Room in Hell chapter 30.

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Our town had a warehouse district, right by an old half used train yard. Ordiv led us to one of the warehouses some distance away from the tracks, a middlingly old one that looked to be in good repair.

From across the street, I could feel the concentration of demonic power; the wrongness which felt so right. It felt as if there were dozens of demons in there; maybe more.

I and my little army were perched, literally, on the top of the buildings surrounding our target. The troops consisted of me, Grex, Ordiv, and the twins. There were no other buildings like this one; every other quadrant checked was clear, and the other demons had already been sent home with my generous thanks as their reward. They seemed happy for just that much, just like Ordiv did.

“Thank you Ordiv, you've done well.”

I wanted to go right down there, storm the place, and send whatever was in there back to it's home. But that wasn't the plan, and I was a bit grateful for that. Whatever was down there felt strong. Stupidly strong; but it was also luckily hard to gauge. If I knew for sure, I probably wouldn't even be here.

“Alright. Let's go; now that we know where it is, they can't move it.” I turned to the twins. “Remember the plan, I'll call for you tomorrow.” They nodded in sync and vanished.

I set a small little ward on each roof surrounding the warehouse while Grex and Ordiv played unwilling lookout. It was clear they didn't want to tangle with whatever was going on in that warehouse without backup, and I didn't blame them. Ordiv seemed especially terrified, for all that he was trying to appear stoic.

It didn't speak well for my sanity that I felt I could correctly read demons. Or for my recent history, that I might have such experience.

With the wards set and primed with a drop of my blood, anything demonic that crossed the barrier (really a box) I'd set would trip it, letting me know something was up. At least, that was the theory; I hadn't done or seen any rune-work done this way, and while this circle was an abjuration of sorts, it wasn't a strong one. The theory was anything demonic would break it, and I'd sense that, like an alarm. I was just guessing here, though. I was sure someone had developed a circle to do this better, but I was young yet; if I survived I'd be looking this sort of thing up for sure.

“Alright, let's go.” I floated down ahead, cheating by canceling my body weight; I couldn't use my wings here, so I was using the charm Grex was earlier. He floated right beside me, and Ordiv just flew down, landing with a slight rustle of feathers.

We got in my car, and I slowly and carefully drove us back. Yes, my car was known, and yes my car was easily recognized, but I could drive at night if I wanted and there wasn't anyone around to see and connect us to the warehouse. Not even security, which was more than a little ominous to my mind.

We got back in, my two invisible chaperons sneaking along while I waved to the guy at the front desk. We used the stairs, and I put key to door with a sigh. Then I focused and opened the door again, back to a hallway in Limbo.

“Alright Ordiv, that's your stop. Good work tonight, and if I need to I may call on you again. Be prepared.”

He slipped through the door before turning with a bow. “It was an honor to serve, my Lady. Do not hesitate to call upon me again, should you deem it necessary.”

I shut the door in his face and tore my robe off with another sigh. “I can see now why you want to hang out with me so often; dealing with your kin is tiring in the extreme.”

Grex was already making a fresh pot of coffee. “You have work in the morning, which I might remind you is a mere three hours away now.”

“Well, that's assuming I do my normal get ready routine. Something which I'm tempted to skip today.”

I slipped my feet onto my small foot massager. I hadn't actually walked much today, but my feet were still killing me.

Grex handed me a cup of coffee. Well, he was a demon after all.

I sipped while he turned on the television.

…...

That bastard had doctored the coffee or something. Or so I would say if he didn't have standing orders not to do anything of the sort, and without a clear danger to my health, he couldn't ignore that. I was almost late getting up, really late, not just 'ignore hygiene' late. Of course, I didn't need to ignore hygiene, just dilate time a little to get ready.

Oddly enough it was harder to dilate time in the apartment; something I had an answer for, now. Time worked differently in Hell after all, or so Grex had said. I couldn't remember whether I'd done it before.

Oh well, it didn't matter if I altered time in the apartment before, I was doing it now. I was tempted to do it further, so I could sleep more, but that would be kind of obvious. I canceled the time flows as soon as possible; removing the effects of time on items I'd need to bring with me took more power than I wanted to spend.

