When I came to, the air still smelled like smoke and wormwood. Hosanna had been tossed against the wall. Truecross was rubbing his head, standing at the edge of the circle and staring in. I felt wet and tired. For a minute I thought I'd peed myself, but it was just sweat making my clothes cling to my skin.
"Hosanna?" I called.
She opened her eyes. "Daniel?" Her voice was raw. "Did it work?"
I pointed at the circle. There was a naked boy inside the carefully chalked lines. It looked maybe ten or eleven, too young for the blond curls on the top of its head to have sprouted anywhere else on its body. It wasn't looking at us, just staring intently at its own palms. I snapped my fingers, but it didn't move.
"Can it hear us in there?" I asked.
Truecross shrugged again. I wanted to be irritated with his attitude, but the ritual had worked. Whatever that boy-shaped thing in the circle actually was, the ritual had worked.
"Oh thank God," murmured Hosanna, staring at it. "Or Satan, I guess. Help me up."
I offered her my arm, and she took it with both hands. It didn't take much effort to get her back on her feet.
"Jesus Christ," she whispered. "He's beautiful."
The boy shook itself and finally looked up, squinting in our direction.
"I can sense your presence," it announced. "Take off the wards so I may look upon your faces."
Hosanna bent down awkwardly and started to rub away one of the chalk symbols around the circle. Truecross stepped on her hand.
"I know this is your first summoning," he said through gritted teeth, "But you would have to be exceptionally stupid to do something that a demon wants just because it asked you to."
Hosanna yanked her hand back. "You could have just said that," she snapped.
Truecross didn't bother to reply. He was the only demon slayer in the yellow pages who'd been willing to work with us after we explained what we wanted. I wished we'd had the opportunity to be pickier.
The boy was holding very still, and as much as anything else, that was what kept me from believing it was human. I'd never seen a kid motionless for that long.
"You will lift some of these wards," it added finally. "I must know your desires in order to grant them."
Truecross wiped out a few symbols with his foot, leaving the one Hosanna had started to erase intact.
"That's better," said the boy, rolling its head and stretching slightly. It moved as though there was something much larger inside of it, waiting to burst through its skin. "I am Zaebos, Great and Mighty Duke of Hell. What do you desire?"
I opened my mouth to speak, but Truecross cut me off.
"Zaebos? Bullshit. No way a parlor trick like this called up a Duke of Hell."
The boy narrowed its eyes and looked slightly to the left of Truecross. It still couldn't see us. "And who are you, mortal?" it asked, voice deep and rattling like the demons on television.
Truecross pulled himself up to stand straight. He looked dignified, despite his shaggy, unwashed hair and the char marks on his suit. "I am John Truecross, Demon Slayer."
The boy rolled its eyes. "And whom have you slain that I would recognize?"
"Less than a year ago I slew Ronwe, who commanded twenty legions in Hell."
I stared at Truecross with new admiration.
The boy didn't look impressed. "The Marquis Ronwe? He no longer attempts to harvest Souls unless they come to him already half dead. He might be an embarrassment to Hell, but I assure you that he is quite un-slain." A slow smile unfurled across the boy's face. Its teeth were very sharp. "Wait. Are you tall, for a mortal? Pale of skin and dark of eye and hair? Carrying a rather ostentatious sword cane on your person?"
Truecross's eyes flicked towards what I'd assumed was a cane, which he'd leaned against the wall when we started the ritual. Truecross swallowed. "Yes," he admitted. "That describes me."
The boy howled with laughter, a sound less like joy and more like grinding glass. "Have you any children of your own seed?" it asked.
"I recommend you refrain in the future; your line is cursed unto the next seven generations. Ronwe is rather old-fashioned about such matters." It was overcome with another fit of giggles. Truecross backed away from the circle and sat down very hard on the ground. I reached for Hosanna's hand, and she wrapped her fingers around mine.
"Demon," said Hosanna. "Duke Zaebos."
"That's not Zaebos," said Truecross, voice contemptuous despite his slumped posture and the slightly stunned expression on his face. "I don't care what it says. That little creature is no Duke of Hell."
"Are you Duke Zaebos or not?" asked Hosanna.
"Are there many of you?" it asked. "This blindness is despicable."
Hosanna released my hand and bent down to finish rubbing away the symbol she'd started to remove earlier. Truecross made no attempt to stop her.
When the symbol was gone, the boy spent as much time examining the walls and boxes around it as it did the three of us.
"Is this an attic?" it asked finally. "Have I been summoned and trapped in an attic?"
"It's my attic," said Hosanna. "And we had to do this somewhere the Bureau of Vice wouldn't shut us down. Are you a Duke of Hell or not?"
The boy snorted. "Not if a trio of amateurs managed to summon me into a goddamn attic. This air reeks of asbestos." With each word, its voice shrank towards something small and prepubescent.
