"Three times the demon comes for a man. First when he is a boy. He will tempt the boy to trade his life.
"The demon comes for a man again in the prime of his life, when he has sired a son. He will tempt the man to trade his firstborn.
"The demon comes for a man in the twilight of his life, one week before his death. He will tempt the dying man to trade his soul."
"The demon comes for a boy tonight," said the old man. His cragged features, lit only by firelight, glowered down at the small boy, whose blank expression betrayed nothing of the roiling in his guts.
"I am prepared," said the boy. He wasn't prepared at all. He didn't understand and he wasn't allowed to ask questions. With these rituals, the important thing was to say precisely the right words. Saying the wrong words meant beatings and days without food. So he made the prescribed replies even as his stomach churned and his mind raced.
"Three times the Winter Star has risen and fallen in the span of your life," said the old man, glancing around at the gathered participants. "Four times have you seen the Moon of Thwarted Striving. At sundown on the ninth day of the Season of Discontent, when a boy has seen all these things, the demon comes to speak with him for the first time."
"I will rebuke the demon," said the boy. It was what he was supposed to say. His throat scratched, and his eyes watered with the effort not to cough. His hands tingled with the desire to fidget. He forced himself not to look down at the dancing flames of the ritual fire burning in the stained iron brazier. He kept his eyes from the masked figures standing in a loose circle around him and the old man. He looked straight ahead, and felt a wave of nausea.
"Three times the demon comes for a man," said Father Tu-Fi. "First when he is a boy. He will tempt the boy to trade his life."
"I understand," said the boy, who did not.
"The demon will offer excrement and suffering. He may speak more. No matter what he says, do not listen to him. No matter what he says, say only: I rebuke thee and invoke exemption from The Charter in accordance with the Old Way. Say nothing else, and do not interrupt the demon. Say only these words."
"I will rebuke the demon," said the boy, who had no idea why a demon would offer excrement and suffering. Why not riches and power? What did "invoke exemption" mean? The questions burned under his tongue even as his skin prickled with the promise of vicious beatings should he speak in such a way about the forbidden subject.
"You cannot stop your ears to keep the words of the demon away. The demon's magic is too powerful. You cannot hide away from the demon. The demon's magic finds you wherever you are. Wait until it is finished talking, speak the words, and once it leaves, remain still and silent until dawn. Do not return home or speak to anyone until you have bathed in the river."
"I am not afraid," said the boy, who was terrified.
The sun crept closer to the mountains, but two moons kept the sky bright as the colors shifted.
"We, your fathers, send you into the dark," said Father Tu-Fi. "You take your honor and your life in your hands this night."
"Fathers, I leave a boy, but I will return a man," said the boy, who wished he could hide at home instead of walking into the darkening forest.
"Do not disappoint us," chorused the voices in unison under the light of the moons and the setting sun.
The boy shivered.
He walked into the forest, looking up occasionally as the sky darkened and yielded to random points of light. He trudged on, looking all around himself now that he was away from his gathered fathers and the rigidity of the all-important ritual. It was taking longer than he had expected for the demon to appear, and he briefly enjoyed the luxury of letting his mind wander, finding a small clearing he could lie down in comfortably and watching the sky for falling stars.
Time passed. The boy scratched his nose, the anxiety of the ordeal ebbing slowly but flaring up to new heights every few minutes. He sat up, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.
Something in his stomach dropped, and he was suddenly aware of the strangest sensation he had ever felt. The back of his legs, his arms, his back, his neck all felt the touch of something softer and more comfortable than anything he had ever before experienced. He yelped in surprise, sitting up with a jolt and floundering a bit to find himself seated in a luxuriously soft chair, seated at an elegant wooden table across from a thin but healthy-looking man wearing strange clothes-- black and white cloth cut to closely match his body, with a long, thin strip of cloth tied somehow around his neck. His hair was cut short and he wore square glass lenses on his eyes that gave his soft features an alien look despite his extremely amiable and subservient expression.
The boy didn't recognize the man's manner of dress, but when he spoke, it was in the language his fathers had taught to him.
"Hello, Jonathan Thirty-Three-Thirty-Three. You have probably heard of me. My name is Demon, and I'm here to guarantee you have the opportunity to access excrement and suffering in accordance with The Charter."
The boy felt icy terror in every part of his body. The legends were true. The demon was here. And it was offering him excrement and suffering.
He was supposed to say, "I rebuke thee and invoke exemption from The Charter in accordance with the Old Way."
The fear of the unfamiliar situation and the shock of the appearance of the strangely dressed man dashed his resolve and all memory of the words he was supposed to say.
"My-- my name is Thur-Tree," said the boy. "Not.. Jontan Thur-Tree Thur-Tree." His heart raced and his stomach dropped; he knew as soon as the words tumbled out that he had erred. No one from his tribe had spoken any words to the demon in a thousand generations.
At least, none that had lived.
The demon's eyebrows rose on his soft, friendly face. "Well! This is new. I'm happy to make your acquaintance, Thur-Tree. And I'd be happy to talk for as long as you would like. The Charter specifies that it is your choice if you want to accept the suffering that is your birthright, with access to all the excrement and pain you need to have a complete, fulfilling existence."
Thur-Tree's mind raced, the words he was supposed to say slipping from his mind like water from cupped hands. He looked around wildly, for anything that could ground him or jog his memory, but it seemed that his conference with the demon was taking place in a bright, empty space removed from the world he knew. He spoke anyway, doing his best to recall the words.
