Beyond the wastes of the Jeen, where the white sands breathe in irregular tides, a cleft splits the desert in two. The chasm descends to the center of the earth, perhaps deeper, and many demons make their despicable homes in nooks in the cliff face. Down its vastness, daylight vanishes behind mountains of stone, replaced by torchlight from parapets or ghastly radiances spilling from caverns.
In one such cavern lived the demon Atleiu. Her home blazed with corrupted light, as if splendor itself had died. Living metalwork squirmed from angled walls, columns dripped orange syrup into stone pools, and gold, everywhere there was gold.
Atleiu, a serpentine beast with a hairy insectoid head, sat on her radiant throne, her long black tail trailing away like a river of oil. Beside her writhed Mielbok, the Billion-Toothed Maggot, his two pink eyes rheumy with pus.
“You’re an artist, my Lady,” Mielbok said.
“Is there any other kind of demon?” Atleiu said.
“Oh, yes. Have you visited the ice-caves of Roi where the single-horned Jarwhal dwell? Those demons could freeze a continent with their breath, but instead they mesmerize themselves with their crystal creations. No, you’re truly an artist, my Lady.”
“You flatter me today, Mielbok. What is it that you seek?”
“Well, there’s one thing. Your latest prize...when you’re done tormenting it, may I eat its mind? The taste of one who’s gone mad from suffering is a delicacy beyond compare.”
“And the taste of one who suffers is my only source of sustenance. You speak of artistry, Mielbok, but you’d have me destroy my greatest creation—”
“No, not until—”
“Mielbok! I’ll keep this one alive long past its paltry life span, savoring its agony until the stars begin to fade.”
Mielbok blinked twice, and his endless circles of teeth jiggled nervously. “As you wish, my Lady. I didn’t mean to offend.”
“Mielbok, you mock the Jarwhal, but you’re twice as pathetic. Look how you hover about me, hungering for what’s mine. Find your own souls to torment!”
“I’m by nature a parasite, my Lady. If not at your heels, then someone else’s.”
Lit by the corrupted glow of the cavern, a tented palanquin floated before the entrance to the cave, bobbing in the warm air. A wizened old man with a long beard and haunted eyes threw the palanquin’s door open and strode onto the stone floor.
“I seek consort with the demon Atleiu!” the man shouted.
Atleiu studied this brazen figure. Human, but not of the rabble that filled the world with their self-righteous stench. And though his brown robes were those of the desert-roaming paupers, in his hand he held a purple Rubric orb, a magical token worth the price of a city.
“Who dares speak my forbidden name?” Atleiu said, and the mountains shook.
“I am Delmar Tivgee of the Quog Bedu,” the man said. “You have my son, Pieter, and I have come to reclaim him!”
Atleiu laughed, the sound of asps hissing. Mielbok joined her, coughing up a bit of brain he had swallowed earlier.
“How brave of you, little man,” Atleiu said, licking her lips. “How you’ve ached and longed for this day of redemption. Such a pity it shall all be for naught.”
Delmar raised the Rubric orb in his fist. “You are hasty!” He chanted in an ancient tongue and the orb glowed like a sun. “Die demon!” he said as he heaved the orb at Atleiu.
Atleiu caught the orb in her clawed hand. She turned it over, studying its brilliance. But she grew quickly bored and crushed it to powder; its light winked out.
Color fled Delmar’s face as fast as it had the orb. He stood silent and trembling. Mielbok peeked out from behind the stone pedestal where he had fled.
“I’m impressed, Delmar Tivgee. How much wealth did it take to acquire that Rubric orb? How much study to learn its ancient tongue? You’re not an ordinary man, Delmar.
“Now I understand the power of my prize. I’ve captured the son of a mage. No wonder his suffering is so profound! Having studied the magic arts, he believed himself invincible. I’ve proved otherwise, haven’t I? Truth is a hard thing to bear, especially among the young.”
“But, the orb...h—how...?” The man threw whispers into the stale air, the life in his eyes shattered with the orb.
“I am older than your Rubric orb,” Atleiu said. “Older than the ashen wastes of the Jeen. I was ancient when the river that carved this chasm was but a trickle on volcanic mud. I know things that if spoken would destroy your mind. Come back, Delmar Tivgee, when you possess a real challenge. Until that time, your son awaits.”
