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Truth and Trouble

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            “Hey Tora, what are you up to?”

            Torako tipped back in her chair to look at her Dad. “Oh, hey. Just looking up this Magdolen University in the United States. Did you know it’s pretty close to the border, so we can head into Canada at any time? Oh, and its Demonology program is pretty good.”

            Her Dad sighed and snapped his fingers twice. The floor glowed, and a chair was transported from their storage to the room; he sat on it and peered over Torako’s shoulder. “Ah, Magdolen. It’s got a fantastic Sigils program too, and a nice scholarship. Any chance of you following your old folks into the field?” He nudged her in the side.

            Torako laughed and swiped her finger on the screen, then hit the 3-D display option. It popped up and fizzed in full color, light beaming from the very top of her MSS. “Nah, Ben’s going for it, and I’m not going to beat him. Besides, Demonology is much more exciting.”

            He let out a hum, and Torako twisted to look at him. “What?”

            “Isn’t there a deal at the local college that Sainz put through, where you can go to school for free as long as your grades are up to par?” He scratched at the stubble on his cheek, fingernail bright against the dark of his skin.

            “Yeah,” Torako said. “But their Demonology program isn’t so great. In fact, it’s nonexistant.”

            Her Dad raised an eyebrow. “Ah, but their Sigils program is. Why isn’t Bentley thinking about going there? His father is…not as highly appreciated as your old folks…so shouldn’t he apply there?”

            “I don’t think he’s going to,” Torako said, scrolling through the Tuition and Fees page. Ow. Well, their hurling team had a couple sports scholarships, and she loved playing, so that would help.

            “And why Demonology?” Her Dad said. “You know, I’m not quite sure where this curiosity came from…not that it’s bad, because I trust you! Just wondering what prompted it. Why not Investigation or Speech or the Security business? You love that stuff.”

            “A couple things,” Torako mumbled, doing the math in her head and checking out their list of potential scholarships. The Full-Tuition Magical Theory and Application Scholarship was out, because Bentley was sure to nab it, but pair a decent hurling scholarship with a general grades scholarship, and she could cover about ninety percent of it all.

            Her Dad was quiet for a few moments, then sighed. “It wasn’t talking with Philip that did it, then?”

            “Oh, Ben’s Dad?” She thought for a split second, and made a quick decision. “Yeah, he’s really got a way with words. His stuff is interesting to read.”

            “There are several things I could say about Philip’s work,” her Dad said, and Torako braced herself for a politely worded ‘he’s got a few screws loose, no matter how personable he is’, “but if you think Demonology is where you want to go, okay. If you need any help with the applications…”

            Torako slid her arm around his side and hugged him, still looking over the information. “Thanks, Dad,” she mumbled.

            “Not a thing,” he said, hugging her back. “Now, what did you want for dinner? It’s my turn to cook, and we’ve got either fish, fish, or more fish in the Unit.”

            She tipped her head up to look at him, then grinned. “Fiiiiiish! I want fish fry!”

            He laughed, low and deep and comforting. Rustling her hair, he said, “All right kid, fish fry it is.”

            After he’d left, clapping three times to put the chair back in storage, Torako returned to the website and navigated to its course listing. Under Demonology were a variety of interesting sounding ones, including: DEM 105: Identification and Common Motifs; DEM 310: Safe Summoning: Binding, Sealing, and Restraining Demons; DEM 263: Upper Echelon: An In-Depth Study of A-Class and Higher Ranking Demons; and DEM 440: The Alcorian Myth: Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy.

            She tapped DEM 105: Identification and Common Motifs, and murmured, “I’ll figure it out yet, Ben. And once I do, we’ll save you.”


 

            Early on, she’d seen the occasional banishment sigil as paranoia; everybody knew that Bentley Farkas was twitchy around the mention of demons, and whenever people talked in hushed voices about Alcor or those crusty Twin Souls books, he’d go pale and shivery and scribble a sigil on his MSS. It was just normal behavior for him.

            Then, right before he’d tried to play the hero, she saw him draw them more and more, to the point of poor sleep and low energy, and Torako started to wonder. Plus, the fact that hearing that Alcor the Dreambender was going to be involved correlated directly with Bentley’s increased interest in the rumors made her suspicious. When he disappeared from the Northern Sector on her map for fifteen minutes, only to reappear on top of his apartment building, she grew frightened and worried and apprehensive because people didn’t just go off the grid like that.

            He hadn’t even told her the whole truth weeks later. Even when he’d collapsed during school, even when he’d miss rashes of days, even when it looked as though he hadn’t slept properly in years.

            “I’m fine,” he’d told her, on the way to recovery but still afraid of the dark. “I wasn’t fine, no, and it was because I was…well, in part because I was stupid and rushed into things. I—sorry, I. I didn’t listen. But I’m getting better now, don’t worry!”

            And he’d smiled, big and wide and honest but at the same time still weary. Torako had sighed, told herself that if Bentley was keeping secrets it was for a good reason, and said, “Just let me help next time, okay?”

            He’d told her yes, but his eyes said never in a way that was full of fear for her and Torako really, really wondered.

            She wondered about the sigils. About the paranoid behavior that slowed, then stopped a few months after the incident with the rumors. About how he seemed to have conversations with himself, or with somebody nobody else could see, his side written in pixels and odd expressions at nothing. About how Bentley would spout odd turns of phrase and color because they weren’t normal, weren’t typical and sounded as though they were coming out of somebody’s else’s mouth.

            She wondered, she snooped, and she didn’t have all the pieces yet but she had enough to know that Bentley was being haunted by a demon. Bentley, perfect-student role-model Bentley. And Torako knew that it had to be stopped.


 

            “You’re looking at Magdolen too?” Bentley asked one weekend, hanging upside-down off Torako’s bed as they played Explosion Track Two. He was better at these games, though Torako appreciated the special effects more.

            “Of course I am!” Torako said. “Didn’t you know that I’ve been looking at Demonology programs? Magdolen’s got a pretty good one, and Firemont isn’t as good but it’s pretty decent, so if I don’t get any scholarships, Firemont it is!”

            Bentley nudged her shoulder with his elbow, and she glanced over. His eyes were narrowed. “Isn’t Firemont like five miles away from Magdolen?”

            “What can I say, I like the area! Plus, their hurling teams aren’t half shabby.” She flicked her fingers to jump over the obstacle in the course.

            “…you’re going to want to be roommates, aren’t you.” Bentley said as his character maneuvered around hers in a move that should have been impossible. For a kid who didn’t play games growing up, he had an uncanny skill with them.

            “Fishing Frogs, could we?” Torako flung her arm to the side to jump to the parallel track, which had the pleasant side effect of making Bentley jump and curse. “Wow, I didn’t want to bring it up, but if you want to, awesome!”

            “I dunno,” Bentley said, sly and with a smile in his voice. “I was thinking about rooming on my own. Privacy and all, you know.”

            Torako gasped and ducked under his own swing as he launched a fizzy bomb at her on-screen. She dodged it, but only just. “Just think of the possibilities! We could rent an off-campus apartment and between the two of us it’d be cheaper than anything! We could take turns cooking and decorate it together and it’d be positively domestic.”

            Bentley snorted. “You just want me around so that I clean for you.”

            She could have acted affronted and spouted something about ‘I know I’ve complained about chores before, but I wouldn’t have you do all of it,’ but she didn’t. Instead, she wove around a Dangerous Sparkler and drove through an extra life bomb.

            “Torako?” Bentley asked, holding up his pinky so that the game would pause. He rolled over above her and dangled his arms around her shoulders. “What’s wrong?”

            “I just…”Torako hesitated, then picked up his hands and held them between hers. “I don’t want you to be alone, Ben.”

            Bentley laughed then, startled and high, then squeezed their hands. “Hey, don’t worry about me! I’m more worried about you—when’s the last time you hung out with Minna or Azair?”

            She tilted her head. “They were being stupid. So I stopped.”

            “Give them another chance, would you?” Bentley set his elbows against the edge of the bed and bent over her so that she could see his face. “I’ve been plenty stupid and you’ve always forgiven me.”

            “You don’t even like Minna or Azair,” Torako countered, butting his forehead with hers.

            Bentley rolled his eyes. He’d told her that it meant he was calling fish skins, and she didn’t understand how he didn’t get a headache from how often he did it. “No, but you do. Talk to them!”

            “I think that bridge’s been burned,” Torako mumbled, thinking about how they’d become uncomfortably insistent upon her breaking whatever relationship she had with Bentley. Minna, who’d inherited the sight from her grandfather, had always been uncomfortable around Bentley, but trying to force Torako to stay away had been the last straw.

            “If you don’t talk,” Bentley said, and his face was grave with personal understanding, “nothing gets resolved. Talk to Minna and Azair. If you can’t reach an agreement, then fine. Just make sure there aren’t any misunderstandings.”

            Torako blew at his bangs. They were purple now, and she had to say that she missed the bright yellow. “Fine, worrywart. And if you really want that single apartment, that’s fine. I’ll go find other people to live with, or I’ll get one of my own.”

