Meri coughed as the summoner heaped yet another handful of cinquefoil onto the brazier. She pulled her cowl lower and tucked a stray lock of her long, chestnut-brown hair back underneath, not wanting to be recognized. Her employer had hired her to oversee two daemon invocations this week. At the first one, she had been a mere bystander to an uneventful and failed attempt. Would this be yet another waste of her time?
Reverend George coughed and mumbled in low tones through the required chants, and she shook her head, rubbing her fingers along her brow. She recognized the words for the spells meant to cleanse and ward the space, but without the proper consistency of intonation — which he lacked — they held little force. He continued chanting away as he picked up a bowl from the small altar and then walked clockwise, laying out a line of mostly even sea salt along the ground around the outer perimeter. The attendees’ faces she could make out through the shadowy fog held undeniable tension and fear — not exactly a show of faith in the summoner’s skills, or perhaps they rightly feared the ritual’s intended product.
“Amateur,” Meri whispered under her breath. Reverend George was an abject example of ‘you get what you pay for’. In daemon-infested Denver, this was just another abandoned hovel, permeated with mold and filled with rats as the backdrop to yet another summoning. The internal walls of the building had been stripped of any burnable wood for nightly cook fires for the city’s homeless, and anti-Corporate graffiti decorated what remained.
In the economically depressed city, it never surprised her how many desperate souls were willing to risk a career as a summoner for the promise of the cash payoff. The Reverend was a middle-aged man of mixed heritage, his hair and long beard held equal parts buzzard feathers and blackened mud. His flamboyant, long-sleeved, velvet, purple jacket and alligator boots lent him an air of eccentricity, enhanced by the speckles of mud scattered upon them. Would the people, maybe the same ones who crowded this room, mistake the ritual elements as signs of power? Plus, she’d heard the newcomer worked for reasonable prices. What a deal.
Not exactly a selling point when the summoned creature might end up eating you for dinner. But heck, he’d made it this far, right? So let’s fire up that brazier! A few words mentioned on the street guaranteed you an audience of random onlookers, all the better to spread your reputation. Assuming, of course, you lived through the night.
She itched to step in and show the Reverend each of his mistakes before anyone got hurt. However, she wasn’t being paid to be a Good Samaritan, so she held her ground and waited, as much as watching such poor techniques chafed her.
Reverend George finished warding the space using a bowl of sanctified water, repeating a similar pattern as he had with the salt, and then he held up his hands to those in attendance. “If you have doubts or fear that your mind can’t handle what you’re about to see, then leave now!” Everyone stood still, waiting to see if anyone would bolt. No one did.
She watched him face the crowd, arms stretched out wide, inviting challengers. He walked into the center of the ring of salt and knelt. Dramatically, he tore open his shirt and picked up a consecrated ceremonial blade from the altar before him. Not a speck of daemon ink was in evidence on his skin. Definitely a novice.
“Engetheus, daemon of rage and retribution, I invoke thee!” Reverend George took the blade and sliced across his abdomen above the liver. A trickle of blood ran freely across the unmarked skin.
He doesn’t even know the right offering? This is going to end predictably.
“I present my flesh offering in kind, and command you to rise up and take form!”
Meri waited and listened to the Reverend repeat the chant, over and over, until a familiar tingle in her liver crept under her skin, building into fingers of flaring heat and ice tracing patterns across her nerves. A swirling vapor cloud wafted from the floor. The familiar colors of green, gray, and black were visible even in the dim light; contrasting against the sigils the reverend had drawn earlier on the floor. She smiled then, knowing things were about to get interesting. Her employer’s fee would be well spent.
The chanting Reverend George kept his eyes closed, so he missed the emergence of Engetheus. Gasps and shrieks erupted from the onlookers as they beheld the daemon’s bright red, muscular form, all seven feet of him — not counting the jet black horns which rose another foot. His coal-black eyes and long, sharp fangs matched his gleaming horns. If the crowd was expecting rage personified to look like a bunny rabbit, they’d just gotten an education. Only the bravest resisted fleeing the hovel and everyone but Meri took a few steps back.
