Anathema squinted at the blinking cursor on her blank Word document. She had gathered data, gone to lectures and labs, researched her little heart out. She even had an outline set up, pinned to the wall over her desk like the world's most boring visualization board. So why was she having such a hard time writing the term paper for her stupid ethics class?
She drank another cup of coffee and succeeded in making her eyeballs twitch in their sockets. The cursor blinked, patiently mocking her like a stupid mocking thing. Anathema put on some music, and wasted a perfect twenty minutes fussing over albums and playlists before getting restive. She jumped up and made her bed, took out the trash, ran the vacuum. For the first time this semester, she not only cleaned out the fridge but disinfected it inside and out. With her kitchen smelling faintly of vinegar she forced herself back to her room, settled her darkened laptop back on her knee and keyed it awake. The empty Word document was waiting for her, innocuous and terrible.
“Wait!” she shouted, standing so quickly the laptop toppled sideways to the floor. “I'm a witch!”
Some time later, the front door to the dorm opened and Anathema's roommate dithered on the threshold, taking in the furniture pushed to the walls to make room in the center of the living room, the white pillar candles lit at five points on a circle drawn in the carpet with chalk, the runes and pentagram inside said circle. Cindy heaved a sigh. “What are you doing?”
The hood of Anathema's cloak slid back when she looked up, crouched beside the fifth candle, grill lighter in hand. She looked from the chalk circle, to her roommate, and back. “Crafts.”
Cindy pinched the bridge of her nose. “You know what? I'm just going to go.” Cindy turned away then turned back on her heel. “Would it kill you to put a sock on the doorknob?”*
Anathema watched Cindy close the door behind herself and hoped she wouldn't go to the RA. The RA was cool but she doubted she would let lit candles in the dorm slide.
Anathema pressed her palms against the gritty carpet and focused her energy into the circle, and spoke the ancient incantation passed down from Device to Device for seven generations.
*When your roommate puts a sock on the door handle to warn you they have company over, that is called being sexiled. When your roommate puts a sock on the door handle to warn you they are dabbling in the arcane arts, that is called being hexiled.
“Alright demons, it's time to show up, get in the circle and no one gets hurt. Chop chop. Quia ego sic dico and all that.”
The lights flickered. The runes in the middle of the circle glowed a low throbbing red, the kind of color that only nominally exists within the visual spectrum.* The blinds rattled against the windowpane, caught in a gale with no Earthly origins. The candles guttered and then went out, one by one, and Anathema could feel the heat within the circle, rising steadily with the candle flames, trapped by the confines of chalk and will, suddenly plummet.
*This color is mostly infrared, in fact.
Something in the circle stirred. Like it had always been there. It didn't appear, or pop into existence, or melt into the foreground. It simply was, with the air of something that chose Anathema's dorm to be the best place to exist for now. Blue eyes cut through the darkness like the heart of an open flame, pinning her to the spot.
“Quake in terror, fragile mortal,” it cackled.
Then it got a look at her. “Oh.” It straightened up from its crouch and smoothed down its waistcoat. “It's only you.” It snapped its fingers and the lights in the living room buzzed back to life.
“Azirafell, do you really need to be so dramatic,” Anathema gasped. She clutched at her rabbiting heart. “I could've died.”
The demon Azirafell harrumphed and crossed his arms. “In for a penny in for a pound, as I always say. Why have you summoned me, dear lady?” He glanced around the room and tutted. “Please tell me you're seeking decorating advice.”
“I summoned you because the phone number you gave me was for a fish and chips shop in Soho.”
“Yes, I don't have a phone. Bartleby is so good to give me my messages when I stop by.”
“I need help with a paper for school. You're the smartest person I know, so I thought I'd conscript you.”
He rubbed his hands together, pleased. “And what will you give me in exchange? Your immortal soul perhaps?”
“And what will you do with it?” she asked, morbidly curious. “Last I heard, you weren't on speaking terms with Hell anymore.”
“I'm not. Hell is pretending very hard they can't see me. It's very liberating.”
“Uh-huh. How about a deal. If you help me, I'll ruin your life.”
“Don't take this the wrong way, but you're a terrible temptress.”
“Yeah, but you'll like having your life ruined. What do you say?”
Azirafell stared at her, dubious. “You have a deal.”
“Nice!” She scuffed the edge of the circle and Azirafell stepped gingerly outside of it.
“Foolish mortal!” he boomed, and raised his claws as if to pounce on her.
And got a face full of water for his trouble. He sputtered and snarled. Anathema lowered her water pistol. “Do not annoy me, demon,” she said.