            Bentley scooted back on the bed and rested his chin on Torako’s head. It kind of hurt, but she could put up with it for a few minutes. “Who am I kidding? With you living in the same area, I wouldn’t be surprised if you stayed in my apartment six nights out of seven. Sure, we can get one if you want.”

            Torako squealed and pulled Bentley off the bed into a hug. He landed on the floor with an oof and they fell into a pile of limbs. “Yes yes yes this is great!”

            “Ow ow that’s my arm, Torako your elbow is digging into my arm and it’s going numb…”

            She shifted her elbow and collapsed on top of him, all gangly 190 centimeters sprawled over his 167. “Thank you thank you thank you!”

            “Torako you’re heavy.”

            Maybe she’d talk to Minna and Azair. Eventually. Someday. Maybe closer to never, but she’d think about it.

            “Torako please.”


            When she got her e-notice proclaiming that she had been accepted into Magdolen University and that she was a semi-finalist for both the hurling scholarship and the N’goyo Memorial Scholarship for her decent grades, the first thing Torako did was call Bentley to find if he’d gotten the same.

            “Yeah!” He yelled back, and Torako pulled the phone away from her ear. “Oh my gosh yes I did! They accepted me! And they said that I’m eligible for their Sigils Scholarship and their Art Endowment if I at least minor and even possibly a lower-income student scholarship! Torakooooooooo!”

            Torako bounced her heels off her mattress, face hurting from the force of her grin. “Oh this is great, this is amazing, Ben!”

“I can’t wait I can’t wait!” He said, still too loud.

A thought hit her, and Torako smacked the ground. “Ben, do you know how you’re getting to the school for their Scholarship Day? I totally forgot to check for anything like that!”

            He laughed, high and giddy and she thought she could hear some vaguely familiar voice in the background chattering about who knew what. “The school helps with that! They’ve got vouchers for us to use as discount on airfare, and they’ve got a shuttle service that’ll take us to the school—TranspoPods aren’t really used as much around there, something about too much distance to cover? Dunno. But yeah, they’ll feed us and everything once we’re there.”

            “And…your Dad isn’t going?” Torako asked, tapping her fingers on the floor.

            Bentley hummed a negative. “My ticket is fine, because it’s discounted, but he’s not so sure about going himself. Are yours?”

            “I’ll check,” Torako promised. “They might be too busy with work; Father’s got a big meeting over in Malaysia at the end of January, and isn’t that when Scholarship Day is?”

“Well,” Bentley said, and Torako pulled the phone closer. “The school might post authority figures to make sure there are no problems. I think they even encourage parents to let their kids come alone; they—hold on, let me get to the site.”

            Torako stared at the ceiling, covered in bright yellows and oranges reflected from the setting sun outside that she couldn’t see. Her heart thudded against her chest, and there was a grin still pulling at her cheeks.

            “Okay, here we go…um, they actually say that parents may come, but that the students will be expected to go to their own scholarship interviews individually while the parents go on a tour of the school. ‘There are friendly personnel of the school both at prospective students’ destinations as well as en route, and all prospective students with no parental guardians on-site will be escorted to and from their points of arrival and departure.’ I guess for us that’s the Airport?”

            “Probably,” Torako said. “But yeah, let me check with my Dad. He might be able to take those days off.”

            “This is going to be great,” Bentley said. “Torako, I’m so excited!”

            Torako grinned. She felt unstoppable.


            Her Dad couldn’t go. He almost didn’t let her, citing recent signs of trouble in the area. Torako countered with the fact that the school was going to make sure they were safe, and that they’d never had a student disappear on them. Her Father piped in to say that she was technically eighteen; couldn’t she handle herself?

            Later that night, she and Bentley booked one ticket each, in seats next to each other. Torako began counting down the days to January 19th


 

            “All right team, we’re done for today! Get a drink and we’ll do a cooldown.”

            Torako braced her hands on her hips and straightened her spine, making sure to take even breaths as she walked the full-court ladders they’d just been subjected to off. The air felt stifling even in the controlled climate of the pocket-dimension playing field, and she tried to touch as little skin to skin as she could.

            When she crouched down and snagged her water bottle off the bench, Coach Asiyah hollered, “Hey, Lam, come over here! Park, lead cooldown as soon as everybody’s ready.”

            “Coming!” She yelled back over Minna Park’s affirmative, and uncapped the bottle as she jogged back to the center of the field. Coach Asiyah was tossing a ball up and down in her gloved hand, the form shimmering and fizzing around a dense core of magic.

            “Torako,” Coach Asiyah started, grinning a little. “I hear you might get a scholarship to Magdolen for hurling!”

            Torako laughed and bounced on her toes. “Yeah, but it’s not for sure yet. I have to go and compete in tryouts first on the nineteenth, and we’ll see from there.”

            “Congrats so far then!” Coach Asiyah said. “You want a few tips about Magdolen? It was my Alma Mater, you know.”

            “Really?” Torako took another swig of water. “Wow, what brought you here?”

            “You forget I started the hurling team at this school.” Coach Asiyah beckoned Torako closer and put an arm over Torako’s shoulder. “Now, here’s the biggest difference; Magdolen plays on an outdoor field almost all the time.”

            “What, like outside? Not climate controlled?” Torako tried to imagine it, but nothing concrete came to mind. “I mean, I saw some of their games, but I didn’t realize they were actually outdoors!”

            “Winter they go inside, of course,” She continued, still playing with the practice ball, “and use a communal pocket-field to practice, and sometimes to host games, but they have the space for several sports fields, so they use it. Also, they favor an offense-heavy team; you’ll have a lot of competition because of that.”

            Torako nodded. “I noticed that in some of their games—they don’t defend too well, do they?”

            “Well, their practice is that attack is the best defense. You’re used to something a bit more balanced, so just be ready for that and being exposed to the elements. Will you play hurling even if you don’t get the scholarship?” Coach Asiyah looked to the team, then shouted, “Good job all, you’re doing well! Just another couple laps and then stretching!”

            “Should I join them?” Torako asked, tossing her water bottle between her gloved hands.

            Coach Asiyah clapped Torako on the back. “All right, go on. We can talk later tomorrow; aren’t you free third hour?”

            “Fourth,” Torako said. “I can ask to get out of Theoretical Demonology early though if you need to meet during third.”

            “That would be preferable, yeah.” Coach Asiyah tugged at one of the folds of her kerudung in thought, then nodded. “Yes, if you can get out fifteen minutes early, that should be fine. All right then, Lam, step to it!”

            “Yes ma’am!” Torako said, dropping her water bottle on the spot and jogging to catch up with her teammates, on their last lap. She looked over at the entrance to the pocket dimension and saw Bentley leaning against the doorway, scribbling intermittently on his MSS and laughing from time to time.

            The good humor dried up, and she kept staring his way as he talked with nobody. At one point, though she hadn’t made any motion to attract his attention, he started, looked up at her, then waved. She waved back from her butterfly stretch.

            She’d get down to the bottom of it sooner or later, she told herself. Everything would be fine. They could handle it together.

            When she started thinking about the Dreambender and how he had a connection to all of this, she pushed down the panic that rose when she imagined facing off against the destroyer of Old California. They could handle it.

            Torako pulled at the grass under her fingers, and ignored the way it did not stain her gloves green.


            Heartbeat rushing in her ears, lungs aching, Torako pushed herself up from the ground, caked in dead grass and mud and sweat. Her shin was throbbing from where another scholarship hopeful had slammed her with his hurling stick, and her arms trembled with exertion, but she felt alive.

            “All right recruits, finish stretching and line up to hand in your tag numbers to the coach!” One sophomore called. They had thin horns that curled up and around their large, goat-like ears, and Torako couldn’t help but notice the protective, molded hoofware.

            Torako got into line near the front, so she was out of the arena with a quick ‘thank you very much’ and a genial ‘look forward to seeing you next year!’ from the coach, a stern-looking person with thick hands and calves. They were different from lithe Coach Ariyah with her delicate fingers and quick feet, but Torako thought she could warm up to them.

            Waiting at the edge of the field by her bag, as promised, was Bentley, bundled up in a thick orange coat and like two layers of pants. He was bright against a backdrop of grey and white and black. He waved, his fingers barely visible over the rim of the overlarge sleeve, and his breath came out in thick mists.

            “I’m thinking twice about the cold,” Bentley called. “Even if it is super pretty and new and awesome. Also, don’t you need to get more on?”

            Torako laughed, chest still heaving slightly. “We will need a whole new wardrobe, won’t we? And fuck yes, give me my bag, I can feel the sweat turning to ice.”

            “Why’d they even have you practice out here?” Bentley said, hefting her bag and swinging it over. He shifted from one foot to another, the snow squeaking underfoot as he did so. “Don’t they have indoor games during this time?”

            “Eh, I’m sure it’s some sort of toughening thing,” Torako said, taking out her extra pair of sweatpants and pulling them on one leg at a time. “Coach Asiyah warned me this might happen; teams typically play at least a few snow-and-mud games up here.”

            “That’s awful,” Bentley said. He shoved his fingers under his arms. “I’m never watching one of those games ever.”

