By the time Michael had lumbered up behind him, Yen had moved into the trees at the perimeter of the small shanty town. The mature, deep forest sprung from the ground in a solid wall around the community, denoting the boundary between civilization and wilderness as clearly as a stone wall. Yen looked up at the canopy of greenery, muttering under his breath as he walked briskly, a slight limp bouncing his head in a steady circle.
Yen craned his neck to look at Michael as he caught up. He immediately looked past him, back down the forest trail into the town they’d hastily departed. No one was apparently motivated enough to pursue them. Too bad, Yen thought to himself. He looked back to Michael, “I assume you are some type of a spy for your nation? Trying to hide that ridiculous armor is hardly a stealthy way to move around such a rugged countryside.” Yen held a hand out to his side, and a gnarled walking staff, long as he was tall and equally twisted, appeared suddenly in his grip. He leaned on it as he continued moving.
“Assuming I am here for that, at least that’s a rational explanation,” Michael said hastily, drawing abreast of Yen. He stooped, still trying to look the demonist in the eye, but failing to penetrate the deep folded hood. “For the life of me, I can’t say why you would be here in this place. Or even on this continent. You are Strythkian?” Michael’s curiosity still overrode his sense of danger in the situation. He was determined that if nothing else, at least the encounter could make some sense in his mind. There was simply no way that was going to happen for him without a few answered questions.
“Of course I am, young paladin,” Yen said in a low voice, as if attempting to conserve what little vocal ability he had left. “I departed the Isle at a young age, however.”
Michael laughed at being branded as ‘young paladin’. “Unless I am very mistaken, you are barely done with your second decade, if that. I myself am nearing thirty, I hardly think you can call me a young . . .”
Yen stopped walking, and turned to Michael, looking up from his hood, eyes glittering. “Have you ever killed for power, Michael?” he asked, all expression dropping from his drawn face. “Or physically sacrificed a family member? Seen a demon eat your sister for a miniscule mistake? “ His eyes were shaking in their sunken sockets and his voice grew more strained again. “Perhaps you have given the souls of your enemies over to the voracity of a pack of demonic hounds, forever hunting, forever hungry? Sacrificing countless menial foes for secret knowledge and personal gain. Or maybe,” Yen continued, reaching to push the sleeve of his robe up to the elbow of his right arm, revealing a deathly white arm of wiry muscle and tendon. Michael looked at the arm closer, at what appeared to be a basket weave pattern covering it. On closer inspection, he realized what the pattern was, scars. An endless number of cutting scars. Yen’s entire arm was covered in a cross-hatching of cuts that had healed into lines of pale scar tissue. There at the end of the abused limb, Yen’s hand was splayed out, showing the four fingers that still remained there. The smallest finger of his right hand was completely gone, the knob of scar left in its place jagged and uneven, as if the finger had been torn viciously from his body. Or bitten off.
“Maybe you’ve spent every waking hour since you were able to walk in conflict with forces that would happily tear you asunder, burn your home and family, then eat you slowly? Perhaps you have given those forces your own flesh and blood to trap and coerce them into your service? Maybe you lost a finger from not drawing a chalk circle perfectly when you were eight years old?” Yen finished by waggling his maimed hand in Michael’s face before withdrawing it back into his sleeve. He stared for a moment further. He shook his head briefly and kept walking. Over his shoulder he finished, moving away from Michael, “Something tells me I have lived just a touch more than yourself, young paladin.”
Michael watched the demonist hobble away, incredulous at the insane, rambling speech. He wondered at the man’s sanity. Still, the demon he had summoned had proven not only potent in conflict, but obviously its powers, whatever they were born from, enabled it with some psychic ability or sight. Yen already knew too much about him from their brief encounter, and Michael saw an opportunity here. Clearly this encounter was a blessing from Kil. Here was a set of skills that would make a master spy proud. He needed to rein this demonist in, make him somehow loyal to him, or at least intimidated enough to serve.
“So, why are you here?” Michael yelled at the departing Yen’s robed back. “I thought your island was sealed from the outside world? No entry and no departure? Hasn’t it been so for centuries?” Michael began moving to catch up.
Yen let loose a hacking laugh that turned into a cough. “I see your schooling is lacking, young paladin,” Michael smirked at the phrase repeated. “So I will illuminate you. The Isle is sealed against those who desire to leave, or desire to enter. Such is the nature of the enchantment. But exile can be, and occasionally is, enforced. A fate worse than death. A subtle, and old, old spell ward. You can’t leave, but you can be forced to do so.”
“So you were exiled here, then?” Michael asked.
“No, I just thought I’d tell you a story,” Yen said quickly as he continued to move a few paces ahead of Michael, “Idiot.”
