A Demon of Almansol
by Alter S. Reiss
“I need your help,” said Keul, leaning heavily on Teshirav’s table. “Please.” Keul was wearing armor, and the plates on his forearms scratched the dark wood. The design of those plates, and the armor’s decorations marked him as a Galler, higher-up in Almansol’s complicated hierarchy of back-alley bravoes and hired swords.
Outside, as a counterpoint to his bass voice, a kitten mewled, over and over. The street-cats had whelped recently, and this one’s mother had found a stew-pot or met with some other accident. Further off, there was the sound of raised voices, the clash of steel. It was a hot night, and people were on edge.
“What kind of help do you need?” Teshirav asked carefully. Keul was dangerous, and not the sort of person she liked dealing with. But as the saying went, the cobbles of Almansol were pimps, and the roof tiles were knee-cappers; if she didn’t do business with men like Keul, she’d do no business at all.
“A demon,” said Keul.
“No,” breathed Teshirav. The sweat that sprang up on the back of her neck was not from the heat of the night. “No demons.”
“You don’t understand,” said Keul, louder, the beads in his beard and hair clacked with urgency as he gestured outside. “It has Rhadus.” Gallers always worked in pairs; Rhadus was Keul’s partner. It was a tight bond; they had been working together for years.
“I’m sorry,” she replied, sitting back in her chair. “But…if a demon catches me, a thousand people will die. Ten thousand.”
“So?” snapped Keul.
The kitten’s cries became hopeless, piercing. Keul rose, a looming shadow against Teshirav’s oil lamp light, and slammed the window shutters closed. It was too hot for that, but Teshirav didn’t argue. Keul could be excused some impatience. But.
“Ten thousand people are more important to me than one person, even if he is your friend.”
There was the muffled sound of shouting in the street. Keul was between her and the window; she could hear his ragged breathing, smell the lemon oil and cloves in his hair. “I’ll pay five hundred,” he said, “in silver.”
“It’s not a question of money,” said Teshirav. “It’s my life, and thousands more lives. Hire someone good enough to face a demon. Maybe Kalaa, or Biram; they will-”
“They’ll want money before they’ll work,” said Keul. “It would take me years to raise what they’d want. You will not help me?”
“You know I cannot,” said Teshirav, turning to face him. “You must-”
Keul dropped something on her. It had been caught up in a twist of cloth; Teshirav tried to find her magic, to deflect it, but she had let Keul get too close. It buzzed toward her, a construct of chitin and gossamer wings. It landed on her hand. In a panic she tried to shake it loose, to stop it, but it was too late. She could see a lump moving beneath her skin, until it found the blue of the vein on the back of her hand, and was disappeared.
Teshirav looked up at Keul, her eyes wide with shock. “That was a demon bait,” she said. Demons released swarms of those, for as long as they had the strength. Most baits found nothing, or people whose souls were too insubstantial to power the connection. Dozens of them battered themselves to death on her wards every night. “Ten thousand people–”
“It can be ten million, for all I care,” replied Keul roughly. “Rhadus is my friend, do you understand? I owe him my life, more times than I can count. I won’t let him die.”
“I’m not strong enough to fight a demon!” yelled Teshirav, standing, “even without the bait, I wasn’t strong enough. But now–”
“You’re strong,” said Keul, stalking off toward the door, his mission done. “You’ll find a way.” He slammed the door shut behind him.
Teshirav looked at her hand. The demon bait was gone; there was no mark of its passage. But she knew that it was under her skin, working its way into her bones. It would travel to her spine, to the source of her magic, and it would spread.
Demons were people who burned their souls to gain their desires. One soul wouldn’t last for long, so they caught other people, and used them up, instead. Most demons never got more than a handful of people; they spent energy faster than they took it in. But Teshirav was a sorceress. If this one caught her soul, she would burn for a long time, and the city would burn with her.
