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Jaq swerves her snowmobile into a stop, sitting at an angle that crosses the path. She jumps off, trying not to scream or vomit. She fails at both attempts.
She tries to shout, to ask what Curson has done to her, but she can’t form the words, can barely articulate the thought.
It started a few seconds ago. Queasiness, uneasiness, exhaustion. But now there’s a cacophony in her mind, like a thousand discordant trumpets.
“I’m sorry, Jaq,” Curson says. He doesn’t use his voice, but she can hear him in her mind. He’s panicked. His thoughts run fast, unsteady. “I don’t want to be doing this.” It’s not a comfort, but it seems true.
Jaq falls on her side, then turns, kicks her feet under her, trying to slide away from Curson. His face is full of fear.
“They’re doing something to me. She is. I don’t know. The wizard, she’s controlling me.”
“Stop!” Jaq manages to shout, and cries out when Curson steps on her bad arm. The shock through her system stops her thinking just long enough to stop her moving. This is enough time for Curson to get down on knees, leaning over her.
“I’m sorry,” he says again. He’s crying. She didn’t even realize demons could do that.
So many minds are vying for control in Curson. His own mind speaks, but the wizard, Kuda Zloveschiy, it’s like she’s standing right behind him. Her commands force his hands. He grips Jaq’s wrist, the good one—her broken arm is all but useless now.
He holds his other hand to her throat.
He tries to fight off the wizard, the fool that bound him to this plane.
A fool no more, it seems. The mortal figured out not only how to combat his kind, but how to control him. Whatever poison floods his system, he cannot purge it.
I could have spared you the pain, at least, the wizard said. I could have made it so you wouldn’t even know what you’re doing. But you know what, Curson? There’s a line in Shakespeare. “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” You’ve never cared about our suffering. Didn’t care about who got roped up in your works, didn’t care about who died while you worked out your schemes. Never cared about mortal pain, only what the mechanisms were. You will kill the girl, Curson. You will feel it. And you will obey me.
Other voices. The parliament. Allies and enemies. Valac and Furcas and Gaap. Halphas, Marchosias. Some of the other kings, Vine, Bael, Paimon. Some urge him to kill, others to spare. A babbling chorus that muddles his mind.
He wants to stop, tries to get away.
His hand squeezes her throat.
Jaq can’t move her good arm, she can’t sit up. The noises in her head have weakened. Now that Curson has her pinned to the ground, he doesn’t need to fill her mind with a tempest of demon music.
She swings her bad arm at Curson, crying in pain, but the demon’s body turns to vapor, reforms when the arm has passed. She tries kicking, kneeing, the same thing happens. Tries rolling, but he stays solid.
Curson’s fingers dig into her throat, nails cutting her. She takes a deep breath, not sure that will help anything at all, but maybe it will. She braces, ready.
This is it, then, she thinks. Gently into that good arctic hellscape.
But something’s going wrong with the death thing. She keeps breathing. She can feel the pressure on her throat, and it hurts like hell. Hot blood slips down, drips onto the snow. But she can breathe. Not well. But enough.
Curson doesn’t seem to notice. She closes her eyes. Resists less. She’s still breathing. She has no idea if this is magic or happenstance or the Exarch or all three, but she’s still alive, and that is a beautiful feeling.
Her broken arm moves through the snow, grinding with pain. Curson doesn’t seem to notice. She fumbles in her pocket. Curson doesn’t seem to notice. She draws out the telescope, and wings the demon over the head with it. Curson notices.
Septimus’ feet hurt like hell, but when he hears the sounds of struggle, he starts to run. The snow makes it hard, and he slips and slides, but Jaq is shouting in pain, loud enough that her voice carries over the wind. Something that sounds like a bear or a lion (or both) is clearly giving her a fight.
The snow turns to shadows, which resolve into the forms of Jaq and Curson, but Curson keeps changing. His shadowy form, the version he saw in the hangar, keeps fading in and out, like the demon can't keep control. He roars like a lion, then growls like a bear, then groans like a man, striking out at Jaq.
