"We do what we must," Mother always said, back when we were skulking around the wharves and warehouses at the bottom end of Port Alkarief. For her, that meant letting men do disgusting things to her, and giving half of what they paid her to Jimon so that he had the exclusive right to beat her. But as she grew older and less interesting to those men, I grew older and more interesting to them.
Mother did what she had to, and she saved me from her fate by selling me to the wizard. He wasn't too bad, as evil wizards go, not that I had much to compare him to, but at least of all the horrible and disgusting things he did, none of them he seemed interested in doing to me. Eventually I met the succubus he kept captive in an enchanted bottle in his room, and she explained it all to me. My Master's interests lay with the creatures from the nether realm, and each ritual, each sacrifice, was another step in his quest for an audience with their king.
We do what we must, and in my case, what I must do is get all of the blood scrubbed out of the mystic circle before he needs the chamber to perform the next ritual sacrifice. It was a particularly arduous chore this time, since the last summoning had involved fire, and lots of it. Usually it wasn't so bad cleaning up if I could get to it right away, but the demons kept my Master waiting while the brimstone blazed away, and now the blood was not only dried, but charred. It was backbreaking work. I had been at it for two hours, and only gotten a quarter of the way around the circle. Every last speck had to be gone, or the demons would notice, and my Master would suffer a setback. Once they had aged him twenty years for the affront, although eventually he had gained them all back but three. In the circles he was working now, he could not afford the costs of an error.
I set the brush aside and cast the remaining water from the bucket across the area I'd been scrubbing to rinse it clear. It looked pretty good, but I would still have to inspect every rune once I was done to make sure not a drop remained. For my part in that early mistake, he had stripped me and virtually clothed me in chains and tossed me in the dungeon. I despaired that he would let me die in there until he came down the next day and sheepishly released me, making the excuse that he needed me to prepare dinner. That's when I knew, as scary as this place could be, no harm would befall me.
I skipped down the stairs from the tower chamber with my bucket, and headed to the well in the courtyard. On the way I stopped by the goat pen. Azzy stuck his head through the fence, and I gave him a little scratch on the forehead. "Looks like you're off the hook, Azzy. No more goat sacrifices. Now it's the condemned." I don't think he understood, but I think he picked up the feeling from me and nuzzled my hand. He was the oldest goat in the pen. He'd been here longer than I. Usually the newer, younger goats were sacrificed, but now Azzy was the only one left. He pulled his head back through the fence, or rather, he tried. He had really tremendous horns for a goat. Well, as far as I could tell. It's not like I grew up on a farm and knew a lot about goats, but none of the others had had horns nearly as large, nor blood red eyes, although the albinos had been close. But he was also the friendliest of them all. I gave him a little nudge so his head would line up with the gap and he could go back to his hay.
At the well, I called out to the imp. "Hugo! I need another bucket of water."
"What did you do with the last one I gave you?" the surly imp shouted out of the well.
"I used it cleaning the Master's circle. And I'm going to need more after this."
The beastly creature peeked over the edge of the well. "What's in it for me?"
"Well, the Master said he wants a chicken for dinner tonight, so I thought, if you were really nice to me today, I'd save you the liver."
The imp smiled, showing dozens of needle-like teeth. "And the heart?"
"Only if you make it warm water. Deal?"
"I'll see what I can do." The imp snatched up the bucket and disappeared down into the well.
Hugo has been pretty grumpy lately, it hasn't rained much so his well was getting a little low. But if he gets any worse, I'm going to have to punish him with a bucket of dishwater again. He hates anything dirty. He spends his time "sorting" the water. Thanks to him, our well water is pure enough you can even drink it.
Moments later the imp appeared at the rim of the well and set the bucket on the edge. "That's the best I can do," he muttered and disappeared again into his hole.
I picked up the bucket and headed back to the tower. I took a moment and stuck my finger into the water.
Ice cold. Never trust an imp.
It had been a long day cleaning, along with the other chores I had, but I was done on time and ready when my Master finally returned. I heard the cart clatter into the courtyard and rushed outside to greet him.
