I hope having a cold and only being able to hear properly with one ear hasn't adversely affected my critical judgement. Not sure I want to wait for it (the cold) to go, so I guess it's publish and be damned.

Ch 14 Demon

Streamers of cold, grey sea mist enshrouded Talim, as she sat hunched and low in the bilge. Moisture gleamed from every lath and stanchion of the sky boat, as it seemed to drift without purpose. It had brought her across unimaginable distances of space – further than the mind can reach – only to be here becalmed upon a fog-filled ocean.

She had never felt so alone. At almost every point of her journey she had been accompanied by a companion or guide. Alun, a source of comfort like no other, had at last been left behind. Mina, a warm presence whether in her mind or beside her had sacrificed herself. Hong … Hong had … And Taki. Taki, who had been more to her than all of these, was sundered from her in the cruellest way, when all she wanted was for them to touch once again, even for just one moment. The chill aloofness of Soul Calibur could not come close to compensating.

You are the Maiden. They had helped her because they believed in her. So that she could complete her quest.

Talim, believe in yourself.

As her resolve grew, she slowly became aware that the constant sound of water lapping had been surmounted by that of waves breaking. Gradually the line of a beach emerged out of the mist, as the sky boat rode ashore on a gentle tide. The prow grounded firmly, and Talim stepped out onto wet sand. The fog was lifting to reveal tall cliffs, and a path leading upwards between the black crags. A firmness in her stride, the Wind Priestess set herself to climb it. As she ascended, heavy drops of rain began to spatter amongst the obsidian rocks, and there was a low roll of distant thunder, like a warning.

Talim finally came to a bare plateau, no more than a dozen yards across, and within it a prominence, as though it were a high pedestal set atop the mountain. As the stinging rain beat down, Talim clambered up and stood looking down. On one side was the fog-shrouded sea, on the other the darkness of a plain, amidst which lava pools glowed like furnaces. The thunder rumbled louder now.

This was it. This was the place.

Talim held the blades high, and within her, Soul Calibur gave a great shriek of joy. From the dark sky, forked blue lightning descended, crackling around the sword hilts, doing Talim no harm, but changing the weapons. From the pommels outwards, a crystalline structure grew, spreading to transform the hilts into spiked fans, like angel wings, encrusting the blades with precious gems. At the join of hilt and guard, Syi Salika bore a giant sapphire, like a blue eye winking. And now the azure light poured from Soul Calibur as if the brightest of stars had descended to earth to shine forth its pure rays. Within her Talim felt a great upsurge of power, as though it were lifting her up towards the heavens, unstoppable. A force that could shake the very foundations of the universe, ready to be unleashed at her command.

The source of that ultimate power, Soul Calibur, pulsed within her mind, imploring her to allow it release. But Talim could feel her own strength growing along with it, the lines of crystal forming patterns according to her own volition. The icy female voice whispered in vain, Talim's fierce though gentle desire overmastered it. She knew she held in her hands the power to change the world, to achieve whatever she wished. She needed only to exert her will to make it so.

But another force opposed her, opposite and almost equal in strength, a force of chaos that must be thrown down and destroyed before she could attain sole dominion. The instrument of that evil even now drew near. She could see and hear nothing, feeling only the chill of its presence, like cold tentacles coiling in her mind.

She walked back to the top of the path, holding up the transformed weapons as torches to light her way. The harsh illumination showed the outline of every rock in clear and stark detail and, as she watched, one particularly long shadow detached itself from the background of black granite. A sudden lightning flash lit up a pale visage beneath raven dark hair. The gold circlet, black leotard and grey topcoat were unfamiliar; the face was the one she had been longing to see. It was Taki.

Like its counterpart, Soul Edge had altered the weapons of its host almost beyond recognition. Rekki-maru and Mekki-maru seemed composed of a substance so resembling flesh, that they looked as if they had been grown as part of some lunatic experiment. But as Taki looked upwards to meet her hopeful gaze, it was a second horrid transformation that drove the joy from the Wind Priestess's face.

Her eyes.

Talim had always found fascination in the kunoichi's eyes; to see how one moment they could flare with anger, the next flash with amusement or lapse into quiet thoughtfulness. When she and Taki were lovers, she would often lose herself in their passionate depths.

The eyes she now looked into glowed like hot coals, their furious red glare surrounding a malign yellow centre and a black pupil fixed upon her like those of a fierce bird of prey. With a gasp, Talim took a step backwards, appalled at the wave of hatred radiating from the fiery orbs, holding up Soul Calibur to ward off the emanation of evil.

