Three days after they entered the valley, the narrow stream they were following spread out into a sheet of water, slow-moving and muddy, which filled the valley floor from side to side. Even the beast balked at the sight.
“Demon,” he said then, knowing she was there, somewhere close. “Should we turn back?”
“The way back is closed to us, Man.” She murmured the words in his ear, her arms sliding round him to touch the beast’s neck and urge it onward. “There is no way but forward, here.”
The beast, at her touch, stepped forward reluctantly into the water. It deepened slowly, crawling over the beast’s hooves up its legs until it was up to the creature’s belly and lapping at the soles of the man’s boots. The beast walked slowly, testing each step, and once or twice backed away from a spot before taking another path.
On either side the cliffs rose, vertical slabs of black rock, disappearing into the low grey clouds overhead, the clouds that had not broken even for a moment since they had begun following the slopes that led down into the valley. It was oppressively hot, and the knight wished he could take off his mail and overshirt, but the buzzing clouds of little insects that gathered around them had already covered the exposed parts of his face with welts. The beast did not seem particularly bothered by them, but it was obviously uneasy in the water.
“What do we do if it gets deeper?” he asked. “I don’t know if the beast can swim, but I certainly can’t, with this armour.”
“We’ll see if it comes to that, Man.” The demon appeared, stepping past the beast, up to her breasts in the water. “I’ll try and find a way for us.”
As they moved on, thick mists rose from the water, coiling and turning in the air until it became a grey murk which mixed with the clouds overhead until it became almost impossible to see any distance. Shadows grew in the mist, and became clumps of vegetation, grey and twisted, that struggled up towards the sky like the fingers of drowning giants.
Something splashed in the marsh, waves rippling against the beast’s flanks, and a long shadow passed by, just below the turbid surface. The knight had the impression of a great tail waving, and then the shadow was gone.
“What was that?” he asked the demon.
She had not even glanced round. “Nothing that could harm us, or had any wish to try. Be careful, though, Man. We’re being watched.”
“We are?” He looked around, but could only see the coiling mist. “From where? Who’s watching us?”
“I can’t tell yet who they are, or where.” Her flame-coloured hair blazed in the murk as she turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. “But we are being watched, you can be sure of it.”
As though in response, a noise came out of the grey, moisture-laden air. It started low, a moan that built quickly into a warbling scream and then an unnerving wail that echoed back from the cliffs, over and over, until it was no longer possible to distinguish between the echo and the original sound. It was everywhere and all around, bouncing from the water to the clouds overhead and from cliff to unseen cliff, rising into a screech that sent the beast’s ears flattening against its head. Through his gauntlets, the man could feel it trembling.
And then suddenly the noise ended. The silence was so total it was as though someone had slammed an immense door shut. Not even the beast’s heavy legs seemed to make any noise in the water.
“What was that?” the man asked when his ears could hear again.
The demon shook her head. “I don’t know. But I have a feeling we’re going to find out.”
The beast plodded on into the mist.
It was evening, and the mist was growing heavy with darkness, when the demon raised a claw-tipped finger to point. “Look.”
“What is it?” the man asked, and then answered his own question. “A village.”
It was on a pile of matted vegetation that grew out of the water like the hump of some primordial animal. The village was made out of matted vegetation, too, dome-shaped huts crowded together, dimly seen in the mist and gathering darkness. A few boats floated beside it, flat with low sides, little more than rafts.
“What should we do?” the man asked. “Should we pass it by?”
“Quite apart from the fact that I don’t think we should be out in this marsh at night,” the demon said, gesturing at the thickening darkness, “we need to find out where we’re going. We’ll probably find out something there.”
They had hardly stepped out of the water, the matted plants undulating under their feet, when shadows emerged from the huts and began to slip down towards the water. They were small, quick moving, but the demon was faster. She snatched with one hand at a darting shape, and came up with something small and wriggling with its arm clutched in her hand.
“You let me go,” the thing squeaked. “You let me go, monster.”