I grabbed one of my primers, stuffed to the brim with ad hoc spellwork that Grex had helped me with, and managed to get the door open before Karen could knock on it. She looked so forlorn out in the hall with her hand raised.

“Come on, we're going to be late!” I snagged one of her hands and picked up speed. Small paybacks were the best.

She looked longingly at my coffee pot before the door swing closed. “We'll get some on the way, come on!”

I knew she didn't want to pay for the good stuff, not even the stuff in the shop downstairs. I gave her the chance to stop and get some, a slight hesitation in my walk, but she didn't take the bait, so it was off to the car.

The drive was just as uneventful as they all were; it was pretty obvious what we were, even in my car, so I had plenty of space. It was getting to the point that my driving skills might deteriorate; I was considering taking a defensive driving class or something. Maybe one on demolition derbies.

I turned to check my blind spot and almost wrecked us when I saw Karen with my book open, reading my notes.

She noticed me noticing. “Looks good. So you're still going to go through with summoning more demons to search?”

I nodded, surprised at how cool I looked in the rear-view. I was pretty sure my heart was trying to break my ribs.

“Well, you're on call today, so technically you can do it. Want help?”

I parked in the usual spot and retrieved my notes. “I won't mind an audience in case things go wrong.”

“Right, well I've got your back. First things first, though, we need to check with the captain and the chief to get their okays.

“Okay, you handle the chief, I'll handle the captain?”

“Wuss.” Karen scoffed but added “Sure.” after. She kept going up after I got off the elevator.

My target was right there, staring wide-eyed at my book.

“Captain.”

“No. Whatever it is, no.” was his immediate response.

“But you haven't even heard what I was going to say.”

He crossed is arms, and put a hand on his pistol. “I don't need to; whenever I see a summoner with an old book in hand, striding my way and taking that tone, it's a summoner asking permission to do something incredibly stupid and it never ends well.”

I got close enough that I wouldn't have to shout. “Boss, I need your permission to do something incredibly stupid.”

He sighed, but straightened up. “Alright, what is it this time?”

“I need your permission to summon more demons; demons in number, to do the legwork we don't have the manpower for.”

“And how many of these extra demons would you like to summon?”

Oh, he was all brisk now. “About twenty, or twenty-five imps, to cover places our demonic summoning friend could be hiding. We discussed this a little before.”

The Captain sighed again. “That's the problem with you summoners; sooner or later you always start thinking demons can solve all your problems.”

What? That was hardly what I was doing. “Is that a no?”

He shook his head and grinned. “Not even. How soon can you be ready, assuming the chief approves?”

“As soon as I draw the circles in the basement. Think Karen will have issues convincing the chief?”

The Captain made a show of thinking it over, but I knew it was a sham.

“Nah, not at all. She will just explain it in terms of budget; demons don't cost anything to summon. Well, not money anyway. You better go do your thing; I'll just bring a friend or two along to make sure the imps behave.”

“Well, that's kind of you.” But not really necessary, Captain. Also, did we have the manpower for that? I mean, people from other cities were being bused in.

The Captain was a little psychic. “It's a small price to pay to make sure the building's still standing at the end of the day; don't worry about it.”

Ugh, I could already see how this day was going to go. Thank God I didn't actually follow official channels, or this effort would probably be doomed from the start.

“Go on, back down the elevator you go. Be sure to say hi to the Cryptkeeper, and let him know we're coming.”

Oh crap. I'd never met the guy, he'd always been out before. But the Cryptkeeper was a retired cop, someone who worked murder and taught my Dad the ropes. My Dad always said he was a little flakey... which, coming from my dad probably meant he was wearing people's skins and counting in prime numbers down there.

He also came in and worked in the vaults every day, filing hard copies of cases and taking care of the official summoning circles we kept down there, despite being retired for at least a few years.

Cords met me on the stairs, panting. “Knew...you'd take... the stairs.”

“You need more PT.”

All color left his face. “Shhh, not so loud!”

“Alright, alright,” I relented. “So what's up? And who's minding the store?”

“The Captain is, for a bit. I've got five minutes.” His face turned stern. More stern than I'd ever seen it. “Now what is this I hear about you doing a mass summoning?”

