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.