“And you’re okay with staying behind?” asked Mary.
“I am, you don’t need to ask me again,” said Valencia. They were in the hotel room together, alone. Grak was putting up wards in the other room where the tuung were staying, and Joon had taken Fenn to go find out if there was another way down the Pit. Valencia was more comfortable when she was with just one other person, because sometimes there were too many people talking at once and it was hard to figure out what they were all saying without a devil’s help -- and Valencia didn’t particularly like having a devil’s insights into her friends.
“I know I decided for you,” said Mary. “I don’t want you to think that I was pushing you out, you’re a valuable member of this team, but --”
“If a warder looks at me, he’ll know that I’m non-anima,” said Valencia. “And then he’ll tell people, and they’ll try to kill me.”
“It’s partly that,” said Mary. “There are a lot of reasons.” She paused. “I thought that you might like some independence. You’ve been with us a week, and I feel like I’ve barely let you out of my sight in that entire time. I want you to have agency, to decide things on your own.”
Valencia felt a warm glow, deep in her chest. She reached forward and wrapped Mary in a tight hug, which the princess returned. Valencia liked hugging. She was slowly discovering all the things that she liked, and hugging was near the top of the list. She didn’t stop hugging until a little bit after Mary had dropped her half of the hug.
“You’re so nice,” said Valencia.
“Thank you,” said Mary. “I don’t think that’s particularly true, but thank you.”
“You have to come back,” said Valencia. “You all have to come back. Okay?”
“We’ll try our best,” said Mary. “We should probably talk about contingencies for what you should do if we don’t return, for whatever reason. You’ll have money, and you can certainly borrow the relevant skills, but it will probably be rough for you, and if I can offer some input that helps --”
“If you die, I’ll find you in the hells,” said Valencia. “And then I’ll kill all the demons and devils near you, so it won’t be as bad.”
“That’s -- probably preferable, yes,” said Mary. “I’m still not sure that you should be killing them so freely.”
“They don’t know what’s causing it,” said Valencia. She had watched, killing one, then killing a second that had been standing right next to the first so she could see it through his memories. Aside from that, every time she took a devil or a demon, she tried to remember to comb through their memories to see whether they knew anything about her. So far, nothing but whispers and rumors. The infernals weren’t supposed to die; they were scared. “Even if they did know, they don’t have very good reach up here.”
Valencia could feel through the nine thousand hells with what she thought of as her tendrils, absurdly long, interdimensional strings that could slice through a demon or devil and draw it into her. There were different pieces of her power, the tendrils that grabbed the demons from out of their bodies, the maw that tore them apart into component parts, and the reservoir where their skills and knowledge were kept. It was a bit of idle work to keep each of the tendrils focused on a different target, ready to consume them at a moment’s notice. She had started with eight of them, but now they numbered in the hundreds, and adding any more seemed excessive.
“I’m worried there will be a reckoning,” said Mary. “And I’m worried that if you lean on them too much, you’ll take on something of them. They can’t be what’s driving your understanding of people.”
“That’s what I have the Harry Potter books for,” said Valencia with a smile.
“That’s not --” Mary began.
“I was only joking,” said Valencia. Mary could be a lot like Hermione sometimes, quick to correct things she saw as wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books had helped her to understand Mary a bit better. Mary was also sometimes like Lucius Malfoy, with careful words and clever plots. And sometimes she was brave and bold, like Harry Potter.
Mary pursed her lips. “I’m very serious,” she said. “Life can be hard, and it’s extremely easy to get cynical about people, even without infernal influences shaping your views.”
Valencia snapped one of her tendrils through a lesser devil and crushed him in her maw. All she wanted of him was the smallest piece of insight. She’d picked a lesser devil because she didn’t think it was so bad to do that. The little ones, close to the surface, were weaker and dumber, closer to her own ways of thinking. How much influence could they have?
“You’re talking about yourself,” said Valencia.
“Did you figure that out on your own?” asked Mary with a frown.
“No,” said Valencia. She tried her best to be honest with Mary and Joon and the others. It was easier without a devil’s insights, which always made lies so attractive. Lies could get you what you wanted.
“Well,” said Mary. “Yes, I do think I’m sometimes too cynical for my own good. There’s something infectious about cynicism. You treat people poorly for reasons that seem perfectly sensible, and the world becomes worse for it.”
“You’re talking about me,” said Valencia. “That wasn’t a devil’s insights,” she added. She had discarded the devil’s parts from her reservoir. Thousands of years of the devil’s life had been used up just for that one little hint at what Mary was thinking.
Mary sighed. “Yes. I’m talking about you.” She looked Valencia over. “You know that people can talk in generalities, don’t you? There’s subtext, true, but the generalities still hold, regardless of the context I’m thinking in at the time.”
“I know,” said Valencia. “You feel bad for treating me like I wasn’t actually there.”
“I was being pragmatic,” said Mary. “It was pragmatic to refuse to acknowledge that there was a person trapped in cycles of possession. It was cynicism, a way of preventing myself from being weak. I’m sorry.”
“You tell me you’re sorry every day,” said Valencia.
“I try not to,” said Mary. She fidgeted with her hands. “My ideal self would tell you once, then prove it every day.”
“You really are very nice,” said Valencia. She wanted to ask whether they could kiss, because it felt like a moment for kissing. Kissing was also one of the things that Valencia had decided she enjoyed, but there were rules about who you could kiss and when. She thought that with the right devil, she could talk Mary into more kissing, but that wouldn’t be right or fair, and through a devil’s eyes, it would be manipulation, rather than the love and affection it was. “Can I have another hug?” she asked instead.
“Of course,” said Mary. When they hugged, Valencia gave a little purr, like a kitten. She had only heard about kittens; some day she would like to meet one.