“We’re not monsters.” The knight climbed off the beast’s back and bent to the creature. It was human of a kind, with smooth hairless blackish-grey skin and large eyes, dressed in a loose outfit that flapped around its body. It wriggled and twisted, fruitlessly trying to free itself from the demon’s grip. “We don’t mean you any harm.”
“That’s right,” the demon said. “We only want a little help. Call your people and tell them there’s no need to be afraid.”
“That’s what you say,” the thing replied. “You’ll get us together and then you’ll kill us all. We know your kind.”
“Our kind?” The demon and the knight exchanged glances. “We’ve never been here before today. How do you mean, our kind?”
The creature – the knight could still not decide if it were male or female, old or young – grimaced as the demon’s claws dug harder into its skin. “We’ve been watching you all day,” it said. “We’re just harmless fisher folk, and yet you come straight to our village. What else could you want but to destroy us, like the others?”
“What others? We don’t know of any others.” The demon shifted her grip to the creature’s shoulder. “Look – fisherman – I promise you that we’ve no intention of harming any of you, nor do we know what ‘others’ you’re talking about. All we’re doing is trying to find our way out of this marsh.”
“Call your people,” the knight said. “They can safely come back to the village. Nothing will happen to them.”
“I’m going to let you go now,” the demon told their captive. “Don’t try to run. We’d catch you at once.”
The thing blinked its large eyes and whistled loudly several times. “They will come back,” it told them, “but they know all too well bad things will happen to them. Bad things have been happening for a long time now.”
“Bad things?” The darkness was so thick by now that the knight could barely see his own hand as he gestured. “I imagine that bad things happen a lot in this marsh.”
“Only to those that do not know it,” their captive said. “We have always lived here, and it has never held any terrors for us, until the monsters came.”
“Monsters again?” the demon asked. “What monsters are these that you keep talking about?”
“Monsters that now haunt the marsh,” another voice said. A second of the fisher people came up cautiously, ready to bolt into the darkness at the slightest alarm. “Have you not even heard them?”
“Heard them?” The knight remembered the scream that had come out of the mist earlier. “Perhaps we heard sounds. But we didn’t know what made them.”
There was a silence, broken only by the gurgling of marsh water in the matted vegetation on which the village was built.
“Perhaps you had better come into one of our huts,” their captive said reluctantly. “Then we can talk.”
The captive’s name was Urugun. He – it turned out to be a male – offered them smoked fish to eat, and when they declined, nibbled at it with no great sign of appetite. The little hut, lit by a tiny fish-oil lamp, was crowded with the fisher people, who seemed to have lost their fear enough to come to see the demon and the knight for themselves. Outside the hut, the beast waited, occasionally shifting its weight from one massive leg to another.
“It was a long time ago that the monsters came,” Urugun said. “I can’t tell you how long exactly. One by one, our people – those who went to fish in the deeper part of the marsh – began to disappear. They would go to the best fishing areas of the marsh, where they had always gone, and none of them would ever come back again.
“Of course we went looking for them, but we never found anything – except, sometimes, an overturned boat or a torn net. These were parts of the marsh we knew well, where we’d always fished, and nobody had ever suffered so much as a minor accident there. And now they were disappearing without trace.”
“Perhaps there was some kind of freak storm...” the knight suggested.
“No. There never is any kind of storm on the marshes, and in any case they weren’t so far away that we wouldn’t have noticed a storm that struck them. Besides, it wasn’t just once either. And then there was what happened to the others.”
“This isn’t the only village on the marshes, as you might imagine,” the woman Urugun had introduced as his mate, Kular, took up the story. “We know each other and keep in touch, visit each other and trade among ourselves. Some of us went one day to the next village out in the marsh and...there was no one there. The village had been destroyed. It had been torn to pieces and there was no trace of the people, except for some blood stains.”
The knight and the demon glanced at each other. “An animal?” she asked.
“There’s no animal that could do something like that in the marsh, never was. We know all the animals here.”
“Still, if one had come from somewhere else, it might have destroyed the village and then left again.”
