It Ends with a Teardrop, Part Two

Part Two

Conlan paced around his room in the Guard barracks, running a roughened hand through his curls; a gesture from his childhood. The echo of his mother’s words float to him in his mind.

You are going to lose all of that beautiful hair if you keep doing that, Conlan.

He dropped his hand to his side, and gave a ghost of his usual lopsided grin. I faded as the present situation returned to the forefront of his thoughts.

“What would you have done, mother? Father?” His voice was hushed in the sparse quarters, and no answers came from the bare stones.

A knock sounded at his door, and when he opened it, it took all he had not to curl his lip in disgust. There were some soldiers who followed the King’s cruel orders because it was their duty. Then there were those, like this one, who did so with glee.

“Your brother has requested your presence in the throne hall, Captain.”

A knot of fear and anxiety twisted around his heart, but he kept his visage smooth and unworried. His brother summoned him to the throne hall all the time, he reasoned. No need to jump into trouble before it found him.

“Lead the way,” Conlan said. Despite the rationalization on his part, the cold look of malice in the guard’s expression kept his heartbeat in his throat all the way to the throne hall.

When he entered the short hall through ancient, double oak doors, he stopped dead in his tracks. The guard who brought him shoved him in the rest of the way, and closed and barred the doors.

The Queen knelt on the floor next to the throne, shackled, face bloodied and bruised, and with a guard holding her at swordpoint from behind. Rage danced in the Captain’s eyes and belly as he looked around the room at the other guards. Some lowered their eyes, while others met his gaze brazenly. He noted which ones were which, but in the end none of them had done anything to stop this.

Finally, he looked to his brother. They were mirror images of each other: tall, golden curls, wide-shouldered, strong in body, and with handsome faces. Their features were unique to a kingdom of darker shades in hair and eyes, and it marked them as being descended from the royal line.

“May I ask why you have put your Queen in shackles, my King?”

While they may have shared the same features, most knew the sneer adorning the King’s features would never have found its way to Conlan’s visage.

My Queen, is she? From what I have been told, she is no more than your whore.”

Conlan had to clench his teeth against the fury and succeeded—barely.

“What has the King heard on such matters, and from whom?”

The King slammed a fist on the arm of his throne, made from the same giant oak as the doors, and spittle flew from his mouth with his next words.

“It does not matter who I have heard this from! A bastard child rests within the Queen’s belly—your bastard!” the King yelled at his brother, and stood. His words echoed through the hall, the accusation seeming to ring against his armor and in his ears.

No one moved or made a sound, and the King sat back down, calm once more. His anger, like lightning, was quick to appear and leave, but left devastation in its wake at times.

“I know I am not loved by the people of this kingdom, and they would readily rally around your banner and bastard. Your attempt to overthrow me will not work, however,” the King stated, and his eyes gleamed with a malicious light.

Then Conlan heard it, distantly–the sound of screaming.

“What have you done?” the Captain whispered.

“I have ordered the capitol, and its people, destroyed by whatever means amuse the guard.”

No one in the room seemed surprised at the King’s words, and Conlan’s heart sank.

“There was no plot to overthrow you, brother. Your madness has taken you completely, I fear.” His words were sad, but only seemed to enrage his brother further.

“You dare to call me brother while consorting with my wife? Seize him!”

Guards circled around and forced him to kneel. The King descended from the throne, and between the legs of the men Conlan watched as the Queen wept.

Parting like water as the King finally reach him, Gerhard grabbed Conlan by the hair and jerked his head up.

“Make sure she is watching this,” the King said to the guard behind the Queen, who grabbed her hair in a similar manner as the King, and forced her to look to Conlan. The King stepped to the side, so they could both watch what was to come.

Unsheathing the sword at his hip, it passed close enough to the Captain’s face that he saw his own sorrowful reflection. As he let the sword hang at his side, Gerhard looked between the Queen and his Captain.

