We didn't talk much on the walk back to the Russians, which suited me just fine. Ammit was leading the group, her posture uncharacteristically deflated of it's routine swagger. I was somewhat worried about how close Muminah was getting to the goddess at first, but Ammit seemed to welcome the smaller woman's presence – going so far as to allow the priestess to put her hand within the goddess' meaty talons and walk hand in hand with the goddess.
"That's just… unsettling." Kincaid murmured under his breath.
I glared at him but didn't bother to chastise the mercenary. Getting in a fight with him over it would just draw attention to the fact that I'd noticed Ammit being comforted. But I added it to the list of reasons I wanted to punch him in the face between "tried to kill me" and "probably slept with Murphy." Honestly, if we didn't have Ivy in common I'd already have cleaned the guy's clock just on principle.
It was for the best anyway. I had to focus on the task before me.
Demon summoning isn't particularly difficult. Unlike most forms of ritual magic where one requires a whole bunch of magical elements and training to make it work, if you have a demon's proper name and even a vague scrap of talent you can summon any demon you could ever want to make manifest.
Demons actively want mortals to find them and summon them, the want to be brought up to the mortal realm. It's surviving the thing that you've brought up from the other side that is the tricky part.
There are rules of protocol to demons, logic that they are forced to follow in the same way that any fairy is compelled to follow their nature. Demons are destructive forces, corruptors and betrayers. They are obligated to attempt to murder anyone who has brought them into reality, meaning that many a would-be warlock met a grisly end after having improperly prepared their summoning ritual.
I'd learned a number of true names in my time as a wizard, true names of great and terrible things. The green notebook sitting in my basement back in Chicago was effectively a compiled yellow pages for the most malevolent beasts I'd ever been forced to banish back to the depths of Hell. They all had slightly different agendas. Some were creatures that focused on the destructive forces of the universe, one would bargain with them to earn their services as monstrous mercenaries.
Others were sources of personal power, ostensibly one could bargain with the beast in exchange for access to power that the demon wouldn't be able to exercise in the mortal realm without a conduit to the real world.
The most subtle, and in retrospect the most dangerous, demons to entreat with were not those who offered physical might or magical prowess – they were information brokers. In my early career as a Wizard I had been arrogant enough to believe that I could make bargains with the demon Chaunzaggoroth at face value. I'd sold him three of my four true names for what had felt cataclysmically important at the time, but couldn't help but feel inconsequential under my current circumstances.
I'd even been foolish enough to think of him as a reliable, if dangerous, source of information, willing to do reasonable business. But he wasn't. Not really. He was darkspawn, a creature of pure hatred to be trusted no more than an asp. He was, however, the only demon whose summoning ritual I knew well enough to reproduce at a moment's notice.
My heart thundered in my ears as we walked back to the group, running though all the reasons this was a terrible idea. Chauncey had proved himself to be entirely untrustworthy the last time I'd summoned him. Sure, his information was always good.
That was how demons managed to continue to operate, it wasn't that they were just so darn trustworthy but the second that it became known that a demon would lie to you was the second that someone stopped summoning that demon.
In point of fact it was specifically because Chauncey was so well informed that I was worried about summoning him. Thus far the people who'd discovered my actual identity were limited to Bob, Lash, Mab and my Godmother – if Chauncey had even an inkling of who I actually was then this could end disastrously. But I couldn't see a viable alternative other than drawing the attention of the Mothers.
There was no way in hell I was going to throw myself on that grenade.
I sighed in exasperation as the Colonel pointed his gun at us as we entered the clearing, not able to find fault in the logic of being prepared for anything but still overwhelmed with the sheer exasperation of having yet another weapon pointed at me today. I ignored him even as he lowered his weapon, seemingly accepting the fact that we weren't planning an ambush, and picked up a stick from the ground.
The wet earth was hearty, more clay than dirt. I blasted away a section of the grass to expose the ground beneath, drawing arcane symbols in the muck. They were cruder than I would have preferred to work with, under ideal circumstances one did not summon a demon without a more stable circle to work with. Channeling energy into an improvised summoning circle required a much greater investment of personal power to properly bind a summoned creature. I would have easily been able to manage it even before my ascension, but I could do it in my sleep now that I was hopped up on a double sized dose of belief.
Muminah watched in utter amazement as I focused on the circle, holding out my ruby foci and thinking rather than verbalizing the demon's true name. It would have been an extravagant waste of power for a Wizard, but I wasn't exactly worried about that sort of thing any more. There was a flash of orange light and sulfurous smoke as the demon trapped within the circle screamed, slamming its crab-like pincers against the unseen barrier, hurling its chitinous shoulders from side to side in an effort to escape the confinement. I hardly even noticed the effort of will required to keep the demon from bursting free.
"Are you finished?" I queried, dull boredom seeping from my every pore as the hideous creature straightened its form, pulling a set of wire-framed spectacles and perching them atop it's beak.
Muminah gasped at the creature, falling to her knees and chanting prayers of protection immediately. It eyed her contemptuously before turning to me. "The formalities are a necessary element of this process, Lord Warden." The demon replied cautiously, his Oxford accented English more worried than I ever recalled hearing before. "… You… have questions, I presume?"
