by Katherine Toran
Fleeing a witchhunter, autistic Ebba sells her heart to a demon—trapping her in a deathmatch and an equally violent courtship. #PitProm #YA
Dear #PitProm Judges,
Fatally injured by a witchhunter, eighteen-year-old Ebba flees into a magic-blighted forest and stumbles upon Kryptos, a demon whose heart has been ripped out. She didn’t realize he was one of twelve dark gods planning to invade her world, or she never would have sacrificed her dying heart to keep his beating.
After Kryptos resurrects her, he makes her his mortal champion in Hell’s deathmatch to determine which deity will lead the conquest. Bound by their contract to fight or die, Ebba plots to sabotage Kryptos, only to accidentally initiate a courtship. How was she supposed to know throwing a severed head at him would be taken as a proposal of marriage? Kryptos turns out to be charming, handsome, a bit awkward—and utterly dedicated to world domination.
As her heartless condition erodes her conscience, it becomes harder and harder for Ebba to deceive the demon who possesses her heart in more ways than one. Doing the right thing has never felt so wrong when she must betray her love to save her world.
THE WITCH AND THE DEMON is a 76,000 word young adult high fantasy novel in the style of Terry Pratchett meets Leigh Bardugo. This is an #ownvoices stories—both the heroine and I have Asperger syndrome, which leads to the heroine being falsely condemned as a witch by her village and impacts how she approaches romantic relationships.
This book was in the agent round of the Sun vs. Snow 2017 contest. I have had short fiction published in Abyss & Apex Magazine, the Whortleberry Press anthology Strange Changes, Every Day Fiction, and Short Fiction Break. I also received an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future Contest.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my work.
First Ten Pages:
Ebba’s soaked dress clung to her skin, wind and water competing to freeze her into a corpse as she ran through the moonless night. If she fell, she might not get up again. Keep moving. Get as far away from the witchfinder as possible, may he be reincarnated as a drunkard’s chamber pot.
Heedless of direction, she climbed up the mountain, away from her village. Blood oozed from her lips and fatigue numbed her legs. A tree root caught her ill-fitting clog. Her ankle bent sideways with a crack.
Waves of agony crashed over her as she hit the dirt. Mustn’t stop moving. Though she strained, her body refused to rise. She wanted to scream or cry. Instead, Ebba took a deep breath. To focus her mind, she pinched her cheek, right on top of the scabs left by the witchfinder’s pins. The itching of fatigue behind her eyes, the burning in her throat, the blistering sores—she pushed it all away.
Her right hand oozed pus from the burns on her palm, so she used her left one to sit up. When she touched her swollen ankle, the resulting stab told her this was more than a sprain. Her breath came faster. No, no! This couldn’t happen now. If she’d broken a bone, she wouldn’t be able to run, and then…then…
Ebba had no idea. She’d never had a plan past escaping her cell.
The forest’s silence unnerved her. No owls hooted nor insects chirped. An ancient demonic invasion had left this place magic-cursed. After the wolves had first descended, only those too poor to leave remained in Fort Jhaarth. Ebba shivered. She told herself most wolves avoided humans, and the red-eyed wolves only came once every few years.
Alone in the darkness, this argument became less convincing. She refused to be devoured like her mother. Perhaps she could sneak back just long enough to steal a knife and some food. She’d been too panicked in her flight, afraid the witchfinder might wake up…
Memory shuddered through her. He’d started with pins, directly on top of the mottled red birthmark covering her left cheek. If it was the mark of a witch, supposedly she wouldn’t feel pain there. Giant hands had held her down, his nails filthy and his liver spots as big as spiders. His too-close breath had reeked of onions.
“Confess,” the witchfinder had ordered after every pin. Each time, she’d refused. They’d kill her if she confessed.
The second day, he’d brought out the hot iron. The third day, the dunking. She’d nearly drowned. Pain and terror blurred her memory, though peculiarly, what she recalled most distinctly was the smell of sausages. Mad Gill, the local beggar, had gone around selling them to bystanders. The pleas she’d made to her neighbors had only been met with disdain or titillation.
No, she wasn’t going back.