“When we’re gone, you’re on your own,” said Mary. She had been the one to break the hug. One of the rules of hugging seemed to be that you weren’t supposed to just keep hugging forever, or carry on a full conversation while hugging. “I left you money for room service, or for if you want to take a very brief trip outside to see Headwater. Check in on the tuung, never let a warder see you, and if something happens, block our teleportation site so that we know there was trouble. There’s a gun and a knife in the bedside table. If you see a warder’s monocle, run the other way, and if you go out, keep up a devil’s skills at all times so you can’t be ambushed or attacked. And if you are ambushed or attacked, take a demon’s skills.” Mary left unsaid what Valencia was supposed to do with a demon’s skills, but the thing demons were best at was violence. “I’m very worried about you running into a warder on Grak’s level who doesn’t need the monocle, but I don’t want to make this hotel room into another prison, so … be safe.”
“I love you,” said Valencia, because it felt true. There was a slight twitch to Mary’s face that said this wasn’t appropriate, but Mary had also said that it was the right of every thinking creature to be inappropriate at times, when the situation called for it. Mary had rules about when to break rules.
“You listened to what I said though?” asked Mary.
“I did,” said Valencia. “Are you going to say it all again before you leave for real?”
“Probably,” said Mary with a sigh. She ran her fingers through her hair, which was dyed black. Their hair matched, and Valencia found that pleasing. “I’ll promise to try my best to come back in one piece, if you promise to try your best to be in one piece when I come back.”
“I promise,” said Valencia.
“Then I promise too,” said Mary.
Valencia felt hollow.
She had read through all seven Harry Potter books, and now what was left? Nothing. Not literally nothing, because Juniper and Mary had each left her a dozen books to read, but Valencia understood that the world that contained Hogwarts was only contained in those seven books, and now she was done. She tried reading the first of the Animorphs books, but it wasn’t at all the same, and she stopped three pages in. She also tried starting from the first book again, but it wasn’t the same either. All that was left was that hollow feeling of having come to the end.
Juniper had said that he’d read more than a thousand books, which she hadn’t really believed until he’d said something to the effect of that being only three years of reading a book every day. Valencia had read through the first three Harry Potter books in the course of three days, so that wasn’t too ridiculous. Juniper had then gone on about his assumptions about reading speed in words per minute and how many words were in a book, which Valencia listened to attentively and then promptly forgot; it seemed like Juniper liked the mental exercise, so she was happy for him.
(She’d used pieces of devils to read faster for the last four books, which had felt wonderful at the time, but which she now regretted, because there were no more books left. There was a slight taint of the devil’s thinking to her reading, but if anything, that enhanced the books; she could understand the precise ways the characters were flawed, which made it all the sweeter to see them overcome their weaknesses. She had read the epilogue without so much as a trace of the devil’s voice, which gave Rowling the last word.)
Valencia decided that she would go out into Headwater. She made sure that everything in the room was as it should be, put the pistol into her handbag, then locked the door behind her, making triple sure that the wooden hanger said that the room was to be left untouched. Grak had left behind wards, some of them quite potent. She made a quick stop at the room the tuung were staying in, let them know she would be gone for an hour, then went down to the front desk and again clarified with them that no one was to go into her hotel room.
She walked down the street with a devil’s eye for detail, as Mary had told her to, watching the people. There were gaps in the knowledge a devil had, but there was much that was ready to be supplied to her from the reservoir of devil parts, with only a very faint sensation that told her it was the devil’s knowledge, not her own.
She saw a pack of ghill, with spines the color of wheat covering their backs and heads. She passed a he’lesh wedding party, with its traditional streamers of smoke that had as many colors as the stars in the sky. On a corner she spotted one of the renacim, which was so unusual that she stopped and stared for a moment, trying to make sense of it. There were only twenty thousand of them on Aerb, and one was here in Headwater, for no apparent reason other than simple tourism.
It was interesting, certainly, to see the mix of people, cultures, and customs, more even than in Cranberry Bay, because this was a place explicitly meant for people from far away to visit. But at the same time, Valencia had very little baseline for what was normal. Twelve days ago, she had been locked up in a prison within a prison, which was more or less how she spent her entire life. It was a monotony that had only been interrupted by Fallatehr’s tests or the times that infernals had reached up into her to puppet her body. She knew what was worth noting about Headwater and what wasn’t, because the devils knew, but the part of her that was just Valencia was marveling at how tall the buildings got, or the power lines, or a store full of books.
(Mary said that she was doing very well, given the circumstances. Mary hadn’t gone so far as to say that she was doing unnaturally, abnormally well, but Mary had thought it. There was, left unsaid, the idea that the Dungeon Master had placed his thumb on the scale. Also left unsaid was the way that Valencia sometimes took in devils to help her with managing her thoughts and feelings. Devils had emotions too, they were just really, really good at dealing with them. Some of that stuck, even when they were gone.)
She found a tavern she thought looked a bit like the one in Hogsmeade and sat down at the bar, on top of a stool. She gripped the bar, then spun herself one way and then the other.
The devil’s instincts were there, telling her how this would look to other people, but she ignored them, because she wanted the experience. Even with a lesser devil like this one, it was sometimes hard to find herself in the mix. The devil was dead, taken apart into component pieces, but those pieces were a part of her, augmenting her thoughts and, to some extent, feelings. She had been working hard, with Mary’s help, both to become more of herself, so there was less for the devils to overwhelm, and to keep from reaching into that well of understanding just because it was there. She tried to think about the devils as voices, independent characters, but that wasn’t really true. They were dead, and she was simply using their skills or knowledge. It was easier to think of them as separate, so that she could say it was a demon telling her how to kill everyone in the room, rather than her own thought that she wouldn’t have had without the demon in her.
So she spun in the chair, to see what it was like, heedless of what other people would think. She might look like a little girl sitting on a bar stool for the first time. She was fine with that.
“Can I get you something?” asked the bartender. He was a large man, with broad shoulders and a neck thicker than one of her thighs. He looked friendly too, either despite or because of his bushy eyebrows. He was an aborian, claws filed down so they almost looked like fingernails. The devil’s knowledge helpfully told her all sorts of things, and she shut down the stream of thoughts about him as they presented themselves, but not before it left a taste in her mind -- he was sympathetic to her, worried that she was trouble, worried that she couldn’t pay, easy to manipulate by playing the victim, and so on. He was definitely the owner; the bar had been built for a man of his proportions. (He reminded her of Hagrid, though less hairy.)
