It was morning, it was cold, and it was early enough for the whole of Amberview Park to still be tinged with misty shades of gray and blue. There were probably half a dozen people total, not counting myself. Joggers and dog walkers and that one homeless guy who argues with pigeons by the drinking fountain. None of them were paying any attention to me, though. So, for all intents and purposes, it was empty.
I checked my watch.
Thirteen seconds later than when I'd last checked, and about fifteen minutes past the meeting time. I quit pacing.
He's not going to show. I thought. He's going to leave me hanging for the next hour, then call. He'll say something like 'Oh, so sorry, couldn't make it. Let's try again tomorrow, hmm?' with that stupid smile on his face and it won't matter that I can't see the smile over the call, I'll still hear it, that smarmy son of a-
I was just turning to leave, cursing his name to the darkest pits of Detroit, when I caught the scent of sulfur.
The shift started at the edges of things: the grass got a little darker, the color started draining out, leaving only shades of grey. Background noise -birds, planes, wind- muted. In a copse nearby, a black pit of gunk rose up and created a hole of tangible nothing in the air.
The besuited gentleman stepped out of the tear like a star leaving a private jet. He held his arms out theatrically, a winning smile plastered on his face. For a second, there was a flicker of yellow eyes glowing in the darkness. They vanished as he stepped out into the path, washed out sunlight spilling over him.
"I have arrived," he said with a bow. "You may commence loving me."
"Ah!" I said, cutting him off. "No names. Not here."
He arched an eyebrow and looked around, his arms still out. A woman with headphones jogged between us, totally oblivious.
"Yes," he said dryly. "Obviously a hub of sorcerers and summoners and the dregs of mankind." The arms were let down.
"You never know," I said. "My boss's been scrying me every so often in case I let it slip."
"Bit paranoid, are we?"
"Who? Me or him?"
He grinned. "Both of you."
"It's not paranoia-"
"If someone's out to get you. I know." He examined his fingernails, looking for dirt.
I owed Hastofur a favor. Level three or less, but it's still not a good place to be. I wanted to get it all done and out of the way.
"So," I said. "What do you want?"
"A little antsy, are we? To business, then. It's a simple enough task. I just need you to retrieve something for me."
"Retrieve-retrieve, or steal-retrieve?"
He shrugged. "A little of column A, a little of column B." He snapped his fingers and a photo materialized in a bout of black flame. "The item in question was given to me by a client. A token of gratitude, useless to anyone other than myself. It was stolen a few days ago from the jewelers where it was being cleaned."
The photo was of a necklace. A simple gold-ish chain with a blue swirly thing on the end that might've been turquoise.
"Pretty," I said, taking the picture. "What's it do?"
"None of your beeswax. I've had a tracer run on it already," he continued. "The directions to the building are on the back. All you need to do is pick it up."
"And you can't go get it yourself because. . . ?"
He flashed me a row of very sharp teeth. "I have you, don't I?" Darkness pooled at his feet, and the portal opened up behind him.
I rolled my eyes. "Glad to be of service."
"Oh, and Bri?" He backed into the darkness. "There may or may not be a sorcerer involved. Do be a dear and try not to die."
"Sorcerer? Wait, you didn't say anything about a-"
Too late. He was gone. Sound and color returned in full force, and I was alone again.
That bastard, I thought.
* * * * *
The address led me to a church.
Of course it would be a church. I was going to kill Hastofur for this.
It wasn't too big, as far as city churches go. Just the one building in the middle of a deserted parking lot, sloped roofed topped with the obligatory cross and a billboard out front saying something about a picnic. Nobody was there, so I went around back and looked for a promising entrance.
Thus arose the first problem: The windows were warded. All of them.
They were small wards, no bigger than a quarter. Just discreet sigils painted at the bottom corner of the windows, all designed specifically to keep things like me out.
Sorcerer, he'd said. Right. Hastofur was a dead demon walking.
Maybe there was a religious witch or wizard on staff. Maybe they were the ones who took the charm. I took a look at the GOoHF card strung around my neck. Maybe that was why Hastofur sent me instead of a stronger minion. The damned thing worked against holy water and hallowed ground, maybe it would work for this too. I found a rock and opened the window.
I cringed, waiting for the inevitable bolt of fire. When I didn't turn into a pile of ash or a pillar of salt, I assumed it had worked.
