I also had to give him credit for the most words I’d heard him string together. There was no mistaking the bitterness in his voice. “Sounds like there’s issues there.”

That earned me another noncommittal shrug. “Just usual stuff.”

The shadows from the wall had reached the toes of my boots, and I loosened my katana in its scabbard. Flexing my left wrist, a small item dropped out of my thick leather bracer into my palm. I examined the coin-just some worthless carnival trinket I’d dragged home from somewhere-and rolled it over the backs of my fingers a few times ’cause it looked cool. The metal made my skin tingle. It was almost time. “Where’s your dad in all this?”

“He died. Three years ago. Mom says it was cancer, but I know better. It was… that liver thing you get when you drink too much. What is that?”


“Yeah, that’s it.” Junior shrugged yet again. He had a very limited body vocabulary. “We weren’t really close.”

“You know, in ancient Japan, if a boy’s father died, the boy became the head of the household. Kids even younger than you. They were expected to armor up and go fight as knights, just like their fathers had.”

“That had to suck.”

“They were treated like adults. They were given great respect.”

He snorted. “That’d never happen here. Mom’s a control freak.”

“No?” The shadows oozed over the toes of my boots. Almost there. Flip flip flip went the coin, back and forth across my knuckles. “You were grown-up enough to sell your soul, even if it was for something stupid. I figure if you’re enough of an adult with that crowd, you’re an adult for me. You want a bit of advice from a total stranger?” Shrug. “Well, you’re gonna get it anyway, ’cause I might be dead after this and then I won’t get to say it.”

That caught his attention and he finally looked up, puzzlement in his eyes. I suppose it had never occurred to him that a man may die today because of him. For kids, death is something that happens in movies and video games, or hidden away in sterile hospitals. It doesn’t happen in your backyard, with somebody’s guts spilling out on your Chuck Taylors.

“Your dad is gone. You’re all your mom has. Even if she rides your ass sometimes, it’s only because in her own warped way, she loves you. Man up, grow a pair, and earn that respect you want.”

Junior didn’t seem to know what to say to that. I didn’t expect much. Hallmark moments don’t really happen, and I highly doubted there’d be some miraculous change in him no matter how the next hour or so turned out.

My boots were cast in full shadow. The church bell tolled again. Quarter ’til. Time. With a flick of my thumb, I launched the coin into the air and watched as it sparkled on its descent, sinking into the bottom of the koi pond with a tiny splash. Smirking to myself, I murmured, “No magic on my person. Yessir, Mr. Demon, whatever you say.”

Next, I turned to Junior and offered him a respectful bow. “With your permission, sir, I’ll get this show on the road.”

“Um… yeah, sure… What do I need to do?”

I adjusted the heavy leather bracers on my wrists, rolled my shoulders to loosen them up, and did one or two deep knee bends. My armor jingled faintly. I was ready. “You don’t need to do anything but stay out of the way. And whatever you do, keep out of the shadows.”

With a startled look at his feet, Junior took two big steps back from the wall’s advancing shade. Me, I stood right at the boundary, that wavering line between light and dark.

As the last distant bell died away, the shadows in front of me.. . rippled. It’s the only way I could think to explain it. Like tiny waves lapping, they rippled in a way that had nothing to do with the texture of the ground beneath them, or the breeze that still stirred the evening air. With each subtle pulse, the darkness gathered substance, grew, solidified. Something oozed up from the earth itself, and the grass turned brown and withered as I watched.

And up from the ground come a-bubblin’ crude. Oil that is. I smirked at my own humor, but kept it to myself. The kid probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about anyway.

The oily-looking substance took on form, rising up like a liquid serpent, and swayed in front of me, its “head” at eye level. A sickly parody of a rainbow colored the dark surface, shifting and changing with the viscous fluid beneath.

It was a Snot demon, as I classified them, lacking the power to hold a more complex form, and barely sentient enough to negotiate for the souls it required. The amorphous head dipped and turned as it eyed me, the body stretching out into the yard nearly to the wall. It had to be a good twenty feet long, and as big around as my thigh. The smell of sulfur and ozone overrode the lilac in the air.

I slid my katana out of its scabbard and took one step forward. “I am Jesse James Dawson, here to champion the soul of Elliot Eugene Effingham.” The kid’s mom musta hated him. I vowed to never bitch about my own name again. “Are we in agreement?”

The black tattoo covering my right arm from knuckles to elbow said that we were. The contract had been negotiated as tightly as possible, considering the Snot’s lack of communication skills. I’d even managed to work in a few sly tricks of my own. I hoped. I flexed my left wrist, feeling the empty place in the bracer where the coin had once been. I had to trust that I’d bargained well, or this was going to be a short fight.

The ooze creature rose up to tower over me, no doubt to be intimidating, but it misjudged the height of the wall behind it, and the last rays of the setting sun caught it. It ducked back down with a hiss of displeasure that caused tiny bubbles to rise from its innards and pop on the surface. The smell of sulfur got stronger, and I had to hide my smirk.

Yeah, these things weren’t too bright, and as long as the sun was in the sky, this thing was confined to the shadow of the wall. It could advance only as quickly as the sun set, following the absence of light over the grass. It would take time to get it where I wanted it, but hopefully it was enough time to let me really piss it off, which was just what I needed.

A face formed at the end of the long serpent, with barely enough definition to even be called a face. There were indentations that could be eyes, an opening that might be a mouth. The nose was… well, a lumpier lump among the rest of the lumps. The faux face stretched into a broad smile, appearing inordinately cheerful. Okay, that was just plain eerie. “We are . We are ready.”

First off, the mere sound of the creature’s name, impossible to spell or pronounce with any human tongue, made things inside my head seize up and quiver, quietly calling for Mommy for a few moments. And second, the oily sheen on the creature’s surface seemed to taint its voice as well, and my stomach rolled as the strangeness slithered into my ears and coated my tongue. I forced myself to swallow the sour taste at the back of my throat. The first time I heard a demon speak, two years ago, I’d puked. I was past that now.

The kid wasn’t. I could hear him ralphing up his breakfast behind me. It may have even been last week’s breakfast. And his sneakers. And someone else’s sneakers. Ew.

“Elliot, if you could move back toward the patio when you’re done?” The shadows were creeping ever forward, and I needed room for what I had planned. It was either going to be freakin’ brilliant, or the stupidest thing I’d ever tried.

“You must come out of the light.” The thick serpent’s head bobbed up and down, feeling out the limits of its shadowy confinement.

I couldn’t help it-the smirk finally made its escape. “Go into the light, Carol Anne.” And I struck.

It wasn’t a hard blow by any means. More of a love tap, really. But when I drew back, a thin slice of demonic ooze flipped off my blade, vanishing into a wisp of black mist before it hit the ground.

The oil serpent reared back more in surprise than pain, then whipped its tail around to take a swipe at my legs. I jumped and it missed, passing beneath my feet. The demon recoiled out of the stinging sunlight, massing for another attack in the safety of the wall’s shadow. Me, I was just impressed at my air time, considering how much my gear weighed.

When it lunged at me again, I sidestepped and flicked my sword, slicing off another thin layer of… whatever it was made out of. The wound just filled in, leaving no trace, but that wasn’t the point. The second tiny wisp of blight vanished, but I knew it wasn’t gone. When there was enough of it, free-floating demon essence, we’d have a portal, and then I could get rid of Monty here.

Y’know, Monty? As in Python? ’Cause he’s like a snake? Oh come on, that was funny.

To the untrained observer, it looked like I wasn’t doing much at all. A slice here, a nick there, dodge, duck,

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