By Toney Baus
Demonic irony [Editor’s Favorite]
A herald flew in a bright green sky as updrafts cradled her
body and filled her wings. Any sort of easy effort like this pleased her
immensely, but Liran did not laugh or even smile. The Hell of Burning Tears
punished all but the most powerful demons for showing pleasure.
Whitecaps on boiling, gray water heaved below while she
searched the ocean for a sacrifice, a ritual victim who would enable her to
escape from this world. The glare from the white sun punched far into the
water, so Liran expected to spot something soon. That outcome was also a
necessity; the hunt had to end soon because loitering could bring the notice of
Irikiti, her Tyrant, and at least an interrogation would follow; any hint of
escape was punishable heresy.
Soon enough, the herald spotted a green and black spike
runner, swimming furiously with its many fins. Some bigger predator, no doubt,
drove it up from the depths, but this lesser demon had failed to solve its
problem by fleeing to the shallows. All the hells held many predators, and she
was one, too—a fierce one.
Liran folded her wings and extended the talons on her
fingers, dropping into a steep dive before slicing into the waves. The spike
runner extended its quills and tried to dive deeper, but her innate weapons dug
into its rubbery hide instead. Then she began the fight back to the surface,
wings beating and legs kicking.
She broke the surface at the crest of a wave and struggled
to again become airborne. Her prey had stopped resisting, but with the burden
of its dead weight, flight became a challenge. The updrafts no longer helped;
the winds now threatened to slap her back down into the water, but Liran
refused to be defeated by mere weather and won the contest to rise back up. From
on high she saw the pale stone monoliths that broke the monotony of the ocean. The
relentless winds and currents all around had etched the tall outcroppings with
feathered arches and pinnacles, both intricate and sharp enough to inflict wounds
that left behind slivers of rock in the flesh. Anything that did not live in
the boiling brine called one of these crags home, including Liran. She started
a shallow dive towards her convoluted spike, anxious to complete the mission. Dolshia
would be waiting.
Her sister-herald looked up from a beach of rock shards,
wearing a soaked tunic of ruby stone spider silk. The steam that came off the
crashing waves almost hid her presence. Dolshia was a sinuous beauty with eyes
like citrines and skin as grey as slate, different from Liran’s own curvaceous
figure, silver eyes, and maroon skin. Both held in common, though, a herald’s
big wings of tough skin and mane of obsidian-black hair.
“Much longer, and I would have abandoned you,” she
complained as Liran landed with a sharp breaking flap.
“Sorry. I bring what we need.”
“Yes, I see that. Go dig up the scroll.”
Liran nodded and followed Dolshia’s instructions,
retrieving a cylindrical scroll case made of white bone that they kept buried
at the base of a nearby cliff. Together, they then opened the spike runner’s
knife-shaped head with their talons, exposing the dying demon’s skull. The
waves already were carrying away the spilled blood, hiding the signs of the
Upon finishing the incisions, Dolshia looked over at her
with glittering, orange eyes. “You’re the brawn here. Crush it. I need what is
She disliked the implication of being just stupid muscle,
but Liran still struck the spike runner’s skull. No time existed for petty
quarreling, and the orb of bone collapsed with a crunch under a single blow
from her fist. “Hurry up; we can’t stay here long.”
Dolshia opened their scroll case and unrolled the
parchment, made from the hide of a rotting goliath harpy that they had found
washed ashore long ago. Then she dipped her talons into the gore held by the
fractured skull and used the pulpy fluid like ink to trace the whorls,
crosshatches, and sigils needed to channel mana. Liran saw trails of light
flowing in the wake of this precise calligraphy dedicated to death and power. Eventually,
however, Dolshia threw up her hands in frustration. “I’ve done as much as I
can, but we’re not ready. I need a trigger.”
“Yes, an icon called The Bloodied Fawn.”
“You’ve never said anything about this before.”
“I know. Sorcery unfolds in unpredictable fashions. Liran,
we need the mana created by one of those icons to serve as a trigger.”
“So, you can’t finish?”
Dolshia rolled her eyes. “Yes. Correct. We need more mana
for the final incantation. Even if I found that much, I couldn’t hold it; I’d
burn. We’ll also require another sacrifice.”
Liran clenched down on her frustration and thought for a
moment. “Another sacrifice is easy, and Mahgetier owes me a favor. Might he
have this icon?”
