Chapter Twenty-Three
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As soon as Batagan saw Liln waving him over, he took to her. ‘His Lordship’s mate?’ He wondered, but he saw no indications of union, but that only made it more odd. ‘Public business usually falls to males… is this not public business in his mind? Or does he ignore conventions in his choices?’ She certainly appeared formidable even by demon standards, though she’d obviously recently experienced hunger, she was clearly building back muscle and had lean, firm limbs, sharp claws at the tips of her fingers, and a clear eyed look directly at him. She stood with her back straight and a knowing little smile on her face, it was hard to resist the urge to lean toward her before he’d even gotten to a normal speaking range.

“You’re our guide?” Batagan asked, and then slid down off the front of his wagon, the eyes of the others were on him and the train of wagons behind stopped at his back.

“I am. My name is Liln, the Demon Lord trusts me to bring you back… but first, what did he say to you?” She asked, she stood an equal height to himself, which was unusual, but her expectant manner carried the weight of the one to give her the task, and so he answered.

Batagan explained all that had taken place with Sadrahan and what was said, and all that he’d done to set them free before finally adding, “I was a chief before, and I have spoken with other chiefs before, so I can read the deeper thoughts of others and learn more of what they mean by what they say, and it is my opinion that he intends this to be a test for us. A measure of our worth.”

Liln put a hand to her ample chest and visibly breathed a sigh of relief, “Praise to the skies that you’re not an idiot. I came to the same conclusion, his words to me were full of unspoken meaning, we need resources, and you are being tested. We only need to work out just what he meant, and we will both pass in his eyes.”

“Are you, no, you’re not his woman, but that is what you want?” Batagan guessed, she was nonplussed at his bluntness, and nodded.

“He has eyes only for his daughter, his mate must have been quite a woman, he won’t accept just anyone… I’m tested in more ways than one.” Liln brushed one hand through her ink dark hair, “I’d say it’s a foolish waste of time, but as he’s the Lord, he has to be more selective, I suppose it makes sense to test me in all tasks.”

“Yes… well, given the way he secured our freedom from the humans, he must have great ambitions, gathering all demons to him at the mountain is an enormous goal.” Batagan acknowledged.

“As the humans have changed, he’s right to want it. We either adapt or die, we’ve all seen that now, through the most bitter of lessons. Now should we go? We won’t find what he wants us to find, just by standing around here and talking?” Liln suggested and gestured behind her on the long grassy path into places unknown to Batagan or those at his back.

“Lead on, and I will follow.” Batagan answered her, and thrust out his hand to her, she blinked twice when she saw his hand extended as if she were a male comrade.

She hesitated for a moment, then clasped her forearm to his, their claws dug into each other’s flesh, hard enough to bring pain, but neither winced or called for the other to release their grip. “I see why he chose you.” Batagan said, and as the initiator, he broke the grip first, relaxing his claws, and she then relaxed her claws in the same way.

Liln nodded. “As I said, he must have had quite a mate before me, he thinks nothing of common boundaries, only ability and willingness to use it. A very practical male, who we would do well to mimic.”

Batagan inclined his head with respectful silence and climbed back up into the wagon. Liln turned around and began to walk ahead.

The grass blades bent beneath her feet and Liln breathed the crisp air deep into her lungs, every step was bliss, and her former life and fears were slipping farther and farther behind her as the minutes became hours and her journey back to the mountain progressed.

‘Assamo’s father was such a damn fool. He never listened to anyone, never heeded any of my advice… if only we’d listened when the merchant told us to get out or build a wall. But it was a joke to him. Like any opinion that contradicted his own.’ She tried not to curse the dead, but out in the open and knowing she was going back to a place where she was heard and her duties consisted of more than twelve hours of food preparation and the tending of household matters and farm work? It was hard not to. ‘The life ahead seems so much better… were it not for what they did to us first, I would even call it worth it…’

She recalled the feeling of the human’s curved blade against the shoulder blade, the cold iron, the sharp edge… five of them had held her down as she kicked and screamed on her belly, their filthy hands holding arms, shoulders, legs, the smell of their sweaty human bodies as the scythe ripped down in one smooth motion, tearing her wing free.

‘I never knew I could scream like that. Nor that Assamo could scream like that either…’ She thought, recalling his cries…

‘Mother! Father! They’re hurting me! They’re hurting me! Make them stop hurting me!’ His heartrending wails would haunt her until death, as would the ripping, tearing noise, and the following sound of limp ‘flops’ when they tossed the many wings into a pile.

‘Had he not fainted from the pain, we might not have been allowed to live… the killing of our young to silence their cries… how could they?’ She reflected, recalling that in a moment of desperate inspiration, she went limp and made no sound as they tore her other wing free. ‘Had they come in the day or had better vision at night it might still have failed… but thanks to faking my fainting, I had a chance to survive… but I’ll never let them bring me down again. Damn them!’ She cursed, the flames of burning homes and the radiant heat was seared into her memory as much so as the flesh of her wing flaps were seared shut by the burns from their last cruel act before they were dragged into that gash in the world that they called a ‘mine’.

