The Demon Within Part 3 Inspiration

Chapter 18: The succubi attack

Chapter 19: Up the waterfall and into Balachandar

Chapter 20: Wandering in Balachandar - Chasing puppets

Chapter 20: Ranulf vs Lady Sofia

Chapter 21: Running for Taliah - The Mirror Room - Her Demon Within

I was so pissed, I thought I wouldn’t be able to find it, but I did.

It’s the beginning of the video until 4:46. Unfortunately they cut it off, but it’s the most powerful piece. 2:00 until 2:53 is when he enters the room and lights it up. Then until 4:46 is him talking to Taliah

Chapter 22: Adder and Taliah - just search for Time by Hans Zimmer, my Internetis  laggy andi ‘m pissed.

Chapter 23: Finale and Epilogue

The Demon Within - Finale and Epilogue

Broken Sky

     The stars clashed with a thousand others. Unlike them, the armies had yet to clash. The world gradually came into motion. Lady Sofia was in the process of transforming again. Her eyes sank back into their sockets, giving that lifeless eternal glare. Even Vincent began to change, shifting into a hairy beast and ready to tackle her.

     We were just coming back into that world, right as I was getting used to that other plane of existence we were in. With every last breath, Taliah was giving me time to do what I had to do for her. I opened my eyes and looked down at the dagger in my coarse, beaten hand.

     I looked to Taliah. She had never been more at peace even though she knew what was coming. She even smiled.

     Wait … wait one more moment, one more to see her alive.

     I drove the dagger into her heart. She jolted with a gasp, one that froze the world. Lady Sofia had stopped what she was doing, in mid-transformation, realizing the trick that had just been played. Her eyes widened even more, turned into black holes. She screamed because her body was dissolving and crumbling to pieces. Vincent cried out as his body did the same. The castle fell from the sound of their cries. The city fell to its knees and the succubi tore into millions of pieces – shards.      Balachandar, the lost city, shifted on its heavenly axis and fell to the surface. The ships that had carried the soldiers splinted and sprayed everywhere. The river turned into a watery tornado. Ranulf held onto the fountain. The ground cracked in two at the landing. The castle was the last thing to fall. And after the bodies of Taliah’s parents finished tearing apart, the silence reigned. The sky was broken with clouds and the sun was too far off to offer grace. It was no longer lit with the heavenly stars. I felt the chill of Boreal again.

     What remained of the army resurfaced from the rubble and looked around dumbfounded. They heard the voice of a man sobbing – mine.

     I told myself I wouldn’t. It was the first reaction primed into my senses. I poured over her. She lay there at rest, eyes closed. She would never smile again. Never giggle.

     And yet inside I kept telling myself, Be the boy I was. Be the boy I was.

     “Adder.” It was Ranulf. He held my shoulders and said, “Look.”

     The sun returned. Its rays burned through the clouds to be the escort for those who were lost. The army of men gazed in awe at the wispy, golden souls rising from the debris. All those men who had been lost. All the women who had been lost. Nowhere did I see Vincent or Lady Sofia.

     Nowhere did I see Taliah.

     I bent low to her and whispered, “Please. Go, go and be the girl you used to be before you met me.” I kissed her one last time.

     Nothing happened. She remained a cold bleeding corpse. I cursed and banged my fist against the ground. “Come on. Come on! Please …”

     And then, her soul too rose from its body. She rose as a misty spirit. She surveyed the scene for some time. Jaspar, Stefan, Jerrick and Ranulf gaped. They didn’t see her as they saw her in the mirror. She wasn’t brown-haired or blue-eyed. She wasn’t too tall or too short.

     They saw her exactly as I had always seen her.

      And I knew then, with assurance, that I had truly seen the way she looked. Just as she was.

     Taliah looked down on me.

     I reached out for her ghostly hand. She came down to me and went inside me suddenly. And I was filled with all the greatest moments I had with her. I knelt and cried out in ecstasy. My eyes lit up with her soul. I saw when she was born, when she was delivered in her mother’s room. I saw when she played outside with her friends, shy and reserved. She had her crushes, her moments of childish glee. She aspired in art. I shared her utter helplessness when her parents raged over each other. I saw her mother scream at the sky and the city rise into the heavens. I saw Ranulf coming through the mirror putting a comforting hand on her shoulder as she wept. Her mother told her what she had to do now that they were spawns of hell. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t. So she left. And Ranulf zoomed away in the darkness to be alone. I felt her when she cried for her father. Then we were in my room, and she was sleeping right beside me, and she never had felt more loveable. She would have stayed there forever. And to think that I dreaded the expectations and the standards of being with someone.

I would have stayed there forever too.

———————————————————————————-

                                                   Epilogue

You know what they say about mirrors?

     They say mirrors peer into your soul; that they literally take a piece.

     They always said to break the mirror, so that your secrets can’t be seen and your soul is safe. That was why people hated me for what I did.

     But I tell them this:

     Whatever you do, don’t break the mirror.

     If you do, you’ll lose all sense of who you are, and you’ll lose your one connection to finding out. You’ll get years of bad luck.

     That’s what they’ll say from now on.

The Demon Within Chapter 22

What I Must Do

We stood on a hopeless cloud. The sensation of space was stranger than I had ever experienced on the boat ride. I had my eyes closed thinking I was leading into death.

“Adder, honey, wake up.”

“The … Fire Magician is here …” I murmured automatically.

The lights above us were stars. I seemed to have been lying on a flat surface, but how exactly I didn’t know. I couldn’t see any discernible floor or structure around us. We might have been in heaven itself.

“Taliah.” I shot to my feet panicking. “Are we … ?”

“No,” she said, lifting me to my feet with her gentle fingers, “not dead. At least, not yet. I’ve halted time for us.”

In this place, wherever we were, we appeared to each other as we did when we first met. She had on her night gown, and I my humble, bland pajamas. Neither of us said anything. We remembered the language we spoke a long time ago, the one where we didn’t need to say anything. She held on to me. I placed her hand in mine, and then slowly stretched our arms out. She knew and understood, and placed her other hand around my shoulder in a waltz position.

We danced.

It was truly the only time we were ever alone.

I couldn’t find myself able to finish. My footing became clumsy. They lost their memory. It went something like forward and back, or vice versa. Something like that.

“Adder.”

I shot my attention to her, ready to take in every word for I knew it would be our last. She held onto me with her entire body. “I want you to know that you are a good person.”

“And I always believed you are too.”

 Her grip tightened briefly. “Thank you.”

I looked up at the vast, endless void. I asked already knowing the answer. “What’s going to happen now?”

She put it there flatly. “I’m going to die.”

I shut my eyes. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t save you.”

“You already have, Adder. You were right. You were right about me. Tell Ranulf you were right.”

“I couldn’t suffer the worst. I couldn’t bear through it like your father said, I—”

She shushed me and giggled, even in this terrible situation, she found the will to giggle. She shook her head. “It’s all right, Adder. It is. I never blamed you. Not once. All that mattered was that you came.”

We parted slightly. There were an innumerable amount of things I wanted to say. None of them could express the way I wanted to say it, like a splash of red paint against a wall, or a sudden burst of wind. They wanted to come out as impulses, incoherent and amok. Her face went from pain to tranquility. She came close again and swayed me.

She said, “I want to thank you. Back then with the mirror, even though we never shared a full lifetime’s worth of love, I want to thank you. You know why I still went with those other men? Because I was still hopeful. You showed me that there was something to live for. I want to thank you for waking me up, even though it was a short time living.” She quivered. “But I can’t die out of my own accord when we return.”

“What do you mean?”

She shivered now, and then straightened. Before she even spoke, I knew that one untold revelation was about to shake me. One worse than when I returned home to find my parents having discovered all my secrets about them. Worse than any man ever going to bed with her.

“Since I have been slain by that which binds me to devilry, my soul will be lost forever in darkness. If the others slay me, it will be out of malice. And if I slay myself, the same fate would happen too. Such is how living as a succubus works.”

From my belt, she pulled out the dagger she tried to kill herself with years ago.

“You know what you have to do then. When we get back. Right away. You can’t hesitate. It will destroy everything. My mother’s power, the power that binds this world to the sky, everything. She has always built her power on her control over me. To have my die by someone who loves me and lets me go – it will undo everything she has tried to do.”

Her hand lay open there with the dagger for what felt like hours. In its reflection, I could see everything we did, every sentiment that I had for her. It wasn’t until then that I realized the magnitude of the loss. The wait of a lifetime began to start.

“Will I ever see you again?” I whispered.

Taliah looked up beyond the void at something I maybe didn’t see. She said, “Maybe. Wherever it is that all souls go.” Then, to me. “Do me a favor, Adder. Do me a favor and don’t wait for me. Please.” Her other hand stroked my face. “You’ve waited long enough.”

I clasped my hand around the dagger, almost nudging it into my own palm. I closed my eyes and hoped that maybe I would wake up in my bed back home. And if I did, I would pack my things and go off. Somewhere. Somewhere south, instead of the hopeless north.

