Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.
On a warm island all furred with olive trees lived a farmer, a shepherdess, and their daughter. The three led a mostly placid life, but one day The Blight crawled up from the Underground full of boredom and ill intent and threatened to squander their crops and the feed for their sheep. The farmer and the shepherdess begged for mercy. The warm season was ending and they would not survive winter without olives and sheep to trade the sea merchants for salted kraken and the whale fat that kept their hearth lit all the months long.
But The Blight would only agree to keep his nubby fingers off the crops if the farmer and the shepherdess gave him their daughter to take as his wife. As the couple thought their daughter terribly dull and without aspiration, and as the task of making a baby would curtail the boredom of the lengthening nights, husband and wifey quickly-quietly made the exchange.
“What was her name?”
Nix pursed his lips. “Harbo, not that it matters. Anyway—“
Harbo found herself in the Underground with The Blight who, as it turns out, had one million bartered wives. One of many, Harbo moldered for near a century within the smelly caverns of The Blight’s home. The Underground isn’t a place for mortals. It’s lousy with monsters and angry gods—not that there aren’t some good ones. Harbo could safely go no farther than the river that sloshed past The Blight’s caverns and throughout the Underground, and it was there that she came across the goddess Minoned while throwing rocks into the frothing waters.
“You shouldn’t do that.”
Harbo looked up from the dark water to find a young woman watching her from an idling boat.
“Do what?” asked Harbo.
“My sea serpents swim in there. I imagine they don’t enjoy taking rocks to the head, though I can’t be certain since they’ve never said as much.”
Giving the woman a once-over, Harbo asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m the goddess Minoned. I tend to the beasts of the Underground,” Minoned shrugged. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you around.”
“I’m Harbo of the Olive Isle, wife of The Blight. Well, one of them. And I don’t get out much.”
Minoned made a face. “The Blight? He smells like thousand year-old unwashed underpants.”
Harbo couldn’t disagree.
“Want to paddle downriver with me?” asked Minoned. “You’ll be safe on my boat.”
Harbo gladly accepted the opportunity for a break from the caverns and the nonsense chatter of the million wives. She’d spent half a century in their company and she still had no idea what any of them were saying.
“Half a century?” said Ghost. “Harbo must’ve been ancient by then.”
“Aside from the fact that at sixty-seven one is not ancient, everyone knows that all living mortals who enter the Underground stop aging,” said Nix. “The entrapped don’t die either, much as they wish it.”
“If they don’t die, why would they worry about monsters and mean gods?”
“I said they don’t die of old age,” Nix snapped.
“No you didn’t.”
Nix gave Ghost a long, but weary, stare. “Alright, a mortal can die of unnatural causes, which may include being swallowed whole or having her atoms dispersed by a god. But if that happens, her soul doesn’t get to slum the world sniffing freshly baked bread or scaring children or whatever it is the departed enjoy doing. She gets to wander the Underground eternally, except it’s like one of those bad dreams where your body can only float a millimeter above the ground–where you move at such a crawl even a squashed snail would beat you in a race. Now,” Nix cleared his throat.
Minoned and Harbo had a grand time herding the colossal lantern fish, scattering them all through the river system. They lit the dark spaces so that the gods wouldn’t bark their shins on stalagmites or fall into one of the bottomless holes that pocked the stony floor.
“It must be thrilling to go where you please and ride giant cave spiders up the walls,” said Harbo as she touched a fingertip to a fish’s lantern.
Minoned dipped a lazy oar into the water and considered Harbo’s words. “It’s alright,” she said. “It’s been my life for all of time. But this is fun. I don’t get much company down here. Sometimes, I have to chatter to my beasts because I forget the sound of my own voice.”
“I get lonely too,” confessed Harbo.
“You have the other wives.”
Harbo explained how the million wives all came from different places and times and how they struggled to understand each other.
“I’m kind of, sort of getting the hang of one of the languages, but the wife who speaks it is covered from head to toe in hair and throws sticks at me sometimes. I always end up fleeing before I can get to the bottom of her hooting and hollering.”
“Just say it. I can see that you have something to say. Just say it now before I—“
“I was going to ask how Minoned could understand Harbo if they weren’t from the same place. But let me guess: gods can speak all languages.”
“Good. I’m glad we’re making progress here. I should say that fluent as the gods are in the languages of the universe, they can’t seem to make heads or tails of body language.”
Ghost feigned shock. “Are you admitting to ignorance?”
“I am a demigod and a master of body language.”
When time came for Harbo to return to The Blight and the million wives and the caverns, she pleaded her case to Minoned.
“Don’t make me go back there,” said Harbo. “I can help you with the beasts. I can be your apprentice.”
“I’m not hiring,” said Minoned. But Harbo looked so unhappy, Minoned agreed to let her stay a little while longer.
She brought Harbo back to her temple and fed the fell dogs standing guard outside while Harbo wondered at the glowing structure of flickering candles and dripping wax.
“Minoned,” someone snarled.
Minoned turned from her task to find The Blight striding toward her, tracking a foul cloud behind him. She lit a stick of incense and stood her ground.
“Where is my wife?” he growled. “The Damp said he saw you with her on the river.”
Minoned took one look at the green thread of spit dangling from The Blight’s cracked lower lip and knew she couldn’t return Harbo to him. She glanced behind her to find the fell dogs dividing. Harbo stood on the other side of them. If the dogs continued to wander, the girl would be exposed and dragged back to the caverns never to be allowed out again.
Minoned sighed and did what she had to do. The Blight pushed past her, calling out for Harbo. A dog snapped at him as he passed.
“Where is she?” he demanded again.
The impassive Minoned watched The Blight glare beneath the surrounding rocks as if expecting to find his wife under one. “Who knows?” she said.
When it became apparent to The Blight that he had somehow been tricked, he left at last, still shouting Harbo’s name into the tunnels, pausing often to curse and kick stone rats.
“I’m a dog,” Harbo barked, wagging her black tail.
“Yes, you are and a dog you’ll have to stay if you don’t want The Blight to come back for you,” sighed Minoned.
“Why are you sad?” asked Harbo. “I can stay with you now, and we can be friends always.”
“Soon you will forget all words and all memory of your former life. You will be a beast.”
Harbo was quiet awhile, then said, “I think I’m okay with that. I’d much rather lead a dog’s life and go where I please.”
And Harbo did have a mostly happy existence running with her pack, tearing other beasts apart. Harbo also forgot her words and her old life and Minoned’s friendship, just as the goddess said she would. And that is the tale of Minoned and how she lost the only friend she’d have for a long, long time.
“What?” asked Nix.
But Ghost, having by now made it across the neighborhood to her own front stoop, could only continue shaking her head at Nix in disbelief. “That was your story? She lived miserably ever after? You know, if you were sent here to make me feel worse, I don’t actually need help with that. I’m doing fine on my own.”
“It’s just a story,” Nix called out. But he couldn’t be sure she’d heard past the sound of the door slamming in his face.