We pulled up in front of The Weekly Throne, the newspaper company that served as a front for Hliðskjálf, New York’s most dependable information brokering agency. They were the Allesandri’s golden boys. Nothing beats having the press on your side, and it’s a genius move for an information broker to hide behind a newspaper when you think about it. The nature of the job means there’s always information to be had at Hliðskjálf if you were willing to pay the right price. No one hears more and sees more in the big city than its newspapers.
Marq and I climbed out of the rental car, trailing what remained of our forces from the warehouse meeting behind us. I’d never been here in person myself, so Marq thought it might be a good time to get me acquainted with the staff in case he need me to run any errands in the future. We’d left Sostene and Nayeli behind (at the latter’s protest) to make arrangements for the trip we were about to take just to catch up with these guys. Marq assured me this was an errand we could handle alone. He was on friendly terms with the chief editor of the newspaper.
We pushed open the front doors, ringing a little bell, and were greeted by a fairly standard, ho-hum newsroom. Nothing too special to be seen. That was the beauty of Hliðskjálf. Simplicity and efficiency. Marq liked that. I had my doubts they were gonna be able to help us here though.
“Uh, Marq? I hate to be that guy right now, but I don’t think a newspaper is gonna have the info we need.”
Marq smirked. “You would think that, wouldn’t you?”
I didn’t have any time to argue with him because as soon as he finished, we were approached by some kid dressed like a butler who handed us two glasses of champagne just outta nowhere.
“Greetings on behalf of my Mistress. My name is Aster,” the kid said with a bow. He was barely out of grade school, but it looked like he’d been doing this whole “butler” thing for a while now. “If you would, please follow me. The Mistress is waiting for you.”
“Yeah, sure thing kid…” I said, utterly confused. And, not gonna lie, more than a little weirded out.
We followed the kid through the newsroom and into the back, where the kid told us to wait while he retrieved a key. Sliding a huge lump of brass into the lock on the farthest door from the entrance, he turned the key with both hands and unlocked the door for us.
“Holy shit…” I muttered as the door swung open.
It was like we’d stepped out of the dingy newsroom office into a whole other building. A gigantic archive, a building made from stacks of paper, glue, and cardboard boxes. And the only thing that seemed to fill it were shelves. Empty shelves, rusty shelves, shelves filled with papers, boxes, books and folders, shelves that were neat and shelves that were… not so neat. Shelves formed the only dividing walls I could see, separating hundreds of little open-sided cubicles, each with a desk and a typewriter. Each of them were pretty much identical, and seeing how much walking we had to do, I got to see a lot of them. Sometimes the ones we passed had people sitting at them. Others didn’t. And yet all of them were typing. Was this someone’s atelier?
The kid started silently walking forward, totally quiet and emotionless. Without much else to do, Marq and I followed him. And followed him. And then kept following him long after we’d lost sight of the door. After a while I lost track of how long and how far we’d walked. I looked around in every direction I could think of, trying to find some point of reference. I couldn’t see the ceiling, or the walls, or even the floor. Just metal catwalks connecting shelf after shelf after shelf, up and down and all around. The endless room of shelves stretched on into what felt like eternity.
“We should be almost there,” Aster said out of nowhere, disrupting the painful silence. “Please prepare yourself to meet my Mistress. She can be… difficult.”
“Take it in, Al,” Marq said, leading me on a zigzagging path through the maze. “What you’re looking at is the core of Hliðskjálf’s information-gathering services. And this is its heart.”
We came into view of a giant throne at least five stories high made of dossiers, books, portfolios, newspapers, and every other kind of recorded medium known to man, a veritable mountain of knowledge. And that was when I came face to face with her. It. That… thing. I’ll leave you to decide what you want to call it. What I can tell you right now though is that it had black eyes, and although its body was female it dressed like a stereotypical pimp, aviator sunglasses, mink fur coat and expensive-looking cane very much included.
It lowered the sunglasses it used to hide itself from others, revealing neon blue irises offset by pitch black sclera. I knew what those eyes were. They were the eyes of the creatures called djinn, spirits, fairies, tricksters. These were the eyes of demons.
Barely looking up from the copy of the Ars Goetia it was currently viewing, the demon lazily addressed with, “Welcome to my endless realm, foolish and unknowing mortals! You stand before Asmodeus of the first hierarchy, prince of thrones and master over the courts of vile revenges! My hours are 8 to 8:30 non-standard time. I charge a flat rate of one soul per customer and have the right to deny service to any cultists or uppity Israelites with fancy jewelry. How may I help you?”