Reverend George stopped his chanting and gazed up at the beast, eyes wide with fright, fixated on the daemon’s horns. She sighed and watched him stand up in front of the rage daemon. This is why she never knelt at a summoning. Even after standing, the daemon still towered over the reverend, emphasizing the inherent lack of power balance. Being only five-foot-eight and weighing about one fifty-something, she was used to looking up to the often tall daemons. The important part was never showing them a hint of fear.
“I am summoned, Reverend George,” Engetheus rumbled, “but to what end?” By the glint in his eyes, she imagined he had a long list of his own vengeance targets.
At least one gasp went up from the crowd and Meri guessed the witness just put two and two together and figured out daemons could identify humans by scent alone, even if it was the first time they’d met you.
“I have called you forth to exact retribution upon Harold E. Fields.” He pulled from his jacket pocket a small bag and held it out with a shaking hand. “This holds his hair and will guide you to him.”
Engetheus snatched the bag and took a long whiff, and then tossed the bag aside. “Yes, I have met this one. Finding him again is no challenge.”
Meri lifted her chin and narrowed her gaze on Engetheus while running her hand over his marking over her liver. The daemon’s eyes flashed to hers for a moment, no more.
“What form of retribution is required?” Engetheus asked the Reverend.
“Death to him and any kin abiding with him. The form is of your choosing.”
“That is to my liking, summoner. But first, payment is required.” A smile spread across Engetheus’ face, revealing more sharp, black teeth. His thick, black tongue snaked across his teeth; he was eager for his due.
Reverend George took a small bowl from the altar and made a light cut above his abdomen again, taking care to collect the blood in the bowl. He held the bowl out to the daemon. “Accept this blood from my liver, to satiate your hunger.”
At this, Engetheus chuckled and Meri sighed. Reverend George hadn’t done his homework.
Engetheus slapped the bowl from the Reverend’s hands. “That is not a fitting payment. You will give me what I require.” The daemon moved with lightning speed, knocking the man to the floor. Engetheus crouched over him and raised his fangs over his liver. The few remaining onlookers fled, not wanting to watch or be next in line for the daemon’s appetite.
“Engetheus, hold!” Meri commanded. She dropped the cowl from her cloak and stepped forward, tracing her hand over the pattern of Engetheus daemon-ink under her clothes. An answering fire lit in the daemon’s eyes, his ink a living fire across her flesh.
Engetheus roared, now unable to move any closer to the errant reverend. His black eyes turned to stare her down, but he didn’t back off from his intended prey. Her liver burned in a reflection of the daemon’s emotions, a visceral reminder of their prior engagements.
“I saw you, summoner Meri. I assumed you were just here for the show.” The daemon flashed her a wide, toothy grin, which held no mirth.
“Bound once, bound always, rage-bearer. I’m here to modify your orders.”
“No, you can’t do that!” said Reverend George. “I summoned him!”
“Yes, and you were doing so well, sport,” Meri said. “Unfortunately for you, Engetheus and I go way back. If you were a pro, you’d know not to invite anyone else to your summoning to avoid just this potential conflict of interest for the daemon. Daemons will respond to whoever displays the most powerful hand. It’s called the A Priori Rule, not that it helps you now.”
“There’s no conflict for me.” Drool dripped down onto Reverend George’s chest, drawing a whimper from him, but the daemon deferred to Meri. “Command me.”
“First, you are to ignore the previous command to inflict retribution on Mr. Fields and his kin.”
“For what length of time?” Engetheus asked.
“Until I, and only I, lift the restriction. Now, tell me who hired this summoner.”
Engetheus sniffed deeply, and then returned his expectant gaze to her. “Mr. Sam Hodge.”
“Well done. You will hunt him down, tear him limb from limb, and then feast upon him, as you will. You will leave his kin unharmed.”
