I knew immediately that opening the door had been a mistake.
Okay, let me back up a little. We've all seen the horror movies, but when a practitioner passes away, they almost never leave behind anything more dangerous than a couple of dodgy alchemical experiments or a miniature gryphon. The only reason it's standard procedure to send another practitioner to check over the house is because things like that, which are no big deal for us, can pose a major problem for mundane emergency services. My job was to check the place over, neutralize any stray books, dismantle minor wards and convenience spells, safely dispose of any unstable potions or alchemical byproducts, verify the absence of hungry little gryphons, and then come out and sign a couple of things.
If I hadn't known Gran, I probably still wouldn't have volunteered. I might've been the only other practitioner in town, but it wouldn't have taken more than a day to call in somebody official, and poking around in a dead stranger's house looking for hazardous magical materials is not my idea of fun even if strictly speaking it's not likely to be dangerous. Gran was okay, though. She was a little kooky, but in the cool way. Asking anybody she met under the age of forty to call her Gran, casting Horn of Plenty on her birdfeeders, knowing everybody's birthday so she could send them homemade cookies, that kind of kooky. The worst thing I expected to find in her house was a pair of enchanted knitting needles patiently filling the living room with sixty-plus feet of scarf because she forgot to turn them off before she went out.
So imagine my surprise when I opened the door behind the stairs in her basement, expecting a laundry room or maybe a storage closet, and instead I found a demon.
Crash course in demonology: Ninety percent of what you know from the movies is wrong.
Demons' true names are more like intangible magical artifacts than spoken words, and more like a combined truth-scry and phone number than an unbreakable leash on the demon's soul. If a demon learns your name you are not automatically their slave forever; the catch there is a little more complicated and a lot more subtle - if you willingly tell a demon a name to call you by, whether it's your "real" one or not, they gain a little influence over your mind and soul, and if you invite the demon to choose a name to call you by (or even just get in the habit of answering to something they picked) they gain a little influence over your physical body.
Also, any circle can be broken. A well-drawn circle will do two things: provide the summoner with the name of the demon inside, which is kind of the bare minimum you need to semi-safely bargain with one, and keep the demon contained until the summoner releases them… but a powerful enough demon in a weak enough circle can pretty much ignore the second part, which is why summoning powerful demons is a stupid pastime in addition to being wildly illegal.
Knowing a demon's name will tell you, among other things, how powerful they are.
I'd like to say that the relevant parts of this flashed through my mind and I made a snap decision to step forward into the faded chalk arc of the summoner's crescent, taking control of the circle for whatever small advantage that might offer me in surviving the next thirty seconds if this demon happened to be close to breaking it. I'd like to say that, but what actually happened is that I opened the door, said "Oh shit," and stepped into the summoner's place in the diagram before the conscious parts of my brain had gotten any farther than majorly freaking out. And then the name hit, and, well…
Demonology is a standard part of any responsible magical education, but it's very much a safety thing, 'forewarned is forearmed' and all that. For obvious reasons, we don't learn how to actually summon them, or much about what the process is like. I knew the abstract properties of demons' names, but nothing about that prepared me for the moment of learning one.
His name felt like fire on the back of my tongue, like breathing flame and swallowing smoke. It flooded my senses completely. My skin felt too tight, I was baking hot, and red-black fireworks burst across my field of vision. I swayed and almost stumbled back, but held my ground reflexively; nothing good ever comes of staggering around mostly blind in the middle of intense magic, even without a demon in the picture.
Then it faded, leaving behind a lingering warmth and all the knowledge I'd been taught to expect. Alongside that, now that I could focus on it, I was getting the usual spell feedback from the circle.
Together, they told me I was pretty much fucked.
The circle was old and badly faded, its containment aspect barely more than the magical equivalent of caution tape. And the demon, if the sensory blast of his name hadn't been enough of a clue, was very, very powerful. The first coherent thought I managed, as I was putting the pieces together, was to wonder why he hadn't just gotten up and walked out before now. And as soon as I wondered it, I started picking up clues from the jumble of new information.
This was (luckily for me) an honourable demon. Through the connection of his name, I could sense his attitude towards bargaining with mortals, and patience and a sense of fairness featured heavily. There was also something else that hadn't quite come clear at first, a vague feeling on the far edge of what I could pick up from him. I noticed several other things before I understood it.
For one, the circle wasn't just old, it was well-used. The immaterial path linking it to this demon's corner of hell felt like a hallway with a track worn down the middle of the carpet. For another, as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I was starting to see more of the demon than two golden eyes and a glimpse of cherry-red wing.
