"Well THAT didn't work" - failed demon summoner.

SALVATION
by Toney Baus ©2019

A sorcerous gate blazed open in the night sky, and Liran, a refugee demon, emerged from the bright portal. The magic sparked a brief gale that folded her bat-like wings, knocking her out of the air. Before hitting the ground, though, Liran recaptured enough of the wind to claim a perch in a tall pine.

The demon had to blink away tears before doing anything else. Grief hadn't clouded her mind in a long time, so it took a few heartbeats of effort to banish the pain. In the meantime, the bright gate that had permitted her escape from the hells closed and winked out.

Then Liran surveyed her new home. Mountains, covered with snow, reached up on most sides, but blurry orange lights glowed down in one valley. Those lights meant the dwellings of people, so the refugee decided to fly in any other direction. If she had to kill one mortal, they'd all try to retaliate, and she hadn't come here to spill a lake of blood.

Liran spread her wings and gauged the breeze, but just before taking flight again, an odor reminiscent of the hells froze her in place. Shocked that any pursuit might have arrived so soon, she took in a deep breath and confirmed her worst fear: The acrid scent came from the lands of the damned.

Since there'd be no outdistancing an immortal stalker, she nestled closer to her pine trunk and extended her talons. A growing noise, like a dozen cracked bells being dragged along by some trickster deity, then warned Liran that something was approaching, and it turned out to be a vehicle. This one travelled on two wide belts of metal plates; all of it, in fact, was metal. It had a square cabin at the front and a cargo bed at the back. Smoke belched from a tall pipe jutting up from behind the cabin, smoke with that acrid, hellish scent she feared.

The noise ceased when the vehicle stopped by an outcropping partly covered with snow. A hatch in the top of the cabin swung open, and someone wearing a green overcoat emerged. Liran's eyes, far better than a mortal's, discerned details. The intruder was a young man with blue eyes, a big frame, and a square jaw.

He didn't look like a demon.

Liran made a snap decision to subdue rather than kill before swooping down. The man turned towards her only in time to catch a blow from a wing to his forehead. Both of his feet left the ground as he fell into the snow.

After Liran's feet touched down, the man still hadn't moved, so she took his weapons: A dagger with a blade like a narrow leaf, a crossbow with an intricate trigger grip, and a box of quarrels. She threw the dagger out into the forest but claimed the crossbow; it could kill at a distance, and the weapon's metal construction looked rugged.

She considered the vehicle next and landed in its cargo bed with a few flaps of her wings. A rectangular plate had been bolted to the bed's floor; a ruby glow leaked around its beveled edges. This close, Liran could also see that something under the metal was roiling the gossamer web of mana that surrounded the mortal world: Someone had bound a demon under the plate to serve as an engine.

After smirking at this little monument to reckless power, she continued exploring. The nearby outcropping had a shape too regular to be natural, so Liran visited it on foot, and it turned out to be a roof's peak. She began digging down into the snow, revealing one wall of a hut. The cold on her hands felt delightful as she worked, very different from the broiling prison she had just escaped.

Liran found a door after some further excavating. It was locked, but she didn't force an entry. Instead, she climbed out of her snow pit, searched the unconscious man's pockets, and found a key. So close, she also noted that the man was not bleeding from the nose or ears, and both of his pupils were the same size.

Unwilling to undo her measured use of violence by letting him freeze, she draped the man over her shoulders for a trip back to the doorway under the snow. The key fit into the lock, and Liran's inhuman eyes cut through the thick darkness inside to spot a hearth, complete with a stack of logs, in the room's far wall. She put the mortal on the floor and threw a log on the grate before refocusing on the mana all around; it was necessary fuel for a flame invocation. With her mind readied, she held out a hand and spoke:

Foundations of the Earth

Grant your visitor mana

To show her hospitality

With light and warmth.

No fire appeared on her fingertips; the spell failed. Liran had never been a powerful sorcerer, but this was simple magic, and she had used it in the mortal world before. Something was wrong.

