DESCENT 2

Feature Writer: yibala

Feature Title: DESCENT 2

Published: 12.08.2020

Story Codes: Erotic Horror

Synopsis: Defiant princess in an Afro-fantasy world goes over the edge

 

Descent 2

“We must challenge the long-held theory that warding stones protect us from demons. Namu is not safe from Infernals. Even now, they might roam freely inside the ancestral wards of the city.”

— Keya Oko, Magisterium lecture, 3125 by the Ummran calendar, 21st day of the Red Dust Moon.

Amankar walked proudly as he entered my sitting room, his cloak as green as rain on the savanna, pinned with a massive black pearl. He took off his golden mask as he sat down on the wicker settee, revealing that he neatly had trimmed his facial hair. Lila closed the door behind him, returning to the yard to attend to the San guardsmen.

“I am so glad you are seriously considering the arrangement. My cousin keeps asking me if I have heard a reply from you.”

“Barasa?” I poured palm wine from the jar, filling our cups and handing him his, before sitting down in another chair. I thought about what else was in the bottom of his cup.

“I must share his plan with you. It will excite you as much as it does him.”

“Please, Lord San.”

“As you know, my House has extensive trade interests in the Hill Kingdoms and even south into the Sizwe Empire. This gives us certain advantages over other Houses, including yours.

“None of our Houses truly understand demons and how to control them. Neither do the Sizwe. I hear you have a renewed interest in the Kichinka event. Do you have any idea what has happened since, with the demon in question?”

“No.” I waited for him to drink.

“The creature was later discovered in a village further south, where it and its followers had enslaved the populace. An entire ibutho of Sizwe warriors marched to destroy it. They harried the beast all the way to the forests of the Flamingo Coast. In the end, over fifty Sizwe warriors were dead, most slain by the demon itself. It escaped nonetheless.”

“But by the accounts of men in your caravan, you know of a woman who faced this creature and lived.”

Amankar’s animated expression dampened slightly. “We do.”

“What happened to her?”

The old scholar licked his lips and took a sip of the wine. “Have you decided, then?”

“That may depend on how forthcoming you are.” How long would Blossom’s drug take to work? How much?

“This is a marvel,” he said of the wine. “Thicker than I expected.”

“Honey,” I offered.

“I will be fully forthcoming when you have committed,” San said. “For now, let me continue to paint the image. You are an authority in the taxonomy of infernals. I am an authority on the Sizwe Empire. House San possesses the contacts needed to locate and learn to control demons. Working together, we could develop a strategic advantage over the Empire.”

This was surprising enough to refocus my attention. “You would use demons as weapons?”

“For decades, the Sizwe hunted the Thandi like vermin. It never occurred to them to try to learn their magic. The three of us likely know more about demons than all of the Sizwe shamans and generals combined. Imagine what that could mean for our Houses.” Amankar downed the rest of his cup with a smile. He stood up to fill it again.

“It seems,” I said, “that we still know quite little.”

The old man reached for the jar on the table, then swooned.

“Are you well?”

“I just…” the cup fell on the floor. Amankar regained his balance, but a thin line of drool hung from his lip.

Blossom slipped through the antelope skin door hanging from my bedchamber. At times the demon might have been mistaken for a lavishly painted person, but its sinuous movement was anything but human. Blossom was more reminiscent of a questing vine in the way it moved, but many times faster.

“Lord San is quite well,” the infernal said.

“Yes,” Amankar’s body jerked and then relaxed. “I am. Now that you are here.”

Blossom sat where the old man had been, while Amankar remained on his feet. “Ask him your questions.”

I had seen men that Blossom enslaved before. Talked to them, even. But I’d never watched it occur. To see a person lose their will was unsettling. This was not lust. It was degeneration. And yet, it was my idea.

“Tell me what happened to Zhura.”

Now that I was entangled with Blossom, I needed allies. Who better than a woman who had fought infernals and perhaps controlled them?

Amankar looked to me, and then to Blossom. “Barasa tried to cheat her out of her summoning stone. Then he tried to steal it. Unsuccessfully.”

Of course. That was how Barasa knew about the summoning stones. Zhura had one.

“We believe she is still in the city, but we are not precisely on friendly terms. Barasa has so far refrained from trying to take the stone by force, because she and her friends are formidable fighters. He fears such an act might hurt the reputation of the House.”

“How would I find her?”

“Her friends have an artisan’s shop in Gigiri District.”

“You will tell me how to find this shop.” I beamed, unable to suppress my elation. “What does she want, this Zhura?”

“Ranthaman said that Zhura was being tracked by a witch. The two women confronted each other just before the survivors escaped across the border to Ikanje. That was where Ranthaman learned of her summoning stone. According to Barasa, since she arrived in the city, she has been obsessed with finding demons.”

“Why?”

“He didn’t know, but she didn’t seem interested in capturing or killing them.”

“Intriguing,” Blossom’s eyes glittered.

I turned to the demon. “What will happen to him?” I asked, gesturing towards Amankar.

“You have seen this before. He is utterly loyal to me, but he will also crave my presence. Those who know him well will notice. And the effect will wear off within days, after which he will remember everything.”

I looked back at Amankar. He smiled happily.

“Can you keep him here?” Blossom asked.

“That is not possible,” I said.

“Then you must move quickly.” Blossom showed his teeth again. “You will soon learn much, Lady Keya, about how it feels to be hunted.”

When I was done questioning Amankar, Blossom sent him away.

“I see how ruthless you can be in your quest for knowledge,” the demon said, turning to me when the old man was gone from the room. “What a fine mother you will be for my offspring. Let’s begin making it.”

Instinctively, I took a step back. But I felt more confident with my amulet at my throat and bangles on my wrists. “No. Jinai could return at any time, and I must send a runner.” I called for Lila.