"Ah, Benita! Is the chamber purified?"
"Good, good. Help me get this chest upstairs. There's a Blood Moon tomorrow night, and I have a lot of work to do."
"But dinner is ready." I was dismayed that he may not eat at all, after I had gotten everything just right.
He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. "You're right, I should take care of my earthly needs lest they distract me from the work ahead. But first, we must secure this."
I dutifully grasped one handle on the heavily iron-bound chest. It was even heavier than it looked. I had to hold it up with both hands. My Master also was staggered by the weight, but eventually we got it up into the tower.
The chest was not locked, rather, it had been riveted shut. How he planned to open it, I had no idea. Curiosity got the better of me. "What is it?" I asked.
"This is the gold encrusted skull of Gul-Ahmaged. This will get me through the bureaucracy to an audience with the King of the Netherworld once and for all."
I knew what a bureau was, but not the other word. Still, this meant my Master would finally achieve his goal. "So with this, it's all over? Does this mean I'll never have to scrub the circle again?"
He looked at me with a very queer expression on his face, then smiled and said, "Indeed, it does."
My Master looked happier than I had ever seen him as he ate, and he talked more about his work than he ever had. Whoever possessed the skull, he explained, would be able to demand any boon from the King of the Netherworld. And he had a proposal that the King would be unable to resist. He would become the Netherworld's General on Earth, and command the power of all the demons he brought forth. He would open a permanent gateway between the planes, and rule the world in his name.
"That sounds like a lot of work, ruling the world." I regretted it the moment I said it. I hated when he called me a simple girl. Just because I had never been to school didn't mean I was stupid.
But instead, he looked at me as if I had surprised him. "You're very astute..." he said.
I am not a stupe, I thought, getting a little angry, but he continued, "... but the demons have solved that particular problem, they have lesser demons for every little issue. And more demons to run the lesser demons, and greater demons above them. By the time you get to the King, all but the very biggest problems have already been taken care of."
"And the skull is a very big problem. And that's why the King will see you."
"You are a very clever young lady." He sounded pleased, but he looked a little sad. I couldn't tell why.
After a moment, he said, "I have a surprise for you. I want you to be there to witness my moment of triumph. So, I bought you a new dress. I want you to clean and purify yourself and be ready tomorrow by sunset."
Oh the dress! What can I say about the dress? It was the most beautiful thing I'd seen in my life. Now, I must admit that I haven't seen a lot of beautiful things, but I knew I would feel just like a princess in it. It was white, really white, brighter than the muslin I used for most of my clothes. I'm not bad with a needle and thread, but just looking at it showed me entire new realms of possibility. If my Master ever let me go, I decided I would become a seamstress just so I could make things like this.
I washed myself better than ever, and Hugo for once wasn't stingy with the hot water. And when I asked my Master if I could get Cisi to help me get ready, he said yes!
He hadn't let me see Cisi in a long time, so I wasted no time going into his room and getting her bottle. She had been one of the first demons he summoned, and he was ready for her with a bottle that once contained a powerful djinn. She never stood a chance. And ever since, she has been his best source of information about the Netherworld.
But she is also the nicest demoness I have ever met. I set down her bottle in my room, pulled the stopper and stepped back. She emerged as a plume of smoke and quickly solidified. It took her a moment to realize where she was, but then she spotted me and her face lit up with joy.
"Benita!" She danced in tiny steps, her shiny cloven hooves clopping on the floorboards as she threw her arms wide and gave me a big hug. "It's been forever!"
"Oh Cisi! I know!" We broke the embrace, but still held each other's arms, and I looked my friend in the face. She was so happy to be out of the bottle, but it always made me a little sick to see the terrible hold it had on her. She was a succubus, so to keep her powers in check, not only did the bottle keep her shackled hand and foot as it would a djinn, but with its excess strength it had formed a massive collar around her neck, and from it two rods went up and around her face to encircle her horns at their base, and between those rods, a grid was positioned over her mouth. Behind that grid I could see her smile. She had accepted her fate, but I could not. The chastity belt the bottle had burdened her with was the worst insult to her kind. But the bright blue silks it had dressed her in were what I hated the most. They reminded me of what they made my mother wear when she had to dance. My Master may have saved me from that life, but this cruelty was hard to see.
