“The girl walked into the forest, for she was not afraid of monsters.”
The Sapphire Fiend laughed, a sound sharp as the gems on her mask. “What is this?” It was not the appeal she expected but I pretended not to notice her surprise.
“The beasts had menaced her people for weeks, stealing and rending and tearing until human bones littered the path to the forest.”
I imagined the Sapphire Fiend dubious behind her mask, that false face made of gems whose demons were already used up. But as I was not yet disconnected from my limbs, I continued.
“At first heroes challenged the forest, bold women and men, but they all ended as a collection of screams and crunching sounds. Victim after victim was lost until finally the beasts took the girl’s sister, sweeping her away in the night. But her sister was the only family the girl knew as more than a mound of dirt and she would not stand for this.”
I steadied myself against a pillar. I’d not been given permission to sit in the Fiend’s presence. Her head tilted forward, disapproval obvious.
“I apologize,” I said. “I am not used to being so close to the demons.” Their malice oozed in the ship’s air like smog.
“Typical.” Her voice implied I was only partially to blame for the weakness of my kind, those of us who lived on the remains of the land instead of under a Fiend’s protection.
“What did the girl do?” the Fiend asked.
I made my face as much of a mask as hers. I had her now.
“The sisters came from the woods themselves, years before. A man from the village went for mushrooms and found them instead. They never spoke of the past and were so alike common knowledge made them twins. Yet once the villagers decided they were old enough to tend a small cottage themselves, ending arguments about who would house the strange girls every year, a difference emerged. The older sister, for they were not truly twins, went to the well to fetch water. She came across an old woman, thirsty and weak, to whom she gave a sip of water and the crust in her pocket. The old woman said things she didn’t understand, and did not think of until she returned home. For when she spoke her mouth filled with flowers and precious gems that spilled all around her.”
A pattern of knocks sounded and the Fiend’s head drew back. “Come in.”
A man entered with his eyes cast down, but he noticed my feet and his gaze travelled upwards until the sight of my face cast a paleness under his golden skin.
“You’re—” he stammered.
Still alive, he meant, though such would be unwise to mention. His gaze flicked to the door behind me where a sapphire brilliant took the place of a doorknob.
“Yes, Malthus?” the Fiend asked.
His limbs snapped to attention. “There is a new harvest of gems needing extraction,” he said, finding comfort in the familiarity of his job.
The Fiend turned to me. “You will finish your tale tomorrow night.”
I’d heard her days were full, so many demons to extract and infuse into human bodies. No wonder she craved entertainment.
“You will not enter the chamber.”
It was not necessary to ask which chamber she meant.
Our existence on Earth was precipitate, lasting as long as we continued to dig up gems for the Fiends, but we kept our stories alive. And we all knew of the room filled with the bodies of the ones who came before me.
As they left the man looked back at me, in his surprise resembling a newly caught fish.
The people of the Sapphire ship were amazed when I emerged from that first night. I heard them as I moved through the halls, not bothering to whisper, for what did my feelings matter? I’d be dead by the next day. The volunteers always were.
Most of those who left when the Fiend’s servants came ashore were taken, either kicking or slumped in resignation, to serve as vessels for demons to reside in. Yet an old ruling remained, the one compensation wrung from the Fiends when they took over.
A land dweller could appeal to the Fiend who ruled the land they lived on. They were brought before the masked one to beg for their family’s safety on the Fiend’s ship. Appellants who failed to beguile, as they always did, were put to death.
I suspect the Fiends humoured them so the rest would shut up and find more gems. Besides, everyone likes a good story.
We knew where they ended up, these fools who thought heartfelt words enough to make a change.
But no one was surprised when I stepped forward.
I was careful to ignore the too-many reflections of myself in the Fiend’s mask.
“This was a time, of course, when the officials were the ones to command the people. But the girl could heed them no longer.”
“Hmm,” the Fiend commented.
It might have been a poor idea to mention the days before the demons rose, back when people elected those thought fit to rule and then squabbled over their every twitch.
