The Demons Within (2018)

This excerpt represents the current draft of the book. Not final product.

Chapter 1

A burst of freezing air slammed into Grimluk as he made his way down the hill into town below. The tails of his long, black coat snapped out as the wind howled, threatening to blow his hat away. He held it secure with one hand as he walked. The coat was buttoned tight on his chest, keeping the plain, wool scarf wrapped around his neck in place. Enough closure to help keep him warm but allow him to get to the heavy revolver on his hip if he needed it.

He passed a sign that read “Welcome to Arbortown, the Greenest Town in the Valley.” He’d reached his destination, and none too soon. Even Grimluk’s incredible constitution had trouble handling being caught outdoors on a winter night. The sun had set probably an hour before and the cold had begun to move in like a predator, nipping at his heels. Every winter, he contemplated holing up somewhere warm but every winter, he still found new jobs on the bounty boards. Demons didn’t care about the cold. Or the heat for that matter. Demons cared only for chaos and carnage, for souls and blood. He could happily oblige the carnage part, the blood, too. Just never quite how the cursed fiends wanted. Soon it would be time to oblige another demon some of its desires.

Arbortown was fairly out of the way. The closest other town was a few days walk back the other direction, farther west and back into New Gilead. And thus far, no one had claimed the bounty posted for the little farming town. That was fine. Not every demon hunter was quite as stubborn as he was about the job. Though after making the trek, he was more than ready to be done with the outdoors for a night or two. The tips of his ears were nearly numb. It tickled the consideration of staying somewhere one winter instead of continuing his nomadic ways all year.

The town itself was more of a hub than a real town. It had the usual staples, a small hotel, a saloon, peacekeepers’ office, general store, nothing out of the ordinary. Except that the peacekeeper office had a huge hole in the wall. Grimluk’s throat rumbled at the sight of it. Something big clearly made that hole. He just didn’t know what it was yet. A sign hung on the untouched door that read “In saloon until further notice.” As Grimluk started to turn toward the saloon, something caught his attention. A line of flame lit up the night sky as it streaked overhead, followed by a few smaller streaks that faded to nothing.

He looked at the night sky for a moment, a measure of surprise filling him. “Sure hope that isn’t the demon. That could prove troublesome.”

The saloon was directly across from the office, sitting next door to the meager hotel. The batwing doors had two very heavy blankets hanging up behind them to block the cold. Grimluk pushed the blankets aside as he walked in. A gruff voice met him on the other side, along with its owner.

“Hold there, stranger.” The man was a thin, black–skinned elf. Eyes like twin bonfires studied the hunter. A roomful of people watched him from various tables and spots at the bar.

Grimluk stopped and touched the brim of his hat. “Howdy,” he called before dusting some of the snow off himself.

“What is thine business here, orc?”

Old speech, definitely not a younger elf. Grimluk’s own charcoal eyes took in the area as he answered. “Reckon I’m here to kill your demon if that’s still a problem. Name’s Grimluk.” He held out a green hand. The elf regarded him silently for a moment before clasping Grimluk at the wrist and pumped twice.

“Sheriff Shalvine. Dost thou speak true?”

“That’s my aim, at least. Always possible the damned thing kills me and carries on but if I can kill it, I’ll kill it.”

Shalvine nodded. “Wise to avoid arrogance. The creature hath proved perilous in the short time it hath plagued us. Come, let us palaver.”

“Lead the way, friend,” Grimluk said with a nod, adjusting the elk–skin bag hanging off his shoulder. The sheriff led him to a desk in a back corner of the main room with two chairs in front of it and one behind. The desktop was sparse and stained light, nothing fancy but peacekeeping, like demon hunting, wasn’t fancy work. A simple desk got the job done. He did note that his host preferred a quill and ink to the more modern fountain pens that were all too common. Not entirely unsurprising given his way of speaking.

He motioned for Grimluk to have a seat before taking his own. “Forgive any discourtesy at thine entrance. Strangers art not always what they seem, is it not so? And, well, thou knowest thine history, I am sure.”

Grimluk sighed quietly. Definitely an old elf.

“I am eager to declare this beast slain. What dost thee need to do so?”

“Information first and foremost. Sightings, attack patterns, any particular uses of magic or particularly powerful feats. Does it travel with smaller, winged demons? Huge, black dogs?”

Shalvine nodded. “A challenge easily bested. In truth, the beast hath proven more…vexing than dangerous. Even still, it slew one of our folk and harmed still more. Verily, one of thine caliber will end this fiend with haste.”

“Certainly do my best. What about the hole in your office?”