“I'm going to summon a bunch of imps to cover the ground we can't cover with cops, simply because it's too dangerous for them. If the imps see anything, they report back to me and we zero in on that spot. Hopefully, we can find the demon summoning asshole who's made all our lives miserable lately.”

“How many are you going to summon?”

“As many as I can,” I replied. “But I'm shooting for somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five.”

Cords whistled, loud and low. “Now who's being loud?”

And he's blushing now. All too easy. “Can you really handle that many demons at once?”

I couldn't tell him the truth, but I didn't have to lie exactly. “I'm pretty sure I can... but Karen and backup will be there in case I can't, so I'm not too worried.”

Summoning was a risky business, after all. Doubly risky for other people I think – but the moment I started actually thinking in those terms I would probably die. Most of my danger right now could very well come from my attitude; if I didn't watch it, I'd start getting an ego. Pride goeth before the fall, and all that.

“Alright, well I'll be there in spirit, but my desk has got to be manned. Good luck.” Cords told me, turning back to go up the stairs.

“Double-time it, soldier. Only way to get back into the swing of things.” Was my parting shot. I should work on my people skills I think.

“Yeah, no. I don't want the Captain to see me puking my guts up at the top. See you later.”

He still took the stairs two at a time; he just didn't run. So his fitness level wasn't too terrible. Still, he needed to get out from behind that desk. Maybe a trip to that park? The one the civil war re-enactors had used... a nice hike. Yeah, that could work.

With effort, I clamped down on those thoughts. No distractions now, I couldn't afford them. Take nothing for granted.

At the end of the staircase, past the basement where the files were kept, the steel blast door was right where I left it, and as scarred and covered in runes as I left it... but it was closed. That wasn't normal; the door was supposed to be open unless something was in progress. That way, failing anything else, the demonic problem could be contained until forces could be massed in order to re-take the basement.

There was nothing else to do but to knock; the great booming thuds were sure to grab someone's attention. I waited another few minutes and knocked again.

Just as I was getting ready to knock a third time, the locks finally ground open with a screech and the door swung open soundlessly.

Standing on the other side of it was a man, older but not old, just beginning to really go to seed. He was probably mid 50's, with a full head of salt and pepper hair. He had two prominent facial scars which looked to have been made by claws that went clear to the bone some years ago. One eye was covered by a patch, and he was hunched over his right side as if he was in pain.

“Ah, it's you. Figures no sooner would I come back after a week then someone would want to ruin everything for the day.” The man said, and just turned around and limped off, leaving the door swinging.

I closed it behind me, but did not lock it. The basement was dark, with only a single old bare light bulb illuminating a space perhaps half the size of a football field. But compared to where I'd been last night, it was both better lit and small. There was a desk in one corner with a laptop on it, and a bunch of discs scattered around that.

Snacks and old wrappers of past snacks were scattered all around the desk, an open invitation that mice and rats would be foolish to take.

“So, you're Numen's kid, right?”

I turned back to find the old guy looking at me. “That's right. And you're the Cryptkeeper.”

He snorted. “Well that name works as well as any other, but you can call me Fred if you'd like.”

Well, now I could see why he insisted on Cryptkeeper.

“You can call me Maeve.” I was sure he knew my nickname, but I hated it.

“So what brings you down to the dungeon, Maeve.”

“Well Fred, I'm about to do something incredibly stupid involving demons.”

He rolled his eye. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that....”

I paid up. He tossed the nickel onto the desk, where it bounced off several wrappers before coming to a stop. “So, what incredibly stupid thing are you about to do?”

“I'm about to summon multiple demons to help with a search.”

He looked surprised. At least I think that was what he was going for – with all the scars pulling his face in odd directions it was hard to tell. “Oh really? A search and rescue search?”

“Nope, a search for the rogue who's been causing us all the issues lately. I have the city narrowed down some, but I need more numbers for that final push.”

Now that was definitely disappointment. “I see. Got your approval for use of the circle?”