At the presentation of the holy weapons, a snarl of rage twisted Taki's features. She pointed Mekki-maru at Talim, the words of an incantation tumbling from her lips. Around her a darkness gathered, and with a flick of the sword, she hurled it towards the cowering girl.

Talim felt the shock of the force around her, and gripped tightly to Syi Salika and Loka Luha. The blades glowed briefly as they absorbed the hostile magic, but the power that protected the Wind Priestess was moved not at all, and the spell dispersed without harming her.

Taki hissed with fury. She lowered her weapons slightly.

"Who are you that dare to stand in my way? Withdraw, or I will feast on your soul for eternity!" The words were drawn out and indistinct like the snarling of some ferocious beast that tries to speak through human lips.

Her heart full of fear and pity, Talim said, tremulously, "Taki, its me, Talim. Don't you remember me?"

The red glow of the eyes faded somewhat, as though in recollection. After a pause, the bestial voice whispered, "Ah, the little virgin! What a tempting morsel you will make!"

Ignoring the threatening implication, Talim said, "That's right, Taki, you do remember!"

The eyes were once again rimmed with fierce flames.

"Taki is no more. Only I remain. Let me pass or suffer my vengeance!"

Talim's blood turned to ice, but she remembered what Yunsung had said about keeping hope alive.

"And who are you?"

"I am nightmare, I am darkness, I am the sweat of terror, I am the scream of hatred, I am the cry of pain, I am the nothingness that lies behind all fear."

Trying to overcome her revulsion, Talim said, "You are the demon known as Soul Edge?"

The entity that had taken possession of Taki's body gave a wild chuckle, "In your world and time it is my name, but I have many others."

"Then I charge you by that name to speak the truth."

Again the gibbering laugh. "You cannot compel me. I will abide no law. The world I bring is one of chaos and bloodshed."

"I know you lie. Taki is alive. Else you could not speak."

"She and I no longer exist apart. We are one."

Talim desperately tried to think. Since Soul Calibur had joined with her, she felt that her powers of reasoning had become greater.

"You inhabited the same body before, when Taki was your mistress. I believe that she is still here, although now under your control. If you acknowledge this truth, perhaps we can bargain."

A note of cunning entered the demon's voice. "You would bargain with your friend's soul? In return, you will allow me to pass?"

"If you set her free first, body and soul, yes." She felt the first stirrings of Soul Calibur's anger, and suppressed it with difficulty.

"I will not. Without her body, I cannot stir hand or foot. Let me pass and attain my true form. Then I will release her soul."

Talim said, "I'm sorry but I don't trust you."

"What is – trust?"

"It means keeping your bargains. If you don't know what it means, then we can't negotiate, unless you trust me first."

"Why should I?"

"Because if you don't I will use Soul Calibur to destroy you – now."

The demon gave a great hiss of anger. "I do not fear that name – I am Fear."

Talim braced herself. "Then prepare to die." She raised Syi Salika and Loka Luha, could feel the exultant scream of Soul Calibur.

"Wait." The demon's breathing was hoarse and strained. "What would you bargain?"

"Release Taki's soul, allow me to speak with her, and I will allow you to pass. You may remain within her body."

Now Talim had to deal with the full fury of Soul Calibur. She could feel its cold brightness battering against her mind, trying to wrest control of her body away from her. But she knew she was stronger. Exerting all her mental power, she flung back the tendrils of crystal light. The sword retreated, cowering like a beaten dog.

The demon was speaking again with Taki's lips. "You must swear two oaths. The first is that while the human is free, you will not harm her body or allow it to come to harm; the second, that you will allow me passage as you have said. Swear by the name I forever curse."

Talim considered only for a heartbeat, before replying, "I swear by Soul Calibur to keep our bargain."

"Then I set her free. Talk as you will, it will avail you nothing. So long as you do not take an eternity."

Taki groaned and dropped onto one knee. The Wind Priestess crouched down beside her to help. As the kunoichi looked up, Talim saw that her eyes were once more clear and brown and human.

She said, tentatively, "Taki?"

After a pause which seemed to last an eternity, Taki, said, weakly, "Talim? Am I dreaming? Can it be you?"

