His hands closed into fists. They were covered in so many unhealed cuts and scratches that the simple action was a shuddering one, his fingers and thumb twitching with the pain.
The lights in his apartment flickered. The kitchen was clean, but far from tidy. Bags were filled with trash he hadn’t been able or willing to take out. Days spent active, nights spent reading, accumulating the garbage. He couldn’t even begin to guess how many days there were until the garbage was next picked up.
“You told me to tell you if I saw it,” Fisher murmured.
The practitioner nodded.
“I belabor the obvious, but it’s sitting in your kitchen,” Fisher said, only his eyes peering out and above the top of the practitioner’s coat pocket.
The practitioner nodded once more.
He had a simple table in the corner of his kitchen, with room for two stools. The table was piled with books, candles, and an ashtray piled high with ash. Many cigarettes had been smoked down to the filters. Many of the others had been loose tobacco and rolling papers, with no filters at all. Smoked until they’d threatened to burn his lips. He tended to smoke those when pacing, so he could spit them into the sink, to be swept up later.
A figure occupied one of the stools. Manlike, but far from being a man. He was clothed, and the clothes were nice, with a black sweater that had yet to fade from washing or wear, a lambskin jacket, and straight-leg jeans tucked into calf-length boots. His eyes, eyebrows, nose, cheekbones and chin were each so very carefully constructed and shaped. The figure’s white hair, curly, too long, only accented the appearance.
But his teeth, as he smiled, were oddly brutish. Not inhuman, but not straight, angled so that they suggested sharpness, or the idea of fangs. They were too large for how delicate his features were, and they were white.
The figure could have passed for one of the practitioner’s friends. Probably had, already. He looked like the sort that traveled in the same circle, where being in a failed band and recreational drug use were not uncommon.
But the smile, here, with the lights flickering, was just a little too white, too feral, suggesting teeth meant for tearing. The smile caught the eye and held it.
Cause enough for fear. Maybe even terror and panic.
But two things served to push matters well past fear and into the realms of despair. For one thing, there was context. Weeks of the hunt, the chase.
For another, there was the shadow. Though it wore the shape of a man, the shadow it cast was a shadow of something far, far bigger. Something that shouldn’t have fit into the apartment.
Fisher ducked lower into the practitioner’s pocket.
As the figure breathed, the shadow mimed the movement, swelling, deflating. Spices in the spice rack, many cannibalized for hasty and haphazard rituals, moved in time with the breathing. The shadow swelled, and it pushed out, past the confines that shadows should be limited to. The spices were tilted, touching the metal bar of the rack, then left to return to a normal position. Tilted again…
The figure reached out to sweep up the rolling papers and box of loose tobacco with one hand, and the shadow moved simultaneously, on the far side of the room. Bags of trash were gutted, torn open.
The smell of the trash filled the room. More musty than rotten. Wet paper and cigarette ash, old coffee grounds.
But there was rot in there, too. There were maggots, freed to spill out like grains of rice from a bag, crawling for the nearest spot of darkness.
The practitioner didn’t care. Even if he somehow survived, he rationalized, he’d never be able to return here.
The idea was borne of the same sort of sentiment that made people uncomfortable with living where murders had happened. He couldn’t imagine willingly coming back to a place where he knew this thing had been.
It busied itself, hands moving in a practiced way as it rolled up the cigarette.
It picked up a matchbook from beside one candle, folded the match around back behind the book, and scratched it against the strip, all with one hand.
It drew in a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.
Without even thinking about it, the practitioner held his breath, as the smoke reached his way.
Not that it truly mattered.
The entire apartment, even parts behind him, in the hallway adjacent to the kitchen, was moving in response to the spirit. The thing that wore the appearance of a man breathed, the shadow that revealed what was behind the mask also served to hint at the truth, and blinds, spice bottles, trash bags and more all moved in response.
As though the kitchen were alive, the flesh of a living thing, an extension of the figure.
Making the practitioner the man that had unwittingly entered the belly of the beast.
“Sit?” the man at the table asked.
The practitioner shook his head.
