In myths long forgotten, twilight was said to mark the time during which the mortal realm and that of the demons overlapped as the fading rays of day grasped the shadows of the impending night. Just as the separation between night and day blurred, so did the boundary between the two realms, and the terrifying creatures that sought to make this realm their own gained strength that mortals could not understand. If Casimir had known this, perhaps he would have heeded his brother's words and left the darkening forest for a kinder fate.
"Cas, don't. It's a bad idea..." Ulrich said as he peered into the cave entrance. Inside the towering mountain, all the two brothers could see was barren, black rock, devoid of any traces of life.
"You're such a wimp, as usual." Casimir said as he poked around the untouched entrance.
"No, I'm just using common sense, as usual," Ulrich grumbled.
"Well, we have to go in there anyway."
"No, we don't!"
"Yeah, we do," Casimir insisted. "That stupid 'possum took my locket! That pendant is the last thing we have from our old house. I'll make it pay by killing it and bringing it home for dinner. I'm sure it'll taste good."
"That's what you get for trying to use it as 'possum bait." Ulrich took a step back, snapping twigs underfoot. The unexpected crunch made him jump, but Casimir and his one-track mind didn't notice.
"Besides," Casimir said with a grin, gesturing into the pitch-black cave with a grand sweep of his hand. "It's like one of those adventure books. This is going to be so cool!"
"We aren't even supposed to be this far into the forest," Ulrich tried meekly as he glanced over his shoulder.
"Oh please, there's nothing dangerous even in this forest! Look around. They said there'd be bears and wolves, but I haven't seen anything more dangerous than that 'possum! I haven't even seen any cougars." Casimir sighed.
"Mom and Dad said not to go past where the trees get taller than our house. And these trees are huge." The younger brother frowned, looking up to what little sunlight pierced the canopy of the looming trees.
Casimir turned around with a scowl. "You mean our FOSTER mom and dad? Don't say that they're our real parents, 'cause they're not. I don't care about their stupid rules." He faced the cave again, and this time Ulrich remained silent. Even though he didn't show it, Casimir felt guilty for the outburst, knowing he had hit a sensitive nerve. Not guilty enough to turn back, though.
"C'mon, let's go in!" Casimir urged, stepping into the dark cave with only the small flashlight he had kept in his jacket pocket. He rolled his eyes as he glanced back to see Ulrich still hesitating. "If you were any fun, you'd want to see what's inside."
"There's nothing inside worth seeing," Ulrich replied, but Casimir knew that remark had gotten to him.
"Then there's nothing to be afraid of, unless you're scared of that stupid 'possum," Casimir smirked. Ulrich sighed, defeated, and followed his brother, who added, "Don't worry, the great Casimir will protect you."
"Right," Ulrich muttered as Casimir turned on his flashlight and led the way. There was nothing but more rock, more emptiness, and more chilly, moist air, though the floor was strangely polished and smooth compared to outside the cave. The boys barely noticed the change in texture, so the older brother trudged in deeper with no self-reservations. Ulrich followed reluctantly, rubbing his thumb against the tips of his fingers to vent the uneasy churning in his stomach. The cave was much deeper than they thought. In fact, it was more like a tunnel, Casimir thought with eager steps, searching the darkness for critters. After about ten uneventful minutes, the two were still moving further into the darkness, finding nothing more than stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the cavern high above their heads to meet the stalagmites rising from the ground.
"This place seems so...dead." Ulrich shuddered. "We should go back now."
"No, wait, look!" Casimir took off with his flashlight. He had seen a flicker of movement and was so certain it was the opossum with his pendant that he didn't bother waiting for Ulrich in his anticipation for revenge. When he finally stopped running, he found himself in a wide, circular chamber, the size of his school's cafeteria, empty except for an object at his feet. Casimir stepped forward and accidentally kicked what was lying on the ground. The clattering sound that followed echoed throughout the chamber, like a wooden bowl rolling across the floor. He shined his light on it...and froze. A skull? A human skull?
