Chapter One

"Demons lurk only in nightmares. Trolls dwell under bridges in fairy tales. Ghosts haunt folktales. Kids with overactive imaginations live in the real world." Her mother was fond of that saying. It always made shadows return to being nothing more than just shadows. The claws of a treant scratching the side of the house were the swaying branches of their tree in the front yard. Dust bunnies, but not imps, dwelled in closets and under beds. Thunder was not the growl of a ravenous beast. Everything had a reasonable explanation.
This time her mother's words failed to set her mind at ease. A tingle ran down her spine; goose bumps cropped along her arms; and beads of sweat dotted her forehead. She clenched the hem of her black skirt, refusing to touch anything and validate its existence. Her eyes had already betrayed her when she caught a glimpse of a small creature kneeling on the far wall with its tail flickering by its side. It hopped down from its perch and receded into the shadows. She shrugged it off as being nothing more than a cat.
Her lifelong companion, the ever present voice of doubt taunted, 'Cats may have tails, but not wings.'
"My eyes must have been playing tricks on me. The lighting is poor and shadows have a habit of taking a life of their own. Everything out of the ordinary has a practical explanation."
The voice of doubt challenged, 'Then explain this place.'
The most logical explanation became harder to believe with every passing moment. She murmured, "A dream." Her voice trailed off and was drowned by the cawing of ravens.
Despite her attempts to ignore their existence, the birds' calls refused to become white noise. This cacophony assaulted her senses making it difficult to form thoughts, much less construct logical conclusions.
There were hundreds of them. The ravens blanketed the courtyard, lined the walls, squabbled over space on the archways, and congregated around a statue of a Greek maiden presiding in the center. They milled about her feet, oblivious to the towering giant with chestnut hair.
She perched on her toes to survey her surroundings. Walls surrounded her on all sides. Imposing green gates denied exodus from the courtyard. The only distinguishable feature amidst the sea of ravens was the fountain that jutted out from the courtyard's center. She managed a weak smile and said, "Seems like the best place to wait for the dream to run its course."

Out of the corner of her eye, she spied the creature scurrying across the courtyard. The ravens retreated from its path, while others took this opportunity to land in its wake. She took note of its long tail and pair of batwings.
While staggering a few steps back, she repeated her mother's words like a mantra. Her balance was set off kilter by the shifting tides of birds. Rather than regaining her sense of equilibrium, flailing her arms only succeeded in stirring the ravens into frenzy. Her glasses slipped from her nose and clattered to the ground. The world lost all its recognizable features, a blur of overlapping shades of gray without any distinctive borders. She was ankle deep in a swirling black mass. Dark clouds loomed overhead. She was lost in a world devoid of color.
She dropped to her knees and pawed at the ground for her glasses. Her hand brushed against a raven. It cawed in protest and jabbed her finger with its beak. Blood trickled down the length of her finger and curled around her knuckles. A cry of pain escaped her lips only to be swallowed by the colorless void. The raven hopped back a step. In order to create an illusion of size, it unfurled its wings and puffed up its chest. This ruse failed to frighten the giant; the raven changed its tactics and took to the skies. Its brethren followed suit. Feathers rained upon her. A small clearing opened as the ravens evacuated the area. A hazy line of bronze stood out against the shades of gray. Her fingers wrapped around the thin wired frames. While she picked up her glasses, a few opportunistic birds took advantage of this available real estate. A heavy stone was lifted off of her heart as she slipped her glasses onto her face. The world was brought into sharp focus again. Lines once again gained definition and colors stayed within those boundaries.
With much trepidation, she stared down at her throbbing hand. Her lower lip trembled upon seeing the maroon paste of dried blood. She gently rubbed the wound, smearing the scarlet river in the process. The last red bead seeped from the small sore. To her relief, the raven managed to pierce only the surface, but failed to strike any veins. Their insistent cawing did not allow her to forget her surroundings.
She searched for the elusive creature, but was unable to find it in the sea of her black feathered friends. The ravens surround their goddess, the likeness of a Greek flower maiden cast in marble. She poured water into the fountain from a large pear-shaped gourd. Rather than arcing through the air from the vase's spout, water trickled from the fissures along the length of the pot and streamed down the statue. Much like a river eroding a canyon into the plains, centuries of this have taken their toll upon the maiden. The gentle contours of her face and elegant folds in her gown were now smooth. Her nose was a worn stub. Only faint lines hinted at the once graceful curls in her hair. Though stripped of details, the plainness of the maiden projected a mystic beauty.
