by J.M. Michael
“Odonis,” the witch matriarch Agnes croaked. “Why have you come? You know the Bastion is forbidden to your kind during the Ceremony of the Moons.” Despite these words the old woman did not seem greatly displeased, as she glided her hand over Odonis’ chest, pinching her tongue between her teeth in her pleasure.
Odonis stared at Agnes’ haggard face. Hatred burned in him for its every ridge and deep line, but he let his eyes reveal only cold. “You have my children?” he asked, knowing the answer. He smelled a lingering trace of them in Agnes’ chamber, mingled with the scent of old leather from her library. And he smelled their mother’s betrayal, bleeding from the very walls. The cost to her for presenting their issue to her coven sisters had been high.
“We cannot allow your kind to populate our world freely, Odonis,” Agnes answered bluntly. “They will be purged in water.” The wretch gave a twisted smirk. “But for your eldest. She is too near maturity and must be dismembered first.” She paused. “That should satisfy you.”
Agnes underestimated him still. She could not help it. The folklore of her religion insisted that demons cared nothing for their children and would as soon devour them at birth as leave them to die. The truth was believed mere rumor. Odonis’ kind cared for their offspring with constancy unrivaled by mortal bonds and would protect them from others with tales of depravity, claiming to have killed them while raising them in secret.
Odonis could do little more to protect his children from the witches because he was bound to them through his union with their coven sister Myce, his link to existence within a mortal shell. Still, though it had cost him much of his strength, he had chosen this union willingly, for only through Myce could he have given life to his children; his sons, Odem and Sirn, and his adored eldest Rynmya, a daughter, rare among all demons.
“Return for Myce at dawn,” said Agnes, returning her hand to her side. “We will not deprive you of her, though she defied our laws, secreting your offspring from us. She will merely be altered by blade to prevent such deception again. Would that you found the children when they were newborn and consumed them. It would have spared us this trouble.” Agnes turned from Odonis then and left her chamber, trailing crimson robes.
Odonis raged inside. She dared turn her back to him? If he were free he’d tear out her withered spine.
Forced to keep his rage shackled, however, he soon followed Agnes from her chambers, but not to leave the Bastion. For though Myce’s scent led through passages sealed by magic he could not oppose, it remained strong as though she had recently returned. He went to the Bastion’s gardens, an assemblage of rare herbs and other plants the witches used in their spells. Myce stood waiting for him there.
Her body looked young, but her eyes, like the violet of a late sunset, held the wisdom of a century-long existence. And they held pain. Black hair flowed in glossy tendrils over her back and chest, but otherwise she stood naked, having just finished communing with her gods no doubt. Odonis marched toward her in a fury, swiftly clasping his hand about her neck.
Myce flinched. “My lord, please. Forgiveness,” she pleaded. “My sisters discovered them by their own power. I did not have the strength to stop this.”
He stroked the ridges of her throat with his thumb, willing to crush them flat. And he could have done so. Their bond did not prevent him from harming her. Yet, were he to kill her, he would vanish from this realm of flesh. His children would surely be undone and cast into non-existence, and he would never see them reach their full strengths. The mere need for survival stayed his hand from destroying Myce, when once a different, stronger need obliged him to care for her.
His grip transformed into caresses upon her cheek and neck, and his lust for her surged. Rage did not still his desire for her. Myce was no fool, though. She averted her eyes from his, as tears spilled unrestrained from their corners. She, at least, knew of his affection for their children.
“It was Rynmya,” Myce said softly. “She is nigh unto maturity, and my sisters sensed her influence. We might have kept Odem and Sirn hidden had their time come first, but Rynmya’s power is too great. Even mortals can feel it. Her nearness inspires them with madness.”
“Rynmya is our power combined in a pure demon female,” Odonis rasped. “In her time she might have given birth to gods.” He paused. “And you surrendered her. A token of your allegiance.”
“I meant to spare our sons,” she said, meeting his eyes. Fury and despair held their beauty in sway. “We could have kept them in secret until their maturity, at which time they could have lived without fear of extermination. But Agnes no longer trusted me. She sought them out.”
Odonis sneered. “Deprived of the link they have shared with their sister all their lives, Odem and Sirn would lead hollowed existences, weakened and subject to their appetites. In the demon realm, Rynmya would stand as their queen, the core of their strength, and they would know few challenges to their power. Without her their lives would be forfeit. At best they would die, at worst they would live as slaves.”
“Odonis,” Myce cried. “Rynmya mustn’t be allowed to remain in this realm. You know this as well as I. Her life would end sanity itself and bring this world’s civilization to ruin. Humanity would not survive.”
“What do I care for this world’s civilization, when its oldest and wisest people betray me while smiling insolently?”
“This is my home, Odonis,” Myce persisted. “I must protect it.”
