“Life is a prison,” hissed the demon, exposing fangs that dripped with smoking acid. “Give me your life and I will free you of it. With my aid, you will gain power in the next world, and rule as queen over the kingdom of the dead.”
“I like life,” answered Furoshi, raising the tip of her sword. “Like, there’s a restaurant down the street from me that has this kickass breakfast burrito. I like to go there on Sundays, drink some coffee and chat with the bartenders. I think I’d miss that, if I was a slave to you in hell.”
She’d gone there just this last Sunday, in fact. Hadn’t really expected to travel to hell so soon, but you had to expect the unexpected. Now here she was facing this ugly son of a bitch in a desert of darkness deep in Seven Circles, the hell nearest to Earth. The desert swallowed light like the sands swallowed water; an ordinary light would go out in moments. Fortunately, Furoshi had spent her twenty-first year in a lightless pit of a prison in a goblin undercity, and had learned a nearly telepathic sense of an enemy’s body in the dark. Besides, her sword and whip glowed pretty bright.
“Then never mind the kingdom,” said Abaddon, his lion’s body tensing upon the crumbling head of an ancient statue, “I will take your life for pleasure.” And he sprang.
The sphinx-like demon was faster than Furoshi would have believed, covering the twenty yards between them in two bounds, pebbles spraying, curved claws extending from his eight legs, sharp teeth bared in the human face, snarling. Furoshi barely had time to speak a word of power to the rune-whip in her left hand and flick out the fiery line before springing right in a twisting motion that left a smoking wound in the demon’s first forelimb, where Furoshi’s sword had deflected its motion.
But those eight legs were faster and more agile than any earthly animal’s. Mid-charge they zagged, claws already slashing toward Furoshi’s unprotected face. Abaddon’s frightening visage, surrounded by the writhing black serpents of its hair, stretched and roared, a noise something like a jaguar’s.
No doubt the creature was expecting a quick end to an uneven challenge, but he hadn’t reckoned on two things: first, Furoshi’s armor was heavily magicked, infused with the blood of a steel-golem she’d destroyed years back; second, her rune-whip had almost instantaneously wound itself around several of Abaddon’s mid-legs, and now tightened on them cruelly, while Furoshi hacked at the back legs, half-severing one.
Abaddon screamed in pain and fury, and now the fight really began. The demon was terrifyingly fast, and every part of it was dangerous, from the hissing serpents to the spitted acid-venom to the giant, rusting fishhook of the tail. Unfortunately for Abaddon, Naoko Furoshi was a fifth-level witch of the Bloodearth Order, the chosen successor of her teacher, Kokorono Mizuno Ryu, the Dragon of the Heart’s Water, and her skin was scarred with runes and her katana was magic as fuck, and she was, as they say, a fucking badass. Furoshi put the hurting on that hellspawn, and when she was done, it was missing two legs and the other six were bound tight by the runewhip, its arcs ablaze with eldritch power, shooting sparks where the demon fought against it.
Finally Furoshi put a forceful boot on its neck and pointed her katana at the thing’s eyeball. “You gonna play ball now?”
“Kagejin,” hissed the demon. Shadowkin. “You will meet your doom here.”
“Well, maybe. I mean not here here, though, right? More like ‘here,’ in Seven Circles generally. Because you have to admit, in the here here, it seems like you got beat pretty bad. You could get beat worse, though. Like head-chopped-off worse.”
“Speak your will, witch.”
“I’m looking for somebody,” Furoshi began. Cautiously, she let go the whip – it was plenty smart enough to keep the monster tied tight on its own – reached into the sleeve of her robe and withdrew a photo, a three-by-five she’d printed at Office Depot a couple days ago, when she’d taken the gig. “This one.”
It was a picture of a little boy posing with a stuffed Cookie Monster, blue fur poking from between his fingers. “Peter Lushnikov is the kid’s name. His soul was stolen by a demon named Zaraz, Eye of the Red Storm. That’s who I’m looking for. Know where he’s at?”
Abaddon laughed, a single spiteful cough. “What does it matter?” But when Furoshi raised her sword to strike, the creature’s wet black eyes went wide and it gasped, “The center! Zaraz is at the center.”
“Hell has no center,” Furoshi said, puzzled. “It’s not geographically fixed.”
“Why then Seven Circles?”
“I mean, they’re not literal circles. They’re realms of existence. They go down forever, far as I know. It’s like a dream – it has no limits.”
“Yes, and where the limits end, there you find Zaraz.”
She frowned. “I need directions, not riddles.”
“Seek Croven the Aged, then. Toward the broken moon of Erebos until you see the salt-statues on the plain. He spoke to me once of Zaraz.”
Furoshi regarded her opponent warily. “If I let you up, are you going to be reasonable?”
A hiss; then, “Yessss.” So with a shove of her boot, Furoshi leapt away from the demon, sword raised, and called her runewhip to slither back to her hand, unwinding from foot and claw.
“What is the boy to you?” asked the demon when he was free. “Your son?”
“What? Oh God, no. No babies for me. Ick. I mean, no offense to anyone, just not my thing. No, I’m a professional. People hire me when they have a paranormal-magical missing-persons kind of issue. The clientele are pretty specialized, sure, but you’d be amazed what they’re willing to pay. Now if you don’t mind backing up until I basically can’t see your ugly ass anymore, I’ll be on my merry way.” She waved vaguely with the sword, where the broken moon Erebos was just rising, blood red over the broken stones of the desert.
“We will meet again,” promised the demon. “Unless Zaraz devours you first.”
“Let’s cross our fingers and hope neither happens, shall we? Now go! Get outta here!” She cracked the whip for emphasis. With a final hateful vituperation, the demon turned tail and fled.
After a few spells to make sure he was really and true gone, Furoshi turned and started slogging across the desert. Investigations in hell were never simple and never easy. Still, it beat working in an office all day.