Big Echo

Critical SF

The Five Secret Truths of Demonkind

by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Read an interview with the author

I. It is said that by eating the flesh of the holy, you can extend your lifespan by hundreds of years, though no one has measured the exact correlation between the amount of meat consumed to the number of years gained.

What is not said is that holiness is its own disease. What is not said is that it changes the eater, prions and amygdala, and touches all that they touch or create thereafter.

In this way the race of demons may be corrupted.

The day cuts like diamond edge when I find the fortress.

It juts through the dust and parched soil like the skeleton of a beast long picked clean. Its legs are the scale of planet-trees, and they say its minarets hold vessels of unblemished virtue. What shape these vessels take is not known, though most speculate it must be children, for what other sentient thing is more innocent if not the young? I myself prefer to think of the vessels as books composed entirely of blank pages, for in emptiness there is the ultimate virtue: an absence of all sins, an ignorance of all vices.

The fortress appears every three and a half centuries, loping down thunder-bridges into view of the hungry earth. Many of my kind know the skies like the inside of their gullets, but they say they have never seen the fortress up there, and so conclude that it must have ways to camouflage itself, veil its presence like a bride covering her face.

So it is only during this brief rest, every three hundred and fifty years, that a hunt can be called and entry attempted. Thrice I have chased virtue’s fortress, twice I have missed its descent, and my purpose remains as fresh as the hour it was conceived. Human determination is corroded by time and generational forgetting. Mine endures.

Call it an asset; call it a liability. The grudges of my kind last forever, but so does our faith, our resolve. A promise made is kept for eternity.

From the ground, the fortress’ limbs are of unthinkable scale. Their surface has been seared by passage through stars, pockets of heat captured still, indentations where the voices of supernovae recite the apocrypha of their unmaking. There are nooks in the leg that mark where mortal hunters have stopped to rest, wearied by the climb; there are protrusions where their bones and armor hang in tatters, dead of starvation or the parasites that inhabit the fortress’ hide.

I pull on my gloves, seal the seams of my carapace, and call on my birthright.

At first touch there is spark, a static hum; in its passage through atmosphere and orbit the fortress has accrued its share of metallic elements. My gloved palms adhere and my carapace clings, even where it is so sheer there’s almost no friction. Magnetism is a magnificent thing, even if other demons have derided my ability.

The initial stretch is easy. Parasites down here are easy to ignore: they are small and harmless, their lures tuned to a shape and frequency not meant for my species. I pass unmolested, my progress upward a pleasant daydream of distant ground and a wine-lush sky. All is still, straightforward. I bend myself to the rhythm of the climb, the flex and pull of my sinews, the purity of exertion and strain.

The ghosts of demon-hunters past sleet by, caught in their eternal fall, always in terminal velocity long after their flesh has gone to smudges of gore and fistfuls of ash.

II. The relation between human and demon is an exact, linear map. This is inevitable. None can escape. Like time’s arrow, it travels in one direction only.

This is the story that is given: a hero must breach virtue’s fortress, and there prove their worth by conquest and riddle. Through this alone can humans be freed.

My first stop is at the fortress’ knee, where one of the parasitic species has made their nests. No herpetologist has baptized them with formal nomenclature, but those who know of their existence call them lilybirds. This is a misnomer, the creatures being reptilian rather than avian or floral. Still one can see the resemblance--in flight, they have the look of white lilies in bloom, that symbol of love between women in my native land. And for reptiles their faces are compelling, sharp sculpted planes and the most beautiful teeth.

I navigate for a place to sleep. Their nests are composed of the sharp things travelers have left behind: razors for shaving and cutting, knives for eating and killing, scissors and clippers and needles. This makes comfortable bedding for me and the lilybirds don’t mind; we are closer kin than I am to mammals, and I’ve brought a few items considered delicacies among their kind. I spread them out—triangular coins rich with longing, pearl torques thick with repressed want, skeins of copper wires that have absorbed a hundred crushed hopes.

When I’m up again, the host has come.

For me asleep and awake are binary states, no hypnagogia or any transitional phases. It has been the source of complaint for many lovers and enemies alike: hard to surprise me awake with a kiss, hard to get the drop on me with blade or bullet. At the first crackle of locusts, I’m already on my feet. As the host resolves into sentinel shape, I kneel and touch my wrists to my brow, the proper obeisance.

In a voice of scraping legs and blurring wings it says, “This is not a trajectory meant for your kind.”

