EXIII SE IIIt would have taken Satan hardly an instant to transport himself from Nicholas to Ballas. He knew all too well that a great many things could change in an instant.EXIII SE II by Icysapphire
Another mortal had disappeared. This one with a stronger soul than the last. In no time at all worlds had vanished, ripped apart into pure energy. Worlds did not concern him. There were too many of them, in his opinion—and most of them had very little, if anything at all, to offer. The souls, however, concerned him greatly.
These souls were disappearing from Nothing. More importantly they were disappearing from Hell. It wasn’t a great leap in logic for Satan to figure that it wouldn’t be long before souls began to disappear from Heaven, as well. Of all the things he didn’t want to happen, angels inviting themselves into the underworld to make his business their business was at the very top of the list.
He couldn’t stand those white-winged drones.
Satan decided, instead, to get to the bottom of t
EXIII Round III.III - DivulgationWhen Danielle was left at the door of the factory that James assured her was the place he and Yodrick had broken free from, she began to lose faith in his plan very quickly. It was a blocky, intimidating sort of building that gave her the sense it was better to steer clear. She gulped. Hayden could be in there. She couldn’t let her nervousness get the best of her. Not when he could be in danger.EXIII Round III.III - Divulgation by Icysapphire
Danielle took a deep breath. She had meant it when she told James she wasn’t a leader. She wasn’t the sort of person to go charging into the unknown. She wasn’t brave. But he had assured her that this would work—that she just needed to cause a momentary distraction.
Ballas could be expecting James and his characters, but he didn’t know anything about her.
Danielle frowned. James had sounded so confident she hadn’t thought to press him for too many details. Now that she was alone, she couldn’t stop worrying that it was all too rushed. What was Jame
EXIII Round III.II - DivulgationWhen her tears finally dried, Danielle was left with a mental fogginess that slowed her pace against the dull concrete sidewalks of Nothing to a shuffle. More than that, her stomach churned with embarrassment. How many souls had been around to witness her sobbing? She stared at the patterns in the ground for a long while as she put one foot in front of the other, not daring to look up and see how much attention she’d gained for herself.EXIII Round III.II - Divulgation by Icysapphire
In the end, however, she knew she had to stop. Taking a deep breath, Danielle adjusted her glasses and looked around her. She had no idea where she was; she hadn’t before and she most certainly didn’t know now, after walking aimlessly forward from where Hayden had left her. Being in Nothing reminded her, in a way, of being in downtown Los Angeles. The buildings seemed to loom, as if they were watching her from high above. And no landmark struck her as particularly unique, so she couldn’t get a proper bearing of where she wa
When Danielle was left at the door of the factory that James assured her was the place he and Yodrick had broken free from, she began to lose faith in his plan very quickly. It was a blocky, intimidating sort of building that gave her the sense it was better to steer clear. She gulped. Hayden could be in there. She couldn’t let her nervousness get the best of her. Not when he could be in danger.
Danielle took a deep breath. She had meant it when she told James she wasn’t a leader. She wasn’t the sort of person to go charging into the unknown. She wasn’t brave. But he had assured her that this would work—that she just needed to cause a momentary distraction.
Ballas could be expecting James and his characters, but he didn’t know anything about her.
Danielle frowned. James had sounded so confident she hadn’t thought to press him for too many details. Now that she was alone, she couldn’t stop worrying that it was all too rushed. What was James planing to do against Ballas in the first place? What could</i> he do against Ballas? Her knees began to shake as she wondered what the likelihood was that she was walking into a very one-sided fight.
She didn’t even know how she could convince Hayden to trust her. That didn’t change the fact that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she didn’t try.
Danielle stepped closer to the door in front of her and grasped the handle with one hand. Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, she began to push the door inward—only to stop when she heard voices on the other side.
“...good, good. You have been very helpful,” said a voice. It was thick and harsh and wholly unfamiliar. By the accent, Danielle could only assume it was Ballas.
“I’ve told you everything you need to know,” said another, younger voice. “So leave her out of this.”
Danielle frowned. It was strange; she’d never heard that voice before, she was sure of it. And yet somewhere in the back of her mind it felt familiar. She couldn’t shake the sense that she knew who it belonged to, at least in some small way. But then, from the other side of the door, it didn’t particularly matter. It wasn’t Hayden’s voice, and he was who she had come here for.
“I do not believe I made to you any such promise,” said Ballas. “I told you only that I would be using her as a bargaining chip. I have, and I will continue to do so.”
“You honestly think I’ve lied you to about any of this?”
“All men lie. You have my word that I will not harm her further unless I am given reason. I will simply hold her here for safekeeping so I can be sure you do not give into any heroic impulses. Not that they would do any good.”
“I won’t let either of you have her,” said the voice.
There were at least two others in there. Whoever it was that was being protected, and someone working for Ballas.
A third, feminine voice laughed. It was a shrill sound that sent a shiver down Danielle’s spine. It was another voice she felt as if she somehow knew without ever having really heard it.
“What are you gonna do to stop me, tough guy?” the voice asked.
A knot formed in Danielle’s throat. She could sense the tension from the other side of the door, but all she could hear was the soft padding of footsteps. Wanting to know what was happening, she leaned forward against the door—
—and fell straight through when she accidentally twisted the knob.
Danielle let out a surprised holler as she stumbled inside, her glasses falling askew. She saw a building of a man with a chain around his neck and a gun in his hand and a flash of a dark-skinned woman. That was all she had the chance to process before the woman ran forward and pinned her hands behind her back, restraining her with ease.
“You picked the wrong people to spy on, girlie,” the woman said. She was definitely the owner of the voice from before. “What should I do with her, Ballas? Snap her neck, perhaps?”
“She will only come back to life.” Ballas frowned and made a nod toward the cages. “Shut her in. She will be questioned later.”
Danielle whipped her head around wildly as the woman jerked her backwards, dragging her toward the cages. Aside from Ballas she saw another man—this one young, with dark hair and stress written in his features—who had to be the other one she had heard talking. Her eyes only stayed on him for as long as it took for them to travel down to the body he was holding.
Rella was clutched to his chest, a dazed, pained look on her face and bleeding from her arms and legs.
“Rella!” Her name was out of Danielle’s mouth before she could stop herself. “Rella, can you hear me? What happened? Say something!”
All eyes snapped to her. To Danielle’s Relief, Rella blinked at the sound of her name. Life returned to her face.
Before Danielle could get out another word, one of the woman’s hands pushed her down by the top of her head and shoved her down into a low cage. Danielle grabbed at the outside of the bars and tried to scramble out of it before the door closed, but a swift kick to her collar sent her further inside with a cry of pain. She grabbed at her shoulder, curling into herself in an effort to position herself more comfortably.
“Rosemary,” Rella hissed, struggling to sit in a more dignified position. “I killed you. How are you here?”
Danielle froze. That’s how she had recognized the voices: they belonged to Rosemary and Nicholas. They were her characters. Or something close to being her characters, anyway. She’d never actually written them before, or even developed them beyond their relationships with Rella. They’d always been support; she’d had vague ideas about their appearances and their personalities. Seeing them stand before her, completely real, was as thrilling as it was terrifying.
When had Rosemary become more than a figment of Rella’s imagination? Danielle had thought about fleshing her out into a real person, before, but it had been a passing fancy. Her stomach churned. Had she done this?
“It takes more than a knife to the back to kill a demon, Rella,” Rosemary said. “All you did was send me back down here. But I wasn’t worried. I always knew I’d see you again, though I didn’t expect it to be so soon. Did you miss me that much?”
“My being here,” Rella hissed between shallow breaths, “has nothing to do with you.”
Rosemary laughed the same cruel laugh as before. “Keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel better. Just keep in mind what position you’re in before you decide to throw another tantrum.”
“Enough.” Ballas stepped forward, slipping his free hand into his pocket. “I do not have time for nonsense. Take the woman.”
“That is enough,” James’ voice agreed from the doorway. “Let’s see how tough you are without 50 men at your back!”
The rest happened very quickly—too quickly for Danielle to keep up with from her cramped position, with her whole body aching and her focus scattered. She watched James leap through the door she had come in with Andras and Yodrick and The Magician (who stopped to very respectfully close it behind him) in tow. He sprinted straight for Ballas. Rosemary let out a wail of indignation as her body shifted around Andras’ fist. She became long and snake-like and coiled around him, causing him to lose his balance and crash forward.
Rella let out a cry as Nicholas pulled her back, away from the fighters. A gunshot fired, hitting nothing. Demons appeared behind Ballas, crawling over the walls like spiders and jumping down to run James and Yodrick to the ground. The Magician sprung through the air with his cape swirling around him, toppling cages and evading each demon that came after him.
“Take care of them!” Ballas shot a glare in Rosemary’s direction. “I have had enough of these mortals.”
“You don’t have to tell my twice,” Rosemary hissed as she slammed a cage door shut behind Andras. James and Yodrick were trapped in a similar fashion. Only The Magician was left, laughing and prancing as if he was oblivious to the fate of his comrades. “I’ll get rid of him myself.”