            “Aw, but I’ll come to all of your silly magic expositions!” Torako dug through her bag, peeling off her sweat-soaked gloves as she did so. “Where did my sweatshirt go anyways?”

            “Probably at the bottom. You always put it there. Also, you like that kind of stuff! Why’re you going into Demonology anyways? I thought you wanted to do investigative magic stuff.”

            Torako would have paused a year ago, but instead she gave a nonchalant smile to Bentley and said, “Oh, your dad’s stuff is pretty interesting, no matter what my parents might say. It sparked an interest is all. And I can still do investigative stuff with Demonology!”

            An odd expression passed over Bentley’s face, but it was gone before she could figure out what it was. He just smiled with one side of his mouth, and held out a hand. “You want me to carry that for you?”

            She was about to say no, but an idea struck her. “Sure,” she said, pulling the hoodie out and wriggling into it. She swung the bag over. “Take it.”

            Bentley nearly dropped the bag. He was still looking at it when he said, “Wow, that’s not typicaaaaaaaah Torako!”

            Torako laughed, having hefted Bentley around her shoulders despite her aching arms. “Should’ve figured!”

            The bag dangled over her shoulder and was settled against her side, Bentley’s hands wrapped around the strap. “Of course. Naturally. Why didn’t I think of it.”

            “Because I’m amazing!” Torako crowed, maneuvering around the other students’ bags and stepping onto the path that ran back to campus. “You can be my navigator, though.”

            “The bus is in the parking lot. Straight ahead, you can’t miss it.” Bentley said. She could hear the smile in his voice, even if he was slumped in resignation. Damn, he’d gotten a lot heavier over the years.

            “Onwards!” Torako adjusted her grip on Bentley’s knees and took a long stride forward. Bentley yelped and clutched to her shoulder, the strap on the bag sliding down from his hands and hanging off the crook of his elbow.

            “Good thing you didn’t bring your stick,” Bentley said. “That would have smacked one of us. Might have even taken an eye out.”

            She snickered. “Nah,” she said, snow squeaking underfoot, the day thankfully windless. Her ears burned, her fingers burned, and they burned in a way that was both markedly different from days in the sun and remarkably similar to eating ice cream after a hot meal.

            “Why didn’t you bring it? You love that thing.”

            “Coach Asiyah told me that the team would have plenty of extras,” she said, breath fanning out before her in thick clouds. “Besides, our carry-ons were expensive enough; I didn’t need to add that to the whole mess.”

            Bentley snickered from somewhere by her shoulder and adjusted his grip on her sweatshirt. “Just think, we’re getting right back on that plane in like two hours.”

            Her gut tightened at the thought. “Please don’t remind me.”

            “Oh, but it was so much fun! Being up so high, looking down at the land as it sped by…oh, and the slow ascent and descent! Seeing things move further and further away, then get closer and closer and—”

            “I will drop you,” Torako said. She could see the van waiting just a few meters away, but that didn’t mean there was a suitable pile of snow nearby. As if on cue, a horn blared into the thick, muffled silence.

            “No you won’t,” Bentley said. “I’m too precious to drop. And I’m holding your bag. And you’ll feel bad if you do it.”

            Torako waved at the bus driver, and promptly dropped Bentley into the snow. She then half-sprinted, half-slid the remaining distance to the door and hurled herself into the front seat, cackling all the while. The air burned in her throat and lungs, but she grinned and laughed through it, even when Bentley stomped up to her, snow mostly brushed off his clothing, and draped the snowiest parts all over her.

            “All right, we’re all on, right?” The bus driver yelled back at the six of them, crammed into the back of the vehicle. They chorused back a series of accents.

            It was worth coming here, Torako thought. And the snow and the cold might take some getting used to, but she could see the gears turn as Bentley looked and she could see herself loving it all.

            “So, how did your interviews go?” Torako asked, pushing Bentley’s arm back onto his stomach. He let it flop down again.

            “I dunno. The sigils one was okay, but I got kind of nervous and stuttery and I don’t know that I made a good impression. There was another person there—I think they were part dryad?—who was so smooth and charismatic and I think they’re going to get it.”

            Torako looked down at his face. His eyes were downcast, and he was fiddling with the edge of his jacket. He’d also drawn his legs together, and his ankles were crossed.

            “No! I bet you did amazing. They’re not going for charismatic, they’re going for amazing brains, and you’ve got the most amazing of them all!”

            “That was a lot of amazings,” Bentley said, a grin quirking the corner of his mouth up.

            “Because you deserve them,” Torako said, jabbing him in the side. He squeaked and recoiled off of her, then glared at her while rubbing his side.

            One of the others propped himself up on the back of their seat. “Wait, you’re going for sigils? The full-tuition Sigils Scholarship? I thought you were in the Art Endowment group!”

            Bentley rubbed at the back of his neck and didn’t quite meet the other person’s eyes. “Yeah,” he said, much quieter than before. “I mean, to both. The Art Endowment is really to cover costs like books and supplies, which is why I can go for it.”

            “Isn’t the Sigils Scholarship for, like, geniuses?” The guy asked, accent slurring his words but not so much that Torako couldn’t understand him. Torako looked at his dreads, at the colorful beads in them, and tried to remember his name.

            Bentley fiddled with the hem of his coat, which Torako took as her cue to intercede. “Oh man is he,” Torako said, turning around and throwing her arm over Bentley’s shoulder. He made a strangled noise. “You want to know the details, just ask me!”

            “Wow,” the guy said, green eyes wide. “I know they say not to judge a person by their cover, but wow. That’s cool, dude! Or are you a dudette, or neither or both?”

            “A guy,” Bentley said a few decibels louder than a mumble.

            The guy smiled, but it seemed a bit tense. “Uh, did I do something wrong?”

            Torako grinned. “Nah, he’s just shy. He wasn’t exactly forthcoming when I burst into the scene either! Give it time.”

            “Ah. Okay, dude. Sounds good. So, what did you go in for?”

            She opened her mouth to tell him, but there was an almighty thud and the driver cursed. Torako turned around to see what was going on, but only caught the tail end of what had to be a series of talismans before they melted the windshield and injected thick bouts of gas.

            Amid the alarmed shouting, Torako felt Bentley slump against her arm, already knocked out, and held her breath for as long as she could. She outlasted the rest of the group even though her vision was going spotty and gathered Bentley into her arms. The moment after, she saw the door fizzle and then disengage, the magic dying out as the enchantment was cut.

            A couple of figures dressed in heavy winter gear stepped through the doorway, cold air rushing in and making Torako gasp from the sudden chill. She inhaled a thick breath and said, “Fucking Flyin—”

            Her mind fuzzed up, the words turned to slush in her mouth, and she didn’t hear a word the figures said before she slid down the seat and passed out.


                 When she woke up, dizzy and disorientated and feeling as though she’d been tripped on the field ten times in a row, Torako only just avoided letting out a moan. She opened her eyes to mere slits and peered out of them.

            The car was different this time; it had a large storage compartment, which they had been shoved in, and only four small seats in the front. Three of them were filled; the people were all wearing black hooded jackets, but two of them had pulled the hoods down. She glared at the backs of their heads, and simmered.

            “We’re going to turn right here, and then left onto Turnpike,” one murmured. Their hair was short and dyed neon blue. Bentley would have appreciated the color.

            The car shifted, and Torako let herself fall and slide with the force of it. She bumped into another body, and looked at it. Bright green eyes met hers, and she pursed her lips. When she flicked her gaze to their kidnappers and back, the guy twitched his head from side to side, then tipped it back. She followed it to the side of the storage compartment, where a heavy-set Caucasian and their equally terrified feather-haired friend sat, wrists and ankles bound in front of them. Torako looked around and found Bentley out cold on the other side of the vehicle, half-under another unconscious scholarship hopeful. Their chaperone was on his back in the middle and seemed to be freaking out silently.

            One of their kidnappers whistled. She couldn’t see them over the seats now. “Damn, these kids must be loaded. Is this the Cattanaugh district?”

            “Oh yeah. How else did you think they were able to pay our fees in full? These aren’t exactly low-profile targets here.” The voice was smooth, soft, and it set Torako’s hair on end.

            Torako inhaled through her nose, sharp and loud, but the sudden noise was thankfully covered by the blue-haired person piping up. “How long until you think the whistle gets blown?”

            The whistler said, “Well, the itinerary I found in one of their bags said they were supposed to get to the port by five. Typically you get to the port an hour before take-off, so I’m going to guess an hour and a half, tops.”

            “Speedy escape, I guess,” Blue-Hair said. “How the fuck do these kids think they’re getting away with this?”

            “Well, they hired us for starters,” the last of the three said. The car shifted again. “And we are one of the best teams out there.”

            Whistler snorted. Their voice was gravelly and hoarse. “Well, there aren’t many Sacrihunters out there, are there?”

            Torako froze. Horror curled up in a ball in her gut, and she bit the side of her mouth to stop herself from crying. She glanced back over at Bentley, then at the green-eyed guy next to her. His eyes were closed and his lips were moving in some sort of soundless mantra.

