A cry for help, a devil's deal. Will Sigrun be able to face them again?
|The lilac-scented breeze flowed over the soft clover of the forest|
Yet the luxurious forest camp left my guilty heart sleepless. At that rate, when the angels delivered my call to action—and they would—I would be sleep-staggered. I groaned at my stubborn foolishness and rolled onto my side, smiling at the ache of my wounded arm, a penance for this well-earned indulgence.
Iron-bound boots thumped through the dew-soaked underbrush. The stranger wailed, swore, and swatted the vines with his spiked club, as if calling for attention. He marched past the covered wagon right toward the place I lay.
My spirit calmed, I brushed the gray tatters of my hoodout of my eyes and rolled onto the bandaged elbow in time to watch the rusted spike of his mace swing inches past my nose. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, my good lady! Traveling I was, to the fair, with my sweet daughter, Lorelei, when I met with wily brigands." The stranger covered his face as he forced out another sob. An eye-watering stench of onion rained down on me as the spiked toe of his left boot edged under my elbow. "Only, no mere robbers were they."
Who talks like that? Actors? Not good ones. His gear did not befit the stage, either, but a life of violence. "What do you mean?"
"They boasted of plans that would unravel the world, and before that, they would butcher my fair daughter in a—" The sobbing choked off his voice.
Helplessness washed over me at the thought of my own family, murdered before my eyes in the name of some demon. I gritted my teeth and strapped my sword to my belt before rolling onto one knee. "Tell me everything."
"I am to bring the 'Whisper of Victory' or Lorelei will be... she will...." The stranger howled and punched the tree. "What does that even mean?"
The world darkened as if a cloud rolled in above the leaves; they had come for me. "This is my name. I am 'Sigrun.' It means...."
"Can thee help her, Victoria?" He put his fist to his mouth.
I nodded slightly, despite the mistranslated name.
"Speak not, Victoria; they mean to kill you, surely. Lorelei's already in the belly of their slug-demon, of that you can be sure."
As I looked at the man's thin-cut, black goatee—like the statues of old—my blood chilled. Tell the truth, I desperately wanted to say, and glared at him through slitted eyes.
He filled my pointed silence with a sob, hiding something in his hand.
Had he promised them something and failed to deliver? Or perhaps decided his daughter worth more than his demon lord? None of that mattered; the man had lost his child. I dared not consider that Lorelei might really be lost, or that he might be playing me. Weighing the soot on his soul against the tug on my conscience, I stared. "Trouble yourself not; I will answer the call."
A smile of victory flashed on the man's face, for the blink of an eye.
My hand stopped inches above his shoulder, unwilling to take on the unseen filth. "She may be, but until I know, I will give my life for hers."
The stranger danced on his toes. "Thee will? I can pay thee but little." He fumbled for the money hanging from his belt.
I waved him down, moving toward my horse. "Forget money. It's your daughter that counts.”
Oliver, a plump young man in a long blue robe with a pointy hat hanging at his side, walked up to the man and offered him a seat on their wagon. He pushed his glasses up on his nose. "Your gift would be welcome, of course. We just don't demand payment, so much."
Perrin snorted from within the shadows of the wagon. "Yes, we know, Oliver. 'Money good.' Keeps you fed, for one."
Oliver frowned and shook his head. "Can't either of you remember once that a good man has more than courage and love?"
Perrin reached his big green hands out of the magical shadows. "Not wizard. Two hands, two things."
The stranger drew back.
"Wizard maybe take care." Then he snorted a laugh, poked his pig-snouted face out where it could be seen.
"Urgan blackguard!" The stranger jumped up and stepped back, his mask of fear ending in a flash of violent thrill.
Perrin bared his tusks in pride at the rude human and nodded. "Now stop wasting Sigrun time. Speak out where these thorga—sorry, huma—thugs live."
"Don't worry, my friend. You stand at a safe distance." Oliver shook his head and patted the urgan man on the shoulder. Oliver's silver ring clanged on Perrin's rusted shoulder guards. "Pigface Perrin's only dangerous when you sneak up on him. Just stay out of his arm swing."
"Strange company!” The stranger shook his head and paced around.
