“One might imagine that the two of you have a good reason for being here?” Maxwell’s voice was smooth and disturbingly calm. He didn’t seem at all perturbed by the forces arrayed against him.
Of course, his demon was bigger after all.
Andi and Jenny shared a glance, but neither spoke. Andi at lest was glad enough for a chance to breath.
“And you, dear sister.” He didn’t move, he didn’t have to, but Andi spun towards where he was looking. Laura stood there, as she’d been expecting. A little less expected was the shotgun in her hands. “I must say, I’m not surprised.”
Andi didn’t know the first thing about shotguns, but from the way she was holding it Andi thought that perhaps Laura did. She wasn’t yet pointing it at anyone in particular, but she was far enough back that it wouldn’t take much to swing it to either to Andi and Jenny or to her brother and his demons.
“At least it’s not drugs,” Laura muttered. She’d clearly spoken loudly enough for all of them to hear, but not to anyone in specific.
Maxwell smiled. “Is that what you thought all of this was about?”
Laura raised the barrel of her shotgun a few inches. Still carefully not pointed at anyone in particular, but now it was closer to Maxwell than it was the women.
Andi took a chance, taking a step forward. “All I want to know is, ‘why?’” Anything to keep him talking for a while longer.
Maxwell tilted his head to one side. “Why? Why what?” The behavior was oddly birdlike.
“Why you’ve been attacking us.” The book, obviously. But it would be nice to have a bit of confirmation.
His head tilted further. Any more and it would be pushing unnatural. “Me? You’re the ones that broke into my lair.” Andi felt her eyes widening. Forget the denial, wasn’t his usage of the word lair enough all on its own? Who talked like that? “How about you explain that one first.”
“How about not.” Laura’s shotgun was definitely aimed at Maxwell now. Or at least at the massive chest of his demon. “How about all of you explain to me what in the hell is going on?”
It was far too late now, but Andi was regretting not telling her a bit more. It didn’t put them in any better of a situation than Maxwell’s.
“I’m a sorcerer. Someone who summons demons.” Maxwell said. “This is a demon. As is that.” He gestured towards Big Red. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been the end of the world to tell her. She seemed to be taking it well so far.
“I’m guessing there are a few less… obvious ones on your two friends there,” he continued. “Oh, they’re sorcerers as well.”
The shotgun wavered, angling slightly towards Big Red and Andi. Jenny remained further to the side.
Perhaps just telling her might not have been such a great idea.
“Okay, you sound crazy,” Laura said. But she kept glancing from Big Red to the demon with the silver hammer and back. It was a bit harder to call something crazy when a larger than life example was standing right there in front of me. She started to lower the shotgun. “But then again, maybe I’m the crazy one.”
Maxwell’s smile grew. “Oh now, dear sister. You’re not mad. Not at all. The universe is just a bit stranger than you’ve been previously led to believe.”
He turned his attention back towards Andi. “You on the other hand, I’m not so sure about. Perhaps you are the crazy ones.”
Andi shook her head. A good ‘no you’ would have been her first thought, but she wasn’t planning on sinking to that level. “We didn’t start this. Maybe here, now. But you’re the one that attacked me on the train. You’re the one that sent the Morris-demon after us in the bookstore. You’re the one that attacked us in the street.”
She was on such a roll, it seemed such a pity to abandon it. But one look at Maxwell’s expression caught her dead in her tracks. He didn’t look the least bit guilty or triumphant. Honestly, he just looked confused.
“What in the world are you going on about?”
“Demon attacks. We have it on good information that you were the one behind them.”
She just nodded.
“Well you might want to consider firing your informant. Why in the world would I be after you?”
The sheer condescension in his voice stopped Andi before she could so much as think up a response. Even after the two times that they’d fought with his demons–at least theoretically giving him an idea of their abilities–he appeared to think they were beneath him.
It was true enough that they’d only been at their craft for a few weeks… But that didn’t mean they were completely without merit. After all, they’d at least been able to hold their own, hadn’t they.
He was looking right at her now though, a serious expression on his face. “Percival. That’s your informant, isn’t it?”
How in the world…
“Thought so. This is about that damn book again, isn’t it?”
She didn’t even have to say anything. Her silence was apparently confirmation enough for him.
His previously calm demeanor shattered as he swore up a storm. Or at least Andi had to assume that was what he was doing, just from the tone–she couldn’t quite place the language. It had a vaguely Germanic flavor to it. Strangely, perhaps one word in ten sounded familiar, although none that she could particularly pick out.
