“No, I don’t want you to try to heal it. I want the imp weak and helpless.”
It had been several days since Dani and Paris found the tiny demon unconscious in a nearby wooded avenue. Thanks to Paris’s book and Dani’s tutoring, Mandy’s knowledge of how to use the local tree bark, roots, and other parts of medicinal plants was steadily growing, and the children felt well enough to resume their journey very soon.
“He’s hardly regained consciousness since you brought him back to camp. What if he dies?”
“Then it dies. It’s a demon. It, and thousands of others just like it, tried to kill us, and they did kill four dragons, or have you forgotten that?” The dragon rider was furious, not so much at Mandy, but at the loss of her four friends, as well as the horrible revelation that Shay had been taken by the demon horde. It added to the plague of the visions and dreams where she saw herself murdering the other teenager and her brothers and sisters.
“I’m just trying to help.” Mandy might have been afraid of Dani if she’d faced her anger when their relationship was new, but now she understood that the dragonrider was in pain, tormented by guilt at what she saw as her failures.
Dani sighed and looked away from the imp for the first time since Mandy started talking to her. “I know you are. I’m sorry. It’s just…”
“I know. But if the imp starts to feel stronger, maybe he can tell us where to find Shay.”
“If it starts to feel too strong, it will escape and rejoin the others.”
“What’s one imp more or less?”
“You’re right. One imp is nothing. They’re foot soldiers, cannon fodder. Their strength is in their vast numbers. Individually, they’re expendable.”
It was mid-morning and the children having finished breakfast and their chores, sat resting in the cool shade under the surrounding trees letting themselves continue to heal, and not just their bodies. The demonic attack had been horrifying, especially to little Zooey. She sat nearby, her eyes locked onto the imp, sipping a cup of tea.
The herbal beverage helped to reduce anxiety and restore the balance between body, mind, and spirit, or that’s what Paris’s book said. She felt herself trying to become an inquisitive, effervescent, five-year-old girl again, but it would take time. In all of their adventures, this was the first time she thought she was going to die.
Zooey looked at the imp wondering if she would get a sense of rapport as she did with the animals she encountered, but there was nothing. It wasn’t an animal, even though it sort of looked like a bat. The other beasts of the woodlands refused to come near their camp as long as it was present. Her mouse Sapplehenning hadn’t even peeked out of her shirt since Dani had brought the thing into their midst.
Jake and Paris were sitting together. She was idly thumbing through the elven book she had received as a gift at Direhaven. The girl had mined it for all the information regarding imps, but nothing in its pages seemed to apply to the current situation.
Jake was grateful that he hadn’t remembered any of his dreams since the battle. Part of him hoped he would dream about Shay again, and that she’d be able to tell him where she was, but the last time he had such an experience, it had been terrifying, and he’d woken up in a panic.
Taylor was sitting furthest away from the camp. He was using a cloth to apply oil to Celeste’s blade in a soft, stroking fashion from the hilt toward the tip, but he was looking in the direction of Dani and Mandy. He didn’t agree with the decision to bring that creature into camp and thought they should kill it.
Azzorh, his persistent voice, the presence of the soldier and guardian of the Kings that dwelt within him, didn’t like it either, but he didn’t need the essence of the warrior to bolster his hate of the dark entity. If he had his way, Taylor would have used his sword to send the demon back to Hell.
“If I apply just a little bit of the balm, maybe it would be enough.”
“Don’t touch it, not with your hands. Tie a rag to the end of a stick and dip it into the balm. Use the smallest amount you can. I still think this is a big mistake.”
“It’s only one imp and you’re here to protect us.” Mandy walked to the nearby pile of firewood and chose a branch that was about three feet long. Instead of a rag, she found a large tree leaf, and attached it to the end of the stick with some small vines. Then she poured on a small bit of the balm she’d prepared that morning.
“Any idea where?”
“On the torso, but wait a minute.” Dani took a step backward and drew Witherbrand from its sheath. “I’m not taking chances. Okay. Do it.”
Everyone was sitting straight up now, all focused on the two girls and the creature at the center of the camp. Mandy lowered the stick until the medicine at the end came in contact with the imp. She thought she was being very gentle.
The thirteen-year-old jumped back as the creature squealed and shook, and the older teen held her sword ready for a killing stroke.
The thing’s eyes closed again, but it was breathing faster.
“That’s enough. Stand away.”
“Mandy moved backward and stood next to Paris and Jake. Taylor put away the oil and rag in his kit and then rose with his sword ready.
“I know you can hear me, imp.”
The obsidian entity opened its eyes slowly and then licked its lips. “Water.”
“Fat chance. You’re lucky we kept you alive.”
“What you do to I?”
Individually, not only were imps physically weak, but mentally they were very simple. Paris knew this from her reading and Dani from being raised on the legends of the dragons since the age of three.
“Tell me where Shay is.” Dani stood menacingly over the small beast. One little imp was hardly intimidating.
It looked up at her with a dull expression on its face. “Water.”
Mandy had removed the leaf on her stick with her booted foot and replaced it with a fresh leaf. She dipped it in a bowl of water she’d kept for cleaning wounds and offered it to the imp. “Here.”