Perrin harrumphed and stamped back into the wagon, for the safety of the stranger.
“The mercenary refuses money, and the pig works for good!" The stranger hid his face in his hands. "But, you have offered your blade. I've no place to complain."
Perrin's steps shook the wagon. "Right, ya glass-helmet thorga. Shut up and point us down the path."
I hitched Coltrivar to the wagon, and said, "Should be easy to follow his trail through the mud."
The man sniffed, frowned and nodded. "All the way I was sinking an inch or two. Never thought about being tracked." He smiled at the trail, then covered his happiness with another frown.
Oliver offered the man a quill and parchment. "Did you see any identifying marks, strange symbols, or...."
He shook his head and paused. "Sorry, Wizard. A simple farmer knows nothing of arcane trappings."
"They know us, Oliver." Perrin oinked and rolled his eyes. "Not going to give up their secrets."
"Sorry to interrupt." Oliver frowned and reached into the bag of snacks at his waist. "What with you asking so many useful questions."
Disgusted with the stranger, I stepped in front of him. "Can you go home?"
I forced my hand onto the man's shoulder and searched the pale gray pinpoints of his eyes for a few seconds, hoping to feel his plight.
He sneered at me.
I met nothing human in the stranger's gaze. As I wiped the grease of his soul off my hands, I found myself pretending that I was Lorelei's mother, feeling for the helpless daughter what her father should. "Wait for us there. Lorelei will show the way."
"And if, upon your arrival, my dear daughter breathes not? I would know."
Oliver chuckled and bit down a scrap of chicken meat. "Dead show the way that much faster."
The stranger calmly tilted his head at Oliver. "I understand not."
Oliver threw his plate-blond hair back and smiled. "I am a wizard. You're not supposed to understand."
Perrin grabbed Oliver's elbow and pulled him up into the wagon. "The pompous stuff? Don't play right."
Oliver shrugged with a grin. "No doubt, when I get older!"
Perrin snorted and shook his tusks. "No. Then either. You'll be the white-bearded elf steals the rich boy's toys and gives them to the good ones. "
"What, San Nikklau?" Oliver laughed, closing the wagon's back gate. "I should think he's retired, if he ever lived."
Perrin nodded at that.
The man gestured with his mace. "But, mayhap I can help?"
"Very much help. By stay out of fight."
I so wished to learn Urgan honesty! The man's mace would surely find it's way to hit us in the spine if he tagged along. I found myself nodding in emphatic agreement.
"If we've anything worth telling, my 'good' man," Oliver tossed the man a folded-up, bird-shaped piece of paper that flapped its wings toward the man and landed on his shoulder, "We shall find you."
I chuckled under my breath. Oliver nailed it when he stopped trying to be what he already was.
At that, I shook the reigns, and Coltrivar lunged forward.
Just over the hill, the path led to a ruined windmill. The last good blade swept slow across the sky, like a giant sword spun by an evil giant, cursing the heavens. The place stank of ale and foul incense. The trail led, not to the scene of an ambush, but here, to this stronghold of our enemy. Though no explanation for this presented itself, I and my two friends got out of the wagon.
"Were I seeking to open a gate to the planes of malevolence..." Oliver wiped the sweat from his forehead, and pulled on his cone hat. "...this surely would be the place. I typically don't subscribe to such base observations, but--"
"Bury it, Oll." Perrin jumped down, carrying his egg-shaped hammer, as heavy as a man ought to be. "They lead us here for worse-than-kill. Sigrun, my girl, do we truly want to wear the bells for the date?"
How I regretted leading my friends to their ambush in this terrible place, but somebody had to try and save the girl. I owed Mack and Myrrha's memory that much. "Do you see any choice?"
Perrin glowered at the windmill and shook his head, trudging absently toward it.
Oliver's smile faded in and out as he scanned every bush and tree. "None that you would take."
The path before me filled me with dread and disgust. This windmill came from worse than foolish cultists: informed, inspired evil. "I..."
Oliver and Perrin's grim faces told the same story.
Yet, if I refused the call, if I ran, how would I ever stop? "...am going in. Alone? Please."
