So how to respond to this? “You may rise.”
The closest demons flipped themselves upright. (I really wanted to know how they did that sort of thing, they didn't even move and the breeze was pretty stiff. It was probably some demon magic thing.)
There were four of them; Three men, one woman. All four had charcoal black wings shot through with midnight black, and all four were well built, peak human physique levels that stopped just sort of gross. The three men had dark hair and eyes both that could either be dark brown or black depending on the light, while the woman had an ageless face that could mark her as either thirteen or thirty and a generous hourglass (if not so generous as mine).
“My Lady, what brings you here? How may we serve? We were under the impression that you were busy with mortal matters up above.” The first one said, his glance at Grex leaving no doubt where he'd got that impression.
I really should have planned this better, or at least gone over what I intended to say. I knew I couldn't afford to appear weak here.
“I have an issue, and you are all going to help me with it.”
He bowed again immediately. “Of course, my Lady.”
The woman spoke up: “Anything you require, my Lady.”
The others, even the ones behind the four, who were staying 'down' on one knee, all shot her a look.
Curious, but not why I came. With a wing-beat I lurched forward, in between the gathering before they had time to do more than flinch out of the way. “Walk with me. Grex, my receiving room.”
“As you command, my mistress.” Grex took point and began leading the way as we landed on the largest balcony in sight. I heard the thumps of the others touching ground behind me, but I didn't dare look.
One could only walk down so many drafty castle style hallways before getting bored, no matter how well carpeted they were and how many interesting tapestries and paintings they boasted. Or so I told myself. The torches set in dark iron scones cut most of the gloom, but there was still plenty to go around.
Enough to see the tapestries, though, and they all seemed to be historical. Maybe if I... no, there was no time. I'd be able to come back later, though.
What Grex led me to was a throne room. A throne room also filled with torches and tapestries on the walls, The other side of which I could barely see, with my enhanced eyesight. There were large tables on either side of the red carpet we were now following, all stone and intricately carved with designs that drew the eye in disturbing ways.
At the far end of the room was a throne. Right where I'd normally not be able to see it or at least not make anything out. Unfortunately, the thing was so huge that I really had no choice but to see it, even with the lack of light.
It was made of stone, and carved all along its length. The seat or depression was large; just how large I wasn't able to tell from here, but big enough to match the size of the chair... which was a stepped pyramid shape large enough for me to see in an area where the torches themselves were mere pinpricks of light and I could make out no details.
Considering that even with low light I could make out details for miles, this section truly was the nosebleeds.
Screw formality... mainly because it would take a year to walk the distance to sit on that throne. I headed to the nearest table, holding out my hand. Grex slapped the map into it, and I unrolled the thing and placed it on the table, using some silverware (made of real silver, from the looks of it) to hold it down. I fought down my embarrassment.
It was a printed map from Google, lovingly taped together. There just hadn't been time for anything else. Regardless, the demons crowded close, jostling each other, jockeying for position, and none commented on the flimsy thing.
No one jostled me, despite the fact that I was right in front of it.
“This is a map of the city I'm currently living in. What I want is simple; I want a grand total of twenty-six of you to co-ordinate and search the city for evidence of demon activity.”
Everyone present, even the ones pouring in as word spread, looked to me.
“Right. Other evidence of demonic activity. Circles that don't belong to me, demons that are not us, things like that. I want those picked to take a highlighted section of the map and scan it, and mark such activity on it – and I want it done by morning.”
One of the first four spoke up. He seemed cautiously curious, more than anything else. “Which of us do you choose for such a task?”
“I'm not choosing – you are. Or if you can't decide among yourselves, Grex will.” There was no point to me just picking demons at random after all, some might be better at searching than others. The twins seemed to be reasonably good at it, for example.
“How will we gate to the world of the mortals?” The woman asked – which earned her a glare from the man who spoke before.
“I'll open the way myself.” I'd already opened the way once to get Grex and I here; how bad could it be to open it again?
She bent to one knee, elbowing others of her kind out of the way as an afterthought. “As you say, my Lady. My name is Veess, it is most wonderful to finally meet your august magnificence.”
Did she have a shovel? I think she needed one.
“Oh do be silent Veess, you know better than to speak to your betters. Should you persist, I will silence you myself.” Said the first guy... the demon closest to Grex. Was there some sort of ranking thing I didn't know about at play here? There almost had to be.
