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Dismay, please kill them. Kill them tonight, oh please.
Her lips shaped the silent words, this young girl, nine or ten years of age, kneeling on the dirt floor of a tiny hovel, her head bowed and hands clasped together. She prayed in a shadowed corner, outside the reach of moonlight intruding through an unshuttered window. The silver glow fell instead across two men, asleep on a straw pallet. Both were naked, their small, wiry bodies worn with labor, their skin wrinkled with time and washed gray in the moonlight, making them seem even older than they were, serene, ghostlike, altogether different creatures from the monsters who had forced themselves on the girl only an hour before.
Dismay, please kill them before they wake.
The sweet, clean scent of whiskey still hung in the warm night air.
The door opened.
The girl looked up to see a shadowy figure silhouetted against the moon-washed yard, a tall, lean man, with eyes that glittered green as they fixed on her. “Leave now,” he whispered, drawing a sword from his back scabbard.
She was on her feet at once. She grabbed a thin blanket from the foot of the bed and half a loaf of bread. Then she slipped silently past the demon and fled into the night.
“Sheriff, the Hauntén demon has killed again.”
Marick looked up with a start. As the King’s sheriff he was charged with enforcing the law and protecting the people of Lutawa from blasphemy, be it their own or that of a murderous demon sent from the godless north.
Outside the inn where he and his men were lodged, the sun had just risen over the trees. Its rays reached in golden brilliance past closed shutters to stripe the room and the large map that lay open across the table. The young deputy who’d just arrived with his report dared a glance at the map, but he knew his place, and his gaze returned at once to Marick. “It was no more than twelve miles from here, sir. In Breden!”
He was a ruddy-cheeked youth, wide-eyed with excitement. Like Marick, he was dressed in the fashion of the sheriff’s company: black boots, black gloves, and a black silk tunic, traditionally loose in the shoulders, cinched at the waist, and flaring again as it draped over loose black riding pants. The silk’s sheen was dimmed by a layer of dust from the road.
“And how many were slaughtered in Breden?” Marick asked in a grim voice.
“At least two, Sheriff. A hovel was set on fire! I saw it myself. Two farmhands lived there, along with a child slave they’d only just acquired.”
Seated on the adjacent side of the table was Cullo, Marick’s first deputy, a man of imposing size who shaved his head smooth every evening because the spark from a pyre had once set his hair aflame. “You predicted it,” he said to Marick, satisfaction in his voice. “You predicted the demon would be seen next in the district of Anacarlin, and you were right.”
Marick’s gaze turned to the map: a beautiful document that charted the kingdom of Lutawa, its farmlands and hills, its rivers and lakes, its villages and towns, all drawn precisely to scale. Seventy-three tiny tags were pinned to the map, each written on in neat script, marking a site where the demon had been seen or where it had left bloody corpses and burned homes. The creature had struck first in the borderlands, but in the days that followed it had moved steadily south, bringing terror into the heart of the Lutawan kingdom.
Looking up again, Marick fixed a hard gaze on the young deputy. “Hovels are known to catch fire. Why do you believe this was the demon’s work? Did you see the creature?”
“No, Sheriff. No one saw it. But the hovel burned so fiercely it had to have been doused with oil, and anyway, the farmboss—”
The youth stopped midsentence. His gaze cut away as the color of his ruddy brown cheeks grew even warmer. “Well, the farmboss said it was the demon’s work.”
“Did he? And why was he so sure? Speak, son! If you know something, say it.”
The boy looked at Marick again. He straightened his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Sheriff. It’s just . . . I know the farmboss was speaking in anger, but he told me the two dead men had defied the master when they brought the girl home. The master is a godly man of the Inherent. He doesn’t permit any of his slaves or servants to keep a child whore. The farmboss said the demon was welcome to punish the two men for their disobedience, and that they got no more than they deserved.”
Marick’s brows rose.
“Blasphemy,” Cullo growled.
“Is it blasphemy?” Marick asked the young deputy. “Did this farmboss invite the Hauntén demon in?”
The boy looked suddenly frightened. “No! Or, I don’t think so, sir. It’s just the dead men were longtime troublemakers. The farmboss had to whip them all too often. The master takes it from his pay if the servants and slaves don’t live as godly men.”