But Jaq seems to be doing alright. Somehow, despite her arm going at deeply worrisome angles, she’s holding her own against the demon, despite being a squishy human.
She’s wielding the telescope like a club. Curson sees Septimus, runs for him, but Jaq catches his ankle, and Curson drops in the snow.
“Shoot him!” Jaq shouts to Septimus, but he doesn’t, he can’t get a bearing on exactly what’s happening.
“Shoot me!” Curson cries out. Then his body ripples and fades, and he’s a bear again, with the head of a lion. The form charges Septimus, strikes him. Septimus goes flying (that’s twice, today), and lands ten feet away.
Then, its Curson again, stalking toward Septimus. Septimus climbs to his feet, and sees the look on the demon’s face. It’s contorted in terrible pain.
“You have to kill me,” Curson says. “I can’t stop this.”
Curson closes the distance. Septimus doesn’t have time to maneuver before Curson is grabbing him, slamming him against the wall. He feels a rib go, and starts to taste blood.
Then, again, he’s in the snow, and Curson is recoiling, screeching, and Jaq is standing there with the telescope. It glows, the odd runes on it gleaming blue in the low light, but sometimes flashing other colors.
“What in the name of Santa’s jealous brother is going on?”
“Curson’s been poisoned. He won’t stop fighting until I’m dead. We,” she trails off, looks at Curson, crawling through the snow. The shadows are gathering around him as he regroups to attack again.
“Kill me,” Curson says. “It’s the only wa—”, but the last word is lost in the snarl of a hunter that’s just caught its prey.
“We knock him prone,” Jaq says, as Curson stands on four mammoth feet. “Then you shoot him.”
Septimus wipes blood from his mouth.
“He’s still a demon,” he says.
Jaq stares, like she hadn’t thought of that. “Yes. Yes he is. Merde.”
“This is bad. You only use French when things are bad.”
“Yes. Bad. Okay. I have a bad idea. Hang on. Get ready to fire.”
Curson charges, snarling. Septimus raises his gun, whole body shaking from cold and pain. Jaq winds up with her good arm, and just as Curson reaches them, slams the demon with the telescope. The device looks totally undamaged, as far as Septimus can tell, despite having now taken one hell of a beating (forgive the pun).
The creature slams into the ice wall, turns back to Curson, and slides to the ground. Septimus fires, but the bullets do nothing.
“Wait!” Jaq says. “This. Hold steady.”
Septimus holds out the gun. Jaq, slowly, knowing this is a hideously silly idea, places the eye-end of the telescope right at the barrel of the gun. Together, the two aim the gun at Curson.
Curson looks at them, standing, but nods.
“Yes,” he says. “Do it.”
Septimus pulls the trigger. The telescope flares with light, a rainbow of colors circling it, and a small sphere of light shoots, with impossible speed, into the demon’s head.
The sound of a dying demon is horrible, like a battleship being torn in half. The body, already dead, flails, and the human form falls, sloughing off, revealing something that looks like a mesh of small shadows, woven into something with too many arms and not enough torsos.
There’s a great crack as the thing screams, and the ground begins to shake. Septimus and Jaq don’t have time to mourn their ally, if he ever was even that. The shaking ground turns to quaking ground, and pieces of ice begin falling from the walls above.
They both bolt, supporting each other on the slipping ground, as the canyon collapses around them. The walls of ice turn to mountains.
Jaq would scream from pain, but the adrenaline shoves all her energy into forward motion, leaving precious little else for breathing or the like.
They break from the canyon into an open space, but they don’t stop to look just yet. They slide to the ground as a tower of ice topples, crumbling in the opening. They watch the canyon shake itself shut.
All because Curson died.
“Curson,” Septimus says.
“But we’re alive.”
“No way out.”
“But we’re alive.”
“No idea what to do.”
“But we’re alive.”
Jaq keeps repeating the phrase, making it a maxim. Tears form at her eyes, and she brushes them away. She will not succumb to this. There isn’t time, and if they don’t get moving, she’ll be useless. Broken limbs can be enough to knock a person out, and this arm has suffered enough abuse to merit a divorce.
