Excerpt for The Nether Lands by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






The Nether Lands




By




David Millican










First Published - [November 16th, 2016]

Fantastic Creatures: Fellowship of Fantasy

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N8SZJET/


This edition published [July 10th, 2017] by [David Millican]

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ASIN: B073V9G3GH


Copyright © [David Millican] [July 10th, 2017]


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The ultra-modern Markthal in Rotterdam might be the last place you’d look for ancient artifacts capable of stopping a demon. High-end designers sold in store fronts next to upscale second-hand stores giving a unique feel to a unique town. I entered an antique shop that had been open since the beginning of the sixteenth century. Although when it had open five hundred years ago it wasn’t an antique shop, it was just a shop.

I’d never been here in person having only done business with them online. They specialized in magical and spiritual items and I use magical and spiritual items in my work. I’m a Hamal, which my father said meant guardian or protector in some ancient Akkadian dialect. I hadn’t devoted myself to becoming fluent in the language, I’m not a scholar. I’m a brute and very happy with my brutish life.

Inside the store I browsed while a pale skinned Nederlander fretted over which armoire to buy. The owner, Jos, kept his distance and interjected various pieces of information at critical junctures. He was smooth, making both pieces of furniture look appealing but subtlety moved the man towards the more expensive of the two. It was also the less magical of the two. Everything in the shop hummed with magical energy. Most of the items had only absorbed the energy from more powerful artifacts. Yet even that residue could be harmful in a house of discordant energies. Jos clearly thought this man’s house was one of those.

The issue was solved when the man’s wife entered the shop, looked at the two price tags, and chose the more expensive of the two. She didn’t seem to care what they looked like only how much it was. Jos gave her a sheet on the history of the item complete with interesting talking points for parties and she gave him a big smile. As they left I stepped up to the large man.

“I need something to banish a demon.”

“Well, I think you have the wrong stor—“ I handed him a card with a series of numbers and letters on it.

He nodded and punched my purchaser’s code into an app on his smart phone and waited for confirmation. It wasn’t a password but a complex algorithm that changed every time I wanted to make a purchase. I had to solve equations and answer questions to get the code and then it was only good for twenty-four hours. And since I was doing it in person there were additional questions to answer. He handed me the phone as the questions came up and stepped behind the counter.

He made a show of putting together a plate of cheeses and breads but I knew there would be a security switch back there. When he threw it the store would go on lockdown and he would pull a weapon and kill me. That was, if I got the questions wrong. When you dealt with the things I was asking for you had to be prepared for evil to come knocking on your door. The last question was a language one, an Akkadian conjugation. I hated language questions.

“Sorry about this last one, going to take me a second. Had nightmares on the flight over and I’m tired.” Sweat began to trickle down my spine and I saw his hand slip under the counter.



I selected my answer and the screen turned green. The tension in Jos’s shoulders eased and he brought me the plate of food.

“Welcome to the store mister… Tariq Jones?”

“Grandma married a Jones.”

“Ah, yes. It will be just a moment while I check our inventory.”

I consumed half of the food while he was typing on the phone. I choked a little on the dry bread.

“Do you have something to drink?” I asked around the bread still in my mouth, little bits flying out into the air as I did.

He sneered but grabbed me a cold beer from a mini-fridge behind the counter.

“What kind of demon are you hunting?”

I swallowed the beer and bread. “I don’t know. One of our Readers had a vision of a demon in Rotterdam so they sent me out. That’s all I have.”

“If they had a vision of a demon, why don’t you know what kind?”

“Our Readers aren’t normally psychic in that way. They read information from the world, hence why we call them Readers. Newspapers, internet, books, anything written and they use magic to find patterns and oddities. They gather data and intel and form solid conclusions about what is happening. But this vision…” I took another long swallow of the beer. “It wasn’t a conclusion, just that there was a demon. So here I am.” I killed the last of the beer and raised my eyebrow inquiring about another one and he handed me a fresh one while throwing the empty bottle in the recycle bin.

“I have a couple of options for you. First is a chastity belt worn by the illegitimate child of Charles the fifth. He worked in an asylum with the demented and was said to have loved and cared for them with such compassion that the belt has become an anathema for any evil.”

“Do I have to wear it for it to work?”

“No, just have it on you. It will add power to any banishment ritual.”

“Okay, what else?”

“I have a badge worn by Lothair the first. It isn’t all that powerful for banishing but it can trap a demon’s attention for hours, even days.”

“Like they can’t stop staring at it?”

“Um…”

“Why the hesitation?”

“Because it is in the shape…” He trailed off as a customer walked in and browsed the books near the front of the store. Leaning in close he said, “In the shape of things not mentionable in polite company.”

“What?” I barked out a laugh making the customer look up. “That can’t be real?”

Hunching over Jos said in an angry whisper, “I assure you it is real. It is crude but it is what it is. The Emperor was said to have used the body of his lover as the fuel for the fire that cast it. She may or may not have been a nymph and he was enthralled with her. He couldn’t cast her face since it would shame his wife the Queen.”

“You are just a collection of strange my friend.”

He straightened and beamed. “We strive to please.”

The customer wandered on to another store. “So just those two?”

He hesitated.

“What? What are you holding back?”

“I have one very special item that I hesitate to part with. It is…unique.”

“Aren’t all these things unique? Isn’t that why they do what they do?”