With a yelp, Casimir stumbled back, the skull passing out of the flashlight's ray as he recoiled. Once the initial scare passed, he took several deep breaths to slow his pounding heartbeat while mentally cursing himself for being so jumpy. At least Ulrich hadn't seen him stumble. After straightening out his clothes, he found the skull with his flashlight once again and crouched before it. There were a few cracks along the front and sides of the cranium, but other than that it looked just like the skull on the skeleton model in his science classroom. Casimir glanced around to see if he had missed any other bones, but there were none. The chamber was empty. Just the smooth, obsidian-like rock.
Turning back to the skull, Casimir reached out to run his fingers along the top of the cranium, but as soon as his skin made contact with the skull, its form became transparent, and his hand passed right through it. Startled, Casimir pulled his hand back, then tried again, but this time the skull's image faded, wiped in half by his hand. The fragments of the skull's form rose up like steam cast away by the wind, until they dispersed completely into the air.
When he stood up again with a puzzled frown, but before he could really process what had happened, an eerie laugh resounded off the walls of the chamber. He looked around frantically with his flashlight, but saw nothing.
"My, my, what do we have here?" a woman's voice asked. "It's rare that anyone ever comes this far into my lair. Didn't your mommy ever tell you not to go wandering off in this forest?"
"W-who are you?" Casimir demanded, but his tremble in his voice betrayed him. When he searched the chamber again, his light rested on a figure he swore wasn't there seconds earlier. She appeared to be in her early twenties, and would have seemed human if it weren't for her blood red lips, pure black irises, pale gray skin, and her legs...Casimir blinked to make sure he wasn't hallucinating, but sure enough, her legs dissolved into wisps of smoke below her waist. Her hair moved in a way that defied gravity, billowing up in waves and then swirling down as if she was underwater.
"Me? You come into my home, and ask who I am?" She pretended to look offended and put her hand to her chest. It was then that he noticed she had his opal pendant looped around her wrist.
"Are you...are you the 'possum?"
"Now that's just insulting," the spectral woman said with a mock pout. "You won't find that oversized rat here anymore. It's gone now."
Casimir didn't like the way she said that.
"My dear boy, I am Illedris." She crushed the pendant in her palm and let its remains fall through her fingers, as fine as silt. Of course, the name meant nothing to him. He had asked the wrong question, but his own voice had left him.
As if she could read his thoughts, she mused, "You're just another clueless, silly child. You don't know what I am. The impudent ones know us as the rogus."
A memory tugged at Casimir's consciousness. That word, rogus, he had heard before, but all he remembered with the word was a distinct feeling of dread.
"But you don't know what that means, obviously," she mused, her hair still swelling and curling as she spoke. "The ignorant mortals, the dim-witted ones, usually cry 'demon' before they die."
"D-demon?" Casimir whispered, what little bravado he had left leaving him instantly. He had heard myths and stories surrounding demons and terrible monsters that preyed on human souls, but he had always dismissed them as make-believe. Now, he was certain this lady couldn't be human. He dropped his flashlight as the she demon drifted closer to him. He wanted to run, but his legs only rattled in place. He didn't know if it was his own fear that paralyzed him or if it was her doing, but either way he could only stare, fixated on her pale and pointed finger as she reached out to touch his forehead.
Echoes of footsteps broke the silence and stopped her outstretched hand. The woman's eyes glanced over Casimir's shoulder and with a jolt, he found he could move again. He whirled around, shouting, "Ulrich, no! Run, get out of here!"
He wasn't quick enough. Illedris caught sight of his younger brother and grinned with a smack of her red lips. She disappeared into a cloud of smoke, tinged with a pale green glow, and reappeared behind Ulrich, who watched his petrified brother in confusion. "No!" Casimir cried as Illedris's finger softly brushed the top of the younger brother's head. Ulrich lurched sideways, his eyes rolling back into his head. Just like that, he lost consciousness, falling backwards until Illedris caught his limp form. A wicked smile split across her face.