Danielle turned in her seat to make sure that James and his characters were alright, but couldn’t stop herself from watching as Rosemary shoved a smaller demon out of the way, her face pressed into a scowl, and stamped toward The Magician. The rest of the demons slinked back behind Ballas, crowding in the doorway, waiting to serve as backup.
“Get down from there,” she barked up at him, her lips curved into a snarl. Her body grew, the bulk of her shoulders widening to make room for the arms that grew out from her skin in parallel lines until she was a twisted mass of reaching claws. “Face me!”
“Oh! Goodness, me!” The Magician stopped his airborne parade to face Rosemary. Seeming unfazed by her appearance, he glided down to the ground, holding onto his top hat all the way. “And I shall! I do, however, require a few assistants for the remainder of my performance!”
Rosemary’s anger turned to irritated confusion. “Are you insane?”
The Magician paid her no mind. He turned to the mass of other demons headed by Ballas before pivoting to look at the row of caged mortals.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Watch and be amazed as I, The Magician, turn metal into rubber!”
Balancing on one foot, The Magician twirled. He flexed his gloved fingers and brandished a wand.
“Alakazoo,” he said, pointing at the cages that his companions were trapped in.
Her heart leaping into her throat, Danielle wrapped her hands around two of the bars in front of her and gave a tug. They remained sturdy.
To her right, James slammed his fist against his own bars. The clang rung in her ears but achieved no further result.
The Magician put his hands on his hips. “Well, bother! I’ve never seen my magic this stubborn, before!” He dipped his head as if in apology, his arms forming a wide shrug. “Sorry! I’m afraid you lot will just have to stay stuck!”
That was when the floor warped under him, and The Magician fell down until he was submerged up to his chest.
“No, no, this won’t do!” The Magician cried, slapping his palms against the quicksand-like consistency the floor had become. It rippled once, then solidified.
“Much better,” he said, not seeming to realize he had become trapped in solid cement.
Across from them, Rosemary leaned boredly against an empty stack of cages. One by one her extra arms sunk back into her body. “Having eternity doesn’t make me particularly patient,” she said. “Are you done embarrassing yourself, or should I wait?”
The Magician wrenched a rubber saw twice the length as his exposed body from his hat and began an attempt at using it to free himself.
“I’ll wait,” she concluded, inspecting her nails.
Ballas gave an expectant cough behind her.
Rosemary sighed, moving forward. “Fine, fine. Now, then. Doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere, anyway.”
“Bring me the foolish tall one,” Ballas ordered. There was a subtle tone of glee behind his words that was hard to discern beneath the thickness of his accent.
Rosemary eyed the lot of them as if she wasn’t sure which one he meant before she finally settled on James with a smile and approached his cage. She stooped down so she was eye level with him through the bars. Her smile widened.
“Try anything,” she warned, “and I’ll snap you in half. Do we understand each other?”
“Thoroughly,” James grumbled.
She opened the cage door and dragged him out by his collar. When James threw a punch in her direction, she caught with ease and twisted his arm behind him. Her whole body grew until she towered over him. With a too-wide jaw bursting with jagged teeth, she growled down at him.
“Kneel,” Rosemary commanded, pushing him onto his knees before Ballas. Grasping a fistful of his hair, she shifted back to her normal height. “Ignore my warning again and won’t be so gentle the second time around.”
Ballas cracked his knuckles slowly as he stared at James. “I do not understand your game, boy,” he said. “You could not have honestly expected to find me off guard.”
James glared. “It was worth a shot. I’m not going to let you get away with your plan.”
The corner of Ballas’ mouth quirked up in a bitter smile. “Perhaps you came back because you found the appeal in joining my demonic army.”
The look of disgust that crossed James’ face made him laugh. “No? It is of little consequence. You and your little friends have no hope of stopping me. And once you have turned, you will not remember those pesky scruples.”
“You won’t turn me. You won’t turn any of us. And we won’t work for you.”
“It is interesting to me, how much faith you have in your own mortality.” Although Ballas was no longer smiling, the amusement was clear in his voice. “What you feel now will not matter once you are dead. And if, by some chance, it does, it is not so hard to break a demon.”
Pausing, Ballas waved a hand before James could think of a retort. “This is all, of course, hypothetical. Details have been brought to my attention since your escape that have changed my plans. You might find them interesting.”
“Doubtful,” James said.
From the cages, Yodrick and Andras provided similar sentiments of “release us, coward!” and “get on with it, would you?”
Ballas ignored all three of them. “Demons are fantastic creatures. They have the ability to transport themselves and others within the plane they currently reside. This, alongside their wide array of powers and self-interest, make them obviously useful to employ.”
“Your point being?” James shifted his weight from one knee to the other.
“Patience, boy,” Ballas said. “As I have told you, I require my demons to ferry my goods between realms. This is not a skill that a demon can ordinarily do without breaking themselves apart in a matter of seconds. So I thought...while I have the tool to open a portal between realms, I will need to expand my army so I do not suffer in numbers when I make these sacrifices. That is where you and your mortal comrades would have become ideal. It has, however, been brought to my attention that in very rare instances, a demon can have the natural ability to build and sustain stronger and farther-reaching portals.”
Ballas smiled again. “It has also been brought to my attention that one of these demons is already in my possession. He is still young and his ability has not been fully realized, but this too can be rectified with time. And what better time to start than the present, do you not agree?”
Danielle felt as if her throat had twisted itself into a pretzel. She couldn’t breathe. Ballas didn’t have to say anything more—she knew exactly what was going to come next.
“Bring me the boy,” Ballas said.
A demon in the doorway vanished and returned with another hung off his arm. Hayden shuffled forward, wrought with nervous confusion.
“You...you wanted to see me, Mr. Ballas, sir?” he stammered.
Ballas waved Hayden over without glancing behind him. The closer Hayden became, the more recognition crossed his face. When his eyes met Danielle’s, he stopped dead in his tracks.
“I didn’t invite them,” he said. “It wasn’t my fault, I promise!”
“Be quiet, now,” Ballas said. “Come here.”
“Don’t go to him, Hayden,” Danielle shouted, her knuckles white against the metal bars of her cage.
Ballas placed one of his thick hands on the top of Hayden’s head, causing the young demon’s entire body to flinch, and guided him forward until he stood a few short feet in front of James’s kneeling form.
“What are you going to do to him?” Danielle asked from her cage, her heart in her throat. Nobody looked at her.
Ballas pulled a key from his coat pocket and rolled it between his fingers. It was large and ornate and glowed with a dark, pulsing energy.
“I have come to the conclusion that you mortals are more trouble than you are worth, to me,” Ballas said. The hand that held Hayden tightened, causing the boy to whimper. “Now that I know how to use this in a way that is, how you say, proper, it seems I have enough demons to do my bidding, after all. ”
Ballas smiled. “Before I kill you, let us make a wager. How far into oblivion do you think I will be able to toss you?”
Forcing Hayden’s head into a bow, Ballas pressed the front of the key against the back of his neck.
“No!” Danielle pounded her fists against the front of her cage, breathing erratic. “Stop! Don’t!”
The key slid through Hayden’s skin, and Ballas turned it.
Hayden went limp from the waist up, his body slumping forward like a ragdoll’s. Blackness seeped from the place where the key had been inserted and crawled across Hayden’s skin like lines of ink seeping from the tip of a pen. It filled his eyes until they resembled bottomless pits.
One of his hands raised as if it were being pulled by a string. Against the flat of his palm, a dark circle flickered to life. It stretched slowly wider until it was the size of a pancake before all at once snapping the rest of the way from floor to ceiling. Unlike the other portals Danielle had seen Hayden make, this one was solid and sturdy and radiated an energy too big for the body hosting it.Ballas gestured toward Rosemary, his eyes never once leaving the portal he’d used Hayden to open. “Be a dear,” he said, “and help the young man to his feet. I think he may need some encouragement.”
Rosemary leaned forward until her chin was resting against the top of James’ head. “No,” she decided, giving the mortal a gentle pat on the cheek with one hand. “I don’t think I will. He’s too cute for oblivion.”
The silence that followed was tense.
“This is not the time for joking around,” Ballas said.
“This isn’t a joke, fatass.” Rosemary laughed, straightening. The way she held herself was suddenly different. She wasn’t a demon who took orders. She was one who gave them.
Ballas said nothing. The surprise on his face turned to anger in a matter of seconds. He raised a hand. When nobody moved, the surprise came back.
Still smiling, Rosemary blinked at Ballas. “Oh, I’m sorry. Were you waiting for something? If it was for another demon to take me out for that little comment, you might want to get comfortable.”
“What is the meaning—”
“Save it,” Rosemary snapped, cutting him off. She snapped her claws together and two of the demons milling about behind Ballas came forward, grasping him by the arms. His gun clattered to the ground as he twisted, struggling ineffectively against them.
Between them, Hayden remained motionless.
“It was convenient to let you think you had as much power as you did,” Rosemary said, wrenching James to his feet and pushing him into the arms of yet another demon that came from the pack. “Really, gathering as many mortals as you have and setting up a portal out of here has saved me a good amount of trouble. In that regard I suppose I owe you thanks. Unfortunately for you, our plans don’t involve letting such perfectly fresh meat rot away. So this is where the charade ends.”