I froze, gripped by an overwhelming desire to run but trapped in a heavy body that wouldn’t let me go. I was stuck like a deer in the headlights. Was this a setup? Was I being set up? By Marq? No no no, Marq wouldn’t do that. He would just sell me out to some demon right?!
I tried to reason with myself, tried to think my way out of this oppressive fear, that I was feeling, but all I could think about was the demon.
There were stories I’d always hear as a child about what happened to people who made deals with demons. The crossroads blues is what they called it. Someone in a bind or deep a ways into trouble would somehow always find their way to a demon, or a demon would find their way to them. They’d get tricked into making a deal, either because they were too stupid or too desperate to consider the consequences. They’d name their price and sell their soul and the demon would give them everything they asked for and more. No strings attached. No jackass genie routine where the wish itself is somehow horribly flawed and turns on the wisher. They always got everything they’d ever asked for, in the exact way they’d asked for it. Then… things started happening to them.
You see, what people refer to as the soul doesn’t actually exist according to what Marq tells me. It’s not some metaphysical entity or a glowing ball of light that for some reason lives inside our bodies. A soul is just life. Not life-force, life itself. Your mind, your body, your memories, your personality, your emotions and everything else you value, that’s what a soul is. It doesn’t have to be an ethereal thing. A bit of your soul is probably in your baseball card collection, because the baseball cards mean something to you. They have intimate, personal value.
So when you sell your soul, you’re handing over everything you value to the demon, and they have the right to take those things away from you whenever they want, piece by piece. Are you seeing the problem now? Family members die or disappear, bank accounts run dry, marriages are either destroyed or never happened to begin with, and all the best things in your life are taken from you one by one. You could go blind, forget the taste of your mom’s gnocchi or how she cooked it, hell, you could forget your mom. Anything is fair game for a demon.
If Marq was planning on trading me to one of these things, I was screwed.
“Yo,” Marq said remarkably casually.
“Yo, Marquis,” the demon responded.
As I sat there with my ass chemically bonded to where I stood, the demon turned its attention to me. It looked at me inquisitively. I never took my eyes off it either, desperately praying that it was just looking at something behind me.
“Mistress, I’ve brought the Marquis, just like you asked,” the boy said, fidgeting. “May I go?”
But the demon didn’t seem to react, which only made him fidget more. “Is there something wrong, Mistress?”
The demon smiled salaciously.
Suddenly it was gone. I hadn’t blinked or looked away. Suddenly it had just ceased to be and I didn’t even notice it, like it had disappeared inbetween frames in a movie. I felt something behind me, something reaching out without touching me, and I whipped around to face it. But there was nothing. I turned around, and it was standing only inches away from my face. Its lips split into a full grin.
I backed up without thinking like a cornered rabbit, startled and scared. Every survival instinct I had was screaming at me to run. The demon quite obviously found this amusing.
“You’ve certainly brought me a jumpy one today, Marquis,” it said, squatting down to look at me on my level. “Don’t be afraid little one, I’m here to help. Well, mostly anyway. I suppose that all depends on whether or not you’re on the right side of the deal.”
I smiled shakily. “Is there ever a right side of the deal to be on?”
It laughed. “He’s clever too! I like him. Call me Asmodeus, kid. I’d help you up, but…”
“But I’d have to make a deal for it, right?”
“Correct. It makes me sad, not being able to interact with this world without equivalent exchange, but that’s just how it goes.”
I grimaced. The Conceptual Non-Interference Clause. The demons had no name for it, so we gave it one for them. It’s what prevents a demon from taking any direct action that would interfere with the world of forms unless it’s for the completion of a binding contract, otherwise known as a deal. It greatly restricts their movements in our world, limiting them to movements and gestures that have even less impact than a ghost or a poltergeist. For all intents and purposes, they barely exist. But in exchange demons themselves cannot have any action taken against them which would interfere with their stated intent or goals. Think of it as cosmic diplomatic immunity. They exist in a legal grey area not even gods can touch so long as they play by the rules, and they can do almost anything if you give them permission and an equally enticing compensation. Quirks like this are what make demons the ultimate jokers.
“Asmodeus, huh?” I said, summoning up the courage to look the demon in the face. “Is that your real name?”
