This story was partly inspired by one of my favourite power metal songs of all time, Badlands by Metal Church.
The night was completely dark when he awoke.
His chin had been resting on his chest, and the muscles of his neck were cramped and aching, He had not meant to sleep, but it had been far too long since the last time he’d closed his eyes, longer than he remembered. The exhaustion was creeping up, but he couldn’t stop now.
He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut till lights flashed behind his eyelids, and then opened them again. The darkness was still absolute. There was the faint noise of the beast’s hooves on the ground, but no other noise either.
He wondered how long he’d slept, and what had been happening while he’d been sleeping.
He knew what he had to do, and he did not want to do it. He resisted as long as he could, till he could resist no longer.
And then he called his demon, and his demon came to him.
“You took long enough to call me,” it said, walking by his side.
He looked at the demon from the corner of his eye without replying. Tonight, it had chosen to look like a woman of sorts, her naked body bright red and glowing faintly. Huge horns sprouted above her ears and curled past her jaw, and her eyes were amber and feral. It wasn’t by any means the first time his demon had decided to look like a woman. But at least it wasn’t trying to tempt him tonight by looking like someone he would want to sleep with.
“Well?” the demon-woman demanded. Her tail moved, the barbed tip slapping against the flank of the beast, but it didn’t notice. “What do you want to ask?”
He thought for a moment before he spoke. “Where are we? Am I lost?”
The demon stared at him. “You shouldn’t have fallen asleep, Man.” As she flicked her flaming hair back over her shoulders, sparks flashed from her hands and spiralled away into the darkness. “You aren’t lost. Lost doesn’t even begin to describe where you are.”
“You brought me here,” he said with complete certainty. “I’m not here just by chance. You brought me here.”
The demon didn’t say anything for a bit. Her feet and the beast’s hooves hushed through the dust.
“Have you ever thought of where you’re going?” she asked at last.
He was taken aback at the question. “Of course. It’s all I ever think about.”
“It’s been a long journey, hasn’t it?” She glanced at him under an arched eyebrow. “Do you even remember how long it’s been?”
“Of course I do. It’s...” he stopped abruptly. He tried to remember, but couldn’t. “It’s just...”
The demon was looking at him with open amusement now. “And do you recall a time before the journey began?”
He made no attempt to answer.
“Well, then,” she said, “it doesn’t really matter where you’re going, does it? Nothing matters except the journey.”
“And you,” he said.
“And me,” the demon agreed. “Now, we have another job to do.”
“Another job?” He looked at her. “What do you mean, another job?”
She rested one taloned hand on his thigh. The nails were so sharp he felt their touch through his chain mail.
“Just a little thing,” she said. “A little matter of putting a wrong to right.” She laughed, the noise like crystals splitting. “Or a right to wrong, depending on your point of view.”
Something screeched in the darkness, far away. The noise was like nothing he’d ever heard.
“What was that?” he asked.
The noise came again, from another direction. There was no way of telling just how far away it was. His hand instinctively went over his shoulder to touch the sword on his back. But there was nothing to draw the sword against.
“Don’t worry about it,” the demon said, her fingers still digging into the chain mail on his thigh. “It’s nothing you need to worry about.” She smiled, her teeth like daggers. “What you need to worry about comes later.”
“In the morning,” she said. “It’s not that far away, the morning.”
There was something in the sky, circling.
He tilted his head back, squinting. The sky was the colour of burnished steel, and it was almost impossible to make out anything in the glare. He could just make out something with wings. There were at least three of them, and they did not seem to be birds.
“Demon,” he said. “Demon.”
“They’re just watching.” The demon still had her hand on his thigh, and her fingers clenched slightly. Not much, just enough to remind him of what her claws could do. “Don’t look at them, Man.”
He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. The yellow stony desert on all sides and the metallic sky above gave no relief. Only in the distance before them, where a rising line of eroded brownish-pink cliffs rose like broken teeth, was there any sign of any change in the topography.
The beast plodded on, uncaring. Its horned head nodded back and forth above its heavy muscular shoulders. He had often wondered what the beast thought and dreamed, inside its human head. Nothing seemed to ever matter to it. He wonder what it had ever done to become what it was now, and whether it was content. He wondered if it was being punished or rewarded.
The beast couldn’t answer these questions and the demon wouldn’t.
“We’re going up that way,” the demon said. Even in the eye-aching light, her skin glowed red, her naked body not seeming to feel the heat. “Up into the hills there.”