“Come on. We need to go.”
They stand, slowly, leaning on each other. Jaq pulls a sling from her pocket, hidden there when she thought the arm was better. Septimus helps bind and hang the arm. Finally, they look at where they’ve ended up.
Four obelisks, crackling with something like electricity, but closer to red in color. They’re metal, not stone, and stand in the middle of a pit, dug into the earth. They’re about a hundred feet down from the top of the pit, and it goes a helluva lot deeper. At the far end is a tower of some kind, with lights in the windows at the top.
Asperitas clouds roil overhead, sometimes letting off jets of vermillion lightning that latches onto the obelisks.
“Bienvenue dans l'apocalypse.”
Jaq looks at the telescope, still gripped in her good hand. The lenses in it have shattered, which happens when you fire a bullet through glass. She tries looking through, but it reveals nothing but static, like looking at a tube-teevee that isn’t getting a signal.
She looks over the edge of the pit, sees that it goes forever, and tosses the dead telescope into it.
Kuda watches the canyon collapse.
“That must be the girl, dead.”
“Most likely,” Furcas says. “When they were handing out powers to us, I was not granted with far sight. Greater than mortal, yes, but that comes standard. Like power windows.”
Kuda lets out a small laugh. It feels nice to speak to the demon. She spends so much of her time forced to use English, or German, or Arabic. Hell, even Basque on occasion. The demon knows Russian, however, which is a nice break.
“You don’t seem worried,” Furcas says.
“Why should I be?”
“Your escape route just collapsed.”
“You’re a demon, I’m sure you have some way to whisk me away.”
“Why would I do that?”
She looks up at him, meets his eyes. He gives her a smile, but there is no joy in it, and no teeth. Instead, his mouth is his true form: shadows strung together like iron behind his lips.
“What are you talking about, Furcas? I’ve done everything you asked.”
“Yes, you did. And I didn’t even have to torture you to do it. Just lie to you a bit.”
“You,” she trails off. Of course he lied. He’s a demon. “I’ve been a tremendous fool.”
“Yes, you have,” he says, still smiling, looking out on the obelisk pit. “In a few days, the vodyrazum will have ripped this world to shreds. In a few years, the mortals will be gone. I will bring my legions here, and we will begin carving this place out, to create a new sphere of hell.”
“Yes, the balance of hell must be maintained, et cetera. That’s why I did a bit of a power-play back home first. Started a war. At least one of the spheres will be destroyed by the time this place is made ready for me.”
Kuda doesn’t pay attention. She’s just staring at the ground.
“What of me?”
“Your escape has been cut off, so, you’ll probably die here in the ice. Don’t worry, that will be more pleasant than dying out with the rest of the world.”
She strikes at him, but her hand passes through him. She punches the glass instead, and cries out, shards slicing her hand to ribbons. She falls to the ground.
“I never mentioned this, but you really aren’t very smart, are you? You did all this because I gave you precise instructions. On your own, you weren’t even able to raise Curson correctly.”
Kuda doesn’t know how to react, so she goes back to an old favorite of hers: “Fuck you.”
“I’m not that kind of demon.”
She leans up against the console, holding her hand, considering alternatives. She should have seen this. Should have built in fail-safes, stops, something. But the vodyrazum are resolute and the demon is unmoving.
Furcas leans against the window.
“You idiot,” he says. “The girl’s not dead.”
“The girl, and the boy. They’re walking here. You idiot, you couldn’t even get a demon to kill a mortal girl.”
He turns to the control panels, starts pressing buttons. The systems hum to life.
“What are you doing?”
Jaq and Septimus are nearly to the tower. A snowmobile sits at the base. This would be their way out, if their way out hadn’t just collapsed after playing host to the death of a king of hell.
“Do we actually have a plan?”
“I want to see what’s at the top of that tower. Maybe we can shut it down from there.” Jaq is worried, though. That feeling of certainty she had when Curson was attacking. The absolute knowledge that she was about to die. It hasn’t left.
