Orphan-refugee Sigrun's 'pixies' have enemies; guilt and blame bedevil her adventures.
|"Really, why are you doing this?"
"It's my duty."
What do devils know of "duty" or "honor?" Vivianca's duty put a trap around Sigrun, one that slithered around her even as she rolled her eyes and shook her head at Vivianca's words. Yet holding the apple in her hands put Vivianca's vulnerable heart—to the extent the sultry devil had anything like that—completely at Sigrun's mercy. She breathed a surrender. "Very well, call it duty if that suits your story."
Sigrun's eyes burned and watered as she beheld this fruit, that would blind her to everything that makes life worthwhile. Let this menace poison her soul, if that allowed her to fight for that poor, helpless little girl. She bit into the apple. As her teeth cut into the bitter red skin, the apple popped, leaving only a dusty violet smoke that caked her nose in darkness and flowed into her belly and lungs, drowning her for a second.
As the blackening dust rolled over her eyes for a moment, a river of burning smoke within buoyed her, burned away the dark spots and made her feel unnaturally clean and light. Her stomach lurched and she stumbled. From a thousand feet away, the cobblestones rushed toward her hands and face, though her feet never left the earth as she fell to her knees. The sun in this new pit revealed ugliness she had never seen. She felt banished, cast out into a world more evil than she had ever imagined, one deserving of destruction and punishment. "No! That was not the deal. I can't be damned yet. The girl still needs me."
She had fallen, not to hell but to earth, the world that Vivianca saw. Her lips curled in contempt.
"I do not like this." Sigrun sneered at the place Vivianca had hovered. In fact, she had swallowed the entire devil-spirit with the apple. "Too much like Korog's demon. Even as a newly made orphan I refused this."
She waited for Vivianca to taunt her again, remind her that she had not refused this time. Only the creak of the dreadful windmill answered. Vivianca would say that vengeance belonged in the life of a mud-spark like Sigrun, and Sigrun never questioned the phrase.
Sigrun strode into the dungeon tower. She smiled down with affection at Oliver and Perrin. Her friends had not been seriously injured, but only subdued by the slug-demon's magic. Despite the bruises and minor bleeding, the boy and the pig would be safe enough until after she achieved her mission, no matter how betrayed they would feel. As she continued up the tower, Sigrun squelched the urge to slap them failing her; there would be time to take them to task later. Each stair seemed unnecessarily steep and hateful, as though she should be allowed to fly. Finally she shoved aside the door.
"Took you long enough." Lorelei lay manacled to a table, with a dagger sitting behind her, and a star drawn in the floor.
Sigrun noted that the star had seven points, appropriate for summoning but useless for trapping a demon. She did not consider how she knew such a thing. "Idiots!"
The little girl stuck her tongue at Sigrun.
Sigrun looked at the little witch, wondering if the girl's father had sold her to the slug-demon, or if she herself had dabbled in things best left to other people. All she knew for sure, the spirit before her had cast many spells in her life, despite her apparent young age. "I have half a mind to leave you there."
"Wait, what? After selling your soul to save me, you are going to just leave me here?" The little girl's cocky glare defied her to do it.
Sigrun urged herself to do just that, turn around and get herself out without touching the demon-infested ingrate. Surely she deserves better than this, no matter her insolence. Sigrun, bereft of her moral sense of smell, had to honor the commitments she had made before tasting the soul of Vivianca.
"Lucky for you, I'm a disciplined person." Sigrun fumbled in the drawer, found a rusty iron key that left red dust all over her otherwise clean hands.
"No! Don't take her!" The gigantic slug-bottomed demon crawled up the stairs. "Don't take my body!"
"This body doesn't belong to you," Sigrun said. "Back to your prison, rampant!"
"Don't understand! My father is looking for me," the demon roared. "I need that body or he won't recognize me."
"That's your problem." Sigrun pulled her sword.
She struck the sword deep into the heart of the demon, but neither the blade nor its holiness made any dent in the slug-flesh. "You can't hurt me, but please don't take my body! I nee--eed it."
