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The Demon Cauldron

Ishir Kumari clenched his fist tighter and tighter as what was left of the town spoke over one another in a jarring medley of differing opinions, until his whole wiry arm was shaking.

“We should evacuate! There’s nothing left for us here now!”

“What are you talking about? We should rebuild the town, not abandon it!”

“We should go and join the army! I hear they’re down in Harbrood, trying to make a stand.”

“Pfft! I heard the same rumours as you, but that was a week ago! They’re probably dead by now. We’re all as good as dead.”

Finally, Ishir slammed his fist down on the red pine bar, making the others jump and quiet down and stare at the barkeep sat on a stool.

He glowered at them, swaying. “We cannot run and hide,” he said thickly in a gruff voice, “and we cannot rebuild until the threat is gone. As for the army, you’re right. They’re probably dead by now. We cannot go, and we cannot stay. That leaves only one option. We fight.”

“But how?” whined one skinny man called Jivin Yadav, a baui pipe in his trembling dark-skinned hand. “We aren’t soldiers! I’m a farmer. You own a sake house.” He gestured to the dilapidated husk of a building in which the remnants of the town of Jhafey had gathered, less than a hundred souls in a town that had once boasted over a thousand residents, all of whom had lost friends, family and loved ones in the last few days. Starlight poured in through the gaping hole in the roof and the missing wall to assist the few candles in lighting the occasion. “We’re schoolteachers, craftsmen and … and housewives, for the Gods’ sake! How can we possibly fight a horde of Demons?”

There was a hubbub of agreement, before Ishir growled over the commotion, “We may not be able to fight, but Demons can fight Demons. I say we fight fire with fire.”

The crowd paled and gasped as one.

“You don’t mean … the Witches … do you, Ishir?” whispered one woman by the name of Divya Kaur, brown eyes round as saucers.

“I do,” replied Ishir, taking a swig from his sake gourd, wiping his beard with the back of his hand and burping. “Why not ask for their help?”

“Because fighting fire with fire is fool’s talk!” a carpenter named Reyansh burst out, spreading his brawny nut-brown arms. “Summoning more Demons to fight off the Demons currently plaguing us makes about as much sense as finding a bear in the house and inviting in its family!”

“Actually,” interjected Jivin unexpectedly, tapping his shaven chin with a finger, “pests can be used to eradicate other pests in farming. As long as those introduced to the environment are not harmful to the plant life. Ladybugs, for instance, can be introduced to an environment to clean it of tiny bugs harmful to the crop called aphids.”

“But we are the crop in this scenario!” Reyansh yelled, throwing his arms in the air. “And we are not immune to Demons!”

Ishir took a swig from his gourd and put it down on the table. Then, he stood, wobbling, and tottered across the room to stand before Reyansh. He prodded the man in the chest, almost knocking himself over backwards in the process. He was not a big man; Reyansh towered over him, in fact. Bald, of mahogany complexion and lacking a beard or any ornamentation on his tunic and leggings, Ishir had always been a modest man. He knew he had had an average life before the Demons came, but he had been content with it.

“I lost my wife … and I lost my daughter when those Demons swept through the town like a hurricane,” he slurred, stubble now showing on his face and head where he had not shaved for days. “And I believe they were not even making a concerted attack on the town! They were only passing through! They wrecked our town in less than an hour, Gods damn it all! Imagine the havoc they can wreak if they turn all their attention on us – which they will one day, when they don’t have bigger fish to fry … I lost my wife … and I lost my daughter … What do I have left to lose?” He swung around to face the others. “What do any of us? I say we beg the Witches for their help on bended knee and pray they are generous enough to answer our pleas. We have to do something! It’s the only way to stop Umang Parjapit.” He wrinkled his nose as he spoke the name and spat on the floor immediately afterwards.

“Who are we to stand up to the self-styled Raja?” whimpered Divya. “His Demons roam across the land, slaying any in their path. None can stand against him. Even the true Raja and his army could not hold back the Demons. Ishambria is already lost.”

“Ishambria is not lost!” Ishir growled, balling his fists by his sides. “Not as long as there are those who still fight for her.” He swept the room with his bleary gaze. “Unless there are any better ideas, I am going to find the Witches tomorrow to ask for their help. Who is with me?”

