IN THE OLD castle buried beneath the ground, at the foot of the broken stairwell, Ulmaen lay on his side letting his body decay. He hadn’t moved in what seemed a very long time—several weeks, he was certain. He hadn’t wanted to move. If anyone possessed the curiosity to climb all the way down the tower to explore the rubble, they’d think him dead. Yet, deep within, his signature energy simmered, resisting an imperative and very natural urge—to change.
Stone and plaster pressed against his sunken chest. He spied the splay of his fingers lying over a rock. The dark skin had shrunk around the bone and his fingers resembled burnt tree branches slick with morning dew.
No part of him hurt anymore.
Broken steps spiralled upward and became whole again, leading up inside a tower that stopped beneath the surface of the ground. Above ground, a fountain with a round marble basin gurgled and glistened with sprays of water, and above it, an aperture in a pink marble covering opened up to the vast sky still farther above.
On the surface, Elishians walked about; some joyful, others bitter, all of them alive. Down here, he was… something else. Not Elishian. No longer wanting to be Xiinisi. Neither living nor truly dead.
I am a monster.
The compulsion to change demanded he take form.
To stave off the impulse, he stared at the jagged edge of the wall where plaster and stone had cracked and formed an unnatural alcove. Within the alcove, a dark fissure split the air and hung there shimmering. The Safeway remained intact.
The inside of the fissure was black, a rippling image of what existed on the other side—an Isolation Chamber filled with curtains of black threads. He imagined the world of Elish silently spinning on a dais in the middle of that empty prison. Knowing nothing waited for him in that prison stopped him from wanting to go through the portal.
Now that he thought about it, lying here rotting for as long as he had, the Safeway might not be as safe as he first imagined. It was ancient, as old as the world; surely, it must have degraded over time and anyone who went through risked mutation or death. And there was the barrier that surrounded the world of Elish, designed to prevent anyone—including him—from Ascending. What if its reach transected the Safeway? If it did, this world was a true jail and he, its prisoner.
Change. Change! Into what? Should I return as an Elishian for the third time? Should I be a man or a woman? Or something else?
Ulmaen lay there, unmoving, unwilling to do anything. In the stillness, his mind unleashed itself.
Monster! I’m nothing but a monster.
Ulmaen trembled at the admission. He didn’t care for the thought, at first.
I created this world; therefore, everything in this world reflects something about me. If demons exist in the Root Dimension, persist and evolve as solid living things, then I must accept that some part of me is like a demon.
His mind grew clearer as he considered the veracity of his self-deprecating declaration.
Yes, I am a demon.
Being a demon must be his true nature. Of all the worlds built by the Xiinisi, only this one possessed demons of a truly menacing corporeal kind. Perhaps that explained why Avn had murdered him and why the Xiinisi confined him to the world of Elish. They knew what he was. And the identity fitted him. He had, after all, built this world while incarcerated as a child for another crime.
A part of him resisted the idea, a small part of him that wailed like a child might, and he beat that snivelling brat down until it whimpered and died, quite done with the simpering attitude of his younger self. He had always wondered if he truly belonged among his kind, and now he knew. He didn’t. He never had. It took a mature mind to admit what he truly was.
A demon I shall be.
He gave in to the compulsion to change, to let go of his old generation of life and begin a new one. Instead of returning to the base state of his elemental array, which resulted in a smoky mass of energy, he stayed within his current form and began to push it around. What remained of his decaying body convulsed and churned and rippled. He was ready to become a demon.
The world of Elish possessed snake demons, spider demons, cat demons, cactus demons. Any type of fear or phobia imaginable had a corresponding manifestation in this world. Most of them were easily recognizable, forced to flee and find ways to hide. Some lived in caves or abandoned huts, some burrowed underground, and he’d met some with the uncanny talent for carving out sub-dimensions and wondered how they’d accomplished that.