"You'll have to suffer." Sigrun stepped past the monster.
"I want my mommy. I want my daddy. Please help me!"
Sigrun grabbed the little girl by the collar, who made a point of sticking her nose out at the slug-demon, and dragged her out of the room.
"Is this how you usually treat people you rescue? Good thing you don't care for rewards." They ran down the flight of stairs.
"No. Is this how you usually treat people who help you?"
A ghostly voice called from behind her. "Sigrun, this is your last chance!"
She looked back to see the image of her beloved uncle Mack, shaking her head at her. He called to her from behind a cloud of purple-black smoke. "Don't go out of this place with that girl's body. She will never be able to return if you cross the threshold."
A tear came in her eye, but she ignored it. Mack might say such a thing, but she could no longer tell. "Don't think I don't know how you devils can switch masks at will." Sigrun ran faster.
The little girl made a rude gesture at Uncle Mack as they ran further down.
"Aren't you afraid he's telling the truth, Sigrun? You don't look so good."
The little girl could not stop baiting, for what reason Sigrun could not guess. She dropped her jaw a bit as they reached the doorway, and shook her head. "No, just out of sorts. The sooner I get this devil out of my lungs the faster I will feel like a normal soul again."
"Yes, that's right. Tell yourself that, young one," the little girl cooed.
Sigrun shot the girl a questioning look. Perhaps that devil really was Mack, and she should collect her friends and leave the girl.
"What, that's what my mommy always tells me. Will you take me to my Daddy?"
Sigrun nodded, and continued onward, out of the tower, ignoring the sound of the demon's screams for "Mommy! Daddy!"
"That's one petulant demon you just left there." Sigrun loaded the girl onto the wagon. She looked back at her friends, trying to feel what she normally would do. They were hardy people, even the bookish boy Oliver. They wouldn't want her to forsake her mission, and she could not shake the sense that they should be punished, put in their place. "Let's go see your father; see about that reward."
None of the things that mattered to Sigrun got past the wall of logic in her head. She knew a thousand things she could say to each of them, to soothe their wounded egos and make everything better. They would heal just as well in an hour as this moment, and the slug demon had no reason to attack them.
She drove the few minutes to Lorelei's home, a busted down cottage that had been uninhabited for some time.
"Ellie? Is that you? Were we successful?" Erick smiled at the sight of the little girl. He had forgotten her name.
Sigrun pulled to a stop, and the girl ran to her father, and hugged him.
Then she grabbed the dagger from his belt, and they turned on Sigrun as a team. "Drop your sword, little girlie. You might win a few moments to live."
"What is the meaning of this?" Sigrun pulled her sword.
"You've been snookered, imbecile," the little girl said. "That demon was MY body. I took this one for the fun of it. My lover T!Quara planned this whole thing. Although without Vivianca's help, it would have failed terribly. Isn't that right, 'Daddy?'" She looked at Erick's body.
T!Quara nodded. "Everybody always got knocked out when they came to rescue her. We figured eventually there would come a bleeding-heart of your caliber, but we figured this body would be old and gray before that happened. Lucky we were wrong."
Sigrun frowned in disgust. "I am going to destroy you. Send you back. Whatever."
"Oh, you're going to try." Lorelei danced, clapped, and licked her lips. "I wouldn't worry for us. You haven't got your nasty paladin power."
Sigrun's chin fell as she considered. "You're right, I have cut myself off from the power of Those who watch over me." She raised her sword.
"Without Them, this sword is mere steel. Worthless against you." She threw it aside, and walked up to the little girl, caressing her cheek. "Guess I have to throw myself on your tender mercies."
The little girl grinned and giggled. "We have none."
"That's okay." Vivianca stepped out of her, and took their souls in her hands, gripped them about the throats. "We weren't talking to you."
The two souls fit nicely into Vivianca's hands once she ripped them from their hiding spot. "You know, the victims won't live. This is death, ripping the spirits from their bodies."
