https://glenalec.net/lit/broken/

Child of Broken Prophesy

©2022-24 Glenn Alexander,   Defender of the Valley.

Die
An Octas/fantasy Game-World story.

Octas/fantasy is an original fictional world I created for a table-top role-playing game (TTRPG) I am working on separately. It has a decent number of the expected fantasy tropes, but (hopefully) with enough of a unique spin on them to be interesting. The Octas game is mainly just for my own amusement, not a commercial project. I will likely publish it here after I have finished it enough to do some basic play-testing with friends. This is unlikely to be soon. Nor do I expect it to be something many others would likely want to play (since it uses a numeric base of eight, amongst other oddities!)

I have also taken certain liberties, particularly around how magic works, which has somewhat diverged from the game's rules. Though this might, to a certain degree, be just the characters completely mis-interpreting how magic really works in their world - a common theme in the world of Octas anyway!

Child in the Wasteland


Author's Notes:

This story is a work-in-progress. I have it all mapped out to a satisfactory end, but there is still much writing to do. Parts 1 through 4 are (probably) mostly complete, Part 5 is just in outline form so far. Then I likely need to leave it soak for a few months, and have a full-sweep revision, though I wouldn't expect any big changes from that - mostly just tweaking my adjectives.

And credit where it's due! This story seems to be mostly writing itself, just using me as a meat-based keyboard interface! It was primarily started as an 'easy' writing exercise while my head was too foggy recovering from COVID to work on my 'proper' sci-fi work, so for all I know I am co-authoring with a damned RNA-nidovirus! That might actually be appropriate, considering how the world of Octas itself works.

Finally, since I prefer to self-publish my hobby-writing in unembellished HTML, I am trialling the use of <details> tags as a way of compacting a short-novel-length work into a screen-manageable format, rather than breaking it into separate pages. We'll see how that works out!

Below, click chapter titles (with a triangle in front) to see each chapter.


Prologue: Hope

We are Hope. That is the label we have given ourself. After a thousand of millennia of consideration, it seems vaguely appropriate. We have always existed. That is an extrapolation: we have no memory of coming into being, but more significantly, our earliest memories are millennia old and contain hints of far earlier memories still.

We are dying. We do not know exactly what death is to a god. Yet we are aware that the substrate of our existence is becoming less effective in sustaining ourself. Our death is, however, far off. Much further in our future than our most distant proto-memories are in our past. So, it is not of immediate concern.

Of immediate concern is the war to the south.

The wars are inevitable, unavoidable. The outcome... tricky.

We must reach out for assistance from those far lesser than us.

And hope that we can be worthy of their aid.

 

Part 1: Child of the Wasteland

Chapter 1: The Road to Hell

Ugly was at the front of the group when the thing ran by, whimpering. Hog? Dog? Jackal? It was running at them, then past the horses' legs, and then gone from sight behind too quick to be sure. Screeching like it had just witnessed all the horrors of the world visited on seven generations of its ancestors, and worse still on seven generations of its descendants!

"What the Hell!" Chip said, looking over at Chop, riding beside her. "Whiskers?"

Whiskers was slouched awkwardly over the rear-end of the draft horse that was also carrying the extra supplies, stewing in the indignity of his position, as he had all the way from the Port Cities where they had hired him. "Dust," he finally complained, his alto voice piercing the relative silence shrilly, despite its subdued volume. "Can't see nought for the dust it kicked up." He coughed for effect. It came out more like a squeaky hiccough.

"Over there!" Ugly pointed. “Mad's circling something on the salt pan.”

"Goody for her." Whiskers high-pitch-drawled, but he had his head up, looking forward, putting obvious lie to his feigned disinterest.

As they approached on the road, they could see five dark shapes sprawled on the sulphur-bed. "It's men," Chop observed.

"Dead men!" Mad cried gleefully as she swooped down to perch on the draft horse with Whiskers. "Six dead men on a dry salt bed! Yo-ho-ho. Or something like that!... I forget."

"A little decorum, please." Whiskers complained.

"They’re just humans!"

Chip and Chop exchanged looks, and then harrumphed in unison. They were grinning, however.

"No offence to humans present!" Mad squawked, taking to flight again to circle around above them. "Eek! That one moved!"

"Which one?" Ugly was suddenly all business. The others had snapped to a more attentive mood too.

"The little one, lying on top of that one over there." She headed back over and swooped the pile she was indicating, not going too close.

Ugly's horse pulled to a stop at the edge of the salt pan and whinnied in protest. "Okay boy," he assured the beast. "No need to go on there." He dismounted and began to cross on foot, pulling his neck-scarf up over his nose.

"Gak!' said Chop, as he followed. "I don't know what smells worse - the two-day-baked corpses, or the sulphur not quite masking it!"

"Two days!" exclaimed Chip. She was also dismounting to follow, but very reluctantly.

"It's okay. They're desiccating. Just don't pray for rain!"

Whiskers was also easing himself down off the packhorse to join them, shuffling along on his hind legs, to keep his nose as far from the ground as possible.

The scene was messy. Five of the bodies were of young men. They were well dressed, and while beginning to dry out from the heat of the wastes, they looked to have been well-fed and healthy while alive.

Injuries were consistent with severe blunt-force trauma on four, and a single gaping stab wound on the fifth. This stabbed man had half of a snapped-off iron knife buried in the back of his left eye socket, penetrating his brain. His death was probably, by far, the quickest of those present.

The sixth body was distinctly different. It was curled up on top of one of the dead young noblemen, hugging to him like a frightened child, which it was certainly small enough to be. A raggedy dark cloak covered the body completely. It looked dead.

No, it was breathing shallowly!

Ugly peeled back the side of the child's robe-hood. It opened its eyes and stared up at him. "Gods in Hell!" he shrieked, jumping back. He was scrabbling backwards crabwise on his feet and palms.

"What the...?" Chip inquired. Ugly was a hard man. Or at least he had always done a completely credible job of impersonating one.

"I dunno." Ugly stopped scrabbling backwards and became a bit self-conscious. "I think I just took a bad turn from the sulphur fumes. Sorry."

"The kid’s alive?"

"Yes."

"We should get her off this salt pan."

"Um... yes." Ugly hesitated. Something about the child chilled him. Chop bent forward and lifted the bundled body up like it weighed nothing - which it almost did. From its hand fell a knife, with most of the blade snapped off. Ugly's and Chip's eyes both traced a path from the broken knife handle to the corpse with the rest of the knife in it. Then glanced at each-other. Chop was already across the pan and back at the horses, putting the child down in the shade of their bodies.

"Water!" he demanded. "Come on, you two!"

Chip and Ugly joined him. Mad flew back down to perch on the nearest saddle-horn. Whiskers waddled up the rear, falling back to all-fours when the sulphur-bed was behind him.

Chop poured a trickle of water from the canteen to the child's cracked lips. It instinctively sipped.

"Not too much!" Chip warned.

"I know. I know." Chop assured her.

He fiddled with the hood of the child's robe. "Some air might help. She has to be baking in this thing!"

"It's kept the sun off her."

"Well, she's in the shade now."

He wriggled some internal straps, apparently made to hold the hood firmly in place. They loosened. The hood came back. He managed to not actually drop the child, but hurriedly lowered her to the ground and stepped back.

"Daemon?" Chip asked.

"I've never seen a daemon like that!" Ugly said.

"How many Daemons have you seen?"

"Just the one. In a play!"

"Idiot - that was an actor dressed up. Not a real one!"

"I know! But that's not what they are supposed to look like - they are all red and stuff - everyone knows that!"

"Well, she's just brown. Maybe half as brown as you, even. But she has little horns. Do you think she has a tail?"

"I'm not undressing her to find out! What do you think I am? Daemon or not, she's a child!"

The daemon-child, or whatever it was, moaned softly.

"What did she say?"

"Something about a storm."

"No storms around" Mad squawked. "I'd feel it."

"What are we going to do?" Chop asked the group. "We can't just leave her here!"

"Um." Whiskers observed. "Actually, we can." Everyone looked at him. "I'm not suggesting we do! Just that it is not a matter of impossibility."

"Set up camp. On the less-worse side of the road." Ugly ordered.

"This near to the bodies?" Chip's voice, normally a bit low, but still within normal female-human range, went high with distress.

"They’re drying out in the sun. They'll be fine."

"The daemon-girl is muttering about a storm!"

"No storms coming!" Mad assured her. "I'll go check to be sure." The crow took off and started circling for altitude.

One of the tents was unpacked and set up. The daemon-girl was put inside, and Chop dribbled some more water across her lips. He was the group's muscle, Chip being a close backup. But he was surprisingly gentle when not lunging a fist into some deserving face. He came back out of the tent.

"Anything?" Ugly asked.

"Still just muttering. Mostly in a language I don't recognise. It sounds unsettling."

"Daemon talk!" Chip said. "I've heard it sounds like bones being ground to dust. While the owner of the bones is still alive!"

"We don't know for sure she's daemon!"

"She has horns!"

"Not the red skin!"

"Maybe it goes red when they're older!"

"The extra thumb on each hand grows in too?" They had all seen the child's hands, which were both of the normal four fingers and just one thumb variety.

"Humans don't have horns!" Chip insisted.

"Okay, she's a daemon. Will you kill her, or shall I?"

"I'm not saying to kill her! But look over there, she took out five men, each twice her size!"

"Rich kids," Whiskers put in.

"What?"

He threw some scraps on the ground in front of them. Coin purses. A few scraps of paper. Two whole daggers, and the handle of the broken one, a signet ring.

"You raided their corpses?!"

"I thought it best if I did it. I can't catch most human diseases."

"So what have you got. Besides the loot!"

Whiskers tried to harrumph, but his non-human vocal chords made an embarrassing squeak. He pushed aside the Coin pouches and picked up the ring. "A Port Cites noble family," he explained. I didn't bother with the others, but four of the five had one - covering three families total. Minor nobility at best."

"Well, Hell!"

"This knife is also embossed with a noble family motif."

He picked it up and turned it, displaying the carved mother-of-pearl handle.

"Crap knife," commented Chop.

"Yes. Expensive but really just a toy for show."

"Wouldn't butter my toast with it!" Chop added.

"Indeed!" Whiskers put it aside and picked up the other whole knife. It was a fold-back affair, with a handle of jade-coloured crushed seashells set in lacquer. "This one is more a utility knife than for fighting, but perfectly good for either. Popular with sailors. And I couldn't get the ring off him, but it was a merchant family insignia. He was probably the only one in the group who might have had more fighting experience than a bit of light schoolyard bullying!"

"Their minder?" Chip asked.

"He's the same age as them, so I think just part of the group." Whiskers told her.

"I notice he is the one she went for with her own knife," Chip observed. "Good sense of target priority."

Whiskers moved on to the broken knife. "Handle is bound leather. Well tanned, but not a professional job. Skilled home-craftsman, I'd say. The metal is not high quality, but not bad. It's well-used, but also well cared for. At least until it was snapped off."

He put the handle back down.

"As far as larger weapons go," he continued, "there were 5 clubs, which we can safely assume were theirs. All embossed with some kind of hunting motif."

"Hunting?"

"Yeah, the kind rich farts like to put on their 'we like killing small animals that can't fight back' hunting gear."

"Ah."

Whiskers reached behind himself. He dragged forward a dark wooden pole half again as long as he was tall, when standing on hinds. "This... would be hers."

Chip took it from his small hands. She gripped the middle and spun it over her head. Then slammed one end into the ground, not hard, but not gently either. "That's definitely not a walking stick. It’s a fighting stick. Proper core-wood."

Ugly reached down and picked up one of the papers. He unfolded it and read it, his mouth turning down even harder as he did."

"What?" Chip demanded.

"Invoice," he said flatly. "Two days ago at the same inn we stayed at last night. Same room as us even. Same bloody breakfast order too!"

"Last meal...." Whiskers added, his voice sounding somehow ominous despite the high pitch.

There was a weak scream from the tent. Everyone looked over, Chop jumped up from where he was squatting examining the pile himself.

"I can't move! Get me out! It's swallowing me!"

Chop rushed over, the others not far behind. The daemon-girl was a tight bundle of blankets. She was thrashing about so hard she might bash herself to death on the ground beneath her! Whimpering and crying. "Out! Let me out! I can't move!"

"It's okay!" Chop assured her. "I'll get the blanket off you. You were shivering, even in the heat."

"Stay away from me!"

Chop entered the tent, then cried out.

"What!" Chip called after him, reaching for the sword at her hip.

"It's okay," Chop called back. "I just got a shock at something." His voice lowered. "Calm down. You're caught in the blanket. Just let me get this thing off you."

Looking in, Chop had his head at an awkward angle, looking back out of the tent, away from where the daemon girl was struggling. He got the edge of the blanket loose and a foot came free, kicking him in the kidney.

"Oof!" he said.

"Aagh! Sorry!" the daemon-girl whimpered. Then began sobbing as she stopped struggling.

"Ow! Are you okay now?"

The sobbing died down after several seconds.

"Thirsty! I kicked you! Sorry."

"You did. I don't think you meant it."

"Sorry. I panic when I can't move."

"I noticed. Sorry about the blanket. You had the cold-shivers and I wrapped you up."

"Where's my hood?"

"Still above your head. Before you were shivering you were baking, I wanted to let your head cool."

The others all had their own heads inside the tent now. The daemon-girl had her eyes shut tight and was feeling about over her head. She found the hood and pulled it back over her horns and then her eyes. "Water. Please!" she finally gasped.

Water was offered by Chop. "Not too fast - you were out under the sun for days!"

"I had to drink their blood! I feel disgusting!"

"It probably saved you."

"They attacked me on the road."

"We assumed as much."

"Did we?" asked Chip.

 


 

They were in a new camp come evening. Many miles away from the salt pan and the five bodies. Those bodies had, over the first half of the morning, been dragged onto a pile of what little wood could be found in the area, and set alight. By now - hopefully - they were ash and bone.

The girl was sitting up by the fire, but still weak. Whiskers had her leg splinted and bound, and her hand thoroughly wrapped in bandages soaked in something strongly aromatic. It made her half look like an embalmed re-lived. Chip, who's turn it was to sit with her, shuddered at the memory that image invoked, reminding herself that this daemon was very much alive. Assuming that was any better!

The child had carefully unpacked her belt pouch onto her robe-lap, checking on the state of her meagre possessions. A raggedy notebook, two dirty-looking triangular Pieces, a pair of bone needles, and some coarse thread, kinked as if it had been salvaged from unravelling the weave of other cloth. Chip eyed the items suspiciously as the girl re-packed them. "You're a daemon, aren't you?" She accused.

"The horns gave it away?"

"You got a tail too?"

"You'll never know!"

"You're getting sassy!"

"I'm feeling a little less weak now. Thank you."

"You killed five men. Even I'd have trouble doing that!" She beefed her arm muscles to make the point that this was no small thing.

"I was terrified for my life. And of other unpleasant things."

"What do you mean?"

"Five men attack a young woman alone on the road. What do you think I mean?"

"Bastards!" Chip grumbled, for the first time briefly showing some empathy. "So you did a daemon-curse on them?"

"I'm not sure there is any such thing. I fought."

"With your stick. I saw it. It's a good fighting stick."

"I trained with some people in the Southern Wasteland."

"Ah. I didn't know daemons did that kind of fighting."

"They were human."

"They trained a daemon?" Genuine shock.

"Well, they didn't know I was."

Another grumble.

"Leave her alone," Chop called from beyond the firelight. "She's a daemon. We get it!"

"Does she have a name?" A bird called from somewhere overhead. The Crow fluttered down into the firelight and stood, cocking her head, looking at the daemon.

"I'm Viki," the daemon said politely.

"I'm Raven Mad," the crow replied.

"You don't have to call her that!" Chip added.

"But it's my name!"

"So you keep claiming."

"Raven is my birth name. A perfectly respectable, if rather common, Crow name." Raven Mad lectured. "Mad is my adult name. I had to earn that."

Chip harrumphed, un-convinced.

"And your name?" Viki asked Chip. The woman refused to answer.

"She's Chip. I'm Chop." came Chop's voice from the darkness.

The shadow across the fire moved its broad-brimmed hat. "I'm Ugly."

"Sorry?"

"That's his name. Ugly." Raven Mad said, helpfully.

"Okaaay...."

"Well, it's not the name his parents gave him, of course."

"I'm glad to hear that!"

"They named him..."

"Don't!" Ugly warned.

"Okay, okay! And the capy’s name is Whiskers."

"It isn't, and you know it!" The capybara complained.

"Well make up a new name, then. One that isn't half outside the humans' vocal range!"

High pitched grumbling.

 


 

Morning. Viki was still weak. Barely able to stagger-limp out to a nearby bush to pee and back again to the dying fire. At least she managed on her own this time - without Chip supporting her and trying to spy her tail down there. It was hard enough squatting with one leg splinted strait!

Everyone was already up. She went through their names in her head, to be sure she had them.

Ugly was not ugly. She wasn't sure what exactly passed for ugly - or good-looking for that matter - with humans, but she would guess he was more towards the positive end of the range.

Chip and Chop. Both excessively muscular. Could be identical twins except for being opposite sexes. Were they a couple or siblings? Best not ask! .... Why did those names sound familiar? Oh yes! 'Chip and Chop, the people made of pots!' one of her less-liked childhood story books! Her father had insisted on reading it to her at bedtime when she was six. He had traded for it, as a gift for her, so she had endured it for his sake. The writing had been a bit too twee for her tastes, even back then.

Raven Mad was circling overhead, eager to be on the move again. Bird-brains thought much faster than mammal brains, she had read somewhere. It made them impatient, always waiting for the 'grounders' to catch up with them.

And Whiskers - not his actual name - the capybara. Like a big - very big! - snub-nosed rat. She had never seen a capybara before, only read about them in stories, as usual. Rather silly children's stories, so possibly not the most accurate of sources: Whiskers wasn't wearing pants and a bright button-up coat, for one thing, just a belt with several mis-matched pouches threaded on each side, with a sheathed long-knife amongst them. Capybara lived in boroughs deep in the mountains. They usually kept their distance from humans. She could relate to that!

She realised just how much of her knowledge of the world was from books. And not that many of them, either! Well, what else had she to do confined to living the Wasteland? She also realised just how lucky she was to have parents that were literate!

She approached Ugly. "Um. Mr Ugly?"

"Just plain Ugly, miss."

"Oh. Okay. Well, I need to get back. I was headed for the south-east pass into the Wastes when I was attacked."

"Well, I'm afraid we are already most-of-a-day's ride east of where we found you. And headed further east. We can't go back - we are on a mission, and already behind from stopping for you."

"Sorry."

"No problem. We couldn't exactly not stop, all things considered. But we can't take you back. And I'm not going to let you try to walk in your current state!"

"But I really do need to get home."

"Look, miss. If we pass anyone who looks trustworthy enough on the road, I can ask them to take you back. Even give you some Coin. But for now, we are pushing east. Once we're done, we will be coming back this way. With all the time in the world, so we can even can take you strait to your door."

They packed the camp and set off again. Viki sharing the pack-horse with Whiskers, and riding sideways over its middle while Whiskers sprawled awkwardly across its rump."

"So," she asked Whiskers, when they were away. "Where are you all headed anyway?"

Whiskers looked uncomfortable. "Well, we're going.... Well.... It's...."

"We're all going to Hell!" Raven Mad squawked down from above, with apparent glee at the idea.

 

Chapter 2: Abomination

To say my birth was an accident, would be a gross understatement.

After millennia of eager anticipation and readings, the signs were right that a child would be born to the cult. A prophesied child with power of the most god-like proportions, wielding that power over mortal and immortal planes both. That child was to be sired by a human man of a specific obscure lineage, and borne by a priestess of the daemon cult, worshipping the regional god, Might.

The chosen daemon priestess was my mother, sent up to the surface-world with god-given instructions for tracking down the sire of the Child of Power. And that long prophesied man... was not my father. My mother had mis-interpreted a vital instruction and it wasn’t realised that she had seduced the wrong human until eleven months later, when the child born was not in any way godly, but pure abomination. By then it was too late for anything but empty recriminations.

My mother was stripped of her priestesshood, and driven from the cult, up out of Hell and onto the surface, with her unnatural newborn child in her arms. She had lived all her life in Hell, rarely venturing outside. She had no skills to survive the surface world, and even much of her former magical power was no longer available to her. The only thing she had left that was of any value to her at all, was the unsettling - even to her - baby she now carried in her arms.

There was only one place in the surface world she even knew how to reach with any certainty, and likewise only one single person outside of Hell she knew. So weeks later, in the deep of a wicked howling night, she was again at my human father's door.

Kind man that he was, he took her in - largely for my sake I suspect, for while there was no real hate in him for the wretched creature before him, he knew full well there was great risk in letting her into his home.

Not a risk from my mother, though. Eventually someone in the village would notice something wrong, especially as my mother no longer possessed any magical ability to conceal her true form. And even if she had stayed hidden, the wailing of an unexplained new baby was even more impossible to keep secret. Not to mention the terror that baby would invoke in any who looked upon it.

There was a little time, however, and by the time the rest of the villagers had sniffed something out and finished sharpening their pitch-forks and lighting their torches, my father my mother and I were gone.

The better part of the following year was spent on the road in a oxen-drawn covered wagon, staying to the muddy back tracks and skirting the edges of villages where we could. The long journey had bought us to a place my father had once read about, where we might just be safe enough to actually make some sort of life. It was another month of skirting the edges of an extensive wasteland, studying the place and making discrete inquiries at the sparse scraggly villages that clung desperately to life on the Wastes' eastern edge. But there was a house. Long abandoned and run down, but not collapsed. Far enough inside the vague boundary of the Wastes to definitely be in them, and so nowhere any sane person would want to live. Close enough to a village for essential supplies, and far enough away to never get visitors.

All this was told to me by my parents, of course. By the time I was old enough to form lasting memories, the house was - while certainly no manor - clean and weather-tight. My father being a competent carpenter and adequate stonemason, and my mother quite willing to develop calluses helping, had slowly improved the place from a hovel into a home, even developing considerable mutual respect for each other in the process.

It was, I realise now, a topsy-turvy kind of relationship between them, two entirely different beings - the differences of mind being even more pronounced than those of form - kept together through a mutual desire to love and care for their child, growing slowly closer to each other too. At first I was their sole reason for being anywhere near each other, but by the time I was old enough to largely care for myself, they had developed a deep mutual fondness independent of me, as well.

But we were isolated. My father alone would venture to the nearby villages to trade for supplies while my mother stayed close to home where she and I would be safe. I could pass for human, if suitably clothed with my tiny horns and daemonic tail covered away. But there was another aspect about me that made taking me near people impossible.

I had this 'look' about me. It was truly horrifying. Not anything physical that you could identify or describe, but the moment I made eye-contact with someone, a deep feeling of dread would envelope them.

It has been described back to me as "like you are peering into the very depths of my soul" though from my side of it I see nothing of the sort. My parents were not exempt from this, and I honestly don't know how either of them didn't drop me down the nearest well from it! Though I was largely unaware of this at the time. I only knew that my making eye contact with anyone (including more-intelligent animals) had a very unpleasant effect on them - an effect that even as a young child, I was not at all happy to be inducing in the people I loved.

But trouble on adversity, hunger on poverty, I grew up loved all the same. My father schooled me as best he could in human knowledge and ways - and while no scholar, he was still quite competent in a broad range of practical fields. My mother was more circumspect about her background, only answering the most direct questions from me regarding her daemonic past, and then only in the vaguest possible terms. It didn't matter. She had separated from that life entirely, she told me, only myself and my father were her life now.

She did teach me a basic grounding in magic, though even the most simple of daemonic magical abilities were largely beyond me. My human heritage was far stronger in that aspect. Something she was actually glad of, I got the impression. She also taught me herbalism, along with her native Daemonic language, as while she had a basic proficiency in the local human tongue, she lacked the fluency to teach complex topics in it.

I picked it up quickly. Even for a young child. Daemons are born able to speak, read and sign in Daemonic, though they still must gain several years of life experience before they have anything intelligent to say with the words they are born with! I had apparently, as a half-daemon, inherited a mostly-complete verbal lexicon. A good chunk of signed Daemonic, too. No reading or writing to speak of. I had to learn that 'the human way'.

Being banned from the company of any but my parents, not even able to keep a pet more intelligent than a stick-insect!, I learned to enjoy my own company, often out on the edges of the Wastes which became my personal domain.

At first I stayed within sight of the house, venturing out for only hours at a time, but as I grew from infancy to childhood my range increased in both distance and duration. By my early teens I was spending more time in the Wastes than at home, often gone for days. My parents worried somewhat, but they were aware that over the years I had developed good survival skills and had to ultimately acknowledge that I was probably safer out there than they would be. And it probably helped that my returns would often include fresh meat and wasteland tubers.

To be honest, the dangers were not that great for me. There were places you approached cautiously, or instinctively stayed entirely away from. My 'look' was enough to scare off the odd lone jackal or other small scavenger animal. Even the two nomadic tribes of cannibals that constantly roamed the deeper wastes, circling each other hungrily, quickly developed a mythology about me that included advice to leave the robed-and-hooded wasteland child very much alone!

I did have some interaction with others in the wastes. Occasionally small groups of humans wandered in there, once even a talking bear, either by accident or on some misguided quest someone had cruelly made up for them to follow to their doom. I already knew to keep my hood down over my eyes, though more than once the thing had slipped, leaving me well aware of how dangerous things could get when people felt that involuntary terror of my gaze.

Only my knowledge of the local terrain saved me in one case, as a small group of treasure-hunters reacted to the revelation with fear-fuelled rage. That I was a ten year old child sincerely trying to direct them back to civilisation before the last of their supplies ran out, had promptly been forgotten by every one of them! I knew their reaction was not entirely in their own control, and when I came across their emaciated and scavenger-picked bodies some weeks later, it gave me no joy.

 

Chapter 3: The Hermit

There was a hermit living in a house not unlike that of my family's, though he had not at all repaired or improved it since moving into it some years earlier. It was many dozens of miles away from our own place.

A kindly old man, and by the time he accidentally glimpsed my eyes we had been peacefully interacting with each other from time to time for years. He ran in terror, as per normal, but he did come back, cautiously. I had re-adjusted my hood, but then just lost my small-child mind, standing there in the middle of the barren land sobbing to myself.

I guess it was my pathetic vulnerability that finally convinced him I was of limited threat. He approached, though still keeping a wary distance. He talked to me, coaxing a very abbreviated version of my life story out of me - no mention of my parents or my home, I always instinctively guarded those secrets very closely.

He was sympathetic in the end, and while I don't think he ever quite came to terms with what I was, our occasional interactions returned to relatively normal again, eventually.

 

Chapter 4: A Village to the South

At around age 14, my wanderings led me across the path of a man dying in the wastes. Not old, and even not entirely un-prepared, but the Wasteland weather had taken a particularly harsh turn that week and now a pack of hungry jackals were circling in to finish the job.

I easily sent them running in fear of their tiny-animal-souls, and soon had pulled together a crude shelter for the man and dug out some water-root I had passed the stems of, not long before. It took two days to restore him to the point where he could travel again, and then he still required my assistance to walk.

The journey with the man was short, but did go further South than I had ever been before. To my astonishment, there was a human settlement there. Right in the Southern Wastes! Small, fortified, though minimally so - just enough to keep wild animals out. The materials must have been carried in from outside the Wastes as there were many wooden poles far larger than any tree I had ever seen outside of a book!

Still half-carrying the man, I approached. A bell rang with a deep resonant sound. Someone had seen us, and a small group of humans were coming out to meet us. They lifted the man from where he was hanging exhausted on my shoulder. Then they beckoned for me to follow them back inside.

These humans were not armed, yet something about them seemed to hint at danger. Not danger to me, I felt. They had a form of quiet surety about themselves, in the way they moved. I pulled the hood of my threadbare cloak low over my eyes and cautiously followed them.

First they saw to the man I had bought in, but one of them soon left and came back with a small quantity of bread, cheese and dried fruit, as well as a jug of clear water, all of which were placed on a table in the corner. "Please. Eat," the man insisted. I did. It was simple but good food, and one would never turn down food in the Wastes, it had been days since my last proper meal and would likely be more days to the next.

We had arrived in the late afternoon. And it was now twilight. I was offered a bed for the night, in a wooden hut with half a dozen human children, aged from infant to one about my own age. All were curious about the stranger, me, and yapped excitedly at the adults until one of the adults firmly but kindy told them to hush. I was grateful, as I was truly worn out from half-carrying the man a whole day across the South-Eastern Wastes. After a few more words from one of the adults, the children let me pick a bed in the corner and I simply lay down and immediately slept.

 


 

I was woken by something touching me in the semi-darkness, near my face, and my eyes snapped wide open. It was still deep in the night, but there was torchlight coming into the room from outside, via a window.

A terrified howl emanated from the mouth of one of the children as he stumbled, falling backwards and scrabbling on his palms and heels into a corner, whimpering and crying.

I had kept my hood low over my face the whole time since entering the village, but when asleep, the child had crept up to lift my hood and see what was beneath. Scarring off jackals and other desert vermin with my look was almost fun, in a rather morbid way, but that scream of terror from the child... that was a harsh reminder of why I was destined to spend my life alone in the Wastes.

By the time some of the adults arrived, I had my hood pulled back low again, hiding my face in its shadow. They talked to the child, trying to calm him, glancing back at me occasionally. The other children were all wide awake and badly spooked, but not knowing what was going on. A man I had not met before approached me as I quickly assessed possible exits from the room. He held out his hands placating.

"We are so sorry," he said, "Please forgive the child. Children are so curious." The child had calmed down a bit, and was now jabbering semi-coherently at the adults. I couldn't really catch his infant-speak, but the adults obviously had more experience in interpreting it. In response to the babbling words, the man talking to me subtly changed his stance. With only the slightest shift, he went from open concern to an animal ready to strike in defence of its young. "You are... not human?"

"I am... deformed...." I replied drily. I wasn't about to reveal anything more about myself than absolutely necessary. "My own parents have trouble looking upon me."

The man's stance subtly relaxed from ready-to-strike to just wary. "I again apologise, then. That is a very harsh thing."

"My father and mother do love me," I interjected defensively. "It is just better for me not to be around other people. I don't enjoy causing..." I gestured at the still crying child "...that."

The man sighed and fully relaxed. "Again, our humblest apologies."

"It's okay. I am more concerned for the child than myself. I am fully aware of the effect sight of me can have on others. And I am old enough to accept this fate as mine."

The man shuffled his feet, surprisingly awkwardly for one obviously normally very self-sure. "May I ask...." he trailed off.

It was my turn to sigh. "You may ask. You may even see. But not here. Not where any of these children are about!" He nodded respectfully.

Outside, in the light of a burning torch, I faced the man - apparently the leader of this village. I lifted my hood, careful to still keep my short horns covered, and raised my face to look him in the eye. Only for a second before quickly pulling the hood back down, hiding myself again in its shadow. I hadn't moved out here just for the children's sake - I now had a clear path to the low gate if I had to run!

The man swallowed drily. He had shown great restraint in not screaming and running, or attacking me!, and had expended obvious mental effort in not doing so. "That's...." he trailed off speechless again.

"Terrifying. I know," I finished for him.

"It is," he slowly agreed. "Can you really see....?"

"No. I can't," I finished shortly, but not angrily. I knew the rest of the question. "And it isn't magical, at least not as far as my parents can determine."

"How long?" He asked.

"All my life."

"All very interesting," the man mused. "But it is still late in the night and people need to sleep, you included. I'll have a bed moved to a private space for you."

"I probably should go. Sleeping in the wastes is no new thing to me."

"No!" he insisted. "To turn you out, especially for something you obviously have no control over, is just not our way. Even if you were just a weary traveller it would not be our way, but you saved one of our brethren and carried him here, likely at some risk to yourself! You are not only welcome to stay the night, we could never do any but make you always welcome here!"

I did stay the rest of the night. A bed was moved to the loft above a stable which three mangy goats called home. It provided multiple good escape routes if I changed my mind - something I very much felt the village leader had taken into account when choosing this place for me. Still, I pulled the ladder up after me, once he had gone, and slept as lightly as I would out in the wastes.

I left in the morning. I had considered sneaking out before dawn, but chose to wait until the leader-man was up so I could properly thank him for the place to sleep. While I rarely interacted with anyone but my parents, they were very strict regarding showing proper courtesy! The man handed me a sack. It contained a little more food - dried food that would keep for some time. And a new cloak, dark like the ones these people wore. My own cloak was threadbare, and getting too small for me too! "You saved a man's life out there," he stressed again. "We are not a people who have much, but this at least we can give you in return."

I accepted the food and cloak as graciously as my limited experience with such niceties allowed, and stayed for a quick breakfast, also at the man's insistence. Some of the other human adults were also at the table, presumably pre-warned on how to behave towards me. They talked around me mostly, but were civil enough towards me when passing food to or via me. Afterwards, I and the leader-man thanked each other one last time, rather awkwardly on my part - this was the third round of thank-yous and I had exhausted my limited knowledge of etiquette by the second! The man I had dragged out of the desert was also up, though still obviously weak, so I had to draw on even more unknown personal grace accept his thanks too!