“Sit,” the man at the table said, firmer.
Outside, something crashed. A dog started barking violently.
“I prefer to die standing,” the practitioner said.
The man at the table took a long drag on his rolled cigarette. “Did I suggest I care what you prefer?”
“No, but I’m going to fight for it if I have to.”
“To die on your feet? All of the things you could fight for, things you could beg for or actions you could take, and you choose this.”
“Have to take a stand somewhere.”
“If you say so,” the figure said.
Where one ankle rested on his knee, the figure let his foot fall to the floor, toe pointed at the practitioner.
It was pain in the same way that a tsunami was water. Pain had flavors, and in one moment, the practitioner tasted all kinds. Sharp sorts of pain. Broken, crushing, burning, and loud sorts of pain. An agony that defied description. He hit the ground, hard, and the feeling of his chin hitting the tile from a five foot, five inch height, without arms moving to break the fall? Only a drop in the bucket.
And underlying it all was the idea that it was a wrong sort of pain. That something wasn’t operating like the practitioner’s past thirty years of experience had told him it should.
While he became aware of the welling tide of blood, his hands fumbled for traction.
One hand touched his leg, which was closer to his shoulder than his knee. The flesh beneath the pants leg was oddly cool, and the stump leaked an awful lot of blood. More than he would have thought fit inside.
He tried to get his bearings, struggling to operate before the shock set in. When he opened his mouth, however, all that came out were huffs of pain.
A tiny part of him wanted to believe that this was retribution. That it was karma in the vernacular form, eye for an eye justice. A whipping for the criminal. But that part of him wasn’t satisfied. He couldn’t feel it. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t bring himself to feel sorry.
The figure wasn’t even looking at him. The end of the cigarette glowed orange as the body perched on the stool inhaled. Smoke leaked out between large white teeth.
The practitioner moved his hand, and the numerous scratches and cuts made themselves known, though the sensation of pain was so far removed from what he experienced now that it felt almost alien.
The practitioner reached out, and he touched one finger to the blood.
He started to draw lines.
“No,” the figure at the table said, still not looking.
The practitioner stopped. It wasn’t that the words had power, per se. Only that he knew the actions were fruitless. He was only undertaking them because the past several days had made it habit. Already, he was so weak that a word was enough to stop him mid-action.
The man who was now sprawled on the floor, bleeding out, didn’t reply or move. By some reflex, he gripped one of his dismembered legs, clawed from his body by the movement of a shadow too substantial to simply drape itself against the wall. A white-knuckle grip, as if he physically clung to life.
The figure glanced down at the man on the floor.
The smile widened.
“Mann, Levin, Lewis,” the man on the floor said.
The smile faded.
“Mann, Lev- Levin, Lewis,” the man managed, once more.
The figure that was perched on the stool took another drag of the rolled cigarette.
“Mann, Levin, Lewis.”
The front door opened. The man who let himself in, unlike the figure in the chair, did not look like he belonged, nor did he look like he had any association with the dying man that lay on a floor covered in blood and crawling maggots. He was thin, handsome but for a scar at the corner of his lip, his hair carefully cut, and he wore a suit.
The shined black shoes stopped before crossing the threshold to the kitchen, normally meant to bridge the gap between hardwood and tile, a cross-piece of wood now served to block the ever-spreading filth.
“Good evening, Mr. Mahoun,” the lawyer said.
“Good evening, Mr. Mann,” the demon on the stool said.
“What is a noble of your stature doing here?”
“I was called,” the demon noble replied.
“By our acquaintance here, yes.”
“If the greatest free diabolist in the field were to summon the least of my kind, it would be overstepping,” Mahoun said.
“In a relative sense, then, he overstepped.”
“Yes. In a relative sense,” the demon agreed.
Mann hiked up the pants of his suit, freeing the fabric enough that he could bend down, sitting on his heels, to get a better view of the limp form. “I know of him, the face is familiar, but I don’t truly know him. What possessed him to try to summon you?”
“The greatest of sins.”
“Hm. What for?”
“He summoned lesser demons to amass a small fortune. A friend of his tried to take the money.”
