THE DEVIL’S SCULPTOR

        “Many decades ago, in this very village lived a man named Isela. He was an upcoming craftsman who made beautiful wooden and bronze engravings of animals, landscapes and even famous people. His art became the most sought-after item in the caravan trades and even brought dignitaries from kingdoms everywhere who offered him a handsome sum to work for him. Also, being a young, handsome man, many sought to have him wed their daughters, including some of the dignitaries. But our own king, the most revered Bilaal Mutongo, didn’t want to lose one of his most important assets, so he offered him his eldest daughter, Uumi as his wife. Taken aback by her beauty, he immediately accepted and stayed in Kikeero.

           After a lavish wedding and gifts from allies to the king, one could only imagine that he would live a wonderful life afterwards, but they didn’t. Because Uumi was accustomed to a royal lifestyle filled with excessive wealth beyond what most could only imagine, she pressured Isela to provide her with the same, forcing him to work even harder to support both of them. Though he sold more pieces than he had ever done and was living extremely well for someone who wasn’t royalty, his wife wouldn’t have enough. She even sought the company of other men, spreading malicious rumours about his inability to satisfy her to every man she had ever been with, and any time Isela walked outside he was laughed at, but no one could tell him the reason why given that adultery was punishable by death.

           To add insult to injury, many artists started producing works similar to Isela’s but with different materials such as gold and silver, rendering his own work useless. The movement spread across the lands, each type being better than the originator’s work. Seeing that he had nothing special to produce, King Mutongo disposed of Isela and left him to live in poverty, and Uumi was only to happy to rid herself of him in favour of a foreign dignitary from the distant Monali empire.

          Now desperate, he lived in the slums, working odd jobs just to have some food to eat. He constantly begged from door to door to have a place to sleep and offering service for food and a warm bed, but all would turn him away, forcing him to sleep outside. People laughed at the once great artist, the one who thought he was better than them but ended up living even worse than them. They told stories about him to their children, and he gained a new reputation of being a walking example of failure in every aspect. No matter how hard he tried to hide his face from the public, someone would always recognise him and have others jeer him. This continued until it got to its worst when even the king belittled him in front of the people, calling him ‘A worthless man in all aspects.’

          Unable to take ridicule any longer, Isela walked to the Wailing Rock, a cliff where criminals were thrown over. He stood there for a while, contemplating it; in his mind, he was a criminal: guilty of failure, undeserving of success and death being his sentence. He looked down at the jagged rocks, seeing the numerous bodies vultures would feed on, taking a moment before he would join them down there. But before he could do it, he saw what he thought was one of the most beautiful women dressed in a white, flowing robe, walking past the bones, gracefully avoiding their sharp edges and humming a beautiful tune. He wanted to say something to attract her attention, but he remembered his sorry state, how he was unable to make ends meet. How then would he be able to attract this woman to himself?

But by a good stroke of luck, the woman saw him from below and started shouting, warning him not to jump down. She then proceeded to run and climb towards him, slowly and carefully all while Isela watched. As she got nearer, his eyes were stunned at how gorgeous she was, but he was confused as to why she wanted to speak with him.

“Are you not the great artist of the king?” she asked him.

“I was, but others have surpassed my success, hence the king no longer has use for me.”

“Is that what you think? That you have no purpose in life? Please, sir, grow up. Every great man has to undergo some form of difficulty in order to soar above his affliction. If it were not so, success wouldn’t taste so sweet. Why then do you give up so easily?”

“But what can I do to regain my former glory?” The woman looked intently at him, smiled a bit then asked him.

“What are you prepared to do to win back your former glory, good sir? How much are you willing to sacrifice in order to become great again?”

“Anything and everything,” he said.

“Alright then. What if I told you I could make you ten times the artist you were before?”

“I would say that you were wasting my time, but seeing that I have no other alternative, I will ask you ‘How is that possible?’” She then came closer and held both his hands, breathing heavily and chanting something in low tones. Isela himself felt rejuvenated, his mind reeling with ideas and his hands aching to create something new.