His sister was staring at him, as if seeing him for the first time. The gun had dropped completely now, pointed back at the ground. If it had been up to Andi, she would have had it right back at Maxwell after that storm… but it wasn’t up to her.
Then, just as quickly as it had started, he stopped. From one moment to the next, he ceased cursing and smoothed his face out. It took a few moments more to completely calm his face and for his color to return more to normal, but it was still an impressive transformation.
“I’m sorry,” he said, back in the same perfectly calm English he’d affected when he’d first appeared. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Andi was just having problems all around bringing words to mind. That hadn’t been at all how she’d expected him to react.
Luckily, Jenny wasn’t similar afflicted. “I take it the two of you know each other, then?”
Maxwell nodded slowly. “You might say that.”
He smiled. It was disconcerting how quickly he’d shifted. So angry, so calm. “You know, that’s one heck of a story. How about we all sit down and discuss it.”
Andi was really having a problem figuring out how to deal with him. But this at least was something that she could latch on to… “Are you crazy?”
He popped his head to one side yet again. Back in bird mode. “I don’t think so.” He really sounded like he was giving the idea some serious consideration. “But then again, that’s exactly what I would say either way, isn’t it.”
Andi shook her head, more in disbelief than denial.
“But seriously. I don’t want to fight you. I can’t speak for you, but I would hope that you’ll at least do me the favor of hearing what I have to say.”
“I for one, would love to hear you all explain a bit of this,” Laura said. She still had her shotgun ready for the slightest provocation, but she wasn’t pointing it at anyone any more at least. So that was something.
“There are going to be a few conditions,” Jenny said.
Andi jerked her head towards her friend. Was she seriously considering listening to the man? She was still dealing with the whole idea of someone who seriously used the word ‘lair’.
Still, perhaps she had a point. At the very least, it would be interesting to how he responded to whatever the conditions were.
“First condition,” Jenny started. “No demons.” That certainly got Andi’s attention. “That includes both demon tools and the … large one.” He was already nodding, even before Jenny finished with, “We’ll of course do the same. I trust you also have a way of verifying this?”
Wait, what? Jenny had a way of telling if there were any demons nearby? She hadn’t mentioned anything like that… Nor could Andi recall the book saying anything of the sort. That would have been extremely helpful to know a little while ago. If they could have proven that Maxwell was indeed a sorcerer without even going into his lair… Great, now she was thinking it too.
Still, Maxwell was nodding. So either such a way actually existed or he was willing to let Jenny go along with her bluff.
“Second, your sister will mediate.” Maxwell looked over at his sister, considering. “And she will keep that shotgun of hers.”
His eyebrows certainly shot up at that one. In that at least, Andi could totally see where he was coming from. Perhaps Jenny was betting that Laura would come down on their side in any arguments that might ensue? She had seemed pretty keen on getting them in to investigate in the first place… but he was family.
“Fine,” Maxwell said. “Anything else?”
“You have to guarantee that we can safely leave here at any point.”
That was one that Andi could get behind. It might be a problem in that if he decided that he didn’t want to deal and would rather attack them then what was to say that he couldn’t just disagree with this condition as well. Still, something told Andi that he would stick to his word. She had absolutely nothing more to go on than that and a gut feeling of course, but that was better than nothing.
He smiled. It was more sharky than pleasant, but at least he agreed. “Deal. Shall we?” he asked, gesturing vaguely at the demons.
At first Andi wasn’t entirely sure what he meant. Luckily Jenny picked up at it more quickly. “Attenuo,” she said. Big Red gave her a look… Was that disapproval? From a demon? But he was already shrinking. In a few minutes, he would be back in action figure form.
If Maxwell deactivated any of his demons, he didn’t do it with command words. He looked like he was concentrating on something but that was about it. His demon–they’d never gotten a name for it–didn’t shrink. It just outright disappeared, dropping the hammer to the ground. It didn’t disappear, even after a few minutes just lying there on the ground. That at least supported the idea that they were two different demons.
Then he started taking off his jewelry.
It was worse even than Andi had suspected. She’d seen the rings and earrings, but he had at least two belts along with all manner of smaller pieces in his pockets, similar to the pocket watch that they’d made earlier. She couldn’t help but stare. Either he was trying to bluff and show that he’d made more demons than he’d actually made–or they were seriously out matched here.
