"So," I said, into the impatient, frustrated silence, watching rather woozily as the other occupant of this lovely little summoning circle paced furiously as far from me as physically possible within the bounds of our constraints. "You don't want to kill me?"
Not to put ideas in the demon's head, or anything. Just, you know. Checking. Hey, I had a concussion, alright? A baseball bat to the head will do that to you.
If looks could kill, the withering glare I got for that one would have spontaneously combusted me on the spot. The demon was looking a little less composed than he had when he'd been summoned, more than a little unwillingly from the sounds of things, into the circle an hour ago. Sort of wild-eyed and frustrated and more than a little homicidal. Fairly typical for a Fallen angel, you would have thought, but after a few encounters with Nick and the Nickleheads, I was starting to realise that you got a lot of variety with that sort of thing among the unholy legions.
Though, to be perfectly fair, this guy reminded me more of Gentleman Johnny than any of Nick's brood. Less terrorist-plot-to-destroy-the-world, more classy-debonair-do-not-fuck-with-me. With a side order of mild hysteria that John wouldn't be caught dead showing, of course, but nobody's perfect.
"You're Harry Dresden, right?" the demon snapped. Testily. Still blinking a bit, I nodded. And regretted it. "The wizard, making a big name for himself, went toe-to-toe with that bunch of nutters under Nicodemus, regularly consorts with the Knights of the Cross, possibly drew the attention of the sneakiest archangel in the spheres? That Harry Dresden? Why the fuck would I draw that kind of attention to myself?"
I stared at him for a second, nonplussed. Well, when you put it like that ...
"Right now, I do not want to be on the same continent as you," the demon went on. Warming to his subject a bit. "Let alone do something so monumentally stupid as kill you. Even if you are currently concussed and trussed up like a turkey, and probably not that much of a challenge."
"Hey!" I bristled. Not wise, considering all of that was pretty much true, but it's the principle of the thing. I still had a death curse! I wasn't out just yet!
The demon waved a dismissive hand. "Please. I could bounce a sleep spell off you right now, wait twenty minutes, off you while you were snoring and dreaming pretty dreams." I swallowed, at that. Because ... yeah. As a way around a curse ... that could work. "But I'm not going to. I'm not going to eat you, or kill you, or sacrifice you to my dark bloody master. Because it wouldn't be healthy. It wouldn't be safe. Because, aside from anything else, I'm bloody retired. And because the angel would make me sleep on the couch for a month, and I'm not going through all the bloody trouble of tempting him all over again, capisce?"
I stared at him. Mostly because there was way too much in that for me to parse with as much of a headache as I was having. But ...
"Angel?" I asked. Because, you know, some things you gotta. He swung a golden glare back around to me, eyes narrowing. Which, when your pupils are already slits, is a pretty disconcerting expression.
"You would pick that, out of everything, wouldn't you?" he grumbled. "Just bloody typical. When I get out of here ..."
I perked up. Escape. Right. Excellent plan. We should get right on that.
"When you escape ...?" I prompted, pulling myself rather achingly to my knees. Which, ow. Stupid Darth Bathrobe wannabes and their stupid baseball bats to the back of the skull. That's no way for a wizard to go down. And I'd probably be embarrassed about that (okay, so I kinda already was, lets not think about it), but hey, everyone has their off days, okay? Mine was just turning out, with all my usual luck, to utterly suck.
The demon narrowed his eyes some more. Which was just freaky, seriously. He watched me climb laboriously to my feet, very carefully keeping to his own corner of the magical summoning circle from Hell (literally). Like I was the one who might up and attack him. I repressed a grin, a bubble of something slightly hysterical. Seriously. How is this my life?
Then, his expression shifted. Dropping wariness and frustration and annoyance, dropping even the immediately homicidal. And instead ... pure, unadulterated, gleeful malice, something the very definition of the term 'unholy'. I almost dropped back, took a half-step backwards away from it, suddenly, viscerally reminded that, kinda amusing or not, so far non-violent or not, this was still a demon. And here was I without, well, much of anything.
"When I get out of here," he purred, low and dark and vicious, turning a hard, golden stare on the suddenly very nervous pair of cultists on guard outside the circle. "When I get out of here, I am going to watch. I am going to wait. I am going to find every last one of these little bastards, and I am going to show them how to play silly buggers."
The older of the two, with more spine than frankly I'd have credited him with, didn't flinch. The younger one, though, still gangling and awkward under his Walmart robes, flinched a bit, standing on the back of his robe in the process.