"Demons can say 'God'?" I asked.
The boy gave me a look of disbelief and disgust that was painfully human. "What do you three want?" it asked. "This is going to be humiliating when everyone finds out about it, so let's get it over with. Why have you summoned me?"
"We didn't summon you specifically." Hosanna licked her lips. "I have ... I had an older brother. He died last month, and instead of Ascending at the end of his funeral, he went to Hell. I want him back."
"Was he baptized?" It glanced at me and waved its hand dismissively. "Or circumcised? Whatever ritual you people prefer."
"Baptized." Hosanna also glanced over at me. As the only Jewish kid in school, I'd gotten looks like that on everything from dreidels to the Holocaust to foods labeled "kosher," as if I was an expert on all of those things.
The boy shrugged. "So why'd your brother go to Hell, then?"
Hosanna looked away. "I don't know."
"Well, shit," snapped the demon. "What do you want me to do about it?"
"I want him back." Hosanna squeezed my hand so hard I could feel my bones grinding together. "And I'll be keeping you here until his Soul is either given to me or passed directly to Heaven."
"Are you kidding me?" asked the boy.
Hosanna didn't say anything.
"What ridiculous summoning manual did you read that made you think this would work? I mean, what was your plan here?"
"You're a hostage." I didn't know how Hosanna kept her voice so even. I was caught halfway between terror and excitement -- we were in terrible danger, but this was also the coolest thing I'd ever done in my life.
"Yeah. I get that part. But I can't call Hell from your little circle. No one's going to know where I am. No one's even going to hear your demands, much less be able to fulfill them."
Truecross walked over to us. "I told you this wouldn't work," he snapped.
That was true. He'd been telling us since we first hired him -- but it hadn't stopped him from taking our money and facilitating the ritual.
"Besides," said the boy, "Even if I do get a message to Hell, if you don't know why your brother was banished there, then you don't know where he is. And if whoever owns him doesn't happen to like me very much, you can forget that trade ever going through. Off the top of my head, I can think of a lot more demons who would find this hilarious than would be inclined to give up a Soul for my sake."
"So you're not a Duke of Hell?" I asked.
The boy waved its hand. "Of course not. I'm a minor servant of Zaebos." It paused to look at each of us in turn. "My Lord will notice that I'm gone, by the way. I won't flatter myself to say that my disappearance will be a top priority, but when He gets around to it, His retribution will be terrible. Just a heads up."
"I don't care," said Hosanna. "I want my brother out of Hell."
"Yeah," said the boy, turning its back on us. "Good luck with that." It lay down. We'd intended our circle to be uncomfortably small, but we'd meant for it to contain a fully-grown demon, not something the size of a human child, and there was plenty of room in its confines for something wearing the shape of an eleven-year-old to stretch out. As far as we could tell, it was asleep in minutes.
For my turn to watch the demon, I carried up a container full of leftovers, a thermos of nettle tea, a 2-liter bottle for peeing in, and all the books on demonology in the house. This was where Hosanna's plan got a little fuzzy: how long did it take an important demon to notice that one of its minions was missing? How long did it take to find and retrieve a Soul? The thing in the circle might be with us for hours, or for months.
It was sitting cross-legged as I settled into the easy chair. We stared at each other. There was some kind of tattoo on the inside of one of its thighs. I recognized the Seal of Zaebos from my research.
"Like what you see?" it asked, indicating its crotch.
I looked away.
"So you're what?" it asked. "The boyfriend? I get what Truecross is doing here. People like that never live very long. And I get the sister, wanting her brother back. That's very sweet. But what would make a nice-looking boy like you want to play with demons?"
I shrugged and opened one of the books. "Unemployed. Nothing better to do." I didn't like that sort of question, the implication that people had to have a reason to help each other, when, really, helping each other was what we were put on this world to do.
"Hey, go ahead and read," it said. "Don't mind me. I'm just trapped here."
I did try to read for awhile, but it kept staring at me.
"You don't talk like a demon," I said finally.
"I think what you mean is that your perception of demons doesn't match the way we actually are."
"No, I mean you don't talk like a demon. I've watched live summonings on TV, and ever since we decided to do this I've been reading about it, from de Plancy on up. And you don't talk like that. You did at first."
The boy shrugged. "I only died in the eighties. I don't do the lingo too well, yet."
"The 1880's? The 1780's?"
"The aerobics and bad hair eighties."
I shut the book. "But that was only thirty years ago. Nobody transitions from human to demon that quickly."
"You do if you look like you're going to be really good at being a demon."
"You're lying again."
"Whatever." The boy shrugged. "You asked. I answered."
I picked the book up again. Truecross said that demons spoke almost exclusively in lies, but this was my first time meeting one, and it was hard not to be fascinated, not to want to believe every word.
