The ‘thank you’ was a nice touch, as was the hint about the gorilla-dinosaurs. And considering the directions Jen usually got were short and vague, this note was like having GPS again. True it was an area she wasn’t familiar with, but that was nothing new. She had been convinced that, other than the distance, this was going to be one of her most straightforward deliveries.
Except nobody was here.
She bit her lip, tucking the envelope away and opening her mouth to shout “HELLO? HELLO? ANYBODY? … Post is here?”
The station was, like every other human structure, in a state of ruin. The stops were still intact, though most were now covered with leather or cloth, creating a scattered series of makeshift tents. There were four buses remaining, two still upright and in decent condition; they almost looked drivable. If it weren’t for the web of eyeballs covering the controls, she would have tried the ignition. The other two were on their side, one of them leaning into the exposed wall of an oblong building with a tree trunk of twisting limbs stretching up to the top floor.
She hadn’t had chance to explore the building yet, as her focus had been on the tents.
Someone had been living here, that much was obvious. The tents showed signs of wear, and what items remained were all in disarray. There were the remains of a fire pit, a few broken tools and some personal items; one eyeless teddy bear peaked out at her from a nearby drain. She even came across one tent with a small stockpile of unopened tins, the labels all faded.
Pity I don’t have a rucksack. The thought lasted a moment before it was eclipsed by I didn’t really just consider stealing these did I? That’s a shitty thought Jen, what if someone comes back?
Her eyes drifted down to a scuff mark on the ground, crouching down to run her fingers across it.
This was a problem. Unless somebody was hiding in the building or in a secret underground bunker she didn’t know about, there was no way she could deliver the letter. If this had been another dead letter she could go home, but so far she hadn’t come across any bodies or even blood. And the lack of damage told her that whoever was here may have just left, meaning that they were still out there somewhere. But she had no way to find them… leaving her with a letter she couldn’t do anything with.
At least when this happened before I could take it back to the post office. I had a whole team to help me there.
She sighed, standing up from her crouch.
“AGH! Oh shit oh shit oh shit! Cramp cramp cramp! Fucking hell that hurts!”
Jen doubled over as the cramp ran up her left leg, curses continuing to pour from her lips. She hadn’t dared to stand fully upright until now, hovering in a near constant half-crouch to keep up her disguise in case she came across a demon. Though as she stood there in the abandoned bus station, silent except for her own swearing, Jen considered that maybe this time she could have afforded to be a little less cautious.
That’s when the ground rumbled.
She stumbled, gripping the nearest tent-flap and hissing through a fresh wave of pain. The shaking stopped almost as soon as it started, giving Jen just enough time to steady herself before another one rolled through the ground. Each tremble was stronger than the last but all of them were short, more like giant footsteps than an earthquake. Jen had seen her fair share of large demons, Mama herself was a perfect example, but she had yet to meet any that could star in their own kaiju film.
The tremors stopped.
A few more minutes passed but still nothing.
Then she heard flapping. Faint but still clearly flapping.
Jen dropped back down to all fours, slowly this time to not exacerbate the fading cramps, and crouched down behind one of the tents. Her head raised just enough to peek out, peering first towards the statue and then to the area behind it. She had taken notice of the area before but hadn’t bothered to explore as there was no sign of any tents or other settlements there. The space seemed to be the remnants of a shopping park there; small buildings, empty stalls and a vast car park, overshadowed by a tall, black dome.
Black dome? That wasn’t there before.
A small flicker made her sink further into cover, squinting through the eye sockets of her mask. Something was moving between the stalls. It was difficult to make out the details from this distance, but the shape was too thin to be one of the dinosaur gorillas mentioned in the note. As it came further into view, she could make out at least four thin legs curling and stretching their way through the rubble, attached to a long body. The movements were slow and deliberate, like a spider crawling across its web. Every so often it would stop, bending down and extending something long from its body. Whatever the appendage was, it pawed at ground before retracting as quickly as it had appeared. Then the creature would move on and repeat the process. The creature appeared to be looking for something, perhaps hunting or scavenging.
It was fascinating to watch… but also concerning. The spider demon was going about its business in a leisurely manner and was far enough away that Jen could feasibly sneak away. The tents provided enough cover if she kept low, though her muscles protested at the thought of more crouching, and it wouldn’t take that much effort to circle back to the tracks and head home. That would be the sensible option, but Jen still wanted to explore the main station building. She couldn’t shake the feeling that there might be people in there, or at least some clue as to where they had gone.
