Ribs cracked loudly between the demon’s jaws.
Three of them crowded around a human torso, their rat-skull heads snapping and tearing every inch of flesh they could reach. One tried to pull out a lung only for their fellow to roar loudly and slash, the two aggressively snarling back and forth while the third set to consuming a liver.
The tallest of them suddenly raised its snout to the air and began to sniff. It was only when it emitted a growl that the other two noticed, turning their heads in the same direction.
Another demon was crawling several paces away from them, only stopping when it became aware of their attention. The feeding three stared, taking in the newcomer’s small size and rolls of loose skin as they sniffed uncertainly.
After a few moments the smaller demon curled its claws, dragging them from the top of its forehead to the tip of its snout. This motion seemed to calm the three of them, each giving a low purr before resuming their feast.
Jen crawled away, waiting until she was out of sight before stopping to let out a gasp.
“… Okay, I got the submission gesture right… Good… That’s good…”
Gestures had been the most difficult part of the ruse. She’d gotten used to physically wearing the skin, though being wrapped in a dead creature still made her stomach curdle if she thought too much about it . And while she was smaller than the other Rat-Heads (the only name she had for them) her appearance was convincing enough. But they communicated more with gestures than with sounds, and the motions had far more subtlety than she had initially realised.
Turning the next corner revealed a round hill of stone with a smaller hill beside it, rising from the ground like an uneven camel hump; she had taken to calling it a hut. The looming shadow of a tall crater hung in the background. A faint, high-pitched cry could be heard from the larger hill, the familiar sound making Jen smile behind her mask.
She made her way to the smaller hill, using a carefully placed pile of rubble to pull herself up. There was a patch of discoloured skin spread across part of the stone, Jen grabbing a corner and pulling it up to reveal a hole just large enough for her to crawl through.
The room inside was small, mostly taken up by a pile of furs in the middle. Directly opposite her, hung like a curtain, was another piece of skin; thick, leathery and long enough to stretch from ceiling to floor. Pinned to the walls by spikes were half-drawn maps, while near the gap she’d entered was a grey slab currently acting as a makeshift table. Thin sticks of charcoal were spread on top, holding down another map.
Not exactly luxury, she thought to herself. but it’s nice to be home.
Jen began scratching just under the chin of her mask until one of the claws located a thin seam. She scratched again. One there was enough pressure to split the seam she wiggled a finger inside and pulled, mask and skin separating so she could pull the former over her head. Returning to the seam she pulled again, opening a gash all the way down to her waist and shrugging the skin off her shoulders.
Within seconds it was piled around her feet.
Goosebumps instantly ran up her arms, exasperated by the quickly cooling sheen of sweat that made her shirt and shorts cling to her skin. Being free of the disguise was quickly becoming an alien sensation, but that didn’t stop Jen sighing in relief. She shook her cropped hair and began stretching to relieve the aches in her muscles; crawling was important for the illusion, but doing it so often was proving hell for her back.
A heavy swoosh caught her attention and Jen glanced toward the curtain. It swayed, the motion wide enough to create a gap between it and the wall.
A large pair of red eyes stared through the gap.
The eyes blinked, accompanied by a deep, scratchy voice saying, “Welcome back child.”
Jen followed the voice and entered a cavernous room, its stone walls adorned with strips of skin like that of her curtain. These strips had been fashioned into pouches, many of them filled with waterskins. Hanging down from the domed ceiling was a mobile of bones, limbs and moist entrails. Another large curtain covered one part of the wall, acting as a front door. Beside this was a roughly chiselled slot with a pouch hanging from it; Jen had recently installed that to collect any letters she couldn’t receive in person.
But it was the centre of the room that drew the eye.
Set in a circle was a collection of cradles. Some made of fur, one an eggshell, several were bone and there was even one that looked like a hard that had been split open. They weren’t all occupied, only three infants currently slept, each of them a different shape. A fourth child, green-skinned and three-legged with a long neck, was suckling noisily at one of the swollen, pale breasts of its caretaker.
It didn’t take any notice of Jen’s presence.
The caretaker in question, sat in the centre on the cradle circle, was nearly as tall as the ceiling. The mobile hovered just above her bald, balloon-shaped head. She had eight arms, four at shoulder height and four jutting out just above the cradles. Between both sets of arms was a long torso covered entirely in breasts, each obscenely pale like a pimple just about to burst. There was no clear sign of any legs, and Jen privately suspected that she didn’t have any.
What she did have was a face, dominated by a wide mouth that currently smiled down at her.
“You’ve been gone for a while, I thought you didn’t have many letters to deliver.”