“You need me here,” Blossom urged. “You may not be able to summon me again before your treachery is discovered.”

“Yes, my Lady?” the maid said, appearing at the door. When she noticed Blossom, she bit her lip and a visible shiver ran through her.

“Bring me Musa. Quickly.”

“We need to plan, Lady Keya.” Blossom said.

“I will tell you my plan later.”

The demon tensed.

“Thabjhana.” I said softly, speaking the demon’s true name.

Blossom’s scowl deepened, even as the beast began to disintegrate, greasy smoke streaming from its flesh. In moments, its body had dissipated. A dark cloud wafted into the bedchamber where I’d left the summoning stone.

I took a deep breath. I’d never seen Blossom’s anger before today, but I had a feeling I was going to again very soon.

Musa appeared at the door, his footsteps silent, quick eyes surveying the room. “Lady Keya.”

I smiled. “I have a task for you.”

xxxxx

By evening Jinai had not returned.

I could think of only two possible reasons why. Either she had run into trouble from House San, or she was no longer taking orders from me. To calm my nerves, I walked through the villa, showing the servants and guards I was healthy and aware. I told the guards to allow no one to enter without my permission, except Musa.

I brought Lila to my bedchamber.

“You know,” I said, “that what I am doing is forbidden. Someone will come to stop me.”

Lila peered around the room, as if she expected Blossom to appear. “Just what is it you’re doing my Lady?”

“I have chosen to make a child with the demon. And to freely continue my research.”

“Forgive me, my Lady, but isn’t your research all about how dangerous demons are?” Apparently convinced that the infernal wasn’t hiding somewhere, Lila eased down on the edge of the bed next to me.

“Demons are dangerous. And Blossom is too, if not controlled. You have seen for yourself how seductive the creature is.”

Lila fidgeted. I knew she had more questions, but she seemed afraid to ask them.

“This may not end well for me,” I said. “If you choose to leave, I will not be offended. You’ll be welcome back at the palace.”

“What do you want me to say if I am questioned about you?”

“Tell the truth. Do not lie for me.”

Lila stared down at the mattress. “I never believed that you were cursed by the ancestors, like the other servants say. Or that your soul had been sucked away to make your skin white and hair yellow.”

I blinked. It hurt to know what servants in my own House said about me, though I had heard such before.

“I heard that you rescued your brother and his men. And then this morning you risked yourself for me, when the demon wanted to cast its spell on me.” She met my gaze. “I will serve you as long as you wish. Just tell me what you want me to do.”

“Thank you, Lila. You’ve done so much already. Get some rest.”

By the time she went to her quarters, it was night outside. I walked out onto the terrace to listen to the distant breakers as they crashed against the rocks of Silmani Point.

Jinai still hadn’t come.

I knew what I must do next. But I was paralyzed by terror and yearning. Who was I to believe that I could control Blossom? Was I simply fooling myself, doing all of this for my own selfish desires? Forsaking my family, my lover and only friend for… lust? Curiosity? Pride?

Perhaps Lila and I were already partially enslaved by the demon, having ingested small tastes of its seed already.

My heart stopped as I spotted the gate opening below, afraid the guard had disobeyed me. But then I saw Musa in the lamp-lit yard.

I raced back into my chambers and met him on the stairs to the second floor.

“Tomorrow morning, an hour after dawn,” he said. “We have a meeting.”

“Where? It cannot be here.”

The lean warrior shook his head. “I know a place in Mwiri, outside the city. She’ll be there.”

xxxxx

Peering out into the night, I could smell the earthy scent of the rains coming. It was the end of a long dry season, and the storms would bring change to the great city — germinating seeds, washing away filth, and driving people under their roofs. During much of the season the villa would be abandoned, its access paths turned to mudslides and the bridge to Gigiri washed out.

“While the gods ever slumber, may the ancestors guide me on my path.”

The prayer sounded so hollow now. Was I serving the ancestors and their legacy, or serving myself?

I slipped off my robe and climbed, naked, onto the bed, the summoning stone in hand.

I had years of practice at pleasuring myself. Before Jinai had become my lover, I would finger and hump myself into a state of delirium, even when she was sleeping in the same room.

Laying the phallus down, I licked my hand and rubbed myself. I stretched out atop the wooden cock. The softness of the mattress caressed my bare skin. When I slid towards my feet, it spread my nether lips and grazed my sensitive little nub of pleasure.

Ripples of warmth spread from my core to my extremities, curling my toes as the pressure built. The stone was so thick that the sensations were not at all subtle. I lifted my ass, hunching so that the friction didn’t overwhelm me.

It was overwhelming enough to imagine what Blossom was about to do to me.

Before long, I was coming, jolts of energy coursing across my skin as my tiny organ began to spasm. I shut my eyes, shaking with fear and longing.

“You’re wearing your amulet and charms.”

I searched for the demon’s voice. I had lit candles all around the room, but it seemed that I was still alone inside. Blossom’s words came from outside, on the terrace. I climbed out of the bed and padded towards the open doorway.

Then stopped. Blossom’s head dipped down, facing me from above the doorway. I walked through, craning my neck to see the demon clinging to the sloped roof, nearly upside down.

“There are warding stones all around this hill. I can feel them, even from here. There is no escape, except,” Blossom nodded eastwards, towards the cliff, “the sea.”

“All of the city districts are warded,” I said. “Coral Sands is the smallest one. Even if you escaped this district, you would still be hemmed in by the stones, except along the coast.”

Blossom climbed down headfirst, easily gripping the smooth walls, to drop beside me.

At the moment, the creature appeared to me much as it must have to my brother. Slender, with a soft swell at the belly and hips, a smooth delta of flesh between its legs.

“Did you find this Zhura?”

“I’m meeting her in the morning.”