“Be happy, please,” she whispered. “I always wanted you to be happy. Now go, go and be the boy you were before you met me. Go and relive that lost time.”

I will be happy, Taliah. I will always be the boy I was before I met you. I will always have you in the back of my mind. I will always fear that there won’t ever be someone like you ever again. And I will always miss you. But that will be my only secret. I promise until the day I die that I will always be that boy - that romantic - and I will never change.

The Demon Within Chapter 21

                                      The Armies of Men and Women

The Armies of Men and Women

     The castle burned.

The flames went on undisturbed. I was with Taliah outside the castle walls when she stopped to look in bewilderment.

     A solitary figure ran towards us through the smoke from the entrance.

     Taliah gasped.

     Ranulf slowed down. He stopped a couple feet away. Taliah didn’t know how to respond at first … and then gradually she brightened. Ranulf nodded. “Hello.”

     “Hi … Ranulf,” she replied mournfully, but with a hint of fondness. They embraced for a few moments.

     Ranulf and I stared at each other for a good ten seconds. Taliah of course didn’t understand our grim silence. Nevertheless, he chimed, “I tied the boat to a stake. You should get a move on before Jerrick and the other goons arrive.”

     I nodded.

     “But what about you?” she asked.

     Lady Sofia’s far-off scream gave the answer.

     “I’ll hold off any uglies from here. Don’t worry.”

     I grunted a thanks. We were going to leave when Taliah swerved to me and half-whispered, “Wait, Adder, if you don’t mind. Please.”

     I let her do what she wanted to do, what she should have done years ago. She kissed Ranulf on the cheek, very princess-like, and said, “Thank you, Ranulf. I’m sorry for everything. I always appreciated your love and friendship, however short it was.”

     “Honey,” he said with a bow, “you and I would have never worked out anyway.”

     A dark mass started to form. It burst from the entrance and stretched around the castle and the courtyard like it was wrapping a gift. The flames began to die out.

     “Lady Sofia…” Ranulf said. He glanced at me. “Now’s hardly the time for proper breakups though. Go now.”

     The boat was docked there at a stake like he said. The river beyond still floated in its mysterious space. Taliah asked me numerous questions as we boarded.

     “What went on between you two?”

     “You.”

     “That seems to happen a lot.”

     “Not anymore.”

     “Adder, I’m afraid so.”

     “What?”

     She pointed out towards the waterfall. A plethora of wooden ships sailed through the heavenly waters. Together, they completely blocked anyone from passing through the river. I could feel the rope in my hands loosen as my strength left me.

     Taliah took my hand. “Let’s go back to Ranulf.” She hesitated, but then spoke with clear confidence. “We’ll stay there and be in the middle if we have to. At least we’ll all be together in the end.”

     This was why I loved this girl.

     Lady Sofia and her succubi had no doubt seen her husband’s army looming forward. She hadn’t attacked Ranulf, and instead led a slow march towards us. Ranulf did a double-take at us.

     “Didja forget something? A dress?”

     “Ranulf,” I said, “he’s here.”

     Ranulf too lost his edge when he saw the ships. He slackened and said, “Great.”

     The captains didn’t bother to set the anchors or settle the ships. They tore through the docks and shook the ground. Soldiers young and old leaped and climbed out. They formed lines by the seconds swarming like ants.

     On the other side, Lady Sofia had no need to organize her army. There were no ranks amongst monsters. She stood before them all and held them back the best she could with the demure wave of her hand.

     The armies came closer … until Ranulf, Taliah and I were the only ones standing between them, probably ten feet away on either side.

     Taliah still clutched my hand. She whispered, “I’ll do this. You’ve done so much, Adder.”

     “You kidding? I’m with you all the way. I’m here to finish the fight.”

     The prince, the wizard and the general moved through the lines. The former two exclaimed expressions of astonishment and anger at me. The latter said, “Adder! I knew you wouldn’t go back like the sorry dog you are. Get out of the way before you waste yourself for nothing.”

     Bringing Taliah close to me was my answer. He looked towards Ranulf, who in turn was ready to fight. Jerrick said to him, “And you? What’s the matter with you? Last time I remember you hated this guy!”

     “Hate’s a strong word. I prefer … rivalry.”

     The soldiers bumped into each other as another figured broke through.

     “Vincent,” I said instinctively.

     “Father,” Taliah blurted.

     Vincent made no move to greet her. He already had his eyes set on Lady Sofia, his former wife. He was the first to step forward, completely ignoring us. Lady Sofia kept a wry smile. The succubi too knew who this was, and they grinned and chuckled.

     “You’ve finally amassed an army that can match mine, dear?” she chuckled.

     “Give me my daughter back. I will barter for her soul.”

     “We’ve gone over this for hundreds of years, darling. How much longer will this last? Can you not see you were at fault?” She directed her words to the men. “Can you not see that it is you who fail to please us?” Then, she sought over the crowd as she thought about something. She finally seemed to remember I was there, and she placed her wide eyes on me with satisfaction.

     “You. You know this above all others. Tell them, tell them what you believe.”

     Taliah looked to me waiting for an answer.

     Vincent was displeased with my hesitation. He boomed, “You don’t even know, do you? You came here seeking love. Love is not magic. Love doesn’t do anything, boy. Love, quite oppositely, is the root of all evil. You tell her you love her, and so you shun anyone else from that love. Soldiers fight for their love of country, and love no other. Priests fight for the love of their gods.” He faced his former wife and said, “This is why I left you. Because you tied me down like some dog.”

     Lady Sofia whined, “Oh, love, love, love, how I hate it! Pick up your sword and slay him, Adder. Do it. You know you want to. Slay them all!”

     The entire time I stared at the ground ashamed to look up to anyone. But Jerrick broke through, “Adder, do the right thing. Admit it. I can see it in your eyes. Tell her you were right. Tell her how much you went on, how much you toiled. How many years you’ve lost to one little, insignificant girl.”

     I remembered the moment when I trained with Ranulf, the rage that I had been suppressing. I tightened my grip around her hand, so much so that she gasped when it hurt.

     Taliah let go of me. She was afraid. Ranulf stared at me with concern. Taliah backed away when I breathed heavily. Ranulf put an arm around her in case anything happened. I looked at them and imagined them in bed. I looked to the prince, the wizard and the general. I imagined them all in bed with her. I wasn’t the first and it hurt me really bad when I found out. It was natural to want to be first, to want to be the pioneer who had the first impact. To be special. And that was what felt so great to be with her back then. I was loveable. She was loveable. It felt great to be loveable. And then that happened. And this happened. And then everybody wanted me dead. And I remembered the freezing cold of lying in the tundra thinking I was going to die. No, no, don’t think about that now.

Lady Sofia cackled. “You should have listened to your mommy and your daddy. They were right after all, dear. You’re no one special here, you never were. You were like every other boy from before, and every other boy who will come after.”

     Jaspar, Stefan, Jerrick.

     Their haughty expressions flashed in my mind again.

     “You two might be right,” I said. I picked up my head. Taliah now seemed more afraid when I said that. Ranulf gasped. But then I said, “Love may not be the answer. It’s less than that. It’s friendship. Simply knowing other people. Like Geoff the innkeeper, or the caravan people. I may be a fool like the rest,” I said, bringing Taliah back to me, “but my parents weren’t right. I wasn’t right. None of you were. There are no good or bad sides here, only fools. You passed on your sins to this girl and I’m willing to take them back.”

     I withdrew my two last revolvers and aimed them at either side. “I love her. And if she still has an ounce of love for you two morons, I’m willing to stop this war for her.” Many faces looked at me with contempt. Many expressions displayed their superiority over me. But, for the first time ever, I didn’t care. I actually grinned back

     Lady Sofia smiled. “You stick to your cause well. But no one can stand in the middle of the road and expect to go anywhere. I’ve had about enough of you.”

     She raised her hand and the men on the other side raised their rifles to fire. The light blinded them and a purple vortex shot from her palm to me. Taliah had let go of me and screamed. I felt the life in me diminish, pulled by her otherworldly force. I forced her power back with my will as much as I could. My fingers turned crooked and gray, but then became full and pink again.

     Lady Sofia seethed. She had to work hard to kill me. “Damn you! Give me the life I deserve!”

     “Stop! Stop it!” Taliah cried.

     The roar of Jerrick’s army drowned her out. The terrible suction went away at once, and then the confusion began. The succubi ripped through their beautiful bodies and became deformed winged creatures again. The doomed men become walking skeletal remains. Several skulls cracked after being shot. Ranulf cried out loud with laughter as he turned into flames for the succubi to tackle into him. Taliah dove on me and pinned me to the ground. The hooves of a thousand horses vibrated the cobblestones.

     A screeching swarm of succubi flew over us. I already felt my flesh being torn, and I did my best to cover Taliah. But she was somehow on top of me, and I looked at her for a terrible second as a succubus tore through her and blood spurted.

I forced her down on me and said weakly, “Oh, I’m sorry. I did all I could at the moment. I’m so sorry for everything.”

