The ravine was quiet as a dead cat. Fortunately, Belial loved cats. Especially dead ones.
The daemon crouched at the top of a boulder, staring down through the winding passageway. This wasn’t an ideal place to wait, as the rock had an unfortunate habit of wobbling back and forth slightly with the slightest provocation, but it did afford the best view. Besides, Belial did not intend to be here long.
Its stomach growled. The daemon scratched idly at a peeling scrap of flesh along its arm, then grabbed hold and tore the entire piece away. It shoved the scrap into its mouth, swallowing with a little moan of ecstasy.
From deep inside, some remnant of its host let out a silent scream. Belial grinned. Not lost to madness yet, I see. Good, I could use a distraction. However, a moment later the scream faded away, and with it went Belial’s grin. That didn’t last long. Typical human weakness, don’t know why I even bother getting my hopes up.
With nothing else to occupy its attention, the feeling returned, that too close sensation like something was poking the daemon in the back with a stick. Something half-remembered, but for which Belial could not seem to recall a name. Several days had passed in frustrated bewilderment trying to recall it, while the road changed to track, to trail, to forest undisturbed since the skyfires. Earlier that morning the name returned at last, and with it all the terrible implications Belial had thought no longer applied to a damned creature such as itself.
That particular emotion had been absent for so long, even the sound of it felt strange in Belial’s head: dry and musty as ancient spiderwebs found in a sealed room. After all, what need did a daemon such as itself have for a word like that? Fear applied to the meat sacks it wore for playing lovely little games. Not to the majestic being that ruled from inside.
No, fear should have been ancient dust by now. Gone the day Varconis banished it from Paradise. Instead, the feeling was back, wriggling underneath its skin like a host of maggots ready to gnaw their way free.
Grinding teeth half rotted away to nothing, the daemon dropped from its roost and moved further up the trail. Muscles in its legs groaned in pain as they struck the ground. Belial frowned, but there was little that could be done about it at the moment.
It had worn this body for weeks already. Soon the bones and organs would rot as the skin already did, and it would be forced to abandon this host as it had so many others. It could see the signs with almost every step: the leaves that blackened and burned away at its touch, the flames that flickered for a moment in each footprint.
There was the matter of its growing hunger, too.
I need a new host, and soon. Before it could see to that small matter though, it had to remove the burr that plagued it. That thrice-damned girl with her magick guns and her sharp words and her too-intelligent horse. She had already trapped it once several months ago, and Belial would eat saltpeter before surrendering to that cramped prison again.
Life had been simple, once. For the first several centuries after its exile, Belial had wandered from one end of Korvana to another, alone but for the other daemons condemned and abandoned in the wasteland. Here and there the daemon had taken a dumb beast for a host, but the experience was always distasteful, dull to the senses, and never for longer than necessary. Belial still shuddered at the memory.
The day that ships first appeared on the coastline, full of men come to settle this empty land, it had seemed like nothing short of a miracle. They were ignorant barbarians, but made far better hosts than a bear or fox, that was for certain. The humans were endless in number and embarrassingly easy to manipulate. It was almost too good to be true.
Which it was. The games lasted longer than the daemon expected, but eventually the barbarians caught on. From among them appeared a new type of human, one with weapons and skills that brought ruin to everything that Belial and its siblings had tried to build. The Pistol Warlocks.
This girl was just the latest in a long line of hunters that had plagued the daemon for decades. Admittedly, she seemed a little different, a little more competent. What did one call a female warlock, anyway? Belial searched its host’s memories, but came up empty. A Pistol . . . Wench, maybe? Yes, that will do.
At last, satisfied with its position, Belial turned around and watched the path threading towards the plains below. A bend in the hills hid any pursuit further than a hundred yards behind, which suited its purposes just fine.
Belial had allowed overconfidence to rule during their last encounter, but it would not be taken so easily this time.
Barely a minute passed before a lone figure appeared from behind a shoulder-high boulder, rolling into view, guns held at the ready. Even knowing what to expect, Belial felt its host’s heart beat extra quick at the sight of those steel instruments of torture. Too well it recalled the burning agony of the fire contained within them. The daemon forced itself to remain calm. To remember the plan.