“You will need her,” Blossom said. “I cannot pass warding stones, and you will not survive on your own. You do realize this Lady Keya? Your servants and your guards will not help you carry our child. They will not stand by while you cast spells on nobles. Even if we escape the city, you will need someone else to keep you alive. I will not always be able. The one thing I can do is help prevent them from hunting you in the first place.”

I was not as helpless as Blossom thought. But I saw no advantage to correcting the creature.

“You do know what she is,” Blossom said.

“Zhura?”

The demon stared at me, its whorls and markings seeming to glow in the night. Finally, it made an impatient gesture. “A woman. Skilled in combat. Carrying a summoning stone. Pursued by a Thandi witch…” Blossom dipped its head, prompting me to put the clues together.

“You’re saying she is a witch?”

“A natural conclusion.”

It was almost too good to be true, but it made sense. “Perhaps she is some kind of renegade.”

“Just as you are, Lady Keya,” the demon sighed. “You are realizing that you need me.”

“I am true to my word,” I said.

“Are you? Then why do you wear protection from me?”

I glanced down at the talismans around my neck and wrists. There was no point in keeping them on. If Blossom could not touch me, it would only grow angrier. I took them off, feeling the warmth of their power as I crouched to set them on the floor.

When I looked up, the demon stood over me. Its cloying scent made me light-headed. I kissed its sleek flesh, nuzzling its thighs and hips. The shaft of its cock sprouted past my ear, poking through my cloud of hair. I felt my juices trickle along the insides of my thighs.

“This is not a single act,” Blossom murmured, its voice like the creak of boughs in the breeze. “When I breed a human, I mate with them again and again, until there is no doubt that they are heavy with my child, or I am heavy with theirs.”

I kissed down to the insides of the creature’s knees, its lower legs and the splayed, supple claws of its feet, prostrating myself before it, as I knew many humans had before me.

“That is the way it was with your brother.”

If Blossom was trying to humiliate me, I was already past shame. “When will you bear his child?”

“It will be many months. Time passes normally for me when I am bound within the vessel of the stone. But the child will not be bound by the same stone. Even if I am not solid, it will be summoned forth, and become yours to raise as well.”

Once I bore a child of my own, it would be like rearing twins. I tried to grasp this concept, and then let it pass, too much to sustain at that moment.

Blossom’s fingers wound in my hair. The demon drew me up until I knelt at the end of its cock. The tip quivered before my eyes, a bead of pearly liquid at the tip. I licked it off, feeling the searing warmth in my throat as I swallowed it down and took the head into my mouth.

This creature and I were the same. Perhaps that was why I had sacrificed so much for Blossom. Like me, it was hated and misunderstood. Like me, it craved the forbidden.

Like me, it was alone.

My lips stretched over the shaft, as the demon thrust deeper into my mouth. I struggled to take more and more of it in. I eased back, taking a breath, and then dove in again. I spotted the line of gleaming wetness halfway down the stalk, marking the point of my achievement, and pushed forward until the tip breached the entrance to my throat. I looked up at Blossom. The demon bared its teeth.

I gagged, wanting desperately to become one with this infernal beast.

Blossom lifted me off the floor like a doll. Its cock fell from my lips with a wet sound. I wrapped my legs around its waist as it carried me. The creature kissed me, its tongue curling in my drooling mouth, and tossed me on the bed.

“Make me yours,” I said, mewling. I spread my legs wide.

Blossom speared me in one tortuous stroke, its cock sinking into my sodden sheath and hitting bottom. I thrust a hand into my mouth to muffle my screams, close to coming already. The demon pushed my legs back, until my heels pointed at the ceiling and drove into me with powerful, toe-curling strokes.

“I feared planting a child in you the first time we met,” Blossom whispered. “I wanted to savor this breeding.”

I felt the pressure building deep in my core. The infernal set my ankles on its shoulders, drawing almost entirely out of me and then driving back in, spreading my insides to accommodate. Blossom rode me like that until tears watered my eyes. I came like the thunderclap of a storm on its cock, and the demon never slowed a bit.

“This night is only the beginning, Lady Keya. Your life as you know it is over.”

This is my path.

“You are mine. Mine to rut. Mine to breed.” Blossom reached out, its fingers curling around my throat as it continued to pound my clutching cunt.

My sight grew dim as I gasped, but incredibly, I felt the pressure mounting again, even as I recovered from the first orgasm.

The demon’s grip relaxed, and I heaved. “You. Need. Me. Say it.”

The creature tugged at my aching nipples. Blossom bent its head. Its long tongue twisted around my heaving breasts.

I sputtered. “I need… you… by the Seven Fathers…!” Again the waves of a climax came crashing over me. As I jerked and shuddered beneath Blossom, its black body stiffened. It grunted, continuing to pump its hips as infernal seed poured into my womb.

I still trembled from aftershocks as Blossom drew its shaft from inside me. The demon turned me over on my hands and knees and spread the plush cheeks of my ass. Its seed rolled down the insides of my thighs.

I was peeled fruit, ripe and exposed to the creature’s appetite. I’d been cloistered, hidden from the outside world, but Blossom seemed to know every curve and crevice of me. The infernal slid a slick finger into my ass, ignoring my weak protests.

“Every part of you belongs to me,” the demon continued, as its finger invaded my rear channel. I yelped as the weight of its cock slapped upwards against my little pearl. Then it pushed its thick shaft slowly back into my cunt.

“By the ancestors!” I moaned, laying my head on the mattress as Blossom took me again. I was filled completely. The creature’s finger sawed in and out of my twitching ass as it rutted me. I balanced on a fine edge, between torment and bliss, until clear thought failed me entirely. Then I found myself driving my hips back against Blossom, urging the creature to stuff me. My entire being was reduced to those needy, clenching holes.

I came at least once more like that, with him plowing my fertile cunt, before Blossom seeded me again. My cunt was filled to overflowing. Dazedly, I looked between my legs to see more of the demon’s seed cascading down my thighs, covering the whitish streaks that had already dried.

