James Michael Donobran stepped into the small alley off Wentworth Place, and adjusted his coat. It was drizzling a little, but not too badly. He reached into a pocket, pulling out a small gem, and put it in the mouth of what appeared to be a statue of a dragon next to the wall he’d apparently stepped out of.
“Thanks for the trip, Ménlóng,” he said, and as he stepped away, the gate dragon’s eyes lit up, and it swallowed the gem, making a pleased noise.
The person who’d called him here was going to be waiting nearby. She knew the best way for him to get from New York City to San Francisco was a Dragon Gate, so Chinatown was the place to meet. When he entered the small restaurant, she waved, but he’d already seen her. The host was apparently aware, and faded out of nowhere to help him sit and provide a cup of tea.
“Thank you for coming, James,” she said. Some would have called her Greek – the aquiline nose, long straight black hair, dark eyes, and accent seemed to peg her for that. But no, she was different.
“Hullo, Des,” he replied, taking a sip of the tea. His finely-honed non-material senses saw her as she was – the reddish tint to her skin, the horns, and points of her ears showing her demonic origination. Her fingernails, uncloaked by the illusion most others saw, were tipped with slender claws, and the infernal aura swirled around her, excepting the circlet formed glyphs of pale pink light that circled her head. “What’s got things in a ruckus?”
She sighed gently, taking a sip of her own tea, then finally getting it out. “Trouble with Management.”
“Well, I have no contacts in the City of San Francisco Library system, so I expect you mean your previous employers.”
“Why are you doing this?” the infernal lord’s voice roared, hellfire pouring out of the hole in the ground he appeared to be coming out of, the fire licking but bound at the edges of the circle that contained him.
“Because,” the mage known as Outback said, seemingly undisturbed by the Hellish display, “I’m here to help facilitate a negotiation. Not to bind or command or demand, simply to set up a chat.”
The fires went out, the hole disappeared, and what appeared to be a tweedy college professor replaced the twenty-foot-tall, massively-horned, red-hided lord of the damned. “Oh. Well. That’s a bit different. I give my word on my Name – which you know, having summoned me – that I will not take hostile action against you or any creature currently resident on this world until you return me, if you promise to return me before local sunrise.”
“I’ll return you at the conclusion of negotiations with my client, or at the end of twenty-four hours, whichever comes first, and I have the soul of a serial killer as an honorarium for your time,” he reposted.
“I really don’t traffic in those,” the demon lord Zyphus said mildly.
“You can use it as currency. I’m sure someone would like old Ted here.” He pulled out a grey hexagonal gem, within which a terrified face could be seen.
“Done!” Zyphus replied. “He kept eluding us, and I know just who I can bargain with. Now, your client?”
Outback smiled. This was the hard part done.
Desdemona Althea was about to explain, when the waiter arrived. She ordered hurriedly for them both, then when he left, smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“No, no, ‘swhat I like.”
“I didn’t probe your mind, you know. I just remembered.”
“You’ve got a good one. So what’s going on with Management?”
She took another deep breath, then blurted it out: “Jim is sick – some kind of cancer. He’s lost work, and we’re having money problems. I’m still forsworn and not using my powers. And now I got an offer to come back to the Office and they’ll cure him. It’s… it’s…”
“A ruse,” James replied. “It’s too pat, too easy. All the signs of a quick put-on by someone trying to get in good with lower Management.” He shook his head, then crunched some crispy noodles. “Probably your old supervisor. I kept my ear in, and checked with some contacts, and she’s not in the best odor there. Trying to get out from under her troubles by bringing you back in.”
“What kind of troubles? Did she get demoted?”
“No,” he replied. “She got an Auditor.”
Desdemona’s eyes filled with horror.
“Marcerius! How are you today, mate?”
The dolorous voice on the other end of the line spoke slowly. “What can I do to assist you today, Outback.”
Outback put on his best verbal smile. “You’re plugged into all the information out there. I need to know what’s up with Cassandra Lorthea za Belphebus ka Belial.”
“She’s in some trouble. Apparently one of her key minions went rogue, and now she’s got someone watching what she does to insure nothing like that happens again. A full Auditor.”
“That doesn’t happen too often,” Outback replied. “Either there was a big plan this got in the nose of, or she was going making a play and now someone’s looking to make sure she won’t do it again soon.”
“Actually,” the voice droned, “she’s got relatives in Upper Management, and that means when she makes an error like this, someone is going to look to undermine her relatives. The power plays are fascinating.”
“But if she reacquires the minion, all is forgiven?”
“She would need to do that, yes. If she could get the head of the firm she went to, that would rehabilitate her reputation completely.”
“So now that all makes sense to me,” he said, finishing what he’d learned.