Her fingers slipped into her pouch, feeling the thick envelope nestled within and sucking a breath in between her teeth.
“Ok… ok… don’t panic… just start moving…”
One step. Then another. Slow, steady and with frequent breaks to keep an eye on the spider-demon, Jen started to inch her way to the building. The demon was also getting closer, though at a far slower pace than her and with no indication it even knew she was there. Another look revealed it had reached the statue, still seemingly examining every inch it came across.
Is it alone? I thought I heard flapping earlier, but maybe that-
An ear-splitting screech ripped through her eardrums, echoing with force of a loudspeaker. She clutched her ears through the mask, twisting to see a small demon hovering above her. It fixed her with a pair of glassy bug-eyes and what looked like a trunk was pointing upwards, continue to emit that loud shriek. There was no attempt to attack, in fact the demon was keeping a fair distance, but it refused to keep quiet.
A worrying thought made Jen look back towards the statue, seeing that the spider-demon was now looking in their direction. Then it scuttled forward.
She scrambled to her feet, claws scraping loudly on the ground as she started dashing towards the building. The shrieking of the bat demon was cut off in an odd yelp, as if it wasn’t expecting her to move so quick. As she dashed towards the building she zig-zagged; a tactic she’d seen other rat-heads use to escape their predators, even tearing down a few of the ragged tents to create more obstacles between her and the spider. The maneuver proved more successful than expected; by the time she had pulled herself onto one of the overturned buses, the spider-demon has its legs tangled in a scrap of fabric. She dropped down to grab a chunk of rubble, lobbing it at the creature with enough force to knock it back a few paces.
Grinning in triumph, Jen turned her attention back to the building. The limb trunk had blocked up any gaps on the ground floor, with no door visible. Her only option was to start climbing, jamming her claws into the flesh to keep her grip. It wasn’t easy; the flesh was moist and sticky with blood, fighting her progress upwards. Her lungs burned and her muscles screamed at her, eventually forcing her to dismount onto the first floor rather than the top floor as intended. She dropped into a heap, moaning as she forced herself onto her knees, already searching for a method of escape or attack.
Her search was soon interrupted by another shriek, the bat demon flying towards her from a shattered window. In a fit of fear and frustration she found herself yelling “OH SHUT UP WILL YOU!”
To her surprise it did, nearly falling from the air as it did so.
“What did you say?”
“I SAID SHU- Wait, you can talk?”
“Of course I can talk!” The demon exclaimed, his voice high and nasally as he continued “Since when can you talk?”
“What do you mean since…. Oh.” In that moment, Jen remembered that rat-heads didn’t speak. She was thankful for the mask hiding her embarrassed blush, unable to believe she had given herself away with such a stupid move.
Both of them regarded each other, neither making a move until eventually the demon asked “Seriously when did this happen? I’ve never heard any of you scavengers make a peep before.” The tone was more curious than angry, the demon cocking his one side and watching her like she was in a zoo.
“I’m not really like the others. Look, I don’t want any trouble here. Is there any chance you’d be willing to let me slip out the back? Maybe?”
The glassy eyes narrowed at this. “So you can alert the rest of your pack?”
“What? No. I don’t have a pack.”
“Come off it, everyone knows you beasts travel in packs! You’re gonna go running off to them so you can ambush us!”
“That’s not… why would I ambush you? I don’t know who you are, all I want to return home without getting killed!”
“Then why were you spying on us?”
“I was trying to leave! You’re the one who gave up my position so your buddy could hunt me down!”
“We’re not hunting you, we thought you were attacking!”
“WELL I’M NOT!”
“NEITHER ARE WE!”
Their shouts echoed in the empty building, bouncing from wall to wall as they faded into nothing. Jen was panting, clutching her chest while maintaining eye-contact with the demon. His wings were flapping much faster now, and his trunk had flared every time he raised his voice. Neither of them dared make a move, and the silence was only broken when a new voice called out from a nearby stairwell.
“Soar? You ok Soar?”
Her whole body grew tense, a tightness curling around her spine as she waited to see what Soar would do. He still watched her, making a little huffing sound with his trunk before finally calling out “Y-yeah, I’m fine. I’m in here.”
