Leases in Hell chapter 3.

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Five minutes later, everything was still just as surreal, and I was fighting the urge to summon more demons.

The problem was, it was too pleasant. The forest around us was coming alive, with insects and other small critters and birds beginning to move and in some cases jabber at us with pleasant song or chittering. The trees were nice, mostly old growth, and solid.

By contrast, us intruders were flinching at every twig snap we made. Weapons were out, eyes were strained, and violence was our invited guest.

I put a stop to it when I found my hand cradled around my sidearm. This was beyond ridiculous.

I stopped hunching over; I may have to keep a slower pace to stay behind the troops, but I didn't have to act like an idiot.

My fellow soldiers looked at me, and I got a few shrugs. They kept right on sneaking, though.

Golem got close. "Sometimes, we get ambushed, right out the gate."

I know, he told me this before. "Right, but in this I trust Grex, and it's kinda pointless, isn't it? I mean if they are drawing a bead on me right now, they are, and it's all hit or miss at this point."

"No need to make it easier to catch a bullet. The Germans do still come out this far, sometimes. Besides, we got all day and nowhere to be, and you stand out by standing up."

Right, I was supposed to be blending in. "Fine. But next time I want a better gun. I mean, if I'm supposed to be blending in, why don't I go all the way?"

Golem nodded. "A point, and my answer is weight. Usually summoners want to be lighter on their feet than we are."

I guess there was a limit to how far you could go... how much did that gun weigh, with ammo? Thirty pounds? If you weren't actually going to use it (I'd never be praised for my rifle marksmanship) that was a lot of dead weight.

It was something to think about later. "Well, whatever, we're wasting time, and we need to make ten miles in dense forest today, and back."

It was only just possible, and we weren't making it standing here. It was also possible our scout hadn't waited on us, and if that was true I didn't want them to die for it. So i clammed up and gave the signal to move out.

I watched my feet for careful placement; I wasn't going to hunch over again like an idiot. Well, maybe just a little.

...And then boredom. Lots of walking to the tune of nature sounds, and boredom.

I caught myself checking my phone for the time halfway here. Hm, I wonder if I can switch the service over to a european company; the whole "searching for service" thing was like a splinter under a fingernail.

I made sure the thing was on vibrate (it was, but there was no problem being careful) and slid it back in.

If anything, my squad seemed to get more antsy as time went on, instead of less.

I gave the signal for a halt this time. "Problem?"

Golem wouldn't look directly at me. "I think the natives are getting restless about your demon. He hasn't been around for hours."

Well, that was silly. "Yes he has. He's been looking for threats the entire time, and hasn't been further than a fifty yards from me."

"You can sense him, then."

Wait, that was a valid point. I could sense him, not just see him. When did that happen? It wasn't a part of the contract.

Time to let nothing show, again. "Yes I can."

Golem reached up and scratched his neck, near a scar there. A tell? "Well the thing is, some of us... most of us maybe, would be happier with a demon where we can see it."

I shrugged as obviously as I could. "Sure, thats fine."

I mean Grex was doing good work, but only I knew that, and I could respect that the squad was skeptical. What had they seen though, to demand such distrust? Usually something like that was earned, somehow.

There was a story there, I was sure of it. I decided I needed to know it after all, for all that now was not the time.

"Grex, veni huc."

A spurt of fire and a wisp of smoke, and he was there, right in front of me and clearly invading golem's personal space without a single care.

"You rang, my master?"

"From now on, stick close. If you have any way of searching out threats while at my side - without killing anyone I'd rather you didn't - go ahead and use that."

Judging from the look on his face, I was glad I'd been specific. "Fine, my beloved spoilsport, though my obvious presence makes of you a target."

That was surprising. If he agreed to that, why was he allowing it? He had some wiggle room granted by contract in situations like this.

"Why aren't you turning invisible or something then?"

"A valid suggestion, but one not without it's own risks."

Yeah, the risk that the spell itself could be detected... but it was unlikely. The odds were at least a little against it; maybe as far as forty percent in favor of discovery to a sixty percent chance of it not being looked for, because of the limits most summoners had. Maybe it was eve lower.

"Just do it." I'd have to get him to teach me that spell; it would be useful.

Grex bowed deeply, then faded from view with a wave.

"That kind of defeats the purpose of keeping him where we can see him," Golem said once I could see him again.

Whoops. "Right, well, this is as close as I feel comfy with."

"Shall I wear a bell for you, meatsack?" Grex asked, his spell doing nothing to deaden his voice.

"Gee, would you? Thanks." Golem replied without missing a beat, in the most faked smug voice I'd ever heard.

I decided I'd best stop this before it got out of hand. "Sargeant, move out."

He didn't quite snap to, but it was close. He also didn't say anything else, but it looked like he wanted to; instead the hand signals flew, and we all started moving again.

Which led to more walking. The urge to just spread my own wings and take flight was building, but knowing my luck, I'd miss something because of all the cover. Still, I wasn't ready to dismiss it yet, for all that revealing that little party trick would get me sent back to the states in silver-etched chains.