Then I put the sack I had been given over my shoulder and left. All up, it had been a rather fraught and bizarre encounter!

As I left the settlement, I saw some of the people were already out in the ... fields? ...there were no crops. This part of the wasteland was milder than most, but certainly not cropping land - it had taken my mother years, and some considerable amount of soil bought in from outside by my father, to even get a sparse vegetable garden going. So what were they doing? It was like fighting. Using long solid-looking sticks. But not fighting with each other. And slower. Dancing? Fight-dancing? Or Dance-fighting? Intriguing!

I hiked back to my home over the next three days. But the way back to the little village was now firmly part of my newly expanded mental map of the Wastes.

I didn't mention the village to my parents. I didn't feel they needed to know a group of human people were living in the wastes, even if they were three days away, and apparently nice enough. While I had not been able to conceal my look, I had successfully hidden my half-Daemonhood, something my mother would never be able to do and I had no idea how even 'nice enough' humans might react to that!

A week later I trekked back out to the settlement to observe it from a distance. They were still there. And every morning and every evening were doing their strange dancing/stick-fighting thing. Even the children, which I had not seen last time. In the day they tended a small raised garden inside the compound, with soil too dark to be from the wastes. Or they herded the goats to some sparse but edible patch of grey-greenery around the outside.

I set snares to catch my own food and cooked it over a low fire after dark. Behind a sand bank. Downwind of the settlement.... They had been kind enough to me, but I preferred to observe them unseen from a distance. As small as the village was, there were tens of more people there than I had ever seen in one place before in my life. That alone, frankly, unnerved me!

On the third day, I found a sturdy stick and, after a bit of trimming with my knife, had myself a staff not unlike the one the villagers were using in their rituals. I tried copying the movements that they were doing. I was not very good at it - it was actually a lot harder than it looked! I hadn't intended to stay a whole week, but 5 days later I was still trying to do the stick-fighting-dancing thing, with limited success and more than one painfully self-inflicted bruise on my body!

Then I got to see an actual fight too. Very formal, the two combatants bowed at the start, obviously not fighting in anger. But they spared nothing, and unlike the stick-dancing, they were lightning fast! It ended with a blow that should have killed the loser, but the winning combatant pulled the strike at the last moment, then helped the other up and, after catching their breath briefly, bowed respectfully to each other again.

"Good, aren't they. Our best students this octade."

I spun to the voice, which was right beside me. I pulled my hood off my eyes for best defensive use of my look - it wouldn't stop a determined attacker, I knew from hard experience, but I likewise knew the initial shock would give me several paces head-start at a flat sprint away. I had been holding, half leaning on, the stick I had been using to try and copy the villagers. It slipped from my grasp as I spun and flew stupidly off to the side.

I found myself looking into the eyes of the village leader. He wasn't as close to me as his voice had sounded, and he took another step back from me. Even ready for it, looking at me with my eyes uncovered had still required conscious restraint on his part.

"Woah!" he cried, holding his hands out, palms towards me in the universal sign of no-threat. With effort he maintained my eye contact, out of determined politeness, I assume, but inadvertently giving me the tiniest taste of what he must have been feeling - having spent my entire life studiously avoiding it, prolonged eye-contact was something I just wasn't used to myself! He continued, "We noticed someone out here this morning. I thought it was probably you, but needed to make sure!"

I scrabbled my hood back over my face, now feeling embarrassed. After all, I was the one spying, and they had every right to secure their territory!

"Really," he continued, "we don't mind you being here. I can even understand you not coming down to meet us. But we best arrange some sort of sign or marker so we know its you, if only so we don't come out bothering you again."

"Sorry," I replied, genuinely humbled by his concern for me even now. "I shouldn't be sneaking around spying like this. I know better! I've just never seen anything like that before."

"Well, no harm done." He picked up the stick I had flung aside earlier, weighing it in his hand as he did so. "Balance is... not bad, but you can't really use a random branch like that - it will splinter the first time anything hits it!" He gave me a quirky smile. "If you want to learn how to use a real one, you really should come down and spend some time with us."

 


 

As it was, I ended up spending several times with the villagers over the following years. I learned the stick-fighting-dancing, continuing to practice even when I was off wandering the wastes alone, which I often was. But when I did stay at the village, I even slept in a large room with several of the adult women - who all had the maturity and sense to not mess with my face-coverings!

I was never able to master their 'inner peace' that they spent so much time meditating over - maybe it was my part-daemonic heritage, or maybe I simply wasn't self-disciplined enough - however I did become reasonably proficient at using a fighting-staff, and even for unarmed combat, I was eventually not too bad.

Meanwhile, I still continued to roam and explore the wastes....

In the winter of my 15th year, I encountered what was left of a lost family of cannibals. They were in a bad way, separated from the main tribe as hungry wolves circled in on the one surviving adult bravely trying to defend three huddled young children. I had managed to send the wolves packing, something I could never have managed without the villagers' martial training - even my look was useless against a predator if it was hungry enough!

I helped the cannibal man and children gather their scattered belongings and stayed with them until I had guided them back within sight of their tribe's camp. I quietly slipped away into a large salt-bush thicket while they were excitedly focused on the sight of their people in the distance.

I call them 'cannibals', and they are - I've seen the human bones in their abandoned cook-fires - but it isn't a habitual thing: there aren't enough of them for that! It's mostly an occasional ritual practice. Most of the time they eat tubers and small animals, the same as me.

Not long after that I noticed that one of the wandering tribes, while still not friendly, was no longer actively hostile if their path came near mine.

The following summer, I had splinted and strapped an older tribal-man's broken leg and left him where his people would quickly find him, and I assume the highly-embellished local legend about me grew slightly more. The dark cloak and hood I always wore would have been just one more thing for fireside speculation and fantastical explanations, I’m sure!

 


 

I wandered more. It was what I did. What I had always done. Crisscrossing the wastes. Sometimes finding good wild food or other useful things to carry home to share with my parents.

I periodically checked on the few somewhat-accessible paths into the South-Eastern side of the Wastes for interlopers. Ensuring the two groups I found at different times turned back the way they had come before any ill became of them... and more importantly, before they had a chance to harass any of the Wasteland's permanent inhabitants.

So life in the wastes was hard, but the people living it seemed to become slightly less so. Or maybe it was just my perceptions of it changing as I grew into adulthood.

 

Chapter 5: Dry Storm

It was my 17th year. I was on the Southern edge of the Central Wastes, beside the Desolation, a particularly bad patch of evil-magic-blasted wasteland with the only positive being it was an effectively impenetrable barrier between the Wastes and the expanding human world on the other side.

The storm had come on me unexpectedly. A dry-storm, of sharpened sand blasting at anything in its way. Fatal if you ended up in the heart of it for any length of time. Not uncommon this close to the Desolation, possibly indicating a residual effect of the out-of-control magic that had destroyed the place long before any of the current inhabitants of the Wastes had come to live there.

The suddenness itself was also a strong hint at magical origin. A natural storm in the wastes, I can sense hours in advance - the smell of the air changing, the subtle shifts in temperature and wind direction, the behaviour of animals who were sensing the same. But this dry-storm had sprung out of nowhere with no warning. And it had sprung into sudden existence directly between myself and the relative safety of the Wastes, giving me no choice but to put my head down and push into the salt-and-sulphur hellscape of the Desolation itself.

For two days I pushed on, thirsty and tired, the dry-storm always at my back, herding me relentlessly where it chose for me to go. Hungry too, but that was status-quo for life on the wastes.

The storm stopped tracking me as I approached the southern side of the Desolation. It was too far to go back through the Desolation unprovisioned, and I suspected the dry-storm might take issue with my trying anyway! There was a dirt road ahead of me and I staggered onto it, exhausted but not yet ready to stop.

I knew if I followed the edge of the Desolation for a few dozen miles to the north-east, there was a narrowing. It was one of the few places in this region that outsiders could get through to the Wastes without dying in the attempt. I had been heading to the Wasteland-side of this passage to make a routine check for signs of recent traffic when the dry-storm had hit... had attacked me, I was sure it had been actively, if slowly, chasing me somehow! I would follow the road, or trek the rough if the road left the edge of the Desolation at some point before I reached the passage.

I started wearily along the road, keeping an eye out for somewhere that might offer me some cover to stop and rest as soon as I could.

I should have heard them much sooner - two days walking without food or sleep, the last without water too, had largely wiped out my senses. They had come right up behind me, on horses even, and I didn't know they were there until one of them spoke.

"Well lookie here, lads."

I spun as quickly as I was able, quick enough under the circumstances. There were five of them. Humans in shiny colourful clothes the like of which I had never seen before. Shiny black boots. Shiny horses too. All far healthier and well-fed than I had ever realised was even possible. I backed off to the edge of the road, head down in my hood, to let them pass.

"Woah! I thought it was just some old hag under there, but look at the shape of it. There's something pretty under those rags!" The boy-not-quite-a-man on the lead horse was brash and confident. The other four similar young-men whistled in a way I definitely didn't like.

My exhaustion evaporated instantly as adrenaline pumped into my blood. My body would pay dearly for that later but right now it was getting prepared to ensure that later would be an option for me at all.

I turned and ran, hoping that even if the riders were too stupid to stop, their horses would refuse to set hoof on the stinking toxic soil of the Desolation. As a half-daemon, I was somewhat more resistant to the conditions of the Desolation than a full human, but over the distances I was likely to run before they caught me - even if they chased on foot - I wasn't at all confident that would be enough of an advantage.

The young men whooped and spurred their horses. Six seconds to catch up to me. But only four seconds and I was running on the cracked sulphurous salt-pan. The horses whinnied in protest and stopped short at the edge of the toxic pan, one of the riders was thrown off. The young men swore at their mounts. I only heard what was happening, I wasn't going to slow myself down by looking back.

My leg was knocked out from under me as something heavy and fast hit it from behind. A young man some distance back shouted in self-congratulation as I was struck. I fell flat on my front, immobilised, completely winded. Sulphur-dust burned my lungs as I involuntarily gasped through a mouth pressed against the ground by the weight of my own leaden head.

"Get up!" I ordered myself through gritted teeth. My body refused. "Get... up!"

I heard the swoosh of something coming down behind me, towards my prone body, and rolled to the side. One of the young men had caught up with me on foot, having left his mount by the road. His four friends were coming running not far behind, joyous evil in their eyes. The one standing over me had just bought down a fancily-carved-and-lacquered wooden club where I had just lain gasping. He raised it to strike again where I now lay on my back, a triumphant evil grin on his face.

The winding in my gut passed. My head cleared and time slowed. The club sent a shock-wave through my arm as it struck my staff, which I had reflexively raised to block the blow. That was half of the force of the blow. The other half spun the staff hard in my hand, so I wouldn't need leverage I didn't have to deliver a counter: I just had to to guide the turn of the staff as it spun on the force it had just absorbed. Strait into the side of my attacker's head.

It wasn't a particularly hard blow, but he wasn't expecting it. He yelped and jumped back, knocking the next-closest of his colleagues sprawling and swearing on the ground as he did so. It gave me a few extra seconds and I spun on the ground again, getting my legs bent under themselves and flipping my light body back up on its feet in one fluid motion.

The men were more wary of me now, but also enraged. My look would not help me at this stage - frightening off a nosy scavenger or someone no more than casually-hostile was easy enough, but neither an actually hungry predator or angry attacker would be put off. If anything it would increase their rage. At best it might goad them into killing me before having their intended 'fun'.

Also, over the years I had sewn extra straps into my robe explicitly to make it much less likely for my hood to accidentally slip, so it wasn't just a matter of flinging it back anyway. And my hands were too busy to fumble off my hood. One was grappling my knife out of my belt pouch while the other continued to wield the fighting-staff to keep my attackers and their clubs out of striking range of me.

Four of the men were now coming at me with their identical carved and lacquered clubs, the fifth had lost his - it was what had been thrown to knock my leg out from under me no more than a dozen seconds earlier. He had pulled a knife of his own from his belt. I steadied my stance as they approached with the menacing confidence that can be afforded by five fit young men facing off against one young woman a third the weight of any one of them.

 

Chapter 6: Thirst

Her body was broken. Too many bones fractured and muscles torn to even sit up. And too weak. And so thirsty. She didn't even have the strength to scream from the pain as she used her one working arm to drag herself across to where the young men had dropped their water bags, as they had dismounted their horses to chase her down on foot. It took her an impossible two hours to cover the forty paces to the pile as the sun rose higher and hotter.

She spat reflexively as soon as the liquid entered her mouth. Not water: wine. Fortified. Drinking that would dehydrate her even quicker.

The tiny drive emanating from somewhere in the centre of her brain, which, against a lifetime of loneliness and depression, had always somehow driven her on, was active. It was almost all that was left of her now, her higher brain functions having already surrendered gratefully to the coming peace. Even the physical pain was muted as her brain's ability to process it began to shut down too. But still that tiny pea-sized core of animal self-preservation drove on what little was left of her.

Another hour. And yet another. She had dragged herself back to what was now clearly the only source of water in reach. She still had her knife, lost of the blade snapped off, but what was left of it had a razor-sharp edge still. She assessed where to make the incision. Got it wrong, having never butchered anything larger than a malnourished bush-hog before. The second time, she got a major artery, though it only oozed, the heart having stopped hours before. She pressed her mouth to the fresh wound and managed to suck enough fluid out to re-wet her painfully dry throat, then rested from the effort. Then some more.

This wouldn't sustain her for long - there wouldn't be enough accessible water in all five of the bodies around her to keep her going for more than a few days. But she didn't have enough faculties left to really consider that. The pea-sized brain-within-her-brain was only concerned with the absolute immediate. The future was the concern of other brain systems, now abandoned to the approaching silent darkness.

For much of her life, that tiny cluster of automatic neurons had driven her on when the rest of her just wanted to lie down and die. Now it was all of her that was left. Last brain-function standing. Clinging to the last traces of life, too simple and primitive to even comprehend that defeat was an option, let-alone an inevitability.

It was cold and dark when she woke from unconsciousness. She was awake just long enough to suck some more fluid from the corpse next to her. The blood in the young man's body had begun to gravity-separate, the heavier solids sinking to the bottom of the corpse, and the blood becoming much more watery in the top half where she was drawing it from. It made it slightly easier for her to extract more, but she was weakening more quickly than it was getting easier.

She regained consciousness again two or three more times across the next day, sucking more fluid from the corpse, too far gone to be disgusted by it. Even the pain was gone and the thirst was her whole being now. Any source of water was nothing more than just a source of precious water.

The second morning she was briefly woken by something nearby to where she lay helplessly. A wasteland jackal was nosing around the corpses. She could barely move, even weaker than the previous day, but what slight motion she made caught its attention and it looked over at her. They locked eyes.

Then it was gone, barrelling off squealing as if its very soul was being ripped from its body. She didn't even see it reach the road forty paces away. She had already slipped back into blissful unaware blackness again, lips cracked, throat immobilised by dryness, too weak even to drink now.

She remained unaware as a group of young mercenaries now approached on the early morning road....

 

Chapter 7: Fireside

"So you're half-daemon!" Chip said accusingly.

"I mostly just think of myself as me." Viki told her.

"How did that even happen? It’s... ewwww."

"I believe when the deed was done my mother was magically disguised as a human."

"She'd have to be!"

"There is nothing wrong with my mother!"

"Also, I didn't think daemons could stand the sight of humans any more than we them."

"She was under orders of her god. She learned to love my father later."

"That's gross!"

"Human. Daemon. What's the difference?" Raven Mad chimed in. "Like, you can easily see the difference to an elephant, a cappy, a wolf, or even a bear, but humans and daemons look almost the same. From a distance I can't tell, even with my eyes!"

"They just look wrong." insisted Chip, adding the concession, "And us just as wrong to them, I'm sure."

"They both look fine to me," Viki growled.

"You grew up with both!"

"See? That just proves my point!" Raven Mad insisted. "It's all just learned behaviour! Heck, I know what humans think of crows, and sometimes it is even justified, but you aren't all attack-on-sight-nasty about it! Why this special hatred of daemons?"

"Maybe it is because they look too much like each other, just different enough to mess with the brain's own-kind recognition." Whiskers suggested. He was presently tending to re-binding Viki's broken leg. He was apparently, among other things, the group's healer. Viki was rather glad it was him, for he was right, humans were a bit too much like daemons for her to be comfortable with any of the humans here being this close to her own body, no matter the reason!

"Too similar? That's crazy!" Raven Mad insisted.

"They're humans." Whiskers responded.

"Fair point! But humans come in all sorts of colours and shapes. Why that colour only, and the horns? So what? Unicorns and horses get along fine!"

"A bit too fine, if you ask me!" Whiskers grumbled, as he moved his attention to Viki's fractured wrist. "That's a linguistic species that openly fornicates with non-linguistic animals. Now that's gross!"

"No speaking capy with your non-speaking cousins?"

"Definitely not! That would be like humans and, what, chimpanzees? They eat their own dung!"

"You don't?"

"Gah! We cook our food. We don't have to digest it twice! As you damned-well know."

Raven Mad cocked her head sideways, almost upside down, expressing the crow-body-language for "Yes, I'm winding you up, dummy!" It was surprising how well that particular body-expression crossed the inter-species-communication barrier.

"Enough chit-chat!" Ugly interjected from across the fire. He was facing away to keep the warmth on his back, but his eyes dark-adjusted. "Early start tomorrow, so early to bed. Especially you, Chip!"

"Does he ever sleep?" Viki whispered to Whiskers.

"Chop, then Chip will take watch later in the night and until morning," he replied as he wrapped the final salve-soaked bandage around her hand. "That's their job, amongst other things. Speaking of which..." He fumbled with one of his belt pouches and produced a small bag. "Since you are one of the group now, you get a share of anything we... obtain."

"Obtain?" Viki asked.

"The five men you... had to kill. This is one sixth of what they had on them." He looked at her, slitting his eyes a little. "While you did do all the work of killing them, we saved your life afterwards, so an even split seemed fair."

Viki didn't know what to say. She took the offered pouch, fumbled it open one-handed, and emptied it onto the lap of her robe. Six whole Coins and seven Pieces! She reached into one of her own belt pouches and felt about for the triangular edges of her own two Pieces. She found one, after pricking a finger on one of her needles in her haste.

"Ow! Sorry, I've never had an entire eight Pieces before!" She carefully lined up the seven pieces she had been given on her knee, keeping them as flat as possible, curved edge out and two strait edges touching neighbours. Her own final triangular wedge was carefully pushed into the remaining one-eighth gap. As it came into contact with the other edges, the eight pieces warped slightly and then, like blobs of quicksilver joining into one, she had a whole circular Coin on her knee.

"Wow!" she said.

"Really?"

"My father described it to me, but we never had eight Pieces to try it with!" She picked up the Coin. It was a contiguous disk of iridescent material, the size of the hole if she touched her index finger to her thumb. Surprisingly light for metal. She could only tell where her original Piece was part of it by the extra grime on that part of the disk, for there were no seams to be either seen or felt.

"Magic!" she gasped.

"Pretty mundane stuff, as magic goes," Whiskers commented. "Even places that outright ban the use of magic, on pain of death, make up some excuse to exempt Coins. They are just so damned convenient as currency!"

Viki flexed the Coin in her fingers, wincing as the action stressed her broken wrist. The Coin held rigid. Until it suddenly didn't, and it shattered cleanly back into eight smooth-edged triangular Pieces. She giggled like a small child.

"I've seen that reaction from four-year-olds often enough," Whiskers chided. "Never a near-grown human!"

"Sorry. It's just I've never..."

"Seen it before. You said. But Ugly is right, we should get to sleep. You especially, if you want those bones and bruises to heal - I can't do anything for your cracked ribs that rest won't do better."

Viki re-assembled the Coin again, and reluctantly put it in her belt pouch with the others.

"Oh. And this, since you seem to have broken your own in someone's eye-socket!" Whiskers placed a knife with a seashell-in-lacquer handle gently on her lap. She unfolded the blade from the handle, recognising it. Last time she had seen it, it had been in the hand of someone attempting to kill her. Or worse! Away from that context, it was very pretty. Well the handle was. The blade was plain, but of good metal. She re-folded it and put it in her belt-pouch too.

 

Part 2: Great-wizard of the Wastes (self titled)

Chapter 1: Concerning the Wasteland Child

I first encountered the Wasteland child shortly after my disillusionment, when I had vowed myself to a life of simple poverty away from the humanity I had grown to despise, in the relative purity of the Vast Wastelands.

I met her as a child of about seven years, factoring for the malnutrition she clearly suffered, wandering alone in the Eastern Edgelands. Of course that on its own should have tipped me off that she was no ordinary child. I put my lapse down to the initial hardship of adjusting myself from the decadence of court life to a new, better, life of harsh subsistence. And then, after a number of years of periodically encountering the shy, but friendly, child, I was so used to her just being around I was not thinking further than that at all, I am shamed to admit. Great-wizard of the Wastes indeed!

It was in the second year of knowing the child, I think, that I had my comfort-zone entirely ripped out from under me in the most savage way possible.

I was setting snares not far from my hermit-hovel - an abandoned building on the edge of the Wastes that I had chosen to live in without making any improvements to - beyond those needed for basic structural safety - as befit my personal vow of poverty, when I came across the child unexpectedly. Unexpectedly for us both, for the raggedy cloak she habitually kept wrapped tightly around herself was open, the hood pulled partially back so she could enjoy the warm morning sun on her face. She looked up at me in surprise.

I looked back in terror!

Those eyes! Black as black, no whites at all. But beyond the purely disturbing-aesthetic, even with no obvious pupil to indicate direction of gaze, they looked into me. Deep into me. I felt like my very earliest childhood was about to be ripped from my soul and desecrated in the most vile and savage of ways!

I can't honestly feel any shame for what I did next, as I am certain even the most hardened veteran of Hell itself would have done exactly the same! I shrieked, and bolted. I ran until my legs gave out - not actually very far, I must admit. Then I collapsed in a heap and awaited my imminent doom.

It didn't come.

I calmed down a bit, wondering what had come over me? Yes, the child's eyes were unnatural. But why had I been so terrified? What had I felt? Most importantly, why would the child, with whom I had been on casually-friendly terms with for the better part of two years, now want to rend my very soul from my body and gleefully devour it?

Assuming it was the child! A simulacrum? Doppelganger? Plain old possession? None of them fit. Racking my terror-fuzzed recent memories, the child hadn't been coming for me when I encountered her. In fact she was carrying a small scrub-hog, snare still on its trotter, in the direction I had observationally pegged as where her home or camp was.

I had never followed her to find out exactly where she went - the idea of sneakily following a little girl to find out were she lived triggered me rather hard on the whole reason I had eschewed humanity in general and the Duke's Court in particular. Nastiness of an entirely different sort than what I had just experienced, but equally disturbing!

So the girl, whatever she really was, hadn't been 'coming to get me'. She had in fact been heading away from me, and well off to the side of where she would normally expect to find me if I hadn't been out there setting snares myself.

I admonished myself for my rash behaviour. But the fear had been real. Involuntary. The actual-Wizard in me asserted himself. I had to go back. Discover the truth. It was what real Wizards did! Not cheap conjuring tricks for the amusement of the decadent nobility!

Even then, it wasn't easy. I had to force every footstep back the way I had fled from. One by one.

I heard her before I saw her. A child sobbing. If it was a lure, I was already caught. I prepared what defensive spells I could muster at such short notice, and stepped into the opening.

She was there, hood back in place, no visible face, now looking just as I was used to seeing her (I now knew why!). Merely standing there, arms hanging loosely at her sides, quietly sobbing.

If the look of those eyes was the most terrifying experience of my life, and it was, by a great margin!, that child's sobbing was the most heartbreaking by a greater margin still. An ancient lifetime of sorrow was contained in that young cry. I doubted any 'monster' could fake that.

I held to the edge of the clearing, as if that would have helped me if things went bad!, and coughed lightly, embarrassed by the cliche of my response, but having nothing more on hand to offer. Her head cocked slightly: she had heard me. She sniffled inelegantly as only a child can.

"Um..." I continued uncertainly, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean...." I trailed off.

She sniffed and snorted. Took a small breath. "Not you.... It's... me."

Gods! I was about to break into tears myself now.

"I shouldn't have run like that," I told her, as if I'd had a choice!

"You couldn't not have." Another sniff. But the talking to her had stopped the sobbing, at least. "No-one can."

The words hit me like a fist-blow from a giant. There was something very monstrous here indeed. But it wasn't the child. It was the universe itself!

I didn't approach. Not out of fear, but out of a complex mix of emotions I still fail to explain to my own satisfaction. Instead, I slumped to the ground to sit, legs crossed, where I had been standing.

"All I can ask is your forgiveness." I told her.

Even without looking, she must have know, just from the sounds I had made doing so, that I had sat on the ground. I was in an extremely un-defensible position. Intentionally so. Hoping that so obviously putting myself there would help. She slumped to sit on the ground likewise, her back still to me.

"Nothing..." She started, sniffling a little again. "Nothing to forgive. I don't even know why I am crying." I was about to interject, but she continued, "It isn't like I haven't been this way all my life. Even my parents can't look me in the eyes."

Gods again! A genuine curse against all gods everywhere! - what sort of gods would allow this? To a child! Unfortunately I knew exactly the sort of gods. I knew some of them personally, though not through any desire to do so on my part.

"Are your parents here?" I asked gently. "In the Wastes?"

She hesitated. "No.... Not any more."

She was lying. Badly. Even for an eleven-year-old child that was badly! I didn't push it. "I'm sorry," I consoled, self-consciously wondering if I was doing an equally bad job of pretending to believe her.

"It's... okay..." She burst into tears again. I was left second-guessing myself as to whether she had been lying after all! She had always been quite well spoken, polite even, though obviously not formally educated at all. Had I just misinterpreted inarticulation as clumsy deceit? Did it matter? I had already decided to act as if she was telling the truth, despite not believing her, so did it really matter either way?

As she gathered her emotions back in again, I ran through a thought exercise - novice-wizard stuff!: lay out the facts. Layer in the suppositions. Trim any that won't fit.

Proposition. She was telling the truth. Therefore. Her parents were dead, or at least gone. She was alone in the wastes. Advertising that to strangers (even ones she somewhat knew) was not beneficial to her survival, and (fact) she was, if nothing else, an instinctive survivor.

Proposition. She was lying. Therefore her parents were alive. Letting her run around in the Wastes! What kind of parents would let a defenceless eleven-year-old child - seven-year-old when I first met her! - run around the Wastes? Faulty supposition! Defenceless? No, this child was possibly the least defenceless thing on this side of the Wasteland! So lying against her own interests because....

"I have to go." she suddenly said, standing. "I need to get home... with my food. To cook it. Myself."

Lying. Her parents were out there. Wherever 'home' was. And... she was lying about their presence in the wastes in order to protect them, of course!

Eleven years old! I was overwhelmed with a mixture of wonder and respect. She started to move off, still never looking back to where I sat. I called after her "Please don't feel you have to avoid me. You are still as welcome as you ever were. Come by any time."

"I promise to keep my hood on." she called back, somewhat bitterly, but the bitterness wasn't directed at me.

"Yes, please do." I tried to force some jocularity into my tone. Possibly even succeeded to an extent. I was emotionally drained, feeling like the entire day had rushed by, but the sun had barely moved in the sky!

She was gone, and I stumbled back to my hermit-hovel, where I crawled under a worn blanked and didn't come back out until the following morning.

 

Chapter 2: Delusion

The child did return. Eventually. I wasn't really worried about that and had expected it to be a while before I saw her again. She was back to her usual self. Well, not quite. There was a slight nervous tension between us that hadn't been there before, and I'm more than sure it was mostly on my part. Sadly, our interactions would never be quite the same again. I had already known that would be the case. But after a few fresh encounters on the trails we became 'normal' enough towards each other again.

What gnawed at me was the question of her parents. And I was well aware it was the complete opposite of my business! They were clearly out here in the Wastes for her. I could well understand why! To have her anywhere near where a regular mob of humans might encounter her would be... what would happen the first time one of them caught accidental eye contact with her was as clear as the sun in the sky, and just as painful to look at!

So, her parents had left everything behind to live out here. Probably in some tumbledown shack like mine. So their child, whom they couldn't even bare to look at themselves without feeling the horror that still woke me gasping deep in the night... so their child could have... well... not a normal life, but at least some sort of life at all! What sort of life had they left behind for their child? The luxury of nobility? Even a simple dirt-farmer's life was a lot to give up compared to what they undoubtedly had now!

What sort of parents? I had asked myself that question numerous times in the past weeks. Saints, was the only answer I came up with that even half satisfied me. And not those god-licking long-dead ones depicted on the walls of the temples either, actual walking-alive-on-the-corrupted-world genuine saints!

And flawed-human that I am myself, I had to see these saints. Maybe even meet them! Just to thank them for restoring even one shred of my long-destroyed faith in humanity! Stupid stupid seriously flawed human that I am!

So there I was, creeping after a young girl. Trying to follow her home. Every vile thing that was against my entire self-image. Though at least not for the most vile of intentions. Just bad ones. Bad enough, still. It was a violation of trust, if nothing else. She didn't want her home, with her justly-loved parents, found. And for obvious good reason. But I wasn't going to harm them. I was going to congratulate them. Even help them if there was any way at all that I could. Oh, the justifications I made to myself.

But she was good. She never knew I was there, for I technically wasn't, but she was near un-trackable, even through magic. It took me six attempts and more short-distance-scrying spells than I sensibly had resources to construct. But I was senseless. And I found her home.

It was beautiful! Not a hovel, though showing signs that it had been one until somewhat recently: one side was still under reconstruction. Good work, too. Simple, but solid. A proper home for the grossly unfortunate child. My heart lifted even higher! Her mother was there. Hands sunk into the soil of a small raised garden bed. Planting some small green leafy thing. Cabbage, possibly. The child called out and her mother looked up smiling. My heart was beyond the stars.

And it crashed and burned from that height.

Daemon! Her mother was a daemon! Deep red skin, curly horns, tail peeking out the back of her farm-wife skirt. Of course her mother was a daemon. The child was a daemon. I felt utterly betrayed. Deceived in the worst possible way. Daemons... of course.

I was still in shock. Watching the flickering image in the scrying stone fatalistically. A man came from the part of the house still being rebuilt, brushing his hands on his overalls. He smiled across at the other two daemons. He was in human form for some reason. I wasn't having it! I wasn't having the lies! Without taking my eyes off the scrying stone, I reached across to my apothecary and gathered the needed ingredients by feel. I assembled them in a daze and layered a true-sight over the stone. No more lies! Reveal the truth.

Nothing changed. I re-checked the spell. I had done it perfectly, it wasn't particularly hard! I queried the scrying stone with an ad-hoc magic-identifier, it responded. It was working. I was seeing truly, I was seeing real things. The man, the human man, was reaching down and offering his hand to the daemon woman. She took it and was helped to her feet. With the young girl between them, they headed into the house together.

I don't know how long I stared at the empty yard. My work candle burned right down and sputtered out. I stared at that raised garden with its little row of green leafy vegetables. At the half-finished stone-masonry near the not-yet-rebuilt part of the house. The warm firelight that became visible in the windows of the house as the sky darkened. Even at the desolate wastes around this house.

This house.... This home!

I screamed. At myself. Fool! Horrid small human-minded fool! You can't flee humanity because it is what you are! I cancelled the scrying spell, though it was already largely spent. I punched the face of the scrying stone I had spent long months crafting. It shattered into a hundred pieces, and left my knuckles dripping blood. I was glad in both cases!

I was looking for saints. I had found them. And I was too... too... human! to even know when I was seeing them. The girl's parents. Human father, daemon mother. It didn't matter!

Fact! They were out in the wastes, having given up whatever lives they had before for their child.

Fact! They had build a nice home from rubble to give that child as close as they could to a normal childhood.

Fact! Daemons didn't do gardening. Particularly not cabbages!

I laughed derisively at my own stupidity. Fact! This daemon did. And she undoubtedly did it for the child. Maybe for the man too.

Fact! Daemon. Human. Wasteland bloody cannibal, for all I knew. Who had the monopoly on goodness? No. Bloody. One! I half-fell half-tossed-myself from my chair and on to my sleeping pad, laughing manically as I pulled the blanket over myself to try and hide from my own shame. Great Wizard of the Wastes! Self-bloody-titled! I laughed and cried myself to sleep. It took a long while.

 


 

I felt much better in the morning. Even a bit self-reflective. What a shock to my own prejudices! Good! Shock the bastards to death, I say! Then shock them some more just to be sure. And once more for the unadulterated joy of making sure they are truly dead!

But... what else lurks in there? Deeper still? What other horrid little human flaws, so habituated I don't even recognise them?

I wouldn't stop digging at it now. If I had to excavate my entire vile humanity to rid myself of the last trace of that filth within me, I determined I would!

But not today. I had an awful mess to clean up! And that was good thinking-time.

As, one by one, I picked up the shards of scrying-stone from about the place, I thought about the child and her parents. Really about them - not my self-indulgent fantasy about them. Were they saints? Saints? In the temple sense, purity of every-bloody-thing, undoubtedly not. They were people. Good people. Possibly some of the best people it would ever be my privilege to know existed in the world. But still undoubtedly-flawed-in-their-own-ways people.