A chill went through her as the miniature demon lapped at it.
“Now, where’s Shay? What have you done with the golden dragon?”
“Dragon. Gold dragon.”
“That’s right. You captured her. You were imitating her. Where is she?” Dani held the tip of her blade closer to the imp’s face and its eyes went wide.
“No, no, no. Not hurt I.”
“Then tell me what I want to know. Mandy, take everyone else out of the camp. Do it now.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Never mind that. Just do as I say.”
“It’s wrong, Dani. You can’t hurt him.”
“Why not? It and thousands of its cousins tried to kill us.”
“Because we’re not like them. If we start acting like demons, then we’ll be no better than they are.”
Dani didn’t react but inside she was in turmoil. The visions of her dressed as Sakhr were evidence that somewhere inside, she was like a demon. The Mages Raibyr and Fenian swore that the exorcism had worked and that the minion of Asmodius was trapped for all time in stone, eventually to be washed away in a watery cataclysm. But if that were true, why did she still feel her presence, and why had Sakhr reappeared and tried to kill her?
“Mandy, take the others outside the camp. I’ll call you back when I’m through.”
“Do as I say. I promise I won’t kill it.” She looked up at Mandy with both anger and pleading written on her face. “Please trust me.”
“Okay.” She knew they couldn’t afford to get into an argument with a demon in the camp, even one that seemed so frail. She turned. “Everyone get up. We’re giving Dani some space.”
Mandy took Zooey’s hand and helped her to her feet. They joined the others who were all standing together now.
“No you’re not, Taylor. Come with the rest of us.”
“Dani might need me.”
“Not this time. I’m trusting her. I need you to trust me.”
He sheathed Celeste. “I hope you’re right.”
“So do I.” Mandy looked back at Dani who was still poised to kill the demon with Witherbrand. Then she ushered her siblings out of the clearing praying this was the right thing to do.
After the Davidsons had moved away and into a nearby grove, Dani very slowly lowered the edge of her blade toward the imp’s face. “I wonder what would happen if an elven sword just touched your disgusting face.”
The demon’s expression remained one of horror as the black metal came within inches of its eyes. Dani could see smoke starting to rise from its left cheek, as if she were holding a firebrand instead of a sword.
“No. No hurt I. No. Dragon. Golden dragon.”
“What about the dragon? Talk fast.”
“Far. Far. Dragon far. Where sun rise. Dark. Wet. Spires.”
“Hurt! Hurt! I hurt!” The flesh on his face was bubbling.
Dani pulled her sword back. In a few moments, the effect started to reverse.
“I stopped the hurt. Where is the dragon? What dark, wet place where the sun rises?”
The demon’s rapid breathing began to slow. Its left eye was swollen shut and the flesh on the cheek was discolored and oozing.
“My friend can use more healing balm, but you’re going to tell me what I want to know first.”
“No hurt I. Hurt. No hurt I.”
“Where is she?”
“Dark place. Where sun rise. Towers.”
“That’s not good enough.” Dani started moving the blade toward the imp again.
“Quag. Quag Lands. No hurt I. Quag Lands.”
Dani withdrew Witherbrand again. “Damn.”
She waited there for a minute. The imp seemed to be drifting off to sleep again. It had probably told her all it knew, and the news was bad enough.
“You can come back now.”
A few moments later, Mandy led her siblings tentatively into the camp. “What happened?”
“It told me where Shay is.”
“Where?” More than anyone, Jake absolutely needed to know the location of his vision of the dragon.
“A swamp to the east, assuming I can believe it. Even demons are supposed to avoid that place.”
“Do you think it lied?” Jake stared down at the unconscious imp.
“No. It was pretty scared.”
Mandy gave Dani a stern look but didn’t say anything. She looked at the demon again and saw the damage done to the left side of its face.
“The place is called the Quag Lands.”
“I’ve read about it,” Paris exclaimed. “A swamp on the eastern border of the Exile, what the elves know about it. It’s supposed to be forbidden. Nothing is safe there. Not even demons or dragons. There’s a legend about something in the swamp, but even the elven mages don’t know what it is.”
While the rest of them were talking, Mandy put a fresh leaf on the end of the stick and applied some of the balm. She wasn’t trying to hide what she was doing, but no one was paying any particular attention to her at that moment.
“Shay told me the dragons don’t even fly over the Quag Lands and that it’s death to go there.”
Mandy slowly lowered the medicinal end of the stick toward the imp’s face. She remembered his reaction from the last time, so she tried to stay as far away as she could.
The leaf touched the burn marks, but besides shivering and breathing faster, the imp didn’t react, not at first.
Then it screeched, bared its fangs and leaped up at the girl, fluttering tiny wings. She screamed and threw the stick at it, knocking the creature aside as it nearly bit her.
“Get away from her!” Dani had Witherbrand out and slashed the air, but the demon avoided the strike.
“Missed me. Ha, ha.” It maniacally giggled and then zoomed into the air.
Taylor nocked an arrow and shot, but the beast was moving too fast and was too small to hit. Before the boy could get another ready, the imp had vanished skyward.
“He tried to bite me. I was just trying to help.”