“Angry, and arrogant. A story I’ve heard often enough. Though to go to such an extreme, that’s unusual.”
“Extreme anger, extreme arrogance. He was quick to realize what he’d done.”
“At which point it was too late to undo it.”
The demon smiled. It lit the second rolled cigarette.
“I have some of my own, if you have a taste for those. It helps to get clients to calm down.”
“This is fine,” Mahoun said, through teeth that bit hard on the cigarette. He leaned over, looking at the fallen practitioner. “You’re aware that he’s dying?”
“Yet not permitted to die. We can leave him as he is for now. I’m not in a particular rush.”
Mahoun shrugged, an easy, casual gesture.
Mann spoke, “I have to wonder… how?”
“That answer is more complicated,” the demon said. “Greater agendas.”
“When I hear responses like that, I can’t help but think of the choir of unrest.”
“We make a practice of keeping tabs on active diabolists. A number of new clients have been in possession of texts written by individuals who we don’t have tabs on.”
“I’m not of the choir of unrest, Mr. Mann,” the demon said.
“But you turn men, women and children into monsters, savage spree killers. You work over days, weeks, months, and years to prey on diabolists and turn them into crazed killers with a bloodthirst. Ones that are liberal in using their knowledge to do their deeds. Or, failing that, you find practitioners, and make them into the sort of depraved individual that wouldn’t hesitate to practice diabolism.”
Mahoun’s expression didn’t change.
Mann continued, “It’s a similar pattern to members of the Choir of Unrest, writing tomes themselves, under the guise of being diabolists. A hard thing to ignore, when new diabolists crop up every other month. Or when we’re being asked to distribute books.”
“You’d almost think you had me in the wrong choir,” Mahoun said.
“Almost,” Mr. Mann replied.
The demon took another long pull on the cigarette. The entire kitchen reacted, as if an invisible beast was within, pushing against every surface. The shadows were darker than before.
“Don’t concern yourself with what I do,” Mahoun said, staring at Mann with pale eyes. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
The words had weight. Even if the demon noble wasn’t bound, there was a certainty to the words that gave them power.
“None of my business,” Mann said. If he was scared or intimidated, he didn’t betray it. “He is. Will this be a problem?”
Mahoun gave him a dismissive wave. “The end result is the same.”
“I have your permission?”
Mann turned, saw a long rug in the hallway, and stepped aside, gesturing. It moved, sliding into the kitchen. A bridge over blood and maggots.
A simple trick, but not an easy one. To simply order spirits about required a longstanding relationship with those spirits, or something similar. One could do it readily in a demesne they owned, building a familiarity with the spirits there, but to do it anywhere meant that one had to be recognizable anywhere. The equivalent of being a household name or brand among humans.
He crossed until he stood over the limp body. He grabbed the man’s jacket and forced him over onto his back. He slapped the man in the face.
The practitioner stirred.
“You’re not dead. Barring extraordinary luck on your part, you won’t get to die for a long, long time. Either I get you, or Mahoun does. The best thing you can do here is force yourself to pay attention.”
The name seemed to force a surge of adrenaline. The man’s eyes opened wider, alarm touching every aspect of his features.
“There we go,” Mann said. “Now. You called me. You only have my attention for thirty minutes total, and you spent several minutes wallowing in your suffering. Do you have a request, or did you summon me for another purpose?”
The man looked at the demon, then the lawyer. “Save me.”
“You are well beyond saving,” Mann told the practitioner.
“Get me away from him. I’ve seen what he does. My brother, my mother, my kid cousin… he used them.”
“That’s the least of what he does,” Mann said. He glanced up at the demon. “He was going easy on you. Likely aiming to gradually step up what he did, keep it up long enough that you’d eventually realize, it was always going to get worse. Break you with terror of everything your future held in store for you.”
“No,” the practitioner said. He shook his head. “He went after them, he made them wrong, let them find my books. They let other demons inside. Accepted them. Other people stopped being able to even see them.”
Mann sighed. The demon noble only watched.
“You want away?”
