Z: A Demonica Underworld Novella – Larissa Ione

Inside Sheoul, the demon realm sometimes called Hell, evil was everywhere. It dripped off the sides of the sheer rock walls in streaks of black acid that ate into the stone with a hiss. It wafted through the humid air on tendrils of mist that reeked of sulfur and decaying flesh. And, as Vex watched, it oozed like toothpaste from out of a fissure in midair that only people like her could see. Her purple-tipped black hair, already short and spiky, stood even more on end as the thing squeezing out of the fissure, a dead demon’s soul, popped free of whatever realm and mystical enclosure it had been inside. The toothpastey glob took a transparent, vaguely humanoid shape, but its glowing crimson eyes were sharp and clear. A malevolent wave of rage and hate rolled off the soul, and Vex backed away, even though escape was impossible for her. She was what her parents had called a daemani, a demon soul magnet, a person to whom souls stuck like glue. According to them, most daemanis couldn’t prevent it from happening, and that was a serious pain in the ass. If a demon died near Vex, not even the Grim Reaper’s personal daemanis, creatures called griminions, had a chance to collect the soul before it got sucked into her and stored as a glyph on her skin. The demon shrieked, a sound only she or another soul-sensitive person could hear, as it struggled to keep from being sucked into the prison of her body. In a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable, she fled, her booted feet nimbly negotiating the rock shard-strewn ground that was all too common in this part of Sheoul. But no matter how fast she ran, every time she looked over her shoulder, the distance between her and the soul had decreased. Closer. Closer.

Oh, shit–– A fireball of pain exploded against her lower spine, knocking her off her feet and sending her tumbling down a ravine infested with thick, thorny vines that tore at her exposed flesh and nearly ripped her knapsack off her back. But it was the misery of the soul settling in that left tears streaming down her face. Agony, like a million hellfire ants crawling beneath her skin, wracked her as she scrambled to her feet and clawed her way back to the trail. The demon inside her tore at her mind, shrieking at a maddeningly high pitch that made her gut twist. “Female.” The deep, serrated voice startled her, and it must have startled her newest hitchhiking soul too, because the demon spirit stopped freaking out, giving her a chance to catch her breath. Palming one of the blades hidden in her boot, she shoved to her feet and stared up at the massive armored demon. He had to be at least eight feet tall, with horns poking up through the matte black helmet. Mahogany skin stretched tight on the only exposed parts of his body, his long, clawed hands and his craggy face. She grimaced in oral hygiene horror as his cracked lips peeled back from crooked and rotten––but sharp––teeth and five-inch tusks.

“Who are you?” The symbol etched into the shoulder piece of his armor marked him as a servant of the necromancer she’d come to see, but someone had been trying to kill her for months, and until she knew who they were and why they wanted her dead, she had to be extra careful. “I am Othog,” he growled. “You are here to see the great and horrible Frank?” The word Frank supposedly meant something really scary in some obscure demon language, but Vex had to struggle to keep a straight face. “Yes,” she said, concealing the blade in her palm. She’d already picked a vulnerable chink in his armor to slide the blade through if the guy pulled any shit. “I’m here to see the…Frank.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm, and his armor creaked like nails on a chalkboard. “This way.” Demons weren’t the most trustworthy folk, so she kept her weapon ready as she followed him down a well-worn path she swore hadn’t been there before. Bony hands punched through the vegetation, grabbing at them, and random puddles of what she could only assume was steaming blood formed and dissipated as they trudged along the trail.

After what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes, they reached a passageway that led deep into the side of a mountain. Pulsing veins ran along the dark walls, as if the mountain itself was alive. Maybe it was. Sheoul was weird and dangerous, which was why she’d chosen to live in the human world. Not that humans weren’t also weird and dangerous, but as a supernatural being she had little to worry about from weakling mortals. A few dozen yards ahead, an orange glow emanated from an opening in the mountain, and as they got closer, the air went from humid and hot to humid and searing. At the end of the passage, around a corner framed by fang-shaped pillars as tall as a skyscraper, she stopped dead, her jaw falling open. A massive chamber had been built as a hive-like structure, with holes carved into the sheer walls where bizarre, insect-like demons skittered between them. What she assumed were hollowedout tunnels crisscrossed the space overhead, running like connective tissue from wall to wall. “The great and horrible Frank is there.

” Othog gestured to a dude who could have been her escort’s twin, except that Frank was taller. And bigger. And his horns were caked with blood and bits of dried flesh. Charming. She really did not like demons. Squaring her shoulders, she strode across the hard-packed floor, kicking aside old bones and skulls that littered the area. Frank stood near a bubbling vat the size of a wine barrel, his hands moving through the sickly greenish-brown vapor that rose from the boiling liquid. “Excuse me, sir,” she said politely. Demons like him expected arrogant displays of alpha bullshit, so she always looked for ways to throw them off or make them underestimate her. “I’m here to see you.

” He turned to her, his lips stretching into a grotesque grin. “An emim,” he said, his enormous tusks making his words sound like drunken slurs. “I haven’t seen one of your kind in centuries.” How he knew she was an emim, the offspring of two fallen angels, she had no idea. Didn’t really matter, she supposed. “Yes, I’m quite special,” she said dryly. “Now, if we could just get down to business.” “You have something to offer me.” “Souls,” she said. “I have four…no, five…souls to sell.

One is at least a Tier Four on the Ufelskala and worth more than the other four combined––” He hissed. “Shut up, soul scavenger.” His beady eyes shifted to the nearest demon besides Othog, a wrinkly, fat creature with what looked like metal spikes sticking out of its leathery face. Frank lowered his voice. “Do not speak of such things.” “First of all,” she said, keeping her voice low, but she couldn’t hide her irritation at having been called a soul scavenger. “The politically correct term for what I am is daemani. Second, I have souls to unload, and no one is buying anymore. I’m willing to give them to you at a fifty percent discount. Half a million each for the four weakest.