"What are you drinking?" the boy asked.
I picked up the thermos. "Nettle tea."
"Seriously?" It wrinkled its face. "Don't the nettles...hurt?"
"Actually you just brew it with the leaves, not the nettles. It's a purifying agent. You're supposed to drink nettle tea for at least a week after dealing with demons, to help flush the evil out of your blood."
"Yeah?" It laughed. "You might want to remind your friend Johnnyboy that. He's downstairs drinking nothing but liquor."
"Johnny? Oh, Truecross. Wait. You can't see what he's doing." I swallowed. "Can you?"
It smiled at me. "Johnnyboy's drinking Johnny Walker. Give him about ten minutes and then he's going to drive home and do it there instead."
"You can't see him."
"And your friend Hosanna is crying in her bedroom. That's an easy one -- I bet she's been crying a lot lately. How awkward."
"You can't see either of them," I said again.
"I came here from Hell, boy. I know the type. Demon slayers are a sorry bunch, and your friend Hosanna reeks of the same desperation as everyone willing to make deals with demons." It licked its lips. "Could I have some of that?"
"Your nettle tea. Or whatever. Water. Something to drink."
"You're a demon. You don't need to drink."
"I'm wearing flesh, aren't I?" It pinched the skin on its arm and yanked at it to demonstrate. "I don't need to drink, but the body is thirsty. It's an unpleasant sensation."
"I don't know. We're not supposed to break the circle."
"You can pass things in, but nothing can come out," it said. "That's the point of this particular circle. It's meant to be used so that you can torture the thing inside without repercussions." It grinned. "Of course, when you involve us, there are always repercussions."
"I don't know."
"You assholes have had me here for almost a day already."
I checked my watch. "It's only been a few hours."
"Right. And in those hours, I got thirsty."
Its lips looked chapped. I wondered if they really were, or if it was an infernal glamour added while I blinked. "I'll ask Truecross when it's his turn to watch you. If he says it's okay, than you can have some water."
"And when does Johnnyboy come back?"
"According to you, whenever he sleeps off the drunk he's working on."
The boy hissed.
"You shouldn't have worn flesh, then." I poured myself more tea without meeting its eyes.
"Yeah. I shouldn't have." It sighed. "That's still my first reaction, when I touch down here. In Hell, matter is so...variable. But here my first instinct is to breathe, and to breathe you need lungs, and I conjure up the same damn pair every time." It thumped its knuckles lightly against its chest.
"Why that one?" I asked. "That form."
"It's the body I was wearing when I died. Well, the body I was when I died, I guess. Like you said, I've been a demon less than thirty years, and old habits die hard."
"You were eleven years old when you died?"
"And you went to Hell?"
"Sure looks that way."
"But what could a ten-year-old possibly have done to get into Hell?"
It shrugged. "Same things everybody else does."
I closed my eyes. "What? You didn't honor thy father and mother?"
"Among other things, no, I didn't. If you're not going to give me anything to drink, I don't have any interest in talking anymore." It turned away from me. When it turned back, it was a skeletally thin child with a distended belly and eyes that were too large for its shrunken face.
"Now can I have a drink?" it rasped.
I stared at it in horror. The demon dug one of its eyeballs out of its socket and popped it in its mouth like a grape. A little bit of aqueous humor squirted out.
"This is so salty," it said. "Some water would be great."
I didn't--couldn't--answer. The demon shifted back into the shape of the boy, with both eyes still intact. "Wake me up when Johnnyboy gets here," it sighed.
"Yeah," I said, drinking my tea. "Sure." The demon didn't talk anymore, but I didn't get any reading done.
"It doesn't need to drink," said Truecross, looking at me with open contempt. "If it told you that it does, it was lying."
"It didn't say it needs to drink. It said that while it was using a human body the body got thirsty, and that it was uncomfortable."
"Oh." Truecross frowned. "Well that sounds pretty reasonable, actually. You didn't give it anything, did you?"
"Of course not. I said that I'd ask you, and that if you said it was okay than it could drink some water."
"It can't." He frowned again. "If you let it drink water, it'll need to pee. If you give it food, it'll be even worse." He put a hand on my shoulder, almost paternally. "Daniel, if you can help it, you should never, ever give a demon access to shit. They're like apes; they just can't help themselves."
"That's...that's totally disgusting."
"Well, demons usually are." Truecross met my eyes, for maybe only the second or third time since we'd hired him. "You and your girlfriend didn't much look into this beforehand, did you?"
"Of course we did! We read every book we could get our hands on, pored over Wikipedia, even made some calls to professors at the university. We prepared."
"You can't ever prepare for the first time you see a demon in the flesh. It's not what you expected, is it?"
"No." I looked away. "Not really."