“You’ll join my firm. You’ll assist other diabolists, in large part.”
“You’ll do this for, if I had to guess, somewhere between five and six hundred years. We’d hash out the specific numbers at a later point.”
“As I said, you won’t get to die for a long, long time.”
The practitioner screwed his eyes closed, bracing himself against a fresh wave of the pain, but adrenaline still kept him conscious enough. It wouldn’t last forever.
“Before you answer,” Mann warned, “There’s another cost. That which is yours is forfeit.”
“You have a familiar.”
The practitioner’s eyes went wide.
“It would become ours, to use or give away as we saw fit.”
Fisher creeped out of the practitioner’s pocket, no longer caring about blood or maggots. In the body of a toad, he hopped forward. He spoke, however, with a more cultured accent. “No. We have a partnership, I have a say. No.”
“You have a say, but you do not have the final word.”
Fisher turned to the practitioner. “No. Just say no.”
“Yes,” the practitioner said. “I agree. Whatever the time involved.”
Fisher froze. “No, please-”
“I agree,” the practitioner said, again.
“I’ll draft up the papers,” Mann said. “For now, let’s get out of here.”
He seized the practitioner, one arm around the man’s armpits, and lifted him easily.
The familiar stared.
“Another time, then, Mahoun.”
“As you say, Mr. Mann,” the demon said.
The familiar gave chase, if only to escape the presence of the demon.
Mahoun was still sitting at the table when the front door closed behind the lawyer and his new employee.
“There is a difference,” Mann said, “Between the various tiers of demon. Imps, least, lesser, moderate, all the way up the hierarchy. The simplest way to mark the distinction is capability.”
The new employee nodded. He was dressed in a fine suit, now, and he had legs again.
“Speech is one such thing. It’s an inverse of men. We’re speechless at birth, we gain the ability, with increasing faculties, then if we live long enough, the ability to speak gradually leaves us. Imps can speak because they borrow from men, they sup from the collective unconscious, and they sup from victims. Demons of the noble tier can speak because they are… broad. If they’re neither and they can still communicate, they may well have something of man. A token.”
The new employee nodded. He was trying to listen. He had a new lease on life, now. They walked down the street, and despite the fact that they wore nicer clothes than the people they passed, nobody paid them a second mind.
“Keep these things in mind. We can’t have you making a mistake while you work for us. Certainly not a mistake like the summoning of Mahoun.”
“You’ll learn quickly or you’ll die,” Mann said. “Come. On the good days, you’ll be an errand boy. This is a good day.”
The new employee hurried to keep up.
“The primary work we do is to help write contracts, and to handle certain summonings or arrangements. You’re not going to do either for the first few hundred years. The goal is to achieve these things safely, with minimal risk. You can’t do safe, not yet.”
“I learned my lesson.”
“In a few centuries, you should look back on today, and you’ll realize how very little you’ve learned.”
Mann frowned. “Don’t think I didn’t see that in your eyes. You think I’m an asshole?”
“I have been around for a very long time. I’m aware of much more than you might think.”
Mann shook his head a little. “As you do good work, you’ll have less in the way of good days, but more opportunity. You don’t need to eat or sleep anymore, we removed that need. You would be well advised to study. If you were to get an opportunity, you wouldn’t want to squander it, because it may be decades before you got another chance.”
“When you say opportunity, sir?”
“Early exit,” a woman spoke up.
The woman wore a suit, though with a short dress rather than pants, and her blonde hair was in a ponytail, a lock draped over one eyebrow with a strategic sort of care.
“Early exit is one opportunity that you’re competing for,” Mann said. “You may not need to indulge in normal eating and sleeping, but if you ever think you might want to slack off in your duties, keep in mind that we have a number of other employees who don’t need to indulge either, and many are hungrier to get out than you are.”
“You’ll find that hunger,” the blonde woman said. “After enough bad days, you’ll find it.”
The new employee glanced over his shoulder. “You heard-”
“I’ve heard others get the same speech more times than you’d like to think,” the woman said. “I’ve even heard a number ask the question you just asked.”