            She looked back over at Bentley. His face was obscured, but he was lax in a way that could only mean he was out of it. Where the fuck was his demon when they needed it?

            Gone, of course, some part of Torako thought. Demons always lied, they always cheated, and they always were out for their own skin. They were possessive, but only so long as it was to their own benefit. And she wasn’t seeing anything that contradicted her lessons.

            “What kind of demon requires such specific parameters? I mean, even the Dreambender isn’t so picky. Just toss a human sacrifice at him and he’s…well, he’s as murderous as always to anybody and everybody, but still. ‘Must be scholarship applicants’? Wow.”

            Blue-Hair paused before answering. “Eh, it’s some low-key rare demon that just specializes in knowledge or something. Most of these kids will be alive at the end of the deal, but…well, let’s just say they won’t be getting those scholarships anytime soon.”

            The third person laughed. “You can say that again. Well, we’re here.”

            Whistler whistled again. Torako stared up at the ceiling, jaw clenched and eyes burning and mind screaming. Just they wait, she thought as the car stopped, as the lighting in the vehicle changed. They were moving underground. Just they wait until she got her teeth on them. She pushed the hysteria down just far enough to think, and simmered.

            Green-Eyes nudged her in the side, and she turned her head to look at him. He slowly moved his head from side to side, eyes wide and bright against his dark skin. She scowled and narrowed her eyes. He twitched back, then turned to look back at the roof of the car.

            They stopped moving. “All right—Blue, Red, let’s start getting the sacrifices out of the trunk. Some of them should still be out cold, and it’s been awfully quiet back there.”

            “Right on!” Whistler said.

            The doors opened, slammed shut. The wait wasn’t long, but it pressed down on Torako to the point where she could feel the sweat gathering under her arms and on the backs of her knees. She went limp, even though that went against every fiber of her being.

            When the back door opened, Blue-Hair let out a laugh and said, “Hey, looks like a few are awake! Red, you get the driver.”

            “These code names are stupid,” Whistler said. “Like, couldn’t we be something other than colors? Really, Gold?”

            “Oh, just pick up the blood sacrifice and drag him down the steps, would you? He doesn’t even need to be in one piece, so feel free to just roll him over.”

            The bus driver started screaming until he was slapped, the sound ringing through the air. Torako took in a shallow breath and tried to wait for the right moment.

            “Shut up! All right then, one, two and,” Red, the whistler, let out a grunt as they hefted the bus driver. “I’ll just send him on down and come back.”

            “Sounds good,” Blue-Hair said. “I’ll get the gal with the blonde hair—what a shame, she looks like my type and all.”

            Gold just sighed, and a short rustle of clothing later, one of the students propped up against the side of the vehicle let out a short whimper. “Come on, up we go. Aaaand there we are! Let’s make sure your head stays safe.”

            The other student let out a screech that was more bird than human, and Torako could only assume it was Feather-Hair. She was cut short with a slap; it didn’t ring quite as much with the sound of footsteps and murmuring. Gold’s tone was low when they next spoke. “Hey. Be quiet. You might be more valuable than your driver, but it’s your mind we need, not your mouth. I’ll be back for you in no time and you can join your little friend then.”

            “Leave her alone,” Feather-Hair sobbed. “Leave her alone leave us alone let us go.”

            Gold hushed her, then left. Feather-Hair kept hiccupping, quiet and on the verge of keening.

            “Shit shit shit shit shit,” Green-Eyes hissed out. “Shit shit shit shit shit.”

            Torako ungritted her jaw and focused on breathing, even and slow. Her chest ached with the need for more air, and her arms felt tight and her hands were heavy on top of her stomach. She twitched her finger and felt the material of the sweatshirt. Bentley had gotten it for her. It was bright purple, had some nonsense design in white up and down the sleeves. It was remarkably like the green one hanging up in his closet.

            Breathe in, breathe out. Footsteps pounding up the stairs, the smell of dust and dry air. Somebody was humming, and she heard Bentley being slid out from the bed of the vehicle. It hurt her not to, but she didn’t react other than to swear to beat their faces bloody. A moment later, Green-Eyes cut off his litany of swearing with a gurgle. He latched onto her sleeve, and she let her arms fall limply to the side.

            “Yo, Blue, get the tall one next! Gold’s got Featherbrains there, and I can handle both Shortstack and Dreads here!”

            “All right, all right! Jesus, I’m just getting up the stairs, would you wait a bit?” Blue-Hair stomped up the rest of the steps. Torako tensed, then relaxed. It was like hurling. You wait for the moment the other player makes to toss the ball to their stick, and then…

            Green-Eyes’s whimpering grew dimmer, and seconds after she couldn’t hear him anymore there were arms tugging her forward. “Huh, this one is still asleep?”

            Not yet.

            She was hefted into the person’s arms, and they took a few steps. Torako felt somebody move past in a rush of air as Feather-Hair started actually keening again, and counted to two. She opened her eyes to slits, let them get used to the light again. Then, as Blue-Hair lifted their left leg to take another step, Torako surged up and clamped her teeth around Blue-Hair’s ear. She couldn’t bring herself to dig her incisors past skin and into cartilage, but the scream Blue-Hair gave was immensely satisfying. Blue-Hair dropped Torako, only to realize their mistake when Torako didn’t let go and pulled Blue-Hair down with her. Something tore, and Torako saw blood well up from the rip, felt it trickle over her teeth. She wrinkled her nose in distaste.  

            “Fucking shit!” Blue-Hair screeched, and her fist slammed into Torako’s face. She was dislodged from the ear, cheek pounding, and fell to the ground. Torako rolled to her tied feet, glanced around the empty, circular room, and then waited for the next chance to strike.

            Gold hurried over, Feather-Hair slung over one shoulder. It was similar to how Torako sometimes picked Bentley up when she was teasing him, and she grimaced at the thought. “She’s awake?”

            “She fucking bit me!” Blue-Hair yelled. One hand was held up against her ear, and it was smeared red. “She fucking bit me!”

            Gold frowned, yellow eyes narrowed. Torako bared her teeth back at him in an unfriendly smile. She imagined that she looked rather fierce, with blood smeared everywhere, even though that was really gross and she needed to stop thinking about that. “Red,” he called, “we need your help.”

            “Did Blue actually get her experienced ass bit?” Red hollered, coming up the stairs. They stomped more than stepped, and Torako glanced to her left at the stairs. Blue-Hair surged forward even as Gold yelled at her to stop, and Torako grinned wider.

            Blue-Hair was maybe a meter away when Torako launched herself at her. Her body slammed into Blue-Hair’s, toppling it over so that Torako landed on top of her opponent. Her head slammed into Blue-Hair’s collarbone, leaving it ringing and her neck aching, but Torako still felt something snap under her shoulder and heard Blue-Hair let out a screech a split second later. She let out a short laugh.

            Seconds later she was picked up. She tipped her head back to see Red, their face clear but neck covered in some strange geometric tattoo. Their arms wrapped around her chest and folded her arms to the point they were right under her chin. Torako snarled and pushed up off the ground with her feet, but to no avail.

            “Damn, she got you but good,” Red said. “Hey, come help me fold her legs up so she’s not kicking and being a nuisance.”

            “But it’s what I do best,” Torako snarled, swinging her legs up and kicking them behind her. She hit nothing but air as Red shifted and whistled.

            Gold sighed and moved past them, Feather-Hair staring at Torako in something like wonder. “Let me get this one downstairs and I’ll be back to help.”

            Blue-Hair pushed herself up, breathing shallow and letting out gasps of pain when she moved wrong. Torako thought she should feel worse about breaking somebody else’s ribs—she always did on the field—but then Blue-Hair looked up at her and said, “Fuck, I can’t wait for your brains to be sucked dry.”

            So she grinned at her, already feeling the bruise starting to form on her face, and said, “It’ll still be more than what you have.”

            Red squeezed Torako tighter to their chest. “All right, enough here! Blue, you should really watch out more.”

            “These are all damn nerds!” Blue-Hair protested, coughing into her hand and coming up with only spittle. Torako was both relieved and frustrated that there was no blood. “How the fuck was I supposed to know there’d be some sort of athlete in there?”

            Torako laughed. She laughed and laughed and laughed, because apparently Blue-Hair didn’t realize that there were actually scholarships for sports.

            Red snorted and turned around. “Blue, there are athletics scholarships.”

            “Well those are one in a fucking million!” Blue protested, and Torako wished she could see her instead of the stairs descending into odd, flickering light that was too dim and too warm. The lights in this outer chamber—maybe a car port or something—were bright and blue and calming, and she didn’t like how dark it was down there.

            Torako grit her teeth, shoved her chin into her knuckles, and pulled her body up by the core until she was almost perpendicular to Red. Then she arched her back as much as she could, and rammed the heels of her boots into Red’s side.

            Red grunted, then dropped one arm to wrap around Torako’s shins. She tried to kick her feet back out, but Red had already grabbed the rope tying her ankles together. Torako let out a scream of frustration in the back of her throat, lips pressed shut and heart ringing in her ears. Down below, Gold began to ascend the stairs, his black hoodie obscuring his face.