“Well yes, but not like this. Those things are not unique items, their heritage is unique. There are many badges and many chastity belts. But there is only one of these.” He left me standing at the counter, pulled down the security gate, locked it into place, and then led me into the back. Setting a strong box on the table he opened it to reveal a pistol that would send steampunk enthusiasts into convulsions of pleasure.

“This is the pistol given to the one and only Charlemagne by the Maestro Pensatore.”

I squinted. “That can’t be right.” Once again I wasn’t a scholar but in my line of work you learn about old stuff. Demons like and hate old stuff. “Gun powder hadn’t even been discovered in China at that time.”

“Indeed it had not. And pistols didn’t come around until the fourteenth century, five hundred years after this was made.” He ran a hand over its polished gold, iron, silver, and wood surface. “Let alone another thousand before something this complex is made.”

“So it’s a fake.”

“That was my thought, too. Eight generations ago one of my ancestors procured it for the family and has passed the story down for generations. But I knew better when the story was told to me. I brought in expert after expert, they all agreed it couldn’t be as old as they said. It was laughable. An old woman who had been taken by a swindler.” He looked at me trying to keep a solemn face on but I could see the smile fighting to get free.

“Okay, I’ll bite. But…”

“But one expert caught something that I had not. Every expert that examined the pistol agreed it had to be from the mid to late eighteenth century. But one expert saw something none of us had. It’s an electrical weapon.”

“What?”

He picked up the weapon and with care undid several clasps and lifted out the firing lever and I saw there wasn’t a gear or spring underneath as I had expected but a long black rod. It sat centered in a dark hole, not touching the sides. As he pulled it out the rod came near to the side of the hole and jumped to the right. It was a magnet.

Using a small flashlight he lit up the hole that I could see was several rings covered in wire. It was a simple, yet effective electrical generator.

“So it has to be newer. From the late eighteen hundreds or something.”

“Except my grandmother bought it in 1763. And I don’t question that date because I have the records since then.”

I’d seen enough impossible things to roll with it. “So what did you figure out?”

He nodded at my acceptance of the impossible, “It was all in the name of the gifter, Maestro Pensatore. Master Thinker. Do you know who else was named Master Thinker?”

“Nope.” I didn’t like guessing games.

“Archimedes. Do you know who he is?”

“I’m a brute, not an idiot.”

He raised his hands in apology. “Well, Arch means master and medes means thinker.”

“So, you’re saying a dead Greek guy gave Charlemagne an electric pistol?”

“Yes, but no. He was not dead. Still may not be dead. I believe he was a Katask.”

I whistled. “Now that I’ve heard of. Like the Demiurge or Zeus?”

“Yes. They are makers, or constructors. I brought in an Oracle to confirm my theory and learned two things. It was made by Archimedes and my ancestor was an otherworlder.”

“Archimedes built this to hunt demons?”

“No, to kill something supernatural Charlemagne was having trouble with.”

“What kind of supernatural?”

“Don’t know.”

“Then how do you know it will kill a demon?”

“Because my grandmother, my mom’s mom, not the ancient one, killed a demon with it.”

“How much?”

“Once again, I’m not sure I want to let this go. It’s been in the family a long time.”

“And it could have been wiping out demons that whole time. I guarantee my family will take care of it.”

“A thought just occurred to me, why didn’t you go to the guard for artifacts. They would have let a Hamal use them.”

I glanced away. “The Primitus Guard and I aren’t on the best of terms.”

The earlier tension returned to his shoulders. “And why would that be?” His eyes shifted to the right where a weapon must be stored.

I held my hands up. “No worries. I’m Hamal. I’m just not in an Order.”

His lip curled up in a snarl. “A bounty hunter.” He pulled the pistol closer.

“No… Well, at least not usually. My family has always been unbound. We take commissions from the Orders. We’re specialists, heavies. Blood of Asherbanipal and all that.”

“What do you mean not usually?” He still hadn’t let go of the pistol strongbox.

“I mean if I run across a bounty in the course of my work, I’m not going to turn it down. But I don’t go looking for them and I don’t accept contracts for them.”

“And why doesn’t the Guard like you?”

“Because I’m unbound. They think it means we have no code of honor. Which we do, it’s just looser than the Orders’. That’s why they hire us, because we can do things they can’t.” I sighed, “My people aren’t like the Guard, Orders, and Emirs. We play it too loose sometimes. We aren’t above making a quick buck. We take care of each other and do our best to keep innocents safe. We’re a lot like your people. It’s one of the reasons we like doing business with you rather than your competitors. Tradition is only worthwhile as long as it doesn’t hold us back.”

“Three million.”

“Two million and you throw in the other two items.”

“Two and a half and you get the chastity belt.”

“Two and a quarter. Both items and your family can visit the pistol when they want.”

“I need it up front.”

“You have my purchaser’s code.”

He pulled out his phone and began to push buttons.

“I’m going to go grab some food real quick and then I’ll be back.”

Dad was going to be furious at me spending the money without authorization but once he saw the gun it would be worth it. Even if it didn’t kill the demon, it was awesome.

Back in the shop Jos had everything packed up ready to go. “How are you going to find it?”

“Bounce spell. Gonna hit up Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk, I’m sure I didn’t say that right, to power it.”

“Old Church might be better than St. Lawrence.”

