The chaos had subsided. Where terrified screams once echoed, a hollow hum filled the space. Where a small thriving village of craftsmen once stood, smouldering embers carpeted the floor.
Earl surveyed the scene. Like an image from a room of mirrors, he couldn’t tell whether the glow from this fiery sea was seeping into the pre-dawn sky, or if the colour from the first rays of the rising sun was running onto the debris. The harsh smell of burnt flesh mingled with rotten timber left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. His relaxed stance belied the simmering rage he felt at seeing the half-burnt bodies of the villagers, terror etched onto their faces. Many of them clutched shields and weapons, in various stages of completion, in their last-bid attempt to ward off their adversary.
Ignorant humans, Earl thought, as if their crude tools stood a chance against the century-old viper spirit. He fingered the hilt of his sword, one inscribed with ancient runes and enchanted with prayers from the top priests from the nine righteous sects, while contemplating his next move.
The viper spirit had evaded him thrice now; razing these settlements to the ground with fire made it difficult for him to track her scent. Her trail seemed to lead west, toward the bigger villages along the fringes of a large town. She was brazen, but like most demons her age, she was also cunning.
What Earl did know was that she needed to feed on the same number of humans as her age to maintain her powers—more, if she was ambitious and looking to advance them. So far, she had taken forty-two lives. He would decide how to proceed with his pursuit once he had counted the bodies. He stepped through a makeshift wooden arch, the only surviving structure of the community.
Coaxed by the gentle breeze, smoke and ash formed unearthly shapes in the air, as if enacting a dance ritual to send off the departed. But Earl’s red-lacquered armour repelled the dirt as he cut a pristine path across rubble.
A whimper from under a pile of cinders caught his attention. He reached for one of the two staffs strapped to his back and used it as a lever to pry the fallen wood loose. What appeared to be a mound of rags at first glance turned out to be a girl cowering in fear, barely breathing. She had soft and striking features, and looked to be no more than sixteen years old; in short, the viper spirit’s favourite type of victim.
“How did you get so lucky?” Earl asked. But the petite figure fell into a dead faint even before he extracted her from the ruins.
Earl glanced at the girl whom he had laid down on the bank. The late-morning sun had chased away the frigidness in the air, but still, she showed no signs of coming to even though her pulse was steady.
The permanent crease between Earl’s brows deepened as he frowned. Caring for the girl was making him tardy, yet why did he feel compelled to do so even as the rushing waters of the stream seemed to be urging him to resume his hunt?
“Wa-ter…” the girl uttered in a hoarse whisper.
Earl rushed to help her sit up as he put his lambskin water pouch to her lips. He scowled at his reaction. Surely there was some sorcery at work here.
“How did you survive?” he asked, the harshness in his voice apparent.
After she gulped down several mouthfuls of water, the girl started to cry in earnest.
Taken aback, Earl softened his tone. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He paused to give her time to compose herself. “My name is Earl.”
“I am Lynn,” the girl said, wiping off her tears with the back of her hands and streaking the soot across her face.
“Lynn,” Earl urged, “I just want to know what happened so I can help you.”
Suppressing her sobs, Lynn said, “Last night, I was having dinner with Pa and Ma when they heard a commotion outside our hut. They told me to hide under the bed while they went out to find out what happened. But I didn’t listen. I hid behind the door and saw a woman in a red cape approach them. She raised her arm and I heard Pa scream. Then I saw…I saw a silver glow coming out from his open mouth. The light was sucked in by the woman. Pa fell to the ground. When the woman did the same to Ma, I screamed. I screamed when Ma screamed.” Tears the size of grapes fell again from her woeful eyes.
“Did you get a good look at the woman’s face, Lynn? Can you describe her to me?”
Lynn nodded. “She walked over to me. She was beautiful. Terrifying. But so beautiful. Her skin glowed, but her eyes were like dark, bottomless pits.” Shuddering, she continued, “She told me that her pet would like me and she would come back for me. Then she turned around, so I ran. I don’t know how I did it, but I ran—until something hit me over the head. That’s all I remember.”
Earl pondered over Lynn’s revelation. If the demoness did indeed come back for Lynn, she wouldn’t be safe no matter where or who he left her with. But was she potential bait, or a trap set for him so he wouldn’t be able to move as quickly as he wanted to? Either way, he had a nagging feeling that the draw he felt towards her couldn’t possibly mean anything good.
“Were you the one who saved me?” Lynn asked. “Are you going after the woman? I want to help. I want to avenge my parents.”
