“Tell me more about rakshasas,” said Lynn.
She sat cross-legged in a backroom of the submerged temple. Perhaps, elven priests retreated here between services. With everything but the walls either looted or rotted, it was hard to guess the room’s exact nature. Right now, it served as a somewhat concealed demon summoning chamber.
The demon in question was busy scratching an elaborately obscene scene on one of the walls with its claws. Lynn tried again: “Stan, please.”
The demon looked back, then let out a long-suffering sigh.
“Not my name. Fine. Fine. What do you want to know?”
“Everything. What are they?”
“Hoo boy. We’re gonna be here a while. Sit down and try not to interrupt, then. There’ll be a quiz in the end,” Stain began pacing back and forth with its spindly hands clasped behind its back.
“Do you know what happens when you die? I said don’t interrupt. You soil yourself, that’s what happens. But then your soul goes to the Grey Wastes. A miserable place. Very grey. But souls don’t care, they left the brain rotting behind. So they just wander around doing whatever it is they most often used to do. Gardening, or drinking, or crying. Lotsa crying. Once met a guy who was farting a tune. I kid you not, he had spent the majority of his life perfecting the art of fart, and then a good chunk of the afterlife practicing it. Fetched me quite a price for that one.
“That’s what I did – I hunted for souls. Well, that’s an exaggeration. More like sniffed around for them. Used to be the more evil you’ve done, the more your soul would stink. Oh, the delicious stench of murderers. The pungent aroma of rapists. Now you just gotta run around until you spot something.”
“Aren’t Hells, um, broken? What’s the point?”
“So what, oh interrupting leader? Have you ever seen someone with punctured lungs? Lies there, gasping for air that just bubbles right back out with blood. The bugger’s trying so hard, haha, and it’s just bloody foam, hahaha, oh, the faces they make, ahahaha, the wheezing noises,” the demon collapsed into a laughing garbage heap.
“Ahem,” Lynn tried to interrupt his happiness at someone’s violent death, “You capture these souls, and then they just escape again?”
“Sometimes. More like leak, remember, they don’t have a brain to tell them to run. They only react to what’s happening to them right that second, if they react at all. So one would climb off a torture rack and just stand right next to it like it’s nothing. Mostly they just sit there and suffer.”
“It’s all a mess now, after the Last Battle. There were no Grey Wastes, just trodden paths to the domains of gods and other much more fun places. Used to be, someone would be there to greet you when you died, to guide you to wherever you deserved to go. There was still competition, just which Hell you end up in was a question of who got there first. Nowadays it’s all finders keepers. And there is no stench of Evil anymore. No shining Goodness, either. Just souls, lost in the grey mists. Some stay there for decades, waiting. Stupid souls. I much prefer it this way, lots of opportunities for an enterprising demon to make a name for themselves.”
Lynn listened in stunned silence. She knew the world was broken, has seen ruins every day of her life, was sitting in one right now. But to learn that the afterlife was broken as well, that whatever you did in this life, there would be no due reward or just punishment, that was terrifying. She thought of Josh. Maybe he wasn’t that great a person. But he wasn’t awful, either. Few people were. And to imagine him being dragged around by something like Stan was almost too much to bear.
And then Lynn thought of Peter. Peter, who had been kind to her and paid for his kindness with his life. Who didn’t deserve any of this. And regardless of that, whose soul was also standing in the Grey Wastes, just like Josh, waiting for a demon to claim him. Lynn already knew life was unfair. Now she found out death wasn’t fair either.
“They are the lucky ones, anyway,” continued the demon, “The ones that we get. Not as lucky as the ones the other guys get, but still. Because we’re not the only ones out there anymore. There are things prowling in those grey mists. Nameless things not of this world that got in through the cracks during the Last Battle.”
“What does this have to do with rakshasas, with Karadash?” Interrupted Lynn, before her worldview became even more miserable.
“I was getting to that,” answered Stain grumpily, “Remember how I said souls just do whatever it is people used to do for most in their life? Turns out, Karadash had spent most of his life being a vicious bastard.”
“Wait, he died?”
“More than once, likely. Now, if you’ll let me finish, perhaps I can get to the point before we both perish of old age, too. And that’ll take a while in my case. Yes, Karadash had died, and I was the one who found his soul. It… It didn’t turn out the way I expected. He tore me apart, plain and simple. The proper me, a demon, not this meager apparition I’ve become. He tore me apart and made himself a body out of my carcass. What he didn’t use, he ate. Or, maybe, what he didn’t eat he used, my memories of that moment are a bit hazy. All that remained was this claw you’re holding. And in his new demon-flesh body he wandered back into the mortal realm.”
“That’s what rakshasas are: mortals dressed in demon flesh, fouler even than my kind. They are the scary story us soul hunters tell one another. They are very rare, but they do happen. My bet, it takes not just will and viciousness to become one. I think the bastards can’t conceive of a world without them. They are so egotistical, they refuse to accept their death. So, enlightened leader, now you see why I laugh at the idea of you taking one on.”
Lynn hesitantly nodded. She had set out to rid New Valenar of the Beast, a creature of cunning and claws. It turned out the Beast was a shapeshifting sorcerer whom even death couldn’t hold. Who also had cunning and claws. “In over her head” didn’t come close to describing it.
