Dealing with the Devil

Chapter Three

Shouts of surprise filled the chamber as the lights were extinguished.

Adria's breath caught as a deep, impenetrable coldness settled over the room. A lone flare ignited seconds later, a hellish red light rolling over the room as Merriweather held the flickering flame overhead. He was already crossing the room, weaving between the students. Her hands shook as the ground groaned and shifted under her feet, walls crumbling all around them. From where she stood, glowing sphere hovering above her, she could see the inky black holes of newly opened passageways.

The terror she had felt lingered, a sense of something dreadful tickling the edges of her senses. Her fingers curled around the body of the staff, grip tight as she clutched it like a lifeline. Then Merriweather was at her side, his gaze on the object she clutched to her chest. A few other flares sputtered to life, the students all looking alarmed but uninjured.

The ground groaned, a low and deep sound that echoed. Merriweather eyed their surroundings. "I wasn't expecting that to happen. Nothing in the texts I have mention anything about this staff or the hallways."

Trust him to have texts on this place. Then she blinked. "You said nothing was known about this place!"

"That I did," Merriweather turned, undoubtedly making sure no one was hurt. He turned back to her, hand landing on her shoulder. He squeezed, a comforting pressure in the growing darkness, as he continued in a gentle, steady voice, "I told the truth. All that's known of this place are half-forgotten legends and rumors. The texts are the ones I got from a third party who told me about this place."

When one of the girls shrieked, Adria turned to see one of the student's knees buckle moments before he slammed into the ground. Another student was a few feet from him, motionless on the ground. Adria stared. Merriweather left her and the light she stood in, voice carrying over the panicked cries, "What happened? Why are Jared and Stan on the ground?"

"They passed out!" Lanie cried out as she pushed her way closer to the two unconscious football players, stumbling as she hurried their way. She tripped over her own feet, hands flying out to steady herself. Adria watched as the golden-haired girl shook her head, one hand pressing to her forehead. "God, I fell sick…"

Tamara, standing close to where Adria was, muttered, "How surprising…"

Adria glanced over at her and Rozan, the two of them standing close together as they watched Lanie trip and stumble. Then the girl was collapsing, knees giving out and body pitching forward. Her eyes were closed before she hit the ground. Tamara jerked back, stepping into Adria's sphere of light, as she said, "I don't like this. Look, Kelly and Mike are dropping!"

They were. Knees giving out, bodies hitting the ground – Adria watched as student after student collapsed, their bodies suddenly limp and unmoving. Merriweather was staggering, one hand over his nose as he turned and spun. Then he stopped, flare still in hand. Then their gazes met as he yelled, "Lift the staff higher, Miss Lynch!"

Adria lifted the staff, arms shaking from the effort of moving the butt of the staff from the floor. It was almost like the ground was trying to pull it down while she lifted it, muscles straining. The light grew, inch by inch, as Merriweather dropped the flare he held. With the staff held as far overhead as she could manage, she could watch, horrified, as the flare vanished under a rolling current of gray that was surging across the ground like the tides of the ocean cresting upon a sandy shore.

"What the fuck!" Tamara jerked back, elbow slamming into Adria's side. The smaller girl yelped, releasing the staff and landing on her side. The line was nearly gone, then. A thin line that shimmering across the stones where the sphere rested against the stones. Adria inhaled gray, hacking as the thick substance flowed into her lungs. She heard Rozan coughing followed by Tamara's voice, "Don't breathe it in!"

Adria pulled herself closer to the staff, resting her cheek against the glowing gem as she drew in a deep, rough breath. The pain in her chest was building. Wrapping her hands around the staff, crouching with it tucked between her palms, Adria closed her eyes. She drew in a slow breath, willing her heart to slow.

When she heard a body drop to the ground, she turned to see Tamara sprawled out across the cold floor with Rozan on his knees and head bowed. He seemed to be fighting whatever was happening, body bowing as his elbows hit the ground. Then he pitched to the side, eyes closing as Adria crawled her way to their side. She kept the staff with her, reaching for the brunette with a wave of dread.