“She gave him cancer to get to me? I’ll rip her throat out and feed her to the hellhounds!” Her voice began to rise and distort, and James gestured for her to calm down.
“Hss, hss, not here. Good grief, no. C’mon, we finish dinner and then we’ll see who we can call for a hand. We’ll see Jim, make sure he’s all right, then take our next step.”
The apartment was quiet as they entered. They stopped before entering the bedroom, and James prepared a spell. At his nod, she opened the bedroom door.
Her husband, Jim, who she’d tried to seduce and damn, and then left the Descending Hierarchy for when she fell in love, lay on the bed. Kneeling on the bed next to him was someone else, another woman similar to Desdemona, but without the illusion and with a pair of batlike wings appearing. Her hands were on his chest, and she seemed to be unaware.
With two Words of Power, James released first a spell he kept hung up for emergencies, and then the one he’d prepared on the way in. The first threw the visitor off the bed, pinning her to the wall briefly, and the second sent a wave of pale blue light through Jim’s body. He felt Desdemona throw off her illusion, and her own wings unfurl, but keeping the two spells going took most of his concentration. Still, she remembered what he’d said – to not take action that might break the contract – and held still. If looks could maim, though, the other succubus would be without arms, legs, wings, or tail.
The second spell finished, pulling a set of black bubbles out of the prone man, holding them to hover above him. The bubbles, despite being faceless, seemed to regard the new entries, then made a whooshing noise. “Hi, Outback. You got us. We’re caught.” The other succubus snarled in one of the more creative infernal tongues, and began to peel herself off the wall.
“Nah, nah, stop there, missy.” He raised his hand to point at her, fingers in a mystic sign, and white light started to race around it. “I will lock you right here and now, and you know I can do it.” She bristled, then slumped.
At this point, another man, looking like a college English professor, walked in behind the mage and the succubus. “Well,well,” he said in a reedy voice. “Cassandra, I did tell you this might not go well.” The other succubus seemed to collapse into herself, her face crashing down. “And now you’ve been caught. Well. And Caastropellis, what’s your take in this?”
The bubble-demon wobbled. “Got paid. Not enough to fight now.”
The Demon Lord Belial nodded, smiling. “Good, good. Now, Mr. G-. Mr. G-. Ugh, you had to change your Name. Mr. Donobran, what will you have of Cassandra?”
Outback smiled. “I believe that if she swears on her own Name to never take action, directly or indirectly, against Desdemona or her paramour for all eternity, that’ll be sufficient. I mean, Caastropellis is exorcised and he was a mercenary anyway, so I don’t claim him much.”
Desdemona, Outback and Belial all turned to look at Cassandra, who was about to go into a rage. “And yourself?” Belial asked.
“Good point. Same.” He smiled. “And no other reparations needed.” Offering that would let her keep some face, at least.
“I swear,” she said as if it was being dragged out of her by hellhounds, “by my Name, that I will take no actions against any currently in this room that will cause them any form of harm, directly or indirectly, until the Judgement time comes.”
“And for myself, I swear that I will not knowingly take actions that will cause you harm directly or indirectly from this time forth, unless your oath is forfeit.” His voice, as he spoke his part of the oath, seemed to shimmer in the air.
“Good, good,” Belial said, “now we’ll all head home,” and his gaze fell on Cassandra, eyes turning a deep and firey red, “and no one will be unpleasant here. Come, Cassandra.”
In three bursts of flame, Belial, Cassandra, and Caastropellis vanished, returning to their own plane.
Desdemona smiled, shyly. “Thank you.”
“Not a problem, m’dear. I already had his contact, and I figured he’d want to shore up his position. Now everyone’s somewhat happy but her, and you’re safe.” Outback grinned. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Laramie’s probably waiting for me to get back and I don’t want to keep her waiting.”
He gave a small salute, then opened the apartment window, stepped out, and walked down nothingness. Time to head back to the Dragon Gate, and then home.
“I don’t quite get it,” Laramie said, as he massaged her shoulders.
“Well, basically, she was embarrassing her… closest equivalent would be ‘uncle’ I s’pose – so since I knew how to contact him, and he knew I kept my promises, and that particular summoning circle gave him considerable freedom, so he had the idea he’d be fairly safe, I did so. For him, getting this cleared up without more embarrassment was worth it. She’d basically violated her particular caste’s rules for how things get done, I gave a clean out, and I’m sure she’ll be fine in a few thousand years.”
“And I thought being the mystic defender here was weird. You’re going to have to explain more about how Hell works to me sometime,” she said, sleepily.
“It’s not that different from the Mafia,” he replied, pulling up the blanket. “Except, y’know, with demons.”