He raised his hands in surrender, face fixed in a pout. “Fine, fine. How can I help with this paper of yours?”
Being helpful ran counter to every fiber of his demonic nature, but being an insufferable know-it-all made up about 80% of his identity. Anathema stationed herself on the couch with her laptop and typed while Azirafell chattered animatedly about the history he witnessed in his 6000 some odd years on Earth. He wandered around the dorm, peeking into cabinets and drawers and rifling through some of Anathema's textbooks. Periodically he paused to read a few lines over Anathema's shoulder, and she batted him away every time he tried to correct her spelling. She would have to go through her paper later to make any corrections.*
*Anathema grew up using the Nice and Accurate Prophesies as a primer. Her approach to spelling would, as a result, develop into the chaotic incarnation it is presently. Anathema has never struggled to spell the word “restaurant.” She tends to put letters together and let Autocorrect have its way with her papers, with mixed results.
Ninety minutes later, she only had a rough draft, but she got a start and it wasn't due for another four hours.
“Okay, it looks bad but at least I have something I can turn in after I clean it up. This pig is going to need some serious lipstick, but whatever.” She saved her work and slapped her laptop closed. “Are you ready for me to ruin your life?”
Azirafell frowned from where he draped himself upside down on the back of the couch. “Is this going to be a weird sex thing? Because if it's just another inefficient way of collecting human bodily fluids I'm going to be extremely disappointed.”
“Don't be gross.” Anathema took out her tablet; she rarely used it, preferring to work from her laptop. She tapped it on and opened up the account she had set up for this express purpose. “Your username is just AZFell, your password is azfell+crowley4ever.”
He wrinkled his nose. “I have a computer at home, thank you very much.”
“You have a computer but you don't have a phone? Don't answer that, the tablet isn't going to ruin your life.” She tapped in his password and went to the history tab. She turned the tablet around and presented it to him.
He frowned at the lines of text on the screen. “An e-reader. Hardly novel.”
She groaned at the pun. “This isn't about books. This is a library of millions of unpublished works that would make an self respecting librarian swoon. If you use the search function, you can find almost anything that you want to read.”
He took the tablet gingerly. He poked at the screen, mouth set in a thin line.
Anathema sighed. She didn't think she was going to have to sell it, but she must have underestimated Azirafell's distaste for all things “newfangled.” “Have you ever read something that was really good. And you wanted to talk about it but you're the only one who knows what you're talking about? And you want more than anything to read something like it, but that's the only thing, so you reread it over and over?” She gestured at the tablet. “This is what happened when thousands of people decide they want more of that thing, so they write it themselves, and share it for people like them who have been wanting more. There's stories that spin off of books, and TV shows, and even web comics*. There might not be fiction available for the older manuscripts that you've read, but that's where you come in.”
“Where I come in?”
“You can write cool stories too, and put them out there. Maybe no one will read them, but maybe someone will. It's nice.” She changed tactics at the sight of his expression. “It's vanity. And um, pride. Also, some of the stories are pretty racy, so lust is right there. Also if you read the entirety of a tag in one sitting that's sloth and greed.”
*Anathema would be the last to admit Check Please! owns her heart and soul, but there is a Samwell sweater in her closet that would give her away.
Azirafell looked over the tablet with renewed interest. “Right, I shall have to give it a try then.”
Crowley's name rolled across Anathema's caller ID, and if it weren't for the fact that the world could be ending she might have ignored the call. She brought the phone to her ear with some trepidation as if it might bite her. “Hello?”
“Anathema, it's Crowley.”
“Yes, I know. Hello.”
“Ah. Hello. So, uh, what did you do to Azirafell?”
Anathema squinted in the California sun. Fellow classmates passed her on the sidewalk, dead-eyed. “Nothing. Why? What's wrong?”
“Nothing's wrong, per se.” On the other end Crowley let out a breath. “He's been reading off a tablet nonstop for three days. And giggling. And he's been using his computer for something other than accounts, which would normally be a portent of end times.”
“Oh that. I introduced him to fan fiction after he helped me with a term paper.”
“You introduced him to what now?” Crowley asked, so nonplussed he was nearly minussed.
“Knowing him he'll be writing some really cringey self insert fic from second person POV because he hates nice things but it'll be really well-written. I'll have to look him up later.” She checked the time on her phone and doubled her pace. “Hey I'm going to be late for class, call me if he finds the ABO tag.”
“The what? Anathema I don't know what you're--”
She hit the end call button and dropped her phone in her pocket. She had a professor to disappoint.