“The younger sister knew the danger in the older’s gift. She began a constant game of sweeping up the evidence but it could not last. When they went to the market together, the younger afraid to leave the older alone, a horse stepped on the older sister’s foot and she exclaimed in pain. The shout sent a shower of lilies and opals into the air. At first the market-goers were silent but then they were deafening, each anxious to engage her in conversation. The younger sister took the older back to the well. She would force the sorceress, for who else could craft such a trick, to lift the spell if it was the last thing she did. Yet there was no old woman there, only a strong and beautiful one who shone in a way the younger sister didn’t like, as if the light were meant to hide something. ‘You offer me no aid?’ the woman spoke in a voice centuries old. ‘You are strong and able,’ the younger sister said, too busy searching for the perpetrator to listen well. A pity, for she should have heeded the stories of the trickster sorceresses. Vain and clever, taking any form they chose to play their games with humans. ‘You will speak as truly as your sister,’ the woman hissed, for of course she was the old woman in another form. She was gone before the sisters could ask what she meant.”
The families who insisted on teaching their children ancestral magic were twisted oddities to avoid. They had their token council positions, for no one wanted to anger them, but when had one done something worth telling tales of? You didn’t make public your purchase of a love spell or something to clear your complexion.
Until we learned the trick of extracting the Earth’s secrets.
The Earth did not want to be plundered. We found treasures, beautiful jewels turned into decorations and traded for things previously only available in the wildest dreams of the desperate, but their cost was too high. For they were not treasures waiting to be found but the homes of demons. Demons who strangled and mutilated those who thought to rip them from their homes.
For all the mutterings about the families’ depravity, they were the only ones who could stop the demons’ vengeance. It takes a fiend to beat back a devil.
So what if they couldn’t kill the demons, only enslave them after transfer to a human vessel? How do you turn down a semblance of peace when it’s the best you’ll get?
The gem families took new names in mockery of their opponents and portioned out the land for themselves, but even after humans retreated the demons kept coming until the infestation was insurmountable. So the families and their chosen ones took to ships and sky craft, to float where they hoped the demons could not reach them.
Most people stayed on Earth. Someone had to find new gems to power the Fiends’ ships.
Casualties in the mines were expected. The Fiends deigned to visit on occasion and divvied out protection spells powered by the very gems we risked our lives for.
Sometimes, the spells even worked.
“‘Come back!’ the younger sister commanded. Then she choked, for with her words came small toads that hopped their way up her throat and through her mouth, leaving a flat, slimy taste behind. You know this sort of tale. Before long there was a distinction between sisters. All that mattered were the unintentional products of their words, words which lessened every day. When the girl walked into the forest after her sister, she did so with confidence. For she was careful with her words, though so few of them were ever heard. The reptiles that danced on her lips were not the only beasts she’d learned to control.”
I crept through passageways and up ladders, always avoiding the ship’s other inhabitants. The Fiend extended her protection to few and they all flaunted the benevolence they’d won.
Servants bore the small chips of sapphire the lesser demons were extracted from, the ones that only ripped your flesh open when you invaded their resting place. Those whom the Sapphire family held in favour and protected out of friendship or some variation on the concept wore larger stones. Those came from stronger demons who used up vessels much faster. You didn’t get away from those easily.
There were vessels kept all over the ship, to keep it afloat and keep it clean and keep food from spoiling and anything else the Fiend wanted. That day, I went to the ones kept near the bow. They were not chained and the door was not locked. Such was unnecessary.
For all the stories my sister and I grew up with, passed down at night to celebrate one more day of not dying by demon, none explained the families’ magic. They could control the demons so precisely once they were taken from their gems and moved into a human. They could force them to power a ship on water or in air, they could redirect their strength to heal or harm, yet never without a human cage.
That day I saw my sister for the first time since she was taken, her eyes blank as the demon inside followed the Fiend’s instructions.
“Nasrin.” I called her name but there was no answer. If the demon had a name I did not know it.
I knew there was time before the Fiend wanted more of my story that evening. Her days were busy, tending the demons and reminding her people they would do as she commanded or they would be off the ship. Obedience did not come painlessly.
There was time, so I continued speaking.
“The girl prepared for the forest’s dangers. She was thought the unlucky sister, cursed with fearsomeness instead of beauty. Let them speak of how her every word dripped poison. Fearsomeness would see her through.”
If the Fiend thought it strange how much I was affected by the demon sickness she did not speak of it. But every night I felt her eyes on me as I was dismissed to my small pallet, eyes that hungered for the rest of the tale.
No one minded my wanderings during the day.