“And when we get there?”
“When we get there, Man,” she said, her barbed tail swishing, “we shall do what we came to do.”
From long experience, he knew he wouldn’t get anything more out of her for the time being. When he turned back to look at the cliffs they were suddenly much closer. Stones clicked and clattered away from the beast’s hooves.
A shadow fell across the beast’s shoulders and the rock path and as quickly disappeared. He looked up quickly, but just too late to see anything.
“Don’t look up, Man.” There was an edge to the demon’s voice. “Keep your head down.”
There were times, he’d learned, when he could defy the demon, but this wasn’t one of them. He kept his eyes fixed on the beast’s shoulders while the shadows returned, each time closer. He thought he could make out noises, just too faint to hear.
As they entered the hills, the beast’s steps grew slower and unsure, and he could feel it deciding before placing each foot. He looked to the side and saw nothing but sky. They were travelling along the edge of a cliff so high he could not see the desert beneath – if there was any desert to be seen.
“Isn’t it time you told me what this is about?” he asked the demon.
“We’ll come to a village in a little bit,” she replied. “It’s got an...infestation. Your job, Man, is to clear it out.”
“Infestation?” he repeated. “What kind of infestation? Ghouls? Vampires?”
“Ghouls or vampires wouldn’t need you to handle them, Man,” she snapped with undisguised contempt. “You’ll know it when you see it.”
The path twisted away from the cliff edge, and he no longer saw the sky.
“That?” he asked, superfluously.
“That,” the demon confirmed.
He stared at the gate, fighting down the urge to reach for the sword. Even the beast hesitated a moment in its plodding. The structure filled the path before them, like an open, hungry mouth. From the wooden crosspiece and posts, fanged skulls peered down at them with empty eye sockets. From beyond the sagging barrier of bone lashed with sinew, something that might have been smoke stained the air.
“And there’s a village inside?” he asked at last.
“There was a village inside,” the demon said. “Now there’s, well, let’s go in and see.”
Swallowing to loosen the tension in his throat, he pressed his knees to the beast’s side. The creature swung its horned head round to confirm that this was what he wanted. That was the first time the beast had ever, in all the time he’d been on it, hesitated about anything. And that made him very uneasy.
“Go,” said the demon. So they went.
“You know what did this?” the demon asked.
He did not answer. He was looking at the buildings on either side of the street. They seemed to have been ripped out from the inside. Blood and soot marked the walls. There were no people to be seen, or indeed anything living. The faint tinge of smoke still lingered on the air.
There was a smell, though. A smell he remembered, from a very, very long time ago.
“I don’t know,” he said, though he knew.
“I think you do.” The demon’s hand fell away from his thigh. “And you know why I brought you here.”
Without replying, he swung himself off the beast’s back. It was a long time since his feet had touched the ground, and he could not afford to be unsteady on his legs. “What did they do?” he asked. “The people? What did they do to deserve this?”
“Nothing.” The demon shook her head, and her hair danced like fire. “They didn’t have to do anything. Just being is enough.”
He thought about that a moment, and nodded. “How do I stop them?” It would have to be him, of course. The demon was powerless to help in this instance.
“They’ll come to you,” the demon said. Her pointed ears twisted. “In fact,” she added casually, “They’re here. Can you not hear them, Man?”
“No –“ he began, and then he could hear them too. A high, singing noise, at the threshold of hearing, almost like music. Almost, but no quite.
“I can’t look at them,” he said. “Can I?”
“You can, here. Outside, they would have burned you. Here, it will be as sport to them to face you. And, so close, they do not burn.”
He pulled on his gauntlets and reached over his shoulder.
“You had better be swift, Man,” the demon said.
The sword was of a metal so old that it no longer had a name. It lay, as always, heavy in his hand, so heavy that it felt that he could never use it for anything. And then, as always, when he raised his arm, it suddenly became an extension of his body, black as the gulfs between the stars and hard and bright as starlight itself.
There was a knife, too, in the top of his boot, an ordinary knife, of old, polished steel. He hoped he would not have to use it. If things came to the point where he had to depend on the knife, he would probably be beyond help.
“Wait,” the demon said. “Before you go...there’s this much I can do for you.” She scraped at her breasts with her talons. Golden-orange blood welled, and she wiped her fingers across his brow and down his cheeks.
“It won’t help you defeat them,” she said. “But it will give you a measure of protection – for a while.”
He tried to smile to show his thanks, but the smile would not come. Turning, he trudged away down the street, his armoured feet heavy in the dust.