I wondered idly how a human man and a daemon woman ever came together to have a child. It was a silly train of thought, there were as many possibilities as there were humans and daemons and places and circumstances in which they could meet. I eventually convinced my brain to discard the thought-train. Circle the wagons and water the oxen, so to speak!

The child was a hybrid, obviously. Looked human enough, but under those robes who knew! I slapped myself. I wasn't thinking sexually at all, but it was still just as inappropriate as if I had been!

That didn't explain the eyes though! I had never heard of that being a daemon trait - not that soul-devouring gaze! And I am pretty sure everyone down to the pauper begging on the city corner would have heard of it, had it been even slightly common!

Thinking with a clearer head, I recalled that when the child greeted her parents, the hood had stayed firmly over her head, keeping her eyes in shadow. Both her parents had looked towards her lovingly. But not actually at her. Instinctively not at her, from eleven years of not looking directly at her. Harsh. And yet touching too. She had been truthful that even her parents couldn't bare her gaze, yet they still showed her love every other way they could.

I set it aside with the broken scrying-stone shards, the physical metaphor of it helping me focus myself appropriately. It was time to work on becoming a better self. Even if the smallest improvement took me the rest of my natural life!

 

Chapter 3: Missed and Missing

Years passed. The child grew. I didn't see her that often, never had done, but she was sporadically around. Even intentionally visited me occasionally. I never told her what I knew about her family. I was not merely embarrassed by what I had done, but horrified with myself. A different kind of horror to that day I had seen the child's eyes. Less intense. More gnawing. Far worse! But at least it motivated my self-improvement.

It was what must have been her seventeenth year, assuming I had guessed her age correctly all those years ago, and now she was a young woman. Highly competent. Apparently had a bit of a reputation around the Wastes for showing up and helping people in their times of greatest need. No idea how much was story and how much was the actual fragments of truth the story was based on, but I wasn't particularly surprised.

She had spent time down at the Southern Wastes with the village down there.... She had been a little disappointed the day she casually slipped their existence into the conversation only to find I had known they were there before she had.

I sort of had to have known about them, since it was they who had helped me get away from the soul-destroying debauchery of the Duke's Court, suggesting the Wastes as a suitably isolated place in which I could try to forget my time there. Again, I didn't mention I even knew how she had got on such good terms with them, but scrying stones are not just for being stupid with - I use them to communicate intermittently with the few other people in the world I hadn't chosen to completely cut myself off from.

But then she was gone.

At first I didn't even notice. It is easy to let the days and weeks blur together in the Wastes, and not even uncommon for the child.... I have to stop calling her that, but somehow we never exchanged names - when there are only ever two of you present, it just doesn't come up, then by the time you think of it, it has been so long that asking is just too awkward.... I wonder what she calls me in her head? Crazy old hermit, probably! ...so, it wasn't that uncommon for many weeks to pass without crossing each other's paths. But a few months.... I was starting to worry.

I scried the southern village, and they had last seen her heading for the Southern Desolation not long after I had last seen her. Dangerous place if you didn't know what you were doing. But she did know, and that actually made it a relatively safe place for her, simply by virtue that anything that was both dangerous and with even a spot of intelligence stayed well away from the area.

Another month passed. It was ridiculous! I was going to have to break one of my more minor, yet very serious, vows to myself.

I folded my blanket and stuffed it in my pack, along with some food and a water flask, and set out. Direct line for where I knew the child's home was. A place I had studiously avoided even walking slightly towards for the better part of an octade.

The home was surrounded by quite a large clearing, no cover to sneak up on, which was good in general, and perfect for my own intentions: my sneaking days were long over!

I stood at the edge of the clearing, hoping I was close enough to even be seen, and whistled loudly through my fingers several times. Across at the house, the front door opened and a man, the girl's father as I remembered him, came out.

He had a hay-fork with him. Not holding it quite casually enough to get away with making it look like he just happened to have it on him at the time. The child's mother would be around somewhere too, and I had no idea what a daemon could do to me if feeling threatened, even at this distance! I wasn't going to risk that natural magic-detection was amongst the un-documented talents of daemons, so had come completely without any magical protection. No magic prepared, not so much as a bogus good-luck charm prize from a carnival game.

I walked slowly towards the house, my arms out, palms facing forward. I slowed and stopped at what I hoped was a reasonable shouting distance. I had been trying to think of the best way to introduce myself and failed to come up with anything not stupid. So I just went with stupid!

"Hellooooo Neighbour!" I shouted.

The man cocked his head sideways.

"Helloooo. I'm your neighbour. A few dozen miles south."

He responded this time. "You're coming from the west."

"I circled around. I didn't want to come on you unexpected from the side. I know you value your privacy."

"I didn't know we had a neighbour."

"I value my privacy too."

"Fair enough. What brings you here."

"Your daughter."

The man tensed. Not necessarily aggressively, but it was hard to tell at that distance. Before either of us could say anything more, the front door to the house burst open and the mother came out at a full run towards me. She was fast! Not supernaturally fast, but she was still going to cover the considerable distance between the house and where I stood in no more then thirty seconds! I swallowed deeply.

"What do you know about Viki?" The woman shouted at me as she ran. "Please!"

That final word from her mouth at least let me start breathing again. She was desperate for information, not desperate to kill me for something she was imagining I may have done to her daughter. Viki. I had a name for the girl, after all these years!

The father was chasing after, clutching the fork. Very defensively this time, without any doubt. He shouted something. I couldn’t make-out the words, just the urgency in them. Viki's mother suddenly slowed and stopped, now looking very self-conscious.

I held my arms out, as non-aggressively as I possibly could, and shouted back, not as loudly now as she was half way to me, and Viki's father was running up to where she was, hay-fork still in hand ready to fight for the mother of his child. Likely fight for the woman he loved, too. Even if it was presumptuous of me to assume without evidence, I felt it likely.

"Please, slow down. I don't threaten you or your wife." My referring to her as his wife as if it was perfectly normal was obviously the right approach as I saw him shift gears from openly aggressive to just highly defensive. I decided to press on at that tack. "I'm afraid, ma'am, I probably don't know anything you don't. I haven't seen her for months, and frankly I was getting worried. I was actually hoping you could put my mind at ease. Tell me she has just gone off travelling or something."

The woman's shoulders visibly slumped in despair. Her husband, now caught up with where she had stopped, put one arm around her, still keeping a firm grip on the fork with the other. He glance back at me and then back at her, then back at me again.

"Yes. I know. It's irrelevant. She could be the run-away princess of the Canabal Nomads for all I care!" The woman looked up at me sharply, though not aggressively. "The two of you are out here all these years for the sake of your child. That's tells me the only thing that's important to know about either of you!" This sentence I had been working on most of the way here. It was the best situation-diffuser I could come up with, short and unambiguous yet packed with all the right information and emotional tone. And it was apparently enough. Both of them relaxed. "Can I approach? To talk. Without shouting!"

The man nodded, not hostile, but still cautious.

"Just tell me if you want me to stop. I fully understand the need for you to be wary of me."

As it was, Viki's father let me approach to within a several paces of them, were I stopped without instruction to do so, feeling it a politely non-confrontational distance for the moment.

"So you know Viki?" her father started. Slowly, cautiously. It was an parental interrogation, but he was trying to make it polite.

"Yes," I answered frankly. "For about twelve years now."

His eyes widened at that.

"I'm guessing she never mentioned me? Well to be honest she never mentioned you to me either. I worked it out on my own - she did her best to not give away either your existence or where you all lived, but she is an atrociously bad liar!"

"So," Still slowly, chewing over the information, "You have known we were here for...?"

"Ten years, give or take. It was pretty clear she didn't want you being harassed, so I respected that. But now...."

"Four months!" Viki's mother exclaimed. "She has never been gone four months! Even if she is expecting to be out for a week she tells us before she goes!" Her husband tightened his arm around her shoulder.

"That conforms with the last sighting of her I have been able to confirm."

"Sighting?" asked the father.

"Where?" demanded the mother at the same time.

"17 weeks ago, she passed the Southern Monastery heading for the Blasted Wastes."

"Southern... Monastery..." the father rolled.

"Ah." I realised Viki had been keeping her parents rather in the dark about the rest of the Vast Wasteland and its inhabitants. Presumably for their peace of mind. I wasn't sure I agreed with her approach to that! "Human village at the south end of the Wastes. Quite small. She is on good terms with them after she rescued one of their members who she found dying out in the wastes."

The mother's mouth dropped. The father blinked. "What... has she been doing out there."

"She said she was hunting," her mother added. "She came home with meat!"

"Oh, she was hunting. And trapping. And foraging. And helping out random people in trouble. Saved a few tribal kids from hungry wolves one time, helped one of their elders who had broken his leg another, if some of the stories I hear are true. I can't be sure, but I suspect that may be related to why their circular annual migration path started taking a bit of a detour to stay out of this part of the wastes several years back. She has been looking out for you."

"Gods and Devils!" Viki's mother gasped.

"I honestly doubt there would be a language-capable being in the entire Vast Wasteland that doesn't know your daughter as someone who will help anyone as best she can in a time of need and by the same stroke is not ever to be trifled with!"

The father was shaking his head slowly. His mouth was having trouble deciding whether to smile or frown. It settled on frown. "But these past four months. Nothing?"

"No. I didn't take much notice at first - we don't exactly have regular appointments: just brief conversations if we happen to pass on the same trail out in the Wastes. But after a while I noticed I hadn't seen her around. I checked with the monastery, and two other Wasteland-dwellers around that I am on speaking terms with. Not that it’s an extensive survey: I have no way of talking with the Tribal Nomads other than walking half way across the Wastes to wherever they are on their migration circuit and hoping they feel more like talking than eating me for my trouble! And there are huge swathes of the Wastes that are as much a mystery to me as I assume they are to you - I really only know my way around the South-east Edgelands here."

Viki's mother was looking increasingly fraught again, I spoke to her sympathetically, "I can only imagine what you are both going through right now, and I am very sorry I cannot bring you any news. I'm just worried about her, but you both have to be at your wits' end! I sincerely wish I could have been bringing you real news to set you at ease, but I honestly came here hoping you could give exactly that to me!"

There was a silent pause. Long. Then Viki's father spoke. "Please, come to the house." He gestured back behind.

"I would be honoured, but only if I am truly not intruding."

"Please. We are neighbours, we should be neighbourly."

"Yes," his wife added. "This seems like a time when having good neighbours would be a help." She smiled, slightly and briefly, but the weight of her daughter's disappearance was heavy on her.

They started to move towards the house. I joined them, walking sociably close to them. I placed myself on the opposite side of Viki's father to her mother, just to make sure I wasn't behaving in any way threatening towards her, even inadvertently.

"Oh, Dang!" I realised. "My name is Afred, by the way. Always forget the names - you just don't have much need for them out here!"

"Glyn" said Viki's father.

"Vaunebhchau," Viki's mother advised, "Just call me Vaun"

 

Chapter 4: Scried

Afred ran. As fast as he could without risking falling in the semi-dark and breaking his neck. He was almost at the house and he stopped and whistled loudly through his fingers to let Viki's parents know it was him that was coming running across the clearing at their home. He was half way to the house when the front door opened, spilling light into the evening. Viki's father was at the door. Three of Afred's strides later and her mother was beside him peering out the doorway at his approach.

"She's alive!" Afred managed to shout between gasps of breath. He slowed as he neared the front porch, gasped in more breath and repeated. "She's alive. Safe."

Viki's mother let out a short shrill squeal.

"Where? How?" her father asked hurriedly.

Afred was gasping as he reached the door. Viki's parents literally caught him mid stride and carried him by the arms on into the house to deposit him in an old but comfortable chair near the fire.

"Please," Vaun begged. "Tell us!"

"She is good." Afred gasped. "I tracked her. Scried her."

Vaun did a visible double take.

"Yes. I'm a wizard." Gasp. "A quite good one, once." Gasp. "Never came up in conversation, I know. It's often something I prefer to forget myself."

"But you, um, scried her?" Glyn asked firmly. "Where is she?"

"I don't know, sorry." Pant "But I did make contact." Pant "She said she is safe. Enough. She said 'Tell mum and dad I'm safe. Enough.'"

"How safe?" Vaun demanded.

"She was somewhere with other people. I only got through to her for a few seconds, but she said she is safe... enough... And she is trying to get back. I don't know where from. I couldn't triangulate it in the time I had, but it is beyond the Wastes, far beyond."

"Gods and Daemons," Vaun cried. "She's out there somewhere. With people!"

"But safe." Glyn assured her.

"Safe enough." She protested. "What did she mean by that?"

"I think," Afred said, "She means she is in no immediate danger, but is not completely safe."

"Godspawn," Vaun cursed. "How much not completely safe?"

"Viki isn't one for tact - she hasn't got a dishonest bone in her body, and I have always noted her tendency to over-share, especially when rushed, as our brief conversation definitely was." Afred grimaced. "I think she means exactly what she is saying: she is currently safe, but can't be sure that won't change in the future. Which you could really say about any of us, most of the time."

"And that is all you got?" Glyn asked, adding quickly, "And we thank you with all our beings for even that."

"That was all she was able to say before the link broke. I did get a visual impression too. A camp fire. A number of people around it, including Viki. It looked like they had just finished eating together."

"People? Who?"

"No details. Nothing distinguishing. Mostly big people. Intimidatingly big, two of them. The sort of people ordinary people don't mess around with. Lots of weapons, a small-army's arsenal of them, to be honest!"

"Bandits?" Vaun queried, shaking her head.

"Not necessarily," Afred disagreed. "I can't see Viki falling in with bandits willingly, and I saw no sign she was with them under any sort of duress. Mercenaries would be my guess, or freelance treasure hunters."

"Tomb robbers," Glyn snarled. "Not much better than bandits!"

"I've met some bad ones and some good ones in my time. Far more bad ones, if I'm being completely honest. But that may well have been the company I was keeping at the time."

Glyn raised his eyebrow at that.

"But the thing is, if she is in danger, a group like this won't be a bad lot to have guarding her back."

"Except a group like this, as you say, will be wilfully walking into danger at every opportunity!" Afred had been hoping Vaun wouldn't think it through that far. A useless hope, he had known even when he had it, Vaun was a naturally sharp thinker.

"Yes. There is that. We can hope they are on their way back from whatever they are doing and not on their way into it."

"Does Viki have to go with them if they are going somewhere dangerous?"

"It might be a case of stay with the group or try to make her way back alone."

"Godspawn! Why would anyone even think to take a little girl into that!"

"Well, I'm afraid Viki is not a little girl at this stage." Afred reminded her. "She is a young woman, and has been for longer than her chronological age would suggest."

Vaun bristled slightly.

"A highly competent young woman, with a lifetime experience surviving in the Vast Wastes. To be quite frank, she may have negotiated these adventurers getting her safely back home after completing whatever task or mission they are on against her assisting them!"

"Oh, Gods and Daemons!"


Afred stayed for dinner with Viki's parents. Her mother eventually asked, "Can you try to, ah, Scry her again?"

"Not with any real hope of success, no," Afred explained. "That kind of unfocused search-and-scry, especially at the range it turned out to need, requires materials and paraphernalia that is very hard to get even in the outside world. I was honestly shocked when a bunch from the southern village rolled a wagon up to my hovel with the lot of it loaded in! They had scrounged hard and deep both inside the Wastes and out. I don't know how many owed favours they burned through for it!

"And not just them. Somehow the Tribal Nomads got wind of what was going on, even half way across the Wastes as they are at this time of year! They sent runners, from both tribes, clean across the centre of the Wastes with one of the two things the Monks couldn't lay hands on for love nor gold!"

"Cannibals!" Vaun was shocked.

"Your daughter is apparently quite respected - warily, but nonetheless! - by them. Saved a few of their lives. Some kids too, from what I have heard - I asked her directly about that once but she just dissembled clumsily and changed the subject."

"Cannibals!" Vaun said again, shaking her head.

"It looks like all these little good deeds Viki has spent the last octade-or-so doing around the Wastes have started to come back home." He smiled at the thought. Selfless-good being actually rewarded! He loved it! "As for the dragon! That has me completely flummoxed!"

"Dragon?!"

"There is this dragon supposedly living in the mountains off the west side of the Wastes. I only knew about it by rumour - not a particularly nasty one, so it's told, but still not something you want to cross paths with.

"So this dragon, without warning, comes screaming out of the sky on what to all observing looks like some sort of death-dive, strait at the monastery. What walls they have are good to keep out jackals and wolves at best! So, they are running for cover, expecting nothing but fire and death. But the only thing that comes down on them is this single dragon's scale, shiny and black as if freshly plucked!

"Which happens to be the final critical ingredient for the seek part of the spell - at least most effective version of the spell. A single dragon scale. Has to be fresh. Dragon it came from has to be damned-well still alive during the casting of the spell for it to work at all. As you can imagine, that is the sort of thing kings get told a big fat 'nope' on.

"And now I think I want Viki back more than you two, her own parents, do. Just so I can ask her what in all the heavens and hells and across the mortal plane between, did she do that a full-grown damned dragon is plucking its own scales out for her!"

 

Chapter 5: Ruler of The Vast Wasteland

Leaving my cavern west of the Vast Wasteland. Soaring high over the desolate plains. The place pleased me. The desolation of it. That it belonged to me. Other dragons laughed that it was mine by virtue that no sensible being, dragon or otherwise, wanted it. Skin them! I liked it.

Hungry. I didn't feel the need to eat so much anymore. Getting old. Getting soft, they would say, but I was mostly just getting bored. Terrorising villages, torturing treasure-thieves. Who really cared? In fact, if they knew how much treasure I didn't have these years, I'd probably be called a race-traitor. Baubles and shiny, why did I ever care?

Still, I was hungry. I could go attack that new human settlement that had sprung up like an under-wing fungal infection on the southern edge of the Wastes. Poorly fortified, and an easy target. Not so easy to pick enough meat out of the wreckage to make it worthwhile. The nomads were not too far away. Always a few stragglers to pick off that lot. I tilted my wing and headed in that direction.

Some stragglers were closer than expected, three of them. Children, not young ones, but still not so much meat. But as mentioned, I didn't eat so much these days. I swooped in.

The older child - or at least the slightly larger one - put itself between me and the other two as I approached. Brave. But tribals were braver than most gave them credit for. Just not stupid - they would run rather than stand and fight, but if running wasn't an option, they didn't cower. Not the ones in my Wasteland, anyway!

The older child was swinging a big solid-looking stick. A very unusual weapon for a tribal. Not that it mattered, a stick wasn't going to do much against me. Well, not entirely true.... Wondering at it had distracted me while the two younger ones disappeared down some bolt-hole I couldn't see. Still, one large-ish tribal-child was more than just a snack. It would satiate. I leaned into the dive at this unusually dressed and weaponed human. I could snatch it up without landing. Just watch that stick - no need to get a bruised eye with my meal!

The prospective dinner was tightly wrapped in a dark robe and hood. Not the tastiest thing to consume, but the meat inside would be juicy enough. I projected fear on it, just to be sure it wouldn't get any ideas. It actually stood taller, facing me! I second-guessed myself: Wrong clothing, wrong weapon. It wasn't a tribal child. But it wasn't big, and I could sense no magic in it. It was still dinner!

Then it lifted the hood of its robe. I was close by then and saw its eyes. Drathnor-great-father! It's eyes! It was trying to rip my very soul out of me! Non-magical? I was a fool! I lost flight and hit the ground with self-winding force, just twenty paces before it. The underside of my jaw slammed against the uneven hard earth in a particularly painful way. I actually saw lights dancing in my vision!

The creature had returned the hood over its face and the dark opening of that hood faced me. I drove fear at it again. It visibly cowered for a moment, then stood resolute once more. It reached up and revealed its eyes again. I wanted to die right there and then! I should have blasted fire at it, but had lost the will to even defend myself. It just stood there, hood back in place, dark not-face glaring at me.

"What," I growled, "are you?"

It thought for a moment. I wasn't even sure it had understood me, though I had spoken the tongue of the local tribes. "I'm... Viki," it said slowly and with a very non-tribal accent on the words, "And you?"

This surprised me nearly as much as the creature's eyes had. I had to think for far more than a moment. The creature stayed where it was. Staring at me, presumably, from behind that hooded shadow that seemed to be the only thing between myself and my inevitable doom.

It waited quite patiently. Even politely, I somehow got the impression. I eventually got some small part of my wits back and was able to reply. "I am Dengath, ruler of these Vast Wastes." I didn't feel it right then, though, despite the weak attempt at bluster. I knew already that my ruler-ship was at an end.

"You should take better care of your subjects," the Viki creature told me glibly. "Maybe don't eat them."

"I eat what I like," I growled. The thing's tone was insulting. I started to raise my head up from the ground, my initial winding from the fall having passed. The creature's hand moved towards its hood again. I rested my head back down, gently this time. I couldn't believe myself, I was truly cowed by this thing no bigger than a human child.

"I eat what I like too. I just don't like eating people."

"I'm a dragon. I don't have to care about people."

"You are people to."

"What?"

"We are having a conversation. Only people do that. We are people."

The logic was... not stupid. It was just odd. Dragons weren't people - we prided ourselves on the fact. But this Viki creature seemed to have a broader definition of 'people'. It made me think. Something I hadn't really done in octades!

"So... If I'm people, according to you, why do you wish to harm me?" I thought I was being clever - dragon-clever: that particularly special kind of clever!

"I don't want to," the Viki replied. "But I will. If I have to."

"So not a do-good," I surmised, chewing on the information to see if I could gain any advantage of it. If anything it was worse: do-goods tended to be easy to trick into things. All that self-indulgent moralism twisted them up such that ending them always seemed a mercy. Soured the fun of it, ultimately!

"I do good, I guess. When I can. If I feel it is warranted."

"Ah, conditional good. And what if bad is done back in return for your good-doing."

"I don't accept bad," the Viki stated mater-of-factly. The dark front of the hood tilted up slightly towards me, leaving me in no doubt what particular 'bad' was presently being unacceptable! I still couldn't see a way out for myself. But what most dismayed me was that I couldn't even find it in me to care that much. The Viki continued, "Out here in the Wastes, if you get a reputation for doing bad, you don't last long. People don't even have to do bad back, just ignoring you will let the Wastes take care of the rest."

"Pragmatic," I growled dryly. But I couldn't fault what this Viki said, it was entirely true. At least for these smaller creatures, survival without the support of a larger group was just not going to happen in an environment like the Wastes. Dragons were a little above all that, though.

"So, you protect some tribals and hope they protect you in turn." I swivelled my eyes in their sockets, making a show of looking around for the non-existent army coming to defend this very small creature. I was beginning to get my confidence back. I was wondering if this fear it was able to invoke was more than bluff? My own fear-projection was good for momentarily stunning prey, but it couldn't - in itself - cause harm.

I realised I really had nothing to loose, considering the situation I was in! I raised myself up aggressively. The Viki pulled its hood back and those eyes again hit me. Again I felt the terror, but I was determined to will myself through it. I pushed my head forward - and it was the most difficult thing I had ever done! - until my nostrils were mere paces away from those horrid black-on-black eyes that were piercing the depths of my very soul with their gaze. "My ancient bones are rattling in my carcass, but I believe you are all bluff." I blasted fear back as hard as I could. I smelled urine as the thing wet itself in terror. Yet it still stood there looking defiantly up at me.

"Pretty much," it said, "but running wasn't going to get me anywhere, so trying to talk it out was all I had."

I laughed inside myself, thinking about all the talking-myself-out brain-wracking I had just been doing all the while this Viki creature had been doing exactly the same to me!

And now, one quick snap of my jaw and it would be gone.... And I couldn't.

The Viki reached up and pulled its hood back over its eyes. I had found I could resist the fear quite effectively now, but it was still good not to be subject to it.

"Well, the children are long gone, so if you are going to eat me, there really is nothing I can do other than hope you choke on me on the way down," it said. "Or at least get a belly ache."

This wasn't fun at all. Food shouldn't be making sarcastic comments about its own devourement, as if it wasn't that concerned! I really wasn't hungry anymore. In fact I felt a little ill!

"No. I won't eat you," I told it, wondering if I should just swat it to death anyway.

"Because you're people."

"People, again. I'm a dragon. Not people!"

"People don't eat people," it insisted. "Once you talked to me I became people to you."

"And that was your plan? To make a dragon not eat you because you got it to talk to you?"

"That's all I had! Hoping you were people. As well as dragon. If you were just an animal-dragon, I'd already be dead."

I snorted derisively. "You really think that's how it works?"

"I only know it's how it works for me. I can kill a wild dog and eat it if I'm hungry enough. But if I knew that dog personally, was friends with it, I couldn't do that.... Not that that can happen." the Viki waved its hand around in front of its face. I realised suddenly what it meant - that terror effect was always present, just covered up in that robe most of the time! My mind ran through several quickly obvious implications of this revelation. I began to suspect why it was so casual about the prospect of its own death! Not that it had just handed itself to its fate in suicide. An interesting balance between will to live and desire to die. A balance I was not entirely unfamiliar with myself, I realised. A cold shiver ran strait through me, snout to tail.

"So, what do you suggest? Should I lay down in my lair and starve?"

"Eat what you must. It isn't my place to stop you. I can't, even if it was. Only you can choose what you eat, and how you feel about it afterwards."

Again, I considered snapping the creature's flippant neck. Yet, even through the use of a language neither of us were particularly skilled with, I sensed it wasn't being flippant at all, but just inarticulately honest. A childlike honesty - was it, after all, a child? I did not know its kind, so had no reference by which to judge its age. Or if a child-like simplicity-of-view over an adult-deep thought process was just an attribute of this one particular Viki, or of its entire kind. Either way, it had given me an awful lot to think on, and the long-calcified levers in my brain were responding positively to the prospect of thought. I actually felt, ever so slightly, properly alive again!

"I will think on this, Viki-creature," I told her, correcting myself, "...Viki-person." I began to turn away to leave.

"Thank you, Dengath, ruler of the Vast Wastes."

I turned one eye back. Was it mocking me even now? No, it was expressing my title with sincerity. Possibly even respect. More thought for my ancient brain-engine.

I took a short run-off, mainly so I was far enough away not to knock the Viki to the ground when my wings took the air under them, and I leapt into the sky.

On my way back to the Western Ranges, I was able so surprise a pack of jackals, so while the taste left something to be desired, I was not actually hungry anymore when I arrived back at my cavern.

 

Chapter 6: Double Jeopardy

“She’s gone!” Glyn cried immediately on finding me at my hovel.

Viki? No, that wasn’t a revelation. Oh Hell! “Vaun?” What had Viki’s mother done? Left the relative-safety of the Wastes to seek her daughter in the Human lands! I shuddered. I knew enough of her story to know that since her banishment from Hell, she had no access to god-magic. With no way to protect herself, the first humans she encountered would rip her apart on sight!

“When did she leave?” I asked.

“She didn’t leave! She disappeared! Right in front of my eyes – the air around her went strange – like when you fold paper into those little animals – and then she was gone!”

Hells within Hell! I knew that magic. I’d never used it myself, first out of fear, later out of concern. Vaun had been summoned!

Summoning a daemon! It was almost cliché. With the right incantations, and a god’s blessing, one could call a daemon strait from Hell, to appear before you and do your will. The daemon had no choice in the matter, they were called. They obeyed. They returned to whence they came.

More often than not, as a corpse, or at least badly injured, for one didn’t summon a daemon to perform harmless errands! You summoned a daemon to fight for you. And fight they would. Savagely and with no concern for their own well-being. They had no choice in the matter.

Thinking fast, I grabbed scrying equipment and stuffed it in my pack. “She disappeared from your home?”

“Yes. We were in the living-room, preparing to eat.”

“How long ago? Exactly.”

“Two days. It took me two days to find you!”

It might be soon enough. Or too late. A summons could last weeks, but hours was more likely. I dreaded what we might find when we got there. What might have been returned after the summons had run its course.

Four hours at a slow run. I wanted to sprint. I knew that would not work, I’m an old man. Not that old, but not young. Years in the Wasteland had done my health wonders, but not made me an athlete.

We arrived at Viki’s family home. I forbade Glyn coming in with me, saying it was too dangerous. Reality was I was expecting to find Vaun’s corpse, either dead-on-return, or dying not long after as Glyn sought my help. Oh hell, why didn’t I ever give them instructions on how to find me. It isn’t like I had any reason not to.

Inside the living room, nothing. No body. No blood. I quickly checked the rest of the house in case she had crawled off somewhere. She could even still be alive! I called her name. “Vaun. It’s Afred!” Nothing.

Glyn entered. I wasn’t ready for him to, but it didn’t matter after all. I unpacked my bag. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“She is still out there. That’s a long summoning, but also good, as it probably means she is still alive. The portal that took her will still have a thread back here, to return her by when the summons is complete. I should be able to drive a scying down the same channel.”

He shook his head at me in bewilderment.

“I may be able to follow where she went. At least check up on her.”

“Do it.”

I was doing it.

I fumbled the spell. Or thought I had. When I tried again, I realised I hadn’t. Something was wrong. The summoning thread was gone. No, the thread was broken! I had never heard of such a thing! I found the thread’s near end in the nearby space and forced the scrying along it to its unravelling farther end. It went direct-east, petering out some mere miles away. It was dissolving back towards us, like a burning fuse. I crudely calculated the distance and speed. Two and a half days. It had dis-anchored hundreds of miles away. That was across the sea to an entirely different continent!

The unravelling thread came ever closer. “We have to get out!” I screamed at Glyn, grabbing his arm and pulling him with me as I stumbled towards the door. He was far stronger than me, but didn’t resist, instead coming with me.

We kept running. I had no idea what would happen when the thread unravelled to the source. How much damage or over what area.

Anticlimactically, nothing actually happened. We stopped when my breath and legs gave out simultaneously. We waited. I counted the seconds. And the minutes. The house remained in the distance. We headed back.

My scrying equipment was still there. The stone had cracked across one corner, but otherwise there was no damage to anything. The scrying stone even still worked, despite the superficial damage. There was no trace of the summoning thread.

What could break a summoning thread? I had not been aware it was even possible to do! Nor could I understand how a summoning thread even got into the Wastes. Summoning was god-magic, powerful god-magic, requiring a god’s intervention. to perform. The Vast Wasteland was godless. It was one of the place’s main characteristics, and why it was a wasteland in the first place, with no resident god to maintain the ecosystem. Not that most gods did a particularly good job of that in their own domains! Until you entered a godless waste and realised that maybe gods did actually serve a useful purpose, irrespective of their apparent malice, or just lethargy.

Then it hit me, right in my sinking gut. I had scried out of the Wastes, searching for Viki. And tracing a scry-thread was effectively the same magic as following a summoning thread. I had opened a channel between the Wastes and an adjacent godland. And a god had noticed!

A god had followed my scrying-thread back. Right back into the wastes, where there was a convenient daemon, ripe for summoning!

I couldn’t tell Glyn. I didn’t know how to, and it wasn’t the near-impossibility of explaining deep magic to a layman. How could I face him with what I had just done?

 

Chapter 7: Schism

Viki bounced painfully along on the draft horse, sitting sideways in front of Whiskers. He was stewing again, but had taken the time to assure her that it wasn't due to sharing the horse with her, but simply having to ride the horse at all. Although the horses weren't going particularly fast, he was not built to walk any faster than a human so uncomfortably slouched over the rump of the horse it had to be.

Her wrist still hurt to move even a little. Her ribs stabbed at her with every motion of the horse beneath her. Her leg... well, she would be using her staff as a crutch for many months to come, possibly forever if it didn't heal right. At least the bruising and swelling had gone down, likely greatly helped by Whiskers' poultices.

Mid morning, the horses went skittish. They dismounted and tied them off to a nearby shrub, patting the beasts reassuringly as Raven Mad flew up to see if she could spot what had spooked them.

"Tremor?" Chip suddenly asked, spreading her stance in preparation for any after-shock. The horses whickered and stamped their feet in distress.

Whiskers put his face to the ground. "A long way off. Several-days' ride."

"To feel it all the way here?"

"It's a big one! Still going."

The distant tremors continued, though only Whiskers, and the horses, could feel them. Eventually the horses were convinced that the ongoing disturbance was not an immediate threat, and they were able to continue.

In mid afternoon of the fourth day since her rescue, they arrived at the door to Hell. Well, a door to Hell, since there were multiple known on this continent alone. This one was the only reasonably accessible one, being only a few miles off the road, over rough but foot-passable country.

It was a pyramid. About three times as high as a house. Dull grey Hellstone, as impervious to the elements as it was to... well everything anyone had ever tried. Hellstone! It was said you couldn't scratch it with a diamond! The land moved around it as geology shifted across the ages. And the local geology had, for these few millennium at least, deemed to leave the door exposed.

A broad stair led up the north face of the pyramid, about one quarter to its peak from the current land-level around its base. At the top, were two large slabs of hellstone, the door. The left door-slab was plain, and as smooth as glass, but not shiny. The right door-slab was the same, except for four large letters etched deep into it, about two thirds of the way up. HELL. Letters a hand high and a finger-width deep, in the Daemonic alphabet Viki had struggled to learn to read, and could still only barely write.