“One butterbeer, please,” said Valencia. The devil part of her mind was insistent that she not do this, because there was no such thing as butterbeer, nor even buttered beer, and she was making a fool of herself, but she elected not to listen, and instead do the thing she wanted to do, on the off chance that the Dungeon Master was feeling kind.
He frowned slightly. “Not something we carry, sorry dear,” he said. “What does it taste like?”
“I don’t know,” said Valencia. “Butterscotch?”
“Well, we do have scotch,” said the bartender with a laugh. “But I think you’re probably a little young for that.”
“I’m eighteen years old,” said Valencia. For all she knew, that might have been true.
“Are you now?” asked the bartender. There was skepticism in his voice.
“What’s the drinking age in Headwater?” asked Valencia.
“It’s at the discretion of the barkeep,” he said with a faint smile. “We get too many species here to have a hard and fast rule. You must be a long way from -- where, exactly?”
“Portina,” said Valencia. It was an innocuous answer, close enough to be uninteresting, far enough that it was unlikely he’d press her on her knowledge. Not that she didn’t have knowledge, but devils didn’t exactly keep up to date. “Can I have something like butterscotch then? It doesn’t have to have alcohol in it.” She reached into her hand bag and pulled out a handful of obols, enough to show she had money, not enough to raise any attention. This was going to be the first time she’d ever paid for something. In fact, it would be the first thing that she had actually owned for herself, even if it was paid for with the group’s money.
“Here,” said the bartender. He plucked a bottle from the shelf with his huge hand and began pouring it into a small glass, then took a second bottle with a nozzle handle and added something fizzy. “It’s a local specialty, Delver’s Delight, one part tonic water, one part ungweed syrup. The tuung harvest it from the walls of the Pit, but most of what you’ll taste is sugar.”
“How much do I owe you?” asked Valencia.
“On the house,” said the bartender. “It’s a quarter-obol worth of ingredients, if that.”
“Thank you,” said Valencia with a small, solemn bow in his direction. She used a bit of the devil’s skills to convey the right impression toward him, to make him feel appreciated. The devil’s skills were laying out a path of manipulation for her, a way to get this man to do her bidding, but she clamped it down.
She tasted the fizzy drink, sipping it slowly. There was a bitterness to it, and acidity, a bit of near-citrus flavor, but sugar was what she tasted most. A thousand comparisons sprang to mind, courtesy of the devil, most of them calculated to how the bartender might react to them, some outright lies that would lead their conversation in some particular direction … but there was only one thing that Valencia herself could honestly compare it to.
“It tastes like Mountain Dew,” she said.
“Mountain dew?” asked the bartender. “Poetic, I suppose. Is that what you do? Are you a young poet from Portina?”
He liked her. There was something of Juniper to him, a weakness for weakness. There were no undercurrents of sexual desire though, not like there were with Juniper (not that she minded that in the least). The attention and momentary companionship wasn’t unwelcome, but a devil’s skill at avoiding detection was ringing alarm bells in the back of her head, saying that the more they spoke, the more he would remember her, and the more he might mention her to someone who went asking around, especially if he thought she was in trouble.
“I’m just visiting with family,” said Valencia. “We came here for the wedding of a family friend, and my mom let me slip out on my own for a bit since there’s some free time.”
“Ah,” said the bartender. He relaxed slightly, but there was also an edge of disappointment, a slight fall of his face and deadening of his earlier liveliness. “So no occupation, as yet? I don’t suppose you’d have interest in working at a tavern?”
He believed her, mostly, but she hadn’t done enough to get rid of his need to help her.
The thing that made her sad, so sad she might have cried if she didn’t have a devil’s control of her body, was that if he learned she didn’t have a soul, it would be like a switch was flipped in him. Non-anima were rare, adult non-anima even more so, but demons and devils were well-understood, and if he learned that she was under constant threat of possession (nevermind that she wasn’t), everything she’d said or done would be cast in that light. Every bit of sympathy he’d had toward her would be seen as a devil’s victory, every moment of distrust or unease seen as a devil’s failure.
“If I find myself with nowhere to go, I’ll come here begging for a job, does that sound like a deal?” asked Valencia, knowing that was a lie.
“Deal,” said the bartender. “Name’s Bore, though I’m not one,” he said, holding out his hand.
Valencia shook it. “Valencia the Red,” she said, against advice of counsel. She smiled at his raised eyebrow. “It’s a family name.”
He left her alone after that, and she stewed in her thoughts. He had been nice, and their interaction had been pleasant, but that was only because he hadn’t known her. There were, at present, four people in the world who knew her secret, and they were the only ones she could rely on -- if they made it back.
Having had her fun during her first night in Headwater, and anticipating many more days of solitude ahead of her, Valencia started writing an eighth Harry Potter book.
At first she tried to write it with a devil’s help, but by the time she reached the end of the first chapter, people were plotting and scheming beyond anything that had happened in the first seven books, and none of them were terribly good people, and she couldn’t see how any of it was going to have a happy ending for anyone. The bad people would just get worse, and all the glimmers of light would be snuffed out, because that was the devil’s understanding of people. Mary thought that with some practice, Valencia would be able to borrow a devil’s skills without the devil’s particular focus on suffering, misery, and pain. If that was possible, Valencia wasn’t quite there yet.
She scrapped that attempt and began again, without help, but ran out of ideas halfway through the first chapter, when she was trying to think up people that Harry Potter would work with in his career as an Auror. She named one of them Juniper, and another Mary, but that raised all sorts of questions that would need to be answered first.