Against their better judgement, almost everyone gathered at the log-built sake house the following morning. The doors were locked, however, and so the crowd waited until Ishir Kumari stumbled out just before noon. He gazed around at the people awaiting him with crust still in his eyes, taking in the sunlit wreckage beyond them. Children’s laughter had once rung throughout the town. No more. Timber and stone lay strewn almost everywhere, where once simple houses had stood. Ishir’s gaze lingered on the rubble of his friend’s home, whom he had also lost that terrible night.

Patting the dozen gourds strapped to his waist by a string belt, he smiled sloppily at the townsfolk. “I’m so glad to see so many of you have come! Let’s get going. The sooner we find those Witches the better.”

As Ishir set off through what was left of the town and on up the green karst slope beyond, he pondered the Witches. A strange relationship existed twixt them and the townsfolk. Not too long ago, when the Witches had first been discovered living up on the karst mountain, the townsfolk had been ready and willing to kill them on sight and the Witches had been forced to defend themselves against several armed excursions. They managed not to slay any of the townsfolk during these encounters, however, only wounding a few. Years later, the wife of the now-dead town council elder had taken her terminally sick daughter to the Witches, after all known means of medicine had failed to help her recover. Mother and daughter had returned to the town the following day in perfect health, and the town had rejoiced and decided that from that day on, they would no longer seek to persecute the Witches. Nor, however, did they invite them to live with them. A tenuous status quo had existed for many years now, and Ishir prayed he was not about to shatter it.

Hiking up the steep wooded slope was hard going, and Ishir’s calves and shins ached abominably after only half an hour. Teaks, acacias and neems swished all around him in the moaning wind, and dead leaves rustled under his feet with every step. He tramped over bauhinias and flowering hibiscuses, unwilling to detour in the slightest. Sweating in the simmering sunlight, he told himself inwardly that he needed to exercise more often, even while knowing he would never do it. His wife had always been telling him to exercise more and drink less. Thinking of her soured his disposition even further, and he took a swig from a gourd, the floral scent of sake filling the air for a brief moment before he stoppered it again. The sky moulded over as the afternoon wore on, and a muggy drizzle pattered down on the townsfolk as they trudged on with little conversation between them. There was no path, and the group occasionally had to traverse small cliffs, slick in the rain, at which time Ishir and Jivin would clamber up first, being most nimble, and then reach down to help the rest follow.

The day was drawing to a close, and Ishir was beginning to despair of ever finding the Witches on the karst slope when he heard a snappish voice coming from the shrubbery. “What d’you want, you ‘orrible lot?”

Ishir held up his hands, both to stop those behind him and to assure the speaker he was unarmed. Though feminine, the voice had been high, grating and screechy.

“We are from Jhafey,” Ishir said, staggering before catching his balance again. “If you are the Witches who live on this mountain, as I suspect you are, we have come to ask for your help. Our town was destroyed by Parjapit’s Demons a few days ago. Perhaps you have heard of him? Parjapit? He is said to be a mighty Sorcerer, capable of summoning fiends from the underworld to do his dirty work. We heard word that he had slain the Raja and taken the capital. That was only a few days before we saw his Demons for ourselves. We … lost many. Ahem. We have come to ask for your help in taking our vengeance, Witches. We implore you – help us avenge our lost loved ones and we will pay any price.”

“Hmm, any price, eh?” asked the screechy voice thoughtfully. “And you all feel this way, do you?”

The townsfolk murmured their assent, on edge, their eyes darting this way and that as they sought the speaker amid the foliage.

“That could be a weighty toll, you know,” the voice warned them, amused. “Are you sure you’re willing to pay any price? Even if it costs your souls?”

“We are,” Ishir’s voice rang out, and nobody contradicted him.

“Very well.” A buxom young woman stepped out from behind a thorn bush, ginger hair cascading down to her wide, waggling hips. She wore what appeared to be a velvet green ball gown, cinched tight at the waist and flaring beneath, that complemented her dazzling eyes. Her dark-skinned face split open into a pretty smile. “Then, we have an accord.”

The townsfolk followed the woman with trepidation further up the karst mountain to a plateau more than halfway up, where no trees grew. A pagoda had grown there instead. Ishir could conceive of no other explanation. A circular stone wall supported a jade roof that somehow spiralled to a tip, spouting smoke.

Divya summed it up perfectly when she said, “How in the name of the Gods did you build such a place up here?”

The woman grinned. “I am a Witch.”

