A ledge of plaster, brick, and stone jutted out where the stairs had broken away—beyond reach. The ledge seemed steady enough to hold the weight of an Elishian, if they managed to find a way up to it, but Ul couldn’t say the same for the weight of a demon. There had to be another way out.
Ul considered shifting into an ethereal state and flying up to the solid part of the stairwell, perhaps all the way up the tower, through the ground and into the open sky.
I must be careful not to squander my inner reserve.
That inner reserve consisted of two sources of energy. The first drew on energy provided by food, water, and sleep which helped sustain the biological functions of the Elishian body; in other words, the matter array. The second was drawn from deep within the Xiinisi signature core, from a well of time that determined and tracked the duration of a Xiinisi life cycle or generation, then converted that time into energy.
An expression of Xiinisi power drew from one source of energy more than the other or from both, depending on the kind of power and where that power was being used. Back in Xii, the abundance of An Energy powered abilities with little to no drain on that inner well of time. Yet, in worlds like Elish, where An Energy was scarce, the expression of any Xiinisi power relied heavily on drawing from both sources of energy.
For months, Ul had lain on the cusp of deathmorphing into a new generation—that well of time on the verge of refilling to the brim. Now that the well of time was full again, Ul wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. Ul possessed enough generations to live for many eons; still, life was finite even if the Quietus—the final death—was a long time coming.
Some supernatural ability was required to escape the broken stairwell. Shifting, like other psychically driven skills, relied primarily on temporal energy and, to a lesser extent, biological energy. Whatever Ul decided upon needed to be biological in nature.
What’s a tree demon to do?
As a child, Ul had played with many a tree demon. Each had their own unique power—that one ability that separated them from the rest—yet they all climbed trees with the agility of apes. From branch to branch they swung. All of them. Every single one. How had it been possible for tree demons to climb?
Their roots! Each of them had a tangle of roots.
At the mental suggestion, Ul’s root-woven toes curled. Vine-like tendrils shot out from each toe, bored down, then receded. Setting a foot against a wall, then a hand, roots shot out from the toes and heel, from the palm and fingertips. The other foot. The other hand. Ul crawled upward along the wall, well past the broken ledge, then willed the roots to retract and leaped down onto the part of the stairwell that was intact.
A cursory glance of each new demon hand, arm, and leg deepened Ul’s understanding of her potential now. As long as energy was withdrawn from the biological reserve, as long as there was food to be eaten, Ul could easily express a number of different powers.
But I’m not supposed to express any powers, none at all. That’s the rule.
The Xiinisi Code of Conduct required their kind to hide both identity and power while among the inhabitants of a world, but Ul was a prisoner, excommunicated from Xii. Did this rule even apply anymore?
That’s the Council’s rule, not mine! I’m a demon now. I’m obligated to express some kind of supernatural ability. People will expect it of me. They will fear me for it. Won’t they?
Determined to find out, Ul climbed the steps of the stairwell, three at a time up to a landing where a tunnel snaked through the ground back to Fehran’s Hall. Someone had to be tending to affairs there, someone worth scaring.
Look upon me and shiver!
Ul sought out some evidence for the time of day, paused a moment, and felt for the pull of the moon. It was weak, which meant it must be well on the other side of the world and about midday at Sondshor Castle. Ul expected Fehran’s Hall to be busy with Importants formally outlining their agendas before the Magnes, or the public gathering to attend some special event.
What a perfect place for me to run amok!
Being demon size made the tunnels narrow and small. Ul squeezed through and occasionally knocked into a wooden reinforcement beam, making dirt lightly rain down. At the mouth of a familiar sub-chamber, Ul erupted like a woodland beast birthed from the tight canal of its mother. With a creaky grumble of satisfaction, Ul shook away the loose dirt and lurched from that room into another and then another, disappointed to discover no one there.
Ul scuttled up the flight of stairs to the main floor and on a landing discovered a Novice Scribe. At the sight of a tree demon, the Scribe froze. He stood rod straight, clutching his arms about a dozen scrolls. Though terror twisted his face, something about him seemed familiar.
The Scribe shuddered and sank to his knees. Several scrolls tumbled from his arms and down the steps. In that moment, Ul remembered having worked with him once. He had been a sour man, with a tendency to mock anyone he despised, and he despised nearly everyone.
He dropped what remained of the scrolls he carried and stiffly stood again. “P-please, I have a d-daughter,” he blubbered, eyes peering up the stairs, searching for help, no doubt calculating how fast he needed to be to outrun a demon.
“Liar!” Ul’s voice came out raspy and hushed. “You have no children.”
“How did you—” Before he could finish his question, Ul leaned into him, smelled his sweat, lifted a wooden hand and pointed the sharp tip of a finger close, very close, to his left eye.