Truecross nodded. "This won't end well, of course. In the best case scenario your girlfriend'll get her brother's Soul sent up to Heaven before Zaebos -- or whoever else this creature works for -- takes its due. Worst case, I suppose all four of us end up in Hell."
"She's not my girlfriend. Hosanna. We've never...dated."
I tried to meet Truecross's eyes again, but he was looking over my shoulder at the boy's back. "If you..." It took me a moment to find the right words. "If you're so sure that this'll end poorly, why'd you take the job?"
Truecross smiled. The expression was nowhere near as nasty as the boy's, but it wasn't something I wanted to encounter on a stranger's face. "Haven't you heard, boy? Demon slayers don't live very long."
Almost a week later, I had the dream. I'd like to say I recognized it immediately for what it was, the way a Saint has visions, but actually my dreams are always so vivid and silly that a crowned man riding a crocodile didn't seem out of place.
"Ho, Warrior!" I called to him, for in this particular dream I was a knight of some kind, and perched on the back of a mighty steed. "Why do you approach these walls?"
And then there were walls there, and it was my place to guard them.
"I have come for what is mine," said the man-shaped-Demon. In books, they always use the same word for the way demon voices sound: indescribable. The voice of the boy in the attic wasn't like that. But this voice?
When it spoke, my lungs filled with blood. I didn't reply to the Demon. I couldn't. I fell off my horse, and, quite politely, it dismounted from its crocodile.
"I assume you know of what I speak," it said.
"Yes," I gasped. I would have said anything to keep it from speaking again.
"Then you will release it to me."
"Yes," I said.
"Excellent. Wake yourself, and take me to the place where it is held."
And then I understood that this was not a dream at all, and that before me stood Zaebos, the Great and Mighty Duke of Hell.
"I..." And this is why the dream should have gone to Hosanna or Truecross, because to them this was a holy mission, or at least an assignment. I wanted nothing more than to wake up, erase the circle, let the worthless little imp in the attic go, and then never have anything to do with Hell ever again.
But I kept thinking of Hosanna's brother, and then I kept thinking of him burning.
"I can't do that," I said.
The Demon merely looked at me, and I was grateful for its silence. Its crocodile wandered over and opened its gigantic maw to devour my steed. The horse screamed as the crocodile broke its legs with its teeth.
"Pray tell," said the Demon. "Why you cannot do this."
"There's a man in Hell," I said. "His name is Henry Ross. He died last month. We're holding your servant hostage until someone sends his Soul to Heaven."
The Demon laughed. I coughed up blood.
"I will look into the matter," it said at last. "Let no harm come to what is mine."
I woke up. It was a long time before I could move.
The boy asked more questions about my dream than either Hosanna or Truecross. I didn't tell it about the dream, but one of them must have, because it knew. Hosanna was sobbing when her turn watching the demon ended, but she wouldn't say why, and the boy's cool indifference to her tears made me reluctant to speak to it at all.
"Did He have the head of a crocodile?" it asked. "Or was He riding a crocodile?"
I didn't answer.
"Was He young and handsome, or very old? Or did He come as a woman, maybe?"
I didn't answer.
"Did He threaten you? Did He say He'd do it?"
I poured myself some nettle tea. I'd found that I liked it better iced.
"Oh come on!" said the boy. "This is my Lord, here. Just tell me what He said."
"Why was Hosanna crying?"
"What? He didn't say that."
"No, I said that." I got up out of my chair and took a few steps towards the circle. "Why was Hosanna crying?"
The boy shrugged.
"I'll tell you all about my dream of Zaebos, if you tell me why Hosanna was crying."
The boy stuck out its tongue. "Seriously? Are you that dumb?"
"Why is that dumb?"
"Well, for one you're sitting there with a straight face and offering to make a deal with a demon. I mean, it looks pretty harmless, even to me, but it's the principle of the thing. Also, it's pretty obvious why Hosanna was crying."
"If it's so obvious, just tell me."
"I'm a demon! Her brother is in Hell. Wouldn't you cry, too?"
For a moment, that response actually did make me feel stupid.
"You seem nice enough to me," I said finally.
"I am nice enough to you," said the boy. "Pick a number between one and a hundred."
"Just do it."
The boy laughed. "That's why I'm nice to you. I'd try to explain it, but you'd never believe me. You said you'd read your de Plancy, right?"
"So quote me his entry on Zaebos."
I gulped down some tea. "I said I'd read it. I didn't say I memorized it."
"Well, I have." And it quoted something at me, in the original French, so that I didn't understand a word. "'Zaebos is grand-count of Hell and sweet of character,'" it added in English. "'He appears as a good soldier with a ducal crown on his head and rides a crocodile. He is peaceable and compassionate, and a gallant warrior.' Actually that's not just de Plancy, I've thrown in some other writers, but you get the picture. Zaebos is a nice guy, by our standards. I mean, when I died, He sure rescued the hell out of me. Or the me out of Hell, I guess. And I'm one of His, so, all things considered, I'm a nice guy, too."