Engetheus frowned, no doubt disappointed at having fewer targets to kill. “Done.”
“Third, when this task is complete, you will exit this dimension and return to your own, harming no others in your wake.”
“As you command. Anything else?”
“One last thing. I feel this client would like some trophies. Bring me the standard ones when you’re done.”
Engetheus’ muscles rippled across his torso and his inky tongue darted out. Meri steeled her nerves and wondered what range of emotions the daemon tasted in the air right now. “This pleases me,” he replied.
Her gaze drifted from the tips of Engetheus’ ebony horns, his cruelly curved fangs, his broad and stout red-skinned bulk, all the way to his black-clawed hands and feet.
“This isn’t about your amusement or mine. I simply wish to make a statement to a sub-standard and weak human, should he challenge me. Surely you can appreciate this?”
Engetheus bared his full complement of fang. Meri supposed it was a smile. “I like your style, summoner. As you command.”
Their agreement bound, she steeled herself. “As to your payment.”
She picked up the bloodied bowl and gave it a quick rinse with the handily available sanctified water from the altar. Without a second thought, she shoved two fingers down her throat and then on cue, vomited into the bowl. She swished some water through her mouth and spat it out into the bowl as well. She turned to see a disgusted human gaze and a worshipful daemonic one.
“You see, Reverend, rage daemons hunger for our hate, and energetically we store hate in our liver. As our bodies cleanse, this negative energy is secreted as bile.” She handed the bowl to the still crouching daemon. “All debts are paid?” she asked, still holding the bowl.
“Paid in full,” Engetheus replied with a greedy gaze. “All shall be as you command.”
“Thank you for the lesson, Miss Meri,” Reverend George said.
She looked him in the eye, yet managed no remorse. Engetheus noisily consumed her offering, engrossed in his momentary delicacy.
“I guess I’ll be going now,” Reverend George said. She watched him try to back his way out from under the massive daemon.
“There’s still the matter of your payment.” Engetheus pinned him down with a clawed foot while he finished the offering from Meri.
“But you’re not taking commands from me anymore. I don’t owe you anything!”
The daemon’s laughter reminded her of rocks scraping together. “You summoned, you pay. Her payment doesn’t apply to our arrangement.”
“But … but, I can’t throw up easy like she can! Just give me a moment!”
“I’m not the patient type.”
Meri watched as Reverend George’s skin was torn asunder, his tortured cries echoing through the exposed rafters of the dilapidated building. He was no match for the powerful daemon he’d summoned and failed to bind. It was a risk each summoner faced at every summoning. She stood and watched, unable to walk away, the grotesque reminder of her own potential future staring her in the face. Instead, she witnessed Engetheus eat the man’s liver bite by bloody bite. The Reverend refused to die quickly. He continued to whine while he tried to fight off the daemon.
With every mouthful, Engetheus’ marking upon Meri’s flesh pulsed with invigorating life force. The connection wasn’t lost upon her: this creature was rooted under her skin. When the daemon swung his head in her direction and met her eyes, his dark eyes blazing with hidden knowledge, she knew without words he reveled in their bond.
She finally left the building when the Reverend ceased flailing, the pool of blood around his body hauntingly familiar. She walked on, despite the growing awareness in her liver as more daemon ink bubbled up onto her skin, intensifying her connection with the daemon. And deeper, as only summoners understood, under her skin, her bile churned and her mood inflamed. She could have bargained with the daemon for the man’s life. However, there was only so great a payment she was willing to take on to any daemon. She had to preserve every inch of remaining bare skin and every ounce of sanity she had left.
* * * *
Meri walked a few blocks, hoping for a taxi, when the air turned sultry, perfumed with vanilla and sandalwood. Soothing warmth heated her blood, easing the pain in her belly and traveling like an electric current from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.
Meri stopped and scanned the area around her. She’d had daemons sent after her before, but one who curled her toes? That was original. “Reveal yourself!”
