During a recent talk with Saveun Man (Front Seat Gamer) in which we touched on what kind of demons there are in The Wizard's Harvest Table, I evasively mentioned: "Demons are a bit like elves - they mean different things to different people."
Listen to the podcast here (2hrs).
I'm aware that, so far as audience expectation goes, some people avoid content that treats with demons as intrinsically disturbing to one's equilibrium, like some people avoid horror movies, or movies that make them second guess their sanity, while some people have no qualms, thinking of demons either in the sense of quaint historical monsters, or as reflections of the inner state of man's darker soul, and just a part of nature. In the talk I explain: "Let's say that if they're the fundamental creature of the world, they're what stuff is made out of before people came along... They are just older beings, and they look like monsters, so people think they are demons." In a sense, that's a good starting point, but it's just the start.
We also mention there are demons in Baldur's Gate III, as a race, and I try to make some contrasts, as I don't see a big difference in that game between humans, elves and tieflings apart from art treatment.
Demons in D&D: Tieflings. Aren't these really just romanticized anime cosplay opportunities?
What strikes me as a core feature of the demons in The Wizard's Harvest Table is that they can exhibit different forms, a true form, an underworld form, a bestial form. They can shift and grow, disguise themselves as humans, blend into the terrain, and even fade away to become immaterial spirits. They can also inhabit inanimate objects, like books or weapons (Onqureol). They have the kind of fluidity that Nosferatu showed in Bram Stoker's Dracula, bound to intense passions.
Image: Francis Ford Coppola, Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1992. (Gary Oldman, prosthetic). Dracula mourns Mina.
Demons and dreams
From time to time, actually rarely in the sum total of things, I've dreamed about the presence of a demon. The look and feel of the demons seems to be a bit random, but I'm always shocked by the unusual strength of those dreams compared to ones in which daily life gets spun into strange shapes and disordered.
I know that I don't like listening to accounts of other people's dreams, as they flounder around trying to convey whatever it was they remember, or to connect the fading dots of some sequence of events that didn't occur except in their befuddled sleep... so I won't recount the dreams I had. Instead, I'll try to just stick to describing the demons, to sum them up as far as I can given they were brief appearances, almost subliminal, and time has passed with my imagination overclocked as a result, struggling to reconcile them with actual mundane real life.
The first became the base for Kashprav, who became Modest's nemesis in The Wizard's Harvest Table. The dream, for me, occured long before I started to write the book. It was notable in that it was the first dream I recall being killed and not waking up, and then going through some strange almost-but-not-quite afterlife for a while. How long I endured there seemed to depend on will power alone. The demon attacked me with a lance, that pierced my chest and broke into splinters. I was hurled backwards by the demon, whereupon I flew or drifted endlessly, facing back into its terrible face, until eventually I wondered what would happen if I looked in the direction I was going. It was something like the Golden Path song by the Chemical Brothers, where I felt a divine force testing me and, well, I didn't want to play along. I suspected some existential trap, like going the opposite way from the light at the end of the tunnel, turning my head with great resistance and fear to face the great mystery, only to wake and face another regular day, none the wiser, and of course exasperated to this day.
'The Golden Path' - The Chemical Brothers
The second case involves a more elusive demon, or spook, a being totally bound up in decay and solitude, who was contained in a permanently sealed apartment or compartment within the bowels of a vast, derelict space ship I happened to have found myself wandering (probably a cool experience up till that point). I am not sure it detected me, but thought it better to retreated, rather than end up bound in its confines. The surrounds became even more of a labyrinth, from which I narrowly escaped by subverting the dream's narrative - dream-editing I guess. That dream is notable in that it's the first time I remember shaping the content of a dream. Since then I've often been attacked and mauled by sharks, monsters, vicious dogs and other lethal assailants, only to reverse my sudden end by sheer force of will. In Ode Sim Nem, there is such a creature, contained in a bubble dungeon in the underworld, exposed by the demon Castredd, who flees from the creature in abject terror. In The Wizard's Harvest Table, Modest is torn apart in the fangs of a dire wolf, but subverts his end by possessing his attacker, thanks to an incantation he barely believes will have any effect.