Oliver grimaced, and spoke sarcastically. "Suppose we just knock on the door, then." He tugged at his collar.
I smiled at the thought of a twelve-year-old Oliver doing the same thing on the streets of Balthispeare. "Would be rude to do otherwise!" I smiled at Oliver and cringed at the oily brown plank of a door.
Hesitating for an instant, I commented, "Even evil deserves some respect."
As the stench rolled over me, Oliver's wide-open eyes darted ever faster, and Perrin danced about, snarling and grinning and stamping. The rotten spirit of the place affected them, yet somehow did not turn their stomach. Did they even know how bad it was? I hesitated again, and offered a sour look to each of them.
Before knocking, I took a kerchief from a pocket and held it over my nose. It did nothing to block out the corruption in the air. Stifling the urge to retch, I growled, "How can you abide that odor?"
The others glared and shrugged.
My knocking echoed through the sodden halls of the twisted tower. Perrin and Oliver shivered, and my empty stomach squeezed again.
No voice or footsteps answered.
"Hello! Can you help me? I am trapped."
The voice came from above. A pretty waif looked down through a barred window.
"Yes. Lorelei? That is why we have come. Are you well?"
"I am not. It—that disgusting thing wants to rip my soul from this body!"
I stared into her soul, to detect the thing that I most prized—that spark of innocence. The fog of evil in the air blocked everything. Either that, I admitted, or the little girl could be more vicious even than her father. The wicked thought made me growl at myself. "I have come to protect you, little girl."
"That is--" Lorelei scoffed, "very kind. You know, you shouldn't do that. It will—you will be made to regret it."
"I will be okay no matter what they do to my body." I shook my head, and shudders ran through me. "Though it is noble to say so."
"With." The little girl smirked down her nose.
I waited for her to explain that.
"Always, I have been a bit above my station, good lady knight. But, I fear I cannot reward you in the manner to which you are accustomed."
Oliver shivered as the little girl spoke. "I do not like her. Reminds me of Dust, she does. Or something he called into existence." He turned and pulled a book from the wagon, started flipping pages.
Lorelei looked as evil as Dust on his worst day, to be sure, but I could not chance it. "I don't come for reward." Sigrun looked about for a way to break down the door.
"Oh, but I am such a naughty girl. It's like there's a demon inside me." The little girl grinned. "I don't deserve your help."
"Move aside, huma." Perrin carried his hammer from the wagon, shaped like a giant black egg on a stick. He bragged, "This what Circe made Urga for."
Perrin swung the hammer as if it were empty eggshell, striking at the door again and again.
My thoughts shattered with the silence, and again with the door.
The little girl above laughed. "Look at the pig! He's so funny."
The mirth complimented him, I knew—humans rarely had the courage to laugh around him—and the insult pleased his urgan pride.
I retched, unable to keep her stomach stable. "Well, let's go."
Each step of my feet left black sparks on the ground. Oliver shook like a leaf until he recited a spell. Perrin rushed about, moving faster with each step.
A huge shadow fell upon them. I doubled over and tried to vomit as a slug-bodied man-thing waved his arms and flapped its gums. In a second I turned and scrambled, on hands and knees, slipping and crawling away from the dungeon.
Whether minutes or hours passed before I awoke on the road, it could not be certain. A cloud of darkness enveloped the tower now. Sorcerer's graffiti, runes of fire and blood, littered the landscape. The taste of vomit shook my stomach as I struggled for air and consciousness.
A familiar face looked down upon my fallen body, that of my personal angel from the mazes beyond: Viviancarla. Her dark purple talons and golden hair glinted in the firelight as she smiled on my suffering. "Barbaric, I know. Not all the the forces of darkness play by the rules." She offered her hand to me.
I disdained it and rose to my knees though my half-dead body shook with the effort. "I care nothing for your rules, Vivianca."
"Ooh, careful. Painfully close to my true name."
"So you say." I scouted the area with my eyes. "How did I get here?"
"Quite readily. You fled."
"I..." My head swam, as I tried to imagine such a thing. Forget the oath of valor; I could never abandon a stranger, let alone friends.
