“Bring it on, old man.” Saya held her greatsword one-handed, and batted away the God of Hell’s far larger weapon. Dozens of demons lined the pit’s rim, whooping and cheering, some even shouting encouragement to her rather than Satalyin. He lunged forward, but she sidestepped and then somersaulted over his swinging blade.
“I’m trying to,” Satalyin said, “but you keep moving.”
Saya wanted to laugh. Wanted to drop her sword, rush over and hug her father, but more than anything she wanted to beat him “If you’re tiring, we can take a break. Maybe you can go for a little nap.” Laughter burst out from the spectators, but none laughed louder than Satalyin.
He had three feet of height on her, and much greater reach, but Saya had speed. Their dance was always the same. Satalyin would try to pin her in a corner while she’d try to outmanoeuvre him. After five millennia, the tally stood at thirty-five wins apiece.
He pressed her again and she skipped out of the way, never attempting to block the blows, settling for deflecting them just enough. Never giving up the centre of the pit. One strike was all it would take. One strike for victory, or one for defeat.
Saya ducked under another blow which struck sparks off the wall. She tried a speculative thrust, but a frontal assault had always ended badly. She kept moving, looking for any opening to flank him, but he wore that knowing smile he always did when he was sure victory was his.
She spotted a commotion on the edge of the pit, backed away a step and glanced upwards. Jalikra, a demoness for barely a century, was bullying her way to the front. There was no brighter soul in Hell than hers, and none more mischievous, which was part of the reason they’d grown so close. She dared a wink at her friend, and the God of Hell took the opportunity to strike.
Satalyin surged forwards, feinted to the side and then leapt high at the wall, leaving Saya wrongfooted. Ready to move one way or the other, she was surprised when he bounced off it and cartwheeled overhead, sword swinging downwards. There was no chance she could parry, no way to sidestep, so she flattened herself against the floor, rolling to one side when her father switched the sword to his other hand. Still, the tip missed by less than an inch.
“That was a new move, father,” she said while regaining her feet. “Mind, you should be careful of that dodgy hip of yours.” When Satalyin threw back his head and laughed, she attacked.
The God of Hell angled his blade to intercept Saya’s before it was anywhere near him. He twisted his sword, rolling it over the top of her blade and pushed it downwards causing her to stumble. “Ha,” he said, and drove the tip of his weapon at her chest.
Saya, her forward momentum carrying her closer to Satalyin, leaned back at an impossible angle, kicked out at his leg and then rolled beneath him as it buckled. She gained her feet at his rear, reversed her sword and struck at his back, but he managed to stumble out of the way with all the grace of a one-legged drunk.
“Now that was a new move,” Satalyin said. “Not bad at all… for a girl.”
Saya laughed. “Provoking me won’t work anymore.”
“It’s desperation,” Satalyin said. “Your strength has grown, as has your speed. I am very proud of you, daughter.”
Saya dipped her head, eyes never leaving her father. Inside, she felt just as she had when he’d praised her for felling her first buffalo as a mortal girl, all those centuries ago. “Thank you, father.” Yes, at least now he could be proud of her. Mind elsewhere, she reacted too slowly when Satalyin drove at her, spinning his sword in a wild arc. She tried to sidestep, but her only option was to retreat, back into a corner of the pit.
“Although provocation may not work, it seems flattery will,” Satalyin said, blocking her attempts to get past him.
“Not fair!” Saya bared her teeth while leaping over a low blow. With little other choice, the next time he swung, she stepped inside the arc, let go of her sword and grasped one of his wrists in both hands. Using his momentum, she spun him round and then leapt backwards as he tried to grapple her. Now positioned behind him, she grabbed her sword, swung at his exposed back and hit him with such force that he dropped to his knees.
Satalyin staggered back to his feet, bowed low and then joined in with the applause of the audience. “You fight like a tigress, but with the guile of a fox. Congratulations, Gatekeeper, for victory is once again yours.”
Saya sheathed her sword and hugged her father. “I was sure you had me, and my move was a desperate one. I was lucky this time, nothing more.”
After accepting a helping hand out of the sparring pit, Saya endured the congratulations of her kin. The younger ones were filled with awe, their tongues tying when she smiled or offered them a word of thanks, while the older ones spoke to her with pride or respect. Many would remember who she’d once been, remembered her earliest days in Hell, and those she still struggled to look in the eye.
“You’ll have to teach me that move.”
