Jasmine and myrrh mingled together, smothering the cramped room in a decadent perfume reminiscent of death. It was sweet like decay, and over time it had started to seep into the walls.
There was not much by way of furniture. There was a makeshift altar – little more than a shaky table with an embroidered silk cloth thrown over the top. It could easily be dismantled and disposed of within minutes. On top of the cloth, a few burning purple candle stubs were arranged in a distinct pattern around a dish of smoldering resin. White jasmine flowers had been scattered across the floor, a few even resting on the edges of the altar.
Set beside the resin was a miniature salver, made of pure silver with the de Voclain crest forever stamped into the intricate design. It was older than the house – old as the family name. It was worth more than anything they had lost to the destruction of radicals or raids, and they kept it here – buried in a humid vault. Six teeth, solid molars almost entirely free of rot, convened in the center and huddled closely together.
As much of a mausoleum as the space underneath the house had become, it was a haven from the slaughter and terror that reigned with brutal despotism right above their heads.
“Jean,” Suzanne had a voice made for scandalous whispers behind painted fans. Her brother felt it was wasted on such dismal surroundings. “There must be something missing.”
Jean-François tilted his head, loose copper curls tumbling out of place. “A blood sacrifice, perhaps?”
She gave him a scathing look, letting him know that his jests – as usual –were not amusing.
Jean-François spread his hands helplessly. “I know little more of summoning demons than you.”
It was a superfluous statement, considering they were both very knowledgeable of the subject.
There was a jarring pop, like a joint being wrenched out of place. The short conversation ceased as brother and sister both threw their gazes back at the altar.
Teeth were rattling in their salver as the altar trembled. The popping noise was followed by heinous crackling; something like cartilage being torn or broken. Suzanne lifted a handkerchief to cover her mouth and nose - the harsh incense had been working its way into every breath, irritating her throat which had swollen to point where she felt like she was attempting to swallow a hot needle.
Her black skirt rustled as it brushed against the sinking, mildewing floor. Spaces between the floorboards gaped wide open like stretched, tortured mouths – groaning in agony and splintering with the tension. Dark mud and brackish water squeezed between the cracks, welling up and oozing like pus from a sore.
In the room above their heads, Marquis Ghyslain de Voclain was just starting to retire. The empty glass on his bedside table still had a thin spread of cognac gathering at the bottom, barely enough to have a color.
The marquis reached up and tugged on his cravat, loosening it up just enough to get the knot undone. It was a relief to feel the rough fabric slip away. His throat was also feeling a bit tight – it was like he had a hair caught in the back of it, and he couldn’t cough enough to get it out. He had given himself a headache trying.
Ghyslain coughed one last time, hacking into his sleeve as he pulled his shirt from the band of his pants. He walked over to a mirror that was hanging over a vanity – a relic from his late wife set in heavy brass. He opened his mouth as wide as he could and leaned forward, flattening his tongue to try and get a clear look down his throat. The dim candlelight was making it difficult. He kept turning his head – and finally the light caught something. He hooked his fingers around the corners of his mouth, pulling them down and leaning even closer, until his breath was fogging the glass. There was something white – and large – resting at the very back of his throat.
And then it moved. Ghyslain’s eyes widened and he gagged, clutching at his neck, watching as the fingers unfurled and long, almond-shaped nails started scratching at the surface of this tongue.
He reeled back, nearly falling flat on his backside as he tried to pull away from the mirror. His whole body jerked painfully, and he shivered in his skin. It suddenly felt very loose, as if someone was scrambling his insides and his skin was just the wrinkled bag holding it all together.
Ghyslain felt the hand sliding up the back of his throat. His nose burned as blood and bile was pushed up into his nasal cavities, running down his face and chin in ugly dark red and sickly yellow streams. He couldn’t breathe anymore, his mouth was being force wider and wider apart – until the hinges of his jaw felt like they were on fire, and he could feel the corners of his mouth breaking apart – splitting and ripping open his cheeks. Once they got going, they tore open like paper.
His jaw cracked, then snapped – and suddenly he couldn’t feel much of anything anymore. An entire arm emerged from the ruins of his mouth – squeezing out a shoulder, and then stretching. A grimy hand flailed, searching for something to grab onto and finish the process.
Even though Ghyslain was quickly losing sensation in all of his limbs, he could still feel his insides swirling – getting pushed down towards his stomach like someone was using them as stepping stones.
And inside of his head, just before the top of it tipped so far back that he could see his own spine, he could hear nothing but a merry humming.