“Naw, the violence gives me a better edge at finding a demon. A church that resisted the Nazi’s, that’s where I’m going to get my biggest boost for a demon bounce back.”

“That’s your area, I won’t argue. Good luck my friend.”


***


I grabbed a taxi and found the doors of the church unlocked. It was empty save for the few clergy up front standing in a loose circle having a conversation. Sitting on one of the plastic chairs and I waved off a priest, or whatever they’re called, and bowed my head as in prayer. Pulling out an old piece of parchment from my inside pocket, I unfolded it and laid it on my lap. I spoke a few words in Akkadian and the strange cuneiform writing began to glow and pulse with magic until the image of the sun stood out in chromatic splendor on the page. It took on depth and substance as the pulse intensified.

Looking up I confirmed that no one was looking and whispered a word of power to crack the corner of a stone tile. Using my knife I pried up the chipped piece and laid the parchment over the hole. I set the chip in the center of the sun, which was now producing enough heat to singe the hairs on the back of my hand. In an instant the sun reached out with flames made of cuneiform symbols and devoured the stone chip.

“Lamādu gallû addāniqa.” Find demon please.

It wasn’t eloquent but it got the job done. I really did hate languages. The sun pulsed and a hum began to build under the paper. I wasn’t worried about the priests hearing it; the vibrations were contained to the magical spectrum. Soon the entire building shook with the power of the spell. The chip had connected it to the building allowing all the years of worship, power struggles, and violence to be co-opted for the moment.

I had to work hard to stay upright as the bone shaking thrums sent their power out into the city around me. The spell worked like radar pushing the sound out into the unknown. Except only demons reflected sound back. As I waited for a return I closed my eyes and focused on receiving. The pingback wouldn’t come as a sound but would form an image in my mind. No, image wasn’t the right word. A map, knowledge of where to go. It was a magical thing and not easily explained in ordinary terms.

When it came, it hit like a freight train and I fell to my knees. I didn’t have to fake the tears as the images of horror ripped through my brain. Words of hate and images that drove a mind beyond insanity rolled over me like waves. It was the taint of the demon, the slight touch of its twisted heart. If it hadn’t been faded by distance it might have broken me right there.

I got back in the chair and looked up. It had only been seconds, the priests were still moving towards me, but it had felt like an hour of assaults. I wiped my tears and tried to wave them away but they kept coming.

“'Gaat het met je, vriend??” The young priest said.

I didn’t know what he said. “No, thanks.”

He furrowed his brows. “Are you alright, my friend?” His words were crisp and measured.

Still reeling from the demon’s touch I thought for a moment he could see the taint on me. Had my face become demonic in the moment of torment? That was crazy. I’d done this before, seen it done before, it wasn’t anything like that. This had been stronger than I was used to but I think that had to do with the church rather than the demon. There was a lot of power here, more than I expected.

“I’m fine. Dead wife. Sad.” I wasn’t speaking like a simpleton for his benefit, I just couldn’t create complex thoughts right at this second.

“I pray with you.” The priest began to kneel next to me.

“No, you don’t nee—“ A scream broke free of my throat before I knew it was coming.

A second demon’s touch hit me tearing deeper into my psyche than the first. I don’t remember falling but I could feel the cold stone under my cheek as rivers of fire laced through my soul. My eyes were open and I could see the frantic look on the priest’s face but as if looking through binoculars. Behind him was a girl with half of her head shaved and the other half dyed a bright purple.

Where had she come from?

They weren’t here and now with me, they were in a different world, a different place. I was in a realm of terror where human souls were tortured by monstrous beings that my mind couldn’t contain.

And as the first had, it passed and I pushed myself up onto all fours. I could hear the priest rambling in the background but it was like my head was swaddled in cotton. Blood dripped to the floor from somewhere on my head. It wasn’t much blood so it wasn’t a threat.

Then I vomited as the third wave hit. I don’t remember much after that, just pain and terror as a third demon chased me through the passages of my own mind. Memories and thoughts that had once been my personality now became my pursuers. The evil clawed at my insides as friends and family morphed into grotuesqe beings warped by the presence of the demon. They rent my flesh and pawed at my sanity trying to pull me down with them. Only my training in psychic attacks allowed me to keep moving, to keep alive.

When I woke there were three EMTs kneeling over me tending to my wounds. Behind them was a police officer holding his pistol out but not trained on me. Another officer was examing the antique pistol that had been in the bag at my side.

Careful, that’s a three million dollar antique,” I croaked out pointing at the officer.

All five of the officials frowned at me. Either they didn’t speak any English or not enough to understand what I had said. The girl with the purple hair translated for me.

The cop holding the pistol said “I know what he said, I just don’t understand why he’s carrying it in a shopping bag.” His English was better than mine.

Didn’t know I was—,” I broke out in a coughing fit. “Sorry, didn’t know I was going to buy it.”

“You said you’re wife just died.”

Yes. She died from cancer. She had always wanted to come here and so I was sightseeing when I saw the pistol. She would have loved it. She would’ve redecorated our whole front room around it and it made me sad. The owner of the shop said I should come here to pray and seek solace.”

“Do you often have seizures?”

“Is that what happened?”

So, you’ve never had this happen before?”