But no chains could weigh down Cisi's spirit, and that was why I loved her so. She danced around the room looking at every new thing she hadn't seen. The only thing that kept her from getting tangled in the chains was that after the first few links from her shackles, they became ephemeral trails of smoke that led back to mouth of the bottle. This is probably why people think a djinn is half made of smoke. Ephemeral or not, she still could never venture more than a few yards from the bottle.
Then Cisi spotted the dress, and she squealed with delight. "Oh Benita! This is beautiful!" She held it up against my shoulders. "Are you getting married?"
I blushed. Who would marry me, the slave of a dark wizard? But the fantasy of being rescued by a prince had been with me since the first time I set foot in the tower, just like a fairy tale. "No," I said, "but the Master wants me to be there tonight when he has his audience with the King of the Netherworld."
Cici's golden eyes grew wide. "The Demon Lord himself? How did he manage that?"
"He got something the King wants, I guess. The golden skull of... Gul...."
"Gul-Ahmaged." Cisi looked more serious than I had ever seen her. "You be very careful. Don't say anything, don't make a noise, don't even move."
"Cisi, you're scaring me. What's wrong?"
"Gul-Ahmaged was the Demon Lord's eldest son, and the most powerful demon ever to set foot on this plane. He laid waste to a huge territory that is still desert today. When they killed him, they defiled his corpse, encasing it in noble gold and pure silver, and sent it back, except for his head, which they hid."
I swallowed, my throat tight. I understood exactly what she was telling me. "So he could be glad to have it back, or he could be very, very angry." The King of the Netherworld could easily reach through the wards and smite my Master if he were displeased, and surely me as well if he noticed my presence.
But Cisi was nothing if not an embodiment of joy, "I'm sure he'll be happy to have him back though, even if he can't raise him again. Now let's get you all dressed up! It's not every day a mortal gets to see the Demon Lord."
In short order, Cisi was brushing my hair, kneeling on the bed while I sat on the edge. "You have the most beautiful hair," she said.
My hair is the color of straw, and about as soft, and I said so. She's the one with the glossy black curls falling all down her back. Mine hangs straight and dead.
"You just don't brush it enough. And when I'm done, I'm going to braid it! You'll see."
In that moment, I was trapped just as surely as she. Not that I minded the attention. Mother discouraged me from acting feminine, to help protect me on the streets, but Cisi more than made up for my lack. Her kind is all about femininity, although her demon nature ruins it. Like her hair, so beautiful, but her horns stick through it. Her skin is flawless, and the color of a ripe apple through and through. Her lips are full and fair, and black as sin, while her teeth are white and straight, including her fangs. She has a figure that would make the tightest corset fit like a sack, but her spaded tail, jack-legs, and hooves make it impossible to ignore what she is -- a demon, not a human. And none of that matters, because she is my best friend.
I was content to let Cisi play with my hair for as long as she wanted if it made her happy, but eventually, after her nimble fingers had worked their magic, she declared it done. I had a tiny tin mirror on my chest of drawers, and I had to look. I barely recognized myself. Most of my hair was in a large braid that coiled upon itself atop my head, but she had set aside many small locks to make finer braids that she had woven together in a shape like a tiara. I really would look like a princess.
"I shall have to leave my hair like this forever, I think."
"And deny me my pleasure? What a cruel princess you have become. I shall have to settle for dressing you up!"
It was silly play-acting, and a moment later we were laughing. But she wasted no time lacing me into the dress. She primped and tugged and got everything settled just so. And the dress gave me no choice but to stand up straight and proper. And I'll be damned if I didn't begin to feel something I had never felt before in my life.
I felt beautiful.