Trees supported her limping journey. It hurt to breathe through the dryness of her mouth. Still, each step forward was a small victory. The deeper she got, the less likely anyone would dare follow. She refused to die at the hands of a sadistic charlatan who killed orphans and spinsters to take their property.
Her legs stiffened with each step and her belly ached. Ebba groaned, licking her dry lips. Water…she craved water. Just one drop to ease the burn in her throat. And while she was dreaming, she also wanted a hot cross bun. A hysterical giggle escaped her lips. Or a nice, juicy apple…Stop it. Coughing up lake water had left her with a throat too sore to swallow, anyway. Her world narrowed to placing one foot down and dragging the other after.
Too bad she wasn’t actually a witch—then she’d be able to cause water to rise up from the earth. Since witches made wells dry up, surely they could do the opposite. Next, she’d blight the crops of every neighbor who’d “forgotten” to pay her for doing their laundry.
Nearby, a burble of water broke the oppressive silence. Gasping with joy, Ebba turned and staggered towards it. The spike of pain that speared her ankle with each hop could almost be forgotten as the rushing sound grew louder.
Ahead, an unnatural crimson light gleamed. Thinking of the red-eyed wolves, Ebba slowed.
But dammit, her ankle was killing her, and she deserved a lucky break. There must be a way to reach the stream. She stepped gingerly, her heartbeat shaking her body with its power. The scent of ash drifted to her nose.
A fire, in this deserted forest? A chill skittered like a beetle down her spine. She hobbled forward, using trees to hide her body. Just one look to assess the danger, and then she’d decide whether to continue or flee.
Peering out from behind a tree, she beheld her first demon.
He lay against a rock, his arms and legs splayed out. Black bat wings spread over his head. The air reeked of a cloying, metallic scent. Blood.
A hole gaped open where his heart should have been.
Yet even with his rib bones exposed, his hand twitched and his gaze flickered. Somehow, he still lived. His blood burned like fire, so brightly that everything in the clearing—rocks, bushes, and straggly trees—cast red shadows. He was the very flame which had drawn her here like a moth. The gory light accented his glistening black hair, pale skin, and slim, high cheekbones. His slender form reminded her of an angel with the wrong type of wings. He could be called beautiful, in an inhuman way—a little too symmetrical to be real.
She must have made a noise because his head shot up. “Who’s there?”
Ebba remained frozen in shock.
The demon inhaled deeply. “I can smell you, sheep. Come out where I can see you.”
Some sorcery in his deep, melodious voice enthralled her into taking a few limping steps forward before she stopped herself.
“Look deep into my eyes.” The demon fixed her with a predator’s gaze. “Give me your heart.”
Ebba stammered, “My what?”
“Listen, sheep! I am Kryptos of the Crimson Flame, one of the twelve demonic gods. I command you to offer your heart to me.”
“I-I’d rather not.”
“You dare defy me?” The demon’s arms jerked, making Ebba jump. His legs scrabbled for purchase against the dirt. Strange for him to move at all, with a missing heart, but he only seemed able to thrash, screaming, “Stop! I—argh—gave you an order!”
Ebba’s back hit a tree.
His face turning from angry to calculating, the demon purred, “Come back, little lamb, and bargain with me. All I need is to borrow your heart until mine heals. I offer you untold riches. Every jewel in this world will belong to you.”
His voice dripped sin like blood trickling from an open wound. Only a fool listened to a demon. The stories called them liars, tempters, and soul-stealers. If he expected her to believe she wouldn’t die from having her heart removed, “crazy” should be added to the list. Afraid to look away from the creature, Ebba edged away, her arms stretched out behind her to avoid the trees.
“I offer you power. I will make you ruler of this world and all your kind, if you will just strike a deal with me…”
Maintaining eye contact had been a mistake. He had a hypnotic stare, irises red as a sunset and pupils slitted like a cat’s. Ebba forced her gaze downward, to where his molten blood hit the ground with a crackling hiss, horrifying her enough to break the spell.
“I will give you beauty untold and the ability to entice anyone with your words. Every mortal you desire will throw themselves at your feet.” The demon’s voice broke in pain on the last word. Ebba flinched out of pity, but her feet kept sliding backwards.