The room inside had a chalkboard. There were colorful posters of pretty bird-winged angels on the walls with presumably inspirational Biblical quotes. The shelves were filled with stuffed animals and over-large picture books with titles about sharing and forgiveness. A classroom, then. One for little kids.
I left the room and went down the hall, figuring I’d go looking through any offices, then spread out from there. It was a small church, and everyone was gone, apparently at the picnic. How hard could it be?
The air was a strange mixture of physical smells like cleaners and warm air, and the light, airy smells of faith and a touch of magic. I took a good whiff. Was that Lutheran I smelled? With just a hint of. . .
I sneezed. Nope. Baptist. Definitely Baptist.
That hall led to another. Then another. And another. Every so often, I stopped to peek into a classroom. The deeper into the building I went, the plainer they became. There weren't any posters or books or plushies anymore, just brown walls and brown seats and dull, grey carpets. I shuddered and moved on.
Eventually, the maze of halls led me to a single stairwell. I dutifully went tot he second floor, wondering vacantly if offices would be up there.
The second floor was much like the first. Mazes of halls and eerily similar classrooms, followed by a stairway. Again, I went up. The third floor was like the second, the fourth floor was like the third. I lost track after the fourth. I stopped caring after the third.
I don’t know how long I wandered around like that, completely spaced out and staring blankly ahead. It wasn’t even that I had forgotten what I was looking for: I just didn’t care. The only important thing was to find the stairs. Just keep finding the stairs, and keep going up and up and up. . .
I tripped, once. On the stairs. I toppled down and, after some tumbling, picked myself back up and went on again. I barely noticed and didn’t care. Not even when, as I got to the next stairway, I saw the shoe I’d lost sitting on the steps, waiting for me.
This is wrong, said a tiny, nagging thought in the back of my head. This is wrong. . .
I started running, though I didn’t know why. I passed five right angles in a row without lapping myself. I was turning down halls only to be going down the same hall over and over again until I turned in the other direction: the one that would led me to the stairs.
The card didn’t work.
I stopped running.
With a strange, almost cold calmness, I walked into the nearest classroom. After a moment of inspection, I kicked over one of the chairs, then left and went into the next room.
All the furniture was accounted for, including the one I'd knocked over. Going around the desks- well away from the toppled chair- I made my way to the window. Everything was still there: the parking lot, the sign, even a few parked cars, now. They were all at least seven stories below the window, maybe even more.
I smiled vacantly. With very little fuss, I grabbed the nearest chair. I lifted it above my head. I closed my eyes and was about to swing when a bolt of lightning zapped the wall beside me.
“Drop it,” said someone from behind.
“Hands above your head. Step away from the window.”
“Look,” I said, still facing the glass. “This isn’t what it looks like-“
There was a flash of yellow and the sound of sizzling. The last thing I remember was the feeling of the card trying to burn a hole through my chest.
* * * * *
Regaining consciousness was a slow and altogether unpleasant process. It started with aches, then moved onto thoughts to process those aches. Alone, it probably would have taken another fifteen minutes of being pathetic before I really woke up. A cold bucket of water sped things up.
I spluttered to life.
“It’s awake,” said someone.
I would have said something along the lines of ‘no shit, Sherlock’, but my mouth was still thick and dry from being zonked out. I pried open an eye. Through the dim light, I could make out several things. I was in a small, darkish room. I was shackled to a chair. I was surrounded by a dozen agitated hooded people in white robes, and they were all holding pointy sticks.
I resisted the urge to close my eyes again.
"Hi," I chirped instead. "Listen, about the whole 'breaking and entering' thing-"
Chuckling started up from somewhere on the left, then spread across the group in a decidedly unpleasant way.
"Hehe, yeah. Uh. Well. I can say it was an honest misunderstanding, and if you'd just take off the cuffs-"
The guy standing right in front of me who I presumed was the leader turned to the berobed figure standing beside him.
"Is this the one?"
The other guy nodded. He started scratching his arm.
"Yes sir," he said. "That's it."
Possible leader guy nodded and turned to me. He placed a hand on each armrest of the chair and leaned in. Once he was close enough for me to smell the toothpaste he'd used that morning, he said,
I may have panicked.
"Demon? Who's a demon? There aren't any demons. I don't believe in demons. I'm an atheist."
There is a common rumor amongst humans that all demons, regardless of rank or occupation, are excellent liars. This is fundamentally wrong.
"There’s no use denying it," said someone in back. "Not after what you did to Brother Thomas."
Cowled heads turned towards Itchy Guy, who scratched his head sullenly.