"So that's why you're making Hosanna cry."
"I make your friend cry because I'm saying mean and terrible things to distract her from the fact that the three of you are planning to starve a ten-year-old boy to death in her attic in a lame attempt to rescue a guy who probably deserves to be in Hell anyway."
"You're not a ten-year-old boy."
"I am right now, and I'm pretty hungry." It licked its teeth. "And I'm gonna get hungrier. And she knows about her brother. I'm sure you'd believe anything this chick said, and that she told you that her brother is innocent and there's been some terrible mistake. Don't get me wrong, mistakes happen -- good people get tortured for millennia in Hell, and bad people go to Heaven and bask in the glory -- but that doesn't happen often. So when she's in here watching me, I'm not preying on any of those desperately ripe weaknesses. I'm saying shit that a demon in a book would say -- still pretty horrible shit -- to distract her from how messed up this is. And how, at the end of it, she's gonna get somebody killed."
"Nobody's going to die. You're not really a ten-year-old boy." I wanted to say that enough times to make it true.
"Not me." It laughed again, and I put down my tea to cover my ears. In its laugh there was just enough of the ring of my dream to make me feel sick to my stomach. "One of you three. My Lord is good in His way, and I'm good in mine, but attempting to hold a demon hostage is a terrible breach of the way things work, and by all rights the three of you should burn for it. But don't worry, when I'm freed, I'll intercede on your behalf. I'll ask for mercy for two of you."
The boy kept getting thinner. I reminded myself that it was a demon. I reminded myself that demons were intrinsically evil creatures, no matter how obnoxious and harmless the one in the attic seemed. I reminded myself that if we did feed it, I'd be the one cleaning up shit when the whole thing was over.
But none of that kept the kid from getting skinnier, so I started sneaking him food. It was mostly small things--bananas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches -- and Hosanna pretended not to notice. Truecross was less polite.
"You're a shithead," he snapped. "You're a total moron. Do you think that being nice to that thing is gonna help you out, in the end? Do you think if you feed it you'll be one of the two it saves?"
"Hey," said the boy from the other side of the attic. "Did you bring me strawberry jell-o or not?"
I stared at Truecross while I passed the little plastic cup into the circle.
"Jesus Christ," said Truecross, with more passion than I knew he possessed. "I should leave. I should just walk out now and let you two deal with the fallout."
"If you leave now," said the boy, "I'll pick you to be the one that my Lord takes down."
Truecross turned around, and he and the boy shared the kind of glare that movie stars based whole careers around.
"I wouldn't actually leave," said Truecross at last.
The boy smiled. "I know."
Then Truecross turned and stalked out again, and it was just me and the boy. It slurped the jell-o out of the cup, doing vulgar things with its tongue, which was barely forked at all.
"I could've gotten you a spoon."
The boy shrugged. "I like making you uncomfortable."
There was no denying that. "What's up with you and Truecross?"
"You mean why would there be obvious tension between a demon and a demon slayer?"
"I mean that thing...about him not leaving. That was weird. If you're nice to me and mean to Hosanna, what are you like with him?"
The boy shrugged. "Most like myself, I guess. Demon slayers all want to die, or else they'd have different professions. Besides, he won't leave, because my Lord is coming here. It's not often you get a chance to slay a demon as important as He is."
"I wonder what happened to make him like that."
"Johnnyboy? Probably something awful. Or a huge imbalance of chemicals in the brain. With most demon slayers it's a little bit of both. Or maybe he's just one of the thirty-six."
"The thirty-six what?"
It shook its head. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Are you joking? The tzadikim nistarim?"
"Of course I'm joking. Wasn't that hilarious?" It stared at me.
"Don't...don't say things like that." Even the idea of it terrified me. Letting a demon near one of the thirty-six saints who carried the world had to be some kind of sacrilege. Even if Hosanna and I made it through the rest of this unscathed, that would surely get us sent to Hell. And I thought about Hell, in all the wildly different ways books described it, and wondered what it could possibly be like, and how anyone could live there.
And then I thought about this little demon in our circle who lived there all the time.
"I wish I could help you." The words popped out of my mouth, and though I hadn't meant to say them, I realized they were true.
The boy stared at me for awhile. Not with its usual scorn, but an expression that made me uncomfortable in a whole new way.
"Sure," it said, tossing the jell-o cup at the edge of the circle, where it rebounded off the air to land at its feet. "Whatever."
Zaebos didn't have to enter my dreams again for us to know He was coming. The boy in the circle came to life midway through my watch. It took another hour before I felt the change.
The air got thicker, and then all the hair on my arms and legs stood up. The boy got very, very quiet.
"He's coming," it said, grinning at me. I dialed my cell, then started stamping on the floor to wake up Hosanna. Truecross answered the phone in one ring, and cut me off before I could speak.
