The Warrior & The Demon
A cut chapter from a big project
Hazel was always awake before him. Maybe she did sleep after all.
Braddius’ sixth sense grew around that routine. Bleary eyes that’d become comfortable at being closed with the absolute awareness that if opened there would only ever be a lush night sky to see them, opened to disappointment at grey clouds and stubborn rain. But that sensation went down the shitter to a warm pleasant sensation as he drew clean breath into scarred lungs. He lifted up. Shrunken muscles squirmed as he extended arms in a backward V shape. Hands grated and squirmed against fragments of chipped volcanic rock.
The demon heard his blurred moving-about and was on him in a flash. Hazel’s eyes pressed up to Brad like he was a mirror. His chest slowed its rhythm, the heart it held still screamed in shock. Some kind of otherworld thing. He thought. Yes, yes that’s it. Just throw in the fact it’s a fucking demon spirit thing. That explains it.
Hazel laughed a throaty laugh.
“Nice try Mr. Serious.” Hazel cackled. “Ya can’t wrap everything up in a nice imaginary bow, with proper technique. It’s tough enough with actual reasons, not to mention ribbons.”
Brad stoop up properly and stretched, but the energy did not budge up to meet the peak of their previous session.
Hazel watched, hovering on a close cluster of stones. Eyes fixed just as solidly. The demon chirped with a mock casual tone. “How long are you going to put off your mission? Ah no ignore silly me, mission isn’t the right word."
Hazel floated up and around lazily, circling the air like a locust. Her pattern floated its way up to Brad, and she landed on her feet. With one arm the demon pointed to Brad in his stupid self-important unfinished stretch pose, the other highlighted the cave Brad was so skilled at ignoring.
“Less of a mission, more of a way to avoid the larger issue by giving yourself enough pain to feel like you’re making progress, or even repenting. God forbid.”
Brad had no words to launch a comeback, but had some dignity to nod. A quick robotic nod, but it still counted. Hazel brightened at that, body language juiced up. After some more floating and air spins, she came back to ground. Now both arms pointed at Brad. “It doesn’t matter. Those twats being dead. Well, it never mattered but that’s not the point. In this speck of a moment they are not worth tears or glumness.”
She grabbed him. Brad’s scarred neck prickled at the contact. Being touched by a spirit was never something on Brad’s bucket list, and now it was crossed off against his will. Hazel went on, dragging Braddius to the cave. It cost a spirit no physical effort to do things like this, but mental patience was running low today. Brad literally dug his heels at the ground. It sifted and parted like sand but held like crab claws. Small explosions of dust went off at his feet, sending fragments of rock and bursts of ash to trail behind the old warrior. Hazel frowned and came to a sudden stop. The resulting momentum sent Brad flying forward and against Hazel. Against in the sense that Brad felt extreme cold air around his temple. It spooked him, so he was grateful when Hazel shoved him away like a grumpy owner dismisses a cat.
He picked himself up from the ground for what felt like the hundredth time. May well be close to that. “I got the message okay.” Brad said, with the vibe of a unintentional idiot. Hazel probably picked up on that when she said: “You got it, but you’re too much of a dumb blind fuck to read.” If she was mortal this would be the point she took in a melodramatic deep breath. Instead she made her glare sharper somehow. “Go to the fountain for fuck sake. You were all up for reading the secret books like a little rebel, after stealing them too, and trying a basic incantation. But now suddenly I’m too much for you? I’m trying to help you old dummy.”
Brad waited until the dust settled, literal and figurative. Then, “Your swearing’s getting better.” Not wanting to waste time by waiting for whatever Hazel said next, Brad trudged on. The spirit’s scoff still hit hard in a good way.
“Try not to take too long, I don’t want to spend eternity using your bones as a drumkit, my co-ordination ain’t that good.”
First standard shadows, secondly a few layers of knarly spiderweb and finally…a drop. That was the structure of the cave entrance Brad was checking out as Hazel deployed smugness. “There are stairs you know, try not to shit yourself.”
“I know that.” Brad snapped back too quick to convince. After his eyes adjusted to the deeper levels of darkness, faint edges of uneven steps could be made out. But even then they looked far from sturdy or full of stamina. At a push Brad estimated they would go on for half a mile before breaking or submitting to hidden magma. Now time for Captain obvious to go down with his ship. “Why can’t you come down with me?” Brad asked Hazel, peering now as he raised his hood defensively. The spirit tutted and crossed her arms. “Less can’t, more won’t. Being down with that lot all fired up and chatting to you, not my scene thanks.”