“No.” I had been stalling while I recovered my wits enough to stand. The EMTs tried to keep me down but I assured them I was fine. The bag still contained the chastity belt and badge. I picked it up and slid it onto my arm. Spreading all ten fingers I focused my thoughts on silence and stillness.

Naḫarbušu.” I hated using my freeze spell on them.

I mean I didn’t hate freezing them, the spell had no ill effects other than a little confusion. Well, a lot of confusion when I disappeared in front of their eyes, but no physical effects. But it took a long time to prepare the spells ahead of time and bind them on the mind. I wouldn’t have time to do it again before facing the demon.

Three demons, not one. That’s why I couldn’t spend time messing around with the cops. Three demons’ essences had assaulted my mind. Except as I gathered up the pistol and strongbox I could quite shake the feeling that it wasn’t three separate demons, but one demon in three places. That wasn’t possible. A demon this small just didn’t have that power. There are legends of people and creatures with bi-location powers but they of iffy reliability at best. But demons were bound to the human who had summoned them. They couldn’t split themselves and travel at will. And no human, no matter how great, could command a demon that would be capable of such a feat.

A demon that could be in three places at once wouldn’t be hiding, it would be tearing a path of destruction through the world. A demon like that causes destruction on a Godzilla level. Nagasaki was the result of such a demon. A Japanese response to the attack on Hiroshima gone horribly wrong. No, this demon wasn’t of that power level but still, the thought itched at my brain.

Outside I looked for a cab but there were none in sight. The spell would only last another three minutes so I had to be out of reach by then.

“I can take you where you need to go, Hamal,” a voice said from behind.

I jumped and brought my hand around power surging ready to annihilate the threat. But it was only the woman with purple hair. Except it was the woman with purple hair. She should be as frozen as the rest of them but here she was standing in front of me.

Her golden skin radiated in the midday light as she stood one hand on her hip. Her low slung jeans didn’t quite meet the end of her t-shirt and I could see the taught muscles of her stomach. Her eyes were liquid black, the irises as dark as the pupils and it felt like you could fall into them forever. They were so warm and comforting I wanted live in them, dwell in them, be—

She looked away and I blinked. I had taken a step towards her without realizing it. I took in a deep breath to fill my lungs with air. Her eyes had been more important than breathing.

“Sorry about that,” she said, her voice a little breathy as though we had just broken from a passionate kiss.

I spun the ring on my middle left finger around so I could touch the gem with my thumb. Using the magic bound permanently to it I looked at her with the Eyes of Truth. She looked as she did now save that she had a red aura of magic around her and instead of a heart in her chest she had a glowing ball of magma. She was a demon by definition, something born of hate but there was no menace to her. Many demons, especially the old ones, who had been allowed to roam freely on Earth left the chains of evil behind. It didn’t mean they were good, only they were as free as humans to choose to do right and wrong. With her skin, eyes, and red aura I knew what she was.

“You’re a lilitu.”

She smiled and there was real joy in it. “I’m glad to see they still teach about us.”

“Will you give me your name?” It was a big question.

Names didn’t have power like some claimed, you couldn’t control something just by knowing their name. But names led to knowledge and knowledge was power.

“I will, but not right now. Your spell was impressive, for a human,” she smiled again and I found it lifted my spirits, “but it will wear off soon. Let’s go and then we can talk about who I am and why you were looking for demons.”

I hesitated. I needed to leave but I needed to know she was safe, too. She hadn’t been in the church before I had sent out the bounce spell.

“I am not her. I’m not Lilith. Can we go now?”

It didn’t answer the question but it did make me feel better. I waved for her to lead the way. With the magic of the Eyes still up I could see she wasn’t lying. More than that, I could see she didn’t want to be associated with Lilith and her insanity. Again, she might not be good but she wasn’t all bad. I needed help and she seemed willing to help. We got in her Mercedes and left the church behind.

I indicated for her to pull over to the curb after five minutes of driving in silence. Immortal beings were like that, always comfortable with the silences.

I stepped out of the car, “I need to make a phone call real quick, will you wait for me?”

“Do you want me to wait for you?”

I could feel the tug of her sensuality. “Yes. I need help right now and you’re what I have.”

“Oohh, you flatter me.”

“I didn’t—“

“I’m kidding. I’ll wait. It has been a long time since I have smelled the blood of an Assyrian king and I’m not willing to give that up yet.”

“That’s…disturbing.”

“I give you my word I mean no harm.”

Again the Eyes of Truth confirmed she wasn’t lying. I don’t know how a demon was promising aid and no harm without lying but there it was. I closed the door and stepped inside the small coffee shop. I ordered two coffees black and sat in a chair by the window to make my calls.

“Jos.”

“It’s Tariq. I need the name and number of that Oracle.”

“I don’t give my friends information out so easily.”

“I get that but there are three demons on the loose in your city. Or possibly one that can be in three places at once.”

“That is impossible.”

“I know. That’s why I need more intel. They’re strong and I got the impression they’re just beginning their plans.”

“I will have her call you.”

“Fair enough. But do it as soon as possible. I don’t want to face this thing at night.”

“De mazzel”

“Thanks. I need all the luck I can get.”

I dialed the next number.

“Tariq, what’s up.”

“It’s bad here Dad. There are either three demons or one demon that can be in three places.”

“How did it feel?” He was a Hamal so he knew the process.

“How it felt isn’t how it could be.”

“You need to learn to trust your instincts son. They’re better than you know.”