“Alright Belial, I think you’ve had your fun.” The Pistol Wench, whatever her name was, eyed it from underneath the brim of her hat with the expression of someone who could already taste victory. She was an unusual sight, even to a creature as versed in the strange and unexplainable as itself. Besides her guns and their magicks, she wore what looked like an old coat, but which she used to move faster and further than even Belial’s own legs could achieve. Her skin was strange too, much darker than any other Federation citizen. It almost reminded the daemon of . . . but, no, that was impossible.
The Pistol Wench was still talking. “That was quite the mess you left behind at that farm a few days back. Took me quite a while to find your trail amidst all the blood.”
Belial ground its teeth again. It had only wanted to stop and rest in the family’s barn for a few hours. When their daughter stumbled across it sleeping on a hay bale, the sight of jagged horns and bones protruding from flesh had sent her screaming. The daemon had been forced to quiet her somehow. Of course, after that it had to quiet the rest of the family. Couldn’t just leave these things half-finished.
The wench, clearly not expecting an answer, continued on, “I don’t suppose you would consider going peaceful this time?”
“Would you trust me even if I said yes, girl?” the daemon retorted.
“No, I suppose not. Let’s get this over with, then. Estalia—”
Belial had been waiting for this. It tensed, and as the wench finished her incantation with a shout of “—Vos!” the daemon twisted sideways. A quicksilver beam passed only a hair’s breadth from its chest, time seeming to slow to a crawl.
Then the silver was past, burying itself in the hillside.
Belial took off running. Behind it the girl let out a curse and gave chase.
A second later the daemon heard a cry of “Habero!” It dove to the side, a bone protruding from its elbow snapping off as it impacted against a rocky outcrop. Heat washed by overhead, and several nearby sagebrush burst into flames. A heartbeat later Belial was on its feet and running again.
It ran around another bend, and close behind the Pistol Wench drew closer. Belial leapt over a scattering of branches, then clambered up a short slope, rolling down the other side, unmindful of the sharp rocks and thorny bushes that tore and scraped greedily at its flesh. It lay at the bottom, breathing heavily.
Oh Fires of A’chapala, Belial prayed. Don’t let her fly over the boulder like last time. She can’t know for certain I’ve stopped, no reason I wouldn’t keep just running up the hill. Please, oh please, oh—
From the other side, the rapid footsteps came to an abrupt halt, followed by a loud squawk. Everything went quiet.
Belial rolled over and crawled up the hill, half-eager, half-petrified for what it might find.
On the other side, the branches that the daemon had spread over its trap were no longer visible. A pit yawned in their place, the girl laying at the bottom.
Belial’s grin grew so wide it nearly split its face. Finding this sinkhole had been a stroke of the grandest luck, but the daemon had never been one to overlook a windfall of any sort.
It hopped down into the pit and eyed the girl. She lay still, eyes closed and a line of blood leaking from her nose. Only a slight intake of breath gave any sign she yet lived.
Reaching down, Belial stripped away bandoliers, holsters, and jacket. Patting her pockets to ensure she had nothing else that would be of use, it leapt away with superhuman strength, landing on the dirt above with an audible thud.
Now to consider my next move. The revolvers looked valuable, but just touching them was making the daemon nauseous. Carrying the guns for miles was out of the question. It dropped them to the ground and tied the coat up where it wouldn’t come loose. Satisfied with its handiwork, Belial turned back towards the pit and settled on its haunches.
Better, perhaps, to just just climb back down, slit her throat, and be done with it. Ah, but where is the fun in that? The wench had been problem enough that she needed a little lesson before departing the mortal coil. Watching while she starved or froze to death in the hole would be a fitting and pitiful end for the wench. Not to mention wonderful entertainment.
Yes, Belial was looking forward to the show. It stretched its arms, working a kink out of its shoulder. Perhaps if the wench begged extra nice, it might throw down a few scraps, just enough to prolong her—
With a dry snap, one of Belial’s arms popped out of its shoulder. The daemon watched, horrified, as the limb burned away to ash before it even got halfway to the ground.
That . . . changes a few things. This body had even less time left than Belial had thought. It jumped to its feet, then paused long enough to cast a regretful look back at the pit.
“Good luck to you, wench. I’d love to stay and watch, but I’m overdue for a new host as it is.” The daemon made an unfriendly gesture in the girl’s direction and set off down the path. As it walked, it realized the feeling of fear that had eaten away at it these last few days had already faded to almost nothing.
Time to have some fun.