            “All right, calm down, we don’t need to be hurting you too much,” Red said, light and as though they were discussing what they’d like to have for dinner. “Pain distracts from the mind, and I bet your cheek’s throbbing right now.”

            “There’s no getting through to her, dimwit,” Blue-Hair gasped. “Fucker’s not rational.”

            Torako twisted around to break free, knowing that once Gold got close enough, it was game over. She tried to jerk her knees up to her chest, but only got half-way before Red began to pull back.

            “Do you not know what kind of situation you’re in?” Red asked. “I don’t think you should be struggling. It’s a lose-lose situation for all of us if you do!”

            “Exactly,” Torako hissed. Gold was getting closer and closer, and she could feel the hysteria clawing back up her throat.

            “And what do you think you’re going to do if you get loose? You’re still tied up, you can’t actually go anywhere, and you’re a long way from home. We dumped everybody’s stuff a while back, so it’s not like you know where that is. There’s no use fighting!”

            Torako snarled and slammed her head back into Red’s chin. Pain erupted from the back of her head and Red let out a scream as white starbursts formed in Torako’s vision.

            “I didn’t want to have to use this, but enough is enough.” She could barely hear Gold, but he reached the top step and Torako steeled herself for one last push for freedom.

            The moment later, Gold pulled a paper tag out of his pocket and slapped it onto Torako’s forehead. White filled the middle of her vision, and she opened her mouth to snarl something when a spark of magic traveled out from the paper and shot down into her nerves. She felt herself relax against her own will. The aching didn’t go away, but she was no longer in control.

            Torako would have sworn thicker than her parents thought she could if she were able to. As it was, she settled for glaring at some point next to Gold’s face, unable to move her own eyeballs.

            Blue-Hair grumbled, “Shit, that’s expensive. Wasn’t that half of our last delivery?”

            “I didn’t think I’d use it so soon,” Gold murmured as Torako was shifted into an easier-to-carry position in Red’s arms. “But I’m glad we got it. They’re going to be mad enough that she’s hurt, pretentious little fuckers.”

            Red whistled. “Wow, that bad?”

            Gold slid his hands into the hoodie pocket and scowled. “Come on, let’s get her downstairs before her eyes dry out.”

            “I can solve that problem,” Blue-Hair said, hobbling over. Torako wanted to snarl so bad, but she couldn’t, even as Blue-Hair reached out and dragged her eyelids down. “As much as I’d like to let them burn, those bastards probably would cut our pay even more than they’re already thinking about.”

            “I’ve let them know that we will graciously not press for compensation for your medical bill if they overlook the damaged goods,” Gold said. Red took a few steps forward and they were descending the stairs one at a time. They didn’t creak with their combined weight, and all Torako could hear for the next long few moments was footsteps and Blue-Hair’s rasping breaths.

            Then they stepped forward instead of down, and she heard low voices chanting. Gold cursed. “I told them to wait! Oh my—fuck it, throw her with the others, take the tag off, and let’s get the hell out of here. We can wait upstairs for them to be done, but I don’t want to be around for a fucking summoning.”

            “Roger that,” Red said, and she was unceremoniously dumped on the floor. The air rushed out of her lungs, and for a moment she didn’t know if she could actually get enough back. Then the tag was pulled off her face and she sucked in a gasp of air, eyes flying open, and she stared up at the ceiling for a few moments as she just enjoyed being able to control her own body.

            Then there was a hiss and a snap, and she looked over to see that the stairway had been closed off.

            “Shiiiiit,” she breathed, twisting to her hands and knees. “Shiiiiiit shit shit shiiiit.”

            “We’re dead,” Green-Eyes moaned, hands clutching his face as he stared in the middle of the circle. She looked over, and had to turn her head to the side to throw up.

            Between the two summoners, whose voices were starting to swell into a crescendo, the body of their bus driver was lying face-up, limbs akimbo and intestines spilling out of his abdomen. Blood pooled and seeped into his clothing, trailed over the floor, and covered his still face. Torako couldn’t help but notice that the hand closest to them was smeared in blood, like he’d tried to pull his guts back into his body.

            There was a band around his ring finger. It glinted where the blood didn’t cover it completely. Torako looked away and retched again. Stomach acid burned where it ran over her tongue and past her teeth, spilling out of her open mouth in thin dripping strings.

            Torako coughed, hunching over and squeezing her eyes shut. She never wanted to see that, she wanted it not to have happened. To her right, Feather-Hair was letting out low, prolonged whimpers, and Green-Eyes was rocking back and forth.  This was a nightmare, it was a dream, and couldn’t deal with this she couldn’t she—

            “…your name—Ronwe!

            Torako looked up, arms shaking. Dust fell from the ceiling, and a great shadow billowed up out of the center of the circle. It coalesced into sheaves of rustling paper, into clicks and glowing lines of digital cyberspace. Great slabs of stone grew out of the floor, inscribed with characters that Torako had never seen before, and they clacked and ground together as the demon grew into physical space.

            “Ah,” it breathed. “So good to be called upon.” It dipped a score of papers down, decorated in faded, browning ink, and trailed them in the blood of their bus driver. It seeped up into the letters and they grew dark in turn, almost burning with the power of spilled life. Torako grit her teeth and couldn’t quite stop herself from moaning, deep down in her chest.

            We’re going to die, she thought, staring up at the demon in horror. The candlelight flickered and flared in an imaginary wind, and the breath caught in her throat.

            “Great Ronwe,” one of the summoners called, voluminous robes sweeping centimeters above the ground as he raised his hands into the air. “We have called upon you for a transfer of knowledge—two minds of your choice for the information stored in the minds of the four others. An equal trade—two for each of this gathering.”

            Torako pulled in a breath, but it whooshed out of her before she wanted it to. She grasped for it, tried to pull it back in, but it slipped from her chest faster than she could spoon it in. Sitting back on her butt, Torako leaned against the wall and stared up, shoulders quivering.

            “Of course,” the demon whispered, like rustling pages and clicking electronics. “Such a feat, however, is worth more than two minds. I require three—is that not fair? Half for the party doing the deed, half for the party paying?

            Torako’s eyes widened, and she looked over Feather-Hair next to her and around Green-Eyes. Bentley was still slumped against the wall on the other side of the long-haired blonde, eyes closed and limp. She choked back the lump in her throat and tipped her head against the wall. She bared her teeth at nothing, because it was better than opening her mouth and breaking down utterly.

            “That—That is not—”

            “Of course. Your wisdom knows best,” the one who hadn’t spoken said, holding up a hand to the first. “Would you care to pick out the minds of your choosing?”

            The demon’s stones ground, and wooden blocks of type clacked together, as if in laughter. “My thanks, dear summoners.” It moved over to the edge of the circle nearest them, in a whisper of paper and a tumbling of stone. Behind it, the two summoners started gesturing at each other, one sharp and angry and the other placating and cautionary.

            Torako’s attention was diverted as the demon reached out a sheaf of paper towards her. From it, tendrils of glowing circuitry traveled across air. She pushed herself back, vision tunneling until all she could see was the circuitry, coming closer and closer until brushed against her forehead.

            Something drew in past her skin and her skull, and her head felt frozen in place as she remembered the oddest of things. How to identify different candles, different hurling tactics, the way you could slide your stick above your opponent’s to swipe the ball from their grasp, the victory of winning and the dull pain of losing. Her breath hitched, and tears fell from her eyes because she was never going to be able to do that again, and she wanted to. She wanted to. She wanted to go back and live and win.

            She wanted to feel that thrum of energy the ball gave off in her gloved hand. She wanted to play in the sun, in the snow, and she wanted to turn to the crowds and wave to Bentley and have him wave back.

            The circuitry receded, and her desires felt as though they were crumbling into sand and falling into the ocean. “Interesting—certainly not what I usually receive as tribute. And,” the sheafs of paper slid in closer, metal type tumbling over their surfaces and skimming along the edges, “You certainly seem to know quite a bit.

            Torako let out a shaky breath. It came back in raspy and wet, and her hands were trembling above her knees. She stared ahead as the demon ground its stones and clacked its wooden type and moved on. Next to her, Feather-Hair let out a short scream as the demon checked her as well. It was silent as it collected the information, and all it let out was a few short beeping clicks and a derisive, “Literature Major.

            She tried to hold onto her knees, still damp from the snow, and shivered even though it was all too warm in the basement. Her fingers quivered, and she bent her head to her knees. She was going to die. She was going to die.

            Torako choked and pulled her knees closer to her chest. The demon whispered in pages and giggled in clacking blocks of type. Torako pulled at the rope binding her ankles together, and saw that the sleeve of her sweatshirt was stained dark with blood. Blue-Hair’s, she remembered.

            Ben, she remembered a moment later, and she jerked her head up to look at where the demon had finished looking through Green-Eye’s head. She felt her heart thud in her chest as the demon brushed its circuitry against the blonde’s forehead, and it emitted a few clicking beeps.

            “I need you awake,” it rustled, and electricity crackled down the entirety of its circuitry, lighting up its cloud-like body until the power reached the girl’s skin. The long-haired girl’s eyelashes fluttered, as though waking up from a long sleep, and the demon bapped and crackled.