Earl raised an eyebrow at her resolute expression. “A mere mortal like you, talking about revenge.”
“Mortal? Are you not human too? Come to think of it, how do you think you are going to subdue the soul-sucking red devil?”
Earl thought his outfit, if not his weapons, would suffice as answers to her ignorant questions.
“Please, take me with you.” Lynn reached out her hand to grab his.
At the contact, a series of images—a bearded man charging at him with a blunt axe, an elderly woman with her eyes widened in fright, a young boy crouched under an unfinished shield—flashed in front of Earl’s eyes. He almost recoiled in disgust. Instead, his eyes narrowed before he schooled his expression to one of concern. “All right,” he said to Lynn. I’d like to see what you tricks you have up your sleeve, Viperess.
Keeping his eyes on the entrance of the hut, Earl stoked the fire. To be able to mask her real identity from him until that misjudged touch, Lynn—or whatever the demoness called herself—must be more powerful than he gave her credit for. Playing along with her gave him more time to figure out her motives, he rationalized.
All day, he had been leading her further and further away from civilization to ensure that if either of them gave away the game and it came to a showdown, the number of mortals affected would be kept to a minimum. It took more effort than he thought to try to steer clear of well-intended peasants offering food and shelter.
“Where are we headed? How do you know where the red devil is going?” Lynn kept asking. “Shouldn’t we stop to ask for directions?”
Each time, Earl gave her vague answers and pressed her for more details of the ‘red devil’ to remind her of her ‘parents’. This way, she had to constantly pretend to be grieving. Despite that, he caught her eyes darting around like a cornered rabbit several times.
Finally, at dusk, Earl found an abandoned hut along a deserted stretch of the stream. Allowing Lynn to wander away to wash up, he took the time to jam the various windows to seal off her points of escape. When she returned, hair still damp and face free of soot, he knew he was right to not underestimate the vanity and power of disguise of the demoness. Her face was no longer obscured by dirt. Highlighted under the flattering glow of the setting sun, she was a vision to behold.
After Earl gave himself enough time to gape at her appearance to encourage her arrogance, he gestured to the rundown shelter. “There’s a bed inside the hut where you can rest for the night.”
“How about you?” Lynn asked, looking around uncomfortably.
“I’ll be out here, standing guard.”
“Are you sure? We could take shifts.”
“Not tonight. You need to rest.”
“But you’ll freeze out here.”
“I’ll start a fire. Don’t worry about me.” Earl gave her a dismissive wave. A spirit as cunning as Lynn must know that he would never let her out of his sight after this.
“Thank you, Earl,” Lynn conceded, as she walked through the doorway. “For everything.”
Check. The game will be over before the night is out, Earl promised the demoness’ retreating back.
Earl brushed his thumb back and forth against the hilt of his sword. He let the rhythmic motion lull him into a meditative state. The fire he had started the night before had burnt out. Still, there was hardly any movement from the inside of the hut. Pity. He didn’t realize how much he was looking forward to a good fight until he decided that it probably wasn’t happening.
Tired of waiting, Earl retrieved a palm-sized goblet from his pocket. Once he chanted the incantation while pointing it at the demoness, she would be sucked in and the amulet would seal her in. It was that easy.
He stood up and started toward the hut.
At the same moment, the door burst open and a dishevelled Lynn ran out, brandishing a candleholder as if it were a weapon made for war.
“Stay away from me, FREAK!” she shouted.
Earl stopped dead in his tracks, bewildered at this turn of events. “What?” he said, looking around to see if there was anyone else in the vicinity.
Lynn’s outstretched arms were covered in shallow cuts. Her sooty muslin dress also had small holes all over. “I knew something was wrong when I realized you were leading me away from the villages,” she spat at him, keeping her back against the wall. “I should have ran away and never come back. You liar!”
Without a trace of humour, Earl asked, “Oh, so this how you think you can escape me, demoness? Pretend to be a victim because you know you would never win in an outright fight?”
A shout of laughter sounded from behind them.
Earl whipped his head around to see a caped figure walking towards them, bringing her long, slender fingers together in a slow clapping motion.
“This is more entertaining than I thought it would be,” the figure said, pushing back her hood to reveal a bewitching face, just like what Lynn described. But by the glint of the moonlight, Earl thought he saw a forked tongue dart in and out of her mouth.
“You!” Lynn exclaimed, now waving the candleholder at the newcomer. “You killed my parents. And everyone in my village!”
Earl turned back to Lynn, now thoroughly confused.