     The world went white, right when I knew the hooves were upon us.

She said faintly, though humorous, “Oh … you were always so dramatically … silly.”

The Demon Within Chapter 20 Part 2

I entered a room not unlike Ranulf’s cabin. The entire room was dark, but I could still see a couple mirrors in front of me. They gave off a wavy and distorted reflection of my face. I sought for some source of light. Somewhere near the wall was a torch. I picked it up remembering the matches I took.

     It didn’t illuminate much. I had to find something bigger. The room was huge, each footfall echoed. I then felt something across the wall. It was a gutter that ran along the entire length of the wall. I felt water after I had put my fingertips on the gutter. I put my nose towards it.

     “Oil,” I mused out loud.

I dipped the torch into it. The flames stretched along the entire wall and around the room. The wide expanse of royal blue was filled with mirrors. There were long and rectangular mirrors, triangular mirrors, pocket-sized mirrors, old crusty mirrors, mirrors that could have been made yesterday, mirrors that were stained with age, mirrors hanging on the walls, mirrors hanging from the ceiling—

     And, once more, each mirror had a distorted reflection of me.

     “Here we go again,” I whispered.

     I walked across the path made for the very end. I almost hurt my head swerving around to find Taliah. I was partially afraid of calling out her name. I wasn’t sure if something else waited for me here again.

     Then I heard sniffling.

     I hurried onward to the very end of the room.

     She stood with her back to me looking into one lone mirror.

     Hers. The very first one.

     She shivered violently.

     She broke out into moans here and there.

     Each wrist was bound by a rope to the floor. She was meant to stay there and stare into the mirror.

     I was afraid. I was very afraid. I raised my katana. I didn’t want any succubus to lunge at me or another puppet to smile.

     I approached until I could see myself clearly in the mirror … and finally her too. She kept her head down low. Her hair was wet and obscured her face.

     “Taliah,” I said.

     Those green eyes came up to meet me through the mirror. By the angels, I didn’t even recognize myself at first. There were bruises on my face. I still had to get used to the white hair. But even though there weren’t any wrinkles or anything like that, I just saw myself older somehow. There were heavy bags under my eyes after being on the road for so long sleeping from one kind of bed to another. She looked at the reflection of me with hesitation. She didn’t seem to recognize me at first. And then … when she finally realized it … she had no words, but simply widened her eyes.  

     “Oh, Taliah. It IS you,” I breathed. I cut the ropes and went to work on untying her. When she was free, she loosened in posture. I embraced her. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t retract or panic or wonder how I made it.

     I did it. I was with her.

     “I was starting to think you were dead,” I murmured. I closed my eyes and damned every moment I spent in torment wondering if she was okay. I stifled them with my emotions finally able to hold her. But she was so disheveled. Her tiny hands trembled. Her face was dirty. I kissed her along the cheek. She breathed heavily.

     The noise outside brought me back. I said holding her head, “We have to get out of here. Now.”

     Taliah seemed to acknowledge my words, but she drifted away. She moved towards the mirror. She came close to it, eventually leaning forward onto it.

     “Taliah?”

     At long last she spoke. Her voice crept. “Do you know … what they say about mirrors, Adder?”

     I held her shoulder with a comforting hand.

     She went on, “They steal your soul.” She turned her head to me. She touched her chest. “This? This you see here … this is not me.”

     “Taliah, come on … we can stop this. You’re going to be okay.”

     “Forgive me, Adder. I have but two faces.”

     She backed away from the mirror. The reflection on the mirror was no longer hers. I looked a horrible beast, not much unlike the disfigured succubi that destroyed the villages. It murmured at us. It wanted to get out. It wanted to stop being a mere reflection and become a real living thing.

     “Taliah, that isn’t you.”

     “And how would you know?” she suddenly scowled, eyes harsh.

     “Because I know you! And I choose to believe what I saw in you from the very beginning. I chose to believe the little girl who laughed. The little girl who told me it was okay to go outside without shoes on, because you loved me.”

     “No, I didn’t… I don’t love you.”

     “But you did then! You did! You can’t say that what we had never happened.”

     “What happened in the past doesn’t matter now.”

     “Yes, it does.”

     “And how’s that?”

     “Because I’m here now. Because of what had happened. Because I love you.”

     Taliah leaned forward again to stare intimately into the mirror. She said lowly, “You can’t possibly mean that. Every man says the same thing.”

     “Taliah …” I was losing hope in arguing. I placed both hands this time on both shoulders. She shook me away. She huffed, “Go away. Don’t touch me.”

     I began to tear up. I had to let her see. I had to. Somehow. “Taliah, please. I don’t care if you end up with me. I don’t care that you love me anymore. I just want you to be happy. And right now you’re not happy. You’re not. I want to take you away from this place.”

     She slowly looked into herself again. The demon mumbled and then prowled. Taliah withdrew something from within her gown. A dagger.

     “Wait, stop,” I blurted with concern.

     But no. She wasn’t going to cut herself. Instead, she placed the tip against the glass.

     “I can’t leave this place. No matter how hard I try, it won’t let me. I won’t let me. I try and I try and I try to not let that … bitch of a mother get to me.” She tapped on the glass with the dagger. “But every time I end up seeing the way she sees.” She tapped harder. “Every time I can’t get over myself.” Harder. The glass fractured into tiny rivers from where she hit it. “Every time I see myself as I could have been.” The fractures carried onto the rest of the mirror. She fumed. She seemed to physically grow with every ounce of hatred. “Every time. Every time! EVERY. TIME.”

     She pounded at the glass with the dagger. Shards flew everywhere. I covered my face. She roared as the mirror fell to the ground. She pounced on it stabbing every single piece she could find. Every single piece that flew away had a different face. One was sad. Another was happy. The next was spiteful.

     After the episode ended, and she calmed herself to longer breaths, she smeared away her tears with the back of her hand. She dangled her head and succumbed to weeping.

     I bent low and embraced her again. The shards had scratched some parts of her face and hands. I gently wiped them with my tunic.

     In a weak whisper, she said, “You never gave up on me?”

     “Never.”

     She sniffled. “Promise me you’ll be there to talk to me?”

     “I promise.”

     “I don’t know what’s going to happen now. But can you promise me that?”

     “Yes.”

     “Thank you.”

     I helped her to her feet. I stuck the dagger in my belt. We left the mirror there to be broken.

The Demon Within Chapter 20 Part 1

                                                   Balachandar

The world that used to be here.

     I followed the river like the succubus said. There was nothing much to bear except the wilderness of the cold. Even the succubi didn’t wander far out here. Here, the world was reduced to fields of ashy snow. Strangely, the cold lifted. I could neither feel it nor feel warmth. I was heading into some kind of void. I tore off the animal hides that hindered me to hustle. The skies had long since darkened, but now they swerved with misty lights. They became brighter as I followed the river even further down.

     When I reached the basin the succubus had told me about, the lights in the sky had become an orgasmic, almost blinding vision. Below me was a wide, empty depression in the ground as if something monstrous had lain there.

     And there … the river rose into the sky. I understood what Vincent and the succubus described. Whatever city or world that laid here once was in the sky. But the river remained the same. The river was the only thing that allowed one to trace the path to the sky. It had become a waterfall, with the falls crashing to the sky rather than the ground.

     Some ways down the river was an old boat tied to a stake. It bobbed gently as I hesitated getting on. A paddle was conveniently placed along the side. I untied the rope on the stake and held my breath, thinking the current would take me up violently. Instead, the boat hobbled along.

     I gripped tightly to the sides as the boat approached the waterfall. The boat slanted and lifted in the air. Gravity pushed me back in my seat. I thought it wouldn’t work and I would tumble out of the boat. However, nothing happened except a slight bump … and suddenly the world seemed to straighten itself. I rode along a flat surface even though I know I was riding up the waterfall at a vertical angle.

     The fantastic lights became more erratic; they flashed green and blue and then streaked with purple and red. I instinctively gripped the sides of the boat and closed my eyes. My stomach gave a lurch; I was afraid and nervous. The stars surrounded me in all their glory. I went as high as the Eternal Tower in Kazus. The lights spiraled into one point. The boat went forward at a rushing speed spraying up water. The waterfall stopped short with the crash of water. I felt gravity shift again. I cried out.

     I didn’t open my eyes until a while later when I knew the nauseating lightshow was over. Very gently. My eyelids fluttered.

     The world that used to be here.

     Balachandar.

     It hovered in the heavens all around me. Broken buildings, much like the ones I saw before where the succubi roamed, floated across space haphazardly. The colorful lights were gone. All that remained where the lights above me that were stars. The river still stretched out into nothingness, or at least into a place where I could not see. Aside from buildings, fountains and statues joined the floating parade. Ahead beyond the river I made out some land. With an excited breath, I checked my revolvers. I tossed aside the additional layers of clothing Vincent had given me. They floated into the air to be lost among the debris. My katana remained there at my side. I stood up ready to dismount.

     The boat stopped at a landing. I jumped over to the steps and watched dumbly as the boat made its long journey back to the surface.