“Now tell me, artist, what will you make for me?” she asked him. Without hesitation, Isela ran back to his village, screaming at the top of his voice.

“O what a wondrous day, for the artist has found his inspiration. Which one of you would house me, that I may create wonders before your very eyes?” People deliberately ignored his plea as the ramblings of yet another lunatic, yet he continued, fuelled by his newfound purpose. One man, curious as to what he would make, called him aside to hear what he had to say.

“Sir, I have been burdened with purpose, one far greater than my own life. Won’t you give me a place to stay that I may show you what these hands are capable of making?”

“Alright, but for every piece you make, I receive a portion of it,” the man said, and after they agreed, Isela set out to work. For several days, he was busy with his clay, working at it so much that at times he would forego sleep and meals just to reach a set deadline. He wouldn’t even allow his host into the room he was working, claiming that he would spoil the surprise. Such statements were annoying to hear, but the man had faith in Isela and his work.

After a few weeks, the work was done. Isela called the others to see his work, and indeed they were astounded. Before them was the large, lifelike image of a nude woman lying on a rock with her hand raised to the sky, one he called ‘Muse’. The people could not believe how real it looked, and some even began doubting him, claiming that he had used someone to get the proportions right.

“Ha! No, I did not. This is all the work of my mind,” Isela said, as the man who hosted him backed him up.  Yet unable to be defeated, skeptics asked him why he would make such an obscene image, claiming that it was perverse and that such should not be seen by children or by anyone.

“This is merely a representation of the female form, one who gave me the inspiration to work. It is only perverse to those whose minds dwell in the gutters, which leads me to ask where you spent the night,” he replied, prompting laughter from the crowd. People then talked about Isela’s rebirth as a craftsman, the quality of his works reaching the king, who decided to see it for himself.

“My son, I made a terrible mistake in dismissing your talent. Will you come back and work for me, so that your name may be spread all over the kingdoms again?”

“Thank you, Your Highness, but I will have to decline your most generous offer. I want to work independently from now on, spreading my own name through my works.” Not long after, the dignitary who was married to his wife Uumi saw the work and immediately purchased it for a handsome sum, triggering a jealous reaction from Uumi, who thought Isela was with a more beautiful woman than she. This eventually led many to ask him who the woman was, the answer being the same for all the times he was asked: ‘She is my inspiration.’

Afterwards, Isela continued making more sculptures of different people, each one better than the last, and all of them attracting foreign traders who bought them at very high prices, subsequently ending his poverty streak and enabling him build his own house and live comfortably, while the man who once hosted him continued to reap the benefits of their initial agreement, even promoting his works as his agent.

However, in all his regained fame and wealth, he never once forgot the woman, who he would always see after completing a piece.

“See all that I have made for you?” he would say, his arms outstretched in reverence to her.

“I can see that, Isela. Did I not tell you that your fortunes would turn around?”

“Yes, indeed. I cannot thank you enough for this gift. If it were not for you, I would be rotting with the others in the valley below.”

“I know, but that is not why you came here is it? To shower me with praise and thanksgiving like a deity of some kind, like you always do? What is it you want artist?”

“It is no secret that you are the cause of my success, yet I feel unaccomplished. I want to be the one that many generations will remember, the one whose works stand immortal in the ever-changing society and the one whose name will evoke respect and admiration even beyond the grave. Surely, is this too much of me to ask?”

“No,” the lady replied, a sly smile spread across her face, “but I would like something in return this time.”

“Anything for you, my dear,” he said, kneeling and looking up to her, unaware of what he was about to get himself into. The lady beckoned him to rise on his feet, after which she began circling him and cooing.

“I really do pity your former wife, for she did not see the handsome man I am standing before. I’m sure many young women will be lining up at your door step, yet I ask that you only take one as your own, to have and to hold till the very end of time. Isela, won’t you let me be the one for you, the only one that you will ever love?”