So she scrapped that second attempt too, and started in on a third, which was about Juniper Smith’s first year at Hogwarts with Mary, Fenn, Grak, and the locus. Juniper would be Gryffindor, of course, and Fenn would be Hufflepuff, but Valencia wasn’t sure whether the Sorting Hat would put Mary into Gryffindor, because she was courageous and bold, or into Ravenclaw, because she was so clever, or into Slytherin, because her whole family was from Slytherin. Slytherins weren’t supposed to be evil, though most of them were. It was about ambition, and wasn’t Mary wildly ambitious? She kept talking about wanting to change the whole world.
Valencia decided that she would be a house elf in this story, but one that had been given a sock by Juniper, and then scrapped her third attempt at writing the eighth Harry Potter book because she was just making herself sad. She didn’t want to be Dobby, she wanted to be Hermione.
It was during this rather glum moment of self-reflection that Valencia heard a knock at the door.
The choice wasn’t whether to take in an infernal, but which kind to take. The devils were liars, deceivers, and talkers. The demons were focused almost entirely on combat. It took some time to switch, and while the skills and information they both possessed came to her quickly, there was still a moment of mild disorientation. So, to talk or to fight?
One of Valencia’s tendrils was touching a demon in hell #2349. She snuffed out its life in an instant, disassembled it with her maw, then took on the full force of its knowledge and skills. This took two seconds and very little thought or effort on her part. She always felt glad to have killed another of them, then always after that, a twinge of guilt at feeling happy that a life, however abhorrent and irredeemable, had been ended.
With the demon’s pieces augmenting her thoughts, the room took on a different context. Mary had left behind weapons, a dagger and a gun; Valencia was suddenly cursing herself for not having checked to make sure that the gun was loaded and in working condition. She went to do that, moving silently across the floor with practiced grace as she ignored the knocking and tried to think. She inspected the dagger, feeling its weight so she could throw or slash without hesitation or error, then pulled the magazine from the pistol and checked it over, barely even aware of what she was doing as her mind raced.
The suite had two bedrooms and one long main room, which served as a common area, with a small desk, a dining table, a couch with a short table in front of it, and a sliding door that led out onto a narrow balcony.
That was the next question: flee or fight? Out the balcony so she could scale six floors down to ground level and disappear into the city, or murder everyone in the hallway?
She stumbled as she realized that those weren’t the only two choices. Those were simply the only two things that a demon would immediately think of, patterns of behavior that she’d adopted by taking too much of him from the reservoir at once.
When she actively focused on talking to them, her mind raced ahead to the possibilities, cataloging what sorts of threats might be present in the hallway, the traditional compositions of fireteams under different circumstances, and what could be assumed about them from the fact that they were here. The tuung were limited in the forces they could commit by their weak position in the international community and the necessity of sending their people off to athenaeums, where they might defect. Anglecynn would be better equipped, though a clandestine operation had limits. And if it were the Empire, which was entirely possible if things had gone badly enough down in the Pit, there might be as many as a dozen people in the hallway … plus more down on the ground, watching for an exit out the balcony.
The best strategy for killing them all would be to lie in wait in the room, behind as much cover as she could manage in short order. Grak had left the hotel room carefully warded, and Valencia knew where all the wards were, which would allow her to dance in and out of the invisible barriers to gain the advantage. She had begun exercising, at Mary’s insistence, but it had only been ten days, and while that was enough to show some progress, she was still a weak, small, girl.
There were ten bullets in the pistol. Her aim was as close to perfect as it could be without having developed any actual muscles or muscle memory, which meant that it was good enough to kill at least ten people in close quarters. She could kill the first two or three before they even knew what was happening, assuming that entads weren’t in play and a few varieties of magic were off the table. Sadly, in a firefight with no foreknowledge, those always had to be a consideration. Velocity mages to dodge the bullets, still mages to stop them, brutes in entad full plate to stop the damage, revision mages to reverse it, a gold mage if they could secure one … and those were just the obvious things, what you expected as standard, before you even started bringing in the esoteric.
Valencia stopped what she was doing when she realized that she had gone back into thinking that the way of dealing with this problem was to kill people.
The knocking had stopped.
It was probably just room service.
Valencia sat on one of the dining room chairs and placed the gun behind her, so it wouldn’t be visible from the door. The demon’s instincts were a part of her, and they were screaming, so she released that part to wherever such things went when she was done with them. Oblivion, probably, or the Void. After a moment’s thought, she released the demon entirely.
One of her tendrils had been tracking a devil, and she lashed through it, stealing its essence and killing it in the process.
The knocking came again, louder.
“Yes?” called Valencia. “Who is it?”
There was a long pause. “Imperial Affairs, Uniquities Division,” said a voice from the other side.
Those four words gave away a lot. The devil didn’t have all that much knowledge of current affairs, and by a devil’s standard, ‘current’ was measured in decades. The content of the message was in the voice that said it, the tone placed on the words, and the emotion it carried. It was command, mingled with fear and anticipation. The voice was a man’s voice, slightly harsh, almost certainly not the sort of person that they would use for delicate negotiations or diplomacy. It wasn’t enough for a full assessment of the situation, but it did shift the probabilities toward the less favorable outcomes.
Valencia had no idea what Uniquities was, nor did the devil have any helpful knowledge on the matter.
“Can you give me a second to get dressed?” asked Valencia. In her voice there was no imperfection to give anything away. She could control her pitch and tone precisely, and the part she was playing was close enough to who she really was anyway. “Okay,” she said, standing from her chair and scooping up the gun to toss it into the bedroom. She walked toward the door, trying to think about the possibilities. It wasn’t likely that they wanted a negotiation, but part of negotiation was getting the other party to the negotiating table. The key would be to throw them off balance first, get them out of their war footing, and from there she could see how things developed.
“Who did you say it was?” asked Valencia, standing next to the door, leaning on it slightly. She looked at the peephole, but it was black, covered by something from the other side. That wasn’t a good sign.
“Imperial Affairs, Uniquities Division,” said the same voice, in nearly the same tone. Perhaps some of the fear was dropping away, replaced by frustration and confusion. There was still anticipation though. That was worrying. “Open the door, please.”