Saya twisted around and found herself staring at a demoness half concealed beneath a shock of red hair. Jalikra. “You’d have had more sense than to end up pinned in a corner.” She looked up at her friend who, although under seven feet tall, still towered a foot over her. “But we can spar later if you like.” There was nothing she wanted less. Fighting Jalikra was like battling a tempest.
“I’d love to, but I’m heading out harvesting in a moment,” Jalikra said. “Perhaps when I get back?”
“You’re going out again?” Satalyin joined the pair. “I thought you’d just returned.”
“I arrived back last night, Master.” Jalikra screwed up her face. “One of the souls I’ll take today is as bad as any. The sooner he’s brought here, the better.” She grinned at Saya. “And I loved the fight. Perhaps you’d agree to spar-”
“No, never again,” Satalyin said, taking a step back and holding up his hands. “Last time was like fighting off a horde of angry bees with a twig.”
“She had a good tutor.” Saya winked at her father. “But, yes, sparring with Jalikra is more a lesson in humiliation than swordplay.”
“Stop it, both of you,” Jalikra said, beaming. She glanced towards the portal. “Anyhow, I’d best be on my way.”
“Just be careful out there,” Satalyin said. “It’s getting worse.”
“I will, Master.” Jalikra bowed to both Gatekeeper and God of Hell, and then headed towards the portal.
Saya called out a farewell as Jalikra rushed off. Inside, she felt a knot of anxiety, but had no idea why. And then she glanced at her father, and noted his concerned look too. The knot grew a lot larger.
Jalikra tightened the strapping anchoring her twin longswords across her back, flicked long red hair over her shoulders and strode towards the portal. She glanced back down the corridor into Hell’s main chamber, and her smile returned. A horde of angry bees…
She stepped through into dense forest, and a thousand smells, colours and sounds assaulted her. And there were mortals nearby too, the glow of their souls giving them away. Three men, all terrified, crouched behind a nearby thicket. Idiots.
Her first harvest could wait. She took a step towards them and tensed on hearing a sword slide from its scabbard. Soldiers? No, not unless they were deserters. Perhaps she would get the chance to spar this day, after all.
She spotted the arrow a moment after hearing the twang of a bowstring, and plucked it from the air inches in front of her face. “Now, I’m angry,” she said, striding towards them with her fists clenched.
Before Jalikra had covered half the distance, two of the three raced away as if Death himself pursued them. She spotted the red and blue band on the left arm of their leather jerkins marking them as ‘Soul Guardians,’ self-proclaimed opponents of Hell. “Idiots,” she shouted after the fleeing pair. “And are you going to run off too,” she asked the remaining mortal. “Your kind turn my stomach.” He stood and backed away from the thicket, eyes never leaving her.
“Just go.” Jalikra stared in the direction the other two had run. “If that fool ever thinks to shoot an arrow at me again, I’ll stripe his hide with it.” She strode over to him, snapped it in two and threw it at his feet.
“You’re a murderer, all your kind are,” he said. “But I won’t die easy.” He sprang forwards and thrust his sword at her chest. Next thing he was face down on the ground, spitting out a mouthful of leaves. His hand tightened on a sword hilt that was no longer there. Jalikra now stood over him, his sword in her hand.
“My turn.” With such speed that it left a vortex in its wake, she thrust the sword into the soil between his parted legs, missing his flesh by a hair’s breadth. Still, he shrieked as if it’d found its mark. Just an inch of hilt remained poking from the ground. “Someone close was taken by one of my kin, and you don’t accept your loved one’s guilt. I’m sorry for whoever it was you lost, but they’re in Hell because it was the only way to save their soul. You’ll never believe me until after your death, and the Creator grant that day be a long way off.”
“You’re a murdering witch, and you’ll never convince me otherwise.”
“Well, it seems I was right. A pity. Perhaps, after your death, you’ll seek me out and apologise. You do understand that mortal weapons can’t hurt my kind, don’t you?” Jalikra smiled, baring teeth that would have made a wyvern proud. “If they did, I’d have more holes than a tramp’s smalls.”
“Any demon will fall to steel wielded by a righteous hand.” He strained to pull his sword free of the ground.
“Well, you have a soul that is all but devoid of sin, so I’m sure your hand, if not righteous, will certainly be self-righteous.” She crouched down in front of him and shook her head when the idiot scrambled backwards. “I’ve three evil souls to gather, so I can’t wait all day.” She tugged his sword free and held it out for him, hilt first. “Now’s your chance to rid the realm of a foul and merciless demon.”