Ul’s stomach lurched at the thought of bursting that eye. There was no reason to. The Scribe was already very much afraid. He trembled, knees weak. His breath grew foul, as he pressed himself into the wall and began to slide down.
Was he about to prostrate himself the way the inhabitants of Elish did so long ago when Ul had been a child? The first Elishians had bowed in submission out of reverence, out of love. Had it been love? Perhaps it had been fear all along. It didn’t matter. Either way, Ul thought fondly of being revered again, of being in control.
Lower and lower the Scribe slid, and when he was close to the ground, he hurled himself down the stairs. He turned and rolled off every other step until he collapsed on the floor in the chamber below. Bruised and bloodied, he scrambled to his feet. He glanced up the stairwell before he fled, along with any reverence, through one of several doorways. Ul didn’t care. The need for reverence felt impulsive and empty now, probably because it was a desire that belonged to the past. The need for control, however…
The flight of the Scribe prompted a curious notion.
He was repulsed by me. Couldn’t get far enough away fast enough. The Xiinisi behaved like that, back when I destroyed the world of Gaiath because the Granites and the Gypsums had ground each other into dust, making a mess of their world. Yes, I disgusted my kind and they locked me away for it.
Ul destroyed things, repulsed everyone. In return, they kept their distance and wanted nothing to do with her. The Elishians treated their demons similarly. An odd sense of validation came from that realization, at the predictable ways of frightened people.
Yes, yes. I am a demon. I am—
Ul’s reverie was interrupted by muffled chatter that spilled down from the top of the stairs, no doubt from a crowd of people milling about in the main hall. If one man cowered and fled, how might a group of people react? Would they shriek and beg? Would they run? If they ran, Ul never needed to worry about being attacked by them.
Ul climbed the steps, lunged through the door, and strode forward a few steps, grateful to finally be able to stretch to full height. The crown of leaves on Ul’s head grazed the bottom of the mezzanine above. Hanging down along the front facing of the mezzanine was a long tapestry that concealed Ul from those who gathered in Fehran’s Hall.
“Gather round, gather round,” the voice of a man boomed. The soothing tone, so commanding, so easily recognizable, hushed the din within the Hall.
Hmm, Sabien, what stories do you plan to tell today, old friend?
As though Sabien had heard Ul’s thoughts, he spoke to everyone again. “Closer now. That’s it, come closer.”
Ul peered out from behind the tapestry. At the far end of Fehran’s Hall, near a fluted pink marble pillar close to the main doors, Sabien stood on a wooden stool. Always stylish, today he wore a violet and black pinstriped vest over a crimson shirt and black slacks, offering a visual play of colours too impossible to ignore.
He faced the openness of the rectangular hall, his back to a pale pink tapestry covered in geometric eyes, an abstract depiction of a beast from the Elishian Afterworld. But the Elishians never seemed to remember anything accurately. Otherwise, they’d know the tapestry actually represented a Xiinisi Council member. Indeed, all the tapestries and murals were distorted, half-recollected depictions of Xii.
The bas-relief that spanned the rear wall of the hall was the worst of it. Peaks within the painted plaster cast tiny shadows over the strange structures and creatures within the composition. Elishians fell into pits of torment only to be dismembered, their parts then reattached to others in new and hideous ways. A tall round building without doors or windows featured prominently in the composition. Its roof opened onto a sky and fire spewed out. Surrounding it, a moat spurted blood. What was meant to depict Mxalem, Elish’s Land of the Dead, was actually a rendering of the Consilium in Xii, where transgressors were interrogated and convicted.
Ul attempted a growl. What came out sounded similar to the creak of wood bending in a heavy breeze, but no one in the crowd heard. They were fully enthralled with Sabien.
“What you’re about to see may unsettle you, but I promise, you will be amazed. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.” He pointed behind him, past the pillar and the tapestry, indicating the door to a room where a specially curated show had been set up several months ago.
“What you’re about to see is a collection of the bizarre and the strange, the latest finds from the desert carefully preserved by my hand. Come see the oldest evolution of a snake demon, so old it walks on two legs, and my latest finds from the castle. Come gaze into Erzo’s Mirror that reflects everything but you. And I dare you to solve the puzzles of the ancient Sun Child God, Ul.”
Again, Ul found validation in hearing this ancient name. Something about it caused Sabien a moment of pause as well. His eyes blanked as though some strange notion tugged at his mind. Then he licked his lips, regained his focus. “Join me! Take a break from the mundane and enjoy some of the strangeness this world has to offer.”