Much like the ravens, she was drawn to this ornate structure. Stepping over the ring of ravens encircling the fountain placed her under the watchful gaze of the maiden. The statue was not the only one who took interest in the towering stranger. A raven hopped onto the fountain's edge, ruffled its feathers, and tilted its head upwards in an attempt to make eye contact
Something about the bird caught her eye. Stooping down for a closer look, she realized what was so unusual. Rather than black marbles, its eyes resembled hers; the only difference was that it had blue and green irises instead of dark brown. This raven was not unique; other common eye colors were present from hazel to different shades of brown.
The raven cawed as if to bid farewell, hopped from the ledge, and joined its brethren.
Shaking her head, she sighed, "Sometimes dreams don't have to make sense." She cupped her hands and dipped them into the fountain. Small tidal waves shattered the pristine mirror. The ripples expanded outward, colliding with the curved walls before disappearing. Lifting the makeshift bowl up to her face, she stared into the water's surface before it could seep through her fingers. The reflection of a thirteen year old girl failed to appear in the small pool. The world around her dissolved. Warm sunlight bathed her face. Elton John rocking on a piano replaced the mob cry of ravens. The familiar surroundings of her mother's car took the place of the unusual courtyard.
#
A miniature castle balanced on her lap. Water sloshed about in the moat as the car lurched to a halt. Wet paint smudged on her fingers when she retrieved a fallen toothpick flag from the courtyard. Propping the banner over the gate, she beamed with pride over her hard work. Hours were spent etching stones on the cardboard towers. Minuet details such as furniture and drapes adorned the chambers. Dozens of Popsicle stick people populated this Styrofoam kingdom.
Her mother tapped her nails on the steering wheel, and conducted business over a cellphone, "I have been telling the Richmonds that the market is not 'hot', but they are too stubborn to join all of us in the real world. Late night paid programs have filled their heads with lofty dreams of profitable property. A few homeowner expos does not make one an expert in real estate."
The girl straightened the tinfoil crown on the regent. The tissue cape distinguished him from the paupers. A smile spreads across her face. 'This project will surely earn nothing short of an 'A'.' She glanced at her mother to seek approval, but the words died in her throat. The drawn smile on the Lord's face granted her brief courage. In her meek voice, she asked, "Mom, how do you like Camelot?"
Her mother cupped her hand over the cell's mouthpiece. She glanced over at the scale model castle and said in a bland tone, "It's nice dear." Her hand returned to tapping the steering wheel and she returned to her phone chat, "Sorry Dylan, my daughter, Laurel, interrupted me. Anyways, I am dumbfounded about their asking price. They are asking somewhere around the neighborhood of two hundred grand for a house that can not even be called a 'fixer upper.' Why do I put up with stupid clients like this that can't face reality, let alone the facts?"
Laurel fought back the tears. She imagined a dam being built a brick at a time over her eyes. Not a single tear would find a crack in this wall. It would only take one to show weakness and propel her mother into a speech of children being too soft these days.
Her mother laughed, "You took the words right out of my mouth. The market is not 'hot' so we could use any business right now during this dry spell. Dry weather and dreamers are the two things that give me migraines. Needless to say, my head has been pounding for the last three weeks. They better fix the air conditioning in the office by tomorrow so I will only have to deal with the one other headache-inducer."
She glanced at the dashboard clock; it taunted '7:15'. Her fingers clenched around the sides of the diorama. She sighed, 'School starts in ten minutes.' It would only irritate her mother if she had to explain the tardiness. She pried her eyes away from the indigo clock and stared out the window.