“Let us play a game, hmm? I am going to run you through with my sword while she watches.”

At his words, the guards grabbed Conlan’s shoulders, undoing the armor and padding, and then forcing them back to give the King the best target. Conlan could not struggle while this was taking place; there were at least twenty guards around, and the one holding the Queen would likely slit her throat before he could get very far.

The King brought his sword back with both hands, their father’s sword as the previous king. Conlan kept his eyes on his Queen, willing her with them to look nowhere else. She gave a small nod as his Gerhard shoved at least twenty inches of sharp steel through Conlan’s stomach.

The searing pain took his breath away, and it hissed through his teeth, but he never took his gaze from hers. Even then, a small sob escaped her lips, and tears mixed with blood as they ran down her damaged face.

Kneeling down, the King whispered his next words in his brother’s ear.

“Nice and painful? Good. Now you can watch as the same thing happens to her.”

Conlan’s head snapped around to meet his brother’s gaze, and in it the void that was his brother’s insanity. The men who held his shoulders had let go after the King ran him through.

There was one last action he could do, and he prayed to all the Gods that would listen, that it was the correct choice. He collapsed backward, chin to his chest, feigning defeat. His brother’s joyous laughter was harsh in his ears.

As quickly as he dared, he pushed his mind past the pain and slid the dagger in his boot out. It would have been too noticeable to go for his sword at his side, and he needed all the time he could get. The fools had not disarmed him when he entered the room, and he thanked the Gods for that small bit of luck.

Fast as lightning, Conlan threw his right shoulder into the King, knocking him off balance and to the floor. Before anyone could react, Conlan jumped on his brother, plunged the knife upward into his brother’s chest, beneath the ribs, and sought his heart if one still beat there.

As the world darkened around the edges of his vision, his brother coughed blood. He had hit more than the heart, and he hoped it was enough.

The silence broke around them as everyone began yelling.

“I knew you wanted me dead,” the King choked out.

“You brought this on yourself, brother, I did not want this end—for any of us,” Conlan whispered back, and fell down again, this time next to his brother.

“Liar,” his brother said softly, and with that final word he was no more.

Conlan’s eyes dropped closed for what felt like an eternity, but they jarred open once more when delicate fingers brushed the curls from his forehead. With a groan, he rolled as much as the sword on his hip, and the sharp pains taking his breath away, would allow.

The Queen was crying softly. Instead of screaming or sounds of battle, there was a profound quiet in the room. Then, the soft patter of rain on the windows found his ears. The drought finally broke.

He tried to lift his hand to wipe her tears as he had earlier, but there was no strength left in him. She caught his hand in both of hers before it hit the ground, and placed it against her cheek for the final time.

“How did you…?”

“The guards began to fight each other after you stabbed the King. The one who held my chains tried to kill me, but was struck down by another guard, who then released me.”

“Ah, I see. Then you are safe?”

Nodding, because the words could not find their way past her throat, Conlan sighed in relief and smiled.

“Thank the Gods for that.”

“No. Thank you, my love.”

*****

“One brother left the world full of hate, while the other left it with a smile. He knew the one he loved most was safe.”

Amazingly, her inquisitive child had remained silent through the entire story. It did not last long.

“What happened to the city? What about the Queen and her child?”

“The guards who had fought and won in the throne room sent out messengers to detain any guards that prevented the citizens from saving their city. Much of it was razed because of the summer drought, as some guards had chosen fire to destroy the city. The sudden rainfall helped, and people used the water they had been saving to put out the larger fires the rain could not douse.”

She paused, but her daughter pressed her further.

“I know the Queen did not stay. The throne is currently held by a Seneschal.”

The mother nodded.

“Correct. The Queen fled the capital and has not been seen since. The Seneschal holds the throne until she can be found, and the royal line reinstated with the Captain’s, Conlan’s, heir.”

Her daughter gave her a considering look well beyond her years, but said nothing. As her daughter turned her face upward to the stars, the mother knew she was seeking the brightest one.

