Can orphan-refugee Sigrun find peace and justice or will she become the enemy?
|"No, Vivianca." Sigrun glared at her. "Why are you doing this?"
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. Sigrun curled her lips and stared, expecting the fiery woman to recant.
Stalwart, even statuesque, Vivianca held her gaze.
By putting the apple in Sigrun's hands, Vivianca exposed herself, heart and soul, to Sigrun's mercy. Sigrun breathed a surrender. "Very well. Call it duty if that suits your story."
Vivianca showed her palms and shrugged.
Sigrun's eyes burned and watered as she beheld this fruit.
It would would blind her to everything that makes life worthwhile. Let this menace poison her, if that allowed her to fight for a poor, helpless little girl. She bit into the apple.
As her teeth cut into the bitter black 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 reflected off the pretentious trees that ached to batter the ears of passersby and sour, envious grass blades that longed to cut the feet who dared to walk on them.
This burned behind her eyes. She had been cast into a festering pit worse 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."
Vivianca did not answer. The devil girl had not made the trip.
In horror, Sigrun surveyed the scene. The soft, supple skin of her hands served only to hide twisted and evil bones. Everything about her had this simmering hatred she had never noticed, except in the tower before her. It remained as it had been, only now it offered her the solace of honesty.
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 creepy creak of corrupted wood against rusting steel in the dread windmill answered. Vivianca would say vengeance belonged in the life of a mud-spark, and for Sigrun, that lie in front of her.
She strode into the dungeon tower and smiled down with affection at Oliver and Perrin. Her friends had been subdued, not really injured, 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 for failing her; there would be time to take them to task later.
Each unnecesary, steep stair reminded her that she could not take wing, as an angel should. With grudging grace she climbed until at last 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.
The seven-pointed star, appropriate for calling but useless for trapping, drew Sigrun's sneer. 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're not going to just leave me here."
The little girl's cocky glare defied her to abandon the mission. Sigrun urged herself to do just that, turn around and get herself out without touching the demon-infested ingrate. Sigrun would not punish a child for petulance. Sigrun could not smell the stench of evil, had the stomach of a sewer rat when it came to this. Deprived of her sensibilities, she had to rely on the commitments for guidance. "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, Sigrun, help me!"
Sigrun grabbed the little girl by the collar, who made a point of sticking her tongue out at the slug-demon as Sigrun 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?"
The girl looked down and shrugged. "Stupid people deserve what they get."
"So I am stupid, eh?" She had listened to Vivianca. "I guess so. Never take care of myself."
"I don't even know why I am taking it so easy on you."
"Next time," Sigrun jerked the collar forward, "have the sharpness to shut up 'til after they're done helping 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. If you cross the threshold, she never will return."
A tear came in her eye, but she ignored it. Mack might say such things, or so might a devil. Her stomach twisted neither more or less at the words. "Don't think I don't know how you 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?"
It wasn't a perfect cover, but good enough. Sigrun nodded, and continued onward, running from the ignoring the sound of the demon's screams for "Mommy! Daddy!"
"That's one petulant demon." Sigrun plopped the girl onto the wagon. She looked back at her friends, trying to feel out what a normal Sigrun would do. They were hardy people, even the bookish boy Oliver. They wouldn't want her to forsake her mission. Besides, she could not shake the sense that they should be put in their place. Mud sparks always deserved punishment. "Let's see your father about that reward."
None of the things that had mattered to Sigrun got past the wall of logic in her head. The slug demon had no reason to attack her friends, and they would heal just as well in an hour as this moment. To soothe her friends' wounded egos and make everything better, she knew a thousand things she could say to each of them. "How did I survive in that state?"
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. The girl jumped from the wagon, ran to the man Erick, and kissed 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." 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. 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--"
"Assuming your friends still live," Vivianca waved toward the tower, "if you say the word, we will destroy all who threaten them. Just designate an innocent. Not you; you must be 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, ah, '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 drowned the sun and soaked the earth.
Vivianca floated ahead of her. "Don't be like that. My presence honors you."
"Rare are the heroes chosen to hear my voice."
Sigrun topped the hill to see Perrin hobble 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 catching contest." Perrin slapped his hands together. "Right now I'm sure you feel almost so bad as you deserve."
Oliver sat shivering on the gnarled edge of a stump. "She left me, abandoned me in the palace of devils. How could she do that? I mean how could Sigrun 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 stink so much, glass-helmet girl, why not still cover your mouth?"
She wiped at her nose, but all the plum soul-soot had gone. "I sold my senses to a devil to save that demon girl."
"Lorelei." She nodded. "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."
"You want me to lie? I ask people to take responsibility." 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 responsible?"
"I deserve it."
"But he no deserve, Ziggy. He no deserve. Simple. 'Devil made me.'" Perrin pushed Sigrun toward the boy.