The third showed up in a dream that had the setting of making a game level while inside of it, so an unbounded space largely composed of simplistic corridors and passages still under construction, wherein a shadowy figure lurked in an elevator, a creature or shade exhibiting some temporary human form, that engulfed me, as if to consume my life energy or nullify my dream existence; but I was so taken aback by this sudden, spidery pounce that I went on, albeit with a strong terror of remaining there, like a wisp released from a corpse to float around in a murk until finding a new body to inhabit. Soon after, the videogame Mortal Shell was released and I played it with an unsettling fascination, given that premise is what it's fundamentally based on. All the same, I somewhat feel that, unlike in dreams, we aren't constituted from some floaty spirit that persists beyond the expiration of the flesh. But we'll see, I suppose.
Mortal Shell - Cold Symmetry, 2020
When I was about five or six, I had a series of dreams in which a huge wolf (the archetypal big bad wolf where the cartoon icon took a slavering, racing, leaping, growling form of monstrous proportions), chasing me in the native bush (hardly a deep wood but still scary at night) through which we walked to school each morning, but of course at night in the dream, caught up with me and bit deeply into my back, causing enough actual physical pain to wake me, but apparently just a nerve kicking in, as though the dream were momentarily triggered by signals from my back, rather than the other way around.
I'm far from brave in dreams, where flying I will sweep too high up into the mists and crash to earth, where swimming I will suck greedily of the ocean and drown (or not drown), and where losing teeth, hair, skin, I will succumb to revulsion and wake shivering and curse being alive. Demons however, seem to be natives of that dreaming place, and I think they allow a sort of exploration around the spot they haunt, like a boss in a game level before it aggro's; they often seem to be scripted in behavior, limited to a few moves and glitching when you don't wake up after their sudden and horrific assault. This is possibly a feeling I tried to capture when Balkan and Modest capture the demon Groshial, who decomposes into flaking scales, melds into a huge mass of salamanders, then emerges from the castle where she was trapped as a dragon that disgorges her victim, Opole, before Balkan banishes her back to the underworld.
Balkan went about the scholarly task of inspecting the ensnared demon at close range, his hand raised to protect his eyes from the smouldering, hissing heat of the demon’s body. He ventured as close as he could to the hanging figure, waist deep in water. Steam rose around them in clouds.
“It has horns which protrude to the side of the skull, not forwards, not up. And at the same time, it possesses, as extrusions from the lumbar bones of its spine, thorny and gem-like spikes which flow over the cranium. This certainly means it has its origin in the mountainous wastes known as Cargill. Its tongue lolls and is not forked. Fire by day, ice by night. It confirms what’s known about that region. See how, as its skin is heated, it grows more transparent? The skin of the skull is composed of many laminar flakes, in the shape of hexagons and squares. You see, the land which spawned it is made of the remains of demons foregone, so it takes after its predecessors, much as men do.”
The demon’s rage-filled eyes were fixed on Modest, who stood in awe, dripping and shivering, but she could not so much as turn her head or lick her lips.
“How did you capture her?” Modest asked. “I thought I was done for.”
“It’s lucky the fountain’s water hasn’t dried up. Well, you’ve made quite a splash. But you’re not hurt?” Balkan kept examining the demon. “To answer your question, the entrapment is due to an incantation, and its influence came to bear when the demon dropped its guard and attacked you. The ward I gave you did its job.”
The ward, high on Modest’s upper arm, was of elegant provenance, a fine band entwined by metallic arms, each grasping the wrist of another. The patterns of tattoos on the arms shifted and coiled. His own densely scored and lacerated forearm felt as though invisible creatures were chewing on it like the voracious birds in the eaves. He gritted his teeth.
Balkan stepped back from the demon, soliciting Modest’s attention away from their captive.
“We must leave,” Balkan said, but both were fascinated by the demon’s transformation. All over the superheated surface of her skin, rivulets of sputtering liquid started to spit and foam. These congealed into clinging reptilian creatures without eyes that curled and interlaced over and over each other, fiery red in colour and translucent so their organs could be seen expanding and compressing. Even the blood that suffused their bodies could be seen pumping through the gel under the hardening skin. Some dropped off, fizzling into the water.
