “Yes, I’ve answered your calls,” I said with a smile as I looked into her eyes, which were beautiful in the candlelight—seven burning for every point of the symbol resembling something of a star. Her hair was pitch black, and her garments were all in tatters. Despite the dirtied nails and the general stench of her, the sight of her relieved me. Sometimes witches are horridly ugly to stare at, simple as that.
Somebody was making noise downstairs. I had to hurry this up.
“Your summoning was more than sufficient,” I said as I sucked on my fingers, getting the extra blood from the ear. “Do you have any more of those?”
“Uhm? Y-yes, I’m sure I could find more.” She rummaged in a satchel that had seen far, far better days. Then, she handed me a handful of severed ears, uncooked. All the summoning books will tell you that the bat’s ears are an offering, to show dedication and sacrifice for catching such a wildly difficult creature. However … the real reason, for me at least, is simply a matter of taste Literally.
I placed it on my tongue, let the congealed blood melt, and closed my eyes as I chewed.
“How is it?”
“Wonderful. In any case. Your calls to the Ether realm were heard, more specifically, Death and his Handmasters. Quite an admirable choice. Of all the demons you could have called upon, you picked the right one.” I crouched to her height, because she was cross-legged on the floor. I glanced at the symbol again. “Your summoning construction is also … commendable. Sometimes I can scarcely get my leg through. Amateurs. They’re the kind of people we possess.” I laughed, but she seemed unnerved I was talking so much.
Meanwhile, the commotion downstairs continued.
“Are you well?” I asked, her eyes seemingly looking over every inch of me.
“You look so …”
“Young? Does it disturb you?”
“Yes, that. And … no, I think it’s …”
She was getting locked in my gaze. Amongst other talents, demons are natural creatures of attraction, and it was something I had not learned to control yet.
“Perhaps if our paths cross once more, with more favorable timing, I can tell you all about that. But for now, your intentions are all that matters. You have a problem, I can help solve it.”
“There’s a man. A mage, more precisely. He’s been following me for weeks. I used to live in a village with him, but was chased out because I used one of his cats for a spell.”
“You killed the cat?” Even I cringed at that thought.
“No! Just a bit of blood. Even gave the poor thing something to put her to sleep before. I needed the ingredient to help heal one of the others there, she was deathly ill.”
“Is she better now, at least? Did the spell work?”
She smirked. “Are you questioning my magick, demon?”
“Certainly,” I replied, with an equally playful look, “you wouldn’t have called me if your magick was powerful enough to get you out of this mess.”
“Fair enough. But more to the point, I angered the village’s mage. He thinks I was cursing someone. Convinced the whole lot to kill me. I fled two nights ago. I’m afraid, though, I sensed him nearby earlier this evening.”
“Feel it? Can’t you hear him? He’s downstairs.” I chuckled. “Say no more. He won’t be a problem any longer,” I said with a constellation’s worth of confidence that I had absolutely none of. “Remember this, you summon an assistant of Death’s Handmasters, and they take care of—”
I had meant to finish my sentence with a dramatic flare, travel downstairs, and meet the mage with the help of that thief—what was his name? Instead, the door to the room slammed open, smashing my head against the wall so hard that I saw bats flapping in my vision.w
"--the mess …” I groaned as I crumpled.
“Demon! He’s here!” She stood up, mumbling words of power. A dim light appeared at her hands, but it certainly wasn’t enough. The mage was dressed in an azure robe, with a staff adorned with massive crystals on either end, and they meant business, one of them had a circlet of conjured flame around it.
He looked over the room. “Ugh. I could track you by smell alone, filthy harlot.”
I was still slumped against the ground. My head was throbbing. Along with heightened taste, smell, and sigh to help me with my duties in this realm, came the increased sense of touch. That could mean two things. Immense pain, or pleasure. Guess which one I was going through. And unfortunately, I'm not a masochist either.
“Undo what curse you’ve cast, now!” he demanded.
“Demon! Help!” she begged, backing into the other corner.
