Matilda's tearful sobbing reached his ears, even though he had teleported into the bowls of the Underworld. Irwin sighed. He didn't mean to keep hurting her, it just happened. It was his nature, the nature of a demon. Oh, granted, he was only half demon, but that streak of destructiveness would forever course through his veins. Irwin ran clawed hands through his luxurious, rust-colored mane of hair that framed his handsome face. Then he stopped halfway through. Matilda used to do that, he thought, back when we were children. He remembered how she loved to sit with him and brush his silky hair. They would do that for hours, the sound of the brush moving over his scalp being the only sound.
The demon began walking, the Underworld's vastness seeking to swallow him as he searched for a place to escape the awful echoes of Matilda's cries of grief. Those sounds were the same ones she had made when she had learned she was to become the spiritual leader of the nuns in the Gato Grottoes. Irwin could still remember the feel of her slender body against his own as she had clung to him, weeping into his chest. He had held her through the storm, touching her hair and back with a soothing gentleness that he had never known he possessed. It had been on that day when he realized that he felt something for the girl, something he barely understood. His nature rebelled against it with every beat of his heart and yet, he couldn't bring himself to push her away. Even though he could not feel aggression towards Matilda, the demon found his outlet in the Humans who sought to take away her freedom. As much as he began to care for her, the more he wanted to find ways to destroy those who made her unhappy. Escad never understood that.
The lava lake that flowed beside the walkway cast a searing heat on his fur and skin but the demon found it rather enjoyable to the chill coldness that pervaded the body after death. The heat on the outside matched the flare of anger he felt on the inside at the thought of that name. No, Escad never understood his intentions, he only condemned them without really finding out the reasons behind them. He was too selfish, too jealous of the feelings Irwin and Matilda shared to see anything past his own bitterness. Daena understood, though, and she mourned her friends' unhappiness.
It had always been that way. Matilda was the gentle, quiet one, the person who always did what others told her to. Escad was the warrior with lofty ideals and principles who scorned the world that didn't seem to follow his lead. Daena, the spirited cat woman, the rowdy one of the group who was always ready for a scrap. And last of all, Irwin himself. He supposed that everyone saw him as moody and brooding, with his flashes of temper and demonic heritage. Escad could never put up with that aspect of him and could deal even less with the idea of a demon wooing the woman he loved.
Irwin picked a a rock up off the cavern floor and flung it into the magma. It dissolved in a flash of light and fire, the intense heat incinerating it instantly. That's how life was, it seemed, one great free-fall and then over in an instant. Friendships were like that too. Before Matilda, Escad was a pleasant sort of person. A little zealous, perhaps, but never as obsessive as he later became. And then, he changed. They all changed, really. It became a rivalry for Matilda's attention between them. But the girl never wavered in her devotion to one boy: Irwin. No matter what games they played, she was always on his team, much to the anger of Escad who considered a half-demon boy to be unfit companionship to an innocent young woman. Matilda never saw it that way, though. Irwin often wondered if that was where his attraction to her lay. She never condemned him for who he was, only accepted it in her own calm way.
Picking up another rock, he hefted the weight in his hand, remembering a time way back when they had played hide and seek with their friends. They had gotten lost for hours. Irwin had been furious, spitting and snarling at the girl, calling her names for having gotten them into such a mess. She had endured his outburst calmly and never once said a word in defense. And then, when the anger had left him, she coaxed him to sit down so she could remove burrs from his mane. He never forgot that moment. She had been so accepting of things he said and did, always the well of patience and kindness to him. Even later, when he'd mistakenly thought that draining her magical energy was the key to solving her problems, Matilda never uttered a condemnation for his actions, nor for the fact that she had been reduced to an old woman before her time by it
Irwin shuddered, the sounds of sorrow that still followed him through the caves making his flesh prickle. He never meant to harm her that way. He never thought about what the consequences would be. He simply did what his nature told him to, despite whatever good intentions he harbored. He was a creature designed for destruction, not salvation, and unfortunately, he learned that lesson at the cost of Matilda's youth. Escad had found them afterwards. He flew at Irwin, screaming righteously for him to leave Matilda alone. Irwin was a demon and therefore not to be trusted. Perhaps the man had been correct. Perhaps trusting someone while knowing their true nature was idiocy.
He had left Matilda with Escad and fled the scene, taking refuge in the Fairy realms. He became bothered by previously unknown feelings of guilt and regret as his Human side burned through. He took minor consolation that his intentions had been pure and honest, despite the tragic outcome. But he couldn't face her, couldn't face the one he had wronged so badly. He couldn't face the understanding words and the eyes that would be free of any reproach. He ran from her, his one true friend, his love, though he scarcely understood the meaning of that word. He was unmanned by his cowardice and emotions. So he changed, both in mind and appearance. The person Matilda had known was gone after that. Irwin nurtured his dark side, drowning the goodness within him in the blood of innocents. He began to entertain thoughts of wreaking chaos and world destruction and he began to enjoy it.
At last, when he felt that he had mastered himself, the demon had appeared before Matilda and, with cool amusement, told her of his plans to destroy the planet. He had given her the key to her freedom long ago. He had sacrificed his very humanity for her. He wanted to hear her protests of outrage, to deny him his right to choose his own destiny. He wanted to hear her hypocrisy. But instead, he found only her silence.