Cullo’s chair creaked as he leaned forward. “There’s no doubt these two troublemakers are dead inside the hovel?”
“The farmboss was sure of it, though he can’t look for bones until the fire’s cooled.”
“Return to Breden in the afternoon,” Marick said. “Look for the child whore’s bones among the ashes. If you can’t find them, look for the child whore and bring her to me.”
“Now go tend to your horse and get some sleep.”
The deputy left, closing the door behind him.
“One mile, twelve, or a hundred,” Cullo said. “How can we catch a creature that comes and goes with the stealth of smoke?”
Marick reached for a quill and a new tag. “We must lay a trap for it.”
“Ha! If only we could—but how? Despite what the Breden farmboss thinks, the demon strikes at random, for no just cause. How can we predict where it will go next?”
Marick wrote out the new tag, then pinned it beside the village of Breden. “It doesn’t strike at random.”
The first attacks had been the worst. They’d taken place in daylight, far north in the borderlands. Hundreds of free farmers had been slaughtered, along with their dogs and women. Farmhouses and fields were burned. Each rampage went on for hours, consuming farm after farm, but after several days, the demon disappeared.
When it finally struck again, it did so with a new discipline, coming at night and in stealth. It stalked farmhouses and mansions both, entering unseen to murder the men as they slept, splattering bedroom walls with blood and soaking the floors—but the dogs and the women no longer suffered its wrath.
“It’s not random,” Marick repeated. “Each time there is a woman, and many of these women have confessed that they summoned the Hauntén demon with blasphemous prayer.”
Cullo scowled. “Do you mean to bait your trap by forcing the bitches to pray?”
Marick didn’t want to admit to the temptation. “I serve the King,” he said sharply. “It’s not for me to encourage blasphemy—”
“—and no doubt the demon would know a false prayer anyway.”
A knock sounded on the door; it opened again. Another deputy peered inside. “The Inherent are here to see you, Sheriff.”
“We’ll join them shortly.”
Marick stood up to roll the map—the King’s map, entrusted to him. The King’s law forbade anyone to possess a true map of Lutawa, excepting only His own trusted servants, and none were more trusted than the King’s sheriff, who was charged with ending the terror of the Hauntén demon.
Cullo held up the brass map case. “It’s a risk to involve the Inherent,” he warned as Marick slipped the rolled map inside. “They are devoted to the King, but not to you. They fear your influence with Him.”
“As they should. Still, they are godly men. In the matter of the demon, we are surely allies.”
“You have a great confidence in these old men, to set them on guard against the demon.”
Marick shrugged. “The Inherent have the privilege. Let them share the risk.”
There were three Inherent families in the district of Anacarlin, each ruled by a patriarch as God had decreed. The master of Breden was the oldest of them, and the master of Anacarlin the youngest, but the master of Cuhoxa presided over the largest estate by far in the district, and the others deferred to him.
The three men had gathered on the veranda of the inn, seated in plush chairs arranged in a semicircle, each with a mug of sweet fruit juice and a tray of boiled eggs and wine-soaked berries within easy reach.
When Marick appeared on the threshold, Nedwary of Cuhoxa was first to take note. Though he was a man of middle years, with his black hair and neat beard half-gone to gray, he kept himself trim, and when he rose to meet Marick he did so with the stiff-backed bearing of the general he once had been. “You are the Sheriff Marick?” he asked.
“Sir, I am.”
Nedwary, standing a full head taller than the sheriff, studied Marick with a stern expression. After a few seconds, he nodded. “God bless you then, and welcome.”
He resumed his seat and discussion of the demon began. The master of Breden was most incensed, given the loss of his farm hovel. “Sheriff, it’s your duty to stop this creature! Stop it now, before it does real harm!”
Nedwary wanted details. “We are told this demon is a spirit creature, though one that will sometimes clothe itself in flesh.”
“Exactly so,” Marick agreed. “It appears first as smoke or a mist. In this form it can do no harm, nor be harmed. But in the blink of an eye it can take on the appearance of a man. Then it can be killed—or captured.”
“Captured?” asked the wide-eyed young master of Anacarlin. “Is it possible that shackles could hold such a creature?”