“She leads the pack, in terms of the next employee to take a name and a position at the head of the firm,” Mann explained. “Like myself. You would do well to listen to her.”
“Yes sir,” he replied.
“Look after him,” Mann ordered. “I have things to do.”
With that, he was gone.
The blonde woman gestured, and they fell in step, side by side, walking down the street.
“Scared?” the woman asked.
“If you’re not terrified, you haven’t realized what you’re in for,” the woman said.
“I have a sense of it.”
“You did this to get out of a bad situation?” she asked.
“Mahoun. Mr. Mann said it went easy on me, but it really didn’t.”
She nodded. “It didn’t.”
“It didn’t,” she said, placing a hand on his arm.
“Okay,” he said, frowning.
“You escaped a noble demon. The worst sort of end. Now that it’s too late for you to realize, I’m free to tell you, you’ve jumped from the frying pan to the fire.”
“How long do you have?”
“Five hundred and seventy-some years.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Not much time at all. You could have paid off that karmic debt in a lifetime.”
“Not if I died.”
She shook her head. “I have a lot to teach you. How many demonic nobles do you think you’ll run into in the next five hundred and seventy-ish years?”
His eyes went wide. “What?”
“I’m asking you to guess. Because you will be crossing paths with them.”
He couldn’t speak. Horror had stolen his words.
“Well, stay quiet like that while we’re here, and you’ll be in good shape.”
They reached the gate. The blonde woman opened it. She led the way up the winding driveway.
An old woman was already standing on the porch. Rose bushes grew across the property, and trees hung over the older house. She looked so normal.
It sent his perceptions and expectations in the complete other direction from the horror he’d experienced prior. He found his words slipping from his mouth. “I- You told me to be quiet, but is she…”
“A diabolist? Yes. She’s a respected diabolist, in many circles,” the blonde woman said. “We would very much like to recruit her. If you were to cost us the chance, you could give up hope of ever having a good day with us again. I’m sorry, I have to warn you, so you aren’t surprised.”
The woman on the porch suddenly seemed a hundred times more ominous.
“She has five lifetimes worth of karmic debt,” the blonde woman said, “To put things into perspective.”
“So, at five hundred and seventy-five years per…”
“More than that,” the woman said. “Much, much more. But she wouldn’t ever join us. Too canny, to ever think it was a good deal, or to put herself in a situation where she would need to ask for the help. With luck, however, we could reach out to her grandchildren. Now hush.”
They’d reached the porch.
“New one,” the old woman said.
“I’m consistently surprised by how much attention you pay to us, for someone who is so set against joining,” the blonde woman said.
“No secret knowledge here,” the old woman said. “He has that look about him.”
“Scared, but not scared enough.”
“I’m trying to go easy on him,” the blonde woman said.
“Oh? That isn’t necessarily doing him a favor.”
It felt so strange to be talked about.
“Mann is going to send him into the deep end soon, I imagine.”
“I imagine,” the old woman agreed. “Can I offer you two anything?”
“No thank you,” the blonde woman said.
“Come in. You brought the book?”
The blonde woman produced a tome with a black leather cover, but no markings on the front or side.
“Good workmanship. Would you place it in the library? The door is open.”
“I’d have to bring him.”
“You would not,” the old woman sounded indignant. “I intend to grill him for information while you’re gone.”
The newcomer opened his mouth, then closed it, a little surprised.
“I think that would be frowned upon.”
“It would,” the old woman said. “But you’re going to let me do it all the same. If I’m ever going to join-”
“Which you won’t.”
“Which I most likely won’t, I would do it with my eyes wide open, and all available information at my fingertips. You’re going to do it because it means there is a chance.”
The blonde woman frowned. “You have a few minutes. I’ll take a moment to peruse your library, if I may?”
The younger woman disappeared inside.
The old woman’s face took on a stern cast. “You will not waste my time, understand?”
The newcomer blinked. “Yes?”
“You’re going to tell me everything about the people you’re working for. If you don’t, or if you don’t produce anything satisfactory, then I’m going to say you displeased me. They’ll hear you out as to why, little will happen to me as a consequence, and you’ll be punished all the same. These people you work for? Their punishments are dire. Understand?”
