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777 Tools of Hell

Chapter Text

“Hey, Neuro?”

The demon detective raised his head from behind the newspaper he had been reading, searching for word of interesting and profound mysteries for him to eat.

Sunlight streamed through the large windows behind him. It was a beautiful day by human standards. The office was spotless, each tile pristine due to a recent cleaning by the slaves. The only other resident in the room was Katsuragi Yako.

Nougami Neuro raised his eyebrows. “Yes, slug?”

Brushing off the condescending nickname with practiced ease, the high school detective answered. “I’ve been wondering…about when you eat a mystery.” Her brown eyes narrowed in thought.

“Out with it Yako,” said Neuro. “It would be a waste of valuable energy to have to deduce whatever matter is on your puny mind.”

The high school detective went on. “I’ve been with you for a while now. I’ve seen countless mysteries be solved and eaten by you. It doesn’t faze me in the least anymore.” She frowned. “But there’s one thing I’ve never been able to figure out.”

“When do you eat your mystery? I mean, by now I’ve seen you feed,” she quickly continued, “but other…other humans don’t seem to notice anything different. Not when you use your hellish tools, not when your head turns into its true form. They all act like they saw nothing happen.”

Neuro smiled a slightly-too-large smile, green eyes glinting. Yako looked back at him, getting more and more confused. He wasn’t saying anything. He just continued to sit there holding his newspaper. Nothing had changed. Was that bad? Did she say something wrong? She should probably apologize before he made her lick his shoes-WAAAAAAAUGH!

“What’s the matter, louse?” Neuro said innocently. He had suddenly appeared standing on the ceiling, his head a few inches away from Yako’s, startling her considerably. His happy-blank face was on, complete with a sharp-toothed smile.

“How did you do that?!” the girl demanded, sprawled out on the couch she had fallen backwards onto in shock. “I didn’t see you move at all!” Well, he is a demon, she reminded herself. Maybe he really can move that fast.

“Of course you didn’t,” came his smooth voice from the ceiling. The demon’s face returned to normal. His long arms crossed lazily, as if the whole thing—appearing on the ceiling and all—was nothing special.

“How many tools of the demon world are in my possession?” she heard as a gloved hand latched onto the young detective’s head and harshly pulled upright. “Or is your brain too inadequate to even recall the many times I’ve announced it?”

“Aah! Umm…777.” Yako struggled. The hand let go and she fell down heavily on the couch.

“Correct,” Neuro said as he sank into a crouching position, still on the ceiling. His face remained tilted up and looking at his partner, so he was effectively looking down on her and yet up at the same time. It was a truly disconcerting maneuver.

“I have tools for every conceivable use and purpose, including some very silly ones. What you just witnessed,” his shark grin grew wider, “or failed to, was also one of those 777. You’ve seen this one before, many times.”

A thought seemed to occur to him. “Actually, it may be the most common one you’ve seen. I do have to use it a lot in the human world.”

Yako blinked up at the demon, trying to figure out which tool it was. She had seen so many of his tools, but certainly not all in his possession.

Suddenly the room seemed to be dyed varying shades of red. As she looked above herself, something appeared. An umbrella, colored a sickly green, began to unfold over her head from a white pole and purple attachment. It easily covered both her and the grinning demon on the roof. Once the device had reached its full span, numerous eyes with purple irises opened from slight folds, staring down at the young girl.

777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Illusion,” Neuro’s voice proclaimed. “It takes the form of what best can be described as a demonic umbrella. Don’t worry about the eyes looking at you louse, it’s just friendly. It creates a small rift so I can eat my meal uninterrupted. In this tiny space, who knows what the holder of the mystery will see?” He gave another of his frequent smiles. “I imagine they tell very interesting stories to the police.”

“But its most useful power affects those on the outside. You humans can be so very oblivious, but you might notice something if I were to suddenly revert to my true form and attempt to feed. You said that you often saw me standing still near the perpetrator, or that I didn’t do anything? Simply Evil Illusion doing its job. This tool makes it so that anyone watching will see nothing out of the ordinary. Not my real self. And not me using other tools,” said Neuro.

Satisfied at the expression on Yako’s face, Neuro dismissed the tool. The umbrella retracted back and disappeared into thin air, purple eyes closing shut. Last to fade was the unearthly red tint to everything in sight.

The demon chose that time to jump down from his gravity-defying perch. His long body twisted effortlessly, landing on his feet like a cat. “It’s very useful,” Neuro proclaimed, turning to address Yako. “It asks only minimal amounts of Demonic Energy to summon, meaning I can safely use it without the cost offsetting the nutrition that I gain from a mystery.”

His voice became teasing. “However, that does mean that I wasted some energy just now, calling it for no reason. So I’ll be expecting you to fetch me a stellar meal to make up for it, slave number one.” He pointed at her with his right hand, middle finger out.

Yako groaned, seeing that her “assistant” had managed to rope her into another future mess. It wasn’t pleasant seeing so many dead bodies at her age! Of course, Neuro didn’t seem to care at all, simply walking back to his blood-red desk, Troy.

Yako watched him from her seat on the couch. He really did have a lot of those tools, she thought. She had seen ones for practical detective reasons, some for combat, a few for punishments, and many more of them that seemed ridiculous and would never be thought of to serve a logical use.

The high school detective dug out a pile of newspapers to get started on finding the next case as she entertained those thoughts. How did he even come to own those things? Did he collect them all himself, or did somebody in the underworld give them to him? She chuckled at the thought of Neuro answering to a boss. Unlikely. It was hard to picture him being submissive to anyone. If anything, he would be always be the one in charge.

Still, some of the tools were dangerous, like the 7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor. Wouldn't other demons be a little concerned about how he might use them? And 777 freaky gadgets was a lot. A lot to memorize, a lot to learn how to use effectively and at the proper time, and a lot to become adept at.

Although, this was Neuro she was thinking about, Yako reminded herself.

Still, how did he master the 777 Tools of Hell?


The 344th day of the 16th month, Demon Year 666666.

The rust-red ground was littered with midnight-black stones and the pale bones of unfortunate creatures. Small wisps of blood-colored fog floated along close to the ground, desperately clinging to the dirt. The sky gleamed dully with reflected hellfire from the Fields of Punishment. Not a single star was to be seen in the thick slurry of dark clouds above, as if even the small light of hope was hidden far, far away behind them, where no resident of this land could ever know of it. Ribbons of strange light filled with illogical patterns streaked though the perpetual curtain at odd times. It was said that those “scratches” in time and space led to other worlds, even the human one if a demon was lucky. But they were so far away, and so very, very hard to reach.

It was a beautiful night by demon standards. And tonight, Executive Officer Asanteoh “King” Leonfang was in his office awaiting a very important arrival. A leonoid demon, Asanteoh sported a lion’s signature golden-brown mane, which swept over his (rather cute and tiny actually) ears and spilled onto his strong shoulders. His nose was decidedly feline, and between his black lips impressive fangs showed. His head rested upon broad clasped hand-paws, dark eyes staring intently at the door.

Bam!

The door to the base of Hell’s Disciplinary Action Committee: Order Branch was suddenly opened by a wolf demon with a poorly done half-human appearance. “Hey Boss!” he barked at Asanteoh, gaping mouth drooling stupidly with excitement, “Your new guy’s almost here!”

That was not the arrival Leonfang was hoping for. “I know that, Lucard Throatbane,” The lion demon growled at his subordinate. “Now get over here and calm yourself.” Demons weren’t ones for kind words. “You almost broke the door again.”

“Sorry, King,” said Lucard as he crossed the room over to his superior’s side. “But this is exciting. It’s been a while since we got a new recruit.”

That was true, Asanteoh would concede. No one in Hell looked upon justice and a police force fondly, but for practicality’s sake there had to be some limits. No killing each other off willy-nilly and the like.

The wolf demon tossed a few folders, which Asanteoh had already seen, onto the desk. “He’s a special guy sir. Name of 'Braineater' Neuro. Form: Animalnoid like you and me, boss. Some bird, most likely a parrot. Intelligence: as yet unsurpassed, five stars.” Lucard’s eyes narrowed. “Strength: two stars, three if he’s clever.”

“Well, we’ll fix that right up, won’t we?” murmured Asanteoh behind his folded paws.

“Indeed. Age: Barely over his 1000th year sir. That’s young! Technically he’s a young adult, but still.” Lucard gave a soft whistle. “He’s a prodigy. However, it makes sense that he would be a natural at solving crimes.”

Lucard grinned and tapped at one section of the report. “He has to, you see. Food: Mysteries. Now that’s unique. Never heard of a demon like that before, huh?” His wolfish grin continued, sharp teeth glinting. “His diet makes him a natural asset for us.” Lucard shook his head bemusedly. “What a guy. I wonder how we’ll deal with him, don’t you, King?”

Asanteoh Leonfang said nothing. But privately, he agreed. This “Braineater” Neuro’s mind was a great thing, if the stories and papers were correct. In an honest fight, his physical strength would be no great threat, but that would soon change thanks to the Tools. Combined with this demon’s intellect, they would be even more formidable. But it didn’t matter, the King told himself. This was often how demons came into employment. Left on their own, emerging threats would be dangerous—it was better to recruit those who showed ‘talent’, keeping such demons safely on one's own side, under your control. Especially if they were going to give him those

What of this demon’s personality? Asanteoh wondered. All great detectives were eccentric in some ways, it seemed. Would he break the pattern, or be the quirkiest of them all? Would he be their ace or their flop? A help or a hindrance? Obedient or Rebellious? Or something else entirely?

Either way, the leonoid thought, he really must be something special to even be considered worthy of the 777 Tools of the-

There was a knock on the door.

Chapter Text

There was a knock on the door.

Lucard Throatbane’s wolf ears flicked at the sharp noise. The second-in-command straightened up, suddenly switching to a serious demeanor. The grin fled from his features. His eyes focused on the entrance to the office, narrowing as they would if faced with a piece of prey.

Or if meeting a predator more dangerous then himself.

Even Asanteoh’s often goofy companion could sense the gravity of the moment, it seemed. However, Asanteoh Leonfang made no move or change of gesture, remaining resolute in his strong posture and fuzzy interlaced fingers.

He knew how important first impressions were. Whoever this new recruit may turn out to be, they must learn to obey their King. Leonfang was a strong, capable leader, not to be disobeyed. From the moment they met, his subjects would be made fully aware of his authority. He would not be questioned. He was the ruler of his realm and all newcomers would gain respect for him through fear and awe. Rewards came only to those who took them. The hunters reigned over the hunted. The strong overshadowed the weak. Law of the jungle. This was the way the demon world worked, and how the King ran his business. You had to be firm when dealing with his kind.

All that remained was to see how the new addition would present himself.

The pair watched as a five-fingered hand reached in to clutch the side of the door from behind. Layered, serrated claws decorated with peculiar purple patterns gripped the frame. It could be seen that the hand they were attached to was purple also. A line of orange traced down each finger and knuckle.

BAM!

The door to the head office was forcefully opened for the second time that day. Unfortunately the abuse proved one time too many, and the long-suffering barrier collapsed off its hinges onto the floor. It rested there in silence, dust settling around it in a sigh.

And so Asanteoh and Lucard got their first look at “Braineater” Neuro.

“…I came here as quickly as I could.” A rich voice spoke, one clawed foot still raised in the air from its aggressing of the entryway. “This is where the HDAC’s Order Branch is based, yes?”

At first glance he did indeed appear to be an avianoid, albeit a slightly strange one. The new addition to the room stood on two scaly legs, bipedal, with two arms to match. One chitinous plate covered each kneecap. Feathers covered his tall, skinny body in purple and a precise shade of electric blue. The way his plumage was arranged, Asanteoh noticed, it almost seemed as if he could be wearing a striking suit.

Interestingly no wings were visible on him. Instead, a capelet of purple feathers grew from his shoulders, edged in white and meeting at his chest in a natural cravat. Those two long arms were generously feathered, blue until reaching his violet hands. They didn’t seem like they would be much use for flying. But if this recruit was as smart as others said, perhaps he had a few tricks up his poofy “wings”.

Well, those colors certainly reminded onlookers of a parrot. In addition to that, his rounded and large beak also mimicked that particular bird. But could theirs grin like his did, revealing sharp triangular teeth in what passed for a smile?

“Will this help me find the puzzles I search for? Bullseye!” he said, with surprisingly juvenile word choice.

Asanteoh took a moment to take in his new underling’s face. The beak was the dominant feature, obstructing nearly half of what was visible. Lightly feathered purple skin rose into a ridge around each of his two eyes and ended in twin points, in line with his horns. The horns themselves twisted subtly and were also plenty ridged. Blonde hair reached down from the back of his head, brushing past two stiff tufts of fur that might serve as ears.

But it was his eyes that made Leonfang’s whiskers twitch. At first they looked round and beady like any avianoid’s. Yet the lion demon’s golden stare could see an emerald fire within, glittering in the green depths. Multiple rings with varying widths circled a central pupil. Those were intelligent eyes, observant, scathing. They were windows to a highly critical soul, logical and precise. What did the world look like through them? Asanteoh wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that they could see in ultraviolet or even heat-tracking modes. Whether or not that was true, this demon must be able to see things nobody else could, or else he wouldn’t be here.

“I’m really excited!” The detective proclaimed as he walked up to the desk. His hands folded behind his back while he advanced until he stood a small distance in front of the others. “I don’t want to stop smiling!” From the way he acted, it was like breaking doors was a normal and honored part of introductions.

“…You are ‘Braineater’ Neuro then, yes?” Asanteoh rumbled. He could see Lucard on his left; the lupinoid obviously wasn’t quite sure how to react to this brazen new personality. Someone had to maintain authority here.

“Indeed, I would think that obvious,” came the answer, rolled off a smooth tongue.

“Respect your new commander,” Lucard growled. In response, the blonde avian gave an overreacted look of fear and nod of apology, obviously orchestrated to aggravate their temper.

“Let’s review,” Asanteoh said before his companion could fall into any more traps. “'Braineater’ Neuro, avianoid. Age: 1025 human earth years. Diet: mysteries/puzzles.” He narrowed his eyes as he looked over the information. “Recommended to become a crime detective, and reach the level of one of our top operatives within 20 years.”

“As expected, our written test was no trouble for you. Both real life examples and complicated theorizing resulted in full marks. You even did extra—wrote a few comments about how a real experienced killer would never be so careless, among other things. You even deduced what they had likely eaten for lunch.”

Neuro gave a small smirk.

“Nothing else impeded you. You spotted a helpful clue in the case we let you in on as a test. When we intentionally mislead you and hid data, you reasoned it out. Quite a few records would have been set, if we kept them. A genius, as we were warned.” The leonoid turned over one of the papers.

“You also passed the physical exam, though notably mostly by clever talking, wit, and proper timing. The other demons were all much stronger than you, but you held on to be one of the last three left conscious. Impressive.” Asanteoh clasped his hands on his desktop and peered at his subject. “For the most part you have only one big advantage, but it’s strong enough to cover your faults. I suppose that warrants a shaky success.”

“Now, every demon has its own little bag of tricks. Apparently you are one of those gifted with the ability of minor transformation. Mind telling us more?”

“You seem to have arms rather then wings,” Lucard interjected. “Can you even fly?”

Neuro replied, “All of that is correct. Especially that bit about minor transformation.” He spread his lengthy arms out in a shrug. “At most, I might be able to change these limbs into wing-like shapes. But I mostly what I do is this…“

He held up a hand. Pale green light encircled it for a few moments. When it dissipated, the purple hand was now changed. Instead of five fingers with claws, it branched into a multitude of hooks, talons, segmented digits, feelers, nails, pincers, and even…was that the head of a venomous snake? “Body modification, four-star power level. I can do that with both hands, and my arms to a certain extent.” The demon covered the transformed hand with his other, and in a few seconds it returned to normal.

“Very well,” responded Leonfang. “Moving on. I think I know why you have a natural gift for solving mysteries, Braineater, and also why it would be to everyone’s benefit for you to work at our office. Can you guess?”

Neuro shot Asanteoh a look that clearly said, I’m a prodigy detective, I don’t have to guess. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with that report you’ve got, would it?” Sarcasm laced his words like fine poison.

“Indeed,” the lion demon replied, noting that the detective was never told that the plain folders were indeed a report. “Every demon’s tastes are different. Some eat solid food, others don’t. Some drink blood. And some live by eating human flesh, usually preferring females or the young. Those are the ones that make the most trouble for us,” he sighed.

“But even for a demon, eating ‘the energy released by a solved mystery or puzzle generated by the host’s evil intent’ is very unusual,” Asanteoh read word-for-word off the sheet. “You have virtually no choice but to enter the Enforcement business.”

“Indeed,” echoed Neuro. Despite being reminded of his challenging situation, the demon looked positively delighted. In fact, he almost looked…hungry.

“The first account of you discovering your calling was 219 years ago, correct? It was a murder case, and a bear demon turned out to be the culprit…”

“Oh yes,” Neuro replied, licking his beak. “I sensed something in the air near the scene of the crime. I was drawn to it, somehow. Like a snake demon to a mouse. The big fellow had done a very sloppy job, and already made his escape. Gawkers were trying to decide what had happened, but it was obvious that they wouldn’t find much with the culprit gone. I quickly deduced the trick and pursued the killer. He hadn’t gone very far, sure that he was safe. When I did find him, I unlocked my meal by devastating him with my logic. His feelings over-flowed, and like a brute he made an attempt on my life. But I already had my prize, ripe for the taking.”

He ran a finger across his mouth, subduing any drool that threatened to accumulate. “It was wondrous. Think about it—I had been slowly starving to death my whole life! I had no idea what it was like to eat, to feel full, to gain strength from some other’s failing.”

Then the puzzle-eater chuckled. “Of course, that mystery was actually very small and bland, a mere crumb compared to my usual meals. But that was when I made the transition from hunted to hunter, and I never forgot it. I had to have more. And so I searched, and solved, and ate. I gained ever more skill and knowledge. And now I find myself here.”

He grinned at his employers-to-be. “Indeed, I can’t not solve mysteries. They are food, essential to my well-being and survival. I will do whatever it takes to achieve my goal.” The demon’s eyes glinted. “How tough the case is, the methods I must use, how I exhaust myself…it’s all irrelevant. The ends justify the means. If becoming the underworld’s top detective will find me more meals, I will do it. If wielding 777 fickle tools will net me sustenance, I shall learn them fully. I don’t mind becoming an underling, a subordinate, a pawn for anyone,” he pointed at Asanteoh with the middle fingers of both hands, “…as long as I get to eat my mysteries.”

A silence fell over the room.

“Hm.” Leonfang’s lips curled up into a smile. Beside him, Lucard brought a long-nailed hand to his mouth to muffle a short chortle. “You’ll do.” The King grinned at Neuro’s slightly quizzical expression.

He stood from behind his desk. “We’d best be going. You should get acquainted with your many new friends.” The lion demon strode over to the door, Lucard following. “As for introductions, I am Executive Officer Asanteoh Leonfang or as you may call me, ‘King’. Starting now I am your superior, and I expect you to obey my rules and forgo foolishness. This giggling idiot is Commander Lucard Throatbane, my right-hand-demon and also your overseer.”

Asanteoh paused and focused on his new charge. “You have no choice in this matter. You are simply too dangerous if left alone. You will become an HDAC: OB crime-solving detective, and may even turn out to be our best.” He walked on. “But then again, that is how most of us got our jobs.”

Lucard, still smiling, started after his boss into the hall. Neuro followed.

“And Lucard, get ahold of yourself, you look like an utter dolt.”


“Welcome to the Sealed Sanctum.” Leonfang’s deep voice echoed inside the room that had been revealed from a section of the wall covered in cryptic symbols. By placing one mighty paw against the door, Neuro’s new boss had unlocked the HDAC’s most secure chamber.

“We will be able to commit the deed here, in complete security,” he said.

From the corner of one feral eye, Lucard could see Neuro looking around, observing the perfectly square space. The room was large and dark, with a multitude of glyphs engraved in precise patterns on the floor. A short flight of stairs led down from the doorway and all four walls to join the lower level, forming a square of land. Leonfang strode over to the top point of a huge pentagram in the main clearing, and gestured for Neuro to stand in the opposite triangle. The bird demon complied with a smirk. Lucard stood over to the side, out of the ritual’s reach. Hopefully.

They began. Words were spoken, vows affirmed. The shadows got longer as symbols pulsed with supernatural power.

 

“…And thus, the 777 Tools of the Demon World are pledged to Braineater Neuro by his Dark Liege’s might!” Asanteoh’s roaring words were overpowered by a bigger roar, as something gigantic and powerful rose up from the center of the glyph.

Most humans lived in fear of this dark god, attempting to live their lives properly and with kindness to avoid falling into His grasp. Any mortal would die of sheer terror at the sight that Neuro currently beheld. In a midst of a cloud of brimstone, ash, darkness, and hellfire came the being necessary to oversee this dangerous gift—

The Devil Himself.

It was an interesting experience seeing your boss’s boss’s boss. Especially so when they were the King of Hell, called out of His busy day to personally see to it that things went right. Neuro smiled in triumph on the inside. Those tools must be really something.

The mystery-eater did not always show proper respect to his superiors. Sometimes doing that was a wonderful way to learn about their character. But he never pushed it over the line. And when Satan was here to see you, to do anything slightly deviant was suicide. Neuro swept his long body into a deep bow, kneeling on the floor.

“Neuro, the Braineater.” Words could not describe hearing the Devil speak your name. “You do so swear on pain of eternity to pledge yourself to serve Hell's Disciplinary Action Committee: Order Branch as a crime detective using the 777 Tools of the Demon World, also known as the 777 Tools of Hell, to the best of your ability and considerable knowledge. This is not reversible.”

“There are a few rules I must inform you of,” Asanteoh spoke, barely visible from behind the bottom of the hellish cloud that the Devil’s torso sprang out of. “One: You will become the owner and guardian of all 777 tools. You will use them to help you in your investigations and other matters such as combat. They will be yours to summon, wield, and command. You shall use them to further your accomplishments and reach your goals, namely solving and consuming mysteries.”

“Two: You will work to master all of the 777, becoming familiar with their functions, roles, and properties. Also, you may find that they can provide previously unknown services that you discover. Know each of them by name and when to use them. Wield them appropriately and with skill. Overkill is unfavorable. In addition, if you obtain something that you think could serve you well as a Tool, you may request to add it to your collection following the correct procedure.” Asanteoh paused and took a breath.

“And finally, the last and most important rule. You will never use these weapons against the Dark Ruler or demonkind. They all have powerful potential when wielded by the right demon, and you appear to suit them quite well. Using these tools to detain or to harm someone may be necessary in your line of work, but threats or infractions beyond certain standards will be dealt with by extreme force. Our expectation is that these tools will assist you in your endeavors, and no more.”

The stony and cruel face of the Devil stared down on Neuro’s bowed head. “You hear and obey. Do you so swear by above and below?”

“I do,” replied Neuro, mouth watering at the thought of meals to come, “so swear by all above and below.”

“Then sign your contract,” declared Satan.

In surprise, Neuro raised his head. “What contract?” There was none to be seen.

All others in the room displayed truly frightening, sharp-fanged grins.

“At the moment you agree to the terms, you are considered able to command the tools,” said Asanteoh. “Now you will receive your first test. You cannot sign your contract if you cannot summon it, can you?”

Neuro’s eyes narrowed at his commander.

“Attempt to call your first tool, Evil Pledge. It may take a few tries, but I’m sure you’ll manage.” The feline’s tight-lipped smile grew wider. “Eventually.”

Asanteoh watched as Neuro grudgingly accepted his words as truth. No one was going to tell him how to summon a tool, or what the blonde demon was supposed to do. He had to figure out his new ability now. It was just him and his intellect alone there.

The leonoid observed as Neuro began to attempt the summon. Briefly, he thought to himself. The few demons that had been trusted with the tools usually required a few tries to call Evil Pledge. Neuro looked like he was doing quite well actually, but there was still no—

With a sharp yell, Neuro somehow redoubled his efforts. Asanteoh could only watch in shock as the pentagram began to glow a blinding red. It grew brighter, and brighter, burning until it blocked out all sight for one single moment…

And then there it was. A thick, decorated, serious-looking scroll floated in the air, summoned successfully.

...Well. Impressive. Not altogether unexpected, but impressive. Asanteoh blinked the spots from his eyes as he beheld the detective’s accomplishment. What most needed a few false starts to do, he had done in one. No—Asanteoh thought—one and a half. When Neuro’s initial burst of strength had begun to fail, he had somehow managed to find a large amount of pure willpower deep within himself. But it had still taken a gargantuan effort, as evidenced by the bird demon’s loud breaths and braced posture.

“Neuro, the Braineater.” The Devil spoke his name. Neuro straightened up and collected himself. “You have succeeded in summoning the first of many tools that now belong to you. Keeping in mind the rules explained prior, I give my approval for your new abilities. Where you go from here is limited only by your potential. Sign your contract and bind yourself.”

A few more seconds passed as Neuro finished regaining his composure. His beady eyes stayed fixed on the tool that he had managed to summon as he brushed off his feathered arms. For a moment, Asanteoh thought he saw a slight green gleam in the avianoid’s eye.

“Fuhahahahaha…I swear and promise, Your Majesty.” The symbols of the Sealed Sanctum flared again, and the letters of Neuro's name etched themselves onto the parchment.

And thus 777 feared gadgets were placed into the gleeful possession of a demon who would wreak havoc on two worlds, above and below, giving Neuro the Braineater the chance to become either savior or ruin.

But he hadn’t mastered them all yet.

Chapter Text

The Sealed Sanctum was calm around the three demons inside it. Lucard Throatbane sidled closer to Asanteoh Leonfang, jaws split wide in a fanged grin at their success. The Devil had dismissed himself. Evil Pledge had been signed and dispelled, never to appear again. The deal was done, for better or for worse.

Neuro stood in the middle of the floor, flexing his clawed hands slowly as if he felt that he could close them around something invisible in the air. His green eyes focused on the movements, turning his hands over and over to examine them. He could feel it. The weighted sensation of having.

“Congratulations,” rumbled Asanteoh, furry hands clasped behind his back. “You fared much better than the few before you who have undergone the ritual. Although I admit, I did not expect much less.” A pleased grin was on his face. Lucard nodded in agreement.

“How generous of you,” Neuro replied, finally putting his hands to rest by his side and turning to the side, walking out of the now-normal pentagram.

“Well, I’m truly honored, gentlemen,” he said, moving toward where his new boss and second-in-command stood. “And I’m eager to begin testing out my new toys, so I would imagine that we three shall abscond from this chamber in favor of different surroundings…” the avianoid demon trailed off as he realized that neither demon across from him was moving.

“And now,” said Asanteoh, “our real business begins.” Both leonoid and lupinoid bared twin, sharp-toothed smiles. Neuro decided to rate the situation as “unsettling”.

“You have just been granted the 777 Tools of the Demon World, and signed the Evil Pledge,” continued Asanteoh. “But can you summon them at will? Choose just the right one at the right time in the right way? On such short notice?”

“Part of our job as your new commanders, Braineater, is to make sure that you undergo training and can do your job well. Part of your job as our new underling is to be a master of your Tools, especially the ones that can be used for combat. Therefore, we will henceforth issue…a test of your abilities!”

Asanteoh’s final words were accompanied by an excited roar. Lucard lept forward, landing on all fours. He growled, silver-black fur bristling. Neuro deftly hopped back, sinking into a ready crouch. So, a fight was it? What a surprise.

Before his eyes, Lucard began to transform. He grew larger, hunching over to place all of his weight onto four legs, instead of two.

He howled at the ceiling through jaws lined with bone-white fangs. His feral eyes glowed a pulsing, dull red. Paws with nightmarishly long claws as sharp as Death’s scythe tore scars through the earth. As one would have expected, Throatbane stood as a giant, demonic wolf in front and to the right of Leonfang,

Ah, of course, Neuro thought. He was a shifter. A demon that could shift back and form from its animalistic side to a less wild one at will. How he had appeared before, a bipedal wolf in a terrible half-human form, must have been as close to humanoid as he could get. Perhaps Asanteoh was a shifter as well?

“And will you be joining in?” Neuro smirked at the leonoid. The sudden threat of battle had come on fast, but the whole point, after all, had been to surprise him. He was vulnerable—just handed the reins on 777 strange tools he had no idea how to use, challenged by two people that he had no reason to distrust, during the calm after the storm.

“No,” Asanteoh said in a smooth voice, completely unaffected by the tension that suddenly draped the room. “It wouldn’t do for you to fight your boss, would it? Besides, there is another reason why I will not participate in this battle.” One black lip curled up into a smirk. “The weapon that I possess, ‘Caesar’s Crown’, is far too powerful for me to use so causally.”

Neuro blinked at Asanteoh's words. He had never heard of this ‘Caesar’s Crown’. But before he could think much more upon the issue, his attention was quickly brought back to Lucard. An enormous BARK erupted from the wolf’s silver-furred throat, booming through the air in a rippling fashion. Something in the air seemed to gather around him, becoming thick and merging with his form. Neuro frowned and shifted his footing as the air tugged at him, too. The dog was getting bigger.

And he was. The Sealed Sanctum was a severely large room in both length and height. But the resulting canine easily reached about one third of the way to the ceiling. Neuro could tell that his power and strength had increased as well. The briefest sensation of shock came to the avianoid’s brain along with a single thought—was he a Hellhound? A dog of the Devil, a rare and powerful demon with many strong abilities…

No. Neuro’s brain reached the logical conclusion. Hellhounds were known for their command over fire. The demon in front of him hadn’t displayed any pyrokinesis yet. If he could, he likely would have by now. His powers seemed to be concentrated on the air instead, or at least something in it.

“This is a mock-fight between Neuro Braineater and Lucard Throatbane,” Asanteoh announced. “Its purpose is to judge the former’s abilities as master of the 777 Tools of Hell, and also to serve as on-the-job combat training.” A sweep of his hand declared the match officially started. “It may also serve as a fitting introduction to his superior.”

So the cat did have a sense of humor, Neuro thought.

“Draw your weapon.” Lucard’s voice boomed, magnified. How exactly demons are able to speak while in animal form, despite not having articulate tongues or vocal chords, is a perfect example of logic in Hell. As creatures, they did not work the same way humans did. Science and human knowledge were totally irrelevant in the Underworld. “You have 777 to potentially choose from,” the giant wolf continued. “But I wonder, Braineater, whether you can call a suitable one in time!”

“What? Did you say something, boy?” Neuro taunted. “Lookit that, are you just the King’s pet dog after all?” He had quite the extensive experience with pissing people off. Opponents were always easier to manipulate when they were blinded by rage.

Lucard had been trained not to fall for most tricks like this, but a little bit of fury surely couldn’t hurt. He let out another air-rending bellow, and lept into battle. Neuro commenced another strategic retreat. While he was off the ground, he felt a tugging in the air. It was a draining sensation, like bits of his demonic power were being sucked out of him, through the air, and flowing towards—

Ah. So that was what the dog’s power was.

Asanteoh watched as Neuro fended off the far-more-powerful Lucard’s attacks. Neuro transformed his talons, making them bigger, sharper, and stronger. They were actually of credible use, turning into an inventive multitude of swords, spears, and shields, to slice the front legs and paws of the giant wolf. Notably, the parrot-like demon aimed towards the undersides of Lucard’s paw pads, where they were marginally more vulnerable then the armor-like fur covering his legs. But it wasn’t enough.

Asanteoh frowned as he observed Lucard swing with his huge limbs, plowing into the dirt with great force as Neuro hopped up onto his legs to avoid a deadly hit. This new recruit’s strength was no big deal. Certainly, his great intellect could lead him to victory. But in this real-life combat situation, would he fare as well as hoped?

Inevitably, Lucard got in a hit. Neuro’s shield-like left arm deflected the claws, but could not stop the sheer force of the blow. He was tossed back into the far wall with a crunch. Gah! Neuro's mind sparked with pain. They weren’t afraid to rough him up a little bit, it seemed. But Neuro wasn’t used to losing. He still had a few tricks up his blue-feathered-arms-that-resembled-sleeves. And his mind had already come up with a plan.

He made a show of dusting himself off, returning his feathers back to an orderly position after removing himself from the wall. A Neuro-sized dent was left behind. He returned his talons back to their purple 5-fingered shape and wiped some blood off of one cheek as he eyed his opponent.

This oversized puppy had powers over miasma, the source of most demonic strength. Demons used it as fuel for their powers. Demons exuded it naturally. And they needed it to stay alive. It surrounded them, emanating from the rocky, sandy, harsh landscape and permeating the very air itself. So of course, that was what he had felt stirring when the air tugged. What a power. With control over that, the dog could drain his opponent of energy and transfer it to whomever he pleased, Neuro guessed, or even use it for himself in order to bulk up to Hellhound-like proportions.

Neuro jumped as Lucard swung a paw glinting with six-foot-long jagged claws towards him. The blonde demon sprung over the wolf’s head, twisting artfully in the air. He frowned as he felt the air buffet him, miasma swirling under the other’s control. That dog was smarter than Neuro gave him credit for. Given that Neuro was a bird demon, if he were to take flight, he could stay out of the other demon’s reach successfully. That would be a great advantage. But it was impossible to do so with so much…turbulence.

He landed on clawed feet a short ways behind Lucard’s tail. This whole room was filled with miasma, a potential weapon for his opponent’s use. It was impossible to escape from what was equivalent to oxygen for demons.

But that didn’t mean Neuro was out of the fight.

A greenish glow encircled Lucard’s front left paw. The enormous wolf looked at his limb and whined quizzically at this strange phenomenon. Suddenly the paw lifted off the ground, slowly but surely, as if moving under its own will. Lucard shuffled his other three paws, trying to achieve better balance. Suddenly the green energy hurled the front paw towards the wolf’s face with great speed. Lucard gave a sharp yip as his own leg hit him sternly upside the head. Now it was Neuro’s turn to grin.

Sense manipulation? thought Asanteoh safely from the sidelines. That wasn’t mentioned in the reports…

“You know, I usually don’t like fighting. It’s brutish and to my disadvantage.” said Neuro. “But the generous gift of these fine Tools changes that. Now, I think I might actually get to enjoy myself.” Lucard met the blonde demon’s verdant gaze for a moment.

“Shall we see what I can do?” Neuro’s voice was light and gleeful, that of a child at play with an arsenal of new toys. And those toys were nuclear weapons.

To his credit, Lucard did not get scared. He did not let himself be intimidated. He only watched as Neuro attempted to summon one of the 777 Tools that were battle-worthy. It was a hard thing to do; Neuro had summoned one not too long ago and that had been taxing enough. Plus, now he had to sort through a mess of gadgets for every conceivable use, and find one that would best suit the situation right here, right now. But, Lucard thought as he braced himself, that was exactly why he was testing this Braineater.

Of course, the prodigy pulled it off. His blonde hair swirled together like a cocoon and then unraveled into a grotesque mask. Two buggy eyes stared out from above a mouth set into a perpetual gold grimace with a protruding tongue. Two horns curled down to frame the spherical object hanging from the ends of Neuro’s hair. Lucard growled. He didn’t know what that Tool could do, but it appeared that he was about to find out.

Grinning, Neuro took hold of the Tool in one clawed hand. The two demons, bird and wolf, locked eyes—green against crimson. Then to Lucard’s astonishment, Neuro charged right at him. Lucard braced himself, sinking down into a ready stance. Whatever this weapon did, Neuro had obviously figured it out completely, and was moving forward with intent to win. Lucard watched him, charging straight towards him with nothing else, no sneaky moves, and eyes glittering. It didn’t look like he had any trick in mind. Not at all.

But Lucard knew better. He waited. Waited. More. Closer. He watched for Neuro to move suddenly either way, to jump, to use the mask. He waited for the bird demon to engage the elaborate plan that had certainly formed inside that feathered head. 'Braineater' Neuro was known for elaborate tricks and perfect schemes. The wolf demon had to be ready for anything. So why…why… why was Neuro still coming right at him and there was no trick yet but now he had nearly reached him and he was using the Tool-thing right under his noseandheshouldmovenownownow-

Lucard swung both of his two front paws, bringing down his jaws to snap at the detective as well. Assaulted from either side and above, the bird demon would have nowhere to run or escape. He must be trapped…

And the bomb blew up in Lucard’s face.

The weird mask erupted in a dense cloud of white smoke. Lucard reeled back, shocked and expecting to have received injuries from the explosion. He whined and hopped backwards, tentatively setting both front paws on the ground. He felt no wounds.

That clever little… the avianoid had done something so directly opposite his usual strategy that no one would ever have bothered to think he was serious. Perhaps that, in itself, had been a strategy of his.

Lucard punched and pounded his way through the still-thick mist, but he hit nothing. Strange. So what was all that for?

“Hello,” drawled a rich voice from the cavern ceiling. Both Lucard and Asanteoh looked up. There, upside-down, stood Neuro, looking as comfortable as if he were the only one in the room right-side-up. “Oh,” he said, beak splitting into a grin. “So that’s what Evil Full Face does.”

“A smoke bomb. I thought so. And of course, I’m always right,” he continued as Lucard gave a howl of anger and snapped at the high ceiling. The giant wolf swatted at the figure of Neuro from below, growling in frustration. Even when sitting back on his hind legs and stretching up, he simply couldn’t reach. Neuro just reclined back, at perfect ease, while Lucard tried to use his miasma manipulation to bend the air to his will. “What a lovely, gentle spring breeze,” the detective said.

“I don’t think that ability was detailed in the reports either,” Asanteoh said, stepping forward. “You’ve been very careful about revealing your true skills. Lucard, cease your mindless flailing; you look like a domestic human cat batting at a light. Anyway, I hereby declare this friendly test-match over.”

“Friendly?” spoke Neuro, sitting with legs crossed, defying gravity with practiced ease. Lucard ceased his mindless flailing.

“Braineater,” Asanteoh said, looking up to the ceiling. “I must admit. That was one of the Tools furthest from my mind. Yet you used a definite strategy, and commanded the Tool creatively and effectively. Lucard cannot reach you, and you’re safe. You have many options from your current position. It’s your victory. Besides,” he said, cutting off Lucard’s brief protestation, “If I don’t stop you now, this stand-off could go on for an utterly ridiculous amount of time.”

Asanteoh reflected on Neuro’s battle style as his second-in-command grudgingly transformed back into his regular appearance. For most of the fight, Neuro had seemed to be on the defensive. However, from what Asanteoh had seen, his high intelligence went without saying, allowing him to formulate strategies and stay ahead of his opponent simply on automatic. Add that to his composure, being able to stay calm and collected even with a pseudo-Hellhound bearing down on him, and it only furthered his intellectual might. If there was any weakness in his opponent, he would spot it. What a dangerous foe.

In addition to that, he had displayed the ability of mild sense manipulation—taking forceful control of a part of someone else, like Lucard’s paw, and moving it according to his will. It wouldn’t be very practical for close-range fighting, but it was certainly handy nevertheless.

Neuro appeared to wait for the opponent to move first, revealing their strength and method of attack. It was a feasible idea, but unorthodox. Demons, especially, did not want to be seen as weak or passive. But he was able to dramatically turn the tables on his opponent, leading to a quick and decisive victory. It was almost like he had been planning and thinking ahead since even before the battle. Therefore, the moment that he was allowed to go on the attack, he had already won.

Asanteoh nodded to himself. The 777 Tools of the Demon World would erase the shortcomings the new recruit had physically. Once he mastered them all, and with his intellect it wouldn’t take long, he would be an absolute terror to face. It was daunting to imagine what would happen if he were to gain mastery over the 7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor as well…

“Well, did I pass your impromptu little ‘test’, ‘King’?” came an unfazed voice from the ceiling.

Asanteoh smiled through the chill that he felt. “You most certainly did.”

“You’re not going to attack me again on the way out, are you?”

“…No, my puzzling detective.”

Chapter Text

“Let’s begin then, Braineater. Shall we?”

Yes, indeed, Neuro silently agreed.

He was eager to demonstrate to his new superiors just how much he had already improved. In the few days that had passed, the new holder of the Tools of the Demon World had been practicing. Now the mystery-eater could successfully summon a Tool routinely without any complications. The mechanisms and ways to call a Tool had become familiar, and the time that it took for the desired one to appear was diminishing also. Very soon he would be able to summon a Tool virtually instantaneously. Neuro had to admit—he was looking forward to mastering the strange 777 Tools of Hell.

Now the blue-feathered demon was back in the HDAC:OB to begin the first of a series of short training sessions. Lucard Throatbane had ignored Neuro’s arrival for the most part, although he had growled at the door when Neuro stepped through. Predictable. Although neither demon had received notable wounds during their fight, a tough front and a few light threats afterwards were to be expected. But the lupinoid did not taunt Neuro further. Either he was loyally obeying instructions from his boss, or he was smarter than the avianoid first gave him credit for. Neuro smirked at the amusing observations.

His instruction would take place in a new room. This one was large and open, though it would still have been dwarfed by the Sealed Sanctum. It appeared to be divided into several sections, each one prepared for a separate purpose. One part featured an extremely high ceiling. In each part the walls and floor were made of varying materials, differing in texture and color. They must be water-proof, fire-retardant, chemical-repellent, and so on, Neuro concluded.

In addition, objects were stationed in every section of the spacious, rectangular room. Weapons rested on the ground of one space, while pieces of technical equipment blinked silently on another, their displays glowing dimly.

Asanteoh Leonfang was the one who had called to Neuro, situated in a light tan section that surrounded the doorway. He had been perusing a report from behind a desk as black as the plague.

Two big, veined eyes with pupils as red as spilled blood gazed around the room from the morbid piece of furniture. It rested on four large paws. Unlike its human-world counterparts, its paws trembled with exhaustion from holding up the desk’s weight, digging its exposed claws into the ground. Two tiny ebony wings as delicate as a bat’s were attached to the  sides. Once in a while they would twitch uselessly, as if they had long ago given up trying to lift the body that they belonged to. It was a tortured sight.

A top-notch desk in Hell. One that was entirely suitable for the Executive Officer of Hell’s Disciplinary Action Committee: Order Branch. Neuro briefly wondered whether it had been a gift from a grateful client, or a personal acquisition of the leonoid demon.

“Today marks the start of your official job training sessions,” Asanteoh rumbled as he stood from behind the desk. The desk’s bloodshot eyes rolled, tracing its owner’s movements. “Our last meeting was somewhat of  an initiation exam,” he said as he casually moved a few steps to the side, “so let me assure you, there will be no sudden supplementary skirmishes.” He smiled at Neuro, lips lifting just past the tip of sturdy canines. “Well, as long as Lucard can hold himself back.”

The lupinoid commander sidled up almost on cue. He grinned at Neuro with teeth as sharp as broken glass. Asanteoh continued talking, “Soon you will be permitted to start making your way through our ranks at what we predict will be quite an impressive rate. But before that, there are certain investigative skills that you must learn.”

His golden eyes gazed down at the avianoid, “Yes. It is only now that you may begin to learn the basics.”

“And what will the challenge of the day be?” Neuro drawled, gesturing aimlessly around the room.

“Challenge indeed.” The King looked almost amused. “I think we’ll let you decide that, my puzzling detective. Show us a Tool that you have managed to summon already.”

“Hmph.” Neuro returned the Executive Officer’s smugness. He briefly dusted off his hands, as if wearing a pair of classy gloves. Then he complied with the leonoid’s orders. An ethereal green light circled his right hand for about five seconds and then receded.

Asanteoh blinked at how comfortably Neuro had summoned the Tool this time. It had been smooth and assured—no loud noise, no gargantuan effort, and no time spent in a battle of willpower with his new powers. Neruo didn’t even look significantly tired. Lucard moved his head slightly in order to get a better view of the Tool. The Braineater had chosen a rather small one.

But small did not mean weak. Asanteoh observed the new Tool. It seemed grafted to its summoner’s hand. No…it had transformed his hand.

The jagged talons were gone, replaced with five segmented digits. The whole appendage was sleek and mechanical, colored greenish-white. Neuro slowly flexed his hand and the segments bent smoothly at the usual joints and knuckles. Each of the fingers extended out into broad tips like the toe pads of a gecko. It was as if the hand of a robot had been grafted onto the bird demon’s wrist, fully organic and alive. Neuro gladly held it out to show his companions.

“I believe this one is called Evil Script,” he said smoothly. “I find it easier to summon then the others.”

“So it is,” Asanteoh said, stoic as always. “Of course,” he nodded thoughtfully, “your hands already have transformative qualities. It must function almost as an extension of your natural abilities. Due to that, it likely costs you less energy to summon. You should be able to master that one especially.”

He turned to a square, light green section of the room. “Evil Script is used in computer matters and is a helpful tool regarding a very important part of detective work. So, let us begin your first training exercise: Hacking.”

Raising a non-existent eyebrow at his superior’s choice of words, Neuro held his transformed hand close to his chest and followed. Lucard walked closely behind. Soon all three stood by a surprisingly normal computer on top of a desk. Neuro noticed multiple monitors and other equipment sitting behind it, likely set up to examine his progress.

Asanteoh patted the top of the machine. “This computer will introduce you to the environment of the virtual world and serve as today’s opponent.”

Outwit a computer? Neuro frowned.

“Your practice mission is to retrieve an important piece of information from the system," said Asanteoh. "Enter, extract, exit. But of course, it’s rarely that simple.”

“Enter?” Neuro asked. He ignored Lucard smirking behind him, including a muttered “Go fetch.”

“Activate the tool,” Asanteoh said.

Neuro shrugged. He did as requested.

“Now enter the system.” Neuro did as instructed. He touched the screen with the bionic hand, feeling his fingers slide easily through as if they had met water and not-

ZAP

 

 

 

 

01001110 01000101 01010101 01010010 01001111 01001110 01001111 01010101 01000111 01000001 01001101 01001001 01001101 01011001 01010011 01010100 01000101 01010010 01011001 01010000 01010101 01011010 01011010 01001100 01000101 01000101 01010110 01001001 01001100 01010011 01000011 01010010 01001001 01010000 01010100 01000010 01010010 01000001 01001001 01001110 01000101 01000001 01010100 01000101 01010010 01001000 01000001 01001000 01000001 01010100 01001000 01000001 01001110 01001011 01010101 00110100 01000110 01001001 01001110 01000100 01001001 01001110 01000111 01010100 01001000 01001001 01010011 00111011 00101001

H0

010010e was01 1 0   1         01001100 01001111 01010011 01010100

“…collect yourself, you’re still here with us, can you feel your physical body outside of the system, you are now in the program, change your presence into a recognizable form…”

01010110 01001111 01001001 01000011 01000101

navigating the datadatadatasomuch was what hememyselfI was doing toomuchtoeatsohungryhungryalwaysbutheknew hekneweverythingeverythingalways he kne w whohe was...

Recovering from the initial shock of being launched into the virtual world, Neuro began to, quite literally, collect himself. The Tool must have successfully connected him with the system. It was as if he, or at least his consciousness, had been shot directly into the inner workings of the computer. All around he could feel bits of himself here and there, swept along in the electronic current of constant DATADATADATAimpulses. Now that he had a hold, Neuro was able to gather back together the pieces of code that represented his consciousness in the virtual space.

Remembering what the voice had said, he connected the particles that were him together. Create a recognizable form.

Neuro finished gathering and merging the binary into a program, noticing that his new shape appeared just like his physical body. Interested, he inspected one clawed hand. Well, I suppose this is what my body is expecting to look like. These strings of coded data were himself in a way, after all. He set the last bits of binary into place, impressed with how quickly his mind was adapting. Neuro felt a sense of satisfaction, understanding what he was in the virtual world: a simple code.

01001101 01000101

“…You’re a virus? Haha, I suppose that’s fitting.” Neuro looked around as he heard the voice. There was no one in the blue-green space. Crowded and claustrophobic, yet at the same time vast and void, he could see for what seemed like miles. And still, he knew it was only a few millimeters, and that he wasn’t really “seeing” at all. He turned to the “sky” and smiled—a twitch of purple pixels. He knew that voice.

01000001 01010011 01000001 01001110 01010100 01000101 01001111 01001000

There was no sound in the virtual world, so Neuro assembled a display message to show that he was alright and knew what he was doing. Asanteoh informed Neuro that they were able to monitor him clearly. He had done well in his first experience with the inner system.

“Your real body is still here by the way,” a new voice spoke. “It’s propped up nicely with the left arm braced against the desk. The Tool-hand is thrust into the screen and hasn’t moved a muscle. And your eyes are still open! I don’t know if they’ve even blinked. You’re just sort of balancing there; it’s rather disconcerting actually… Oh, sorry, King.”

Neuro grinned, recognizing the scolded voice.

01010011 01010100 01010101 01010000 01001001 01000100 01000100 01001111 01000111

His amusement stopped when he “heard” a sound. The holder of the Tools turned to look, shifting to an aggressive stance. A strange device was coming his way.

It was round and smaller then him, with two searchlights for eyes. Its arms were short, curved like a crab’s claws and barbed on the inner edges. A red-and-blue police light was flashing on top of its head. Its mouth was a megaphone. Neuro could see a few more coming from a ways behind, with different arms.

“First test: fend off some routine security sweeps,” Asanteoh said, answering Neuro’s unasked questions. “Every computer has some form of a protection program.”

Neuro scowled as he tried to maneuver around. He would have to learn the rules of this strange place, and fast. As the enemy sweeps got closer, his sharp eyes noticed something: not a single one of them had wheels or legs. They simply floated. Neuro looked “down”. Indeed, there was not even a floor to begin with here! Why should he conform to the limits of reality when there were none?

Letting out a short laugh, the demon jumped up high to avoid the arms of the sweeper. He stayed up high, freely dodging the arms of the three or so sweeps even when they extended like bungee cords. Neuro's mind flooded with euphoria as he watched his digital feathers sway in the wind. Such a wonderful feeling! He could…he felt…he was flying.

Oh, control yourself, he thought. Overruling his emotions, Neuro began to focus on subduing the sweepers. Floating in close, he transformed his arms and punched strongly to both sides. Two of the sweeps went down, dissolving into streams of data until they were nothing. Neuro turned to the last one. His normal powers were not limited by the laws of reality here either. That was an interesting thought, he reflected as he wrenched the arms off of the last sweep.

Pretending to have super-strength was fun, he decided as he raised his two new weapons. It was all in how you changed your code as a program.

“…but be silent.” Asanteoh instructed. “Do not alert the system of your presence.”

Oh, really now? Neuro gazed coldly at the helpless sweep. He wondered if maybe he could just…

The demon placed one hand over the sweep’s beeping “mouth”. Grinning with a beak full of sharp teeth, he “shh”d the program with one middle finger before raising one of the edged arms up, bringing it down, and piercing it through.

Neuro turned away from the beaten program. His next test had already arrived. A short distance in front of him floated a huge warning message. On one side of it, the yellow “CAUTION” symbol brought attention to words on the right.

“YOU DO NOT HAVE PERMISSION TO PROGRESS FURTHER” it read, with the only selectable answer being “OK”. Neuro marveled. It looked exactly like a pop-up on a computer screen, only much larger. There was even a red X in the top corner.

“A barrier obstructs your path,” said Asanteoh calmly. “What will you do?”

“Elementary, my dear ‘King’,” Neuro said. He raised his right arm, the one with Evil Script, and reached out towards the wall. His hand grew bigger, and bigger, until it was large enough to grasp the error message if its commander pleased. In real life this would not be possible, Neuro knew, but size was relative here. By changing his coding, he could issue his body any instructions that he liked.

The avianoid sneered. “Walls must be torn down.” He formed a giant fist with his right hand and punched through the barrier. Neuro programmed his hand back to normal as flashing shards tumbled slowly down around him and faded away.

His reward for getting past the error message wall was a large amount of encrypted data. All Neuro had to do was unencrypt it. He was almost bored while completing the task; this part was the easiest for him. The most difficult bit was determining what coding mechanism had been used, and finding a way to store the resulting data. Neuro objectified his results as a letter and stuffed it in a virtual pocket. For others it may have been their next challenge, but to Neuro it was almost a rewarding break.

One that turned out to have been needed.

Neuro beheld a truly awe-inspiring and daunting sight. In front of him raged a massive barrier of fire. It stretched to either side, as far as Neuro’s emerald eyes could see. In addition, the mountain of flame reached downwards and up until it vanished into the beyond. There would be no creatively avoiding this obstacle.

“Congratulations. You have reached your final challenge,” Asanteoh spoke.

“I see,” Neuro muttered. “It’s-“

“-the firewall,” they both finished.

Impressive, Neuro conceded as he searched for a weak point, a hole, any weakness that he could find. He floated, blue arms crossed, and focused. He stared at the vertical screen of flames, the crimson inferno reflecting in his deep, ringed, forest-colored eyes. He thought. And thought.

Program, flare, file, code, burn, sear, death, net, data, fly, virtual, through, transmit, bypass, look closer, closer, think, analyze, program transmit through SCREEN

The bits of binary that were Neuro’s thoughts finally collected themselves into a conclusion. He snapped his fingers in a universal “A-ha!” gesture. Of course. In the light of a million fires, the bird demon smiled.

“What have you figured out, Braineater?”

Everything, he thought. “Pipe down will you?” the detective said cheerfully. “I am going to become a package.”

“What-“

Ignoring the startled reactions of his superiors, Neuro set to work. Briefly, he wondered if the roiling flames would hurt, simulated though they were. No, he discarded the thought. There were lakes of fire and similar things in Hell. This one was just vertical.

Neuro adjusted the program that was himself. He couldn’t go over this wall, nor could he go around it…so the only option was through it. Madness, sheer madness, but Neuro’s head was giddy with the thrill of it all. His mind had found its answer; he knew it was correct. The evidence and his own personal knowledge had combined to single out one option, and his deductions were always flawless. Now to follow what his mind had told him, regardless of what his body felt. His body was not what he relied on.

'Braineater' Neuro was a box. A parcel from the post office of Hell, stamped, addressed, and ready for delivery. And his destination was the other side of the firewall. It was cramped, having to transform into such a tight shape. But he couldn’t appear suspicious. Only certain programs were allowed past the firewall to the target information that he had been sent to acquire.

Using Evil Script, Neuro surrounded himself with the system’s own data in a curtain. This was a matter of disguise, of controlling what he was in the virtual world. For this, he would be a friendly program, harmless—he laughed internally—until he was opened. He just had to make it through the filters.

Neuro moved closer to the wall of flame. While his curtain scorched at the surface of the roaring, blazing barrier of vicious conflagration, he found what he had been looking for earlier: a hole. Feeling the friendly-data surrounding him tingle, he sent himself through the relentless inferno.

Usually, an anti-virus program would be waiting on the other side to scan any arriving programs. However, in this test run, Neuro had already decimated the security sweeps. He was victorious. Having made it through the firewall, Neuro unpackaged himself. The detective allowed himself a contented smirk as he stretched and looked around casually for new anti-viruses to fight. He saw none.

Instead, what he found was an immense cache of data. It danced in the “air” and floated about, transmitting back and forth between itself. He didn’t need all of it—buried somewhere within this mountain of reward was his target. Neuro’s mouth watered as he imagined all of the information was a puzzle, one that he could eat. Now that would be a glorious day.

Neuro was pulled out of his fantasies by the disembodied voices of his commanders. Tossing an annoyed look at the “sky”, he frowned. “I’ll start! Honestly, something like this is no challenge for me.”

He did. It wasn’t.


“Mission successful, and one part of police training down,” Asanteoh rumbled. “I suppose I must congratulate you.”

“Think nothing of it,” Neuro said, back in reality. He kept his eyes on Evil Script, flexing the hand thoughtfully.

“We’ll have to replay and analyze your little trip,” said Lucard, messing with one of the monitors. “In the virtual space, data—that’s you—moves so fast it’s hard to follow.”

He looked over and saw that Neuro remained absorbed in studying the tool. Lucard’s red eyes blinked. He leaned closer to the detective. “…Would you like to stay overtime and practice a little bit more?”

Asanteoh twitched his whiskers as Neuro gleefully agreed to “play” a few more rounds. He gave an authoritative nod to signal his agreement. The mystery-eater at once began working with Lucard to begin another exercise. This time, the lupinoid made sure that Neuro’s body was sitting securely in a chair.

After the detective was “gone”, Lucard walked over to his commander. “King, was that the same firewall we use?”

“No, Lucard,” spoke Asanteoh, shaking his head. “If it was, then we would have just taught him how to hack into all our information.”

“But,” he said, “I have no doubts that this Tool will end up as one of his favorites.”

Chapter Text

Day 2 of routine basic training.

But they would not be using the same room from the previous day.

Neuro was ready for his next training session to begin. The feathered demon stood to one side of the hallway, in front of two locked doors. The huge black doors were engraved with the glyph of the Order Branch of Hell’s Disciplinary Action Committee, but were sparsely decorated besides that. Neuro put one clawed hand on its surface and pushed. The barrier did not budge. It seemed that only a considerable amount of power would be enough to force the doors open, should the need ever arise. No sight or sound escaped from behind them. Whatever was beyond those doors was, in truth, a mystery.

Neuro’s mouth began to water. How exciting.

He was not alone. Lucard and Asanteoh had taken their detective through the blue-carpeted halls to this currently-unused office. He had already been told that today they would focus on the unremarkable skill of audio infiltration. But he would not be placing a wiretap on a phone line. There was a different Tool they had in mind.

“…” Lucard stared as Neuro casually investigated the door. They hadn’t told him to start yet. Maybe it was just sleuthing instinct, gathering information and facts on automatic.

Lucard turned his head to the left and gave his boss a questioning look. Despite his underling’s unsettled glance, Asanteoh was unperturbed. The King simply watched as Neuro continued to investigate the door. Lucard looked straight ahead again, trying to copy the stern expression on Asanteoh’s face.

“Today’s task is more rudimentary than computer hacking,” Asanteoh said. Neuro had just moved his head in to listen at the door, curled horns almost touching the smooth ebony surface. “Again, one of the most basic Tools in your arsenal will be used.”

Asanteoh’s golden eyes narrowed, “However, these are also the most important Tools—ones that you will use often in routine detective work. Remove your head from that door this instant, Braineater. You won’t be able to hear anything just yet.”

Neuro complied.

“Lucard and I have set up a recording behind those doors,” Asanteoh continued. “It plays on repeat, but is impossible to hear from the outside. You will have to use one of the Tools that can be used as a listening device. Use the device to overhear the recorded message and successfully repeat it back to me. The more of it you manage to hear and remember the better. We’ll continue until you can remember the entire message flawlessly-” He broke off. “What’s wrong, detective? You’re frowning.”

The mystery-eater did indeed look saddened. “Oh, nothing,” he sighed. “So what lies behind this door isn’t a delicious mystery for me to solve after all…” His shoulders slumped with disappointment. It had been too good to be true. There was no mystery, no glorious puzzle, and no possibility of even a miniscule meal.

Neuro was hungry. These 777 Tools of Hell were supposed to assist him in finding and solving mysteries, securing more food for him to eat. And yet his hopes of getting a quick lunch on the job had been dashed. He flexed his fingers and prepared to summon a Tool, still annoyed. This training was a waste of his precious energy if it did not lead him closer to his goal.

A green aura swirled and danced around Neuro’s cupped hands, the miasma in the air bending and collecting in the demon’s folded talons. Lucard and Asanteoh watched, the eerie light reflecting in the all three demons’ eyes.

Practice makes perfect, Neuro reflected as the energy amassed. The process of summoning a Tool had become increasingly easy, despite requiring some effort the first few times. It was especially simple to call upon a small, simple Tool like this…

Neuro frowned. But something didn’t feel right. The detective opened his hands a crack, fingers uncurling like a thorn-flower. An object had appeared, yes, small and lightweight. But it still glowed green, as if it was not quite finished crossing over. Neuro pushed a little more, only to feel the power hitch further. This was bothersome. Something was interfering with the procedure. He pushed harder to complete his summon but the power only resisted—stalling like a car with half its engine missing. Neuro fought down his mild frustration. Getting flustered only compromised one’s deductive abilities. There must be some problem, a factor, which he hadn’t anticipated.

This would not do for a brilliant detective of Hell.

Neuro closed his multi-ringed eyes and focused inward, ignoring all interfering data from the physical world. He could feel the Tool’s power, desperately tugging in an errant direction despite his persistent corrections. Neuro considered the possibilities: the called Tool might not be a listening device, or it required a ridiculous amount of demonic energy to summon, or there had been a malfunction…or perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps everything was working as well as it could, and he was the malignant factor.

Neuro did not like being wrong, even for a second. So, slowly, he relaxed control and lightened the mental tug-of-war. The energy happily surged in its natural direction. Having now decided to cooperate, Neuro renewed his efforts—this time surrendering to the automatic flow of power.

Immediately, he could tell that it had worked. The power was no longer caught on an unforeseen hindrance and it smoothly obeyed his will. Neuro began to complete the summon.

Suddenly, a tingling sensation made the demon look down at his hands. Astonished, he saw what appeared to be a second object appearing beside the first. But before he could think further, the summon completed with a flash. Excess energy disappeared into the air with a sigh.

Oh, Neuro thought as he looked down at the device. A toothy grin spread across his face. It had two parts. Of course.

Each of his hands held a different item. His left grasped two circular wireless headphones while his right held a listening device as pink as human flesh. The mystery-eater instructed himself to remember this possibility in the future.

777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Butterfly,” Neuro announced cheerfully. He turned and smiled at Lucard and Asanteoh, hoping that the minor difficulty had not been obvious.

“Hm,” Asanteoh grunted in recognition. “That one should work well for this exercise. Plant the bug.”

“That would be this, correct?” Neuro asked. He held up the small Tool, examining its appearance. Two fleshy “wings” spread from its back, the color of raw skin. They looked like a very realistic pair of human ears. Perhaps they even were. That would make a wonderful listening device, the demon detective mused.

The creature stood on four twig-thin legs the color of green olives. A purple head stretched up from its neck, twisted awkwardly backwards. Held in its mouth was a slowly spinning radar-device, intended to broadcast back what it overheard.

Neuro gazed fondly at the little creature as its pale wings flapped pathetically. By demon standards it was quite cute, and it did slightly resemble the lovably grotesque butterflies that fluttered about Hell’s gardens. The feathered demon flicked the tool off of his finger, smirking at its small sound of pain. Directed by its master, the creature flew high into the air. The antenna protruding from its mouth whirred.

Neuro watched his Tool flutter up to the top of the large, black doors. It perched on the edge of a crack between door and ceiling before crawling onwards. Neuro grinned with satisfaction, feeling his Tool progress through their mental link. Evil Butterfly was in. The bug had been planted.

Lucard gave a short growl. “Hmph. This one.” The commander leaned against the ash-gray wall, furred arms crossed. “Didn’t you tell me about a Tool like this, King?”

“Yes, Lucard. Under strict secrecy,” reminded Asanteoh sternly. “Others have used this Tool before you, so we have more intelligence on how it works,” he explained to Neuro. “The part of it that you just sent is ideal for eavesdropping. If you are careful, no one inside will notice it. It can attach to walls, the ceiling, or even hover in one spot. However, that was the easy part.”

The leonoid pointed to the Neuro’s left hand. “Once the bug is positioned correctly, adjust the frequency of those speakers. When you have everything adjusted, impart to us the recorded message.”

Neuro brought the headphones to his ears, one in each hand. The avianoid closed his eyes in order to concentrate all of his senses on hearing. All he could hear was garbled words, blips of static, and a whole lot of silence besides. Frowning, he pressed the headphones closer.

Now he heard a brief rush of air. A second passed, and then it came again. Strange…it reminded him of deep inhales. But there should be no one over there in the locked room. There was only his Tool, hanging in perfect position on a wall, broadcasting sounds back through each silver…

Speaker.

Ah-CHOO! Neuro wrenched away at the noise, narrowly avoiding the long spikes that shot out from the mouth of each headphone. The spikes were astonishingly long, nearly touching even when held apart by Neuro’s lengthy arms. The detective’s emerald eyes watched warily as the Tool sniffed, recovering from its deadly nasal explosion. Slowly, the twin needles retracted back. Neuro held the headphones as they returned to their original form.

“What the Devil was that?” He glared at his superiors.

Asanteoh answered him. “That, Neuro, was a sneeze.” The Executive Officer smiled. Lucard giggled nervously, having jerked away from the wall in surprise.

“Yeah, that’ll happen. It does that,” the lupinoid demon spoke. “You were right, King. Did anybody ever figure out how to make it stop-” He was silenced by a withering look from his superior.

“…You never told me,” Neuro said slowly. His eyes searched the others, calm and calculating.

“We didn’t feel the need to.” Asanteoh’s gaze glimmered with amusement.

Neuro looked down at the traitorous headphones, mind already analyzing this new development. He held the two pieces in his hands, palms up. They were identical—green and circular, with antenna on the back to receive signals. Each side had a deadly speaker, tan and shaped like a face. They had two bead-sized eyes that stared, never blinking, from above a small nose. A symbol was inscribed on their cheeks, labeling them for the “left” or “right” ear.

Absentmindedly, Neuro noticed that he was holding the one for his left ear in his right hand, and vice versa. He dismissed the observation. Irrelevant data.

Ah, but there were the treacherous speakers. A round metal cone protruding from each face’s “mouth”, ready to be placed into someone’s ear. The Tool would then whisper to its user all that the Butterfly overheard. However, Neuro remembered, it hid a deadly secret.

Tickling the headphones’ noses, he watched them inhale and sneeze again. How annoying, he thought as the spikes retracted with a gurgle. It would be distracting to attempt to overhear a message while worrying about impalement. Not to mention having to take the listening devices completely out of his ears at the slightest sign of a sneeze. He risked missing important information.

Neuro turned the two headphones over and around in his hands. The other two officers watched him in silence. After a few moments, the detective smiled. “Well, I guess that’s not so bad.”

“You think you know how to disarm the spikes?” Lucard asked, furry eyebrows raised. The problem was simple, but posed a significant dilemma.

Neuro grinned widely, ignoring the wolf demon’s question. “All you have to do is stop it from sneezing, right?”


The crime detective began to solve the puzzle set before him. As Neuro had said, it was a simple solution in theory. However, the few who had commanded the Tools before him had all used different ways to subdue the receivers. He might mimic one of their methods, or invent another.

Neuro calmly examined the headphones, rotating them around to every possible angle. He was always careful to keep the magenta lips pointed away from his face. With two slim fingers, the demon pinched both of the tiny noses shut. Perhaps the simplest solution would be the best. With a bit of adjustment to his grip, both headphones’ nostrils were plugged. Pleased, Neuro lifted them to his ears.

…Nope. Neuro quickly brought the receivers back down. With his fingers reaching over the faces, the speakers had been blocked from fully entering his earholes. Disappointing, but logical. He may have been able to plug the headphones' noses, but Neuro couldn’t shove his fingers into his own ears as well. He would have to find a different solution.

The headphones sneezed in relief when Neuro removed his fingers. Flipping them over, the detective frowned. He had been hoping to find an air hole or two. Those he would have been able to plug up while still having the speakers inserted. Neuro engaged the problem-solving portions of his mind—how else could he stop the sneezes?

Lucard yawned boldly, bored with the proceedings. Asanteoh turned to lecture his foolish second-in-command, but was interrupted. Beak splitting into a delighted grin, Neuro suddenly reached an idea. He tossed both headphones into his left hand, and then gave an exaggerated “Aha!” gesture with his right.

Lucard and Asanteoh watched in surprise as the still-grinning detective set his thoughts into motion. Taking one receiver in each hand, he raised them to his head. Then, without fear, Neuro shoved the mutinous speakers into his ears. He pressed them in tighter.

Lucard listened intensely for the expected deep pre-sneeze inhales. But after a few moments Neuro turned confidently to wave at the two of them, headphones securely in. The wolf demon twitched his black-furred ears. The jostling had not activated any sneezing, nor had either spike pierced Neuro’s brain. And after a few more minutes of waiting, it seemed that the detective had found a solution after all.

“All right, how’d you do it?” Lucard growled.

“What?” Neuro said cheerfully, removing one of the headphones. “It’s difficult to hear you with these things in so tight. Oh really now, no need be surprised, it’s quite a simple solution honestly. I’ll explain…”

“What causes someone to sneeze is irritation to the nose. Particles in the air or a certain burst of wind can activate the reflex. When demons sneeze, air and mucus is blown from the mouth at speeds up to one million miles per hour.” Neuro shrugged. “The same thing happens here, just with a different effect. The pressure released from the sneeze forces this disastrously structured speaker to project outward, stretching into a point. The spike could pierce through my ears and into my brain if I were not careful. Luckily, I have found a way to avoid it.”

“By doing the seemingly suicidal and pushing the earpieces in further, I have created a pocket of air pressure inside my ear canal. It functions as a vacuum—no air moves around inside due to the unique pressure, and no particles will be blown into the headphones’ noses.” Neuro grinned at the other two demons. “Just hope my ears are clean!”

“Hmm.” Asanteoh kept a stern front, but Neuro could see consideration in his eyes, mulling over the proposed solution. Lucard, however, looked as if he still expected the spikes to impale Neuro at any moment. The lupinoid's lips were tensed into a small scowl, and his ears remained pricked and alert.

“Let’s hope you’re right,” the King spoke, voice rolling like thunder. “For your sake. Now, after puzzling all of that out, hopefully you still remember the next step.” Neuro nodded, smirking inwardly as Lucard’s red eyes followed the motion of his headphones. The next step was to adjust the frequency so that the Butterfly and earpieces had a clear connection. Hopefully he could do that without having to take them out.

Neuro’s fingers searched the back of the headphones. He mentally reviewed their design: no buttons, no dials, and no wires. Well, he thought, there were always these…

Lightly, his fingers brushed the small receiving antenna. Attached to a protruding portion of the rear, each antenna branched out into two points. After a few centimeters the two prongs joined at a common connecting segment. At each end of the segment the wire forked into a “U” shape. Neuro smiled; these were the receiving antenna, to match the other part of the Tool and its broadcasting antenna. They must be linked. Gently now…

Cautiously, Neuro rotated the segments clockwise a few degrees. Feeling no resistance saying 'you’re breaking me', he pushed a little more. His brainpowerfocused fully on listening now, he began to adjust the other earpiece as well. After tweaking, pulling, rotating, twisting, and even some minor bending, the sound in both ears aligned. Neuro turned and shot Asanteoh a smug thumbs-up.

He could hear the recorded message clearly now. Neuro laughed softly as he recognized the voice as Asanteoh’s. Pressing the untrustworthy headphones tightly to his ears, the demon detective listened.

It was a lengthy recording and took some time to loop back around to the beginning. Neuro closed his eyes again as his brain worked on transcribing sound to memory. Hmm. These words sounded familiar. Where had he heard this before? …Ah, of course.

“I’ll begin relaying the message now, so listen close,” he said with a smirk.

“Speak respectfully while still in routine basic train-“ growled Lucard.

“I, 'Braineater' Neuro, do swear by all above and below my loyalty to the Order Branch of Hell’s Disciplinary Action Committee as a novice crime detective. My body and brain shall be my weapons and my tools.” He laughed.

“I pledge my cooperation and allegiance to my superiors, namely Executive Officer Asanteoh “King” Leonfang and Commander Lucard Throatbane. I promise to serve to the best of my ability and knowledge under the blue banner of Enforcement. Above all…” Neuro remembered the words to the HDAC:OB’s Pledge of Labor. After all, he had heard it once before. He flawlessly repeated the esteemed six-word creed from memory. “Enforce with power, Protect with deference.”


“Hey, Lucard!”

Lucard turned his head in response to Neuro’s excited voice. The oath had been sworn, and Asanteoh was busy recording their progress. The King would send the small report to his deluxe desk, Blud, when it was finished.

“I have discovered a new use for this Tool,” Neuro said happily. “Observe…”

The blonde demon sprinkled some dust gathered from the floor under the nose of each headphone. They began to sniff in protest, preparing to sneeze. Neuro quickly brought them up to his ears, but turned them backwards so that the faces were pointed out.

Ah-CHOO! The spikes erupted outwards, flashing in the light. The two demons remained still, one smiling and the other blinking, until the two silver speakers retracted.

Neuro was positively gleeful. “See? If you wear them backwards, then the spikes could almost function as a weapon!” he chirped. “Although as a result, it is impossible to hear anything.”

Asanteoh pressed one last button, chuckling at the slightly perturbed expression on Lucard’s face.

Chapter Text

A case!

Neuro was excited as could be. It felt like he had been stuck in routine basic training for months, following boring “standard procedures” and practicing with his most simplistic Tools. During that time Neuro had learned to manage his demonic energy more effectively and wisely. He felt that soon he might be able to use more than one Tool at a time. Neuro had also conducted himself very well, obeying any direct commands and showing that he was indeed a demon worthy of the Hellish Tools.

His patience and good behavior had paid off in the form of a practice run. Although still technically a recruit-in-training, the mystery-eater was going to be allowed to “shadow” an investigation alongside Lucard. Asanteoh had told both of them yesterday. Neuro couldn’t resist smiling to himself. Apparently there were a few demons with authority that were curious about their new crime detective.

Neuro had also been getting quite hungry. There hadn’t been any chance for individual crime-solving (or snacking) since he enrolled in the Order Branch.

“We’re almost there.” Asanteoh’s voice rolled through their cramped vehicle—a police hearse.

Lucard nodded and silently flicked a switch mounted on the inside of the door to his right. Thick black coverings slid over all of the windows and clicked as they locked.

Neuro blinked as his eyes adjusted to the increased darkness. He understood. Now nobody on the outside could see them talking. Those panels were probably sound-proof too. Anything that the three of them said or did from here on would be kept private and secretive.

“Here’s your mystery,” Asanteoh began to explain. He leaned forward, resting both elbows on his knees, and clasped his fingers together. “The victim’s name was Gastroslime, a slug-type demon. He was murdered inside of his permanent dwelling. No alarm was sounded, even though our victim had eyes over almost all of his body. It has been determined that he was the most recent victim of a sly and elusive killer.”

“And there’s the catch, the reason we brought you on this case,” continued Asanteoh. “You are not here to solve how Gastroslime died, Braineater. Instead, we want you to find, apprehend, and catch whoever killed him. And we want you to do it today.”

Silence. Neuro seemed to be processing the information. “…Why is my primary objective to catch the killer instead of solving the crime?” he finally asked.

“By apprehending the killer, you will solve the crime,” answered Asanteoh. “Let me explain.”

“We have been aware of this perpetrator for a few months. They seem to have the astonishing ability to always know what we’ve figured out and what we haven’t. Every time that we see through their methods, they change strategies. This makes them very dangerous as well as annoying. Most disturbing, they also know our predictions for what they will do next.”

“This is more advanced than simply predicting our movements. They have someone on the inside.” The King’s amber eyes flashed. “Perhaps they even are someone on the inside.”

Lucard spoke. “Our special agents involved with this case are on the scene right now. Everybody’s milling about inside the house, doing their assigned jobs. We’re planning to gather for another in-depth discussion of how to handle this string of cases later. If the criminal was part of that select group they would get a free pass to all of our information. But only demons that work for the Order Branch are allowed into those discussions.”

He looked at Neuro. “You know what this means, right?”

“We have a spy,” grumbled Asanteoh.

“All of our agents think that they’re here to wrap up a crime scene. Little do they know that they’re actually here to be our suspects,” Lucard snarled.

“Fuhahaha…how very interesting,” Neuro said with a grin. The police-hearse jolted to a stop. They had arrived.

“I will not be present for this investigation,” said Asanteoh. “My rank is too high. Lucard, however…” The wolf demon frowned at his commander’s words. His pointed ears turned sideways.

“You’ve given Commander Throatbane orders to escort me, and he is not happy about it?” Neuro smirked.

Lucard’s frown deepened into a scowl. He stood up and exited the hearse, one ear twitching with annoyance. “Move it, birdbrain. We’ve got a criminal to catch.”

Neuro got up, nodded in thanks to Asanteoh, and followed Lucard out. He had one clawed foot on the ground when the Executive Officer called after him.

“Use the Tools wisely. But Neuro…there is one Tool that you will require more than any other. Perhaps even more than Evil Script. It is easy to wield, requires minimal energy to function, and will serve you well. Its name is Evil Friday.”

The police hearse sped away, its demon-worm wheels squishing against the ground.


Neuro flexed his purple hand, wiggling the sharp claws as if imagining that mysterious Tool appearing in his palm. He couldn’t help hypothesizing what abilities it would lend. From the description Asanteoh had given him it sounded like a helpful little toy. But what could “Friday” signify? It didn’t make much sense.

After the glow from the hearse’s flaming inferno of a back engine had faded, Lucard led Neuro up to the door. Gastroslime’s house turned out to be a large, creaking, hollow log, now abandoned. One knock and a flash of identification from Commander Throatbane later, both of them were in.

Other demons skittered about inside, only stopping to salute when Lucard approached. After they checked that everything was proceeding smoothly, Neuro followed his superior officer to a room sufficiently distant from the hectic crime scene.

“Alright, let’s get started,” Lucard declared. He looked at Neuro and frowned. The detective looked lost in thought. He seemed to be observing his hand more than the environment. That was unusual for someone with his natural curiosity. “Haven’t you been examining this place? Knowledge of your surroundings is crucial-”

“Log made from blackthorn wood, very strong walls, divided into approximately six rooms of varying area, center hallway all the way through, victim killed in lounge,” Neuro replied without looking up. “Forensics in the lounge, but none suspicious,” he finished.

“…I see,” Lucard managed. “So, what Tool are you going to use?”

“Our friend ‘the King’ gave me a recommendation before we parted,” Neuro said. He smiled as a quick burst of green flashed from his body.

Good, it wasn’t in two parts like Evil Butterfly. Neuro boldly announced the summoning of a Tool. “777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Fr-”Blargh!

The sensation of a large, slimy sphere appearing in his mouth took Neuro by surprise. His speech was interrupted as he spat the Tool out. A glutinous round mass fell to the floor and hit with a wet squelch.

As the oozing substance around the ball swiftly melted away it revealed a condensed mass of eyes. Within seconds they began to activate, poking out segmented mechanical limbs. Their corneas extended and then retracted like telescopes. They almost seemed joyful, as if happy to be summoned by their new master.

Neuro coughed and spat, trying to get rid of the taste lingering on his tongue. Needless to say, Evil Friday’s appearance had been sudden, disgusting, and very unpleasant for him.

Once the shock subsided Neuro realized that Lucard was laughing. The wolf demon’s laughter was loud and sharp like a bark, punctuated by some very amused howls.

“Oh, I’ve heard of that one,” said Lucard once he settled down. “It was used a lot by former holders of the Tools, I think. Did it catch you off-guard?” he sniggered.

“It must prefer to form in moist environments…” Neuro grumbled. He had already recovered from his momentary embarrassment but Lucard was still holding back giggles. “Due to their covering of, ah,” he shivered. “Slime.”

“I wonder if it will always appear from inside your beak,” said Lucard. “It’s just such a perfect fit. Maybe in the future you should hold off on announcing it until it’s out,” he smirked.

“So yeah, anyway, if you’re not going to barf up anything else, it’s like we said earlier,” Lucard said. “Eight agents. All of them are within reasonable suspicion. They have been present for all the important briefings about this string of cases.”

“I can investigate some of them while you take the rest,” Lucard offered. “How many suspects do you think you can handle?”

Neuro observed his numerous new skittering servants for a moment. “All of them,” he concluded.

“Oh no you don’t. I’ll take four. We’ll split them up evenly.” Lucard assigned Neuro four of the agents to target and described the ones that he would be watching in the meantime.

“Have fun with your new ‘Friday’ friends. Just find me when you’ve either snagged some really big clue, or that smart blonde head of yours manages to deduce who the criminal is,” Lucard called as he walked out of the nearest doorway. “That is, unless I find them first.”


Neuro had forty-eight eyes.

Well, fifty, counting the two that were actually in his head.

He held about two dozen of the eyeballs in his cupped hands and studied them. How interesting. The small creatures scurried over his palms on slender, insectoid legs. Their limbs connected to a mechanical cap that was attached in place of an optic nerve. Wires extended outward from each cap and into each eyeball like veins.

Neuro dumped all but three of the little things onto the ground. Forty-five eyeballs hit the ground and hopped back up onto their spidery legs with whirrs of complaint.

Neuro held the chosen three in his hands up closer to examine them. Obviously, they functioned primarily as biocameras. They would be his (literal) eyes allowing him to watch suspects from far away. In addition, Neuro could commune with them through a shared brain-link. Immediately Neuro began to explore their full potential.

He had one of the eyes do a little dance while another took a video of the nonsensical routine. Then Neuro watched the recording in his mind. Perfect. They were capable of recording what they saw, storing it, and then sending it to him later.

It took only the slightest mental push to activate their “zoom” function. The iris and lens of each eye smoothly extended outward. To zoom in again, the pupil protracted even farther. Neuro could easily see even minute details in the wooden walls.

The eyes could also help him move things. Neuro watched as one of the eyeballs ran around over his hands while holding a pebble with two of its legs. That would be helpful if he ever needed to plant something, Neuro reflected, although it would have to be something quite small. Still, they would be useful servants.

One more observation came to the demon’s mind and he chuckled. His servants’ irises were colored green, just like his own eyes.

When Neuro was done playing, he picked out one more eyeball and sent the group of four after his assigned targets. While they crawled away in different directions, Neuro focused on the rest of the horde. He commanded them to spread out and examine the area for any clues. The eyeballs all ran off, clinging to walls and keeping to the shadows.

When the last one disappeared from sight, Neuro connected to their mental link. All forty-eight of the biocameras switched on and began to broadcast back to their master at once.

Immediately Neuro’s vision was flooded with a fractured myriad of viewpoints. The quality of each feed was impressive. He could flawlessly see almost every point of the house! This was perfect—just what he needed. However, it was a lot to take in.

Neuro had planned to walk around as his Tool did its job. He would look less suspicious wandering around, doing obscure detective stuff. Besides, the others would expect him to be working on his own assignment. But walking soon proved to be a difficult task.

Neuro had to concentrate on his own viewpoint to go forward, sorting out what he was seeing from over forty other viewpoints. Luckily, the Tool made this easy. It was like there were many screens playing before his eyes, but his own perspective was center stage, large and clear. It only took a bit of mental effort to highlight and magnify the sight from his own two eyes. Now Neuro could at last perform the arduous task of walking forward.

After a minute of walking aimlessly he received a mental signal. The targets had been found.

Excellent, Neuro thought. Now he just had to magnify those four viewpoints as well, and concentrate on watching each of them as well as his own…but what in Hell was he doing?

He had stopped walking. And not only had he come to a sudden, dead halt, Neuro realized that he had been staring off blankly at nothing. From his point of view he had been staring at four important suspects, but this would not do at all. Any demon strolling nearby could have noticed him acting strange and distracted. It would be alarmingly easy to take advantage of his lack of concentration.

Neuro sighed. He had wondered if this would happen. Focusing upon dozens of viewpoints all at the same time lowered his observational potential by far too much. As amazing as he was, Neuro was spread too thin. The demon leaned his feathered back against the hallway wall and closed his all-seeing eyes. He had to lower the amount of input.

First, Neuro ordered the clue-hunters to alert him only if needed. He didn’t need to see every knothole that they climbed into. A quick view of the inside would do, as well as a short broadcast summarizing any objects they found. At his command, most of the viewpoints inside his head dimmed or went black.

Neuro almost smiled. Thankfully the eyeballs were semi-sentient creatures. They ran off of the demonic energy used to summon them. Once summoned, they did not require any additional energy from him to function or perform tasks. Neuro predicted that would be quite handy if he was ever running low on power. Now for the suspects…

Neuro’s first strategy was to switch between the biocameras at five-second intervals between the four viewpoints, like some variations of security footage. However, it proved quite distracting. It also resulted in some holes regarding his observations of a suspect’s actions. He quickly discarded that method. The smallest detail could have the greatest significance in this case.

He had to see it. He had to see it all. And he had to see it all at the same time. With those thoughts in mind, Neuro concentrated on his command over the Tool. He expanded the viewpoints of every single eyeball, including the ones not targeting a suspect. The range of Neuro’s sight grew wider, wider, and expanded until all the viewpoints connected. It was a lot of ground to cover, but soon the demon had a full-length, uninterrupted panorama of everything within his and the eyes’ sight.

All four suspects were in full view, their every action on display. He had a detailed overview of their environments too. Oh yes, Neuro smiled victoriously. He could manage this.

With practice, Neuro speculated, he would develop the mental skill needed to multitask. He would be able to observe each suspect effectively via his servants, and also remain able to concentrate on his surroundings. Eventually the eyeballs would begin to feel like a natural extension of his own body.

Everything would come in time, Neuro predicted as he slowly walked away. However, for now it might be best to simply find a secluded place to enjoy his amazing new view of the suspects.


Meanwhile, Lucard was doing some investigating of his own.

In-between supervising, organizing, ordering, and commanding, the lupinoid demon had managed to create mental tabs on each suspect he was watching. Now the idiots in forensics had finally run out of reasons to bother him and Lucard at last had a break. He stepped out into the hall and rested his back against the corridor wall so he could think.

Two of the suspected agents had gotten into a small spat a short while ago. Zelmia Dreadsting, a scorpion demoness, had been one of them. She was humanoid and wore a black business dress for the occasion. Armored plates covered her inky purple body and her dark hair ended in nasty hooks. She had caused a commotion hissing at another of Lucard’s suspected agents, demanding “more precision” as always. Always the intense one, that Dreadsting. Her emotions often seemed to get the better of her.

The object of Zelmia’s fury had been Balanusk Huskeater, a squirrel demon. Unlike the timid squirrels from the human world, Balanusk had enormous front fangs that were filled with venom. He could also shoot heat-lasers from his eyes, but thankfully his and Zelmia’s dispute had not resulted in their use.

Lucard would have not considered him at all suspicious, but he had noticed something: Balanusk took more thorough and complete notes from their meetings than any other demon. If the criminal was not him, then it was perhaps possible that they were simply in touch with the twitchy demon squirrel.

Lucard nodded tersely as a shark demon approached. It was his third suspect, Brutus Sharpback. He must have come to ensure that Zelmia and Balanusk’s quarrel was over. No one would be stupid enough to fight if Brutus got involved.

Brutus bowed in response, revealing the axe blade in place of his dorsal fin. His other ‘fins’ were knives of varying shapes and styles. All of them were deadly.

As Brutus entered the room and disappeared from sight, Lucard reviewed his mental list of suspicions against the bladed demon. Brutus would have been considered suspicious anyway due to his violent nature and brilliant combat skills. Furthermore, Brutus had proven to be intelligent in addition to being an impressive fighter. That made him even more dangerous. He had the highest rank of all the agents on this case, although he was still far below Lucard.

The last suspect Lucard had observed was a sawfish demon named Doloron the Gutter. Doloron was one of those demons that did not fit into either the “female” or “male” sex criteria. They were, also, a literal mix between a saw and a fish. A chainsaw jutted out hazardously from their oily face like a nose. Doloron was one of the Order Branch's newest recruits and a novice compared to the other agents assigned to this case. Well, except for Neuro, Lucard thought.

The biggest strike against Doloron was their ability to perform minor feats of teleportation. Assaulting Gastroslime (Haha, thought Lucard. As‘salt’ing.) and then escaping would have been easy. The deed could have been done and over before any alarms were triggered. It was a possibility that could not be ignored.

So Lucard had examined Zelmia Dreadsting, Balanusk Huskeater, Brutus Sharpback, and Doloron the Gutter. There were viable reasons to suspect all of them. Lucard wondered how Neuro’s observations of the other agents had gone. The birdbrain had probably sent the Evil Friday eyes after Lucard’s four suspects once he had finished with his own. Scheming feathered mastermind.

Oh, and speak of the Devil… There was Neuro now, walking down the hall towards him. A single mechanical eyeball rode on the avianoid’s shoulder.

“I’ve had my servants scan everywhere,” the detective reported. “There are no listening devices. Whatever way the murderer gets his inside information, it’s not through planted audio bugs.”

“Then the criminal is most likely among us,” Lucard practically growled.

“Yes,” Neuro confirmed. “They are here.”

“Excellent work, birdbrain. Tell me who it is and our job here will be done.”

“Ah, I’m afraid that won’t work, Commander.”

Lucard growled for real this time. “And why the Devil not?” he asked with fangs bared.

“I will only be able to apprehend the murderer during our next informational meeting,” came Neuro’s smooth reply. “That way we use the criminal’s modus operandi against them. The agents will gather to hear their next vital orders and information about this string of cases. I will then flawlessly point out the murderer among them.”

Neuro approached Lucard and imparted some instructions. The informational meeting was to be held before the hour was up, inside of the living room. Everyone was to be told that its purpose would be discussing their conclusions and forming their next plan of action. Lucard and Neuro would both attend, even though it would be unusual for such high-ranking officers to be present. It should be stressed that the meeting was “very important”.

“The criminal will be sure to come!” Neuro declared. Then the demonic detective told Lucard the names of all the agents he wanted invited.

Lucard’s silver-and-black fur bristled. “Braineater, those are all our best officers on this case!” He exclaimed. “Some of them have proved their loyalty a thousand times over! You’re telling me that one of them is the culprit?”

Neuro smiled. “The criminal will come,” he repeated.

Chapter Text

“Alright everyone, we’ve kept you waiting long enough.” Lucard called their “super-top-secret-immensely-important” meeting to order. It was about time. He himself had been getting impatient, waiting for when the mystery would finally be solved and the traitor revealed.

All of the officers that Neuro had requested were in attendance. Lucard could see Zelmia Dreadsting with her puckered, knobby face standing with her arms crossed. Hopefully she was just concerned and not annoyed. The demoness could have a killer temper. Lucard had been a bit surprised when Neuro listed her name, but if the detective suspected her then he could only imagine that there was a good reason. Brutus Sharpback was also among the demons along with a few of Neuro’s assigned suspects. Balanusk Huskeater was the only other one to have been summoned.