Manifesting had never been easy, but the demon felt like he was getting more creative. The hardest part was learning how to walk again. Human beings had such soft, fleshy feet…it was rather like walking on a sponge cake.
The old man’s boots had been too small, but the rest of his clothes hung off the demon’s frame in bloodstained tatters making him look as ragged as a scarecrow. He shuffled down the cold basement stairs, bare feet landing and turning awkwardly – the weak ankles straining, coming dangerously close to breaking. Human bones were so fragile, he had to remember not to put so much pressure on them.
He was an old hat to this trick, but the ankles almost ruined him every time.
“Can you not walk?” a woman’s voice tore a gash in the silence.
He looked up, his hand resting on the wall as he leaned heavily for support. “Is that a problem?” he shot a challenging look her way. She met his gaze, eyes the color of aventurine boring straight into his skull. He had never been on the receiving end of such a potent glare…it was markedly refreshing.
“You are wearing father’s cravat.” A far more grating, decidedly masculine voice felt the need to point out. The demon rolled his eyes in the other direction, glancing briefly at the mop of copper curls and obtrusive freckles that had been smacked onto a rather unremarkable face and stuffed into an aristocratic costume.
“I don’t think he has need of it any longer.” The demon responded smoothly. “And it is absolutely filthy.” He loosened it up around his throat, the thoroughly soaked cloth resisting his fingers.
He let go of the wall, confident now in his ability to stand on his own two feet. Standing straight, he was an impressive height.
The demon held out his grubby, blood-encrusted hand. He looked straight at the woman once more, bending his fingers slightly in a bidding gesture.
She moved as if breaking from a trance. She turned quickly to the little altar they had set up behind them and swept up a miniature salver. He heard the teeth rattle on the dish and was instantly captivated; his reaction similar to that of a dog when its bowl is filled.
The small room smelled overwhelmingly of myrrh, and it had been a long time since anyone had burned the resin for him. He was aware that she had gone through great pains to obtain it. The teeth had probably been easier to come by. Summoning an Elder Demon was no simple task, and she had performed the rite without a hitch. The teeth, the incense – it was the work of an authentic cultist.
She held out the dish in front of her. It hovered an inch out of his reach. “I am Suzanne de Voclain.”
He ground his own teeth, able to hear the calcium creaking as he stared at the offering, barely refraining from reaching out and ripping it from her hands. “Charlie Banks.”
She did not seem overly impressed. “A rather underwhelming name for a demon.”
“It serves as well as any other. And it’s easy to remember.”
Suzanne noticed his enthrallment with the offering. She smiled; an expression that did not suit her face well, suggesting she did not do it very often. She proffered the salver, getting it close enough to him so that the edge bumped his fingertips. He snatched it instantly from her hands, pulling it close. His eyes were riveted to the white molars that rolled around and clacked against one another, teasing him.
The soft fingers of his recently attained flesh were having a hard time picking up the teeth. It was a task he was going to have to work on.
“Do you believe in the Almighty, cultist?” he asked while pinching determinedly at the pieces.
Narrow lips wound their way into a shrewd moue. “I believe in reason.”
Charlie scoffed. “Is apathy the latest fashion? I thought times of terror always rebirthed religion.”
“Not when the leader is a philosopher, surrounded by rabble-rousers desperate to prove their autonomy.” Suzanne responded.
Jean-François licked his dry lips, hesitation weighing down his stomach like a stone. “So is he dead?”
Charlie flicked another annoyed glance his way. “Who?”
“Father.” Jean-François plucked at his cuffs, making eye contact with the demon and regretting it almost instantly. Charlie’s cobalt eyes drilled into his skull as if the demon was wondering just how much effort it would take to crack it open.
Charlie sucked on his teeth, his eyes rolling up a little in an exaggerated motion.
“That would depend,” his tongue tsked, “entirely on your definition of deceased.”
“Was his heart still beating?” Jean-François asked a little more brazenly.
Charlie grinned. “It was when I left it on the floor.”
Jean-François felt like he was going to be sick. He could feel the physical need to reel back tugging on his gut. He gave Suzanne a sour look, but she was already shaking her head at him. She did not need to speak for him to know what she meant to say.
They were in too deep. There was no turning back. Ghyslain was already dead. They would be, too, if they angered this creature any further.
Hesitation. It was his greatest weakness. Hers was that she never thought things through; she was impetuous. Jean-François had always enjoyed that aspect of his sister up until now.
The demon was growing impatient with the teeth in the salver. He tipped the dish over and slipped the teeth into his palm, letting them drop one by one into the soft bed of pale, pink flesh. “If I eat these, your bones are mine.”