Adria shook Tamara's shoulder, shuddering as the other girl's head swayed with each push. The brunette showed no signs of waking up. Neither did Rozan or anyone else near them. It was almost as if everyone went to sleep, their faces relaxed and peaceful. Her gaze shifted to Merriweather to see the man himself laying on his side and blood seeping around his head from where his skull had cracked against the ground.

Adria turned to Tamara, shacking her shoulder with renewed panic. The taller girl didn't stir, her head lolling to the side and body limp. Adria shuddered. Sitting there, staff in one hand, a sphere of light surrounding her and her two unconscious friends, she couldn't stop the way her eyes began to burn. She couldn't stop the lump in her throat or how it was getting hard to breathe.

"Wake up, Tamara," Adria shook her friend's shoulder again, jostling the taller girl's body. "Wake up!"

"They won't be stiring anytime soon," Adria's head shot up, startled as she rose to her feet. She turned in a hard circle, scanning the shadows. In the corner of her eye, an impossible darkness stirred and whirled. She whipped around, trying to keep it in her line of sight. A low, ominous chuckle filled the air. "You stand only because of Ara'toque. The light protects you, little girl, but only as long as you hold her close."

Adria eyed the staff – was this thing Ara'toque or was there someone else here – before shrieking when a cold hand grazed the back of her shoulder. Whirling around, whipping the staff out, she saw only shadows and whirling smoke. Heart pounding, the curly-haired girl shuddered. She felt the intruder staring, could fell a deep, insidious energy rising.

"They will die," the voice murmured directly into her ear. Adria twisted, heart in her throat. Nobody was there, only disturbed smoke and an echoing, dark laugh that seemed to come from multiple locations at once. Adria's hands tightened around the body of the staff, the weapon held out as if to ward away the darkness dancing around her. "They will sleep and their bodies will begin to shut down. It will be a slow death, painless but slow –"

"Show yourself!" Adria screamed, voice cutting through the other's. The silence that settled was one that was cold and hard. Then a low chuckled. Adria turned and twisted, eyes wide and bright with fear. Her mouth was dry, and swallowed continuously. "Stop hiding in the dark!"

She heard the soft click of boots on a stone floor and she turned, body whipping around. The shadows were twisting and whirling as something glided through it. Then she could see this person, this man, as he stepped into the faded, ring of light furthest from her and the sphere protecting her. She noticed the pale, silvery hair cascading over broad shoulders as surely as she noted the crimson eyes set in a smooth face.

"Who are you?" This man, was he responsible for her friends' current state? Adria watched as he tilted his head to the side, crimson eyes gleaming with satisfaction. A tremor coursed through her body, there but unbidden. Swallowing, Adria said, "Who are you!"

His smile was lethal. "I have many names, mortal."

Adria held her ground as this red-eyed, monster-in-human-flesh advanced on her. Her hands shook around the staff she held, the encircled, seven-pointed star resting over her clasped hands as her skin bit into the burning rod upholding it. It was almost as if she was hanging off the staff, determined to not let go. She held onto it as if it was a lifeline as this unnamed man began to circle her with the same interest a wolf held when it circled its prey. Her heart pounded, frantic, as she tracked his movements.

His head cocked to the side, silver hair cascading over his shoulder. His expression was unreadable.

When she said nothing, he chuckled. The tension in the room sharpened, deadly and intent. Adria knew that whatever her teacher had unearthed didn't care that the rest of them were simply victims to an old man's foolhardy, deranged pursuit for lost knowledge. He didn't care that her classmates, that her teacher, would die if they didn't wake up soon.

Adria's grip tightened on the only last-casting tool in the room, praying that the floating star in the sphere would not die. She didn't want to drown in darkness. When he came for her, she wanted to see him. She did not want to leave this world unaware of how she had died. In that moment, it was almost as if he knew where her thoughts had gone. Her skin crawled when his laughter, dark and resonating, curled tight.