"Speak, small one," he had commanded her. "I would hear your views on my plans." He had waited for many moments and was beginning to grow angry when at last she spoke. It had been three simple words, but they had the power to rip the solid world he thought he had created out from under his feet.
"So be it."
Irwin had been stunned. Could Matilda really appreciate the significance of those words? But then she went on to explain that she valued the freedom he had given her and would no more infringe on his right to choose than he would on hers. All the old pain had returned to the demon in a rush along with feelings he thought had been long buried. He always ran from her, he realized. He did it then, he was doing it now. Or maybe he was running from his own tormented emotions, not knowing which path to follow. Irwin had not the slightest clue.
"Hey, newly dead!"
The demon looked up and bared his fangs. "Leave me be, Shadole," he growled. The ghostly apparition snickered, as did his two buddies who hovered beside him. The center one, the one who had spoken, was green striped while his friends were blue and pink striped.
"Aw, don't be such a grouch! C'mon and talk to us! We're bored!" the pink one twittered, batting her oversized eyes at him in mock flirtation.
"Yeah, newly dead!" the blue and white Shadole jeered. "Tell us how you died!"
"He probably looked in a mirror!" the green Shadole laughed. "Man, what an ugly mug!"
"I think you may be right," the female agreed. "Geeze! Would ya get a load of that hair?" Irwin snarled fiercely and took a swipe at her with his claws but she only disappeared and reappeared out of his reach. "What a loser," she laughed.
"Looks like he's still got some spirit left to him," Green said thoughtfully. Blue smirked.
"Not for very much longer. They all have a bit of fight left when they show up, but no one can resist the emptiness for long."
"You waste my time!" Irwin spat onto the heated stones and his saliva sizzled as it evaporated. "Get you gone, shades of the past. Return to your holes and pray to the Mana Goddess to be reborn as dragon dung!"
"Did he just call us a load of-"
"Watch your mouth!" Pink snapped at Green. Green looked sheepish and Blue waggled a finger at him. Then he looked at Irwin's back as the demon stormed past.
"Wow, such biting wit you have," he sneered. "Why don't you go find yourself a comb?" All three Shadoles laughed hysterically at that, and the high-pitched chittering sound followed after Irwin as he left. "Bye newly dead!" they chorused. Between their mirth and Matilda's sobbing echoing everywhere, it was a sensory overload. Covering his ears with his hands, he fled. He had no idea how long he ran from the sounds. They chased him, always nipping at the edges of his brain like a pack of hungry Howlers trying to wear down their prey before they made the killing strike, ripping at the tired animal till all that was left was a bloody husk. He had hunted that way, himself. He knew the game. He never thought he would be playing it from the opposing side, though. He ran and ran till his lungs felt like they would burst. He sped through the dimly lit caverns till he finally collapsed to the stone floor, his vision growing black from lack of oxygen.
"Matilda," he moaned, half sobbing. "Matilda, I need you. Help me..." He clutched his head between his arms as if protecting himself from a rain of blows. "Please...make it stop! I can't take it anymore!" But Matilda wouldn't come to him this time, nor ever again. What he had said to her earlier had been inexcusable. She had all but confessed her love to the demon when she had found him in the Underworld. In death, she had resumed her true form, that of a beautiful young woman. But more importantly, she had developed a strange power as well, one Irwin couldn't even begin to fathom. She had spoken of how they could be together now. They were free to make their own destiny with each other, she said. Part of him, the part that was Human, was touched by her devotion and love. But the part of Irwin that loved blood and chaos and carnage resented her with a passion. He was free, yes. Free from the rigors of mortal life. Free from Escad hunting him down like a beast. Free from even his ambitions to destroy the world. But as free as he was, her love for him and his returned love for her bound him in a secure cage from which he knew he could never break out of.
"I turned my back on her," Irwin whispered brokenly, his own words drowned out by the noise that beat against his eardrums. "Damn me for a fool, but I did." His resentment had been his undoing. He told Matilda her love was a thorn in his heart. He spoke of how, had he the chance, he would redo his actions the same way all over again. Matilda had begged him to stay, part with words, part with her eyes, those eyes that never accused. But he left her there, in the room with many faces. And now she grieved as she had never grieved before, not for her destiny as a priestess, not for her lost youth. He had hurt her for the last time.
Removing his arms from around his head, the demon lay curled up on his side on the hot, hard rocks, lost in emotions and memories. He had crossed the line, broken a tenuous thread that might never be repaired between them. He couldn't go on like this. He had no right to return to Matilda and ask for her forgiveness. The war in his soul might rage forever, and he had already put his love through so much anguish. Was this to be the hell designed for him by the Lord of the Underworld? No, hell is a place of one's own creation, he knew. He had made his nest, as the saying went, and now he would have to lie in it. But then, Matilda had already forgiven him so much already, couldn't she forgive him this one last time? She always said she understood his nature...
Irwin felt the beginning stirrings of hope in the black depths of what he called his heart. It might take him a while to sort himself out, to learn to deal with both his good and bad sides without letting one be more dominant than the other. For Matilda's sake, however, and for his own, he would try. Maybe someday, he could go back and apologize for all he had done and maybe, just maybe, they could live happily ever after. Laying out flat, he stared at the ceiling with a blank expression on his face. Around him, the echoes continued along with the flow of memories. But now, they didn't seem quite as maddening as before. Could he one day go back and confront the source of those echoes, he asked himself? Closing his eyes, the demon knew he would have to. If not, well, the afterlife would be a very lonely place indeed.