"Oh, don't worry about your precious honor. You fled, not in fright, but only disgust. In short, the soul of the place nearly exorcised you from your body."
My emotional dizziness distracted me as I waved my tingling arms, hoping to keep the cobblestones beneath my feet. I had no time to think how petty my argument was: "Places don't have souls."
"The proper words lie outside your vocabulary, but the spiritual character of a place is palpable." Vivianca sneered, exactly like Lorelei. "Your trainers have been terribly, terribly remiss."
"I don't have trainers." I had sworn never to speak to Vivianca again. I covered my mouth, stumbled toward the tower. Both of my friends lie unconscious in the hallway, near the entrance. "How could I?"
"Enough to say, that place nearly desecrated your body. Your soul would have nothing of it."
"Poppycock." Oliver's coach would tell me that I should forget everything Vivianca said. Of course, I should—but even wizards could not manage such a thing. Instead, I had to rely on my sense of moral direction and hope for the best.
"I am telling the truth. The demon of the tower will not be defeated, or even met, by you--not without my help."
"And why would you help?"
"First and foremost, because my Master and I deplore the chaos of the rampant souls." Vivianca sneered down at me, and brushed her golden hair away back to show her horns, blackened purple thorns that fairly glowed in the magical firelight. "Your crusades complement our Inquisition."
Vivianca's games galled me. The devil-woman wanted me to remember exactly who I spoke to, implying that I had a choice. Same old same old, and true enough. I needed help, not only for Lorelei, but also poor, helpless Oliver and Perrin. I never meant for anybody else to get hurt. "But the real reason you are helping me, I mean, offering?"
"I intend to convert you to our side."
A chill hit my spine. This truth stood on its own, pure and simple. "Why would I allow—"
"If you cannot tolerate the taint of that place, you will not have any influence in it."
"I will not tolerate evil." I ran to the wagon, rummaged through a few of Oliver's things and began to read from a scroll. "This will protect me from whatever black magic exists."
Vivianca laughed. "Don't you think I know your petty protections? I would not pull such a simple trick on you."
"You have tried, many times."
"We have progressed beyond that." Her sneer reflected the icy flame of her own personal pit.
I fumbled a few times before saying the words correctly, but the spell had been written so that any person could call the magic down. A chill, protective shadow fell around me.
"Please, Sigrun! You don't understand: this is not some curse. It is desecration, an anti-sacrament. By going there, you actually call upon...." Vivianca sighed as I ignored her.
Moments later I crawled from the place. My skin, covered in hives, cracked and bled as I struggled to get as far from the tower as possible. Pained groans progressed to dry heaves.
Vivianca smirked down at her. "Believe me now?"
"No." I returned to the wagon and brought out a shawl. Blessed by Corielle, it had holiness to soothe the itch in my skin, the ache in my bones. I recited a prayer, asking for special protection, and returned to the scene of desecration. "I do not."
A few steps into the place and I floated into the air.
I looked down at my feet, shocked to see my body, twitching and breathless, three feet beneath me.
The friendly face of Uncle Mack looked down on me. "She's telling the truth, you know—part of it. You shouldn't keep trying to go in that place."
"I have to. That little girl needs—”
"Some things are out of your control, Sigrun. Your duty is to do everything you can. Not one bit more."
"I cannot stop, even if there isn't anything I can do."
Mack pleaded, "Think of the others, that you can save. There is nothing here for you."
"I'll be the judge of that, Uncle Mack."
"I know, and I am sorry." Mack smiled, rested his hand on my shoulder. "Don't be so determined to follow in our footsteps."
Next thing, I found myself on the roadway, shaking to life.
"How did I get out here again? Did I flee while unconscious?"
"I acted above my authority—if you must know. Empowered a ghost to move a few things."
I shivered as my feet touched the ground, not understanding the difference between a ghost and a rampant. "How nice."
"Your body, dead twice over; as a theal, you are fantastically easy to possess."
Whatever that means. I looked around. "I see you didn't rescue my friends."
"You're practically undead, child. No matter how holier-than-thou you get, that gives me leeway—masive room to maneuver." Vivianca stuck her nose up close to my face, close enough to scratch me with the purple point of her horn, and stroked me under the chin.