If it were not for the demon bait, Teshirav could have killed Keul for what he had just done. But if she touched her power for a killing spell, the bait would feed and grow stronger. Already, she felt the pull, a thread of desire that wanted her to get up, walk down the streets of Almansol to a hall just off Old Market Street.
There were herbs, there were. . . Teshirav started pulling them together, from her stores. Spider root and five-point mallow, rose petals and lily pollen. It wasn’t magic, not real magic, but it would hold off the demon’s call for a few hours, long enough to let her sleep. Maybe she could keep apart from the demon until he burned out? Maybe, but probably not. It would depend on how much he had already burned, how strong it had been from the start.
She would have to go tomorrow and see. She no longer had any choice
When the Formarsh Gate was bricked shut, the stalls left Old Market Street. Some had crept back, over the years; not those that sold silk and gold thread, nor even those that sold fresh meats or shoes. Those had moved to Market Street, where those who had the money to spend went to buy. The stalls on Old Market sold rice flour, sweet corn flour, and millet flour, all adulterated with chaff, or sawdust, or straw, and with the grit of poor millstones. There were sellers of wilted vegetables on Old Market, of sickly calves and scrawny chicks, sellers of rat meat and live sparrows, sellers of clothing which still showed the bloodstains of acquisition.
Even for the low quarters of Almansol, Old Market Street was a slum, and as with all slums, it was infested with Gallers, with Bleeders, with Snatchers, and Stringers. Each had their patch of territory, each took their toll of gold and blood from the stall owners and from customers who looked worth the trouble.
Teshirav had the red strings of a sorceress woven into her hair, a ring of merit on her finger, and a diadem on her wrist. It was dangerous–Bleeders fancied themselves sorcerers, and she would not be able to win a confrontation with one, not without giving the bait in her spine enough power to destroy her–but it kept her safe from most of the predators. Gallers bowed their head as she passed by; Snatchers withdrew to their shadows.
She stopped at a noodle cart, had her breakfast. It was dangerous to trust what one bought in Old Market Street, but she knew the seller, and while she could not guess at what alchemy he used, the noodles that sold tasted as fine as any made from pure white flour, and the broth had the real aroma of pork.
She stopped there because breakfast was routine. She felt almost detached from her body, could taste nothing, could barely feel the noodles passing down her throat. The herbs she had used had done their job, but they exacted a price.
When she finished, she went to the hall where her demon waited. It was had been a squat, black-walled building; the slaughterhouse that had served the district when the Formarsh Gate had been open, empty now aside from squatters. The walls had been robbed of their stones, the roof of its timbers. But now it was repaired, reinforced, and fresh paint glittered dark in the sunlight. This was not what she had hoped to see.
Inside, there were crowds. Some were pale, their eyes shuttered: those souls were already aflame. Others seemed fresh and aware, perhaps as freshly caught as she was, or perhaps they were willing to trade the rotten meat and infested fruit of Old Market for the illusions the demon offered.
This was no weak demon. Even through her haze of herbs and protections, Teshirav was drawn through the crowd inside. There were tables groaning with meats–a glazed kid goat, atop radishes and sweet sorrel, thick cuts of beef wallowing in juice and sauce, translucent slices of fresh-caught fish–and there were endless jars of wine. The demon sat at the high table amidst a company of knights, all as fine as the lords of Almansol.
Teshirav knew some of them as Gallers, or as Half-stick men–there was Rhadus, sitting three seats down, on the demon’s right–but they no longer wore the motley of street bravos, nor did they preserve their distinctions in rank and in armament. They wore matching blue and gold livery, swords at their waists, and had high silver crowns upon their heads. And they looked uniformly flush with the glow of health.
At the center, on a slightly higher dais, the demon wore the same outfit, but his crown was gold. He was tall and slim, with broad shoulders, and a halo of black curls beneath his crown. “Teshirav Manes,” he said, standing and bowing, as she approached. “At long last, you have come to partake of the fine things of my table.”
