The demon's eyes are black all over. It's fascinating, really--in possessed humans, the black eyes are a signal of who is really in control. But this demon isn't even really possessing the body, if the stories Alan has heard are true. There's no soul for the demon to assert dominance over. But still, its eyes are shiny and black, like the husks of beetles, inky and unsettling in the light.
"Why do you think that is?" he asks the demon. The demon inclines his head--"his", because Alan can't spend this much time with anyone and still think of them as "it"--but does not appear overly interested. He makes a gesture with his hand, indicating that Alan is free to talk as long as he likes, but the demon is not obligated to care.
Alan is never sure what will and what won't interest him. He talked about his parents once, on a night when missing them became too much, and he'd expected indifference. Instead, he'd gotten rapt, undivided attention. Whether or not the demon appeared to be interested, he always seemed happy enough to let Alan talk.
He doesn't kill Alan outright, at least, and really, that's enough.
Having conversations with someone who won't talk back is an interesting experience. Alan likes it more than he thinks he should, likes the demon's blank gaze and rapt attention. It becomes something like a confessional, after a few days. Why hold back, really? It's not like the demon is going to judge him. Why not tell the demon how he manipulated his family to be out of the room when the magicians came for him, how it was his fault, really, that his family had been endangered at all. It'd been his idea to join the rebellion. His father hadn't taken much convincing, but his aunt had, and Alan had done it without a second thought, talked and talked at her until she'd agreed. Hell, why not tell him about the rebellion, about all the awful things he'd seen and done--the demon didn't seem to care one way or another that Alan had rebelled against the magicians' rule.
That's another interesting thing. The source of the magicians' power, the reason no one could hold a candle to them in a fight, is the same disinterested demon who's happy to let a rebel talk his ear off in a throne room he never cares to leave.
That seems like a useful thing to know.
Alan starts to bring books with him on his visits to the demon. He shouldn't be allowed books at all, really, but he thinks at this point the magicians in charge of the palace are starting to get worried about what will happen with the demon if they upset Alan.
They must think allowing a servant a few items of contraband isn't all that bad, in the face of what a demon can do.
They're wrong, of course. Alan almost feels sorry for them. He knows how to use a gun, of course, but words are still his favorite weapons.
He reads aloud to the demon, voice loud and echoing in the cold room. The other demon, the one Alan first saw in the rotting actress's body, wanders off more often than not, bored by Alan's unintelligible words.
The demon on the throne watches Alan with wide, black eyes, and he listens.
One day, Alan offers him the book. The demon stares at it.
"Want to give reading a shot?" Alan asks. "I can teach you, if you want."
Very slowly, the demon takes the book from Alan's hand.
The lessons go slowly. Alan realizes, almost immediately, that he'll have to start by teaching the demon to speak. There's no real way to teach a silent creature to read, no way to know from his blank stare whether he comprehends what Alan is telling him.
Alan starts with an old text on demons, although one recent enough to be written in something resembling modern English, for no real reason other than that it's what he happens to have on hand that day. It's fifty-fifty, really, on whether or not the familiar subject matter will make the demon more or less amenable.
"The others call you Hnikarr," Alan says, flipping through the pages. "Is that your name?"
The demon shrugs.
"That's not very helpful," Alan points out, and the demon offers him the ghost of a smile. Alan grins back at him. "If you don't tell me otherwise, I'm going to assume that's your name."
Alan finally finds the page he's looking for, and he tilts the book towards the demon. At the top of the page, in somewhat elaborate script, is the demon's name. "Hnikarr," he says, slowly, enunciating every sound, and then he begins to go over each individual letter in detail.
The demon watches him as he explains, gaze flicking between the book and Alan's face. He squints at the page, and when Alan stops talking, he looks up.
"Want to give it a try?" Alan asks.
The demon purses his lips, and opens his mouth. His voice is like the creaking of old attic stairs, rusty and labored, as he says, "Alan."
Alan almost drops the book. "Yes," he says. "That's my name." He smiles to himself, unable to help it. "I'm not like you," he says. "I can't be commanded by my name."
The demon gives him that same almost-there smile and gestures around the room, at the palace at the whole, as if to say, What would I have to command you, anyway?. Alan points to the top of the page again, and raises his eyebrows at him.
Looking almost obstinate, the demon says, "Hnikarr." His voice still sounds terrible, and Alan smiles at him.
"Nice to meet you, Hnikarr," he says, and he realizes that what he's feeling isn't triumph; it's pride.
A few weeks into reading lessons, Alan starts to see a new magician around the palace. His name is James, he finds out, and he loves his sister very much.
Things fall into place very quickly after that, because James seems to like Alan, and after a few weeks he confides in him that he knows his sister has escaped the custody of the magicians; she had a message smuggled in to him to let him know.
James wrings his hands and says that he thinks he's going to leave. The threat of the magicians hurting his sister had been the only real thing keeping him here. Alan does the kind thing, and ignores the anxious glance he sends at another of the magicians, Sebastian, as he says this, and he tells James that he's going to help him.
He starts talking to Hnikarr about it the next day. It's a risk, but not as great a one as it probably should be.
Demons don't like magicians; they only help them as a way to get what they want. The truly terrifying thing about Hnikarr is that he doesn't appear to want much of anything from the magicians at all, anymore. His body is permanently his own. No demon has ever wanted more from a magician than that.