I looked over the various circles, all engraved into the cement floor; it all looked to have been done with molds when the floor was poured, and then inset with silver. Smart. The one I needed was... this one, fourth over and third down from the far wall. “It's coming, Fred. Karen's talking to the chief now, and the Captain's already signed off. He's lining up some backup.”

Fred sighed. “Well, there goes the day. Kare-bear will have the Chief doing cartwheels. Alright, I'll go get the stuff. You use the chalk in the corner to make any additions or whatever you need. Only use the chalk, got it? I don't want to have to clean up paint again.”

“Who the heck would use paint on a circle like this?” The thing didn't need any additions, it was a perfectly made if terribly standard summoning circle. Even the ones at the academy were more personal and customized than this one. Then again, the circle was probably decades old by this point; the building wasn't that new, and this had that 'worked on when the foundations were laid' look.

Maybe a few small changes, here and there. Just to promote a more stable planar connection, with more control. I grabbed some chalk (dark green) and started in.

By the time I was half finished Karen was there, the ink on the approval she slapped down on Fred's nasty desk was probably still wet. She then came over and eyed my work.

“Not bad. I can't spot any flaws, and the lines do have a certain elegance.”

To my eyes, they looked exactly like the book notes I'd drawn; which was to say, alien.

My other backup came in. Baron, an out of town summoner, strode in like he owned the place in front of my squad. I hadn't worked with Baron yet, but Sarah had told me he had an ego. As if all summoners didn't or something. He was also named by his demon, who was supposedly a baron of one of the circles. I didn't know which one though.

He stopped right in front of me and sketched a bow. “Maeve Numens, good to finally meet you. I am the summoner known as Baron.”

“I know who you are.” I dusted off a hand to shake, which he promptly ignored with a slight sniff, choosing instead to look over my work.

Jerk; it was only dark green chalk. It was hardly going to kill him.

“Hmm, Arabic and... Babylonian?”

“Etruscan.” I corrected. It was an easy mistake to make because the two long-dead cultures did have some cross contamination, mostly in their religions, but something about this guy made me not want to give him a pass.

Karen, looking on curiously and clearly having little clue, would get one, though. After all, Latin and barely pre-Roman was the standard, and she used it well. Grex had all but demanded I learn and apply it here, though, and I was beginning to see why.

If you messed up Etruscan, same as anything else, it bit you, and not many people knew it. Mixed with Arabic? It was even worse.

Sarah all but pushed past Baron, then minced forward to make sure she didn't scuff anything. I wish I had a camera. “So um, you all set?”

“I am, once I double-check everything. Once we get started, anything summoned should be in the circle, so if it isn't, cut it apart.”

Simple rules. I liked things simple.

“Right. Hey Judge, Culling. Get the miniguns up by the door. Aims set the shields up.”

Good to know if anything went wrong I'd probably be cut in half by machine gun fire, but the Chief and Captain wouldn't sign off without some ability to control the outcome their way. Summoners did have that pesky tendency to go insane, after all, and it was usually in direct proportion to how much demonic taint they were exposed to.

“Grex, Veni huc!”

Grex flowed down from the ceiling this time, avoiding the circle as he gave me his customary hug.

Baron turned; he had his athame out and wrist exposed. “What are you doing?”

I thought it was pretty obvious what I was doing? “Grex, check that will you?”

“Of course, my mistress.”

I turned back to Baron, who still hadn't put his athame up. “Now, what do you mean, what am I doing? I'm having Grex here double-check my circles. What are you doing?”

He didn't answer. “And then you'll send him back to Hell?”

“No, why would I do that? He can watch my back during the ritual.”

“But the energy costs alone! The stress...!” Baron spluttered.

I looked around; he was the only one that had a problem with this. Karen at least would speak up if she felt I couldn't handle it, and Grex and I already knew I could do all I said and more.

“It all checks out, my mistress.”

“Great, let's start then.” I sat in my appointed spot. Karen rushed to her own, dragging a still spluttering Baron to his.

Sarah and my team took up their positions behind the riot shields, and the Cryptkeeper joined them there.

A brief fleeting desire for coffee and I started the chant.

I almost tripped over the Arabic (Aramaic?) a few times, but soon enough the first imp was capering uneasily about the center of the circle, eyeing all the firepower with clear unease.