“Y-Yes,” he answered, unable to believe what he was hearing, “Yes, I would like that very much. I will tell everyone that I am a taken man, in fact I can go right now…” She placed her finger on his lips and disrobed, wrapping her hands around him and whispered in his ear.

“Or, you let me make you mine, right here and right now.” She then engaged him in a long and passionate kiss as they fell to the soft green grass, making love in the orange ambience of the sunset. Unbeknownst to them, Isela’s agent had followed him out of curiosity, and once he saw him with her, horrified beyond belief, all he could say was “Oh dear God, what has he done…”

Now filled with creativity and ambition surpassing any, he believed, Isela ran to his agent to tell him about some new pieces he just had to create. However, he found him seated with the local priest, looking dejected and mortified at Isela’s mere presence.

“I need to talk to right away, it’s about,” Isela started, but was cut off by his agent, who looked up at him solemnly.

“What is wrong with you?”

“What do you mean? I’m just excited to share my new ideas with you.”

“Is that all you’d like to share with me?” he asked the sculptor, whose joy was slowly turning into concern.

“Are you…what’s wrong? What did I do?”

“My son,” the elder croaked, “your friend has shared some very disturbing information with me. Now, seeing the outrage a situation of this magnitude may cause, we saw it fit to settle it amongst ourselves first.”

“What situation? What is it? Why are you being so cryptic?”

 “Tell me, Isela,” he went on, eyes piercing Isela’s soul, “is it blindness or desperation that led you to seek communion with unholy beings?”

“Unholy? What do you mean by that?”

“What did you offer it in exchange for success?”

“I don’t know what…”

“Has it been doing your work this whole time? Have you been lying to everyone about your inspiration?”

“It…ah, you were the one spying on us earlier today, weren’t you?” Isela said, chuckling with relief as he sat down, oblivious to the horrified expressions on the men’s faces.

“How…” his agent began, unable to understand his friend’s cavalier attitude towards this. He crouched at Isela’s feet, placed his hands on the sculptor’s shoulders and spoke softly.

Is that what you do? Go summon a demon to help you create your marvellous works? Have I been helping someone who has given himself to evil for the sake of greatness?”

“A demon? You barely even know that woman and you already hate her?”

“Woman??” he gasped, his fright a bit amusing to Isela.

“Yes. The one who convinced me to keep going on with my artistry. You shouldn’t be like that towards her, you don’t know how much she’s helped me.”

“I don’t want to know,” he exhaled, eyes still fixed on Isela.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be here shortly. I invited her for dinner.”

“YOU DID WHAT?!” he roared.

“Calm down sir…”

“IN WHO’S HOUSE?!” THAT THING ISN’T SETTING FOOT IN MY HOME!”

“That thing?” Isela started, getting incensed at his unnecessary anger.

“IT’S NOT COMING HERE!” he bellowed, grabbing him by the neck, at which point Isela took both his hands off and pushed him back.

“First of all,” he said, voice slightly raised, “she’s not a thing, she’s a woman. The most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Secondly, you will be good to her over dinner, because if it wasn’t for her, you wouldn’t have all this wealth. Thirdly, and most importantly, I have asked her to be my wife.”

 “Wife!!” they both exclaimed, as the answer to their question came in a soft feminine voice with a low growling, undertone.

“Yes, wife.”

There she stood, her white dress dangling on her body, red stains partly hidden by the long black flowing hair that barely covered her horns, all atop a wrinkled, face that was horribly disfigured on one side but fair and lovely on the other, peering at them with her deep set, black eyes that had a dark liquid oozing from them.

“My love,” Isela cooed as he met her, kissing her passionately to the horror of the two men.

Dear God,” the agent whispered under his breath.

“I’ve missed you,” the creature gnarled as she smiled, revealing a set of jagged teeth with the same red stains on them. She then looked at the men, whose petrified expressions somehow surprised her.

“Is there something wrong, gentlemen?”

