The rune-inscribed chalk snapped, the sound echoing back from walls hidden in chthonian darkness. A dozen glass-panelled lanterns dotted the floor but seemed reluctant to let their light stray too far from the source. Kneeling on a leather cushion, the old man rocked back, sighed and dropped the broken chalk into a bag. Wrapping a square of linen around his forefinger, he dipped it into a bowl of water and then dabbed away at the stone floor. Errant marks erased, he dropped the cloth back onto the bowl’s edge. Placing both hands on the small of his back, he pushed. Something gave. He lurched forward, a hiss escaping through worn and greying teeth. Stumbling to his feet and rubbing his back, he walked in small circles, favouring one leg. When his breathing returned to its regular, rasping rhythm, he pushed the cushion sideways with the threadbare toe of one slipper. He lowered one knee then – with care – the other, onto the cushion. Producing a new stick of chalk, he carried on drawing on the cavern floor.
The remnants of the chalk dropped into the bag with a clink. Hefting the bag, he gave a slight shake of his head, then dropped it into a lead bucket and sealed the lid. He pinched his square-cut beard between thumb and forefinger to stare at his labours. Long minutes ticked by before there was any other movement. A casual observer might have thought the man had fallen asleep on his feet; a careful study would reveal the eyes shrouded by bushy brows were engaged in a careful study. The man had drawn a flowing stream of eye-aching symbols within a double-walled circle. The symbols darted back and forth between the lines as if seeking an escape from their chalky prison.
He gave a single nod then smoothed his robes. Once umbral black, the felted wool was now as faded as the wisps of hair that clung to his skull like a long-neglected curtain. His pate was bare and decorated with constellations of age spots. Untying the battered hourglass at his belt, he placed it on the floor before him. Hands massaged arthritic knuckles before shaking his arms free of the long sleeves of his heavy robe. He stopped to pat his side as if looking for a lost item, pausing then nodding. Slipping a red thread from a pocket, he wound a red thread around his thumb and first two fingers stopping to undo, then retie the binding twice. When finished, he snipped the loose threads with silver clippers.
He stamped both feet, took a single deep breath then turned over the timer. The orange sands began their slow drift into the lower chamber. Jamming his bound fingers down into the air in front of him as if he were plucking a feather from a goose, he began to cast.
The sounds ripped from his mouth were guttural, inhuman. Gobbets of spittle shot from his mouth. Where they landed, they left crimson stains. The flames of the lantern, protected within their housings guttered as if in a storm but the long strands of the man’s hair hung limp and unmoving. A vapour, olive green and stinking of putrescence, oozed up from the stone floor. It became a twisting coil of swirling brown fog that pulsed with filth.
The vapour dispersed. In its place stood a being so unnatural that the shadow seemed to shy away, revealing the distant stone walls of the cavern. It stood as tall as the robed man and equally as thin but where the man was frail, the summoned being was wiry. Muscles and tendons lay exposed all over its body. Rear-canted legs sported raptor claws and triple-jointed arms ended in two-thumbed hands. Horns, slender and barbed, extended an arm’s length from its crown. A drooping rubber-lipped mouth hung slack from its face, saliva dripping to the floor. Wrapped around its spindly neck was a centipede-like creature that waved pencil-thin arms in the air.
Only the creature’s eyes looked human, albeit sparkling with avarice. Those eyes roved over the circle in its entirety before settling on the man. The centipede-thing’s arms sprang up to manipulate the demon’s pasty lips. “Master Windradyne-yne,” it said, sweeping its arm across its body in a low bow, “I recognised your work.” Two voices emerged from its mouth, one lagging behind the other. “Always a pleasure-ure.”
Windradyne walked, funereally slow, around the outside of the circle. He inspected the creature from every angle. It stood unmoving, tapping one silver tipper claw on the stones. Blue light, steady and clean, extended upwards from the circle. The chalk had begun to smoke, the edges already beginning to retreat upon themselves. As always, he had little time. The old man returned to his starting point, eyes narrowed. He bit the inside of his cheek and pointed. The red cord crumbled in his fingers like the remnants of burnt paper.
“My arms-s?” the demon said, holding them out and turning its hands over and back. The forearms and hand were coated in silver. Ripples ran though it as if mercury poured into a bowl. “Fantastic, aren’t they?” It looked back at the summoner, lips pulled into a slight smile, voice echoing. “Considered the height of fashion on my plane.” The summoner raised weary brows and licked away a froth of blood from his lips. The demon’s eyes locked onto the man’s mouth and a pustule-covered tongue peeked from its own mouth.
“How may I serve you this morn, old friend?” Its tone was obsequious, but the demon’s pale eyes danced, never straying far from the man’s bloodied lips. “Perhaps, some juicy dirt on a rival? The name of a woman prepared to be loose with her favours?” The demon shrugged and winked. “Or a man?”
The old man, his face a careful study in unreadability, retrieved a folded piece of parchment from his belt and tossed it into the circle. The demon shrugged. It retrieved the parchment, its touch sending grey corruption creeping across the vellum. It held it up unopened.
“Is it to be more lost things again?” the demon sighed. “I can’t say I won’t be disappointed.” It waved the folded sheet. “Those of your order once summoned us for great things.” The demon’s eyes became wistful. “We laid waste to kingdoms, enslaved entire populations.” The centipede’s arms pulled the demon’s moist lips into a frown. “And you, the last of your order, what do you summon me for?”
It unfolded the mouldering parchment, its face pulled into a sneer. “You dragged me up here for a single task?” The demon stepped closer to the edge of the circle. “All these years and you’ve never given me less than a dozen, always trivial, tasks. I know that unpleasant chalk you use is expensive, prohibitively so.” It snapped the back of its hand against the note. Ashen flakes spiralled to the floor. “What they pay wouldn’t cover the cost of your materials.” The demon stared hard at the man. “What is your game? One would almost think that you were using the last of it up.” The centipede pulled the demon’s mouth into a sardonic grin. “Or thinking of retiring.”