“I think the brightest star is Conlan.”

The mother could only smile.

“Me, too. Now it is time to sleep.”

Lilliana lay back on her bed, yawning.

“Good night, mother.”

“Good night, child.”

Her daughter closed soft blue eyes, the color of spring. The mother kissed the golden curls on the crown of her daughter’s head, and left the room.

The mother walked out the front door, and leaned against the stone of the cottage. As she found the brightest star in the sky, her smile held less sadness than it had on other nights like this. Though tears still streamed down her face, they were happy, and she knew he was watching.

“Thank you, my love.”

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It Ends with a Teardrop, Part One

It Ends with a Teardrop, Part One

Part One

The quiet countryside was still warm from the summer sun, though night had settled over the land a turn ago. A small cottage was tucked against a copse of trees. The wooden shutters were open to allow the light breeze through, and leaning out one of the windows was a small girl.

Standing on a mattress filled with straw so she could reach the sill with her elbows, a tiny chin rested in the palms of her delicate hands. This was how her mother found her: serious eyes turned toward a sky the color of pitch, and gazing at the cold, white light of the countless stars overhead.

She shook her head with a small, secret smile mothers discover after they have children. The one where they know a child is misbehaving, but they still find amusement in the child’s actions. She moved into the room and tucked the folds of her skirt beneath her as she sat on the bed, and crossed her ankles loosely.

“You were sent to bed half a turn ago, Lilliana, so why is it I have found you still awake?” The mother smoothed her skirt over her legs as she spoke, but the sound of her voice did not turn the child’s gaze from the heavens.

“What are stars, mother?”

The question did not catch her off guard the way it might for others; she was used to her daughter asking such things out of the blue.
“An old soul, that one is,” the healer who lived in the village told her once. “Just like her Da.”

The healer was the only one in the village whom the mother had confided in about her daughter and herself. Though she suspected the others in the village weren’t fooled.

The memory sent an ache through her chest, and though she knew it would never fade, she welcomed the pain and the memories that came with it. Such was life. Sorrow and happiness, locked in a dance as eternal as the sky her daughter surveyed.

“The Academias say stars are made of rocks that burn for hundreds of years, until the flames consume them completely, or they fall to the earth.”

Saying nothing for a few heartbeats, Lilliana finally shifted her eyes to look at her mother over her shoulder.

“That is not what you believe.” The insight sent a slight shock through the mother, and she could only answer with the truth as she believed it.

“No, I do not. I believe the old Sages; that stars are made from the souls of our history’s greatest warriors, heroes, and kings.”

A sudden grin spread over the child’s face, like the sun breaking through rain-heavy clouds.

“I think so, too.”

The girl jumped around and landed cross-legged on the bed beside her mother, and the sudden shift in behavior made her mother laugh.

“Who do you think is the person who made the brightest star?”

Pursing her lips, the mother frowned down at the child. “You have had your sleep-time story for tonight, Lilliana Constance. It is time for you to put your head to pillow and rest.”

The pensive child in front of her a moment ago was gone, and instead she had one closer to a normal youth of seven years.

“Please, mama, please!” Lilliana begged, clasping her hands together in front of her in supplication.

The mother laughed softly once more and acceded. “Alright, but after this you must go to your rest for the night.”

“Promise!”

Lilliana settled down for a story, but as her mother began the words held a weight of sadness to them.

“You wish to know who the brightest star in the sky is? Then I shall tell you what I believe. Do you know why the coming Summer Solstice is a day of solemn reflection for the morning, and celebration at night?”

“Because of the mad King, Gerhard, who ruled the land through insanity, fear, and misery, was struck down by his Captain of the Guard, Conlan, on the Summer Solstice of the year I was born.”

Her mother gave a solemn nod. The words were rote, recited back to the mother as though they were in a schoolhouse.

“Yes, that is true. What people forget, though, is that Conlan and Gerhard were brothers. The older one the King, and the younger one the Captain.”