“Over eager deputy, dear friend. Ah, let me consider whence best to recount this tale.” Shalvine steepled his fingers and leaned back. “The demon manifested some months back, always alone. Truly, a mighty creature but…”

“Yes?” Grimluk asked, brows furrowed. Shalvine looked as if he were embarrassed.

“I pray thou believe me when I say the foul beast is, ah, apparently witless. Truly, a clay–brained creature if ever there was one. Never have I seen a living creature so inept in its goals.”

Grimluk blinked for a moment. “An inept demon? I reckon that’s a first on my list, Sheriff. Worst I ever deal with are ghouls. Relatively speaking.” He sighed. “They’re just so damn tedious.”

“Ghouls art demons?”

“Very weak but yes. If you could continue though. As many details as you can give. Or anyone you think could help. You say it’s inept but it still killed and hurt your folks.”

The sheriff nodded. “As thou ask.”

After a couple of hours, Grimluk had all the information he needed. Shalvine had gathered a few folks up and after giving the major details to Grimluk, offering to let the residents fill in the holes.

A pair of young human boys, not quite adults yet, told him the thing had attacked them while they’d been out walking together. Several times, it seemed. Didn’t hurt either of them, necessarily, it just shoved one of them repeatedly and growled at them. Even drooled on the other boy. When the taller boy, Ike, decided he’d had enough, he swung at the demon and seemed to knock the wind out of it. It roared and struck back, slicing the boy’s arm before it fled, leaping into the air and gliding away.

Grimluk just scratched his jaw at that and ordered a shot of whiskey. In all his years hunting, even as an apprentice hunter, he’d never heard such a ridiculous story. He could easily believe a demon toying with two defenseless people but the fact that the boy had struck it and gotten away with only a sliced up arm was peculiar to say the least.

“Did it come at you again?” he asked.

“No, sir,” the tall boy said. “Least ways, not so direct. Next time we really seened it, it was just trailin’ us.”

“Huh.”

“But…” the other boy spoke up.

“Yeah?”

“Ike here found his cat strung up by her guts in his doorway not long after.”

“I see. Anything else?”

“No, sir,” they both said.

“Thank you both.”

After them was the old widow that owned the general store, also human, and hawkish of face. All she had to say on the matter was that the demon was a “gods–damned thief,” and that it had eaten a whole bolt of gingham.

“A whole bolt of gingham?” Grimluk repeated. “I’m hearing you right, ma’am?”

“A whole damned bolt, son. Just appeared in the store, picked it up, looked at me, and then stuffed it down its throat. May the Old Ones curse that bolt.”

Grimluk took his hat off and ran a hand through shaggy hair, his winter style in place his usual, mostly shorn head. He let out a long sigh before ordering another shot of whiskey for good measure. When Shalvine introduced the halfling deputy, Grimluk stopped him before he could begin his story.

“If you tell me the thing shit in your dinner or kicked your dog, I’m afraid I might bust a gut from laughter. Be gentle.”

The halfling gave a half–smile and looked up at Grimluk. “No, sir, didn’t shit on my dinner.”

“Well that’s good, cause I was real afraid I’d die right here.”

“It serenaded my dog.”

Grimluk just looked at the little man in shock for a moment before laughter begin to rise out of him like a fire springing to life. “It did what?”

“Well, sir, I got me a good dog, see. Bigger than me but minds real good and she came into heat recently. And, well, I come out one night last week cause this gods awful racket was comin’ from behind my hole. And there it was, big as you…singin’ to my dog.”

“Suppose it brought a gift too,” Grimluk replied through his continued laughter.

“A big ol’ bone, matter a fact.”

Grimluk had to swallow real hard to keep from roaring laughter. He’d seen some strange things but damn if this didn’t beat all. “Okay, okay. I get the point.” He slipped his hat back on and paid for the whiskey. “I know you folks are kind of out of the way, and you’ve said it killed someone and hurt others, so I reckon you ain’t just wastin’ my time with some fool joke. Still hard to believe.”

The widow huffed while the halfling looked on a bit sheepishly. Shalvine sighed. “I swear to thee, good hunter, we speak true. I did warn thee of the foolishness the beast hath wrought.”

“I know but can you blame me? I’ve been all over New Gilead, wandered in and out of the Territories and the Wastes, been at it for years now and I’ve never heard of a demon like this before.” He sighed and ran his tongue along his gums and tusks. “Anything else I should know?”

“We did endeavor to slay the beast in our way,” Shalvine said with a shrug. “Success was not with us.”

“That’s what the Hunters are for. Alright, I’ll take the job. Was gonna talk pay but let’s just call it an even two gluts and a room while I’m here. If this thing is as pathetic as you say, I don’t imagine that’ll be long.”