Braddius had been about to land his first step on the staircase, now his boot-covered foot froze in mid-air like a cartoon. Hazel having said that had given him pause, and now was not the time to have doubts, second-thoughts, or any thoughts. This was an island for action, primal decisiveness and willpower were the bread and butter here.
Hazel didn’t look at him. “Should’ve read more closely. Fountains aren’t built by no-one. Best you be off.” She said with firmness.
Brad blinked. Her change in inflection worsened the sensation from earlier. He was listening, really listening. It was all dawning and crashing on him at the same time. The sounds of the water, wind and dying bugs. Where he was, the phantom pain at his throat…
A wave crashed somewhere by the coast and Brad put his foot on the first step. He let his next sentence bounce off the cave walls. As he dropped down the janky cut-up stairs whatever he said echoed louder and louder as the stone pressed closer to Brad’s sides. This formed a very rough funnel shape that faced back out to the stormy island. He spoke at room level but the rock design hyped it up to a shout almost.
“Sod a drumkit. You’re better off with a piano. Trust me.”
Like expected, the rain, wind and who knew what else, drowned out any possible reply. To begin with this gave Brad a gross sense of glee. Good, I hope that frustrated the hell out of her. Well if she’s already been in hell maybe not? I should know more details about the demons I invoke really. If it really annoyed her she’ll pop down here with me to get the last word. Then stick around for this ritual thing. Actually, I should’ve read more closely.
Brad’s estimation was proven wrong. In a way. After that half-mile distance was covered, the stairs did not become swallowed by magma, and there was no death drop after all. No. The stairs did end. But instead of something traditional like a scary old door or big strong gate. There was just a hatch in the wall. Large enough for a person to crawl through.
Of course. Getting on his hands and knees he let the unseen ground cut at his arms and elbows. As a nice surprise, his legs came away with no harm. Or maybe they’re so tired they can feel fuck all. Brad kept crawling. The cut-through shape went on and on, before ending abruptly.
Brad fell into trances easily. Rowing miles upon miles and miles to get to a cursed island. Stretching limbs. Descending stairs into the earth. Now crawling through a hatchway. All four examples took so long that his body fell into a rhythm. So it came as a nice short, sharp shock when he fell out the other end of the hatch. Fell was a kind word, it being more of an awkward tumble. First thing Brad knew his hands weren’t hitting wet gravel, they hit empty air. Hand went down, arm followed. Then his torso went out. It landed in almost a shallow pool of muddy water. It smelled of dirt, so that was a good sign. With no other noise Brad gripped the mud and pulled his legs from the hatch too.
Landing left the dirt free to get at the rest of his clothes. It was relaxing in a disgusting way, the cold spread of mud was felt all over. But a different spread reached Brad’s ears first, the spread of laughter. Eyes set on fire, Brad looked up with a crunching neck.
No-one, and nothing.
A large space carved with intent, that was clear. There were no corners. The hatch and stairs were a mess of sharp angles, but here all was smoothly done. All the attention of the carvers was given to this space. So looking back -Brad did literally- the stairs and hatched looked to be a rushed shortcut to get to this specific point in the island and create a perfect space. To hold a fountain. In the visual shock of seeing how smooth all the walls were, and their contrast to the stairs, Brad was stupid enough to overlook the obvious. It was massive and structured carefully. A big difference to everything else was that other stones and materials were used. They stood out clear as day. Gleaming white stone blocks sat next to…wood? Yes it was, healthy chunks of wood sliced down to a vague cube shape. This pattern on stone-wood-stone-wood-stone-wood carried on around the fountain’s base. On the inside of that layer was a repeat, only with wood being replaced with pure grey stone. Another pattern. Then on the inside of that stone only. This wedding-cake inner-layer design stopped at five feet in the air. There were (nice) stairs cut into the wooden parts so Brad climbed up to look down at the water.