Lilliana’s eyes widened. She had never heard this before.

“He killed his own brother? Was it not hard for him to do?”

“It was the hardest decision he ever had to make, and he did not come to it lightly. The day he killed his elder brother was the day the King set the guard to destroy the capitol by any means necessary—along with all the people living there.”

The child’s face grew stricken, and her voice distressed as the next question came. “Why? Why would the King do such a thing? And why would his guard go through with it?”

The mother had known this question would come some day, but wishing for more time before having to answer was foolish. Taking in a deep breath, she looked out to the stars and said nothing for a moment.

“Tell me the story, please?”

“You are up far beyond when you are supposed to be, so I shall only tell you of the Burning Day.”

“Sounds fair,” Lilliana agreed. The mother shook her head at her daughter, but began the story.

“It all started in the afternoon…

The royal gardens were usually a lovely place to sit in the summer, with the dappled shade from the trees dancing on the stone benches and grass. This particular summer, on the other hand, seemed to have spawned from the fiery abyss of the Underworld.

Leaves that were usually lush and green hung dead and brown from the branches. Instead of making sweet music in the cool breeze, they rustled ominously in the hot wind. Like whispers of the long-ago royal dead who used to walk the very same paths.

The Queen sat on a bench beneath one of the larger trees in the garden, near the back, southern wall. She was attempting to read a book, but was stuck with the same line repeating meaninglessly in her mind. In her state of deep contemplation on matters other than the book, she did not hear the approach of heavy boots crunching dried leaves beneath them.

“I thought with my dear brother’s suspicions growing more noticeable, you wanted to cease contact for a time.”

The Captain’s kind, soft voice startled the Queen out of her thoughts, and she spun toward the man she had grown to love.

As the unhelpful breeze blew through the parched grasses, it moved the golden, sweat-soaked curls on Conlan’s head. A subdued smile played on the Queen’s parched lips, and she scooted down the bench to make room for the Captain.

“Yes, and I still believe it to be a wise decision. However, something has come up and I fear it cannot wait; not even another day.”

Conlan slid onto the bench next to the Queen, and uneasiness began to slide through his stomach.

The Queen closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them to look at his breathtaking blue eyes. The King’s were a pale, cold imitation of his younger brother’s; with no feeling left to them except malicious desires. Conlan’s were the hue of the first warm spring sky after a harsh winter.

“I have not had my bleeding time in three moon cycles.”

Her words sent a flurry of emotions running through the Captain’s mind and heart that took his breath away.

“Truly?”

She bit her lip to try and restrain the relieved smile, but it was having none of that. Lifting his hand to cup the side of her face gently, the Queen held it in place and turned so she could breathe in the scent of him. Leather, sweat, polish for his armor, and beneath it all the scent that had no words but ‘his’. Combined, they could comfort her even at the worst moments.

“Yes.”

He knew his brother had not been to the Queen’s bed in some time, except to exorcise his anger upon her flesh. The child was Conlan’s, for sure.

The sudden rush of joy was soon tempered by sadness, followed quickly by fear.

“He is going to have us both executed if he discovers this,” he said, voice quiet. A sick feeling making its way to his heart as he thought of the King.

Bitter tears welled in her honey brown eyes, and as a single tear fell he shifted his hand to wipe it from her cheek.

“I know,” she whispered, and her voice held so many emotions it seemed impossible.

There was no other choice for them now.

“We must find a way to leave this place.”

Her words were simple and true, but he knew there was more to it than that. With the madness taking more of his brother’s mind each day, he would not rest until they were both dead. The entire kingdom would suffer for this.

Then there was the fact he was torn between his love for the woman next to him, and his King. No matter what, he was still his older brother. Even though his hope that his brother would someday return dwindled each day.

“I need a few days to think on this,” he said, moving his hand away from the Queen, fingertips lingering on her cheek.