“And you are?”
The demon promptly swept into a courtly bow and a smile, complete with a wing flourish, knocking his fellow demons aside with just as much care as Veess had shown moments before. “Ah, Apologies my Lady, I am Ulak, duke of the western marches and your most loyal servant.”
Grex cleared his throat and Ulak's smile slipped... but he didn't retract the statement.
“Right. Well Ulak, I'll let you all confer among yourselves while I work on the gateway home. I don't want any normal duties here you all may have to suffer as a result of my command, so choose wisely.”
Ulak bowed lower as I walked off, Grex in tow. Halfway up to the throne was probably far enough, but I motioned for Grex to spin a quick spell against eavesdropping, just in case; I was sure his were better than mine since he had much more practice at it.
As soon as he snapped it off he moved in front of me. “Some of my subordinates can lip read.”
He seemed slightly angry about something, tense and seething. I decided to just forge ahead; if he was angry with me he would just have to deal.
“So, what do you think?”
He frowned and waited a moment for replying. “That's it? That's all you have?”
“What do you mean?”
He sighed. “I've guided you to Limbo, as you asked. I've taken you to the Aerie, as you commanded. I've watched you meet my own subordinates and lay out your plan to them, as is proper... and the first question you have for me is 'what do you think'?”
I nodded, realizing what he was getting at now. But honestly it wasn't important. Not right now – finding the source of the demonic invasion before we all got overwhelmed was. Getting the angel that might still be stalking me to realize there wasn't any reason to stay and look for me was also important.
The absolutely huge fortress, the extra large throne and the names of the demons working for my own? Not as important. At least not yet.
Grex sighed again. “They won't betray you, at least not yet. You have thus far struck the proper note of command, and they sense your natural talent besides. You have a... charisma to you.”
That looked like an uncomfortable admission for Grex to make. Not quite as uncomfortable as it was to hear from a demon, but it probably hurt him at least a little bit.
“...right. So, I don't need to fear the knife in my back just yet. Good to know.”
I had been tempted (and in truth was still more than a little tempted) to make it an order, to all demons present. A statement like 'don't betray me in any way at any time' would probably go far. But I wasn't sure my authority extended that far, or would work that well. I think the effect was diluted if the demon wasn't right in front of me, or I wasn't speaking directly to them. I wasn't certain of course, but I felt I should test it before making a fool of myself and turning an entire circle of Hell against me.
Just another thing to add to the list of things to test when Grex wasn't around.
“I also think we should actually get started on opening your gateway if you expect to keep to your unrealistic timetable.” Grex added, completely unnecessarily.
I didn't think my timetable was unrealistic. I mean, it had been awhile for many of my impressed troops, but they used to help make miracles happen. Even now they made the impossible happen as a matter of course, what was one more impossibility?
“Alright, well, we start with a circle, right?”
“Not exactly.” Grex replied. I didn't like that sudden smirk of his.
“Okay, what now?”
“Well, gates cannot be built or maintained from this side of Hell. No demon can simply move into the mortal realm without an anchor, be it an object or a person. You are an exception to the rule of course, and I may follow you... but those you see to employ will be unable to follow using the laws you hope to employ.”
That made a worryingly good amount of sense. “This feels like something you should have brought up with me beforehand, Grex.”
After all, he'd known what I was planning.
“There was no need. There is, of course, an alternative.”
I crossed my arms on purpose, a clear signal. “I'm waiting.”
Grex grinned a more genuine smile. “We simply use your existing gateway.”
Wait. “I have an existing gateway?”
“Of course. How else would we simply appear in Limbo and Earth, trading between them with no more effort than is employed in a brisk walk?”
Well there was more effort than a brisk walk employed, I knew that much. I had a lot of power, but the drain to come here had been noticeable. Wait, was he implying....
“We can't waste the time on another walk out to that spire Grex.”
“Of course not. In truth, we did not need to waste any time on the first walk. I was simply directing you to a place you have already been, one that had felt the weight of your presence, and one that you were familiar with.”
Hm, both of those were important. Strong demonic powers (and I'd assume angelic ones too, now that it was certain angels existed) sometimes broke things around them, in much the same way they broke people with prolonged exposure.
In the case of reality or space, however, it just translated into making certain things easier. Like summoning and contracting and certain other spells. I wonder if angels sanctified things instead? Would I find it easier or harder to summon in a place where an angel had been? Yet another thing to test, if I found the time.
