Malisa’s cabin was, structurally, identical to at least two or three of the little huts in Fertheaux proper. Four oak posts at the corners, set deep into the packed dirt foundation, supported four oak beams in a square. A shallow gable roof of tar and thatching was stretched across rafters that were supported by those beams. The walls were closed in with wooden planks, weathered and chipped and imperfect. It was a simple design that had served Orlan farmers well for centuries.
A wizard is trained to see things, first, as a builder might. For the purposes of a shelter, the foundations, beams, and posts are the crucial elements that hold up the coverings that shelter a person from the wind and cold. To understand things in this way is the first step to understanding how magic affects things. There are crucial elements beneath everything. Categories might be one’s foundation, and relations and exceptions the columns and beams. Or in another school of magic, they might set their columns of motion into a foundation of location, supporting beams of continuum. The metaphor is getting stretched here, but hopefully it makes sense.
Malisa, some time ago, had taught me a new way of seeing things, starting with her cabin. For all of the ways it was similar to the huts of Fertheaux, it was different in equally important ways. For one, it was two leagues south of the town. Which sounds obvious, but that dissimilarity tends to escape one’s first analysis. It was well within the forest, and as a result, its walls and roof served a slightly different purpose. Where a peasant’s hut might keep out the sun and wind, Malisa’s was primarily a barrier against predators and falling branches. A peasant’s hut was meant to be kept clean and presentable and was a symbol and a channel for the relationship between the peasant and the rest of the town. Malisa’s, instead, was mostly meant as a symbol of her relationship with the woods and the world. It also symbolized her relationship with the town insofar as it took two hours of bushwhacking to get here.
But listen to me babble on. Just because I have all the time in the world doesn’t mean that you do. Let me get to the point.
I stood before the cabin, boughs arching overhead and midday light filtering through the lattice of leaves and branches. Malisa opened the front door as a breeze rustled through the branches above. She was as tall as I was—we saw eye-to-eye, physically speaking—and had an oddly pale complexion set with slightly bagged eyes and framed with wispy jet black hair. She looked younger than I was, but truthfully, she might’ve been older. Far, far older. She wore a simple, practical black gown down to her ankles.
At her side was something that was not a demon.
“That’s not a demon,” I noted.
“Ha!” came Mal’s reply, in her airy voice. “How generous of you, Howe.”
The not-demon clung to her gown.
“I, uh…” I stammered, realizing how rude I was being. “Hello, Mal. May I come in?”
“You may,” she smiled, “but it’s a fine day and a small room and I’d rather be out here if you don’t mind.”
She led the three of us around back, to a small grassy patch in the sunlight featuring a huge tree stump. The great oak had fallen in a storm years ago, and she had carved out the stump into a seat. Various fungi speckled the remaining two feet of old bark. She motioned for me to have a seat, and she plopped down in the grass across from me with her not-demon.
I lowered myself onto the stump and took a good, long look at not-demon. It was the size and shape of a male human child of roughly ten years, lanky and scrawny, quite unlike any demon I knew. It wore a faded blue tunic, belted around the waist by a strip of leather. It had ruddy red skin, solid black eyes devoid of any visible irises or pupils, a mop of mud brown hair, and a pair of goat-like horns set just above its brow and arcing back past its head. Its eyes blinked nervously, I thought.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, ensconced in the sounds of the forest. Mal was watching me. Her dark eyes were fixed on my face. Waiting. She was intensely curious as to my reaction to this situation. Was this the life or death moment?
I guess I was afraid of disappointing Mal, so I screwed up my face with curiosity to hide my concern and began with the most neutral opening I could imagine.
“Mal, what is this?”
That disappointed Mal.
“Howe.” She rolled her eyes reproachfully. “He. Who is he, you might ask.”
I felt my face redden and crossed my arms. “Then maybe you should have introduced us.”
“Fair.” She laid her hand on the not-demon’s shoulder and smiled. “Howe, this is Aalduzinaht. He goes by Naht. He’s ten years old and is fond of goat’s cheese.” She turned to the not-demon and gestured toward me with her free hand. “Naht, this is my old friend Horwendell. He’s a wizard from the Lord’s Court. I call him Howe, but you should probably call him Horwendell until you get to know him better.”