Ballas stopped struggling. He narrowed his eyes into a threatening line. “I will not let you get away with this,” he said.
This time Rosemary was not the only one who laughed. One by one the other demons joined in, clutching their sides and howling through curved fangs and snorting through slanted nostrils.
“And what’re you gonna do, tough guy?” she asked. “What could you have ever done? You’re just a soul that hasn’t removed its chains, Nikolaj Ballas. Your reign is over.”
The second the words escaped her, the demons flanking Ballas brought him around to the entrance of the portal Hayden was hosting and shoved him inside. He did not scream as his body became engulfed in blackness and disappeared.
James was the first to break the silence.
“I won’t let you turn me into a demon,” he spat. The demon who held him was easily twice his height and three times as wide, with a square jaw and thick, gray tusks. James struggled, regardless, thrusting his chin defiantly in front of him. “That’s what you’re planning, isn’t it? To have us join your legion?”
Rosemary turned from the portal with a look on her face that suggested she had forgotten all about him. “I wish you could hear how stupid you sound,” she said.
James balked, too startled by her blunt response to continue squirming.
“No,” she continued, “I don’t plan on turning you into a demon. The opportunity would be wasted on you, for one thing. Besides, that’s not how it works. I have no idea how Ballas got it into his head that he could turn a living mortal into a demon, but it isn’t important because it’s wrong. Let me set the record straight: becoming a demon has nothing to do with the cleanliness of your soul—that just determines where you end up when you kick it. It’s deciding to stick around when you aren’t wanted that changes you.”
James opened his mouth to speak, but a single glare of her dark eyes silenced him for a second time.
“Enough talk,” she said. “I know what I am and how I got here and it has nothing to do with you or your future.”
“Let’s hear it, then,” James said. His voice was not as strong as before.
Danielle tried, for a second time, to get their attention. This time Rosemary looked her way, though there was a distinct glimmer of annoyance in her face.
“Please, fix whatever Ballas did to Hayden! That thing is tearing him apart!”
Danielle pointed a hand through the bars. Rosemary rolled her head on her shoulders, tossing an unfazed glance in the boy’s direction. The arm that the sportal had sprung from had turned black up to his elbow, the fabric of his shirt’s sleeve evaporated into nothing. It looked as if he was being burned slowly, his limb turning into ash.
Rosemary shrugged. “He’ll be fine, probably,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “And if he isn’t, that’s hardly my problem. He’s always been a poor excuse for a demon, anyway.”
“He doesn’t deserve this,” Danielle said.
“Wake up, sweetie. The kid sold you out.” Rosemary put her hands on her hips. “So if you’re done blubbering, I need to get done what needs doing before his body can’t support that portal any longer. Unlike Ballas, who was planning on using him for all he could, I’m only looking for a one-way trip.”
Danielle collapsed forward against the bars, tears blurring her vision. There was no point in arguing. There was nothing she could do to save Hayden. This was always meant to happen. She had always written him crippled and defeated, even if she had never seen the cause of his injury.
Hayden had said she deserved to be punished. Maybe that was true. But her punishment shouldn’t have also been his.
A movement out of the corner of her eye called her attention. Off to the side, pressed against the room’s far wall, Nicholas held Rella close. She had lost a lot of blood, and didn’t seem to be moving.
“Rella,” Danielle said. “She’s hurt.”
Rosemary rolled her eyes. “You are annoying—and you can give it a rest. I haven’t forgotten about her, and no mortal can truly die down here. At least not right now. You can thank the paperwork for that one.”
The impatience was gone from her face, and Rosemary was smiling again. She turned toward James, but looked past him, to Rella’s tense, shaking form.
“Seeing as I’m going to possess her and ride her body back to the mortal plane, it wouldn’t make much sense for me to leave her disfigured.”
“What?” James asked.
Rosemary adjusted her focus on him. Her smile widened.
“Don’t act so surprised,” she said. “You’ve seen The Exorcist, haven’t you?”
Turning, Rosemary walked around Hayden in easy strides and wrapped her fingers around the key in his neck. The portal warped, the great black void it featured flickering with light and color. When it stabilized again, a bustling mortal city was pictured inside.
“Most of us didn’t get enough of a chance to enjoy the mortal realm before we were brought down here,” Rosemary explained. “And you know how it is. Once you’re told you can’t be somewhere that’s exactly where you want to be. Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of your bodies. At least until we get tired of them.”
The demons behind her laughed and began to approach the cages. Some pushed and shoved at each other, wanting first pick.
Danielle put her hands over her mouth. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be something that could happen.
“He won’t let you,” Nicholas said, breaking his silence. “Satan disallowed demon presence in the mortal realm for a reason. When he finds out what you’re doing—”
“Your concern is touching,” Rosemary said. “I don’t care.”
The door they’d come from flew inward, blown off its hinges. Flames licked at the sides of the opening as a dark figure emerged. Satan’s face was pressed into a grim line.
Within seconds every demon except for Rosemary and Hayden had vanished; they scattered in frantic terror. Rosemary ripped the portal key from Hayden’s neck, causing the portal to snap shut and the boy to fall forward in a heap, and hid it behind her.
James, no longer being restrained, stumbled back onto his knees—but he recovered quickly, turning to face Satan with his fists raised.
“I really don’t have time for you,” Satan said as James opened his mouth, cutting him off. “Do me a favor and stay quiet for awhile.”
Satan fixed James with a hard look and the young man went flying back into the cage he’d been taken from as if he’d been thrown. The door clanged shut behind him and the lock clicked into place. With him out of the way, Satan gave the room one long, sweeping glance.
“What took you so long?” Nicholas stared up at Satan, his jaw tense. “You were planning on coming here all along, weren’t you? It’s been easily an hour since our conversation!”
“I don’t see the need to justify my delay to someone of your status,” Satan hissed. “My business is none of your concern, though I will indulge you enough to assure you that I would have come here straight away had I not been held up by something particularly pressing.”
Rella barked a laugh as she struggled to rise in Nicholas’ arms. She was barely conscious, but the sound of her father had caused her to stir. “More pressing than your daughter’s disappearance?”
Satan’s expression didn’t waver from one of vague distaste, though his eyes narrowed further. “Yes,” he said through clenched teeth. “And I’m not going to argue about it with you right now.”
He slid his fingers together in front of his middle and toyed with one of his rings. “Now,” he said, “someone had better explain what’s going on here.”
Despite his words, Satan’s eyes were affixed to Rosemary. When he took a step toward her, her feet remained planted in place. She kept the hand that held the portal key pressed against her back while the other struck out to point at Hayden, who remained crumpled before her.
“It was him, sir,” she said. “I had a suspicion that he was the one who had stolen the missing file from your archives. I followed him here and found him working for Ballas.”
“I saved you the trouble and took care of him.”
“She’s lying,” Danielle and Nicholas said from opposite sides of the room.
“Of course she’s lying,” Satan snapped. His whole body tensed. “Who do you take me for?”
Rosemary fell to the floor, shrieking and writhing as her skin began to burn away. “Stop! Stop, please,” she screamed. “I’m sorry!”
“That’s for lying—to me, of all beings. I thought you were smarter.”
Satan brought his hands up to rub his temples. As his muscles eased, Rosemary stopped burning. Her skin healed, and the portal key was no longer in her hand. Satan weighed it in his palm before slipping it into his pocket.
“Get up,” he told her, “and go wait for me at the office. I’ll deal with you later.”
Rosemary wiped at her eyes as she stood, sniffling and swaying. She was gone without protest.
“That’s it?” Supporting Rella’s weight, Nicholas rose to his feet, scowling. “All she’s going to get is a firm reprimand?”
“What I choose to do with my employees is none of your concern,” Satan said through clenched teeth. “She may be getting off easy because I won’t have it said that I don’t honor my agreements, but don’t think that I’m not going to discipline her further for her actions.”
He raised a hand to silence Nicholas before he could add anything further, and narrowed his gaze in Hayden’s direction when the boy began to stir.
“You, on the other hand,” he said, “are in much deeper trouble.”
Hayden whimpered as he pulled himself up onto his knees. Satan was not the first thing he focused on. It was his arm, which hung dead and black at his side. He clawed at it with his other hand and shook it, watching in growing horror as its function didn’t return. His breaths grew into wheezes.
“If you had simply been a peon in this scheme I could have perhaps overlooked your indiscretion,” Satan continued, as if he had not noticed Hayden’s distress. “But you made the decision to steal from me—and beyond that, you’ve never once given me a reason to view you as a valuable employee. Your work ethic has always been lacking, and you always have been slow.”
Hayden looked up to meet Satan’s gaze, his eyes wide and uncomprehending.
“What are you going to do to him?” Danielle asked. She pressed her whole body up against the bars of her cage. “Don’t hurt him, please! It wasn’t his fault!”
