The Dæmon of Cormagan

This is a sample chapter of Maarten Hofman's novel The Dæmon of Cormagan. Hopefully you enjoy reading it.


Carbon

The room was still filled with her olive perfume. The window was open, the wind coming in, so the scent would not last. Neither would the heat of her body on the bed. The ruffled sheets would be visible longer, and some of her microbes would outlive the house. But Kalia was gone. The Master came into and looked around frantically, wondering where she had gone. She had been sleeping before, resting, as it was sunny and very warm outside. The house was built on a mountain, crouched above what used to be the village church. After God’s absence became impossible to ignore the church had been converted to a meeting space, but it was empty, most of the time. He used to watch her there, her long black hair, her piercing green eyes, the golden chain dangling over her cheek.

She would always be his most beautiful sight, and he was happy, after a long period of doubt, that she had graced his house with her presence. He still worried though. The circumstances of her moving in had been less than pleasant for her, with her family gone and money growing tight. But she’d come to him, and he had helped her.

Now she was gone, and the only visible way was out the window. He had checked all other places, and had made sure the lock hadn’t been compromised. He had the only key, and most of the servants had been asleep in their quarters. He had woken them up with his inquiries and others thought they had heard screams; one of the maids came running in her petticoat. She was as confused as he was, and in the end he had to face the window, the only place left. He knew it had been closed when he helped her to bed, but she could have opened it. He regretted not having installed bars, but he didn’t want her to feel a prisoner, and at the time it seemed impossible for anyone to come through it. When he went to the window, the maid followed him with hesitant steps, and when he looked out she gasped. He looked down along the steep rock cliff, covered with needled bushes. He saw a goat jumping away, some disturbed sheep in the distance, ivy growing on the shady side of the cliff. He saw a lot, but he didn’t see her. No remnants of her clothing, no blood, no scratches on the wall, no rope of sheets tied together (although that would’ve been odd, given that the sheets were still on the bed). Yet she was undeniably gone.

The maid realized she was standing too close, and backed towards wall for the talker, looking at him. He shook his head: he didn’t want the authorities involved. Their resources would be limited, and their activities would limit his own. They might also want to investigate the house, and shine a light on areas that might not be able to bear such scrutiny. Not that he had done anything illegal. But in this place the difference between legal and illegal wasn’t a fine line, but a wide gray area, and he didn’t want to go there, not with people who might have a more narrow view of the world. He also had to think of his parents, and their parents, and what they might have done. He had been lucky, with all the riches they had left for him, but he didn’t know how they had acquired them, and would prefer to keep it that way. He retrieved his personal talker, checked its phosphorus glow and air pressure and aimed it at the room’s crystal. He requested a particular connection from the operator, who quickly connected him.

He was always afraid people were listening in, so his message was short, “My Kalia has gone missing, here at the Cormagan house. We could use some assistance.”

Within minutes, people began to arrive at the manor. The servants were used to it being busy, although rarely during the siesta. And these were not the usual guests. These were people from outside. Given the remote location of the castle, the servants wondered how they’d gotten there so quickly, although the mechanical contraptions parked in the courtyard might have explained it. The visitors had no uniform, but most of them didn’t wear local clothing either; the colors were more subdued, darker, and covered more of their bodies. Many had cloth wrapped around their heads, as if they preferred to be hidden. They came into the room, checking for traces.

Their leader was dressed in black and had deeply tanned skin and a well-groomed moustache. He confirmed Kalia’s disappearance. “She was here eight minutes ago.”

“I know, I heard her scream when she disappeared,” the Master answered impatiently.

The Master still imagined hearing her screams, and knew he would be hearing them for a very long time still. They had been soft at first, as screams go, and then grew louder, and he wondered if it was because the window was opened. He had been resting on the balcony diagonally below. It always became hot around this time of the day, and everyone in the country considered it better to work before the very air itself started to burn your lungs.

Apart from insects it was quiet everywhere, except in the castle: the visitors at the house were disturbing the peace, waking more servants. Snacks and then dinner had to be prepared, as well as relief from the excessive heat in the form of cooled drinks with lemon peels. There was one crazy man who kept asking for hot tea, and the maid who had been in the room earlier shook her head but opened the cooking valve and started boiling water. She knew it was better to please than to anger the people who feed you. She also agreed with the other servants that it was better to stay far away from these dark visitors. More noise came from the courtyard, where one of them was fixing vehicles, cursing the quality of the mountain roads.

The leader of the visitors came to the Master with the next discovery: “There was someone else in her room around that time.”