"Do I know you?" I said.
Itchy Guy scratched his neck. "You cursed me a few weeks ago. Off Elm and Main."
I'm a busy person, dammit! How the hell was I supposed to keep track of how many people I cu- Wait, Elm and Main? Inside my head, I could see the back of some asshole in a suit, walking down the crosswalk after hitting me with a suitcase. . .
"Sorry, doesn’t ring a bell."
Leader Guy casually smacked me upside the head.
"We know what you are. We've known for a while." He pointed to the itchy guy. "We’ve checked the security footage of the diner nearby. We saw what you did, and we’ve been looking for you.”
"Oh. . . goodie."
He grabbed the front of my shirt and lifted me partially from the chair. "Why have you desecrated the sanctity of our church with your abominable presence?"
My head was still spinning. "Bwuh?"
"Why'd you break in?" said someone helpfully from the back.
"None of your beeswax."
“Fine. Don’t answer. We’ll get it out of you eventually.” He dropped me. “You actually have perfect timing. We’ve been in the market for a hellion.”
"You know, technically, I don't work for hell anymore. Look, see? Got a get out of hell free card and everything. Big Guy approved." I tried a smile. "We are so totally on the same side."
They weren't buying it. Yeah, I wouldn't have either.
"Once a demon, always a demon," said one on the right with a hiss. He grabbed lanyard from my neck and nearly took my head off with it. He and a few others started passing the card along, making scoffing and murmuring noises.
"See, by that logic I'm actually not a demon at all-"
Leader Guy clenched his fists. Small bolts of lightning flew around his fingertips. I shut up.
"Now," said Leader Guy slowly. "I have a question for you. How do we get into hell?"
There was no brain to mouth communication. "Smoke near toddlers and never say your prayers."
He hit me again.
This time, I waited for the stars to go away before saying, “Huh?”
“Hell,” he said. “The physical portals to hell. Tell us where they are.”
“Why do you-?”
He snapped his fingers and a spark of electricity got me in the arm. It didn’t hurt too badly, but it got my attention.
“I don’t know! I’m not playing for their team anymore, they don’t tell me anything! I can’t tell you if I wanted to!”
“You’re either lying or you're useless,” said Leader Guy. He raised his hand.
A guy in back spoke up. "Misha, I don't think we’re going to get anything out of it. Not without Sam."
Leader Guy glowered. It didn't matter that I couldn't see most of his face; he was definitely giving off glowering vibes.
"Fine," he said. He lowered his hand, and I breathed out. "I hate to call on him for something so trivial. You two," he pointed at the two in question. The only differentiating features between them was that one was short and thin, the other tall and fat. "Watch it while I go get Sam." They all turned to leave.
Sam? Who was this Sam? Crap, probably an exorcist. "Wait," I said. "I can prove I’m legit, I have a witness!"
"A witness?" said the helpful one in the back.
"Yeah! A priest at the cathedral downtown. Father Ril- Ah, Connor Riley. Go ask him." A thought struck. Chances were if they asked about me specifically, Riley would not only give the exorcist his blessing but would help him set up.
"Oh, wait. Maybe not-"
Too late. They were already heading out the door.
"At least untie me!"
The door slammed shut and locked behind them.
* * * * *
About a half an hour later, they came back, and Riley was with them.
They tossed Riley in without a word and left.
“Ah. So not good, then.”
Riley slowly picked himself off the ground, making crackling and grunting all the while.
"Riley," I said. "What happened?"
He got creakily to his knees and glared at me through the dim light. "I should have gotten rid of you when I had the chance," he said. "You're nothing but trouble."
No arguments there. "What happened?"
"Those men- those ruffians," he spat the word like a curse. "Found me in the church parking lot. I was helping the set up crew move decorations inside." Little glare my way here. "They mentioned a scrawny demon, then produced your card. I admitted to knowing you and they dragged me off before I could get a word out. Bri-“
“Ah!” I snapped at him, mostly out of habit. Though come to think of it, maybe if we were lucky, Bossman would scry right then and get us out.
“Bri,” he said sweetly. “Why have I been kidnapped by a cult? Why am I, as we speak, missing the church potluck? And why do I know that this is somehow all your fault?”
“Because it kinda is partially maybe my fault. But I didn't know it was a cult when I broke in!"
He stared. "You came here on purpose-?" His jaw snapped shut. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.
