Young Martina scrambled through the jungle, past trees, through bushes, not caring how scratched or tired she became. She didn’t look back either. She wanted to; she almost did now and then. But she had to focus on going forward, not on what was behind her. She ploughed on; if she slowed or stumbled or even hesitated, it would get her killed.
Then she had to stop. The land ended and the rolling sea lay before her; there was nowhere to run to. There was a beach ahead but it was no help: enclosed on the sides with nothing to hide her; they would catch her there easily. Martina looked about, then dove into bushes. She wormed her way deep into the undergrowth; again she didn’t care when she hurt herself or disturbed something that crawled; she had to escape their detection. Then she lay still, panting, but slowing it down, taking deep breaths, calming herself and her body so she could be silent.
The demons appeared, running after her, following her tracks, then halted where they ended. There were six of them: tall, muscular, human in form, apart from the heads. One signalled and they spread out. They searched for her, using their talons to swat aside undergrowth. Sometimes they simply lashed out with the wooden clubs, the bone hooks raking away leaves like they would skin.
Martina froze. There was no way past them; either they would find her or not, and she doubted they would give up. Demons never had before. One came close, sniffing, looking; the scarred, animal-like head moving back and forth as eyes sought her.
They suddenly stood and looked out to sea. Martina had no idea at what. For a while they remained transfixed, seemingly puzzled. She had never seen demons like this before. She couldn’t resist; she adjusted and wriggled to one side, and then saw what they were looking at.
The woman was beautiful, yet the instant Martina saw her, she noticed the nasty jagged scar across her face. It began above one eye and slanted down over her nose, cheek and to her clenched jaw, and on the way it slashed over the other eye, which was inflamed and reddened. Martina couldn’t understand this. How could such exquisite features be so ruined? Her hair was a mess too; ruffled, uneven, a silky black blaze around the smooth olive skin of her face. She was tall, appearing strong, slim and well formed. She was gorgeous yet grim, glaring at the demons, hands in fists, ready.
One charged and swung its weapon, then reeled, its head snapped back, blood spewing from the mouth. It hadn’t been a good punch. Martina had watched warriors spar and seen far better; it had been a lash of a fist. Yet, what it lacked in skill, it overwhelmed with raw ferocity. A foot drove into the demon’s midriff; again, not a warrior’s kick, but it worked. The demon folded up and dropped to its knees.
Her head smashed into a second demon’s face and she twisted its arm. It snapped. She charged it into another and the demons fell, entangled, one on top of the other. The one beneath had a shout of pain cut off when the other’s head thudded against its face. Both bled through nostrils. Then yells of pain came as the woman stamped on their legs.
The three remaining demons were springing to the fight; quick, supple, agile.
The woman spat hate as she dove into one and they rolled. She ended on top, beating down on its horrid face. Then she grabbed the head and wrenched. There was a sharp crack.
With a talon in her hand she rose, then threw it. The club struck a demon and the bone hook latched into flesh. The weapons were made to torment and catch, not kill, and the demon shrieked as it tried to pull it out.
The last attacked. She caught arms in her hands and they struggled, the demon slightly bigger, certainly wider, yet she didn’t budge. Martina was stunned. No one stood up to the demons, let alone attacked them. Now she saw the woman yell fiercely as she pushed her foe back.
It twisted and threw her around it, yet when it ran in she grabbed a leg and wrenched, sending the fiend rolling and screaming.
Two came again, one holding the talon it had taken out of itself. Both were hurt and still confused; they weren’t used to such resistance, let alone aggression. When she rose, one stepped back. She went for it, hammering fists to eyes. The other attacked from behind. A back kick on a knee produced another terrible sound, yet the talon swept through the shirt she wore, slicing open her back. She cried in pain – no, howled; it began in pain and ended in anger. The demon reeled from a punch, only to be grabbed at the throat and brought back for another punch. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another.
Then it fell.
The woman stood over the demon with its head in her hand. Only it wasn’t a head; it was empty. The head was still on the body; bloody, smashed, but even Martina could see it was a human face.
The woman looked at the others. Three demons were struggling to their feet, staggering and clutching injured legs. One lay dead. The only one standing was staring at the head she held.
She threw it at the demon, then lunged for the head of the being itself. The demon squealed in fright, fended her off and then ran. She charged at the rest and they hobbled away as fast as they could. She let them go and spat on the ground.
“Freaks,” snarled the woman, as she swayed on her feet. Blood was pouring down her back and legs. Martina came from hiding and ran to her side, quick to help her saviour. The woman made to hit her, but she stopped, seeing the girl. She accepted her help, leaning on her, yet she led the way to the beach.
