By Rodello Santos
As Queen Liwana stood upon her silver tower, she imagined the night sky as a dark ocean anointed with a multitude of twinkling pearls. Her soul was attuned to the firmament, to its celestial tempo and the passing of seconds and seasons. And yet…even with this awareness, the time of reckoning that she’d dreaded so long had stolen upon her.
She briefly considered playing with the stars, stirring them with a finger, and resettling them as she willed. I could fashion a constellation of myself, she thought. The Old Idiot Woman, it would be called. She laughed, a small cackle that crawled into her throat and died.
In all the Countless Isles, the most powerful spirit-talkers, babaylan healers, and mananambal ritualists had bowed to her. In her lifetime, she had achieved much good for her people: slain the Aswang Giant, tamed the moon-eating Bakunawa, vanquished the Undying Wights upon whose skins were written the names of all the children they had devoured. The list of her accomplishments ran long.
But the power she had attained had not come free. Tomorrow, the eve of the new year, Queen Liwana’s demonic debt collectors would come for her. The gambit she’d played as a young woman would finally come to a close and, likely, her life alongside it.
She wanted to blame her master, though he had passed away ages ago. Nothing risked, nothing reaped, he had drummed into her. True power can only come to one who dares.
And, oh, how she had dared. Her audacity could eclipse the sun.
She walked to the tower’s spiral stairway, began the long descent to her subterranean workchambers. At midnight she would face her past, and not all her warriors or potent magic would save her.
Thankfully, she still had her wits.
When the Seven Circles, described in salt, had been writ upon the ground, and the Guarding Glyph blazed upon each of the million, white sampaguita petals that comprised her robe, the only thing left for Queen Liwana to do was wait.
Given the chance, she wondered if she would do it all again. Possibly. Power was a formidable addiction. Regret bled into her thoughts, and dark fear as well.
Compose yourself, woman. The slightest tremble in her hand, the merest tremor in her voice, could unravel the stratagem she’d laid so long ago. If her enemies sensed any weakness, they would exploit it.
The scent of rot invaded the room. It was all the warning she received.
With a sound like skin being ripped, a smoking rift cleaved the air. Hantu Kubor, Lord Demon of the Grave, entered the chamber, his bones grinding and scraping against each other as he walked. A crown of curving horns grew directly out of his bare skull. His wide, shark-toothed grin betrayed his eagerness.
He stopped when he saw the circles of salt. The torches all around the chamber flickered and dimmed. Shadows pooled and darkness thickened.
“Liwana,” called Hantu Kubor, his voice echoing as if speaking through a well. “The time has come to pay for the gifts you’ve been given. Your circles and wards will not hold me back for long.”
She clasped her hands tightly to keep them still. She could hear the naked hunger in his rasping voice. Souls were food to demons, and a soul as great as hers would bestow immense strength to the devourer, even more than what was first invested.
She smiled. “My soul indeed was offered to you this day. But I suspect you cannot take it.”
The Gravelord’s shadow grew. Before he could speak, the torches flared, and a thunderous drone assaulted the air. A new presence pealed into existence, its mosquito-body as large as a water buffalo. Its face was disconcertingly human but for the faceted eyes shining like purple gems.
Liwana kept her voice expressionless. “Greetings, Hantu Dugo, Lord Demon of Blood.”
The Bloodlord looked at the first demon and his lipless mouth twisted in surprise. His wings thrummed, and his voice stabbed Liwana’s ears like an angry swarm. “Our pact must be honored. If you have summoned the Lord Demon of Offal to protect you, then you are a fool.”
The Gravelord snarled. “Summon me? Your ignorance shows! I have returned to collect what is mine…her soul.”
“Then your time is wasted,” the Bloodlord said, “for her soul is already promised.”
“Indeed it is,” whispered a choir of voices. Coldness swept through the chamber, so bone-deep that Liwana had to limn herself in protective fire. Out of the darkness slithered Hantu Ahas, Lord Demon of Elements. His lower half was that of a giant sea viper, green-scaled and swathed with jagged white rings. A dozen, icicle-fanged mouths covered his torso, forked tongues darting through each. Upon his face, where a mouth should have been, there was only smooth flesh.
The chamber shook and from the ground erupted a gigantic durian tree. The foul fragrance invaded the chamber, like a scavenger’s breath, and Liwana covered her mouth as the cloying scent nearly choked her. A bloated, old hag sat within the boughs of the tree. She popped a small durian–spiny husk intact–into her mouth and chewed the fruit whole.
“Time is up, my sweet wildflower,” Lady Batibat, Demoness of Rampant Life called down from her nest. When she saw the others, she leaned forward precariously and squinted at them.
Silence blossomed as the four demons glared at each other, confusion and hatred clear on their faces.
Liwana feigned a yawn. “Alas,” she said. “Old age has withered my memory. Did I truly sell my soul to each of you, to be given up this very day? I apologize, but surely you can work this out amongst yourselves.”
“She came to me first!” the Bloodlord buzzed. The queen knew this to be true, but she heard uncertainty in the Bloodlord’s voice.
“Insect!” the Gravelord said, jabbing the air with a skeletal finger. “She was wise enough to come to the mightiest amongst us, and we all know it is me!”
“Liesss,” hissed Hantu Ahas.