“Of course it’s not,” it answered frankly. “If I told you my real name you’d have the right to enslave me, so why would I do that? I’d much rather just use whatever name comes to mind, although I use this name specifically to interact with humans because someone once told me it was… fitting for me.”
I glanced at Marq. “So I take it that it’s true then, that a demon can’t lie?”
“I cannot,” it said gleefully. “And I must answer any question asked of me.”
“Alright then,” I said. “Tell me your real name.”
“You forgot to phrase it as a question.”
“Okay, what is your real name?”
“A statement expressing in its fullness the weight of my expansive past colliding head-on with my neverending future. An assertion of my Impetus in its purest form, although a base and simplistic life form like you wouldn’t be able to understand that,” it said smugly. “You’re going to have to try harder than that, kid. I’ve been answering that question for almost fourteen billion years. You’d hope I would’ve come up with some more creative answers by now.”
“The driving force in all creation that imbues objects with power and a purpose,” Marq said. “I’ll explain it to you again later.”
I frowned. “Are you going to give me a straight answer to any of my questions or are you just going to dodge me with this run-around-the-mulberry-bush bullshit every time I ask you something?”
The demon shrugged. “Maybe if you were to ask the right questions?”
Marq cleared his throat. Taking his cue, the servant boy asked, “Mistress? Don’t you want to ask the Marquis what business he’s here on?”
“Oh fine. Spoil all my fun why don’t you…” It bit its thumb in frustration and sighed before turning right around asking, “What do you want, Marquis? You’d better make it quick. I’m rapidly losing interest in you for your cute new lackey.”
Was I… was I getting hit on by a demon? Ew. Ew ew ew ewwwww.
“I’m looking for some information, and a little bit of help,” Marq said. “Think you can help me out?”
“Of course. Since when have I ever failed you?” Asmodeus insinuated. “I assume you have the usual payment prepared?”
I swallowed audibly, holding my breath. I was ready to run if I had to, but it wouldn’t do me any good.
“No, not this time. Business has been unusually good this month. Leg-breakers found a guy just today though, name of Shep Sanders. I’m sure he’d be willing to put off a smashed kneecap today for a bit of bad luck tomorrow. That is how you demons like to operate, right? The loansharks of the universe.”
“Except he doesn’t benefit from the deal like you do,” it said. “That’s awfully cold, you know. Forcing someone into that. Why, if I wasn’t a demon, I’d almost feel like crying.”
Asmodeus began mock-crying, and very poorly at that. Glancing at Marq, I could tell he was getting fed up with the theatrics. I on the other hand, couldn’t be more relieved. I let out a loud sigh of relief. I knew Marq wouldn’t stab me in the back like that.
“Moving along,” he said, clearing his throat. “I need you to take a look at something for me, and then I need information.”
The demon frowned.
“You know the price isn’t right here, Marquis. ” Asmodeus said. “One soul to one deal, that’s how it goes. Even if they somehow happen survive, we don’t like repeat customers, and they usually don’t like us.”
“And yet somehow you continue put up with me,” Marq said, mocking the demon. “The price is right for one deal, and one deal is all I need. The information I’ll pay for traditionally.”
He fished out his wallet, and Asmodeus frowned. It must have felt gypped.
“You’re lucky you’re not exactly the average customer, Marquis,” Asmodeus said, snatching the wallet. “Otherwise I might not put up with you. So? What’s Shep Sander’s misfortune buying you?”
“Look inside the wallet,” Marq said. “We’re chasing a group rumor has it is in possession of a philosopher’s stone, and I need you to verify something for me. There’s a fragment of the stone wrapped in a piece of paper they left behind when they fled. It’s mostly dust, but it should be enough to tell you what it is and how they’re smuggling it out of New York.”
Asmodeus unwrapped the piece of paper after it found it and then licked it, dust and all. I wonder what it tasted like. Essence of creation with a hint of sweaty Frenchman?
Asmodeus licked its lips, smacking loudly. “Well, I can tell you one thing for sure. Maybe there is a philosopher’s stone out there, but this ain’t it.”
“You sure?” Marq asked seriously.
“Positive. This stone? Not a philosopher’s stone.”
“Then what is it?” I asked, losing patience.
It considered it. “Salty, but with a pinch of iron.”
“Specifically,” Marq said. “What’s its chemical makeup? Its properties? Where is it from?”
“Space,” Asmodeus said. “The stone is from outer space. And it’s not a philosopher’s stone.”
“Yeah, you already told us that,” I said through grit teeth.