Following her inside, Ishir found a single round room with three beds on one side, covered in sheets and duvets and pillows, and three long workbenches on the other. Ogling the workbenches, Ishir thought it looked like everything one might need to make a potion to bring someone back from the dead. That had been asked of the Witches before, though, and all in the town had heard by now that the Witches had claimed it beyond their power. The walls were bare, the floor laden with plush rugs. Toadstools, scraps of parchment and crumbs were scattered around the workbenches. Ishir thought he even spotted a cockroach. He wasn’t sure, though, because what consumed his attention was the huge black cauldron set above a fire on a metal tripod in the middle of the room, so large that the two women stirring it with long wooden spoons were standing on footstools for better leverage. Aromatic smoke swirled up from the massive pot like a parade of phantoms.

The cauldron was the blackest thing Ishir had ever seen, engraved with hypnotic patterns that seemed to swirl even as he watched them. The two women in the room were just as beautiful as she who had led them to the pagoda, one with hair like molten gold and the other with locks blacker than a raven’s wing. All three had eyes greener than spring’s fresh growth and wore gowns of expensive material. The blonde had diamond-studded bracelets and rubies in her rings. The dark-haired woman’s ears glimmered with pearl-set earrings, and a large opal nestled in the hollow of her throat, strung around her neck on a gossamer gold chain.

“Welcome,” said the red-haired woman, throwing out her arms theatrically, “to our home! Sisters, I’ve brought guests! You needn’t worry. They aren’t here to harm us. They come seeking our help. They say Parjapit’s Demons have destroyed Jhafey.”

“Curse and blast that nuisance!” said the blonde, pouting and stamping a foot like a child throwing a tantrum. Her voice, like the redhead’s, was guttural and coarse, juxtaposing her beauty.

“Damned hooligan,” sniffed the black-haired Witch, her tones less than mellifluous, too.

“As Kavya has already said, welcome to our home!” said the blonde with a heart-melting smile. “My name is Kimaya.”

“Yes,” added the raven-haired woman unenthusiastically. “Welcome.”

“Oh, don’t mind Khushi!” The blonde waved a dismissive hand. “She’s a grumpy sort.”

“Thank you for burp your elegant welcome,” said Ishir, attempting a chivalrous bow and almost falling flat on his face. He staggered upright once more in time to see the Witches titter, covering their juicy red lips with their hands. “Good ladies, we – the townsfolk of Jhafey – have come to beg your aid in defeating these Demons. We have nowhere else left to turn. You’re our last hope.”

Khushi looked at Kimaya. “No, let’s not.”

Kimaya cocked her head pointedly. “We have to help them! It’s only right. Besides, if we don’t, Parjapit will just send his Demons up here one day and then we’ll wish we’d have cooked some up of our own, oh yes!”

“My thoughts exactly,” concurred Kavya. “We have to do this, Khushi. We knew sooner or later it’d be him or us. Well, the time is now.”

Khushi rolled her eyes. “Oh, very well.” She turned to face Ishir. “We’ll cook up some Demons for you, then. No better place for it than the Cauldron of Rajbak-Tath.”

Ishir bowed again and this time did fall flat on his face.

He looked up from the rug-laden ground. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

“We’ll need your help to prepare all the ingredients, though,” Kavya informed them. “I’ll make you a list.”

Reading the list on a scrap of parchment a few minutes later, Ishir gawped in disbelief. “Newt eyes, charcoal, gizzards, frog legs, tomato soup, beaver fur, golden cedar sap, seawater, a tiger heart, tears of a widow, tortured souls, blood of innocents,” he read, before looking up at the Witches’ expectant expressions. “Are you mad? How are we supposed to find this stuff? Some of it’s easy, but the rest …” He blew out his cheeks. “I don’t know where we’re going to find tortured souls or the blood of innocents.”

“Well … you can just bring us souls,” Kavya said as if this resolved every problem. “We can do the torturing ourselves. As for the blood of innocents, that’s easy. You’ve never killed anyone, have you, Ishir?”


“Good.” Kavya pricked him in the back of the hand with a tiny pin that appeared from nowhere.

Ishir yelped, clutching his hand and staring at her. “What did you do that for?”

Kavya held up the pin, on which a dab of blood glistened. “Blood of innocents. Done. See how easy that was?”

Ishir stared at his hand for a moment before lowering it. “And … what do you mean by souls?”

“I think you know,” said Khushi.

Kimaya sighed and pouted. “It is unfortunate, but the recipe does require souls. By this, we mean human lives sacrificed.”

“How many souls?” Ishir asked, dread gnawing at him.

Khushi arched a dark eyebrow. “How many Demons do you want to summon?”

Silence weighed heavy on them then.



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