“But how could it be in three places at once?”

“That is disturbing.”

“I think I should wait till you can send back up.”

“That might be a good plan.”

“I have an Oracle that’s going to call me. I’ll let you know what she says.”

“How did you get that hookup?”

“From the guy that sold me the three million dollar demon killing pistol made by Archimedes.” The patrons were giving me sideways glances.

“Okay…you spent three million dollars?”

“No, two and quarter but it’s worth three. And really? That’s what you got from that statement?”

The barista, or whatever their called in the Netherlands, set the two coffees down on my table with the little disposable cups of cream and packets of sugar. I didn’t know how ancient female Akkadian demons liked their coffee.

“I have to go, Dad. My lilitu chauffeur is waiting for me.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Send backup.”

I gathered all my goods together as someone licked the back of my ear.


***


I knocked the chair over standing up and bringing my fist up to throw a force punch spell. Nothing was near enough to have performed the act of personal space violation. I knew my eyes must be wild because the other guests slipped out the nearest door, even the emergency exit. Trying to regain my dignity I put the phone in my pocket and headed outside. Juggling the coffees I opened the door. I noticed the demon was wearing a different shirt as I slid in. The t-shirt had given way to a low-cut sequined blouse with thin straps. It was the same color as her hair and had no back to it save for a single tied string.

“You changed your shirt?”

She looked down in surprise. “Oh, I didn’t mean to.” The shirt morphed back into the worn cotton t-shirt from before.

“What do you mean you didn’t mean to?”

“Well, I control my impulses for the most part but your bloodline is like an aphrodisiac to me.” She frowned as though that was a problem.

She hadn’t started the car yet and I considered getting out and finding my own way. But my phone rang and she pulled away from the curb.

“Tariq.”

A musical voice replied, “Jos said you need my help finding some demons.” It sounded like she was high.

“Yes, ma’am. Or possibly one demon that can be in three places at once.”

“And you believe this demon to be a major threat?”

“I suspect. I don’t know if that is the same thing as believe.”

“Honesty. That is rare. But I believe you are correct and the situation is not good.”

“No, ma’am.” I wasn’t sure if she was a new oracle or one of the originals from ancient Greece but it was better not to take chances and be polite.

“Meet me at the New Ocean Paradise in thirty minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I looked at the other demon in my life right now. “The Oracle wants us to meet her at the New Ocean Paradise in thirty minutes.”

“Really?”

“Yes, ma’am.” No reason to show disrespect to her either.

“Alright. It’s only like fifteen minutes away.”

“Can you tell me your name now?”

“Sari. Do you know it?”

I concentrated on what I had learned about lilitu. Lilith was the most well-known but there had been hundreds of them originally. The Catholic Church had killed many of them and at the present time we only knew of a dozen or so. Sari wasn’t one of the names I remembered.

“I don’t think so.”

She gave me that heart-skipping smile again. “Good. Means I’m doing something right.”

I looked straight forward to avoid staring at her slender neck. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’ve been trying to be a good girl for the last three hundred years or so. And if the Hamal don’t teach about me, then I must be on the right track.”

“You need someone else to tell you that?”

She bit her lip. “Well, yeah. You know what I am.”

“A lilitu.”

“I’m from the otherworld. I was closer to what you might call a dryad once. Beautiful. Inside and out. But my home was taken from me and I let vengeance twist my heart. It twisted me until I became a demon. And I was banished to the underrealm. You know what that is?”

“Yeah, I just spent a few minutes in it back at the church.”

“Ah, that explains the vomit.” She swerved around a slow moving car. “Twenty-five thousand years ago a sad man called me forth to this world. He didn’t want me to hurt anyone, he didn’t want power, he only wanted someone to talk to. His wife and child had died and he was lonely. I spent the next sixty years as his friend and lover. Before he died, he unbound me and let me wander the world. I killed him as a result.”

My hand inched towards the strongbox that held the pistol. She didn’t miss the movement.

“When I think about, it fills me with such melancholy that I might wish for you to use that pistol on me.”

“You have remorse over the killing?”

“I’m not sure if that is the correct word. Even now my emotions are not like your emotions. Do you know what happens to unbound demons?”

“They can do whatever they want.”

She smiled but it didn’t have the same power to it. There was sadness in it now.

“Yes and no. I was corrupted by my birth as a demon. Right and wrong, good and evil, were not concepts I could readily understand. I didn’t do evil, I was a good creature in my own mind. It took me fifteen hundred years to overcome that deficiency.”

“But you said you’ve only been trying to be good for three hundred.”

“Just because I learned the difference doesn’t mean I wanted to change.” She looked away so I couldn’t read her face. “Or even could change. I had been what I had been for so long that I didn’t see other paths. Didn’t look for them.”

“What changed?”

“That is…personal. But the important part is I did change. It took me awhile. I spent three hundred years thinking I was being good only to find out I was destroying people’s lives by my manipulations. So then, I started again, in good faith and with guidance, three hundred years ago.”

“And now you’re good?”

She pursed her lips to the side. They were luscious. “That is hard to say. My birth still distresses me. I think I have a good grip on good and evil but still, it is only based on the perspective of others. There is no such connection made in my mind to actions I take. Only the guilt I have when I do it wrong.”

“That sounds horrific. I’m sorry.”