“And the bones of so many more.” Suzanne’s eyes gleamed. “I knew I was summoning a gluttonous demon.”
“Oh,” Charlie said softly. “I doubt you knew what you were summoning, dear. I doubt very much.” He scrunched up his hand and set one of the teeth on the tip of his tongue, treating it like an after dinner mint.
“I think I will prove far more capable than you suspect, my lord.”
Charlie snorted, sending the tooth into the back of his mouth. It cracked easily and his head was filled that satisfying, gritty sound as he ground it between his back molars. “Do not address me as my lord, it is just Charlie. Charles if you absolutely must.” He popped another tooth into his mouth. “Formalities fuck up the business.”
Suzanne’s lips quirked in amusement. “Are we business partners, then?”
“It is always only business.” Charlie shoved the rest of the teeth into his mouth. Jean-François felt cold, and as the demon advanced he stepped back several spaces.
“You have to sign the contract.” Charlie said. “In blood or ink, I don’t think it matters these days. When I was young, it was blood. But it has been many eons since then.”
“I have an appreciation for the classics.” Suzanne said. “And blood is binding.”
“Have it your way.” Charlie reached into his vest and pulled out a slip of paper, though Jean-François didn’t know where it had come from… considering. Charlie unfolded the paper and set it down on top of the altar, his tongue searching the crevices of his mouth for any further remnants of the offering he had just devoured. “Both of you will sign.”
“Both?” Jean-François echoed.
“Both.” Charlie emphasized, drawing out the word as if Jean-François was incapable of comprehending. “Your skeleton is on the table here too, I hope that is clear.”
“Well,” Jean-François said tersely. “It is now.”
The Director of Hell’s third ring was something of a minimalist.
He liked everything tall, straight, and thin. He wanted his cigarettes slim and unfiltered. He ordered his suits tailored so closely to his body that they were almost a second skin, coming in so tightly at his waspy waistline that it looked like one good pull on either end could separate him down the middle. Were it not for his thick blonde hair, pulled back away from his face and slipped into a fashionable knot, he could have easily been mistaken for a dead man. He was practically a skeleton shrink-wrapped with olive, freckled skin. His oxblood colored eyes were set deep beneath pencil-thin, carefully tweezed eyebrows. The tails had trailed off almost into nothing, making him appear very skeptical most of the time.
He didn’t seem to believe in chairs, either. There were only two compact pieces of furniture to distract from the maddening combination of blank white walls and stark white carpeting that made up the expansive living room. Nearly dead in the center of the room was a glass top coffee table, disturbingly flawless in as that it was entirely free of fingerprint smudges. Aside from that, there was only a short black leather loveseat covered in a thick layer of clear plastic.
The director was already seated, rigid legs crossed with one arm thrown possessively over his wife’s powder-white shoulders. She was slouched in her seat, long legs thrown over the loveseat’s thick arm. Her silky skirt was riding up far enough to flash the white lace garter that had become her trademark. The fabric was stretched to its limit around her firm thigh, and Satan developed an instant irrational fear that it would snap and take out one of his eyes. She had her vaudeville-red lips wrapped around the white, unfiltered end of one of her husband’s favored cigarettes. Her ash blue eyes, the color of a washed out starlet, were regarding Satan intently from behind a wispy stream of curling smoke. She had her other free hand buried elbow-deep in a pink box of powdered cookies, the stiff cardboard shoved between her legs in a very unprofessional position.
They were Famine and Gluttony – Hell’s most controversial pairing. The tabloids were always hungry for them.
Satan shifted his weight. He was already starting to wish that he had worn more comfortable shoes for this encounter. He had nowhere to sit and all of the empty space was starting to make him feel uneasy.
“I think it sounds like an awful lot of trouble,” Famine was saying, “for two fairly young demons.”
“Well,” Satan responded immediately, “I don’t do anything halfway. Besides, according to your reports, you and your wife have exhausted a good portion of your own resources seeking out a demon who broke free from your circle’s prison not too long ago.”
Famine set his jaw and exchanged a look with his wife. Gluttony shrugged her shoulders, pulling her hand free from the box and licking the sweet powder away from her fingers.
“That is different.” She said. “Rahman-Reza is dangerous.”
“Any who defies Hell is dangerous.” Satan reminded her, his voice laced with warning.
“But he has violated almost every contract he seals.” She sat up and set the box down on the table, brushing her hands together to dust off the remnants of powder. “He has murdered other demons – they refer to him as the Executioner because he has made so many disappear. And now he is on the lam.”