The demon was finally out of sight behind a tree. Ebba turned and fled.
She barely heard his last, whispered words. “Please, help me…”
Branches clipped her arms as Ebba half-hopped, half-limped through the forest. Her nerve had utterly deserted her, and with it, her ability to avoid trees. Terror drove her to forget the pain until a distant wolf’s howl shook her to the bone. Her good foot caught a rock, sending her hurtling to the ground. She wailed when her injured hand smacked the dirt. Panting on her knees, she prayed not to hear the wolves again, knowing full well the first cry had spelled her doom.
She could no longer see the demon or hear his horribly compelling voice.
He’d been lying, of course. Demons did that. Riches untold? As if. Queen of the World? The world wasn’t his to give. Beauty? Like she gave a damn. The only honest thing the demon had told her had been his demand to take her heart.
And perhaps at the end, when he’d said, “Please.”
Oddly, the demon’s selfish, despairing plea tugged at her heartstrings. Ebba couldn’t recall the last time anyone had said “please” to her.
Maybe his display of weakness had been a ploy, but she didn’t think so. Although the church said demons had no souls and thus couldn’t feel emotions, Ebba’s priest had also claimed she was a witch, so she’d had a falling out with organized religion. As a condemned heretic, she felt a kinship with the demon and his fear of death.
The baying of another wolf forewarned her that her own struggle approached its conclusion. By now the swollen blister on her palm resembled a leaky plum. She knew of only one treatment for such a severe infection: to chop off her hand. However, she didn’t have an axe or bandages to stop the blood loss. Then there was her broken ankle, turned glacially cold. She couldn’t forage for food in this state…not that she knew how to hunt or gather edible plants, since she’d never left her village. The neighboring town was too small to hide in, which didn’t matter because the red-eyed abominations would hunt her down before she ever got that far.
She was going to die.
Acknowledging this brought a peculiar relief. Nothing mattered anymore. All she had left was to choose the manner of her death. She could die slowly in the forest or at the hands of the witchfinder. Or she could die helping someone else.
Rather than give the witchfinder the satisfaction of killing her, she’d prefer to die for a cause. Admittedly, she’d be dying for the sake of a demon, but Ebba chose to overlook that inconvenient detail, in no small part because it would be another way to thumb her nose at the witchfinder and the priest.
Ebba tried to rise. Her legs wouldn’t move. Tears itched at the back of her eyes. Her shoulders heaved. All the pain she’d endured had amounted to nothing. Drops rained down on her blood-stained frock and her nails bit into her hands. She’d tried so hard not to cry in front of the witchfinder and had broken in the end. Now it didn’t matter how pathetic a sight she appeared, so she wept all her sadness and terror out.
Enough of this self-pity. Her decision had been made. Since she had chosen to save the demon, she shouldn’t let him suffer any longer than necessary. Ebba stood up, wiped her eyes on a filthy sleeve, and hobbled back in the direction she’d come from.
The sound of weeping guided her steps. The demon still sprawled against the rock, tear tracks gleaming on his face. Softly, he sobbed, “I don’t want to die…I don’t want to die…”
The scene struck her as profane. An otherworldly being shouldn’t cry like this, and no mere mortal should see him do so. She cleared her throat.
The sagging head shot up, crimson eyes wide.
“Just so you know, I didn’t believe you. I’m fully aware you’re going to kill me.” Ebba needed him to know this sacrifice was willing. Then at least one person might mourn her passing. She limped closer and knelt down beside him. “I give you my heart.”
Trembling in disbelief, the demon met her gaze. He whispered, “Why?”
Ebba replied, “You said ‘please.’”
His lips parted. Swallowing, he pressed a clawed hand against her chest.
Ebba became hyper-aware of the forest: the shadowy trees, the scent of pine needles and rotten leaves, and the sound of a nearby stream. Rocky ground dug into her knees. Sitting down had heightened the aches radiating from her ankle. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she was keenly aware of hard claws against her skin. Only with great effort did she hold her body still.
She screamed as he ripped out her heart.
Ebba opened her eyes directly into the glare of a sunrise. She whimpered and closed them.