“But that wasn’t the only time this happened. Since then we’ve found at two other destroyed villages, and several others that we used to hear from have fallen silent. We’ve no idea what’s happened to them. So, when we saw you out there...we thought you were the monsters come for us.”
“I see,” the knight said. “But you have no idea what is actually doing all this?”
“No. We hear strange cries in the marsh sometimes, but that is all. We’ve never seen anything.”
“We have thought of leaving the marsh,” her mate said. “But where could we go, what could we do elsewhere? Fishing and the marsh are all we know.”
“And you don’t have any idea what these monsters might be? There aren’t any old legends or anything?”
The villagers looked at each other. In the tiny, flickering light of the oil lamp they looked uncomfortable. “The marsh has plenty of legends,” Kular replied eventually. “How can we say which one might apply?”
“Warlocks and the spirits of the old gods,” her mate added. “Ghosts of the dead, who are jealous of the living and filled with bitter hatred. Who can tell?”
The knight tilted his helmeted head and stared at them. “You clearly have an idea what it is,” he said. “You don’t want to tell us, but you have some kind of idea in your minds. Isn’t that so?”
The fisher people looked even more uncomfortable. At last Kular broke the silence.
“There is a tale of the White Worm,” she said. “It sleeps in caverns under the marsh, where the air and the light never reach, and emerges only once in a thousand years. It’s the colour of the mist and the marsh, and it is hungry, for it has fasted for those thousand years. When it comes out, it consumes all it can find, until at last its hunger is sated, and it sinks back into its caverns until its time comes again.”
“And you believe this,” the knight stated. “It’s might be only a tale, as you said, but you all believe it. Maybe you don’t believe it’s a worm, but you believe that’s what’s doing all this. And that’s why you don’t want to leave – you’re hoping it sates its hunger and goes back to sleep once more, before it reaches your village.”
“Well...” Kular replied. “How do we know what’s true and what isn’t? A thousand years is a long time.”
“It’s supposed to scream,” Urugun added. “It is said to be so filled with hunger that it screams out in frustration when something it swallows fails to satiate it. And you’ve heard the sounds in the mist.”
“Is there anything else they say about it?”
Urugun and Kular glanced at each other. “Uh,” the former said, “there are the legends which claim the White Worm does not wish to feed on our bodies, so much. Our flesh and bones are little to it. What it feeds on, what gives it delight, are our fear and our pain.”
“And it makes that fear and pain last a thousand years,” Kular added.
Nobody said anything for a few moments.
“These marshes must be huge?” the demon asked. “From what you say, since there are many villages, yours must be at only one corner of them.”
“Yes, we are a fringe village, close to the borderlands. Nobody really knows how big the marshes are.”
“We,” the knight said, “were looking to find our way out of the marsh. But from what you say we were merely wading into the middle of it.”
“You soon couldn’t wade,” Urugun said. His thin lips lifted in the rudiment of a smile. “It gets a lot deeper further on.”
“There are ways out,” Kular put in, “but you’d never find them without help.”
“We’ll help you get out of the marshes,” Urugun said. “Since you aren’t the danger we’re afraid of, and...”
The knight didn’t hear what the fisherman said next. His attention was fixed on the demon, who seemed to be listening hard to something, her head cocked.
She didn’t answer. Rising, swift on her bare toes, she slipped to the entrance of the hut and disappeared into the night. Slower and heavier in his armour, the knight, stepping clumsily between the people squeezed into the narrow space, followed.
He found her standing at the edge of the mound of vegetation, staring up into the darkness. “Demon?” he asked again. “What happened?”
Without looking at him, she raised a hand for silence. He followed the direction of her gaze.
High up, two dim reddish circles glimmered in the murk. They had already faded away before the knight realised that they had been two enormous eyes, looking down at them.
They left the village in the morning. It was as hot and grey and oppressive as the previous day, the clouds of insects as troublesome, the mist as thick as ever. The fisher people did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary at all.