Delmar stumbled backwards onto his palanquin, and the vessel drifted up and away into the shadows.
Mielbok resumed his place at Atleiu’s side.
“You’re a coward, Mielbok. A pitiable excuse for a demon.”
“Pardon me, my Lady, but I’m not as wise or as strong as you. The orb would have destroyed me.”
“Tell me, my Lady, why did you allow that human to flee? Shouldn’t you have bound him in suffering as you have his son? Or killed him outright for challenging you?”
“My reasons are twofold. First, Delmar is a man of power among his nomad people. Word of his failure will spread my renown as an indomitable foe.”
“Delicious!” Mielbok said, smacking his lips. “Their bards will spread his tale of woe with every barter and trade.”
“And second,” she continued, “when I tell the boy of his father’s failure, he’ll suffer incalculable torments. I’ll feast on his agony! The father will return. And again, he’ll fail. With each defeat their suffering will grow, as will my pleasure. And when I tire of this game, I’ll hang the father beside the son and savor their agony until the end of time.”
“Magnificent! You’re a genius, my Lady!”
“And you’re a fool, Mielbok! Now, come, I’ve a tragedy to tell a boy. We’re going to feast well tonight!”
“Well,” Mielbok said, “you are.”
In the hindmost chamber of Atleiu’s lair, a thousand bodies suffered abominations. Prisoners hung on the walls and high ceilings, outstretched arms and ankles bound with knotted snakes of liquid gold. By natural means these souls would have died eons ago were it not for the amber jelly pumped into their veins to daily rejuvenate them.
There were many species here, though most were human, the animal with the greatest capacity for suffering. Nearly all of her prisoners had gone mad—Mielbok savored the smell of their unhinged minds—but a few still clung to the thinning thread of sanity. Atleiu kept the sane ones near, feasting on their torments as they wrestled nightly with madness.
The prisoners begged for mercy—promised friends, wives, children, or their very souls in exchange for release. But Atleiu ignored their muffled pleas as she and Mielbok approached her prized trophy, the boy Pieter.
Like the others, Pieter’s ankles and arms were bound in gold. Atleiu had placed him upright on a pedestal in the center of the vaulted chamber. She flayed his limbs with pendulous flicks of her fingernail. His shredded muscles bled into deep pools set about the pedestal’s base. The boy shrieked and shuddered and lost consciousness. When he awoke, she told him the story of his father’s failure.
The boy sobbed and dropped his head. Atleiu swallowed his agony and quivered with ecstasy.
Weakly, the boy said, “You underestimate...my father. He will...destroy you.”
“I savor your optimism,” Atleiu said. “Each time your hopes are defeated, your suffering grows. Your pain is ambrosial.”
“Then...I...shall not suffer...for your sake.”
“I think you’ll find, Pieter, son of Delmar, that it will be more difficult than you can possibly imagine. Do you see that wretched thing up there?”
She pointed with one bleak finger toward an apse in the ceiling where a withered human moaned.
“Sixty-five thousand years ago that soul crossed me. He’s been hanging there since. When you cling to your hope for redemption, think of him.”
The boy shuddered and passed out again, and the amber jelly began its dark work of repairing his body.
Atleiu, sated, left the drooping boy.
Mielbok slithered after her. “As I said, my Lady, you’re an artist!”
Sleepily, she said, “Perhaps I am.”
“There is one thing, however.”
“What do you want, Mielbok?” She yawned, her breath a small holocaust.
“You’ve feasted well, but I drool for a broken mind.”
“Good for you.”
“Please! I’m hungry, my Lady!”
“Then find something to eat, pus-brain! The city of Ghru is one day’s journey away. Surely you can find a mad beggar there to feast upon.”
“But I’m weak with hunger. And you have so many mad minds here. Would you miss but one?”
“Mielbok, you pathetic thing!” She pointed to a tawny-skinned woman pinned to the wall. “Take that one. She’s been insane for ages, and her suffering no longer sates me.”
“Of course, my Lady! You’re a most gracious host!”
“This is the last, Mielbok. Never again.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“And don’t leave a mess.”
“Now get out of my sight, worm!”
Mielbok approached the bound woman and raised his fore-section off the ground to sniff about her head. The woman stared back in terror, whispering nonsense. He bit into her skull.
