I wasn’t sure what to expect when Iblis showed up.
I mean, Selene wasn’t sure he’d show up at all. She was very low in the hierarchy of Iblis’s little theme park, even before she got kicked out entirely. He wasn’t remotely obligated to come when she called.
I was fairly confident that he would come. I mean everyone else seemed quite eager to jump at any chance to screw me over; why would the deity who had deliberately built himself in the image of the devil be any different?
But the problem with using the devil as inspiration was that there were an effectively unlimited number of ways one could do so. Would he go for the mindless, tormented beast of the Divine Comedy? The smooth-talking businessman who held a debate with Mr. Webster, won every point of discussion, lost the battle, and won the war? Or maybe he would end up going full-on Sorrows of Satan with a tragic, tormented aesthetic?
There were just so many versions of the role he’d cast himself in that I couldn’t predict which one he would go with. That was a source of considerable stress. If he went for the more deal-making style of devil, I was screwed in the long run, but not really any worse than I already was; I already had Loki playing that role, after all. On the other hand, if he went for a more brutal, destructive approach, deliberately calling him here might be the equivalent of putting out a fire by dousing it in gasoline.
There wasn’t much I could do to prepare for it, though, and my situation was already so precarious that the risk seemed worth it. In the time it took for Selene to call her old boss, we got reports of another three demons in the city. On the north end, one of them had claimed an elementary school and was doing things that made even the ghoul who brought me the report a little nauseous. The police had gotten to that one before I did, which turned out to be unfortunate for them, because they were pretty helpless to do anything about it. The squad they’d sent in had been just more puppets for the monster’s games, as had the handful of passerby who wandered too close by accident. Now they were maintaining an armed perimeter a thousand feet from the school, and shooting anyone who managed to slip through. It was, by all accounts, much kinder than allowing them to get near to the building.
The second was either a demon in the same vein as Legion, or a denizen of Hell that operated similarly. Its favorite tactic was apparently possessing someone and provoking someone else to violence. It stood there and took whatever they did, not fighting back at all, until its current host was on the brink of death. Then it switched bodies with the aggressor, leaving them to slowly die from the wounds they’d inflicted, while it continued the cycle in their body. It was on the fifth round of this already, and while my people were working with the cops to keep its current host isolated, it could only work for so long.
The third was more of an enigma, if only because we couldn’t figure out what it was actually doing. When it got someone, they just…disappeared. Completely. There was no sign that they’d ever even existed. People’s memories of the ones that vanished got fuzzy; they couldn’t remember having interacted with them, couldn’t remember their names. The only reason we even knew about it was that one of Luna’s contacts had realized that he didn’t recognize the woman in his wedding photos, and he’d managed to figure out what happened.
Of the four demons we knew about, that one scared me the most, simply because it was such a total unknown. It could pick us off one by one and we wouldn’t even know until too late. Already I was keeping close track of everyone I relied upon or cared about, making sure that the list wasn’t getting shorter, and terrified that I wouldn’t know if it was. Hell, we didn’t even know what happened to the people it took. I was hoping they were dead, that they’d simply ceased to exist at the same moment that they vanished from everyone else’s world. But I had a nasty suspicion that it wasn’t anything that merciful and gentle.
Between the four of them, fighting back on my own was out of the question. One demon had been a serious challenge for roughly half of my available forces, when they were fresh and prepared. Four of them against us when we were tired and wounded was not a fight worth considering. Particularly when Selene, our one and only expert on the topic, readily admitted that she had no idea how we could win. She thought we might be able to beat the body-warping one that had gotten to Nóttolfr, and she was moderately confident that she personally was immune to the influence the demon in the school exerted on everything around itself. But we would probably suffer major losses against the first one, and she had no ability to extend her resistance to the second to anyone else.
Against the other two, she was as out of her depth as the rest of us.
Thus, about twenty minutes after first hearing about the demon in town, I was sitting in my throne when the door swung open.
The man that walked in was…well, I wasn’t disappointed. He was tall, well over six feet, and very pale. He had black hair, with a prominent widow’s peak, and black eyes. He was wearing a black silk suit that looked like it cost more than most cars; the only splash of color was a handkerchief the deep, intense red of freshly spilled blood tucked into his breast pocket.
“Good morning,” he said, taking off his black fedora and handing it to Kyi as he walked past her. The jotun took the hat without hesitation or apparent thought, then looked at it like she didn’t know what to do with it. The man in the black suit kept walking without breaking stride, his black leather shoes clicking against the floor.
“Good morning,” I said, watching him carefully. My housecarls moved to surround him, as did the ghouls, though none got within about twenty feet. It wouldn’t do a damned thing if he decided to start something, of course, but I could understand why they did it. You had to do something.