Still bowing I murmur, “I’m aware it isn’t the conventional one, but I don’t believe it is prohibited. May I pass?”

Its insides buzz and swirl, a communion waltz. “It is not forbidden.”

Not the most enthusiastic endorsement, but at least not an attack. It reforms and dissipates, spiraling up to the fortress’ torso.

I bid the lilybirds farewell, wish them good hunting, and continue on.

The air thins this high up, clotting in the throat and mouth like old blood, garnished with the acid sourness of bile. I adjust. My organs are chameleons and I mold my pulmonary pathways to resemble those of lilybirds until breathing comes easily again and the air, if not sweet, is no longer unpleasant.

Ascent may not be measured by time or distance, and so I measure it with my kills: a flock of lion-wraiths with poison fangs and collateral manes, ten animated litanies trimmed in razors, a collective of calcified regrets. Throughout this the sentinel host visits me thrice more to ask the same question: Are you certain you wish to continue? Each time my answer is the same: Yes.

When I reach the fortress’ shoulder, the host is there one last time. It has taken on the shape of a wall, a shield, a sword. It does not inquire as to my resolve; it does not point out my will runs counter to convention.

The host is difficult to fight: uncountable targets, all too small. But I did not come entirely in recklessness—my birthright is uniquely suited to fending them off. I call upon it now.

I leave the host a hill of charred husks, a funnel of black smoke, and enter virtue’s fortress.

III. This is a story you all know: a mortal angers their creator—a small offense, it does not matter what—and in return is abandoned by the god. A curse begins, poisoning the air and the sky and the grass.

What humanity hates they are made to become.

The fortress’ cranium is not as I imagined it. The floor is alabaster, the walls bleached bone. It is not ordinary but neither is it the grandest I have seen, the most fantastic. No sound accompanies me save my footsteps and the susurrus of water.

Thirsty from the diamond day and desiccated earth, that sound is what I follow.

Like the climb, the interior of the fortress does not answer to conventional dimension. Neither yardstick nor sensor would map the measurement of these undulating ceilings; no trigonometry can calculate the twisting and banking angles of the ground. Instead I count the frangipani petals. They drift from no canopy, but increase in size and frequency until the path before me is a landscape of funeral blossoms. When I reach a dead end there is a rain barrel, carved of chalcedony and filled to the brim. Within it a bowl floats, swirling gently in the water.

I understand the invitation. The inside of the bowl is whorled and convoluted, gray curlicues that make me think of a brain. The water tastes likewise, of inchoate philosophy and young dreams, nascent ambition and adolescent desire. Such are considered delicacies to a palate such as mine, just as the frangipani is a death flower where I come from.

When I look up, there is a woman dressed in white and yellow. Her face is a blank canvas; at the base of her throat is embedded a single immense eye. Mouths of varying sizes decorate her biceps, full-lipped and black-teethed. From the fragrance of her skin, the iridescence of her footprints, I know at once that what I’ve been drinking is not water at all but her blood.

“Greetings, creator of the world who turned her back on us, the one who gave us curse.” I look into that single eye, holding the gaze of our maker. “I have journeyed long and yearned longer. I have overcome each thorn you put in my path. God, I have come to devour you.”

IV. The secret truth of demonkind is not that they were once humans: that is evident, though only whispered about when necessary.

The secret truth of demonkind is not that they consume: that is evident, though not a matter for polite company.

The secret truth of demonkind—breathed by no one at all—is that what they eat, they become.

For the turns of a thousand hourglasses, the trajectories of a hundred moonsets, the faceless woman says nothing. The frangipani fall faster and faster around us, accruing in layers up to my ankles, to my shins, then my knees: soft and velvet-thick, fit to drown in.

The mouths speak, not in unison but one after another, one pair of lips enunciating a syllable and the next continuing. Nor do they possess the same voice: here a baritone, there a tenor, a contralto, a soprano. The sequence is calculated for harmony and the result is song, every word its own perfect fruit, every sentence an exquisite harvest. “It is known that this is the house of virtue, not the shell that holds divinity. What makes you believe I am God?”

I wish, faintly, that she had eyebrows, a nose. But her face is so empty it lacks even nasolabial folds, merely a sheath of skin over skull. There are ears at least in the locations that correspond to mine, but one may not read much expression from the helix and lobe, the tragus and scapha. All I have to go by is the eye, the mouths, and I wonder what this signifies. This lack of emphasis on listening, this stress on speaking and seeing. “I didn’t believe the stories.”