“Thank you!” the woman said. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Mielbok engulfed her head, and her muted thanks buzzed through his translucent flesh. She fell silent as he bit off her head at the neck.
Meanwhile Atleiu had spread herself on a granite plinth and fallen asleep. Her snores were like the cries of lost souls in the desert.
“Mielbok...Mielbok!” the boy said.
Mielbok swallowed the last of the woman—her hand—and licked ichor from his lips.
“Be quiet!” Mielbok said. “You’ll wake the Lady, and she’ll make you suffer again!”
“She sleeps...,” the boy said, “...for ages. She’ll not wake.”
“Such is her way. What’s it to you?”
“She inflicts pain...to her victims. I am one. But what are you?”
Mielbok blinked several times. He inched closer to the boy. “Do you question me, Mielbok, the Billion-Toothed Maggot?” He raised himself and exhaled foul breath into the boy’s face.
“No! You’re a great demon, no doubt,” Pieter said, blinking away tears from Mielbok’s hot breath. “Of much renown. So why...do you let her torment you as she torments her prisoners? You deserve better...O great worm.”
Mielbok paused a beat. “You want me to eat you, huh? To end your misery too?”
“No. I want to end yours.”
Mielbok stared at the boy. “I’m Mielbok the White Worm! Mielbok the Foul! Mielbok the Eater of Minds! What can you do for me, human? Quiet yourself, before you wake the Lady. She’ll make a mockery of you!”
“She’ll sleep for days, Mielbok. But I’m here. I can help you. You just have to listen.”
“You don’t understand,” Mielbok said. “To me, you’re just food not yet ripe. A fruit just waiting to be plucked!”
Mielbok moved to the exit of the chamber, but before he left he paused by the entrance to glance back at the bound boy.
The sun didn’t reach this far down the chasm, and time moves strangely in perennial shadows. Days or years might have passed before the wizened man returned on his floating palanquin. He stepped onto the stone floor and raised his palms to the ceiling. He shouted angry words towards the heavens. The air swirled with summoned winds, and lightning forked from his fingers. Two black spheres appeared beside him. Smoke roiled about them. The spheres inflated into oval portals, beyond which lay a desert under a spray of stars.
Warriors rushed through the gates, men and women with flashing scimitars and arrows of fire. Mielbok leaped behind a stone as a fireball hurtled through one gate and crashed against the wall above his head. It exploded into cinders.
Atleiu sat on her pedestal and watched calmly as Delmar the mage chanted spells. The soldiers’ bodies glistened and throbbed with magic. Sweaty swordsmen stepped up to the throne, and she severed them with one flick of her fingernail. Flaming arrows arced through the air, but reversed course an instant before striking her and impaled the breastplates of the archers who had fired them.
As more warriors entered the chamber, another fireball leaped from the portal. Atleiu raised her hand and it froze in mid-flight. She caressed the flaming ball as a fortune-teller might, cooking it until it was white hot and blinding. She heaved it back through the portal, and everything in its path was incinerated. The desert exploded as the fireball struck a catapult, but the sound abruptly stopped as the portal collapsed.
Atleiu opened her palms to the sky, and a hundred sharpened spikes sprung from the floor, skewering the warriors. Those who had not yet come through the second gate saw the ensuing horror and retreated.
The air swirled with ash and smoke, and the portal sparked with lingering magic. Dead soldiers littered the floor. The dying lay moaning on spikes. The battle, from start to finish, had lasted less than a minute.
Delmar stood in the center of the carnage. His hands fell to his sides. On the other side of the portal, warriors sprinted away into the desert night.
“All this death for one boy?” Atleiu said. “Is his small life worth all this? How many of those warriors had families, children, futures, Delmar? You robbed them of that for your selfish reasons.”
“You! You robbed them! I carry no blame.”
“Oh, but you do. They did this for you, Delmar, and your son.”
“They are...they were of my tribe. To the Quog Bedu, every member is family. They died for me, as I would have for them.”
Atleiu gestured to the open portal where voices cried and fires burned. “I doubt very much they would die for you again.”
Delmar stumbled backwards. “You will not win. I will defeat you.”
“No, you won’t.”
He retreated to his palanquin. “I will return.”