An elderly man shuffled along the sidewalk. He walked with a halting step due to his third leg, a bronze cane. Despite the difficulty of every step, he wore a smile on his face. He walked with a destination in mind, but as to where, Laurel did not know. Three long-stemmed daisies hung from the pocket of his blue flannel overcoat. His straw hat was tilted so that the sun would not shine in his eyes. He ambled up to the traffic light, fumbled for the crosswalk button, and stood at attention for the featureless person to grant him permission to walk. Tucked under his arm was the local paper, 'Community Matters.' Laurel squinted in efforts to read the newspaper headline. The man glanced in her direction. Their eyes met. He waved. She smiled weakly in return, but her eyes were fixated on his hand that was short a thumb and forefinger. He flashed a thumbs-up with the stub. Feeling guilty, she halfheartedly waved and returned her attention to the stubborn traffic light.
Her mother complained, "How can there be only a bar remaining? I just charged this stupid thing last week. Laurel, did you use it?"
Laurel looked down at her Styrofoam kingdom; the Popsicle stick people gazed up at their goddess. She opened her mouth to deny the charge, but her mother cut her off, "Why am I even asking you? I know you couldn't have, because nobody ever calls you. This is just wonderful. I could never count on good reception. The one time there isn't any crackling on the other line, the cell dies on me."
The radio announcer promised, "Many great tunes to get you through those midweek blues after these words from our sponsors."
Her mother expressed her hatred of that particular DJ with some choice profanity. She vocalized a few more when her cell's batteries gave there last jolt of juice. Sighing, she said, "Well, I can't wait till I get to the office. Laurel, dear, can you get my spare cell from the glove compartment?"
Given this opportunity to be of use, Laurel dove into the compartment with both hands. She rummaged through an assortment of odds and ends. Everything from interstate maps to fragments of cinnamon hard candy was to be found, but there was no trace of the cellular phone. Undaunted, she continued her search, but only managed to spill some of the contents. A pack of pink tissues tumbled out of the compartment and clipped the eastern tower; a valiant stick knight sacrificed himself to save the kingdom from the fluffy abomination. Laurel did not bother to repair the damage caused by a bombardment of loose mints. Despite her efforts, the phone hid from her invasive hands.
Behind them, a morning commuter honked their horn.
Her mother glared into the rear view mirror to uncover the noisy culprit's identity. She furrowed her brow at the man in a turtleneck sweater sitting behind the wheel of a yellow bug. The evil eye did not dissuade the gentleman from leaning on his horn. She spun around in her seat and glared back at him. "How dare he raise that finger to me, wait, he is only pointing ahead." Blood rushed to her cheeks when she realized that she was in the fault. The traffic light had finally yielded to her demands and changed from red to green. In efforts to hide her mistake and make up for lost time, she pressed on the accelerator. Another blast of a horn, this time coming from the cross street, signaled the beginning of the end.
Laurel looked up to catch a glimpse of a truck barreling down upon them. She made eye contact with the driver who thought he could make it across the intersection within the small window of time between green and red, the fleeting yellow. Expressions of horror were shared between them. A scream welled up in her lungs and clamored up her throat, but its journey ended when the two vehicles collided. Sparks danced about the entangled metal. Cracks spider webbed across the windows. The screeching tires drowned her mother's screams and threatened to rupture her eardrums. The conjoined vehicles skidded for a harrowing twenty feet before stopping.
The abrupt stop caused Laurel to lurch forward in her seat. An absurd thought crossed her mind, 'I am falling.' Her seatbelt slammed her back against the seat and into reality. Smoke billowed from the engines and burned her eyes and coerced tears to flow freely. The stench of smoldering rubber invaded her lungs. Her entire body cried out in pain, but she was unable to utter a word. She resisted every urge to look at the crimson river trickling down her arms. Instead, she looked outside at the sunbathed sidewalks, young saplings swaying in the breeze, and white wisps of clouds sailing the tranquil blue ocean.
The last person she saw was the elderly man holding vigil over her. The smile was no longer there. Worry accentuated the deep crevices embedded in his face. Time had stripped his life over the decades, but hers was stolen in an instant. The daisies fell out of his pocket. They cartwheel through the air and landed on her face.
She reached for his wrinkled face and realized that throughout the whole ordeal, she did not let go of the Popsicle stick king with his tinfoil crown and Kleenex cape. The miniature ruler smiled while the color drained from her world.
#
The image fragmented like breaking glass. Neither pearly gates nor harp music greeted her; instead, she was once again in the courtyard populated by ravens. Pain no longer coursed throughout her body, but she was unable to steady her hands. Her knees quivered for reasons other than aftershock trauma; in front of her, a peculiar creature thrashed about in the fountain, splashing water on her skirt.