“Mahgetier? Another Tyrant? In all seriousness? Don’t you
think he’ll warn Irikiti?”
“They hate each other with a bloody passion. He’ll help.”
“I know of five of these icons in all of the hells. Mahgetier
might have one, but he also might swallow you alive rather than hand it over. What
favor did you perform for him?”
“That’s not important. I will risk everything to escape.”
“No,” objected Dolshia as she let out a leaden sigh. “This
is the end. If we are lucky, asking Mahgetier for help is going to put us both
in punishment cells for decades. We won’t remember anything after all the pain,
and I refuse to be remade again. If we end up destroyed, we’ll be—”
Liran interrupted. “I know destruction means being reborn
as a carrion eater.”
Her ally let out yet another sigh before continuing. “Sister,
we are damned, and now we are rebelling against the proper order of things from
within one of the hells. I think we need to learn our lesson. If we beg for
forgiveness, it might not be too late.”
“Others have escaped.”
“How many others?”
“No matter; we will. Besides, Tyrants don’t forgive.”
Dolshia countered this time with only a snarling frown.
“I’ll do this myself,” growled Liran.
“I’ve learned much about sorcery by just watching you,”
Liran said as she flapped back into the sky and headed away from her home. She
skimmed just above the swells and hoped that the steam rising off the ocean
might be enough to cloak her journey from her Tyrant’s gaze. Then tears, not of
pain but of sorrow, began falling from her bright eyes into the ocean of
boiling brine. The herald, astounded, did not recall ever having mourned for
anything or anyone. Demons knew hate, fear, frustration, and satisfaction,
Once enough distance existed between herself and home,
Liran climbed further into the sky and scanned the surrounding columns of rock,
looking for the one that bore the topography of Mahgetier’s domain. Spotting
it, she then pushed for a burst of speed, landing on the lip of a cave entrance
near the surface of the ocean before walking into the darkness.
Strands of raw mana jumped around inside of the space like
lightning, and Liran knew it would not persist long, so she absorbed it by
speaking an incantation of Dolshia’s:
of the Hells,
To make her
in her image
To meet her
So that a call
fall from her lips,
world of hate.
This mana ran dark, just like the shadows that filled the
cave where she stood. The rebel welcomed
its inky ribbons into her spirit and secured them for a providential release in
the future. A time of strife, after all, certainly awaited, and she would now
be able to call upon this reservoir three times, or so declared the Triune Rule
of Sorcery, something else Dolshia had taught her by accident.
Liran continued along a passage that sloped upward. Soon,
swarms of drones with many-jointed legs, fat abdomens, and razor-edged
mandibles scurried in and out of branching tunnels, driven by unknown purposes.
None challenged her despite their overwhelming numbers. Mahgetier, no doubt,
knew of her arrival and was tolerating it.
She found that Tyrant’s massive form, squatting and
toad-like, in a spherical chamber one hundred paces wide. His body filled the
bottom third of the space. Countless drones crawled all around the inside of
the sphere and over their Lord. Liran bowed:
“Greetings, Your Immanence.”
Mahgetier’s head turned to regard her with a slow swivel. Each
of the Tyrant’s eight eyes, four pairs stacked upon each other, burned like a
yellow sun. His tongue came out and tasted the air. Liran detected an edge of
lust in his expression but stood her ground. She had no other choice, and her
wings would probably make an escape possible…probably.
“There you are, Liran,” he said. The whisper filled the
sphere completely. All the drones stopped moving, and the conversation
proceeded without competing noise.
“Your Immanence, would you please recall my service to your
cause during the last Convocation of Tyrants?”
“You look horrible,” said Mahgetier, refusing to consider
the past. “Why?”
“I’m so sorry; this day has been difficult.”
Mahgetier kept pushing. “Why?”
“A plan long in the making is unravelling.”
“But you think I can help?”
“Yes, please. I’ve been of service, haven’t I?”
“Ah, I knew this day would come. What do you want in
payment for your lies to Irikiti?”
“An icon called The Bloodied Fawn. Do you have one?”
“A powerful thing. I think you are asking for something
more valuable than your old favor. What are you going to do with it?”
“Nothing threatening your domain.”
“A secret? At least that is not a lie, but I need you to be
“I’m leaving The Hell of Burning Tears.”