She briefly considered keep her ring. After all, they couldn’t really be able to detect if she was still carrying a demon, could they?
But no. She couldn’t chance it.
She muttered the activation under her breath. She walked over to where Big Red’s still form–much smaller now–lay on the ground and picked up.
She turned back to Jenny, who was holding the pocket watch and mirror in her hands. “Want me to take them to the car?” She made sure to stand between her and Maxwell, just to try to keep some semblance of parity between their two collections. Not that there was much of a chance of that any more…
Jenny nodded and handed over her demons. Andi watched her almost slump as she handed them over. It was strange, but she knew exactly what her friend was feeling. She hadn’t handed her ring over yet, but even with it off of her finger she felt somehow… naked. Vulnerable. Still, it was all for the best.
She just had to keep telling herself that…
Their meeting took place in the cafe. It gave Maxwell the potential home field advantage, but Andi couldn’t think of a better option.
For that matter, Andi couldn’t quite figure out Laura was thinking about the entire situation. If it were her, she wouldn’t be keen about her brother’s situation. But it wasn’t her. She seemed entirely too calm about the whole situation, but that could change in a flash… Either way.
The were just going to have to make the most of it.
They sat across from each other one of the four seat tables. Andi and Jenny were on one side, Maxwell was on the other. Laura sat off to one side on a barstool, cradling her shotgun. She was just far enough away that she could shoot any one of them before they could get to her–should it come to that.
“So. Spill.” Jenny’s directness was refreshing. “How about you start with why in the world we should trust you.”
Maxwell half grinned. “Hey, you’re the ones who invaded my personal space–without provocation, I might add.”
“Let’s start with that,” Andi said. “You say that we attacked without provocation. We say that you attacked us several times. At least three.”
“Or so you’ve said. And I assume you have some sort of evidence…”
Andi and Jenny shared a quick look. “You’re a sorcerer,” Andi finally managed. “And judging from your … collection, you’ve had a fair bit of practice at this.” He inclined his head slightly. “So far as we know, you’re the only sorcerer around that could do it.”
He nodded. “True enough. I’ll admit; I know nothing about the attacks you mention. But if they’re anything like what you expect, yes. They would have been well within my power…”
“See!” Jenny burst out, half rising out of her chair.
He raised an eyebrow. That was all, but Jenny sat back down. “I would like to think that if I really wanted you dead, I would have succeeded.” He said it so matter of factly, it took a moment for the threat to actually sink in.
“What if you didn’t want us dead?” Andi said softly. “What if you just wanted something from us?”
He considered her for a moment. Finally he said, “so do have it.” It wasn’t a question. It didn’t need to be.
Andi flushed. She hadn’t been that obvious, had she? “What do you mean?”
He shook his head. “Too late to back down now. You might as well have told me right out. You have Computational Demonology.”
There was a cough from Laura direction. As if on cue, all three at the table turned to look at her. She lowered her gaze slightly. “Sorry. It’s just… I mean… Seriously? Computational Demonology? That’s got to be the most ridiculous…”
Andi smiled slightly at that at least. It was pretty crazy when you thought about it. She still hadn’t quite worked out why the title was as it was. It wasn’t like demons were computers in any particular sense of the word. Beings of pure Mind, they were close at least. They would follow orders without question, even to their own detriment.
But in one area at least, they far surpassed any computer she’d ever worked with–they were smart. They could make their own tactical decisions, making the best of their orders–to whatever point best could even be defined.
Still. It was amusing.
“That’s actually a pretty neat story,” Maxwell said, pulling their attention back to him like a magnet. “How the book got its name. Perhaps I’ll tell you one day.”
So subtle. That crack about how much longer he’d been doing this than them. Smooth.
“In any case,” he continued. “That changes everything.”
“It really doesn’t,” Andi cut in. “We already knew you were after the book.”
He paused for a moment. “I’m after the book? Let me guess, Percival again?”
Andi considered, but was there really anything to gain from hiding it? She nodded.
“Thought so. And obviously you would believe him. Why?”
For the first time, Andi really thought about it. Unfortunately, she wasn’t particularly thrilled with what she found. “Because he sent me the book.”
“You don’t sound so sure about that.”
