Six Years Ago
“A daemon,” I said, and Kamala’s arms tightened around my waist.
A ring ward surrounded Barje Vos. Mages had etched it into earth many years ago, where it had sunk into place and remained flawless despite any rain, any storm. The ward was glowing fiercely, cracks of magic flaring from where it had snared a passing evil.
The daemon struggled against the pull of magic, digging its long nails into the dirt. It looked like some sort of Elemental, as it was vaguely humanoid in shape, but it seemed to have sprung straight from the wood of a tree. Its skin was like birch bark, its hair made of layers of orange and red autumn leaves, and two horns grew from its head like gnarled branches.
I turned the horse closer, and Kalama tugged my sleeve.
“Rozin, we should go. It could attack us.”
“It’s trapped and tired. I don’t think it can do anything.” I slid from the horse and approached. The daemon fixed me with unsettling orange eyes with yellow sclera. It stilled, coiled like a cat waiting to pounce, its movements jerky and wooden.
“Rozin, please. Let’s go.”
“I think it’s hurt.”
The daemon cocked its head as I knelt just out of reach. Its back leg was twisted at a severe angle.
“Can you understand me?” I said.
After a cautious pause, the daemon nodded.
“Can you speak?”
The daemon shook its head. It opened its mouth, and out came a few tuned whistles like the notes of a reed flute. Its voice was music.
Kamala pulled the horse back a few steps. She clutched the reins, face taut with fear. “Leave it be! What is wrong with you? That’s a daemon!”
“I feel bad for it. Don’t you?”
“What? No, I don’t! It got stuck in a ward designed to trap evil. Evil, Rozin. Get on the horse, or I’m leaving you here.”
I shot her a smirk. “You’d never abandon me with a daemon.”
“First time for everything.”
“I love you too.”
“Rozin, I swear to the Creators—”
“Just trust me, all right? We’ll be fine.”
She did, but I could see her knuckles turn white on the reins.
I turned back to the daemon, who seemed to have watched the exchange with interest. How much did it understand?
“If you can think of a way to tell me—why were you trying to cross the ward?”
The daemon plucked a leaf from its head. Orange magic glowed in its palm, and the leaf crumpled into the perfect image of a bouncing rabbit. The daemon pointed to the rabbit, then to its stomach.
“Hungry. You were hunting and got snared?”
The daemon nodded.
“And why are you near a human settlement?”
The daemon pointed at its stomach again, more insistently this time.
“It’s just hungry, that’s all.”
“Good,” hissed Kamala. “Then it won’t take long to die.”
“How can you think so cruelly?”
“Me? That thing is playing you. Don’t you remember everything we’ve ever learned about daemons? They pretend. They lie. They kill and destroy and enjoy every second of it.”
“I don’t think I believe that. Your uncle says the same thing about people from Bel Arben.”
“My uncle is a bigot.”
“But that’s my point. I’ve thought a lot about it, actually. We don’t know that much about the daemons at all, do we? All we see is the bad. But they have countries, Kamala. Kings and queens, just like us. There must be families in their countries, and children, and something that holds them all together. I don’t believe that all of them are evil by default.”
“They are, Rozin, and every damn person alive knows it. You sound as if you’ve lost all sense! Get back on the horse.”
“We could be wrong about some of them. Look at this one. It doesn’t seem much different than a fox.”
Kamala gasped sharply. “Oh no you don’t. I haven’t forgotten that fox you found in your trap a few weeks ago that you—”
“Don’t do it. I’m going to beg you for this, Rozin. Please just leave it be. I applaud your gentle heart, I really do, and in any other situation I would be proud my future wife is capable of such kindness, but not right now. Get away from it, I’m begging you. Let’s go home and pretend we never found it.”
“I can’t do that. You know I can’t. That’s not me.” I moved closer to the daemon. “I’m going to let you out. But you can’t go near the cities. They’ll kill you.” I pointed north-west. “Go that way. There’s woods in Novosk with plenty to eat. And no people to trap you.”
It nodded and whistled a low note.
I reached for the daemon’s foot, and its leaves rose like the fur of a cat.
“It’s all right. I just need the ward.”
The ward’s magic hummed brightly near my hand, sensing my soul. All the struggling the daemon had done in the dirt hadn’t damaged the sigils. Only I could do that.
“Rozin, I’m begging you, don’t—”
I swept a finger across the ward lines, smudging them. The magic crackled and died, unlocking at the request of a human soul. A five-foot section of the ward went dark.
Our horse spluttered and stamped in fear as the daemon stood.
It was taller than I’d thought, long and lean like the boughs of a willow, twice me at full height. The daemon smiled slowly, and from its grey gums extended rows of needle-like teeth. It took a step towards me. It didn’t have a limp. The daemon lowered its head level with mine, and that smile turned hungry.
“Thanks,” the daemon said in a voice like a stone grinder. It could talk. The daemon dragged a sharp nail along my jaw, and I realised I had a great deal more meat than a rabbit.
Kamala charged. Several hundred pounds of horse went hurtling towards the daemon, who hissed and leapt away from me.
“Get away!” Kamala bellowed. “We helped you, now be on your way! We have iron, daemon.”
We didn’t, but the daemon flinched at the word. It slunk down on all fours, hackles raised.
“Very well,” the daemon rasped, and it launched into a dead sprint to the Novoski woods.
Kamala turned her furious face to me. “Get on the horse. And start grovelling.”
Hello there! I'm Carlyn, an amateur writer currently publishing free-to-read fantasy stories. I write diverse worlds featuring LGBT+ characters and romances, because I believe that we need those stories too (even if they are about magic and demons and brave sword-lesbians). I want to create worlds that are free of homophobia and sexism, so that everyone can enjoy the ride without feeling like they don't belong.
Thanks for reading, and have a great day!