Jen let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, getting to her feet “Ok, Soar, let’s clear this up. I don’t wanna kill you and you don’t wanna kill me… I hope. All I want is to finish doing my job and head home, I swear I won’t get in your way. Please can we just put this behind us and go about our business?”
“Hmm.” Soar cocked his head again, daring to edge a little closer and dropping down until they were at eye level. “You said that before, what do you mean by ‘job’? What kind of job can one of you creatures do?”
“Um, you see… It’s uh… Fuck’s sake, I don’t have a good excuse for this so I’m just going to be honest.”
Grasping both jaws from her mask, she pulled them apart as wide as they could go. Her human face was now clearly visible, still flushed red with emotions and a thin sheen of sweat. Soar stared at her, his eyes bugging out as if they were going to pop, while his trunk twitched. She felt like she should say something, explain or break the tension, but words failed to appear and the two ended up in another awkward staring contest.
“Soar are you alright… in… here?”
Both turned at the same time to the top of a nearby stairwell, seeing the spider-demon stood there. Up close she noticed that their front two legs were longer than the back two, allowing them to stand almost upright. Jen also made out a multitude of slits covering their torso and head, not like scars but more like gills without the movement. Their face was made up of three amber eyes, two in the usual place and one where a nose would be on a human, with a thin mouth stretching wide from right to left. The eyes were currently blinking, fixed on her with the same expression of shock that Soar had.
“… You, uh, got something stuck in your throat?”
The snort left Jen before she could stop it, a hand flying up to smother the giggles that followed. It wasn’t the funniest joke in the world, she wasn’t sure if it was even meant as a joke, but she rarely heard demons make such comments. And it was a welcome relief of tension all around. The spider grinned in response and even Soar seemed to relax, fluttering over to balance on the stair railing before asking “What took you so long Tegan?”
“I came in from the back in case they tried to sneak out. Seriously though, what am I looking at?”
“No idea, but I don’t think she’s dangerous.”
Shaking her head as the last few chuckles faded, Jen looked over and pointed to the lower jaw of her mask. “This is a disguise, I’m actually human; the head is a mask and the skin is a suit. It’s a survival tactic… which today hasn’t been a good example of.”
Both demons glanced at each other, Soar only looking more bewildered while Tegan had an amused smirk as they commented “I just hope the poor bugger was dead when you skinned it. Is this a common human practise?”
“No. Well…” The image of a fur coat her Grandma often wore came to mind, but she decided it really wasn’t the time to start discussing old fashion trends. “As far as I’m aware I’m the only one doing this.”
“Hold up,” Soar said, hopping up and down on his makeshift perch to get her attention. “If you’re human, does that mean you know where the other humans are?”
She blinked, surprised at this line of questioning. “No, I was looking of them when you arrived. Why?”
“Trade.” Tegan straightened up, flexing their many jointed legs. “You humans are a strange lot, but you’ve come up with some useful bits; medicine in particular. Plus, Orett insists we stop at every single settlement just so she can add to her collection.”
“I see. What do you give them?”
“Food mostly, occasionally a tool or trinket.”
“Huh.” Jen hadn’t heard of this arrangement before. No human she had visited ever mentioned trading with demons, in fact most still saw them as viscious monsters. Mama was open to talking to humans but still advised Jen to stay out of the way when parents came to collect their children, often with good reason. Maybe these two, or group considering their mention of someone called ‘Orett’, were an exception. “Fair enough. Well I’m not here to trade. I’ll see if I can find any signs of the people who lived here, then I’ll head home.” She hesitated before adding “Are still agreed on the not attacking each other thing?”
Soar nodded, taking to the air once more. “Yeah, we’re agreed. Sorry about that.”
“Me too. And uh, Tegan?” The spider cocked their head. “Sorry about throwing stuff at you earlier.”
“Eh, no harm done. It was an impressive shot from that distance.”
“Now that’s dealt with,” Soar turned to Tegan. “we’d better head back to the nest. If we’re too long Orett’ll get restless and start exploring; Aarde will kill us if she brings back another one of those fluffy blocks.”
With that Soar fluttered down the stairs, not even giving a backwards glance. Tegan turned to follow suit but then turned to look back at Jen. A thin tentacle slid out from one of the slits in their neck, giving her a little wave before retreating as the spider disappeared.