“As you all know, Gastroslime was an old, valued contact of the HDAC, which is why the Order Branch has poured so much resources and attention into this string of cases,” said Lucard. “Today I introduce to you our newest colleague for this investigation, given to us by the Executive offices with hopes of finally solving the mystery. This is ‘Braineater’ Neuro, our crime detective.”

He pointed out the demon next to him. Neuro had entered the room before Lucard, and in fact had been the first to arrive, but this was his first official introduction to others in the field. Lucard felt the gathered demons shift and heard a few sounds of acknowledgement. Neuro stood with an even, unbothered composure, smiling faintly. He did not meet the others’ eyes.

Lucard caught sight of an Evil Friday bug riding on the demon’s feathered shoulder. There were two on his other side as well, and even one peeking out from behind the horns on his head. A whole pod gathered around his clawed feet. Lucard’s ears picked up a soft whirring noise from the closest one, perched on Neuro’s wrist. Was the puzzle-solver recording this meeting?

Bah. Lucard chose to ignore it. Who could tell, with that freakish brain of his? Maybe the feathered demon wanted to review the footage later.

“Care to share your brilliant deductions?” Lucard said with sarcasm.

After a few seconds, Neuro nodded. “Thank you all for coming,” he addressed the room. “Your cooperation has helped to bring this mystery to the tip of my tongue. I promise you that today’s meeting will in fact be very short.”

“I have found the culprit,” Neuro announced. He took a half-step forward and pointed at the assembled group with an outstretched middle finger. “The criminal is…”

Lucard tensed. He hadn’t expected the bird demon to be so bold. Neuro was going to oust the killer right now?

Lucard glanced around at the gathered demons and allowed his fur to rise. He was itching to get his claws on whoever had the nerve to betray the Order Branch, tarnishing the banner of Enforcement and Asanteoh’s good name. Lucard was one word away from lunging at the culprit to capture them and see them punished. Now, which one was it...

Neuro grinned and retracted his finger up towards the ceiling. “None of you!”


From his vantage point above, Neuro smiled. From what he could see, the Commander and others were just beginning to file into the room. Their meeting would begin shortly. He saw the dog go and stand next to his duplicate, leaving distance in between the two of them as Neuro had requested. Evil Blind, it seemed, required some space if he were to optimally carry out his plan.

There were some very useful gadgets among the 777 Tools, Neuro reflected. This one had taken less energy to summon than Evil Full Face and had provided him with exactly the kind of cover that he needed.

Neuro had entered the room long before anyone else arrived in order to set up his trick. First, he had used Evil Blind to cast a curtain of energy in a good-sized radius around him. Neuro had observed himself from the outside with a demon bug and concluded that it served to lower the ‘conspicuousness’ of his existence. It was not invisibility, but eyes would tend to slide away from him, people might carry on conversations without including him, and any newcomers entering the room likely would not even notice he was there. It was quite the interesting ability. Neuro had summoned the tool before during one of his numerous practice exercises, and this time he had imagined a fun way to take advantage of it.

Neuro had recorded a short film of himself using his servants from Evil Friday. There were two video files: one of him standing neutrally and one that would play when his true objective had been reached. The bugs had been arranged to record from all angles so that when he set them up again and instructed them to project the image onto Evil Blind it appeared as a 3D living, breathing Neuro. The decoy wasn’t perfect, but Evil Blind’s ability should be enough to keep the other demons from noticing. Hopefully.

It had all worked well. Each “suspect” passed below the real Neuro and focused on the fake image, oblivious of the brightly colored demon crouching overhead.

But Neuro had chosen to use Evil Blind for one reason: to put himself “on the same level” as the true killer. Who should be—Neuro’s eyes flicked back over the expanse of the ceiling—according to his reasoning…

Right there.

Gastroslime’s murderer hung effortlessly from the blackthorn wood. Their natural toepads securely gripped the craggy surface. With great googly eyes they looked down upon the assembled group of officers. No doubt they were listening intently to the officers’ new plans.

It was a gecko-form demon.

It was slender and had seven pairs of legs. Its body was silver, overlaid with the colors of the ceiling, and had yellow rings down the back. The demon was also wearing a technical-looking jacket and helmet. Wires between the two pieces of equipment pulsed whenever it moved. A quick shimmer would flash across the affected surface. Neuro deduced that the items must be assisting its natural camouflage abilities. It was flawlessly hidden and seemed to have no trouble at all with keeping quiet.

The avianoid demon licked his beak. His long-awaited meal had arrived.

After a second of debate, Neuro called upon his powers of sense manipulation. He didn’t like to use that particular ability; his talent for it was almost too weak to use it effectively, and with Neuro’s intellect he never found it particularly necessary to force others’ hands like a brute. Commanding Lucard’s paw during their practice battle had taken more energy than Neuro could expend casually, and had only worked because the dog was taken by surprise. But today the power might serve him well.

He acted gently in order to avoid alerting those below. Neuro targeted the gecko-demon’s hands, slowly softening the bonds between their pads and the wood. The demon flexed its fingers and pressed deeper into the wood, looking down in confusion when it was unable to find purchase. Finally it had to reposition its hand. It sank into a different position, stepping one hand out and to the side which caused its head to swing to the right..

It saw him.

Neuro reached out with the speed of a striking snake and grabbed the demon by the jacket. He pulled it towards him and into the range of Evil Blind. When the culprit opened its mouth to click at him, Neuro clamped its jaws shut with the talons of one hand. The message was clear: Keep quiet.

But the criminal was panicking now with the stress of being caught. The demon whipped its tail around towards Neuro. At the end of it was a lance along with other, smaller spikes. The mystery-eater ducked. Luckily, he managed to smack the appendage back before it could thump against the ceiling.

Neuro let the culprit struggle out of his grasp. It tried to hiss at him and got poked in the nostrils for its trouble. The demon staggered back, unused to the feeling of talons up its nose. Neuro grinned in childish amusement.

They fought on the ceiling underneath the cover of Evil Blind and a transformative jacket, invisible to the others.

You’re not the only one who can defy the laws of gravity, Neuro thought. He was completely at ease in this upside-down environment. While his opponent had to use the pads of their feet to desperately cling to the surface, Neuro could use any body part that he pleased. He even used his hair, just to prove he could.

Neuro twisted easily underneath the demon’s tongue. The fool had decided to swing it at him like a whip. Neuro was just bobbing back up, resolving to grab the next outstretched limb, when the demon turned tail and ran.

It skittered toward the edge of the tool’s aura in a senseless attempt to escape. Only its lance-tipped tail was held up as a futile defense to cover its retreat.

Neuro frowned. The sight brought up unpleasant feelings within him.

Among demons, most held the belief that you were either born strong or born weak. Of course, there were many ways to be strong…but there were also just as many ways to be weak. Those who were weaker had to rely upon tricks, other weaklings, and their own minds in order to outsmart the better fighters. Fate did not favor them. Life had created prey to please the hunters, not the other way around. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Hell.

Weaklings had to struggle and run away for their whole lives until they were eaten or otherwise killed, never having the chance to improve. They were doomed to be beaten forever.

Neuro could picture it all clearly—this gecko demon slinking off to tell others about how they had killed again, a really impressive heist this time. He could imagined it boasting to friends, relishing in the feelings of strength that success brought. Neuro imagined how its string of crimes would boost its reputation; make it stronger in others’ eyes. It was the only lifeline for the pathetic.

“Coward,” Neuro said with disgust. He snatched the end of the demon’s tail and pulled it back before they could escape the range of Evil Blind. They started another short tussle, but Neuro was done playing.

The detective plucked the criminal off of the ceiling. He held all seven pair of legs with both hands, having tied them up with the demon’s own tail. It writhed while Neuro sat calmly and dangled it over the others’ heads.

’Every time that we see through their methods, they change strategies,’” Neuro quoted. “Wasn’t that what the King said? Rather intriguing, hmm? Just like…a chameleon.”

The demon wriggled in protest.

“Yes, yes, or a gecko. That would work too, I suppose.”

The mystery had been solved, and the pent-up energy had been aching to escape from its host the moment Neuro’s victory had been assured. Now all the negative thoughts and emotions were released into the air as if bursting from a dam. With the puzzle dismantled, there was nowhere in their creator’s heart for them to stay. All of the work, all of the energy that their host had put into their nefarious ‘riddle’ was what Neuro would get out.

Neuro beheld the swirling, tumultuous light as a starving man would stare at a glistening steak. So beautiful…and delicious.

Let’s eat,” he said. It was something he had fallen into the habit of doing whenever he got the chance to feed. He supposed it was his way of being thankful for another meal.

And eat he did.

Neuro swallowed the energy down into his stomach. The thousand knives of his hunger sliced a little duller as he relished the momentary feeling of “full”.

The gecko-demon became limp in his grasp, drained of energy. Weak, thought Neuro. How very annoying.


“…Well then,” Lucard struggled to control his temper. What the Devil did Neuro mean, ‘none of you’? “Who is it really, master detective?”

For a moment Lucard thought he heard a faint thump from the ceiling. What were some idiots doing on top of the log? There was nothing to see up there.

The Neuro projection turned to face him. “You might want to duck, Commander.”


Neuro dropped the gecko-demon onto Lucard’s head.

For a moment Lucard appeared to have been crushed by an invisible force. Then the criminal’s disguised fizzled away. Their equipment was damaged by the impact, leaving them with nothing but their usual camouflage. And that was not much good under the eyes of five surprised demons. A sharp tap was heard as their helmet cracked against the ground.

Everyone stared at the dazed demon on top of Commander Throatbane. Within seconds, the lupinoid shot back up to his feet and joined them in silently watching the scene, processing what lay before them.

“Mystery solved,” said Neuro from the ceiling.


“…So the Neuro next to me was an illusion, and your plan worked perfectly,” summarized Lucard. Oh, it had been a headache trying to get out of that meeting…

“Exactly.” The bird demon looked infuriatingly pleased with himself.

“But you detected no suspicious behavior among our agents?” Lucard pressed. He had just called for a hearse to come pick them up.

“Nothing beyond normal,” Neuro replied. “Although I may have gotten some lovely blackmail material in the process…”

Before Lucard could admonish him, the wolf demon’s communications device beeped. He read over the new message. “The King wants a full report, especially detailing your use of the Tools, although he hears everything went as expected. You’ll be officially recognized and given a badge next time at the office, blah blah-”

“Yes,” murmured Neuro. “It was a satisfactory meal.”

“Asanteoh also wrote some advice about Evil Friday." Lucard’s red eyes narrowed and he read more cautiously. "Our records reveal that it can be used for more purposes than mere observation…as if you haven’t figured that out already. Those purposes include recording and re-playing video, moving small objects, acting as remote bomb diffusers, generally being helpful, and distracting your senior officer so you can drop things on his head.”

Lucard looked over to see Neuro with an amused expression. A demon bug from Evil Friday skittered over the talons on his right hand.

“The last bit was a joke, by the way. The King didn’t really write that,” said Lucard.

Neuro just kept smirking.


Soon their police hearse arrived. The demon-worm wheels squeaked in pain from having to cross the rough terrain. Lucard and Neuro ducked into the car, their combined weight only adding to the worms’ burden. The inferno of a back engine roared as they set off for HDAC:OB HQ.

At length, Lucard spoke. “Hey,” he said as if he had just realized something. “So all of the demons in that room were our fake ‘suspects’, right?”

Neuro looked incredibly bored with him, but nodded.

Lucard raised a finger and pointed at himself. “Does that mean I was a ‘suspect’ too?”

“Of course not,” Neuro replied without missing a beat. “You’re far too stupid.”

He placed the demon bug inside his mouth and swallowed, sending it back to wherever it came from.

Chapter Text

The days passed so quickly, and soon almost a full year under Hell’s abused sun had gone by.

But for the demons below, barely anything had changed.

Neuro sauntered down one of the many hallways of Hell’s Disciplinary Action Committee: Order Branch. His long, feathered form was not out of place among the multitude of demons surrounding him.

Others occasionally passed by on his left. They hurried past, returning to their various jobs in one of the other Branches. Neuro could tell at a glance which they were likely from. The straight back and hurried pace, as if one’s presence was constantly needed, signaled the Security Branch. A mass of scars and a twitchy knife-finger, with roving eyes that did not yet seem to understand that they were off-duty, meant the Punishment Branch. Then there were others acting more like himself, casual but projecting a certain demand for respect, that Neuro recognized as being from the Order Branch.

It was an exciting day in the HDAC. Warnings had been sent out for the past month about the upcoming mandatory “ability exam”. Or, as it was commonly called, the “turn-human exam”. According to officials, its purpose was to test their wit, transformation capabilities, and self-control.

The “self-control” bit would be the hardest for any demon.

“How troublesome,” Neuro sighed. On his right, the line for the assistants passed by. It was Hellishly long. Literally.

The row of demons proceeded onwards as far as Neuro’s green eyes could see, and it was not moving in the least. In fact, it only succeeded in getting longer. Dozens of demons ruffled their feathers and stepped on each other’s various appendages, igniting tempers amidst much shrieking. Included in the mix was the occasional grumbled remark.

“Why do we have to do this?” whined an elephantine demon. A canine demon shook itself out from underneath the other’s metallic ear and agreed. There came more whines and complaints. The grumbling began to collect and reach a slow crescendo, with the line’s inhabitants getting more and more restless. Each demon began to lose its fear of retribution as the howls grew louder and louder-

“QUIET DOWN!” A line-torturer cracked his gnarled whip. The riot subsided.

Business as usual.

At least there was some privilege in rank, Neuro thought. He walked briskly past, as it was nearly his appointed time.

Another sound reached Neuro’s earholes. How annoying. A lesser being was talking.

“It’s probably a leftover,” came the smarmy voice of a heavily-muscled, quadruped demon. He seemed to be talking to his friends. Or just whoever was in line next to him. “A practice kept from back when it was more common for demons to answer summons to the Human World. You know, in the olden times,” he sniggered. His tail whipped back and forth, showing off its arrow point.

“What do they think will happen, that a human will suddenly show up here? And we should all know how to transform so that we won’t scare it? How kind.” The demon laughed and continued to make clear his distaste for anything that came before his glorious self.

Neuro grated the teeth on the inside of his beak but continued on. It turned his stomach to be associated with the same organization as fools such as those. It wasn’t so much the blatant disrespect (Neuro was no stickler for the rules himself), but the open, thoughtless way in which it had been said. If one was going to attempt suicide by backtalk, a demon should at least have some tact.

And so what if it was a leftover practice? Judging by what Neuro had been reading in the HDAC’s cavernous library, demon-human interactions were not as easily dismissible as most of the younger spawn seemed to think. Most cases, indeed, were recorded as having been quite the profitable endeavor for the demon involved.

Presently, Neuro came to the line for the higher-ranked officers. It was much shorter than the others. A line-torturer stood at the entrance, occasionally repeating parts of a message: “Remember, no tools other than those naturally present in oneself may be used. Illusions may be eligible to pass, but must undergo a thorough examination, as well as a test around solid objects.”

Somebody really should clean this place up, Neuro thought to himself, absentmindedly sharpening his talons. If only one could be convinced to take out the living trash—ah. A thought made him grin.

Hiding his hands behind his back, Neuro concentrated. 777 Tools of Hell—Evil Cocoon, he thought.

Neuro didn’t have to look behind himself to know what lay in hands. One index finger swelled and warped, taking on the texture of an insect’s chrysalis. A few seconds later it hardened into a ridged shape. The top part appeared to be a squashed face, with a gaping hole in its head filled with a strange liquid.

A demon bug from Evil Friday crawled out from Neuro’s wrist feathers. From the roof, Neuro thought. He felt the demon bug take the Tool and skitter away.

The line-torturer must have seen his evil grin. “No tools may be used during the attempt,” he repeated with emphasis before letting Neuro pass by. “Executive order.”

That was a high-ranking order for such a pedestrian task. “I know, I know,” Neuro waved him away. “No Tools.”


“Target registered.”

Neuro paused after entering the room. Sitting behind the judges’ desk were two demons, accompanied by another female demon on the side. Her large, gem-like eyes glittered from beneath her tides of brittle, black hair. It was she who had spoken.

“Come in, Braineater,” said the examiner on the left. Neuro complied, walking over to the center of the room. “This is Muut, and she’ll be accompanying your test today. She has already acquired your demonic energy signature, and will be observing it for any…unnatural changes, shall we say.”

Hmph. Neuro observed the mentioned demon. So this was their extra precaution for him, concerning the Tools? He guessed that she was only brought in for his test, and had most likely attended none of the others. How sneaky.

Muut stared back, unblinking.

“Testing begins now.” The examiner on the left pressed a button with one of his six insectoid arms. Aside from his arms and a pair of flimsy wings, he had a humanoid shape overall. It was a good choice to judge the human-transformation exam. His companion next to him, however, most resembled a blue trapezoid.

A plastic cutout sprang up to Neuro’s right. It showed two humans, a male and a female, both clothed. The man was wearing a business suit while the woman was in a schoolgirl’s uniform.

It would be best to get this over with quick.

Neuro concentrated and let the transformation take hold. A sickly green aura surrounded his body. He had practice from doing this before, at previous tests. Why, young demons sometimes even played with each other by trying to transform into human shape. It was a simple task, really. One just needed an elementary grasp over their own miasma and a willingness to let themselves feel like they had devolved into a lesser creature for a while.

The transformation happened more-or-less all at once.

Neuro remembered to focus and change his beak completely into the standard human face. The sharp teeth would be left, but who could really tell unless he opened up wide? Besides, the examiners tended to let certain small details go as long as the major ones were taken care of.

In essence, Neuro was now a man in a suit.

His electric-blue plumage had transitioned into a suit of the same color, marked by yellow buttons in the shape of triangles. The puff of white feathers by his neck had been replaced by a cravat. Neuro’s feet were disguised by plain dress shoes. His shoulders were noticeably wider than the model’s, and combined with his long arms and legs to give him a slightly triangular body shape. But there were no errant feathers or scales.

Neuro moved his jaw. He licked his lips. Having a mouth still felt slightly weird for the first minute, like there was a gaping wound in his face ringed by soft, flexible, human-colored flesh.

He was taller than average, yes, but most demons tended have slightly different proportions than the usual human. Compared to those who needed to hide horns underneath a cap, or couldn’t seem to get rid of their scales, it could be overlooked.

Neuro pulled on a lock of hair experimentally. He had kept the blonde hair and spread it out to cover the whole top of his head. But what he tugged on was a part of the bangs. The section was purple, but so dark a shade that it appeared almost black. Neuro frowned. That was the parrot in him. Sticking to one or two colors overall just wasn’t enough.

He tilted his head to feel for weight. No horns had been left, at least. That was an important detail.

“Hair color’s off,” snorted the examiner on the right. “Combines two out of the three regulation human hair shades.”

“Hmm…no, it should be fine,” the other one said. Neuro could tell from his tone that he was the senior examiner. “There is this thing called ‘human hair dye’ now. As long as they use three colors or less, it’s now acceptable.”

He looked at Neuro more directly. “Just so long as you don’t draw too much attention to it.”

Neuro did an impressive job of looking respectfully bored.

“Hands,” the examiner motioned. “Let us see them.”

Neuro hesitated for the slightest of moments before bringing his hands up to the light. He could see the examiners’ faces began to fall at the sight of his still untransformed talons.

But then with a flourish, Neuro drew a pair of dark maroon gloves out from a non-existent pocket. He put them on, the small fingers sliding easily over the conical edges of his own digits. It was a reality-defying display. Once the gloves were on, no bumps or edges betrayed the true nature of what lay beneath them.

Neuro could see the judges attempt to conceal how impressed they were at the display of camouflage.

“Well,” huffed the senior examiner. “I suppose that passes on a technicality.”

“I require the use of my hands for my work,” Neuro said, taking the opportunity to show off his more ‘innocent’ voice and face. “Will that be alright?” he wibbled.

They laughed at his performance. Neuro’s rounded face slipped, replaced by a familiar grin.

“Turn around slowly,” said the examiner. Neuro obeyed.

“Smooth transition overall,” the senior examiner noted. “Good. That would come in handy up there. Now about your alias…”

“I did not think I needed one,” Neuro said. “I would imagine that the word ‘Neuro’ could pass, wouldn’t you?”

The head examiner did not reply, scribbling down a note instead.

“What about your true name?” said the other examiner. “Humans don’t call themselves like we do, ‘Braineater’.”

“Hmm. I was planning to just translate it,” Neuro replied. “It’s not hard at all. At most I estimate it would take me one hour to learn even the most complex of human languages. I am sure I could find a translation that would be accurate, and yet not alert the humans to my true nature. All that I would require is a little immersion. If I were actually thrust up into the human world, I believe that would be quite easy to obtain.”

The other examiner looked to its senior. They shuffled papers on their table, muttering among themselves for a moment.

“Alright. Pass,” the senior called out.

Neuro bowed, satisfied with himself. He headed off towards the exit, glancing at the demon named Muut as he went. She remained silent, eyes flashing subtly. But she raised no alarm.


Neuro smoothly transitioned back to his true form upon leaving the room. It was nice to be back to normal. He felt a little like someone who had just removed a tight bodysuit and could now stretch to their heart’s content.

He smiled. That had gone well.

Behind him, he heard a thud. The demon who had been in line behind him must have had their wings burst out of their disguise. Neuro could see executioners rush to apprehend the failure. They would be killed on the spot like all of the others.

Neuro walked back down the hall. He was eager to get back and see if a mystery had turned up.

As he approached the front of the line for the assistants, he became aware of another sudden commotion.

“H-help meeee!” a voice gargled. Charging out from the direction of the testing tents was a grotesque, monster-like figure. Even more vile than a demon’s usual appearance, it had a bloated head with lolling eyes and tongue. Rude words in many languages decorated its cheeks. Acrid tears of fear streamed down its face. Its limbs appeared blown up to impressive size, with its heavily-muscled body dragging along the ground. Only its tail appeared to be regular, ending in a sharp arrow point.

Neuro made a face as he stepped out of its path. Still, how amusing that he should get to see the full effects of Evil Cocoon for himself…

Around him the other apprentice demons drew back, skittering and whispering.

“That fool…”

“What a laugh…”

“Must have backfired…”

“Wrong transformation, dolt!”

The executioners lunged forward to grab their prey. The afflicted demon wailed.

By the terms of Evil Contract, Neuro had sworn to never use his Tools against demonkind. That was an vow that could not be escaped. But this, Neuro thought as he slowly edged away, this was simply one individual, not their whole society (as much as you could call demon interactions a “society”). The way Neuro saw it, eliminating that irksome member of the OB would be actually helping society. Plus, he reasoned, it would be a hypothetical minor infraction at best.

Neuro turned up his beak in disgust as he stepped delicately over a bloodstain on the floor and continued on his way.

Yes, this place was definitely in need of a slight clean up.

Chapter Text

Neuro kicked up his talons and reclined. It was a good day in the office.

Almost any day was, the feathered demon reflected. Now that he had truly settled into his full-time occupation in the Order Branch, things were looking steadily up. At times it even almost didn’t seem annoying to have to work with other demons.

From his desk Neuro had a good view of his sparse office. The walls were a stern gray. Behind Neuro hung a large, detailed painting of a torture scene—a demon classic. He was free to turn his swivel chair around to look at it whenever he wished, and contemplate both the exquisite technique and Hellish agony the piece depicted. Besides that, only the necessary furniture items resided: a bookshelf, filing cabinets, and one table by the opposite wall. The table was the single messiest item in the room. It was strewn with papers, news clippings, and a few thick reports. Some lines were drawn across clippings and some choice phrases circled. They were active cases. From his seat, Neuro could glance over to ponder them anytime.

Neuro did not really need to have all those papers displayed within his sight, of course. But he was interested in how it might affect his coworkers’ perception of him. Call it an experiment.

The demon detective sighed and relaxed deeper into his chair. Yes, this was good. He had a new living space, room to stretch, and a steady in-out flow of jobs.

In his imagination he saw himself seated at a table set by a tablecloth and napkins. Another napkin was tied around Neuro’s neck in preparation. Across the room was a table that displayed an ever-changing menu of potential meals. The empty space in front of him was the perfect size for a plate. Neuro’s fingers twitched as he thought of 777 pieces of silverware beside him—utensils for any dish.

There came a feeble knock on the door.

And that would be the waiter. Neuro smirked, wiping away his drool. “Enter,” he called.

The door swung open to admit a loosely humanoid demon.

They were humanoid in that they had two legs, two arms, and one head, but aside from that no one would ever mistake the figure for one of the above world. Their colors were green and blue. Certain features were present that reminded one of a slug—an unfortunate creature for a demon to take after. One eyeball extended from a short stalk on their forehead. They had a large mouth and sharp teeth, with lips lined in black. Their eyes sunk deep into their head like a swamp.

The visiting demon was wearing a cloak over a plain shirt and pants. A thick scarf entangled with strips of obscure writing covered their neck and chest. Underneath their skin were bubbles of pus—notably showing on their chin and knuckles. Black lines crossed over their body like a spiderweb.

Upon getting a good look at Neuro, their eyes widened.

Neuro’s own eyes narrowed.

“Neuro…so it is you,” they said. The demon came a few steps closer.

Neuro remained silent.

“It’s been a while since we last talked… well, since anything between us really,” the demon admitted. “I had heard you were doing well but I never once imagined you’d end up here. Don’t you remember me?” they said, begging in a high-pitched voice. “I need your help.”

“Get out,” said Neuro.

“What?”

“Get out now, Zera.” Neuro pointed emphatically at the door with one middle finger.

Despite the avianoid’s harsh words, Zera seemed relieved. “Oh, so you do remember me. That’s good.”

“I thought I told you to scram.”

“Wait, wait!” Zera cried, approaching the desk to Neuro’s displeasure. “You can’t throw me out! You’re my only chance!” Their pustule-covered chin wibbled in the light. “I-I have a mystery for you! You need those, right?”

“I have no time to waste on old acquaintances,” Neuro growled. Then the last part of Zera’s speech seemed to hit. “…What do you mean, ‘mystery’?”

“I mean I need your help,” Zera repeated. The demon scratched fitfully at their face. “They’re going to kill me otherwise! They were going to do that anyway, but it had to be reported to the Disciplinary Action Committee first, and then I asked if I could see you, and just barely managed to even get that.” Zera took a breath. “I think they could change their mind and come in at any moment so you’ve gotta listen to me-”

“My patience grows short.” Neuro’s stern green glare threatened to call “them” in himself if the demon did not get on with it.

“Okay, okay,” Zera held up a placating hand. “The cops think I stole something, but I didn’t.”

They left it at that.

“…Really,” Neuro spoke.

Zera nodded. “It’s worse than that though…” They pulled over the one chair sitting across from Neuro, reserved for clients, and flumped down. “You’ve heard of the Shion Shard, I’m sure.”

Neuro grumbled to himself. “Of course,” he said. “Its theft was front page in this morning’s paper.”

The Shion Shard was a huge gem, currently one of the most valuable in Hell. It was noted not only for its magnificent size and beauty, but for its self-generating force field and the power boosts it theoretically could grant. That was, if anyone managed to break the field. Dragonmorphs would kill for it. Plenty had already threatened to.

Neuro recalled reading in the newspaper that the Shard had been awaiting transfer to its most recent buyer. The gem never seemed to stay in one place for very long.

“That’s just it!” Zera moaned. They hung their head in their hands. “The police aren’t accusing me of any old theft. This means certain death.”

“It’s because of my ability.” The slug demon rubbed their blue-green temples. “They think I changed my coordinates.”

“Your ability,” Neuro said, interested. “Creating portals through your body’s organs?”

Zera nodded sheepishly. “The cops insist I somehow created a link to the safe in which they kept the gem. They think I swallowed it into my stomach and sent it away.”

“But I didn’t!” Zera declared, rising a little out of their chair. “And I know you can prove that. Please, Neuro. You can request another investigation and this time lead it yourself. Help me! You’re-”

“No,” Neuro snapped.

“The only…what? Wait, why?” Zera’s voice reached a panicked pitch.

“I’ve heard your summary.” If the bird demon had a lip, it would be curling. Neuro stood and brushed himself off as if dismissing the other. “And I refuse. I have no interest in such trifling affairs. Compared to other potential meals, this is nothing. I refuse to take this case.”

Zera looked shocked. Slowly, they lowered their clenched fists. “You’ve…changed, Neuro.”

Neuro angled his gaze off to the side. He refused to look at them.

Zera gave a little chuckle. “I should have known. There were rumors I heard, you know? That you had found more food after that one time, after you left. I heard you were growing so strong you might flip a one-eighty and come after us next. And there were even-” Their eyes shifted to Neuro’s talons, currently not transformed into a Tool. “-rumors of something more.”

They were silent for a moment. Then Zera laughed. “Ge ge ge. I guess it makes sense. You were always stronger than me…and, of course, cleverer.”

“It feels like such a great distance has grown between us,” they said, gazing across the desk like the short gap there was a chasm. “But I can still remember…back when we were younger.”

Neuro did not answer. He had changed. Now he was the one behind the desk, successful, set up to eat well, and strong thanks to the Tools. Zera was still, by comparison, weak. The kind of weak from back when they were both weak together.

Like the lowest of the low, they had banded together. In the animal kingdom, Neuro knew, the weaker the species the more they tended to form groups. Bugs swarmed. Grubs crawled over one another. Grazing animal travelled in herds. Only the weak, the frail, the unendowed, needed to rely upon others—either for their strength or as a makeshift shield—in order to survive. That was a rule Neuro was sure Asanteoh, stern “King” of the jungle, would be familiar with.

Neuro felt disgust bloom in his stomach like a rafflesia flower at the old memory of himself. Being weak was no life. You existed only to be hunted and killed. Unless, of course, you could become one of the miraculous few to reach strength.

The image of the gecko demon from the Gastroslime case came to Neuro’s mind, mixing with that of Zera for a moment. Both of them were things that Neuro had overcome.

Zera sighed. Their stalk eye drooped, signaling true disappointment. “I guess this is a dead end, then. Thank you for your time, sir.”

Slowly, Zera turned to leave. They had just shoved the chair out of their way when Neuro spoke.

“How do they think you got in?”

The greenish demon jolted in surprise and paused. They looked back over their shoulder. “W-What was that?”

“I have just realized that a summary may be…insufficient. My mind absolutely cannot rest with the questions yet remaining, and any one of them may have the potential to lead to a mystery.”

Neuro pointed to the chair. When Zera did not move, he frowned. “I’m telling you to sit down. I am requesting to hear the full detailed story. Will you deny me that?”

“N-no…no, not at all!” It looked as if Zera did not quite dare to bring a grin to their face, but they groped around for the seat and scooted it in again with enthusiasm.

Neuro sat down as well, taking his own padded seat. “What time did the theft occur?”

Zera looked proud to know that information. “I-In the middle of the Second Dark cycle, according to the police.”

“Hm. Not your usual active period,” said Neuro. “But that proves nothing. You could have easily just stayed up that night.”

“Right- Hey, wait!” Zera protested. “I was asleep last night! I can prove it, I had this really weird dream-”

“Just explain,” Neuro said. “And not your dream.”

“Ah…Okay. Okay. Alright.” Zera took a breath and began. “First of all: I’m innocent, I swear.”

Neuro looked unimpressed.

“So, last night the Shion Shard was stolen from a holding vault in Bank Avarice. The theft occurred during the Second Dark cycle, as I just told you.” Zera scratched nervously at their bubbled face.

“What I’ve gathered from the cops accusing me is that the Shard was there when the safe doors closed. It must have been taken during the break between the day and nighttime cameramen, because when the new watchmen sat down they noticed something was strange. Their footage had turned to static.”

“The guards opened the safe door right away,” Zera continued. “The first thing they noticed was that the gem was gone. Just…disappeared, like that. The second thing they noticed was all five of the security cameras had been ripped off the walls. That was why the footage had gone static—they were all broken, and pushed to the far wall. Even if they were rolling, all they would have been able to see were the safe walls.”

“Seems like our criminal really doesn’t want to be seen,” Neuro mused. He shot a glance at the other demon. “You’re not camera-shy, are you Zera?”

“W-what does that have to do with anything?” Zera blustered.

Neuro let it slide. “And? Why were you accused?” he said. “Is our force really so incompetent that they would take a random demon off the streets and accuse them wildly of crimes?”

The answer was probably yes to that anyway, but Zera shook their head.

“No, they have their reasons,” they said. “Er, well that is, they already searched all the guards and camerawatchers. None of them had any way to or want to steal the gem. So it came down to who had visited the bank.”

“I was there that day,” Zera admitted. “But, but so were a lot of demons! I wanted to see where the Shard was being held, too! I did make one big mistake though.”

They groaned. “Now that I think about it, that’s probably why. You see, I…dropped my ring.”

They spread their hands. “I don’t have it with me right now since the cops took it. But it’s small, gold, fits my finger, and is engraved with my name: Greenpus. I was fiddling with it in the bank—stupid of me, I know—and it got bumped out of my hands. I saw it roll behind a desk. I couldn’t bear to leave it, so I thought I’d duck past the barrier and sneak over there real quick. I was caught, of course,” Zera said, “and immediately got the Hell out when they told me to. But they came to me again later…for a different reason.”

They shot a look at Neuro. “Remember how they found the safe? Well…when they did, my ring was on the floor.”

“What?” Neuro said, an amused expression on his face. “Doesn’t that mean you did it after all?”

“Most definitely not!” protested Zera. “I have no idea how it ended up there.”

Neuro didn’t seem to be listening. “How clumsy even for one of your impoverished brain, Zera.” He swung his head in shame and lifted his hands in a surrendering motion. “To drop your ring again, and during a burglary too…I’m so disappointed.”

Zera stared back at him. “You…you don’t really think I’m guilty, do you?”

Neuro grinned back at them. “Use your brain, Zera Greenpus.”

The detective’s smile disappeared swiftly, however. He retreated into thought for a few seconds.

Zera restlessly scratched at their face, opening a few scabs that healed just as quickly.

“Alright,” Neuro eventually said. “I will take the case.”

“But-” He rose from his chair, cutting Zera off. “For the puzzle. Not for you.”


“Here it is, sir.” The forensics demon handed Neuro a plastic bag. “Security camera samples from the crime scene.” He held them at arm’s length, keeping himself distant from Neuro.

Understandable, the detective thought. It had been a pretty swift evidence request, honestly a pretty swift reinvestigation in general that he had organized. The guys in forensics could be picky about who was allowed to handle evidence. Gathering and storing it was delicate business in Hell, after all. But when a demon from the Order Branch came to reinvestigate a regular police-level case, other demons tended to not ask questions. It wasn’t wise for the well-being of any body part.

Neuro said nothing and just took the whole bag from the demon’s hand. He saw the other demon wanting to protest, a complaint strangling in their throat. But they kept quiet as Neuro opened up the bag with his un-forensic hands (at least he was wearing gloves, for the Devil’s sake). As Neuro noticed once again, rank had its privileges.

The detective turned away for privacy. He stuck his head in close to the gathered security cameras. It almost looked like he was smelling them. But that was not the case.

Neuro curled one hand in tight for a moment. A green aura seeped through his fingers. He opened his hand again to find one small device resting in it.

The Tool was light brown in color. It was small enough to rest on a fingertip, and circular to match. A few lines crossed its surface, forming a hexagonal pattern around the center. They seemed to divide its appearance between something organic and something digital. It was also disc-thin. A circle of white around a small dome marked its middle, reminiscent of an eye.

777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Sticker, Neuro thought. He held the device down near the security cameras. When he felt a spark go through the Tool, a wide grin spread across his beak. Energy signature acquired. Lucky. And careless, on the thief’s part.

Neuro sealed the bag and only barely resisted the urge to toss it back to the forensic demon. He passed it to them instead. “Your assistance is appreciated,” he told them, already turned to leave.

The forensics demon frowned as they inspected the cameras for damage. He had never seen anybody spend so little time “inspecting” what they had insisted was important evidence. He looked over to watch the detective leave.

Was it his imagination, or were they following their middle finger?


Neuro stood in front of a large, broken-down stone building, and appeared to be giving it the biggest middle finger physically possible.

It was two stories high and, despite the torture administered by Hell’s harsh environment, seemed to be in good condition. It was still standing at least, and did not appear to be infested with tunnelworms.

He had been very fortunate to feel the Sticker tugging at his finger so early. Neuro had needed to up its sensitivity to the highest degree, and feed it a considerable amount of his own miasma, but eventually his finger had become sensitive enough to the energy signature. It lifted when pointed in a certain direction. From there it had been one long, winding car ride, following the dowsing stick of his gloved finger.

Neuro read the faded sign above the entryway: ACIDSIDE STATUARY.

The acid lake to which the sign referred was long gone. A rapid change in the environment had left the nearby lake evaporated, visitors fleeing, and the ground nothing but dusty bedrock. Anything within the territory of a few miles was considered more-or-less abandoned.

It was the perfect secret base.

And judging by the ache running through Neuro’s fingertip, there was no mistake.

Neuro retreated a short distance and made a call with his free hand, grinning all the while. “Yes, this is Braineater. Bring the squad to my location. I’ve found them.”

He fixed his eyes on the doorway, already anticipating his next meal.

Chapter Text

Neuro moved his outstretched finger, tracing bored circles in the air as the last cop cars pulled up. Well, at least his target hadn’t escaped in the mean time. No matter where Neuro moved the finger attached to the Tool, it always pulled him towards the run-down building.

A larger squad had arrived than Neuro anticipated. A pod of cop cars was there, sitting low on their wheels like panthers resting before a hunt. Regular-rank police demons had exited the vehicles and now congregated among themselves, fiddling with equipment and talking quietly.

At least they weren’t complete idiots. The squad members had been careful to keep out of sight, parking where Neuro was hidden behind the nearby dunes. The officers were quiet and their flyers—Neuro checked—were high up.

Neuro observed all the information through clear green eyes. Oh, of course. The theft of such a valuable gem had undoubtedly piqued the attention of Enforcement. That must be why more fools had been added to Neuro’s own squad.

Hmm… Neuro looked around him. Now, how best to put them to work?

A police hearse had also stopped in the middle of the cop cars. One of the doors opened and a bipedal demon in a uniform stepped out.

They had the head of a bull complete with ivory horns. Instead of a typical nose ring, they had a nose square. An extra set of arms sprung from their back. Strapped to their belt were two portable, extendable axes and two shortswords.

As Neuro watched, two demons approached the officer. It soon became obvious that he was giving them orders. The bull-headed demon smiled with blunt, square teeth as they reported things were going according to plan. A short exchange followed. Words flew quicker back and forth. Shortly, he dismissed one but kept the other for a few moments more. The bull demon advanced into their personal space, stretching out his strong neck and catching the light on his horns as he made whatever he needed to be clear, quite clear. Things would be done his way and quickly. His subordinate left at a scurry, bowing and scraping.

This seemed like a good place to start.

Neuro strolled over to the bull-headed demon. Recognition flashed in their eyes as the detective approached.

“Sir,” the officer greeted him. He saluted with one arm, then moved both of his right arms out to shake Neuro’s hand. “I am Bullspider, the Head Officer here.”

“Charmed,” said Neuro, switching over his left hand to join in the handshake as well. It was an interesting choice on the officer’s part. Demons did not usually shake hands—physical contact of almost any kind was an invitation to exchange blows. Those who did initiate handshakes did so because they could. “And I am Neuro Braineater, Head Detective here and everywhere.”

The Head Officer was surprised by his politeness, Neuro could tell. Neuro adopted a wide-eyed, innocent look. “Thank you for coming so quickly. I believe that we will be working together on this case.” He injected a certain amount of sweetness into his voice.

“Er… yeah. We certainly will,” stumbled Bullspider. Then he shook himself. “The Order Branch has high hopes for you indeed if they are entrusting you to solve this case. Our job is to assist you here in…” He ground his teeth. “In any way you ask.”

Neuro felt the urge to laugh. Typical demon commander. For them orders were hard to take and easy to give.

“Let me make one thing clear…” Bullspider leaned in close. “I think you came here to meddle. Those direct from the Order Branch are always like this—young, overconfident, and bossy. They mess up more times than I have fingers and they never admit to it afterwards.”

He glared at Neuro. “Me and my officers are top of the division, and we’re more than capable of finding and arresting one little suspect all by ourselves. If HQ wants to send a new crime detective here to try them out, I will respect that decision. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Neuro blinked back at him. “My, my, how cruel. Well, I certainly hope we don’t get in each other’s way.”

Bullspider snorted in response.

“So,” he said, louder for others to hear. “We are prepared to take any action needed to flush out the criminal. My men are fully equipped. We have flyers on standby. You say that the target is in that building?”

“Yes,” Neuro said.

Bullspider nodded. “Then what, Mr. Detective, do you suggest we do?”

Briefly, Neuro’s outstretched middle finger caught his eye. The Head Officer fixed it with a confused look, attempting the arduous task of keeping his gaze on Neuro but looking at the finger out of the corner of his eye. It didn’t mean much to demons personally. However, it was well known as a kind of extremely rude human gesture. Just what was going on here?

Neuro smiled. He held his middle finger up as if testing the breeze. “Just follow my lead.”


Dust stirred over the flat bedrock. Swiftly, silently, police officers approached the abandoned Statuary.

It was a screen approach. They came from all sides, advancing in a circular formation. Each of them took up positions. Soon there were officers at every door and beneath each window. Other manned the cop cars waiting just out of sight behind the dunes, in case the target somehow managed to pass them.

Two demons in particular had approached a side door along with the others. They took some of the officers with them, left the rest at the door, and slipped inside.

Neuro found himself, Bullspider, and three other police demons standing inside of a long hallway. The corridor stretched out to either side of them. Plain-looking doors were embedded into the walls at regular intervals.

The lighting was terrible. Neuro could feel his eyes shift, adjusting to the darkness. But even then he could not see much more than ragged gray carpet and stone walls.

To their left was a sagging staircase. Neuro turned to face it. “Second floor…” he muttered.

The avianoid demon advanced up the staircase. Behind him, Bullspider ordered two of the three officers to search the bottom floor. The remaining one followed the Head Officer up after Neuro.

They slowed upon reaching the top floor. Bullspider and the regular-rank officer spread out a bit, beginning to search the nearest rooms.

Bullspider opened the door to Neuro’s left and peered in. “Hey, Order Branch,” he called over softly. “If you’re so smart, then where are they keeping the Shard?”

“They don’t have it with them,” Neuro said.

“What?” Bullspider only just managed to keep his voice low.

“Or maybe they do.” Neuro shrugged. “Either is possible. What do I care for a piece of rock?” He walked onwards.

Bullspider stared after him. How could he talk about the Shion Shard like that? Even if he wasn’t interested in the power it could theoretically bring, everyone in Hell knew how much the gem was worth. Did it not interest him at all?

Even the most valuable gem in Hell, it seemed, meant nothing to this detective compared to a mystery, Bullspider thought as Neuro walked on in pursuit of his next meal.


 

Neuro left the other officers behind. They could search the rest of the two floors all they wanted. He followed his finger instead, which was now pulling stronger than ever.

At the end of the hall was one last room. Neuro grabbed hold of the door and pulled it open.

A group of statues met his eyes. From his position at the door Neuro could see all sides of the square room—nothing but statues, statues, and more statues, about a dozen of them in one place.

It was much the same as the rest of the statuary. The sculptures were all of demons, showing many different kinds. Some had been roughed up a bit. And quite a few of them were out-of-place. For instance, this room had a faded jungle painting as a backdrop yet the assembled statues included a lava demon, sandworm demon, and a swamp demon among more fitting ones such as a serpentine type.

Suddenly, Neuro noticed that the feeling in his Sticker-adorned finger had vanished. He started in confusion and brought it up to his line of sight. Nothing seemed off. It should still be working perfectly. The target’s demonic energy had simply disappeared.

Neuro frowned. He left the doorway and began walking around the room. He checked the statues and the walls. Aside from one very brief flash, the Tool was unresponsive.

Was it defective? Neuro growled. Impossible. An object of such power and prestige was not allowed to fail. He did not want to withdraw it either. That would erase the energy signature it had currently acquired. Neuro fixed the Tool with a glare as he exited the jungle room.

And then just as Neuro stepped out, the door blew open behind him.

What? Nero turned around, but not fast enough to see anything. Behind him the door creaked, opened far wider than Neuro had pushed it.

And the Sticker was working again, pulling at his finger.

Neuro cautiously approached the door. He examined the hinges. Nothing seemed amiss apart from normal wear and tear. There was certainly nothing that could cause the door to jerk open like that.

He entered the jungle room once more. Neuro’s eyes swept over the walls and found something that he had noticed before but thought nothing of: an opened window. He crouched to examine it. There were two windows in the room and this was the only one open.

Had it been a draft? Neuro wondered. It could have been simple air pressure according to the room layout. Physics might have given the door some extra push when he opened it.

The detective waited there for a moment longer. Then he got up and left the room, making sure to swing the door completely shut this time.

As Neuro continued back down the hallway, absorbed in thought, a voice called out to him.

“Hey! Our Order Branch meddler, there you are.” Bullspider approached from up ahead. “I see you wandered off. You better not have been planting evidence or something over there.” His black eyes lit up with a snarl.

“Certainly not,” Neuro said, switching to his innocent persona. “I wouldn’t dream of jeopardizing your ever-so-important investigation Bullspider, no matter how well-qualified or experienced I am. Do please forgive me for doing my job.”

“And quit it with those googly eyes,” Bullspider said. “You’re not fooling anyone.”

“Aww. But it’s so fun.” Neuro smiled viciously.

To his credit, Bullspider was not much fazed. “If you’ve got time to mess around, then I expect you’ve already solved this mystery. Well?” He folded all four of his arms.

Neuro remained quiet, gone suddenly sullen. “Not yet,” he said.

Bullspider grinned. “I thought so.”

He craned his broad neck to look behind Neuro. “Have you seen the room at the end of the hallway? The one I told you about?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, then you’ve found the statues as well,” said Bullspider. “Those things are everywhere. I’ve seen them in almost every room so far. My officers even found one in the middle of the hallway down on the first floor.” He shook his head. “Damn creepy. But great taste in design for demons.”

He sneered at Neuro before walking past. “Don’t get lost in here, oh great city detective.”

“I’m not from the city originally,” Neuro said, ignoring the other thought that it would be laughably difficult to become lost in this building. “Ah, Head Officer, one moment,” he called over his shoulder.

Bullspider stopped. With all the effort of moving a mountain, he turned around to answer the avianoid’s call. “Yeeeeeeees?” he growled.

“Is Zera detained nearby?”

Bullspider blinked. “You mean the suspect? Yes, they’re around.”

“Good. I’d like to request that they be present for my later explanation.”

The Head Officer bristled. “That demon is a five-star-level dangerous criminal, assumed guilty until proven innocent! We’ve had to fit them with a Death Collar and heavy guard in case they try to portal themselves away from us. I understand you take orders from above, detective, but that does not mean you get to throw your weight around and have your way-”

“I don’t care,” Neuro cut him off. “If by the time of my explanation it is determined that the demon Greenpus is indeed the criminal, you may execute them on the spot. I understand they are already slated for execution for their alleged crime, so really it will not break regulation.”

“Wouldn’t you like that?” Neuro continued. “If anything else, you would be written down as the demon who executed the criminal of the decade.”

He could see the Head Officer absorbed in thought. Bullspider grumbled and mumbled. “It’s still against common sense to bring a criminal to the investigation scene,” the officer muttered. “But fine. Whatever you say, mister crime detective.”

He turned and vanished into the dark.


Neuro journeyed back through the hallway, but had not gone far when he stumbled upon another interruption.

Neuro pulled up short. There in front of his eyes was another statue. It stood right in the center of the hallway.

Irregular, thought Neuro. Hadn’t Bullspider said the police officers found it on the first floor? Perhaps there had been some sort of mistake.

Neuro came closer to it, eyes skimming every detail. It depicted a female demon a little shorter than Neuro himself. It was a serpentine-type, with snakes threading through her long hair that was pulled back into a ponytail. The face was decidedly snakelike. The demon was shown wearing a black top and form-fitting shorts. A scarf hugged its neck and torso. Its legs were those of an animal, with backwards-pointing knees. A slender tail came from behind her, ending in an eyeball.

“You’re an ugly one, aren’t you?” Neuro said. He knocked on it. Solid stone.

It was remarkable craftsmanship, however. Neuro admired the many bangles on the statue’s arms and her earrings. If they hadn’t been made of rock, the jewelry would undoubtedly be very valuable.

Neuro gave the statue one last once-over. Then he continued past. Soon, he reached the end of the hallway.

Neuro paused at the top of the stairs. He fought the urge to turn and look behind him. For some reason he was not sure what he would see.

Successfully dismissing the urge, Neuro stepped forward and began descending the staircase.


The cell phone rang quietly against the stiff tuft of Neuro’s ear. He had to make a quick call. There was something he needed to know.

Neuro leaned against the wall next to the bottom of the staircase as a woman’s voice finally came through the phone. “Thank you for waiting,” she said. “I’ll transfer you over now.”

There was a soft rustling as the line was exchanged. “Hello?” came a quiet, male voice.

“This is Neuro Braineater from the Order Branch of Hell’s Disciplinary Action Committee,” Neuro rattled off on automatic. “Your cooperation is appreciated. I am told that you were on guard during the night of the Shard’s theft.”

The other demon sighed. Neuro suspected that they had already been questioned multiple times. “Yes, I was,” he said. “I was jus’ part of the first shift, though. We were switchin’ out with the second night guard when they realized somethin’ was wrong.”

“I understand,” Neuro said. “Let me ask you something new, then.” He lowered his voice to a near-whisper, eyes flicking around the nearby hall. “Do you recall anything like a…strange gust of air, that night? At any time?”

There was silence on the line. “Y’know…now that you mention it, there might’a been,” came the reply. “I’m not too sure though of course, wind’s not really my thing. Jus’ pitchforks.”

Excitement sparked through Neuro’s chest. He held the phone closer. “Perhaps when the safe door was opened?” he said.

“Yeah, yeah that was it!” replied the guard. “It did get pretty breezy when we hauled open the door. Must’a been an awful lotta air excapin’. It went pretty far too,” they offered. “Some papers on top’a the tellers’ desk started scatterin’ a bit.”

Neuro nodded. “I see. That will do. Your assistance is appreciated,” he said before hanging up suddenly.

Immediately Neuro began dialing in another number. There was one more phone call he had to make.


Bullspider stared daggers down at Zera Greenpus as they moved down the second floor hallway. The slug demon was surrounded by the other three regular-rank police officers.

“Here it is, hotshot,” Bullspider snarled. “Your gallows walk. I hope you enjoy what’s left of it before that bird hands down the final sentence.”

One of his hands tightened around the handle of an axe. “Just be sure to tell us the location of the Shion Shard before you die. Otherwise we’ll yank it out of you. Literally. Portal maker.”

Zera gulped. The demon nervously brushed their fingers against the Death Collar around their neck. One wrong move—practically breathe too hard—and the police would detonate it, even via remote. Neuro… Zera thought as the far room approached. I hope you’ve got this right.

The four officers and Zera entered the room at the end of the hall. Neuro was there as promised, leaning against a statue of a snake-like demon. The detective was staring at it, apparently in thought.

Bullspider scoffed. “Has this place inspired you? Perhaps you want to become an art critic now. Then you might finally leave us alone.”

“Not quite, I’m afraid,” came Neuro’s smooth response. “But your officers could.”

“Excuse me?” said Bullspider.

“This statue here,” Neuro rapped it with the knuckles of one hand as he finally turned to look at the officers. “I’ve discovered something wrong with its face. If you keep looking, perhaps you’ll find it,” he said to the three officers. They shuffled their feet in badly-masked curiosity. “You could be rewarded with a promotion for your observational skills.”

“Enough!” Bullspider said. Neuro greeted the four-armed demon wielding a battleaxe with calm regard.

“You promised us an explanation,” the Head Officer said. “That’s the only reason I’ve indulged you so far. We’ve even brought along the criminal here so you can suss them out. Now start. Squawking.”

Neuro’s eyes turned cold.

“Squawk, squawk, squawk,” he mocked with a grin. “As Captain Hamburger has so idiotically insisted, we shall now get moo-ving along.”

“Listen well,” he cut off Bullspider’s indignant reply. “Because I know everything. Do not forget who holds the higher rank here.” He grinned as Bullspider slowly lowered his battleaxe. “To do so would quite a big mis-steak.”

“So, here’s what happened,” Neuro said, launching into his explanation. “The Shion Shard was stolen from Bank Avarice during the Second Dark Cycle, after Greenpus visited the bank. The Shard disappeared immediately after being locked away for the night, during the changing of the guards and watchmen. It is believed that Zera Greenpus used their portal powers to whisk away the gem, after gaining access to the vault through yet-unadmitted means. Those suspicions-”

Next to the officers, Zera held their breath.

“Are false.”

The reaction was immediate. The officers howled and snarled. Bullspider’s hands trembled around the handle of his axe. “You better have a damn good story, then.”

“Head Officer Bullspider,” Neuro turned to him. “Have you ever heard of a reverse gorgon?”

Bullspider paused. “I believe so,” he said slowly. “It’s…a type of demon?”

“Good,” said Neuro. “It is indeed a certain type of serpentine demon. But instead of turning observers to stone, as in the Gorgon legend, it itself turns to stone when seen. However...” He held up one middle finger. “What if it could move too fast to be easily seen?”

“Let me explain,” Neuro said. “Our criminal was very smart. Very experienced. And she was also very fast.”

“She?”

“Yes,” said Neuro. “Picture this: The perpetrator zips into the vault containing the Shard right before it is closed. They could have distracted the closers momentarily with some sort of diversion, and thus gain an opening to slip inside.”

“This is also done during the changing of the guard and camerawatchers, so once they are in they have a few moments to eliminate the security cameras.” Neuro’s green eyes glittered with the glee of analysis. “Interestingly, the criminal shoved all five cameras against a far wall, facing away so that there not even a remote chance they could be seen. Now they have the shard, and are safe inside the vault.”

“But…how did they get out?” Bullspider said. “We would have seen them the moment the door was opened!”

“Right,” Neuro pointed at him with one finger. “The moment the door was opened. Funny phrase isn’t it? When opening a door, especially a very large and heavy one, your view of the inside is blocked at least partially as the door swings ajar.”

He held up his cell phone. “As I understand it, all of the guards were frantic to open the door. They were all blocked from seeing the inside of the vault immediately because they were all working to haul the door open. It was too heavy to move without all of them working together.”

“Besides, this is where the criminal’s speed comes into play again,” Neuro said. “Have you ever tried to sneak out of a door behind someone as they open it? It is entirely possible…if you are quiet enough and quick enough. For someone with five-star-level speed that would be simple.”

He sighed. “As pathetic as it sounds, I believe that they just slipped out the vault door before the inside was in total view, sprinting so fast that observers’ eyes could not register them. Testimony from one of the guards supports this. And so do my own experiences with some…rather suspect wind patterns in this building.”

“I thought it was just broken-down and drafty,” one of the officers muttered.

“Ah, so you’ve experienced them too,” said Neuro. “Yes, it is an old building. But still-” he grinned. “In a room like this, with an open window near an open door… the door should have been blown inwards, not out. And certainly not with the strength I witnessed earlier.”

“But their ring!” Bullspider exclaimed. “The ring of Greenpus was found in the vault!”

“Ah yes, thank you for the reminder,” drawled Neuro. He stepped away from the statue and began pacing towards the far wall. “I’m sure that they were overjoyed. To think that they would find something that could be planted so easily…of course the criminal would use it to throw suspicion onto someone else.”

“Besides,” Neuro grinned and held up his middle finger. “I have been tracking the criminal based on their energy signature. And I am sorry to say this, Bullspider, but it has never once led me towards Zera.”

Silence descended on the group as the officers processed the information.

“So that’s how it is…” Bullspider said at last. Shock carved deep lines in his bovine face. “But then…if they’re so fast, how can we catch them?”

“Indeed. They’ve already left,” said Neuro.

“WHAT?” The others roared.

Neuro pointed to the side. The officers looked. The statue that Neuro had been leaning against was missing. And the other window on the far wall was now open.

Bullspider cursed. “We have to find them. Move, move, move!”

The police officers turned and rushed out of the room. Their Head Officer followed them.

A purple hand laid its talons on Zera’s shoulder. The slug demon turned. “You should help too, Zera,” Neuro said.

Zera wasn’t sure what to do. They had just taken a breath to thank Neuro when the talons dug into their flesh.

“Go get ‘em,” Neuro said as he tossed Zera out the window.

Zera screamed all the way down.


It was not a long chase. Behind the first line of dunes the culprit lay trapped in a sticky, webby mess.

They wriggled around in the dirt, whining. Some of the officers from Bullspider’s squad surrounded them, obviously unsure what to do with the sudden arrival.

“Unhand me! Let me go!” the demon shouted. She looked an awful lot like the statue Neuro had run into in the hallway—only live, in color and in the flesh. The snakes in her hair curled and hissed. She twisted and turned towards the observers. “Don’t you realize? This is against the natural order of things!”

“I forgot to mention,” said Neuro as he approached. Bullspider and the other three fanned out around the thief. “I contacted Jorougumo the spider demon and asked her to set up a security web. It looks like our criminal couldn’t stop in time.”

A thought struck him and he frowned. “Why aren’t you turned to stone?” he asked, kneeling down to their level.

Amusement struck him when he saw the criminal had her eyes tightly shut. The tip of her tail, adorned with an eyeball, was shoved into the ground and facing away from everyone. “Fascinating,” he said. “So, not only must an observer see you, but you must also see them. Some sort of conscious acknowledgement must be made.”

Then Neuro grinned wickedly. “Did you know,” he said, leaning in so that only he and the reverse gorgon could hear, “that I have been granted a great privilege? 777 parts of one, to be precise. And…”

He brought up one hand. “In my arsenal I have things that can be used not only to assist…but to punish.”

He pulled a glove over talons of his right hand. The fingertips of his pointer finger and middle finger popped open and retracted. In their place rose two small lenses. Each was made of a small dome, ringed by several nodules and connected to Neuro’s finger by a semi-mechanical-looking stalk.

777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Low Beam,” he announced. “I believe this will be suitable.”

The surrounding officers backed away to give them space. It was a movement more out of instinctual self-preservation than thought.

Neuro grabbed the thief’s head and forced open her eyelids. She screamed as the Tool burned an image into her retinas—Neuro had chosen eyes, thousands of them, all looking at her. “Nooooo, stop!” she wrenched away and squeezed her eyes shut again. “No! Don’t look at me! I don’t want to be stone forever!”

“Hmm… How interesting,” Neuro said, also being sure to get her tail-eye. “You are wise not to open your eyes and see the image. They are not real eyes looking at you, after all, but the effect may perhaps be the same.”

“But don’t worry,” he said cheerfully. “As long as you keep your eyes shut forever, you will be fine.”

The reverse gorgon wailed at his words. In the depth of her despair, all of her regret and thoughts related to the mystery came bubbling up to the surface.

Neuro’s mouth began to water as he saw his long-awaited food arrive. “Let’s eat,” he said.

And Neuro did.

He straightened up as the thief fell limp. “So much fuss,” he tutted as the other onlookers slowly returned. Bullspider’s expression in particular was almost as delicious as a mystery. “I much prefer to eat my meal alone.”


Zera and Neuro were seated back in the office at the HDAC:OB.

“Things quieted down relatively quickly after everything you did,” Zera said. They adjusted the scarf around their neck. “Bullspider’s division still needs to find the Shion Shard, but they insisted on working alone. They said your part in this is done. I still almost can’t believe I’m free again. I…I thought for sure that…” they shuddered.

“Thought what?” Neuro tossed the remark their way. He reclined back in his chair, already looking over a new case file in his hands.

“That you…never mind.” Zera sighed. “I guess I was wrong about some things, Neuro. I…I apologize for that.”

Neuro grunted in acknowledgement. “It’s no matter. And you still have to pay my fee.”

Zera barely managed to hide a wince. “I know! I’ll, uh, get to that soon as I can.”

“Anyway, Neuro...” the demon looked across the gap separating the two of them. “Thank you for clearing my name. I know that there’s really no such thing as ‘friendship’ for demons, but…” Zera took a breath. “Still, I am grateful.”

Silence fell between the two demon. But somehow, this time it seemed a little more comfortable.

Then Neuro said something Zera never expected him to say.

“Why don’t you stay here?”

Zera nearly fell out of their chair. “Wh-what?”

“If you’re going to use such words as ‘friendship’ with me…” Neuro opened one of the drawers in his desk. “Then how about this?”

“Neuro…" Zera's heart bloomed with joy. "I don’t even know what to-”

In front of them, Neuro held up a pair of demonic handcuffs, complete with matching ankle chains. He grinned happily. “You can be my assistant! I’ll keep you as a servant…or a scout, considering your abilities. What do you say?”

Zera’s face blanched. The words began to hit home.

“N-n-NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Chapter Text

The air was hot and humid, two words from the human world that withered in their attempts to describe the true atmosphere of one of Hell's finest beaches.

The water stretched out in a murky green as far as the eye could see. Its surface roiled and thrashed, every inch of it boiling. The beach meeting it was made of black shards of obsidian.

On that rocky stretch were two demons. They sat in lovely beach chairs beneath a blood-red umbrella with stand and spokes of bone. The buildings of a beachside resort rested in the distance.

"Nice day…" The one with the head of a catfish spoke. A sunhat shielded some of their delicate whiskers.

Their companion nodded. "At least people are still coming," he said as best he could around the tusks jutting from his mouth. Aside from his teeth, he resembled a nurse shark with the legs of a human. A beanie was on his head.

The first demon fell silent.

"Gestaal?" said the nurse shark demon. They frowned. "I see you're still worried."

Gestaal's two pairs of eyes flitted around as if they were checking for bystanders. "Of…of course I am. You know what's been happening…"

They sighed. The stump of a tail from their cat-like body twitched. "If the rumors spread any more than they have already, Kotokoto Beachside might just be done for."

"Don't say that," their companion said. "Don't even think it!"

The catfish demon smiled. "I appreciate your concern, Marxl."

Marxl shook his rounded head. "Just trying to be supportive."

Then his voice dropped to a hush. "But, well…they are true rumors after all, aren't they? About the monster…"

Gestaal's whiskers quivered. "Apparently so…" Their top row of eyes drifted over to the boiling ocean.

"How many have died now?"

"The last one washed up on shore just two days ago," said Gestaal. One furred hand reached out for their drink. "It was the same as all the others—bloated, peeling, and horribly mangled." They shuddered.

Marxl made a face. "The time passing between each attack is getting smaller. Our beast must be getting hungrier…or angrier, I suppose. I wonder who will be next." He grinned. "Maybe it'll even come out of the water soon."

"Don't scare me like that!" Gestaal begged.

"I'm just saying." Marxl shrugged. "You should be careful."

"But it's strange…" said Gestaal. "I've hired so many monster hunters and they've all been sent out on the sea. They've placed traps, brought weapons…but they haven't found anything yet. They say that the sea is too deep and murky."

Marxl nodded solemnly. "I see."

"The only thing that's gotten any reaction so far has been bait," said Gestaal. "But even that has led to nothing but broken cages."

Marxl's brow furrowed. "I…huh. That is quite strange, I'll admit."

"Well," He raised his flipper-arms above his head in a stretch. "It's like I've told you before. Why not sell the place?"

"I told you, I don't want to."

"Come on, Gestaal." Marxl folded his hands. "I know it's not a pleasant thought. But just realize: Once you sell it, this will become someone else's problem."

Gestaal shook their head. "No, I-I can't. Not yet. I've owned this place for years. It's made me so much money…and it's a good place to be."

They looked out over the ocean's frothing surface. "There are so many demons that I've seen come and go. Even celebrities! Everyone comes for the sulfur in the water, for the rich miasma. It's believed to be a place of healing. They tell other demons, 'The boiling water is good for you…' "

Gestaal turned back to the table, a sparkle in their eyes. "Well, if you don't die of course. But that's part of the fun too, isn't it? To test your strength? And be 'blessed' if you're found worthy?"

"But they aren't dying from being boiled," said Marxl. "They're dying because your paradise is infested with seamonsters. I understand how you feel, Gestaal. But how else will you get rid of the monster?"

Gestaal sighed, their whiskers quivering. "I confess…It is a mystery…"

"Indeed," said an avianoid demon with blonde hair.

The table shifted as both Gestaal and Marxl jerked back, giving a gasp and crying out in shock respectively.

Another demon had literally poked his head into the conversation. He stood at the edge of their table, leaning in with head cocked as if to listen to important information.

"Who are you?!" Marxl exclaimed.

The new arrival paid him little attention. He tipped his head to the side, as if the data were sloshing around inside of his cranium and diluting some new solution.

He gave a short bow in Gestaal's direction. "Good afternoon. Lovely place you've got here. I've quite enjoyed the tide pools myself."

The demon then turned to Marxl. "And as for your question, I am 'Braineater' Neuro , acting crime detective. I am investigating the current happenings at this resort. Boilheart here requested assistance, I believe."

"Detective?" Marxl bared his tusks. "You can't do that without a permit."

"Where in Hell did you get that idea?" Neuro looked at him through lidded, condescending eyes. "For future reference, I can do whatever I want. And as a member of Hell's Disciplinary Action Committee I have certain…duties to the public," he bared his own sharp teeth in a grin. "So, do forgive me. But I am overriding your complaint."

"You can go to the Order Branch and look me up yourself," Neuro added lazily. He circled around the table, stopping a short distance behind Gestaal's chair and looking out at the ocean.

Marxl did not appear pacified. The demon sat rigidly in their chair, leaning over the table with clenched fists.

"Marxl-" Gestaal's voice held a warning.

"He was spying on our conversation," Marxl whispered back.

"So true," Neuro spoke again. "Do forgive me, Boilheart. I simply could not help myself once I noticed you two were discussing the case."

"I gather you're both very familiar with the details, then?" Neuro directed at the two. They nodded.

"It's horrible…" Gestaal murmured.

"Yes, horrible, horrible," said Neuro, with the air of one who has seen many more and known much worse. "But predatory worries aside…something is strange, here. It doesn't add up."

The other demons stirred. "What do you mean?" growled Marxl.

"Well," Neuro gazed out over the sea. "Let's start from the top. Demons have been going missing periodically in the waters near this resort. Witness accounts are that they go out for a swim, swim very far from shore, and eventually appear to be taken down. Sometimes they struggle. Sometimes they simply sink beneath a wave and never come back up. This has been happening for about the past year and a half."

"But their body reappears a few days later," Neuro said. "The corpse bobs to shore, as if some creature sent it on its way towards land. Some have to be fished from the water. Others wash up on the beach. All of them appear drowned. A few are missing arms, have broken necks, or bear wounds that look as if they had been in a great struggle."

Gestaal squeezed their eyes shut as Neuro went over the story. Marxl noticed their acquaintance's suffering, and was just beginning to glare at Neuro when the avianoid stopped.

"And so demons decided that only a seamonster could have done it." Neuro turned to them. "But unfortunately they are mistaken."

Gestaal's eyes snapped back open. Marxl's glare turned into a mystified stare.

"Hold on," Neuro held up a hand to cut them off. "I'm not finished."

"You see, forensic analysis turned up a strange fact. I assume you are both aware that the body goes through stages after death?"

The two demons slowly nodded.

Neuro frowned. "If so, then congratulations, you're probably lying. But anyway," he said. "What our forensics found was that the time of death did not line up with reports. Judging by rate of decomposition, rigor mortis, and body temperature, most victims had actually been dead for days before they were observed to have 'drowned'. For example, one of the bodies had been dead for a week. But he had been observed swimming out to sea and then 'drowning' just three days prior. "

"Now, how is that possible?" Neuro said. "A demon is not able to die and then come back to drown again."

There was silence as all three demons processed the information.

"Even in boiling water?" said Gestaal.

"Ahh, good catch," said Neuro. "But yes, even in boiling water."

"You see, usually what happens is that after drowning and floating for an initial day or so, a body will sink. Then a few days later, gases produced due to decomposition make it float again. The warmer the water, the quicker this process happens."

"But it's all irrelevant, really," Neuro said. "Forensic examination will still be able to determine when the body first became 'drowned'. And none of the bodies appear to have died when they were observed to."

"So you see why I doubt the guilt of a demon-kidnapping monster in this case. Besides-" A grin had found its way to the detective's face again. "Even my mind has a hard time explaining what use a seamonster would have for a storage shed."

"What shed?" Marxl gripped the table.

"Oh, there's one out back." Neuro pointed a finger off to the left. "I found it tucked behind one of the mess halls, down near the water. Big. Black. Faint horrible smell."

He grinned. "Full of dead bodies."

Marxl looked completely stunned. Gestaal nearly dropped their drink.

"D-d-dead bodies?" Gestaal said. "In my shed?"

"It's more likely than you would think," said Neuro. "And what's more…it was exceedingly difficult with some due to decomposition, but for the majority of the corpses we were able to determine their original identities."

He pointed a finger up in the air. "And every single one of them matches a demon who is currently feared taken by the monster. But, they have not shown up drowned yet. How strange."

"My theory is this," Neuro said. "Our true culprit killed their victims ahead of time. Then, they stored the body inside the black shed. Soon afterwards they themselves went out for a swim—disguised as the demon they killed. After 'drowning' themselves, all they had to do was return to the shed, drag the body out to sea, and put finishing touches on it before sending it back to land. Thus, it would look like the demon had drowned and been killed by a 'monster'. "

"Yes, boys and girls and others," Neuro's eyes flashed green. "We have a shapeshifter in our midst."

Gestaal trembled. "It can't be true…" they whispered in shock.

Marxl had gone blue in the face. "Nonsense," he blithered. "Absolute nonsense. You can't come in here and…You can't…You…"

He took a few deep breaths. "Actually, this is good. Yes. Very good. I demand that you take my good acquaintance Gestaal to see this shed immediately. I will follow behind you and go get some equipment to help-"

"So you can escape?" Neuro said. "Not a chance."

Silence fell.

Marxl turned purple. "What was that?"

"The real question is-" Neuro leaned on one shoulder of Gestaal's chair and fixed Marxl with a wicked smile. "Why are you here…if we found a body in the shed that looks just like you?"

A beat passed.

The table hit the ground with a resounding crash. Its top splintered and broke.

"ROOOOOOOOOAAAAR!" Marxl unleashed a howl that definitely could not have come from a nurse shark.

Gestaal gasped and leaned far back. Only Neuro's arm kept their chair from toppling over. "Marxl?!"

The demon's tusks began to extend. Their mouth changed shape as wide, rubbery lips took the place of soft gums. Their face became hominoid—that of an ape. Blue fur swept over their body. Their humanoid legs shifted and became heavier, stouter, and furred. The beanie stayed on their head.

Neuro felt the miasma in the air bend around them. It fueled the shapeshifter's transformation as he absorbed it from the nearby air.

But the shapeshifter appeared to be reverting to their standard form. He stood in front of them: a great blue ape with webbed fingers and toes. And his face was twisted with rage.

"Hmph," said Neuro. "A seamonkey. It all adds up now. I see that my hypothesis was correct."

The culprit answered him with another bellowed roar.

"HOW COULD YOU?" he screamed. "I was so close! Just one more day, one more week even! The fool would have sold it to me! To me!"

"I'm afraid this criminal was pretending to be your acquaintance," Neuro said to Gestaal. He stepped in front of the catfish demon, shielding them from the seamonkey's anger. "All of the murders…were actually due to him."

"I see," Gestaal said. Their eyes welled up with tears, but they held them back and kept their composure. To cry would be a damning sign of weakness. "Then…that means… the real Marxl is… Oh no. Oh no, no."

Neuro let Gestaal start to mourn as he fixed his sights on the criminal. "Your scheme ends here," he said.

The seamonkey scowled. "I'm not done yet!" He lunged at Neuro with his huge arms. "All I have to do is kill you and escape-"

Neuro swayed and dodged the attack, taking the opportunity to swiftly run up besides the other demon. The seamonkey may have been physically strong, but Neuro was quicker. And he was used to having the muscular disadvantage in fights.

"Too slow," he said.

The criminal turned to face Neuro with an incredulous look. But before he could swing again, a thought seemed to occur to him. The seamonkey reached up to feel the top of his head. His hat was gone.

Neuro twirled the beanie on one finger, digging a steady hole in it with his talon. "And there it is. The final piece of evidence." He pointed to the seamonkey's head, which was marked by a red dot and surrounding red circle, almost like a target.

"I also noticed that, among the victims, all of them swam out to sea wearing a head covering of some sort," Neuro said. "Be it a swim cap, baseball hat, or scarf, all of them were seen wearing something when they drowned. But when they washed back up, the hats were missing."

He grinned. "That really must have been you out there. That marking on your head…it stays the same during your transformations, doesn't it? You had to hide it. None of your victims had the same head marking after all, and you risked revealing your identity. Like now."

The criminal shook, one hand still patting his head as if he couldn't believe the cap was gone. "Why you…little…" they growled.

Some distance behind their fight, Gestaal stood on the obsidian beach. Their eyes flashed with anger. "End him," they said to Neuro.

"Alright monkey," Neuro addressed the criminal. "Our time here is over. I'll give you a choice since I'm so generous…"

He held up one talon. "Pain, or more pain?"

The seamonkey roared. He charged at the detective.

Neuro was unfazed. He smiled as the demon approached. "More pain it is, then."


After the excitement was over, Neuro stood on a cliff at the edge of the beach.

The criminal had been successfully subdued and taken away. It hadn't even been a fight worth mentioning, really. Gestaal had thanked Neuro profusely and gone off to cooperate with the police. There was surely a lot of paperwork and explaining to do. And there was a shed that needed cleaning up.

Neuro gazed out over the boiling ocean. The exhausted sun sank low in the sky, turning the water a beautiful slaughterhouse-red. A slight breeze blew past, carrying with it the aroma of sulfur. "What lovely weather for a beachside picnic," Neuro sighed.

The mystery had been adequate. It was enough to fill Neuro's stomach for a few wondrous moments. It had given him energy and spurred his life force, yes. But then, like so many times before, the pleasant feeling of having consumed a meal faded into nothingness.

Neuro's brow furrowed in annoyance. The quality was always so low. Demons didn't have many instincts of restraint, after all. Rampant violence was the social norm. "Crimes" were base and short-sighted and most of all…unintelligent. There weren't many demons clever enough to think beyond the obvious murder methods. Honestly, Neuro thought. Are there still demons out there who don't know that bodies decompose at a set rate?

And it wasn't like guilt, the kind that drove people to construct puzzles of the soul in order to preserve their own psyche, was something common among Hell's inhabitants.

Neuro began to grumble. "It's not enough…"

How he wished for some more intelligent demons. Not ones like himself (Devil, no) but just ones who thought beyond the usual. Ones who would go to any length to avoid detection. Ones that treated crime like the riddle it was.

There must be a better mystery out there. Neuro's fist tightened at the thought. He had to keep going. There had to be something that could actually satisfy him for more than thirty seconds. Briefly, Neuro wondered if all the mysteries of Hell would ever be enough-

A disturbance in the water caught his attention.

The bubbling surface calmed in the shape of a circle near the cliff's edge. As Neuro watched, the waters became still, eventually stopping completely. Then, a giant neck emerged from the waves.

It shot up, up, and up, eventually coming to rest just a few feet above Neuro. A head was at the top of it. Two huge eyes, yellow with black pupils and ridged by small teeth, peered down at him. A pair of nostrils flared.

Neuro was looking at a seamonster.

The detective watched it calmly. "It has been over 50 hours since I arrived," he said. "You had to come up for air eventually, I see."

The monster made a low groaning noise. Every inch of its body was a greenish-blue, the exact color of the boiling sea. A second mouth opened and closed in a vertical oval between its eyes. Ribbed horns curled up from the monster's head and its ears flared out to the side like a goat's. Fangs poked over its lips from both the top and bottom, resulting in a appearance like stitches. The faint splashing of flippered appendages came to Neuro from below the cliff.

"I see," Neuro said. "You are a 'Kisshi', right? From the same family as the infamous Loch Ness Monster. They still tell stories of you in the human world."

"To think there was a monster in the boiling sea after all…" He shook his head. "Well, no matter. I'm sure you were not responsible for those murders. Only the broken cages and taken bait."

He spread his arms out wide. "I have a proposition for you. Lately, I've been wanting something animal-based to add to my arsenal. You just might be worthy of the job."

"What do you say?" He gave it a knife-blade grin. "Join me?"

The seamonster rumbled. It reared back a few paces and fixed Neuro with a stare. They held eye contact for a minute, emerald with onyx. Then, the monster stiffened.

It gave a cry, backpaddled, and turned to flee.

Immediately, Neuro held up a hand. A light shot out from the front of his talons. "Sorry," said Neuro. "I am refusing your refusal."

Out on the ocean, a break in the sky appeared. It took the form of a square demonic apparatus with a short tailpiece extending down from under it. It had a blue border and a purple middle, looking almost like a book. Eyes embedded in the top twitched back and forth. The device split down the middle as its two sections opened up like shutters.

The monster fled right into it. The doors closed behind the beast as it let out a screech of indignation.

777 Tools of the Demon World—Evil Window, Neuro thought as the new Tool adjusted and then stabilized. He dismissed it from sight.

Perfect. Neuro was pleased with the new development. He recalled something about being able to create new Tools to use himself. Neuro would just have to notify those who granted him the 777 Tools of the Demon World in the first place. Then he would have to follow some other minor procedures in order to register a new Tool. There were plenty of useless ones that Neuro was willing to replace.

And it seemed the caged beast would be guaranteed to be angry whenever Neuro chose to unleash it.

Neuro grinned. "I always wanted a pet," he lied.

Chapter Text

Lucard Throatbane strode down the halls of the HDAC: OB. He passed the occasional worker, giving them either an authoritative nod or a wary curl of the lip to keep them in line. As much as he didn't like it, there was a certain birdbrain he had to see.

Lucard's silver and black fur shone in the dull hallway light. He kept an envelope pressed firmly to the side of his usual black suit. Surely the fool office drones were doing their jobs, he recognized. But in Hell it was imperative to display your strength often, if you didn't want to be mistaken for weak.

Asanteoh deserved such high respect. As far as Lucard was concerned, his job was to make sure that the Kingdom of Leonfang ran smoothly. There had been whispers—workers who saw the pecking order and chattered about Lucard eventually taking over as Executive Officer. Lucard growled to dismiss them every time. He tried to pay the talk no mind—things like that weren't important right now. And "dog-like loyalties" about it be Damned. This place was Asanteoh's.

And Lucard wouldn't let anyone—much less a pompous birdbrain—tarnish it.

The wolf demon arrived at the door of Neuro's office. Forgoing a knock, Lucard shoved open the door.

He took one step inside and was immediately slammed into from above.

"What in the seven rings-" As he looked up from underneath the cinderblock, Lucard saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A cylinder of dense foam swung down to hit him in the back. The air rushed from Lucard's lungs. He tumbled forward into a mess of ropes, which then hoisted him up to the ceiling where two solid paddles beat him back and forth like a pinball.

The wolf demon could do nothing but yap and scream. With his limbs still entangled in rope, Lucard was passed over to the ceiling fan (apparently reinforced for this specific purpose) which spun him around at intense speeds. The room became a gray blur as Lucard's eyes felt like they were about to pop out of their sockets.

Finally, he was flung away and hit a target that had been tilted up towards the ceiling. Lucard landed just shy of the bullseye.

Lucard turned a swelling whimper of pain into a growl. He stopped himself from rolling to the side as he noticed the space beyond the original rope-trap was strewn with wicked wire barbs.

Struggling an arm and leg free, he began to pull the ropes away. Who could have done this-

"Darn," came a lazy voice.

Lucard looked up to see a very relaxed Neuro, leaning back in his office chair. The avianoid gazed down at him. "I had been hoping to hit the center with that one."

"What in the Devil's unholy name is going on here?!" Lucard cried, rising to one knee at last.

"Welcome to my office," Neuro said helpfully.

"Why do you have so many traps around?"

"Everyone needs a hobby," Neuro replied, easy as a breeze. "A mind like mine is a terrible burden, Dog. I must find ways to exercise it at every opportunity. Otherwise the pent-up energy shall accumulate inside my skull and my head will pop off."

Lucard growled, shaking the plaster off his shoulders. The detective had lied so easily.

"It's a public office!" Lucard snapped.

"Exactly," said Neuro. "Why in Hell would I want to be so completely accessible? I'd have people bothering me all day."

"And please, Lucard. None of that would have happened if you didn't tend to bust open doors like that." He grinned. "Although, I knew you would."

Lucard settled for giving Neuro a glowing-scarlet glare. Oh, if not for the detective's talents, Lucard might be tempted to write this up as an act of dire insubordination… but, he supposed Neuro did this to everyone else too, not just his commanders.

Lucard looked down. He found what he was searching for there on the floor, lying askew. He stooped and picked up the sealed black envelope—it had fallen from his hands during the first phase of Neuro's booby trap.

"What's that?" Neuro said from the desk. The many rings of his eyes focused on the item.

"Patience, little magpie," Lucard said. He made a show of dusting off the cover. "The only reason I came here today was to give you this. It details your new assignment."

He walked over to Neuro, pausing two feet away and cocking his head as if to ask if there were a new trap or weapon waiting for him at the desk. "You've done some great independent work for us, but this time it's HDAC-mandated. No getting out of it and no putting another case before this one."

"I understand," said Neuro. He gave no indication to Lucard that the desk area was trapped. "I'll give it a good look over." He held out a clawed hand for the envelope.

Lucard handed it over. "They'll see you tomorrow for an initial meeting."

His sharp eyes flickered over something hidden behind Neuro's monitor-screen. "What's that?" Lucard said, pointing towards the small device with his muzzle.

"Oh, you noticed it," said Neuro. He reached out a hand and brought the object to the center of his desk.

The device consisted of an oval shape with four eyeballs mounted on ridges, pointing out in each cardinal direction. Its body stood on three spindly legs. Another eye sprouted from the top, supporting a small pillar. That pillar lead to six upside-down discs, all spread out in a flower-like pattern.

"I was going through a bit of a test run when you so rudely barged in," Neuro said. "777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Station."

He hit a button on its side and the eyeballs flickered to life. Light streamed out of the four eyes and the discs above them, projecting images all around the room.

Lucard craned his neck to watch as a brief cinematic played. The way the light projected against the walls and ceiling made the whole room feel like a theater.

The Tool resumed from a paused position. Demons began to materialize around the room, clinging to walls and strewn out to die on the floor. They came in all types and sizes. Their labored breaths and trembling, panicked eyes were so realistic that it was hard to believe it was all a hologram. Knifes, nails, and every other manner of torturous tool had apparently been used upon the fictional demons. All were in varying degrees of agony, as only Neuro could inflict on them.

Lucard recognized it as one of the most popular cult-hits out at the time.

"Fangs of Schlaedk?" Lucard said. "You put a video game system into your cache of Tools?"

"I went on a replacement spree," Neuro said. "It's still more useful than some of the junk that was there before."

Lucard did not reply.

Neuro raised a brow. Well? he thought. Do you think recreation-oriented Tools break regulation? Will you report me, Commander?

Lucard's furred head swung around the room. He appeared to be observing the solid images.

"…Which path?"

"Excuse me?"

"Which path are you going down?" Lucard came back around to face Neuro. "Bizzn tells a pretty compelling story to be honest, but Yaski might be more up your alley. Sjowl is the most beautiful though. 'Course, they've all got decent character arcs, and their fighting abilities are entertaining at least." He shrugged. "In my opinion."

Neuro paused for a moment. "Ho ho. So that's what you think?' His eyes flicked to the side to watch a slime monster slide down the wall. It was just a background character, but even its movement was realistic. The mucous glistened wetly.

"Yeah," Lucard affirmed. He went around to where a small gremlin-like demon was pinned to the wall by darts, minus the dartboard. "Cleal Soundshrieker's my favorite, though. Not the best ending, but ah well."

He poked the demon with one claw. The sharp edge sank into its stomach as the hologram gave a pained squeal. "You gotta admit the game has great programming, especially for its genre. These 'solid images' are really something. Makes you wonder what we'll be able to do in the future."

"But I'm a little surprised, N- Braineater," Lucard turned to him. "You're into this kind of game? I thought you would've been interested in…I don't know, mindteasers or something."

"Devil no," Neuro grimaced. "Terrible, terrible, terrible all around. And unspeakably boring. Put it this way: why would a starving man look at faded, bad-quality pictures of food when he could spend his energy on searching for a meal instead?"

Lucard shrugged in acknowledgement.

"I must admit, most of the currently-available game selections are beneath my notice," said Neuro. "However…" He ran a serrated talon absentmindedly over the Tool's chassis. "I've spent some time with this one. As for the character 'arcs', I will go over them all. I've even discovered the hidden paths."

"Makes sense that you would be a completionist," Lucard said.

"Hardly," said Neuro. "I'm simply… microscopically intrigued. Motives fascinate me."

He flicked through a bit of the game while he spoke. Dialogue options and prompters were selected and dismissed at lightning speed. "In my investigations, I often find that the motive is of no consequence—not of interest to me and of little worth to the case. A criminal's line of reasoning is only relevant so far as it helps to solve the mystery. I couldn't care less what dull thoughts have driven them to take extreme action. Demons are all the same anyways when it comes to crime. Not a spark of originality in their heads."

Neuro paused at a certain selection of dialogue. "But in this simulation, it's different. You have to use knowledge of the characters in order to become closer to them. Knowing their likes and dislikes is important in order to achieve your goal. Of course, here the process is elementary and you can always restart from a save point in the event of a mistake. I can say all the right things and know the whole plan ahead of time," he said. "It's not the same."

"But I like games, you know?" Neuro said with a grin. "The strategy, the mental struggle…the amount of stress that they can exert on the brain is comparable to the makings of a mystery. Not to mention that I'm quite good at them. This video game hardly counts as a worthy opponent, but still."

Lucard nodded absently. "Hmm…" Then he shook himself. "Er, well that may be so, but just remember to do more work than recreation when in the office. You can play all the precious games you want on after-hours."

Lucard gestured to the envelope on Neuro's desk. "And that file I handed you is pretty important."

"Noted," Neuro said. "Will that be all for today, Commander?"

"Uh…yes." Lucard held himself higher. "Yes, it will. That will be all for now, detective Braineater!"

"Alright, then."

Lucard made his way to the office door and then stopped. He turned to glare at Neuro, ears cocked sideways in a question.

The blonde demon grinned. "It's safe, Commander. Just watch your head on the way out."

Lucard scoffed. He turned again to leave, but then appeared to have a thought.

"Did you say something about 'hidden paths' earlier?" he said.

"Oh, yes," said Neuro. He inspected a talon. "I've done all five of them—including the ones the company did not put in their guidebook."

Lucard cast one last look around. "I'll have to remember that," he muttered to himself. "I should probably check that out later."

He waved in farewell and exited through the door, pulling it shut behind him.

Neuro smirked as the dog left. Or were there only three hidden paths?

He wondered how long the hound would keep searching. Neuro placed one hand on the active Tool and pressed the button to shut it down. Turning off the device via a hard shutdown tended to damage the system after a while, but for now it was beneath Neuro's concern. The images around the room fizzled but would remain for a minute more. No save progress, however, would be recorded.

Neuro observed the solid image of a meat cleaver half-way through severing Mate Interest #2's second head. Now, what traps should he have prepared for when the dog came back for revenge?

Games were such fun, after all.

 

Chapter Text

Neuro entered the room, letting the thick doors of the Order Branch close with a thud behind him. He was right on schedule.

A few other demons were sitting around an oval-shaped table. Neuro bowed to them in respect. Some cut short their welcoming growls and hisses and he was allowed to take his seat at the table.

The tension in the air was infectious. Neuro exhaled, wishing that perhaps he hadn't been required to join this meeting. But, obedience was important to gain the trust of others at this stage. And in this line of work, experience was key.

At least they were calling him in on important cases such as this one, Neuro reflected. It was unheard of for a new face like him—with barely twenty years of service now—to be acting on such terms. The thought made him want to smile. They truly must be realizing my potential.

A few other demons filed in. Soon the table was filled, leaving not a single seat unoccupied. Neuro looked around. There were about a dozen demons altogether, including two that almost made Neuro do a double-take.

There was the purple, blotched skin of Zelmia Dreadsting. The hooks at the ends of her dark hair stuck in the shoulders of her business dress. She scowled and checked her watch. Seated next to her, tall and stern, was Brutus Sharpback. He perched at the edge of his chair in order to make room for the axe serving as his dorsal fin, yet still somehow managed to sit ramrod-straight.

The demon at the head of the table called them to order. Neuro recognized the green octopus-like demon. She was the head of Enforcement in Guul, the nearby city.

"Alright. This meeting has now begun," she said, standing to address them all. "Your presence and attention to this matter is appreciated. As you all know from the file you received, our current budding crisis is a serial disappearance case."

Quiet murmurs sounded from the group as a few demons lay their files on the table.

Neuro made no move for his. In fact, he had left it locked in his office. He had already memorized all the information inside of it anyway.

"In the city of Guul, twenty demons have gone missing over the past month alone," said the octopus demon. "We believe this has now progressed beyond the level of normal demon activity."

"Collected here are photographs of all the suspected victims, taken before their disappearances," she said as two binders were put onto the table. "It also contains photographs of three corpses—bodies of some of the missing whom we eventually found in such condition. Please review the contents amongst yourselves."

"Have any of the missing turned up alive, at all?" asked one of the demons around the table.

The Head Officer shook her head. "No. The only ones who have been seen again are the ones who turned up dead. They were all quick disappearances, vanishing from their daily routes without any reports of a strange struggle in the area. We suspect that all the other missing demons have also been killed. Only, disposed of more carefully."

The nearest demons took the binders and examined the contents. Slowly, the photographs began to make their way around. Neuro took a binder from the demon next to him when it was offered. His many-ringed eyes flicked this way and that over the pages.

"Given these twenty subjects, we have determined that it is likely these are indiscriminant strikes," said the Head Officer. "Demons of many different types, builds, and views are all among those still unfound. Unfortunately so. That means our culprits will be much harder to catch."

