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
“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.
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
“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
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
“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
“Perhaps you had better come into one of
our huts,” their captive said reluctantly. “Then we can talk.”
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
“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
“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
“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.
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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,
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
“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
“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