Satan flicked his wrist, and Danielle slammed back against the other end of the cage. Her vision blurred as she blinked back pain. She groaned as she tried to regain her bearings. All she could hear was the sound of Hayden beginning to sob.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said through his tears. “I didn’t mean anything bad I promise.”
Satan pulled his phone from his pocket, uninterested in anything Hayden had to say for himself.
“I have no need to hear your sniveling excuses,” he sighed. “I’ve already decided what I’m going to do. I won’t kill you; living with that arm is lesson enough. However, you no longer have a place in my business. I’m sending you back where you came from.”
“What?” Hayden’s voice was little more than a squeak. His regret was replaced with panic. “No! No, please! I can’t go back there! I’ll be better! Give me another chance!”
Satan flicked the wrist of his free hand. The floor beneath Hayden opened up, and flames like fingers clawed up his small body, dragging him down into darkness. He gave a shill scream that filled up the factory even after he was gone.
Not a trace of Hayden remained in Nothing.
“But it wasn’t his fault,” Danielle said. Her voice was weak. She slumped, wrapping her arms around herself. “He was just trying to help me get home.”
Or, at least, that was how it had started. Danielle couldn’t help feeling that everything that had happened to change his opinion had been her fault, as well. Ballas had manipulated Hayden but so had she, in her own way. He had been scared—he had always been scared—and she was the one who wrote him that way. No matter how she looked at it, the blame fell back onto her.
Satan didn’t spare her another glance. He put his phone away and turned toward Nicholas and Rella.
“I told you a millennium,” he said with clear distaste. “It’s been hardly an hour, Cannon.”
Nicholas opened his mouth to answer, but Rella silenced him by digging her nails into his shoulder.
“Don’t talk as if I’m not here,” she hissed. Even with a face gaunt from pain and blood loss, Rella’s eyes were angry. “She was working for you the whole time—she had me shot. Did you endorse this? Or do you really have such poor control over your own minions?”
“You’re being dramatic, Rella.” Satan frowned, his patience growing visibly thin. “I doubt she meant for you to get shot, and it’s not as if that isn’t an easy fix.”
Reaching forward, Satan grabbed Rella by the arm and plucked her from Nicholas’ hold with strength that didn’t match his form. Her leg was healed the instant he touched her.
“There,” Satan said. “All better. Now let’s go. I haven’t forgotten our discussion and I have no desire to hang around this rabble any longer.”
Rella ripped her arm away from him, stumbling in an attempt to regain her balance. “Don’t treat me like a child—either of you.”
“I will treat you as exactly what you are,” Satan snapped. “You have done nothing to prove to me that you’re any different from the little girl I last saw you as.”
“Stop acting like a fool. You’re testing my patience.” Satan reached for her for a second time.
Rella stepped back.
“I don’t want to go with you,” she said, looping her arm through Nicholas’ in a way that claimed him. “I’m staying here, with someone who doesn’t have to pretend to care about what happens to me.”
“Rella,” Nicholas started. His face twisted into a conflicted frown.
Satan’s whole body tensed. “Fine,” he said, his voice too even. “Stay here, then, and rot. It’s what you’re good at.”
Heat flashed across his face as he turned away. “I won’t waste anymore of my time enduring your tantrum when I have more important things to worry about. When you come crawling back, dear girl, don’t be surprised if I refuse to open my doors.”
Satan whipped his phone from his pocket and was gone.
No one wanted to speak first. An uncomfortable silence settled over the group that was only broken when The Magician gave a triumphant holler.
Danielle turned from her cage just in time to see him wriggle himself completely free from the cement, which snapped back to it’s original shape like elastic. He shoved his rubber saw back into his hat and adjusted it on his head.
“I apologize to my most patient audience,” he said. “It took my magic a bit of convincing, but I think I’ve finally got it to cooperate. I’ll have you out before you can say…”
He trailed off, looking expectant. When no one filled in the blank, he continued with a pout in his voice.
“Abracadabra,” he sighed, and the cages holding them exploded into colorful pieces of confetti.
Danielle shrieked in startled surprise, throwing her hands over her head to shield herself. It took her a moment to realize she was cowering from tiny squares of paper. Blinking away her embarrassment, she scrambled to her feet and worked to steady herself.
“Is everyone alright?” she asked, looking around at each of their faces as she combed confetti from her hair.
“Most assuredly,” said The Magician.
Danielle offered him a smile out of the corner of her mouth before shifting her attention to the others. Andras, Yodrick, and Nicholas all admitted to being well enough. James and Rella were less optimistic.
“Does anything about this situation honestly seem alright, to you?” Rella took a deep breath and shook her head. Nicholas reached out to put a hand on her shoulder, but she shifted away from it.
Danielle’s gaze shifted to the space on the floor where Hayden had disappeared. A knot formed in her throat. She shook her head.
“Having a horde of demons after us has really put things into perspective,” James said, his tone just as sour. “Makes me miss Ballas. At least he couldn’t do anything particularly out of the ordinary.”
Nicholas sighed. “And if Ballas was still the one in possession of the portal key, it wouldn’t be impossible to take it from him. Having that would have given all of you a real chance at escaping. Now that Satan has it again, however...I’m afraid I don’t have any other ideas that could help.”
James ran a hand down his face. “Perfect. Back to square one.”
“Have we failed our quest?” Yodrick asked.
“Now, now! Let’s turn those frowns upside down! Nothing a bit of magic can’t fix!” The Magician flicked his wrists and pulled at his gloves.
“We don’t need magic, we need a damn portal key,” Andras said, groaning in frustration.
“Nothing up my sleeves,” The Magician said, tugging on the fabric of each arm for added effect.
“Please, not now,” James said. “I need to think.”
“You need to think?” Rella laughed, her eyes narrow. “What are you going to do? Challenge Satan to a gentleman’s dispute?”
James opened his mouth to retort, but before he could get a word out, The Magician leaned forward and plucked something from behind his ear.
The Magician held up his prize. Everyone quieted. It was the portal key.
James reached for it, and took it as if he feared it would disappear. A smile inched its way across his face. “Your magic really is working again.”
He looked away from the key to search the faces of his companions. “We can go home,” he said.
When his eyes landed on Danielle’s, his smile fell.
“We can’t,” she said. “Not yet. Rosemary will come back with the other demons. If we leave now the other mortals stuck here will still be targeted. That’s not fair...we have to warn them.”
“You’re right,” James said. His lack of hesitation took Danielle by surprise. “We’ll gather everyone as fast as we can and leave together.”James smiled again. Danielle smiled back.
When her tears finally dried, Danielle was left with a mental fogginess that slowed her pace against the dull concrete sidewalks of Nothing to a shuffle. More than that, her stomach churned with embarrassment. How many souls had been around to witness her sobbing? She stared at the patterns in the ground for a long while as she put one foot in front of the other, not daring to look up and see how much attention she’d gained for herself.
In the end, however, she knew she had to stop. Taking a deep breath, Danielle adjusted her glasses and looked around her. She had no idea where she was; she hadn’t before and she most certainly didn’t know now, after walking aimlessly forward from where Hayden had left her. Being in Nothing reminded her, in a way, of being in downtown Los Angeles. The buildings seemed to loom, as if they were watching her from high above. And no landmark struck her as particularly unique, so she couldn’t get a proper bearing of where she was. At least Los Angeles had a measure of color. Here, she couldn’t even use that much to help her navigate.
Danielle had never been very good at navigating.
The next thing she noticed was the fact that she was alone. There wasn’t a single soul in sight. A knot formed in her throat. Maybe it should have made her feel better to know that there hadn’t been anyone standing around to judge her and whisper, but realizing that the street was completely deserted filled her with dread.
She’d felt like this before, on days where she walked through her home’s sleepy neighborhood with her hands in her pockets and the sky became swollen and heavy. When all she could hear were the sounds of her own breathing and her footsteps against the sidewalk. When she looked around Nothing, she was reminded of an approaching storm.
Wrapping her arms around herself, Danielle tried to feel comforted by the stiff pull of her blazer against her skin. There was nobody here to help her and she had no idea what to try next. That left her with only one option: start over. She was exhausted, anyway. If she could just make it back to the hotel she had arrived in, she could rest and regain her bearings.
Danielle just wished she knew where it was.
With the first stroke of luck she’d had since Death had persuaded her into his truck, Danielle found that Hayden had not left her far from the hotel’s entrance. She was sure it had to be largely a coincidence and no deliberate decision on her character’s part, but she was thankful nonetheless.
What little relief she’d managed to find when she stepped in through the hotel’s doors faded the second they shut behind her. The lobby was just as empty as the pathway leading to it had been. Danielle looked at the plush furniture and ornate receptionist counters. Nobody was manning it, or milling around. Her earlier sense of dread came back tenfold.
Maybe it had always been that way, but Danielle was suddenly very aware how stale the air tasted.
A noise from the bar drew her focus away from the panic bubbling in her throat. Voices.
“All I’m saying,” one of the voices said, “is that we can’t let his tyranny go unpunished.”
“And all I’m saying,” said another, far more impatient voice, “is that you’re asking for trouble. You barely got out alive! What do you think you’re even going to do against that sonofabitch?”
