Outdoors to the left of a freshly plowed dirt field stood a tall metal equipment-shed. Not unlike many of the outbuildings on my family’s property.
The metal door protested as Pax pulled it away from the frame. With my hand still firmly caught in his grasp. Pax looked around and stepped inside.
“Is this hell?” I asked playfully.
“No, this is the outskirts of Michigan.” Pax’s tail reconfigured into thick, dark scales lining his entire back. His clawed hands changed into dark metal gauntlets. He grew taller and thicker as we descended deeper into the earth.
The metal building concealed the entrance to a considerably larger space lit by small rusty pits of fire in every corner. We finally arrived at a packed dirt landing with two sets of dark slate stairs leading in opposite directions.
“Here to the right is where I ask you to travel with me. You must choose this direction willingly. Walking the nine steps on your own power.”
“What is in the other direction?” I pointed toward a lit passageway.
“Your body asleep on the couch.”
The feeling in the space was heavy and ceremonial. To the left, I could see a brightly lit torch to the right, only Pax and darkness. A deeper agenda I didn’t fully grasp was waiting for me to choose a direction.
“I’ve trusted you this far. Why not?” I steadied myself against the wall and prepared to navigate the tall stairs down toward Pax.
“I instructed you specifically not to trust me.” Pax pounded a metal gauntlet against the wall causing sheets of dirt to flake away from the ancient-looking walls.
“Yes, I remember. You are a very nasty demon, shall we?” Pax smiled. His teeth were pointed like daggers. Several sets of dark pointed horns protruded evenly from the center of his scalp.
When I finished sliding down the wall, I felt Pax eagerly grab at my hand.
“You and I must not be separated here. This place is not merely a dreamscape—it’s practice.” The tone Pax used was apologetic and serious. My heavy legs felt too terrified to move.
“Keep your hand on my skin, and I will attempt to keep my touch upon you. If you lose me, venture back into the darkness, and climb up the stairs, never downward. Look for the light and follow the torches to the end. Call out to your witch with intent. She will find you.”
“The narrow road home?” I pondered aloud.
“Yes, a very narrow road, but if you should fall.” A look of disgust filled his eyes as he cracked his thick neck to the side. “I will find you.” I nodded appreciatively and set a death grip around Pax’s large thumb.
We walked into a sparse dark space. The walls and floor were covered in gray slate, just like the stairs. Rounding the first turn, Pax unfurled a massive set of black oil-slicked wings. The velvety edges dripped with a green bioluminescent liquid that sizzled as it hit the rock floor with a thick wet plop.
Several square rooms lined either side of a wide hallway like jail cells missing their barred doors. A black stone altar sat at the end of the long hall. The open ceiling glittered with the tiny dots of light towering toward the unending sky.
A distant glow from orange, flamed torches danced across the smooth, flawless surfaces. I stopped, hesitant to pass in front of the first opening. Pax pulled firmly at my hand twice. I swallowed hard and forced my feet to shuffle forward.
Pax coiled one side of his veiny black wings around me. His green eyes were the only source of light. “In this place, I must be much more of a demon, and you must be much less of a human.”
His wide swaths of skin uncoiled, moving the stagnant air. His massive gauntlets clanked together, sending a deep vibration into the air.
The basic shape of a fifty-gallon feed barrel appeared on the rock altar at the end of the hall. I didn’t see any eyes or appendages. The milky creature advanced toward me on a single snail-like foot hidden under its base. The wet, goopy sound made me feel queasy. As I walked closer the smell of rotting death was stifling.
Pax took a firm hold of my shoulder. “Ready yourself.”
The disgusting creature transformed into a fluffy white kitten with sparkling blue eyes and big floppy paws. The air around me smelled like sugar cookies and fresh laundry. I felt a deep love for the kitten and hunger for the cookies. I wanted to pet the kitten and play with its soft baby paws. My hand outstretched to touch its fur.
“I will call you Puff, sweet baby kitty.” In my left hand, I felt fur, and in my other hand, I felt the cold weight of steel.
“Stab it,” Whispered into my mind.
“Little Worm, the inside of that illusion is black and rotten. The bottom feeder distracts you while another more capable demon tears a hole in your chest and eats your entrails. Stab it!”
I plunged the dagger into the perfect fluffy image. The wet gelatinous body of the disgusting creature showing the beautiful image engulfed my daggered hand.
“I can’t do this.” Tears ran down my face. Pax wiped the dagger and my hand clean with a length of cloth tied around his waist.
“You may only die once, but do you know what will become of your living warrior and your human armor.” I shook my head no and braced myself for one of Pax’s raw explanations. “Torture, the purest kind of pain. They will show your death in every way imaginable, then show you alive, then ravaged by pain again. Your friends will watch and beg for it to stop. This will continue until the creature who killed you grows bored. My kind is so easily entertained.”