     The sound of gentle, trickling water greeted me. I walked across the white marble floor of a heavenly city. A fountain lay at the center drawing in water from the river. The houses varied in size and height. No one seemed to be occupying any of them. Creepier yet, my footsteps echoed into space, as if I were inside a building. No one came out to neither greet me nor oppose me. I heard no other footsteps being echoed.

     I couldn’t imagine how Taliah lived here. The silence put me on edge, made me want to scream with its eternal grip. The supernovas and bright silent explosions high in the cosmos were looming reminders of something terrible.

     At last, I saw the spiral of the great castle. Every window was dark. The drawbridge was set down.

     I was expected.

     I ran to the doors after I noticed the lights on the ground floor, right where the ballroom should be.

     Get in, get her, get out. That was all I was going to do. I would save my bullets for dire circumstances, and instead cut down anyone in our way.

     The doors weren’t locked. I burst through shoulder first. A dozen memories came back to me. The foyer was empty. I ran through a corridor leading to the mezzanine. There, a delirious and eerie waltz emanated from the ballroom. The light underneath shone with a deadly glare.

     The dance could have been the same exact one. I wasn’t sure at first because it had to be impossible … but everything was exactly the same. Everybody was in masks again. I recognized the faces from last time as I passed by, and they were even in the same positions as last time. Even the bartender was the same. I slipped through as a ghost, the only one without a mask.

     The sights disoriented me. It was as if the past four or five years were nothing but a dream … and I really never left the dance floor. I had spent a good amount of time wasting away with my feet trying to find the exit but always danced around the answer.

     I wanted Taliah. Where was she?

     I turned to face more laughter.

     Something was going on near the far corner. The men were laughing more than usual. I saw them nudging aside brutishly, but everyone’s calm laughter indicated that it wasn’t a fight breaking out.

     Taliah then rose into the air, thrown by the arms of some drunken fool. I caught sight of her eyes, and she mine. Men took turns dancing with her, who slacked like a rag doll. They threw her from man to man, some rising in the air with her and laughing maniacally. She fell to the floor, exhausted, inebriated, and was forced to get up once more by another man.

     Her head lolled when he levitated her into the air once more with the snap of his fingers.

     I rammed through the people in front of me. The clatter turned into a raucous uproar and the music ceased, the pianist confused.

     Taliah fell into my arms. She was paler than the moon and much skinnier than last time. I dreamed of meeting her again as she was, and now I was holding her and she had the life drawn from her. She didn’t speak for some time, and only acknowledged my presence with a murmur. Then her head reeled back and she passed out.

     “What the …”

     I gripped her arms and felt wood, finely polished. Her arms were able to bend backwards unnaturally. She weighed no more than a few pounds. And then … strings. They came out of her and were strung tightly up to the ceiling.

     Her face froze in a lolling smile.

     “What mockery is this?”

     She was a puppet, a giant life-sized puppet. The second I realized this, a cold laugh echoed across the ballroom. Everybody clattered to the floor – all of them having been puppets the entire time.

     “CURSE YOU, SOFIA!” I called out, drawing my blade.

     The chandeliers swayed … and then their embers snuffed out. The moonlight stretched across the ballroom. There was nobody around except thousands of lifeless puppets. I sought for some grand puppeteer in the ceiling, but I saw no one. The strings led nowhere, yet were still held taut by some invisible force.

      Slowly, with my katana drawn, I backed away from the ballroom into the mezzanine.

     “ADDER!”

     The voice was unmistakably hers. I swerved to the far end of the mezzanine. A giant cloaked figure held her dangling underneath one arm. The figure shot me a look as if caught in the act of trying to escape.

     Taliah flailed. Before she could shout, her voice drowned out as the figure dashed into the hall and shut the door.  

     I was in pursuit and kicked the door down. The hallways were tight and winding. My rage lifted and made me confused, but somehow I honed in on her screams as they echoed from one hall to the next. I told myself to stay calm, but my hands burned through my blade’s hilt. I was going to kill someone for this.

     The next door had me staggering down several steps. The cold air greeted me once more.

     The courtyard.

     Everything there was the same – the thicket of deadly plants and the androgynous statue. Everything was an eerie silence. As I neared the plants I was ready to strike. None of them came out to grab me. The vines remained where they were.

     I ventured further into the narrow paths of the courtyard.

     The screaming had stopped and I had no idea where to search. I entered the hedgemazes with my blade drawn at the ready.

     I got lost no doubt. I couldn’t find anything to keep in my mind as a landmark. I hacked away at the plants to climb over the wall. A vine shrieked and whipped at me. I pulled back immediately and ran off.

     At last, I saw something up ahead. It shone. I had never been this far into the courtyard. Taliah and I didn’t have that much time that fateful night.

     I sheathed my sword when I reached the giant circular pool. I scanned the area for any sight of Taliah or her captor. I made my way around the pool thinking which path to choose from there on out. The water rippled. I stopped to peer through. I saw nothing except my haggard expression against a void. Upon closer consideration, I wondered why a pool that deep was around.

     A glimmer appeared far, far down. I squinted and leaned closer. This was a bad idea. But the glimmer opened up to brighten the pool.

     I reached out with my hand.

     “Stop.”

     I unsheathed my sword and swerved.

     “Ranulf,” I gasped.

     He was emerging from the hedgemaze looking down at the pool. I kept my guard up even though a part of me still wanted to believe he was my friend. He made no move to attack or confront me. He reached to the edge of the pool and peered over too.

     “How did you get here?” I asked.

     “Please. You didn’t think I knew the way? I’m surprised you actually made it.” He looked to the pool again. It was getting brighter. “Too bad we might not make it.”

     “What’s going on? Where’s Taliah? I hope you haven’t hurt her.”

     Ranulf shook his head. “My goal was never to hurt her. Let her die, yes, but not by my hand. She needs to pass on.”

     I tightened my grip. “To me, that’s as bad as killing her.”

     “I spent almost a lifetime holding back, Adder. I hid because I was afraid. She’s coming, you know. Lady Sofia. She saw you. I would suggest you stand back.”

     The ground trembled.

     Ranulf sighed. “I don’t quite know what the hell I’m doing here. I should have gone with you through the portal last time. I’m afraid of that ghastly mother, dammit. I’m afraid of saving Taliah. That’s why I was never good for her. But you? I didn’t know how I would break it to you once we got here together. Maybe I would have never told you. But luckily Jerrick did that for me. I was afraid of that too. You were going to find out at some point that you were never her first. Did it hurt, Adder?”

     The marble floor cracked.

     We waited for something ominous to emerge. At that point, I was ready for anything.

     “It smarts,” I said, “but the blade gets dull.”

     Ranulf stared. He turned to me. “It took you the man you are now to say that.”

     He lowered his scarf. The pool was almost blinding. I bent on my knees slightly thinking the growing quakes would topple me. Ranulf said, “Go. Go get her.”

     “Where?”

     “The room with the mirrors. It’s by the grand staircase. I’ll keep the bitch at bay.”

      A face emerged from the depths of the pool, a face as white and as pale as snow. Empty eye sockets glared at me. The face grew bigger as it swam towards the surface.

     Ranulf prepared a few embers at his fingertips. “Go!”

     A giant bony hand the size of a house shot out from the pool and clamped onto the surface, followed by another equally giant bony hand. Water splashed everywhere as a torn, scarred and eyeless face burst up high. It looked down and grinned.

     “RAAAAAAANNNNUULLFFFF LARRSSSSOONNNN!” Lady Sofia hissed.

     She breathed ice. Ranulf covered himself with an ethereal flame. The battle of the two elements began. I already was deep within the hedgemaze, hoping Lady Sofia hadn’t seen me. 

     The vines at last acted as they used to and tried to bar my path. I had the skill to cut them down this time.

     I covered myself from the stifling heat of Ranulf’s battle. The entire courtyard went into a flaming uproar. Every plant screeched with repent and tried to escape the flames. I leaped my way over to where the statue was, rolling into my fall and then bursting through the door.

     I didn’t need to look back; I heard the puppets clattering after me.

     The long corridor greeted me without any torches. But at the far end, two torches revealed a great big door.

     The puppets lagged behind. I eased into breathing regularly once I reached the door. I put my ear against it to hear anything. Silence. The doorknob was deathly cold.

     I turned it.

The Demon Within Chapter 19

The Women of the Mountain

     For about two miles I was consistently apprehensive. The valley out there was in a state of eternal damnation; I grew accustomed to the screams and cries. But every time something echoed I lied low, almost prone, and with my hand on my daggers thinking a demon would pounce me.

     Vincent’s clothes proved more than sufficient for the hike. I didn’t feel a single caress of the icy wind.

     The trail eventually branched off to the side into the mountain, and I could no longer see or hear the villages. The mountain walls began to close in, leaving me just enough room to squeeze through. Here, the wind gave a low whistle through the canyons. I became suffocated with tension; I didn’t like being unable to see where I was going. The path winded and descended. It was silent except for my breathing.