“Give me a moment and I’m sure I’ll come up with something,” the first voice said.
The second voice snorted.
A third voice sighed. “Have faith in our leader.”
“He’s no leader of mine,” the second voice grumbled before going silent.
The more Danielle listened, the closer she drew to the sound. By the time their argument drew to an unsteady close, she was watching them from the entrance to the bar. The three men who had spoken were sitting in a line with their backs to her, though only one of them was actively drinking. A fourth man was standing, amusing himself by making the surrounding furniture spin in midair. He was wearing a mask that covered his entire face, but he noticed her immediately.
The tables and chairs slammed back to their original places on the ground and everyone jumped.
“Hello!” the masked man said. “I am The Magician! Have you traveled to meet me for a show?”
Danielle shrank back, wincing when she slammed her shoulder into the lobby’s doorframe. All eyes were on her; this was exactly what she had wanted to avoid from the start. She offered The Magician an awkward smile before turning her gaze to the three at the bar.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“No, not at all,” said the owner of the first voice as he gave her a once-over. He was the one with a drink in his hand. “You’re one of the writers, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” she confirmed. “I’m glad to have run into you. I was starting to think I’d never see another mortal. I’m, um, Danielle.”
“I’m James.” He titled his glass toward the two men at his sides. “This is Andras, and this is Yodrick. You’ve already met The Magician.”
Thee Magician bowed and tipped his hat.
James took a drink, and tapped a finger on the side of the glass. “Where are your characters?”
“Oh.” Danielle looked down and fiddled with her glasses. “I’m not sure. They both left. I didn’t want to split up, but...they sort of made the decision for me.”
Pausing, Danielle looked up again, a surge of hope passing through her face. “Maybe you’ve seen them? We all met here originally, so it’s possible they came back, too. One’s a young demon with red hair named Hayden. The other is a woman with curly hair named Rella. She’d be dressed in all black and probably be in a bad mood.”
James shook his head. “Haven’t encountered anyone fitting either of those descriptions.”
Andras nodded. “I didn’t see them either while I was off on my own.”
“Oh,” Danielle said again. Her shoulders sagged.
“I think,” The Magician said, interrupting the sorrowful silence, “you could use some entertainment!”
Andras groaned, putting his head in his hands, while James took another swig of his drink and Yodrick watched with a half smile.
“Oh, uh, no, I don’t think,” Danielle started, her face flushing. She didn’t get another word out.
The Magician spread his arms out at his sides in a way that caused his cape to flutter and Danielle to flinch. “For my first trick,” he said, sweeping into a bow and grabbing his top hat off of his head in a dramatic flourish, “I’ll pull a rabbit from my hat! You like rabbits, yes?”
The Magician wiggled his fingers over the hat’s opening and thrust his arm in, up to his elbow. He seemed to struggle, wrenching at something that was too big for the hole’s circumference. This was, of course, preposterous, given how the hat was half the length of the arm that was thrust inside of it.
“Strange,” he said, struggling. “This rabbit is being rather uncooperative!”
“Is he okay?” Danielle asked.
James waved his arm without turning from his drink. “He’s fine,” he said into his glass. “Part of the routine.”
Danielle grimaced. She usually liked magic, but this felt unfortunately out of place. Still, the Magician was so set on his act that she didn’t have the heart to tell him to stop.
Somehow the Magician managed to get both legs up on the hat’s rim, so he was suspended in the air as he put the weight of his entire body into pulling.
“Do you require assistance in summoning the beast?” Yodrick asked.
“Please don’t play along,” Andras said in another groan.
“Aha! I believe I have it!” With a victorious laugh, the Magician gave a final, powerful tug. His arm was freed, and what followed at its end was something far bigger than a rabbit.
Danielle caught a glimpse of red hair, dull clothing, and pale limbs before the body collided with the Magicians and they both went sprawling across the bar’s floor, tipping over a table and several chairs in the process. She sucked in a breath at the noise caused by the destruction, her whole body tensing. If the place hadn’t been deserted, she had no doubt that staff would have rushed forward to throw the lot of them out.
“Ta-da?” The Magician said from the wreck as Yodrick gave a delighted holler and a brief round of applause.
“For God’s sake,” Andras spat, “he didn’t even pull a rabbit out of his hat! That’s a damn kid! Am I the only one at all disturbed by this?”
“Not a rabbit?” the Magician cried. He sprung to his feet just in time for the boy he’d pulled from his hat to scramble away on all fours, shaking and whimpering like an animal. “No, no, no! That won’t do at all! Come back here, fellow! I daresay I must put you back where you came from!”
The Magician leapt forward, clean over the fallen table, to give chase.
Danielle’s head began to spin.
“I don’t want to!” the boy shrieked, scrambling to his feet. “Stay away!”
Danielle’s head stopped spinning. It wasn’t just a boy that the Magician had pulled out of his hat—it was her boy. It was Hayden.
“Hayden!” she called.
Hayden turned to look at her, freezing like a deer caught in headlights—but not fast enough to avoid tripping over another chair. He tumbled to the ground for a second time and was still.
Danielle rushed to his side and brushed the hair from his eyes. He blinked up at her, for a long moment without comprehension, before all at once he snapped back to life. Clutching himself tightly to her middle, Hayden burst into tears.
“Miss! Don’t make me do that again,” he sobbed. “It was scary!”
Stunned and unable to think of anything to say, Danielle ran a hand soothingly over the back of his head.
“Dear me,” said the Magician from where he stood not far off. “I have the perfect idea to dry those tears! How about I pull a rabbit from my—”
Andras slammed one of his fists down on the bar’s counter. “Would you knock it off with the rabbit?”
“So that’s your character, then?” James asked.
He’d been so involved with his drink Danielle had almost forgotten about him. “Yeah,” she said without thinking. “He didn’t come here with me though. He’s already an established part of this world.”
“Huh,” said James.
Hayden echoed the sentiment, a question in his voice. He sniffed and hiccuped as he pulled his head far enough out of Danielle’s lap to look her in the eyes. He wiped his tears and his nose on his sleeve, confusion written across his face.
Danielle realized her mistake immediately. She had always written Hayden as emotional, but never oblivious.
“What does that mean?” he asked.
Yodrick spoke before Danielle was able to untie the knot twisting up her throat. “Our respective parties consist of a single player. This player gives us life, and as such it is our duty to respect their leadership.”
“In easier terms,” James said, “Danielle and I are writers. My companions are ones that I created for different stories just as you are for her own.”
“And I am The Magician!” said The Magician, with a delighted twirl.
“You lot really know how to rain on people’s parades, don’t you?” Andras sighed and stuck his thumb in Danielle’s direction. Her face was pale even through her makeup. Everyone went silent—even The Magician, who quietly pushed a long balloon back into his sleeve.
“You...created me?” Hayden stared and withdrew his arms from around the blonde.
Danielle reached for his hands, but he stood before she could and took a step away.
Hayden’s eyes became bigger. His mouth hung open as he thought and his tail wrapped slowly around his leg. “That’s how you knew everything about me,” he said. It wasn’t a question. The missing piece to a puzzle he didn’t know he was solving snapped into place, and all at once Hayden understood.
“Yes,” Danielle agreed on a whisper. The word felt thick on her tongue. “Yes, but—”
“Nuh-uh!” Hayden cut her off with a shake of his head and took another step back. His vaguely-clawed hands came up to scratch at the scalp around his horns. “Sorry, please, I don’t want to hear about this!”
He looked like he was going to cry again. He looked like he wanted to do absolutely anything but cry.
“I should really go now, I think,” he said.
Danielle scrambled to her feet, ignoring the way her ankles felt as if they were full of needles. “Please don’t run away, Hayden. I can explain! Just ask me anything. I promise, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. I didn’t mean to hide any of it from you, I just didn’t know how to tell you or...or when the right time would be.”
Hayden turned his eyes to his feet. He shuffled and fidgeted. “Okay,” he said after a long moment. Then, again, “okay.”
Danielle clenched and unclenched her fingers. She knew at once what he would ask, but she couldn’t take back her offer.
“Why did you make me a demon if you knew I’d never feel like one?”
Danielle bit her lip. Hayden’s expectant gaze drilled holes into her heart.
“I thought,” she answered in a voice that seemed to come from somewhere far away, “that it would make a good story.”
The damage was done. Danielle watched Hayden’s trust in her fall to pieces at his feet.
“I lived in Hell,” he said.
“I know,” she admitted.
“And that’s a really very not nice reason,” he said.
“I know,” she admitted again.
Hayden hung his head. His shoulders began to shake as he began to cry for a second time. “I thought you were nice,” he said. “I thought you were the nicest person I’d ever met.”
When he looked up, he was angry. It wasn’t a look Danielle had ever imagined on him.
“But Mr. Ballas was right,” he said. “You deserve to be punished.”
Hayden pivoted and was gone.
“Well,” said James as he polished off his glass with a satisfied sigh, “that certainly could have gone better.”
Danielle ripped her eyes away from the space where Hayden had vanished and stared at James as if he had slapped her. She grabbed fistfuls of her dress’s skirt and yanked at the fabric, trying desperately to stretch it down to her knees. To cover herself as if doing so would somehow erase her regrets. “Excuse me?” she asked. Her lip quivered as she blinked away tears.
