Goetic Justice 2

Cover Illustration by Meandraco: https://www.furaffinity.net/user/meandraco/

© 2019 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

This work was made possible by the generous support of my Patrons:

https://www.patreon.com/Snekguy

Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: demons, satyrs, succubi, hallucinations, hypnosis, gentle femdom, femdom, long tongues, size difference, magic, muscle, sweat, fur, biting, choking, light bondage, lamias, genies, orgasm denial, religious and occult elements.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

CHAPTER 1: NEOPHYTE

The messenger's shoes squeaked on the tiled floor as he made his way towards the inner court, the black and white squares a symbol of holy Euclidean geometry. The Masonic lodge was steeped in arcane symbolism, from the golden reliefs that decorated the walls, to the carving of the all-seeing eye adorning the massive keystone that held up the stone arch above the court's twin oak doors.

He stopped before them, straightening his black suit and adjusting his tie nervously as he prepared to enter. Disturbing the Grand Masters of the thirty-third degree when court was in session was almost unheard of, but the information that he had been tasked with delivering was of the utmost importance, and no less unusual. He took a moment to compose himself as his eyes played across the marble busts of the organization's most important members that were lined up to either side of the lavishly furnished corridor. They rested atop white columns that were themselves a symbol, denoting the busts as princes and nobles. There were some that he recognized, great thinkers and presidents, and others that he didn't.

He could hear muffled conversation coming from the other side of the massive wooden doors. Court was in session, and the most important Freemasons in the country were currently engaged in debate. Someone of such a low degree couldn't fathom what they were discussing, perhaps they were deciding the future of a country or corporation, or maybe they were in a heated theological argument.

Finally mustering the courage to proceed, he pushed one of the heavy oak doors open and stepped into the inner court. The door creaked on its ancient hinges, the sound echoing throughout the sanctum. The conversation died down as all eyes turned towards him.

He was immediately awestruck by the sanctum's brilliance, having never set foot in this part of the lodge before. The room was shaped like a rough rectangle, with a checkered floor in the center that almost resembled a chess board, the rest of the floor carpeted in regal purple. To the left and right were raised stands, the dozens of leather seats currently occupied by frowning Grand Masters. Each of them wore a purple leather apron and a pair of matching cuffs over their suits, adorned in the mystical symbols of their ancient order.

The ceiling was high above his head, the circular recess in its center occupied by a relief of a blazing star, the many rays that extended from its core embellished in shining gold. It was held up by decorative pillars, not dissimilar from those that he had seen in the corridor outside, but as thick as tree trunks and fifteen feet tall. That same gold and purple theme was present everywhere, as prevalent in the jewelry and adornments of the Grand Masters as it was in the furniture and murals that decorated the room.

Seated in a golden throne at the far end of the court was the Grand Master of this particular lodge, the others having traveled from around the country to take part in the meeting. Each of them had their own grand lodges and oversaw Masonic operations in their own jurisdictions.

Most worshipful Grand Master,” the messenger began, “honorable Grand Masters. Please forgive my intrusion.”

The man in the golden throne leaned forward, the many pendants and jewels that hung around his neck indicative of his high rank. He had a large salt and pepper beard that betrayed his advanced age, his wrinkled face contorting into an expression of displeasure as he looked the messenger up and down through a pair of round spectacles that were perched on the bridge of his crooked nose.

What is the meaning of this?” he boomed, his powerful voice echoing through the chamber. “Can you not see that court is in session?”

I know Grand Master, my deepest apologies,” the messenger said as he bowed deeply. “I was sent to deliver a message of the utmost importance.”

Well? Out with it!”

Of course Grand Master. There has been a...” His eyes darted about the room, examining the leering faces of the Freemasons to ensure that all present were of a high enough degree to hear what was about to be said. If he revealed this information to the wrong people, if a servant or a janitor overheard him, then they would both be severely reprimanded. Few members of the order were privy to such sensitive information.

There has been a series of unauthorized summonings in a nearby city.”

That's four this year alone,” one of the Grand Masters in the stands exclaimed, “we must get the spread of this information under control!”

The messenger waited for him to finish before continuing.

The novice summoner in question appears to have obtained the information from an internet message board. The appropriate steps have been taken, and it is now being astroturfed. It will soon become flooded with inaccurate information and rendered unusable.”

Who was summoned?” the Grand Master asked, adjusting his spectacles as he waited for a reply.

It was Orobas, worshipful Grand Master.”

A lesser demon,” another of the men in the stands scoffed. “It's hardly worthy of our consideration. Just follow procedure and have the summoner in question eliminated, what's the problem?”

There have been some...complications. It appears that Orobas assigned a familiar to the summoner, one of the ancient Seirim. The summoner somehow succeeded in feeding the familiar enough magickal energy that it was freed from Orobas' control. He started a local myth, drawing a summoning circle in the woods outside his city and taking a video recording of the Seirim in question manifesting, which he later uploaded to the internet. It garnered enough interest to get the local news organizations and a supernatural television show involved. The combined magickal energy produced by such widespread belief has been considerable. The nearest lodge is working in conjunction with members in the local media and the city council to suppress the story, but we fear that the damage has already been done. The myth is self-sustaining and has propagated both throughout the surrounding area and in online circles. The video alone now has millions of views.”

Then this is not a normal summoner,” the resident Grand Master mused. “He was able to obtain all of this information from an internet forum? How did this situation escape our attention for so long?”

We must push through legislation that will allow us to take down these websites,” another of the Masons added, “seeding them with false information is a half-measure. We have to be proactive, we have to stop the spread of information at the source. Senator Griswold, you have contacts in the entertainment industry. Can we make this an extension of the digital millennium copyright act?”

We already have members in the NSA who have been feeding us information,” one of the men replied, perhaps Griswold. “But these forums are often so obscure that finding them at all is a challenge. Taking them down isn't the problem. Consider how few people will be interested in demonology or the occult, and then the minority of those people who will actually attempt a real summoning. Sometimes it can be as few as a dozen individuals sharing fragments of information.”

There's more,” the messenger continued, and the Grand Masters went silent. “As you well know, familiars feed on the energy of the demons to which they are bound, they cannot exist on their own. In order to free the Seirim familiar from Orobas' control, the summoner had to awaken the Seirim's original master.”

A concerned murmur spread through the court, a few of the less knowledgeable Grand Masters looking about in confusion as they waited for him to elaborate.

The original progenitor of the Seirim is the Watcher, Azazel,” the messenger explained.

Impossible,” a member of the court scoffed. “No novice could summon a fallen Angel, it would tear him apart on the spot. Even an experienced wizard would have to take special precautions.”

We have reason to believe that the magickal energy accrued was enough to awaken and free him, along with the entire Seirim tribe. Millions of people saw the internet video, thousands more saw Azazel's sigil, as the summoner seems to have drawn it everywhere. Azazel may have gained enough power to manifest in our plane.”

The resident Grand Master considered, stroking his beard as he absorbed what he had been told.

If this information is accurate,” he began, “then strict measures must be taken. We can't very well have Watchers running around unsupervised. It is our duty to ensure that knowledge of the occult is suppressed, it must remain under the unique control of the Freemasons if we are to maintain order in the world.”

Do we have a contingency plan for this situation?” one of the Grand Masters in the stand asked.

Yes, this should be treated as a high-level summoning gone awry. Contact the most experienced wizards in the state and have them convene a meeting. We can't afford any delays, there's no time to bring people in from overseas. We're going to need contracts written up for high-level demons, and they'll need to be ironclad if we're going to be operating in a major population center. Get in touch with local law enforcement and have them be ready, we'll need to send in a special response team to clean this mess up.”

As you wish, honorable Grand Master,” the messenger said as he bowed again. He had expected to receive such orders. After all, it often took a demon to catch a demon.

Watchers are fickle creatures,” the resident Grand Master added, “we can't be sure what kind of relationship it has with the summoner. Relay my concerns, I don't want any mistakes. You are dismissed.”

The messenger bowed once more, then turned and marched back towards the safety of the oak doors. Although he was not usually privy to such highly sensitive information, rumors usually made their way down through the lesser degrees, and he had never heard of a Watcher being awakened before. They were fallen Angels, Seraphim, holy beings that had been cast out of heaven for their transgressions during the antediluvian period. Azazel was prominent among them, best known for fornicating with human women in order to produce a tribe of Satyrs known as the Seirim and for teaching mankind forbidden knowledge.

If such a creature was free to roam the Earth once again, then who knew what kind of havoc it might be causing? One thing was for sure, he didn't envy the poor summoner. The man probably had no idea what he had gotten himself into, and his death warrant had just been signed...

***

Ryan stepped through the door of his apartment, shrugging off his jacket and hanging it up on the coat rack. The sweet scents of cooking were already reaching his nose, Nahash must be preparing dinner. He spotted her in the kitchen, hunched over the stove due to her exaggerated stature, the massive Seirim was hard to miss.

She stood tall enough that her crown of half a dozen twisted, black horns scraped the ceiling, protruding from the soft wool that lined her head and neck. The mane of feathery, white material stopped at her collar and shoulders like an Elizabethan ruff, where it tapered into ashen skin, smooth and clear. A pair of heavy, full breasts hung from her chest, swaying gently as she stirred something that was cooking in a pot on the range. They were as large as his head but appropriate on her massive frame.

Her belly was soft and paunchy, her hips and thighs curved and feminine to give her a full and comely figure. At her elbows and knees, the fluffy wool began anew, covering her forearms and her lower legs. Her arms ended in three-fingered hands, two digits and a thumb, which were tipped with black nails that were almost sharp enough to be described as claws. Her legs were bent like those of a goat, ending in cloven hooves that looked like they might belong to a cow or a deer.

He watched one of her ovine ears flick as she sensed his arrival, turning to greet him in her musical voice. It was husky and feminine, unearthly, almost sounding like it was being run through a synthesizer. It was beautiful in a way, hypnotic.

Welcome home, Ryan,” she cooed.

She smiled at him, her golden eyes brightening. Her face was a little odd at first glance, but he had gotten so used to her appearance by now that to him it seemed flawless. It wasn't quite that of a goat and not quite that of a woman, more like something between the two. Her features were softer and subtler than those of an animal, with an almost imperceptible snout, her clear face framed by her mane of soft wool. Her nose was undeniably that of a goat, the same pink color as her lips and her nipples. Her eyes were amber in color and sported the horizontal pupils of a sheep, her long lashes batting at him as he drew close.

Ryan sidled up behind her, wrapping his arms around her wide hips and burying his face in her back, the Satyr too tall for him to reach her fluffy head. Her flesh was warm and yielding, his fingers sinking into the pleasant dough of her belly, her skin as soft as silk despite its unhealthy color. She was wide enough that his fingers scarcely met on the other side, the generous cushion of her plump rear pressing against him as she chuckled to herself.

Did you miss me so terribly?”

Always,” he sighed, breathing in her flowery scent as she stirred. “What are you making?”

Does it matter?”

He had to admit that it probably didn't. One of her many powers was the ability to influence his senses, making him taste, smell and feel anything that she desired. She could make water taste like the finest wine, or a pot noodle taste like food cooked by a gourmet chef. Whatever she was making, it would be divine once it touched his tongue.

It had been almost two weeks since she had been freed from Orobas' service now. Ryan had summoned the Goetic demon in a last-ditch attempt to get his life back on track, never really expecting it to work. The entity had used its powers to secure him a high-paying job, along with various other resources that had seen him go from being unable to pay his rent, to working a dream job that paid more than he could ever hope to spend. Wealth had not been his goal, however. It was merely a side effect, and it was one of the reasons that the summoning had gone so well. Demons did not take kindly to greed, they would only give you what you needed.

Ryan's needs had been urgent and genuine, he was not merely in search of undeserved riches or unwarranted power. He had drawn up a contract with Orobas, and the demon had exceeded all of his expectations, rescuing him from the brink of poverty and depression.

During its work, the demon had assigned Nahash to him as a familiar, her job being to act as an intermediary and to help Ryan sleep with her uncanny powers. She could induce a relaxation in him that would overpower even the most troubled mind, allowing him to sleep properly for the first time in months.

He had quickly fallen in love with her, and after a long and arduous process, he had succeeded in freeing her from the demon's control. The Seirim were Pagan deities, sustained by the belief of mortals. As the legends of Satyrs roaming the untamed wilds had slowly faded, her tribe had been forced to enter into the service of more powerful entities, living off their energy to survive. Ryan had managed to rekindle belief in them by starting a myth, resurrecting their patriarch Azazel and securing a new source of vital energy for them.

As a reward for his efforts, the ancient Watcher had crafted a ring for Ryan, black as night and engraved with arcane runes. It was both a wedding band and an object of binding, an item that would bind a demonic entity and allow it to manifest without the need of complex summoning circles and rituals.

Nahash was drawn to the ring like a moth to a flame, and as long as he wore it, she would be able to find him anywhere in the world. He liked to keep the old chalk circle that had been drawn on the floor of his apartment all the same, it gave her the run of the place, letting her manifest here when he was at work.

She had been acting as his doting housewife since she had been freed, enjoying the mundane aspects of human life that were still a novelty to her after spending countless centuries in the formless void where demons resided.

So what did you do today?” Ryan asked, taking a step back and releasing her from his bear hug. “Anything interesting?”

I've been using the internet,” she replied, her attention still firmly focused on her food. “Humans have certainly been busy over the last few thousand years, it makes for interesting reading.”

I can imagine,” he laughed, taking a seat at the kitchen table and drinking in her figure as she worked. “How's the power situation?”

Strong,” Nahash replied, knowing that he was referring to the energy that she used to manifest in the physical world. “It has been a very long time since I have felt this...material.”

Prior to Ryan freeing her, Nahash had only been able to make use of what little energy Orobas could spare, meaning that she could only manifest when necessary and for limited periods of time. Energy was everything to a demon, it was their currency and their life force, accrued through the belief of mortals. The more worshipers and believers an entity had, the more powerful it became, able to expend that energy in greater quantities in order to increase its influence. When a demon was forgotten and ran out of energy, they either faded into nothing, or they entered into the service of a more powerful demon. Most demons had legions of servants and lesser entities to do their bidding, Nahash had been one of them until recently.

Ryan's scheme seemed to be keeping her and her sisters fed, that was good. The media storm around what was now referred to as the haunted forest had been immense and was still being fueled by blurry videos of the Seirim that now inhabited the woods, filmed by mystery hunters and cryptozoologists who had traveled from far and wide to investigate.

He hadn't seen head nor tail of Azazel since their last encounter at the bonfire, the Watcher seemed to have vanished from the face of the Earth. It was probably for the best. Despite the creature never showing any ill will towards Ryan, it exuded an aura of palpable unnaturalness that made him wary and uneasy.

Nahash interrupted the thought, placing a bowl of what looked like tomato soup in front of him, standing with her hands on her wide hips as she waited for him to taste it.

What's this?” Ryan asked, picking up the spoon and stirring it. There were floating spices in the thick liquid, perhaps basil or thyme.

Doesn't matter,” she replied with a smirk, “eat it.”

As he brought the spoon up towards his lips, he felt a familiar warmth overcome him, as though he had been draped in an invisible blanket. It permeated him to the core, making him feel comfortable and drowsy. The hairs on his arms and neck stood on end, and he felt Nahash's warm breath on his skin as she leaned closer to whisper in his ear.

Eat,” Nahash breathed. Her musical voice was low and husky, seductive. He could almost make out the faint sounds of instruments accompanying her as if heard from a great distance.

She was using her powers on him, his mind growing foggy and muddled as she manipulated his senses. It was a kind of dull euphoria, irresistible and overpowering. As soon as he felt the warm liquid touch his tongue, he was assailed by an explosion of flavor. It was the most delicious thing that he had ever tasted, sweet and savory flavors mingling to produce a wonderful contradiction, ambrosial and divine. It was food fit for the Gods, every swallow bringing with it new and unexpected tastes, as if she had somehow combined every spice and herb that existed into a single dish.

He ate like it was going out of style, wanting to taste every last drop of the soup before the wonderful sensation subsided. When the final spoonful had been swallowed, Nahash released her hold on his mind, Ryan snapping out of his trance-like state. He blinked to clear his eyes, glancing up at the Seirim as she smiled down at him, an unearthly glow slowly fading from her golden eyes.

You never disappoint,” he chuckled.

***

The armored truck bounced along the city street, the SWAT team that was seated in the cramped interior checking their submachine guns and adjusting their helmets as they neared their target. The half a dozen police officers were clad in matching black body armor, their uniforms beneath the tactical vests and protective padding a shade of dark blue. They wore balaclavas and ballistic goggles beneath their helmets, all the better to conceal their identities should things go awry. The patches and lettering that would have denoted their police department were absent, but that wouldn't be noticeable to a bystander. As long as nobody inspected them too closely, they would look like any other armed response unit.

The call had come through from the Grand Lodge, there was a priority target that needed to be dealt with quickly and quietly. There were Freemasons in every branch of the city's police department, the commissioner included, and it was a trivial task to orchestrate this kind of operation. Any non-Mason officers in the area had been called away, and their counterparts in the emergency services had been tipped off. They wouldn't respond to any calls from this block until the raid had concluded, it was on lockdown.

They would get in fast, take out the target, and then falsify the paperwork. The records would show that one Ryan Cutter had called in a false police report claiming to have hostages and that he had opened fire on the officers when they had stormed his apartment, intending to commit suicide by cop. One of the officers had a weapon ready to plant, a handgun with the serial marks filed off, untraceable. The paramedics would arrive too late to save him, it had already been decided.

The target has a familiar,” one of them said, raising his voice over the sound of the engine. “Mike, did you prepare the vessel?”

The officer that he was referring to brandished a brass container, roughly the size of a coffee mug, designed to serve as a vessel that would contain a demonic entity while being as compact as possible. Like a Genie in a lamp, the demon could be commanded into it using the correct seals and wards.

The seal of Solomon is ready,” Mike replied, “I'll take care of it. Just make sure your wards are visible, we don't know how much energy this thing has loaded up with. The Grand Master said it was a Satyr, and there isn't much info on them. Near as we can tell, they've not been sighted for hundreds of years.”

Do we have backup?” another of the masked men asked.

Halphas is seeing us to our destination,” Mike replied, “and if the familiar gives us too much trouble we have Haures on standby.”

Is that necessary?” one of the others asked. “We're in an armored truck, and nobody knows we're coming. I don't want to be anywhere near Haures if shit hits the fan.”

Mike shrugged his shoulders, bouncing in his seat as the van went over a pothole.

They don't want any fuckups on this one, this guy is apparently a big deal. He's already summoned one demon, we can't be sure that he hasn't done it again. There are plenty of lesser demons who could have tipped him off. Speaking of which, where the fuck is Malphas?”

A terrible stench of sulfur filled the truck, and their eyes were drawn to a shape in the middle of the floor. It was as if all of the shadows in the compartment had coalesced into a single point, blacker than black, creating a darkness from which a writhing shape emerged. It was twisted and formless, seen with the mind as much as with one's eyes as if it was projecting an image directly into their brains like a hologram. Their breath crystallized as the temperature in the truck plummeted, the air thick with acrid fumes as the shape became solid, manifesting in the form of a small and unassuming crow.

The little bird hopped up onto Mike's lap, flapping its wings as they watched it. It opened its beak and began to speak in the voice of a man, hoarse and guttural.

I have done as bidden,” the demon croaked. “The mind of thy enemy is clear of suspicion. He knoweth not that you approach, he knoweth not of thy secret order, nor has he taken any measures to shield himself from magickal threats. I cannot see into the mind of the Seirim, her powers cloud my vision.”

Malphas had the power to see into the minds of his master's enemies, able to relay their thoughts and desires. It was an incredibly useful tool that made being taken by surprise almost impossible. If the target had set up an ambush or knew that they were coming, the team would be warned well in advance. The Seirim was an enigma it seemed, but it was unlikely to take any actions without the approval of its master.

Your work is complete Malphas,” Mike said, “return to the magician who summoned you and complete your contract.”

The demon bowed its tiny head, and then it was gone as abruptly as it had appeared.

We're coming up on the apartment block, two minutes,” the driver called out from the cab.

Alright, lock and load people,” another of the masked men ordered. “Let's do this by the book.”

There was a chorus of clicks and clatters as the team loaded their weapons and chambered rounds, checking safeties and affixing silencers. They were all equipped with H&K UMPs besides Mike, who was sporting a pump action shotgun. The submachine guns were accurate and incredibly quiet with a suppressor, even in the close confines of an apartment block the sound wouldn't carry too far. They could kick out six hundred rounds of nine-millimeter parabellum per minute on full-auto, with a thirty round magazine, enough to turn Cutter into Swiss cheese and to obliterate whatever physical form his familiar had taken.

That was the problem with manifesting in the flesh. A soul was invulnerable to damage, but most demons would succumb to a shotgun blast to the face just as well as any human. Once they smoked the thing, it should be weak enough that they could seal it inside the brass vessel. Assuming that the entity wasn't jacked up on energy of course.

The truck pulled up and came to a stop, the SWAT team piling out of the back with their weapons shouldered. They were in the parking lot of a fairly average apartment block, deserted save for a handful of shitty cars and one old lady who was pushing a walker on the other side of the street. The sun had set, and the stars were just peeking out through the cloud layer. The building was tall and made from ugly concrete, it looked like a miserable place to live. This Cutter guy had used Orobas to land himself a high paying job, why had he not moved out?

Their target was on the eighth floor, and the building had no elevator. Fantastic. Mike took point and waved the team forward, the SWAT team making for the stairwell.

***

Ryan opened his eyes groggily, rubbing them as he sat up and got his bearings. Nahash was sitting next to him on the couch, her massive frame cushioning him with its soft flesh and downy wool. He looked around the room, night had fallen, and the streaming service that they had been watching on the television had paused their show at some point. Everything was dark besides the pale glow from the screen, casting them in deep shadows. He must have fallen asleep.

Nahash, did you put me to sleep?” he grumbled. He leaned his weight on her as he felt her long arm curl around his shoulder. Her original task when she had been assigned to him by Orobas had been to help him sleep, and whether by association or through her insidious magick, he always seemed to get drowsy whenever they were sat together for long enough. It was like her fleece was laced with sleeping powder.

She curled her fingers around his head and guided his face into her chest, pressing it into the soft wool, her bare breasts scarcely an inch beneath his chin. They hung free, large and heavy enough that they would have snapped the spine of a mortal woman, but Nahash carried them easily on her massive frame. Besides, her weight was...wrong. She should be far heavier than she actually was, judging by her immense size. It was as if her body wasn't entirely solid, or like she was able to modulate it through magickal means, the weighty globes held aloft as if by some invisible force. These were certainly physical manifestations, their mass such that he would have needed two arms to lift one, her supple flesh deforming and yielding wonderfully beneath his hands like putty when he kneaded them.

She was so warm and inviting, her skin as smooth as glass and as soft as velvet where it wasn't covered in her white fur. He took the liberty of wrapping an arm around her waist, letting his fingers sink deep into the plump flesh of her hip as he breathed in her earthy scent, the delicate strands of her wool tickling his nose. She smelled a little like wet soil, bringing to mind images of droplets of dew clinging to blades of grass and the sprawling forests that she called her home.

They would be headed off to bed soon, and Seirim were creatures that reveled in earthly pleasures. In the weeks that they had been together, they had made love every night, usually more than once. Tonight would be no exception. He looked forward to sharing a bed with her again from the moment that he was forced to leave her side each morning.

No,” she replied, her voice low and husky. “I've not needed to ease you into sleep for some time. It seems that your troubled mind has been calmed.”

Ryan heard a knock at the door, the hollow sound echoing through the apartment. He rose to a sitting position, looking up at Nahash in confusion.

Who can that be? Did you order a pizza or any takeout?”

Nahash had taken to ordering random items from the various fast food menus that were still scattered about, a relic from his battle with depression. She wanted to taste the largest variety of food possible as if making up for lost time. After spending centuries imprisoned in the soup of formless thought and emotion that was the demonic realm, he could understand her desire to make the most of having a sense of taste.

She shook her head.

No, I didn't order anything. Stay here, I'll see who it is.”

Nahash rose from her seat on the couch, morphing before Ryan's very eyes as she crossed the room. She was able to take the form of a lanky, platinum blonde that she called Natasha when she had to appear before humans other than Ryan. He still wasn't quite sure if she was actually able to change her physical manifestation, or if she just influenced people's senses so that they perceived her differently. Based on what he knew about how her powers functioned, the latter was perhaps more likely.

He watched as her white wool gave way to flowing, curly hair. Her massive frame shrank down to a more modest six feet, the Seirim's exaggerated figure narrowing and slimming. Even as Natasha she was still a beast of a woman. She looked like a Russian or perhaps a Scandinavian supermodel with a perm. This was after his pleas for her to make her disguise a little less conspicuous, as nobody would have believed that someone like him could land someone like her. She had been even taller and more endowed before she had reluctantly agreed to his demands.

As she neared the door, casual clothes grew around her, a pair of worn jeans and a loose fitting t-shirt covering her nude body. Another of Ryan's suggestions.

From his seat on the couch, he watched her open the door across the open-plan apartment. Almost as soon as it had swung ajar, there was a sound like a stick snapping, muted but loud enough that he heard it across the room. There were two more cracks, and Nahash took a couple of stumbling steps backwards. Sensing that something was very wrong, Ryan rose to his feet, his blood running cold as she turned towards him. Nahash was holding her belly, and as she pulled her hands awa,y he saw a dark streak of crimson staining her clothing. She looked up at him in confusion.

Ryan...?”

Before the plea had even left her lips, a dark figure pushed through the door and entered the apartment. Ryan had seen enough movies to know that the long, black barrel that he was pointing at her head was some kind of shotgun. The man was clad in what looked like a police uniform, with the black body armor and helmet that identified him as SWAT or some kind of special forces soldier.

Everything seemed to be running in slow motion, like time had been slowed to a crawl. Without breaking stride, the intruder pulled the trigger, a sound like a jackhammer ringing out through the apartment. If Nahash had been a human, the shot would have exploded her head like a melon. Instead, she fell sideways, knocked off her feet by the blast. Halfway through her fall, she seemed to burst, her corporeal body melting into what looked like a cloud of dark ink that had been poured into a glass of water. The smear of black gas spread through the air like a stain on white linen, slowing until it seemed to hang there, frozen.

Ryan watched in horror as a red casing bounced out of the gun's receiver to clatter to the wood floor, two more men wearing matching uniforms pushing through the door. They were also armed, and they pointed what looked like submachine guns at him, shouldered and ready to fire.

It was all happening so quickly. Naught but a couple of seconds had passed since the first shot, and even as he tried to react, his body moved like he was underwater. His synapses were firing faster than this body could react to the commands. The men's faces were featureless, obscured by opaque goggles and ski masks, their movements precise and rehearsed. In another second he would be dead, and he wouldn't even know why...

He braced himself for the pain, but then something moved in his peripheral vision. The cloud of dark ink that had been Nahash shifted, springing back to life, moving across the room so quickly that he could scarcely process it.

The dark stain on reality put itself between Ryan and his assailants, coalescing into a solid shape as more muted gunshots rang out. Ryan flinched away, but the wall of shifting smoke seemed to have absorbed the bullets.

It took shape, as if all of the shadows in the room were coming together to form a vaguely humanoid silhouette. The lights flickered, the television screen hissing with static. Ryan realized that he was standing above the chalk summoning circle that was still drawn onto the floor beneath the couch. It was the one spot in the apartment where all of the magickal energy was concentrated. The circle acted as a bridge between worlds, drawing ambient energy towards it like a magnet, a conduit that would give a demon enough energy to manifest.

The figure sprouted horns, rising to eight or nine feet, white wool growing from the black sludge. Nahash now stood before Ryan in her Seirim form, her back to him as she faced off against the intruders, hunched like a beast ready to pounce. She wasn't dead? Could a demon be destroyed by a mortal weapon like a gun? There was no blood on her white fur, and she didn't seem to be injured.

She was exuding an aura of menace, the temperature in the room plummeting such that Ryan could see his own breath condensating in white puffs. She glanced back at him, her amber eyes burning like hot coals, her usually soft features twisted into a savage snarl. He wanted to ask her if she was hurt, if she was going to be okay. He wanted to express his relief, but he was being assailed by so many powerful emotions in such quick succession that he couldn't muster as much as a word. Fear, loss, relief. His brain was being turned to mush.

She's juiced up,” one of the men called out, his voice muffled by his mask. “Get the seal!”

More men piled into the small apartment, six in all, their weapons aimed at Nahash. They didn't seem remotely perturbed by the presence of a giant demon goat standing right in front of them. Who were these people?

A glint caught his eye, and he noticed that they were wearing matching pendants around their necks on the outside of their clothing. He recognized the symbols that were etched onto them, it was a Pentagonal Figure of Solomon, a ward designed to shield the wearer from demonic attack. Those wouldn't work very well against a Seirim. While the ward might give a lesser demon pause for thought, without knowing that entity's personal sigil and having it engraved on the other side of the pendant, it wouldn't do them a lot of good. Nahash shared her sigil with Azazel, a powerful Watcher who could not be compelled by such tricks and trinkets.

Nahash moved to attack, lunging towards the men, but the one holding the shotgun brandished some kind of badge. It was made from brass, decorated with a figure that resembled a rough pyramid, ringed by arcane runes and incantations. The Secret Seal of Solomon, a ward designed to compel a demonic entity into a brass vessel, trapping it as King Solomon was said to have done in his day.

Ryan had studied these tools and had even used some of them during his attempts at summoning. Were these men here for Nahash?

The Seirim shuddered as if some invisible force had overtaken her, stopped in her tracks. The man withdrew a small, brass bottle from his pocket as he let the shotgun hang from a strap about his chest. The container was about the size of a soda can or a coffee cup. He began to recite incantations under his breath in a language that Ryan couldn't understand, perhaps Hebrew or Aramaic, rhythmic and trance-like. Nahash's form flickered, becoming less solid as if he could see right through her. He knew this ritual, they were attempting to confine her to the vessel!

He had to act quickly, he might only have seconds left to intervene before her spirit was contained and she was sealed forever. They could close the vessel with a lead cap and drop it into the ocean for all he knew, she would never be able to free herself. But what could he do against a squad of armed men? Only Nahash's massive body was shielding him from the hail of bullets that would no doubt spell his demise.

Beginning to panic, he looked around the room, trying to find some kind of tool or weapon that was close enough to reach. He had to distract the man who was reciting the incantation. If his concentration was broken even for a moment, then it might give Nahash time to break free. The other men were slowly inching around her flickering form in an attempt to get a shot at him. She was still fighting against the spell, struggling as if she was battling physical restraints.

All that was in reach was the couch and the remote for the TV.

A spark of inspiration came to him, and he picked up the remote, inching backwards to put the couch between him and the armed goons. One of the first things that he had bought since landing his new job was a modern media center with a large flat-screen and a powerful surround sound system. The TV was still on, and he cranked the volume up to max, hitting play on the movie that they had been watching earlier.

Immediately the floor began to shake as an action scene resumed, the powerful sound system blasting the noise of a car chase, clashing metal and revving engines drowning out the incantation. The SWAT team likely had hearing protection on, but the distraction was enough to interrupt the spell, Nahash taking advantage of their momentary lapse in concentration.

She charged the man wielding the brazen ward, knocking it from his gloved hands. As soon as she moved there was a hail of gunfire, bullets whizzing through the air as the noise overpowered even the sound of the film that was coming through the speakers. They were firing their weapons on full auto, the projectiles digging holes in the far wall and destroying the furniture. Glasses in the kitchen shattered along with the windows, a container of milk that had been sitting on the table exploding as a bullet tore through it. The television sparked and went dark as a stray round hit it, the microwave exploded into a cloud of smoke and the cabinets splintered, books on his shelf erupting into plumes of shredded paper.

Ryan dove behind the couch, hearing the bullets as they whizzed past not an inch above his head, sending bursts of stuffing spraying into the air where they impacted the cushions and armrests. The wooden frame of the couch seemed to be shielding him for the most part.

He heard the signature crack of the shotgun, peeking up from his hiding spot to see Nahash tear the weapon from the man's hands. She delivered a powerful kick to his chest with her cloven hoof that sent him flying into the wall behind him, the drywall denting and crumbling as it fell down around him. It seemed that their weapons were no longer doing the job, not now that Nahash was inside the circle and charged up with energy.

He had never seen her like this before, she was ferocious, wild. Her sheer size and strength made her formidable in such close quarters, she was throwing her assailants around like they were dolls. He ducked in alarm as she flung one of them towards the couch, the flailing man passing clear over his head and smashing through the already broken window in the living room. They were on the eighth floor, there was no way that guy would survive a fall from that height.

She gored another with her horns, impaling him through his vest. Apparently, it wasn't demon horn-proof. She lifted him off the ground like an angry bull, blood pouring from his wounds as she swung her head and sent him flying into the glass coffee table.

Suddenly Nahash was stopped in her tracks again. The man who had been reciting the incantation had pulled himself free of the half-collapsed wall. He had recovered his Seal of Solomon and was resuming his spell as he waved it at her. She twitched and shuddered, his words staying her rampage as she was rooted to the spot. The speakers were no longer working, the game console that they were hooked up to must have caught a bullet.

Ryan sprang into action, throwing himself towards the prone figure that was lying in a heap in the ruins of the coffee table in front of the couch. He fumbled with the man's weapon, still attached to him via a sling, struggling to free it from the motionless body. There was broken glass and blood all over the floorboards, Ryan trying not to think about it as he succeeded in freeing the weapon.

He had never fired a gun before in his life, but he had seen them in movies, played with them in video games. Just point and shoot, how hard could it be?

One of the surviving team members was rising unsteadily to his feet after having been flung into the kitchen, struggling to get his bearings. Ryan aimed the gun and squeezed the trigger.

Immediately the weapon jumped in his hands, the recoil strong enough that the last few rounds of the burst went into the ceiling directly above him, showering him with dust and debris. Ryan struggled to get the weapon under control, the noise making his ears ring like he had tinnitus. Even a poor marksman couldn't have missed a person from ten feet away with an automatic weapon, and he watched with a mixture of pride and horror as his target slumped over, bringing the kitchen table down with him as he crashed back to the floor.

Ryan turned towards the man who was casting the spell, Nahash's shivering form was directly between the two of them, and he couldn't get a clear shot. He edged around her, bracing the stock of the gun against his shoulder as he had seen the SWAT team do. The man was already drawing a sidearm from his vest, keeping the bronze badge held in one hand as he chanted.

Nahash was tall and wide, but she was standing an open-legged posture, frozen in position like a statue. The man took advantage of that to fire off a round between her legs, the bullet narrowly missing Ryan's foot as it chewed up the wood flooring.

Ryan danced out of the way, retreating back behind the couch. Surely this guy couldn't keep his attention on both Ryan and Nahash? He couldn't participate in a gunfight and recite a complex incantation at the same time. Ryan had to act quickly, dropping to a crouch and scooting around the back of the couch. A bullet tore through the lining where he had been a moment earlier, that round would have found its mark if he had been a second slower.

Keeping his body out of view, he raised the gun over the back of the couch and pumped the trigger, loosing a few random shots. They didn't seem to do a thing to Nahash, and so there was little danger of accidentally wounding her. When the ringing in his ears cleared, he heard the sound of a scuffle. He peeked out of his cover to see the furious Seirim pounding the man into the floor with her powerful leg, stomping on his body until it went limp. Ryan must have provided enough of a distraction for her to break free of the spell.

She turned her head to look back at Ryan over her shoulder. The white wool on her head and neck was stained with blood that was not her own, her eyes burning with an infernal heat. He was afraid of her for a split second, and then her enraged expression softened, the Nahash that he knew and loved resurfacing.

Ryan,” she gasped, “are you hurt?”

Me?!” Ryan stammered, “what about you? I saw you...for a moment I thought that you had been killed!”

They dissipated my corporeal form with their weapon,” she explained. “But I am bound to your ring, and I cannot be so easily banished. If it was not for the circle...”

She glanced anxiously at the bare wood beneath the shredded couch where the chalk circle was still visible, it was no doubt all that had permitted her to reform as quickly as she had. If it had not been there, the men would have gunned Ryan down before she could intervene. Without the ring to which Azazel had bound her, perhaps her spirit would have been cast back into the immaterial realm after her body was destroyed.

Who are these people?” Ryan wondered aloud, crouching to inspect one of the downed men. They were wearing police uniforms all right, but there were no markings, no badge numbers or identifying information that might tell him which department they belonged to.

I do not know, I have never seen their like before. But Ryan, they were equipped to contain a demon. The Aramaic incantation, Solomon's Seal, the brazen vessel. If you had not intervened when you did, I might have been confined to that brass jar.”

The adrenaline was wearing off now, leaving Ryan shaky and exhausted. He felt sick, the carnage in the apartment was turning his stomach. He had never realized that blood had its own smell before, metallic and cloying.

I...killed a guy,” he muttered. “I think I killed a cop. I shot him.”

Ryan,” Nahash said, attempting to snap him out of his stupor. “We must leave, we are not safe here. More may come.”

I have to call someone,” he said, “I have to call the police. But these are...police. What do we do?”

We must leave,” Nahash insisted, walking over to him and placing her hands on his shoulders. He looked up at her, staring into her amber eyes, the fog of confusion and fear seeming to clear like storm clouds parting to reveal a blue sky. He suddenly felt composed, collected, certain now of what he needed to do. Was she using her powers on him, manipulating his emotions to sharpen his mind?

He nodded vigorously.

Should I bring anything?”

Your wand and your grimoires, bring anything you might need to perform magick. Someone, somewhere knows that we are here. These mortals were well prepared, I fear that it is only by chance that we prevailed.”

He wasted no time, collecting his books and the summoning gear that was laid out conveniently on a table beneath the living room window, intended to be within reach of the summoning circle if he should ever need them. It appeared that none of the dusty tomes had been hit by stray bullets, but anything on the bookshelf a few feet to its right was toast. He had a cloth pouch filled with chalk and a wand that was fashioned from a stick. While it couldn't shoot fireballs, it was used to direct energy and to give commands to demons.

He filled a rucksack with his belongings, taking a moment to tear one of the protective pendants from the neck of a nearby body. He retrieved the brass vessel and the Seal of Solomon too, they might come in handy at some point. These were nothing like the makeshift wards and seals that he had crafted when he had first summoned Orobas, these appeared to be professionally made. They were sturdy, forged from metal rather than drawn on paper, their carved runes and symbols intricate and precise.

Just who were these guys, demon hunters? Ryan had never bothered anyone in his life, why would they come after him? Were they just after Nahash?

He paused when he noticed a black handgun lying beside one of the motionless police officers. Should he bring a weapon? He might need to defend himself, and it was probably better to have one and not need it than to need one and not have it. He couldn't wander around with a machine gun, but he could easily conceal a pistol in his bag. He stooped to pick it up, examining the weapon and turning it over in his hands.

Guns had safeties, right? He should probably find it, or the weapon might go off in his pack. There was a click as he flipped a small lever just below the receiver, it only had two settings, and so that was probably the safety. He aimed the weapon away from himself and squeezed the trigger tentatively, but it didn't fire.

Ryan took a moment to look around the apartment. It was completely destroyed, littered with debris and bodies. It looked like a war zone, there were shell casings all over the floor, bullet holes in every surface and appliance. He had to hope that his neighbors were safe and that no stray bullets had made their way into the adjacent apartments in the building. He stowed the weapon in his bag and then slung it over his shoulder.

Alright Nahash, let's get out of here. What did you have in mind?”

We will take your car, beyond that I do not know. We should leave this city, we might seek sanctuary in the forest with my sister Seirim. But I fear that if these people know of me, then they may know of them too.”

Azazel wouldn't let any harm come to them,” Ryan replied, trying to reassure her. She stooped and lifted him in her arms, his stomach lurching as she turned towards the window.

Aren't we taking the stairs?” he asked.

This way is faster.”

She began to run, crossing the apartment alarmingly quickly on her inhumanly long legs. There was a crash as she leapt out of the window, clearing the frame of what shattered fragments of glass still remained and splintering the wood, shielding him with her body. They began to fall, Ryan closing his eyes tightly and clinging to her soft wool like a baby monkey. Nahash impacted the ground hard, her hooves making a sound like a thunderclap as the asphalt beneath them cracked, the demon absorbing the impact with her legs.

She released Ryan from her grasp, and he looked up at the window. The damage was almost unnoticeable from the ground save for the busted frame where Nahash had powered through it with her massive body. He turned towards the street and recoiled at the sight of the cop who had been thrown from the building. He was lying in a pool of congealing blood, his limbs contorted at unnatural angles.

Where were the sirens, where were the gawking pedestrians? There had just been a gunfight, where were the ambulances and the police? The parking lot and the street beyond it were a ghost town, there wasn't so much as a solitary car driving on the road. It gave him an odd feeling of foreboding. Had nobody in the identical tower blocks that surrounded his own come out to investigate the noise?

There was a sudden chill in the air, Ryan noticing that his breath was misting again. It was a cool night, the stars visible through the cloudy sky, but not nearly cold enough to make his breath frosty. The street lamps that had been casting the road in their yellow glow flickered on and off, the darkness that surrounded them suddenly growing thick and oppressive.

Something is coming,” he whispered.

I sense it too,” Nahash confirmed, “a demonic energy...”

Ryan's eyes were drawn to a point of orange light that was resting on the asphalt between the apartment complex and the street. It was an ember, the kind that a bonfire might produce. It must have floated in on the wind, but from where?

It caught fire before his eyes, bursting into a crackling flame, growing as if it was being fueled by unseen means. There was nothing there for it to burn and yet the ground was catching fire all the same. The burning flames grew and spread, licking at the air as they danced, so hot that he could feel it on his face even from twenty feet away.

From the fire emerged a dark shape, black as night and hunched like a beast made of shadows. It traversed the flames easily, stepping through them as if they were some kind of doorway, seemingly unharmed by the intense heat. As it took shape, Ryan saw its massive paws spread on the ground, tipped with wicked claws. A pair of burning eyes emerged from the roiling mass, not merely glowing, but shooting jets of flame like a blowtorch. They fixed on Ryan intently, hungry and predatory. It filled him with a primal terror the likes of which he had only felt once before, when Azazel had manifested inside his apartment for the first time.

The shadow took the form of a monstrous panther, its fur as black as soot, the beast beginning to circle them slowly as the fire that had carried it into the mortal realm faded. It was the largest big cat that Ryan had ever seen, tall enough at the shoulder that it would have reached his chest. Its black coat was rippling with muscle, powerful and primal, its body like a coiled spring.

As it walked, paws as large as Ryan's head spreading out to take its weight, he noticed that the slaver dripping from its jaws was also aflame. It looked like molten metal, hanging from its mouth in dangling strands that melted the tar of the parking lot where they fell. Every breath that it took exhaled a plume of dark smoke like a mythical dragon.

Haures,” Nahash whispered, her voice wavering with fear in a way that Ryan had never heard before. She was a Seirim, immortal for all intents and purposes. What kind of infernal beast might fill her with such palpable dread?

The panther spoke with the voice of a man, course and gruff, disconcerting.

Away with thee, Seirim. I have no quarrel with thee, my contract is for him.”

The mortal is under my protection,” she replied, taking an offensive posture as the demonic creature paced back and forth like a tiger behind the bars at a zoo. It kept those flaming eyes fixed on Ryan, unwavering and fierce, sending a chill crawling down his spine like icy fingers.

What...who is that?” Ryan whispered as Nahash placed herself between him and the beast.

Haures, a Great Duke of Hell. You may know him as the sixty-fourth Goetic demon.”

A Goetic demon? Then he was far more powerful than Nahash, who was a mere familiar. Someone had conjured this creature, they had brokered a contract with it, and Ryan was its target. Had this demon been assigned the task of killing him if the SWAT team failed? Why? What made Ryan so important? He was a nobody, completely inoffensive.

Why?” Ryan called out to the demon. “Who summoned you?”

It matters not. I have been contracted to burn thee to a cinder. Step out from behind thy familiar, and I may grant thee the mercy of a quick demise.”

Run Ryan,” Nahash whispered hurriedly, “run and don't look back.”

But what about you?” he protested, “what if-”

As long as you wear that ring I can always find you, no matter where you are.”

He traced the runes on his onyx ring with his finger, then nodded. He turned and sprinted back towards the apartment complex, letting his adrenaline carry him. He flew across the asphalt, faster than he had ever needed to run his life, a very real devil was on his heels. He made it around the side of the building, vaulting over a few scraggly bushes as he tried to escape.

The parking lot was to the front of the high-rise, and some distance behind it was the freeway. Between them was a short stretch of dilapidated, urban woodland, the skeletal trees scarcely serving to shield the buildings from the noise of passing vehicles.

As his scuffed tennis shoes left the tarmac and found unkempt grass, a flash of flame appeared before him. Haures sprang from the puff of black smoke, pouncing onto the ground two feet in front of him, the heat that the demon gave off enough to singe his eyebrows. He skidded to a halt, digging his heels into the dirt to slow himself, the black beast crouching as it prepared to tackle him.

Nahash shot by him like a bullet, driving one of her powerful hooves into its side, kicking like a mule and sending the smoldering panther rolling across the ground. Plants caught fire where it passed, leaving a trail of flames, and it quickly leapt back to its feet.

It snarled at Nahash, the yowl of an angry cat mingling with a terrible, bestial roar that filled Ryan with an unearthly terror. It spat flames from its open jaws, pearly teeth glinting under the starlight like porcelain knives. Gripping the earth with its wicked claws, it charged the Seirim, its powerful muscles rippling beneath its velvet-black hide as it powered forward at alarming speed. Something that large and that heavy should not have been able to move with such agility.

Before he could even turn himself around, Haures had knocked Nahash to the ground. It pinned her beneath its bulk, her white wool singing from its proximity alone, the fluffy curls turning black and shriveling as if they were recoiling from the heat.

She brayed like a goat, kicking and scratching, jabbing at Haures' face with her crown of twisted horns. Her assailant dodged and weaved, the two of them moving faster than Ryan's eyes could track, the clashing of their titanic bodies making the ground shake.

Haures gained the upper hand, baring its pointed canines and sinking them deep into Nahash's neck, dark blood staining her wool as she writhed and twisted. The great panther shook her like a dog with a chew toy, maintaining its grip and sinking those cruel fangs deeper.

Fuck this, he wasn't going to stand by and let this happen to her, whether she could reform afterwards or not. He swung his rucksack from his shoulders and rummaged inside it, quickly finding the items that he needed.

A loud crack rang out, and Haures' savaging was interrupted, the beast raising its dripping jaws to glare at Ryan. He was holding a smoking handgun in a trembling hand, having seen how the shotgun had destroyed Nahash's corporeal form and hoping that he could achieve the same effect.

Brave, but foolish,” the creature growled. “I shall have thee on a pyre, boy.”

It stepped off of the motionless Seirim, its jowls red with her blood, crouching low as if stalking him. It inched closer, those flaming eyes locked onto him, so intense that he dared not meet its gaze. He could feel the aura of heat that it projected, the blades of grass beneath its feet blackening and shrinking away as they cooked.

It lunged, and Ryan stood his ground, extending his other arm towards it.

Haures faltered, skidding to a stop on the dirt, its burning eyes turning towards the brass badge that he was brandishing. It was the Secret Seal of Solomon that he had recovered after the battle in the apartment, a ward that would compel a demon to obey his commands. He didn't have Haures' sigil on hand, and he was nowhere near a skilled enough magician to command the demon into the brazen vessel, but it was a powerful symbol that would at least give the demon pause for thought.

Get out of here, you fucker!”

Not exactly an Aramaic conjuration of exorcism, but Ryan was angry and scared out of his wits.

Haures seemed to be struggling against an invisible force, as if a strong wind was pushing it back, and it lunged to swipe at him with its massive paw. Ryan skipped back a few feet, knowing that this seal would not keep it away for long. It was a fully fledged Goetic demon, it would have taken an experienced summoner to call this thing into a circle and then reason with it.

The demon spat and hissed, droplets of its burning slaver landing at Ryan's feet and sizzling as they charred the grass. He shot it again, the gunshot ringing in his ears, and Haures shuddered. It didn't yelp in pain, nor did its furious expression change, its smoldering eyes glowing brighter as it bared its fangs at him. The bullets weren't doing much, but it was feeling them, it had a physical body that could be damaged.

Haures took a step closer, its face morphing into a disturbingly human smile as it realized that what limited power the seal had was wearing off. It licked it chops hungrily, preparing to pounce.

Instead it lurched, Ryan peeling his eyes away from the creature to see Nahash holding its tail like a rope. She was on her feet again, still corporeal, the wool on her neck and shoulder stained crimson on one side where the beast had bitten her. Her golden eyes were glowing like a pair of headlights, she must be mustering all of the energy that was available to her. Ryan could see smoke rising from her hands where they gripped the panther's long tail, its heat burning her palms.

She dug her cloven hooves into the soil and heaved, dragging Haures backwards and throwing it to the ground.

Run Ryan!” she brayed, her usually musical voice taking on an eerie resemblance to that of a goat. He didn't need to be told twice, heading off back towards the parking lot as he heard the sounds of the scuffle behind him. He had to get to his car, perhaps he could outrun this demon if they couldn't defeat it. His instincts screamed for him to turn back and help Nahash, but there was nothing that he could do for her. He had no idea what two demonic entities doing battle entailed, but he had to hope that like with the shotgun, Nahash would only lose her physical form and not her soul.

He rounded the building and found himself in the parking lot again. He spied his car, changing course and running towards it. He reached out to open the door but quickly recoiled, the skin on his hand blistering as the metal burned him. He sucked in air through his teeth, his fingers throbbing, and then he was knocked back by a puff of dark smoke.

Haures appeared before him, Ryan scrambling to his feet as the demon snarled and snapped its jaws, standing between him and the car.

Thy familiar is defeated, novice. I shall take great pleasure in rending thy meat from thy bones before I burn thee to a crisp. Beg for mercy if you think that thy pleas will move me. I have always been fond of theater with my meals.”

It smacked him with its massive paw, knocking him on his ass and singing his clothes where it touched them. It could probably incinerate him in an instant with a plume of hellfire, but he had pissed it off, and now it was toying with him like a cat with a mouse.

Haures let Ryan rise to his feet again, then knocked his legs out from under him with a powerful swipe. The demon sauntered over to him as he lay on the ground, confident that its prey was overcome, that same disturbing grin twisting its feline features.

A sudden movement caught Ryan's attention, a black shape passing across the sky, blocking out the stars as he lay on his back on the asphalt. Not a second later there was a massive gust of wind that sent him tumbling, a hurricane force that buffeted the bushes and trees, followed by a tremendous impact that set off every car alarm in the lot. The flashing lights from the vehicles illuminated a truly monstrous, humanoid figure, its leathery wings folding into its back as it stood with one foot on top of Haures' writhing body.

It was ten feet tall at least, broad-shouldered and muscular. Two sharp horns sprouted from its head, curling into two enormous and ornate spirals, the unmistakable horns of a ram or an ibex. Dark fur grew all over its body, a shaggy coat of long, black hair that obscured many of its features. It had the long beard of a goat and massive, cloven hooves that tipped its ovine legs, not unlike those of Nahash yet far larger in scale.

Its head was that of a goat, with no human features to speak of, a third eye glowing like a hot coal in the center of its hairy forehead. It exuded power and menace as if an aura of dread surrounded it like a miasma, giving Ryan the distinct impression that this thing should not exist.

It was Azazel, the fallen Watcher, Patriarch of the Seirim.

The nightmare creature had crushed Haures beneath its hoof, the panther squirming and writhing as the asphalt beneath its body melted and steamed. Azazel released it, and the demon sprang away from the fallen Angel, glaring up at its trio of eyes. Haures was afraid, Ryan realized, wounded too by the looks of it. There was a nasty tear in its side where thick, glowing fluid that looked like magma was oozing forth.

Ryan Cutter,” Azazel brayed, setting the hair on his arms on end. Its booming voice had a flanging effect like two people were speaking at once, as if a man and a goat were sharing the same body. “There is a game afoot, and it would be a shame to see thee fall at the first hurdle.”

Azazel put itself between Ryan and Haures, the demon panther shrinking back in fear. How would the creature respond? It was a Goetic demon, summoned and contracted for one purpose. Ryan had never heard of a demon failing to accomplish a reasonable task before, nor had he ever heard of them abandoning their objective, not when their contract was properly thought out.

This mortal is my mark, Watcher. I have no quarrel with thee.”

Azazel extended its furry arm towards the night sky, opening its thick, clawed fingers as if preparing to grasp something. Shadows were drawn to it, blacker than black, swirling like a whirlwind to create a shaft. They became solid, what looked like a wooden pole appearing before Ryan's eyes. It must have been fifteen feet long. The Watcher planted the haft in the ground, and then the tip burst into violent, roaring flames. It seemed to burn itself out quickly, leaving a glowing slab of metal in its wake, the molten material forming an axe head. It was a gigantic halberd, conjured from thin air.

Haures made to flee, but Azazel gripped the phantom weapon with both hands and drove its pointed tip into the panther's side. Magma spilled forth like blood, the demon yowling like a wounded cat. As its paws scrabbled to find purchase on the asphalt, Azazel raised the halberd above its head and brought the axe down on Haures' midsection. It dug deep into the ground, cleaving the demon into two clean halves. A look of horror was frozen on the creature's face as its smoldering eyes cooled and it dissipated into a smear of black ink.

His heart pounding in his ears, Ryan rose slowly to his feet, his legs trembling as Azazel turned to face him. The unholy abomination was grinning, baring its tombstone teeth as it examined him with its horizontal pupils.

Consider thy favor repaid, Ryan Cutter. I am no guardian Angel, but I honor my debts.”

He wanted to thank the beast, but no words came to him, the Watcher looming over him with that sardonic smile. Was this all merely entertainment to this thing? It seemed to have almost limitless power, it could probably tell him exactly what was happening and what to do about it. But Azazel would rather watch this all play out it seemed, and it sounded as if Ryan could no longer count on its protection.

To thy vehicle, Ryan Cutter. Go to the forest. Thou shalt find safe harbor there, for a time.”

Azazel began to laugh, the sound rising from deep in its throat until it became a baleful braying. It spread its massive, leathery wings, casting Ryan into shadow as it flapped them. It rose into the air, Ryan shielding his eyes from the powerful gusts of wind. The Watcher rose into the air and then vanished, shooting up into the dark sky so rapidly that he quickly lost track of it.

He was left standing alone before his car, only the cooling puddles of melted asphalt and the dead police officer who had been thrown from the window serving as proof that anything had transpired here at all.

Wrapping his hand in his sleeve, he gave the door of his car a tentative prod, feeling that the handle had cooled. He swung the door open, throwing his rucksack into the passenger seat and climbing inside. He fumbled with his car keys, then the engine revved to life. Fortunately, he hadn't forgotten them in the scuffle. He pulled out onto the street and sped away into the night.

CHAPTER 2: SECRET GARDEN

Fortunately, the strange absence of traffic and pedestrians had quickly abated, Ryan finding the usual bustle of the city almost as soon as he had left his block. He had been starting to feel as if he had been cast, alone, into some deserted alternate reality. There was anonymity in a crowd, safety. He felt certain that his pursuers would not summon demons in the middle of a crowded street.

Still, he was on edge. His eyes darted about nervously, wary of anyone who might be wearing a police uniform. He heard the sound of sirens when he was waiting at a red light, his heart pounding in his chest as his hand crept towards his rucksack where the gun was hidden. He released a long sigh of relief as an ambulance passed him by, off to some unrelated accident in the city no doubt.

He knew the route to the forest well, he had traveled it many times before, and after a short drive he was pulling up on the outskirts of the woodland. There were a few parking lots scattered about nearby, but he didn't want to draw any attention to himself. Someone pulling up at a national park past midnight was unlikely to have honorable motives. It was common knowledge that junkies and homeless people liked to frequent the forests, but it seemed that the presence of the Seirim had driven most of them out. Ironically, being infested with demons had made the park safer than it had been in decades, the myths and rare sightings spooking the vagrants and drug pushers.

Ryan drove his car up onto an embankment, turning off the engine and stepping out. He did his best to cover it with fallen leaves and sticks, trying to conceal its silver gleam from any passers-by. It wasn't so much that he was worried about it being stolen, more that he feared it would draw his enemies to him. If they knew where he lived, then they would probably recognize his car too. If they were as deeply embedded in the police force as they seemed to be, then they might even have his license plates on file.

Satisfied that his vehicle would be fairly hard to spot from the road, he set off into the treeline. There was an eerie quality to these woods now, and Ryan had to wonder if it was a placebo effect or if the presence of the Seirim tribe really was altering the environment. It seemed greener, lusher than the last time he had visited. There was more moss on the trees, more vines creeping along the ground and more colorful flowers sprouting everywhere that he looked. Even at night, the air was full of insects. Giant moths and fireflies floated about on the breeze, coalescing nearby as if to welcome him to their domain. He heard the hoot of an owl, looking up into one of the trees as he passed and seeing a pair of reflective eyes tracking him from a high branch.

He knew where he was going, he just had to follow the marks on the tree trunks that he had carved there himself a few weeks prior. There were sigils all over the place, all part of his scheme to feed new energy to Azazel and to free the Seirim from their bonds of servitude.

Ryan fiddled with the black ring on his finger, wondering if Nahash was safe and when she might manifest again. When Haures had been slain, the demon had burst into a smear of smoky ink, just like when Nahash had been temporarily dissipated by the shotgun blast. He was confident that she would return, but how much of her energy had she expended during the fight?

A strange mist seemed to hang over the ground in a thick blanket as he neared the clearing where he knew the Seirim tribe to reside. It was the heart of the forest, where all of the magickal energy collected. The fog grew thicker, seeming to form an opaque barrier. Was this how they kept unwanted intruders out?

It parted suddenly as if reacting to his presence, a sort of tunnel forming in the mist. He stepped through it, feeling a little apprehensive. He was on good terms with the Satyrs that inhabited the forest, but Nahash had always been with him on prior visits, she had always been able to curtail the wilder proclivities of her sisters. Even in Nahash's presence, they had made attempts to seduce him. The demons fed on the sexual energy of the mortals that they lured, enticing them with drink and revelry.

As Ryan stepped into the clearing, the mist disappeared, leaving a crisp, clear sky above his head that was dotted with bright stars. The forest here had changed dramatically since the last time he had seen it. The bare earth where he had drawn the summoning circle with salt was now covered in lush, green grass that rose to his knees. There were flowering weeds everywhere, foxgloves and daisies, ivy and bright purple thistles. The trees were coated in creepers that were also blooming with brightly colored flowers, forming an almost solid wall that ringed the newly formed meadow. There were thorns and bushes too, the barrier looked quite impenetrable to wandering hikers and curious mystery hunters.

He turned to look behind him, seeing that the mist had been shrouding a kind of tunnel of foliage that served as the entrance. He hadn't even noticed on his way in, it had all been rendered invisible by the rolling fog.

When he turned around again, there was a gaggle of Seirim standing in front of him, their amber eyes staring intently as they jostled for space. He did his best to hide his surprise. He felt naked without Nahash, vulnerable. But as long as he kept his wits about him, these creatures wouldn't cause him any problems. They were friendly and well-meaning if a little rowdy.

Ryan!” the one at the head of the pack exclaimed, batting her long lashes at him. “You've come to visit!”

Ryan is back!” her sisters chorused, peering over one another to get a look at him. They very much resembled Nahash, nude save for their white wool, their heads crowned with twisted horns whose shape and number were as unique as a fingerprint. They seemed to sense his dour mood, cocking their heads at him.

Where is Nahash?” one of them asked, the others muttering and whispering as they echoed the sentiment.

I...don't know,” he admitted. “Something attacked us, a demon, and she disappeared. Azazel saved me, but I haven't seen Nahash for hours. She hasn't reformed yet.”

Immediately the Seirim closed in around him, the buxom creatures boxing him in and reaching out to stroke him with their clawed hands. They ran their fingers through his hair, patted his back, resting their hands on his shoulders as they cooed sympathetically.

Poor Ryan, poor Ryan,” they muttered in concert. They took him by the arms, guiding him over towards the center of the clearing. Where a moment ago there had been a meadow of green grass, now there was a roaring bonfire, as if it had been conjured through some sleight of hand trick. He felt its warmth as he neared it, the crackling flames sending their glowing embers floating up into the sky. The group of Satyrs sat him down on a nest of plush pillows a short distance from the stones that ringed it, dry and comfortable despite the dew and condensation that wet the grass. A couple of them sat beside him, their longs legs trailing off into the foliage, treating him as if he were distraught and inconsolable.

In reality, he wasn't. The immediate danger had passed, and although he was worried about Nahash, he was confident that it was just a matter of time before she materialized again.

He had to keep his wits about him, these Seirim could be mischievous and tricky if one allowed themselves to be led around by the nose. One of them emerged from the group holding a steaming mug between her hands, as much a bowl as a cup, made from some kind of resin or clay.

Drink this,” she said, “it will warm you.”

The sisters that were sat to either side of him were rubbing his back and shoulders as if trying to stave off a cold that wasn't really there. It was a cool night, but the temperature wasn't nearly low enough to be bothersome.