"I didn't come in blind, if that’s what you’re thinking. I knew about the sorcerer. My contact just didn’t mention the cult thing. So it’s really all his fault."
"Why?" It was more hiss than whisper. "What would possess you to break into a church?"
"Well a few days ago my boss and I were grave robbing-"
He groaned and slapped his palm to his forehead. "No, I've changed my mind, I don't want to know."
"Look, check my pocket. There’s a picture in there.”
“I’m not touching your pocket.”
“Oh grow up, Father. It’s a picture of a necklace. The guy I owe wants me to get it back. Those guys out there stole it. Like, for reals. It was really his first. I think. Pretty sure."
He snorted. "Right. What does it do?"
"Damned if I know."
“That’s not funny.“ He sighed and let himself fall cross-legged onto his rump. "You can still do the Watcher thing, can't you?"
"Watcher-?” It took me a second to realize what he was getting at. "Oh, yeah. Why?"
He folded his hands onto his lap and closed his eyes. "Good," he said quietly. The stink of faith rose up around him like a strong and slightly nauseating perfume.
"What are you doing?"
He didn't look up. "Praying."
"Could you tune it down? You're giving me a headache."
He ignored me, of course.
"Hey," said one of the guards, banging on the door. "What are you doing in there?"
"He's praying. Would you stop him?"
"Oh," said the guard. "Well, then. Carry on."
"No," I said. "That was a real question. Would you stop him? Please?"
He ignored me too. No respect, no respect at all.
"Bri?" Riley said it so quietly, I almost wasn't sure I'd heard him.
"Watch. Tell me when one leaves." His lips barely moved.
I didn't ask why. He was up to something. I closed my eyes and let my mind, quite literally, wander off. They used to call us the Watchers for a reason. I checked the hall. The two guards were still by the door, looking kind of bored. One brought out a pack of cards.
I sighed and made myself comfortable. This was going to take a while.
* * * * *
A half hour and a dozen games of go fish later, one of them finally left.
I came back to myself and hissed. Riley opened an eye my way. He nodded.
Suddenly, with a strangled grunt, he clasped his chest and fell spazzmasticly to the floor.
"He's having a heart attack!" I screamed. "Hey! Get in here, he's-"
The guard swore and unlocked the door. It was the small one. He ran over to Riley and crouched down beside him.
There was a blur of motion. There was a gasp, followed by a thump. Before I knew what had happened, it was over. Riley was bent over the guard, his hands clasped together in a compound fist.
"You knocked him out cold!"
Riley didn’t answer. He got the keys from the man’s belt and went to unlock me.
"Come on,” he said. “Let's go."
"Wait," I said. I went over to the unconscious guard and tried to drag him out the door.
"You want to take him with us?"
"We might need leverage." Oof. For a someone so skinny, this guy was heavy.
"A hostage? You want a hostage?"
I managed to get the guy partway out the door. "You got a better idea?"
Riley followed me out of the cell, looking like he had some choice words to say. Before he could, there was a shout. The missing second guard was heading our way, Starbucks cup in hand.
"Dammit, Tim!" he shouted, dropping the cup and breaking into a run. "I was gone for five minutes!"
I hefted Tim up as best I could and put a hand over his throat.
"Freeze or I’ll rip his throat out!"
"Oh no you won't!"
Riley grabbed both of our shirt collars and yanked us apart. I let go and, without missing a beat, bolted down the hall.
I darted down the corner, eyes shut at the last second.
Please don't be stairs, please don't be stairs. . .
The good news: it wasn't stairs! The bad news: several robes were leaving a room.
"Right this way, sir," said the oh so familiar voice of Leader Guy to a new guy with silver trim.
They saw me. I turned right around and ran back the way I came. Both Riley and big guy were huffing along.
I breezed past them both. "This way, go this way!"
I rounded the next corner, hoping like hell there'd be an exit or a place to hide. Instead, there were the robes, all facing me.
The one in silver trim gave a little wave.
I backed up, only to find myself hitting wall. Riley was suddenly standing beside me.
"What?" he panted. he put a hand over his heart and looked around. "How?"
"It's the silver one. He's moving the place around."
The hallway was gone. We were cornered. There were at least twenty of them, not counting Leader Guy and Silver.
"Okay," I said to Riley. "You take the eleven on the left, I'll take the right."
I could have sworn I heard one of them chuckle. Silver crossed his arms and turned to Leader Guy.
"Did you set two guards?"
"Did you set up wards in the cell?"