“I hunger for it.”
The portal snapped closed as the palanquin floated away.
Atleiu, eager to convey this latest failure to the boy, retreated to her suffering gallery. Mielbok crawled out from his hiding place to follow her.
“You make a brave demon,” she said to Mielbok. “So bold and adventuresome!”
“I’m still learning, my Lady. One day I shall be as powerful as you.”
“Ha! No wonder you’ve been named the Billion-Toothed! You speak nonsense and lies!”
“The moniker is not a metaphor, my Lady.”
“Shut up, Mielbok.”
Atleiu told her story to Pieter, exaggerating the most gruesome aspects for savory effect.
“All this death,” she said. “Because of you.”
“Yes,” the boy said, hanging his head. “It’s my fault. I snuck away from the caravan...to hunt for jewels...in the night sands. I disobeyed my father.”
“And now look how many people have died in your name.”
“Too many.” When his sobs stopped he said, “Why...why do you bring such suffering into the world?”
“It is my nature.”
“It is vile.”
“But it’s your nature too!”
“Never!” Pieter said. “I’m nothing like you.”
“Aren’t you? Everything that lives causes another to suffer. How many animals have you slaughtered? A hundred, a thousand? And as the son of a mage, you know that plants feel just as much as animals, perhaps more.”
“That’s not the same. Food is a necessity. Without it, we’d—”
“Die? Then we are the same. I eat to live. As a Bedu, you’ve used camels to carry burdens, milked them to sustain your desert journeys, and when food ran scarce, you slaughtered them for meat. Do they not suffer for you?”
“But an animal, it doesn’t have the same capacity to suffer as a human.”
“Absolutely correct,” she said. “Which brings us full circle, doesn’t it?”
The boy turned away from her. “My father will come,” he said. “He’ll save me.”
“Good! Keep hoping! I’ll milk your cycles of hope and despair like you milked your camels. Now, sleep beckons me!”
And she did sleep, for a small age.
After many years, Delmar returned. His beard had grown, his skin had wrinkled and turned gray, and his eyes had vanished. In their place were sunken hollows that glowed with hoary light.
Atleiu leaned on her throne, while Mielbok rose up and shouted, “Do you dare challenge my Lady again, human?”
Delmar stepped forward and fell to his knees. “No...no, I don’t.”
Mielbok glanced at Atleiu, but she remained placid.
“Then why are you here?” Mielbok said.
“I’ve traveled the onyx wastes of the Jeen,” Delmar said, “and spoken to the destroyers of cities, the no-things that dwell in the most barren of deserts. They wouldn’t help me, for what can you give creatures that savor emptiness alone? I crafted a merkabah chariot and rode its pyramidal shell beyond this sphere to the icy rocks that drift in the blackness of space. The tentacled Ygg that dwell there are older than this Earth, and I gave them my eyes in return for their favor. But they tricked me, and cast me, blind and stumbling, out of their kingdom. I found my way home by following the warmth of the Earth against the night.
“I sought out Karad and its city of black giraffes. The avatar of the goddess Mollai dwells in Karad’s perfumed gardens. I waited years for an audience with that bejeweled divinity. Oh, the unbreakable word of Mollai! She told me that I should give up hope, that I would never see my son freed...
“I have traveled the four corners of this Earth and beyond, drowned myself in drink, gone blind, touched madness, and have not found a way to defeat you. So I’ve come for your mercy. Allow me to take the place of my son. Surely you can see that my capacity for suffering is greater than his, for I have endured so much pain.”
At this Atleiu finally spoke. “Your offer is flawed. You’re a man of power and wisdom. You can mitigate your suffering in ways the boy cannot. No, you’re not a worthy replacement.”
“Please. Is there something...anything that is?”
“Another soul, perhaps.”
Delmar stared. “Another?”
“Someone who is capable of greater suffering than your son.”
Delmar lapsed into a trance, contemplating. A moment later he threw his hands to his face. “Look at me! For a moment I considered your proposition! To willingly inflict suffering on another human being for my own selfish relief! What a monster I’ve become! A drunkard and a beast! As low as you!” Delmar sobbed into his hands.
Atleiu sat up in her chair. “No,” she said. “You haven’t become anything. You’ve always been like this. It just took my cajoling to help you see. Pity that you had to go blind before you could glimpse the truth. Now cry, Delmar! Mourn the longed-for self that will never be! Your sorrow is my joy.”
