“Are you sure this is safe?” Caroline said for the seventh time, readjusting her glasses.
“For Christ’s sake, what are you expecting?” Jim snapped, his voice a little louder than he’d intended it to be. The other eleven people in the room all looked up, Bob still gripping the thick white chalk piece he’d been drawing the circle around pentagram with.
“You don’t really believe in demons, do you?” Bob said with a grin. At the ripe old age of twenty-five he was the oldest in the room; at just a month past twenty-one, Caroline was the youngest.
Caroline fidgeted. “No—but—maybe it’s the Catholic in me, but using that makes me uncomfortable.” She pointed at the blackened, moldering book, the size of an old family Bible, that Laura held.
The goth girl snorted, rolling her eyes. “My God, you’re still a killjoy. How can we make it feel authentic without a real demonology book?”
“Maybe I’m uncomfortable because it’s you,” Caroline growled, narrowing her eyes.
“C’mon,” Adrian said from behind her, patting her shoulder. She could just about feel his leer. “We’ll get in the Halloween spirit and get smashed afterward.” Bob had already gone back to finishing the circle and setting black candles in place.
“Lovely,” she muttered.
Bob lit all five candles with a long butane lighter, then stepped back. It was his apartment, and thus his hardwood floor. Laura had been disgruntled at his insistence on using candle holders rather than putting the candles on the floor, but Caroline was plenty spooked as it was.
“Okay, quiet, everyone,” Jim said, turning off the apartment lights and then stepping forward again. “Everyone hold hands.”
Laura set the book down on a bar stool—the closest they could find to a lectern—and joined the circle. She started to stand next to Caroline, but the two girls stared at one another. The goth dropped her eyes first, and exchanged places with the person next to her.
“Barbas,” Laura murmured, lowering her voice to a smoky register. “Barbas. Barbas.” She fell silent for a few seconds, then spoke more strongly. “Lord of Light, Lucifer, I pray for the power to execute my desire, to reach the end I would attain through you. You are the true power.”
Caroline made an uncomfortable noise; Jim glared at her. Laura continued on, her voice rising. “I entreat you, Lucifer, to inspire Barbas, the great count of Hell, to manifest before me. To give me true and faithful answer, provided it is proper to his office. This….I humbly ask in your name.”
The candles flickered and everyone—even Laura—twitched. Dead silence fell across the room.
Finally, after ten seconds that seemed like an eternity, Jim shouted “Boo!” Everyone jumped; Caroline and another girl she didn’t know shrieked. Then everyone burst out laughing. Everyone except Caroline, who was still feeling rattled, and Laura, who looked crestfallen.
“All right,” Caroline said, raising her hands and breaking the circle, “I think I’m really ready for some drinks—”
All the candles went out, leaving the room in pitch blackness. “What the hell?” Jim snapped.
“Are you here?” Laura’s voice came, sounding tremulous—and now hopeful.
“Laura, cut it out,” Jim said, sounding exasperated. Caroline could tell he was moving toward the wall, and presumably, a light switch.
Laura sucked in her breath. “You’re…not Barbas, are you? He’s male. You…sound female.”
Uneasy laughter rippled through the room. Jim reached the light switch and flicked it on.
Caroline half-expected to see some huge demonic form squatting in front of—or over—Laura, but there was only Laura, kneeling on the floor, looking up at…nothing, her expression one of ecstasy and terror. “I have a r-request, then. Lady.”
Everyone in the room stared. Laura remained silent for several seconds, as if listening to a response, then said, stammering, “I want—I want more. More than…Tell me how to…to feel.”
“That’s so stereotypically goth,” Caroline murmured. Laura flinched, then glared. Jim started to say something, but he was cut off by the laughter. It was soft, contralto, lovely—and echoed from everywhere.
“Okay, that’s creeping me out a little,” Bob murmured. “How’s she doing that?”
The laughter became an equally musical voice, dripping with honey amusement. “And what do you propose in return, little girl, for me to help you?”
Laura opened her mouth and closed it again, no words coming out.
Another laugh, this time localized: right behind Caroline. She whirled around to see nothing, but she felt something: feathers, like a huge wing brushing against her. She shrieked again and stumbled back.