"In doves blood?" Silver insisted.
Leader Guy- who I was guessing by now was not actually the leader- didn't answer.
"No, sir. Paint, sir." He shuffled nervously. "We had a little trouble with the doves."
Silver sighed and turned to Riley and me. He leaned forward slightly.
"Hmm," he said quietly. "Interesting."
He straightened. "No matter. Gentlemen, watch closely. I am about to show you how a spur of the moment binding works." He gave a wave of his hand in my direction.
I felt the spell before I saw it.
One of the weird things about bossman- well not weird. Just a tic of his-is candles. He loves the damned things. There was always some burning around the house. Sometimes when I was bored, I'd take one and just dick around with it. Play with the wax, mold it into shapes, see how long I could hold junk over the flames before it caught fire- that sort of thing. One of the things used to do was to get a cup and hold it over the entire candle, watching the flames slowly die down, then quickly lift the cup and watch the fire sputter back to life.
That's what it felt like.
It felt like someone was holding a giant cup over me, and I was slowly but surely about to fade away into nothing. I was going to die. For the first time ever, I was going to die.
A thought poked up through the general oppressive feeling; but he doesn’t know my name!
I hit the ground pretty hard. A split second before I did, silver light flooded out of his hand and made circles on the ground around me. It didn’t do anything; it was just there to look impressive. Even through the gasping, pounding feeling, it occurred to me that he was showing off for his followers.
“There,” said the sorcerer. “As you can see, it’s now properly bound."
All of the robes made appropriately impressed sounds. There was a smattering of applause.
The pressure let up a bit. I think I was supposed to stand. Instead, I figured the floor was a more comfortable place to be and decided to stay down.
He sighed and made a leash-tugging motion.
Ack! I was dragged forward a couple inches by the neck before scrambling to my feet.
“Now," he said. “Gentlemen. I suggest you take the good father back to his cell. Three guards this time, thank you. I'll deal with the demon in my private chambers. Rufus, Kinsley, come along. I'd like you to stand watch. Everyone else, take ten."
He turned and left without another word, and I was dragged along with him. The two robes- Kinsley and Rufus, shorty and big guy- followed behind.
Down the halls we went. The faint smell of magic I'd gotten earlier became ten times stronger.
The sorcerer, I thought. He's actually making the building bigger on the inside.
Eventually he led us to a door that looked like every other damned door we'd passed. He tapped on the knob once and it swung open.
"Alright, gentlemen, this shouldn't take long."
"You sure, boss?" said Rufus. Unless it was Kinsley.
Silver waved a hand. "No worries. I'll call you if things prove difficult."
They took up positions on either side of the doorway and I was dragged into the room by the invisible leash.
It was pretty plush, as far as evil sorcerer lairs go. Full of patterns: Victorian looking wallpaper with tapestries hanging over, ginormous windows, thick ornate carpets on top of the regular carpet, a sofa. A coffee table. And armchair across from the sofa, bookshelves all across the room and a desk in the corner piled up with papers and knives and things.
He turned to me.
"Alright, demon," he said, closing the door behind him. "I've a few questions for you." There was a click as the door locked into place.
He snapped his fingers. I winced, waiting for the worst.
Instead, the pressure left.
I gasped and stood up a little straighter. "What?"
He pulled off the hood and grinned like a loon. It didn't help: I'd never seen him before.
"Dammit, Bri!" he said, dropping the posh dialect he'd used in front of the other robes. "Don't you recognize me? No, wait. I guess you wouldn't." He looked down at himself. "The body's pretty new. Just got it a hundred years or so ago."
I rubbed my neck. "Who are you?"
He went over to the liquor cabinet and took out a bottle. "I'll give you a hint. It was a very, very, very long time ago." He inspected the bottle, then nodded, apparently satisfied.
"There was a desert. Quite a lot of desert." He glanced my way. "Not enough? Okay. You used to make fun of Penemue's stutter until the day he convinced the locals you were a snake demon by writing it down in that special, 'for official purpose only' ink of his-"
"-and telling everyone it was a message from the Metatron."
I remember it like it was yesterday. They chased me out of town and I had to be reassigned to a city miles away. It took weeks before the rumors died down and the Ashtoreth followers stopped hitting on me, all because that little nerd Penemue couldn't take a joke. But only a few people knew about that; specifically the people involved in the transfer. . .
His eyes were practically glittering. "Got it yet?"
He laughed. "Hello, Bri. Long time no see." He poured two drinks.