The obscene bulk of a demon shook with bubbling laughter
first and then found enough control to speak again. “How amusing! How
embarrassing for your Tyrant! You’re enough of a talent that you might manage
it! I cannot resist the possibility that you speak the truth!”
Mahgetier looked at one of his servants, and it scuttled
into action, hopefully to collect the icon. This silent telepathy was nothing
new to Liran since Irikiti communicated with her in the same way. She waited as
the other drones moved back into their routines. Time, however, stretched
onward, and as it did, more and more of the drones began rubbing their rearmost
legs up against their own bulbous bodies. The resulting low buzz gradually
became a roar.
The drone ordered to perform the chore finally reappeared
with a chunk of pale green jade gripped in its mandibles. The thunderous
buzzing of its compatriots stopped. Liran winced as the Tyrant’s tongue whipped
out, snared the errand-runner, and pulled it into his mouth. Now she knew that
the punishment for making Mahgetier wait too long was consumption, and in that
regard he was like Irikiti: any provocation could be answered with a murder.
The drone’s brief screaming sounded rather human as
Mahgetier’s jaws worked to chew it to bits. It reminded Liran that all the
drones here, like her, had once been people; they all lived with changing
bodily incarnations, but they all had human spirits.
Mahgetier spat out the jade block at her feet. Liran picked
up the object, about the size of two fists together, and turned it over in her
hands. It had to be the icon; careful work had etched this block of stone into
the image of a terrified fawn, flipped on its back and bleating at the sky. The
sculpture lacked a rear leg at one of the animal’s flanks, and stylized drops
of jade blood had been carved there, spurting outward from the catastrophic
wound. White light flickered in the icon’s core. The mana inside the stone made
her arms tingle from fingertips to elbows.
Satisfied, Liran bowed and backed up to a safer distance. Just
before she turned to go, however, the Tyrant spoke to her again. “Little
Herald, I won’t let Irikiti’s servitors kill you here. Your Tyrant knows this. Once
you leave, though, I will not intervene.”
“I know, Your Immanence.”
“I still expect to hear of great upheavals in the domain of
Irikiti inflicted by your hand.”
“I will risk all not to disappoint.”
Liran left to the sound of Mahgetier’s laughter as his
hill-sized mass once again jiggled with amusement. A smile even tried to break
forth on the herald’s own face, but it still felt strange. It was not
After putting the icon away in her belt pouch, the demon
flew along the passages that led to the very top of the spire. Here, the wind
howled through oblique channels in the stone. Liran saw no gangs of heralds in
the sky, so she lifted off by merely falling into the abyss and letting the
winds whip her along like a leaf in the wind.
Liran rode along with the gusts until she passed over a low
island. It was only a little platform of rock, about the width of three
herald’s wingspans, and only a finger of that stayed above the waves
consistently. She landed on it, waded into the ocean, and laid down. The brine
covered all but her face as the sun began to set.
The light of day had not faded too much when a formation of
Irikiti’s loyal heralds flapped high overhead. Their faces all looked towards
Mahgetier’s home. Liran congratulated herself for selecting a hiding place that
no one anticipated.
When a ripple of water at odds with the regular waves
passed over her motionless form, Liran knew that something else hunted nearby. Seeing
nothing to the fore, she spun around in time to see a carrion eater long as her
arm skittering nearby. For something crawling on the ocean floor, it rushed at
her with surprising speed.
An apparently dead or dying herald must have appeared like
a good meal, but it understood its mistake too late. Liran’s talons punctured
its carapace, and then she stood, lifting it out of the water. The impaled
carrion eater, a sleek sort of creature with the shape of a broad arrowhead and
many short, hooked legs, made a sad croaking sound. It seemed to be begging for
mercy. Liran could hear her empty stomach grumble for an answer, so she ripped
this least of demons in half and consumed the soft flesh, leaving only the empty
halves of a shell. Then she tossed the remains upon the small island and
settled back down into the waves. Her victim’s spirit would just be reborn as
another carrion eater, anyway. It had lost no progress towards any higher
Once the sun had fully disappeared, the moment to return
home for the last time had arrived. Liran called upon the shadow mana harvested
from the dark cave, covering her body and tunic with it in a thin film. The
resulting chill felt delicious. Shrouded by the sorcery, she emerged from the
waves and flew high into the sky. The winds threatened to rip apart her wings,
but anything looking up would have to pick her out from the sunless sky. If she
could retrieve the scroll Dolshia had created without being seen, escape would
become very possible.
