When I was woken by a thud sounding suspiciously like a dead body falling into my guestroom, I gave up any idea I’d sleep again that night.
I rolled towards the bed side table and checked my alarm clock. It was 1:00am. The darkest hour had just begun, when creatures of night liked to come a knocking.
I slid out of bed figuring I might as well get this unscheduled business meeting started. Yet in no hurry to seem eager, I stepped into the kitchen and poured myself a large glass of water. Then I sauntered across my apartment lounge area to the guestroom. I could have lingered longer and dressed for the occasion, but I was too tired to worry about my appearance, and my guests wouldn’t likely care that I wore only pyjama pants.
I broke out in a sweat as I lingered at the door.. Sydney summer had been particularly hot this year, but nothing like the heat radiating from the guestroom door. The flames that cast flickering shadows through the cracks were more telling, as was the unmistakable stench of sulphur.
Taking a long deep breath that might be the coolest, cleanest air I might enjoy for the next couple of hours, and grateful that I had stopped to get myself a glass of water after all, I stepped inside.
“Gordon McColley,” the demon I knew as Marcus Sempter greeted me in his perfectly clipped English accent. He stood straight-backed before his entourage of hell-spawned lackeys and picked at what I suspected was a morsel of human flesh he’d dug from beneath a fingernail. “I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
Behind him, a portal into the inferno of Hell had opened—the source of the flickering flames that illuminated Sempter and his followers in a halo of angry red light.
I pressed the cool glass of water against my forehead as I relaxed into the room’s only chair, a leather lounge I’d installed last month. I’d grown tired of standing during these late night meetings, which could last for hours. My demonic guests stood not because I was stingy, but because they generally wrecked any provided furniture within the first few minutes of their arrival.
Sempter looked human enough, with his expensive three-piece charcoal suit, purple silk tie, slick dark hair, perfectly proportioned face and the physique of a twenty-year-old fashion model. But behind this façade lurked a high ranking demon who had willingly tortured thousands of souls since before the fall of the Roman Empire.
Two of Sempter’s attending lackeys I knew as the voluptuously figured Torture Sisters, their nickname acquired due to their abilities in extracting information. The first demoness was composed entirely of ice, the second of hot embers, and that was the basis of their technique.
The fourth demon I didn’t recognise. Perhaps he had been recently promoted from Hell’s torture factories? This imposing creature resembled an ogre whose skin had been sewn together after a complicated dissection. In his club of a hand rested a meat cleaver the size of a combine harvester blade, while across his broad shoulders hung a helmet attached to a breastplate contraption forged from rusted iron.
“I see you brought some friends.” I took a sip of water as sweat ran off me in streams.
Sempter didn’t reply. He had just noticed he and his entourage were trapped inside the magical circle I had recently burnt into the floorboards, the only portal through which supernatural creatures could enter or leave my harbour view apartment. Displaying his disgust on his down-turned brow, Sempter then looked to me. “You should have dressed for the occasion.”
“You don’t like my pyjamas? With this heat, you’re lucky I’m even wearing that.”
A delicate, precisely directed finger pointed at my body. “It’s the symbols tattooed on your chest, arms, and back that offend me, McColley.”
I took another sip of water because it really was hot in here, despite Ice Sister’s presence. “You should know better than that, Sempter. Without these magical symbols, your lot would have done away with me a long time ago.”
Sempter gave me his famous grin agreeing that he’d always rather be eating my flesh than conversing. “It would be a short lived gain, as your soul is not yet promised to me for eternity.”
“And it never will be.”
His grin grew mischievous. “I see you’ve extended the same protection to your apartment.” His thin finger pointed to symbols burnt into the floor, identical to those tattooed on my flesh.
“Your kind likes to surprise me in the middle of the night. And you make a mess. Better, don’t you think, I keep you and your mess confined to one room?”
The demon’s face and body contorted suddenly as if a million fish hooks had just yanked at every centimetre of his flesh when he said, “You need to assist me with a minor matter.”
I smiled, finally understanding. His agony was because demons never liked to ask anyone for help, particularly not from mortals like myself. “What does the world’s greatest demonic criminal mastermind want from me?”
He clicked his fingers. Immediately, his three companions stepped aside so I could see the naked, broken and bloody body of a young woman lying at their feet. A few hours earlier, she would have been in her mid-twenties, rather attractive, and probably a very happy soul.
I felt sickened seeing this human death, but I didn’t show it. If I displayed any fear, it might excite Sempter, and he might decide that when he next had the opportunity, a short-lived torture was worth the mild distraction it would offer him from his own intense pain—pain that each demon suffered every second of their existence.
“Who is she?” I took another mouthful of water. At this rate, I’d have to go and get another glass.
“She interfered with my London operations.”
“What, one individual?”
“She’s more than that.”
“She’s one of the Awake?”
“Just. She knew enough that I was required to come to you.”
“Played you, did she?”
Sempter, already clearly agitated, now literally fumed. Skin began to peel across his face and hands and then erupted with sulphur-laden smoke. The same acrid stench billowed from the seams and cuffs of his formally very nice suit, and it, too, was beginning to smoulder. “I can’t find her soul,” he admitted.
“Ah,” I said, finally putting the pieces together of this rather sordid puzzle. As well as never asking for help, demons never liked to admit when they had been duped. “I take it she didn’t enter into a soul contract with you, then?”
“Not every soul I claim has to be promised to me.”
That was too true, hence all my protective tattoos and my magical fortress of an apartment.