Ul couldn’t have asked for a better cue and stepped out from behind the tapestry. Drawing closer to the bas-relief, Ul placed a gnarled hand on the depiction of a birdman known to the Elishians as Mneos. Ul saw only Hethn, the leader of the Xiinisi Council.
A growl—a real growl this time, resonant and full of dissatisfaction—made the hall fall silent a moment. Gasps and muffled cries followed as the assembly observed Ul for the first time. Then a light chattering ensued, hushed and frantic. Some of them advised others to back away, to clear a wide path to the door, not to provoke the demon.
What? Did they hope I would leave quietly? Without mayhem? How about a bit of havoc? And why aren’t they all fleeing?
Turning to face them, Ul growled again. The sound of wood creaking and whipping about in a heavy wind erupted from both chest and throat, louder this time. A few patrons did flee. Others refused to leave, either mesmerized or frozen in place by their terror. Several larger men and women inched forward, fists raised, obviously not frightened enough.
“Demon,” Sabien called out. “The main door is clear, the forest not far. If you make your way there quietly, I’m sure the Guard won’t follow you. We mean you no bother. Do you feel the same?”
The crowd of people stepped back to make a pathway, the younger children clinging to their parents or hiding behind pillars. These patrons had come to gape at dead demons but found themselves a living one instead. And Ul very much wanted to bother them all.
One of the large men advanced. Ul pointed at him. A vine barbed with sharp thorns shot through the air, snapped like a whip, gashed him across the chest, and withdrew. He stumbled backward, warning the others to stay back.
Ul supposed everyone had their breaking point—a limit as to how much they would suffer before fleeing for safety. They were all supposed to run away. Only a few had.
“This won’t do,” Ul told them with a grin, and then bared the points of each tooth. This prompted several more Elishians to run through the main entrance, dragging their children with them.
“What won’t do?” Sabien asked. “Is there some way we can help you?”
The kindness offered felt like a platitude. Ul’s head ached. “No!” The word struck like a punch, the pain subsided, and the words that followed were full of menace. “It’s too small.”
“If you mean Woedshor, it’s a giant of a forest,” Sabien replied, blinking in confusion.
“I meant the doorway,” Ul explained, then turned back toward the bas-relief and held up both hands. Roots pushed out from palms and fingertips and bore into the sculpture.
A woman screamed as the first chunk of plaster sheered free with a crack and shattered against the floor. The shrillness echoed briefly and faded away. Ul imagined the woman ran now, ran as fast as her wobbly legs would permit.
“I’ll take you there myself. Just don’t hurt anyone.”
Sabien’s offer sounded more like a plea for peace. Ul preferred the screams, willed the roots to grow longer and spread. They crawled over the remainder of the bas-relief, drilling into it. Piece by piece the artwork cracked and sheered away, tumbling to the marble floor, fine dust clouding the air. Beneath, the wood framework split and revealed the mortar and stone of the wall beneath that.
Ul turned back around. Only a handful of men and women remained—tall and muscular and scarred; the kind of roughers you wouldn’t want to find yourself in a fight with. Sabien remained on his stool, unbuttoning the cuffs of his sleeves and rolling them up one at a time. He was no match for any of the roughers and certainly no match for a demon, but he stood his ground, willing to at least try to fight.
Daylight streamed in through cracks in the broken wall as the last bits of mortar and stone tumbled to the floor. “The place needs a bigger door, don’t you think?” Ul faced what remained of the exterior wall again and shoved hard with the might of a Xiines, deeply satisfied that the display of strength would be seen as that of a demon.
The stone and mortar gave way in the middle and collapsed into a heap. Fresh air and plaster dust wafted into the stale hall. Ul turned back around just as the roughers began exiting the main entrance.
See, everyone has their breaking point, even the roughers.
Only Sabien remained. Eyes narrowed, he stepped down from his stool podium and retreated to the entrance. There, he stopped and peered across the Hall. Uncertainty pulled at his thin, narrow lips.
Ul wanted to tell Sabien his stories were the best, but such compliments seemed odd in this situation. Also, it was unlikely demons ever attended any of his shows without becoming trapped or killed and turned into a specimen for display.
That won’t happen to me! I won’t let you destroy me, but I won’t destroy you either. You’re like… family?
A pang of guilt pricked Ul’s heart.
Go on now, run. I tend to destroy the things I love, so run. Run! Why won’t you run?!
Sabien threw back his head and shouted. “You’ve got blue eyes.”
The thump-thump of Ul’s heart skipped a bit.
“Your eyes, they’re blue,” Sabien shouted again.
The observation was astute, accurate, and the very thought that he noticed shook Ul to the core.
This excerpt is from The Starry Rise and is copyright protected by Kit Daven, 2019. This excerpt is for your enjoyment only and is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.