Liran could see the blurry fires that burned at the very
bottom of all her world’s oceans. They made the brine boil and the waves heave.
They also lit the night with a blue illumination so faint that it couldn’t be
seen during the day, like the stars that shined for the mortal world. She
preferred the tiny lights in that other night sky. The rebellious demon didn’t
know what stars were made of, but she could not deny their fragile beauty.
Mahgetier’s island served as her first landmark. On the way
past it, the rebel herald could make out more flocks of her sisters flying down
below; they darted at random, looking desperate. Liran guessed that punishment
awaited them if they came back without her corpse.
Whatever motivation lashed their spirits, they never
spotted her, and then the torches that burned with violet flames at the top of
Irikiti’s monolith appeared in the distance. Liran also saw her Tyrant, a
blasphemous monument to most of the mortal world’s creatures, caught in that same
light. She had the torso of a fertility goddess, full-breasted beyond any norm.
Barbed pincers, like a scorpion’s, jutted out from either side and from
the waist down Irikiti took the form of a serpent, patterned with opal and
sapphire scales. Her head was that of a beetle’s, covered with iridescent,
black plates. Smaller than the enormous Mahgetier by half, she better than
tripled him in terms of agitation, always seemingly hunting something.
Dagonites, bipedal amphibians adorned with crescent-shaped
fins, oval eyes like shining lamps, and wide mouths crowded with needle-like
teeth, waited upon Irikiti. All of them certainly were watching for her, but
Liran still passed by the top of the monolith, betting that her dark sorcery
would defeat all those eyes. A shadow in shadow, she succeeded. Upon landing on
the rocky beach where Dolshia had last hidden the arcane scroll, however, the
rebel’s cloak disintegrated, dispelled by one too many touches against
Now vulnerable, she dug hurriedly, but someone had moved
the bone tube. Fear stunned Liran into inaction for a moment. Then the forlorn
demoness sat and wrapped herself in her own great wings, all sense of hope
burning away. Without the scroll escape remained impossible. She could never
create a replacement; that task would require Dolshia.
After the waves broke on the shore three times, Liran
decided to wage war against everything at the top of Irikiti’s monolith and be
destroyed. After rebirth as a carrion eater, she’d forget the urge to escape
and wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Wanting something badly, it had
turned out, was just another kind of hell.
The flight to destruction would be almost completely
vertical: slow and clumsy. The rebel ascended instead by bounding along ledges
that crisscrossed the tall cliff faces, her wings only assisting; those sinews
were tired and needed a rest, anyways. The result was fast but noisy as Liran’s
feet sent rocks clattering down into the sea.
At the highest point in the arc of her last jump, Liran
looked down upon the dagonites’ upturned snouts. They had drawn their
Hell-forged scimitars already and stood between her and the Tyrant, so she
called upon her stygian reservoir of mana again, this time spraying oily
shadows down into the mob. A chorus of angry croaks went up as they shielded
their big eyes, too late to ward off blindness. Then she dropped down amongst
the flailing brutes and crouched low, knowing that Irikiti would blast this
place with sorcery any moment.
A blood-red light, incinerating heat, and a thunderous hum
filled the space all around, and when it stopped, the dagonites in between the
rebel and the Tyrant existed only as charred bones. She had survived the spell
by screening herself with the bodies of blinded loyalists, but Irikiti was
already conjuring another gout of annihilation. In the floor, meanwhile, she
saw the crystalline covers of the punishment cells, the places where all
dissidents suffered the agony of drowning without death. Dolshia was in one,
pounding away at her cage’s roof in a desperate frenzy. Liran snatched up a
scimitar from the floor and struck at the cell cover. It shattered, sounding
like thousands of tiny bells.
Even as she vomited water, Dolshia pulled herself out of
imprisonment and scrambled on all fours towards a stairwell. Liran followed,
but another gang of dagonites sprinted to block their path. They proved
vulnerable, like the others, to the third and final gout of shadow sorcery. Blinded,
they could not stop the pair from plummeting down the stairwell together just
before Irikiti incinerated the top of the monolith with more sorcery.