“There’d be no shame in giving up,” a tiny voice in the back of her head said. The tiny voice could go drown in the sea of guilt Lynn already felt. It’s been four days since she’s entered Under Valenar. She now had a roof over her head, and a family that had taken her in. It wasn’t her home, Lynn knew. She was a guest. But it was so good to pretend. This was everything she had wanted. But this was everything others didn’t have. Why should she get to have a home, however temporary, while Tim and Eric didn’t have one, while Jenny didn’t have a father, while Josh would never have anything?
She had been so intent on waging her war, she didn’t know what to do with the inactivity that was forced upon her. Lynn almost felt happy here, and that made her feel terrible.
“Does he have any weaknesses?” she asked to try and assuade some of her guilt.
“You know. Maybe he has to keep his promises, or can’t refuse hospitality, or can’t touch his old body?”
The demon snorted.
“You’ve been listening to too many fairy tales. That’s right, you’re just a child, of course you have been. Is that how you imagine it’ll go, the brave heroine defeats the big scary monster through the power of friendship and rainbows? The frog,” he bowed, “becomes a prince in the end? Well, give us a kiss and lets find out,” it stuck out its lips, somehow making its breath smell even worse.
“Don’t you want revenge against Karadash, too?” asked Lynn, annoyed, “Isn’t that what demons are all about, giving in to their desires?”
“I want a great many things. Sure, I’d like to see Karadash choke on the body he stole from me, bit by bit. But I’d also like to eat your brain to find out what stupid tastes like. And right now I want to rip out the tongue of the tiny human spying on us. May I?”
The demon crouched down, ready to leap towards the chamber entrance. Lynn looked up to find Nicholas’ sister peeking around the corner, petrified.
Lynn was no less petrified. She couldn’t be discovered with Stan. They’d take him away, her only weapon against the Beast. But what to do, how to explain it away, how to stop Nessa from telling on her? At least Lynn knew her name – she had finally asked Nicholas during an evening chat yesterday.
“It’s okay, wait…” said Lynn.
“Grrr,” said Stain.
“Eep,” said Nessa as she disappeared.
Her bare feet slapping on the stone floor echoed through the sunken temple, followed by a splash.
“You, in the claw. Now,” it was Lynn’s turn to growl.
She ran after Nessa, diving head first, claw in hand. She had little to no hope of catching an Allyrian in the water, Lynn knew, but she had to do something. So far, she couldn’t even see right, everything was too dark. Lynn blinked fiercely as she swam towards the obscured temple doors.
It wasn’t her eyes. There was something wrong with the water. It was murky, like shallow waters after a storm when all the tiny bits of seaweed get dredged up. Except this wasn’t shallow waters at all. Everything was tinted red and tasted of copper. And it was warm, too, realised Lynn, warmer even than the amulet she wore made it appear to be. The name Bloodmist Sea came to mind. Blood-red mists giving the sea its name would rise occasionally over it, always a bad omen. Is this how they looked beneath the surface?
Freaking out, she spun around, looking for Nessa. It was growing darker by the second. There! A small shape swiftly receding into the distance. Lynn followed, as fast as she could. Stupid Nessa, what was she even doing there, spying on her. Of course she was spying on her, Lynn groaned internally, the girl had been fascinated by her from the first day Lynn got here, she was probably the first land dweller Nessa had seen.
A deep vibrating wave travelled through Lynn’s body, rattling her teeth before settling somewhere in her guts. Then another one. What was that?! She’ll ask Nicholas later. First, she needed to catch up to Nessa.
Lynn couldn’t see far, an experience not unlike being swallowed by the Shadow. But this was a turbulent kind of obscurement. Bits of… on reflection, Lynn really didn’t want to know what these crimson bits were of. Bits swarmed around her, swirling chaotically, growing more and more thick. Stan’s claw in her hand was squirming uncomfortably. She imagined the demon licking its lips and shuddered.
This was worse than the Shadow. At least in it, you could trust the ground under your feet. Most of the time. Here, Lynn already didn’t know up from down. But she still could see Nessa’s tiny dark shape, so onwards she swam.
At last, the moving shape grew larger. With a burst of speed, Lynn covered the rest of the distance separating them. It wasn’t Nessa. It was another Allyrian floating lifelessly, impaled by a spear. His arms were thrown back, his legs bent, his mouth open. Blood must have been streaming from the horrible wound in his chest, disappearing into the red storm, feeding it.
With a muffled shriek, Lynn pushed back from the body. It had finally dawned on her that this wasn’t just a nasty underwater weather. Someone was using it to attack Under Valenar, they may even have caused it. Nicholas had mentioned “attackers” before, but didn’t go into any details. The deep wave hit her again, adding to Lynn’s growing panic. It was a warning bell, she finally realised.
She suddenly felt incredibly exposed. An attack could come from any side. Lynn spun frantically, her heart beating wildly. Someone swam by at the edge of visibility, causing Lynn to recoil. They didn’t notice her, or maybe they had other priorities.
She needed to stop for a moment, to think what to do next. It wasn’t just about preventing Nessa from telling others about her pet demon anymore. They were in danger. Nessa was in danger because of her. This family had taken her in, if only for a few days, and in those few days Lynn managed to get their daughter killed. She was poison.
No, she stopped herself. That hasn’t happened yet. Nessa is fine, she’s got to be. She probably swam straight home at the first sign of danger. That’s what they’d teach their kids. There was no need to worry about her. All Lynn had to do was find her way home, too.
“I knew you wouldn’t come,” she heard Eric’s words, the words that’ve been echoing in her mind for the last few weeks. Lynn kicked off away from the body of the dead Allyrian, calling Nessa’s name.