Cisi noticed it too when she stepped back to look me over. "Benita, when you came here, you were a scrawny little girl, but you have grown up gorgeous. I daresay you will be the one stealing men from me!"
Just then my Master came into the room, looking very harried. He looked me over briefly and said, "That will do." Then he looked at Cisi and said, "Back in the bottle for you, succubus." He picked up the stopper and Cisi was sucked back into the bottle as she turned into smoke. It looked painful, but she told me once that it didn't feel like anything. Still, he seemed to enjoy jamming the stopper in hard. They had some history, those two.
I thought he was awfully abrupt when he grabbed me by the elbow and nearly dragged me out of the room. "Hurry up," he said, "It's almost time." He practically pushed me up the stairs to the tower room.
The summoning chamber had been built unlike any normal tower. The stairs came up outside the room, to the narrow walkway that ringed the top of the tower. The original tower had been topped with an enormous flagstone that made up the floor of the chamber, so that the circle could be chiseled into its unbroken surface. Those who drew their runes on wooden or stone floors that were not continuous found out the hard way that their inscriptions leaked as the gaps or grain could be counted as part of the symbology, meaning the demon summoned could ignore the wards written incorrectly and escape any binding spells. My Master had been lucky to have had the bottle handy when he summoned Cisi. That mistake had cost him most of his manhood (more spiritually than physically). But he explained that as a result it allowed him to pursue his exploration free from distractions. And once captured by the bottle, Cisi was compelled to answer all his questions truthfully. He had used her knowledge in the construction of the tower.
At the top of the stairs was the east door to the chamber. There were doors through the thick stone walls in each of the cardinal directions. The conical roof was set somewhat above the walls, the gap allowing all of the various noxious fumes that came with summoning to quickly vent away. It was the east door that he dragged me through. I caught a brief glimpse of the red shadow working its way across the face of the moon.
Once inside I saw what he had been doing for the last day. The entire room had been stripped bare. Not a single thing unrelated to the night's ritual had been left. I felt a little guilty, since surely this should have been my work. In addition, two smaller circles had been scratched into the floor, touching the main one. In one sat the chest containing the skull. He made me stand in the other.
After positioning me just so, he simply said, "Do not move." I was about to nod my assent when he touched a finger to my forehead, and I was frozen, stock still. I was shocked! I had seen him use that spell before on his sacrifices, but I was not a chicken, and I was not about to let myself be used as a sacrifice, although frozen as I was, I had no idea what I could do about it.
But then I saw him do something I had never seen him do before: he sliced his hand and used his own blood to invoke the circle. His own blood! He was putting his own life and power on the line for this ritual. This just wasn't done. But then, it's not every day that one opens a portal to the throne room of the King of the Netherworld.
As his blood fed the runes, they began to glow brightly, so brightly that I could barely see the walls of the summoning chamber. And then, I couldn't. Slowly the glow faded to a dim red, and my eyes adjusted to the darkness. We were standing still within our own circle, but it was floating like a raft in the middle of the enormous throne room. It was a wonder. I had seen the rituals before, from outside the circle, and it looked as if nothing were happening. I could never see who my Master was talking to, but now, being brought along, I knew this was real -- no matter how much before it had resembled madness.
Just then, a voice boomed through the yawning distance of the chamber. Deep and powerful, the Demon Lord's voice shook me to the core. It was thrilling.
"Oh ho!" said the King of the Netherworld, "Very few attempt the Blood Moon Ritual to gain my audience any more. Perhaps it is because those who fail to pay the price become the torches that light my chamber, their souls burning forever in the flames. If you are not prepared, then it is too late for you already."
I squinted really hard at the nearest torch, which seemed impossibly far, but still, I could make out what could be a person's shape writhing within the flames. I desperately hoped my Master knew what he was doing.
"I have brought your price, oh Lord of the Demons." He stepped over to me, and shook off a few more drops of his blood on the circle where I stood. The runes flared briefly then faded.
"What is this?" the Demon Lord exclaimed. Footsteps, or rather hoofbeats shook the entire room, sounding more like a rain of house-sized boulders slamming into the ground. He came up to our tiny floating sliver of the world to look closely at the offering, at me.