All the water was clear, and glowing. Standard for weird magick shit. Brad held onto a stone pillar’s corner to lean down more. The old man wondered what Hazel would say about this. How the hell could he describe all this to her after he got out? It was tough already to break it down in his own mind logically. “Why can’t she be here?” he whispered, tracing the water up and down with a hand below its surface. Brad got an answer.
High tuned wails burst and bled past up and past the water, slamming off the wave walls. Brad gritted his teeth but did not avert either eyes or ears. They went on longer and longer, eventually filling the room with nothing but a immovable sense of noise. Brad jerked back, staying balanced with sheer willpower. The walls did not crumble. It was better to call it the wall. So smoothly connected it counted as one thing rather than four. It didn’t soften or get quieter, but just kept at a constant rate. Brad’s brain warmed to a nasty heat and the discomfort spread downwards to his body. Heart in chest felt strained and trapped, oh God, breathing became difficult.
That one stubborn pitch lodged in his head and stayed. It filtered out any unnecessary thought. Anything that was not pure, concentrated nothingness left. Until Braddius was left with nothing, just the noise. Apart from that one time, Brad had neither thought to or allowed himself to look back at the hatch or welcoming mud-puddle. The fountain and its supporting stone wall consumed and became his focus. Questions floated along by an invisible voice. Do you know you’re here? Do you know why? Do you know us?... Brad did not break a sweat.
“Yes. Yes…not fully.” In a strict manner Brad went down the list.
Well you’ve messed up the first step the voice stated coolly. Partially at least whether you know it or not. Lowered to a whisper, psst you don’t. You’ve coasted the whole way here knowledge-wise. Untempered emotions mixed with stolen books and a spawned demon. What a great combination.
Brad’s throat creaked from dryness as he spoke. “You sound like you share Hazel’s attitude…so what does that say?”
Then the invisible voice laughed at him. Any eerie aspect to the speech inflection became flat. God, Hazel. Listen to yourself, letting it strut about with that name. Call her for what she is boy, for what they are…
Brad felt an immense pressure on his shoulders. Adam’s apple bobbed uselessly. Like being fifteen all over again. Fifteen and caught doing something wrong.
But I’m not doing anything wrong Brad thought to himself.
His automatic response wasn’t watertight. His actions were linked to thoughts and emotions, and those last two weren’t squeaky clean. So it followed logically that his actions and decisions up to that point were and had been…tainted. He wrestled with that, letting the other bodiless voice wait in silent judgement.
“She-they- are a demon.” Brad stated.
Don’t hold back now. The voice belonging to the fountain was playing coy. A simpler way of saying, being a prick. Brad decided to stay two steps ahead. Step one: Answer any and all questions in pure objective form. Step two: repeat step one until the voice started answering his questions.
“A demon who I invoked, summoned, whatever the word is.”
“Using a number of books I stole from my family home, adopted family.”
Goood, now we’re getting somewhere.
With the feeling of being penetrated by two sharp prongs, Brad’s stomach flipped upside-down as he was lifted by unseen hands, rotated in the air for good measure, and then chucked in the fountain. It went deeper down than he thought at first look, and colder by the millimeter. As he sank, the glow of outside the stone construction faded, while the internal glow of the water brightened. Similar to waking from a dream, only not similar at all. Down and down, clothes gaining heft to speed up the process. His air bubbles got fatter and lazier. Closest thing to pain had been the initial shock of essentially floating, then dunked in water. Past that point Brad was calm and patient, if they’d meant to kill him that ship had long sailed. Breathing wasn’t a concern, the water here let you breathe it. Down and down.
The pressure lifted a bit and the glow grew.
It took a while for the laughter to die down. Eyes with sacks of pus-yellow pupils watched, without the eerie laughs to back them up all Brad heard was echoey squelch of the lids meeting. They stayed like that for a while. Brad coughed up dust. He was still in water technically but it felt different. The water had dragged him down for at least four eternities. Now he lay sprawled in an enclosed air-filled pocket. Like he’d actually fallen down a dry well and had dreamt the water part. A dry well with gross eyes he whispered.
We heard that. The eyes said with a synchronized blink. Brad tried a stare-off but noticed how ridiculous that was. That idea filled his head more than the one Brad was now at peace with, the eyes could eavesdrop on thoughts.
Do you still want to make the deal? They asked.
A pause. “Yes.”
Waves of a chuckle rippled and danced along the voices unseen. You didn’t read it properly did you?