He was lounging mostly on his stomach on a backless couch, which I could tell he'd created with magic; conjured objects have an unmistakable feel to them, and this one gave off an infernal vibe on top of that. He must have been seven or eight feet tall, with curly black hair, huge ribbed wings, and black talons where a human would've had nails; one hand was busy propping his head up and therefore mostly hidden by the hair, but the other one rested on the near edge of the couch with all five claws clearly visible. He was unreasonably attractive, I mean the kind of face that would make me suspect a glamour if I saw it on a human, but with his name burning in my mind I could tell that I was seeing one hundred percent unfiltered physical reality. The same went for his body, which besides being tall was comfortably solid, with just enough muscle to look good without veering into bodybuilder territory, not to mention flawless skin and a mathematically perfect ass. Oh, and naked. Did I mention he was naked? He was totally naked.
And that vague feeling I was getting through his name? Yeah: sex. Gran's surprise basement demon was horny.
All in all, about five seconds passed between opening the door and coming to the conclusion that the recently deceased woman who had given me dinosaur mittens for my ninth birthday had definitely been banging a demon. Pretty regularly, for several years if not longer. I tried not to picture anything. Gran might not have been a literal relative, but I still didn't want to think about her sex life. Also, I kind of had more pressing concerns.
Like: the demon was smirking at me.
"Um," I said. "...Hi?"
"You are not who I was expecting," he said dryly. His voice was as unfair as the rest of him, all deep and smooth, and it went straight to parts of my brain that I definitely did not want involved in this conversation.
"Yeah, um… she died," I said.
The demon raised one perfect black eyebrow. "You didn't kill her, did you?" he inquired. Partly through his name, partly through regular old tone of voice and body language, I received the distinct impression that he wouldn't be very happy with me if I said yes.
"Uh, no," I said, a little shakily, hoping he could read the truth on me like I could on him because I was in no way pulling off the calm confident nothing-to-hide attitude that people who aren't lying should theoretically possess. He smiled. I sensed no hostile intention from him, which isn't a guarantee with demons but is still much better than the alternative.
"Good." He regarded me for a few more seconds, which I probably should have spent strategizing but instead spent staring at his inhumanly gorgeous face. "How did she die?"
I blinked and made myself stop admiring his eyelashes. "Heart attack," I recalled. "Um, this morning outside a cafe. I wasn't there."
"A shame. I liked her," he said, with (I could tell) perfect honesty. "Whatever am I going to do now?"
He stretched his wings, and the tips struck ghostly sparks from the air where they met the boundary of the circle. I could feel that he was holding back, deliberately taunting me; if he'd just opened them a little farther, the barrier would have shattered.
Several answers to his question sprang to mind. A demon as powerful as he was, called into the mortal world and set loose, could become a global problem. If he was smart and ambitious as well as powerful, he could become a global conqueror. Granted, that didn't fit what I knew about him, which was that he had just spent who knows how long sitting patiently in his mortal booty call's basement in a circle so fragile he could break it with one good shove. On the other hand, I'd just told him that his mortal booty call was dead, which meant he had a pretty good reason to be upset, and if he decided to take it out on whoever was closest, I was in deep shit. Along with Gran's neighbours and possibly the entire rest of town.
On the less terrifying end of things… well, he'd come here to have sex. And I might not have been the person he'd been looking for, but I was definitely the person he was looking at. It didn't take a deep mystical connection to interpret that look. It was a kind of look I would've found extremely flattering in some other context. Here in Gran's basement, face to face with a demon who could rip my soul from my body and bind it in eternal torment anytime he felt like it, I was a little too shaken to enjoy the ego boost.
I took a deep breath.
"We could go back to your place," I said, as calmly as I could manage.
The demon folded his wings and looked at me more closely; I'd almost call it a double-take. "Go on," he said. I could feel through his name that I'd caught his interest.
His name also let me get a pretty good sense of what approach to take with him: direct and honest, not trying to hide my motives or downplay what I hoped to get out of a deal. "Whatever you end up doing, I kind of really don't want you doing it here," I explained. "And if you take me to, um, hell, you can send me back here whenever you want, but you can't come back by yourself, right?"
Smiling thoughtfully, he nodded. "Under normal circumstances, I cannot. But the circle is a standing invitation." I hadn't thought of that, but I wasn't surprised; it made a lot more sense that he had come here under his own power than that Gran had summoned a demon into her basement and then gone out for coffee and left him there. I knew he was telling the truth, but I double-checked anyway. My link to the circle confirmed it.
"This circle will collapse if you give it a mean look," I said, and he grinned. He had very white teeth, humanlike except for the long sharp canines. I tried not to stare. "I'd want you to take it down on the way out."
"Sensible," said the demon, grinning a little wider. "Anything else?"
My bargaining power was seriously limited. Friendly as he might seem, I didn't feel like it would be a smart move to ask for too much, or get into a lengthy haggling session that might bore or annoy him. "I want you to send me home free and unharmed when we're done," I said, "or kill me and release my soul. Free and unharmed."
That would take care of eternal torture, the major looming threat of any interaction with demons: eventually, dead or alive, he'd have to let me go. I didn't feel confident enough to specify that it had to be alive.
"Interesting," he said. "Nothing more than that?"