“I don't care to know your true name, only your use name.”

“Calix, your greatness.” His eyes flicked to Grex, and I knew Grex was smiling in that way he did because the imp went from ash grey to bone white.

I pulled out a map and unfolded it. “Calix, once released from the circle you are to check the area marked on that map for recent demonic activity. If you find any, you are to mark it on the map, turn the map in to me, and then depart for your home. You are not to take any side trips, harm any humans or animals, or damage any human property at any time during your search. You are to do nothing other than conduct your search and then report back to me. Is that understood?”

I could see my words sink in with the strange force they had; the compulsion to do as I asked would be too strong for it to disobey without help; the other bindings it was summoned into were purely for show.

The imp's jaw touched the concrete floor. “I understand, your greatness.”

“Alright. See that man?” I pointed to Cryptkeeper. “Follow him to the door out.”

I released the circle and he scampered out; Cryptkeeper shot me a dirty look but got up; hey it wasn't like I knew where the door directly to the outside was, exactly.

I reset everything.

“An auspicious start, my mistress.”

“Thank you, Grex.” Grex was all but glaring at Baron, and Baron still had his athame out.

“A good set of orders, pretty ironclad,” Karen opined. Then she brightened. “And the business of the maps was inspired! How many of those did you bring?”

The others were still stuffed in the pockets of my robe; no human could see them yet. “Twenty, all marked with a different section to check.”

“Pretty smart,” Karen opined again. The cupped her chin with a hand, really drawing out the show. “But what happens if the imp loses the map?”

“Simple. They better not. They are demons, not children.” I replied. No mercy was important here.

“Another good point. But you're roping them into commands involving that map; if it gets destroyed, you're going to be left with an imp not daring to report in.”

That was a good point on her part, but I'd thought of it. “True enough, but I have a map of my own, complete with numbered grids on it. The map I handed Calix just now was number one. Since the imp can't actually hurt anyone or cause mayhem, they will be easy to find, just by searching for the imp whose map I don't have.”

Karen whistled... then ruined it. “You have way too much time on your hands, Snow. You did all this last night?”

I nodded. “Time is one thing I do have on my hands... or at them.”

“You cheated?” Karen pouted.

“Yes,” I admitted. If you weren't cheating, you weren't trying. I had entire swarms of people drilling that saying into my head.

“I have taught you well, Padawan.”

Sigh. “Karen, I'm not letting the hate flow through me no matter what you say.”

“Damn!”

“Moving on and restarting the ritual, something that demands silence!” I yelled. I might have glared at her.

Heck, Baron was glaring at both of us. That was fine, the egotistical scum can think I was unprofessional scum all day. At least My team was having fun, judging from the grins.

Karen obligingly shut up, even going so far as to make the zipping motion across her lips.

I started the chant again.

I will say this, for as tense a situation as this was, as physically demanding as it was to summon (not really too bad, at least for me) it was BORING.

I wanted to drown myself in my own tears of apathy by the time the twentieth imp showed up. I still dutifully recorded its name as I handed it the last map, and I was sure I sounded like a receptionist or flight attendant after a full day of dealing with people.

“Once released from the circle you are to check the area marked on that map for recent demonic activity. If you find any, you are to mark it on the map, turn the map in to me, and then depart for your home. You are not to take any side trips, harm any humans or animals, or damage any human property at any time during your search. You are to do nothing other than conduct your search and then report back to me. Is that understood?”

The latest imp, one Cefkex, nodded silently, slightly overwhelmed. A hesitant hand reached out and swiped my last map as if it would bite, and blurred back to the imps side. It fidgeted.

“That man will lead you outside; begin immediately.”

It almost climbed up Cryptkeeper's back trying to get away from me. I felt more than a little snubbed.

I stood up from my place in the circle, and gave my arms a spin to loosen them up; I had been sitting there for hours, I was sure. “So, who wants lunch?”

I looked around, and everyone was gaping at me with varying degrees of shock. Tough crowd. Well, everyone but Grex. He had a small notebook and pencil ready.

“What would you like, my mistress?”

I'd like to knock off and go walk around, grabbing a lunch. Maybe something at a corner bistro.