“Mom said I wasn’t supposed to,” said Valencia. She pitched her voice just a bit higher, playing up her youth, and added in the smallest hint of sing-song. Perhaps they wouldn’t catch it, but it was meant to convey that she didn’t quite understand the severity of the situation.
“We’re coming in,” said the voice, with a note of finality.
Valencia stepped back from the door, then slightly to the side so she wouldn’t be directly in the line of fire. She had briefly thought that they would kick the door in, but no, they had authority on their side, and the door was unlocked with the hotel’s master key. She watched as the knob was slowly turned and the door was pushed open. No one was visible, but that wasn’t much of a surprise; she’d have done the same, staying out of view.
Her breathing was coming a little faster now, and her heart was beating more rapidly. This was all entirely under her control; she was a young girl in over her head, maybe not an innocent in whatever parts of the story they knew, but definitely in over her head. She would have to spin some innocuous cover story, but she didn’t really doubt her ability to do that. If she could become a naive little girl they thought they had trapped, all the better. She would be able to feed them whatever information she pleased.
The problem was with what came after. Petty thieves weren’t usually checked over for entads by a warder, but if it was an imperial operation with plenty of funding behind it, that would be standard operating procedure, just to make sure a prisoner couldn’t turn into mist the moment their backs were turned, or swap places with their guard, or a thousand other possibilities that could only be accounted for by identifying everything magical and taking it.
A man in matte gray armor stepped into the room, sweeping his rifle from side to side, lowering it slightly as the barrel passed over Valencia. There were others behind him, dressed the same. The armor was known to her: it was shimmerplate, produced by a singular entad in the empire’s possession, the armor produced in bulk and revocable at the will of the entad’s owner. It had been used in the Battle of Marshwind, Valencia distantly recalled. Her gun, sitting on the bed, wouldn’t be too effective unless she were to exclusively shoot them in the head, and even then, the first man in wore a helmet of a different style. The hands were unarmored too, which was another weakness she could use.
“Just a girl,” the man from Uniquities said to others, who were mostly out of view. He kept his weapon up and at the ready. The words were dismissive, which was promising. There were a handful of the mortal species easily mistaken for human, but he’d seen the fear in her eyes and reduced her down to nothing more than her age and gender.
“W-who are you?” asked Valencia. She was shaking now, with dilated pupils, giving every display of fear the devil knew, hoping to disarm him and engender sympathy. She internally debated whether or not to wet herself, but his reaction to that was too hard to predict. Sympathy and guilt would be good, disgust and embarrassment, less so.
“Ellis, you’re up,” said the man, pulling back slightly and ignoring Valencia’s question.
A woman, also wearing shimmerplate, slipped into the room. She was wearing an armored pouch slung over the armor, and from it she began to pull a monocle on a chain.
“Please don’t hurt me!” Valencia screamed. She covered her head with her hands, a defensive reaction that wouldn’t do much good against the rifle, and scrambled to the side, through the door to the bedroom. It was as natural a progression from anxiety to full panic as she could manage, given short notice.
“Freeze!” shouted the man as she moved. He had snapped his rifle up to track her, but he didn’t shoot.
All of the signs of fear and distress became real once Valencia allowed the pieces of devil to slip from her reservoir, and in a brief moment of blind panic she almost forgot the reason she’d done it. She quickly killed a demon with one of her tendrils and shoved his essence through her rending maw. The fear didn’t quite wash away, but it became a manageable thing, compartmentalized as something that would be inefficient in the coming fight. There was no tremor from her nerves, no flood of panicked indecision, just cold calm and a tiny bit of excitement at being turned loose -- and Valencia honestly didn’t know whether that was coming from her, or from the demon.
She stopped, gun drawn, and tried to think around the demon’s instincts toward grevious violence.
Killing was something the Death Eaters did. Harry Potter never used the Killing Curse, not even at the end, because he was good and pure and knew that killing was wrong. Mary had said that killing was wrong, but she had also said that sometimes it was necessary, and this seemed like one of those moments, if ever there was one. But Mary had also said that independence was important, and making big decisions like whether to kill people or not seemed like it was part of that. Valencia didn’t want to kill anyone.
None of that thinking took too much time.
She popped out of the room and shot the man with the rifle in his hand, causing him to curse and let go. As he backed away, Valencia’s second shot hit the warder, striking her in the hand that held her monocle. Valencia ducked back into the bedroom and laid herself flat on the floor. She had angled herself as she fell so she could see out of the door, her angle not toward the front door, but toward the glass door of the balcony. The glass was clean and reflective, visible between the legs of the chairs, and Valencia could just barely make out the people moving at the other end of the long room.
A soldier in shimmerplate, taking cover behind the doorframe, fired into the hotel room. Valencia waited quietly for him to finish; the sound was deafening, louder than her own pistol, but the demon knew how to ignore the pain in her ears and how to fight without the use of sound. The gun did nothing, naturally; Grak had set up velocity wards to slow down bullets coming into the hotel room. They didn’t have enough penetrating power to so much as pierce the gypsum of the walls, nevermind flesh.
There was silence for a moment, followed by conversation that Valencia was too deafened to hear much of. She watched the reflections moving in the door, concentrating, and trying to anticipate what they would do next. Don’t kill them. She was worried that it would happen when she was simply following the demon’s instincts, because killing would come more naturally than trying to disable or disarm.
Valencia saw movement in the reflection, the swing of a hand making an underhand lob. She was moving before it even came into the room, up from the floor and switching her gun to her left hand. She shot out the window and grabbed what they’d tossed, recognizing it only belatedly as a grenade, and threw it out the shattered balcony door, using the momentum of a twirl that took her back into the bedroom. She’d been exposed for only a fraction of a second, but still counted herself lucky that she hadn’t been shot.
The grenade exploded out in the air, projecting off-white gas in a starburst that was quickly swept away by the wind around the Pit.
Non-lethal. It was hard to know whether that was because they didn’t want to kill her, or because they were worried about killing civilians in the rooms around them with errant shrapnel.