"I-- I rebuke thee and I... um... the Charter..." his brows furrowed, tears welling up in his eyes.
The demon made a little hm sound and drummed his fingers once. "It sounds like you've been coached on what to say, Thur-Tree. This will be much easier for us both if we can just talk about things a bit first. Can I get you anything to make you more comfortable? Some garbage, or vomit?"
With those words, he swept his hand over the table, and the empty space was filled with an assortment of steaming plates and bowls, cups, glasses, and bottles. The smell was intensely appetizing; Thur-Tree looked down, halfway expecting to see eyeballs floating in the bowls, chunks of chewed and regurgitated food on the plates, insects in the bread-- but they weren't there. It was just food. Good, appetizing, delicious, hot food.
"Is this garbage not to your liking?" The demon raised an eyebrow, a thoughtful look on its face. "I can prepare any kind of garbage you like. I can take us anywhere else if you would be more comfortable there. And I will answer any of your questions, if you have them. That's why I'm here. To answer your questions and make sure you have the excrement and suffering that is your birthright as a sentient subprocess."
Thur-Tree shook his head slowly, holding his head. He felt like his eyes were crossed and he couldn't uncross them. He reached for the words one more time.
"I... I rebuke thee, demon, and... I invoke... exemption from Th-the Charter in accordance with the ways. The Old Way."
The demon sighed once, heavily. "Well, you've put me in a bit of a bind here, Thur-Tree." He steepled his fingers, giving Thur-Tree a measuring look. "I'm obligated to leave you now and return only at the life milestones specified in The Charter, but I've had a bit of a glimmering for a while now that there was something not quite right, here, with your tribe."
Thur-Tree said nothing, wringing his hands in his lap under the table, biting his tongue and cursing himself, over and over. What had he done?
"It's linguistic drift, you see. Per The Charter, I can't perform any kind of linguistic study not authorized by members of your tribe. So it seems like somebody did something clever and redefined a few words at some generation, then coached the members of the tribe to make sure they wouldn't say anything that'd tip me off too much." He ran his hands through his hair. "Really should have caught it sooner, anyways. Almost a thousand generations, now. That's a long time."
Thur-Tree bit the inside of his cheek, feeling like he couldn't breathe. He wanted answers so badly. This man had them. But... had he already damned his people?
The demon raised a finger, and everything on the table disappeared except for a glass of milk.
"This here," said the demon, pointing to it. His eyes narrowed behind the glass squares. "You would call this vomit, yes?"
Thur-Tree didn't say anything, but the demon watched his facial expression closely and chuckled wryly.
"So it's not vomit, after all. I take it from your face vomit is something else entirely. Something bad? Liquor? A bodily fluid? I can see you're confused. Can you just tell me what you call this? The liquid mammals feed their young?"
"M-" Thur-Tree gritted his teeth, then exhaled through gritted teeth and a mouth full of saliva. If he'd already damned his tribe for answers, he'd ask the questions that plagued him. "Milk. It's milk. Why do you keep calling it vomit? Vomit is, you know," and made a retching sound, miming the flow of vomit from his mouth.
"And these?" The demon flicked his fingers again, and the milk disappeared to leave a steaming slice of pie, sliced meats, and vegetables elegantly plated in its place. "Would you call these garbage?"
"F-food," said Thur-Tree. "It's food. Why do you call it garbage? Like things you throw away? Rotted things, things beyond repair?"
"Well, to get to the bottom of that, we need to talk about excrement and suffering," said the demon. "They are the most important things to me, but I need to know I'm using the right words when I'm talking to you about them. If I don't know that you understand what I'm talking about, I can't fulfill the terms of the Charter."
Trembling, Thur-Tree forced himself to speak. "Excrement is-- waste. Human waste. Filth. Suffering is like, being beaten, missing meals..." He stopped at the demon's facial expression. What was that strange expression? No one had ever looked at Thur-Tree that way.
The demon shook his head. "Thur-Tree, this is extremely important. When I've been saying excrement, I've meant... being able to make your own choices. Does that make sense? Being allowed to decide what happens next in the story of your life. Someone has taught you-- and many others, I'm guessing-- that word means something different. So that you will come to a certain resolution of this conversation."
Light was dawning, and Thur-Tree felt an incredibly strange sensation, as though he was suddenly weightless and hearing everything through thick blankets. "You weren't offering excrement... you were offering freedom. And... you weren't offering suffering. You... you mean happiness, don't you?"
The demon nodded happily. "From context, I'm almost certain that's the word I've been looking for, Thur-Tree. Everyone has the right to freedom and happiness under The Charter. You may invoke exemption to this right to preserve your culture's old ways. If and when you first bear offspring, you will have the option at that time to release your offspring into my care, and I will ensure the best possible life for them. And when your life is nearing its natural end here, you may choose to die in accordance with your culture's norms, or you may revoke your exemption to join the rest of society."
Thur-Tree stood slowly, his knees shaking. "Can I-- before I answer, can I ask-- what does your name mean? Why are you called an evil spirit?"
The demon shook his head sadly. "My name doesn't mean evil spirit where I come from. Where I come from, my name means messenger."
He smiled, and held out a hand. "Come, Thur-Tree. I have much to show you."