He spat at her. “I am no demon, you back-alley wench! Now, undo it! I don’t care if your foul magick requires you take your own life to retract this deed. I won’t have my village under this … this pithy excuse for magick.”
She glowered at him. By now my vision focused more. It wasn’t just a blur. He still hadn’t noticed me, the pile of darkness huddled behind the door.
“Speak, chant, call forth your unholy god, do what you must … or I will end your miserable life.” He raised his staff. The flames erupted, causing burning embers to shower everywhere.
“Demon … I shed a lot of blood for you. Those bats weren’t easy to find, either!” the witch called again, this time with annoyance, even a tone of doubt. That angered me. She, the one asking me for help, was doubtful of my ability. Anger, in the hands of a demon, is not something you want at the end of your day.
“Demon?! I am no demon! The only demon here is y—” the mage started.
“Me.” I slammed the door shut, only to grasp him by the robes and shove him through it, causing a shower of fire and splinters. He slammed against the hallway with a grunt, but still had more than enough fight in him, raising the other end of the staff to bless my head with a bruise. The corridor was too narrow, though, and stopped the crystal before it could greet my skull.
I growled, dark magick burning from the adrenaline and rage building up. The key to dark magick was using the nasty parts of you—jealousy, hatred, lust, the parts you hide away—it wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective.
A typhoon of feathers and bone fragments burst from the palms of my hands, sending both the mage and his staff flying down the hall. A pair of leathery wings shot out of my back, blinding me briefly with pain, but sending me nonetheless flying toward him, just in time so I could pick him up before he hit the ground, and carry him through the wall of the tavern.
There wasn’t time to open a portal. I wasn’t that skilled to focus on so many things in one moment, so I used his body as a shield and rammed him through the wall instead. That was a kind of portal, I thought, as I heard a few bones in his body crack.
I let him go as soon as I felt the cool night air. His body flew across a graveyard near the tavern. Tombstones, I noted, as he bounced several times before finally stopping at an iron fence.
He wasn’t called a mage for nothing. The bastard shook off the pain as if he merely tripped, and raised his hand. Before I could react, a bolt of ice whizzed passed me, cracking the side of my head and sending me off to sleep for half a second. My wings responded, though, kept me afloat, while he got comfortable with his staff.
“Now I see why she was saying, ‘demon,’” he grunted, limping closer to me. “No matter. I’ll dispatch you and be through with her, now that your opportunity has been squandered. It’s better this way, anyways. Taking two nights of my life to kill one wench was hardly worthwhile. I’ll take you too."
He raised his left hand, sucking in the elements in the air. Water, wind, maybe even a bit of earth. Elemental magick, it was effective, pure. But I had a necromancer’s abilities, too. And I played dirty. Mages, with their arcane principles, wouldn’t touch that type of magick with a ten-foot wand.
The power he imbibed through his left hand, concentrated and built up in his right, coursed through the wood of his staff and into the crystal, making a brilliant light appear.
I took out a handy tool in one of the pockets of my jerkin. It was the bones of a blacksmith’s hand and forearm, empowered by all the pain of endless toil, maybe even failure when he was just an apprentice. The disappointment he felt when his master was displeased, the lives his weapons took, their suffering, his guilt. It was a goldmine of dark energy.
He threw a storm of hail, serrated winds and rocks at me. I mumbled Words of Old, awakening the protection charm on the hand.
“Altherias protect!” A massive wall of bones, iron, and steel met the force of the mage’s spell. The shield responded to each individual piece of hail, dagger of wind, or rock meant to tear me apart.
When he’d used all that was left of his spell, I still had some remaining in mine, and repurposed what was left. “Sarehtla reflect!” The wall reformed into the shape of a broken sword, pointed itself at the mage, and lunged itself upon him.
The barrier he tried to hastily conjure was too weak. Some fragments tore through, cutting him all over.
Like I said, demons fight dirty. When it comes to your life, your blood, there is no room for virtue. I got him while was down.
