Bloodstone Page 2

The conference room had a folding wall, the kind that could be pulled back to accommodate a larger meeting. The tentacle, much thicker than it had been in the hallway, passed through it. I skirted two support group members who were playing tug-ofwar over a pizza crust, and left the room. The door to the next room, the one on the other side of the retractable wall, looked ordinary. No tendrils passed underneath it. In fact, it was the only door in the hallway clear of tendrils—kind of like a big, flashing neon sign proclaiming, “Nothing to see here. No demon behind this door. Move along.” I’d bet my fee the Peccatum was inside.

I misted myself with holy water and tried the knob. It turned. I cracked open the door and slipped inside.

The room was dark, but that made no difference in the demon plane. A dim gray twilight, the constant half-light of the demon plane, permeated the place, along with a stronger stench. A huge blob, bulging and distended from gorging on sins, was sprawled on the conference table. The head, which looked like a muddy garbage bag filled with sludge, sat on top of two huge tentacles—Gluttony and Sloth, each as fat as a fire hose—and five shriveled ones: one for each of the other deadly sins. The head pulsed and shivered as the demon fed on the sins of those it trapped. Finally. Now to kill this demon, go home, and dress for dinner.

I could douse the Peccatum with holy water or gut it with a bronze dagger. Either way, I’d have to get in close.

I stood with my back against the wall and inched the door closed. There was a soft click as the latch caught. Immediately, exploratory gray tendrils—Sloth—sprang from the Peccatum and wafted toward me. The holy water kept me hidden. The tendrils felt their way around the door for a minute, then receded.

Another self-misting with holy water—I’d used up most of the atomizer already—and I stepped forward. I loosened the caps of the bottles of holy water in my holster and took another step. A few tendrils snaked from the gray tentacle and swept back and forth across the floor, as though the demon suspected that there was someone in the room but didn’t know where to look. I advanced cautiously, watching the searching tendrils, moving toward the demon then pausing. The holy water’s protection held. Whenever a tendril got near me, it changed direction, as though glancing off an invisible barrier.

Halfway across the room, I removed the caps from both bottles. When I got close enough, I’d dump their contents on the demon. A half gallon of holy water should be enough to dissolve the Peccatum into a puddle of goo.

I eased the left bottle from its holster and held it ready. Another step. I tugged on the right bottle, but it was tight in the holster. I pulled harder. The bottle came out, but some water sloshed from its neck. I looked down in time to see a drop splash onto a tendril near my foot.

Yellow steam, stinking of sulfur, hissed and shot upward like a geyser.

Immediately a mass of tendrils sprang from the gray tentacle. I ran toward the Peccatum, but I’d barely gone two steps before a fuzzy gray net wrapped around me and yanked me to the ground. A bottle of holy water flew from my hand, hitting the floor and rolling to a far corner of the room, spilling its contents as it went. Tendrils wrapped around my other arm, holding it immobile, as more tendrils plucked the second bottle from my grip and flung it away. It rolled under the conference table.

Peccatum tendrils are usually wispy and insubstantial, a creeping suggestion, but these were like bands of steel. I struggled, but the Sloth-woven net weighed me down. The more I tried to move, the tighter it got. As it tightened, Sloth claimed me.

Sleep. More than anything, I wanted to sleep. I was so tired. I knew there was something I was supposed to be doing, but remembering what, exactly, took too much effort. Better to rest now, just for a little while, and worry about it later. Whatever “it” was. My eyelids drifted shut.

The tendrils loosened slightly, letting me curl up on my side. They didn’t feel like a net anymore; they felt like a soft, warm sleeping bag, enveloping me in coziness. Nice. The floor, covered with thin, cheap commercial carpeting, was surprisingly comfy—except something dug into my thigh. I reached down to see what it was. Oh, right. My dagger in its sheath. How odd that I’d strap on a dagger before taking a nap. I adjusted the sheath so it wasn’t directly under my leg. There, that felt better.

I let my consciousness sink toward oblivion. It felt good, so good, to rest.

I wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t. A strong, unpleasant smell, like dirty diapers mixed with month-old body odor, wrinkled my nose. I forced my eyes open, but I could barely see through the warm, gray mist that clung to my face. Tendrils slithered into my nose and down my throat. They squeezed my body. This is bad, I thought, strangely calm. The Peccatum was cocooning me in Sloth—and that was where Sloth became a truly deadly sin. If I didn’t do something, the demon would smother me. Sloth would seep into my body until my lungs couldn’t be bothered to draw in air, until my own heart grew too lethargic to beat. Yet the realization felt far away and unimportant. Sleep was so much more appealing.