Her life changing smile was back again. “I’ve never had anyone apologize for the struggles of my life.”

“Well, if you’re trying to be good, I think you should have the benefit of the doubt.”

She stopped the car in front of a floating combination Chinese restaurant and motel and got out ending the conversation. Immortals are abrupt like that. I tried not to stare at the way her hips moved but there was magic there. Real magic made to entice me.

The smells of the Chinese market on the first floor of the boat pulled my eyes away. Mixed with the tang of the harbor it was overwhelming to say the least. At the top of the gangplank I felt a hand touch my shoulder and I spun to see who it was. There was no one even near.

“You okay?” Sari asked.

“Yeah, just thought…,” I trailed off as I felt the slime on my shoulder.

“It knows you’re looking for it and it’s trying to scare you off.”

“I know. It’s not been the first time I’ve been slimed.” It was the first time it had happened without the demon being present, however.

We chose the lower buffet restaurant and waited for the Oracle to show up. We didn’t have to worry about her finding us, she was an oracle after all. We were on our first plate when an exotic olive-skinned woman with hair so black it sucked in the light around it sat down. She didn’t look at us because her eyes were the milky-white of the blind.

“You seek the demon yet dine with another?”

“She’s helping me.”

“You cannot trust her. She cannot trust herself.”

“I have told him so.”

“And have you asked him to end your life as you should?”

“I’m not sure I’m there yet.”

The Oracle nodded her understanding. “I cannot help you find this demon. It is…hidden from even my sight.”

It took me a few seconds to process what Sari had said and then catch up to the Oracle’s statement.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I do not know. But I am not omniscient, only powerful. It may be that something is hiding it from me. It may be that I just cannot see it.”

“I’m sorry for making you come all the way out here.”

“If that’s all she had to say, she would have just called. She has more.” Sari said with fried noodles hanging from her mouth. How did she make that look sexy?

“Indeed I do. I may not be able to see the demon but I can see you. If you hunt the demon tonight I cannot see you in the world tomorrow.”

“Like I die?”

“Like you are sent to the underrealm.”

I swallowed hard. “That is a fate I would like to avoid.”

Sari shuddered and sweat broke out on her forehead. “Yes, it is.”

“Yes, you would. But if you wait until tomorrow night to begin the hunt you will fail.”

“That doesn’t leave much of a window.”

“Such is the world.”

“When can I hunt it?”

The Oracle stood and nodded to us and left, that lovely immortal abruptness at its best. I stood to chase her but Sari stopped me.

“They have rules. They are forbidden from saying certain things that would change the future in drastic ways.”

The Oracle turned around near the door and spoke across the crowd. She didn’t raise her voice but I heard her like she was speaking directly into my ear.

“You should stay here tonight. I stayed here once and it was just the most charming experience.” She smiled and wiggled her fingers goodbye.

Sari chuckled. “Clever.”

“What?”

“This place has never been described as charming.”

“So?”

“She can’t tell you what to do so she told you something else to help. Staying here will get you closer to the goal.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For helping me.”

“Are you saying goodbye?”

“Well, yes. I mean no. I mean, I thought you would be leaving.”

“What made you think that?”

“Well, you offered to give me a ride not fight demons with me.”

“And that’s all you want from me?” That urgent pull again. “You wouldn’t like my help?”

“I honestly don’t know how to answer that. You tell me you want to be good but that I can’t trust you.”

“But I can help you trust me.”

“How?”

“Bind myself to your purpose.”

I went very still. “You will what?”

She shrugged like she was talking about what TV show to watch. “It’s not that big of a deal.” She picked up a chunk of orange chicken with her chopsticks. “When you’re purpose is done, I’ll be free again.”

“But you’re giving up your freewill.”

“To fight evil. I think it will help me on my road.”

“What road?”

Even through her complexion I could see some color rise in her cheeks. “Never mind. I know you’re a good guy and won’t take advantage of me. Or at least, not in any way I wouldn’t enjoy.” She had good bedroom eyes.

“Well, we better go get some rooms.”

“Rooms?”

“Rooms.” I reaffirmed and her shoulders slumped a little. “If I have time, I’m going to bind some spells.”

“Don’t you need tokens, focuses, and ingredients for that?”

“Nope. Blood of Kings, remember? I have certain ones I can do without all that stuff. Things that are more complex, of course, but these are just brute spells cause that’s what I am, a brute.”

“Pity I won’t get to find out.” She bit her lip and raised her eyebrows. And my blood pressure with them.

They had two adjoining rooms and I saw what Sari meant about not being charming. The rooms were clean but worn and the smell from the restaurants and market did not make it a relaxing atmosphere. But I had been in worse and this would serve us for the night.

Before binding my spells I drew a knife across Sari’s left bicep and left thigh drawing blood that was leaving and going to the heart. I wasn’t a theorist so I didn’t know why it had to be like this, but I knew it worked. With a few words of binding she knelt and swore herself to my purpose. I felt her power twitch at the edge of my perception. For as long as I hunted this demon, she was mine to command. She stood up and was closer than she should have been, the knowledge of what I was thinking clear in her eyes. She broke eye contact first because I don’t think I would have been able to. I closed the door to her room as she healed the cuts.

