Demons on the Inner Sea by Andrew B. Chaban

It’s raining again in Egorian, and the drops find their way even into Sorrowgate’s leaning alleys. Pressing my shoulders against the building at the passage’s end, I imagine the wall’s wet working through my boiled leather, and find myself wishing for weather still worse, a torrent to wash the Thrune-daubed crimson from this accursed city. As it is, I strain instead to catch the sound of footsteps through the shower, planning a dip into a new sea of crime. I’m not entirely comfortable with what I’m planning to do; in the laws of my people, I’m about to forestal, which ranges through most offences violating a traveller’s freedom. It usually refers to highway robbery, but extends to tonight’s acts of vengeance.

Naturally, the chorus decides to weigh in when I’m under pressure, this time in the person of Skulk. As her voice hisses in my mind, I feel her teeth and cheekbones gleaming under her high scorpion head, long and sharp like the fingers she counts on with sadistic pleasure, “Not to mention ambush for assault and murder.” Even as a bard, I find it difficult to convey in Common the demonic glee of her words and, despite my uncertainty, the answering chord it wakes in me.

The memory of the unavoidable Whipcrack walk stirs up the suffering of one of my people, calling for an answer. Elves do not take to slavery; most of us wilt or wither even without the lash, drudgery driving spirit from flesh long before its season. I saw one broken today, his self already somewhere else, petitioning Pharasma for rebirth, or seeking admission to the salon of Our Lady in the Room. And the bastards beat him down to gasp out his last, too tired, too far gone to scream. I didn’t dare do anything with the rabble watching, waiting for a wrong move, and me narrowly escaped from slavery myself. I close my eyes, shut out everything but the sound I’m listening for and the memories of the stripes cut in my own flesh. I’ve had enough of weeks of hand-to-mouth, flinching from every guard, diving for cover from every black-robed, steel-faced devil-licker’s toady. I shall not suffer it, I think, I have a name, now. Tonight someone pays for everything they’ve done. Tonight, I don’t need the chorus to make me mad. Tonight I put Egorian behind me. I finally hear through the rain the tell-tale slouch of Merrintian the flesh-merchant, Merrintian the murderer. He’s coming home alone, not wanting to be recognized in some poxy Trick Alley stew.

I put his footsteps at twenty long paces away. Revenge is sweeter than spiced red wine, I think, giddily, even as I wonder what this no-account slaver deserves as proxy for all of Cheliax. Blood surely calls for blood. There will be enough red in this alley soon. I savour bitter irony as I consider that the cousin elf I will avenge would probably disavow me as a wretched tiefling, and my new-blown thirst threatens to make me as savage as that other part of me is supposed to be. Seconds trickle by like the windblown rain down my neck, dripping through my pulled-back hair. A muffled oath answers a tipsy clatter, only steps away.

Raising the scabbard high so it doesn’t strike against the wall, I slide my rapier from its sheath, keeping the motion as smooth as I can. The sound is gratifyingly soft, like the rasp of a lover’s lips on your skin. I brush a stray lock from my eyes with the guard, and the hair’s dark flicker confirms that the face-changing magic that is part of my birthright still holds. There will be enough red in this alley soon. My eyes open wide as I catch my victim’s wine-burdened breath. I whisper the words of a new spell at the blade’s base, and power runs down like a single note bowed fierce on a fiddle. My toes twitch, curling like a diver’s before the plunge, in anticipation of the battle-dance. I swing into the street riding the first notes of the skirmish, and if the chorus wants to join the commotion in my head, let them. Now to strike, for elves, for tieflings, for tiefling elves, for anything!

There’s no time for repartee with the charm on my blade fading, and I’ve already heard all the jokes about the elf quean and the country squire, had enough questions about what I’m doing this far from Trick Alley. Tonight this is a trick alley. Merrintian’s reflexes are good, though, and he’s already got a hold on his cursed whip. Before he recovers from my unexpected appearance as well as the drink will let him, I thrust over his arm and halfway through his chest before a rib gets in the way. He obliges me with a sputtering, pierced-lung scream as I pull free, but I’ve missed the heart; so much for a formal introduction. My luck’s spoiled, and the wretch tottering before me is too deep in his cups for even a vicious wound to register. Instead, somehow, from beneath the drink, he dares to swing at me with his lash. I get my arm up in time, but as the blow shreds my bracer I realize just how tricky this night’s work might be. My armour and my grandmothers’ heritage spare me the worst, but stinging blood drips from a lash which, as it wraps around my arm, I learn has blades braided through it. Wincing, I manage to slash through the pain and pull the bladed whip from my opponent’s weakened grasp. A measure of clarity finally breaks behind Merrintian’s swimming eyes as he bleeds breathless before me, and realizes too late he’s outclassed. I drop my rapier and give him time to stagger back while I flip his weapon into my hand. Interestingly, learning to watch for a whip gives you a sense of how they work. I let him know now that I won’t let him walk away, assuming he’s learned enough about elves after having abused them for however much of his worthless life, “Fe fyddi’n marw, ai cas gelyn fy.”

He lurches away, as fast as the effects of vice and violence will let him. At ten feet, I drop him with a reaching cut across the face. Retching into his hands, he curls into a twitching mass on the cobbles’ rainy streamlets. I think I could get used to this device as I loop the whip ready again. Before I give mercy, I decide to make things clear to this filth, “You know, Merrintian, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes tyrants think they can force or steal obedience. By all means, you can have the shell, like this toy of yours – wherever did you get it? If we bow to it, it’s not because you’re holding the other end. It’s what’s underneath the show that counts. And if that’s freedom, as long as people hold on to what makes them more than beasts, they’ll fight for it, any way they can. If there is good in that, scum like you can’t always trample on their people.”

Agony chokes his answering curse, and as blood-tinged rain starts to pool about his body, I commend his spirit to whatever hellish power his degraded slaver’s soul might seek to appease. I have no patience for his last-breath execrations.

Just as I prepare to strike, the chorus makes its belated appearance in force. Skulk is back, with bird Soary and cagey Sneak, and even Soppy, the best and cleverest of all my childhood friends. Their encouraging voices break in my head like the rain over it, and through the heavens’ lashing barbs. I can almost see their various claws and grins, burning eyes, and all the blood they want. They call, and part of me thirsts to answer. Merrintian moans at my feet, and that settles it.

I turn my back on him. There has been enough red in this street after all. I can almost pity the man now that I have beaten him as a monster. The blow to his face must have hit him like a thunderbolt, and if he doesn’t take his death from my other gift, he’ll certainly never see his own reflection the same way again, even if he doesn’t lose an eye. The chorus seethes, finally fading away one by one as they always do, but right now it seems good to me to leave the man with a warning, if fate will spare him to heed it. It’s enough that I’ve reminded him that even if I don’t, someone like me will always see him. I don’t expect a sudden change of heart, but bitter seeds can sometimes bear sweet fruit. As for me, I have acquired a new sting. As I turn my steps away, resolving to go south, to the sea, I lift my face into the rain that somehow now feels clean.