I stammered, trying and failing to pick one of the various implications to address. “I, um, Mal…”
She cut me off with a look, and then I remembered and recovered. “Naht. Well met.”
Naht nodded shyly.
“I’m sorry about my manners,” I added. “I had a long journey here.” A lame excuse, but better than nothing.
“That’s better!” chimed Mal. She seemed to sit up a little straighter. “Now, I know you have questions. Let’s hear them.”
I spilled over. Again. When someone tells me to talk, I have a bad habit of barreling forward. “Is Naht who I think he is? I mean, what I think he is.”
“Probably. What do you think?”
“He’s an Accursed.”
“Yes,” replied Mal. “But that can be kind of a vague word. What do you think?”
I had known it from the moment he had stepped out into the light, but my worried, weary, and racing mind had taken a while to find the words and my scattered knowledge on them. The Accursed are, emphatically, not demons. Demons are one type of what wizards call transcendent entities. Put simply, they are things from elsewhere. They transcend their normal mode of existence (which we conceptualize as a place: the Abyss) to arrive in ours. The Accursed, however, are very much from here. They are mortals who are born and die. But to human eyes, they look an awful lot like demons.
As a result, people tend to treat them like demons.
Why the Accursed bear demonic markings like they do (unusual skin tones, solid-colored eyes, horns, tails, bony chin and fore ridges) is a matter of some debate among the people interested in knowing the reason. What is mostly agreed on is that each Accursed is the direct descendant of a demon. Demons, being soulless, loveless, and bloodthirsty monsters that they are (their natural disposition in our world is something like that of a rabid dog, if the dog were on fire), seem like they shouldn’t be able to reproduce with humans. But legends and local tales abound of shapeshifting demons that seduce humans with otherworldly beauty and bear offspring that are left behind in the mortal world: the Accursed.
But the agreement ends there, and those who study arcana have famously acrimonious debates over the rest. How, exactly, is it that demons can reproduce with humans, even when shapeshifted? Do the Accursed possess souls like their human parents, or are they devoid of them, like demons? If they do possess souls, are they promised to the demon after death? Are the Accursed subject to the call of demonic evil? Are the human parents always male? Are they always female? Alternating, perhaps?
I had never had a horse in this race. In my work I would occasionally come across a missive or a book where some theologian would make a subtle snide comment about some court wizard’s pet theory on the matter, I would chuckle at their petty passions, and then I would move on.
But now I had to answer Mal’s question.
“I don’t, Mal. I don’t know. I’ve never… you know, met one before.”
Naht was glancing back and forth at the two of us. I met his eyes, kindly, I hoped, but he looked away. Mal leaned back onto her hands.
She wasn’t leading me anywhere with this conversation. She was letting me think it through. She wanted to know what was going on in my mind, rather than fill it in herself. Why?
“Mal,” I started. “I got your letter, but also… the Reeve suspects something. Henri sent me.”
Mal shifted uncertainly. “It was a matter of time. What do you intend to do?”
I sighed. “Mal, what is this all about? Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“No,” she said. “Not really. Not just yet. Howe, I mean to ask a huge favor of you. I don’t want to pressure you into it, and I don’t want to bring you along with me only for you to get cold feet in a few days because you agreed without thinking it through.”
I stroked my beard distractedly. “Come on, Mal. I’m not just a grown man. I’m an old man. You don’t need to protect me from myself.” For the first time in the conversation, I felt like I had a real point.
Mal smiled at that. “Sure. You’re right. I just have one question. If I asked you to trust Naht, would you?”
I blinked. “What? If you asked me to trust any random ten-year-old kid, would I?”
She laughed. It was warm and kind… and relieved. “Good enough.” Then her eyes narrowed. “Wait. was that a goat joke?”
“No! No no no. Wow, no, sorry, I’ll try not to…”
She couldn’t keep up the act, and her smile broke through. “Pfft. Don’t worry, Howe. He’s heard a lot worse.”
I scratched the back of my head. “Oh. Um. Yes.”
“So,” she began, sitting up. “How would you like to help Naht find a new body?”