Even with the water being gone Brad’s lungs were crushed by embarrassment. Is my face red? “I did.” Okay even he didn’t believe that weak denial. “Is honesty still the best policy?” he asked the empty air. Its silence was a prodding twig.
“Okay so, I didn’t read it all properly! I was in a rush. All I knew was that the end result would be good for them, I needed what you can give me.”
Brad’s chest tightened in the next four seconds. The eyes widened on him.
Flimsy as wood on sand Braddius. That statement alone shows just how underprepared, naïve and dare I say…scared, you are.
He said nothing. This must be part of the test.
Chakreen said nothing to that thought.
In a rush? You’d just finished a battle, plenty of time to rest, recover and prepare properly. Wrong there already. Granted you skimmed to the juicy sections, the whizz-bang end results. Or result. Super cool death magick powers to kill all the bad people who upset you-
“Upset me? when a gang of unwashed looters jump on a boat, smash down your walls and kill a lot of people, it does more than upset you.”
Clearly. Not even hiding the sarcasm.
BUT. That doesn’t give you an excuse to let your emotions run wild, and disrespect us and yourself by turning up here with no clue. A fragment at best. For what you are dealing with. You got hot at the idea of using us. Sounds rang out.
“I still want to make the deal.” Said Brad.
Brad expected a few tough rounds of refusal and eventual negotiation. Nope.
In the instant that the Chakreen said “Alright then.” He breathed his last lungful of fresh air.
The Chakreen chanted as one singular entity. The noise acting as a baseline to the pre-existing drone. Brad clenched all parts of his body and was hit. Pain and grief and love penetrated his very being. Blood stung the gumline, the sickly satisfying ache of ruptured gums. Metal flavours tanged in Brad’s mouth. Ride it out. Brad thought. Chakreen obeyed the private thought. Everything played out in reverse. The bloody gumline. The pooling spirits and the ugly fountain.
His lungs got comfortable with the familiar crushing water pressure that lessened and got lighter as he sank upward and upwards rather than down for eternity. Air bubbles returned to him and he admired them for the split second before the fountain kicked him. The force of the water literally pushed him up so Brad was hovering on in the air from a certain angle. A boot to the ass. A giant’s boot. Then he was on the cave floor and out of the cave entirely. All within under a minute.
Hazel was on a different part of the island, picking at a tired fruit tree. Brad trudged up to her, his moodiness, angst and petulance clear with every soaking boot thump. She played it dumb for her own spiteful amusement. Spending far more time than needed looking over the pears in her hand. Turning them over like they were crucial evidence in a murder trial rather than depressed failings of fruit. Brad found himself seething at the pears, they probably had it better than him. He was hissing! God I’m a basket case. Hazel kept up the game, pretending badly to notice Brad there and then. She turned her head to look in a painfully slow movement. The rain got heavier and Brad wondered how horrific he looked.
“Slow down there hotshot.” Hazel clicked her tongue against her upper palette. “Is that your super smart way of saying you think we should have a basket for these?” she raised the pears in a mock gesture. Then moved them up and down in alternating fashion like they were cow udders. Brad took the neutral approach. “No. This is my super dumb way of saying we should go.” The old warrior gestured to his face, looking like a slapped ass. Not the good kind either.
Hazel looked, then quickly became fascinated by running a translucent hand up the tree bark. As if Brad’s entrance (or exit, technically speaking) was nothing to raise an eyebrow at. That didn’t stop the corners of her glowing mouth rise upward in a smirk. Brad got the impression she was doing it for herself, and the fact he could see through the rain was just icing to her.
“You suuuure about that?” Hazel drew out the word, and looked Braddius dead in the eyes. Her own were sparkling with pent up energy. The type when you give a starving child some honey-drizzled bananas and a smattering of tangerine slices. Brad nodded.
She carried on the questions, and floated off as a signal to follow. She had her head tilted up to the sky, thumb resting against her chin and the corresponding index finger pointing up at an angle. All she needed was a pipe and she’d look like a farmer’s daughter.
“Well that’s a damn shame. How was it?”
“You could’ve come with me and we’d be saving a lot of time right now.”
“Pfft. Time doesn’t want to be saved, it just loves the chase.”