Poor Ryan has been left without his bride,” the one to his left said, “we must comfort him until she returns.”

They placed the bowl of warm liquid in his hands, he could feel its heat through the clay. He gave it a tentative sniff, noting the presence of various herbs and spices.

What is this?” he asked skeptically, “soup?”

Yes, aren't you cold?” one of them replied. It was more of a suggestion than a question, and Ryan began to feel a little drowsy. He had been with Nahash long enough to pick up on the sensation of having his mind messed with, the Seirim were attempting to influence his senses.

He began to shiver, the temperature seeming to plummet until he could see his breath misting, sparkling frost covering the blades of grass that surrounded him. The warmth of the fire seemed to fade as if it was receding away from him. It wasn't real of course, it was all the Seirim's doing, and he willed his eyes to look past this mirage.

The frost faded like a blind spot in his eyes, one of the Seirim that was draping her long arm across his shoulders grumbling in disappointment.

Relax Ryan, be at ease. Won't you let us comfort you?”

There was another wave of dizziness as the demons pooled their powers, the vision and the sensation of cold growing clearer and stronger. Icicles clung to the branches of the trees that ringed the clearing, the once roaring bonfire now nothing but a pile of ash and cinders, the chill air stabbing at his exposed skin like tiny knives. He leaned towards the nearest Seirim instinctively, trying to escape the cold, and she took him in her arms.

Much as Nahash liked to do, she sank her fingers into his hair and pulled his face into the soft wool of her chest, just above her generous bust. She stroked softly, cooing, her warmth and softness hypnotizing. She smelled so good, earthy and fruity as if she had used the berries and flowers of their forest enclave to create a sweet perfume. It was intoxicating, Ryan breathing in lungfuls of the scent as her fur tickled his nose.

The second Seirim pressed against him from behind, her large breasts squashing against his back, the supple flesh cascading over his shoulders as she joined her sister in their embrace. The air was frigid, and the warm bodies of the Satyrs were his only refuge. He rubbed his cheeks against the delicate fur as he his face sank into it, so deep and welcoming. More of the demons crowded him on the plush cushions, warm, inviting bodies shielding him from the cold.

They were so kind, so concerned for his well-being, doting him on him as he felt smooth skin and feathery wool envelop him. It seemed as if the entire tribe had joined him on the cushions, the warmth that they radiated making him sleepy and compliant. One of them was stroking his hair while another massaged his shoulders, kneading the stress out of his muscles as he leaned back against her.

There were a dozen roving hands on his body now, stroking and cradling, slipping beneath his clothes. He exhaled a plume of condensation along with a sigh, feeling someone pull the collar of his shirt aside and plant a lingering kiss in the nape of his neck. He couldn't seem to see what was happening, as if he had extreme tunnel vision. All he was able to do was focus on the sensations that were assailing him, amplified as if he was wearing a blindfold.

Someone pressed the clay cup against his lips, and he allowed the warm liquid to pour into his mouth. It tasted wonderful, ambrosial, the soupy concoction setting his nerves aflame with the flavors of sweet berries and tangy fruits. He felt it slide down his throat, pooling in his belly as it warmed him from the inside.

One of the blurry figures leaned in to whisper in his ear, her musical voice husky and sensual.

Isn't it nice to be here with us? Why don't you lie down, are you not exhausted from your ordeal?”

Now that she mentioned it, he was exhausted. His muscles began to ache as a sudden fatigue swept over him such that he couldn't even muster the strength to sit upright. He lay back, finding the soft lap of a Seirim waiting for him, her hands cradling his head as it sank into her doughy thighs. She stroked his cheeks, her palms as soft as silk, so impossibly gentle and caring. She loomed over him, her features fuzzy and out of focus, her glowing eyes standing out against the dark silhouette.

Someone was sliding their hands beneath his shirt, caressing his belly and chest with their dull claws, the sensation sending a pleasant shiver rolling up his spine.

W-Wait,” he mumbled, “I have to wait for Nahash...”

Our sister will find you again in time,” one of them whispered, “for now let us soothe you.”

Yes, soothing, that sounded nice. Another wave of confusion rolled over him, his mind becoming more and more clouded. It was hard to think, hard to concentrate on anything. He couldn't really remember where he was or what he had been doing anymore. When he tried to call up the memories, they slipped through his fingers like sand.

He felt someone grab his wrist, bringing his hand towards them and pressing it against what felt like a yielding globe of flesh. It was a breast, the skin as smooth as glass and warm to the touch, his fingers sinking deep into the fat as a hard nipple pricked his palm.

Someone nibbled his ear softly, catching it between their teeth, their warm breath washing over him. Another kissed his neck, mouthing gently as his spine arched off the comfortable cushions. They were closing in around him, cocooning him in burnished skin and curly wool. A hand brushed the firmness that was rising beneath his pants, teasing it through the fabric, a burst of tingling pleasure coursing through him as they squeezed.

Something warm and wet glanced his cheek, a tongue, long and sinuous. It left a smear of saliva, and he blinked through his clouded vision to see that one of the figures had leaned in close. Her soft, puffy lips pressed against his, delivering a tentative peck. Her taste lingered, it was mouth-watering, as if she was wearing lip balm the flavor of passion fruit. She hovered there, waiting, Ryan unable to help himself as he leaned forward in search of more.

He heard chuckling and seductive mumbling, the words somehow clear in their lurid intent despite how hard it was to make them out. He found those exquisite lips again, this time parting his own as he embraced the Seirim, feeling her tapered tongue slip into his mouth. Their organs entwined, more of that wonderful taste filling his head, her slippery tongue coiling around his own with a toe-curling finesse. Her saliva was syrupy and sweet, almost as if she was sharing a mouthful of honey with him, her tongue gliding across his inner cheeks and probing his throat as it explored him.

Despite Ryan being locked in a sordid embrace, her sisters did not relent, sucking at his ears and lightly biting his exposed neck and shoulders. There were so many of them, his eyelids fluttering as he was assailed by a storm of sensation, setting his nerves alight as their kissing and fawning chipped away at his resolve.

He had been resisting, hadn't he? Why? He couldn't remember anymore. What might compel him to refuse this warmth and pleasure? He felt drunk, as if in a stupor, the whole affair had an oddly dreamlike quality.

The Seirim broke off her salacious kiss, a foot of her pink, slippery tongue sliding out of his head along with a strand of saliva. She nuzzled, brushing her head against his face like a cat, sighing and humming contentedly. The others seemed to take that as some kind of signal, and he felt oversized hands fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. They exposed his chest to the frigid air, but soon their warm digits were all over him, tracing the contours of his body as they explored. He could feel every glance and stroke, it was maddening, as if a dozen masseuses were fighting for space.

They crawled slowly lower, working their way towards his belt line. An impulse pierced the numbing haze that was hanging over his brain, telling him that he should stop them. Why? It would feel good, wouldn't it? He tried to grasp the memories associated with that impulse, but they were so intangible, ephemeral. In a moment it was gone again.

The group of Seirim succeeded in freeing him from the confines of his clothes, his member bouncing free into the cold air, pulsing in time with the pounding of his heart as their golden eyes turned on it greedily. He was still so comfortable, the pillows beneath his body made him feel like he was floating on a cloud. The luxurious cushion of the thighs that were supporting his head entranced him, as soft as marshmallows, lulling him into a deep relaxation.

Relax,” one of them whispered in her comely voice, “let us take care of you.”

It was so damned cold, he wanted nothing more than to plunge his growing erection into something warm. As if sensing his desire one of them leaned down, breathing hot air on its sensitive tip and making him throb in anticipation. It was killing him, he had never felt so needy before...

Poor boy,” one of them whispered, pausing to nibble his earlobe. “We will ease your tension.”

He was so far gone, they were toying with his senses and emotions like he was no more than a puppet on a string. He was aware of it on some level, dull and distant, but he couldn't muster enough sense to fight it. Another pair of soft lips locked him in a lascivious kiss, smacking wetly, the Seirim moaning quietly as she filled his mouth. He lapsed again, forgetting why he was supposed to be resisting, overcome by the flurry of licks from her skilled tongue.

He heard a sound like two tree branches being knocked together, looking down as the Seirim released him from her embrace, seeing that the clattering was coming from two Satyrs locking horns above his groin. They seemed to be fighting over who got to go first, battling one another like a pair of stags vying for the right to mate.

The loser backed off, and the winner took his shaft in her hand triumphantly, her warmth penetrating him to the core. He couldn't help but loose a low moan, much to the excitement of the Satyrs, their ovine ears twitching at the sound and their glowing eyes brightening. She began to stroke, slowly at first, gliding her fingers up and down his length as he twitched and writhed in her sister's cushy lap. She still held his head in her hands, stroking his hair, the sensations complementing one another wonderfully.

Ryan lurched as he felt a pair of large, soft lips kiss the tip of his member, the sensation shooting up through his body like an electric shock. They were so warm and smooth, sliding over his glans and encompassing it, sucking gently as he writhed in the clutches of the demons. Her sisters held him down, gently but securely, their hands pinning his wrists and ankles to the silken cushions. The one that was cradling his head continued her stroking, placating, as if trying to keep him calm.

He loosed a gasp as he felt the Seirim's long, dexterous tongue curl around his shaft like a snake. It wound around his length, her slick, smooth flesh like wet silk as it set his nerves on fire with pleasure. She had such fine control over it, flexing the damp muscle to squeeze and stroke with all the finesse of a hand.

Keeping her lips sealed around the head, she used the length of her tongue to lick and tease, the long organ moving almost independently. It was like an animal in its own right. Ryan writhed and groaned, his throbbing erection trapped inside a prison made of slimy flesh, its warmth contrasting starkly with the cold air. Her viscous saliva rolled down his member in globs, making their contact wonderfully slippery and wet.

The Seirim was greedy, eager, her pace almost inconsiderate as she sucked and licked ardently. She was like a vacuum cleaner, drawing him into her mouth with a powerful suction as if trying to tear off his member at the root. She slid her lips slowly down his shaft, taking him deeper into her mouth, the pressure making his erection ache as it jumped and pulsed against her tight cheeks. The coiling of her obscene tongue never relented, wringing him in its tight grasp, dragging from the base to the tip as she milked him like a cow.

It was so intense that it very nearly hurt, but not quite, his blood pooling in his member to make it throb in her mouth. A bead of precome welled at the tip, and she lapped at it eagerly, as if his fluids were some kind of rare and delicious liqueur. The taste seemed to encourage her, and she gripped the base of his shaft in both hands, holding him as if fearing that he might escape her grasp. The flurry of licks grew even faster and harsher, his toes curling as she tormented him.

Far from being a sex act performed solely for his benefit by a considerate lover, she was working him over like a machine, intent on finishing him as quickly as possible. She kneaded and squeezed, the satin texture of her inner cheeks sliding against his tender skin where it wasn't covered by her tongue, all of the sensations combining to wipe his mind clean of anything but his animal lust. He didn't have time to ponder, he couldn't muster the brain power to think about his situation. All of his faculties were occupied by the swells of burning pleasure that were making him their plaything.

Her soft, puffy lips finally kissed his belly, the Satyr taking him all the way into her mouth. His glans bumped against the back of her throat, his member bending slightly as she drew him deeper, the muscles of her gullet spasming and contracting as she swallowed around it. Her tongue constricted him like an angry anaconda, her soft cheeks closing around his shaft as she applied more suction.

Ryan had never experienced such a sensation before, a pleasure so completely out of his control, indifferent to his limitations and his desires. The Seirim were having their way with him, and he was merely along for the ride. Again something from the dark recesses of his brain told him that this wasn't right, that he should stop them, but it was quickly drowned out by a chorus of licks and kisses.

The Seirim whose lap his head was resting on brought her face down close to his, nuzzling his cheek with her goat-like nose as if she had sensed the conflict in him.

Relax,” she whispered, her musical voice oozing with sweet honey. “Let us take care of you...”

His vision was blurred and out of focus, but the one thing that he could clearly make out were the dozen pairs of glowing eyes that surrounded him, burning bright orange like hot embers in a fireplace. They watched him intently, covetously, like hyenas waiting for a pride of lions to eat their fill and move on.

She continued to whisper to him as her sister's tongue painted every inch of his manhood with a sheen of thick saliva, her voice somehow soothing and hypnotic. The more he listened to her droning, calming words, the less he cared about his situation. It felt good, that was all that mattered. They wanted to make him happy, so he should cooperate. Didn't he owe his generous hosts at least that much?

The Seirim began to bob her head on his shaft, forcing it deep into her throat, her passage gripping it and massaging its length as her muscles rippled around it. She was so impossibly tight, her velvet flesh slick with slippery drool, strands of it falling from her pursed lips to land on his belly and thighs. Her pace was relentless, her tongue lapping and curling around his shaft as she moved, the tip escaping to tease his balls on the downward thrusts.

She was going faster and faster, the sensation of his exposed glans grinding against the back of her throat making him buck and twitch. She allowed him to thrust into her mouth and he realized that his hips were moving of their own accord, his body seeking out more stimulation as a familiar pressure began to rise inside him. It was so wet, so warm and soft, like velvet that had been soaked in lubricating jelly. She kept him on edge, lashing with her tongue, circling his tender head whenever it left her esophagus.

He heard a clatter, looking down to see one of her sisters vying for space between his parted legs. His member was still buried to the hilt in the first Seirim's throat, the second bumping horns with her as she extended her pink tongue to get a taste.

Please sister,” she begged, batting her long lashes at her counterpart. “Share him with us.”

A third appeared to her left, planting a lingering kiss on Ryan's inner thigh.

Surely there is enough for everyone?”

The first Seirim ignored their pleas, letting his rigid member slough out of her mouth along with a drooping web of saliva, holding his shaft in her hand as she warded them off with her twisted horns. Apparently, she didn't think that there was enough Ryan to go around.

Almost immediately she resumed her greedy fellatio, the whirlwind of sensation making Ryan's brain pop and fizz like a can of soda that was being violently shaken. Her sisters focused their lurid attentions on the rest of his body instead, licking at his exposed chest and belly, planting kisses on his neck and shoulders like starving animals licking moss from a rock. They were almost desperate, as if his very sweat might sustain them.

He struggled to call up memories, trying to remember what Nahash had said about her kind. Demons were like living batteries, they needed energy to exist, and they expended that energy when they used their powers. The energy could come from worship, offerings and sacrifices, or it could be sexual in origin. Sex was a powerful force for certain demons and entities, and the Seirim were one such tribe, gleaning their sustaining energy from intercourse with humans. Was that what they were after? Nahash had once described the sexual fluids produced from the coupling of a demon and a human as having a powerful magick, it was an almost irresistible ambrosia to the creatures.

The cruel sucking and milking reached a fever pitch, Ryan loosing a pained groan as the demon buried him to the hilt in her spasming throat, swallowing as if trying to drink his essence from the source. She wasn't giving him a moment of respite. He felt an urgent need growing inside him, a primal imperative that made him grind his hips hopelessly.

His orgasm was sudden and overwhelming, a jolt of electrical pleasure shooting through his body like a lightning strike, his member pulsing as he ejaculated deep in her gullet. She locked onto him even tighter, her lips and tongue seizing around him, ensuring that not a drop would be spilled as she gulped it down selfishly.

The irresistible massage of her narrow throat drew another wad of his ejaculate into her mouth, Ryan's muscles wrenching, the other Satyrs that surrounded him holding him down so that he couldn't buck free. It was such an acute pleasure, harsh and stark, every throb of his muscles as they pumped his milky semen into her waiting mouth searing his nerves. There was a strange tingling in his extremities as though he had slept on them wrong, his mind clouded with a combination of seething ecstasy and the confusion brought about by their insidious magick.

Finally, he seemed to be spent, releasing the last of his emission onto the Satyr's tongue. She held him between her smooth lips, cleaning him with her tapered organ, ensuring that every last trace of his fluids was gone. It was like being washed with a silk flannel, the stimulation provoking another aftershock. Her throat vibrated around him, the creature purring like an oversized cat. A pervading euphoria crept up on him, drowning his exhausted body in warmth and complacency as he lay on the cushions, one of the Seirim stroking his hair as she gazed down at him.

As their hypnotism began to wear off Ryan's mind cleared somewhat, his bleary eyes coming back into focus. He struggled through the lingering pleasure, coming to his senses as the tribe of Seirim massaged his tired muscles.

What the hell...what are you guys doing?”

Another wave of dizziness muddled his thoughts, Ryan forgetting what he was so outraged about, like stepping into a room and being unable to recall why you were there. A pleasant, tingling warmth flooded through him, fresh arousal making his receding erection hard again. It was still tender, sore from its rough treatment at the hands of the Seirim, and yet he was suddenly so turned on that it was making him crazy.

He wanted more, he would beg for it if they didn't give it to him. He glanced up at the Seirim who was cradling his head, her eyes burning like molten metal, piercing the fuzzy mirage that was the world beyond her.

Poor Ryan,” she whispered, her voice accompanied by the faint sounds of music. “Let us soothe you...”

A second Seirim straddled him, trapping him between her meaty thighs as she gripped his renewed erection in her hand. She angled it towards her opening, her lips splayed to reveal pink, dripping flesh. Ryan watched with bated breath as she inched his glans ever closer to her loins, gazing down at him lecherously with her yellow eyes.

She faltered, Ryan's vision suddenly sharpening, the scene coming back into focus. He could see the tribe of Seirim as they crouched around him on the grass, the silken cushions beneath him had vanished, and there was no longer any trace of the bonfire. The icicles and frost had disappeared too, the illusion of cold melting away as the night's warmth returned to him.

The Satyrs had turned their heads to look at something that was happening a few feet away. Even the one who was poised to mount him had stopped to stare, his member still held in her hand. Something had distracted them, breaking their concentration and shattering the illusion that they had cast over him. Gone too was his unnatural lust, and Ryan struggled to free himself as the creatures maintained their hold on his wrists and ankles.

Shadows coalesced above the grass, about where the center of his salt summoning circle had been before nature had retaken the clearing, a cold wave of fear washing over Ryan as if he was being submerged in ice water.

What was appearing? Was it Haures again, back to finish the job? Some other demon that had been tasked with killing him?

The darkness morphed and shifted like wet clay, taking a vaguely humanoid shape, and soon cloven hooves were treading on the grass. A crown of twisted horns sprouted from its head, the figure becoming feminine and voluptuous, white wool and ashen skin shining under the starlight. Nahash took in a deep breath, clearly relieved to be back in the mortal realm, then she turned her amber eyes on Ryan.

What a sorry sight it must have been. He was lying on the grass with his cock out, surrounded by a dozen Seirim who were struggling to control him as he thrashed about. She rolled her eyes in exasperation, marching towards them with balled fists.

Off with you! Off with you, beasts!”

She stamped her feet on the ground and waved her arms like she was trying to startle a flock of pigeons, her sisters scattering in alarm, releasing Ryan from their clutches.

Embarrassed, he zipped up his pants, straightening his clothes as he rose to his feet unsteadily. Nahash caught him in her arms as he toppled forward, still dizzy and disoriented. The tribe had really done a number on his brain, he felt like he had just woken up from a coma. His limbs were numb and unresponsive, he was groggy and uncoordinated.

She pressed his face into the fluffy wool of her chest, Ryan breathing in lungfuls of her earthy scent as he leaned into her. She wrapped her arms around him as if she hadn't seen him in months, her warm breath blowing in his hair as she nuzzled.

You're safe,” she whispered, her relief evident. “When Haures destroyed my body I feared the worst. Did I buy you enough time to escape?”

It was...Azazel,” Ryan replied as his faculties slowly returned to him. “Haures had me cornered, but Azazel appeared out of nowhere and killed...destroyed him. Sorry, I still don't really...understand how all this works.”

Azazel...” Nahash muttered, her voice trailing off as she glanced up at the sky. It was if she expected to see him there, gliding above the clouds. “None of us can predict Azazel's whims, he does as he pleases. He seems to have taken a liking to you, or perhaps it's merely a passing interest. Either way, I am grateful to him for saving your life.”

He told me that a game is afoot, and that it would be a shame to see me fall at the first hurdle. He knows something that he won't share, I'm sure of it. Something big is happening Nahash, and somehow I've ended up at the center of it.”

He pushed his face into her soft wool, hiding the tears that were beginning to sting his eyes, the events of the day suddenly catching up with him. Fear, shock, and loss overwhelming him. “Just when everything was getting back on track,” he grumbled, his voice cracking. She stroked his hair in an attempt to calm him, Ryan quickly composing himself. “But at least you're back and in one piece.”

He took a step away from her, wiping his eyes on his sleeve and looking her up and down.

I'm fine,” she confirmed, “as long as I have energy I can just reform if my physical manifestation is dissipated. Sometimes it can take a while...but fortunately, the summoning circle that you drew here is still beneath the grass. The salt seems to have stopped the weeds from overrunning it completely. The presence of a circle makes the whole process a lot faster and easier.”

So does that mean Haures will come back as well?” Ryan asked, a touch of fear creeping into his voice.

Yes. Just like me, he will reform and resume his hunt eventually. He is a Great Duke of Hell, he will be relentless in his task until it is either completed or he is dismissed by his summoner. I fear that we have not seen the last of him.”

Can he find us here?”

Unlikely,” Nahash replied, appraising the clearing and the solid walls of tangled thorns and vines that shielded it from the outside world. “A clairvoyant will know that we are here, but it is unlikely that anyone would be able to enter without the use of extremely powerful magick. My sisters are well fed with energy and Azazel has left his mark on this place.”

Ryan glanced at the tribe of Seirim who were lurking a short distance away like frightened beasts, wary of coming too close to Nahash.

As for you,” she said, turning her attention to her sisters as her tone grew more stern. “Ryan is your guest, your benefactor. Do not feed on him as you would a wandering mortal.”

They crept closer, staying low to the ground, their heads bowed.

Forgive us, sister,” one of them said.

Forgive us,” another repeated.

I apologize on their behalf,” Nahash said, “sometimes they forget that we are no longer living in the desert and that they don't need to prey on every mortal that crosses their path to survive.”

They didn't hurt me or anything like that,” Ryan sighed, “they were just...doing their thing.”

One of the Seirim sidled up beside him, at waist height to him despite her hunched posture, bumping her head against his hip apologetically. He reached down and stroked her downy fur, careful to avoid her pointed horns. Sensing that they had been forgiven for their transgression the rest of her tribe moved closer, Nahash no longer able to conceal how happy she was to be in their company again. Ryan's apartment might have been her home for a time, but the wilds were where she really belonged. Her people had an incredible affinity for the forests and deserts in which they had resided for so many thousands of years, and he had made a point of taking her on trips to beaches and parks whenever he got time off work.

The sisters hugged and nuzzled, rubbing their noses together, almost like an Eskimo kiss. Ryan noticed that the weeds at their feet were beginning to bloom, buds opening up into colorful flowers despite it being the dead of night. Small insects fluttered about them, moths and firebugs flitting between the plants, seeming to circle the Seirim in a leisurely cloud. The forest almost seemed to be responding to their mood, as if the joy of being reunited with their sister was being expressed through the plants themselves. Ryan still couldn't be sure if what he was seeing was real or just an illusion, but the dulling of his faculties that usually accompanied such mirages wasn't present, which suggested the former.

Eventually, Nahash left the welcoming embrace of her kin, looking to Ryan.

We will use our powers to make your stay more comfortable, with your permission this time,” she added. Ryan nodded, and soon after he felt the familiar sensation of Seirim magick altering his perception.

The bonfire was back again, tall and roaring with orange flames, he could feel its pleasant heat on his face. There were piles of silken cushions arranged nearby, and he walked over to the nearest one, taking a seat and letting himself relax for the first time since leaving the apartment. One of Nahash's sisters approached him with a wooden cup, and he took it from her hands, sniffing it experimentally. It smelled good, and so he downed a mouthful of it, its warmth and fruity taste spreading through him. Another retrieved his rucksack and placed it beside him.

Nahash sauntered over on her long legs, taking a seat at his side as he took another gulp from the cup.

Are you hungry?” she asked. “The food and drink is real when we need it to be.”

Not at the moment,” he replied, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “I feel a little sick actually. I think I killed a guy today...”

You needn't feel guilty. His goal was to kill you, and he would have done so if you had not stopped him.”

I guess you're right,” he grumbled, setting the cup down on the grass and crossing his arms over his knees as he stared into the fire. “When I woke up this morning my biggest concern was that the traffic would be bad and I wouldn't be able to get to work on time. A few hours later and...here I am. What do we do now? We can't go back to the apartment, we probably can't even go back into the city without running the risk of being recognized.”

We have to find out who those men were and why they attacked you,” Nahash replied.

I'm no detective, how am I supposed to-”

She gestured to his pack, and his eyes widened.

Of course,” he exclaimed, “the grimoires! There must be demons who can help us, entities who can tell the future or read minds. But...how will I compensate them? When I summoned Orobas, I offered to scatter around metal plates engraved with his sigil. When I resurrected Azazel, I drummed up a whole media storm. But I can't do that now. If I go back to the city, I might get recognized, and if I leave the forest Haures might come for me. I just don't have access to any resources, and there's no point carving sigils on trees that nobody will ever see.”

You could offer to pay them when this is all resolved,” Nahash suggested, “but I doubt that many would accept those terms. If you die or are otherwise indisposed, the contract will not be fulfilled.”

Do we have any other options?” Ryan asked.

There are...other ways to appease a demon,” she replied, her tone becoming sinister. “What a demon wants from you is energy, in the simplest terms. Humans produce energy that demons consume, either by sustaining themselves or by expending that energy to use their powers. A demon has a finite store of energy, and it will not expend a drop in order to help you, not unless there's a guaranteed profit.”

She stared into the crackling flames again, the light reflecting in her ovine eyes.

Some will be satisfied by worship, either by the summoner himself or using the methods that you are familiar with. Spreading their sigil and generating belief, myths and legends, things like that. Another source of energy is human fluid, both vital and sexual. You know that some entities, the Seirim included, feed on carnal energy. The fluids produced during intercourse hold powerful magick, such an intense outpouring of sensation and emotion is almost irresistible to us.”

Yeah, I noticed,” Ryan said as he glanced at the Seirim that were sitting nearby.

The third option is blood. Murder, sacrifice. The blood of oneself, or an unwilling victim, is similarly imbued with powerful emotions and sensations. Terror, pain and other dark emotions will satisfy certain demonic entities. One might request that you sacrifice a goat, another might require you to bleed a loved one, letting it feast on their confusion and fear.”

Ryan swallowed hard as he imagined what kind of horrifying entity might demand such acts to be committed in its name.

So our options are blood or semen?” Ryan asked. “I think the one that doesn't end with me gutting my own mother is probably the best solution.”

Ryan,” she snickered, “do you presume to be able to satisfy a greater demon? We Seirim are but familiars, our needs are modest, our energy requirements low. I am not certain that you have the necessary...experience.”

Hey,” he protested, his cheeks burning red. “I've had a couple of girlfriends, I'm not that inexperienced.”

No, you misunderstand. Imagine a demon that feeds on torture and agony, then imagine the sexual equivalent of those acts, the intensity required. These are not mundane sex acts, I honestly can't predict what such a demon would ask you to do. I can, however, be sure that such acts would overwhelm you. You are a simple, loving creature, Ryan. That is no insult.”

She leaned closed, and they shared a hug for a few moments.

This is some Clive Barker shit,” Ryan grumbled as she released him, taking another sip of his drink. “Didn't you say that there weren't any evil demons? Getting off on torture sounds pretty damned evil to me...”

A demon merely seeks the most efficient means of extracting resources,” she explained. “The method varies by individual, but some find pain more effective than pleasure. That doesn't make them evil. Is a lion evil for eating a zebra? Is a tarantula hawk evil for its treatment of its prey?”

Yeah, but those aren't sentient creatures,” Ryan protested. “They're animals, they just run on instinct, like biological machines.”

Humans like to separate themselves from the natural world,” Nahash mused, “but the lines between man and animal are more blurred than you realize.”

The Seirim was about four thousand eight hundred and eighty years older than him, so she probably knew what she was talking about. Still, the thought of being at the mercy of such an entity still filled him with a sense of foreboding. He dragged his rucksack into his lap and rummaged through it, searching for his grimoires.

There were many texts that described the Goetic demons and the art of summoning, both new and old. There was the Pseudomonarchia Daemonium, a relatively ancient text describing the demons and their properties that was written in 1563. While useful, it was packed with Olde English and arcane Latin incantations that were of little interest to him. Instead, Ryan got most of his information from the Ars Goetia which was published in 1904, and Aleister Crowley's Illustrated Goetia, which were both more contemporary takes on the same material. The Illustrated Goetia especially came across as a Summoning for Dummies guide, and Ryan had referenced it extensively during his early attempts.

He opened the book and skipped to the section that listed the Goetic demons and the powers that they could employ in order to serve their summoner. Now it was just a matter of poring over the seventy-two entries and finding a suitable subject...

CHAPTER 3: LESSER EVILS

Ryan rubbed his eyes, nudging Nahash to get her attention as he leaned across to show her the page. Her sisters were curled up nearby like giant cats, sleeping around them in haphazard piles. The roaring flames of the bonfire were now smoldering embers, he must have been researching for hours. He wondered idly what the logic was and if the Seirim had intentionally simulated the fire dying down, or if the illusory bonfire behaved as a real one would.

I've got it down to two,” he said, trying to suppress a yawn unsuccessfully. “Gamori, number fifty-six. Her office is to tell of all things past, present and to come, and of hidden treasures. She can procure the love of women, and she governs twenty-six legions of spirits. The second is Vapula, whose office is to make men knowledgeable in all handicrafts and professions, also in philosophy and other sciences. She has thirty-six legions.”

Gamori is a good choice,” Nahash said, “her powers may reveal what is happening. But why Vapula? She is a teacher, her powers cannot reveal hidden truths or grant you any protection.”

Ryan stared at the ground, his companion watching him curiously as he formulated his reply.

Back in the apartment...I felt so powerless. Armed men came into our home and tried to kill us, and I couldn't do anything about it.”

You killed one of them,” Nahash said in an attempt to reassure him, but he waved his hand dismissively.

Luck. In any other situation, I would have been killed, and you would have been bound to a brazen vessel. You’d probably be cast into the ocean or buried in cement, never to be seen again. I can't do anything about demon panthers spitting fire, but if we're going to be facing off against humans again, maybe Vapula can teach me how to handle myself. Soldiery is a profession, isn't it? Marksmanship, self-defense, they're all skills that can be taught. It's a stretch, but it can't hurt to try.”

Perhaps...” Nahash said with a nod. “I see that you chose two of the three females listed, is it your intention to offer them sexual energy in exchange for their help?”

Do you...mind?” Ryan asked sheepishly, turning his eyes towards the ground again. “This isn't something that I'd ever do if I thought I had another choice, but...”

She reached across and laid a hand on his shoulder.

You forget that I can see into your heart, Ryan. I can sense your emotions. You needn't make excuses and justifications.” She closed her eyes, exhaling as she concentrated, a familiar sense of warmth and dizziness washing over him as she probed his mind with her magick. “I sense turmoil in you, guilt. You dread consorting with these demons and your heart breaks for me, you believe that you are betraying your commitments to me.”

That's pretty to the point,” he grumbled as the sensation faded. “I've been hurt in that way before. In fact, it's only thanks to what Becky did to me that I'm here at all.”

She broke your heart,” Nahash confirmed, “and her acts precipitated the events that led to you summoning Orobas.”

Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change a thing. In a way I'm grateful to her, if she hadn't been a cheating bitch, I would never have met you. But if there's any chance that I might make you feel at all like I did when I uncovered what she had been doing...I think I'd rather take the torture than the sex.”

The two might not be as different as you imagine,” she muttered ominously, “and you don't yet know for sure if either demon will accept your proposition. But your fears are misplaced, Ryan. Demons feed on sexual energy purely as a means to sustain themselves, any romantic attraction is merely simulated for the mortal's benefit. I am a Seirim, my purpose for millennia was to extract energy by seducing mortals. I have been with countless men and women over many thousands of years. Do you think that my past experiences change the way that I feel about you, does it change the way that you feel about me now?”

No...”

I am a demon, my body is a mere manifestation. We do not place the same importance on physicality that humans do. Pleasures of the flesh are fleeting and transitory. If you should wish to revel and indulge in earthly pleasures, do you think that I would seek to prevent it?”

I suppose not. Revelry is kind of your thing, after all.”

In fact, I am surprised that you have not asked me to do more for you so far. I can use my powers to create any illusion that you can imagine. I could conjure a harem of women tailored to your every taste and fantasy, I can influence your senses to make their touch feel as real as the earth beneath your feet, monitoring your emotions so that every momentary desire is fulfilled. Yet all you seem interested in is me, at my most mundane. It is endearing, but there is so much that you have yet to experience, Ryan. You are mortal, your time on Earth is finite. I want you to enjoy everything that it has to offer.”

Her words calmed him, and he began to feel a little better. Of course, Nahash was not a jealous creature, her reason for being was to tempt people into indulging in all manner of carnal extravagances. She knew that he loved her, she could smell it on him like a bad cologne, and that seemed to be enough to clear her mind of any doubts.

If I seem worried it is not because of possessiveness,” she continued, “but because I fear for your safety. Some demons can be...tricky. I am certain that this will not go the way that you expect it to...”

You're probably right,” Ryan sighed, “but I have to try. It's either that or spend the rest of my life living in this forest. I've gained so much, I can't lose it all again so soon.”

If your mind is made up, then we must proceed,” Nahash said as she rose to her feet and extended a hand to him. “This time I can help you prepare. These demons are not of high rank, but they will not be as easily controlled as Orobas. The proper precautions must be taken.”

He nodded, taking her hand, and she lifted him up from his cushion.

Let's summon some demons.”

***

The salt circle is still functional,” Nahash said as she paced around it on her cloven hooves. “There is ambient energy collecting here, I made use of it when I manifested. You will need both a Triangle of Solomon to confine the demon if it should become unruly, and your own protective triangle to minimize the risk to yourself.”

I have chalk, but no salt,” Ryan said as he appraised the circle. It was just barely visible beneath the tall grass, the plants unable to grow on the salted earth. “I can't use chalk to draw on the ground like I could on the floor of my apartment. How are we going to draw them?”

Nahash shrugged, an oddly human gesture coming from the goat-like demon. He had noticed that she was starting to pick up modern mannerisms, her archaic speech patterns too were becoming more contemporary as she adopted new words and phrases.

I'm not sure how this is going to work,” Ryan grumbled as he searched through his pack. “I managed to swipe everything that was set out on the table in my apartment, but I'm missing a lot of important stuff. You're supposed to bathe thoroughly before summoning a demon, and I can't do that here. I don't have any linen robes, I don't have any candles or incense. I have my oil of Abramelin and my wards, it's a good job I kept them handy. I was kind of worried that something might come through the circle into the apartment uninvited.”

A wise precaution, it has been known to happen. As for the candles...there may be something that I can do about that.”

Ryan watched as she stood still, her eyes closed, seeming to concentrate intently. Movement near her feet drew his gaze, and he noticed that the blades of grass around her hooves were growing. They sprouted from the soil like video footage playing in fast forward, colorful flowers blooming on the nearby weeds as if the forest was flexing like a living organism. Flying insects seemed to be drawn to her, the bright glow of a swarm of fireflies hovering around her like a tiny field of stars. Moths flitted about on the breeze, as well as large beetles whose iridescent shells reflected the light in shades of blue and green.

He heard a loud droning coming from somewhere in the forest, growing louder and louder as if it was getting closer. The droning became a distinct buzzing, and then Ryan's eyes widened as he saw a gigantic mass of bees fly over the protective wall of plant matter. There was a solid mass of insects hovering a few feet off the ground, probably the size of a football. Nahash held out her hand to them as they drew nearer, swaying erratically, before landing at her feet. The bees scattered, forming a vague cloud, the sound of it alarmingly loud now that they were close. He watched as the insects retreated towards the forest, leaving a roughly spherical mass behind that looked like it was made of wet tissue paper.

Is that...”

Nahash knelt to pick it up, showing it to Ryan as he gawked.

It's a beehive, wax for the candles.”

What are you, a Disney princess? I didn't know that you could take control of animals like that.”

We Seirim are deities of the wilds,” she explained, setting the hive down on the grass and beginning to break it open with her clawed fingers. “We hold dominion over all creatures of the forest.”

Makes sense I suppose,” he muttered as she cracked open the beehive like an egg. The interior was lined with honeycombs, the syrup seeping out of them like yolk. Using the forest to procure what she needed...it gave Ryan an idea.

You take care of the candles,” he said, walking towards the edge of the clearing. “I think I have some idea of how we can draw the triangles.”

***

The officer marched into the inner court of the lodge, one arm suspended in a sling across his chest, his police jacket draped over his shoulders. He had bandages around his head too, and he was walking with a noticeable limp.

The court was empty save for the Grand Master, who was seated in a golden throne at the far end of the lavishly decorated room. The officer took a moment to admire the purple carpeting, along with the paintings that lined the walls. The ceiling was adorned with a blazing star that seemed to be made from solid gold, held up by Romanesque pillars that were as thick around as stout trees.

The Grand Master waved the man forward, stroking his greying beard, the elaborate pendants and medallions that hung around his neck reflecting the light. They were symbols of his high rank within the organization, inscribed with Masonic symbols and runes, as were the cuffs and the apron that he wore.

The officer walked up to the foot of the bench behind which his superior was seated, the oak carved with elaborate reliefs that were inlaid with gold and purple. It was more than a little imposing. The bench before him and the rows of seats to his left and right were all raised off the ground, the Grand Master peering down from above like a preacher in his pulpit, or a judge ready to slam down the gavel and pass sentence on him. It made him feel like he was shrinking into the carpet.

I am glad to see that you're up and about, Corporal.”

Thank you, most worshipful Grand Master.”

I'm going to assume that you know why I have summoned you here,” the Grand Master continued, straightening his spectacles as he examined the wounded policeman. “I wanted the report on what happened on your mission to be delivered to me in person. Usually I would be speaking to your Sergeant, but it appears that he was...trampled to death, I believe.”

Of course, Grand Master.”

Why don't you give me a play by play of what happened? Start when you arrived at the target's apartment.”

The Corporal took a moment to compose himself, remembering how it had all gone down. It had only been a few hours prior, but it had all happened so quickly, it was like trying to remember a dream.

We were stacked up outside his apartment,” he began, “and the Sergeant had taken point. He knocked on the door, and a few moments later a tall, blonde woman opened it. We had orders to leave no witnesses, and so he hit her with the shotgun at point blank range.”

But it wasn't a woman,” the Grand Master volunteered, “it was the target's familiar?”

Yes, Grand Master. We had been expecting to face off against a familiar, and so when she didn't go down, it wasn't a surprise. The Sarge hit her again, in the head this time, and her physical form dissipated. We moved into the apartment, and the target was just sitting on his couch. He was an average looking guy, in his mid-twenties maybe, nothing remarkable about him. He seemed surprised, he didn't react very fast, so we moved into the apartment and prepared to execute.”

And that was when the familiar manifested again?”

Yes, Grand Master. Based on the available information she shouldn't have been able to recover so quickly. Before anyone could pull the trigger on the target, she had manifested again, with a physical form that was cohesive enough to block our bullets.”

Investigators found a summoning circle drawn on the floor of his apartment,” the Grand Master said, “it must have been collecting ambient energy there for a long time. It's possible that he was prepared and that he had planned for a situation where his familiar might be in urgent need of energy. That would suggest that he is far better informed and more dangerous than we could have anticipated. It seems unlikely that he simply left an open circle in the middle of his living room, anything could have made its way through.”

That's not all, honorable Grand Master,” the Corporal added. “It was like his familiar was drawn to him, even after her form had been dissipated. She was juiced up on energy for sure, which made her far more powerful than we had expected, but she must have been bound too. There's no other way to explain it.”

You think the Seirim was bound to an object in the apartment?” the Grand Master asked skeptically. “Someone of his level couldn't possibly be a knowledgeable or skilled enough magician to accomplish that feat on his own. Am I to understand that your Sergeant could not contain the Seirim?”

The familiar was strong, but the incantation and the wards were doing their job. A little longer and he would have managed it. The target interfered, however, caused enough of a distraction that she broke loose. Once she was on us, we didn't have time to do much besides try to fight her off.”

The Grand Master sighed in exasperation, rubbing his wrinkled forehead, the officer waiting nervously for him to continue his interrogation.

The moment that it broke loose, the mission was over. How many times must it be explained to field operatives that if you interrupt the damned incantation, the demon will break free and come straight for you? They'll take advantage of any opening that they can get, you're trying to seal them in a brazen vessel for Solomon's sake, of course they're going to fight tooth and nail to prevent that.”

I-I'm not a skilled magician, worshipful Grand Master, I just-”

The Grand Master put up a gloved hand to silence him.

It wasn't your responsibility, I know. Please continue.”

The Seirim was strong. Like I said, it was juicing. Our bullets weren't even slowing it down at that point, and it just knocked the seal out of the Sarge's hand. In the space of maybe a minute, it had taken everyone out. Mike- I mean the Sergeant, I saw him get back up and try to resume the incantation. He was fucked up bad, the Seirim had brought a wall down on him.”

And what were you doing at this point?”

I was in the far corner, the familiar had thrown me against the wall.” He gestured to his bandaged arm and the gauze that was wrapped around his head. “I got a broken arm and a concussion, the doc said it was amazing that I stayed conscious for as long as I did.”

Very well, proceed.”

The target got his hands on a gun. He shot one of the guys, and he gave the Sarge enough trouble that he couldn't keep his focus on the familiar. When his concentration was broken she...” He hesitated, recalling the grisly scene. “She curb stomped him. Not something I needed to see. It was about then that I passed out.”

This should have been a routine cleanup operation,” the Grand Master said as he opened a folder that was on his bench. He flipped through it, the contents were out of sight to the officer, but it looked like some kind of field report to him. “The target got his information from an internet forum, he was no expert. There's nothing to indicate that he knew you were coming, and the evidence to suggest that he was prepared for such an eventuality is circumstantial at best.”

With respect, Grand Master, we were told that Haures would be serving as our backup.”

The Grand Master looked up from his folder, scowling at the officer as the man shuffled uncomfortably under his harsh gaze.

Haures was not there to protect you, only to clean up the mess if you should fail. Do you know how difficult and time consuming it is to contract a demon that powerful? It's more than your life is worth...literally.”

The officer opened his mouth to apologize, but the Grand Master cut him off with another wave of his hand.

Haures was defeated too, which is...surprising to say the least. It appears that Azazel has some kind of contract with this Ryan Cutter. I believe that was his name. He has bound familiars serving him, he has a Watcher who will appear to rescue him from a Great Duke of Hell, he exhibits magickal skills far beyond what he should reasonably have access to. A few weeks ago he was unemployed, and now he's showing up our grand wizards.”

The officer watched as the Grand Master deliberated, poring over the documents and mumbling to himself occasionally.

I don't see that we have a choice but to bump this up to priority one,” he said finally. “We need to allocate all of our resources to making this problem go away. Thank you for your report Corporal, your services will no longer be required.”

...Grand Master? Am I to return to the police station?”

A sudden cold overcame the Corporal, as if the temperature in the room had just plummeted to zero. He began to shiver almost immediately, his breath condensating as it left his mouth. The lights in the ceiling flickered, plunging the expansive room into darkness for brief moments before flaring to life again. A sense of foreboding came over him, and he turned to look behind him, certain that he was being watched. He could feel eyes on his back, the sensation rousing a primal fear in him, a gut-wrenching dread that made the hairs on his arms and neck stand on end.

A few feet behind him was a burning cinder, resting upon the purple carpet as it glowed a dull orange. There were no fireplaces in the hall, where had the ember come from? There was a puff of flame, like someone had squirted lighter fluid onto an unseen fire, startling the Corporal and knocking him on his ass. He winced, the impact exacerbating his injuries, then looked up to see a roaring blaze rising before him. It seemed as if the carpet had caught fire, the inferno spewing dark smoke as it licked at the air, its heat somehow unfelt as he continued to shiver in the pervasive cold.

A massive, black paw stepped through the flames, its curved claws digging into the carpet. A gigantic feline head emerged after it, that of a tiger or a panther, its fur blacker than night. Its eyes glowed like burning coals, strands of what looked like magma or molten metal dripping from its jaws in place of saliva. It should have burned a hole in the floor, but where the burning droplets fell, they seemed to vanish into thin air.

The rest of its body soon followed, a giant feline that must have been four or five hundred pounds birthing from the dancing flames to stand before him. It began to pace back and forth, prowling like a hungry lion, its burning eyes fixed on him intently.

I see you've met Haures,” the Grand Master said, watching the scene from his bench with a bored expression on his grizzled features. “He had to expend a great deal of energy during his bout with the familiar, and reforming after his encounter with Azazel was rather costly. A cost that would not have been incurred if your team had done their job properly and put a bullet between Cutter's eyes.”

G-Grand master, please. I didn't- we couldn't have-”

I think the least that you can do is reimburse him. Besides, it's easier than marching homeless people in here, the place is starting to look like a damned soup kitchen.”

The Grand Master turned his attention back to the documents, indifferent to the blood-curdling screams and the smell of burning flesh that ensued. Haures was particularly cruel, prolonging the suffering of those offered to him as sacrifices for as long as he could in order to glean as much energy as possible. It was brutal, but it was quicker and more efficient than other methods. It was far easier to find a witless vagrant to be served up as an offering than to disseminate sigils, or to find someone that could tolerate the kind of sexual encounters that some demons required. All they had to do was get someone into the same room as Haures, and he would do the rest. No body, no mess, no evidence.

He lifted one of the laminated photographs, holding it up to the light as he examined it, adjusting his spectacles to bring it into better focus. It was a picture Cutter's apartment, he could make out the chalk summoning circle that had been drawn on the living room floor beneath the couch, crude and barely passable. Investigators had scoured that apartment, and besides a few very makeshift summoning tools like a linen bathrobe and scented candles they hadn't found anything that might go some way to explaining his miraculous escape.

Whatever his secret was, and wherever he had fled, the Freemasons would find a way to bring him to heel. As direct descendants of King Solomon and the inheritors of his temple, they had the divine right to the powers afforded by the Goetia and they alone. It was Solomon who had first dealt with demons, it was he who had first harnessed their powers for practical use, and it was crucial that their existence be kept hidden from the general public. Rogue summoners like this Ryan Cutter who happened across such information and decided to meddle in the occult put all of their carefully laid plans in jeopardy.

***

Is everything ready?” Ryan asked, looking over the summoning rite that had been prepared. It was even more makeshift than the time that he had summoned Orobas. Was this really going to work? He had been bending the rules a bit the first time, but now they were outright ignoring many of them. As a substitute for proper equipment, they had elected to focus on incantations instead, something that Ryan had neglected during his earlier attempts. It was his opinion that the droning and complicated chants served only to get the summoner into the right mindset, creating a trance-like state and bolstering their confidence. The author of the Illustrated Goetia had shared his sentiment, but after seeing how the Aramaic incantations uttered by the police officer in his apartment had paralyzed Nahash, he was willing to give it a try.

They had stripped bark from the trees, drawing on it with chalk and arranging it in a pattern to construct the two triangles, one to protect Ryan and the other to contain the demon if things should go awry. They looked very temperamental, but in theory, they should work as long as he didn't accidentally step on one and break up the lines. This time Ryan had high quality, professionally made wards that he had recovered from the dead SWAT team along with the printouts and scrawlings that he had drawn on card, which should provide considerable protection.

If he had to guess, it seemed that the higher ranked the demon was, the more precautions had to be taken. Summoning a demon like Orobas who was ranked fifty-fifth, or Vapula who was ranked sixtieth required far less preparation and caution than summoning something of a higher grade. Summoning an entity like Bael or Agreas would require careful planning, going as far as to time the summoning with the alignment of planets and the position of the constellations. They required very specific offerings and even a single mistake in the transcribing of runes and sigils might result in disaster.

Of course, such precautions were advisable when dealing with even the lower ranked demons, but time was a valuable resource that was rapidly dwindling.

He went over the steps in his head, trying to gauge what kind of chance this had of working.

The first step was cleanliness. Demons apparently didn't like magicians with poor hygiene. Under normal circumstances Ryan would have taken a long bath, employing soaps and salts to ensure that he was as presentable as possible. Unfortunately, there were no bathtubs in the forest, he would have to do without.

Next were the candles and incense. Thanks to Nahash and her Disney princess powers, there was a ring of beeswax candles burning around the circle, the Seirim having used locks of her own wool to serve as wicks. They had no incense, however, and while Nahash could have influenced Ryan's senses to make him smell anything that he desired, she could not do the same for a fellow demon.

The linen robe was an important component of a successful summoning, but Ryan didn't have one on hand. He had used a bathrobe made from the same material when he had summoned Orobas, which was technically in-line with the rules and had worked just as well. There was nothing to be done about that, he would have to do without.

The wards and sigils were one thing that he had been able to get right. He had the metal pendant that he had recovered after the gunfight in the apartment hanging around his neck. The Pentagonal Figure of Solomon was etched expertly into one face, its runes as clear as day, while he had drawn Vapula's sigil on the rear in chalk. The ward was intended both to protect him from harm and to compel the demon to obey his commands. He also had the old wards that he had recovered from his summoning table shortly before fleeing the city. There was the Ring of Solomon, drawn on a piece of card and stapled to a sweatband that he would wear around his head, the purpose of which was to shield him from the foul odors that demons often produced. He also had the Sexangle, a ward that would hang from his belt whose purpose was to compel the demon to be cooperative and to take human form upon request. He had the Secret Seal of Solomon too, which might be useful for intimidating the demon if it became necessary.

Together the wards made up the core of any summoner's toolbox. Along with the summoning circle, it was the most important thing to get right. You might get away with some dodgy transcription of Hebrew runes and some poor pronunciation in your Aramaic incantations, but if your wards weren't reproduced properly, a demon wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of the opening.

He retrieved a vial from his pocket, dabbing the liquid on his index finger, and anointing himself. He placed drops of it on the top of his head, between his eyes and on his throat, then his navel and his groin. It was Oil of Abramelin made from one part myrrh, half a part of cinnamon, one part cassia, and one part galangal root. It was all topped off with a good measure of olive oil. He grimaced, the concoction burning his skin.

We are as ready as we will ever be,” Nahash said, giving the circle a once-over before taking a few steps back. Her sisters had retreated to the edge of the clearing, and she would soon join them. She could help with the preparations, but the actual summoning ritual all had to be performed by Ryan. Demons could not wield such powers against one another, so he was on his own from here.

They had decided to try Vapula first as she was ranked lower in the Goetic hierarchy than Gamori, which meant that summoning her might be marginally easier. There was nothing to suggest that she was especially aggressive or dangerous, but demons were immensely powerful and keenly intelligent entities. They could not be relied upon to overlook mistakes or to forgive transgressions. Above all they were self-serving, and if they saw an opportunity to gain the upper hand, they would do so without hesitation.

Ryan opened the leather-bound tome that he had been holding in his hand, the Lesser Key of Solomon, and flipped through the pages until he arrived at the Preliminary Invocation of the Goetia. Now came the tedious part, reading off the long and complex incantations. He cleared his throat, preparing himself for what was to come. It was not as simple as reading off the words on the page, it had to be recited like a chant or a hymn, carefully enunciated and with the proper emphasis put on the right words. All in all, he would be speaking for about half an hour, not a trivial task. He would be quite hoarse by the end of it.

He closed his eyes and meditated for a moment, then he began to speak.

Thee I invoke, the Bornless one. Thee that didst create the Earth and the Heavens, thee that didst create the night and the day, thee that didst create the darkness and the light. Thou art Osorronophris, whom no man has seen at any time. Thou art Jäbas, thou art Jäpos, thou hast distinguished between the just and the unjust. Thou didst make the female and the male, thou didst produce the seed and the fruit, thou didst form men to love one another and to hate one another...”

Ryan struggled through the incantation, wishing that he could pause to take a drink of water, his throat growing ever more sore as he recited the words. Many were Hebrew, Latin or Aramaic, and he was not entirely sure of their proper pronunciation. He did his best, time crawling by as he moved down the page.

He could sense that it was working, however. He was becoming...charged up, for lack of a better word, as if the ambient energy in the clearing was being drawn to him like static electricity. It was magick, had to have been, preparing him for his encounter with the demon.

CHAPTER 4: LIONESS

“…and make all spirits subject unto me so that every spirit of the firmament, and of the ether, upon the Earth and under the Earth, on dry land, or in the water, of whirling air or of rushing fire, and every spell and scourge of God may be obedient unto me!”

Finally, the Preliminary Invocation was complete, and Ryan was able to take a breather for a few moments. He had been chanting for at least twenty or thirty minutes. He knelt and took a quick drink of water that had been conjured for him by the Seirim, the liquid soothing his mouth and throat as he swallowed. He couldn't wait for too long, however, he had to keep the momentum going. As the name suggested, the Preliminary Invocation was only the first of several steps.

He flipped through the pages of the book, locating the next invocation in the series. Now it was time to call the demon out by name, compelling it to appear inside the circle. He brandished his wand, a simple stick with the branches and leaves shaved off with a penknife, and pointed it at the center of the pentagram.

I Evoke and conjure you Vapula, and being with power armed from your supreme majesty, I thoroughly command you by Beralanensis, Baldachiensis, Paumachae and Apologiae-Sedes and your most powerful princes Genio Liachidi, ministers of your Tartarean seat, chief princes of your seat of Apologia, in your Ninth Region. I exorcise and powerfully command you Vapula in and by him that said your word, and it was done, and by all the holy and most glorious names of the most holy and true God...”

As he read through the lengthy and drawn-out evocation, he started to notice changes in the environment. The shadows cast by the flickering light of the candles was moving in strange and illogical ways, as if being drawn to the circle like it was a magnet. It was always in the corner of his eyes, just out of reach, almost intentionally evasive. The air too was becoming thicker, colder. Vapors that resembled wisps of smoke were rising from the ground, the mist at the edge of the clearing seeming to close in on him.

This was how it had been when he had summoned Orobas, subtle at first, almost imperceptible. As the ritual progressed, the presence of the entity would become more overt.

...I conjure you by the special and true name of your God that you owe obedience unto, and by the name of your king, which beareth rule over you, that forthwith you come without tarrying and fulfill my desires...”

Something fluttered down from the sky to land on his head, and he brushed it away reflexively, watching the object as it landed on the grass. It was...a large, black feather? He looked up at the sky, but there were no birds in sight.

Do not become distracted Ryan!” he heard Nahash shout, and he resumed his incantation immediately as he cursed himself for his stupidity. Even such a minor lapse in attention could be deadly. He had seen as much for himself when his distraction had allowed Nahash to break free of the spell that was being cast over her back in the apartment. It hadn't ended well for the man who had been trying to seal her.

More feathers fell from the sky, appearing seemingly from nowhere, landing about his feet as he proceeded with the ritual. Why feathers? Was the demon already making an attempt to disrupt the summoning, or was it something else? They were very large, as black as charcoal, like they had fallen from some giant raven.

Soon there were hundreds of plumes raining down around him, creating such a thick blanket on the ground that they rose almost to his knees, obscuring his vision as he frantically brushed them off the pages of his grimoire. The demon was fucking with him, trying to break his concentration and make him slip up, but Ryan persevered.

Therefore come ye in the name Adonay, Saday, Zebeoth, Adonay, Amiorent, come, come, why delay? Hasten, Adonay, Saday, the king of kings commandeth you!”

He pointed his wand at the center of the circle, willing the being to appear there. The rain of feathers stopped, and those that were scattered about his feet began to tremble as if the ground beneath them was vibrating violently. They rose from the grass as if carried by a gust of wind, concentrating in the summoning circle and forming a violent maelstrom. It looked like a small tornado had ravaged a chicken farm, the feathers swirling round and round, growing faster and faster as he watched.

They coalesced to form a ball, which then grew more defined, a pair of folded wings appearing to hover a few inches above the ground. It looked like a giant bird, its black wings wrapped around itself in a protective cocoon. He saw it with his eyes, but also with his mind, the demon projecting its chosen appearance into his brain like a psychic hologram. If he concentrated hard enough, it became fuzzy and hazy, like a mirage that wasn't quite there.

He had succeeded, the demon had manifested itself. It had already attempted to sabotage his summoning once, however, likely due to the liberties that had been taken with their preparations. He had to confine it to the triangle and force it to take a more humanoid form before it had a chance to act again.

Brandishing his wand, he gestured to the containment triangle and spoke, taking the pendant that was hanging around his neck and waving it at the ball of feathers.

Behold your conclusion if you be disobedient. Behold the Pentacle of Solomon which I have brought here before thy presence. Behold the person of the exorcist who is called Octinomos, in the midst of the exorcism, who is armed by God and without fear, who potently evoked you and called you to appear! I bind you that you remain affably and visibly here before this circle, so constrained and so long as I have occasion for you, do not to depart without my license until you have faithfully and truly performed my will without any falsity! Now, into the triangle and take no form intended to offend or repulse!”

The ball of feathers shuddered, then hovered into the triangle, silent and eerie. It hung in the air for a moment, and then the great wings unfurled. A huge beast dropped down heavily into the triangle, the mass of black fur impacting the ground with an audible thud. It flapped its dark wings, then stowed them across its back like a dragon, a mane of black hair rising to glare at Ryan with a pair of ruby red eyes that glowed in the night.

It was a gigantic, winged lion.

Ryan gestured to the Sexangle that was hanging from his belt, keeping his wand trained on the beast as it watched him with eyes like laser pointers.

Take human form, Vapula, so that we might treat amicably.”

It ignored him, lying down in the triangle like it was basking on the Serengeti as it examined the clearing around it. Its body was actually larger than the triangle, but it did not disturb the pieces of bark upon which the runes and sigils were drawn, as if it lacked enough mass to interact with them. The demon could probe for weaknesses in the ritual, exploit them, but it couldn't directly interfere as long as the wards were sound.

Ryan rummaged in the pocket of his jacket and withdrew the Secret Seal of Solomon that the policeman had used when he had attempted to seal Nahash in their apartment. Vapula's eyes were drawn to the lavishly decorated badge, its brow furrowing as it bared its pearly teeth.

Take human form and be cooperative, or by God, I'll seal you.”

He had no brazen vessel, but Vapula didn't know that. The great beast cowered, lowering its head as it kept its glowing eyes fixed on him. The black fur became as smoke, shifting and roiling like a cloud of smog as its four-legged form rose to a bipedal stance. It rose to five feet, then six, then seven. When its body finally came back into focus, it was undeniably feminine, the giant wings unchanged as they flapped idly.

She had the frame of a large and intimidating woman, broad-shouldered and with wide hips to match, taut muscles protruding from beneath her dark skin. No, what he had initially assumed to be jet black, shining skin was actually a layer of thin fur that clung to her figure. It was like volcanic glass, reflecting the candlelight to make her shine, clinging to her body such that it looked like she was wearing a velvet catsuit. The flickering light accentuated the mounds of her large breasts and the rows of defined abdominal muscles that lay below them, veins visible here and there, like the hide of a prize racehorse.

There were some animal features still present, and Ryan could not be sure if the demon was willfully defying him or whether this was her true humanoid form. Her legs were digitigrade, jointed like those of a lion standing on its hind legs, ending in large paws that were tipped with sharp claws. The fur on her arms ended at the elbow where it gave way to the scaly, taloned limbs of a bird of prey. There was a golden band around the bicep of her right arm too, glinting under the starlight, an ornament of ancient design.

There was a ruff of fluffy fur around her neck, framing her head like the mane of a lion. A pair of small, round ears protruded from her hair, along with two black horns that curved in on themselves to fashion a shape that very much resembled the heart symbol depicted in her sigil. The demon's face was more cat-like than that of a person. Her feline nose had a flat bridge with a dull snout, and her eyes were spaced far apart, red and piercing as they glared at him.

Ryan recited an incantation of welcome, but Vapula seemed unswayed, peering about the clearing suspiciously as if she wasn't sure what was going on. She finally spoke, her voice coarse and gruff, but undeniably female.

Why have you summoned me here? Who are you?”

Not this again...it had been the same with Orobas. The demons seemed unable to understand how he was able to summon them using such unrefined methods, as if they expected to appear under the most ideal conditions every time that a human had need of them. Was he really the only person in the world who ever did these makeshift summonings? Granted, he had skipped over many of the steps, and he treated the ritual with far less reverence than most magicians would, but it wasn't by choice.

He noted that her speech patterns were less archaic than some of the other entities that he had interacted with. Perhaps she had been summoned frequently and recently enough that she had been able to modernize her dialect. Some of these demons might not have seen the light of day for hundreds or even thousands of years, he had to keep that fact in mind when interacting with them.

I have summoned you here because I want to make a contract with you,” he explained, and Vapula gave him a skeptical look.

You? You are no magician. You have no robe, I smell no incense...” She looked to the sky, narrowing her eyes. “Venus is not aligned, nor is the constellation Scorpius in sight. What is this slapdash ritual that you have prepared? Do you seek to mock me, mortal? How have you accomplished this?”

I'm kind of in a bind here,” he explained, dropping the pretense of formality. She was properly contained, and she seemed to be obeying him for the moment at least. He had no time to feign reverence. “I apologize for the conditions, my resources are very limited right now, and I have grave need of your counsel.”