He was gigantic, at least a hundred feet tall. The illustrations I had seen in a few of my Master's books depicting a goat-headed demon man did not do him justice. He was the embodiment of terrible power, the archetype of every sin, the father of all demons, and the ruler of an entire plane of existence. He was magnificent.
And he was looking at me very intently.
"She is the virgin daughter of a common whore, just come of age, unlettered and unknown to any gods. And, she seems to have a natural affinity for demonkind," my Master said.
A fingertip bigger around than my thigh reached through the circle as if it were nothing, and touched me under the chin, tilting my head back in spite of the spell holding me paralyzed. "And she is a blonde too. You know my tastes. She would find a place of honor among my concubines. Very well, your fee is paid, I will hear your plea."
I was quite stunned by this turn of events. On the one hand, my entire life had just been valuated as the price of a conversation. The Master had bought me as a child and kept me simply as a bargaining chit for this occasion. But on the other hand, to be the concubine of the Demon Lord is one hell of a step up from being the slave of an Evil Wizard. I would want for nothing, and my days of slavery would be over. In my world, the prospects for my future were much bleaker. If only I could bring Cisi along, she could be home and free, and we could be together whenever we wanted.
Oh, I'm sure others would be horrified at the prospect, and certainly they would aspire to more. But my Master was right, I do have a certain affinity for Demons. I was looking forward to this.
My Master obviously was as well. His speech was perfectly rehearsed. "In the decades I have spent learning about the Demon realm, I have gained a great appreciation for the power...."
"So whom do you wish for me to kill," the Demon Lord interrupted.
"That is what you want, is it not, for me to send my armies to kill your enemies, lay waste to their lands, to win your wars for you. That is what all of the others have desired. I have spent too many lives on your wars. I do not think you can pay my price."
"No, that's not it at all! What I want is to end war! I have seen the order that your rule has imposed upon your world, and I would see it in my world as well. Men are not fit to rule themselves. But with a Demonic administration, men would be freed from the onerous duty of self-governance. Imagine, there's no countries, nothing to kill or die for. With demons controlling the world, there would be nothing but peace, law, and rigid order, men living productive, introspective lives. It would bring a golden age to our plane."
The Demon Lord curled his lip at the term golden age. Gold and silver both were like poison to them. I couldn’t believe my Master had made that slip. But frankly, I wasn't too thrilled about his plan for the world either. The thought of every man having an imp like Hugo telling him how to live his life according to laws laid down by Demons.... Mankind would never stand for it, except for those few worthless souls without the will to rule their own lives, they would welcome their new Demon overlords.
The Demon Lord rubbed the goat-beard that dangled from his chin. "Hmmm, a most intriguing offer. I have not heard its like before. But of course, I must ask, where do you believe you fit into this new world order?"
"Why, at the top, of course. It is my plan, after all. And who would know better what edicts would need to be handed down through the Demonic administration than myself?"
My Master was a fool. I could tell this now, and I could see from the Demon Lord's expression that he could as well. All this time he had spent studying Demons, yet he didn't really understand them at all, not any better than he understood humanity. But I could say nothing as long as the paralysis held me.
"Such a position would come with a high price. What do you have to offer in exchange?" Demons advanced through their hierarchy through a strict system of bribery.
His wound had mostly stopped bleeding by this point, but my Master was still able to squeeze a few drops from his hand onto the other circle, activating it, and bringing the chest to this side of the portal. "At considerable expense and effort, I have been able to locate the last, missing portion of your eldest son's remains, and I have brought them home to you." As horrible as this statement would sound to a human, making commerce out of returning remains, this was probably the most perfectly Demonic thing he could have said. But my faith in my Master had already been shaken, if he had done the right thing, he hadn't done it intentionally.
Ironically, at that moment the Demon Lord was his most Human. His eyes softened, and his imposing posture fell slack. There was a great sadness to him as he reached into the circle again for the chest. "My... son...." With surprising gentleness, he picked up the chest betwixt his enormous thumb and forefinger, and then tore the lid off as if the riveted iron bands were paper. He carefully tipped out the skull onto his palm.