What could I do? A mumbling, confused mess plucked from her lowly station, lucky enough to last more than one night. A good storyteller, the others on the ship sniped, or a good liar. It didn’t make much difference. My time would come.
No one would dare admit listening to my mumbling. And no one wondered if I might be listening too.
I did not stop my wander down the hall, gazing at the gems pressed into the walls as if I could not imagine anything more entrancing. These jewels, like those in the Fiend’s mask, were condemned to mere decoration without their natural inhabitants.
“Who?” Malthus, the servant I’d startled in the Fiend’s chambers by being alive, demanded of the woman who spoke.
“Some Sapphire flaw,” she answered. I risked a glance and recognized her. She made sure the vessels stayed fed so they wouldn’t go to waste while holding their demons as long as possible. “Heard they’ll try for her at the meeting.”
The meeting was an attempt between the Sapphire and Topaz Fiends to settle a dispute. Conflict on the borders of their land holdings meant fewer gems mined. When correspondence failed to smooth matters and reports of fighting increased they resigned themselves to an in-person meeting.
“Where did you hear this?” Malthus’s voice was hushed and precise.
“I don’t know,” the woman ventured. “Someone on the ship, down in the kitchen maybe…”
But he was away before she could finish, surely heading to warn the Fiend.
The gem families were only human, no matter what they told their followers or what powers they commanded. And every family has its issues.
They called them flaws, the lines of their families not pure enough for their taste. Some are gifted with magic, stories say, though most never live long enough for this to matter. If you’re smart you didn’t speculate on the role the Fiends played in the brevity of those lifespans.
Yet as I listened to the quagmire of voices on the ship I heard of a flawed Sapphire approaching.
“The beasts were fierce, of course, but the girl was more than she seemed and the words she freed from her mouth reached exactly the ears she wanted them to. So it was that when she spoke her speech was more than vipers and toads. The monsters paused, jaws and talons dripping with ichor, as wind rushed towards them with such force they lifted from the ground. For the girl, in her search for one who might appreciate her particular flavour of eloquence, had summoned a dragon. And for all the monsters in the wood were fierce, they were nothing in the face of the wyvern who’d thrilled to the sound of her voice and heeded her command.”
I yawned, my mouth stretching so wide the movement ceased to be a sham.
“What next?” the Fiend urged, facets of her mask glinting as she closed the space between us. The edge of one jewel sliced through the top layer of skin on my lip.
How could I refuse?
“Her dragon slaughtered the monsters, leaving the girl streaked with the insides of those who would have slain her. She thanked the dragon, who flew off to inspire nightmares elsewhere, and the girl continued until she reached the centre of the wood, where the trees were so thick there might not have been a sky. There she found what she sought, the most fearsome of creatures, yet she was surprised.”
If not for an interruption that sent the Fiend out to quell an uncharacteristic spurt of demon disobedience, my tale might have ended that night.
The demons were under the Fiend’s sway, but they were not unreachable. One by one they turned their vessels towards me, interest piqued by what I said and what I offered.
Some were careless with their words, but never I. I spoke to the demons of the place they came from, a place I knew too well.
Soon I heard our path would change, to skirt the meeting place in favour of a new location, known only to the Sapphire Fiend and the Topaz Fiend and one servant marked as go-between. The day after her job was complete the servant’s body was seen floating outside the ship, then carefully ignored.
“The monster at the centre of the sylvan maze was no thing of tusks or claws but a woman, the trickster who changed the sisters’ speech. Behind her the older sister was caged, her arms wrapped around the bars as the structure swung from the branches of a tree. ‘Give me my sister.’ Snakes dropped from her mouth, hissing as they writhed towards the sorceress who watched, unconcerned. ‘Give me your name,’ the woman countered, but the girl shook her head. She’d learned better than to dismiss old tales others scoffed at. Proffering a name would be her own kind of cage. ‘You’ll only lose her if you take her back.’ The enchantress’s voice was like knives slathered in honey. ‘Some official will force her to speak until her throat is scraped bloody. Why won’t you let her rest here, where she may be silent?’ But the girl knew how to keep them safe. So she opened her mouth and spoke like never before.”
The Fiend let out the breath she’d held throughout my tale, her pupils wide behind the vizard of blue stones.
“What happened next?”
I closed my eyes but she grabbed me, her fingertips stippling me with bruises.
“I order you to finish the story.”
“Or what?” I did not bother feigning demon sickness anymore.