“Surely you know you offer a demon something in exchange for the knowledge you seek.” The voice stayed localized, moving around the room slowly, just outside the now haphazard circle of partiers. Heavy footsteps accompanied it, footsteps that clacked against the hardwood floor, like the scrape of talons. “What do you offer me in exchange for telling you how to feel?”
Adrian made an exasperated noise. “Laura, enough. I don’t know how the hell you’re doing this, but—but—” His voice became hoarse, then squeaky. “But—” His mouth kept working, but no noise came out; he put his hands to his throat.
Someone—Caroline wasn’t sure who—screamed, then suddenly half the room ran for the door. Caroline, though, remained stock still, staring at the spot she thought the voice was coming from. What was she seeing?
“None of you have permission to leave,” the voice said. Caroline realized that if a woman had been standing there, she’d have been at least seven feet tall.
“Fuck you,” Jim said, sounding angry and frightened, and reaching for the door. When his hand touched the doorknob, he made a surprised noise, then tried to pull his arm away. It was stuck.
Caroline felt a brief burst of air, as if the wings she’d felt were snapping open, and suddenly everyone—including Adrian, but not her, Laura, or the hapless Jim—found themselves flung against the walls, backs to them, heads just a few inches below the ceiling. Black cords burst out of the plaster to encircle their wrists and ankles. “Oh, dear, there’s always one, isn’t there?” The unseen demoness didn’t raise her voice, but it carried over the shrieks and wails of her suddenly bound prisoners.
“Make it let go of me!” Jim yelled, oblivious to his friends’ sudden predicament.
The footsteps walked past Caroline at a casual pace. This time she felt—she felt a tail, she was positive of it, a heavy, furred tail, slapping against her leg. Her breath caught. “Laura, what is it?” she hissed.
“I don’t know,” the goth girl whispered back. “I…”
“You’d better fucking—”
The footsteps stopped, and Jim’s head tilted up, as if a large hand had cupped itself under his chin. “James,” the voice purred, “you don’t command demons. You make requests of demons.”
“P…please. Please make it let go of me.”
“That’s better. But you see her?” Jim’s head was yanked to stare at Laura; the goth girl had a deer-in-headlights expression. “She’s the summoner.” His head jerked to stare at the bound prisoners. “They’re the audience.” At Caroline. “And we’ll reveal what she is soon enough.”
“And you, James? You disobeyed me, then cursed at me. I’m afraid,” and her voice sounded apologetic, “that makes you the example.”
“Wh…what do you…” Jim’s eyes widened and he stared down at his feet, then up and around wildly. He became hard to see, as if covered by shadow, and his voice became muffled, as if he were in a tunnel. “What are you doing? Oh my God.” He disappeared completely, and now it sounded like he was in a small box. “No! No!”
There was a loud, wet swallowing noise.
“Mmm,” the voice came, with the sound of smacking lips, audible over the frightened noises coming from everyone else in the room but the still-silent Laura and Caroline. “Mmm. A nice amount of fat on him.”
Caroline squinted. She was sure she could see the figure now: a woman with huge black raven wings, the face of a cat, the talons of a dragon.
“You see her, don’t you?” Laura murmured, eyes wide.
“And you always mocked me. Bitch.” Laura sounded slightly smug. “She’s beautiful.”
“She just ate Jim,” Caroline hissed. “Send her back!”
“Oh, yes, you can.” As the demoness moved toward the two unbound girls, her form was very clear now, from her stubby horns and glowing eyes along her sleekly black-furred body down to her lithe legs. And honestly, she was weirdly beautiful. Even after the vivid demonstration of what the creature was capable of, Caroline’s heart raced just a little looking at her.
Laura stared up, then at Caroline, at the other young woman’s glare. She wilted. “You…should go back…” she stammered, voice faint.
The feline woman sighed, putting a hand on her hip and staring down. “You’ve wanted this more than anything for years, and now that it’s here you don’t have any idea what to do now, do you?” She crouched down in front of Laura, her wings spreading slightly to partially occlude Caroline’s view. “Tell me clearly what you want, and what you offer in return, Laura.”
“I…” She swallowed. “It’s not that I don’t feel. It’s that I feel too much. I hurt at everything. I hurt so much. I want to stop feeling like that. That’s all.”
“That’s all,” the demoness echoed, her glowing eyes flickering brightly enough for a moment that they reflected off Caroline’s glasses. “And in return?”
“Caroline,” Laura said almost instantly. “I offer Caroline.”