“He tried to break the seal that bound him to his prison by clawing it off his throat.” Famine added. “In the end, he just bore the excruciating pain all the way past limbo. When he broke the crust, the seal lost its power, and we lost our only method of tracking him down.”
Satan felt a familiar headache reach its boiling point at the base of his skull. The pain was starting to radiate out, driving into his brain like a nail.
“I will grant you access to ample amounts of materials in order to continue your pursuit of Rahman-Reza, if you add Jahangir and Mojgan to your list.” Satan said.
“That is all well and generous of you.” Gluttony said. “But there doesn’t seem to be any real gain on my end. Stray demons are my husband’s problem…I have more domestic concerns.”
Of course. Satan was trying to swallow his rising temper like a bitter pill. It just wouldn’t stay down.
“I am also willing to offer an expansion on your ring. I’ve made arrangements to slice a little off the fourth circle, a deal which will increase your holdings by a third.”
“A third?” Gluttony grinned. “How is Greed handling that news?”
“Let’s just say she is fortunate to still be clinging to her rung on the corporate ladder. I was not at all pleased with her performance last quarter.”
“So we heard.” Gluttony looked up at Famine, her smile spreading like a smear of bright red jam. “I wonder what is next. A promotion, maybe?”
“Drive these demons back to Hell, and I will be open to discussing anything you like.” Satan was having a hard time focusing on the business at hand. The only thing he could think about was how hungry he was even though he had eaten right before his arrival. Famine had that affect. Gluttony only made it worse.
The Horseman could tell that his boss was struggling. He split his lips with another skinny cigarette and flipped open a lean silver lighter with the other hand. He caught the end of the cigarette with the narrow, flickering flame and held it there until weak wisps of smoke started spilling from the glowing paper edges.
“You’re the boss.” Famine said, smoke pouring from his lips like long, writhing tentacles. “Whatever you say goes.”
Satan huffed. If only all of his employees had that mentality.
The demon couldn’t keep his entrails from spilling out, but that didn’t stop him from running.
His intestinal wall was bulging, hot spongy bowels pressing into his trembling hand. Blood gushed from the vicious wound, soaking through his expensive waistcoat and turning the berry red a gruesome shade of dark purple. The pain was crippling; every movement made excruciating. It was all he could do to drag himself down the constricted alleyway with every step feeling like it was going to be the one that would rip him open and turn his belly into a second, yawning mouth.
He had barely seen the blade that split open his skin like ripe fruit. It had sinuated out the darkness while arms, tight as iron bands, pinned him down by the shoulders and held him in place. He had never felt something so acutely painful as the blade that left a burning trail of fire in his gut. He couldn’t even remember how he had escaped. His racing, frantic mind was only able to recall thrashing until he had wrenched himself free and then he was staggering out the kitchen entrance, his insides already threatening to become his outsides.
There had been something about tea. Preparations for the next morning, perhaps? The Marquis was so very particular...
“It ends here.” A hard feminine voice took control of the situation, wresting his attention back to the moment. “You have nowhere further to go.”
The demon lifted his head, blue eyes piercing through sweaty locks of pitch black hair. His assailant was correct on that account. A solid brick wall was interrupting his path. To go any further, he would either have to scale it or turn around and run back into the street. Neither of those options were feasible.
“Do you know who I am?” his voice shook even as he tried to speak with confidence. “I am Calixte Labelle! Butler to…”
“…To the Marquis de Michaud.” She finished for him. Calixte could tell by her voice that she was fast approaching, even if he still could not see her. He was far too focused on the bloody mess he was about to have on his hands. “Yes, he was very clear on the role you selected to play. I would elaborate but we are on a tight schedule.”
“He said you would be very difficult to bring down.” A male voice joined hers. “Imagine our disappointment.”
Calixte felt like he was going to throw up. Bile burned in his throat and his knees quaked. He almost dropped, but he admirably stood his ground – even if he did have to hold himself up by bracing himself against the dirty wall.
“Who are you?” he whispered, finding that each breath was costing him precious amounts of energy. His body was reaching its threshold for pain, and his head was starting to spin as more and more heated blood spilled onto the alley stones.
A flash of green in the corner of his eye and Calixte felt himself being buffeted from the side. He finally fell, impacting the ground so forcefully that his teeth rattled in his head. He felt a blade tap the soft underside of his chin, the very tip pricking the skin and compelling him to tilt his head back.
It was starting to rain, although things were still in the light sprinkling stage. Calixte ground his hand against his wound, gritting his teeth against the pain. He found himself staring into a pair of flinty blue eyes. They gazed at him passionlessly, down-turned and rimmed with thick black eyelashes in such a way that made them appear lethargic.