After that, the night was obscured in a fog of lust. Blossom laid me on my back with my head over the edge, its dripping cock probing my throat. As I gagged I felt its serpentine tongue curling inside the folds of my cunt, and even tasting the depths of my freshly opened ass.

At some point, the demon bore me out onto the terrace, its hands under my thighs, rutting me as it went. Blossom laid me down on the same furs where Jinai and I had often made love.

The infernal loomed over me, ebon flesh blending with the vault of the night sky. As I gazed up at the creature, I dreamed I was being rutted by the heavens themselves. I became a night-blooming orchid. I unfurled my petals and opened up to the stars.

A soft rain awakened me, wet on my cheeks. My belly, and my every orifice ached. My first thought was that I was feverish. I shivered in the wet predawn light. Then I recalled what had happened.

Blossom was nowhere to be seen, although in the dim light, it could have been very near. I staggered inside, through my chambers, looking for Lila.

A scrubbing and a scraping with hibiscus oil did much to wash layers of seed, sweat and filth from my bruising skin. But I was still weary and sore. Lila returned while I was finishing my bath, carrying a tunic and a plain, cowled cloak.

“Sembi left during the night,” Lila said. “She told the guard she had your leave to go to the palace.”

I nodded, expecting the other servant to desert. I was fortunate if none of the men left during the night.

“Musa asks that you wear her clothing, and that I wear one of your gowns and the mask.”

Eyebrows raised, I gestured for Lila to put the other servant’s garb on my bed. I pointed to where she could find my clothes and mask. She rifled through my belongings, looking nervously about for Blossom. Then she took what she needed and left.

When I was done, I gingerly stepped out of the tub and dressed. Musa awaited me in the yard, along with Lila and two of my warriors. The sun had not yet risen, and a drizzle continued to fall.

“When I returned last night,” the hunter told me, “I spotted men trying to hide in the woods. They were watching who comes and leaves. I suggest you send Lila into the city with an escort, while we go over the wall.”

“Whose men were they?” I asked. They must have been San or Oko.

Musa shrugged. “Does it matter? By the time they realize it isn’t you, we’ll be away.”

One of the men watched me closely, his arms hugging his chest. “Is it true, my Lady? Did you bring the demon back?”

I bit my lip. He had been enslaved by Blossom, along with my brother.

“It is true,” I said, pulling the chain of my amulet out from under my cowl so that he could see. “But the creature is under my control.”

I looked up towards the top of the tower, where my bedchamber was. Blossom was free, somewhere. I wondered if it was still in the villa. But I had no doubt after last night. The demon would return for me.

“If Oko people come for me, do not fight them,” I said. “This is my responsibility, and I do not want any of you to shed blood for me. Do not allow them into the villa, but if they force their way in, lay down your arms. Is that understood?”

Lila and the men nodded. She put on my mask, now fully covered with a caftan and headdress. She headed for the front gate with the two guards. I followed Musa around to the rear of the yard, where another guard crouched atop the inner wall with a length of jute. He tossed an end down to us.

I groaned inwardly, as I took hold of the rope. I was ungainly at the best of times. My body throbbed with soreness and fatigue. The brown stone of the wall was already slick with rain.

Shouldering my satchel, I began to climb.

xxxxx

We walked north, descending the wooded hill and then crossing land cleared for fields, venturing into a part of Namu I had rarely visited. We were far beyond the walled part of the city. Mwiri was an agricultural district, dotted with farms and open markets, dominated by several minor Houses that controlled the trade in grains, hides and timber.

Once we were out of the woods and past the ancestral pylons that marked the edge of Coral Sands, Musa relaxed. Instead of trailing me to watch if we were being followed, he walked easily alongside me. He drew a mango from his pack and peeled it as we walked, sharing it with me.

I kept my face, legs and arms covered with the cloak, especially when we passed clusters of grass huts where farmers lived.

Although clouds choked the sky, the sun had risen. In the distance, groups of girls sang as they carried jugs to collect water. Herder boys led goats and cattle out to pasture.

“I do not know what to expect from these forest people,” Musa said. “I will protect you as I can, but these are not the best circumstances.”

“Leave the negotiation to me,” I said. “If this is an ambush, I do not expect you to risk yourself for me.”

Musa nodded. He carried his bow, but it remained unstrung, as he preferred in wet surroundings.

“How can I thank you,” I asked, “for everything you have done for me?”

Musa eyed me as we walked. What did he think of me, behind his mask of servitude? The men must have heard my cries while I was with Blossom. I wondered why all of them hadn’t abandoned me.

“In the swamp, you risked yourself to save your men. Men that had just tried to kill you while they were under the demon’s spell,” he said. “You already had your brother safe. You could have given up then. But instead you went into that tomb.”

Rain rolled off his rich brown skin as he pointed to a rise ahead. A circle of crumbling warding stones surrounded a copse of trees.

“I’ll never forget that. Those men that guard you will never forget it either. To hells with the rest of them.

“If you ever leave House Oko and have need of me, just post one of your scrolls in this place I’m taking you now. I’ll find it, and get someone who can read it for me. I’ll gladly follow you, Lady Keya. House or no House.”

I stopped in shock, watching him continue on. The foliage steamed around us as rain continued to fall. Every vile thing I’d done could be traced back to that single moment, when I gave myself to Blossom.

And yet, it was the one act I was loved for.

I still hurt, but somehow the day seemed a bit brighter.

Tuliptrees and waterpears populated the little grove, the delicate cream-colored flowers of the latter blanketing the underbrush with a sickly sweet fragrance. Leaves and boughs sheltered us from most of the rain as we pushed towards the center, where I caught glimpses of strange reddish shapes.