That quip caught Brad off guard. It was double edged swords when a smart person was also funny. He supposed it balanced itself considering Hazel wasn’t human. So even in the cosmic realms there were trade-offs.
“You okay there?” There was no light snarkiness in Hazel’s tone. Now it acted as warning.
Brad killed that line of enquiry in his mind.
They got to the shore, and Brad sat down in his favourite boat. Favourite by default because it was the only one Brad had been able to find without a sinking hole. He relaxed as much as he could. The rain still chucked itself onto him with no mercy, and the boat wood was a spongey texture to Brad’s glazed brainwaves. “I need sleep.” He said to Hazel. His left eye twitched ever so slightly when he took note of how the rain went through her. He straightened up, gripping the soaked wood and hearing its relieved creak as it rocked on the loose sand. By her feet a puddle of rainwater formed. It turned the small crowd of sand grains a shade darker than the rest. Hazel followed his eyeline. “I know it’s complicated.” She said with an eyeroll that felt all too human to Braddius. He almost had a thought about how she looked, but kept it unsaid even to himself.
He stiffened. Hazel never spoke used his name, let alone the -he shuddered- nickname variation. Things were getting into unmarked waters here.
“This island can sink for all I care. But let’s go first.” He added hastily. Hazel floated to him, curious and earnest. “No. Brad. Listen.”
“Yes?” Brad looked at her. Really looked at her.
She crept over the boat, silent on the sand. A glowing hand reached the closest oar. Her contact with it gave it a sense of wonder.
“You need sleep…I’ll sort the boat while you do that.”
“Thanks.” The reply was low, muttered hastily and somehow weighted with something more. But the simple truth of the matter was that Braddius had no time to spin those plates. The spirit guardian with long legs and longer legs was right, he needed to sleep. So he did, he closed his eyes and began the process of drifting off as the wood buckled and righted itself as it met the water.
He woke up an hour into the journey, Braddius judged this by looking behind himself as he stretched his neck, letting the various clicks and pops make themselves known. The island he bled for was just a thumb-sized blob behind them.
Hazel said nothing as he stirred, just as she’d said nothing when he’d fallen asleep in the first place. For all her faults, Hazel was considerate. Not the kind of person to bluster in or speak to fill empty space. But she wasn’t a person. Brad sighed and Hazel took that as an icebreaker.
“Rest was peaceful I take it.”
She was one to talk, she’d been doing nothing but resting. Sat like an awkward daffodil, arms folded and attention on nothing and head seemingly empty. The oars were working on her behalf, glowing with aura. Waves lapped gently against the wood.
Brad didn’t need to look at the sky to judge the weather, his drying shoulders told him half the story, and the sky’s reflection in the mostly still water told the rest.
“Less of a rest, more a quiet drift off.” Brad said.
“Wherever dreams are.”
“There’ll all in the same place are they?”
“Surely you’d know the answer to that.”
Hazel raised an eyebrow. “Assuming won’t get you anywhere.”
“Who says I’m going somewhere.” He said it as a reflex. Couldn’t resist.
He got a chuckle out of her. The water stayed relaxed. Brad sullenly assumed that was the end of it but Hazel let out a small hum with no melody whatsoever.
“I have no idea where dreams are. Or I could have been there but not know it at the time. There aren’t really landmarks in dreams, they’re all so different.” She seemed sincere.
Brad went for the jugular with his next question.
“Do you dream?” Oh well done Brad what a pretentious question to ask He scolded himself.
Hazel looked grim, cheekbones sharpening in the moonlight. “Yeah…everyone does.” She inhaled and Brad knew what a spirits breath sounded like. “I mean I said that there are no landmarks. No towers, castles or hills. But the feelings are the same. An emotional hook that pulls me further and further up until…” Hazel’s speech sputtered off and died as she choked back tears. They rolled down her cheeks. Brad didn’t know what to say to clear the sad muck from the air. He knew that would be a cheap cowardly way out though. Sit with the pain, be selfless and get to the heart of it all. The feelings are the same…
Hazel was too occupied with sadness to notice. “It’s okay.” Braddius said lamely. A bland phrase but it was a serviceable offer. To edge her out the shell if that’s what she really wanted. After a loud sniff, Hazel stopped staring at her glum water reflection. Hazel looked at Braddius. A smile. Exasperated, exhausted, manic and distraught. Then that smile broke into a laugh, unrestrained and choc full of snot and unflattering noises. Fat tears were standard practice now.