He saw the blood trail on the ground before he’d taken twenty steps. It led to the left, down a side street, and was still so fresh that when his boot touched it the blood smeared. He followed it till it ended abruptly at the foot of a wall in a little pool. A drop fell into it, with a tiny ripple. He looked up.
It squatted on the wall, looking down at him. A few of its wings held a human figure between them, twisted and tore at it absently, while its lion face leered.
“So,” it said. Its voice sounded like old, rusty machinery, as though it wasn’t used to talking. “A knight, of all things. Why have you come?”
His lips moved, numbly. “Because I wanted to.”
“Did you want to join in the fun?” Those of its wings which held the body raised it a little to give a better view. “It can be arranged.”
“No,” he said. “I came to stop you.”
“Stop us?” The thing laughed. Its fangs were stained with dried gore. “You think you can stop us? That anything can?”
“That’s why I came. If I didn’t know I could stop you I wouldn’t have come.”
“We’ve been watching you,” the thing said. The tongue of its ox head licked at the blood on one wing. “All alone on that beast of yours, plodding up the trail We were wondering where you were headed, but we didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to come...here.”
All alone? Either they hadn’t seen the demon or it was mocking him. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.
“Why not? It’s fun, and they deserved it.” It bent its lion head to stare at him. “As I am sure you deserve, too. Begone, before I look too deep into you.”
He stood his ground. “Where are the rest of the people?” he asked. “Did you kill them all?”
“There are a few left.” The thing motioned with its eagle’s head, to the side. “If you would join them, and their fate, they are to be found there.”
He looked in the direction the thing had indicated. The building was of yellow stone, with rough unfinished walls and narrow high windows.
“And if I join them,” he said, “then what?”
“Then, knight,” the thing said, and laughed with all four of its heads. “Then, knight, the fun begins.”
The building was higher than he had thought, and the walls were so thick that the windows were set deep into them, like sunken eyes. When he stood close to the wall he could hear noises inside, like a multitude sighing and crying.
Shadows began circling above. Now he knew what they were. Ignoring them, he began walking round the building, looking for a way in.
There was just one door. He found it after walking almost completely round the structure. It was huge, almost twice his height, and of wood the colour of iron, set with immense iron spikes. But when he pushed at it with his gauntlet, it swung open silently.
Inside, he stopped, blinking. And despite all he’d seen over the unending years of the journey, he couldn’t hold back a gasp of shock.
The yard was a pile of corpses. Some of them were dead. A lot more were only half dead. And another of the things squatted on the pile, grinning.
“A knight,” it said, from its human head. The head was of a very beautiful woman. “How very pleasant.”
“Told you so,” a voice said from behind and above. He resisted the temptation to look back. It would be the first one, which had been sitting on the wall and must now be crouching on the roof above the yard. “Great fun, isn’t it? He wants to stop us.”
“Of course he will,” the woman’s head said. The clawed wing meditatively picked at a body, which was still not quite dead. “Of course he will.”
“Just what we needed, a knight to play with,” the one behind him said. “I was getting quite bored.”
He glanced quickly round the yard, trying not to look at the corpses, which had been made corpses in imaginatively gruesome ways. It was lined by narrow windows, and he saw movement behind some of them. A hand, small as a child’s, waved frantically.
“I thought knights were supposed to be on our side,” the woman-headed thing said in mock complaint. “Aren’t we supposed to be the good ones?”
“I’m on the side of justice,” he said. “Whatever that is, this isn’t justice.”
“Ah, but it’s fun.” The woman-headed thing stretched some of its wings. Its body glowed bright beneath them, so bright that it was difficult to look at it. “It’s so much fun that you –“
It did not say anything more. It did not say anything more because the sword of nameless metal had sliced deep into its body just below the head. It merely tumbled over backward, thrashed a little, and died.
He had not meant to attack before he actually struck, and that was what had helped him. If he’d thought about it, he’d have been slower, and the thing would almost certainly have known. He’d reacted entirely on instinct, and he’d won.
For the moment.
Even as the woman-headed thing thrashed in its final spasms, he’d thrown himself down and to the side, and just in time. The one behind him was already hurtling down, too swiftly to stop or manoeuvre. It rushed past above his head just as he hit the ground and rolled over. The sword rose as of its own accord, cutting deep in between the wings.
The thing shrieked in agony, tumbling as it struck, rolling over and over in a cloud of feathers and silvery blood. The eagle beak snapped at the air, once, twice; the lion head roared and the ox head bellowed loudly. And then the sword came down again and it was still.