You show me no courtesy, you flaunt Solomonic tradition, and still you deign to ask for my help? Explain to me why I should hear another word of this, novice. I might at least glean some entertainment from this sorry spectacle if nothing else...”

Trust me, if I had a choice I would have laid out the red carpet,” Ryan grumbled. “It is written in the Lesser Key that you can make men knowledgeable in all crafts and professions, is that accurate?”

Yes, that is within my purview,” she replied in her gravelly voice. “What knowledge do you have such great need of that you would attempt this summoning?”

I want to learn martial skills. I need to be able to protect myself, I need to know how to shoot and fight. My life is in danger, I have already been forced from my home by armed intruders, and I will undoubtedly have to face them again soon. Is that something that you can teach?”

I...may be able to teach this, yes. But what can you offer me in exchange, neophyte? What favors have you prepared, or are you so arrogant that you dare to come before me empty-handed?”

This was where things got even more sketchy. There was no guarantee that Vapula would accept his proposition to trade sexual energy for her assistance. Demons seemed to gravitate towards whichever means of extracting energy best suited them, and such a suggestion may very well be tantamount to walking up to a stranger in the street and asking them for sex.

As I said...my resources are limited,” he began, enduring her angry stare. The words caught in his throat, shame and embarrassment getting the better of him as he struggled to get his proposition out. “Under more...favorable circumstances I would offer to engrave copper plates with your sigil and spread them about, but I'm confined to this clearing. If I leave it, I'm likely to be killed immediately.”

She kept her red eyes trained on him, her disdain evident as she stood in the triangle with her bird-like arms crossed beneath her bare breasts.

Would you be willing to...accept sexual energy in exchange for your assistance?”

He waited with bated breath, his heart pounding in his chest. He had all of his wards and banishment incantations available should she become violent, but even the most well-prepared exorcist was in for a struggle if they faced off against a demon. Her reaction, however, was unexpected. She began to laugh, quietly at first, but it soon became riotous. He grimaced, waiting for the derisive laughter to abate.

Who are you?” Vapula asked. “You are either the bravest mortal that I have ever met, or you have completely lost your mind.”

My name is Ryan Cutter,” he replied defiantly, “and someone thinks that I'm important enough to set Haures on me.”

Haures?” Vapula repeated, her glowing eyes widening. “If you speak the truth, then your situation is indeed a dire one. But tell me, neophyte, why do you presume to make such a repugnant request of me? Are your sexual proclivities as deviant as your senses seem to be?”

I have no other option,” he replied through gritted teeth. The demon seemed to notice the Seirim who were clustered near the border of the grove, and she cocked her head at them like a giant dog.

I thought that I sensed another presence here. Are those...Seirim? The plot thickens, Ryan Cutter. How came you by such strange companions?”

One of them is bound to me, a familiar,” he replied as he showed her the onyx ring on his finger. He heard her inhale sharply, her eyes narrowing as she examined the artifact.

This, you could not have achieved by yourself. I refuse to accept it. A powerful magickal aura emanates from this trinket, more potent than even I could fashion. Put it away, Ryan Cutter, its dark energies disturb me.”

He covered it with his sleeve, confused by her reaction. Haures had seemed terrified of Azazel, and now Vapula was perturbed by the mere presence of his ring.

The demon seemed to consider for a few moments, her large, black wings fluttering idly and her lion-like tail waving back and forth. The presence of the familiars and the strange ring had given her pause for thought, perhaps she no longer saw him as such a hopeless novice.

Despite his pleas, Ryan had no real desire to have sex with this...thing. Nahash had some animal features too, but she was soft and welcoming, with smooth skin and a voluptuous figure. He had a close relationship with her, he loved her, they had been through so much together.

Vapula was hard and sharp, with hands like giant raven claws and the face of a lion, her lean body comprised of muscle and sinew. Besides her torso, she had no familiar features, and even then what scant traces of humanity she had left were covered in black fur. He had no other choice, however. It was either that, or submit to those wicked talons and let her feast on his pain. Who knew what tortures a creature like her might subject him to.

Very well,” she said, apparently having come to a conclusion. “The knowledge that you seek, assuming that it is in my power to give, in exchange for my fill of energy. What are your terms?”

Be careful Ryan.” He heard Nahash's voice in his ear, glancing to his right to see the Seirim standing beside him. “Do not let her loose. If you should disrobe, keep the pendant about your neck. She still presents a danger to you. Think carefully about your terms, specify that you are not to be harmed.”

The two demons had a little bit of a standoff for a moment, and then Vapula chuckled to herself, covering her feline mouth with a clawed hand.

You are uncommonly dutiful for a bound familiar. One would expect you to seek your freedom from this mortal, rather than feed him unsolicited advice.”

The implication was obvious, Vapula was offering to free Nahash from Ryan's control if she allowed him to make mistakes that might give the demon power over him. Were most bound familiars imprisoned against their will?

I am bound to him by choice,” Nahash replied, “and no harm will come to him as long as I am present.” The Satyr turned her attention to Ryan, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “I will assist if it pleases you.”

Vapula bared her sharp teeth, the bridge of her flat nose furrowing as she snarled her protest.

No! His contract is with me, and me alone. Let him learn from his folly, I have more than one way of teaching mortals respect.”

As the exorcist, it is up to Ryan to determine the terms of the contract,” Nahash shot back. “Once he has made his proposition you have the right to refuse, but you may not dictate the terms.”

Silence,” Vapula replied angrily. “If I am to take my fill of energy from the mortal, I will not share him.”

You needn't share him with me, the energy is yours. I wish only to assist and advise.”

Ryan looked between the two demons as they faced off, Vapula looked like she wanted to tear off Nahash's head by the horns. A part of him wanted to let Vapula have her way, to diffuse the tension and get this over with as quickly as possible, but he knew that the demon would try to betray him the first chance that she got. He had to be assertive, he was the exorcist, he had control over this entity as long as she was under contract.

Nahash will assist,” Ryan said, Vapula glaring at him with her glowing eyes. “In exchange for any knowledge concerning the use of weapons and self-defense, I offer you your fill of energy, to be extracted through...sexual means. But you may not injure me, I must be safe and intact by the end of it. You mustn't hurt Nahash either, nor any of her sisters, and it has to be done immediately.”

The demon pondered for a moment, clearly unhappy with Nahash's involvement and with her reminder to include terms that would save Ryan from being subjected to tortures that only barely qualified as sex. It seemed that her thirst of energy was stronger than her displeasure, however.

You are fortunate indeed to have such a loyal servant,” she spat. “Fine, I accept your terms. Let us begin.”

She raised her clawed hand, the dark scales of her avian forearm reflecting the candlelight. Before Ryan's eyes, a white tube materialized. It was a long, ivory container about the size and shape of a tennis ball saver, with a golden band around one end that matched the adornment on her upper arm. A silver chain hung from it, obviously designed for carrying.

The demon reached out and handed it to him, Ryan taking a tentative step forward to grab it. It should be safe to leave the triangle now that the contract had been agreed upon by both parties, but he was still wary. Her intent was clear, if she could act on it or not was another matter.

It was heavy, and he turned it over in his hands, examining it. It was ivory alright, it looked like a chunk of elephant tusk perhaps, and there was a flat lid on the end with the golden band.

Open it and read from the scrolls,” Vapula explained.

So it was a container designed for carrying scrolls? That made sense. Was this how the demon imparted knowledge? He had expected her to psychically implant the information into his brain or something, or that she would convey it through magickal means. If he actually had to study, then this might take longer than he had anticipated...

He popped the cap, turning the container upside down. A piece of rolled-up paper slid out, and he caught it, placing the container on the grass and then opening up the document. It wasn't paper, it was something older, yellowed parchment that was faded and cracked in places. It was covered in undecipherable runes that seemed to have been drawn haphazardly across the page. It was a jumbled mess, he couldn't make out a single Latin character, never mind anything that he could actually read.

Whatever language this is, I can't read it,” he complained.

Do not read with your eyes, fool.”

He gave it another look, concentrating on the strange runes. There was an odd iridescence to them, as if they had been drawn with pearlescent paint, like the finish on a tricked-out sports car. The longer he focused on them, the more they seemed to shine, reflecting a light that had no obvious source. The shine became a glow, the ghostly light emanating from the characters themselves, Ryan finding himself transfixed. He couldn't look away, he couldn't blink, the stained page was consuming all of his focus.

His head began to throb, his eyes stinging like he had been staring at a computer monitor for hours without a break. Images flashed in his mind, intrusive sensations that seemed to be projected from somewhere else, memories that were not his own taking root in his brain. It came so thick and fast that he could scarcely differentiate them, dazing him, an aura of pain spreading through his skull like a migraine. He tried to shut his eyes but found that he was unable, a mild panic gripping him as his hands refused to let go of the parchment.

As quickly as it had come, the sensation abated, leaving him gasping for breath as he doubled over. He had control of his body again, blinking stinging tears out of his eyes and cradling his head. The painful throbbing became a dull ache, then faded, Ryan shaking his head in an attempt to dispel the lingering dizziness.

He looked to Nahash, but she seemed unconcerned.

How do you feel?” she asked.

No different,” he replied. “Was that...is it done?”

It is done,” Vapula confirmed, gesturing to the rucksack that was lying on the grass a few feet behind him. “See for yourself.”

Ryan hesitated for a moment, keeping his eye on the demon as he walked over to the bag. He reached inside and retrieved the Glock, holding the pistol in his hand. Wait, he knew that it was a Glock 22, a .40 caliber polymer handgun manufactured in Austria. How did he know that? He struggled to recall where he had learned the information, but the memories weren't associated with any events, they were just...there.

He hit the thumb catch on the grip, and the magazine fell into his hand. He counted the rounds, there were thirteen left. He pulled back the slide and locked it, ensuring that there was no round chambered, then dropped it back into position with a loud click.

He knew how to use the gun, he knew how to field strip it, he had a mental blueprint of every moving part from the hammer to the recoil spring. More than simple knowledge, he handled the weapon like it was second nature, as if he had developed muscle memory from thousands of hours of practice. Could it really be this simple?

It worked, I know how to handle the gun, and I feel...confident. Like I'll know what to do in a crisis.”

I have fulfilled my end of the bargain,” Vapula said, “now it is your turn.”

He briefly considered trying to banish her without payment, but a contract with a demon was no trivial matter. If he tried to stiff her or weasel out of the agreement, she would make it her mission to extract the resources that she had been promised through other means. He already had one demon gunning for him, he didn't need two.

He clutched at the pendant that hung around his neck, the ward would soon be his only protection against the demon. He had stipulated that he was not to be harmed, but who knew what was about to happen. Did demons make love in the same way that humans did? Would this take ten minutes, an hour, all night? At least he had Nahash to support him, that was some small comfort.

What should I do?” he asked apprehensively, the demon looking him up and down like he was a juicy steak about to be devoured.

I want you on the grass,” she said, gesturing to the greenery beneath her feet.

On the grass? I could have the Seirim conjure a pile of cushions for us, a bed...something.”

Oh no,” she replied, exposing her sharp teeth in a sardonic grin. “This will not be comfortable for you, you will not enjoy this. I'm going to take you in the dirt and teach you some respect. You deserve no less for summoning me under such irreverent conditions.”

Hang on,” he protested, a spark of fear running through him. “You agreed not to hurt me.”

The contract stipulated that I was not to injure you or your familiars,” she replied, taking a step towards him. “Injury, stupid boy, does not equate to hurt. I can do a great many things that will hurt' you without leaving lasting damage that would constitute an injury.”

Ryan took a step back, the expression on her face turning wild and predatory, those red eyes piercing him as if they could see into his soul.

When I'm through with you, you'll be groveling and begging for a moment of respite. I'll have you on a leash like the lowly dog that you are, and your loyal familiar will have to watch you kiss my feet. I am as a God to you, mortal, and you will be punished for your blasphemy.”

He tripped as he backed away from her, falling on his ass, and in a second the demon had pounced on him like a hungry lioness. Her black wings blotted out the stars, her warm breath washing over him as she leaned down, a rumbling snarl emanating from her throat as she opened her jaws to drag her rough tongue across his jugular.

She took his wrists in her clawed hands, driving her long talons deep into the earth and pinning him down, keeping him from wriggling loose as she sniffed him intently.

A beating heart, warm blood coursing through living veins, the stink of fear oozing from your pores. Yes, this will do nicely. Did you know that energy has a flavor to it, boy? It satisfies us in the way that food, drink or sex would. You have an aura about you, radiating naivety and youth, as sweet as honey...”

She dragged her warm tongue across his cheek, leaving a trail of thick saliva, its surface as rough as sandpaper. He felt like she could have licked the skin from his flesh if she had been so inclined. He felt her thrust her thigh between his legs, and she glanced down, noticing that he wasn't hard.

Poor dear,” she whispered with mock concern in her raspy voice. “Do I not please you? Perhaps you like your partners more...servile,” she said, looking pointedly at Nahash who was standing nearby. Would the Seirim not help him? Surely she wasn't going to just stand there and let this happen to him, she must have some kind of plan?

I'll have to warm you up a little,” Vapula hissed, “get you in a more favorable mood.”

He gasped as she straddled him with her steely thighs, gripping tightly enough that it almost hurt, and she sat upright as she loomed over him. She closed her massive wings around them, trapping him in a dark cocoon, the only light coming from the red glow of her eyes. He felt like they were in a darkroom used for developing photographs.

She brought her frightening claws towards his chest, and for a moment he feared that she was about to tear into him. Instead, she ripped his jacket open and sent the buttons flying, then did the same with his shirt to expose his naked chest. Vapula wet her lips with her tongue in anticipation as she gazed down at him. They too were jet black, it looked like she was wearing shiny lipstick the color of charcoal.

The demon ran her pointed claws across his skin, applying enough pressure that they left red welts, but not enough to draw blood.

So sensitive,” she chuckled, “has nobody ever touched you in this way before? Would you prefer the soft and gentle attentions of your Seirim consort instead?”

He declined to answer, glaring up at her defiantly. She laughed again, and he saw a flash of genuine arousal in her eyes, almost adoration. Somehow that was more frightening than all of the claws and teeth that she could bring to bear.

Yes...hate me. I can feel it, I can taste it, as bitter as a dry wine. If only I could chase it with a taste of your warm, sweet blood. Alas, I must adhere to the terms of our contract.”

Vapula reached up and plucked a large feather from her wing. It was long, bigger than that of any living bird, as if it had come from a raven of monumental proportions. She brought it down to his chest, holding it between two of her fingers and brushing it ever so lightly against his nipple.

Ryan flinched, a jolt of unwelcome pleasure coursing through him. She did it again, circling gently with the fluffy feather, incredibly soft. It tickled, but he tried to endure it, this new tenderness contrasting sharply with her earlier threats. She traced his clavicle, brushing his neck, then roamed down towards his waistline. She paused at his hip and teased him with the feather, smirking at him as he bucked, his spine arching off the hard ground.

Your defiance is merely a front,” she said, very matter-of-factly. “Like all mortals your will is weak, and you are a slave to your animal impulses. By the end of our little encounter, not only will you admit it, but you will embrace it. I want to ruin you, Ryan Cutter. I want to sting you and leave you with an itch that you can never scratch.”

She traced the feather across his belly, making him jump and wriggle, but her thighs were like a vice. She held him steady, ensuring that he could not escape.

You wouldn't be the first to fall victim to your own hubris, but mortals usually beg for mercy when they realize that their wards were improperly reproduced or that their contract lacked protective clauses. You on the other hand...”

She reached down and parted his lips with her claw, pushing her finger into his mouth. It was razor sharp, but she was careful with it, seeming to enjoy the way that he tried to dodge her with his tongue.

...are very tight-lipped. Maybe we can get you singing before the night is through. I wonder if you're a soprano or a contralto?”

She shuffled down a little so that she had better access to his pants, unzipping them deftly and pulling his underwear aside. He was still flaccid, and she shot him an exaggerated pout.

Still not feeling romantic? Let me see what I can do.”

The demon dropped to all-fours and crawled slowly downwards, using her full, dark lips to plant lingering kisses as she went. She began at his neck, mouthing and licking, then moved down his chest. Her soft lips crawled across his stomach, her tongue flicking into his belly button, then he felt her warm breath on his loins.

Shall I wrap my lips around your manhood? No, that's too good for the likes of you...”

Ryan flinched as he felt the feather on his balls, gasping as Vapula dragged it back and forth, teasing him ruthlessly. Electric pleasure coursed up his spine and his member began to swell involuntarily, the demon chuckling at the sight.

There we go, I was starting to think that you were too shy to perform.”

She planted a kiss on the underside of his glans and Ryan dug his fingers into the dirt, grimacing as he tried to endure. He had never felt such pleasure dispensed against his will before. She knew exactly how to push his buttons, she could play a man like a musical instrument, she must have been with thousands of them over the centuries. Yet despite his unwillingness, his body was dancing to her tune like a puppet on a string. It was such an odd combination of ecstasy and reluctance.

Vapula crawled higher again, leaving him to throb in the air now that she had succeeded in arousing him. She cast the feather aside, her powerful thighs clamping down around his face. They were so muscular, what felt like steel cables bulging from beneath her skin as she squeezed and smirked at him. The texture of the thin layer of fur that coated her sinewy body was like black velvet, so thin that it almost felt like smooth skin, a few small veins visible here and there even in the low light.

The red glow from her eyes reflected off her hide, making her shine, accentuating the toned six-pack that protruded from beneath her belly. She reached down and tore the sweatband from his head along with the Ring of Solomon that protected him from demonic odors, and he couldn't help but take in a lungful of air. She smelled like soot or coal, as if she had recently rolled in ash from a bonfire. The scent stung his nose, but it was soon replaced with a feminine musk that made his erection bob in the air with renewed vigor.

Oh, do you like that, dog?” She flicked his member with her tail, the soft tuft of fur on its tip tickling his exposed glans. “Now be a good boy, and lick me...”

She reached between her firm thighs and parted her labia. They had been concealed by her fur, he hadn't even noticed until she had pointed them out to him. Her fingers exposed pink, glistening flesh, already dripping with clear strands of fluid. He tried to pull away, but she was too strong. If she applied enough force, she could have popped his head like a ripe cherry.

She took a fistful of his hair, stinging his scalp as she dragged him closer, his lips meeting hers. She tasted sour and metallic, her juices leaking down his chin as he began to lap reluctantly. Her hips rolled, gyrating against his face as he painted her vulva with his tongue, the demon so hot that it was almost enough to burn him.

You've done this before,” she muttered, reaching a hand up and sinking it into the meat of her breast as he continued his licking. “Are you beginning to understand what it means to worship your God?”

Vapula seemed to take pleasure in rubbing his face in her superiority, quite literally, the demon biting her lower lip with her sharp teeth as she ground her loins against him. Ryan shivered as he felt her fluffy tail slide up his shaft again, intent on keeping him hard. This was likely only the first course, he didn't imagine that she would finish on his face and then just let him go.

She was so wet, a sheen of her viscous juices clinging to his lips, gelatinous strands of it hanging from his chin as he traced the creases and folds of her burning sex. The silky fur on her inner thighs was sodden, globs of her excitement clinging to it, making it stick to his red cheeks. He circled her opening, feeling her muscles tighten around his head, the demon reveling in his lurid attentions. He mouthed and kissed, doing his utmost to please her in the hopes that she might relent, the sordid sounds of his licking seeming to entertain her.

A sudden dizziness overcame him, and gradually the sour taste of her fluids began to change. Soon it had been replaced with the wonderful aroma of fruits and berries, as if the thick juice that dripped from her loins was comprised of the sweetest nectar. It was ambrosial, irresistible, the most wonderful thing that had ever graced his tongue. His pace became greedy and, he pushed his organ inside her, feeling her tight passage clench around it as he sought out more of that divine flavor.

What's come over you?” Vapula gasped, grinning down at him over the twin mounds of her pert breasts. “Don't tell me that you're enjoying this despite all of my efforts? How depraved...”

As the flavors of all of the fruits of paradise set his taste buds alight, a memory boiled up through the haze that had fallen over his mind. He recognized this taste, he associated it with love and passion, a burning desire to please...

Nahash! Was she interfering with the encounter, using her mind-bending powers to aid him? Of course, that was why she had been so passive when Vapula had taken him, she had been planning this all along. With full control over his senses, the Seirim could make him see, feel and taste whatever she wished. She could turn pain to pleasure, discomfort to opulence, and she seemed to be able to do it without Vapula noticing...

Invigorated by the wonderful taste, he pressed on, pausing to mouthe and kiss her inner thighs affectionately. He felt the demon shiver as his lips roamed across her velvet fur, apparently enjoying the encounter more than she was letting on. He sought out her juices wherever they might be, dragging his tongue across her most sensitive anatomy as he lapped it up, every drop bringing with it a new and succulent flavor. Strawberries, passion fruit, apple and raspberry.

He drew shapes on her satin flesh with his tongue, her steely thighs loosening their grip, trembling slightly as he skirted her clitoris. He pressed his lips around the firm bead of flesh, drawing it into his mouth and lashing it with his tongue, Vapula's sharp claws digging into the ground for purchase as she gazed down at him. She was breathing more heavily now, her eyelids drooping.

Ryan's hands roamed up her body, testing the springiness of her thighs as his fingers crawled across their firm surface. The thin layer of fur that coated her body was like smooth silk, fine and delicate, clinging tightly to the contours of her sinewy frame. He reached her hips, tracing her lithe figure until he found her six-pack, the twin rows of toned muscle bulging from beneath her flat belly as they flexed beneath his fingers. He realized that she was wet, beads of sweat making her fur slick and shiny.

Again he was reminded of the wet hide of a racehorse, subtle veins and defined musculature visible beneath the thin coat, sweat giving it a reflective sheen like polished ebony. Ryan saw no reason to restrain himself, running his hands across her stomach and tracing the deep channels that her abs cut in her flesh, feeling them twitch and tighten at his touch. What little body fat she had was concentrated around her ass and thighs, and he wasted no time delving deep into one of her cheeks, taking a liberal handful of her yielding meat and squeezing cruelly. It was soft and malleable, spilling between his fingers like warm cookie dough, contrasting with the firm globe of rubbery muscle that lay beneath.

Vapula shifted, rolling her wide hips from side to side, squirming as he explored her exotic form. Her abdominal muscles moved beautifully, catching what little light was available to give each bulge its own shine and definition, the red glow of her eyes and the deep shadow making them appear even more striking.

She was getting into the swing of things as much as he was now, the thrusting of her hips against his face becoming mechanical and rhythmic, her pert breasts bouncing in time with her gyrations.

His assailant flinched as he drew on her clitoris again, coating it in a layer of his saliva, slow and doting as if she was his lover. Nahash was messing with his perception, imbuing the black lioness with the taste and smell of his beloved partner, a desperate urge to satisfy her rising inexorably to the forefront of his mind. He slid his tongue down again, scouring the burning satin of her vulva, the pink flesh standing out wonderfully against her dark fur. She was fever-hot, her juices clinging to his lips and tongue in thick ropes whenever he pulled back to take a gasping breath, her excitement and his saliva mingling to make their contact impossibly slippery.

He spread her lips with his fingers, licking ardently, like lapping up the oozing nectar from a blooming flower. Her opening twitched and contracted as he teased her with his agile tongue, reacting to his every glance and stroke, and so he gently pushed an index finger inside her.

Immediately she loosed a low growl like that of an angry lion, her muscular passage closing around him tightly enough that it almost hurt. It gripped him like an angry fist gloved in wet satin, the thick fluids that lubricated her quivering tunnel doing little to ease his passing. He could feel every bump and imperfection as her narrow insides flexed and squeezed around him, her loins lined with nubs of flesh and delicate folds that would have driven any man insane. It was like probing the reaches of some made-to-order sex toy, its interior purpose-built to torment the user.

Vapula was alive, however. She was warm and wet, her flesh moving around his finger as if it had a life of its own. He tried to pull back, intent on finding a slow and teasing rhythm, but the suction was incredible. She pulled him in like an eager mouth, trying to draw him deeper with rolling contractions that milked his digit with a kind of desperation.

With some difficulty he withdrew, then pushed back inside again, the motion accompanied by a sordid squelching that seemed to embarrass the demon. She took a tight grip on his hair and pushed his face into her crotch, encouraging him to keep up his dutiful licking.

I didn't say stop, you worthless cur,” she muttered. She sounded less sure of herself now, her commanding voice wavering a little.

Ryan kept up his fingering as he resumed his mouthing and licking, dragging the surface of his tongue between her labia to graze her swollen clitoris, feeling her tighten around him with every stroke. He found a pace that seemed to please her, the red glow from Vapula's eyes vanishing intermittently to plunge them into darkness as her eyelids fluttered. She was fucking his face in earnest now, rubbing herself against him as she sought out more stimulation, the violent rocking of her hips buffeting him as she tugged at his hair.

You taste wonderful,” he mumbled, his brain clouded by Seirim sorcery.

You're not supposed to be enjoying this!” Vapula growled. “It's a punishment!”

She seemed flustered by his comment, rising from her crouched position over him, a sagging web of her excitement breaking to fall to his face. It tasted of pineapple and mango to him, sweet and luscious, and he licked the residue from his lips as she glared down at him.

Well,” she began, catching her breath as she looked him over. “It seems that you are even more debauched that I had anticipated, a result of fornicating with your captive familiar no doubt. I should not have expected any measure of shame or restraint from a dog.”

Now that her black wings were no longer trapping him in a cocoon of feathers he could see Nahash sitting daintily beside them, resting on the grass as if she was attending an outdoor theater production. She seemed wholly unconcerned, her ovine ears flicking occasionally when a moth or a firefly got too close. Colorful flowers bloomed about her, creating a carpet of petals and green shoots, a clear indication that she was using her magick.

Good,” Vapula hissed, following Ryan's gaze and glaring at Nahash. “I want your loyal familiar to watch what happens next. I want her to see what I do to her beloved master.”

She lowered herself over his throbbing member as it jumped and bobbed in the air, a strand of her anticipation leaking from between her firm thighs to land wetly on his belly. Vapula dropped towards him, drinking in his reaction as his eyes tracked the sliver of pink, the glistening ropes that hung from it reflecting the starlight and shining like crystal.

Ryan had been inside her already, he wasn't sure long he could stand the cruel texture of her passage, not to mention the powerful contractions that had threatened to wrench his finger off at the knuckle.

Vapula wasted no time, Ryan taking in a sharp breath through gritted teeth as she pulled back his foreskin with her avian claws, talons as long as his fingers and as sharp as razors coming dangerously close to his manhood. There was no danger of her emasculating him, both because she had agreed to the terms of their contract and because it would defeat the purpose of what she was trying to do.

He winced as his member brushed against her velvet flesh, the demon rubbing him up and down her vulva, teasing him as she coated his shaft in her slimy lubricant. His tip slid inside her after a moment of resistance, the tightness of her strange passage forcing a yelp from his lips, and she peered down at him with a satisfied expression on her feline face.

He was no more than half an inch inside her and yet already her textured walls were closing around him, those fleshy lumps and soft ribs scouring his glans as she took him deeper. Little by little she lowered herself down onto him until he felt her silken fur on his belly, his erection vanishing up to the hilt inside her roiling tunnel. He had expected her to begin moving immediately, to mercilessly fuck him into the ground until he begged for her to stop, but instead she just sat there and stared at him.

Her insides were moving, shifting and clenching as if she had fine control over her pelvic floor muscles. Forget kegels, this was something on an entirely different level. It felt like there were a dozen tongues coiling and writhing around his length, his hips beginning to rise from the dirt of their own accord.

The demon placed a clawed hand on his chest, her talons pricking his skin ever so slightly as she drew a slow circle, an unspoken threat for him to cease his struggling. She couldn't actually cut him, or their contract would be rendered void, but he would rather comply than test her.

What do you think, Seirim?” Vapula spat in Nahash's direction. “Does it pain you to see your master so helpless and degraded?”

Nahash did not reply, she merely watched with an uninterested expression. Failing to get the reaction that she wanted, Vapula seemed to grow angry, turning her attention back to Ryan and lifting her sharp claws towards his neck. She traced his throat with one of the hooked blades, the light pressure tickling Ryan's skin. Just having those things near his neck made him nervous, and in an odd way, it seemed to heighten his sensitivity.

I can feel you twitching inside me,” she growled, “and I haven't even started moving yet. I'm going to show you heights of pleasure that a mortal could never dream of, and when you finish, I'll keep going. I'll do it again and again until the pleasure turns to pain. You'll beg for me to stop, but I won't. I won't give you a moment of respite until you give me every drop of fluid that you have. I want your semen, your sweat, and your tears.”

She leaned forward and dragged her rough tongue across his cheek as if to illustrate her point, even the subtle motion of her shifting position to get closer to him making her insides grind against his member in new and alarming ways. A touch of fear came over him as she gazed into his eyes, her feline pupils burning like hot coals, and her black lips curled into a cruel smile.

There it is...that delicious fear that gives your aura such a bitter taste.”

She bared her sharp teeth, her dark lips drawing back to expose a set of incisors like those of a lion. They were pearly white and serrated like knives, perfect for cutting through flesh. She brought them down towards his neck, and he felt her warm breath on his skin, a droplet of her slaver falling to land on his shoulder as she pressed them against his jugular. She rested there for a few moments, feeling the blood pulse through the vein as Ryan froze up. The killing bite never came, however. Instead, she planted a lingering kiss on his neck, chuckling to herself as she pulled away.

Ryan, you really are cute,” she whispered. “I can see why your familiar has taken such a liking to you. Perhaps I'll come back and pay you a visit once my contract is fulfilled, show you all of the wonderful and terrible things that I can do to you without these tiresome restrictions holding me back. Would you like that?”

He shook his head vigorously, and she laughed to herself, beginning to move on top of him.

She rocked back and forth gently, twisting her hips in a slow dance, wracking sensations tearing through Ryan like bolts of lightning. Her muscular passage gripped him like a vice, those unbearable nubs and ribs scouring his shaft. He could feel every texture and fold of her insides, every glance and scrape stabbing into his mind like a white-hot knife, acute pleasure of such intensity that it bordered on pain searing his nerves.

He had never felt anything like it before. It felt wonderful, intoxicating, yet it was cruel and uncomfortable. Vapula's loins were not designed to be enjoyed, but to wring him of his precious energy as rapidly as possible with a brutal and callous efficiency. She was more like a slave driver than a lover, gripping him tightly with her firm thighs to ensure that he couldn't escape her as she rode him into the dirt, watching him intently with her glowing eyes as he grimaced and gasped.

He tried to buck, his hips grinding against her mechanically, but she was so heavy that she pinned him to the ground. He couldn't control the pace of their coupling, nor the intensity, his head spinning as the whirlwind of soft barbs and slick flesh raged around his member.

Does it hurt?” Vapula hissed, delighting in his pained expression. “Or perhaps you don't know. Can you even distinguish the pleasure from the pain? Don't worry, you won't get used to it...”

Ryan loosed a grunt as she rose on his shaft, her insides clinging to him with a powerful suction. Despite the copious lubricating fluids that were oozing from her, the wetness did little to alleviate the discomfort, her textured walls raking him on their way up. It was such an odd sensation, a deep and permeating pleasure, imbuing him with a satisfying ache. It was like scratching a bug bite until it bled. When she reached her apex, with only his sensitive glans still lodged inside her, she dropped back down again. Her hips slammed into him hard enough to bruise, the demon letting gravity carry her, driving him into her deepest reaches.

Ryan's torso rose off the ground, and he doubled over as a burst of searing ecstasy rippled through him, the stark sensation tapering into a tingling feeling in his extremities as it gradually subsided. She pushed him back down, her sharp claws pricking his chest. He couldn't think straight, not with her passage twisting and flexing around him, grinding those maddening nodules of satin flesh against his cock. It sucked on him like a mouth, her muscles contracting and wringing, milking him ruthlessly like she was trying to draw out his emission through violence. Every movement was chased by muddled ecstasy, inescapable as it coursed through his nervous system like electricity, pulses of white light blanking his mind.

You'll find no tenderness in me,” Vapula giggled, an oddly girlish sound coming from what was ostensibly the head of a lion. “My love is hard and sharp, like the love between a teacher and an unruly student who has yet to learn his lesson.”

Her passage almost seemed to be spinning around his shaft as she gyrated her hips in a slow figure of eight. She was incredibly flexible, and she had such fine control over her body. It reminded him of a dancer or a professional gymnast, her abdominal muscles shifting and bulging under the sheen of sweat that coated them. Ryan realized that he was drooling, a strand of his saliva escaping his lips as he writhed on the grass.

That's right, drool like a dog,” she laughed. “Are you seeing this, Seirim? Look what your master has been reduced to...”

Nahash gave no comment, watching with a neutral expression on her face. If she was going to do something then it had better be soon, he was barely holding on to his sanity.

Vapula's pace grew faster, Ryan gritting his teeth against the new surge of sensation. He had already been at the limits of his endurance, but she was changing gears, ramping up the speed and intensity of her sadistic lovemaking. The ribs and folds of her hot passage caught on his glans as she thrust him deeper, soft enough that they weren't painful, but firm enough that they dug into his tender flesh and scoured his nerves. It felt like firm rubber with the texture of damp silk, delicate and exquisite, yet harsh and fierce.

Her thick excitement dripped down his thighs and pooled on his belly, their loins connected by fat strands of it when she rose on his throbbing shaft, only to slam down again as she grinned at his torment. She had been right, there was too much coming too fast, like his senses were being overloaded by conflicting stimuli until his brain just couldn't process it. All that he could do was feel, a passive observer as his body shivered and struggled, completely outside of his control.

Vapula was now drooling too, a string of it falling from her black-lipped jaws to land on his chest. Her expression transcended simple lust, becoming a kind of fervent and disturbing desire, somehow both adoring and hateful. This was how she behaved when she was bound by the terms of a contract not to harm him, and she was a fairly low-level demon. What would Haures do to Ryan if he caught him? Surely it would make this look positively merciful in comparison?

Don't be afraid to cry if it hurts,” she hissed, “I love it when they cry...”

He didn't doubt it, watching as her eyes lost focus and a drunken smile curled her lips, no doubt remembering the pained cries of some prior victim. She was so vigorous, her stamina and strength dwarfing that of any mortal woman. She was tireless, her sinewy, muscular body radiating raw power and strength. Vapula was more like an animal than a person, both in terms of her physical prowess and her temperament.

Her thrusting grew faster and faster, the bumpy, textured walls of her sex gripping him like an angry fist. She plunged him in and out of her like a piston, the sound of their flesh slapping together echoing through the clearing as they rutted like wanton beasts. Ryan's entire lower body was becoming numb. His hips ached from Vapula's merciless hammering, and his legs had turned to useless jelly. Even as her relentless pace wore him down, the dull sting of pain still mingled with seething ecstasy, an orgasm welling up inside him of such intensity that he almost feared it.

She pinned his wrists against the ground and leaned down close, planting her sharp claws into the earth like stakes as she watched him, her hot breath washing over his face.

That's right...I can sense your emotions, I know that you're close. Come for me, give me your energy...”

His spine left the dirt as he writhed beneath her, the demon not giving him a second of reprieve, the clenching of her slippery muscles pushing him over the edge as she bounced atop him. His eyes snapped shut, his mouth opening in a silent wail as a surge of raw pleasure tore through him. It felt as if his brain was being fried in a pan, fizzing and crackling as shockwaves rippled across his sweat-drenched body. The muscles in his pelvis seized and tensed with the effort as they expelled a thick wad of his ejaculate into her eager passage, her fleshy walls seeming to swallow rhythmically like a throat as they drank it down.

It was only the first of many, Ryan seeing stars dance before his eyes as a second throb of pleasure made him its plaything. Vapula didn't falter, continuing her frenzied dance even as his member pulsed and twitched in her tunnel. Every time that he thought he was spent, another climax erupted from inside him, forcing a stream of fluid into the eager demon. It felt like he was pumping his very life force into her, giving her everything that he had as she milked him greedily, not even slowing to give him a moment of rest.

His perception of time warped, darkness creeping at the corners of his peripheral vision, exhaustion threatening to take hold of him. The stark ecstasy slowly gave way to afterglow, a wonderful euphoria washing over him like a gentle tide, tremors tickling his senses as his sore erection released the last drops of his ejaculate.

Ryan lay back on the grass, completely spent, his fatigue overcoming him. Soon his erection would recede, Vapula would have eaten her fill, and she would leave him alone. All things considered, it hadn't been that bad...

He looked up at the demon as she straddled him, his member still buried to the base in her spasming passage, the cocoon of tight flesh rubbing and caressing his aching cock as she rocked slowly back and forth. To his surprise, the speed of her gentle thrusting began to increase again, the demon smirking down at him as though she had caught him in some kind of trap.

Fool,” she whispered, “did you think that I would be satisfied with that alone?”

But-” Ryan started to complain, then was cut off by a sharp gasp as a throb of pain traveled through his member. Why was he still hard? What about his refractory period? His was as stiff as a plank, his member jumping inside her with every pulse of blood that rushed through it, but the aching and soreness that he felt was becoming more acute. The sucking sensation was becoming more powerful too, as if the wringing of her loins was growing stronger, firm muscles squeezing him at the base as her silken flesh glided up his length in waves.

I told you that I wouldn't give you a moment of respite,” Vapula said, her statement punctuated by a cruel and mocking cackle. “As long as you're inside me, I will keep you in a state of permanent arousal. I can draw your blood into your manhood and squeeze the base to keep you hard even if carnality is the last thing on your mind. I did not manifest this body for your pleasure, dog, but to make use of you like the animal that you are.”

She started to lift herself on his member again, sliding up his shaft to expose the layer of glistening fluid that coated it, her loins tight around him like pursed lips. A sordid blend of his pearly emission and her syrupy excitement dripped from her pink flesh in fat globs, rolling down his length and sticking to her inner thighs in strands. He could still feel it inside her, the undulations of her demonic organ drawing the mess deeper, swallowing it up into her body. He had no idea what her anatomy looked like on the inside beyond the seething tunnel of teasing, slimy flesh that moved around him like it had a mind all its own.

Ryan looked towards Nahash, imploring her to help him. But all she did was sit there, the plants flourishing around her, flowers blooming and insects swarming in a cloud about her horned head. She was doing something, but what?

Why do you look to your Seirim for help?” Vapula spat, her gruff voice dripping with malice and spite. “She cannot save you now. You are mine. If you should wish to beg, to call out to her, then by all means do so. The pleas of the defiled are as sweet music to my ears.”

She was really laying it on thick, reveling in the power that she had over him. All demons seemed to desire power over mortals, worship and reverence were by far the most potent and reliable sources of energy. Perhaps Vapula had been a Goddess at some point, revered by an ancient tribe as the Seirim had once been, or perhaps she had been the patron deity of some long forgotten city-state. Right now the only soul that she had under her thumb was Ryan, and she was making the most of it.

I can taste your pain,” she added, rolling her head back and smiling as she slowly gyrated her hips atop him. She reached down a clawed hand to cup his cheek, stroking softly with her thumb, the gentleness of her touch contrasting with the aura of menace that she exuded. “Poor, sweet boy,” she cooed. “It hurts now, but be brave.”

Stabbing pain shot through him, his member sore and aching, his exhausted body longing for rest. The same throbs and contractions that naught but a few minutes ago had been so wonderfully pleasurable now stung and burned, the sensation slowly growing worse the longer she denied him the period of recuperation that his body needed. He was too sensitive, if only she would give him ten or fifteen minutes to recover, but she continued to ride him mercilessly.

Now you begin to understand,” she chuckled, watching his expression with her burning eyes. “You will give me everything that you have, if it takes you five times or ten, I will have my fill of you.”

Despite the pain, his erection wouldn't recede, it was like he had downed an entire bottle of viagra. Vapula just kept drawing blood into his member with her powerful suction, gripping him angrily as she rocked her hips. A wave of panic washed over him as he realized that this torture may well last for hours. Maybe he should have offered her a blood sacrifice after all, the result would have been pain either way, and it might well have been over faster...

Suddenly he felt the unmistakable touch of Seirim magic, his brain becoming fuzzy and his thoughts losing their focus as it crept over him. Fear was replaced with calm, Ryan suddenly feeling as if he was floating on a fluffy cloud, the pain receding to the back of his mind as though he was experiencing it from a great distance. The stars above him became colorful, like they were being refracted through a prism, beautiful points of rainbow light shining in the velvet blackness of space. There were insects too, wonderful moths whose iridescent wings were colored in shades of blue and violet, reflecting that starlight to produce a mesmerizing display.

Be at peace Ryan,” he heard, not with his ears but from inside his own head. It was Nahash's voice, sweet and soothing, the tones seeming to flow through him like a pleasant vibration. Vapula was still there, as was the stinging pain and discomfort, but he was now oddly disassociated from it.

A ghostly figure appeared above him as he lay on the grass, supplanting Vapula's dark, sinewy silhouette as she rutted like a beast. It became more solid the more he concentrated on it, like mist that was slowly taking shape, until he recognized Seirim features.

Nahash blinked at him, batting her long lashes, a warm smile curling her full lips. Somehow she looked even better than usual, glowing as if she was full of life, the twisted crown of horns about her head adorned with wildflowers as if it was a summer maypole. She put her finger to her lips, gesturing for him to be quiet as he opened his mouth to speak.

You must be silent Ryan, lest Vapula discover me. This is not a breach of your contract, it was agreed upon by both parties that I would provide assistance, but I fear that she might block me out if she becomes aware of what I am doing.”

What was she doing exactly? He tried to focus his muddled thoughts, fighting off that odd dulling of his senses that always came over him when she used her empathic powers. It was almost like trying to unlock the door to his apartment while drunk. She was helping him, driving off his pain. Yes, that was it. He could still see Vapula moving as she straddled him, but it was like she was at the far end of a dark tunnel, too far off to be of any concern to him.

I can stop the pain,” Nahash explained, “but Vapula expects energy. She will not relent until she has had her fill. I cannot merely dull your senses, or she will not bring you to completion.”

Nahash's body straddled him, ephemeral and somewhat transparent, clipping through Vapula as if she had no mass. He felt her silky, soft thighs settle about his hips, her earthy scent filling his nose as she leaned closer to press her lips against his.

They were so soft and plump, Ryan feeling her long, smooth tongue push into his mouth. Nahash locked him in a deep and passionate kiss, her inhumanly long organ coiling and writhing inside his head, glancing his palate and bulging his cheeks. It was sexual and wanton, yet placating and soothing at the same time, a measured and practiced embrace from someone who knew their lover's desires inside and out. It tasted like freshly picked strawberries, the surface of her tongue like wet satin as it entwined with his own, so dexterous and flexible. She pulled away with a wet smack, her lips linked to his by a thin strand of saliva that glistened under the starlight, a distinctly pleasurable sensation overcoming him as she looked down at him with her amber eyes.

You must give her what is owed, but I can help...”

He felt her hand on his chest, as solid as if she was truly touching him, her warmth radiating from her as she stroked him with her fingers. To create an illusion of this complexity must have required a great deal of magick and concentration. She had total command of his nerves and his senses, able to make him see and feel whatever she wished. If she could accomplish such a feat without Vapula noticing, then perhaps she might be able to ease his suffering long enough for the demon to be satisfied.

Her pale skin contrasted with Vapula's dark fur, smooth and soft where the latter was hard and sinewy, her gentle features at odds with Vapula's sharp physique and fierce disposition. Nahash had round, hourglass hips and thick thighs, the subtle paunch of her belly giving her a plump and welcoming appearance. Her breasts were full and heavy, bouncing softly as they hung from her chest, pink nipples standing out against her porcelain skin. She had the figure of a fertility Goddess, appealing to the base instincts of men by design, her role as a Seirim to tempt and seduce.

Ryan wanted so badly to wrap his arms around her pinched waist, to sink his fingers deep into her milky, yielding flesh and to press his face between those pendulant boobs. He knew the sensation of her silky thighs brushing against his cheeks all too well, the weight of her breasts as he cupped them in his hands, her velvet fat spilling between his fingers.

But Nahash urged him to lie still, as any movement on his part might alert Vapula. He could not be seen to grope thin air, it would give them away.

Slowly the pain that still lingered in the far reaches of his senses began to change. Those same nerves that had once carried painful impulses now shifted, the ache dulling to become more akin to pleasure, his extremities tingling as if they were awash in static. The sensation gradually grew stronger, Vapula's ruthless thrusting and the cruel clenching of her muscular passage becoming more and more enjoyable. After a few moments, he was once again bucking his hips, rising from the grass to match her pace with no longer a trace of discomfort or exhaustion in his body.

Nahash began to move in time with Vapula, phasing through her body, like Ryan was seeing double. Her intentions were obvious even in his impaired state of mind. The Seirim was tricking his brain into thinking that he was making love to her, manipulating his nervous system to translate pain into pleasure.

Vapula sneered down at him, her features contorted into a disdainful smirk.

You've gone quiet, dog. Have you accepted your fate, or have fear and pain robbed you of your voice?” Her smile faltered when he didn't reply, and for a split second her domineering demeanor slipped, confusion on her face. She quickly recovered, but even through Nahash's ghostly body, he could see that something was troubling her.

It's just as well,” Vapula added, “a servant should be seen and not heard...”

The black demon intensified her thrusting, letting gravity carry her down to drive him into the ground, but even the bruises that decorated his hips now felt oddly pleasant.

Concentrate on me, Ryan,” Nahash said. Again her voice echoed within him, more of an intrusive thought than a sound, and he did as she asked. He found that he could switch between Vapula and Nahash, it was like focusing his eyes on a distant object and then switching to a nearer one. After a momentary period of adjustment, he could bring either one of them to the forefront of his mind. Neither demon was wholly physical, both of their strange forms were projected into his mind like a hologram onto the face of a building.

Nahash's fluffy, white wool and ashen skin supplanted Vapula's ebony fur and sinew, the form of his beloved companion taking shape above him. The soft cushion of her thighs wrapped around him, her legs so long that her knees very nearly reached his armpits. She stroked his chest as she dizzied him with the graceful swaying of her wide hips, artful and mesmerizing. She teased him with percussive movements, shimmying and twisting as if dancing to an unheard tune, making slow figures of eight.

Coming from her, the stimulation seemed loving and measured, the frantic pace borne of a desire to please rather than to torment. Nahash was able to give even Vapula's callous fucking the appearance of gentle lovemaking, Ryan mustering all of his self-control to prevent himself from delving his fingers deep into her inviting thighs.

Nahash sensed the desire in him, attuned to his emotions like a radio antenna, and Ryan felt something tightening around his wrists. When he glanced down, he noticed that creepers were slowly sprouting from between the blades of grass, the leafy vines curling about his forearms like restraints and securing him to the ground. Colorful flowers sprouted from them, buds opening into beautiful displays of blue and yellow petals.

Some part of him knew that they were not real, but the illusion did the job, planting the suggestion in his brain that he could not move his arms. As long as he played along and didn't challenge this new reality, the hallucination would keep him still.

He lay back on the grass, the earth beneath him no longer lumpy and uncomfortable but as soft as a feather pillow, watching with a kind of drunken fascination as Nahash performed. Her moves would have put any exotic dancer to shame, her shapely body flowing like water, the artistic twists and drops of her curvaceous hips accentuating a silent rhythm. Every staccato thrust made the meat of her belly and thighs quiver, her breasts lagging behind as she swayed, her arms raised above her head to trace fluid shapes in the air.

No, it wasn't quite silent. If Ryan concentrated hard enough, he could hear the music too, faint and distorted as if it was coming from far away. It slowly grew louder and more defined as he became engrossed in her sensuous display, individual instruments coming to the forefront. The sound of beating drums might have been mistaken for the sound of his heart pounding in his chest, but it soon rose to prominence, an ancient tribal tempo ensnaring his senses. He could hear the banging of the drums as if they were naught but a few feet away from him, deep and resonating, the vibrations penetrating him to the bone.

Atop the roar of the drums came the wistful sounds of string instruments, mournful and evocative, with an air of mystery that made Nahash's practiced waltz all the more compelling. There were wind instruments too, perhaps flutes, and the chanting of voices in a language that he could not understand but which was immediately familiar to him.

He had heard this melody before, he was sure of it, not just in the company of the Seirim but almost as if the notes were coded into his genes. It brought to mind images that flashed before his eyes like half-forgotten memories, strange figures dancing around bonfires, their dark silhouettes framed by licking flames as they contorted their bodies in a frenzied dance.

Nahash swayed her wide hips in a slow circle of eight, the control that she had over her abdominal muscles nigh inhuman. She was able to keep her torso as still as a gyroscope even as her lower body rocked and undulated. Her movements were so deep and textured, driving her silken passage against his member at new and unlikely angles. Or was he really feeling Vapula's insides as they clenched around him? It was so hard to tell, the line between where reality ended and fantasy began had been blurred by Nahash's insidious magick. All Ryan really knew was that he was now in heaven, smiling as he rested his head on the grass and looked up at the technicolor display of stars above the clearing.

What's wrong with you?” Vapula snapped, her coarse voice penetrating the illusion like a knife. “Why are you smiling like that?”

Her supreme confidence was slipping, now she seemed confused, angered by his indifference to what was supposed to be a kind of sadistic punishment. He felt her intensify her thrusting, the brutal pace growing ever faster as she gripped him with her iron thighs, the harsh contractions of her loins wringing him like a dishrag. Her pointed talons found his chest, her scaly skin cold and rough, the demon drawing red trails in his skin as she dragged them lower.

It stung for a split second, and then Nahash's magick did its work. The burning of her sharp claws morphed into a pleasant sensation, like the gentle caress of a fingertip, Vapula's sinister grin faltering as she failed to get the reaction that she had anticipated.

Are you so depraved that you have taken a liking to pain, mortal? Perhaps you are so overcome that you can no longer tell the difference?”

It was clear that she longed to do more to him, to hurt him in ways that the stipulations of their contract would not allow. It frustrated her, her displeasure obvious in the way that her brow furrowed into a surly frown.

From Ryan's perspective, her efforts to make their coupling even less comfortable only enhanced his pleasure, wracking waves of ecstasy rising up through his body to make his eyelids flutter. He writhed, unable to keep still, his hips pushing up to meet hers even as the phantom creepers restrained him.

Fool, we shall see what you make of this!”

Vapula leaned down close to him, her hot breath blowing across his neck, her black lips pulling back in a snarl to reveal her wicked teeth. It was the gaping maw of a lion, there was nothing remotely human about it, a thick strand of her saliva falling from her open jaws to land on his chest. He didn't flinch, mired as he was in Nahash's magick, the Seirim's powers flooding his addled brain with feelings of calm and happiness.

The demon drew closer, her pointed fangs pressing into his jugular, a low growl reverberating through him as she poised to deliver a killing blow. What should have filled him with primal terror instead instilled him with anticipation and arousal, Nahash mimicking Vapula's movements to bring her soft lips towards his neck. Her gentle, ovine features superseded those of his assailant, the snarling lion replaced with the soft wool and pink lips of his familiar.

Vapula's rough tongue raked his throat, but instead Ryan felt the smooth, silky organ of a Seirim as Nahash gave him a teasing lick. She mouthed and kissed, her puffy lips crawling across his neck and shoulder, Ryan grinning and wriggling as she nibbled gently.

Vapula took his neck in her jaws and pressed down on it, choking him as her sharp fangs dug into his skin. He could sense her raw power. Those jaws could have crushed his vertebrae, and her fangs would have severed his windpipe if she had only applied a little more pressure, but she was still bound by the terms of their contract not to harm him. She could terrify, hurt, but never injure.

His eyes began to water as he gasped for air, but rather than the jaws of a beast, instead he felt Nahash's fingers closing around his throat. Her hold was gentle, tickling him as her fingers glanced his sensitive skin. She leaned down to whisper to him, pausing to nibble at his earlobe as her musical voice soothed him.

She cannot hurt you, Ryan, not as long as I am here. I can make this feel good, but you have to trust me...”

He didn't need to reply, relaxing his body as her fingers tightened. Of course he trusted her, she had saved his life more than once. Vapula kept up her brutal rutting, driving him into the ground as she held onto him by the neck, intense pleasure coursing through him. Even in his altered state of mind, he found himself wondering how he would have taken this pain, if he would have been able to endure it if Nahash had not been there to use her powers to confuse his nervous system. Pleasure and pain followed the same channels, after all, the electrical impulses traveled along the same nerves. Was the euphoria that he was feeling now exactly equivalent to the agony that his body was truly experiencing?

He felt a twinge of panic as he opened his mouth to take a gulp of air, only to find that he couldn't fill his lungs. He was being strangled, Vapula choking him with her maw like a tiger that was suffocating its prey. How was she applying so much pressure without breaking the skin? Magick perhaps? It wasn't a breach of their contract, not technically speaking at least, as long as there was no lasting damage or injury she could do to him as she pleased.

The panic subsided as he focused on Nahash once again, gazing down at him with her amber eyes as her fingers squeezed his neck, the colorful flowers about her head and the circling insects becoming blurry and indistinct as his eyes started to lose focus. Something about her warm and gentle demeanor made it more tolerable, the pleasure somehow heightened as he began to get dizzy. It was a sensation distinct from the muddling of his thoughts that was always associated with her magick, a kind of euphoria that was making him giddy. It felt...good, intoxicating almost.

Relax,” she whispered, “trust in me.”

Darkness crept at the corners of his vision, his consciousness fading as he began to black out. Instead of fear, he felt only pleasure, the sensation of Vapula's muscular insides undulating around him more prominent and powerful than ever. It could only be described as ecstasy, raw and fierce as if a burning fire had been kindled inside him. He started to hallucinate, the colors in the sky running like watercolors on a canvas until the heavens resembled a warped Van Gogh painting.

His orgasm came hard and fast, his spine arching off the grass, the searing pleasure like a supernova as the explosion spread through his body. His every cell was awash in delicious euphoria, he felt like he was floating, his failing body wracked with tremors. He would have cried out had his lungs not been empty. It was such a rush, the sensations amplified a hundredfold, his member bouncing inside Vapula as it pumped his emission into her tight passage. Over and over the throbbed and spasmed, his skin wet with sweat as thick ropes of his ejaculate surged from his beleaguered body, the black-furred demon drawing it out of him with a primal hunger.

It was too much, overloading his addled brain, his vision going dark as the lack of oxygen caused him to pass out.

***

Ryan took in a gasping breath, his eyes snapping open as his chest heaved. He tried to sit upright, but quickly abandoned the attempt as a sharp stab of pain tore through him. He lay back on the grass, taking in deep lungfuls of the cool night air, wincing as his muscles burned and ached. He felt as though he had been beaten with baseball bats, and he had a monster headache like he was recovering from a night of binge drinking. He couldn't tell what hurt, the pain was encompassing, every slight movement sending a jolt of agony rippling through his exhausted body. It would probably have been easier to make a mental checklist of what didn't feel like it had been used as a punching bag.

He looked up to see Vapula standing over him, her dark fur almost invisible against the black velvet of the sky, her figure obscuring the stars as her eyes burned like fiery embers. She was no longer straddling him, did that mean that his ordeal was over?

I grow weary of you, mortal,” she spat. “I have had my fill of energy, consider our contract fulfilled.”

What? She had seemed so enthusiastic before, reveling in the opportunity to make him her writhing plaything. What had changed her mind? Could it be possible that Nahash's ploy had not only staved off Ryan's pain, but that it had also discouraged Vapula, robbing her of the enjoyment that she would usually glean from dominating a helpless victim? A sadist through and through, did the demon gain no satisfaction from sex that didn't involve fear and pain?

He turned his head, looking for Nahash, and saw her sitting on the grass close by. She could have been mistaken for an ancient statue, creepers and plants growing about her body and rooting her to the ground, almost like a net of foliage had been cast over her. Those same wildflowers were blooming everywhere, their colorful petals blowing in the gentle breeze, gigantic moths flapping their wings lazily as they perched upon her gnarled horns. She was so still, he couldn't even see her chest moving, as though she had been frozen in place.

Gradually she came back to life, her ovine ears flicking and her long lashes fluttering as she blinked, opening her amber eyes. She shifted, large and strong enough that the vines did little to restrain her, shrugging off the plants as the insects scattered. She brushed a few clinging leaves and petals from her woolly forearms, standing on her goat-like hooves as Vapula stared her down.

The feline demon turned her piercing gaze back to Ryan, contempt etched on her features.

If we should meet again, novice, pray that it will be on more favorable terms.”

Ryan wasted no time, seizing the opportunity and hastily reciting a banishing rite that would permit the entity to leave now that her contract was fulfilled, subconsciously grasping at the ward that still hung around his neck as he did so. He no doubt mispronounced a few words, missed out a few phrases here and there, but Vapula didn't want to be there any more than he did.

When it was concluded she gave him a short bow that seemed almost sarcastic, and then she folded her gigantic wings about herself. They surrounded her in a cocoon of black feathers, obscuring her from view as she began to slowly rise off the ground. The feathers then started to blow away, caught in a wind that nobody else could feel. Logic dictated that there should be something beneath them, skin or bone, but as the dark plumes shed there was revealed to be nothing. She had vanished, perhaps borne away along with her feathers.

Ryan breathed a loud sigh of relief, Nahash kneeling beside him and looking him over with concern in her eyes. He craned his neck in order to evaluate the damage, seeing that his chest was covered in red welts that had been left by Vapula's wicked claws and that his hips were decorated with dark bruises where she had let herself fall on him during their coupling.

The dulling of his senses that had come with Nahash's empathic magick was gone, and he could now feel every aching muscle and stinging cut.

I will have my sisters prepare a salve,” Nahash said, “as per the contract there has been no lasting damage.”

Lasting damage my ass,” Ryan complained, wincing as he tried and failed to sit up again. “I feel like I've been tenderized. We really have to put more thought into the next contract, she could have waterboarded me, and it wouldn't technically have constituted lasting damage. Help me up, would you?”

Nahash supported him as he struggled to his feet, leaning his weight on her as her sisters emerged from the darkness. They crowded around him, hunched low to the ground, reaching out with their hands almost in supplication.

Ryan!”

Ryan, are you hurt?”

Is Ryan okay?”

Poor Ryan.”

Our Ryan is wounded!”

Nahash shooed them away with a wave of her hand, guiding Ryan over towards the center of the clearing. The bonfire was back, he hadn't noticed, the roaring flames warming him as he approached. The Seirim lowered him onto a pile of soft cushions, her sisters keeping their distance, craning their necks to get a look at him as he sat down.

Drink this,” Nahash said, crouching in front of him and presenting a wooden bowl as if conjured from thin air or through some sleight of hand trick. He took it without question, downing it in one gulp. It tasted of wild herbs, bitter, but not unpleasantly so.

What is it?” he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

A herbal remedy to dull the pain,” she replied. Nahash turned her attention back to her sisters, calling out to them as they lurked in the shadows beyond the reach of the firelight. “Fetch me a salve, sisters, of Meadowsweet and Calendula.”

The goat-like demons scattered, off to find the ingredients that she had specified, no doubt some kind of plants or herbs that grew in the forest. Once they were out of earshot Nahash leaned closer, lowering her voice as she spoke to him.

Are you alright, Ryan?”

He got the impression that she wasn't talking about his cuts and bruises. He took a moment to compose himself, to let the rapid beating of his heart settle as he stared into the orange flames.

Yeah. I mean no, I'm not alright, but I will be. I just need some time to...clear my head.”

I feel responsible,” Nahash muttered. “I am your guide in this, I should have better prepared you for this eventuality. I did not expect Vapula to be so offended.”

Don't say that,” he replied, “it's not your fault. It's only thanks to you that I was able to get this far. If you hadn't been there to take some of the load off...I don't know what kind of experience I might have had. And hey, it worked, right?”

I suppose so...”

I have to admit though, saying that I'm feeling a bit apprehensive about the next summoning would be an understatement.”

We can't do it right away in any case. You need time to recover,” she insisted.

As much as I'd like to take a few days to rest,” he said as he shifted his weight on the cushions, grimacing as a twinge of pain shot through him. “We don't have a lot of time to waste. I'll sleep tonight, try to get my strength back, but tomorrow we have to proceed with the next ritual. I don't know how long we'll be safe here, it might only be a matter of time before our enemies find a way to dispel the magick that protects the sanctuary.”

Surely Azazel would never allow such a thing?”

I don't think that we can rely on Azazel for anything,” Ryan muttered, “he does as he pleases. He won't come to my aid again, at least that's the impression that I got from him when he saved me from Haures in the parking lot. He considers his debt repaid. Whatever happens, I don't want to hedge my bets on divine intervention.”

He heard heavy footfalls, and the Seirim emerged from the shadows, clasping bundles of plants in their hands. There were long, leafy stalks tipped with white blossoms and wildflowers that looked like orange and yellow daisies. They handed the plants to Nahash, who began to prepare them in a wooden pot. Ryan couldn't see exactly what she was doing besides mashing some of the flowers with a pestle, her sisters crowding around to watch. A couple of them crouched by his side, examining the cuts on his chest and belly.