That's when his palm started to smoke, and I knew for sure we were going to die.
The Demon Lord's howl was equal parts pain and anguish, and so powerful I felt it would smash my bones to powder. The skull of Gul-Ahmaged fell at my feet, and I could just see how thoroughly it had been defiled with gold. The metal had literally been ladled on until it looked like golden candles had been dripped over its entirety. Enough gold to ransom an entire royal family had been devoted to this ultimate insult.
He snatched up my Master in one gigantic hand, so that only his head stuck out from the massive fist. There was fire in his eyes, and I was amazed that in his fury he did not crush him like a grape. The Demon Lord shoved my Master's face into the skull and bellowed "This is how your kind served my son?! I shall serve you worse than that! You want to end wars? I shall give you the war to end all wars. I will use your blood to keep this portal open and make you watch as my entire army goes through it. I will kill every last man, woman, and child on your wretched plane. I will scorch the earth. No plant or animal, not even the tiniest flea shall remain! Every mountain, every rock shall be ground to dust. You wanted to rule the world? I will give you a world of endless desert. I'll even grant you eternal life to rule it!"
Just then I heard a smashing sound behind me -- someone was kicking open one of the doors to the summoning chamber. Naturally I couldn’t turn to look, but just after the Demon Lord threw my Master at the floor of the portal, and just as he clambered to his feet to grovel, a great, fur-clad behemoth of a man suddenly appeared, striding into our circle from the tower, bearing a mighty silver axe. Before anyone could react, he swung the axe and beheaded my Master. Without his life essence to feed it, the circle died as well.
Even as the portal collapsed, the Demon Lord howled, "I will have my revenge! If it takes a thousand years, I shall still cleanse your foul plane!"
The brute looked inordinately pleased with himself, and then, to my utter disbelief, he started to narrate what he'd done, "And so, with a single swing of his Mighty Axe, Korlin of Leatrun defeated the Evil Wizard, retrieved the Stolen Artifact, and saved the Fair Princess to boot." The cretin winked and smiled at me with that last.
The paralysis spell was fading, and I suddenly felt too weak to stand. I sank to my hands and knees on the blood-soaked floor. My Master's head lay there, rolled up against Gul-Ahmaged's in some kind of twisted irony. He was not an especially cruel man, in this often cruel and heartless world, but for all his study and knowledge, he had learned nothing of the way of the world. His knowledge made him arrogant, and that arrogance had led him to mistakes that had nearly destroyed everything.
This brute, while he may indeed have saved the world, he had done so unknowingly. The timing was far too much of a coincidence, and how had he known to come here? What did he say... "retrieved the stolen artifact?" Someone had sent him to get the skull. And the moment that someone tried to use it, the world would be doomed. I had to stop him, but how? Think!
"Oh ho, my little princess, you do not need to bow to Korlin, I'm sure there will be gratitude enough when I take you home to your kingdom."
My Master had called me clever, so surely I could outwit this barbarian. I decided for the moment to play along with his fantasy that the slave girl was really a princess. Although if he ever did try to present me as lost royalty, I would probably be hanged or worse. I smiled wryly, since that had been my fantasy as well -- the princess thing, not the hanging.
I felt some of my strength returning. I tried to speak. I managed to croak, "Who sent you to save me?"
Korlin reached down and picked me up by the shoulder as if I were a rag doll. Somehow I kept my feet. "The Witch of the Western Hills, although she only sent me for this little trinket," he said as he scooped up the skull by the horns with one hand. The skull was the size of an ox's, and thoroughly coated in heavy gold, that surely spoke to his strength.
I had heard of her. She had become my Master's rival after he had spurned her once Cisi had taken his manhood. She was vain and jealous, and would probably doom the world just to ask for eternal beauty. "The Witch? I know of her. Do you know what she intends with that?"