"Dammit, Shem!" I didn't know whether I wanted to hug him or punch him in the gut. "What's going on here? Where have you been? Nobody's heard from you in ages! Me and Chaz and Ruroi and all of us thought you were dead!"
He laughed and fell backwards into the armchair, wine glass in hand. “Glad to see you too, Brick Head.”
Once upon a time, I'd been an angel. A regular old malakhim. Then I ticked off that jerk Leighriel and he signed me up for the as-of-then brand new Grigori division behind my back.
Shemyaza had been my superior. All of our superiors, actually. Technically there’d been twenty leaders of ten, but Shem was the unofficial leader of leaders. After the incident with Penemue, me and Loquiel switched places, so he got to be stuck under Tamiel and I got to be under the cool boss.
He wasn't like Azazel or Tamiel or all the others- all high and mighty who'd only talk to their subordinates to boss them around. He'd been the world's most laid back boss. He didn't even get mad that time I snuck back and replaced all of the well water in Penemue's village with camel urine.
“Shem, what’s going on? What’s with the costumes and the fanboys and the ‘foul demon’ thing? And why the hell did you let them beat me up?”
He set down the glass and gestured to the robe. “What? You don’t like the costumes? I thought they were kind of spiffy.”
He gave me the hard eye. I glared right back at him.
“Fine,” he said eventually. “Sit down. Have a drink. I’ll talk. I owe you that, at least.”
I sat, but I didn’t drink.
He sighed and leaned back in his seat. “I really am glad to see you, you know. You're the first person from the old days I've seen. I’m sorry about the fanboys out there. I needed a minor demon, and I knew Hastofur would send someone. Two cities, one sword.” He gave me a crooked smile. “And I didn’t think you’d go and sell out to Lou.”
“Hey, don’t pull that crap. You left us, remember? At least Tamiel and them had the decency to stick around."
“And from what I’ve heard, they sold out too.”
I shrugged. “A few stayed out of it- Saquiel and Aramos and I think Kokabiel. A few more from their lot. But, yeah. What else could we do, huh? What would you have told us to do? Even Azazel had an excuse.”
He swirled his glass, but didn't answer.
"So where have you been? Last time I saw you, Michael was dragging you back home, looking like he was going to throttle you."
"Oh, you know." He waved a hand loftily. "Here and there. Went to Faerie and palled around with the hobnobs there." Here a toothy grin. "Fae ladies dig the wings."
"They let you keep the wings?" I said, suddenly feeling cold.
"Yep. And the gift of tongues."
That was ten kinds of unfair. I didn't realize I was digging my nails into my palms until my hands started to hurt. "So, the cult?"
He took another sip. "Oh you know these humans. So gullible. A little flash of light there, a glimpse of feathers here, then they're eating out of my hand."
It occurred to me then that I had a job to do. “You know Hastofur sent me?”
He nodded. "Yeah, figured as much as soon as they told me they caught you actually breaking in. Looking for this, right?”
He pulled the necklace out of his pocket and twined the chain around his fingers, letting the charm hang down.
“Yeah! Why’d you steal it?”
He shrugged. "Part of my super-special plan to overthrow Lucifer and take over hell."
"You heard me."
"The portals. Your fanboys mentioned- You were serious about that?"
"Yep. Lou's moved all the old portals and now I can't find them. For the rest of it to work, I need Hastofur. This way he’ll have to hear me out.” He snapped the charm up and started tossing it hand to hand. "Actually, now that you're here, I could use your help too. I've had my guys looking for someone from downstairs for a while now. Some imp we could squeeze information out of without too much trouble. Unfortunately, I think Lou's onto me: there's been a hold on all minor summonings and conjurations. You're the first demon looking thing we've seen in weeks."
I leaned back in the cushions. "Oh, dang. It's been ages since I had to get there the physical way."
He tucked the charm away and snapped his fingers. A notebook and pen appeared in a bout of white flame. "Don't worry, take your time."
"There's the one in Brooklyn-"
"The one in Cairo? Antarctica?"
"The one in the oceanic trench-"
"Wait." He jotted it down. "You don't happen to know the coordinates, do you? It's kind of a big trench."
"Nope, sorry. I think it's south of Atlantis, though."
"South. . . of. . . Atlantis. Got it. Can you think of any others?"
"Not off the top of my head, no. I'll call you if I do, though."