Ultimately, Ulmaen wanted freedom. He wanted to be out in the open with the ability to roam about without the worry of being hunted. Several environments offered that possibility. The first to come to mind was the desert, but too many demons already lived there. Next he thought of seas and mountains and forests.
Mmm, yes, plenty of creatures hide well in forests.
Forests covered a large portion of Elish. Sondshor Castle was on the edge of a massive one that sprawled into the North and skirted the edge of the desert to the South. This forest offered a natural camouflage, should he choose to become a particular kind of demon.
Why not?! If that kind of demon doesn’t work out, I can always change into another.
As soon as he made the decision, he realized he knew little about demons’ bodies. His knowledge about their physiology came from what he had observed of their outer appearance. They had to have some form of skeletal architecture to support their bipedal stature, to allow them to move and walk about. But did it matter whether or not a demon’s skeleton was made from actual bone?
As long as I look like a demon, it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside, right?
Ulmaen scanned his body, focusing on what he did know. He could be taller this time, if he chose, with less girth, less muscle. He could be a woman again. Or, he could be genderless or any of the many gender combinations.
The idea of being genderless intrigued him. He wondered about being free from the influence of a single hormone’s dominance; of distinguishable, identifiable genitalia. He could wipe the slate clean.
He began to deathmorph.
The air thickened with his magic scent—fresh green apples and the bite of ginger. Normally, he wouldn’t notice his own smell, but in this stale place with a rotting corpse, he welcomed it.
He pushed out any unnecessary molecules in exchange for others and harvested new elements from what remained of the rotten wood within the broken stairwell and from the air. These elements shot toward him, invisible to the eye until they breached the surface of his flesh and flared into tiny dots of bright light. Beneath his decayed flesh, the elements joined the flux of energy that pulsed within.
He willed length into his Elishian bones, matching the height of demons he’d encountered, ones he was certain were old and had been around since the dawn of the world, and he grew at least a head taller. Tendons and muscles adjusted to the new framework, joints popped and snapped, his posture twisted then straightened.
Beneath his slick flesh, muscles elongated and bulged. His shoulders remained wide in breadth yet narrowed in girth. His biceps grew small, his gently contoured chest stayed flat, his thighs thickened a little more than his calves, and his pelvic mound, though pronounced, lacked any distinguishable genitalia.
He focused next on his flesh. It dried and thickened and erupted into a rough grey-brown bark along his legs and arms and torso. Knots formed at his knees and elbows and at the edge of both shoulders. When he had finished, he bent his arms and twisted, admiring the way the woody hide flexed with ease despite being hard to the touch.
Then he ran his new fingers over his new face. Thin lips parted, wet with sap. A nose erupted—a swirled knot. Cheeks widened, growing ridged and sharp. From the top of his head, thin branches swirled into smaller green tendrils which unfurled into leaves. All that remained were his eyes.
The most he could do was mimic the small, round shape of a tree demon’s eyes but not the colour. Eye colour was the only aspect of his form he couldn’t alter. Among the Xiinisi, eyes were the only means to observe another’s core energy. They emitted a unique signature hue. His were azure blue.
Final details erupted along his bark flesh. Clusters of small shelf mushrooms grew around the two holes on either side of his head, forming rudimentary ears. Here and there, moss bubbled up and clung to the backs of his shoulders. Finally, creepers curled about his root-like toes, snaked up both legs, and opened into tiny pink flowers.
He was a demon now, neither man nor woman. How should he refer to himself? As an it or possibly as a they? Did the Elishians have a word for the genderless? And what of his name?
Ulmaen. No! Ule? Definitely not. Oo, oo, ool…The final iteration of the name was the very root of it and saying it felt like coming home.
Ul was satisfied, except for one detail—the tiny pink flowers.
Ul frowned at them a moment, then willed them into something more agreeable, less… soft. The pink darkened and deepened; lightness drained away until what remained was the hue of clotted blood.
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.