"However," she continued. "There are some points of note. As you can see by going over the pictures, this culprit appears to exhibit a preference for young blood, and mostly females." The Head Officer allowed discussion around the table to rise.

"We are currently suspecting some sort of group or organization. Either that, or one very talented individual," she said.

So, they didn't even have a link between the victims? Neuro stared off into space. How foolish. They should just let him go out and investigate by himself. The electricity in Neuro's brain nibbled away at thoughts like mice at cheese, coming back and hitching around the last thing the Head Officer had said…

Something deep in Neuro's mind went off like a gunshot. He sat up straight in his chair. Those pictures. He had to see those pictures again.

He looked further down the table. One of the photograph binders was being held by a demon just a few seats away. Neuro concentrated on his inner powers.

A green aura, almost too faint to see, appeared around the cover of the binder. The demon holding it wasn't paying attention, his eyes focused instead on the Head Officer. Neuro used his telekinetic powers to give the binder a tug. The demon appeared not to notice. Neuro tugged at it again. This time the demon looked down, frowning at the binder. His gaze followed the direction it was pulling in all the way back to Neuro.

He gave Neuro a dirty look, but allowed the binder to slip from his tendrils and slide back to the avianoid.

Neuro gave him a thankful smile. No need to make a scene. Then he got to work, flipping back through the binder's pages.

"But is this really a murder spree for the sake of violence?" One of the demons at the table opened up the discussion. "Could it be motivated by jealousy?"

"Perhaps a fetishist?" snorted another.

"A new cult?"

"Demon gone rouge?"

"Is it their hunger?"

That last remark sent off muttering all around the table. No one wanted to think of it, but it was a possibility. All demons had different diets. And among those, some demons were cursed from birth to need a type of food that would inevitably lead them to cause trouble. Flesh-eaters and pain-feeders were common offenders, for instance. What if someone's diet had finally driven them to commit a twenty-demon-long murder spree?

The Head Officer called for attention with her multiple arms. "Fortunately, it does not seem so. We have checked the metropolis area and there are no demons living within our bounds who have that type of diet. None with power levels of any concern, at least."

She watched as the discussion evolved into thoughtful, low whispers. Demons leaned in to talk to each other, clasping their hands together on the table. "As you can see, there are still many factors that need consideration," the Head Officer spoke. "It is even possible for someone to have come in from outside."

"We expect this case to be ongoing," she said. "So if you could all now—"

"Have you ever considered kidnapping?"

It took the table a while to realize that Neuro had spoken. They turned to him, a few gaining astonished looks once they realized he held the case binder in his claws.

"It can be a very lucrative business." Neuro held up the binder with its pages facing outwards. He pointed to one of the photographs. "Especially when done with the wealthy."

"What-" someone spoke.

"I couldn't help but notice," Neuro said. "There is one thing in common between most of the victims here."

He addressed the Head Officer. "You never mentioned their status. Most of those missing are from the upper class, correct?"

The octopus demon was silent. Judging by her expression, she was checking the facts in her head. "Yes," she said at last. "It would be accurate to say that some of them were indeed."

"'Some of them' is hardly sufficient," Neuro said. "Just look here—" He held the binder with one hand and pointed with the other, allowing those nearest him to view his deductions as well. "A bracelet, a brooch, rings, earrings, a string of pearls…even an anklet. Practically all of them here are wearing jewelry of some sort."

"On top of that, I recognize this brand," he said. "It is a well-known feature of the top shopping arena in Guul. They're awful insistent with their advertising—showcase magazines have even shown up at my door. Anyways, the Swarfnui brand is known for high-quality jeweled goods," Neuro smiled. "With prices just as extreme."

The room began to catch on.

"So…they're targeting patrons of that store?" said a particularly bright demon.

"Close," said Neuro. "But not quite. Really, I would imagine it's more likely that they are interested in ransoming the rich rather than carrying out a grudge against the company or its products. Only those with huge funds can afford to buy and display Swarfnui's jewelry, after all," he hummed knowingly. "Wearing the merchandise marked them as such. It would be an easy enough way to choose your next target."

"And as for the slight trends among the victims," Neuro mused. "Well, don't the young and females tend to frequent expensive jewelry stores more often?"

"So, really we should be watching heiresses or young money while tackling this case." Neuro put down the binder and looked up. "We can use those guidelines to find the next probable victims, and from there trace our way to the criminals. I hear that the hottest necklace of the season will be available in stores next week…"

Those seated around the table took in his story. Some of them looked like they wanted to protest, with mouths opened to snap a retort, but their higher faculties prevented it as they slowly began to realize it was possible Neuro was correct.

Not to mention that he had gotten all that from just some photographs.

"While…I…admire Braineater's contribution," one of the officers said. "I am not sure we should jump fully into conclusions with such haste."

A few mutters of assent came from around the table, marred by some murmurs of dissent.

"But you heard him," spoke another. "It makes sense! Look, they really are all wearing those things—it's a disgrace we didn't see that before."

"I don't care if this supposed explanation makes sense; we can't afford to invest all of our time and resources into one theory," the first retorted. They leaned forward, casting their intimidating shadow over the table.

"Especially when it's been put together so suddenly. I'll admit the logic seems sound, but it's far from airtight. Maybe they are kidnappings—but perhaps the culprit really is someone who came from outside the city. We cannot discount the possibility that the truth is something different."

Discussion ensued. Demons wanted to know what they were going to do now, with a plausible theory existing but alternate opinions on it. Gradually, two sides began to form—those in support of Neuro's theory and those opposed.

"Alright then, here's an idea," one growled. "For a case of this degree, we can spare the resources. How about we launch two different approaches—those duped by the new theory can form one group, while those wanting to follow the planned way form another. The two can cooperate in terms of information if commanders feel up to it, but otherwise they are free to operate under their own respective assumptions."

"Just as long as they don't get in each other's way," another demon chimed in.

"That may be acceptable," Neuro said, claiming a place in the conversation again. "I mean, it's not ideal in any case. But if that's what would make our commanding officers feel comfortable, then so be it. We can have a traditional, stick-to-the-plan group." Stick-in-the-mud group, he thought to himself.

"Now then, if I may be so presumptuous," said Neuro. "Would I be correct in imagining myself as part of the 'kidnapping ring theory' group?"

One of the commanders from before nodded. "Yes. That would be the most logical course of action. And what will your group be doing, as part of their plan to catch the criminals?"

"In anticipation of the supposed kidnapping gang finding their next victim, my group will focus on identifying possible targets," Neuro said smoothly. "We will gather together possible victims and track them, waiting until one is targeted. Then, through them, we will be led to the organization." Neuro cast his gaze around the table. "Who will go with me?"

A few hands went up. Neuro took count of the volunteers—less than half of those gathered. Tch. It seemed there were still some who did not respect his abilities.

But Neuro observed an interesting fact: both Zelmia and Brutus were among those with their hands raised. Neuro remembered: both of them had been present at the Gastroslime case years ago. Hmph. He smiled. They must have recalled his performance back then.

"Well then," the Head Officer spoke. "This meeting will be adjourned. Officers, please convene with your group commanders to receive your assignments. Case work starts now."


Neuro's group, though smaller, worked quickly and efficiently. There had been no objections to his plan once he had laid it out. They all believed in the power of the Tools.

Soon they had gathered together a pool of potential victims. Neuro met with the four most likely as soon as possible.

"This better be quick," snapped a young female. Her arms were folded and a scowl twisted the lips of her leopard-like face. She tapped the pads of her foot against the ground just like impatient actresses did in the movies.

"Yes, I concur," said another. She was half made of ice and appeared to be much, much older. She fiddled with a silver and gold watch. "I have an appointment to get to."

Two other female demons stood between them. A beautiful necklace of golden droplets was draped around each of the demoness's throats. They reminded Neuro of nooses, only it was not yet certain which one would pull first.

"Of course, ladies," Neuro said. "We just needed to have you all come in for a bit and answer a few questions. Due to your outstanding cooperation in this matter, you are all free to go."

"I should hope so," the leopard-faced one growled. She pointed a finger at him. "You officers of Enforcement have no idea how to treat a lady. Calling us in out of nowhere is one thing, but holding us here is another! A questionnaire about our lives is hardly worth a morning's reservation."

"It's a shame you feel so disconcerted," said Neuro. "Need I remind you that the HDAC is not required to disclose information to those it detains when it would involve sensitive content?"

"Of course not," she sniffed. "I know that."

Neuro gave a gentlemanly bow. "Presumably. Then, all of you, leave at your will. The door is over there."


Neuro and four of his team members crowded around a screen inside of an HDAC-issue vehicle.

Four red dots moved ever so slowly around the monitor. An overlay of faint white lines on-screen plotted out a map of the city of Guul.

"Are you sure this is gonna work?" muttered someone from the back.

Neuro had been waiting for someone to ask that question. "Of course it will. It is."

He closed his eyes and could tell exactly where each probable-victim was without having to look at the screen. The bugs he had planted on them earlier assured that.

Right now, each of the possible targets was being followed by a demon bug, too small to notice and too commonplace to bother swatting. Neuro knew what it looked like: a wrinkled body that spiraled in like a snail's shell, with five eyes, two buzzing wings, withered feet for landing, and a long proboscis that hid a microphone. It was 777 Tools of the Demon World—Evil Stalker.

"Yeah, the trackers are doing fine," said that demon again. They lowered their voice to a whisper. "But I mean, what if the criminals don't fall for it? What if they try to take their target off the map?"

"Then we follow them," hissed another.

"Alright, alright," the demon replied. "But seriously, settle down. It could take days for one of them to be tar-"

They fell silent as Neuro raised one middle finger. He pointed to the monitor. There, on the screen, one dot had deviated from its reported path of the day.

It was the mouthy female from before. Neuro grinned. "Let's move."


Neuro and the others hid inside two HDAC vehicles, hidden behind a building. From there they watched as the young heiress from before hurried up to the door of an old office building. She cast one quick glance around. Here, on the outskirts of the city, no one else came up the street.

The office complex appeared to be closed. Ignoring the front door, the demoness scurried around to the side of the building. She was now out of the officers' sight.

Neuro let one minute pass. "Alright," he said. "Let's follow her. We'll catch them in the act." He leaned over and gave the driver a command: "Go."

Tires screeched as their car shot out from behind the building and pulled up in front of the office complex. The second followed, jerking to a halt right behind them.

Neuro and some other officers piled out. A few took up positions around the area. Neuro himself headed toward the side of the building, following the path that the demoness had been seen taking. Two other demons fell in behind him, with Zelmia and Brutus accompanying them as well. It was a small squad—but more than powerful enough to crush any resistance from a few kidnappers.

Sure enough Neuro's group soon found a side door, tucked away in the building's side. One of Neuro's entourage took hold of the doorknob and pulled it open.

The five demons entered. They stood in the crux of a hallway, with one corridor extending to their left and to their right, and another path continuing on in front of them. On the inside the office was surprisingly clean. It may have looked closed on the outside, but the building appeared to be far from abandoned.

Neuro realized that the others were waiting for him to give them orders. "Stick together," he said. "No reason to split up and search. I know where the girl is."

He pointed his beak down the hall directly in front of them. They stepped forward, treading lightly, with Neuro following the signals of one Evil Stalker.

They continued down the hall, passing doors on either side. In a few moments the end of the corridor came into view. "We're close," Neuro said. "According to Evil Stalker, she should be right-"

Neuro paused. His eyes grew wide at one of the Stalker bug's messages. "What?"

It happened in an instant.

CRASH! SMASH!

Chaos erupted as demons broke through the doors surrounding them. Aggressive roars mixed with screams of surprise. Neuro's tight little group buckled in the face of the onslaught. The detective barely managed to dodge one blow before whipping around to claw at another enemy coming from behind him.

He heard a shriek as one of the demons belonging to his group went down. A spiked mace was in her shoulder. Zelmia held her own, hissing at all who came near. Her hair coiled and whipped forth to rake its hooks down demons' faces. Brutus was a whirl of blades and teeth, felling all within reach until one blob-like demon managed to jump onto his back. As Neuro watched, it covered the axe of his dorsal fin, causing the shark demon to bellow in rage. Neuro grit his teeth. How did they know we were here?

More wails and guttural howling echoed from the corridor behind them. One demon poked their head around the corner. Their long mouth extended outwards. A foul-smelling purple smoke billowed out as they exhaled.

Neuro coughed and then held his breath after the first whiff. Poison gas! He swung his head, trying to catch sight of the others to warn them. But it was no use. By the time they had all managed to dispatch their foes, the reinforcements had come around the corner. The fog now hung thick in the air.

Neuro had no choice. He turned to the end of the hallway—there was the door, the exit from this place. He hesitated for a split-second before charging forwards. He had just so happened to be the one walking in front when the attack occurred. He could make it. He had to make it out.

Feeling claws scrape through the ends of his feathers, Neuro only just managed to zip through the door.


He slammed the heavy panel shut behind him with a loud thud. Luckily, this door appeared to be made out of stronger stuff than the others. Steel, maybe, or some other metalloid. Neuro leaned back against it to catch his breath, feeling his heart hammer in his chest.

He felt the door lock shut behind him and knew that something was wrong.

Neuro's eyes shot open and he brought up his hands on instinct. Nothing attacked him. Nothing moved. There was nothing but the sound of breathing, somewhere out in the darkness.

And it was dark. Demon night-vision was (as a rule) better than their day-vision, but it was still far darker in here than Neuro would have thought an office could be made to be. Neuro could tell he had found himself in a wide room, too wide for the normal office space. The thought occurred to him that someone might have cleared it out. But for what?

Neuro stepped away from the door, moving slowly. He did not lower his guard for a moment. Clearly, this had become more than just a simple kidnapping case.

There was a sound. Neuro stopped his feet at the soft noise of ripping and squelching. His eyes searched the darkness.

Shadows moved, black upon black. They came closer, keeping to the edge of the room. At last they were almost within his sight. Neuro could just make out fuzzy outlines, the figures of demons perched in the gloom. He saw a blade unsheathe and flash somewhere in the dark.

There came a thunk not too far in front of him.

Neuro spared a look downwards. Something rolled out of the shadows. It came unevenly, like a rock with one pointed side. It was covered in leopard-spotted fur.

Neuro watched as the demoness's head rolled to a stop against his feet.

"Braineater," called a voice from somewhere in front of him. "That is who you are, correct?"

Neuro looked up. "Perhaps. Who is it that's asking?"

A dry, rattling laugh answered. "Such mind games. It is no use."

Blue eyes shone out of the dark. What little light there was reflected off of their crystal texture. "Neuro Braineater. The Order Branch's finest prodigy. To think we would meet you here, and in such circumstances… how fortunate for us."

Neuro flexed one hand. "I am indeed the Braineater they talk about. However, I must correct you about one thing." He grinned, displaying his sharp teeth. "Meeting me is never fortunate."

The figures shifted and whispered.

"You have done well to trap me and get me alone. Now," said Neuro. "I have told you my name. Why don't you tell me who you are?"

When he received no answer, Neuro continued. "Oh, come now. I should at least know the names of my professed murderers, don't you think?"

The demons surrounding him stopped muttering. They took up ready positions, tensing in anticipation.

Neuro noticed that someone had come closer, stepping out of the gloom in front of him. He saw two hands folded over the top of a staff. Their fingers were heavy with rings. Beyond that loomed an angular blue face, like that of a gremlin.

Neuro could not see the demon open his mouth, but knew that he was the one who spoke. "We are the Natural Order…and you cannot last against us."

They lunged.

Chapter Text

Neuro braced as two demons lept at him out of the shadows.

They were quadrupedal, with skin the color of pond scum and just as grimy. Each of them had a boar's head. Their powerful fingers dug into the tiles, cracking it underneath their grip.

The boar demons flicked their tails in unity. Neuro had only the briefest of microseconds to sense twin blurs moving through the air. He dove blindly to the side.

Pain shot through his left thigh. Neuro hissed as it pulsed through his mind as well, his brain doing a damn good job of informing him that he had been hurt. In dodging one attack he had run right into the other. Neuro looked down—three spikes were embedded in his flesh, two smaller, one larger. The biggest one was the size of an army knife.

He looked up again at the sound of growling.

Neuro's opponents were no fools. They had spread out a bit, circling around so they could lob volleys from both sides. Dodging an assault like that would be difficult. Spines and hooked barbs rattled together at the ends of his opponents' tails. Their tails each resembled that of a stegosaurus, only with dozens more spikes.

Neuro stepped back, awaiting the next attack. He winced as he put weight on his injured leg. He could still stand on it but not without considerable pain. And not for long.

The spikeboars' tails lashed.

Neuro took a deep breath and concentrated. He heard a disbelieving snort from the enemy side as he appeared not to dodge-

-and then two surprised whines when the spikes bounced right off.

Neuro sighed in relief. He held up one hand to the light—it had been transformed into a shield, starting from the talons. A clear, light tone echoed through the room and then faded as the spikes ricocheted.

His opponents did not look pleased. They snarled obscene things at him. Neuro stared back resolutely. The spikeboars shifted and swished their tails, uncertain of how to attack now that their opponent had shown he could block.

"So, you have body modification powers," came the voice from before. Now that the blue demon had stepped into the light Neuro could see that he had indeed been the one speaking. He hmmed in interest and brought one hand to his chin in a quizzical gesture.

"Why did you kill your target?" Neuro said, keeping careful watch of both the spikeboars.

"Aw, how sweet," the blue demon grinned. "Did you care?"

Despite the situation, Neuro actually laughed. "Don't be ridiculous. I merely cannot understand why a kidnapping ring would eliminate their hostage. Ransom get refused?"

"Don't be ridiculous," the other echoed him. "And you're not going to get me monologuing here, detective. But I will say this—it should have been an easy choice. We called her here for an opportunity. She could have given in and sworn her resources to our cause. But she hesitated."

He spread his arms out. "We can't have that. It must be voluntary. Those who can be intimidated into joining something, no matter how just the cause, do not have true loyalty. Know this, Braineater—that everyone here today chose to be."

Neuro frowned. He did not like this. The goblin spoke with the sort of smooth confidence that Neuro allowed himself. It was like standing before a bad mirror image.

Neuro thought he could begin to understand why others hated him.

The fight started again without a word. Neuro deflected a spike thrown by the left spikeboar. The needle pinged off of his shield arm. He whirled around just in time to block another from its companion. By transforming both of his arms Neuro was able to withstand the following volley from the two demons at once.

Neuro took stock of his opponents—they were strong, but with both of his arms modified, Neuro was able to block their attacks. He estimated there was an 80% chance his body could react in time. The hard part would be getting close enough to attack them

And that was when another demon stepped out of the shadows.

It was human shaped, if a bit wobbly at the edges. Their blonde hair was styled up in a mohawk. Bandages wrapped their hands. The rest of their clothing was average. Their skin trembled with every step that they took. Their eyes were twin whirlpools. As Neuro watched, they extended an arm out to their side and formed it into a blade of ice.

Neuro groaned. An Elemental.

It came upon him immediately. They were a short-range fighter, and very strong at that. Their blows struck at Neuro with more power than it seemed water could possibly master. The skin of their fist made every punch feel like a wet slap as well. When they got bored of punching, their ice sword forced Neuro to very quickly shift to a different style of fighting.

Neuro countered with his own blows. Raking his enemy with talons did nothing—their liquid body was sliced through and then reformed. He had to focus more on blocking the water Elemental's attacks. When their sword swung down just a few inches from his beak, Neuro transformed one of his own hands into a purple-and-orange blade. He struck; they dodged. They struck; he caught it on his shield.

Neuro gasped as he felt a spike rip by his shoulder. This wasn't good. The short-range was keeping him so busy that he couldn't focus upon the long-range game as well.

He needed at least one shield—preferably two—in order to protect against the thrown spikes. But a sword was required when fighting a bladed opponent. At least, it was much more difficult without one. And difficulty was not something that Neuro needed more of right now. So, Neuro was forced to stand with a shield for one arm and a sword for the other, looking much like a knight way out of his league. He would have to rely upon footwork for the rest.

The Elemental brought down their sword of ice in a heavy frontward blow. Neuro blocked it with the flat of his own blade. Their wills clashed, holding still when they reached equal strength. Then the Elemental drew back their other hand. Instead of delivering a punch, a soft cracking sound reached Neuro's ears as that hand also froze into a sharp, pointed shape. Neuro ducked beneath the second blade as it swung.

Now Neuro was fighting an opponent with blades for both arms. The pace increased—Neuro often blocking with his shield and parrying a thrust in the same blow. All the while spikes rained down. They struggled back and forth. The sound of ice upon solid flesh echoed throughout the room.

Finally, Neuro got in a good hit. Using the momentum of one of his opponent's attacks, Neuro turned one ice sword aside and darted in close. Satisfaction bloomed as he saw his blade sink into their chest.

But not for long. The Elemental's body swirled around the wound with no indication of pain. And when Neuro ripped out his blade with a rightward slash, water from their torso splashed to the side and then reformed. It felt like cutting through a pond.

The Elemental smirked. Neuro could tell by the rippling on their face. They struck at him again, with power furthered by pride. Neuro dodged and blocked as best he could, countering with a hit occasionally. But he knew it was useless—whatever area he struck relaxed and turned to ordinary liquid. This enemy could be cut through, droplets could be splashed onto the ground, but his opponent remained uninjured.

Neuro kept his shield-arm up, defending against the thrown spikes as well as blocking an ice sword on occasion. He worked to keep the Elemental between himself and the opposite spikeboar.

Suddenly the Elemental gave a burble that could almost have been a laugh. A ripple of color passed through its torso. Spikes burst out of its chest with a great splashing noise, erupting from behind and continuing straight into Neuro.

Neuro gasped in pain and stumbled back, feeling two needles the size of fingers piercing his chest. He clutched at the injury on automatic. The pain seemed to synchronize with the spikes in his left thigh, pushing both to greater heights.

He glared at his opponents. He had miscalculated—some part of Neuro's mind had believed that the Elemental's back was a blind spot. Under normal circumstances one would not even think of attacking your own ally. But with this demon, the spikeboars' weapons could shoot right through it.

"Hyaaahahahaha!" A cackle of joy came from the blue gremlin demon. "Even the top officers of Enforcement cannot stand against us! Well then, I see no point in sticking around."

He turned, his navy robes trailing behind him. "They'll finish you off. Good luck, detective. Make it worth the effort to kill you. I'll go tell the others that the Order Branch's best young mind died like a dog!"

He turned and vanished into the gloom. The shadows seemed to lessen in his absence.

Anger rose within Neuro at the slight. But then the Elemental came at him, sword arms swinging, and his thoughts were taken up by battle.

He took a good look at his foe and redoubled his focus. He had to win. That much was certain. There was no time to focus on the long-range attackers as long as the short-range was still here. So—Neuro strengthened his stance, injured leg protesting—he needed to take this one out first.

Neuro pressed forward in the clash of blades. He twisted and brought his sword down upon the Elemental's right forearm. The pillar of ice cracked straight through. It fell to the floor, its jagged point shattering into pieces. The water Elemental paused for a moment, regarding the part of itself that was now missing. Then it turned back to Neuro. Water extended down from its arm, quickly rebuilding the hand that had been lost. It froze into a blade as good as before.

Neuro dodged another round of spikes from the boar demons, including those that shot through the Elemental. It was getting harder to survive on only one shield.

But the momentary victory had given him an idea. Every one of Neuro's attacks went right through the other demon. But they couldn't be both ice and water at the same time.

The Elemental approached him with both sword-arms crossed into an X. They were done playing around.

Just when they reached Neuro, the detective ducked. His hands quickly reverted to their taloned form. The first swing missed him. The second one did too, thanks to a quick dodge.

Neuro's body moved on automatic, carrying out a plan before his mind had time to put it into words. He leaped, hands each carrying a spike that had been wrenched from his chest.

Neuro stabbed the Elemental in both arms, at the shoulders. It did no damage of course. The liquid splished around and collapsed where it was affronted. The Elemental's two arms fell in twin spouts, hitting against the earth with a useless splat. Their frozen blades fell as well, no longer supported by the arms above them.

Neuro gritted his teeth in preparation. He kicked up with his injured leg. Screaming agony erupted in his mind.

But it had caught his opponent off-guard. Quickly, they tried to freeze their head. Neuro saw the ice solidify and stretch out, leading with a point that would surely skewer his foot-

Then Neuro dropped. When he kicked, he had collapsed back on his right leg as well. The backwards momentum caused his outstretched foot to hover in the air and then retreat, following his body. The lance of ice passed just above. It was so close Neuro that could feel the cold.

But Neuro's arms were long. He shot out an arm and grabbed the Elemental's head. His talons dug into the chipped surface.

Neuro heaved. With a yell, he brought the Elemental's head to the ground and smashed it.

The sphere of ice burst into gray-white shards. It scattered all over the tiles. Neuro struggled to his feet, heavily favoring his left leg now, but it soon became apparent that there was no need to rush. The water Elemental's body had collapsed into a puddle behind it. None of the droplets were twitching, signaling any intent to reform. The bits of ice began to melt, turning into water for good this time.

Neuro did not gloat over his victory. The two spikeboars still remained, staring out from the arena's edge. He stood, panting, and struggled to walk a few steps.

He collapsed in the center of the room. Heavy breathing ruffled his plumage and his hands pressed at his injuries. Blood streamed from Neuro's leg onto the floor.

The spikeboars on either side stirred. Perhaps they had not expected their adversary to be so successful in battle. But no matter. The time had come to finish him off.

Without a word they began to close in, coming at Neuro from both sides. They planted their feet on the tiles and fired from their tails at a closer range than ever before. It was impossible to miss.

Just before the spears hit, something happened.

There was a loud chittering noise in the air, echoing until it became one high-pitched whine in the closed room. A device appeared. Multiple hexagonal plates, as shiny and reflective as mirrors, floated around Neuro and arranged themselves like a protective cocoon. The head of a young woman sprouted from its overhanging lid. She had the delicate ears of a fawn and softly curled hair—a beautiful sight.

But the two decorative plates on either side of her face told a different story. The left plate showed her in profile as an old woman. Her reflection in the right plate was that of a skull, though still with her hair. Glass panels bonded together at her neck and increased in size as they continued downward so that the plates surrounding Neuro seemed to be but a part of her jewelry. Two giant hands—one of flesh, the other of bone—jutted at shoulder height and gripped two clear orbs.

The boar demons' spikes were blocked by the mirrors, passing through as easily as if they had hit air. Just when the ends had disappeared the needles were shot back out at the same breakneck speed.

Their paths were perfect mirror images. The spikes hurtled back towards their owners and stuck into the spikeboars' soft underbellies. They fell with dying squeals.

All was silent except for Neuro's ragged breaths.

Soon even that stopped. "Phew," Neuro said. He stood up. "777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Reflector. That worked."

"Playing dead is not the most noble of pursuits, but..." he looked at the spikeboars. "Ah, who will live to tell the tale?"

He smiled before wincing at the pain in his leg. "A very resourceful kill if I do say so myself. Now," he turned to the corpses. "Let's make sure you mutts are really dead."

He made sure by stabbing them in the skulls. If they hadn't been, they were now.

Neuro cast another look after the blue gremlin. There was no sign of him. It was a mystery that would have to wait for another day.

After a bit of struggling, Neuro gathered enough strength to break the door down. The metal body bent around the lock, then collapsed outward under his assault.

Gazes from his teammates shot up to him. Neuro could tell immediately that they had won. There was less noise and no hoard of demons rushing out. But then why were there wails of…mourning?

Neuro's attention fell upon two figures collapsed on the ground. Zelmia Dreadsting sat on the floor as a mass of purple, more blood surrounding her than on herself. One hand was brought to her face in a plaintive manner.

And Brutus Sharpback was on the floor, unmoving.

The shark demon's corpse was like a small mountain in the hallway. The knives that served as his fins had been used thoroughly. His dorsal-fin axe had been half corroded away. Some of his blades were missing, almost as if they had been ripped out.

Neuro stood still in the doorway. One of the HDAC:OB's best fighters was dead.


"Don't blame yourself," Lucard growled. "We don't want any sentimental crap poisoning anyone's thoughts. Stuff like that is for humans. I'm sure you're far too smart for that, but still. Consider that your only warning."

"Not needed," Neuro said. "But I understand." He shifted. The bandages wrapped around his chest and thigh clashed awfully with his plumage, and it annoyed him. Neuro wished there were some way to camouflage them.

"Don't give me lip, Birdbrain," Lucard's jabs were as harsh as always, but some of the heat in them had dulled. He seemed distracted. His red eyes kept sliding over to the sides of the room, as if he were expecting a replacement for Sharpback to just appear.

"We understand you heard some suspicious declarations from other demons at the scene," Lucard continued. "Something alluding to the possible existence of an organized crime syndicate. I want to tell you that we will look into that."

He sighed. "But it's probably nothing to worry about. I wouldn't be surprised if we don't find anything worth noting. There are hundreds of crime gangs, Braineater. New ones show up all the time. They're here, they let loose violent urges, and then they're gone. If we're lucky, this one will even destroy itself. It's not our job to stamp out normal demon behavior-" Lucard curled his lip, "It's just to keep things under a semblance of control."

Neuro nodded.

"Do you understand me?"

"Yes," Neuro retorted. He fingered the healing gauze on his chest.

The wolf demon nodded. "Good. Recover well."

Lucard Throatbane's remarks echoed in Neuro's head long after the officer had left. Neuro did understand. He agreed, even.

But still, Neuro tensed his leg, feeling the pain of injury. They were quite strong

Chapter Text

Nobody had bumped into Neuro on purpose or threatened to kill him yet. It was a good day in the city.

The blonde avianoid walked down one of the main streets, dozens of demons passing by him on either side. His thoughts kept returning to recent events. For some reason, Neuro's mind just couldn't leave them alone. Something was pulling at his brain…

But it wasn't a mystery. Neuro scowled. His stomach was rumbling. He pictured the organ as now completely hollow, its grumbling echoing around the emptiness inside. All of his recent attempts to eat had been thwarted.

So, Neuro had gone out. Sometimes taking a walk could be a good way to stumble across some fast food. That was more-or-less how he had found his first-ever meal, after all. Other times searching just became a waste of his energy.

But today it might have been worth it. A commotion caught Neuro's eyes from somewhere up ahead. "Helloooo?" Neuro said to himself as he started towards it. "What do we have here?"

Demons were chattering with each other around one of the larger buildings. A flash of police uniforms showed through gaps in the congregation. The crowd bulged out from the building and encroached upon the street by a width of almost two feet. Many loitered off to the side, like birds watching a tasty nut in the middle of a particularly busy road.

Neuro felt a tingle run up his horns. This was it—he could feel it! There was something else in the air, drawing him in towards the place. It was like an aroma that only he could smell. It was the pull of a mystery.

Neuro tried to fight off the urge to drool. He was only partially successful. He wiped some spit off of his beak as he made a beeline for the door. It was imperative that he get in there.

Within minutes Neuro met the officers guarding the door. They glared at him in warning. Neuro pulled out his HDAC I.D. card in one smooth motion and held it out. The guards' eyes bulged when they saw his rank. Neuro found himself hurriedly swept inside by two huge arms.

Inside the building Neuro found that investigations were already underway. Forensics workers and grunts moved this way and that, up and down staircases and through hallways. The interior was comfortably lit, with just enough fanciful details to let you know that you were in a high-class company building. The railings were made of smooth, lacquered wood. The rims of the walls were painted a sophisticated gold color.

There was a name engraved upon an overhang: GUULMARK ENTERPRISES. Neuro recognized the name. Guulmark was one of the largest companies in the demon world, based right here in the city of Guul. Its specialty was technology--what little bit demons chose to embrace, at any rate. One way or another, it had left its mark somewhere in every major building in Hell.

Neuro gave a small shrug and turned away. Crime can happen anywhere. Now, there had to be some grunts somewhere he could order around...

The subordinates that he found were surprisingly reluctant to fill him in on the details. Neuro was able to find out that it was a murder case. The victim had been one of the two company vice presidents, killed by being cut into pieces with a razor-sharp wire trap. The president themself was now incredibly paranoid, caught up in fear. Luckily they weren't here right now to cause a scene.

"Are there any suspects so far?" Neuro asked as he walked briskly down a corridor, headed to the crime scene.

"Y-yes," said the smaller demon. Their short legs struggled to keep up with Neuro's long strides. Their brow was furrowed and they kept casting hurried glances behind them, as if hoping someone would come along to stop the avian detective. "There are three suspects so far. We're currently holding them elsewhere in the building. But sir, please, this is a very bad idea! As I've told you before, this case has already been claimed by another crime detective."

"Oh? Then tell them that they are now sharing it with me."

The demon balked. "I-I don't know how well she would take that, sir."

Neuro smirked. "She? Well, you should go and find out. Fill in the gaps in your pitiful perception. And tell her Majesty that I will be investigating at the main scene."

He walked on, leaving the other demon to jitter in their worry.


Even the murder scene was refined.

The vice president had been killed in the late morning. The tragedy was discovered a mere one hour later by an unfortunate employee passing through. The whole event took place in a meeting room, a rather small area wedged between one hallway and the next room over. Thick red curtains hung over the walls. The carpet was soft against Neuro's bare feet, so short-haired that it was almost plush. A slightly darker tint was the only way to tell which areas were colored by bloodstains.

Blood was spread over a large area, caused both by the murder weapon and body parts separating from each other. The victim was cut up into four main pieces: half of a canine-oid head, the other half of his head as well as the neck, then the torso, and the legs. Every bit lay out in the open. Demons didn't bother with putting corpses under white shrouds.

Neuro crouched over the body, staring at it like a vulture. After a few minutes of silent watching his gaze turned to the carpet. There was the murder weapon—two large, thin loops of wire. Yellow police markers dotted its path. The wire was sharp, and far too thin to see at a distance. Neuro's own eyes could barely find it against the carpet. No wonder the victim himself hadn't noticed it hanging until it was too late.

Neuro was familiar with this murder method—hang a piece of strong wire or string from where the wall meets the ceiling. Then, if pulled down at a diagonal angle with enough force, the string will descend with deadly speed and cutting strength. The culprit had used two loops, hanging them from opposite sides of the room. It looked like the victim had gotten caught in the crossfire. Parts of the carpet were scuffed where the wires appeared to have struck.

There were also two chairs nearby where the victim was slaughtered. Both of them had fallen over. Neuro observed their arrangement. Clever. "Hmph. These must have been used to influence where he'd stand," Neuro said. "No wonder the culprit could be so sure their wires would hit." When coming into an empty meeting room, anybody in their right mind would automatically be drawn to the chairs, anticipating that was where the conversation would take place.

Neuro eyed the other chair that had fallen. It appeared the victim had been expecting someone, too. But whom?

An idea struck Neuro. Perhaps there was a Tool that could help him gather more information. He concentrated.

A ripple ran through Neuro's shadow. It stretched, beginning from his legs and then changing shape. The outline grew feet, many of them, like those of an insect, poking out from its sides. The shadow collected together at the far end, dimming black for a moment. Then a creature, or a device rather, crawled out. 777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Centipede, Neuro thought.

It appeared to be some sort of insectoid lifeform. The creature was no bigger than Neuro's hand. It stood on the floor, looking quite happy to be there judging by its razor-sharp grin and four round eyes. Its entire head was a shoe with the toe end pointing down to serve as a mouth. The body was covered with shoelaces. Dozens of legs supported it, each one with a shoe for the last segment. A small stub poked out of the end of each sole and balanced on the ground. It almost looked like the insect was walking on stilts.

Evil Centipede grinned mindlessly as it began to carry out its job. Its many legs tapped against the floor, making the insect sway with the rhythm of what it found. Neuro knew it was gathering the pain of the Earth, using that information to reconstruct how often demons had stepped in the room. That was its one and only purpose.

But what was this? Neuro frowned. Even after the Tool had sent him a chirp to signal that it was done, the room appeared unchanged. Nothing had happened. Or at least, it seemed that way until Neuro looked down at his hands.

"…Oh," he said. "It appears I have misjudged this Tool's purpose."

Neuro had been expecting the Tool to remap footprints on the ground, providing a handy reference of who had been in the room and where. Instead the footprints had been cast onto himself. Neuro observed the illusion—there was only one print on himself, and it was very light in color. Was that its way of recording the number and duration of visits? Neuro frowned. This could likely only work if he had all the suspects in the same, desired room. What a bother-

"Pardon me."

Neuro started at the unknown voice. He turned, looking up from his squat. The sound had come from the door.

Standing there in the doorway was a tall, beautiful demoness. Her silver hair tumbled down to her shoulders. A single horn jutted from her forehead. She wore a black dress that fastened behind her neck, tracing a halo around her throat. The dress was pinched in at the knee and fanned out in a mermaid-style. Matching gloves covered her arms up to the elbows. Her skin was dark, hovering between brown and black.

Four large wings rested at her back. One pair hung low, the other high. When displayed together they made her look like a seraphim. Their white feathers were somehow unmarred by Hell's dust and miasma. Unlike Neuro's wings, they seemed perfectly capable of holding her in flight.

She looked at him like one would look at a mental patient—appraisingly. Or as if she were gauging the difficulty level of a puzzle.

At last she spoke again. "Is there something on my face?"

Neuro realized that he had been staring. "Yes," he said. "Two footprints."

The demoness blinked in confusion and brought a hand up to rub at her cheek. She pulled her hand away, saw that there was no dirt there, and raised an eyebrow at him. Her thin lips curved into a frown.

Neuro, meanwhile, had gone back to examining the corpse.

"What are you doing on the floor?"

"Investigating."

"Oh?" She smiled. "How curious. I could have sworn that I was the acting crime detective for this case."

Once her words hit, Neuro froze. He turned and raised his eyes again to the demoness. "My Lady," he said and stood, bending himself forward into a gallant bow. Quietly, with one hand behind his back, he dismissed the Tool.

The footprint marks vanished from Neuro's vision. Now that the Lady's face was clear Neuro could see that her eyes were milky white, standing out strikingly against her dark skin.

"Oh, please," she said with laughter in her voice. "It is no use to act like a gentlemen after I find you sniffing around a corpse."

"I wasn't 'sniffing'," Neuro said. Then he felt stupid for falling for her teasing. The demoness smirked, in a way that Neuro had done so often before.

"Forgive my intrusion," Neuro gathered himself. "This is merely part of my job, you see. And my apologies, furthermore, for not introducing myself in front of a Lady." He brought a hand to his chest. "I am Neuro Braineater, crime detective currently serving the Order Branch division of Hell's Disciplinary Action Committee. And yourself?"

"Enjel Soulscry." The demoness brushed some hair away from her face. "I am also affiliated with the HDAC, as one of the Order Branch's elite forces." She gave him a pointed look. "I currently hold the title of Hell's top crime detective."

Neuro paused. The name did sound a little familiar. And something about the description, too—a demon with the form of an angel, one of very few that his commanders referred to as above Neuro himself. "I see," he said. "Very impressive. In that case, it is a pleasure to meet you." He inclined his head even further, giving her the sort of respect that a top operative required.

"Thank you," she said. "I find that this work matches up perfectly with my abilities. Truly, it is a joy to find opportunities that suit them best."

Without really meaning to, Neuro raised his head. "Ahh, you too. Tell me, exactly what is it about a puzzle that draws upon your particular skills?"

"Puzzle?" Confusion passed over Enjel's face. "It is not the tricks that I care for…ah, wait. I think I understand."

"Tell me…" said Enjel. "Do you have any idea what the motive for this case was?"

"Motive?" Neuro frowned. Always his weak point. "No, I can't say I do."

Enjel shrugged, her wings sagging with the movement. "That is unfortunate. The inner workings of someone's heart explain everything about their behavior. What they feel, what they fear, what they desire…through these, you can tell their past, present, and even their future."

Her smile took on a sharper edge. "Well, those of us who can see into peoples' hearts, at least."

"It can be so tiring having to reconstruct entire crimes from reason," she continued. "I do quite a bit of it myself, so I recognize the value in using one's logic. But bits and pieces can only tell you so much. When connecting the dots, you can easily be lead to the wrong conclusion. But the heart never, ever lies."

Enjel moved her head, causing her horn to catch the light. "That is why I have reached the top," she said. "No guilt can escape me."

Ahh, so apparently she didn't eat mysteries. That was fortunate. Neuro felt himself relax a little. Otherwise she might have been a competitor. And with so little food available, there was no way this environment could have supported both of them for very long.

"Hmph. A useful trick," said Neuro. "But all alibis and murder plans are formulated in the mind. And the clash of brains is the most important battle for any detective. Through logic, every stray puzzle piece can be assembled."

Enjel laughed softly. She shook her head. "All matters are decided by the heart. It is only the tendency of the brain to believe it is in control."

"No," Neuro pointed emphatically at the ceiling. "All matters of the heart must first pass through the brain. From there it has the choice of whether or not to give in to such emotions, or resist them…" An empty grin came to his face. "Or to utilize the energy and twist it, forming it into a beautiful mystery…"

He shook his head to snap himself out of the daydream. "The brain named itself," Neuro concluded. "Our minds make us what we are."

Enjel did not appear to be fazed. "Ah yes," she said. "But then, our hearts are who we truly are...namelessly."

Neuro let silence grow between them. Eventually, Enjel cast a look over her shoulder into the hallway.

"Well then, Neuro. It is a pleasure for me to meet the OB's young talent," said Enjel. "Keep up the good work now, detective."

Enjel turned to leave. Her head was hidden almost completely by the mass of white feathers. "I shall allow you to continue your investigation here. I know that you mean no ill-will. It is only your hunger driving you to it."

Neuro felt a twinge of annoyance that she could see into his heart. Enjel's small smile, as if she had sensed that indignation too, only furthered the feeling.

"Besides," Enjel said. "There is no worry that our two heads could interfere with one another and cause problems. I already have this case under lock and key."

"Well, soon so will I," responded Neuro. He looked her in the eye and gave a smirk. "Don't be so sure."

"Shouldn't I tell you the same?"

With a small, stifled laugh, the angel-like being vanished beyond the doorframe.


After he finished investigating the crime scene, Neuro put in a request to see the suspects. It was granted almost immediately.

"Right here, sir," the police demon said as they guided Neuro into another room. "These are the ones that've been rustled up thanks to the Lady."

The Lady? He must be referring to Soulscry. Neuro turned his attention to the suspects. There was a pitiful number of them: only three.

A male alligator-noid demon stood to one side. His head was black and scaly, with teeth poking out over the gums. A substance that Neuro guessed was poisonous overflowed occasionally from his fangs and trickled down to the bib around his neck. He must have worked in the back, Neuro presumed. Demons didn't usually care much about appearances, but there was no way a top-notch company would place on full display a demon who…dribbled.

The second demon was avianoid. But while Neuro took after a parrot, she resembled a pigeon. Her body was humanoid except for her face and legs. Her skin was medium brown. A pair of thin, rimless glasses sat atop her beak.

Almost as soon as Neuro looked at her she began to rattle off advice. "Officer! Thank the Dark Ruler more of you have arrived. Check the garbage bins; someone might have thrown away evidence. Scalebiter and Ringtail were both working on the same floor as me—they're just as suspicious! Could have their eyes on a higher position in the company. You know how these dirty ways work."

She took a breath. "And the server in the cafeteria was conspicuously absent today, too. Furthermore-"

"Alright Silverbeak, calm down," the officer interrupted. "If detective Braineater wanted your 'advice', he'd ask for it."

Neuro did not. His attention turned to the final suspect.

The last demon was a lemurnoid. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, which were sunk an inch deep into their sockets. He stared at everything with a disinterested gaze, though Neuro could tell that the demon was not completely oblivious. It was the opposite of Silverbeak. Neuro watched as the lemur demon brought a cup of coffee to his lips. Everything about his posture gave off one simple message: Just another day in the office.

"Listen up," spoke the police demon. He held up a small sack. "I've got your personal items. They've all been investigated and it's been determined that you can have them back as long as you don't use them in any aggressive manner. Consider that not a warning, but a promise."

One by one he pulled out a sealed plastic bag and gave it to one of the suspects.

First was a long loop of string for the alligator demon. "Crunch Scalebiter, here's yours," the officer said as he handed the bag over. Crunch took the string out of its pouch and began to play with it immediately, threading it in between his fingers like a nervous habit.

Neuro stared in interest. Playing with string? In a case involving wire as the murder weapon? Did he want to get himself killed?

"Twoola Silverbeak." A bag was handed to the bird demoness. She removed a pair of gloves from the bag and promptly put them on, covering her bitten nails.

"And Calruh Ringtail." The officer pulled out a bag for the lemur demon, then hesitated. He opened the seal and removed a small metal cigarette lighter. "We investigated this as well, but we couldn't get it to light. Is it out of fluid or something?" He gave it a click.

Calruh gave a sharp yelp. "Ah, yes," he said. "That may be it. The darn thing failed on me earlier today. Luckily I went out for a smoke this morning. Haven't been able to have a cig in hours…"

He held up a cigarette tucked between the fingers of his other hand. "Any of you folks got a light?"

"You've never smoked in the morning before," snipped Twoola.

Calruh's face turned red. "Well, you've never taken longer than five minutes in the bathroom before, but you sure did today."

There was a gasp from Twoola as her own face turned colors. The police officer snapped, "Enough! Shut up, you two."

Neuro tried to observe it all with a distant expression on his face. Alligator, pigeon, and lemur, oh my.


Afterwards Neuro passed back through the gruesome meeting room. The body appeared exactly the same as he had left it.

And perhaps it was because of its sameness that something else caught Neuro's eye.

What? Neuro's head swung up with a force that dragged his entire body along behind it. There was something black up by the ceiling. Neuro squinted, making full use of his sharp eyes. They looked like…hooks. Those weren't there before.

Hmm. Neuro brought one hand to his chin in thought. He stood for a moment. The next logical step was to investigate closer to the hooks.

Neuro moved on. Maybe the room above would hold some answers.


When Neuro arrived in the second floor room, he found two demons jumping up and down.

"…What the Devil are you doing?" Neuro said.

Instead of cowering at his presence, the two officers grinned at him stupidly. "We's a-helping out the Lady!" one of them said. Her ram's horns curled behind her shoulders.

"The Lady? Soulscry told you to do this?"

"Yessir," said the other demon. His horns curved gently upwards, like an antelope. "Well, not exactly… D'you know about those hooks in the ceiling?" He looked down and frowned. "I mean, the floor? Seeing from hereways?"

Neuro raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I do."

"Oh, great! The Lady must've told you 'bout them too," the police officer said. "See, they appeared once b'fore—jus' popped right out while we were roundin' up the suspects. The Lady says that the culprit triggered th' trap by getting' 'em hooks to retract."

"So look here," the officer said. "We figured out a way to do it."

Both demons stood together and put an arm around the other. They jumped at the same time, feet coming down with a hearty bang. The antelope-horned demon took out a radio. "Jim, hows'it look from down there?" He waited half a minute for the response.

"Yup, he says they're all retracted." He grinned at Neuro. "Jumpin's the way to do it, see?"

"Hmm." Neuro bent down to examine the crux of the floor and the wall. "So, by jumping with enough force you can retract the hooks and trigger the trap…" If that were true, than only Scalebiter would have the required amount of weight to do so, he thought to himself.

He stood and addressed the two demons. "Did anyone report hearing a thump? It would have to have occurred sometime in the late morning."

Neuro saw the happiness drain from the officer's faces. "Uh…no…" the demon with ram's horns said. She scratched her neck self-consciously. "We could radio around jus' to be sure, but…"

"That would be convenient," Neuro said. His eyes drifted around the room. "You could go ask while I investigate here. I haven't had time to properly search this place myself yet."

When neither of them moved, he fixed them with a look. "Go on," he said.

They rushed to get on.


Neuro faced the door of the second-floor room. He could feel Evil Centipede behind his left foot, hidden out of sight. Neuro had summoned the Tool again for a very specific purpose. Hopefully, this would bring him all the answers he needed.

The door opened and Crunch Scalebiter stepped inside. Something in his reptilian face looked nervous.

Neuro nodded in greeting. "Once more, please. Your alibi."

One by one Neuro had the suspects come in and recount their stories.

Crunch claimed to have been all around the office that day, filing paperwork in the back and fetching documentation needed by others. Thanks to the effects of Evil Centipede, Neuro could see that he had indeed been through this room many times. There were about a dozen footprints on him. All of them were light gray, however, signaling that they had been brief occasions.

Twoola Silverbeak was next. Neuro managed to endure her outburst-ridden testimony. Buried somewhere in all of her "advice" was a tale about staying at her desk all day, hard at work on a new project by Guulmark Enterprises. Neuro nodded politely. She had less footprints on her than Crunch, although some of them were considerably darker.

Last of all was Calruh Ringtail. He gave a deep sigh before going over his alibi with Neuro: he had been working at his desk all day as well, except for an early smoke break and taking his lunch in the break room. He had the least amount of footprints on him—only two or three, in light shades.

"Alright, Ringtail. Your cooperation has been appreciated," Neuro said, dismissing the lemur demon.

Calruh nodded. He looked around the room and frowned, obviously wondering why they had to come up here just to repeat their stories. Just when he turned to leave, Neuro called out again. "Ah, wait just a moment," said the detective. "One last thing…"

When Calruh turned around, Neuro was there with one thumb transformed into a purple cigarette lighter. Neuro gave a 'no cause for alarm' smile. "Need a light?"

It took a lot of demonic energy to achieve such high-level transformation, but oh well. If it were worth it, the payoff would be more than enough.

Calruh kept his eyes on Neuro's face, ears twitching. But he held out a cigarette nonetheless, dipping it into the small flame. Once the end lit, he brought it up and put it between his lips. He sighed in relief.

Neuro moved quickly. His other hand shot out to take the demon's lighter. He held it up in plain sight, its metal sides glinting. Calruh stiffened. It had happened so fast.

Click. Neuro triggered the wheel once. Nothing happened.

Calruh continued to watch, but did not resist Neuro. Nothing in the demon's dark eyes betrayed alarm.

"It really doesn't work, huh?" said Neuro. He flicked the top shut and handed it back to the lemur demon. Calruh stretched out a hand and took it, shoving it deep into a pocket.

"That's what I said earlier," he muttered.

Neuro bowed his head. "Of course, of course. Please excuse my rudeness. We just had to make sure of a few things."

Calruh nodded. He exhaled, smoke curling out into the air. "Am I free to leave now?"

"Yes," Neuro said. "I shall see you down at the reveal meeting. It won't be long."

Calruh grunted and turned to leave. "Thanks for the light."

Neuro watched as the lemur demon shut the door behind him. Then he looked behind his foot. Evil Centipede was still there, twitching occasionally. It seemed proud to have done its job so well.

Neuro brought his foot down upon the insect, squashing it and dismissing the Tool.

Chapter Text

Neuro made his way down the staircase. It hadn't been long since his talks with each of the three suspects, and it was about time for those who were involved to start gathering for the big reveal.

Neuro smiled. He had a feeling he was going to enjoy this meeting.

Cree… Neuro's thoughts were interrupted by a door opening in front of him. It was one of the plain-looking utility doors, used mostly by the janitors to get around. The door opened into a small, flat space connecting the flight of stairs that Neuro was on to the one below. He waited patiently as someone exited.

Silver hair caught the light as Neuro gazed into the face of Enjel Soulscry.

"Hello there, detective," she greeted him. "Investigations gone well, I presume?"

"It seems so," Neuro said.

"Oh?" She cocked her head. "That doesn't sound completely confident."

"You of all people should know how confident I'm feeling, Soulscry."

"Hmm. I see. So that's how you play." The Lady walked around him, progressing up the staircase. "Well, let's hope that the size of this puzzle is worth the energy you had to expend upon it."

"So long as you don't try to interfere with me getting my meal, everything should turn out fine." Neuro made room for her to pass.

Enjel gave a little smile. "My aim is not to compete with you, detective."

Neuro was silent.

"…So you've solved the case, then?" he called moments later.

Enjel stopped. "Yes," she said, looking down at him. "And faster than your brain too, might I add."

He shrugged in response. "Of course. It's fairly obvious at this point."

"Then I shall see you in the meeting room, detective. The others await your reveal." She paused. "And good luck."

Neuro huffed. Those with enough skill didn't need luck.

They parted—Enjel proceeding higher, Neuro dropping lower with each step.


It was a familiar enough scene by now for Neuro. The three suspects stood together, shifting nervously; some officers stood guard, ready to rush the criminal if they tried to escape; and a few grunt-work demons recorded proceedings. The only unique aspect of this meeting was the presence of Enjel Soulscry, who, true to her word, had appeared in the doorframe with time to spare.

Neuro nodded in respect to the gathered officers, with particular attention to Soulscry, before beginning.

"All present and accounted for. Now, without any undue delay, we will proceed with the deduction of the criminal. I promise that no matter what happens here today, this company's dignity will be salvaged."

"Let's lay this out," Neuro spread his arms, "from start to finish. You are all aware by now of the fate of our unfortunate vice president. The victim was killed in one of the meeting rooms, sliced to death by a double wire trap. From there the body was left on the floor until discovered."

Neuro's eyes gazed around the room. "I believe there is a chance that today's case might actually be rather simple. The real question here is how the culprit was able to trigger the wires—they must have been held up by something, and the criminal must have had a way to activate their release."

"And indeed, we have found hooks implanted by the meeting room's ceiling." A stir went throughout the surrounding demons at Neuro's words. "It is all but certain that these hooks supported the wires and kept them drawn taut. What's more, they are capable of retracting into the wall. I believe that once we discover how this retraction was set in motion, we will be led straight to our criminal."

Neuro pointed upwards. "One possible mechanism has been…proposed. If someone jumps with enough force on the floor of the room above, we have seen that it will cause the hooks to retract. The only requisites for this are a large enough weight or bodymass."

He shook his head, cutting off some excited hisses. "However, for many reasons, I doubt this theory. No 'jumping' noise was reported, for one. Furthermore, I have investigated all of you-" Neuro gestured to the three suspects. "-and it does not appear likely that any of you could have done the jumping trick. Or at least, the chance of one of you doing so is extremely small."

"What if they set up a weight?" Twoola exclaimed. She immediately seemed to realize the foolishness of speaking during a deduction. Her face flushed as she tried to shrink back behind her feathered hands.

Neuro shrugged. "There was no evidence of a weight trap. No tape, no rope or grooves, and no indentations in the floor, which would also have appeared if someone had attempted the jumping trick. For now, that theory is out."

One police demon muttered, "So, we're back to square one?" They sounded miffed that the jumping theory had been dismissed so quickly. Neuro imagined that they were one of those who first discovered it.

Neuro bowed his head in the direction of the door, where Enjel observed all the proceedings. "Not completely. Ms. Soulscry has helped immensely in this case. Due to her work, we have these prime suspects here. Their suspicious hearts still stand, regardless of the findings so far. Soulscry and I agree on one thing-" Neuro grinned. "The criminal is among the three of you."

He let the tension build. Neuro had found that this kind of gradual reveal was perfect for drawing the puzzle energy out from its host. Like oil and water, the bits causing stress would rise to the surface more easily, until they finally overflowed once their creator realized that there was no escape.

Crunch, the alligator demon, wiped dribble from his chin. Twoola tried to bite her fingernails through her gloves. Calruh looked relatively bored, an unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth.

Neuro zeroed in on the detail. "That cigarette," he asked Calruh. "Why haven't you lit it?"

Calruh blinked. "…For a detective, you sure got a short memory," he said. "I can't light it. And the one you sparked for me went out a while ago."

"Ah, that's right," said Neuro. "The lighter is broken, is it not?" His eyes glittered. "Would you mind taking it out again, for everyone to see?"

Calruh stared at him, suspicious. He mumbled under his breath as he fished around inside one of his pockets. He drew the lighter out slowly. When it passed the lining, he hesitated for the briefest of seconds.

In the doorway, Enjel smiled.

"It's busted," Calruh said before handing the lighter over. "It won't light anything."

Neuro he took it. "I'm not expecting it to," he said.

Neuro held up the cylinder. He shook it gently back and forth. "Hmm," he said. "No fluid at all sloshing around inside. Not a single drop. How…odd." He cocked his head. "Even for a lighter that's out of fuel, there should still be some residue, don't you think?"

"Know something else?" he said, his voice taking on a different tone. "I've been observing certain happenings between the crime scene and the room above, and I've noticed something very interesting."

Neuro leaned in. "Every time this lighter is clicked, the hooks change. It's a small, yet undeniable occurrence. There were no hooks visible when I first arrived. Yet, after an officer clicked this button they appeared by the ceiling of the meeting room. Just to be sure, I checked the position of the hooks before and after handling this lighter when we talked recently in the room above. Before, they were gone. After, they had extended."

Neuro's grin took on the sharp edge of victory. "I don't know about the others in this room, but I'm willing to take that as evidence of a connection."

Now some emotion had begun to come to Calruh's face. The lemur demon's eyes kept flicking towards the lighter in Neuro's hand. "How dare you…"

"So, here's my theory," Neuro spoke. "This isn't a lighter at all. It's a switch."

He pressed the stiff, brown tufts of one ear to the cylinder's side. "By using this, you were able to retract the hooks, thus triggering the release of the wires." Neuro grinned. "We could even check right now. The crime scene is just a few doors down. Why don't we go over there and try pressing this switch-"

"How dare you?" The strength of Calruh's exclamation caught the room off-guard. His furred hands balled into tight fists.

"How dare you accuse me of this crime!" he yelled. "It's just one lighter! A lighter I tell you! And how…how…"

A nervous laugh escaped Calruh's mouth. "Yes, that's right…how could I have done it? If you recall, detective, I was outside the building when the incident happened. Remember? In the late morning?" His eyes burned with a dark fire. "I believe I mentioned that the first time we met."

Neuro was unfazed. "Exactly. You were outside. Right when it happened." He folded his arms and tapped one finger thoughtfully. "Such convenient timing—to be outside on a smoke break, probably flicking your lighter, when the vice president was killed."

"As for knowing when he would be in range," Neuro continued. "That's easy. The victim appeared to have been waiting for someone. And he was not known for being tardy. Furthermore, the chairs served as markers to determine where he would stand—surely right beneath the wires. You could have reasonably estimated the time to attack."

Neuro fixed the other demon with a smirk. "Well? Any rebuttals?"

Calruh stood, paralyzed by anger. His teeth ground together and his shoulders bunched beneath his white shirt. He gave no reply. But aside from swelling with rage, the lemur demon did not seem to be activating any dangerous powers. It was obvious that his nimble hands had been made for programming and design, not for fighting.

It was just another case of demons being bound by their limitations, Neuro thought. Those born with power were powerful. Those born without it had to learn to live without.

"I will take your silence as a confession." Neuro gestured to the gathered officers. They started forward.

"Wait." Enjel stepped into the room. "I want to know why. I want to hear what would prompt him to make such a decision."

Neuro stifled a sigh. Of course the one who dealt with peoples' hearts would want to hear about the motive. How dull.

A sharp laugh sounded through the room, echoing like the crack of a dry stick. It dipped down into a burbling giggle and then increased with a lurch back to its full, raucous volume. The laughter was coming from Calruh.

"Why? Why? You want to know why?" The black lips of his mouth were twisted up in a grin. The demon stood on shaky legs, trembling with the weight of all his held-in laughter. He snickered. "The workplace grind was driving me insane! The endless business, the routine…everything always predictable, logical, tame! Too tame for me. Every day the same hum-drum affair all dressed up in a white shirt and tie."

"I'll give them something to gossip about! How's this for great water-cooler conversation?" His eyes glinted. "This do-it-yourself job was nothing. My mind even enjoyed the challenging experience. It was a laugh, ha-ha!" Calruh's speech ended with another peal of laughter. He doubled-over, holding his midsection.

The Lady sighed. "If only I had come here before the event occurred… I would have been able to sense the murderous intent lurking in your heart." Her blank eyes were hard as steel. "For that, I am sorry."

She turned away and signaled to the police. "This demon is guilty. His heart stinks of blood. Arrest him."

The officers fell upon Calruh. They grabbed at his arms and brought reinforced handcuffs to clamp around his wrists. It almost wasn't needed. His skinny limbs posed no threat to the more powerful demons.

They wrestled the criminal over to the side as the other two suspects fled to the far wall. Enjel and a few other demons worked to usher them out. Twoola and Crunch left, the bird demoness casting one last look behind them. Soon only Neuro and the officers holding Calruh remained. The lemur demon was still giggling.

Neuro frowned. This wouldn't do. The criminal's conscience was such that the mystery had not yet been released. His lack of guilt was preventing the feelings from overflowing. It seemed that Neuro was going to have to give it another push.

"Pardon me." Neuro slid in-between two of the officers. "As a leading crime detective, I have some say in what punishment the offender receives…"

Calruh's eyes fixed upon Neuro's outstretched hand. "What are you doing?" he said. "No…no!"

He twisted and wriggled, but it was too late. A small green-and-purple shape formed out of nowhere, descending along with Neuro's talons.

"Since you seem to find this such a farce," Neuro said. "777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Comedy."

The shape plopped onto Calruh's face with the soft, squishy weight of a bug. It positioned itself over his nose, morphing into a purple insect and stretching out its legs to either side on instinct. Knobs on the side formed drills that dug into its victim's flesh. Its legs stretched around the eyes of its host, casting a soft pink screen over each of them. The Tool now resembled a macabre mask.

Calruh yelped in horror. Even Neuro did not know exactly what he was seeing—he could only be sure they were images that crossed the border between hilarity and histrionics, leading to a whole new level of fear.

For instance, Neuro imagined, spiders. Though, for one of a lower mindset, any kind of insect would do. Spiders wrapping you in their web like they would a fly, creeping and skittering ever closer, their feet pulling softly on the strings attached to your limbs. You would always be able to feel them coming. Then all at once, they would be upon you, but not to kill—instead, to initiate the most literal kind of tickle torture with their tenfold limbs. Uncontrollable laughter and chilling fear would mix together in perfect harmony.

Within seconds, the mask turned invisible. Only Neuro and the victim could tell that it remained.

Calruh's laughs had become more like shrieks, rolling out of him now with the tight rhythm of screams. He paused only to inhale to fuel more.

The trauma was doing its work. Energy began to curl around the criminal's form, flooding out like the sweetest syrup. At last, Neuro had what he had come for.

It's time to eat, he thought to himself. And so he did.

With one big swallow, the criminal fell limp. Neuro nodded, satisfied. His stomach delighted in the momentary nourishment.

Evil Comedy would surely disappear within the hour too, but for now Neuro decided to leave it on. He had no reason to recall it now. "Take him away," he said.

An officer near him nodded. Some of the ones holding Calruh seemed a bit shaken by Neuro's actions, but they also strengthened their grip. It had happened so fast that Neuro doubted any of them truly understood what had just happened.

Within minutes, the lemur demon had been hauled away to a waiting police hearse, his manic laughter still echoing down the halls. The corridors of Guulmark Enterprises sounded like an insane asylum.

Quiet steps approached Neuro from the doorway. He turned to see Enjel Soulscry approaching.

"Congratulations, detective." She stood tall and proud, with shadows falling over her face like a statue. "I must admit that I never doubted you, but it is still impressive seeing your performance close up."

Neuro bowed. "All in a day's work, my Lady."

A thought occurred to him. "Ah, that's right," he said. "I actually meant to thank you earlier for allowing me to present my findings. Since this case was under your jurisdiction, I recognize that the honor should have been reserved for you. I do appreciate you taking note of the circumstances and allowing me to get what I wanted."

The Lady's wings stirred as she shrugged. "It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. You got your puzzle, and I get to see my culprit arrested."

Neuro nodded. "Still, the prospect of food can be blinding. I…must have caused some trouble for you."

In all honesty, the words felt foreign on Neuro's tongue. He was not one to bow or grovel. He liked to take what he could get and push his superiors just to see how far they would bend. But this…this was a demon to whom Neuro knew he should show full respect. His precious food-catching career might depend upon it.

"Oh, not at all," Enjel gave a breathy laugh. "I am impressed, actually."

"Really?"

She nodded. "By you."

A beat passed. Neuro decided to play the safe route. "What an honor," he said. "Especially from Hell's top crime detective."

"An honor well deserved," she said. "If you can keep it up."

She looked off to the side. "My officers will file the reports and all necessary paperwork. Your presence on the case will be explained." The Lady smiled. "Perhaps, though, it would be prudent to avoid making a habit of this in the future."

"No promises," Neuro said quickly. "My food is of paramount importance to me."

"Oh?" The Lady said. "Then, you would do anything for it? Hmm…" A grin came to her face.

Neuro frowned. He was used to being in her place—smiling after a successful investigation. Now that he was on the other side, Neuro felt like a sample underneath a microscope.

"Well, good work on today's case." Enjel inclined her head before moving forward to step around him. "Goodbye, Braineater."

Just before she passed him, the Lady stopped. She leaned in close and whispered: "But remember, Neuro…sometimes the matters hardest to understand are those closest to our hearts."

She left in a flutter of white feathers.

Neuro stared after her for a moment. Then he shook himself. He looked around the room, seeing that no one was there, and then turned to leave. It was time to go.

Standing by the door was the same forensics demon from before—the one that guided Neuro to the crime scene when he first entered the building. Their eyes met. "I think she liked you," the demon said. Judging by their face, they almost couldn't believe it.

Neuro did not react. He didn't even shrug. "Hm," he said, and continued down the hall.

All he had wanted from today was a mystery, after all.

 

Chapter Text

Lucard groaned. "What are those idiots in Punishment doing?"

Words screamed at him from the headlines of the newspaper he was holding. Accusations here, "shocking revelations" there, and rampant, hurried speculation on what it all meant decorated the articles with as much enthusiasm as professional town criers.

On any other occasion it would be mundane, but this particular issue gave Lucard reason to worry.

"The situation is not yet clear," said Asanteoh Leonfang. The King sat at his desk with a different newspaper spread out in front of him. One of his paws was lifted, halfway through turning a page. The leonoid stared at the text, amber eyes beating down upon it like two suns.

"This is the third leak in one week…" said Lucard.

Asanteoh did not look up. "I am aware of the frequency. Do not waste time restating information your audience already knows, Lucard. It is a waste of breath and unbefitting of a leader."

"Sorry, boss." Once Lucard finished skimming the main article he stood and walked over to a side chair. He placed the newspaper on top of a small but growing pile on the seat. They were covered in pen marks and circles, as well as claw marks from nervous readers.

Luckily the gossip hasn't spread too far yet, Lucard thought.

In demon media, this sort of minor scandal only really found readers in the tabloids. Every organization in Hell was corrupt until proven otherwise, after all.

Still… "It's embarrassing," he said, giving his voice to his thoughts. "Information keeps getting released. Not all of it is sensitive, but some of it is…pushing the envelope."

Asanteoh hmm'd in agreement. "It is. It is a shameful display. And anything that could undermine the HDAC's authority is undesirable for us."

He leaned forward over his desk, propping his arms on his elbows and pressing his muzzle into his two clasped hand-paws. Lucard had seen the King do this before. It meant that he was thinking. "The grip of Enforcement in this world is flimsy enough as is."

"So, who could be leaking it?" Lucard asked.

Asanteoh offered no response. "And what's more…" the King rumbled. "Why?"


Two days later Lucard burst into the Executive office, not even caring about how rough he was with the door.

Asanteoh looked up. The expression of his subordinate reflected in his amber eyes. "I've heard," Asanteoh said.

Lucard put two different papers down on Asanteoh's desk. The lupinoid held back a growl as he read the words over and over again.

The newspapers had gotten wind of another leak. This time, it was from the Order Branch. And it was the worst one yet.

"Where could they have gotten this information from?" Lucard said.

Asanteoh read the front page over again. Lucard could see his commanding officer's top lip beginning to twitch, the tips of his fangs showing in a barely-contained snarl.

Lucard shrank back. He knew better than to be near the King when he was angry.

Asanteoh slammed the paper down on top of his desk. "Call Neuro."


Within an hour Lucard had returned, towing a brightly-colored demon along behind him.

"I've brought the birdbrain," he announced.

"Hello, 'King'," Neuro said. He gave a small bow. "It feels like it's been a while since the two of us last talked."

"Really?" A faint smile came to Asanteoh's lips. "Given the amount of reports I've read either from or about you, I'd say we've stayed in touch."

"Now, business. You've read the papers." Asanteoh said it as a statement, not a question. He flipped the two newspapers on his desk around so that they were both facing Neuro.

Neuro nodded. "Five leaks within the past two weeks. Terrible, hmm?"

"Indeed. And so here is my main concern…"

"I believe we may have a spy in our midst—possibly some form of mole, or other inside threat. And not just us." Asanteoh picked up a selected page and hit it with the back of his hand, pointing out an article denouncing the Punishment division. "The entire HDAC. But it is the integrity of the Order Branch that I am most concerned with."

Neuro nodded. "It's certainly possible." He stopped for a moment and tipped his head to the side. "Haven't I had this kind of conversation with you before?"

"Something like it. But now it's real," said Asanteoh.

"It pains me to admit it, given how much we've invested in security and in the scouting and training of our agents," the Executive Officer grumbled. "But it would be foolish not to act on this."

Excitement sparked in Neuro's green eyes. "A real spy case. Excellent. If they've managed to infiltrate so deeply, I wonder how much of a puzzle their mind has produced already?"

Lucard stared as the detective lost himself inside his daydreams for a second.

Asanteoh brought the room to attention by tapping at the papers on his desk.

"So, what do you think, detective?" he said. "What can you gather from the papers so far?"

"Hmm…." Neuro rifled through the nearby publications for a minute to remind himself. He buried his beak inside of one and tucked a few others underneath each arm.

"I recall that none of our top-security secrets have been revealed," he said. "Nor anything that might compromise our headquarters."

"Right," said Lucard.

"But they're getting bolder," Asanteoh said, pointing to a specific issue. "Take a look at this one. It's the most recent leak."

Neuro approached the desk, eyeing the print with curiosity. A few grainy black-and-white photographs stared back at him. The quality was poor, but Neuro thought that some of the demons pictured looked…familiar.

"Profiles of high-ranking operatives," Asanteoh explained. "Nothing near the level of myself and Lucard, but still it's the highest they've probed yet. It's almost like a warning."

He pointed to a specific picture. "And your profile was the first one they released."

Neuro gave a sharp laugh. "So, a challenge is it? Or an insult?"

"We can only find out by catching them," said Asanteoh.

The leonoid settled back into his seat. "So. You've been briefed. We want you to investigate into who or what possible group of demons has been leaking information, starting immediately. Finish this fast," he said to Neuro. "But be efficient. This is a very sensitive operation."

"Tsk, tsk. Such demands," said Neuro. "Ones suitable coming from a 'King', I suppose."

The others' gazes were like steel.

Neuro sobered. "Yes. I will succeed."

"Good," said Asanteoh. "You can count on administrative support. To a certain extent," he added warily.

"And I am to concentrate on those operatives threatening the Order Branch, especially?"

Asanteoh nodded. "Find those for now. By exterminating them, we might be led to a way to cleanse the HDAC as a whole. Besides," his eyes flashed, "my realm at least must be secured."

Neuro bowed and took his leave.


The demon seated in front of Neuro laughed. "So I said, 'It's the law, stupid'! Hahaha!"

Neuro stared at the demon occupying the visitor's chair in his office. With each amiable remark, the detective could feel his patience meter slowly tick closer and closer towards empty.

No, by now it was probably ticking into the negatives.

The demon wore a light gray suit that contrasted with each flashing smile. His hair was slicked back and the color of a raincloud. He was humanoid in appearance. From the waist down, the demon had four legs, one pointing in each cardinal direction. Sharps spikes jutted from his knees, no doubt meant to be a natural form of defense. Watching him skitter around either turned one's stomach or brought up the urge to break into peals of laughter.

"Remind me why you're here again," Neuro said.

"Oh, sorry sir," said the demon. "Anyway, as I said my name is Tympaxi Grayflesh. Just call me 'Gray'." He gave a respectful salute. "Head of department G, commander of a division or two, you know the works. I hope that you will accept my humble pledge of support."

"You see," he straightened up in his seat, "I have come to offer my services with assisting in this endeavor.'

"What endeavor?" Neuro said dryly.

Gray glanced around the room. "You know," he said. "The…special investigation." He waggled his eyebrows.

So he was talking about the spy-catching, Neuro gathered. Damn.

"You want to investigate with me?"

"Oh yes, that is completely correct." Gray nodded. "Or at least, allow me to help in any small way I can. I saw the papers too, you know…"

An embarrassed grin came to his face. "Eh, it's a personal vice, you see. And so I approached the higher-ups about it. They pointed me here to you. I'm sure they'll tell you all about it if you care to contact them."

Neuro could only wonder what had made the stupid dog and suited cat direct this demon his way. Perhaps they only wanted to get rid of him. Yes, that was believable. But why not just silence this "Gray" permanently? Surely they couldn't have imagined his assistance would actually be of some use.

No, Neuro shook his head. Most likely this is their way of warning me that the contagion of rumors is spreading, and this carrier must be contained.

Or maybe... Neuro's eyes narrowed.

"Fine," he said. "I suppose I can find use for one more ear." Neuro didn't expect the other demon to be good for a full two ears, and besides, Gray only seemed to have one ear anyway. It was large and fleshy and perched on the top of his head.

"Excellent!" Gray's expression brightened. "I pledge my services wholly to you in this endeavor. So, where do you suggest we start?"

Neuro hesitated. "I'm afraid I can't tell you everything," he said at last. "Trust is now in short supply. Do try to find the space in your skull for understanding."

And that is going to be the challenge of this case, Neuro thought. I must suspect everyone until their innocence is proven otherwise, and yet let no one suspect my suspicions.

"Ah, of course. Do forgive me, sir," said Gray. "I'll just follow your lead, then."

"That would be the wisest thing you've said yet."

Neuro stood from his chair. He walked around his desk and headed for the door, moving past Gray as if the demon did not exist.

"May I ask where we are going?" Gray said in a near-whisper as they left the office.

"To take the obvious first step," Neuro replied. "Gathering employee records."


"And then… So he said… But what really happened was… Insane, right? I bet it would'a been no match for you, though. You probably figured it out just from me talking now."

Ugh.

"You know, the outside world doesn't appreciate us enough."

And we don't appreciate silence enough. Until it is taken from us.

"What is it like inside your head?"

Currently, filled with the gabbering of a gray-colored car salesman.

"I myself admire your work, sir. It's always nice to see new talent, even if it comes at the expense of us old-timers." Gray chuckled. His head bobbed along with a jaunty rhythm, as if the two of them were simply out on a stroll. "The young blood has really improved this place over the past few centuries. It's a pleasure to help people like you further along."

"Hey, by the way sir," Gray said, leaning over to talk to Neuro and sounding far too casual about tossing around that title. "I would never question your methods, but…will I be helping you sort through the, ah, papers?"

"I said I can't tell you everything," whispered Neuro. "If you're really interested in helping, then just wait and see."

Gray nodded. He was quiet for only a second before speaking again.

"You truly are a blessing to this line of work though, you know? Smart, collected, and strong too. I've heard of your exploits. Me, I was just pulled from construction." He gave a good-natured chuckle. "Being an architect, I learned how to give groups of demons orders. It's not so easy to do without losing a limb. But I managed." He shrugged. "I guess that's why they 'nabbed me."

Neuro gave a small smile. "You make it sound like they kidnapped you."

"And they didn't you?"

"Not really. I broke down their door myself."

Gray's wide grin disappeared. "Huh. If so, that's impressive. You'll have to tell me more about it."

Neuro did not reply as their destination came into view.

The two demons turned into a room on their left. The room was long and slender, like an open rectangle that had been attached to the main hallway.

Neuro approached one of the main windows. A placard embedded in the wall read Head Secretary. "How can I help you?" said a demoness.

Her compound eyes stared at the two of them. The demoness's hair clung to her face in a short A-line cut. Butterfly wings hung behind her shoulders in a cape of black, red, and purple. Their melded colors reminded one of a bruise.

"Good day," Neuro greeted her. In a slightly quieter voice he said, "I believe you received my request earlier?"

"Of course. Be right with you, sir," said the head secretary. Her lips were pursed as she finished typing something on a screen that was out of their line of sight.

Neuro waited. He looked back for a moment to see Gray leaning over to peer down the hall. Gray walked a few paces, four limbs motoring, and casually leaned against a nearby pole as if he were bored. But Neuro could tell by the line of his eyes that the demon was watching both the rest of the room and the nearby hallway, as if making sure that they were not being spied upon.

The thought sent sparks flying through Neuro's brain. An idea came upon him like a gust of wind: if one wanted to be a spy, a secretary would be a great job to hold.

"Here you go, sir." The voice of the head secretary interrupted his thoughts. Neuro turned back to the window. Behind him he heard the sound of Gray's feet skittering closer to them.

"I appreciate your effort," said Neuro. The secretary had placed the papers in the window opening, neatly stacked and covered by black folder coverings. Anonymous. How thoughtful.

"Of course." The butterfly demoness waited just one second before giving him a slight nod. Neuro knew at once what it meant. The secretaries were masters of deceit—keeping everything quick, professional, and expressionless as they went about their jobs so that no one could tell what another demon had asked of them. In his request e-mail, Neuro had told the head secretary to send him the records of her coworkers as well. That nod must have meant she got the message.

Neuro took the files. When Gray attempted to carry some for him, Neuro held out an expectant hand. Only Neuro himself should be trusted to have all of the info. Reluctantly, Gray added his folders to Neuro's stack.

They left the head secretary and made their way back down the hallway.

There was a slight rustling of paper behind them as the demoness took out a magazine. From split-second glimpse of the title, Neuro could tell it was one of the trashy kind.

Gray frowned as they left down the hall. "She doesn't seem too concerned about the leaks…"

Neuro declined to reply.


In the hours that followed, the two of them visited multiple department heads.

Some demons handed over additional data records on their employees relatively easily once they saw that Neuro was involved. Others gave them more growls than the ones usual for greeting. They demanded to know what the detective was doing, who the two demons were after specifically, and why it meant they had to do more damn work. Neuro just smiled sweetly and said that if they had time to complain, they had time to fetch some files. This was Hell, after all. What would Hell be without neverending paperwork?

In the end, Neuro and Gray managed to visit all of the heads from departments A through D. They collected so many files of information that Neuro was almost glad to have Gray there. Although, he never let the other demon hold anything for long.

Neuro's office was soon filled with paper and files. Packets covered his desk, leaving open only a placemat-sized space, and descended in stacks onto the floor. It looked like a paper waterfall. Or like the two of them had been trying to build a fort.

"Looks like a lot of work, kiddo," said Gray.

Neuro sighed, looking at the stack with tired eyes. "Agreed."

"Let's divide the duties, shall we?" he said, settling behind his desk. Neuro appeared buried up to his horns in paper. There was the sound of one file being taken from a stack and opened. The first of thousands. "You take the newspapers, I stay on files."

"Right. Can do."

Gray turned around and picked up one of the tabloids before hesitating. "Are you sure about this, sir? I'll let you know about any new leaks, but…that seems like an awful lot right there." Gray looked at the piles. "Are you sure you can get through all that?"

There was a pause just the right length to contain an unspoken sigh. Then one brilliant green eye appeared in a crack between two stacks of paper. "Don't underestimate me, Grayflesh. I know what I'm doing."


A few days later Neuro opened the door to the Executive Office.

He stepped inside and had just enough time to feel the familiar carpet grate against his bird-like feet when-

POW

Neuro ducked, having summoned his miasma to defend him. Some sort of electrical field had started to wrap around his head.

He crouched, green sparks of energy dissipating into the air around him. In front of Neuro was Asanteoh, standing behind his desk and holding up something that looked like a very large gun.

"Hmm," said the leonoid. He did not look apologetic in the slightest. "That didn't work."

Neuro caught sight of bold lettering on the side of the gun barrel. It was a brand he recognized. The design also looked somewhat familiar, as if he had seen a blueprint of it at one time.

"…A truth-telling device?"

"Quick-witted as always, my puzzling detective." Asanteoh looked at the gun with mild disinterest before sitting down and placing it on his desk. "We procured it out of hopes that it might help with our little rat problem. But as with all experimental technology, it doesn't work very well. Either that or Lucard truly cannot recall what he ate for lunch just a few hours ago."

Lucard stood off to the side, his ears folded sideways in guilt.

Neuro huffed. He stood and smoothed out a few of his feathers. "Well, I'm touched that you both at least have the intelligence to realize what a disaster it would be if I was one of the traitors."

Asanteoh shrugged. "It's nothing personal."

He brought out a newspaper and put the truth-gun away. "Here's what we called you for: the most recent leak."

Neuro leaned over the desk to get a good look. The paper spoke in rather vague terms, but its content was clear. The Order Branch was reported to be suspecting spies in their midst. The articles went further than ever before, claiming that there was a large-scale investigation happening and that no one in Enforcement could be trusted.

Neuro frowned. The Order Branch's authority was certainly being questioned. He snuck a look up at Asanteoh. Judging by the smoldering fire behind the King's eyes, he was not pleased with that fact.

In addition, Neuro noticed, the articles had been moved from side columns to main sections. That was a bad sign. It signaled that this material was beginning to be taken more seriously.

"Lucard is working to deny these rumors," Asanteoh rumbled after Neuro drew back. "He is labeling them as mere tabloid junk and shutting down any concern among our workers."

"It's not easy," Lucard joined. "Some of our employees read those papers, you know? And others are told by their acquaintances. They're angry and want to know what's going on. It's becoming dangerous to not only our morale, but our cohesiveness."

He shook his furred head. "These rumors spread faster than we can stamp out the whispers. In this kind of environment, I can't tell who's legitimately concerned and who could be a spy just wanting to spread more panic."

The three demons stood in disgruntled silence for a moment.

"Hey." When Lucard spoke up again, his eyes were fixed on Neuro. " I know that you've been taking this assignment seriously, but are you sure you've been careful enough? Neither the King nor I let anything slip. Who have you been talking-"

"Departments A through D," spoke Neuro.

"What?"

"They are the most suspicious at this moment. When Grayflesh and I went around gathering employee records, we requested files from the heads of those departments. They are the only ones who would have known about the investigation. I would nominate them as a good starting point."

Understanding dawned on Lucard's face. "I see," he murmured. "It's not that they would have known—they are the only ones who could have known."

Neuro nodded. He had brought one hand to his chin. "However, it is not yet clear how they could have known about the alleged 'spies' from that. That piece of information has been kept tightly secret."

"Well, at least we have a lead," said Lucard. "We can start further investigation under those parameters. Departments A through D…" He winced. "Our best ones. Of course."

"No," Neuro spoke. "There's one more to add to the list. One more department could have gotten wind of all this information." He smiled. "In fact, I think the criminal has just given us a clue."

Neuro's mouth began to water in anticipation of the mystery. He managed to swallow it down.

"You have an idea," Asanteoh said.

Neuro nodded. "Indeed. We're going to set some bait."

He smiled and looked at the newspaper on top of Asanteoh's desk. "What do you say to starting a rumor of our own?"


Between two demons and the paper fortress, Neuro's office was beginning to feel a lot smaller.

Gray sat in the guest chair as usual. Two of his legs were each crossed over another, leaving him twisted from both front and behind like a pretzel. He was wearing a finely-pressed pinstripe gray suit.

He looked up at where Neuro sat. The detective had retreated behind the file stacks, hiding like a brightly-feathered dragon inside his paper domicile. Only the tips of his horns were exposed.

Gray frowned. No matter how much time the detective spent behind his desk, the stack of papers barely seemed to change. The towers were slowly eroding, and some piles had switched from on top of the desk to on the floor. But Neuro never spoke of what he was reading. What progress was-

"Have you heard the recent news?"

Neuro's sudden question startled Gray. The other demon jolted in his seat before searching around himself and bringing up the most recent paper. "Yeah. It's…not optimal," he admitted.

A small noise came from behind the paper igloo. "Ahh, that's right. The location of a secret radio tower, this time. Allegedly used by the Order Branch to observe citizens."

There was shuffling as Neuro calmly moved a few file stacks. Soon the detective had cleared a path between him and Gray. Neuro's face and upper body came into view, framed by two columns. "Also, information we had on a new inner-city gang in Guul, and on top of that one of our top Commanders is being accused of fraud. Horrible rumors to contend with."

Gray nodded. "That's true, sir. It's too bad." He summoned a smile. "But no worries! I know that the Order Branch can survive this."

"Survive?" Neuro raised an eyebrow. "Even though we're still not close to floundering? Your words make things seem worse than they really are."

Some of the sparkle left Gray's eyes. He sobered up just a tad. "Worse? No sir. I was speaking in a purely positive matter."

Gray chuckled. "Ahh you're right, mister trump card. I'll try to get on your level." He tapped the side of his head with one knuckle. "Forgive me and my limited skull-space."

"Hmm…" Neuro reached out for the paper. Gray handed it to him. "And what do you think of the newest rumors?"

Gray paused. He looked towards the closed door, then around the room as if making sure no one was listening. He shifted in his chair and gazed down at his feet. "Well," Gray said, sounding reluctant, "they are a bit worrisome."

Gray brought up one hand and fake-whispered behind it to Neuro. "I don't believe the OB is really so corrupt, of course, but it does cause a demon to wonder."

"That's interesting," said Neuro. "…since you were the only one to really know about them."

"What?"

"You heard me."

A chill seemed to run through the room. Gray's hand hovered in midair, the demon too surprised to drop it. A small smile spread across Neuro's beak.

Gray drew back in his chair. The atmosphere between the two of them had thinned. "I don't understand what you're accusing me of," he said carefully.

"'Accusing'? So some part of you already knows how serious this is." Neuro leaned back in his chair and stretched. "Just what do you think I've been doing here, Grayflesh? No, wait. I don't want to here another inane thought out of your mouth."

"You thought that I was spreading myself out too thin," Neuro gestured to the paper around him, "trying to investigate everyone in the Order Branch bit by bit. Instead, I've actually been doing a case study of just a few people. I had hoped that disguise might serve a purpose."

The detective grinned. "Looks like I fooled you."

Gray's hands balled into fists. "I've never heard of any of that stuff before, though," he said, pointing at the newspaper. If he was holding a knife it would have been stabbed. "Not until today. I don't see how you can trace those rumors to me, pal."

"Is this the thanks I get for helping you?" Gray scowled. "Demons are never kind mister Braineater, but they at least know when to pay certain services back."

"Ah, but we can trace them," Neuro said, ignoring the demon's other remark.

"Let me put it this way." He held up the middle finger of his right hand. "Imagine you have a barrel that leaks. If you want to plug the leaks, then first you need to find where the worst ones are."

Suspicion puled at Gray's face. "I don't follow," the other demon said. "I thought that was what we were trying to do."

"Of course. But working backwards is always tiresome." The detective's maddening smile never faded. "No one ever thinks of this. What you should do instead is pour more water into the barrel. Then you can see for yourself where it gushes out."

What little color remained started to drain from Gray's face. "You don't mean…"

"Allow me to explain," Neuro said. "Over the course of the past week, administration sent out multiple flyers to the department heads. These flyers were marked as important bulletins, and each one contained its own unique set of information."

"Different information was sent to each department," Neuro continued. "Department A would get rumor batch 1, department B would get rumor batch 2, and so on. The heads were told to keep the information on their flyer a secret, and to confine its discussion to their department only."

There was quiet for a few seconds while Neuro's words sunk in. Then Gray spoke. "But…there's no guarantee!" he said. "Wouldn't the rumors mix and spread anyway?"

"Take out the flyer." Neuro sounded bored. "I assume you still have it on you."

Slowly, reluctantly, Gray reached into a pocket.

"What does it say?"

Gray stared down at the crumpled paper in his hands. "You…may only distribute this information," he read. "…Among your direct subordinates and employees. Use caution as this bulletin does contain sensitive information. Discussion with other departments is…forbidden." He swallowed, the words seeming entirely different on his tongue now given Neuro's explanation. "Hold all questions until the informational meeting at the end of this week."

"I don't know if you've noticed, but the departments are usually very self-contained," Neuro said. "We simply kept interactions between them to a minimum this week. It wasn't hard. You didn't even notice."

"So, each section of the Order Branch became like its own little microorganism, filled with a unique virus," he summarized. "Then all we had to do was watch the tabloids and see which information showed up."

Neuro took the newspaper from his desk and held it in front of him, flipping through the pages. "Well, well. Look what we have here," he said in mock surprise. "The rumor sent out to department A about a chemical spill. And two from department C, about fraud and tampered evidence."

Neuro tipped down the paper so that Gray could see his razor-blade grin. "All of it completely fake, of course. But the perpetrators would never be able to resist leaking the information. It was too 'important', and would make for such juicy rumors. The tabloids paid through the nose I'm sure."

He put the newspaper down. "Looks like we know where our holes are."

Gray spluttered in his seat. "But what does any of this have to do with me?" He raised a hand. "Look mister super-genius, you really don't want to do this-"

"Now, back to our main point…" Neuro slid the tabloid page towards Gray. Its surface was covered with different shades of highlighter. "It's certainly not just one department that's bugged, but the most amount of leaks by far came from department G. If I were to compare it to something, it would be like cardboard versus swiss cheese—the latter has so many more holes."

His eyes fixed upon Gray. "I remember back when we first met you mentioned that you were the head of department G. You even have the flyer to prove it. Care to explain?"

The other demon stared at the newspaper in disbelief. Behind him, one of his four feet tapped began tapping incessantly against the ground. One of his hands gripped the edge of the chair so tightly that his knuckles were starting to turn orange. "You…you used the spies' own methodology against them," he half-whispered. "Like a flea hanging onto a rat. You..you…"

"You are… truly impressive, detective Braineater," Gray said, summoning a smile that failed to look like anything other than a snarl.

"But it still might not have been me!" Gray shook the paper flyer in the air with a clenched fist. "You can't prove any of that. I just passed on the information to my subordinates, like the flyer instructed. Some of them must be the ones who leaked information, not me! You can't prove that I'm directly responsible."

Neuro hummed. "Yes, you do have a point. But still, the simple fact that you have presided over such a bed of corruption is…worrisome to say the least. "

"You'll be taken in just the same." Neuro shrugged "Whether you were involved, or simply the most incompetent demon in our entire administration, I'm sure the executorturers would love to hear about it."