“Phew,” I fanned my face and bent over toward my knees, trying to catch my breath.
“There is no air here! Do not digress. Take up your dagger. We will use it a few more times until you learn to kill without it.” Pax sounded angry. I felt a strong urge not to disappoint him.
The next creature was larger with jagged teeth, reddish skin. Long arms propelled the bulbous creature the length of the black slab table in one hulking motion. It showed me an old woman happily knitting and singing church hymns in front of my town’s yarn store.
I walked past the shop with an ice cream in hand many times. I noticed how peaceful and kind the knitters looked, but I stabbed her easily, wiped my eyes and dagger dry, and prepared for the next vision.
The following creature looked human, but I quickly saw it was shaped like three humans spliced together. Their cream-colored heads turned independently in full emotionless circles. Something of a mouth appeared where a stomach might otherwise be. It snarled and squeaked in delight before showing me Leo.
Leo was older with a trim reddish beard. Fewer stomach muscles rippled his bare chest. He was wearing loose pajama pants and pacing in a perfectly decorated beige bunny themed nursery. Leo lovingly jostled a pink-skinned baby he held close to his tanned chest. A wide platinum band on his left hand sparkled in the light.
The baby cried softly. My insides twisted like a wet sponge being wrung dry. Leo carefully tickled the baby’s lips with a nippled bottle. His smile beamed when the infant accepted it hungrily. As he bent down to kiss the infant’s tiny forehead, I started to cry.
I wanted this image to be true. I wanted it so badly. I stepped away from Pax to touch the beautiful child. I felt the pain of his metal gauntlets tearing into my ethereal shoulder skin just as his words filled my ears.” Kill it, faster worm.”
“I can’t stab a baby!”
“Then consume it!” Pax knocked the dagger from my hand. “Turn your rage on the creature who dares pull these images from your soul. Kill it, not the image it traps you with.”
The story of the princess turned into a monster floated to the top of my thoughts. Her witch didn’t curse her. She set her free.
I envisioned the black goo from the story. The smell of burning pitch filled my nose. I pictured a white-hot, magnesium sulfate flame, collected my pain and disappointment from the last few weeks and flung the white fire into the serene nursery.
The beautiful image burned from edge to edge as if it were a polaroid tossed on a smoldering log. The human-like creature burned and screamed along with it. I doubled over in mental pain and nauseating disgust. I murdered the one thing I would eagerly die to protect.
The evening continued uninterrupted for what felt like hours. There was the dagger or the flames, but every creature put before me died quickly without the benefit of my humanity in my numb state.
The scenarios got progressively more intricate. The size of the demon didn’t matter as much as it’s age and experience. Human desires aren’t hard to guess, and our troves of experience are not difficult to penetrate.
Once the jail cells were empty, Pax led me out of the dark hall and back to the stairway. “Is this where we part ways?”
“No, I can walk you back to the edge and kick you back inside your life if you like. I just can’t keep all my adornments.” Pax walked the stairs and tossed his gauntlets onto the floor. They sizzled to ash and floated away in the ground-hugging breeze.
“That’s shitty. I like your wings. They’re so gothic.” I ran my fingers over the velvety wing skin and felt the rivers of veins react with a heated pulse under my touch.
Pax rolled his shoulders away from me. “The sensation your hand creates on my skin is quite unpleasant.”
“Sorry, it’s hard to ignore them.” As we walked, his wings recoiled into small muscles on his back. The scales he wore as armor slid down his back to create his articulated tail. “Why are you helping me?”
“Emma thinks I should tell you. I do not know if it is wise to tell you yet.” Pax looked at me as if reading something written on my skin. “Long ago, a wolf champion asked for my help in understanding how to kill greater demons. Trapped within a witch’s jar, I was mistreated in the Yolk. This warrior came to me, respectfully asked his questions as if I were worthy of his best behavior and grace.
“Over the years, he and the Powers dispatched thousands of my kind. Eventually, he found a way to set me free. I think you are the new embodiment of this soul. You have the privilege of rebirth as part of the human class. It is a gift no other creation under heaven possesses.”
“It would be great if I walked into the White with some ancient knowledge about how to kill these things efficiently.”
“You are your own worst enemy, my Little Worm. Fear is fatal, and desire is the greatest weakness any enemy could hope to find in you. Clear your mind and hone your focus. Leave all you cherish outside the battlefield. Do not give your enemy ammunition. Give them cold silence and swift death.”
“What happened to all those creatures tonight?”
“You dispatched six lesser demons to the sands of time.” The tone in his voice was melodic. I could feel how pleased he was with me.
Practice in my mind means a space to try and fail, so you learn from your failures. Learn to kill by killing was apparently the mindset of a Pax demon.