I arched my brow at the demon, Chaunzaggoroth had displayed various emptions to me before. Generally, he'd elected for a dispassionate and businesslike manner, so as best to lull me into comfort and pry my true names from me. In a moment of passion, he'd displayed rage and spite. But he'd never shown me fear before. "Are you afraid of me demon?"
"I'm sane, yes." The demon replied, backing away from me reflexively. "I would prefer to decline this transaction, Lord Warden, before my proximity to you is noticed by those who would wish me harm for the association."
"Excuse me?" I blinked in confusion. I'd never actually heard of a demon refusing to even try to strike a bargain. "To whom are you referring?"
"Don't play coy with me puppet of the Silver City." Chauncey hissed like a boiling kettle. "She's looking for you. She hates you. If I help you there isn't anywhere I can hide from her."
"Lasciel." I groaned, realizing the only "her" that made sense in context. Lash had been redeemed, by virtue of my influence on her. It stood to reason that the actual fallen Angel likely wasn't too thrilled about me having redeemed her shadow – especially given that the Fallen might not even know how I'd gotten infected by her influence in the first place.
"You stole part of her discarded grace." The demon shuddered in horror. "Even as the forces of heaven obscure your interactions from view, you stole heaven's fire. She will never forgive you for that, Warden - none of them will."
Hidden? That was interesting, but not altogether surprising considering the degree of interest that big papa G's front man seemed to have invested in redeeming Lasciel. Letting the Fallen see exactly who was responsible for redeeming Lasciel's shadow would have been a one-way trip to thirty coins worth of paradox-laden-whoopass heading for Chicago for one extremely outclassed wizard. But if I really did have a guardian Angel running interference on the infernal periscope that hellish nasties used to spy on the living, then it gave me even more leverage than I could have hoped to have.
Because right now, the only thing saving Chauncey from a Fallen Angel making him into an object lesson on not playing nice with the other team was my sense of fair play. And I've never been too proud to cheat.
"I will have my bargain demon." I replied to the creature, a wonderfully horrible idea forming in my mind as I disregarded the creature and started drawing another circle in the sand next to him. "And you will provide me with the information I request."
"What are you doing?" The demon's eyes bulged behind his spectacles. "What… no, you cant!"
"Demon, do you think that you are the only name I hold on my lips?" I grinned wickedly. "Perhaps I should call Azorthragal or someone else willing to make a deal."
"But… you cant!" The demon begged me. "I'm still here, they'd see me!"
"Yes," I sighed sadly. "But if you're not going to deal with me, perhaps they will. Or perhaps not – who knows, they might even manage to keep their lips shut. I'm certain that demons are great at keeping secrets worth a great deal of power to the right ear."
"Stop!" Chauncey held up his pincer in defeat. "Just… stop. What do you want to know Warden?"
"I thought that you didn't want to bargain?" I replied, enjoying the power I had over the demon more than was probably appropriate. Hey, I'd had nightmares about the last time I summoned this thing, ok? I was overdue for some payback.
"I might have been overly hasty in speaking before." The creature's beady black eyes narrowed in irritation as it hissed and clicked its razor-sharp beak. "I am inclined to bargain."
"I need to know the location of a the nearest Chariot capable of reaching Buyan." I interjected.
"And what do I get?" Chauncey replied spitefully.
"Other than the ability to pretend that you haven't helped me?" I replied icily. "What could I offer a fine upstanding hellspawn like yourself that you don't already have?"
"There are formalities to this Warden. Precepts that must be followed to ensure balance." The demon bristled in irritation, the long hair hanging from its carapace standing on end. "If something of equal value is not offered the damage done to me by Lasciel will be nothing by comparison to the horror brought upon me by one infinitely more malevolent than she."
Well that was freaking ominous. But at least Chauncey was willing to deal. "What do you want?"
"I want to know how you broke the Terms." Chauncey asked greedily. "How did you get past them?"
I grinned maliciously. "Done."
Chauncey blinked his beady eyes, somewhat baffled by the speed at which I'd agreed to his terms. Clearly he'd been planning to negotiate me down from his initial asking price and didn't quite know what to do now that I'd actually said yes. "What?"
"I said done." I replied, shrugging. "I'll tell you how I managed to avoid the Terms in exchange for the location of a Chariot capable of reaching Buyan."
Chauncey didn't do human emotions particularly well, but if I had to describe his expression I would have used the word "baffled" or perhaps "bewildered." Still, the pact had been made and he would have to meet his end. His feathers ruffled slightly as the bone ridge above his head twitched, his fear mingling with his obvious excitement at the prospect of being able to sell godhood to the greediest and most foolish among the Goa'uld. He crooned in agonized excitement before speaking softly, almost reverently. "The Keeper wanders Verkhoyansk."
"бatь-корать. пошёл на хуй. это пиздец" The Colonel swore furiously, his anger making slurring his speech almost beyond recognition. "He said closest! There is no part of Verkhoyansk that has ever been described as "closest" or "most practical" in the history of the planet Earth."