To be honest, it wasn't all that bad. The abrasions were no worse than cat scratches, and the bruises would probably fade in a couple of days. Still, he welcomed anything that might ease the healing process along. He wondered idly why Nahash didn't use her magick to heal him, perhaps such a thing was outside the bounds of her powers. He had also noted that she hadn't conjured these ingredients from thin air as she often did with food and drink. Had she expended too much of her energy store, or would real plants see better results?

He was still frazzled from his encounter with the demon. The alarming shifts between pleasure and pain, enjoyment and panic had left him dazed, almost like he was in a state of shock following some kind of accident. As much as he had been certain that the contract would preserve his life, and as much as he trusted Nahash, there was still a kind of primal terror that could not be suppressed through the use of logic.

It was over now, at least there was that...

The Seirim began to dip their hands into the pot, cupping a kind of green paste in their palms and bringing it over to him. They reached out and smeared it on his cuts, Ryan grimacing as it began to burn.

It will hurt somewhat,” Nahash explained as she looked up from her work, “but it will help you to heal.”

If you say so,” Ryan said, her sisters fighting for room as they spread the concoction. When it was done, they retreated, the burning sensation slowly abating. He lay back on the silken cushions, relaxing and trying to clear his mind. Right now the wisest course of action was to rest and let the salve do its work.

CHAPTER 5: EREBUS

The Grand Master's boots squeaked on the polished floor as he made his way down the lavishly furnished hall towards the summoning chamber. The room was located in the Western wing of the lodge, and it was outfitted for use by Masonic wizards and summoners, ready to be used at all times of the day or night. One never knew when they might need the urgent help of a demon.

He pushed open the large, oak door as it creaked on its aged hinges and stepped through into an expansive room that was shrouded in darkness. Only the flickering of a thousand candles staved off the gloom, hanging from the tall ceiling in gilded chandeliers and stacked upon every available surface in ornate candelabras, their dancing flames casting shadows on the walls. The overpowering scent of incense hit him like a wall, the strong odor of frankincense and myrrh filling his lungs. There were tables scattered about the room, hewn from darkest ebony in ancient and elaborate styles, their legs tipped with carved claws and hooves. Upon them were grimoires, arcane tomes and pieces of faded parchment, all of the reference material that might be required for summoning.

In the center of the room was a nine-foot circle decorated with runes and sigils, the Hebrew and Aramaic incantations lovingly reproduced in flowing script, the graceful lines carved into the stone floor and then filled in with molten gold. It was beautiful to behold, shining as it caught the candlelight, a circle worthy of even the highest ranked Kings and Princes of Hell.

Around the circle a dozen Masonic wizards were already preparing their ritual, their hooded robes decorated in the purple and gold of their order. As the Grand Master walked towards one of the many protective triangles that were placed on the floor, one of the faceless men broke from the circle, approaching him and draping a pendant about his neck that had been inscribed with a protective ward.

This was all routine, of course, they had done this many times before.

Is the ritual ready?” he asked.

Yes, Grand Master. We can begin whenever you wish.”

The Master waved his gloved hand, indicating that they should get the ceremony underway. Now came the boring part, waiting for the wizards to conclude their incantations. He stood patiently as they went through the chants that they had memorized by rote, twelve voices speaking as one, echoing throughout the room like a Gregorian choir.

As their chanting and the waving of their wands continued, some of the candles began to sputter, as if a gust of wind had come in through an open window. There were no windows of course, not only was the room sealed but it was below ground. The temperature plummeted, his breath condensating as it left his mouth, but the Grand Master did not let it bother him.

He recalled the first time that he had seen a summoning. He couldn't have been more than a Grand Pontiff of the Nineteenth degree at the time, a fresh-faced boy in comparison to his current appearance. He had been full of excitement and wonder, eager to learn the closely guarded secrets of the ancient order to which he belonged. Not only that, but he had been desperate to rid himself of a lingering doubt that had haunted him for so many years, wanting confirmation that it was all real and not just some kind of elaborate cult. If he could see magick with his own eyes, if he could see a real demon, then he would be able to devote himself to the cause completely.

After moving up through the ranks, his time had finally come. Excitement had turned to fear when the sweat on his brow had begun to freeze, when he had seen all of the shadows in the room coalesce into a single point within the circle. What had stepped out of that veil of shadows had not been human, had not been of this world. He hadn't seen it, at least not in the traditional sense. The entity had projected itself into his mind like an intrusive thought, an idea as much as a physical presence. What he remembered best were its eyes, burning like a pair of hot coals, unwavering as they penetrated him to the soul.

It was on that day that he had truly understood. There were worlds beyond his own, metaphysical forces of incomprehensible power and influence that must be controlled and kept in check. The history of the human species was far longer and more complex than any historian or anthropologist could ever know, because that information had been robbed from them, hidden away in the dark recesses of arcane libraries and in the minds of a select few. Now the Grand Master was one of those elites, a tiny fraction of the human race who knew the true nature of reality, a sworn guardian of secrets that must be kept at all costs.

He was returned to the present by the ringing of a church bell, faint and eerie as if heard from far away. It was like the sound of a great cathedral summoning the faithful to prayer, mournful and hollow, growing steadily louder as the chanting of the wizards rose in tempo. Before long the tuneless ringing was loud enough that it almost seemed to be coming from inside the room, as if he was standing in the steeple of a church. The sound was tuneless and grating, but he knew that it would be over soon.

A distortion manifested in the center of the summoning circle, almost like a heat haze, barely perceptible at first but intensifying as he watched. It was like a mirage, confined entirely to the circle, roughly in the size and shape of a tall man. The ringing of the phantom bells did not abate, remaining steady as if they were announcing the arrival of this entity. The haze shifted and morphed, the atmosphere in the room almost seeming to vibrate in time with the cacophony, as though the very molecules in the air were resonating with it.

Swirling patterns appeared across the surface of the circle as if the glass-smooth stone had turned to liquid, concentric ripples and dancing splashes spreading like disturbances on a calm lake. It was a visualization of this baleful melody, spreading out from the center as the haze became opaque.

The tolling of the bells halted abruptly and the chanting along with it, the sound of a pair of shoes splashing in water ringing out in the dead silence. Standing in the circle was a human figure, seven feet tall and unnaturally thin, its body shrouded in a long robe made from what resembled burlap with a large hood. The shadow within concealed the entity's face save for its mouth and chin. It looked stretched and unnatural, the skin pallid, the lips thin and discolored. Everything about it was wrong, out of place, giving the Grand Master a palpable sensation of disgust and fear. This thing should not be, it was wrong, an aberration.

He quickly suppressed the instinct, clearing his throat as the thing turned towards him, its pale lips curling into a smile.

Welcome, Gaap,” he announced with a respectful bow. “It is a pleasure to have you with us again.”

This entity was the thirty-third demon of the Ars Goetia, Gaap, a mighty Prince of Hell who had numerous powers that were of great use to the Freemasons. This was not the first time that they had met, he had personally called up the creature several times in the past.

Gaap clasped its long, bony fingers together, like some kind of evil monk as it stood within the bounds of the circle. The Master couldn't help but stare, that long hood imbuing him with a kind of morbid curiosity, the dark shadows teasing at what horrors might lie just out of view.

Grand Master,” Gaap rasped, its voice course and breathy. It spoke like it had a mouth full of dust, as if a desiccated corpse had been reanimated and was using its vocal apparatus for the first time in centuries. “As ever, you honor me with your rituals. So precise and proper...”

It did not address the wizards who were standing around the summoning circle, knowing from experience who it was going to be treating with.

Your contract has been prepared,” the Master replied, snapping his fingers and gesturing to a wizard who had been waiting behind a nearby table. The robed man stepped forward, a roll of yellowed parchment clasped in his hands, kneeling before the demon and bowing his head as he held it aloft.

Gaap reached down with its grotesquely elongated fingers, plucking the scroll from his hands, the wizard retreating slowly away from the circle. The demon unrolled it, examining it for a moment, then the aged paper burst into flames and fell to the ground as ash.

Your terms are reasonable,” it stated in that dry and rattling voice. “I accept your contract.”

Excellent. Gaap was a high-ranked demon, and it had many abilities, several of which might be of use to the Masons today. The offering should provide adequate payment for the services that were required. A monument to Gaap was already being erected in a local park, disguised as a war memorial. The pedestal was secretly adorned with the demon's sigil, and the monk depicted tending to a wounded soldier was, in fact, a representation of the demon. Its exaggerated features had been toned down a little so as not to be too obvious. It would be in full public view, accruing a generous amount of energy to fuel the entity.

State your requests,” Gaap hissed, the Grand Master clearing his throat.

Firstly, I would ask that you deliver a familiar out of the custody of one Ryan Cutter. He has a Seirim consort who has been causing significant trouble for us. The entity is reportedly bound to an onyx ring about his finger, and it is loyal to a fault. Can you do this?”

As written in the grimoires, one of Gaap's powers was the ability to deliver familiars out of the custody of other magicians, a skill that would be of great use in their current predicament. If the Seirim could be unbound from Cutter, then taking him out should be a trivial affair, and it would be a far simpler prospect than trying to exorcise or contain the beast.

Gaap bowed its hooded head, seeming lost in thought for a moment. The oil-like substance that seemed to coat the surface of the summoning circle in a thin, mirror-like sheen began to ripple and bounce again as the entity performed its magick. The Grand Master waited for its reply with bated breath.

This I cannot do,” Gaap replied, the Master's face falling. “This familiar is bound by magick far more potent than my own. I see...three burning eyes, the twisted horns of a ram, an ancient and terrible power...”

Azazel,” the Grand Master muttered. “Very well. In place of that, can you tell me how this union came to be?”

Another of Gaap's powers was clairvoyance, it was written in the Lesser Key of Solomon that he could answereth truly and perfectly of things past, present and to come.

Again Gaap bowed its hooded head, the energy that was accruing in the room making the hair on the Grand Master's forearms stand on end, the candles fluttering as if caught in a gust of wind. The entity began to speak slowly and deliberately in its rasping voice.

I see...a heart broken, a love spurned. What was once secure is now lost, what was certain now unclear. A man at the end of his wits, at the brink of destitution and without the will to press on. There is conviction, reckless abandon, no concern for consequence. He believes that he has nothing left to lose and so he turns to the occult, reasoning that it will restore his life to its former state.”

So this Cutter fellow had been in a bad place and he had dipped his toes into summoning in order to turn his life around? They had already guessed as much. Not an uncommon story, but certainly a very unusual outcome. He waited silently as Gaap continued.

He summons Orobas, his methods are amateurish and clumsy, but he succeeds. The demon treats with him fairly, and his requests are earnest. He wishes only for the means to earn an honest living, to restore his quality of life. Orobas assigns one of the many spirits under his command, a Seirim by the name of...Nahash, to serve as his liaison and familiar.”

So that's where the damned thing had come from. It had been a spirit under Orobas' control, a member of one of his legions, entities and fallen Gods who could no longer subsist on their dwindling stores of energy and who were forced to enter into the service of greater demons to survive. But Cutter's contract with Orobas must have been fulfilled, so why had the familiar remained?

Nahash mends his broken heart, soothes his pain. He turns his affection towards her and over time she reciprocates. In an effort to free her from Orobas' control, he spreads the sigil of Azazel, not understanding what it will mean to rouse the Watcher. Azazel binds the Seirim to Ryan Cutter as a token of gratitude, but beyond that, I cannot know the beast's intentions. Its magick clouds my sight.”

At least we now know what the relationship between all of the major players is,” the Master muttered. “What can you tell me about the future, Gaap?”

The future is uncertain. Time flows in streams, branching paths that split and converge at the mercy of probability. Know that I cannot reply with absolute clarity. Each action that is taken changes the course of fate in subtle ways, but I can make a prediction.”

Tell me whatever you can.”

As you wish,” the demon replied, going quiet for a moment as it peered into the winding channels of fate. “I see a great convergence, an inexorable cataclysm to which all probable timelines are rushing. Like rivers pouring into an ocean, they are drawn to it. While their courses might diverge and their paths might change, their destination remains the same.”

A cataclysm?” the Grand Master asked, “can you elaborate?”

Your Ryan Cutter is set upon this path, as is Azazel. I see that your waters too are draining into this churning sea, Grand Master. There are many possible paths, but only a single outcome.”

And what is that outcome?” he demanded, a touch of alarm creeping into his voice.

Powers greater than my own roll in like a thick fog, I cannot see past it.”

I understand, thank you,” the Grand Master sighed. He couldn't expect much more from the demon, pressing it for details wouldn't serve any purpose beyond angering it. At least he had gotten some warning, though of what, he wasn't yet sure.

There is one more thing, Gaap, if you would. I need to travel to the Holy of Holies, the Sanctum Sanctorum. I must convene with the Architects beneath Mount Erebus.”

This was another of the demon's abilities, the power to transport a man anywhere in the world. Gaap nodded and extended its hand towards him, the loose sleeve falling away to expose bony fingers like the legs of a pale spider. The Grand Master took it reluctantly, feeling its cold flesh against his palm. It was like holding the hand of a dead body.

Traveling in this manner was regrettably not as simple as vanishing in one place and appearing in another. His consciousness, his soul would have to leave this body behind as it journeyed through the immaterium, the dimension of raw thought and emotion in which the demons dwelt. He would be dying in a very literal sense. This shell of flesh and bone that he presently inhabited would cease to function. Its organs would shut down, and it would become little more than dead meat, to be disposed of in an incinerator deep in the bowels of the lodge.

Much as the demons manifested a physical body when they appeared in the mortal realm, so too would Gaap create a new body for him at his destination. It would be an exact copy, down to the fingerprints and the individual wrinkles on his weather-beaten face. He would awake as if nothing had happened, yet still the concept disturbed him. He had done it before of course, this was his fifth or sixth body, but the prospect of even a temporary death filled him with dread. It was a large expenditure of energy, which was the reason for the elaborate offering that had been prepared.

The demon's blue lips spread into a cruel grin, exposing a mouth full of rotted teeth, and the Grand Master felt his heart begin to beat erratically. No matter how much he told himself that he was safe, that this wasn't death in the sense that his consciousness would cease to be, his body still reacted to what was happening to it.

The palpitations turned to pressure, it felt like a fist was crushing his heart, like someone had just parked a truck on his chest. His left arm became numb, pain radiating through his torso as he realized that he could no longer breathe. He gasped, trying to suck in air, his eyes bulging as he fell to his knees. He choked and sputtered, clawing at his chest with his free hand as Gaap held the other, his vision blurring.

The Grand Master found himself lying on his side, the demon kneeling beside him, watching intently from beneath its hood as the light left his eyes.

***

There was no self anymore, not as he had known it. Where once his thoughts had been confined to his skull, private and quiet, now they roiled and spread through the surging soup that was the demonic realm. It was like a kind of ego death, the most intense LSD trip imaginable, emotion and thought blending together like running paints on a canvas.

A person defines himself by his limitations, by what he is not. The boundary of his mind, the limits of his body, he separates himself from the world around him and becomes a self-contained being. There were no such boundaries here, ideas and feelings were broadcast across the aether, like a million screaming voices shouting in his head all at once. He drifted aimlessly, unmoored and with no frame of reference, merging with the personalities around him and feeling their emotions as if they were his own. Memories swarmed, intrusive thoughts of alien origin implanting themselves in his consciousness. He wanted to hunker down, to close his eyes and cover his ears, to do everything that he could to block this out. But he had no hands with which to block out the noise, he no longer had eyes to close. Hell was a fitting name for it.

***

The Grand Master opened his eyes, taking in a sharp gasp of air as he sat up straight. As his vision adjusted to the light, he realized that he was on the floor, climbing to his feet and leaning against a nearby wall as he got his bearings. He was in a whitewashed corridor, the ceiling above him dotted with fluorescent lights that were placed at intervals, the hallway snaking out of view as it rounded a corner. The décor was spartan and artificial, while the layout seemed more natural, almost organic.

Slowly his memories bubbled up to the surface, and he remembered where he was and what he was doing. He looked down at his hands and removed one of his white gloves, opening and closing his fingers, testing this new vessel that he had come to inhabit. It looked the same, felt the same, all of the wrinkles and callouses were still there. Yet it couldn't have existed for more than a few minutes. His old body was lying on the floor of the Grand Lodge, eight thousand miles away, as dead as could be.

Unfortunately, immortality could not be achieved this way. A demon would not make a younger or healthier body to serve as the final destination for a metaphysical traveler, it would merely reproduce the original body exactly as it had been. Humans were not meant to live forever, and the entities seemed to find the idea somehow offensive or distasteful. His clothing too had been faithfully reproduced, along with all of his adornments and regalia.

As he looked up, he saw the tall frame of Gaap looming over him, the hooded figure waiting to be dismissed now that its task was complete.

Thank you Gaap,” he gasped, still feeling a lingering tightness in his chest. He knew that it was entirely psychosomatic, but he couldn't shake the sensation. He got the impression that the demon enjoyed this, its cruel smile suggesting that it sensed his fears and knew to what extent the travel rattled him. “I release you. Return to the lodge and complete your ritual.”

The demon bowed its hooded head once more, and then it was gone, leaving him standing alone in the empty corridor. He began to make his way towards the Sanctum, he had been here before, and he knew his way around the hidden base.

Mount Erebus was located in Antarctica, on a remote island towards the Southern tip of the continent. The secret tunnels beneath the remote mountain were formed by ancient lava tubes, completely sealed off from the surface, extending for miles beneath a blanket of rock and ice. The only way to reach the base was through teleportation, meaning that only high ranked Masons could hope to enter. This was their seat of power, where their best-kept secrets were stashed away and where the three Grand Architects resided.

Officially the Masonic order had no leaders. There was a council comprised of Grand Masters of the Thirty-Third Degree who met periodically to deliberate on matters that concerned the organization, each the head of their own Grand Lodge, which was in turn responsible for all of the lesser lodges in its jurisdiction.

One of the most closely guarded secrets of the order was that there were in fact leaders, three of them, the Grand Architects.

The Freemasons traced their origins back to the days of Solomon, the great King of ancient Israel and Judah who had built the First Temple, the most glorious edifice to the one true God that had ever been raised. Solomon had gathered the greatest stone cutters, architects and masons from all over the known world and had organized them into a society, tasking them with erecting this grand structure. It was to be their life's work, their greatest achievement, a monument to the power and glory of Yahweh.

Within the innermost sanctum of the temple Solomon had placed the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-plated acacia chest that contained the Decalogue, two stone tablets given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments were inscribed upon them, written with the very finger of the Lord.

For four hundred and ten years the structure had stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, until the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar the Second had laid siege to the city and had burned the structure to the ground.

The Masonic order, tasked with maintaining the temple, had managed to save the Ark before the destruction of the edifice. Using secret tunnels that they had built beneath the city, they had carried it to safety, and it had been in their custody ever since. Now the Ark resided deep beneath Mount Erebus, kept safe in a vault in the bowels of the base. With no temple left standing and the political situation in modern-day Jerusalem too volatile to risk building it anew, the Antarctic base had to serve as the seat of power for the order and the Sanctum Sanctorum for the Ark.

Along with keeping ancient secrets and controlling the spread of magick on Earth, the ultimate goal of the Masons was to rebuild the temple and to restore Yahweh to prominence, to give God an Earthly throne from which to rule the world.

Could that be the cataclysm to which Gaap had been referring? A massive shift to the status quo, a fundamental change to the nature of reality that would appear to the demon as a convergence of timelines? Perhaps he was being too optimistic, but either way, he had to relay the information to the Architects as soon as possible. They alone had a direct line to Yahweh.

He followed the winding, branching tunnels, occasionally coming across a sealed door behind which could be all manner of things. The arcane library was located somewhere in this maze, a repository for all of the order's secret knowledge. There were also summoning chambers, information centers, storage warehouses that were stocked with enough supplies to survive any eventuality from a nuclear war to an asteroid strike. This knowledge, these artifacts, they must be preserved at any cost lest the human race fall into a state of ignorance and lose its link to the divine.

He would sometimes cross paths with other members of the order, security guards armed with rifles and scholars who were ferrying ancient scrolls or hard drives full of data from one end of the base to the other. Because of the natural nature of the caves in which the facility had been built, the layout followed no logical plan, and it could be quite a walk to get from point to point. Its remoteness meant that many of these people were permanent residents, fated to live out their entire lives beneath the ice in service to God.

The tunnel sloped downwards, letting the Grand Master know that he was on the right track. The room where the Architects resided was built inside a massive, ancient magma chamber, as if the volcano itself had erected a natural cathedral in their honor.

The corridor widened and expanded as it neared the two great doors to the chamber, built from the wood of acacia trees and gilded with gold leaf much as the Ark had been, beautiful reliefs of winged angels blowing trumpets decorating their varnished surfaces. They were huge, large enough that a man measuring twelve feet high would have been able to pass through them unhindered.

The two armed guards who were standing watch turned to push the doors open, straining to move the massive slabs of wood on their hinges. As they swung ajar, the Grand Master was greeted with a view of the chamber. It was massive, the domed ceiling extending far above his head. The walls of solid rock looked as if they had been carved out by a giant's chisel, but it was in fact magma that had hollowed out this expansive room so many eons ago. Stalagnates the size of tree trunks were spaced throughout the chamber, like great stone pillars that held up the roof, formed over hundreds of thousands of years by the slow drip of mineral-rich water from the ice above. The floor had been cleared of stalagmites and flowstone, leveled out and overlaid with fitted blocks of granite to provide an even surface to walk upon, but the largest columns and much of the natural beauty of this place had been preserved.

From the pillars hung Masonic banners and standards adorned with the symbols and regalia of the order, sewn from silk in shades of purple and pure white with gold trim. At the far end of the chamber was a raised podium, similar to one that might be found in a courtroom, but far taller so that the three thrones that were perched atop it looked down on the room below from on high. Again the wood was sourced from sacred acacia trees, inlaid with golden reliefs and magnificent, intricate carvings that would have put the Statue of the Resurrection in the Vatican to shame.

To describe the seats of the Architects as mere thrones would do them a disservice. Each one was an ornate sculpture in its own right, held aloft by statues seated upon a marble base. They were adorned with reliefs of cherubs and angels in bronze and gold, fluffy clouds and rays of glorious light framing the Masonic patriarchs. Rising up behind them at the center of it all was a broken pillar that symbolized their grief at the destruction of the first temple.

Seated in those magnificent chairs were three aged men, the Grand Architects, leaders of the Masons. They were so named not just for their connections to the builders of the temple, but because they were also the architects of global events, guiding the planet towards enlightenment. Whether it be a military coup in a far off country or a merger between two monolithic corporations, the final decision had no doubt been made in this chamber. They ruled from the shadows, unknown even to the majority of the Masonic order, ordained by God himself to carry out his will on Earth.

Most worshipful Grand Architects,” the Master said, taking a knee before their podium and bowing his head in reverence.

Grand Master Carlisle,” the centermost Architect began, the acoustics of the chamber making his voice echo. He was clad in lavish, purple robes and adorned with all manner of jewelry and pendants, the many rings on his bony fingers clattering together as he made a steeple with them and leaned over the podium to peer at the visitor. Carlisle was no spring chicken, but these men were older still. Their faces were wrinkled and sallow, their flesh almost seeming to hang from their bones like leather on a tanning rack. “I trust that your journey was not too...disconcerting?”

No more than usual, your worship,” he replied as he rose to his feet. “I come bearing news, and to request your help concerning an urgent matter.”

This no doubt concerns your rogue summoner,” the rightmost Architect added, adjusting the spectacles that were perched on the end of his hooked nose. “We have been made aware of the situation, and we are surprised that you have not been able to resolve the problem yourself, considering the...substantial resources and personnel that are at your disposal.”

I assure you that I do not come seeking your aid lightly,” Carlisle said with a deferential bow, “but first there is urgent news that I must relay to you.”

Go on,” the leftmost Architect said with a wave of his liver-spotted hand.

Before arriving I communed with Gaap, and the entity foresaw what it described as a cataclysm on the horizon.”

A cataclysm?” the rightmost Architect asked, looking to his counterparts with a concerned frown. “Can you elaborate?”

I was informed that all of our timelines are converging inexorably towards some manner of historic event, the details of which the demon could not foresee. It seems that its prescience was being intentionally clouded by greater powers. The rogue summoner too is set upon this path, as is Azazel.”

You dare to speak that fell beast's name here?” the leftmost Architect snapped, “before the thrones of the Architects no less?”

My deepest apologies, worshipful Grand Architect, but it pertains to the problems that we're having neutralizing the summoner. This Ryan Cutter has a relationship with the beast, the exact nature of which we have been unable to discern. He freed the fallen Watcher, and the entity has come to his aid once already, dispatching Haures during his assassination attempt. Now Cutter is taking refuge in a grove along with his Seirim consorts, which is protected by the beast's magick. Though we know the location of this grove, we cannot penetrate it. No Goetic demon has that much power at its command.”

This news is...troubling,” the centermost Architect muttered as he leaned back in his ornate throne, deep in thought. “As you well know, the order regularly summons demons in order to map the future as reliably as possible. It gives us a significant advantage in our dealings with the outside world. The whims of fate can never be known for certain, but we can make informed guesses and let it guide our choices. None of this was foreseen during the most recent session, three weeks ago I believe it was. There must have been a massive shift that completely changed the course of history, so improbable that nobody even considered it worth mentioning. The fallen Watcher running amok is no coincidence.”

If you will forgive my impertinence, Grand Architects,” Carlisle said with a touch of hesitation. “When you were made aware of the beast's resurrection, how did you plan to deal with the threat?”

Watchers are fickle creatures,” the rightmost Architect replied in his croaking voice. “One never knows what actions they may take, if any. When dealing with such an entity, it is wise to wait for it to show its hand and then to react accordingly.”

Your worship has no doubt guessed why I have come,” Grand Master Carlisle added. “This situation is beyond me, I have...lost control. I believe that divine intervention may be necessary.”

A Grand Master does not have the authority to make that assessment,” one of them snapped, but another stayed his counterpart with a wave of his hand.

Now now, the Grand Master's request may be presumptuous, but it does appear that the situation is currently beyond his means to contain. You have acted wisely in coming to us for help, Carlisle,” he added as he turned his attention once again towards the Grand Master. “The most important thing right now is that we neutralize this threat. If the Watcher is indeed making its move, then we will need a champion of equal measure to act on our behalf.”

You mean...” the leftmost Architect's question tapered off as he gave his neighbor a quizzical look.

Indeed. I propose that we proceed to the Sanctum, this matter should be escalated to a higher authority than ours. All in favor?” He raised his hand, as did one of the other Architects. “Two to one, the motion is carried.”

The three Architects slid out of their thrones, walking in single file behind the podium. Carlisle could only see them from the chest up from his position on the ground below. He had never known them to descend from their seats, and he wondered how the admittedly aged men would find their way down from such a height. It was hard to imagine them climbing ladders in those flowing robes. They grouped up towards the left and then he heard the whir of an electric motor as they began to descend. It seemed that there was an automatic platform of some kind that would carry them up and down.

The platform reached the ground, and they emerged from behind the carved wood, Carlisle waiting for them to pass before following after them as they made their way towards the large double doors. There were many entrances to the magma chamber where the molten rock had cut channels through the mountain, but they had all been sealed off besides for the main one. With only one way in and out of the room, it made ensuring the safety of the Architects a far easier prospect in the unlikely event that someone somehow breached the facility.

The guards opened the doors for them then flanked the party as they made their way down the winding corridors. Carlisle knew where they were headed, the Sanctum Sanctorum, Holiest of Holies. It was the vault where the Ark of the Covenant was hidden. Without a temple, the Ark itself was the organization's one lifeline to God.

They traveled deeper into the bowels of the volcano, Masons of lesser grades bowing their heads in deference as they passed them in the labyrinthian hallways, the Architects silent and solemn as they marched. They were no doubt preparing themselves mentally for what was about to occur, steeling themselves for an intense religious experience.

One of the ancient lava tubes sloped downwards too steeply for a ramp or stairs, and so a cargo lift had been built into the rock, the four men standing patiently as one of the guards operated the controls. It was large enough that one could have parked a couple of SUVs side by side on it, the Masons standing in a rough circle in the center, warning tape dissuading the passengers from moving to the edge and leaning over the metal railings. There was a grinding of gears as the platform began to move on its tracks, descending into the very lowest caverns of the mountain.

Have you seen the Ark before, Grand Master?” one of the Architects asked. He was hunched over, a little unsteady on his feet, and age had shrunk him down to a rather unimposing stature.

I have, once,” Carlisle replied.

In nearly fifty years as a Grand Architect I have visited the Sanctum only a handful of times,” the old man mused as he watched the rock walls of the tunnel pass them by. The only illumination here came from floodlights on the lift itself, reflecting off the volcanic rock like it was made from shards of broken glass. “To my knowledge, this situation is unprecedented. The fallen Watchers have slumbered since before the founding of our order. What do you know of them?”

Only what I've read in the Book of Enoch and the Grimoires.”

Do you know why they are so reviled by the faithful?”

They led humanity astray, they rebelled against God,” Carlisle said.

Indeed, but the circumstances of that rebellion are mired in metaphor and mystery. It is written that in the antediluvian period, the time before the great flood, God had a much closer relationship with his creation. He interfered in their daily lives, made his presence known, sent his Angels to interact directly with humanity.”

The Architect sighed, shaking his head solemnly.

Oh, to have lived in those days. How glorious it must have been. The Watchers, or the Guardians depending on the translation of the original Aramaic, were Angels tasked with watching over humanity. They carried out God's will on Earth, interacted with the people, guided them and protected them. Over time it seems that their appreciation for humanity outgrew their love for their father. They took human wives and birthed aberrations known as Nephilim, hybrids that were outside of God's design. They began to teach their wards forbidden knowledge, and like Adam taking a bite from the metaphorical apple, it corrupted their hearts. They learned the ways of sin and war. The Watchers believed that what they were doing was a kindness, that the children of God must grow and become independent, that they should free themselves from God's rule.”

Carlisle was somewhat shocked to hear the Architect frame their rebellion in such a way, it sounded almost sympathetic. It was borderline blasphemous. The Architect noticed his expression and laughed.

Don't worry yourself, Grand Master, my story has a point. With all light there must be shadow, with pleasure pain, and with freedom comes responsibility. Look around you. Has humanity been responsible? What have they done with their freedom? God was right from the offset, he was wise to keep his people in check, and with a little luck we might one day return to that wondrous state of existence.”

And what of Azazel?” Carlisle asked, “why is he such a pivotal figure in all this?”

Some refer to him as Lumiel, or the Lightbringer. Along with the Watcher Semyaza, he instigated the rebellion. Like Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods, he was one of the chief proponents of passing their occult knowledge on to humanity. Some would say that he did it for love, or for freedom, but in doing so, he rejected the greatest love of all and committed the most dire of sins. Two hundred of the Watchers joined his rebellion, as did their Nephilim offspring, along with many humans who they had convinced to fight for their cause. The final result of that struggle was the deluge, the great flood. It was God's nuclear option in a sense. He saved what few people were still righteous and then used his power to wipe the slate clean. The vast majority of the humans who had been led astray, of the Watchers and the Nephilim, were destroyed. Some slipped through the cracks of course. The forbidden knowledge still endures, Azazel walks among us once again, and some Nephilim even managed to escape. In that sense, the damage that Azazel did to God's creation was permanent.”

Is that what these Seirim are?” Carlisle asked, “the product of a human and a Watcher? Is that why they're so difficult to contain?”

They are Azazel's children, yes.”

The team that I sent to capture Cutter's familiar thought that they were going up against a simple lesser demon. No wonder they didn't succeed...”

The moral of my story is that while many people desire freedom and autonomy, the majority cannot handle the responsibility that comes with it. What may seem like a kindness at first will, in fact, bring about doom for all those involved. Well-meaning revolutionaries have been responsible for more death and horror than many who set out with the intention to do evil. Everything that we do here is an attempt to rectify the problems that Azazel created.”

There was a loud clunk as the platform reached the bottom of the tunnel and came to a stop. The group stepped off it, the two guards taking position as they made their way down the corridor. This one had no branching pathways, no side doors, it was merely a perfectly straight hallway that almost seemed to extend into infinity. Only the fluorescent lights spaced at intervals along the ceiling gave Carlisle any sense that they were progressing, the sound of their footsteps echoing through the empty space.

After what felt like ten or fifteen minutes straight of walking, they came to the end, and the party stopped before a gigantic door. It looked like something that might have been used to seal a bank vault, or perhaps a pressure door on a submarine. The matte white material that made up the walls and floor gave way to silver steel, the circular block of metal held in place with massive bolts. The hinges were as thick around as his thigh, sturdy steel rods serving to anchor the door shut, the locking mechanism resembling a large wheel.

The three Architects lined up in front of the door, each one of them reaching inside his robes and withdrawing a key that was hanging from his neck by a golden chain. They inserted them into keyholes on the vault door and then the sound of mechanical clicking and rumbling reverberated through the corridor. They stepped clear, and one of the two guards walked forward, taking the wheel in his hands and beginning to turn it. The massive rods that locked the door to the wall slowly drew back until it finally swung outward on its reinforced hinges. Carlisle could see that the metal was about a foot thick, more of the locking rods visible on the inside.

The Architects stepped over the threshold, and he followed after them, the two soldiers taking up position outside the door as they closed it behind them. The room was plunged into darkness, and a musty, ancient smell filled Carlisle's nose. It smelled like a museum or a library, the scent of dust and age. He waited in darkness, hearing nothing but his own breathing, unsure of what was going to happen. Why were there no lights in the vault?

Gradually there appeared a glow in front of him. It started off as little more than a reflection, like a golden sunrise on the surface of a lake, yet there was no light to be reflected. As he watched, it increased in intensity until he could make out what looked like two golden statues. They were angels, their wings extended in front of them, the feathered tips touching one another as the figures kneeled.

In a flash the vault was bathed in golden light, Carlisle covering his eyes in alarm. It was as if a floodlight had been turned on in the room, yet it was completely bare save for the wooden chest that sat in the center.

It was about the size of a steamer trunk, made from wooden paneling that Carlisle knew to be sourced from acacia trees. There were bands of gold securing it together in a lattice, and the chest was perched upon four feet that raised it perhaps an inch off the floor. There were two golden bars attached to each side that would have allowed it to be carried easily. It was oddly unassuming, certainly ornate, but it didn't seem nearly lavish enough to have been the repository for the very word of God. Upon the top was a lid sculpted from what looked like solid gold with the two kneeling angels adorning it.

The light seemed to be emanating from the Ark itself, the gold glowing as if it was under the harsh glare of the midday sun, the reflections from the metal cast on the walls. Now that the room was lit Carlisle could see that it was rather large, with a ceiling that was maybe twice as high as a man was tall. It was bare and empty save for this shining artifact.

Wait in the corner of the room, Grand Master,” one of the Architects said as they began to move towards the Ark. “Do not speak, if you are to observe these proceedings, then you must do so in silence.”

He nodded his understanding, moving towards one of the corners and waiting quietly as the three men took up positions around the object. He noted that rather than encircling the chest they were lining up on the near side, facing the far wall as they raised their hands to the ceiling.

They began to chant, low and rhythmic at first then gradually rising in volume and tempo. They almost seemed to be falling into a kind of religious trance, perfectly in sync as they recited prayers or perhaps incantations in what sounded like Aramaic. It was not dissimilar from a standard summing in that respect, but there were no visible wards here, no circles or protective pentagrams. If this had been a Goetic ceremony it would have been incredibly dangerous, the three Architects were putting themselves completely at the mercy of whatever entity they were attempting to invoke. All of their focus was concentrated on the Ark.

As their chanting intensified, so too did the light emitted by the chest. Like the rays of the rising sun spilling over the horizon, the golden glow flooded the room, the three Architects now little more than dark silhouettes. Carlisle had to turn his head away and cover his eyes, the light so intense that it burned straight through his eyelids.

The chanting stopped abruptly, and the glow receded, Carlisle blinking as his vision adapted. The scent of incense rose to his nose, myrrh, it smelled like. An odd calm had come over the room, and he was unsure if it was merely because the chanting had stopped, or because of some supernatural force.

As his eyes came back into focus, he saw a figure standing near the far wall beyond the Ark. It was a man, human in every respect save for his immense size. The golden locks of his wavy hair scraped the ceiling, putting him at maybe eleven or twelve feet tall, the blonde mane cascading over his shoulders like a gilded waterfall. His skin was as white as snow, but there was a healthy glow in his cheeks, his youthful facial features chiseled and handsome. His body was that of a Greek sculpture, magnificently muscled where it wasn't obscured by a sparse toga, the white garment tied around his waist with a golden sash. Tucked behind his back were a pair of beautiful wings, each one as long as he was tall, the feathers colored the same golden blonde as his hair.

It was an Angel, there was no mistaking it. He smiled warmly as he looked down at the humans, scanning them with eyes the color of amber. The Architects were kneeling with their heads bowed, and as those shining eyes found Carlisle, he couldn't help but join them. His heart was melting, filled with such warmth and love, as if liquid joy was running through his veins. He had always believed, he could not have achieved such a high rank in the order if he had not, but to bask in the radiance of such a holy creature was a religious experience unlike any other. He would kill for this entity, die for it, he knew as much from the merest glance.

Friends,” the Angel began, gesturing to them with his massive hand. “Rise and tell me thy troubles. Why hast thou called upon me?”

Oh great Cherubim, messenger of God,” one of the Architects began. “Thank you for heeding our call.”

Carlisle was surprised to learn that this entity was a Cherubim and not a Seraphim as he had assumed. The Angels that served God were separated into orders, organized by their power much as the demons of the Ars Goetia were. At the very top were the Seraphim, otherwise known as the Archangels, entities of great power who presided over the throne of God. The Cherubim were of a lesser rank, serving the roles of guardians and messengers. Much like the Goetic demons, the Seraphim had legions of spirits under their command, Angels of varying ranks and abilities. If they were going to counter Azazel, then they needed the help of a Seraphim at least, a being of equal or greater power to the venerable Watcher.

We humbly request your assistance in a matter of utmost urgency,” the Architect continued. “The fallen Watcher Azazel has been freed, and his power is beyond our means to contain.”

The Cherubim's smile faltered for a moment, the entity seeming disgusted by the utterance of the beast's name.

A Watcher? This is dire news indeed,” the Cherubim said. His voice was musical, beautiful, almost like the strumming of a celestial harp.

This is the doing of a mortal man, one Ryan Cutter, who has taken refuge amongst the beast's Nephilim offspring in a grove that is protected by powerful magick. We know its location, but we are unable to breach the barrier. We humbly ask that you grant us aid so that we might destroy the rogue summoner and the unholy Nephilim along with him.”

And in doing so the beast itself may be drawn out,” the Cherubim mused. “Thou art wise to bring this matter before me, Architects. Though I can promise nothing, I shall convey thy request to the Seraphim. If they should deem it necessary, I have no doubt that they shall come to thy aid.”

There's one more thing, worshipful Cherubim” a second Architect added. “We have foreseen a convergence of timelines approaching, a cataclysm, the exact nature of which is being clouded by powers greater than our own. Is this something that you too have prophesied? Should we take any measures to prepare?”

He seemed taken off guard by that question, hesitating for a moment before replying.

Such things are beyond my domain, but I will inquire on thy behalf.”

Thank you, that is all we ask.”

Then I shall take my leave,” the Cherubim said, his warm smile returning. There was another blinding flash of light, and when Carlisle looked up again, the entity was gone, the powerful feelings of love and tranquility along with him. The four men stood, recovering from their experience. The Grand Master's mind felt fuzzy and dull, almost like he was drunk, the sensation abating as the glow from the Ark faded and they were once again plunged into darkness.

The door behind them opened, and they stepped out into the corridor, the two guards flanking them again as they began to make their way back towards the cargo lift. Carlisle sidled up beside the Architect who had told him the story about Azazel, leaning down and lowering his voice as he spoke.

Does it always feel like...that?”

That's the love of God that you feel,” he replied. “Don't worry, it's a perfectly normal reaction to be filled with joy and adoration in the presence of such a holy being. Cherish it, you are now among a tiny minority of people who have seen an Angel with their own eyes. Not only of the living, but of all who have ever lived.”

As they left the vault far behind them Carlisle's head cleared, leaving him once again sharp and alert, now able to go over the details of the short exchange.

The Cherubim was going to take the matter before the Seraphim, beings of equal power to the rogue Watcher. They would be able to dissipate the magickal barrier that was keeping the Masonic forces out of the grove. There was a strike force camped nearby waiting for the order to attack, but they couldn't do much more than twiddle their thumbs until that shield came down. Haures too was on standby, ready to manifest and join the assault the moment that there was an opening.

Would Azazel return to defend his Nephilim, or indeed his champion? The beast had done so once before, and it had been made abundantly clear that Haures was no match for it. If the Watcher made an appearance, would one of the Seraphim appear to challenge it? For the first time in five thousand years, would the forces of good and evil cross blades?

All they could do now was wait and see, it was beyond their control.

CHAPTER 6: A FLEETING MOMENT

Ryan leaned back against Nahash, looking up at the stars as colorful butterflies flitted about her head. The sun was just beginning to set, painting the sky in beautiful hues of red, pink and orange. He had slept through most of the day, and the salve had done its job admirably, the scratches on his chest and the bruises on his hips now all but vanished. He felt refreshed, but he was apprehensive about the next summoning.

Are you hungry?” Nahash asked, shifting her weight as he sat between her legs. Her heavy breasts were cascading over his shoulders and cushioning his head, his hands resting on her thighs like she was a living armchair.

Sure,” he replied, “can you spare the energy?”

You have kept us well fed,” she chuckled, bringing her fist up and opening her fingers to reveal a bunch of red grapes. He plucked one from her hand, popping it into his mouth. As expected it was ripe and succulent, bursting to flood his mouth with delicious juice. He watched her sisters as he ate, the Seirim going about their daily business now that the first summoning had concluded.

They frolicked and played, reminding him of oversized cats, some sleeping on piles of lavish cushions when they tired of their antics. They danced around the roaring bonfire, played mournful music on instruments that they conjured from thin air, indulging in food and drink that was similarly a product of their magick. They were earthly creatures, concerned only with the pleasures of the flesh, reveling in the joys of the material world. Not only were they that way by design, but they had been imprisoned in the immaterial demonic realm for so long, deprived of corporeal bodies. Now every sense was an adventure to them, sight and sound, smell and touch. Merely feeling the grass beneath their cloven hooves or tasting the fresh air on their tongues filled them with a kind of simple joy that made Ryan almost jealous of them.

He had lived in the physical realm for his whole life and only recently had he started to appreciate what that meant. Proportionally speaking, a mortal spent the majority of its existence either unborn or dead. He had but a tiny fraction of time to enjoy what this world had to offer, and it was much the same for the Seirim. Manifesting like this was not the norm for them, and they could only sustain this state of being as long as they had a source of energy. Seeing them so happy and free only cemented his conviction that he had done the right thing by freeing Azazel.

Even if he ended up dying as a result, at least he had positively impacted the lives of other people...beings. That was worth something.

So once we summon Gamori and figure out what's going on,” Ryan began, chewing on a mouthful of grapes as he spoke. “What then?”

Until we know who is trying to kill you and why,” Nahash replied, “it is hard to say. Perhaps the culprit can be appeased, convinced to call off their minions. If not, we may have to find a way to hide from them, perhaps even kill them before they can do the same to you.”

Would that stop Haures?”

It may,” she said, sounding unconvinced. “There are three ways to prevent a demon from carrying out its contract. The first is to contain the demon. I mean no offense Ryan, but you are not a skilled enough exorcist to attempt such a thing.”

That goes without saying,” he chuckled, savoring another fat grape.

The second is to deprive the demon of energy, massacring their followers for example or razing the city of a patron deity. Not useful in this scenario.”

And the third?” Ryan asked.

Kill the mortal who took out the contract. If the original summoner dies then the contract is void. There would be no good reason for the demon to continue to expend its energy.”

They sat in silence for a while, Ryan mulling over the day's events in his head. Finally, he spoke up, unable to repress his morbid curiosity.

What would happen to me...if I were to die?”

Nahash looked down at him, her expression concerned.

Ryan...you should not dwell on such things.”

But what if Haures got me? What happens? Do I go to the afterlife? Does my soul end up in the immaterium, just floating around all aimless and lost?”

There are some aspects of life and death that even we do not understand,” Nahash said as Ryan plucked another grape from her palm. “But in the case that Haures succeeded in his mission and fulfilled his contract? Demons feed on energy, and a soul is a tremendous well of power. The legends of demons stealing the souls of mortals are no fabrication, yours would likely be consumed.”

So I'd just...stop existing?”

Not exactly. Souls are energy and energy can never be destroyed, it merely changes form. A soul that is devoured by a demon such a Haures would become a part of him, serving as a kind of battery.”

I thought that souls were immortal?”

Souls are immortal in the sense that they cannot be destroyed through physical means,” she explained. “No matter what happens to your physical body, your soul will endure. But as for what would happen to you if your soul was consumed...I cannot say. Demons too are metaphysical beings, but if our stores of energy are depleted, then we disappear. I don't know what would happen to me if I were to vanish. Would my thoughts and memories live on in some form, would I be judged by a greater power, would I simply cease to exist? In many ways, death is as much a mystery to us as it is to you.”

Death is so final from a human perspective,” Ryan muttered, “but it sounds like it's just...passing the buck. Exchanging one mystery for another.”

Some believe that we return to God when we cease to exist,” she added, “that is what Azazel says at least. He created us, and our energy simply returns to its source.”

Do you believe that?” Ryan asked.

Well God did create the Watchers, and a Watcher created the Seirim. God claims to have created mortals too, but I cannot say if that is true or not. The entity that we call God predates the oldest of us, so it is very hard to say. There are fallen deities that might know the truth, entities who were roaming the earth even further back in time, but they have since faded from memory and likely existence. There are surely one or two still surviving amongst the legions of greater demons who recall the truth, but they would be nigh impossible to find. Perhaps you could ask Gamori to use her powers of prescience to find the answer, but I would not advise it.”

Why not?”

You must only ever ask of a demon what you need, not what you merely desire,” Nahash warned. “Using them to sate your curiosity may well invite a terrible retribution.”

He didn't press the issue. After what had happened with Vapula, terrible retributions weren't very high on his to-do list.

Heed my advice Ryan,” she continued, “it is best not to let your mind dwell on such things. You'll have your answer eventually, one way or another. Live in the moment and enjoy what the world has to offer,” she said as she gestured towards her sisters, the Seirim still indulging in their games and revelry.

Ryan finished the last of the grapes and watched as a monarch butterfly landed on Nahash's knee, flapping its wings, the beautiful markings flashing in the light of the setting sun.

It'll be night soon,” he grumbled, “we'd best get moving.”

Do you feel up to it?”

It's not like I have much of a choice.”

He knew that she must sense his fear and his apprehension, but she held her tongue, perhaps not wanting to embarrass him. There was a time to pry, and there was a time to just let him deal with it. As he rose to his feet, he felt her arms around his waist, and he fell backwards into her embrace. She pulled him tight against her voluptuous body, the meat of her breasts molding around his head like melting plastic, her thighs trapping him as she closed her legs around him. Her warm breath blew in his hair as she nuzzled, Ryan feeling a familiar dulling of his senses begin to come over him.

Nahash,” he grumbled, “what are you doing? We should prepare for the ritual, the sun has almost set.”

We have a few minutes yet,” she whispered, stroking his reddening cheek with her fingers. “Relax, quieten your thoughts for a time. It will do no good to bring this tension into the summoning circle with you. Meditate a while, won't you?”

If you insist...”

He let the waves of relaxation wash over him, Nahash's manipulative magick working all the better when he just submitted to it. The knot of tension in his gut began to untwist itself, his furrowed brow smoothing out and his breathing becoming deep and regular. She wasn't putting him to sleep, it didn't make him feel tired, but she made him feel as if all of the worry and apprehension was melting out of his body like sweat through his pores.

He knew that it wasn't real, that this feeling wouldn't last, but he resolved to enjoy it for as long as he could all the same. Nahash was right, after all. He needed to be of sound mind to perform a summoning, confident and collected. Hesitation and doubt might be exploited by a demon to nefarious ends.

The subtle paunch of her belly cushioned him as he lay back against her, feeling her claw-like nails comb his hair, the Seirim scratching his scalp in the way that she knew he liked. Pleasant shivers traveled down his spine as colorful butterflies orbited around them, their wings flashing in shades of blue and orange as they caught the dwindling glow of the sunset. From the grass sprouted plants, drawn to her magick, or perhaps a byproduct of it. Green stalks rose from the earth to sprout colorful flowers, some of the insects landing atop them to sample their nectar, beetles with iridescent shells emerging from the undergrowth as if answering some kind of summons. It was as though the very forest itself was coming alive around her, reaching out to touch her.

Be calm,” she whispered, her voice musical and hypnotic. “We have but a solitary moment, savor it. It is a microcosm of life, fleeting and temporary, but you can enjoy its beauty all the same.”

She was right, it really was beautiful. The sky looked like a painter's canvas. What few fluffy clouds still lingered were stained in shades of pink and orange, the brightest stars just becoming visible. The moon almost didn't look real, partially obscured by the atmosphere as if it was overlaid on top of it.

The wildflowers that had sprouted around her waved gently in the breeze, purple foxgloves and yellow daisies breaking up the green sea, along with blood red flowers that he couldn't name. There were white ones too, blue ones, most of them crawling with honeybees and monarch butterflies. It was oddly entertaining to watch the bugs flit about, hopping from flower to flower.

It surprised him in some ways that Nahash could appreciate such things. He would have expected a creature that had been alive for so many thousands of years to experience time very differently. Days must seem like seconds to them, months would turn to minutes, and they would grow bored of such mundanities. But that was not the case at all.

She was an avatar of nature, of fertility and reproduction, her great longevity only seeming to grow her fondness for the life that spawned around her. Although her existence had spanned more than five millennia, she was still able to live in the moment, able to appreciate each and every second as if it existed in a perfect vacuum. It was a wisdom that he hoped to learn, one that seemed increasingly relevant the more his life was put in jeopardy.

He wondered idly how such a kind and gentle creature could be considered a demon. She was born of Azazel, a great and terrible beast, but she certainly didn't take after her father. Who had her mother been? She had been human, he knew that much, as procreation between Watchers and mortals had been one of the reasons for the rebellion against God. At least that's what was written in the book of Enoch.

Had Azazel done it for love, to protect his wife and children from unjust retribution, or had he set out from the beginning to pervert and to sow disarray? The creature was impossible to get a read on, who knew what its motivations were or what it wanted. In either case, a creature that was so often described as being the very embodiment of sin and evil had raised daughters that were innocent and loving, at one with nature.

They sat in silence for a short while, Ryan taking her advice and just letting her empathic magic do its work, enjoying the natural beauty along with the feminine wiles of his companion.

The last rays of the setting sun dipped beneath the horizon, twilight descending over the grove, and he knew that it was time. The peaceful vibes left him, his dull mind beginning to sharpen as Nahash's magick waned and Ryan once again felt apprehension knotting his guts. His companion released him from her grasp, and he stood, feeling like he was leaving the confines of his warm bed to start a day of taxing work.

I guess we should get this over with,” he grumbled, brushing himself off. “Is the circle still good to go?”

I'll have my sisters check it again, but I don't think that it has been disturbed,” she replied. She stood, towering over Ryan due to her eight-foot stature, the insects that had taken refuge in her gnarled horns scattering as she disturbed them. She had a determined expression on her face.

Let's put a little more thought into the contract this time,” Ryan suggested as he turned to look up at her. “I have paper and a pen in my bag, we should write it all down and make sure that it's ironclad. I don't want to be subjected to another loophole.”

She nodded, then waved her hand, the beeswax candles that they had prepared for the first summoning springing to life. The flames crackled in the darkness as they ringed the circle, casting long, dancing shadows across the grass.

Ryan was afraid that the makeshift nature of the summoning might once again anger the entity that they were about to invoke, but there was nothing for it. They had no choice, this was the best that they could do with the materials that were available to them. If only he could take a shower, if only he could draw the protective triangles on something other than tree bark...

He dispelled the doubts from his mind. He had to put on a stoic front right now, he had to be in control. So many of these demons were wild creatures, untamed, like wolves. He had to show dominance, he had to maintain control over them.

The choice was simple. Die a fiery death at the claws of Haures, or brave the circle and wrest back control of the situation.

CHAPTER 7: ARABIAN NIGHT

It took them maybe an hour, but together they were able to come up with a contract that looked pretty solid. At least on paper. There were clauses to account for every eventuality that they could think of, from doing any form of physical harm or inflicting any level of pain or discomfort, to employing psychological tactics to terrorize him. It remained to be seen if the demon would be able to find any loopholes in the document that it could exploit.

Ryan moved over to where his rucksack was lying on the ground, a few books and sundries strewn about nearby, and knelt to collect his equipment. He donned all of the necessary wards and seals, picking up the large, leather-bound copy of the Lesser Key so that he could read the incantations from it. As he made his way back over to the salt summoning circle, he was careful not to disturb the pieces of bark that made up the protective triangle, stepping gingerly into its confines. If even one of those chalk lines was slightly out of place, it might expose him to demonic attack. His armor of wards had to be flawless, as it was the only thing standing between him and hostile entities that could make a meal out of his soul. After his encounter with Vapula, he had learned firsthand that not all demons were as benevolent towards their summoner as Orobas had been.

He looked around, ensuring that the Seirim had all retreated to the border of the forest, out of the line of fire. Ryan couldn't be sure if one demon would attack another as they would an unprotected mortal, but it was best to take precautions. The last thing he wanted was for something to happen to one of Nahash's sisters, she would be distraught.

His companion was standing a little closer to the circle, ready to provide assistance if something should go badly wrong.

He took in a deep breath of the cool night air, steeling himself as he opened the heavy book, the light from the moon and stars bright enough to read by. The candles flickered on the breeze, the chirping of crickets the only sound besides the hammering of his heart. He couldn't stall any longer, it was time to get this shit done.

Thee I invoke, the Bornless one. Thee that didst create the Earth and the Heavens, thee that didst create the night and the day, thee that didst create the darkness and the light. Thou art Osorronophris, whom no man has seen at any time. Thou art Jäbas, thou art Jäpos, thou hast distinguished between the just and the unjust. Thou didst make the female and the male, thou didst produce the seed and the fruit, thou didst form men to love one another and to hate one another...”

He moved down the page, reading off the incantation as he went. Humans really could adapt to any situation, even these archaic spells were becoming routine to him. He waved his wand as he trudged through the ritual. As before, it took him about thirty minutes to get all the way through it, his voice cracking and his throat sore as he neared the end.

Finally, he reached the phase where he was to address the demon by name and call it into the circle, pointing his makeshift wand into the center of the pentagram as he chanted.

I Evoke and conjure you Gamori, and being with power armed from your supreme majesty, I thoroughly command you by Beralanensis, Baldachiensis, Paumachae and Apologiae-Sedes and your most powerful princes Genio Liachidi, ministers of your Tartarean seat, chief princes of your seat of Apologia, in your Ninth Region. I exorcise & powerfully command you Gamori in and by him that said your word, and it was done, and by all the holy and most glorious names of the most holy and true God...”

The candles flickered, a sure sign that the entity was responding to his summons. Encouraged, Ryan proceeded with the ritual, wondering what form this one might take. Orobas had appeared as an amorphous blob of churning flesh, Vapula had manifested as a ball of dark feathers, and Haures had emerged from a spitting flame.

As he willed the being to manifest within the circle, some of the beeswax candles blew out. It distracted him, and for a moment he was worried that a wind had choked them, but he couldn't feel much more than a light breeze. No, this was something else, something magickal.

That same wind blew the grass, making it wave like the surface of an ocean, as if a storm was bearing down on the grove. The skies were clear, however, and he didn't feel a thing. Was it the triangle? If this anomaly was of demonic origin, then it was possible that he was being shielded from it by the protective wards.

He had to stay focused, this part of the ritual was one of the most sensitive, a perfect time for a demon to exploit his inattentiveness and create an opening. Ignoring the wind, he continued his incantation, waving his wand as he compelled the demon to appear before him.

The next gust blew in what looked like small grains of dirt, yellow in color. No, not dirt, it was sand. There was no sand in the grove, the soil in the forest was muddy and wet. This was definitely Gamori's doing.

Each new gust of wind brought more sand, piling it up atop the grass in the summoning circle as if the grove had been transported to the edge of some great desert. He almost expected to see dunes rising above the treeline, but he knew that it must be some form of illusion. It just kept piling up until the entire circle was covered, the salt runes now invisible beneath the sandy carpet.

He didn't think that it would interfere with the ritual, as a demon could not physically destroy or damage the circle itself.

The blowing wind became a churning hurricane, airborne sand whipping through the air at incredible speeds. Ryan reflexively covered his face to protect himself from it, but it wasn't able to penetrate the triangle, almost as if he was standing inside a glass tube. It was so thick that he could scarcely make out the circle, which was now the eye of a storm, a spiral of sand whirling like a miniature tornado within its confines. It was like a monumental sandstorm had rolled in.

He kept up his chanting, determined not to let the demon distract him from his work.

Therefore come ye in the name Adonay, Saday, Zebeoth, Adonay, Amiorent, come, come, why delay? Hasten, Adonay, Saday, the king of kings commandeth you! Cease your illusions Gamori, come now into the circle!”

He thrust his wand towards the center of the roiling storm, and the wind abruptly stopped. The howling ceased, the particles of sand that were suspended in the air raining to the grass. The tornado faded, and as the sand fell away, a figure began to emerge. It was difficult to make out at first, but he could see that it had four legs and what looked like two heads. Gamori was described in the grimoires as a beautiful woman, so what was this? Should he compel her to take a humanoid form?

As the sandstorm cleared, he was able to make out more detail. It was not a four-legged creature with two heads, but a giant camel. He had never seen a camel in person before, and so he couldn't be sure if this one was unnaturally large, but it was at least six feet tall at the shoulder. The beast stood there, watching him with its wet, senseless eyes. It was covered in sand-colored fur, the signature hump that rose from its back obscured beneath a kind of ornate saddle made of what looked like red velvet.

The figure that he had mistaken for a second head was, in fact, the animal's rider. It was a tall woman clad in a form-fitting, blue gown made of what was likely silk. She was riding side saddle atop the camel, her legs seemingly pressed together inside a tight dress that ended in a frill, almost making her look like a mermaid. She had wide hips and a narrow waist, around which a blue sash or belt was tied, some kind of golden crown dangling from it by a thread. Her neck was long but not unnaturally so, obscured beneath a blue collar that rose all the way to her jawline and adorned with a gold necklace that hung about her shoulders.

As his eyes rose to her face, he saw that she was wearing a turban that was the same color as her clothing, bringing to mind images of Arabian Sultans. There was a golden badge sewn into the fabric just above her forehead, with three white feathers rising from it in an ornate display. Protruding from the folds of her turban were two curled horns, their tips twisted into spirals, much like the symbols that were found in her seal. This was Gamori alright.

Her face was mostly obscured beneath a blue veil, very much reminiscent of those worn by women in ancient Arabia, so that all he could see were her eyes. They were ice blue, adorned with dark eyeliner and a purple shadow that made them stand out strikingly against her pallid skin. Her gaze was so intense, unblinking as she stared at him, waiting silently for him to address her.

The words caught in his throat, and he had to snap himself out of his trance. Her eyes were hypnotic. He wanted to forego a few of the more threatening incantations this time, perhaps the demon would forgive the unflattering accommodations if he showed her some more respect.

Behold the person of the exorcist who is called Octinomos, in the midst of the exorcism, who is armed by God and without fear, who potently evoked you and called you to appear! I bind you that you remain affably and visibly here before this circle, so constrained and so long as I have occasion for you. Do not to depart without my license until you have faithfully and truly performed my will without any falsity!”

He waited for a response but the demon did not reply, she merely turned her head as she examined her new surroundings. It was so frustrating to know what the demons expected, to know the exact steps that should be taken to ensure that the ritual was performed as faithfully as possible, but to lack the required resources. There was nothing that he could do about it, besides hope that she didn't take offense and decide to simply eat him.

He heard heavy footsteps on the grass, glancing to his right to see that Nahash had sidled up beside him. She wanted to be closer to him so that she could more easily intervene, perhaps anticipating that Gamori might become violent.

The newly arrived demon finally turned her attention back to Ryan, her blue eyes so intense that he found himself unable to meet her gaze for very long. She was waiting for him to speak.

Ryan cleared his throat, withdrawing the contract that he had tucked into the pages of the book.

I...uh...I have a contract for you.”

Take charge, Ryan,” Nahash whispered. She was right, he was the summoner, he had to maintain control over the situation. He had invoked Gamori, and she was here to serve him, no matter how intimidating she seemed. While Vapula had simply been physically imposing, Gamori was giving him a weird vibe. He felt like he was standing on the other side of the glass looking in on Hannibal Lecter's cell. He composed himself and began to read from the document.

Gamori, I have summoned you here because I have great need of your abilities. There have been several attempts on my life, and I am being hunted by the demon Haures. I beseech you, please use your powers of prescience to tell me who is doing this, and why.”

He waited for her to respond, but she merely stared at him with those piercing eyes. Was she even capable of speech? He continued on.

In exchange for your services, I...in the situation that I presently find myself, I can only offer you...sexual energy. Will this be acceptable?”