“Wait… It can’t be. If she”—he pointed at the woman—“is the viper spirit, then who are you?”
At this, the woman laughed again. When she spoke, it was as if she were chiding a small errant child. “Oh, Earl. My dear, dear, Earl. Open your eye if you want to see the truth.” She tapped her forefinger to the middle of her forehead.
Earl reached up to feel between his brows. The furrow was still there, but it felt…different. Before he knew it, an agonizing headache seized him, and the crease split open, flooding him with memories that couldn’t be true.
He wasn’t wearing the armour he so treasured. Instead, he was clad in simple clothes as he walked into the village from the night before. The wooden houses, though shabby, were still standing. He approached the first person in sight, a middle-aged man forging a weapon by a fire.
“How can I help you, young man?”
In reply, Earl drew out his sword. Again, it wasn’t the nine times consecrated sword that he valued. But it still cut a gaping hole through the man’s chest, severing tendons and bones.
“Well done, my dear,” the viper spirit said, approaching him from behind as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Boss would be proud. Let’s split up.”
The bearded man, the old woman, the boy — Earl saw them once again. Except this time, he knew without a doubt that they were his memories, not Lynn’s.
A woman’s scream cut through the air like a shrill siren. It was followed by another. And another. Punctuated with groans and shouts of help, it was a symphony of death.
Now, Earl knew why Lynn had called him a freak. All the while he thought he was meditating outside the hut, he was holding her down and making cuts in her skin like an expressionless puppet — just like how he cut the villagers down.
“What have you done to me?” Earl muttered in anguish, all the fight gone from him as he knelt down and covered his face with his hands. “What did you make me do?”
“Do you know why you’re attracted to Lynn? Why I left her for you?” the demoness asked, as if his questions were of no consequence.
“Why?” Lynn whispered.
Earl had forgotten that she was still around.
“Her humanity,” Viperess answered. “I knew leaving her alive for you to save would make you feel more guilt.”
“Indeed,” a new voice that sounded neither masculine nor feminine, yet both at the same time, interrupted. This voice seemed to echo from all around him. There was nobody to attribute it to. “This is the first time I’m glad to have lost a bet. You, Viperess, have shrewd foresight. And for that, you may have the girl as your reward,” it continued.
Wait, the girl! Lynn! Was she still around? Why was she still around? Earl shook himself out of his self-pity. “Run, Lynn!” he shouted as he launched himself at Viperess.
But he was powerless. He never had the demon-subduing goblet — just like he never had his blessed sword or his armour. Inches away from the conceited face of the demoness, he was stopped short by an invisible force.
That manic laugh sounded again. “Oh, Boss. Make him. Make Earl toss the coin,” Viperess trilled. “Heads, he beheads the girl. Tails, he guts her.”
“Oh, I like your suggestion, you wily girl,” came the distorted voice. “You would sacrifice the thrill of the kill for my enjoyment? I am touched.”
“No!” Earl screamed, cutting off Viperess’ obsequious reply. “I won’t do it!” No. The word echoed in his mind.
Flashes of memories came back to him. He caught just one of them.
“Earl, your next task is to track down the three-thousand-year-old tree demon. It has been recruiting lesser spirits, as if building an army,” an old man with silver beard as long as he was tall said, patting Earl on the shoulder. “Beware the red herrings—the weaker spirits. The tree demon is the one you are to capture.”
As quickly as it came, the image distorted and vanished.
I’ve failed you, Master, Earl thought, as searing pain filled his body. It was as if his soul, together with his immense self-reproach, was being ripped away from his very core. At the same time, he felt his third eye being forced closed by the unknown power so strong he knew it was pointless to struggle. But he put all his strength into keeping it open; he became a disembodied spectator instead. Something flat, squarish and cool was pressed into his hand. He tossed the metal piece onto the ground. His feet pumped under him as he drew out the nondescript sword.
Lynn’s back was exposed to him in her bid to heed his advice to run away. But she made the mistake of turning around. At her look of horror, Earl lost the fight to keep the eye between his brows open. Once again, his existence became a blank slate, one to be filled with more lies.
Earl didn’t hear Lynn screaming as his sword sank into her soft and pliant body. Nor did he hear Viperess’ and her Boss’ celebratory shouts of ecstasy.
“This guilt you’ve conjured up, Viperess, is one of the finest desserts I’ve ever tasted,” the genderless voice said. But Earl didn’t hear that either.
This short story was first published in Pulp Toast/Roti Bakar: A Roll of the Dice.