The was a pause. A single shoulder rose and fell under the heavy robe. “Are you? Retiring?” The demon leant forward, smile forgotten. Windradyne gave a slow nod.
“Why would you do that?” the demon raged. Spittle flew and slaver formed on its lips. “Have I not given you all you asked?”
Windradyne didn’t speak.
“Do you know what a torment it is to be brought to this plane, yet never truly experience it?” it whined. “Trapped behind this circle, enslaved by the threat of its fire.” It waved at the circle around it and then to the sandglass. “All for the duration of one turn of your timer.” The demon’s exposed muscles sagged. “You are too cruel.”
It turned its head and spoke from one side of its mouth. “I could give you riches enough to crush you with their weight-eight,” it promised. Such knowledge that your eyes would bleed.” The demon stepped closer to the edge of the circle, its mouth pulled into an obsequious grin. “If you’re retiring, why not let me free this time? For old times’ sake?”
The old summoner’s chest rose and fell. His impassive eyes shifted pointedly from the demon to the paper.
“This-s? Is this what you want?” it asked. “Can’t you just say it once? That whole business about us stealing your soul if you speak in our presence, is nonsense.”
Windradyne said nothing.
“I refuse,” it snapped. A silver-tipped claw tapped a rapid tattoo on the cavern floor. “If this is to be the last time I am to be called here, I am not going to spend my time looking for—” It stared at the grey scrap. “—widow Colwell’s lost ring.”
The tapping stopped and the demon looked down. The man followed its eyes. One long-clawed toe was also coated in silver. The demon pursed its lips and edged the tip of the claw across the line of the circle.
Silver flames jetted upward three times the height of the pair. Hissing, the demon pulled back its claw. Smoke rose from its surface and the acrid stink of burnt hair assaulted his nose. The silver was gone, but the claw remained undamaged.
“Well, will you look at that?” The demon smiled and directed its gaze to its arms. The old man stared at the mercurial flow on the demon’s arms and then back to the claw.
The demon moved before he did. Silver flames roared again. When the light cleared, Windradyne found demon’s face pulled into a grin so broad it threatened to tear its face apart.
“Smarts a bit,” the demon said, raising its arms high, “but worth it.” The silver below the elbow had vanished, leaving its arms bare and steaming. In one, long-fingered hand was the old man’s timer.
“Well, isn’t this an interesting turn of events?” The demon’s smile was so wide, its lips seemed at risk of tearing apart. It brought the timer up and waggled the worn device. The stream of falling sand swayed back and forth. With exaggerated care, the demon turned the time sideways, flopping its head to ape the motion of the timer. The sands stopped.
“Oh, dear,” it said. “It doesn’t seem to be working anymore.”
Silence answered it. Windradyne’s face was inscrutable. On the floor, the lines of chalk thinned to less than a quarter of their former thickness.
“You do know that once your circle has faded away,” the demon said, the bare muscle above its eyes twisted in a grotesque parody of a raised brow, “I’m going to kill you?”
The old man crossed his arms, hands tucked in his sleeves.
“As we’re ‘friends’,” the demon said, its echoing voice scathing, “it will be quick.”
The chalk lines crept towards non-existence.
“Your master should have warned you,” the demon said, “to be more careful when dealing with demons.” It placed the timer on the floor behind it and looked up at the walls. “I am looking forward to razing this place-ace. I can feel people nearby. In the… village?” it quizzed.
The old man chewed on his cheek.
“Don’t care to run? Too old? Tch, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.” The chalk had almost evaporated. The old man removed one hand from his sleeve and with great care, extended the middle finger upwards.
“Brave at the last, little man?” the demon laughed. “I rescind my previous offer, not that I was going to honour it.”
There was motion under Windradyne’s worn robe. A hissing emerged from the stone. The demon’s head snapped down as its clawed feet began to sink into the stone.
“No!” Decades of frustration bundled into a single syllable. Its eyes locked on the timer, the sand unmoving. “How is this happening?” The demon’s knees slipped into the stone. Its palms dropped to the stone. Muscles tensed and snapped but its descent continued unabated.
“I don’t understand!”
The old man slipped his other arm from his sleeve. In his hand, he held a timer, the twin of the one inside the circle. Where the captured one was worn and battered, this was smooth and unblemished.
And the top chamber was empty.
The demon’s mouth pulled into a snarl. It twisted to slam a fist into the worn timer. Shattered glass and sand spilled across the floor.
“This,” it hissed, pointing the mess, “was never my timer?”
Windradyne allowed the demon a single raised eyebrow.
The demon screeched as its hips disappeared into the stone. The old man’s face was immobile as the demon was drawn down through the stone. Its hands clawed at the floor, seeking purchase where none could be had. It ripped the centipede from its maw and hurled it at the old man. It disappeared with a shriek as flames consumed it. With a final, slack-lipped snarl, the demon slipped beneath the stone.
The shadows slipped back into place and silence reigned. The old man bent and deposited the timer next to its broken twin and set a foot upon it. His booted heel cracked the glass and the sands mixed. Widow Colwell was going to be disappointed. Master Windradyne picked up a lantern, extinguished the others one by one, then turned his back on the room and walked away.
About the Author
H. Robert Barland is a teacher, historical re-enactor and black belt martial artist. A former motorcyclist, climber, film extra, and resident of the UK, he has now returned to Newcastle, Australia where he lives with his wife and two boys. His work has been published in Etherea and Nightmare Fuel magazines and in the Wicked Flashes of Fantasy anthology. He considers himself well adapted for life on land.