She listened to the fading sound of footsteps, then started to look around.
The building showed no more signs of life than the tents outside, though once again a few scuffs and objects in disarray suggested the possibility of a quick getaway. No notes though, no maps or directions or anything that might tell her where they went. The top and ground floor proved just as fruitless as the first. Jen pulled out the letter again, scanning the instructions for any hidden message, any missed words that might tell her where to go. But there was nothing.
“Sorry, looks like it’ll be a while before you get delivered… if you ever do.”
A hurried second search proved no better than the first, so she finally went back outside, finding the back door that Tegan had entered. It was starting to rain outside, that oddly warm rain that felt more like stepping into a shower than any of the freezing downpours she’d known before the melds.
She let out a strained squeak, hand clutching her chest as she turned to see Tegan a few feet away, leaning their front legs against a pile of rubble.
“No. And thanks for the heart-attack.” They chuckled, walking over while Jen added “I don’t supposed you’ve noticed anything?”
Two tentacles slipped from either side of their torso, giving a shrugging motion. “Not really, though I’m not sure what I’d be looking for.”
“I was hoping for more of a scent trail?”
“I’m not an expert but I think” One of the tentacles stretched towards her and tapped the snout of her mask. “that might be this beasts speciality.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Nice to know sarcasm transcends species. Why are you still here anyway? I thought Soar said you needed to leave.”
“Soar is doing a final fly over, and I thought I’d sift through to see if there’s anything worth taking back. There isn’t, even if Orett would disagree.” They kicked at an old timetable as if to make their point. “But we should be heading off, we need to head to the crater lumps soon; plus it’d be nice to get the milk before the next flare.”
“Have fun with that. Bye Tegan.”
“Even if we never see each other again, I’d prefer you call me by my name. Which is Jen, by the way.”
Another low chuckle rumbled from their throat. “As you wish… Jen.”
Jen shook her head as the two turned away from each other. She’d made it a dozen paces before stopping, her eyebrows knitting together as something began niggling at the back of her mind.
“Crater lumps… milk… Hey! Hold up!” Tegan turned at the sound of her voice, their neck twisting nearly a hundred and eighty degrees. “Any chance you’re heading to Mama’s hut? Tall demon? Lots of breasts? Surrounded by screaming infants?”
“… Yes, you know her?”
“Actually, I live with her. I mean she said her kind live really far from each other so I’m assuming we mean the same Mama.” All three eyes had narrowed, flicking down over her as if she were being examined. “What?”
“… Are you a child?”
“No! What? Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know how you humans age, and I’ve never heard of a Mama taking in an adult before.”
“That doesn’t automatically make me a child! Ok she calls me child, but she calls a lot of people that; it’s just what she’s like. I can assure you that I am 100% an adult and have been for several years.” The wide mouth was curling ever so slightly, and Jen was suddenly aware of how strange her last comment was. She shook her head before continuing “The point I was making is that I think we’re going in the same direction.”
“Oh, I see. In that case, do you want a ride?”
Jen blinked. “A ride?”
“Hehe, follow me. Although fair warning, Orett is going to go crazy when she meets you.”
“Is she dangerous?”
Tegan remained silent for several minutes. “… no.”
“You don’t sound very certain.”
“She won’t try to kill you, none of us will, but she will bombard you with questions until you wish for death.”
“Ah… ok. I think I can handle that.”
The two of them picked their way through the abandoned campsite, moving past the statue and towards the shopping park. They were getting closer to the black dome, and as she followed Tegan Jen noticed it wasn’t a dome at all. It was a giant insect. The dome shape came from a large shell on its back, similar to that of a snail but without the swirls and coloured an obsidian black. She couldn’t tell how many legs the creature had as there seemed to be several of them dug into the earth itself, but the head was narrow, its nose curling upwards into a horn. She saw only two eyes, large grey ones that blinked sleepily at her.
“Hehe. Welcome to the Walking Nest. Don’t be nervous, she’s very docile.” To prove their point, Tegan gave the nose-horn a gentle pet. A low rumble sounded from the creature, strong enough to send a vibration through the ground but sounding like a purring cat.
It was oddly cute.
“There you are Tegan! Let’s go, Aarde wants us gone before… oh, hello again.”