Delmar wiped the tears from his face, hardened his jaw, and rose to his feet. “No! No, I’ll not give you the satisfaction. I am what I make myself.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“And look at what you’ve become, wretched, blind, groveling at my feet.”
Delmar trembled. “You play with words. This sick game must end. This will be my last visit.”
“If you so wish,” Atleiu said.
“I wish to see my son. To say goodbye.”
Atleiu rose. “I think that would please us both.” She gestured to Delmar, who preceded her into the rear chamber.
Mielbok followed them, whispering to Atleiu, “My Lady, do you remember what you said? About his last time—”
“Shut up, maggot!”
They entered into the cavernous rear chamber, with its unholy glow, its cacophony of mourning. When Delmar saw his son displayed in the center of the chamber he howled like a felled wolf. The prisoners turned their eyes towards him. Many laughed.
The boy lifted his head. “Father? Is that you?”
“Pieter, my son... Oh, Goddess Mollai! Why have you abided this horror?”
“Father...what happened to your eyes?”
“Never mind, son. I can sense you by other means.”
“I knew you’d come back.”
“Pieter, forgive me. You don’t deserve this.”
“But I did...I wandered away...I disobeyed you...I was hunting for jewels. I saw a strange snake in the sand...I followed it. It led me across a dune...and when I looked up...there was a black demon under the moon.”
“Pieter, my son, it wasn’t your fault. It was mine. I was drunk. I should have been watching you. Oh Mollai, how many nights did I poison my soul with the fruit of the palm?”
“Father, please...enough talk. Are you here to save me?”
“Mollai, forgive me. Yes, I’m here to save you. I love you, Pieter.” Delmar reached into his pocket and snapped his hand toward the boy. Metallic snowflakes hurtled toward Pieter, but an instant before they struck the boy, they froze.
“No!” Delmar shrieked. The boy gasped.
Atleiu stepped between father and son. “With your sight also went your wisdom,” she said. “Your motives are transparent, Delmar. Nothing will stop him from suffering at my hands.”
The metallic snowflakes clinked to the floor, and Atleiu smashed them with her tail.
“Father?” Pieter said. “Father....”
Delmar fell to his knees and dropped his head. “Oh, forgive me, son...forgive me....”
Atleiu raised her arms. Liquid gold snaked out from the walls and coiled around Delmar’s hands and feet. The mage offered no resistance as the snakes pulled him against the wall. Soon he was bound like all the others.
“Oh Mollai, oh Mollai, oh Mollai....”
Atleiu spasmed and squeaked with joy.
Atleiu stumbled drunkenly towards her plinth. “What a stupendous feast! Better than any in a thousand years! Mielbok, the taste of unmitigated sorrow! Such a delight! Can you imagine?”
“I’m glad you’re sated, my Lady.”
“You’re a fool, Mielbok,” she said. “You nearly spoiled my greatest meal by speaking out of turn! Keep your putrid mouth shut, or next time I’ll kill you.”
Mielbok bowed his head. “Of course, my Lady.”
“Mielbok, you look odd. Your skin has turned brown. Are you sick?”
“No, my Lady. Just very, very hungry. Soon I will—”
“You insipid worm! You can’t have one of mine! I told you, I’m done helping you. Now be gone!” She climbed onto to her plinth and was quickly snoring.
But Mielbok, enlivened by the encounter with the mage, browsed Atleiu’s suffering gallery, sniffing heads and imagining what each particular form of derangement tasted like. Yellow drool spilled from his lips onto their tattered scalps.
He overheard the boy and father speaking.
“I’m sorry, son...I just wanted to end your misery!”
“You’ve apologized many times, Father. Please stop. I forgive you.”
“I have failed you, Pieter. I’m sorry.”
“Enough, Father! It will never be. We get what we deserve.”
“Deserve? You do not deserve this.”
“But don’t we? For all the suffering we’ve inflicted? The cities the Quog Bedu conquered, back in the ancient days. Did our ancestors not slaughter so that we could live? And the countless animals we’ve killed for food and clothing and shelter. How many things died for us?”
“We live according to our nature,” Delmar said.