“You can’t kill me,” he said even though she hadn’t answered his question, his eyes boring straight into hers. “You can kill the flesh form I inhabit, but you can’t kill me. And you know why.”
“On the contrary,” she leaned in just a little bit closer. “I can.”
Her last words were so soft they were little more than a hiss of scalding breath against his cold, wet skin. She tapped the blade underneath his chin, drawing it back a little so he could feel the sharp edge. It created a thin red line, but it did not cut deep enough to bleed.
“Obsidian,” she said. “That is all it takes.”
He paled and went still, paralyzed by his own fear. Calixte swallowed hard and felt his Adam’s apple rise, getting too close to the blade for his taste before dropping back down.
“Do you want to hear me beg?” he asked, his voice tight with anxiety. She shrugged, twisting the blade and driving it a little closer to his throat. He felt the sharp tip prick his skin once more.
“Please!” Rain hit his cheeks, creating long red streaks like trails of tears. “Please, don’t do this…”
“You made a contract with the Marquis for his soul.” She tilted her head. He saw a flush of blonde hair as it slipped over her cool winter cheek. “You are a no good grubby little vulture. You are a filthy scavenger who wears the colors of a fierce predator – yet it is obvious what you are. You lack finesse. And dignity.” She drove the obsidian blade deep into his throat, jerking it free before jamming it underneath his chin – driving it deep into his skull. The demon made a horrible gurgling sound, jerking violently on the end of her knife as dark blood poured from his lips thicker than syrup. She jiggled the blade, twisting it around a little bit as she watched the light fade from the demon’s eyes. She watched as Calixte’s pupils dilated then contracted, becoming nothing more than little pinpricks of black ink in a sea of sky blue. She saw the blue break up, giving way to patches of bright orange that consumed the irises like flames. She watched the orange quickly turn to dark, muddy brown before the irises broke apart, the pupils sinking down to fill the empty spaces.
She gave the knife one more satisfying thrust before pulling it free for the final time.
Claire Clifton sighed and readjusted herself on the wet ground, sliding her legs out from the uncomfortable crouch they had been bent into and setting the gory weapon down beside her.
“Do you need help?” her brother Edward asked as he approached her, one gloved hand already extended. She waved him away.
“A moment,” she told him. “My leg is asleep.”
“Ah,” he looked down at the demon’s corpse and nudged it with the toe of his boot, his mouth set into a thin, severe line of distaste. “I despise it when they beg.”
“It was a final act of desperation with no real witnesses.” Claire responded. “It didn’t matter.”
“The fall, when that is all there is, matters.” Edward tossed her another look. “Are you going to mark it down, or shall I?”
“You mark it. Do some work for a change.” She was massaging her calf, trying to get some feeling to return. “I had to spend an hour logging the Marquis’ repentance earlier. Have you ever been trapped in a room with a man who is sweating so profusely that he might very well drown himself… listening to him blubber about needing the grace of Heaven while having to politely nod and act sympathetic?”
They both had. It was half their job description. The other half consisted of far more enjoyable, if bloodier work.
“I must ask you not to be rhetorical with me. It gets tiresome.” Edward picked her knife up off the ground and began the process of cleaning it, pulling a stained linen rag from a leather case on his belt. “After we complete the report, where do we meet the Winged Man?”
Claire shrugged, finally pulling her legs back underneath her so that she could rise to her feet. Her right leg was still tingling with pins and needles, but not so badly that she couldn’t find her balance. “I haven’t heard from him these past few days. So unless you have information I do not, I suggest we return to the hôtel and wait for our next assignment.”
“It is as good a plan as any.” Edward returned his sister’s knife to her while giving the corpse one last look. “Do you think they will have duck again?”
“They might,” she said, “if you hurry with that report.”
Edward reached back into the leather case, stashing the crumpled up rag and lifting out a small notebook no bigger than his hand bound in moleskin. A fountain pen was already wedged between the middle pages, snuggled up close to the spine. He flipped the notebook open and found the page where the Marquis’ case had been jotted down, the space for ‘confirmed extermination’ still empty.
“Go ahead,” Edward urged her. “I can walk and write at the same time.”
Claire adjusted her skirts, taking her leave of the alley without a single look behind her. Edward followed closely, his nose pressed closely to the journal’s softened parchment pages. Neither of them were overly worried about the body. They knew it would be gone long before it had a chance to be discovered.
Say what one would about demons, but they were quite efficient in disposing of their own.