"How about this, then," the demon offered. "Set me free, and I will help you. No deal, no contract, no possession. Just a mutual agreement to assist each other until we part ways. No strings attached." It traced an X over its chest. "Cross my heart."
He hesitated. It was a demon, yes, and almost definitely lying, but - could he really afford to refuse? Considering the situation, it was really more a question of how and when they would die, not if.
"That includes your friend," it coaxed softly. "Release me, and she will live."
He swallowed. She was his friend, yes, but he had lost friends before. One more would be no real loss.
But without her, his life was forfeit. His actions were already almost pointless. Her face was pale and still, her breathing shallow, her pulse faint and fluttery. Part of him was surprised she hadn't yet succumbed. The tainted blood seeping through his fingers agreed.
He thought, briefly, of refusing, of leaving, of running through the deserted halls to where the breeze was fresh and the only roof the sky. As if hearing his thoughts, the amulet clung tighter to his ankle, squeezing until his bones ached, heavy and undeniable. There was no escape for him.
"No strings?" His voice scraped painfully, throat still raw from earlier.
"None." The demon pressed against the barrier, unblinking, expectant.
"You - you will save her," he whispered. At this point - well. Was it ever really a choice?
"Yes," it promised.
He nodded, half to himself, and withdrew his hands. His fingers stuck together, tacky and red-stained. He turned away from her body to the demon's cage. It held still as he approached, but its eyes never left his. He refused to meet them, instead searching for the deactivation point. He found it within moments, a prominent cluster of glowing runes mere inches from his foot. He took a second to marvel at the sheer stupidity - the slighted scuff would break the barrier - but then again, he was about to free a demon with no insurance but its word. Glass houses, and all that.
His face was wet. He absently rubbed the back of his wrist against his cheek. Something smeared.
He stared the demon dead in the eye and broke the array.
It was like popping an opaline bubble of light. From top to bottom, it dissolved in a shimmering shower. The barrier fell without a sound, a chill breeze brushed through his hair, and for the first time in decades, the demon was free.
There was a split second in which nothing happened. In that moment he was seized by nerves - there was nothing stopping it from lying, nothing stopping it from leaving and letting her die, nothing stopping it from simply killing him; nothing but its word, and how foolish, to trust a demon - before the full weight of the demon's unleashed aura rolled throughout the room in a near-solid wave. Rage strength, the seductive lure of temptation: it all combined into a single dominating force of unmitigated power.
Then there was nothing but pure, instinctual terror.
He stumbled back and collapsed to the ground, shaking. Pale eyes remained locked with the demon's, pupils blown wide, unable to break away. The demon stepped forth, into the light, revealing what the shadows had hidden. Two great bat-like wings stretched from the demon's back. His heart, already struggling with the strain, stuttered.
Only eight demons had ever had wings.
The demon prince grinned, baring bristling needle-sharp fangs. Sclera-less eyes bored into his, black as void and soft as sin. "You would take a demon at its word?"
The pressure abated, enough for his lungs to refill. He gasped and coughed, but rasped out, "You made a promise."
The demon laughed - a low, rumbling chuckle that reverberated through his skull. A second eyelid flickered. "I did," it agreed.
"Then keep it."
There was something inherently disturbing, he felt, in seeing demonic royalty obey you.
It swept past him to hover by the girl. "Poison," it mused. Its wings rustled like dry leather. "A quick one. This will not be quick," it warned. "Pressed for time, limited resources - well. It will be messy. At least you have me, and not one of the others, they can't heal for..." It trailed off and extended a taloned hand.
A thin latticework spread across her visible skin, glowing faintly. It was almost elegant, if not for the palpable sense of sickness it exuded. The demon clenched its fist and yanked sharply. A fine mist rose from her body, the same sickly green as the poison. With a flick, it vanished. Her breathing eased, and the wound on her exposed stomach shrank to a twisted, faded scar. Another breath and her colour darkened to a healthier shade.
The demon dismissed her with a glance. It twisted to face him, now in the process of rising. "And you," it murmured. It slunk closer, misshapen hind legs lending its gait a curious swaying quality. Its velvety hide reflected a muted shine, gilding the demon tarnished silver-black. "You, who would trust a demon..." It cocked its draconic, reptilian head. "Did you know... the higher the demon, the more they can see?"
He drew in a slow, deep breath. It burned his throat with the harsh copper tang of blood, the acrid twinge of smoke, the heady spices of demonic magic. He sank to his knees. Waiting half-crouched was exhausting, standing upright would likely see him toppling over again, and while the urge to run still thrummed through his bones, something told him it would be no use. "See what?"
"Inside." It slid forwards. It arms were long, hanging down to its knees. Curved, two-inch talons gleamed. "It makes them easier to tempt, you see, when you know what they want. What they need. What makes them tick." It leaned closer. Its breath was hot, and sweet in the way rotting things are. "Which is what makes you so interesting, you who would trust a demon."
His ankle stung. He couldn't look away from those dark, dark eyes. Something was wrong, but - he was so tired.
"I will keep my promise. I will help you. You will be free."
Bizarrely, he was reminded of his aunt's favourite spice shop. She visited every other Saturday, without fail. Saffron, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon...
He was so very, very tired.
"No, they will not miss you. Not... at... all..."
He had never really liked cinnamon.