The devil licked her purple-black lips. "Still plenty of time for your friends. I want you to have some motivation, in case your vaunted 'devotion to innocents' falls short."
"Well, nice isn't the word for that." I brushed myself off. "At least you've told me the truth, though."
"And continue do so. For example, you would be better off letting this one go."
I took a deep breath. "That's what I don't understand. Mack said the same."
My toes tapped as I waited for Vivianca's response. "I don't like it when you agree."
"Well, I don't, precisely, agree. In the interest of trust, however, I do have to admit that from your point of view, you will regret this mission sorely. Unless, of course...." Viv shrugged and smirked.
"Unless I admit you are right, change sides and adopt your improved, efficient methods of demon control."
"Ah, no. Demons are not to be controlled; that is a different thing. It is the rampant which we reign in."
Sigrun rolled her eyes. "Evil spirits inflicting harm on humanity are all the same."
"No, actually..." Vivianca paused, for effect, and cut her sneer when Sigrun looked back. "But this is an argument, a lecture, for a more relaxed moment, not the life-changing negotiation for which I have come."
"So, what do you propose?"
"Your soul has not acclimated to common ways." Vivianca thumbed through an invisible book. "It has no intention of clinging to a body contaminated as you intend. In short, your soul, in its current state, will not abide that chapel of horrors."
"So, it would rather return to heaven than stay in a polluted body? I am that different from my fellows?"
Vivianca smiled. "More than that, my dear."
"Tell me your plan, so I can better reject it."
"Only that you allow me to help you in that regard. I could lower your natural level of being, make you a normal human peasant. Well, a normal warrior."
"Now I see it." I sighed. "You reduce me and open me to temptation."
"We would counsel you in the greatest ways of goodness. Your soul need never be one of ours. Simply, you would not be quite so haughty; that's all."
"I thought you weren't going to lie."
"I am not, exactly, lying. Of course, we would gladly aid you along darker paths this will open." She sneered and strutted. "That's the offer, take it or leave it."
"I will save her on my own, or die trying."
"You would still be on your own. You would just have a chance of success. Don't forget your friends, either."
I grabbed the bridge of my nose. I would give anything to help her friends, no matter the cost. This of course exceeded all I had ever imagined. "Very well. How do you intend to do it?"
"I have to inoculate you, acquaint your soul with unholiness. First, I would ask you to designate a victim, someone, with no deserving, to be injured at your behest."
"I will do no such thing."
"It is not that we will harm them! That requires consent. Then, we will perform a corresponding strike on someone you designate. Only when you say the word."
"So, you're not going to hurt them unless I say so. Very well, if I need to use your destructive power, I designate myself as the sacrifice."
"But you mustn't...." Vivianca sighed, and moved an invisible quill on her unseen book. "Very well. Unfortunately, you passed that test. We'll leave the slot 'undesignated.'"
"This isn't moving very fast."
"You're not cooperating. Next, we fraternize." Vivianca offered her hand to shake.
My hands squirmed against my will as she shook them. I almost jumped away, then reluctantly grasped the demon's sultry talons.
"Has the stench reduced?"
"It's grown worse," I said, running to wash my hands.
"Obviously, your intentions are too pure. How about, true fraternization? And, for..."
I looked up from the muddy waters and frowned. "You want to go to bed with me?"
"Nothing so base. A kiss would do nicely, if the passion were there."
"Sorry. I have no love for you."
"Lying to yourself is a good start. But lust is what we need, and lust you lack. I can, however, access the faces of your dreams."
I squeezed her eyes shut and bit my lip. "What?"
I looked back with horror to see the bright blue eyes of Dust looking down upon me, as in a statue. I grabbed her sword, and rushed toward him, before realizing that it was only a mask upon the face of Vivianca.
I pulled myself short, holding the sword to Dust's throat, trying not to admire the gleaming white flesh, the golden hair, and the world-quality armor. It always troubled me that a young man so violent had not one single scar. "Very clever, but do you really think I feel anything for Dust?"
"The man is the only one who could possibly be your equal. Battle lust and sexual are very-well tied in you, my dear."