“Find the will to remain. Resurrect for yet another day, aid me in my dire request,” I chanted to the graves. The fear in the mage was feeding me. He prepared himself for the onslaught, but even from this distance, I could see his hands shaking while he wove a shield about him.
I dug my will into the soil spoiled by rotted bodies, causing the ground to split just enough for dozens of decayed hands to bloom like grey tulips with bony stems, all at once, then reaching down and clawing their mangled bodies out.
“Undeath servitas!” I screamed. The dead didn’t hesitate. They lurched, shook off the dust of a long sleep, and charged with what was left of their legs to the mage.
His spell of protection turned to screams of frenzied attacks as he stopped using his staff to cast spells, but to club the poor ghouls. He’d only gotten through three or four before he was overrun, forced to retreat to the woods behind him. Gods only knew what was waiting for him there. The radius of my spell could be much larger than I intended. After all, I was new to this. It’s lucky, too, I had used most of my knowledge and willpower. Pretty soon, he would have figured out my options were far more limited than his.
During my training, one of the Handmasters told me: “The problem with honor, with virtue and all those pretty things, while they might be nice when you’re alive, they’ll get you killed in the Nether. Or, in your case, banished. A much scarier fate. Immortality often comes at a cost, Aurikas. You payed one half of the bargain when you became a demon, but should you learn what the second half is by faltering in this role, even I would pity you.”
The words proved true. I was a novice demon, a mere dilettante, if you will. And like all novices, I had to cut corners when I could. I didn’t have time to ask Mother Moon to guide my will, for the elements to steady my hand. I used dead things, festering, unspoiled hatred of the deceased, and other things that lurk underground, to empower myself.
I gently let myself down to the ground, folded my wings in, and watched as his figure faded into the fog of the forest, and with it, the light from his staff. Hopefully the spell on them would fade, soon. I didn’t want to kill him, just frighten him enough to stop chasing that poor witch. She was just trying to help someone. Someone as knowledgeable as himself should have seen that.
Unfortunately, knowledge isn’t wisdom.
And just like that, with a few deep breaths of cold air, a philosophical thought or two, and the adrenaline left me. My bones started aching, feeling battered like an old ship in a storm out at sea. I used what was left of my faded energy to fly myself to the hole I made in the wall of the tavern. My wings gave up halfway, fell off in two useless sacks of thin flesh, and turned to ash. I had to grab onto the floorboards and haul myself to safety.
I was panting when I got myself inside. Some blood came up when I spat out what I thought would be vomit. Nausea came over me. I slumped against the wall, closed my eyes. Dizzy. World spinning. I wanted to leave this place. Go back to an ethereal form. No wonder I left. This place is dreadful.
“W-what have you done?! Who are you?” the innkeeper exclaimed, fuming with rage at the top of the stairs.
“Shit. Unconscoufic,” I panted. I heard him thud to the floor and roll the rest of the way down the stairs. The Handmasters prefer us not to be seen.
The witch came out of a nearby vacant room, eyeing the body of the innkeeper, and peeked into the destroyed graveyard. “That was … impressive.”
I could hardly speak. My eyesight was darkening. Somehow I got to my feet only using the wall as support, and directed the pieces of wood I had dislodged back into their rightful place. Slowly, I reconstructed the wall, every inch of me protesting, begging for me to stop. Humans have limits of their own, and so do demons.
“I can hardly thank you enough … uh …”
“Aurikas,” I murmured as the last piece of wood finally pushed itself in like a puzzle piece. It stuck with a satisfying clunch.
“Aurikas, a gorgeous name. If there is anything I can do—”
“Yeah, save me,” I murmured while what litle light in the corridor began to dim. My legs buckled.
I admit, I had gotten somewhat cocky. But after all, it was my first real summoning. The past two weeks were only saving black cats stuck in trees, and scolding children who accidentally read something from an old book they found. But today I had to test what I knew. Had to cross my limits to see where they ended.
As the witch caught my body—the one I decided needed a nap—I told myself my first proper summoning had gone, more or less, according to plan. Well … in essence.