"I am Apep of Egypt. I am Crnobog of the Slavs. I am Chaos of the Greeks. I am Angra Mainyu. I am Iblis of Islam. I am Lucifer, Bringer of Light. I am Hades, Lord of the Underworld. I am Satan, Prosecutor and Prince of Darkness," His words were a dark whisper upon the currents of light. When she turned to keep him in her line of sight, her heart thundered to a stop. He wasn't there. Adria's blood chilled as the air thickened, a heavy charge filling the room. Her hair lifted, as if met with a current of static, and danced. Then he was speaking, his voice echoing from every corner of the room. "I am the Dragon which destroys all that stand in its path for I am the Serpent which coils, unseen."

When a too-warm hand wrapped around the back of her neck, Adria flinched. His lips brushed her ear, a gentle caress kissing the fragile cartilage. "You are wrong if you think God will save you, mortal. There is no Loving Father which will come to your aide. There are no warrior spirits of light and virtue that will swoop to your defense. There is only you, that staff you clutch in desperate hands, and me."

Adria swallow, eyes stinging. Her vision was beginning to blur as she watched a pale hand reached out and lightly skim the surface of the staff she held. Though those pale digits began to smoke and burn, his laugh low and sinister. When his hand came upon hers, he stroked the underside of her arm before running his thumb over her wrist. She couldn't hold back the tears, then.

They spilled over the rim of her eyes, gliding, soundlessly, down her cheeks.

'I'm going to die here,' Adria's eyes closed, a keen understanding that nothing she did, or said, would stop Death from claiming her. When his cheek brushed against hers, her breath hitched. She felt his low, rumbling laughter before she heard it. 'I'm going to die. He's going to kill me, then he's going to leave my classmates and teacher to die…'

Her mind whirled, then. 'He's going to kill me, but he hasn't yet. Why hasn't he…'

Adria wasn't the smartest student in her school, but her power of deduction was something to envy. He was still behind her, Monster-of-many-Names silent as she processed what he said. No, he was waiting for something. His many titles, they began to flicker through her thoughts. Gods of the Old World and of the New, all of them beings of great evil and destruction. If he was a spirit of evil, or a Demon Lord, then to not kill her instantly meant…

"You want something from me," Adria wasn't sure when she had relaxed, only that her muscles were loose even as his fingers dug into her skin. She felt his grin against the side of her face, cold lips grazing her skin as she slowly opened her eyes and stared into the darkness beyond her ring of light. "You haven't killed me because there's something you want. Something only I can give you…"

"Clever girl," the whispered words of praise would have brought a sense of joy and elation if they had come from any other person. From him, a cold wave of dread flooded her veins. When his fingers went from the back her neck to clutching the front, yanking her head against his body, she spied the side of his jaw and a lot of white hair. "You are correct, to a degree. I don't want something from you, but for you to do something for me, something I cannot do on my own. Do this and I might let you live."

"In some religions, you are known as the Prince of Lies," Adria exhaled, slow, gaze now on the dark veil that was the ceiling. Was it night outside this catacomb, a thousand stars watching their resting place in sorrow? He stroked her throat, drawing her from her thoughts, and she whispered, "I could do this thing you desire, but the outcome would be the same. I would rather die than be deceived by you."

His only response was another sinuous chuckle, so low and deep that a cold shudder traveled up her spine and left her skin crawling. The darkness surrounded them totally, save for the sphere of light they stood in. For a Prince of Darkness, he was doing well to hold himself in a place that shined like a thousand small, glimmering stars. She drew the staff closer to her body, eyes half-closed as the light washed over her face.

He didn't react, though his voice was a seductive lure. "I could give you anything you wished. A boyfriend. Fame. A fortune. Happiness. The world…"

Adria laughed, then. "There's nothing you can offer I would want."

The silence that followed her short declaration was heavy. Maybe he was not expecting that, and she conjured a mental smile at that small victory. Then it fell from her face, her heart stopping, when his grip tightened on her throat. He nipped her ear, hard, and something hot and wet glided down her skin as he said, "I could awaken your colleagues, Adriana Lynch. They would awaken, and all of this would be nothing more than a dream. This ordeal would be a nightmare they would soon forget."

A tremor coursed through her body. He nudged the underside of her ear with his nose and she sensed the satisfaction rolling off him in waves as he whispered, "What says you, Lynch? Will you strike a bargain with a demon or will you leave your friends to die?"