The passage then opened up suddenly, revealing an endless stretch of land below. I instantly knew this was the loneliest place in the world. I stood gazing upon beautiful emptiness.

The mountain path continued down to a destroyed city. The sun began to finally peek through, but its rays could not stir any life. Most of the city was buried in snow. Several of the tallest buildings leaned over with broken windows.

I hurried down. I slowed at a bridge over a wide, frozen river. The bridge too had been barraged by time. I had to hop over holes and shimmy along the sides.

The gate to the city once let people in through its great embrace. Now it was bent, crooked, and left open. It whined as I nudged it aside to make room for passing.

I stopped to look around … and breathed in the taste of true desolation. The wind continued to mourn the loss of the thousand-year old city. Its eulogy remained at a constant whine miles after I ventured through. The streets never seemed to end. Suddenly I knew I could lie there on the ground and never get up again. I could die there and no one would know no matter how many ages passed. At last, my feet would rest. At last, to sleep forever.

The world there had been frozen for so long. Buildings remained limp. They leaned over in a pile meshed in ice.

Scavenging was useless. Most of the houses were piled up with snow, and those that weren’t were torn beyond accessibility. The city couldn’t have been inhabited even if people tried to settle in again – the world had completely taken over it. It had become wilderness once more. They weren’t houses anymore, but aged and withered trees.

The sun glared but gave no warmth. It was the strangest sight. It sat there at the horizon for what felt like hours, taunting me to come closer but never getting to caress me. I could hardly see the road ahead of me.

The road widened. I must have been on the outskirts of the city by then.

Then I felt it – a shift in the air. During my entire trek through the city, the wind had remained a constant murmur. It suddenly picked up with an unnatural gust, soft at first, then strong enough to have the hills rolling with glittering snow.

I kept the revolver tight in both hands. I recalled the shrieking voices of the succubi that had circled those other towns. I remembered Vincent’s warning, about them smelling a virgin from miles away. In that naked stretch of land, I felt like the most vulnerable person in the world. A part of me was screaming to get out of the way. I retread back into the city, aiming the revolver everywhere. The fear was a trigger. The cold got to me; I shivered uncontrollably. Thoughts that I knew weren’t mine started to penetrate my mind.

Look at the virgin, look at the virgin.  

     I backed away from the higher buildings expecting something to jump down.

     The virgin - such easy prey.

The wind whistled a broken tune – something flew in the sky.

     “Adder…”

     I pointed the revolver to the voice. She came from the direction of the blinding sun sitting on the horizon. I couldn’t see who she was. She stepped forward very carefully, weak and humble. She hugged herself with that familiar frailty. My eyes saw, but my mind was blind. It took me more than a second to realize.

     I had truly forgotten.

     “Adder!”

     She came forward in a stumble, tired.

     When I held her, I was in her courtyard once more. Something made sense of my journey. That feeling. Being back to a time I ought to be in. Back then. Back then, everyone was a different person.

     “How did you … where …?” I choked up.

     “I escaped,” Taliah whispered. “I heard you were coming. So I took the liberty of saving some of the trip for you. Even if it was just a little bit.”

     The voices hissed through the air again. I held those intimate feelings for the moment to squeeze her hand and head back.

     “It’s not safe here. We have to go. Taliah, I saw your father! He can help us.”

     I pulled back. Taliah’s hand ripped from me – literally. I was gripping a cold hand with a dangling wrist. No blood came out – the flesh was too old for that.

     Taliah’s eyes became black holes. She chanted in a distorted voice, “Virgin … virgin … virgin … virgin.” Over and over. Her skin burned into a charred black and her screaming became laughter. I fired the revolver but should have known that no mere mortal weapon could hurt the fiend.

     The sky darkened. I looked up and shunned at the sight of a swarm of fiends just like her, all of them laughing and chanting and buzzing with hunger.

     “Run, little virgin, run!”

     I already did by the time the succubus finished. I thought of nothing while I ran except of the swarm behind me. I would have to fight them. There was no use in running through empty streets. Like trying to run from a hornet swarm. They would get me. Eventually. They flew in from every corner, every direction. They sprouted from the snow, shook themselves like dogs, and crawled on all fours towards me. Seeing that I had nowhere to run anymore, I whipped out my sword and began cutting off limbs. Blood spiraled in the air. I couldn’t even see any of the faces clearly; they all reached out with their hands wanting to grab me. My animal hides began to fall off, and I could feel the cold sting all over me, but the heat from my rage was enough to satisfy me.

     When a countless number of them lay around me decapitated and dismembered, they withdrew, huddled tightly. They stopped chanting and hissed at me.

     I remained in the center of the circle eying every one of them. I hastily wrapped myself in the animal hides again.

     They subsided in their chatter. They eyed me as cats do to birds, but there was something that prevented them from lunging. I hardly imagined that I brandishing my sword was the cause of their hesitation. They were going to talk to me.

     “You are the one who has wandered for years.”

     I swerved to the voice – it was the succubus who had attacked me first. The others had made way for her to walk through. Her misshapen, burned body slowly turned into a pure, heavenly being. It had been a farce. That face, blue-eyed and blond, was her true form. She walked naked completely unaffected by the freezing temperatures.

     “Tell me, Adder Baalum,” she began softly, “is this the first time you’ve seen a woman in all her natural beauty?”

     She stopped inches before me. Her head barely managed to pass my chin. She breathed on me heavily. She tried to make me squirm for her with her touch. Instead, my arms fell at their sides, despondent.

     “You’ve dedicated almost all your youth to one woman. I can see how it affects you. Something you once craved now no longer even stirs a thought.”

     She circled me. I suddenly noticed that the she-demons had all turned into naked women.

     “Do you even care anymore?”

      Everyone else waited on the edge for the answer. The winter wind shared my gloom.

     “I don’t know.”

     “We’ve conquered many foolish men. We plan on ridding the realm of all of them, but it is not without reason.” She rested her eyes darkly on mine. “Well-placed reason. Your friends will tell you how we seduced them and gave ourselves to them. But it was they who came looking for us, who abused us and played with us. Every one of them squealed whenever we approached. The virgins especially. You, however, are no squealer.”

     “I think I’m done being one.”

     “Have you no emotion? No reason to fight? Why scale these mountains for a woman you’ve lost interest in? Why suffer through years of being left behind?”

     In a swift second, the succubi turned into the faces of those at the academy. They all grinned at me.

     I gripped the revolver tightly itching for what to say. I tried to search back in my mind at what point I realized that Taliah would never be mine, that she remained only a fantasy. It could have been in the room with her previous lovers. A drifting thought that passed by through a sea of recollections. Possibly, it happened when I started making the journey on my own without Ranulf.

     She will never be yours.

     I hung my head down low. I was just a kid who looked into the mirror and liked what I saw. I thought I could do something different for once. I never thought there would be someone else, someone like Jerrick who was so close to saving her. What did that mean for me then? Nothing. Someone else got ahead of me in the race. What use had I left?

     Some ways away, through the mass of naked flesh, I spotted a long-withered garden. It was funny how the first sentiments I had before any of this happened – no sentiments – finally returned. I felt like dying in that place because for the first time I deeply admitted that I wanted something for myself that I couldn’t have. And I regretted every wasted, whining, dull moment when I was growing up. I wished that I could feel again. The wind blew again and it brought me back to the summer wind in my backyard. And in realizing the lack of sentiments, I found them finally. I closed my eyes to cry to myself. I thought about what they would think, but I shunned them, pushed them out of existence for that sweet infinite moment. I needed to land on my knees and cry.

     “I don’t know myself,” I grunted, finally answering. “I don’t blame her. I never did. Not once. I don’t care what you think of men.” I closed my eyes. “Please, I just want you to get out of my way so I can finish this. I made a promise to her.”

     Before I even realized, the succubi vanished, by some dark tantalizing magic. All of them vacated the area except for the naked blond who still stood in front of me.

     She bent down to whisper into my ear. “You seek a world that used to be here. Balachandar. Instead, you will find a wide basin. The only thing that remains in that basin is a lake that has ever diminished since that world vanished. In that lake is a boat. You will take it up the waterfall.”

     She inched away slowly ready to deliver something dark with her grin. “You may not want to be part of this fight. But believe me, if you get in our way, or damn Taliah to hell by your foolishness, we will devour you piece by piece.”

The Demon Within Chapter 18

PART 3: Shards

The First Man

The wind howled in such a way that one would wonder if phantoms were lurking in the night, and it reminded me of the first time I kissed a girl.

I long forgot her name. She was unworthy of remembrance. The night was quiet and cool, until a storm passed overhead and everyone shuffled from the woods into the house, laughing and playing.

She and I were the only ones outside still in the rain. I remembered I liked her, even somewhat remotely, due to her reclusive nature from the socialites. She had black hair - that was what I suddenly remembered. Yes, black hair, a little taller than most girls, wide set of eyes. She opened her mouth and drank the raindrops, giggling.

     I dove in for the kiss.