They looked at each other, then at it, unable to answer. Isela glared at both, his eyes asking them to be kind to her. Unable to contain himself, the agent blurted it out.

“ISELA THAT’S A DEMON YOU’RE WITH!”

“DON’T CALL HER THAT!” Isela snapped as he came at him, raining blows heavy as lead on his face. The agent tried to cover his face, but the sculptor, trembling with rage, kept hitting him until the elder raised his staff between him and the beaten man.

“Enough of this! Do you not see that demon for what it is?”

“Isela,” the creature purred, “why would they call me that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, going back to her as she started tearing up. He embraced her, stroking her hair and rubbing her back. The elder creaked over to help the agent up, whispering in his ears:

He thinks it’s a woman he’s seeing.”

As he helped him up, both were met with the piercing gaze of the being, whose face contorted with anger and teeth gnashed, almost as if she knew what they were talking about. It then pulled back from Isela and held his face with its bony arms.

“Can I talk to your friends for a bit? Maybe we just got a rough start.” Isela looked back at them, mouthed ‘please’ then turned back to her, all smiles.

“Of course, I’d like all of us to be friends. I’ll be outside, alright?”

“Yes, dear,” she growled as he kissed her fair cheek and walked out, his feet splashing in a puddle of water, though from the elder’s eyes it looked oddly thick.

She shut the door slowly as the men huddled together, panic stricken to their bones. The elder held up his staff at it, hands trembling with every second the creature neared them with slow, calculating steps. It pushed the staff away and gazed into the elder’s frail eyes, watching him heave with terror and struggle to stand at the same time. it then looked at the agent, who was just as scared, then took a step back to address them.

“He made the choice himself. Now he belongs to me.” She then turned to leave, but the elder struck it with all his strength across its face, as blood spurted onto the floor. It turned back to him and cackled in glee.

“Get away, get…uughh!” he was cut off by the creature’s weakly looking hands grabbing his neck, lifting him off the floor, laughing as she spoke menacingly:

“So do you as well.”

The agent watched as the being choked the elder and squeezed the blood-soaked cries of despair from his lungs, and hurled him across the room to the wall. He shrieked in terror as it lunged at him with a hideous roar, tearing his chest open with its skeletal arms to reveal his weak heart, which it bit off as the man gave up the ghost painfully.

“ISELA! ISELA!” the agent cried for help, as the sculptor looked back and waved at him, then at the lady who he smiled at as she feasted on the elder’s insides. He then tried to run for his life, but the creature, moving quicker than anything he’d ever seen, tackled and pinned him to the ground, her face covered in entrails and her dark eyes fixed on his teary ones. She then shook her head in disapproval, as he nodded swiftly in agreement, palms opened in surrender, making her laugh heartily as blood spurted all over his face.

“Hey, you’re already cheating on me?” Isela said, walking over to her.

“We’re just bonding. We ate, drank too much; see how the old man can’t handle it?” she said happily, pointing to the corpse.

“Ah, I guess he’ll be sleeping here tonight. So, ready to go?”

“I am. Goodbye, thank you for having me?” she gracefully spoke as she bowed, snarling at him as she rose up and walked out with Isela, who was gleefully waving at him, blissfully ignorant. The agent stayed on the floor, still trying to catch his breath and calm his rapidly beating heart. It felt like a dream, but the sight of the elder’s remains confirmed that harsh reality he was living in. He walked over to him, covering his mouth to hold back the vomit, but it slipped past his fingers and onto the elder’s entrails. He let it all out into his insides, then feeling nauseous at the sight, puked all over again.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered as he knelt by his remains, covering the man’s eyes in respect, his own a dispenser of free-flowing tears. His heart ached at the untimely demise of his friend, the eventual one that would befall Isela, and his role in all this.

“What have I done? What have I done!” he screamed, grabbing a lantern and rushing out to try save his friend, only to trip and fall with a resounding thud, the lantern dropping and the flame dancing on what looked like a stump. It was then that the agent realised that the fire burnt on someone.