"I do not, nor do I care. She enchanted my Axe to break spells, and this was the payment she demanded. Rescuing a Fair Princess from the Wizard's evil plot is just an added glory."
Suddenly, an idea came to me and I had hope. "I am not the only princess being held in this foul tower. If you would grant me this one boon, please save my sister."
"Ha! Now there's a glory for you! I will tear this tower down stone by stone to save the Princess' Sister!"
"Or I could just take you to her."
"That works too."
I led the barbarian down the stairs to my room, fortunately I had mustered the strength by that point to walk. He had offered to carry me, but I didn't relish the thought of being thrown over his shoulder like a sack of oats. When I stopped at the door, he shoved me out of the way, shouting, "Stand aside!" and kicked open the unlocked door. He leapt through the opening, axe at the ready, then, confused, turned to me saying, "There's nobody here."
I squeezed past him and found the bottle on the floor where my Master had left it. I picked it up and showed him. "She's in here."
"Your sister is a djinn?"
"No, my Ma... the Wizard trapped her in here while he worked his foul magic on her."
"Aye, I see, so you want me to smash the bottle with SpellBreaker?"
Unbelievable, he had named his axe. "Yes, but I think it would be best if I let her out first. Then you can smash the bottle."
The barbarian massaged his chin, "There is wisdom in that plan. You are a clever princess."
"I'll put the bottle here. Now don't smash it until I say. You wouldn't want to leave my sister as smoke."
Korlin nodded and stared intently at the bottle, focusing all of his concentration on it as I pulled the stopper. Cisi emerged, and as soon as she was solid, I pulled her aside and shouted "Now!"
The bottle shattered with no more effort than a normal glass one would take, and in that instant, I saw Cisi's chains disappear into smoke. She was still disoriented. Korlin, on the other hand was ready for action. "Demon!" he shouted and raised his axe at Cisi.
"No!" I shouted, standing arms spread between my friend and the axe-wielding moron.
"But she's a demon!"
"No, the Wizard was working his magic to turn her into one."
Korlin eyed Cisi suspiciously. But by that time, she had gained her bearings. She put her hands on my arms and rested her chin on my shoulder. "Who's the hunk?" she asked breathily.
"This is Korlin, he just defeated the evil wizard who was holding us princesses captive."
"Korlin, this is my sister, Cisi."
"But... she's red!"
"I told you, she's under a spell."
He snarled, "I could break that spell with my axe!"
"Please, don't hurt my sister. If you are pure of heart, I'm sure you could break the spell with a kiss."
Cisi squeezed my shoulders to let me know she knew what was going on. "Yes. A kiss. That should do it," she added.
"But she's red, and she has horns!"
Cisi stepped out from behind me. With the bottle gone, the harem outfit had disappeared as well as the chains. Naked, she spread her arms out before him. "Please. Save me."
"I daresay you are turning red too, Korlin."
He shot me a nasty look, but his eyes were inexorably drawn back to Cisi's charms. "One kiss."
"My hero!" Cisi shouted as she launched herself into the barbarian's arms. She clamped her arms and legs around him like a drowning woman, even her tail. He was too startled to move as she locked her lips to his.
I had never before seen a succubus feed. It was both arousing, and terrifying -- mostly terrifying, actually. I've seen more than my share of death and dark magic, but this shook me to the soul. The air took on a chill as Cisi hungrily sucked the life out of our erstwhile rescuer. She attacked him with a desperation borne out of thirty years of privation -- the stasis of her bottle having preserved her this long without her customary nourishment. She was my friend, and I knew what she was, but I could barely stand to watch, and yet I couldn't look away. Finally, she stopped, and gingerly disentangled herself from the rigid, and still standing corpse of the barbarian. She was panting, but shortly she caught her breath and let out a scream of exultation at the roof. "Yes! Oh yes!!"
Cisi pirouetted on her hooves and jumped about with unbridled joy, singing, "I'm free! I'm free! I'm finally free!" Then she spied me, and jumped over to me, throwing her arms around me in a huge hug. And to my everlasting shame, I stiffened.