     It was horrendous. Her breath stank and she began to twist her tongue about too much. I hadn’t the slightest clue what in the world I was doing or why.

     But it was a funny memory.

     We kissed by the garden my mother tended. That garden never grew no matter how hard she tried. I was always forced to water its withering stems and nothing ever happened. Mother grumbled at everyone else’s garden while hers failed to grow.

     Maybe some things never end up growing.

     Maybe she placed them in the wrong soil, or they needed more sun, or less sun – plants were fastidious like that.

     I imagined their roots reaching out underneath the ground, ruling the earth without anyone ever knowing. They grew so long that they exploded from the ground and took control, even of me. I couldn’t move under the constricting forces of the roots. I knew I was dying, and so I instead recalled what it felt like to embrace Taliah.

     There she was, holding me. I caressed her back with my hands, breathing her in, and then noticed I could feel every bone in her body, her flesh rapidly diminishing. I pulled back to see her face, and instead the wide and toothy grin of a skull looked back at me.

     Bones.

     Everywhere.

     I jolted to life.

     Being beaten to the last thread of my life had left me in a state of shock. I thought I was still lying somewhere on the tundra. I was ready to moan and cry out at the fact that I didn’t die yet. But thankfully my senses didn’t scream. Everything was restored. I felt as though I could have woken up back home, back when everything was predictable.

     “More caves…” I grumbled in the darkness.

     Someone had bandaged me. The bandages stretched across my body and over my shoulders. Both of my hands were wrapped too. I slowly unwound them and saw that my wounds had mostly healed. All I had left were vague bruises and a couple scabs. My right hand was mended. I stretched it somehow not believing it. 

     I shifted between sheets of cotton and fur. I had been there for a very long time; I could tell by the amount of sweat and the body heat that rose. I must have been out for almost a day.

     I wasn’t sure at this point whether to move to stay, to be relieved that I had been saved or apprehensive about ending up somewhere unknown. Hope sprung suddenly – what if Ranulf had actually found me? The bastard must have been wrecked with guilt.

     But then I heard footsteps over the gravely ground, and I huddled deep under the covers pretending to be asleep. The thought of having a stranger lurk over my body put me on edge, but I was afraid to face them head on in the darkness. I wanted to sense their presence when they didn’t know I was awake; get an idea of how big they were or what they looked like as I peered with half an eye open.

     A man grumbled something to himself. He came closer and bent low to inspect me with a lantern. I made sure not to act perturbed by the light. His breath was heavy with age, that gruff man feeling.

     Without any further word, he left in the direction he came from – somewhere back in the cave. I could tell because of the faint, wintry wind whistling from the cave entrance on the opposite end, biting my toes unless I curled them.  

     I remained motionless there replaying the past few days. I had become a lone, naked traveler in the middle of nowhere. That was what the entire ordeal had come down to. No one even gave a word of encouragement anymore. I suddenly longed to see the bridge leading into Krestor Knolls. What was that innkeeper’s name again? Geoffrey. I even longed to see the familiar faces at the festival again.

     The closer I got to Taliah, the more people seemed to dislike me.

     Taliah told each of them about me. I wonder if she said how my weakness was my inability to stand up to my own parents. I wonder if she said how much of a coward I was. I wonder if she criticized me in any way, and that made me feel so much more vulnerable.

     I got up. I had ground to cover, and fast.

     In the depths of the cave, a bluish glow began to appear. The deeper I ventured, the brighter it got. The passage cut into a wide chamber full of blue icy water. The glow reflected off hundreds of crystals and diamonds embedded into the walls and ceiling of the cave. The glow was quite disorienting. I might have still been sick, for I felt dizzy.

     The older man sat cross-legged at the edge of the water. He had already heard me come in, and so he stood up slowly and faced me.

     He wasn’t as old as I thought he’d be, nor gruff. He was tall and lean, giving off the impression of a teacher with his hands behind his back. His clothes were once meant to dazzle, but they now limped over his body.

     His voice didn’t match his body. The voice that came out was like a god’s – strong and demanding.

     “Welcome to the Edge of the Realm, Adder Baalum.”

     I walked around dumbly, still blinded by the blue pond. I asked hastily, “How do you know my name?”

     “Use your instinct, Adder. It’s very improbable that a complete stranger can find you like that and save your life. I’m no stranger to you, at least not entirely.”

     I blinked my eyes several times. I had never seen this man before. I flipped through pages and pages of people’s faces in my mind. Some bystander Ranulf and I met along the road? That was the only vague idea that made sense, but at the same it time didn’t, since he obviously wasn’t important enough for me to remember.

     But something did feel awfully familiar. If I never saw him, then I had imagined him somehow in the past through descriptions.

     Then it became obvious.

     “You’re Taliah’s father.”

     He didn’t applaud or give any kind of heartfelt chuckle. “I felt a terribly lonesome and pained presence in my land. That was how I found you. I rule over this part of Boreal, guarding over thousands and thousands of men.”

     He nodded towards the water. It was clear with soft ripples, and then things started to take shape. I saw images all across Boreal. The dreaded tundra that I was lost in, Jerrick’s fortress, even Talim.

     “Men?” I asked.

     “All those lovers who fell as prey to Lady Sofia and her succubi. Those lovers who were lucky enough to escape at least. And they want vengeance.”

     My chest swelled at the thought. The expanse of how long this had been going on frightened me, and deepened my emotions. My heart was stepped on. “Are you saying there’s more?”

     “Yes, many more. They live in these mountains with nowhere else to go. Most of them had been entranced for so long that when they finally escaped years had long gone. And they realized with horror how tightly their obsession had held them. I was none other than the first who fell to Lady Sofia’s desires. My name is Vincent.”

     “How did you know who I was though?”

     “Word gets around quickly. I heard about where you lived. How far you came. Your companion. Those you met along the way. And now you’re here. You’ve come far, Adder, too far to turn back now. It’s the only thing that prevents you from quitting, even though you know in your heart that you were tricked, you wish to see her for yourself.”

     I imagined a flash of her childish smile.

     Vincent said, “You haven’t seen her in so long. You almost forget what she sounds like, or how her eyes glow.” He sighed. “I even sometimes forget she’s my daughter.”

     He came closer to me. “The road will only get harsher from here on out. Lady Sofia’s minions have scoured the mountains of Boreal, kidnapping the men, transforming the women. I apologize for telling you now that you weren’t special. She used them just as she used you.”

     “Stop it.”

     “Soon, Jerrick will arrive, and my men and I will go with them. We will go and slay them. But I won’t stop you, Adder. I will do my best to delay Jerrick. I want my daughter back.”

     I brightened up but he didn’t encourage the emotion any further. He took my by the arm and led me toward the entrance to the cave.

     “I will equip you with the necessary weapons and tools to scale the mountains.”

     “But—Vincent—er—sir—where do I go? Where does Taliah even live?”

     The Edge of the Realm hissed its deathly breath. I cried out and pulled the sheets around me tighter, then backed away. The world before me exploded with snow. I couldn’t see the world below. Instead I focused on a mass of black clouds – smoke – rising from a furnace. I then realized that there were more fiery spots like that scattered around breaking through the heavy obscurity of the endless blizzard.

     “What are those?”

     “Destroyed villages, ravaged by Lady Sofia. Look there.”

     He pointed towards a large flaming mass. It wasn’t a building.

     “The airship,” I gasped.

     “That will hinder their advance already. It seems the Prince of Kazus underestimated their power.”

     Vincent turned to an alcove to get something. I remained standing gazing out at what I was about to journey into. I heard far off shrieks and thought they were villagers screaming. The voices were too deranged though. And then I saw black figures with wings whizzing around the sky, weaving in and out of the smoke.

     I couldn’t do this – that was my initial thought. I trembled at every hideous cry picturing what a succubus might look up close – disfigured and demonic – as I had imagined many such things as a kid when reading stories.

     Vincent broke my tension. “Here. There’s a lot to put on, I know. But it’s the only way to survive.”

     He gave me tunics to wear layered over each other, and then helped me put on a nearly massive coat made from animal hides. The trousers were heavy too, and I bundled my feet into a pair of furry boots. Lastly, I covered my entire head with cloth except the eyes. Fortunately, I had easy access to my katana. He strung a belt around me with a holster and daggers.

     The second he handed me a revolver, he added firmly, “And use that with both hands next time.”

     I grinned sheepishly.

 As this entire procedure went about, I thought about what lay ahead of me. His silence during it all made me more worried. He wasn’t a man who comforted you falsely. If he knew something was going to be hard, he didn’t soften you up with encouragement. Maybe he wasn’t always like that. His eyes were heavy with many years of staring at nothing, of not seeing Taliah, the one person he probably still loved I knew he loved her, actually, that was why he was sending me off well protected. He still had faith in her, as I had too. He didn’t want to bear the truth of what he and his men and Jerrick’s men would do. I was his only chance of ever getting his daughter back, though he never told me. I knew all this in the silent, tense moments of me gearing up. He was essentially sending me on a mission. He gave me several tools to use should I ever need to scale the mountain. He crisply instructed me on how to use the hooks and the harness.