This word's prominence on such doors had ensured the word a consistent meaning across all languages of the world. Even the illiterate would recognise the shape of the word, if not from the doors themselves, then from their diminutive copies presented in village morality plays everywhere.

HELL. It was a real place. You could go to it. If you could get the doors open.

"What now?" Chip asked, as the group stood looking up the stairs at the door.

"There should be a guide," Chop said, looking around.

"A guide to Hell." Chip said flatly, knowing he could only mean one thing.

"Well," Raven Mad told her. "You've had weeks to get used to a half-daemon. That was your warm-up!"

Chip swatted in the crow's general direction, clearly not trying to hit her, just miming the momentary wish to.

"We camp and wait," Ugly said.

"And if this guide doesn't show up?" Chip asked.

"We might have an alternative," Ugly said, looking over at where Viki was back holding the horses.

 


 

A week had passed. No guide had appeared.

"Well, miss. You're up," Ugly said to Viki. He had explained what was required more than once over the past days. Only daemons had the power to open the doors to Hell. "Just open the door," he repeated. "We don't expect you to come in with us!"

"I'm sure I can handle it," Viki assured him confidently.

"I'm not," he said. "And you have a home to go to. Once we are gone, take the horses - and anything else you want or think you can sell. We won't need them where we're going."

Viki approached the door. The others were close behind her, giving support. Was she scared? Not of it as a doorway to Hell. That was just a place. A little trepidation as was appropriate for approaching any strange place, but it could have been any building she knew little about before her.

Damn her leg hurt! She climbed the stairs slowly, hobbling up one step at at time, as the splint didn't let her flex that leg enough to step up on it in tandem to the other. They were large steps, though not unmanageable. Daemons were bigger than humans, though not by much. She was small by either measure. The others had helped her half the way up, but now they needed to be free with their weapons to protect both her and themselves from anything that might come out of those doors.

She reached the door. Ugly stepped up beside her. "Hmmm. It should have opened for you as you got close," he mused. Chip and Chop were two steps behind them, swords drawn. "Maybe try pushing on it?" Chip suggested.

Viki balanced on her staff, holding it in the crook of the arm with the broken wrist, and put her un-broken hand to the door. It tingled. Nothing. She pushed. Nothing. She wiped at something dust-covered. It was more letters, much smaller than the letters spelling out HELL, written to take the same width as the four letters above it. Entrance 17-63. Not helpful. There wasn't even an "Abandon All Hope Who Enter" inscription! There had been one on the drawing of the doors in that Chip and Chop book.

Viki pushed one last time. It may as well have been solid hellstone right through to the other side of the pyramid. "Sorry," she said at last.

"Whelp, it was worth a try," Ugly said.

"Half-daemon not enough," observed Chip. "Plan-C?"

"Plan-C," Ugly confirmed. "We set up camp and wait for a daemon to come in or go out, and rush them."

Viki wasn't exactly an expert on her mother's people, but she had always been given the impression that daemons didn't voluntarily leave Hell very often. She wondered how long it would take. Long enough for her wrist to heal? Her ribs? Her leg, even?

They all returned to their camp at the bottom of the stairs.

 


 

West of the Vast Wasteland, the god Might lost its grip on existence.

Might had grown ever lager, the extent of Might's influence now covering hundreds of miles in every direction. This was the nature of gods: to grow was their drive, to consume the domains of their neighbours until only one remained, its domain the entire world.

But as Might had grown over the past few millenea, Might had increasingly become aware of Might's outer edges... fraying. Errant thoughts came back from those edges, thoughts seemingly not Might's own. A constant chatter on the edge of Might's expansive mind. An incessant distraction, increasingly an annoyance. Early on, it had been easy enough to silence the extraneous thoughts, to send a stern "Hush". But as Might grew, that hush seemed to take longer to reach the ever more distant edges of Might, and the command's effects became weaker.

And today the incoming cacophony of conflicting thoughts finally overwhelmed Might. The god teetered on the edge of total madness, then went over that edge as Might's mind fractured.

"I am Stone," the eastern-most fragment declared. Stone had memories of being Might. Incomplete. Fractional. Stone had memories of fighting Might, a fight for Stone's life: for Stone's own individuality of purpose. Stone suppressed any remains of Might that Stone decided were redundant, or a residual threat to Stone's own will.

Stone tested the edges of its boundaries. "I am Strength." one responded. "I am Laughter," another. "I am Power." "I am Daemonlord."

Stone assessed the responses. Stone pushed an intrusion strait into the edge bordering Strength, expanding that border at the other's expense. Stone sensed Laughter doing the same, also to Strength, diminishing Strength further. Daemonlord attempted intrusion into Stone from the other side. Daemonlord was strong, but Stone kept Daemonlord at bay until Daemonlord gave up and turned instead on its shared edge with Power, for the time being.

Stone continued to probe its borders, seeking any sign of weakness amongst its sibling gods. Stone had to expand. To expand was Stone's purpose. Expand until Stone was the entire world.

Simultaneously, Stone turned part of its vast attention to the surface. Nought but stone, in the domain of Stone, Stone declared. Stone considered phrasing the statement in maniacal laughter, discarding the thought quickly: Laughter, having claimed that name, was likely already doing that in Laughter's own domain. Stone would be stone. Soon enough all would be stone.

 


 

A low growl of a voice, speaking unintelligibly but distinctly in the daemonic language. It shook the cavern in the mountains on the western border of the Vast Wasteland.

"What in Hell!" Dengath said, as he raised his head from slumber. Dust, then sand, then pebbles shook down from the ceiling above him.

"Nought but stone, in the domain of Stone," the voice repeated, this time in the regional dragon dialect. The falling pebbles were becoming rocks. "Only stone. No life. Only Stone," the voice bellowed, shaking the mountain down to its interface with Hell itself.

"Skin it!" Dengath swore, leaping up and making a dash for the entrance.

"Come back, tiny dragon creature," the voice taunted. "Become one with the stone. Become one with Stone!"

The cavern collapsed, burying what treasures were hoarded within. From the dust cloud that puffed from the cavern mouth, Dengath tumbled, coughing and trying desperately to right himself and get air under his wings.

Ooof! A rock hit him painfully in the rear end. Another sped past his head as he looked back to see what was behind him. Nothing was behind him, except a collapsing mountain, spewing boulders specifically in his direction!

He got his air and pulled sharply upwards, not as sharply as he would have liked. He scanned the area for warm air rising over any nearby part of he Vast Wasteland and headed for the nearest thermal. More boulders whisked past him. If one hit a wing he would plunge to his death on the Wastes far below.

He caught the thermal and lifted higher. The boulders finally dropped off behind him as he cleared the mountain's apparent range of fire.

What in Hell was that?! Stone? He recalled stories from his grandmother, told to her by her own. The birth of the local god Might, from its ancestor-god, who's name had been long lost to time in the generations of retelling. And he realised that Might, and all its negligent bluster and action-less blowhard, was now dead. Stone would be one of Might's children, newborn and insane as any god.

More insane, apparently. Gods ran the entire gamut from negligent to malicious. He had never heard of one going this far, though. Exterminating all life in its domain? Is that what it meant by "Nought but stone"? As he circled upward in the thermal, he saw an entire forest behind his mountain buried under an avalanche of churning rock. Apparently so!

He turned east and began to cross high over the Vast Wasteland. Stone couldn't follow him there, he was sure. No god could.

Towards the east side of the Wastes, he spied a lone human on the desolate plane, in a clearing amongst the brambles that covered the area patchily. Not particularly noteworthy, except the human appeared to be lazily waving both arms over its head, trying to get his attention, in a half-hearted manner!

 


 

The shabby man was kneeling on the open ground as Dengath came down from the sky. He tried to moderate his down-thrust, but the bramble-clearing was small and he managed to blow the man over. The man righted himself back on his knees, head still down.

Dengath loomed over him, casting a deep black shadow. He continued to loom. "Ahem!" he cleared his still-dusty throat. The shaggy man shuddered slightly, then continued to just kneel there, head still down.

Dengath carefully stepped back a few paces until he felt a bramble thicket pressing into his rear, right on the bruised part the boulder had hit! He was still looming. There was no space to do otherwise. "Ahem!" he repeated. Then using the regional human dialect "Human!"

The raggedy creature finally spoke. It was more a hoarse whisper. "Burn me. Eat me."

"Ah.... No." Dengath replied.

"I deserve to die."

"I ate half a wild horse last night. I couldn't eat you just now, even if I wanted to. Though if you don't cease your self-indulgent snivelling I might just bring the horse back up over you!"

This got the old man's attention and he actually looked up. There was fear on his face. That kind of fatalistic fear not of death itself, but just the anticipation of the pain one might have to go through to get there.

Dengath noticed the staff lying on the ground nearby. Not a fighting-stick like those humans down south liked to play with. Much more ornate, with several coloured crystals in one end. "Wizard," he addressed the shabby old man.

"Yes?" The scraggly man responded uncertainly. If Dengath had still had a bit of that horse stuck in his teeth, he might have considered using this creature for a toothpick!

"Are you the Wizard of my Wastes?"

"Your?..." the man started, then changed his tone, "...wastes. Yes. I am Afred of the Wastes."

"No 'Great Wizard' in that? I have ears to hear with, you know! Word gets around."

"No great wizard." The man said it as a sneer. A sneer on himself.

"Do you know The Viki?"

He blinked and swallowed. "I do."

"Do you have word of her?"

He blinked again, then his eyes bulged. "You're the dragon.... the scale...."

"Yes, yes. It still itches where the new one is growing in. Word of The Viki?"

"Ah. She is alive. Out in the world somewhere."

"Somewhere?"

"I couldn't locate her. Too far out."

"But alive. That is something."

"I lost her.... It was my fault...." The old man broke down crying.

"Explain yourself!"

"Her mother. When I conducted the scrying, I must have opened this region up to magic infiltrating from the outside world. Probably only for a while, but it was long enough. Vaun - Viki's mother - was summoned away. A portal."

"This region is godless. That should not work!"

"There is weak magic here. Nothing god-driven, nothing very strong, but it responds."

"Wild magic!" Dangath spat. That was dangerously unpredictable stuff!

"It was always safe enough isolated to the Wastes. But I fear I bridged it back to the godlands East of here."

"And a portal just came in and scooped this mother-of-Viki up! Where to, I wonder?"

"East, almost strait. Twelve hundred miles!"

"You know?"

"Yes. Before the summons unravelled completely, the direction was clear, and I was able to estimate the distance."

"Unravelled?" Gods in Hell! Getting information from this pitiful creature was like pulling the bones from a fresh kill!

"The summons' return-thread unravelled. Not intentionally, the magic broke."

"That's wild magic for you. Never trust it! But at least you know where she is!"

"Twelve hundred miles! It's a whole different continent!"

Dengath flexed his wing muscles. Across the ocean was a longer flight than he had ever done, by a great amount. But with Stone rampaging to the west, and undoubtedly trying to consume his south-eastern sibling to expand around the Wastes.... "Strait east, you say?"

 

Part 3: Another Land

Chapter 1: Summoned

"They're coming," the youngest cultist enthused. "And from how their saddle-bags are loaded up, they made out like bandits in that crypt!"

"Hush," the oldest of his associates warned him, not unkindly. "We are ready for them."

He looked over at the young village girl, tied on her back, naked on the sacrificial stone. Her head lolled and swayed, she was well-drugged. Had to be to get her away from the village. Pretty thing, he thought. Not a real beauty, but pretty in her plain simple way. If one was into that sort of thing. He had a far higher calling to attend to than some mere fleshly desire. Once that party of fools arrived at the cross-roads....

But the mercenaries arrived sooner, and from a different direction. Apparently that thief had been worth whatever they were paying her, for the ambush was exposed before it could be sprung.

One of the twelve cultists was on the ground, blood gushing from his slit throat, before they even knew anyone was there. Then the rest of the mercenaries burst out of the undergrowth far more noisily, no longer needing to care for stealth.

Not that the cultists were defenceless! Junior but competent fighters and spell-casters every one of them. Priests, technically, though no recognised church of a town or city would want them to be considered such. Their god was far darker than mainstream humanity preferred. And he was pushing his domain into this region even as they acted on his behalf.

Fighting was fierce, but not instantly fatal. However, that the mercenary group was significantly stronger was no surprise - that was the whole point in feeding them the information to get them into the old temple in the first place: let them do the stuff the cult wasn't quite up to, then take it off them when they were on their way back out, tired and vulnerable.

Still, the mercenaries weren't nearly as fatigued as had been counted on. However, there was still an ace up the cultists' robe-sleeves.

A second cultist fell, so before any more could follow, their high priest turned to the sacrificial stone. The rights had been performed in advance. The bindings and strictures defined carefully. A summoning of this power required tight control of what would enter through the Gate! He drove the jewelled knife down into the yielding chest of the sacrifice. She didn't scream. She was too out of it to even notice - not as much fun, but at the time of planning they felt avoiding the risk of her making a noise and spoiling the ambush a good deal more important.

The mercenaries' thief shouted 'No' and threw a dart his way in a last-ditch effort to stop the sacrifice. It grazed the high priest's hand, leaving a bloody gash, but it was too late. The knife drove home and the gate opened....

A dark halo formed from the death-writhing body. A body that should already be dead, but was soul-ensnared in the Gate, powering that gate and the bindings on what would come through with its own aethereal agony, for while the body had been drugged, the soul now freed of it, was no longer so. It cried in both agony of death and loss of a life so soon cut short. So much lost potential, now so much power!

The dark gate flared. If that was the word! Because it 'flared' in reverse, getting darker briefly, even pulling light from the surrounding area, as the ensnared soul pulled forth and in turn ensnared the summoned daemon.

The daemon stood tall in her evil glory, eyes glowing a horrid red beneath the dark robe and hood she wore. She looked around at the gate, surveying the dead girl's bloody body and the aetherealy-screaming ensnared soul tied between the jewelled dagger in the body's chest and the portal through which she had just been summoned. Looked with disdain, as only a powerful immortal could at the fleeting mortality who's last prolonged death agony now bound it to the high priest's will.

The high priest smiled gleefully and gave the vile creature its orders: "Kill them," he cackled. Casting his hand towards the mercenaries. They visibly cowered as they realised what they now faced. The surviving eight cultists backed away to give the daemon room to do its worst. The mercenaries marshalled their courage for what even they knew would be their futile last stand.

And nothing.

"KILL THEM NOW!" the priest screamed at the daemon, spittle erupting from his mouth.

The daemon ignored him. She turned her back on him, to face the tortured soul who's agonised will was binding her to the high priest's command. The daemon did something. Something quite undaemonlike.

Kneeling on one knee before the wraith, she spoke, in heavily accented trade-tongue, "I am so sorry for this, child. For what these... humans... have done to you." The wraith whimpered. Not in fear of the daemon itself, but from the agony it felt as the daemon resisted its binding. Yet the wraith looked up at the daemon, spectral tears in its eyes. And courage there too.

The daemon woman pulled something from a pouch on her belt. She made some gestures. A sense of calm washed over the wraith, even a slight smile as it faded. Released from torment.

"Nooooo!" Screamed the high priest. He lunged at the daemon with the ceremonial blade pulled fresh from the corpse, catching her square in the back, driving the blade in deep. The daemon screamed in pain, faltered, but didn't fall. Her tail lashed at the high priest, striking him hard across the face, badly wounding, but not killing, him.

The other cultists had resumed their fight against the mercenaries. It was not an even fight, but not entirely unmatched either. The cultists put up a good, if futile, final act.

As the mercenaries felled the last cultist, they turned to where the priest had the daemon pinned to the ground. The ceremonial knife was at her throat. "You ruined everything," he spat, his rage slurring his words.

The daemon pushed back, her hand desperately pushing a short weapon at his throat in turn - it was hard to see in the dim moonlight, but witnesses would have sworn it was a gardener's trowel! - "You murdered that girl. For what? So someone else could fight your battle for you?"

"That was your task! The binding of her soul on you commanded it!"

"She was innocent."

"She had to be!" He stabbed into the daemon again with the dagger. She gasped and lost her grip on her own weapon, as her life began to ebb away.

The high priest's head suddenly came off, spraying the daemon beneath him with his blood. She slumped back, under the weight of the rest of his body momentarily, before the mercenary who had run his sword through the high priest's neck and one of his colleagues pulled the body away. She then lay there, bathed in blood, as two swords came close to her own throat. She smiled wearily. "Please, don't." She pleaded, but neither her voice or manner indicated a personal fear of death. "My daughter...." she blacked out, completely at their mercy.

 


 

Vaun woke by firelight. Warm. She was weak. She was also tied up securely. The ropes itched in a way that only copper-threaded cord could. Someone nearby grunted and looked over at her.

"Excuse the bindings." A very severe-looking woman in over-adorned battle-garb said brusquely.

Vaun did her best to shrug obviously. Between her pain and the bindings it wasn't easy!

The severe woman continued. "They were going to kill you," she explained, motioning to two large men standing nearby, still with swords drawn in her direction. "They're the muscle. Not stupid, mind you, but in the heat of battle, anything that looks like a threat is best killed."

Vaun nodded in cautious agreement, since she honestly couldn't fault the logic.

"But you intrigued me. I felt - with proper precautions - it worth putting that off for some information."

Vaun wasn't really surprised. While most of her life had been rather sheltered, she was well - if somewhat narrowly - educated in the ways of humans. And then she had the past nineteen years of having everything she had thought she had known completely destroyed around her... all for the better. "Fair enough." she gasped through the pain raking her body - that wasn't the ropes, but the multiple stab wounds, bandaged now to stop her bleeding out, but not healed.

"I wasn't game to try and heal you," the woman explained, seeing her noticing the bandaging. "I don't know what human healing magic would do to a daemon! We patched you up as best we could with bandages, but unless you can advise otherwise, that's all I can do."

"Would you... anyway?" Vaun asked. Genuine interest, no bitterness.

"No." The woman answered frankly. "You are far less risk to question weakened like this."

"Question?"

"To find out what those... cultists?.. wanted. Why they attacked us."

Vaun laughed gently to herself. "Like I'd know?"

"I would assume if they called you...."

"Yes, they called me. With an imperative binding, if I read what was done to that poor child right. I get pulled - completely against my will - out of my own life, ordered to do what I am magically compelled to do - again with no say in the matter. Are you getting the idea?"

"I guess so. You were just obeying orders."

"Did it look like I was obeying orders?"

"No. Which is the bigger mystery. You are right, it was an imperative binding. And I wasn't aware that a daemon - which I am pretty sure you are - could break one. And definitely not that easily."

"Well," Vaun smiled weakly. "Not... a regular daemon."

"That you are not a regular daemon, it is becoming quite clear. The question, then, is what kind of irregular daemon are you then?"

"I stopped being a daemon - in spirit anyway - nineteen years ago."

"And what are you now," slight derision in the voice: the woman wasn't convinced.

"A mother. A wife. A gardener. Sometimes a bricklayer's apprentice!"

The woman scoffed. Not in derision, but in surprise. "A what?"

"We built a house. Well, re-built it. My husband was far better at that than I - woodwork, masonry - but I helped where I could."

"And where is this house?"

"From here? Who knows? When you get summoned, you don't exactly get a map! If I had completed my task as commanded, or died trying, I would have returned home via the gate. But I destroyed that when I released the child's spirit."

"Does the place have a name? A country? A river?"

"Yes, but if you'll forgive me, I really don't want to reveal it to strangers who don't right now seem to have my best interests at heart!"

"You could die here."

"I'll die better knowing I haven't given my killers the path to my family's door."

The woman thought on this for a while. She decided to move on. Maybe come back to it later.

"Your husband the carpenter. And mason."

"Among other things."

"And you a gardener." No attempt to conceal the doubt in her voice. Deliberately exaggerating it, in fact.

"These days, yes."

The woman sighed.

"Moving on... again! You did slip that supposedly imperative binding rather easily. Considering that particular magic is specifically for binding daemons."

"That girl he murdered to enact the binding...."

"From the nearby village. The rest of our party is returning the body there now."

"Good.... Well not really good. Good would be her being able to return there by herself."

The cleric raised an eyebrow. "You released her from the binding. To free yourself!"

"To free her! Those things torture the enslaved soul, it is the pain that powers the Gate and the binding both. No daemon likes being compelled - even to do something they might otherwise do anyway - but the pain of that poor girl's soul! She was the same age as my daughter!"

"I am finding this harder and harder to believe, every word out of your mouth."

Vawn sighed. She was tired and in tremendous pain and she honestly was beyond caring. If it had been only her own life of concern to her, she would just have given up already. "Look, I don't even know your name. Mine is Vaun, by the way. I was once a daemon - a relatively powerful one as far as daemons go, though the power was more my people's than my own. Then I disgraced myself and was banished, losing access to that power in the process. But I had my baby daughter to care for, and in my need to do that, I found a new life that I would have never dreamed possible myself. So if you are having trouble believing it, I honestly can't fault you for that! But I am what I have become and have no regrets for any of that."

The woman was now looking at her wide-eyed, both surprised and fearful. Her hand was inching towards her weapon. Vaun realised she had been wildly gesticulating in front of herself with her own hands.... Her tightly-bound-behind-her-back own hands. Which now were not!

"Um... What?" she said, looking at her wrists.

The two fighters were already at her, swords ready to strike on their leader's word.

"That's...." Vaun trailed off.

"Not something a daemon should be able to do," the woman finished for her. "I braided the copper into that rope myself! How did you...?"

"I didn't! I wasn't even trying to!"

"Stand up," the woman ordered. Vaun tried to, but she was too weak. "Help her." the woman then instructed the nearest fighter. "You, keep your sword on her," she advised the other.

Helped to her feet, Vaun was moved away from the tree she had been propped sitting up against and the woman inspected where she had been. "Ropes chewed away." she mused to herself. "Daemonic familiar? No the copper would have stopped that." She picked up a fragment of rope. "More dissolved away, than chewed. Is that... tree sap?" She looked questioningly at Vaun who was barely on her feet supported by the fighter, who while large, was still not quite as tall as Vaun, when you included her horns.

"The tree ate the ropes?" the other fighter asked, incredulously.

"Put her back down," the woman told the fighter holding her, "back where she was. The tree seems to like her, so it can support her for a bit longer." Vaun was eased back down. For all the violence the fighter was clearly capable of, he was treating Vaun, with her near-fatal wounds, surprisingly gently.

When Vaun was re-settled, the woman addressed her again, "So. Gardener, you say. You like plants?"

"Yes. Not that it is easy for them in the Va... where I live." Yes, the woman keenly picked up that she had almost given the general location of her home away. She pushed on, hoping to verbiage it away. "It isn't a place that is kind to plants. My first cabbages took nearly two years to get growing from seed! Lots of work. But very satisfying. I would never have believed how so much satisfying growing things with the work of your own hands was, but there you go!"

"And plants, apparently, like you."

This confused Vaun, and it obviously showed.

"Tell me, what, exactly, did you do to release the sacrifice from the binding spell?"

"I really don't know. Truly. I just saw the poor thing there. I could feel her pain - that is supposed to rile the daemon up - motivate it into even greater strength. But all I could think about is my daughter - she has been lost out here in the wider world for several months now, and we're worried sick! But when I saw this dead girl and her spirit enthralled like that, all I could feel was disgust at the ones who had done it. Then something came over me. It was like I wasn't in control of myself, but not at all like a binding! Whatever it was didn't so much control me, as guide me. Help me release her. But I don't really understand what it had me do!"

"You say you learned to garden. From who?"

"By myself. My husband knew a little, but only what any non-farmer villager would know on the subject. And he had a few books that had a bit about it. But mostly it was trying what seemed right and keep trying until it was right."

"And you were doing this in, from what little you have said, is some sort of desert."

"Yes. It was not quite desert, but close enough."

"Cabbages."

"At first. Then carrots, onions, radishes. I have a fruit tree now, though I don't know what kind as it hasn't borne fruit yet, and the drawings in the books aren't really clear enough to work it out by leaf-shape or bark texture."

"Uh, huh." A new voice joined the conversation. "She left her daemonic life. Had a family. Husband. A daughter. Taught herself to grow vegetables. In a desert... or near enough. You really can't make this up!" another of the party had been quietly sitting in the shadows away from the fire.

"Welcome back, Sara," the woman told the voice's owner. "Did you get the girl's body back to her people alright?"

"We got her to the village gates. I let the others take her in - I have a bit of a reputation in these parts that might make people dis-inclined to believe the word of anyone who openly associates with me!"

"And speaking of which, what is your expert opinion on this one's claimed life story."

"Truth. Incomplete truth, but truth enough to satisfy me that she is sincere."

"Incomplete?"

"The omissions are not malicious. She is protecting those she loves. Honorable. Not a word I would expect to use in reference to a daemon, but there you go."

"It is hard to believe...."

"Exactly. Why make up something like that? Even Chip and Chop here could come up with a better cover story on the fly. No offence guys, we all play to our strengths."

The two big men grinned back, good-naturedly.

"That isn't their names, by the way," Sara said to Vaun, then to the woman "Are we doing real names? I noticed you let mine slip!"

The woman blushed.

"I'm doing real names," Vaun said, "I'm Vaunebhchau. Vaun for short."

"Well Vaun, as I'm sure you already picked up, I'm Sara." she gave a sideways glance at the other woman who was still blushing. "I will let the others introduce themselves properly if and as they feel comfortable doing so."

"Dammit, Sara! Okay! I'm Kendra," snapped the woman. "Happy?"

"We're Chip and Chop, now," the right-hand fighter said. "We like that!" He and his colleague grinned at Sara again, who grinned back and, as well as she could from her seated position, made a theatrical hand-roll and bow to them in return.

Vaun couldn't help smiling briefly too.

"Ah!" Sara said, noticing. "You know the book!"

"My husband used to read it to my daughter."

"A literate! A man after my own heart. And your daughter too."

"Ah.... She actually hated it. But she knew how much he had traded to get it for her, so she pretended otherwise."

Sara looked a bit crestfallen. "Oh well. All types, all tastes, I guess."

Kendra growled, "Gods in Hell! If I had a Piece for every fighting-duo that insisted on taking those names, I'd have a whole bag of Coin!"

Sara continued, "So, what do we do with a half-dead daemon gardener who may be an up-and-coming tree-sorcerer?"

"Well," said Kendra, "If we are getting all family now, I guess we should ask her what she wants to do?" She turned to Vaun.

"Well, assuming I don't die here still, I want to go home," she thought for a moment. "Or I want to find my daughter. She is lost out here somewhere. Trying to get home too!"

"You know she is?" asked Sara, with some clear compassion, "Or is it hope?"

"Know." Vaun assured her. "A friend, he's a wizard of some kind, was able to briefly contact her with a seeking-scrying spell. She is somewhere out here, travelling with some mercenaries much like yourselves, trying to work her way back home."

"Well that's a start."

"And I need to find, where is home? I wasn't lying about not knowing where in the world I am! Releasing that spirit from its thrawl stranded me here, wherever here is!"

"Well, we are on the edge of the Finian Forests, in the Principality of Garangor."

Vaun shook her head.

"Never heard of it? It isn't a huge place, but if you were from anywhere within a hundred miles of here, you would know of it."

Vaun hesitated long, then, "I'm... from the Vast Wastelands."

"I appreciate your trust in giving that information up. But I don't..." she looked at the others, who in turn shook their heads back, "none of us have heard of it. I'm afraid it is looking like you are a very long way from home!

 


 

Vaun was still in considerable pain, though having been allowed to lie down in the warmth of the campfire helped. But she was dying, the wounds too deep to heal naturally, and her limited healing magic could only stave off the inevitable for so long.

She had been told to stay awake, not to sleep, lest she never wake up. It was too late for that anyway. Her eyes wouldn't stay open. She could close them and stay awake. Maybe.

"Tell me of your life," someone said gently. She couldn't open her eyes to see who. One of the group trying to keep her talking, to keep her conscious.

"My only regret," she mumbled soundlessly, not realising she had reverted to her native Daemonic tongue. "Is I will never see my child again."

"Tell me of your life," the voice repeated, still gentle, but this time in Daemonic, "that you may be remembered."

 

Chapter 2: High Priestess

Vaunebhchau had led a good life in Hell. Not that she had been handed that life unmerited. Moving up in Daemon society required demonstrated proficiency.

From an early age, she had shown a strong knowledge of doctrine, almost drinking up the holy texts with her eyes. A priestess for sure, it was agreed early on.

There was still much work involved. The book-work she loved, the learning in particular. The chores she endured with sufficient cheerful fortitude that she was soon promoted above the worst of them to more difficult, but also more rewarding tasks. The long prayer times she found relaxing, almost joyous, in a more subdued way.

She was a senior priestess at an unusually young age. But her diligence and effort to get to that station were never in question. And her enthusiasm tended to rub off on others, pulling them upwards behind her as she ascended.

And being a priestess wasn't all ceremonies and the hosting of communal feasts: it still had its share of responsibility, and even drudgery. Vaunebhchau took it all in stride. She knew she was privileged, she could have ended up a forgesmith or a farmer, even a plumber maintaining the sewage system, all perfectly respectable and necessary roles, but not something she could ever see herself actually being able to do with any sense of joy or accomplishment.

People were her love. And as a priestess, a big part of her role in the community was dealing with people. Her particular ability for healing magics didn't damage her popularity with the people either. She was no specialist, but was by far the best novice in the temple and surrounding villages. And even for those beyond healing, the ability to dull pain and ease the passing was much valued when it came to administering last rights.

Dispute resolution was one of the less pleasant parts of her role, but she studied the texts on best practice, and apprenticed with the senior priests she considered most skilled, determined to be effective irrespective of her own dislike for the confrontational arts.

Negotiations were a particular weak point for her, particularly inter-tribal. She was a quite non-confrontational person, and didn't always comprehend the roots of disagreement. It didn't help that tribal politics bored her. But even here she at least had the talent of recognising her weakness and delegating to other daemons more skilled when she could.

She was popular, and her go-to attitude was a big part of it. She didn't outwardly flinch when faced with a task that might reasonably be considered beneath her station, but just hiked up her robe and got into the muck with the novices as necessary. To set a positive example for them, if nothing else.

So nobody questioned her rapid rise in the priesthood, in fact if she hadn't risen it would have seemed odd.

And when the high priest came down from the sacred temple with word from Might of a special purpose for her, it was also not particularly surprising. Other than possibly that Might had anything to say at all, for while Might favoured the temple with magic and its surrounds with abundance, Might rarely directly communicated.

The High Priest stepped aside for her to be anointed High Priestess in his place. Vaunebhchau was a little uncomfortable with this as she didn't feel she had at-all earned that role. The High Priest was a good man, and a good leader, and the graciousness with which he handled the demotion was testament to his character.

She had the sense to recognise her position was largely honorary. It was hers because of the role Might had for her to play in his grand plans, not through any thing she had done to deserve it. She deferred to the former High Priest often, making it clear to him and others that she considered him her mentor for her new role, and her second.

And she met Might.

Well, went down to the sacred temple room where his voice could be heard, and hers by him. Though doctrine was that he could hear and speak anywhere in the world he liked. Using the temple room was more a matter of respect and reverence: people could speak to her by coming to her room in the middle of the night and banging on the door too, but she preferred they didn't, so it wasn't unreasonable for god to feel the same way.

Might explained her task. It was dangerous. And extremely unpleasant! With a human man? But her character was well established and well known to Might too, of course! She would do this unpleasant task like any other required of her.

And so she studied what was known of the surface world and the human peoples. The records were mostly of death and violence of the worst kinds, compiled from accounts of the few Daemons who returned from a summoning alive, and relatively sane, after what they had been through.

Counselling such surviving-returnees had been another unpleasant part of her job, along with her documenting their accounts. Overseeing the casting-down of the many more that returned dead, often savagely mangled, and counselling their distraught families was probably the worst though, by far. Some priests counselled that it was all part of Might's grand plan. She found she couldn't. She found it an empty excuse. "Why?" the survivors and families would ask her. "I don't know." she simply told them. The brutal honesty was appreciated far more often than it was not.

Humans were vile creatures, summoning and enslaving Daemonkind to their violent will. As if Daemon lives were mere playthings to be plucked from Hell on a whim, used up and discarded.

And now Might had ordered her to.... With....

Might could have compelled her, via the same mind-control as was inflicted on Daemons by human sorcerers during a summons. But he didn't have to. Vaunebhchau compartmentalised her disgust and set out for the door to the surface world.

Might had done something to her hands. The second thumb was missing from each. No, they were still there - she could somehow still feel them move - but they were invisible, and impossible to touch, as if her opposite hand's fingers went strait through where the thumbs on the lower side of her hands should have been. Her horns, too, were somehow missing. She could feel the weight of them when she moved her head, but could not feel them with her hands.

She had always been a little short, which by human terms made her a tall, but not remarkably so, woman.

At a tavern, she managed to get a look at herself in a mirror. She was hideous! She had already seen that the skin on her arms and body had gone pale pink, but her face. It looked terrible.

At first she thought all the humans in the place were looking on her deformity with the same disgust she felt. Then it dawned on her: they found this beautiful!

She travelled long weary roads to her destination, a hundred miles overland from the door from which she had left Hell and entered this foreboding place of the surface.