I reviewed my terms, took a moment to think about them, and shook my head. The demon would end up in hell, unable to return to the mortal world until the next time he was summoned. I would end up out of hell, one way or another. Gran's neighbours would be safe from potential demonic tantrums, at least in the immediate future. It wasn't the best I could hope for, but it was the best I could realistically expect to get.
"Then here is what I want," said the demon. "One: I am the one who decides when we are done. I can keep you for an hour, or a year, or a hundred years, as the whim takes me."
That was pretty much what I had expected regardless; it wasn't like I'd have any way to hold him to it if I asked him to let me go and he said no. "Okay," I said.
"Two: You must tell me in plain words what you expect us to be doing when I bring you home, and tell me in plain words what you think of the idea."
The demon grinned.
"Like, now?" I said.
"Now," he agreed.
Plain words. Right. Although my mystical connection had no direct comment on the matter, I suspected he knew exactly how embarrassed I was going to be and had thrown in this condition at least partly for that reason. "I, um, expect us to have sex," I said, managing not to stumble over the words too badly. "And I'm… kind of terrified but also really into it?"
"Acceptable," said the demon. I had the feeling - this time with input from his name - that there was more going on here than I understood, but I wasn't getting any hint of concealed ill intent, just… subtext. I decided that I didn't need to ask. He continued, "And my final condition: Something to call you by."
"Oh, shit," I muttered. He grinned at me. I tried to focus. Sure, he was agreeing to let me go free and unharmed, but once a demon has your name they never, ever lose it again. He could let me go in a week and then spend the next ten years gradually mindfucking me into summoning him. Or…
"Can it be a name you choose?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
That would at least limit his influence to my mortal body. I could live with that. If I lived. If I didn't, of course, I wouldn't have a mortal body to worry about anyway.
"Do you know… when the circle breaks, will I still have your name?"
He smiled, showing a hint of fang. "Yes. It does not always happen that way, but you took to it well. My name will live in your soul forever."
"There go my chances of ever getting a government job," I said. The demon laughed. I tried not to shudder, and tried not to think about why I was shuddering, and managed the second one. "Okay," I said. "Then… name me."
He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds, giving me plenty of time to get increasingly uneasy despite the steady reassurance in the back of my mind that he wasn't playing me false. Then he smiled again.
"We have a bargain, Ananke."
I felt the name take hold. It was like warm water flowing under my skin, a pleasant but disturbing sensation. I breathed in, breathed out, and it settled, leaving me with a heightened awareness of my own body and the uncomfortable knowledge that it was now just a little bit less mine.
The demon stood up.
I'd heard the phrase 'hung like a demon' before (who hasn't?) but it had never occurred to me to wonder if it had any basis in reality. Staring at the evidence, I decided I was never going to describe a mortal man that way again. I also started to worry about whether or not having sex with him was going to be physically possible. 'Comfortable' seemed out of the question. I wasn't sure I could get one hand all the way around it, let alone anything else.
"Having doubts already?" the demon asked. Yeah, he was pretty clearly making fun of me. I glanced up at his face and saw exactly the smirk I was expecting.
"Kinda yeah," I said, because there didn't seem to be much point in trying to play it off. He might even have taken offense; he was weirdly into honesty for a demon.
"Fearing for your comfort?"
"Um, duh." I could probably have found a more diplomatic way to say that, but what are you gonna do. He laughed, anyway.
"You forget, I am a demon. I can arrange for you to be as comfortable as you could wish for," he said, in a tone I would have labeled 'kind' coming from just about anybody else.
"Oh." That fit with what I knew about demons; physical reality doesn't tend to limit them as aggressively as it does us mortals, even when they aren't directly using magic to alter it. I just hadn't ever considered that feature in this exact context. His name, warm as ever in my mind, assured me that he was telling the truth, and also that he didn't have any immediate plans to take advantage of the blatant loophole implicit in telling me that he could make me comfortable without mentioning whether or not he would.
And, okay, with the obvious logistical problems taken care of… yeah, it was impressive. Yeah, I was impressed. I was also blushing again, simultaneously fascinated by the possibilities and trying very hard not to imagine them.
"Shall we go?" said the demon.
"Sure," I said.
He spread his wings. The circle came apart. Insubstantial shards of magic fell through the air between us, their ghostly glitter fading before they reached the floor. I realized that although I had known the circle was providing me with all the protective value of a wet paper fence, I hadn't really believed it on a visceral level, and now that meaningless but comforting barrier was gone and I was looking at a demon who was about to take me home and fuck me. I tried not to cower.
The demon, naturally, grinned. He also held out his hand to me. I looked at it. Human hands are lighter on the palms, shinier, but his were the same shade of red front and back.
It was too late to have second thoughts, and then some. I stepped forward, over the powerless smears of chalk on the floor, and took his hand. He folded his wings around me. I closed my eyes. The floor dropped out from under us.