§ § § -- May 27, 2006

This time Harriet seemed to get the message and put her nose to the ground, sniffing energetically. As it turned out, she found several dozen other equally interesting scents to explore, and all three of them had to keep coaxing her back onto the trail again. Finally, just off the shoulder of the road, Harriet barked a couple of times, lowered her nose again and started off into the trees, evidently intent on something. Leslie, Christian and Camille trailed closely behind, each wielding a flashlight to use against the dark that would soon be falling. At one point Christian's cell rang and he answered it, filling Nick in on what they were doing at the moment.

By the time it did get dark and they had the flashlights on, they were so deep into the jungle that even Leslie wasn't sure they'd get out again. "This is getting scary," she mumbled uneasily, playing the beam of her light ahead of the dog in an attempt to see if anything other than thick vegetation lay in their path. "I mean…this isn't exactly the tamer part of the woods, after all."

Christian gave her a sharp look that was lost in the darkness. "You're speaking of such things as large wild cats, perhaps?"

"Among other things," Leslie said.

"Maybe the lights will scare them off," Camille offered hopefully. Christian only grunted, and the conversation fell by the wayside after that. From time to time they would shout out either Craig's or Tobias' names, but there was never any reply. Harriet continued to lead them along, pausing now and then to search for the scent, but always picking it up again. Her three human companions were silent with worry and some fear.

Christian had just shone his flashlight onto his Rolex and ascertained that the time was approaching seven when Harriet stopped, lifted her head, then began barking. Leslie, who had been talking to Tabitha on her cell, interrupted the conversation with a quick word and shouted, "Tobias! Son, it's Mommy and Daddy! Tobias?"

"Back away," a voice moaned threateningly at them from somewhere ahead, beyond the scope of their flashlight beams.

Camille reacted instantly. "Craig Randall Omamara!" she shouted in a rage. "Get out here right now, young man, you're really in deep trouble now!"

"Back away now," Craig's voice moaned again. Christian and Leslie looked at each other; they recognized the voice, but it sounded distorted somehow.

"Tobias!" Christian called out.

"Daddy!" cried his son's voice, and there was what sounded like a scuffle, punctuated by protesting shrieks from Tobias. Leslie got hastily back onto her phone and begged Tabitha to call Roarke and tell him they had found the boys and needed his help immediately, before closing her phone and shoving it into her pocket for safety.

"Craig, dammit, what are you doing?" Camille roared.

"Mommy," screamed Tobias, and Leslie wildly played her flashlight beam all through the trees, with Christian following suit, to no avail.

"Tobias, sweetie, Mommy's over here," Leslie cried. "Come over here."

"Get away or the boy will die," Craig's voice moaned again, in that weird distorted way that unnerved Leslie.

Camille didn't seem to notice. "Craig, I mean it, if I count to five and you haven't come out of there—"

"One moment," said a new voice from behind them, and all three whipped around to see Roarke standing there. Leslie and Christian sagged with immense relief; Camille gaped at him. "I suspect Craig is not himself at the moment."

"What in heck do you mean? Where'd you come from?" Camille babbled.

Leslie, who knew full well where Roarke had come from, broke in with, "He has Tobias with him. We heard him screaming for me and Christian. He sounds fine, just really scared. I'm so glad you could find us—I don't even know where we are."

"I suppose we're lucky we haven't met anything with a taste for steak tartare a la Homo sapiens," Christian noted, shooting a nervous glance into the trees.

"Don't worry about that, Christian," Roarke advised, edging forward between him and Leslie to stand just in front of them. Harriet brushed past him and sat down next to Camille, as if she sensed Roarke was taking over. "I must ask for your silence.

"Craig!" he called into the trees. "Come out immediately. It's urgent."

"Aha, Roarke, so you're here," taunted Craig's strangely distorted voice. "I've been waiting for you. Now it's time to deal."

Roarke frowned; Camille, Christian and Leslie exchanged puzzled looks. "I'll make no deals unless I know with whom I am speaking," Roarke said firmly.

"Oh, very well…I'm Pathemonas." The emphasis in the word was on the second syllable. Roarke looked quite surprised for a moment, then settled his stance, a wry expression on his face. "Might as well get down to business, Roarke. To put it simply…I'm taking the souls of this boy and your grandson."

"And exactly why would you do such a thing?" Roarke inquired patiently.

"I have my reasons," Pathemonas retorted.

Roarke actually chuckled to himself, making Camille lean over and peer at him as if for some sign that he was going mad. "Come now, Pathemonas, suppose you step out into the open to do your, uh, business. It's difficult to negotiate with someone I cannot see."

After a few seconds, a strange-looking young boy emerged from the trees, oddly shadowed by the flashlight beams; he had Craig by one arm and a terrified, crying Tobias in the other hand. Craig's face was eerily blank. The boys' captor looked to be no more than around twelve years old; but then Leslie's flashlight beam happened to catch him in its full sweep, and they all saw small horns poking out of his temples. Camille gasped.

"All right, here I am," the boy said. "I'm Pathemonas. Like I said, I get these two souls, and you better not bother trying to stop me."

"You have no grounds to take either of these children," Roarke informed him, almost avuncularly. "They have done nothing to warrant such a fate. Let them go."