“I… think so.”
“In exchange, I’ll give you some advice. It will go a long, long way toward making the next few centuries or thousands of years more tolerable.”
“Um. I don’t even know where to start. That woman, she’s-”
“Soon to become one of the named members of the firm. ‘Partner’, if you want to buy into the lawyer theme. Describe her.”
“Describe- she’s nice? Strict, but she’s helping me out. It’s hard to see why she’s a diabolist.”
The old woman frowned. “Ah. I see.”
“She was saying I picked the wrong path. I probably did, but I don’t see why.”
“You’ve condemned yourself to… how long?”
“Five hundred and seventy-ish years.”
“You should try to forget the number. You won’t be able to, it’s one of the few things you have, now, but you should try. Listen to me, I want you to pay attention, you stupid little man. Whatever you were escaping? You’ve condemned yourself to five hundred and seventy-ish more years of it.”
“I was escaping a demon noble,” he said.
“And you’ll see a number more before your time is up,” she said. She sighed. “You’re useless to me. Everyone around me is useless.”
“You don’t know nearly enough. That you even think that woman is anything resembling nice or good? She’s about to become your absolute superior, second only to the powers they serve. She didn’t get there by being kind or nice. She didn’t do good things when she was a diabolist, before.”
“Neither did I.”
“It’s an entirely different scale,” the old woman said. “I’ve never heard of you. Contrast that to her… for history to reconcile the kinds of things she did, it might well have had to invent something akin to the Black Death, to sweep it all beneath the rug.”
“I don’t understand. The Black Death?”
“Something like the Black Death. I suspect she’s older. She’s not insane, which means one thing. She very likely enjoyed it. Her politeness, the veneer on the surface, it’s a mask she’s trained herself to wear, for this role. Don’t give her cause to remove it.”
He nodded, mute.
“I’ll tell them to send you my way again. They’ll know why I’m doing it, in large part, that I want to dig for information, but they won’t care. They’re too big, and I’m only one cog in the machine. When we see one another again, you’re going to give me better information.”
“Now,” she said, “One of your next few tasks will be grim. I know that they sent the last two to the apartments in Hamburg. The place was taken by demons, a transfer of property, demesne, to demons. The diabolist is still inside, and will be for a long time. When you go, it will be bad. It will continue to be bad, each time. They want to use this place as a whip, the threat of it will make you work harder…”
Levin straightened his tie. Several other junior partners and employees of the firm joined them.
Lewis was there, past the fence, at the border of the hole to the Abyss.
Looking past her, the practitioner could see the Thorburn girl from the mirror. Looking inside her, at the mess of connections, he could see something rattling around inside. Years with the firm had given him cause to learn to quickly identify possession with his Sight.
Barely even connected them to the old woman, he thought. But here, standing where I did six years ago, so close to where I talked to the old lady, hard to shake it.
“Motes,” Levin said, just to his left. The old man’s voice was gravelly.
“Looks like, sir,” the practitioner responded.
“Her sadism will be the end of her,” Levin said. “She’s even holding them back.”
The words were reminiscent of the description of Mahoun. Ramping up.
The collected group backed up a touch as they approached the scene.
“What a grotesque lot,” the sphinx spoke.
“Petty insults?” Levin asked.
“You seem poised for a war,” a woman spoke. Her ring burned when viewed with the Sight.
“You seem to be under the impression that this will be anything but one sided,” Levin said. “Lewis? Please. There are things to look after.”
“Murr,” she said. “Please.”
The skull-headed imp acted.
Figures stepped out of the shadows, one after another.
Each one provoked a reaction.
A man in white, carrying pistols.
“Malcolm,” the little girl of the group said.
A tall man, thirty-something. It got a reaction from the Thorburns.
A man with a policeman’s jacket, square-jawed.
Others joined the ranks, one-by-one. Four figures were utterly black, head to toe, without features.
“Tricks,” Rose Thorburn the younger said.
“No,” the one the child had called Malcolm said. “I’m sorry.”