All through the day, the mountain above them had quaked and grumbled, and the black clouds of smoke that had gathered overhead had rained ash which had coloured everything, including the beast’s heavy shoulders and the knight’s armour, grey.
Only the demon had been unaffected. The ash hadn’t touched her glowing red-gold limbs and spreading wings, and though the knight and the beast both coughed and wheezed at the ash and the heat in the air, she spoke as easily as ever, as though none of it touched her at all.
Now, as the darkness fell, the sky above the summit glowed a sullen, inflamed red. The rumbling through the earth was continuous, and the air was so filled with searing gases that the man and the beast could scarcely breathe. Slipping off the beast’s back, the demon called a halt.
“I’ll go on alone from here,” she said. “This is too much for you two. I can’t really ask you for more.”
The knight fought for breath enough to be able to reply. “We can’t let you do that,” he said eventually. “We’ve come this far and we’ll go all the way.”
“You aren’t going to be of any help if you get yourselves smothered by ash,” she told him. “And the mountain’s going to blow, Man. We don’t have much time left to rescue those people.”
The knight peered up at the glowing bulk of the peak above. “Do you really think they’re there?” he asked. “Don’t you think they should have left by now?”
The demon flapped her wings a few times, clearing the air around them for a moment. “You know what they told us in the villages on the plain. The people living in the town below the crater worship the mountain. They won’t leave because they’re convinced it won’t ever harm them.”
“Even when it’s all set to erupt?” the knight said. “And we don’t even know where this town is. We haven’t found a trace of it. Maybe it’s already buried by the ash or a rock slide like the one this afternoon.”
The demon nodded. “That’s possible. But things like the rock slide this afternoon is why I don’t want you to risk yourselves coming further. I’ll be able to search more quickly if I’m alone anyway. You two go down a little, where the air’s clearer, and wait for me. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“What happens if you do find them, and they don’t want to come?” the knight asked.
“They may, certainly, Man,” the demon acknowledged. “I don’t think, though, that in that case if we’re three of us there together, they’d change their minds.” She flapped her wings again a couple of times. “If they refuse, I’ll see what I can do.”
There was a bright spurt of flame from above, and the slope trembled. “We won’t go all the way down,” the knight said. “Do you remember the shelf of rock we passed this morning? We’ll wait under that. It’s good shelter.”
The demon nodded. “Be safe, Man.” She reached out to them both a moment. “I’ll see you soon.”
The knight turned the beast’s head away from the track up the slope and back down the way they’d come. Once, only, he looked back over his shoulder. She was still standing where she had been, watching them.
He remembered how she’d touched his arm and the beast’s neck just before they’d parted. It was only his fancy that it had seemed so much like a gesture of farewell, he told himself. Of course it had been.
The night was full of glowing red skies and raining ash, shuddering ground underfoot and rumbles as of thunder. As the demon ran, the slope around her feet cracked and quivered and split open, bleeding molten rock which trickled sluggishly away. She raced up towards the crater now, directly up the slope, running so quickly that her feet barely touched the kiln-hot soil. As she went, she strained her ears, trying to make out the sound of voices, or any other noise that might indicate human beings, from the grumbling of the mountain torn asunder.
It was a forlorn hope, she knew. If the town near the crater really existed – and the village people had been totally uncertain about its whereabouts – the people should have left by now. If they hadn’t, they’d most likely already be dead from the ash and the gas in the air, even without the lava that would come pouring out when the final eruption came.
But she still had to do it, to go looking, and, if she could, to rescue them. She had no idea how she might lead them to safety. But she had to try, she told herself grimly. She had to try.
The slope was becoming less steep, the ground flattening as she neared the summit. Not far above, the crater pulsed fire like a beating heart.
She felt the chanting more than heard it. It was a vibration in the air, like a string being plucked, an insistent repetitive thrumming, a wordless tune, but made up of human voices. She hesitated, turning from one side to the other as she tried to find the source. It was coming round the curve of the mountain, still very far away, and lower down on the volcano. But at least now she had something to go on.
She saw the procession while she was still not far below the crater, a line of tiny dots of flame down the slope. The chanting was louder now, but still almost lost among the rumbling, which was now almost continuous. She stopped a few moments, studying the line of lights, judging where she could intercept the procession best. Then she had a sudden thought, and, before running on again, she set out to change her appearance.
She took the grey of the ash under her feet and wove that into fabric that she wrapped round her body, her wings and tail. She took the darkness of the air and plaited it into her hair, turning it black and draping it over her horns. She took a stray beam of moonlight which penetrated through the smoke overhead, splashed it over her face and exposed arms and legs, turning her skin to a pale flesh tone. Lastly, she took the brown of a rock and spun that into the straps of leather footwear.