I concentrated on adding a few more banishment spells and one more force spell to my arsenal. I wish I had time to prepare the freeze spell but I would need focuses for that or several days. I checked in with my dad who assured me backup was on the way. I told him what the Oracle said and he warned me not to mess around with this stuff. I told him I was taking her advice and not going hunting. I ignored his questions about Sari because I didn’t know how to answer them.

I meditated, centering myself and removing the distractions that had cropped up in my mind. Mainly the sight of Sari’s stomach every time she moved. Thoughts like that could be deadly. Not just because they could be a distraction at a crucial moment but because she was a demon. Getting into bed with a devil was never a good idea.

Deep in the reaches of my mind the feeling of being watched returned. I knew it wasn’t my body being watched, but my psyche. I felt for the presence and found nothing. Still, every time I focused I felt like there was something to focus on. And every time I found nothing I could detect the residue of evil left over. Whatever was trying to find me was better at hiding than I was at forcing the issue. I had been working on the the evil presence in my mind for hours when I felt the first spider legs of evil crawl across my neck.


***


I stood, looping the chastity belt around my chest like a bandolier. The…uh…business end was on my back and I was fervently hoping it had been washed at some point in the last six hundred years. Slipping the badge into my pocket I loaded one round bullet into each of the stacked barrels of the pistol.

The doors opened between the rooms and Sari stood in a tactical vest carrying two curved short swords. I stared at her, at the door, and then at her again. I had slid the safety chain into place, I was sure of it. She looked at the object of my interest and shrugged.

“I see you felt it, too.” She said as she sat on my bed.

“Yep.”

“We’re going to go kill it now, right?”

“Nope.”

“What? If we can feel it like that, it has to be on this floor, like one or two doors away.” She paused. “I guess it could be directly under us, but I got the feeling it was in that direction.” She pointed away from her room.

“Me, too, but going after it is a little too close hunting it. And there is no way in…well, there is no way I’m going to the underrealm.”

“What’re we going to do then?”

“You’re going to sit there looking like your beautiful self and I’m going to open the door and stand behind it. When it comes through the door, drop to the ground and I’ll shoot it in the back.”

“I’m bait?”

“Irresistible bait.”

“Keep that up and I might just have to take advantage of you.” I felt that sensual pull again.

“Really, right now you’re going to do that?”

“I was just teasing you. Open the door.” Again with that mind-altering smile.

I slid in behind as I pulled the heavy door open and rested the pistol on the doorknob.

“You wouldn’t think I was beautiful if you saw my true self you know.” She said as she leaned back in a casual pose.

“I did look at your true self with the Eyes of Truth. You look just the same.” I was looking out the crack between the door and doorframe into the hall.

When she didn’t say anything back I turned to look at her. She was still in her casual pose but there was a tension to her body. She stared at me with an intensity that made my skin crawl.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Are you sure of what you just said?”

“Yeah.”

“And you are of sufficient power to use the Eyes of Truth?”

“Yeah, I use them all the time.”

“And all you saw was me in this form?”

“Well, I saw your power in a red aura, sex, violence, and a touch of healing. And I saw your demon heart rather than a human heart but those are metaphorical rather than literal.”

“I have not returned to my true form in many years. If I did so now, would you be okay with it?”

“While we’re waiting to fight some kind of super demon that can be in three places at once?”

“In my true form I will have more of my power available to me.”

“Then by all means.” Then I thought better of it. “It won’t drive me insane, will it?”

She laughed. “No, I’m not that kind of demon.”

She shimmered and her skin glowed more. Her eyes changed from liquid black to royal purple, the pupils taking on a diamond shape. Her hair lost its purple hue and became like rays of sunlight. And her bust decreased in size which seemed like a wholly too human thing. She could make any man fall for her with those eyes, but she was worried about how well-endowed she was? Besides those changes, she was exactly the same. No, she was more beautiful.

“This was what I had to be worried about? You look amazing. I guess it is a little worrying because I might be distracted at a crucial moment.”

She frowned at me and rushed into the bathroom. There was a shrill giggle of glee and she came back out staring at her hand.

“It’s gone.”

“What’s gon—“ A woman’s scream full of pain and terror tore through the motel. “Well, now it’s a rescue, not a hunt.” I flowed out the door and Sari was hot on my heels.

I had the pistol out and I cranked the handle to charge it as we waved other guests back into their rooms. The next room was empty; Sari had done her locked door trick on it. The next door was blocked by magic that Sari couldn’t get around. We went to the next room and opened it and found two children huddled in the corner crying.

Sari said squatted down to their level, “We’re here to help. What’s wrong?”

They couldn’t speak through the tears but pointed at the doorway to the room that had been protected by magic. The adjoining rooms must have contained a family and they’d left the door ajar. I didn’t hesitate and burst into the room pistol ready to fire.

Blackness filled my vision and lungs. Not smoke, more like fog but as black as the deepest points in space. My eyes were useless and my knee slammed into something hard and pointy. I spun my ring around and brought up the Eyes of Truth but still couldn’t pierce the inky veil. I screamed in frustration ready to fire into the darkness.

Sari sang out from my left, “Ego Sum Fax,” and light exploded out of her, pushing the darkness away.

The concussive wave of light pushed me back as it hit with physical force. I had no time to look at her as the new light revealed the squat, putrid form sitting on the woman in front of me.