Gray trembled with rage in his seat. His slicked-back hair was coming undone. "You can't do this," he said again. "It's not certain, it's not like you. At least investigate my department first," he pleaded. "If you're really acting for the good of the Order Branch, then see things to the end."

"What makes you think I'm so concerned for my house of employment?" Neuro's voice was as dry as an evaporated creekbed. "But fine. Rest assured that a far more thorough clean-up of your mess is to follow."

He stood and pointed Gray to the exit. "But that won't be involving you. Let's take a walk."


Gray continued to whine as they crossed the threshold. "I can't believe you. This is a gross abuse of brainy privilege. You think you're so smart that you're invincible, with all your tricks and unfair tools… Come on, you can't be serious. You gotta have some misgivings here. It's not just me at fault!"

"After all I did to help you, too. I know you didn't appreciate it and to be quite honest I wasn't expecting you to, but you could have at least hesitated to accuse me, sir. By the Devil, if the papers needed a scandal then you've just given them a real one. We'll see how well that will go over with-"

All of Gray's chatter turned to an endless drone in Neuro's head. The sooner he's out of my sight, the better, thought Neuro as he and Gray crossed underneath the doorframe.

Neuro looked around for backup and an arresting officer. Lucard had promised him someone would be nearby for when he finished. Then I can safely ignore this buzzing-

Neuro realized his mistake too late.

There was a puff of smoke. When Neuro turned to look, Gray was gone, replaced by a light gray mist.

Neuro almost started to curse himself before he noticed something. Further away were a few more faint puffs of smoke, extending down the hallway to the left.

Neuro gave chase, letting go of all thoughts unrelated to catching the criminal, as if they would slow him down even a microfraction of a second. All that mattered now was speed. He needed to catch his mystery.

The air whipped through Neuro's feathers as he ran. Hopefully his long legs could catch up to Gray's four. Walls passed in a blur of blue as Neuro followed one puff of smoke and then the next one, then the next-

"Braineater! Stop!"

If it had been anyone other than Lucard, Neuro wouldn't even have noticed. He spared a precious half-second to look behind him. Lucard was standing in the hallway, having just come around the corner. But he was pointing in a different direction: down a side corridor.

"He went that way, you birdbrain!" Lucard called. 'Those puffs are an illusion."

Neuro realized the dog could be right. It wasn't just the passing air buffeting him—miasma was moving through the air as well, flowing back like a wind tunnel drawn towards Lucard. The Commander must be using his own abilities to track Gray, using the demon's energy signature.

Neuro grit his teeth. He screeched to a halt, using the talons on the end of his toes to dig in for traction. After making a boomerang turn he dashed into the other corridor.

The detective's mind ran through the situation on its own—how at the far end of the original hallway he would have found a dead end, led astray by the fake puffs of smoke. This demon was tricky like an octopus. Or a perhaps a quadpus, to be more accurate. Neuro could offer no 'appreciation' to Lucard now—there was no time.

He had been running for a whole minute when the smoke trail disappeared.

Neuro's chest heaved with deep breaths as he looked around. There was no way the criminal could have snuck past him. He would have felt the miasma as Gray went by. But the criminal didn't seem to have gone past this point, either. The wisps of smoke stopped here, and even those were already fading. Gray had simply vanished.

But the walls here looked familiar to Neuro. He recognized the gold-paint lining, the colors of the stone beginning to fade from a deep blue to pitch black. They must currently be near the Sealed Sanctum.

The hallway stretched out to either side, empty and bare of answers. In the middle of this wasteland, Neuro smirked.

"I recall something else," he said. "Since somebody once mentioned the subject of architecture, I went to the trouble of looking up this building's blueprints." Neuro flexed his right hand as if he could still feel the wires of Evil Script attached to it. That data-mining certainly hadn't been easy.

"There was a lot of blank space on the map right around here," Neuro said, placing one hand on the wall in front of him. "Which leads one to wonder... If a person were to make a room after the original construction plans had been completed, they could use it for anything. And being so close to the Sealed Sanctum, a place of absolute secrecy, it is doubtful that it would ever be found."

Neuro knocked on the wall, moving up and down, left and right. Suddenly, one spot gave off a sound that seemed more hollow than the others.

Neuro stifled a smirk. He cocked his head in mock innocence. "No doors? Well then, I'll just have to make one."

A green aura collected around Neuro's left arm. The flesh looped and crawled, reshaping into an oblong form that was colored a deep, lustrous purple.

Sharp blades circled on a chain around its length. On the side was printed a black hand, as if mocking the replacement of Neuro's own. At the front of the Tool was a small creature that looked like a mouse. It would have been cute, except that it had only a single eyeball for a face. The creature ran in place frantically, turning the hamster wheel it stood in and spurring the chainsaw to life.

Neuro grinned. 777 Tools of the Demon World—Evil Chainsaw. The classic approach. Worked every time.

Lucard came around the corner just in time to see Neuro carve into the building's wall.

Chapter Text

Lucard flinched at the attack on the Order Branch. But he had just enough brains in his head to realize that the detective must be operating according to some sort of plan.

The air filled with an incessant growling noise as Neuro's Chainsaw arm sunk its teeth into the wall. Chunks of black stone were sent hurtling through the air. Off to the side, Lucard covered his eyes with both hands and stifled a whine.

Soon Neuro cut through. The roar of Evil Chainsaw faded to a low rumble without any more resistance. A cloud of dust and pulverized stone crumbled to the floor and collected around the detective's feet. Neuro stood in the polygonal opening as the dim light slowly shone in.

Inside there were demons in the process of packing up the biggest wiretapping and eavesdropping den Neuro had ever seen.

Wires covered the walls, attached to every inch of surface and even tied together into bundles. They flowed into the centeral computer like veins carrying information to a heart.

Headphones were strewn everywhere. Computer screens and monitors blinked from different positions. Special padding lined each desk and crack, likely meant to function as some kind of insulation against the energy signatures of the electronics. Otherwise, Neuro imagined, they would all have been found much sooner.

There were about a dozen demons in the room overall, all frozen in shock and staring at Neuro as if the detective had just pressed 'pause' on their section of the universe. Gray was among those faces, his finger raised as if he had been shouting orders. He trembled with either rage or dread.

"A spy ring, huh?" said Neuro. "That must be some sophisticated technology for us not to have noticed it." A bewildered expression passed over his face. "Where did you get all that from?"

There was no answer. In the back of the crowd, a few weapons and claws slowly began to rise.

"Oh well. I suppose it is a mystery for another day."

Everything happened at once. The demons nearest Neuro rushed forward. They were all on the ground within seconds. Some demons in the back took aim with their weapons. Other demons snatched up equipment and tried to flee, the majority of them turning into a gaseous state.

Neuro snapped his fingers.

BOOM. The main computer hub exploded. Smoke and noise filled the enclosed space. Confusion spread from person to person like wildfire. The shockwave had disrupted the transformations of those who were trying to escape, and rendered them solid again.

Cough, cough. Gray coughed into an elbow. It seemed that his lungs could turn into smoke but they sure as Hell didn't like being filled with it. How ironic. When he looked up, a brightly-feathered demon appeared beside him.

Neuro shot out one hand and grabbed Gray's head in a vice-like grip. "Pleasure doing business with you," he said.

Gray kicked out with all four legs. When the spikes on his knees hit nothing, he whipped his head around to try to bite Neuro. The demon's wrist rotated with the movement. Gray missed.

"Prick!" Gray hissed. "You think I wanted to serve you? One of the elites, born with power? No. Never! Chaos—the natural order of things is better. At least that way you all stand some chance of being burned too. "

"Is that so?" Neuro raised an eyebrow. "Well, then…"

As Neuro finished speaking, a device appeared out of thin air. Held in the glowing green space above Neuro's right palm, it resembled a small figure made of wax and attached to a central rod.

Then the figure solidified. It became furred, resembling a bat with a perpetually-frozen grin on its face. The bat-like being grew a tail and four winged appendages, three of which it positioned over the rod as if caressing a cello. Its eyes were sewn shut. The symbol of a bass cleff music note was on its chest.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Stringer," Neuro announced. "This is a very special Tool. I would compare it to a parasite. You see, it cannot act by itself. It requires…a willing audience member."

The bat perched on top of Gray's head, eliciting a whimper from the demon. It positioned the needle from the end of its rod over its host. Then it dug the tip into the demons' scalp.

Neuro grinned. "I'm sure the two of you will be good partners. In fact, the Tool tells me that it 'pledges its services' to you in this endeavor. What do you think?"

White fibers began to climb up from the hole made in Gray's head. They wrapped themselves around the drill of the Tool, climbing up and up and stringing themselves vertically along the rod until it looked like the neck of a violin. Gray's eyes rolled back in his head, stretched as if he was desperate to see what was going on.

"Assistants can be so annoying, can't that?" Neuro said. "Making so much noise. My sympathies."

With another snap of his fingers, more Evil Stringers appeared. Their drills jabbed into the crowns of every other demon's heads.

The bats began all at once.

They slashed and shredded at the nerves with their sharp-edged wings, forcing the vibrations directly into their captive's brain as a sound only they would hear. It was a song containing the utmost agony that their body was capable of.

The demons screamed from deep down in their throats. Even for Hell's residents, the pain was unimaginable. Everything that wasn't paralyzed with suffering directed itself into screaming, howling the lungs raw, tossing their heads back in agony.

They could feel their nerves twisted, called up from deep within, the strands pulling and twanging tightly against the hole in their scalp. Each and every slash was delivered directly to their nervous system with a jab like a serrated knife. They all kicked and convulsed against the floor, their heads held upright only by the trunk of nerves pulled through their skull. The Stringer bats played as if driven by a mad conductor, slicing faster and faster while the shrieks of their victims added a demented chorus to the cacophony of agony.

"What a lovely symphony." Neuro swayed on his feet, humming to the underlying rhythm.

He smiled. A large amount of energy had begun to overflow. It surrounded his victims, wrapping around their writhing limbs. It was multicolored and strange, pulsing with the light of patterns and puzzles.

Neuro opened his beak. Let's eat.


After he had finished, Neuro stuck an arm outside and motioned for Lucard to come into the room. The wolf demon growled at the sight of so many demons on the floor, most of them moaning as if they couldn't tell that the torture was over.

Lucard busied himself with handcuffs and called over the phone for somebody to come and assist with the arrest—an order that would be most certainly granted, given their location.

Neuro took out his own phone device. From memory, he dialed the number for Asanteoh.

He brought the phone to his ear. The tone rang twice before someone answered.

"It's done," Neuro said, wiping the last of the drool from his chin.

Neuro wasn't sure, but he thought he heard a rumble of satisfaction from the other end of the line.


The tabloids did have a field day with the new scandal, as Gray had predicted. But this time the Order Branch was in control. No information was released beyond what they wanted people to hear. Within one week, the stories of a spy ring being purged from OB headquarters were beginning to fade. Soon the papers would be silent once more.

"But it still doesn't explain who hired them," Neuro said, flipping down the top of the newspaper he was reading. He closed the pages, folded it up, and tossed it into the gigantic trash bin resting in the Executive office. "And dead lips rest tight."

"Hm." Asanteoh nodded in confirmation. "So you know they all killed themselves once in custody."

"The Punishment division has been rather quiet in recent meetings," Neuro said blithely. "And their members have been doing the most stress-eating in the lunch room. I'd imagine that they're disappointed by something. The loss of twelve torture-ready criminals would seem a likely conclusion."

Neuro frowned. "Still, to think that they would all be equipped with hidden poison… That wasn't your ordinary spy ring. There is a chance they were part of something much greater."

"We do not have all the information we would like," said Asanteoh. The lion demon clasped his hand-paws together on top of his desk. "However, the primary objective has been secured. As we speak, the Order Branch is undergoing a low-profile purge, eradicating all other demons that are even slightly suspected of being connected with this incident."

Neuro shrugged to signal he had no opinion. Office genocide. Routine procedure.

"But it does look like things will be wrapped up smoothly," Asanteoh said. "Our little operation removed the tumor, and now the skin seems set to heal. Outside observers shouldn't even notice the scar."

"And that's all thanks to you. Good work, detective."

"Hm?" Neuro was drawn out of his daydreams. Was the King actually thanking him?

When he refocused, Asanteoh was leaning over his desk and filling in one out of many official-looking forms. "You have completed your assigned task. I expect a similar level of performance from you on the next case."

Neuro gave a wry smile. "Hmph. If you always set your standards for me by the previous case, I fear you may be disappointed, 'King'."

The lion demon shook his head. "I doubt I'll live to see that day. Back to work, Braineater."

Chapter Text

It was a dry afternoon in the city of Guul.

Not a single breeze brushed past Neuro as the demon walked. The street around him was bare, made of dust so well-trampled that only the barest of motes skittered around his clawed feet. The buildings on each side were dirty, cramped, and vacant—and would likely stay that way until their occupants returned after work-hours.

With the confident strides of a businessman on his way to an important meeting, Neuro slowly wandered closer and close to the side. Then, in a flash, he turned into an alley on his left.

Neuro stood for a moment in the narrow corridor, feeling the shadows slowly draining the warmth of the Sun from him. On either side were two stone walls barely three cat's-lengths apart.

The skin wrinkled around his beak. Devil, this place was disgusting. Refuse and remains of things both inorganic and recently-alive piled up at the other end of the corridor, forming a grimy blockage. None of it was contained within trash bags. There were no such amenities in Hell. The ground turned a dingy gray beneath Neuro's feet, and became increasingly streaked with grime and putrid puddles further in. The walls were caked with spit, bodily fluids, and at one spot an impressive collection of chewing gum.

The smell was like a thousand sweaty socks stained with urine and then left mixed with a skunk's corpse in a washer for one week. So, thankfully not much worse than the outside streets. Neuro held his breath until he could get used to the rank environment by inhaling small amounts at a time. Clinging to stuffiness and noble appearance would only hold him back here.

"Finally."

The nearest pile of rubbish shifted. Zera Greenpus emerged from under it, newspapers sliding off of their cloak. The demon spat paper scraps out of their mouth, gobs of spit landing between bubbles of pus on their chin. Black lines ran across their body. There was a stalk eye in the middle of their forehead. "I was beginning to wonder if this was abandonment play from you. Again."

Neuro smiled at the sight.

Technically, Zera was supposed to be working in Neuro's office as an assistant. But it had been a little while since the two of them had met face to face.

After being "conscripted", Zera had managed to escape—or, rather, insist upon working out in the field as a scout. Neuro could contact them at any time, but for the most part they had managed to stay outside of the office-slash-torture chamber. It was the behavior Neuro would expect from a slug.

"Have you brought them?" Neuro asked.

Zera groaned at some recent memory. "Yes, as you requested. Sneezed out through my nose just two hours ago."

Zera gathered their cloak and turned to their left. They knocked on a wooden slat that had been placed against the wall like a one-sided lean-to.

A figure came out from the triangular opening. They dropped a newspaper casually behind them, as if trying to pretend that they hadn't just been reading the trashy sections.

"S'that it? You fellas sure got charming manners," the newcomer said with a snort.

Neuro observed the demon. They were not a bestial type, instead appearing rather humanoid. They had a small, pinched face and eyes that kept darting about like bats going after a bug. Big ears, heavily ridged on the inside and furred on the outside, protruded from their head. The demon stood small. They were hunched over with a messenger bag hanging off of one shoulder.

Zera stood and joined the two of them in a loose circle.

"This is our best option," Neuro explained. "Any building would run the risks of being bugged. These streets are far enough away from the inner-city crowd, but not so secluded that it would be suspicious for me to travel here."

"Right, right," the new demon said. They scratched at one ear. "Everything for your comfort. I still say that I could'a come met you closer, though." They smiled, showing off crooked teeth. "I might not look like much, but I guarantee my abilities are top-rate, sir. Or, close at least. It's as good as it gets."

"Enough," Neuro growled. "That's not what we're here to discuss. You have information that we want, according to my slave here." He nodded in Zera's direction. A flash of indignation passed over the slug demon's face.

The demon in front of Neuro opened their mouth to speak, but then appeared to think better of it. They smiled. "That depends."

Zera let out a strangled-sounding squeak. "Oh, come on! Don't do this to me, not in front of him." The slug demon pointed at the newcomer with one stubby finger. "This demon knows about the Order! They have information on it, I made sure, that's what they told me-"

"Quiet, Zera!" Neuro's snappish reminder brought silence to the alley.

The newcomer chuckled and held up their hands. "Hold on for your horses a second there, mister fancy feathers. As I recall, I was offered a deal. Information ain't-" They paused. "-is not cheap, you know. It's…a thing. A thing just as precious as gold or jewels to some.'

Their eyes glittered as they looked at the avianoid. "And you would know all about that, wouldn't you detective?"

Neuro grunted. "Hmph. Yes, a deal."

Neuro pulled out a vial from somewhere, his arm moving through the air in one smooth gesture. He held the container up to the light of the dreary alley.

The bottle balancing between his two talons was about as long as the average middle finger. It was cylindrical in shape, consisting of a slightly wider portion that tapered in, then out, and then ended with a crystal stopper. The entire flask was transparent, with a mottled pattern showing in the glass. It was filled with a liquid of unidentifiable color and substance.

"777 Tools of the Demon World - Evil Ampule," Neuro announced. "The liquid contained within here will increase your cognitive function and ability by twofold. For one of your ilk, looking to move up in the world's natural pecking order, I expect it would be acceptable. Surely this is what you want most."

Neuro held the bottle out a few inches from his face. "I can give you a single draught from it. I offer you wisdom."

The demon licked their lips. Their beady eyes focused on the potion. "Now that's what I'm talking about. You really know how to do a deal, sir—uh, strike a deal."

They scooted up a broken crate from the side of the alley and sat on it. "Well, then," they grinned. "Let's get started."

Neuro wasted no time in taking the lead. "The Natural Order exists," he said.

The demon broke out into giggles. "You talkin' about a phrase or the organization? They're funny like that, see. It's both a sentence and a name at the same time…"

They trailed off when they noticed the shift in Neuro's multiringed eyes. "Yes," they said. "An organization by that name exists."

"Where are they located?"

The informant gave Neuro a blank look. "Here. Everywhere. In Hell."

Neuro did not press. Instead he gave one slow nod, as if cataloging the information. "Is their number of subscribers known?"

Across from him, the other demon's brow furrowed. "Subscribers?" They said in a small voice. "Like…magazines?"

"Followers."

"Oh. Oh, their followers. Gotcha." The demon grinned. "I knew that. Uh, their number of subscriptures is currently unknown. I could hazard a guess though," they offered. "Maybe…thousands? Tens of thousands?"

"Don't bother," said Neuro, apparently deciding that this demon's mind was unfit to give any trustworthy estimate.

"So, no headquarters," Neuro said. "How stimulating. We can infer that it is quite the extensive operation, then." He frowned. "That will make it harder to exterminate them. This 'Order' is like a colony of woodgrubs, hidden deep beneath the polished surface and slowly munching in their holes, weakening the structure from within."

"Woah, woah. You want to kill them?" Their informant snorted. "You cannot kill the Natural Order. It has no leader. It's a movement. One with a message that many might agree with."

Neuro leaned forward. "And that message its?

The demon grinned. "Here's what I heard—"

They leaned in too, adjusting their shoulder strap so that the messenger bag rode by their knee.

"It's just what the name says, see. They focus on its members claim to be the 'natural order' of this world." The informant pointed at them with one finger. "Demons are violent, right? We're petty. We're monstrous. We're crude, and live only to satisfy the pull of our base desires. The personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins themselves are archdemons, after all."

"It's what separates us from things like angels, or even humans," they continued. "In our society we kill, ruin, torture, gorge ourselves, and revel in pain and suffering. That's our norm." They gave a razor-toothed grin. "And by the Devil, we love it."

Their mud-puddle eyes fixed on Neuro. "Life ain't- isn't fair, detective. Some are born strong, and some are born weak. There's nothing anyone can do about that. According to the Natural Order, demons should run wild."

"…Fufu. Fascinating." Neuro grinned. "And just what do they think demons are doing now?"

"Not being wild enough," the informant snapped. Then they caught themselves and seemed to calm down, giving a shrug. "I've heard things like, 'demons should embrace every bit of their natures', and 'down with order'. Stuff like that. It's begun to catch on."

"Let me put it this way," they said. "Our instincts are what make us us. Why should we fight against them? Even the small semblances of management or structure, even the Disciplinary Action Committee, even you sir, could be seen as going against that Natural Order."

A hush fell inside the alleyway. Even the air seemed to listen, hanging dully in the enclosed space.

"I see," Neuro said. He gave two nods as if to store all the information away somewhere. "So it is much more than a mere common phrase. I was right."

A thought seemed to occur to him. "What about their officers?"

The informant demon shrugged. "They have none."

"That can't be true," Neuro retorted. "They are too neat. They are too organized, too careful. There is no way that a movement run entirely by mob rule would be so self-correcting."

"It is possible that they have certain demons in positions of power within their ranks." A small fire glowed within Neuro's green eyes. "I've fought one of them myself: a blue goblin with rings weighing heavy on his fingers. Have you heard of anyone by that description?'

The informant's eyes flicked to the side for a second. "No, I-I was not aware," they blustered.

Neuro scowled. "Damn, you suck."

The other demon's eyes flew wide. "W-what?"

Neuro brought a hand to his forehead and groaned. "What kind of informant are you, if you don't even know such a simple thing as enemy officers? Honestly, I'm beginning to doubt that the Ampule would have any effect. Oh well."

"I…w-w-wait!" The demon lunged forward, grabbing at Neuro's chest feathers as if they could feel their chance to get their reward slipping away.

"Now that you mention it, I have heard!" They said as Neuro slapped their hands away. "I have heard something about that…"

They took a breath. "There is one person that could be. His name is said to be Synap S. Gobgem—only, he's not called that anymore."

"Just a few years ago, there was a prison break." the demon said beneath Neuro and Zera's gazes. "It wasn't that long ago—barely more than three centuries. According to what I've heard, Synap had apparently been in a top-level prison cell, and suffered there for about five hundred years. Then he suddenly escaped."

A gear snagged in Neuro's brain. "Escaped? Surely he had some helpers."

The informant furiously shook their head. "Nobody else left along with Synap, sir. He got out all by himself."

Neuro held back a frown. No. That's highly unlikely. Hell's prisons were not kind. Most of them they were pits, sunk thousands of miles down into the earth, or lined with sharp spears and scorched by Hell's elements. Many prisons were specially designed for their intended occupants. All of them were virtually inescapable. Exiting was not the point; it wasn't even supposed to be possible.

Someone must have let Synap out, thought Neuro. But who-

"As for his abilities, well…" The informant scratched at one ear. "I guess that's part of why I said you could never kill the Natural Order."

Neuro raised an eyebrow. "Explain."

"I'm getting to that." The demon's voice became hushed. "Get this—rumor is that Synap has the ability to use any kind of demonic power. Any at all. Anything that any demon of any make and any type could possibly do, they say that Synap has access to it."

Zera let out a muffled noise at the prospect. Neuro eyed the informant as if looking at a tasty piece of prey. He steepled his talons together. "Sounds like an exaggerated rumor to me."

A cache of unlimited abilities, usable for all events and purposes? Neuro knew of only one thing like that: his own 777 Tools of the Demon World. And there was only one demon in all of Hell who had permission to use those.

The informant pointed at him again and snapped their fingers. "Yeah! That's right, you see, it does, which is why I was so surprised you mentioned the rings."

They stared openly at Neuro and Zera, as if their wide eyes could elicit some sort of understanding in the other two. "The rings! That's the whole point. That's how he does it, they say. Each time that Synap defeats a demon, he gains another ring along with the victim's ability. By defeating others, Synap gains more and more strength. They say he can fly without originally having wings. He can wield lightning and frost at the same time."

The demon's speech faltered a bit, and their face took on a sheepish expression. "Or, heh, he just adds a ring per demon that he defeats as a trophy. Or his natural ability is actually the ability to mimic the last opponent he fought. It's all, uh, mostly hearsay."

"Anyway, because of that, they began to call him 'Allpower'," the informant said. "If you were to rank him, he'd probably clock in as a virtual five-star all-around." They shuddered. "I don't know about you boys, but that's terrifying."

Neuro remained in his thoughtful pose. He didn't appear to have moved a single muscle. Thoughts danced just beyond his irises. "I see. Synap 'Allpower', was it..."

Zera kept shooting nervous glances between Neuro and the informant demon, as if silently begging to be told that Neuro was not going to go after that guy.

The other demon nodded at the two of them. "Dunno how many rings he has now, though," they said with a shrug.

A lot, Neuro remembered. An image flashed in his mind: thin fingers loaded with two to three gemstones each, hands folded over a staff, and a pinched, angular face peering out from the shadows.

"It could all just be rumor, but you asked and I delivered." The informant slapped his knee as if to declare the conversation over. "What d'you think? Am I a competent snitch now?" he huffed.

Neuro tapped a talon against his cheek. "One last question."

"Shoot."

"It's always worth asking…how do you know this information?"

The demon froze. Their eyes stayed on Neuro's face before flicking off to the sides again. They reached up to pull on one ear, folding it down over their face like a tent door.

After a while, the demon looked back up and spoke. "I know things, detective," they said with the smallest of smiles. They pointed to their large ears. "I hear and I remember and I tell, no matter who it's from. That's my talent. Same as you've got yours."

"…"

Neuro's eyes narrowed. Not the clearest of explanations, but it had been delivered without any blustering on their end.

"Alright," Neuro said, with a little grumble in his tone. "We'll let it go." The case with the Natural Order had obviously grown far beyond the early stages now, but still, this information better than none at all.

The demon looked proud of themself. "Anything else I can do to prove my worth to you?"

"No," said Neuro. "If that's really all you've got, then this is now over."

The mouse demon's face lit up. "Then, the vial-"

"Ampule," Neuro corrected. He stood from his crouch and looked around the alley, as if coming back to the sights and smells of life. "Oh, yes. We shall make…arrangements."


"Why are we here again?" asked Zera. They sat in the guest chair in Neuro's office, sitting rigidly as if their slightest movement could set off a booby trap. Judging by the complicated wire-and-acid-bucket system that was hanging from the ceiling above them, they were probably right. A rack of darts peppered the scarf around their neck, remnants of a previous "prank".

"We're waiting for our cooperator to show up," said Neuro from behind his desk.

"You mean you think they'll actually-" Zera clapped a hand over their mouth before they said something that would get them an acid shower.

"Yes. You saw what happened. I predicted that if our demon was dumb enough to believe I would give the Ampule to them, then they would be dumb enough to walk right into the OB itself."

Neuro shoved an entire stack of paperwork into the boiling cauldron next to his desk. "Once that old snitch shows up, we'll arrest them."

As it turned out, their demon never arrived.

Neuro received the police report two days later. A messenger-bag-carrying, furry-eared demon had been found dead. They had apparently been killed on their way through the city. According to the report, they had been eviscerated. All of their internal organs had vanished. The word 'CHAOS' was written in large letters all over the scene in their blood.

The next afternoon, Neuro received a screeching phone call. The missing organs had been found—in a package delivered straight to the head HDAC office. Nobody cared much who the gutted demon had been, of course, but the OB did receive a lot of flack about it. For one whole day afterward, Asanteoh's left ear twitched at every phone call.


Neuro put the report of the 'CHAOS' crime scene down. He stared at the ceiling in silence.

In the corner, Zera looked up from scrubbing the floor. Brushes were strapped to both their knees, arms, elbows, forehead and face, and they had been ordered to use all of them. "Neuro?" They called. "Are you…what are you thinking about?"

Neuro did not reply. Then, realization dawned on his face and he turned to look at the slug demon.

"Hm? Oh, I was just picturing my next mystery. I have a feeling they will now start to come at a slightly increased rate."

Zera removed a hand from one brush and lightly flexed it, trying to work some life back into the digits. "Oh. That's…good. For a minute I thought… Nevermind."

"There's your error then. You don't think."

Neuro's lip curled. He looked as if he had stumbled across a gigantic cockroach cleaning his floors instead of a vaguely sluglike monster. "Do not worry for me, Zera. It's disgusting. And a pitiful habit for a demon."

Zera winced and ducked their head. They went back to scrubbing.

Neuro's eyes wandered back over to the reports. He picked them up, dangling the papers off his talons. "Knowing what we know now, I'm actually...excited, really."

"Excited?" Zera said. They turned to Neuro. "I knew it. You are happy. That's never a good sign."

"Why, though?" They said in a hiss-whisper. "After everything that we heard? What about the Natural Order?"

"I have no quarrel with the Natural Order, or any criminal organizations," said Neuro. His voice was as smooth as molasses. "In fact, quite the opposite."

He sat back in his chair and rested his hands in his lap. "In the end, all they are doing is making me mysteries. The stalking episodes, Tympaxi Gray…I believe that behavior can be linked to this 'movement'." His eyes glittered. "As long as they continue to produce food, I have no objection to them."

"In fact, they could even be considered my waiters," Neuro smiled. He hummed happily and brought out a rag, beginning to clean one of his many torture weapons.

Zera stared for a moment, their expression deeply perturbed, until survival instincts kicked in and they returned to scrubbing.

Chapter Text

All flyers on deck…

The announcement rang above the heads of hundreds of demons rushing back and forth.

Repeat, all flight-capable hands on deck…

Feet skittered, legs motored, and armor was hefted all across the pale red surface. Antennas and wings of every kind poked out indiscriminately. Grunts and shrieks melded into raw noise while limbs, insectoid or bestial, smacked into each other. The bulletin's words could barely be heard above the din.

All avian units report to the airstrip… Immediate takeoff… Target is Lightning Alley, repeat, Lightning Alley…

Through the multicolored blur, one wolf demon carved a thin path. He growled and forced his way through the jam-packed mess. A demon that looked like an overgrown fruitfly with needles for hair charged through right in front of him, forcing the lupinoid to pull back. Then a penguinoid demon wearing a helicopter-hat pressed painfully against his side. Eventually the demon found a way past, not even noticing how close they had been to their Commander. Some demons started up their engines or wings in the middle of the strip, too excited to care for what little semblance of order existed in Hell.

"Get to the launchpads!" Lucard Throatbane bellowed at the offenders, struggling to force his way through and defended himself from rabid members of the crowd. He cursed up a storm whenever he could spare a breath. "Devil take it," he spat, "It's that same blasted place again…"

Suddenly he caught sight of a figure. Through a momentary gap in the horde came a flash of a demon's lean frame covered in brightly-colored feathers—shades of blue, white, and purple. An avianoid was standing smack in the middle of the tarmac. His beak was pointed up to the sky, and he stared past it at first flyers that had lifted off. His expression was unreadable.

A noise of surprise rumbled through Lucard's chest. "Hey!" He shoved his way forward, pushing a few other avianoids out of the way. Soon he reached the demon's side. "Birdbrain!"

Neuro didn't even appear to notice him until two seconds had passed. "Oh," he said, turning his head ever so slightly in Lucard's direction. "It's you."

"That's 'Commander' to you, detective." The lupinoid held back a cough. Feathers and dust and filaments from wings were whipping all around them, blown by currents. The air began to vibrate intensely as more demons took off. Lucard raised an arm to cover his face. "You might no longer be a rookie, but you must respect your superiors."

Neuro made no reply.

"What are you doing here?" Lucard cast a glance around at the airstrip. "Didn't know that you were considered one of the flycorps."

A demon that looked like a multiheaded owl took off to their right. Lucard winced and braced himself against the resulting gust of air. "Big response, isn't it?" he said afterwards, turning his face to sky to watch the show. "Those damned Valkyries have been fighting again. I guess someone decided to bring a big force to shut them up for good."

Unspoken, another thought existed in his mind: The OB was still nervous after the whole 'spy ring' event. Bringing this large a group of demons was unusual, but it made for a good show of strength. The sheer peer pressure alone would inspire members to stay in line. It was a small detail, but Lucard noticed. He fought to keep his ears straight.

A flicker passed through Neuro's green eyes. "The Valkyries…I see. Lightning Alley, was it?" His gaze followed the airborne demons, who had now collected into a messy formation and were disappearing into the distance. Neuro dragged one hand across the corner of his mouth.

"Oh come on," Lucard groaned, noticing the movement. "You've got the scent of another one? The flycorps already left. You missed it, hotshot."

Neuro did not reply, his gaze turned up into the scarred vastness that was Hell's sky. Dark clouds melded together in a mass of red and black. Occasionally a ribbon of light, flashing with faint patterns, ripped across its expanse—the 'scratches' said to lead to another universe.

"Do you remember the question you asked me?" said Neuro.

"What?"

"When I came into Leonfang's office for the first time, you asked me a question. Do you recall what it was?"

"You asked me, 'can I even fly'?" Neuro said without waiting for a reply. He looked down at his arms. Then he spread them out to the side. They were thin, with most of the build coming only from his poofy feathers. Each limb looked more like a sleeve than a wing.

A chill ran through Lucard. The fur rose on the back of his neck. "Neuro," he growled. "You are not on this assignment. This is for the aerial units only."

Neuro turned to him with a look of wide-eyed innocence on his face. It was so convincing that for a moment Lucard forgot to be suspicious. "But I am on this assignment. Didn't you hear the announcement?"

Lucard cocked his head to the side. His brow furrowed in confusion.

Neuro grinned. "I can fly."

There was a reverse explosion around him. No—an implosion. The noise was like a compromise between a sigh and the sound of reality ripping apart. Then, out of the shimmering mirage lights and dull impact of atoms, came an impossible object.

It was so convoluted that it was hard to describe in earthly terms. First came the corona, blinding white and forming almost a full circle around Neuro. The main body of whatever-it-was looked almost like a bug, with a bulging midsection and tapering back end. The forefront resembled the head of a fly, with two hexagonal-patterned "eyes", and twin paper-thin, curved horns. Two oblong sections jutted down, one from each side of the Tool. Their surface was aerodynamically smooth.

On the top left and right shoulders were what appeared to be a skeleton—at least, the skull and ribcage of one—that had been separated down the middle vertically. One large wing was attached to each of the skulls, smooth and segmented like a seraphim's. A striped pattern ran across most of the instrument, covering every part of it that was not bone-white.

Neuro's own arms attached to strands resting in two holes through the main-body halo. The strings were as wiry and thick as tendons. He smiled, the action lost within the crowded conundrum of the instrument. With his feathered body, ridged horns, and the large device behind him, he appeared as a demonic Hindu god.

Neuro took off, blasting irreverently away from the middle of the airstrip and forcing many other demons to the ground with the resulting shockwave.

One silver-and-black wolf demon was left behind, watching with an open mouth as Neuro's jet trail faded. "That guy," Lucard said once he remembered to breathe. "…has absolutely no respect."


A strange shape streaked through the skies.

It looked like a comet, rounded in front and shoving vast quantities of air asidewith each second. It was traveling at near the speed of light, but judging by its ease, was capable of going even faster. The object was wrapped in a veil of white, the result of air particles being shoved aside with such force that they could not help but flush in indignation.

Neuro himself was elated. The machine shot through clouds like a rocket, its many wings acting to guide and steer their path. The white halo section protected Neuro from the force of the winds while allowing him a clear view. But he didn't care much about the details.

He was flying.

His head was a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts. This felt…transcendent. It felt like something deep within his spirit had been fulfilled. The wind lashed his blonde hair. The taste was a cold friction inside his beak. The chill brought an ache to his horns. His heart pounded wildly, synchronizing with the thrum of the engines.

It had always been Neuro's dream to fly. Not as anything like a pathetic, childishly-held wish, but merely an acknowledgement—an acknowledgement of a fact forced onto him by his physiology. He was unable to naturally fly.

Incredible! These Tools really did have everything he needed. Neuro spread out his talons to catch the breeze. Wind ran between them like flesh being sliced by a predator's claws.

He was beginning to feel the drain, though. A faint heaviness settled somewhere in his bones. He clenched a fist and it felt more like muscle than miasma. Neuro's breathing came just a little rougher, and it wasn't due merely to the thin atmosphere.

So this does cost a significant amount of energy to summon, Neuro thought. As I thought. He shook the tiredness from his shoulders I'll need to be careful…

Neuro chuckled. Perhaps he had been a bit hasty in summoning Evil Flyer, one of the seven ultimate-level Tools afforded to him. They weren't even Tools, technically, but Weapons—the 7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor, on loan from Lucifer himself. But Neuro's pride as an avian had been at stake. And, it did at least pose an interesting challenge.

Before long, Lightning Alley came into view.

First a dark shape appeared on the horizon. With each passing second, the mass grew larger and larger. Soon Neuro was gazing upon a thunderhead of thick, towering clouds. The mass loomed over existence, commanding the attention of both sky and earth. It was black, black as pitch down to its heart. The only lighter shades—in corpse-gray—came at the edges. The thunderhead roiled constantly, turning back in on itself while expanding at the fringes. Around it, the air shrieked as if it were being tortured.

The land below was a desert too bare for even bones. The shadow of the storm covered it in eternal darkness. Mountains stood to either side, trapping the tempest within a naturally-made bowl.

Threads of electricity pulsed throughout the body of the thunderhead. Lightning flashed red as blood. A bolt the size of a skyscraper slashed down through the clouds and struck the ground, lighting it up momentarily with threads like veins.

As Neuro grew closer, he began to feel the turbulence. Strong currents pulled him towards the tempest like a riptide would claw at a swimmer. Other air currents blasted outwards, desperate to escape. The two forces were not mutually exclusive—one moment Neuro would rev the engines to break through a wall of air, and immediately afterwards need to call upon the breaks to avoid losing all control to mindless speed. The wings spreading out from his skull-like shoulder guards adjusted themselves and shuddered, struggling to keep Evil Flyer upright. But the Weapon held firm.

Neuro tucked in his head and guided Evil Flyer forward. He circled for a bit, riding the air streams around the thunderhead like a satellite orbiting a massive planet. The violent forces rocked him back and forth before he finally found a current.

Neuro took a breath. There was no oxygen to be had, but he did it nonetheless. Evil Flyer revved behind him to force them into the current. Neuro rode the stream, slipping inside of a fold between two clouds.

He was in.


It took Neuro only a few minutes to find the others.

The squad from the HDAC was hovering just a scant hundred miles into the storm, with the entire force of the flycorps spread out behind the leading officers. All kinds of demons were present, from buzzing insectoids to feathered avians and even five-star-level levitaters. Showoffs.

Neuro had seen the flycorps demons as he approached, of course. Evil Flyer could have caught Neuro up to them in a fraction of a microsecond. But still, Neuro had elected to hang back. Sometimes it could be an advantage to be considered out for the count.

Neuro ducked behind a cloud. He stuck his forehead out of the mist, trying to find the precise angle that would expose his eyes but hide his horns and massive beak. Behind him the Weapon stirred the air, slowly drawing more of the dark mist around them. Getting himself to the scene was easy. Keeping Evil Flyer hidden was…more of a challenge.

Two demons were hovering out in front of the HDAC group. One of them held up a gigantic megaphone while the other shouted through it. The holder looked like little more than a head, with four of its six arms furiously waving pieces of paper up and down in order to keep aloft. The negotiator, meanwhile, appeared to be an owl with subwoofers for eyes.

"THIS IS AN ORDER FROM THE…HELL'S DISCIPLINARY ACTION…COMMITTEE," the owl demon shouted. She had to pause and take a few breaths due to the thin atmosphere. "DE-ESCALATE. REPEAT. DE-ESCALATE…ALL CONFLICT."

"You must be joking!"

Two demonesses were hovering just a small distance in front of the HDAC troops.

One of them was stout, and broad in the shoulders. Her skin was dark. She wore thick, plated armor and a helmet with a spike on the top. A scowl was carved into her face. Her eyes flashed as she glared daggers at the person across from her.

The other demoness was leaner, and lighter-skinned. Her hair was the color of rust. Multiple daggers were strung around her hips. Her wings were jagged and four-fold like a dragonfly's, while her opponent had wings with a shell like a beetle's. Neither of them broke the stare.

It was the red-haired one that had spoken. "There's no way I can calm down after what they've done!" Her lip was curled so strongly that her left canine tooth was on full display.

"Hmph." The other demoness crossed her arms over her chest. "After what we've done? You've got some nerve to deny this crime, Vnip. You and all your lightning-born sisters."

"Shut up!" Vnip hissed, a bolt of electricity arcing behind her. "It makes me sick just talking to vermin like you."

"Trash should not dare to call names," the armored demoness said. "Save those words for your own ranks."

"Oh yeah? How would you explain what happened, Hraoh?" Vnip scoffed. "Perhaps the mighty winds blew it away? Straight into Thunder-born hands?"

Hraoh surged forward. "I told you. We don't have it." Her voice boomed off of every syllable, using each consonant to create a miniature sound wave. "You mangy, lying junebug."

Vnip's eyes flashed. "Liar. It is your side that has the Orb. I know it. This is in flagrant disregard of our treaty-"

"The treaty? You never respected the treaty." Hraoh's fists shook. "And now you accuse us of deceit? Cease this charade and hand the Orb of Storm over to us. Your little game grows tiresome."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Vnip retorted. "The only one playing games here is you."

Hraoh sneered. "Typical daughter of Lightning. Always so self-centered, so blind. You think that everything belongs to you."

"Daughters of Thunder," Vnip returned the jab. "So brutal, so arrogant, yet always hiding behind their shields in battle like cowards. You would do anything for strength, even if you needed to steal it."

Their regiments grew restless behind them. One thousand demons in dark armor hovered to the left, while one thousand more with bright daggers floated to the right. Roughly equal numbers of women and men were in the crowd, all of them with weapons in hand, scowls on their faces, and insults on their lips. Whenever one of the leaders spoke, her half of the mob would cheer.

"You think you have the right?" Vnip continued. "My kind are the proud warriors of Lightning Alley. This land belongs to us!"

"But it is Thunder Valley," said Hraoh. "Considering that, we are the chosen inhabitants of this place!"

"Dung beetle."

"Pixie."

"Rumbleguts!"

"Sparkbreath!"

"STAND DOWN."

"Buzz off!" they both said at the same time. Then the two leaders' gazes snapped up from the negotiator and back to each other.

"So you would dare to steal my words, as well?"

"That's what I was gonna say, harpy!"

The HDAC demons fluttered. The owl-headed negotiator leaned in to the megaphone's mouthpiece again. "THIS CONFLICT HAS…REACHED GOLD LEVEL. YOU ARE ORDERED TO…STAND DOWN."

Hroah spat in the direction of the negotiator. "What does the HDAC want with us? Demons should not meddle in other demons' affairs."

There was a pause. "WE OPERATE UNDER…THE AUTHORITY OF ENFORCEMENT. BY…THE DECREE OF HIS DARK MAJESTY."

Howls came from both sides' regiments. None would dare to jeer at the mention of Lucifer, of course. But the knives and mallets jabbed forcefully upward into the sky were clearly done so with picturing the HDAC in mind.

Neuro resisted the urge to sigh, for fear it would blow away some of the cloud covering. He settled for a small shake of the head instead.

Of course it looked hypocritical that the HDAC was trying to avoid violence. According to demons, it made no sense. But "enforcement" was the job for which Satan had set up the organization, so that was the job the HDAC would do. Admittedly, it was a vaguely-defined task, but it was all demons had to prevent outright anarchy.

Some argued that Hell should be a place of absolute anarchy—that that was its definition. To that, Neuro always smiled. The expression on demons' faces was always delicious once he pointed out that, in an utterly anarchic state, would it not then be possible that the pieces could, by sheer chaotic coincidence, occasionally form a pattern of order?

Perhaps they lived in a state of true chaos after all.

"It's just a little scolding. Fools," Neuro said. His eyes swept over the hundreds of Valkyrian-race demons. He had heard of the constantly-warring factions that lived in Lightning Alley, but to his knowledge there had never been this large of a fight before. If the two groups were to clash now, it would surely endanger whoever or whatever was on the ground beneath. Practically all of the Lightning and Thunder demons in the skies had joined in.

"How could you do this, Hraoh?" The Lightning Valkyrie, Vnip, darted in closer. "The Orb of Storm has been claimed by both of our races for generations. It is the source from which all storm demons offsprung. You would dare defile that? Have you no shame?"

"I have done no such thing." Hraoh loomed over the other demoness. "The last I knew of it, the Orb was where it should be, on neutral ground in the Temple. None were supposed to approach. Even the guards kept their required distances—"

"But then we discovered it missing!" Vnip's fury lifted her higher in the air. "You rotten boombrains must have stolen it!"

Hraoh swept an arm out to the side. "You could have taken it yourself! What were you doing inside of the Temple before the crossover period, I ask? You could have stolen the Orb, and only pretended to discover the theft so that you could accuse us of it! I refuse to let you frame my people, Vnip."

Vnip scowled. "No, you took it. Somehow one of your kind let a thief in through the guards."

"Members from both our forces guard the Temple. They are side-by-side and scattered, remember? If someone slipped through, surely one of your women would have seen it."

"ENOUGH," came a tired-sounding voice. "THE…WARNING HAS BEEN…ISSUED."

The HDAC demons put down the megaphone, wrapping it up in its cord like a sling. Behind them, the flyers were struggling. Their wing-flaps were less rhythmic, and their levitators were hovering lower than they had been before. The galeforce winds were beginning to take their toll.

Neuro smirked. He was the only one with sophisticated enough equipment to survive here.

Slowly, the HDAC corps began to fall back. Neuro could practically see the disappointment in their shoulders: justa territorial squabble, oh well. How unexciting. The valkyries were right—there wasn't much the HDAC could do about mere accusations. They could only be the outline, the faint reminder of order.

"War is Hell", so the saying went. War was Hell.

The HDAC troops flew away, wobbling and sinking down out of sight. Neuro was the only one who did not withdraw.

The Valkyrie leaders waited until they left. Then the demonesses flew into each other's faces again, broad shoulder to pointed shoulder.

"This is not over," Hraoh said.

"That's our line," Vnip hissed. "The Orb of Storm does not belong to you. It is made of both our races' powers."

Hraoh spoke, intoning the words as if they were a sacred poem: "Passed down from the heart of the original storm, containing the essence of all tempests, and embodying the potential for power and chaos… And you would desire it for yourself? You make me sick."

"It is not your orb to take," she shouted. "Not now, not ever!"

"It's not yours either!" Vnip said. "And I told you, we don't have it!"

Hraoh's hands balled into fists at her side. Then they moved to grasp the handle of something out of sight. "So be it. You know what this means."

"Yes." Vnip met her gaze. Her eyes blazed with defiance. "War."

A subtle thrum passed through the waiting ranks of valkyries. Their shouts became less pointed, quieting as if they were now being saved for something greater. Excited whispers filled the air. Daggers were drawn and sharpened. Mallets beat impatiently against shields.

"Justice shall be won, then. At sunfall."

"Sunfall. Vengeance shall be dealt."

Vnip brought up her hands and tied her hair into a neat bun. "I always knew that you were two-faced, Hraoh. But I didn't realize how far you would go."

Hraoh lowered her helmet. "Your entire race will pay for your pride."

The two leaders turned and left, taking their Valkyries with them.

Neuro waited for a few more minutes. Then he drifted out of the cloud covering. A war? How exiting, he thought. Now where was that mystery?

He lifted his beak to the air and sniffed. All he could smell was miasma, and lots and lots of air. Still, Neuro looked out into the raging storm. He couldn't smell it, but he knew the mystery must be close.

Neuro took off. That Temple sounds like a good place to start.


The next two minutes were ones that Neuro almost regretted.

Almost.

Eventually he came careening out of a gigantic wall of wind, the air streams still buffeting and screaming past his ears. As he sailed out into the open, certain death finally retreated to a comfortable distance again. Evil Flyer creaked as it adjusted itself, jostling Neuro only the slightest bit.

Neuro scowled, brushing his blonde hair back into place behind his head. The Eyewall was always the worst, most violent part of any storm. It had been horrible. But for now, Neuro had found a reprieve.

The detective looked out into a balmy paradise. The sky was a rosy tint—a washed-out version of Hell's maroon expanse. The air smelled of ozone. The howling of the wind here sounded like a beast at bay, locked forever behind a firm wall of clouds.

In the exact middle of the Eye of the Storm was a floating platform. It was made from some sort of pale material, and supported a tan building. As Neuro got closer he could see that the structure was a dome shape, like some sort of hut. But its sides were elaborately carved. Jagged lightning-pattern designs wreathed the base while concentric circles graced the top.

The Temple, Neuro decided. He squared his shoulders and dove.

The doorway was frustratingly narrow. Neuro was forced to pause above the platform and set his feet down. Evil Flyer detached from his shoulders, obeying his command to go and hide. How quaint, thought Neuro. In order to enter the Temple, all members of their species must be humbled first. They must lower themselves to the ground when facing 'god'.

He slipped inside.

The Temple air was still, despite the furious tempest outside. That dichotomy alone created an unnerving atmosphere. It was all too quiet.

The inside of the Temple was dark. Patterns were carved into the walls here too, but the floor was smooth and bare. The only object in the room was a pedestal placed against the far wall.

Neuro rolled his tired shoulders. He set to work.

First he examined the walls. The lines of carvings passed beneath the tips of his talons. Then he investigated the floor—before he took any steps forward, of course. A number of regular-issue tools sprung from his transformable hands. In this way, Neuro proceeded through the space. Any observer would think he was some sort of crazed archeologist in his spare time.

At last Neuro reached the pedestal. It was empty. The pillar was black, square, and low to the ground. Its solid build seemed like it would not have shaken for even the strongest earthquake. Or a skyquake. Hell did have those.

"Hm." Neuro stared down at the vacant spot. In the dust, a faint circular shape could be seen. A fine layer of dirt covered the rest of the panel. A few streaks ran through the dust and reached off of Neuro's side of the slab, the lines straight as pins.

The back of Neuro's mind began to spark. He crouched down to bring himself eye-level with the pedestal. So, almost no dust had gathered in the space where the Orb once was. Only a few errant motes were covering the indent. That meant the Orb couldn't have been gone long.

Neuro thought. He estimated it had been…two days, three at the most. He frowned. Not good. That was more than enough time to sell it off. Or, alternatively, to pass it on to an employer. The Orb might be long gone by now.

A shame for the Valkyries. Neuro stood, smoothing down his feathers. He obviously didn't care.

He spared one last glace around the room, knowing already that there was nothing that he overlooked. Then Neuro turned to leave. His segmented tail flicked once as if wishing the room a curt goodbye.

When Neuro stepped outside, he found himself facing a crowd of spears.

He blinked. A group of Valkyries stared back. They did not look happy. Their uniforms marked them as Thunder-race and Lightining-race guards, for a moment standing as one. All of them were pointing a weapon at Neuro.

The Valkyries charged . Neuro's vision blurred. A green pulse shot up his spine, sparking off of the space between his horns. Something moved on the right.

He ducked and rolled. Behind him came a dozen cries, crushed painfully short. A rush of pleasure ran through Neuro at the sound.

He looked up. Evil Flyer had crashed into the Valkyries from the side, toppling them like dominoes. Together they were knocked off the platform, their grunts of surprise turning to panicked screams.

But how did they find me? No sooner had the thought come to Neuro's mind when he noticed something. Beneath his feet, the platform was turning red.

The color darkened and spread more with each second that passed. Neuro shot a glace towards the Temple entrance: sure enough, there were bright-red footprints marking his first steps onto the platform. The color combined with some sort of alarm must have alerted the Valkyries to his presence.

A clanking noise came from the side of the platform. With a groan, the first of the Valkyrian guards appeared over the edge, clutching her weapon in hand. Her cohorts rose from behind her, having remembered their wings.

Neuro bolted.

He ran to the edge of the platform and jumped, embracing oblivion. Down, down, down Neuro plummeted. Air sliced through each and every one of his feathers, its touch a brutal reminder that his arms were too useless to ever pretend to be wings. He closed his eyes.

The Valkyries stared as the stranger descended, growing smaller and smaller before disappearing into the clouds. The guards shuffled among themselves for one second, their footprints dying the platform an even darker red. Then a small squadron of them took off. It would be prudent to search for the intruder. If nothing else, the poor sap probably deserved it.


"That was a bit of a shock," Neuro said.

His shoulders stung. Being caught by Evil Flyer after falling nearly two thousand feet hadn't been easy on them. Perhaps an ice bath would be in store after solving this mystery.

He directed Evil Flyer to a darker and denser swath of clouds. First things first. He had been spotted. Regardless of whether they would be on the lookout for him now, he needed to disappear. And Neuro knew just how to do that.

Neuro hovered in the air, bracing himself and making a face. He had learned since summoning Evil Friday for the first time. But knowing it was coming was still unpleasant.

Tossing his head back, Neuro opened up his beak wide. From deep within his throat rose a kind of viscous liquid. It gushed out like a geyser, leaping into the air and falling back down to cover both Neuro and Evil Flyer. The color was purple, although it soon changed with a shimmer to become multihued. After the fountain of vomit had landed, both Neuro and his active Weapon were completely soaked.

Neuro resisted the urge to groan. "No problem," he said through a slightly-forced smile. "A person can get used to it."

Immediately after Neuro spoke, he noticed a change. The image of his hands was fading. His arms and body followed at the same pace. Soon Neuro's entire being appeared to him only as a transparent outline, as if he were some sort of ghost.

"Hmph." He gave a smile of satisfcation. "It was a bit of a pain summoning enough fluid to hide Evil Flyer, but... 777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Canceller."

This would give Neuro all the cover he needed. He had run multiple tests—the "invisibility fluid" of Evil Canceller was a very potent substance. The liquid emitted the exact opposite color of whatever it landed on, effectively canceling out the difference between the subject's visual frequency and their background, thus resulting in invisibility.

It wasn't like Evil Blind, which simply lowered a person's level of conspicuousness. Evil Blind would only cause people to talk and look past you as if you did not exist. It just made it easier to blend in. Strange actions could still draw others' attention, and thus ruin the illusion. But this Tool…this Tool offered true invisibility.

A chuckle came from Neuro's throat. "Well then," he said, lifting his eyes to the horizon. Evil Flyer, large as a private plane and yet completely unseen, flared out behind him.

"This investigation's not over yet."

Chapter Text

Though the light no longer reflected off of him, Neuro reflected on himself as he flew through the Valkyrian skies. So, after becoming a suspicious character he was now going to remove that suspicion by sneaking around suspiciously. Sounded like a plan.

The wind patterns made searching annoyingly difficult. It was tough to navigate with air streams buffeting one way and then changing, suddenly, to another direction. Neuro darted from part of one stream to part of another, effectively "hopping" around the area. Surrendering to any part of this storm was comparable to making a literal deal with the Devil. And Neuro had no plans to do that again any time soon.

He pulled himself out of a particularly forceful undercurrent. As Neuro floated to the side, he caught sight of where the blast had been heading. A huge mass of wind writhed violently in the sky—thick with clouds, sparking occasionally, and tucked so tightly together that it looked like a swirling knot.

Neuro wouldn't have paid much attention to it if it weren't for the two Lightning Valkyries.

Their expressions were confused, as far as Neuro could tell, and they hovered with crossed arms, staring at the vortex. That was unusual. Neuro himself might missed the knot in this huge, ever-present storm, but the Valkyries hadn't. And they were experts in this landscape. They would know if something was wrong.

Neuro turned Evil Flyer around and drifted back towards the two demonesses. He hovered to their left, not even bothering to hide. Being invisible had its perks.

"That's not right, is it?" said one of the Valkyries. "I've never seen something like this."

The other shook her head. "Me neither."

"It must be a sign. A sign of our world being disrupted," said the first. Her voice began to flush with fear and excitement. "Those Damned Thunder-born… The Orb must be returned as soon as possible."

Snarling, the two of them took off. Neuro was left to ponder the vortex alone.

Hmm… He had an idea. An insane, suicidal, awful idea. But it was logical. The vortex appeared to center on one point, all of its winds wrapped around a single spot. There should be no reason for a natural windstorm to form a centered-shape instead of a funnel-shape, especially given the volatility of these winds.

And Neuro trusted in logical plans.

Neuro squared his shoulders again, feeling Evil Flyer attune to his will. He flitted around the miniature storm. This would require the most precise timing. Even though it was a vortex in shape, each storm had its calm spot. His gaze searched its surface. There was always an Eye.

There. Neuro surged forward, letting go of all thoughts as if they would be added weight. He zeroed in on the thin patch. Almost there. Then the spot changed, closing and opening again a few feet to the right.

Evil Flyer jerked sideways, carving a perfect right angle in the air. It blasted forward to propel Neuro through. Neuro gritted his teeth. His whole world became a mass of darkness, air, and sound. The wind, invisible and usually so accommodating, lashed him brutally like whips, forming solid arms where before there were mere molecules. The howling was like a chorus of demented screams.

Something solid hit Neuro in the chest. He wrapped him arms around it instinctively and then emerged on the other side.

After a few moments Neuro opened his eyes. The vortex slowly wound itself down behind him. Its winds lessened and disappeared, having blown themselves to smithereens. Only the storm around them remained.

Neuro let out a sigh of relief. If it hadn't been for Evil Flyer, he might never have been able to retrieve this central object. But was it, exactly?

He held up the object. It looked like a strange plate—flat and rectangular, about the width of a book. The plate was colored deep black, with streaks of red and blue mixed in.

Neuro turned the plate over in his hands. He ran one finger along the sides. It had been damaged slightly. Small pieces had flaked off along its edges while plate itself showed some signs of wear and tear.

"Poor thing," Neuro simpered. His voice would have made a puppy cry. "It must have been so hard for you in the middle of that whirlwind."

But the smile on his face did not match with his tone. Triumph glowed in Neuro's eyes. This was a clue. Someone had wanted to get rid of it. And they were not far from the Temple, either. It could be inferred that someone had dropped this plate, wanting to dispose of it as soon as possible, and left it to the winds to tear itself apart.

The winds did seem to be attracted to the little slab. Neuro jotted down mental notes as he noticed some of the clouds already beginning to pull in towards the plate and him. Particles in the air bent and flew, gathering around the slab and swirling across its surface, creating wind.

Neuro flew to the side. The gathering winds dissipated.

So, as long as one kept moving the object would not be able to gather a vortex. That was fortunate. Neuro could take the evidence with him without much worry.

He clutched the plate in one hand and moved along. There was still more searching to do. If the culprit had been careless enough to leave this plate to the elements, then perhaps they had left other clues as well.


The second natural wonder Neuro came across was a cannon in the sky.

He hovered in place. Looming up and to his left was a dense collection of clouds, packed so solidly together that it resembled pure stone. A circular indent was in the middle. Once every minute, the center flared and released a huge amount of energy. A ray jettisoned out with the speed and force of a bullet, carving a sparking, scarlet path through the sky.

Voltium, Neuro thought, the name coming to his mind. He flew carefully past the cloud-cannon in the time between two bursts. More cloudbases came into view beside him. Then they were in front of him, and then appeared all around. Neuro made his way through the aerial minefield. For a moment, he felt as if he were locked in a dance with dozens of enthusiastic volcanoes.

This must be a farming ground, he reasoned. These clouds were full of the rare electric element, packed so densely together that it seemed the voltium had no other choice but to collect and then burst outward. Neuro wondered if it was all natural, or if the Valkyries worked to stimulate the cloudbases' development. If he had to guess, probably a bit of both.

A nearby blast sent vibrations through the air. The tips of Evil Flyer's wings shook with tremors. Red sparks shot through the sky and then faded, wilting in their demise like coals falling to earth. The air was rife with static, making Neuro's feathers rise.

But there were no suspicious vortexes. Neuro moved on.


The next thing he came across was a group of Thunder Valkyries.

There were three of them, two women and one man. They moved in an organized squadron, swiping through clouds with their spears, but it was obvious from their halfhearted movements that they didn't expect to find anything.

Neuro took cover in plain sight, simply electing not to move. He pulled funny faces and sent rude gestures their way as they passed by. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do in this situation.

Thanks to Evil Canceller he was able to overhear every bit of their grumbled conversation.

"-won't find him here."

"But we must check. It is shameful that Vnip's women managed to let an intruder through…to the Temple of all things!"

"It's obvious where he came from. That Damned HDAC."

All three of them muttered in agreement.

"May his soul rot," one of the women said, a traditional sendoff in Hell. "Poor turfblood didn't even look like he could fly."

"And may he be reborn as a glowworm," said the male Valkyrie. "So that some landbird eats him, and then I can eat the landbird!"

"Must have killed himself," the last Valkyrie said, sniggering. "…when he realized that the others weren't coming back for him. He could either stay up there forever or drop. He made the less painful choice, considering what I would do to him."

On they went, chatting about how exactly they would have regained the honor of their species through violence.

Neuro raised an eyebrow. So, they thought he was dead? He hadn't actually expected his fake-out to work that well. This would be a huge advantage.

That is, if the culprit themself believed it.

He quietly reactivated Evil Flyer and continued on.


Neuro had been wandering for hours, but no further vortexes were to be found. Either this plate was the only one of its kind, or the other evidence had managed to rip itself to pieces. A frustrating prospect.

From his position near the bottom of the cloud cover, Neuro could see land passing by below. The terrain of Thunder Valley was dark. Boulders loomed, and crags and crevices scrunched the earth together like wrinkles on a face. The black and brown surface was marred with fault lines, dips, and craters that gave it the appearance of a clay creation wrought from a vengeful toddler's hands . Deadly rock spires jutted up to the sky, but all fell pathetically short of glory.

As Neuro passed, he saw a few boulders that had split open. Their innards glistened in the dull sunlight. A blue granular mineral spilled out onto the ground like the inside of a geode. Judging by the stark fractures in the rocks' sides, they had been broken up by hammers.

It looked like part of a mining operation—one that had been hastily abandoned. Perhaps news of a feathered intruder had drawn the workers away. Neuro smiled to himself. What were the chances of that?

He swung his head from side to side. I see. The Valkyries were famous for mining elements, Neuro recalled. Two of them in were of particular interest to the market: voltium, a red element synthesized from electricity, and sonarium, a blue element extracted from special stones.

It appears that the two races each mine their respective good, Neuro thought. Thunder demons tend to Thunder Valley, and the Lightning demons concentrate on the sky. Separate even in their work.

Neuro was still musing when the first rock struck him.

Thunk. Something hit Evil Flyer's side. Neuro turned to look. He needed to crane his neck in order to see beyond the shoulder guards, but he was able to manage.

The sight that met him was inexplicable.

Small dots appeared on the horizon. As Neuro squinted, the shapes seemed to increase in size, slowly growing bigger with each passing second. After a few moments, Neuro's stomach sank with recognition. They were rocks.

A group of ten pebbles flew after Neuro like a hail of bullets. Their path was unforgivingly straight, their speed alarming. The smallest ones caught fire due to friction and vaporized themselves into nothingness. But the others were still coming.

Neuro braked hard. He directed Evil Flyer upwards, zooming out of the rocks' path. The stones followed, not mimicking Neuro's actions but merely taking the shortest and most direct path to him. Now they were even closer, while Neuro was still taken by surprise.

Evil Flyer mustered the strength needed to blast Neuro forward again. But the stones had almost caught up. It looked as if the very earth itself was attempting to attack him. Neuro gritted his teeth. Nothing for it. If a chase could not be won, then it was just a waste of energy.

Neuro flipped around, facing towards the pursuers. He raised the plate in his right hand to defend himself. The rocks zoomed in close-

And attached to the plate with a chorus of satisfying thunks.

"…?" Neuro opened his eyes. Not a single rock had hit him. Instead they were all stuck against the black slab, seemingly quite satisfied with their location.

Neuro slowed. He looked down at the slab and turned it around in order to examine it. There was a cluster of about a dozen small rocks, none of them larger than his fingers. They were all charred and smoking and firmly attached to the slab.

"Strange," Neuro said. Then movement caught his eye. He looked up to see another small stone flying out of the distance towards him.

"…" Without making a sound, Neuro held the plate out next to his head. The stone hurtled closer. As the distance between them shrunk, Neuro watched as the rock gently curved through the air. It struck against the slab with a solid whump and moved no more.

Neuro looked at the plate. Sparks of excitement and wonder were beginning to pulse through his brain. "So it wasn't me as an intruder they were after…but this plate?"

Neuro took hold of one of the rocks and pulled. It didn't budge. He groped further, digging his talons into the space between stone and slab. At long last, he managed to pry one off.

He examined the sample. The rock appeared to be a chunk of sonarium, due to its blue coloration. But veins of red voltium were etched into it. It reminded Neuro of how the lightning bolts would sometimes strike the land around here.

The detective looked at the plate again. Could it be?

Neuro flew, swooping upwards in a graceful arc. From his new vantage point he could see the landscape stretching out below him. He held out his hands, thrusting the slab forward.

Neuro channeled demonic energy into his hands. The plate became covered and infused with his aura. It responded immediately. The multicolored streaks in the plate's surface glinted, offset by the black stone. Neuro was in complete control. It felt almost like driving a vehicle—like somehow Neuro knew he was at the helm of a powerful machine.

He didn't have to wait long for results. Out of the craggy land came a blur, which clarified into flecks, which then were revealed to be a crowd of pebbles.

Neuro kept feeding the plate energy as he zipped along the lower limit of the thunderhead. Rocks hit against the slab in a continuous stream. A few thin bolts of lightning, too—mere spider's threads, really—began to reach down from the clouds to strike the slab as well.

When Neuro had had enough, he brought Evil Flyer to a stop. The plate was now covered in a nice collection of charred, crackling stones.

So I was right. This slab attracts voltium and sonarium to itself, Neuro mused. But only samples that are heavily contaminated with their opposite element—only those that hold fragments of both.

It was the last piece Neuro needed in order to put together a theory. He bent his head, muttering. That was what the Valkyrie leaders had said, wasn't it? 'The Orb of Storm is made of both our races' powers…'

Such a potent mixture would have responded quite strongly to the plate's pull. If the Orb truly did represent both species' elements, then by the use of this plate one could…

As soon as Neuro finished the thought, he felt stupid. He was making a rookie-level mistake—the kind that crime novels made a living from. Just because Neuro had found a way didn't mean that was the only way the criminal had actually used. If someone like Neuro wasn't careful, they could run the risk of getting carried away in their own excitement. A brilliant theory did not make a correct one.

But it fit so well. Neuro frowned. No one could have entered the Temple without stepping onto the alarm-rigged platform. Even if they had found a way to float inside, the guards would have seen them either entering or exiting, according to the Valkyrie leaders. Neuro could guess that the only reason he had been able to approach was that the war-meeting had called their troops, and the precious treasure hidden inside had already been stolen.

The criminal had also wanted to get rid of this plate for some reason. Why do so if they hadn't even used it? Furthermore, the object was obviously foreign to this environment. It must have come from an outside supplier.

Neuro remained in thought for a few minutes, the struggle all in his head. Then he shrugged. The tension melted from his shoulders just as suddenly as it had appeared. No matter what reason or method had been used, one thing was for certain. It was reasonable to assume that the culprit had at least had a Valkyrian accomplice. Otherwise they would never have been able to breach the Temple.

A sudden light entered Neuro's eye. The sun had begun to descend below the rim of the clouds. It hung suspended in the air for a moment, falling much too slowly to be perceived as a moving object, full of golden glory.

A disgruntled grimace was on its big fat face. The demons must have kicked it extra hard this morning while waking it up. So majestic.

"...Hmph," Neuro grunted, the sight reminding him of something. He flexed his fingers, feeling the rough edges of the plate dig into them. "The Orb of Storm carries power for both? Then, I need to find a Valkyrie that stinks of 'both elements'."

The hint of a smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth. "And I know just where they'll be."


Upon reflection, Neuro was lucky.

Every Valkyrie in the skies had gathered for the outbreak of war. They massed behind their respective leader, separating themselves into Lightning and Thunder. None of them noticed the avian watching them, since that avian was invisible.

What better place to search for a criminal than a battlefield? Sure it was mortally dangerous, but that was beside the point. Neuro smiled. Now. To business.

The air was thick with tension. Hostility sparked between the two opposing sides, literally in the case of one of them. Each demoness and demon were equipped with the best armor they had, the best weapons they could hold, and a pure, burning hatred of the kind not seen for over one hundred years.

"This is it, Vnip of Lightning," said Hraoh, dressed in black armor. She snapped her helmet into place. Its spikes glinted in the light of the setting sun. "Soon the time for lies will be over."

"Same to you, Hraoh of Thunder." Vnip had looped two additional belts of daggers around her shoulders. A faint electric charge crackled off of the blade in her hand. "You and all your sisters will pay for your misdeeds."

Neuro flitted from one part of the crowd to the next, keeping to the outskirts. He held the slab in front of him, controlling it with his energy. He swept it back and forth over the demons.

At one point part of the group he passed began to whisper. They shot glances into the sky. Some grabbed onto the arms of their neighbors. They started to mutter: did you hear that? A sort of low buzzing sound… There it is again. Did you hear it? Did you?

Their muttering grew, catching and spreading like a disease, riding on their fear.

"It's the spirit of the Valley!" a male Valkyrie suddenly shouted. "It is angry with us!"

Another cried, "We heard it too, earlier! During the searches earlier."

Hraoh swung her head, watching the panic slowly blooming through their ranks. Her hand tightened around the handle of an enormous warhammer. She turned to Vnip, raising a full-length shield on her other arm as if preparing to strike it.

"By the loss of the Orb, you would throw our entire land out of balance? You truly are despicable."

"What's really despicable is your dedication to the denial of your crime," Vnip said. Behind them some soldiers began to jostle in their ranks, reaching out to swipe at their opponents.

Neuro was frustrated. He shook the slab. He tried again, pouring a huge amount of his energy into the plate. Nothing.

Not here? None of them? A Valkyrie that held traces of both elements, left over from their time transporting the orb, did they not exist? Neuro's mind raced, scrambling to figure out what he could do-

Something arced through the sky and exploded with a small pop.

Neuro looked up. A small flare had gone off a mere six feet above his head. Soon another one came, bursting just a small ways away. The color of the first one had been red. This one was blue.

Pop, pop, pop. The flares continued, switching between colors of the elements, tracing a faint arc leading away from the battlefield. They stopped just above a large cloud formation.

It was the final straw for the Valkyries. Both sides broke into outright, screaming and shrieking about sacrilege and their world falling apart. Somewhere in the midst of the carnage Hraoth struck her shield with her warhammer, sounding the gong of war. Within seconds, carnage spread.

Neuro hovered in the air. Am I being led? He narrowed his eyes. After a split-second's consideration he rushed forward. He should go for it anyway. Blue, red, thunder, lightning…they were sending him a message, whoever 'they' were. They were someone in the know

With battle raging behind him, Neuro flew off, following the trail of breadcrumbs.


This is where the flares were sent from, Neuro thought. He had not chased after the flares themselves. That would have been stupid. Instead, due to the angles and height, Neuro had calculated where exactly the shooter should be. So where is th-

Something hit him from the side.

Neuro reeled. Evil Flyer's halo apparatus had taken the brunt of the blow, but his world was still shaken. Clouds and sky blurred together.

SMACK! SMACK! SMACK!

Neuro was hit a few more times before he could even register the first blow. His attacker moved with surprising strength and swiftness.

He growled. Evil Flyer shook and twisted, dropping into a barrel roll. Something clanged off his left flank. Air left a pair of lungs with a gasp.

When Neuro righted himself, he found a demoness hovering before him.

She was young, and wore shorts as part of her battle-ready outfit. She had short blonde hair like a pixie. She was a Valkyrie, and part of the Lightning-race judging by her colors. And the girl was smiling. In her right hand was a dagger.

Neuro could tell by her eyes that she didn't quite know where he was. But as he moved, drifting back to a better distance, her gaze darted towards him immediately.

A snarl twisted his beak. "How did you see me?" He had to know how she managed to attack him.

The girl smiled, his words a concession of her triumph. "A-ha-ha!" she laughed. "I don't need to see you. I can hear you, dummy."

She pulled a face. "Stu-pid. That's one thing I got that you don't." Her red eyes glinted. "I know how to be quiet."

The engines at Neuro's back suddenly seemed a whole lot louder. He cursed himself. The sounds—of course. Here was where the one catch in Evil Canceller came into play. It only worked for visuals.

The Valkyrie brought her hands to her ears, cupping them. She moved her head, closing her eyes for a moment as if to concentrate. "And if you go anywh-air else, I'll hear that too."

"…I see," said Neuro.

"Oh, you see that I don't see." She bit out a laugh. "Good. Then get wind of this."

The girl struck a dramatic pose. One of her arms thrust up, the other bent at the elbow. Her wings fluttered in a quick burst, blowing the clouds away from her form. "My name…is…Yapel!" she shouted, emphasizing the syllables so that it sounded like a lightning strike.

"What an electrifying debut! Please, hold your thunderous applause," she said to a dead-silent Neuro. "Eh? Or would that be thunderclaps?"

"Enough of the games," Neuro spoke. "Why did you call me out here?"

"Hm? Oh, the flares." Yapel cocked an arm and held her dagger carelessly from her fingertips. "Don't be such an airhead, mister detective. I thought you might interfere with the war. Couldn't have that."

She smiled at him, her eyes sharp and cold. "Creating chaos is necess-airy!"

"But it looks like you weren't planning to stop it after all. How shocking." Yapel shrugged. "I guess we've both made some miscalculations."

Neuro refused to respond to that.

"Oh c'mon," Yapel said, as if guessing his sullen expression. "Any good command-air knows to keep their soldiers away from an enemy battle."

"An enemy battle?" Neuro said, thoughts beginning to dawn on him. "You weren't in the crowd. Causing chaos was more important to you than participating in a rivalry that has gone on for generations…impressive."

"I would have gotten them both, actually," the girl said with a cheeky grin. "Two bugs with one windshield, yeah? The one with the most kills out of that war would have been me."

Needle-like teeth lined her smile. "I take full responsibility for all of the damages. Ha-ha! Kya-ha-ha! Thank you, thank you, such soaring applause!"

Neuro's left eye twitched. This girl acted like the world was her personal stage. How annoying.

"I tire of this farce," he said. "Yapel of the Lightning Valkyries, I accuse you of the evil intent to steal the Orb of Storm and incite a species-wide war."

He held up the stone slab. His aura ran through it. "This item right here confirms it. I can tell that you have strong traces of both voltium and sonarium on your person. Unless you've had reason to visit the Thunder Valley mines recently, I believe that my theory is confirmed."

"This plate was used to steal the Orb," Neuro said, falling into his usual routine of revelation. "It does not matter much when or where. There is no need to go into the Temple, you see, when one can simply make its treasure come out."

"When I investigated the Orb's pedestal, I saw lines in the dust that headed towards the door. It must have been dragged out. The power in this plate is more than enough to attract the Orb of Storm out from its sanctuary and into your grasp."

Neuro shrugged. "Personally, I suspect that you either took advantage of a less-staffed day on guard duty or a routine flyby. All you would have to do is be last in the group, hang behind for a moment…and be quiet."

"…I can't see whatever it is you're holding up," Yapel said. "But it sounds familiar."

"Ding-ding-ding! Cor-rect!" The girl dropped her dagger, throwing her arms wide in excitement. She flitted upwards a few feet in the air. "You are strikingly close! With all the gear that I got, it was a breeze."

"However!" She held up one finger. "I do not feel guilty over it. That's a problem for you, isn't it?"

Neuro held back a scowl. She was right. He could feel it—he could see the mystery pressing against the cracks, struggling to break free from her soul. He had solved the puzzle. Now he just needed to open the door and let it escape.

"Well, I hate to put on airs. But…"

Yapel's expression changed. Rage and determination twisted her face. "If you want your little snack, you're gonna have to fight it out of me!"

She took something from the pack around her waist. In a matter of seconds Yapel had put it on—a pair of thick, brown gloves over her hands. A gem was implanted into the back of each, colors swirling around inside.

The Valkyrie formed two fists and slammed her hands together. Lightning sparked from the impact.

In no time at all, she was encased by a small force field. The gloves had worked in harmony with her natural energy. Occasionally, sparks zapped from one section of the shield, arcing like a solar flare. The pale red bubble held up against the galeforce winds as strong as a bunker.

Yapel laughed wildly. "You can't beat this, turfblood. I've heard so many have tried to fight you—how will you deal with someone who tries to outlast you, instead?"

"I can be sunk, blasted, crushed, or dunked in acid, and this force field will never break," she continued. "I am invincible!"

Her smile was made from cruel excitement. "So don't be a soar loser."

Neuro sighed. The demoness still couldn't see him, but he did it anyway for effect. "'Indestructible' is a far cry from 'invincible', child."

Neuro raised his arms and surrounded them with a green aura.

The feathers on his arms began to change. They became smooth and flat, melting into one another and taking on the hue of bruised flesh. His skin erupted into coils, bursting out at the wrists and continuing until the entirety of both limbs rippled with disturbed mass.

The coils burst out from Neuro's flesh and melded together in front of him. Bumps and jagged edges, like plants or the legs of an insect, curled around one another and fused, building until it formed the shape of a pole.

The material darkened and solidified. Somewhere inside the mass, a blade had been created. It was shunted to the top and clamped in place by a maroon hilt. In the solid material, a single lime-green eye blinked open. It rolled and stared out at the space around it.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Javelin," Neuro said. "This is all I need."

He pulled back, hoisting the curved handle above his head, and swung.

Yapel flinched as the blade passed through the force field. But nothing happened. There was no forceful rebound off the sphere, no dull thud. Slowly, she opened her eyes.

"A-ha-ha!" she laughed. "You summoned a useless weapon. How much more of a drain on your powers has that cost you?"

"Considering all of the trouble that it took to track you down, quite a bit," said Neuro. "I hope that your mystery shall at least make up for it in part."

He took the Tool's handle, holding it so he could examine the blade. He looked like a feathered grim reaper inspecting a chart of the day's deceased.

"You see, this is a very unique weapon. It cannot be used in the way everyone expects it to be used." Neuro flipped it around so Yapel could see. "But then again, that is a use in itself I suppose."

Squiggles of writing and pictures of molecules could be seen on the blade's surface. It had taken on a slightly transparent tint after hitting the force field. "This weapon doesn't cut. It analyzes."

"I see that you are allergic to salt," Neuro said. Evil Javelin disappeared back into his arms, twitching and cracking as the flesh reclaimed it. He raised one hand, having already transformed it into a salt shaker. "Let me help you out with that."

The color drained from the Valkyrie's face. "N…Nooooo!"

Neuro lunged. He flung a few fistfuls of salt onto the pale outline of the force field.

The bubble reacted immediately. It puckered and corroded, disintegrating upon impact. The force field curdled into a gritty substance, dropping away due to gravity and leaving the demoness open.

Yapel shrieked as salt met her skin. It dissolved her flesh, eating it away in a matter of seconds. The sheer amount made a quiet hissing noise as she writhed. Her face twisted with salt in her eyes, her mouth tasted acid when it opened to scream, and her hands burned from reaching up to bat the substance away from her hair. The chemical burn steamed as the salt bit away at her like a billion tiny mouths.

She collapsed in the air, shaking. Her wings fluttered frantically.

Neuro flew in and grabbed her. The salt had absolutely no effect on him. He sensed energy poking at the surface, a heavy substance beginning to throw off its bonds. She was done.

Let's eat, Neuro thought. He opened his mouth…

Gulp.

For a moment Neuro savored the taste of energy on his tongue. It wasn't much, but at least it was something. And the satisfaction was worth-

Wait.

Neuro paused. He ran his tongue over his teeth. He concentrated on his stomach. Something didn't feel right. This mystery felt…lackluster. It felt like an appetizer removed from a full-course meal. It felt like something that was not whole, something connected to so much more.

Neuro shook the Valkyrian girl by the shoulders. His eyes burned with a crazed fire. "This isn't it," he hissed. "This isn't it. Tell me where the rest is!"

Yapel's breath came in ragged gasps. She flopped in Neuro hands. Even still, she managed to summon up a small smile. "Message…" she said. "Got…a message."

The thief shuddered, choking on the taste of salt in her throat. "You'd best…batten down the hatches…Enforcement. Something…v-air-y…soon…"

A laugh died in her lungs. "It's going to be a blast."

With the utmost effort, the girl managed to raise her head. "The Orb…is gone. Destroyed…it. You'll never, ha-ha! You'll never…get it back. This land…my home, will fall. The Natural…Order…wins."

She fainted.

Neuro was left with an unconscious Valkyrie, a mountain of questions, and the sounds of a cross-species battle raging in the distance.

The Natural Order. Of course. Neuro wasn't fully surprised to learn of their involvement. But it was still a Damning revelation.

He opened his hand and let the girl fall. She plunged into the dark clouds and disappeared. Perhaps her wings would kick in before she hit the ground.

Neuro noticed an object in his left hand. It was a glove, one of those that the thief had used to set up the force field. He had somehow retrieved it during their scuffle. The gem in its back glinted in the low sunlight.

Neuro had an idea.


The battlefield was a cesspool of blood and carnage.

Bursts of thunder clashed with precise strikes of lightning. It was impossible to tell which side was winning, or even which side was which, except for the momentary blur of color from their soldiers' uniforms. Hammers fell. Daggers sliced. Cries of agony, rage, and pain mixed with the sound of weapons against flesh to produce a soundtrack of madness. If this continued not a single person would be spared from ruin.

Suddenly the fighting lessened on one side. Their opponents took the chance to land a few more blows before looking up themselves. Their mouths fell open.

An orb was floating towards them.

Where it had come from, nobody knew. It had simply appeared from out beyond the clouds, carried towards them by an invisible force.

The orb floated softly closer, lurching from time to time as if held out at the end of an arm. Its body was clear. Its insides roiled with energy, storm winds swirling around cloud dust and electrical sparks, whipping them into a frenzy. Lightning gathered at the sphere's center and arced out to all parts, forming a shape like an asterisk.

Slowly Hraoh and Vnip reached up to receive it, their faces slack with awe. All battle had ceased behind them.

"The…the Orb of Storm!"

"It has returned!"

"It moves by its own will!"

"The Orb of Storm has returned to us!"

The Valkyries cheered at the return of their species' power, their sacred treasure, which had made its own way home.


It was a fake.

Neuro reflected upon his actions as he flew over the darkened landscape. All he had required was a gem from one of the thief's gloves, a bit of aura charge, and a mixture of both voltium and sonarium, along with some captured lightning. Simple.

"Well," Neuro said. "It should work as long as they think it does."

He really shouldn't have stopped the Valkyries. They were right—it was their business. And it wasn't like Hell disapproved of genocidal wars. Perhaps it had been Neuro's slight contrarian streak. He wanted to send a message of his own to the Natural Order—that they could not afford to take him lightly.

They should at least have the decency to send a demon with a better mystery next time. Neuro grumbled to himself as he sped towards headquarters.

His phone rang, sending out little energy pulses. Neuro answered, shielding his right ear from the wind with his hands. "Yes?"

"We've got responses on the bomb threat that you called in, sir." The voice was neutral, male, and belonged to one of the leading demons back at headquarters. "All top officials have been alerted, and they've sworn to keep a few eyes out. The HDAC is taking the threat seriously as well. It's a bit hard to make a move on something so vague, sir, but action is swift. They said it's due to your good record."

Good? Neuro thought. My record is phenomenal.

"What actions are they taking?" he asked, not content to leave it at vagaries.

There was a pause at the other end of the line. "As proof of their commitment, the Lady herself has been appointed to investigate."

Neuro nearly fell out of the sky. "Enjel?! I mean…pardon me. The Lady. She's taking the case?"

"Yes. She says that she will look into the threat and try to convince the leaders of all major cities to set up a defense program. You know how those mayors can be, sir. In the meantime, the HDAC will funnel some resources into the case."

Silence fell. Neuro realized that the other demon was waiting for a response.

"Understood. I suppose that's acceptable for now." Neuro hung up.

In just a few minutes he would be back at base. Evil Flyer was capable of going much faster, of course, but for the moment Neuro was content to take his time.

Neuro leaned his head back. The air rushed past his horns. He felt wind brush through the space between them. One last rumble of thunder sounded in the distance, and then faded. He was flying.

For the first time in a long, long while, a soft, genuine smile came to Neuro's face.

Chapter Text

This time it was a fishbowl.

At least, that was what the permanent dwelling appeared to be. It was made of sod, bulging out at the sides to form a dome shape. The surface was covered in a fine layer of grass. Even the door was shaped like an oval instead of the usual rectangle.

One demon approached the scene. He was lean and avianoid, with blonde hair and two ridged horns coming out his skull. When two officers by the door saluted, he ducked past. Maybe he could just get this over with quick.

And maybe this time there would finally be a fulfilling mystery.

"Neuro."

The demon paused. He turned around to face a nearby police hearse. Neuro wouldn't have stopped for any other voice.

One of the hearse's back windows was rolled down a crack. Through the gap, Neuro could see a pair of amber eyes resting above the hint of a broadened nose. They blazed like molten gold, oppressive as twin suns.

Neuro approached the window and gave a short bow. "My 'king'," he said. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Save the theatrics, detective," Asanteoh rumbled. "I told you that you would find me at the scene."

"So you did, so you did." Neuro cast a glance back over his shoulder, towards the house. "The leader of one of Enforcement's top branches, coming to a standard street case like this. What an honor."

"Or an insult." He grinned at the window. "As if my intellect won't be enough?"

"I have no concerns about your level of performance," Asanteoh replied. "Do not test me, Braineater."

Neuro scowled. He kicked at the ground. "I don't even see why I have to be here."

"Because it is in your area of jurisdiction."

"Whatever that means."

"It means the places on the street where you never go."

Neuro let the jab pass. "So," he asked. "What's your big important message for me?"

There was a pause. Something shifted inside of the hearse, rocking it on its wheels.

"About that," said Asanteoh. "It's not really a message. It's more like a present."

Neuro cocked his head to the side. Present?

The hearse door opened with a click. Something stirred within its dark depths. Then a figure grabbed hold of the ceiling's edge and stepped out into the light.

The demon was younger than Neuro. He was also at least a foot shorter. He adjusted his brown suit and stood nervously without a word. The demon's hair was piebald, colored black, white, and tan, and hung over his eyes in a shaggy curtain.

He was some kind of animalnoid, probably a mix. His coloring reminded one of a guinea pig, while his arms and hands were covered in plating like an armadillo's. One small horn corkscrewed out from his forehead. If it weren't for the buckteeth poking out from between his lips, it would have been tough to even guess what kind of demon he was. Currently, the demon was looking down and to the right. A neutral frown curved across his lips.

"This is Magnus Arcmind. He's the finest intelligence among our new recruits, and was top of his class in police academy." Asanteoh paused. "We want you to take him on as an apprentice."

Neuro stared at the new guinea-pig demon. Magnus stared silently back.

Neuro turned to Asanteoh. "I do not accept this present."

"No objections," stated the leonoid. "The arrangement has already been decided."

Neuro bit his tongue in order to hold back a sharp remark. So that was it. That was why the Executive Officer of all people had bothered to show up to the start of this case—he wanted to put his full authority behind this arrangement.

"You do not have to seal the deal right here and now," Asanteoh said. "The pact can be formally exchanged back at headquarters. But know that you two are now considered partners. Get used to each other."

His last words rang as an order. The hearse window rolled up. An inferno lit at the car's back end as the vehicle squealed away over the grass.

The two demons were left standing, Neuro still staring at the cavianoid. Magnus inclined his head slightly, as if meaning 'I look forward to working with you'.

"I cannot believe this," Neuro hissed. "The HDAC? Saddling me with a brat so early on? Even I don't know what they're thinking. Who would want a stupid, upstart, mutt of a demon like you for an apprentice? They might as well have put my legs in a ball and chain."

"Listen up." Neuro's eyes flashed. "I'm sure we'll both want to end this agreement as soon as possible. So until then, do not get in my way. Do not think. Do not breathe too loud. It's annoying. Your very existence is an annoyance. The only thing that matters in this case is that I get to eat my mystery. Do you understand?"

He held Magnus's gaze, or at least where he guessed it was.

"…Right, then. Come on, flea." Neuro turned and began to walk, calling back to the demon as if he were a dog, or a particularly ugly bag that had been forced into Neuro's hands.

"not a flea."

"What?" The voice had been soft, but it held immovable confidence.

"I am not a flea. I am animalnoid, guinea-pig-armadillo cross," said Magnus. He paused. "Thought you would like to know. Sir."

Neuro raised an eyebrow. Then the detective faced front again. "Like I said. Come, flea."


The inside of the permanent dwelling was spacious. Even with a few officers milling about, there was plenty of open space. The floor and walls were made of a hard gray material. Walking around, it was difficult to remember that the outside of the building was made of grass.

Neuro shivered. There was a lingering chill in the air. Feathers fluffed around his neck. Did this victim live in an icebox?

Behind Neuro, Magnus slowly turned his head to observe the scene. This main room contained nothing but a large table with a bowl. Further in, a taped-down outline of a body could be seen.

Neuro stepped towards the outline. His gaze slid over the table as he passed. "That's the biggest fruit bowl I've ever seen," he muttered.

A single red apple rested within the blue basin. It was the kind of sentimental image that artists would want to paint. The bowl was wide, and deep enough to serve as a capybara's feeding dish. Neuro shuddered. Oh, how he hated capybaras.

Neuro squatted down by the tape outline. Magnus milled around behind him, peeking over Neuro's shoulder while at the same time trying not to look like he was trying to peek over Neuro's shoulder. Neuro ignored him. He focused on the lines. Blast whoever had thought to move the body and leave forensics to make a shoddy outline. Let's see, that looked like the head, and the feet were…

"Order Branch."

For a moment, Neuro did not look up. Then the deep, familiar frequency of the voice registered.

He looked up into the face of a bull. The demon before him was half-humanoid, with the head, strong neck, and horns of a bull. A square nose ring hung from his snout. His grin was more like a snarl, revealing dull teeth. He had four arms, all of them currently with their hands on his hips. Two axes and a pair of shortswords were tucked into his belt.

"Bullspider."

"That's Head Officer Bullspider." The demon glowered. "Back on the beat, mister detective? The OB really can't keep their noses out."

"I was assigned here."