“I didn’t,” Jen responded, walking to the slot by the entrance and rifling through the pouch. “But they were all going to different places. Thought I’d figured out an optimum route but then the landscape shifted… again.”
A low chuckle rumbled from Mama, the smile widening to reveal two rows of needle-thin fangs. “Ah yes, I’ve heard the rumblings; the world will be giving birth soon. I wonder how it will fare amongst your… buildings, I think you called them?”
Jen pulled out two letters, briefly scanning over the notes on the front and trying to mentally calculate the distance. Numbers and pathways flitted across her brain in a jumbled mess; she was too tired to figure this out. With a small yawn she looked back at Mama.
“Expecting any other little ones?”
“Not for some time, most mothers are still in the brood period. This one’s parents,” She indicated the suckling infant. “will be coming to collect him soon.”
“Huh…. When you say parents, do you mean the kind that I should not be in the same room as?”
Mama thought a moment, tapping a claw on her cheek.
“They’re the kind you should not be alone with.” She responded after a while, smiling warmly as she added “But you know I wouldn’t put you in any danger.”
“Thanks Mama, but all the same I think I’ll keep out the way. Could do with sleeping before I head out again.”
“Have you eaten?”
Jen had to stop herself from rolling her eyes.
Mama was, as far as she understood, a nursing demon. Many parents would leave their new-borns with her until they were developed enough to start eating solid food, like the green child now pulling away to reveal clear teeth-marks around Mama’s nipple. Despite calling her ‘child’ and insisting that she in turn call her ‘Mama’, she did recognise Jen as an adult and allowed her to do as she pleased.
But that hadn’t stopped her fussing like a real parent.
“A little but not much, carrying food attracts too much attention. Plus the suit doesn’t have enough pockets.”
“You need sustenance, especially before you sleep.” Mama cupped one of her breasts as she spoke, earning a raised eyebrow until she sighed “Humans are so picky.”
A hand reached for the nearest wall pouch, withdrawing a waterskin that sloshed audibly as it was held in front of Jen’s face. Jen hesitated, eyes flicking up to Mama’s smiling face before taking it.
“Thank you.” She murmured, immediately turning away and pushing open the curtain to her room.
“Be sure to drink it all child, or I’ll puncture your stomach and pump it in myself.”
Once alone, Jen found her legs instantly moving towards the bed of furs. But then she remembered the letters in her hand, pausing to look instead at the maps on the wall.
There’s no point. The thought entered her mind before she could stop it. You always try but it’s impossible to make a functional map. This world is alive, it shifts around no matter what and you can’t stop it with charcoal and paper.
It was true, Jen had long since given up using any maps for her journeys other than as a reference for the landmarks she’d come across. Recently she’d become more successful at navigating through her senses, as if disguising herself as a predator for so long was beginning to sharpen her instincts. But even so she found herself putting the letters down and picking up a stick of charcoal.
“I earned that cartography diploma and I’m going to bloody well use it, apocalypse or not.”
The waterskin was still in her other hand. She uncorked the top, took a deep breath… then drank. Her features scrunched together, a shudder running down her spine while she swallowed the pale fluid.
The problem wasn’t the taste. She would be the first to admit that it was sweet, waterier than you might expect; it was more like coconut milk than that of a cow. And she knew for a fact that drinking it only did her good. Mama hadn’t been able to explain it fully, but the milk was packed full of vitamins, minerals and iron. There was also something unique to her species which boosted the body’s immunity and healing abilities; cuts that would take a week to heal could fade in a couple of days. Not only that but it was remarkably filling, both in the short and long term. Back when Mama had first come across her she’d been near starving; a drink of this was like eating a three-course meal. Because of that she had grown accustomed to taking some with her on longer journeys.
But the thought of drinking it still repulsed her.
A line was scratched onto the paper, connected to an x marked in the corner.
Explaining why it repulsed her had been difficult, because both she and Mama were under the impression that their thought process was logical. Demons not only left their young with Mama but traded food, goods and random knick-knacks for her milk. All of them knew it was essentially a superfood, so she thought it was strange that Jen had fought so hard against drinking it.
But Jen had responded with what she thought was indisputable common sense; adults shouldn’t be drinking breast milk.
The charcoal snapped.
There was the argument that she had drunk cow milk all the time before the meld, and that was essentially like drinking breast milk because the milk was intended for calves. But that was different; that was an animal. She wouldn’t do that with a person.
And what about demons? Are they people or animals?
Jen tapped the paper with the broken charcoal, biting her lip until her teeth left marks.
The thought had been bothering her for a while, and she realised that a lot of it was her own fault. She, and every human stuck here, had used the word ‘demon’ to describe every beast they came across. Even Mama said they considered themselves to be different forms of the same species. But there was some distinction when it came to sentience.