“You called?” he asked, smiling. His teeth were a little too large, a little too sharp. Nothing obvious, but if a normal person were to see that smile walking by them on the street, I was guessing they’d walk quickly and look behind themselves a lot until they were safely ensconced in their home, and they wouldn’t know why.
“Depends,” I said cautiously. “Are you Iblis?”
“I’ve been called such,” he said, continuing to walk closer. I could smell fire now, and smoke, with just a hint of sulfur.
Next to me, Aiko was sitting very, very still, and I could practically smell her tension and anxiety. I couldn’t blame her. Even by my standards, this was a pretty insanely dangerous thing to do.
“I’ve heard a story,” I said. “I’ve heard that when you heard about Hell, you thought it was an interesting concept. So you got together with some friends and built it.”
He kept smiling and walking. He was pretty close now, within ten feet of me. “That’s an interesting story,” he said. “Where did you hear it?”
“From one of the friends in question,” I said. “But he said that you were the architect, the driving force behind the project and the one that did most of the work.”
“How intriguing,” he said. “And why do you feel a need to tell me this story?”
“Because I’m having problems with Hell right now,” I said. “And it seems like the architect of its design could probably make those problems go away.”
“I could,” he acknowledged, starting to circle around me. He was still walking at a very slow, regular pace.
I swallowed. “So what’s the price?”
“Traditionally I should ask for your soul,” he said, almost directly behind me now. “But that would make me a poacher, and I cannot abide a poacher. I could take your tongue, I suppose, but you don’t sing so sweetly as the mermaid. The chance to whisper sin into your heart seems redundant.” I wasn’t turning to watch him—I couldn’t afford to, in terms of image—but I could hear that narrow, too-sharp smile in his voice. “We are faced with a conundrum, it seems.”
He stepped back into view, and I relaxed a little. Only a very little, since whether I could see Iblis really had no bearing on what he could do to me if he chose, but there was something about having him walking behind me that really ratcheted up the tension level.
Suddenly, without any warning, he reached out and grabbed Selene by the wrist, pulling her close. “Or perhaps I should take all your problems with Hell,” he said, watching me rather than her. For her part, Selene wasn’t struggling at all, wasn’t even breathing. “Including this one.”
“No,” I said.
“Oh?” Iblis was still smiling. He was close enough that I could see fire in his eyes, behind the black. I didn’t think it was my imagination.
“No,” I repeated. “Even if that weren’t a suicidal trade for me, I don’t sacrifice my people.”
“Very well,” he said, releasing her. The succubus stepped back to where she had been standing, her features so blank and serene that it had to be a mask. “What else? A year of your life…but you don’t age. A year of service…but, again, poaching. This is proving quite troublesome. Tell me, jarl, what do you think would be a fair deal?”
I swallowed again. This was…well, it wasn’t good. If my offer was too low, I might lose my chance at any kind of deal. Too high, and I would effectively have already accepted; I wouldn’t be able to haggle it down, not when it had been my offer. And I had no idea what to expect from Iblis. I’d never dealt with him before; I didn’t know what to expect from him, beyond the vaguest of generalities. On the whole, this was very nearly the worst bargaining position I could have been put in.
And, judging by the quietly malicious quality of his smile, Iblis damn well knew it.
“You’ve already covered most of the traditional options,” I said, more just to buy time than anything. “I’m not willing to give my people to you, which rules out mass sacrifice. With a lesser demon, I could offer power, but I don’t know that I have anything to offer you in that regard. If you were caged, I could offer freedom, but obviously in your case that is, again, not an option.”
“Are you trying to flatter me?” he asked. “It won’t make me more amenable to a deal.”
“No, actually,” I said. “I’m just stating facts. Thinking aloud, mostly. Like you said, this situation makes it hard to come up with something appropriate.” I kept thinking, and then a particularly ugly thought occurred.
I thought about it for a few more seconds, and it still seemed like the best idea I could come up with. It was a terrible idea, the sort of thing that always, always backfired; people always tried for clever ways to get around it, and they always got screwed in the end. In a way, though, that made it perfect for this. The fact that it was such a classic mistake should make it alluring to Iblis, since he was apparently a traditionalist.
And I, like every schmuck in every Faustian story, thought I was the guy who would actually get away with it.
“Well,” I said slowly, “I could always offer you my firstborn child.”
He froze in his slow circle. “Oh, now that is interesting,” he said quietly. “You did mention not giving your people to me…but, of course, you would plan never to have children. You don’t have any progeny yet, so I couldn’t simply claim one that’s already born. And naturally I would expect that you would make a mistake, or forget, and I would get my prize anyway…oh, you are a clever one.”
Aiko shifted uncomfortably in her seat next to me. “Um,” she said. “I don’t think this is such a good idea.”