Urugun had volunteered to guide them out of the marsh, and Kular had insisted on coming along. They had taken one of the flat boats, poling it along, though there was a paddle for deeper water. They had tried half heartedly to make space for the knight and the demon on the boat, but it was obvious that the little vessel was far too small.
“It doesn’t matter,” the knight told them. “I have to stay with the beast, and she doesn’t need the boat. Just lead the way and we’ll follow.”
The demon and he hadn’t yet discussed what they’d seen the previous night. Part of the reason was that the fisher people hadn’t given them the privacy to be able to talk; also, the knight was far from sure what the dim eyes he’d seen even meant. Perhaps it was merely some denizen of the swamps, well known to the people who lived there.
The little boat poled slowly along the water, ripples from its passage washing the beast’s flanks as it followed cautiously in its wake. The demon, freed from having to mark the way for the beast, sat behind the knight, her arms round his chest. Occasionally she disappeared, ranging into the mist to one side or the other, before returning again.
“I thought I saw something,” she murmured after one of these expeditions. “But there wasn’t anything there.”
“Do you think someone’s watching us?”
“If there is,” she replied, “it’s not the fisher people. I don’t know why, Man, but I’m extremely uneasy about this – much more so than yesterday.”
“Don’t you trust those two, then?” the knight asked, his lips barely moving. The couple in the boat, one bent over the pole and the other peering into the mist, weren’t, to all appearances, trying to listen to them, but he had a feeling they were keenly aware of everything their charges were doing.
“I don’t think it’s to do with them – I’m sure they’ll be glad enough to be rid of us. It’s...”
The boat vanished.
It happened so quickly that neither the demon nor the knight saw it clearly. Something like a bank of white mist drifted across, between them and the boat, and then as quickly was whisked aside. And the boat was gone.
The beast reared for a moment, forefeet rising from the water, and came down again. The man and the demon were left staring at the water where the boat had been.
It was left for the knight to make the obvious comment. “They couldn’t have got away so quickly.”
“They didn’t get away at all,” the demon said. She pointed at something floating in the water. “There’s their pole.”
The knight felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Slowly, deliberately, he reached for the sword of nameless metal slung on his back.
The scream came from the mist. Close, much closer than the previous day, so close that the air itself shivered from the noise, so close that the water surface and the mist seemed to flinch from it.
“It’s coming for us, Man,” the demon murmured. “I can feel it coming.”
A moment later, it hit.
It hit from above, like a knife ripping through the curtain of the mist, with the speed of a striking snake. The knight had a confused impression of a pair of dim red eyes set on either side of a mouth ringed with teeth, surrounded by a nest of writhing tentacles. He tried to bring his arm up, but it was already too late, the sword being knocked out of his hand with the force of the impact. And then the mouth had closed around him, snatched him effortlessly up from the beast’s back and pulled him up and away.
Time stopped. Everything froze in place.
It was cold, like a thousand million stings of ice biting at him through his armour, sucking his breath away, filling every part of his body. It was the essence of pain, pure distilled agony in every part of his being. He hung suspended in an endless whiteness, whiteness which pressed against his eyes, penetrated his mouth and nose, nestled inside the sinuses of his brain. And the whiteness was pain beyond imagining.
His body went rigid, unable to move, unable to continue to exist, and yet unable to seek relief in dissolution.
For an endless, timeless moment, he hung in the pain, feeling it, making it, knowing it consumed.
And then, somewhere deep inside himself, he heard a whisper, in a familiar voice.
“Pain is a sensation, Man, just a sensation, like an insect on your skin. Wrap it away, close it away from yourself. Fight it.”
She was not here, he knew. But her voice was, and that, for the moment, was enough.
He fought. He clawed at the pain with every fibre of his being, ripped it away from his skin and bones, from the inside of his eyes, from the depths of his lungs. He stripped it away, pushed it together deep inside himself, a hard clotted mass to be sealed away.
And, even as he did so, more icy needles of pain fastened on him, hooked into his muscles and tendons and the marrow in his bones, a dozen grasping at him when just one was before. Grimly, bit by bit, he stripped them away, too, and pushed them into the hard mass inside himself.