The daemon appeared a few paces in front of her. He was over six feet tall and could pass for human, that is if humans could ever be mistaken to look so perfect, or to manifest out of thin air. He was lanky yet muscular. Silvery blond hair framed his angular face and was cropped close to the nape of his neck. His clothes appeared like a typical human’s black pants, boots, and an expensive-looking button-down white shirt.
The intensity of his ice-blue eyes riveted her, and Meri couldn’t help but notice his full lips and imagine what his skin might feel like pressed against hers. Would it be cool in contrast to hers, as it appeared in color, or deceptively warm? The texture could be silken smooth, as it looked, or rough as sandpaper. It was difficult to know with daemons. Things were never as they first appeared.
Wait a second, Meriwether Storm, daemon summoner extraordinaire, mesmerized by a daemon? She focused on the pain in her abdomen, a stark reminder of recent, and very real nature of the daemons she’d come to know. This one was likely no different, regardless of his charms. Meri sighed deeply. Why couldn’t she have better taste in men? Could she at least be interested in a human male? She put her best game face forward.
“State your name, daemon,” Meri demanded.
“Why have you sought me out?” And, more importantly, who had summoned this creature to her? She doubted his arrival meant anything fortuitous.
“You look unwell, and this is not the best place for a … private conversation.” His solicitous gaze struck her as either entirely genuine or cunningly calculated.
Yeah, a private conversation was the last thing she needed to have with this temptation. “My present health is not up for discussion,” she replied, knowing it would take days for her liver and mood to recover from the encounter with Engetheus. “My schedule doesn’t presently permit time for a private meeting with the most impressive Azimuth.”
The faintest hint of a smile curled his lips. “Perhaps you would feel more comfortable closer to home?”
He moved towards her, his steps fluid and graceful as a cat, and she fought the instinct to back away. She was determined to concede no ground and show no sign of reacting to him.
He reached out towards her and it took all of Meri’s willpower to resist flinching when his hand rested lightly on her arm. Azimuth’s teleportation was instantaneous and had no sense of movement and the next moment they stood on her front porch. He stepped away from her, breaking their near-electric connection.
“I’m not paying for that. I’d intended to catch a cab.”
“Consider it a simple gesture of my goodwill. Besides, that neighborhood is a slum. I wouldn’t trust the taxi drivers there.”
“And yet I should trust you, daemon?” She took a seat in one of the wicker chairs on her front porch, a welcome relief for the pain in her belly. Azimuth smiled broadly and Meri warmed under the focus of his attention. Damn him.
“That’s entirely up to you, Meri. I’m sure in time you will judge me as you see fit.”
He took a seat across from her on the porch, and she gave him the once-over again. His fine linen white shirt was spotless and draped his form yet held a crease. Meri had no doubt he’d had it tailored. Did daemon tailors exist? His black leather pants molded to his thighs in all the right places. His black leather boots didn’t have a single scuff mark on them. Was this daemon a master of illusion or very well compensated by his master? What did he mean, “in time”? How long could this job take, after all?
“What business, pray tell, does your summoner have you on tonight?”
“My employer wishes to hire you, due to your impressive reputation.”
His flattery stroked her pride, and in turn flamed her temper, which echoed the burning in her liver. She knew what daemon flattery was worth: nothing. However, she’d never had a daemon present a job offer before, and she couldn’t help but be curious.
“Your employer sent a daemon instead of contacting me directly?”
“I can be suitably persuasive.”
“Oh, I bet you can,” She replied under her breath. He raised an eyebrow and Meri sucked in her breath and focused on the pain in her liver. If she didn’t watch herself, he’d catch on that her interest was more than professional. “You’ve piqued my curiosity. What’s the job?”
Azimuth’s lips curled in a self-satisfied smug. “Rest tonight and I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”
Before Meri could speak another word he was gone, and to her distaste, she discovered she wished he wasn’t.
* * * *
All works and material are copyrighted by Candice Bundy. Any transcription or reproduction is illegal.