“And Now that I'm here, we can do it again?”
Grex gave a little head shake. “Not exactly. It may be easier for you, as you don't entirely belong here in the way others do, but the gateway is already established, and only that gateway will do.”
My stomach met my feet. “What gateway?”
“The one to your apartment, of course.”
I had been right to be worried. “I can't take a bunch of demons to my apartment! To that building!”
Grex showed his teeth. “But of course you can. They can simply become lost in the background noise. There are dozens of demons in that building as is, two dozen more won't be noticed.”
“Grex, that building is summoner central. It has almost every highly trained summoner in the area and their demon living in it.”
His grin widened. “That's why it's perfect. It's least expected.”
Right. Why was I expecting logic or sanity from him? He was a demon.
The smile slid from his lips. “It is the only choice. Your established gateway is the only gate which will work; without it, even you are trapped here. Your apartment will offset the signature of so many demons at once, and we can take steps to make sure they are not detected as they leave.”
Yes, we could do that. I was way ahead of him there. I took a breath and the steadiness in my voice had to have surprised Grex; I know it surprised me. “And where does this gateway connect to, if not the spire we came from?”
“Your quarters of course. This way.”
Quarters? I had quarters here? “Lead on.”
Grex led me to the right of the throne, to a section of wall. Along the way, I got a slightly closer look at the thing – and found it absolutely covered in historical motifs, like the fall of Minos, the fall of Jericho, the fall of Rome, all complete with weeping peasants and fleeing soldiers. I was sensing a trend here.
At Grex's touch, the section of wall slid open to reveal a long hallway. How did they even change the torches in this place? There had to be thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands; even one demon per torch per night (torches should burn out much faster than that) would be....
“This way, My mistress.”
I followed Grex and tried to focus. A lapse of attention could kill me here.
The hallway swung around, through many twists and turns, and a few branches which Grex didn't even so much as look at. Twenty minutes or so later, just when I was about to get thoroughly lost, we came upon a familiar-looking door.
It was my apartment door, complete with the room number. Even the scratches on the knob matched.
Grex stood to one side. “You locked the door, and it would be unseemly for me to charm it.”
Wait, this was my actual...? No way. I put the key in the lock and turned the knob, revealing my kitchen.
There was still some old coffee in the pot, and the dirty dishes matched up. I opened my fridge and found my chocolate stash in the door.
“I'll go and retrieve those who are coming with us; they should have come to a consensus by now. Please leave the door open.” Grex said from the doorway, right before he ducked back out.
He knew. Did he do it, somehow? If so, how? I didn't tell him to, but I also didn't tell him he couldn't specifically, since I didn't even know it was possible.
The television in the living room turned on, right to animal planet, the last channel on before I went to sleep. How would that even work? Was there electricity in Hell? So far there hadn't been, and if there was you'd expect light bulbs. My mug was on the coffee table; I'd have to talk to Grex about that, he was supposed to clean up before we left.
My bed was rumpled, the blankets thrown back, just as I'd left it. All of the furniture, if it wasn't mine, it was so close a match my eyesight couldn't see any differences.
I went back to the kitchen and started some coffee.
It wasn't quite finished when the first of my volunteers trooped in. The volunteers all did the same thing; they entered, looked around, and either crinkled their noses or turned them up.
My apartment was pretty big, but just over two dozen demons later the living room and kitchen were both filled. Grex made a show of pouring my coffee as the other demons watched.
“We are all present, and we all have our assigned areas, My Lady.” Veess stated with a bow.
I took a sip, covering desperately. Grex signaled for me to shut the door.
I took my time with another sip of coffee, then got up, reached past a demon I didn't know and pulled the door shut.
Grex then motioned for me to open it again, so I did. It opened into what was clearly the summoner's apartment building hall, with no intervention, no pull on my power, nothing at all. We were just in Hell one moment, and the next, not. I could feel the difference as soon as the door opened, but not how it happened.
I'd worry about that in a few minutes. For now, I had to get these demons out of here. The hallway was clear, but there were cameras.
“Alright. Each of you come to the door, single file.”
The one who I had to reach past was first. I stuck a hand out. “You will do as I command you at all times while here at my request. You will search your section of my map and inform me of anything unusual or demonic. Whether you find anything or not, you are to return here and I will send you home. Got it?”