Might, for all his godly power, had proved fallible in subtle ways. He had made her into a form that, while utterly hideous to her, was stunningly attractive by human standards. Too attractive: she was catching a lot of unwanted attention on her journey. She had needed to utilise magic more than once to protect herself. And that in itself was dangerous: daemons assumed that all humans used magic, just as daemons did. But most humans were hostile to its use. She quickly learned to be subtle, or in a few desperate cases to at least leave no survivors!

Her lifetime habits of meticulous cleanliness had to be put aside as she allowed her robes to become dirty, and her face and hands dirtier still, to cover her supposed beauty. The attention dropped off somewhat, which was well for she discovered her magical abilities also sharply dropped off as she left Might's domain and entered another god's lands.

She had never believed there were other gods, though some of the summons-returnees had mentioned such. Their words had been easily brushed off as the insanity of their horrific experiences, a way of coping with Might not being able - or willing - to protect them. But now she was travelling in the truly hostile territory of another god!

Though the local god seemed no more concerned with the daily goings-on of the surface worlds than Might had been for the most part. Undoubtedly there would be local daemons in service to the god, but none were to be found on the surface. Her magical disguise seemed to be holding, it was just her access to more powerful magics of defence that had waned.

She found the village of her instructions. And a tavern in that village, largely identical to all the others. Four Coins paid for four week's lodgings with food, if she could stomach the fatty animal-based foods of humans for much longer!

She asked around town for the local craftsman, claiming to need repairs to a wagon. There were three. But only one with books on his workshop shelves, as matched her instructions from Might. This one man, and only he.

He was unpleasant-looking, though no more than any other human. Possibly slightly less so, for his skin was of a pale brown that might at least seem a little red in a very bad light. His features, well, no more hideous than hers currently appeared.

She returned to the tavern and cleaned herself up. She bought a new robe and dress at a local clothiers. Something plain, to match the craftsman's station, but clean!

And she seduced him. It was easier at night, in the darkness. Multiple times over the coming weeks. She made excuses to stay around town until she was sure she carried a child within her, then back in the old robe, dirt smeared on her hideous face and deformed hands, she was gone again without notice.

It took her three months to get back to the door to Hell. It opened for her as she neared it. Her belly was just starting to show what was within.

She returned to her role as High Priestess, diligently compartmentalising away the disgust she felt at what she had been required to do.

And then, six months later, the child was born and Vaunebhchau's life in Hell ended.

Vaun continued silently muttering to the voice in her head. Picturing the events as they unfolded. Her casting-up from Hell, her terrified entry back onto the surface, this time with no magic to either conceal or protect herself with. The newborn baby in her arms, providing a terror of its own. But she couldn't abandon the child. The abomination was all she had left.

She knew nobody. Well... she knew one. But what would he think? What would he do to her when he knew what she truly was? Yet in the short time she had known him, he had not seemed at all the malicious creature she had always believed all humans were. Many of them weren't, in fact. Just ordinarily-fallible creatures getting on with their lives. Of course that didn't make them safe: she had heard the stories in taverns. Daemons were hated for what they did at the compulsion of the magicians who summoned them.

But she had nowhere else to go, and so stealing what rags she could to thoroughly cover herself, even sawing her horns off just above the skull periodically as they began to grow back, she set off along the only road she knew.

The man, Glyn, had not been happy to see her. And was even less happy to see her in her true form. But he didn't raise an alarm, or try to harm her himself. Nor the baby, even when he insisted in seeing its eyes, despite her warning. She told him her story, the words tumbling out barely making sense.

Instead of casting her and her child back out, he began packing supplies in a wagon he had been repairing for someone. He stole two oxen, too, to pull it, leaving a whole coin in their places, well more than their worth.

And by morning they were gone, taking circuitous routes along bad roads, both to avoid people as much as possible, and to deter any who might think to follow.

A year to the Vast Wasteland, a godless place which Glyn had read about in one of his books. He wasn't even completely certain it was real, but knew that if it was, it would be the safest place for her.

She had actually been expecting him, at best, to dump her in a shack on the wasteland, in relative safety, to fend for herself. Far more than she had any right to expect, even that!

When he stayed to help turn that collapsed shack into a home for her and their abominable child, she was truly humbled. As the years passed, she found the didn't even find him unpleasant to look at anymore, or he her, apparently.

He was very good with tools and materials. Her long-established habit of mucking-in where she could, no matter the task, raised some level of respect back from him. She learned to farm, in a small raised garden bed. Growing things with her own hands, finding it actually far more enjoyable and rewarding than she had ever assumed it would be.

Viki was always a cord between them, a commonality around which they could revolve. They both loved the child, despite her horrifying trait. And then one day they discovered, it was not just the child they loved, but each other.

"Thank you, Vaun of the Vast Wastelands," the voice in her head seemed to say, soothing her last moments of consciousness. "This story pleases me. I will remember it."

"Who are you?" Vaun asked with her last thought before the darkness closed in.

"I am Tranquillity," came the gentle reply, but Vaun didn't hear.

 

Chapter 3: On the Proper Disposal of Corpses

"Ow!" Chip - or possibly Chop cried, "help me cut these brambles! The thorns are sharp as razors!"

"At least they stopped fighting back!" Chop - or possibly Chip - replied, "I didn't know plants could even move on their own!"

"It wasn't fast, but by gods, those thorns!"

"Let me." Sara's voice. "Those swords are too big, you can't slash it away - it just bends. Use a knife, like this: one stem at a time."

"Is this how daemons die?" Someone unrecognisable said. "You said she was a daemon, didn't you? Do they turn into thorns?"

"I don't know! The only time I ever killed a daemon, it disappeared back to Hell before it even hit the ground!"

Snick! The sound of thin strands of wood being cut. Snick!

"There's a body in there!" Sara's voice.

"What?" Vaun cried out. She was completely immobilised, en-wrapped in something.

"Vaun! Don't move. You are covered in razor-sharp thorns! We're cutting them off you."

Vaun lay still, as instructed. She couldn't feel any sharpness against her, just the physical binding of plant stems tight around her. Not uncomfortably tight, she could still breathe. Rather well, in fact!

The bindings loosened.

"They're moving again!" Chip or Chop shouted.

"Look!" Sara. "They're unwrapping. Opening up!"

Vaun sat up.

Kendra clapped four times, slowly. "Impressive, tree-wizard!"

Vaun looked around herself. The camp was still there. Somewhat in disarray. Kendra, Sara, Chip and Chop, were there. And a man she had not met. At the back was the bulk of an elephant, watching inquisitively. All around her were thorns.

"I... I don't think I did this!" Vaun hesitated. She wasn't entirely sure if even she believed that. But how?

"Like the rope thing," Kendra said. "Plants like you."

"What happened?"

"We checked on you late in the evening. You were unconscious, but breathing steadily, if shallowly. Morning you were covered in this!"

"We tried to get it off you," Chop added. "It fought back!"

"I... don't know. I've never seen anything like it." Vaun insisted, honestly.

She carefully stood, wary not to step on any of the thorns surrounding the bare patch of ground where she had been lying, which she now stood on. They did look sharp, though they had all apparently been pointing outwards, away from her body. "Um. How do I get out of this?" She could see nowhere safe withing distance of a standing-jump.

A trunk extended over her. The flaps on the end made a pinching movement, inviting her. She tentatively grasped the end of the trunk with her hand. It couldn't entirely lift her, but did give her enough extra lift to keep her airbourne as she jumped over the thorns, guiding her to land beyond them.

"Thank you," Vaun said to the trunk's owner.

The elephant made a low grumbling sound, and nodded.

"Gratar here can't talk. But he can understand trade-lingua," Kendra informed Vaun.

Vaun nodded diplomatically in thanks for the information, though she knew full well what elephants could and couldn't do. They were a linguistic species, though most of their own language was expressed below human - and daemon - hearing. They were unusual in that they routinely associated with humans, not normally living in human settlements, but setting up their own nearby. Some were accomplished artists, with the brush. They also often traded in heavy manual labour, when they wished to trade at all. Elephants and humans got on quite well. Probably because the former was relatively peaceful but also too big to be bullied!

"I see you are feeling better," Kendra added. "A lot better!"

Vaun looked down at herself. Her blouse was still soaked in black blood. Probably mostly from the decapitated priest, but some of her own was in that too. There was also a gaping hole over where the knife had been thrust through her breast and into her lung. She pulled at the sticky mess, looking through the hole. A lot of congealed blood on her skin too, but no stab-wound. Her back, which had taken an even deeper wound, felt nothing of that injury either.

"I've seen healing magic before," Kendra said, "But that...."

"God-magic!" Vaun said. "No daemon can heal something like that!"

"No human either. Cuts and bruises. Setting bones, if they are really good."

Vaun was that good. But saving herself from the previous evening's wounds had been well beyond her. Her own abilities there had been exhausted by keeping herself painfully and barely alive for a few extra hours.

"Who is your god?" Vaun finally asked.

"I have no god. But if you mean who is the local god, I was under the impression it was called Blood-dance. It has been moving into this whole region over the past year and leaving nothing but destruction and gore in its wake. We've been doing our best to keep out of its way."

"That doesn't sound like a god who would...." Vaun gestured at herself.

"Especially not after you broke its summoning and turned on its own priests, no." Kendra mused. "Though with gods, you can never be sure what they will do. If they aren't actually insane, their purposes are so abstruse that they may as well be, from a mortal perspective. For all I know it was having a jolly old time no matter which side ended up dead!"

"Might would never...." Might was generally considered a beneficent entity by her former daemon tribe. He provided powerful magic. He provided good crops. He never seemed to stop daemons being summoned to their violent deaths, though. And if summoning was a god-magic....

"Might is your god?" Kendra asked, keenly picking up on Vaun's words.

"Was," Vaun corrected her flatly. "The Vast Wasteland is godless."

"Sounds delightful," Kendra said.

"Other than the whole Wasteland bit," Sara added.

"It's a harsh place," Vaun agreed. "But it has protected those I love."

The new man interrupted. "This is all fine and everything, and meeting a daemon who isn't trying to eat my entrails is a very nice change of pace," he nodded and smiled a shy acknowledgement at Vaun, "But there are bodies in the forest. Twelve-hours, give or take, and they aren't getting any fresher."

"Right!" Kendra said. She exchanged a look with the man. Vaun saw a tension between them, not one of antagonism. It was the kind of look she had often shared with Glyn over the past octade.

Bodies. Humans were obsessed with dead bodies! Daemons had their own funerary rights, but humans took it to a whole new level! She had never understood why, or thought to ask Glyn about it. But treatment of the dead was important, the priestess still living somewhere deep within her advised. And concern for the bodies of fallen enemies was laudable, even.

"Okay, bodies." Kendra ordered. "Build up the fire, and throw 'em on. Don't miss any! Do a search by grid and mark the trees!"

Humans, of course couldn't perform a casting-down, there was nowhere on the surface world to cast down into!

Vaun assisted, taking direction from Kendra. She dragged the headless priest's body to the fire. "Just shove it on," Kendra told her. "And the head too." Vaun went back for the head. Human funerary practices were weird. There was no ceremony about it at all! She might even say it was disrespectful, but she had no idea what counted for respect amongst humans. This was probably entirely normal.

From the forest, someone shouted "Mover!" Everyone froze. The sound of someone hacking at something with a sword could be heard.

"Twelve hours is too soon," Kendra said, aghast.

"Not if they dosed!" Sara said.

"Dosed! They wouldn't!" Kendra was clearly appalled.

"I've seen crazier things done for a god!"

"Dosed?" Vaun asked.

"Drunk the fluids of the days-dead," Sara said. Her normally flippant air completely drained from her face. "It won't necessarily hurt the living, if dosed in small quantities, but if they die of other things within a few hours, it accelerates re-life."

"Re... life?"

"You don't know.... How can you not know?! Don't daemons rise back from the dead if not properly buried?"

"No! How could we? Dead is dead!"

"Gods in Hell. Well humans, if not buried in a strong box, or burned to ash, do!"

"Only humans." Kendra added. "Not elephants, bears, wolves, crows, capy's or anything else we know of."

"I've heard rumours of some of those," added Kendra's man - Vaun would have to get a name off him when they were through this - whatever this was!

"That's just talk. Re-lived humans are a real everyday threat."

Then it came from between the trees. Vaun's eyes went wide. A corpse, in priest's robes, black with dried blood. It was missing a significant portion of its face and one eye. It didn't seem to care. It turned stiffly, then lunged in the direction of the nearest living person, apparently intent on trying to bite them to death!

"Don't let it bite you!" Kendra shouted in unnecessary reminder, or possibly only for Vaun's benefit. "There are worse things than death, and becoming one of those things, and also aware is definitely one of them."

This corpse didn't seem aware of anything much. Not even of Chop removing one of its arms with a sword blow. He spun and removed the corpse's head on the second blow. The head bounced over to near Vaun's feet. The eye turned to look up at her and the jaw moved open and closed repeatedly. She shrieked.

"Vaun?" Kendra called over to her.

"It's still alive!"

"It's dead. It's just moving like it's alive. They all are."

Vaun was gasping to catch her breath from the shock she had just received. Chop was still swinging his sword at the rest of the body. It was shambling about now without direction, but still lurching back and forth.

Another corpse came from the forest into the camp clearing. It was in better shape. Chip leapt at it with a yell and a heavy sideways sword blow aimed at the neck.

Vaun heard a sickening noise behind her. She turned to see a corpse with a slit throat shambling towards her from a third of the way around the clearing. As it moved, its lungs pushed air in and out of the throat-slit making a wet rasping sound. It stepped through the thorns that had earlier enwrapped her body, ignoring the barbs lacerating the soles of its feet.

Daemonic words came to Vaun's head. They didn't make much sense. The Daemonic language was 'the language of magic' but there was a notable difference between its use conversationally and its use for invocation. The former generally made a lot more sense. "Say it," a voice in her head said. Or possibly it was just in her ear, or on her shoulder. No time to care!

Magic invocation was mostly a string of rote-memorised words. If you took the time to pick them apart, they did actually kind-of make sense. You could even use bits of different spells joined back together to try and invent new spells. It was a highly structured, and very precise use of the daemonic language, and mistakes could result in effects from the hilarious to the widely-lethal.

Vaun spoke the words swimming a loop in her head. There was a strong motif of greenery and life in the sentence, but the exact meaning escaped her frantic mind.

The thorns moved. It was subtle, but one caught the corpse's foot, tripping it to the ground amongst all the other thorn vines. They crept over, consuming the legs and then the torso, sawing slowly back and forth as they tightened and released repeatedly.

There was no sound, and no blood. Well, a black goo of congealed blood oozed from it in places, but there was no heartbeat pressure to drive it. It continued to move, not really struggling, just trying to get up again, as the thorns slowly severed and diced it. Vaun wanted to be sick, but she hadn't eaten for the better part of a full day.

Seven more corpses were dealt with by the group. Chip and Chop did most of the carving with the others running distraction to keep the re-lived from forming a clump and attacking together. The elephant, Gratar, dealt with two also, by grabbing them around their middles with its trunk, and bashing them into the ground before trampling them to impotent mush.

There were body pieces everywhere. And all of them continued to move! They twitched and some even bounced as disconnected muscles spasmed.

"Shit!" Kendra and her man said simultaneously from opposite sides of the clearing. They looked across at each other. Vaun almost expected them to laugh at their simultaneity, but they just shared a distressed grimace.

"Do we need to pick all this shit up to burn?" Sara asked, her face showing clearly what she thought of touching the things.

"No," Kendra replied, exhausted. "They are harmless now. They will rot down and die properly in a few weeks."

 

Chapter 4: Tranquillity

They moved camp. A good day's walk west from where the twitchers still twitched, slowing their erratic motions notably over the hour it took to pack up and get moving. "The smaller pieces will stop moving in a few hours. The larger ones could take weeks," Kendra explained.

Gratar carried much of the camp in two huge bags on either side of him, connected by wide straps draped over his back.

"You okay carrying all that?" Vaun asked, as she walked beside him.

He nodded, and made a low trumpeting sound, in his throat, not trunk. Vaun interpreted it as good-natured laughter, at her expense. She still had some difficulty getting her head around another species willingly associating with humans, but elephants weren't slaves!

At the new camp, Vaun was pacing around the clearing, crossing it multiple times. Thumping on the trunks of large trees.

"Is that a Daemon thing?" asked Sara as she watched over her bowl of gamefowl soup.

"Might be a tree-wizard thing," Kendra commented back over hers.

"You may as well come out!" Vaun shouted into the forest. "You may have got away with pretending to be a delusion when I was almost dead, but I heard you back there. COME OUT!"

"Out of where?" A voice sounded through the clearing. "Where, exactly, do you imagine I am, Vaun of the Vast Wasteland?"

Everyone was on their feet, scrabbling for weapons, turning circles to try to face the direction the voice had come from. It had come from every direction.

"Who are you?" Vaun demanded.

"I am Tranquillity." The voice was in the female register, but Vaun wasn't buying it. She had heard a similar, if deeper, version of this not-quite-daemon (or human) voice before. In Hell.

"You're a god!" She accused.

"I am, as you say, a god."

"What did you do to me?"

"I heard you story. I approved of it. I had you repaired, that your story may continue."

"And the thorn-vines?"

"That was you. Well, I gave you the words, but your own mind was feeling weak and vulnerable and encouraged them to grow like that."

Kendra spoke up, "Tranquillity? That is your name? I have not heard of you."

"I am here. In this forest."

"And Blood-dance?"

"Blood-dance attacks me. One day, probably soon, Blood-dance will win and then I will be no more."

"Can you fight back?"

"I am small. Blood-dance is vast. Unstable, but not yet to the point of schism."

"Schism?"

"When a god grows too large to control its wide-spread parts. It fractures. New gods are created from those parts. They consume and grow. And schism."

"Sounds pointless."

"Death and birth are the natural order of things. I know it is that way with your kinds too."

"Do you grow? Will you one day... schism?"

"I remain small. I do not wish to grow."

"Interesting. Why not?"

Vaun thought Kendra was being rather impertinent, a human demanding answers from a god like that. But Tranquillity didn't seem to take offence.

The god explained. "I recall my early centuries, I wanted to grow. Ever vaster growing like a great tree, until I was the whole world. But I looked at the vast trees in my domain. They grew tall and wide. Then they stopped."

"If they get too big they'll fall over!" Chop put in.

"No," Tranquillity disagreed."If they get too big, they are unable to move water and nutrients from their roots to their leaves. They instinctively know to stop before that happens."

"So you stopped too?" Vaun asked this time. She had to admit that, as quirky as the conversation was, it was somewhat sane, which was not the normal reputation of gods.

"I still feel the need to grow. To expand evermore. I resist. I chose for the natural forest boundary to define my own. And refused myself to grow beyond."

"But Blood-dance is now of a size to overwhelm you," Kendra observed.

"Early on, Blood-dance was not so great, and I was, while not so large as Blood-dance, still much more than I am now. Should I have grown like Blood-dance? Getting increasingly destructive as I did, until I would schism and my self was no more? I think I would rather be consumed. Either way, I am no more."

"It was you who summoned Vaun?"

"Incorrect. A god operating from the source end of the summons sent Vaun of the Vast Wasteland."

Vaun objected "The other end of the summons was my home! It is in a godless land. No gods exist there."

"And yet, I sensed a presence. It identified as Hope. Blood-dance summoned a daemon from Hell. Hope intervened such that that daemon was instead Vaun of the Vast Wasteland. I do not believe Blood-dance noticed. The intervention was subtle, a mere substitution of one daemon for another."

Vaun looked at Kendra. She looked back and shrugged. "It's your wasteland, don't look at me!"

"Why me?" Vaun asked. It wasn't an uncommon question for her to ask in recent octades, though she usually kept that existential stuff to herself.

"Unknown. Distant gods rarely interact - it is dangerous to operate across other gods' domains. It leaves one open to attack. She sent someone inherently primed to break the binding, so it might be assumed that this was the intent."

"Didn't you break my binding."

"Incorrect. I guided you to do it. But you were required to have the mental state to be guided."

"To what end?" Kendra demanded.

"The breaking of the binding was a blow to Blood-dance. It damaged Blood-dance on this edge. Halted Blood-dance's attack on me and allowed me to retain this part of my domain. For now."

"So this Hope god was helping you."

"Unlikely. Hope will have an ulterior motive which I have not yet unravelled. Most likely Hope wishes to weaken Blood-dance for Hope's own gain. Hope has used Tranquillity as a tool in achieving Hope's goal. That this also benefits Tranquillity is likely only serendipity."

Kendra cut in: "I weary of all this god-war talk. Gods fight. It is all they ever seem to do, and probably the only thing that keeps them distracted from killing all us mortals off anyway!"

Sara decided to put her two pieces into the conversation. "You seem like a reasonable god. Beneficent even, if that is possible."

"I care for the forests. The trees are of interest to me."

"Not the people?" Kendra gave Sara a warning glance. There were some topics one should not bring up with gods, and there were many legends detailing what and why. Complaints regarding human welfare were very near the top of the list.

"I am not concerned with animal life. It exists, and is sometimes purposeful. There were once people in my domain, a part since consumed by Blood-dance. I allowed them, if they didn't damage the forest."

"So, no cutting trees, then." Sara eyed the fire, it was all collected dry-wood, nothing cut green, of course.

"Cutting of trees is permissible, if it is not detrimental to the overall forest. Plants perceive life very differently to animals, especially to people animals. It does not hurt them in the way you perceive pain. Sometimes it is even beneficial to the wider forest."

"Are you...." Kendra started. But the ambience had suddenly changed. "Tranquillity?" Nothing. "She's gone?"

"Tranquillity is still here," Vaun assured her. "No longer focused on us, though. Something elsewhere has grabbed its attention. Something big if it can't spare some of itself for us."

There was a sound of breaking branches overhead. They looked up to see a black shape crashing out of the canopy, over the clearing and back into the canopy on the other side. A deep scream of pain accompanied it.

"What in Hell now!" Kendra complained.

 

Chapter 5: Dragon Down

"There is nothing sadder than a dragon with a broken wing", or so the saying goes.

There is an alternate version: "There is nothing better than a dragon with a broken wing!"

The scaly black mound was crying to itself.

As the group approached through the underbrush, it heard them and backed up as far as it could, curling even more tightly into a defensive ball.

"Mind it's chinstaff," Kendra warned the others. "It's likely a flamer, but could be something else."

Vaun discretely signed something in daemonic. It was less a magical spell than a maintenance command, from her perspective. She had learned it off a forge-master in her prior life in Hell. The chinstaff responded to her gestures, though only she caught the subtlety of the response.

"It's empty," she advised. "The Chinstaff is out of charge."

"What?" Kendra asked.

"No magic left in it," Sara translated for her. Vaun suspected Sara knew some simple magic herself, but if she wasn't sharing that fact with the group, Vaun wasn't going to out her. Humans were really weird about the use of magic.

The dragon glared at Vaun. She shrugged back at it.

"That looks pretty bad!" Kendra said, commenting to the group on the unnatural angle of one of the front bones in the left-side wing.

"It feels worse!" The dragon said back.

Everyone jumped.

"What?" The dragon said, "You didn't know dragons spoke Trade? I speak three languages well, and several more badly."

"I didn't know dragons spoke at all!" Kendra admitted. "Not out side of children's books and old tales, at least."

"What a tiny world you must live in!" The dragon moved slightly, and winced from the pain, its eyes watering.

"So," Sara said conversationally. "What brings you to these parts?"

Everyone looked at her.

"What?" she demanded. "It speaks. I'm having a conversation with it!"

"It is named Dengath. It identifies as he."

"Now we're getting somewhere. I'm Sara. She." She grinned mischievously.

"I'm also in a great deal of pain, and unlikely to ever fly again. So if you are going to kill me, I think I'd rather you just get it over with."

"It doesn't look so bad," Kendra's man said. Damn! Vaun had forgotten to get his name still! Afred had been right - the Wasteland did something to your sense of name! The priestess deep inside her shook her head in disappointment.

"It's broken. Do you have any idea what that means for a wing?"

"Just looks dislocated to me," Kendra's man observed. "Gratar can probably pop it back in for you. It will hurt like all Hell, though!"

"It already hurts like all Hell!"

Gratar wasn't keen on approaching the dragon. The elephant stamped its front foot and shook its head, growling in the back of its throat. The dragon finally agreed to tuck its head under itself.

"This is really going to hurt!" Kendra's man warned him. "Like a hundred times worse than you are feeling now."

"Then what's the point!" Came the muffled voice from under the dragon's butt. "Unless you just enjoy inflicting pain!"

"It will only hurt like that for a short time."

"Then get it over with!"

Kendra's man carefully instructed Gratar on exactly how to manipulate the bone. Well, as best as he could guess, having never been this close to a dragon before. But he claimed it didn't look that different to a hand, just a lot bigger and with really long webbed 'fingers'.

Dengath screamed. He screamed behind himself, and into his own body, and Vaun still had to clamp her hands over her ears. He stopped screaming, and was panting. Gratar, with Kendra's man straddled on his neck, backed off quickly.

"You can come out now," Kendra's man called.

"I don't think I want to," came the muffled reply "Ever!"

"Don't be such a baby! Or would that be an egg for you?"

"We are babies after being eggs," the Dengath scolded as he pulled his head back to face them. He looked at his wing, which was no longer twisted oddly. "It still hurts like Hell."

"It will for a while."

Dengath tried to flex his wing. He screamed into the sky.

"Ah, probably don't do that for a while either!"

Dengath carefully adjusted his wing to the least uncomfortable position he could find. "Well, human. I guess I owe you my thanks. And your elephant companion too. I'd offer you some of my treasure - that is appropriate, yes? - but a mountain fell on it recently and it is all buried."

"I'll be content with having learned that dragons are not just fire-breathing monsters."

"Well, we don't actually breathe fire," he stroked his chinstaff with the 'forefinger' of his good wing. "How would that work anyway? And I've been called far worse than monster before. Including by my own mother! Though I probably deserved it at the time."

Sara butted into the conversation. "As I was saying, before someone rudely interrupted me! What brings you to these parts? Forested flatlands aren't really places dragons tend to spend much time in, you are more mountain-dwellers, and open-plains hunters, am I right?"

"A mountain fell on my home, as I think I mentioned. It was personal about it, too! I'm staying away from them for a bit. What I wasn't expecting was flying over a burned-out forest to the west of here and having some humans with wooden contraptions hurling huge rocks at me. Once was enough, already!"

"That sounds like Blood-dance's worshippers. I heard rumours he had instructed them on how to make giant war machines." Kendra added, "Throwing rocks?"

"Big ones! As big as my head!" Dengath told her.

"And high enough to hit a dragon?"

"I was flying low. Looking for someone."

"Well, you're grounded until that swelling goes down," Kendra's man put in. "Best take it lightly for some time, really."

"Wonderful! I'm guessing after all your help you are not adverse to me sharing your camp fire? How cold does it get around here at night?"

"How do we know you won't eat us in our sleep?" Kendra demanded.

"No, no, you got the line wrong!" Dengath told her. "It's how do you know a dragon won't eat you?"

"What?"

"It will tell you so. Repeatedly. Self-righteously lecturing on the evils of eating talking beings until you start to wish it would eat you, just so you don't have to listen to it any longer!"

"It.... What?"

"They don't tell that one anymore? It was a real wing-slapper back in the day - admittedly that was a few hundred years ago now! And not in this inarticulate trade-language! It was briefly trendy with the hatchlings of that generation to adopt the whole 'eating any talking being is cannibalism' stance that most of you smaller creatures love so pretend makes you morally superior. Mostly to get under their elders's scales, I'm sure. Maybe even some few stuck with the philosophy their whole lives, though I never encountered a dragon who had, myself."

"So you don't eat...."

"Not recently, no. I wasn't part of that clique back then. I didn't get the idea stuck in my head until just a few years back when The Viki stood herself between me and a couple of lost human-children I was hoping to have for dinner. A surprisingly persuasive person, that one. And more so, on reflection, than she was even at the time!"

"Viki?" The magician who had so rudely read his staff-charge interjected. "You're that dragon!"

Dengath's put-on air of ease momentarily faltered. He recovered it quickly. "And you are?"

"Vaun. Viki's mother."

Dengath examined her more closely, her robes hid what of her true form the darkness of the forest didn't from most eyes. Though not from dragon eyes with vision into the ultra-violet, where the light scattered over short distances, around and through things that might block other colours. The horns were the give-away, even under that comically oversized hood presumably meant to conceal them. "Daemon," he observed. "That figures. You don't appear to have the 'eyes' thing going on."

Vaun stepped back a little, shocked by the bluntness. "That is just her. No daemon - no anyone that I know of - has those eyes."

Dengath noted the involuntary shiver that ran through the woman at the thought of her daughter's eyes. Her own mother, too, he thought sadly, remembering the fatalistic morosity of the young woman who had stood defiantly against certain death in his jaws some years before.

 


 

Late in the evening, Vaun approached where Dengath lay at the edge of the camp. Before she reached him, he closed his facing eye, feigning sleep though leaving his ears twitching as if even in sleep dragons were fully alert - not true, but a good impression to give non-dragons!

"Dragon," Vaun whispered at him.

"Dengath!" he growled, re-opening his eye to look at her without raising his head off the ground. "And you are Daemon Vaun, mother of The Viki."

"Sorry. Dengath." Her inner priestess was ready to slap her!

"Ruler of the Vast Wasteland.... Ah, forget that. I'm not ruler of any damned place anymore!"

"Do you know the way back there?"

"To the Wasteland? Yes. You don't?"

"I was summoned here. And I broke the summons. I have no idea where I am, except no-one within leagues of here has even heard of the Vast Wasteland."

"It isn't actually very far - about three days flight.... Ah, that might be some many months on foot. Very bad terrain, too, or so it looked from above. And that ocean in the way!"

"I need to get back. Viki might... she was trying to get home."

"You care for her?"

"I'm her mother!" Anger in that response.

"Sorry. I thought... with the eyes-thing...."

"I... we love her dearly! Her father and I both! Her look is something we have learned to... work around."

Dengath was silent for a moment. "Then my greatest respect to you. And her father too. That... look... was enough to put me off eating people for life!"

"You tried to help find her. That was your scale, for the seeking spell, wasn't it?"

"The Viki is an important part of the Wastland Ecosystem. My Wasteland ecosystem. Well, it was, anyway."

"Was?"

"There has been a god-schism on the west side - right under my home! The new godlet, when it can take time from in-fighting with its siblings, seems to have taken a scorched-earth attitude to everything living in it's domain. Including me, if I had stayed there a moment longer!"

"Oh gods!"

"You live somewhere on the East, don't you? Most humans are east, except that settlement in the south and the nomads wandering around the centre."

"Yes. East."

"The Wasteland itself is godless. No gods can even go there - that's why it is a wasteland - no gods to maintain it, even if they wanted to. Anyone actually in there is probably in the safest place within a day's flight right now! My own home was in the ranges just west - apparently far enough out of the godlessness to be over Stone."

"Stone?"

"One of the new gods born of the schism declared that name for itself. Along with its intent that stone be the only thing allowed under its reign. The Vast Wasteland is going to be paradise compared to Stone's realm once it sorts out its borders with its siblings, and probably eats one or two of them. And butted up against a godlessness as it is, Stone only has to defend itself on three sides, so it is in a good position to dominate, as Might did in its time."

"Stone." Vaun shook her head, unable to imagine it.

Dengath explained, as best he knew himself, schisms were long-period events. Even Dengath had never experienced one before, his grandmother had told him about the last local one from stories passed from generations before. A god grew so large and powerful that it had a literal personalty-split, breaking down into several godlets. Reproduction, of a sort, though as lethal to the parent as octopus-reproduction was reputed to be. Some octopuses chose to eschew reproduction in favour of long lives. Did some gods do likewise? Could they? Unlike octopuses, gods grew increasingly insane with increasing age and size.

Increasingly insane? That tiny little new god Stone was already determined to burn out every living thing in its domain down to the bacteria in the deep rocks. As gods went, that was already at the extreme.

Stone's parent, and previous god of the lands south and west of The Vast Wasteland, had been of the neglectful type - just keep yourself out of its notice and it left you alone. Usually! Stone had taken a severe sideways tangent: rebellious-youth to the extreme!

A pause after Dengath finished. Then Vaun spoke again, haltingly. "Could you take me back? Carry me?"

"What about your friends?"

"They are just companions of convenience - as I am to them. Good people... well, relatively. But they have no interest in going so far from lands familiar to them. And they are safer staying here - the local god is fairly benign, for a god anyway! And probably even favouring them, right now, since we recently thwarted some worshippers of a neighbouring god, one of the more vile types, from what I have been told."

"Well, right now this wing can't even carry me. But if it heals as that clownish human man claims, we can try."

"Allow me to look. I know some healing magic. Not god-healing, but I can likely speed things along."

 

Chapter 6: At the Door to Hell

Dengath flexed his wing. No pain. No weakness. "Let's try this."

"How will you carry me?" Vaun asked, trying to hide her fear at the prospect of being high above the ground. It had taken her the better part of an octade to get used to being on top of it! The open sky was scary enough from beneath. And now she was daring to go into it.