Its claw-tipped feet were on both sides of her head and its bottom was crushing down on her chest preventing her from taking life sustaining breaths. The foul head, dripping with ooze hovered just above hers, lips a whisper from hers as its grotesque tongue traced the outline of her plump mouth. The woman’s eyes were open and staring into the demons but her pupils were big enough to wipe out any trace of irises.

It turned to look at us and the woman gave a whimper of pain. It would have been a scream if her lungs weren’t being crushed. It looked at me as I was bringing the pistol to bear on it. Its gaze shifted to Sari and he became visibly excited at the sight of her. He didn’t lunge at her, he flowed like smoke, claws stretched out to bury in her throat.

I body checked him with my shoulder, using a force spell to increase my speed. I slammed him into the frame of the open doorway, revolting at the feel of the putrid skin. We rebounded and I fell to the floor. He followed me down. Sari was moving towards us but she was going to be too late. And I didn’t think she could take the demon anyway. She had been as transfixed by its eyes as the woman on the bed had.

Its hands were on my shoulders, pulling itself up my body. The wind had been knocked out of me. I couldn’t get a word of power out. None of my spells would help me. Its eyes were closed as it hovered above my face, wanting to savor the first moment it took me over. Then its lids disappeared and behind them was a portal into the underrealm.

I felt myself being pulled in, dragged down into the depths where even demons went mad. My life was disappearing and there was nothing I could do about it. I moved my arms but they were in encased in wet sand, inching along. I got one arm around its waist and then I was in torment.

***


For a thousand years they did nothing but kill me with fire. Burning me alive, body preserved by some supernatural power until there was nothing but ash remaining. Then like some twisted form of the phoenix I was reborn to start it all again. Sometimes they used flames, sometimes lava, one particular tormentor loved liquid metal. Every second of it hurt like the first touch of heat. I never got used to it, never grew stronger from it.

After the first thousand years was when they got creative. Deaths and tortures as varied as the stars of the sky. Contests were held to see whose victim could scream louder or cry longer. And the worst of it was each regeneration brought a regeneration of hope. The physical pain was nothing compared to when they took your hope from you. When that broke its thunder would echo in your mind for days.

I don’t know how many eons I had been there before they brought my little sister out to torture in front of me.

I don’t know how many deaths and rebirths of the universe I watched her suffer before they gave me the choice of watching her suffer or letting her go if I tortured our mother. I know how many eons I killed my mother. I remember each slice, each burn, each act of violence against the angel of light that was my mother. My mind shattered into smaller and smaller pieces with each death. I was no longer human, only pain and anguish in bodily form.


***


The day the light broke through to my wretched existence…that was a special day. I’d never seen light its equal in all my endless lifetimes. Piercing my faceless tormenters with power and beauty, their twisted souls burned in the light. The underrealm began to shake as the light bore through the ground like water through air. With fury the sky shattered and I was lifted up towards the light on a hand of beauty and grace.

I came through the hole in the sky the light had torn open and I was in my body again, the demon on top of me. Its eyes were no longer locked on mine, but on the badge of Lothair I held in my hand. Sunlight streamed through the open window, Sari collapsed underneath it holding the curtain aside. Tears were pouring from her eyes as she stared into mine. The natural light seared into the flesh of the demon on top of me and it wriggled to escape.

I held tight but it wasn’t as hard as it should have been. Its gaze was still fixed on the badge. Grunts and snuffles of pain issued from its deformed mouth. It screamed as I recited a banishment spell. Screams of my own paired with his and I could hear the children joining in on the chorus form the other room as well. The woman, roused from her nightmare by the sunlight as I had been, screamed at the scene around her as well. Sari whimpered as I fought. She had overcome the badge’s siren call. She had saved my life.

The banishment spell, aided by the chastity belts power slammed into the demon and bounced off with no effect. I stared wide-eyed as it began to recover from the effects of the sunlight.

With its stocky legs the demon pushed off of my stomach and leaped to the side. It stumbled, still not fully recovered. I lunged for the pistol still lying where I had dropped it, put it against the foul creature’s demon heart. It tried to bat the barrel away but my finger on the trigger was quicker.

There was no flash of flame indicating the demon had been banished. There were no screams or curses hurled at me. There was only a slight blue light and the demon ceased to be. Not banished, ceased.

I shambled over to Sari as she wretched and cried out in loud sobs. The woman was still crying but it was quieter now that her children had joined her on the bed.

“You saved me.”

“It made me think such terrible things. Things of such evil and I…,” she touched her lips, “I enjoyed them.”

“No, you didn’t.” She looked up at me. “It lied to you.” I caressed her face. “It told you that you enjoyed them but it lied.”

“You weren’t there, you—,” I put a finger to her lips.

Whispering a spell of strength I lifted her as though she was a child. Normally I could have lifted her without the spell but after fighting the demon all night I needed some extra oomph. Besides the spell took the edge off the pain as well. I paused to utter another spell with the last of my strength. The family on the bed fell quiet as the vanishing spell removed the last several hours from their mind and put them in a deep restful calm.

In the bathroom I set her on the counter. I washed her face and brushed the hair out of her eyes. Looking deep in to those bright purple eyes I brought her sight into mine. It wasn’t something I was good at but I was determined right now. She swayed with the strange perspective but I steadied her with hands on her hips. I stepped back and stared at her chest.

“Really?” she said harshly. “You want to do this now?”

I smiled. “I have the Eyes of Truth on. What do you not see?”


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