The eye blinks. It is an odd dialogue. One would think God would incarnate herself statuesque and imposing, blinding to look upon, an avatar of puissance. But she is slight, her limbs of average proportions, her bones birdlike. “Let us hear your reasoning, but first we will sit, for your height exhausts me.”

God’s parlor is all paper: the furniture, the servants, even the food. They serve origami frogs lightly crisped, origami duck tongues drenched in black soy, slabs of mulberry paper dusted in sugar. She eats with obligation, feeding the mouths paper morsel by paper morsel. On my part I eat my rations of sun-dried delirium and ginger.

“When did the curse infect you?” she asks. Her seat is higher than mine, positioned so we can look eye to eye.

“Sixteen. I read a book of poetry—the most beautiful verses, the most luminous arrangement. I dream of it even now, when I dream at all. It also happened to have been written by a tiger-woman and a papercut was all it took.” I toy with a pair of sandpaper chopsticks. “As a child I was afraid. The world is a curse. Curses froth from the water, seep up from the soil, bide in the seeds of oranges and grains of rice. I avoided eggs laid by birds that’d flown over the toxic shores, the berries from bushes fed by the acid rain. Still I fell prey.”

One of her mouths detaches, skittering across the table on its lustrous black teeth, trailing ribbons of gum like lace. She pays it no heed. “And then?” Despite the symphony of her words, I smell her appetite, a hunger she never showed for her paper food.

“I ran before they could chase me out. Being a newly made demon is no luxury. But I found a mentor, joined a hidden cloister, and made my peace. I found it not so terrible. Humanity isn’t the gift I was taught to appreciate and I know few demons who miss their former state.”

“Then you are satisfied with the order of things.”

“I would be if the order of things were tenable.” Her loose mouth has latched onto my wrist, weakly, a small asp-tongue licking at my skin. I gently cajole it into my palm and it curls into my calluses, making a soft clicking noise that I interpret as contentment. “My kind is infertile, slow to age, difficult to kill. Humans will never stop giving birth—always the hope is invested in the next generation, always the hope someone will raise a hero—but they expire quickly, and too many human children touch the curse and turn into us. Soon the entire world will be inhabited solely by demons, and then what will we have for food? Cannibalism does not serve; we taste delicious to each other but our bodies take from it no nourishment. The beasts of the earth, the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea: none of those suffice.”

God folds her hands and waits, attentive, patient teacher or curious child.

“The stories hint at how to break the curse. Taken at face value they suggest that a human hero must be the one to do so, for it was a human who provoked God and blighted the world. What is not said,” I continue, “is that my race is more motivated than any to sever the link. For it must be by design that humans are our only food. A god who’d do this to her creation would leave an escape clause. And so I have come.”

The eye fixes on me for the length of a jasmine’s span: bud, bloom, wither. “No,” her mouths utter in unison, even the one in my palm. “Your understanding is not complete. You are to stay here until it is. I will give you water, but the rest of your needs you must fend for yourself.”

I incline my head. “I’m grateful. I take it I’m not the first to have reached you?”

It is a sight, to see so many mouths smile in synchrony. “You are not. In all the rooms you will find their bones.”

The walls of the fortress are dense and frictionless, made of a material that my birthright does not allow me to scale: no metal at all, not a hint of iron or copper, nothing that thrills to the call of electricity. There are crescent windows high up, some giving the full glare of midday, others the bronze of dusk or the icy blue of moonrise. No doors. When God said that I am to stay put, she meant it.

I find my predecessors in sundered shadows, in echoes of voices calling out. Never in a language I know, never in words I quite understand. But this much I am certain—none of them were human when they reached God’s abode. I find their weapons: cowrie bullets and mirror shells, the still-wet guts of a living rifle, fissive arrows that writhe like vipers. I wonder what they were fighting. Then I realize that they were trying to carve or shoot or blast a way out, and could not. For all God’s affected diffidence, her coy denial of power, there is no doubt as to whose authority rules this space.

But for now I feel more guest than prisoner, and so I explore at my leisure, taking my daily bowl of divine blood. The more I taste the better I am able to distinguish that God is not at all innocence or youth as I previously believed. Neither is it virtue. What resides in her, composing her substance and arterial matter, is eternity.