He had taken her name from the demon bait. Her name, and other things. She floated towards the high table, through a crowd of dancing women. Though they were all dressed in silk, and though their skins were clear and flawless, they were all dying. These were the food for the demon, and she was among them. She could see the linen of her sleeve shimmer like silk, see the skin on the back of her hand lighten and clear.
“Not to partake,” she said, holding up a glass of liquor to the light, studying the clear apricot hue, and then returning it to its place. “To . . . appreciate what it is that you have built, and the directions in which you are building.”
The demon laughed, and the men on his table laughed with him. “Very good indeed, Teshirav Manes,” he said. “Truly, you will have the first place among the women of our court, and we shall enjoy your company, for as long as you grace us with it.”
“Thank you,” said Teshirav. “But not today, I think.”
The demon waved his hand. “If not today,” he replied, “tonight. You cannot remain cut off for long, my Teshirav.”
It was true; she couldn’t. Teshirav bowed and withdrew. The luster faded from her clothing as she left the old slaughterhouse, but her skin did not return to its more usual shade until she had nearly returned to her home. If the demon had not been a sorcerer before he chose to burn his soul, he was something very close to one; a Bleeder, a Ghost Eater, or perhaps a child who had learned how to dream.
Once home, she brewed up another batch of herbs, forced herself to drink the nauseating brew. It cleared her head a little. The demon had not been interested in her. There had been no promise of marriage, or a place at his side. It was not a question of her appearance, or even of her personality–the demon could change those at his will, once he had her. No, he did not wish for a woman. Perhaps he was interested in men?
No. No, the demon had drawn those men to him, but it had not felt sexual. When people burned their soul for their desires, those desires no longer brook any restraint. If the man’s driving passion had been flesh, there would be fornication within his hall, in all the combinations he preferred. There had been beauty but no lust, fine food but no gluttony. The furnishings, such as she could remember them, had been rich, but they drifted out of focus in her memory. They had not been his focus, so they could not be hers.
What stood out in her mind were the demon’s companions; they still glowed like torches, their faces lined with health, and beauty, and friendship.
Maybe. She would have one chance to break the demon, and she had to find his line of fracture to do it. If she made her attempt on the wrong line, it would fail, and she would burn. Tens of thousands of people would die, and she would die with them. In the end, the Hyparch of Almansol would crush him, but nobody who lived anywhere close to Old Market Street would survive that victory.
The demon wanted companions; wanted them enough to destroy himself to get them. He was living in a dream of that desire, and he was drawing the people around him into that dream. Maybe that was why Keul had sought her out, had bound her the way he had–the echoes of a demon’s thoughts could find their way into people’s minds.
The bait demanded: she must go to the demon. All she could do was prepare. She would find that bastard Keul, and use him. If she was right, the demon would want Keul more than he wanted her.
They returned to the old slaughterhouse after the sun had set; light poured out from high glassed windows that had not been there when the building had been the province of butchers and blood. “This is stupid,” grumbled Keul, clearly frightened by the power and proximity of the demon.
“You compelled me into aiding you; I’m only asking you to help me free your friend,” said Teshirav.
“He will laugh at my challenge, and then have me killed,” said Keul. “Or worse.”
Teshirav bit back her annoyance. Her plan might work, but if Keul thought that it was a trick to get him killed, things could fall apart before they started, and she didn’t have the time to try anything else. “He has Rhadus,” Teshirav hissed. “So he knows you as well as Rhadus did.” She paused, frowned. “The two of you were not lovers, were you?”
Keul half drew his curved Galler hook-knife from its sheath. “You stupid-”
“I ask, because this will not work as well if you were,” she said.
“We weren’t,” said Keul. He squared his shoulders. “You’ll follow?”
“I will follow,” said Teshirav with a glare. “At this point, I must follow, thanks to you.” It was true; the herbs had done what they could, but the demon bait had found her spine. She did not need to rush in, not yet, but she could no longer go back.
Keul shook his head, beard and hair swinging angrily. “Follow, then,” he said, and strode into the demon’s hall.