“Hi Soar.” She said, smiling at the bat-demon fluttering down towards them.
“Turns out Jen here lives with Mama; figured she might as well come with us.”
Soar looked from Jen to Tegan, his glassy eyes twitching while his nasally voice sounded somewhere between annoyed and amused. “Aarde is going to kill you.” With that he zoomed upwards, giving a few high-pitched shrieks before disappearing inside the dome; she couldn’t see exactly where he entered, but she had to assume there was a door of some kind. The issue was how high that door seemed to be.
“No chance of a ladder I suppose.”
“Not quite.” Tegan stepped in front of her, crouching down and saying “Hop on.”
Jen stared at the demon’s back, eyes flicking between it and their face before looking at the station behind her. This was a very strange situation, but it was that or a long, risky walk home. Besides, she was getting very curious about the inhabitants of this ‘nest’. She stepped forward, grasping Tegan’s shoulders, and hoisting herself up. She wrapped her arms around their neck and her legs around their waist for support. A sudden smoothness sliding across her wrists made her flinch, followed by a similar sensation around her ankles, soon revealed to be yet more tentacles. She craned her neck around so Tegan could see her face, eyebrow raised in question.
“Don’t want you to fall off. Ready?”
She sighed and nodded, bracing herself for the climb.
They didn’t climb.
Tegan’s back legs curled up as they crouched further down, low enough that Jen’s toes brushed the ground. Then, in a burst of force and speed, their legs straightened and the two of them sprung into the air. Jen felt a squeal rip from her throat, clutching onto Tegan more tightly as they ascended up and up and up. It was nothing like taking off in an aeroplane or riding a high roller coaster. The world rushed past in a sudden blur; Jen unable to look down even if she wanted to. Just when she thought they couldn’t go any higher, there was a brief rush of gravity and they stopped, Tegan gripping the side of the shell.
“You okay back there?”
“My stomach’s still on the ground but other than that!”
Tegan laughed loudly, and she could feel the laugh shuddering through their body as they crawled towards a small opening to the left of where they had stopped.
Slipping inside, Tegan crouching down again to let Jen down. Her legs were a little shaky from the jump, not helped by a slight dip as her feet touched the ground. The two of them stood in a small, cavern-like space, everything coloured dark grey with blue and red lines pulsing like thick veins. There were pillars connected from walls to ceilings, also of a similar grey material. She saw another entrance, which Tegan led her towards, and they stepped inside to see an almost identical space, though this one was much larger in scale.
Her observation was interrupted when two small yellow eyes, and four thick white tusks, obscured her vision.
“You’re the human! And you do wear skin! Is this camouflage? What is it for? A hunting technique? Ritual? Can you shed it? Does it change your insides? Can I see?”
The string of questions was fired at her in a low, gruff voice, tinged with the breathless excitement of a teenager meeting their favourite band. And the flow continued, with Jen opening and closing her mouth like a goldfish, waiting both for an opening to speak and for her overwhelmed brain to start producing words.
“Did you implant those veins we found in the ground? Do they relate to the big blocks with the circles on-”
“Orett.” The quiet voice made the tusked talker pause, glancing to her shoulder where a slender hand had suddenly appeared. “Remember. One question. Then wait. For answers.”
“Yes yes I know but-”
“One. Then wait.”
Orett’s face visibly contorted, fighting an internal battle before nodding and stepping back. Her personal space restored, Jen stepped inside the room properly before turning her attention back to Orett.
The demon stood at an intimidating eight feet, her muscular frame adding to her imposing stature. Four arms crossed over her chest, and Jen noticed that she was wearing what looked like a brown leather dress, the colour standing out against the blonde fur covering every inch of her body. Her grizzled features were crowned by a pair of floppy ears, much like that of a rabbit. That, combined with the excitement visibly glinting in her eyes, did somewhat lessen the intimidation factor. Orett stood in contrast to the demon now slithering to her side, as this one looked like a human-sized earthworm. This one had six arms, three on each side, and a bulbous head. The face was made up of a single green eye and two mandibles where a mouth would be. Two of the arms were stretched upwards, still rest on Orett’s shoulders, but the other four seemed oddly short; just rolls of skin ending in hands. There was a similar roll where her neck would be.