Liran cursed and began rummaging for some mundane means to start a fire. She found flint and steel, but it took a marathon of effort, punctuated with more cursing, to create any sparks. Worse yet, she liked the cold. All this work was only for the man.

Just as she coaxed a flame to bloom in the kindling, the mortal sat up with a jerk, extended one arm, and barked out some occult command. Gold light flashed from his fist. She flinched back, knowing and fearing the power of the One God on display.

The brilliance blinded Liran, but oddly, she felt no pain. After rubbing the spots out of her vision, she saw that the mortal was surprised, too. They both apparently believed that she should be writhing on the floor, her body suffering the wrath of the One God, the God dedicated to purity, the God that hated all demons.

The mortal recovered from the surprise first, backing himself up against a wall. He then grumbled a question that Liran didn't quite understand. She thought about his words, though, and worked to see if they matched any of the languages that her mind had collected over the last several hundred years.

"Are you asking what I am?" she questioned after the pause.

"Yes," he confirmed.

"My maroon skin and wings show I'm a demon."

"You're untouched by the might of the One God; you're no demon."

"You wouldn't say that if you knew where I just came from."

"Well, you didn't kill me," furthered the man, "and that is also not like a demon."

"I did not spare you for a debate about my nature," huffed Liran.

"Why did you spare me?"

"I pause to kill because I am a learning entity, but your vehicle reeks of the hells. Can you prove that you're not in a Tyrant's service?"

She was taller than him by a head. The mortal's mouth twitched before he offered a defense. "I called upon the One God. No one serving a hell can call upon the One God."

"That metal thing you rode takes its power from a bound demon. Explain."

He frowned, seemingly hurt by her words. "Yes, well, binding demons has been a common practice for a while. No animals or mechanisms can match a bound demon's raw power, and we decommission everything before there is any danger."

She disagreed. "Time has no meaning in the hells. A Tyrant will ruin your schedule if It chooses."

"That rarely happens, and when one nation began binding demons, all had to follow suit. War forces us to make difficult decisions."

Liran stopped pushing because she didn't want to hear any more excuses. So many mortals were blind. The time to leave had come.

"What should I call you?" the mortal asked, forestalling her departure.

"Stygia."

Liran noted that the man knew not to ask her true name, a point of etiquette when knowledgeable mortals consorted with immortals. Suspecting that the man might be a competent sorcerer, she kept the conversation alive. "And your name?"

"Ilya."

"I accept that you do not belong to a hell, but why are you here, Ilya?"

"I am here to pray before I take my Argent Vows tomorrow morning."

"That means nothing to me," she announced while slowly turning to leave. Perhaps his curiosity would catch on her gentle snare.

Sure enough, Ilya delayed her departure again. "Stygia, wait. May I ask about your story? I think you have one to tell."

Liran showed impatience to keep the mortal hooked. "What do I get in return for my story?"

"You already have my crossbow, and if you grow frustrated, you can always depart."

"Agreed."

"Thank you, but let me save the fire before we start."

Liran agreed again. As the mortal stoked the fire, she sat on a stool and saw that a mosaic covered the floor. The artist had put down amber and slate tiles to form symbols honoring the One God. This imagery should have caused her actual pain, but now she felt nothing. First there was the failed magic, and now this; something definitely was wrong.

When the fire was healthy, Ilya sat on another stool, holding a little journal and a writing instrument. "Shall we begin, Stygia?"

"Please."

"Do you remember why the One God condemned you?"

"No, but I do remember when I first arrived in The Hell of Burning Tears. I fell through a green sky, and then I plunged into a grey ocean of boiling brine. I began drowning, but I couldn't die; I saw shreds of my own skin floating, and there were other spirits struggling in the water with me. Then a leviathan swam up and swallowed me. After that, I have memories of only pain for a long time."

Ilya looked surprised for the second time that night, but Liran dismissed his expression with a wave of her hand. "The damned must suffer. I stopped thinking about it long ago."

The comment jolted the mortal into scribbling something down, and then he asked another question. "What inspired you to escape?"