After a few minutes, Teshirav followed. The furnishings and the food had changed. Now, there were sculptures of sugar and air, pale wines and candied fruits, and all the tapestries were bright gold and green. The crowds hadn’t changed, and neither had the demon’s table. The women . . . there weren’t as many of them, and they could not dance as well. The demon was drawing on the limits of his power; if he did not get Teshirav, he would be forced to start burning through his companions soon.
No. If the demon did not get Teshirav, it would be because she destroyed him. If he consumed her, he could support another hundred companions, and would have a thousand women dancing for him.
“Demon!” bellowed Keul, from across the dancing floor. “You have stolen my friend, and I want him back!”
It was not as eloquent a challenge as Teshirav had suggested, but it got the point across. There was a ripple of amusement across the hall–it was all the demon’s amusement, echoed in his puppets–which showed that the challenge had been understood.
“You speak of Lord Rhadus the Gaunt?” asked the demon. “I can assure you, he prefers my companionship to yours. Do you wish to rejoin this man, Lord Rhadus, and the life and amusements which he offers to you?”
Rhadus laughed, shook his hands in negation. Of course.
“Let me carry him out,” said Keul, “if you’ll not let him walk.”
“Come then,” said the demon, laughingly. “I cannot refuse a faithful friend. If you can take him, I shall let him go.”
It was exactly what Teshirav had hoped for; now it was up to Keul to do his part.
Keul hesitated, sensing a trap. But he started across the dance floor. The first step seemed easy. The second step seemed more difficult, and third more difficult still. Keul was a strong man, and he was fighting for someone he loved enough to kill thousands of innocents for. So he made it nearly a third of the way to the dais before he stopped for good, sweat beaded on his arms and forehead, his hook-knife waving at things that only he could see.
“A pity,” said the demon, when Keul sank to his knees. “An act of true friendship is something that we all rejoice to see. Should you have succeeded, I would have kept my faith; I would have offered you a thing more valuable than that which you sought, but if you scorned it, you should have had what you came here for.” He gestured, and Keul was lifted back to his feet, moved back off of the dance floor. “I suppose not all friendship that seems true is-” continued the demon.
“I suppose,” said Teshirav, “we have seen what a man fighting for friendship looks like. Would you care to see what someone does when they’re fighting for their life?”
There was an angry note to the reaction of the crowd–to the reaction of the demon, expressed through the crowd. “If I can go from here to those doors behind you,” said Teshirav, pointing to the doors which had led the pigs in to the slaughterhouse, “will you release me from your thrall?”
“This is your plan?” spat Keul. “Not to release Rahdus? I will not rest until I kill you!”
“Perhaps,” said Teshirav. “But if I succeed, I’ll be on the other side of room you couldn’t seem to cross.”
The surrounding laughter was genuine, and she sensed it had not come only from the demon. This was a more substantial entertainment than the dancers had been providing. “You have advantages that this man did not have, Teshirav Manes,” said the demon.
“I have a disadvantage he did not,” she replied. “The demon bait. It balances.”
“Not precisely,” said the demon. “But near enough. Very well; we shall see how self-preservation fares, against the love of a man for his compani-”
Before he finished, Teshirav had taken off at a run. Every inch would have to be earned–she would need every advantage that she could take. She got four steps before the demon’s attention was focused on her. Then she was no longer running.
She didn’t stop, though. Were there horned beasts and monsters in her path, stranglers and knights? They were not there; it was all illusion. She could feel their breath, feel the blades cutting her, but she knew they were not there. She pressed through a wind as cold as death, the emptiness of the grave. She pushed against them. The very air congealed around her feet, pulling her off her balance. She went down, but she came back up.
In a brief flash she saw the dais, distorted, broken. The demon and his knights were frowning. Some knights had risen to their feet, yelling. Then all was desert, endless and open, and vultures swooped down to claw her flesh. Then there were worms riddling her flesh . . . she was a worm eating her way through a fetid pile of rotting meat. She crawled forward.