Looking down at herself, she took a deep breath. Now she was no longer a red-golden naked woman with horns and wings and a barbed tail; she was a long-limbed girl in the clothing of the people of the villages, a loose long shirt down to her knees and sandals with thongs wrapped round her ankles. She could not keep up the pretence indefinitely, but for now it would do.
As she ran, the chanting grew louder, more distinct, though there were still no words she could discern. There were two columns of torches, held high over bent figures trudging slowly upwards. The flames lit their grey-robed figures, their hooded heads, and on a large box on poles they bore between them, like a palanquin.
Racing down the slope, the demon skidded to a halt before them, ash and cinders pattering around her feet. “Stop,” she shouted, loud enough to be heard over the mountain and over the chanting. “Don’t go up any further.”
The chanting broke off abruptly. A taller figure, at the head of the procession shuffled forwards, and pulled the hood back off its face. It was a man with a deeply lined face. In the hand which held no torch he carried an ornately carved staff of black stone. It reflected the light of the torch and turned the lines on his face into canyons of shadow.
“Who are you?” he asked. “And why are you trying to stop us?”
“The mountain is about to erupt,” the demon said. “If you go any further, you’ll be burned or...” she glanced upwards as a spurt of flame towered momentarily into the sky from the crater. “Or,” she added, “you’ll be smothered by the gas and ash. Don’t go any further.”
“You can’t stop us,” the man with the staff replied. “It’s our holy duty to go up to the crater and perform sacrifice to appease the god of the mountain. Then everything will be as it was before.”
“Sacrifice?” the demon repeated, astonished. “What are you going to sacrifice?”
“That is none of your concern, woman. You should not be here on the slopes anyway. You villagers of the plain should keep to your place.”
“Please,” the demon said, “try to understand. There is nothing to be achieved by sacrifice. Can’t you feel the eruption coming? The air is barely breathable anyway, and we aren’t even near the crater.”
The man with the staff peered at her, actually bending forward to stare. “Have you been up there, woman, that you tell us not to go higher?”
“Yes. It’s much worse the higher you go. Up near the crater it would burn the skin off your flesh.”
“The god of the mountain,” the man said heavily, “does not put unsurmountable difficulties in our path. He has always demanded and received sacrifice, and he will receive it again.”
“What’s the problem, High Priest Dabanol?” one of the people in the lines called. It was a woman’s voice, but roughened with the dust in the air until its gender was almost unrecognisable. “Who is this and why is she holding us up?”
“Just a silly village lass,” the man with the staff called back over his shoulder. “She’ll let us by in a moment.”
“If she doesn’t,” the woman said, pushing past the others, “just break her head with your staff, Dabanol. We’re wasting time.”
“No,” the man called the High Priest Dabanol said. “I don’t want unnecessary bloodshed, and this is just a silly girl.”
“Meanwhile,” the woman said, “the god awaits his sacrifice and grows impatient.”
The demon looked past her to the double line of torch bearers and the box they bore. “That’s the sacrifice, isn’t it? Whatever you’re carrying in the box.” She paused, as the truth struck her. “Or whoever. It’s a human being, isn’t it? A human being you’re planning to sacrifice.”
Dabanol blinked. “As I said already, it is none of your concern. But, yes, it’s a human. The god wants a healthy and fit sacrifice, and we’re doing him the honour of giving him one.”
“We’ll throw her into the crater,” the woman said. In the light of the torches she looked transparent. Her skin, hair, even her eyelashes, were so pale as to be essentially colourless, except for two red patches that burned on her cheeks. “Now crawl back to your village and let us be.”
“And suppose the mountain god does not accept your sacrifice?” the demon asked. “What do you intend to do then?”
There was a brief silence, and then the High Priest slammed the butt of his staff on the ash. “If that is so,” he said, “we have transgressed too far to be forgiven, and we shall deserve destruction.”
The demon looked at him and at the box. Something lay inside it. She could see the vague outline of a body, wrapped in ropes, and twitching. For an instant a face was visible, a pale oval with huge fear-stricken eyes. “Your sacrifice,” she said, “does not seem to be pleased at the idea of being given to the god.”
The colourless woman shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what she thinks or doesn’t. The god doesn’t care either way.”
“But I do,” the demon said quietly. “I don’t agree with sacrifices anyway, but a sacrifice against the will of the sacrificial offering is an abomination.”
The High Priest Dabanol laughed shortly. “And what of it? Who will volunteer to be sacrificed instead – you, perhaps?”
“Why not?” the den replied. “I am healthy and fit enough, and that’s all you want, isn’t it? Let that woman go, and I’ll go willingly. You won’t even have to tie me up.”
The High Priest and the colourless woman glanced at each other and conferred briefly. “All right,” the former said eventually. Up above the mountain creaked and rumbled. “If you wish to sacrifice yourself, we have no problem with it at all.”
The demon nodded. “Let the sacrifice go,” she said. “Let her go, and let her leave the mountain if she wants.”