     When at last I was ready, we looked at each other for a while, and I felt as though I had known him for longer than the minutes we shared. He took good care of me in such a short time - that was it.

     That was why Taliah loved him.

     “I said this would be hard,” said Vincent, “but for you it will be especially hard.”

     “Why me?”

     “Don’t listen to them, whatever you do. Those flying banshees, the succubi. They swallow all men, but they are most sensitive to one who has never been touched. A virgin.”

     I sighed glumly. Vincent nudged me and said sternly, “Look at me. Don’t feel bad about that. Never feel bad about that. The loss of innocence isn’t what makes you become a man or a woman.”

     “What then? Please, tell me.” I myself was surprised by how pitifully I begged for the answer.

     Vincent ignored it entirely. He glanced outside. “There is only one road. You turn right from this cave and your destination is about three days away. You will know when you reached the path to Balachandar when you climb over a small wall of rocks and find an empty wide basin. That is where a great city used to be. Instead, all that there will be is a pool, much like the one in this cave. There is a boat with an oar, as well as a waterfall. You must row up the waterfall yourself, and whatever you do, do not get off until you reach the city.”

     “I don’t understand, sir. A waterfall?”

     Vincent nodded. “You will understand when you get there, Adder. This is the very edge of the known realm. They don’t call it that for nothing.”

     We swallowed a hard moment not saying anything. He said gruffly, “Like I said, I will buy as much time as I can for you.”

     I wasn’t sure how to leave. Something bit at my mind.

     “Sir … Vincent?”

     “Yes?”

     “What happened between you and Lady Sofia?”

     He eyed me heavily. “How much do you already know?”

     “She told me that you betrayed her. That the reason why she became a succubus was out of revenge.”

     Vincent didn’t respond for a while. He seemed to scowl on the inside. “Such is how a woman would put it.”

     He didn’t say anything further. He was irritated. I felt like I should leave, but I wanted to know more. This was a valuable source. “How many people has Taliah killed?”

     Vincent pinned me against the wall. I panicked. He growled, “You think my daughter a murderer? You really think she would do as her mother had told her to do?”

     “No—I’m—I’m sorry, I just—I don’t know.”

     “Taliah hasn’t swallowed anyone’s soul. She hasn’t gone that far. She’s always slept with many men but in the end could never go through with it. So Lady Sofia punishes her endlessly every night.”

     He backed away. A wave of relief came over me. I said to myself, “So there is good in her. I knew it.” I closed my eyes embracing the fact that Jerrick was wrong.

     “Would you have done otherwise if the truth was something else? What if she did kill someone?”

     “I … well …”

     “Have you ever asked yourself, Adder, at what point would you stop loving someone? Would you continue to coddle them and treat them well even if they may never return those sentiments? Have you ever, ever wondered what you could possibly bear to endure? Take a bullet? Endure any and every kind of torture? At what point would I let her stop being my daughter?”

     The thoughts were too heavy to think of in one moment. “I … uh …”

     “If you can’t prepare yourself, then maybe I should send someone else.”

     This was a bad time. I knew I should stop talking and get on.

     He stood solemn. He dismissed me with his hand. The trail along the mountain was rough and winding. The blizzard blinded most of what lay ahead, so I paused to take in what little feet I could scrutinize. I glanced back to nod Vincent off a final time. He didn’t respond. He crept back into the cave, and for that moment I saw him as a sickly, skeletal old man who had been buried away for years.

The Demon Within Part 2 Inspiration

The Demon Within Chapter 17

                                          The Fortress of Men

I woke up early in the morning. Everything was sore, especially my abdomen. Droll had rolled from my mouth and dried up on my sleeve. My right hand was wrapped tightly in bandages and a cast. I barely had feeling in it. What confused me was the floor. Flat stone. Everywhere. A deathly chill breathed into the cell from a barred window; that was what woke me up.

     “What the …” I murmured.

     I ignored every pain in my body to crawl over to the window.

     Jerrick imprisoned me in some kind of fortress high up in the mountains. I looked out at the monstrous view of a snowy valley. It was a death drop from the window.

     “Damn.”

     I leaned my head against the window. This was where my frustration sent me. Frustration - the child of rage and sadness. It took hold of me again as I growled uncontrollably and shook the bars. A sudden jolt of pain from my broken wrist made me cry out.

     “Shut up in there!” yelled someone down the hallway.

       I pressed my face against the bars to see the hallway. I was at the far end. To my right there was a dead end. To the left there were other cells down the hall too but it didn’t seem like anyone else was taken captive.

     “Why am I always the only one?” I grumbled to myself. I then shouted, “Hey! Hey! Where am I?”

     The guard didn’t answer. He lay back in his chair at his post comfortably reading. I repeated the question, much louder this time.

     “You’re in Boreal,” the guard replied lazily.

     “Oh, very funny. You’re so funny. You’re funnier than the Fire Magician himself!”

     “Hey!” he barked without looking up from his book. “One more word out of you and I’ll have to beat you.”

     I puffed up my chest. I bellowed, “WHERE. AM. I? CAN YOU PLEASE TELL ME?”

     The guard rose calmly after leaving his book alone. When he arrived at my cell, he thrust the butt of his rifle in my face. I fell backwards. The guard walked off muttering, “Apeman.”

     I wiped the blood off my lips. This was getting me nowhere of course, but I had my moment of expelling my frustration on someone. I rested against the wall muttering over my fate. Minutes later, the guard gave me a dish of food through the bars. The food consisted of bread, cheese and a glass of milk. I finished the meal by the time Ranulf appeared.

     I shot to my feet.

     “Ranulf.”

     Here was where he was going to tell me that all of this was some trick up his sleeve. Everything would be all right now. He would grab the bars and melt them with his fiery magic and we’d make a run for it.

     “How are you holding up?” he asked lowly.

     I gestured towards the empty plate. “How do you think?” In his silence, I came close and hissed, “Ranulf. Come on. Get me out of here.”

     Ranulf hadn’t been looking at me. He was straightening his cloak and dusting off his shoulders. “I don’t think that would be in my best interest.”

     “Ranulf, what happened to you? Come on! What happened? I don’t understand. We were fine in Talim. We were doing well until we ran into these apes.”

      “I was losing faith, kid,” he snapped. He opened his mouth but closed it, thinking of the right words. “It was … fun while it lasted but this is becoming an obsession. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

     “So what are you going to do? You’re just going to stand with them and watch them destroy Balachandar with Taliah in it?”

     Ranulf said nothing further. He turned to leave. This wasn’t him at all. There had to be some edge for him, some secret trick. He was up to something, I knew it.

     I shouted across the hallway before he touched the door, “You just want her for yourself!”

     The guard glanced up at Ranulf when I said this. Ranulf paused. He turned around and hustled towards my cell. He grabbed my tunic and pulled me towards him.

     “I was her friend. I am her friend. I will always be her friend. I will stand by her side no matter what. Even if that means being on the side of soul-sucking succubi. I’ll probably be doing the world a favor by ridding the realm of silly boys like Jerrick and Stefan and Jaspar. I’m warning you. You’re getting very close to being one.”

     “So you do want her for yourself.”

     “I never said that. You don’t listen, dammit!” He shook me. “You never listen. You have to let go of the fact that you weren’t her first. You weren’t her first kiss. You weren’t her first love. You should have understood the fact that you may never have been her last either. She clearly doesn’t want you anymore. You have to let go, Adder.”

     “You’re not letting go either.”

     He pulled me harder with both hands. He glanced to see if the guard noticed the heated argument. “The difference is I’m on this side of the bars.”

      He shoved me off and left. I sat down in my dingy cell. I thought over the ways to feign stomach aches and other pains, but I figured prison guards would be accustomed to such tactics. I had to think of something very convincing. But those thoughts quickly spiraled into fantasies, into what I would do to Jerrick if I had my hands on him, or Jaspar or Stefan.

     If frustration is the child of rage and sadness, then insanity must be the uncle of frustration that grants many presents. Go home. Go home, they said. Go listen to Mommy and Daddy again. I did nothing but waste their time. I was nothing but an annoying fly. They put me there like a child needing some time alone. I kicked the bars thinking about it.

     Someone entered the hallway. Jerrick appeared this time. I was huddled in the corner embracing my contempt for everybody.

     He said, “Guard mentioned you were a little … abrasive.”

     “What are you going to do with me?”

     “You’re going to stay here until you cooperate.”

     “What if I don’t want to cooperate?”

     “We’ll kick you out to somewhere dark and dangerous in the middle of nowhere. You wouldn’t want that now, would you?”

     I didn’t reply. He left, but I asked, “What are your plans for Balachandar now?”

     He answered with a scoff. “Do you really think I’m going to tell you?”

     I heard him walk down the hallway when the door opened again. I heard other footsteps and other voices. I crawled over to the bars to listen. It was Jaspar and Stefan. They asked how I was and what they were going to do with me. Jerrick repeated what he told me. They conversed some more on other topics.