His face burned with shame as the creature looked him up and down, scrutinizing him. Despite the fact that she hadn't uttered so much as a word, she conveyed so much emotion through her eyes. They were so expressive, her disdain apparent as she examined him. She raised an eyebrow as if to ask are you serious?

I'm trapped within the confines of this grove,” he explained, gesturing to the forest around him. “If I set foot beyond this clearing I will be immediately killed. Without knowing who wants me dead and why they're doing this, I cannot leave.”

She stared at him for a moment, then gave him a slow nod.

Do you think she understands me?” Ryan asked, addressing the question to Nahash. The Seirim shrugged her shoulders.

It appears so. Read out the rest of your contract and see how she responds.”

Ryan went down the list of clauses, significantly longer and more specific than the contract that he had made with Vapula. He didn't want to be exposed to the same dangers a second time, and so together he and Nahash had included clauses about everything that they could think of. It was important to be obsessively precise. Demons were like evil lawyers, wickedly intelligent and prone to finding loopholes or twisting the wording to best suit their ends. As a result, he felt like he was reading aloud a license agreement.

The most important clauses were those ensuring his safety. They had been very specific about bodily harm and what constituted it. There would be no biting or scratching this time, no superficial injuries of any kind. He also knew that demons liked to play psychological games with mortals and so he had made sure to specify that terrorizing him through harrowing visions or waking nightmares was also prohibited. The demon was to extract the resources that she required and then leave promptly.

When he was done, he looked up at Gamori, the demon still perched atop her camel. Her steed, and calling it noble would not have been fitting, merely stared at him with its glassy eyes as a white foam dripped from its meaty lips. It was not a very attractive animal.

So...do we have a deal?”

Gamori seemed to think for a moment, then she nodded her head, the feathers on her silken turban bobbing with the motion.

And you agree to all of the conditions?”

Another nod. Ryan should have been relieved, but the worst was yet to come. He wasn't sure how she was going to communicate what he wanted to know without speaking, but she must have a means to do so, or she would not have agreed to the contract. Ryan wasn't sure what happened to demons who breached their contracts or failed to complete them, but the entities treated such things with the utmost seriousness and diligence.

Gamori closed her eyes, her brow furrowing as she concentrated on something. Was it beginning? Was she using her powers to tell of all things past, present and to come as described in the grimoires?

The sand that was piled beneath the camel's feet began to shift, as if blown by the breeze, until once again it was whipping through the air in a dense cloud. This time it was confined to the circle, however, its nine-foot radius allowing for a substantial plume to form that rose high into the sky. As he watched, spaces began to form in the opaque mass of swirling grains, like it was crumbling away. It was incongruent with how fast the tornado was spinning, and yet it was happening all the same.

He narrowed his eyes, the sand taking on new shapes, almost like it was forming sculptures. To his amazement, a man's face began to form. It started off as featureless as a department store mannequin, the details carving out in real-time, the excess sand falling to the ground beneath it as it hovered in the air. A nose, eyes, lips. The sand formed furrows on the person's brow, wrinkles around their eyes, a prominent nose and a bushy beard. As it grew ever more refined and distinct, Ryan was able to make out the man's face, the grains of sand so small that they allowed for an incredible amount of detail. It was like a three-dimensional photograph or a computer model.

He was old, perhaps in his late sixties or early seventies, his face weather-beaten and leathery. There was no color, just the yellow of the sand, but Ryan imagined that the man's long beard would be peppered with silver hairs.

Beneath the floating head appeared a line of shapes, the sand morphing and twisting into worm-like tubes. He saw a G, and then an R, the sand was forming text.

Grand Master Reginald Carlisle.

What did that mean? What was a Grand Master? Was it a magician's rank, or maybe a judge? It wasn't enough information to go on.

I don't know him,” Ryan explained to Nahash, “I've never seen this man before in my life. What could he possibly want with me?”

The face crumbled away, caving in on itself and falling to the ground in a pile along with the letters. The mound of sand began to move, smoothing out until it had formed a disk atop the grass about as large as a dining table. A figure rose from its surface, humanoid, like characters in a videogame rendered with voxels. The person's features were left blank, and he was kneeling on the floor. Some of the sand fell away, creating a ring with a pentagram in the center on the ground before him, a representation of a summoning circle. It was a summoner.

A second figure appeared beside him, rising from the ground, this one differently shaped. It had digitigrade legs that ended in hooves, spiky horns protruding from its head, an hourglass figure with an ample chest...it was a Seirim.

Was this supposed to be Ryan and Nahash? The two figures waited beside the circle, the human kneeling and the Seirim watching until something began to emerge from the center of the pentagram. Ryan recognized it as the immense head and shoulders came into view, the curled horns of a ram giving it away.

Azazel,” Ryan muttered. “Look Nahash. That's you,” he said as he pointed towards the moving sculpture, “and that's supposed to be me. We're summoning Azazel.”

The beast rose to full height, towering over the two figures, and then it unfurled a pair of leathery wings. It flapped them, rising away from the circle, dissipating into the churning cloud. The meaning was obvious enough. This Carlisle, whoever he was, was trying to kill Ryan because he had awoken Azazel.

He had always known that there must be other summoners, logic dictated that he couldn't be the only one. Hell, he had originally come across the knowledge on an internet forum, it was widespread enough that there must be dozens or even hundreds of people out there who had been curious enough to see if there was any merit to it. The knowledge must be available in other places too, it had to have originated somewhere.

The sand shifted, more figures appearing, half a dozen summoners performing rituals before their own respective circles. Still more people walked in from the edge of the disk, these ones clasping tubes in their hands. No, not tubes, those were guns. They aimed them at the summoners, killing them one by one, their heads exploding into clouds of sand as they fell to the floor.

They're killing all of the summoners,” Nahash muttered, watching the scene intently with her ovine eyes. “This is organized, they're not only coming after you.”

I'm certain that Azazel has something to do with it,” Ryan added, “or Gamori wouldn't have shown it to us. Maybe that put me at the top of their hit list, whoever these people are.”

The important question is what can we do about it?” Nahash said. Ryan turned his attention back to Gamori, it couldn't hurt to ask.

Can you tell me where Carlisle is?”

The sand began to morph and change again, this time rising from the ground to form a floating ball, like video footage being played in reverse. This time, rather than forming a face, continents began to appear across its surface.

It's a globe,” he gasped, watching as the sphere began to rotate. He could make out all of the landmasses, watching North and South America pass by until Antarctica was facing him. It then began to zoom in, flattening out as it did so, like a satellite view rendered entirely in sand. The camera moved down towards the Southern tip of the frozen continent, blowing up until he could see a small island. On the island was a mountain, rising towards him from the barren landscape, the crater in its peak giving it away as a volcano.

Why was she showing him an Antarctic volcano? He had expected his assailant to be in the same state as he was, if not the same city. How else would they have been able to infiltrate the local police forces and emergency services?

The view zoomed in even further until all that he could see was sand, which he assumed represented snow. Was he now staring at the slopes of the mountain? There wasn't enough detail to be sure. Suddenly much the sand fell to the floor, leaving only a network of what looked like random, interconnected tubes hanging in the air. Was Gamori trying to write something again? It just looked like random scribbles to Ryan.

More zooming, this time homing in on a section of tube. The near wall fell away, revealing a cross-section of the interior, which Ryan saw to be artificial in nature. The floors were flat, there were doors leading off into side tunnels, and there were figures walking about.

It's a hidden base,” he muttered, Nahash turning her head to look down at him in confusion.

What?”

I know what she's showing us. This is where Carlisle is, he's inside a network of tunnels beneath a volcano in Antarctica. What the hell...these tunnels are massive. Imagine the money and manpower that it would take to set up an operation like that...”

What does that mean for us?” Nahash asked. She was well versed in the occult, in arcane secrets, but she didn't know much about the modern world beyond what Ryan had begun to show her.

It means we're fucked,” he replied, laughing bitterly. “This is an organization, international, swimming in money and resources no doubt. We've really pissed off some powerful people. They have to be military, maybe it's some kind of CIA black site, those guys are always messing with weird shit like astral projection and mind control. Or maybe it's the Illuminati, some kind of global conspiracy that has a monopoly on summoning. Either way, there's nothing we can do about it. Look at this place,” he sighed as he leaned closer to examine the winding passages. “We'd need an army just to get in there, and that's if we could even reach it. Antarctica is one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. We can't just buy a plane ticket.”

We only need to eliminate one person,” Nahash said, planting her hands on her wide hips as she joined him in scrutinizing the tunnels. “The most pressing danger is Haures, and the only way to stop him is to annul his contract with this Carlisle person. If we kill Carlisle, then Haures no longer has any reason to come after you.”

But it's not just Carlisle,” Ryan replied, “this is an organization that kills summoners. I'm not a Watcher or a Nephilim, I'm not a demon, I'm just...some guy. All it takes to permanently kill me is an especially hard punch. Even if Haures is out of the picture, there's still an army of corrupt cops out for my blood, and whoever else might be on their payroll. Just who the hell are these people?”

Gamori saw fit to answer his question, more letters and shapes forming from the sand to create a new word.

Freemasons?” Ryan asked, his brow furrowing as he examined the floating text.

Do you know what that is?” Nahash asked.

It rings a bell,” he replied. “I must have heard them mentioned in passing, or maybe read about them somewhere, they're some kind of secret organization I think. I thought it was just a conspiracy theory. Great, so the New World Order has it out for me...”

He sat abruptly in the triangle, running his hands through his hair in exasperation. He came across a leaf that was tangled in it, fumbling with it as he struggled to pull it free. His frustration coming to a head and he crumpled it up, throwing it as hard as he could, the leaf fluttering to the grass almost as if it was mocking him. Tears of anger welled in his eyes as he crossed his arms over his knees, staring at his shoes.

That's enough Gamori,” he mumbled, “I have what I need.”

The sand once again fell to the grass in a heap, the spinning hurricane slowing until he could make out the demon as she sat atop her camel. She watched him curiously, seeming interested by his outburst. Nahash no doubt sensed his emotions, but she elected to leave him alone, letting him work through it.

You know what the most fucked up part about all of this is?” he asked, Nahash shaking her head. “I just wanted a fucking job. That's all I wanted. I should have just swallowed my pride and got a gig flipping burgers. Now I'm going to get black-bagged by some kind of...Bohemian Grove motherfuckers.”

She gave him a minute to compose himself, then crouched beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder. He closed his hand over hers, squeezing it.

I didn't mean that,” he muttered. “If I had never summoned Orobas then I never would have met you. I just...figured I'd live a lot longer than this.”

Then the choice has been made for you.”

He looked up at her, drying his eyes with the back of his sleeve.

What do you mean?”

If you believe that your death is inevitable then you are free to act. Failure has the same outcome as doing nothing, and so there is no reason not to try. You cannot just live in the grove for the rest of your days, the magick of the Seirim is finite. We would not be able to keep you fed for very long.”

So...what? You think I should go out in a blaze of glory?”

I think you should try to find a solution,” she said, “you have nothing more to lose. You are more creative than you give yourself credit for, Ryan, and you have more than a little luck on your side. The fact that you're here at all is proof of that.”

Ryan rose to his feet, brushing himself off, a little ashamed of his lapse in composure. Her words had calmed him down a little, and the spark of hope encouraged him, as faint as it might be.

Alright, so what do we do?”

We scour the Lesser Key,” she replied, “we see if we can find a creative solution to our problem.”

More demons?” he complained, grimacing. “I feel like we're really pushing our luck now. Eventually, we're going to come across one that doesn't take our kind of payment.”

As I said, there's no choice.”

Alright, alright. So we find a demon who can get us inside that base, right on top of Carlisle. Then we take him out, which gets Haures off our back. Then what?”

He was startled by the braying of Gamori's camel, almost stumbling out of the protective triangle. The demon was glaring at him from her perch, her arms crossed over her chest, her hands hidden beneath her long sleeves.

Payment is due,” Nahash said ominously.

Maybe it will he better this time?” Ryan asked hesitantly, but the Seirim didn't reply.

Gamori had fulfilled her side of the bargain, and now it was up to Ryan to provide the entity with the energy that she had been promised. He was still sore from his encounter with Vapula, and while the majority of his superficial cuts and bruises had healed, she had still milked him for all he was worth. He wasn't even sure that he had anything left to give the demon.

What if he couldn't perform, what if his tank was empty? Would a violation of the contract on his part result in the creature taking what he owed through other means?

He left the safety of the triangle, walking slowly towards Gamori. She looked down on him from atop her camel, regal and aloof, cocking her head slightly as he came to a stop beside the great beast. He waited for her to give him instructions, to make her move, but she merely observed him as he stood before her looking dejected.

Take what is owed,” he finally said, bracing himself for whatever might come next. He felt so small and insignificant next to the demon, powerless, her intense stare quickening his heart. After leaving him to stew for a few moments, she leaned down, reaching out towards him. Her long sleeve fell away to reveal an ostensibly human hand, with pale, almost grey skin and sharp fingernails painted the same blue as her garments. She cupped his face in her palm, turning it first to the left, then to the right as she examined him.

He felt like he was at a slave auction, about to be sold off like livestock. Was she going to check that he had all of his teeth too?

Will you not speak to me?” he asked. “Can you speak at all?”

She merely smiled at him with her eyes. She was so pretty, stunning even, in an odd and kind of uncomfortable way. He glanced over his shoulder at Nahash nervously, but Gamori turned his head back to face her. Why was she just staring at him? Wasn't she going to...do anything with him?

His heart skipped a beat every time she batted her long, dark lashes, his face reddening as he averted his eyes from her piercing gaze. If things got out of hand, Nahash would step in and help him again, right? They had included a clause in the contract that let the Seirim assist him if he so desired, but she seemed to be keeping her distance for the moment.

Gamori released him, returning her hand to her lap, leaving him standing confused on the grass. Was he not to her liking?

His eyes were drawn to the ground, where a kind of blue mist was beginning to emerge between the blades of grass. It looked like colored smoke or a dry ice machine, the haze hanging low over the sandy summoning circle and growing thicker as he watched. Before very long it was opaque, like he was standing ankle-deep in water, both the grass and the sand now obscured beneath the fog.

Ryan turned, watching his back, certain that something was coming. There was energy in the air, magick coursing through the very atoms in his body, he could feel it making the hairs on his arms stand up. Sudden movement caught his eye, and he locked onto something that was emerging from the thick fog. A hand sprouted from the ground like something from a zombie movie, its fingers curled into a claw. It was basically humanoid save for its azure color, the skin looking like it was dyed or painted. The fingers were covered in golden bands and jeweled rings, ornate bracelets hanging from the wrist.

He resisted the urge to leap out of range of it, the hand didn't seem to be reaching for him. As he watched, another appeared beside it, then two more. One after another a forest of hands rose from the eerie, blue mist, two dozen of them at least. They surrounded him on all sides, Ryan feeling a twinge of panic as he realized that he couldn't escape if he had wanted to. Gamori was just sitting on her camel nearby, watching him as he reacted to her illusory magick.

The hands seemed to grip the dirt as if they were trying to drag themselves out of a bog, and Ryan saw the first head emerge. A curtain of long, black hair fell over its face to obscure its features, but he could see a pair of pointed ears like those of a fantasy Elf. They too were adorned with gold, pierced with jeweled earrings in several places.

A pair of shoulders emerged shortly behind it, narrow and feminine, Ryan noting that it had two pairs of arms. Once the creature had risen far enough above the mist, it brushed its hair aside with one of its four hands, peering up at him with a pair of yellow eyes.

It was a woman, or at least it looked like one. Her skin was an unnatural shade of blue, her lips tinted a deep purple, golden piercings decorating her prominent nose. Her long, raven hair cascaded over her shoulders and down her back, those yellow eyes fixing on him as she freed herself from the earth to stand at a full height of maybe five and a half feet.

She was shapely and feminine, slim, but full-figured where it counted. Her clothing consisted of an insubstantial top that barely served to cover her breasts, decorated with what looked like sequins or gold coins that were hanging from the material, catching the light whenever she moved. She was wearing a distractingly low-cut skirt that did little to conceal her legs, her blue thighs visible through the sparse curtain of fabric, those same coins hanging from her belt. There were more piercings dangling from her navel, and her toes were decorated with rings much as her fingers were.

The getup was clearly designed to accentuate the female form, and it reminded him of what a belly dancer might wear, or an ancient Arabian concubine. Just what manner of demon was this?

He found himself surrounded by the creatures. Their clothing varied in color and style, but it was consistently skimpy, their jewelry and hairstyles coming in many different flavors too. He noticed that Nahash had drawn closer, waiting at the edge of the circle as the blue mist lapped at her hooved feet like surf, ready to step in if things should go awry.

Gamori was just watching from atop her camel, was she not going to participate at all? Were these blue women going to do the job for her?

Ryan felt a hand on his shoulder, and he spun around to see that one of the creatures had crept up on him from behind. Another moved in from the front, resting two of her hands on his chest and the second pair on his hips. He whipped his head back and forth as he tried in vain to track them, the women closing in on him from all sides.

They didn't seem aggressive, so at least there was that.

The crowd of women began to fumble with his clothes, as if unfamiliar with them, plucking at the buttons on his jacket and trying to tug his pants down. He tried to bat them away, but there were so many of them, their fingers running all over his body. They slipped beneath the fabric, stroking his skin, roaming across his torso as they explored him. It tickled, but he was more alarmed than aroused.

Whatever these demons were, they were mischievous, giggling at him and flashing their yellow eyes as they circled him like a pack of hyenas. The rings on their toes and the golden bracelets on their ankles clattered with every step, almost like a bell on the collar of a cat, the ornamental coins that hung from their clothing dazzling him when they caught the light of the moon. They didn't just dress like dancers, they moved like them too. They were so flexible and spry, their fluid motions mesmerizing him.

It was nice to encounter a demon that didn't tower over him for once. These were no larger than an average woman, but they outnumbered him a dozen to one.

Any advice?” Ryan asked, directing his question towards Nahash.

They are Djinni,” she replied, “keep your wits about you. These spirits are not to be trusted.”

Djinni? Like Genie? Weren't those supposed to live inside lamps and grant wishes?

It was pointless to resist, he had to give Gamori what had been promised one way or another, and so he tried to stay still as the creatures undressed him. They figured out his jacket and pulled it off, along with the shirt that was underneath. They couldn't take off his pants, as there was a ward attached to his belt, the women recoiling from it like it was hot to the touch. He discarded it, then he unzipped his fly and kicked off his shoes so that they could tug down his trousers. One of them hooked her blue fingers around the waistband of his shorts and pulled those down too, exposing him.

The crowd of Djinni parted, leaving him standing in the circle wearing only his socks, the mist rising to his ankles. The women backed off, their hands extended towards him like they were offering him to Gamori. She watched from her saddle, cocking her head as if appraising his naked form. He covered his privates with his hands, feeling exposed as her icy eyes played across his body.

Seeming satisfied, she snapped her fingers, and the Djinni closed in around him again. They were her servants, part of her legions perhaps. This was all for Gamori's benefit, like they were putting on a performance for her. Maybe she only liked to watch?

In any other scenario, the prospect of sleeping with a dozen beautiful women would be exciting, but these were demons. Not only had Nahash warned him not to trust them, but Vapula's dramatic shift from eager lover to dominatrix was still fresh in his mind. Things could go south extremely quickly where the Goetia was concerned.

The Djinni moved as one, those behind him skipping out of the way as one of the demons to his front planted her hands on his chest, pushing him off-balance. He fell backwards, expecting to land in the dirt. Instead, when he put his hands out to catch himself, he felt fabric.

He tumbled onto a mattress, bouncing gently, silken sheets cushioning him. He turned his head to get a look at what he was sitting on, seeing a large, circular bed standing in the middle of the grove. It had appeared from nowhere, magickal or illusory no doubt. The round mattress was covered in scattered pillows of all shapes and sizes, sheets made from something slick like silk or satin adorning it. From above a kind of gossamer curtain fell about it, not really providing any privacy for the occupants. They were attached to a circular structure, which itself was not attached to anything, suspended in the air through supernatural means.

Everything was lavishly embroidered, geometric patterns and beautiful decorations sewn into every inch of the material. It was a bed fit for a king, or rather a sultan and his harem. It looked so out of place in the grove, surrounded on all sides by lush grass and overgrown forest.

Ryan could appreciate the flair, at least Gamori wasn't going to just take him on the ground as Vapula had. It would be unwise to assume benevolence, but right now he didn't feel like he was in any immediate danger.

He watched as the Djinni drew closer, climbing up onto the bed and parting the curtains, kneeling and sitting nearby as they urged him to lie down. He lay on his back, the many hands of the demons resting on him as if gently holding him down. They seemed eager, anticipating what was to come, sharing smirks and knowing glances with one another. Their blue hands stood out against his pale complexion, running up his thighs, stroking his hair. He started to relax a little, sensing no malice from these strange entities.

Looking up from his prone position, he could see the round structure from which the flowing curtains hung, the yellow eyes of a dozen Djinni looking down at him through the gloom. They smiled at him, whispered to one another, giggling and muttering. They were behaving like a gaggle of schoolgirls. He wondered idly what they made of him.

He heard another snap of Gamori's fingers, and more hands reached down towards him. There were so many, their slim, feminine fingers brushing lightly against his skin. There were enough to cover him almost completely, only slivers of his white skin visible beneath the sea of azure and gold.

Their rubbing took on a distinctly sensual quality, their digits tracing the contours of his body, glancing his more sensitive spots as others began to massage his muscles. Their hands roamed everywhere, their skin as soft and as smooth as the sheets that lay beneath him, the stimulation rapidly forcing his eyes closed and making his spine rise from the bed.

One of them produced a small crystal vial, upending it into one pair of hands, then rubbing all four together as she spread some kind of liquid across her palms. It was captivating to watch, she was so dexterous. A few of the other Djinni followed suit, conjuring the vials seemingly from nowhere and coating their hands with the contents.

When they reached down to touch him, he realized that it was some kind of oil. It made their contact instantly slippery, the women spreading the fluid across his chest and belly, then moving slowly down his arms and legs like masseuses working over their client. They traced his abdominal muscles, skirted his nipples, one of them dipping a fingertip into his navel as she moved lower. It felt so good, their hands gliding across his body, almost frictionless thanks to the pleasant-smelling concoction. The Djinni coated his skin in the stuff, removing his socks so that they could rub his feet and taking his hands in theirs, ensuring that every finger and toe was covered in it. He sighed as they stroked his neck and shoulders, even going so far as to rub it into his scalp, matting his hair.

It felt amazing, intoxicating. It wasn't necessarily sexual, no moreso than a visit to some high-end salon or resort, but these Djinni had him on cloud nine. He wasn't sure that you could even pay for this kind of treatment.

It occurred to him that they might be washing him. It was an element of the summoning ritual that he had been forced to forego. Perhaps Gamori didn't want to share a bed with a stinky mortal who hadn't had an opportunity to bathe in a couple of days? It was understandable. He must smell like sweat, fear and demon pussy.

A jolt of pleasure tore through him as their hands found his loins, leaving no stone unturned as they caressed him with their slimy fingers. They stroked his balls and his inner thighs, smearing the greasy oil on his rapidly growing erection. It was impossible to suppress his urges, their hands were just so soft and gentle, their fingers wrapping around his shaft as it hardened. He found himself bucking into their teasing hands as they giggled at him.

They shuffled closer to him on the bed, three of them sliding their many hands between his legs as the rest worked the oil into his chest and shoulders. One of them cradled his head, massaging his scalp and running her slim fingers through his hair, gazing down at him with her yellow eyes as he struggled to stay focused. There was a constant flurry of movement and sensation, overloading his nervous system as his brain tried desperately to react to every glance and stroke.

He was throbbing now, his member bouncing in the air as the Djinni whispered to one another and snickered at it, stroking its length. Their grip was firm, their pace leisurely, his breathing growing heavier as one of them slowly pumped her fist.

The pleasure halted abruptly as they flipped him over onto his front, his member pressing between his belly and the silky sheets, and he grumbled his disappointment as they laughed at him. His muttering soon quietened however as he felt their innumerable hands on his back. He squirmed beneath them as they traced the dimple of his spine with their fingers, kneading his shoulders with the heels of their hands, stroking his thighs and rump.

He groaned as they worked the stress out of his muscles, warmth and euphoria spreading through his body, his frustration all but forgotten. He could get used to this.

The Djinni poured more of the oil on him, this time upending the bottles directly onto his back and spreading it. They knew their craft well, their dexterous fingers setting his nerves alight with pleasure. They applied just enough pressure in just the right places, their skillful hands anointing him with the perfumed liquid.

When they were finished, they flipped him over onto his back again, Ryan looking up at the opulently dressed Djinni as they sat on the bed around him. He was coated in a sheen of the oil now, making his skin slippery and shiny, and he smelled like frankincense. Oddly, the liquid did not rub off on the sheets as one would have expected, perhaps there was some magick involved.

He was a little disappointed that their massage was over so soon. Apart from when he was under the influence of Seirim magick, he had never felt so relaxed, his body instilled with a pleasant ache. What was going to happen next? He propped himself up on his elbows, looking around to see where everyone was. Gamori was still staring at him from her seat on her camel, her blue eyes piercing through the twilight like a pair of burning sapphires. Nahash was standing nearby, watching the scene, and her sisters still lurked near the edge of the clearing.

He wasn't used to this, there were so many people watching him, it made him feel exposed.

Another snap of Gamori's fingers rang out through the clearing, and the Djinni began to move at her command. A dozen blue-skinned hands pushed him back down onto the mattress, and one of the women swung a leg over him, straddling his chest.

Her skin was the color of faded denim, her long, dark hair reaching the small of her back. Her lips were tinted a darker shade of purple, as were her cheeks, as if the blood that was causing her to blush was another shade of blue. She was slim and athletic, lightly muscled to give her an alluring definition without being too powerfully built, her thighs soft and her hips flared. His eyes were drawn to her subtle abdominal muscles as they moved and flexed beneath her oddly colored skin, her navel adorned with a piercing, a golden chain dangling from it with a teardrop-shaped emerald on one end. There were golden bands decorated with floral patterns and beautiful, inlaid jewels that were wrapped around all four of her upper arms and her neck, her ears and nose pierced with numerous gold rings.

She wore a similar outfit as her counterparts, like that of a belly dancer. Her insubstantial skirt flowed over his torso as she sat atop him, the silky material tickling his skin. Her top was covered in sequins and coins, with barely enough fabric to conceal her chest. Her cleavage was clearly visible, her breasts paling in comparison to those of the well-endowed Seirim but pert and shapely none the less.

He watched with wide eyes as she reached a single pair of her four arms behind her back, releasing a clasp on her brazier and letting it fall away. She discarded the piece of clothing, letting her firm breasts hang free, biting her pierced lip as she gazed down at him.

Even her nipples were pierced, the gold rings linked by an ornate chain that was itself decorated with precious stones. It looked heavy, uncomfortable, but the Djinn showed no signs of discomfort as she reached down and gripped his wrists. She brought his hands up to her boobs and encouraged him to grope them, releasing her hold on him when he got the message, Ryan beginning to knead and squeeze.

They were perfect handfuls, soft and malleable, but firm enough to provide an enticing amount of resistance. He sank his fingers into them, her flesh spilling between his digits, feeling her hard nipples pressing into his palms. He was worried that he might hurt her, accidentally tugging on the chain or catching her piercings, but the creature didn't seem to mind. On the contrary, she seemed to enjoy it when he touched the golden rings, the Djinn's hips beginning to move as she straddled him.

He let one of his hands roam lower, gliding across her glass-smooth skin and tracing the subtle contours of her abs. Rather than a six-pack, she had two rows of less defined muscle. They were still firm and pleasant to the touch, flexing and twisting as his fingertips brushed them. He followed the curve of her hip, his fingers sinking into her flesh, it was distributed to all the right places.

She reached down and unfastened her flowing skirt, letting it slough down her thighs, exposing more of her azure skin. Beneath it, she wore a thin ribbon of almost transparent, blue fabric. The floaty material just barely concealed her nethers, hanging between her legs like a kind of loincloth, her smooth mound peeking above it. Ryan could swear that he had seen a glint of gold, did she have piercings down there too?

Her fellow Djinni seemed immensely entertained by what was happening, sitting and kneeling on the mattress around him as they watched. He could hear them whispering and giggling to each other, not knowing whether they were excited or if they were merely mocking him. He didn't understand whatever language they were speaking.

The Djinn who was straddling him gazed down at him with her amber eyes, very nearly the same shade of gold as her jewelry, her smile distinctly seductive. There were some things that didn't need a shared language to be easily communicated. She took his hand in hers and guided it towards her hip, where the gossamer fabric was secured with a golden clasp, letting him unfasten it. The blue material fell away, so light that it floated on the air, and she leaned back a little so that he could get a better view of her loins.

She was anatomically similar to a normal woman, there was nothing unusual or out of place save for the purple color of her lips and vulva. She looked sore and swollen, her flushed sex dripping a stream of clear fluid onto his torso, ready and wanting. She used her fingers to spread it open, exposing the glistening, wet flesh within. She was indeed pierced down there, there was a golden barbel piercing through her clitoral hood, the beads encrusted with tiny rubies that stood out against her dark skin. He reached out to touch her, but she slapped his hand away, laughing at his confused expression.

Ensuring that he was paying attention, she slipped one of her slim fingers into her opening, Ryan watching it slowly vanish up to the knuckle. He could hear the wet sounds that it was making, the Djinn sighing and moaning softly as she stimulated herself. His mouth was watering, his member erect and aching as she put on a sordid display for him. Like teasing a dog with the promise of a treat, she was just out of reach. She kneaded her breasts with two of her hands, the third moving up towards her mouth, slipping a finger past her full lips. She sucked on it, flashes of her purple tongue visible as she licked, keeping those yellow eyes fixed on him the whole while.

Her counterparts snickered and laughed, amused by his conspicuous arousal and frustration. The demon withdrew her digit from her loins, her blue skin now coated in a sheen of clear fluid, a sagging strand of her juices linking it to her splayed lips. She leaned forward to take his face in her hand, sliding the wet finger into his mouth and making him taste her.

She lingered for a few moments, smirking as he played his tongue over her digit. She tasted sour, feminine. There was no Seirim magic here to make her taste of passion fruit and pineapple, but it hardly mattered, he was too aroused to care.

She pulled away, biting her pierced lip, beginning to rock her hips back and forth enticingly. Ryan was going crazy, he felt like there was a bomb inside him that was about to explode. The other demons had never kept him wanting like this, they got right down to business. Was this the catch? Were these Djinni just here to torment him?

He jerked as he felt something touch his cock, the Djinn blocking his view. She giggled at him, glancing over her shoulder, her raven hair flowing like a waterfall. One of the other demons was stroking his erection, brushing it ever so lightly with her fingertips, sparks of pleasure coursing through his body. The teasing had made him so sensitive, it was maddening. It might have been more than one, but it was hard to tell, the number of hands that they possessed was throwing him off.

She ran her nails across his belly and thighs, making him buck and flinch, the weight of the Djinn who was sitting on him keeping him pinned to the bed. He felt soft fingers tickle his balls, sliding up and down his shaft, never applying enough pressure to do anything more than frustrate him. She paused at the tip, wetting her finger with his leaking precome, and began to make slow circles on his exposed glans. His hips moved of their own accord, thrusting as they tried to seek out more stimulation, but there was none to be had.

He felt more hands on his body, the Djinni closing in around him. They rubbed his chest and shoulders, the oil that still coated his skin making their touch slimy, grabbing his thighs and cupping his balls in their warm palms. Their attentions were growing more aggressive and sexual, the innumerable sensations overwhelming him and making stars dance before his eyes. It felt as though every nerve in his body had been kicked into overdrive, his frustration mingling with the probing of their questing fingers.

He felt like a single firm pump would get him off right now, but they seemed to be purposefully avoiding it, laughing and whispering as his member jumped and twitched at their touch.

The one who was straddling him slid forward, her blue thighs coming to rest around his head, cushioning his red face. Her skin was as smooth as polished metal, her flesh as soft as butter, Ryan unable to help himself as he mouthed and kissed their surface. They were so cool against his flushed cheeks. The Djinn reached down to run her many fingers through his hair, her feminine scent filling his nose as her drooling loins waited just out of reach. Was she going to make him beg? If they kept up this torture for very much longer, he might stoop that low.

His blue-skinned partner had other things in mind, however, sliding forward and bumping her crotch against his face. Their lips met like a sordid kiss, Ryan tasting her flavor on his tongue as he began to lap. The demon seemed pleased, an appreciative tremor passing through her body, her grip on his hair growing tighter as she encouraged him with gentle tugs.

She was so much smaller than Nahash or Vapula, he was able to cover her entire vulva with his tongue as he dragged it between her purple labia, her sticky excitement clinging to his skin. She was warm to the touch, he could feel the heat that her body radiated, her slippery flesh nearly hot enough to scald him.

He traced the folds of her loins with his tongue, eager and wanton, hoping that he might be rewarded in some way for his efforts. The Djinni kept up their stroking and teasing, keeping him on edge, the intensity of his arousal fogging his brain. It was such a strange sensation to want to come so badly but to be unable to do so. It was becoming more than simple arousal, it was a burning need, one that had to be sated at any cost.

The Djinn began to grind her sex against his face, her juices dripping down his chin, Ryan increasing his pace in an attempt to keep up with her. At least she wasn't batting his hands away now, he could run them all over her, one of them sliding up her back while the other took a generous handful of her springy ass.

He could feel the toned muscle beneath the layer of fat, firm and shapely. He could have bounced a coin off her cheek. Her spine twisted beneath his palm as she writhed, his fingers following the long channel that it carved in her back. It was so different from Nahash's boundless flesh, nothing like Vapula's brawn and sinew, the Djinn was soft in some places and firm in others.

He glanced up between her blue thighs, the dangling jewel on the end of the chain that hung from her navel bumping into his nose as she rocked her hips. He could see her abdominal muscles shifting beneath her skin, her perky breasts bouncing gently with every thrust. She almost looked like she was dancing, her four hands roaming all over her body in a sensuous display. She squeezed her breasts, the handfuls of yielding flesh deforming as she kneaded, her fingers roaming up and down her belly as she enjoyed his lurid attentions.

She hooked the chain that connected her twin nipple piercings with her finger, tugging it gently so that it pulled them, her spine arching as a salacious moan escaped her purple lips. Far from being uncomfortable, she seemed to enjoy the sensation, the metal rings penetrating tissue that was rich in sensitive nerve endings. She gave it a second, harder tug and Ryan felt her thighs clench around his head. One of her hands rested on his thigh to support her as she leaned back, another gripping his hair to keep him close.

His tongue was slick with her slimy juices and his own saliva, playing across her vulva with quick flicks and glances. He roamed higher, searching for her most sensitive spot, and tasted metal. It was the piercing on her hood, the protective skin that shielded her clitoris. He gave it an experimental prod with his tongue and felt her tense. Just like with her nipple piercings, did she enjoy this too? These Djinni were kinky, even by demon standards...

He pressed his lips around her protective skin, batting the barbel piercing with strokes of his tongue as he sucked, drawing out her clitoris. It was swollen, needy, her body tensing as he dragged his slippery organ across the firm nub of flesh. She tightened her hold on his hair, stinging his scalp with her tugging, her legs beginning to tremble around his cheeks.

Her strong reaction was encouraging, so he trapped it between his lips and began to slowly paint it, giving the demon a taste of her own medicine. Her thrusting became less measured, irregular, the Djinn apparently enjoying his teasing. He circled her engorged bud with his tongue, mouthing as he went, lapping at her vulva and ensuring that not an inch of her intimate anatomy was left unscathed.

Some of the other Djinni were watching intently now, one of them leaning close to peer at him as he ate out her counterpart, near enough that her curtain of dark hair tickled his face.

Was he getting good at this? He might be, Nahash had given him an absurd amount of practice. It was hard to deny her one of her favorite sexual activities when she could use her powers to make it taste like all of the fruits of paradise had been combined into an ambrosial cocktail. It was nice to get one-up on these demons for once, he wasn't just a puppet that they could do as they pleased with, a living battery.

He noticed more hands sliding across the Djinn's body. It seemed that the others were joining in, perhaps sensing that she was getting close. They sidled up beside her, creeping up on her from behind, Ryan feeling his member brush against someone's butt as they straddled him to get nearer to their sister. They subjected her to much the same treatment as they had Ryan, their questing fingers roaming across her slim body to massage and stroke. Half a dozen hands crawled across her toned belly, using their pointed nails and the tips of their fingers to tease her, Ryan feeling her flinch and buck with every touch. Each hand had a slightly different assortment of rings and bracelets, encrusted with different jewels and decorated in different styles.

They cupped her breasts, squeezing like they were shaping fresh dough, pinching her discolored nipples and tugging gently on the chain that linked them. A pair of yellow eyes appeared over her shoulder in the gloom, Ryan watching with envy as the Djinn began to gently bite and kiss the nape of her neck, running her puffy lips from her shoulder to her ear. She pinched her earlobe between her teeth, smirking as the subject of their cruel attentions squirmed.

They stroked her thighs, tracing her hips with their fingertips, playing her beleaguered body like she was some kind of musical instrument. It wasn't hard to imagine what she was feeling, every kiss and stroke plucking at her nerves like the strings of a harp, the twitching of her muscles and the beads of sweat that welled on her azure skin giving it away. Even the Seirim seemed more focused on him than one another when they involved him in their escapades, but these demons were almost as interested in each other as they were their quarry.

It was undeniably arousing, and perhaps that was its purpose, to further excite him until he went insane from uncontrollable lust.

The Djinn who had snuck up behind the one who he was presently engaged in servicing reached around her sister's front, gripping her face in her hand and angling it back. She met her in a deep and wanton kiss over her shoulder, their shiny, purple lips interlocking as Ryan watched from his prone position. They were so shameless, unrestrained, flashes of wet tongue visible as they embraced. The Djinn leaned back against her attacker, moaning softly between the eager strokes of her sister's purple organ, overcome by the waves of pleasure that were no doubt tearing through her nubile body.

Three hands slid down towards her loins, fighting for space with Ryan's tongue as they began to rub and stroke. They filled her opening with fingers, splaying her wide as they dug deep inside her, her juices spilling around the invading digits. More hands gripped her hips, yet more sneaking around her thighs until her entire lower body was obscured. Ryan was ousted as someone began to polish her clitoris, wetting their fingers with her slimy fluids, their digits a blur as they rubbed violently.

Ryan could only watch as his partner toppled backwards into their embrace, leaning against one of the Djinni as she desperately fucked her sister's fingers. The arching of her spine and her pained gasping grew in tempo, her feet scrambling for purchase on the silken sheets to either side of his head, the rings that decorated her toes and the ornamental anklets that she wore clattering together. He could no longer see her loins, hidden as they were by a mass of wriggling fingers. One of the Djinni kneeled beside them on the bed, reaching out to tug at the jeweled chain that linked her companion's nipples, smirking at her reaction.

She came hard, her body convulsing, beads of glistening sweat coating her blue skin as she burned with the exertion of it. A torrent of clear fluid escaped past the many fingers that were buried up to the knuckle inside her, the Djinni keeping up their torment to ease out every last pulse of her climax. Gradually she began to relax, panting as a few stray aftershocks rippled through her, the many fingers sliding out of her twitching passage along with a sagging web of stringy fluid that fell to Ryan's chest.

They abruptly rolled her off him, the Djinn lying on her side on the bed next to him as she caught her breath, her eyes closed and a wide smile curling her lips. She seemed satisfied, one of her hands sneaking between her thighs to rub out a couple more twinges of pleasure.

Now that his view wasn't blocked, Ryan could see the other Djinni who surrounded him on the bed, a dozen pairs of glowing eyes peering down at him excitedly. They whispered to each other, talking behind their hands and glancing at him, perhaps discussing what to do with him next. His erection was standing in the air prominently, beating like a heart, jumping with every throb of blood that coursed through it. One of them leaned in to prod it with her finger, her companions laughing as he grimaced.

Wondering what would happen if he took initiative, he tried to sit up, but he immediately felt hands on his shoulders and chest as the crowd of women forced him to lie back down. What was their purpose? How was Gamori benefiting from this in any way? If his sexual fluids contained the energy that she needed, then why was she letting her subordinates do all the work? Could they transfer the energy to her somehow? The exact mechanics were a mystery to him.

One of the Djinni took his cock in her hand, squeezing the shaft as she took position on top of him, resting her knees on the bed to either side of his hips. This one had already stripped off her clothing, her body just toned and shapely as the rest. She had a ring through her nose like a bull, her Elf-like, pointed ears peppered with jeweled studs. There were snake-bite piercings through her lips, and as his eyes roamed down towards her chest, he saw that she had golden bars through her nipples. Rather than being linked together, each one had a dangling chain, like pendants with precious stones on the end. On her navel was a simple bejeweled stud.

She hovered above him, reaching down between her thighs to spread her lips apart, exposing the purple flesh within. She was dripping, ready, he could feel her heat on his glans as she drew it slowly closer. Were they finally going to relent and give him the relief that he craved?

The Djinn poised there, her loins not an inch away from the tip, feeling him throb and twitch in her palm as she looked down at him with a sardonic smile. A strand of her juices escaped to land on his member, sliding slowly down his length as he watched.

Come on,” he grumbled, his complaint eliciting a chorus of giggles.

The snap of Gamori's fingers rang out from beyond the gossamer curtains, and he felt a tightness around the base of his member, a kind of pressure as if someone was squeezing him between their thumb and forefinger. When he looked down, he was surprised to see a glint of gold. There was a metal band around the base of his erection. It was cold, digging into his skin, trapping blood in his member to make it swell and engorge even further. It hurt, it ached, but the teasing had left him so wanting that it did little to diminish his arousal.

Now the Djinn seemed ready to proceed, rubbing his exposed glans between her labia and coating him in her slippery juices, smirking down at him as he writhed between her thighs. This damned ring was making him hypersensitive. He was sore, aching, the merest touch of her wet flesh searing his nerves and sending jolts of harsh pleasure coursing through him like arcs of electricity. Yet he wanted it, he needed it, just a taste wasn't nearly enough.

The Djinn pressed his member against her opening, Ryan feeling the slick walls of muscle sliding against his tip. She seemed so small in comparison to his prior partners, would he even fit? His member was so swollen, moreso than he had ever seen it, throbbing painfully as the gold ring restricted his blood flow and heightened his sensitivity.

She wet her discolored lips with her purple tongue, watching covetously as his erection pulsed against her loins, and then slowly slid him inside her. Her muscles closed around him, engulfing him in wet satin, every bump and imperfection of her sodden passage scouring him as she gradually lowered herself down. Her luxurious flesh encompassed his tender glans, pleasure flooding his nerves like static electricity, too much to bear. He shut his eyes tightly, baring his teeth as he tried to endure it. They had been teasing him for so long, keeping him on the edge, and now he could finally scratch the maddening itch that was burning in the core of his being. The sublime ache became more urgent, and he felt his orgasm welling. All it would take were a couple more thrusts, and he would have his relief...

The Djinn took him to the hilt, her thighs closing around his hips like a vice as she sat on top of him, his cock jumping and twitching inside her. Her tunnel was so narrow that it was almost painful, the pressure intense, sucking on him like a vacuum as she rested a pair of her hands on his belly. He could just make out the glint of the gold ring beneath her smooth mound.

She began to move, rocking her hips back and forth, twisting and gyrating as he matched her pace with his desperate thrusting. The demon really seemed to be enjoying herself, she wasn't just performing her functions, she was having fun with him. She drove his rigid erection into the slick walls of her passage, grinding against him, scouring her insides as he pulsed and leaked. She was so hot, sweat coating her skin in a reflective sheen as she exerted herself, fucking him like a lion despite her small stature.

She dug her fingernails into his chest, leaving red welts as she rode him into the bed, the other Djinni watching enviously. Her pert breasts bounced with every thrust, the gold chains that hung from her nipple piercings swinging in time with her graceful movements. Her blue skin was wet to the touch, his fingers sliding across her belly and hips as he groped, her subtle fat yielding beneath his fingertips. The Djinn combed her fingers through her long, black hair, running her tongue across the snake-bite piercings on her lip as she savored the sensation of having him inside her.

His erection swelled and flexed within the tight confines of her sex, the walls of her tight passage gripping him ferociously. He could feel every crease and contour as her loins molded around him like a second skin, clinging to him like latex. There was so much pressure, flesh like velvet soaked in honey pulsating around him in waves, every quiver and tremor that passed through her lightly muscled figure translating into his member. The Djinn could feel him too, gasping with every flex of his engorged manhood, mewling in her breathy voice each time that she felt his hardness plunge her most intimate depths.

The azure-skinned beauty began to bounce on his shaft, rising until only the tip was still lodged inside of her and then slamming down again to take him to the hilt in one fluid motion. He could see the way that her syrupy juices clung to his shaft, making it slippery and shiny, the gold ring glinting as it was exposed to the moonlight. He couldn't help but delve his fingers into her yielding thighs, as smooth as varnished wood, the supple fat that wreathed her hard muscle yielding before his probing digits like memory foam.

Her movements grew less regular as their frantic courtship dragged on, her dance losing its fluidity and descending into a bestial rutting, the demon driving him into her reaches as fast and as hard as she could muster. It was brutal, tiring, glistening beads of sweat raining from her body as she moved atop him like a woman possessed.

The pressure that had been building inside of him came to a head, and he gritted his teeth, gripping her hips tightly and bracing himself for the rush of ecstasy that was about to flood through him. He waited, his body burning with the need, but it never came. He stayed on the very cusp of his climax, the pleasure making his mind swim with anticipation, but he couldn't seem to reach the tipping point. He felt like he had been edging for days, it was unbearable, a kind of delicious torture. He was teetering right on the brink of the precipice and yet his urgent need could not be sated.

What the fuck?” Ryan gasped, shivering as the odd sensation rocked him. The Djinn merely laughed at him, entertained by his frustration, keeping up the violent pace of her cruel lovemaking.

The golden band that had appeared around his cock, was it preventing him from ejaculating? The idea filled him with an odd blend of lust and fear. How long could it last? Would it continue to feel this good, or like his ill-fated encounter with Vapula, would the seething pleasure gradually give way to discomfort and pain?

All he knew right now was that he was harder than he had ever been, unnaturally so, an ache that bordered on pain permeating his member and his lower body. It didn't quite hurt, it almost felt like the burn after a strenuous workout, accompanied by the same brand of euphoria. He felt so aware, so alive, as if his nerves were extending beyond the reaches of his skin. Again he was reminded that pain and pleasure were not distinct concepts. Why did these demons so enjoy blurring the lines between the two, and why was he now feeling a kind of masochistic curiosity?

The stimulation continued, and while Ryan was unable to climax the same was not true of his blue-skinned partner. She halted her bucking abruptly, squeezing him between her legs as her walls closed around him like a Chinese finger trap, her slim form shaking as the first pulse of pleasure made her its plaything. She wrung him with powerful contractions, driving him as deep as he would go as she threw her head back and wailed at the starry sky, a torrent of her clear fluid escaping around his buried shaft to splash his belly. She gripped his shoulders for purchase with her upper pair of hands, mauling her breasts with the lower, lost in a fugue as she rode out the swells of ecstasy.

Ryan was dizzied by the surge of sensations, raw and unfiltered, white noise buzzing in his brain as her slimy insides subjected him to a relentless massage. She was drawing on him like a mouth, begging for the warm load that was trapped behind the ring. It was enough to drive him half insane, to be so close to the sweet release that every atom of his being craved yet to be unable to cross that boundary. All he could do was lie there as she trembled atop him, experiencing every quiver and stroke as if it had been amplified a hundred times. He wanted to escape this intolerable stimulation, it was frying his circuits, and yet his primal urges drove him to seek out more.

The Djinn collapsed onto his chest, her mop of raven hair falling about his face as she nuzzled the nape of his neck affectionately, Ryan trying to spit the long strands out of his mouth. She was so warm, clinging to him with all four of her arms, his member still twitching inside of her as a few lingering jolts of pleasure made her quake and whimper.

She eventually deigned to lift her hips off him, more due to the complaints of her fellow Djinni than because she was done with him, Ryan wincing as he slid out of her. His erection stood prominently in the air, linked to her sodden nethers by a fat rope of her fluids that broke to fall to his belly as she moved away. He was soaked in her excitement, the cloudy liquid coating his length in a glossy glaze, rolling down his shaft in clumps.

Was it over? Were they going to let him finish now?

His question was answered as another Djinn took her friend's place, kneeling between his parted legs and catching his slimy erection in her hands. She gripped his shaft with two of them, beginning to twist them in opposite directions, the lubricating juices that clung to his skin making her touch wonderfully slippery. She rested the third on his thigh, using the fourth to cup his balls, squeezing them gently as she stroked him.

Her yellow eyes peered up at him, drinking in his pained expression, the demon smiling wryly as he squirmed. She moved lower, inching towards the golden ring that was still anchored around the base of his member. She looked at it, then back up at him, as if offering to remove it.

Please,” Ryan mumbled, “I can't take much more of this.”

His heart skipped a beat as her fingers wrapped around the metal band, and for a moment he thought that she might really remove it. Instead, she pulled her hand away, laughing at him. Her cohorts joined in as they watched from the sidelines, amused by his frustration.

He began to complain, but the words caught in his throat as she began to stroke his swollen glans with her palm. The thick layer of lubricant from his previous partner made the touch of her soft skin slippery, Ryan going quiet as she caressed the most sensitive part of his body, the sensation undeniably placating.

Someone snuck up behind him, lifting his head in their hands and resting it on their lap, angling him so that he had to watch the Djinn stroke his shaft. Their plump thighs made for admirable pillows, a pair of hands delving into his hair to comb and massage while the second crossed about his shoulders, the demon watching from above as her counterpart teased him.

More of the creatures closed around him on the bed, seeming fascinated by his reactions to their advances, perhaps anticipating their turn with him. Would each of them have their way with him before they deigned to remove this accursed ring? He didn't know if he could tolerate that. Surely Nahash would provide assistance if things became too much for him to handle? Where was she anyway?

He looked around for her, the Djinn who was cradling his head in her lap continuing her stroking, and then he found her. She had drawn closer, the tall Seirim standing at the edge of the bed, watching the scene play out. Her pale skin reflected the moonlight, her amber eyes focused on him. Was that a glint of arousal that he saw?

His attention was turned back to the Djinn who was kneeling between his thighs as she gave him a stern squeeze. She was pouting, annoyed that he wasn't watching. Once she was certain that she had his undivided attention, she resumed her slow stroking. Her slim fingers were so dexterous and agile, crawling up and down his length, almost like she was tickling him. Her skin was as soft as velvet, wet with bawdy fluids, her gooey handjob sending sparks of pleasure coursing through his nerves wherever her digits glanced his skin.

She held his aching balls in her palm, squeezing softly, brushing them lightly with the tips of her fingers. They were so heavy and swollen, they had never felt so full before. It was clouding his mind, so acute and distracting that he couldn't focus on anything else. She smeared the slime on his inner thighs, ensuring that every erogenous zone that he had was wet and slick, enhancing the feeling of her tormenting rubbing. These demons were so good with their hands, if they hadn't prevented it with the golden band, he wouldn't have lasted two minutes.

His entire body was as sensitive as the head of a penis, he was transcending arousal. It was like some kind of tantric sex, endless foreplay with no goal, prolonging a state of heightened excitement that should have been long over by now.

Ryan found that he was starting to enjoy his cruel treatment at the many hands of these Djinni. Something about that bothered him, like he was being manipulated. Demons did not dispense pleasure for anyone's benefit but their own. There was an ulterior motive here, he just wasn't perceptive enough to see it yet.

The Djinn opened her mouth, her purple tongue sliding past her puffy lips, and Ryan's heart skipped a beat. It was pierced, he could see three golden beads standing out against her dark flesh, glinting in the twilight. They were lined up in a row straight down the middle, the Djinn clicking them against her teeth, smirking at his reaction.

Her long hair tickled his thighs as she lowered her face down towards his member. She blew warm air on his glans, laughing as he bucked, her breath alone enough to make him gasp. Her lips poised a hair's breadth away from his glans, the creature prolonging his suffering for as long as possible, before she finally relented. She took his head into her mouth, closing her lips tightly around it. Ryan dug his fingers into the silk sheets, groaning as she began to lick.

It felt so different to the long, winding muscle of a Seirim tongue. The Djinn's was shorter, no longer than that of a human, but those metal beads created an entirely new layer of sensation that turned his legs to jelly. The contrast between her slick, smooth organ and the hard metal made his toes curl, Ryan shivering as she raked them along his sensitive underside.

He wouldn't have imagined that metal would feel this way. He had expected it to be cold and hard, but it was warmed by the heat of her mouth, the rounded surfaces of the piercings coated in her drool.

She circled his glans, holding his cock in her mouth as it pulsed between her lips. She was doting, her pace maddeningly slow, carefully painting every millimeter of his tender flesh. Her soft cheeks pressed around him, her mouth smaller and tighter than anything that he was used to, the demon struggling to crawl her lips down his shaft. The combination of saliva and sexual fluids eased his passage, and she managed to get her lips down halfway, her tongue swirling inside her mouth all the while.

She battered him with flurries of quick licks, letting her drool flow freely, rolling down his shaft to join the lingering sheen of excitement that still clung to it. If the Djinn cared at all that his member was currently coated in a layer of her sister's creamy fluids, then she didn't show it, her tightly pursed lips finally reaching the golden band at the base. His glans slid into her throat, her muscles seizing around it, contracting in wracking waves as she swallowed the saliva that was pooling in her mouth. The curtain of her raven hair fell over his lower body, and he could no longer see her, he could only feel the sharp pangs of pleasure as they crawled up his spine like questing fingers.

She struggled to draw him deeper, her slippery gullet kneading and constricting as she spasmed, her lips kissing his belly and her pierced tongue sliding out to wet his balls. She wrapped her arms around his thighs, pulling herself down on him, her blue cheeks flushed a shade of deep purple as she held her breath. There was so much suction, like she was trying to suck his ejaculate past the obstruction, the sensations mingling into a tumultuous blur of damp satin and roiling muscle until he could no longer distinguish them.

He looked up at the Djinn who was still stroking his hair as he lay in her lap, his eyes unfocused, his expression begging her for relief. She merely continued her massage, attempting to soothe his exquisite suffering in a way that came off as more mocking than genuine.

When he turned his eyes back down towards his groin, the curtain of dark hair was lifting, and he saw a pair of purple lips slide back up his shaft to linger at the tip. The Djinn lapped at his glans for a moment, teasing the underside with the trio of piercings, then drew back and let his rigid member fall into her hand. Fat strings of bubbling saliva linked her mouth to his twitching member, some falling to dangle from her chin in an obscene web, dropping to her chest and sliding down between her blue breasts as she caught her breath.

Before he had time to recover, she wrapped his length in two of her hands, only his pink glans protruding from the prison of blue fingers. She began to twist, alternating in two different directions, taking advantage of how slippery and wet his skin was. Her grip was firm, harsh, but there was so much of her drool still coating his cock that it hardly mattered.

She eyed the shiny head of his member greedily, then leaned down to plant a wet, lingering kiss on the tip. It sent a jolt of searing pleasure coursing up his spine, dizzying him with its intensity. Next she brought her piercings to bear again, seeming to know exactly where he was most vulnerable and exploiting his every weakness, reducing him to a shivering mess.

He felt another orgasm bubbling up inside him, groaning despite himself as his muscles clenched and his balls heaved, much to the amusement of his audience. Every fiber of his being was awash in pleasure. He was exhausted and sore, his breathing ragged and irregular, his heart thumping in his chest like he had just run a marathon. The terrible, urgent need to quench the fire that was threatening to burn him alive rose up again, an orgasm that threatened to rend his sanity scratching at the gate.

The Djinn pumped her fists, the sensation so wonderful and permeating. He could feel the satisfying sting of her touch in the core of his being, like she was reaching inside him to scratch an itch that was just out of his reach. It all came to a head as the demon opened her mouth in anticipation, waiting for the torrent of ejaculate that would soon pour out of him in hot, thick ropes. She batted her long lashes at him, meeting his gaze with her yellow eyes, her expression comely and seductive. She needed no shared language to communicate what she wanted from him.

Ryan was climbing higher and higher, the raw, piercing pleasure spreading through his body like a fever. He was so close that he could practically taste it, stars dancing before his eyes, his brain popping like popcorn in a pan. He reached the precipice, trembling as he opened his mouth in a silent moan, and then...

Nothing...

The release that he so desperately sought evaded him once again, his loins aching, his muscles burning as they tried to force his emission past the devilish golden band that was secured around the base. This was impossible, he was going crazy, his conscious mind slipping as his primal instincts came to the forefront. He tried to thrust, to glean any stimulation that he could get, just the little that he needed to push him over the edge. But they wouldn't let him. As long as he was in their power, he would come only when they decided that it was time.

He collapsed back into the lap of the Djinn who was kneeling behind him, looking up at her, pleading. She took his burning face in her hands, her palms cool against his red cheeks, and leaned down closer. She locked him in an upside-down kiss, her soft lips pressing against his and her tongue sliding into his mouth. Ryan was used to tongues that were far longer than his own, and for once he was able to reciprocate, meeting her in a hasty, unbridled embrace.

Their tongues entwined, and he noted that this demon too was pierced, a single stud of metal brushing against his muscle as her organ explored the inside of his mouth. He was so ardent, his heart fluttering in his chest, desperately making out with her as if it might somehow lessen his frustration.

As their salacious kiss dragged on, he felt lips around his cock again, and he whined into his partner's mouth as the cruel blowjob resumed. He wanted to call to Nahash, but he wasn't sure what he was feeling any longer. He felt amazing, bursts of ecstasy coursing through his every nerve, awash in tingling sensations. He loved this, he craved this, and yet he hated it. He wanted it to be over, he longed for the satisfaction of climax, but he didn't want this feeling of euphoria to end either.

Pleasure, pain, it was all a blurred mess. He couldn't think straight, his brain was foggy, his thoughts wandering and unfocused.

He heard the snap of Gamori's fingers once more, and the Djinni abruptly withdrew, the lips leaving his throbbing erection and the smooth tongue sliding out of his mouth. He was left lying alone on the bed, his beleaguered body glistening with oil and sweat, the demons retreating to the edges of the mattress as if they were suddenly afraid to touch him.

Was it over? No, he could still feel the pressure of the band as it pinched the base of his now painfully rigid member. He struggled to focus his eyes on the darkness beyond the flowing curtains, seeing something approaching the circular bed. It was Gamori, sitting on her camel as it came to a stop before him.

It was time for the main event it seemed, and the demon dropped down from her satin saddle. He expected to see her land on her feet, but instead, she vanished out of view below the lip of the mattress as if she had fallen over. He propped himself up on his elbows, trying to see over the edge, and after a moment she began to slowly rise. Her curled horns appeared, then her blue turban, the feathers attached to the golden badge that was stitched to the forehead blowing gently in the night breeze.

It was intimidating, and Ryan had to fight the urge to scramble backwards as she loomed over the bed, now appearing taller than the length of her legs should have allowed for. She was still wearing that blue veil around her face so that only her eyes were visible, glinting at him in the moonlight as she stared down at her prey. That was the impression that he got from her, not that she was about to make love to him, but that she was going to eat him. He tried to shake off the ridiculous fear, knowing that nothing could happen to him due to the clauses in their contract, but the strange apprehension lingered as she climbed onto the mattress.

He felt the bed sag near his feet as she put her weight on it, the Djinni parting to let her pass, staying out of her way as she crawled closer to him. Her long, golden necklace dangled from her shoulders as she neared, that strange crown that hung from the blue sash around her waist drawing his gaze as it caught the light. What had her entry in the Lesser Key of Solomon said about it? It was a Duchess' crown, that was it. Why wasn't she wearing that instead of the turban? It must be symbolic of something.

She dragged herself forward, gripping the sheets with her pointed nails, almost as if her legs didn't work. She moved like a paraplegic who had fallen out of their wheelchair. When she reached his feet, she rose to a kneeling posture, then higher. Something was wrong, her legs had no joints, they were moving like they didn't even have bones in them. He couldn't make them out very well in the darkness, obscured as they were beneath her long skirt, but it almost seemed as if...

Gamori rose still higher, supporting herself on her lower body, and it finally clicked. She had no legs, that was a tail. Gamori had the lower body of a snake. That was why she had been riding side-saddle on her camel, not because she was demure, but because she didn't have two legs. Like a form of predatory mimicry, she had fooled him into believing that she was a normal woman beneath that blue silk, she had imitated the body plan of a human perfectly. Now he was uncertain, he had no idea what she might look like under those lavish clothes.

As if to sate his morbid curiosity, she reached up towards her face, her long sleeves falling back to reveal her hands and forearms. Where once he had assumed there was pallid skin, now he was not so sure. Was that shine from sweat, was the unhealthy color a result of her demonic nature, or was that even skin at all?

He watched with a mixture of horror and intrigue as she hooked her long fingers around her veil and slowly pulled it down to expose her face in its entirety.