She nodded. “We have a few days, yet, but not many.”

“I understand.”

Taking her hand in his, he bowed and brushed soft lips across the back of her hand. With that, he turned and left the gardens, his Queen watching him leave. Both wondered how they were going to do this.

Not far from where the Queen sat, a malicious shadow slipped away, and all but skipped directly to the King.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
It Ends with a Teardrop, Part II

Evil is as Evil Does, Part Two

Part II

I sat in front of the demon and crossed my legs, just outside of kicking range. At least the child’s legs weren’t long. Dash took up his post near me, but not close enough to invade my personal space. He kept an eye on the townfolk around us. There were times people would attack us, or the possessed person. Or we’d even have an onlooker become possessed because of their own weaknesses. Once I began purifying, I’d be almost defenseless. That’s why Shadows doubled as bodyguards. Purifiers left defenseless didn’t last long.

I set the used black candle down to my right, and dug a box of matches out from my bag. I kept them in a waterproof leather pouch, because it was important to keep them dry. There were times when we roamed between settlements, and all that stood between us and the dark was our fire. Not just the dark of night, but the dark of spirit and evil. Fire was one of the most purifying forces in our world, bringing both life and death. It was a force to be respected and feared; not only by humans, but by forces both good and evil.

I pulled out a match, struck it, and lit the candle. Black wasn’t always an evil color. It represented one of the strongest colors for protection. I opened my book, and stuck it underneath my knee to keep it that way. I never wrote out complete prayers, because each situation is unique in some way.

“As fire burns, so burns the purity of this child’s spirit, and you shall not darken that flame with your evil essence, demon. I call upon the power of the Phoenix, and as the fiery bird burns away in this life, so do you burn, demon. As it is reborn from the ashes, so, too, will this child rise from this unharmed and renewed.”

A hot wind rushed against my back, like a bird beating its wings. The candlelight whipped and flared brighter for a moment. This time the demon didn’t howl, but screamed in pain.

The group around us flinched. “Steady on,” Dash said in barely more than a whisper.

Next came the knife. Despite its age, the honed blade was sharper than my uncivilized tongue. I’d inherited it from my mother, another Purifier, who’d died when she’d placed her trust in the wrong Shadow. It was also how I’d gotten the scar.

With the light pressure of the blade, I cut a paper-thin line across my palm. It would scar and join the others there. I rarely resorted to this type of cleansing, because it was dangerous for the Purifier. I had a bad feeling about the town. This girl didn’t deserve to die because of whatever stupid shit the adults around her were doing.

I turned over my journal, and scooted unceremoniously over to her side. I leaned away from her; it wouldn’t do to have her bite me. I mimicked the cut on the palm of the girl, and the murmurs rose again. Dash shifted behind me, his movement making the floorboards creak. The voices died down. He sure was nifty to have around.

When I placed the cuts together, and grasped her hand tight in mine so she couldn’t wiggle free. The noise that rose from her made the previous sounds mere whispers in comparison. My words didn’t need to reach anyone’s ears but the demon’s. No matter how much noise it made it could not block out the words of a Purifier.

“Let blood call to blood. Though you are not blood of my blood, you are blood as I am blood—human. Let the divinity in my blood as a Purifier, proclaimed by a Wanderer, wash this young girl free of the demon’s essence.”

Now the demon cried. Great, pitiful sobs that came out broken through the girl’s damaged chords.

“I shall not repent, and you shall not have her, Purifier. I will take her, screaming into the abyss!” The demon turned toward me and spat.

I didn’t flinch. Instead, I released the child’s hand after a final squeeze. I wiped my cheek against my shirt. The spittle had begun to burn my skin, but not with an intensity it would have before I began the purification. We were getting somewhere.

Whether I could get them apart remained to be seen.