“Agnes has decided you should never bare offspring again,” Odonis said. Myce’s eyes shut tight. For a witch such a painful fate held terrible consequences for her power. “For all that your heart clings to its betrayal, it shall never know peace again. Rynmya’s existence created links in us all. When she is snuffed out, you will lose your way, and I mine, and this world be damned.”
More tears wet Myce’s face, burning the flesh of Odonis’ hand. “I know,” she mourned. “I know, but I cannot stop them. I never had it in my power.”
“But I do.”
Myce gasped and looked away again. Odonis tightened his grip on her throat, until her pulse throbbed against his palm, for suddenly he stood closer to obtaining the last thing he would ever need from this woman. He could sense it.
“After what I’ve done you’ll never forgive me,” she said.
“No,” Odonis answered. He could not deny it. “But our children will. Know that I will take them from this world back to where they belong, and they will rule with your name and mine on their hearts. Your precious mortals shall be spared Rynmya’s influence, and the flesh of your sisters shall be used as ever for the continued procreation of my kind.”
Myce breathed deep and met his eyes once more. All that remained inside her gaze was profound sadness. “Then… Then I release you,” she whispered.
Odonis felt the tethers of their bond snap. At once his wrath poured from him with a snarl that echoed from the Bastion’s walls, masking Myce’s scream as she died in a shower of blood from her own heart. Still, as the organ beat its last in his hand, Odonis thought his rage misspent. Myce was really only to blame for her own weakness. At least, having once cherished the life Myce’s heart sustained, he found it in his capacity to forgive her after all. Death was release.
“Perhaps your soul will come to dwell in my domain,” he murmured to her corpse. “In that event you will cease to know suffering.” He left the gardens.
The witches’ magic could no longer oppose Odonis as he descended into the Bastion’s inmost reaches. Ancient stone corridors spat unseen hexes at him, but these glanced off his newly hardened skin. He soon found an immense chamber, like a field of cracked, gray marble. The chamber sat below ground, but its ceiling and walls were black as the open night and aglow with the light of twin moons. The witches had begun their ceremony.
A hundred of them stood randomly about the chamber. Another dozen stood surrounding Odem and Sirn, twin boys whose skin appeared bronze and whose shoulder-length hair gleamed black. They knelt before a pool of water that shone silver in the moonlight, while the witches chanted useless rites. And on the edge, bound heedlessly over a block of stone, was Rynmya, her skin gold and her long waves of hair like smoldering flame. Two blade witches stood at either side of her, clasping rune-etched swords. These masked women posed the only threats to Odonis now.
Agnes appeared before him. “Odonis!” she shrieked, her eyes ablaze with fury and magic. Her usually haggard flesh hung from her bones in a newly heightened state of decay, seeped in the demonic power she had been intoning. “How dare you come here?!” she sputtered. “How did you oppose our spells?”
“Were you so absorbed in your ritual, you did not feel your sister’s death?” Odonis growled.
Hearing this exchange, Odonis’ children raised their heads. They showed no signs of fear, for they at least sensed his coming.
Agnes started. “Myce?” Her emaciated hand gripped at her chest, tearing skin with her nails. “No…” she groaned. “Our sister lies dead!” Suddenly, a hundred wailing screams filled the chamber, though none of the witches moved. “She released you out of guilt for her deceit, yet you destroyed her,” Agnes muttered. “And now you come for your children, too. Why? When they would fall to our rituals as swiftly.”
“Arrogant hag! You have no claim upon the lives of a demon’s offspring. I’ve come to destroy you!”
The old witch’s eyes bulged in sudden understanding. “You want them alive…” she hissed. “Impossible.” Gaping in horror, Agnes turned from Odonis to face her coven. “Destroy them, now!” she shrieked.
It was the fool’s last mistake. Odonis embedded his fingers into her back and tore her spine cleanly from her body. “Offer your back to me and I will take it!” he roared, delighted to have at last snuffed out Agnes’ blight. Bright blood pooled around the old witch’s body where it fell.
Odonis glanced at Agnes’ spine. The ragged column of blood and bone writhed in his grasp, as though the witch’s soul still clung to existence inside it. In moments the stump that once held Agnes’ head grew fangs and a serpent’s mouth, becoming an undulating tongue of nerve tissue. With a deep hiss the thing’s mouth twisted toward Odonis’ face, striking him on the cheek. He felt the pain deeper, though. So a demon had burrowed inside Agnes’ ancient form. It was a lesser kind, a creature of base appetites. But its bite contained a potent destructive power. Already, Odonis felt the strength ebb from his newly won body.
He clutched the lesser demon in two hands and pulled it apart. Silently, its contemptible vessel fell limp. Odonis would follow it back to his realm soon, and when he found the creature again, he would extinguish it utterly from existence. But for now he had moments to act to save his children from that very fate. Odem and Sirn sat closest. The witches surrounding the boys descended on them as one, raising them from the ground to cast them into the water. As yet too young to resist the acidic effects water had upon demons, their bodies would dissolve almost at once. The boys writhed in the witches’ hands, snarling and scraping at them. Still at the chamber’s far edge, the blade witches stood ready to take Rynmya’s head, which they could not do while her brothers lived. Their strengths fed into her own, making her invulnerable.