"Yeah, yeah. That doesn't mean you can't meddle."

"We were both assigned to this case, but that doesn't mean I have to trust you." Bullspider folded his four arms across his chest. It made for an intimidating sight. "Don't think that just because you solved the last case I'll fall down at your feet for this one."

"Oh, no," Neuro said sweetly, standing to meet the bovinoid. "Surely my success in solving the greatest theft case of this age was a mere outlier. And my stellar record since then is but a string of coincidences, all designed to make you mad."

He smirked. "Still sore about me letting Greenpus go? I thought we established that their arrest had been your mis-steak. But you have my deepest, most sincere apologies for doing my job."

Magnus stood off to the side. He looked confused.

Bullspider ground his teeth. "Save it, mister detective."

Then he straightened up and snapped his arms to his sides. "As the Head Officer in charge of this case, it is my job to take any action necessary to support you," he said, loud enough so others could hear. "My men are equipped, and a preliminary investigation has already been completed. I will assist in…" he struggled to get the words out. "Any way you ask."

Neuro stifled a smirk. He looked back towards the tape outline. "A preliminary investigation, then? May I ask why the body was moved?"

"Oho. You want to know about the corpse? Take a look." Bullspider took out a small packet on a ring and tossed it Neuro's way. The detective caught the packet and began to flip through its contents.

The packet was of photographs taken from many angles, showing the body from the side, above, and even a closeup of its head. The demon in the images was large. They were ichthyesiod, by the looks of it—fish-type. They had blue, scaled skin and gills that stretched from behind their jawbone all along their neck. A single fin poked out of the top of their head.

According to the photographs, the body had been lying on its back, facing upright. The demon's shirt hung loosely around their shoulders. Their pants were casual and barely fit. Instead of shoes and socks, their feet were a mass of tentacles.

Magnus moved behind Neuro, trying to get a look at the photographs. Neuro moved them closer to his own face, obscuring them with his beak.

"I'll give you the whole rundown on the stiff, in accordance with my...duties." Bullspider said, spitting out the last word like it had bit his tongue.

He pointed at the tape outline on the floor. "The victim was named Tuilak 'Tearswallower'. As you can see, he was a landfish-type demon, approximately 2023 years old. He worked in the Treachery department as one of their higher-ranked operatives."

"That's the only reason why we care about this case." Bullspider snorted. "Any other sap would have been wrapped up and fed to the bloodplants, but this murder happened to a government employee. It warrants smore concern than your average violence spree. That's why you and I are here."

"We removed what was left of the body for some additional tests," said Bullspider. "Tuilak had been absent from his job for a few days, you see, but no one called it in until recently. According to my team, they walked in on a rotting corpse."

The feathers around Neuro's nose wrinkled. "Disgusting."

"He'd been dead for a week, sir." A hint of joy came to Bullspider's voice. "Don't tell me that one of the OB's top demons is put off by a little-"

"Not the gore," Neuro grumbled. "The camera quality. What were those idiots in forensics doing?"

An awkward pause fell.

"Hmph. Anyway, I'm not finished yet," said Bullspider. "Listen up, mister detective. You haven't heard the good part."

He leaned in. "According to the autopsy results, Tuilak's death was from asphyxiation. Not a stabbing. Nothing like a projected mind-melt. And no wounds were found on the victim. It's as if the air itself just vanished around him."

"Furthermore, the victim had no history of heart trouble or any other disease," Bullspider said. "So it wasn't due to natural causes. He appears to have just collapsed."

Neuro met his gaze. "I see," he mused. "That is a bit unusual."

"But that's not all," said Bullspider. "There's another layer."

Two of his hands came to his hips. Another one held up a finger, pointing in the air. "We tried to investigate the most recent person to visit Tearswallower. But nobody's been by for weeks. What little footage we have from the door's security camera confirms it—he had no visitors. No one else was inside of the house when the murder occurred."

"Also, the door was locked tight, with all of the windows sealed from the inside," Bullspider said. "My men can confirm this. We had to force open the front entrance. The house keys were found tucked inside of the victim's pocket."

"You know what this means." Bullspider's eyes narrowed. "This is a locked room murder."

His words echoed between the three of them.

"…And?"

"What?"

"And?" Neuro said. "You say that like I should be impressed." His expression was bored.

"But-"

"If a murder occurs inside of a locked room, then that is merely another part of the puzzle that I must solve," said Neuro. "It makes no difference to me. Please. Calling something a 'locked room mystery' credits it with more excitement than it's due."

"I…Fine. Then it's a murder that occurred inside of a locked room," Bullspider scowled. "You're still going to need to explain it, mister detective."

"Here's our leading theory." Bullspider spread out his arms. "The murder was done by someone outside the house. We could be dealing with some kind of psychic here, a demon that could force all the air away from Tuilak and asphyxiate him to death. By doing so when everything was locked, they would secure an alibi."

Neuro nodded. "Possible," he said, his eyes flitting around the room as if they were already eager to explore. "Are there any suspects that fit that description?"

Bullspider shifted on his feet. "No," he admitted. "But we have made an arrest."

"An arrest?"

The bovinoid demon grinned. "We found footprints. Outside of a rear window. They date back to a week and a half—near the time the victim was killed. After some analysis we found a match in one of Tuilak's coworkers. He's in custody now."

"See?" Bullspider said, puffing up with pride. "If the confession goes well, we won't even need your help. So much for Order Branch meddling."

"And so much for common sense," said Neuro, stepping past Bullspider. "If you don't mind, Head Officer, we're going to begin our investigation now."

Magnus jumped at the mention of "we". He had been included? The demon scrambled to get to work, his armored plates clinking together.

Bullspider watched them begin. "I just told you," he grumbled. "We don't even need your help… Keh, fine. Knock yourselves out."

The general investigation began.

Neuro examined the walls and floor. There were only two windows to the entire place—both of them indeed sealed shut. Over to the side, Magnus seemed entranced by the fruit bowl. The guinea pig demon stood motionless, staring at it in in a thoughtful pose. He looked like a statue. In contrast, Neuro barreled actively through the room, jumping and peering.

Neuro looked around. There wasn't much else to inspect. Aside from the table and fruit bowl, there was almost no furniture in this place. This Tuilak character must have used only the bare essentials needed for life.

He crossed the room, stepping over a stray towel lying on the floor, and came again to the tape outline. Neuro crouched down to look at it. He took out the packet of photographs, holding them side-by-side for comparison.

Hmm. The victim had died on his back, according to these photographs. Tuilak's face was pointed up towards the ceiling. His eyes were closed. His mouth was parted slightly in a gasp. His arms hung limp across his chest.

That's not right. Neuro squinted at the picture. The body is too calm. There can't have been a fight. And why would he die in the center of the room? Neuro thought. He's away from any window or door where an assailant could see him. Whatever happened, he doesn't seem to have struggled at all…

Neuro suddenly became aware of a shadow looming on his right. It was Bullspider.

The Head Officer glanced between him and Magnus and back. "There's two of you now? Didn't know you had a son, meddler." Bullspider grinned. "Who's the mother, Lust?"

"No, that girl from the H division you like."

"I'm not his-" came a quiet voice from across the room. "oh."

Neuro stood and smiled, restarting the conversation before Bullspider could reply. "We are unrelated, imbecile. As any demon with functioning eyes could see. No—even a blind bat would be able to tell the difference with echolocation."

"Now, tell me. Was there anything particularly unusual about the body?" Neuro held up the photograph. "Going by pictures alone is a tad difficult."

Bullspider's fists shook. His face was beet red. "If you're so smart, why don't you find out yourself?" he said, patience finally running out.

"I thought you said it was your duty to assist."

"Maybe I don't want to babysit the Order Branch. Maybe I've given you enough hints, and now you need to do something for yourself."

"Maybe I'm making that an order, then."

"Maybe you can't give orders outside your Branch."

"Maybe I should be able to, if the demon knows what's good for them."

"Maybe you shouldn't threaten your superiors."

"Maybe-"

"Apples," came a soft voice.

Neuro and Bullspider turned. Magnus had appeared beside them. His shoulders were hunched inward, curling to make himself look smaller. Some papers were clutched to his chest.

"Apple bits were found in the victim's teeth. I asked forensics. And got the file."

Neuro stared. "And?"

Magnus flipped to a certain page. His hair hung over his eyes like a curtain. "The victim also had a bloated stomach. According to the autopsy. The victim stuffed himself with fruit shortly before death."

"Keh. There," Bullspider scoffed. "That one weird bit in the case. You're being shown up by your partner, Order Branch."

Something dawned across his face. "Actually…apples? Hold on a minute." He strode away, the axes swinging from his belt.

Neuro looked at Magnus. The younger demon noticed. He shifted on his feet. The paper crinkled in his hands. He looked up, down, and all around. He cleared his throat. Then he cleared his throat again.

"Out with it," said Neuro.

"Sir, I have a theory, sir!" Magnus squeaked as if expecting to be yelled at.

"Thought so," said Neuro. "You spent all of that time staring at that bowl. Explain."

Magnus hunched over his notepad. "Well. Just as you said, sir. A lot of people think a locked room murder would be difficult. But there are many ways to do it."

"There is one way," he said. "One killer that can pass through walls. And kill inside of a locked room, without the true culprit ever being near." He glanced at Neuro. "Poison."

Neuro was silent. "I see," he replied. "So you've thought of that too."

"Yes," Magnus affirmed. He lifted an elbow to subtly point out the large bowl on top of the table. "That bowl must have been filled with something. Judging by the one apple left inside. I'd say it was more of them. And apple seeds contain a certain substance. Amygdalin." He paused for effect. "Otherwise known as a cyanide compound."

"Cyanide kills by preventing blood from carrying oxygen. Which results in asphyxiation. It's consistent with the case," said Magnus. His voice became quicker, falling into a rhythm that Neuro recognized well: the excitement of solving a puzzle. "Symptoms of cyanide overdose include difficulty breathing, a comatic state, and death."

"I believe our victim overdosed on cyanide. By eating all of the apples in the bowl," Magnus declared. "That is why apple bits were found in his teeth. That is why his stomach was full. And that is how he died from asphyxiation in a locked room with no one around."

The light of triumph around the younger demon made Neuro grin. "Interesting," he said. "Fish-type demons are especially sensitive to matters of miasma-rich oxygen. It is their curse for living on land with a body meant for the sea. Perhaps it's possible."

"But," he raised a middle finger, "there is something you've forgotten. It is true that many fruit seeds contain amygdalin. However, the amount is so small it's practically negligible."

Magnus shuffled in place. "I know," he said, buckteeth scraping against his chin. "But there were so many apples. Maybe-"

"It would take hundreds of seeds to kill an adult demon," Neuro said. "And well-crushed ones, too, for their poison to be released. Where would those have come from? And how would they have gotten into Tuilak's mouth? Surely apples don't come filled with pre-crushed seeds."

"I…" Magnus's shoulders sagged with the effort of holding onto his theory. "I don't know. Hundreds of seeds… Maybe Tuilak was just a strong chewer."

"Now you are in the realm of wishful thinking," Neuro said, starting off towards the kitchen. "And wishful thinking does not make good conclusions."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. You're right. You're right, of course." Magnus muttered to himself. He stood there, dejected. "I apologize."

A few moments passed. Then, Neuro turned and called back to the other demon. "Well? Are you giving up?"

Magnus bristled. He shook himself, armadillo-plates rattling. "No! Never," he said, his voice regaining some fire. "I'm close. I know it!"

"Then come." Neuro motioned towards the kitchen. "Whether you know the path or you do not, there is always something you can do: gather more evidence."


The two detectives searched through the kitchen.

Magnus pulled open the bottom cabinets and rifled through the trash. Nothing. No convenient bag labeled "apple seeds".

Neuro searched the cupboards and dish rack. Nothing. No residue from crushed seeds, and nothing that appeared to have been used to crush them.

The refrigerator door had been left wide open. Neuro took hold of it and looked inside. Nothing. There was almost no food in the house. Not even the basics. Strange.

He closed the door and opening the freezer section above it. Immediately he was hit with a blast of cold air. Neuro hissed as it touched his feathers, but the blast almost immediately began to dissipate, touched by the warmer room air. Inside was an environment of subzero temperatures. The interior was covered in ice so cold that not a mote was moving. Neuro took a look at the thermometer—it was broken.

He closed the door, shaking off the chill.

"Sir!" Magnus poked his head back in through the kitchen door. He must have run out when Neuro wasn't looking.

Neuro resisted the instinct to turn around. He waited for a full five seconds before giving the other demon what he wanted. "Yes?" he said.

"It's Head Officer Bullspider, sir. He says he's got something. It fits the theory." Magnus sounded breathless with excitement.

"Oh joy," Neuro mumbled. He left the frosted freezer and followed Magnus out of the room.


"There you are," Bullspider said as Neuro stepped into view. "You and your buddy's little talk back there reminded me of something."

He held out a video screen in one of his four hands. "I am happy to report that the testimony video just came in. We won't be needing you two much longer."

"Now watch this," he growled, pressing the screen into Neuro's hand while looming over him. "And get the Hell out."

Neuro didn't react. He turned the screen on and held it up in front of him. Magnus scuttled closer to peek over his shoulder. This time, Neuro didn't move away.

After a short burst of static an image appeared. An eel-like demon with black skin and a rumpled suit could be seen sitting in a chair. His mouth stretched all the way to his ears. He kept gulping in worry.

Yitew Slimeback, said a caption at the bottom. Coworker of the deceased.

'Alright, alright!' the eel-type demon said. He winced offscreen, no doubt at an interro-torturer. 'I did bring him the fruit! I dropped the apples off at Tuilak's doorstep a while ago. Why is that such a big deal?'

"See? See?" Magnus murmured from behind Neuro.

"Yes," Neuro said. "So those apples were from somebody else."

Somehow he knew he didn't have to voice the rest of his thoughts. He sensed that Magnus was on the same page. If the apples had been from an acquaintance, perhaps it had been an accidental poisoning…

Yitew jolted in place at something that the unseen interro-torturer had said. 'I was just worried!' he yelled with clenched fists. 'Tuilak hadn't shown up to work in days! Yes, I peered into his window that night. But I only wanted to check on him!'

'We work in the Ninth Circle, Zamhareer, and they don't put up well with many absences.' The demon shuddered. 'I knew that he had been feeling down lately, so I wanted to cheer him up. If he didn't come back soon, it would have been both our heads. We're in the same Treachery department together…or, I guess, we were…'

Yitew hid his face in his hands, overwhelmed for a moment. A shadow shifted just offscreen. Yitew looked up as the image of a whip crossed over his face. He screamed-

Neuro shut the device off.

"The Ninth Circle? Wow..." said Magnus.

Neuro concurred. But the name had done more than strike a familiar chord with him—the area of the Ninth Circle, famous for its "Freezing Chambers". It was commonly known as "Ice Hell". Why did that feel so important?

Something was tickling at the back of Neuro's mind. He remembered how cold it had been when he first walked in the room. The temperature had warmed up considerably since then, but maybe…

Magnus turned his attention back to the table across the room. "This supports my theory," he said softly, looking at the bowl. "We should test the remaining apple. For cyanide potency-"

"No," Neuro mumbled. "No, we shouldn't."

Magnus flinched. He fell quiet.

"What are you on about, Order Branch?" Bullspider leered.

Neuro didn't reply. Thoughts and images were swirling around inside of his head, the tiniest details being picked up like crumbs and entire half-built structures being thrown out to make space for the new. The whole room seemed to flip around inside his head, rearranging to fit a different theory.

"Come with me." Neuro turned and strode off.

Magnus followed obediently. "Where?"

"We're going to check those footprints."


They found the footprints right where the Head Officer had said they would be: outside of the rearmost window, in a patch of soft ground. The main room could hardly be seen through the dirty glass.

Neuro and Magnus crouched in the surrounding grass, careful not to add their own footprints to the mud.

Magnus was quiet. He observed the muddy ground, sitting completely still. Meanwhile Neuro tilted his head this way and that, peering at the patch of land from all sorts of crazy angles.

"Sir," said Magnus. "These really do look like eel tracks." The prints were of average size, half-faded, but their edges were distinctly frilled, as if their owner had ruffled feet instead of flat soles.

Neuro grinned. "I agree. But this doesn't." He pointed to a certain spot in the earth.

Magnus leaned over. He squinted through his fringe of hair. "The…hole, sir?"

"A hole, is it?" Neuro said. He put his hand behind his back and concentrated.

When he withdrew it, he carried something long and thin between his talons. The device was flat and ovular, pinched in with ridged edges like the outline of a footprint. It was as pink as human flesh. A white heart with black circles decorated the inside.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Insole," Neuro announced. He tossed the device onto the ground.

It changed midair and became a squirming thing. It now looked like an insect with an overly-large head. The head had distinctly feminine features, complete with bad makeup, as well as pointed ears and puckered lips. It squeaked softly with a sound like a shoe scuffing against the floor.

It had one pair of arms and four pairs of legs, each of them ending in a pseudo-high-heel. The body of it was flabby pink, segmented like a grub and ending in a frilled tail.

Evil Insole skittered across the ground, directed by its master's thoughts. It flopped down and spread itself out to cover the hole.

"This Tool can analyze all of the substance left inside a shoe or a footprint," Neuro said. "It can even determine such things as DNA or a demon's genetic makeup."

"The…the Tools?" Magnus said, having drawn away in shock. Neuro had never seen him thrown for such a loop. "So you really… That's impressive, sir," he said. "But why not wait. For lab analysis instead?"

"I'm too lazy," Neuro said bluntly. "Besides, I can do it faster and I can do it better. As we have established, forensics demons are horribly incompetent. Half of the blood-sample testers are vampires."

Magnus took out a notepad and began to scribble.

Neuro looked at him, incredulous. "Are you writing that down?"

Magnus fumbled frantically to put the pad away.

"That will never do." Neuro scowled. "You must keep all the information in your head. If you're really as smart as they say you are, child, then that's the safest place for it. Use your brain for more than just filling space between your ears."

"Yessir," Magnus rushed. "Thank you for teaching me."

Neuro blinked. Teaching? Was that what he was doing? Was he actually passing on his knowledge to this demon?

A growl rose in Neuro's throat. "I. Am. Not. Teaching. You." He leaned forward and pointed at the demon with one middle finger. "I told you. I don't need an assistant."

He was about to continue when a realization hit him. He pulled back. "What-"

Evil Insole popped back up with a squeak. It faced Neuro and gave a sigh, crossing its arms demurely over its chest. The tentacle strands that served as its hair wilted. It looked like a disappointed prima donna.

"It didn't get a reading. But how?" Neuro said. "Is the targeted area too small?"

"Tsk." He picked up the creature by the back of its neck and dangled it precariously from his fingers. "Worthless little thing. Who designed you to only analyze flat surfaces? I should toss you into the shredder."

"…Too small?" Magnus said softly.

Neuro frowned. "Yes. This worthless creature needs more surface area to cling to."

"So we need the hole to be bigger?"

"That would be a great help," said Neuro, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He dangled Evil Insole in front of his beak, scaring it with a full view of his sharp teeth. "Only there is no 'we', upstart. Do not-"

He trailed off. Magnus had leaned forward over the hole, placing one hand on either side of it. As Neuro spoke, he channeled demonic energy between his palms, covering them in a pale orange aura. Then he drew them away from each other at lightning-fast speed.

ZAP!

The hole in the earth expanded as if someone had put it under a magnifying glass. The ground shifted, squeezing the other footprints to the side and warping the earth in order to accommodate its target. And yet, Neuro had the faint impression that if the transformation was cancelled, it would all go back to being exactly as it was before.

He stared at what Magnus had done. The guinea-pig demon blew on his hands as one would blow dust off of a book that had not been used in ages. He turned to Neuro. "Magnification. Five-star power level. My specialty."

"Is this good enough?" he said, retreating back into shyness when Neuro did not react.

Neuro shook himself. "Yes. More than sufficient." He flicked Evil Insole with the force of a small gunshot, flinging the bug back into the hole. It sniffled in pain and loyally attached itself to the inside of the pit. There was plenty of room now. It sighed, in satisfaction this time, and snuggled up to the side as if wrapping itself in a blanket.

After a few more seconds the device trembled and scrambled out of the hole. It turned back into a regular insole once it reached Neuro's hands.

Neuro held up the Tool, reading some sort of writing that had appeared on the flesh-colored surface. His expression was grim. "I was right," he said.

"Look." He tossed it at Magnus's face. The cavianoid barely managed to catch it in time. He held the device in front of his face and read the results.

"ID: Tuilak Tearswallower. The victim?" Magnus said, bringing Evil Insole down from his face in shock. "He was here too?"

"Exactly. Nobody caught it because his footprints don't look like actual footprints." Neuro tapped the earth. "He walked on tentacles. On this soft ground, the tips would leave marks in the shape of holes. The other investigators think that the eel demon was the only one who looked in this window. But Tuilak has been here too."

Magnus reviewed results. "This says that Tuilak was here about a week ago. So. He was still alive after Yitew's visit. But-"

Magnus looked up at the windowsill. The window was shut, with some sort of sealant used on both the inside and the outside. "Tuilak must have seen the window. Then. He knew that they were locked. With them sealed, and him holding the key to the doors, why didn't he do anything about it? Why leave himself open to attack?"

Neuro was silent. "...I think," he spoke at last, "he wanted them to stay sealed."

"Let's go." Neuro said, standing. His mood was suddenly snappish. "I have no desire to further waste anyone's time. We'll host the reveal at once."

Magnus scrambled to his feet. "Now?"

"Yes," said Neuro. I have everything I need. Watch and learn, novice."


"Thank you all for attending," Neuro said. He stood by the tape outline of the body. Bullspider and a few other demons on the scene stood around him in a loose semicircle. Magnus had been banished to their ranks.

Bullspider made a disbelieving noise. "Another one of your grand speeches, I see. Should I be on the lookout this time as well? Is the tape going to jump up from the floor and try to run?"

"No." Neuro's voice was like ice. "There is no one to punish in this room."

A stir went through the assembled demons. Bullspider looked like he wanted to say something else, but smartly kept it to himself.

"Don't worry," Neuro said. "This will be quick."

"We will start with the basics. The victim is said to have been Tuilak Tearswallower, an employee of Hell's Treachery department in the Ninth Circle. This is true." He paused. "The cause of death is said to have been asphyxiation. This is also true. However, one very important thing here is mistaken."

Neuro swept an arm to the side, pointing down at the tape outline. "This case is said to have been a murder. It is not. It is a suicide."

Gasps of shock broke through the crowd. One by one the scattered noises turned to mutters of confusion as demons conversed, then, slowly, to ones of revulsion.

"Suicide," Bullspider whispered.

Magnus took out his notepad and began flipping back through it.

"Yes," said Neuro. He looked like he had tasted a rotten berry. "This was indeed a locked room. Nobody came in here. The doors and windows stayed sealed. But that was only because the victim made them that way himself."

"So much fuss is always made about this type of mystery," Neuro said, his voice embracing the last word like acid. "Almost no one stops to think, 'what would happen if the victim really did lock the room themself?' That is precisely what we have here."

Bullspider was shaking. "This- this had better be good, detective. Tuilak had an upstanding job position. There was no reason at all for him to do such a thing."

"I understand your concern." Neuro placed both hands together. "And so I shall go over this from the beginning."

He took a breath and began. "Here's how I picture it: Somehow or another, Tuilak became depressed. His coworker mentioned a change in his mood, as I recall. Perhaps he felt he couldn't handle the stress, or was dissatisfied with his job. We'll never know. Depression does not always strike for a reason."

"He decided to go with asphyxiation. The reasons, again, are unknown. But they can be speculated. Tuilak was a fish-type demon—they are exceptionally sensitive to changes in oxygen in the air's miasma. It would have been a comparatively gentle way to go."

"Wait!" cried someone from the crowd. "If he wanted to suffocate, then why not just use a rope?"

Neuro pointed to them, acknowledging the comment. "Hanging is the most traditional way, yes. But that would have hurt his gills. As I've said, I believe that Tuilak wanted to go painlessly. You can see by this photograph-" Neuro held up a picture. "-that the body was found resting peacefully on its back. His arms were placed on his chest. He had no desire to struggle."

"Now where did this method of asphyxiation come from? Most of the blame has been mistakenly placed on a certain coworker of the deceased, named Yitew Slimeback. He was responsible for the gift of a large amount of apples to Tuilak. These apples have been the object of a certain controversy."

Neuro pointed at Magnus. "Tell them your theory."

Magnus winced at being called out. He fought hard to keep his shoulders from curling inward as everybody's attention switched to him.

"Well. The victim died from asphyxiation. Due to cyanide poisoning," said Magnus, his voice quiet but unshakably confident in his own thoughts. "A small amount of cyanide compound is present in apple seeds. By chewing and consuming a large amount of seeds, it is possible that the victim was poisoned to death. If he did want to commit suicide, perhaps he found his acquaintance's gift and the opportunity presented itself-"

"A decent theory," Neuro interjected. "But it doesn't hold water."

Neuro held up a finger, bringing everyone's focus back to him. "The amount of cyanide contained within each seed is extremely small. For comparison, it would take at least 100 milligrams of cyanide to kill an adult human—and far more to slay a demon. Even with Hell's superpowered plants, this translates into hundreds of seeds. I doubt that Tuilak found that many seeds in the gift, or that he would even care to chew through them all. He wanted a gentle end, remember?"

"But he did eat them." The growled reply came from Bullspider. "Tuilak's stomach was full. He ate every single apple from that bowl but one."

"Ah yes," Neuro sighed. "Now we come to the important part. The self-murder method."

"So far, we have been considering the killer as some poison," Neuro said. "A faceless murderer that lurks and strikes once one makes a wrong move. Locked doors don't matter to it. It needs no master waiting at the window."

"But there is something else." Neuro's words sent a stir through the gathered audience. "I propose a new killer—one just as faceless, one just as anonymous. One that also causes death by asphyxiation. Locked doors only help it. And it is one even more ruthlessly efficient."

"Aspyxiation is caused by the removal of miasma from the air, which we breathe," Neuro explained. "So, in order to get rid of the miasma-rich oxygen, you could simply introduce it's opposite—miasma-thin carbon dioxide. And there is one purchasable, movable substance made entirely from carbon dioxide." He paused to make sure everybody was listening. "Dry ice."

The words began to whisper around the audience, passing from mouth to mouth. Dry ice… dry ice…

"Dry…ice?" Bullspider questioned. He looked around the room. "But there was no trace-"

"Of course there's no trace you nitwit, dry ice sublimates. It leaves nothing behind," Neuro snapped. "Nothing perhaps except…coldness."

The gathered demons felt silent. The faint chill in the room began to feel oppressive, settling down their spines. It had mostly disappeared with all of the new air they had introduced to the place. But those who had been among the first to enter remembered: the room had felt like an icebox.

"Exposure to dry ice in a sealed environment can result in miasma-depletion headaches and eventual death within half an hour," Neuro said. He punched in something on the video screen Bullspider had given him and held it up. "Just to be sure, I made an inquiry. There are records of Tuilak purchasing a large amount of dry ice from a storehouse not too far from here. He picked it up one week ago."

"The same day as his death," one of the gathered demons muttered.

"Here's the thing about a full stomach," Neuro said. "It does more than transfer a bunch of food into one's system. A full stomach also pushes up on the diaphragm, restricting one's breathing."

Neuro shook his head. "Whether Tuilak was aware of this fact or not, he ate the apples and filled his stomach. Perhaps it was meant to be a last meal. A kind final gesture to his coworker."

"Then Tuilak went to his refrigerator," Neuro continued. "And took out the dry ice which he had stored there. The freezer is broken—something of a temperature far below zero must have been stowed in it. He would have needed gloves, or some other barrier to keep his hands from touching the bare ice as he transported it."

"For instance," Neuro's voice became dry. "That towel over there." He pointed to the rag, still lying where Neuro had stepped over it earlier.

"Tuilak knew that the room was sealed. We found evidence of his footprints beneath the rear window, made just a short time before his reported time of death." Neuro said, delivering the most damning fact of the reveal. "Tuilak was no complicit victim in this locked-room killing. He must have been making sure that no gas would escape from the windows. Then he simply locked the door to seal the room. The keys stayed in his pocket."

Neuro shrugged. "After that, all he had to do was lie down on the floor and die."

The room was silent. The gathered demons seemed to be poring over Neuro's words, expressions of shock still on their faces. Bullspider's face was the most shocked of all. The only sound came from Magnus, dutifully scribbling everything down inside his notepad.

"…As a final note," Neuro said, his heart feeling heavy. "The furnishings are very sparse in this dwelling. Giving away possessions is a common behavior among those who believe they are going to die, whether from illness or…self-inflicted. There is almost no furniture in here aside from that which is absolutely necessary. Tuilak had this planned."

He closed his mouth. He was finished.

After a few moments more, people began to unfreeze. So that's it, they muttered. Suicide… I can't believe it… Stupid…

One by one they drifted out the door. Samples were wrapped up and tossed into bags. Tape was shredded. Nobody wanted to be in the room anymore. They wanted to put it out of their minds as soon as possible. Suicide was a near-taboo topic for demons. It was seen as a cowardly act, a fatal admission of one's weakness. No one wanted to be close to a demon that couldn't hack it.

There would be no arrest today. Not a single person would leave feeling fulfilled.

And even worse, for Neuro there was no mystery.

The detective's face looked grumpy as a prune. There was no meal from this case at all. If there had ever been one, the culprit—Tuilak himself—had taken it with him.

What a waste, Neuro thought as he started towards the door. His feet scuffed against the floor. What a waste, what a waste, what a waste, what a waste of time, of energy, of life-

Bullspider bumped into him before he could leave. "Nice job," the Head Officer grumbled. "You've solved another one. But I don't care what anybody else thinks of you, genius. You're a bad luck charm. This proves it."

His red eyes glinted dangerously. "If the next time everything goes to the Devil I see you on the front lines, I won't be surprised. When that day comes, Order Branch, you'd better watch yourself."

Neuro scowled as they parted ways. The Head Officer was simply irritated, Neuro knew, mortified that a suicide case had happened under his command. But if the bull wanted to make it personal, then that was his own choice.

Neuro had walked all the way out onto the grassy lawn before he noticed a shadow following him.

He turned to see Magnus. The demon was waiting silently behind him, a notepad clutched to his chest. The top part of his fact was inscrutable behind his tri-color curtain of hair.

"So I suppose even this isn't going to get rid of you," Neuro said. His voice carried all of the crankiness he felt.

Magnus shook his head.

Neuro had just opened his mouth to say something else—he wasn't quite sure what—when he felt his phone receive a message.

He took out the device and looked at it. Then, against all odds, the hint of a smile came to his face. "Alright, flea. You know what? You can stay."

Magnus perked up, despite the insulting nickname. Neuro hid a smirk. Maybe he could train the flea to respond to its name after all.

"We've got another assignment." Neuro waved the phone slightly. "This should be fun. I hear we'll get shot at."

"Your job is stand in front of me," he said, watching dark realization bloom across the other demon's face. "I'm sure that armor of yours can handle it."

This time Neuro gave a real grin, just as evil as before. "After all, what are coworkers for?"

 

Chapter Text

Gasp. Gasp. Gasp.

Ragged breaths pierced the air. A demon ran, picking up his heels the moment they hit the earth as if scared that something would bite down on them. His arms pumped, endlessly propelling him forward. His eyes darted around, searching desperately for the exit, any exit, any exit possible.

The demon had tricolored hair of black, white, and tan. Leathery plates clinked together with every swing of his arms. Buckteeth poked out from underneath his top lip. Stains and minor rips tore through his brown suit.

Pfft. Something flew in from the right.

He dodged. From all sides weapons just kept coming.

Darts flew out of nowhere. The demon sacrificed an arm to block them. A few needles stuck in his armored flesh. He tripped over a hidden cable, kicking it off of his feet at the last possible moment. Gasp. Electrical taser field. Gasp. A ten-ton block dropped from above. Gasp. Snakes, cannons, a cauldron of acid.

At last Magnus made his mistake. One slight misstep landed him face-first into a barbed-wire net. He yelped and rolled with the momentum.

The force carried him over a small hill, dropping the demon down into a mud puddle. He was now completely covered in grime. When he reached out one shaking hand to the edge of the puddle, a massive pillow burst from above, covering his body with snow-white feathers.

"Sixty-two seconds," came a smooth voice. A figure stood outlined against the red sky. "Faster than the first. But slower than your last."

Magnus heaved himself out of the muck. "Sorry," he breathed.

Neuro turned his head to one side. "Don't be sorry. Be better."

"Sorr- yes sir. Sorry. Sir."

Neuro tried to hide his scowl. No matter how many nonsensical obstacle courses he put this maggot through, it wouldn't give up. It knew that these 'training sessions' were nonsense. It must. It knew that this was just an opportunity for Neuro to exercise his sadism.

Was the protozoan really just that subservient? Was it that convinced Neuro would eventually accept it as an apprentice? The thought turned Neuro's stomach.

He would have to cut back on the torture. Otherwise the flea might get the wrong idea.

After all, the true opposite of affection was not hatred—it was indifference. Why spend time and effort of any sort on another being if you despised them? For demons, extended teasing and harassment were common signs of affection. Neuro couldn't have that.

Suddenly a sound burst through the air. It wailed like a siren, curling up to the skies and pulsing with an urgent regularity.

"I thought you turned it off," said Magnus.

"That's not my phone."

Neuro brought out his communications device. That sound was a feature of the alert system. Neuro remembered it from a quick information session back in his Routine Basic Training days.

A little clip-on device was on the top of his phone, blinking red. Neuro knew that it would scramble the signal, preventing the call from being traced under normal means.

He answered, bringing the phone to his ear and turning away as if his "companion" did not exist. Behind him, Magnus slowly began to detangle himself from the net.

"What's the situation? Where?" Neuro wasted no time. This line was only for emergencies of top priority.

There was a pause. In the background, Neuro could hear the noise of demons rushing around, along with an occasional barked command.

"Neuro? Thank the Devil."

Neuro's fingers tightened around the phone. He recognized that voice.

He could picture her now: silver hair falling over her shoulders. Dark brown skin. A single horn sprouting from her forehead and a graceful black dress that fastened behind the neck. Long, black gloves holding the phone. Four white wings hanging from her back, as beautiful as an angel's.

"Enj… Miss Soulscry."

A breathy chuckle came through the speaker. "Always so formal, detective. That's what I like about you." A loud crash on the other end almost drowned out her last words.

"I'm in Headquarters of the Security Branch right now," said Enjel. "The place is an absolute madhouse."

"What's happened?"

"Nothing yet," quipped Enjel. "But we need to keep it that way."

She paused. "We found it, Neuro. We found the bomb you warned us about."

Bomb. The word echoed off of Neuro's ear. It seemed to shake the very ground itself. The air felt ominous. Dust motes floated by, unnatural in their calm state. It was as if someone had stripped away the hologram of the world, showing itsstructure underneath, with lines leading away to an unknown tumor. Neuro was suddenly aware of his beating heart. And of his growling stomach.

"So it was real."

Excellent, he thought. "Damn," he said.

"Where is it?" Neuro demanded, taking a few steps forward to nowhere. "And why call me?"

"The bomb is in Blazing Gate." Enjel's voice enveloped each word thoughtfully, as if even now learning as much as she could from them. She sounded as if she were reading off of a crossword puzzle instead of panicked OB screens. "It's all but confirmed. I've been working on this case myself for an entire month, as you know. We're sure that's the location."

"The amount of time left until detonation is unknown," she stated. "The bug could blow in a week. It could blow in twenty seconds. There is likely some type of remote control operating system, but flares from the Gate are blocking all our hackers. Model, maker, and target of the bug are all equally a mystery."

Neuro grinned. "A mystery. That's what I like to hear."

He lowered the phone for a moment. His gaze fixed on the sky.

Magnus knelt on the ground behind him, leaning in towards Neuro with one hand cupped behind an ear as if straining to overhear the conversation.

"Blazing Gate," said Neuro, still staring at the clouds above. "We need to get there. Now."

What luck, he realized. That Hellhole was only a few hours from here at mach speed. Neuro would bet he was one of the closest officers. No wonder the Lady had called him.

Magnus stood and brushed himself off deftly. "We need to go somewhere?"

"Yes, imbecile. But how? A hearse would take too long, and I would rather not waste a Tool on-"

Something grabbed Neuro from behind. Breath caught in his throat as two arms slipped underneath his shoulders and hitched upwards, holding Neuro in place. There was a slight leathery flapping sound and then they were airborne.

Neuro craned his neck. Spreading out from behind Magnus were two large, batlike wings. They were black, with hooks at the edges that looked sharp enough to rip through flesh. Their leathery surface glinted in the light.

For a moment, Neuro looked on in disbelief. Armor that could block, a decently observant mind, and wings that could actually fly… Had this demon been assigned to Neuro as some sort of completion? Magnus's expression remained blank, his face pointed toward the horizon.

Neuro felt disgruntled. But for the duration of the trip, he managed to keep quiet.


They made record time to the Blazing Gate.

As Magnus crouched, gasping heavily for breath, Neuro looked up at the Gate.

It was a vertical lake of fire. The roiling mass extended back as far as even Neuro's eyes could see. Its heat could be felt from here. The lake surface tossed and turned, folding back in on itself while constantly erupting outwards. Boils of magma swelled at the surface and then burst. Red, orange, and searing shades of yellow mixed together within its depths. Occasionally a lakeflare would occur, arcing out in a ribbon of pure flame.

Truly, the landmark was worthy of the title "Hellhole".

The Blazing Gate beat a new definition of heat into all who beheld it. It felt like standing inside of a compressed Sun dunked in spices and hot sauce, born from the center of the earth. Wrapped in its sizzling fury, Neuro could feel nothing else. He couldn't feel anything, in fact. Nothing except dull pain.

The land here was so parched it was like it had never known moisture. The nearby stones had turned red, burnt to a crisp. The ground cracked wherever living beings walked on it.

Neuro's phone rang again with its air-raid siren noise. He answered it. "I'm here."

"At the Gate already? Impressive, detective. As always."

"Spare me the flattery." Neuro wiped an arm across his forehead, but it was a useless gesture. His body had given up on sweating and was now shedding pure demonic energy in an effort to keep him alive. "No time. Any other information? Size, material, possible motive?"

"None," Enjel said, although she sounded slightly amused at his last line. "Whatever the bomb is, it's already buried within."

For a moment Neuro stood, flames dancing across his emerald green eyes as Enjel remained on the phone. An unspoken understanding seemed to pass between them.

"Neuro," she spoke. "Our best magma-squad is on the way, with divers. They should be able to get it out. But…if you want to go yourself, I won't stop you. I know what hunger is like."

Neuro's drool evaporated before it could even fully form inside his mouth. Did she? Enjel Soulscry, motive-reader, ruler of the thousand hearts, what did she hunger for?

"You brought me a mystery?" he said. "How thoughtful."

He could have sworn that he heard a small chuckle in response. "My pleasure, detective Braineater."

With a click, the line went dead.

Magnus appeared over Neuro's shoulder unannounced. "You seem to be excited. Sir."

"Didn't I tell you not to speak unless spoken to?" Neuro didn't even spare a glance back. "Now come on. We're almost there."

Heat pressed upon them as an oppressive force, pushing the demons down and back with a strength that was almost physical. Just two steps left a person feeling as if they had walked the full length of Hell's Sahara desert alone. Still the two demons struggled forward, Neuro following the demands of his stomach while Magnus trailed close behind.

They struggled and struggled with each step. But at last, they stood as close to the Gate as they could possibly get.

"Do you have a Tool for this too, Sir?" Magnus asked. His wings looked like they were going to melt. The ends of his clothes began to catch on fire. He put them out with a few doses of demonic aura.

Neuro said nothing, preferring to save his energy. He would need it.

He concentrated. In the space between heat-haze and glowing aura a strange device began to appear. It was shaped like an egg, with skinny arms, two legs, and a face. A jetpack jutted from its rear end, the thrust keeping it in the air. A bottle of what looked like alcohol was place between its puckered lips. The entire thing looked like a child's toy.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Surfacer," Neuro announced. The heat bearing down on them seemed to soak through his words as well.

In an indented part of the Tool's surface, three small jets activated, spewing out a viscous liquid. Anything that it touched became coated in a shiny gold substance.

But before Neuro could use it, his grin turned to a frown. He looked at Magnus. He looked up at the Blazing Gate. He looked at Magnus again.

"I need your help."

Magnus's eyes went so wide Neuro could almost see them behind his fringe of hair. "What?"

"Use magnify on me," Neuro insisted. "Evil Surfacer works best when covering small objects. I'll need as much protection as I can get. Use your power to shrink me down."

"Please..." He paused for a moment. "Assistant."

Magnus was speechless for a full two seconds. Then, he hurriedly brought his hands together. Orange aura collected in a pool between them.

As the power activated, Neuro fought to hide a triumphant smirk.


Neuro didn't think it was possible, but the Blazing Gate was even more scorching on the inside.

He floated sideways through the lake of fire. All around Neuro were shades of vibrant orange, searing red, and blistering yellow, passing by like licks from a cat's rough tongue. The temperature was excruciating. Every one of Neuro's feathers felt like they were screaming. He gritted his teeth against the pain.

Only Evil Surfacer kept him from being vaporized. Neuro fueled its protective coating with his own energy, hoping it would last. At least he was smaller now, thanks to the power of Magnify.

Neuro remembered how he had ordered Magnus to toss him up into the lake. The guinea pig demon had managed that, at least. Now Neuro sank like a stone, curled up so as to expose less of himself to the heat.

Falling endlessly through flame, Neuro's memories stirred. He remembered searing heat, an inferno passing by on all sides of him along a strange grid-like plan. It reminded him of the firewall from Routine Basic Training.

He shuddered. This was definitely something he wouldn't want to remember in the future.

Neuro traveled on. The conflagration seemed endless.

Then he saw it. Down below (to the side? further ahead?) was a shape nestled in a bubbling pocket of magma. It was a large box, about as big as Neuro himself was now. It appeared to be made of some sort of superconductive metallic material. A rectangular panel was on its face. It appeared to be inactive. No flashing countdown numbers could be seen.

Neuro tensed. He slowly uncurled from his bowling-ball shape, ignoring how the magma swirled around his limbs. He stretched out one hand, kicking as if to swim closer-

And the flames pulled away in front of him.

The inferno swirled. It kept Neuro calmly in place, while a whirlpool of fire appeared a small distance away. The lava burst out to opposite directions, pulling away in two arcs. It drew back like stage curtains.

A figure leaped out and raised its arms. "Hellooo, Enforcement!" it said.

The demon was shaped like a bipedal salamander. They wore an orange suit. Purple goggles shielded the demon's eyes. They had webbed hands, well-shaped for swimming, and one of them held onto the brim of the demon's hat. A single heavy ring sat on their left pointer finger.

The demon blended in with the Hellfire around the two of them. No, Neuro noticed, seeing their fingers brush through the magma with ease, they gain strength from it.

"Congratulations! You are our 999,999th visitor!" The demon tipped their hat. "Or rather, our first. Anyway, welcome to the show."

Neuro floated in place, arm still outstretched. "Who are you?"

The salamander smiled. "Nothing. Just a challenge. One simple part of the Natural Order."

They swung one arm out to the side. "Here to provide you with all the horrendous, heart-stoppingly intense entertainment that a demon could want! You'll dance, you'll cry, you'll scream in agony! Everything that the late-night shows provide, only I do it better. And you've got a front-row seat."

"You guard this box," said Neuro.

"Hmm?" The salamander tipped their head. "Well there is a box. A bomb, to be precise. As I'm sure you already know, given your presence here. And I am currently protecting it. So yes, it would be accurate to say that I do guard the box."

Neuro flexed one hand. "I've come to destroy it."

"Destroy it? Oh, no, no. Not so fast."

"I challenge you to a game." The demon raised one deft hand. A playing card appeared between their fingers. A slight fizzling at the edges revealed that it was an illusion. "Winner takes all."

"A game?" Neuro's voice betrayed excitement. "How fun. A battle for the bomb, then."

"Yes. No tricks. No cheats. Nothing but you and me."

They faced off. This demon was an illusionist, Neuro knew. This must be the salamander's version of a physical fight. By one game they would determine who got to defuse or keep the bomb. It was combat over property rights.

And Neuro was always up for matching wits.

"Alright," said Neuro. "I accept. But do you know the reason why I like to play such games?"

A wicked grin spread across his face. Firelight caught in his eyes, turning them into two darkly blazing coals. "I've never lost one. Not once."

The salamander just bowed. "Hmph. Then, let's get started."

 

Chapter Text

The salamander demon held out a gloved hand. The magma shimmered as multiple illusory objects appeared: a game board, a deck of cards, two cups that held dice.

"Choose your game," came the salamander's voice. "We have chess. Red-hot poker." The images began to float slightly. They drifted up and circled around each other, juggling so that they rotated as one. "Dice. Or…"

"Stop," Neuro said. A confident grin came to his face as he looked at the spread. "I choose them all."

The salamander paused, a look of surprise on their face. "My… all three of them? Are you sure? Even you, the top crime detective of the Order Branch-"

"I will defeat you," Neuro said stridently. "And show you that there is no hope for the Natural Order." His eyes met the purple-goggled ones of the salamander. "Not while intelligent beings still rule the realms."

The salamander chuckled. "I see. Very well, then."

They waved a hand. The images faded and then reappeared, spread out in a neat line in front of the two demons. Chess was on Neuro's left. Dice was on his right. And cards was placed smack in the middle.

"These are the rules," said the salamander demon. "We will play these selected games. You have a ten-second time limit to respond to your opponent's moves. Master-level regulations are active. Each game has its own way to play and its own methods of winning. All three matches will run simultaneously."

They smiled. "The first to win two out of three matches is the winner!"

Neuro nodded thoughtfully. "What if we tie?" he said. "If two or more games end in stalemates, won't that fail to meet the requirements?"

"If two games end in a tie, then the victor of the third game will be declared the winner," the salamander decided. "For instance, should we tie in chess and cards, but I win dice, then it shall be my victory. And if all three game should end in ties…then we play again."

They chuckled, pulling at the brim of their hat. "Don't worry, detective. I strive for the very best sort of constant, heart-pounding entertainment. If worst comes to worst, we can always go straight to sudden death."

Neuro could guess what that entailed.

"One more thing." The salamander raised a hand. The ring on their finger glowed a dark blue.

Chains sprung out of nowhere, miraculously refusing to melt. Two strands attached themselves to Neuro's leg as well as the base of the salamander's tail.

Neuro shifted, getting used to the uncomfortable pinching sensation. Spontaneous matter creation. That's a very high-level power.

"Hey," he called. His eyes fixed on the other demon's finger. "Where did you get that ring?"

"This ring? It's mine. Just like everything else I own. This hat is mine, these clothes are mine, this voice is mine…" The salamander smiled when Neuro's serious expression refused to budge. "But if you must know…Gobjem sends his regards."

Hmph. Neuro did not reply.

"The winner gets to set up a punishment game for the loser," declared the salamander, aura sparking off of their fingers as the game illusions shuffled themselves. "What say our guest player?"

"Very well," said Neuro, the words rolling smoothly off of his tongue. "I accept."


The game began at once.

"Pawn to E4."

"Pawn to F5."

The pieces moved automatically on the illusory board as the demons called them out.

"Three of Hearts."

"Two of Clubs."

"Roll…One and Six."

"Roll…Pair of twos."

The pace was easy enough, at the beginning. Neuro and the salamander cycled swiftly through each match.

"Pawn to A3."

"Knight to F6."

"Draw. Play Four of Spades."

"Draw. Play Nine of Clubs."

"Roll…Pair of threes. Re-roll-"

"Pawn to A5," said the salamander, along with, "Roll…Six and Four."

Neuro blinked. "Knight to C3. Roll…Three and Two."

"Play Six of Hearts. Pawn to B6. Roll…Six and Six, double points."

Things began to get confusing, leaping from game to game with increasing speed. There was no time-honored order anymore—it had become a free-for-all. Make your move, wait for your opponent's response while playing two other games, and once they moved, it was your job to respond again. Neuro's brain unfolded like a map, plotting endless routes here and there as if constructing three different road trips that all had to synchronize.

"Bishop to B2. Play Queen and King of Diamonds. Roll…Four and Two. Sister dice, add for six points."

"Roll…Two and Two, double stars, re-roll. Knight to E4, take pawn. Play Ace of Clubs."

"Knight to F3. Draw. Play Seven of Hearts. Master-slave, draw two more cards."

Neuro barely managed to draw before the dice game blared blue. The color showed up like ambulance sirens against the background of lava, reminding him that he only had five seconds left to make his move. "Roll," Neuro ordered, his eyes already moving back over to chess.

Even for Neuro it began to get strenuous, playing one game while simultaneously keeping track of others, constantly switching between them and keeping track of ever-changing strategies. There was always something to move, something to plan, some plan that was ruined, some new move to counter. Neuro had to think about frustrating his opponent in three different game languages. And these were not human-level games, either. These were played by demon rules.

The salamander demon made a counter in chess. They advanced uncomfortably close to Neuro's king, and Neuro barely had time to think about responding before the dice game demanded his attention, again glowing blue.

Neuro grit his teeth and recalled where all of his pieces were at lightning-speed. They were two superdemons, dueling all-out on three different battlefields.

"Rook to A4, take knight. Play Ace of Spades."

"Pawn to C4, take pawn. Roll…Three and Six. Sister dice, add for nine. Play-"

Some time passed.

"Game!" came the salamander's voice. "I win dice."

What? Neuro spared one second to look. The dice game was flashing red, obviously meant to signal the salamander's victory.

A curse rose in Neuro's throat. The salamander was better at dice than Neuro was. They obviously had more experience—it showed in the flick of their wrist, in the precious few they needed to think about it, in the ease with which they turned to the game and then turned away.

Neuro looked back to the other matches. He was losing in chess. He redoubled his efforts.

Time passed. How much of it, neither of them knew, nor could they spare the thought to wonder. One game glowed blue. Later, another glowed green—the time warning for the salamander.

On the left, Neuro made the final move to execute his opponent's king. Now all that was left was cards—a match they would finish at lightning speed.

"Queen of Diamonds!"

"Six of Hearts!"

"Ace of Spades!"

When the magma settled, the score was revealed. It was a tie.

"Interesting," said the salamander, rubbing their chin with one hand. "You gave up on a big risk at the end, playing instead to secure a tie. Fascinating strategy." They revealed their hand, the illusion-made cards flipping around to face Neuro. "Considering that you would have lost the risk, and thus lost at both dice and cards, it was a good choice."

Both demons were breathing hard. Their minds still whirred, now around empty, unoccupied space. Neuro was tense in the shoulders. But he wasn't the only weary one. His opponent had lifted up the brim of their hat so they could see.

"A result of '1:1:neutral'," said the salamander, wiping away some spit. "Clever. No one can declare a victory from that."

"Well then. Let's start again." The salamander tossed their shoulders back, speaking in a large production voice as if shaking off their fatigue. "It's tiiiiime for Round Two!"

"It will be interesting to see how you play this time, Braineater." They smiled. "After all, how long can you keep this up?"

Neuro knew what they meant. He couldn't manage to make ties forever. Sooner or later, the other demon would get lucky with their precious dice game. He needed to find a way to end this. Decisively.

Round 2

"Pawn to A3."

"Pawn to B5."

"Draw. Play Nine of Hearts. Pawn to D4. Roll-"

"Pawn to H6. Roll…Six and Six, double points! Draw. Play-"

The two demons went faster than before. The rhythm was easier. The plays were more aggressive, more demanding. They had both avoided loss once. They would not give each other a second reprieve.

The salamander demon concentrated on chess—the game where Neuro had been most strong in the previous round. The avianoid was still good, but he was faltering. Perhaps the ramped-up speed and strategies were taking their toll. Neuro was not taking as much ruthless advantage of the field as he had done in the previous round. While his mind was occupied with making a particularly challenging dice roll, he flat-out neglected to capture a bishop.

"Knight to C3! Roll…Four and One. Re-roll," said Neuro.

"Play Five of Spades. Rook to H4," said the salamander.

"Play Six of Diamonds."

"Roll…One and Two. Keepsies."

"Play One of Hearts. Roll…Three and Four. Pawn to H4, take rook."

Cards was going better for Neuro this time. He had learned amazingly quickly from just one round of dice, also. But the effort was hurting Neuro. His chess game slipped until he was making plays from the blue buzzer timezone almost every single round. The salamander laughed on the inside. They had done it! They had him. Victory would be-

Their's?

Something wasn't right.

"Play King of Spades."

"Queen to D5. Play Ace of Clubs."

"Roll…Three and Three. Doubles. Roll again. Play Seven of Spades."

"Roll…Two and Five. Play Eight of Hearts."

They were slipping in the point count. Cards were flying, slapped down and bluffs called moment to moment. With the utmost effort, Neuro was even managing to counter all of the salamander's best dice rolls. His calls for those games came down quick as lightning, while the chess game lived its life almost constantly in a wash of blue.

What's going on? The salamander redoubled their concentration. They almost had him. All they needed to do was press Neuro for a little more time and he would lose chess-

But it didn't work. Neuro's pieces were clustered around their king, only moving to capture the salamander's pieces when absolutely necessary.

Realization hit the other demon. Neuro hadn't been playing to win. Neuro had been playing to build a wall. This entire time, Neuro had been leading them on, playing so he could form a defensive position on the chessboard. And he was stalling for time by running down the ten-second limit on every turn.

Guh. The salamander changed tactics. They had to break through that defensive wall.

But there wasn't much they could do. They could only capture, at most, one piece of Neuro's per turn. And whenever they stole a piece, another of Neuro's would capture their's right back. It was a detailed and well-laid trap.

They looked across the field to see Neuro smirking. Had that bastard been planning this from the very first move? And not only planned it, but managed to carry it out, while playing two other high-level games?

Cards and dice both turned green, signaling that the salamander demon was running low on time themself. They concentrated.

But the uncertainty had cost them. No matter how fast the demon tried to ramp up speed in the other two games, Neuro kept stalling at chess, always running the clock down to the last two seconds.

Eventually the two demons ended up in a standoff. The white king faced the black king in chess. One of them would have to execute the other. Given their positions, they were set up for a neverending game of run-away. But the salamander still couldn't move their piece carelessly, or else Neuro would move his king in and snap it up for its misstep. The salamander's face twisted in rage.

"Game!" came Neuro's voice. Cards fell into place as he revealed his hand.

"And match." Dice clattered out into a pair of sixes. He smiled. "I win."

The illusions flashed, shimmering in a jolly fashion to signal the end of the match. It was two out of three. Neuro had won.

The cards and dice games were both lit up green for Neuro's victory. YOU WIN was displayed in large letters on his side. YOU LOSE loomed in front of the salamander.

The demons stood in the middle of the lava lake. But this time, neither of them were racing to catch their breath—one was too calm for it, the other too shocked. The salamander's eyes frantically searched the lettering, as if they could not believe what they were reading.

"Y-You lost on purpose," they croaked. "You only played enough to keep the chess game going, and tried to set up a defense instead of an attack…"

Neuro took a deep breath. "So you noticed. You are correct. Handling three high-level strategy games at once did prove to be a bit cumbersome," said Neuro. "In that regard, you have my thanks for almost being a worthy opponent."

He pointed one middle finger up at an imaginary ceiling. "But by getting rid of one game, I could concentrate my efforts on the other two—thus obtaining the minimal amount necessary for victory. Stalling on the chess game, using eight seconds for other thoughts, meant that I could devote extra attention to concentrating on cards and dice. It was an invigorating match you fought. But this win is mine."

He smiled. "Looked like you both underestimated and overestimated my pride," he said. "I am willing to sacrifice it and lose one game if need be...but in doing so I shall win the larger war. And thus my pride shall always be restored to me."

Neuro moved his black king one space closer to the salamander's white king. Without a word, the white king snapped it up.

Final result: 2:1:no tie.

"Game, set, match." The illusions shattered at Neuro's words, breaking down into shimmering fragments and disappearing into the lava around them. The salamander stared, blank-faced, as their powers fizzled away.

Neuro clapped his hands together, grinning like a child. His face looked completely innocent. And yet, that expression was somehow the most terrifying one of all. "Now then. I believe someone mentioned a punishment game?"

He had summoned a toolbox and was just about to take out some equipment when he noticed a soft smile on the other demon's face. "Did you enjoy our match that much?" Neuro asked. "Or is the concept of torture so pleasant to you? I promise you, this will not be something even a masochist could enjoy."

The salamander laughed. It was a disturbing sound, starting out small and then building up into a mad, raucous burst. "You've blown it, detective Braineater. We haven't underestimated your pride at all. It blinds you."

They grinned. A mad light danced in their eyes. "The bomb has finished cooking."

Despite the surrounding inferno, a shock stuck Neuro's heart cold. He looked down. The box beneath them was now glowing orange, as if it had absorbed some of the Hellhole's intense heat. The blinker on its front was now flashing with regular precision. A panel on its side showed a bar of energy. It was full all the way to the top.

Neuro cursed. He looked back up.

Nothing but empty flames filled the space where the salamander had been. Their long orange tail floated in magma. It had detached from its owner. The chains on it clinked uselessly.

Neuro immediately began to untangle himself. He cursed again as the metal bit into his leg. These chains were not illusions. He formed one arm into a chainsaw-like apparatus and put it to work. The lava churned with the motion, generating even more heat if that was even possible.

In the few seconds it took to get free, the bomb caught Neuro's attention again. If what the salamander had said was true, and it really was charging in here…

As the chains finally fell away, Neuro stretched out a hand. His mind raced, wildly flipping through all of the available options: he needed something suitable, something, anything that would fix his mistake-

At last a Tool appeared. A segmented chain materialized from thin lava, hooking itself behind the bomb. Its two ends stretched out beyond sight. The chain was made from square slats, jagged edges, and a bevy of miniature skulls. It waited for Neuro's command, pulled taught as a spring.

777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Shooter, Neuro thought. He didn't need to give a verbal command. At a mere thought, the Tool activated.

The chain shot through the lake like a whip. The bomb disappeared in the blink of an eye, catapulted somewhere far, far away.

Neuro grit his teeth. Finding it again would be the hard part. But one step at a time. The bomb was out. For now, that was the important thing. Neuro could only hope that he had been in time, and it hadn't had time to charge.

In the empty space that the bomb left, quickly replaced by flames, Neuro imagined that he could hear the salamander laughing.

A bolt of unknown emotion pierced through Neuro's chest. This was all his own fault. He had been overconfident. He had been a fool. His stupid penchant for games had let a criminal escape, and endangered his precious mystery as well. Never again, he vowed, finding the time between passing seconds. Nothing but fire heard him, and yet Neuro felt the promise sink deep into his bones.

Neuro turned and lunged. He began clawing with all his might. The protection of Evil Surfacer shimmered on his feathers as he swam alone back through the lava.

He had a bomb to chase.

Chapter Text

Dark and murky were the skies of Hell. Thick clouds blocked light from any star, making the expanse above feel as endless and hopeless as life below. The clouds stirred in a few places, forming whorls and spirals where the Sun had grumbled past. Only a few multicolored "scratches" broke through the gloom.

Suddenly an object streaked across the sky. It moved like a comet, blazing orange and yellow.

The salamander demon fled at mach speed. Their suit was smoking, steam curling off of their skin to release excess heat from the magma. Their hat had fallen off, cast aside and doomed to fall somewhere below. But otherwise, they were unharmed. Wings flapped behind them, large, orange, and curved enough to glide masterfully through the air. Skin was ripped on their back from where the wings had broken through.

"Hyahahahaha!" They laughed in relief. "That foolish detective never saw it coming. Didn't you know? Salamanders are related to dragons!"

They turned their head back, looking through goggles that now had one crack across the lens. "No matter how fast your wings might be, you'll never catch up to-"

"HI, THERE!"

There was a blur to their left. A smudged shape like a large beak open and grinning against a black backdrop, blonde hair whipped sideways, and two horrible, beady eyes staring out…

They didn't even have time to scream.

CHOO-CHOO-CRASH!

With a noise like seventy brass bands falling at once, the entire conglomeration came crashing down to earth.

It took a full thirty seconds for the dust to settle.

"Whew." Neuro poked his head out from the wreckage. "Now that was a wild ride. "

He hopped out of the mangled doorway and stood to admire the damage. The Tool next to him most resembled a steam train or some other kind locomotive. Once it had looked demented—now it was merely dented. Its body was sleek and shiny black. The top of the main body was ridged leading up to the operator's cabin. The operator's cabin itself had four windows from which to look out, and the decal of an eye resting above the front.

Strange-looking legs rested underneath the train's chassis, where its wheels should have been. However, judging by the couplers that ran along its sides, they worked just the same as a wheel system. The front of the device was morphed into a face, with two lamp-light eyes and a hefty set of teeth resting in place of a protective grille. A circular collection of bumps decorated its forehead. One waxy protrusion came out of the top, looking like a melted smokestack.

The machine glinted in the hellfire light. It was the latest model in demonic transport, a feat of Hellish engineering and the best speed that blood-contracts could buy. A status symbol…and Neuro had just crashed it into the ground.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Rapid," Neuro mused. X's crossed out the train's eyes. The majority of its face was shoved irrevocably into the dirt. A groaning sound came from the boiler. "I must say, it caught up rather well. Zero to Mach 1 in the span of one second…how very useful. It requires some extra energy to withstand the gravitational forces, but I managed to endure its speed."

"Thank you for the experience, dear salamander." Neuro's voice was colored by a hint of derision—or was it disgust?—as his gaze passed over the orange splat between Evil Rapid's nose and the hard, unforgiving soil. "Or rather, for the lesson."

"May their soul rot," Neuro muttered as he turned away. He did not wish to spend one further iota of time or energy on such a being. They were dead, and that was all that mattered.

Neuro faced the horizon, his beak lifted slightly as if to test the breeze. "Come, flea," he announced. "The bomb shouldn't be far now."

He scowled. "There's a city up ahead. How troublesome. If it flew to that length, that could mean bad things for us…"

Suddenly Neuro noticed the silence.

He turned. "Worm. Have your ears devolved into micro-ossicles?" he called.

Neuro walked around to the side of Evil Rapid. The second flank of the Tool's body slowly came into view. "If you don't speak up when spoken to, then I will leave you here with no-"

His words cut off.

There was a figure curled over one of the back windowsills. Their brown suit hung in tatters.

Magnus's neck stretched out to an impossible length. His head hung limp. His arms were bent and cracked against the window ledge, some bones pressed against the ridge and curling over as if embracing it. One arm, fully dislocated from its socket, draped. His body was all too still, the kind of stillness that signals even in Hell that it's over, it's all over, and there is nothing, nothing at all that can ever be done. Part of his wings had been ripped away in the Mach 1 winds.

The demon, the one that had been so sickeningly loyal to Neuro, the one so convinced he would take them on as an apprentice, hung there in horrible stillness.

Magnus's fringe was flipped up, showing every bit of his eyes. They were round and blank, like two black buttons. They stared at nothing. Neuro had the choice of whether or not to look. He did.

Neuro stood there for a few moments. His gaze remained fixed on the body.

Then he turned and, without a word, strode away.


RING, RING.

RI- Click.

"Crime detective Neuro? Status report!"

"…"

"Hello!?"

"Alive."

"Oh well thank the Devil for that. Obviously you are! Given the crisis we're facing, I'd hate to think smart-ass avian zombies were now on our list, too."

"If you have time to sass, you have breath to spare, HQ manager Doomfang. Shall I assume the crisis is over, then?"

"Com-ple-tely freak-ing opposite! Everybody is losing their thricedamned tails over here. Where are you? Location report."

"Flying. South-Southwest of Blazing Gate. Something happened with the bomb-"

"Oh I know about the Damned bomb."

"You do?"

"Everybody knows about the Damned bomb! We got word of it crashlanding in central Yzguth two minutes ago. Our teams are scrambling to respond. Reports say that it came from the direction of Blazing Gate, where our intel said we'd find it. What the blazes is going on, detective?"

"The bomb was protected by a guard. It was an…unforeseen event. I have neutralized the perpetrator. However, the bug was sent away before I could act. Am now in pursuit."

"You'd better be. Devil take it all!" There was some more cursing and noises in the background of demons rushing around.

"This is bad…a bomb that freaking size is gonna cause a lot of damage if it explodes. Yzguth is the second capital city—there are plenty of buildings to wreck and demons to kill. Civilians at the scene are rowdy enough already. It's all we can do to keep things under some semblance of control. That bomb would unleash pure chaos!"

"Even worse!" Neuro cried. "If that bomb explodes, then I won't get my mystery!"

"That's what you're worried about? Hold on, linking us to the universal line…"

"All units, listen up! This is crisis level scarlet. The bug has landed in central Yzguth, repeat, central Yzguth. Bug reportedly on ground floor of a company building. No one is to approach aside from authorized personnel."

"Roger," came a tinny voice over the phone, sounding as if it came from far away.

"Roger."

"Roger."

"Roger," said Neuro. "Requesting authorization. Crime detective, squad of one. Access code: 777. Check with Executive Officer Leonfang if needed."

"No need. Code pre-cleared. Operative Braineater granted access. Don't any of you other mudsuckers dare follow him or I'll kill you."

"Already adjusted my course. E.T.A. ninety seconds."


Neuro stood with one foot propped up on a pile of rubble. He looked down into an enormous crater.

The impact had blasted a hole in the earth. Although it was twenty feet wide, the crater itself was shallow. Its sides sloped down gently, meeting at a dip in the middle littered with chunks of rubble. The ground that shaped its sides was granite in color, and smooth, as if someone had just taken an artist's scraper to the concrete.

On the far side, two lines traced the path of something that had skidded into the leaning frame of a building. The first floor of the structure had been completely blown out upon impact. Most of its windows were shattered.

Neuro half-jogged, half-skidded down the side of the crater. Behind him, Evil Rapid disappeared. He could just hear the beginnings of growling demons stepping out from alleyways as he crossed to the other side.

Neuro slipped into the shadows beneath the building's overhang. It was easy to enter—the front corner of the structure had been completely blasted away. The structure itself leaned precariously to the side. It felt like this building alone had gotten to witness a preview of the end of the world.

It was so dark that Neuro heard the demons up ahead before he saw them.

A group of about five beast-types were gathered around a shape. They snarled and pawed at a box by their feet. The box was still glowing a light orange, though its heat was fading quickly. A pile of rubble kept it propped up on one side. Its edges were rounded, having been melted down and softened.

One of the demons give it a hard kick in the side. The box resounded with a clang. Two other demons raised their hands, preparing to bring down their fists on its metal chasis-

CRASH

BANG

In less than two seconds all of the demons lay, dazed and broken, in a heap on the ground. Neuro flexed one hand. "Phew. I've gotten better at direct combat, it seems."

He grabbed the demons by their collars and hefted them outside one by one. They flopped down into a groaning pile. Neuro would just have to hope that their noise wouldn't attract others.

Neuro knelt down in front of the box. There was no mistaking it. This was the bomb that had been in Blazing Gate. Neuro raised his fingers to the display and lightly brushed off its surface. Now the only question was whether it or not it had really been able to charge. Maybe he had been in time. Maybe the landing had jarred its system-

Neuro cursed.

"It's active."

"What?" came the HQ manager's response over the universal line.

"The bomb is active. I've found it. I'm standing right in front of it."

Neuro's gaze ran over the explosive's surface. The display panel was glowing dimly, numbers flashing irregularly on its surface. A panel on its side showed that the power bar was at full. It hummed like a contented feline.

Neuro grit his teeth. This was all his fault. The shock from landing must have jarred its system. He had been too late to get the bomb out of its charging station, and ended up triggering an even greater danger instead.

"What now?" Voices came over the line, tense as a tightrope.

"You said the bomb was active," said HQ manager Doomfang. "Any countdown?"

"No," said Neuro. He watched the numbers tick back and forth on the display. Eight, twelve, three, twenty-two... "It's not distinct yet."

More cursing. "Just get out of there, detective. Our bomb squads can deal with it. We'll focus on putting a barrier around the city-"

"You can't!" came another voice. Extra static and shouts nearly obscured their message. "No barrier will hold! My demons are being overrun now. The local people are in a frenzy, and they're headed towards central!"

The captains and commanders began to argue. Their voices fused together in Neuro's ears, building up and amassing into one big distraction. Then, as Neuro fought against frustrating, he thought he saw something. A flicker ran around the edges of the bomb. A multicolored ribbon floated above its surface and then vanished.

Neuro looked again at the display. He looked at the keypad just below it. He looked back at where he thought the multicolored light had been. Something clicked.

"There's no need," he spoke up, silencing the voices over the radio. "I'll solve it."

"'Solve'? What are you talking about?"

"This bomb contains a mystery," Neuro said, his smooth voice sounding more assured than any of them. "And mysteries are my specialty. There is the option here to enter a password-"

He tapped the display. Indeed, after Neuro had pressed a random button, the prompt PASSWORD and a multitude of lines had appeared on-screen. "…And I have no doubt that doing so will deactivate the bomb. It's our only chance. Unless you would let chaos be released unchallenged."

"I can handle this case. Remain on support and do whatever you slugs want out there. I am not leaving."

There were a few seconds filled with muttered doubts.

"He can really do it?"

"He is the OB prodigy."

"If a mere crime detective wants to put his own hide at risk…"

HQ manager Doomfang's voice rang out. "We don't have time. If the Operative is so damn confident, then let him bet his life."

"Neuro," they said. "Can you really do this?"

Neuro's green eyes remained fixed on the bomb's screen. "I will solve it."

"Then good luck," said the HQ manager, although all demons knew luck didn't exist. "Operative Braineater is granted permission. All commanders and captains report back to your ranks, focus on containment and punishment of the rioters. No penalties for brute force. After ten minutes we'll all check in, keep your phones on-"

Beep.

Neuro turned off his communications device. It would only be a distraction. He took a deep breath and tried to clear his mind. He flexed the fingers of both hands and concentrated on the puzzle before him.

Now then…how must this meal be prepared?

The screen read: PASSWORD – _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Chapter Text

PASSWORD –  _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Neuro blinked. Twelve spaces. A keyboard with the standard setup, including shift keys. No other clues.

Neuro knelt on the debris-covered ground and leaned against the machine with one arm. This was going to be difficult. He could tell—the sheer length alone included within itself days' worth of possibilities.

Letters? Phrases? Convoluted or simple?

And even worse, he had no idea what his time limit was. The monitor waited for a password. A keyboard was set below it for typing. But there was no other panel, no part displaying a sickening, imposing countdown.

Yet, the bomb was surely active. It hummed beneath Neuro's fingers, glowing softly with its stored heat. It felt alive, like a coiled-up snake sleeping before receiving an exceptionally rude awakening.

Of course, Neuro scowled. They wouldn't give me the time. Not if they had any brains in their head. A timer was a waste of materials and energy. Why keep track of the seconds left if you actually wanted the bomb to go off? A countdown could unnerve anyone trying to shut it off, true—perhaps it was most useful for distracting your opponent, diverting their mental energies. It could even cause weak-minded individuals to panic. But aside from providing suspense in movies, a timer served no practical purpose. This setup was much more sinister.

Without a countdown Neuro could not adequately prepare. The bomb could go off in ten seconds. It could go off in ten minutes. It could explode beneath his fingertips right now, or in an hour, or the next time he blinked. It could all be over. Any plans that Neuro made had to take into account the idea that they might never have enough time to come to fruition. He was spending points without knowing how many were in his pocket. He was operating beneath a buzzer with no view of the game clock.

He had no way of knowing—and the stress of not knowing was almost as distracting as knowing. Either way, the invisible moments slipped eternally by.

Neuro concentrated on the screen and thought. He had been thinking from the very first moment his eyes met the display.

The most common ingredients in passwords are, Neuro recalled as his fingers flew across the keyboard, trying out phrases. Names, birthdates, a combination of the two. Easy-to-remember words. Maybe a consequent string of numbers thrown in—like 1234.

password

1234567890

No. Those were all too easy.

Neuro ran through the most common password setups. He inserted the names of celebrities, world leaders. No good. The simple options just didn't line up. It would have to be something else.

Twelve spaces, huh? Divided into six, that was two words. Divided even further, it could be three.

Neuro tilted his head back and let the letters flow: SAVING SARONG / SEEING UNISON / UNOPEN SPRING /STRONG NATION / LIVING LOVING.

NITROGENASES NITROMETHANE NOISEMAKINGS NOMENCLATURE NONABSORBENT NONACADEMICS NONACTIVATED MISDEMEANORS MISDIAGNOSIS MISDIRECTION APOCALYPTIST APOLITICALLY APOMORPHINES APOSTROPHIZE APPEASEMENTS APPETIZINGLY APPRECIATION-

Neuro shook his head as if physically flinging the ideas out of his skull. No, no, no! None of those seemed right. And even if they were, he would never be able to tell, would he? Running random letters through a code was the job of a hacking device.

Neuro huffed in frustration. Of course. Whoever made this bomb had put a lot of effort into it. They wouldn't lose that easily.

Still, they've made one big mistake by including this passcode. The empty dashed spaces reflected in Neuro's eyes like a starting line. They had given him a chance. And wherever there was even the slightest chance, Neuro would be sure to take it.

AAAAAAAOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHH

Demons howled from far away. The noise echoed over the bowl of the crater and rolled down to gather around Neuro beneath the overhang. Then came the muffled pounding of feet, starting at a volume lower than anybody could hear and then building, slowly, slowly, until one could almost feel the vibration as the first tremor of what was to come. Somewhere off in the distance a sharp yelp was silenced. Neuro could not see out from under the overhang, but he had no doubt that dark shapes were beginning to flicker around the lip of the crater.

When he closed his eyes, he could imagine it—scores of demons rushing throughout the fractured streets, making their way past skyscrapers and buildings. They ran on multiple legs, padded hands, tentacles, stilts, or they swung from lamppost to lamppost. They would all be racing towards Central, where the mysterious light had fallen and shaken the earth. Strange things were happening in their city. And strange things meant threats, which meant a response. Which meant violence.

Demons of all shapes and sizes were charging from all over the city, making noise and striking out at whoever crossed their path. They ran across the concrete with all the precision of a mob, yet at the same time arrow-straight. Chaos rode their wake like a tidal wave. Demonic nature was given the slight trigger it needed to unleash. Slabs of stone became bowling balls. Iron posts became spears. Confusion and rage fed the confusion and rage. Shrieks of pain and war cries filled the air as battlelust overtook all.

Surely the riots had already started. That had been the source of the static and screams Neuro heard on the communications device.

"Grr…"

Groaning from the entrance of the overhang caught Neuro's attention. The demons that he had knocked out were beginning to stir too. He wouldn't be safe here for much longer.

I need time. Neuro's mind raced. Much more time.

But a deep tiredness weighed down Neuro's bones. Aura fizzed at his fingertips. That's strange. There's not enough...

Realization shot through Neuro with a jolt. How many Tools had he used? He did a quick count—starting from Evil Surfacer, three in the past day alone. And that wasn't even counting the amount he had to pay while swimming in that accursed lake of lava.

Neuro growled deep in his throat. He couldn't fight off all of the demons and solve the passcode at the same time. The passcode for the bomb took priority—he shot a glance back at it—especially since he didn't know how much time remained.

I didn't want to use this… Neuro steeled his spirit. He reached for a Tool. But I have no choice!

After a moment's concentration, Neuro's left hand glowed a mucus green. He felt a sensation rather like a small door open and then shut. When Neuro next unfolded his talons, he saw what the Tools had left there.

A small number of triangular capsules were wedged in the spaces between his fingers. The triangles were three dimensional, with raised edges. Their surfaces were flawlessly smooth. Each was about the size of a human fingernail.

777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Diversey. Neuro brought the pale yellow shapes up to his mouth. Without even blinking, he swallowed all three.

They were not meant to be chewed, Neuro discovered. Their material was far too hard for that. Instead, he swallowed them down into his stomach, where, dissolved by stomach acid, their energy would be released and join with his.

Within one second the Diversey took effect.

Neuro's eyes widened at a sudden power boost, his exhaustion washing away as easily as if he had been drenched by a warm summer wave. New strength flooded through his limbs, pumping a transfusion of aura through his veins. His body became encased in energy.

Neuro cried out in triumph. He was restored! He was strong—operating at full capacity once more! And he had hardly needed to do anything! Oh, it was a glorious, if slightly addicting, sensation. He felt practically brimming with power.

Even so, Neuro could only hope it would be enough.

He concentrated his energies on the purpose that he had summoned them for. Neuro felt the power sink deep within him, going somewhere out of reach. It pulled at a gate that had been purposefully sealed shut. An immense amount of aura was required to unlock it. An even greater amount was required to select the desired "Tool" and call it forth. The Devil would take Neuro's energy, and keep it as rent. Those were the conditions. That was the price.

That was what it required to summon one of the Weapons.

"7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor – Evil Mud!" Neuro announced.

Outside, the skies grew dark. A growing mass of demons shrieked as a monster began to materialize in front of them.

The being was colossal. Forming out of nothing, a figure burbled and sloshed upwards until a mass of brown sludge stood upon the ground. Its body was enormous—at least twenty feet tall and leagues wide. Its arms dripped dark slime.

The Weapon remained rooted to the ground like a candle, endlessly melting and reforming itself as a grotesque golem of mud. A mass of tortured faces swirled in its upper layer. One-eyed and wide-mouthed, they appeared to be perpetually gasping for breath. A strange seal marked with rosettes and a five-pointed star hung on the center of its stomach.

The giant bellowed in a voice like one thousand swamps sucking down stones. Neuro's commands reached it. The mud golem began to spread out, breaking off parts of itself to slowly encircle the ruined building. It stayed connected to its pieces by a thick paste of goo.

Evil Mud smashed whoever dared to come close. It even used its massive arms to decimate buildings that were in the way of its assignment. Truly, it was a monster capable of destroying an entire city.

From within the tilted building, Neuro only saw a mass of brown sludge standing outside. Still, he knew that it would be following his instructions to seal off the area, creating a sort of quarantine zone. This way, no one could get past. Not the Natural Order. Not the demons of Yzguth. And not the Order Branch either. Maybe it would even contain the explosion, if the Mud walls were thick enough.

Neuro tried not to think that was implicitly giving up.

"Good," Neuro breathed. "Now that the nuisance has been removed…" He turned back to the bomb.

With one flick of the wrist, Neuro encased his left hand in Evil Script. He hardly had to think about it by now. It functioned almost as another mode of his transformable hands. And even despite the summoning of Evil Mud, he still had a considerable amount of power left over.

Neuro allowed himself one satisfied smirk. Those Diversey batteries had magnificent potential.

He placed his hand against the bomb's display. Was it just Neuro's imagination, or was its surface burning hotter?

Neuro's fingertips had barely touched the metallic casing before a jolt shot through his system and the world stretched, dissolving into scattered pixels.

010001010100111001010100010001010101001001000010010011110100110101000010

When Neuro next opened his eyes, he was a program.

This space was just as cold and blue-green as he remembered. Neuro lifted one arm to admire himself. A purple-and-white capelet brushing over his shoulders, then blue sleeve-like feathers leading down to sharp talons…every bit of him was present and accounted for.

Neuro had done many more practice rounds and real-world tests since his first visit to the virtual world. It no longer disoriented him as it once did. It no longer required as much effort on his part to navigate the miniscule, yet infinite space. In fact, this realm had almost become Neuro's playground.

He pushed with his mind and flew onwards, confident that Evil Mud would protect his physical body. He had a plan.

Soon, Neuro found the password. It took the form of a great wall in space. Nearly invisible, it stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see. A sign that looked exactly like the display hung in the middle. PASSWORD –  _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ , it read.

Upon closer observation, Neuro could see that the wall was actually made of metal. It was simply constructed out of some sort of transparent material. Rivets dotted its surface, making the 'light' bend around them. If Neuro had to guess, he would say that the wall was about one foot thick. And all of it was completely see-through.

Neuro tilted his head back. He flew upwards, coasting just a few inches from the wall's surface. There was one other hacking strategy: circumvention. He could simply try to bypass the mechanism that checked for the password. If Neuro could do this, he could avoid all of the struggle to crack the code within the time limit.

A slight break in the air appeared and grew ever closer. Neuro grinned. It was the edge of the password wall. He had done it!

Neuro's face passed in front of the border, looking over the invisible wall. Waiting there were three hulking demons.

The monsters stood, impossibly large in this virtual space. They looked like a trio of ogres—one of them red, carrying a spiked club. The other was blue, with a wide sword. The last was green, with a knotted whip.

All three of them had mashed, ugly faces. They glared at the newcomer. The smile froze on Neuro's face, shattering and falling into a frown like broken glass.

The three ogres raised their weapons. Two of them braced their hands against the invisible password wall. They roared and lunged-

0100010101010010010100100100111101010010

Neuro gasped, standing in front of the bomb again. His knees were bent as he fought for breath. Events in the virtual world might not harm him physically, but they could harm him mentally, and cost him energy just the same.

"No good," he muttered, thinking of the ogres. "There's code in the way. They were expecting that…"

So, circumvention was impossible. And he didn't dare to waste any time in trying to find another way around.

Neuro wiped one hand across his cheek. He had no choice. Traditional codebreaking it was.

He sat down in front of the bomb's display. Calm down. Take one deep breath. Feel the pulsing of your own mind, and start again from a rational standpoint. Be what you say you are, 'child of the neurons'.

Neuro thought. I need leads. Something that can narrow down the insane amount of combinations. What do I know?

He had already determined that simple passwords were out. Neuro's encounter with the code-ogres only confirmed this—the Natural Order was not playing around. They did not want him to stop this bomb. That meant that its password would be difficult.

In a way, ironically that made Neuro's job easier. The strongest passwords, those that top-level security and top-level bombs depended on, followed a few criteria: lower case, upper case letters, and numbers. Even symbols, if one was really serious. The average person could come up with a strong password after just a bit of work, if they cared enough.

Or the password could be entirely random. The thought came to Neuro's mind unbidden. The pure elite had those—passwords generated from a discordant mess of upper and lower case letters, symbols, and numbers, with no pattern whatsoever…

Neuro gritted his teeth. He didn't have time for that. There would be no way he could run through all possible twelve-character combinations within the unknown time-limit, not even with the help of Evil Script. He had to assume that some part of the password followed a rational order. He had to.


Moments slipped by, feeling more and more precious with each one that fell away. Neuro worked.

He tried to block everything out. The roar of Evil Mud, the fluttering of his heart, the heat of the bomb on his skin, definitely slowly increasing by now…he forgot it all and devoted his brain entirely to solving the puzzle.

AnArChY00001, he clicked the keys. Backspace twelve times.

ch40s1ch40s

s4l4m4nd3r1, s4l4m4nd3r2, s4l4m4nd3r3…

d34tht00rd4r

Evil Script was helping. With the Tool dipped into the bomb's surface, Neuro could "feel" more or less if the code that he input worked with the encryption. It began to feel more like picking a lock—each key Neuro pressed was like the edge of a door key jittering against a locking mechanism. He knew for sure now that the passcode included numbers. Script ran random-arrangement algorithms in the meantime.

Themes, Neuro thought as he fiddled. Maybe he had been on to something earlier in wondering if the twelve spaces represented different words. For a proud group such as the Natural Order, it would make sense.

He directed Evil Script to run a check using a database with words such as chaos, nature, instinct, death. Neuro sat, hunched forward into the screen. Nothing. He frowned. Impossible. How else was he supposed to-

Wait. Neuro's fingers twitched as if he had been struck with lightning. The Natural Order.

He reached out to the keyboard. On automatic, he typed in a phrase. 'n4tur4l0rd3r'. It was twelve spaces.

Neuro pressed enter.

Instead of the command being sent off to spark through the bomb's system, the message faded. Another phrase appeared.

ARE YOU SURE?

Neuro hesitated. Yes or no—it was a simple choice. Y or N. Y or N.

He stared at the screen. Evil Script read the data slowly back.

…NO.

Neuro sagged after inputting his choice. He couldn't afford to be careless. This was the closest he had gotten so far, but Neuro knew that he shouldn't risk it unless he was absolutely certain.

I've only got one shot, Neuro thought with grim determination. Why give him more? For all he knew, he didn't have "three lives" when playing this game. One wrong answer could blow the whole operation. Literally.

Neuro had to assume the worst: that he had only one chance, and a single wrong answer would cause the bomb to go off. And also—the bomb clicked around Neuro's hand as its temperature rose—that he was running off of the absolute dredges of time.

The display returned to normal, with its infuriating blank spaces. Neuro clacked his beak. Evil Script whirred.

The empty, phantom seconds ticked by, echoing onward into the past like prisoners marching towards their execution.

Chapter Text

A breeze drifted through the gutted corpse of the office building. It curled around fallen pillars and human-sized chunks of rubble, bringing the dull scent of musk and desolation to the demon crouching there. The air felt primed, as if it itself were ready to blow at any moment. Neuro tried not to think of his panic as a slow-burning fuse.

Evil Script whirred as his left hand, running combinations at a pace of one thousand per second.

gabzbzk2IEUv

Ky3Enz3eNBo7

GAQjYzLjA17I

KggpBgs06CHL

6DDyHHOvlrBJ

y1q3NsglupZb

DeCBVsRHimDc

Neuro's talons dug into the scaled flesh around his knee. It would take hundreds of thousands of years to crack this code without any breakthrough. Demon technology was great, and Neuro's brain was spectacular, but even he couldn't guess-and-check his way through billions of combinations.

One shot, the words repeated in Neuro's brain, as focused as they were anxious, One shot, one shot…

"Maybe the all-caps marker is a clue," Neuro muttered. "'PASSWORD'…" His fingers tapped over the keys, flying through possibilities as if trying to outspeed his thoughts. It could have been unconscious carry-over from the programmer. Or not. If not, then he was just desperate.

Neuro frowned. Impossible. He was not yet out of options. There had to be something he still hadn't thought of-

A burst of inspiration struck him. He looked at the keyboard again. A spacebar! Why would that be included unless…

Neuro lunged. He checked for spaces with Evil Script, running through each of the twelve notches at a time. What if one or more was a blank space? Hell, what if all of them were blank? That would be a genius way to-

Negative. There were no spaces.

Damn it. Neuro ground his beak, barely stopping himself from crying aloud.

This was one of his weak points. No matter how much Neuro tried to reason his way through it, passwords were usually connected to something important to their creator. Either that, or something that the person could easily remember. With enough information Neuro might be able to know what someone was thinking, but never what they truly held dear. That was a matter of the heart. Not the mind.

But the attempts had caused Neuro's mind to move, at least.

Wait a minute. Neuro's horns tingled. The spot on his ankle where the salamander demon's chains had held him began to itch. I thought I had no leads, or knew of any top operatives in the Natural Order, but…

Images flashed through Neuro's head:

"One more thing." The salamander raised a hand. The ring on their finger glowed a dark blue…

"Hey," Neuro called. His eyes fixed on the other demon's finger. "Where did you get that ring?"

The informant took a breath. "There is one person that could be. His name is said to be ˀɅ˜ǜŁ̌˳ƒư«˰ƪŔ— only, he's not called that anymore."

They stared at Neuro and Zera, as if their wide eyes could elicit some sort of understanding in the other two. "The rings! That's the whole point. That's how he does it, they say. Each time that Synap defeats a demon, he gains another ring …

Neuro's head tilted. He twitched, blinking rapidly for moment, information piecing itself together inside his brain with all the energy and speed of an inverted bomb blast.

Blue skin. Impending battle. Neuro's pounding heart. Thin fingers loaded with two to three gemstones each, hands folded over a staff. A pinched, angular face peering out from the shadows. Twisted horns and a Devilish smile.

"Anyway, because of that, they began to call him 'Allpower'," the informant said. "If you were to rank him, he'd probably clock in as a virtual five-star all-around…" "…I don't know about you boys, but that's terrifying."

Neuro remained in his thoughtful pose… Thoughts danced just beyond his irises. "I see. Synap 'Allpower', was it?"

"This ring? It's mine. Just like everything else I own. This hat is mine, these clothes are mine, this voice is mine…" The salamander smiled when Neuro's serious expression refused to budge. "But if you must know… Gobjem sends his regards."

A sneer from a blue face loomed out of the darkness in the folds of Neuro's mind. But the goblin wasn't the only demon smiling.

'Synapallpower' didn't fit, Neuro knew. But maybe…

He typed something on the keyboard, replacing letters with numbers. 'Syn4psg0bg3m' . It fit. Twelve spaces exactly.

Neuro looked over the entry, each beautifully-filled space as wonderful to the eyes as Hell's highest-price goreshow. Pride burned through his chest like purifying flame, washing away all doubt. He had it. He had solved the case.

He punched in the cipher.

ARE YOU SURE?

Y/N. Neuro grinned and bounced on his heels. Once the confirmation arrives…yes, it should be easy to tell if the system will accept this…once the confirmation arrives, I can press Y…it's hardly even necessary to check.

Seconds slipped by. Slowly, slowly, Neuro's confident expression began to fall.

"…"

If he had been a lesser creature, Neuro would have said that he couldn't believe it. He would have pressed that button and been done, caved in to his instincts and gone with what the answer that he had found, the answer that he knew to be right. But he would have paid the price.

"How?" Neuro said, his voice breaking into a shout. "HOW?"

There was no confirmation from Evil Script. This password was incorrect.

Neuro fingers screamed at him to press the button. He stared at the panel as if the letters would rearrange themselves into the right pattern if only he glared them into submission. For a moment, Neuro even had the thought of a worm—that maybe Script was wrong. Maybe if he confirmed his choice now, hit "yes", it would all be over, it would all be alright, the bomb would deactivate, and the mystery would deliver itself into his arms.

But he couldn't.

Script ran algorithms of all possible combinations of the chosen name, capitalizing, scrambling, mixing up the order, the numbers, adding symbols, everything. No. No. No.

The answer was still no. Nothing felt right.

RRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAARGH

Almost as punishment for his wrong answer, a guttural roar erupted from a nearby staircase.

Neuro cursed, his attention diverted. What now?