The demon came to, slowly, not able to sit up for a while. Eventually it did, and then it saw the bestial head on the ground. It had never seen its own face before, yet knew that was it. It touched what was now there instead: skin, teeth, lips, ears, hair. It staggered to its feet and went to the dead demon, hesitated, before grabbing the head and ripping it off. It leapt away, falling, unable to believe it.
It looked like a human’s face!
The demon touched its own face again, then looked at an arm; the bronze skin like a human’s too. It gazed at its own body with a new level of consideration.
Movement caught its eye and it turned to see black lines race over the ground. Intertwining, separating, spreading; the thin lines sprawled across the area, then jabbed out into skin. The demon gasped in shock. It didn’t hurt, yet the lines weaved up its legs, over its body, into its arms, over its new face. Then it reached down and took up a rock before proceeding to smash to pulp the dead demon’s head. Once done, it obliterated its own.
“Well I’m ready to go,” announced the woman.
“What?” exclaimed Martina, looking round from the rock she sat on, lost in the beauty of the sea. The woman stood tall and proud, then turned slightly and pulled up her new shirt from her leggings, revealing a long scar. “How…? That only happened yesterday.”
“I heal fast, always have,” said the woman with a shrug, tucking herself back in. “Wish my clothes would, now I’ve only one spare shirt. No, wait, this is my spare shirt. Damn.”
“But how can you…?” Martina was lost, especially at the woman’s casual manner; not only had she healed after nearly passing out in her boat yesterday, she had fought demons, she was now a hunted creature. “You’re not from here are you?” realised the girl.
“Out there,” the woman said, pointing out to sea. “You see those rocks here and there, and bigger ones close to the horizon? Well just after it are islands, some big, some small, some tiny, and they go on for miles. It’s said there used to be land stretching from here to the landmass to the north, but it was destroyed and is now just hundreds of islands.”
“Landmass to the north?”
“Yeah, a continent I think you call it, like this one is. They used to be joined. The northern one was advanced, they had devastating weapons, and when they were overrun by mutants and machines someone used them. Legends say many humans fled south to this land, so their enemies targeted them. There were already plenty of islands around here, some great for magic. Anyway, it’s all a mess now.”
“People live out there?” checked Martina.
“Not one for taking things in easily, are you?” The woman grinned and sat next to her. Even side on, Martina could see the start of the scar, there was no avoiding it. “Yeah people live out there, if barely. Those weapons did more than blow up the land; they poisoned it, and the sea, and magic affected places too. People survived; through the centuries they found ways to keep going, even moving to different islands, but the population has always been falling.”
“You seem fine, better than fine.”
“Out there it’s said one in four children reach adulthood. I’m the only one of five, so you could say I’m owed extra,” remarked the woman with a wry smile, but she looked grim too. “You need to be tough to live out there, every generation since it happened. If you don’t have the will to get through, then you won’t.”
“Then you are from a long line of strong characters,” pronounced Martina. That explained a lot about her.
The woman grinned again. “I don’t know them all, but I imagine so; my grandfather was made of iron, knew a fair bit too. A big believer in will, he was. If your will is strong enough, nothing else can withstand it. That was his conviction.”
“Starting to be. After I made it all this way to here; over that ocean, through the wind, waves and rocks. Yeah, my willpower is feeling pretty invincible.”
Martina nodded at that, looking out over the rolling water, seemingly unmanageable. She also remembered her fight with the demons.
“Why did you come here?” she now wondered.
“Had to go one way or the other and north is crawling with mutants and machines,” said the woman simply. “Staying out there was pointless; there’s hardly anyone left and monsters are moving in. So I came south.”
“Which isn’t any better,” Martina quickly pointed out. “You aren’t safe here, the demons rule this land; they will come after you.”
“Demons? You mean those men in the masks?”
“No. Well, yes, I think. I didn’t know they were men. I know they look like that, but… they’re demons; they always have been. They roam the jungle and read the Proclamation.”
“A reminder to worship the Infestation, that which freed the land from the mutants and monsters.” The woman still frowned. “Long ago, we humans had to fight to survive too, but then the Infestation came and drove them out. We live freely now, as long as we obey the demons, the servants of the Infestation.”
“Obey them how?” Now the woman looked suspicious.
“Mainly simply by listening to the Proclamation, which tells us how we must obey and never forget what we owe to the Infestation. We give food, sometimes, and a few times tools and other things; whatever they ask for. However, now and then they claim our children.”
“They claim kids? Hasn’t anyone ever wondered about that and the men-like demons?”
“No. You see, they take boys and girls and they all go to the mines, yet many return after they have served.”
“Where they do lots of digging.”
“I see. Hey, were you claimed, is that why you were hiding from them?”
“No, it was my younger brother. I didn’t want him to go so I threw a rock at a demon’s head.” Martina smiled as the woman laughed; she had as lovely a laugh as she did a horrific snarl. “It wasn’t much but they chased me for it.”