A gilded cage perhaps, but still a cage; and all because my wings, unlike those of any other summoner, worked. Well, at least I suspected they worked here - I'd never tried them on Earth, only in Hell, or my delusional dreams.

Suddenly, signs of human habitation.

I suppose calling it human habitation is a little grand, it was only a trail; little more than a game trail but with clear boot prints in it. The good news is they looked to be military issue. It also looked to be heading out, our direction, as opposed to at us.

"What do you think?" I asked Golem. He'd gone right past the tracks.

"I think it's good that you saw them, but they are ours, and three days old."

Well, there went my flight of fancy. I guess it was unlikely that demons had stolen the boots and trekked around in an attempt to lure us into a trap, after all.

The clearly marked half-way point was a boulder, sitting in the middle of the forest, painted entirely blue. It was still whole, which surprised me.

"If they break it, we know. If they wash it off, we know, and if they repaint it, we know," Lewd informed me sagely. "That's why it works."

"And if they set up an ambush nearby?"

"Then we know, of course," Golem answered. "Since they already know we're out here, it works. Besides, if they get this close without detection we want them to give themselves away; better here then at the fence."

That made some sense - if you wanted to get hit at all. I wasn't so sure about that; any contact this close would be bad.

It also occurred to me that there could be an army a good hundred yards further on, and we'd never see them as long as we stuck to the painted rock rule.

"Lewd, Perry, I want you to go a bit further; one hundred yards, and try and stay within sight of each other."

Lewd shrugged and started out immediately; Perry hurried to catch up.

"You do know there are patrols further out, right?" Golem asked.

A subtle rebuke. "Yeah, but they aren't my patrols. And before you start in with the over-eager officer bs, those other patrols aren't ours. Can you live with yourself, knowing you missed something and people get killed for it?"

We had the time, we had the technology.

"You have a point."

We hid ourselves a bit better, and I had just settled in to wait when my two sacrificial lambs came back. Lewd stopped before me.

"No recent sign of anything."

"Alright. Dod, you're scout on the way back, Rigger, you're last in line."

"Gee, thanks boss." Rigger muttered, a little too sure that I couldn't hear him from my distance.

I could of course, but I didn't care.

The journey back should see us inside the fence again before night, the very definition of a milk run. The best for all concerned, really. The other patrols, the ones further out, were screwed the moment the sun went down; I couldn't imagine sleeping out under the stars, knowing that between one moment and the next could mean something not seen could claw out your throat.

Not that it couldn't happen now, but it was far more likely to happen at night; the casualty numbers were clear.

A series of pops drew my attention while everyone else flattened. Gun shots, from far away. Belatedly, I dropped myself even as Grex made his presence known.

"The hostility is not directed at us," he whispered in my ear. "Those weapons are miles away, and echo from the terrain itself."

Right, so a trick of the ground around us was letting us hear it. some distance back, or some forward, and we probably wouldn't have heard. But we did, and the weapons sounded like our own.

It was also to the west, and miles away meant it was well away from our patrol route.

My eyes met Golem's, and I knew we were in full agreement. "Rigger, Dod. Find us a route. We're going."

There was the concern that this could be a feint to draw us out of position, but I felt confident in dismissing that; we weren't a large patrol, and I wasn't well known yet. Any of our enemies would go through us, not try to work around us.

We didn't entirely throw away stealth, but with all the noise, we could make some speed. The firing kept on, which gave me some hope; if it was a demon attack, one way or the other, any conflict would be over by now.

Once we got close enough to have the sounds resolve themselves from a buzz saw to more of a staccato clap, we had to slow; of there was an ambush, running into it, even from surprise, would only be a bad thing.

"Grex." I whispered.

"Say no more," He whispered back, perhaps an inch from my ear, his breath tickling it. "I'll be right back."

"Check only," I told him; I wasn't going to assume anything.

"Understood," was all he said, and I knew he was gone, even though I couldn't see him.

I motioned everyone to bunker up, something I should have done before I sent Grex away.

A few more scattered shots, from as close as fifty feet (I still couldn't see the shooter due to the trees) to probably a hundred yards away, and Grex was back, breathing in my ear.

"I found no evidence of demons. I saw only allied troops among the living; one is wounded. I found evidence of an enemy - a "sniper's nest".

When had Grex learned about what a sniper's nest is?

"Is the sniper still there?"

Grex gave me the 'are you stupid?' look. "No, or I'd have said so."

Golem had a better question. "Where was the nest?"

Grex looked to me, ignoring the man. I noded in Golem's direction.

Grex answered, pointing behind him. "There, to the South. The large oak with the gnarled trunk."

Golem started scanning the tree line.

I readied a flare; one of my personal, special flares.

Every summoner had a special kind of flare, just as every patrol had one; it was a nice, low tech way, to make sure you didn't get shot by your own when trying to help them, just in case more high tech forms of communication were out or being jammed. That was an all-too-often occurrence. I'd heard the flares could get picked out of the air before they sparked up, but it was better than nothing.

I fired it off, the lack of recoil surprised me. The flare itself didn't even go over the tree line, it was a small and sickly thing that was barely visible in the daytime, a streak of red sparking silver that reminded me more of a bottle rocket than anything else.