"Yes, yes! It is me!" Talim threw her arms around the older woman, then stopped as she felt Taki moan in pain. She realised with horror that the ninja bore many wounds on her body. Yet, even though some looked as though they should be mortal, no blood flowed from the pierced and torn flesh.

"Oh, my god! How did you get these injuries? They're really bad!"

Struggling to speak through her pain, Taki gasped, "Soul Edge! It forced me to fight, and cared nothing whether I was wounded. It's kept me alive like some damned zombie."

Talim said, "Let me help you!" She tried to summon the Healing Zephyr.

Nothing happened.

In desperation, Talim clutched Soul Calibur. "Help her, damn you!" Getting no response, she attempted to wield the power of the sword herself. Placing her hands over Taki's wounds, she forced the reluctant entity to release healing energy. She could feel the damaged flesh begin to repair itself, and Taki's breathing becoming easier.

Encouraged by her success, Talim sent the pure white force surging throughout the kunoichi's body, trying to purge it from the indwelling evil. Immediately a dark wall of resistance arose, the two powers meeting and grappling with each other. Seeing Taki was again showing signs of distress, Talim reluctantly abandoned the attempt.

After a moment's hesitation, Taki began to brush and stroke Talim's face, and the priestess responded likewise, the two of them examining each other as though for the first time, smiling, their lips seeking to draw together, the kisses at first slow, then increasingly passionate. The ecstasy of touching and caressing was such that Talim felt she would see the world perish in fire a dozen times if only these moments would continue forever.

Eventually, with their heads pressed close together, Taki started to speak, as if compelled to do so.

"It's been like the worst nightmare, being a prisoner in my own body, having that thing controlling it, murdering without pity. Every plea for mercy, every scream of every dying victim, it made sure I heard them all, felt them all. Not content with that, it wanted to corrupt and devour my soul too, hunting me through the pathways of my own mind. I hid as I was trained, using decoys and shadows, distracting it with fantasies and deceptions, always trying to keep it away from my true self. I sacrificed those things I could not protect: my bodily skills of weaponry and stealth, even my knowledge of magic and my recent memories; it possessed them all. But it could not penetrate to the core of my being." She wiped away moisture from her cheeks, and from Talim's. "I would rather die than endure such slavery any longer."

In a small voice, Talim said, "Then tell me what I can do to help you. I've tried my utmost, but I don't know if it's been enough." She explained to Taki about her agreement with the demon. Taki listened intently, her head bowed.

After Talim had finished, she said, "I understand why you have done this, yet I fear we are lost. You have sworn an oath on the Sword of Law; you must keep it or lose the purity that your possession of it requires. If the demon reaches the heart of Tartarus, it will metamorphose into its final form, attaining a power equal to Soul Calibur, along with the greatest strength and fighting skill. Will even you as Wind Dancer prevail against such odds?"

Talim said, "The Wind cannot reach to this place beyond the stars."

"How then will you defeat the demon?"

"Because I no longer rely on the Wind. Since we parted, I have trained constantly to fight without its aid. I know now true strength lies in myself. I needed only to believe."

Taki smiled, "So you finally approach knowledge of who you are. It might yet be enough to save the world."

Talim exclaimed, astonished, "You always mocked such pretensions!"

"It is in my nature to do so. I believed that you needed to recognise the real source of your power. The Wind is not a crutch to lean on; it is the means by which you become yourself. You had to learn this on your own."

Talim said, "That's what Yoshimitsu was teaching me. And Mina too. But there may be a way to win without fighting. I tried before to expel the demon from your body with the force of Soul Calibur. It resisted and tried to hurt you. Perhaps though our wills combined together will succeed."

Taki said, "Although the long struggle weakened me, your love has restored my vigour. We lose nothing in trying, nor can this violate your oaths. Let us begin at once. I yearn to rid myself of this odious being."

Talim said, "We should first move further away from this place. The demon is not to be trusted."

"It is a good thought." Taki uncoiled her rope. "We will descend, and enter the sea. It has oft been a symbol of cleansing. I will go before you lest treachery undo us."

The descent was made in short order, and as Talim landed on the wet sand, she watched Taki carefully for any changes in her manner. But if the demon was aware of their plans, it gave no sign. Taki removed her tabi footwear, her grey coat and headband, letting her hair fall free. She entered the water, little wavelets lapping at her feet. The boat seemed to have vanished along with the fog, and the sea was clear to the horizon. Overhead the sky was black and cloudless. There were no stars and no wind blew.