"You ... you ..." he stammered, while I winced a little in pity for him. Hells bells, cultists were getting so much younger, these days. And, I think, stupider. Which is sometimes a good thing. Others ... not so much. "The ... The torments of the damned do not frighten me!"
Yeah. That was believable. Sure, kid. Whatever you say.
My fellow prisoner, on the other hand, smiled at him. By which I mean, peeled his lips back over his teeth, mockingly, and prowled closer to their edge of the circle. "Really," he purred, soft and sibilant.
I frowned, wondering if I should possibly interfere. On behalf of one of the kids who'd beaten me over the head and kidnapped me, sure, but ... And then, the demon spoke again, and I was too busy being unwillingly impressed to consider it.
"Torments of the damned, hm?" The demon rolled the words around his mouth thoughtfully. "Is that what you think you're up against?" He grinned. I've seen less impressive expressions on sharks. Well. On pictures of sharks, anyway. "This isn't the 14th century, kiddo. Hellfire and brimstone? So last millennium. I'm not going to kill you. I'm not even going to torture you. Not even a little bit. You know why?"
The kid gulped. Shook his head, trying, for some reason probably relating to a lack of brainpower, not to look too hopeful.
I wasn't starting to feel sorry for him. No. Really. I wasn't.
"I'm not going to kill you," my demon murmured, and wow, when had that little possessive snuck in there? But, really, enemy-of-my-enemy, I guess, and he did remind me of John, a little ... "I'm not going to torture you. Because I won't have to. Because, with what I'm going to do to you, I wouldn't want it to be over too quickly." He smiled, and the expression was all snake. "You want to know what I am going to do to you?"
"What?" the elder cultist snarled, stepping in suddenly. Glaring furiously at his younger subordinate in the process. My demon tilted his head. Flicked his tongue out to taste the air, suddenly a lot less human-looking than he was a few minutes ago.
"I'm going to find your names," he hissed, thoughtfully. "Your social security numbers. Your homes. Your contacts. I'm going to cut open your lives, every tiny little thing you've ever thought or done since you were a squalling baby. And then ... I'm going to open them up. I'm going talk to your banks. Your employers. Your parents. The IRS. The FBI. Maybe the CIA, NSA, a few other alphabet soups. I'm going to ruin you. By the time I'm through, at least with step one, you won't have homes. You won't have a cent to your names, or a friend in the world. You'll be on the street. You won't have a dime to buy even a knock-off wand at a junk store, let alone something with enough juice to summon a demon. And then, then ..." He grinned, raw, distilled malice. "Then, we can start having fun."
The older guy's jaw had dropped open. The kid was fair trembling. To be fair, I wasn't exactly unmoved myself. To quote Thomas, empty night. Who the hell was this guy? The bastard lovechild of John Marcone and Nicodemus? And, wow, there was a thought I'd never needed to have.
The demon was sneering again, smug and vicious, leaning over to the very edge of our cage. "Like I said," he murmured, "this isn't the 14th century anymore, boys and girls. We've updated a little since the Middle Ages. And you wouldn't believe the things I can do with the stock market or a word in the right ear. And that's even before we get to all the infernal and mystical colleagues I have that I could maybe suggest take a nice. Long. Look at you. You're going to spend a long, long time running, I promise you. And you'll be doing it on foot, because you won't be able to afford a car. You'll be doing it out of piss-houses and train sheds. You're going to be nothing, kiddos. For however long it takes for me to catch up with you. For however long it takes for me to get bored. And I've been doing this awhile. You'd be amazed how patient I can be."
He paused for effect. The way so many Evil Overlords do, and I might've warned him about that sort of thing, but I was still busy trying to figure out ways to make sure this guy never, ever crossed paths with Marcone. Or, possibly, considering ways to maybe point him at ... No. No. Bad idea. Definitely a bad idea.
So, so tempting, though ...
"Or," the demon purred, threat suddenly dropping from his tone, something soft and gentle and reasonable slipping in instead. "Or, we could work something out, you and me." A much gentler smile, now, reasonable, negotiable. And the penny dropped.
Temptor. Hells bells. No wonder ...
"You could let us go," the demon wheedled. Not desperate, not reaching. Just suggesting, a simple course of action that could get them out of trouble, it wouldn't hurt much, just to lessen the blow. "We could forget this whole thing, boys. And I know, I know, you've heard that before, but really. I've no reason to be annoyed at you, if I'm out of here before the various celestial cavalries show up for our wizard here. No harm, no foul. All you have to do ..."