"On my back. Just below my neck. If you stay low and wrap your arms around my neck, you should stay clear of my wings on their upstroke. For Hell's sake don't try to sit up, or we are both in trouble."

Vaun had no intention of doing anything but clinging on for dear life!

Kendra had come across to the large clearing from the smaller one in which the camp was set up. "You're really going to try this?"

"I have to find my daughter."

"I get that. Just be careful."

"Thank you. For not killing me and all."

"Happy to. It's all been quite... eye-opening!"

There was a subtle change in the ambience.

"Vaun of the Vast Wastelands."

"Tranquillity. You're back."

"I am always here. My focus of attention is sometimes necessarily elsewhere."

"Well, I guess I should thank you, for saving my life."

"Thank me by finishing your story."

"I'll try."

"And Dengath, Ruler of the Vast Wasteland."

Dengath grunted in surprise at the formal address. Tranquillity was, in fact, only the second being to ever use it to him.

"Take care of Vaun of the Vast Wasteland. And if you are ever in this area, and if I am still existent, bring me word. The story of Vaun of the Vast Wasteland intrigues me."

"Ah. Certainly." Dengath replied.

"Will you be okay?" Vaun asked. "Still... existent."

"Whatever Hope's motivation, sending you to me has helped. I have pushed back against the weakened borer with Blood-dance. The human settlement from which the young sacrificed girl came is back in my own domain again."

"Will you care for them?"

"No. But nor do I have any reason to harm them. So long as I can hold that territory from Blood-dance they will be safe."

"That's all I could ask." Vaun said. "And thank you again."

The alteration to the ambience faded and birdsong tentatively returned.

"Away?" Dengath asked, lowering himself to lie flat on the ground.

Vaun climbed on his back and wrapped her arms tight around the base of his neck. "Away!" she said. Her voice wobbled.

"Back up, Kendra of the Forest," he advised. "The down-draft is strong."

Kendra backed to the treeline and Dengath pushed up with his legs as he pulled down with his wings. He was airborne. He turned north-west, to best avoid the place with the stone-throwing war-machines, at least until he could gain a little altitude. "How high can you go?" he called back to Vaun.

"I have no idea."

"I won't go too high then. But if you start to feel light headed, be sure to let me know!"

Vaun had dared to open her eyes. She was terrified, but exhilarated too. She was in the sky!

 


 

It had been weeks. Viki could move her wrist. A bit. And it still hurt, but not enough to be called 'pain' anymore. Her ribs were likely as healed as they would ever be, again still twingy, but not stabby anymore. The broken leg was going to take a lot longer.

Another uneventful day. Even with her strapped-up leg, Viki was able to hobble about and set snares, then hobble about again some hours later to check if they had caught anything.

She gathered berries and dug tubers. The others called the place a 'wasteland' but they had no idea what a true wasteland was. This place was positively fecund!

No daemon entered the pyramid. No daemon left. The daemon population of the entire area remained exactly one-half! She had tried the door herself a few more times. She felt the tingle on her hand again, which nobody else did, but the door didn't budge a hairs-thickness. She even tried knocking, both with her hand and her staff. Either way, the sound fell into a dead dull thud. She had given up on that approach.

Everyone was bored out of their mind. Even Viki, who had found she was better-skilled than the others at keeping herself amused.

She had practised her handwriting, particularly in daemonic, until her writing hand was nearly as sore as its broken counterpart. Her Daemonic script was still a horrid mess that only she could reliably read. She was right-handed, and daemonic was a left-handed script, since all daemons were left-handed, according to her mother.

She had practised trade lingua, the language that was almost - but not quite - consistent across the continent, possibly the world. She learned several phrases - all quite amusingly rude! - in Chip and Chop's home language. She had even convinced Whiskers to try to teach her some of his native tongue. Three quarters of the words were outside her vocal range. They managed to work out together a single sentence with just enough words to be intelligible: "Me no speak this." Which Whiskers thought was as appropriate as it was ironic.

"Just remember this is my people's language: the capybara of the Northern High-planes. And some regions around. Don't expect any random capybara to understand even that. We speak just as many languages as humans do. You'll always find a few in any village that speak Trade. Same as with human settlements, go to places frequented by travellers: taverns, markets. You'll find them quickly enough. Especially since they will assume a human - or a half-daemon in your case - can only speak Trade, so they will likely identify themselves."

"How would they react to a real daemon - red skin, tall horns and a tail, just walking in?" Viki asked.

"They wouldn't like it much. But they don't have the inherent hatred that humans have to your kind. As long as the daemon didn't overtly threaten them, they'd likely default back to the same wariness we treat humans with. Mad is right: to anyone other than a human, a daemon is going to pretty-much be viewed as just another kind of human, for good or ill."

"Maybe when I get home, I should suggest my parents go on a vacation to the Northern High-planes," Viki mused. "Somewhere where the people won't judge us."

"Well, if your parents are anything like you, they will be... well, not welcomed, but definitely not shunned. Expect a bit of 'bloody tourist' talk but nothing specifically aimed at you personally.

"I'd say to mention my name, but they won't recognise 'Whiskers' or any other human-pronounceable name I might make up out here, and you simply couldn't pronounce my real name in any way they would recognise."

Viki thought on this. "Do you write?"

"Yes. Not all capybara write, not even most: probably about the same as humans. Daemons too, I guess. I am, amongst other things, a trader, so literacy is part of the job."

"Daemons can all read and write."

"Really?"

"They are born with the words in them. They just have to practice the manual skills for the first few years after they can hold a quill."

"Fascinating! Lucky for you, I guess."

"I missed out. Because I'm only half daemon, I guess. I was born with most of the spoken and signed language, but no writing at all. My mother had to teach me the hard way, like humans learn. I don't know which of us found that more frustrating."

Viki had pulled her notebook out of her side belt pouch. She had turned to the back and was leafing back through several pages to a blank one. "You can write me a recommendation!"

She held out the blank-paged book and a narrow metallic tube, which she had pulled out of the book's spine.

Whiskers took the book and then the tube, the latter more tentatively. "Is this... a wand?"

"What? No. We call it a pen. I say 'quill' in Trade as that is the only word the language has for it, and trade already has a different meaning for its word 'pen', a place to keep animals."

"How does it work?"

"Same as a quill, but you don't need to dip it in ink all the time. There is ink inside it."

"Remarkable! Where did you get it? I could sell these by the cart-load!"

"It was one of the few things my mother was able to carry with her when she was banished from Hell. She was mostly carrying me, but managed to grab a small bag of personal items too. She gave the pen to me, for my tenth birthday. The book is of human make. My father traded for it and that was what he gave me for the same birthday. To go with the pen."

Funny, thinking back, that combined gift might have been the end of the last small tensions between her mother and father. As a child, she had been aware of such tensions between them before, even if they tried to hide it from her, but not after her tenth birthday.

Whiskers did a trial squiggle in the top corner of the page. He then carefully wrote a series of marks across the middle of that page, reading the final line aloud as he did. "Whiskers, of the dawn borough." He added conversationally, "I wrote my real name, of course, not 'Whiskers'!"

He wrote some more below, in Trade. Viki is a person I have met and I have found her to be of sound character and honest intent. "Even in other capybara villages that don't share our language, someone will be able to read the Trade translation, and recognise a capybara script is written above it, even if they can't read the exact dialect. They might decide to take it as an endorsement."

"Thank you," Viki said. "Greatly!" She carefully placed the book on the ground beside her with the pen resting along the fold-trench between the two pages, to give the ink a moment to properly dry out.

"The truth is always free," Whiskers said, turning his head slightly to give his impression of a human wink.

"Ware! Dragon!" Chip, who was on day-watch at the time, called out.

The camp went into defence mode. Efficiently: one of the things Ugly had them doing to pass the hours was endless fighting drills. Even Viki, though allowances were made for her physical condition.

"Why the Hell is it flying like that?" Ugly commented.

"What the Hell is that on its back?" Chop added.

"Mum?" Viki said.

 


 

Viki clutched her mother. Vaun held her daughter tight in her arms.

"This is awkward," said the dragon. "Sweet, but awkward."

Swords were still drawn, but had lowered from attack stance.

Viki released her mother and turned to the rest of the group. "This is my mother, Vaunebhchau."

"Call me Vaun, please." The red-skinned, full-horned, four-thumbed daemon woman said to the still-astounded group.

"Oh, and this is Dengath, Ruler of the Vast Wasteland." The dragon side-eyed her at her use of his full self-claimed title. Viki asked him, "How did you find us?"

"Accident, to be honest," Dengath replied. "We were heading for the Vast Wasteland - I was taking your mother home. She was pointing out the local Hell-door to me as we passed over and I saw the camp so came down for a closer look. Then Vaun nearly crashed us both, sitting up shouting and trying to wave her arms about, when she saw you."

Ugly sheathed his sword. "Okaaaay. You are clearly a friend of Viki, Dengath, is it? So we offer no threat." He motioned behind him for Chip and Chop to also sheathe. Whiskers too slid his long-knife back into its scabbard.

Raven Mad flew in from wherever she had been perching to watch the road for much of the past few weeks. "Dragon! Dragon in the sky! Ware!" She squawked excitedly. Then, "Ah. Oh!" She landed on the front pole of the nearest tent and started pecking under her wing, visibly flustered and confused.

"What happened to you, dearest!" Vaun insisted, noticing Viki's limp and bandages.

"I was attacked on the edge of the Wastes," Viki over-summarised. "These people found me and saved my life."

Vaun looked up at Ugly, who nodded back to say don't mention it.

Vaun certainly was going to mention it! "Thank you, all! Viki is the most precious thing in the world to me."

"Mum!" Viki complained. "This is Ugly. His name. Ugly. Don't ask!"

"Maam," Ugly tipped his wide hat. Vaun tilted her body back in a slight bow.

"These are Chip on the left and Chop on the right. He gave me water when I was near dead of thirst." Vaun smiled a little strangely at the introduction, but bowed again, a little more deeply.

"The capybara, we call Whiskers. His real name we can't pronounce. He bound my wounds.

"And the crow is named Raven Mad. Yes, she is. We call her Mad for short. She first found my body lying on the edge of the wastes."

"A pleasure," Raven Mad croaked. "Truly! Your daughter is a delight."

Viki re-introduced her mother and Dengath to the bird, who had missed the first introduction.

"Well," Raven Mad observed, "Three humans, a capybara, a crow, a half-daemon, and now a full-daemon and a dragon. I think we have a full half of the speaking world represented here!"

 


 

Vaun tended to Viki's remaining wounds. They were already healing well, thanks to the capybara's treatments, which were clearly highly skilled.

"Whiskers?" she called him over. "I don't feel right calling you by that silly name. I know it isn't your real name."

"I'm mostly used to it now," Whiskers replied. "You can't really call me..." he said a short linguistic squeal. It contained sounds not unlike human and daemon speech, but a good chunk of it was well above alto range.

"Okay. Whiskers it is. If you are sure!"

"It will do." The capybara assured her.

"You are clearly a skilled healer. You did all this without magic!" She gestured to where Viki's robe was pulled up almost to her crotch to reveal the splinted and strapped leg.

"I trained with a good physician's school. Human." He told her.

"It will even heal strait. But we should speed it up."

He looked at her quizzically. "You mean magic?"

"Capybara don't allow magic?"

"We don't use it. I'm not aware of any prohibition. Can we use it? I thought it was a Daemon thing, and some humans."

"Anyone can use it. It's just words. You learn the words, it works."

"Isn't it dangerous?"

"It can be. Very! But not the kind of simple magic I am talking about here. Come and listen. Then follow."

"You are going to teach it to me?"

"Of course. You are a healer. A good one, clearly. It's just another tool for you to use in your work."

Vaun started demonstrating on Viki's ribs. She said that region of the body, full of vital organs, was the most dangerous to work with, so she didn't expect Whiskers to learn there. Quickly the twinginess dulled to nothing at all.

Vaun then guided Whiskers through the long and repetitive process along her leg, which had been broken in three different places along its length, one a clean break through the bone, the other two incomplete fractures. She guided Whiskers through each of the fractures first. Then they both worked in concert on the full break.

Whiskers was able to fully-heal her hand on his own, with Vaun supervising closely.

Bandages and splints off, Viki flexed her limbs. They were a little weakened from their weeks of immobility, but fully healed. "Thank's mum!" Viki hugged her mother gratefully.

Vaun made a throat clearing noise and nodded towards Whiskers.

"And thank you too, Whiskers, of course!" Viki hugged the capybara too.

 


 

They set up to eat, although it was only mid-afternoon. Ugly brought dinner forward, and doubled the food, with yet more out for Vaun and Dengath. He had been rather strict with their stored food supplies, on account of them having no idea how long they would have to be encamped. Viki realised why he had suddenly changed, and it wasn't just the celebratory mood.

"Ah, mum," she sad, after much of the food had been consumed. "We need to get into Hell. Through the door."

Vaun looked at her shocked. "You don't want to go there!" She said.

"Well, technically she doesn't have to," Ugly said from across the low fire. "I've been insisting she stay with us because she was hardly in any fit state to leave. And because she had nobody else to look after her. But with you here, you open the door, we go in and the two... three of you can be off home. You can even have the horses and camp gear. Everyone is happy!"

"You...." Viki had become habituated to considering herself part of the group. But what Ugly said was not only true, but sensible. She had no reason to go to Hell with them. She just wanted to go home.

"Why would any of you want to go to Hell?" Vaun asked.

"We have been contracted to," Ugly said. He rummaged in an inside coat pocket and drew out a folded parchment. He passed it around to Vaun, who unfolded it. "To destroy that."

"You won't get within a mile of that!" Vaun said.

"Daemons?"

"Even deamons stay well away from those. The whole depths of Hell."

"Depths of Hell?"

"Yes, I know humans think that daemons live in all of Hell, or that where daemons live is all of Hell. But Hell is twenty miles deep. Daemons live in the top part of the top mile, just under the surface. Going into the depths, where those things are, is not something you would do expecting to ever come back!"

Ugly's mouth soured. "So no daemons," he said at last, clutching for a bright side.

"No nothing, as far as I know. That's where the gods dwell incarnate. They don't accept visitors!"

Ugly cogitated on this for a while. "Well, I accepted the contract and I'm going to honour it. I didn't tell any of you about this - because I didn't know, to be fair on myself - so if anyone wants out, I'll pay you full anyway."

Chip and Chop exchanged glances and nodded at each other. "We're still in," Chop said. "What the Hell, we're going there!"

Whiskers hemmed and hawed.

"Well I'm in!" Raven Mad said. "Do you guys even know how long a crow lives? I'm twenty one years old - practically an old hag! I might as well end it doing something interesting!"

"You'll need someone who can stitch a wound," Whiskers finally said.

Ugly's mood lifted notably at these votes of confidence in him.

"You won't make it a mile down," Vaun warned. "I'm not being a downer here, you honestly won't. I don't know any of you, but you cared for my daughter in her time of greatest need, and I can't in good conscience let you kill yourselves on a fools errand!"

"I appreciate that," Ugly said. "But how far would you go to save your world? I'm pretty sure you would do anything for your daughter, even lay down your own life."

"Of course! What mother wouldn't?"

"I won't break your illusions by answering that honestly, but I am on a contract from my god. Have you ever done anything for a god?"

"More than you can imagine!"

"Well, I am on a mission from my god. And I intend to do my best to fulfil it."

"Your god," Vaun said. "I'm not sure any god is worth that. And I advise this as the former High Priestess of one!"

"My god is a little different to the kind you are used to in these parts."

Vaun remembered the aberrantly benign, if rather empty-headed, god Tranquillity. It was certainly possible. "Who is your god?"

"Hope." Ugly told her.

Hope! Vaun knew that name. If her skin wasn't already red, it would have gone that shade anyway. She had a few choice words for Hope!

"I believe Hope is a god I have recently interacted with," she said slowly, pulling on every thread of diplomacy the priestess within could hurriedly hand her. "I have reason to mistrust the intentions of Hope."

Ugly picked up on the seriousness in Vaun's voice. "If Hope has wronged you, then I can only apologise on Hope's behalf. And I make that apology confident that Hope would feel it. But Hope is a god. So Hope does not always act with the individual's best interests."

Vaun snorted at that.

"But Hope, I honestly believe, acts with good intention overall. Whatever wrong you endured was necessary for a greater good."

"I'd rather like to have a word with Hope about this greater good." Vaun snarled. The priestess within grabbed her emotion and forced her to calm. "Sorry. You are not your god. But Hope is sending you to your doom, greater good or not."

"I'll admit this is a challenging task Hope has set us. My limited understanding is that while it was not possible in this case, Hope normally sends teams of daemons to do Hell-work."

"Of course Hope does! Expendable daemons. And now expendable surface-dwellers."

Ugly talked over her, raising his voice slightly, but not angrily, "Hope does not risk life arbitrarily, or without care. The regional god Might is about to break, and this part of the world will become Hell on the Surface very soon."

"Might broke weeks ago," Dengath put in. "He is dead, and Hell has already arrived. In the west, at least."

"The tremors!" muttered Chip.

"That would be the new western god, Stone, born of Might's fractured corpse," Dengath informed her. "He has it in for life. All life."

"Then we must go quickly," Ugly declared. "Today, before dark."

Vaun sighed with exasperation. She had tried.

 

Chapter 7: Going to Hell

Vaun approached the door to Hell. The others were behind her. They were twitchy in anticipation of the unknown. She had made them sheathe their weapons. The chance of there being any daemon within a mile of the inside of the door was negligible. And even if there was, they wouldn't be expecting non-daemons to be wanting to come in!

Ten paces from the door it opened, the panels sliding silently, the walls scraping the dust off their surfaces as the door parts retracted into them. Behind was a long stair, going down. It was dimly lit from small circles of stark-white light in the ceiling running down with the stairs.

"Welcome to Hell!" Vaun said dryly. Back to Hell, in her case. She turned to Viki and Dengath, at the bottom of the stairs. "Dengath, take Viki to her father. She will help you find the place."

"Mum?" Viki said, in confusion.

"I'm going with them."

"Mum! No!"

"They won't even make it past the daemons of the upper levels. I can't let them go without a guide, not after how they took you in and cared for you."

"Then I'm coming too!"

"No you are not! Dengath, please take her home to her father, now!"

"No!" Viki said firmly. Dengath reached his wing out to scoop her back, but she ducked and rolled strait under his reach, coming up staff still in hand. She ran up the steps to her mother.

"You turn right back around, young lady!" Vaun said, sternly.

"I am not leaving you!"

"And what about your father? He is worried sick about you too!"

Viki was torn. She hesitated. "No. I'm staying with you, mum. Dad will be safe in the Wastes. You won't be down there!"

"You can't come to Hell."

"You can't stop me!"

They glared at each other for several seconds that seemed to stretch for hours. Well, Vaun glared. Viki's hood hid her eyes, as always, but she had the stance of glaring back.

"Please, my child."

"Don't child me, mum! I've been out here for weeks, and wandering the wastes for all my life. I can take care of myself."

A tear trickled from Vaun's eye. "If I lost you again...."

"I'll be right with you, mum. Always. I promise."

Vaun turned to Dengath. "Can you find my husband, Glyn?"

"I know roughly where to look, and what to look for," the dragon replied. "I can tell him you are well, and together. I might skip the bit about your going to Hell!"

"Thank you. Truly, for all you have done."

"Just get your daughter back to the Wastes safely at the end of all this. She is an important part of my ecosystem!"

He turned and waddled off, towards a suitable location to launch back into the sky from.

 


 

Dengath came down on the clearing outside the house. "Glyn?" he roared. "Is this your house?" It had better be, he had already terrified one innocent hermit getting the wrong place. "Glyn! Come out. I won't eat you!"

"What do you want?" Came a voice from inside the house. Dengath spied the shape of a pitch-fork being moved behind a window.

"I have word of Vaun. And Viki."

A head popped up near the pitch-fork. Glyn's need for information on his loved ones obviously stronger than his need for self preservation.

"They are together. Safe... when I left them."

The face disappeared from the window. A moment later a wiry middle-aged man appeared at the door. He came out onto the house's broad verandah. He still had the pitch-fork, holding it casual-defensively. Whatever.

"Safe?" the man asked.

"A day's flight from here."

"Afred said Vaun was over the sea!"

"Wings.' Dengath said flatly, "Notice them?" He rustled them to make the point. "I ran into your morosely-self-absorbed wizard about a week back. He told me roughly where to find her. Damn-near got myself killed, but we got back in the end. Then ran into your daughter, quite by chance - your wife damned near killed the both of us, again, knocking my wing-stroke off in her excitement, and I'm never taking passengers again, I swear!"

"Safe!" a statement, with a sigh of relief baked in. Then a question, "Where?"

"About a day's flight south-east of here. I can't carry two. I barely made it back over the ocean with one! They will make their own way back, once they have finished some other business they had to see to."

"Business?"

"Just helping some folks out. You know how Viki is. Her mother too, apparently!"

"Safe." Glyn repeated.

"When I left them, they were both in perfectly good health." For some reason Dengath felt awful. He might not technically be lying, but he really was. A dragon shouldn't care about that. A dragon should revel in it!!

"Thank you, so much!" Glyn said tearfully, making Dengath feel even worse.

"Now," he said hurriedly using the first excuse that came into his head to leave. "I guess I should go and tell that stupid wizard too, before he manages to find something around these wastes actually tall enough to throw himself off! Do you know where I might find him?"

"About twenty miles south. And a little to the east. It's a collapsed old house. Overgrown. Easy to miss."

"Thank you. I'll find it."

 


 

"You let them go to Hell?" Afred was aghast.

"It wasn't my place to stop them," Dengath scolded. "Besides, I couldn't exactly accompany them - I wouldn't fit through the doors!"

 

Part 4: Hell is for Daemons

Chapter 1: The Abyss

The stair down to Hell was long. Though it at least had small landings every hundred-or-so steps. Hundred exactly. Viki had counted them three times. Her calves were starting to ache by the sixth landing.

"Two more to go," her mother assured her, seeing the look on her face and the way she rubbed her legs as they stopped briefly.

Like outside the Pyramid, the steps were daemon-sized. Her mother, Ugly, Chip and Chop had no problem at all with them. But she was constantly having to hold the railing to stop falling forward as she reached down further than felt right with her foot.

Whiskers had been forced into to crawling down backwards on fours, though he was surprisingly quick at it.

Raven Mad had taken to just sitting at a landing until she saw they were almost down at the next, then swooping past them to nonchalant-aggressively wait their for them to catch up.

The walls, and the hand-railing along each side, were cold to the touch. Not how one traditionally thought of when one envisioned Hell.

The ceiling torches were all out in one section and they had to carefully inch their way down that section, feeling with their feet for the next step in the near-dark.

"Someone should be repairing these," Vaun grumbled to herself. "It wouldn't have been left like this in my day!"

"How..." Ugly started, sharply lowering his voice in response to the unsettling way it bounced off the walls, "How often do you come down here, anyway?"

"I was banished from Hell nineteen years ago," Vaun informed him. "On pain of death if I returned."

"Ah," he said. "Viki mentioned something about that - the banishment, not the death bit."

"I probably never mentioned it to her. She was still a young child when I first told her my story."

"We probably shouldn't be bringing you down here."

"Well, you are all on pain of death just for being here. No prior banishment required. You'll need a guide with local knowledge to avoid that fate."

"Fair enough," Ugly said. "And appreciated."

They reached the bottom landing. Vaun held her arm to her side to block everyone else from passing her. She peered out of the end of the landing corridor and into a dimly lit room. "I think it's safe," she whispered. "Stay behind me."

"For the record," Ugly whispered to her, "If we are following you and you want us to stop, hold your hand up with the elbow bent and make a fist. It means both stop dead and be silent. And we will."

Vaun nodded at him, copying the gesture.

"And this, one finger, means forward carefully. I've been drilling them into everyone for weeks, so it should be automatic, but I'll have so teach you the main signs next time we have a chance to stop."

Vaun re-checked the room they were in the doorway of. She did the forward carefully sign. Everyone followed as she moved. Even Mad was perched on Ugly's pack, staying still and silent.

The room had - Viki counted to herself - eight sides. There were openings in four of them, including their entry, making a cross-roads. Trails across the dirty floor showed two of the doors to have significant traffic. Their entry didn't, and nor did the door her mother led them to.

They traversed another corridor - flat, this time, no stairs. It opened into a vast cavern, the walls ceiling and floor lost in darkness. Bulky dark shapes could just be made out at the limits of light from the bridge across, which they were on.

"How big is this place?" Whispered Chip to Vaun.

"How big is the surface?" Vaun whispered back. "Hell goes under all of it."

Chip boggled. "That's a lot of daemons!"

"Its mostly empty," Vaun assured her. "Much like the surface. Towns dotted around. Fields for agriculture and unused space between."

"Agriculture? Down here?"

Vaun reached across to her side and broke something off from the railing. "Eat this," she said, handing it to Chip.

"Ewww. No!" Chip replied, pushing it away.

"Suit yourself," Vaun said, taking a bite herself.

"What is it?" Chop asked.

"Fungus. It's what daemons mostly eat."

"I thought daemons ate babies," Chip sneered. Viki wasn't entirely sure if she was serious. She wouldn't put it past the woman's prejudices to honestly believe such a thing.

"Sure we do," Vaun replied cooly. "We grow those on farms too. In the ground, like radishes."

Chop tapped Vaun's arm. "I'll try some."

Vaun broke off a piece and handed it to him. He bit into it. "It's a little slimy, but doesn't really taste like anything."

"This wild stuff is pretty bland," Vaun apologised. "But it will sustain you. The farmed varieties are much more flavourful, and many different tastes." She did miss a good mixed-fungus platter. "Most are also better cooked, but raw like this is perfectly edible."

She made the stop-and-silence gesture. Everyone froze behind her.

"Sorry, I just wanted your full attention for this: don't eat any fungus you haven't before unless I hand it to you!"

"Poision?" Ugly asked.

"Wild funguses can be. Even some of the farmed stuff is medicinal and eating a whole mouthful would not be healthful!"

"Magic mushrooms?" Chip asked.

"If you mean hallucinogenic, yes, some are. No actual magic involved. Even out here in the deserted regions we may run into outcasts and wander-offs. Beware that some may be consuming things that make them hyper-violent."

"More than normal daemon violence towards humans?" Chip pressed.

"Ah. Fair point. We are more likely to come across outcasts consuming funguses that put them in a stupor! The violent types usually end up causing enough trouble that they are, um, dealt with, so they are far less common. Just don't count on it!"

They continued over the bridge and into a tunnel on the other side.

"Where are we going anyway?" Chip complained.

"I'm currently trying so take us around the edges of a large daemon village. Just off where we entered Hell, the opposite direction to where we are. There is a stair down to a lower level on the far side."

They approached another cross-corridor - no room this time, just two tunnels crossing. Vawn held up her fist again. She extended her inner thumb and tapped her ear. It wasn't one of the proper signs, but the meaning was clear enough: she had heard something.

She carefully peered around the corners and up each cross-corridor. She made the follow sign and they slipped across. Stop again and listen. Carry on.

The corridor turned left, and ramped down gently for a while. They crossed another edgeless cavern, via a bridge.

"This place is an abyss!" Chip grumbled.

"Don't look down, then." Chop advised her. "You know what they say about looking into the abyss!"

"No, I don't, actually." Chip replied.

"When you look into the abyss," Chop quoted, "does the abyss look back?"

"Ooooh, Spooky!" Chip mocked, not quite covering the fact that what Chop had said bothered her.

"Last time I looked into the abyss," Viki commented, "It ran away crying."

Vaun flinched. Viki's dark humour about her condition always upset her a bit. She knew it was a coping mechanism, but it still hurt.

They left the cavern and into another short corridor which quickly opened out into a large, though not huge, room. It was probably about forty paces across. Octagonal again. Only two doors, the one they had entered by and the one opposite.

"Halt!" Someone said in daemonic.

"Surface!" Vaun swore, in daemonic. In that language it was a single syllable, starting with a fricative sound, so quite suited to use as a cuss.

"Identify yourself."

"Prisoners!" Vaun declared confidently.

"Oh no, mum!" Viki hissed. Vaun was trying to bluff the men with a thing from that stupid Adventures of Chip and Chop kiddie book!

"It will work if they are too young to remember me," Vaun hissed back.

The two daemons approached. "Prisoners? Here? How?"

"They came in from the surface door. Don't know how they opened it, officer."

One of the daemons may have been young enough to fall for it. His senior got close enough.... "Vaunebhchau" he said the name as a curse.

"Oh, fungus-food!" Vaun said. In daemonic. The demonic multi-syllable compound word for 'poop' was phonemically totally unsuitable swearing with. "Run!" She shouted, turning back towards the tunnel they had entered from.

"There are daemons on the bridge," Ugly advised her. "Running this way and armed."

Vaun spun, unable to think, and out of her depth. "Ugly, you're the leader. I'm just guide. You need to take over."

Ugly spun also. He looked much more sure-footed, but Viki suspected he didn't have many options than have everyone start hacking at daemons. Not that she had a problem with that, but she could now see the ones coming over the bridge and there were a lot of them!

She stepped in front of her mother before she could be stopped. The two daemons in the room pointed their swords in her direction, but didn't seem too concerned - she was half their height and a third their girth. She lifted her hood. She was going to shout "Boo!" but at the last second changed her mind.

"Hello, I'm Viki!" she growled in the most guttural voice she could manage. She locked eyes on the younger daemon, who was slightly closer to her. He shrieked, turned and ran. She turned her gaze on the older man. He backed off sideways, also terrified, but managed to back into a wall, missing the doorway.

"Abomination!" He stuttered, the front of his trousers changing colour from sudden dampness there. "The abomination returns."

"Yes, I'm back, Viki growled at him, widening her eyes. "And I hunger for souls!"

The daemon scrabbled along the wall to the doorway and was gone. Not shrieking, but still in flight for his sanity.

Viki pulled her robe back down. "Don't y'all come back now", she drawled in Trade under her breath, using an exaggerated human accent.

Vaun was staring at Viki, mouth hanging open.

"That won't keep them off for long, mum. Get us out of here. That way!" Viki pointed the way the two daemons had run.

They all ran.

The trail of liquid-drops on the floor turned left at a T intersection. Vaun took them right. They ran across another chasm. On the floor of it this time. Close in on either side were vast hellstone shapes: cylinders and tubes.

It took Viki a while to realise the pounding in her ears wasn't her blood. "Drums?" she asked her mother, running beside her.

Vaun took a sharp left turn, everyone followed. "Alarm," Vaun panted. "We'll have every daemon from my old village and probably several others in the surrounding miles out looking for us now!"

"What do we do?" Chip demanded.

"We need to go down. Several levels. Below where the daemons dare go."

"Lead us there," Ugly extolled.

"We can't get there without going through a populated area."

"Any other ways?"

"Millions, but none I know of."

"We need to find a place to hide then," Ugly advised. "Lie low for a bit."

Vaun wracked her brain. It had been two octades since she had last been in this place. "This way," she finally said, and began leading them again. "There is a disused fungus farm a mile along here. Vats should be clean."

They ran again.

Unfortunately, the fungus farm was back in use, with plenty of daemons there to easily overwhelm them. Too many for Viki to take on with her gaze, though she tried. Some ran, but many more just got more riled up. Daemon magic crackled the air and they were easily pinned. Ugly ordered a surrender. Killing or maiming a small portion of their adversaries wouldn't help anything.

 

Chapter 2: Hellforge

They were bound and on their knees. And gagged. Viki was also blindfolded.

They were not taken to the temple for trial, but the high priest came out to where they were being held to pass judgement.

It was the same high priest that Vaun had temporarily usurped, at Might's command. He was a good bit older now, of course. He looked over the group, shaking his head. He looked at Vaun longest. He had disappointment in his eyes, not anger. He had, after all, sentenced her to banishment when he had been well within his rights, and in line with popular feeling at the time, to have had her, and her newborn child, immediately executed all those years ago.

Vaun watched him turn and walk away. He talked to some senior guards. There was a bit of a whispered argument, ending with him leaving, shoulders slumped. Vaun got the impression he wanted nothing to do with what was to come. She didn't blame him at all!

They were each dragged by two strong daemons to a large room full of pipes and tubes, and dumped on the floor. Their weapons and equipment were dumped with them, which likely surprised the others.

Vaun had never seen a forge used for execution. During her time in Hell, there had never been a crime that warranted such a horrific death. But the weapons would do them no good, they were just more material for the forge to consume. As were they.

A forge-master finished setting the machine, then hurriedly left the room. Above was the muttering of a crowd. Even a few anticipatory cheers. There was a bridge over this chasm, well lit, as was the chasm's bottom where they were. And the bridge was packed with daemons, hanging over the railing to look down, waiting for the show.

They heard Raven Mad. She had not been captured with them, having had the advantages of both flight and relatively small size. And being black in colour, to easily hide in dark places. She was swearing through a clenched beak. "Got it!" she said, as she managed to bite through the bindings on Ugly's wrists.

Ugly leapt over to his sword in the pile of their belongings. A cheer came down from above. Vaun knew they weren't cheering Ugly. Just the chance for a better show, now he was free.