Pathemonas rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I figured you'd say that. Well, okay…I'll do it, but on one condition. You have to come back to hell with me."

"What in the name of my domain goes on here?" demanded an entirely different—but familiar, at least to Leslie and Roarke—voice. A red glow came to life in the nearby trees, and sure enough, within seconds, out stepped Mephistopheles. He took in the scene and sighed heavily. "Pathemonas, are you up to your crass little tricks again?"

Pathemonas protested, "I'm doing it for you, Mephistopheles! That's why I was doing all this! I know you want Roarke's soul more than anything else, and I was trying to help you get it!"

"You, my boy, have a great deal to learn, don't you?" Mephistopheles observed in a weary tone. "Let those children go."

"But—" Pathemonas began.

"Do it," growled the devil, and Pathemonas sighed loudly and reluctantly released the boys. Tobias ran for Leslie, who scooped him up and cuddled him, smoothing his hair while Christian leaned over and kissed his son atop the head. Craig swayed in place for a second or two, then blinked, jerked erect and looked around.

"Mom!" he yelled and barreled right into Camille, who abruptly burst into tears and hugged him hard. Harriet, tail whacking a large flat leaf at six beats a second, whined eagerly, sniffing and pawing at Craig.

"How come you always have to spoil my fun?" Pathemonas whined. "It's not fair, and when I was just trying to help you too!"

"Silence, you little fool," Mephistopheles warned. "You clearly forgot the first rule of soul-collecting—wait till the owner of the soul wants to sell it! Neither of those children did any such thing, now did they? You know damn well they didn't!" He looked up at Roarke with an uncharacteristically repentant expression. "My apologies, Roarke. This wasn't meant to happen. Get back here." His arm shot out and seized Pathemonas around the biceps, making the latter gasp; Mephistopheles had never taken his gaze from Roarke's.

"It seems you have a young troublemaker in your midst," Roarke remarked.

"Unfortunately, yes," Mephistopheles agreed, casting Pathemonas a look that clearly promised repercussions. "Explain yourself."

Pathemonas seemed to give up, and sagged a little in Mephistopheles' grip. "I've been trying for ages to come up with some way to help you get Roarke's soul—I mean, you're always talking about it, after all. So I thought I'd go through someone close to him. Problem is, I couldn't fit into Tobias Enstad's little bitty body there, so I had to hunt up somebody a little closer to my size. That kid was the first one I found." He pointed at Craig. "I started out by standing on his shoulder, making suggestions in his ear. Nobody could see me, and he was the only one who could hear me. I just kept it up for a while till I figured he trusted me, and then I started making plans to get to Roarke through him. But then his mother went to Roarke and got a potion that I couldn't get around, and it made me so mad that I made him get up early this morning and pour the last of it down the drain, and replace it with colored water so that nobody would notice it was gone." Camille glared at Pathemonas, who didn't notice. "I spent his whole day in school telling him what we were gonna do, and when he got out for the day, I took over his entire mind and body, and we went over to the Enstad place, knocked out the nanny and kidnapped the little kid. I knew once they found out he was gone, Roarke'd come after him, and I could use the kid as a bargaining chip—I'd let him go if Roarke'd give me his soul to turn over to you."

"Commendably clever," Mephistopheles said, shaking his head. "Or it would have been, had you remembered that critical rule. And by the way, another critical rule of mine is, never use children to get to adults! Really, boy, even the devil has to have some standards!"

"I don't see what for," complained Pathemonas.

"You don't need to see what for," Mephistopheles retorted, mimicking Pathemonas' voice for the last three words. "You merely need to remember that I am in charge, I make the rules, and I enforce said rules. At the rate you absorb instructions, people will be flocking to beaches on Svalbard before I allow you out to search for souls. Now get back where you belong and consider my words." He released Pathemonas, pointed a finger at him and scowled; a bright yellow flame erupted from the ground and swallowed him, and Mephistopheles dusted off his hands, turning to Roarke with a satisfied look. "It's so hard to train apprentices these days, Roarke…I'm sure you understand. No hard feelings?"

Roarke looked highly amused. "None at all, Mephistopheles, none at all."

"Good." Mephistopheles turned to leave, then caught himself and peered over his shoulder with a deceptively lighthearted look and even a small grin. "Of course, Roarke, this doesn't mean our eternal war has ended. We'll do battle again another day—without the help of my overeager assistant."

"Indeed," said Roarke. "Until then." Mephistopheles nodded, then walked away and disappeared quietly into the jungle, the red glow fading to black and leaving the four adults and two children in the shadows created by the flashlight beams.

"Who knew the devil had trainees," Leslie said finally.

"The devil? Are you serious?" demanded Camille.

"We've met before," Roarke understated with a broad smile. "But you need not fear him any longer, Camille."

"Though if I were you, I wouldn't make any offhanded remarks about selling my soul," Christian put in with a wink.

"I'll keep that in mind," Camille said a little dubiously. "What was that little kid's name again? Pathemonas?"

"Yes," Roarke said. "A telescoping of paethi and thaemonas, the Greek words for 'child' and 'demon'." He smiled. "I expect none of you will have to worry about him again. I think it's time we all got home. Both Craig and Tobias will need some time to regain their equilibrium." He gently rubbed Tobias' cheek with the back of one finger, then gestured back the way they had come.