He staggered back with the force of either my words or presence. Whatever it was, he fell to a knee. “I hear and obey, my Lady.”
“What is your name?”
“Hilken, my Lady.”
“Alright, Hilken. Make yourself invisible before you leave, and before you come back, to avoid detection.”
He ducked his head and faded from sight – I could still detect him because I had the sense and knew he was there, but anyone else would be hard pressed to.
Going through them all one at a time burned another chunk of time I felt we didn't have, but it was better than letting potentially devastating demons roam free or mostly free. Gathering their names for future reference was only prudent too; if they did a good job, I could call on them again, and if not I'd be able to single them out quickly.
I didn't really breathe until the last one was away. There was no outcry raised so detection was unlikely; I hadn't even thought to make sure those I brought with me could spoof sight and the cameras. I really needed to work more on my long term planning.
But with the last of the demons I shouldn't talk in front of gone and the door closed (even though I opened it again – we remained safely in the apartment complex) it was time to discuss certain things.
I turned. “Grex.”
I was getting a good idea after all this time what his tells were, and judging from the slightly twitching hands and the eye movement, Grex was nervous.
“Yes, my mistress?”
“I have questions, and you have answers.”
“As long as it doesn't endanger your safety I will answer my Mistress.” He hedged. I was beginning to hate that hedge.
“How and when did my apartment become an actual gate to Hell?”
“The first day, after you asked me to prepare it, and partly through my preparations and partly through your very presence.” He answered promptly.
Answering promptly was a good strategy for him. “So your preparations did this? Are you insane?”
He started to pour himself some coffee. My quiet command hit him with enough force to stagger him.
He blew a breath and sank to a knee. “I prepared the way, but on your orders. You requested comfort and safety. Such a ritual, powered by your continued presence, was the best way to provide it. Your presence would have exerted much greater effect on your surroundings, and been much more vulnerable to detection otherwise.”
He stood and looked directly down into my eyes. “Did you think that your contract, the powers you gained, would have no such disadvantages? That your frail mortal frame would be unchanged by the power you sought, even with examples laid before you? No, you were not that naive – instead, you grasped for all you could, greedily, when it was offered. You sinned, Maeve. All the consequences you now face are the wages of that sin.”
I shrugged my wings uncomfortably. He was right; he tempted me, but I fell for it.
Then Grex was hugging me, and not in that playful way he had either. This was gentle... distant, but almost kind. “All mortals have weakness, Maeve. You were no different. If it eases your mind, you may at least rest assured that you did not miscalculate your soul's value.”
That did make me feel a little better, but I wasn't so sure about it; my soul's value seemed to have dropped of late. Still, even worse, I was getting comforted by Grex. It wouldn't do to forget who he was.
I pushed him off, and he retreated. “Second question. How does this gateway work, and why hasn't it been detected?”
“That should be 'questions two and three,'” he corrected.
I rolled my eyes at him, as melodramatically as possible. He shifted to a lecturing tone I hadn't heard in awhile. “It works through you. You are grounded in two different realities; that of Limbo and of Earth. The apartment follows suit; when you are grounded in Earth, the apartment follows. When you are grounded in Limbo, the apartment is as well.”
“So the ritual to get to Limbo earlier was completely pointless?”
Grex shook his head. “The ritual centered you. It was the easiest way to get you to your goal without an explanation.”
“And why not just explain?”
“Two reasons. One, a secret shared is a secret spoiled; secrets have a power all their own, and this one has already saved your existence twice. Once you knew, you could share it with others who can eventually betray you. Best not to share at all, unless I had to.
The second reason is the explanation itself would take time, and it was time you felt we didn't have. You really are too dedicated for your own good.”
Grex grinned as he delivered that line, almost daring me to disagree with him. I really couldn't, even if I knew I wouldn't let such a devastating secret slip (if anyone else had ever gotten that kind of power from a contract, I hadn't read or heard about it) because if people found out I could open a gate to Hell I'd get swamped in people looking for their loved ones and inquisition types.
And without the explanation, the easiest location for me to link to would be where I'd linked to before – the lookout spire. I wonder if that was an intentional location, or if I'd just latched onto it at random; I hadn't been in control that first time and Grex probably hadn't been either, for all his experience. I couldn't see any reason why he'd make sure we ended up there – unless he hadn't thought I was ready for meeting his family. Which was a possibility. Time to move on.