Some demons, like the Rat-Heads she mimicked, were undeniably like animals. They were no doubt intelligent and had their own form of communication, but it was the same intelligence you’d see in a pack of wolves. But then you had demons like Mama, who could not only speak but clearly had their own social structure and rules. They were still monstrous and spoke of violence with the nonchalance of someone asking the time, but not all of them were actively hostile. Most killed either for food or self-defence, their words far more aggressive than their actions.
Jen had only just scratched the surface of these differences. Had she not been taken in by Mama it was likely she’d still act the same as others; treating every demon as an enemy purely because of their appearance.
Her hand had automatically started drawing a squiggly blob, but then she paused and frowned, mentally trying to remember the structure in question.
“Nope, that’s not there anymore… it split into a valley and moved about three miles to what I think is east… that’s further than last time…”
Jen continued for a while, alternating between drinking, examining her previous maps and attempting to scratch out a new route. It was simple, soothing work that let her switch off her brain. The longer she worked the more she felt her eyes clouding over with shadows, sinking to her knees when her legs failed to support her weight. Within time the charcoal slipped from her hand and she let her head slump onto the paper, sleep worming its way through her body.
“Ah, here for your little parasite?”
Mama’s voice broke through the darkness, accompanied by the squeals of an infant.
Jen lifted her head, blinking for several moments as she tried to remember what she was doing. She couldn’t tell if she’d only just nodded off or if she’d been asleep for a while, either way she was numb from the awkward position. Standing up seemed like a good idea until she realised her legs were still asleep. When they finally responded enough for her to move, accompanied by multiple groans and grunts, the numbness was replaced by a swarm of pins and needles.
“Of course, because my muscles haven’t suffered enough abuse recently.”
Her grumbles were interrupted by a low growl, to which her still groggy mind responded by looking down at her own stomach. No, she wasn’t hungry. The empty waterskin was proof of that.
Something was watching her.
She didn’t turn straight away, instead mentally calculating the best course of action. There wasn’t anything within reach that could work as an effective weapon. The waterskin might provide a distraction, but it would be useless against teeth. And while she was agile, she was in no state to make a quick getaway. Eventually, encouraged by the lack of attack, she decided to turn and see what she was up against.
Stood at the curtain was an algae green, three-legged beast, instantly telling her that this was one of the parents due to collect their child. It stood like a living tripod, and unlike its child this one had a long, clawed arm stretching out from the back of its round head. The mouth was open, letting a line of yellow drop down to the ground.
They stared at each other, and Jen decided to take a risk.
The demon didn’t say anything, but a tongue appearing to lick away the drool told her exactly there would be no conversation. It moved one foot forward.
And was violently yanked back through the curtain.
Jen shrieked despite herself, her voice soon echoed by a crescendo of chaos. She dashed into Mama’s room, seeing the demon pinned to the ground by one of her giant hands; a claw was pressed against the centre of its long neck, with enough pressure to form beads of dark-green blood. Another three-legged demon was stood a little away, screeching like a crow and trying desperately to reach up to where Mama was holding its child by the scruff of its neck. The other infants were screaming and writhing in their cradles.
Mama stared at the one on the ground, her face and voice as cold as stone.
“Hurt the human and I eat your offspring.”
The other demon screeched again, it’s single arm flailing as it babbled “No hurt! No hurt! No! Please forgive!”
Mama didn’t move, allowing both parents to stew in their own panic and keeping her wide mouth set in an unreadable grimace. Jen didn’t know where to look; this wasn’t the first time Mama had defended her, but it was always unnerving seeing just how easily she switched from maternal to terrifying.
The wriggling infant in her hand was finally lowered towards the begging demon, who clutched it to their back and sobbed a string of unintelligible croaks. The one still pinned to the ground let out a whimper when the talon was removed, scrambling awkwardly to its feet and backing out of the building with its partner and child.
The room grew still as the two listened to the voices outside growing distant.
“Are you hurt child?”
Jen dared a look at her guardian’s face, seeing it once again filled with warmth and concern.
“No, I… I’m ok…. Thank you, Mama.”
Mama smiled broadly, patting her on the head before attending to the task of soothing the distressed infants.
Also available on itch.io – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/demon-skinned-postwoman-episode-2-mama
Second entry and we’re getting more into Jen’s character and living siutation Some parts were a bit heavy as this is still a bit of an introduction, but it raised a couple of questions I intend to revisit later in the series. The next one should be a bit more dynamic as we follow Jen on one of her deliveries.
Side note: I’m really having fun with the body horror aspect of the world and demons (quite eager to experiment further).