“What the hell?” Caroline burst out. “You don’t get to—”
The demoness raised her hand to Caroline in a silence gesture. It looked like she could slice a human in half with maybe two talons, tops. Caroline went silent.
“And what claim do you lay on her?”
“She’s…” Laura gritted her teeth. “She’s who did this to me. She’s my ex-girlfriend. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be…broken.”
The demoness turned to face Caroline, huge feathered wings ruffling. “I accept,” she said.
“She has no right to offer me, and you have no right to accept,” Caroline said, voice tight.
“Yet you have no say whatsoever in the matter. It’s not very fair at all, is it?” the winged cat replied, flashing a smile that showed fangs as fearsome as her talons. Then she rose to her full height. “Laura, stand up.”
The goth girl did so. Caroline trembled, but remained quiet.
“Fold your hands in front of you, like this.” The demoness clasped her hands in front of her thighs. Laura followed suit. “Now close your eyes.” She did.
Wings spreading, the huge woman leaned over and gave Laura a kiss—then brought her own taloned hands together, a ball of light forming between them and growing to a point where it was too blinding to look at.
When Caroline’s vision cleared, the demoness held a crystal ball, with Laura—in the same stance she’d been—inside it.
“Holy—I—what the hell did you do?” Caroline whispered.
“She won’t feel anything. That’s what she wants. Now, you stand up.”
“I—” Caroline swallowed, looking terrified, but did as told.
“Caroline, you do have a role to play in this. Laura was broken before she met you, but you made the problem worse. You tipped her over the edge into…” She sighed. “Well, into summoning demons.”
She gritted her teeth, thinking of all the responses she wanted to make, all the defenses. Yes, she’d gotten into terrible fights with Laura, and yes, she’d started to sneer at the goth demonology, and yes, she’d been a little cruel toward the end.
Or a lot.
Finally, she looked down. “I know.” Then she blinked. She was staring at a marble floor, not a wooden one.
She snapped her gaze back up and looked around the unfamiliar room. “Did you take me to hell?” she squeaked.
“In some mythologies.” The demoness walked toward the far wall of the room and set Laura’s crystal ball on a shelf, next to dozens of others. “But it’s not necessarily what you think.” She tilted her head and smiled. “All of your friends—including that rude but tasty James—will wake up safe and sound in their beds tomorrow. They’ll remember this night very clearly, but what they do with that memory is up to them.”
“And…m-me and Laura?”
“Laura stays here until she learns a few things. If she’d gotten hold of a demon who wasn’t as nice as I am…well. One of the things she’ll have to learn is what nasty demons are like.” She glanced at the crystal ball. “And I promise that you’ll wake up in your bed tomorrow, too.”
Caroline breathed out a sigh of relief.
“Of course, when ‘tomorrow’ is for you depends on you learning what you need to while you’re here.” The demoness walked toward her again. “One of the first things you need to learn is what it’s like to not have the power in a relationship.”
“Wait—” She started to scramble back. The demoness looked even taller now. Larger.
“You will be a servant. A pet. A toy. A meal. For me, for my servants and pets. For strangers. For stray animals. If I were you, I’d even be worried about the flowers.”
“No! You can’t—”
The demoness put her hand on Caroline’s head. It covered it completely. She was only hip high to the feline woman, and she could feel the heat radiating off the giantess’s body. “What can’t I do, Caroline?”
The human swallowed, trying not to whimper. “Please let me go.”
Leaning over, the feline moved her hand and tilted Caroline’s head up so she looked into the glowing eyes. “You haven’t earned being let go,” she whispered. “Or, for that matter, earned being a pet or servant.” She gave her a firm kiss, and the human’s vision blurred. The demon’s voice echoed around her, receding: “That leaves two choices.”
When her vision cleared, she was surrounded by close walls and no ceiling. It took her a few seconds to realize that the “walls” were the sides of a cardboard box, and there was a ceiling, very high overhead. A few old dolls—each her size—lay on the box’s floor, but she would certainly be the most interesting toy.
“Hello?” she called hoarsely. “Is anyone there?” Louder, tentatively: “Hello?”
Her voice echoed in a way that made her suspect the box was in a hallway. Somewhere in a palace in Hell.
“Hello?” she said a third time, now barely above a whisper.
She heard footsteps approaching.