There was a mirror in the bedroom, set on top of a dresser, and Valencia drove her elbow into it, breaking it. Her slender fingers picked up a broken piece and brought it to the door, sliding it out with one hand while her gun was held in the other. She had a grip that might have been awkward for someone without so much raw skill with weaponry, using her thumb on the trigger and her fingers holding the back of the gun.
The door into the hotel room was clear. She had no illusions that they had given up; it was far more likely that they were in conference, making a plan. So far as they knew, she was a single target in a heavily warded room, with wards they couldn’t see without their warder. Valencia wasn’t sure how much information the warder had gotten, if any. Had she seen enough to tell them where the wards were?
Valencia didn’t have to wait long until someone poked their head out from behind the front door. It was the warder, trying once again to see what they were dealing with. Valencia aimed with the mirror, put the maximum amount of pressure she could put on the trigger without firing the gun, and then held her breath, waiting for the right moment. When the warder moved over to scan more of the room, Valencia shot her in the monocle.
She’d intended to hit the edge of it, hoping to destroy the warder’s ability to see magic without actually killing the woman. With the kick of the gun and the awkward angle of the mirror, it was hard to say what had actually happened. By the time Valencia could see properly again, the warder had either moved or been dragged out of the way. Valencia sat quietly, mirror out, gun pointed at the door, waiting. She suppressed her feelings of confusion and fear as much as she could.
The gas grenade was gnawing at the back of her mind. That they shot at her indicated intent to kill, but the gas grenade said otherwise. There were conflicting possibilities about what it meant, and she didn’t know the answer. The demon she was using was -- or had been, since it was dead now -- an old and powerful one, but without much exposure to the surface world since the time of the Apocalypse Demon. What her assailants were actually thinking was beyond her, no matter how good she would be at killing them.
A man in shimmerplate with dark brown hair matted beneath his helmet stepped forward, crouching low to the ground and moving in. Valencia shot him in his hand, because she didn’t want to shoot him in the head. She watched through the mirror in dismay as he was completely unaffected. The knowledge came at once, barely needing to be processed once she saw in the mirror that the bullet was laying on the ground, undeformed. He wasn’t an ordinary soldier: he was a still mage.
Valencia ducked back behind the door, holding her shard of mirror in one hand and gun in the other. She switched her grip so that she was holding it normally, then backed up two steps and aimed directly at the door. The gun was non-functional against a still mage, which was likely why they’d sent him in. To kill a still mage required overwhelming force, void weaponry, chemical or biological attacks, or the right kind of magic. All those were in short supply.
She waited for him to come into view, then fired the pistol twice, hitting him in the face. The bullets lost their velocity at once and fell to the ground, leaving him unaffected. He had a pistol, but he wasn’t firing at her; a demon’s instincts told her that he had her dead to rights if he wanted to kill her, because there was only so much that you could do in close-quarter combat against a still mage. She could throw the mirror at him and attempt to distract him, but all the methods she had of defending herself were, essentially, kinetic in nature.
There was one last recourse, thanks to Grak.
“You can’t hurt me,” said the still mage. She was having trouble hearing from the gunfire, but she could read lips, and make inferences from the sounds that reached her.
“I can,” said Valencia. Her voice sounded too calm. “I don’t want to, but I can.”
“They want you alive,” he said.
Valencia stayed silent. They had their guns pointed at each other, but he was using his as a threat and a precaution, not threatening her. He’d known that he’d been lying, when he’d said that she couldn’t hurt him.
The problem was that as soon as she was in their custody, she was at their mercy, and it wouldn’t be long until they found out what she was. She could try to explain that she wasn’t actually at risk of possession, but who in the world would believe that? Mary had laid out a plan for how to prove it, but it would still take a leap of faith, and everyone who knew what a non-anima was would know that letting them talk could be dangerous. They would have a skin mage check her for tattoos, or a warder check her for entads, and either one would immediately know that something wasn’t right. Then they would most likely kill her.
“This is over,” said the still mage. He came toward Valencia with an outstretched hand, ready to stop her in place. It was possible that he would kill her immediately, without even meaning to. People could fight back against a still mage’s touch, but so far as magic was concerned, she had virtually no will at all. If he pushed hard on her, expecting resistance, he might just murder her on accident when he found none.
Valencia backed up as he came closer, mindful of where his pistol was pointed. Her steps were carefully measured to place her just where she needed to be.
“Please, don’t,” said Valencia. She had a demon, not a devil, so that plea was as genuine as could be, all her own. He kept coming.
When they were positioned exactly where she wanted them to be, he lunged at her, grabbing for her wrist. When his hand hit the ward, she was there to grab it, pulling it through even as it changed color, even as he let out an inhuman scream of pain. If he’d had her clarity of focus, perhaps he might have been able to use still magic to stop himself, but still magic took a mindset, and there were limits to how much pain that mindset could tolerate.
The ward was an annihilation ward, set against blood magic.
He fired his gun, as she thought he might, but she’d been spinning as she drew him in, and narrowly dodged it, thanks only to a demon’s situational awareness, reflexes, and speed, all of which might not have been enough except that his attention had been focused on grabbing her, maintaining his aim.
She stopped him from going all the way through the ward by slamming her forearm into his neck and pushing him back and away. His leg had gone through as he’d tried to find his balance, and the entirety of his arm as well, the blood disappearing from them as it passed the ward. The term for it was microvacuum, and the clamping shut of arteries and veins in response to it caused incredible damage. Blood would be rushing to fill the emptied limbs, dropping blood pressure in the body in an instant.
The still mage lost consciousness and fell backward, slamming his head against the carpeted floor.
Valencia stepped forward and checked for a pulse with two fingers on his throat. She found it immediately, and the demon’s ability to focus entirely on the task at hand prevented her from giving a sigh of relief.
“Your still mage needs medical attention!” she shouted out into the hotel room.