“Never bow down to anyone, my grandfather would cheer you for that. I suppose your family must be worried about you then. We should go to your home.”
“You should leave here,” warned Martina.
“Unlikely.” The woman stood and went to her boat, taking out a thin, long coat of animal hide, then a bag with a few possessions in it. She looked at Martina. “I haven’t told you my name yet, have I? It’s Persephone. My grandfather heard it from somewhere and liked it; it made him think persistence.”
“I like it too, and I’m Martina.” She rose and ran to join the woman; alongside her; no demon could touch her.
Martina’s return to her village caused the biggest uproar she had ever known. They had decided she was dead as soon as the demons pursued her; many took some convincing that she wasn’t a ghost. In time all believed and celebrated, the demon rebel had overcome, and then interest went to Persephone: the strident, scarred female who they soon found to have done far more than throw a rock. However, the tale of unveiling demons was beyond the belief of any.
Persephone returned to the cluster of huts before dusk with an unconscious demon, his limbs broken, a talon in her hand dripping blood. Everyone crowded round, agreeing that this was a demon, then gasping as the head was removed. The man came round and was verbally assaulted; the people demanded a name, how and why and what, but he had no answers. The people then raged, took up rocks and sticks, and beat him to death.
“You have freed us,” declared the headman; a tall, strong, leader of his people through his displays as a warrior and thinker. “Now we know what these… vermin are, we won’t hide from them anymore. We won’t stand and listen to their Proclamation! We’ll kill them and we’ll tell this truth to all other villages. Soon they will be hunted.”
“What of the Infestation?” asked Persephone from where she sat on a log. “In fact, what is it?”
“What its name says; it moves through things, living things. It is throughout this land and can even control what it infests.”
“But it doesn’t control demons,” noted Persephone. “It doesn’t need to, I suppose. Still, it needs to be defeated.”
“We will do so,” proclaimed the headman, slapping his broad chest.
“Uh, we could raise an army and destroy the demons, then…”
“Where does it come from?”
“Everywhere.” The man shrugged.
“Where did it start?”
“Is it up to anything, does it seem to have a purpose?” The man looked blank. “Is there anywhere people cannot go?” Now he shook his head.
“We are free, if terrorised, and of course we are actually taken to some places.”
“The mines?” checked Persephone, and he nodded. “Where are they?”
“Mountains. Wherever there are mountains there are mines.”
“What is dug up?” persisted Persephone.
“I do not understand.”
“What are they dug for?”
“Rock. Rock is brought out, then they are filled with earth.”
“Seems pointless,” noted Persephone, mulling the information, or lack of it, over. Then she regarded the big man. “How will you start your rebellion?”
“We are making weapons and forming ourselves into bands of warriors, then we will set out and grab some demons before showing them to other villages.”
“A good plan,” admitted Persephone, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “You should capture at least some alive and make sure you don’t unmask them until you show them to others.”
“Like you did,” acknowledged the headman. “We will not fail; we will not live in fear.”
“So you shouldn’t,” agreed Persephone. The headman nodded, stood still as the silence continued, then realised the conversation was over and turned and went. “He seems capable enough.”
“He was taken to the mines,” Martina explained. “He survived and came back to give us his strength.”
“You like him,” remarked Persephone with a grin. The girl looked embarrassed, trying to cover her face with her long black hair, then she slapped her younger brother on the head as he laughed; her once concern for his life long forgotten, as was her rescue of him. Persephone picked up the bowl of food they had brought for her and ate as they argued and the young men of the village prepared.
“When will you be leaving with them?” Martina now wondered. Persephone frowned and the girl pointed to the war preparations.
“I’m not going, I’m not a warrior. I’ll leave that to them. I’ve done my bit,” Persephone stated.
“But you beat six demons by yourself. You aren’t afraid of them.”
“Neither are they, not anymore.”
“They haven’t faced them yet,” countered Martina, a good point Persephone had to admit. Still, the girl thought far more of her than she really was.
“I’m not a warrior,” she insisted.
“You’re a fighter, at least on the inside and you…” Martina paused, trying to figure something out. “You seemed a step ahead of them.”
Persephone nodded. “I get a sense of things. It’s nothing serious or clear cut, but I can pick up someone’s intentions,” she revealed. “When feelings are strong or focused, I can feel it. I’m no mind-reader; those demons were clear in their threat without an extra sense. But I sort of knew, no, felt what each intended as they came.”
“Another benefit of living in a bizarre area?”
“Probably. Also of growing up in a dangerous place, you need to see a threat coming or you won’t survive. I did.”
“I’m sure you will again if you confront the demons,” declared Martina.
“I will, but I don’t intend to confront them. I’ve had a nasty enough life as it is. Now is my time of peace,” Persephone announced. Martina gave a nod and led her brother away, back to their home.
TO BE CONTINUED…..