"Santa, Musad, Perry, you're with me. Everyone else, burrow in. Grex, keep an eye out."

I was pretty sure Grex was right about the danger being past, at least the danger from the sniper, but caution never hurt, and telling Grex to do what he was going to do anyway couldn't hurt either.

I probably should wait for an answering flare, but if the other patrol were compromised, then they would have access to the flares anyway. Stupid as it sounded, even in my head, I trusted Grex in this; he had to keep me safe, it was part of our contract.

My gun would only get me in trouble here, so it was best to holster it. Come to think of it, uniform or not, drawing my athame would also likely only end in tears. Heck, I could be shot with my hands empty, since it was unlikely I'd be recognized.

Mainly I worried about Grex; even if I gave him a prior order, at the first sign of danger to me he'd use the excuse of our contract to murder anyone who took a shot at me, sure as the sun rose in the East.

There were two bodies down, one twitching and groaning, one motionless. The groaning one was a large bear of a man, covered in blood, and was spurting more of the red stuff spouting from a shoulder and a leg.

The smaller one was a man, only a little bigger than myself, his hair color impossible to determine through his blood, and his uniform as unmarked as my own. If I had to guess, he was this squad's summoner.

The three soldiers visible, hunched over and with minimal cover from the sniper's nest and absolutely none from my position, pointing weapons at me, was also a good clue.

The three were more or less the same size, and all three were blond, with rough features. What were the odds? Were they brothers or something? Maybe triplets?

"He's gone, and we're going to need to move. Our demon's on watch, but there's no guarantee the sniper won't circle around."

"Password." One of the blonds said, tightening his meaty paws on his rifle. The other two weren't even watching me. They were watching the tree line.

"The moon is made of green cheese." That wasn't actually the password, but he was asking a summoner for a password; that was just begging for the wrong response.

Golem burst up, seemingly from the ground. "Yo-yo."

Weapons were lowered. "Why no flare?"

Well, that one they could blame on me. "We didn't have time, and I didn't want to warn the ambush. Come on, you got a stretcher?"

The one who wasn't moving was still alive; I could see the faintest of breaths stir the wild grasses near his face.

I grabbed a bandage, but was beaten to the punch as Eve and someone I didn't know came out from behind a tree at a run. They both reached the wounded man at the same time, the dark, swarthy man (at least it wasn't another blond) skidding like a baseball player stealing home in order to get there.

That was fine, my bandage could go around the bleeding guy's leg - if Dod wasn't already there.

"Yeah, we've got one. Reynold's, the stretcher."

"You got it, boss."

The stretcher was really just a tough canvas sheet with two collapsible plastic poles. Each squad had one, and Eve had ours. So of course she was already breaking it out.

"Grex."

He wasn't close, or at least he shouldn't be if he knew what was good for him, but that wouldn't stop him from answering.

"Yes, my master?"

"Any sign?"

"Plenty, my dark liege, all pointing to a hasty retreat. Somehow, either the sniper knew we were coming, or they just decided it was time to leave. I feel the latter is more likely, but cannot discount the former."

Judging from the looks I was getting, everyone had heard that exchange. For the best, really. Grex was trying to get me in trouble again, I was sure of it.

"Get them up and start moving, and we'll cover the rear."

Golem moved, but the one I took to be in charge of the other squad didn't until I snapped fingers at him. "Sometime today. Unless you'd rather we watch your wounded?"

He got up. "No, we got it. Reynolds, Cooper, Gear, and Hill. You're on stretcher duty. Everyone else, spread out, I want Sanders on the wings, and everyone else in front of us. We're going to need to move fast."

He had that much right at least; the summoner was alive, but there was a bullet in his head. Maybe I could help that... I'd have to be careful though.

"If you want, I've got magic that can help stabilize him. Or both of them, for that matter."

The other sargeant thought it over. "What kind?"

"Time magic. I can slow time for them, at least for awhile."

Sure, I hadn't actually done it before, and sure, I hadn't done anything like that for hours at a time, but theoretically it could be done.

"Time magic? Slowing them down?"

"So they don't bleed out or die, yes.I have to be touching them to do it, so keep them on either side of me and close." It occurred to me that I was the officer here; why was I asking permission?

"One on either side, I'll take the middle. no ritual or anything required, just focus. Golem, set up the screen."

I leaned over. The hole in the summoner's head was almost neat. At least the front of it was; I wasn't quite sure I wanted to see the exit wound. "How is he?"

"Bad," the swarthy man told me. "He might survive, if we can airlift him. A hike? He'll be dead in an hour. If you're not just talk, prove it now."

I could make that seconds. A touch and I was pushing power into the still form. It took a little more power than I expected - it felt like the body was resisting me, as if it wanted to age at the normal rate regardless. The more I slowed them down, the harder it was, and I needed to slow them almost to a full stop.

Doing a second one almost did me in; without pulling off some jewelry, I wasn't sure that I could do it; not for the full march back.

Grex could probably do it... and he's shaking his head at me. So maybe not, or maybe he just doesnt want to.

Golem yelled a bit, but the squad already knew what the plan was and was already on the move.

And then, contrary to all my instincts, we had to set out at a sedate walk.



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