“This is a trick.” He grabbed the sword from her hand. “I’m not playing your stupid game, whatever it is. Go murder more innocents, but the Creator will judge you in the end. You’ll never know his grace-”
Jalikra thumped a tree, showering them both with leaves. “You know nothing.” She moved closer until his blade tip pressed against her chest. “Think what you will of me, but I’ll suffer no fool to tell me the Creator’s light is denied me.” She batted his sword away, pushed him against a tree and stooped down until their eyes were level. The fear had gone from him now, replaced by confusion and… Well, it was a start.
“I don’t have time for this.” Jalikra took a step back, and he sheathed his sword. Yes, perhaps there was hope for him after all. “Don’t waste your life pursuing vengeance, and calling it justice.” She turned and sprinted away.
How could that pure-souled fool think ill of her kind? At least he’d had the decency to look embarrassed. He’d smelled of sweat, with just the hint of something else. Something unexpected. The idiot.
As Jalikra’s anger drained, she scanned the area around her. Glenmer. She’d been born a little over thirty miles to the south in the small town of Ular, shaded by the Avalon Hills. Nearer still lay the village of Doli where the first of the three marked for Hell was.
The forest gave way to a large meadow, almost a half mile across and thrice as wide. As a mortal, she’d camped here many times to harvest the yellow rudbeckia and red helenium that had carpeted the whole area. Now only meadow grass grew, grazed short by a flock of sheep tended by a young shepherd. Stood less than fifty yards from her, he gawped with eyes grown so large they threatened to unseat his bulbous nose for mastery of his face. She held up a hand, and he ripped off his cap while attempting a bow that almost sent him tumbling head over heels.
The shepherd’s smile was a genuine one and, if not for her previous encounter, she’d have passed a little time with him. Besides, the two men who’d ran from her would likely emerge from the trees in a little while. It galled her, but the Soul Guardians would make the shepherd’s life a misery if they knew he’d talked with her, so she raced across the meadow. A backward glance confirmed just how disappointed the young man was.
She had to have been the one who’d saved his grandpa’s life a full fifty years gone. Stefan had never seen a demon before, but he knew there weren’t many female ones. And even then, how many would have red hair that was quite so long and, well, messy. He wanted to race to the farm and tell Bran, but the sheep would rebel if he tried taking them back without a bellyful of grass. Instead he grubbed about on the ground until he’d found a decent sized branch, sat and started whittling away at the bark. By evening, he’d have something special for his grandpa.
Before he’d stripped off half the bark, a commotion had Stefan back on his feet, crook held in both hands. Two men almost fell out of the forest just twenty paces away. Both had swords drawn, wild eyes scanning in every direction. He noticed the blue and red band on their arm, and hid a chuckle behind a cough. Far too many donned the blue and red nowadays, and it was just a question of time before King Lewis did something about it. “You two alright? Was it a bear?”
“You watch yourself, shepherd.” Marcus took a step towards him, but his comrade grabbed his arm.
“Did you see her?” Aral asked. “The demon?”
“There’s a demon about? A demoness?” Stefan peered behind them into the forest. “Is she, umm, chasing you?”
“I’ll feed your guts to your sheep,” Marcus said. “She murdered Georg, you smart-mouthed little-”
“She didn’t murder anyone.” Georg stepped out of the trees. “Put up your swords. The shepherd means no harm.”
“Did you slay her?” Aral asked.
“No,” Georg said, eyes locked on Stefan’s. “And she did no more than lash me with her tongue even though I tried to run her through.” He lowered his gaze and turned away. “Come, we’d best get back to camp and tell my father.”
Stefan clutched his crook tighter. His tongue was scalding his mouth. Leena said it’d bring him bother, but he just couldn’t stop himself. “You’re bloody wrong about demons, and too dumb to see it.” Georg flinched, but did not slow his pace. Marcus and Aral both rested hands on their sword hilts, but a word from Georg had the three of them hurrying away.
He glared at their backs until they were lost to the far side of the meadow. Anyone with sense knew demons were sworn to serve mortals. Anyone. He sat back down and took a few deep breaths before once more whittling away at the lump of wood. By evening, he’d have a carving of his grandfather’s saviour.
The road had been broadened in the last hundred years, with heavy stone slabs laid where once had been nothing more than compacted dirt. There were fewer stopping places now too, with merchants and other travellers encouraged to overnight at the five-mile forts that lined all of Glenmer’s trade routes. One had been built close to where Jalikra now stood, close to the place she’d been murdered. A narrow track, leading to Doli, branched off just ahead.