“Which is as vile as this demon that binds us.”
“Neither vile, nor saintly. Do you remember when you found that man from Gelecek, lost and thirsty in the desert. What did you do?”
“I gave him water and shade.”
“You have compassion. That’s your nature. This beast, Atleiu, she’d leave that man to die. That is her nature.”
Pieter moaned. “It’s abhorrent.”
“No more than the buzzard that eats a carcass or the beetle that feasts on dung. That is their nature.”
“She’s worse than a dung beetle, Father!”
“In the great canvas of life she’s the same. She’s but a stroke of darkness. With the dark, the light shines more brightly.”
“Your metaphor is flawed, Father! A vulture is a stupid vulgar bird. A beetle has the brain of a mustard seed. But Atleiu is intelligent, conscious. She can choose!”
“She may stumble within her walls, but ultimately she is bound by her nature, as we are bound by her.”
“And us, Father? What are we in this grand canvas?”
“Me? I’m a failed wizard.... A drunkard. And you, you’re the victim of my stupidity.”
“I refuse to accept that! I choose to be more than just a victim!”
“You’re strong, Pieter. Stronger even than I’d hoped. But you must remember that nature is larger than us all.... It’s a force by which even the greatest wizard may fall.”
“You sadden me, Father.”
“Such is my legacy.”
“Sleep now, father,” the boy said. “Rest. This is the least of her torments.”
Mielbok overheard the entire conversation, and brooded on their words for a long time. But he could wait no longer, and slid off into a corner.
Atleiu awoke from an epic sleep and groggily called out for her companion. “Mielbok! Mielbok, where are you? I must tell you about my dream! I visited the dead cities that float within the gray mindspace of the thinking-kind! There was a human girl there. Her name was—”
The air was pungent and sour. “Something is different,” she said, sniffing. “There is—” she sniffed again— “a weight to the air. My steps are slowed....”
She traced the smell to a corner. Against the wall was a large brown sac, ribbed like the carcass of a felled beast. Milky goo dripped from a large wound, as if something had burst from the inside. One of Atleiu’s prisoners, still bound in its golden threads, was headless beside it. Dried blood garlanded the severed neck.
“What’s this?” she shouted. “Who defiles my chamber? Mielbok, you worm, is this your work?” She followed the trail of milky goo and found three more headless bodies nearby. “I promise, my little companion, I won’t kill you if it is!”
Something crunched and crackled behind a stone pedestal. She moved closer to investigate. Behind it crawled a giant, hairy insect with cloudy pink eyes and wings that shimmered green with oiled rainbows. Its body was as white as pus. “Hungry...so hungry...,” the insect moaned.
The insect gnawed on a human on the floor, its feet and hands missing; they were still bound to the wall beside it.
“Welcome!” the fly said, “to my feast!”
“Mielbok, is that you?” Atleiu said. “You’ve morphed from one repugnant shape to another!”
“Yes, Atleiu, it is me, Mielbok, the Billion-Toothed Maggot!”
Atleiu laughed, the sound of ancient walls toppling. “Your words were always larger than your bite, Mielbok. You’re not a maggot anymore, but a hairy fly. I lied to you, Mielbok. I am going to kill you!”
She whipped her tail around, and it sliced through Mielbok’s new body, pinning him to the human beneath. He squealed as yellow-white pus spilled from the wound.
“Did you think you could devour my prizes and buzz away unharmed? Nothing gets past me, Mielbok. You were always such a fool, a pitiable excuse for a demon.”
Mielbok’s tiny lips whispered, “I was...an ignorant child. But...I have grown.”
“You won’t be growing anymore.” She thrust her tail in deeper, splitting him in two. The halves tumbled away. Mielbok the fly sighed and went still.
The chamber was silent. “At last! Peace!” she shouted. “No more whining! No more begging! No more epic feats of cowardice!”
Pleased with herself, she moved towards Pieter, feeling hungry, but also weak. Liquid splattered on her forehead. She smelled blood and looked up. Above her, something clicked softly, like lips smacking. A body quivered in its bonds.
“What is it, Bethelda? Do you mourn the loss of the little white worm?”
The woman’s chest burst open. A pink muscle squirmed inside. No—not a muscle. A worm, with pink eyes.