“You need to find this soul, McColley.”
I laughed. “Sempter, you control the largest crime syndicate in the world. No one shifts heroin and cocaine laced with Hell’s Elixir in the quantities you do. Can’t one of your many cronies find it instead?”
I pointed to his posse. Ice Sister had thinned, melted with the rising temperature. Fire Sister, in comparison, seemed more alive, as if petrol had been thrown on her, exciting the flames that ran like tiny dancers up and down the embers of her skin. The armoured demon at the back had said and done nothing since their arrival, yet he seemed the scariest of them all.
“My people aren’t investigators for hire!” hissed Sempter.
“What about Synder? This is more his kind of work.”
Synder was Sempter’s most senior drug distributor for the Australian arm of his operations, and a mage like me. Sydner’s magic was more overt than mine—and more powerful. He would have no trouble finding the poor woman’s soul.
I could have been as powerful as Synder if I wanted to, but the price wasn’t worth it. Synder had obtained his skills by selling his soul to so many demons he probably didn’t even know that he’d once been a man with a conscience. I, on the other hand, had made no contracts with any magical entity and never planned to. I’d learnt magic on my own through many hours of hard study. It was the only way to survive in this slipstreamed world as one of the mortal Awake, both in this life and the next one. I wanted certainty that when the afterlife finally found me, it wouldn’t take me somewhere horrific like Hell.
“Synder’s indisposed at the moment.”
“Really?” I raised an eyebrow. I’d have to look into that one.
“Are you going to do this job for me?”
“What do you want, McColley? You obviously don’t plan to do this one for free? You never do.”
Feeling hot, I raised the glass to my dry mouth only to find it empty. I’d finished it without noticing. “Oh you know; the usual.”
“What? Not fucking Tanjar Karim’s Seal again?”
Every muscle in Sempter tensed again just before his suit burst into flames. Then his skin melted, ran as bubbling, putrid liquid over bloody flesh interlaced with thousands of broken shards of ancient glass.
“Of course, Tanjar Karim,” I said doing my best to ignore Sempter’s temper induced spectacle. “You know me better than that.”
Tanjar Karim was one of those great men of history. If he hadn’t been a philosopher mage from Fourteenth Century India and one of the Awake, and if Hell’s minions hadn’t done their utmost to eradicate every historical reference to him known to exist, Karim would have been worshipped today by the Asleep in churches and temples the world over as another Jesus, Mohammad, or Buddha. In his time, Karim had convinced tens of thousands of his followers not to sell their souls to unscrupulous creatures of Hell. So successful was Karim that he almost caused Hell’s hierarchy to collapse into anarchy and rebellion.
In desperation, Hell’s Overlord (Sempter’s boss) tried to make a deal with Karim. The Indian mage agreed to negotiate, for he was cunning, offering up his soul to the eternal torments of the Overlord’s torture factories on the proviso that anyone who made a deal with any creature of Hell in his name, who acted selfishly for the good of another person or persons, then their own soul could not be claimed by Hell and would remain forever their own. Hell’s Overlord, forgetting that there were plenty of good natured people on this Earth, thought he was the one who would come out on top in this deal. But the number of souls Karim has saved since his death more than six hundred years ago must now number in the hundreds of thousands.
One day, someone, somewhere is going to rescue Karim’s soul. The Mortal Awake everywhere owe him big time, me included.
“McColley, forget Karim’s Seal. I could offer you magic like you could never imagine. I could make you more powerful than Synder.”
That was the second mention of my nemesis. I felt that something might have happened to Synder that I hadn’t yet heard about, and this worried me.
I said, “You think I’d risk my soul for something so minor?”
Snarling, the demon didn’t answer while his naked flesh crackled like slices of burning bacon. He would attempt any form of trickery to obtain a soul like mine, a mage who essentially worked as a private investigator for magical entities and Awake humans the world over. But I was never going to give him that chance. No bargain is ever worth the price of eternal torture and damnation.
“Very well,” Sempter said, seeing that he was never going to win this argument, “how do you wish to use Karim’s Seal?”
“To save a soul. What else?”
He snorted flames. “A soul for a soul. Whose soul?”
“No one I know to save at the moment, so I’ll have to take a raincheck.”
He grimaced through eyes without eyelids and grumbled through a clenched mouth without lips. “You have a deal then, McColley. Just find her soul—and quickly.”
“Before you go Sempter, I need something of her to find her with.” I pointed to the dead body they had brought with them.
Without instruction, the armoured demon took his cleaver to the corpse’s hand, severing it with enough force to embed the rusted tip into my wooden floorboards, adding another soiling mark. With a hard yank, he pulled the blade free and then used the weapon to flick the bloody hand at me.
I didn’t bother to catch the severed remains. If the dismembered hand contained anything harmful, it would not have been able to pass through the protective circle. So I let it hit the wall behind me, slide wetly down the wall leaving a smear of fresh blood before it hit the floor, then splattering crimson droplets across the room from the impact.
“Actually, just some of her hair would have been enough.”
Again without instruction, the ogre swung his cleaver a second time. I looked up from the fallen hand just fast enough to see him flick a clump of bloody hair at my face, which I caught with ease.
“And what’s her name?”
“Yvonne Adams, of London,” snorted Sempter.
And then they were gone, shimmering into the portal that vanished like a heat mirage dancing in a desert.
Quickly the temperature dropped and the smell of sulphur lessened, and I was left with a name, a clump of hair, a severed hand, and a job to do.