"I'm already on my way," he said, and hung up. I could hear Hosanna shifting around, but not loudly or quickly enough.
"Hosanna!" I yelled. "It's coming! The demon is coming!"
There was a loud thump.
"I'm on my way!" she yelled. "Lemme get some clothes on!"
I could sympathize. If we were really going to meet a Duke of Hell, I wouldn't want to do it in my underwear, either.
Hosanna came pounding up the steps a minute later, dark circles under her eyes and kinky hair in every direction.
"Did you call Truecross?" she asked.
"He's on his way."
She shifted her attention to the boy in the circle. "Did Zaebos speak to you?"
It rolled its eyes. "And how would He do that, while I'm in here?" It moved to tap the invisible barrier with its knuckles, then recoiled with a little hiss. Hosanna smiled at it, a nasty expression that looked strange on her face.
"Bitch," the boy said, glaring at her.
"And don't forget it, you little shit," she snapped back.
The boy's smile softened, but its teeth were still sharp. "See that?" it asked me. "She wants to make me mad so that when my Lord gets here, I'll pick her to be devoured. It's kind of sweet, isn't it?"
Hosanna swore at it, and I looked back and forth between the two of them, but there was nothing to say.
We heard the front door slam open. For a second I stopped breathing, then remembered Truecross. Of course a Duke of Hell wouldn't just come in the front door.
"Hosanna!" Truecross yelled. "Daniel!"
"We're in the attic, John!" I called back. It seemed silly to use his last name on a night when one of us was going to die.
He came up the stairs with a shotgun and a tackle box, looking just as disheveled as Hosanna. The boy in the circle laughed at us.
"Well," it said. "Don't you look prepared. In all honestly, you didn't need to get here in such a rush. What you're feeling now is just..." it shrugged. "Just the beginning. It'll probably be another hour before my Lord shows up."
John ignored it and pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket. He redrew a few of the symbols we'd erased the day of the summoning, and the boy looked around in a sudden panic.
"Hey!" it yelled. "Dammit! Don't shut me in for the --" John drew a few new symbols along the perimeter of the circle, and it was like pressing a mute button. We could still see the naked boy in the circle banging on the air and opening and closing its mouth, but we couldn't hear a word.
"Alright," said John. "That's that. Now, we're only going to get one chance at this. If Zaebos is really going to manifest here, he's going to bring some proof that your brother's Soul ascended --"
"Do you think He really did it?" asked Hosanna. "Jesus. I mean, do you think that this worked?"
John sighed. "Based on the way Zaebos usually interacts with mortals, I'm guessing that it did. In a way, we really lucked out when we caught one of his servants. I used the best wards I know, but if we'd caught something really nasty..."
"What do you mean if?" asked Hosanna. "That thing is a monster."
I looked away, and John didn't reply.
"Alright," he said instead. "Hosanna, take this." He reached into his tackle box and held out a paperback and a thin box of sidewalk chalk. "There's a bookmark in that. Start on the north wall, and copy down all the symbols inside. Work your way around the room."
"Which way? Towards the east, or towards the west?"
"West wall last. Daniel, come here." He thrust a crucifix and a large spray bottle in my direction. "Your job is to stand in the middle of the room and squirt anything weird with that holy water. Also, if anything goes after any of us, smack it with that crucifix."
I blinked at the wooden crucifix. "Will, um, a Jew hitting a Demon with this do anything?"
"It's worth a try, isn't it?" He pulled out another book and started whispering in Latin, with the slightly halting accent of a lapsed Catholic schoolboy. His voice gained both volume and intensity as he continued, and Hosanna scribbled furiously on the walls. I stood in the middle of the room and wished that my job wasn't to wait.
I was just starting to think that maybe we were overreacting, that this was a static electricity storm and nothing else, when Hosanna screeched and dropped her chalk. John stopped chanting for a moment, then resumed his noise, taking a few steps towards the middle of the room. Termites and centipedes and flies emerged from the walls, not coming from cracks and holes, but appearing to scuttle towards us. Hosanna looked at John, who kept chanting. I wished that I was the one doing the reading, so he could give us directions.
"Should I...?" she asked, and then took a deep breath without waiting for John's answer. She pulled her sleeve up over her hand and used her whole forearm to brush bugs off the portion of the wall that she was writing on. Spiders crawled up her arm and centipedes fell into her hair, but she pulled a fresh piece of chalk out of the box and continued to write. I watched her for a stunned moment before remembering the holy water in my hands.
"Don't bother," said Hosanna, without looking at me. "They're just bugs. Save the holy water for...you know."