“What about a toasted sub from that one bistro on 4th?”

Grex slapped a fist onto his palm. “You mean the one on the corner of Morris?”

“Yeah, that one. Anyone else want something? We can all go.”

“What are you doing?!?” Baron screamed, lunging at me, stopping just in front of me as Grex put a clawed hand between us.

“What's your problem, Baron?”

Karen pointed at my feet. Ah, I had been poised to step out of the circle, a foot in the air and hovering over it. She quirked an eyebrow.

“Well, yeah. But the circle's part is done. I can step out any time.”

“If you break the circle, can't the demons return and attack you?” Karen asked.

She'd heard me give the orders. “No. Once they agree, they are bound. They can only attack me after the job is complete; that is, they finish up, go back home, and come back to attack me.”

Even if I hadn't expressly stated they had to go home first, I would send each home as soon as they came back.

“And how long do they have to do that task?”

Oh, oops. Damn it, I knew there was something.“Less than a day, if they know what's good for them. They start trying to drag their feet I'll kick their ass.”

Grex cleared his throat.

“Right, I'll send Grex to kick their ass.”

“Imps are rather notorious for obeying the letter but screwing the intent of poorly worded orders. I think you better just settled back in that circle and wait. Besides, you don't want to be gone when they show up with the maps, do you? You didn't add anything to make them wait on you; if you're gone they can just leave the map and run off.”

I hated it when she was right. I settled back on the cold concrete and started stretching my legs; sitting cross-legged was for the birds, even if it kept the feet from scuffing anything important.

“Fine, so I wait. Grex?”

“The smoked ham and asiago?” He asked.

“Yes please. Go get me one, with a Pepsi. You can get yourself a sub too if you want. No ingredients I wouldn't approve of if I were to know of them.”

He bowed deeply, which was likely a nod to present company and not me and was gone in a puff of flame.

Baron's mouth was still open. “You just... you just sent your demon for lunch.” He finally stuttered out.

“Yes. Don't you?” I asked him, batting my eyes.

Behind the aghast man, Karen held up a small sign. 7/10; damn.

“Karen are you Russian?”

She had to hide her sign with a smirk as Baron turned around.

Baron turned back to me, his eyes slits. “No, I do not send my demon to fetch my lunch; not only is such a thing ludicrous while on the job, but it's a good way to end up dead of poisoning or worse. You could be attacked right now and die!”

I looked around. “Not unless you're the one doing it. You planning something? You heard what I told Grex, and the nature of my contract is pretty clear; he cannot disobey me through action or inaction, and he cannot harm me through action or inaction.”

That seemed to take some of the steam out of him; “....It's just unnatural.”

Grex reappeared in a burst of flame, and I was proud of my team; they didn't even flinch.

“I think what Baron is pissed about is you didn't offer us any.”

Well of course not. “You both have demons of your own, and my team just doesn't accept candy from strangers.”

“We don't,” Sarah said. “It's a principle thing, though, Grex seems like a nice creeper, as creepers go.”

Grex inclined his head in her direction. “No offense taken.”

Sarah flipped him off, and he ignored her.

Two bites in, there was a knock; great booming thuds which reverberated in in the cold chamber and in the bones.

Cryptkeeper sighed and levered himself up. “I'll get it.”

I turned to Grex. “Go with him and protect him.”

Grex bowed and followed, while Baron's jaw dropped again. I was in a pretty decent circle; the silver would have to be completely removed in a spot in order for any demon other than Grex to make it to me, or even a power from one. In the time it took for that to happen Grex would come back and maul whoever was trying to attack me. Baron once again had his athame ready; he should already have his demon out, in my opinion, humans were too slow.

Such concerns were pointless; Grex came back escorting Calix. He came back into his part of the circle and groveled, presenting the map with both of his grubby claws.

I could tell from a glance that while crumpled, the map was actually clean and unmarked; that was only proper considering Calix had been given one of the areas we had determined was clean last night.

I shot Karen a look of triumph as I took the scene in. “Did you find any recent demonic activity at your assigned area, Calix?”

“No, your greatness, I did not.” Good; we had taken steps to conceal our own activities last night, and it seems to have worked as Grex advertised. That was one hurdle...hurdled over?