She had to admit, it was a bit of a circular argument. She’d trusted Percy because he’d known a lot about the book and everything he’d said seemed to make sense. And he claimed at least to have sent the book her way–but what proof did she really have about that? It had appeared just after she’d first seen him on the train…
“No, I can’t believe that. It all fits. You can’t just come in and say that it wasn’t him that sent the book into my life.”
He smiled. “Fair enough. What if I have an alternate theory for you?”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
“What if the book came to you of its own accord.”
She shook her head. “That’s what Percy already said. He said that the book chooses who to teach next–and that sometimes it gets it wrong.” She couldn’t help the edge her voice took by the end of that.
Unfortunately, that just made him even smile even more. “He really got you good, didn’t he?”
Andi couldn’t say anything. The words just wouldn’t come.
“The book doesn’t care about good or evil. It’s a book. What’s more, it’s a demon. Ask your friend there, a demon alone doesn’t distinguish. They can be used for evil, sure, but a demon isn’t evil.”
Jenny nodded slowly. The problem was, she and Andi had had that conversation already. They knew that demons–especially the baser ones–were tools. But that didn’t really change anything, did it? The book could very well have been designed to search out good people. Couldn’t it?
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. Andi’s head jerked up. How could he? “Let me assure you. The book would love to choose good people–if it could. Good people are just easier to work with in the long term.”
She started to agree, but he stopped her with a single raised finger. “The book cares about power. It’s as simple as that. It will work with you in order to make you a more powerful sorcerer. The only reason that it would tend to choose more stable, good people is that they tend to survive longer.”
Andi blinked. “What?”
“Sorcerers have real power. Power that few other human beings will ever have. If you’re going to use that power in what you might consider an evil way, sooner or later someone is going to hunt you down. What does that do to all of the effort the book put in then?”
She had to admit, he had a point. She didn’t like it, but it made at least as much sense as Percy’s explanation. The problem though, was that the two just weren’t compatible.
“Okay, say you’re telling the truth. Why would Percy send me the book then?”
Maxwell shook his head slowly. “I don’t think he did.”
“What do you mean?”
“In all likelihood, the book sent itself.”
“It’s a demon. You haven’t even begun to scratch the surface with all that it’s capable of.”
Andi wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. This was all getting a little off topic though. “Still, that doesn’t prove anything. You say you weren’t the one who attacked us–attacked me. Can you prove it?”
He considered for a while. Finally, he said, “No.”
“I knew it!” Jenny shouted.
“No, you don’t get it. How could I possibly prove it? It’s not like I could give an alibi for where I was, that’s the advantage of demons. You can send them anywhere. You can send them to do anything. And you don’t even have to be there.”
“There has to be a way though,” said Andi. “Can’t you track a demon? Figure out who summoned them in the first place.”
“Sure,” he said, “but what if I didn’t summon them? What if I got someone else to summon them for me?”
“You’re not helping your case,” Andi said.
He shook his head. “Just trying to be honest.”
It would have been a lot easier to hate the guy if he didn’t seem so very much like Andi herself. She had to admire the directness, even if it was making the whole thing a lot more difficult.
“Okay then,” she said. “So what is it between you and Percy then? You keep hinting at something and its obvious that you don’t like him…”
He stood smoothly, not meeting the women’s eyes. In a few steps, he was across the room. Laura followed him with her eyes, but she seemed as undecided about the whole situation as Andi. It was a little weird that she was taking it as well as she was, but Andi guessed that having a few demons quite that obvious would go a long way towards overcoming disbelief.
Standing with his back to all of them, Maxwell said, “You know, I was a lot like you once. Innocent. Just getting into demons. Young. Idealistic.”
Andi couldn’t quite think of what to say to that. She didn’t think of herself that way. But then again, she wouldn’t, would she?
“That all changed when I met Percival.” His voice was rough. “He gave me the book. Told me I could do great things in the world; all I needed was a little more training.”
“Wait,” Andi cut in, taking a few steps over to stand by him. “You didn’t start with the book?”
He shook his head. “No. Originally, my training was a little closer to home.” He turned all of the way then, but not towards Andi. He was looking at his sister. “My mother was a sorcerer.”
Laura’s face was frozen. There was obviously something there… Andi just didn’t know what. But Maxwell didn’t stop there.
“He killed her.”
No one so much as moved a muscle.
This wasn’t at all what Andi had been expecting. The way that Maxwell had talked about Percy… It had been clear that there’d been something between the two of them, but this? This was far worse than anything she’d thought.