They were just bugs, but she still cringed away from them as she wrote. They treated her as they treated the wall, just another surface to crawl on. I wanted to back out of the room. It would be embarrassing to shriek if they touched me after Hosanna had been so brave. The bugs ignored me altogether and headed for the demon. They crawled on top of each other, coating the half-circle of the barrier, hiding the indifferent shape of the boy, who had no idea what was happening. Before long they covered it completely, a writhing black and brown carapace. A few of the flies flew around the room, their buzzing low-pitched to match their bulk. Truecross chanted louder and louder, over the flies and Hosanna's shaky breathing and the scratch of the chalk and the clicking of all those insect feet. I held onto the crucifix so tightly that the wood made deep lines in my palm.
Then, just as quickly as they had come, the insects disappeared. I expected something dramatic when they revealed the boy: a true demon form, or at least bat wings sprouting from its back. It was still sitting there, an expression of rapture on its face. Then it opened its mouth, and all the insects poured out inside the circle, then began to seep through the wards. Truecross finished chanting with a yell and fumbled in his tackle box for something. I wanted to watch him--what could demon slayers possibly arm themselves with, after all?--but then the ward broke and the room filled with darkness.
When we could see again, the boy was glowing. It spoke using the voice from my dream.
"Who has requested the Soul of Henry Ross?" Duke Zaebos asked.
Hosanna stepped towards Him, looking sickly in the yellow glow of the Demon's skin.
"I did," she whispered, loud as the buzz of the insects.
The boy opened its mouth again, impossibly wide, and a thin white string spilled forth, like embroidery floss being uncoiled from deep in its throat. It fell to the ground, and the boy's head cracked open as something came out from beneath its skin. A crocodile head emerged, on the shoulders of a tall, muscular man. The white string and the skin of the boy we'd trapped weeks ago lay at His feet.
"And did you abduct one of my vassals in order to gain my attention?"
"I did." Her voice was quieter this time.
"Then here is the Soul of Henry Ross." The demon gestured to the incandescent white string at His feet. "And I will take back what is mine." He snapped his fingers at the skin on the floor, which knitted itself into a new shape. What had been the boy grew thinner and taller, an emaciated monster with vacant eyes and long claws. And yet I could still see a hint of the ten-year-old looking out at us, or imagined that I could. Demons are liars. Maybe it had never been human at all, much less a kid who died in the 1980s.
Hosanna knelt carefully and gathered the string into her hands. "I wanted it to go to Heaven," she said.
The demon stared down at her through His crocodile eyes. "That is not within my power. I have retrieved it from torment, and that is enough."
"That's not enough!"
Lord Zaebos snapped his long jaws. I wondered if our voices hurt Him as much as His voice hurt me. Hosanna didn't seem bothered by it, or perhaps she was beyond such things with her brother's Soul in her hands.
"It is enough," He said, and there was no reply that any of us, even Hosanna, could have made. "And now I must collect my price."
"We gave it back to you," said Hosanna. "That was the price."
"The price is your lives." The utter dispassion in His voice spiked panic through me. As promised, the boy-demon stepped forward. It whispered something, supplicating itself at its Lord's feet, and it was strange to see the thing that had so terrified us look so weak. Zaebos reached out one hand and rested it on the boy's head.
"Len has spoken. My price will only be the life of one of you. Who will volunteer?"
Hosanna and I both stepped forward. Maybe she was going to protest, maybe she was going to volunteer. I know what I meant to do.
Truecross had been so quiet that we'd almost forgotten about him. He lunged now, not for Zaebos, who would have crushed him, but for the boy, whom he might even have been able to slay before Zaebos sucked his Soul out of his body and ate it.
Except that I saw what he was doing. And whatever it was in me that couldn't let a demon starve and couldn't turn down Hosanna's request for help in the first place couldn't let a man kill something I'd come to care about, either. The boy's eyes were on his Lord.
I got there before Truecross did, and Zaebos moved faster than any of us. He reached out for me the same time that Truecross got to the boy, and I saw Truecross go for the boy's throat, just as the boy turned those sharp claws toward him. Truecross screamed. Then the Duke touched me and something broke.
I don't mean something in me. I mean something in the world.
There was the loudest crack I'd ever heard, and all of us were thrown back, and then everything was gone.
When I woke up, the air smelled like smoke and sulfur and a little bit like holy water. Hosanna had been tossed a few feet back into the wall, and Truecross lay sprawled not far from her. One of his arms was severed just above the wrist, the wound cauterized with hellfire. His hand looked ridiculous on the floor next to him, like a dead spider curled in on itself. Truecross and Hosanna were breathing. I looked down at my palms and took a deep breath, wondering if this was death. There was a cough behind me, and I turned to see not the gaunt demon that had formed itself at Zaebos's feet, but the ten-year-old boy again, wearing khaki shorts and a red T-shirt patterned with French script.
"Am I...am I supposed to follow you to Hell?"
It laughed at me. "Of course not. My Lord couldn't take you."