The mandibles were stretched it what Jen could only assume was a smile as the worm demon said “Sorry. She. Gets excited.” There was a genuine, friendly warmth to her tone, even with the strange pauses between words.
“… uh, no. No, it’s no problem. Just uh, threw me off guard.” Jen laughed, smiling back. “Sorry to intrude, Tegan said you were going to see Mama and I live there so…”
“No. Intrusion. The nest. Always has room.” She responded, gently nudging Orett aside and taking Jen’s arm to lead her deeper into the chamber. It was brighter than the one she had entered through, with lights sparking through some of the veins on the ceiling and several lumps protruding from various angles. She spotted Tegan leaning against one wall, a tentacle stroking one of the veins idly, while Soar was balanced on one of the floor lumps. “I. Am Aarde. Humans. Have names?”
“Yes, they do, and mine is Jen.”
“Ah. Jen. Lovely. You know. Tegan. And Soar. Orett. My heart. And Hemel. My limb.”
Jen looked to where Aarde was indicating, shocked to discover there was another inhabitant quietly sat in a corner. It was another worm demon, almost identical to Aarde except the skin was a shade of purple and there were horns coming out of his head.
“He. Is my. Limb. Born. Together. Then we. Separate.”
“Oh, so he’s your sibling. I see. Hi, uh, Hemel.” Her greeting was not returned, the lone eye unblinking as it watched her. He was staring just as intently as Orett, but while she had the over-enthusiasm of a kid seeing a zoo for the first time, his gaze was more like a scientist examining a test subject. Goosebumps started running across her skin, and she quickly turned her attention back to the others. “So, is this a common mode of transport for demons?
“It is for us.” Orett said jovially, giving one of the pulsing pillars a hearty slap. The insect rumbled to life, Jen stumbling slightly as it began it’s steady, lumbering journey. “The Walking Nest is our home all over. Do humans have nests like this? Is that what the big blocks were for?”
“No, it’s fine.” Jen said, smiling at Aarde before turning back to Orett, who seemed barely able to contain herself. “Nothing… living, but yes we do something like that. This place we’re leaving is what we call a bus station, and those blocks are buses. They are built for transporting humans wherever they want to go.”
“Bus. Bus bus bus bus bus bus bus bus bus…” Orett repeated the word over and over, as if she were tasting it.
“So, the nest doesn’t mind you living inside her?”
“Not. At all. Sometimes. She does. Not notice us.”
“Huh, so like… parasites?”
“We. Don’t. Hurt. Her.” The speech was even more broken than Aarde’s, and voice behind it was coarse and sharp. Jen looked over to see Hemel, still watching her with the same intensity though there was now a flare of anger in his eye. “We. Keep. Her Clean. We. Care. For. Her. We. Do. Not. Cause. Damage. Unlike. Your. Structures.” The last words were practically spat out, acidic and pointed.
All but shrinking in on herself, Jen stammered out “I-I’m sorry. Bad word choice, I didn’t mean to cause offense.”
“Don’t mind him.” Tegan tilted their head, smirking as they continued “He’s right though, at least in his case; Hemel acts much more like a fungus than a parasite.”
This comment earned a loud hiss from the worm-demon, Hemel now glaring daggers at Tegan instead. But before the situation could escalate further, Soar’s voice piped up. “We don’t know if anybody else travels like this, we just started working together after we got split up from our clans. You know, after everything changed?”
“You all got split up?” There was a few nods and a low murmur of agreement from the group. “I’m sorry, that must be difficult. .”
“Nonsense! We have always been travellers! And your clan is what you make, not what you’re born to!” Orett declared proudly, giving a hearty laugh and hugging Aarde as she did so.
Jen smiled, but her mind was reeling.
She knew many humans had been separated from their families; that was the whole reason she was delivering letters in the first place. But she had never considered that the same thing could happen to demons. Now she thought about it, it seemed obvious. Demons may live differently from humans in many ways, but they still had families and communities. Mama and all the infants she nursed was solid proof of that. Then again, other than Mama her main encounters with demons had been the feral, non-speaking kind.
Meeting this group was certainly an eye-opener.