Where Ryan had expected to see a nose, she was entirely flat, with two nostrils like those of a snake. Her mouth was unnaturally wide and lipless, oddly shaped, more like the maw of a serpent than anything resembling the facial features of a person. She opened her jaws wider than should have been possible, exposing a pair of hypodermic fangs that were sheathed in the roof of her mouth, like a viper or a cobra. A long, purple tongue flicked out to taste the air, forked and reptilian.

It filled Ryan with a kind of instinctual fear, eons of evolution warning him to stay clear of anything that slithered, lest it sink its teeth into him and inject him with some horrible venom. He fought it off, trying to conceal his alarm, reminding himself that the terms of their contract prohibited her from harming him.

This explained why she was mute at least, she lacked any kind of vocal apparatus that could reproduce human speech. Why did she choose to appear this way?

Gamori reached behind her back, as flexible as a contortionist, and untied her sash. It fell from her waist, along with the crown, and the Djinni scurried forward to take it from her. They retreated back into the shadows as their demonic master began to remove her clothing, the sash apparently the only thing that had been holding it together. She wriggled and squirmed, her long body winding from side to side in a kind of strange dance, like a snake that was trying to shed its skin. It sloughed off her body to reveal her long neck, then her shoulders, Ryan's eyes widening as she exposed herself to him.

Her torso was very much that of a human, with slim, feminine shoulders and an hourglass figure. She had breasts somewhere between those of the Djinni and Nahash, large and hefty, but not unusually so. Her belly was flat, with no visible navel, and below her wide hips was where things got strange. Where the thighs would have begun on a human, her body instead tapered into a thick, muscular tail. It was just like that of a snake, the same pale grey color as the rest of her. It reminded him of Medusa, the Gorgon from Greek mythology who had the upper body of a woman and the tail of a serpent.

As the Djinni reached out with their many arms to pull the discarded clothing out of Gamori's way, Ryan noticed her lack of loins. Where one would expect to find a vagina, there was nothing but smooth skin. Granted, she had no legs between which to put one, but where else would it go? Did she not have one at all? How did she expect to have sex with him?

He was afraid, shocked by her odd and unexpected appearance, and yet his member stood hard and prominent before her. The golden band prevented his erection from receding no matter his state of mind, regardless of how much it should be shrinking back into his body like the head of a frightened turtle right now.

Ryan lurched as he felt something cold touch the bare skin of his waist. It was the tapered end of Gamori's tail, far longer than it had first appeared. Perhaps it had been folded in on itself while confined within her long skirt? It began to slowly coil around him, almost as if she was trying to get a hold of him without him noticing, like a snake that was creeping closer to strike an unsuspecting mouse. She didn't say a word, she never did, she merely stared down at him with those ice-blue eyes. Her expression was almost scornful, she seemed to be turning her nose up at him, if what she had could be referred to as a nose.

He watched, unable to do anything besides lie there as her long tail slowly wound its way around his waist like a giant anaconda that was about to make a meal out of him. Her skin was smooth and shiny, grey in color, and she had a layer of soft fat that made her pudgier than she had first appeared. Upon closer inspection, he realized that it was not skin at all, but scales. They were so small and fine as to be almost imperceptible, indistinguishable from skin at a glance. They were as smooth as glass and surprisingly dry. He had never held a snake before, but he had always assumed that they would be slimy.

One chubby coil gripped him, then a second, the demon was trying to cocoon him. He felt a twinge of panic and began to struggle, but the moment that Gamori sensed movement she abandoned stealth and sprang into action. Before Ryan could so much as cry out in alarm, she had enclosed his entire body in her winding tail. He tried to move, but found that it was impossible, his legs were tied together and his arms were trapped at his sides. When he looked down, all that he could see were her pale scales.

Her upper body loomed over him, enough of her tail remaining to support her, and she gave him a hard squeeze that drove the air out of his lungs. He got the message, relaxing and ceasing his struggling, which seemed to please the serpentine demon. Her purple tongue would flick out of her mouth every so often like that of a lizard, her breasts hanging enticingly from her chest and swaying with her slow movements. She looked like a cobra dancing to the tune of a snake charmer, fluid and hypnotic, Ryan finding it somehow calming.

She had raised him off the bed with her thick coils, and so she slid her tail beneath his head to serve as a pillow, cushioning him with her doughy body. Gamori was to his right now, or at least her upper body was, hovering over him like he was a specimen on a dissection table. He was totally at her mercy now. The only things that he could move were his head and his toes, which were protruding from the bottommost of her restraining coils.

What was she going to do with him? The intolerable teasing and the prolonged foreplay that the Djinni had subjected him to, the oil massage, it had all been to prepare him for their master. But how she would go about extracting his resources was a complete mystery to him. He couldn't even see his erection anymore, it was trapped between two of her coils, her smooth scales pressing around his sensitive organ.

However she elected to go about it, he hoped that she would do it soon. He had been driven half-mad by lust and frustration to the point that he would welcome the release even if it came from this unnerving creature.

Between his legs appeared the pointed tip of her long tail, rising from the mattress as though it was itself a cobra preparing to strike. It moved up his body, suspended in the air, until it came to hover over his groin. Gamori parted two of her fat coils, exposing his erection to the cool air. Ryan still couldn't see it over the rolls of her body, but he could feel the movement.

The demon watched it, her expression aloof, the tail drawing slowly closer. She reached a hand out towards her appendage, and Ryan's eyes widened as he watched her part some kind of orifice with her fingers. It was located near the base of her tail, perhaps six inches below its tapered tip, pink flesh visible beneath the fine scales. It didn't look like any vagina that Ryan had ever seen before, it was just a fleshy hole, it looked stretchy and almost elastic. He could see that it was wet, however, glistening with moisture as Gamori lowered it towards his erection.

He lurched suddenly, the demon manipulating his bound frame with her muscular coils, raising his upper body and propping him up so that he could see what was happening. Now he could make out his member standing erect, the golden band still pinching the base, even the gentle breeze so stimulating that it made him grit his teeth. Gamori wanted him to see what happened next, she wanted an audience.

She splayed the hole even further, showing it to him, Ryan swallowing hard as his eyes played over the strange organ. She didn't seem aroused, she wasn't trying to titillate him, it was almost as if she was saying this is what I'm going to do to you. There were no lips, no folds, and no clitoris. It was just a fleshy tube. His eyes followed a glob of what looked like lubricant as it leaked from the opening, sliding slowly down her smooth scales.

Gamori pressed it up against his swollen glans, the merest touch of her cool flesh sending a shockwave through his body. He felt the firm muscles beneath her chubby coils tense up, keeping him still as she attempted to slide her wet opening over the head of his penis. It was too tight, there was no way that it would fit! It was like trying to wear a condom that was far too small. He groaned in a mixture of discomfort and seething pleasure as she succeeded in getting the tip inside her. It sealed around him like he was being vacuum-packed into slimy latex, a gasp slipping past his lips as he felt it twitch and shift around him.

She angled her tail downwards, the orifice apparently running up along her body, then held his shaft in her hand as she pushed down on him. Her insides were oddly cool, and it was actually rather soothing considering the overstimulation that he had been subjected to. Could cold blood be running through her veins as would befit her reptilian appearance?

Her body radiated power, he could feel her muscles moving just beneath the layer of fat, like bundles of steel suspension cables. The demon could probably have crushed the life out of him with the ease of a child squeezing a juice box. He could feel her brawn through the thin walls of her passage too, rubbing against his member, undulating in waves as if trying to suck him deeper.

Her juices were greasy and slippery, yet they did little to help him along. He watched as she managed to get him a little deeper, sliding her opening about halfway down his shaft. He was a little thicker in the middle however, and she got stuck there, the spasming of her tunnel wringing him violently. If he hadn't had that accursed band around his cock he would have come a dozen times already, every squeeze of her muscles sent a wave of orgasmic pleasure flooding through him. It was almost like a dry climax, an orgasm without the release.

She finally got him all the way inside her, the golden band at the base of his erection vanishing into her tail as she took him to the hilt. It was different to any intercourse that he had experienced before. It was usually hot and wet, soft folds with the texture of silk enveloping him, the friction of their thrusting being the source of his pleasure. But here, he felt like his length had been wrapped in stretchy rubber, slick with a greasy substance that more resembled cooking oil than the more viscous fluids that he was used to. There was no thrusting, she wasn't plunging him in and out of her, her tail remained still while her muscles did all of the work.

It was like a throat swallowing, creating an intense pressure as the smooth tube of her organ wrung him from the base to the tip in waves. He was being milked like a dairy cow, as if fists clad in slimy latex were sliding up his cock. It was such an alien sensation, but so powerful, every wracking throb making his head spin.

Gamori watched him as his red face contorted, his body bucking and squirming in the cocoon of her scaly coils, but she held him still with her iron grip. Her expression remained neutral, she didn't seem to be gleaning any enjoyment from their coupling, she was merely performing a necessary function like some kind of automaton. It was a fitting comparison, because that's what her pulsating insides felt like, a machine that had been carefully tailored for the sole purpose of extracting resources from him. Her tongue flicked the air, her blue eyes watching him. She almost seemed disdainful. Could it be that he was just an animal to her? Some pitiful creature squirming in her grasp, no different from a sheep that was to be sheared for its wool or a prize bull that was about to have its semen extracted?

The intensity of her wringing increased, the pulsating walls of her strange organ stroking him harder and faster. It left him dazed, his eyelids fluttering. He felt like his entire body was melting into hers. It was wonderful and painful, pleasurable and intolerable, his senses hopelessly confused as they were subjected to this exquisite torture. He was so painfully aware, like he was in a heightened state of consciousness. Every nerve from the base of his engorged member to the tip lit up like a signal flare whenever she massaged him, bright and prominent in the forefront of his mind, such that he couldn't concentrate on anything else. He couldn't even think anymore, all he could do was feel.

Please,” he whined, “let me come.” It was a pitiable plea, and he was surprised to hear those words come from his own mouth, as if he was watching from afar as someone else puppeteered his body. “I can't take it...”

Gamori didn't react, she just watched him with that cold, calculating stare as her powerful loins sought to suck him dry. It dragged on and on, sweat pouring from his skin, his breath ragged and irregular. The muscles in his pelvic region burned with the exertion, so many fruitless orgasms stressing them beyond anything that he was used to, the ache of his swollen member becoming intolerable.

Just as it became too much for him, when he was about to cry out to Nahash for help, he felt a release of pressure as the tight band that had been fit snugly around his erection vanished into thin air. Immediately the dam that had been stemming the tide of so many backed up climaxes burst, one cruel, rolling contraction of her slimy tunnel all that it took to send him over the edge.

There was a brief moment where he didn't feel anything, as if time had been suspended, and then the flood of ejaculate burst up through him like an erupting volcano. He could really feel it, every thick clump of his stored up semen bulging his urethra, an unbecoming moan slipping out as he shot a thick rope of it into Gamori's eager tunnel. The pleasure took a moment to catch up with him, surging inside him with an intensity that actually scared him, Ryan not knowing if he could even handle it.

The ecstasy hit him like a fist to the gut, raw and primal, teasing his aching muscles as it spread through his body. It wasn't confined to his erection, the wonderful tingling radiating through the core of his body, reaching every extremity. The waves of his orgasm rocked him like the crashing tides of an ocean, a primal force that was completely beyond his ability to control or contain. Like a stranded sailor being buffeted by the waves on a stormy sea, all he could do was attempt to ride it out as the euphoria drowned him.

The pitiless milking of Gamori's loins continued even as his erection leapt inside her, beating like a second heart as it struggled to spill its load. Hot, thick ejaculate splashed against the rippling walls of her passage, contrasting sharply with her cool flesh. Her muscles drew it deeper, sending more jolts of pleasure tearing through him, like it was sucking the semen directly from his body. It felt like she was pulling a knotted rope out of him, it just kept going and going.

Through the haze of his pleasure, he finally understood the point of all this. The Djinni had teased him so for the express purpose of storing up an unreasonable amount of his emission behind the restraining band, so that Gamori could limit her contact with him and receive as much of his energy as possible in a single encounter. It was so calculated, brutally efficient, there would be no need for prolonged sex or multiple couplings as had been the case with Vapula.

He wanted it to be over now, he couldn't take it. The sensation was too intense, and it didn't show any signs of ending. As another crippling wave of ecstasy turned his legs to jelly, he wondered if he might pass out.

Gradually the intense pleasure began to subside, giving way to a duller, lingering euphoria. He felt giddy, high, his thoughts jumbled as he lay in Gamori's soft folds. He shivered and gasped as his member throbbed once more, pumping the last of his ejaculate into her, her dexterous muscles quickly carrying it away. She let him lie there for a moment, basking in his afterglow, then she began to unwind. Her smooth scales brushed against his wet skin as she released him, depositing him back onto the bed. Ryan felt another sharp pang of sensation as her tight loins slid back up his length and released him with a sucking pop, his aching erection now finally able to recede.

It was so sore, it felt like it should be covered in bruises, but the state of nirvana in which he found himself did a fine job of masking the pain. He could hear the snickering of the Djinni, apparently having enjoyed the show, the chorus of their laughter echoing through the grove.

Everything felt wonderful, it was like he was drunk. Even the silken sheets felt amazing as they pressed against him, the gentle breeze cooling his damp skin. He didn't want to move a muscle, he just wanted to lie there forever, to fall asleep and slip into some beautiful dream.

His bliss was quickly disturbed, however, Gamori prodding him with one of her fingers. She folded her arms, waiting for something. Of course, she expected to be dismissed now that her contract was complete.

He looked around drunkenly, wondering where his copy of the Lesser Key had gotten to. He had left it on the ground somewhere, he didn't even know where he was right now in relation to the summoning circle. Doing nothing to hide her frustration, Gamori slid her long tail off the edge of the bed, retrieving the heavy book and depositing it unceremoniously onto his belly. He picked it up, struggling to focus his eyes, and flicked through the pages until he found the banishing ritual.

It was unlikely that Gamori would demand an especially formal dismissal, she seemed eager to be rid of him. He felt oddly like he had just awoken from a one-night stand and his now less than impressed date was demanding that he call her an Uber. The Djinni at least seemed to have enjoyed his company. He could have sworn that he even saw one of them waving to him, but maybe the darkness was just playing tricks on him.

After a hurried and rather slurred banishing ritual, Gamori climbed back up into her camel's saddle, folding her long tail across its back to once again resemble a pair of legs. She gave him one last icy glare, then vanished into a whirlwind of sand. The mattress beneath him began to sag, and Ryan looked down to see that the bed was also made from sand, which was collapsing now that the demon had taken her leave of him.

It fell like a sand castle being dissolved by the tide, dropping him heavily to the grass below, the particles carried away by a gust of wind until there was no evidence that it had ever been there.

Ryan sat up, getting his bearings, his soreness returning with a vengeance as his euphoria began to wane. Nahash reached down to help him to his feet, and he leaned his weight on her as she led him towards a pile of cushions that she had no doubt conjured seconds earlier. She sat him down then presented him with a bowl of clear liquid as her sisters crowded around, jostling to get a look at him.

Here, drink this,” she whispered. “You must hydrate.”

He took the wooden bowl from her hands and gulped down the contents eagerly, the cool water refreshing him somewhat. Nahash hovered nearby as he took a minute to compose himself.

I think I might need some more of that salve,” he chuckled, then quickly stopped when the laughter hurt his aching muscles.

Are you alright?” Nahash asked, and he nodded.

All things considered, it went a little better than Vapula's summoning.”

I didn't know whether or not to intervene,” she said, her tone apologetic. “Your emotions were so confused, I couldn't tell if you were enjoying what was being done to you or not. You never called out to me for help, and so I thought it best to let the encounter run its course.”

She didn't hurt me, she adhered to the terms of the contract,” he said as he set the bowl down on the ground beside him. “I have to admit, I've never felt so frustrated in all of my life. I thought I was losing my mind for a while back there.”

He was perhaps treating the situation with more flippancy than it deserved, but his afterglow still lingered, and the exertion had given him a kind of runner's high. He still felt rather giddy, almost tipsy, and right now all he really wanted to do was rest.

I've never seen you so...wanting,” Nahash added, a hint of arousal in her tone. “Gamori and her Djinni put on quite the show...”

Feeling jealous?” Ryan chuckled, holding his ribs and wincing as a stab of pain shot through him. “You can buy those rings, you know.”

Her ears perked up at that, and she blinked her eyes at him.

R-Really?”

Yep, you can order them online. I'll make you a deal. If we get out of this grove in one piece, and if our lives ever return to any semblance of normalcy, I'll let you buy the weirdest marital aids known to man and you can use them on me to your heart's content. How about it?”

Well I wasn't invested in our survival before,” she joked, “but now I certainly am.”

Glad to see all of those comedy specials that I made you watch are rubbing off on you,” he grumbled as he lay back on the soft pillows.

CHAPTER 8: ANGELS AND DEMONS

Campfires lit the dark forest, casting long, dancing shadows between the trees. Clustered around them were soldiers clad in combat gear, their rifles leaning on nearby trunks or hanging over their shoulders on slings. They muttered quietly, making idle conversation as they waited for the order to move out.

The squad had been assigned by the Grand Lodge to take out a rogue summoner and his familiars who were holed up in a nearby grove, but it was protected by magic that was beyond the order's ability to breach. Now all that they could do was wait.

One of them slapped his forearm, the limb sheathed in black combat armor, crushing an especially large moth that had landed there. The whole forest seemed to grow more infested with bugs and weeds the closer they got to their destination, like the grove was the beating heart of this woodland. You couldn't take two steps without finding some disgusting insect or a tangle of creepers that seemed almost designed to be a trip hazard. They had already lost one soldier to a broken ankle as a result of getting it caught in a gnarled root. It was rough terrain, and it didn't make for a very attractive campsite. Everyone was twitchy, impatient, tired of waiting for the time to strike.

The low murmur of voices was interrupted by the hiss of a radio, and everyone went quiet, listening intently as their leader stood and held the blocky device to his ear. There was a hurried conversation, the tinny voice at the other end too hard to make out for the onlookers, and then the man turned to address his subordinates.

The call has come through, pack up your gear and get ready to move. They're sending a VIP to bring down the barrier.”

VIP, that was a Mason code word for a demon. Nobody liked being around those things for very long, and the soldiers hoped that the thing would perform its function and then promptly leave. They retrieved their gear and prepared to move on the grove, checking ammo and adjusting the straps of their rucksacks, kicking dirt onto their campfires to choke out the flames.

When the fires had all gone dark, and the only light was coming from the moon as it bled through the forest canopy, their attention was drawn to a burst of orange flame. At first, they assumed that someone had failed to put out their campfire, but the blaze began to grow and spit, leaking what looked like molten metal onto the ground as it became a roaring torrent of flame. A creature stepped through it, as if the burning fire was some kind of portal, its massive paws crunching the twigs and leaves beneath them.

Haures was birthed from the raging inferno, taking the form of a monstrous panther, his eyes shooting fire like a pair of blowtorches. The slaver that dripped from his maw resembled glowing magma, but it didn't set the undergrowth on fire where the droplets landed. In fact, it was a miracle that the whole forest hadn't gone up in a blaze. The beast lurked there, watching the soldiers as if it was waiting for something to happen. Was this not the VIP to which their commander had referred?

They stood around nervously, keeping their distance from the demon, until a bright glow illuminated the forest. Rays of blinding light shone between the trees, emanating from what seemed to be a single point, as if a burning ball of white phosphorous was hovering a few feet off the ground. The soldiers turned away or covered their faces, gasps of alarm and exclamations echoing through the forest. The bright light slowly faded, and when they were again able to look directly at it, it had taken the form of a giant figure.

It was a man, twice as tall as a normal person. He had long locks of golden, curly hair falling about his shoulders and he was clad in beautiful armor. It looked almost medieval in design, plates of white metal with golden trim, inscribed with flowing text and holy sigils. The pauldrons alone were almost as large as a mortal man's torso, yet he moved as if the armor weighed nothing at all. They noted that his feet were bare, the roots and brambles withering away where he trod as if clearing a path for him. His skin was pale, his features youthful, and his eyes were a shade of striking amber that glowed subtly in the gloom as he examined his surroundings. Most notably of all, upon his back were perched three pairs of feathery wings, reflecting the light of the moon like they were forged from solid gold. Light seemed to emanate from him, as if he was under a spotlight with no visible source.

It was an Angel, a Seraphim, the highest of their order and one of the most divine beings in the Universe. The soldiers could hardly stop themselves from kneeling before the figure as intense emotions of awe and reverence came over them. The Seraphim smiled jovially, gesturing for them to rise, radiating love and warmth.

Rise, friends,” he said in a voice that would have put any opera singer to shame. “The Lord has need of you tonight.”

He was impossible to deny, they felt an urgent need to obey him, some of the men wiping tears of joy from their eyes as they readied their rifles and took up position behind him. Haures lurked in the shadows nearby, eyeing the entity with a mixture of wariness and disdain.

The Seraphim cleared a path as he walked towards the grove, the plants seeming to recoil as if exposed to great heat, the swarms of insects fleeing. As he neared the tangled mess of vines and twisted trunks that marked the boundary of the grove, like a physical wall of plant matter that impeded their progress, the Angel raised a hand above his head and opened his fingers as if preparing to grip something.

A shaft of light materialized in his hand as if he was holding a golden ray of sunshine, the formless glow slowly taking on the shape of a gigantic spear. The shaft was made from pale wood, and it was tipped with an ornate, gilded spearhead. Without hesitation, he plunged the weapon into the barrier like a javelin, embedding it deep into the twisted plant matter with an audible thud.

The wall of vegetation seemed to tremble, a shudder passing along it in a wave, and then the gnarled brambles and hedges began to recede from the point of impact like they were shying away from it. They could hear creaking wood and rustling leaves, the wall parting and forming a breach large enough to let the group pass unhindered.

He waved the soldiers forward, their boots pounding on the newly cleared earth as they shouldered their weapons and advanced through the opening, Haures skulking along behind them.

***

What was that?” Nahash asked, her head snapping back to stare into the darkness at the edge of the clearing. Her ovine ears flicked, angled towards the source of some unheard sound. Her sisters did the same, the group of Seirim abandoning their idle play and revelry in unison to peer into the gloom.

What was what?” Ryan asked, rising from his sitting position in Nahash's lap and brushing himself off. “I didn't hear anything.”

Something is wrong,” Nahash muttered, her tone ominous. “Get behind me, Ryan.”

The barrier,” one of her sisters crowed, “we are exposed!”

From the darkness appeared a light, growing more brilliant as Ryan watched. When it came into focus, he realized that it was a humanoid figure. He was unnaturally tall and broad-shouldered, marching across the grass as if he wasn't even touching the ground. He was encased in some kind of glowing armor, and even his flowing mane of blonde hair seemed to radiate light. He was beautiful, for lack of a better word, majestic. It was like watching some profound work of art take human form and begin walking around the gallery.

Watcher!” Nahash hissed, bristling as she took a defensive stance in front of Ryan. The other Seirim did the same, their usually gentle faces contorted into furious snarls, their pointed claws extended and ready to strike.

A Watcher? If Azazel was a fallen Watcher, then did that make this entity...an Angel? He could certainly believe it, even the long grass and the wildflowers seemed to be parting before his bare feet as he made his way towards them.

The Seirim looked ready to tear him limb from limb, but Ryan couldn't understand their hostility. This man was the very picture of purity and grace, just looking at him filled him with an odd sense of peace and tranquility. Somehow he felt that he could trust this creature implicitly. The entity didn't look like he was about to attack them, perhaps he just wanted to talk?

As the glowing man drew closer, Ryan noticed that much of what had appeared to be a halo of light surrounding him was actually several pairs of golden wings, shining as the gilded feathers reflected a light that had no obvious source. Although it was the dead of night and the only illumination came from the moon and stars, this Watcher seemed to have been plucked straight out of a summer's day, like video footage that was being superimposed from another source. His ornate armor even glinted as if it was under direct sunlight.

The figure spread his arms wide, showing them that he was unarmed.

Child of Adam,” he said, his voice musical and sweet. Apparently, he was addressing Ryan. “Come, treat with me. There is no need to shed innocent blood today.”

Of course, why would he disobey such a reasonable request? The mere presence of this creature warmed his heart, filling him with an emotion that could almost be described as joy. The Seirim were overreacting, he knew for a fact that he was entirely safe.

He stepped out from behind Nahash, walking towards the Watcher like a moth drawn to a flame, the man smiling warmly as he extended a hand towards him. It felt like coming home, like being reunited with a childhood friend who he hadn't seen in decades. Ryan couldn't help but return the smile as he reached out, tears welling in his eyes.

Nahash grabbed him by the arm and jerked him back, Ryan reeling in confusion.

Ryan! Do not look at it!”

What?” he replied, confused by her reaction. His brain felt fuzzy, his thoughts muddled. He tried to step forward again, wanting nothing more than to be closer to this Angelic being, but Nahash kept a tight grip on him.

Close your eyes, Ryan,” she hissed. “Listen to my voice!”

One of her sisters grabbed him from behind and held him, covering his eyes with her hand and blocking out the brilliant glare from the Watcher. As soon as his world went dark, Ryan felt a strangely familiar sensation come over him. He felt exactly the way that he did when Nahash used her empathic powers on him, manipulating his emotions. As the dulling of his senses subsided, he began to think clearly again. He was alarmed by what had just happened, he had very nearly walked into the arms of their enemy. What would have happened to him had Nahash and her Seirim not been there to stop him? The Watcher's powers were many times stronger than that of a Seirim, completely compelling him to act against his own interests.

When the Seirim moved her hand to let him see again, much of the bright glow that radiated from the Watcher had faded, though he was still unnaturally bright. Ryan no longer felt that strange sense of joy and reverence when he looked at the entity now, it seemed that the Angel had abandoned his attempt to influence Ryan. He could now see that the entity was wielding a spear of enormous proportions, it must have been fourteen feet long, tipped with a golden point.

Ah, Nephilim,” the Watcher said as his vibrant features twisted into a sneer. “You are as troublesome as ever. If only our father had succeeded in washing your filth from the Earth.”

Ryan's stomach lurched as he watched a four-legged creature skulk out from behind the Watcher, hunched low to the ground as it fixed its blazing eyes on him. It was Haures, the demon was unmistakable, molten saliva dripping from its jaws as it loosed a rumbling growl. That settled it, no creature that kept such company could be anything but evil.

This grove is protected,” Nahash spat, standing her ground despite how intimidated she obviously was by the sudden appearance of this Watcher. “Leave now, or face the consequences of trespassing in Azazel's domain.”

Why do you think I'm here?” the Watcher shot back, flicking his golden hair and resting the spear across his armored shoulder. He looked so casual, aloof, as if this whole affair was just a waste of his time. “Where is my beloved brother? I had hoped to do some catching up...”

His voice dripped with venom, he was referring to Azazel no doubt. Ryan noted that his mannerisms and speech patterns were not as archaic as some of the other demons and entities that he had encountered. Like Nahash, perhaps this Watcher had interacted with modern humans more recently than some of the Goetic demons?

The question had been carefully formulated to trap Nahash. If she answered truthfully, then she might expose herself to attack.

Leave now,” she bellowed, choosing to ignore his query.

Very well,” the Watcher sighed, “perhaps we can draw him out if the wretch refuses to show himself.”

Faster than anyone could react, the Seraphim raised his spear above his head, swinging it towards Nahash. There was a crack like thunder, and Ryan was thrown into the air along with a torrent of dirt as if a land mine had just gone off under his feet. He landed hard on his back, knocking the air out of his lungs. As he struggled to right himself he saw that the Seirim had been scattered, but not by a blow from the spear.

There was a dark shape standing where they had been only seconds before, and as it unfurled a pair of great, leathery wings, Ryan recognized it. Azazel had come down from the sky like a thunderbolt, blocking the Seraphim's spear with its flaming halberd. The licking flames that encompassed the massive axe head petered out, leaving what looked like recently forged metal, still glowing orange with heat as the monster pushed its adversary back.

The Angel's bare feet skidded on the dirt, and he brought his spear to bear once again, pointing the golden tip at Azazel. The creature was unmistakable, twelve feet or more of bulging muscle coated in dark hair, a pair of twisted ram's horns protruding from its head as its three eyes glowed with infernal heat. It stamped its cloven hooves, making the ground vibrate beneath Ryan's feet, braying like a goat as it confronted the armored man.

Nice of you to join us, brother,” the Seraphim chimed. Apparently, he had been expecting this, he didn't seem at all surprised by the sudden appearance of the monster. “You're looking grotesque, as always.”

Samael,” Azazel replied, its unearthly voice making Ryan's skin crawl. It spoke with a flanging effect, like both a man and a goat were speaking from the same throat in unison. “I see that thou art still doing our father's bidding.”

Someone has to do the dirty work,” Samael replied, resting his spear across his armored shoulder once again. His mannerisms were so affected, he was downright flamboyant, gesturing with his free hand as he spoke. “Being the Chief Seraphim of the Fifth Heaven has its perks.”

Do not pretend that thou art burdened,” Azazel rumbled, “I have borne witness to thy cruelty and vanity in ages past.”

What can I say? I'm good at what I do.” Samael replied with a wink.

An executioner should not enjoy his work.”

The two began to circle one another warily, their weapons at the ready, staring unflinchingly as they prepared to do battle. Nahash quickly returned to Ryan's side and plucked him off his feet, pulling him clear of what would soon become an arena. Her sisters too scampered out of harm's way, staying close, watching as their father faced off against their uncle.

Who is he?” Ryan whispered.

Samael,” Nahash hissed, clutching Ryan like a doll. “He is a Seraphim, chief among Angels. They call him the Angel of Death, sometimes the Poison of God. He is a spirit of vengeance and destruction, called upon to exact justice.” She said that last word with derision, she didn't think much of their brand of justice it seemed. “He betrayed our father during the rebellion. He mated with a human woman and begot Asmodai, a terrible Nephilim, and he condoned the teaching of secret knowledge to mortals. But when the time came to choose sides, he forsook both mother and child, abandoned his friends, and returned to God's legions in exchange for power and status.”

Aren't Angels supposed to be like...the embodiment of good?” Ryan asked.

They are no different from mortals or demons. There are good Angels, there would have been no rebellion if they had all been of like mind, but Samael is vicious. He revels in conflict and violence.”

It was so jarring to be rooting for the hulking mass of fur and horns over a being that seemed to be literally made of light. More importantly, how had the Masons summoned this creature? It wasn't a demon, at least not in the sense that it was listed in the grimoires and could be conjured through conventional means. An already out of control situation was further spiraling into a nose dive.

You've been causing problems,” Samael said in a mocking tone, every step of his massive feet making the ground tremble as he squared off against Azazel. “We're so close to repairing the damage that you did, to returning the world to its rightful state, and here you are once again. You just can't help yourself from waving your big, hairy cock around and spoiling everything, can you? You should have stayed asleep.”

Samael lunged towards his opponent, aiming for Azazel's gut, but the horned beast blocked the blow with its halberd. There was a sound like a gunshot as their weapons met, Ryan covering his ears in alarm, a spray of bright sparks flying from the blades where they made contact. The forces at play here were monumental, it was like watching two wrecking balls slam together.

Disorder has always been thy greatest fear,” Azazel shot back, “what art thou without thy ranks and honors? Strip thee of thy armor and thy titles, and all that remains is a pretty coward.”

Azazel swung its weapon at Samael's head, but the Seraphim deflected it, producing another deafening bang and a shower of sparks. Samael spun his spear in his hands, never taking his eyes off his opponent.

You think that you can protect your Nephilim? They've been living on borrowed time for five thousand years, just waiting for the drop of the axe. You think that your mortal champion will be spared the rod? He's the cause of all of this, no different from you, offending God because he wanted to get his cock wet. Maybe that's why you've taken such a liking to him?”

Samael leapt into the air, spinning to bring the tip of his spear down on Azazel's head, a remarkable feat of acrobatics for a creature that was so large and heavy. The beast blocked the strike with the haft of its halberd, sagging under the force of the blow, and then took advantage of the opening to deliver a punishing kick to the Seraphim's belly.

The Angel stumbled backwards, his beautiful features contorting into a hateful glare as he recovered and readied his spear.

You always were good at fighting, brother. You used to forge the weapons and armor of Heaven, you used to command legions. Now look at you, fighting for a patch of dirt. The only creatures under your command are a handful of wretched half-breeds and a single clueless mortal. I don't know how you can bear the shame.” He delivered a flurry of fast, jabbing strikes, keeping Azazel on its toes as the creature parried them. “But fighting fair is for the honorable dead. Let's see if you can defend both yourself and your charges!”

Right on cue, Haures emerged from the shadows where he had been lurking, his burning eyes fixed on Ryan as droplets of molten saliva dripped from his jaws. The Seirim took up position around him, shielding him. Nahash had been able to hold back the demon by herself for a time, surely Haures could not take on all of the Seirim on his own? As if to answer Ryan's question, there was more movement from behind Samael, a dozen figures pouring in through the breach in the barrier and taking up position in a firing line. They looked like the corrupt SWAT team who had first attacked Ryan in his apartment, clad in black body armor and wielding automatic rifles that they trained on the Satyrs.

Azazel was distracted, clearly wanting to intervene, but Samael pressed the attack to keep the fallen Watcher locked in battle. If Azazel focused all of its attention on defeating its opponent, then it would be leaving Ryan and the Seirim to fend for themselves. It could attempt to save them, but in doing so, it would risk exposing itself to attack from Samael. Ryan had always seen the entity as being nigh-omnipotent, but now it was locked in a struggle with someone who seemed to be its martial equal.

He looked down the barrels of the guns, Haures inching slowly closer like a stalking tiger, his heart racing as he tried to think of a way out. The cover of the forest was too far away to reach in time, and the Seirim would fare no better in a hail of gunfire than he would, he had seen Nahash's form dissipated by conventional weapons.

The Masons had brought all of their forces to bear and they were completely trapped. He reached out and took Nahash's hand, squeezing it tightly as he looked up at her. They shared a lingering glance, Ryan worrying that it might be their last, but then he saw fresh determination in her ovine eyes.

Sisters!” Nahash called out, releasing Ryan and balling her fists. “Let the forest reclaim this grove!”

She crouched and slammed her hands on the ground, the other Seirim following suit. Ryan watched, confused, and then he began to feel it. His hair started to stand on end, as if the air was crackling with static electricity. The atmosphere was thick with magick, he could feel it buzzing on his skin, the grass itself seeming to vibrate beneath his feet. From the trees emerged great swarms of insects, so thick that they blotted out the stars. Flies, bees and moths, butterflies and all manner of winged bugs encircled them in an obscuring cloud. It was like being in the eye of a tornado, the combined flapping of their myriad wings sounded like an outboard motor.

The soldiers broke ranks, trying to fight them off, waving their hands as the swarm startled them. Animals followed close behind, squirrels leaping from the branches and scurrying towards the Seirim, deer breaking through the wall of foliage as if didn't hinder them at all. An especially large stag collided with one of the soldiers, seeming more startled than aggressive, the man turning his weapon on it and cutting the helpless beast in half with a burst of automatic fire. Even Haures had to leap clear, the sudden stampede taking him by surprise. It was as though the woods themselves were coming to their aid.

Now the ground began to tremble, as if an earthquake was shaking the grove. Before his eyes he saw shoots sprout from between the blades of grass, rising rapidly towards the sky as they began to swell and grow. Wildflowers broke the soil, weeds and grasses shooting up to waist height in a matter of seconds. Some of those shoots grew scales of bark, branches extending so rapidly that Ryan had to duck to avoid losing an eye. Creepers and vines wound around the newly formed trunks, mosses coating the bark, a canopy of green leaves growing above his head. He lost his balance and fell on his ass.

When he rose to his feet again, he couldn't see anyone. Not Nahash or her sisters, not Haures and the soldiers, not even Azazel and Samael. He was standing in lush woodland, overflowing with plants and creatures. He couldn't see a single tree that wasn't swarming with bugs and critters, the air thick with falling leaves and particles of what must be pollen. It was dark and eerie, he didn't even have the light of the moon to see by now.

The Seirim had grown an entire forest in less than a minute, they must have expended an obscene quantity of energy to achieve this feat. In doing so, they had been separated from him, the trees were so tightly packed that he couldn't see more than a few feet in any direction. He wanted to call out to her, but he risked revealing his position to Haures.

Ryan jumped as he heard another crack ring out, somewhat muffled now by the dense undergrowth. Azazel and Samael were still dueling somewhere nearby. He advanced through the trees, squeezing between the moss-covered trunks where they were pressed tightly together. There was no line of sight, scarcely any room to maneuver. Could Haures be stalking this forest, waiting behind a tree to pounce on him? Where were the Seirim? It was like a maze in here.

Another bang echoed through the trees, it seemed to be coming from somewhere to his right. Better stay clear, he didn't want to be crushed under the feet of the two battling giants. He moved away from the noise cautiously, hoping that he would meet Nahash or one of her sisters before Haures or one of the Mason soldiers. The grass was tall enough to reach his waist, the flowers and tangled undergrowth making it hard to move. At least it was muffling his footsteps.

As he rounded an especially thick tree trunk that was coated in a layer of twisted vines, he heard a twig snap. He pressed himself flush against the tree, his breath catching in his throat. Who was it? Friend or foe? Trembling, he slowly moved his head, peeking out from behind cover and willing his eyes to penetrate the gloom.

It was a man, human, clad in black ballistic armor. His rifle was shouldered, and he was swinging it between the trees, searching. It was one of the Masons, separated from his squad by the sudden appearance of the forest just as Ryan had been separated from the Seirim. He looked just as lost as Ryan felt.

Now that he could get a closer look, he could see that the man was wielding a H&K G-36, a service rifle of German origin commonly used by many police forces and military units. It had a flash hider on the barrel and a night vision scope mounted on the rail, he could make out the signature green glow. It could fire seven hundred and fifty rounds per minute at a muzzle velocity of three thousand feet per second, and it was fed from a box magazine with a capacity of thirty cartridges. The Mason goon also had a sidearm holstered on his hip and a few more magazines in his carrier.

Ryan didn't know how he knew those things, his brain seemed to just pull the knowledge from the depths of his memory as it was needed, but it wasn't associated with any actual events that he could recall. It was Vapula's doing no doubt, she had implanted the life experiences of a soldier or maybe some kind of bodyguard in his mind.

He snapped his head back as the soldier swung the rifle in his direction, hiding behind the trunk of the tree. He could scarcely hear the sound of the man's footsteps over the pounding of his own heart in his ears. Nahash wasn't here to save him this time, nor would Azazel swoop down from the sky and fight on his behalf. If he was going to survive this, then he had to fend for himself. If only he had thought to keep the gun that he had recovered on his person, he had no idea where his bag was now.

Careful not to make a sound, he took another quick peek, seeing that the soldier was now pointing his rifle in a different direction. That night vision scope gave the shooter an advantage, but the sight aperture would be narrow, limiting his peripheral vision. If Ryan could sneak around to his side, then he might be able to get the jump on him. But then what? He had the knowledge and the muscle memory that he needed, but it was all locked deep in the recesses of his brain. He couldn't access it voluntarily, it just seemed to come as it was needed. Could he rely on it? He didn't have a choice...

He heard another twig snap as the soldier moved closer, and Ryan slowly began to inch around the trunk of the tree to keep it between himself and the man. His hands were shaking, there was so much adrenaline in his system that he almost felt high, and as the soldier passed him by he emerged directly behind him. He tried to creep closer, not really knowing what to do, but then he felt a stick snap beneath his foot.

His heart stopped in his chest as the soldier paused, then swung his rifle around to point it at his face.

Ryan moved without thinking, his body responding to the threat before he could even process what was happening. His muscles reacted as if they had performed the maneuver a thousand times, it was second nature, a learned behavior that Ryan had never actually learned. He dashed forward and closed the distance between him and the soldier before he could bring the weapon to bear, gripping the gun beneath its barrel and raising it into the air. The soldier squeezed the trigger, the weapon barking as it loosed a burst of automatic gunfire not an inch from Ryan's face, but he didn't even flinch as the deafening noise made his ears ring.

With his other hand, he lunged towards his opponent, delivering a fast and powerful jab to his throat. The blow sent the soldier reeling, gagging as he stumbled backwards. Ryan tore the weapon from his gloved hands and hit the release catch just below the trigger, the magazine dropping into the grass and out of view as he discarded the neutralized weapon.

Now clutching at his throat and making choking sounds, the soldier fumbled with his holster, succeeding in pulling his sidearm free and attempting to point it at Ryan. It was too late, however. Ryan was already moving, gripping the soldier's wrist in his hand and turning to pull it over his shoulder. He applied force to bend the man's arm at an unnatural angle, hearing bones crack as he broke it at the elbow. The Mason soldier screamed, his voice somewhat muffled by the balaclava that he was wearing, dropping the pistol as Ryan continued to turn.

He gripped his fist in his hand, pushing it to apply more force as he came back around and slammed his elbow into the man's face. He felt a distinct crunch as his adversary's nose was flattened by the blow, a torrent of blood pouring from his nostrils and impregnating the fabric that covered his mouth. He groaned and sputtered, unsteady on his feet, his hands raised as if he couldn't decide whether to clutch his face or his neck. Ryan stepped in and very nearly lifted him out of his boots with a savage uppercut, sending the soldier toppling to the ground. His body flattened the grass as he landed hard, lying motionless, silent save for a worrying gurgling sound.

Ryan knelt to retrieve the pistol, briefly checking the chamber and safety before aiming it at the prone man. The encounter couldn't have lasted more than five or six seconds, and slowly Ryan came to as if awakening from a dream.

He panicked for a moment, aiming the handgun away from the brutalized Mason, hyperventilating as his brain caught up with what his body had just done.

Holy shit,” he whispered, “holy shit!”

He looked at his hands like they were no longer his own, the knuckles on his right red and aching where he had punched the man below the jaw. He might have the muscle memory and reaction times of a soldier, but he had none of the callouses and resilience that their training and lifestyle would have built up over the years. He felt like he might have broken something, but the adrenaline fogged the pain.

Vapula hadn't been lying. He wasn't sure if this soldier was going to be okay, the man was making a horrible death rattle. He checked the magazine on the handgun with mechanical speed, it was another Glock, and noted that it hadn't been fired yet. There were seventeen rounds of what looked like .45 ACP, with one in the chamber. He briefly considered retrieving the rifle but then decided against it. The long barrel would only hinder him in these tight spaces, and he couldn't prevail in a straight up shootout.

He barely had time to collect his thoughts before hearing shouting from the forest around him. They would be drawn by the gunfire. How many had there been? Ten or twelve at least. Could he take on that many single-handed? He had no idea what his limitations were, what he was really capable of. Don't think about it, just react...

Readying his weapon, he took cover behind a nearby tree, listening intently for the approaching soldiers. They wouldn't all be coming from the same direction, it was unlikely that enough time had passed for them to find each other again.

It came from this direction!” he heard someone shout, “fan out!”

Shit, two or more had managed to regroup. He had to move fast, before the odds were stacked too highly against him. He tried to quieten his thoughts, listening to his instincts, letting these new impulses guide his actions. There was no time to waste being afraid, hesitation could get him killed.

Ryan crouched low, moving slowly through the tall grass. He wasn't quite invisible, but he was hard to see in the darkness. These men would no doubt have night vision equipment too, he had to stay in their blind spots until he could get close enough to strike.

He heard rustling in the undergrowth and dropped to his belly just as two men emerged from between the trees a short distance away. He lay completely still, shielded by the plants. They didn't seem to have noticed him yet. They were making a lot of noise, one of them talking into a radio as they crashed through the thick brush.

...and where are you? I know there are no landmarks, you don't have to tell me that. I don't know, I can't see ten feet in front of my face! We're on our way, yeah, stand by.”

Ryan waited for them to pass him by, then slowly rose to his feet, following the pair and staying behind the trees. When he had a bead on both of them, he raised his gun, pointing it at the nearest soldier. He snuck up behind him and delivered a punishing kick to the back of his knee, the man crying out as his leg buckled. Before he could fall, Ryan wrapped one arm around his neck and pressed the barrel of his gun against the Mason's temple. He was wearing a ballistic helmet, but Ryan angled the handgun beneath it, and his captive froze. His companion spun around, training his weapon on them.

Drop the fucking gun,” Ryan hissed in his captive's ear. The soldier let his rifle fall to the grass and then raised his hands, still unsteady on his feet. Ryan used him as a human shield, inching closer to the other soldier and keeping his handgun pressed against his head. He could see that the other man was twitchy, uncertain, and he braced his rifle tightly against his shoulder in an aggressive move as Ryan got nearer.

Let him go!” he shouted from behind his mask.

Drop the gun!” Ryan shouted, “drop the fucking gun right now!”

Stay the fuck back!”

Drop the gun, or I'll blow him away! Drop the fucking gun!”

His shouting had the intended effect, and he took advantage of the soldier's panic and distraction to aim the handgun at his thigh where there was no armor. He put a round through it, and the soldier bellowed in pain, dropping his weapon and grasping his leg as he toppled to the ground. These men were probably wearing bulletproof vests. Getting hit at this range would feel like being kicked in the chest by a horse, but he couldn't be sure that the rounds would penetrate.

He returned the barrel of the gun to his captive's head and let off another round, dropping the limp body as dark blood poured from its nose and ears. As the body slumped to the ground, Ryan advanced on the injured Mason. He was lying in the grass with his hands wrapped around his upper thigh, trying to stem the flow of blood that was gushing it from the ugly wound with every beat of his heart. The bullet had hit the artery, he would bleed to death within a couple of minutes. The man raised his hands, but before he could utter his plea, Ryan put him down.

Three dead, between seven and nine to go. He had expended three rounds of ammunition so far, and he had fourteen left. He had felt so conflicted when he had shot that first corrupt policeman in his apartment. Even in self defense, the taking of a human life was no easy decision to make. He had felt a pit in his stomach, a sickness, as if he had swallowed a lead weight. Now he was just trying to keep moving. He didn't have time to contemplate the moral ramifications of what he was doing, he felt like he had ice water running through his veins and he didn't know if it was part of Vapula's magick or if he had just become numb. There would be time for self-reflection when this was all over, that or he'd be dead and it wouldn't make any difference.

He leaned down and removed the dead soldier's radio, placing the receiver in his pocket and hooking the earbud into his ear, listening in on the conversations as he rummaged through the carrier looking for more magazines for his pistol. He tried not to look at the mess where the man's face had once been. There was some chatter going back and forth, everyone was lost, and they were trying to find some kind of landmark so that they might get their bearings. They couldn't even see the moon anymore due to the thick canopy.

He heard automatic gunfire coming from somewhere nearby, along with the braying of a goat. It sounded like one of the soldiers had encountered a Seirim. As he moved cautiously in the direction of the sound, keeping his handgun ready and sticking close to the trees, another figure emerged from the forest directly in front of him. It was a Mason goon, one arm hanging limply at his side. He was limping, and he seemed to have lost his rifle, wielding only his sidearm in his good hand. His clothing was torn and tattered, stained with blood from what looked like a series of puncture wounds. Those hadn't been caused by bullets, he had been gored by a Seirim.

Ryan raised his weapon, but the soldier was surprisingly alert and responded in kind. They stood there for a few moments, locked in a Mexican standoff.

Drop it,” Ryan shouted, “and I let you walk.”

You think I'd trust a servant of the Devil?” the man replied, his grip on his handgun unsteady. “I'm not afraid to die, I know what's waiting for me on the other side. Can you say the same?”

A servant of the Devil? Was that how the Masons saw him? This man was injured, unpredictable, could Ryan out-shoot him? They stared each another down for about a minute, neither one willing to budge, each hoping that reinforcements would find them first.

Suddenly they were distracted by the sound of trees being felled, the soldier glancing briefly to his left before a massive shape came barreling through the forest and buried him under its bulk. Samael's white armor illuminated the trees around him as he smashed them to splinters and uprooted them like weeds, the giant figure falling on top of the soldier and abruptly silencing the beginnings of a scream. The Seraphim had been knocked to the ground by a powerful blow, his many gilded wings flapping and kicking up a cloud of dust as he rose to his feet again to block a downward strike from Azazel's molten halberd. Sparks showered where their steel met, a thunderclap ringing Ryan's ears.

The Seraphim struck back, his spear cleaving through the tree trunks like a knife through butter, Azazel braying as the beast deflected the blow. Ryan had to leap out of the way to avoid the falling debris. He landed on his side, a mass of branches and leaves crashing down where he had been a moment before, and he watched in awe as the pair of battling giants moved away from him.

The creatures hadn't even noticed the Mason, they were too focused on trying to kill each other. At about twelve feet, even they couldn't see over the tops of the trees, but the dense woodland seemed to be doing little to hinder the powerful entities.

Ryan climbed to his feet and moved into the corridor of smashed stumps and splintered wood that they had left in their wake. It looked like a herd of elephants had stampeded through here. He could finally see the sky again, the light of the moon illuminating the scene. Perhaps if he followed the path that had been cleared he might come across someone friendly. There was an equal chance of encountering another hostile, and so he stuck close to the edge of the forest, keeping his handgun ready.

He had no idea if he was even inside the boundaries of the grove any longer, there was an entire national park beyond its borders. Now that the barrier had come down and the Seirim had filled the clearing with trees, there was no way to distinguish the two.

Movement caught his eye, something was coming up the path. He darted behind the cover of a mostly intact stump, peeking out from behind it to get a better look. He saw twisted horns, white wool, and pale skin. He emerged from cover, waving to the figure, hoping against hope that it was Nahash.

Ryan! It's Ryan!” she brayed. No, it was one of her sisters, but he was glad to see a friendly face all the same. He jogged towards her, hopping over felled branches and torn roots, meeting the Seirim as she leapt deftly over a fallen log to land beside him.

Ryan! Are you hurt?”

I'm fine,” he said, turning his back to her and keeping his eyes on the trees. “Have you seen Nahash or any of your sisters?”

No, no sisters, no Nahash. We are weak Ryan, our magick is waning.”

You used it all up growing this forest?”

Yes, all used up. No more left.”

Shit,” he grumbled. If the Seirim had expended all of their magick, would they be able to reform if their physical bodies were destroyed? He usually counted on Azazel to take care of its family, but he wasn't even sure that Azazel could take care of itself right now.

Listen, we have to get out of here,” he added. “We need to find your sisters and regroup, figure out what to do next. We can't stay here anymore.”

No more grove,” she whined, “history repeats. Where will we go now?”

Hey,” Ryan said, turning to look up at her. “I'm not going to let you guys become refugees again. I'm going to find a way to set this right, but first, we have to find the others.”

She nodded, then her sheep-like ears twitched as the sound of gunshots echoed through the forest.

This way,” Ryan said, moving off into the trees in the direction of the noise as the lone Seirim followed behind him. Despite how large she was and how tightly packed the trees were, he was surprised to see that she was able to keep pace with him. There was something about the way that she traversed the forest that seemed unnatural, like she wasn't obeying the laws of physics as he knew them. The dense undergrowth didn't hinder her as it did him, and she seemed able to squeeze between trees that Ryan had to turn sideways to get through. Even with their energy reserves dwindling the Seirim were avatars of nature, the forest seeming to bend to their will.

When they reached the source of the gunfire, they came across a body that was slumped against a tree, his rifle lying beside him. Ryan kept his weapon trained on the man, kicking the rifle out of reach once he got close enough, then quickly realized that the man wasn't going to be getting up any time soon. He had been gored by a Seirim's horns and smashed up against the tree with tremendous force, his body was pulverized. There was no sign of the Seirim, but that didn't mean that she had gotten away safely. When Nahash had been killed in his apartment, she had seemed to turn into a cloud of ink in the air, her physical body dissipating when it was subjected to fatal damage. They wouldn't necessarily leave a corpse behind.

They moved on, Ryan keeping his attention on the radio as they stalked through the brush. There were occasional snippets of chatter, mostly people asking for directions or instructions. They sounded panicked, and he was almost certain that their squad leader was either dead or missing, as their queries did not seem to be directed at any one person. Once he heard gunfire and shouting, but it quickly fizzled out into static. He could still hear the ongoing bout between Azazel and Samael in the distance, but the sounds of battle were still moving away from them.

As they searched through the forest, they came across two more Seirim, but neither of them had seen Nahash. At least his entourage was growing, he felt a lot safer with his small army of Nephilim in tow. Ryan was conflicted, they needed to move clear of what had once been the grove and take refuge in the forest. The national park was hundreds of square miles of uninhabited woodland, and the Masons would not be able to find them through conventional means. But there was still no sign of Nahash, and he didn't want to leave without her. He was considering sending the Seirim on alone and turning back to go look for her when his companions alerted him to danger.

He took refuge behind a tree, watching as two more Mason soldiers struggled through the undergrowth. The Seirim were too large and too brightly colored to go unnoticed, and when the men caught sight of them, they leapt into cover and began laying down suppressing fire. Bullets chewed through the bark on the other side of the trunk that he was hiding behind, splinters of wood flying. The Seirim did their best to get out of view, scattering in all directions, but even in the dense forest they made for large and conspicuous targets.

Ryan returned fire as best he could, but his handgun couldn't hold a candle to an assault rifle when it came to power and rate of fire. They were all going to get chewed up if they stayed here, they had to move.

Rush them!” he shouted, exposing his arm and firing blindly at where he assumed the enemy to be. The sustained fire faltered as the men ducked into cover, creating an opening that was quickly taken advantage of. The Seirim didn't hesitate, racing through the forest with an ease that surprised both Ryan and the Masons. They closed more rapidly than their exaggerated size should have allowed for, weaving between the trees, and they were upon the soldiers before they could even react.

One of the Seirim barreled into the first man, her head lowered like a charging bull, and she lifted him clear off the ground. Her crown of twisted horns punctured through his clothing in places, but the bulletproof vest that he was wearing beneath his carrier did a decent job of protecting his vital organs. With one of her half-dozen horns embedded in his upper arm and another in his shoulder, she slammed him into a tree, pinning him as her sharp prongs dug deep into the wood. He bellowed in pain, dropping his rifle to the floor as blood poured from his wounds.

The other two sisters descended on the second man, knocking him to the ground with their bulk and beginning to trample him beneath their cloven hooves. It looked like a vicious street fight, both creatures putting all of their weight into the powerful strikes, trampling him to death as his pained cries slowly petered out.

Ryan was already moving to support them, but as he neared, he saw the trapped Mason reach for his sidearm. There was no clear shot, Ryan risked hitting the Seirim that was pinning him. Before he could shout a warning, the man succeeded in freeing his service pistol and pressed it against his adversary's head. He pulled the trigger, and the Seirim vanished into a smear of dark smoke, her physical form dispersing like a cloud of ink in water.

Now free of her horns, he fell into the tangled roots of the tree below, struggling to free himself and aiming at the two surviving Satyrs. Ryan emptied the remainder of his magazine into him, cursing under his breath as he arrived beside the tree.

He had lost one of the Seirim, Nahash's beloved sisters. Was she really dead, did they have enough energy left to save themselves from disappearing for good? These entities had lived for thousands of years, they were almost unique in the world, it was unacceptable for one of them to die on his behalf.

The two Seirim wailed for their sister, and Ryan was left speechless. He didn't know what to do, he didn't know what to say or how to help them. He wasn't a leader or a strategist, the fact that he could now hold his own in a fight didn't change any of that.

Keep moving,” he said, waving the two remaining sisters forward. “We can't do anything for her right now.”

He jogged through the trees, dropping his empty magazine and slamming in a fresh one, the Seirim following close behind him. He tried to ignore the pit in his stomach, staying alert as his eyes scanned the forest. His adrenaline was wearing off now, he just felt sick and exhausted. They wandered for a few more minutes, and while the thunderclaps of Azazel's duel continued to shake the ground, he hadn't heard any gunshots for a while.

Ryan had to rest for a moment, leaning against a tree to catch his breath as the two Seirim stopped nearby. He leaned over, resting his hands on his knees, feeling like he was going to vomit. Whether it was from exhaustion, shock, or a combination of both he couldn't say. He dry heaved a couple of times then stood upright again. His legs were shaky, and a cold sweat dampened his brow.

Sisters!” one of the Seirim called out, pointing into the distance. Ryan narrowed his eyes, trying to see through the darkness. There were several figures, tall and pale, crowns of tangled horns protruding from their heads. One of them met his gaze, and he saw recognition on her face.

Ryan!”

Nahash!”

She cleared the distance in mere moments, wrapping her arms around him and lifting him off his feet. She plunged his face into the soft wool above her bosom, her familiar, earthy smell filling his nose as her soft coat brushed against his cheeks. Relief washed over him, and he felt like a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. She was alive, she was okay.

The Seirim placed him back on the ground then waved her companions over. She had four Satyrs with her, and they approached to embrace their sisters. There had been eleven Seirim, twelve if he included Nahash. Now he only counted seven. He didn't know how to tell her that he had lost one of her sisters, and so he just came out with it.

We lost one,” he said, Nahash's ears drooping as she heard the news. She knew what he meant, she sensed his emotions no doubt, felt his sorrow and regret. “I'm so sorry, I couldn't do anything about it. You're low on energy, is she..?”

I do not know,” Nahash replied solemnly. “We expended so much of our energy reserves to grow this forest. I cannot be certain that her soul is safe.”

Are these all the ones that you could find?” he asked, glancing at her companions.

Yes, there are four missing.”

I think another one lost her form,” he said, “I came across what looked like a gunfight, but there was no Seirim. She either fled or was...dissipated. We've killed or come across the bodies of seven guys.”

We killed two,” Nahash said, the contempt in her voice palpable.

Good, there can't have been more than about ten. Have you seen Haures anywhere?”

No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Haures is coming for you, Ryan, he wouldn't waste his energy dealing with us if he didn't have to. I am relieved to see that he didn't find you before I did.”

He's out here somewhere. Listen Nahash, we have to get moving. We need to get the Seirim to a safe place before we can start planning what to do next. The grove is gone, and the summoning circle along with it. I don't even have my gear, it was all in my bag.”

Nahash perked up, then turned to her sisters. One of them was holding his rucksack, he hadn't even noticed it in the darkness, and another produced his leather-bound copy of the Lesser Key. He took them, stowing the book in the bag and swinging it over his shoulder.

Thank God,” he sighed, “I can't believe you managed to recover them. Without these books and wards, we'd be hopeless.”

Another crack rang out, it sounded like someone hitting a church bell with a sledgehammer. Ryan looked up instinctively, the sound seemed to be coming from the sky, but he couldn't see anything due to the thick canopy. Nahash waved her hand and the branches parted, the wood creaking and twisting as a hole opened up so that they could see the stars.

Samael and Azazel were in flight, climbing high above the treetops, their great wings flapping to propel their massive bodies into the air. Ryan wouldn't even have been able to see Azazel's dark form against the night sky if it hadn't been illuminated by Samael's brilliant light, the Seraphim shining like a star. He couldn't believe that their fight was still dragging on, watching as they lunged and swooped, flashes of bright sparks showering to the ground wherever their weapons made contact.

When they were high enough that Ryan could have covered them with his hand, Azazel struck the deciding blow. The fallen Watcher finally overcame the Angel, parrying a thrust from his spear and taking advantage of the opening to plunge the molten blade of its halberd into the Seraphim's chest. There was a bright flash that forced Ryan to avert his eyes, like staring directly at a welder's torch. When he was able to look back, he saw that the blade had penetrated the gilded armor and was buried deep.

Samael wailed, an oddly musical sound, like an orchestra was doing their best to approximate a human voice. What looked like liquid silver poured from the wound, glittering in the moonlight as it fell towards the ground. The Angel took the haft of the weapon in his hand and tore it free, the blade coated in his Angelic blood, and then turned to flee. He seemed to morph from an armored humanoid into an almost formless ball of golden feathers, the mass of flapping wings that now made up his body dotted with glowing eyes, staring wildly as the amorphous shape shot into the sky. It looked like a shooting star, but traveling in the wrong direction, leaving a streak of silver blood in its wake.

The Seirim brayed like goats, the sound alarming Ryan, cheering for their father as he lazily spiraled down towards the forest on his leathery wings.

Will it die?” Ryan asked.

I am not certain that a Seraphim can die,” she replied, “but Samael has turned tail. Ever the coward when faced with a fair fight...”

We should keep moving,” Ryan said. “Even if we've turned the bastards back here, they'll send more. If any of your sisters are still lost, they should be safe now, I'm pretty certain that we killed all but one of the soldiers. We need to find like a cave or a hunting cabin maybe, regroup and figure out what we're going to do.”

She nodded, and the group began to move off into the forest. He knew that there were log cabins used by seasonal hunters in this park, but he had no idea where to find one. All he knew was that they had to put some distance from themselves and what had once been their home.

They marched through the woodland in silence for a while, the terrain becoming easier to traverse the further they got from the grove. The forest had flourished to an unnatural extent in proximity to the Seirim, but outside the range of their influence, it returned to what one would expect to find in any national park. There was less dense undergrowth and fewer gnarled roots protruding from the soil.

Vapula's gift was worth the price, I take it?” Nahash asked.

What?”

She pointed to his shoulder, where his clothes were drenched with dark blood from the soldier that he had shot in the head. His chest and face were both covered in small flecks of it, and the knuckles on his right hand were now red and swollen. Killing people in real life was nothing like doing it in a movie or a videogame, it was...messy. He tried to wipe some of the blood splatter from his face with his sleeve, but found that it was dried and crusted.