‘Now we have a future again… a future under the Demon Lord… and no humans will ever-’ She stopped her line of thought all of a sudden.

“Batagan, I think I know what it is we’re supposed to do.” She said, a spark of life coming to her eyes.

“You figured it out?!” He gasped, the steady rocking and rolling noise of the wagon wheels drowned out by his urgent words, he hastily added, “What?!”

Liln explained her thoughts to him as the wagons rocked back and forth, and Batagan nodded along as understanding dawned.

And from there word spread. ‘A chance for revenge, a chance to prove their worth to the Demon Lord of the Mountain.’ The thought was shared in every look and every mind.

‘This might be our only chance to prove ourselves. If we fail to bring anything but our burdens, what can we even say to him when others answer his call and come with tools, weapons, and healthy bodies? Can we even protest that we are of his number if all we do is take? Can we protest if he casts us out?’ Batagan shivered at the very thought.

The way Liln kept her back straight and body stiff, whether she meant to or not, he could see that she was thinking much the same. ‘A test for her that runs even deeper than for us. She has to be nervous. What if we lose? What if we’re driven off and have nothing to show for it? We’re still weak and starving, we won’t be much better by the time we get to where she’s taking us? We could be slaughtered… hunted down if we’re caught out… like ambushing a basilisk. Do it right and things go fine, do it wrong and you’re lucky if you only lose an arm.’ Batagan swallowed a lump that was thickening in his throat, and when Liln was entirely silent, he was too.

They remained that way, each wagon barely saying a word more than necessary as the hours slipped past, the drivers of the wagons only echoing Batagan and Liln’s orders to stop, eat, relieve themselves, or slaughter a horse or two as needed.

The smell of blood remained thick as they devoured the sweet, uncooked meat of each beast, the masticating noise of chewing, swallowing, licking of blood and suckling of marrow from cracking bones, was as close to conversation as anyone got.

They ate with caution, eyes darting to and fro as the wagons rolled on, wary of any beast or monster that might come their way, and wary more of alerting humans to their coming, no fires went up at any point.

Hour slipped into hour and day slipped into day as their bodies regained tiny fractions of their strength, enough that a handful of demons would even walk into the woods to briefly search for edible plants to expand their diet.

‘But it’s still not much… these are so weak still, it will take weeks, maybe months to restore every one of the pit demons to full strength. Taking on healthy humans even by ambush is a tall order, Lord Sadrahan, you’ve given us quite a test.’ Liln thought as the steady orange glow of the sun faded away to nothing on the horizon, darkness was creeping over them, and the smoke of cookfires was slowly blending in with the coming night.

‘I should have known immediately when I saw that village from the air that this was what he had in mind. I will have to think more deeply about these things in the future if I’m to be of use, let alone if I’m to stand beside him.’ Liln vowed to herself and closed her hand into a fist.

She gritted her sharp teeth, the smell of cooked food, and the smell of a population of humans, was growing thick in her nose. As bellies growled behind her, it was obvious that thoughts of food were as heavy on the minds of the others as were thoughts of revenge. ‘Rationing horse meat after all can only get us so far. Did he drop me off planning for me to reach this place at night?’ Liln wondered, it wasn’t lost on her that he hadn’t stayed to explain anything, or that he hadn’t actually taken her all the way to the wagons but told her to wait for them.

‘Gods above and below…’ She whispered in the quietness of her mind, ‘It’s either that, or a total accident that this is so perfectly timed.’ Coincidence seemed unlikely to her, and the esteem in which she held the new Demon Lord only grew.

‘If he can plan as deeply as all that, then I can plan this much.’ Liln promised, ‘He wouldn’t put me to the test unless he believed there was some possibility I, and we, could pass. Why bother if we’re just going to die? No, Sadrahan must believe we’ll succeed. Or at least that we can!’ She reassured herself and cleared her throat to get Batagan’s attention.

“Do you have an idea?” He asked offhandedly, a steady and lengthy look down at her from the wagon was less than encouraging.

“Sort of. Humans sleep a lot at night, they’re not as flexible as we are. If we wait a little, they’ll be asleep, they think they’re safe and protected, having just gotten a new home after some of us were driven out…” Liln said as her mind raced, and a few growls among the wagons suggested that some of those within were inhabitants of the village they were closing in on.

“So we do what they did to us, attack at night. It’s easier for us, and they’ll be dreaming beneath their blankets. Why don’t we cut some branches down as well, we can make clubs?” Batagan suggested, “We’re not at full strength yet, so a weapon will be good, and clubs are easy to make. We’re also taller than them, we can hit their heads easily.”