The investigating visitors had already fully claimed one guest room of the castle, and installed all sorts of strange equipment, causing the high torque axles of the old building to groan with strain. Mechanical microscopes, gyro separators and a metal that glowed in the UV spectrum were their first tools, but more were brought at the cost of loud grunting and some damaged plaster in the hallway. A poor peon was already moving more coal into the basement to maintain pressure in the steam tank. Using the equipment, the visitors were able to see otherwise invisible traces, and they were able to determine that spare being had not been a normal human, although they did suspect him to be male, and humanoid. From some scratches at the top of the window frame they deduced he had been tall, or had worn some armor that made him look tall.

A maid overheard them speaking to the Master about this and gasped. “It’s the dæmon of Cormagan, isn’t it?”

The Master raised an eyebrow, “Dæmon?”

“Yes, Mestre is familiar with the story?”

He shook his head, and nodded her towards a seat, “You can tell me the story, and any of the visitors who’d like to listen, Estratia. Even though it will most likely be a fairy tale, I’ll listen and not be angry with what you say. I must know where they took her, and currently there is nothing else I can do.”

Estratia nodded, and sat down in the indicated seat to begin. “You know this house is called Cormagan? It is, however, not just the name of the house. On the day I left to work for you my old àvia told me Cormagan was actually the name of a dæmon who had lived here. She wasn’t sure whether the dæmon actually lived in this house, or near the house. She told me because she didn’t want me to work here. Not because of you, of course, you’re very nice, Mestre, but because of that dæmon. Of course, I’ve seen most of your house, now, and I’ve never seen the dæmon. I don’t think it is here. But now these fora, pardon the word, seem to be talking about what sounds to me like the... the dæmon. Their description is accurate.”

Estratia fell quiet for a moment, thinking about her grandmother but didn’t voice her thoughts. The house had been built hundreds of years ago, by a robber baron who’d lived in the mountains. He had a small army and raided the countryside. He ignored the people who lived there, and even provided them with assistance when it suited his purposes. If he gave them food when they were hungry, or ran away a tax collector from the ruling king now and then, it strengthened his position with the locals. It was the travelers who came through his area of influence who suffered. He controlled the easiest passage to França, and travelers and traders had to either pay a toll or lose everything. It was similarly unwise for women to travel through the pass; they tended to disappear into Cormagan and never came out. There were further stories of the horrors they went through, but Estratia decided not to elaborate; her Master seemed to be more interested in the dæmon. The first robber baron had a long life and prosperous life, and he had built most of the current castle. Over the years, his heirs made it less spartan and more pleasurable.

Estratia continued, “The dæmon is said to have helped build the castle, and made it wealthy. Your avantpassats have even pleaded for the dæmon to return and give Cormagan its wealth and status back. Surely you have heard of this? I know it’s not proper to mention it anymore, but you have to admit there might be some truth in it... especially with these fora and their ciència. Of course, some people say the builder of the castle and the dæmon were one and the same. But he was your família, and you’re certainly not a dæmon, so I doubt that. My àvia also said the dæmon was immortal, and probably was around long before any of us lived here. There are many other stories about the dæmon. How he abducts young women, preferably virgins. But I don’t know. Any brut might abduct a young woman and blame a dæmon. As for what the dæmon looks like... He’s said to have leathery wings, and horns, and to be very handsome despite those. In several stories he is easily mistaken for a normal human, although taller than most. He is said to be very seductive, and sometimes dæmon children are born, and then killed.”

Sounds like dirty men using the dæmon as an excuse to abduct women, thought the Master. Most likely excuses by wives for their husbands’ extramarital affairs, and for families to reduce their guilt when they got rid of malformed babies. Estratia wanted to tell all the stories she knew about the dæmon, but the Master impatiently waved his ringed hand to indicate he wanted her to skip to more recent times.

Estratia obliged. “Originally my àvia thought you were a dæmon, Mestre, but you’re not. One thing everyone agrees on is that the dæmon has green eyes, although some say he can make them turn blue if he wants. You always have brown eyes, like most of us. The hair of the dæmon is black, not brown, and the dæmon has to be taller than you, and more, if you pardon me, handsome. Not that you’re bad looking, but the dæmon has a different level of charm. Some of the stories mention a tail; others explicitly state he has no tail.”

The talking maid noticed some disbelief in the eyes of her audience, and hastily added, “The dæmon is not the diable, nor does he have anything to do with the diable. This is not a silly religion thing. In many stories he’s able to blend in with other people quite well. Folds his wings behind him as if they were a cape. He has large feet, or maybe hooves.”

Estratia was getting quite excited, and had begun to repeat herself. She seemed to enjoy being the center of attention, but was hot and not well-rested. She had been working since before the sun rose, and had missed most of the siesta due to the disappearance of her mistress. The Master smiled at her, and suggested it might be better for her to go back to sleep. She nodded, and disappeared through the door.