"When I was summoned to the mortal world by a sorcerer, looking at the stars taught me that I could be more than an assassin or a whore."

"A whore?" prompted Ilya as he kept writing.

"On occasion. Don't be naïve. Some mortals believe that coupling with a demon is an ultimate experience and will sacrifice even their own spirits for it. Some may be people you are aware of."

Ilya looked stricken, and Liran giggled, arching her back so that her cleavage pressed against her tunic. "You don't find me attractive?"

"Uh, yes, but such intercourse is forbidden by my order."

"That's wise," she purred. "Coupling changes how people think. They become malleable."

He grunted before changing subjects again. "How did you escape?"

"I had an ally. We gradually completed a great sorcery together, and I used it to flee."

"Where is your ally?"

"She sacrificed herself for my chance."

"I'm sorry."

"Thank you for your condolences."

"Is she still trapped in a hell?"

"Yes, in one incarnation or another," answered Liran as she muffled her enthusiasm for this new topic.

"What would you do to make her freedom possible?"

"Are you suggesting a romp with me in trade for summoning her? What happened to your restriction?"

"No, I'm sorry. I should be more direct."

"Yes, you should. This is no small matter. What do you want?"

"Help with changing the world," declared Ilya.

"That's demented," said Liran as the talons on her hands extended and a snarl contorted her face. "You've picked a bad moment for a joke. I can paint these walls with your blood."

"This is no joke! Listen. You were right to criticize binding demons. The practice assumes that damnation is forever. Once people know the truth, it will stop. It is unethical to bind a being capable of achieving salvation, a being like yourself."

She sighed and rolled her eyes. "A being like myself? Salvation? What are you talking about?"

"You are predictably jaded, but I believe that enough ethical people exist to change the world."

"And?"

"You must present my argument. Stygia, you're not a demon anymore; that makes you a messenger with unquestionable credibility."

"Whatever I am, the Tyrants of the hells won't permit your revolution. Someone will kill us before we get very far."

"Maybe, but if you die, you'll be judged anew, and if you've acted for the good, your spirit won't ever be trapped in another hell. The One God will instead give you welcome."

"You're saying I need not fear death?"

"You needn't fear it unless you murder me."

"That also means that my ally gave me a chance at paradise, not just freedom?"

"A profound gift," agreed Ilya, "one thought to be impossible for the damned, but that is my whole point. Whatever happened in the hells has made you a new creation. After I've summoned your ally, she'll be a new creation, too."

Liran had nothing else to say, instead listening to her own breathing and the low hiss of the fire, but then the strands of mana all around pulsed bright. Her mouth tasted like she was chewing on a copper coin. A sharp buzz, like a mosquito's beating wings, invaded her ears.

The demon outside was breaking free.

Realizing that it might take 100 more years to capture another sorcerer, Liran tackled Ilya to the ground before the inevitable explosion shook the walls. Chunks of flying metal punched into the room, and one ripped through Liran's wings; flight would be impossible until this wound had healed, but the pain didn't stop her from standing back up. "Congratulations!" she announced while readying her crossbow, "A Tyrant has released the demon outside to kill us both. This is your fault."

The man touched a sigil in the floor splattered with her blood and muttered an incantation; a transparent, golden dome then covered them both. Simultaneously, a roaring noise buried all other sounds.

The door to the outside collapsed inward, and with that barrier gone, white fire filled their room. Liran watched as the apocalypse hit Ilya's golden shield like a wave hitting a boulder. The man's pretty magic had kept them safe.

Ilya next reached out and touched the crossbow in Liran's hand, intoning yet another incantation before shouting instructions. "Hit it in a weak spot with that quarrel! I've got no more sorcery tonight, so you've got one chance!"

A dozen breaths later, the firestorm stopped, but the roof and the walls were now burning; they'd collapse soon. "We've got to go," insisted Liran. Then she pulled Ilya out into the night.