“That’s a damn good idea.” Liln agreed and gave an enthusiastic nod. ‘It will also take some of the edge off and kill time until the humans are all sleeping.’ She thought, and the order went out, demons dismounted from wagons and with only a few miles to go, their eyes turned fixed on their target while the steady ‘chock, chock, chock’ noise of claws cutting into wood surrounded them all. Branches crackled, snapped and drying, dying leaves crunched and crumpled as they were stripped away…

Until at last every demon held a serviceable club in hand, they stood a little taller with a weapon wrapped in their fingers and the darting, fearful stares from sunken eyes toward the now invisible smoke from the night covered village became a little bit bolder.

When Liln held one herself, she tapped it in her free hand, the urge to violence surged through her blood like a torrential flood through a waiting riverbed. “This is what he wanted. This is what he wanted us to feel… it makes sense now.” She murmured while Batagan finished stripping his of stray green branches.

“What?” He asked as he gave his new club a few practice swings.

“Power. He wanted us to feel this, no wonder this was our test… look at them.” Liln leveled her club and pointed at the still half starved demons, “They’re no longer looking around like pathetic deer afraid of a hunter’s arrow or a hungry wolf. Just putting a weapon in their hand, they’re coming back to their pride. I’m coming back to mine. It feels good.” She said and tightened her hold on the base of the club.

Batagan grunted, ‘She has a point, maybe we should do more of this?’ He wondered about that, a vision passed before his mind’s eye of demons doing as he’d seen humans in their armor do, practicing for hour after hour, day after day to become skilled in lethal arts. ‘What couldn’t we do, if we had the numbers to do that?’ He asked himself, and could think of nothing beyond their reach.

The wagons were remounted and rode on in slow, steady silence until they reached the very outskirts of the human village.

The homes were few in number, and the ashes of broken homes were still uncleared, charred and broken remnants of the former inhabitants that brought red eyes down full of hatred. ‘They think they can do just anything at all… well they can’t. That’s what they’ll learn.’ Batagan vowed and hefted his club.

“Remain low, creep to each home, five demons per house, knock on their doors… and then knock your clubs on their heads.” Liln said, and then to set the example, she began to rush forward into the pitch dark of night, her body remained low and her footfalls silent as the grave. An owl hooting out of view seemed to ask her identity, she ignored it.

The crackle of dying fires in each home promised that the owners were within, here and there, faint moans of human mated pairs engaged in bliss together went up. However, there were no cries of small children. ‘They must have given this land to young couples, is that why the humans were expanding and taking everything from us? They have too many people? There’s a solution to that.’ She thought with white hot hatred.

Behind her several more demons fell into position, and more were lining up outside other homes. ‘They think they can just build on the still warm bones of our homes? Make new lives on our corpses?!’ Liln cried out in her mind and raised her free hand to pound on the human’s door. ‘Hmpf, not even neighborly with each other, putting up a wooden barrier… like it will help them tonight.’

That smugness was warm in her heart, and she raised up her club above her head. Knocking noises reached her ears from the other doors, and then the one in front of her opened.

The human found himself looking up at the wrath filled demoness, his eyes widened with disbelief and Liln brought her club down hard on his face, his nose shattered in a spray of blood and he staggered back before crumpling to the floor of his home.

A woman in the bed had enough time to scream, pulling a blanket over herself before Liln’s feet pounded over the floor followed by the clamor of the rest of her party, the clubs rose and fell while the human woman scrambled to protect herself.

For all the good it did.

Which was none.

Finally after a brief storm of blows that bruised flesh and would have broken bones if the demons had their proper strength, one crack to the woman’s head caused the woman to fall limp and unconscious at her attacker’s feet, mercifully ending her fear.

Screams of terror and shock went up from many, though not all homes… but it was over almost as soon as it began.

Demons dragged limp bodies of men and women out of their homes by their ankles, hair, wrists, whatever was convenient, and tossed them into a collective heap. The village was taken and the limp, unknowing captives were surrounded by the triumphant attackers. Hatred burned as red as their flesh, clubs twitched in hands, the desire was clear… ‘Kill them.’ Was the unspoken urgent opinion that seemed inflamed with every breath and every second longer looking at the crumpled heap.

Liln however, stepped out of her place in the circle and toward the heap to take command. “Seize everything, all their tools, rings, food, horses, everything they’ve got. Then burn everything else down.” Liln hissed, and her followers began tearing the house apart taking out their wrath on the possessions of their prisoners.

“What about these?” A demon’s foot kicked at the male’s body.

“Tie them up, throw them in the wagon, we’ll give them as a gift to the Demon Lord, maybe they can make our fields fertile.” Liln said with a shrug as the clatter of smashing wood went up around her and spread throughout the village.

And when the flames leapt up from the human homes, roaring and crackling against the sky as fire revisited the land for the second time, it warmed every demon back and every demonic heart, long after it was out of sight behind them.