As we reached the heart of the grove, I could see them clearly. A ring of sculpted elephants marched in a perpetual circle, trunks linked to tails. The clay was cracked and pockmarked with birds’ nests. One elephant’s terracotta head lay on the ground, green moss covering its ear.

“This is an old Kut shrine that my grandfather used to visit.” Musa led me to a break between two elephants, and stepped through into the ring.

I hesitated when I saw the two women within.

A woman with short braids stood in the fore. She had a melancholy grace to her full, downturned lips and sad eyes. Under her open cloak a pair of mambeles hung from her belt. The barbed throwing axes were favored by some Oko warriors.

Behind and beside her was a darker-complexioned woman with wide-set eyes and plaited hair that hung to her back. Her clothing was almost scandalous. A brown halter covered her breasts, and a short patterned skirt bared her thigh almost to the hip.

By their plain, revealing garb, it was obvious that neither was from Namu. But even more uncommon was their apparent profession. I had seen few women warriors in my lifetime — Jinai being the glaring exception. But from the steel shod staves the women carried and the toned muscles of their shoulders, it was clear that these were both capable fighters.

“I am Lady Keya Oko,” I said, entering into the circle. “Which of you is Zhura?”

“I am Zhura,” the darker woman said. “This is Bayati.”

“Thank you, for agreeing to meet me. I’ve been searching for you for three months. I am a taxonomist of infernals.” I winced inwardly. Kan was not their first language, and these were not scholars. “I first learned of you when I heard of Ranthaman San’s demon encounter at Kichinka. I tried to find you, but House San prevented it.”

Zhura glanced at her companion, still appearing confused. “You brought me here to talk about Kichinka?”

“No. There is much more-”

“You don’t look like the daughter of a Great House,” said Bayati.

“Don’t you nobles all wear masks?” Zhura said.

“I wanted to keep your identity secret. I am in disguise to prevent my being followed.”

“Lady Keya, I do not care for the nobles of Namu. You have unimaginable wealth, but hoard it all to yourself. I’ve found the people of the Hazard to be far more honorable and kind.

“You’re in some sort of trouble. This man Musa came to my friends asking to meet you as soon as we could. House San already knows how to find me. So you are not protecting me from them. I want no part of your intrigues.”

“You came to Namu seeking infernals, didn’t you?” I said quickly. “I know more about demons than anyone. And I will share that knowledge with you.”

“I’ve heard of you.” Zhura’s eyes narrowed. “The upstart scholar of Oko.”

In a glance, I took in their body language. Bayati looked impatient, eager to leave. Zhura was at least willing to listen.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Our interests are the same, Zhura. Let me join you in your quest to learn about demons.”

“Who are you really hiding from?” Bayati asked. “Isn’t Oko one of the most powerful Houses?”

I swallowed, glancing at Musa. I would have to tell them eventually. “I brought a summoning stone back from an expedition one month ago.”

Zhura gasped.

“To my knowledge, yours and mine are the only ones in the city. If my House has not already learned that I have it, they will within days. Then they will destroy it, and the demon linked to it.

“I believe that the stones were originally crafted by Thandi witches,” I said. “I also know that you were pursued by witches, and that they hold the secrets to controlling demons.”

Bayati scoffed, shaking her head.

“I know everything that has ever been written about the Thandi. I have studied the stories of Ayanda the Bezi, and Anathe, called Demon Queen. I know these clans still survive, scattered throughout the Hill Kingdoms.”

When I mentioned Anathe, Zhura’s eyes flickered. There was something there, some connection.

“She wants us to protect her from a Great House,” Bayati said. “Impossible.”

“No. I can escape them. But what comes next? I am not a warrior, like my brother, or either of you. I cannot travel and continue my studies alone. So I propose this trade with you.” I spoke only to Zhura now. She was the leader, and she was intrigued, if skeptical. “I will be your chronicler.”

Bayati shook her head again.

“I am also a priestess adept.” I pointed at their charms. “I can give you more powerful wards than those hedge-blessed trinkets you wear.”

“When they come after her — and they will — they will start with your friends,” Bayati said to Zhura.

Zhura’s jaw set, hardening the soft lines on her face.

The one thing I can do is help prevent them from hunting you in the first place. Your life as you know it is over.

Blossom had been feared and stalked by humans for a long time. I had thought about his words from last night, and come to one conclusion about what they meant.

“They won’t come after me if they believe I am dead.”

That had to be it. Zahar, my mother, Barasa… they would never let me walk away. They had the power to follow me anywhere, to hurt anyone who knew my whereabouts.

Zhura gave me an appraising look. She turned to the others. “Leave us for a moment. Please.”

I nodded to Musa. In turn, he and Bayati stepped outside of the circle, leaving me alone with Zhura.

The rain had stopped, leaving only the gentle whisper of trickling leaves and unfurling blades of grass. In the silence, I could feel the old spirits of this place. The ghosts of the hunters and the hunted danced together in a great wheel of remembrance.

“This city is much different than where I once lived,” Zhura said. “And yet, it is much the same. We are the children of our ancestors, a thread within the weave that defines who we are, and who we can become.”

Zhura sat on the grass, setting her staff beside her. She smiled. It was a gentle expression.

This woman was not like Jinai, not at all. She lacked the hard edges. She was not what I expected.

“I was raised as an orphan. I have no family, no children, no birthright to fulfill. I am a healer, not a warrior. The people I gather around me are my legacy. My only loyalty is to them.” Her smile faded. “You are a priestess, which means you commune with your ancestors. Yet you pretend you are ready to walk away from them.

“Is there no one you love? No one you won’t abandon in your quest for knowledge?” Zhura cocked her head. “Or is there something else that is precious to you?”

When I thought of Jinai and my brother, the questions struck like blows. But those questions were also traps. If I was willing to leave behind all who loved me, I was a monster. If I wasn’t, I could never be trusted.