The creature had the stature of a small child. Though its catlike agility suggested otherwise, it appeared to be stricken with severe malnutrition. Matchstick limbs complimented its frail body. Whenever it inhaled, Laurel was able to count its ribs. Vertebrae and shoulder blades protruded through its stretched hide. A crooked nose and crescent eyes jutted from its face. Her eyes remained truthful to her; a pair of leathery wings protruded from the small of its back. Splashing her with water yet again, the demon snapped, "Mortal, this is Purgatory. It is best if you cast aside your former life. Clinging onto memories brings nothing but grief."
Her lower lip trembled. It took a great effort to utter the words, "Does that mean.?"
The demon rested on its haunches and snickered, "Yes."
Tears brimmed in her eyes.
It did a grand sweeping gesture with its frail arms, bowed like an attentive maitre de at a five star restaurant, and declared, "Welcome to the afterlife. I am your guide, Demonikin."
Her mother's words harkened back to her, "Demons lurk only in nightmares. Trolls dwell under bridges in fairy tales. Ghosts haunt folktales. Kids with overactive imaginations live in the real world." She stammered, "Are you.?"
Running its claws along the length of its tail, it proudly stated, "I am a bona fide demon." It stretched its wings towards the ominous sky. Purple capillaries stood out against the near transparent, taunt webbing. The wings flapped and lifted the demon out of the water. She could feel every foundation of truth she built her life upon crumble in that instant. A single tear meandered down her cheek, clung to her chin, and then plummeted towards the ground. The dam burst. Tears streamed down her face. She shook her head, unable to voice any defiance.
While churning miniature whirlpools in the fountain with its tail, it mused, "You are not the first to question your situation. I have dealt with many criers. Some people try to tune out everything. They close their eyes, rock themselves, and pray to their god. I have all of eternity to wait for them to give up hope. Then there are those who take their anger out on me. I have witnessed even the most devout swear at their deities and act as though the spilling of my blood will change their circumstance." It pulled back its lips to reveal its stained, serrated incisors and laughed, "I have my own means to deal with the quick- tempered." It then furrowed its brow and asked, "You will not give me any troubles now will you?"
She bit her lip and fervently shook her head.
The corners of its mouth curled upward to form a smile. It said, "Good. Good." It then scurried onto her shoulders, wrapped its tail around her neck, and muttered, "You are different from the others. I first thought that I must have arrived late. Every now and then a raven tumbles into the fountain and reverts back to its mortal form. That is always a bothersome complication. I much rather have a grip on them when they assume their human form. Then I took into account that you lack wings. I am not sure what to make of that."
The hairs on the nape of her neck stood on end. She murmured, "Wings?"
Demonikin did not pay her inquiry any mind. It brushed its talons along the length of her arms, leaving behind faint, red scrapes that disappeared just as quickly as they had formed. It mused, "A fair complexion that is not pale. Perhaps there is still some blood left in those veins."
She stood as rigid as a flagpole. Her breathing was shallow and thin, but her heart thundered in her chest.
The demon grabbed a lock of her hair. She yelped as it pulled hard enough that the roots threatened to give way. It buried its face into the hair, took a deep breath, and complimented, "Your hair smells fresh."
She stammered, "Thanks."
Long strands of saliva dripped onto her shoulder and coursed down her arm, leaving slimy residue in its wake. She clenched her eyes shut and wished to wake from this nightmare. An absurd thought crossed her mind, 'Maybe all I have to do is click my shoes three times together and wish to return home.' Vision deprivation only amplified her other senses and supported the validity of this place. The stench of mildew wafted into her nose with every drawn breath. It sat heavy in her lungs before being exhaled. Her feathered friends refused to be ignored. They milled about her legs, squabbled over territory, and rained loose feathers upon her. Their piercing caws continued to assault her ears. Despite these distractions, she was highly aware of the demon's presence on her shoulder. Its tepid breath upon her neck left her feeling queasy. She whispered, "This has to be a dream."
The demon muttered, "Why must all mortals play these games? I have all of eternity to wait, but that doesn't mean I would particularly enjoy doing so."