The rest of the journey passed by uneventfully for the most part. It consisted of Orett asking Jen constant questions about the various devices, buildings, and items she had come across and how humans used them. Jen answered as best she could, having settled onto one of the protruding lumps on the wall next to Tegan, who mostly just listened to the conversation with only the occasional contribution. Soar, true to his bat-like appearance, was now sleeping upside down, his claws clutched around one of the veins embedded in the ceiling. According to Tegan the veins and pillars were full of nerves, and every so often one of the group would stroke or tap them. It helped relax the Nest, keeping her content as she plodded along towards their destination.
Aarde kept quiet for most of the trip, speaking up only when Orett got too excited in her questioning. She had slowly curled her long tail around her mate’s body, the two of them comfortably snuggled together. They were a cute couple, and Jen couldn’t help smiling at how openly affectionate the two of them were with each other. Though as time passed the embrace seemed to get more intimate, and eventually she had to turn her reddening face away.
Her heart nearly stopped.
Hemel’s face was now hovering a few inches away from hers, his expression no kinder than earlier. The effect was only worsened when she realised his body hadn’t moved, his neck had simply stretched out to reach her.
“What. Do. You. Know. About. The. Change.”
She was sure it was a question, but his broken speech made it sound more like a statement. “Um… what change?”
“The. Change. To. The. World.” He spoke slowly, with a patient condescension like a teacher explaining a problem to the class dunce. “The. Humans. Did. Something. What. Was. It.”
A quick glance showed that the others had taken notice of the conversation. Tegan appeared to have tensed up, but didn’t say anything this time. Aarde and Orett were also silent, and all three of them shared the same expression.
Maybe they wanted to know just as much as Hemel did.
“Um… I-I don’t really know.” Hemel’s eye narrowed and she quickly explained “I mean, I heard that on the day it happened some scientists in Tokyo were doing a big experiment? Something to do with atoms. But I’m not really a science buff so I don’t know the details. Sorry.”
Nothing. The whole room was silent, everyone watching Hemel intently.
Then, with the barest nod he said “Experiment. Hmm.”
He didn’t say anything else, already retracting his head back to his body, a more thoughtful expression taking over his features while his mandibles clicked lightly. As glad as she was for the renewed distance between them, something about his reaction made Jen ask “What about on your side? Were the demons doing anything that day?”
There was no answer. There wasn’t even an acknowledgment that she’d spoken. He was already back in his corner, still with that thoughtful expression and no longer staring at her. She turned to Tegan with a raised eyebrow, to which they shrugged and said “That’s the most he’s talked to any human. I think you’re growing on him.”
Before she could say anything else, the Nest gave a sudden jolt, Jen nearly knocked from her seat as everything around her grew still.
“We’re here!” Orett bellowed, her voice waking a now very grumpy Soar. His trunk pointed at Orett and blew a sharp puff of air in her direction; either the other demon didn’t notice, or she didn’t care. “Alright, let’s go get the milk!”
“I’ll. Come with. You.”
“You sure, my heart? It won’t take long.”
“I know. You. Believe. That.”
The two of them laughed, heading back to the space where Jen and Tegan had entered. Hemel didn’t move from his corner and Soar had already fallen asleep again, so Jen followed them with Tegan close behind her.
“Ready to scream again?”
“You’re enjoying this way too much.” Jen climbed onto their back and clung on tight as they jumped down, landing on the ground in front of Mama’s hut. Orett and Aarde soon joined them, the larger demon scaling down the Nest’s shell with her mate wrapped tightly around them. Once assembled, the group stood back to let Jen enter first, calling out as she did “Mama? I’m back!”
“Oh child! I was not expecting your return so soon; you said this would be a long delivery.”
“It got cut short, and I got a ride home. Speaking of which, I’ve got some visitors for you.”
“Orett!” She exclaimed, smiling widely as Orett and Aarde entered the hut. Putting the child she had been cradling back in its bed, her arms stretched out to give the four-armed demon a hug. “It has been a while, how are you, my friend?”
Recognising the tone of someone ready to reminisce, Jen slipped back outside, catching Aarde’s eyes as she did so; clearly this was why she insisted on coming. She pulled the mask off completely, shaking her hair free and taking a deep breath of fresh air. Tegan, who hadn’t bothered to go inside the hut, watched her.
“Your head looks smaller without the mask.”
“I’m not sure how to respond to that.” She snorted, smiling as she looked up at the Nest. “I suppose you lot will head off as soon as they’ve got the milk?”