The staircase was across the decimated floor, but Neuro's sharp eyes could see it easily. Before long, figures began to trample into view.

Demons appeared at the entrance, having charged down from the floors above. Some were bipedal and came flouncing, kicking their legs at each step. Others were mutlilegged and simply hurled themselves downward in a flailing mass. All were dressed in formal office attire—the demonesses in black skirts, the males with ties knotted around their throats. One frog demon even had eight ties tied at once around his head and arms.

There must have been some demons working in the building that still hadn't been killed by the bomb's impact. Oh how Neuro wished they had.

"Kuh…"

Neuro reached to the side desperately. He summoned a Tool with the slightest green spark.

In his fingers appeared a small capsule. It was pale, silvery gray, and divided into segments, each one with markings like a face. The segments broke off the moment Neuro tossed the capsule forward, landing on a metal beam.

Immediately a forest of fury erupted to meet the demons. It sprung up just when their feet reached the bottom of the stairwell. Each seed sprouted into a wide, flat leaf. The leaves were silver, and in each fleshy mass was one solid dot like a crystallized eye. The fronds wriggled and lunged forth with unexpected strength, their tendrils covering the stairwell so no one could get through.

A chorus of howling and pained whimpers followed. SMASH! One boar demon was tossed back into another. CRUNCH! Two tendrils pounded one demon into the ground. WHACK! The main body of the plant surged in one large movement to push the intruders back.

The Tool remained rooted to the ground by its seeds in the metal beam, leeching strength from it joyously. It would protect its host with all the viciousness of a carnivorous plant.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Surrounder," Neuro said. "That should hold them."

He was surprised to note that he still had a good amount of energy left. Thank the Dark Ruler for Evil Diversey and total resets—

Bweeeeeee-

"Ugh!" Neuro flinched as a spark pierced through his hand.

He knew what was happening before the bomb shuddered, before its soft beep, before the display panel flashed, before the bars side showing its energy all went dark and then started to light up again, slowly.

The bomb was waking. One bar lit. Then two.

No! Neuro gripped the box, his talons scraping its frame. I'm so close. Not now!

His left hand felt like it was encased in the heart of a volcano—scorched and pressurized, part of something prepared to blow. Heat drummed up from the bomb's insides, spreading slowly and methodically to each bit of its system. Its core temperature rose to billions of degrees.

Still, Neuro refused to withdraw Evil Script. He gritted his teeth and thought through the pain. Just this mystery. If he could just solve this mystery, it would all be worthwhile.

Of course, if he failed he would be dead.

Another energy bar lit up on the display. Three out of six.

Neuro's mind raced. He thought about the password, the heat, how Script had rejected his ultimate deduction, the twelve blank spaces, the searing, awful pain. It had been logical. It was the supreme deduction reached by his rationality. It made too much sense!

Neuro scowled, his talons digging into the bomb's case. That was the highest-ranked officer that he knew. Was it really not Gobgem?

A steadfast beep rang out. The bomb's chassis began to creak. Its edges buckled under the building pressure. The fourth bar lit.

Neuro placed his forehead against the bomb's scalding side. He did not want to say it. He did not want to say that this was hard. Neuro was proud; he would never admit such, even when staring virtually into the face of death.

Still, he closed his eyes. The searing heat began to feel almost like a lulling sensation against his flesh. All one had to do was let go of all worries and thoughts. Just let go…

This is…difficult.

"But remember, Neuro...sometimes the matters hardest to understand are those closest to our hearts."

Neuro's head jerked up so fast his beak struck against the bomb's metal casing. It reacted with a quiver. What was that? Enjel? Why would he think of her now, in what could very well be his final moments?

But the endless activity in Neuro's brain had already grabbed hold of those words and taken flight. Something close…something closest to his heart…

NEURONEURO

777TOOLSOFHELL

777TOOLSOFTHEDEMONWORLD

MYSTERY

EATFOOD

BRAINEATER

Yes, that was it. He would choose that one. It was the most suitable length. His best shot.

Neuro left the word in all-caps. Maybe the capitalized 'PASSWORD' prompt was a hint, or subconscious bleedover. Maybe not. But he had to try.

The fifth energy bar lit. The pulsing Neuro felt deep within the bomb's circuits began to quicken in pace, increasing until it became a dull, humming throb, matching the extreme heat.

Evil Script screamed for all the aura Neuro could afford to feed it. Bits of data came leaking into his consciousness: password results negative. But this time he wasn't finished.

Neuro had started his entry at the left. He shifted the password one space to the right. There! That felt a little better. He replaced the letters with numbers and-

Yes! Confirmation! After so long with no progress, the brief victory was intoxicating. Neuro swallowed the drool that threatened to accumulate inside his mouth and focused on the letters. He needed to keep his concentration.

Energy pulsed through his mind as fast as atoms, racing the bits of code running through the bomb. Just two spaces left: first and last. Only two spaces. What were they?

Neuro focused on the last open space. Symbols were common at the ends of passwords, Neuro remembered, due to complexity requirements—most people just tacked something on once they realized a symbol was needed.

Evil Script ran through all possible symbols. Nothing. Neuro tried numbers. Nothing.

He scowled and turned his attention to the first space then, running the Script. Maybe he would have better-

Information hit Neuro's brain in a flash. A match! His heart leaped at the sensation, beating fast as if trying to earn its right to see tomorrow.

'<'. One of the most rarely-used symbols. Excellent.

Rejuvenated, Neuro turned back to the final space. One last puzzle piece. It was all but process of elimination, now.

Beep. Then the sixth energy bar filled in. With a mighty groan and whirring of equipment, the final codes began to launch.

Being so intimately connected to it, Neuro could feel the energy course through the bomb's system. Script was shoving characters into and out of the final space at the speed of data, but checking would take too long-

Neuro had run out of time for debate. There was no more room for logic. Following his heart was key here.

He input a password, talons flying, including his choice for the final character.

ARE YOU SURE?

Neuro stared at the word on-screen: <BR41N34T3Re

Y/N

Y, he pressed.

A shudder ran through the bomb as the data entered the system. Am I too late? Neuro wondered. Too slow to stop it charging, too stupid to prevent its launch, and now too late to solve this password?

Energy built and built, rocking the box from side to side like an overloaded washing machine. Neuro could feel its entire system going haywire beneath his fingertips, sparks and wiring heated to nuclear levels now reacting to the trigger-

But Neuro kept his eyes open. If this was his last glimpse of the reality, he wanted to be able to glare. He leaned back, breathed out, and waited to feel the end of the world.


The end of the world was, above all, silent. It was white.

It felt like nothing on Neuro's skin, not a single hot flash singing his feathers. It felt like stillness, like shallow breaths, like the soft brush of wind through a decrepit office building. It felt like…nothing.

Nothing happened.

Neuro blinked. He tilted his chin back down.

In front of him the bomb whirred slowly to a stop. It felt like an animal that had been chomping at the bars of its prison, reduced to pacing side-to-side in its enclosure, snarling at the locked bars. The room temperature cooled, dropping like a stone thrown off of Hell's tallest tower.

It had worked.

Neuro took out his hand. Despite Evil Script's indestructible status as a Tool, the limb had been horribly burnt. It looked like a skeleton that had been cooked and then dipped in a batter of pure muscle. Bits of Script's electronic glove dangled from Neuro's fingertips. The flesh was bloody-red and charred. He could not move it at all.

Neuro gulped, inhaling the taste of burnt flesh and vaporized feathers. Well. That's a nuisance.

As he held the hand to his chest, Neuro's attention was caught by a flicker of light. The light was kaleidoscopic in color. It surrounded the bomb, wreathing its sides and slowly diffusing from cracks in its panels, seeping from the rivets. It danced around its container as if celebrating its freedom. The light looked much the same as the 'scratches' in the sky.

"…Oho," said Neuro, beak cracking open into a smile. "There you are, my precious."

He reached forward with his good right arm and the aura dragged him in.


What happened next was something Neuro could never describe to other demons. It was a sight no one was capable of knowing but him.

The mystery stretched out in front of Neuro, above and below and all around. Huge, rolling hills dominated the landscape, their sides carved with all sorts of numbers, symbols, and letters in both capital and lower-case. Scattered here and there were shelves that towered high, full to the brim with zigzag patterns and aura. 3D shapes floated in air throughout the space. Among them were diamonds that transformed before Neuro's eyes into hearts.

Building blocks hung, frozen in the process of falling down, perfectly still. They represented the dream cracking, the puzzle's hull breached by Neuro's intrusion. Down below him was a collection of circular 'rocks', actually masses of data, floating in the middle of an orange, soupy substance. The rocks were grouped in clusters like tumors, or perhaps internal organs, pumping the orange river throughout the land like blood flowing through veins. The liquid-like substance brushed against the stones, their two flavors colliding and mixing gently into one…

Neuro almost couldn't take it. The smell—pure, pressurized energy—was beyond anything he had even known. It was sharp against his nostrils, and yet he couldn't get enough no matter how much he breathed. Each glide from a rhombus and pulse from a data-rock only furthered the sensation.

Like the virtual world, a good mystery was at once massive and yet contained within a miniscule space. Everything in here was huge, everything perfectly geometric. It was a testament to the puzzler's mind—they, too, had thought on a massive scale yet with chillingly detailed precision. It was a remarkable riddle they had posed.

Neuro shook. Yes, this was the meaning of it all.

Evil intent that had built up for years, decades even—there was just so much—fed by malice and seasoned by a delicious mix of deceit, stewed in secrecy and hidden away to ferment, then given an infusion of willpower and constructed, carefully constructed with all the care of a chef, into a glorious house, a palace, a plan, a puzzle, a riddle.

Neuro's mouth dribbled uncontrollably. All of the energy a creator used in thinking, planning, and then carrying out each mystery—in its raw form, that energy was what Neuro himself subsisted on.

And this was one of the largest hordes he had seen in his over-two-thousand years. It might even keep him full for three whole days!

There was nothing he could say. Nothing would mark the occasion with the dignity it deserved. Well, except for maybe one thing.

Neuro opened his mouth as wide as it would go and inhaled. Let's eat.


The office demons clawed at Evil Surrounder. Back at the bottom of the staircase, they whined and yipped as they wrestled with each tendril. The plant itself had lost energy, but the demons had sustained heavy injuries in the fight. A few of them lay off to the side, snarling and nursing broken bones.

Then the stalks drooped. The silver leaves dove to the side, flattening themselves down as if they couldn't escape fast enough. They trembled.

Standing behind them was a figure. The demon was tall and lean, standing with both hands talons-up. Their body was feathered. Their smile, deranged.

"He-llo," the demon said in a sing-song voice. Their lilt was that of a child. Their gaze was that of a madman. "Let's have some FUN."


It was one hour later and the city was only now starting to feel "stable". The idea of calmness crept through the air like the ghost of a memory, wafting through streets and settling somewhere with the lightest touch, only to skitter away once a person actually noticed it. Howls of rage had been replaced with occasional whimpers of pain, ringing out in the deserted cityscape. Wounds had been dealt and now must begin to heal. 'Normality' did not exist for demons. But there was such as thing as thinner periods of chaos.

Neuro stood in a clear spot amidst the rubble by the lip of the original crater. In front of him stood Asanteoh, hands clasped behind the leonoid's back. Lucard faced away from them both, busy with snapping an endless stream of orders over the phone.

"Crisis averted," rumbled Asanteoh. "Well done, crime detective Neuro."

"Hm."

"The bomb itself remains intact for research, despite a large amount of destruction around its perimeter. The last of the citizens are being subdued as we speak," Asanteoh raised an eyebrow, "though a percentage of them appear to have died suddenly in a mysterious rampage."

"What a shame," said Neuro. He had his blank-happy face on—eyes like cardboard cutouts over a sly grin.

Asanteoh shook his head. The golden mane around his face swung with the motion. "You've caused a lot of chaos here, detective. People are angry. Damage was dealt."

"But-" He broke into a smile. "It's fixable. An explosion of that size would not have been."

Neuro's expression softened into something slightly more genuine. "Hmph. Of course."

Asanteoh shrugged. "Furthermore, your objective of neutralizing the threat was completed, despite some…points of difficulty." Asanteoh's gaze slid over to residue from Evil Mud. Two radioactive stains dyed the concrete brown. "I suppose that warrants a shaky success."

"'A shaky success'? Where have I heard that before?" Neuro chuckled. "Come on. Disarming a bomb, using a password found at the last minute, protected by a few Tools, left all alone and helpless…"

He paused. "Huh. I see what you mean. But that doesn't matter, does it?" His eyes danced with triumphant green fire. "Once it is secured, a victory is a victory. Face it, I saved this city."

"Yes, you did. But you nearly destroyed it first," said Asanteoh. He met Neuro with a solid glare. "I am not naïve. Do not think I haven't put together what happened with the Blazing Gate." After another second, he turned and strode away over the concrete. He paused only to call back over his shoulder: "Still, good job today, my puzzling detective."

"…Hmph." The corner of Neuro's mouth turned up in a smirk as Officer Leonfang walked on. If that's how you end your scolding, you must not be too angry with me after all.

Neuro realized belatedly that he was holding his left hand up to his chest. But there was no need to cradle it anymore; the limb was as good as new. Neuro might say it was even better. Thanks to the energy gained from his full meal—and what a feast it had been—the cells had all recovered beautifully.

There was one new development, however. Neuro turned his hand around, observing it from front to back. As he stared, a shimmer ran across its surface. The skin transformed until Neuro was looking at a cyborg-like apparatus with silver-green colors and pads at the ends of its fingertips. It clicked when he moved it.

Thanks to the extreme heat, Evil Script must have become fused with my natural capabilities, Neuro reflected. It should be even easier to call now. It has been made simply another function of my body modification powers. He smiled and shook his head. What a wonder. A biological Tool of Hell…

He stared at the Tool for a few seconds more and then dismissed it. His hand slowly reverted back to its default state. Neuro stood tall. He felt good, unencumbered by any kind of growling stomach. A healthy flush was in his cheeks. His feathers practically glowed.

"I see someone had a good day," came a grumble from the side. "Meanwhile the rest of us were out here trying not to die."

"I'm pretty sure that your efforts-not-to-die were dependent upon my own, Commander Throatbane," Neuro drawled.

"Whatever."

Even Lucard's remarks had less bite in them than usual. The experience of avoiding death was always good for a midday adrenaline rush. His red eyes held less than 100% malice, and he kept looking around, gazing at the streets as if looking for something he had forgotten.

"You sure trashed this place," Lucard spoke at last. "But I guess you had some help." He held up his phone. "All captains have been notified. The citizens of Yzguth will be punished for their actions here today. There's a re-education broadcast set to run in one week's time, with mandatory attendance. They'll have to rebuild their own city."

His ears flicked and he looked out over the tops of some half-wrecked buildings. "Or make their homes from the rubble. That'd work too. Geez, you can still see where the swamp monster plowed through two weeks ago…"

Lucard shook himself. "Let's walk," he grunted and waved the avianoid along. "You heard the King. Crisis over. For now, at least."

Neuro set off, keeping pace with Lucard. "I believe the phrase is 'mission accomplished'."

Lucard's ears flattened. "Nothing is ever 'accomplished' with you around," he muttered.

"What?"

"I said, we're returning to base."

Time passed. So did half-wrecked buildings.

"…Actually," Lucard spoke. He glanced over at Neuro. "I'm surprised how well you did out there, given that it wasn't a mystery. Summoning one of the Weapons must require a lot of power."

"Oh?" Neuro said. "But it was a mystery. It doesn't always have to be a murder, you know."

Lucard's steps stuttered. "Huh. Really? I had gotten the impression that it did."

"Of course not," Neuro all but scoffed. "As long as evil energy has been expended, there is a chance of me getting a meal. Although murder does generally involve the most negative emotions, and is therefore the most scrumptious kind…"

He trailed off, eyes fixed on the coming sunset.

Lucard stared at him with an uneasy expression. Surely the detective couldn't be hungry again already…

He cleared his throat. "That reminds me. I got a message for you on the phone. It's from the Lady."

Neuro's head snapped to face him. "Oh?"

"Uh…yeah. She's impressed with your performance on the case. She said to give you her personal congratulations." Lucard shrugged. "Not sure how 'personal' it really is, since I'm the one giving them to you, but hey. There you go."

"Hmm."

They walked for another few minutes, passing wreckage upon wreckage, before a thought struck Lucard.

"Wait a minute, where's Arcmind?" He swung his head as if expecting to see the demon hanging upside-down from a streetlamp. "He wasn't with you this whole time. You leave him somewhere?"

"…"

"Braineater?" Lucard asked. He hadn't seen the detective act the slightest bit somber since his 'meal' with the bomb. This was unusual.

"How large is the death toll?" came the words.

"What?"

"The death toll, dog. Or are your ears mere decorations for your skull?"

Lucard almost snapped back an insult, but thought instead of his phone conversation. "Umm…Thirty thousand's what I heard, at the last estimate," he said.

Neuro brushed off a talon. "Make that thirty thousand and one."

Lucard paused. He observed the detective's face. No, Neuro wasn't joking. "Is that so? Shame. The kid had a good mind."

"I'll add him to the list," said Lucard, making a note on one of his devices. Then he put the tool away and tossed back his shoulders as they walked. "Anything else to declare, oh mighty bomb-buster?"

"Yes." Neuro's voice was dry. "Don't call me that."

Lucard grinned. Without thinking, he reached out and ruffled the feathers on Neuro's shoulder. "Commander privileges. Get used to it, birdbrain."


"Everything's ready, sir," said a demon waiting by a police hearse. The vehicle was spotless compared to the rampant destruction around it. The sight was almost insulting.

Asanteoh gave a firm nod. "Good. Those two should be here in a few minutes. Once they arrive, we'll head back to-"

A dull boom interrupted his words.

Asanteoh and the other HDAC demons turned towards the source of the noise. "What was that?" someone muttered. Other officers reached for weapons. "Another bomb?"

Asanteoh did not reply. He sighed through his nose. His amber eyes looked tired. "No," he said. "That would be them."


"...You stand on your tiptoes to look taller when you think no one can see you, your original suit was blue and didn't have any pants, you snarl at every mirror you pass just for practice, and your middle name is-"

"ARGH! SHUT UP!"

Thus, demon normality was heralded by a fully-grown Miasma-hound charging down the main street, chasing a skinny avianoid whose grin stretched larger than any mystery.

Chapter Text

551 years later

Smoke cleared from a scene of absolute devastation.

Buildings lay in scattered heaps. Glass littered the remains of the street. Pipes jutted, as angular as broken bones. They had bent under some unstoppable force. Concrete and refuse was shoved to the side in piles reaching three stories high, curling back inward like ribs. Somewhere in the ruins a single pathway led through, a twenty-foot wide channel that wound and wove as it pleased. Devastation followed on all sides. The trail of destruction traced through the corpse of the city, and the buildings were its shattered bones.

Entire swaths of the metropolis had been conquered in an instant. Smoke rose up from the wreckage, billowing skyward in great gray clouds that dropped soot back onto the pavement. The gray concrete was pressed down around the outline of a few gigantic footprints.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Muffled thuds shook the cityscape. Buildings shivered, huddling together like refugees afraid that they would be the next ones sent to join their mangled brothers and sisters. The silence was eerie—nothing but barked orders and the sound of distant gunfire.

At the edge of the destruction was a mass of thick black clouds. Whatever was causing them moved further into the city, smashing office structures while obscured by the dust and fumes that arose. Something could be seen lurking beyond the veil.

Suddenly the cloudhead flinched. A shape had darted into it from above. The shape flew through the smoke, appearing in short bursts, flitting around part of the shadowy figure within.

The shadow halted. It shook itself, moving something that looked like a head. It made a noise like a rumble.

Then it lunged upward, breaking the cloud cover with a mighty squeal.

The animal had golden fur, shaggy and straw-like. Its body was as wide and square as its face. Its eyes were narrow; its ears rounded like a bear's. Soft whiskers extended from its muzzle. Its legs were brown, leading down to four paw-like feet. A single horn jutted from the beast's forehead.

As it opened its mouth, four sharp buckteeth caught the light. The animal was gigantic, standing twice as tall as the average city building. It could crush them without a thought.

It was a capybara.

When the animal lunged, the flitting shape had been hit. The shape came falling down from the sky, plunging toward a hill of rubble. A jet trail streaked behind it. At the very last moment, the figure opened its wings to break its fall. Still, they landed with a crash.

"Ugh!" The demoness spat. She leapt back up onto four legs after only a second. "Damn that water-rat!"

A vicious scowl was on her face. The demoness appeared to be a cross between a skunk and a flying squirrel: quadrupedal, with skin-fold wings and one long, striped tail. She wore a set of aerial goggles. Two leather straps ran in an X across her chest, loaded down with weapons and tactical equipment.

Voices came over her radio between bursts of static:

"Rekar! We can't hold it back!"

"Lost contact with squad H!"

"Head Officer Hesia Rekar, do you read? Requesting additional-"

The skunk demoness grit her teeth. She patched herself in. "Rekar here, copy. First of all: CALM DOWN, YOU WHINING NITWITS! You sound like a basket of mewling kittens. And you call yourselves demons?"

"Aerial attacks are negative," she continued. "I launched an assault but got repelled. All follow-up operations cancelled. That pondsucker's horn is deadly. Regroup and-"

She was cut off by a building collapsing.

A skyscraper groaned and creaked as one foot from the capybara pressed against it. Glass windows shattered as its skeleton buckled. It made a horrible noise, like that of metal screaming, before falling down in one slow, horrid motion.

More dust erupted into the air as the structure collapsed. Hesia flattened her ears as tremors rocked her small hill. She clutched her radio through the sounds of muffled screams. Somewhere in that wreck was one of her squads. Many of her units could have been lost.

She cursed up a storm vile enough to rival the destruction around her. "Blast that beast's soul!"

"All units, do you copy?" Hesia barked into her microphone. "Squad leaders report status. Any survivors regroup and continue tactic 'Surround and Confuse'. Pull back from its front, repeat, pull back! The rat's sense of sight is too good. A frontal assault at this point-"

"-would be unwise."

Hesia nearly hurled a bomb at the new voice. When she turned, she saw a stranger standing at the top of her hill.

The demon was an avianoid, brightly colored with feathers of blue, white, and purple. He stood, one foot nonchalantly resting on a concrete block. Two ridged horns swept up from his skull, along with hair as blonde as electricity. He stared at the devastation with an amused expression, as if watching cities turn to dust was his hobby. The look in his eyes made Hesia's tail twitch.

The demoness unhooked a knife and jabbed it at him. "And who the Hell are you, macaroni-hair? Explain yourself!"

"Me?" The demon said. His voice was an easy drawl. "My name is Neuro the 'Braineater', and-"

He paused. "What did you just call me?"

Hesia spat at him and turned her attention back to the capybara's rampage. "Civilians are prohibited. Either get back, or throw yourself forward now and die with the rest. You'll only be in our way."

"Get in your way? I don't think so."

"This ain't the place for hotshots, kid. I don't give two grubs how many souls you've eaten or if you've been to the flaming human world itself. Go back and play on the playground or something."

"I'm your backup," he said, a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth the only clue to his annoyance.

"And I'm the Queen of-" Hesia paused. "What'd you say?"

"The Order Branch sent me. They received reports of the developing crisis and I was in the area." The demon looked over at the giant animal crashing through the city and frowned. "Ghastly. Absolutely repulsive. Of all the assignments I choose to take…"

Hesia scowled, keeping one eye on the battlefield. "Have you come here to fight or to sneer? This ain't a movie-show, buster. My units' guts aren't the flavoring for your popcorn."

Neuro nodded. "Oh, I know," he said. Then he muttered to himself, "So haughty. So proud."

A flash of anger burst through Hesia's chest. She raised a deep growl from the back of her throat. "I warned you, blondie. Badmouth my soldiers one more time and I'll shove this knife so far down your-"

"But it is, isn't it?" Neuro looked at the demoness. He stretched one finger out and pointed at the battlefield. "Every single one of them. Capybaras," he said the word as if loathing the demon who had come up with it, "There's not a single animal in Hell more worthy of spite."

As if on cue, another building collapsed and shook the hill beneath them. Hesia cursed, yelling more orders through the radio.

"Flat-faced. Stupid. Square." Neuro continued to mutter. Pure disgust lined his voice. "All the worst animals in the world have muzzles."

"Shut your own beak, chicken-nuggets!" Hesia snarled. She hunkered down behind a block of concrete as chunks of rubble sailed their way. "What makes those overgrown vermin so special, anyway?"

"That's precisely it," Neuro proclaimed. He began to gesticulate out of passion. "'Overgrown'! They're huge, the rats, as large as an entire city! And they are strong enough to topple nigh-anything in their way. Do you know what any one-star, no, half-star demon would give for power like that? But it is wasted on mindless beasts! Where do they get off being so powerful? Why are they so annoyingly large?"

"They are granted effortless power, yet they don't do anything with it. Such a disturbing lack of intelligence," Neuro snorted. "Animals."

On the battlefield, the capybara groaned. A few demons under Hesia' s command had started crawling up its sides, digging their weapons into its fur. Before their very eyes, the animal shuddered. A dark wind began to swirl and spiral back in towards it, drawing in countless miniscule particles. The air became thick around the animal's form, gathering in a layer on the outside of its hide.

With a shriek the animal reared back and stomped, forcing the gathered aura off of its sides in a small shockwave. Demons fell, howling and coughing. When they stood again, they all carried hands in front of their noses and bent at their waists. The capybara must be using its stench as a musky shield.

"I see. Miasma manipulation, huh?" Neuro smirked. "Reminds me of a demon I know. Plus, its stench is almost as bad as his."

Hesia stood at the crest of the hill. She adjusted her toolbelts as if preparing for takeoff. "Quit yapping. We have to stop it!"

"I agree. All members of their species are completely unforgivable."

Neuro raised one finger—the middle digit of his left hand. "This one is trampling a particularly good hotbed of crime. Do you know how often new mysteries pop up for me? Not often. Demons are all terribly unoriginal. Anger, fight, murder, blah, that's all there is nowadays. Barely any puzzle is made."

"Right. Now-" Hesia faltered. "Wait… Did you say this place was a hotbed?"

"Yes. It was on the rise in rankings for violent crimes, and there was a good chance a particularly juicy incident or two would have happened soon." Neuro frowned. "So much for that. Honestly, these beasts would starve me if left to roam wild."

Hesia's eyes flicked towards her radio. "Then maybe we should just let it rampage…"

"What? No!"

"Yes! All units listen up-"

"No! Kill it now! Kill it before it ruins any other potential mysteries!"

"Damn your mysteries and Damn you!"

They scrabbled for the radio, talons and sharp nails slipping off of its metal surface.

REEEEEEEEEEET!

The two demons dove for cover as the capybara's heat-ray vision swept past. It had fired beams from its eyes in an arc, kicking up dust that made them both choke. The creature must be getting distressed. A line of burnt umber now traced across the hill.

Hesia kicked at Neuro. "Forget all this arguing! Do something, flyboy."

"'Flyboy'?" he muttered. Then, louder and with a certain dryness, "Like what?"

"Something smart. That's what your brain's good for, ain't it?" Hesia rolled to a standing position and glared death at the demonic capybara. "You're operating under my orders now, zootsuit. And I say attack."

Neuro patted down his feathers. His fingers flexed in and out, as if reaching out for something but never quite grasping it.

Hesia threw bombs. They flew far but exploded without reaching their target. Each one left a small cloud of gritty, red dust in the air. Off in the distance, the police force rallied for a counterattack.

The capybara smashed its front feet into the ground, knocking all of the demons back again. It shook itself to reinforce its miasma-musk shield.

"What are you waiting for?" Hesia yelled at Neuro. "Attack! That's an order!"

"I'm trying!" The avianoid appeared to be hesitating. His eyes blinked rapidly as if searching through an invisible catalogue. "What to do? What fits this situation? So many to choose from… I don't know. I never trained for this!"

Out on the battlefield was a different picture. All demonkind cowered before the most deadly animal in Hell. Brutal carnage and destruction followed its every move. Buildings flattened like paper. Bodies and dreams were smashed to peices. Demons were crushed underhoof, giving gurgling cries of agony and reaching their hands out in one last grasp towards the sun.

The capybara gave a low rumble like a purr. Slowly, it turned its head and shuffled off in a slightly different direction. The warm sunlight was making it sleepy.

"What a horrid brute!" one of the police demons cursed. "Damn the heartless beast!" Demons ran across the ground in all directions, screaming in horror.

The capybara turned its head from side to side. It slowly lowered its muzzle to the ground. It sniffed at the grass with its soft, wet nose.

"It's picking up scraps!" came a wail. "It's going to eat us all!" A fresh round of panic started. Bullets from twin machine guns went rat-tat-tat-tat and bounced uselessly off the animal's furred side.

"Look in its eyes! It has no remorse!"

The capybara blinked doefully. Its long eyelashes brushed against its cheeks.

"Oh, cruel!" came the sobs. "Oh, the demon-manity! Oh, the suffering!"

The animal turned away. It blinked and plowed straight through another building.

As it approached Hesia and Neuro's hill, the capybara's demeanor changed. Its eyes flicked up and focused. Its nose twitched. Then, with a grunt, it surged forward.

"It's coming this way!" Hesia screamed as the ground beneath them rocked with the impact of four charging feet. "Go, Operative!"

Neuro huffed. "You know, I don't like being told what to do. I think that's the problem here. I am not part of your squad, so don't-"

She whacked him in the face.

"Move!" He heard the order echo as Hesia took off, her skin-wings already spread to catch the air. By the time he recovered, she was leagues away.

Neuro stood shocked for a moment. She had hit him. She actually hit him. Did she realize what she just-?

REEEEEEEET! He was interrupted by the beast's squeal.

Neuro turned to face his opponent. "Oh, I see," he said, noticing a line of drool hanging from the animal's mouth. "Those were meat-scent bombs that she tossed. Every animal in Hell is a carnivore. The skunk must have meant to lure you this way. How very…noble of her."

The capybara charged. Neuro bristled. He could see every detail of the beast now—its terrible, straw-like fur; its horrible, curved teeth; its noxious stench; its beady rodent eyes. His ancient enemy.

The beast grew closer and closer. Buildings no longer slowed it down—they burst upon its chest as easily as plates tossed against a floor. It gained strength and speed as it ran, like a furred barrel with jet-fuel propulsion.

REEEEEEEEEET! It squealed.

"Neuro!" Hesia called.

"Aaaaaaah!" Neuro shouted.

"Fine!" He tossed up his hands. "I didn't want to use this, but I have no choice."

Neuro crouched, bringing his arms to his side and channeling aura through them. A sickly green glow gathered in his palms. He stared the capybara right in the face. "Here it is," he intoned. "My secret weapon…"

He wound up and pitched something forward. "Taaaaaake this!"

A small, flesh-colored object flew through the air. Its shape was that of a cylinder, curved as if to clamp over somebody's tongue. One side of the contraption had a slightly-raised ridge. A face of its own was printed on the side, including two eyeballs and an open mouth. A tattoo of a tongue protruded from between the mouth's teeth. The tattoo-tongue had a simplistic face on itself as well.

Immediately, the capybara screeched to a halt. Two thirty-foot-deep holes were dug where its feet plowed into the earth. When the animal stopped, it raised its head. Part of its tongue stuck out of its mouth. The tip was colored dark fuchsia—the tint of Neuro's Tool.

The capybara blinked. The look in its eyes was one of gentle confusion. It looked around, swinging its enormous head from side to side. Almost as if an afterthought, the creature licked its lips and pulled in its tongue. Then it turned and walked away with a huff. It plodded back through its path of destruction, headed out of town. The police demons cowered on the sidelines, finally given a few seconds to lick their wounds.

"Phew," Neuro breathed. He smoothed down his feathers. "777 Tools of the Demon World- Evil Taster. The clamp switches around its wearer's sense of taste—essentially reversing their perception. Sweet becomes sour, bitter becomes spicy, and appealing foods will become unappealing. It seems to have shocked the beast out of its rampage, at least."

"Squawkboy!"

Neuro looked up to see Hesia swooping down. She folded the skin of her wings into her sides and stood, four-legged, in front of him. "I…I can't believe it," she said. "That water-rat's leaving. Too late for most of the city around here, but we did stop it in its tracks, at least."

"Oh, goodie," Neuro said. "Always a pleasure to help out with an extermination."

"Damn right." Hesia dug out a log and jotted something down. "This is the fifth time in two month's the city's been destroyed…not the worst season we've had, but still. I'm gonna hang those trashsniffers in the zoo business."

"Nevermind that," Neuro said. "We must act quickly. Evil Taster only lasts for about an hour." He held up one finger. "Listen. While Evil Taster is still in effect, if you set a trap with poison, I imagine that animal would find the scent most delectable. We should be able to kill it easily."

"Oh?" Hesia smirked. "Evil. Worth a shot." She took up her radio. After snapping a set of orders into it, mostly about tracking the beast, getting poison-eers involved, and how this was totally 100% completely homegrown her own idea, the plans were made.

"There you go," she said. "We'll be getting some nice capybara steaks out of this, I expect. I'll send some along to the Order Branch."

Neuro tried to hide his revulsion. "That…won't be necessary," he said. "Truly, the most valuable part of this for me was the opportunity to familiarize myself with the Tools."

"Even though there was no mystery," he muttered.

Neuro held up one hand, staring at the energy left in his palm. "A Tool that is small, with unique abilities, requires negligible energy to summon, and so surprising that my opponents will never see it coming…"

He squashed the vision in his fingers. "It's completely useless. I can't imagine when I'd ever use it again."

Hesia chuckled. "Well, it came in handy today. Maybe the upper cronies were right in giving those Tools to someone." She looked at Neuro for a few seconds.

Then Hesia held up a knife. Her voice took on an edge as rough as its jagged blade. "Now, we're writing you up for insubordination! Get your tailfeathers over here, cockatiel."


Asanteoh sat behind his desk. The small wings on the furniture's sides twitched as he looked at the paper before him.

It was a report. At least, according to the title. Given its harsh wording, composed by some Head Officer named Hesia, and the outlandish events of which it told…

"Still full of energy, I see," Asanteoh said. He tossed the report into a growing file folder with the same air as one throwing something into the trash. "My puzzling detective."


Somewhere, another folder on Neuro was growing. For the past 551 years, the crime detective had been steadily munching, eating his way one by one through Hell's mysteries. Less and less of them were made each season—more and more of them disappeared in gulp after ravenous gulp. The crime organizations were growing restless. Whispers spoke of a demon with legendary powers, hunting down criminals to consume their thoughts, their soul, and even their plotting brain. In fact, it seemed as if soon he might actually succeed in eating up all the mysteries in Hell. That could not be allowed.

Within a micrometer and a million miles, the Natural Order began to move.

 

Chapter Text

For once, the demons in Hell's Disciplinary Action Committee had an occasion to celebrate. The months had flown round again and everybody now found themselves in the middle of an office-wide holiday—or, rather, a Darkday.

The weather outside was frightful, suiting the occasion. Winds blew at thousands of miles per hour. Clouds dumped blood and guts on the streets. It was the most wonderful time of the year. Demons everywhere bared their fangs upward in smiles. Inside the Order Branch, the pleasant scent of ground-up bones floated through the air, emitted by candles.

Slaughtermass—the anniversary of the largest mass killing ever committed in Hell's history. Truly something worthy of recognition, even from those on the side of Enforcement.

The days of Slaughtermass were usually the busiest of the cycle for the HDAC, but over the past few centuries, due to a certain bomb-defusing event in Yzguth, the forces of crime seemed to quiet down occasionally. And this month was shaping up to be a particularly shallow period. So, the Order Branch had broken out into full bloodlust-cheer.

The Darkday mood was as infectious as a disease. Everywhere a demon went, shouts of "Bloody Slaughtermass" carried through the halls. One Department Head walked by whistling the famous song, "The Twelve Days of Torture". Strings of guts decked the halls, the more humanoid-looking the better. All of the carpets had been rolled out and replaced with skin rugs. They were heated until they felt as warm as the real thing. It was an unsettling sensation to rest your bare feet upon.

Rumors said that Slaughtermass bore a resemblance to a certain Christian holiday up in the human world. But nobody paid those rumors much attention. It didn't matter. Demons were popular in that human faith, after all. It would be a bit like celebrating their own popularity.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Neuro raised an eyebrow. "The Interbranch Slaughter?"

"Yeah!" said the other demon. He was standing in the doorway to Neuro's office, smiling while the arms of three friends pressed him from behind, preventing his escape and forcing him to talk to the scary crime detective. "It's a competition between the three divisions of the HDAC—the one time we can all get together and smash each other's faces! It's great fun. Sometimes those idiots in Punishment and Security just deserve it, you know?"

"I know what the tournament is," Neuro said. "It happens every year. I just never took much interest."

The demon fidgeted. They reached one hand behind their back to try and free themselves. "Right. Well, the Order Branch actually managed to win last year, and we'd like to turn it into a streak. So…when the time comes, could we possibly…count on you…?"

Neuro appeared to be in thought, his head tilted back. Then he brought his chin down and stared at the officeworker.

He didn't even have to speak. The other demons fled out the door and were down the hall within one second.

"Hmph. Interbranch Slaughter, huh?" Neuro leaned back in his chair. He felt like saying bah, humbug. That was a fitting human expression for this situation, as he recalled.

It could have been that his head wasn't screwed on just right. If he wore shoes, he would have thought they were put on too tight. But perhaps still the most likely reason of all, was that Neuro's heart was simply two sizes too small. Either way, tapping his fingers on his desk, Neuro thought he would like to steal victory from Slaughtermass.

After all, he had no mystery to go out and eat. The office was usually busy on Darkdays, but during the current slow period everybody had abandoned their duties in favor of celebration. It was the first time this had happened since Neuro took office. There would be no holiday bloodlust-cheer for him, no delicious holiday meal. And if he couldn't be happy, no one should be happy.

Neuro kicked his feet against his desk. Besides, he was bored.

His kicking made something clink. Neuro looked to the side. There was the chemistry set that he had set up earlier. Four large vials hung clamped in a black-rock stand. Bits and samples of Evil Mud were bobbing up and down inside them, soaked in assorted solutions.

Then he got an idea. An awful idea. Neuro got a wonderful, awful idea.

Two Turtle Doves

For the next ten days, the Order Branch experienced a complete transformation.

Decorations draped the walls, putting flesh-tone colors everywhere. A lovely human-tone spectrum hung over the Commanders' quarters. Pelts from the Order Branch's greatest past enemies were displayed in the main room for all employees to admire.

One of the most popular ornaments this season were preserved eyeballs. At one point, Lucard stood buried in a pile of the little spheres. Only the tips of his ears showed through the heap. Occasionally one arm would surface as he reached up to pin another optic nerve on the wall. The pinned eyes formed what was surely meant to be an artistic pattern.

Asanteoh stood to the side, having paused in his walk down the corridor. "Lucard," he spoke at last. "Pull yourself together. You look like a complete buffoon."

Three French Hens

The main attraction Slaughtermass was, of course, the leg in the Order Branch's main room.

It was a limb from a living-tank, one of the half-biological-half-mechanical monsters that could be found menacing the open range. The leg stood upside down on its stump, toes curled in artistic agony. Its hairs felt stiff as pine needles when you brushed against them. At the very top point, somebody had placed a little skull.

Store-bought legs existed, but it was widely considered traditional to display one you had slaughtered yourself. According to the rumor mill, Executive Officer Asanteoh Leonfang had procured the leg for the Order Branch this year. What a terrifying and magnificent accomplishment.

Later, around lunchtime, special Darkday food was set out on tables.

The tables quickly became the centers of daily mobs. Silver pheasant, exploding-fruits, bloody hearts, and entire megalodon sharks…food for almost every demon on the "physical" diet spectrum was included. There was even a special selection of capybara meat this year.

But what truly stole the show was the Evil Pudding on day eight. As the name implied, it was a pudding one had to swallow before it swallowed you.

The pudding was gigantic, tall as a giraffe, with glistening yellow sides and a smooth chocolate coating on top. It ran on two legs. A pair of muscular arms sprouted from its sides, by which it repelled the demons' blows. That day's lunch culminated in a dramatic battle over the giant spoon, which the pudding had managed to grab as a weapon. Its sides quivered in fury as it showed no mercy to its desirers.

Everyone present agreed that the chefs had truly outdone themselves.

Four Calling Birds

Neuro stared at the book on his desk.

Zera stood opposite him. The demon's bulbous face was drenched with sweat. They shifted from one foot to the other.

"A gift," Neuro said. "For me?"

"Yes." Zera took a deep breath. "It's traditional, you know? Give gifts to people who are important to you during the Darkday season. As a display of trust and bonds."

They gestured to the book's cover. The title read, The Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes. "Demons say it's from the human world. I know you like things like that. You used to talk about that aboveground world a lot, when we were kids."

Neuro blinked. "I seem to recall the tradition being to give tribute," he said. "A bit of appeasement to those who rule over you, acknowledging their power and superiority. "

Zera appeared to deflate, hanging their head. They looked away in disappointment. "Yes. That…that's what it is."

Neuro was silent. Then he swept the book to the side and turned away to rifle through something hidden behind his desk. It sounded like a bag. "Fine. I accept your piece of tribute. And actually…if you're thinking of presents, I got you something."

"Really?!" Zera's eyes went wide. They brought one hand up to cover their mouth. The beginnings of tears pricked at their optics. "Neuro…so you do have a heart after all-"

Flump. Neuro tossed a hat onto the desk. It was conical and stiff, shaped like a dunce cap. Its sides were decorated with crudely-drawn stars. Beneath the lip of its ruff were endless rows of razor-sharp teeth. The brim moved like a mouth in endless peals of mocking laughter.

Zera stared at the torture-hat. They looked up at Neuro. Neuro looked back at them with an innocent smile. Zera reached for the hat with trembling hands and picked it up.

"Now, now," Neuro chided. "What do we say?"

Zera quivered as they held the hat above their head. "Thank…you?" With one held breath and squeezing their eyes shut, they brought the hat down. Immediately, the multiple rows of teeth began to nibble at their skull.

FIIIIIIIIVE GOLD-EN RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINGS

Day ten out of twelve. The Darkdays were in full swing. Everyone was gearing up for the Interbranch Slaughter tomorrow.

Or so it seemed to Zera. They walked down the hallway, an entire roll of bandages wrapped around their head. Their stalk eye was bent at an odd angle. Zera kicked at some entrails in the halls as they approached Neuro's door. Nice touch. The Order Branch must really be pumped up to win.

The slug demon couldn't help taking a deep breath on reflex as they took hold of the door handle. Nothing for it… Better to open the door now and face the traps rather than try to avoid them. They had learned that much at least.

Click. They swung open the door.

"Aargh!" Zera shrieked as a flood of bright yellow beads hit them square in the chest. They crashed hard to the floor. The demon flailed and waved their arms like a drowning swimmer. Yet despite bracing for ropes to trigger or for an aville to drop from above, nothing worse happened. Slowly, with the greatest suspicion, Zera opened their eyes.

"What the Hell is this?" They found themself lying in the outer reaches of a great pool of triangular beads. They ran their fingers through the mess and held one up. "Are these…batteries?"

"Yes. They are called Evil Diversey," a smooth voice rang out. "I was charging them when you came in. They are invaluable for recovering demonic energy, but in order for them to be of any use, I need to charge them in advance. I discovered this during one of my previous cases."

As Neuro spoke, the triangular beads lit up with a soft green glow. There was a sound like him snapping his fingers and they all disappeared. Zera fell two inches to the ground with a fwumph.

"Close the door."

Zera scrambled to obey. Once the door was shut, they turned around. "This better be good, Neuro." They ran their hands over their pustule-filled face and arms, as if still feeling the Diversey on them. "I don't understand why you would call me back in so soon, especially during a Darkday when you said you didn't-"

They stopped. "What is that?"

Neuro was holding up a bottle. At first the container appeared to be a normal vial, with a tapering cylindrical shape and crystal stopper. Inside was a frothy, mottled liquid.

Then it changed, the bottom portion in Neuro's hand warping to form a skull-like mass. Its skin puckered and stretched. It grew sharp teeth and two eyes, plus one more that rested above the left one. Both sides of the bottle were held up by a miniature arm connected directly to a leg, thin as sticks. Coming out of the skull's lower jawbone were two pinched faces, mouths open and eyes gaping. A small tail came from the vial's back end. A small brain-like structure soaked in the potion inside the container.

Neuro tilted the vial so that the liquid splashed against its sides. "This is a new invention of mine. I call it 777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Fumble. It is our key to victory."

Zera approached the desk cautiously, squinting at Evil Fumble as if it were a wild animal. "O-okay? What do you mean 'our'-"

"This," Neuro stated, "is an improved version of Evil Ampule. You remember that Tool from the informant case, I assume. Even a slug has a rudimentary nervous system, according to the science textbooks that haven't yet met you. I have combined samples from Evil Mud together with the solution from Evil Ampule in order to create a new, super-potent potion for improving brain function."

He gave a razor-sharp grin. "I estimate it will improve the strength of its user by 500%."

Zera gulped. A chill ran down their spine, making their boil-filled chin wobble. Neuro had made a better version of a Tool that already existed? Just how powerful was his mind?

"And what, ah, what 'victory' did you have in mind, Neuro?" They said, voice trailing off into weakness. Inside of their mouth, they bit their tongue in order to keep from screaming.

"You-" said Neuro, pointing at Zera with one middle finger, "You shall be my Angel of Death. Deliver this potion to the mouths of the two opposing teams during tomorrow's Interbranch Slaughter. With my concoction, their abilities should improve a monstrous amount. The Order Branch will stand no chance of winning, and their miserable little Darkday shall be crushed."

His green eyes fixed Zera with a stare. "Any objections?"

Zera gulped. The teeth marks on their scalp itched. "…No, sir."

Six Geese A-Laying

The horns blew, the roars erupted, the ceremonial first blood was spilled, and the Interbranch Slaughter began.

This year's tournament would take place in an outdoor valley, divided up into sections and framed on all sides by hills of knife-grass. No wimping out would be allowed. Most of the members of the HDAC had gathered, leaving just enough staff on duty to handle any small emergencies that arose. Big and medium-sized emergencies could wait. This was the Branches' one day to fully let loose.

Seven judges had been assembled. The demons wore black hoods and robes, executioner-style. They would oversee all four rounds: three of competition, one of exhibition.

First was the Technical Round.

Demons gathered together in one sectioned-off clearing. At the judges' signal, they began to display their skills. They could do anything, the rules stated, so long as it was impressive.

Some demons turned into human disguises. Some performed circus tricks. Others cast spells, or let loose piercing cries that turned everything around them into stone. One demon choked down an entire marble pillar slathered in mayonnaise. Flashes of camouflage and solid illusions predominated. In one corner was Doloron the Gutter, a sawfish demon from the Order Branch. Their chainsaw-nose quivered as they calmly flitted around, teleporting small distances.

But the show was stolen by an octopus-demoness from the Security Branch. Bystanders oohed and aahed while the demoness's colors flashed. She raised her eight puckered arms while patterns and a multitude of textures rippled across the light she controlled. Sparks, glimmers, a scrolling illusion of fish—the demoness could do it all. She could even turn invisible.

The Technical Round was known to be the Security Branch's specialty, after all. Though the Order Branch and the Punishment Branch both did well, ultimately the octopus demoness was declared the winner.

As soon as the judges delivered their verdict, a gruesome shriek rose from the middle of the crowd. One demon's rope trick had gone wild. Hissing and thrashing, the ropes lunged through the contestants, curling around demons' legs and threading their way through the crowd before dragging them all into a life-or-death fight.

Still, by the time the dust cleared several hours later, the Security Branch had been declared the victor.

Seven Swans A-Swimming

Next was the Endurance Round.

This part of the competition was an obstacle course. It required a mix of both fighting and technical prowess. Tag-teams had to climb up the side of one of the knife-grass hills, ford a pit of lava, leap over a pit filled with acidvenom snakes, struggle to scale a 100%-slick-bark tree, defeat a ravenous hyena-dog in barehanded combat, and frantically slash a balloon-bomb to pieces before it exploded in their face, among other things.

Also, it was a race.

The teams for Security and Order worked hard, but the Punishment Branch did surprisingly well, managing to bypass the other teams somewhere between the Whirling Blades-of-Death and the Foggy Bog of Poison. It was very exciting. This game had been the Order Branch's strong point in the past. The crowd turned and whispered amongst themselves. Could there be an upset in the making?

Back at the starting line, some demons became enraged at their slower teammates and attacked them. Harpy nails flashed and the shrieks of imps echoed as crowd members rushed to join in. The Punishment Branch team reached the final finish line and then immediately turned back to subdue the rioters. They laughed and swung their axes as if back on duty at their jobs.

Soon the field had turned into an all-out brawl.

Security: 1, Punishment: 1, Order: 0.

Eight Maids A-Milking

With the hood of their cloak up and scarf pulled tight around their neck, Zera scuttled slowly over to the feast tables. The Interbranch Slaughter would be taking a quick break soon in preparation for the final two events. Meanwhile, everyone was distracted by the ruckus in the Endurance Round quarter. It was now or never.

The tables that hadn't already been destroyed were loaded down with food—a plethora of dishes set out according to endless diets, preferences, and tastes. Zera sidled over to one long table that the Order Branch seemed to have settled around. Plates of reserved food sat waiting on the tableskincloth. Makeshift signs had been posted, saying things like TOUCH AND YOU DIE, RESERVED FOR THE INTERBRANCH VICTORS, and DEATH TO HEALTH FOOD.

Zera's fingers brushed against the sides of Evil Fumble inside of their jacket pocket. The glass felt deathly cold. The demon gulped.

They hovered around the part of the table that looked as if it had been visited most recently. Zera stuck out a finger. They sampled some toenails. Crunchy. They swiped some phlegm sauce. Delicious. With every movement they leaned in a little more. Their scarf swung down, hanging low from their arms and creating a momentary curtain as deft fingers moved out of their pocket and over-

"Hey! You there!"

Eeeeep! Zera's shoulders jolted as if they had been stabbed with shards of electric ice. The bottle had already started to tilt. Quickly the demon poured, dumping the liquid out into the first thing they could reach.

Zera turned, fear freezing their tongue. Standing a few feet away was another demon. Zera recognized him as one of the other office slaves—well, a janitor, if one was going to be technical about it.

"I know you," he said, smiling. "You're from that one guy's office. Great to get out from under the corporate claws, eh? Maybe we'll even see some bloodshed of our own, if we're lucky."

"Hahaha, yes, yes you're totally right! I know you too! How's it been?" said Zera. Behind their back, they shook out the bottle and slipped it into a pocket beneath their poncho. "I was just, uh, checking out the nice spread over here! Yeah! And getting some drinks that someone, my boss, you know, requested…" They turned around and began clinking the tops of bottles together.

"Really? Working even during a Darkday? That sucks." The snail demon grinned. "But you'd better be careful. Those are the judges' drinks."

Zera's breath stopped.

They returned the janitor's wave as the snail demon set off, a trail of slime left in their wake. Zera even managed to summon one small, terrified smile.

As soon as he was gone, Zera turned back to the glasses. One small, faint line could be seen running across the tableskincloth, separating the Order Branch's section from the nearby judges'. All the slug demon could do was stare, with the expression of one who had already witnessed their own execution.

Nine Ladies Dancing

With a roar, the Martial Round of the Interbranch Slaughter began.

This competition took place in a Gladiator pit. It was a battle free-for-all, with victories being determined by a thumbs-up, thumbs-down system. Thumbs-up meant kill your captive. Thumbs-down meant kill them slower.

As captives, the HDAC used the year's stock of prisoners. That way all three teams could have a violence spree without gutting Enforcement's own strength for tomorrow. Though, judging by how the demons all glared at each other, they would have jumped at the chance.

While the male demons were strong, the demonesses were vicious. They let loose sonic screams that jarred weapons from hands, slashed with nails as sharp as razor blades, and skewered prisoners while their male teammates were still busy posturing and boasting. Soon only demonesses were left in the pit. One by one the judges gave them the thumbs-up, allowing them to execute their captives and earn points for their Branch.

Among the few left was Zelmia Dreadsting.

The scorpion demoness hissed as she leapt through the arena, acid spilling out of the puckered hole that was her mouth. She had changed from a business dress into a black battle suit. The suit was sleek, but designed to get the most use out of the armored plates embedded in her dark purple skin. Her hair whirled and stabbed, the hooks on its ends flashing red with blood. They hooked prisoners with a feverish intensity and dragged them in towards her. She barely waited for the judges' thumbs to turn before yanking out her captives' eyes and ripping them apart.

Each kill only fed Zelmia's bloodlust more. She screamed like a Fury and tackled an opponent before stealing their captive. Eventually the arena became a battleground between the last two demonesses standing—a fight no longer for captives but for glory. The other demoness was hair-based too, and from the Punishment Branch. She sent out waves of dark locks. Zelmia refused to become ensnared, meeting each curling inch with flashing hooks of her own, the two demonesses battling to give the other one final, ugly hairstyle that would incapacitate their abilities.

Thus the Martial Round ended in a climactic battle, sustaining dozens of bystander dismemberments and strangulations in the process. But in the end, the Order Branch was declared victorious.

Security: 1, Punishment: 1, Order: 1.

Ten Lords A-Leaping

Finally the time had come. All demons gathered around the center ring, missing teeth and their chests stained in blood, in order to witness the tiebreaking round. Well, it was a tiebreaker in name only. In actuality, the legendary Fourth Round was held every year, as a final extravaganza if not to break a tie.

The final competition would take the form of a sanctioned bout. The judges had chosen their rules. All Branches had to now select a Champion to pit against the others.

The Punishment Branch and the Security Branch turned to search among themselves. The Security demons had a nice, civil discussion with knives held to each others' backs before choosing the octopus demoness. The Punishment demons held a brief scuffle, knocking 80% of their members out of contention, and in the end chose the only one of them who could still stand. Both Champions made their way to the center of the ring.

The Order Branch had some confusion. Demons turned and whispered among themselves.

"Who's going?"

"Zelmia! I vote Zelmia!"

"Where's that crime detective? He would be good at this." But Neuro was nowhere to be found.

At last Zelmia stepped forward, her battle suit red with blood and her hair in knots and tangles. She held her head high-

And Balanusk Huskeater jumped in instead.

The squirrel demon stood in front of Zelmia, cutting her off. She hissed and stumbled. The demon was dressed in his usual blue suit. His front fangs, filled with poison, were in clear view. His face glowed in the light of the distant fireplains.

Balanusk spread his arms out as if to block the others from Zelmia. His eyes were set in determination.

Zelmia stared. "Balanusk…" she said.

Then she jabbed him viciously in the ribs. "I can still fight, scumsucker! Go back to the other cowards!"

The arena had its choices: the Order Champions fighting—"I will not allow any imprecision!", the Punishment Champion wobbling on their feet, and the Security Champion pressing their octopoid form against the ground as if they wanted to disappear. All that remained was the judges' acceptance.

The leading judge raised their tentacle. The other six followed suit with a variety of limbs.

Zelmia still held her space in the ring, fending off Balanusk with the utmost effort. She dug her heels into the ground, elbowing him in the face and chest to keep him away. He twisted beyond her grip and popped back up like a bobblehead doll.

"At the sound of the Chicken-Sacrifice Gong," the lead judge intoned. "This sanctioned bout shall be- URGH!"

All at once the judges stumbled. They choked, grabbing at their throats. Their hands and coils twitched and writhed. Their faces rose up to the sky, mouths open and gaping. The surrounding demons drew away with startled cries. Some reached for their weapons.

With roars of elation the judges erupted outwards into a frenzy, their heads and shoulders swollen red and grown twice their size. They laughed in joy as if feeling new strength rush through their limbs, which they now understood how to use 500 times better than they had before. They struck out at random, each one of them fighting with the strength of a hundred demons.

The nearby demons rushed to meet them, partly out of fighting instinct and partly because they had caught on. This must be a new round of competition! The judges themselves were the enemy!

While the judges had at first been the epicenter, soon it was impossible to tell who was friend and who was foe. Security flummoxed Order. Order bit the leg of Punishment. Punishment just went wild. One small coalition teamed up to take down one of the judges, its corpse dragging other demons down with it.

Some familiar figures flashed through the whirl of chaos. The Punishment Champion smacked himself in the head with an axe. Dolorond the Gutter calmly teleported away. Huskeater jumped all around, striking heroic poses, his eyes firing laser beams that cut down everyone around him.

Just like every year.

Eleven Pipers Piping

"Mmmh! Mmmh! Mmmh!"

Elsewhere, Neuro leaned over a bound-and-gagged Zera. Tears streamed from the slug demon's eyes, looking up as if begging for pity. They groaned against the gag. But there was no scrap of sentiment to be found in those horrid green eyes.

Neuro looked down, grinning with cold disappointment. "Give my regards to the Lady," he said.

A tag hung on a rope around Zera's neck. The way it was twisted, Neuro could currently read the inscribed message: 'Bloody Slaughtermass'.

"Better hope the postal service doesn't mishandle this package." Neuro kicked Zera down into the mailbin. "Like they usually do."

Twelve Drummers Drumming

Executive Officer Leonfang was in his office.

With a rustle of paper, the leonoid finished the day's work. He filed away important reports and fed confidential notes to his desk, Blud, before leaning back in his chair. Finally. With most demons gone off to that ridiculous competition, he had some peace and-

BAM!

Lucard came barreling in. "Boss! We won! The Order Branch does it again!" His gaping mouth drooled stupidly with excitement.

Asanteoh gave a low rumble. "The door, Lucard."

"Sorry, King." But Lucard grinned. He knew that that rumble had been one of pride.

The wolf demon's gaze slid over to the space beside Asanteoh's desk. The wall behind the Executive Officer was stacked high with countless boxes. Some of them came in refrigeration units. Some still smelled faintly of blood. Their colors and tags made for an impressive effect, transforming the wall into a momentary trophy case.

"You got lots of tribute this year as well, I see. Glad to see there's still rare meats out there in the world." Lucard whistled in appreciation, admiring the boxes. "Looks like enough to keep you full for a few days at least. Anything good?"

Asanteoh cast a glance over at the tribute pile. One of the packages was labeled phoenix roast. Next to it was one marked manticore tongue, in loving script. "Perhaps."

"At least it's not all ogremeat, like last time," he grumbled. "Blasted Thundergod War. The market was flooded for decades…"

He sighed, running one handpaw through his mane. "Did you enjoy your Darkday?"

"YEAH!" Lucard perked up. Then he pressed his ears to the side and shrunk down. "I mean… Yes sir, it was a delightful period of restitution."

"-of relaxation. That sounds more natural." Asanteoh shook his head. "What have I told you about leadership, Lucard? A leader must be always be precise and inspire awe in all who behold them. Inaccurate vocabulary simply will not do."

"Yeah, yeah, I got it. Anyway…" Lucard glanced around even though they were the only two demons in the office. "Here, I got you something."

He put a package on the desk and quickly shoved it over. The shoddy wrapping-skin crinkled against the hard surface.

Asanteoh raised an eyebrow as he stared down at the parcel. "You shouldn't have." It wasn't an expression. It was a warning.

Lucard shrugged. "I know."

Asanteoh took the package. He sliced open the wrapping-skin with one claw.

A boxy shape tumbled out, hitting the desk on one edge and then lying flat. It was an ear-grooming kit.

Asanteoh looked up sharply. He could feel the blood rush to his ears—his small, cute, fuzzy ears, always hidden behind an imposing mane.

"You said you wouldn't tell," he said, grabbing the kit and stowing it out of sight.

Lucard already had his hands up in a surrender position. He looked away as if pretending that nothing had happened. "I didn't! Honest. Just thought I'd give you something, that's all."

Asanteoh cautiously fingered the edge of the kit. The plastic caught beneath his claws. When he looked up he saw Lucard continuing to look away, humming an innocent tune, giving Asanteoh the luxury of being unscrutinized. The wolf demon's hands were in his pockets.

This was a real gift. Not a piece of tribute, but a gift.

"…hmph." At last, Asanteoh gave a small smile. He opened one of Blud's drawers and placed the kit inside for safekeeping. "Fine. May you also receive something of worth this Darkday. Bloody Slaughtermass, Lucard."

Though turned away, Lucard's face brightened imperceptibly. "Thanks, boss."

Asanteoh gestured with one hand. "Now get out. It's unprofessional to neglect your work. I won't tolerate incompetence."

Lucard laughed before turning to leave. "Now that, I can remember. Bloody Slaughtermass to you too, King."




Somewhere in the distant past, rain fell.

The skies were mottled as purple as a bruise above the city of Yzguth, Where they were not purple, they were gray, the same gray that seeped down from their expanse, carried in the low-hanging fog, reflected in the walls of buildings, and colored the dirty concrete. Even the 'scratches', those faint lights and promises of a different world, were hidden behind the storm's cloak. The world below was truly alone.

In the midst of the downpour, one demon lay at the lip of an alley. They sprawled facedown against the street. Trash was scattered around them. High walls rose on either side, casting shadows that nearly blocked their form from view. In front of them stood another demon, holding up an umbrella as yellow as the Sun.

"That's a nice look in your eyes."

"…"

"It doesn't suit someone lying in an alleyway."

A few seconds passed. Then, the demon lying on the ground began to growl. Grrr…They growled and growled in a steady, neverending murmur.

The demon with the umbrella shifted their grip. "Nothing to say? Are you just a dog after all?"

The growling increased. Acid rain continued to fall, sizzling against the demon's silver-and-black fur. It wasn't enough to kill them. But it was enough to sting. Hell was good at things like that.

"So many demons do this." The umbrella-holder's voice was filled with scorn. "They give up, give in, bend to their lower instincts. They never bother to be anything more. They don't even bother to become greater trash."

"If they aren't born 'strong', then they just quit. We are all slaves to our peculiar diets, yes. They rule our whole lives. But demons never improve…they don't even try."

"How-" The demon in the alleyway's ear twitched at the emotion in the speaker's voice. "How am I supposed to protect them?"

The rain fell in silence. The growling had puttered to a stop.

The umbrella-holder brought one furred handpaw up to their face and wiped. Then they brought it back down. "But you. You don't look like you've given up yet. Have you?"

The rain fell.

"Well?"

Their reinforced-material umbrella sizzled in the downpour. The demon waited. And waited. And waited.

Just when they had turned to leave, fingers twitched behind them. Dark nails closed, digging small grooves into the grime of the alleyway. "…no," came the smallest of voices.

"Hmph. Finally something worthy of respect." The demon crouched and held out their umbrella. An amber-colored mane came into view. "Why don't you come with me?"

In the lip of the alleyway, a wolfish head stirred. It lifted, red eyes seeing a vision of strength, radiance, and a circle like a bright golden Sun.

And he followed, like a dog.


"Here it is—your first uniform."

Lucard shuffled back half a step as clothes were pressed into his arms. He held his hands out to receive them, but they were still heavy.

"…" Lucard took hold of something on top--a police cap. He held it up by the brim. His red eyes stared.

"That's yours, too," said a voice as familiar as honey. In front of Lucard sat Asanteoh, behind the wooden desk of a Head Officer. "Congratulations on passing police training. You've worked hard for this moment."

Those eyes still looked like twin searchlights. Sometimes Lucard couldn't believe that the demon in front of him was the same one that had taken him in, on that day many years ago. But then he remembered.

"Now you can take your place among the ranks," said Asanteoh. He gave a two-fingered salute. "It's taken years of preparation, I know. But you've done well to prove yourself. The HDAC expects great things from you, Lucard Throatbane."

Then the leonoid paused. His eyes did not flick to the door, but Lucard knew that somehow he must have checked all the same. Something in his gaze softened the slightest bit. His voice became more familiar. "I am proud of you."

Then it was gone. Asanteoh clasped his handpaws together on top of the desk. "Any questions about your new position?"

Lucard fingered the cuffs of his jacket. He was still wearing transitional clothes—the gray outfit of demons who had passed police training but hadn't yet formally entered the force. His new uniform was blue. It did not have any pants, as his fur would be enough.

Lucard put on the police cap, settling it down onto his head. It felt cool against the backs of his ears. "No sir," he said, snapping to attention.

"Then you are dismissed. I shall see you around."

Lucard bowed before remembering to return the salute.

One thing was for sure. Looking at Asanteoh sitting behind that wooden desk, a desk that did not seem worthy of his greatness, Lucard wanted to become someone who could support him.


"ALRIGHT!" Lucard shouted, wincing as an elbow hit him in the gut. One demon's fingernail poked uncomfortably close to his eye. "Break it up!"

He grabbed, pulling, pushing, and shoving until he made his way to the inner circle of the mob. He kicked one demon to the side. Some of the others drew back upon noticing him. Whispers started up: 'Major Throatbane, it's Major Throatbane'. In the center of the fray were two demons, a quadruped and a bipedal shape-form, engaged in blows.

"Quit this nonsense immediately!" Lucard busted in with the same force of busting down a door. He wrestled the two demons apart, holding one in each hand. "Battles are for outside of workhours! If you've got a beef, have it out then, you hear me? What in the Devil's name-"

"Oh Damn that!" said one of the demons, squirming in Lucard's grip. "And Damn the rules, too!"

"Didn't you hear?" the other sniveled. "We've got new leadership now. That Leonfang guy has ascended to the Executive Office. Life is going to suck."

"He's too cocky!"

"No, he's too mean! I told you," The other sniveled. "I wanted shorter hours, and he wouldn't let me. That sucks."

"We barely ever see him come out of his office," the first whined. "I bet he's not even doing any work in there. The other guy at least used to talk to us."

"Yeah, this new regime sucks. I liked the other one better."

Lucard's eyes stretched in disbelief. "What-"

The two demons paid him no mind.

"What does Kitty even eat, rare meats? How common."

"And he looks stupid. With his freakish hands, and his big ol' mane…"

Lucard saw red.

"ASANTEOH IS YOUR LEADER!" he roared, smashing their heads together. "He is your commander, and you will respect him! He does more for the HDAC than you two scraps have ever done for anybody in your sorry lives. I can tell you this—Asanteoh's life is worth two thousand of yours combined!"

"Who guided us through the years of that Arson Crisis, huh?" he yelled. "Who gave you two lice a purpose? Who keeps this shitheap running? He does! The best leader of our time is not deserving of your mockery. The Order Branch does not tolerate, and Enforcement will not stand for, insubordination!"

"And if you don't like it," Lucard growled, leaning in close. His eyes flared with miasma. "You can take it up with me. Got it?"

The demons hesitated to respond for half a second.

"Got it?" Lucard's nails poked holes in their suit collars.

"Yes!" one gasped.

"Good." Lucard snorted. He let go, shoving the demons away. "Get back to work. And double-time. If I ever hear any more disloyal comments, I will personally feed you to the shredders. Now scram."

The demons scrammed.

Lucard took a breath. He looked up to find the crowd staring at him in shock. The good, deferential kind of shock, the kind from sheep that needed to be reminded who their shepherd was.

Lucard flashed his teeth, scattering them all back to their places. "As you were."


As decades went by, and the decades stretched into centuries, Asanteoh noticed a change in the wolf demon.

Lucard had started to smile more than he had before. He had begun to talk, to laugh even, to hold his head up high and walk with his back straight. He had even, somehow, managed to become a bit of a bumbling idiot.

Asanteoh smiled. He made a mental note to continue keeping an eye on the demon.


"…so, you've learned to control yourself during training. And you've developed your powers to their greatest capabilities." Asanteoh tilted back in his chair, facing towards the back wall away from Lucard. A small sign on his desk read 'Executive Officer'.

"You've also proven yourself to be skilled in combat. Quite the interesting style, but it works…" Asanteoh mused. "Furthermore, you've completed your most recent mission. The crisis in the Wwna Sea was avoided thanks to efforts led by your team."

He swiveled his chair around. "I have absolutely no qualms about appointing you to the rank of Commander."

"Yes, sir." Lucard barked with pride. He stood tall, wearing a new black suit that fit his shoulders perfectly. This outfit finally had pants. "Thank you, King."

"Thanks are not necessary. Nor are they professional," said Asanteoh. "If you're going to be serving directly under me from now on, let that be the first lesson from me to you."

Lucard gave a small smile. "Understood. Boss."

"I look forward to having you as my right-hand-demon. I'm sure that together, the two of us can whip this place into even greater shape. Congratulations, Commander Throatbane."

Lucard's tail wagged once at the sound of his title. Then it stilled. "Hey…King," he said, his voice breaking the silence.

"Hm?"

The air in the office felt still. Lucard swallowed, clearing his throat. For some reason a part of him felt small, a slight ghost of the feeling of what he once was. "That time back then…why did you save me?"

Silence fell.

At last, Asanteoh spoke. He was looking away, as if gazing out of an invisible window. "Does it matter?"

Lucard was quiet. Then he nodded. "I see."

He half-turned to leave. "Then," Lucard snapped a salute. "It's an honor to serve under the banner of Enforcement. See you tomorrow, King."

Asanetoh nodded. "Tomorrow, Lucard."

Lucard left, walking down the halls as if their conversation hadn't mattered. But privately, he thought to himself: He cares.


Many centuries in the future, but seconds in the present, Lucard walked down the hallways of the HDAC.

Asanteoh was deserving of respect, Lucard thought. Caring was dangerous for demons. It was useless, something 'nice', something that they were not supposed to do, something they were not even really designed to do. It was thought to be a sign of weakness.

And so Lucard growled at demons as he passed through the hallways. Workers nodded and skittered back to the their stations with renewed vigor, fueled by fear. He kept them in line. That was the least he could do.

Lucard kept his thoughts to himself. Asanteoh was kind. He was kinder than any demon should be, perhaps. But he masked it with authority, with demands of obedience from others. How else could he keep his kingdom running smoothly? How else could he benefit everyone under his wing? Asanteoh's true pride was in his domain, Lucard knew, but more than that, in his status as its guardian. The Law of the Jungle rang true for him, as it did for all demons. The leonoid—King of Beasts—was no exception. But he cared.

That was why Lucard served. So he could defend, protect, and assist with everything Asanteoh needed. He deserved that much. After all, Lucard was his loyal right-hand-demon.

And he would keep Asanteoh's kingdom for him.

Chapter Text

"…"

The door was tall and gray. It was set in an even taller, even grayer building. It stood in front of Neuro as unmovable as the wall of a safe, or perhaps a small mountain. Silence stretched on and on.

"…They're late," Neuro grumbled.

He shifted on his feet, scratching a line in the ground with one foot. The feathers running up from his clawed feet were a lush shade of blue. A capelet of purple and white feathers draped over his shoulders and met at his chest. His hands were serrated talons. On his head, two ridged horns shone in the light. It was obvious that the demon was healthy. He must have been eating well.

Neuro looked up and re-read the building sign: Hadeswood Film Studio. This was definitely the place.

He clenched his fist. A letter crinkled as paper against his palms. Just two days ago, the HDAC had received a written request from the Hadeswood Film Studio. Neuro wouldn't have even gotten the letter if he hadn't rescued it from the office slush pile, having sensed the faint scent of mystery about it. A light, green aura had clung to the envelope like a spiderweb. The letter's language was formal but terse, as if the client had wanted to avoid saying anything more than strictly necessary. The task was a bit vague, but basically it could be understood that the petitioner wanted to request an investigation into their studio, especially regarding a certain "cursed role".

Cursed role, Neuro thought, his tongue wiggling in anticipation. Now that could be juicy.

He brought up one hand and knocked for the umpteenth time. No answer. Neuro whacked the door, assaulting it hard enough to dent the metal plating. This time he did not stop. Maybe they would be more likely to answer if he knocked with his feet. BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM-

A small panel opened. A pair of eyes glared out at Neuro from behind the door. "Who goes there?"

Neuro wordlessly held out the letter. "Crime detective Neuro Braineater from the HDAC," he drawled after the demon's eyes only narrowed in response. "We received an investigation request from Director Baeri. That's all I can say on the matter. Now let me in before I decide to reach through that hole, stretch your neck out to here, play a tune on your vocal chords, and bash the door in with your face."

The panel shut. A few moments passed. Then the door opened and a pair of rough hands pulled Neuro inside.

"There ya go. I told ya we were expecting visitors."

Neuro blinked in the light. The halls of the movie studio were well-lit, confounding demon senses but providing perfect conditions for filming. In front of him stood a fat demon wearing a gray uniform. The rough hands on Neuro's shoulders belonged to a large, ogre-like demon.

"Word of that didn't reach security," the ogre demon said. His skin was deep red. It was his eyes that Neuro had seen behind the door.

"Of course it didn't. What are we, angels? Face it, that Director just doesn't wanna admit he needs any help." The uniformed demon sniffed and spat into a nearby bucket. A cart loaded with cleaning supplies stood next to him. "He told me about it, at least. That's why I've been standing around this door for hours. Now get back to ya cardgame, Norlen."

The ogre demon nodded. He released Neuro with a small shove and turned to walk down the hall. A few paces away was a round coffee table with cards strewn over its surface. He sat down and paid them no more attention.

The other demon snorted in disgust. Neuro began to recognize his clothes as a janitor's uniform. The demon was half-Elemental, by the looks of it: his skin was made of bark, and his hair was a mass of bushy leaves. Bits of paper were scattered across and tucked into it like snow. He had no eyes. His rotund belly swayed with each step.

"So you're the bloke they decided to send, eh?" The janitor demon said.

Neuro brushed off his feathers and gave a little bow. "Indeed. I took on the assignment myself." He had even, Neuro reflected, barely paused to let officer Leonfang know where he would be.

The janitor grunted. "Best of luck. This place is a madhouse, I tell ya. Might as well leave bad enough alone."

"But come here." He turned. "I'll show ya to the guest room. That's what we gotta do for all visitors."


Soon they arrived at a small room lined with black leather couches.

The janitor parked his cleaning cart by the side of a couch. He turned around and leaned his back against it. He was quiet, staring at Neuro.

Neuro looked around the room. There was nobody else here. Did the demon mean for him to take a seat? Or would it be more polite to stand, showing attentiveness? Eventually, Neuro settled for walking forward a bit and standing next to one of the couches.

The janitor coughed. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Have ya figured it out yet?"

Neuro blinked at the question.

"The mystery. Just solve it," said the janitor, deadpan. "You're good at that, right? I imagine ya could probably solve the whole thing from where you're standing right now."

"…" Oh. So that's what sort of delusion this creature was operating under. "Impossible. I'm not that perfect," said Neuro. "No one is."

The janitor demon looked at him skeptically. "Uh-huh. Then why's those folks on Raw and Order did it just last night?"

Neuro fought down a flash of anger. "That was a T.V. show," he growled.

The janitor crossed his arms. "Still your line of work…"

"For starters," Neuro clipped. He waved the letter. "I don't even know for sure what I'm investigating. The Director mentioned a 'cursed role', but nothing else about-"

"Oh," The janitor's mood changed. He sniggered. "You mean those disappearances?"

What? Neuro shut himself up. "Tell me more."

"It's nothing much," said the janitor. "Just a weird string of events. Ever since the start of filming for this new movie, each actor cast in the leading role has vanished. There's been about five of them so far, I think. Just poof! Gone, without a trace. That's why they started to call it a 'cursed role'."

"Vanishings…I see." Neuro brought one finger to his chin in a thoughtful gesture. "What is the approximate timing between them?"

The janitor shrugged. "One was here for a month. Another showed up for only a week before disappearing. Either way, the studio's starting to run out of options." He chuckled. "The Director is at the end of his rope trying to constantly find and keep a new actor for the lead. And once they disappear, all of the film has to be scrapped and done over again. Ya can't produce a movie with six different actors as the main part, after all."

"And these disappearances all appear to be done under the same circumstances?"

"Yup. Actor comes in, does their part, and then one day they never show back up. The studio's even checked their permanent dwellings and found nothing. No one's heard of them since."

Neuro was silent for a few moments. He gazed off into the bright hallway.

The janitor cleared his throat. "That help?" he asked.

"Yes," Neuro decided. "Your assistance is appreciated."

He stood from where he had been leaning against a couch. "Now if you'll excuse me, I shall begin the investigation in the places where the victims were last seen. We passed some doors to the inner studio on the way here, as I recall-"

"Woah, woah!" The janitor moved to block Neuro. He held up his hands, wooden joints creaking. "Ya can't do that. Restricted access only. They're so paranoid about finishing the film that they don't wanna be disturbed."

Neuro blinked. Then it hit him. "Are you telling me," he said slowly, "That I have free reign, but only over the beginning section of this building?"

The janitor nodded. "Well, we can't let ya in any further. Director's orders, scene shooting, top secret stuff. And ya don't need much more than this beginning part, I'll bet. A smartie like ya will find some breakthrough clue somewhere."

Neuro ground the teeth inside of his beak. Did these demons really think he was here for their amusement? Were they so entitled that they thought a detective could give them instant answers?

"Anyway, I gotta go," the janitor said. They turned and took hold of their cleaning cart. "The Director'll come meet with ya after a few hours's time. Ya can tell him what ya found then. If he doesn't, I'll go…get him myself." The janitor scowled momentarily.

Neuro observed in silence. He stood by the black couches as the other demon slowly wheeled away. Within a minute the janitor had disappeared down the hall, and Neuro was alone again.

"Hmph," said Neuro. "It seems our Director is unable to decide if he really wants this mystery solved." How intriguing. And also, how annoying.

This studio is too tight-lipped about its secrets. I have to get some answers, Neuro thought, bending the fingers of his left hand. And for that, I need a disguise.

He concentrated a pool of aura into his palm, already knowing which Tool he would call. 777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Fiction.

A small, curved shape appeared in Neuro's hand. It was golden in color, its body a darker shade while its face was pale. Upon close inspection, it looked almost like some sort of animal. The device had four miniscule legs, two eyes, and a long snout almost like a tapir. Two purple stripes were on its back. It had a small purple tail.

Neuro held the Tool up to his ear. Evil Fiction wiggled its nose and bit greedily onto the tuft of stiff, brown fur. Neuro felt a ring of tiny, needle-like teeth sink in. It hung from his ear just like an earring.

"Excellent. With this, I could infiltrate anywhere," Neuro said, tapping the side of the Tool to make sure it was working. He nodded, satisfied.

The Tool would allow him to fit any role, he knew. There should be no problem once he was inside the studio. But there was a catch—this investigation would be one with a time limit. Thirty minutes, he thought. After that time, the demonic earring would begin eating through his flesh, burrowing in towards his internal organs in order to feed. That would be its designated payment. Before then, Neuro had to be ready to remove it.

Neuro shrugged off all worries and set off down the hallway. He held his head high. He felt rather fashionable now with his snazzy new earring.

Before long he came to a set of gray double-doors. With the flick of a wrist, Neuro opened them and stepped through.


The interior of the film studio was an absolute madhouse.

Demons rushed to and fro. Some of them were dressed in costumes, dashing between others holding props. One demon with a plank of wood over her shoulder turned around and clubbed two others in the head. The air was filled with a cacophony of demands, shrieks, and screaming. Limbs of all shapes and sizes flailed. An entire bucket of blood had been spilled over the floor and dried, left over from a scene. Three demons were arguing in a tight circle, their scripts a mess of black ink and cross-outs. The stress of an unfinished project seemed to be taking its toll on everyone involved.

"Hey!"

Not two seconds in and Neuro was already caught. He would have been impressed, if he had bothered to care. He turned to see a young demoness with a clipboard. She snarled, six eyes blinking behind her glasses while her spider-like legs tapped against the floor.

"Visitors aren't allowed. Just who are you supposed to be?"

Neuro gave a pleasant smile. Oh, what an apt question that was. "I'm an actor, of course."

He felt Evil Fiction give a small jerk, as if acknowledging his input. The demoness hesitated at the boldness in his voice. Then, a look of confusion swept across her face, followed by dull acceptance. "Oh." She nodded. "Of course, of course. My apologies mister…?"

"Mindswallower. I'm the new lead actor for the project."

"Mr. Mindswallower! How may I help you today?"

Neuro hid his grin. "Show me to Director Baeri. We have things to discuss."

"Of course!" The demoness had perked up considerably when Neuro mentioned 'lead actor'. She swept her four arms to the side and hurried him along. "Right this way."

She moved them through the crowd at a pace of one chronically behind schedule, bearing their last chance at redemption. "Move it! Coming through!" she called. The more demons the two of them passed, the more people laid eyes on Neuro. With each passing second, a sea of whispers rose as the delusion spread. Demons shifted, making room both physically and mentally for a new 'actor' in their midst. He was there. He had always been there.

Evil Fiction hummed softly against Neuro's eartuft. When used, the Tool would portray its user as any character they desired for a scant thirty minutes, he reflected. It transformed the wearer's presence to suit their needs. A head chef, a prize-winning journalist, a pilot…with just a few supporting words, one could fit any role. However, the Tool did not grant its wearer any skills. Those you had to fake on your own.

It worked by a combination of suggestivity and illusion. The wearer's physical form was not changed, but as long as they wore the Tool, others would by default view them as the role they had taken on. It was as if a small section of the world was cut off, ensphering the wearer and replacing them with an entirely different character in the watcher's mind.

Neuro smirked. Ironically, he wasn't lying. Given the current situation, he was, indeed, an actor.

"Director Baeri!" The demoness said. She dragged Neuro forward to where two demons were in deep conversation. One of them was a horsefly-demon. He was bipedal, with a horse's head and fuzzy moth ears, and wore a suit jacket and suspenders. He jumped nervously when they approached.

"I've brought your new actor," said the demoness. "This is Mr. Mindswallower."

"Ah, yes!" Baeri yelped. He brushed part of his mane back with one hand and reached forward to take Neuro's with the other. His stressed mindset apparently made him accept Neuro's disguise immediately. "Excellent. I've been waiting for you to arrive. I knew today would be a good day. The first in a while…"

He took the detective's arm, pulling him away. "Let's get started, shall we? Your first scene is right over here."

They walked at a brisk pace. Baeri was silent. The atmosphere was so tense Neuro could have played a fiddle on it. Then, the Director spoke: "I am so glad to have you on this project. You don't know what it's been like, working on this film…"

"You've hit some rough spots, I hear," said Neuro. "But I don't know much about it aside from that. Every film comes with its own difficulties, yes?"

Baeri let out a sharp laugh. "Ha! If only it were just 'difficulties'. Five actors disappearing, all within the past six months, and turning up as bones…I'm beginning to think the rumors of a 'curse' are true."

He glanced to Neuro. "But…but our studio is very safe! You'll be fine here, you really will, and it's great, I promise, truly, pleasedon'tleave-"

"Your troubles are why I'm here," Neuro said soothingly. "With my acting, I've come to solve the puzzle- I mean, the problem. If it makes you feel any better, I admire your dedication."

The director wrung his hands. "Yes…dedication. That's all it will take. I hope."

They arrived at a small room. It was brightly lit, and copiously splattered in blood with a full monster skeleton laid out as the focus. Small piles of bones were scattered throughout.

Baeri looked side to side. He took a deep breath, seeming to calm down a bit in the familiar environment. "This is the scene we'll film first. It's a little late in the script, but it's what we've got set up at the moment-"

He paused. "Um. What are you doing?"

Neuro crouched down before a pile of bones. He seemed to be investigating it. "Checking my environment," he called back in a snooty tone. "I simply cannot be expected to work in the presence of cheap props."

"Oh."

Neuro held up a small phalange—a finger bone. "Are these real?"

"Yes," Baeri said immediately. "They are the genuine article. We strive for greatness in every scene we shoot."

"I thought so," Neuro muttered.

He palmed the bone and stared down at the pure-white pile. These were real. But that wasn't the unusual part. All of the gore in Hell's movies was 100% genuine, after all. Rather, by the looks of it, these bones had been 'disembodied' only recently.

Neuro remembered something the Director had said: "Turning up as bones". They must be using the remains of the disappeared actors here. He shrugged. How efficient of them. Reuse, recycle.

"Sir?" came Baeri's voice from behind him. "Are we ready to film?"

Neuro stood, slipping a small bone in-between his fingers. "Ah, no, sorry. At least, not yet. I'd like to be shown around a little more first."

"My work requires artistic inspiration," said Neuro, letting all of his latent arrogance come out in his voice. "I need to…feel the atmosphere." He held up both hands and posed haughtily as if shocked by some invisible behavior. The film demons around them responded well, bowing and scraping before the demands of his ego.

The Director bowed as well. "I-I see. In that case, please come this way."


Neuro stared at the sight before him. Rarely had he seen anything of such beauty.

They were looking at a jewelry case. Inside of it was a necklace strung out on display. Its color was a soulful blue. It was made of round gemstones, with the largest and heaviest one in the middle. The others thinned out to the sides until all that remained by the clasp were the smallest of droplets, like a light morning dew.

The necklace looked to be made of diamond and starstone. Inside of its periwinkle depths were small wavy lines, like sand meeting the shore. It seemed at once too precious to touch and yet as familiar as heartache. Gazing at each one of the perfectly-round gems brought a different kind of sadness to mind. It was the kind of jewelry one could get lost in. Wars had surely been fought over it. Its beauty was matched only by the suffering it spoke of.

"…So, this will be used in the final scene?" Neuro asked.

Baeri nodded. "Yes. The String of Tears."

"Aren't you worried about anyone taking it?"

Baeri shook his head. "No. We never remove the necklace from its case. It's only meant as a background prop." His horse nose wiggled. "Still, we should make a lot of money from that scene alone. At least, if we ever get around to filming it…"

"Surely you can't watch the necklace all the time, though." Neuro stared at the display in thought. "Where is the necklace kept at night?"

"In…in a maximum-security case down in the basement," said Baeri. His tone grew slightly suspicious. "The thing is nigh-unbreakable. Shock-proof, vibration-proof, fire-proof, shatter-proof, you name it. It's almost as expensive as the String of Tears itself. Why?"

"Oh, nothing," Neuro said. He put on his innocent blank-face. "I just wanted to get to know my most beautiful coworker, that's all. Knowing someone's past lets you work better with them in the future. There, there, that's a nice String of Tears." He cooed and stroked the case.

"I see," said Baeri. His antenna-ears drooped as he focused back on the necklace. "But you know, Mr. Mindswallower…this object is our star, but it might also be our savior."

"If this film is cancelled, then the String of Tears will go to auction to cover our losses." The Director smiled sadly. "Enjoy it while you can, hmm?"

Neuro paused mid-stroke. His eyes gained a slight glint. "Really? I see…"

A demon rushed out from the doorway. He ran over to the Director and whispered in his ear. Baeri's horse-like face brightened up immediately.

"Execllent news, sir! I've just been informed that everything is ready for our filming session. We'll begin right away."

"That's terrific," Neuro faked. "But I'm afraid I am not. I require just a bit more time before I-"

"Nonsense!" Baeri grabbed his arm. Neuro resisted the urge to break free. "The studio artists will have you prepared in a jiffy. You'll be out there on the floor before you know it."

"Sir, I don't think-"

But Neuro was forced into silence as they swept down the hall, immediately followed by a tide of chattering workers.

"Filming is behind schedule by-"

"Set number 24 prepared, sir-"

"Mr. Mindswallower, make-up! Please wait for the beauticians-"

Neuro shuddered. But he kept quiet. He couldn't afford to break his cover.

Evil Fiction twitched on his left ear. Ten minutes left.


At least Neuro had his dressing room to himself. That was a relief.

He had insisted on every demon leaving as soon as possible. He would have no scriptwriters, no assistants, and certainly no beauticians. The room stretched out empty before him. The walls were an ugly pink. One side of the room had a counter that jutted out, the paneling above it covered by mirrors and lightbulbs set in a ring around them. There was a closet with costumes inside. Neuro was probably supposed to wear them. Neuro did not.

How bothersome. Neuro tugged on one strand of hair, bored. As he did, his hand brushed against Evil Fiction.

Immediately, he pulled his hand away. How much time has passed? He could not remember. Ten, twenty minutes? In the midst of his role, he had stopped keeping track.

Forget it. He shrugged and crouched down on the floor. I'll be able to feel when it starts trying to dig in to my organs.

Neuro began investigating. If his instincts were right, this room was the same one given to all the lead actors. This was the last place that the others had been before disappearing.

Neuro searched every inch of the room. He searched high and he searched low, summoning a few Evil Friday bugs to assist. They rifled through the closet while he crawled over the floor. He glanced at the counter's underside. He stood on walls in order to inspect the tops of cabinets. He even unscrewed the lightbulbs.

Eventually, he found what he was looking for in the most obvious place: the trashcan.

"Hmm," Neuro said, looking at the scraps of paper laid out before him. "Interesting."

The writing of the message was relatively easy to read, but there were pieces missing. Neuro had assembled it as best he could, but the last victim had torn their message to shreds. He was sure that this letter had belonged to them. The pieces of paper still carried the lingering scent of a mystery.

"I need the other pieces," Neuro said, an Evil Friday bug crawling on his wrist. "But where-"

His demonic hearing picked up the sound of squeaking wheels. Neuro crept over to the dressing room door and looked out of the small crack that had been left when the last hairdresser departed.

The janitor demon Neuro had met before was passing down the hallway. The wheels of his cleaning cart squeaked under the weight of the three trashcans it was transporting. His gray uniform stretched thin over his belly.

As Neuro watched, the demon stopped. He bent down to pick up a discarded bag from the ground. He looked at it, shrugged at its appearance, and put it into his mouth. He chewed with a grunt. Then he began to push the cart again.

So, that was how the janitor demon cleaned up this place, Neuro thought. He was half-Elemental, after all—perhaps the wood demon decomposed trash inside of himself naturally. A moving landfill. What a convenient slave.

His eyes fell upon the janitor's leafy hair. Scraps of paper there fluttered with each step.

Neuro shot out a hand. One demon bug from Evil Friday flew off of his wrist, launching into the wall a short distance away. It hit and fell down with a smack.

Neuro pulled back behind the door and grinned. By the time the janitor turned around to inspect the noise, the demon bug would already be climbing up the back of his uniform. All Neuro had to do was wait.

Within one minute, there came a soft tapping at the door. Neuro widened the crack to let the demon bug in. It skittered across the floor and ran up his leg, delivering a handful of paper scraps straight into his palm. Bullseye.