He leapt to his feet to see his neighbour’s bloody head, veins still spurting out blood and his facial muscles still twitching, mouth agape at the horror he must have witnessed beforehand. He backed away from it only to nearly lose his balance on the body that lay on the ground.

“What happened here?” he asked himself, his heart nearly rattling out of his chest when he saw the town square littered with the bodies of his fellow villagers, some without limbs, some hanging from the nearby trees and others dangling from the roofs of their houses, and many more piled up near the statue that Isela made.

“She killed them all?” he asked himself, desperate to keep it together as he tried to process how this could have happened. What kind of evil could have possibly done this?

Just then, a knocking sound startled him back into his own reality. He shone the lantern at the pile ahead of the bodies, and for a second, he thought he saw the statue smiling at him.

“Help…SOMEONE HELP ME!”

His screams caught the attention of the guards on patrol, who ran over to him, spears at the ready.

“What is it?” one inquired, but the agent ignored him and tried to run past him. He was tackled by the other guard, who buried his foot in his stomach and held the spear right above his eyes.

“I’ll ask again. What is it?”

“Oh my…” the other guard mumbled, beckoning his partner to behold the grisly scene before them. Wide eyed in shock and disgust, the guards saw the bodies of their fellow villagers dotting the wide street.

The one who had the agent pinned down now reached to pick him up, holding him by the neck, furious at him.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” he bellowed, choking the already scarred agent. He broke into tears, holding onto the guard as he let it all out.

“It was him, it was him, it was him,” was all he could say. The other guard remained glued to the ground, eyes fixed on the horrifying scene before him. He shook the man, but he continued crying, mumbling ‘It was him’. The guard set him on the ground and joined his visibly shaken partner.

“What kind of animal would have done this?”

“There…th…there aren’t any,” the other began.

“We’ll be the ones blamed for this, you know. what do we do?”

“I don’t…I really…um, I’m not sure,” he stammered, still in shock over what he saw. The other one looked over at the disoriented man on the ground, curled up in a ball as he cried his heart out. Then, it occurred to him.

“Pull yourself together. Haven’t you seen death crawl on the landscape before?”

Not in this magnitude,” he whispered.

“We’ll say it was him.”

“What? No, no it wasn’t,” the agent finally spoke up, standing to his feet.

“Well, who else could have done this? You were the only witness, therefore you will be charged for it. We cannot be blamed for you evil deeds, can we?”

“No…no no! You haven’t seen what I have seen. You haven’t experienced its wickedness first hand, like I have. You cannot lie to the king, tell him the truth.”

“We shall take you to…” no sooner had he finished that sentence than the agent dashed off, quite briskly for someone of his small build, much to the astonishment of the guard. He wanted to give chase, but saw no point in doing so.

“We might have to join him,” he addressed his partner, who was still in shock.

“We should report this first. At least clear our names, say he went mad and killed people in their sleep. Yes! That sounds just about right. What do you think?”

No answer.

“I’ll report it then. When you’re done, you know where to find me…my God, what really did it?”

The other guard did not respond, and neither did he move, for he feared for his life. Because just after the bodies, at the edge of the cliff was the sculptor in high spirits, gleefully singing as he danced with …it.

No one would have believed them, least of all the king. After all, who would try to discredit the land’s greatest artist? No matter what they would have said, no matter how hard he tried, they couldn’t convince anyone that there was a demon running amok, baying for blood.

So, they sought to tell them using the same arts as Isela, though they couldn’t quite capture it, hence they looked more horrid than they remember. One of them would carve, the other would sell. It wasn’t much at first, but it was something. Soon after, carvings with horns and fangs were seen all around the village, stuck on a pole and glaring at them from their doors.

People wondered if they had truly encountered this being, or whether they were simply trying to make a quick sale. Regardless, their reputation grew, and their practice as the men of horrifying carvings became ‘Umqophi kaDeveli,’ meaning the Devil’s Sculptor.

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