The crater was a bowl of fire, smoke and incandescent molten rock. The heat was so great that the demon felt her disguise of woven darkness and shadow begin to grow thin, threatening to evaporate. She pitted her willpower against the light and heat and pulled the disguise together again, knowing it wasn’t for long.
“I told you it was much worse up here,” she said.
Only the colourless woman and Dabanol had accompanied her up to the crater lip, cloth wrapped round their faces to keep out the worst of the ash and the searing gases. The others were huddled further down the slope, where the heat was slightly more bearable.
“It doesn’t matter,” the High Priest rasped. “It’s only a little while longer anyway.”
“So what happens now?” the demon asked. “Is there something you do, some invocation?”
“No, nothing,” the colourless woman said. Her eyes were squeezed to tiny slits against the glare. “Do you want us to throw you in or will you jump in yourself?”
The demon opened her mouth to answer and then, suddenly, she felt it, through the ground, the rising force of the final eruption, building and rising. “Get out,” she said. “Get out now.”
“What?” the High Priest blinked. “What did you say?”
“Get down as quickly as you can,” the demon shouted, her voice cracking through the rising thunder of the volcano. “It’s about to blow. Can’t you feel it?”
“The god will not allow...” the High Priest began, and then he felt it too. The demon saw him glance down at the crater and shake his head. “We can’t go without witnessing the sacrifice.”
“All right,” the demon managed. “You’ll have your sacrifice.” The effort to keep her disguise together was getting too great, the heat and the light burning away the shadow, and as she spread her arms and let herself topple over backwards into the crater, she felt the clothes and sandals melt away, her own face and form coming through, but then she hit the molten rock. It was around her now, closing around her face and limbs, and then the incandescent light and heat were all around her, through her, she was part of it, and it of her.
And the mountain swallowed her down.
When the knight stepped out from under the shelf of rock, dawn was just breaking through the smoke and clouds of ash. He looked around, still astonished that the mountain hadn’t blown apart the previous night. There had been a while when, crouched under the rock shelf with his arms round the beast, he’d thought it was a matter of moments, when the rock overhead had creaked and shifted and the ground underneath shuddered and quivered.
For a moment then, he’d considered leaving the shelter of the rock. He’d considered going back up the slope, to find the demon, and, if he could, to bring her down with him or share her fate. It was only because he’d no idea where she might be that he’d hesitated.
And then, the mountain seemed to have taken a deep, long breath, and quietened down. The rumblings had reduced, the earth ceased to shake so much, and though the sky overhead was still thick with smoke, the ash that had been raining down for days had thinned to a drizzle.
Looking up the slope towards the summit, still shrouded in smoke as black as night, the knight saw a tiny, fluttering reddish shape. It eddied back and forth, like a leaf caught in a wind, but surely no leaf could have survived the heat of the lava and gas up above. The knight squinted, peering, as the thing twisted and turned and finally caught on a boulder which stuck out of the grey ash like a broken tree stump. He watched it try and free itself, and then subside, defeated.
Then he called the beast to him and led it up the slope to where the thing lay, and overhead the clouds of smoke dissipated, slowly, one by one.
The sun had finally emerged, almost overhead, when he reached her. She lay caught in the boulder, one charred wing still weakly fluttering, the other an incinerated ruin. She turned her head slowly towards him.
“Man,” she whispered, as faintly as a grain of dust falling. “Beast. You came.”
The knight knelt by her. “Demon,” he said, helplessly. “Demon.”
“It’s good to see you,” she said. “Good to know you cared enough to come. I wanted to see you, at least once more.” She reached out a twisted, burned claw. “Take my hand,” she said. “Just hold me.”
The knight took her hand. His mouth moved, forming useless words.
“I fought the mountain,” the demon whispered. “I fought the god of the mountain. I met it face to face. fought as I’ve never fought before, fought to drive it down back from where it had come. And I won. I won.”
“You did,” the knight said. “Of course you did. But how it’s cost you, Demon.” And then his tears came, bursting out of him, tears that had been held back for aeons. Crying helplessly, he collapsed on her ruined body, and his tears rained on her as he shuddered, sobbing his heart out, not even trying to stop.
The next thing he realised, he was lying on his back and the demon was looking down at him. Her wings flapped behind her shoulders, grown whole again. She traced the line of his cheek with one finger. “Enough now, Man,” she said. “You’ve wept enough.”
He sat up so suddenly that the edge of his helmet bumped one of her horns. “Demon!” he said. “You’re all right.”
The demon looked down at herself. “Yes, aren’t I.” She shook her head. “You know, Man...”
“I thought, sometimes, you loved me,” she said. “But I didn’t know how much. Not until now.”
The beast nuzzled at them.
“You too,” the demon said, stroking its broad flank. “You, too.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015