“Not shackles, but an iron cage. If a Hauntén demon is pierced by metal or confined in iron it will be pinned in the world and unable to escape to the spirit realm. So says the King.”
Marick paced in front of them. While the Inherent wore richly colored silks, he was garbed in black: the color of the King’s justice. The Inherent were the chosen of God. In power and in privilege they were set above all others save the King—but His blessing was sometimes given to a freeman too.
Marick intended to earn that blessing by capturing the demon. “It deserves no quick death. The King’s justice is served best by a public execution. If you encounter the Hauntén demon, then pin it. Kill it only if there is no other choice and remember—if you hesitate, it will kill you. You cannot save your life or your household by fleeing. The demon will hunt you down, and it has never practiced mercy.”
The masters shared a dark look among themselves. Then Nedwary of Cuhoxa admonished him. “You forget to whom you speak, Sheriff. We have all seen more of blood and battle than you or any of your men. It’s not our custom to flee from danger.”
Marick held his face carefully expressionless, but he could not stop a rush of heat to his cheeks. “I meant no offense, Master. It’s only that I would have no harm befall the King’s beloved Inherent.”
“And yet you would have us help you in your demon hunt?”
“It’s an elusive creature and my men cannot be everywhere at once. I ask that you instruct your servants and slaves to be alert for any sign of the demon’s presence. It must eat. It must sleep. This makes it vulnerable. If you discover it, send word to me. My only wish is to fulfill the King’s command, and bring the evil creature to justice for its crimes against Lutawa.”
The demon Dismay was in an infernal mood. He hated everything about Lutawa, but he especially hated the heat. The heat was driving him mad. It smothered him as he slept. It haunted his dreams. It crushed his memory. He was filthy with it, forever caked in blood and sticky sweat. Every dawn he prayed to the Dread Hammer for the courage to endure the unrelenting sun of yet another day.
Each day the sky was bland and pale with heat. There were no rain spirits anywhere, and the only wind spirits he’d met were bitter little gusts that delighted in rattling the dry brush in gullies or on the edge of pastures whenever they discovered him sleeping there.
He slept in the day, afflicted always with a horrible dream in which he was free to journey north again, but no matter how far he ventured along the threads that made up the weft and warp of the world he never could reach the Puzzle Lands where he’d been born, or the cool shade of the Wild Wood that was his home. There was only the plain of Lutawa unrolling ahead of him, forever without end.
And whenever he awoke his head was filled with a murmurous thread of prayers uttered by women who pleaded with him to Come, come avenge me.
This he didn’t mind so much. Granting such prayers was the task set for him by the Dread Hammer and it pleased him to do it. It pleased him too to defy the idiot god of Lutawa, Hepen the Watcher, who despised women as weak and stupid, and yet somehow so dangerous that death was meted out to anyone who dared teach a woman to read. Under such a god, cruelty thrived, and in time, cruelty demanded vengeance. Only the most desperate women called on Dismay. Though it pleased him to carry out their bloody retributions, it would please him even more if he could just get a decent measure of sleep beforehand. But how could he truly rest when he had no choice but to sleep under bushes, or in barns, or in the root cellars of farmhouses, with some part of his mind always on watch?
His weariness put him in an irritable mood, and his irritable mood was made infernal by the filth: blood, soot, sweat, offal. The death he meted out never smelled sweet and the stench was only made worse by the heat, the unendurable, crushing heat. Though late autumn had come, each day in Lutawa was still hotter by far than the hottest summer day in the Puzzle Lands. No wonder the Lutawans were crazy. Who wouldn’t be, living with such weather day after day after day?
The demon Dismay had gone a little crazy too.
That was why he was standing at twilight outside a country mansion, contemplating slaughtering everyone inside. No prayer of vengeance had summoned him. He’d been drawn instead by the scent of clean water and spiced soaps, and the fact that the mansion was isolated from the road. There would be no one to hear the screaming.
A paved driveway wound through orchards and gardens, ending at a wide forecourt with a pretty tiled fish pond and beds of sweet-smelling flowers. The house itself was a sprawling single-story with white stucco walls, a wide veranda, a brass door, and blue ceramic tiles on the roof. The roof tiles alone implied such wealth that the demon’s imagination was offended.