Taki waded out until the water reached to her knees, then turned to look back at Talim. "I am prepared." Talim removed the soft shoes and pantaloons Mina had given her, leaving the tabard hanging. She stepped cautiously into the water, its coldness running through her like a chill of fear. Her heart beat achingly.

Taki said, "Hold your sword in your right hand, take my hand in your left, and don't, whatever you do, let go. I will recite a spell of exorcism to focus our power, try to repeat it after me if you can."

Talim met her eyes, absorbing the look of defiant hope, reflecting back her own fervent desire that they should be successful. Tearfully, she gave the kunoichi a last ardent embrace, then gripped her hand, uttering a prayer to the god whose presence she could no longer feel. Grasping Mekki-maru in her own left hand, Taki began to chant.

"Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus …"

"Exorzamus te, omnis immundus spiritus …"

"Omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii…"

"Omnis satanic potestas, omnis incurso …"

From nowhere, a devil wind whipped up the sea, stirring it up in a circle for thirty feet around them, like a giant's broth. Taki raised her voice above the churning of the whirlpool.

"Omnis legio, omnis congregatio et secta diabolica …"

Out of the clear sky, forks of lightning descended to illuminate the calm surface of the ocean with a silver sheen. The next line came in a rushing babble of words which Talim could no longer follow.

"Ergo draco maledicte et omnis légio diabólica adjurámus te…"

A clap of thunder sounded, and the Wind Priestess gripped Soul Calibur as though it could save her from drowning. In Taki's hand, Soul Edge burst into bright flame, and she shouted,

"Cessa decípere humánas creatúras …"

In her inner vision, Talim could see a wave of darkness rising to engulf Taki. The kunoichi seemed unaware, flinging the last words of the incantation up to the heavens.

"Eisque aeternae Perditionis venenum propinare!"

Taki's body went rigid, and she gave a cry of pain. In her eyes flared two points of red. Around them the elements raged: lightning flashed, thunder roared, the whirlwind howled as air, fire and water contended with one another.

With every ounce of her will, Talim sought to push back the dark with the light of Soul Calibur, to free Taki from its suffocating grasp. She could sense another force joined with her, as the ninja desperately tried to banish the demon. And then almost imperceptibly Talim felt the blackness recede a little, as she channelled the greater strength of Soul Calibur to drive it out. Slowly but inexorably the might of Soul Edge was weakening.

Yet at the same time, Taki's body was doubled up as though in agonizing pain, the dark fire still in her eyes, and she clutched Talim's hand with the grip of one in the throes of fever. Despite all the Wind Priestess's efforts, she could not bring relief to her companion's suffering.

In the midst of the turmoil, Talim heard the voice of Soul Edge.

"Cease this traitorous, foolish attack, or I rend your friend's body limb from limb and send her soul howling into eternity!"

Trying futilely to increase the speed of the exorcism, Talim gasped, "If you do that, you will perish along with her!"

"As I will if you succeed in banishing me. I care not. I will drag her down with me into death. Now I stop her heart."

Taki clutched at her chest and moaned. She began to slump in Talim's arms.

"No, please don't!" The Wind Priestess could feel no pulse as she clenched her companion's wrist. Already Taki's face was taking on a waxy sheen, her body as limp as a rag doll. The circle of light continued to close around the clot of blackness. Yet the flame in Taki's eyes would not go out, and she still held Mekki-maru as though in a death grip.

The demonic voice became slurred. "Hurry, she is at the point of death!" Mekki-maru's fire burned low, and it dropped from Taki's hand.

"No, no, I beg you!" Talim realised there wasn't time. Even Soul Calibur could not restore the dead to life. "Ok, I'll stop! I'll stop, I tell you! For heaven's sake, let her live!"

No sooner had Talim spoken these words, than the storm ceased, the sea returned to its millpond flatness, and complete silence fell. In great fear, Talim cradled Taki in her arms, anxiously looking for signs of life. The ninja's mouth was slack, her eyes shut, her skin like marble.

Suddenly Taki's body gave a convulsive jerk. Her lips opened, expelling air and sucking it in. Talim could feel a strong pulse at her neck. After a moment, her eyelids fluttered. Talim looked with unutterable relief into the liquid depths of her eyes, impulsively kissing them. Taki sighed, and gave a faint smile, which Talim returned, pressing her cheek against the kunoichi's. Her glance flicked back to her beloved's eyes.

They were edged with red.