“Oh, you devious little demon!” she said. “I’ll not abide you twice.”
A second chest exploded. A maggot wiggled inside of it too. A third and a fourth followed, then dozens every second. Out from each of a hundred bodies crawled a white, newly hatched maggot, with pink eyes.
“Life!” the maggots said; it was Mielbok’s voice, multiplied a thousand-fold. “Rebirth!” The buzzing voices knocked dust and stones from the ceiling. “We were hungry. But you would not feed us! You devour suffering. That is your nature. But we are a parasite, and this is ours!”
Atleiu’s glance darted around the chamber as more maggots hatched from chests and torsos. The white worms crawled up to the heads of their hosts and swallowed them.
“My gallery!” she said. “Mielbok, no matter your number, I’ll destroy every one of you!” She lifted her hands, and made elaborate gestures. The wind rose up and quickly died.
“You gain power from suffering,” Mielbok said, a thousand mouths dripping food. “But their suffering is ending. We are devouring them.”
“No, impossible!” Atleiu screeched, waving her hands, attempting magic. “You’re a pathetic little worm!”
“No, we are Mielbok, the Billion-Toothed Maggot. Our name is not a metaphor!”
Atleiu speared one maggot with her sharpened finger. It squealed and died. A dozen more leaped onto her body and chomped into her flesh. She screamed and flailed, and, screeching, ran from the chamber.
The maggots ate quickly, swallowing their hosts in seconds. Only seven humans remained. Without Atleiu’s power, the liquid gold binding them splattered to the floor and evaporated. Pieter tumbled free. He crawled toward his father, who was face down on the floor in a growing pool of blood.
Pieter turned him over. There was a hole in his stomach the size of a watermelon. The maggot within had gone elsewhere. Delmar’s breath was shallow and quick.
“Father!” Pieter said.
“My magic has failed. I can’t see! I can’t see!”
“Father, I’m here.”
“Oh, Mollai, grant me mercy!”
“I’ll not leave you, Father.”
“‘Give up hope!’ Mollai said to me. ‘You shall never rescue your son.’ She was right! I’ve failed him! I’m a failure! A drunkard! Oh, Mollai, kill me!”
“No, you are more! To me, you were always more!”
More maggots wormed their way up to Delmar. “So hungry,” they said. “We must eat the deranged wizard!”
Pieter cried, “Then eat me too!”
“No, you’re too sane,” the maggots said. “Your mind is not yet ripe. Move away.”
Pieter struggled, but the maggots overwhelmed him and devoured his father. Someone put their hand on Pieter’s shoulder, and the boy spun around. A haggard woman, hair ratty, scars across her naked body, stood before him. Behind her, five humans, the last of the sane, were crawling out of the chamber. “Come!” the woman said. “Before Atleiu returns!”
Pieter stood. “Not yet!”
He ran into her throne room, but the chamber was empty, save for a trail of oily blood that led into an adjacent chamber. He found Atleiu hiding in a corner behind tall red curtains. Shrunken to half her previous size, her wounds leaked blood onto the floor. She shivered and moaned as gnats nipped at her head and three maggots clung to her bleeding tail.
Pieter lifted a large stone. His arms were weak and his body shook as he hefted it above the demon’s head. “This is for my father!”
“Stop!” the maggots said. “Move that stone and you’ll die!”
The boy swung as the maggots leaped for him. He teetered and fell, and the stone crashed to the floor, missing Atleiu’s head by inches.
The boy cried, “No!”
The maggots climbed onto his chest. “She must live. She lives off of suffering, just as we live off madness. We are a parasite. Without her, we are nothing.”
“She deserves to die!”
“No,” Mielbok said. “She’s a product of her nature.”
“No! Nature fashions us, but it doesn’t control us! In every moment we choose what we are, what we will be!”
“How true! So you’d better run, Pieter, before I choose to eat you, regardless of how foul you will taste.”
Pieter struggled to his feet. “One day, I’ll return to kill her.”
“Such a waste, if that is your choice.”
The boy, bawling, fled the chamber.
Atleiu crawled from her hiding place. “Mielbok! I should thank you for saving me!” She wiped herself. “It seems you’re a worthy demon after all.”
A thousand maggots entered the room to surround her. In unison they said, “We’re hungry, my Lady, so very, very hungry.”