They fell silent when Lady Batibat giggled, a chilling, heartless sound. The demoness smirked at Liwana. “You are clever, little flower. Too clever.”
Hantu Ahas rose upon his coils. “Enough. She is mine, and I shall take her.” The words had barely left his fanged mouths when thorned vines broke through the ground and wrapped around him.
The Bloodlord flew up till he was level with Lady Batibat. “You’ll not snare me with your tendrils, gluttonous witch.” The branches of the durian tree came protectively between them.
Throughout their exchange, Liwana held her breath. If the four worked together, they could shatter through her circles and glyphs, take and divide her soul amongst them. But what her younger self had hoped for was coming to pass: that the demons’ natural greed and animosity would never allow an alliance. Nor would they ever permit another to take what they believed was theirs. It was an equilibrium of demons.
For a while the demons blustered amongst themselves. A few magicks were volleyed–dragonflies of fire, a hail of jagged bone–more warning shots than actual assaults.
The hours dripped by, but Liwana did not let her hopes rise too high. Demons were chaotic, she knew, and chaos suffered from no lack of surprises.
The part of her that was attuned to the heavens told her the day was nearly spent, that the new year was rising. No sooner had the thought come, when her worst fear was realized. From the boughs of Lady Batibat’s tree, three blue doves burst into flight. Each flew to a Lord Demon and cooed a hushed message.
The Bloodlord spat fire scorching his dove to cinders, and Hantu Ahas simply grabbed his dove and shoved it into one of his open mouths.
But, to Liwana’s horror, the Gravelord stood still and listened. His skull turned to where Lady Batibat sat, and he gave the tiniest of nods and glanced to his right.
In an explosion of movement, he and the demoness launched a fierce attack on the Bloodlord. Thorned tendrils lashed out, and arrows of bone whistled through the air. The Bloodlord dodged what he could, spitting fire at the tendrils that came too close.
Fear tightened Liwana’s breath. Even two working together could spell doom for her.
A bone arrow tore through the Bloodlord’s wing and he struggled, futilely, against falling. The instant he struck the ground, thick vines wrapped him in a choking embrace. They tightened, and the Bloodlord screamed. Yellow ichor oozed out between the vines.
Hantu Ahas hissed, charged at the Gravelord, tackling him to the ground. The two demons writhed, the Gravelord struggling savagely against the serpentine coils that constricted around him.
Liwana heard giggling and spun to see Lady Batibat.
“Now, little flower, you shall taste torment.” The demoness hurled a storm of thorns and splinters against Liwana’s defenses. The missiles crashed against the invisible barriers of the Seven Circles, but each blow reverberated painfully through Liwana’s mind. The queen flung gouts of flame at the durian tree, but though the wood smoked, Lady Batibat’s attack did not relent.
One by one, the Seven Circles began to break.
When only one barrier remained, Liwana launched a last desperate wave of fire at her foe. Lady Batibat shrieked out in terrible pain. The tree blazed, an inferno with the demoness caught in its heart. The hail of thorns ceased the same moment Lady Batibat’s shrieks did.
Liwana was down on one knee, though she did not remember falling. Movement, caught at the corner of her eye, made her turn. The Gravelord, his skull cracked and many ribs broken, lifted the lifeless serpentine body of Hantu Ahas. With a loud bellow, the Gravelord hurled his fallen foe at Liwana.
The final Circle shattered.
“My soul is my own!” Liwana shouted. “You shall not have it.”
The Gravelord gnashed his teeth and advanced. His bones grated noisily as he walked, a noise like boulders being crushed.
Liwana threw wind and flame, wood and scalding smoke, but for all the damage she did to the Gravelord, his inexorable march did not slow. “I am coming,” he said. “I am coming for your soul.”
She surrounded him in blinding sunlight, but he rallied the shadows and clad himself in smothering darkness. She bound him in ice, but a nimbus of black fire thawed him free.
And then he was there. His fist struck out, a blow so powerful that all the Guarding Glyphs of Liwana’s robes winked out at once. The demon smiled down to where Liwana lay on the ground. “You are fortunate your magic absorbed my blow, else you would be dead before me.”
“I’m not dead yet,” Liwana cried out.
Liwana scrambled back. “Of the myriad powers you granted me, I treasure now my attunement with the heavens.”
“Three,” Liwana responded.
The Gravelord paused, bewildered.
Understanding made the demon flinch.
“One,” said Liwana.
He reached out to gather her soul…but nothing happened.
“The new year has come,” she said. “Our bargain was for you to collect my soul yesterday. Your opportunity has passed, and your claim over me is gone!”
The demon stepped back. “I am immortal. I shall find my revenge another way.”
Queen Liwana rose to her feet. “Perhaps. Until that time, be gone from my sight.”
The air tore open, and the Gravelord stepped through, retreating to his home in the World Beneath. He did not look back.
For a long while Liwana stood there, allowing herself to tremble. Weariness made her limbs heavy, but beneath it was an overwhelming sense of relief. She glanced around, saw the three fallen demons. She assumed they were all dead, but as she came upon where the Bloodlord lay mummified in thorned vines, she heard his buzzing voice.
“Help me,” he whispered. “Free me.”
“I…I should kill you now,” she said.
“No! No! Perhaps we can come to some bargain?”
Queen Liwana did not answer, not right away.
Tags: Rodello Santos