Her stray mouth follows me; out of courtesy, I give it a perch on my shoulder. Unmoored from her it doesn’t speak, voiceless and wordless. Its gum flutters softly against my jaw as I scavenge for the key that’d unlock the riddle of God. I consult the remains of those who have come before and failed, endeavoring to divine why and how they perished. It cannot be starvation, for the rain barrel gives just enough. Can it be old age that ended them, that mundanely and naturally? We are not immortal, just almost.

I gather up the most intact of remains, the likeliest to provide my clues, and arrange them about my makeshift room. A shrine to unlikely saints.

From time to time I climb as high as I can, to a pane as tall as I am and many times as broad. The sky is rarely the same but I can see that the fortress has lifted off. I witness different suns and gas giants so gargantuan that the scale of what I know seems a speck in the infinity of creation. I think to ask God whether she is maker of our world only, whether she is but one deity among multitudes. If the latter is true, I’m aware of no contact between God and her hypothetical peers. The fortress remains anechoic, and I its sole visitor.

The first time I think I’ve solved the riddle, she appears before me even before I can call out her title. She is gowned in spectral spiders this time, all frantically weaving an ecosystem of live circuits.

“Reaching the fortress doesn’t suffice to prove one’s worth,” I tell her. “There must be another feat I have to accomplish, another test I have to pass.”

But she shakes her featureless head and holds up her hand, counting off her fingers. “Virtue does not feel, for virtue is an element rather than a being. Virtue does not diminish, for it is immaculate and inviolate. It is changeless and perpetual. This is what I can tell you. You have one more chance, for on arrival you wasted your first.”

I study her absence. There appears to be no link between the riddle and what she said. There is something obvious at my fingertips that I’m failing to grasp. Returning to the mementos of dead demons, I strive once more to locate a common thread. One more, she said. So that is how my predecessors perished.

When I find one, it is more happenstance than cleverness on my part—a spear of pure steel, one of the few pieces of metal I’ve found among the armaments and personal effects. Complex talismans orbit it, miniature satellites, though their potency has faded. Half the shaft is vibrant indigo, the other garish cerise. To amuse myself I charge the spear. It stands upright, the talismans swirling wild and rapid within the magnetic sphere. I’ve missed metal as one might miss a lover’s skin.

It spins for a time, and in watching it—motion and light—revelation at last seizes me.

Once that thread ignites, I find more: a coin with different faces on each side, a mask half black and half white, a mirror that reflects desert dunes on one side and still lakes on the other.

When I call for her, my throat is parched, my hands shaking.

She comes as a deity might answer a prayer: suddenly, haloed in fire. So harsh and stark it is a surprise she hasn’t blinded herself, that one eye staring out at me in unblinking attention.

“The opposite of virtue is sin.” The words tumble out like heated stone, scalding my lips as they fall. “You are neither God nor virtue. You are the original sinner who angered God and brought the blight down upon the world.”

The fire dims, gutters out, and she is as she first looked when I came: almost ordinary, almost mortal. She leans against the wall in fatigue and says, as though in recitation, “Sin like virtue is an absolute element. Its half-life is eternity.” She lifts her arms, garnished with so many mouths. “God does not forgive. The transgressor is to carry the greatest weight of all. You realized God’s viciousness, didn’t you?”

“A creator who’d inflict pain on uncountable millions for the offense of one isn’t going to let you off lightly. You would be made to bear witness to it all, generation after generation.” Relief congeals in my mouth. “What now?”

“Until I am correctly named, I’m impervious to age and harm. No force in the universe may alter me.” Her voices lower to an arrangement of whispers. “Now you destroy me. Sin is absolute. Once sin is gone—once I perish—the knot that binds humanity to demonkind will unravel. There will be no more curses. You’ve won. May they remember you a hero and reward you justly.”

Her words have the quality of a rehearsed speech. She must have prepared it since the start, ready to deliver them with each new arrival. I smile a little. “How do you want to end?”

“You came to eat. It will be a fitter end than a simple bullet, a plain stab.” Her eye blinks. I wonder if she’s always been like that, or if the disfigurement too is part of her sentence. “Only do it kindly. Eat the eye first, so I won’t have to see. The mouths next, so I will make no sound that forfeits my dignity.”

I take her hand, holding it firmly. “All right.”

We share a period—that might have been days, weeks, or mere hours—of companionable silence. It is not as though, now, would be the time to ask for her story. She does not volunteer any; her eye glitters the entire time, anticipating her finale.

V. Devouring is apotheosis.

She lies down, and I begin to eat.