“Alright. How many demons can I control the way I do?”
Grex blinked. Then laughed. It was a disturbing laugh because there was no malice in it; it sounded perfectly human. “Why all of them, of course. The only limitations on that ability are someone stronger than you commanding the same demon, in which case you lose, and how you word the orders. But such is true of almost everyone, even myself. Only the boss himself doesn't have to worry about that because he can never be outranked. I've said as much before.”
“Yeah, but I wasn't sure I could order everyone back at the keep - the Aerie? All at once.”
“It's for the best that you didn't try then. You played your role perfectly; my subordinates saw a strong demon ruler. They will be less likely to try and challenge your rule in the future – something that will be a boon the more you use them.”
I didn't like the implication of that statement at all. Letting more demons loose on the Earth even once was a huge risk. I'd see for sure later; they had all been commanded to do their job and return, if any took liberties it would be an easy thing to spot.
“So how hidden are we still? I mean I know the building is all background noise, but there is noise, and then there's NOISE, right?”
Noise was still the best way to refer to power usage, which was detected by other demons, angels, and certain summoners as a type of analog to actual sound. I did it myself, as part of my contract package, which of course meant Grex did too.
We'd long since disabled the cameras in the apartment. They showed what we wanted to show, when we wanted to show it, with just the right amount of slightly rebellious behavior all summoners showed just to avoid suspicion. So at least they weren't a concern. Outside the apartment was another matter, and the wards put up both inside and around the building were extensive.
“Still fairly well hidden. The gateway itself is a form of threshold spell, and works on the doorways of your personal spaces, linking them. As such, most of the power draw and signature is quite negligible – comparable to a standard contract summoning of my caliber perhaps.”
That was far too suspicious to be coincidental. Grex was good.
“However, as most of the signature generated is directed elsewhere, it ends up in Limbo, which means I know every single time you appear to us in your sleep.”
And there was the creepy grin again. I was going to ignore it this time.
If he knew that meant the rank and file probably knew too, which could be good or bad. They might think me more hands on than I was. And speaking of hands on....
“Grex, the mayor of Filex.”
“Filat.” He corrected.
“Yeah, Filat. The mayor seemed very anxious when we showed up. Not fear exactly, but... okay well it had been mixed with fear too. Then you suggested we avoid the other settlements. What's the story there?”
“We are their overlords, but our touch is light. The human souls rule themselves, and we only step in when we must. It is enough that they look to the sky and see Heaven in all it's glory, knowing they may never walk it.”
I'd only seen a brightly lit day. I hoped that didn't say anything about me, but it probably did.
Grex knew me. For the second time tonight he pulled me close, gently. “You had a choice, Maeve. Only the mortal souls of those bound to the realm can see it; Limbo is a deficient Heaven for the just and righteous but not of the faith.”
“That seems kind of... dickish.” I blurted, then realized what I said.
Grex grinned and opened his mouth; I cut him off. “No, stop, don't want to hear whatever you were going to say there.”
No need to compound my sin with another. I'd apologize to the big man for everything later, on my own time. It wouldn't help of course, but now that I knew for sure he existed, I felt the need to apologize.
Wait, come to think of it, why had I seen a day? We had crossed over at nigh and had hit daytime. Or at least some kind of eternal dusk. Did the sun never set there or something? Or did time simply work differently there? I mean time being mutable there only made sense, but it seemed to have some kind of rhythm.
“So wait, you can't see it either?”
Grex shook his head. “Only those chosen may perceive the glories of Heaven. We are no longer such.”
I'd imagine that after having once known Heaven, seeing it every time one looked would only foster resentment. It was perhaps best that the demons couldn't, in true out of sight out of mind fashion.
That, and if they couldn't see it, they probably didn't know or remember where it was anymore, which would make it harder to storm.
Still, the desire to at least see it was strong within me; the idea to know what I was missing, and to be able to compare Limbo and Hell was strong. I guess I'd have to settle for just experiencing Limbo and Earth while I could before I ended up somewhere worse.
A polite knock sounded on the door before I could tap into the booze; I motioned Grex to get it. The door opened on nothing, and a moment later closed. The nothing resolved itself to one of the eriynes I'd sent out. Um... Ordiv was his name. He promptly dropped to a knee and lowered his head before me.
“My Lady, I have found something both suspicious and demonic.”
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