“Thou art more than accommodating, good hunter.” Shalvine stepped forward and offered his hand. “We have an accord.”

“Reckon so,” Grimluk said as he shook the sheriff’s hand.

 

It took a few days for the demon of Arbortown to return. Grimluk spent the time playing cards in the saloon or just wandering around looking for signs of his prey. He found some old footprints in random places or near where they’d been reported to him. Big, semi–taloned prints in the snow, perfectly preserved. He figured it’d be easy to spot the thing given the description, especially against snow.

Outside of its size, they’d told him it was red–skinned, bright red like fresh paint, with blackened hands and feet and a long tail and wings. Of course, its hands and feet had sharp claws and its teeth were likewise pointed. Yellow eyes and horns completed the description. Nothing particularly surprising to him. It basically amounted to a giant–sized imp. One of the most common types of demons you could find. He seriously wondered if the damn thing was a giant imp but that didn’t seem accurate. He’d seen plenty of reasonably clever imps. Devious little bastards. He hadn’t seen the thing around though. Not in town, out of town, or flying around above it.

When he left the hotel on the third morning, ready to make his rounds again, he was astounded to find his prey out and clearly visible. The damned thing was looking into the saloon window. For the first time he could remember, he didn’t shoot first or dodge an attack. The thing didn’t even seem to notice him. Curiosity welled up in Grimluk, urging him on. He walked quietly toward the big red thing.

The demon made no movement at the sound of his boots on the hotel’s porch, or maybe it just didn’t care. It stood there, tail flicking idly like a cat’s, breath flaring out in plumes. Grimluk pulled his coat away from his hip, readying his revolver for a draw and cleared his throat, expecting it to whirl on him and attack. It still didn’t move, save to tap on the glass lightly with one clawed finger. Grimluk’s head tilted as he looked at the thing he was here to kill. The widow’s story flashed in his mind. He was beginning to see why Shalvine had made such an effort to explain things before actually explaining things.

“Little far from the Abyss, aren’t ya?” Grimluk called.

This time, the demon did turn to him. “Abyss?” it said. Its voice was incredibly low and gravely. “Escaped Abyss. Did not like it. Too noisy.”

“Reckon I should apologize in advance for sending you back then.” Grimluk unholstered his gun. The thing was just gonna stand there and let him kill it.

It sniffed at him for a moment and then began growling. “I smell me on you. Smell me! Will not go back!” It roared and leaped through the awning into the air.

“Well shit. Ain’t that just a kick in the head.” He dropped the heavy revolver back in its holster and shook his head. “The one time I give in to curiosity and the thing disappears. Really should have just fired.”

The saloon denizens spilled out. The bar man, cook, and Shalvine with a couple of his deputies looked up at the red body flying away and then over at Grimluk. “What didst thou do?” Shalvine asked.

“Spooked it, apparently.” He walked into the street, running his tongue over his gums as he thought. “Sheriff?”

“Good hunter?”

“Got an idea, a few actually. Mind if we go in and talk? I could use some breakfast.”

“As thou wilt.”

The group went back into the saloon, parting the blankets. The bar man, who owned the place, started to voice his anger at the awning being destroyed. Grimluk was hungry and annoyed and didn’t want to hear it, so he flicked the man a silver bilt. That seemed to settle him down in a hurry.

Grimluk joined Shalvine at the desk again. The sheriff just kind of stared at him, looking rather shocked that the demon had been so close. And that Grimluk had failed to take it down right then and there. Grimluk was frustrated with himself for such an apprentice–level mistake but the whole thing had been so strange he found it difficult to be harder on himself. Shalvine seemed to wait patiently while Grimluk ordered breakfast. Once that was taken care of, he asked the question that was filling the air.

“How didst thee fail? Ah, ‘spooked’ the beast?”

Grimluk shook his head and gave a little laugh. “Be real honest with you, Sheriff, gettin’ the slip on a demon and it not tryin’ to rip my head off was a new experience. Damn thing even spoke to me. Won’t happen a second time though.” He pointed to the teeth on his hat band. “Reckon it got a whiff of these. Demon teeth. Trophies of sorts.”

“Good hunter, thine attitude vexes me.”

“Chalk it up to curiosity. As I said though, I have a few ideas on how to handle this now that I’ve seen the beast.”

“Yes? I beg thee enlighten me.”

“First things first,” Grimluk started, “we’ll need blood. A chicken or a pig, something expendable.”

Shalvine cocked his head. “Thou meanest to summon the beast?”

“More or less. Think of it like a dinner bell.”

“I see. And then?”