A concoction of frustration, fear, and anger stirred within her. The nightmarish plane refused to disappear with morning's arrival and the aroma of her mother's continental breakfast consisting of French toast, a tangerine, and a brewed cup of import coffee. Instead of cuddling with her childhood plush toy, Mr. Hoppity, she had a repulsive demon spawn running its claws through her hair. She resolved that no nightmare, no matter how persistent, had to be tolerated. A fleeting smile spread across her face when she imagined trumping through this dream and forcing the figment of her imagination kowtow to her, at least until her alarm clock rings. With a newfound determination, she opened her eyes only to discover the demon poised to sink its fangs into her neck. Her courage dissipated in an instant. Panic coursed through her body. She shrieked and wrestled the demon off of her shoulder. Caught by surprise, the demon slammed against the fountain's statue before tumbling into the water with a large splash.
Without wasting another moment, she took to her heels and sprinted across the courtyard. Ravens scattered to avoid being trampled. The confused birds flew in hectic circles; a few mid-air collisions were unavoidable. Hysteria spread like a plague amongst the other birds. Even those furthest from her took to the air. She shielded her face from the cloud of black feathers and talons. The foreboding green gates were directly ahead of her, but the hurricane of black feathered friends obscured the route. The thought entered her mind, 'It is my only chance to get out of here. Dream or no dream, I don't want to be near that creature.' With head bowed, she raced forward through the thick of the black, swirling mass. Fear that the demon would swoop down on her from the vortex of ravens was motivation enough to put up with the scrapes and bruises on her arms.
Fear alone was not enough to propel her. Fatigue began to take its toll on her body. She was never the athletic type. Over the course of the previous year, she had compiled a small collection of tardy slips from her sixth period teacher, because she was always the last one to finish running laps during gym class. Now, more than ever, she wished for the school bell to signal for her that it was time to stop whether or not she ran the required distance. With every stride, her inflamed lungs begged for her to rest. She was unable to replenish her body with the much needed air as fast as she exhaled. Her heart pounded its hectic rhythm that thundered in her clogged ears. Her legs ached from the constant bombardment of disoriented ravens. As she closed the gap between her and the gates, the tempest of birds began to dissipate. A renewed hope surged within her; for a brief moment, she no longer took notice of the gears within were grinding to a standstill. The last fifty feet proved to be the most taxing, but against her expectations, she reached her destination.
She fought the urge to collapse on the ground. Leaning on the wall, she allowed for her breath to catch up. A few moments passed before she could feel her heart slowing to its normal rhythm. Although the effects of fatigue waned, the fear of the demon remained as strong as ever. She glanced back at the fountain, but did not see the creature that referred to itself as Demonikin. A quick survey of the courtyard and grand walls did not yield any trace of the demon. She gasped, "Well, I made it this far. There is no sense in waiting here." She decided to test her luck with the gates that leered over her.
She ran her hands along the bars to find where the two gates met. Rust corroded the iron, giving it a tarnished emerald tint. The dust stained her hands black. She shook the gates, but they denied her entrance. A large padlock ensured this. Up and over the wall seemed to be the only alternative. Sharp prongs adorned its arched top, but she resolved to worry about them only when she succeeded in the climb. She grabbed the bars and tried to scale the gate, but the absence of footholds made this endeavor impossible. Her hands collapsed to her side in defeat. The color drained from her face when she realized that she had more company than just her black feathered friends; the demon was perched on an adjacent wall.
Demonikin rested its head in its cupped hands and leaned forward. Its wings and tail twitched in anticipation. A cat always toyed with its prey before going in for the final pounce. It hissed, "I thought you promised to be good."
She pointed an accusing finger and tried to muster a voice of confidence, "Not if you are going to bite. Anyways, I didn't promise anything."
The demon cackled, "We have both wronged. Perhaps now we can trust each other."
Waves of numbness drowned her in an eerie, but pleasant sensation. It dulled every thought and made the most mundane task feel like a colossal undertaking. Her feet were cemented into place from an overwhelming case of lethargy. The very act of lifting her arms was beyond her capability. Her mind drifted into a transonic state. She was barely aware that she shook her head.