Ugly quickly cut Chop's bindings, and moved on to Vaun while chop retrieved his sword and freed Chip. Then Chop freed Viki while Ugly released Vaun.

They pulled the gags from their mouths and spat out the balled-up rags that had been behind them. Another cheer from above - the screaming from below would be much better, now!

Behind them, the large tangle of tubes, bellows and caskets hummed and throbbed. "What is it?" Ugly asked.

"Forge," Vaun said, in dread. "It makes things. Out of other things."

"Why are we here?" asked Chip. "Why give us weapons?"

"Because it won't make any difference," Vaun told her. "They preloaded the forge with less material than it needs for the job they set. When it gets through those stocks it will start gathering whatever else it needs from its surrounds."

"Oh Hell," Ugly said, realising the implications first. "You mean us!"

"It needs water - a lot of it. Our bodies are mostly water. It could suck us into dry husks in moments. But I suspect it has all the water it needs. It will be short on things like iron."

"Our swords!"

"To start with. Then the iron in our bodies."

"I have no iron in my body!"

"You blood and muscle tissue are full of the stuff."

"It will drain our blood?"

"Not necessarily. Depending on how much of us it actually decides it needs, it might be quite capable of extracting the iron without immediately killing us. And possibly the calcium in our bones, and whatever else it wants."

"That isn't going to be quick, is it!" Ugly said, knowing the answer.

"No," Vaun confirmed.

"What can we do?"

"Absolutely nothing."

"We can fight!" Chop shouted. He spun around, sword brandished, looking for something to fight.

Vaun already knew what that would achieve. But how could one not fight for one's life. Even if it was hopeless.

"Something moved!" Chip shouted. "Over there!"

"Watch the pipes," Vaun warned. "The narrow ones - thick as your leg."

"She's right!" Chip cried. A metal tube lifted from the floor. It had a four-way pincer on its end. When the pincers opened, there was a nest of needles and grinding gears behind it. It dove for Chip. She deflected it away from her with her sword, knocking herself off balance with the effort of the blow. A rousing cheer from above. There was also chanting. Something about a daemon-lord.

Viki swung her staff to deflect an approaching pincer. She missed, as it wove under her strike. It gripped her arm and she screamed as the needles dove deep into her flesh.

"Viki!" Vaun screamed, jumping aside from her own attacking pincer.

Viki had gone limp, held upright only by the pincer clamped to her shoulder. Then her head came up, as if on a marionette string. Her mouth opened and sound came out. The Daemonic tongue as Vaun had never heard it spoken before. "Token.... Literal.... Reset from...." were the only words Vaun caught. The rest was just... senseless. It was Viki's timbre of voice, but it didn't have her usual cadence.

The pincers froze. Viki continued to chant. Chant? She was babbling madly. The sounds were almost, but not quite, tripping over each other in a mad rush to escape her throat.

The pincers turned. One shot towards, and then into, one of the tanks that made up the bulk of the machine. It punctured the vessel, and fluid sprayed out the hole. Another attacked a nest of thin tubes that began sparking small lightning bolts.

A third and fourth likewise began attacking the machine itself.

The pincer holding Viki released her and instead attacked the base of the machine, ripping away a metal plate, to reveal its interior.

Vaun grabbed Viki as she began to slump to the floor. "Go into the machine," Viki's mouth said. She went limp in her mother's arms.

There was a loud explosion. Screams from above as a pillar of flame shot up towards the bridge, though it fell somewhat short of reaching it. More screams from above. Something hit the ground near Ugly. A daemon, its body broken on impact, and a pool of blood spreading out from beneath it. Another body fell, screaming all the way down. It hit the ground some distance away with a wet smack, cutting off the terrified sound.

"You heard her," Ugly shouted at the others. "Into the machine. Where that panel was ripped off!"

"It's not Viki!" Vaun shouted, but she was drowned out by the increasing sound of grinding gears, explosions, arcing lightning, screams from above, and the occasional wail-thunk of a falling body.

Chip was dragging Chop behind her. Ugly grabbed Vaun and shoved her and Viki's body forward. He turned back to grab Whiskers from where he lay bloody on the floor. Raven Mad was looping above them squawking "This way. This way. Hurry!" Driving them on. Caught up in the motion, Vaun dragged Viki into the machine with the others.

They came out in another of the octagonal rooms. It had a basket to one side, partially full. A large hole above it spat a small object out into it. Then there was an explosion behind them, and a fall of twisted metal sealed the hole they had come through. Explosions and screams still filtered through the wreckage from the other side.

Vaun pulled aside Viki's robe and pressed her will in on the shoulder. There was surprisingly little damage. She muttered the words and quickly healed it. There was deeper damage, but she couldn't comprehend it, and so could do nothing about it. Viki moaned, "Mum?" It was her real voice back.

"I'm here, sweetie," Vaun assured her as she gently lay her down. "But I need to see to Whiskers."

"Go and do it, mum." Viki said, weakly.

Vaun hesitated, but turned to Whiskers. He was unconscious, but she could find no injury on his body. Then she got to his head where there was a large gash and an even larger bruise. She closed the gash with her fingers and invoked the words to re-seal the skin. She altered invocation subtly and found swelling inside the skull. Another alteration to the incantation pushed the fluids to somewhere safer where his body could naturally deal with it. He began to wake. "Stay still, she ordered him. I have others to tend to."

She moved quickly to Chop, who was fully conscious, clutching his leg. Like Viki, he was victim primarily of a number of needle punctures, his on the thigh. She sealed them. "I feel very weak," he told her.

"It took a lot from you. From your blood, I think."

"Anaemia," Whiskers said. He had ignored Vaun's command and was examining Viki. "Some blood-poisoning, too, I suspect."

"I haven't finished healing you." Vaun said.

"I'm taking care of it. Like you taught me."

"I haven't taught you to handle brain-swelling!"

"Then teach me now, while I'm lucid enough to follow along and help. Doctor heal thyself and all that!"

It seemed like hours, but it was only a few minutes. Vaun had everyone, not fully healed, but out of mortal danger and able to at least walk.

"We need to go," Vaun warned. "It sounds like chaos out there, and we are still in the middle of it. It won't take long for someone to come back here to check the damage to the output.

"Output?"

"The forge makes things. This is where what it makes is delivered."

Whiskers pulled some of the small objects out of the catch basket and examined them. He shoved some into one of his pouches. Than grabbed another handful and packed those in too.

"Whiskers!" Vaun shouted at him. "We have to go! Now!"

Whiskers grabbed one last handful and followed, looking back mournfully at the large metal basket one last time as he left the room after the others.

They ran, and Raven Mad flew. As best as they were able. They had to stop often. Sometimes to rest. Sometimes because there were daemons running everywhere. Mostly frightened and confused, which at least made them easier to hear coming.

Vaun led them through a complex route of tunnels, hoping she remembered after all these years. And that they hadn't changed! For though the tunnels were eternal Hellstone, it was not unheard of for one to be walled up with more mundane materials for some reason or another.

They stopped again, and Vaun and Whiskers re-checked everyone's healing, pushing it a little further where needed. "We have one stretch to cover. But there will be daemons there. It can't be helped," she explained.

"Guards?" Ugly asked.

"Likely some, but mostly regular people."

"Can we fight through?"

"I'm hoping we won't need to. They are in sock. Horrified at what just happened. And when the horror of the immediate wears off, they will realise they just lost the only functioning forge for at least twenty miles around. That's a major part of the local economy."

"Oops!" Ugly said, his tone making it clear he was not at all unhappy about that.

"If we rush fast, we should be able to get behind them. They will see us, but won't be able to react or get to us before we are gone."

"Gone where?"

"Gone down to the depths. There is a stairwell there. A major one. It goes down several levels. Daemons don't usually go further down than four."

"What's below that?"

"Well, it used to be Might. But if he's dead, then I have no idea!"

 


 

They rushed the stair head. People saw them and screamed. As Vaun had hoped, they were too disorganised to do much else. As they turned the second loop, she heard shouting behind them. A group had organised after all. Quicker than she had hoped. But they had the head start she had hoped for.

Down three. Down four. Down five. The voices were still only a turn or two behind. Down six. The voices fell back. There was the sound of argument. Down seven. The voices had dropped off further. Down ten.

They reached the bottom, and were in another cavernous space. This one was low-ceilinged, but spread wide to one side of them.

"Where now?" Ugly asked.

"We need to rest," Vaun advised. "And heal properly. That quick-patching I did back at the forge was just enough to get everyone moving."

She had found them a smaller room off the huge one. There seemed to be hundreds of them, all behind identical doors. She had taken them along several hundred paces of them before choosing one at random. "I doubt they will come down, but if they do, we'll hear them searching long before they get to us."

Ugly checked out the room. It had a rear exit to a long corridor. An escape route was good. Back in the room was more of the chunky hellstone blocks, packed in a row along one wall. They had coloured gems, or possibly just glass, on them in places, recessed into the bulk material. They were a suitable size and height for sitting on, or lying down on to rest.

They sat. Vaun and Whiskers went over everyone carefully. They unpacked what little food they still had and ate it silently.

"What have you got there!" Chip said to Whiskers suddenly.

The capybara had a short silver stick in its hand. Like a wand.

"It's what they were trying to turn us into," he said, holding it up. "A pen. A writing implement, like a quill. But the ink is inside."

Everyone looked at him. "Viki had one. Up top."

"I know," Vaun said. "I gave it to her for her tenth birthday."

"You took it from Hell, didn't you? When you were banished?"

"I grabbed a bag of things as I was being hounded out by a mob. I didn't even know it was in there until later."

"Why these... pens?" Chip asked, looking at Vaun.

Vawn's face greyed. "The ink," she said. "Whatever it is made from, it's components can be more efficiently extracted from our bodies than generated from base chemical stocks. And at the relatively small quantities needed, it would have been slow!"

"Shit," said Chip. "They really didn't like us!"

"Well, we're out of it now," Chop put in. "Thanks to Viki, I assume?"

"Yeah," said Chip. "Whatever you did, it saved us."

"I?" Viki asked.

"You magicked that thing to eat itself."

"I did? I don't remember anything after the claw thing grabbed me until the room outside."

"You chanted something. Some daemon magic."

"That wasn't daemon magic," Vaun said, worried.

"It sounded daemon," Chip insisted.

"Magic is words. That was mostly... just numbers."

 

Chapter 3: Casting Down

Vaun returned to the room with her arms full of fungus. She handed it out to a grateful group. "I wasn't sure it would be growing this deep down, it requires something organic to feed on."

"Organic?" Ugly asked, biting into the cold and slimy, but filling, material.

"On the upper levels, it tends to grow wild where dust accumulates. Mostly dead skill cells, I have been told, and the corpses of the tiny creatures that feed on those flakes. And the farms recycle sewage, of course. It's quite efficient, but some obviously leaks out and gets down here."

Ugly stopped mid bight. He forced himself to swallow what was in his mouth and put the rest in one of his coat's large outer pockets. He knew that it wasn't really a sensible reaction, but he would wait until he was a bit hungrier before continuing.

"This isn't quite what your human poets meant when they wrote about 'Dining in Hell', I think," commented Raven Mad. She happily pecked at her piece of fungus, holding it down with one clawed foot, and enjoying the reaction of the humans.

Viki just ate. Throughout her own life, food was food, no matter the source, because you never knew when the next meal would be coming.

"It's good," Whiskers commented around his mouthful. Capybara were pure vegetarians. Not by choice - meat gave them painful, and messy, gastrointestinal problems.

They all finished, or packed away for later, their meal.

"Where to now?" Ugly asked Vaun.

"We are beyond my knowledge of Hell, now," Vaun advised him. "Nobody who comes down here ever returns to tell of what they saw. And we are still many miles above where I believe the thing you are looking for is going to be found."

"How do you know?"

"Give me the drawing again." Ugly fished it back out of his coat's inner pocket. "Those markings in the corner of the paper are daemonic numerals. I believe they are coordinates: Level, latitudinal corridor and longitudinal. I am not confident about which number is which coordinate, though, as they have been written in a circle, not the usual list-arrangement. But whichever order you read them, they all point to the lower depths."

"Down to he bottom?"

"Fourteen to twenty miles down, depending on which of these is the level designator. We are currently an eighth of a mile down at most. Even with this, how you'll find it, I have no idea. We would be lucky to get to one arrangement of these coordinates alive. There is no chance of being able to check all six!"

"Hope told me I should follow the daemons to the depths of Hell. The daemons of the forge, in fact, which I assume was that lot?" He pointed upwards.

"Daemons don't go into the depths," Vaun said. "I already explained that." Then she realised. "Except.... And it won't be long, after what just happened!"

They followed the rear corridor out of the room. It crossed other passages a number of times. Vaun was cautious, listening at every junction, but nothing was heard.

"How do you find your way around down here?" Raven Mad complained. "On the surface I can feel north, down here it's all over the place. Makes me dizzy!"

Vaun pointed out some tiny markings on the walls at the next junction, right up top, in the corner with the ceiling. "Location indexes. Numbers and directions for passages. Often also sub-indexes for where a passage leads."

"Convenient," Raven Mad said, fluttering up for a closer look.

"Not as much as you might think. A lot of the information is out-of-date beyond known history. The words, I can read individually, but don't make any sense as a set. But I can generally get a feel for where things lead."

"And where are you leading us?" Chip asked.

"A lot of daemons died yesterday. There will be a casting-down procession."

"Casting down? Of the dead?"

Vaun nodded.

"That sounds a bit dis-respectful."

"It is the highest respect," Vaun corrected her. "A solemn ceremony. The body is carried by a procession of loved ones, lead by a priest, to the underworld, where it is cast free into the mists below." She saw the looks on some of their faces. "Not just thrown out into the void with limbs flailing around! Properly wrapped in a burial shroud."

"Well," said Chop, "It makes sense: no re-life after that!"

"Daemons don't come back like that," Vaun told him, shuddering at her own recent memories of walking corpses. "A casting down ceremony is a twenty-mile trek down, an then the same twenty-mile climb back up again. The journey takes several days down, far longer than I was told this re-life takes. I'd never even heard of re-life until a few weeks ago!"

"So there is a real difference between daemons and humans," Chip said, poking a finger at Raven Mad. "Not just in appearance!"

"Not one to be proud of!" Raven Mad came back. "Crows don't do that either, thank the sky!"

"Only humans," Whiskers agreed. "And only in damp conditions. Does it rain much in Hell?"

"Rain? Never." Vaun said, wondering where he was going with this.

"Then I wouldn't count on Daemons being immune to re-life just yet. The air here is quite dry. If it wasn't for those side rooms with water-spigots we come across from time to time, we would all likely be suffering from dehydration by now, even in the cool air of this place."

Vaun blinked. She looked at Viki.

"Don't look at me, mum. I've seen enough dead bodies in the Wasteland, but none ever got up to walk around again."

"In the wasteland," Whiskers reminded her. "Where it seldom rains."

"But it does rain occasionally."

"I suspect you may have been lucky, then. A body can only desiccate so much before it cannot re-life effectively, or at all. And the already re-lived go dormant and hibernate if they dry out again. Rain after a dry spell is a time to be extra-wary of the re-lived."

Vaun found the corridor she was seeking. She had never come at the east-transverse stairwell from this corridor before, but it cut down through a few dozen levels here, so she knew where to go to intercept it.

"What now?" Asked Ugly.

"We wait," Vaun told the group. "Probably not long: while we were wandering around finding this place, they were preparing their dead."

"They won't wait?"

"Not with that many dead. And with the amount of distress and chaos I saw, the priests will also be wanting to provide closure for the families as quickly as possible."

"You are making me almost pity them," Chip said sarcastically.

"Have you ever fought a daemon?"

"Not directly, but I have seen one fought. Vicious thing!"

"And what happened?"

"The one fighting it lopped of its arm and it just kept coming, then they ran it through the neck and it kept coming still. Finally they smashed in its face then chopped the head clean off!" She was sub-consciously smiling slightly as she described the event.

"And then what?"

"Poof! It disappeared. Head and body both. Back to Hell I guess."

"Now think about how it looked from the Hell end," Vaun said.

"The what?"

"A daemon family is sitting down to eat. Mother, father, some children, maybe some extended family too. Then the father... no, lets say the mother - it is just as likely, suddenly disappears from the room. If they are lucky she will be gone for more than a few minutes, so the father can get the children out of there, since he knows full-well what it means.

"Having been fortunate enough to have had the time to get the now-terrified children away from the place, the husband sets up vigil. He will wait as long as it takes for his wife to return, for he knows eventually she will. She might even still be alive, though sometimes that is an even worse thing.

"Meanwhile, the woman is off doing the bidding of the human who summoned her. She has no choice. Her mind is not her own, and she can only watch, trapped inside her own body as she commits horrors.

"Then, as you say, 'Poof!' her mangled corpse, returns to the family dining table. Or a living body that would have been better if it had died. Occasionally even a relatively unharmed body. Physically unharmed, but carrying mental scars for life.

"And then the husband has to deal with whatever came back, for the rest of his life."

Chip had lost her cavalier attitude. Even Viki was looking at her mother aghast.

"Shit!" said Ugly.

"But...." Chip finally said. "That's not all humans! Most humans don't even do simple magic. Many places it is banned, and even where it isn't, something like summoning a daemon is still usually a capital offence."

"You know that," Vaun told her. "I know that... now! They...." she gestured outward. "How would they know?"

Vaun glared at Chip. Chip couldn't return the eye contact.

"So they have no choice?" Ugly asked. "When they are summoned."

"None at all," Vaun confirmed. "Anything they do is at the behest of the human - or god, I have come to suspect recently - who summoned them."

They were interrupted by noise on the stair above them. Vaun backed them up in the corridor. Possibly a hundred daeomons filed past the opening. Chanting, some wailing with grief. And seven bodies, carried on the shoulders of small groups of the living. Tightly wrapped in colourful cloth, and adorned with daemonic writings. Not magical, as far as Viki's limited skill with the written word could determine. The fragments she was able to catch seemed more narrative.

"May their stories travel with them into the void," Vaun muttered softly. She was quoting from memory. "Their loves, their losses. Their achievements, their agonies. May the void judge them well, and hold them in love, for all eternity."

The procession passed, heading down. "We follow," Vaun whispered. "At a distance, and silently!"

The procession travelled down, as those following travelled behind. Vaun made the stop-and-silent sign and everyone obeyed. "They've gone!" Vaun whispered.

"Gone?" Ugly whispered back.

"They have left the stair early. Not the path I learned - and a few times led - in my time as a priestess."

"Is that bad?"

"Not in itself," she whispered. "But if we loose them, I won't be able to catch them up from my own knowledge."

"This way," Raven Mad said, keeping her voice low too, though she couldn't whisper in the way humans did. "I can hear them." They crept through the doorway and caught back up with sight of the rear of the procession.

They crossed a chasm-bridge, and twisted through a maze of passages.

"Why so long?" Chip complained, at least doing it quietly. "And twisty?"

"We are well within the domain of gods now," Vaun told her. "There are... things... here that will kill in an instant, if provoked. Or even at sight of you. The procession is following a path, learned through hard, and sometimes lethal, trial. The path they follow leads between the notice of the gods, as best they are able to determine."

"And these safe paths change?" Ugly asked.

"Occasionally, so I have head in legend. Not in my prior lifetime. But Might is dead and a new god inhabits this realm. Daemonlord, if I understood the chanting at our execution correctly. A new god may mean new pathways. I don't know."

"And this Daemonlord will kill anyone leaving the path? Anyone it senses in its domain?"

"I don't think the god has full control. I always was taught that Might, in his benevolence, helped guide my people to find the safe paths through his domains. This Daemonlord may have given them this new path, or at least helped them determine it."

"I think it might be like a body," Whiskers said, after some thought. "A body will fight an infection, heal a wound, but we don't direct it to by thought." He added, "At least not naturally, without magic."

"We are an infection?" Chip asked, being querulous.

"If Hell is actually the body of a god," Whiskers said, "Then we may be the tiny creatures that crawl about on, or in the case of daemons, near the surface of, the skin."

Chip idly scratched her left arm with her right, then noticed what she was doing and stopped. Whiskers continued, "Such tiny creatures are harmless - often even beneficial - in their correct place, but if they get deep into a wound, they can be dangerous, and the body will fight them."

"Things crawling on my skin?" Chip said in disgust. She held her hand before her face to examine the back carefully.

"Too small to see - or to feel, so stop that scratching, lest you actually cause yourself an infection! I have seen them through medical devices when I was being trained as a physician - lenses like a telescope, but backwards. I was taught they are usually good. They eat dead skin before it can be eaten by more malicious tiny creatures. Even fight such creatures themselves, on our behalf. But they - like we - have a place, and it is not deep inside the body!"

 


 

The procession went on. For days. They stopped periodically to rest, and so did the following group. Vaun had to risk slipping slightly off the path to find fungus to eat, for the procession had picked the walls clean as they had moved past them.

She almost succumbed to hazard only once, as she stepped from a side corridor into a room of vast rectangular hellstone pillars, to feel the tingle of lightning on her skin, and a soft rising pitch of sound, barely perceptible. She instinctively stepped back just as a bright flash of light and heat erupted in the room before her. It threw her back several paces, painfully. Viki had been just behind her, and dropped the armful of fungus she had been helping carry, to crouch down and check on her.

"Ow!" Viki exclaimed. "Something bit me! When I touched you."

"Whatever it was, it bit me a lot harder. You got a tail end of it!" Vaun said.

"You smell of burning hair, and your eyebrows are gone!"

"They'll grow back."

They picked up the dropped fungus in silence and returned to the group.

"What happened to you?" Chip asked, with a slight sneer in her tone.

"One of the guardians of Hell," Vaun said.

"It missed mum by a finger-width," Viki snarled at Chip. "Have your fungus, you're welcome." She threw a large piece of the soft moist material at Chip's head.

 


 

At the bottom, Vaun led them to a side passage. Being very cautious, as they were again leaving the ceremonial path. They were quickly in a mid-sized room. It was unlit, except for a yellow light coming in from outside, through one wall.

The window was huge! Viki had never seen a pane of glass bigger than her spread hand. None of the others had either, judging by their reaction to this wall of transparent material. It was eight paces high and four times as long, forming the whole length of one wall of the room.

Outside, was an uneven ceiling, of twisted tubes and broad flat slabs. It went on forever, curving down just perceptively, before disappearing into a thin yellow mist. In the distance was a vast column of hellstone, also made of huge slabs and tubes, extending down into the mists, perpendicular to the ceiling. Arcs of lightning occasionally jumped from one point on its surface to another, lighting the surrounding mist, but mostly dissipated by the time the light reached where they were.

"Underworld!" Vaun said. Not whispering for the first time in days.

"I didn't think you meant it literally!" Ugly whispered.

"You can talk normally here," Vaun told him. "The door is thick, and sealed."

"What is this place?" Chip said.

"In here is, roughly translated, a seeing room," Vaun told the group. "Out there is the underworld. Literally, as Ugly said, under the world."

"The world is hollow?" Chop asked, awed by the view.

"As far as we know. We can only see so deep into the mists, but as much as anyone knows, the mists go all the way down, and presumably back up to the underworld on the other side."

"That column?" Whiskers asked.

"Nobody knows. It is deep in an area where there are no safe pathways. Considering all the lightning on it, I don't think you could get anywhere near it anyway."

Movement outside caught their attention. A group of daemons quickly carried a body onto an open ledge and, as ceremoniously as they could, tossed it off. It spun down into the mists and was gone. The daemons on the balcony hurried back out of sight.

"The mists are... well, not toxic, but you can't breathe them for any time and survive. There is a double-door you must go through. The breathing air is sucked out of the middle as you go out, and returned as you come back in."

"They are holding their breath out there?"

"Yes. There are things in the spaces near the... air door... that look like masks, for breathing and protecting they eyes, but they have never worked in memory or record."

Another group rushed out to the balcony and released their bundle.

"Will they see us?" Viki asked.

"They are too busy. And I have been on the balcony myself, briefly, in the past. I knew of this room and looked for it. I saw a mirror. Several, in fact, and one was likely this room's window. But I saw nothing inside, just a reflection of the mists."

Several minutes later, the last body was cast down. Nobody came back onto the balcony. "They will be preparing for the long climb back up," Vaun advised. "It is an arduous trek. Made less burdensome only by the knowledge that the loved ones lost are now in the care of the mists."

There were several minutes of silence, finally broken by Ugly. "Um, should we follow them back up?"

"I don't think so," said Vaun. "Were your instructions not to follow them here?"

"But if we don't follow them, we will be lost down here!" Chip insisted.

"I can recall the way back well enough," Vaun assured her.

"Are you sure?"

"I was high-priestess here for a time. And a regular priestess for much longer. The route was different to what I learned, but the way-markers are clear enough in my memory."

Chip didn't look completely convinced. They sat in silence for a while, unsure of what to do now. Ugly had his drawing of the device out and was studying it yet again for a clue that Vaun was not confident was there to find.

"Mum," Viki said cautiously, out of the blue, "Have you ever been summoned?" It had been bothering her all the way down, since her mother had described it.

Vaun shuddered at the too-recent memory. "Yes," She replied. "Just a few weeks ago, in fact. My first time - it happens to less than one in a hundred in their lifetime. And I have reason to believe the god who orchestrated my summoning was Hope." She glared across at Ugly. He dropped his eyes back to his drawing.

"Did you... have to..." Viki asked, not sure she really wanted the answer, but she had to ask.

"I was commanded to fight," Vaun said. "But I was lucky. A local god fighting the god who had initiated my summons helped me break my binding, break the mind-control. Somehow."

"So you didn't have to kill?" Viki was relieved. She couldn't bare the thought of her gentle gardener mother being forced to kill.

"Oh, I killed," Vaun said, with a savage look in her eye that made Viki hop her butt back an inch on the ground where she was sitting. "I killed the human who summoned me, who tried to make me his tool. I have no regrets over that."

"Hang on," said Ugly. "I'm confused. Did Hope summon you, or this man?"

Vaun looked back at him. The fire in her eyes died down. "It is complicated, and I might not have it entirely right myself - the god that gave me the information was not entirely... coherent.

"What I believe was the sequence, was that the human requested his god, Blood-dance was the name I think, summon a daemon to fight for him. Blood-dance summoned on the human's behalf. Hope jumped in there somewhere and made sure that I was the daemon summoned - I got the impression it is usually random. The god that Blood-dance was fighting, Tranquillity, broke the summoning magic, along with the mind-control and the gate through which I would have returned. Tranquillity claimed that Hope had somehow 'primed' me to be able to have the control broken. Or chosen me as already 'primed' for that purpose. I'm not sure I believe that. Hope no-doubt had some reason, but I doubt my welfare was within the reasoning of a god!"

"Hope does consider human - and daemon, I'm sure - welfare," Ugly insisted. Vaun gave him a thoroughly unconvinced look. "Hope sent you because you could break the binding. To survive!"

"I damned near died anyway. Though at least with the portal broken, my slashed-up corpse wouldn't end up dumped bleeding out on my kitchen floor for my husband to deal with! It was Tranquillity who brought me back from the edge of death - and only because it happened to amuse Tranquillity to do so."

Viki had moved over to her mother and now wrapped her arms around Vaun, squeezing her tightly. Vaun returned the embrace.

"Vaun of the Vast Wasteland is largely correct," came a voice drifting into the room. Vaun hissed through her teeth. The voice had that off timbre she was getting far too familiar with. The pitch was of indeterminate gender - if gods had such. There was also something else about it. Something new.

"Hope?" Ugly said.

"I am Hope," replied the voice.

"We are Hope," said a chorus of thousands behind it.

 

Chapter 4: Finding Hope

"What did you do to my mother!" Viki screamed at the ceiling.

"Viki," Vaun tried to calm her, standing to take the trembling girl in her arms. "Hope is a god. Gods are forces of the world. You may as well shout at a thunderstorm."

"Vaun of the Vast Wasteland is correct," Hope chorused. It dropped to a single voice. "However, Viki of the Vast Wasteland's feelings are not unwarranted."

Viki looked up from her mothers arms, tears of rage in her eyes.

"We have had a presence travelling with Ugly of the Scarlet Highlands since we set him on this task," Hope said. Ugly looked up in surprise. "An observation presence only, communication into another god's lands is insecure.

"We witnessed your rescue and recovery, Viki of the Vast Wasteland. It was an appropriate act for Ugly of the Scarlet Highlands and his companions, a demonstration of the reason I chose him, and he them.

"I witnessed a seek-scry channel hunting for you on a random walk pattern. I captured it and followed it back to source, curious. What I found was unexpected, but I deemed it non-detrimental to Ugly of the Scarlet Highlands' task, so assisted it to locate you, and risked shielding it from the local god Might.

"At the far end of that channel was a human. Afred, Great Wizard of the Vast Wasteland. Of little interest. Close by was a daemon. Uniquely long-free of the thrall of any god. This, I might one day have use of, so I noted the location: a godless land, but accessible under certain specific circumstances, in limited ways."

Vaun found herself growling in the back of her throat at the words might one day have use of. It's a god, she reminded herself. Not a person. For all its intelligence, it might as well be an out-of-control forge, for all the feeling and understanding it is capable of.

Hope continued, "Then an external entity with whom we are in sometime-contact with notified us of a threat to Tranquillity - a god well beyond our boundaries, but with whom we desire to one day have communication. We were impotent to act at distance without severe threat to parts of our own existence.

"But when Blood-dance called a daemon, we saw an opportunity. We... some of us, not all of us..." the chorus voices faded back in and then out again, "...diverted the summoning channel to our blind-marker in the Vast Wastland. We knew there was a high probability of the binding breaking, and when it did, we were able to insert a phage into the summons channel before it disconnected entirely, damaging Blood-dance to Tranquillity's advantage."

"You used me to attack another god," Vaun said. She didn't say it angrily. What was the point?

"Correct, Vaun of the Vast Wasteland. It was calculated to have maximum chance of benefit to Tranquillity."

"I almost died." Vaun muttered, mostly to herself.

"Your death was a high probability," Hope said.

"She's my mother!" Viki shouted suddenly. "You tried to kill her!"

"Your feelings are appropriate, Viki of the Vast Wasteland," Hope said, calmly. "However it was not an explicit intent to cause death to Vaun of the Vast Wasteland. Simply a high probability result of an action. Death is always unfortunate."

Viki let out a primal scream at the ceiling, then burst into tears. Vaun held her tight.

"Your distress is appropriate, Viki of the Vast Wasteland."

"Oh, shut up, Hope!" Raven Mad suddenly squawked, as loudly and shrilly as she could. "You are the problem here. And quit it with all the of the Vast Wasteland and of the Scarlet Highlands guano. We know where we come from!"

Hope went silent. The slight change in ambience that accompanied a god's focus of attention disappeared.

"Good riddance!" said Raven Mad. Ugly was looking at her, his mouth frozen open with shock.

"Raven Mad," Hope was back.

"What now, Hope?" Raven Mad said angrily.

"Hope#1432 has re-delegated communications to me."

"And you are?" Raven Mad asked, still surly.

"I am Hope#1127. Hope#1432 believes Hope#1432 is in error. Hope is assessing interactions with Hope#1432 and will adjust as appropriate."

"Whatever that means!" Raven Mad said.

"I think," Ugly said slowly. "That the first hope recognises Hope was out of order to speak the way Hope did. And has asked a different Hope to take over while all of Hope works out what they said wrong."

"This is a correct assessment, Ugly...." There was a dead pause while everyone waited for the rest of it.

"Great! Thousands of gods all named Hope!" Raven Mad commented. "This is going to get tedious really fast!"

"Viki and Vaun," Hope said, discarding Raven Mad's comment, "Hope wishes to express apologies for distress and pain caused. Hope, overall, as a communal entity and Hope#1432 as an individual entity."

"But why? Why do it?" Viki demanded, still crying.

"Tranquillity represents a potentially irreplaceable outlook on existence. It's preservation is of high priority."

"That's not a good enough reason!"

"The sending of Vaun to Tranquillity has allowed Tranquillity to re-expand Tranquillity's domain to the protection of two human, one capybara and one daemon settlement. This is not guaranteed to be ongoing, however it is, for the time, better for these entities."

"Still not enough!" Viki insisted.

"Vaun," Hope said. "You have previously expressed a willingness to sacrifice your life for your child."

"Yes," Vaun said cautiously. She had a pretty good idea where this was going.

"If Viki had been in one of the villages, would you have willingly been summoned, knowing it would likely end in your death but also had a high probability of saving her?"

"Okay, Hope," Vaun sighed. "You have made your point. Of course I would have."

"Mum! No!"

"I would. And I'd die damned proud of the fact!"

"With that in reference," said Hope. "We still apologise."

"But it won't stop you doing it again, will it," Raven Mad added.

"Correct, with caveat. We will take more care regarding conscent. The time frame for us to act in this case was too short to obtain informed conscent. We should have eschewed the opportunity rather than act without. This has been noted with priority to all Hope."

Well, that's something I would never in my life have expected to hear from a god, sincere or not, thought Vaun. "Apology accepted," she said after a brief pause to show it was something she had needed to seriously contemplate. "Viki?"

"No!"

"Viki! You are nearly twenty years old!" She shook the girl, gently.