            Torako thought, No. Ben.

            “Not too shabby,” it clacked. “But nowhere near the delicacy I was hoping for. One of the next had better be spectacular.

            It moved on to Bentley as the girl realized where she was and let out a scream. The demon ignored her and reached out its circuitry again, and Torako yelled, “Leave him alone!”

            The pages stopped rustling, the type stopped clacking, the stones stopped grinding. Everything was silent for a moment.

            Torako pushed herself into a standing position, anger and fear warring for control. “Leave. Him. Alone.” She growled, knees shaking and arms quivering. The silence was palpable, and it beat down on her shoulders like a living thing.

            “Shut up!” One of the summoners hissed. “Get down and shut up!”

            The demon’s stones ground and its wooden type cackled, a cacophony of noise that made Torako’s head hurt. “Or what?

            She knew she could never make good on her promise, but she thought about Bentley and where he was going to go in life and said, “Or I’ll end you.”

            It paused, then its pages rubbed together and its large stone tablets shifted against each other and it said, “I don’t believe you have the knowledge to be able to,” and it lit up the circuitry on Bentley’s skin.

            His eyelashes fluttered. It leaned forward, eager, greedy. And then a second passed, and it recoiled, pages flying back and stones tumbling over each other in its haste to get away.

            “No,” it whispered. “No. NO. Oh this is bad, this is abominable, how could you do this, you utter fools!

            One of its stones cracked in two, then melded itself together. The type shifted and ran across its pages, and Torako turned to see her best friend, rubbing at his eyes in confusion. “Ben!” she yelled. “Bentley!”

            Bentley’s eyes shot wide open, and he stared up at the demon with mouth open wide. He drew in a startled gasp.

            “I refuse this transaction!” the demon rumbled, circuitry crackling at odd intervals. “I will not deal with you, the walking dead! I will not—

            Bentley let out that breath, then sucked in another through his teeth and bellowed something wordless and loud. It filled the space, and the candlelight flickered ominously. The demon shuffled its pages even louder, tried to yank its stone tablets from the earth, but it was tethered.

            “Let me go!” it screamed. “Let me go and run, you fools!

            Darkness bled in from the corners until it formed a somewhat humanoid figure in the middle of the room, covered with brickwork bleeding gold. Plumes of yellow smoke drifted from its eyes and mouth, which had sharp teeth bared in a wicked smile.

            “A͑̍͐ͫ̚҉̫͕̼͟n̴͍̥̝̖͎͈̰̔̈́̇͒̉͢d̩̗̲̳̣̃ ͩͦͨ̿͌̐̃͏̳̖͝w̵̲͈̗̹͈̭͛̉̽ͪ̒ͦ́h̩̙͍̎ͤ͂ͨ̕a̗̱̿̔͋̓ͮ̓̒̎ͣt͖ͯ̀ͦ͑ͤ̂ͯ̽̓͠ ̀̑͌͛̑̉̐҉͇͖̬̝̮̼w̖̺͎̭̦ͦͪ̄̄̇e̷̞̮̲͖ͦ͂r͎̱̝̳̖͙̲͌̏̆́ͩͩ̎̂ͅȩ͖̭̇ͣͦ̈́ ͈͓̒̈̓w͍͖̤̬̤͔͖͉ͧͮͪ̋̀ę̭̮͌͑ͥ̇ͯ̀͜ ̛͖͓͎͕̼̿͒̐ͅű̗̗͎̝͚͇̼̀͋̀ͧ̒̈͒ͅp͚͎̖͚̮̝̰̰͊̌̆ͫ̌̚̚ ̒ͩ̑ͣ̿ͫͥ͏̪̪͉͎t̟͙̮͔͎͍̜͎ͦ̿ͫo̧̬͕̩̰̹͛͐͌͋͑͡,̸͓̮̹̂ͯ̂ͣ̆͑͑̕ ̭͓̙̪͉̩͙͖ͫ̇ͤ͛̅͐͂́d̴͕͖̤̬ͬ̾͑ͧ͆̏ͤ̑ë̘̞́̃̿̾͗̌ͦ̂a̜̫͇͗ͧ̉̓̆͢r̙̼̙̞̙ͬͯͦ͊͆̚͟ ̡͙̔͒́̍̑̔̃ͨͬ͢R̴̹͈̫̮̗̟̄ͩ͋͞o̷̴̞̤̦͑͂͑̏̋̌̆ͪ̚͜ǹ̝̺̺̣̗̘̮̑ͫẇ̵̻̱͎e̢͎͙͕̩̓ͧ̈̀̽̒̒̏͢ͅ?̩̱͍̳͔̱̞ͬ̎͢ͅ” It said, reedy voice thrumming with power. Torako didn’t realize that her hands were free until she felt them brush the wall on either side of her.

            She stared up at Alcor the Dreambender and felt paralyzed with fear.

            Somebody tapped her arm, and she knew before looking down that it was Bentley. “Come on, we’ve got to go,” he whispered. “Door’s open, let’s get everybody out of here.”

            “Ah, Lord Alcor—I promise, once I realized, I tried to pull out of the deal, I swear.” Its stone base rubbed together and groaned, shavings of rock sprinkling down to the ground and then disintegrating into nothing.

            Torako let Bentley grab her hand and lead her and the others to the door. One of the summoners noticed them leaving and yelled, “Hey! Get back here! We’re not done with you!”

            They all paused for only a second. As if they had reached a unanimous decision, they all decided to book it up the stairs, trying to get to freedom as fast as possible.

            “There has to be a way up somewhere,” Feather-Hair said, shaky and holding on to another girl’s hand so tight it had to hurt. The other girl moved with startling speed for her size, and Torako was reminded of how well Minna could run. “That’s what the Sacrihunters said, right? That they’d wait upstairs?”

            “Get back here!” One of the summoners howled.

            “Is it really smart to go up then?” Green-Eyes said. “I mean, they can probably round us up better than we can fight them back. Why don’t we take the car?”

            Torako laughed, looking around the room for an exit. “Just kick Blue-Hair in the ribs and you’ll be good there.”

            “Should I know something?” Bentley asked, even as the blonde pulled a door open and said, “This way!”

            “Later,” she said, and grabbed Bentley by the hand. Her heart thrummed in her chest and she felt as though they might make it out of this mess for the first time since they’d been caught.

            They moved forward, and Green-Eyes took one last look at the car before following. Torako pushed him through before pulling the door shut right in the one summoner’s face. His fellow summoner was coming right behind.

            “They’re on our tail!” Torako hollered. “Up, up, up!”

            Their group fled up the steps, boots stomping against the hardwood flooring and fingers trailing up the muted wallpaper. Behind them, the light of the car port spilled up and cast their shadows, long and dark, against the stairs. The floor shook, and the blonde leading the charge flung the top staircase door open as their pursuers began to ascend the steps.

            “Split up,” Bentley said suddenly. “You guys can go one way—out a door or something—and I’ll lead them the other way.”

            “Sounds good,” Torako said, “except for the part where you forgot about me.”

            Bentley stepped onto the landing right before she did. “I didn’t forget about you—you and the rest can get out, and I can lead them on a merry chase.”

            “Not while I’m here,” Torako mumbled as they moved down the hall and into a large room, decorated with expensive furniture and fancy-looking traditional artwork in elaborate frames.

            “Door’s this way,” the blonde said. She looked back at them. “You sure you’re all right with splitting?”

            “Yes, go!” Bentley said, already running to the end of the room. Torako grit her teeth, then waved the rest of the group on.

            “I’ll make sure he doesn’t get into trouble,” she hissed, and they parted ways. Moments later, she heard the first summoner, voice high-pitched and a bit nasal, yell something to his partner. She tipped over a chair as she ran by it, and the commotion had Bentley whipping his head around.

            “Fu—Torako! You were supposed to go with them!”

            She caught up to him and resisted the urge to smack him over the head. Behind them, the nasal-voiced summoner cursed as he tripped over the chair. “Screw that. You’re my best friend—now, right or left?”

            Bentley groaned and gestured to the right. They ran down the hallway, past the entrance to a large sitting room, and Torako caught glimpse of the Sacrihunters as they sprinted past.

            “Oh fuck,” she said, hearing Blue-Hair yell at them to get up because their sacrifices were getting away. “Shit.”

            Surprisingly, Bentley didn’t say anything. He just pressed his lips into a thin line and set his jaw. Torako glanced back, and cursed again when she saw that their original pursuer was now being joined by two more. “Ben! What are we doing?”

            “Oh no,” he said at last, and Torako looked ahead to see a large living room with high windows and a fireplace in the very back. It was a magically-fuelled one, because there was no wood in sight but it continued to burn, merry and bright and casting shadows down the hall. Torako had forgotten that the sun set so early here, further away from the equator.

            They slowed to a halt and turned around, backing up as their pursuers fanned out and tried to get at them from three different angles.

            “What did I tell you about trying to get out, girl?” Red asked, thick arms out and hands spread at the ready. “There’s no use doing it.”

