Preview of The Demon, the Hero, and the Forest of Arden
The story of how Mal met Reg. One of 13 stories in the Rebel Diaries Anthology..
It’s been five hundred years since a hero petitioned a demon. Five hundred years since the Summoning Bell rang out in the Underworld Suburb of Artifice-on-Lethe. Demons live…well, basically forever. But five hundred years is still a long time. We were beginning to get a bit twitchy.
But what’s that, you ask? Why would a hero summon a demon?
Let me take you back five hundred and some years…
Once upon a time, the self-proclaimed “Glorious Land of Widdershins,” experienced a golden age of heroism. Damsels were rescued, jewels recovered, honors restored…the usual stuff. But the more heroes there were in the game, the harder it became to play. The challenges became more challenging; the heroing more harrowing. The valiant heroes began to suffer a previously unknown sensation: desperation. They grasped at any opportunity that would set them apart and help them achieve their noble ends.
And that’s when one very clever hero by the name of Quill Valor remembered us.
Yes, Valor was the first to outsource his problems to the Underworld, but he wasn’t the last. We became independent contractors in the hero business, and the future never looked more wicked. For though Valor might have been clever to think of us—we were clever too. For every quest whose success we ensured, a dam would burst, destroying a town. For every ancient artifact whose recovery we guaranteed, a kingdom would be cursed to darkness. The amount of evil we were licensed to unleash was directly proportional to the good deed in question. In other words—the greater the good, the more mayhem we could sow.
It was truly the best of times.
That is, until the nonhero population of Widdershins got wise to what was going on and shut it down.
They formed a committee and—I won’t go into specifics here—decided that from now on, heroes must be properly vetted. Not by any measure of physical prowess or derring-do, but through a résumé, an interview, and 127 pages of paperwork signed in triplicate. And it was all to safeguard against us somehow weaseling our way into heroing again.
We demons were almost impressed. Paperwork? It was diabolical.
But we weren’t ready to be cut out of the deal completely. So I, Malgon Belroth Kirranith, Fifteenth of His Name, Giver of Paper Cuts, Collapser of Soufflés, Inventor of the Humblebrag, Lord of the Underworld Suburb of Artifice-on-Lethe, snuck in during the night to make a little revision. To the third footnote on the seventy-third page, I added a magical addendum that stated:
On page ninety-four, under the heading “Methods of Heroing, Unacceptable,” there sits a lone checkbox. If said checkbox remains unchecked and the paperwork is properly filed, a Demon will be automatically summoned to aid the new hero.
Checkmate, you fuckers.
But, alas, the joke was on me. While they could do nothing to change the addendum, there was still a loophole: they simply told their hero candidates of my little deception and insisted that they check the box.
And they kept it up for five hundred years.
So imagine my elation when I heard the bell toll once more. Its deafening clang was music to my ears. I jumped up, grabbed my ebony morning coat, and sprinted to the town square; my black leather boots slapping against the broken cobbles as I ran. I needed to be the first to touch the Summoning Bell. Somewhere up above there was a hero so crafty as to have fooled the committee into overlooking the barren checkbox. Here was the partner in crime I’d been dreaming of—we might do some real damage together.
And save some lives or jewels or whatever.
The point is—I would be back in business.
I could see other demons racing forward in my periphery, but it didn’t matter. I was already there. After calmly donning my coat, I bid the smell of brimstone adieu and placed my hand on the bell. The darkness squeezed around me as it transported me up, up, up…
“Fucking, shitpants, damnation, I forgot how bright it is up here,” I hissed as I popped into the shining world above. I shielded my eyes as best I could, but after five hundred years in the shadows, I suspected it would take a while to get used to again.
“Oh no…” came a wobbly-sounding voice beside me.
“Ah, and you must be my hero,” I said, turning toward the voice, still covering my eyes with one hand. With my other arm I swept my morning coat back and bowed dramatically. “I apologize for my rather uncouth entrance just now. Please don’t think it a reflection on my level of professionalism. I assure you that I am well qualified and up to whatever task you have set before us. I merely…haven’t seen the sun in five centuries.”
“Oh no, no, no,” whined the voice again.
“You keep saying that. Is that your name? Well, I am pleased to make your acquaintance, and…”
“It’s not my name. Aw, geez, my gran is gonna kill me.”
I tried to drop my hand, but it was too soon. Hissing in discomfort at the blinding light, I said, “I don’t understand. You deviously left the checkbox unchecked. You should be celebrating your success!”
“What? No, I just forgot! How did it get through the committee? What am I going to do?”
My elation evaporated and was replaced by bewilderment.
“So…you didn’t summon a demon?”
“Not on purpose!”