“What do you expect?” Dani sheathed her sword again. “It’s a demon, not a stray dog. It doesn’t respond to kindness. It’s the basic element of evil.”
Mandy had fallen backward and Dani helped her back up.
“But I thought if I could help it…” The girl looked into the now empty sky and scowled, feeling both angry and foolish. Then she said to the dragonrider, “Even though I was wrong, I was still right.”
“I let it live and we know where Shay is.”
“Are you sure we should go after her?”
“Are you crazy? Of course we should.”
Jake jumped in front of his oldest sister. “We’ve got to save her. You didn’t see how bad off she was. She going to die.”
“I know.” Mandy put her arm around him and pulled him to her. Then she looked back at Dani. “We’ve been through a lot. We almost died. They’re only children.”
“You have no idea what the children of Vovin have been through.”
“I have to protect them. If we all go after Shay now, we might not make it, which wouldn’t help Shay at all. Maybe we should finish the trip to Vovin. Once we get there, we can tell the other dragons. They’d be able to help Shay a lot better than we could.”
“That will take another week at least, and that assumes we don’t run into any more trouble. Shay could be dead in another week.”
“What would Shay want?”
Mandy’s question was devastating because Dani knew the answer. The golden dragon would sacrifice her life even for a single child. She knew that risking the Davidson children in order to save Shay would be the exact wrong decision from Shay’s point of view, but she couldn’t just let her closest friend die. Shay had been a mother to her when she had no one but her brother. Shay had taken care of her since she was barely out of diapers. She couldn’t just walk away.
“If I told you how to get to Vovin, maybe you could make it, and I could go after her.”
“Anything could happen between here and Vovin. Without you, we wouldn’t have a chance.”
“What about me? I’m not such a bad fighter.” Taylor knew Mandy was right, but he also knew how much Shay meant to Dani.
“No, Taylor. You don’t know the territory or the dangers like Dani. If we hit even one problem, we’d never make it.” Then she turned back to Dani. “You know I’m right. You know what Shay would say.”
Dani stood transfixed by the other girl’s eyes. She knew this is what Shay would want, no matter what the consequences to her. Even if it meant the golden dragon’s death, she had to finish her mission and make sure the Davidsons got to Vovin safe.
“No, Mandy. We have to go after her.”
The teenager looked down to see her littlest sister’s imploring eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I love my Mommy. I’d do anything to save her, and so would you.” Shay is like Dani’s Mommy. You can’t tell her we aren’t going to save her from the demons.”
Mandy knelt down and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Mommy and Daddy would want me to keep you safe. You know what almost happened to us. If we go after Shay, we might not make it.”
Zooey hugged her sister as Jake stood next to them. “We have to save her. The animals will protect us, I promise, but we can’t let Dani’s Mommy die.”
Mandy could feel Zooey’s body tremble as the child sobbed into her chest. “Sometimes, I think you’re the bravest person I’ve ever known.”
“Then let’s go get her.” The kindergartner wiped her face.
“It’s not even noon yet. We could still cover a lot of distance before dark.” Taylor was packing up his gear.
“She’s right. Shay means everything to Dani. They’re both our friends. We can’t let them down.” Mandy was surprised to hear Paris take up the dragonrider’s side.
“I already know what you’re thinking, Jake.”
“That’s right. We have to find her. I don’t think she’ll last much longer.”
Mandy turned toward Dani. “I assume you know how to get to these Quag Lands.”
“We all know where it is. We just never go there. I can find it.” Dani walked forward and hugged Mandy and Zooey. “Thank you.”
“We’re all in this together.”
“Then let’s get going.”
Everyone got to work packing their belongings and breaking camp. It was only when they were ready to get on the trail that Mandy noticed Jake wasn’t moving.
“Jake, what’s wrong.”
“I’m not asleep, but I’m dreaming.” He was staring into the east as if he could see miles beyond the horizon. “There’s something rising out of the darkness. It’s like a castle or towers or something. I think it’s alive.”
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt: Turrets #writephoto challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Every Thursday, Sue posts one of her original photos, and anyone who wants to participate can use it as the prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or some other creative work.
I’d already written most of today’s story when I saw the prompt and went “uh-oh.” Nothing in what I’d imagined included turrets, minarets, or spires, so I had to think fast, especially since I already know where Shay is and the mysterious nature of the Quag Lands. So I made a slight adaptation. Hope you like it.
I know, it is disturbing to think of a fifteen-year-old girl using a magic sword to torture a small demon in order to get information. I’m not a big fan of waterboarding myself, but it was the natural progression of everything that had happened. I had intended this to become a novel to be marketed to the teen/young adult crowd, but maybe the themes are too disturbing for that.
The Table of Contents so far is:
- The Forest
- A Tale Shared Among Friends
- Mr. Covingham’s Secret
- Wilderness Pilgrims
- The God of the Dark Hills
- Hall of the Mountain Kings
- Sojourn in Direhaven
- Trial at Sakhr
- What Secrets We Keep
- The Uneasy Pact
- The Tracker
- Duel at Orholt
- Valley of Blood
- The Fallen
The next chapter is Conflagration.