“Yes, the Nest will want to burrow down before the flares come. But we’ll likely be passing this way again.”
“I see. My job involves a lot of walking around so we could bump into each other anywhere.”
“That’s right.” They suddenly moved towards her, leaning their head down to meet her gaze directly. “You never did say what this job is.”
“Between Orett’s questions and Hemel’s… well, Hemel, I didn’t really get much of a chance. But since you ask,” The pouch was opened and the letter brought out for Tegan to look, their eyes trailing across the dark words. “I deliver letters. They’re written messages; I don’t know if you do something similar.”
Tegan shook their head, stretching out a tentacle to gingerly touch the paper. “Some clans have a written language but most of us don’t need. I can’t think of any who would use it in this manner.” They turned the envelope over and over, then handed it back to her. “Is that why you were looking for the humans in that… bus station? To deliver this message?” She nodded, slipping it back into her pouch as she did so. “But you didn’t find them. What will you do with it now?”
“That’s… that’s a good question.” Her eyes cast down to the ground, biting her lip before saying “If I’d found them dead then there wouldn’t be anything I could do. But there’s a chance they’re still out there, so now I must figure out where they’ve gone. It’ll likely take a long time, but unless I get a solid answer either way, all I can do is keep trying.”
“That sounds… exhausting.”
“Hehe, it is. But it’s also nice. Seeing people’s faces when they get a letter from someone that they lost contact with, even if you never find out its contents, is a special feeling. Maybe because it’s a physical, personal connection that you can hold in your hand, but with everything that’s happened since the meld…” She shrugged, looking back up at Tegan. “I don’t know, it’s just nice.”
The conversation wasn’t given a chance to continue as Orett and Aarde suddenly reappeared, the latter carrying three water-skins full of milk while dragging her mate along behind her.
“Goodbye. Jen. It was. Nice. To. Meet you.”
“Indeed! Be well Mama, and you Jen! We’ll be sure to visit again because I still have more questions!”
“And I’ll try to have the answers.” She said, waving as the two of them off as they began to climb back up the Nest’s shell. “It might have been easier if she wanted to eat me.”
“Nah, she’d never do that even if she weren’t fascinated by humans. Orett looks tough but she can’t be bothered going through layers skin and bone; she’d rather have her food already cracked open so she can get straight to the entrails.”
“Huh… well they say it’s what’s inside that counts. Can’t get more inside than entrails.”
Tegan chuckled, craning down to her and murmuring “And I’m sure your entrails would look quite lovely if you were cracked open.”
They stepped over her and soon launched into the air, waving a tentacle at her from the top before disappearing inside. Soon there was a rumble and a shudder, and the Nest ambled away. From the ground she could see that it didn’t so much walk as it shuffled through the dirt, leaving great tracks in its wake as it faded from sight.
Jen watched it vanish.
Then she blinked.
“… lovely?” She turned to enter the hut, pausing at the entrance before asking “Hey, Mama?”
“You know how you said that demons sometimes use violent language, but they don’t always mean it literally? They use it like an expression?”
“How do you tell the difference?”
Mama hesitated, glancing upward as she picked up an identical pair of reptilian babies and began to nurse them. “I suppose it is like what you say about humans; it depends on the character of the speaker. Why do you ask?”
“Well, it’s just um, Tegan said something before they left. The words were… disturbing, quite frankly, but the tone almost made it sound like they were flirting with me.”
All sound drained from the room in an instant, and when she looked towards her guardian, she saw that Mama was watching her with an expression she could only describe as barely suppressed maternal rage. Finally, her voice icy cold, Mama said “Whatever their meaning, you tell me if they cause you any trouble.”
Another episode, and not too long after the last one. I’d say I’m on a roll but doing so is bad luck and will probably delay the next one for another year.
And this one was SO much fun. It was great creating some more demon characters, and writing dialogue for them; a few people have told me that writing dialogue is my strongest skill as a writer (which is funny considering how many of my short stories follow one character and mostly consist of description – let me know what you guys think). The inhabitants of the nest will definitely be recurring characters, I really love writing with them (totally not setting one of them up as a potential love interest).
Next one will be another letter delivery, and I think this series might be due for a taste of horror.
Here’s the itch.io version in case you want to support me –
Next – Coming Soon