A sound behind them, ice crackling. At first neither of them notice it, but when the sound happens again, they turn. Something is crawling out of the pit. Something big.
Tentacles and arms come from over the edge. They tense, gripping the ice, and the attached vodyrazum pulls itself up onto the path. This one is big. Very big. Bigger, even, than the ones Jaq first met, which feels like years ago, but was only days.
The vody whips arms toward them. Another pulls up from the pit.
Jaq closes her eyes, holds up her good hand. The bracelet there begins to glisten green. The vody move into attack, but they both stop at the same time. They turn, and jump back over the edge of the pit.
“That was, uh, wow,” Septimus tries to say.
“Yep,” Jaq says. “Let’s go."
Kuda laughs. And laughs. And laughs.
“Shut up,” Furcas says.
She doesn’t, though. As someone who just got called ‘idiot’ by a literal demon, the demon’s immediate failure is too much for her, and she convulses into fits of laughter. He kicks her, hard, in the side, but she still laughs at him.
He kicks her again, and again. He doesn’t want to kill her, he could do that easily enough. But this lack of control over her will not stand.
Distracted, he doesn’t notice a small red shape flutter forward, and land carefully on the shards of glass still in the window. It’s small, looks like a long red snake, with two heads, six legs, and four wings. One of the heads flicks out a long tongue, the other smiles.
Jaq tosses the door open. The first thing she sees is a pile of clothes on the floor in the corner. She only realizes its a person when it coughs up blood. It looks at Jaq and waves.
“Watch out,” it says, in English with a Russian accent. “There,” she points to a space in the room that Jaq can’t see from her side of a corner.
“Oh, very helpful,” says a man’s voice from that place. He steps out. He’s large, many muscles hiding under a purple suit, with a cane, and an impressive head of hair. “Hello, Jaq,” he says.
“Hi,” she says back, and edges into the room. She winds up against a broken window, which she guesses is responsible for at least some of Kuda Zloveschiy’s blood.
“My name is Furcas. What is it you want, may I ask?” says the demon. Septimus steps into the room too.
Jaq starts speaking, but Furcas holds up a hand to stop her.
“You look familiar,” he says to Septimus. “Have we ever met?”
“I’ve only met one demon, and he wasn’t you.”
“What’s your name?”
Septimus shoots Jaq a look, tries to ignore the red lizard that’s sitting right by her ear, though he notes it as a possible threat. Jaq shrugs.
“Jones. Septimus Jones.”
“Jones. Have you ever had a father?”
“You know, a thing about humans, is that we all have one at some point, whether or not we wind up with one.”
“I see. I think I knew your father. I taught him chiromancy.”
“Palm reading,” Kuda says, from the floor.
“Look, this is all very interesting, but we need to get this settled. You need to stop what you’re doing.”
“You’re destroying the world.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Jaq, a little help here?”
But Jaq is occupied. Her hand is flexing, working the bracelet, but at the same time, the lizard thing with too many limbs is climbing onto her shoulder, like a cat. It whispers in her ear. Furcas doesn’t seem to see it.
“Curson is dead,” she says. Furcas laughs, but Septimus gets the feeling she was talking to the lizard.
“The death of a king of hell is legitimately impressive,” Furcas says. “You two should be proud.”
“Look,” Septimus says. “I’ve had a weird week, and I didn’t sign up for any of it. I just want you to stop, and if you don’t, I’ll have to kill you.”
“I just killed a demon, and I’d love to bring my career total to two infernicides.”
There’s a burst of light, shining white, and a figure appears in the now crowded room. It stands between Septimus and Furcas, and seems to be a ten year old boy. It looks like an angel. Jaq grabs Septimus’ shoulder and starts to pull him from the room.
“Come on,” she says, and guides him down the stairs.
“What’s going on?”
“Did you see the dragon?”
“The lizard? Yeah.”
“Yeah, that’s a dragon. It serves a demon. A demon that had a frenemy-relationship with Curson, and a demon who is now real pissed. Name of Valac.”
“It looked like a dragon.”
“Its other name is Marquis of Snakes.”