He continued as if he hadn’t heard her speak or noticed her discomfort. “I do have to admit that it was enlightening.” He tapped a finger against the countertop. “It sounds as if Ballas is tightening his grip on the city and its inhabitants.”
Yodrick gave a grunt of agreement and nodded. “Only a coward bends the minds of children to such a nefarious end.”
“You’re a jerk,” Danielle blurted, interrupting.
“I beg your pardon?” James balked, finally taking his focus off of the second glass of gin he had poured for himself.
Her face colored. She hated confrontation, but she curled her hands into fists and steeled herself. “You’re a jerk,” she repeated, fighting the urge to mumble. “You put yourself in the personal affairs of me and my characters and you have nothing to say for yourself?”
James frowned. “I couldn’t have known about his ignorance.”
“But you could have stayed out of it! All of you could have!” Danielle took a deep breath and lowered her voice. “Or...at the very least...shown some empathy. I don’t have anyone else, now.”
James frowned harder and looked away.
“How much longer are we going to waste time on this?” Andras ran a hand down his face. His whole body seemed to grimace. “Just apologize so we can move on.”
“Of course! Allow me!” The Magician slid down to a knee and took hold of Danielle’s hands so quickly she didn’t have the sense to pull away. “Dearest lady, I offer you my most humblest of—”
“Not you,” Andras hissed.
“I suppose I do apologize,” James said on a sigh as The Magician pouted and Danielle stumbled away from his touch. “Though I still don’t see how I should be held responsible when I wasn’t the one keeping secrets.”
“It is the duty of the party’s leader to remain steadfast,” Yodrick said with a solemn nod. It was clear to whom his loyalty belonged.
“I’m not a leader,” Danielle said. “That’s not me.”
“Well.” James slid from his seat and smiled. “It’s a good thing one of us is, then.”
Not catching his drift, it was Danielle’s turn to frown.
“Hayden mentioned a man named Ballas,” James prompted. When she didn’t respond, he continued. “I take it you’re unaware of him.”
“It’s not like I’ve been around here very long,” she said.
“Haven’t you? Peculiar. But also irrelevant, I’d wager.”
Danielle frowned. He wasn’t doing himself any favors in dissuading her from believing him to be a jerk. “You were saying?”
James explained the man quickly, in a way Danielle tried not to hear as condescending. She learned a lot about Nikolaj Ballas and James’ capture and subsequent torture by the soul very quickly. Little of it made any sense to her.
“He tried to turn you into a demon?” she asked, her brow furrowed.
“Unsuccessfully,” James confirmed. “But he’s not going to stop trying. He knew he was getting headway with me, and there are plenty more of us for him to experiment upon.”
“Are you sure? That he’ll try again, I mean.”
“Have I stammered?”
Danielle looked away, pressing her lips together to stop herself from snapping.
James crossed his arms.
“Alright, kids.” Andras stood as well and stepped between them, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. “If you’re done bickering, maybe we can talk about where we go from here? You know, actually stopping the freak out for all our hides?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Danielle tried for a smile, but it came out hardly more than a grimace. “Is there anything we can even do?”
“I’m glad you asked,” James said, his spirits all at once lifted. He clapped his hands together, which did absolutely nothing to lift her confidence in whatever it was he had to say next. “I have a plan.”
Nothing was not a city in which Satan took leisurely strolls. When the souls saw him coming, they disappeared back into their respective holes and waited for the storm to pass. It was how he liked it: silent.
Satan would not have left his office, let alone the entire building, had something not gone terribly awry. The mortals that Death had dragged into the tasteless realm had completely exceeded his expectations. It had been easy to return order to the archives that had been thoroughly scrambled when they’d broken into his Record’s Office. It had been just as easy to warp the ones responsible clean across the city. The problem was that one of his files was missing, and they hadn’t had it.
Someone else had stolen from him. It was insulting. He wouldn’t stand for it.
Although Satan had no reason to believe in any one particular culprit, he knew exactly who may have been responsible for leaking the file’s contents. How convenient it was for him that very same soul was the only one who had not had the sense to run and hide when word of his descent upon the city had spread.
Not far from where he was standing, the soul of a young man was sitting on a bench, reading the latest issue of The Hellhound. A worthless waste of ink, but if the gossip kept the rabble out of his hair, Satan could hardly condemn it. With a snap of his fingers, the paper crumbled to ash in the soul’s hands.
The soul turned to look at Satan, his expression one of disappointment—but not surprise.
“Was that really necessary?” he asked.
Satan didn’t dignify the question with an answer. “A file was stolen from my records earlier today,” he said. “Considering it’s your file, Nicholas Cannon, I’m hard pressed to believe you didn’t have something to do with it.”
“I see,” Nicholas said, offering a polite, sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Spare me your niceties and tell me you have more than that to say for yourself.” Satan pinched his nose and tapped one of his expensive shoes against the painfully monotonous concrete on which he stood. He could feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. In all honesty he was surprised he hadn’t felt it earlier. This was, perhaps, the longest day of his eternity thus far—and it was only promising to get longer the farther on it stretched.
Nicholas’ eyes widened in an amateurish attempt at looking aghast. “You don’t think I stole it?”
“No, I don’t think you stole it,” Satan snapped. He could feel the heat radiating off of his knuckles as he clenched his hands into fists and glared. “Quit acting like an imbecile; I know you’re far from one and I’m losing what little patience I have left.”
Nicholas stood. Despite his anger, Satan indulged himself in giving the soul a quick once-over. He may have been acting insufferably dimwitted, but the way that Nicholas dressed and carried himself reminded Satan that he was anything but. His dark hair was trimmed and tidy, and there were no chains left to obscure the fact that his clothing was subtly smart and meticulously pressed. He took pains not only to appear affluent but to appear harmless. The big, bright eyes and dimpled smile worked wonders for this effect.
Unfortunately for Nicholas, Satan was as easily fooled as he was impressed.
“Hm.” Nicholas gave his chin a thoughtful rub. "Was the break in caused by one of the mortals loose in the city? A young man on the heavier side, perhaps?"
"Yes,” Satan said, his expression darkening in unamusement.
"Now that I think of it, I do believe I encountered someone of that description asking questions at the Blind Pig," Nicholas admitted, his stance casual. He raised up his hands in a gesture of innocence. "Though I hardly see how that incriminates me. I didn't tell him anything particularly relevant."
Satan’s shoe ceased its tapping. Were it not for his desire to appear as under control as possible, he would’ve pointed an accusing finger straight at the other man. "You encouraged him, and now one of my most important documents is missing."
"Missing?” For the first time since they began speaking, Nicholas looked surprised. More than that, he looked distinctly concerned. Satan took a step forward. Nicholas began to take a step backward in turn, but forced his feet to stay planted where they were. “You mean he doesn't have it?"
“He never had it,” Satan corrected in a hiss. “I searched him and his companions myself.”
"Oh dear," Nicholas said. "That's certainly not ideal."
Enough of an admission for him, Satan’s tempered flared. Heat poured out of him in waves, warping the stale air surrounding them. "I knew you were behind this, you blistering fool,” he spat. “Can't even stay out of my business when you're dead, can you?"
Nicholas, being dead, remained unperturbed by the outburst.
"That's an incredibly mean thing to say," Nicholas said. His eyes became sharper. "Well said, mind you, but mean nonetheless. And seeing as you’re the one responsible for my murder, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if I decide to act out of vindication."
“This is not a matter that concerns you.”
“We both know that isn’t true.”
“Stay out of it,” Satan said, punctuating every word. It was more than a command: it was a warning.
“No,” Nicholas replied.
The refusal was so quick Satan couldn’t stop himself from pausing. He wasn’t used to his orders being flauted so easily.
“I can help them get out of here, you know that I can,” Nicholas continued in earnest. “The longer they in Nothing the more dangerous it becomes for them.”
Satan felt his headache coming back. “I’m well aware.”
“Then why are you so opposed to my involvement? I refuse to stand idly by and watch these people waste their lives away trying to find a way out.”
Satan held up a hand, cutting Nicholas off before he could go on. With a curt sigh, he reached into his pocket and checked his phone. “If that’s all you have left to say, I’ll consider this meeting pointless and move on. I didn’t come here to spend my time listening to you spout this pathetic attempt at martyrdom. There’s plenty more for me to worry about between Death’s little experiment and Rella sitting in my office.”
The effect was an instantaneous as Satan expected it to be. Nicholas tensed as if he had been struck by lightening. If his cheeks had had any sort of living pallor left in them, they would’ve been drained of it.
“I thought that might shut you up,” Satan said. His voice was cruel, and he punctuated his statement with a sound that could have almost been a laugh. A trace of a mocking smile flickered across his face, but it fell away when he opened his mouth again. This time, his warning was going to resonate. “Listen closely. You may have put yourself on my list by breaking in and out of this realm as a mortal, but it was ultimately your interference with my personal business that inspired me to put you down.”