Three million for all of them. That’s a hell of a deal, if you’ll excuse the pun.” The dude didn’t crack a smile at all. Tough crowd. “I was told you might need them.” “Oh, I need them.” His snout-like nose wrinkled. “But not enough to risk my own soul.” Argh! This was so frustrating. Not just frustrating, but terrifying.

The demons inside her fought constantly, were in a never-ending battle to see who could try to possess her. Fortunately, none of the souls were very strong or evil…except the one that had attacked her a few minutes ago. That one needed to go, and fast. “What is going on? Why is everyone suddenly so afraid to deal in souls?” The demon reached into the bubbling brew and plucked out what looked like a finger. Demons were so disgusting. And he’d had the nerve to insult her. For the millionth time, she thanked her parents for raising her in the human realm. “Because those who buy and sell souls are being slaughtered,” he said as he popped the finger into his mouth. Well, that explained why half of the people who usually bought from her were missing and the other half refused to see her. “By who?” “Unclear.

” A piece of…gah…a fingernail…hung out of the corner of his mouth. “There are rumors that Satan wants all souls for himself, but that doesn’t make sense, not when he’s never taken issue with the soul market before.” Othog, cleared his throat. “Some say Satan was destroyed by Archangels who are now ruling Sheoul.” “Bullshit,” Frank said. The piece of finger was still there, jiggling as his scaly lips moved. “Angels couldn’t mount that kind of attack on Satan. Not inside Sheoul, and not without us hearing about it.” “Then what’s your theory?” she asked. There had been rumors floating around for months about a possible new ruler in Sheoul, but she hadn’t believed any of them.

After all, who could overthrow Satan? Frank’s forked tongue snaked out to catch the little bit of fingernail, and she swallowed bile, trying desperately not to gag. “I’ve heard whispers that someone named Revenant is sitting on the throne. I know nothing about him, but if my sources are correct, he’s a traitor who betrayed Satan.” No demon was powerful enough to wrest control from Satan. Which meant this Revenant person could only be one thing. “Is he a fallen angel?” Frank picked his teeth with one long claw. “Some say he’s a Shadow Angel.” She whistled under her breath. A Shadow Angel, according to legend, was the most powerful class of fallen angel in existence. Only Satan, and maybe Lucifer, were more powerful.

Although she’d heard that Lucifer had been destroyed by one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Which was ludicrous. The Four Horsemen were myths, and Lucifer probably was as well. Heck, the only reason she believed in Satan was that her parents were once angels, and if they said he existed, then he probably did. “Look, I guess it really doesn’t matter what he is or if he even exists. I need to sell these souls.” Actually, she just needed to release them. The problem was that they couldn’t be released without another, equally powerful soul magnet around, otherwise they just got sucked back into her. “Give me a name. Any name.

” “There is only one.” Frank bared his never-seen-a-toothbrush teeth, and his voice went low and ominous. “And his name…is Azagoth.” She had a feeling she was supposed to be surprised or in awe or something. “Who the hell is Azagoth?” Frank gestured to his crony without answering her question. “He will take you to the entrance to Azagoth’s realm.” Realm? The guy had his own realm? “Wait.” She shrugged away from Othog. “I want to know who this guy is.” “He is someone I would not want to face.

” Great. If the most powerful necromancer in the Ghul region of Sheoul didn’t want to face this Azagoth person, she didn’t want to, either. But she was desperate, both for money and to rid herself of her newest passenger on the soul train, so she allowed Othog to escort her to a Harrowgate that took them to a circle of stones deep in the Russian wilderness. “A drop of blood in the center should grant you access.” Othog disappeared into the forest, practically melting into the foliage, before she could ask any questions. Okay, well, she had to get this done. She jabbed the tip of her finger with one of her blades and stepped close to the circle. But just as she was about to cross the stone line, the hair on the back of her neck stood up, and even before she heard a voice, she knew she wasn’t alone. “Emim. Let me kill her.

” In a single, smooth motion, she drew twin blades from the sheathes at her hip and spun around to face the newcomers. Two big dudes in black hooded robes stood there, their ageless, remarkably handsome faces telling her little except that they probably got a lot of ass. They had swords at their backs, but something told her these two were more than lethal without the blades. She was an expert fighter, but the power she sensed coming from the hooded dudes left her in the dust. Under her skin, the demon souls writhed, agitated by the presence of the newcomers. “Who are you?” The rude assholes didn’t answer, but when their magnificent feathered wings flared, she knew. Angels. So. Much. Shit.

The angel on the left, the one who had spoken, lunged at her, but she was ready. She dropped and rolled, kicking out her foot to catch him in the knee. “Leave her!” Right Angel’s voice rang out, and a split second later, heat exploded near her head and she was thrown to the dirt. For a moment, she thought she was dead. But then she was yanked to her feet by a vicious hand around the back of her neck. “What the hell?” Left Angel peeled himself off the ground, his robes smoking, his eyes burning with anger as he glared at Right Angel from under the hood. “Why did you protect her?” “Because she’s carrying souls.” Right Angel squeezed her neck, stopping her from stomping on his foot. “If you kill her, they escape. We need to take her to Azagoth.

” “Oh, bloody hell,” she snapped. “That’s what I was trying to do when you bastards attacked me for no fucking reason.” “Why are you going to see him?” Right Angel shoved her into the center of the stone circle, his hand still clamped around her neck. “Did he summon you?” “Did he summon me? Why would he summon me? I don’t even know who this Azagoth idiot is.” Left Angel gaped at her like she was a complete moron. “He’s the Keeper of Souls, you vile demon dimwit. You’re going to see the Grim Reaper.”

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