Talim recoiled. Taki's lips continued to stretch, drawing back from the teeth, until they formed a rictus grin. A deep-throated laugh forced itself from her mouth. Talim let go of the ninja's body, and began to back away. Taki stood unsupported, swaying slightly, as though drunk. Her laughter grew louder and louder. Stooping, she bent to retrieve Mekki-maru from where it had dropped in the shallow water.

Talim held up her own weapons protectively. She shouted, "Don't come any closer!"

Taki's insane laughter continued. Talim heard the voice she had above all come to hate. "I live! You weak fool! You came so close to defeating me, but you had not the courage." Another guffaw. "I grow tired of these games. I allowed you to hold congress with your love. Now fulfil your promise."

Talim said hurriedly, "Wait, we hadn't finished talking!"

"You used your time to plot together, then assailed me. Is this the trust you boasted about?"

"I kept my oath. I did no harm to Taki's body, you did that yourself. I'm under no obligation to let you pass. Let her go free for a while longer, and I will keep my promise to you."

The demon sniggered. "Is it that you wish to engage in that ridiculous copulation by which you humans set such store?"

"No! … yes! We do want time to … to … copulate. And … talk. And then you can do as you want."

A final chortle escaped Taki's lips. "Very well. A little while more in eternity is nothing. It will be amusing to join with your body, and then devour your soul. But I will not wait forever. How much longer do you require for this … preposterous activity?"

Talim thought quickly, "Er, a good long time. Sometimes the … activities … can go on all night."

"That seems excessive. And there is no night or day here. I give you three hours as you measure time. Take them or leave them."

Talim said firmly, "Four hours."

"Agreed. Savour each one of them, for they will be your last." Taki began to totter on her feet, her eyes rolling upwards. Aware that she was still holding Mekki-maru, Talim decided to wait and be sure.

Taki opened her eyes again. They looked normal. Talim hastened forward to support her. She said, "Are you ok? Please forgive me, I failed. We were so close to victory, but when I thought you would die …I couldn't, I just couldn't go on. The risk was too great."

The ninja's head slumped wearily. She said, "It's all right. Soul Edge showed more cunning than I expected. And I would have done the same in your place. Even with the fate of many at stake, if we cannot act with humanity and compassion, what is the point? At least, so I tell myself."

Talim said, "The gods would surely wish it so."

"I hope you're right, but sometimes I fear we are merely toys in their hands, to be thrown aside when no longer needed."

Talim bowed her head. "I do not know. There may be hope while time remains to us." She recounted her conversation with Soul Edge.

Taki gave a short laugh. "You're becoming quite the expert at dealing with demons. I wonder if sharing a body with a human soul causes the one to resemble the other. Can it be the fiend has developed a sense of curiosity, or even voyeurism?" She began to remove her body suit.

Talim asked, "What are you doing?"

"It expects us to behave in a certain way. Let's not disappoint it."

"Can we … I mean, should we? Here, of all places?"

Taki finished stepping out of her leotard, her familiar smile sending a thrill of intoxication running through Talim. She said, "Why not? Can you think of a better way of spending what may be our last hours together? This ocean and beach are most likely an illusion, but they are a pleasant enough one."

"I suppose you're right."

Their clothing removed, they walked hand in hand into the sea. Facing the priestess, Taki said softly, "Do you remember the pool in the valley?"

"I do."

"And do you remember … this?"

Talim gave a shudder of delight. Though they stood in a barren and faraway world, with the greatest foe of humanity at hand, the pure pleasure of touching those places still worked its magic between them, the brushing of skin against skin a sweet shelter from the coming storm.

There may be a message in this chapter about compassion and 'political necessities'. On the other hand, I often groan at the point in the film when the villain threatens to kill the hero's favourite sidekick unless he/she throws down his/her weapon(s). And, of course, the hero complies – usually. Even though it's probably a daft thing to do because the villain could kill them both anyway. Well that's not quite the situation above I guess.

The exorcism passage is from a transcript of Supernatural. (Google 'modo vernant omnia') I've no idea if it's authentic, nor do I care. However should any demons, real or imaginary, appear while you're reading, I wouldn't necessarily rely on it to banish them. The translation runs:

We exorcise you, every impure spirit,
every satanic power, every incursion
of the infernal adversary, every legion,
every congregation and diabolical sect.

Thus cursed demon
and every diabolical legion, we adjure you.
Cease to deceive human creatures,
and to give to them the poison of eternal Perdition.