When the pair cleared the conflagration, Liran could see their assailant. Surrounded by piles of twisted metal and steaming pools of boiling snowmelt, the demon previously bound into the vehicle now stood tall at the edge of the flickering fire light. This enemy was silvery and slender except for legs that suggested thick pistons. Its head was rectangular, one small end facing Liran and crowded with black, expressionless organs. Its fingers, like metal spider's legs, caged a hovering point of light. In all her time spent among the damned, she'd never seen anything like it.

Liran aimed the crossbow, but before she could release a quarrel, the thing sprang high into the air, disappearing on the other side of the cabin. "Why did it flee?" asked Ilya.

"I'm not sure," said Liran, "but we should run."

They began a sprint for the nearest pines. The mortal was slow, but they reached the first trees before the creature attacked again. "Keep running," demanded Liran. "We'll make it chase us, and then I'll get my chance."

Onward they ran through snow drifts, but then Liran turned back while Ilya continued. A cloud of sparks and something else sprang up out of the cabin, something carrying its own light. The silver demon was ready to resume the battle.

"Ilya, down!" Liran yelled as she brought up her crossbow again. The demon's light, brighter than the full moon, was plummeting towards her. She launched the quarrel blessed by the man into its path.

At the same time, the silver demon released a gout of white energy that swept the trees all around. Liran shielded her face with a battered wing just as the annihilating light played over her form. An agony of heat blotted out all else but then stopped; the beam had gone suddenly wild, slicing earth and sky at random. Her condemned body, a body that had survived the heat from The Hell of Burning Tears for a thousand years, had given her the gift of survival again.

The enemy tumbled downward. Likely wounded by the blessed quarrel, it left behind a trail of smoke. After a thudding collision with the ground, its light went out, but then the creature began struggling to stand. Its elongated fingers showed blades unfolding with a low hum.

Liran charged, intent on finishing this duel the old, intimate way. She extended one arm and lunged high as her enemy brought back an arm, exposed blades glinting. Her open hand struck first, driving the thing's chin up with the heel of her palm. When the silver demon's neck couldn't bend back any further, a metallic crunch sounded.

Momentum carried Liran over her opponent, but its blades still caught her midsection. She held in her gut with both hands and skidded to a stop in some snow spared from the heat, all the while keeping her eyes open. The enemy had fallen, but if it arose again, it would kill her; pain had sapped all her strength.

Instead of seeing the silver demon stand, she saw Ilya, overcoat singed to black. He crouched down nearby. "You're hurt."

"Yes."

"Will you live?"

"Maybe."

Ilya pulled off his coat and covered her with it. "We need to hold in your body's heat."

"You're ruining your garment with demon blood," she groaned.

He grimaced but said nothing. The man then gathered up pine branches shattered by the fight. The smoldering flames all around made it easy for him to start a bonfire, and then he sat down nearby.

"What are my chances for paradise if I die now?" asked Liran.

"You'd have died fighting a demon, so I'm optimistic, but no one knows how anyone's judgement will unfold, including their own."

"Optimistic? You had less doubt about my salvation earlier."

"I was afraid of you."

Liran endured a stab of pain and then continued. "That's understandable. If I die, I still want you to bring my ally to this world. Her true name is Dolshia. She was like me, a herald from The Hell of Burning Tears. Is that enough knowledge for the ritual?"

"Yes."

"Promise me that you'll summon Dolshia. I want her salvation. I owe her a debt."

"I promise. It will be exciting to have another one like you around."

She snorted out a weak laugh and closed her eyes. Ilya placed his hand on her forehead while praying to the One God. It seemed like a long prayer to Liran, but she was not an expert. After the mortal had repeated the same verses three times, she opened her eyes again.

"Ilya?"

"Yes?"

"I don't think dying is supposed to be boring."

"Traditionally, no, it isn't."

Liran slowly lifted her hands from her stomach and pushed aside the coat. Through her shredded tunic, they saw together that her wounds had closed. Dark scabs had stopped the bleeding.

"Well, you must be at least part-demon," said the man, "since you remain nearly impossible to kill."

x x x

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