They used to say the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was getting people to not believe in him. Getting people to forget the evil that lurks everywhere. Looking down into the bottomless, black eyes of the girl in front of me, I wondered how my race from years gone-by could have ever been so ignorant.
The demon-possessed child alternated between extreme states of behavior. Gnashing her little, razor sharp teeth. Howling like an enraged beast. Growling like the rumble of rocks grinding together in a landslide. Or falling so silent at random times, it raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Noises like that should never come from a human, let alone a four year-old who weighed just shy of three stone.
She spent much of her time straining and railing against the chains engraved with religious markings. As a result, her torn skin was bleeding and covered in ugly bruises. When the real girl’s mother begged me to loosen the restraints I’d sent her from the room. It took three grown men to haul her out, but they got it done.
Sometimes the demon let the real girl come forward, or acted like it had. It was then that she begged us to stop hurting her, and how she wanted her mommy and daddy. When it happened the first time, I had to send the father from the room. It never paid to have the parents present. They always insisted, and I almost always had to kick their asses to the curb.
My mouth was set in a grim line as the girl went from a quiet period back to the yowling. Her transformed teeth continued to rip her small, cupid-bow lips to shreds. These tantrums weren’t unusual for her brand of demon, a type of berserker class known as the Enraged. They were just one kind out of thousands, but common for possessions. They didn’t usually take children, though. Even though their powers amplified their host’s body, there was still only so much it could do with such a form. Leverage and musculature in such a tiny body had its limitations compared to an adult’s. They usually only possessed children as a last resort. When they were cast from one body and were too weakened to return to the Abyss. Or when they were trying to use the child to get to a stronger host.
They were also more along the line of foot soldiers. They followed the orders of higher ranking demons, or sometimes a different nasty altogether.
“Do you think you’ll be able to get it out of her?” a strangled voice asked behind me.
I was squatting not far from where the girl rattled the chains connected to a post inside the common hall. I pivoted on the balls of my feet to face the village leader. A squat and sweaty man, his hands were nervous as he clutched at a wide-brimmed hat. His anxiety trembled in his voice, and came out at a higher than normal pitch. I leveled a hard look at the man. If my demeanor were any colder, there would be ice crystals on the floor. What they’d done was unforgivable.
“It has its claws in her deep. I can feel her soul and its essence resonating close together. It’s going to take a lot to get them untangled. Even then I won’t guarantee her survival. It’s been in her more than three days, and I have no idea how it took ya’ll that long to notice. Or why you hadn’t gone for help,” I said with a heavy rasp, reprimanding him and those around us.
The thick scar from where my right collarbone and shoulder connected, all the way up and across to behind my left ear, was a reminder of my own stupidity. The knife-wielding demon cut through my vocal chords, among other things. Only the best healer left to the midlands–once known as the central United States–was able to keep me alive.
Even then he’d been limited in what he could do about my voice. On bad days I couldn’t get out a couple of sentences before it was too painful to speak. The muscles seizing up like the world’s worst cramp. Today was a good day, but bless it all that I had to spend it talking about what was in front of me, and I didn’t mean the demon.
Three days was the limit to how long a soul could stay completely separate from a demon’s essence. After that they started to merge, making it more dangerous and deadly to remove the demon as time went on.
What I wanted to know was how the demon had been able to bypass all the wardings and alarms. As well as how the people around her remained oblivious to the signs. There were a few obvious ones that were common for all demons, and they were evident in the girl.
What used to be curly, flame red hair, was now greasy, limp, and falling out in clumps. Not to mention her eyebrows were completely gone. The strong energy given off by nasty creatures inhabiting a human body tended to cause full-body balding. Other signs were teeth sharpening and lengthening. Nails thickening and hardening into claws. Radical behavior changes. Last but not least: the eyes. Depending on what type of demon it was, would depend on what color their eyes were. All of which would have happened within hours of the girl’s possession. Demons tended to work quick and dirty, and their presence was usually spotted fast.
I had double-checked the alarms and wards on the edges of town, making sure they went all the way ‘round. They were solid. Which meant the girl was infected outside of town limits, and she never should have been beyond those boundaries.
Children, while not always the best hosts, were like flames to evil’s moth. Even a blessed symbol of some sort, or any manner of religious protection, was not a guarantee of protection for them. They needed to be behind solid protective forces. Guarded by the wardings anchored into the ground and buildings around them. Adults hoarded children behind such shields, like dragons from stories hoarding precious gold and jewels.
Something wasn’t right here. The whole town stunk of fear beyond what the current situation warranted. They knew something, but my status as a Purifier had sealed their lips. No matter how much concern they showed for the girl, I knew they wouldn’t talk. Well, at least not without any incentive.
“Is it that bad, Vala?” A deep voice to my left rumbled. I turned again to face my companion of a decade. His worried, cinnamon brown eyes were so unlike my icy blue ones. They were set in a face with a strong jaw and somewhat crooked nose. The nose came from getting in the way of too many oncoming fists. Some of which I’ll admit were due to my smart mouth.
“It doesn’t look good, Dash.” I sighed, turning away from his comforting presence to face the malevolent eyes of our enemy. “Their resonance level is high. Even if I can cast him out, I risk tearing her soul to shreds. Or worse, leaving some of his essence behind,” I said, sliding a sympathetic glance his way. Understanding and sadness filled his eyes.