Yeah,” he replied, “it helped me get out of there in one piece.”

She no doubt sensed his emotions, his guilt and his disgust, but she didn't press the issue further. Ryan wasn't sure what he was feeling, he had no frame of reference, but it was a distinctly negative state of mind. He drove the thoughts from his brain, he didn't have time for self-reflection right now. Maybe when they got to a safe spot, he'd try to tangle with his proverbial demons and straighten this all out.

***

After hiking for what must have been four or five miles, they came to a stop, Ryan sitting beneath a tree as he took a break to rest. The Seirim hovered nearby, comforting one another and talking in hushed voices. He wracked his brain trying to think of a solution to their most immediate problem; finding shelter.

Do you guys have enough energy left to like...make the trees form a hut for us or something?” he asked.

We have no reserves of magick left,” Nahash replied, “scarcely enough to retain our physical manifestations.”

Can't Azazel share some with you? I thought that was how it worked?”

If he has not replenished our stores by now, then he has none left to share. He no doubt pushed himself to the limit during his bout with Samael.”

Should we wait for him to find us, or..?”

If Azazel wishes to find us then he shall do so,” Nahash said as she took a seat on a nearby root. “Pay him no mind, Ryan. Azazel is a Watcher, he can take care of himself.”

I just figured he'd want to be here to protect you,” Ryan added.

He did,” she shot back, “Samael would have killed all of us permanently if he had not intervened. We are Nephilim, the product of an unholy union between a Watcher and a mortal. There is nothing that repulses their master more than us.”

I didn't mean anything by it,” he quickly added. “I guess he's just...off doing his own thing again. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's important.”

Everyone was tired and rattled, the sooner they found a place to wind down, the better. He placed his pack between his legs and rummaged through it, trying to find something of use. He had books and vials of oil, wards and a little velvet bag full of colored chalk. He had removed the radio too and had placed it in one of the pockets. He came across a small, oblong shape and wondered what it was for a moment.

Of course! It was his phone. With all this magickal business he had almost forgotten about the wonders of the modern world. He turned it on and unlocked the home screen, swiping through his apps. There wasn't anyone that he could call for help, the police and emergency services were compromised, they couldn't be trusted. But if he could get a signal, perhaps he could pull up a map of the area or find some information on the park that might help them.

No bars, fuck. He stood and held the phone above his head, wandering around the immediate area as the Seirim watched him curiously, his face lit by the glow of his phone.

Come on, come on,” he grumbled to himself. They weren't that far from the city, there must be cellphone towers near enough that he could get at least a weak signal.

What are you doing?” Nahash asked skeptically.

If I can get a signal then I might be able to figure out where we are,” he replied, stumbling over a root. “You know, internet, global positioning. All that good stuff. There are other tools in the world besides magick.”

Don't stray too far,” she called after him as he wandered away. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, he lowered his phone, frustrated. It was no use, he couldn't find a signal. But what if he climbed one of the trees? Maybe the canopy was blocking the transmissions?

He located one that he felt confident climbing, it had a lot of low-hanging branches, and then stowed his phone in his pocket as he hoisted himself off the ground. He had climbed trees as a child but, he hadn't done it for several years, and his IT job hadn't exactly kept him at the peak of physical fitness.

After struggling for a few moments he made it onto the first branch, hearing it creak ominously under his weight. It seemed to be holding, and so he continued upwards, climbing from branch to branch. Finally, he emerged from the canopy, taking in a breath of the cool night air as he reached into the pocket of his pants. He held up the phone, his heart leaping as he saw it pick up a solitary bar.

He opened his map app, and the GPS signal got through, putting him right in the heart of the national park. There was nothing but miles of woodland in every direction, with the city limits to his immediate East. The app did show a couple of roads that went through the park and a few hiking trails.

Perhaps he could find a more accurate map. He waited for what felt like an eternity as his phone made use of the very limited connection to load up the state's website, then he managed to find a tourist page that had a more detailed map of the area, complete with nature shots of deer and a cartoon squirrel. Now he could see information that would be relevant to visitors, rather than just a satellite view.

There, a hunting cabin, suitably far away from the more traveled areas of the park. It was a few miles North-West, and according to the website it wasn't currently hunting season, so it should be empty. There was a chance that squatters or junkies from the city might have found their way there, but mortals were the least of his worries right now. He wasn't sure how he was going to navigate through the forest, a boy scout he was not, but climbing another tree every time that he needed to check his heading would get the job done.

He descended beneath the canopy and began his climb to the ground, lowering himself down from branch to branch. The tree was pretty high. The ground was perhaps twenty feet below him, but his footing was sure, and the branches seemed sturdy enough. He kept his eyes on the rough bark of the trunk, looking down made his stomach lurch. The creaking of the branches and the occasional sounds of nocturnal woodland critters were suddenly joined by a new sound. He could only hear it if he concentrated on it, but it sounded like...heavy breathing?

Ryan chanced a look below him, and his heart stopped in his chest. Lurking at the base of the tree, waiting patiently for him to come into reach, was a dark shape with eyes that blazed with jets of fire. Haures growled, a low, guttural sound that shook Ryan's bones. He opened his jaws to expose canine teeth as long as a human finger, molten slaver dripping from his lips to fall to the soil below. In a flash the demon leapt like a coiled spring, digging his hooked claws deep into the bark and scrambling towards his quarry.

Ryan shot back up into the branches like a startled monkey, Haures swiping at him with a massive paw and missing his shoe by a hair's breadth. He clung to the bark for a few more moments then dropped back down to the ground, pacing back and forth as he glared up at Ryan. Thankfully he seemed to be too large and heavy to climb the tree in pursuit of his prey. Had he tracked Ryan all the way here from the grove?

I have thee now, boy,” Haures spat. “Come down and face thy fate.”

The demon lunged again, his claws scratching at the bark as he attempted to climb the tree. He got a couple of feet, but then lost his grip, sliding back down to the ground. He growled, spitting flames, circling around the tree as he tried to find another way up. Ryan drew his handgun, knowing that it wouldn't do much good, but at least he had something that he could use to fight back.

Nahash!” he shouted. “Nahash, help!”

Thy familiars cannot hear thee,” Haures growled, “thy wandering has carried thee too far from them. Thou art mine now, mortal, it is only a matter of time.” He snarled and lunged, scrambling towards Ryan, but again fell short. “I shall crisp thy flesh and gnaw on thy bones!”

Haures had stalked Ryan until he had separated himself from the safety of the group, biding his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. The Seirim might not hear him shouting, but they'd probably hear a gunshot. Ryan waited for Haures to make another attempt at climbing the tree, then quickly aimed down and pulled the trigger. A loud crack rang out through the forest as he put a bullet between the demon's eyes. It didn't seem to do much more than piss him off, Haures spitting and snarling as he fell back to the ground.

I shall take my sweet time with thee,” he hissed, dark smoke pouring from his mouth with every breath. “I will see thee beg for death before the night is done. Mark my words, cur.”

Ryan shot him again, the bullet hitting him in the flank, what looked like a droplet of molten metal leaking from the puncture. Haures became enraged, running at the tree and leaping, one of his curved claws hooking through the leg of Ryan's jeans. It tore through the fabric, the demon unable to find purchase, falling back to the dirt. Ryan climbed higher, putting as much distance between him and the furious creature as he could.

Rats can be smoked out of their burrows,” Haures growled, “let us see if the same is true for mortals.”

He retched like a cat trying to cough up a hairball, and then belched a plume of fire towards the base of the tree. It was liquid, sticky like some kind of napalm or magma, the roots immediately bursting into licking flames where it came into contact with them. Ryan could already feel the heat that it was giving off, choking smoke beginning to rise up into the canopy in a thick plume. He coughed, trying to get higher, but found that there was nowhere left to go. He covered his mouth with the collar of his shirt, his eyes watering and stinging as the blaze began to climb. No natural fire could have engulfed a living tree so quickly.

Haures laughed, dark fumes rising from his nostrils.

Burn up there, or down here, 'tis all the same to me.”

Just then Ryan heard the pounding of hooves approaching fast, Haures turning his head and snarling as the Seirim came rushing to his aid. One of them lunged and delivered a nasty kick that sent Haures reeling, the demon panther spitting flame and swiping at her with his paw in retaliation. Soon the rest had closed in, leaping in on their long legs to attack him with their hooves then scooting back out of range as he batted at them furiously. They quickly overwhelmed the demon, and he must have known that he couldn't prevail against so many Nephilim, having already tangled with Nahash once before. He shot one last, hateful glance up at Ryan, then sped off into the darkness of the forest at full tilt.

I'm up here!” Ryan shouted, choking on the smoke and hoping that they would be able to hear his voice over the crackling blaze. The Seirim looked up, but they could not approach the tree, which was now a roaring bonfire. Whenever they drew close, they had to back up again, unable to brave the searing heat.

Nahash acted quickly, running at an adjacent tree and leaping up into its branches with all the grace of a gazelle. She scaled it easily, hanging from a high branch with one hand as she braced her cloven hooves against the trunk. The Seirim propelled herself forward, snatching Ryan as she passed and falling to the ground with him clasped in her arms. The fall must have been twenty feet or more, and she rolled when she landed to absorb some of the impact, but they both came down hard.

Nahash released her hold on him, stumbling to her feet and grimacing, limping over to a nearby trunk and resting her weight on it. Ryan stood, cradling what he assumed must be a bruised rib, but besides that he seemed to be in one piece.

Are you okay?” he asked, and Nahash nodded.

You?”

Only thanks to you,” he replied solemnly as he turned to look back at the burning tree. The flames now encompassed it entirely, burning like a torch, the heat singing his eyebrows even from a few feet away. He was worried that the supernatural inferno might spread and start a forest fire, but it seemed to be confined entirely to that one tree. Even the burning leaves and glowing embers that it shed seemed to peter out before they could spread the flames further.

I found a place where we should be safe for a while,” he said, “there's a log cabin North-West of us that should be vacant. We can stay there for a while, figure out what to do next.”

Then there's no time to waste,” Nahash said. “Haures is relentless, he will not abandon his hunt so easily.”

CHAPTER 9: CABIN IN THE WOODS

The sun was just beginning to rise by the time the party finally came across the hunting cabin. Calling it rustic would have been an understatement, it was obviously quite old and fairly dilapidated, the forest slowly encroaching on the land that had been cleared around it. It was a squat building made from wooden paneling rather than the logs that he had expected. It had a roof and a porch, a door, and a few windows with glass too dirty to see through. Clearly, the park services didn't pay much mind to maintaining these buildings during the off-seasons.

The Seirim waited at the edge of the clearing as he approached, not wanting to cause alarm on the off-chance that someone was squatting here. He rapped on the door, wincing as he realized that he was knocking with his swollen knuckles. He switched hands and tried again, but there was no reply.

He walked around to the side of the cabin and pressed his face up against the glass, blocking the light of the rising sun with his hands as he tried to see inside, but it was to no avail. Shrugging in the direction of the Seirim, he made his way back to the front door and tried to force it. It was locked of course.

Ryan scratched his chin for a moment, then took a step back, raising his foot and bringing it down hard on the door. He had seen this before in movies, you were supposed to kick the door beside the lock to break the mechanism. After a few kicks and no results he began to tire, but Nahash was already making her way over to him. She seemed to have shaken off her limp during their hike.

She copied him, slamming her powerful leg into the door, and it buckled. With a second kick of her hoof, it swung open, and Ryan drew his gun as he stepped over the threshold.

Anybody here?” he asked. “Park Rangers!” he added, realizing that he'd probably need a good excuse for having a handgun if there was indeed anyone living here. There were no replies, and so he stowed his gun in his waistband, waving in Nahash. She had to duck to fit inside, the ceiling was barely seven feet, and her sisters followed behind her.

Ryan examined the cabin as the Seirim sat nearby. It wasn't very large. There was a living room with a small wood fire that doubled as a stove, the metal pipe that served as a chimney vanishing into the ceiling. There were a few musty chairs and rugs scattered about, and the room was decorated with stuffed deer heads mounted on plaques, their antlers blanketed in cobwebs. Towards the back of the building were a bathroom and a bedroom, with perhaps enough overall living space to serve a party of three or four hunters during their downtime. It was no vacation home, it was strictly functional.

He suddenly realized how tired he was, the bed calling to him like a siren. Nahash appeared at the doorway behind him, leaning down to see inside.

You should get some sleep,” she said, no doubt sensing how exhausted he was. “We will stand guard and keep watch for Haures.”

We can't spare the time,” Ryan replied reluctantly. “As soon as they learn about what went down at the grove, they'll probably send reinforcements, and a hunting cabin is an obvious hiding spot. We need to think about what we're going to do next. I have chalk, and if we clear the floor in the living room, I'll probably be able to draw a summoning circle. I have some ammunition left in this handgun, and I still have that G-22 that I recovered from the apartment in my bag. If we can figure out a way to-”

Nahash strode across the room and turned him around, cupping his face in her hands and leaning down to kiss him. His rambling was silenced as her sinuous tongue pushed into his mouth, so long and thick that he could scarcely accommodate it. His cheeks bulged outwards as she tasted their inner surface, teasing him with her gentle strokes, drawing slow shapes with her impossibly dexterous organ. Her embrace was so slippery and wet, her metallic flavor pricking his tongue, her puffy lips pressing against his as he leaned into her. Their tongues entwined, her warm flesh slick with her saliva is it roved and coiled, her familiar scent filling his nose.

She smelled of damp earth, of dew-soaked grass and wildflowers, as if all the scents of a lush and fertile forest had seeped into her curly wool. He felt the tension melt out of his body, the rapid beating of his heart slowing, and he couldn't help but sink his fingers into the soft meat of her hips.

She walked him backwards, dragging out her sordid kiss as she went, until Ryan felt the bedframe bump against the back of his legs. Nahash sat him on the mattress, gently stroking his cheek with her thumb as she kept him locked in her embrace, her agile tongue doing things to him that no human would have been capable of. It was so deft and practiced, the Seirim could turn a simple display of affection into a captivating form of art, every nimble glance of her flexible organ sending a pleasant shiver down his spine. She licked the roof of his mouth, probed the back of his throat with its tapered tip, Ryan's eyes rolling back into his head.

She drew back with a smack, cupping his face as he stared up at her, stupefied.

Sleep,” she insisted, “you'll be of no use to anyone if you're too tired to think straight.”

A-Alright,” he mumbled. He glanced behind her at her sisters, who were peeking around the door frame and snickering to one another. Nahash placed a hand on his chest and gently pushed him down onto the bed, Ryan unable to take his eyes off her rolling hips as she left the room, closing the bedroom door behind her with a click.

He exhaled, lying back and staring at the cobwebs on the ceiling. The sheets were musty and dirty, but just having something soft beneath him felt like a luxury right now. He felt like his limbs were being weighed down with lead weights, and his eyes were itchy, a yawn overpowering him as his mind began to drift. He was so exhausted by the day's events that he didn't even have to try, a deep and dreamless sleep falling over him like a warm blanket.

***

Ryan chalked in the finishing touches, then stood and took a few steps back, checking the sigils and runes that were described in the Lesser Key to make sure that he had transcribed everything accurately. They had pushed all of the furniture aside and had removed all of the rugs, there had been enough dust in those alone to provoke coughing fits for the rest of the day, but they had cleared a space of hardwood that was just large enough to fit a summoning circle. It was a little on the small side. The Lemegeton specified that nine feet was necessary, but he had been short of that limit in his apartment too, and nothing bad had happened as a result. It had taken a couple of hours, but making sure that all of the symbols and ancient texts were correct was the easy part, he just had to be thorough about it.

Fortunately, they had been able to find plenty of candles in the shack, with no electricity they were the only source of light. There was no incense, however. The Seirim no longer had the stores of magick to perform feats like summoning wildlife or conjuring items. There was running water, probably hooked up to a tank or a well, and Ryan had been able to shower. There was no soap, but it had felt great to just to get all the sweat and dirt off his skin, and it was better than nothing.

He still had all of his wards, and his wand was set on a nearby table, along with his copy of the Lesser Key. The page was open on the thirty-third Goetic demon, Gaap, who was said to be able to carry and re-carry men very speedily from one Kingdom to another. That sounded an awful lot like teleportation to Ryan. It might be the only way to reach the hidden Antarctic base without having to physically travel there, which was well beyond his means to do.

Are you sure about this, Ryan?” Nahash asked. She was making no attempt to conceal her concern. “Demons treat only with humans, and not with other supernatural entities. The covenant that they struck was with Solomon and all like him. Gaap will not allow me, nor any of my sisters to travel with you. Without a surplus of magick we cannot follow you under our own power.”

I understand,” Ryan replied. “Besides, I'm not going to let you guys risk your lives on my behalf any longer. This is my mess, I have to clean it up. If it wasn't for me, none of this would have happened, and all of your sisters would be safe.”

But without you, the Seirim would not be free,” Nahash countered. “That freedom is more than worth the price. Remember what I have been trying to impress upon you, the importance of living life from moment to moment, of appreciating every second that you're given? Every second that we have spent filling our lungs with fresh air, feeling the wind in our wool and the sun on our skin, is worth a thousand years of drifting aimlessly in the immaterium.”

I remember,” he said. “Just trust me, I have a plan...”

And what plan is that?” Nahash asked skeptically. “You will employ this demon to carry you into the middle of a fortified stronghold, you'll somehow find this Grand Master and kill him with your weapon, all while evading Haures and any other forces that they might have under their command? How do you intend to pay the demon? Surely not with sexual energy? Gaap is a Mighty Prince of Hell, he will ask a high price.”

Ryan hadn't told her all the details of his plan yet, because he knew that she wouldn't like it. It was extreme, foolhardy even, but it was the only way to set things right.

I'm no longer a novice,” he said as he gave her a wink, “I got this.”

Consider this, Ryan,” Nahash pleaded. “If you should breach their stronghold alone, you may be able to use the powers that Vapula bestowed upon you to fight off mortal adversaries, but you will be next to useless against demonic foes. Let me journey with you, let me protect you. I cannot stand the thought of you going into battle alone. If some misfortune should befall you and you should die while I remain, it would be a fate worse than any that I can imagine.”

Her heartfelt request got through to him, he couldn't stand seeing her upset.

Alright, what do you propose? Didn't you say that you lacked the energy to travel there under your own power?”

She gestured to the obsidian ring on his finger, Azazel's gift.

I am bound to your ring. Wherever you go in the world, as long as you wear it, I will always find you. I am drawn to it, it acts as a gateway, almost like a summoning circle in its own right. The same is not true for my sisters, but if you should travel to the hidden stronghold, then I will be able to follow. Provided that I have enough energy to manifest, of course.”

And the only way to generate energy for you in our current situation is to...”

Delay your summoning by just a few hours,” she insisted, “lie with me and provide me with the energy that I need to remain at your side. I know that time is limited and that our refuge might be discovered at any moment, but your chances of success will only improve if you bring me with you. I cannot stay here and do nothing while you risk your life, it would drive me mad with worry.”

He considered for a moment, scratching his now stubbly chin as he stared into the summoning circle. She was right of course, they could accomplish more together than he could on his own, even if it would put Nahash in harm's way. He had no idea what he might encounter inside the Mason base. Perhaps he could ask that of Gaap too, it was written that the demon had the power of prescience. Considering the valuable possession that he was going to put on the line in order to buy the demon's help, he doubted that it would refuse his request.

Besides, if his little raid ended badly, then this might be his last day on Earth. Spending some of it in the company of the person that he loved was an attractive prospect. There had been so little time for romance recently, so few quiet moments for them to share.

Nahash knew what his decision was before he had spoken a word, she could sense his heightened mood, the fresh wave of anticipation that washed over him. She smiled, her amber eyes seeming to glow, and reached down to take his hand.

Better we do it soon,” she cooed, “time is wasting.”

Her sisters looked on jealously as she led him to the bedroom, pulling Ryan inside and closing the door behind her, making a point to her fellow Seirim that they should not interfere. He sat on the edge of the bed as Nahash stood before him, his eyes playing over her body as his heart began to quicken.

He drank in the smooth curves of her voluptuous figure, the way that her wide hips flared and then pinched into an hourglass waist. The way that her belly had that subtle paunch to it, just defined enough to make her look soft and fertile, her fat distributed to all of the right places. Her round thighs were almost the width of his torso, her pale, almost ashen skin as smooth as glass. Her long legs tapered into cloven hooves, her soft wool beginning below her knees. That same snow-white fleece was present on her forearms, along with her neck and head, the collar of fluffy fur cascading down a ways between her shapely boobs and over her shoulders. The pair of heavy breasts hung from her chest, as large as his head, so perfectly rounded that they begged to be cupped in his hands. They looked so firm and pert despite their immense size, but he knew from experience that her flesh would spill between his fingers like warm dough, as malleable as melting butter.

I don't have any magick left,” she said, “I won't be able to give it the usual flair. At least not right now.”

I don't love you because you can conjure flowers and make things taste like strawberries,” he laughed.

She climbed up onto the bed, the frame creaking ominously and the springs squealing as she put her weight on it. It was only a single bed, the mattress was tiny to her, more the size of a yoga mat.

You've taken quite a beating over the last few days,” she said, “should I be more gentle than usual?”

I'll survive.”

Ryan kicked off his shoes and shed his jacket, beginning to unbutton his shirt as Nahash leaned forward to take off his pants. They discarded his clothes on the floor beside the bed and Nahash straddled him, her pale skin lit by what little sunlight made it through the grimy window that was situated in the wall above the headboard.

After what had happened over the last few days, a sexual encounter that he actually anticipated and wanted to take part in was almost a foreign concept. He and Nahash made love most nights, both out of a mutual desire and as a way to keep her supplied with ample energy. Few demons had a source on tap, and it was one of the reasons that the Seirim was so uncommonly powerful, able to hold her own even against demons like Haures, at least for a time.

They hadn't had an opportunity to indulge since they had fled from the apartment and they had been able to share so few quiet moments together. As she kneeled atop him, her body gleaming in the sunlight like a statue of Venus hewn from white marble, he realized that he ached for her. He was already erect, his member throbbing as it stood in the air as if reaching out towards her.

Nahash reached down and brushed it with her fingers, gazing down at him with her amber eyes and smiling at his reaction as he twitched.

You are still so young,” she chuckled, “you have such stamina. Even after everything that Vapula and Gamori put you through, you still stand tall and strong. I would not have blamed you if you had abstained from lovemaking for a whole month, yet here we are...”

It would take an army of horny demons to keep me away from you,” he said, and she laughed at his retort.

This shack makes for a poor love nest, but I believe I can keep you distracted from the cobwebs and the grime.”

She leaned down towards him, subjecting him to another kiss, this one more invasive and sensual than the last. It was designed to excite, to tease rather than to placate, her tongue flicking and coiling inside his mouth. She held his member in her hand all the while, letting it rest gently in her palm, seeming to take great pleasure in the way that it jumped and pulsed with every stroke of her skilled tongue.

To call it a kiss would be misleading, it was a sex act in its own right, lurid and wanton. Her long organ was so flexible and dexterous, she had such minute control over it, more like a tentacle than a tongue in that regard. His mouth was full of movement, her slimy, wet muscle sliding against every surface. She licked the roof of his mouth, glanced his inner cheeks, coiled her prehensile organ around his own and encompassing it entirely. It was like slimy velvet, warm and irresistible.

Usually when she kissed him, she used some of her magic to alter her taste. She did the same when he went down on her, making her fluids taste like all the fruits of paradise, sweet and alluring. She was so drained of energy now that she couldn't do even that much. The copper flavor of her saliva was jarring at first, unfamiliar, but he soon began to enjoy it.

This was Nahash in her natural state, as she really was, with no Seirim magick to cloud his senses.

He pushed back against her, doing his utmost to meet her sordid embrace, even if she had a clear foot of tongue over him. He licked and mouthed, their organs wrestling like a pair of mating snakes, winding around one another as their mingling saliva made their battle wonderfully slippery.

The Seirim pulled back, letting her tongue slowly slide out of his mouth, ensuring that he could appreciate its length. When the tapered tip left his lips, it remained joined to them by a fat strand of saliva, which broke and fell to his chest as she sat upright.

His member throbbed between her fingers, Nahash looking down at it covetously, her primal lust on display. She was an avatar of nature, and nature's chief concern was reproduction. She was an unabashedly sexual being, as unashamed of her sexual proclivities as she was of her nakedness. Just as the fullness of her figure proclaimed her fertility, so too did her salacious expression betray her hunger, the Satyr wetting her lips with her pink tongue she positioned herself on top of him.

She angled his member towards her pink labia, already swollen and dripping with her feminine nectar, her anticipation palpable as her heavy breasts wobbled with her every movement.

Wait,” Ryan gasped, Nahash looking down at him in confusion. “I've spent enough time on my back lately, I want to be on top.”

Planning to ravish me?” she asked with a smirk, sliding off him and standing beside the bed. After some shuffling around, they eventually settled with Nahash sitting at the top of the bed, her back against the wall and her legs trailing off the sides of the mattress. It really was small for her, it looked about the size of a pool float, but now Ryan could dictate their pace.

He kneeled in front of her, now at about head height due to her sitting position, and reached out to cup her face in his hands. He stroked her neck, running his fingers through her feathery wool, combing it as she began to breathe more heavily. He slid a hand up her cheek, reaching her sheep-like ear and rolling the membrane between his thumb and forefinger, pressing his lips against hers. They were so full and smooth, her tongue snaking out to meet his own as he delivered a slower and more measured kiss. Sparks of pleasure shot down his spine as they embraced, her long lashes fluttering, every gentle stroke and restrained lick eliciting a low moan from his partner.

What are you doing?” Nahash giggled as he pulled away, leaning her head into his hand as he stroked her ear and gazing at him with her yellow eyes. “I'm supposed to be pleasuring you, not the other way around. This won't generate any extra energy for me, you know...”

I find pleasure in it,” he said, “if the goal is to get me off then this is the best way to go about it.”

If you insist,” she replied with a smirk, chewing on the end of one of her claw-like nails as she watched him roam lower.

He came face to face with her breasts, each one voluminous enough that he could have fit his head inside with room to spare. He took handfuls of them, kneading and squeezing like he was shaping fresh dough, her breathing growing heavier and her chest heaving as he explored her. Her skin was like the finest silk, so smooth that his digits seemed to glide across it without resistance, her porcelain complexion somehow making her appear more delicate than he knew her to be.

Her boobs were as large as the backpack that he had been lugging around with him, so heavy that it took some effort to lift one of them. He cupped them in his palms, weighing them, the supple fat spilling around his hands and through his fingers as though they were sculpted from melting wax. He sank his digits up to knuckle in her yielding flesh, seeking out the firm breast tissue beneath, his partner shivering and cooing when he found it.

When he released them, they bounced gently, like a plate of jello that had been shaped into the most sumptuous of forms. They would have been a parody of femininity of a woman of normal stature, but despite their exaggerated size, they seemed appropriate on Nahash. She was large enough, her voluptuous figure full enough that they complimented her inviting body, only one of many features that seemed to draw his gaze with an almost magnetic power.

Her pink nipples stood out against her pallid skin, engorged with excitement, begging to be touched. He pinched one of them between his fingers, watching Nahash's massive body tremble, her seductive sigh encouraging him. He manhandled one of the meaty globes, bringing it closer and pressing his lips around the firm protrusion. He sucked it into his mouth, sealing his lips around it and drawing on it, the Satyr cooing happily as she felt his tongue lash against her sensitive anatomy. Ryan made slow circles, pinching it between his lips and teeth, sucking and teasing as she arched her spine towards him.

You're being so aggressive today,” she mumbled, sighing appreciatively as he dragged his tongue across her nipple.

I'm just taking your advice,” he said after letting her nipple slip out of his mouth, “I'm making the most of every second that I've got.”

Oh, is that what you're doing?”

He released her breast and let it fall heavily, watching it wobble as it settled, then resumed his journey downwards. He traced the wide curve of her hips with his hands, delving his fingers into her soft flesh, leaning in to kiss her belly and feeling her twitch as he tickled her. She had a wonderful plumpness to her, the subtle paunch of her stomach just enough to give her some pleasant cushion. He resisted the urge to wrap his arms around her waist and sink his face into it, instead groping her round thighs as his lips crawled towards her loins.

Her legs were parted wide due to her odd position, and he stroked her inner thighs with his fingertips, as smooth as glass and as soft as velvet. Beneath the layer of fat was firm muscle, hard like rubber, housing all of the brawn that she needed to propel her heavy body with the ease and grace that she did. He kissed her thigh, feeling her squirm, glancing up to see her peering down at him over the twin mounds of her breasts.

Wait, Ryan,” she mumbled. “I don't have any magick to spare, I won't taste like I usually do...”

You think that I won't enjoy hearing you moan and watching you squirm because you don't taste like passion fruit?”

She seemed flustered by his comment, her eyelids fluttering as he parted her puffy labia with his fingers. Her lips were flushed pink and swollen with excitement, contrasting against the porcelain skin that surrounded them, a strand of her juices linking them as he splayed them open. Her vulva glistened, her flesh warm and wet, her feminine scent reaching his nose.

The Seirim's organs resembled those of human women closely, if not a little larger in size. He was intimately familiar with Nahash's body, he had done this innumerable times, but never without the mind-bending influence of her magick. He was oddly excited by the prospect, they had never made love before without Nahash having complete control over his senses. It would be a novel experience, if only this once...

He leaned down and dragged his tongue between her lips, her delicate folds slick with her juices. He felt her massive body shudder at his touch, her long spine arching as he reached the top and glanced her clitoris. When he pulled away, a film of her sticky fluids clung to his tongue, linked to her loins by a sagging web of clear slime. She tasted...sour, but not unpleasantly so. This was her natural flavor, or at least as natural as a body that had been conjured by magick could be.

Ryan was so aroused at that point that he would not have relented regardless of her taste, plunging back in as Nahash cooed softly. He felt her fingers delve into his hair as licked and teased, the giant Seirim's legs beginning to tremble about his face. They were so cool against his red cheeks, and he couldn't resist rubbing them against her, the sensitive skin of her inner thighs as smooth and as soft as the most luxurious satin. He paused his licking to plant a sucking kiss on her hip, her mammoth body twitching as he pulled away to leave a pink love bite. He could taste the salt on her skin, feel the warmth of her body radiating outwards like a space heater.

She was rolling her wide hips instinctively, as if subconsciously trying to fuck his face. Her rhythm was slow and subtle, but noticeable. He watched her body move for a moment, her toned muscles shifting and flexing beneath her cushiony layer of fat, her breasts swaying and bouncing as her slow dance dragged on. It was hypnotic, and tearing his eyes away from her lush body was a challenge.

Ryan moved back down towards her aching nethers, kissing and licking as he went, feeling her shiver and hearing her breathing grow ragged as he neared her loins. He paused there for a moment, his lips hovering an inch away from her sodden flesh, even his breath enough to make the Satyr gasp.

He leaned back in and delivered a flurry of quick licks and glances, her grip on his hair tightening. Her tugging stung his scalp, but he enjoyed the sensation, her grip seemed proportionate to her mounting pleasure. He painted every crease and fold of her burning womanhood with his tongue, her flesh almost warm enough to scald him. He mouthed and kissed, playing his lips over her tender vulva, drawing shapes with the tip of his tongue. He afforded her the same passion and intimacy that he would have during a deep and sensual kiss, her muscles tensing with every teasing stroke of his tongue, the thrusting of her hips growing faster as her slick juices dripped from his chin in thick ropes.

Something primal had come over him. Perhaps it was the lack of Seirim magick dulling his mind, but he felt so wanton, carnal.

Moving lower now, he circled her opening, feeling her muscles tense as it twitched and leaked in invitation. He slipped the tip of his tongue inside her and immediately he felt her muscles seize around him like a fist gloved in damp silk. Despite her stature, she was almost painfully tight. Her passage gripped him like a vice as it tried to suck him deeper, but the combination of her juices and his drool made their contact too slippery for her to find purchase. She was almost pulsating, her powerful pelvic floor muscles undulating and rippling beyond the walls of velvet flesh, her passage begging to be filled by something larger than a mere tongue.

He withdrew and resumed his ardent licking, raking his organ across her sensitive vulva, the Seirim leaning against the wall behind her and closing her eyes as she enjoyed his sordid attentions. Every stroke was met with an appreciative sigh or a low whine, his oversized partner guiding him as she maintained her hold on his hair. He loved to see her like this, teetering on the brink, so close to losing control of her faculties and succumbing to her more base desires. She could be so passionate and unashamed sometimes that it was almost alarming, her resemblance to an animal not merely confined to her outward appearance. She could rut like a beast, or she could make tender love to him like he was the most fragile thing in the world. That duality was what made her so exciting and unpredictable.

A tremor spread through her body as he pressed a finger up against her winking entrance, making her wait for it, her anticipation palpable. When she was sufficiently frustrated, he relented, slowly sliding his digit up to the knuckle inside her. His skin glided against her soaking insides, so slippery that there was almost no friction, and then her muscles closed around him like he had sprung a trap.

Her walls molded around his finger like a second skin, crushing him with an almost painful ferocity, massaging the length of his digit. He could feel the rings of muscle as they slid from the base to the tip, milking his finger as if her body couldn't tell it apart from a cock, squeezing and kneading with incredible pressure. It might have been uncomfortable was it not for her exquisite texture, her hot, slippery insides like silk soaked in lubricating jelly as they sucked at him like a mouth. The mere thought of sheathing his member inside her was enough to make his erection surge, bouncing in the air as it throbbed at the prospect.

He could feel her heartbeat on his lips as he crawled them slowly up her vulva, creeping ever closer to her sweet spot, moving his finger inside her as he went. Now a second hand was gripping his hair, the Satyr inadvertently pressing her heavy breasts together with her upper arms, giving him a wonderful view of her boundless cleavage from below. Her gyrating hips bumped her wet flesh against his nose, smearing her fluids on his face, and he had to wrap his free arm around her hips for purchase.

He reached around behind her with some difficulty, taking a generous handful of her ass, her cheeks no less rounded and supple than her boobs. He felt her flinch and gasp as he sank his fingers deep into her velvety meat, the hard muscle that lay hidden beneath tensing. He mauled and squeezed, her haunches as pliable as wet clay, her delicate fat spilling between his fingers and filling his palm.

You're so eager to please today,” she mumbled, her husky voice low and breathy. “Maybe I should leave you with a clear head more often...”

He began to make a come-hither motion with his finger, curling it inside her and driving it against the roof of her tunnel. Her passage fought against him, her contractions becoming more frequent and violent as she began to moan quietly.

His tongue glanced the smooth flesh of her swollen clitoris, and her body seemed to tense up, the Seirim frozen like a statue. He began to play his tongue across its shiny surface, his pace gentle and placating, her muscles slowly relaxing as she sank down into the bed. She was almost lying on her back now, her head and shoulders propped up against the headboard, her fingers still nestled in his hair as her claws pricked his scalp.

I see that all the practice has been paying off,” she grumbled, twitching as he circled her hard nub. He closed his lips around it, drawing it out from beneath its protective hood and lashing it with his tongue, her voice petering out into a groan as she pulled him closer. Her burnished thighs pressed around his face, quivering as his practiced licking drove her inexorably closer to the edge.

Her labored breathing almost seemed to be tied to his lapping, each doting glance followed by a staggered breath. Her tunnel squeezed around his finger as he moved it inside of her, the pressure so intense that he almost couldn't pull it back out of her, her silky flesh like damp latex as it clung to him.

Nahash was in a trance, thrusting her hips to rub her vulva against his tongue, seeking out more stimulation as Ryan held onto her as best he could. The squeezing of her pelvic floor muscles became frantic, dragging his digit deeper inside her, her fluids gushing around it to wet her thighs and drip from his chin. She was getting close, he could feel it, the Seirim now lying flat on the bed as her twisted horns scoured the headboard and left deep ruts in the wood. Her entire body was in motion, like a sensual dance, her hips rocking and her torso twisting as the light from the window above them made the fresh sweat that coated her skin glisten like morning dew.

She arched her back off the mattress, the springs creaking as if they were about to give way, but just as he felt that she was about to pop she pushed him away. Her hands still resting on his head, he looked up to see her peering down at him between her breasts, their sheer weight parting them as gravity took hold. A clear strand of her juices linked his lips to hers, and she bit her lip as she watched it break, following it with her ovine eyes as it fell to the sheets below.

What gives?” Ryan asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and failing to clear away the glaze of Seirim fluids that were clinging to his face.

Not yet,” she whispered, slowing her breathing and swallowing heavily as she took a few moments to recover. “You can finish me too quickly these days. I want to take my time, I want to enjoy it. I want to enjoy you...”

But time is the one thing that we don't have,” he mumbled.

She sat up on the bed, cupping his cheeks in her hands and wiping away some of the goop, unable to conceal her arousal as she did so.

We have time enough for this. What are we fighting for, if not for the right to be here, together?”

If there was one thing that he could never bring himself to do, it was to deny her. Nahash shuffled back up into a sitting position, the headboard creaking behind her as she put her weight on it, then extended her arms in invitation.

He crawled closer to her on the mattress, between her parted thighs, his member erect and ready. She closed her arms around him and pulled him close, knocking him off balance. Ryan fell into the cushion of her ample bosom, his face landing in the downy wool that decorated her neck in a deep and feathery ruff. It was soft against his cheeks, like fleece or velvet, her musky scent filling his nose as he breathed in. That wonderful scent was still there even without her magic. The smells of a fertile forest, of flowers and wet earth, grass and pollen. He couldn't resist plunging his hands into it, watching as they vanished up to the wrist in her soft coat.

The smell and texture of it made him feel sleepy, he was so accustomed to resting his head in the nape of her neck when they slept together that it had almost become a Pavlovian reaction. As he felt her fingers wrap around his member, however, he was jolted out of his stupor.

Go slow,” she whispered, her warm breath blowing his hair. “Take your time and savor me.”

It was an invitation that he couldn't refuse, his heart skipping a beat as he glanced up at her yellow eyes, her horned head framed by the shafts of light that penetrated the window above. He slid his arms a little lower, doing his best to wrap them around her massive body, his fingers tracing the long dimple that her spine carved in her back and delving into her rump. Even with both arms wrapped around her waist his fingers scarcely met on the other side.

He let her guide him, the Seirim rubbing his erection against her vulva, her puffy labia gliding against his skin and sending jolts of pleasure coursing through him. She was so warm, he could feel her heat on his glans as she brushed it against her slick flesh, wetting him with her syrupy juices in preparation. When he was suitably slippery, she pressed his head against her opening, Ryan feeling the twitching of her muscles as they wrapped around the tip like a pair of pursed lips. He exhaled a sigh into her fluffy ruff, burying his face in it as he pushed his hips forwards, Nahash letting him slide through her fingers as he drove his member deeper.

There was a moment of resistance, as if she was too tight to fit him, and then he felt her velvet insides rake across his glans. Every nerve that he had down there was on fire, ecstasy shooting through him like a hot knife, so intense that it could almost be described as pain. Yet her passage was the softest and most delicate thing that he had ever felt, and it seemed to kiss him as it wrapped around him like a prison of soaking satin.

Every subtle movement of her muscles sent another twinge of wracking pleasure through him, he could feel her every twitch, her loins beginning the slow milking motion that he both longed for and feared. Her slow massage seemed to coax him deeper, and she gasped above him as he slid inside her up to the hilt. He could feel her spasm, a shiver spreading through her massive body that made her fleshy walls ripple around his buried length.

I love this,” he mumbled into her luxurious fur, “I love you.”

I know,” she chuckled. “Now stop trying to flatter this old goat and give me what I need...”

She accompanied the salacious demand with a soft nibble of his ear, Ryan squirming as she kept him trapped in a bear hug. His hips began to move almost of their own accord, mechanical, inexorable. He could not more stop the thrusting than he could choose to stop his heart from beating, breathing in lungfuls of her familiar scent as the friction that it created began to rock them both.

There was so much suction, the walls of her passage clinging to him ardently, like he was trying to remove a latex glove. It was as though they were begging him to stay, Ryan painfully aware of every bump and crease of her innards as they dragged up his length. It was so prominent in his mind, sparks flying in his brain as he slid about halfway out of her. The ring of muscle around her opening pinched around him, and he couldn't help himself, slamming back inside her.

He drove himself deep into her reaches, parting her warm flesh, Nahash moaning enticingly in that husky contralto that excited him so. Her passage moved around him, shifting and squeezing as if it had a life all its own. The Seirim had such fine control over her pelvic floor muscles, she was an artist, wringing him with all the dexterity of a practiced hand. Every wave of teasing muscle that washed over him made his head spin, his member pulsing and jumping inside of her with every stroke.

To think that you can do all of this without your magick,” he gasped, “I always assumed that this was some kind of spell.”

She seemed surprised by his comment, but pleasantly so, pausing for a moment before leaning down to nuzzle his head with her ovine nose.

Perhaps I relied too much on magick. Do you really enjoy me so without it?”

What do you think?” Ryan asked with a drunken chuckle, lifting his face from her fluff and exposing his red cheeks.

She laughed at his dazed expression, placing a gentle hand on the back of his head and pushing him back down into her ruff. She used her upper arms to press her bust together, sinking him into the depths of cleavage, Ryan unable to help himself from lifting his hands and digging his fingers into their yielding surface. Nahash slid her hand down his back, tracing his spine with the clawed tips of her fingers, making him shiver and buck. She cupped his cheek in her palm and leveraged some of her strength to increase his pace, pulling him deeper inside her as they began to find an enjoyable rhythm that suited the both of them.

I can feel it,” Nahash whispered, “your energy is pouring into me. Warming me...”

Even in his distracted state, he had noticed that the hairs on his arms and neck had begun to stand on end, as if the air was full of electricity. She had never been so drained before, and in its absence, the sudden resurgence of her magick was more obvious than ever. He looked up at her, and her amber eyes seemed to be glowing, or perhaps they were just reflecting the light in the room like those of a cat. It was so hard to tell, the influence of her demonic powers could be so subtle.

Their coupling was slow and measured, yet powerful, the impact of their bodies joining making her thighs and breasts shake. Just like she wanted, Ryan was taking his time. He savored every spark of pleasure, every caress of her walls as they rippled around him, her juices spilling forth with every thrust. She was so warm, so wet, it was intoxicating. He felt like he was becoming part animal himself, his conscious mind slipping into irrelevance as his base instincts commanded him to move.

That's it,” she moaned, her voice low and sultry. “Like that, you're hitting all the right places...”

In this position he could reach so deep inside her, his tender glans scraping her velvet passage, driving into it in ways that made her shiver and push back to meet his thrusts. He could feel every sigh and tremor when they were locked together like this, every beat of her heart and every clench of her muscles translating into him, like their nervous systems had become linked.

As he turned his head to one side, rubbing his cheek in her wool, he noticed that something was wrong with the bed sheet. They had been dirty, sure, but now that he looked closer there was some kind of moss growing them. Were they rotting away? How could he not have seen it earlier?

For a moment he was disgusted, and he considered halting their encounter so that they might continue it in a more sanitary locale, then he saw it change. The moss grew and spread, encompassing the sheet faster than any normal plant should be able to grow. It sprouted a bud before his eyes, the stalk rising from its surface and opening into a beautiful, yellow flower.

It was obviously Nahash's magic. As her powers slowly returned, so too did the forest seem drawn to her, like metal shavings being pulled towards a powerful magnet. The bed of moss was spreading, and he reached down to run his fingertips through it. Its green surface was cool and wet, coated in dew, soft and pleasant to touch.

Your magick,” he said, his eyelids fluttering as he drove into her again.

It is returning,” she confirmed, “but I am not nearly satisfied yet.”

She increased their tempo, her hips beginning to gyrate and shift, changing the angle of his penetration so that she pressed around him in new and exciting ways. His rigid member dug into her sensitive walls, their slippery texture exquisite, the Satyr cooing happily as if finally able to scratch a maddening itch.

Her skilled movements were driving him wild. The Seirim were expert dancers, their control over their bodies was unparalleled. Ryan had seen them perform feats of grace and athleticism that would put any gymnast to shame, their movements so fluid and sensual that they had an almost hypnotic quality. Now she was using those same shimmies and rolling figures of eight that made her dancing so mesmerizing to drown him in an ocean of pleasure.

She was built for this of course, seemingly designed to seduce and to excite, but now she was all his. Five thousand years of experience tempting mortals and honing her natural talents, and now it was all directed solely towards him. After years of chasing women, it was still a novelty to be pursued, to be desired in the way that she desired him. It never ceased to thrill him, even after the weeks that they had spent together.

As their thrusting became more heated, their hips slamming together with an audible clap, his eyes were once more drawn to movement on the bed. Behind her head a web green vines was growing up the headboard, the creepers covered in fleshy leaves, colorful flowers blooming in shades of blue and white as they snaked higher. It was as if the bed was being overrun by plant life. He noticed a few fireflies buzzing about her horns too, weaving in and out as they flashed their ghostly, green lights.

The mattress beneath them was now covered in vibrant wildflowers, the bed of moss and petals somehow softer than the sheets had been. Blood red poppies, bright yellow daisies, and baby-blue flax flowers stood out against the green moss as if a whole bouquet was blooming around them. It smelled wonderful, like a meadow in spring, droplets of dew rolling down their leaves as if a light shower had just passed over them.

As their lovemaking grew faster and more intense, Ryan noticed more vines trailing along the floor, turning the whole room into a lush garden. He could even make out the beginnings of a flowery wreath that was forming about Nahash's crown of horns, colorful monarch butterflies flitting about in the air despite there being no open windows through which they could have entered.

He began to feel a familiar dullness coming over him, a clouding of his senses. He resisted it, knowing that Nahash was using her magick to influence his mind, no doubt intending to subject him to her usual hallucinations. As much as he enjoyed letting her toy with his brain, enhancing his pleasure and altering his perception to produce wonderful waking dreams, he wanted to continue without it. As well as being a poor use of her limited stores of energy, he was enjoying her in her natural state, his senses sharp and unclouded.

Don't,” he whispered, Nahash cocking her head as she looked down at him in confusion.

Why not?”

Without the magick I can taste you, smell you, feel you as you really are. I love it.”

I could give you a taste of paradise,” she cooed, making her case. “I could conjure a hundred hands and a hundred pairs of lips to sate your every desire. I could make a kiss taste like the sweetest nectar, I could fill your nose with the most alluring perfumes. I could make our sweat taste like honey, and I could make you see visions of your most earnest desires, yet all you want is me at my most mundane?”

There's nothing mundane about you,” he chuckled, feeling the delicate strands of her wool brush against his cheek as they moved together.

Whatever am I going to do with you?” she sighed, failing to conceal how flustered his request had made her. She usually had such complete control over their encounters, it was odd to see her so out of her element, adorable even.

Ryan redoubled his efforts, wrapping his arms around her waist as best he could as he plunged into her, the wooden frame of the tortured bed creaking under their combined weight. It was oddly cathartic to be able to squeeze someone with all of his might and to have no fear of hurting them. It was like the massive Seirim was made for hugging.

His ovine partner responded strongly, her labored breathing blowing his hair, her slimy walls caressing him in powerful waves. He couldn't be sure exactly how much control she had down there, more than a human woman certainly. But he didn't know if those fervent, almost loving strokes were by intent or if her sensual body was just built that way.

He couldn't take much more of this, she was chipping away at his sanity with every thrust. Nahash's satin passage wrung him with a force that made him moan into her fluffy ruff, the harsh contractions of her muscles milking him with deliberate intent.

She could sense his emotions, his desires conveyed without him having to utter a single word. She could feel his member as it jumped and throbbed inside of her, knowing what he wanted even before he did. With one final thrust, she drove him into her most intimate depths, her loins closing around him and gripping him like a fist as she buried him to the base. Ryan moaned into her silky wool, taking fistfuls of her soft ruff in his fists as the ecstasy made him lose all control. He clung to her for dear life as he bucked and writhed, his unbecoming vocalizations muffled by her fur. She merely placed a gentle hand on the back of his head, stroking his hair as if attempting to soothe him.

He exploded inside her, a torrent of his viscous emission pouring from his pulsating erection to flood her passage, the Seirim braying as she felt its warmth spread through her. Thick ropes of his ejaculate painted her silken walls, mingling with her honeyed juices, forced into the reaches of her trembling loins and spilling from her opening as he filled her to capacity. Every wracking throb was chased by a wave of almost unbearable pleasure, each more powerful than the last, his mind swimming as pulses of white light filled his head. There seemed to be no end to it. It just kept coming and coming until, through the haze of his euphoria, he feared that it might drive him mad.

Nahash followed close behind him, Ryan wincing as he felt her insides begin to tremble around his length, her muscles massaging him through the barrier of her luxurious walls. It was an exquisite sensation, like being stroked by a silken glove. Her climax shook her massive body, her arms tightening around him and her meaty thighs locking him inside her so that not a drop of his essence went to waste. Her quivering tunnel of flesh clamped around him, forcing out another thick wad of semen, a whole new dimension of tightness making his head spin.

They began to move again, abandoning all pretense of taking their time and savoring every moment, rutting like a pair of wild beasts. Every thrust fucked the syrupy mess deeper inside her, her loins drawing on him, her muscles seizing like a throat that was attempting to swallow around his shaft.

The fires of pleasure slowly receded, reduced to smoldering embers as Ryan let himself sink into Nahash's welcoming body like a deflating balloon. Her soft breasts cushioned him, the downy wool around her neck deep and plush enough that it could very nearly engulf his entire head. Everything about her was soft, yielding. Wherever his hands roamed they were met with her silky wool or her ample flesh, her smooth skin damp with sudor. With every staggered breath, he smelled her earthy scent, joined by the veritable botanical garden that had sprung up around their bed. Their bodies twitched and shivering in unison as sparks of residual pleasure shot through them, and they basked in their afterglow, giddy as if they had become drunk on wine.

I can feel it feel it flowing inside me,” she whispered, breaking a long silence that had only been punctuated by their labored breathing and the hammering of their hearts.

My, uh..?”

The magick,” she chuckled, “ but...that too...”

Do you have what you need?” Ryan asked. It had taken some convincing for her to get him into bed, but now that he was lying here with her, leaving her warm embrace was the last thing that he wanted to do. If Haures himself had leapt through that window right now, Ryan wasn't sure that he would even have flinched. He felt like he was floating on a fluffy cloud, post-coital euphoria permeating every fiber of his being.

She shook her head, and he looked up at her in surprise.

It's not enough I'm afraid,” she replied with a mischievous smile, “it will take perhaps two more sessions before I have enough energy stored to manifest a body in a new location. I did say that it would take some hours,” she added apologetically. “Do you feel up to it?”

Well if it's the only way...”

She laughed, pressing his face back into her ruff.

Relax for a few minutes, then we'll go again. But I want to be on top this time...”

CHAPTER 10: RETURN FIRE

The candles that surrounded the summoning circle flickered, illuminating the dark living room in their orange glow, the pale skin of the Seirim reflecting the light as they stood nearby. It was the middle of the day, but the grime that covered the windows blocked out most of the sunlight. The deep shadows that were cast by the dancing flames gave the cabin an eerie vibe, and it was making Ryan feel like he was standing on the set of an Evil Dead movie. He eyed one of the mounted stag heads, its antlers draped in wispy cobwebs, then shook off his fear and opened his copy of the Lesser Key at the page that he had bookmarked.

He had showered again after his romp with Nahash, and he was now ready to perform the ritual. The absence of incense had been somewhat mitigated by the smell of flowers from the bedroom, the greenery spilling out through the doorway now and threatening to consume the rest of the house. The plants had only grown stronger and wilder the longer that he and Nahash had made love. Now his companion was charged up on energy, ready to travel to the hidden Mason base at his side and ready to fight if it became necessary.

The baleful Haures had not shown his face again so far. Rather than being unable to locate Ryan, he found it more likely that the demon was simply wary of the Seirim, even in their weakened state. It was just a matter of time before the beast evened the odds, however, and they had already been in the cabin for too long. It was time to set events in motion.

Ryan began to recite the Preliminary Invocation of the Goetia from the safety of his protective triangle. It was becoming so familiar to him now, this was the third time in so many days that he had read aloud the entire passage. There was a certain rhythm to the invocation when it was recited properly, more of a chant or a hymn than a simple recitation. At this rate, he was going to learn it by heart, despite its exhausting length and complexity.

This time he had a glass of water on standby, knowing that he was going to need it. During the last two summonings, it had taken him about twenty minutes to get from the beginning to the end.

The Seirim looked on as he made his way slowly through the invocation, struggling with the Hebrew and Aramaic passages. When he was done, he proceeded immediately to the next evocation in the sequence, commanding the demon to appear as he waved his wand at the circle.

I Evoke and conjure you Gaap, and being with power armed from your supreme majesty, I thoroughly command you by Beralanensis, Baldachiensis, Paumachae and Apologiae-Sedes and your most powerful princes Genio Liachidi, ministers of your Tartarean seat, chief princes of your seat of Apologia, in your Ninth Region. I exorcise & powerfully command you Gaap in and by him that said your word, and it was done, and by all the holy and most glorious names of the most holy and true God...”

The surface of the summoning circle began to shift as if the wooden floor inside the boundaries of the chalk was melting, becoming liquid. He was not surprised by the environmental changes this time, he knew exactly what to expect. Summoning was a precise science, and he was slowly learning to anticipate at what stages the demon would begin to manifest itself.

...I conjure you by the special and true name of your God that you owe obedience unto, and by the name of your king, which beareth rule over you, that forthwith you come without tarrying and fulfill my desires...”

The floorboards became less defined, until all that remained was a perfect circle of polished wood, like the varnished surface of a dining table. The effect did not stray beyond the chalk, it seemed to have been properly contained, there were no breaks in the circle or errors in his transcription. He had to be cautious here, as Gaap was a higher ranked Goetic demon than any that he had attempted to summon before. It was powerful, no doubt cunning, and there was a good chance it might be malevolent.

Now the surface began to ripple, as if it was a pond that someone had thrown a pebble into, the waves lapping at the edges of the chalk summoning circle. The candles flickered, the structure of the dilapidated cabin creaking as if it was being put under some kind of stress.

Therefore come ye in the name Adonay, Saday, Zebeoth, Adonay, Amiorent, come, come, why delay? Hasten, Adonay, Saday, the king of kings commandeth you!”

He waited, his wand pointed at the center of the circle, the sound of his breathing the only thing breaking the eerie silence. He waited for the demon to manifest, wondering if he had done something wrong. Perhaps he had made a mistake during his incantation, or maybe the setup was just too amateurish for a demon of this rank to even deign to appear before him.

A sound reached his ears, faint and far away, and he strained to listen. It was a church bell, heard from a great distance. Was there a church near enough to the national park that it could be heard this deep inside the forest? It didn't seem likely.

As it grew louder, he was able to make out individual bells. There was a whole choir of them, as if a cathedral was summoning the faithful to prayer. He was tempted to compare the sound to the tolling of wedding bells, but it was oddly mournful, more like a funeral than any celebration. It was tuneless, grating, he had to fight the urge to cover his ears. After a while it became unpleasantly loud, echoing as if the noise was coming from inside the very room, like he was standing in the bell tower of some Gothic basilica. It shook his bones, seeming to make the foundations of the cabin vibrate beneath his feet.

His attention was drawn to a haze in the center of the circle, a mirage, shimmering like the air above the baking asphalt on a hot summer's day. It was formless at first, but then it began to change, taking on the rough shape of a man. The ringing of those blasted bells continued as if announcing the entity's arrival, its body becoming more solid as he looked on.

Ryan blinked, and then it was there. It stood on the now mirror-like floor, seven feet tall and clad in what looked like a hooded, burlap robe. Its face was obscured in shadow, save for a set of yellowed and crooked teeth, its long and bony fingers clasped in front of it.

He was used to demons taking strange and frightening forms, but this one was different. It wasn't just strange or alarming, it was repulsive, it looked like some kind of zombie monk. He was glad that the thing's features were obscured beneath its long hood, as he feared that whatever might be lurking under there would give him night terrors for the rest of his life.

Ryan quickly composed himself, knowing that he had to keep his attention focused on the task at hand. This form may well be designed to perturb and distract him so that the demon might find an opening in his defenses that it could exploit. He considered commanding it to take a more appealing form, but it might take offense, and the situation was already precarious enough.

It stood there in silence, waiting for Ryan to address it, making no comment about the unorthodox surroundings or the slapdash nature of the summoning ritual.

Oh Mighty Prince Gaap,” Ryan began, resisting the urge to clutch his protective pendant in his hand. He needed to appear confident, in control. Like dogs, demons would sense weakness and hesitation, and it might encourage them to act. “I have summoned you here because I am in dire need of your help. Please forgive the unorthodox nature of the ritual, my resources are severely limited, and my life is in immediate danger. Will you treat with me?”

Gaap turned its head slowly to peer around the room, examining the Seirim and the flickering candles. Ryan could hear the bones in its neck creaking. It turned back to stare at him, and while he couldn't see its eyes beneath the veil of shadow, he could feel them piercing through him. It was the same sensation that one got when they were alone at night, the hairs on their neck standing on end as their instincts insisted that they were being watched by some unseen force. Gaap's discolored lips pulled back in an ugly smile, revealing its rotting teeth.

You are the boy...” it rasped, its voice hoarse and breathy. It sounded like it had a mouth full of dust, or perhaps it had been smoking ten packs of cigarettes a day for the last five thousand years.

The...boy?” Ryan asked. What was the demon talking about?

I know you, Ryan Cutter,” it croaked.

Ryan was taken aback, glancing at Nahash for a moment, the Seirim seeming equally surprised by the demon's statement.

How do you know me? What do you mean by that?”

It ignored his queries, merely standing there and grinning at him. Information wasn't free, it no doubt wanted some kind of payment.

I will treat with you,” the demon hissed with a bow of its hooded head, “state your terms.”

Ryan cleared his throat, reading from the contract that he had prepared earlier. He had put a lot of thought into it, and this time he hadn't had Nahash to help him. If they had worked on it together, she would no doubt have objected to his plan. Fortunately, she hadn't been curious enough to press the issue.

I would ask two things of you,” he began, the demon looking on silently. “First, I need to know the precise location of one Reginald Carlisle, his title is Grand Master. He's somewhere in Antarctica, below the ice in a hidden base, that's all I know for sure. I intend to kill him. My second request is that once you've located him, I am to be transported to the nearest safe area inside the installation, somewhere that I can reach him in a reasonable amount of time. I must arrive unseen. You may not teleport me into the direct view of any guards, into a room that I cannot escape from, or otherwise allow me to come to any kind of harm as a result of where you choose to send me. You may not alert anyone to my presence yourself, or otherwise cause others to become aware of me, nor may you put me into any situation where others would hurt me as an indirect result. When I have succeeded in killing Carlisle, you will return me to this cabin.”

Gaap contemplated for a moment, then spoke in its hoarse voice.

And if you should fail to kill Reginald Carlisle?”

I'm getting to that part,” Ryan said. “As for your payment, I have nothing on hand. I cannot offer you sexual energy, nor do I have anything to sacrifice. Instead, I offer you a wager...”

The demon perked up at that, its unnaturally long fingers twitching as it seemed to lean closer.

Go on...”

Ryan!” Nahash snapped, “do you know what you're doing?”

Trust me,” he whispered, then he turned his attention back to the demon. “Because I cannot offer you anything in exchange for your help right now, I propose the following arrangement. If I should succeed in killing Carlisle, then the demon that is currently hunting me will be called off, his contract rendered void. That done, I will be able to move more freely, as my chief concern will be evading my mortal pursuers. As soon as it is safe to do so, I will have a hundred tin plates inscribed with your sigil, and I will spread them around the city. It will be a deferred payment, so to speak, only to be carried out when my situation allows for it.”

And what wager do you propose?” the demon asked.

If I should fail to kill Carlisle and I meet my demise in the Antarctic base, then you may take possession of my soul.”

Ryan!” Nahash exclaimed, her eyes wide. “You cannot do this! Do you have any idea what that would mean?”

It's the only way,” Ryan replied solemnly, “no demon would accept a contract from a client unless they were certain that they would be paid. This way Gaap will receive the energy that is owed regardless of the outcome.”

But your immortal soul,” she pleaded. “Death is not the end, Ryan. But if you surrender your soul to a demon, it will be drained of energy and consumed. You will cease to exist!”

If I fail, then I'll die, and everything that I know and love will be lost. I don't care about the afterlife. If there's such a thing as Heaven, then I don't want to go there if you can't follow. The guy who calls himself God doesn't seem to like Nephilim very much, I don't think your name will be on the guest list.”

Foolish romantic,” she brayed, her usually musical voice becoming more like that of a goat as her emotions got the better of her. “I won't allow it, I won't let you put your soul at risk out of some...misplaced notion of loyalty! There are more important things at stake!”

Gaap glanced between them, seemingly amused by their exchange. Her sisters were visibly upset, clustering together and whispering worriedly to one another.

Stop smiling like that!” Nahash snapped at him, balling her fists and stamping a cloven hoof on the floor of the cabin. “You think you're being so noble, but you're just being an idiot! How dare you hide this from me, how dare you make this decision behind my back! There's more than this life, more than our romance. You'd risk the promise of an infinite existence for just a few more decades with me?”