“So, not an angel.”
“Where are we going?”
“The dragon told me what I have to do.”
“What are you doing here, Valac?”
“Hauling you in.”
“The Parliament is very upset with you, Furcas.”
“For what? I’m just meddling in mortal affairs. That’s perfectly normal.”
“It would be, except that you got another demon killed.”
“Hardly, that was the doing of this woman, and the two that just left!”
“At your command. And that’s not all.”
The little boy with the blonde curls and glistening wings smiles, and steps forward. The smile is terrible to behold, even in human form. Furcas, despite outranking the little ragamuffin, feels a twinge of fear.
“Look, Furcas, I hated Curson too. But killing another demon isn’t even your biggest crime. The war is over, Furcas. Amdusias has given you up.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t need to. Just go back home. Well, not home exactly. I’ll be sending you to Lucier, who will decide whether you get to keep existing or not..”
Before Furcas can say a word, a spherical cage appears around him, and contracts. When it’s too small to hold a human form, the demon drops that guise, and appears as a spindly thing of shadow.
The dragon, the boy, and the demon disappear in a flash of light.
Kuda Zloveschiy, groaning in pain, sits up and leans against the wall.
“What the fuck?” she asks, in Russian.
They reach the bottom of the stairs, and Jaq goes to the edge of the pit. She stands right against the edge, and looks at Septimus.
“The dragon told me how to close the portal.” To punctuate this, reddish lightning strikes the obelisks behind her. “But I can’t do it from up here.”
“What are you doing, Jaq?”
“Do you know what Curson was a demon of?”
“Knowledge. Why are you changing the subject? Now is not the time to wander off on tangents, Jaq.”
“Familiars. He brought familiars to people.”
“Like cats for witches?” His heart is fluttering. Jaq is very close to the edge, and he doesn’t like the way she’s tensing up. She clenches her jaw as she speaks.
“Only in the storybooks. Familiar’s don’t just help with spells, Sep. Look, I’m just saying,” she says, then trails off. There’s a tear in her eye.
“Sorry, Sep. This is the only way.”
“It was good knowing you.”
“See you on the other side.”
The wind blocks out all sound except the pumping of her heart. At the bottom is a starfield, and it gets very close very fast. She closes her eyes so she can’t see it.
She flexes her hand, and the bracelet begins to work its magic. She can hear the groaning of the systems that make the world work. The Exarch told her, basically, how it would go: the bracelet is diagnosing. Telling the world about the vodyrazum, and their weaknesses. Then, the world’s turn: healing. The portal begins to close.
She doesn’t see it, but all around the world, the vody turn to dust.
She hits the bottom, and sees the past.
It’s a nice house, suburban, she can’t tell what country. She hears the voices, but there’s only babbling. The ghost-memories of her parents. A knock at the door. They both go to it. They’re nervous, expecting this visitor, but not wanting to meet them.
Jaq isn’t even surprised when it’s the Exarch.
It all fades to black again.
Is this death?
Nope. Her eyes open on sunlight and men in black uniforms. The obelisks stand over her, dented and rusted. She’s on her back, unable to move, on a shelf of ice near the bottom of the pit.
The men are coming down on ladders at the end of long ropes. It is, after all, a very deep pit. A helicopter hovers high in the pit, but can’t get any lower.
“Hello,” Russell Steele says, kneeling beside her. “About time.”
“Did it work?”
“Yes,” he says. “They’re gone, as far as we can tell.”
“Don’t talk,” says a voice near her.
“Listen to the Doctor,” Steele says. “You’ll be alright. We’re going to airlift you out, debrief you back in London, then send you on your merry way.”
She starts to speak, but he cuts her off. “We’re taking care of the plane. I’m not sure how you’re alive, but you’ve never been boring.”
But, for once, she wasn’t worried about the plane. “Septimus,” she says.
Steele looks off, calls out “Hey!” and snaps.
Jaq doesn’t smile because she’s afraid the pain might kill her.
“You know, If this were a bad movie, you’d kiss me right now.”
“Thank God you’re gay and I’m ace.”