“Hold on, let me finish,” it said, scolding me. “It’s not a philosopher’s stone. It’s the cintamani stone.”
“… What?” I said.
Asmodeus smiled. “Marquis, care to explain?”
Marq sighed. “Many years ago, during the reign of the Tibetan king Lha Thothori Nyantsen, four relics descended from Heaven unto Earth, falling from the sky in metal caskets. These relics, which you humans now call ‘terma’, were worshipped as holy objects, two sages having decreed to the king that they were divine treasures, sent by the Buddha to bring dharma to the world. Two of the treasures have been lost to time (that information will cost you extra, by the way), but the two that remain are said to be a singing bowl owned by Buddha, and a mani stone with the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra inscribed on it. This stone was said to be able to grant any wish. Clothing and food could be manifested, and sickness and suffering could be cured. That is the power of the cintamani stone.”
“Of course the part about being sent by Buddha is correct, but the rest of the details are a bit more mundane,” Asmodeus said. “The stone was actually sent here from space on a hunk of meteoric iron, not a casket sent from Heaven. If such a thing existed, don’t you think I would’ve found my way in there by now? And the stone itself wasn’t really that big of a deal either. It’s certainly unique, but its power nowhere near rivals that of the philosopher’s stone. That’s a treasure that’s staying buried for the time being.”
“So what does it do then?” I asked.
Marq’s eyes narrowed, becoming all about business. “The only other thing it could do. It can store multiple enchantments, can’t it?”
Asmodeus smiled. “Correct! Teacher is very proud of you, Marquis. You get a gold star! The stone can hold more than one enchantment at a time, but it’s more accurate to say it’s supposed to be a compendium of enchantments, not just a fancy novelty item. The jewel’s unique atomic structure can catalogue and hold on to enchantments like a library, each one stored somewhere within the jewel, and they can be called upon at whim, giving the illusion of a miracle-filled wish-granting stone. By the time Lha Thothori Nyantsen got his hands on it, the stone held thousands of enchantments.”
“And that number is probably hundreds of thousands now,” Marq said. “Thanks for the info, Asmodeus.”
The demon smiled. “It’s my pleasure, and my business. Speaking of which, the payment…”
“Will be sent to you as soon as Shep Sanders consents to a deal. If we can’t convince him, we’ll find someone else and have them to you in three days.”
“You’re a doll, Marquis,” the demon said cheerfully. “Now, Aster will see to the rest of your payment…”
“The information is at the front desk, sir,” the pale little boy said. “Shall I retrieve it for you?”
“No no, Aster. The Marquis can get it himself,” Asmodeus said. “You’re staying here with me.”
The boy’s hopes were immediately shot down, and you could see it in his face. “If you say so, ma’am.”
He climbed up onto the throne and the demon snatched him up like a fluffy teddy bear or a frilly doll, hugging him tightly and holding him close to its chest.
“Oh my little Aster, you’re so adorable in that little butler outfit! Like mommy’s little porcelain doll! It’s been so long since I’ve gotten to hold you like this! Your cuteness makes the stress of the workday just melt away!~”
Eugh. That’s creepy. Judging by his facial expression, the boy seemed to agree.
“If it makes you happy, ma’am.”
“Hey, Aster!” Asmodeus said cheerfully. “Let’s play! It’s been too long since the last time I got to have some fun with my favorite toy!”
“M-Mistress! We can’t do that right now!” the boy pleaded. “There are people watching right in front of us, they’ll see!”
“Don’t mind us, we were just on our way out,” Marq said, tipping his hat to the demon. “Come on, Al. Before this gets weird…”
I hurried along behind Marq, trying not to look when I saw the demon start unbuttoning the poor kid’s shirt. Did she mean playing like…
I shuddered. Jesus christ that was creepy. Marq didn’t seem to mind. Either that, or he was too busy being focused on something else.
“Sir, do you want us to report this to your brother?” one of the goons asked.
“No, he doesn’t need to know about this…” Marq said, barely paying attention to the grunt.
“I said he doesn’t need to know. Tell him the job is proceeding as planned and that we’re en route to intercept the stone as it leaves New York. Am I understood?”
“Yessir…” the grunt said, confused.
A lot of things about this concerned me. The stone fakeout and what it meant was bad news for us and so was the demon, let alone the fact that Marq had apparently been wheeling and dealing with this thing for years. But you know what was worrying me even more than that just then?
Marq had his game face on.