I sat down facing her, even though I could feel the dampness of the ground soaking through the cloak. “The demon Blossom carries my brother’s offspring.” I had that feeling of being naked, exposed. “I may already be pregnant by it as well. That shall be my legacy.”

This time, the other woman’s jaw did drop. “This was by choice?”

“For my brother, it was not.”

“Do you,” Zhura hesitated, “love Blossom?”

“I…” I needed to be desired. I craved what Blossom did to me. I wanted the creature’s knowledge and power. “No.” I felt a tear roll down my cheek.

“How will you escape?”

“I don’t know, exactly. The demon has a plan, I think. It will happen soon.”

Zhura nodded as she studied me more closely. “In the Sung villages there were albino children. I prepared balms for their sunburns. The villagers called them boneskins.” She gave a rueful smile. “My people can be cruel, too. It can’t have been easy for you, even considering the House you were born to.”

“Will you help me, Zhura? I must return home. It may already be too late.”

The forest woman was silent for a while, regarding the grove, where Bayati and Musa waited.

“You trust this man, Musa.” It was not a question.

“Completely.”

“I will follow, alone,” she said. “I will help, if I can without making my presence known. If you should ‘die’,” she said with a wry glance, “I will gladly accept you as my chronicler.”

xxxxx

Musa led the way back. Zhura trailed behind, though she was too distant for me to spot. Despite her companion’s misgivings, I had no doubt that she would come. There was that sincerity about her.

Once we reached the ancestral stones, we left the track and climbed into the brush. Wet leaves brushed the hood of my cloak, and bare roots threatened to trip me up. As the walls of the villa came into view, Musa motioned for me to stop.

Raised voices rang out, of two people arguing. One was Jinai.

Musa left me, creeping ahead.

He returned a few minutes later. “She brought a troop of Oko men, but they won’t let her into the gate. We can still go over the wall.”

Musa helped me forward through the thick brush. I was still weary from the night before. Hours of walking had already left my feet blistered. Despite my pain, when we got near, we dashed through the trees to where one of my guards watched on the inner wall. He crossed a ramp to the lower, outer wall and tossed down the rope. Musa helped, hoisting me up. As I planted my foot, it slipped on the wet stone, and I nearly fell back upon the bowman. But the sentry grabbed my cloak.

Someone shouted. A pair of Oko warriors ran around the corner of the wall towards us.

“Stop, Lady Keya!”

The sentry hauled me atop the outer wall, which was twice the height of the men. Musa scrambled up agilely behind me, his bow bobbing over his shoulder as he climbed.

“Keya.”

I turned. Jinai walked towards us through the grass, following the men she had brought. She must have come around from the front gate.

“Your mother has called for you. You cannot stay here.”

I looked squarely at her as Musa gained the top and, with the sentry, stood by my side. “I’m not leaving, Jinai. Musa, go up to the terrace. Shoot anyone who tries to come over the walls.”

Musa nodded and crossed over the ramp to the inner wall to go inside.

“Keya, this is madness. Your brother is mustering a cohort of warriors. You can’t hold this place with seven men.”

“Hold the wall, at all costs,” I said to the sentry, loud enough that those below could hear.

“I know about Blossom. I know you have the summoning stone. The demon is controlling you, Keya! I will not let that rutting beast have you!”

I made for the ramp, refusing to let her see my tears.

“Remember what I told you this morning,” I whispered to the sentry.

Once inside, I hurried up the winding steps to my chambers. Lila met me on the lower flight of stairs. I embraced her, relieved she was safe.

“What can I do?” she asked.

“Help me gather my scrolls. I need as much as I can carry. I opened the study for her and climbed the last flight, catching up with Musa, who had strung his massive bow and gathered sheafs of arrows. We tramped through my bedchamber and onto the terrace.

Blossom was waiting there. “Lady Keya,” the black-skinned demon gave a mock bow. “Your slaves are remarkably loyal.”

Musa arched an eyebrow, taking in my apologetic expression and sending a wary look at the demon. Then he strode to the railing on the edge of the platform, looking over the wall for the best vantage points.

“By my count, Jinai brought at least ten men,” he observed. “Maybe she hoped to be let in while you were away.”

“There are more coming,” I told him. “Many more. Make sure you are seen. Threaten them, but by the ancestors, Musa, please do not shoot anyone.”

I turned to Blossom. “I hope you have a plan.”

The demon nodded. “Hold out until dusk at least. Find your way to the Point and bring an audience. And take off those accursed baubles you wear.” Blossom nodded in the direction of the cliff. “I will do the rest.”

I stared helplessly towards the promontory, swallowing a burst of fear. “By the Seven Fathers! How am I supposed to make it out there?”

Blossom gave what could best be described as a shrug. “Your slaves will help, no doubt. This is a strong defensive position. Bleed your attackers from behind the walls. Once darkness falls, you will have a chance. Just get there.”

Blossom would sacrifice its slaves, just as it had when I had it surrounded in the tomb. But I would not throw men’s lives away. There had to be another way.

Jinai called my name from below. I winced, trying to ignore her, judging the distance to the Point. It was rugged ground, slightly uphill, and the light would be faded or gone. I would have to get over the walls. I couldn’t outrun the slowest warrior.

Help me walk the path.

“I’ll be in the study with Lila,” I said. For a moment, I feared that Blossom might be a danger to Musa, but the bowman wore wards that I had consecrated. “Call me if anything arises.”

Blossom leered, tongue curling between its lips as I passed. Despite everything, I felt a throb of lust, instinctively responding to the demon’s nearness.

By late afternoon, Lila and I had packed notes on demon classification, everything I had written about summoning stones, and what little I had transcribed from Amankar’s writings about the Thandi witches into two satchels that I could carry. I secreted Blossom’s stone in one.

I was still debating whether to bring Amankar’s seminal history, Musings, when a guard found us.

“Your brother is here,” he said.