The demon leaped from the ledge leaving her trapped between it and the reluctant gates. It brushed its tail along the underside of her chin and taunted, "There are a series of gates ahead of us. All of which are locked. The tip of my tail is not merely for aesthetics, but it also serves as a key for many doors, such as these. You have one of two options. I can leave you here for a few centuries to think things over." It paused so as to relish the worry spreading over the girl's face before continuing, ".or you can come with me now. Which will it be?"
Still drifting between levels of subconscious, she murmured something.
Demonikin cupped its claw around where she assumed its ear to be and said, "I wasn't able to catch that."
When the surrealistic feeling subsided, she strained her vocal cords to speak louder, but her voice remained meek, "Okay."
It clasped its hands together, smiled, and said, "In the end, they always lose hope." It eased up to the padlock as though it were a venomous snake poised to strike. After a few moments of eyeballing the mechanism from every conceivable angle, the demon inserted its tail into the hazardous dungeon and said, "I will never get used to this." It balled its hands into fists as the lock pins welcomed the intruder with sharp jabs. The clockwork gears caused the demon to howl in pain as they clicked through another full revolution. Laurel began to pity the denizen as she watched its face contort in anguish. This went on for another minute before there was a resounding click as the lock submitted to the intrusion. The demon planted its cloven foot on the gate and gave a sharp yank to free its tail from the contraption. Dents and bruises on its tail chronicled the epic battle against the lock. Breathing heavy, Demonikin muttered, "Several more to go." With the lock no longer intact, the gates creaked open.
Ravens crowded around the gateway. Forming Congo lines, they attempted to slip by the sentry. Wise to their games, Demonikin shooed them away. It unfurled its wings in efforts to scare off the persistent birds with its imposing appearance. The tactic only worked with the newcomers. Veterans of the courtyard imitated the demon in order to draw it into a showdown. Demonikin glanced at Laurel and said, "Don't just stand there. Hurry on through."
She stepped over the demon that wedged itself in the space between the gates. Once she was on the other side, she entertained the thought, 'Close the gates and run.'
The demon warned, "Don't disappear on me."
She averted her eyes and stammered, "I wasn't going to do that."
Demonikin followed after her, wrapped its tail around a bar, and gave a sharp yank. The gates clattered shut. A raven trapped between the gates wriggled its wing free and cawed in protest.
Laurel glanced back to recognize the raven as the one with the different colored eyes. She mused, 'From of a flock of thousands, that bird almost succeeded in escaping. I wonder what would happen to my feathered friends now.' It brought a smile to her face picturing them gathered around their fountain goddess.
The demon derailed her train of thought, "It would be of no use to run. Even if there weren't anymore locked gates, you would not survive out here on your own. Just follow my lead or else you might wind up lose."
After several minutes of walking, she wondered if it was even possible to become lost here. Towering walls served to assure that no one would stray from the curved, linear path. The only change in the scenery was the elevation; the causeway gradated downward with the occasional step for her to stumble over when she wasn't paying attention. She nearly tripped yet again. Demonikin gave her a peculiar look, but did not speak its mind. Her clumsiness only persisted with her increasing boredom.
The cacophony of ravens' cries faded into the background leaving them in silence; she almost missed their shrill caws. Almost anything at this point was better than the silence. She traced her hand along the towering walls, feeling the nicks and bumps of a surface that was only smooth in its appearance. The mortar produced a warm sensation that was pleasant upon her skin. Her fingers discovered a small niche in the wall. The first thought to cross her mind was that it must be a window, 'Perhaps now I can figure out where I really am'. She pressed her face against the hole; only the darkness stared back. The hole was more like a tunnel that stretched for an indefinite distance. She reached her hand inside. Her fingers brushed against the rough linings of the hole before touching a smooth object. Despite her mind's protest, she wrapped her fingers around it. Her mind conjured everything from a termite that feasts upon stone and intrusive hands to a lizard's egg. Instead, she pulled out a small statuette carved from a single piece of limestone. It had a lump for a head with three dots to mark its eyes and mouth; arms wrapped around its torso; and two legs separated by a thin indention.
The section of wall became frigid. Reflexively, she jerked her hand away before frostbite could claim her fingers. She cupped her hands around the figurine. She was about to blow on her hands to chase away the chill, but much to her surprise they were actually sweating. Much to her surprise, the idol was generating heat.