He’d been altogether happy living in a hovel in the Wild Wood with a thatch roof and no chimney to let out the smoke from the hearth. What need was there for a roof that must have required dozens of slaves to mix and form and glaze and bake the clay for tiles that were each as fancy as a dinner plate?
The Lutawans were truly fools.
Still, he was quite sure there must be a lovely bathing hall inside. It wouldn’t be so hard to murder the family . . . well, it wouldn’t be hard to murder the men. He scowled. It would not be his choice to murder the women . . . but still, to enjoy a nice, long soak and be truly clean for the first time since he’d left the Puzzle Lands. . . .
He sensed movement in the threads that underlay the world. Someone in the house was coming closer. The shutters along the veranda stood open. Light glimmered through the windows, moving, shifting, pausing here and there to dip and pass its spark to a candle, or an oil lamp, until the windows glowed with sweet light.
Then the front door opened and a servant—or maybe she was a slave; this was Lutawa, after all—came out to the veranda. Smoke, hidden within the inky shadow of an orange tree, watched her from only a few feet away as she lit a lantern that hung beside the stair.
The light showed her to be young and lovely. The pretty yellow shift she wore was belted tight around her waist to show off her figure. It left her arms bare, and revealed her calves behind a little ruffle. Her hair was long, black, and silky, falling in a thick tail down her back.
She turned to light the second lantern, and as she did so its light fell across the demon, curling around his tall, lean figure and glistening against his honey-brown hair that he wore pulled back from his face and tied behind his neck.
He must have looked like a ruffian in his bloodstained brown tunic with sleeves rolled up against the heat, trousers dark with blood and soot, and boots singed by fire. He carried a sword on his back along with a bow, a quiver of arrows, and his rolled-up coat. Two long knives hung from his belt. The girl gazed at him in stunned silence, her eyes so dark and full of life he imagined for a moment he was looking into Ketty’s eyes.
Ketty, who had sent him away in a fit of anger. Ketty of the Red Moon, cruelest of wives.
The women of Lutawa called him Dismay, but Ketty called him by another name, one he’d almost forgotten.
It hurt to remember. Pray to me, he’d told her, when you want me to come home. Two moons had passed since then and Smoke was still waiting for Ketty’s prayer. He’d begun to suspect she didn’t love him anymore.
“Dismay!” the serving girl whispered. To Smoke’s surprise she didn’t flee, but instead, after a cautious glance over her shoulder to be sure no one was watching, she scurried down the veranda’s three steps and slipped into the shadows beside him. He saw confusion, not fear, in her gaze. “Dismay, why are you here? I didn’t pray for you. Did the young mistress pray for you? It’s too soon. We’re not ready to call on you yet.” She gestured toward the driveway. “You must go. Later, maybe, we’ll need—”
Smoke bared his teeth and at once she stopped her whispered excuses. It astonished him the way his legend made its way through the countryside even ahead of his own swiftly moving presence, but tonight he was in no mood to be charming. He said, “Know this: It’s a dangerous thing to pray to me, but it’s more dangerous to send me away.”
“But Dismay, if the master sees you—”
“I’ll kill him.”
“No, please. He’s a good man.”
“Better if he doesn’t see me then.”
“But what have you come for? Why are you here?”
“I want a bath. And I’m hungry, and tired as well—tired of sleeping in barns and under bushes.”
“Oh.” Again she glanced back at the door. “The master is away at dinner this evening, and no one will be in the bathing hall at this hour. If I go there, can you find me?”
“Go quickly, and pray to me to come, when the way is clear.”
Her eyes grew bright with the excitement of doing something forbidden and sweet. “I’ll call the young mistress. She’ll want to meet you.” And with that she trotted back up the stairs, to disappear behind the brass door.
Smoke fixed his mind on the tremble and sway of the threads in the world’s weft so that he could follow her progress. She hurried through the great room, and then into a hallway where another woman joined her. The two rushed past a manservant, and then ducked into a room, pulling a door shut behind them. Several seconds passed. Then the serving girl remembered to speak to him in prayer. Come, Dismay. Come bathe and be comforted.
Stories of the Puzzle Lands – Book 2
by Linda Nagata
$3.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-937197-09-4