Neuro went back to his assembled the message. He sat down and began filling in the scraps, the Evil Friday bugs helping him keep the edges steady.

Just as Evil Fiction began to twitch on his ear, he had it.

"Feh. How simple."

The message said, in brief, that the reader should come to the studio basement immediately after lights out. It gave instructions for punching out and then hiding in one of the bathrooms until everyone had left. It offered an absurd amount of money as a reward for complying.

Neuro brought out the bone he had swiped earlier. Just as he had thought, after some basic chemical testing, he had found that the surface contained traces of stomach acid.

"So, the culprit lured their victim to the basement," said Neuro. "Once the lead actor arrived, they were promptly overpowered and digested. The killer then left their bones to be found in the morning."

This message was the final proof he needed. Neuro sat back, satisfied, as the demon bugs carefully ran tape over the paper scraps, patching them together.

Over the past minute, a pain had been building in Neuro's ear. The small prick of needle-like teeth had become to a searing burn. A tiny jaw ground against the brown tuft, digging furiously. If Neuro's ears had been made of flesh, he would have been bleeding profusely.

Neuro reached up and wrenched at Evil Fiction. It came off with a soft yelp. An inch-deep indent was left in his left eartuft. Any more and it would have hit the skin beneath.

He dismissed the Tool, still staring at the patched-together message. It cried out in disappointment and then disappeared. "Hmm. This gives me an idea…"


That evening, crime detective Neuro Braineater bowed when he met Director Baeri. The Director apologized for leaving him so long. Some things had come up. But did his investigation find anything?

Neuro shook his head when pressed for info. He said he was sorry, but that the Director should tell everyone that the decisive piece of evidence could not be presented until tomorrow morning. Then, and only then, would Neuro deliver his revelation.

The Director agreed. He appeared agitated, fuming over another lead actor's disappearance, 'so soon this time'. When questioned, however, he admitted that it was odd—he was having trouble remembering if the 'actor' had ever really been there. His employees, too, shared the same fuzzy memory. It was as if they had all just woken up from one long, shared delusion.

The Director resolved to ban all alcoholic beverages from the inner studio from now on. He bid the detective good night.


A good night indeed, Neuro thought to himself. Four walls pressed in on all sides around him. He was standing, shrouded in the shadowy interior of a closet. Everything was dark gray, either because it was concrete or draped in the depths of the night. The air was cool here in the studio basement. All was silent.

Neuro could hardly wait. But he remained still as a stone statue. He knew that outside of the closet, in the middle of the room, was the String of Tears necklace in its case.

They will come, he thought. They will most definitely come.

The necklace was the killer's motivation. It was unthinkably valuable, and had been transferred to the Hadeswood Film Studio quite suddenly, according to Neuro's later research. If a demon wanted the necklace, and wanted it now, it had only one option. Director Baeri had said it: if the film was cancelled, then the String of Tears would be put up for auction. There would be multiple ways to obtain it from that point. Killing off the lead actors was a perfect way to force the studio to abandon the project.

Neuro breathed softly, his mind on the near future. He may have solved the mystery, but it was useless to him without its carrier. Neuro needed its plotter's evil energy. He needed the culprit themself. And for that, he needed to set a trap.

Tonight, the necklace had been put under more lax security than usual. It was still in its maximum-security case, of course. But if anyone had been keeping an eye on the necklace, now would be the perfect time for them to move.

Or at least, that was how it appeared. Neuro couldn't help giving a small smirk. It was the perfect honey trap. Only the demon for whom the bait was relevant would show up-

CRASH!

Strings twanged and iron rattled while something heavy like an anville thumped to the floor. Debris clanged against the doorway. Some screws rolled inside. Ropes and wires snapped, some of them ending up hanging, rearranged, over the closet entrance.

Neuro leapt up with excitement. There it was! His heart beat like a jackhammer. There had been just the slightest movement, too fast for Neuro to really see, but someone had darted through the roomand approached the jewelry case.

He exited the closet, stepping over one wire and ducking beneath another. "I see you've triggered my traps," said Neuro. "I'm always looking for new ways to exercise my little ideas, so perhaps I must thank you."

"Only the culprit themself would feel the need to come for this necklace," he jeered, approaching the figure lying on the ground, wrapped in chains. He flipped them over with one clawed foot. "Now then, let's see who my delivery-boy is-"

Neuro stopped. The face staring up at him was the janitor. But his face was contorted, blood burbling up from between his lips. His gray uniform was ripped and matted. The bark on his arms had been shredded and hacked away. A bloody hole was punched through his belly.

He was dead.

Neuro's eyes went wide. "What?"

There was a rush of air. A line of red ran up Neuro's arm. Then he felt the pain.

"Aargh!"

He cringed, bending over the wounded limb. Another gust of air ghosted past. Hissing in pain, Neuro dropped and rolled behind the necklace case on instinct.

A voice like cracked ice sounded through the room. "So. We meet again, detective. How lovely to taste your blood already."

"You think you're always sooooooo clever," came the voice. "But this time I've outsmarted you. And you will pay for it. We will fight here, detective, and you will die."

"Gobgem?" Neuro called. But no. He already knew that wasn't right.

A sound like the hissing of a thousand snakes met his ears. "NO, fool! The goblin is not here. Only I have the right to tear you into one hundred miserable pieces."

That voice. It was familiar to Neuro in the most obscure way, like a note heard in a song listened to once and then forgotten. It sent chills up his spine.

Something shuffled on the other side of the case. Feet hit against the earth. His opponent must have decided to show themself.

Neuro peered out. The sight that met him was at once what he expected and what he feared. Even worse, the pull of the mystery led straight in that direction.

"You…" he said. "I know you."

Chapter Text

The demon stood slightly shorter than Neuro. They wore something like a poncho, ragged with holes, and a hood that kept their face in shadow. Beneath that, they wore a black top and form-fitting shorts. Their legs were those of an animal, with backwards-pointing knees. Rusty bangles hung from their wrists.

"That's right, Braineater." The demon's voice was now definitely recognizable as female. With shaking hands, the figure reached up and pulled down their hood. "Now see…what you did to me!"

Her face was serpentine. Pale-colored dreadlocks tumbled over her shoulders, contrasting with her dark skin. Snakes hissed sadly from somewhere inside her ponytail.

Her eyes were ragged holes in her skull. She was blind.

Neuro slowly rose to his feet. "Low Beam…"

"Hyahahahahaha!" The reverse gorgon's laughter rang out. "I got rid of them! After that little trick you pulled, I lived a life of torture. If I ever opened my eyes, I would have been stone forever!"

"Do you know what that even feels like? Keeping your eyes screwed shut, voluntarily blind, forever afraid of the terrible things lurking inside of your own head?" She shook with anger. "Just one mistake and I would have been a goner. But oh, I'm sure that misery is what you intended…"

She broke into a bubbling giggle. "Then, they came to me. I had been in contact with the Natural Order for a while, but I never expected them to repay the favor. They told me-" She raised her fingers up to her eye sockets with a deranged grin. "They told me that if I wanted to be free, all I had to do was remove the source of my punishment. They helped. It was just a little pluck—one guttural, strong, rip. The rehabilitation process was excruciatingly painful, of course…"

She licked her lips. "But it was all worth it. I can kill you now."

Neuro took his hand away from his arm. The wound was still bleeding. It had been a deep cut, and her knife stung like revenge. "I see. So that's the kind of pathetic creature you are."

"Don't call me pathetic!" hissed the gorgon.

"What was that? I couldn't hear you," Neuro taunted. "All I hear is the sound of an old ghost, rattling its chains and creeping back to haunt the world of the living. Go back to your graveyard, trash. You'll fit right in with the rubbish piles."

"You dare insult me," the gorgon screeched. "But you still haven't noticed the position you're in!"

She swept one arm to the side, pointing at one of the staircase entrances. A metal door had shut tight over the opening. As Neuro looked, he saw that the same was true for all the others—each staircase was sealed off. And by the looks of it, those metal doors were too thick to break.

"For all of your cleverness, detective, you have failed! This is a trap. A sinkhole. Even if you somehow managed to escape, there are other demons waiting for you."

"Hurts, doesn't it?" The gorgon chuckled, enjoying her theatrics. "Your punishment sealed my loyalty. Any world run by your Enforcement is not one I, or any criminal, would want to live in. The Natural Order is the way it should be!"

"Blah, blah," Neuro said. He summoned up a convincing yawn. "Tell me, is it required for all members to make horrible wordplay with the name of your organization? Or are you all just that monumentally stupid?"

"Shut up. Save your breath for your dying words."

"Oh, pardon me. I forgot you actually enjoy being stupid. My apologies, Low-Beam."

The gorgon's face twitched. "Don't call me that."

"I will. It seems a fitting way to refer to you." Neuro held up both hands in a ready position. "Now. Shall we fight…Low-Beam?"

The gorgon erupted in a scream. "DON'T! CALL ME! THAAAAAAAT!"

She attacked.

Neuro had almost forgotten how fast the demoness was. Except for when she paused to strike, there was no chance of seeing even a blink of her.

The gorgon could slash four times in one second. Her bladed armlets flashed. Neuro parried with his talons and transformed both arms into shields. Still, she kept landing hits. A cut appeared on his upper arm. Slashes opened in red across his thigh. One blade came uncomfortably close to his face, leaving a dripping slice across his feathered cheek.

He swiped downward. The gorgon dodged. He raked with his talons and kicked out with one foot. She blocked, wove, and came back to strike again. The room rang with the sound of their blows.

Dust rose in the corners of the studio basement as she leapt from one side to another. Neuro could tell her trajectory only by the strong winds that whipped past. But the moment that he aimed, the gorgon was gone again.

The bywinds buffeting Neuro felt like a hurricane. Then they closed in, trapping him in a swirling invisible cyclone. The air began to grow thin.

Neuro struck out at random. Even trying to trip her was no use. She must have been running just out of range. It was all he could do to keep her from completing the vacuum, sucking all the air out at once. Even so, his breath grew shallow. Spots collected at the edge of his vision. He was moving with no oxygen flowing to his muscles, no fresh miasma fueling his efforts, he couldn't see her, he couldn't breathe-

Neuro charged. He hurled blindly forward, leaping up to escape from the vortex. As the wall of the cyclone passed beneath him, he felt sweet, cold air rush up to meet his feathers.

He hit the ground and skidded. Then, without wasting a second, he leapt in a different direction, landing as soft as possible this time. Sure enough, within a heartbeat the gorgon had slammed into his previous location, denting the ground with all of the force built up during her run. There—he could see her standing for a moment, confused.

At some point Neuro had gotten an idea. It was not very fair. But that concern would have to be disregarded. She had trained extensively, yes, but perhaps he could take advantage of her blindness.

Neuro reached to the side and picked up a small rock. It had become dislodged when all of his traps were set off. He tossed it.

The rock hit the ground with a sharp thwack. The gorgon's head turned towards the sound. Neuro leapt up behind her and-

"GAAAAH!"

He screamed. Agony! Pain! Pain! It was unimaginable. His hand had been pressed against the surface of the Sun. His hand had been dipped in a vat of acid. The pain burned so white-hot that he almost didn't feel it at first. It shot through his mind like a flower blooming, playing a tune of agony upon his senses like Evil Stringer. It was too much.

Neuro looked down at his hand. His left wrist was now a stump.

Behind him, something hit the floor with a wet splat. He turned. There was his hand, steam rising from its wrist where it had been shot off. It lay on the ground like a dead thing, purple flesh growing dull in the cool air. Blood dripped out to form a small puddle around it.

Blood spurted from the end of Neuro's wrist also. He clutched at the injury, cradling the stump on instinct. The exposed bones and muscles screamed with every new air particle that they brushed against. He shuddered with pain.

"Hyahaha! I warned you." The gorgon smiled in triumph. A shape stirred beneath her poncho, flicking out to show itself as one long, curved tail. When Neuro had first met her, there had been a third eyeball on the tip of her tail. Now that eye had been crushed and replaced by some sort of mechanical device. A laser gun barrel was at the end of it.

She waved her tail happily. "This is a new trick. Much better than that damaged eyeball you left me with."

Neuro glared up at her. "I see. So they turned one of your weaknesses into a strength. I…miscalculated."

He straightened up, clamping one hand over his stump in an effort to stop the blood. "Damn you, Low-Beam." Like all demons, Neuro could probably reattach the limb if it was put back on, but still. It hurt.

The gorgon laughed. "Don't faint from bloodloss yet, detective. And-" she flicked her tail, shooting a laser blast into the ceiling with a tsew. "I told you not to call me that."

She crouched, preparing to run. "Now. Let's continue your slow execution."

They clashed. With only one shield-handleft, Neuro found himself pressed to defend. Each time that he stepped back to gain some distance, the gorgon covered it in less than an instant. He had to use his stump-wrist for balance, not for fighting. More cuts sliced his legs and face. He struck out with his shield-arm, succeeding in nothing but making her cackle.

The gorgon jumped at him from all sides, forcing Neuro down into a little ball. Neuro rolled away, wincing as his wrist hit against the floor. She swiped at him with her armlets. He ducked behind the necklace case and was immediately chased back out.

Neuro mustered some energy and leapt upwards. He twisted in midair, landing with his feet on the ceiling. There. He could use this trick to rest for a moment-

With a scream, the gorgon fired laser blasts at him. Neuro dodged, running along the ceiling in a comical upside-down display. Wherever the lasers hit, miniature explosions rained down dust and plaster. The blasts nipped at Neuro's heels.

The gorgon backed up and few steps and then ran. She kicked off of a wall and then she was suddenly right THERE in front of him, having ricocheted over. They fell to the floor in a squabbling heap.

The two demons came back up. They paused for a second, each catching their breath, green eyes full of calculations and eye sockets full of loathing.

Neuro shivered and faltered, leaning to one side. "Keh. Impossible. There's no way you'll get me in a corner, like…this!"

In a flash, he grabbed another rock. He hurled it towards the gorgon, dodging right in what looked like a frivolous gesture.

But she didn't follow.

RUMBLE

The gorgon darted far to the other side of the room as the ceiling panel collapsed. It hit the ground and broke into multiple pieces. Neuro scowled, his vision obscured by the ensuing cloud of dust. Why hadn't she lunged for him? It had been the perfect opportunity. He had even bothered to loosen that part of the ceiling-

"Aagh!"

The gorgon had appeared under the cover of dust. Her blade stabbed Neuro in the side before he could blink. He jerked once against the floor and struck out feebly with his good arm. She deflected it and kicked him away.

"Ah-ah-ah! No being clever now," said the gorgon. Her front fangs caught the dim light. "We've learned from your previous behavior, Braineater. We observed all your fights. That includes one set against a certain Salamander in the Blazing Gate. I won't let you redirect my attention like you did theirs."

Neuro coughed. He held his side with one hand, the other stump wrist pressed close against his chest. He glanced up.

He leapt to his feet just in time to intercept her next attack. "Guh," he groaned as he was slowly pushed back, his talons scraping against the floor. Blood dripped from his wounds.

This time the gorgon did not let up. She struck forward again and again and again in a sustained super-speed frontal assault.

"I'm going to kill you, Braineater!" shouted the gorgon, fueled by the power of her anger. "You will pay for what you did to me. You will paaaay!"

The flash of her armlets lit up the room. The sound of blade meeting hardened flesh clashed off the walls.

"You can't possibly know how I felt!" she shouted. "My despair. My anguish. It was all because of you!"

Neuro took a kick in the chest..

"You are the source of all my pain and suffering. Now Die! Die! Die!"

Neuro breath came in short gasps. His movements were becoming sluggish. He struggled mightily, managing to deflect her attack and break free for one second.

He turned and ran.

"What?" The gorgon paused. She cocked her head, listening to the vibrations of his feet against the earth. "Just where do you think you're going?"

Neuro sprinted. He hurtled back towards the closet he had started in, clutching his stump wrist to his chest.

"Are you that confused?" The gorgon sounded amused. "So desperate to escape your fate that you give in to the instincts of a baby? Is this the great detective at the end of his rope? Look! He runs away and hides!"

She pursued, cackling. "Run, run, detective! No matter what you do, you cannot escape me!"

Neuro dove into the closet, throwing himself horizontally through the middle of the doorway.

The gorgon laughed in triumph as she closed in on his trembling form. "Yes! Now you're cornered. You've beaten yourself, detective. Say good…bye?"

As the gorgon passed through the doorway, a sensation shot through her feet. Something brushed past her hair.

"Bye…I…Aiiiiiieee!" The gorgon screamed. She collapsed to the closet floor. She clutched at her ankles, the backwards-knees of her legs knocking against the ground. Her feet had been cut clean off. The snakes in her hair hissed and writhed, adding their own screams to the mix. Part of her ponytail had also been sliced away.

"What did you do to me?" She shrieked. Her fingers touched wet blood. "What did you dooooo? I can't see!"

Neuro sighed in relief. He stood and brushed dirt off of his torso. "Who did you say," he muttered, "was at the end of their rope?"

"Your speed is your greatest strength," he began to explain. "But it also comes with a price. Although I can't see you, you miss some things also when going so fast. Furthermore, if you did see something, you wouldn't be able to slow down."

Neuro stepped out of the closet, ducking through ropes and wires strung across the doorway. He tugged on one strand. "It was a wire trap. Running at such high speeds, you would slice through them easily. This is a set-up that could only be dangerous against you."

"Some cords were left across the closet entrance after you triggered my original security measures. I never thought the traps would end up saving me like this." He gave a grin. "But, I am nothing if not resourceful."

"You…you can't do this. You can't. I can't believe it," the gorgon sniffled. She blubbered, clutching at her ankles. "You don't understand. I was ruined. It was awful. So many eyes, staring at me both night and day… Oh what a world, what a cruel world. Goodbye, brutal fate. Truly this is Hell-"

"Oh, quit it," said Neuro.

In all the excitement, he had almost forgotten the mystery. But its scent still surrounded the gorgon, wafting around her like fumes from a soup.

"Now then," Neuro said, summoning demonic energy. "Let's loosen up that mystery. One from an exceptionally stubborn ghost…"

Something erupted from the back of his neck. In the blink of an eye, a monstrous mass had materialized from the aura surrounding Neuro. It looked like a jumbled mess of machinery, wires and pistons locking together in the most complicated ways. The skinnier, originating part of it attached to Neuro's horns. A single pipeline extended out of the nape of his neck.

The device was so complex that it seemed illogical it would work at all. Transistors and gears meshed together. The whole conglomeration was huge, arcing out and ending in a horizontal and rounded machine part. One other feature was situated above that, loosely appearing to be a demonic figure with horns, both its hands on a steering wheel, and speedometers for eyes. Its body was insectoid and half-drowning in wires. It made about as much sense as the rest of the Tool.

Two separate arms jutted down from the horizontal heading's sides, lining up below another major laser beam barrel poking out from its underbelly. The space between the three laser beams crackled with electricity and potential doom.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Pressure!" Neuro announced. The Tool fired.

An electric current came sparking down. The gorgon howled in pain. A scream tore itself free from her throat as her muscles and tendons were wrenched apart. After the lightning strike had passed, causing electricity to coil off of her contorted form, she lay in agony, twitching on the floor of the closet.

As suddenly as it had appeared, Evil Pressure was gone. Neuro gazed down at the gorgon, tapping his chin with one finger from his only hand. "Was that too much?" he asked in a fake-innocent tone. "Oh well. Just think of it as punishment."

"I suppose we'll have to call you 'Pressure' now. No, wait. 'Low-beam' still sounds better."

Neuro leaned back and took a deep breath. Let's eat.

And he did.

Phew, Neuro thought. He gave a contented sigh. Finally, he had gotten his mystery. But something was strange. He frowned and rested his hand on his belly. Strange. That felt a bit light. And…unsatisfying.

A groan came from the closet floor.

Neuro smiled. He did so enjoy looking in through the doorway, seeing his enemy flopped pathetically in the shadows. "You're still conscious after all that? I am genuinely impressed."

The gorgon twitched, her only method of defiance.

"Your mistake was in playing with me," Neuro said, wagging one smug finger. "You should have killed me at once."

"Hyaha," laughed the gorgon. She appeared to be fighting back unconsciousness by the sheer power of her anger. "I could…afford to play. You have no idea….detective…what lies in store."

She grinned, electricity sparking off her serpentine cheeks. "I…win."

Her head hit the ground.

There was movement behind Neuro. He jerked his head back to see two figures emerging from under curtains, tossing the fabric off in one strong motion and bellowing battle cries. Those shapes hadn't been covered supplies after all.

He had no time to process his mistake.

Chapter Text

The other demons didn't make the same mistake.

They were on Neuro in a second. A red beast-like demon howled, swiping forward with its front claws. Neuro lurched, avoiding the attack by the skin of his teeth. His back bumped up roughly against what felt like a wall. He looked up into the face of a blue turtle-like demon as it let loose a burbling cry.

Neuro dove to the side only to smack head-on into a wide flipper. It had been raised like a barricade. He bounced back, bruised.

"GAAAAOH!" The red demon lunged on his left. Neuro jumped, bracing his feet against the turtle-demon's flipper and baring his talons. He scratched at his opponents' eyes with one hand and one foot, causing each of them to rear back. With a burst of speed and a twist that shot pain through the stab wound in his side, Neuro slipped between their grasps.

Neuro hop-flipped over to the other side of the room. Rocks clattered as he skidded to a stop. He observed his two opponents.

The red demon was bestial, with all four legs on the ground. He appeared to be based on a wolverine. His fur was striped in different shades of crimson, each individual hair as sharp as a knife. A growl echoed from the demon's throat as his tail lashed side-to-side. His eyes were a blank white, showing nothing but barely-restrained fury.

The turtle-demon was thick and heavyset, with armor a dark shade of blue. He stood upright on four stout legs. Each step from them was like a piston going into the earth's surface. His arms were three-foot-wide flippers shaped like shovels. When the demon braced and spread his limbs, Neuro had the impression of looking at an organic fortress. Not even a thousand-year hurricane seemed likely to move him.

"Are you with the Natural Order too?" Neuro asked. His eyes flicked down to their hands. "You must be, with those rings."

The wolverine-demon scowled. The golden band from a single ring reflected off of his finger and onto his fur. The turtle-demon wore his ring grafted to a nail. It was the mark of Gobjem. Neuro frowned. He thought of the Valkyrie thief with her force-field gloves, andthe Salamander with their chains. Those rings had caused him a lot of trouble in the past.

To his surprise, the red demon was the one who spoke first. "Yes," said the wolverine-demon. His head lifted attentively. "We have pledged ourselves to the arrangement that we feel is best for all demonkind."

"Hell is ruled by beings doomed as slaves to their natural instincts." The turtle-demon joined in. "We should not fight against that."

The wolverine-demon nodded. "The weak are born weak. Only the strong can be strong."

"Exactly. That is how it should be."

The two of them nodded at each other like old acquaintances. Their speech was surprisingly intelligent. "But the powers of Enforcement would curtail chaos," continued the turtle-demon. "You, bird-type, stand in the way of Hell's full potential."

The fur on the back of the red demon's neck bristled. He lowered his head. "Unfortunately, you must be killed in order for demons to be free." Something sparkled in his dead, white eye. "But that is all you will know. Farewell, the one they call 'Braineater'."

He charged.

A red blur bore down on Neuro with a full offensive, snapping with wide, slavering jaws and shredding with its front claws. Neuro skipped backwards, defending with his one shield-arm. Each hit that he took threw him slightly off-balance.

"Rrgh…" It was all Neuro could do to deflect his opponent's attacks. He scowled. The relentless onslaught made transforming his hand for a counterstrike too risky. The demon's fur was like a million sharp needles, gold gleaming off the edges of his pelt. Neuro's hand would be shredded if he threw a punch. And Neuro had no more hands to spare. He couldn't get a single hit in.

A blue shape trundled behind him and braced, rooting itself into the earth. It spread out its wide limbs, blocking most routes of escape. The wolverine-demon had herded Neuro around, likely intending to trap him.

Neuro paid the turtle-demon little mind. He deflected another swipe, one red paw punching a crater into the floor instead. The turtle-demon was only there for defense, after-

A giant flipper whacked him in the side.

Neuro flew twenty feet before smashing into the jewelry case. He groaned in pain. The solid case dug into his back, caught between his body and the ground. Its edges grated against his shoulder blades.

"Ouch…" Neuro groaned. His head hurt terribly. His stump wrist was still bleeding. His scratches stung with dust layered on them. So, the turtle could hit hard, too. Didn't these guys have any weaknesses?

A noise came from the far side of the room. Neuro rolled over, wincing at the throbbing in his head. He opened his eyes to see the wolverine-demon pawing the ground.

A red aura surrounded the demon's form. It covered him like a bubble, pulsing and sparking with energy. The demon howled at the power flowing around him. The ring on his finger glowed as bright as a red dwarf star. He lowered his head and charged.

Everything disintegrated at his touch, the ground itself carving away in a shallow dip. The dust vaporized. Even the very molecules in the air seemed thinner, ripped apart by the ultimate destructive power. Rocks flew to the side if they were not themselves annihilated, creating a noise like the rat-tat-tat-tat of a machine gun along the demon's path.

The red blur missed Neuro just barely, its aura passing close enough to singe some of his feathers. It hit the jewelry case instead.

The case cracked.

Glass shattered and crashed onto the carved earth after the red bullet passed. Half of its black stand had been melted immediately. The String of Tears itself, the most beautiful necklace in Hell, was nowhere to be seen. Neuro had a sudden image of it caught in the blast, disintegrating with one last sigh. Absolute destruction would have conquered endless grief.

'The thing is nigh-unbreakable.' The Director's words of the case echoed through Neuro's head. 'Shock-proof, vibration-proof, fire-proof, shatter-proof, you name it.' Neuro shook his head. What power.

Grrrrrrr… The wolverine-demon had gathered himself already. He stood against the right wall of the room, staring at Neuro and crouched as if ready for another run.

Neuro hauled himself to his feet, mind racing. It doesn't matter that he flew wide this time, Neuro thought. That was just a warm-up. If he ever manages another instant-destruction charge while the turtle's got me trapped, well…

Neuro shook his head. There was no point in making plans for that eventuality. If that occurred, he would be dead.

He fought to keep his limbs steady. It was beginning to sink in for Neuro that he had been battling for half an hour, while his current opponents had only recently appeared. He frowned in annoyance. They were just getting started, whereas Neuro was quickly becoming exhausted.

The red demon howled and charged again, carving a hole through the floor.

The struggle between them continued. Neuro dodged and wove, constantly looking for an opening, any opening. Once, he tried to slice the demon as he hurtled past. It did not go well. Neuro drew his hand back a microsecond before the red destruction-aura would have vaporized it. He grit his teeth. When charging, that demon was all but invincible. The turtle-demon maneuvered in the background, always a blue shape in Neuro's peripheral vision.

At last, the red demon reared up. "GRAAAAAH!" he roared in frustration and fired a heat-ray from his mouth.

The beam shot past, burning the earth. Neuro rolled backwards to avoid it. Immediately, he as met with a wall of blue. Neuro bit down on a startled cry. For such a tall beast, the turtle-demon was very quiet.

He twisted and struck, attacking the demon before it attacked him. It felt good to transform his arm into a spear after using it as a shield for so long. He struck, jabbed, and slashed. But he still appeared to be doing no damage.

"Haw-haw-haw! It's useless, Braineater," said the turtle-demon. He had withdrawn his head halfway inside of his shell. The silver-and-gray plating of his armor flashed. "I will not move even a single inch if I do not intend to."

The turtle-demon's four strong, stout legs dug into the earth. From a few glances, Neuro could see roots extending from the demon's feet down into the cracked surface. They held firm. The demon's flippers dug in too, pounding against the earth and then scraping backwards, forming even more of a barricade around him. He made no moves to attack, remaining protected by his reinforced metal body and shell.

Neuro grit his teeth. So, his two opponents were an unstoppable force and an immovable object? And here was Neuro, caught right in the middle between them.

He thrust and slashed downward. The turtle-demon's armor did not yield. Neuro's heart beat fast, mirroring his desperation. He needed a Tool to solve this. Any Tool for combat.

Behind him, the red demon roared. Neuro jumped horizontally between the demon's claws when he swiped, barely missing death.

"Really, now?" Neuro announced. "Four hands against one? That doesn't seem fair."

Neuro landed behind the turtle-demon and smirked. "But I can make up for my lost hand…with this!" He lunged, right arm already rippling with energy. "777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Lavender!"

A plant-like apparatus exploded from Neuro's hand. Purple stalks shot up at lightning speed. The entire thing was curled into a tight drill at the moment, but Neuro knew that once the plant had tasted blood, it would bloom outwards, forming sharp-nailed hands clustered around each stalk like a spring of lavender. They would tear and rip at their opponent's body from the inside out.

He hit the demon in the back. The turtle-demon let out a startled cry.

Neuro grinned. This should punch right through his opponent's armor. Then his grin fell into a frown.

The Tool bloomed, but to no avail. A silvery sheen glowed just above the turtle-demon's skin. Evil Lavender wilted. With no blood spilled, the hand-flowers could not grow. It disappeared in the breath of a sigh.

The blue demon turned his head. "I told you it was useless." He held up one flipper, showing the ring on his nail glowing bright as a newborn star. Neuro had a sudden flash of insight—the demon was already physically tough, but what if the ring? It must remove all of his leftover weaknesses. That meant no electricity, no psychic-powers, and no grass-based attacks would work.

The turtle-demon gave an evil grin at Neuro's expression. "As I said. I am invincible." He turned, one flipper slamming into Neuro with the force of a semi-truck.

Neuro hit the ground hard enough to break the tiles. They formed a small pile around him, disintegrating into dust that choked his lungs. "Ugh…" Dazed, Neuro struggled to his knees and then slowly back up to his feet. Not good. His body couldn't seem to move in the way that his mind wanted it to anymore.

He heard his enemies howl, pounding the earth and bashing their front flippers together.

How much blood had he lost? Neuro couldn't remember. His wrist dripped onto the cracked floor. Too much. And his stupid heart just kept pounding, pumping it all away.

A red shape flashed to his left. Neuro jumped up to the ceiling to avoid another instant-destruction charge from the wolverine-demon, ricocheting downward immediately in order to dodge a tail-swipe. Heh. At least the bloodloss hadn't hindered his mind too much yet. Just as Neuro thought, they had been ready for that ceiling trick. The two demons must have learned from watching his and Low-Beam's fight.

The wolverine-demon wasted no time in turning, red aura blazing. The turtle-demon advanced behind Neuro, silver aura flickering. They were slowly beginning to trap him between them. The two of them had gotten better with each strike. Neuro had only gotten worse.

Neuro looked all around the room. He saw the maze of corridors carved in the basement floor. A dip from the wolverine-demon's last charge scarred the very earth in front of him.

He clenched his remaining hand. I need to end this, Neuro thought. But…I can't do it alone. I have no choice.

Neuro took a breath and darted forward. He crossed the room in two bounds, leaping up into the center and turning in mid-air. Then he let loose a mindless, deafening yell.

Demonic energy gathered, pulsing up from within him. It grew until it was the equivalent of all the energy in Low-Beam's mystery and then some. It built and built and built, flashing in shades of blue and green, flickering and sparking around Neuro like a miniature Sun. The air became charged with power. Six eyes opened from a tear in space. Multifold implosions popped as reality ripped apart with a sigh.

Six cannons hung together in the air. Their design was artistic, colored blue with markings decorating their sides. All of the cannons were shaped like fish. Each had a tapering tail end and a gaping mouth charged with light. An additional cannon hovered behind Neuro, one hundred times larger than the rest. Its mouth was segmented and paneled like a machine. Its head was broad. Its body was colored blue and white in a swirled pattern. Six eyes stared out from different locations on its face. Small, feathery appendages that looked like fins lined its underside. The light inside of its body built and built, quickly reaching a peak.

"7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor – Evil Aqua!" Neuro's voice was lost in the pressure of the cannons firing.

A colossal laser ignited, passing through Neuro's body and blasting into the ground. Two small halos surrounded the main beam, shot from the mouth of the largest fish. The six anterior cannons added their lasers to the fray, mixing and melding with the blast either to hit precise points or simply decimate everything in their path.

The laser beam carved a path through the earth towards the turtle-demon. He squawked as the ray reached him. Then the demon's form was lost in a beam of light, one million pounds of force beating down on him per second.

Nothing happened. The lasers faded. Silver aura shimmered around the turtle-demon. The ring on his nail burnt low, dulled. He peeked his head out of his shell, blinking but unhurt.

Suddenly the wolverine-demon appeared in the air. He lunged out of the debris cloud behind Neuro, claws bared and cloaked in destructive aura. Neuro turned, slow as a snail in comparison. The wolverine-demon grinned. He had him-

Then the large fish cannon dropped, swallowing Neuro. It sank under its own weight, falling to the floor and dragging the avianoid out of the red demon's reach.

The demon snarled. Fine. He would get him next time. The Braineater would not escape-

A confused noise rose in the wolverine-demon's throat as he looked down. Evil Aqua had carved a large rut in the ground below him. The demon fell into the corridor and kept going, having far too much momentum to stop. The destructive aura vaporized any foothold that he clawed for.

He saw a flash of blue ahead. He looked up and saw the turtle-demon right in his path.

The turtle-demon's eyes stretched wide, head halfway out of his shell. "Ah…"

The wolverine-demon's eyes widened as well. "Oh…"

They clashed. Two shades of aura sparked before an explosion obliterated everything.


Clitter. Clatter.

Debris fell as small chunks of tile and dust. It seemed as if it would rain rubble for eternity. A slight haze hung in the air of the basement. The floor surface was now completely smooth. Everything had been paved over a light tan color.

The remaining cannon of Evil Aqua disappeared. Neuro stumbled out into view, having been protected from the blast. "That," Neuro panted, "is how you beat an unstoppable force and an immovable object."

He looked over at the point of impact. Nothing was left of the two demons now but some smashed, half-melted gold pieces and a few gem shards.

"Feh. Well, they were strong, sturdy shoulders." Neuro stared at the cracked gems. "At least, for holding up the head."

Neuro stood at a slant. He grasped his left shoulder with his one remaining hand, holding it as if it were broken. His stump wrist was pressed firmly against his chest. His feathers weren't doing much good to stop the blood. The missing limb throbbed in time with his other aches and pains. The stab wound in his side was crusted with dirt and tile flakes. A web of cuts littered his entire body.

"Y-You bastard…using that huge weapon as a smokescreen?" the turtle-demon's voice said and then faded away.

"Keh. So even…weapons from the Devil's own coffers mean…nothing…in the face of your plans… They are nothing to you… but tools to be used," came the wolverine-demon's voice for a final time.

Neuro blinked. For some reason, he thought he knew exactly what the two demons would say to him. Hallucinations. Uh-oh.

Neuro vision suddenly blurred. It did not come back. He swayed on his feet. Exhaustion hit him like a full-force wolverine tackle, or maybe like a ton of bricks. He had used three Tools, he remembered, two of them intended for high-level combat use, as well as pushed Evil Fiction to its limit, all while on a virtually empty stomach. He had also endured two drawn-out battles. Then, to top it all off, he had summoned Evil Aqua. Neuro was completely drained.

He couldn't move. His breathing seemed strange: at first far too loud, then too soft, but always ragged as a curtain. Neuro felt like he was standing outside of himself. The world was tilting. Or maybe he was.

He didn't even feel his body hit the ground.

The floor danced in front of Neuro's eyes. He twitched, cells screaming for miasma. Not now. He couldn't go down now. There could be more enemies ahead…

Something approached. At least, Neuro thought so. All he saw was a pair of brown dress shoes.

Not good, Neuro thought. There's nothing left…

A pair of strong arms surrounded him. They lifted him upwards. There was a muffled boom, sounding as if it somehow came from far away, timed with a shift from the person's left arm, as if they had stretched out a hand to blast something. The cries of angered demons faded off somewhere. There were no more doors. Neuro's head lolled on the person's shoulder.

He caught sight of just a hint of golden mane before his vision went black, and Asanteoh carried him home.

Chapter Text

Neuro awoke in darkness.

Hiiihiihiihiihii… an eerie noise echoed. Judging by the sound, he was in some sort of chamber.

Neuro turned his head, feeling his horns scrape against a hard table-like surface. He tried moving his arms. They didn't budge.

Hiihiihiihiihii… A hideous face loomed out of the darkness. Its features were pinched. A wide, toothy grin pulled all the skin away from its lips. The entire thing was wrapped tightly in bandages like a mummy. A small, pink nurse's hat sat on its head.

"At laaaaast," crooned a female voice. "A subject for my experiments. You should be honored, yes. Only you will be the first to experience what I have in store." The mummy raised a syringe. Green slime bubbled inside while acid smoke rose from the tip.

Neuro raised his head and looked around. The walls were lined with bonesaws, cleavers, and all manner of hooks, pliers, and cranks. A cauldron full of thick green liquid simmered on a stand to his right. Jars containing potions glowed around its base. All of them smelled vile. His limbs had been tied with chains and strung out.

"Hiihiihii!" The mummy-demoness lunged. "Noooooooooow-"

Neuro punched her in the face.

"Gwah!" The demoness reeled back. She clutched her nose and stumbled, heading towards the outline of a door. She flicked a lightswitch by its frame. Immediately the room was bathed in a pleasantly-dim light. The smoke from the cauldron faded. She took her hand away from her face, muttering something about 'not dead yet' and 'unsuitably weakened'.

The nurse opened the door. "The…The patient is ready to see you now, sir and guest," she said timidly, a defeated expression on her face. A bump was already beginning to swell on her forehead. She beckoned two figures inside and closed the door behind them.

Zera and Lucard stood by the doorframe.

The wolf-demon's black suit faded into the darkly-lit walls. He wore a slight scowl on his face, as if informing everybody in the room that this was a waste of his time. Upon seeing that Neuo was conscious, Zera hid their knife-fingers behind their back and untransformed them with a disappointed "che". Neuro's eyes followed the movement. They had probably been hoping to get revenge by taking advantage of his weakened state. Any decent demon would.

"Oh, it's you two," Neuro said, sounding as relaxed as a person could be when stretched out on a torture-rack. "Welcome here to the party pit. So honored both of you could attend."

"Cut the jokes, Birdbrain," said Lucard. He walked closer, Zera scampering forward to pull up a stool by Neuro's left flank. When the lupinoid remained standing, Zera meekly took the seat themself. They stared up at Neuro with wide, wet eyes.

There was a clank and the bonds around Neuro's limbs loosened. He slipped his arms out of the chains, easily breaking the ankle cuffs with a single kick. The nurse grumbled somewhere behind him, tucking her syringe into a felt container before grabbing the cauldron's handle and wheeling it out of the room. The door slammed shut behind her.

"You're in a care-center in Guul, not far from Order Branch HQ," spoke Lucard. "One of the medicinal-focused ones, not execution-focused." He made a face. "Though, not like you'd be able to tell with that nurse."

Neuro swallowed. He leaned back against the rack. "Give me a hand."

Lucard took a moment to snigger. "Heh. You really must be beaten. It's not like you to ask for help, detective-"

"No, seriously," Neuro said. He held up his stump wrist. "Where is my hand?"

A beat passed.

"Oh. It's, uh…here." Zera cast a glance around and took something off of a nearby table. They tossed it over. A fleshy shape hit Neuro's chest before the avianoid caught it. He gave the hand a once-over, making a face at its dull purple skin. Then he placed it back on his wrist. With a bit of demonic aura across the severance, and some careful realigning, there was a chance it would be good as new.

The demons lapsed into silence. There was nothing to say. Lucard stood, glowering. He stared down at something only he could see. Zera fidgeted in their seat, as if constantly wanting to speak but thinking better of it. Meanwhile, Neuro slowly adjusted his hand. Squeak, squeak. Bones to bones, tendons to tendons.

Zera sat with their arms braced against their legs and their fingers folded in their lap. The demon hunched over and looked down to the side. At last, they took a breath and spoke. "I'm…concerned that you were hurt."

"I'm not," spoke Lucard. He grinned. "Look at this. Our division's little bird, fallen from his perch. I guess you weren't lying, detective," he laughed. "You really can't fly! Or at least, the winds of success didn't keep you aloft for very long."

"Hmm?" Neuro returned the needlepoint smile. "I'm hearing an awful lot of barking from over there. Don't you have a bone to bury somewhere, Lucard? Or a car to snap at, or a moon to howl at, or a cat to put you in the doghouse again-"

"Alright, enough!" Lucard's face flushed beneath his silver-and-black fur. He huffed and turned away. "Just wanted to make sure you were still feeling yourself, Birdbrain. Devil help us if our best mind got brain damage from some silly fight. I was just on my way out."

He pointed back at Neuro as he left. "Faint like a wuss again and I will personally send you to a care-center, you hear me?" The door slammed. Then Lucard wrenched it back open. "A real one this time!"

Slam! Silence ensued. The door hinges creaked quietly in complaint.

Finally, giggles from Zera broke the calm. "He's right, you know. I've never seen you in such bad shape."

"Don't go trying to kill me just yet," said Neuro. "I feel fine. There's more than enough to strength to crush a mere slug in my injured hand alone."

Zera frowned, black lips twisting. "Liar. You don't have any demonic energy left."

"Yes I do."

"No you don't."

"Yes I do."

"Nuh-uh."

"Yes I do."

Aura flickered around Neuro. A black jacket appeared out of thin air, covering his feathers. A thin, coal-colored scarf wrapped itself around Neuro's neck, draping to form multiple cozy layers. One end of it hung in front of him like a cravat.

Zera stared. Then they began to shake. The slug-demon's cheeks ballooned while they trembled, bringing one hand up to their mouth and another to their stomach. They tried to hold back their laughter.

They failed. Peals of laughter sprung from Zera's throat as they rocked back and forth in their seat. "A scarf! How terrifying."

"Quiet, you," Neuro grumbled. "This Tool is all I need at the moment. It is an important part of my arsenal."

"A Tool?" Zera wiped a mucus-filled tear from their eye. "That thing?"

"Yes. 777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Stole." Neuro reclined on his wooden plank. "It gathers together bits of demonic energy from the air, drawing them in like a whirlpool. The high concentration of aura allows the Tool's user to enter a period of advanced healing, and will eventually replenish their demonic power as well. However, the particles are scattered when I move."

"Fortunately, in this part of Hell there should be plenty of stray miasma for it," said Neuro. "This Tool is intended for more serious circumstances, but given what I've seen, I do not think it would be wise to keep me out of commission for any longer than I have to be."

Zera nodded. Worry creased their face. "Right. Those demons that attacked you…"

Neuro crossed his legs, that small movement alone sending a ripple through the gathered aura of Evil Stole. "So, I simply need remain still for a while. My office will serve nicely for that purpose."

Zera's head shot up. "You mean you won't be staying at your permanent dwelling? But, Neuro, that would be easier-"

"No," Neuro said. "It must be the OB. I have the office well-trapped, should anyone try to attack me-" His eyes slid over to Zera. "…And I can construct even more from my chair. The requirement to remain stationary will not be a problem. I want to remain in-the-know about every event the OB knows from here on out."

"But your injuries. You just said that you shouldn't move, how will you get over- Gah!"

Neuro had grabbed Zera's face. He grinned at the slug-demon with his trademark blank, innocent eyes. His talons dug into the black seams on their skin. "You're going to transport me there, of course. Portal-maker." He let go with a shove.

Then, Neuro grew solemn. He looked down at his feet. "I…I was overconfident," he admitted, ignoring a small gasp from Zera. He frowned to himself. A somber moment grew and slowly ticked past. The quiet seconds turned into one long, quiet minute. Neuro's gaze remained distant.

Then, he looked up and gave a firm nod. "It won't happen again."

Zera breathed out. A familiar green fire shone bright in Neuro's eyes. "Well, that's a relief. I see you're back to your old self."

"Hmph." Neuro merely grunted in response.

He raised his right hand. With a weak fizzle of aura, dozens of triangular yellow beads appeared in his palm. Neuro smiled. "Convenient little things." He sorted through the Evil Diversey. "Even this small amount of time has given me enough energy to summon them."

The beads flickered when placed in a small pile on top of Evil Stole. The demonic aura around them appeared to be reacting with the Tool's capabilities. Neuro brought one hand to his chin as he observed. "Hmm…"

Before Zera knew it, Neuro had taken the beads and begun putting them in his hair. "Oh-ho?" He said as another one latched onto a blonde strand. Curiosity danced in his eyes. "How useful. I should have done this in the first place."

With a spark, the Diversey batteries moved as if magnetic, pulling together at the back of Neuro's head. They gathered his hair into a short ponytail. "I see," Neuro mused. "So gathering them all together accentuates their power. I'll have to remember that."

"How do I look?" He turned to Zera.

The slug-demon stared back. They were looking at a parrot-headed demon with sharp teeth, ridged horns, brown tufts of fur for ears, beady green eyes, and blonde hair coming out the back of its head with yellow beads dangling from the ends now pulled into a ponytail, wearing a black jacket and fashionable scarf over multicolored plumage.

"You look…great," Zera said.

Neuro grabbed the end of Evil Stole. "I shall add the batteries to this Tool as well. They should noticeably increase its abilities."

Zera watched as the detective's mood became more and more improved. Neuro was already trying to poke holes in Evil Stole, using a syringe needle as an improvised sewing implement. Apparently he didn't care if the Tool's healing capabilities were damaged, so long as his experiment could begin. At the moment, he looked much like a child excited by a new toy.

"Heh." Zera let out a small chuckle. Then, the slug-demon shook themself.

"I still don't like it," they grumbled. "We don't know who those demons were, or why they were even in a place like-"

"They were with the Natural Order," Neuro interrupted. "And that's all I know."

Zera's bristled. Their stalk eye bobbed with the movement. "The Natural Order? I…I thought so. Or, well, the higher-ups did, at least. I overheard them."

"That's who you fought against? Oh, dear." Zera placed their head in their hands. "I don't even wanna think about what kind of demons could do this much damage to you. And you're saying that their group is causing trouble again?"

"Perhaps so," Neuro said. He let go of Evil Stole. He placed both hands behind his head like a demon on vacation, minding his reattached wrist. "But we've given them a good surprise in turn. They haven't come away from this unscathed. Being wounded and fainting is by far preferable to being dead."

He glanced over. "Do not worry about the mystery behind all this, Zera," he chided. "Leave that to me."

Zera gulped. They nodded.

Neuro leaned back and closed his eyes. "For now, at least, we have a moment of peace."

A comfortable silence grew between them. It spread lethargically, connecting one moment to the next. One second led to another one. It almost seemed as if this feeling could go on forever.

Suddenly Neuro kicked the edge of his rack, rattling the tools on the walls of the room. Zera jumped with fright. "Now, get started on that portal."


Somewhere else, demons fought in darkness.

There were shouts. There were shrieks, clashes, and the noise of many feet whispering against the earth. Everything was a whirlwind. A mass of psychic power faded, then collapsed. Claws, paws, teeth, a flash of white feathers.

A defiant roar rose above it all. Then, suddenly, it was silenced.

A battle had been won. A battle had also been lost.

One large figure fell, crashing to the ground. Dull gold drowned in a river of red.

Something had been broken. Something had vanished forever.

Demons hissed in joy. There were not many of them left to celebrate. But it did not matter. They had won. Victory, in all things, would soon be theirs. This alone was proof. This alone was surely proof.

Within a micrometer and a million miles, a guiding light had gone out.

Chapter Text

Two days later

The alleyway was dark. Not single breeze wafted through the corridor, leaving the air dank and stale with old despair. The Sun had set, or perhaps had never been pummeled into rising. The entire body of the city existed in varying shades of black.

It was in this narrow space that two figures clashed.

Fwoosh.

Something was flung out, stretching forward as if by some sort of cord. It narrowly missed another demon's head before snapping back. Its caster leapt about, springing off of the floor and walls. They lunged forward. Their opponent rolled backwards in one blurred shape to dodge their fist as it slammed into the wall. Rubble rained down with a clatter.

The demon shook out his fist briefly and then jumped upwards, soaring easily to at least ten feet in height. His tattered overcoat flapped with the motion. He appeared to be humanoid, with two thick springs in place of shins. On his head was a hat with one large eye, all of it apparently growing directly out of his flesh. His face had two glowing red eyes above a cruel grin.

"Hah hah hah! Say goodbye, detective!" The demon plunged, channeling momentum into force. His clawed fingers raked at a colorful figure below him. The avianoid demon struggled to blockit. "Soon every demon in Hell will know that Enforcement's greatest mind fell t'me, Spring-Heeled Jack!"

He pressed forward, claws flashing. "You shouldn't 'a come after me. I was waitin' for you!" His laughter echoed off the walls, walls that stretched so high only a demon who specialized in jumping could possibly clear them. "To think that a minor demon like me could defeat you…you higher-ups ain't so tough after all!

The avianoid grunted as he was slowly pushed back. Sparks flew off of his shield-transformed arms as they repelled blow after blow. Spring-Heeled Jack laughed. "It must have taken energy for you to use that many Tools. Those rumors were right, Neuro—you are weak, weak, weak!" He mocked and taunted with each slash. "You can't possibly have recovered completely yet!"

Then a chill ran down his spine, cold as snowmelt. A grin had spread across Neuro's face.

"You think so?" said the detective.

In a flash, something burst out of the ground. Two golden hands, encased in armor, punched up through the pavement. Each glove was placed on the head of a mole-like creature. It tunneled up at lightning speed, leaving its two front feet to wiggle in the air as the armored fingers lunged.

The gloves wrapped around Spring-Heeled Jack's ankles. "GYAH!" Spring-Heeled Jack yelped as recoil whipped him from the air down into the ground. He groaned, face full of dirt. His coiled legs sprawled in endless loops around him.

777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Gauntlet. Neuro huffed, his shield-hands reverting to their usual form.

"I'm afraid your deduction skills are lower than that of a louse," Neuro said, striding towards the demon. He stopped in front of his nose. "No, a protozoan."

Neuro knelt. "My little play time in the HDAC:OB has given me the best access to food that I have ever known," he said. His teeth, though smaller than most demons', seemed to Spring-Heeled Jack the most terrifying sight in Hell when placed in that awful, awful smile. "Never before have I been able to eat so much. I have grown infinitely more strong in infinitely more ways. And as even a protozoan should know, that strength doesn't go away so easily."

His face became terribly close to Spring-Heeled Jack's own. One glittering green eye stared into a trembling red one. "I have already recovered," Neuro hissed. "But thank you for your…contribution."

The demon's beak opened, giving a view down his gullet. Spring-Heeled Jack had the feeling of staring into a great void. His stomach lurched as if faced with a boundless abyss. He trembled, trying to find words to beg for mercy. "Please… No-"

But it was too late.

Neuro pulled back after one gulp. The mystery was already disappearing down his throat. On the ground, the demon that called himself Spring-Heeled Jack lay limp, exhausted. They all seemed to do that afterwards. Neuro supposed that they had been, in a way, 'drained'.

He set one hand on his stomach. That had been rather disappointing, honestly. This mystery had had a weak flavor about it from the start. It was hardly worth the chase and the fighting. But it was something at least.

As an afterthought, Neuro made Evil Gauntlet punch the demon once in the gut. Spring-Heeled Jack's body jerked with the impact. He rolled over and curled in on himself as his lungs wheezed for air. That should keep him quiet.

Neuro formed a notepad from his fingers. He looked at it with bored, half-lidded eyes as he scratched something on it with a talon. Was it just him, or were good mysteries getting scarcer and scarcer? Even when they did appear, it was not often that Neuro found one with enough calories to make the effort he put in to getting it worthwhile. It had taken him a whole two days of hunting to recover. He was beginning to wonder if this was all the city would be able to offer him.

And yet… Neuro's thoughts returned to his stomach again. The never-ending rumbling had dulled slightly after its recent meal, but Neuro's appetite was still far from satisfied. He frowned. Just how many mysteries must he eat before he would be free from the endless gnawing, empty, prickling sensation of hunger? Was there any mystery out there, some huge puzzle, that might hold enough calories to nourish him for life?

Neuro was so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn't notice the sirens at first.

His head jerked up. Sirens wailed, blaring through megaphones at the tops of announcement towers spread across the city. Their unsettling moans echoed off the walls, rolling through the city streets and bunching up in tight, narrow spaces like banshees that roamed through the streets and the sky, occasionally stumbling across one another to sing their anguish in harmony.

Barked orders could be heard through the noise, blasted through the very same megaphones. House phones would be ringing inside the dwellings all around him, Neuro knew. Electronic messaging systems would be flooded. Movement flickered somewhere at the far end of the street—soon, officers would come marching, shoving all straggling demons into buildings whether they liked it or not. It didn't matter if you lived there. It didn't matter that it was a night-day. This was a lockdown. It was orders from demons more powerful than you.

Neuro looked up into the sky, almost as if he could see the wailing notes hanging there. What the Devil was going on? A lockdown often caused more battles and murders, he knew. For that reason, they were implemented only in real emergencies. Not that Hell cared much about its citizens. The system wasn't used for natural disasters, or even for anything like a bomb threat. It simply meant that something terrible had happened, and someone wanted the area to take note.

Neuro gathered himself, looking around the alleyway for anything he had forgotten. He dismissed Evil Gauntlet with a flick. Spring-Heeled Jack groaned in the corner. Neuro would have to leave him. He needed to get to the OB immediately-

RING, RING.

Or not.

Neuro answered the phone, bringing it up to his ear. The little red clip-on device that signified emergencies was blinking in a steady rhythm. "Yes? What's-"

"Solve it."

"What?"

"Braineater, you will come here, and you will begin work immediately. We need you."

Lucard's voice was rough. His tone felt as tense as a highwire, pulled tight between two trembling towers in the aftermath of a storm. Neuro could almost picture the other demon's face as he listened.

"The location has been sent to your comm device. View your messages after this talk is over." Neuro heard a shaky breath on Lucard's end. "I order you to come here. Take that as a top-tier command. Something's…happened. I order you to solve it."

"Understood," Neuro said. Briefly, he thought it was strange that Lucard was the one making the call. Where's Asanteoh?

"I won't be there. I've already seen-" There was a pause from Lucard. "Sorry, sore throat. I've already seen it. Be there. Go, Neuro."

The line went dead. Neuro brought the phone down from his ear, feeling a strange sensation settle around his shoulders. That was the first time Lucard had ever called Neuro by his first name.

I don't like this, Neuro thought as he hurried, bounding off of the walls and up to the rooftops as if he wished that his legs were made of springs and his wing-like arms could actually fly. I don't like this at all.


He blinked.

He looked.

Neuro stood still as a statue, feeling as if he never wanted to move until the world made sense again. The information was reaching his mind, though, and it was all too clear.

What lay before him was a murder scene.

The battlefield was a desolate place of gravel. A few boulders lay scattered about. Across the ground was a spray of blood, drawn in thick, looping strokes. The bloodspray centered around a single figure.

Asanteoh lay on his front, face-down. His head was turned to the side. His limbs lay askew. His blue suit was darkly stained, an explosion of blood soaking the front and sides of it purple. There must have been deep wounds carved into his chest.

His mane had lost some of its golden luster, turned into a dull amber, but somehow it still spoke of pride. One soft, fuzzy ear could be seen from between its fur. His hair brushed against the dust of the earth in a way that its living owner would never have allowed. His eyes were closed tightly shut.

He was not breathing. By the looks of it, he had not been breathing for quite some time.

As illogical as it was, Neuro almost had the urge to utter, "No".

Instead, Neuro turned to the Commander demon beside him, green eyes wide. "This is…impressive." Neuro said the last word the same way one would say 'impossible'. But he couldn't have called it impossible. Asanteoh was dead. He was right there, dead. Therefore, it was not something impossible.

The Commander demon nodded. He appeared to be half-stag, half-lizard. His plated nose dipped as antlers swept through the air above his head. "Executive Officer Leonfang will be missed."

Missed indeed, Neuro thought. The saddened glint in the Commander's pond-green eyes hadn't escaped him. Sorrow was something acceptable for demons. Emotional torment fit right in with Hell. 'Missing' somebody was also allowed.

Grieving? Never.

Many demons in the clearing appeared to be having trouble with that unspoken rule. Neuro turned his head. He saw many stunned faces among the forensics demons. Quick murmurs ran from person to person, carrying worry and disbelief. Over to the side, two demons began squabbling over a piece of evidence. They pulled each other's hair and shrieked like apes before some others managed to break them up, both of the demons laying claim to the find and threatening to kill the other one for getting in their way. Neuro grimaced. Asanteoh was gone, and the Order Branch was already beginning to fall apart.

He turned back to the body. "Well, long live the King. May his soul rot," said Neuro.

"May his soul rot," echoed the Commander, somber as the grave.

"So much for our cat in a suit." Neuro leaned over, staring down at the corpse. "I would say something about nine lives, but that doesn't appear to be the case here."

The Commander shook his horned head. "Leonfang was a stalwart leader and a firm commander," he said. "He ruled his domain with an iron fist. I witnessed the HDAC gained a large amount of power and influence under his rule. We owe much of our current strength to him."

Neuro did not reply. He was thinking of the Tools, how heavy they had felt placed into his hands that first day, Asanteoh a blurred shape at the other end of the pentagram. He was thinking of exasperated sighs, the knowing twitch of a whisker. He was thinking of just a hint of gold, and how it must have been Asanteoh who carried him out of that pit.

Neuro knelt down beside the body wordlessly. His head cocked from side to side as he began to investigate.

Behind him, the Commander demon coughed. His hooves shuffled on the ground. "Our forensics team found some pieces of evidence from earlier. I can have them brought to you if-"

Neuro raised one hand, cutting the demon off. "No," Neuro stated. "This is important. I want to do this on my own."

The Commander's mouth opened and then closed again. He nodded, keeping his lips shut.

Neuro's gaze beat down upon the scene. His brain felt sharp inside his head, wired, the edges of his mind going over everything with a fine-toothed comb. The shell of Asanteoh still loomed on the ground in front of him, as imposing as a sunken battleship. The leonoid's face was set into a firm expression.

Neuro frowned. What could have done this to him?

He looked up, glancing around the clearing. There was nothing here but ruins and craters, along with a few scattered stains marking where fallen limbs had been. The Natural Order sure cleaned up their evidence, thought Neuro morosely. He noticed that the ground looked as if it had been paved over in some places, blasted away by a stronger force. Scorch marks stretched in arcs. At least he hadn't gone down without a fight.

A hoof scuffed against the earth. The Commander had come up behind Neuro again. "What do you think of those markings?" he asked.

"Which markings?"

"Those."

Neuro followed the deer demon's pointed finger. "…Those are bloodstains."

"Exactly."

Blood spread around Asanteoh's body in broad, sweeping strokes. It pooled from underneath his front like a well, or an inkpot. Some of it had leaked and hardened into scratches in the dirt that looked as if they had been carved there by his claws. The stains curved and bent back in on themselves, forming lines all around Asanteoh almost like a shoddy rosette.

"You see? There," said the Commander. He stepped reverently around the mess. "This line is straight. But this one connected to it is curved. Some of the lines cut off at odd angles, and a few of these shapes here look awfully familiar…"

He looked up. "Detective Neuro. We believe that this could be a dying message."

Neuro stared back.

"Take a look. These stains—they're like brushstrokes," The Commander said, confidence bringing speed to his voice. "All of it is within arm's length of the victim. He could easily have done it. All he would need was a moments to leave us a clue to his attackers-"

"No."

The Commander nodded. "Of course, of course. I've got some demons running through the routine ciphers right now, but-" He stopped. "What?"

"No." Neuro scowled. "What a waste of time."

"Excuse me?"

"I don't believe in 'dying messages'," said Neuro. "Half of the time they're a hoax, and the other half of the time they're something made for T.V. murder-mysteries."

The Commander's face colored. "How dare… Leonfang was a strong individual. What if he really had been trying to-"

"I shouldn't have to waste energy and oxygen on explaining things to you," snapped Neuro. "But I will. So stick this in your craw and shut it."

"First of all, the concept of a complex 'dying message' is idiotic. I can't take such a thing seriously," he said. "If the victim had wanted to write something, it would take time. Why wouldn't the criminal see it and erase it? If he was dying, why wouldn't Asanteoh just outright name his murderers for us, instead of creating a puzzle that might never be solved?"

"Also, you mentioned that a 'dying message' could be a clue," Neuro said, pointing at the Commander with one middle finger. "That makes no sense given this environment. Look around. The Natural Order was so thorough in cleaning up after themselves that we've barely found a fingernail. Why would they leave an entire blood message behind? Furthermore, Asanteoh was a dangerous demon. They must have known that, otherwise they wouldn't have succeeded in defeating him. There is no way that they would have made a mistake and left him alive. He had no chance to write such a thing."

The Commander fell silent.

"Look." Neuro put one hand on Asanteoh's shoulder and held up one of his paws. The corpse responded stiffly. Neuro ignored the sensation. "There is blood on his paws, but only blood. If he had dragged his front paws through the earth, there would be a layer of dirt left as residue, don't you think?"

He dropped the hand, making the body shake slightly. "Furthermore, there's no evidence of a struggle. You're not seriously suggesting that he dragged himself across these stones to leave a complicated message for our amusement, are you?" Neuro's green eyes flashed. "Do not desecrate Asanteoh's memory like that. He wasn't a demon for jokes."

The Commander shifted in place. He glanced down at the earth. "I still think it's worth considering," he muttered.

"Keep your minions busy with that, then. Worm food suits worm intelligence. You're free to go join them."

Neuro stood, the scent of the body leaving his nostrils. He brought one hand up to his chin to think. He took a breath. Focus. He needed to focus. No more distractions.

There was no mystery here in Asanteoh's death. There was no riddle, nothing clever, no sign at all that the Natural Order had wanted to challenge Neuro's mind. They simply wanted Asanteoh dead. They wanted him gone.

But even so… Neuro thought, not willing to give up. There are certain things one can always induce. Every situation will have something you can infer, just from looking at the way the pieces fell. In this case, even absence of evidence is evidence.

He closed his eyes. First things first: what did he know? One thing was obvious: Asanteoh was dead. That meant whoever killed him must be smart. Smart enough to get him alone and then to carry out an effective coordinated attack. Also, Neuro realized with a start, this meant that his personal weapon, Caesar's Crown, had been overpowered. Whoever killed him had to have been strong—intensely so!

"Hey," Neuro called over to the deer-demon. "Does Caesar's Crown take physical form?"

The Commander looked back. "Caesar's Crown?"

"The weapon of Asanteoh," Neuro snapped. "He mentioned it once long ago. I need to know if-"

"Oh." A flash of fear shot through the Commander's face upon recognition. "Th-that one. The one granted to him by the Dark Emperor? I…I think not, sir. No one knows for sure what the Crown is or what it does. But most theories I've heard claim that it isn't something physical."

Neuro's scowl deepened. Damn. Then he couldn't know whether or not Gobgem had stolen it. If he had added it to his collection of rings, that would make this victory against Asanteoh a double blow.

I'll have to assume the worst. Neuro crossed his arms over his chest, bracing against the endless spinning of his mind. He would solve this puzzle. He must.

Suddenly he became aware of something in the corner of his vision. It was something small. Something white.

"Hm?" Neuro looked over at the body. There was a white triangular shape poking out of Asanteoh's front suit pocket. It must have shifted when Neuro moved the remains.

Neuro bent down and carefully removed the thing from the suit pocket. He held it in his hand and saw that it was a white card. In bold type, the card read:

WE KILLED HIM. WE'LL KILL YOU.

THE LION STOOD FOR ENFORCEMENT.

THE ONLY ORDER NOW IS THE NATURAL ORDER.

WE RISE IN THE TIME YOU READ THIS.

-

WE CHALLENGE YOU, BRAINEATER.

HAVE THIS MYSTERY:

TRITON SHIPYARD THIRD DARK CYCLE YESTERDAY.

BON APPETIT

Neuro's eyes flicked over the text. If the situation wasn't so serious, he would have burst out laughing. They were teasing him. The offer of food, just like the blood 'message', was a distraction. (Neuro frowned at the rumbling in his stomach. A distraction that his body, apparently, didn't pick up on.) But their promised "food" felt empty and flavorless to his senses. It had obviously been tailor-made for him. Blech. Ready-made meals always tasted bland.

Well, perhaps I'll still go, thought Neuro. He handed the card off to a forensics demon with a passing remark, having memorized its contents. Even a small mystery is appreciated, trap or not. And after this bust of an investigation, I need something to lift my spirits.

Still, he thought, this meant the Natural Order was moving very quickly. How convenient. It was almost like they knew the Order Branch's weak points.

His clawed foot tapped against the ground. Hmm. Now that was an interesting idea. One more to add on to the pile. The new thought added its weight to the gears and levers, turning the mechanisms inside Neuro's brain. Before he knew it, his mind was going again…

Neuro reviewed. His eyes flicked beneath their closed eyelids, back and forth like a scientist watching chemicals react and turn into different solutions. Atoms fired between invisible walls, plinking and funneling down like a pinball machine. Things whirred, clicked, and snapped into place like a rubix cube, flicking through dozens of combinations in a second. His mind expanded as Neuro thought, digging deeper into its crannies than he ever had before. A group effort, immense strength, superior intelligence, convenient, close to the Order Branch…

.

Neuro opened his eyes with a soft gasp. He had it. An idea. It hung in his mind against a blank backdrop, light as the wind and liable to fade at any moment. But he clung to it. If he was right, then most of what the Natural Order was, was actually a fraud.

It wasn't a demon that had come to Neuro's mind. It was a location.

It couldn't be… Neuro thought as he turned back to the forensics demons. Could it?

Neuro marched over to where three demons in white coats were huddling around the Commander. He shoved his way into the circle and ripped the card back out of their hands.

"Hey, what's the big idea?" the forensics demon squealed. His two companions echoed his complaints.

"Quiet, worms," the Commander snarled, giving them all a strong shove. "Crime detective Neuro has priority on this floor."

"You can't order us around!" the first demon whined, ducking and struggling out from under his grip.

"Yeah! You're not our Executive!"

Their squabbling continued. Neuro tried to ignore how fast things were becoming disorganized. Perhaps the Natural Order was right—the pull of chaos was strong, and now it seemed all too easy for them to fall apart.

Neuro held the card up in front of him. He transformed the fingers of his other hand into analysis tools. He ran his fingers over the paper, prodding and scraping and sampling the ink all in one sweep. Then he waited for the test results, staring at the screen replacing his pinky.

Blip.

There it was. Neuro smiled. There were some things you couldn't help leaving behind.

Well, that's that. Neuro tucked the card into his palm as he calmly transformed his fingers back one by one. It wasn't a perfect theory by any means, but it was at least a highly likely one. And it was consistent with the behavior of the Natural Order so far.

Neuro stretched his arms up over his head and let out a contented sigh. Once the Order Branch had calmed down, he would file a report. Any action would be useless until then. Oh well. For now, his work was done.

As Neuro relaxed, the conversation from two nearby demons reached his ears.

"Hey. Have you listened to the radio, lately?" said a fish-demoness. She frowned at the device in her hand.

"Oh, yeah. I hate them," said her companion, picking his nose. "They never play my favorite tunes. It's just Best of the Torture Fields and Top 40 Screams, over and over and over. Bo-ring!"

The demoness smacked him. "Not that radio, you slugbrain! The communications device. Here, listen-"

She pulled hard on his ear until they both huddled around the radio. After a while, the male demon frowned. "I don't understand."

"Neither do I," the fish demoness muttered. She twisted dials and turned knobs. The sounds from the speaker increased in volume, but not in clarity. "Things are all jammed right now considering…y'know," Her voice dropped as she indicated the body of Asanteoh. "the news. I can't reach anyone, and not much is reaching us. But…I think something's wrong."

The other demon scoffed. "More wrong than usual?"

"Yes," she insisted. "After the lockdown, most things were quiet, right? Like they should be. I only heard a few procedure-resisting demons being mentioned on this thing. But now all reports have just stopped."

Her companion dug at his nose. "So? Sounds like less work for us."

"I mean," she snapped, "that none of our stations in Guul are responding. Last I heard, they were saying something about a few fights that had broken out at the edges of the city. Our stations in that area start screaming and crashing, but then they went dead. Then another area reported a fight. Then another, on the opposite side. Then another. Now all of our teams have stopped responding. They might be having trouble containing the fights."

The other demon looked uncomfortable. "This is here? At the edges?"

The demoness nodded. "It's all around Guul. Almost like a circle."

He shifted in place. "Maybe those stations 're just busy right now. Doing a lockdown takes a lotta demonpower, you know. I'm pretty sure we're spread out at the moment…"

"Then does this sound like a lockdown to you?" The demoness held up the radio. A mix of yelling, muffled crashes, and silence played over the speaker. A thick layer of static coated everything. "This is all I can hear. Those fights broke out all over the city, all at once," she said.

"And it didn't sound like they were staying in the same place, either," she frowned in thought. "Just before the lines cut out, I got the sense they were moving...I think it was inward."

A faint shriek came over the radio waves. The fish demoness slapped the radio with one flipper-hand. "Useless officers. Answer my Damn messages!" she snarled. "I swear, things fell apart the moment news of the Executive began to spread. Now everything's going wacky while our officers run around like maniacs with their heads cut off."

The other demon nodded dully, his many chins wobbling. Criticizing senior officers—that was something he could get behind.

The demoness glared at the radio in her hands. "I don't like it," she grumbled. "Now has to be the worst possible time."

She called to the Commander, making heads turn. "Sir! Something's happening on the universal line."

The deer demon barely looked in her direction, distracted by a piece of evidence. "Something's always happening on the universal line," he said. "That's why it's called the universal line."

The demoness's gills fluttered. "Sir, not like this. Please."

While the Commander grudgingly turned to look, his expression promising retribution for talking back, Neuro stood frozen. Something the demoness said had sparked a connection with him. Time? Why am I-

The card flashed through his mind again: WE RISE IN THE TIME YOU READ THIS.

Neuro's heartbeat slowed, as if it were pumping molasses. Everything came together. The city was shut down due to the current "crisis". There was already plenty of risk involved in that—open streets, a spread-out police force. But…

Realization ran through Neuro's veins like cold oxygen. He saw the pattern. Asanteoh had been killed, leaving unstable leadership. Neuro himself had been weakened not too long ago. The streets were under thin, spread-out guard. Everything was vulnerable. If something was going to happen, now would be the time. Neuro would have done it too. Everything had been perfectly planned, as if with a light, lithe finger.

He had thought there was time to test his theory. But in actuality, he had no time to waste at all.

Neuro sucked in a breath. The fights. He had to go. Now.

Neuro turned on his heel and ran from the crime scene, shoving past any demon in his path, leaving the Commander demon to call threats of desertion behind him, the fish demoness to fret, and the other demon to nod dully at yet another authority figure that had lost their mind.


The dark halls of the Order Branch seemed even grayer than usual.

A raw noise surged down the corridors, flooding room-to-room and gaining strength with each new voice. Carried first by the banshees, the clamor built and built until it burst out into a many-throated cry. There were wails, hurried orders, the sound of limbs running over the floors. Hands covered faces in shock. Endless messages passed through comm-devices. Endless questions would never find answers.

In some small miracle, no rioting broke out within the first two minutes of the news's reveal. It was almost like a hallmark, one last tribute for their fallen leader.

Somewhere deep in the building, a solitary figure stood locked in his office. All of the lights were off. If one wasn't looking carefully, his fur nearly blended in with the walls, making him a mere shadow of a demon. Even a shadow would be more substantial than how he felt right now.

A drawer lay open in front of the demon. In his hands he held an old police cap.

Silently, Lucard put the hat on, settling it down onto his head. Its material felt like ice against the backs of his ears. He pulled the brim down low over his eyes.

There would be no tears. That would be weakness, and Asanteoh didn't teach weakness. But still, for one small moment, Lucard wondered if this was what it was like to grieve.

Chapter Text

Neuro stood alone on the city street.

The road was deserted, left deathly silent in the wake of the lockdown. The wide, sandy path stretched on and on to either side as far as the eye could see. Buildings stood along its flank, crammed in uncomfortably tight to each other. The entire city seemed to be holding its breath.

Neuro looked out from the far edge of the street. His gaze fixed upon one particular building—a certain location. Slowly, a smile spread across his beak. "Oh? Looks like I was right."

It felt right. Just like before, just like the first time he had stood here, outside of this building, there was something else in the air, drawing him in. Now that Neuro had gotten closer, now that he knew where to look, the scent was unmistakable. He could feel the puzzle germinating within the walls, like yeast about to rise and form the most scrumptious loaf of bread.

"Capable of launching a large-scale group effort, which requires numerous resources in terms of both minions and equipment," Neuro spoke, striding forward a few steps. "Immense strength and superior intelligence. Close to the Order Branch, so that one can observe its actions and weaknesses. The profile fits."

Neuro raised one hand and pointed with his middle finger. "The criminal is within you… Guulmark Enterprises."

His declaration jabbed forward and sunk into the front wall of the building. The head office loomed before him. Its walls were made of criss-crossing red brick. The doorway was arched, carved artistically out of some sort of bone. The front of the building angled upwards into a tall tower, ridges and terraces decorating the top of it like a crown.

"It's been a while. Haven't seen you since the Evil Centipede case, I believe," Neuro said. Then he shrugged. "But that reasoning alone is not what led me here."

Neuro held up his other hand. Something small and white flicked out from between his claws. "This card sealed it."

"After testing, I found some very interesting results," he continued as he held up the piece of paper. "The composition of this calling card was analyzed. And you know what? The results from testing show that this brand of stationery was used chiefly by one company: Guulmark Enterprises."

As he spoke, Neuro slowly ripped up the card and tossed the pieces to the side, letting them blow away in the wind. "Random trivia. Every detective's loyal sidekick."

A moment passed.

Then there came a growling, mechanical voice from the direction of the office building, making a sound like the grinding of gears. [INSUFFICIENT. THERE IS A CHANCE IT MAY BE COINCIDENCE. YOU HAVE NO PROOF. THE CARD MIGHT HAVE BEEN STOLEN. IT WAS NOT SENT FROM US.]

"Oh? So you mean to resist?" Neuro's eyes glittered with challenge. "You must think me a fool." He tapped the side of one of his horns, pointing out the energy that rippled around it. "My sense for mysteries is reacting to something large beyond your doors. That is all the proof I need. But I'll indulge you for a moment, you first-class worm-farm."

"There are some things that you cannot hide," Neuro said. "For instance, the path of the incoming fights. Given that the riots began at the edges of Guul and are now closing in, I calculate that this building is among the few standing at the epicenter. A well-known landmark would also be a good target to tell your dumb, violent followers to aim for. That is about the best one can do given the average demon intellect."

"But that is not all." Neuro spread out his arms, appearing for a moment like a conductor. "There is something else—something that is often overlooked. Guulmark Enterprises is known as a leading manufacturer of technology."

He smiled. "In other words, you make tools."

"I've noticed something in common with many of my opponents from the Natural Order," he declared. "An information-gathering center placed in the Order Branch. Force-field gloves and a magnetic plate. A laser-gun replacing one demon's tail-tip, and a bomb made of such advanced construction that it defied all normal hacking methods… All of it involved some sort of technology."

"What a useful resource for a rebellion to have," Neuro mused. "No wonder you were able to meet with such success," Then he waved the thought away. "But it's made your contribution rather obvious. Anyway, it should be easy to access your sales records."

"Now tell me-" Neuro said, grinning and pointing with one middle finger, "-just who did you supply with those tools?"

Silence. Dust lay flat and still on the roadside.

Suddenly a horrendous screech ripped through the air. There was a screaming of metal, punctuated by the sound of shredding, of bursting, of tearing. Neuro stood firm, ignoring the growing ache in his ears. A slight rumble coursed through the earth beneath his feet.

Then the entire building shot up towards the sky. The red brick turned a darker shade as more and more of the structure was revealed. Entirely new walls surfaced, pushing back the ground. The body of the domicile grew and grew, a huge mass erupting up from below, its borders extending far beyond those of the original building. The neighboring office buildings were knocked over in clouds of pulverized rubble. Only the original tower remained untouched, perching on top of the new building like a party hat.

Columns of metal and stone grew around the main section and formed support beams like ribs. Random spikes jutted out from the fortress, each needle covered in its own coat of hooks and barbs as if trying to strike out at the entire world. The building was a hulking, twisted mass. Splotches of assorted colors and bizarre features decorated its surface. A neon-colored checkerboard pattern, smokestacks that spewed never-ending mustard, a sculpture of melting clocks—just looking at it for two seconds was enough to move anyone's heart to thoughts of chaos.

When the building finally rumbled to a stop, the ground still shuddering with the effort of what it had just expelled, Guulmark Enterprises stood transformed.

"…Hmph," Neuro snorted. "So, the main building of Guulmark was merely the capstone for all that lay underneath." He imagined it in his mind's eye: the red-brick tower alone left to poke out aboveground, like the lure of a deep-sea fish.

The earthquake-like vibrations and the extended body of the Guulmark building had smashed everything else in the area to pieces. Both in front of Neuro and behind, all of the other structures had been bulldozed down into piles of rock. What had once been a street had been transformed into a nice, bare, open space.

Desperate screams echoed out from a collapsed building somewhere behind Neuro. Coughing and pained howls joined them. With the entire city's population shoved into all of Guul's buildings, the amount of deaths and injuries here must be considerable. This place had just become a whole different picture of the word "Hell".

Neuro alone had remained standing through the barrage. His pride had not permitted him to fall.

[CORRECT DEDUCTION,] bellowed the Guulmark building. [NOW. THIS ENDS. WELCOME TO THE TOWER OF TRIALS.]

[THE TIME FOR GAMES IS OVER, BRAINEATER,] the building declared in words like the twisting of a steel beam. [EITHER YOU DESTROY US. OR WE WILL DESTROY YOU.]

The main door of the building burst open. Countless demons flooded out. Neuro's eyes flicked over the arrivals—there were insectoid demons, demons with objects such as chairs and water pitchers for heads, demons with their mouths in their stomachs and holes all through their body, a trundling Cyclops with a beard, a demon with nothing but hair in place of his head, a demon that looked like statue wearing a sweater, its hands folded in prayer, a demoness that looked like a beautiful young woman in an evening gown, her neck brace forming a terrifying alien frame around the circle of her face, and then more, and then more, of every shape and size.

The demons all filed out and stood in formation, twelve rows deep. Still more were left waiting in the doorway. All were unnaturally calm, rigidly focused on Neuro.

Neuro muffled a laugh. Never before had he seen demons be so quiet before an anticipated slaughter. He raised one hand and flexed its talons. "Fortunately for you, I hate fighting. Give me one good reason I should give any of you the gift of my valuable time," he taunted.

And it was true. Just because battling was something he did a lot of, that did not make the experience any less unpleasant. But inwardly, Neuro laughed at the slight lie he had told. This mystery must be massive. He was willing to do anything to obtain it—even if that did mean having to smash and swat his way through the fleas.

Movement flickered somewhere far above. A hatch swung open in the tower's side, one thin layer below the roof. A blurry shape stood framed in the archway.

Neuro frowned, turning his head to look up at the spot. He squinted. Slowly, he felt his eyes adjust, tingling as their inner rings changed size.

It was Allpower. The goblin's blue skin stood out as a smear against the dull brick. His two horns looked like toothpicks curving back from his skull. Neuro could barely make it out, but the demon seemed to be holding some sort of slab in his hands. If Neuro hadn't been concentrating so hard, he would have grinned. He'd seen something like that before, during the Valkyrie mystery. It must be a control panel.

When Neuro looked back down, he saw the Tower of Trials horde brace. Arms of all shapes and sizes raised, holding weapons at the ready. One pair of wings unfolded and caught fire. The eyes of over one thousand demons stared back at him, a sea of monotonous pinpricks.

Neuro shifted his feet, finding his center of balance. "I see. All I need is to climb to the top, then. If I do that…" He licked his beak, drool already running down the sides. "I win."

The battle began without any warning.

The demons were on him in a second. Neuro barely managed to duck, allowing the first group of demons to slam into each other. Then he burst forward, using speed to break free and topple others over before they could strike him. It was appalling how silent and quick the maggots were. The Natural Order must have issued some sort of reward to improve their concentration.

A face appeared. Neuro punched. Arms reached out to grab him. He twisted away. He managed to take two full steps toward the door before being pushed back a half-pace.

A swarm of miniature bat-demons flew out from a break in the crowd and covered Neuro's entire body. Their claws and teeth dug into his eyes and neck. By the time Neuro got rid of the last one, he had taken two punches in the face from somebody else. He drop-kicked an imp into oblivion. Then a frog-demon jumped forward. In a blur, Neuro reached to the side and grabbed two other demons, using them as shields against its poison-breath. Their bodies dropped, corroded.

Neuro fought as best he could, but the game soon began to get tiresome. As soon as he knocked one demon down, two others appeared to take its place. Neuro gritted his teeth. He was struggling against hundreds of demons here, with probably thousands more in reserve.

His eyes found the Tower door through a break in the crowd. He needed to do something.

Neuro made a gamble. Concentrating all of his strength in his legs, Neuro leapt up. He jump took him into the line of sight of an ogre demon. The stupid beast blinked and pulled back for a punch. Then, in midair, Neuro bent backwards and tucked in his legs, using the momentum to fall down and away just as the fist of a giant macaque-demon passed by above him. The two giants punched each other in the face with a solid whack. Their eyes rolled back. The two demons fell forward, sinking into each other's shoulders. The other demons nearby hissed and jabbed them with spears.

Quickly, Neuro sheltered beneath the giants' tented bodies. In a flash of aura, he summoned something. The item now resting in his hands looked like a stout medicine bottle. It was made of a dark material, with an eye engraved in the center. Its stopper looked like the round end of a pipette. Fast as a wink, Neuro had unscrewed the top and squirted the liquid from inside into both of his eyes.

777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Drop, thought Neuro. He laughed inwardly at what he knew the Tool could do. It was the mantra of the sneaky—If you can't rise to meet the challenge, then cut it down to size!

He darted out as the giants collapsed, immediately running up to the peak of their shoulders. His eyes glowed and pulsed with energy. Already the pressure in them felt ready to burst. Neuro blinked hard. There was a flash of yellow and then the Tool fired-

A large weight slammed into Neuro from the right. He gasped, air rushing out of his lungs. The laser from his left eye was driven off-course into the ground. To the side, three rows of demons surged upward, blocking the other beam with their bodies.

Neuro hit the ground hard. His opponent let go with a grunt, the impact having broken their fingers. Neuro rolled away, stopping only to push himself up to his knees. A frustrated growl leapt from his throat. He had failed because of the fodder.

Suddenly a shadow loomed behind him. Neuro ducked, sweeping his leg up into a kick at the same time. He felt a flash of satisfaction at the crunching of bone beneath his heel.

The fight engulfed him once more. All of the demons began to blur together. Neuro slashed with one hand and jabbed with the other. He kicked at a tendril snaking around his foot. Just in the nick of time, he transformed one arm into a shield, blocking a projectile acid-attack.

Wherever Neuro turned, another enemy appeared. He breath came in ragged pants, scraping the inside of his throat. The distance to the Tower of Trials's door seemed much, much longer now, the path to it obscured and lost in a sea of faces, each one in need of a good punching.

A flash of annoyance struck him. The strong were strong. They ruled over the weak. That was the central tenant of Hell. And Neuro had finally, finally ascended to one of their ranks. He shouldn't have to deal with this nonsense. Fighting in groups was a weak-demon tactic, used only by those who weren't strong enough by themselves to delay the inevitable. He panted. There was no way for the weak to rise above their station…right?

Neuro wiped some blood off his cheek. He was sure that he could beat any of these low-class demons alone. But if they all came at him at once…

The avianoid sprang up and stepped forcefully onto two short demons' heads, using them as a springboard. For a moment, he tried to jump across the top of the mob, moving ever-closer to the Tower. But he wasn't fast enough. Within seconds he was pulled back down, arrows flying into the space where his head used to be. Neuro gritted his teeth and writhed to avoid getting pinned to the earth. He really wished he could fly, dammit.

Neuro tried to keep a space clear around him, a tiny bubble in which he could move. He whirled. He blocked. But the edges of his territory kept getting smaller and smaller. And his movements gradually became slower.

Eventually, facing so many enemies, one of them was bound to get in a hit.

Neuro flinched as one demon grazed his foot with a weapon. The strange tool was a garish yellow, and looked like a cross between a gun and a baton. His aura flickered at its touch.

The unnerving sensation was enough to jolt Neuro out of his fighting rhythm. Another demon hit him with their baton. Then two more, from the side. With each jab, his demonic power decreased and faded a little more. Neuro could see now that most demons in the crowd were holding similar weapons. They must have been supplied by Guulmark. Sensing weakness, the demons closed in fast, too many to bat away. Neuro struggled, but he took a hit. Then another. And another.

Soon, it was too late.

Neuro staggered. Something was wrong. He felt light-headed. His body felt disconnected from the world around him.

What? Neuro clawed. Nothing but muscle moved his hand. The gesture felt…empty. He felt…barren. My demonic energy… my power… it's been sealed?

A tightness closed in around his throat. No miasma. No particles of demonic matter flowing in or out. He couldn't breathe.

The Tools!

He reached. Nothing responded. Neuro called, trying to focus a mass energy that wasn't there. Nothing. It was duller than a refusal. It felt like nothing had heard him at all.

I can't access them! Neuro sank to his knees. His hands groped uselessly. Not a tremor of aura flicked through his fingers. It felt like his entire spirit had been wrapped in tight cellophane. Neuro's mouth hung open, his lungs working without any breath coming in.

The Tools were gone.

In a moment, the horde closed in. Neuro struck back, fighting desperately in self-defense. But his kicks and blows were now all but ineffectual. Furthermore, with his miasma completely sealed, each movement caused his lungs to burn. Neuro was suffocating. He was running on empty. But he held out, lashing and snapping and scratching. Demons were hardy creatures.

Still, the tide of battle slowly turned. It washed over him, sending kicks to land in his stomach and slashes to tear across his spine. At last Neuro collapsed.

Humiliation. Neuro's mind burned with the thought. His mind seemed to be slowly fading, replaced by a thick, blank fog, but the sting of humiliation hurt just the same. It was not something he felt often. And that made it burn all the more raw. Had he been too overconfident? Again?

Blast it all, he thought dully. Would he never been able to repay Asanteoh for…?

The demons closed in, crowding Neuro's vision until everything turned to black.

Chapter Text

Mutter

Mutter

Whisper

Darkness. Pain. Those were the only things in existence.

Mutter

Shuffle

Mutter

Pause.

shufflescrapeMutterwhisperTHUDwhumpscreechmutterWHACK-

All at once, the curtain of darkness lifted. Sunlight burst across Neuro's eyes, making the avianoid flinch and curl closer into himself. Then slowly, slowly he began to move, straightening his shoulders as if finally remembering that he had a body. He moved his arms underneath himself to lift up his torso. He blinked his eyes open a crack. The sunlight burned. Everything seemed so bright and clear.

Demons writhed on the ground around him. Even to Neuro's clouded mind, it seemed obvious that they had been blown back by an unknown force. The Tower's horde at last broke their silence and howled, wailing at the interference coming from over near the road's edge.

Standing there was the Order Branch.

The entirety of the Branch's forces appeared to have come. Demons spread out on either side of the mass, their numbers large and their ranks deep. Beings of all shapes, sizes, colors, and limbs were among them. Each and every one radiated power. Neuro's heart pounded as he spotted some familiar faces in the crowd. The other divisions of Hell's Disciplinary Action Committee must have sent members as well—the octopus-demoness from Security was there, standing next to a few Commanders from Punishment.

And at the head of them all was Lucard Throatbane.

"Hey, Birdbrain," said the wolf demon, his eyes glittering and tongue lolling from his mouth. A small police cap rested on top of his head. "You weren't going to get this parted started without us, were you?"

Then Lucard's expression became serious. "You've sure got guts, running on ahead like that. You deserve every wound it gave you. Did you think I couldn't figure it out?"

He held up a small plastic bag containing a piece of charred evidence. "You might have taken something from the scene with you, but there were still enough breadcrumbs left behind. Judging by the current situation, the pattern of the N.O.'s attack, and what resources they must have needed, I figured you'd end up here." He snorted. "Even I can manage reasoning at this level."

Neuro stared. Dazedly, he wondered if he was hearing things right with the fog wrapping around all of his senses. Somehow, the dog had managed to scrape together the same deduction. A single thought pressed against the mush of Neuro's mind: impressed.

The demon horde surrounding Neuro screeched. They rattled their weapons.

Lucard grinned. With one motion from him, the Order Branch charged.

The two groups met in an explosive tide. Violence and blood erupted in a line as the Order Branch engaged the enemy. Tower demons from the mob lodged on their spears. Crackles of magic electrified the air. But the mob soon raged back. With sheer numbers alone, they managed to overpower some Order Branch members and drag them down into the dirt. Their aura-sealing weapons also posed a problem. A few Order Branch demons wasted valuable time snapping at them, confused, while other members of the mob darted in to stab them from behind.

It was a fight between two forms of Order—the Natural vs the Branch. And neither of them truly represented justice.

As Neuro watched the carnage unfold, he was reminded of something. Demons often questioned why a "police force" even existed in Hell. This was the land of sin, after all—a realm ruled by pain, depravity, and rampant, undiluted violence. Even practical ideas such as "no killing each other off willy-nilly" were not actual social norms. So why should there be any regulation at all? But those demons, Neuro knew, missed out on one very important point.

The HDAC might function as Hell's police force, but that did not mean it was seriously meant to protect the "public good". Indeed, rather than "Justice", the force operated under the idea of Enforcement—forced adherence to a set of arbitrary rules, often incompatible with base demon instinct. The Committee itself was named for "Disciplinary Action", not crime prevention. It was little more than a joke. The HDAC was simply an organization for the Devil to pit against other organizations, something that stood for an idea to be laughed at. It was something to hold up, a false light to draw the moths' attention to the fact that there was no true justice in this world. Instead, there existed little more than sanctioned bullies in its place. But since the HDAC was strong, everyone else had to do what it said, including being arrested for natural actions like murder. That, too—the rule of the powerful—was an important lesson in Hell.