"Nuh-No!" And, shockingly, it's the younger of the two. And not out of misaimed loyalty, either. His hood had fallen back a bit, in the interim, and his eyes weren't fanatic, just fearful, and clinging to some belated remnant of common sense. Demon-summoning 101, boys and girls. Never let them out of the circle. Not unless you're dumb as a brick, and looking to get yourself horribly killed.
But, as it turned out, it was a little late for the kid to be remembering his lessons. Mostly because his partner in crime either never had them, or had temporarily let fear take over from self-preservation for a minute. Not long. Just long enough to come up behind the younger cultist and knock him soundly over the head. Much as they'd done to me, and I was trying, really trying, not to feel too vindictive, here.
The kid fell across the circle. Which would have been fine, except that he smeared open a number of key runes in the process (note to cultists, seriously, if you're summoning demons, use more durable circles. Paint and chalk are just not good enough ...).
The demon stepped out of the flickering circle of power with a faint, deadly little smirk. I stepped smartly after him, already moving to ... well, at least not let him actually kill them, however tempted I was to let Darwin take his due. But the demon just waved a hand, the older cultist crumpling with a sigh to lie across his compatriot. Asleep, not dead. Mostly. I thought.
And then ... Then he turned to me. Most, if not all, of his menace dropping away, and just a smug little see-how-awesome-I-am smirk to replace it. Spreading his hands as if for applause.
Which, no. Come on! I'm not ten.
"You realise they weren't particularly impressive cultists, right?" I pointed out. "You realise that was more letting nature take its course than stuff-of-legends manipulation, yes?"
He scowled, back up and suddenly more like he'd been earlier, grumpy and annoyed and mildly homicidal. I was beginning to think that was more or less his natural state. "Oh come on!" he snapped. "We're not talking your usual league, yes, I get that, but then again, you were the one who let them bean you over the head and dump you in a circle! So I dropped the more sophisticated seduction methods. It's not like I needed them, here. And I didn't see you stepping in, aside from the odd gobsmacked look!"
"Hey!" I shot back. More or less automatically. Because, lets be fair, he kinda had a point. And, because of that ... "The IRS was a nice touch," I allowed, grudgingly. "Don't get many demons that'll threaten to have you done up on tax fraud." Mobsters, sure. Demons, not so much.
He relaxed, grinned a little. "Yeah. That's the point." He waved at them. "They get themselves all geared up for the whole 'torments of the damned, ruling in hell' schtick. Nobody thinks it's real, though. So it doesn't scare them as much as people think. But the IRS? Being too small and poor and resourceless to stand up for yourself? Not in the next world, but right here, right now? That's frightening. That's a threat." He paused, squatting down next to them, looking almost ... proprietary. Almost gentle. "A universe full of horrors, you know. And there's nothing in all of it that frightens you people as much as each other. Humans. Seriously. I just ... don't know what to do with you, sometimes."
And ... that wasn't at all creepy, that weird, almost caring look in his eyes, baffled and sort of fond. This, from a guy who'd scared the living daylights out of a pair of stupid kids a few minutes before.
"Hey," I said, suddenly. Maybe more than a little to break the moment, move us back onto something slightly less worrying. "That no-killing me thing still stands, right? That whole no harm, no foul, lets both get back to our lives thing?" Because lying demon who lies, I'm not stupid, you know. Just ... having a bad day.
He grinned. With, again, way too many teeth, and eyes that were far too serpentine for anyone's comfort. But he nodded, elegantly waving a dismissive hand. Say what you like about him, he had more style than most demons I'd met. Like, we're talking White Court levels, here.
"Like I said," he said. "Too much hassle, too many heavenly powers, too much mess. The kind of people you fool around with? I'm not touching you with a ten-foot pole, wizard."
"Gee, thanks," I grunted, somewhat sourly.
"Just calling 'em as I see 'em," he shrugged. "You need a lift?"
I blinked. I'm telling you, I was just this close to calling the whole thing a bad hallucination brought on by the whole baseball-bat-to-the-head thing. "Um. Sure?"
He stood up, in one smooth, fluid movement, dark and golden and grinning. "Not a problem. I'm going to drop you off, somewhere nice and safe in Chicago, somewhere I can then avoid for the next forty-odd years, and we can get on with things, right?" A bright grin, and an arm casually held out, like I was a lady who needed helping.
Okay. So maybe I was starting to get why Murphy spent so much time wanting to pop me one.
"Oh, and by the way?" The demon smirked, wrapping a hand securely around mine and tugging me close enough to transport, grinning at me when I glared fit to scorch. "Name's Crowley, kid. Summon by it at your peril."
And, well, yeah. No kidding!