     Stefan asked, “I don’t understand why we don’t dispose of him.”

      Jerrick then said, “We must keep our image, dear wizard. As much as I’d like to as well, it’s not right. Instead, he’ll do it himself, trust me. I think he should waste himself by jumping out the window.”

     They laughed together and left the jail.

     I lay there on the floor holding onto that last comment. The amount of hate against me fell hard. Not even that, the amount of struggle. My parents were alone and broken back in Krestor Knolls. My one traveling partner harbored a hidden agenda. But even at the academy where I raised no revolver to anyone or didn’t have any conflict with anyone, I was met with snickers. I myself wasn’t even sure anymore if I truly was a pathetic little boy. All I wanted at that moment was to see Taliah and understand her actions. I wanted to be there in my room talking to her again like none of this had ever happened. Maybe that was the mistake – wanting to get close to something I knew I could never have.

     I cried for the remainder of that night. The guard didn’t mind. I remained in that cell for another day. They fed me heavier pieces of food, like chicken and beef. I had nothing to comfort my body, just the cold hard floor. I had to think of something or else I knew I was going to lose my mind.

     I had absolutely nothing but my clothes. Nothing in the cell could help me. None of the bars had any imperfections that I could take advantage of. There were no secret passages or loose cobblestones. There was nothing I could do with the window.

     I just had my clothes and a broken right hand.

     I played with the bandage.

     The wound still had some fresh blood behind the layers.

     I thought hard … eventually looking over to my left wrist.

     I cringed as I moved the splint aside a bit in order to take dabs of the blood. I would be risking infection. I transferred those dabs to my right fingers and smeared a line across my left wrist. When I was satisfied with the presentation, I situated myself sitting against the wall so that from the guard’s point of view he would see only my left arm plopped on the floor as if lifeless. My right arm would be vaguely visible, and I would pretend as if I held a very small sharp object between my thumb and index finger.

     When the guard came to present supper, I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

     I heard his footsteps halt when he came to the cell. He put the plate on the floor and murmured with intrigue. The jingle of the keys was the most glorious sound I heard at the moment. I tried hard not to swallow, not to move even a centimeter until he was right in my face.

     He bent low to inspect me. He then reached for my pulse at my throat.

     That was when I opened my eyes and smacked my forehead against his nose. It cracked like wood. He keeled over groaning. I then kicked him in the groin on the ground. I viciously beat him all over with my kicks until I was sure it would take him a while to speak or get up.

     I stripped him of his rifle and hesitated. I wouldn’t kill him. No, this was all a fool’s game. Nobody should have to die in a foolish matter.

     My heart pounded.

     I checked the doors for any sign of my belongings. Most of the rooms were solitary confinements - cells without windows. Finally, I found the room where they placed my rucksack, jacket, katana and boots. It was a stockroom with some miscellaneous equipment, but the useful things where the animal hides, matches and jars of food.

     The guard’s moan carried down the hallway.

     I slung the rifle over my shoulder. I didn’t know how to use one, and I would probably fail at shooting others without wanting to kill them. I took it anyway for hunting. I could still theoretically fight with the katana. My right hand was only used to guide the movements of the sword. All the force in the strokes came from the left arm.

     I hurried out into the next hallway before the guard could find the strength to pursue me. By the door were several chairs. I put one up against the door handle. I already didn’t like this fortress – it was winding and dark and cold. I had no idea where to go but I went where my instincts told me. I figured the fortress had some long stairwell that led down into the mountain into the cave.

     I walked down the steps of a wide room. Another set of stairs led down to the left. But I spotted the oncoming shadows of soldiers coming up. I hurried backwards to find another route. I passed by the jail room door. The door handle struggled furiously. The guard banged and shouted. I went down the other end of the hallway. I was closing in on the corner when I heard footsteps behind me. They were hurrying on towards the jail door. I was too far away in the dark to be noticed instantly. The minute they opened the door and let the guard free, I bolted.

     They called out warning everyone. Their voices echoed in and around the fortress walls. The sounds were disorienting. I couldn’t tell who was going to come out of where or what direction the voices were coming from. But when I heard the crack of gunfire I knew at least someone had seen me. I ducked and continued running.

     I discovered a stairwell leading up. I could find an exit out through the roof or some kind of balcony. I hoped I could find a way through the mountain; some kind of pass.

     The biting wind swept from the next set of stairs going up. The wooden door wasn’t enough to hold back Boreal. I kicked it open. Indeed, it was the roof of the fortress. The snow had calmed at last, but the winds kept bursting. I tightened the hides around me.

     At the second crack of rifles, I ran again. I almost fell off the edge into oblivion thinking there was a way down. I followed the perimeter of the roof to find one. Three soldiers had chased me upstairs and continued to shoot at me.

     Ranulf was right – they had to run out of ammunition at some point. When they did, they drew their smallswords and charged.

     When I unsheathed my katana they stood back abashed. They weren’t sure how to approach someone with a katana. I grinned in reply to their surprise.

     The first soldier gave a thrust. I disarmed him in one swirl while shaking his nerves with a battle cry. I sent him running back inside. The other two continued to engage. I also sent them back with energetic cries, this time with grazed hands.

     I returned to seeking an exit.

     “Adder!”

     “Damn it!” I cried aloud, ready to strike whoever it was.

     Jerrick approached with his own sword, followed by Jaspar, Stefan and Ranulf. Ranulf was the only one who didn’t brandish anything at me. Jerrick said in surprise, “I didn’t know you fought like those from across the sea.”

     “Only taught from the best,” Ranulf said, but no one else seemed to pay attention.

     I prepared my katana as they circled me. Jerrick tried to put some sense into me. “Come, Adder, you’ve done nothing wrong. Let’s stop this foolishness and send you home.”

     “Why don’t you tell me to fall of the cliff?” And I leaped forward with a strike for his hands. Jerrick blocked it and forced me back. Jaspar and Stefan lunged too with their swords, but they clashed with each other clumsily. I sent them all back with one swing.

     “You all want her for yourself. Admit it!” I yelled. “Don’t act like none of you have thought about it!”
     Jerrick fought back vigorously. The other two hesitated at what I had just said. All of us, however, suddenly turned to Ranulf. He had run off like a scoundrel towards the door in the midst of our quarrel.

I raised my brow. “See?”

     Jerrick scowled, “Get him.”

     “On second thought…” Jaspar threatened him with his sword. Jerrick glared with intensity. “What? Are you seriously considering turning against me? Against everything we’ve been doing?”

     “What if I already have?” Jaspar’s eyes danced with his pride. “I mean, in the end of it all, I do own my own country, and my own airship.”

     “You idiot!” Jerrick hissed.

     Stefan meanwhile was going after Ranulf. Those two proceeded to duel once Ranulf whipped out a rapier. With Jerrick and Jaspar going at it, I finally had my chance to escape. I discovered a way out on the other side of the roof. The edge of the mountain was within a jump’s length away, and from there a path led down.

     “Apprehend him you fools!” Jerrick shouted.

     I turned to see the outcome of the duels. They had managed to work together to disarm Ranulf. They had him at the edge of the roof where a jump could last forever. I tensed.

     Ranulf looked at me, then to them. He said, “You really think you’re going to tie up the one and only Fire Magician?”

     He winked and jumped off the ledge.

     “RANULF!” I cried.

     I saw his red speck fall down into the white abyss. His robes fluttered like the flames of a phoenix. He disappeared within that whiteness. I couldn’t ponder over his fate for long. I was sure he knew what he was doing. The three suitors still fought amongst themselves with their swords drawn. I jumped off the edge and tumbled into the snow, not without inflicting pain upon my wounds.

     Some soldiers on the balcony tried to pick me off. I too disappeared within the whiteness of the mountain.

     The snow became thick to run through. My thighs quickly felt numb. The trail continued to descend the mountain until I was back on the ground.

     So I ran on.

 I ran on through the snowy haze where hardly a soul had ventured for eons, into the dark and cold world that was Boreal. The mountains widened to reveal the clear tundra. The sun lingered for hours longer than anywhere else, but its rays were unable to warm anything. The sun wavered there far off as a reminder of a hope that was once bright.

     In the days that followed walking along barren wasteland, I became sick. An unnatural warmth spread across my body and I coughed violently. I had gotten infected. I took a peek through the bandages and saw that my skin had turned black.

     I could hardly speak without coughing or feeling pain. “Cursed … realm,” I murmured, vainly trying to hold back my coughs.

     I collapsed. I didn’t think I would be able to go further. I coughed until my chest burned. I couldn’t last a couple minutes without doing so.

     I clenched my left hand and banged it against the ground. I let out a cry for all of Boreal to hear. I would never get to see Taliah. I would die there alone and the snow would cover up my remains.

     My illness took over me to the point where I couldn’t walk any further. I couldn’t sustain my coughs any longer. It hurt so much to breathe. I could only take shallow breaths. I lay on the ground hugging my knees and clasping my hands together tightly.

     I closed my eyes and meditated. If I were to die, it would be in peace.