A pair of young soldiers on the palisade bowed to her, and she held up hand, fingers ending in long talons, and smiled. She laughed when one wished the Creator’s blessing on her while the second asked for her hand in marriage. King Lewis maintained a good army, and they did cooperate with Demonkind, even if one or two were a little irreverent at times.
She headed towards Doli, not quite hearing the whispered comments from the two soldiers, but imagined they’d be wondering who in the village she’d come for. There was only one way into it, just as a century ago. A century. Time didn’t weigh on her now she was an immortal and, murdered aged fifteen, never had.
Jalikra slowed when she spotted the first of the villagers. A teenage girl walked beside a far older woman, bonds between souls marking them as grandmother and granddaughter. They carried trays of steaming bread balanced on their heads, and the smell brought back memories of her mother. They’d be heading for the fort to sell their wares to the soldiers and travellers. The pair looked worried, which she could understand. Everyone in Doli would know everyone else, and Jalikra’s appearance could only mean one thing.
“Mistress Demon,” the pair said together, executing synchronised curtsies.
“Good morning to you both,” Jalikra said. “And don’t worry, it’s not one linked to you I’ve come for. Be at peace, and watch out for the younger of the two soldiers on guard duty. His tongue is a little loose.” She raised an eyebrow when the younger woman coloured.
“Who’ve you come for?” the older woman asked, her gruff voice the perfect companion to her gnarled face. “Wish it was that no good husband of mine. All he does is sleep and fart.”
“I can’t say who until after I’m done.” Jalikra struggled hard not to chuckle. “And can I suggest ginger, cardamom and peppermint boiled for an hour, taken after supper for your husband’s issue. I’m not sure Satalyin would approve of me harvesting a soul just because he had wind, no matter how evil the smell.”
“He bloody well would if he had to sleep beside him,” the old woman said, bringing a titter from her granddaughter.
“I’ll be sure to mention it to him. The Creator’s blessing on you both.” With a grunt from the old woman and a second curtsy from her granddaughter, Jalikra left the pair behind and headed towards the village.
In Doli, Jalikra’s focus was on the day’s first harvest. Frightened villagers curtsied or bowed, and she acknowledged each with a dip of her head or, where necessary, a reassuring word. Off to one side a blacksmith paused at his forge and caught her eye. She frowned, seeing an echo of the young man to whom she’d once thought to be promised. Perhaps it was his great, great grandson. A shudder slid up her spine when a young child ran out and clutched his leather apron. In another life, it could have been her child.
She was still staring at the frightened man. “No, it is not you or one of yours I’ve come for.” She held up both hands to him. “Forgive me for a fool, but you reminded me of someone from my mortal days.” Even a wayward glance at a mortal could set others talking, so she added, “Your soul is a good one, one of the best.” She hated being so formal, and made a note to visit him and his family when she could, idiot that she was.
Fear and murmurs were all around her now. Every door stood open and husbands clutched wives while children clung to their mother’s skirts. Despite the necessity of what she did, those close to the one she’d take would often see it as a loved one stolen from them long before their time. They could not see the alternative. They could never see how their souls would suffered for all eternity otherwise.
A large crowd now trailed behind her, none daring to come too close. Her harvest was a hundred paces away – a fool who’d let bitterness and envy pollute his soul. His stay in Hell would be no more than a handful of years before release to the afterlife. Still, it would be the ones left behind who suffered most as was always the way. She paused at an alleyway where a girl of ten stood with her hand on the shoulder of a boy of five, recognising them as the children of the one she’d come for. The girl picked up a stone and hurled it at her, shouting a curse that would have made a sailor blush. The girl knew. Her young soul was troubled, and she’d already taken her first steps down a path that could lead her to Hell.
And then she was outside a wooden shack set back from the road, windows still shuttered despite the late hour. A murmur rose up from the growing crowd, only a few voices expressing disappointment. “I will speak with your Elder on the Village Green when I’m done. Wait for me there,” Jalikra said.
The door was locked, but she pushed it open with one hand, the heavy wooden bar securing it splintering. Stale beer and acrid sweat filled the room. He was slumped over the table, and didn’t so much as twitch despite the noise she’d made entering. One hand still clutched a pewter tankard while opposite him were two empty bowls. There would be no mother to look after his children after she took him to Hell. How could there be? Even though his wife’s death was not by his own hand, he was still responsible. “Alaman Sturr,” she said, “you’re coming with me.”