Stinking gray tendrils clogged my nose. I couldn’t breathe. My mouth opened in a gasp; invading Sloth filled it like dirty cotton. I gagged. A spark of self-preservation flared in me, and I snorted, trying to clear the tendrils from my nose. My hand lay near the hilt of my dagger. In the tight cocoon, I couldn’t move enough to get my hand around it, but my fingers walked the dagger, inch by inch, from its sheath. Each inch felt like a mile; all I wanted was to stop and rest. But I kept going. When the blade was clear, I angled it upward and poked at the Sloth that smothered me. It gave a little, and I forced the dagger upward. Sloth dissolved around the blade, adding the stench of sulfur and brimstone to the stink in the air.

I pressed my advantage, cutting a bigger hole in the cocoon. When I managed to grip the dagger’s hilt, I swept the blade back and forth. In a moment, my arm was free, and I sliced away the Sloth that was wrapped around my head. Sloth recoiled, the cocoon loosened, and I pushed myself into a sitting position. I drew my second dagger and sliced with both hands, cutting the tightly woven cocoon to shreds.

More tendrils reached for me, but I severed them as they approached. Stinking yellow smoke filled the room. I crawled toward the conference table, where a bottle of holy water rested against one of the legs. I got under the table and grabbed the bottle. About a quarter of its contents remained. I splashed holy water over myself and stayed where I was, directly beneath the Peccatum. Tendrils of Sloth slithered on the floor around me, searching, but the holy water kept me hidden, even as I coughed Sloth out of my lungs. Gray clouds puffed from my mouth as I hawked up the last of it.

Bam! An explosion shuddered the room. Fire blasted out, rife with the smell of smoke and charred meat. I ducked and covered my head, then peered out from between my arms. A massive new tentacle, red and fiery, streamed from the demon and through the wall. Anger.

The door burst open. One of the dieters—the woman who’d told me to get out—stormed into the room like an avenging Fury. She was no longer a yellow lump of Gluttony; now she was burning with Anger. Her face was scarlet, and she was wrapped in flames. Behind her loomed two bodybuilders, both of them also in the fiery clutches of Anger.

The woman scanned the room until her eyes locked onto me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she screamed. In the human plane, she couldn’t see the demon that wrapped her in flames. Only me. And I was the target of a massive Anger overdose.

She rushed into the room, fingers curled into claws, and swiped at me under the table. When I drew back, she kicked. I tossed some holy water on her leg, extinguishing the flaming tendrils that clutched her. She staggered back, confused.

Her bodybuilding friends charged me. I threw holy water at one. The other made it to the far side of the table and grabbed my ankle. I shook the bottle over his hand, but the few remaining drops of holy water barely dimmed the flames. He dragged me from under the table.

I slashed his forearm with one of my daggers—barely a scratch, but he let go. I scrambled to my feet. He bellowed and charged at me, arms swinging. I ducked and ran around behind him. When he turned, his arm drawn back for another punch, I sliced through the tendril of Anger that held him. He staggered as it let him go, and gazed at his own fist as if wondering where it had come from.

With a screech, the woman launched herself at me, her fingernails aimed at my eyes. I sidestepped her and stuck out my foot, tripping her and sending her sprawling. As she fell, I slashed through the Anger tendril that clutched her. But then one of the bodybuilders charged again.

I could take him. I could take all three of them. As a shapeshifter, I’m stronger than any human, even one who spent most of his time pumping iron when he wasn’t in the grip of Sloth. Fighting off these norms wasn’t what worried me. The Peccatum could keep this up forever. As soon as I severed a tendril, it sent out a new one, possessing the human with Anger again. Shouts and footsteps came from the hallway, as more Anger-possessed norms stormed the conference room. And the holy water I’d doused myself with was wearing off—I didn’t have any more.

Tendrils of Sloth snaked toward me. I could sever them with bronze, but they’d keep coming. Eventually they’d get me. And I’d stand still, indifferent, while a throng of enraged dieters and bodybuilders beat me to bloody mush.

I had to get close enough to drive my blade into the demon’s head.

Again, all three norms in the room flamed with Anger. They spread out, trying to encircle me. The woman snarled.

Her fury gave me an idea. The thing about sins—they’re equal opportunity. They don’t care what their object is.

“Hey,” I said to her, “did you hear what that guy said about you?” I pointed at the closest bodybuilder. “He called you a fat cow!”

The dieter stopped in her tracks. Her head whipped toward the bodybuilder, her eyes narrowed with rage.

“And you know what she called you?” I asked the bodybuilder. “A stupid slab of meat!”

The two of them bellowed and charged each other. They went down, wrestling on the floor. As soon as they hit, the other bodybuilder ran at me. When he got close, I pointed at the wrestlers and said, “ That guy said you’re a wimp and his grandma can bench-press twice as much as you.” He ran right past me and jumped into the fray.

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