The visitors shook their heads, not taking the story very seriously. The shortest one of them wore a long sleeved brown shirt, thin cotton pants tied around his waist and an odd round cloth hat. On his belt was a silver sheath containing a hooked knife.

He introduced himself as Khoseh, and clearly felt the need to clarify his disapproval: “The maid is talking about a fairy tale dæmon. What we sense here is a genetic anomaly: a human whose base structure is different, and who might not be able to procreate with an ordinary human. If attempted, it would certainly end badly for the latter. Maybe he can be considered a different species, although I’d say he’s still quite human. If you’re wondering whether the subject had wings, there might have been possible growth, but flying, or even gliding, seems highly unlikely.”

Another visitor, who the Master thought they called Tim, said “Something wing-like could actually match the reports of the unsettled sheep after the abduction.”

“Couldn’t the sheep not generally be unsettled?”

“Well, the shepherd reported their upset was more like a large bird of prey than a couple of humans running from the castle.”

Their leader was even more hesitant. “It may be that our subject approached Cormagan through the window, gliding. However, these wings could be artificial, rather than part of its body. As you know, I arrived by glider myself. We’ll be cultivating the traces we found in order for our dogs to pick up its trail. I’m hesitant to subscribe to any descriptions without facts, and we’re still looking for these facts.”

But Tim, the more pensive member of the group, didn’t want to dismiss the story completely. “Even if it is a fairy tale, there might be some basis in fact. It is possible a creature was living nearby, possibly in a cave in the mountains. Or in França.”

The Master thought it wouldn’t matter much. França was in a tight alliance with his own country, called the Unió, and the border wasn’t as impenetrable as it used to be. The mountain range was still high, but there were good roads, and his village was already half way up the mountain side. If Kalia had been taken there, it would be easy to bring her back.

His mind was thinking more about something else Khoseh had said, and he had to know. “What do you mean, it will end badly? What exactly will happen?”

“I can’t be certain, but I wouldn’t exclude sickness and death. A child might be possible, but would be followed by barrenness,” Khoseh answered.

Tim saw the expression on the Master’s face, and felt the need to add a comforting statement, “Don’t worry, Mestre, we will get her back before anything like that happens.”

Because of the fact that wings had been mentioned, a few of the investigators explored the outside of the window, testing the hypothesis. They attached folding instruments to determine possible flight paths to and from the window, considering fliers, feathery wings, balloons, gliders, and even more futuristic flying machines. The latter were quickly dismissed as too large, especially after they discovered there were no scratches on the outside of the window.

Khoseh asked, “The window, it was closed, yes?”

“I’d imagine so. It was very hot, and the breeze wasn’t strong enough to bring relief,” the Master answered.

“So how did the subject get into the room?”

It was Tim who gave a plausible answer: the window had been remotely triggered to open from the outside. He pointed out that someone had built a string mechanism that would push the window open once water escaped from a tiny vial in the corner of the window. The mechanism had been beneath the window sill, and had escaped the attention of the first two investigators.

The Master stared at it, “But how...”

“Would the water escape? A focused light beam could heat the vial, causing the water to evaporate. This could work from any distance, if you have the proper focusing glass. I find it rather impressive,” Tim seemed happy about his discovery.

“But how did it get there? It couldn’t have been there long; the water would’ve evaporated by itself.”

“You are correct, Mestre. It would have had to be installed after yesterday’s siesta.”

The Master now remembered how the screams were soft first, and then loud, and wasn’t sure how this fit with the discovered mechanism. He also didn’t recall seeing anyone flying anywhere, and he had often stayed in a room that faced the same direction as Kalia’s. But he had to admit the mechanism was real. When he inquired about it, one of the maids recalled a maintenance person had been in the room the night before. Manuel had been requested to put up new curtains. The new curtains were there, but it was possible Manuel had also installed the mechanism. The Master immediately sent for Manuel, but he was not in the house; he lived in the village. The Master sent out one of the maids together with Khoseh to go look for Manuel. The maid looked scared as she saw Khoseh pull out his knife and check the blade before he went out, and hoped that Manuel was careful, and would not give too much trouble.

The maid knocked on the door of Manuel’s house. She was breathing faster than usual, not only because of the heat and the quick pace that had led her there, but also because Khoseh was watching her while holding his vicious looking knife in his hands. He was standing at a distance, so he could observe most of the windows and the back of the house. The maid knocked again, assuming Manuel was still asleep, as it was still siesta.

The top half of the door opened, and a woman appeared. “Yes?”

“I’m terribly sorry, but is Manuel here? The Master of Cormagan wants to talk to him about a job he did earlier,” the maid asked.