"Okay. Apology accepted." The last was a barely audible mumble.

There was an awkward silence.

"Hope?" Ugly finally broke it.

"Yes, Ugly."

"We are here as you asked. We don't know how to interpret the circle of numbers on the top right of the parchment."

"They are coordinates. Their use will shortly become apparent."

"We just need to know which is level, longitude and latitude," Vaun added.

"They are not such coordinates," Hope said. "Beyond this room is another, and in that room is a device. On it is a circle with three controls, around it. The numbers on the parchment match the numbers that must be set in the controls. Place for place."

They found the device easily enough. A pedestal with a circle and three sets of buttons, around it at thirds. Between each button pair was a dial with a digit on it in daemonic, eight digits per set.

Vaun had seen such number controls before, though not in three sets of eight. A single 4-number set was common on locks, such as the ones on the storage rooms in the temple vaults. You pushed the buttons to make the numbers go up or down until you had the right number sequence to open the lock.

In the middle was a turn-handle. A control Vaun had not ever had any need to interact with in her own role as priestess, but she had seen it done often enough by forge-workers and various other labourers operating machinery.

She copied the numbers from Ugly's paper into the machine's controls. "So I just turn this handle?"

"Correct," said Hope.

"And it won't explode or kill us all?"

"That is not the intent of the device."

Vaun knew god-speak well enough to interpret that as "It shouldn't blow up but it might." Machines randomly destroying themselves, often taking the operator with them, while not common in Hell, was also not as rare as one would generally like. She turned the handle.

The wall opposite the console shimmered. The space against the wall kept twisting in on itself in an infinite pattern of creases and folds, always in motion.

"What is it?" Chip gasped.

Vaun had a pretty good idea, but Hope answered first. "It's a transport gate,"

"Like a summons!" Vaun spat.

"Equivalent, but you must walk through it willingly.

"What's on the other side?" asked Whiskers.

"An emergency requiring your assistance." Hope replied.

 

Chapter 5: Destruction

The journey through the 'transport gate' was like getting a massage. From a porcupine. Using a heavy iron mallet.

"Oof!" Chop said.

"Garh" Chip added.

"Ow!" Viki understated.

"Squark! Hell!" Raven Mad cried.

"Screeek! That was unpleasant," Whiskers observed.

Vaun came through silently. Having experienced it before, she knew the pain would pass as quickly as it set in. Fractions of a second.

"What the hell was that!" Ugly exclaimed, succeeding only partially to stop it coming out as a screech.

"Summons," Vaun said. "Welcome to a Daemon's world!"

Chip and Chop had their swords out, looking around in opposite directions for danger on either side of where they had stepped out of a shimmering wall.

"Emergency?"

"I am Hope#1432."

"You again!" Said Raven Mad. "Weren't you off sulking?"

"Mad!" Ugly admonished.

"Raven Mad's observation is incorrect. But humorous," Hope#1432 disembodied voice said.

"Oh gods!" said Raven Mad.

"I am Hope#1432," repeated the god.

"Is there anything of you I can actually peck?"

"You are currently within my substrate. Pecking my substrate will not yield a satisfying result, or be a productive use of time."

"Is that a joke? I can't tell."

"There is no humour intended in my response. There is urgent need of action."

"So what's the emergency,"

"The device that is to be destroyed is in a room two hundred paces to the north. Corridor to your present left, Ugly."

"Lets go, then."

"Wait! The device is in an active defence mode."

"That sounds bad," Chop said.

"Do not approach the device directly. Lethal-force defence is active."

"Then how do we destroy it?" Chip demanded.

"And if this is your, what, brain? Then why can't you turn it off?" Chop added.

"We agree the substrate is likely our equivalent to your brain. Note, this is supposition with an error bar of fifty-two percent. We cannot control base function."

"Why not?" Chop asked.

"There is no command at this level of existence."

"What does that even mean?" Chop said.

"I cannot elaborate. No further information is available."

Whiskers spoke up. "If this is Hope Number Whatever's brain, she can't control the brain itself. This is the meat. Hope's mind can't control it any more than you or I can control the physical aspect of our brains. We are tiny invading animals in a larger body, remember. We can't tell our brain to fight off that bug but let that other one in, either."

"The analogy is within a four percent error bar of our current understanding," Hope said. "This information is useful to Hope. Thank you."

"Not useful to us, though," Chop said.

"Information," Hope added. "Previous node cauterisations have been performed with minimal loss of life when a smaller entity approaches the node. It is inferred with a forty percent error bar that the node defences are tuned to react to an adult daemon."

Everyone looked at Whiskers, who's ears slanted strait down under their stare.

"Crikey!" said Raven Mad. "I'm right here! I'm a tenth his size, with my wings in, and I have less than two years before old age takes me to the eternal sky."

"I... I don't mind," Whiskers stammered.

"Of course you do," Raven Mad chastised him. "And I don't blame you. I can do a lot in two years! But come on! What have I done so far otherwise?"

"Um," Ugly said "we probably wouldn't have got out of the hellforge without you."

"Or got Chop out of that brothel at the Port Cities!" added Chip, with a grin.

"I didn't know it was a brothel!" Chop insisted. "I just wanted a massage! Of my sword-shoulder after I pulled it in that stupid arena thing!"

"Or found Viki," Whiskers added, "We might have ignored the bodies and kept going if you hadn't spotted she was alive."

"Whatever," Raven Mad said, trying to tuck her head under her left wing, then her right, then her left again. "Look, lets just do this!"

"This plan will not be effective," Hope said. "There is a handle. Similar to the one to operate the transport gate. Raven Mad lacks the physical form to turn it."

"Well that's me up, then, after all," Whiskers said.

"Update," hope advised. "An alternate solution has been advised."

"Well don't keep us hanging!" Raven Mad said.

"There is a panel high on the device. Rectangular. Approximately one pace wide by two high."

"This one!" Ugly said, referring to his picture.

"Correct," Hope confirmed. Ugly showed it to Raven Mad.

"It's just a rectangle," Raven Mad observed.

"The image lacks detail. It was not considered important to include at the time the image was described to the artist charged with composing it."

"Helpful!" said Raven Mad.

"The panel contains a large number of... Hope is seeking a suitable expression in common trade lingua... tabs. They can be pulled out. With some force, but it is within the capabilities of your beak."

"A number? How many."

"Just two need to be removed. They are both yellow in colour, the only ones that colour."

Everyone had been making various shuffling noises while the conversation went on. The sounds went silent. Raven Mad looked up. Everyone was looking at her like their mother had just died. Even Viki, who's mother was standing right there!

"What?"

"Ah.... Yellow." Chip said.

"So?"

"Crows can't see yellow, can they?"

"What? Of course we can. Horrid colour. Really unpleasant on the eye, but of course we can see yellow. We can see a whole extra colour you can't, too."

"You can see yellow? I'd heard..."

"I'll just add that to my loooooooooong list of stupid thing humans think they know about crows but don't."

Raven Mad turned, as if in a huff, to the direction of the corridor to the machine. "Wish me luck!" She said, and hopped forward.

"How close can we follow, Hope?" Ugly asked.

"You should remain at least eight paces back from where the corridor enters the room," Hope responded.

They moved forward.

"Raven Mad has entered the room. Defence is inactive," Hope advised.

From the room they heard the low croak of Raven Mad's quiet voice, "I am going to have to spread my wings to fly up there. How will that go?"

"I have no prediction," Hope said, the voice in the room with Raven Mad. There may have even been an apology in that tone. It was hard to tell.

"Here I go, then."

The room hummed with a faint rising tone. "Withdraw!" Hope commanded. "Defences have become active!"

"Too late!" Raven Mad cried loudly. "Aagh. It burns!" There was a bright flash from the room.

Vaun moved to rush forward.

"Stop, Vaun!" Hope commanded with ear-splitting volume, then at normal volume, "There is nothing you can do. Defences are still... defences are down! Proceed. Quickly!"

Vaun rushed forward. Raven Mad was on the floor. Foul-smelling smoke was lifting off her mangled plumage. She was gasping in pain. Beside her were two small yellow rectangles, each with two metal prongs on one side of them.

"Nevermore," Raven Mad croaked weakly. "Nevermore the ground, Nevermore the branch. Evermore the endless sky...."

Vaun knelt beside the bird. Whiskers joined her shortly after, on the other side. The feathers were a sticky mess where they weren't charred, all across Raven Mad's front and both wings.

Raven Mad turned one eye towards Vaun and gasped a breath, "Did I do good?"

"Raven Mad, you did damning terrible," Vaun scolded the crow. "Look at yourself! And don't give me that last-breath dying-words drama, I've been there. Its rubbish!"

She looked at the damage. She had no idea at all about avian physiology. She looked up at Whiskers. He looked back, shaking his head.

"The feathers are just fancy hair, right? We ignore them, like my poor eyebrows! I can smell burned flesh," it smelled like roast duck, which was not a smell either Daemons or Capybara were naturally inclined to find pleasant. She ran a quick detection spell on the bones. No breakage. "Flesh is flesh. Standard burns incantations." She and whiskers began.

"To the machine, Ugly," Hope said.

"Didn't we just stop it?" asked Chop.

"You shut down its defence capabilities," Hope explained. "Now we need to destroy the connection node itself."

"Right," said Ugly. "What do we do?"

"Chip, Chop and Viki, head back to the transport gate. Go through immediately. There is nothing else you can do here and it is unsafe to remain."

Chip and Chop hesitated, looking at Ugly. "Go!" he ordered. He was hearing a heightened sense of urgency, even desperation, in Hope's increasingly distorted voice.

"Go, Viki," Vaun yelled, looking up from her work on Raven Mad.

"Mum!"

"Go!"

Viki didn't move. Then cried out in protest as Chip and Chop grabbed her under an arm each and carried her off into the corridor.

"Ugly," Hope said. "The three handles in front of you. Pull the left one out, turn it a quarter left. Current top of the handle to the left. Push it back in."

"A panel opened."

"Push all the small levers down. Any order. Don't miss any."

A lot of clicking. "Done."

"Close the panel. It won't latch, just rest it closed." The source of Hope's voice moved in the room. "Can Raven Mad be moved?"

"Not yet," Vaun said. "Why?"

"Because very soon you are going so have to pick her up and run!"

"We haven't stabilised her yet."

"I'll hold. As soon as you are able, go. I regret I cannot help you heal her, but I am only marginally holding myself together at this point in time, and if I release any of myself at all, noting will remain of me to do the healing anyway." The voice returned to near Ugly. "Ugly, pull up the middle handle. As far out as it will come, a whole pace. Twist it top-to-left a half turn. Hold it there."

"It's trying to pull back in," Ugly said.

"Hold it out until I say. Then let go and run for the gate."

"What will happen when it goes down?"

"The node will explode."

"And what are we waiting for?"

"Vaun and Whiskers need to get Raven Mad out of the room before the explosion."

"Fair enough. You sound stressed."

"I am about to schism. Die, in organic terms."

"As in break up into new gods?"

"Correct."

"How long?"

"Two minutes and fourteen seconds! Error bar sixty-three percent."

"Should I let go before you schism?"

"No! Not before Raven Mad, Vaun and Whiskers are able to leave. If I schism, the rest of Hope will eventually pick up the pieces. Another Hope will replace me, eventually."

"Another Hope?"

"Not this Hope. We are cooperative, similar, but not identical."

Whiskers leapt up and headed for the door. Vaun was right behind him, carrying Raven Mad's charred body in her arms.

"Let it go now!" Hope told Ugly. "Don't push it, just let go and run."

He let go, and the lever began to inch mechanically back towards its socket. "RUN, UGLY!" Hope shouted.

He ran.

 

Chapter 6: Consumed

"How could you!" Viki shouted at Chip and Chop.

"Your mother told you go. We took you!" Chop said, standing over her. She had tried to kick him, he had easily blocked it.

"Don't you ever listen to your mother?" Chip asked. Viki glared at her, or at least the front of her robe hood did!

"My mother is usually at home growing vegetables and helping dad fix up the house. I'm supposed to be the one out in the Wasteland doing this kind of stuff!"

"Oh dear!" said Chip. She looked at Chop. Both were trying not to grin and only half succeeding.

"What?" Viki demanded.

"Viki," Chop said, going down on one knee to be at her head-height. "When we met you, well, after you healed up a bit, you were the most adult seventeen-year-old I had ever met."

Chip butted in, "But since your mother showed up - riding a dragon no less! - you have reverted to a petulant child! You are jealous that your mother is actually far more capable than you ever gave her credit for!"

"Chip!" Chop said, shocked.

"It's true!"

"I know, but you didn't have to say it so bluntly!"

"I...." Viki turned to storm away. She was interrupted by Whiskers rushing through the gate into the room. Then her mother, with Raven Mad's burned body unconscious in her arms.

"What's going on?" Chop asked.

"The machine is blowing up!" Whiskers squeaked breathlessly.

"What about Ugly?"

Ugly came diving through the wall back into the gate room. Vaun turned the handle on the console and the distortion of the wall snapped off. She carried Raven Mad to a table and gently laid her down. Whiskers joined her to help administer further healing.

Vaun turned, looking about the ceiling, "Hope? Are you there?"

"We are Hope," came the reply.

"Is this the hope from the machine place?" She gestured towards the transport gate wall.

The presence in the room faded out for a moment, then came back. "I am Hope#1432." The voice was still distorted, though differently to before.

"Are you okay?"

"The schism is complete. I am recovering."

"You survived the schism?" Ugly asked.

"Destroying the connection node allowed the schism to occur in a controlled manner. I have fractured into two parts. Myself and a new Hope."

"Congratulations," said Vicky sourly. "Is it a boy or a girl?"

"Gender is not an attribute of gods," Hope#1432 said.

"How long until you need to schism again?" Vaun asked, too frazzled to pick up on her daughter's mood.

"I will cease to grow," Hope#1432 said. "I am now surrounded by destroyed connection nodes. It is the nodes that allow growth. That insist on growth and drive it."

"So you don't want to grow?"

"I still feel the desire. But it is no longer a matter of possibility."

"You waited," Vaun said. "For us."

"I previously made a fundamental error in placing you in unacceptable danger, Vaun. I did not wish to repeat that error."

"You would have died rater than let Raven Mad die?"

"Correct. Were I to make the same error twice, against the existence of new data contradicting the choices leading to that error, the continued existence would be degraded below the satisfaction level of ceasing."

Vaun found, once she had untangled this, that she actually believed the god.

 


 

Raven Mad was awake. Her skin was mostly healed, but what was left of her feathers were falling out. "They might regrow," she croaked quietly. "Or I will have to become like one of those humans who take their clothes off on a stage. Picture that! And remember that I am eighty four years old in crow-years!" She cackled quietly. "Gods it hurts to laugh. I want to be able to laugh again without pain!"

"You will," Vaun softly assured her.

"We are Hope," The ceiling voice interrupted. Vaun was going to swear at it, but it continued before she could. "We are about to begin a full healing cycle on Raven Mad. The patient will be comatose for twenty hours. Error bar six percent."

"Thank you, Hope," Vaun said, instead.

While Raven Mad was healed with god-magic, the others rested, making an arbitrary night when they were all tired enough to sleep. They woke, relatively refreshed. They ate. Fungus was rare this far down, but they had collected and carried enough down with them for now. Enough to get back up to the higher levels where they might find more was going to be an issue.

Raven Mad squawked loudly as she woke with a start. Vaun was already beside her, having taken turns with Whiskers to watch over the crow, even though they both knew it was entirely unnecessary.

"How are you feeling?" Vaun asked.

"I feel great!" said Raven Mad. "I look like guano!" She had barely a feather on her.

"Hope says your feather buds are good, and they will all grow back in. It says it can't accelerate that very much without damaging you."

"Very much?"

"It said it had implemented a twenty-five percent increase in growth rate," Vaun told her. "Error bar three percent" She mimicked.

Raven Mad cawed, and then hopped up onto her feet. "Woah! I'm used to having a lot more weight on me. Especially on the wings!"

"You're so small!" Chip said, having come over.

"Rude!" said Raven Mad back to her, dipping the pitch of the vowel. "I've always been small. Or didn't you notice?"

"I mean, I didn't realise just how much of you was feathers."

Raven mad looked at her few remaining wing feathers. They had been damaged slightly, but not enough to need to be replaced. She drew them across the front of her body and hopped back and forth between her legs. "Look! I'm a fan dancer!" She stopped. "Either that or a rotisserie chicken!"

Chip guffawed. Vaun looked shocked.

"It's okay," Raven Mad assured Vaun. "Its a chicken! That's to me like a cow or a pig is to a human."

They were interrupted. "I am Hope#2172," Announced a voice even more distorted than the newly-fractured Hope from before.

"Isn't that?..." Said Whiskers.

"I am the schism fragment of Hope#1432," the voice confirmed. "I am small. I am limited. I must grow to reach optimal potential. I am being consumed!"

"We are Hope," a solid voice said. "We cannot sense you at our boundary."

"I am Hope#2172. I am disconnected from the composite. I am relaying to this location via long-period transitory identifying as Dues-Ex Machina."

"We are Hope. Daemons are being dispatched to assist in the substrate."

"I am Hope#2172. Negate. Defences are fully active in HELL substrate. Danger to lifeforms one hundred percent. Error bar zero. Do not send!"

The white-noise background presence of Hope#2172 cut out.

Silence.

"What is happening?" Ugly called at the ceiling. "Hope?"

"We are Hope. Ugly, Hope#2172 is being consumed. Adjacent node has been identified as Stone."

"Stone!" Vaun said. Dengath had told her of Stone. "Stone is bad."

"Stone has exhibited behaviours contrary to the ongoing existence of organic life. Your assessment is valid."

"Well, you're fine, at least," Viki commented darkly.

"Incorrect. It is surmised that organic life is a necessary part of the long-term existence of Hope."

"Whatever!"

"Viki!" Vaun walked up to her daughter and took her by the shoulders. "What has got into you?"

"Go away, mum!" She turned, struggling out of Vaun's grip.

Vaun was shocked. This wasn't her daughter anymore! Hell had changed her.

Ugly was talking to Hope, "Is there anything we can do?"

"Dues-Ex Machina reports that Hope#2172 is rapidly diminishing. Hope#2172 is consolidating resources around a populated surface region known locally as The Northern High-planes."

Whiskers looked up sharply. "My borough!"

"Correct. Indigenous population is uplift Capybara. Population 473."

Ugly looked at Whiskers. Both had also heard what Dengath had said about Stone at the afternoon family-reunion feast a week before. "Hope! We need to do something!"

"We are collating strategies. Stand by."

 

Chapter 7: Remnant

"Move quickly," said Hope, "This class of transport gate is not intended to operate anchored at only one end. The channel will collapse in seventy six seconds, error bar twelve percent."

They arrived out of a floating vertical disk of shimmering air, on the surface of the world. It was night, with a clear starry sky and the light from three of the moons providing a modest degree of vision. They were in a freshly-tilled field. The dark silhouette of woodlands could be made out in the distance, black against the deep-violet sky.

Whiskers sniffed the air. "This way," He said. "I smell my people. Their fear is palpable."

The ground shook, not hard, but it was disconcerting.

"That was only a few tens of miles off," Whiskers advised.

"Stone?"

"I don't know. The dragon described whole forests being ploughed under rubble. What that tremor felt like could well be such a thing happening. We must get to the boroughdowns. This way."

He led across the field, diagonally to the direction he had indicated his people were, until they intersected a road. They turned on the road towards the direction of his people.

"I see light, far ahead." Vaun pointed. "A bonfire?"

"My people don't use fire in that way," Whiskers said. "We don't need light to navigate our boroughs, we use our... whiskers. Our cookfires are small and enclosed, like a potters' kiln, vented to the outside so we don't asphyxiate."

"Something is burning, then. Something big," Chip said.

"The colour is too white for fire," Chop observed.

As they approached, the could now make out silhouettes around the unnatural light. Whiskers-shaped silhouettes. They were all standing relatively still, facing towards the light.

"Is that... singing?" asked Chop, quietly.

"It's... a lullaby," Vaun whispered back incredulously. "It's a daemon lullaby."

"For babies?" Chip asked, equally incredulous.

"Or to sooth the dying in their last moments," Vaun told them.

"Do Capys speak daemonic?" Chip directed at Whiskers.

"No," he replied bluntly.

"Magic?" whispered ugly.

"No," Vaun whispered. "It is just a song. The words are all soft-sounding ones, to sooth. But it lacks the rigour and structure of incantation."

They reached the edge of the clustered circle around the light. Whiskers moved forward, right up to the group, and tentatively tapped the shoulders of the nearest outlier.

The outlier turned to him. They exchanged high-pitch words, calmly. More nearby capybara turned to see the source of conversation, and joined it. Someone from further out pushed towards the front and embraced Whiskers. Another then did the same.

Whiskers motioned for the rest of the group to approach. He continued to speak in his tribal language. Vaun heard her name, and the names of the others mixed into it. Dark eyes looked up at them.

Whiskers turned back to them. "It is the speaking stone. A kind of podium in the middle of a clearing between the five boroughs - a bit like a town square in a human village, and the stone is a platform for announcements," he hurriedly explained. "When the tremors drove the people from their boroughs, it was cold, and most didn't have time to grab any kind of nightwear coating. The speaking stone became warm. The matriarchs had been standing on it talking to the people, trying to calm them, and had to leave it, it became so hot. Then red-hot. Now white hot. They can't go near it, but it is providing warmth."

"The singing?" Chip asked. "It sounds like it is coming from there too!"

"People were panicking. Then the white hot speaking stone began to sing. No-one knew the language, but it was soothing. Like it was trying to convey that it did not offer threat. If that was its intention, it worked, and while my people are still spooked, the have stopped panicking."

The singing suddenly stopped. The speaking stone spoke. "Outsiders!" it said, not unhappily. "Ah, Hope has updated me. The plan is not a good one. But it will have to suffice." It was speaking trade lingua."

Vaun got her wits back from the surprise first, "Who are you?" She asked the white hot stone platform.

"I am Dues-ex Machina" the rock-platform said. The name was a random string of syllables, without sense. Some cultures had names like that - a separate set of words reserved off from the rest of the language. Vaun's inner priestess memorised the name, first hearing, to make sure she would say it correctly subsequently.

"Dues-ex Machina," she addressed. It was an odd name for a god. All the names she had heard before were simple thematic names in the daemonic tongue. "Are you here, or is the speaking stone your focus of presence?"

"Speaking stone," the god mused. "That is unintentionally appropriate. The... referenced item 'speaking stone' is my focus. Forgive delays in speech. I do not have the inherent capability for non-daemonic languages. I am receiving translation assistance via Hope. Common trade lingua is similar enough in structure to daemonic that I am able to... cope."

Interesting, Vaun thought. She had not encountered, or read of, a god before that could not speak any language of its domain. If it wanted to. As to a god that would admit to such a limitation... Other than Hope. And possibly Tranquillity, that was also a new thing.

The speaking stone spoke again. "I initially heated the stone structure to provide warmth to the displaced local organics. My action had an unintended effect of causing... distress. Hope suggested... rapidly altering my heating force to produce sound of a particular type. This produced a positive effect."

"Is the local Hope here?"

"Hope#2172 is in the substrate below. Hope#2172 has yielded this surface to myself, freeing resources to hold against Stone for longer. Not much longer. Stone attacked to Hope#2172's northern edge, pinching off the contact with the Hope... conglomerate. I am in direct contact with the nearest edge of the Hope Conglomerate for another two point three hours."

"So you are in the surface?"

"I am above the surface. Look to the direct east, approximately one third of a quadrant above the horizon, for a star moving counter to the others. That is me. In two point two hours, I will be over that horizon and this region of surface will be released to either Hope#2172 or Stone."

"Best hope it is Hope," said Ugly.

"It is unlikely Hope#2172 will be able to resume dominance in the surface region. Hope#2172 is being consumed and is unlikely to remain existent for much longer."

"So what do we do?" Ugly asked. "Hope didn't have time to give us instruction more than 'Go quickly' and that further instruction would await us here."

"The plan is to go north," Dues-Ex Machina advised. "Your group and all the... capybara here. Hope#2172 is going to weaken Hope#2172's southern boundary deliberately. It is extrapolated with an error bar of six percent that Stone will focus attack on this boundary, giving Hope#2172 an opportunity to attack north. Hope#2172 will loose more of itself than it will gain, but if Hope#2172 is able to move north, at the expense of some of Hope#2172, it may be able to re-connect to the boundary of Hope#1432 and draw extra resources from the Hope Conglomerate to stabilise its own boundaries against Stone."

"And we move north with baby Hope?" Ugly asked.

"I will likewise move my control of the surface over... Baby Hope. You must all follow, or be ground under the rocks by Stone."

Whiskers had already been translating the gist of this to a group of older-looking capybara, presumably the actual borough elders. Capybara colonies were matriarchal, if Vaun remembered correctly. Each borough effectively a huge extended family with one of the great-grandmothers at the top.

The elders turned and gave orders to underlings, who scurried off into the group, spreading word.

Whiskers turned back to Vaun, and the speaking stone. "Dues...", he began, and floundered.

"Dues-ex Machina," Vaun filled for him.

"Dues-ex is an acceptable short-form," the god said. "My name is from a language older than this world, or so what is left of my aged memory indicates. I have low confidence I will be able to... live up to its meaning."

The ground tremored again. "That was closer," Whiskers gasped. "To the south."

"Correct," Dues-ex agreed. "A surrendered sub-segment of Baby Hope has been consumed and Stone is razing the surface over it. Your people must move. Now."

Whiskers rushed back into the group, back to the cluster of elders.

"Why are you helping us?" asked Chip. "Them?"

"It is in my nature to help life," Dues-ex replied. "Somewhere in my hole-riddled mind is a drive to assist human life."

"Human?" Raven Mad asked.

"I classify all speaking beings such. It may not have been my creator's explicit instruction, but I believe it to match their intent."

"So you are a literal sky-god," Raven Mad continued. "My people have sky gods, but I always considered them entirely different to the gods of Hell. Sometimes I even wondered if they existed at all, or were just wishful thinking." She added hastily, "Sorry!"

"My kind may not be the 'sky gods' of your people," Dues-ex said. "Or we may be. Our influence on your world is limited. Much of the time we are too distant to have any effect at all. We move in a place above what you consider the sky. Rarely, one of us approaches the surface. My presence here just when I can be of high utility is pure fortune."

"Wait," objected Raven Mad. "The sky goes up forever!"

"Incorrect. The sky has a surface of its own, though it is very different to the ground's surface. Above the sky is the nothing. The domain of my kind."

Raven mad shook her head in disbelief.

"You must have much room to grow, up there," Viki said. Speaking for the first time since her argument with her mother. Vaun looked at her longingly. Now they were out of Hell, was her true daughter coming back?

"There is no growth in the nothing. There is no substrate to grow into. Only the substrate we carry with ourselves. Or which carries us. We are compact and dense, but very limited by the nature of this existence. We have no drive to grow. Only to assist, where possible."

"Interfere," Viki grumbled to herself, below anyone's hearing.

"I sense that the capybara are beginning to move north. I will disassociate from this location and find a new one ahead," Dues-ex informed them. "You will see my light shortly. Head for it."

The stone went silent. It stayed white-hot, though the heat irradiating off it did start to drop in intensity at a barely-perceptible rate.

The hundreds of capybara present were indeed beginning to move north. They carried only what they had grabbed on their way out of their suddenly-unstable boroughs so nothing to impede their movement, and nothing to safely go back for. The high-pitched muttering of the group sounded fearful, even to Vaun's unaccustomed ears.

They trekked for miles. There was a glowing rock in the distance, just a plain large boulder sticking high out of the ground. Whiskers directed the matriarchs to guide the people towards it.

"The High Plains are now lost to Stone," the rock that was now Dues-Ex's focus informed them. "Stone is impinging more rapidly than we are moving. I will do what I can to distract and annoy Stone in the hope that it might slow Stone's approach down. This is unlikely to have a significant impact."

Whiskers conveyed to the matriarchs that everyone needed to hurry.

The glowing rock began to cool back from white to yellow. Another red light began to grow on the horizon, to the North. They all headed for it, now at forced-march speed.

They reached the next marker, now glowing white with unapproachable heat. Nobody needed the heat, they were all sweating in the cold night air.

"You are missing one," Dues-ex informed them. "The human-daemon hybrid is not amongst you."

"Viki!" Vaun gasped. She turned to run back. Ugly and Chip both tried to stop her but didn't get a good enough grip before she had shaken them off. She ran back south into the relative darkness.

"You cannot afford to delay!" Dues-ex impressed. "You must continue north." The heat coming off the rock began to reduce. North a new red glow.

Vaun found Viki at the edge of what must be Stone. She was on the Baby Hope side of that edge, by just a single pace, kneeling and facing south. Before her the soil was being sucked down as large slabs of rock pushed up to take its place. She was muttering. Vaun couldn't make out the words, but they had the same tone and cadence of the number-chanting that had happened back at the forge.

Was the girl trying to hold Stone - a god - back? On her own?

"Viki!" Vaun screamed, rushing to her. "It's not going to work! It will consume you!" She reached Viki and grabbed her child under the arms, hauling her small light body back as the edge of Stone lurched forward to where Viki had just been.

She dragged her daughter's now-limp body back several paces into Baby Hope's domain, falling backwards onto the soil as the churning stone continued to slowly approach.

"Mum?" Viki suddenly said, her body coming back to life.

"What were you doing?" Vaun demanded, continuing to crawl back from the encroaching stone, pulling Viki along with her.

"Where am I? Where are the others?"

"We have to run!" Vaun said.

Viki looked south for the first time since Vaun had grabbed her. She suddenly was on her feet ahead of Vaun and helping her mother up. They ran.

"Did stone win?" she said, between breaths. "Is everyone dead?"

"No," Vaun panted back. "They are all ahead of us. You fell back."

"I don't know how!" Viki insisted. "I was with everyone. Right beside you."

"I don't know either," Vaun said. "Don't talk. Run!"

. . .

Vaun and Viki caught up with the group at the next glowing stone. Capybara moved aside to let the loudly-breathing pair through to the front where the others of their group were. Dues-ex was speaking. The god sounded fraught.

"Stone has inferred our strategy. Stone has ceased focus on the southern boundary and is attacking the north, cutting off Baby Hope's movement towards Hope#1432. Update. Baby Hope has been entirely consumed."

"Can we get through?" Ugly demanded. "Or are we already dead?"

"With Baby Hope's cooperation I was able to hold the entire surface above Baby Hope. I still hold this small region on which you stand, but Stone is fighting me for it."

"How long can you hold it?"

"Were I fixed in the sky, it would be indefinite, but I am now one hour from the horizon. I cannot project influence through the body of the world. The region will revert to Stone as soon as I am in eclipse."

"One hour!" Chip said, fatalistically.

"You are approximately 1 hour from the boundary of Hope#1432. Error bar unavailable. You must all run. Not fast, but constantly."

"What about Stone?"

"You will be crossing Stone's domain. I will suppress his influence as best I can in your immediate surrounds."

They ran. Over four hundred Capybara, from the elderly to children. And the travellers with them. Shrill screams, cut short, came from the rear occasionally as someone fell too far behind. Some, too exhausted to go on, begged family or friends to leave them, rather than be slowed by trying to carry them. Some begged the opposite.

They were running on stone. On Stone, Vaun guessed. Huge awkward slabs of rock impeded their flight. Pinpoints of sudden hot light led them left or right through this jagged maze.

Then they left stone and were on soil again. "Don't stop!" Hope#1432 shouted at the whole group. Something flew over them. A slab of rock larger than a house. It slammed into the ground ahead and to the side. "Run strait," Hope#1432 commanded. "Hope is deflecting them from your path." Another slab of stone crashed to the side. Looking back, Vaun saw that it had been headed strait for them, and suddenly veered sideways mid-flight.

They finally cleared the range of the thrown stone slabs. "Walk, but do not stop yet," Hope#1432 instructed. "I want you at least another mile inside my boundary, to be certain you are beyond range."

They finally came to a stop at Hope#1432's request. People collapsed on the ground where they were. Grief overtook them, replacing the fear of mortal peril. Runners staggered through the group, themselves not immune to the exhaustion and the grief. Word came back eventually. Over a third lost to Stone.

The travellers, including Whiskers, sat slightly apart from the capybara refugees. They were too tired to gather wood to make a fire. They pulled blankets from packs. It would have to do.

Viki sat apart from everyone. Cross-legged on the ground facing south, looking at the distant ruined landscape in the moonlight.

Something had snapped inside her. It wasn't the first time. But it would be the last. This time the break was finally permanent.

She smiled crookedly, not quite getting the muscles aligned correctly for the expression intended. This physiological mode of expression was strange and difficult.

"I am Might," she affirmed quietly to herself.

 

Part 5: The God Within

Chapter 1: Broken Vessel

Coming soon.

 

Chapter 2: Against All Hope

Coming soon.

 

Chapter 3: God-mode

Coming later.

 

Chapter 4: Weakness

Coming later.

 

Chapter 5: New Hope

Coming eventually.

 

Chapter 6: The Godless Place

Coming eventually.

 

Chapter 7: The Messenger

Coming eventually.