Then he began to seal it away.
In the immense, endless white, he thought black. Black was hardly even something he could imagine, but he forced himself to create it, starting with not-white and thickening it, condensing it, into a sheet of rippling darkness. He wrapped the pain in it, fold by fold, until it was hidden in pure dark, until the white could no longer get to it.
Then he began on the needles of pain and cold that had seized on him again, and sealed them away too.
Again and again and again, over and over, until the darkness began, slowly, to push back the whiteness, until there was more black inside him than the white, until he could almost begin to move his fingers and toes, until he could nearly breathe again.
And then, suddenly, the pain and whiteness were gone.
It happened so abruptly that he did not realise it for a moment. He hung for a moment, as before, and then realised that he could see, and hear, and that he still existed as something more than black-wrapped pain.
Time snapped into being again.
All around, he saw shadows. Near and far, big and small, some still and some writhing, they floated around him, above and below, on all sides, blurred and dark in mottled grey. He had a sense of something drawing its breath, concentrating its efforts, something immense and famished with a hunger that could never end, which was gathering its forces before biting back again.
And this time, when it did, he knew there would be no respite, no way out. It had taken the measure of him, and would destroy him totally and forever. Despairing, he took a deep breath, wondering if he ought to expend it in a scream.
Then the mottled grey fell apart.
He saw it part, as the blade of the nameless metal came through. He saw the blade slash and cut away, hacking, the blade that he had wielded so many times, ripping away the grey, carving it into ribbons of cold and mist, stripping it away from the shadows that writhed and hung unmoving.
And then the grey was gone, and he was falling, falling, into water and mud and the swamp, back into life again.
“I still can’t believe it,” the knight said.
The demon moved his head into a more comfortable position in her lap and stroked his cheek with one forefinger.
“What can’t you believe?”
The man turned his head to look at the sword, which the demon had leaned against a thick tree. The beast stood beside it, looking on impassively. “That you actually used my sword. And that you won, as well.”
The demon shrugged. “I realised it wasn’t something I could fight with only my powers. It wasn’t just energy – it was a real creature, too, something with physical form and substance. And since you were so kind as to throw your sword to me when it snatched you...”
“I didn’t throw you my sword.” The knight struggled to sit up. Below them the ground sloped away to the edge of the swamp, but they were back on dry ground. He had a vague memory of Urugun and Kular guiding the beast as the demon carried him in her arms up out of the water. “It just fell.”
“Doesn’t make a difference what you intended, Man. I had the sword, and you had your courage. We each had the weapons we needed.”
“My courage? That’s ridiculous.”
“There’s nothing ridiculous about it, Man. You fought it so hard that it had to gather all its strength against you, with nothing left over for anything else. That’s why I could rip into it. That Urugun and Kurla are alive are, I’m sure, only due to you as well. It put so much effort into consuming you that it ignored them almost completely.”
“What happened to it?”
The demon shook her head. “It fell apart. It began glowing, as though there was a white fire inside it, and then it simply tore into pieces. I don’t know if it’s destroyed, though, or if it’s just gone back into its cavern under the swamp. Assuming such a place actually exists.”
“It was very old and very hungry,” he told her. “I don’t think it could have existed so long if it could be so easily destroyed.”
“I don’t suppose anyone will know for a thousand years. But at least, for a thousand years, the swamp will live again.”
The demon sat beside the man, her head on his shoulder, her arm around him. “Demon?” he asked.
“What would you have done, if the Worm hadn’t been distracted with me?” he asked, after a while.
“Fought it anyway,” she answered simply. “I told you once that I’m never letting you go again.”
He stroked her hair, and ran his finger down the fluted surface of one of the horns that curved down past her face.
“Man?” she said.
“Yes?” He turned towards her, and her lips were waiting for his.
“Do you think the beast will mind?” he asked, when the kiss ended at last.
“I’m sure it’ll be happy,” she said, and pulled him to her again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015