“Don’t be so hasty,” Iblis said. “There are details to work out, of course. I think we would both appreciate a precise legal definition of what would qualify as your offspring. Other than that I think this is a very promising arrangement.”
“Speaking as the probable mother of the child in question,” Aiko said dryly, “I do think I should have a voice here.”
“We don’t want children anyway,” I said reasonably. “We’re both pretty clear on that, last I checked. As long as we make the terms clear, we should be fine.”
“Many have said as much,” Iblis said with a sly smile. “Some have even been right.”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I would expect this to be limited to my physical, genetic children. You don’t get to claim ideas, intellectual works, physical creations, or any other metaphorical children.”
“Fair enough,” Iblis said. “Selene, take this down. We’ll want a physical copy of the contract. So, literal children only. In return, I would expect you to agree not to adopt a child. Taking on a protégé or apprentice is acceptable, but you can’t formally adopt anyone as your heir and inheritor. At least, not until your debt is paid.”
“Guys,” Aiko said. “I’m serious. This is not a good idea.”
“I’m aware,” I said dryly. “Okay, no adoptions. I can live with that. That doesn’t limit my ability to pass on an inheritance. I can’t pass on the title or authority to a designated adopted heir, but I can give my possessions to whoever I want. You don’t get anything if I kick it.”
“Fair,” Iblis said. “Let’s see, what else…severance clause and rules for default. If you die without producing offspring, the deal is null and void and neither you nor any inheritor owes me a debt. If you have a child and refuse to give it to me, you’ll be considered in default of contract, and you’ll owe me any one service of my choosing. If I fail to remove the servants of Hell from this city, I will be in default, and I will owe you similarly.”
“Fair,” I said. “But let’s get more specific. You will remove all demons with an origin in or affiliation with Hell from the bounds of Colorado Springs, other than Selene, as well as any and all entities which were contracted or directed specifically to cause harm to the city by the skinwalker I recently killed. You will do so immediately upon the conclusion of our deal. You will remove them permanently. You will ensure that none of them seek redress from or revenge on me, or for any reason return to Colorado Springs, or send any of their employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates to Colorado Springs, or exercise any power upon me, my employees, agents, proxies, affiliates, or associates from outside the city, or to encourage, direct, or allow any of their employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates to do the above. You will additionally take no action to cause me to produce a child by any means, nor will you direct or allow any of your employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates to do so. Any child which results from any active interference by you or any of your employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates will not be regarded as my child, will not be eligible as my heir and inheritor, and will not be applicable as my payment to you under this bargain.”
“You’re surprisingly good at this game,” Iblis commented.
My smile was just about as friendly as his, although it had more wolf and less snake in it. “I’ve had good teachers.”
He nodded. “Very well, those terms are acceptable. You will take no action to destroy or otherwise render unsuitable any offspring you do produce, nor will you allow or encourage any of your affiliates to do so. Contraception is reasonable, but any form of abortion or infanticide is not. Additionally, you will not deliberately produce offspring which are in any way deformed, physically or mentally impaired, or otherwise of lower value than would be expected. If you do, you will be considered in default of contract.”
“Fine,” I said. “But the clause against harm or destruction applies only to viable offspring which are fertilized and whose existence I am aware of. Gametes do not qualify. I am not responsible for naturally occurring events or force majeure events, nor am I responsible if I do not have reason to think that an action or instruction will lead to these consequences. If I or an associate has reason to believe that carrying the child to term will place anyone in danger, or that the child is for any reason unsuitable, this person may contact you and you will be obligated to resolve the situation in a manner which resolves the danger and any unsuitability without in any way harming me or any of my employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates. If you are unable or unwilling to do so, that child is no longer covered by the clause against harm or destruction.”
“Reasonable,” he said. “You may not act or instruct or allow anyone else to act in a manner which would produce such a situation.”
I opened my mouth to agree to that.
Then Aiko punched me in the face.
It was not a playful punch. In fact, it really freaking hurt. I’d taken my helmet off for this meeting, and she hadn’t taken off her gauntlets. Her gauntlets weren’t spiked, at least, but it still drew blood.
“Ow,” I said, wiping the blood away with my hand. “What was that for?”
“Winter,” she said. “You can’t do this. You can’t.”
“You have a better idea?” I asked. “Because I don’t. I really, really don’t.”
She took a deep breath and let it out. “Get one,” she growled. “Because this? This is a really shitty idea. You cannot agree to sell our firstborn child.”
“Whyever not?” Iblis asked reasonably. “It isn’t an unheard of bargain to strike, by any means.”
Aiko looked away from me. When she spoke, she sounded a great deal less unsure of herself, and not happy in the least. “Because I already did.”