On top of a rickety wagon, a teenage girl eyed the last building still standing in the deserted town. Her driver, a balding old man with several extra joints in his arms, flapped his many elbows and the wagon—pulled by nothing—veered past two collapsed homes before shuddering to a stop in front of the lone building.
Judging by the broken sign creaking in the slight wind, the girl guessed the place used to be a tavern. It leaned to one side as though too weary to stand up, ready to collapse at the first strong gust. The door stood half boarded up, the windows the same. From the second story, broken windows stared bleakly down at her and on the ground, glass lay scattered like shattered tears.
The girl frowned and poked the scar seared into her forehead . It was made of two circles, one inside the other like a target’s ring. Her god had insisted this mission was urgent, but he’d failed to divulge what she must do once she arrived. A common occurrence.
Her driver grunted and stretched his arms; they resembled severely broken limbs until the many elbows merged into two human-like elbows again. With another grunt, he hefted himself down the wagon’s side and dropped to all fours. The girl tensed, one hand near her pigtails, the other poised as if it held a knife. However, the old man simply shook his body and reared to his feet like a normal human, except for a slight wobble.
He raised an unsteady hand to her. “Let me help you dow—” he stopped as she swung herself out and landed on the ground without a puff of gray dust.
“No need,” she said, making it eight words total since he’d picked her up that morning.
His elbows—now three—bobbed. A second later, so did his head; an apparent nod. He licked his lips and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his eyes expectant like a hopeful beggar who’d done a good deed.
She sighed and slid a slender knife out from the lumpy bag tied at her waist. Reaching up to the shorter of her two pigtails, she sliced a thumb’s length of a single strand and held it out. The old man’s eyes widened and expanded down into his cheekbones, the pupils dilating to the size of sausages. His elbows—now five—cupped together, the hands forgotten, dangling outward in awkward angles.
“Demon,” she began, naming the largest class in the Fallen Lands.
The old man’s leathery skin shivered and thinned. So thin, it resembled murky glass. Underneath, dark shapes shifted—the demon’s true form: a mix of collected energies. This demon only had a handful, its intelligence too poor to handle more.
The demon’s elbows flapped, its eyes fixated on that single strand of hair like a cat before it pounced. The girl raised an eyebrow, surprised by its patience. With such a prize in her hand, most demons would have attacked by now. Still, it was a demon, and one could never fully trust such a creature.
With her right hand, she placed her thumb on her nose and wrapped her fingers over her chin, effectively covering her mouth. The sign of her god. The demon threw up its elbows in terror and sank to its knees.
The two circles on her forehead flared, casting a small scarlet glow in the bleak twilight. “No harm.” Though muffled behind her hand, the command shot through the air. The strand of hair straightened like an obedient soldier.
The demon blinked up at her. Then it peered down at its limbs—still covered by the old man’s skin—and flapped them. When the limbs obeyed, the demon stood up, and a wide grin split over the old man’s forehead. A second later, it drifted down to the normal spot for a human’s mouth. She released the hair strand. It floated in the air, still ramrod straight. The demon eagerly scooped it up and cradled it in its hands like a priceless artifact.
The hair melted into its hands and she grimaced as the old man’s façade blurred and faded away, replaced by an image of her. The demon had her two blond pigtails—one flowing to her shoulder, the other haphazardly cut four inches shorter—and it had her coarse, patched-up shirt and travel-stained pants, though colored a dark green instead of the dull brown she wore. The scar marking her power was gone, and it had black eyes instead of her pale, blue ones. The face, however, actually looked youthful—like a normal fifteen-year old girl. The haunted look of pain, lines of stress, and forced maturity were nowhere to be seen.
She tightened her jaw and averted her eyes. The demon, meanwhile, bounced up and down, causing its pigtails to flap as much as its—currently two—elbows.
It dipped its head to the right. “Thank you, Servant,” it said in her voice, though it held a musical quality she had lost long ago.
She waved the demon away—it invoked too many broken dreams—and it loped off, its wagon forgotten in the wake of its new possession. She, on the other hand, took a deep breath and willed the stirred pain to return to its forgotten realm. She partially succeeded. Taking another deep breath, she faced the empty tavern again, her initial mission back on track.
She hoped this mission had a point. The last time her god had sent her to a tavern, he’d forced her to travel five days non-stop and fight through three hordes of demons in order to eat a new spicy pig dish. She had ended up hating it, which amused him greatly.
She kicked the scattered glass in annoyance. One sparkled red in the twilight and landed with its jagged edge pointed to the left. Hoping to have found a hint, she took two steps to the left and kicked the glass again. Red sparkled in the faint light and pointed to the upper left. She continued the process, following the red glass until she found herself at the back of the sagging building, standing beneath one forlorn tree that stretched toward the darkened sky. And not another clue in sight.
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