“Salamanders!” Balkan avoided them, urging Modest to climb. “It seems this demon has not given up the fight.”
They retreated, climbing up the collapsed rock face past a limp and cold figure, the brutalised body of the ship’s boy, Kaydell. Modest cried out, a mix of surprise and anguish. Grimly, Balkan pushed the corpse down with his foot and it slid into a mire of worms, the young boy’s face sinking into mud as the demon trailed behind them. The water churned, and Modest wondered how rapidly the spawn might grow. The demon still hung by invisible bonds in an inverted posture of considerable agony it seemed, but she appeared to be cooling, as though somehow her life was departing into the seething mass of salamanders and worms.
Balkan scowled down behind him as he hauled Modest up. “Lors Bren Mal,” he said grimly. At that the demon fell, a billowing husk of ash, into the water.
“Ash!” Modest exclaimed. “Could be handy.” But Balkan shook his head, all for hurrying from the courtyard as quick as their drenched clothes allowed.
Before they had passed through the gate, Modest understood their need for haste. The salamanders coalesced, a bulky and heaving coil, into a thick neck of scaled flesh, at its head a maw of fangs like those of a deep ocean dweller, long and needle sharp.
“Don’t worry, it will slink off to the underworld now there is nothing more to hold it here.” Balkan and Modest ran into the dense mire surrounding the demon-haunted castle, finding its corruption had spread. Balkan grumbled as they forged through the sharp bracken and waterlogged grass in their clinging woollens, making slow progress.
Neneste had come some distance into the fen to support Doctor Foss. The two had cut a perimeter with long knives, a triangle thrumming with evening insects. The sailors had kept well back, at the verge of the forest, determined to heed Balkan’s warning to stay clear. They glanced out from the tree line, guns drawn but protective of their shots, for while they could fire at the demon, they wouldn’t have an opportunity to reload. Their defence would be futile, causing no lasting damage, but might temporarily hinder the demon, buying Balkan time. Neneste carried a bow, thinking little of the hand cannons the sailors aimed with hope stretched thin. Prone to jamming, impossible to keep dry, they could just as readily backfire, wounding whoever fired them. Neneste shot an arrow to gauge the distance to the creature emerging from the castle, over the wall. It proceeded towards them without comprehension of gates, pathways, or obstacles.
“I see your arrows are crafted with runes. A wizard’s handiwork?” Doctor Foss asked.
“No,” Neneste answered. “My own, to put it in people’s heads the bow has a glamour on it.”
Doctor Foss grinned and set himself down below the line of tall grass. “Will your arrows detain a demon, do you think?”
Neneste shrugged. “Let’s find out.”
“Look,” Doctor Foss pointed. “Here’s your boy Modest.”
Balkan decided to face the demon in the open, leaving Modest to trail into the cut triangle, dazed and fatigued. Neneste grabbed him, but it was too soon to celebrate. Modest turned to see Balkan stalk towards the serpent with one arm outstretched, his hand clawing. The serpent, somehow suppressed, dragged its head across the ground, scouring away the saturated soil so that water engulfed it, gleaming in the sun. The serpent shook and darted skyward, intent on diving down on Balkan, jaws agape. The wizard bent and picked up a handful of grass and seeds and with a cry of, “Loh Tan Mil”, scattered it in the air.
Above them, like a firework, the scales and gems caking the serpent shed in a flurry, from its fang-lined maw all the way to the tip of its tail. Its innards, worm-like, exploded and scattered. Towards the ground fell a shell of a figure, all arms and legs, thin and frail, who thumped into the grass not far from them.
“Stay back!” Balkan warned, approaching with his hand raised flat. Modest could see clearly enough, and Neneste trained her arrow on the collapsed figure, eyes wide. “Stay back!” Balkan repeated. He leapt onto the demon and grabbed its throat, even though it had not raised itself after the impact.
“Have your victory, wizard,” rasped the demon. “I shall still hunt the underworld long after you lie in your grave.” And it fell limp, shivering.
Blog cover image: 'Manticore', Becky Cloonan ( https://twitter.com/beckycloonan ) Rogue Print Co.