“Why out here, of all places?” Michael continued, ignoring the insult. “Why not go to the cities? We are human, after all. You could pass for Allthorian, or live in a port city along the coast where there are innumerable immigrants. Your talents would be invaluable to . . .”
“Anyone who didn’t try to kill me on sight,” Yen finished for him. “I don’t suppose you know of the great wars between the demonists and essence users, or what they just call mages here in this place.” He gestured around with contempt. “If I had done that,” gesturing back towards the town, “in any city with a significant mage population, the hunt for me would be on. I try to steer clear of large population centers if I can.”
He looked up from his hood at the surrounding forest as the pair crested a hill, losing sight of the nameless village behind them. The canopy above them filtered the late afternoon sun, dappling the forest floor and the companions in patches of bright, warm light. Yen squinted into the light, pushing his deep hood back off of his head. His short cropped black hair glistened wetly, and beads of sweat stood out on his pale forehead. His eyes, no longer dilated black, were a quivering green, shot through with brown flecks.
Michael marveled at the youth of the face, despite its scars and stress lines. He saw a thick, whirling band of black tattooing wound around Yen’s thin neck, spreading down and out along the back of his neck onto his shoulders, where it disappeared into his robe. Michael looked closely. It was without a doubt the most intricate and detailed tattooing he had ever seen. He’d spent many a drunken night here in the Bur Wood glaring dully at badly rendered tavern girls on thick forearms, or proud displays of the names of children, wives and sweethearts etched into the corded necks of lumbermen. But this was something different. This tattoo looked almost alive on the pale canvas of Yen’s flesh, almost appearing to be in movement, constricting and winding like a serpent, the minute glyphs and symbols entwined in the ribbons of ink shimmering with an almost imperceptible vibration.
“Those, um, marks on your neck,” Michael began to inquire, pointing delicately at the tattoos. “I’ve never seen anything like . . .”
“Demonic branding,” said Yen, still looking around at the woods and sunlight, letting his eyes adjust. “Unspeakably painful, but necessary for the discipline,” he turned to the large paladin, sizing him up with an almost humane look. “I know the thoughts running through your head, holy warrior spy foreigner, so I will alleviate your fumbling and poorly worded thoughts. You view my powers as an unexpected find here in the bosom of nowhere. This is true. You are probably certain that a violent conflict between us would be resolved based on my preparation for it. That is probably also correct. So you are now determining how best to either enlist myself as an aid in your work, or coerce and force my compliance with your designs.”
Michael continued listening, shaking his head incredulously at Yen’s speech. He began wondering if he should even bother talking or responding.
“I think we would be best served if I tell you what I want. Then I will tell you what I can offer you in exchange.” Yen kept moving, his gnarled staff beating a light cadence on the hard packed trail. Michael had fallen in step beside him, continuing to listen. “In exchange for protection out here, I am willing to help you gather whatever information it is you were sent here for. This means that when I sleep, or have need to recuperate from my exertions, you will stand guard. I will give you more knowledge than you thought you could gather here.” Michael was still nodding, this sounded like the most reasonable thing to come out of the demonist’s crazed mouth.
“What I seek here, besides my own survival, is something that may no longer exist. But,” Yen shrugged in frustration, “I am nowhere close to even finding the smallest hint as to its whereabouts. If the time comes, you will aid me in that quest as well,” Yen finished abruptly, turning to face Michael as he walked. “Do you accept?”
“That seems awful formal for a talk between foreign strangers in a forest,” Michael stated, suddenly puzzled by the last part of Yen’s outlined agreement.
“Ah,” Yen replied, grinning slightly. Michael blanched at the effect of the young demonist’s smile. “You misunderstand me. This will not be a working agreement between two people. I am not building you a latrine. It will be a pact. It will be sealed, and we will both be compelled by its power.”
Michael looked at Yen, trying still to absorb the odd speech of the demonist. “I . . . don’t, know? This is all strange, and moving a bit fast. We still need to get further away from that village. They may get brave after a few rounds of drinks. Plus, I don’t know who the hell you are, just someone who can conjure a demon and seemingly gather information about a person at will.”
“What more could you possible need to know, young paladin?” Yen stated calmly. “These are strange times, and events are moving fast. If you hope to survive what is to come, best begin to make decisions.” Yen looked up the trail to the crest of the next hill, sighing at the sight of the steep, winding hike ahead of them. “At nightfall, we can make the pact, or we can part ways. The decision is yours.”
Michael paused at the foot of the hill they were about to climb, following the ruts of the trail. Despite his disbelief at the sheer oddity of his new traveling companion, he knew that somehow the demonist’s predictions rang true. He just did not trust how the knowledge was gained. Nonetheless, as Yen moved up the hill, supported by his staff, Michael followed him, moving steadily up the hill into the spreading orange twilight.
7 - Berlin
7 years ago