Nicholas said nothing and stood like a statue. Satan considered this to be a vast improvement.
“Come near my daughter again, Cannon, and I’ll make sure you spend the rest of your afterlife in torment.” Without giving Nicholas the chance to respond, Satan turned away and adjusted his tie. “Now that I’ve made myself perfectly clear, I’ll be going. I assume I don’t need to emphasize how upset it’ll make me to see your face within the next millennium.”
With that, Satan was gone. He had one more stop to make before he returned to his office—one more soul to put back in line. Nikolaj Ballas had overstepped his bounds in poaching his demonic employees. It was a slight that had not gone unnoticed and would not be stood for.
He left too fast and too preoccupied to notice the demons that surrounded Nicholas the moment he was out of sight.
Rella opened her mouth and choked. It didn’t matter. Death was gone again and she was alone.
She always ended up alone.
All at once Rella’s haughty facade snapped in half. Her knees buckled and she collapsed against the side of Satan’s desk, her legs bent beneath her. Alone, there was nothing left to distract her from what she had just seen—and learned—about herself.
Tears welled in her eyes as, across from her, Rosemary sat down delicately.
What are those for? she asked. You’re crying over a man? How dreadfully ordinary.
Rella tried to scowl as she slapped her hands across her eyes to wipe the tears away before they could fall, but couldn’t summon the energy.
Please don’t tell me you’re about to start ignoring me again. This game is getting tired, Rella.
“You aren’t real. You were never real.”
Weren’t you paying attention? I’ve always been real, Rella.
A knot formed in Rella’s throat; she couldn’t deny it. She thought of the dark-skinned servant girl. Those memories were so old and so painful that Rella had let them fade away. But Death had brought them back to the surface and shown them to her in a way that she couldn’t have on her own—and now she understood.
Understanding didn’t make it any easier to swallow.
“She was real,” Rella said, correcting herself.
“But you aren’t.”
Rosemary stopped smiling.
Rella’s arms shook at her sides. “I killed the thing she had become twenty years ago and invented you to take her place.” Laughing, she found that she didn’t recognize her own voice. “And what a poor excuse for a replacement you turned out to be.”
Rosemary stood. She clenched her tiny hands into fists. Don’t, she said.
“If I’m going to berate myself, I’d rather do it in my own voice.”
Rella slid her hands over her ears and took a deep breath. “Disappear,” she commanded, “forever.”
Rosemary watched her with an even expression. She came closer in neat steps, in perfect time to Rella’s heartbeat.
I will never leave you, Rosemary said, and vanished.
A sob rose in Rella’s throat. She pushed it down and gulped in air to calm herself. She couldn’t be seen like this. Not by anyone—but especially not by Satan.
Rella grabbed onto the edge of the desk and pulled herself onto her feet. Her hands stayed clamped onto the wood; she couldn’t move.
“I have to get out of here,” Rella said, as if hearing the words out loud would make her body more willing to listen.
Knowing what she knew now—knowing the truth—she wished she had never come to Satan when Death had proved difficult. She wished she hadn’t gotten impatient. Rella had hated him before Death catapulted her into this time and she hated him now—hated him more, knowing what he had done and how he’d tried to cover his tracks.
Rella brought a palm to her forehead and forced her breathing to even itself. She pushed the trembling from her legs and the loneliness from her heart. “I can’t be here when he gets back.”
Turning to the door, however, Rella had to admit that she didn’t know how to get out and she didn’t know where she’d go if she did. Death had told her to find him—she’d done that, and he’d learned all that he could from her about his future. There was no reason to look for him again. She had nothing left to do here and as far as she could tell, nothing had changed from his knowing.
What if she went back and found that the only thing different was that she had made him hate her?
The thought made her feel like her stomach was full of bricks.
Ignoring it, Rella contemplated her options. She could go looking for Hayden—or anyone with the ability to bring her back to the time she had come from—or she could stick around until she could be sure that a change had been made. Neither seemed satisfying, but both beat wallowing. Both beat having another heart-to-heart with the father that had, and would, leave her in the dark.
From the other side of the double doors, a lock clicked. Rella took a breath. Her hands clenched against the desk’s edge. She’d run out of time to figure out a new plan of action. All she could do now was sweet talk the last man she ever wanted to see in the hope that he’d actually help her.
Rella made a mental note not to count on it.
When the doors swung open it was not Satan who greeted her.
It was his secretary. She looked a bit worse for wear, as if she had just had to endure something very tedious and unexpected, but her eyes were still bright and her hair still neat. She smiled at Rella in a way that emphasized the fact that she did not have a face meant for smiling.
“Satan sends his apologies, Ms. Triean,” she said. “The matter he was called away for has turned out to be far more urgent than he expected. He asked me to see you out—and, with your permission, take you to rendezvous with him in a more ideal setting.”
Rella did not return the smile. “I see,” she said. It was much easier to pretend she knew what she was doing when she had an audience. “And the privacy of his office isn’t ideal?”
“Satan would like to resume this meeting in a location where you will be free to talk uninterrupted.” The demon nodded toward the phone on the desk. “He insisted.”
Rella tapped a nail against the wood and pursed her lips. “You do not have my permission,” she said after a long moment.
“I see,” the demon said, echoing Rella’s earlier response. Her gold eyes burned brighter. “Have you somewhere else to be? More pressing matters to attend to?”
She snapped her fingers, and a pen and notepad appeared in her hands. “Please, do enlighten me. I’ll leave him a detailed response.”
Rella flinched. There was nothing she could say—no excuse she could give—and the demon knew it. Wherever he was, Satan must have known it, too. Worse, she knew her silence was the perfect admittance of that.
“Let’s make it quick, then,” Rella said, and made herself smile.
The demon banished her pen and paper and stepped to the side. Her cloven hooves clopped as she started down the hallway. “Excellent,” she said over her shoulder. “Please follow me, Ms. Triean.”
Snapping up her clutch from where she had abandoned it on the chair she had been sitting in when she first arrived, Rella did just that. The sound of the office doors closing behind her was one she welcomed.
Hayley wished she was more comfortable around Death than she was. That was the problem with having a character you’d never completely nailed down. She felt close to him, but not close enough to shake the feeling that she was sitting with a stranger.
She sat a few feet away from him on the labyrinth’s cool floor, her legs crossed beneath her. It hadn’t been long since he appeared in his control room’s chair. In that time, he hadn’t said a word. He just sat, his hands in his pockets, and didn’t grin.
Hayley bounced her elbows on her knees as she watched him.“So, uh...do you wanna talk about it?”
He didn’t move, but she had the distinct idea that he was watching her. Or, at the very least, paying attention.
“Yeah,” she agreed, scrunching up her nose. “I didn’t really think so. But you can’t blame me for asking. I mean, you’re obviously upset, and I’m sure in some strange, indirect way you’re my responsibility.”
Death grinned even less.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she grumbled, and was silent.
“Damn mortals drove my truck into the river,” he said.
Hayley snorted. Classic.
Death didn’t see the humor. His hands balled into fists against his chair’s armrest and she threw her own up in surrender.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s not like you can’t just put it back where it was. What’s the real reason you’re upset?”
She knew why he was upset—at least, she knew why he was upset about the truck. It didn’t matter where it had ended up; he could fix that without a conscious thought. It was the fact that it had been touched by mortals in the first place—that they had been able to touch it. They shouldn’t have been able to. Hayley didn’t need Death to explain the extent of his power over Nothing and its inhabitants. She saw it firsthand every time she wrote about him.
The air felt cold. When Death said nothing further, Hayley cleared her throat.
“There’s something else bothering you,” she said.
“Whatever you say,” he replied. The tension in his body began to fade piece by piece. He’d realized he was talking to a writer—his (supposed) writer—and to show anything meant to show defeat. He didn’t want her to figure him out.
It almost made Hayley feel guilty to know that she already had. It didn’t make her feel guilty enough to stop talking.
“You’re a control freak. We already got that down,” she thought aloud, counting off her fingers as she pondered his motivations. They were still somewhat hazy, but the longer she stayed down here the more easily they came to her. “So that just leaves…”
Hayley trailed off, her brow furrowing. She had her answer. It was hard to keep track of the passing of time in Nothing, particularly in the labyrinth, but it couldn’t have been a full day since she had run into Danielle and her characters. Why hadn’t she thought of that sooner?
“Rella,” she concluded. “It was Rella. You talked to her, didn’t you? About what happened—happens.”
Watching him was like watching a spring that had been pulled taunt come snapping together all at once. All the effort Death had put into making himself appear impervious to her words and to her presence was erased. He stood without standing, and Hayley was so startled she couldn’t remember to be afraid as she crawled backward on her hands, away from him.
Death reached her in two strides, grabbed her by the arm, and hoisted her to her feet. He gave Hayley enough time to gulp down a knot in her throat before his grip tightened and he pushed her up against the labyrinth’s wall, cornering her.
She remembered to be afraid the second her skull hit stone.
“I’m getting awful sick of you writers,” he growled. His voice fell on her like an avalanche of gravel. “You know too much. You all know too damn much.”