“I don’t know where he is. He went to Cormagan this morning, but he had several other tasks he needed to do afterwards. There was this crooked door, and a water pipe that was leaking. And there was Alexia’s waterfall cooling that stopped spraying, making the heat unbearable. He was there during the siesta.”

“Thank you, we’ll try all these places to see if we can find him.”

“He’s not in trouble, is he?”

“We don’t yet know...”

But the door was still crooked, and the water pipe was still leaking, and when they arrived at Alexia’s place, it quickly became clear it was still hot in there and that the cooling had not been fixed.

Alexia looked a bit disheveled. “For a while we waited for him. It was incredibly horrible. We had just fallen asleep. What is your Master thinking, having you wake poor people up at this tedious time? Couldn’t it wait? Couldn’t you wait? It’s not so much to ask.”

”My apologies. But one of the repairs at Cormagan was botched, and things are really not going well, a bad smell and such. We’d really like Manuel to come and fix it,” answered the maid.

Khoseh managed to remain undetected by the neglected customers, but other people in the village noticed him and the inevitable rumors started. After the last interview Khoseh produced his talker, squeezed its pump once, and aligned its crystal with the nearest crystal.

The operator connected him, and he said, “We need the dogs.”

The dogs were ready, managed by a pair of the visitors. They went to Manuel’s house and ignored the wife’s protests as they let the dogs smell Manuel’s side of the bed. Once the dogs had Manuel’s scent they guided the group along his trail. It ended at the stable, where the wife said the ass should be, but the animal was missing. The dogs were then given the scent of the ass, and they started happily down the street. The dogs were much happier than the people, because the outsiders’ dark clothing was not ideal in the midday heat, and the Master, who had joined them, had different worries, fearing more things might be missing from Cormagan once he came back. He rarely left his home, and it always seemed disasters happened the moment he left. This time things had gone wrong even with him being there, though. It seemed unlikely they would catch Manuel soon, as he had a lead of several hours, and while asses might be stupid, they were fast enough. The Master decided to leave his dogs with the visitors and returned to Cormagan.

From the house he watched his visitors being guided by the dogs down the road, their arms tugged forward by the eager canines. It was already getting cooler when they disappeared around the last bend, towards the sheds near the community gardens. The light was different too: the sun would set soon. He felt some regret that he was not going with them, not seeing what they found. He liked action, but finding Manuel was not the same as finding Kalia.

It was several hours before he heard the dogs again, returning from their chase. He looked outside, but it was already dark and it was difficult to see where they were. Then the lights held by his guests appeared, and he realized he still had to wait a quarter of an hour or so before they would arrive at his estate. He was told there had been some developments in the research done by the others, but he preferred to wait for the news about Manuel. He considered using the talker, but knew the visitors would hate the wastefulness and effort involved. They were rich, and powerful, but they still knew how they had become rich and powerful, and wanted to prevent anything that would cause them to fall back into poverty. The Master, however, had inherited everything from his father, who had inherited everything from his father. He did not remember whether there was anyone among his ancestors who had actually made money. There was money coming into Cormagan, but it didn’t come the way Manuel’s money did, by using his hands or mind. Instead there were people who simply took the money he had, and made it into more money. Fifteen minutes later, he heard a maid opening the door.

The Master had forced himself to focus on the dinner arrangements  the rice needed to be cooked and the fish needed to be boiled  but he was too curious. “Did you find him?”

“We found Manuel’s donkey. It will find its way to his wife tonight,” answered Khoseh.

“And Manuel?”

“We traced his steps from the donkey to the Cova dels Petons.”

The Master knew this cave was named after the many couples who went there to kiss. “You’re telling me he was meeting a girl?”

“We can’t say whether there was a girl there, but we did find traces of the subject who was in Kalia’s room.”

“He was with Manuel?”

“Yes, probably to pay him for the installation of the device.”

“So you’re hunting him down still, aren’t you? Not all of you returned.”

“The investigation into the whereabouts of Manuel is still ongoing, but not considered as important as other parts of this search. We have confirmed his involvement, and should focus on the subject and the missing female. We have interrogated Manuel’s wife, and understand you did request the curtain modifications in Kalia’s room.”

“That is correct. I did agree with her something needed to be done, and Manuel has always done good work.”

“It was a few weeks ago you requested this. The subject must have become aware and planned the attack accordingly.”

“I wanted it done right away, but Manuel had other jobs.”

“Yes, he has rare skills, for this village. Tim is actually thinking he could stay here and make a lot of money providing similar services, especially since Manuel is missing now.”

“Why would you?”

“Most people need a job, Mestre. Not everyone is as luckily born as you.”

“I will pay very well if you bring Kalia back.”

“We’re counting on it.”