            Torako snarled at him, reached out with her right arm and pulled Bentley behind her. Her heels touched the flagstones, and the fire was warm at her back. Her shadow was cast across the carpet of the nearly empty room, but she felt so small in the huge space. “Get away from us.”

            The summoner sneered and held out a thin, bony hand. “Come on, paying for people to get me sacrifices is expensive enough—I don’t need you ruining my plans.”

            “I thought that those already were,” Torako said, shifting her weight to her toes. She shifted her attention from Gold to the summoner in the middle and then to Red, and all over again. “That demon down there—Ronwe—seemed to have guppied out.”

            “We’ll summon a better one,” he said, mouth still curled up. He took a few steps forward, and started to raise his hand.

            “You’d better not,” Bentley said. He stepped in front of Torako, hands visibly shaking. She couldn’t see his face from where she was. “You don’t want to mess with us.”

            Torako glanced to her left, and saw a set of fire-grooming tools just behind her. They seemed to be there purely for aesthetic, but the heavy metal appealed to her. She put a hand out and raised her eyes to the rest of the group.

            “And why might that be?” Gold said. He was smiling—derisive, looking at Bentley, whose jacket was so large it nearly engulfed his whole hand, and Torako, shaking and sore, and seeing nothing to fear. She curled her lip and vowed she’d show him what there was to be afraid of.

            “I—” Bentley swallowed. Torako’s hand closed around the handle of the fire poker. “I’m—I’m Mizar.”

            The silence was short-lived, and born more out of shock than anything. The summoner let out a high-pitched burst of laughter and took a step forward. “You? Mizar? Mizar’s a demon, ignorant little boy!”

            Bentley squared his shoulders, and the timbre of his voice fell deep. Torako stared at him as he spoke, and something about the way he carried himself niggled at her. “I’m Mizar,” he said, voice booming and carrying in the still room. “And if you don’t want Alcor to fuck you over, you’d better leave.”

            Red took a step back, eyes narrowing in thought. Even Gold had halted, and he seemed to be appraising Bentley anew. But the summoner rolled his eyes and took another step forward, hand reaching out to grab Bentley’s jacket collar. “That’s bullshit—now get over here, you’re—”

            Torako lashed out with the poker, slamming it into his arm and pretending it could be an opponent’s stick going for her ball. There was a crack that echoed in the room, but the summoner’s screams were overshadowed by Bentley’s raised voice. “Alcor! Come!

            The words hadn’t even completely fell from his lips when the shadows in the room coalesced in front of them into a figure of void and gold and burning blue flames. It looked over its shoulder at them, visible eye a pit of golden smoke and the outline of another perched on its forehead. It looked back at their opponents, then roared, “W̗̼͓̯̫͎̝͍̦͚̖̝̐̿̒̄͑̄͆͛ͨͯ͂ͯͪ͂ͫ̑̚h͇͚̝́͑̋͌̂́ͤo̱͚̰̹̞͓̞͕͈̮ͨ͊ͤ̾ͦͭ͋̌̊̋ͯ̒ͦ͆́̌̿̅̎ ̪̖̞͎͖̱ͣ̋͐̇ͮ̔ͩͥd̺͔̮͈͉̣̖̝͎̬͔̖̭͖̝́ͭ̿ͫ̓̓ͣ͐ͮ̄͋̉̈́́̉ͥ̂ͦ̚a̝̞̭̠̗̱̹̯̼̗̱̪͚̿̒̑̇̂ͩ̃̎̐ͤ̽ͯ̈́͂ͩ̆̑̚ͅr̹̺̰̼̮̖̗̯̰̬̫̩͖̤̟͓̖̯̓ͧ̀e̬͇͎͓̟͕̘̭̣͙̳̱̬̝ͤ̍͊̑̌ͮͦ̽͂ͧ̊͆̆s̻͈͓͓̥̪̯̜͕̲̫ͪͧͫͯ͊ ̘̥̳̩̙̼̹̹̮̟̩̩̫̳̆̾̄͗͑͗̀̂̅ͣ̑̈́l̟̱̠̝͈̬͔͂̂̆̋ͬ́͗̾̏̊̅ͧͯ̑̚a̤̯̹͚̞̫͓̮̲̻̱̦̹̦̼̞̼̟ͥͥ̍͑͆̌̑ͯ̽͗̔ͩ͑̃̚̚y̘̣̭̫͈͓̲̭͎̳͈̫͉̫̩͔̖̖̬̆̅ͩ̋̈͒ͦ͊̋̿͑̑̾̀͌͊̅ ͎͈̩͚͈͎̗̪͔͙͕͕̱̳͐͗̑̂ͮ͒͆ͦ̃ͮ̌̓͂͐̊͑̅͊h̼͚͚̞̙̫̮̟̺̻̳̜͓͍͔ͥͩ̑̈͗̊̄̃̐͊a̞͚̯̬͈̯̞̤͍̹͍̗̩͉̼̣̎ͩ̄ͦͨ̄͑̎͊͛͛̎̂͂̚ͅn̗̹̻͈̯͈̮͈͖͇͎̣ͤ̒͛͑̐ͭ̾͌̏̄ͮ̓d͎̱͍̱͙͖̞̝͎̭͖͉ͣ͛̌ͧͣ̽͋̐̈̔́̅̿͐̃̚ ̺̻̤͔̥̞͍̉ͯ̓̈́́͐ͨ͑̓̾̊ͪ͌͂̍̌ͥͪ̏o̯̝̞̟͖͉̫̟̟̼͙̱̐̄ͨ̒ͤͥͤ̚n̼̫̠̙͓̮̤̪͉̘̲͛͗͋̓̅ͧ͗ ̦̬͈̲͓͎̫͇̞̲͈͂̔̏͂̈́̐M̮̥̘̟̻͎̩̟̦̲̹̃ͤͫͪ͐ͦ̿ͪ͒ͭ̂̚ͅȉ̼̗͉̯̱̠̖͓̲̲̙͎̠̞̯͎͊̇ͯ̅̇ͮ͌̆͋͆ͨͪ̽̔̉̉z̪̯̰̠͓̟̟̹̻͉͖̮̓ͩ͛̄ͯͦͬ̆ͤa̼̩̣͓̥͖̣̙̱͖̫͈̦̯̱̤̺͖̫̎͋̌̐̌̓̿̾̌̅ͩ̏͒̋r͙̤̝͇͕̘̭̣̥̼̯̄̽̌̏̄̿͌̾͛͌̄̈́̑͋ͩ̌ͣ,̬͔͉͎͙̮̜̹͓̹̠͂ͩͦ̿ͥ̓̿ͤ̓͊̌̂ͬ̓͌͊ ̦̼͓̬͒́ͩͬͯͭ̔̄̂̔ͪ͑ͪ́̀s͖̗͓̥͇̙̟̬̜͙̭̠̯̲̹̊ͮ̍̍ͮͫ͛́͑̐͆̈́͊ͫ̂̔̄ͮ͗ͅo̯͖̳̭͚͂ͣ͑̃ͫ͛͋͆͗̎̌ͥͧͪ̽͊ͪ͂̚ů̠̥͎̲͎̮̱̝̫̪͉̞̳͈͛͗̓͋͊̆̽̀͗͋̊ͅḽ͈̭̺͙̝̭̰̣̠̬̜̜͐̐̔̾̅̑ͧ͐̂ͮ̍̈́̆͐͒ͣ̆͛̚

̟̘̠̱̬o̹͇͍̮̼̙͉̲̯̣̭̲̥̱̣͕ͭͪ̏͋͆ͯ͑̏ͣ͂ͣͅͅf̺͕̹̥̳̞͓̞̳͓̯͔͓̹͚͑͆̂́͆͌͌ͮ̓ͪͅ ̼̳̝̰̀̔͋̒̆m̥͍̼͇̯͓̹̠͎̩̹͍̥̱̐̈́̽̉ͨ̉̋ͪ̾͐͛̊̒̃ͪ̄͋ͅy̮̝͇͔̹̫̻͍̫̠̤̹̰̭̼̪͋̍͆ͦͬ ̭̝̰͔̣̤͎͙̖͙̠̺̥͍̩͛̇ͥ͗ͨ̈́͑͋̍ͬ̚̚s͙͍̺͓̍ͣ̐ͫͦ́ͅo̹͓̖͙̰̙̗͖̐̃ͩͯͪ͒ͯ͒͌̌ͣ̆̏̉͛͌u͇̘̱̩̱ͥ̎ͫ̉͐̎̃ͩ͒͒̚l͕͙̩̗̤̏ͭͭ̇ͥ̐ͯ?̹̮͍͎̥̖͉̙̣̀ͦ̈̐”

            Torako stared up at the Dreambender for the second time that night, and for the second time, Bentley had to grab her hand and pull her along. “We should get out of here,” he said.

            Without turning to look at them, Alcor the Dreambender raised one pitch hand and snapped his taloned fingers. On the wall to Torako’s left, one facing the street, there was suddenly a door leading outside.

            “Thanks,” Bentley said, and he pulled her along, the iron poker still held in her numb hand.