When I gained the top of the inner wall next to the front gate, my heart sank. I could see how many men Zahar had gathered. A cohort was one hundred men. It seemed as if that many warriors were here, entirely surrounding the villa. They were in full harness, with red lamellar cuirasses and oblong shields painted in gold. Most carried spears and short stabbing blades. Many were hard at work, chopping down trees for makeshift ladders.

There was no way past them in daylight. But even in the dark, my chances would rise from impossible to almost nonexistent.

Zahar, armored, with an ostrich-plume headdress, stood with Jinai outside the gate.

“It is over, Sister. Open the gates.”

“What wrong have I committed?”

“Amankar is under Blossom’s spell. It is said that he talks of nothing but the demon. Both Jinai and I know the effect well.”

“You have seen it,” I agreed. “So tell me. Am I under Blossom’s spell too?”

My brother and my lover glanced at each other.

“Ahh,” I said. A small triumph.

“You must be,” said Zahar, disgust and confusion evident in his expression.

Jinai whispered in his ear, no doubt pointing out the amulet visible at my throat. I raised my hand, showing the gold bangles around my wrist.

“Keya, what in the infernal hells are you doing?” Zahar growled.

“I am doing what I have always done. I study demons, Brother. For so many years, you and I worked together, learning. But you are more interested in destroying than understanding. You are a scholar, but your quill is a sword, and your ink is demon’s ichor.”

“You know what that creature did to me, and to the other men. By the ancestors, Keya, the men guarding you were its victims!”

I knew, better than my brother thought, what Blossom had done to him. “So you will have justice, and we will achieve nothing,” I said.

“What do you want?” Jinai asked me. “How do you expect this to end?”

“Send these good men home,” I replied, gesturing at the warriors. “Then we will speak together as family.”

In truth, I was surprised that Zahar had not ordered the men to tear down the gates and come over the walls already. I craned my head behind me, to see Musa with his bow, peering down.

The warriors arrayed outside the walls saw him too, eyeing him nervously. His skill was well known. From his perch, he could kill dozens of men as they climbed over the walls. Zahar had no archers that could match him.

No one wanted to see this end in blood. Except perhaps my brother, who looked ready to kill. Zahar’s blocky jaw was set, eyes flashing with barely suppressed wrath.

Jinai whispered in his ear again. The two backed away, speaking closely to each other. I looked up at the sky, and mouthed a silent prayer. The sun steadily sank through the trees to the west.

Zahar and Jinai began to argue. I couldn’t hear their words, but their gestures said enough. On the terrace above, Musa still prowled. I wondered where Blossom was. The creature’s starlit skin would be easily visible in the daylight.

This is not going to work.

Jinai came forward again. Even from atop the wall, I could see the pain etched in the lines across her brow.

“I beg you, Keya, to see reason. I have known you since you were an unblooded girl. You have a gentle heart. You would risk your life for any of these men.”

Behind her, Zahar reached into his cloak and pulled out his mask. He put it on, concealing his face behind a shroud of gold.

I knew my brother. It was the demon he wanted above everything. In Zahar’s mind, Blossom was trapped within the district warding stones. But there were other compounds and houses in Coral Sands. The demon could hide for days if it slipped through past the Oko troops. Zahar would not back down. He would not send the men home.

“If this goes any further,” Jinai went on. “Someone will be hurt. You wouldn’t see your men hurt for the sake of your pride. Order them to open the gates.”

“They are loyal to me,” I shot back. “That is more than I can say of you.”

Jinai’s sharp features twisted in anguish, wrenching my heart. “What are you saying?”

“You told my mother everything!” My voice broke, despite myself.

“I serve House Oko!”

“I thought you served me. I thought I could trust you.”

“You lied to me!” Jinai said. “From the moment I saved your life, you have been lying!”

You didn’t save my life. You brought me back to this one.

Bitterness gnawed at my insides. I held my tongue, because to say more would have only tormented both of us.

“Enough,” Zahar sounded weary. His carven face stared up at me. “Sister, this is your last chance. Do not let our father hear of this shame.”

He received only a glare from me.

Zahar raised his voice, calling each of the names of my guards. “You men inside! Lay down your weapons and open the gates!”

Silence fell over the wood, now steeped in shadow. Below and behind me, out of view of those surrounding the walls, all of my guards except Musa waited, unarmed. Their faces betrayed their distress, but none moved towards the gate. I said a prayer for them.

Zahar raised a hand. Behind him, a boy with drums strapped to his shoulders began to beat them. In the woods, other drums sounded, picking up the same rhythm.

Jinai sagged, forehead in her hands. My heart withered along with her. I knew she was only doing what she believed to be right. She was trying to protect me from myself.

Not this time, my friend.

There was no escape. The warriors still ringed the entire villa. I could not get past them, even in the dimming light.

“Warriors of Oko!” Zahar cried.

As one, the men surrounding the walls barked their response. Ladders towered above the walls, ready to drop into position.

Someone screamed.

At first I thought it was the cry of someone climbing over the wall. One of the drums faltered, falling off beat. There was another scream, a sound of terror. The warriors glanced at each other, uncertain. The drumbeats stopped, no longer covering the sound of bodies crashing through the bush.

“Demon! Demon in the trees!” Someone yelled. More screams came. Many more.

Was it Blossom? I couldn’t see how. The men knew what Blossom looked like. They had come prepared to face the demon. But now it was clear that even warriors were running away. Even as Zahar mustered his troop leaders, warriors from the rear of the villa fled by, throwing down their weapons.

“Blossom!” my brother shouted. “Face me!” He drew his sword, dark metal gleaming in the dying light.

Along the front wall, the warriors still stood firm, but chaos seemed to flow around the perimeter like a wave. I strained to see into the woods. Then I spotted something. A hunched ape-like form, quilled like a porcupine, crackling through the underbrush.