"And if I kiss this abomination, you think this will darken me enough to enter the altar room and free the child?"
"It will," Vivianca proclaimed, then cleared her throat. "Bring you one step closer, at least. You must enjoy it, however."
I took a deep breath, tracing his shoulder line. "It would not be such a bad thing. Just an indulgence?"
"That's the ticket, my child. You must rationalize, first."
"Do you always have to be so obvious?"
"No, most people are much further along. I need to coax you, educate you in the basics." Vivianca shrugged. "It hurts, actually, to see a creature of nobility and duty—much like myself—step down, as you are about to do."
"I am sure you weep to see me fall."
"It's not without satisfaction as well, just a weltschmerz sort of satisfaction."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's meant to distract you, truly." Vivianca dusted her hands and sighed brightly. "Just an incredibly complex way of saying juvenile, romantic regret."
"I'm getting tired of looking at this boy," I said. "If I have to kiss him, let's be done with it."
"That is no way to romance, Sigrun. Tell me, Sigrun! Tell me how you feel."
A fire burned in my chest as I thought of the thousands of innocent urgans burned in Dust's games. Men like Perrin, with fathers and children. Good men, however brutish. "You ignorant, deviant beast." I stepped toward him.
Vivianca's sneer fit perfectly on this young boy emperor. She spoke with the young man's voice. "I knew exactly what I was doing, you simpleton, for their own good. They stank up the planet."
"That wasn't for you to decide! They were peaceful urgans."
Dust strode a step further, until our noses were almost brushing. "You know pure well! No waking urgan ever did peaceful. Even in their sleep, they menace themselves as much as us."
"I wish I could beat the living daylights out of you!"
He laughed, delight in his voice. "You should try, you ignorant simpleton!"
Then, she turned my nose to the left and I kissed the boy, deep and sweet and passionate.
Dust quivered and moaned. "You know more about kissing than I thought." Vivianca drew back for a moment and reverted to her normal form, bruisy-purple blush down to her sandals and blackened toenails.
I blew purplish black, plum-scented smoke out of my lungs, and coughed. "The stink still hangs in the air."
"Will nothing ever stick to you?"
"Are you losing hope?"
"Among the fallen, hope is beyond."
My cheeks burned. "I think you enjoyed that more than I did."
"I only choose those who are attractive to me."
"Sounds like that will be your downfall."
"It was, in another life history." She looked wistful for a moment. "I have even tried to tempt that soul, that came from me, all to no avail."
"I'm sure that you were adamant, having risen."
"Yes, quite. Admirable, really, the way Vivianca sacrificed everything."
I snorted. "But this is getting you nowhere. Time is wasting. If I decide that the girl is lost, I will abandon this mission and your foolish scheme."
"There is but one more way. You could consume me." Vivianca waited for me to respond.
"If I possess you, I will stand between you and the darkness, hold all other influences away from your body, and allow you to be free of the taint."
"What would I be? At your mercy, with you able to perform any evil in my name?"
"I would do your bidding in all things, no matter. My mind will be open to you, even perhaps, a bit of my knowledge."
"In a binding contract?"
"More sure than that, actually. My goal is to dampen your sensitivities, see that you adapt to this world the way you should have if Old Man Wolf and Father Highly had done their work properly."
"What are you talking about?"
"I wish to set right an old wrong, to put you where you belong. This will do that, yet allow you still to be the goodly soldier of the Gods that you strive to be."
"I thought there was but one supreme being."
Vivianca smirked, violet thorns at her hairline swelling.
Sigrun's sigh finished in a groan. "How do I take you in?"
Vivianca put out her hands, and a purple black apple grew between them. "An old symbol. Not the way it really happened, but potent enough." She cringed, as she offered the fruit.
"I don't want you to bite into my flesh, to suck me down into your being."
I held the apple, aware that this was part of the woman before me. "This idea. You came up with it."
"That doesn't mean I relish being swallowed up in flesh." Vivianca sniffed and sneered. "As much as I admire you, I hate to mimic a mud spark, more than you fear to behave like me."
Read on! "Windmill part II"