“Malthus!” she bellowed but the servant did not come. None of them would come, though the Fiend’s shoulders loosed at the sound of footsteps.
“I’ll have you holding a demon like the rest,” she spat.
The door opened and the Fiend whirled, only to freeze at the sight of my sister with dozens of other vessels behind her. My sister held the oldest, strongest demon, which took so much convincing I slept like a stone afterwards. The others followed her out of habit.
I spoke to remind them who they were and demons filled the air, each one a wisp of coloured smoke, as if I’d thrown powdered metal onto candle flames.
Once the demons were loose and awaiting my command I squeezed my sister’s hand. “Leave us.”
She nodded and they filed out, closing the door on the Fiend and me. They would take the rest of the ship for me. We would sail back to take those land dwellers brave enough to join us, and then sail until the families could not find us.
“It was you.” The Fiend sounded almost amused. “I should have known.”
“I’m not one of you.” I couldn’t help but smile. My sister and I were common as could be. But who can tell what mumblings a servant might latch onto without realizing the source and use as fodder for their own stories?
I have always been careful with my words, and demons can be remarkably amenable when you approach with respect.
“What do you want?” the Fiend asked, and I wondered how often she ever had to ask that question.
“All of this.”
The demons clamoured, wanting to rend and tear.
So I let them.
The Fiend backed up until she reached the door to her forbidden chamber but the demons approached, fuzzing the air until I was not sure where they ended and the Fiend began. They coalesced and then vanished, and the Fiend raised her hands to her face. She grasped her mask and blood dripped to the floor as she sliced her palms in her desperation to be rid of it.
I pulled her hands away. The demons writhed, happy to be returned to their gems. With the Fiend’s blood slicking my palms I lifted the mask from her face.
It was made of soft curves and marred by dozens of tiny cuts from the inside of her mask. There was no padding, no buffer between her and the symbol of her sovereignty. I wondered if she minded.
I held the mask in one hand and opened the door with the other. Inside were the land dwellers who’d tried and failed to find a kindly side in her, their stories too true to be sufficient.
But the corpses didn’t look right. Stories of this room had circulated for years but these looked barely dead. Were they to wake and slide their necks off their silver hooks it would have been less strange.
I drew deeper inside. The victims varied, some curvy and some slender, dark and light and all shades in-between. Seven men and women hanging like out-of-fashion coats. The room pulled me in like a demon freshly sprung from its home, desperate for retribution.
Why so few? Their beauty was marred. Their faces, thin and round alike, brecciated in the same pattern. Graven with the same marks the Fiend bore.
“Which one did you replace?” I asked. The Fiend’s eyes flicked to one, a man with dark hair and long fingers, but she did not speak.
“You kept them alive.”
“The Fiend is a mask.” She finally spoke, her voice alien without the echoes the mask lent it. “That’s all they see.”
Ignorance is so easy when you crave safety. Were anyone forced to confront the mask bearer’s variations, the ship might sink in all ways but the physical.
“Are you from the Sapphire line?”
“Of course.” Affront coated her words.
“The other Fiends?” I asked, unable to hide my curiosity.
“Beauty is very distracting.” There was longing in her voice, though for what I could not say. “We keep you safe.”
“You keep some of us safe. It’s not enough.”
My words infused her beauty with poison. I put on the mask, revelling in the way it punctured my skin. The Fiends I reflected were nothing against me.
Would I join them in the cabinet, displaced by some canny storyteller yet to come? Would I be another bit of lore, reflected through the right prism until I served the Sapphire family’s purpose?
The girl walked out of the forest, stained with the blood of slain beasts. Her sister followed.
None were ever quite sure which girl spoke poison and which beauty.
Story copyright © 2016 by Devan Barlow
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Cesar Valtierra
Devan Barlow is a female writer who lives in the United States. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. Follow her on Twitter @Devan_Barlow for news of upcoming publications.
Cesar Valtierra (artwork) hails from the sun-soaked desert of the wild, wild western city of El Paso, Texas. He wields a pencil like an outlaw gunslinger, drawing up a storm since the tender age of two. He is infamous throughout the land for his provocative ink drawings, his meticulous vector illustrations, and his eye-catching graphic design work. He follows the beat of his own drum and answers to no one—except, of course, his fiancée Victoria and their two cats, Chubs and Pretty Boy.