It wasn’t Blossom. As I tried to focus on the thing, it seemed to disappear, and the noise stopped. Tree trunks shook. Leaves fluttered down. A few men threw spears that clattered into the wood.

A group of warriors lowered their spears and charged into the bush after the apparition. But it seemed they were pursuing shadows. At the far corner of the wall, another group cried out in panic and scattered into the woods, the same creature chasing them away.

Zahar’s warriors were in complete disarray. From what I could tell, those to the rear of the villa had broken and fled. Most along the front wall had either fled or went searching through the woods for the elusive beast.

This was my chance.

Clutching my satchels, I hurried down the stairs and around the curved walls of the house. My brother’s frustrated shouts faded behind me.

When I reached the rear wall, I ran up the stairs to the top. I yanked the cord on the wooden ramp, which dropped and locked onto the outer wall. In my haste, I nearly slid going across, but regained my balance.

The wood outside the wall was empty and twilit. I climbed over the edge, hanging by my hands and dropping the distance. I managed to keep from twisting an ankle on the uneven ground. The earth was still soft from the morning rain.

Discarded spears and shields littered the wood. I pushed through the trees. Unseen branches whipped across my face, as if chiding me. The steady pound of the surf oriented me as I forged ahead.

Terrified screams dropped away behind me. The salt breeze chilled my bare legs. My limbs were weary, shoulders burning with the weight of the scrolls and sheafs of paper I carried.

My heart was nearly broken.

I panted as the trees began to thin out and my sandals struck the rockier soil of the Point. Somehow, I was almost there. I yanked off my bangles and amulet as I climbed over the stony ground, stuffing them into my satchel. But when I scanned the promontory in the faded light, Blossom was nowhere to be found.

“Blossom,” I cried. “Where are you?”

I sank to the ground, beyond exhausted.

“Keya.”

My heart broke.

Jinai was there, just at the base of the promontory behind me, picking her way uphill slowly, trousers and tunic stained and torn.

“No,” I gasped.

I couldn’t go back. I turned away from her, stumbling now, close to the edge.

This is my path.

“Keya! Talk to me!”

There was nowhere to go, nothing ahead but the sea. Blossom was not there.

“By the ancestors, Jinai. Let me go!”

I felt empty. Ready to collapse.

“I love you,” she said.

Finally, I stood and faced her. I’d seen Jinai snap a man’s bones without flinching. I’d never seen her cry, until now.

“I love you,” I said.

I had to say it. As impossible a love it was, it was true.

I sensed a presence looming behind me. Before I could turn, something jerked on my cowl, and I tumbled back, into air. The world spun, shrieking.

Dark sky.

Boiling sea.

Black rock.

Blossom’s hand covered my mouth. The demon cradled me against its body. Its other limbs clung to the rock on the underside of the Point.

White caps broke against the wall of the cliff, far below. The pale pages of scrolls that had fallen out of one of my satchels drifted like ghostly leaves towards the water. The satchel itself had fallen away when Blossom grabbed me, and must have been beneath the waves. I was on the verge of fainting.

It was several moments before I recognized the sounds I was hearing as Jinai’s screams. Every one seared my soul.

Blossom remained still until the wailing stopped. Then, ever so slow, the demon began to edge along the side of the cliff, hands and feet somehow holding fast to the stone, even holding my weight. The young moon watched us, causing Blossom’s bright whorls to glow like constellations.

“Was that you?” I gasped. “Frightening the men?”

“That, my precious Lady Keya, was a lowly sanju demon.”

I drifted in and out of consciousness.

I woke bouncing on Blossom’s shoulder as the demon clambered over the rocks of the shoreline, carrying me like a sack. The infernal plodded the length of a bone-white beach, and finally lowered me gently to the sand. My cheek stung in the grit, but I was beyond caring. I just wanted to sleep, and forget.

“Have you ever been rutted on the beach?”

I groaned. The waves pounded the insides of my skull. The demon helped me to my knees. A stiffening cock slapped against my face. I opened my mouth weakly, and gagged as the shaft slid in.

Even now, my traitorous body responded to Blossom. Cloying warmth bloomed between my thighs. Perhaps, if I was rutted to unconsciousness, I wouldn’t recall the knife cuts of Jinai’s screams.

Blossom drew its thick cock from my throat, dragging threads of saliva along with it. The demon yanked up my tunic, baring my pale breasts to the salt air. Then it fed me its cock again. In my desperation, I sucked it in.

“Yes, Lady Keya,” Blossom murmured. “Now you are where you belong. On the end of my cock.”

I whimpered, slurping on the ebon shaft, craving only oblivion.

Blossom pulled away, and I nearly fell on my face.

“Someone comes,” it said. “The witch. We shall continue this conversation later.”

All I could manage in response was a moan.

“Say my name, Lady Keya.”

My voice, hoarse from weeping, only rasped.

“Thabjhana,” I finally managed. I rolled over onto my back.

The demon faded away, dust in the moonlight. My fingers found the remaining satchel, and felt the comforting shape of the summoning stone, still inside.

Zhura stood over me. She set her staff down. Bending over me as I lay on the sand, she examined the scrapes and scratches on my face and legs, the bruises from the night before.

Zhura arched an eyebrow, appraising my exposed breasts and then pulling my torn cloak together to protect them from the breeze. “I should like to meet this demon of yours. But not now. Are you hurt?”

I shook my head no.

“Can you walk? We have a long way to go, to get home.”

I shook my head again.

“I can’t believe it. Even I thought you were dead.”

“I am dead,” I groaned.

It wasn’t meant as a joke, but she chuckled.

A smile crept across my lips. Underneath the hollowness and grief lay awareness.

I was finally free.

Zhura sat down on the sand beside me, laughing. Her fingers wove between mine.

Held tight.

THE END OF CHAPTER TWO