Maxwell finally broke the silence. “Now perhaps you see why I’m not particularly thrilled with the idea of Percy sending you against me. He must be finally trying to finish what he started, all of those years ago.”
Andi found her voice. “But why? Why now? Why at all?”
Maxwell shook his head. “I don’t know why. I never asked him why he did it, I just ran. I ran and ran and never looked back.”
“That’s why you left,” Laura said. Her voice was quiet. “And here all this time, I thought you just fell in with the wrong crowd. I thought you were just trying to lose yourself…”
He smiled slightly, but it was a bitter expression. “Oh, you’re not wrong. I was trying to lose myself. Did a pretty good job too. Made it as far as New York. It took a while before I even dared to dream that Percival would have moved on. I still had contacts though, back on the coast. Eventually, he went quiet. It took me years to believe that he was really gone.”
Andi cut in. “Wait, gone? How could he be gone? He can’t leave the trains…”
He turned that bitter expression on her. “Oh yeah? Who told you that?”
Andi started to reply, but she didn’t need to. They all full well knew the answer to that particular question.
“Oh he can leave the trains all right. He just has a thing for them though. That’s where we met, most of the time, back when… Anyways.”
“So what is he anyways?”
It was Maxwell’s turn to look surprised. At least it was preferable to bitterness. “What do you mean? He’s a sorcerer.”
Andi shook her head. “That’s not possible. He’s something else entirely…”
“I promise you, he’s as human as you or I.”
Andi wasn’t about to argue the merits of humanity with him. Not when something so definitely wasn’t adding up.
“Then why can I walk right through him.”
That one comment was enough to strike him dumb. He just stared at Andi. “That’s not possible.”
Andi shook her head. Apparently no matter how far you made it as sorcerer, some things never changed.
“Yeah,” Jenny jumped in. “I did it to.” Everyone turned to her and seemed to shrink slightly into herself. “I mean, I put my hand right through him as well.”
“He’s human, I’d swear to it.”
Andi shook her head. “Maybe he was when you knew him. Surely that book has something about overcoming that particular ailment?”
Jenny raised an eyebrow at her, while Maxwell said, “Ailment? Humanity?”
“It was a joke,” said Andi. “But the point stands. Surely there’s some way that you can go from human to… something else.”
But as she looked from Maxwell to Jenny, she could tell that neither of them had any ideas in particular. Based on her own limited knowledge, it would have been possible to augment one’s form with a demon–even to turn yourself temporarily intangible. But permanently? That was something else entirely.
Perhaps he was just messing with them. The more Andi thought about it the more she thought that perhaps Maxwell may have had a point about Percy. One or the other of them was lying. They had to be. If she could force the two of them into a confrontation…
Andi had a sudden flash of insight. “What if he’s a ghost?” It was such a ridiculous idea. Completely impossible of course. Except… “Is that even possible?”
Jenny was shaking her head, but Maxwell didn’t look quite so sure.
“Maxwell?” Andi asked.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “It shouldn’t be…”
“No,” Jenny cut in. “It can’t be. A human being is Body, Mind, and Soul. All in one. You just can’t have one without the other two.”
Andi hadn’t read quite that far in the book. It was actually a bit disheartening to hear. She went to church regularly enough, but she was never entirely sure about the whole idea of an afterlife. It sounded like a nice enough idea in theory, but if there was really such a thing, surely someone would have had some sort of proof by now…
But now Jenny was saying that it didn’t exist at all?
She was still talking though, “There was a whole chapter on it in the book. When you die, the bonds break down. The Body–our material form–breaks down. It didn’t say what happens to the Mind or Soul, but it was quite clear that they can’t stay here.”
That was something at least. “But if he doesn’t have a Body any more, then he’d fade, wouldn’t he?” Andi asked. “Just like a demon?”
Jenny nodded at her. The look on her face was a little more like a mother approving of her daughter’s schoolwork than Andi would have liked, but at least she’d gotten the theory down.
Her mind was still whirring though. “But what if he did have an anchor?” Andi asked. “Just like our demons?”
Maxwell nodded slowly. “I guess it’s possible. You really think he’s a ghost? All of you?” He looked from Andi to Jenny, then over Jenny’s shoulder… And froze.
Andi turned to follow his gaze. It took her a moment to realize what he was looking at. Or rather what he wasn’t looking at.
Laura was gone.