“I saw you move, sheep! Get up. I’ve wasted enough time waiting for you.” The voice was loud and snooty. All traces of its previous supernatural charm had vanished. Squinting, Ebba sat up.
In the early daylight, the clearing looked much less frightening. The stunted pine trees posed no threat, the larger shadows were revealed to be just boulders, and the rustling spring breeze felt rather pleasant. Her ankle could move again, her hand no longer oozed and bled, and her other pains had also vanished. She didn’t even feel thirsty.
The demon perched atop the largest boulder. Under the sunlight, he’d also turned less monstrous: his fingers were no longer clawed and though his eyes still had crimson irises, they didn’t glow. If not for his leathery black wings, he might have looked much like any other man from her village, albeit one with skin too smooth and posture too straight to have ever toiled on a farm. Why, he didn’t look any older than her eighteen years. He wore a red doublet and tan leggings, a noble’s clothing. The shirt had a gaping hole slightly left of the center, the skin underneath unharmed.
Ebba remembered pain, claws digging into her, and grabbed her chest. Her hand found a hole in her dress directly over her heart, but no injury. She covered up her partly-exposed breast. Even though her pulse should be racing from fear, she felt no trace of a heartbeat.
“I don’t see why you sheep bother with modesty when you’re all so ugly. Get up.”
Ebba stood. Not only had her broken ankle healed, even the bone-deep tiredness in her legs had vanished. Somehow, impossibly, she was alive. She wondered if she dared feel hope. “I can’t feel my heart beating. It’s gone, isn’t it?”
The demon puffed out his chest. “Be honored! Your heart is sustaining the life of Kryptos of the Crimson Flame, Demonic God of Cowardice.”
“How am I alive?” Ebba asked. She’d thought the demon had been lying about not killing her. Certainly his promises of wealth and power seemed conveniently forgotten. He showed no sign of gratitude for receiving her heart.
“A god such as I can animate a lowly mortal like you by infusing your body with my essence. An annoying amount of my essence.” He scowled. “I will be taking that back in a few years, once my heart regenerates and I can return yours. Until then, your life depends on my will.”
The insinuation in his tone made her bristle. Ebba risked a leap of logic. “You want something from me.” Why else would he keep her alive? She doubted it was out of the goodness of his nonexistent heart.
The demon smiled, revealing pointy white teeth. “Clever sheep. I crave vengeance, and you will be my weapon.”
Not very likely. Perhaps she’d better talk him around to her uselessness gently. “I’m not sure what I can do for you. I have my own problems with a witchfinder.”
Perking up, the demon said, “Ah, a witch! What kind of magic do you possess?”
“None. I’m not actually a witch.”
“At least tell me you’re a skilled warrior.”
“I scrub floors and wash clothes.”
The demon placed his hands over his eyes.
“Precisely who is your enemy?” Ebba asked, deciding she’d best get to the point. “And what do you expect a ‘lowly sheep’ like me to do about it?” Bitterness colored her words. She’d made her sacrifice hoping for someone care about her and it hadn’t worked.
The demon didn’t even acknowledge her sarcasm. With a toss of his head, he said, “The twelve demonic gods have declared a game. We each chose a human champion to do battle on our behalves and blessed that person with one power.”
Ebba gave him a once-over. “You don’t have to keep inflating your own importance with this talk of godhood. I’ve already given you my heart.” Anger overwhelmed her fear and made her tongue reckless. “Besides, I paid enough attention at sermons to know there’s only one demonic god—Apros, the King of Hell.”
“This backwater planet is behind the times.” He sneered. “After many ordeals, eleven of our king’s children out of ten thousand survived to be raised to divinity, my glorious self included.”
“Uh, so what does the god of ‘cowardice’ do?” Ebba raised an eyebrow.
“I’ll have you know that cowardice is a virtue to demons.” Kryptos tossed back his head. “Also, I inflict fear on sheep who might otherwise oppose demonic glory.”
“So, is cowardice a virtue or something you inflict on your enemies?”
“I’ve still never heard of you.” Ebba crossed her arms.
“This is my first trip to a mortal plane, but it’s only a matter of time before my infamy spreads.”
It dawned on Ebba that among the multitude of gods, she might have gotten the dregs.
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