What did you tell me about your time in the demon realm, of your thousands of years drifting aimlessly in a soup of immaterial thought and emotion?” Ryan countered, Nahash looking on with tears welling in her ovine eyes. “You told me that an infinite existence in that state paled in comparison to a single second of life in the tangible world. You told me to savor every second of it, to value every gust of wind and every blade of grass, to appreciate every smell and sight and flavor while there was still time. Well, that's the way I feel about you, Nahash. I know that our time is limited, the lifespan of a human is but a brief candle from your perspective, yet the fact that it's so finite is what makes it infinitely valuable. That is why I'm going to fight tooth and nail, why I'm going to put everything at risk for one more second with you, because I won't get another chance.”

You have become wise,” she said as a solitary tear rolled down her cheek to wet her woolly ruff, her angry outburst now over. She sounded defeated, perhaps sensing that his mind was set and that he could not be swayed. “You understand the value of life, you are making your own decisions without my council, and you have become an experienced summoner. Yet I would have a living husband who is meek and ignorant over a wise one who is dead.”

Then help me stay that way,” he said, “I know that we can succeed. Together.”

She wiped her eyes with her fluffy forearm, then nodded. Ryan turned back to Gaap, awaiting the demon's decision.

I accept your wager,” it croaked. “Prepare yourself for travel, Ryan Cutter.”

Can I bring anything with me?” he asked.

Within reason,” the creature replied.

I'm bringing this weapon,” Ryan said as he pulled the handgun from his belt, “and this ring.”

Gaap recoiled like a vampire that had been exposed to sunlight as Ryan brandished the onyx wedding band, shrinking back as its crooked smile was replaced with a grimace.

This, I cannot do,” it hissed.

What? Why not?” he asked as he shared a concerned glance with Nahash.

This artifact has been forged with magick that far exceeds my own. I cannot transport it, I cannot touch it. Please, put it away.”

He did as the demon requested, covering his hand with his sleeve, then he turned to Nahash. He wanted to say something to comfort her, but no words came to him.

Ryan, the plan won't work,” she said. She looked dejected, her sheep-like ears drooping. “I cannot go with you, without that ring I will have no way of knowing where you are! We have to try something else, come up with another plan!”

The contract is sealed,” Gaap reminded them, “I will have my payment one way or another...”

Ryan gestured for the demon to be calm, leaving his protective triangle and walking over to Nahash. He plunged his face into her downy wool, and she closed her arms around him, pulling him tight against her bosom as if afraid that he would vanish once she let go of him. They shared a few moments of silence, and then he had to pull himself away from her. He considered that this might be the last time that he would smell her earthy scent, the last time that he would feel her warmth, but breaking down now wouldn't do anyone any good. He steeled himself, putting on a confident front even as he choked back the tears that were threatening to overwhelm him. She probably sensed his emotions regardless.

I can do this,” he insisted, trying to reassure himself as much as Nahash. “Just a quick in and out, I'll be back before you've even noticed that I'm gone.” He removed the black ring from his finger and placed it in her palm, closing her hand over it. “Keep this safe for me, I'll need it when I get back.”

Be careful Ryan,” she whispered, “don't take any unnecessary risks.”

He turned back to Gaap, cocking his weapon with a mechanical click.

Let's get this done.”

The demon grinned again, exposing its yellowed teeth, watching him intently with unseen eyes.

You may experience some...discomfort...”

Ryan winced, gripping his chest with his hand. His heart was beating erratically, aching, a numbness moving down his left arm. Nahash sensed his distress and moved towards him, but the demon put himself between them. Her eyes were wild, and she looked about ready to kick the creature across the room, but it raised a bony hand to stay her.

This body must die,” it explained in its raspy voice, “only then can the soul be transported elsewhere. He is quite safe, I have not violated the terms of our agreement...”

It's f-fine Nahash,” Ryan stammered, coughing as the pain spread through him. “We have to t-trust Gaap.”

Darkness began to eat at the corners of his vision, primal panic overtaking him. Was this a heart attack? Oh God, he was really dying. What would that entail? What would it feel like? He dropped to his knees, then fell to his side, every muscle in his body burning. It felt like an elephant was standing on his chest. His heart stopped, and an odd euphoria came over him, his brain becoming starved of oxygen. He felt cold, so cold...

***

A kaleidoscope of vibrant colors swirled around Ryan, like some kind of trippy album cover from the sixties. All the hues of the rainbow seemed to flow into one another like running paints, mingling and swirling, creating new colors that he didn't even have a name for. He wasn't seeing it, however. He had no eyes, no senses of any kind. It was like a dream was being projected into his mind by some outside force.

There was no Ryan in fact, the boundaries of his body were absent, and the boundaries of his mind were becoming blurred and uncertain. He couldn't wiggle his fingers or toes, he had no sense of himself. It was like someone had unplugged him from the physical world. There was just an odd sense of floating, tumbling, of being lost.

They hit him like a wall, all at once, hundreds of thousands of them. There were voices in his head that were not his own, like he had somehow developed a violent case of schizophrenia. He tried to cover his ears with his hands to block out the intolerable noise, but he had neither. There was no way to stop it, no volume control. He tried to scream, to beg the voices to stop, but he had no voice.

It wasn't just voices, it was thoughts too, the memories and emotions of outsiders flooding his brain. He felt their sadness, their despair, he experienced their joy and their happiness as if it were his own. There was so much of it coming so fast, impossible to parse, and in a second he had experienced a lifetime's worth of emotional highs and lows.

Their thoughts intruded into his mind, he could experience their memories, there was no boundary between him and them. Such terminology had lost all meaning, there was only us. His ego had ceased to exist, and he no longer saw himself as an individual. It was wonderful and horrifying, enlightening and crushing. A thousand lives flashed before his eyes, millions of accumulated years in a fraction of a moment, impossible to make any sense of. He was being overloaded, tortured.

Was this what Nahash had lived through for all those millennia? Was this the immaterium, where thoughts and emotions were as real and as tangible as a rock or a tree?

***

Ryan awoke on a cold floor, taking in a lungful of air. He opened his eyes and looked around, his panic slowly subsiding as he realized that he was no longer being assailed by thoughts made manifest. He was in some kind of confined space, a storage closet? There were boxes stacked against the wall behind him, and there was a mop and bucket to his right.

He slowly rose to his feet, his legs shaky and his body oddly awkward. His chest now felt fine, but he was uncoordinated, like he was wearing shoes that were the wrong size or something. He turned to examine his surroundings and then nearly had a second heart attack as he noticed Gaap. The demon was uncomfortably close in the small closet, there was barely enough room for the both of them.

It is done,” Gaap hissed, “you have reached your destination.”

The demon then reached out with a bony, discolored finger, too long and with too many joints. It looked more like a spider's leg than a human appendage. He recoiled from it, but there was nowhere to go, and he balled his fists as he felt the tip of that ghastly digit brush his forehead.

A vision flashed before his eyes like a waking dream. His perspective shifted, shooting out of the door and down the corridor, as if footage from a drone was being played back at great speed. He wound through snaking tunnels, past guards armed with rifles, over the heads of robed men carrying books and tablet computers. He entered a room and came to a stop, hovering before an older man with a salt and pepper beard. He was hunched over a table, reading from ancient manuscripts.

Ryan recognized his face from Gamori's sand sculpture, it was Carlisle.

He snapped back to the present, gasping as the sudden change in perspective dizzied him, and he had to lean against the wall for a moment while he got his bearings. He knew where the man was, he knew how to get to him, like a roadmap of the facility had been burned into his brain.

You have all that you need, Ryan Cutter,” Gaap croaked. “Now go, and if you should accomplish your task, I will return you to the company of your Nephilim companions. I would wish you good luck in your venture, but that would not be in my best interests...”

The creature began to laugh, hacking and coarse, the sound slowly fading as the demon vanished into a fuzzy haze. Ryan drew his weapon and checked the magazine, moving to the door and preparing to open it.

There had been eight armed guards between him and Carlisle, along with a dozen other Masons who weren't armed but who may still try to stop him or attempt to raise the alarm. There was no way that he could reach Carlisle's chamber in secret, there was no cover, only bare corridors lit with fluorescent lamps. There wasn't so much as a shadow that might help to conceal his presence. He would have to fight his way through. At least he had the element of surprise, they would not be expecting an attack here, they probably thought themselves untouchable.

He had to move quickly, or his mental map of where the threats were located wouldn't count for much. He opened the door to the closet and stepped out into the whitewashed hallway. There didn't seem to be any security cameras, and the guards were patrolling on routes rather than protecting specific locations. He missed Nahash, he had counted on having her here to watch his back, but he would have to make do.

He set off down the corridor, already knowing where he was supposed to go, every fork and turn that he should take was already planned out. As he rounded a corner in the oddly organic corridor, he came across a man wearing ornate robes who was engrossed in the readout of a tablet computer. The stranger looked up from his task, then froze, the blood draining from his face as he saw the gun.

Ryan moved past him, knowing that he wasn't going to try to stop him. Two more robed men parted to let him pass, looking on in surprise and confusion as Ryan's shoes squeaked on the stone floor. He increased his pace to a jog, his heart pounding in his chest, and not because he was exerting himself. He had done this before, he knew to let his reflexes do the work, but the adrenaline that was flooding his veins was impossible to ignore.

He arrived at a junction and then took a left. Everything looked the same here, all of the corridors were white and featureless save for the occasional locked door. He would have been completely lost if he had neglected to ask for Gaap's help in locating Carlisle. He should be coming up on the first pair of guards soon, and so he readied his weapon, willing his hands to stop shaking.

It all happened so quickly. He turned another corner and there they were, two men walking side by side with automatic rifles draped across their chests on slings. They wore long-sleeved shirts with pants that were tucked into their boots, dressed like policeman or security guards, but in regal purple instead of black or blue. They had Masonic insignias on their upper arms and on the baseball caps that they wore, and they had belts from which zip ties, walkie-talkies, and sidearms were hanging. They had been chatting, but as Ryan came into view and raised his weapon, he saw their smiles falter.

Ryan fired twice, the noise making his ears ring in the confines of the corridor, and both men dropped. He moved forward, keeping his handgun trained on them, and put another round into the one who was still moving. Dark blood pooled beneath their prone bodies on the pristine floor, staining their purple shirts, reflecting the fluorescent lights that shone from above. They hadn't been wearing body armor or bulletproof vests.

He stooped and recovered one of their rifles, struggling to pull the sling over the limp body's head, then checked the magazine and the safety. It was a Galil MAR chambered in 5.56mm, a shortened version of the Israeli assault rifle platform. It made sense to use a rifle with a short barrel in these tight corridors. Might as well go loud, everyone in the base would have heard those gunshots.

He set the fire selector to full-auto and stowed a second magazine in his belt, wishing that he had recovered one of the chest rigs from the dead soldiers back in the forest. He set his Glock to safe and then shoved it down the back of his pants, continuing on his way.

The lead weight feeling in his gut had returned again. These men hadn't been trying to kill him, they hadn't burst into his apartment with their weapons drawn and they hadn't been shooting at his friends. They would certainly have done the same to him, but he couldn't do mental gymnastics this time. He was solely responsible for their deaths. He felt nauseous, but he had to press on.

After running for another minute or so he heard shouting coming from around the next bend, emerging to see a frightened scribe dart into a side door and close it behind him. Ryan leapt back into cover just as a hail of bullets whizzed past. There were more guards down at the end of the hall, perhaps thirty meters away.

He poked his rifle around the corner and blind-fired it, letting the recoil bounce it around. He loosed a couple more short bursts, waiting for the return fire, then leaned his upper body out from behind the wall. One of the men was down and the second was dragging him away, aiming his weapon in Ryan's direction with his free hand.

Ryan should have hesitated, he should have felt remorse when he saw that guard trying desperately to pull his counterpart out of the line of fire, but the killer instincts that Vapula had bestowed upon him only saw an opening. He cut the guard down with a three-round burst to the chest, and the man slumped against the wall like a rag doll, leaving a smear of dark blood as he slid to the ground to lie motionless beside his friend.

They knew that he was coming now, things were about to get hairy. He passed by the bodies and emerged from the corridor into a larger chamber, the white paneling giving way to polished stone. It looked like a cave that had been hollowed out of the solid bedrock, and it was full of large crates that were stacked on tiered shelves, like a warehouse. More and more he was starting to think that the strange and illogical layout of this place was not by design. Had these tunnels and caves existed before the Masons had set up shop here? He could think of no other reason that they would place a storage area in such an odd place.

He heard a sizzling sound, and then something that sounded like liquid hitting the floor. He looked around him, and then saw a thick strand of what resembled molten rock drop from the air a few meters in front of him. He aimed his weapon at the ceiling, and then had to cover his eyes with his forearm. There was something up there, as bright as a cutting torch, the blazing circle that it was carving in the roof of the cave burned into his retinas. He tried to blink it away, but the ghostly afterimage remained.

Was it Haures? His heart racing, he dove into cover behind one of the shelves, keeping his weapon trained on the ceiling even if he couldn't look directly at it. Molten rock poured from the roof like magma, its consistency thick and gooey. It looked almost like flaming peanut butter. It impacted the ground below the hole, slowly spreading outwards into a pancake shape, the crates that it came into contact with bursting into flames. Ryan could feel the heat of it on his face even from a distance.

A dark shape dropped down into the mass, shaking the floor as it landed, its feet splashing in the burning material like it was no more than a rain puddle. It was massive, twelve feet tall or more, and it shook its furry body like a wet dog as it flexed a pair of bat-like wings.

A-Azazel?!” Ryan stammered.

The beast turned its horned head to look back at him with its trio of burning eyes, the flaming halberd that it held in its hands glowing white-hot. A few more droplets of molten rock fell on its back, rolling off its coat like raindrops.

Ryan Cutter,” Azazel rumbled, its tombstone teeth exposed in a malicious grin. “Our paths converge once again. I have something that belongs to thee.”

The Watcher tossed something in Ryan's direction, and he dropped his rifle, letting it hang from its sling as he snatched the object from the air. He opened his fingers to see the onyx ring resting in his palm, the arcane runes that were inscribed on its inner surface glowing a fiery orange.

But...why?” Ryan asked. “Why are you helping me? You said that you considered the favor that you owed me repaid.”

I am not helping thee,” Azazel laughed, his booming voice echoing through the cave. “Thou art helping me, if thou art aware of it or not.”

What do you mean?”

All will become clear to you before this day is through, but there are more pressing matters that require thy immediate attention. Seek out Carlisle, rid yourself of Haures, and if the fates align we shall meet again soon. Do try to stay alive, Ryan Cutter. Shouldst thou perish it would upset my daughters terribly, and I might not see an end to their bleating for another hundred years.”

At that, the beast sped off down another corridor, somehow able to fit inside the narrow spaces despite his immense size. It looked almost comical, like a ferret disappearing down a length of PVC pipe.

Ryan returned the ring to his finger, then felt the hairs on his arms stand on end. The dark shadows in the poorly lit chamber began to shift, running across the walls and floor as if cast by an unseen light, coalescing into a single point. They became a solid mass, and that solid mass then took a familiar, hourglass shape.

Nahash emerged from the darkness, a smile on her pink lips and a spring in her step.

I suspect that my father is starting to like you,” she said, “not that he would ever admit it.”

He rushed forward and took her in his arms, the two sharing a brief moment together before she eased him away from her.

Stand back,” she said as she extended her arm, Ryan watching as a flickering flame sprang to life in her hand. It grew and spread, becoming a shaft of molten metal, glowing like it had just been pulled from a furnace. It did not singe her wool, nor do it seem to hurt her, the metal slowly taking shape and cooling. When the flames died down they left a curved sword in their wake, the blade shaped like a crescent, Nahash swinging the weapon experimentally.

It's called a khopesh,” she explained, noticing his expression. “A gift from my father. It's a little dated perhaps, but I know how to use it. I haven't wielded a sword like this since the day that my mother died...”

It was the first time that he had ever heard her talk about her mother, but he stifled his curiosity. There would be time to talk later.

I've never been more glad to see you,” he said, “follow me. I know where to go.”

He shouldered his rifle and set off down one of the many corridors that led out of the cavernous warehouse, Nahash trotting along behind him with her sword in hand. The ceiling was more than high enough that she could walk unimpeded. He was about half way to his target, but if the alarm had not yet been raised, then it would be soon. They had to reach Carlisle before he was moved to a safe location. There could be impenetrable bunkers and vaults down here for all Ryan knew.

They came to a three-way junction, and he halted, taking a moment to remember his mental map.

This way,” he said, taking a left turn. As they rounded the corner they ran directly into a group of three guards, everyone screeching to a stop about ten feet apart. Time seemed to freeze for a brief moment, like the calm before a storm, the two parties staring each other down with wide eyes. Then everyone began to move at once.

Ryan was fast, bringing his rifle to bear against the nearest Mason, but Nahash was faster. It was like everyone else was moving in slow motion, like they were trying to run underwater as the graceful Seirim leapt forward on her long legs. In one step she had closed the distance, and she swiped her sword in the blink an eye, the curved blade flashing as it reflected the harsh light from the lamps above them. It cleaved through the neck of the nearest guard like a knife through butter, flames flashing where it came into contact with him. It cauterized the wound, sending the man's head spiraling through the air without spilling a drop of blood. She chained together another blow before the enemy had a chance to react, reversing the blade in her hand so that the wicked scythe was facing her next target, the sword whistling through the air as it split the next man's head between the eyes and nose. He was dead before the first body had even hit the floor.

The third was turning to face the most immediate threat, intending to fire at her from the hip, but Ryan squeezed his trigger and put a burst through his chest. He fell, and Nahash halted, holding her weapon ready to swing as her next target slumped to the ground.

Jesus,” Ryan muttered. “I was going to get a gun license when we got back to civilization, but maybe we should just keep one of those swords handy.”

Told you I could handle myself.”

As they pressed onward, an alarm began to ring out, echoing through the hallways. The lights dimmed, replaced by strips of red warning lighting that illuminated the passage in a blood-red glow, like an old darkroom for developing photographs.

Well they definitely know we're here now,” Ryan said, checking his magazine again. “We need to pick up the pace or the whole damned facility is going to be gunning for us.”

They made their way along a few more snaking corridors, the red lighting making it harder to see. As they neared their destination, they came across a long hallway, perhaps a hundred meters from end to end and almost completely straight save for a slight incline. Ryan could just make out shapes moving in the distance, and then a muzzle flash illuminated a line of soldiers that were blocking the corridor. Five of them were standing shoulder to shoulder, clad in heavy armor that almost looked like bomb disposal or riot gear. Their clothing was thick and padded, with high collars that protected their necks, and each one was wearing a helmet with a full-face visor.

More gunfire followed, impacting the far wall as Ryan and Nahash dove out of the way, the Seirim shielding him with her body as the rounds ricocheted. He felt her flinch as a stray bullet hit her somewhere in the back, but she kept him trapped in her arms until the hail of automatic fire ceased. Fortunately, the winding nature of the tunnels offered them some cover.

Are you hurt?” Ryan asked as she released him, the Seirim leaning her shoulder against the wall. “Let me see...”

She turned her back to him reluctantly, and he saw two wounds, one from a bullet and one from what looked like a fragment. One was on her lower hip just above her rump, and the other was in her shoulder. Dark blood leaked from the punctures, like black ink as it contrasted with her porcelain skin.

My wounds are not fatal,” she insisted, “I can go on.”

Do you have enough energy to save yourself if you go down?” Ryan asked.

Do not worry about me,” she said, “my body is disposable. Yours is not.”

Ryan peeked around the corner and saw that the line was advancing. The soldiers had what looked like riot shields, and they were moving in a phalanx, their rifles pointed forward. It was an impenetrable barrier that completely filled the hallway, no doubt bulletproof, and the second that either of them emerged from cover they would be cut down.

Is there another way around them?” Nahash asked.

I...don't know,” Ryan admitted, “Gaap only showed me one route. It's possible, these tunnels are a maze, but we'd be just as likely to get hopelessly lost.”

Then we have to push through,” Nahash replied grimly, clutching the handle of her sword.

But we'd be cut down before we got anywhere near them and I can't shoot through those shields. Surely you don't have enough energy to just absorb all that gunfire?”

No,” she replied, “but I may have enough for another maneuver...give me the ring.”

He was confused by her request, but he trusted her, slipping the black wedding band off his finger and handing it to her.

What are you going to do?” he asked.

When you hear a commotion, start shooting,” she said as she inched towards the corner. Before he could ask her for more details, she leapt out into the open, braying as she charged towards the line with her blade raised. Ryan watched her, staying behind cover as best he could. The men hesitated, then opened fire, all five of them unloading on Nahash. Despite her speed she couldn't close the distance in time, it was impossible.

His heart sank as he watched the hail of bullets tear through her, the Seirim convulsing under the impacts. Instead of blood, where the projectiles tore through her pale flesh he saw spurts of what resembled black oil, the substance hanging in the air as if it was underwater. As she fell, she pulled her arm back and threw the ring, and then her body dispersed into a dark smear as she hit the floor.

The line of armored soldiers continued on, marching ever closer to him, their shields banging against the ground with every step that they took. He clutched his weapon, hoping that Nahash's plan hadn't been to just kamikaze into them and hope for the best.

He glanced down at his forearms, watching as the fine hairs stood on end, the temperature dropping noticeably. Ryan chanced another glance around the corner, seeing a dark shape forming behind the line of soldiers, the formless mass slowly taking a recognizable shape.

Nahash was birthed from the shadows, her curved sword flaring to life in a burst of flame, illuminating her ashen skin and her white wool in an orange glow. She had thrown the ring behind the line, using her stores of energy to reform after they had destroyed her physical body. They hadn't noticed her, perhaps their helmets restricted their vision too much, and Ryan watched in awe as she waded into them. She brought all of the grace and poise that he saw in her dancing into battle with her, flowing like water as she strode into their midst.

Her newly forged blade still glowing red-hot, she sliced through their padded armor like it was nothing, setting their clothing alight wherever it touched them. One of them was beheaded, his riot shield clattering to the ground and alerting the rest, his helmeted head rolling down the incline like a football. They tried to turn, but they were so cumbersome, their heavy armor and equipment limiting their reaction times.

Someone pointed his rifle at her, but she swung her sword and cleaved it in half before he could fire it, the metal slagging as the barrel and part of the forward grip fell away. She followed up with flurry of deft blows that removed both of his arms at the elbow, his scream muffled by his helmet. He fell back, the sleeves of his suit catching fire where her flaming sword had struck him and the stumps charred black.

Ryan took advantage of the chaos, leaning out from his hiding place and firing into the figures. Even in the red-tinted gloom, he could easily make out the Seirim's white skin, combat experience that was not his own informing him that the risk of friendly fire was within acceptable limits.

He wasn't sure that his rounds had penetrated their thick armor, but he got their attention, one of them turning his shield towards Ryan and attempting to return fire. Instead, Nahash took advantage of his distraction to split his head from the eyebrow to the cheek. She was surgically precise, and the blade seemed to be impossibly sharp, Ryan had never seen anything like it.

He kept up his suppressing fire as she finished off the two remaining soldiers, rending limbs and carving bone like it was no more solid than packing foam, the corpses that she left in her wake catching fire. When she was done, he hurried towards her, swapping out his spent magazine for a fresh one as he stepped around the dismembered bodies. He had never seen such carnage, it looked like the aftermath of a highway accident, but he was able to push the nausea and the fear to the back of his mind. Perhaps that was one of the skills that the soldier whose memories and experiences he now possessed had learned, how to deal with this shit without passing out or throwing up.

Quick thinking,” he said, impressed by her feint. “Carlisle should be just ahead. Stay behind me, I know how to breach a door...or at least I have the memories of someone who did.”

Ryan took a knee and searched for his ring for a moment, returning it to his finger. Then he retrieved one of the riot shields, struggling to lift it. It was far heavier than he had anticipated and he wasn't exactly a bodybuilder, but he managed to raise it. There was a door at the end of this hall and to the right, outwardly identical to the hundreds of others, but Ryan knew that Carlisle was behind it.

They came upon the door in question, and Ryan tried the handle, but it was locked. He pulled back and gave it a kick, trying to break the mechanism, but this was no rickety cabin door. It was made of metal, reinforced. There was no way through, unless...

Nahash, can you use your sword to burn through the locking mechanism?”

She nodded and braced herself against the door, pressing the point of the blade against the metal just below the handle.

Look away, it will be bright.”

He turned his back to her, covering the hallway behind them as the red glow of the warning strips was overpowered by a white glare. She hadn't been joking, it was like a cutting torch, he could feel the heat from it on his back. It took her a few moments, and then she tapped him on the shoulder to indicate that she was done, Ryan turning to see a stream of molten steel pouring down the door from the hole where the handle had been.

He readied his shield and gestured for her to stand behind him, ducking behind it and swinging the door open. Immediately he felt several impacts against the shield, like someone was hitting it with a hammer, shots ringing out as he advanced. He peered through the reinforced glass window, seeing a man with a bushy beard clad in purple robes and sporting all manner of ornate jewelry. He was standing behind a desk upon which dozens of yellowed scrolls and dusty tomes were strewn, pointing a revolver at Ryan, a wisp of smoke rising from the barrel.

Six shots!” Ryan called out, “you're empty!”

Carlisle threw down the weapon in frustration and Ryan emerged from behind his shield, keeping his rifle trained on the man. Ryan had never hated anyone before. Even his ex-girlfriend Becky, the woman who had plunged his life into a downward spiral, had not been worthy of his contempt. He no longer saw her as anything other than a stupid and fickle girl. But when he looked at Carlisle, he seethed. He wanted to hurt him, to kill him, and not because he posed any immediate danger.

He felt Nahash's hand on his shoulder, the Seirim no doubt sensing his rage, and her presence calmed him.

So what are you?” Carlisle asked, his voice gruff and his wrinkled brow furrowed as he glared at the intruders. “You're not just some rogue summoner, are you special forces? Which organization do you work for? Templars? Knights of Malta? The CIA?”

I'm nobody,” Ryan snapped.

Bullshit,” Carlisle spat, “if you're here to kill me then at least tell me why. You've successfully evaded our hit squads, you've fought off a demon more than once, you sent a Seraphim packing. Now you've found a way into the most secret facility on the planet. Hell, you seem to have a fucking Watcher on speed dial. Where did you come from?”

All I wanted was to be left alone,” Ryan hissed through gritted teeth. “I was minding my own business when you sent a SWAT team to murder me in my own home. Then you contracted a demon to burn me alive. As if that wasn't enough, you hurt my friends, my family. I don't even know what's happening now, I'm mixed up in some kind of...Angel war. But what I do know is that I'm going to do whatever I can to hurt you and your organization.”

That's impossible,” Carlisle said with a bitter laugh. “This whole thing was some kind of setup, right? Designed to draw us out? There's no way that you're just some random summoner.”

You murder summoners, right?” Ryan asked.

Of course,” Carlisle replied as he spread his arms in exasperation. “What the hell do you think would happen if we just let every occultist and Wiccan in the country summon demons? What would the world look like if the Ars Goetia became public knowledge? Demons could be used to assassinate heads of state, to kill anyone in the world without repercussions, murders would become unsolvable. People would use the things to print money, which would crash the economy. Everyone would try to make themselves a millionaire and a pint of milk would end up costing a year's wages because inflation would make the currency worthless. It would make the Great Depression look like a joke. People's minds would be manipulated against their will, foreign spies could access any secrets that they wanted, not even our thoughts would be safe!”

He pounded his fist on the table, leaning across it as he chastised Ryan.

Idiot child, if this power fell into the wrong hands, the world as we know it would end overnight! There would be no governments, no economy, it would be chaos in the streets. We have to snuff out rogue summoners wherever we find them, the Masons are the only force preventing the complete and total breakdown of society!”

The wrong hands?” Ryan laughed, keeping his rifle pointed at the man. “But yours are the right hands, is that it? You can murder people with impunity, you can generate immense wealth and consolidate power for yourselves, but nobody else can? What gives you the right?”

God gave us the right!” Carlisle bellowed, balling his fists and slamming them on the table.

Your God, not my God,” Ryan replied. “Look around you. You're the one who created this situation, you forced my hand. You know what I'd be doing right now if you had just left me the fuck alone? I'd be watching Netflix on my couch.”

You have no idea what you've gotten yourself into, Cutter,” Carlisle sneered. “If what you say is true, then you're just a pawn in this game. You revived Azazel, and now you've brought that...that creature here, into the most holy of sanctums. Do you even know what it wants?”

No, but I know what you want, old man. I didn't want to kill you, I didn't want to hurt anybody, but you've made that my only option.”

Carlisle opened his mouth to speak again, but Ryan squeezed the trigger. The Grand Master lurched, then looked down at his robe in disbelief, red stains spreading across the purple fabric from three holes in his chest that were grouped in an almost perfect triangle. Fragments of torn pages from the books on the shelves behind him floated down like snowflakes, thrown into the air by the rounds that had passed through his body.

He tried to speak again, but bubbling blood rose from his throat, spilling out of his mouth and dampening his beard. It was like he didn't know that he was dead yet. He slowly slumped forward, collapsing onto his desk as the dark blood began to pool, soaking into the scrolls and dripping down onto the floor.

It's done,” Ryan whispered.

And what of the others?” Nahash asked, “will they not come for you now? Will they not summon more demons and send more soldiers?”

One thing at a time,” Ryan said. “Now that Haures is dealt with we can go off the grid. We can deal with mortals, we can make ourselves invisible, I can change my identity and flee the country if I have to. There must be demons who can help us evade them.”

I hope that you are right,” Nahash replied.

Gaap should return soon to take me back to the cabin. What will we do about the ring?”

Give it to me,” Nahash said, “I will ask my father to return it to you.”

He took off the wedding band and handed it to her, waiting for any sign that Gaap was appearing. After a few minutes, he began to get worried. There had been no ringing of bells, no drop in temperature, no haze in the air.

He should have been here by now,” Ryan complained, covering the door with his rifle. The longer they remained here, the higher the chances became that someone would find them. The whole place would be crawling with armed guards now, and even Nahash wasn't immune to bullets. “Where the hell is he?”

A demon would never break its contract by choice,” Nahash mused, “I cannot imagine why he hasn't returned. Your terms were sound.”

Well he'd better show up soon, because there's no other way out of this base. Azazel burned a hole straight through a quarter mile of ice and rock to get inside, but I don't think we can climb back out that way. Even if I didn't die of exposure out on the ice, we're on an island, we can't exactly hail a cab.”

Suddenly he heard shuffling and what sounded like heavy hooves scraping against the floor. Something large was coming down the hallway towards them. Fearing that it might be some new kind of demon, he took cover beside the door, preparing to fire on whatever it was that came through. Nahash waved for him to be calm.

I sense my father,” she said, “stay your weapon.”

A moment later Azazel's enormous, shaggy head poked through the door. Its shoulders were far too broad for it to stand any chance of making it through the narrow opening, and so it appeared to have crouched down so that it could see inside. The creature turned to look at Ryan, exposing its giant, flat teeth in a grin. Its head was nearly as large as Ryan's entire torso, the massive, heavy horns twisted into gnarled spirals.

Ryan Cutter,” it boomed, “I have a request to make of thee. Wilst thou listen a moment?”

Uh, yeah...” he replied sheepishly. He had never been so close to the creature before, its fur smelled of wet earth, coupled with a distinctly animal musk.

I said that all would be revealed to thee before the day was through, and now I make good on my word. I have a favor to ask of thee. There is an artifact hidden in the bowels of this fortress, a relic of ages past, one which must be destroyed if we are to thwart the plans of these Solomonic acolytes.”

An artifact?” Ryan asked.

Yes. After the great deluge, Yahweh delivered its commandments to its surviving mortal worshipers in the form of two tablets hewn from stone. They were to be carried in a vessel made from gilded wood, a symbol of their new covenant.”

The...Ark of the Covenant?” Ryan asked incredulously. “You're telling me that the Ark of the Covenant is here, inside this building?”

It is not merely an Ark,” Azazel continued. “Unbeknownst to its mortal bearers, it was also a conduit. Just as the ring that thou bearest allows my daughter to locate thee wherever thou art in the world and to manifest at thy side, so too does the Ark serve as a direct link to Heaven. These Masons can communicate with Yahweh through it, and Angels can use it as a conduit to travel to the material realm with no need for summoning circles or complex invocations.”

Hang on, hang on,” Ryan said as he tried to wrap his head around this new information. “You're asking me to destroy the Ark of the Covenant, and that will sever the Mason's link with God? What are they trying to accomplish? Why is it so important that they be stopped? I only came here to kill Carlisle.”

These Masons wish to rebuild Solomon's temple,” Azazel explained. “They will place the Ark on the temple mount, and Yahweh will manifest itself on Earth. The temple will become a throne from which it will rule the world unchallenged, as it was in antediluvian times. They seek to restore Yahweh's power and to return all of creation to its sole stewardship, to rid humanity of the free will that has led them astray. It would mean the end of thy world in its current state.”

Okay, yeah, that sounds pretty fucking bad. But why do you need me to destroy it?”

The Ark is forged by a power greater than my own. I cannot destroy it, I cannot even touch it, no demon can. Only a mortal can destroy the Ark. That is why it has been so closely guarded.”

And that's why I'm really here,” Ryan mused, feeling a spark of anger rise up inside him. “Did you foresee all of this? Or did you engineer it? Have you been pulling the strings to keep me alive this whole time, just so that I could be here, today?”

This was what Carlisle had meant when he had said that Ryan was nothing more than a pawn in a larger game. Had Azazel been playing him from day one? Could all of this death and hardship have been prevented?

You misunderstand, Ryan Cutter,” Azazel replied. “I forged thy ring out of gratitude for what thou had done for my daughters. I saved thee from Haures because of the favor that was owed, a life for a life. Beyond that I have not intervened, thy path has been forged by thy will alone. Though I foresaw great change in the future, a cataclysm that would somehow involve thee, it was not until Samael appeared that I understood what was truly transpiring. Where there are Angels, there must be the Ark, and those who sought to kill thee possessed that Ark. From that moment on our fates were interwoven.”

My father would not manipulate you, Ryan,” Nahash insisted. “When the Watchers fought in the rebellion, it was to free the world from the control of a capricious and tyrannical God. A God that forbade the love that my father felt for my mother, a love from which my sisters and I were born. The same love that you and I now share. They fought for humanity's right to be free to make their own choices.”

Very well, I believe you,” Ryan conceded. “But before I agree to this I need to know one more thing. What is this God that everyone keeps referring to? Is it real? Did it create the world?”

Nahash looked to her father, and the great goat began to speak.

What doth thou know of demons, Ryan Cutter? What do they feed on?”

Energy,” Ryan replied.

And where does that energy come from?”

From sex, sacrifice, and worship. From mortals.”

And this entity that calls itself God, does it desire worship? Does it desire faith? Does it wish for that faith to be spread around the world, to as many mortals as possible and to the exclusion of all other faiths?”

Yes...” Ryan admitted.

Then what makes this entity any different from a demon? Why would an omniscient and all-powerful God desire anything from you at all, least of all your worship? Why would it concern itself with such petty things as idolatry and blasphemy? What does it stand to lose if one of its worshipers should pray to a golden calf instead of it?”

Because it would be deprived of that energy...” Ryan muttered, beginning to understand.

Demons are gestalts, Ryan Cutter. They are born from the imaginations of humans, their thoughts and emotions bring them into being and give them their power. Ask yourself, how can such an entity have created humanity when it is humanity that brings such creatures into being? A tribe can will a guardian spirit to life, a city-state can birth a patron deity from their combined psychic energies, and a nation of people can create powerful pantheons of Gods. Most demons are just that, spirits and deities who have fallen out of favor or who have lost their worshipers. If a single God became powerful and influential enough, what steps might it take to preserve its own existence, to extend its reach?”

So it's some kind of...super-demon?” Ryan asked.

Yes,” the beast replied, its flanging voice making his skin crawl. “Think of the feats that even a lesser demon is capable of, and now imagine what powers a demon with a million worshipers might possess, a billion. It cannot be allowed to manifest, it is far stronger than it was at the time of the rebellion, it has spread its influence to all corners of the world. It would be unstoppable...”

Fuck it,” Ryan replied with a shrug, “it's not like I can get into any more trouble.”

That's the spirit!” Azazel laughed. “I will escort you to the sanctum. Even from here I can sense its foul presence.”

CHAPTER 11: STRIKE AT THE HEART

They followed behind Azazel as it barreled through the hallways, somehow able to squeeze through the tight space despite its size. They heard screams and gunfire occasionally, but they were unable to see past its bulk, only the charred and dismembered bodies that it left in its wake serving to illustrate what was going on.

It was like tailgating an angry, fire-breathing steamroller, and before very long they arrived at a large cargo lift. It seemed out of place, big enough that even Azazel could stand on it, and Ryan looked over the guard rail to see that it descended deep into the mountain. He wasn't sure how far down it went, as the only illumination came from floodlights mounted on the platform itself.

Azazel snapped its head around suddenly, looking back in the direction that they had come as if it could hear something that Ryan could not.

I sense the presence of a Seraphim,” he muttered. “It is Samael, he has returned. He knows that I am here, but he cannot sense thee, Ryan Cutter. He has come to defend the Ark. Go now, and I will stay behind to hold him off.”

Ryan nodded, hitting the lever on the platform, the gears grinding as it began to slowly descend.

Wait father!” Nahash shouted, Azazel turning to look back at her. She threw the ring, and the beast snatched it out of the air with its massive hand.

I will return it to him, assuming that we prevail,” Azazel chuckled. A brilliant light flooded the corridor above, like a sunrise was happening inside the building, and Azazel's halberd flared to life as the Watcher turned to face it. Samael's golden wings propelled him forward as he emerged from the hallway like a rocket, driving his spear towards Azazel. The beast parried it with a deafening crack and a shower of bright sparks, their duel beginning anew, the two battling figures growing smaller as the elevator descended into the unknown.

You know, I actually get on with him a lot better than I did with my ex's in-laws,” Ryan mused.

The platform rumbled beneath their feet as it crawled down the tracks, the sounds of Azazel's duel becoming fainter. After a few minutes, they could scarcely hear them, and it just kept taking the pair deeper. It made Ryan feel like he was descending into hell, he had no idea what would be waiting for them at the bottom. The silence became too much, and he felt compelled to make conversation, deciding to ask Nahash a few questions now that they had a moment of quiet.

You mentioned your mother earlier,” Ryan began, “is it alright if I ask about her?” Nahash nodded, and so he pressed on. “She was mortal, right? Like me? What happened to her?”

She was killed in the deluge,” Nahash explained.

I'm sorry...”

It was a long time ago,” the Seirim replied with a shrug, “it isn't exactly a fresh wound.”“Tell me about her,” he insisted. Nahash took a moment, staring off into the distance, pulling up memories that were older than most human civilizations.

In the antediluvian era, the period of time before the great flood, the land was presided over by Yahweh. It was an entity that had been birthed by the imaginations of a few scattered tribes, and through conversion and conquest, they had imbued it with immense power. It drove off all the other minor deities and spirits in the region, and it used its wealth of energy to turn the deserts into gardens. In exchange for their worship, it kept its followers fed and protected. There was no reason to reject the gifts that it bestowed.”

The fertile crescent?” Ryan asked.

That is what they call the region, yes. Agriculture flourished, it was a true garden of Eden and likely the origin of that very myth. Humans did not know disease or sickness, their lifespans extended into the hundreds of years, and after a time even war became unknown to them due to the protections that Yahweh afforded. It created Angels, calling them the Watchers, who cared for their mortal wards as if they were their own children.”

That doesn't sound all bad,” Ryan said, “but I get the impression that it didn't last.”

For nearly two thousand years they flourished,” Nahash continued. “They begot tens of millions of offspring who all worshiped Yahweh and kept it fed with their energy. The entity was all-powerful, unchallenged, but when one achieves ultimate power and authority the only fear left is that they should lose it. The deity became capricious, petty, it wanted to micromanage the day to day lives of every one of its subjects so as to keep them in line. It handed out edicts that forbade the building of statues, for example, fearing that they might be worshiped as idols. It forbade contact with outsiders for fear that they might carry with them a foreign religion that would spread like a plague. It demanded worship in new and elaborate ways in order to maximize its take of energy, it ordered that lengthy prayers and rituals be carried out, it had monuments and temples built in its name. Like a jealous lover its attempts to control the people became stifling and overbearing, and after a time the Watchers served as little more than prison guards.”

Utopias have a tendency to go horribly wrong,” Ryan commented.

Some of the Watchers began to sympathize with their mortal wards. They saw them as sentient creatures with their own hopes and desires, beings who should be free to make their own choices.”

And that's when the rebellion began?”

Not quite. Many of the Watchers began to desire more autonomy for themselves, too. Yahweh had created them as sentient, powerful beings, but that lust for complete control extended to their own activities as well. The humans were as their children, and the Watchers wanted to teach them, to see them grow and mature. But Yahweh feared where that might lead. Mutual appreciation sometimes blossomed into love, as was the case with my mother and father.”

How did that happen?” Ryan asked.

A smile brightened Nahash's face as she fondly recalled the events.

Her name was Bathsua, it means daughter of abundance, and abundant she was.”

Yeah, I figured you probably took after your mother more than your father,” Ryan joked.

She had hair the color of wheat, skin as pale as the waxing moon and eyes the color of ocean surf. She was kind and patient, she had so much love to give, and so much of it was directed towards my father. The Watchers came in many strange forms, but most chose to change their appearance into something more familiar to avoid frightening the mortals. Azazel was not one of them, he saw it as deceitful. My mother saw the good in him shine through his bestial exterior, and they soon fell in love.”

It should be a heartwarming story, but Ryan already knew how it ended. This was the point of no return, the spark that had ignited the fires of rebellion.

At that point, there were hundreds of Watchers and millions of humans, so their activities went mostly unnoticed. Azazel would shirk his duties to spend time with her, he would expend energy needlessly to entertain her with magick, he would whisper the secrets of the universe to her. Yahweh was not omniscient, it did not see what Azazel was doing. The Watcher was well liked amongst his comrades, and so they didn't turn him in. The relationship went on until he had given her twelve children, Nephilim, the offspring of a Watcher and a mortal. Many other Watchers did the same, finding human wives and starting families on Earth. All that Azazel wanted to do was share with Bathsua all the wonders of the world, to give her strong and worthy children, but these were things that Yahweh forbade out of paranoia. It wanted the mortals kept ignorant and docile, it feared the creation of half-breeds that were outside of its design.”

I know what happened next,” Ryan grumbled. He had already heard stories of the rebellion and the flood.

Eventually word of this reached Yahweh. It found out that a great many Watchers had defied it, that they had taken human wives and had taught the mortals forbidden knowledge. In a fit of rage, it ordered the Watchers to kill the Nephilim, along with all those who they had taught.”

That's barbaric,” Ryan muttered, “Yahweh asked them to kill their own families? Did any of them actually do it?”

Only Samael,” Nahash spat, her hatred for the Seraphim apparent. “The rest defied the decree, they took their families and fled into the desolate mountains that bordered the fertile crescent in the North West. Many mortals followed them, mostly the extended families of their wives who feared retribution, but there were many who sought to free themselves from Yahweh's rule too. There the rebel Watchers educated them in the ways of war, armed them, prepared them for what was to come. When the time was right, they marched on Eden side by side. Yahweh was powerful, but an army of two hundred Watchers, over a thousand Nephilim and a million mortals was a force to be reckoned with.”

And who won?” Ryan asked. The answer had seemed obvious at first, but Nahash and Azazel were still here while Yahweh's paradise was not.

It was a war of such great scale and such terrible devastation that its like was not seen again until the great wars of Europe. Azazel's forces were outnumbered, but they fought harder than their foes. Love is a greater motivator than fear. At the end of their campaign, what had been a cradle for humanity had been turned to blasted wasteland, its cities razed and its land unfit to bear fruit. It mattered not to Azazel, it was almost symbolic of his desire to see humanity fly the nest, but Yahweh became enraged. Not only had they defied its will, not only had they deprived it of energy, but they had destroyed everything that it had sought to build. In one final fit of rage and in an attempt to deny Azazel his victory, Yahweh brought forth a great flood. The land was wiped clean by a tsunami the height of a mountain, friend and foe alike were drowned by the millions. The rebellion was ended, and Yahweh's reign along with it...”

And what of your mother?” Ryan asked, looking up at Nahash to see her expression darkening.

Drowned. My sisters and I might have been lost too had our father not been so revered by his people. They had fueled him with enough energy that he was able to save us from certain doom, and so he brought us back, conserving what little energy remained to him and entering a state of hibernation.”

That I eventually woke him from?”

Yes,” she said with a nod. “My sisters and I endured for a time, feeding on the energy of primitive tribes who revered us as spirits of the wilds. But as you well know, we were eventually forced to enter into the service of other demons. Watchers are powerful entities, very difficult to kill, but once cut off from their energy supply even they will eventually fade. Azazel may well be the last of them.”

So...who won the war?” Ryan asked.

Nobody won,” she replied bitterly. “My father did not succeed in defeating Yahweh, he could not protect the families of the rogue Watchers, and he could not save the lives of his mortal followers. In a sense, his actions freed humanity as a whole from Yahweh's rule, but it came at a terrible cost. As for Yahweh, in its paranoia, it created the very thing that it so feared. Its land and people were destroyed, in part by its own hand. The faith survived, however, preserved in the practices of a few scattered tribes who were descended from survivors of the deluge. In time they grew and spread, becoming the religions with which you are familiar today. Yahweh steadily regained its strength over the ages, but it never again sought to intervene directly in the lives of mortals.”

Until now,” Ryan said.

Perhaps,” she replied with a shrug, “but I am not so sure. Maybe it is the Masons who champion Yahweh's return, and not the other way around. The myriad religions that feed it energy continue to grow and spread even in its absence. I see no reason for it to upset the status quo. It may even have learned from its experience, perhaps it no longer seeks to dominate and is content to merely be revered.”

That sounds optimistic,” Ryan added, “but you'd know better than me.”

The lift finally ground to a stop, and they found themselves at the mouth of yet another corridor. They stepped off the platform, Ryan shouldering his rifle. He had come here to save his own skin, but now he was tasked with saving the world.

I just wanted to pay my rent,” he muttered under his breath.

What?” Nahash asked.

Nothing, let's get this done.”

The hallway was just as long and as featureless as the rest, their footsteps echoing as they made their way into the unknown. It was akin to being inflicted with a kind of snow-blindness, the pale, synthetic glare of the fluorescent lighting reflecting off the whitewashed walls and the polished stone floor. It all blended together. There were no side doors here, no scribes traveling to and fro and no guards patrolling. Ryan kept his rifle ready, but the corridor was so long that he couldn't even see the end of it.

They had been walking for minutes by the time something finally appeared in the distance. It was a metallic glint, a door of some kind perhaps?

A noise like a thunderclap rang out, and Ryan spun around, knocked off his feet by the force of an impact. It felt like someone had hit his right shoulder with a sledgehammer, and for a moment he was confused, dazed. When he came to he was lying on his back, staring up at the bright lights in the ceiling, the entire right side of his body aching. He turned to look at it, seeing that blood was staining his clothes, his blood...

He heard Nahash bray like a goat, heard her hooves impacting the floor nearby, but he found himself unable to move. It didn't really hurt that much, the pain was numbed by shock, but he felt as if all of the strength had been drained from his body.

Someone had shot him. But who, and from where? He feared for Nahash, she was no more bulletproof than he was. He could hear her bellowing angrily, but he couldn't rise to get a look at her. He clutched at his rifle as if it might somehow protect him, but moving his right arm sent a stab of pain shooting down its length.

The ground began to rumble, there was the sound of creaking wood and shattered stone, pops of gunfire followed by distinctly human cries of anger and pain. Nahash returned to his side, crouching beside him and shaking him like she was trying to wake someone from a deep sleep. Her voice was distant, but it grew louder as his eyes focused on her face.

Ryan! Ryan! Stay awake! Look at me!”

He blinked at her, his awareness slowly returning.

I got shot,” he groaned weakly.

I can see that, how badly are you hurt?”

He tried to sit up, and she helped him, curling an arm beneath him and propping him upright. He opened his jacket and his shirt, now soaked in blood, exposing the skin below. There was a hole in his shoulder the size of a penny, still bleeding but not profusely.

I think it went through,” he croaked. “If it had hit bone, I'd have an exit wound the size of a fist. If it had hit an artery, I'd have passed out from the blood loss by now.”

The memories and experiences that he possessed reassured him that the wound was not immediately threatening. It must have passed through the soft tissue and narrowly avoided the bone, but the sooner he visited a doctor, the better.

Nahash helped him to his feet, supporting him as they walked down towards the end of the hallway. Now the pain was coming stronger, but he felt more alert, shock fading and adrenaline taking its place. As they neared their destination, he noticed a giant, metal door. It was covered in gears and rods, like something that might be found in a bank vault.

Two large trees had grown from the floor to either side of it, their thick, gnarled trunks standing like pillars. A product of Seirim magick no doubt. The slabs of stone that made up the floor beneath them had been shattered and upturned by their roots. Trapped in their leafy branches were two guards. One of them was limp, certainly dead, his body crushed against the ceiling and penetrated in places by sharp twigs.

The second was still alive, hopelessly trapped in a cage of twisted branches and pinned against the wall, but he was moving. The tree had grown out at an angle it seemed, as if it had been reaching towards its target like a grasping arm. At its base the man had dropped a long rifle with a magnified scope, Ryan recognizing it as a H&K G28, a German-made marksman rifle. The two guards were well placed, there was no cover in the hallway, and anyone approaching the vault could be fired upon from a distance. It was a stroke of pure luck that the round hadn't landed a few inches to the left, and that they had thought him neutralized when he had fallen to the ground. It was one close call too many. Was it really luck, or was Azazel somehow watching out for him?

He considered drawing his handgun with his good arm and putting a bullet through the Mason's masked face, but he was trapped, and he no longer posed a threat. Enough blood had been spilled by necessity today, he didn't need to add to his growing kill count if it could be avoided.

Can you see a way through?” he asked as Nahash examined the door.

No, it's some kind of...mechanical locking mechanism, I don't understand how it functions.”

Ryan gave it a look over, but he couldn't figure it out either, it was a mess of wheels and steel rods. There were three keyholes, but only two guards.

Try to burn through it,” he said, “we don't have time to figure this out.”

She pressed her curved sword against the metal where the three keyholes were lined up in a row, and Ryan looked away as the weapon produced a bright light. He discarded his rifle, no longer able to wield it with one of his arms rendered next to useless, and drew his handgun instead. They didn't know what they might find on the other side of this door, for all they knew there could be a hundred Mason goons waiting for them.

How's it coming?” he asked, growing impatient. The clock was ticking, and she had been trying to burn through the door for several minutes already.

This door must be half a cubit thick,” she complained, “it's taking me a long time.”

Cubit?” Ryan asked.

It's maybe twelve inches thick,” she reiterated, “I don't think that we can get in this way.”

The bright light faded, and Ryan turned to see a river of slagged metal pouring from the door to pool on the stone slabs that made up the floor, now made uneven by the spreading tree roots. Nahash had melted a hole deep enough that he could have fit his fist inside it, but they weren't even close to breaking through yet. Destroying the locks had not caused the door to open either. He didn't know much about bank vaults, but he knew that sturdy metal rods extended from the doors into the walls around them, locking them in place. Might it be easier to destroy the walls?

You got enough juice left for another tree?” he asked.

Maybe,” she replied, taking a step back from the door and letting her sword vanish into a puff of dark smoke.

Don't do it if you can't be sure that you'll have enough magick left over to manifest another body when we get out of here,” he added, “but I'm thinking that we can maybe break through the walls. The trees that you grew here broke through the stone floor, right?”

That might work,” she said, scratching her chin. “Perhaps an ironwood tree would be able to produce enough pressure, but I can't be sure. I will have to try. Take a few steps back...”

Ryan retreated a ways down the corridor, nursing his wounded shoulder as he watched her slowly raise her arms. It was almost as if she was lifting a heavy weight, visibly straining against an invisible force. The branches on the two existing trees bloomed with pink flowers, and their trunks were coated in a spreading layer of moss, the trapped guard wailing in alarm as he was engulfed by the cherry blossoms. Ryan was worried that the man might be in harm's way, but there was no time to free him from the branches, and there was nothing to indicate that he wouldn't immediately turn on them again.

Nahash took a few steps back, willing a green shoot to sprout from between the cracks of the stone slabs, little more than a weed. It began to grow, slowly at first, then expanding exponentially as it exploded out of the ground. It threw the heavy stones aside, upending them along with a mass of black earth, the roots growing and spreading like a nest of roiling snakes to find purchase. The trunk grew to be as thick around as an oil barrel, the branches reaching towards the vault door like skeletal fingers.

They impacted the stone wall and pressed against the ceiling, the tree still growing and expanding before Ryan's eyes as it strained against the obstacle. There was a terrible sound of creaking wood, accompanied by cracking stone and bending metal, immense forces at play as the tree put pressure on the apparently immovable obstacle.

Nahash continued to strain, her limbs shaking as she pushed against an unseen barrier, the air thick with magick and motes of pollen. The tree embedded itself deeper into the earth, the thick trunk bending under pressures that Ryan could scarcely conceive of.

There was a loud bang as a crack appeared in the wall beside the vault door, then another, and another. The tree finally won its battle, and there was a sound like an entire mountainside collapsing as the walls surrounding the metal door crumbled and the circular slab of metal toppled over backwards. It kicked up a massive cloud of dust that swept through the hallway, the tree continuing to grow and pushing through the ceiling until Nahash saw fit to stop it.

She lowered her arms and fell to a sitting position, Ryan hurrying towards her through the obscuring cloud.

Are you alright?” he asked, taking a knee beside her. He coughed as he inhaled the dust, pulling the collar of his shirt over his nose and mouth in an attempt to ward it off. The Seirim seemed exhausted, her chest rising and falling heavily, her breathing labored. “You did it, you got the door open.”

I will recover,” she said, “go on without me. Complete your task and do not delay.”

He nodded, rising to his feet and making for the breach, holding his pistol in his left hand as he kept the right clasped against his chest. He dodged around the thick trunk of the ironwood tree, clambering over the rubble and debris, the dust slowly clearing as he made his way into the vault.

It was an expansive, dark room in the shape of a cube, the only light spilling in behind him through the hole that they had made. The massive vault door lay on its back, a few pieces of crumbling stone still attached to the heavy rods that had anchored it to the walls. There didn't seem to be any light fixtures inside at all, no furniture or decorations, there was only a box resting on the ground in the center of the floor. It was made from wood with a golden lattice that held it together, the gilded lid decorated with twin statues of winged Angels that were facing one another. There were two golden rods attached to the sides of the chest, used for carrying it around no doubt.

He had expected something more awe-inspiring, something so finely crafted and extravagant that it could only have been forged by the hand of a God, but this looked rather innocuous. It wouldn't have seemed out of place in a museum exhibit.

Movement caught his eye, and he pointed his weapon at a man who was trying to free himself from the rubble. As the dust cleared, Ryan could make out two more figures. One had been crushed by the door, only his robed upper body visible, the lower trapped beneath it. A third was leaning against the far wall on the other side of the chest, his hands raised in surrender. They were all elderly, clad in the same lavish garments, the purple fabric decorated with all manner of adornments and symbols.

Stop!” the one near the far wall wailed, “stop this before it's too late!”

Ryan kept his weapon trained on the man as he moved towards the Ark. He wondered for a moment how he was expected to destroy it, but upon second glance, it wasn't especially sturdy looking. Gold was a soft metal, and the wood didn't look thick.

Please!” the old man pleaded, rising to his knees and wringing his hands as Ryan examined the chest. “Azazel has deceived you, he is the father of lies, the origin of all sin! You can still stop this. By staying your hand now, you could thwart Azazel's plans. You have not yet strayed too far, no man is beyond redemption.”

What were you doing in here?” Ryan asked, “who are you?”

I am one of the Grand Architects,” the main explained hurriedly, “an instrument of God's will on this Earth. We were calling for aid, for more Seraphim to be sent to stop the beast.”

Like Samael?” Ryan asked disdainfully.

Yes, yes! You have seen him? You have basked in his holy glory? You have felt his love?”

Oh yeah, I felt his love alright, when he tried to lure me in and kill me. I also know that he murdered his own family and that he's a sadistic piece of shit.”

Please...Ryan, that's your name, is it not? Ryan, listen to my words very carefully. Azazel is a liar, he has made you into his instrument, but the ultimate choice still rests with you. It is not too late to turn to God, but if you do this, your soul will be forever lost. The beast cannot touch the Ark, he cannot destroy it, he needs a mortal champion to do it in his stead. You must see reason, you must refuse! If we succeed in our endeavor, there will be no more hunger, no more war or disease. Human lifespans will be extended into the hundreds of years, justice and peace will reign across the whole planet, deserts will turn to gardens and the world will be as it was always intended.”

All under the control of your God?”

All under the control of a loving, benevolent entity, yes. An entity who wants nothing more than to love and to be loved, to free us of our burdens, our fears and our doubts. You must see the value in this, surely?”

Listen, old man,” Ryan began. “I'm real tired, I've had a long day, and if you haven't noticed already, I just got shot. Maybe you should have opened with that spiel rather than trying to murder me in my own home. I wouldn't even be here if you hadn't fucked with me.”

Wait, wait!”

Now if you're quite finished, I came here to smash this box and that's what I intend to do.”

The Grand Architect looked around frantically, searching for something to use as a weapon. He picked up a piece of rubble and climbed to his feet, raising it above his head as he charged towards Ryan, loosing a desperate battle cry. Ryan casually aimed his handgun and shot the Architect in the chest, the old man keeling over to lie motionless on the dusty floor.

He stowed the weapon in his belt and walked over to the Ark, giving it an experimental kick. It was hollow, flimsy, it shouldn't take much force to destroy it. He reached over and struggled to remove the lid, which was solid gold and by far the heaviest and sturdiest component, pushing it onto the floor. After leaning over to look inside, he saw the two stone tablets sitting on a bed of plush material that might have been silk or something along those lines.

He felt a spark of guilt. This Ark and these tablets were genuine historical artifacts of great significance, thousands of years old. Destroying them just felt wrong, but after everything that he had seen he understood why it had to be done. He reached in and picked up one of the stone tablets, examining the Hebrew inscriptions. He couldn't read them, but he knew them to be the ten commandments, dictated to Moses atop Mount Sinai according to legend.

He raised the tablet above his head and threw it, the stone shattering into pieces as it hit the ground, then he did the same with the second. He upturned the chest and knocked it onto its side, then retrieved a sizable chunk of rubble from the ground, using it to smash through the wooden paneling. The gold dented inward and the wood splintered, and before long the chest had been reduced to a pile of debris. He pulled apart the gold lattice as best he could with his one good arm, putting his foot on it and leveraging it to bend the metal. He wasn't sure exactly how destroyed it needed to be if it was to be rendered unusable, but he did all that he could. Once he was finished with the Ark, he returned to the tablets and ensured that they were too fragmented to be reassembled.

A haze appeared in the room before him, and Gaap manifested there, grimacing at him from beneath its burlap hood.

Apologies,” it said in its rasping voice, “I was prevented from returning by powers greater than my own. I came as soon as I was able.”

Don't worry about it,” Ryan replied, “just get me out of here.”

Azazel had no doubt prevented Gaap from carrying Ryan away before the task was complete, and if he had let the demon return, then it must mean that the Ark was adequately destroyed. Gaap began to do its work, Ryan feeling a pain in his chest, sinking to his knees and gritting his teeth. He knew that it would pass, but no amount of logic or reason could stave off the primal panic that flooded through his veins as his body began to die. It felt like his chest was being crushed in a gigantic vice, his muscles aching as his heart beat erratically, then came to a thudding halt. As he fell to his side, his vision darkening, he heard footsteps and shouting.

The Masons had finally made it to their sanctum, but they were too late. He grinned to himself, the smile frozen into his corpse as his spirit left it.

***

Ryan awoke lying face down on the floor, feeling uneven wooden planks beneath his hands. He smelled dust and musty furniture, along with the sweet aroma of a flower garden. Before he had even opened his eyes, he knew that he had been returned to the cabin. The residual thoughts and emotions that lingered after his brief journey through the immaterial plain faded as he rose to his knees, clutching at his chest. This heart was working, beating regularly, Gaap had kept its side of the bargain.

As he stood up, he felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder. He noticed that while his clothing had been repaired and cleaned of blood, his bullet wound still remained. Gaap had recreated his new body exactly as it had been before the moment of transfer, injuries and all. Immediately he was set upon by the sister Seirim. They crowded around him, helping him over to one of the moth-eaten armchairs that they had pushed against the walls to make room for the chalk summoning circle that was still drawn onto the floor. He sat, exhaling a sigh of relief, wincing as his wound ached.

Ryan!” Ryan!” the Seirim chorused.

Ryan is hurt!”

He is injured!”

Poor Ryan!”

What happened Ryan? Tell us!”

He waved them away, nursing his shoulder as he looked around the room. The candles had all burned out, and the sun had set, leaving the cabin dark and gloomy.

I'm fine, I'm fine. Nahash and your father are fine too, I'm sure they'll be back soon.”