“Where’s our scroll?” shouted Liran as the reunited pair
half-glided, half-fell down the passage. Dolshia simply beckoned her to follow
before banking down a branching passage and entering an octagonal space,
landing at a run in a many-sided chamber with a ceiling high enough to
accommodate Irikiti herself; they had arrived in the archives octagon. Bone
racks filled with scroll tubes crowded all but one of the walls in this
many-sided space. Bladed shutters covered the eighth wall, an entry of
convenience for the Tyrant herself.
Malgat, a herald with olive green skin and violet eyes, was
attending the room. Dolshia bore down on her with talons extended, but the
scroll keeper must have found some mana, like Liran. With a knowing smile, the
loyalist held her hands open to the ceiling and seemed to collapse into the
air, barely avoiding a deadly fight with teleportation sorcery.
“She’ll let Irikiti know where we are,” wailed Dolshia.
“Why are we here?” demanded Liran.
“Our scroll is here. Please tell me you have The
“Give it to me and guard the passage.”
“If you try to leave me, I’ll run you through.”
“I still need a sacrifice to open the gate. If you bring me
a dagonite’s head, we’ll leave together; I promise. Otherwise, we’ll both die
Liran agreed by surrendering the icon and running back to
the mouth of the stairwell, arriving just as the first dagonite stuck its snout
inside. They crossed scimitars with a screech of blades grating together, but
she pushed harder, knocking the amphibian back into its fellows before striking
low, severing a leg from her weaker opponent. It crumpled and began thrashing
on the floor, now hindering the others trying to press forward.
A different dagonite charged her next but failed to clear
its wounded comrade, stumbling forward instead. Liran drove the curved tip of
her scimitar up and under its chin. The iron punched through its yellow neck
wattle, all but beheading it. In the next moment, she would capture the head of
another sacrifice, and Dolshia could finish opening the gate. The rebel smiled
at the evidence of a miracle coalescing just within her reach, and this grin
finally felt justified. Against all odds their escape appeared eminent.
The clang of the shutters opening to the outside world and
the staccato clattering of enormous pincers, though, crushed this nascent hope.
Irikiti’s telepathy invaded her mind simultaneously with one repeated message: “A
SLOW DEATH FOR HERETICS.” Liran then heard Dolshia scream, so she made a
snap decision, kicking the second opponent’s body back into the other attacking
dagonites to buy a few more free moments; capturing a head would have to wait.
She turned in time to see her sister-herald coughing up
blood instead of brine and pinned to the floor by one of Irikiti’s spiked
appendages. Dolshia, still lucid despite the horrible wound, locked gazes with
her before throwing The Bloodied Fawn across the room. After the icon slid
to a stop, a gate in the fabric of The Hell of Burning Tears opened over it,
bright blue and ten paces wide. It took the traditional shape for sorcerous
work: The Serpent’s Eye, The Great Spirit’s Narrow Window, the symbol of
untethered knowledge, mana free of ethical illusions.
Dolshia had made herself the sacrifice to create the portal
Irikiti dragged the impaled herald back towards her
gnashing, thick mandibles as Liran hurled her scimitar in defiance. The weapon
embedded in the Tyrant’s left shoulder with a thud and drew a tiny trickle of
thick, black fluid. Irikiti thrashed her pincer arms to dislodge the metal
splinter, simultaneously smashing Dolshia into the floor and condemning her
spirit to be reborn as a carrion eater.
Panic spurred Liran to fly through The Great Spirit’s
Narrow Window. The sorcery filled her ears with a steady rumble and enveloped
her body with a burning cold. The rebel was now entirely mana, flowing to the
world of mortals, but no sense of triumph came with the transformation. Instead,
the burden of gratitude for Dolshia’s last spell allowed a tidal wave of
emptiness inside her heart. Only the certainty that she was done with
sacrifices forever kept a flicker of hope alive, like a lone star in the mortal
Toney Baus is a Texan with a Bachelor
and Master of Arts in history. A love of high fantasy novels from his
childhood drives him to tell stories in that genre today. He works in
logistics, helps his family to thrive, and burns the midnight oil to write. He
also has a novel he is trying to sell. Visit http://smilesfromceridwen.blogspot.com/ ,
if you would like to talk speculative fiction or comment on Sacrifices.