He rested the notebook onto his lap. "My business card's on the table, take one before you go. Though, you know, I'm always on the lookout for new members. You could help me get in touch with the old gang, convert the ones working for Lou." A small, hopeful smile crept out. "It could be just like the old days."
I couldn't resist. "Sans the debauchery?"
"Oh no, debauchery totally intact. In for an inch, in for a mile, ehy?"
"Depends. You gonna give me the necklace?"
He shook his head. "Nope. I need it for leverage."
I nodded. "Figured as much." Hastofur was going to kill me.
"You don't even know what it does, do you?"
"Hastofur's not paying me to know stuff. Why? What's it do?"
He grinned and refused to answer. Instead, he picked up the notebook and started writing. "When you see Hastofur, give him this message." He tore out the page and had it float gently over.
I read it. "What, really?"
He nodded. "All he has to do is show up, and I'll give him his little charm back."
"Okay, I'll tell him." Hastofur was going to gut me alive.
Which reminds me. . .
"You know, your fan club took something of mine."
"This?" He pulled the card out from his other pocket. The fanboys must have taken it off the lanyard. "It's an interesting little toy," he said, flipping it around. "I don't suppose you'd be interested in trading?"
"Nope." I held out my hand.
"I'll give you Australia."
"That death trap? Also, Australia's in hell, now?"
"Well not yet, but I've got plans-"
The door burst open then, splintering at the hinges. Father Riley came in like the wrath of God, wielding a mop. His lip was bleeding, his sleeves were torn, and it looked like someone had given him a shiner.
"Bri!" he said, brandishing the mop at Shem. "Hurry!"
We both stared at him, still seated. Shem had a glass of wine in one hand.
"Aww," said Shem eventually. "It thinks you're its friend."
"Riley," I said, getting up. "It's okay. He's a friend."
Shem set the wine down and went in for a handshake. I could practically see the change in him- like he’d flicked a switch and let all the charm out. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance. You may call me Samyaza, or Sam, if you'd like."
I noted the switch of names.
Riley squinted at him suspiciously, then, slowly, stuck out the hand not holding the mop. “They said you were an angel.” He looked at me. “They said you were torturing it.”
“So I’m an ‘it’ now? After you rushed in to save me like that-“
Shem chuckled. “No, no. Me and Bri go back. You seem to have had a little trouble, though." Sam who was Shem put a palm on Riley’s forehead. When he removed it, the black eye and cuts were gone.
"There, see? Much better."
"Hey," I said, sitting up. "Can you still do hangovers?"
"Only to club members. You'll have to join up."
"That's just mean."
“Sorry to interrupt your reunion,” said Riley, scowling at us both. “But it's late. Since nobody's being tortured or executed, I'd like to go home.”
Shem sighed. “I suppose you’re right. We'll have to continue this some other time, Bri. Can't keep the good Father in past his bedtime." He went over to the window.
I glanced out the still open doorway. I don't know what Riley had done to Kinsley and Rufus, but they weren't there.
"I moved the room," said Shem. The latch was jammed. He casually thumped the frame, trying to get it unstuck.
"Stop reading my thoughts," I said.
"Stop thinking so loudly."
"How are we going to leave?" said Riley. "Are you going to move us closer to the exit?"
"Yeah, and what're you gonna tell your fanclub?"
Shem shrugged. "That you claimed to have repented, only to vanish in an innterdimensional portal the moment I released the bindings on you." He nodded towards Riley. "Taking the priest with you, of course."
"Nice. You wouldn't happen to actually have a portal on you, would you? 'Cause that would really help. It wouldn't have to be innterdimensional. If it could just take us to Umbarger-"
The window screeched open. He poked his head outside and looked around, then nodded, apparently satisfied. "Nope. Sorry, Bri. Fresh out."
Riley frowned. "Then how will we-?"
Shem gestured to the now open window. "Ta da."
Riley stared. First at Shem, then at the window. He went over and poked his own head outside. "You're joking," he said flatly.
Shem patted him on the shoulder. "Oh you'll be fine, Father. It's only a few feet."
Riley hefted himself onto the ledge, muttering just loud enough for us to hear,
"The things I put up with. . . a man my age. . . ungrateful. . ."
He vanished with a yelp. The yelp was soon followed by the distinct sound of human-on-bush action, which was followed in turn by a groan.
Shem peered out the window.
"Huh. I really should have something done about those roses. I'll talk to the gardener tomorrow."
My turn, then. I went over and sat on the sill.