From all around him witches lobbed spells at Odonis, some to immolate or restrain him, some to crack his ribs or freeze his blood. He absorbed them all without effect as he sprinted across the stone of the chamber and leapt, in a blur, straight into the pool. The calm surface of the water erupted around him, rapidly dissolving his skin until only his musculature remained. Viscous threads of blood and tissue clouded the water, corrupting it.
Odem was thrown into the pool after Odonis. Grimacing from pain as the water burned him, he twisted to free himself of the bond around his wrists, an invisible tether spell. Skin flaked from his face and hands. His eyes bled. But as his father’s flesh swirled around him in the liquid, his suffering eased to a stop and, slowly, the damage to his body reversed. When Sirn’s struggling form dropped into the pool moments later, the boy suffered no ill effects, for the water had been transformed.
Odonis drifted toward his sons, whom he could sense nearby in the gloom of the pool, and pressed his palms against their faces in greeting. The spells upon them broke at his touch. They were at last free. “Remain here,” he rasped, his voice distorted in the liquid. If his sons stayed submerged, faking their death, they would be safe. He felt them nod their heads in answer.
Odonis swam toward the pool’s edge and pulled himself out. Cool air lapped at his exposed muscle and tendon like a tongue of flame. He would have healed like his sons, if not for the lesser demon’s poison. His shoulders hunched in weariness. He had only minutes left. Around him the witches gasped and shrieked in terror at his appearance. They thought his true form now emerged, and with it the power to destroy them all with a sweep of his arm. In truth Odonis’ flesh bore no resemblance to the light and shadow of his demon state. Still, his current state served him well enough, making the witches flee from the moonlit chamber. All but two.
The blade witches raised their rune-etched swords simultaneously over Rynmya’s bound form. But the girl remained calm, drawing her brothers’ power to her to resist harm. She had indeed grown in strength, as Myce said. In the time since Odonis saw her last, she had begun her transformation into a mature demon. Soon her power would rival any threat the mortal realm posed. Odonis needed only to see that she survived that long.
The blade witches swung their weapons, striking Rynmya’s neck and legs with a rush of magic. Rynmya screamed from pain as her resistance broke just enough to leave red welts where the blades hit her, but these quickly healed. The witches stared at the ineffectiveness of their attacks, until realization dawned on them, and they turned to face Odonis. Then one of them charged. Without a weapon of at least equal power, a demon made flesh stood little chance against a blade witch, unless he was prepared to make sacrifices. And of what use was a body in decay, except to be sacrificed? As the witch rushed forward, she swung rapidly at Odonis’ exposed torso. Odonis leapt back from each stroke, but the witch’s blade nicked him several times. He pretended to stagger from one of the cuts, and the witch pulled back her sword and stabbed him through the guts, just below the ribs. Odonis clutched the blade before she could draw it back out. She struggled against his hold, grunting, as he pulled the blade deeper into his body, in turn pulling her closer. He then snatched her below the jaw and twisted her neck, and she collapsed to the stone, dead.
The mix of demon poison and witch magic surging inside Odonis now churned throughout his body, liquefying his insides as their opposing influences battled each other for dominance over their kill. Unable to stand under such an assault, Odonis fell to his hands and knees and vomited a pool of black tissue and blood. One witch remained now, and he could not stop her. She sauntered forward in the wake of her sister’s attack and stood at his side, raising her blade to take his head. She was younger than the first, and he sensed her thrill. He sensed something more as well.
Elsewhere, chains shattered audibly. The blade witch gasped, hesitating to make her kill, and that brief delay was all Rynmya needed to cross the distance to her and rake her face from her head with a clawed swing of her hand. The witch’s scream was smothered by a gurgling of blood, as her body hit the ground and rolled away. Her sword clattered in the distance.
Rynmya knelt before Odonis. Pressing her palms to his ravaged face, she kissed his head in gratitude and affection. Her hair cascaded about him, and he could feel her power, like molten ore. She was mature now. No longer a child. The witches could not harm her anymore. Her brothers, Odonis’ sons, approached them and stood at either side. Their sister’s new strength had made them stronger too. “Thank you, Father,” they all said as one.
“Rynmya,” Odonis wheezed, clasping his daughter’s wrist. “My sons. Will you return with me to the home of our kind?”
Odem and Sirn looked to their sister for their answer.
“No, Father,” Rynmya said. “I wish to stay.”
Odonis grinned, and his grin altered into coarse laughter. “My children…” he said, as what remained of his flesh began falling away. “You will find the people of this realm willing subjects.” With these words his body crumbled in a flurry of ash, and Odonis, lord of demons, returned home.