Although her words were spoken softly, his bloodshot eyes sprung open, and he wailed when he saw Jalikra. He reached across the table, grasped hold of a wooden doll and stared at the two empty chairs opposite him. “I’m so sorry. I am so very sorry.”
“I am sorry too.” She reached out a hand and tugged his soul free.
Released from his body, Alaman’s soul thrashed in her hand. Oily streaks of darkness, evil, dulled the bright glow beneath, but tendrils of self-loathing and regret covered it too. No, his stay in Hell would not be a long one. Even after handling countless evil souls, she still shuddered at how they writhed. She flicked open the stopper on one of the soul jars belted around her waist, and let its magic draw Alaman’s spirit inside. She’d speak with him once they were back in Hell.
With his soul secured, Jalikra turned her attention to Alaman’s body. His family and other villagers would deal with him after she’d gone, but out of respect for them she carried his corpse to his bed. He still clutched the wooden doll, which she had to prise from his dead hands.
And then she waited. The village needed to know Alaman’s crimes, particularly in this case, and she could see through the part open door that they were still streaming towards the Green. A lot of them. Doli had grown in the century since she’d last visited.
Jalikra sensed for the other two souls destined for Hell, and felt the cold arrogance from the first of the pair. He was twenty miles to the northwest, but on the move. She had the impression he was a noble or a wealthy merchant.
But the last drew a hiss from her. Deeply mired in evil, she doubted she’d ever taken a soul quite so bad. Although he was a long way to the north, she could sense him as if he were stood in front of her. There was no arrogance, no self-appeasing justifications for what he did, for he was consumed by rage and the lust to hurt. He was evil in its purest form.
Outside was now quiet so she headed out of the shack.
A crowd of nearly five hundred had gathered around a raised platform in the centre of the Green. On it, the village elder stood fingering his chains of office. He flinched when he spotted Jalikra approaching.
The crowds parted far more than was really necessary to let her through, and it upset her just how fearful they’d grown. What would it be like in another hundred years? Hell was fuller than it had ever been, and yet there were a dozen fewer demons than when she’d first gained immortality. Not for the first time, she wondered why.
“Mistress Demon.” The elder bowed as low as his thick waist would allow. “I… ummm… I-”
“Welcome to Doli,” the elder’s wife said. She gave her husband’s hand a squeeze.
“I, ummm, am sorry it’s not under better circumstances for a first visit,” the elder said, finding his voice. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m just recently elected. I-”
“I know,” Jalikra said. “It was Alaman Sturr who murdered your predecessor.”
“But we hanged Menessa for it. He…” The elder’s wife lowered her head. “Forgive me, Mistress Demon. Menessa was my friend.”
“Alaman implicated his wife in the crime, and she never spoke in her defence,” Jalikra said. “There is no blame on you or anyone other than Alaman Sturr for her death. Menessa is at peace in the afterlife, slumbering in the Creator’s loving embrace. Alaman will serve his penance in Hell.” Through a gap in the crowd, she spotted Alaman’s daughter comforting her younger brother.
“They’re his children,” the elder’s wife said, her words punctuated by sobs.
“I know.” Jalikra, wooden doll in hand, made her way toward the two children. The girl clutched her brother tightly while glaring at her. “I’m so very sorry.” She crouched down in front of the pair and handed her the doll.
“I hate you.” The girl threw the doll on the ground and slapped Jalikra across the face.
Jalikra picked it back up, and held it out once more. “He can’t hurt you anymore.” She touched the purple welt on the girl’s face, healing it. She did the same for her younger brother whose arm and neck were bruised. The boy looked up at her, innocent eyes showing a tiny glimmer of hope. “I am so very, very sorry.”
“I hate you,” the girl repeated, eyes glistening with unshed tears.
Jalikra pulled the two children into her arms, speaking soothing words as they clung to each other and now to her. “I swear I’ll see you both cared for.” She lifted both and made her way back to the elder and his wife. “I charge you with caring for them.” She set them down, and handed the girl the doll. This time she took it.
“We could never have children of our own,” the elder’s wife said. “They’ll want for nothing, especially love.”
“We’ve a room for them prepared already,” the elder said, smiling at his wife. “We’d, umm suggested to, umm-”
“We’d offered to take them in after their mother was… well, after it happened,” his wife said.
Jalikra took a step backwards, stealing a glance at the young girl’s troubled soul. “It will not be easy for them. Be patient. Be gentle.”
“We will, I swear.” The elder bowed low. When he straightened, Jalikra was already halfway across the village Green. Three heartbeats later, she was out of sight.