"Then why didn't He take John or Hosanna?"
"You, err, expelled Him from the mortal plain. We're not supposed to touch any of the tzadikim nistarim. It's against the rules."
I clenched my hands into fists and opened them. "What? I thought it touched me, not Truecross."
The demon laughed. "There's never been a tzadikim nistarim who was also a demon slayer. The tzadikim nistarim are good people, loving and kind, and demon slayers are none of the above. It was you."
The world around me spun. I felt drunk. "What?"
"You heard me, Daniel." It smirked, and I saw all its small, pointed teeth.
"I'm one of the tzadikim nistarim?"
"Well, not anymore."
It shrugged. "You just said it yourself. You admitted to being one of them. No tzadikim nistarim could possibly be so immodest."
"Then why couldn't He take me?"
"Because you were one of them. Up right 'til He touched you, I imagine. Or until you believed it, just now. God will have already found a replacement, I'm sure."
"But if Zaebos couldn't take me, and He knew that, why did He try?"
"He didn't know what you were. I just picked you, and He accepted it." The demon tilted its head. "After all, just being touched by a Duke of Hell taints you. Even if you'd stayed a tzadikim nistarim after that, you wouldn't have lasted long. And if God couldn't find a replacement for you..." It shrugged, but the expression on its face was full of a longing I couldn't imagine. "Well then, we'd win, wouldn't we?"
"You set this up. So that Hosanna could get her brother's Soul back and you'd get free and none of us would die."
"Actually I was hoping that God wouldn't be able to replace you and the world would end. You know how it is."
"Well, you wouldn't." It turned away.
"Wait," I said. "Len."
The boy tilted its head, slow and frowning.
"That's not a title or a class of demon or anything. It's your name, right?"
"It is." Len's eyes shifted over to Truecross and Hosanna, still unconscious on the floor. It reached down and picked up Truecross's hand. "You can tell Johnnyboy that, if you want. Tell him I've got this, and that if he asks nicely I'll sew it back to his arm. Hilarious." It flapped the wrist like a broken wing. "I love screwing with demon slayers."
"Right." I stared at Truecross's hand and felt sick.
It smiled at me. "Catch you later, Daniel."
Then it disappeared, without so much as a puff of smoke or a whiff of brimstone.
I looked at Truecross's stump, then went downstairs to call an ambulance. I brewed more nettle tea, and when I came back with three mugs both Truecross and Hosanna were sitting up.
"Oh God," whispered Hosanna when I came up the stairs. "I was afraid..."
"My hand!" said Truecross. "Where the hell is my hand? I need an ambulance. Goddammit." He stared at his wrist, looking not so much shocked and horrified as furious.
"I already called," I said, careful not to unbalance the tray with the mugs on it. "They're on their way. And the demon we summoned took your hand with it."
I didn't want to tell him Len's name. It seemed like such a private thing.
"Goddammit," said Truecross again. He stared at his stump. "I hate them." I started to say, well, you did try to murder it, but stopped myself. Instead I crouched next to Hosanna. She still clutched her brother's glimmering Soul in one fist.
"Are you hurt?" I asked. Even crouching there in a too-big T-shirt and pajama pants, Hosanna looked weirdly beautiful. I wondered why I'd never noticed before.
"I'm fine," she said. She looked like she was about to cry.
"What happened?" asked Truecross, voice tight with pain. "Why are we all still alive?"
I couldn't find the words. There was no sane way to claim to have been a tzadikim nistarim. I wasn't sure I believed it, myself. Wasn't preying on hubris a demon specialty?
"So Truecross wasn't one of them?" Hosanna asked. "Otherwise I'm sure something would have happened."
"One of what?" Truecross asked.
"The tzadikim nistarim," said Hosanna. "Daniel said the demon told him you were one of them."
Truecross laughed. "Obviously not. Funny thing is, he told me the same thing about Daniel."
Both of them looked at me. I wanted to laugh like Truecross, but instead I handed Hosanna a mug of tea. I offered the other to Truecross, who ignored it and fumbled a flask out of his pocket with his good hand.
"Shit," said Truecross finally. "I didn't even believe him. I guess a demon would prefer a chance at Armageddon over just grabbing another Soul."
We could hear sirens careening down the street. I offered Truecross my arm, and he let me haul him to his feet. His face was white with the effort.
"Wait," called Hosanna, as I lead him to the stairs. "Truecross. When you get out of the hospital. Do you know any angel summoning rituals?"
Truecross looked down at the end of his arm and gave a long, low laugh. "Yeah," he said. "Call me."
© Caspian Gray 2014
Caspian Gray currently lives in the United States, where he shares an apartment with a tall man and a small dachshund. He is a used car salesman whose work has previously appeared in magazines such as Nightmare, ChiZine, Interzone, and Odyssey.