I dropped my arm and slumped my shoulders. Sunlight be damned. Literally, for all I cared. For the first time, I got a good look at my hero companion. He looked like a flaming willow branch: tall, lanky, and pasty, with red hair. And, if I may be permitted to say so, he wore a rather dull expression. His posture was abominable, and it seemed to me that a stiff wind would blow him over. To top it off, he was cleaning out his ear with the end of his pinky. Disgusting.
“So you’re a demon, then?” he asked. The tone of his voice implied that he was hoping I would deny it.
“Malgon Belroth Kirranith, Fifteenth of His Name, Lord of the Underworld Suburb of Artifice-on-Lethe, at your service,” I recited, bowing deeply.
My hero’s eyebrows rose. “Impressive.”
“Thank you,” I said, dipping my head slightly.
The boy’s brow furrowed. “But where’s your tail? You just look like a fine gentleman to me.”
I pursed my lips. “I don’t have one.”
“Because, okay?” It was a sore subject for me as it reflected a deficit in my overall level of evilness compared to other demons; something I hoped to change during this visit. I didn’t like talking about it with anyone and certainly wasn’t going to discuss it with this idiot, so I changed the subject.
“So…you’re…a capital-H Hero, then?”
He looked skyward as if the answer were written in the clouds.
“Well…yeah. As of like an hour ago. My name’s Reginald. Sir Reginald P. Asstradle, now.”
“Your surname is Asstradle?”
“What of it?”
I squinted at him. Then I made a box with my fingers and peered through it. Still unsatisfied with what I saw, I began to circle him. He must have some ancient, magical blade upon his back that would make up for his general stature and painfully average intelligence?
“What’re you doing?” he asked, taking up his auricular hygiene in the other ear.
I’d come around front again and seen nothing to improve my opinion of him.
“What am I doing? What are you doing?” I cried, gesturing with both my arms to all of him. “What is this? You’re no hero. Heroes are strong! Gallant! Carry large swords!”
He gaped at me for a moment, then burst out laughing.
“Yeah…maybe five hundred years ago. A lot has changed since then. The title is the same, but we’re not so much heroes anymore. We’re more like glorified delivery people.”
I sighed and uncrossed my arms. “So, what are we going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose in an effort to squeeze out any remaining patience I might possess. I don’t possess a lot. I am a demon, after all.
“I mean, what is your quest? Maybe we can just make a quick deal, get it done, and that will be that. Like this never happened.” It was not my ideal scenario. Truthfully, I was crushed. But I was determined to make at least some mischief before tunneling back down to Artifice-on-Lethe.
“No, no, no…” said Reginald, waving his hands in front of his body. “I don’t want to make a deal. I want to get rid of you.”
“You can’t ‘get rid’ of me. I go away when our deal is concluded.”
“But I don’t want to do that.”
“Then why did you summon me?”
“I didn’t mean to summon you.”
My eye twitched. “You are an irksome individual. Did you know that?”
He started grinning again. “My gran says that. A lot.”
“Your gran sounds like my kind of human. Anyway,” I held up one long finger, “I think we need a recap. You don’t want to make a deal with me because then I’ll do something evil in exchange for your noble deed. But I can’t leave your side until you’ve concluded a deal with me.”
Reginald scratched the end of his bulbous nose. “Yeah, that sounds right.”
“So we are at an impasse.”
Reginald looked around. “We are at a park.”
“Fucking tar-dipped shit balls, Reginald! I know we’re at a…” I closed my eyes and took a calming breath. “What I mean to say is, until you make a deal with me, I can’t go away. So why not think of something small we can do together? The amount of evil I can inflict on the world is proportional to the good that you do. So what small things will ease your conscience and allow me to return to my infernal home with demonic dignity?”
Reginald nodded slowly. “Yeah, okay. I get it. Well, I guess the thing I was going to do isn’t that big of a deal, anyway.”
“And what was that?”
“I’m just returning this rock to its owners.”
He opened a canvas sack that I’d neglected to catalog in my earlier appraisal. I peered inside, and in the place where a heart would be in a human, I felt a flip-flopping sensation. It was not a rock. It was a magical connection stone. The Stone of Eno. Created in the Forest of Arden, it was stolen during the Golden Age of Heroes by none other than Valor himself. The rightful owners were a troupe of human-abhorring dryads. Reginald would be eaten alive. Possibly literally.
I opened my mouth to explain to him that this would be a mammoth quest and that the level of evil I would be authorized to unleash would be nearly unparalleled in all of history. But then I shut it again.
“Sure. Yeah. Good idea, Reginald.”
Reginald grinned his silly grin, and I almost felt bad for him.
“Great. So how do we do this?”
“Ah,” I said and reached into an inside pocket in my coat. I extracted a pin and a stoppered vial. “I’ll just poke you like this—”
“And collect a little blood like this…”
And down went Reginald. Fainted at the sight of his own blood. We were off to a terrific start.
The story continues in The Rebel Diaries. Preorder it here.