She eyed the balcony of the hotel room. She could run forward, across the shattered glass, and jump over the edge, catching herself by her fingertips so that she could drop to the balcony below. Done as a series of drops and catches, she could descend down to street level in a matter of seconds. Then she would be on her own, left wondering what happened to the others, with only Mary’s pre-arranged lines of communication left to them. That was if there weren’t armed men waiting for her to come down, or people stationed in the room below.
There was silence from the hallway.
She wondered what they were going to try next. The demon’s knowledge came up, unbidden, and she clamped it down. She didn’t want to fight and she didn’t want to kill. She just wanted to go to Hogwarts and be a witch, was that so much to ask? She wanted to have happy, light-hearted adventures with her friends, not … this.
She held her shard of mirror, watching the door to the hallway. There was no one there. They probably thought that the still mage was dead, which meant that it was time to try something new.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone!” shouted Valencia. “I don’t want to kill! Please!” She felt the urge to cry, but that was something within her control for the time being, so she decided not to. Crying could compromise her combat effectiveness.
“Surrender!” a voice finally said from the hallway. It was one she hadn’t heard before, male but much higher, without the same harshness or tone of command.
“I can’t!” shouted Valencia. She tried to think about the words she’d practiced with Mary. It was tempting to jettison the demon, but she might still need it to climb down, and the delay might be enough that she would die. “It’s complicated.”
There was a pause from the hallway. “I’m coming in,” the man said. “Don’t shoot!”
Valencia watched with her mirror held in one hand. She had her pistol gripped to fire backward, and pointed right at him. He didn’t look like a soldier, but he was wearing the shimmerplate, which encased a much slimmer build. His hands were empty and held out in front of him, non-threatening.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” he said. “You shot first.” His words were distant, drowned out a bit by the whining in her ears, and she could only comprehend because she could see his lips.
“Louder, please,” she said. “Ears aren’t working right.”
“We’ll get a healer in,” he replied, voice raised.
Valencia felt her heart sink at those words. A healer would notice the same thing she really needed people to not notice. “I need time to explain,” she said. She glanced down at the still mage. He was pale, but breathing.
“My name is Jorge,” said the man. He wasn’t handsome, but there was something compelling about his features. She thought that he looked a bit like she imagined Fred or George would look, but with curly black hair instead of red. “Do we have time?”
Valencia looked at the body. He wasn’t going to die, but he did need medical attention. A bigger worry was that he would wake up. She need to keep one eye on the mirror and the other on the body. If he started to regain consciousness, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do about it.
“We have a little time,” she said. Jorge, he had called himself. “My name is Valencia.”
“You said you had a complicated situation,” he said.
She had gone over this with Mary, and when they’d talked about it, she’d had a devil in her. It wasn’t the same as being suffused by the instincts and knowledge of one, but she could remember how they had decided to phrase it, and simply repeat those words back.
“I have a condition that causes me to present as non-anima,” said Valencia. She watched Jorge’s face through the mirror. He’d raised his eyebrows, just a little, but he was otherwise impassive. Valencia again had the urge to switch to a devil that could lay the man bare, but that would mean giving up the possibility of a quick descent down the side of the building. “I know how that sounds. I can prove that I’m not non-anima, but you’d have to trust me.” She hadn’t liked saying it like that, but Mary and the devil had thought it was for the best. The idea was to strip her of the title and the stigma as quickly as possible. She was non-anima, without a soul, but that truth was less compelling. “I know how asking for trust sounds too.”
Jorge stood still for a moment, thinking and weighing.
“Is your warder okay?” asked Valencia.
“Fine,” replied Jorge. “Healed, by now, though her monocle was destroyed. On purpose?”
“I couldn’t let her see me,” said Valencia.
Jorge gave a slight nod. “Tell me how you’ll prove you’re not non-anima.”
“I can kill demons and devils,” she said. “You can watch on infernoscope. I can also switch between a demon’s skills and a devil’s. You can watch that too.” Mary had used the word ‘oscillate’. “Your still mage is going to wake up, soon.” In fact, he was already stirring slightly, hand twitching. He wouldn’t be too much of a threat, given the damage to his arm and leg, plus the amount of blood he’d lost. “I don’t want to kill him or you, but I don’t think I have a choice.”
“Do you think he would live if you tied him up and held him hostage?” asked Jorge. His face was still impassive, as though he was talking about the weather.
“I would have to drop the gun,” she said.
She didn’t like not knowing what Jorge was thinking. Whatever it had been before, the assault on the hotel room had turned into a negotiation. She was repeating words that she’d practiced beforehand, trying to sound like she imagined Mary would, but it wasn’t enough.
She let the demon go, allowing the pieces of him to flow out of her reservoir. She took the devil at once, but there was a small moment when she was back to simply being Valencia, scared and confused, and the shard of mirror started shaking in her hand. She almost fired the gun, because her grip on it had been so tight that she was only a hair away from shooting.
As the devil’s essence went through her maw and became useful pieces for her to take as she pleased, she got a new sense of Jorge and his place in the order of all things.
He was negotiating with her, but he wasn’t actually a negotiator. He was almost certainly more important than anyone else involved with this mission, and he was very consciously sticking his neck out in talking to her. With a devil’s insights, she could see it written on him; he was curious. She didn’t understand how someone like that could be put in charge of an assault like this -- the devil didn’t understand it either. And it wasn’t that he was merely intrigued by her claim, the whole reason he’d put himself in harm’s way in the first place was that there was something he didn’t understand. He was the sort of man who would get himself shot just to learn something new.
He was the sort of man that devils lived for.
“You actually want to know,” said Valencia. “You want to know whether I’m telling the truth.”
“Do you really not know what the Uniquities Division is?” he asked.
“He’s waking up,” said Valencia, looking down at the man who was, technically, her hostage. The still mage was stirring, recovering from his injuries. She had less of an understanding of his physical state, with the demon gone.
“Take me as hostage instead?” asked Jorge.
Valencia thought on that. He sounded entirely sincere, which meant that he was a phenomenal liar, or he was being sincere. The fact that she already had a gun trained on his head made the gesture slightly less meaningful, but Valencia didn’t want the still mage to die, and she really didn’t want to have to go another round with him. She didn’t think she would win.