I practically jumped out of my skin at his outburst. I'd been so focused on Chauncey that I'd all but forgotten my companions. I turned around to see my companions all fixated upon the summoned creature and realized that under the auspices of what the mantle felt was the best course of action I'd basically forgotten to even consider the possibility that my companions might do anything but back my play. Given that I was literally summoning a minion from hell, this specific aspect of impulsivity within my mantle was something I was going to have to consciously keep in check before it got someone killed.
My brother was scrupulously convivial about the entire affair, wearing the same affable smile on his face that I remembered from when I'd first met him. He was frightened of me, frightened of what I could do, and was reverting into the fake personality he used to divert attention from himself being a potential threat. I felt a stab of betrayal at the very implication that he would even consider being hurt by his own flesh and blood… before I remembered the very real fact that he didn't even know that I was his flesh and blood.
It was Enlil of all people who seemed entirely comfortable with me summoning the demon, his attention was focused instead upon the Russian solider's outburst. He wasn't able to speak Russian, of course, but the man seemed to have an almost preternatural ability to detect human distress. He was laser focused on the Colonel, waiting to see where the man's frustrations went.
"Should I know what Verkhoyansk is, Colonel?" I inquired.
"No – no living being has ever had a reason to know the remotest detail of Verkhoyansk. Even the Mongols didn't bother to invade that frozen scrap of nothing. It is a place for exiles to die in quite desperation." The man replied in utter contempt. "I don't even know if there are roads in that frozen hellhole."
"It's June." I rejoined. "It can't be that bad."
"Yes, I think it hit a high of six degrees Celsius this month. A heat wave." The Colonel rolled his eyes. "You want us to go to Verkhoyansk on the advise of a magical crab to find some 'Keeper,' who might or might not exist?"
"He exists." Chauncey pushed his glasses up his beak with one pincer, displeasure coloring his every syllable. "And I do not appreciate aspersions being cast into my trustworthiness."
"You're a freaking demon." I burst out laughing. "I don't trust you as far as I could throw you. And you haven't given me enough to find the Keeper. So pay up or shut up."
"The Keeper will find you Warden. That much you need not worry about if you enter its domain." Chauncey chuckled malevolently. "I'm sure it will be happy to make itself known to you."
My eyes narrowed in suspicion. Either the Keeper was hostile, or Chauncey wanted me to interact with the keeper under the premise that the Keeper was hostile to make sure that the Keeper would actually be hostile. "Fine."
"And now for your part, Warden." Chauncey's beak clicked excitedly. "How did you escape the terms?"
"I didn't." I replied confidently. "I was never under them."
Chauncey lost his mind, slamming his insect like body against the invisible barrier. "You cheat! You lying cheat!"
"Do we need this creature any more?" Queried the Colonel.
"No, I'll just – " I replied, but before I had the chance to utter "send him back" the Colonel had already fired a bullet directly into the creature's eyes. The metal jacketed round would likely have killed a fairy or mortal, but against a demon? It mostly just tickled. Unfortunately, it also broke the circle, freeing the extremely pissed off demon from the magics I was using to bind it in place.
It shot forward towards me, skittering on its oblong insect legs as it advanced towards me with those razor-sharp pincers. But it had been my will to bring this creature to this world, and even free of my circle it was only through my invitation that Chauncey continue to exist within the mortal realm. I raised my hand, pointing the crystal foci at him as I let the crushing force of my will come down upon the demon's own.
Chauncey wasn't a match for me even six years ago, me plus a couple million attaboys from Nekhebs holiest? Forget about it.
The demon dissolved into howling motes of sulfur as he grew smaller and smaller, screaming out curses against my kingdom and divinity. "She is watching you, Warden. She will wait forever if need be." He screeched. "I will make you pay for this. We will see to your downfall. One day you will go to the pit! Your kind are ours in the end!" He babbled on like that until he shrunk down to a pin-point, and vanished with a little imploding sound. I lowered my hand and turned to the Colonel in disgust.
"Colonel, do you have any idea how close you just were to potentially getting everyone in our group killed?" I spoke in a voice that was far calmer than I felt at the moment.
"You seemed to have the matter under control." The Colonel Shrugged. "How was I to know it was so hearty? "
"I'm going to say this once, because I don't want to have more bodies on my conscience than I truly need to have, but you are out of your league. I am doing my best to help you, and to not take it personally how far out of your league you keep trying to punch, but if you ever do something as stupid as that again I will allow the creature you free to do what they will to you." My eyes flashed.
"You do not scare me Goa'uld." The Colonel snorted. "You are on a deadline, I am the one who can secure you transport to Verkhoyansk," His lip curled in disgust at the name, "And assist you in recovering my people. But if you prefer to just walk four thousand kilometers, I'm sure you will reach it in a month or so."
I restrained the mantle's demand to punch the prick's lights out, deciding to take the diplomatic route instead. "You have a better idea?"
"But of course." The man grinned wolfishly, clicking his radio twice to send a warbling beep through it and grinning when there were two loud clicks in reply. "I always have a contingency in place."
He chewed his lip, looking at the tree line above us, "But we will have to reach a much wider opening to make use of it."