Anyway, the HDAC was more of a fighting crew than a justice crew.

Thoughts like these fluttered through Neuro's head as the battle raged. He saw Doloron the Gutter zipping about, their chainsaw-nose revving to slash at demons' ankles. The sawfish-demon appeared to have found a niche in the Supply Corps, teleporting in new axes and teleporting away with any spent cartridges and possibly-useful corpses. Balanusk Huskeater, the squirrel-demon, leapt about sticking various poses. He fired lasers from his eyes, pausing only to sink his poisonous fangs into a demon's wings.

Zelmia Dreadsting was there also, deadly even in her business dress. The scorpion-demoness shrieked in delight as her hooked hair whirled. Finally, she could let her intensity completely loose. She jabbed out her opponents' eyeballs with a sick precision. A shadow flitted overhead. Hesia Rekar, the flying-squirrel-skunk demon, flew into battle, yelling abuse at the aerial squadron following behind her. She scowled at Neuro as they flew past. The bombs that she dropped were real this time.

And Brutus Sharpback—Neuro almost looked for the shark-demon before remembering that he was dead.

Th-thump. With Neuro's next heartbeat, black spots began to gather at the center of his vision. Thick cotton made up the inside of his head. His wounds ached. His lungs felt like two deflated balloons, no longer burning, instead giving a dull, neverending throb.

But it was Lucard who was the most impressive in battle. He had not yet shifted into his pseudo-hellhound form, tackling the battlefield with only regular teeth and claws for weapons. Instead, the lupinoid's strength came from barking orders, guiding the fight, directing his forces to where they were needed most. He punched his way through the crowd, throwing weaker demons back over his shoulder for his subordinates. Maisma made the wind dance around him in a dark cloud. Order Branch demons howled in delight as he sent swaths of air out to them, infusing them with particles of miasma to break the effect of the aura-sealing weapons. The Tower demons threw down their gun-batons in disgust. They wouldn't be using those anymore.

Neuro opened his mouth, trying to say a word. But no sound came out. He couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe.

Somewhere, from what felt like very far away, more demons were tossed aside.

The light shifted. Suddenly Lucard was standing right in front of him.

The wolf demon grabbed Neuro's hand. The touch barely registered. "I, Lucard Throatbane, claim the title of Executive Officer!" shouted Lucard. His voice carried through the battlefield like thunder. "I do so swear on pain of eternity to serve Hell's Disciplinary Action Committee: Order Branch as its supreme commander and administrator, and will faithfully execute my duties to the best of my ability and knowledge! This, I so swear by all above and below."

"I pledge my allegiance to the Demon Emperor," Lucard continued, authority radiating off of his every move and breath. "By witness of His Dark Majesty, I promise to serve for the rest of my lifetime under the blue banner of Enforcement."

He straightened, crimson eyes blazing bright and clear. "Enforce with power, protect with deference."

A sea of affirmative howling shot up from the Order Branch. The entire force of the HDAC cheered and screamed, smashing a few more Tower demons in their frenzy. The cheering was so loud that it nearly drowned out the strange wave that seemed to sweep through the battlefield, echoing outward in the shape of a pentagram, Lucard's words falling down like drops of blood to soak through the earth. Somehow, somewhere, Neuro felt he could picture the Devil laughing.

Lucard's grip had tightened around Neuro's hand, clenched like a vise. Miasma swirled heavy around Neuro as the wolf demon's powers wrapped him in a cocoon. He felt a faint itch in his soul, like particles poking at the edges of a seal.

Neuro gasped. His throat closed around something.

"Then, by my power," Lucard declared, "I issue Executive Order 000-000-001! The objects known as the 777 Tools of Hell shall be restored in their entirety to the demon 'Braineater' Neuro! Hear me and be done!"

The aura around the two of them glowed white-hot. Pure power sparked before it all released in a sudden burst, the impact ruffling their fur and feathers.

Neuro's eyes went wide. Something heavy was uncovered, returning and settling down deep into his bones. It felt like a burden. A burden weighing more than 777 tons. But more importantly, miasma flooded into his lungs. He tasted air.

Air.

Neuro let go of Lucard's hand, bending over to clutch at the ground, gasping and choking.

For a moment he just breathed, enjoying the sensation of pulling air in and pushing it out, of having lungs that actually worked, of feeling the aching pressure slowly loosen from his chest.

After a couple more seconds, Neuro raised his head. Now that he could breathe, his thoughts were beginning to return to him. His mind cleared like a room being aired out by an electric fan.

Neuro brought one hand up to his chest. What was it that he had thought back there? Something about Asanteoh? Despite everything, Neuro felt a flash of amusement. He silently chastised himself for wanting to repay Asanteoh. Demons didn't have life debts. That was far too nice.

Still, Neuro smiled to himself. It seemed the disease of kindness was contagious.

He looked up. "Stupid dog," he said.

Lucard winced, the aura of Executive Power still clinging to his shoulders. "Those are your first words after nearly suffocating to death? Aren't you grateful."

Neuro stared directly into his eyes. "Why did you save me?"

Lucard hesitated. Those words seemed to strike a familiar chord somewhere in his mind. But there was no hint of plaintiveness in Neuro's tone. He sounded like someone asking for the answer to a math problem—someone simply trying to understand an illogical concept.

For one long moment, the battle raged around them.

Then Lucard reached upwards to touch his police cap. He grinned. "I guess I've been shown a bad example."

Neuro raised an eyebrow in response. But he too smiled, and said nothing. A moment of understanding seemed to flit between them and then vanish.

"Now go!" Lucard said, turning round. His voice dropped and became a rough growl, as if making up for the short bit of sentiment. "We'll take the rest."

He angled his head up to the top of the Guulmark building. "But I don't know if you can climb that Tower before the surprise wears off…"

Kneeling on the ground beside him, Neuro flexed one hand. He chuckled darkly. "Oh, Officer Throatbane. With me, there's always a surprise."

In a flash as bright as atoms being ripped apart, something imploded to life.

A gigantic structure erupted from the ground, rising in a burst of demonic power. At its base were roots in the shape of ghostly faces, each one twisted in unimaginable agony. They warped and stretched as the plant grew up and up and up. A golden ring with a few elegant clasps floated around the main body. The plant tendrils themselves were brown and thick, writhing upward from their trunks and ending in wide, sharp-toothed mouths. Their 'necks' were lined with sharp green leaves. Small roots spread across the top of the vines' 'heads' like veins.

A main, flowery part was carried in the device's center. It opened up at the end of the tendrils' reach, spreading out six broad, blood-red leaves to grip the place where Neuro had aimed.

The monstrous plant smashed into the Guulmark building, its mouths and leaves gripping onto the surface. The main flower held up the Tower of Trials, jabbing into its sides. The entire contraption matched the Tower in height, almost like a challenge. Its trunk and leaves provided limbs that demons could easily climb, poking like a highway into the higher levels.

And Neuro himself was at the top of the Tree, having let it carry him.

Lucard stood and stared. "…That guy." From the looks of it, Neuro had dared to summon the 7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor – Evil Tree. Lucard resisted the urge to give an exasperated laugh. The Birdbrain must have wanted to celebrate regaining his abilities.

Lucard shook off his thoughts, returning to the fight below. Even though Neuro had disappeared, the others were still ripping into the enemy forces. A few go-getters appeared to be trying to break off in an effort to storm the Tower. They needed their leader.

In one smooth motion Lucard lept forward, his body becoming larger and his weight shifting onto his two front limbs until he landed, fully-formed, as a gigantic wolf. The earth cracked beneath his feet. His shadow stretched menacingly out across the battlefield. All minor skirmishes stopped as the demons turned to look at him.

He tossed back his head and howled, his fangs catching the light. His eyes glowed a dull crimson while his nightmarishly long claws dug into the earth. Miasma flowed in a thick stream around him, every spare scrap drained from the surrounding air. The Tower demons wailed and clutched at their throats as their miasma flowed away, transferring over to the HDAC forces like a river.

Lucard ROARED, giving a shockwave that split the air. With an answering cry, the Order Branch forces surged, starting the fights anew. Raw power gathered in a cloak around Lucard's form. He charged. The Tower demons screamed before a flash of pale, golden light-

They would answer for their crimes to Caesar's Crown.

 

 

Chapter Text

A sigh. A shake of the head, two thin horns sweeping side-to-side in the dim light. "Braineater. So the two of us must meet again. It seems you were correct—crossing paths with you is an unfortunate event indeed."

Neuro stood, watching the other in silence. His glittering green eyes observed his opponent.

The room was large and square around them, dimness spreading down from the roof to cling at the walls and corners. In the walls was a series of arched openings, like windows of a veranda. The entire structure was made of red brick. The floor was bare.

"By forcing your way up here, you've effectively skipped all of our traps and trials," the blue goblin said. "How disappointing. You of all people should know not to mess with a demon's fun."

The demon's voice was just as cruel as Neuro remembered. He had an angular face, with high cheekbones that gave him the appearance of some sort of gremlin. Black horns swept backward from two knobs on his head. Aside from those, he had no hair. The demon's eyes were blue and textured like crystals, while his skin looked cold as a sapphire. He wore navy-colored robes that stretched down to the floor, their fabric billowing around him. Through the folds his hands could be seen resting on a staff, each finger loaded with rings.

"My apologies for interfering with your plans," said Neuro. "I am sure that what comes next will be far more amusing."

"Now," Neuro smiled. "Who are you? I must say, I look forward to finally meeting the demon who has made me go to such lengths."

A dry chuckle came from the goblin. "I believe you've known about me for quite some time now, Neuro."

He tossed one sleeve back, gesturing to himself grandly as his voice rang out in a declaration. "I am Synap S. Allpower! I am the gap you have to cross!"

The words echoed briefly through the room as the goblin held his pose. Neuro blinked, dimly wondering if he should consider feeling some sort of second-hand embarrassment.

Synap S…'Synapse'. The space between neurons. "I see," Neuro said. "What a stupid, constructed name."

"Ahh, names. Names are so important, aren't they?" The goblin rested one hand on his staff. His other hand reached out, palm up, fingers curled inward as if grabbing something. "As demons, we use them to declare our talent, our abilities. We use them to tell others to stay away, or to brag of our accomplishments. 'Braineater, the Gutter, Spring-Heeled', et cetera. A name is what captures one's essence in a few mere syllables. It's how we, thousands-of-years-old superbeings, summarize our interminable existence. Through a name, a demon can become respected or feared worldwide. Through a name, we carve out our very own space in this chaotic universe. We use names to tell others who we are."

"I myself used to have the name of 'Synap S. Gobgem'." He sneered. "Although I'm sure that little rat of an informant told you as much already."

Neuro ground the teeth on the inside of his beak. This guy was just as grand and pompous as he was. The experience of meeting a kindred super-sized ego was quickly wearing thin. At the very least, Neuro was sure that he didn't talk as much.

"By pursuing my talents with gems, I unlocked a whole new tier of strength," the goblin continued. "I ascended from the ranks of the weak to the strong overnight. Starting with only one minor power, I obtained more and more until I escaped from that pointless existence." His eyes glimmered cold, looking at Neuro's hand as if seeing through it to the Tools beyond. "That feeling…I'm sure you know it well."

"Anyway, by following my innate abilities—the natural order for me—I gained countless skills." The demon's voice swelled with pride. "Because of that, they began to call me Allpower."

"And that's all I care about in the end," he declared. "For power, I would sacrifice anything. Nothing else matters as long as I have that one thing. Same for you, isn't it? With your devotion to your 'food'."

Neuro answered with a breathy laugh. "I see. 'Allpower' then, is it? Not 'Gobgem'. I'll remember that. One should at least have their accomplishments recognized, after all."

On the inside, Neuro's every cell felt lit from within with excitement. This is it. His tongue licked the inside of his mouth. He felt the familiar satisfaction of everything slipping into place, like the final puzzle piece being brought to the board.

Neuro stepped sideways, beginning to circle around Allpower. He polished his talons against the feathers on his wrist. "The Natural Order is not leaderless, then. I was misinformed."

"From the outside, it is," Allpower said. He moved not a single step as Neuro circled. "You were correct in assuming that we had major officers, however. The greatest one of all being myself." He chuckled. "Although, I suppose that is my blunder, for revealing myself to you back then."

"A blunder indeed," replied Neuro. "It's led me straight to you."

"No matter. You are sure to be killed."

All of a sudden, Allpower's face twisted, warping into a maniacal grin. "It was acceptable for you to find us here, because you will die," he hissed out. "The being known as 'Braineater' had become too much of a threat. We knew we would have to eliminate you eventually…so why not do it as soon as possible, on our own terms and territory?"

"You didn't seriously think we left that business card behind on accident? We knew it would lead you here," Allpower gloated. "You came to us so we could kill you."

Neuro stopped his steps. "Well, that was your mistake. By guiding me here, you now run the risk of dying yourself."

He pointed at Allpower with one middle finger. "Synap S. Allpower—once I defeat you, this will all be over."

The goblin grinned in response. "Yes. It will be."

In a blur, the two demons sprang away from each other. Dust clouds hung where their feet used to be. They skidded to a stop, backs against direct opposite walls.

Neuro held his talons at the ready, knees bent in order to react to any attacks. "Since you're so hung up on the importance of names, I'll give you mine," his smooth voice rang through the room.

He straightened up and struck a pose. "I am Neuro, the Braineater! Devourer of puzzles, solver of riddles! I am the one who shall eat up all of the mysteries in Hell! Including yours."

On the other side of the room, Allpower let out a dry, rattling laugh. "Ahh, yes. So I hear. But I doubt that you will be able to keep your word, detective."

His gaze grew sharp. "You see, my ultimate goal is not yet complete. I have not followed the natural order of my powers to its limit."

"Ultimately, I aim to collect all of the powers," the goblin declared. "I want every single kind of demonic strength available. After first being so helpless, I will never have to feel that way again! And once you began to appear, Neuro…" He licked his lips. "Oh, I knew I just had to have those Tools."

"It's a pity we couldn't seal them away permanently. If I can't have them, then no one should, after all." He shrugged. "But, since you're here… It will be my pleasure to rob them from your corpse."

"Keh," Neuro said. "How greedy. You should know that you could never wield the Tools like I do." He turned his head to the side, expression cheeky.

Allpower frowned. "I could. My rings hold enough power to rival anything in your arsenal."

"No. Not good enough."

"My experience has made-"

"Not good enough." Neuro stuck out his tongue.

The demon's blue face turned purple. "Why you-"

"Listen well," Neuro cheerfully declared, pointing emphatically up to the ceiling. "I swear this on my name: I will only need one Tool to defeat you. That is all it will require to punish you for your insolence."

"…A single Tool?" said Allpower. "That's impossible."

"I can do it."

"No you can't."

"Yes I can."

"No you can't."

"Yes I can," Neuro maintained. "I will prove to you, the holder of unlimited Tools, that I can take you down with one alone."

Allpower paused. He looked deep into the avianoid's face. Neuro stared blatantly back.

"Hmph," Allpower scoffed. "Prove it, then. I recommend you choose wisely." He thrust a hand forward. "AndIrecommendyouDIE!"

Chains burst from the ground. They stretched forward, closing in at breakneck speed. Neuro dove to the side, barely managing to pull his legs away in time.

Spontaneous matter creation, Neuro thought as he hopped onto one of the walls. He cast a quick glance behind him. The chains writhed and faded away into nothingness, while a second wave lunged upward. They hit the spot on the wall where Neuro had been just moments before, digging deep into the brick.

Damn, thought Neuro as he fell through the air. It was going to be hard work to defeat this Allpower. Especially with only one Tool.

His face went blank. Huh. Speaking of which, I should probably choose one.

A faint flash of light came from the other side of the room. Neuro landed on the floor, squinting over to get a good look. He barely had time to recognize what was happening before throwing himself backwards to avoid a column of fire. The flamethrower attack burned as hot as one of Hell's infernos. It moved in an arc, slowly turning towards Neuro. Gritting his teeth, Neuro faked a jump over, giving a small bounce before sliding underneath the blaze instead. He stood, unharmed.

The flamethrower disappeared. Then, with one gesture from Allpower, a ray of ice shot out. It clipped Neuro in the shoulder as it went past, making him shiver down to what he could have sworn was the marrow of his bones. Shaking it off, Neuro regrouped, transforming his arms into shields. He faced the new threat. Think. How could he deal with this and get to the other side-

He cried out in pain as a blast of fire caught in him in the back. Neuro stumbled forward. The stench of seared feathers filled his nostrils. When he looked up, he saw a column of ice in front of him and a blast of fire behind.

So Allpower wasn't limited to just one power at a time. Fun.

Neuro moved as the attack commenced. He sprinted away from blasts of frost and licks of flame, dancing between the two beams. The ground around him turned to fire, then to ice, then melted all the way back up again to a blaze. Neuro hunched behind his two shield-arms, using them to defend as he maneuvered towards the source of the beams. Then-

"ARGH!" Agony! Pain! A bolt of pure lightning had struck Neuro from above, while plant roots jabbed up from the earth, catching Neuro in-between. There had been no way to escape. Spots flashed and faded in front of Neuro's eyes as he felt his muscles spasm. The roots sunk into his chest and abdomen, leaving holes like knife wounds. When they released him, he swayed on his feet.

"Hyaaahahahaha!" Allpower laughed. "What are you giving me so many free shots for, Braineater? I thought you liked giving pain, not taking it."

Neuro looked up, panting. He concentrated on the other demon's voice. His fingers…they hold the rings. Neuro shook himself. That's it. If I just know which ring he's going to use, I can predict what power comes next. He sank down into a ready stance, watching his opponent's fingers out of the corner of his eye.

Allpower simply smiled. He stretched one hand out to the side. A few gemstones on his fingers glowed.

Neuro wrenched his feet up as a frenzy of plant roots grew beneath him. As soon as he was free, another beam of ice shot past his elbow, turning the wall behind him into a spiderweb of frost. Allpower's fingers remained completely still.

Neuro growled. Useless. The demon had no tells—he didn't need to flick his fingers, and though the gems glowed, that didn't help much in predicting their effect or their powers. He would have to watch for-

Allpower disappeared.

Neuro stood for a moment, processing what had happened. When his brain arrived at an answer, a pained expression passed over his face. "Oh…"

WHACK! The blunt end of Allpower's cane hit him in the face. Neuro reeled. It felt like each ridge of the decorated silver had indented into his cheek. The goblin laughed before turning invisible again.

Neuro stepped back. His mind swam while his head rang like a gong. He couldn't see Allpower anywhere. To fight an invisible opponent…Neuro knew of only a few ways. He took a deep breath. Though it hurt, he held his ground. One second passed. Then another.

WHAM! The next blow came to the back of Neuro's head. Wincing through the pain, Neuro shot out a hand quick as a rabbit and grabbed hold of the cane, turning to kick up toward Allpower's location.

A loud clang echoed through the 's foot felt like it had struck solid concrete. The air in front of him wavered, revealing Allpower. The demon's face shone a metallic gray. Allpower grinned at him once more before disappearing.

A flash of indignation burst through Neuro's chest. That goblin had turned himself into steel! It must be another power in his line-up.

Neuro took a moment to breathe. He dug his talons into the earth. Still…he wasn't done yet.

He focused, eyes flicking to where he had last seen a flash of Allpower's cloak. Those rings. They were the source of all his power. Neuro wouldn't need to worry about their effects if he could just stop them at the source.

Slowly, Neuro concentrated, imagining Allpower's long, knobby fingers. He pictured the rings around them, channeling his own aura through the air to form a covering. Then he moved them, slowly, carefully, using his powers of sense manipulation to quietly slide the rings off of Allpower's fingers-

He crashed to the ground. "Gah…" Neuro cried as the air was pressed from his lungs. The weight that seemed to be crushing him was so great he almost felt his eyes pop.

Then, just as suddenly as it had come, the force reversed. Neuro found himself flung up to the roof, his burnt back pressing painfully against the tiles. Neuro groaned. When he opened his eyes, he saw Allpower standing below.

The demon waved one chiding finger. "Ah-ah-ah," he said. "No taking my dearies away from me. I'm afraid that I'm quite sensitive to them, seeing as they're filled with my aura."

"And this," he said, eyes glittering, "is a punishment for even daring to try."

Gravity began to warp back and forth, slamming Neuro repeatedly against the floor and ceiling. Tiles and brick dust clattered down around him. The smashing continued for a few seconds. Then, all of a sudden, it stopped, leaving Neuro simply levitating in place. He struggled, moving his arms and legs. But there was no traction here. He was stuck. Allpower watched his wriggling with amusement.

Neuro's mind raced. A plan, a plan! He needed to reach Allpower. How could he do that when he couldn't even move?

He closed his eyes. After a few seconds Neuro seemed to calm down, drawing his hands and knees into himself. Over to the side, Allpower titled his head in confusion.

Suddenly, Neuro burst out, stretching one hand forward as his fingers elongated into two large spikes, plus one snake's head spewing poison from its fangs.

Allpower's eyes widened as he was forced to duck. Neuro fell to the ground. The surprise must have been enough to interrupt the effects of the ring.

Neuro enjoyed the feather-light sensation of regular gravity for only a millisecond before leaping to his feet. He couldn't let Allpower take aim at him again.

He jumped up to the roof, kicking off of its surface and ricocheting off the walls and floor. He bounced around the room in a multicolored blur, keeping Allpower within his sights. It was time for a change of strategy. Neuro couldn't stop the rings, but as long as he kept moving he might be able to dodge their attacks. He built up speed, bounding toward the demon-

"Hm?" Something warmed the feathers around Neuro's beak. He looked up. The bricks of his next landing point glowed orange. They bubbled and popped, melting under the influence of some sort of extreme heat.

Neuro's eyes widened. He was headed straight for it.

On instinct, he shot his arms forward. His hands pressed against the border of the hotspot, joints creaking under the full weight of his body. Neuro let out a grunt as he flipped himself away, kicking down from the roof as it turned to lava beneath his toes.

He hit the floor in a ready crouch. Allpower stood just a few paces away, his hand outstretched and pointed towards the ceiling, as if he had used his heat powers on it.

The two demons locked eyes. They stood for a second as the roof melted around them, dripping down in scorching-orange strands and blobs, raising the temperature in the room by two thousand degrees.

Neuro sprang forward. Allpower turned his body to steel. Talons sparked against staff. They clashed, hitting and kicking and slashing in the middle of the lava rain.

Neuro ducked, dodging around a drop of lava from above. He grabbed Allpower's shoulder, holding the demon and preventing him from turning invisible to escape. He stayed close so that the demon could not risk using his gravity-altering powers.

Unfortunately, that was also the most dangerous place to be.

Before Neuro knew it, Allpower grabbed him and tugged him down, kicking Neuro full in the chest and sending him sailing across the room. Neuro skidded to a long and painful stop. Luckily, at least, he didn't hit any lava patches. He coughed, struggling to sit up.

Damn. Super-strength, sense manipulation, wall-crawling, intelligence…none of his regular tricks worked. Neuro wiped blood away from a cut on his face. That snake. He's being careful not to use all of his powers. As long as he has some in reserve, I can't come up with an effective plan to counter them.

But wait! Excitement jolted through Neuro. There- an opening! He must have gotten overconfident after kicking him away.

In a flash, Neuro was on his feet. He lunged forward, kicking off of one of the cooled lava droplets to dart in from the side. He closed in, bringing one hand back with his talons extended, aiming toward the spot were victory lay.

Then the shadows surged. A wave of darkness rolled up from the ground and smashed into Neuro's side. He tumbled end over end. The inky blackness pulled at him, forcing him to land wrong. He cried out as his foot jerked unnaturally to the side. With one taste of pain, Neuro could tell that it was broken.

"Shadow manipulation," Allpower intoned. "You and I think so much alike, Braineater. But yet again you fall for the same trick: a good lure."

Neuro knelt on the ground, panting. One hand reached back toward his ankle. He tried to keep track of Allpower's movements, but pain filled his mind like static. Yet another power. Blast it all.

Neuro was dazed. His head swam with all the attacks and powers. For just a moment, an awareness of all the injuries he had sustained struck him—his burned back itched, his arms were scraped and bruised, and blood streamed from where the roots had stabbed him in the chest.

When Allpower came closer, he snapped with his beak. Neuro spun with the next blow from the cane, rolling with the momentum off behind a pile of cooled magma for cover. He ignored how his foot screamed in agony.

Sitting up, Neuro rested his head against the black rock. The ridges felt cool against the back of his neck. There was no more avoiding it. He needed a Tool.

He breathed deeply, concentrating demonic power past the holes in his chest. It pooled and collected in his hands as aura. Neuro focused. He pictured where Allpower would be. One, two, three…

Neuro popped up from behind the basalt, channeling his power. He locked-on to Allpower's form-

But something made him hesitate.

Allpower pulled back, his expression wary but unworried. His rings caught the light: emerald, amethyst, sapphire, agate, all of the gemstones dark and deep, shining with energy…except for the ones below them. The second row of rings shone flat like plastic. Neuro realized with a start that he had never seen one from among their line glow.

"Hey," Neuro called. He didn't know what possessed him to speak, but he did. He pointed over. "Your rings—the entire bottom row looks blank. None of them are charged with demonic energy."

He narrowed his eyes. "If I had to guess…they don't contain any powers, do they?"

"Hmm. Good catch," Allpower said. He displayed his fingers, each of them carrying two rings with the thumbs carrying one. "You are correct once again. This second row is blank, empty. But-" He gave a grin. "That means they are ready to be filled."

"You were doomed from the very start, Braineater. I can trap anything in one of these gemstones, even a Tool from the Devil himself!" the goblin cackled. "The moment you use a Tool and its power affects me, I will steal it away! I can't wait to have one for my collection."

"Well? Go on, detective." Allpower sneered. "Summon your one, precious Tool. Use your most powerful shot! And I will catch it. Your Tools versus my rings—which will be victorious?"

Neuro scowled. All of instincts were screaming at him to fight, to charge, to summon something. But he couldn't. Hitting Allpower with a Tool was not an option now. It apparently never had been.

Allpower's face slid into a frown as Neuro hesitated. "Well? You won't?" he said, sounding for a moment like a pouting child. "You won't give me even one of your precious Tools?"

"Then," he said, raising one hand high. His voice turned cold as ice. "I win by default."

There was a blinding flare, exploding and burning twice as bright as the Sun itself. Allpower wielded an entire hand, nearly crushing Neuro in one full, excruciating, combined blow. Fire scorched Neuro's skin, ice froze his other side whole, plant tendrils whipped his sides, and an interminable force of gravity drew them all together, the energy erupting around him in a rainbow of light.

His mind went blank. When Neuro next opened his eyes, he found himself lying collapsed on the floor.

Allpower walked closer. His shadow stretched across the ground as if reaching out towards its prey. "Face it, Braineater. You're out of your depth."

Neuro heaved himself up to his elbows. Pain sparked through his chest, his arms, his broken foot. He flipped over, sitting upright as Allpower approached.

Neuro skittered back just a bit, shuffled away across the floor. Allpower drew ever closer, grinning down at him. Neuro met his gaze defiantly. The gap between them closed as Allpower raised a hand-

BANG! CRASH!

A loud noise came from the side.

They turned to look. There, in one of the window gaps, was another demon. He stood where Evil Tree had burst in, his chest heaving as if he had just climbed the tendrils all by himself. An axe hung impaled in the brick wall. The demon himself was half-humanoid, with the head, strong neck, and horns of a bull. A square nose ring hung from his nostrils.

The demon's lips were drawn back. His flat teeth ground against each other. His four arms stretched out, ending in trembling fists.

The bull demon tossed back his head and bellowed. "NEURO!"

A dim thought came to Neuro's mind. Head Officer Bullspider. From the Insole and Low Beam cases.

"I knew you were bad news!" Bullspider ranted. "The Order Branch is always full of demons like this! Irresponsible, unworthy, egomaniacs! Their members ruin everything, and never admit to it! Their detectives are the worst, most insufferable kind imaginable!"

"This is all your doing." Bullspider hefted two swords and one axe in his hands, raising them up to shoulder-level. His nostrils flared. "I knew that your meddling would lead us into trouble someday. I don't even care what sides people are on now—my only wish is to destroy you!"

Neuro and Allpower were both silent, staring at the newcomer. The mood was completely lost. Neuro snuck a glance to the side. It was obvious that Allpower didn't quite know what to do for a second.

Neuro smirked. "I see. Well, then…"

In one gust of air he had zipped over to Bullspider, appearing behind him before anyone could blink. It was as if the avianoid had saved the last bit of his strength for this moment.

"Thank you," said Neuro as he raised a hand, his palm glowing with aura. "You have brought me my way out."

Bullspider turned and swung his axe. He roared in fury. Neuro jumped deftly back out of range, tossing something forward into the demon's mouth. Given that the bull's mouth was currently open in a cry of rage, it wasn't hard.

Bullspider's yells suddenly broke off into chokes, then ugly gagging. He made despairing noises, clawing at his mouth. After a moment of struggle, he opened his jaws, showing what was inside to the world.

A strange creature had replaced his tongue. The animal was bumpy and flesh-colored. It had a mouth at the end, its lips constantly reaching up towards its small nose as if sniffing something out. Two eyes were on the bottom of its body, placed on opposite sides of a strange opening. Four small pair of arms extended from its torso, waving freely in the air and pressing up against its host's teeth. Multiple small knobs lined its underside.

"There are many ways in which I could have defeated Allpower," spoke Neuro. "Luring him under the last bit of lava dripping from the roof, for instance. Or summoning one of the 7 Weapons instead of a Tool." He sighed. "In fact, I was just luring him into place when you barged in. But this way should work just as well."

His green eyes gleamed. "777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Badger. An insect with a rather strange diet. It replaces the tongue of its target and feeds upon a certain food—usually whatever its victim most dislikes, but I can change that."

"It's a very gluttonous little bug." Neuro grinned. "If the Badger insect is not fed to its liking, it will swell up and stop its victim's breathing. The only way to prevent that is to feed it its target food continuously."

Bullspider's eyes went wide, his pupils shrinking into panicked pinpricks. All of his rage was seemingly forgotten.

"Ahh, the pain of not being able to breathe," Neuro crooned. "I know it well. It is enough to drive one to desperation. And beings are never more powerful than when they are caught between life and death. Also, as we all know, hunger is a powerful motivator."

To the side, Allpower gave a short laugh. "That's it? That's your one Tool? That's what you have chosen to bet all of your hopes on?" It was obvious from his face that he was struggling to take the decision seriously, trying not to underestimate Neuro, but he was having a hard time.

"What did you set as its target then?" he jeered. "The taste of victory? I'm afraid that won't be satisfied…" Then Allpower trailed off. A glinting on his fingers seemed to catch his eye.

He blinked. "Ah…"

Bullspider lunged, flying mouth-first at Allpower, driven by a mad hunger.

"N-NOOO!" Allpower screamed. He stumbled backwards, turning invisible. Bullspider sniffed him out in an instant. He summoned the shadows. Bullspider crashed through the save. In a panic, he turned his hands to steel. But Bullspider's strong teeth came down-

There was a bloodcurdling scream as Bullspider bit off Allpower's fingers.

Bullspider pulled his face away, blue scraps heavy with gemstones caught between his teeth. He hunkered down on the floor, twenty gems collected his hands, and began desperately chomping away.

Shock seemed to have carved itself permanently into Allpower's face. He gasped down at his bloody hands. Suddenly, Neuro popped up behind him. When the demon turned, Neuro delivered an aura-powered superpunch to the gut.

There was a satisfying THUNK as his talons pierced straight through.

Allpower collapsed, gurgling. He clutched at the hole in his stomach with fingers that were now nothing but stumps. Blood drenched the ground around him.

"See? I was right," said Neuro. "You may have every power imaginable in this realm, but I only needed one."

He stared down at the goblin demon. Finally, it was Neuro's turn to have a sadistic smile. He wore it while he enjoyed watching Allpower writhe.

Eventually, the goblin collapsed back. A large, rectangular slab fell out of his robes. Neuro recognized it as the control panel that he had seen earlier.

The slab hit the ground with a light tmp sound. Neuro blinked. Plastic. So it was a fake. There was no 'off switch' then—no way to stop the riots, the rampant destruction, the operations of this infernal Tower.

Oh well. Neuro gave a mental shrug. He wasn't much interested in protecting the city anyway. He had come here for something else. It was a bit strange that Allpower had carried around a fake control panel, but whatever. Maybe the Natural Order was just like that. They did like their chaos.

Licking his lips, Neuro turned his awareness elsewhere. The mystery. The grand puzzle, the greatest riddle he had ever faced so far, was finally solved. How large and delicious it must be.

Neuro waited. And waited.

He looked. He blinked. He sniffed. He checked, then checked again. Nothing. Still nothing.

The pounding of his heart slowly grew louder inside his ears. Neuro strained his eyes, focusing their rings and scanning every last scrap of aura in the room. This couldn't be. It couldn't be.

There was nothing here.

No mystery here, no mystery there, no unleashed mass of evil energy bubbling up from its defeated host. And it didn't feel like the energy was hiding, either. Allpower was soundly beaten. He felt surrounded by plenty of evil intent, but he was not the holder of any puzzle.

Neuro searched through the room's aura again. This was impossible.

"Where is it?" Neuro said. His voice was stern, but contained a seed of panic. The plate. A fake. The mystery. Not here. He had thought everything was over, but now it was all completely wrong.

"No. No. No!" Neuro broke out into a yell. He glared down at Allpower. "Where is it? Tell me what I'm missing!"

Allpower coughed up blood. "Didn't I s-say…that…you couldn't last against…us?" He managed a wavering smile. "Heh… I was…but the neck. Farewell…Tool-master…Neuro…"

He closed his eyes and was still.

Neuro stared. Something snagged on the inside of his brain. The final puzzle piece was set down. And it did not fit.

He pulled back, trying to make sense of it all. Think! There had to be something.

After a few seconds, realization hit him like a gunshot. A mental picture flashed through Neuro's mind: a page of a report he had once read on Gobjem. Included in it was a certain section—'Occupation: ex-convict'.

'Before imprisonment: Actor'.

The neck, Neuro's thoughts whirled. The neck, Allpower had called himself. And if Allpower was the neck, then

Neuro remembered. The two demons he had fought, of ultimate offense and ultimate defense? The shoulders. Guulmark Enterprises? The strong and steady torso. And the many minor criminals under their command? They were the fingers. Which meant…

"There's a head."

Neuro felt his internal organs drop in dread. The words had spilled out from his beak. It wasn't over. This was all a distraction, a ruse. He had been wasting time.

Damn it! He grit his teeth. So that was why Allpower had stalled so much!

Neuro whirled around, eyes flicking wildly. But this was the height of the Tower of Trials! There were no staircases here, nowhere else to go but-

The open space of a window caught his eye.

"The roof!"

Neuro faced onward, looking into the beyond. All of the facts and clues so far, including everything that he had once considered and then discarded, came to his mind. It all mixed together, converging in one sick whirlpool of maddening perfection.

Neuro looked up toward the roof. Somehow, he had a feeling that he knew what he would find.

No, not what. Who.

Right before Neuro set off, there came a whining and moaning from behind him.

Neuro turned. It was Bullspider. The demon knelt on the floor. He had already eaten most of the gemstones, and was now cradling the last few in his hands. Terror glinted in his eyes as he sensed his oh-so-important supply dwindling.

Neuro snorted. "Tch. Maybe it will wear off soon. Or maybe not." He pointed over to Allpower's corpse. "If you're brave enough, you could cut out your new tongue. Or you could search him for more. Either way, get used to holding your breath."

He followed the path of Evil Tree, bounding swiftly upwards out of sight.

The hulking figure of Bullspider was left alone, glancing between a corpse, the rocks within his hands, and back again, fingers reaching up to tremble at the entrance to his mouth as his whimpering echoed long and cold into the dark.

Chapter Text

Neuro bounded upward towards the sky. His foot hit with a soft tmp, tmp, tmp as the tan roots of Evil Tree passed beneath. The outer wall of the Tower of Trials flashed by on his left. His gaze was sharp. His mind was clear.

One series of archways in the Tower walls shot past. Then another. The dark brick grew lighter and lighter as Neuro approached the peak. Then, suddenly, the endless pillar stopped and the way in front of him opened up to the sky.

Just before crossing the border of the roof, Neuro halted. He dug his talons into a Tree root, making sure to keep his shoulders stooped so that he would remain out of sight. He leaned back against the Tower wall.

He sighed. Now was the time for preparations, if he had any.

Neuro pressed one hand to his side. His wounds stung with each breath. At first, he had been full of demonic power thanks to the dog's miasma-recharging trick. But now, after not only summoning but maintaining one of the 7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor, and enduring an arduous battle to boot, his power reserves felt considerably diminished.

And if he was right about what came next, then Neuro knew he couldn't afford to be at anything less than full power.

Neuro reached up to the hair on the back of his head. His fingers closed around a few triangular yellow beads. He slid them off, choosing two at random and tossing them into his mouth. He bit down, feeling their solid casings crack and the batteries' contents spread out onto his tongue. It was a taste that he was never able to describe—less something like a fruit gusher, and more like pure energy.

At once, renewed aura began to pulse around him. Demonic power filled the empty places in Neuro soul and overflowed, curling and wafting off of his feathers. Neuro held up his arms to admire the effects. Luckily, he had charged these batteries in advance.

After all, he had promised himself that he would never be overconfident again.

Neuro concentrated. He controlled the new energy, spreading it around and using it to heal cuts and scrapes. By no means was he a healer, but it was possible to convert demonic energy into cell growth. That was how many demons survived the harshest of Hell's environments. Neuro focused on sending the majority of the demonic energy to the place that needed it most: his foot.

His left foot was still broken. Wherever Neuro shifted his weight, pain shot through it. The anklebones grated together oddly, like two porcelain plates scraping over one another. He had managed to hobble up to this place, stepping lightly off of his tiptoes when needed. But it had still been a miserable experience.

This will have to do. Neuro shook himself, looking up toward the rim of the roof as the last of the excess energy finished soaking into his ankle. The energy sent warmth into the limb and dulled all sensation. It would not heal the fracture, but it could prevent Neuro from feeling the pain. It's all I can afford right now.

He set off, using all of his willpower to walk without a limp. Now, then…to the dinner table.

With one leap and a turn in midair, Neuro stood on top of the roof.

The final stage was flat and bare. Since it was the height of the Tower of Trials, the roof itself was smaller than the many rooms before it. The tiles were made of smooth stone instead of brick. A short wall that hardly reached up to Neuro's waist ran around the roof's edge. Turrets like those from a castle lined its sides. The air was tinted slightly beige, pale dust floating in droves from all of the fighting still going on below. An invigorating breeze skimmed through Neuro's feathers.

And there, on the far side of the rooftop, but not far enough away to be out of earshot, stood a solitary figure. Their silhouette was hidden behind four large, white wings.

As Neuro looked, his face became grim. I knew it. He took a breath before speaking out in a declaration, loud enough for them to hear. "The Natural Order was a ruse. Or at least, a very large part of it. Impressive."

"But," he declared, "it is your powers that connect it all. You are the only one who could know. The only one who could possibly manage it."

"And, most importantly," Neuro took a step forward. "The only one with wits enough to match me, who could trick me until this point."

He raised one finger all the way up and pointed at the demon. "The criminal is you," he announced. "Enjel Soulscry."

There was a half-second pause. Then, with a rustle of feathers, the person turned around.

The face of the Lady met Neuro. Her silver hair hung around her face and neck. Her dark brown skin stood out against the dusted air, seeming almost to glow. A single horn jutted from the center of her forehead. She wore a black dress that fanned out at the knee and fastened behind her neck, leaving a halo of black tracing her throat. Elegant gloves covered her arms to the elbows. Her four wings hung behind her like pearly white gates.

On her face was a cold, pitying smile. "Oh, my darling detective," she spoke. "You were never supposed to get this far."

Neuro did not reply. "Someone strong enough to kill Asanteoh," he said, advancing forward. "Someone smart enough to kill Asanteoh. I hadn't thought about it in-depth before, but a company alone would not do."

"There had to be someone knew the inner state of the OB, indeed, of the entire HDAC, in order for the timing to be right," he continued. "And you work as one of their top operatives. A crime detective would know best how to commit a crime, after all."

Over to the side, Enjel gave a miniscule nod.

"Who hired the spy ring for the OB, and for the HDAC in general?" Neuro said, taking one step forward with each new point of logic he revealed. "You did. Who supplied that spy ring with such sophisticated equipment? Guulmark, under your command."

He huffed. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you're actually in control of this company. It would explain why you showed up that day—an extremely high-level operative at a simple, small-fry homicide case. I myself had just wandered in from off the street. You must have wanted to make sure that the disruption wouldn't endanger the company's…activities."

"Finally, the bomb—one of the major plans of the Natural Order," Neuro stated.

Enjel's gaze grew slightly sharper.

"As it just so happens, you were the one who told us that the bomb was in the Blazing Gate in the first place. Its location came solely from you. You must have set up the Salamander beforehand, knowing that they would be waiting for me." Neuro's eyes burned with green fire. "Guulmark might have made the bomb, but you oversaw its distribution."

"But mostly, what's led me to this conclusion…" Neuro paused for a moment. "The solution to the bomb's password. The one and only hint you gave me."

Memories floated:

"But remember, Neuro...sometimes the matters hardest to understand are those closest to our hearts."

Neuro's head jerked up so fast his beak struck against the bomb's metal casing. It reacted with a quiver. What was that? Enjel? Why would he think of her now, in what could very well be his final moments?

He shook his head to dispel the emotions. "The main part of the password was my name—a very strange thing for an enemy organization to use. Unless they had reason to know me. Also, the password contains a message. 'BR41N34T3R' might be my name, but the characters on the far left and right also serve a purpose."

"'<' and 'e'," said Neuro. He gestured as if forming the data between his hands. "When replaced with a number, like all the vowels in my name, the letter E would change into a 3. You simply left it lowercase for better password security. But, considering that it could also be read as '<3', the first and last symbols are not random at all."

He paused for breath. "Taken together, they are meant to form <3, a heart. Your signature."

The final password was, '<BRAINEATER3'. His name inside of a heart.

Neuro stopped his feet. "You must be the one who got Allpower out of prison," he declared. "With someone of high status and great power, it would have been easy. He could not have escaped by himself."

Enjel's left eye twitched.

"Someone once gave me a gift," Neuro said, "a book from the human world, and it said this: 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth'." Inwardly, he winced. Why would that memory come to him now? It was such a stupid thing, to bear attachment to a piece of human junk. "And Allpower has just conveniently eliminated himself," he finished. "That leaves you, and you alone."

"FOOLS!" Enjel burst out. Her normally-calm composure broke as she ripped at her hair. Her lower set of wings slapped the ground. "They are all FOOLS! You understand, don't you Neuro? We are the superior ones! We are the only ones who should rule."

She stretched out one hand, palm-up, her eyes carrying an unsettling gleam. Desperation traced lines in her face. "We are all meant to be savages. Our lives, our land—we are known to other realms as being the most cruel, the most harsh of all! So why should we pretend to be anything different? Who needs any order but what nature has ordained? We were designed to be bastions of sin."

Enjel smiled crookedly, as if admiring how her plans had all unraveled around her. "Our instincts make us who we are," she said. "We should indulge them. Why would you fight against that? Are you one of the angels?"

Neuro held back a cough, wobbling slightly on his feet. "You misunderstand," he replied. "I care not for any fancy reasoning, ambitions or ideals, and certainly not any stinking motives. I am not doing this for anyone, or for any misshapen conception of right and wrong."

He met her gaze, direct and unabashed. "I am merely fighting for my food. You are all simply in my way."

For a moment, Enjel appeared struck speechless. Rage rose in her face, coloring it and warping it like a storm cloud. Her shoulders shook with anger, deep and from the heart.

Then there was a shift.

All at once, the Lady calmed. Her demeanor withdrew as if pulling back behind a curtain. The wrinkles in her face smoothed and disappeared.

"You really are clever, Neuro," she said. "It's such a refreshing feeling, you know? ...To find someone who can make me feel like this."

She relaxed, her posture becoming more natural. It was as if the outburst had served as some sort of catharsis, washing away her first, reserved self, and leaving her now poised, fully present. A confident smile pulled at the corner of her lips. Her four wings fanned out, drawing attention to her form as if she were on display.

"That's right," she proclaimed. "After the bomb incident, you became too much of a threat. Our focus shifted. We weren't concentrating on minor acts of terrorism any longer, no. I knew that we had to eliminate you and the rest of the Order Branch as soon as possible."

"It was necessary for our own survival." Enjel ran one hand through her hair in a lingering, graceful motion. "Two animals at direct odds cannot exist in the same world."

"Have you ever wondered who built this Tower, Neuro?" she questioned. "I hired that demon Calruh, whom you so brutally tossed aside. He was a dependable office worker, after all. And I saw great potential lurking in his heart. He ended up drawing the blueprint for this place in just six months. He is the bona-fide proof of my philosophy."

Neuro kept his face blank. In his imagination, he saw the image of a lemur demon sitting at a desk in absolute darkness, the surface in front of him covered with paper and design tools. An unlit cigarette hung from the lemur's mouth. His face was creased with permanent laughter lines.

"I even assigned Gray from his sleeper position to the dangerous job of tagging you," Enjel bragged. "I had hoped to get a bit more use out of him, but... oh well." She shrugged. "That's about the best one can hope for with a pawn."

Her eyes shone with amusement. "It was so easy to tell demons this: just follow the natural order—our inborn powers and evil inclinations—and it will lead you to glory. So many of them believed me. So many joined in."

"But you don't believe that yourself?" said Neuro.

Enjel smirked. "Did your mind figure that out? Or was it your heart that led you to that conclusion?"

"Of course I don't actually want chaos." The Lady shook her head. "Or, I suppose do, but not for the reasons I've said. I want…hmm, I just want…"

A sudden rumble coursed across the rooftop. It felt like an airborne earthquake, like something ripping apart, or like air being pushed around an empty space. Suddenly, Neuro realized that he knew that rhythm.

Enjel shuddered, hugging herself and pressing her gloved arms against her stomach, from which the growl had come. "I want emotion. Delicious, exquisite, overpowering emotion! It's the only thing I can eat," she moaned. "The stronger the better—especially ones touched by negative thoughts! Those are the most scrumptious, the ones with plenty of evil energy. I can't ever eat enough."

"Some demons are lucky enough to get their nutrition from common sources, like meat. But us, Neuro?" Her voice was sardonic. "The special ones? Oh, no. We have the rarest diets. And it is absolute torture."

The Lady turned her head up towards the Sun. "Ahh, I just want to eat… And a world overtaken by blood and battle would be one in which emotions are truly unleashed, running wild!"

"That's it," she chirped, recovering back to normal in a blink. "That's the only reason behind all of this. The rest was merely smoke and mirrors. For food: to eat as much and as well as I possibly can. You also understand this kind of rabid, neverending hunger, Neuro. But unfortunately it has led us to different ends."

"The two of us cannot live in the same world," Enjel said. "Our diets are at direct odds. You eat the thoughts from peoples' brains, while I live to eat emotions from their hearts."

"That's why," she broke into a shout, "the world would be better if everything was stagnant. Demonkind should just stop here, as it is. Or even reverse! If this world were to never grow beyond its violent means, if demons indulged themselves at the slightest opportunity, then there would be endless emotion. A boundless feast for me and me alone." A hint of drool fell from her mouth as she gazed off into the distance, enthralled by her own imagination.

Neuro resisted the urge to swallow. He knew that look well. He had felt it on his own face.

"And the Devil wouldn't care," Enjel added, dropping her gaze back down to Neuro. "He never does. If this place were to become more depraved, he wouldn't lift a single finger. Hell, he would probably like it better that way."

Neuro made an affirming noise. "I see. It truly is agonizing to be a slave to one's hunger."

The Lady smiled and winked.

"But it is as you say. We are at odds."

Neuro sank down into a stance, baring his talons. "A world of no evolution is a world that I cannot allow. Brains, thoughts, their evil intent, and the puzzles that they produce… those can only exist in a world full of possibilities. A world of stagnation is an unacceptable existence."

"So," he said. "In order to protect my own self from starving to death, I will defeat you."

The two demons locked eyes. Technicolor avian faced off against monochrome Lady.

"These are my feeding grounds," intoned Enjel.

"No," Neuro replied. "They are mine."

Enjel tossed back her head, silver hair flashing in the light and wings fanning out behind her. "Then come, Braineater," she declared. "This is a fight for territory rights—a battle as old as time, and as base as our most primitive instincts!" She laughed, as if their battle itself was also in line with her vision.

Neuro spared barely a second to nod before springing forward.

He slashed. Enjel ducked. He kicked, using the momentum to already spin into a second strike, his other leg and arm raised to land a blow. The Lady sidestepped, her hair wafting in the breeze.

Neuro closed in, focusing past the realization that he had never been this close to the Lady before. He jabbed, swiped, and swung, putting up an intense physical assault. Enjel held firm, blocking all of the major blows. Then Neuro feinted, pulling back his hand at the last millisecond. There! Now that the rhythm had been thrown off, there should be an opening-

He sprung, brown skin in his sights. Then his world erupted into pain.

"Argh!" Neuro felt himself forced back, a sharp sensation shooting all over his body. Ten, twenty…how many blows had just landed on him? His cheeks felt as if they had been stabbed with a knife, the unseen weapon grating as it drew back through his flesh. Two points like spears shoved him back across the floor, his feet leaving lines in the roof tiles.

When Neuro looked up, the Lady had another pair of wings.

The fifth and sixth wings hung just like the others, angled down from where the original four attached to her back. The new wings were smaller, slimmer, each one with a long extension before their flesh curved up to form the main body. They were covered in feathers, but only lightly. Hooks flashed at their ends. They were lined with knife-like ridges. Glands that bubbled with acid lay embedded in their sides. The two wings posed down and to the sides of Enjel, at the ready.

A battle pair of wings. Neuro blinked. The four wings weren't the Lady's only assets. She had kept the last two hidden.

Enjel gazed at him, delight etched into her face.

Neuro growled and lunged forward. He struck, trying to keep track of the wings' locations. Fighting the Lady while contending with them was markedly more difficult. He jumped over an acid spray. Knife-sharp blows whizzed by his head.

Eventually, as the fighting drew on, Neuro began to notice something. No matter his blows, no matter how far ahead he planned them, and no matter how surprising or complex they might be, Enjel always managed to dodge them. She began to move at the exact moment the thought appeared in his head, always leaving ample room by the time his limbs reached her. Her wings were always in the best position to either strike back or turn him aside. It was uncanny.

No…more than uncanny. It was impossible.

Neuro broke away, sliding back across the floor. "Feh," he muttered, already suspecting the reason.

"Yes, Neuro," Enjel crooned. "That's exactly right. I can feel that you've figured it out."

She advanced, her battle wings raising up to shoulder-height. "My heart powers give me the advantage of always knowing your next move. I can sense what your heart has decided, what path you will choose—and from there, I move to respond. In that way, I am almost a mirror of yourself. Except I am better."

Neuro's eyes narrowed. She could read his heart, and all of its intentions? If so, then she would be nigh unbeatable.

Enjel let out a laugh. "You can't beat yourself, Neuro!" Then she lashed forward.

Neuro dove aside, tucking himself into a roll. He came back up onto his feet, not even wanting to think about what effect that must have had on his broken foot. He tried to keep his expression blank and his emotions flat. No weakness. Especially not here. Not now.

When Enjel drew closer, Neuro struck out with transformed hands. One limb had turned into a spear, while the other had taken on the shape of an axe. Sure enough, she redirected his thrusts easily into the ground. Enjel leapt aside, disappearing for a moment before reappearing behind Neuro and hitting him from a different angle.

Neuro groaned as he re-transformed his hands to free them from the earth. She might know his intentions, but he could never know hers.

Well, if that's your game… Neuro thought. He paused for a moment. Then he burst off of the tile towards the Lady, twisting in midair. He brought his talons up, stabbing towards the eyes. He pictured the attack. He envisioned it. He believed in it with all his heart.

But she saw through his deception.

Enjel dodged the real attack, a kick that Neuro switched to at the very last moment. It sailed past her harmlessly. Neuro gritted his teeth. The kick had less power and speed, too, since he hadn't intended it as much.

The sound of Enjel's laughter rang out as she hopped away, her battle wings slicing through Neuro's leg for his trouble. "You can't hide anything from me," she chided.

Neuro stood, panting. Blood poured from the gash across the back of his leg. Damn. So even deception can be sensed, as 'the intent to deceive'…

He paused. There's one other option remaining. One thing that can bypass her insight of a person's 'intent'.

Neuro held one hand behind his back, channeling a huge amount of power into it. The limb glowed and burned hot as a captured flame. He was going to need enough aura to stretch his natural abilities to the limit.

He focused his gaze on the Lady, keeping her in his sights. What if even Neuro didn't know his attack? What if he intended something, but had no way of controlling its outcome?

Enjel frowned at the information she was reading. She tilted her head.

In a flash, Neuro brought out one hand. The fingers had formed into miniature guns, his palm transformed into a loading mechanism. A few bullets rattled around through the device, like a game of Russian roulette—a game of pure and complete chance.

Surprise shone in Enjel's eyes. Neuro pulled the trigger.

BANGBANGBANG! Shots rang out all at once, flying to the left, the center, the center again—fortunately none towards Neuro. And what luck! Two had gone towards Enjel-

The Lady's form wavered. Her speed left almost an afterimage as she avoided the bullets, darting to the side, the back, the other side and then back again. With a whisper of feathers she became airborne, hovering over the second round of bullets that Neuro discharged, wind billowing off of her white wings.

She came back to the ground. Her raised eyebrows gave but one message: surely you didn't think I relied on my powers alone?

Neuro scowled. So, Enjel was a worthy opponent even besides her heart-reading abilities. It figured. Trying to mask his intentions, attacking with random intent…nothing worked.

Both demons gathered their strength and attacked. The fight continued.

Neuro lost count of how many blows he took. He lost sight of how many he landed. Everything became a blur of color, interspersed with shocks of black and white. Neuro's mind raced to predict the attacks, picking up on the slightest movements from Enjel, calculating where best to attack and where the next blow would come from. Each time that he tried to summon a Tool, Enjel stopped him. She moved the instant that a scrap of intent was present in his heart, cutting him off—often almost literally cutting off a limb in the process.

The Lady wasn't giving up. But neither was he.

As the battle went on, their attacks began to mirror each other. If one demon was lured in, the had a countermove prepared. Then the other would counter that counter. As one of them stepped back, the other stepped forward. A downward slash from a battle wing clashed against sharp talons. It was like a dance—the two of them completely evenly matched.

But the Lady had the advantage. She added her own blows in accordance with her heart-reading. Her third pair of wings was more flexible, zipping in to add gashes timed perfectly in the space between heartbeats. It was all Neuro could do just to keep up.

She hit his joints one-by-one. A strong whack immobilized his right arm. Slowly, slowly, she began to whittle Neuro down.

At last, he stood before her as a beaten mess. Neuro panted. His left arm clutched his limp right. Blood streamed down from his shoulder and dripped off of his fingers, forming a small puddle on the ground. His body was littered with scrapes. His foot had started to throb through its painkillers.

Enjel shook her head. "Look at you, Neuro," she said. "This is what hunger drives you to. You are willing to do anything, undergo any pain, hurt yourself in any number of ways, just to be able to eat the mystery once. You bet everything—even your life—on that result. If you win, you eat, and hope that it will be enough to bring your energy back, perhaps even increase it some."

"But," her eyes narrowed, "you get hurt very, very bad in the process."

Her words came to Neuro as if through a fog. He struggled to keep focused, his eyelids being annoyingly persistent in closing shut. How dare they? It wasn't time to rest yet…

Something floated to the surface of his mind. A phrase that the Lady had mentioned once before: 'You can't defeat yourself, Neuro!'

An idea flashed. He shuddered, gathering his resolve. That was it. His one, last trick. What if he could strike with enough power that would defeat a mirror version of himself?

Neuro pulled his good arm back, concentrating his remaining strength into it, and charged. No time to think it through. She would have read his attack already. So why not just give it to her in full?

He came at her with overwhelming intent, his spirit overflowing. After all, if he was going to strike hard enough to defeat himself, Neuro knew he would require an insane amount of power. His chest blazed with determination—he could see the attack, he believed in it, he envisioned it with all his might!

For a split-second, he thought he saw Enjel falter. She leaned backwards, her expression confused. Then her fingers twitched. A wire pulled between them.

WHACK! Neuro gasped as two sheets of camouflaged metal sprung up to hit him in the sides. His feet tied together, bolas—weights on the ends of a cord—wrapping them tight, and he fell, flopping down onto a floor tile. The tile turned with his weight, flipping over to dump him onto a set of rotating spikes. The spikes slashed at his flesh until he managed to roll off.

Neuro lay on the rooftop, gasping, trying to process what had just happened.

Enjel chuckled. She walked closer, bringing one hand to her hips. "Remaining in control of the environment, even from before the very beginning. Keeping everything to your advantage, and if it is not, then being patient enough to wait for a good opportunity. That's your strategy too, isn't it?"

Neuro breathed, feeling pain scream through his injured arm. A trap. That had been a trap, just like the ones that he made.

"I've had a lot of chances to observe your battle style," said Enjel. She tapped one finger against the side of her head. "That was one of the benefits of hiding in the shadows for so long. By now, I know your heart inside-out."

"You can never," Neuro hissed. "There are some things that my mind must have kept hidden from you."

"Oh? Like?"

She received nothing but silent blinking in return.

Enjel shrugged. "If you can't answer, then don't bring it up. I'm not interested at all in your mind. Only your heart, dearest detective."

Neuro wriggled onto his stomach. Then, he broke into a grin. "Hmph. I am never at a disadvantage," he said. "My circumstances only change."

In one motion he rolled, flinging the metal sheets off of him. He rose to his knees, sliding his feet free of the bolas and transferring the weighted cord into his hands. Neuro felt a flash of satisfaction—he was used to seeing others have to escape these contraptions, after all. He was a master of traps; they did not master him. Immediately, he struck out with his new weapons.

But the Lady had already hmm'd in approval at the plan in his heart, moments before Neuro himself was even aware of it. She flicked her top left wing.

Another trap sprung up from the ground. It closed around Neuro, a beartrap snapping shut across his torso. The teeth sunk into his arms and ribs—merely breathing too deeply made them stab in further. Rope wrapped around his entire body. A chunk of something like concrete flew over from beyond the edge of the roof and smacked Neuro in the head. His vision blurred.

Enjel walked toward him across the scarred rooftop. "I won't let up for even a minute," she said. "I'm not like Allpower. I know how you work, Neuro—the moment someone is foolish enough to let you attack is the moment when your true, aggressive nature secures its victory. So I simply won't give you any chances."

"You can't even use your Tools, because I'll see them coming." A dark smile was on her face. "How is it, Neuro? The enticing emotion of despair. Such a rich, dark flavor like a poisonberry pie…"

She licked her lips, looking down at him. "Once you are defeated, you shall become my first meal of this new world."

Enjel raised one hand, her battle wings rearing up. Sunlight ripped across their jagged edges. "Now, fall-"

"Ah." Enjel blinked.

Something had happened.

A glowing green aura surrounded Neuro. It bathed his form in a sickly light, hovering just above his skin like a cocoon. With the movement of a single arm, Neuro emerged from his bonds. The ropes fell away, all of them sliced neatly through.

He stood up, wobbling on his feet. Behind him floated a strange device. A slender, central portion hovered behind his head, sparks of electricity flowing from the back of his skull to its sensor. Spreading out from the central part were three pairs of wing-like extensions, holding firm in the air. Their colors were silver and green.

Enjel took a half-step backwards. "A…A Tool? How? How?!"

Neuro exhaled. The front appendages of the device swayed softly in synchronization. He smiled. "Hm. It seems you weren't able to sense this one in my heart because it and I are so alike."

"Impossible!" Enjel shouted. Her fists clenched at her sides. "I was reading your every intent. There were no disturbances, no irregularities!"

Neuro chuckled. "Of course not. There wouldn't have been." It was more like he was thinking of it every single day, he realized. Thinking of how to torture people, looking down on them, imagining how to cause a great amount of pain to them with wicked tricks. A Tool based upon that kind of intent would not have made even a ripple in his soul.

He smiled. How ironic. His awful personality had ended up saving him.

"This Tool has no special powers of its own," Neuro began. "So it managed to slip beneath your notice. It provides nothing new—only the means to an end. It exists for the sole purpose of manifesting my inner vision. This allows for the greatest version of myself to be possible." His green eyes grew sharper. "It represents self-realization…in other words, the antithesis of your vision for this world."

"And, just by being able to summon this, I have proved a flaw in your system," Neuro announced. He pointed forward. "Enjel Soulscry…I know how to defeat you now."

"Your modus operandi is to use knowledge of your opponent's heart, is it not?" Neuro said. "Well, how about I bow to that system? I'll play along…and override it." His expression was fearsome enough to chill every cell to its nucleus. "I'll give you all you can handle and then some."

The Tool unfurled around Neuro, flaring into a battle-ready position. It was made of three pairs of wings connected to a central portion. The connector was flat and teardrop-shaped, hovering behind his skull. Four eyeballs lined the sensor's pit. Stencils of wings were drawn in a vertical line on its underside.

The first set of wings was large and silver. They arced around Neuro like a broken halo. One eye rested in the middle of each one's frontmost edge. Their sides curved in beautiful symmetry.

The second pair was swamp-green, their skin warty like a frog. They were thinner than the first pair, but situated higher. Their ragged material was not suited for flying. Instead, each one's outermost edge was as long as a rope, draping down to the floor and ending in a thicker section of spikes, ridges, and pockmarked bits like an insect leg.

The third pair was the smallest, and colored black. They hung close to Neuro's shoulders, out of sight.

Neuro felt a glow of happiness spread throughout his chest. He had wings. And they were exactly the kind he would like.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Torture," he announced, relishing the words.

"This first pair of wings makes the enemy's attack powerless." He advanced one step, the silver wings flapping as if wanting to grab something, but guarding their master in the meantime. "They can tie a demon's limbs together, fly me up into the air, or even form an impenetrable shield."

The green pair of wings lifted, the heavy segment on their ends perking up and leveling at Enjel's chest like spears. "The second set of wings punctures the enemy's body," Neuro said. "Their tendrils flutter around to mince the flesh and internal systems, leaving only the basic organs needed for basic life function intact, basically. All the rest becomes pain."

"As for what the third set does…" He paused dramatically. "Well, that would ruin the surprise."

"It has taken me this long, but," Neuro smirked. "I believe I have found my favorite Tool."

For the first time, a new emotion dawned on the Lady's face: fear.

The Lady curled her lip, slashing forward with her own two battle wings. Evil Torture rattled around Neuro, as if he were making the Tool laugh. She whipped up a gust of wind with her white feathers. Neuro stood unmoved. She activated more traps, dozens of them. Neuro blocked every one with his Tool. Slowly, slowly, Enjel was forced backwards.

Her eyes stayed locked on Neuro. They trembled slightly, occasionally flicking away and then back, as if she were desperate to gain any sort of insight into his heart but was petrified by what lay inside of it. The motion was not lost on Neuro.

He cracked his beak open into a full-tooth smile. "Ahh, my dear Enjel. I know exactly what you are afraid of."

His insides bubbled with unexpressed laughter. That was the way to defeat her—the way to overcome her heart-reading abilities. With her powers, the Lady must now see what he wanted to do, but she couldn't do anything about it.

Neuro felt like cackling. Could anyone even imagine the horror? To see your opponent use something that exists to manifest their evil vision, then look upon their idea of what they want done to you in their heart, and yet be unable to do a single thing about it as your opponent slowly closes in, their shadow looming across your face?

It must be absolute terror. Neuro loved it.

He advanced. The shadow of his Tool enveloped the Lady in darkness. Closer. Tension grew between them. She held his gaze, blank white against emerald. Closer. Closer. Closer, with an entire toy box of nightmares at his disposal and all of the time in Hell-

Her eye twitched.

The magic broke.

The sound of Enjel screaming pierced the air as Neuro closed in, free to follow his sadistic heart to its limit.


A mournful breeze swept through the air. The Tower of Trials rumbled, shaking hard enough to make the entire rooftop sway from side to side. The lava-melted roof and fights from the demons below must have weakened it.

Neuro watched pensively as the brick around them cracked. An entire turret crumbled away, falling from the sideline and dragging a section of roof into oblivion.

"It was no use," he spoke into the air. "I didn't even have to pull my ace card. The immense power of Evil Metal, the ultimate of the 7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor, would be more than capable of defeating anything in all above and below."

"But," he turned. "I didn't even need to use it on you. Pathetic. Just the taste of one Tool should be enough to drill that information into your head."

Enjel Soulscry lay on the rooftop. She hunched against the tiles, valiantly struggling to support herself up on her elbows. She folded inward around her stomach.

Her first pair of wings were featherless, plucked bare. The feathers would surely grow back, but it would be slow agony. Her second pair of wings had been tied in a knot somehow, the bones cracked around each other. They were featherless also. Her third pair of wings, the battle set, lay shredded and mangled. One of them hung in tatters. The other had been completely torn off.

A deep gash sliced across Enjel's face. Her silver hair had been tied into a noose around her neck. Even with all of the blood, some part of her was still beautiful. Enjel's arms and body appeared untouched, but on the inside her organs were thoroughly trashed. She might heal with enough time, but again, slowly. It would be almost enough to make one wish that the torture was still ongoing, so that one had some distraction from the pain. She coughed up a throatful of blood, the red staining her mouth like lipstick.

She gasped, appearing too afraid to speak for a moment. Then, words made their way out of her mouth. "You've seen…through everything I've done to trick you. But," the corners of her mouth twitched. "Not all of it was lies, you know?"

Neuro was silent for a long while. He looked out into the distance, expression thoughtful. "So. In your battles with me, you attempted to use desire to your advantage as well. Demoness of the heart indeed."

He gaze swung over to her. "And? Did you perhaps get caught in your own trap? Or did you not even care if you fell, leaving it up to true chaos?"

Neuro quieted. Then he walked, taking a few steps towards the Lady. Meanwhile, the Tower of Trials crumbled and fell around them. Ridges and spires collapsed, the weight of the rubble dragging itself down out of sight. Rooftop tiles split in lightning-patterns.

Neuro knelt. He reached out to the Lady and gently tipped up her chin. Across from him, the Lady's eyes went wide. He brought their faces closer together, beak hovering before lips…

"Sorry," Neuro said. He broke into a grin. "I'll be taking my mystery, now."

Shock rippled across Enjel's face. Then rage.

But it was useless. Neuro pulled back and inhaled, the mystery flooding towards him.


The amount of aura was overwhelming, immediately drawing Neuro into a world that seemed every bit as large and textured as the one that he normally inhabited.

The mystery's landscape stretched on and on and on and on and on as far as Neuro's eyes could see. The dominant feature was a treasure box resting on top of a small mountain of puzzle games. Across and in front and to the sides were more mazes and playing cards that Neuro could ever look at in one thousand lifetimes. The puzzle games tumbled down from the foot of the box and became rolling hills, sloping down towards Neuro. All of them were carved with mind-bending patterns, each section shifting to become something else whenever they were caught by his vision.

The box appeared to have been recently unlocked. On the front of it was a 3D puzzle of a heart. The heart's chambers had been divided into buttons, with a portion of them pushed down. Inside of the treasure box shone the faint outlines of numerous compartments, each one with its own tangle of mazes and shifting blocks.

Multicolored light swirled everywhere, melding each and every color of the rainbow together into one. There were colors that no one had ever seen before. There were letters that no mind had ever thought of. Shapes and patterns danced throughout its glow. The light soaked into every corner of the scene, like the finest of sauces.

Neuro stood in awe, too captivated to even tremble. It seemed like all he could do, all that he was ever made to do, was see, smell, and feel this moment.

The puzzle before him was huuuuuuuuuuuuuge, streaked with the flavors of the bomb plot, the spying on the HDAC, the theft of the Valkyries' Orb of Storm, the trapping of him in the Hadeswood Film Studio, and the thoughts, the construction, the careful logic created to protect the producer's true intentions, and the sheer amount of energy poured into the puzzle by the mind, along with all of the little crumbs of mysteries that were related to it in the most minute ways.

There was spice. There was sweetness. There was thoughtful bitterness. And there were heaps upon heaps of hearty substance scattered about in chunks.

This was not a meal. This was a banquet.

As beautiful as the puzzle was, Neuro couldn't stand to look at it for another second. "Let's eat," he whispered reverently, the light and aura absorbing his words into nothingness.


After a few seconds the evil energy disappeared, swallowed away as if by a vacuum, leaving the real world to slowly fade back into existence.

Neuro swayed on his feet. He couldn't even describe what he was feeling now, as strength from the mystery flooded into his limbs. That puzzle had been so large, he had almost needed a second gulp to finish it. Soooo close!

He brought one hand to the corner of his beak, drool not subsiding one bit as he thought. If there was any such thing as an ultimate mystery, Neuro decided, he was sure that it would require a second bite. Maybe even two and a half! Or perhaps eating it would take forever.

In front of him, the Lady went limp. The scent of the puzzle curled off of her form and disappeared. She had been defeated, body and soul.

"Geeheeheehee. Thank you for the feast, Soulscry." Neuro bent down and shook her hand, the limb flopping. "And for the pre-meal entertainment as well."

Enjel twitched. She shakily raised her head up to look at him. She smiled.

Then she spat at his feet and collapsed for good.

Hmph. Neuro gazed down at her with disinterested eyes. That was that, then.

He stood up, flexing one hand experimentally. Should he kill her? He almost didn't want to. If this demoness were to remain alive, she could continue to make the most delicious mysteries for him.

But Neuro shook his head. No. The conversations that they had had earlier wafted through his mind. It was too dangerous to leave her alive. They had already declared themselves opposites, each one a threat to the other's very survival. And chances were that if the Lady were to survive, she would not make the same mistakes a second time.

A tremor rumbled through the Tower, jolting Neuro out of his thoughts. He looked around. Most of the tile arena had crumbled away. The rooftop appeared ready to collapse at any moment.

"Tch." Neuro faced the edge of the building, still smirking. It seemed a waste not to live life to the fullest while he was feeling so fantastic. That stellar meal had left him on top of the world.

He raised one leg, lifting up his good foot. Then Neuro brought the foot down, slamming it against the Tower. The bricks vibrated beneath him, shaking up and down until the final remaining supports broke with one loud CRACK.

The rooftop tipped, lurching hard to one side before Neuro's stomach lifted in free-fall and they went plunging down.

Chapter Text

The Tower of Trials crumbled down from its peak, clouds of smoke and dust billowing up as bricks and stones crashed to earth. The entire structure trembled, its surface already stripped away into a weak spiderweb of remaining brick. Gaping holes loomed in its sides.

From out of the plume of soot came the Tower's peak, sliding down the side of the building. It skidded all the way to the ground and hit against it with a rough jolt. There the rooftop lay, ridges and terraces broken and missing around it, like a crown tossed off the head of its ruler.

Neuro jumped off of his momentary sled. Next to the colossal structure, he appeared as miniscule as a dot. He paused for a moment to take a look around. He sent a signal through his aura for the dismissal of Evil Tree. In the next second, the Weapon disappeared from existence.

The Tower was left leaning helplessly to one side. A deep creak sounded from its frame. Then, it collapsed utterly. The Guulmark building around it had also been left in ruins.

"There you are!"

A voice caught Neuro's attention. He turned to see a wolf demon running towards him. Further behind, the other HDAC forces milled about, busy with licking their wounds and arresting everyone who wasn't dead yet.

"I see you decapitated the building," Lucard said, meeting Neuro beside the chunk of rooftop. "I trust that you did the same to their leader?"

Neuro shrugged. "No. But I did break her heart."

He gestured over to one of the rooftop spikes. There draped Enjel's body, impaled through the chest on what used to be the front spire of the crown. Her hair hung in a still curtain over her face. It was impossible to tell whether the impalement had been done on purpose, or had simply happened as an accident in the fall.

Lucard did a double-take with his whole body. "Soulscry? What was she doing here?"

Neuro gave no answer, appearing to check his wounds instead.

Lucard blinked. "You're gonna have to explain that one."

Neuro sighed. He did not feel like going over it all again. "Just think about it for a bit. You're smart, after all," he said. Then he met Lucard's gaze. "But rest assured—this is the ultimate culprit. She was the one responsible for Asanteoh's death."

Lucard's ears pressed back against his skull. His eyes pulsed red for a moment. A growl came from his throat as he glared over at the Lady. "Is she now?"

"Yes. I leave her to you," said Neuro, brushing the last bits of dust off his feathers. "If she ever revives, or is found to have some sort of hidden healing ability, judgment is fully yours to command."

"Oh don't worry," Lucard snarled. His body tensed, as if just barely holding himself back from leaping over there and ripping her to shreds right now. "It will be carried out."

Neuro nodded. Then he stepped to the side, away from the corpse. "Damages?"

Lucard's attention switched back to Neuro. He frowned. "It's not your place to ask for a damage report. As your superior, I'm supposed to dole that out as I see fit."

The wolf demon huffed. "We've taken a few important casualties, but most of the brunt was borne by our fodder members. There must have been thousands of demons in that Damn tower. Some even came down from the lower levels to fight us. They brought some nasty traps with them, but we managed." Lucard smiled. "At least, it was nothing compared to working with you every day."

Realizing that his words were bordering dangerously on an affectionate tone, Lucard cut himself off. His expression became serious as stone.

Lucard straightened his back, clasping his two arms behind him. He tilted his chin slightly upward. His uniform was torn and stained, but it hung imposingly over his shoulders. He looked for all the world like an Executive Commander. "Crime detective Neuro," he rumbled. "Has the threat been eliminated?"

Neuro bent one arm into a salute. For once, he felt like being half-serious. "Yes. Completely."

"Hmm." Lucard nodded. "Then, I declare this Crisis averted. Well done, Braineater."

A moment passed in relative peace.

Neuro was the first to turn away. "Keh. You are just as kind as your predecessor," he said.

Lucard laughed. "Ha! I'm not sure whether to take that as a compliment or as an insult." Then his smile faltered. "It was probably an insult, wasn't it?"

Neuro gave an evil grin in response.

"Anyway…" The avianoid lifted up one hand, demonic energy flickering green around his talons. "The corpse of this case has become an eyesore to me. Let us dispose of the trash."

Suddenly, a machine-like being grew out of the tail end of the aura surrounding Neuro. It formed a metallic skeleton, curling up from a thick, shining spine that supported a large ribcage. The skeletal figure had two arms that appeared robotic, divided into segments and ending with hammers and wrenches in the place of hands. Its skull was supported by a thick neck. It wore a hardhat. The creature's nose ended in a screwdriver. The rungs of its back vertebrae were two rows of dark purple figures. Each of them appeared to be identical workmen dolls. They were all wearing hardhats as well. At the base of the figure's spine hung rows of saws, wrenches, pliers, and handcranks.

"777 Tools of the Demon World – Evil Carpenter," Neuro announced. He flicked one hand and the Tool moved, the main skeleton shuddering and rearing back as the workmen dolls came to life and dropped from its spine. The skeletal figure hoisted one hand in the air as if calling them all to work. Dutifully, the workmen dolls gathered tools from its base or spontaneously grew their own and began to skitter off around the field.

"This Tool is focused on construction," said Neuro. "It functions as a whole team in and of itself. Its purpose is building and repairing things, although it can also be combined with other Tools for interesting results." He shook his head. "It would have far more chances to be useful if demons actually cared at all about fixing things."

As he spoke, the workmen dolls set to work, carving up large boulders and propping up any dangerous wreckage that was threatening to fall. Thanks to them, the HDAC wouldn't have to worry about suffering any more surprise damages. The workers' skeletal forms darted across the earth. Some carried construction maps, some used pickaxes, some drew dotted lines on things in preparation for cutting, one whole team hoisted shovels, and the main figure floated over to assist them, beginning at once to saw through a section of the building that blocked the main road.

Lucard mumbled to himself. "Do you have to show off? Honestly, more like a peacock than a parrot…"

"Lucard," said Neuro, making the other demon jump. He pointed at the wolf demon with one middle finger. "This will be a very interesting era. You are well-suited to take over the Order Branch."

"Your strength is that of your allies," he continued. "And their strength is yours. That is what your miasma abilities mean. You are capable of centralizing raw power and transferring it to anyone you choose—quite the rare skill. And a tricky one as well, but invaluable if used right. As long as you continue the legacy that Asanteoh started, raising strong and loyal members of the Order Branch, I imagine that you should weather all storms well."

Neuro smiled, "And you can't be that stupid either," he said, thinking of how the lupinoid had deduced his location earlier.

The expression on Lucard's face was a mishmash of emotions. Satisfaction, modesty, offense, and pride all battled each other for space. Eventually he settled for a "Hmph" and looked away.

The sounds of Evil Carpenter hammered on in the background, filling the silence between them. Neuro looked out into the distance. There was a long pause before he spoke again.

"Stupid dog."

Lucard's ears twitched at the nickname. "I thought you just said that I wasn't stupid," he grumbled.

After a moment of silence, Neuro continued. "The time has come for the Order Branch and I to separate."

Lucard actually staggered. "What? Why?"

"This." Neuro spread out his arms. "This is the greatest mystery I have eaten thus far. And this is as far as I am able go from my current position. This one puzzle, stretched over all these years, was as good as it gets. From now on, I shall have to search harder and travel farther for my food. I cannot do that while tied to an organization."

"Besides," he grinned. "You saw what happened with my apprentice. I don't play well with others. Until I find someone who can handle me, someone who can truly give me something that I lack, then there is no point in forming any partnership. I work best alone."

Lucard was silent. Then, slowly, understanding dawned across his face.

"Hah." Lucard swept his arm to the side in an authoritative gesture. "Acknowledged."

"But…" he spoke up as Neuro started to walk past him. "Don't ever make us be enemies."

Lucard straightened his shoulders. He glared down at the avianoid. "If you do, I swear on all above and below that you'll come to regret it. Don't mess with my chosen pack. I am the ruler of this realm now, Birdbrain. Law of the Jungle is mine to enforce."

"No promises," Neuro replied swiftly. "I only follow the mysteries where they lead."

Both of the demons hid small smiles as the avianoid walked on past.

After a few seconds more, Lucard's ear twitched. He turned to face Neuro as if a thought had just struck him.

Lucard's expression was perturbed. There was an honest, confused light in his eyes. For a moment, he looked like his old, goofy self. "…I think you could make the scariest criminal of all," he said.

"Fuhahahaha!" Neuro laughed.

Neuro leapt upward, coming to a stop on top of a piece of fallen pillar. He stood tall. His feathers shone in the dim sunlight. His broken foot and all of his wounds had been completely healed. And more than that, for the moment his stomach was full.

Neuro gazed out at the HDAC forces below, the land before him vast and clear.

"And now…" he announced. "I quit!"

 

Chapter Text

Many centuries later…

It had been years since the last crisis had passed.

Demons went about their existence in Hell, fighting, killing, torturing, and of course, eating. The days continued on in the same sleepy, murky way that they always had. Dark mist hung above the Western bogs. The morning bloodfog curled across the plains whenever the Sun was beaten into rising. The pale bones of defeated lifeforms piled up in the rust-colored dirt. And the hellfire never burned a degree colder.

The name of 'the Natural Order', too, had faded with time, swept away by the newest catastrophe, the most recent battle, the fresh scars carved over the old. Soon the concept itself had been lost to chaos.

Meanwhile, 'Braineater' Neuro had become a "Private Evil Eye", founding his own practice. It had worked well. Occasionally he would receive jobs from the Order Branch, sent however begrudgingly.

His existence was more like a legend to anyone who had not personally met him, but those who had trembled at the sound of his name. They bowed and scraped if questioned about it, saying that this world's "puzzles" were meant for that demon and him alone.


Deep in a prison cell, a demoness sat. She appeared to be a reverse-gorgon, with backwards-pointing knees. Her hair was made of pale dreadlocks. Her skin was dark. She wore a ragged poncho, with shorts underneath that seemed made for speed. A sign beside the edge of her cell-hole's opening read: LOW-BEAM.

The gorgon hummed as she carved a slab of gold with the laser on the end of her tail. After the jewelry was done, she held it up. The gorgon delighted in its form, running her fingers over the designs and cooing at how "shiny" they surely were.


In a different cell, the sound of canned laughter rang out.

Calruh Ringtail sat at the bottom of his hole. He faced away, watching a live comedy routine on television. Behind him was a table, situated low to the ground and covered in architecture plans and blueprints. One of them appeared to be stamped with a seal from the Punishment Branch. The Iron Maidens were in need of a revamp.


Tympaxi Grayflesh wiped sweat in the form of smoke off his brow. The lights in the prison colonies were harsh, to make the work as unpleasant as possible. Still, his gray suit was as impeccable as always. His four legs motored him through the day's station like a spider. The hair on his head stood straight up now, taught like strings ready to be played.

He was being made to shine shoes forever. Gray had just started on the sixth-hundred-and-twenty-eighth shoe from a millipede demon when the whistle sounded, signaling that another customer had arrived.

Gray put down the can of polish and looked to the side, seeing how many more shoes were left to go. He sighed. He started polishing again.


In an office somewhere, demons cowered in front of Head Officer Bullspider.

The bovine demon had undergone a gruesome change. His eyes had become gemstones. They gleamed in the light, adding a disturbing glare to everything that he said. Inside of his mouth, the dull color of a prosthetic could be seen, moving in the space where he had bit his own tongue clean off.

He had sprouted eight more arms, one for each of the rings from so long ago, except for the two that had gone to his eyes. With four arms on either side of his torso, and two more complete pairs sprouting from his back, Bullspider appeared as an utter monster. The levels of Enforcement in his district were among the best. A phone sat on his desk so that the HDAC could always call upon him when they were in need of a powerful fighter.

Bullspider barked out orders, bullying the lesser-ranked demons in front of him while stretching out one hand to eat gemstones out of a bowl. Force of habit.


Rumors of the Tools had spread throughout the demon world. Demons everywhere had heard by now of a host of magnificent and incredible devices, each one alone enough to take down a kingdom. Their master was said to have strength almost on par with the Devil himself.

Whispers of these Tools and the demon who wielded them flitted from ear to ear. Evil Repellant, Evil Attractor, Evil Spear, Evil Clock, Evil Case, Evil Scream, Evil Recorder, Evil Handcuffs, Evil Kitten…the list went on and on until nobody could tell what was real and what was fake. The demon might have done these things and solved that puzzle. He might have not.

There were even rumors that he had built an Evil Time Machine and added it into his arsenal. But those were just rumors.

In the meantime, mysteries disappeared one by one as if swallowed down a gullet. No matter what crises appeared, they were always solved and packed away before the world reached too much of an endangerment. That was one thing that did not belong to the realm of rumor alone.


Yapel was not the only one in this prison hole.

The young Valkyrie sat in a birdcage-shaped cell. She poked her legs through the bars, casually kicking her feet back and forth in the air. Her body was littered with corroded scars. She yapped happily with other demons in the birdcages around her, all of them trading endless stories and puns upon puns upon puns. Glorious puns.

Below was a group of prisoners. They howled and thrashed on the floor in convulsions, being tortured to death by the endless chatter.


WHAM.

It was yet another day in the Order Branch headquarters.

Balanusk Huskeater and Zelmia Dreadsting tore up the office, participating in the annual casual-Friday free-for-all brawl. The two of them made a killer team, but they had now turned on each other and were beating each other up to determine the last demon standing. The squirrel-demon fired his eye-beams as the scorpion-demoness's hooked hair flew.

A squid demoness and lion demoness sighed in longing by the door.

"I can't believe they're dating now!" one of them said. "What a whirlwind romance."

The other one nodded, her expression lovesick. "I wish I could have a mateship like that one day."


Reference books were piled up as long and as high as the eye could see. Zera glanced from side to side. Nothing but mountains and torn pages for a literal mile. The slug demon sighed, knowing that they were going to be the one expected to clean up.

There was a rustle before Neuro poked his head out of a nearby heap.

"Look! Look, Zera!" he said, pointing to a particular page. "In this book it says that there exists a group of humans who have a specific saying for before they eat a meal, and then for immediately after! Isn't that exciting?"

Zera stared in disbelief. "Neuro… You do realize how unlikely it would be, not only to get yourself up there in the first place, but to arrive in exactly the same culture, in exactly the same world, at exactly the time period you want? The odds are…astronomical!" They flailed their arms. "In fact, I don't even think there's a word for how improbable it is!"

Neuro frowned. "Of course I know that," he said. "Who do you think I am? I simply think it would be interesting, that's all."

He slunk away and reburied his beak in a book. Darkness and quiet returned to the cursed library.

Zera picked up a random tome and began leafing through it. A few seconds later, the slug demon glanced over at Neuro. Their expression held a worried frown.


Neuro had thought a lot lately about the idea of 'weak vs strong'. Most demons in Hell bought into the idea, one way or another. Zera themself had repeated the philosophy often—that those who are born strong rule as the strong, and those who are born weak are destined to suffer eternally due to their weakness. That was just the order of things.

But it had stuck in Neuro's head. The event from the Tower of Trials, where the mob of demons had essentially overpowered him, had gotten him thinking. Maybe, just maybe, the mass of humans, so tiny, so puny, so weak, could hold a similar kind of strength.

With humans, the distinction between strong and weak did not exist as much. They had no powers to speak of, aside from their large brains and meaty flesh. Their lifespans were laughably short—mere blinks. And yet, very few believed that your birth alone determined who you were.

They used their brains to think and to plan, and had managed to use that knowledge to wrest dominion over their tiny world. They were complicated beings, more complicated mentally by leaps and bounds compared to the average demon. That meant—Neuro's stomach panged at the thought—that they could evolve. They could struggle, plot, and make even-more-delicious puzzles.

Whereas in Hell, everything was maximized but at an overall standstill.

The thought was too fascinating to let go.


High in the skies of Hell, Hesia Reckar yapped abuse at her squadron. With the skunk-flying-squirrel cross demon at their head, the flyers swooped in for the kill. Hesia grit her tiny teeth as she prepared to release her specialty bombs from the strap across her chest. Something had begun to feel awful strange about this serial string of attacks.

Her hand twitched with the desire to reach for her report book and start filling out a scathing entry. If her instincts proved correct, she just might contact a certain flyboy.


Executive Commander Throatbane sat inside of his office.

The wolf demon was wearing a new suit, dyed black as the depths of midnight. His silver-and-black fur shone with a healthy sheen. File boxes labeled IN and OUT rested beside him, comfortably full. On one of the walls of the office hung a dartboard for stress-relief. Some darts were already sticking out of it, all of them centering in on the bullseye.

Lucard shuffled through a stack of paperwork, his face strong and resolute. The deluxe desk, Blud, twitched its tattered wings beneath him. Its bloodshot eyes rolled. It seemed quite content with its new master.

Over to the side, some minor-ranked demons fussed with the office door. It was currently being refitted with capybara-strength hinges.

Two days later the door was broken again.


Strangely enough, although the Natural Order had wanted more "chaos", this place didn't feel very chaotic to Neuro at all. If anything, it was getting less so.

The mysteries here were bland. Everything was predictable, the product of dull minds and uncontrolled instincts. Feelings of guilt were scarce, making any kind of self-protecting "puzzle" a rarity. And a good one, plump, juicy, and aged to perfection? Forget about it.

Soon what had once been a flood was now a stream, then a trickle, and then only a few mere droplets to ease a parched throat. It was insufficient. Once one had tasted the best, nothing less than that could possibly do. Plus, nothing here was fun anymore.

At last 'Braineater' Neuro, Private Evil Eye, began to move.

Chapter Text

A figure stood atop a rocky cliff.

The being was tall and slender. His body was covered in feathers, colored purple and a precise shade of blue. The way that they were arranged made it almost seem like he could be wearing a dashing suit. His arms stretched down to end in violet hands, topped with talons that shone in the dim light. A capelet of purple feathers, edged in white, grew from his shoulders.

Two thick horns curved behind his head. Over the edge of his skull, two purple ridges could be seen, appearing to be part of his face. On the side of his head were two brown tufts that served for ears. The wind blew through his hair. The blonde strands were decorated with all of the triangular beads he would ever need.

The land was dark below the figure. The soil here was parched and brown, the grass withered and ruins looming in the dust. Somewhere in the distance, a land formation floated, fused with what looked like a city. Small stones hovered in the air. Deep gashes dug through the earth.

"It's not enough…"

The figure looked down at the barren landscape. There was nothing more of interest here. Desiccated. Dry. It was as hollow as his stomach.

"Even after consuming all of the mysteries in the demon world… The hunger in my brain remains unsatisfied."

The demon pointed upwards, to where the sky above him pulsed with a strange light. Its surface spread out in ripples, concentric circles emanating from a point directly over his location. Threads of lightning arced through the clouds. Greenish-yellow energy pulsed in waves like the skin of a gigantic creature. Dark fog swirled and spun in circles, stretching down to earth.

"Up there," he announced. "I shall search up there."

A green glow spread across his person. In the next second, the demon began to float upwards, following his pointed hand. The energy around him hummed with all the power of one of the 7 Weapons of the Demon Emperor. The air screamed as if it were about to be rent apart.

Emerald light danced across the demon's face. His beak opened as if to laugh, drool spilling from his mouth and tongue. His ringed, beady green eyes gazed up.

"For the most complicated… the most profound… and the most delicious... The Ultimate Mystery!"

The scratches that had always been in the sky gathered together in a glowing mass. Ribbons of strange light, filled with illogical patterns, clashed and flickered in a rainbow of colors and shapes. Time and space ran together in their depths.

Then the mass opened up, one single point of light growing brighter and brighter, like the first star that Hell had ever seen. The song in-between worlds built up and then faded behind Neuro as he was enveloped. He grinned as he broke through the curtain at last .

The Ultimate Mystery was already on the tip of his tongue.

THE END