She cradled the effigy, stroked its smooth head, and traced the contours of its shapeless body. "The little fellow is kind of cute for a misshapen figure." The idol's eyes squeezed into tiny slits; Laurel's eyes grew wide. The doll slipped from her grasp and shattered on the ground. Shards scattered in all directions.
Demonikin spun around and snapped, "What are you doing?"
Laurel brushed the fragments to the side with her foot in hopes to conceal the evidence.
Demonikin noticed the small mound by her heel.
Ashamed, she stared at her feet and murmured, "I didn't mean."
The demon interrupted, "What can I do to make you not touch anything?"
She thought over this offer for a brief moment.
Tapping its foot on the ground, it grumbled, "I am a very busy denizen."
After some thought, she responded, "I would like it if you answered some questions of mine."
"Only if we walk and talk. I know mortals are good at running their mouths, but they better be able to do that while moving their feet."
She nodded and proceeded to ask her first question, of course while walking, "Why did I see myself in the water?"
It sighed, "It's called a reflection."
Words tumbled out of her mouth, "I mean it was like watching a movie. No, that isn't quite right word. Everything seemed so real. I felt like I was there experiencing my..."
The demon spoke slowly as if it were speaking to a dimwitted child, "Water serves as the gateway into one's memories. I thought everyone knew that. It is a part of common knowledge."
She said, "I thought water was only for drinking, bathing, and swimming on hot days. Sometimes I feel like Alice, always discovering new things, except for the fact that you aren't quite the same as the white hare. I guess that makes sort of makes sense, the whole see your past thing. If the lighting is right, then I can see my reflection in the water just like a mirror. I have yet to read a fairytale where mirrors were just a piece of glass. They always have some sort of fortune telling ability. Maybe I need to lay off the fantasy books and I won't have such odd dreams."
Demonikin sighed, "Still in denial. I don't know if I should laugh or feel pity."
She pondered, "What happens if I get thirsty?"
Rolling its eyes, the demon muttered, "Mortals...their stupidity never ceases..." The sentence was left unfinished, because it tripped and fell face first onto the pavement. Laurel offered her hand, but it would have none of this mortal sympathy, "I don't know where that's been." With saying that, its wings lifted the demon onto its cloven hooves. The demon was more or less unscathed from the spill except fro the fact that it had to straighten the crook in its obtrusive nose, nothing that a bone cracking torque was unable to fix. It took another step and almost was the victim of gravity for a second time.
Laurel bit her tongue, before she could comment, "It looks like you could use some more practice in mastering the art of talking while walking." Her mother, the queen of hypocrisy, was always quick to chastise her for letting slip any rude remark masquerading as wit.
Demonikin discovered the cause of its newfound clumsiness; its tail was wrapped around its right leg. Every effort to uncoil the appendage from shaking its leg to prying with both hands was for naught. Much like a frightened cat clinging to a tree branch, almost nothing could persuade the tail to obey its owner. With no desire to be made a fool in front of anyone, especially a fledgling, the demon hovered a few inches off of the ground.
Laurel asked, "Don't you have to unlock that gate too?"
The tail flinched at the mention of the word 'unlock'. When the gates were in full view, the tail uncoiled and wedged the spade tip into a jagged fissure that scarred the causeway.
Demonikin wrapped its legs around the rusticated bars, flapped its wings in order to stay elevated horizontally, and gave a sharp tug on the defiant tail. The gates shuddered, but the tail remained firmly lodged. Every successive pull was followed by an unpleasant moan of metal twisting inward. Grinding its fangs to nubs, the demon refused to surrender to its own appendage. After another heave, a prong that once adorned the gates top hurtled toward the ground like thrown spear of vengeful gods. Laurel yelped and faltered over backwards as another pierced the ground. She crab walked a safe distance to avoid future projectiles. The remaining prongs teetered on their fragile bases riddled with oxidization scars. While being caught in front of a gate that threatened to rain instruments of pain, Demonikin realized its latest case would prove to be a lot more difficult than thousands of tedious clients that it led prior to meeting the wingless girl. Though the demon risked certain impalement, it had not other option except to continue playing tug-of-war with its tail. For the next minute or so, a torrential downpour of metal spikes was the forecast. There was a snap that sent the demon flying forward, but its wedged tail thrust Demonikin on the ground. The tail slithered out of the crevice just as the brittle gates creaked opened; a series of disjointed fragments were all that remained of the padlock. The demon broke out of its prison of prongs, waltzed through the swinging gates, and cackled, "My handiwork even surprises me at times."