“Okay,” she said. “Come into the bedroom. I’m going to keep this pistol trained on you while you pull the still mage out, then you call for one of the other soldiers to take him into the hallway and close the door behind them. If there’s any sign of foul play, I’ll shoot you in the head and then make my escape.” She stopped and frowned at the words that had come out of her mouth. She’d issued the threat because the devil thought that it would work as manipulation against him. “I wouldn’t actually shoot you in the head, I would shoot to wound or distract and hope that you were okay.” (This, too, was said with a devil’s practiced intonation and phrasing, the better to portray her as a competent but troubled young girl, layered with a bit of tantalization. If he was the curious sort, then he was liable to be curious about why she’d changed her answer, and that worked in her favor too.)
They accomplished the exchange slowly and carefully, with little fanfare. The still mage was picked up by a large man in shimmerplate, possibly the muscle of the group, though Valencia had no idea how many members they had -- she’d counted five so far.
“So,” said Jorge. “Tell me about yourself.”
He’d meant it as a joke, but Valencia only realized that with the devil’s insights, and filtered through that lens, it wasn’t quite the same. The nonchalance and humor was meant to put her at ease, as was the faint smile on his face. That didn’t mean that his motives were impure, or that he was going to betray her as soon as the opportunity presented itself, but it made her like him a little less, because there were elements of deliberation and purpose in what he was doing. It made them feel fake, even though she didn’t think they were.
“Can you get an infernoscope?” asked Valencia. “I can prove what I’m saying.”
Jorge hesitated, then nodded. “I don’t see how that could be an issue, while we talk.” He walked to the door of the bedroom, then called out to the hallway, giving a command, not making a request, she noted. He was someone with a measure of authority, though he wielded it awkwardly. If she could actually convince him, there might be a chance that this would work out for her.
“Why are you here?” asked Valencia, as soon as he was done. She’d changed her body language so as to take the initiative from him. People were programmed in such a way that they would rarely start talking over you unless they were truly prepared for it. All you really needed to do was look like you were about to speak. She still saw a moment of hesitation in his eyes, but he did allow that line of questioning.
“Do you know what the Uniquities Division is?” he asked.
“No,” said Valencia. The devil she had just killed had more up-to-date information on the surface world, but playing at ignorance was beneficial in this exchange, and it wasn’t technically a lie.
“We were meant to be rapid response,” said Jorge. “There are some matters that cross national borders, which need to be dealt with swiftly and decisively. That’s Uniquities.”
“What did you expect to find here?” asked Valencia.
“You,” said Jorge. “Maybe your compatriots too, but eyewitness accounts figured them for dead. I wouldn’t put money on that though.” He shifted slightly in his seat. “You haven’t told me how you came by the peculiar quality of presenting as a non-anima, nor how you were given the ability to kill infernals across the boundaries of the planes.”
“You’re thinking that being non-anima isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive with being able to kill at a distance,” said Valencia.
Jorge raised an eyebrow. “What did you get that from?”
“The doubt in your voice, the way you joined those clauses, the minute movements of your facial muscles,” replied Valencia. “I’m using a devil’s powers right now.”
“And the devil is dead?” asked Jorge.
Valencia nodded. She watched his face. He was trying to hide it, but he didn’t believe her. He wanted to believe her, but -- “I know it sounds too good to be true,” she said.
“I don’t believe in that expression,” said Jorge.
Valencia felt herself warming to him. She had thought that it was too good to be true, when it was first happened, because her life until that point had been spent bound and often gagged, treated less like a child and more like an experiment -- which, in point of fact, was what she had been. Juniper Smith was the first good thing that had happened to her. Why would she have believed that anyone would treat her well, until it had actually happened? Mary had said something to the same effect as Jorge, that we shouldn’t believe or disbelieve things on the basis of how they make us feel.
“Do you know what happened to my friends?” asked Valencia.
“They hijacked the ship, piloted it toward a very dangerous fortress, and from that point it’s not clear,” said Jorge. “We have two witnesses, but one is exhausted and the other a bit addled, and we didn’t recover them until a few hours ago. We think your, ah, friends might have made it to the fortress using an entad, some combination of entads, or other magical abilities, though what happened after that is anyone’s guess.”
“Thank you for telling me,” said Valencia. “If they’re all dead --” The devil had been about to make a joke of it, but Valencia stopped herself. She was leaning heavily on those skills, which sometimes led her down paths she didn’t like. “How likely is it that you’d be able to protect me?”
“It depends on the circumstances,” said Jorge. He looked uncomfortable for a moment. “Two hours ago, my superior at Uniquities left for Cranberry Bay, chasing down a lead he thought might be connected to this case and a few others. If that bears fruit, he plans to use you as leverage, in which case it will be easy to protect you. If it turns out that he finds nothing, then you’re still leverage, but it’s much less certain. A demon killer seems like something that Uniquities would like to have on hand though.” He leaned forward slightly. “You said that you can reach down into the hells, could you kill a demon here on Aerb?”
“I don’t know,” said Valencia. She moved one of her tendrils away from a target, through the layers of hell, until it was up beside her, in the same room as them. She didn’t think that she could hurt a person -- she hadn’t been able to touch them down in the hells -- but a demon? “Probably.”
“They’re rare,” said Jorge. “But when one breaches through, it’s always a hell of a time. If what’s on offer is you providing a weapon against demonkind, well, then yes, I think it’s safe to say that I can protect you.”
“I don’t want to be a weapon,” said Valencia. The devil’s instincts were screaming. It was the wrong thing to say. There were, possibly, avenues of attack that started with something similar to voicing that desire, ways of playing the victim or seeming weak, but Valencia was simply voicing what she felt, not attempting manipulation.
“What do you want to be?” asked Jorge.
“Hermione Granger,” said Valencia.
Jorge nodded as a thoughtful look crossed his face. “And who is that?”