So, that was the end of it. After many years, after many slayings. The creature finally gave up on the town: it slunk away, broad, flat back first unwinding from its customary coil and then undulating toward the far horizon like a second road. Scales lifted and little devils escaped, as they had always, but were too small to survive. The townspeople watched in uncomfortable silence as the beast disappeared.
Should we go after it? one young man wondered aloud, and regretted it for the glares he received. Why should they want it back? It had been a scourge, hadn’t it? This should be a boon of boons, that the town should be free.
Generations past, the thing had slithered from beneath the mountain and taken its place around what was then a hamlet of tiny stone hovels and shacks. More than a mile long and four strides across, yet not half a finger’s width tall, it had taken hours to bring its full length to bear in the loose curls in which it would lay for ten months out of the year. Its face a perfect square, mouth a despairing nest of triangular teeth that opened at an angle as though to eat from the earth, but it never seemed to. Eyes like a reptiles that sat atop the corners of its front, sadly watched anyone who approached the bizarre face. In the back, it tapered to a point, with no sign of legs or vent.
It clung to the earth with an unmatched grip. Fingers could not pull its edges up, blades could not reach beneath and prise it. The ground around it grew too firm to dig. Speculation rose and fell year by year, over whether the thing’s underside were a snake’s scutes, a million million millipede legs, or a snail’s belly. Or if, were someone to get underneath it, that person would see nothing at all, only the sky above the thing’s back.
When it took its place, the creature made the town’s crops vibrant. This land had never been reluctant to produce a good yield, but there was then a great deal of surplus to sell and trade. For the first several years, townspeople gave thanks to the worm, inscribed a spiral on their trade goods as a symbol for the town’s abundance.
Once in the deep summer and once in the dead winter, it would spread from its curl into a full circle around the town’s border, tail perfectly meeting its mouth, and weep. In that time, the townspeople would pile its shiny black back with baskets of fruit and cake, in gratitude and sympathy for its unknown woes.
It was after a number of fine years that the first devil emerged. It killed the blacksmith in her bed and was found in the morning devouring her remains. A squat, rough-skinned humanoid of red and black with pronounced teeth and eyes that shone with rage born from pain. When several neighbors caught it and tied its limbs to stakes in the ground to be first examined, then blessed, then cut apart in vengeance, they found that it shrank and withered in the open air. It was a dead husk no wider than its own arm had been, by the time the priest had arrived. More such things came in following nights. Sometimes they succeeded in killing, sometimes they were stopped and left to shrivel and expire in a closet or tied to a tree.
The lay people, who did not heed the priests’ warnings to eschew earthly powers in favor of their nineteen gods, turned to the patron road-beast for aid. Only one night’s vigil was required to identify it as the source of the devils. The worm was scaled like a snake, with smooth but pointed overlapping plates that lay flat. With no provocation, a scale would sometimes twist and pull away from the flesh beneath, revealing an embryonic devil beneath. That would grow with preternatural speed, reach adult size in seconds, and come lumbering, dripping still with the serpent’s blood, to feast on the first person it saw.
Disease? some proposed. Curse? Is our patron worm really a creature of one of the nineteen countergods?
There was no answer to be found, though priests and scholars and even distant philosopher kings pondered the question. Nor did the weeping beast seem weakened at all, such that it could be displaced, or in any way harmed. Even the soft, torn skin that remained after the emergence of a devil was impervious to blade or bomb or blessing.
Yet the crops continued to grow. With unrivaled speed and sumptuous bulk. The land could not be abandoned; only defended.
It had now been a hundred or more years of vigilance. Of youths taken from their homes to be disciplined into unending readiness, skill with weapons and hatred for the scale-born devils. Of deaths at demonic hands when a sword did not strike true enough. Of bitter luxury as one generation after another grew to inherit abundance and terror. Sometimes weary devil killers stepped over the broad serpentine road and sold their skills instead as assassins and soldiers. Sometimes the spiral was used as the signature for the virtuoso sellsword.
Now the invincible thing abandoned it all. A shadow returning to the crevice underneath the mountain from which it had emerged. The nightly attacks were to cease. But so were the plentiful crops. The choice was, yes: pursue it and hope to bring it back, this thing that could not be touched or affected in any way, or allow the town to wither and disintegrate?
The vessel returned at the appointed time. It took its place in the dry soil and secreted its fertilizers and accelerants, with a long, slow sigh of effort. It irrigated the land twice a year. The earth became green, life flourished.
Then the pods opened, and the new generation of epigenitors sprang into being. To the vessel, it happened a dozen at a time, scales bursting rapidly and giving rise to the small, thick-bodied beings it was created to carry. Why the last load had been unsuccessful, it could not know, but this time was different. The vessel’s children leapt, with enormous hunger owing to their accelerated maturation, into the fields that surrounded them. Satiated themselves on the meat of giant gourds and corn, and came back with bodies strong enough to survive and minds clear enough to learn. Each took a peaceful seat on the vessel’s back, settled into a meditative trance, and waited to be carried back to their infertile home deep in the earth. And the vessel once more knew joy.