Laurel worked her way around the haphazard labyrinth of metal teeth. She winced when she touched the razor edge of the towering incisor and drew blood. Glancing up at the arched gates, she noticed one more prong ready to take its plunge. She hurried through the gateway before she could see where chose to pierce the ground and any unsuspecting travelers.

They walked in silence for awhile, because Laurel was too shaken up to remember their deal. Craning her neck, she studied the shifting gray clouds. Vortexes swirled the dark mass, while streaks of blue lightning arched their way across the dark ocean. Funnels touched down to wreak havoc on distant lands. She blurted, "What is this place?" After receiving no response, another question tumbled out of her mouth, "What is with those birds?"
Demonikin said, "I am not liable to answer any of those until we are walking again, that is our agreement."
She dropped her head and saw that they reached another gate which Demonikin was fervently at work unlocking. Keeping the question to herself, she wondered, 'How many more are left?' This gate was of little mention; the sky did not rain of metal incisors or any other deadly surprise. With a veteran thief's expertise, the lock did not put up much of a struggle against the demon. The gates swung open without so much of a creak.
After they began walking again, Demonikin attended to her questions, "Spirits enter this realm through the gateway known as the Nexus. That is where Purgatory and the realm of mortals connect. This place is one of many that the dead are sent to wait for guides, such as myself. The ravens are those mortal souls. Birds have no concept of time which is beneficial to demons in my profession. Sometimes it takes us years before we can get to every individual. I choose one from the group, dip them into the fountain so they revert to their original form, and then guide them. A courtyard full of confused and upset mortals will be a migraine in the making."
It predicted her next question, "You have arrived to this realm only a short time ago. If we in the nether realm ran on a system of first come first serve, then you would be sending a lot of quality time with your feathered friends."
She asked, "Is this place filled with imps, such as you?"
Demonikin stopped plodding along. While waving its claw in her face, it snapped, "Don't confuse me with an imp. Those bottom feeding, pathetic creatures can not hold a steady job; many even retire early because they can not 'handle' the pressure of leeching off of society. I am not a troll either. Their stench can knock out a wildebeest. I don't mind being called a fiend. That is the highest rank bestowed upon any nether realm denizen." He paused and reconsidered, "Well, only if none are around. They have a very elitist attitude and short tempers to match. On the safe side, just refer to me as a demon."
Holding out her hand, she smiled and said, "Or I can just call you by your name. My name is Laurel."
Refusing to take part in such formalities, Demonikin hissed, "My only responsibility is to take you to the Dark Council. Our acquaintanceship ends when I have done so."
She murmured, "The Dark Council?"
It gestured to yet another iron gate and cackled, "Sorry, I can't answer that now."
She sighed, "I think you like teasing me."
The demon grunted, "Still can't answer you." While fumbling with the stubborn lock, it wondered if there was a nest of ants residing inside; it would not have been the first time. As the lock pins yielded, the endeavor became less painful. Whether it was due to fewer trap falls within the metal box or a lack of feeling in the tail, the demon was relieved either way. At long last, the gates swung open. They proceeded through this fourth set of gateways.
After returning to their set pace, Demonikin explained, "The Dark Council decides upon many matters concerning Purgatory. One of which is your fate. The answer to your second question is 'yes, I do enjoy teasing you'."
Fear wrapped its talons around her, paralyzing her entire body. Anything with the word 'dark' preceding its name was never a good sign. She asked, "What will they do with me?"
Demonikin shrugged and replied, "Like I have said before, my only purpose is to take you to them. I have not a clue what will become of you. Perhaps you are just a small snack between meetings."
Hundreds of questions floated about her mind. She rattled off another one, "I heard that Purgatory was only a checkpoint between Heaven and Hell, is this true?" The demon gestured towards the next set of gates. It went through the same motions, but when the gates parted, something was different. Instead of a continuation of the sloping pathway flanked by walls, there was a city laid out before them.