A young girl brought Grimluk a plate and a mug. He slipped her a penny and took his breakfast. “Recently acquired a rather helpful tool for my profession and I reckon this is as good a time to test it out as any. But the basics of it is we put the carcass and the blood in the center of a demon trap. Demon’ll come for the blood and stay for the trap.”

Shalvine nodded. “Thou could not make use of this trap at the onset?”

“Not rightly. I wasn’t exactly expectin’ to walk out for breakfast and stumble on the thing. If the free meal doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.”

“As thou wilt. I shalt acquire thy blood.”

Grimluk nodded and ate some of his food. “Reckon if we can set this trap up for dusk we’ll have the best chance of luring it in. Might be a little more dangerous come dark but if everything works like it should, the trap will hold tight.”

“Dusk then,” Shalvine said with a nod.

Grimluk tilted his mug toward the sheriff in a small salute. Now he just had to make sure everything was ready.

 

Far from the reluctance to help that Grimluk had expected, the townsfolk came together to do what he asked. He was offered two old pigs and whatever other help he needed. Given the demon’s behavior, he wondered if he couldn’t make use of a crowd. He found a spot in the center of the street, outside of the hotel, began clearing away the snow. The ground had had plenty of time to harden for the cold so the mud was minimal. He asked that a few folks gather up a wheelbarrow of snow.

“I pray thee, what use dost thou have for snow?” Shalvine asked.

“It’ll serve as cover,” Grimluk responded simply.

“For?”

The wheelbarrow rolled up, filled with snow. “For this.” Grimluk dug a thick wool blanket from his elk–skin bag, tipping it toward the sheriff. “This is the new tool I mentioned.”

“A blanket?”

“A blanket.” Grimluk spread it out, unfurling it in a snap and spread across the little clearing he’d made. The majority of the blanket was covered in a pentacle and five sigils, embroidered in white.

“Thine trap?” the sheriff asked.

“The trap. Demon steps in a trap and it’s bound until it’s released. Now we just cover it with snow and come dusk, we spread the blood around it. Reckon we can tie the other pig down too, if you folks are that keen to make use of it.”

The pig’s owners nodded. “They’ll be worth it to be rid of that big fucker.”

“Then we just kill some time now. Anyone got a deck of cards?”

After an afternoon of no–stakes poker, dusk rolled around. Grimluk had the pig farmer slit the old pig’s throat. Together, the two of them spread the flowing blood around the hidden blanket, steam from breath and blood puffing in the cold. The farmer staked the other pig down to a short tether and disappeared back into the saloon on Grimluk’s instruction. Grimluk slipped into the hotel and waited.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait long. A great flapping sounded overhead heralding the demon’s arrival. It landed nearby the trap with a heavy thump.

“I knew. I knew. Fresh blood,” the demon called.

Grimluk peeked out of the lobby window. The demon was down on its hands and knees, lapping up the blood from the snow. And somehow managing to not touch anywhere near the trap. Grimluk growled. The thing had a demon’s luck. He would usually laugh at the saying when he encountered it but it seemed rather fitting here.

The demon flopped back on its butt, tail curling around out of the way and reached for the other pig. The hog squealed with all its might and tried to break the tether. The rope held though. Until the demon snagged it with a taloned finger. Grimluk’s jaw fell.

“Gods–damn,” he muttered. The demon just laughed as the pig ran. Grimluk’s patience finally started to run thin. This beast had a strange luck and an odd demeanor, so maybe, he wondered, he could use that demeanor to his advantage. He made his way back outside and walked right up behind the big, red bastard.

As before, it paid him no heed. He looked down at the pig’s corpse, untouched in the center of the trap. He sighed. Then Grimluk stomped hard on the demon’s tail. It shrieked, pulling the tail away and nearly toppling Grimluk in the process, and attempted to jump away.

It bounced right onto the dead pig.

It let out a second shriek as it realized it’d been trapped. The demon thrashed and roared, snarling in anger and surprise before it turned to face Grimluk. It roared at him then, trying to swing a clawed hand at Grimluk’s face only to slam into an invisible wall. The mystical barrier contained the demon with abject efficiency. Only Grimluk could release it now.

“Finally,” Grimluk said. “I was really beginnin’ to worry you would be more involved than you’ve already been.” He stepped back and unholstered his revolver. The gun barked and the demon’s head exploded from the back. It slumped to its knees, a ragged growl escaping its maw, and Grimluk fired twice more, another shot to the head and one to the heart.

The beast let out a death rattle that shook the windows around it, roaring with pain and an ebbing fury as its body burned up in a burst of light. Flames poured out of its insides as its skin melted away. Grimluk slid the revolver back in its holster and watched as a rotten–looking skeleton collapsed into a neat pile on the center of the blanket.

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