Hayley opened and shut her mouth. Death was mad. He was beyond mad and she had knowingly provoked him. It hit her, as she stared up at his shadowed face, how little being his writer meant. He was a loose cannon and she had made him that way. She had wanted him to be that way. There hadn’t been a reason to regret it, before, but Death wasn’t just a character anymore.
He was here, and he was real, and he was dangerous.
“What are you going to do?” Hayley asked on a breath, unable to stop herself.
He grinned. For the first time, it filled her with dread.
“Gonna get rid of you,” he said, as if it were obvious. “Each and every one of you.”
Death was gone, as he always was, and Hayley was left to nurse the bruise on her bicep. The color left her face as she understood: Death wasn’t going to get rid of them. He was going to destroy them.Without a second thought, she set off to stop him. This, too, was her responsibility.
Rella had to fight the urge to leave her father’s secretary hanging the second she was escorted out of Satan’s building. The idea was tempting, but ultimately impractical. She also had the annoying suspicion that, as a demon, the woman would be able to stop her with little trouble.
The longer they walked, the more impatient she began to feel. The paved roads began to turn rough under her heels, and the little gray buildings that stretched onward in seemingly endless parallel lines became large and industrial.
Rella shook her head. In their silence, her focus began to shift toward the discoveries she had made when Death had walked through her memories. There was so much to process and she hadn’t had a moment to stop and try. Besides the fact that Rosemary had been more than just an imaginary friend, there was also the fact that she had been in Nothing—in Death’s labyrinth—before.
The apprehension she had felt when she’d toured its deconstructed form made much more sense, now. Death knew she’d fail inside of it, just as he would fail to maintain it, and now that she had angered him Rella had no illusions he wouldn’t throw her straight back in when he had his way and leave her there to rot. This time, for good. Figuring out how to prevent that from happening—or ever having happened, in this case—was much more pressing than following a demon to an undisclosed location.
“What is this, really?” Rella asked. “I suppose you must think I’m quite daft, but I assure you I’m quick enough to tell when I’m being duped.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Ms. Triean.” The demon didn’t spare her so much as a second glance. “I’m only following orders.”
“Whose orders, exactly?”
Rella stopped walking. The secretary did the same and turned to look at Rella with a raised eyebrow—as if prompting her to continue.
“If Satan was going to order you to take me to meet him, the location wouldn’t be anywhere so classless.” She ran a hand through her curls, letting them swing neatly behind her shoulders before concluding, “ergo, this is coming from someone else. I can’t decide if this makes you incredibly ambitious or stupid.”
The secretary’s eyes narrowed, but she smiled. “Very good,” she said. “Not that I didn’t expect you to figure it out. Daft is not something I ever thought you were.”
“If that’s all, then, I’ll be leaving.” Rella turned smoothly on her heels. She wasn’t sure where to go from here, but she knew she’d figure it out. Anything beat being the one who wasn’t in control.
“No, Rella,” said the secretary. “You won’t.”
Rella knew better than to listen to a taunt. She kept walking.
“Unless, of course, you’d prefer never to see your dear Nicholas again,” the secretary continued. “Seeing as he’s the real one expecting you, I’m sure he’ll be distraught. But, no matter. I’ll tell him the unfortunate news myself.”
Rella stopped walking. Her legs felt frozen.
“Nicholas,” she repeated, and imagined him being impaled by a statue with Rosemary and Satan looking on. “He’s here.”
“Of course,” the secretary said. “He’s dead, after all. I’m surprised you didn’t seek his soul out sooner.”
Rella spun back around to face the demon, not feeling the hair that whipped across her vision. “His soul doesn’t belong here,” she said. She meant to snap, but her words came softly.
The secretary offered only a sinister smile before she continued down her path. “I’m sure the two of you have a lot of catching up to do. Let’s keep moving, shall we?”
Rella bit the inside of her cheek and followed.
Their destination wasn’t much farther ahead. The secretary led Rella into the back entrance of a run-down factory that stood, as if abandoned, separate from the ones that flanked it. Outside there were no signs that stated its intended function and its windows were barred. Inside, the place was lined and stacked with cages of varying shapes and sizes. Beyond that she could see nothing. There was no light, save for the dim gray that filtered in through the slits in the windows.
“Where are we?” Rella asked, narrowing her eyes. This didn’t seem like a place Nicholas would care to meet her in just as it didn’t seem like a place Satan would care to meet her in. It hardly came as a surprise that there was someone else involved—but where did that leave Nicholas? If the secretary knew about him, and what he meant to her, she had to have spoken to him.
The door creaked as the secretary closed it behind her. She leaned back against it, her arms behind her and thick legs crossed at the knee.
“A factory,” she said simply. “A demon named Ribcage used to run it back when he was setting up his—” she rolled her eyes “—menagerie. When he realized how few cages he needs to produce for the creatures he so rarely gets, however, he shut it down.”
The secretary placed a hand on one of the cages beside the door, her claws clinking against the metal. The soft sound became sinister as it echoed through the chamber.
“One man’s trash, and all that,” she drawled.
“I’m not interested in your pointless blather,” Rella interrupted. “What are we doing here? What is all this about?”
“Patience,” the secretary said as she moved her hand further up the wall, finding a lightswitch behind one of the cages. The bulbs high above flickered sleepily before bursting to life, illuminating the room in a sickly fluorescence.
Rella threw her hand up to shield her sensitive eyes. An indignant cry slipped through her teeth. Flicking her gaze upward, she caused the light directly above her to shatter. The glass rained around her in a halo, and crunched beneath the toe of her heel when she took a threatening step forward.
“Enough of this,” she said. “I came here for no other reason than to see Nicholas. If his presence here was a lie, I have no qualms forcing my way past you. But if you’ve done anything to him in order to get to me—”
The secretary laughed. The sound was shrill and full of cold mirth and the very last thing Rella was expecting to hear.
“Oh, Rella,” the secretary said between breaths, wiping tears from her eyes, “your sense of self-importance is positively charming.”
Rella tensed, flustered, and blinked rapidly as the secretary’s laughter subsided.
“I’m afraid you have this backwards,” the demon explained, her gold eyes gleaming above the sharp shine of her teeth. “Nicholas isn’t leverage. You are.”
Rella didn’t have the chance to react to the secretary’s words. She didn’t have the chance to turn when she heard the hollow click of a bullet sliding into the chamber of a gun.
There was a sound like thunder. Rella screamed as she fell—but all she saw was red, and all she felt was the pain that blasted a path up her side from where the bullet had connected with her shin. Glass dust cut into her palms when she threw her hands down to cushion the impact. Somewhere, someone laughed, but the sound faded to static behind the blood pumping in her ears.
And then he was there.
Nicholas was crouched over her, his arms drawing her crumpled body up to his chest. He stared at her with bright eyes full of concern, and mouthed something she couldn’t hear. His arms were not as warm as she remembered, and seeing him now Rella was struck by how young he looked. Younger than her.
For a quick instant she was a little girl again, and nothing else in the world mattered. Rella’s love for him came swimming back to the surface as if she had never for an instant forgotten. It left her dizzy and dull and unlike everything she had become. She smiled up at him. He cupped her face but did not smile back.
When Rella noticed the bruises on his face, the stupor faded and the pain came back. Her chest heaving, she struggled to right herself.
“Don’t move,” Nicholas urged, squeezing his arms more tightly around her. He turned his head around, toward the direction the bullet had come from. His face was twisted in a scowl the likes of which Rella had never seen before.
“Damn you, Ballas,” he spat. “She has no part in this!”
“Ah, but she does,” came the reply.
Rella struggled in Nicholas’ arms, suppressing a whimper as she moved her legs under herself and hooked an arm around his neck to pull herself into a sitting position against him. Black spots bloomed at the corners of her vision, but she grit her teeth and willed them away.
She saw Ballas at once. He was an unattractive man of impressive form, with a single chain choking his bull-like neck. The gun in his hand was still pointed in their direction, though he held it casually, as if he didn’t see the point in using it again.
“You made sure of that yourself,” Ballas said. “If you had cooperated from the start, I would not have been forced to take such measures. But, as you said, nothing I could do to you would change your mind. You are a smart man, Cannon, not unlike myself. It is that sentiment of yours that makes you so weak.”
“You,” Nicholas started.
“It is fortunate for me that I was made aware to her presence in Nothing,” Ballas continued, waving his free hand as if beckoning someone forward. “I would not have had such an effective bargaining chip, otherwise. The living do not endure pain half so well as the dead.”
The soft clopping of hoof against concrete filled the room as the secretary finally moved. She stepped past the bodies on the floor without sparing them so much as a glance—and as she did, she began to change.
Her thick, animal legs became slender and human. Her skin darkened to the color of chestnut. When she reached Ballas, she was completely unrecognizable save for the dark hair twisted in graceful knots at the back of her head.
He reached out and stroked her chin fondly, as if rewarding a pet for good behavior. “You have done well, my rose,” he said.
She smiled, and shifted her gaze toward Rella. Her eyes were as black as buttons.
“I told you I’d never leave you,” she said.She was Rosemary, and she was real.