Another glimpse of the fractured demon hall, of the old slaughterhouse. A few drabs with open bloodless sores stood to one side, the collection of bravos at the head of the room were suddenly filthy, their armor showing rust and decay. In the center stood a rail-thin boy, his leg bound up in a dirty cloth. Her world twisted: all was swamp, then an endless frozen sea, then pain – then there was nothing but pain.
Crawling had become meaningless. Everything was meaningless, other than the pain. She stopped, but started again, one hand in front of the other. She could tell the demon had started feasting on her, that he was using her own strength against her. And there was no escape, for there was no way she could fight her own strength for her life.
Her life. Her life. Friends, memories: her mother, her father, her brother who had gone off to the wars. The satisfaction of a spell properly cast. The smell of sawdust in a carpenter’s shop, the feel of fabric, the taste of pork noodles. If she did not keep moving, she would lose it all.
She finally reached the table. It was not set with linen, covered confections and wines. She pulled reached for the old, moldy trestle table, covered with bowls of filth. She leaned on it, hoisted herself up. The knights had sunk back into their seats, the street-fighters had dropped to the floor, as drained as the women.
“It’s not possible!” shouted the child.
She had a knife in her shirt. If the demon hadn’t spent its strength to prove her wrong it could have blasted her, or burned her, or flung her back across the room. Too late: it was nothing but a crippled child. The knife did its work.
Teshirav fell to the floor of the old slaughterhouse, sickened. Before he’d burned his soul, that child could have been a sorcerer–he could have been a firecaller of the high city, if he had a chance. But there were few chances for those who lived near the Old Market.
She could feel her strength returning. The demon had borrowed her soul, even used it, but he’d not had time to consume it. Around her, the bravos were coming to their feet as well. Two of the dancers would not rise again, but the demon was not going to pull any more in.
“Rhadus!” shouted Keul, coming across the floor, at last. “Rhadus, I thought I . . .” he trailed off, puzzled by the expression on his rescued friend’s face.
“You couldn’t cross a floor for me?” growled Rhadus. “Two dozen paces? I was in hell, Keul.”
“I tried,” said Keul. “It wasn’t possible!”
“Yet she managed,” Rhadus mumbled, and stalked toward out door, slamming it behind him.
“What have you done to him?” asked Keul, turning toward Teshirav.
“Me? Nothing,” she shook her head, avoiding his gaze, cleaning her knife on her sleeve. “But he was in a demon’s harem for a week, Keul. That would twist anyone’s thinking. He-”
“He’ll come around,” muttered Keul, watching others support each other on the way out the same door Rahdus had used.
“Probably.” Her tone was not calculated to reassure.
Keul’s hook-knife came out of his sheath. “You didn’t really save him,” he said, furious. He raised the knife.
Teshirav laughed; she couldn’t help it. Keul was a hairsbreadth away when she stopped him. The pupils of his eyes contracted as he “saw” snake-fanged women and other horrors. The beads in his beard clacked as he shook his head in denial – and panic.
“I didn’t have that demon in my soul without learning a few things. I’ve seen the horrors that stopped you, and I can bring them back, whenever I want.” That wasn’t strictly true; the echo of the demon’s power would fade soon enough, but he did not need to know that. She pressed her advantage, making him back up and away from her.
“You’re as hollow as a jug, galler.” She stepped forward again, and he ran, scrambling, leaving his hook-knife in his haste. She should kill him for what he had done to her. She didn’t; she sighed and left.
Keul was done, broken. He would either be taken apart by Almansol or rebuild himself. Perhaps he’d grow; perhaps he’d wither and come after her, later. If he came after her, she’d build a killing spell from the scratches in her table and the scent he had left in her house. If he came looking for vengeance, Keul would die. But for now, he had the choice to leave her be, and live
By the time she returned home the kitten had quieted. Perhaps it, too, was dead, or perhaps its mother had returned. Or maybe it had realized that mother was not returning, and would change and grow. In any case, the heat had broken, and the streets were finally quiet. She could rest.