Sigrun nodded. "They are undead. These two desecrated these bodies, but now at least, they have peace." She shed a tear, and looked about, as if for a place to bury them.
"I could help you cope with the grief, as well, my friend."
Her hands shook as she retrieved the cold, lifeless sword, and realized how her mistakes had changed her. "We are never that." Sigrun wiped the tear away.
From behind, Vivianca tapped Sigrun on the shoulder. "We have more pressing issues, my friend."
"I have ended two lives, and I no longer know right from wrong. How could anything be more press —"
"You could have us destroy anybody who threatens your friends, assuming they still live. Just designate an innocent. Not you, you are culpable."
"So that's how it works, eh?" Sigrun ran to the horse and jumped on, with the wagon dragging behind. "I'll take my chances."
"There would be a mitigating option," Vivianca said, floating beside the horse as if it were not moving. "Designate one of the people you wish to protect."
"It would be a great option. We would only act in the event that one of them were going to die, take the life of your intended victim and deliver the other to safety."
"I think I'll take the high road, and decline all your help."
"Naturally. Pride is the sin closest to who you truly are—for indeed, why would any person work so hard to be good if she did not feel pride?"
"I don't feel anything, just numb." Sigrun urged her horse onward. "Is that what you've done to me?"
"What we have done, is removed a veil. Your mind cannot deal yet with the glaring light of truth. In time, you will..."
Sigrun cut her off with a look.
Vivianca smirked at that. "We could—if you would designate a name, someone worthy yet undeserving of destruction—make it seem as if you knew our help would arrive. For you, I will even send your emissaries in robes of white."
Sigrun glared at Vivianca, and urged the horse faster. "Do you ever fall silent?"
"There is a time when you need me to speak. At that moment, I will hold the peace."
A wave of disgust bathed Sigrun, drowned the sun and soaked the earth..
"Don't be like that. My presence honors you. Rare are the heroes I choose to see my face."
Perrin hobbled out of the windmill, supporting Oliver who could barely hold himself up with both hands.
Sigrun jumped off the horse. "I'm so sorry." She ran to them, and looked over their wounds. Each one bit deep into her, as though it had happened to her.
Oliver rushed to her, and threw his arms around her. "I'm so glad you're okay."
Perrin oinked, as always unreadable. "Yes, you are mysteriously not bleeding in the depths of our enemy's home."
Oliver pushed her away. "That's right. You advanced upon..." His lips wiggled, as he struggled not to cry.
"Must have been some battle, to draw her off."
"I did not know what I was doing." She clapped her hand over her mouth. "Forget I said that. I chose to go after the rescue. I don't know why I did it and I am..."
She forced herself to look at them. "...sorry, that I didn't help you right away."
"You look like the wrong end of an battleaxe throwing contest." Perrin slapped his hands together. "Right now I'm sure you feel almost as bad as you deserve."
Oliver sat shivering on the gnarled edge of a stump. "She left me, abandoned me in the palace of the devils. How could she do that? I mean how could SHE do a thing like that. If anybody could. It's not her, they took her away."
She whispered to Perrin, "I had to have help, if it's any interest, in order to walk into that place." She sniffed, and surveyed the place.
"The place stank in a way that I'm sure you can't understand, a way that all three of us surely stink right now."
He showed his teeth and nodded. "If it stank so much, glass-helmet girl, why not still cover your mouth?"
She wiped at her nose, but all the soot had gone. "I sold my soul sense to the devil to save that demon girl."
She nodded. "Lorelei. All this, just so I would betray everything."
Perrin slapped her back. "You stand too long by urga, like Perrin. Be huma today. Spin words of glass now."
"You want me to lie? I always ask people to take responsibility for what they have done." Sigrun looked at his chest, then down at his feet. "How can I stop this?"
Perrin reached behind her head and grabbed it with both hands, then pointed her gaze at Oliver. The fat little man shook like a leaf in the wind. "This look like response to you?"
"I deserve it."
"But he no deserve, Ziggy. He no deserve. Simple. 'Devil made me.'" Perrin pushed Sigrun toward the boy.