She let go of me, and backed away slowly. Her hands went to her lips. "Oh no. Oh my dearest Benita. I've frightened you, haven't I? I didn't mean to, but it's been so long..." Her golden eyes were filling with tears. "Maybe I should...."
"Stay. Please, stay with me. I couldn't bear it if I lost you too. You did nothing wrong. You did what I wanted you to do. If anyone is horrible, it's me." Now I was crying too. "Look at him, he saved me, he probably saved the whole world, even if he did kill the Master, and see how I thanked him? But he was going to take the skull to the Witch, and if she used it, the Demon Lord would destroy everything."
Cisi slumped down on the bed, "I heard that, even in the bottle. I was afraid I’d never see you again."
Tears were pouring down my face, "I'm so horrible, I used you as a weapon."
She patted the bed next to her. "You've just had a terrible night." I sat, and she put her arm around my shoulders. "It's like that thing you always say, and I forgive you. Besides, you paid me the greatest gift anyone could possibly give me, you gave me back my life." She kissed a tear from my cheek. Her lips were warm, not cold, and I did not flinch. But Cisi is very perceptive. "You silly goose, you shouldn’t be afraid of me anyhow. For one thing, you're a girl. My power doesn't work that way. And for another, you are my best and only friend in the whole world, and I would never do anything to hurt you."
In the end, we buried the remains of Korlin and my Master -- although I guess I don't need to call him that any more -- in the garden. But that still left us with the problem of what to do with the skull. As long as it existed, someone would seek it, desiring it perform the Blood Moon Ritual, and in so doing would doom the world.
"That is a lot of gold," Cisi said, standing well back from the skull. I think just the sight of it made her ill.
"We have to find some way to get rid of it. We can't just bury it, anyone could scry for it and find it. Can we burn it?" There was a brazier I could set up that could hold the skull, the hard part would be lifting it in.
"I don't think an earthly fire can do anything to a greater demon's bones. But that might melt the gold off of it."
"That's a start, but then what? Where can we put it where it can never be found?"
"Oooh, that's it! I know the perfect place."
"I have a cousin. He's a lower demon who clerks in the Chasm of Lost Things. If we could get it to him, I'm sure he could make it vanish forever among all the lost pins and buttons and such. If we can get all the gold off it, I'm sure he would take it."
"And nobody would ever find it?"
"He's very good at his job."
"How do we get it there?"
"That's the hard part. We'd have to open a portal. And you would have to do it. Demons can only make portals within our own realm." She was right, I would have to do it. Allowing any other wizard or witch to to have access to the skull would invite disaster. There was only one problem with that plan....
"I don't know how to do those spells."
"I'll teach you. I'm sure you can do it."
After melting the gold off of Gul-Ahmaged's skull, we had a fortune that would let us live like royalty for the rest of our lives. Cisi started teaching me magic, although first she had to teach me to read. I took to it pretty readily though. On my first try I summoned an imp named Gilmour who now maintains the garden, and fights with Hugo all the time over irrigation. Cisi says in another six months or so, I might be able to reach her cousin. I hope so, because Gilmour complains that we're ruining the soil with all the heroes we're burying.
Of all the things I wanted to do with my life, becoming a sorceress working to save the world was something I never imagined I would do. But as mother always said, we do what we must.
Drow - 1
Tired, So Tired
This also gave me a great idea for the ultimate misleading fantasy book cover. This will only make sense if you read it first, so go read, I'll wait....
Done? Here's the cover idea. Standing atop a pile of bodies, Knights, Barbarians etc, we have the Sorceress Benita, standing in a bloody, ruined wedding dress, cradled in her left arm is an open spellbook, greenish light emenating upwards from its pages. In her right hand is a staff, topped with a demonic skull, a blast of flame shooting from its mouth. Beneath her on the pile of bodies is a nearly feral-looking devil Girl/Succubus, on all fours, and only her pose and strategically placed tail prevents the viewer from seeing her nakedness. The tagline "They will save the world, even if they have to kill all its heroes to do it!".