Next came the bone, passed down through generations in my family. Hundreds of years ago, all manner of beings, both evil and divine, of all the varying religions, came down onto the earth. Some good deities identified people they believed to be worthy. The divine good guys, known as Wanderers, equipped the human good guys with certain artifacts. One of which was rumored to be this rib bone—supposedly taken out of the body of an angel, by an angel. Etched into it were markings no one could identify for me. I was sure they were some language even our ancestors may not recognize, because they were not of this earth.

The markings glowed faintly in the presence of the demon. Flickering, as though illuminated by a silver fire.

“Bone of a Wanderer. Ancient as time itself. Let its divine aura repulse the creature of evil present here, and resonate with the child’s soul,” I said, and placed the bone on the child’s lap. No matter how the demon moved or wiggled, the bone stayed in place. Drawn to the demonic aura like a magnet.

Next came the pouch of rock salt, given to me by a devout witch. As were the two leather pouches it came in. One was large, to carry the bulk of the salt. The smaller one I used during purifying. It was tooled with enchantments to fuse the salt with power. To trap the essence of the demon once it was drawn into the pouch.

I opened the drawstring of the top of the bag wide, and cupped the pouch in both hands beneath the nose of the demon.

“Draw the demon’s essence from her, as drawing poison from a wound. Let it come to rest in this salt, one of the greatest purifying agents found in this dimension, and all those betwixt and between. Let it be your prison, until you are released for a final death, demon,” I growled, my long-ago damaged chords making it painful to speak.

It let out a single throaty chuckle, and looked me in the eye before dissipating.

“My kind are not the only ones capable of evil roaming these lands, Purifier. Remember your history. Know the evil of humans has long persisted without the aid of my kind…” it whispered out, and the salt turned black in the pouch. I drew the strings tight so fast that they hummed, like the plucked string of a cello.

The girl’s head lolled forward, exhausted, and quiet sounds of pain began to escape from her lips. I lifted her head, and bade her to drink some of my holy water. She grimaced, but didn’t scream, which meant I hadn’t drawn the demon out completely. I sighed and looked to Dash, who gave a grim nod in return.

The adults around us broke the circle, and continued their murmuring, growing more uneasy. That didn’t sit well with me, and when the mayor came in the girl tensed behind me. I hadn’t known she’d looked up, but she had.

She tried to speak, but it came out as nothing more than a cough. I gave her more water, this time the regular kind, and leaned in close to hear her speak. It was a scant few words, but they chilled me down to my soul. I looked up to Dash.

“We aren’t finished.” He looked from the girl, to me, and nodded.

I ‘deputized’ the majority of the townsfolk, which wasn’t difficult once they heard what happened. Any of the offenders who tried to escape were quickly run down. We rounded up the elders, all of whom had stayed behind to form the circle. They were trying to avoid this exact situation. Also on the list were the child’s mother, father, and the leader of the town. I locked them in the meeting house, deaf to their screams, and pleas for mercy.

The actions of a Purifier in the face of evil were above reproach. What these people had done was evil. Human, or not.

The mother and father took the girl outside of the wards, where the elders and leader were waiting. They allowed the girl to be possessed. To see if they could use the demon for free, strong labor in exchange for keeping the girl.

I set the meeting house on fire. We remained until there was nothing but ash, stone, and the occasional bone smoldering in the ruin.

The girl was sitting in front of Dash, who was on his horse. She would be coming with us, now an outcast as all Shadows were outcasts. Leaving behind everything she knew would be difficult, but it was better this way.

We turned the horses to head north, back toward the place we called home. I thought back on the demon’s words; “My kind are not the only ones capable of evil…”

Indeed not. Bless it all, we should be better than the demons! The monsters in the dark. Even though it was our right as humans to choose our own path. Free of the influence of the evil, or divine, who now roamed the land.

I rolled my shoulder and grinned tiredly back at Dash, who returned the smile, just as worn down. I’d just have to stick around to make sure we could continue to make that choice, too old for this or not.

 

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Evil is as Evil Does, Part One

Part I

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.

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Evil is as Evil Does, Part II