Hazel rubbed her temples. “I’m sorry.” She started.
Why is she saying sorry to me?
“I must look as crazy as El. Going off on a rag and not even explaining.” Hazel wiped the last trailing tear and continued. “Well I owe it to you, we’re stuck on this boat for awhile longer, no point keeping it bottled up.”
Brad felt an urge to sit up straighter and speak his mind, a possessive urge. He was still shrewd with word choice. “El’s not crazy Hazel, just under a lot of stress when –”
“I know.” Hazel’s tone suggested that line of conversation was for another time. So it was left at that. The ingrown topic of Brad’s adopted brother and his grief-driven bloodlust stayed unspoken if not unthought of. Hazel cleared her throat. “Do you remember what it was like before you were born?”
Brad grinned to ease the tension. “I don’t know.” Amusement shone past the syllables.
Hazel was polite enough to smile but there was no warmth behind it. Tepid at best. She played along though, anything to vent.
“Well that’s what I’m getting at.” Before you were born there was nothing. Well that’s the same for me - is what I thought at least.”
Their boat lurched as waves stressed around the wood.
“Since you summoned me, well let me explain properly. A spirit guardian is what you lot call my kind in your gross language. A spirit guardian’s lifespan is conceived and birthed at the moment of release.”
“When we’re summoned from the grims scattered across this ball you all live on. Grimoires.” Hazel added that last word to stay ahead of Brad’s small understanding. “So I don’t know what I was before I was fused to the book, guardian spirit circle. All that.”
Braddius’ view of Hazel began swinging when the water got increasingly aggressive. She resembled a pendulum. He was not one for sea sickness but this new sensation did not sit well.
“Then how do you know you had a life before?” Brad asked.
“Less of life probably, more a form. Couldn’t have been much of a life.”
Brad addressed the pendulum. “Don’t be mopey. Why else would your old self be picked if not for being extraordinary?”
“The potential opposite scenario has the same weight. Take a useless waster on death’s door and turn them into a god, Just wipe their memories first. Yes I am bitter.”
Braddius stretched out his legs, hanging arms in a draped pose over either side of the wood. Amusement brightened at Hazel’s grumpiness. That gloating did not last long. “It won’t do you any good to –”
Brad’s words were cut off. His throat tightened and then welled with blood.
It expelled itself past the plaque-ridden gaps in his teeth. Easing out and pooling at the bottom gumline. He choked up a cough, and vomited scarlet.
Hazel flinched. “What the fuck?” Her eyes rose. Following the blood trail, she gazed at Brad’s neck. “Oh. Looks like they’ve given you your gift.” Words said with faint grimness and resignation. The old killer blinked up at the spirit. He was crouched, with the look of a drunk maniac. Dilated pupils shone with panic. “Gift? GIFT!?” He spat more blood. “I may-ARK-have been dumb on the details. But I wanted their abilities, not be killed!”
Those few sentences took a lot out of him. Sick spewed some more, a poison flavour tickled his tonsils. Waning though it was, he saw by peripheral vision that Hazel was well aware of two things. Braddius was panicking like a bitch. And something else was happening. “Brad. Look at yourself.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Brad doubled over again, his head singing with pain like a crippled choir. “Don’t need your moralising…” Faintness was setting in. Darkness closed in from all round. Eyelids sagged. It would do me good to close them. Rest up. Just for a moment. Maybe it will go away.
The weakness of Brad’s inner monologue was lost on him, the smoothness and lack of spewing appealed to his ego. It was shattered when cold ethereal hands grabbed his head.
“Let’s do it the hard way. I meant literally dummy. Look. At. Yourself.”
Hazel forced Brad over the boat. Stopping after the collarbone. Brad saw himself reflected in the clear water. Ripples smooth and gentle. Glowing translucent hands stood out first. Gripping him. His eyes were bleary of course. Teeth looked a pale red considering all the dripping blood.
Then he saw.
New blood poured into the ocean. From the fresh wound.
From Braddius’s throat a cluster of gemstones and crystal had emerged. Jagged and dripping with red.
“Courtesy of the Chakreen.” He heard Hazel mutter.
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