He became aware that he was leaning on the sword, putting all his weight on it, as though trying to pin the dead thing to the stone of the yard. The sword was actually in the rock, and he had to lean back and pull hard to get it out. For a while he stood where he was, trying to get his hammering heart under control.
Then he went to break the locks on the doors and let the people out.
The third one didn’t find him till he was halfway back to where he’d left the demon and the beast.
But it was waiting when he turned the corner to the main street, crouching where the blood trail started. It was big, much bigger than the other two, and its body blazed with a light so strong that he had to squint.
“Ah,” it said, “the knight.” It picked up some of the bloody dust and rubbed it meditatively. “The knight who kills angels.”
He said nothing.
“Why did you kill my angels, knight?” it asked. It shuffled a little closer on its wingtips. “They did not harm you.”
“They were killing the people,” he said. “They were killing them for no reason at all.”
“They had transgressed,” the thing replied. It wasn’t looking at him directly, just studying the ball of bloody mud meditatively. “It was sufficient.”
“The old people?” he asked. “The women? The children? The babies in arms? They had all transgressed?”
“It was ordered that they be destroyed,” the thing said. “What more do you want?”
“To stop this.” He pointed at the ruined, bloodstained buildings. “This is madness. No, it’s beyond madness.”
“You know what you’re saying?”
“Yes, I know what I’m saying. Whatever ordered this is insane. Worse than insane.”
“And so...you’re on the other side. You’re damned by your own word and deed.”
He shrugged. “I think I’ve been damned a long time. I don’t even know what I am any more. Maybe I’m not even alive.”
“You’re alive enough to kill angels.” It was looking at him now, its three visible heads – the ox, human and eagle – all turned towards him. “How did you do that, I wonder? I have never met anyone who could kill an angel before.”
He didn’t say anything. The thing’s eyes rested on his sword.
“I see,” it said silkily. “They must have underestimated you. But how could they have known?”
“What do you intend to do?” he asked it. “Your friends are dead, and I have released the people – those of them who are left. You could go away and let them mourn their dead and try and build their lives back again.”
“Ah, but that wouldn’t be obeying my orders, would it? My insane orders, as you put it.” It tilted the nearest head, as if thinking. “Now, what should I do with you? You and that sword of yours.”
He waited, knowing that the thing was playing with him, that it had already made its decision.
“I know,” it said brightly, and the next moment it was gone. It didn’t flap into the air. It just disappeared.
He was still staring at the spot when a tremendous blow from behind knocked him over. He went sprawling in the dust, rolling over desperately, raising the sword, but too late. A huge foot came down and crushed his sword arm against the dust.
The thing wasn’t a winged, four-headed angel any longer, It was a man now, huge and bearded, his immense arms bulging with muscle. He threw back his head and laughed as he raised his hands. Held in them was a gigantic battle axe. A second more, and he would bring the axe whistling down with force enough to split helmet and skull in two.
Then something struck from the air, a red blur, something that might have been a nude red-skinned woman with horns and a bladed tail. The giant, already off balance, twisted desperately, but too late. The thing in the air slammed into him, and was gone.
Slowly, like a great tree whose roots have been cut away, the giant fell.
He fell straight on the steel knife the man he had been about to kill had taken out of his boot. There was a gasp, a rush of blood, and then nothing more.
The man on the ground struggled out from under the giant’s carcass. There was no sign of a naked red woman with horns and a tail.
In the distance, a crowd of the people he’d released was approaching.
“Demon,” he said.
It had been days since he’d left the village, and this was the first time he’d been able to bring himself to talk. “Demon.”
There was no reply. The beast’s horned head nodded in the burnished sunshine.
“I know you’re there somewhere,” he said. “Even if you don’t want to show yourself, you’re there. So listen to me, will you?
“I suppose I should thank you for saving me. Or maybe I shouldn’t.” He paused. “If death is still a possibility open to me, I would have rather died, even if it meant an eternity of torment. But then the angel would have killed the people. So maybe I should thank you after all.
“Of course,” he added, “from the moment it took human form, it was doomed. It became vulnerable to you, and you could have destroyed it by yourself, even if it had killed me. So why didn’t you just let it kill me and then destroyed it? Is it because you like me a little? You like me a little, don’t you?”
There was no reply, just a stillness in the desert air.
“Demon?” he called. “Are you there?”
There was no reply.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014