“Amen for that.”
Time passes, things change, blah blah.
Nobody was looking after Curson’s place once he died, so Jaq took over. The artifacts are fun, the books are interesting, and it’s a nicer hidey-hole than her former hovel.
Septimus disappeared after a couple of months. Not literally disappeared, he went off to find his father. That message they got, that implied his father was a live? Well, turns out he was, Septimus got a message from the old man.
Jaq spends time doing cargo runs, because, weirdly enough, that whole thing with the vody didn’t actually pay her anything. Broadleaf took care of most of the medical issues, at least. She spends most of her time healing. She daily considers flaunting doctor’s orders and doing something fun, but then she remembers that walking too far or too hard kills her ability to breathe. So, for now, simple cargo runs with trusted associates. Nothin’ weird.
At the moment, she’s sitting in her new, library-like home, reading a book about...something. She keeps reading the same few lines over and over, but nothing sticks. Her lack of focus is made up for by the excellent cigar she’s currently enjoying.
There’s a buzz from somewhere overhead. A PA system. Curson used to be in charge of the club outside, and Jaq has inherited some of that responsibility, but she lets the barkeeps do most of the work. She can’t actually pay them more (Curson allowed them to keep 100% of the profits, since he didn’t need any), but still. She doesn’t care enough to do all of the work.
The buzz turns into Kyle’s voice. “Uh, boss, sorry, Jaq,” (she doesn’t like them calling her boss), “there’s a thing out here.”
She sighs, grabs her crutches, heads out.
She opens the door into the Club Club, and….
“Well, yeah. This would be a problem.”
Kyle nods from behind the bar, but doesn’t stop staring at the dozen men in black combat uniforms. They’ve positioned themselves all around the place, up against walls.
“You know,” Jaq says to the nearest one. “Bringing armed guards into Mary Shadow has never been, and never will be, a good idea.”
“Perhaps for a native,” says a woman as she walks in through the door. “We’re not from around here.”
She’s wearing a dark suit, with straight, dark hair.
“Let me guess,” Jaq smiles, “you’re from England.”
“Oh, very clever. You’re good at hearing accents.”
“Not just that. The pale skin, too. I’ve heard the last time the English saw the sun was before Thatcher.”
“Well. I won’t say you’re wrong.”
Agreeing with Jaq is an interesting tactic that, in her opinion, is used by far too few people. She motions to a table.
“Who are you and why are you in my bar?”
“My name is Eternia Whit-Acre. I’m with Broadleaf.”
“Oh for hell’s crap. I’ve signed so many forms, and so many affidavits for you people already. Can you not just leave me alone?”
“Sorry, to be clear, I don’t work-for Broadleaf. I’m in charge of it.”
Jokes about the woman’s youth run through Jaq’s mind, but she settles on none of them, and just raises an eyebrow.
“I inherited the role. I’m a descendant of one of the founding members.”
“Nepotism to the rescue. Why are you here?”
“I’m putting together a team, for a mission. Not a permanent contract or anything, just one mission. One that the Queen has asked be completed, and which may require certain latitudes offered by not being part of the government.”
“No, sorry. Have a drink on the house.” Jaq stands, with considerable effort.
“Please, let me tell you what I have on offer.”
“No, really. Not interested.”
“At least look at the names. Please?”
The girl’s face is sincere. She either has a great poker face, or truly wants Jaq to at least look at the folder. She sighs, and drops herself into the chair. Whit-Acre holds out a file.
“Do I need to sign anything first?”
“Your non-disclosure statements from the last incident will cover this day as well.”
Jaq flips through the files, looks at the names and the photographs. Steele is in there, which isn’t terribly surprising: he’s a good bargaining chip, if you want to convince Jaq to join up.
Then she gets to the last name in the stack.
“Yes, but, we legally can’t say their name until you’re signed on..”
“Really? Like, sincerely?”
“As sincerely as I love my mother.”
“That’s not illustrative here.”
“We have them. Really and truly.”
Jaq looks back at the file.
“Fine,” she says. “I’m in.”