He slapped his forehead. "Wait, I almost forgot. Bri, before you go. . ."
Using his index and pointer fingers, Shem wrote in the air. The signs glowed yellow for a second before vanishing. There was a familiar and altogether uncomfortable tingling in my eyes and mouth.
"A geas? Really? You know I'm not gonna rat you out."
"Now I know, yes. Goodbye, Bri. Don't be a stranger."
"Yeah yeah. Whatever." I leapt one handed out the window and into the rosebush below.
* * * * *
We were three blocks away when I realized that-
“My card!” I screeched. “That bastard! He never gave me back my card!” I turned and was about to run back, fanboys be damned, when Riley caught me by the arm.
“I was wondering if you’d notice,” he said dryly. From his pocket, he produced the card, back on its lanyard.
I snatched it out of his hands.
"You got it?"
"When your friend Sam was showing me out the window. As well as this." He brought out the charm.
"Holy fucking hell, Riley."
He pulled it back, out of reach. "Not for you," he said.
"You're going to keep it? Why?"
"Because it occurs to me that, for whatever reason, both a demon and an angel are fighting over it. Neither of us has any idea what it does, and quite frankly," he tucked it back into his pocket. "I'm angry. I'm tired. I missed the picnic, and I want to go home. Whatever this thing is, I'm certain it would be safer in the hands of the church."
"So you're just going to airmail some necklace spelled with who knows what to the Vatican?"
For a long while, neither of us said anything. The streets were quiet, empty, and cold.
I broke the silence first. "Hey, Riley?"
I tackled him and rifled though his pockets. He grabbed my arms and tossed me onto someone's lawn.
"Why did you-?"
I scrabbled up and bolted down the street, charm in hand.
"I'm sorry!" I shouted once I was at a safe distance. "Thank you!"
"I swear, when I get my hands on you, Bric-"
I turned tail and ran home as fast as I could.
* * * * *
Hastofur was waiting for me, same spot, same time a day later, leaning under a tree and dramatically checking his pocket watch.
He snapped it shut when he saw me coming. “You’re late,” he said with a smile “I was worried you hadn’t made it out. Do you have it?”
Here it goes. . .
The smile was still there, but anything remotely pleasant had been sucked out of it. “No? What do you mean 'no'?”
“I mean, no, Hastofur, I don’t have it. I do, however, have a message for you.”
“Shemyaza says he wants to talk to you.”
“What did you say?”
“Shemyaza. He’s back, and he wants to talk to you.”
Fire flickered at the ends of his fingertips. “What could that. . . that angel want with me?”
“Something about taking over hell. He told me to tell you that he’s got the place so well warded now that anything you send in there from here on out is going to wind up messily dead, then sent back to your doorstep. He said not to bother with Faerie, because most of their bigwigs are in on his plan, and that if you just show up next Thursday at six, he’ll give you the necklace back free if you hear him out.”
Hastofur glared off into space, digesting this.
“That bastard,” he said eventually. “Fine. Whatever. Bri!”
He gave me the pointy finger of shame. “This isn’t over. You still owe me. You owe me big. Level five, now.”
This was it. I brought up the anger I'd been carefully feeding all night and let it loose. “The hell I do! You dropped me into a cult of demon hunters! A whole nest of the bastards! In a church! That was at least a level four. At least! If anything, you owe me for false favors, you slimy, no account, cheating son of a-”
He backed up.
"Down, Bri," he said, looking around nervously.
"I'm going to tell everyone how you're a lying, cheating, fraudulent sack of-"
"Alright. I may have been a tad-"
I wasn't ready to let go. "Vile-"
"Alright! I get it. Next time I'll make certain it's level three."
The anger fled, replaced by relief and a dangerous giddiness.
"Okay, then," I said. "Just so you make sure."
His personal portal opened up behind him. "We'll meet up in a week," he said. "I'll send a message later with the location."
I nodded, not trusting myself to actually say anything.
He unceremoniously vanished, leaving me relatively alone again.
I started walking home and thought about Riley, cursing my name to hell and back again. I thought about Shemyaza and his groupies and what they'd do once they figured out that I had the charm- which, logically, would be in a few hours, tops. I thought about the charm, tucked away in the only place I could think to put it. I thought about how the only thing I really wanted, more than anything in the world, was to go home and sleep.
My knees buckled beneath me and I fell to the ground, laughing. Some people walking their dogs gave me funny looks, but I couldn't bring myself to care.