Dash, whose large, strong frame was in opposition with his name until you saw him move, was a Shadow. A Shadow was someone who had demonic essence mixed in with their souls, but the majority of whatever made the demon, the demon, was gone. There were a few ways this could happen. A person could be born of a demon-possessed human male, and a non-possessed human female. They could volunteer to have demon essence implanted in their soul by a holy person. Or they come from a Purifier not being able to completely extract the demon. Which is what might happen with the girl.
Dash came from the first, and rarest, kind. His mother was raped by her demon-possessed husband, and she’d been able to carry to term. Most women miscarried such pregnancies, or both of them died in birth. Dash was rare in just more than one way: his mother was still alive, he was a born Shadow, and he wasn’t corrupted. Most people in Dash’s position weren’t good guys, and as a result Dash was a pariah among pariahs. No one likes Shadows of any kind, because any kind of demonic taint means you’re evil to most. For Purifiers like me they are beyond useful, because they can sense and track demons.
That was how we found this town and this girl. Demons and Shadows can sense each other, because their essence and power exist on similar wavelengths.
Dash had gotten a “ping,” and off we went. The more essence in a soul, the stronger the Shadow, and the greater the distance they can sense. Dash, being a born Shadow, has a radius of roughly a hundred to two hundred miles. I t depended on the power level of the demon. I’ve never met a Shadow who can sense as far, or as accurately, as Dash.
“You are a traitor!” the demon growled to Dash, who paid him no mind. Demons will say anything to prolong their time here. They’ll catch your interest, or pull you into an argument.
I made a shooing motion to Dash. He nodded and backed up. Then he slid my work bag over to me, and the rough canvas hissed across the wooden floor.
I sat back on my heels, my knees grinding into the floor, and opened the bag. I pulled out my supplies. A weather-worn, leather-bound book. A small, age-tarnished knife with a black, wooden handle. A yellowed rib bone from a priest. Salt in a leather pouch. A used black candle, and a glass holy water bottle with the visage of Archangel Michael. I set them down near, but not too close, to the demon.
I made a bun with my long braid and pinned it at the nape of my neck, to keep it out of the demon’s reach. I stood and stretched out, my knees creaking from kneeling and squatting too long. Or maybe it was age. Though I’d never admit it out loud, I was getting too old for this shit.
I was only twenty-eight, but that was getting to the end of a Purifier’s usual lifespan. For a variety of obvious reasons, we tended not to be around too long. They weren’t kidding when they said to beware an old man in a profession where men tend to die young.
“Everyone who has a weak stomach, weak will, or weak faith in whatever your religion is, get out of here. Anyone leftover form a loose circle around us, and stay out of my way. Things are going to get ugly, and if you mess me up this girl will die for sure. Get the healer, or whoever, on standby. Now,” I said. My raspy voice caused everyone to go silent enough that even those in the back of the building heard me.
About three-quarters of the people filed out, including the leader. Someone wasn’t going to get re-elected next time it came up. A short woman with greying hair and the white robes of a healer, stayed at the edge of my vision.
Those remaining formed the circle. After the door closed, and everything went silent, I rolled up the sleeves of my dark, blue-dyed cotton shirt.
“Let’s get this show on the road, then.”
Though they weren’t the sharpest demons in the shed, the Enraged demons weren’t stupid, either. They just lacked the finesse of some of their brethren. They tended to follow the mantra of brawn over brain. They did know some rudimentary psychological tactics to get what they wanted. Such as when the demon would have the girl cry for her mother and father.
Every demon knew, though, what was to come when a Purifier showed up. It started growling at me, and trying to get its feet under it for some leverage. The townsfolk had chained it to the post so that its arms were taut. The best it could manage was to cross its legs. The chains were common in such settlements, though most places this size only kept one pair. If more than one person became possessed at a time, there was usually no hope for them. They were too small to have a full-time Purifier on hand, or nearby, and getting help would be difficult.
The first thing I grabbed was my book. The demon’s eyes darted over to it, and fear set into every line of the body it was possessing. It snarled at me, but I paid it no mind. Fear was one of the fastest ways for demons to get into your mind.
I held the worn leather in a tight grip for a moment. The familiar cracks and smooth portions as recognizable to my touch as my skin. It was the book where I wrote my prayers. Every prayer a Purifier used had to be new, and once used it was no longer effective.
At first, years ago, the majority of the world didn’t notice when the prayers stopped working. There were but a handful who did; those who battled what could be considered demons and evil forces of those times. Spirit versions of the monsters we now experienced in the flesh. Those who noticed their blessings stopped working, couldn’t drive away evil or help spirits pass over. It wasn’t long before the fragile dam keeping all the nasty things at bay, broke.
“Your kind has fallen, Purifier. You are merely kept around to amuse us, and breed further amusements.” It cackled, a phlegmy sound in the back of its throat. Just as I told Dash to do, I ignored it. Giving them a reply was a way for them to try and get in. I had physical precautions on my person against such things, but they were only as strong as a person’s will and faith. If you started having conversations with demons, they tended to make you believe up is down. Black is white. Or how great it would be for you to let them in.
“Those of you who stayed, say your prayers to whatever god your settlement has laid into the foundations of your wards,” I rasped into the silence. A well-used prayer wasn’t strong enough to fend off nasty, or cast it out of a possessed person. However, a well-used prayer amplifies off the wards, the sense of community, and the number of people saying the prayer. Its utility and strength lay with giving a power boost to a Purifer. Even though the power of this community would be weak, something was always better than nothing.
“You can sit down, stand, do what you need to do, but don’t break the form of the circle.” Nods from everyone there, acknowledging my words. It didn’t mean they’d listen, but I’d do my dandiest to make sure they didn’t mess this up.
Evil is as Evil Does, Part II