One by one, the imps all came in, to report the same lack of results. I munched my sandwich and followed along since I wasn't about to let it go cold. The final three were the ones to wait on now, and the last was the real test.

They all reported in. A quick check of the time for each revealed the imps had all probably made best speed to their zones and back. Cefkex was the last, and he came in just before quitting time.

He dropped down and groveled. “Your dark Majesty, I have found the evidence you seek. At this building, there is evidence of recent demonic activity.” A slim claw pointed at the warehouse we had visited last night.

“Thank you Cefkex. Now go; back to Hell!”

He pressed his face lower, trying to grind it through the concrete, and vanished in a burst of flame. Rude; the others at least acknowledged the order. Was I too scary?

I turned to Grex. “Am I really that scary?”

Grex smirked. “Absolutely, my mistress; you are terrifying.”

“Yeah like a big white squishy teddy bear,” Karen added, smirking.

I decided to ignore that. Karen had no business commenting on how squishy I may or may not be. “So, this map, and the other two.”

I unfolding myself with a wince and grabbed the maps. I was tempted to co-opt Cryptkeeper's desk, but that thing was nasty.

Baron was being silent; a quick glance his way revealed he still seemed to be in shock. I cocked a thumb his direction. “What's his problem?”

“Well Snow, most of us, if we'd tried the trick you just pulled, we'd be laid out on our back for at least a day. Some weaker summoners would need a week to recover from that. I guess he's kind of shocked you can get up.”

I stretched. “Well, I feel fine. More than a little bored, and more than a little in pain from sitting still so long, but otherwise fine.

I was a little tired and I'm sure I looked it, but it hadn't been from the imps.

“Yeah, Snow is a bit special. Not your run of the mill type, Baron. If she says she can handle something, she can.” A quick but pointed look at Grex, which I caught, and she turned to the man. He handed over a twenty, his face wooden.

“What she did shouldn't even be possible for a fresh summoner. You need time to build a tolerance.”

“What is possible?” Karen replied. “We're summoners. We do the impossible every day.”

Ugh, enough of that. I needed a shower... and a bathroom. Not necessarily in that order.

“Enough already. Karen, you're the expert here. Are we good? Any lingering imps I missed? Anything I didn't anticipate?”

Karen shook her head. “No, not a thing. You got them all, Snow; we're clear. I don't get it really; they didn't even try to swap in ringers or collude.”

What? “They can do that?!?”

“Well yeah, your orders had some decent holes in them. Nothing too terrible, and I was keeping track with Thor, but stuff they could have tried, and at least two of the imps were strong enough for that... but they didn't.”

Well, that wasn't good. Karen had picked up on something. She wasn't sure what it was, not yet, but she knew something was off. Time to deflect.

“Well, maybe it's an authority thing. You know my contract.”

She shrugged as my team cycled us out the door. “That's as good an explanation as any other. I doubt Grex would tell us if we asked...?”

“I've asked before and he's stayed silent.” Even if he explained about the power in my voice later, he hadn't the first few times I'd asked.

Karen shrugged. “Of course not, too easy.”

I wasn't alone in rushing for the bathroom, but I did beat Karen there. The best stall was mine!

Except Sarah was already in it. Rude. The only thing worse would be if Baron followed us in; thankfully he didn't. Grex didn't either, thankfully.

Well, I wasn't waiting; I'd just take the inferior, colder stall. “So, what happens now? We have a better idea where to search.”

“Your part is over,” Karen replied. She was waiting, from the sound of things.“Even if I wanted you there, you've spent way too much time under the influence; Baron was right about that much. But tomorrow we raid. You should pity me, I'll be working late putting together teams and logistics for the raids.”

The stall door opened and a sink started. Sarah was being quiet.

“I do, poor baby.” I wasn't happy about being sidelined. Again. Something told me I should be there.

“Anyway, for now, you're on the clock and late; clock out and take a load off. Get tacos or something, slurp down a couple of mojitos. Do it for both of us; you did good today. Consider it an order.”

I could read between the lines. “Fine. I'll pick up your damn tacos.”

Karen and Sarah both cackled.



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