            “We—it was a job, Lord Alcor,” Gold said, voice cracking. “Had we known it was your soul, we would never have presumed—”

            “A̮̹͈ͯͥͦͨ̎ͅṇ̙̣̮̪̭̤̬̗͖̼̯͔̰͔̬̻̒͆̓̆̐ͫ̽̆̔́ͨ͗ͦͥ̅ͨͅḏ̗̥̮̰̱̪̪̭͓̤͖͈̟̳͇͓͎̈́͗ͣͫͩ͗͑ͨ̿̐̃̓̀ͅ ̭͎͍̩̹͍͚͉̘̥̼͙ͮͯͣ̐ẏ̯̩͔͙͉̫̦̹̹͍̺̩͓̫̤͈ͤ̉ͤ͂̾ͬͤͥͥ̈́ͦ̚e͕̪̜̙͇̩̹͉̹͖̟̺̜ͥ̆̂̔͒̇̿̿ͪͩt͔͔̤͈̖̫̦͈̤͔̥̿͆͑̓̽̓͑̐̎̚ ̦̙̻̇͒̉̈͆̇ͭͨͩͣͪ͆̚y̬͕̼̟̭̗̲͔̩̘ͨ̾ͨͬͥ̓ͮ̒͗ͤͣͅo̙̝̙̻̜̼̙̭̯͉̩͚͊̿̄̾͗̑͌ͬ͋̈́͋ṵ̟̥͍̣̞̹͇̺͙͖ͪ̾ͬͩͪͫ̄͂͊ͭ̓͐̒ͅ ͇̠͕͍̯̖̳̝̞̜̮͚͙͉͎̌̊ͥ̓̿̉̉̔ͧ͑s͖̺̤̳͓ͤ͊̋͗͆ͣͯ͛̉̑̓ͨͩ̑̚t͙̥͎͙̙̯̹̳̦̗̩̜̜̦̜ͨ̌̒̌́̓̀̈́ͭ̓ͦ̈́͛̔̏̍͒̇̄ͅͅȉ͕͖̭̭͉̲͉͖̟̳ͧͮͦ̈ͅḻ̲̘̘̬̭̦̭͕̗̱̂̃̈͋̌ͫ̎͛͌̌̐̒̑̌̓͛̏̓l̖͇̠͙̞̠̱̄̒͌̀ ̰͈̣̦͈̗̻̤͖͎͊̾̍̃ͬ̅̒̒͋͒̽̚d̠͚̬͖̠̳̹̳̰ͫ̽͊ͦ́̆̃ͩ̉ͯ͒o̼͇̰͓̮̤̬̹͓̜̖̮̓̋̉ͪ̑ͦͣ̿̚ͅ,” Alcor growled, and Bentley opened the door. He tugged her through it and shut it behind them. When Torako looked up, the windows were all covered in inky darkness, and the iron poker fell from her hand and into the snow underfoot with a dull whump.

            Bentley, his hand still wrapped around Torako’s, stepped out into the snow. Stumbling she followed. It was minutes later, as they trekked out not to the street, but to a copse of pines in the middle of the yard, that Torako found her voice long enough to ask, “Ben?”

            He said nothing.


 

            She leaned against the tree next to Bentley, arms folded across her midsection. Snow was falling again, thick and silent, and she needed Bentley to answer her but he wouldn’t.

            Torako tried again. “Ben? What—What’s going on?”

            Bentley pulled in a breath, like he was going to answer, and even opened his mouth, but he let the breath out in a rush of mist. Torako bit back a growl of frustration and looked away, chewing at the inside of her lip and trying to ignore how much her cheek had swelled up.

            “I—” Bentley said at last, loud in the winter silence. She still didn’t look at him—just up at the dark grey sky, at the snow drifting down in thick flakes. “I promise. I’ll explain—I’ll explain everything. I promise.”

            “Does this have to do with two years ago?” she murmured. “With the whole Sainz thing? With how you can’t sleep at night without a light on?”

            “I—yes.” Bentley hesitated before adding, “I just didn’t want to see you hurt.”

            Torako laughed, even though she felt like crying and throwing something out of confusion. “How the fuck would I be hurt?”

            “Just—you know how it is. Back home.” Bentley kicked some of the snow underfoot, and it sprayed out before forming dimples in the blanket already on the ground. “I didn’t want you to have to deal with that.”

            Torako smacked her head back against the tree and closed her eyes. “You were though, weren’t you?”

            He didn’t answer at first, then quickly said, “Yeah. Yeah, sorry, I—your eyes are closed.”

            “Of course they are, numbskull,” she said. “And that’s stupid. That’s insanely stupid.”

            “What is?”

            “You think you can protect me by—by not telling me anything?” Torako opened her eyes and looked down at Bentley. “Fuck that. Fuck that idea. That’s not being friends, that’s being stupid.”

            Bentley pulled back, hurt in his eyes. “I—”

            “That’s not being friends, that’s keeping secrets and telling lies and refusing to let me help you because that’s what friends do.” Torako uncrossed her arms and crossed them again. “And the bigger the secret, the more you rely on somebody else, because you’re not going to do well on your own.”

            Bentley looked away. “I’ve managed pretty well so far,” he mumbled.

            Torako reached out and socked him in the arm. He turned on her, indignation on his face, and opened his mouth to yell at her.

            She beat him to it. “You can’t fucking sleep without a light on, Ben! You break down whenever it’s dark, you look like you haven’t slept some nights, and you still miss days of school on the regular! Fuck that, Bentley! Fuck that! Do you know how fucking worried I’ve been?”

            “I—”

            “Shut up, Ben!” Torako took two steps and positioned herself in front of him. “You don’t do that to your friends! I thought you were in fucking danger, and for all I know you still are and just don’t see it! Don’t look at me like that, I could tell you were being followed around by a demon, and that fucking worried me sick! Do you know why I want to study Demonology?”

            Bentley opened his mouth to answer. She put her hand on his lips, pushed down the urge to shake him. “That was a rhetorical question, Ben. No, yeah, sure, it’s interesting, but I was doing it so that I could get whatever demon it was off your tail so that you could start enjoying life!”

            “I’m sorry,” Bentley said, and Torako realized how small he was again. “I’m sorry. I—I didn’t…”

            Torako sighed, dropped her forehead to the tree above his head. “I was fucking worried, Ben,” she breathed. “You can’t do that again. You can’t.”

            Bentley reached up with his hands, laced them around her back. He pressed his head to her collarbone, whispered, “I’m sorry. I won’t. I—”

            They both felt the shift of air behind Torako, and they both looked at the disturbance. Alcor the Dreambender was there, floating, dripping red blood and breathing out yellow smoke. Bentley patted her on the shoulder.

            “I. I have to do this,” he said, and she let him pass her. She turned around, leaned against the tree, and watched Bentley pause in front of Alcor before flinging his arms around the figure, uncaring of the blood or the fact that he was literally hugging a damn demon. Upon contact, Alcor relaxed and floated back down to set his feet in the snow, and the black bricks fell away into nothing.

            Torako got just the briefest glimpse of Tyrone Pine’s mature face before he buried it in Bentley’s hair and clutched Bentley back. He was just a bit taller than Bentley, Torako realized. A small part of her pointed out that she was taller than a demon, and she would have grinned if she weren’t so emotionally exhausted.

            “You’re safe,” Alcor the Dreambender whispered. “You’re safe, you’re safe, thank you, you’re safe.”

            Bentley hummed. “It’s fine, it—sorry for not calling earlier, I wasn’t conscious.”

            Alcor drew back. “This is why I wanted to come with you! But no, you didn’t want me to, you wanted to go have fun with your best friend and not have to worry about me being around!”

            Bentley, much to Torako’s shock, reached up and smacked Alcor upside the head. “Hey. I didn’t know anything was going to happen, and I promised to call you. Besides, I think that there’s somebody you need to say hi to.” He jerked his thumb back at Torako.

            Alcor looked into her eyes, then down at Bentley. “We’ve already met.”

            Letting out a sigh, Bentley grabbed Alcor’s hand and dragged him over to Torako. She pushed down on the fear and anticipation, and looked at the demon as Bentley said, “Torako, my demon brother Alcor. Alcor, my best friend Torako. Now shake hands.”

            Torako rolled her eyes and stuck out her hand. “Hi. I’m not sure I trust you. But Bentley does, so that’s good for now.”

            Alcor, again to her surprise, let out a huff of laughter and looked her in the eye. He took her hands, talons dulled, and said. “Hey. You’re good for Bentley, you know that?”

            They shook, and Torako narrowed her eyes just a bit. Maybe, she thought, as Alcor pulled his hand away and continued arguing with Bentley, she might be able to trust him.

            Alcor grinned at her, as if sensing the thought, and said, “Hey, do you wanna know about the time where Bentley stuck all his fingers together on accident and tried to hide it for a whole day?”

            Despite herself, Torako grinned. “I haven’t heard that one before! Tell me everything.”

            “This was the worst idea ever,” Bentley moaned, and Torako thought once more that she probably could come to trust Alcor.

            She was still taking Demonology though.