"Y-you killed him," Casimir stammered. He forgot to breathe. Color drained from his cheeks, while nausea gripped his stomach.
"Not yet, but I will. Mm, his soul looks delectable..." She caressed the side of Ulrich's cheek with the back of her hand, the extent of her hunger all too clear in the glimmer of her eyes. "It's been awhile since I came across a soul that looks this good."
Casimir didn't know what to do. He could barely hear his own thoughts over the clamor inside his chest. His hands quaked at his sides uncontrollably. His brother was going to be eaten, but what could he, a ten-year-old kid, do to save him? Why was he so helpless? It was his fault, all his fault.
"Don't hurt him!" he cried, ignoring the taste of salt in his mouth as tears streamed down his face.
"Don't hurt him?" Illedris echoed with an amused laugh, "Dear boy, do you know how excruciating it is to have your soul ripped right out of your body? Well, I don't have a soul, so I wouldn't know, of course, but judging from the screams of agony from my last meal...I would assume that it hurts a lot."
"Then take my soul instead," Casimir offered without missing a beat.
Illedris paused and regarded him carefully. "You would sacrifice your own soul for his? You do realize that you need a soul, even after death?"
"My brother needs his soul, too," Casimir sniffed. His hands had ceased to shake, and his voice grew a little bolder. "So let him go and take mine instead!"
Illedris cocked her head. "Your soul isn't the same as his. This one is much more appealing."
"What? What makes his soul better than mine?" he exclaimed. He forced the jealousy in his voice, praying it was enough to convince her to let Ulrich go. "I'm way better! I'm older, stronger, faster, and I have better taste in...well, everything. Food, music, you name it!"
His outburst left the demon speechless for a long, agonizing moment. She only stared at him until finally breaking the silence by laughing softly to herself. "You are a strange mortal. Perhaps I will reconsider your offer." She put Ulrich down on the cold floor of the chamber and dissolved into smoke. An instant later, she rematerialized, gliding through the air in a circle around Casimir. "I stand corrected," she admitted with a grin so disturbing that it made Casimir think that sinister was an understatement. "There is something unique about your soul."
"W-what do you mean?" Casimir shuddered. The air nipping at his skin grew noticeably colder, giving him goosebumps. He was tempted to glance back at Ulrich, but the last thing he wanted to do was remind her about his brother.
"Hmm...you don't even know what you are, do you?" Illedris laughed. "Alright...I'll seal your deal."
Casimir didn't know whether to feel scared or relieved. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His jaw clenched. If she was going to eat his soul, he didn't want to see it happen. He hoped it wouldn't hurt as much as she had described it would, but he had the feeling she wasn't lying. He felt the demon's icy finger slide down the side of his cheek and move to the base of his neck. Her finger then moved across his left shoulder, tearing his shirt as it did so, exposing his shoulder. Casimir's muscles tensed, his blood roaring in his ears. This was it. She was going to suck out his soul, probably rip out his heart from his chest while she was at it. He was going to die…
Illedris traced a circle on the bare skin just above his shoulder blade on his back. Instantly, a burning sensation came over Casimir, like hot iron branding was pressing into his back with the design she had outlined. He wanted to scream, but his body wouldn't respond. Not a single muscle moved. "This is our pact, dear boy, I will leave your brother's soul untouched and in return you will seal your soul in service to me for the rest of your existence. Speak your name, boy."
Casimir was still in shock and scorching pain, but it was as if his mouth moved of its own accord. "Casimir Warlin."
"Do you accept this bargain? For your brother's soul, will you give your life and soul to me, the rogus Illedris."
He stole one last glance at Ulrich, who lay on the ground across the chamber, listless and utterly vulnerable. Casimir nodded.
"Yes. I accept." The fiery pain on his back subsided, until it disappeared completely.
"Very well," Illedris said with that unsettling smile of hers that Casimir would eventually become familiar with. "My dear boy, the sealing is complete. Your life and soul belong to me now."