Alan tells Hnikarr that he's going to leave, because while he doesn't seem to want anything from the magicians, these days, he seems to want something from Alan.
If Alan goes, he's willing to bet that Hnikarr will follow.
Hnikarr watches him, head tilted to the side, and he doesn't say anything for several long minutes. He speaks fairly well now, although he doesn’t enjoy it, and avoids it if Alan doesn't press him. Alan has never seen him speak to anyone else other than himself.
"Why?" Hnikarr says, eventually.
"Because I belong with the rebellion," Alan says, "not scraping floors for this lot. No offense," he says, quirking his mouth up.
"Okay," Hnikarr says.
"When do we leave?" he asks, and Alan can't stop his grin from spreading.
In the end, they have to run, Alan and Hnikarr and James all together, following James' sister and Cynthia Davies' lead. How Mae had ended up with Cynthia Davies herself is a mystery to Alan--he'd been a part of her rebellion for months and never so much as caught sight of her. He's grateful for her help, regardless of how she ended up providing it.
Hnikarr provides most of the firepower, if none of the conversation. Cynthia refuses to look at him, James does so only very nervously, and Mae holds his gaze at every opportunity, refusing to look away. Alan acts simply as if he is just one of them, another rebel. Hnikarr does not spare a glance for anyone but Alan.
It takes a while for the magicians to get themselves together enough to mount much of a defense. If it was Hnikarr alone, Alan knows, he could be gone in an instant, and the magicians would have no hope of stopping him. He's allowing himself to be dragged down by the humans in his care.
Alan wonders how many demons have ever risked so much for humans, in the long, long history of two worlds.
The magicians catch up with them as they're at the last line of defenses, Gerald leading them. Hnikarr is in the lead with Cynthia, her to lead the way and Hnikarr to blast a path, Mae and James close behind them. Alan has taken the rear, and so when the magicians come, he is first in the line of fire.
Had anyone asked, he would have lied and told them that wasn't the point. But no one had asked.
Gerald's spell hits him in the leg like a bolt of lightning, and he falls to the ground. He can hear Laura cursing behind him, and is bracing himself for a finishing blow when suddenly Hnikarr is there, snarling. He has his sword out, and he uses it with ferocity.
The sword had seemed before like something of a frivolity for a demon, who could bring storms down from the skies. Alan had asked why he bothered with it, when Hnikarr had produced it from behind the throne before they left, and received only a shrug. Now, he thinks that perhaps Hnikarr just likes to use it.
Alan doesn't watch Laura and Gerald die. Instead, he focuses on getting up, and finds that he can't.
Cynthia is staring at him in horror, and Mae and James with grim determination. They both begin trying to get him up, but Hnikarr comes back. He shoves his bloody sword into Mae's hands, and doesn't watch her struggle not to drop it. He turns to Alan and picks him up silently, not gently but not roughly, either, and he stares at Cynthia as she shakes herself and begins to lead them out once more.
No more magicians follow them.
They get to the hideaway Cynthia leads them to, an old abandoned bunker underground, and Hnikarr puts Alan down and stares at him.
"We need to get him a doctor," Mae says.
"We need to get out of here," Cynthia says, voice hard. "It's not safe for us to stay in the city." Even underground, they can hear alarms sounding. "We need to get to the others and plan what we're going to do, now that we have--" she slants a look at Hnikarr, who is looking at Alan and for all appearances ignoring her, "--firepower."
James looks a little queasy. "I don't know," he says, slanting a look at Alan. "His leg looks pretty bad."
"Cynthia's right," Alan says. Everyone turns to stare at him. "Leave me here, come back with a doctor when you can, but the rebellion has to take precedence."
Mae opens her mouth to say something, but is cut off when Hnikarr speaks. "No," he says, voice gruff and creaking, the first time Alan thinks he has ever spoken to anyone else but him.
Mae, James and Cynthia all stare at him, unused to hearing him speak. Alan's not sure if they realized that he can.
Hnikarr does not look at them. His black eyes remain fixed on Alan, and he says, "I'm not going to leave you." He turns to Cynthia. "Without him," he says, "I won't go with you."
Alan tips his head back against the wall and sighs. "I don't suppose trying to reason with you will help."
Hnikarr simply looks at him, face blank and impassive. When it becomes clear an answer is expected of him, he says, "There's no point without you," as if nothing could be more obvious in the world.
"I'll go find a doctor," Mae says, shouldering Hnikarr's sword. He doesn't seem interested in asking for it back. James goes with her, unwilling to leave his sister again, and Cynthia stands watch at the door of the bunker, as far from Hnikarr as she can get. She sends Alan an unreadable glance before she goes, but she looks worried.
"I'm not going to be as useful to the rebellion if I'm injured," Alan points out. Hnikarr is sitting next to him on the floor, dark eyes intent on Alan's face.
He tilts his head. "I don't care about the rebellion." Alan had known that, of course, although he'd been trying his best to pretend not to. He looks up at Hnikarr, who says, "I'll protect you," another obvious truth.
Alan closes his eyes, and wonders how awful he must truly be, to earn the devotion of a demon.
He says, "I know," and it is not a lie.